Working with plants can be challenging. Seeds sown enthusiastically may not germinate. Sometimes the precious little seedlings housed in the poly tunnel to grow on might be snacked on by mice. Small plants potted on and cared for so carefully, if planted out too soon, can fall prey to rabbits, slugs or snails. And then there’s the weather…a late frost, an early drought, too much rain at the wrong time, too much sun (very unlikely here), not enough sun (a familiar story) Farming/gardening is a roller coaster.
Every part of the gardening year requires vigilance, care and attention. We can do this relatively easily in the UK at the farm. Miranda, our Apothecary Gardener, watches over our plants like Nanny McFee ensuring that they are fed, watered and thoroughly looked after. At the first hint of disease we can treat it organically. Where an initial crop fails another is already growing along behind it. Successional planting really helps.
For our wild gathering however, it is entirely different, and none more so than Bitter Orange Blossom. Every year, usually in February, I start to think about it. A long damp Winter often concentrates the mind on the delight of warm Cyprus Spring sun. I check the weather patterns, look at flight prices, refer the previous year’s notes, contact friends and then finally opt for a date. It always feels a bit precarious.
For the last few years I’ve more or less got it right – last year arriving ahead of the blossom opening but rewarded by being there to pick it just as the flowers broke on the trees – which was absolutely magical. The year before I was a little late, missing the first flush but catching the later blooms. This year I arrived with my trusty picking sister, only to find that the weather had caused chaos to the blooms. A very early hot spell followed by a cold snap, repeated twice, meant that flowers had come and gone incredibly quickly without really having their proper season. The sweet orange that comes later seemed to be less affected but unfortunately that blossom is no use to us.
We picked and distilled what we could find but it was a fraction of our usual pickings. This is the challenge of our work – it’s rarely easy, sometimes the plants don’t offer us what we need, sometimes they simply have a bad year. We have to understand and accept it. For wild harvesting there can be no control of the environment or the effects of insects or animals, there is no safety net of successional sowing to plug the gap. Sometimes there is an unexpected issue that means that plants in the wild fail to appear at all. It’s nature (and climate change.)
We travel to our key plants – always – we don’t have them brought to us. This way we can pick them at the perfect moment and look after them so that they offer us the very best in therapeutics. We distil on the spot rather than risk damaging fragile blooms in transit. It is a very time and labour intensive process but the rewards are legion.
We walk paths and roads that are simply stunning, we see the plants in their natural habitat, in the conditions that really suit them. We peel, distil and macerate within moments of picking. But more than all of that, trips to Cyprus feel like a pilgrimage to the heart of A.S Apothecary. It is the place where I learnt the skills that set me on this particular part of my journey, it is where precious friends support my cunning plans and most importantly it offers me a few days of peace to think, recharge and rest ready for the Summer season in the UK.
Working with plants is not easy but I can’t imagine finding the same level of sheer joy doing anything else. Right now the Elderflowers are beginning to appear, the Hawthorns are in full flower, red Clover is dotting the field margins and at the farm our Roses are in bud and about to open. What a privilege to be part of this annual unfolding of flora - to witness the seasonal changes in landscape as my work.