Less gush – more lush!

Translating from one language to another is always tricky and there are many bear pits into which the unwary can fall. “Fanny” and “Pants” should be used with extreme caution if you’re an American visiting the UK. “Lush” and especially “gert lush” are very dangerous anywhere near Bristol because although both gert and lush are popular dialect words, in my experience they are never conjoined except by outsiders. As for the Bristol accent; don’t even think about it. Back in the day there were around seventeen distinct local, even parish, dialects and so coming as I do from Staple Hill, I could immediately distinguish Kingswood, Easton and Lawrence Hill. Outsiders often confuse all this diversity and substitute a form of central casting oooh aaar.

When we lived in Stoke on Trent, everyone assumed we were Cornish and a couple of years ago in Birmingham a waiter asked me if I was a farmer. I’ve never seen the need to ditch my native dialect, although I seem to lapse deeper into it in the few places (a local sawmill for instance) where it survives intact. The downside is that some people assume I must be a bit thick because I drop my aitches – it’s a mistake they only make once!

Anyway, back to gush and lush – and I will attempt to explain what the link is between these two words and homemade calendula cream. Over the years I’ve accumulated a lot of books on herbal medicine and so looking for a recipe can be a bit of a trial. Today was calendula day for no better reason than making the salve is both celebratory and extremely simple and we had half a litre of calendula flowers steeped in almond oil for several months and wanting something doing with it – like making small Christmas gifts. Eventually I found the recipe I’d used before in “The Herbal Medicine Makers’ Handbook” by James Green. It’s a lovely book, but not being a Californian I find I have to engage a kind of inner translation mode to tone down the gush into a more familiar (and uptight) lush. This is by no means a criticism. James Green would take my self conscious and muttered thanks to the plants I harvest and turn them into a polyphonic liturgy. I’m envious, embarrassed and scared at the same time – and yet, why not? Surely a life marked by thanksgiving and celebration is an improvement on ‘work, buy, consume, die‘ which I saw spray painted on the wall of Bristol Central Library many years ago.

So back in the kitchen I did manage to give profound thanks for an impulse buy in the Williams Sonoma store near Columbus Circle in New York a few years ago. It’s an awesome shop for a greedy cook, and my eye settled on a small, easily transportable memento that’s done me proud ever since – a set of American liquid measures – from one cup to a quarter cup – that’s made me a into bilingual cook.

The recipe is so simple. Take off the flower heads – we grow hundreds all around the allotment – steep them in almond oil for a couple of months, giving you the most intensely golden extraction; strain them into a bain-marie and add about an (English) ounce of beeswax to each (American) cup of oil, warm them through slowly until the wax dissolves and then do a quick test with a very cold spoon to make sure it sets to the consistency you want and then, fill your jars. It’s ridiculously easy and calendula cream/salve in its many forms is crazily expensive. We buy amber glass pots from a herbal supplier and use them over and over, because the recipients are only too willing to return the empty jars, knowing they’ll get another full one back again.

While all this was going on I was proving a loaf of our new style everyday sourdough bread. Its surprising how just changing the way we prove the bread has demanded a number of changes in the recipe and even in the way the loaves are slashed. This was a lazy Sunday for us. We lingered in bed until half past ten, reading, drinking coffee and talking about food. Our oldest son rang and chided me gently for lurking in bed when he’d been out for a run at five thirty am. We’re a family of chronic overachievers, but I think I’m well over it now.

I see the UK Government have fallen on each others throats, brawling and shouting at one another as if it was already Christmas. These parties can get completely out of hand in a moment – especially when there isn’t an adult in the room. Meanwhile if anyone’s got any thoughts on managing the Omicron variant there’s a vacancy coming up soon.

Measuring the marigolds

Miracle cures abound in the organic gardening world, and the marigold is a top tip for all sorts of duties. However, it’s a bit more complicated than the stories usually suggest and like most people we’ve bought a packet of marigolds at the garden centre and discovered too late that they weren’t the ones we should have bought. So here’s a very quick disambiguation of the minefield.

  • Two kinds of Marigold share a common English name, and even look similar but they belong to two separate ‘tribes’, so let’s look first at the Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis* which has a country cousin called – unsurprisingly the Field Marigold – Calendula arvensis which is rather uncommon so we needn’t worry too much about it. The Pot Marigold is a lovely plant; easy to grow and it’s a good pollinator attractor. It self-seeds freely so it’s best to harvest the flower heads before they mature unless you want to save the seeds. It’s also the source of the flowers from which calendula cream is made – it’s got to be one of the safest and easiest home medicines to make and it really works. The picture at the top is a part of last year’s crop of flowers that we turned into a wonderfully fragrant ointment last autumn by steeping the flowers in sweet almond oil and then adding beeswax to form a firm cream. It’s great for skin problems – although the price of organic almond oil will make your eyes water – but even using the best ingredients it’s half the price of the commercial product.

The other ‘tribe’ of marigolds are the Tagetes; and these are the ones whose roots are said to exude a chemical that deters or even kills some of the nematodes that can cause problems in the garden. There are three members of the family you’re likely to meet in the UK (the US has at least one additional member that I know nothing at all about).

The first of the three is Tagetes erecta which is very confusingly known as the African Marigold in the UK in spite of originating (as they all do) in South America.

The second is Tagetes patula – the French Marigold – which is a smaller plant and is the one that’s most often interplanted for its suppose effects as a pest deterrent. We use these all the time because, being quite small they’re easy to run in between tomatoes and other crops. As to its effectiveness it’s hard to say, but they’re very pretty and if they deter pests then all the better.

The third is Tagetes minuta the Southern Marigold which – again confusingly – is actually taller than the other two. The minuta in the name refers to its very small flowers. This one hardly appears in the seed catalogues because it’s not much of a looker, but ironically it may be the most potent of the three, because aside from its capacity to see the nematodes off it’s also said to be capable of getting rid of some of the most pernicious weeds like couch grass and bindweed. Anything that can achieve such a miracle is worthy of a mention but apart from a paper published by the HDRA I haven’t found much evidence. It has certainly been widely used in South America as a herbal medicine. My only caveat would be that if it does possess the magical powers that are attributed to it, it might be a very poor companion plant if its secretions attack the very plants you’re trying to grow. However I’m sufficiently interested to try to grow a small patch so I can try out its insecticidal effects against the asparagus beetle that regularly attacks our asparagus bed. This time last year we were cutting our first spears, but after such a cold and wet winter and early spring there was no sign of any spears today when we peeped under the fleece.

So I hope that’s of some interest. This is a short piece because we’re so frantically busy on the allotment. The polytunnel is already showing us new possibilities. Some containers of very early potatoes have needed earthing up twice in the last week, and our seedlings just love the warmth and light- although we’re still covering them at night. Happy days!

  • * Having posted this piece yesterday I was reading John Jeavons’ marvellous book “How to grow more vegetables ..” which I’ve only just been able to get a hard (ie real) copy of, and he unequivocally lists the pot marigold Calendula officinalis as a companion plant to tomatoes.
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