Spring walks punctuated by that heady of aroma of garlic are a real moment of seasonal transition for me. For the past couple of months this aromatic greeting has moved me from the (rather long) Scottish early Spring to the verdant late Spring and the promise of Summer. Ramsons (Wild Garlic), Allium ursinum, with their addictively tactile leaves and glorious explosion of white flowers are the fantastic edible that scent the Spring air. They make a punchy addition to pesto, soups, stews and risottos but also offer us valuable therapeutics.
Like garlic, Ramsons are a herb for our cardiovascular system, improving our circulation and looking after the heart. As a tonic and antimicrobial it is a good herb for convalescence, growing just when we might need one after the long winter with it’s offering lingering respiratory illnesses. This alliaceous ally also has a great affinity for the digestive system, smoothing out spasms, dispelling gas and clearing lingering infection. Think about bringing it together with the excellent antispasmodic and antiseptic Thyme to help with gut issues.
But Ramsons aren’t the only garlicky offering growing at this time of year. You needn’t look far to find my friend, Jack-by-the-hedge. The mellifluously named Alliaria petiolata, also known (less mellifluously) as Hedge garlic and Garlic mustard is an interesting edible, with a softer garlic hit than Ramsons, whose bitterness I find very appealing. It offers a nice source of vitamin C. With bitter foods chronically lacking from the modern plate, wild foods like Jack-by-the-hedge can add that valuable flavour to diet. Small amounts sit very well in salads, or added last minute to soups and stew (to prevent that bitterness become, well, just too bitter). They also marry very nicely with Ramsons in pesto.
This is a lovely plant to make friends with. Like Ramsons, the leaves are so tactile and remind me of a Crone’s skin, wrinkled and wise, soft and papery. Perhaps that’s why children are so drawn to this plant. And it’s my eldest child who has taught me so much more about this plant. I hadn’t used Alliaria medicinally, but my five year old daughter suggested that it should be used in a foot bath when a virus recently struck our family. She is familiar with using Ramsons in this way, or rubbed in the souls of the feet, but on this occasion she was sure that this was the plant we needed. And so we added lots of Jack-by-the-hedge to a steamy hot foot bath for the adults and the little feet went in when the water had cooled a little. The aroma of the steam was, of naturally, much less potent than that of a Ramsons foot bath, but there were other, interesting green notes there that I plan to spend much more time with this Summer, to deepen my understanding of Jack. The foot bath was an excellent diaphoretic and ultimately lead to that wonderful period of coolness that eases so many of the symptoms of a virus. Our thermostats were reset and how grateful we were for that, after several nights of uncomfortable, fluctuating heat. My feelings are that Jack-by-hedge is a gentle medicine, quiet but determined and as a foot bath I can see it’s place in a blend for a child. When I researched this plant further I discovered that it does in fact have a medicinal history. It’s therapeutic properties being diaphoretic, antiseptic, nutritive and vulnerary. Mustard oil glycosides are listed as an active constituent, hence it’s warming character.
Foot baths are sometimes underused as a herbal preparation. Children love them! They are profoundly comforting when you’re feeling unwell and I find them particularly useful when an illness brings muscle and joint aches, headaches, stiff necks, congestion, exhaustion and, as Jack-by-the-hedge demonstrated beautifully, they can wonderful when your body temperature has gone awry. They can play a part in the treatment of circulatory disorders (something to try for cases of mild hypertension) and some migraine sufferers gain relief using one. Some of my favourite herbs for the foot bath include Lavender, Sage, Rose, Mint, Thyme, Catnip, Rosemary, Pine, Chamomile, Yarrow, and Ramsons. You can first infuse the herbs in just boiled water and let them steep before adding them to the foot bath (and this period of cooling is vital for children), but for adults I often like herb and feet to join the hot (as you can bear) water.
And so I do give gratitude to our alliaceous allies, the Ramsons and the Jack’s-by-the-hedges, who, for free, provide us with interesting food, valuable medicine and (as plants often do) they remind me that there is always more to learn.
Ramsons and Jack-by-the-hedge pesto – to make an “eat now” serving of pesto to serve your family, pick around eight Ransoms leaves and pick about ten Jack-by-the-hedge leaves. Pick more if this doesn’t look enough! Wash and chop the leaves and add to the blender with about a handful of pine nuts and then just cover with olive oil. Blitz and then grate in a cheese like Parmesan and pulse a few times to mix. You can add other herbs, and spinach and watercress make a lovely addition too. This is beautiful and fresh stirred through pasta, or spooned across the top of cooked chicken or steak.
Jack-by-the-hedge & mint sauce – pick a handful of each, wash, finely chop (or blitz in the food processor) and mix with vinegar and enough sugar to taste and serve with meat (especially good with Lamb). Be aware that Jack-by-the-hedge wilts really quickly once picked.