I’m having a moment. I’m looking at the weather forecast in Lewes, East Sussex today and its 26C meanwhile here on Harris it’s a cool 13C. Thus far this Summer on this beautiful island, I’ve taken my vest off twice, immersed myself, in frankly icy water twice and broken out my sandals three times. Last night I lit the fire and today I’m itching to light it again. This is a tale of two Summers, south coast and far north, warm and chilly, over populated and scarcely inhabited.
Moving here has been a joyful lesson in adaptability – no quick fixes, a scarcity of tradespeople, limited supplies and challenging growing conditions. Plants that spring up in my pots in Sussex are resolutely sulking up here – offended by the change in climate, the difference in soil and the wild wind. So I have walked around and looked in gardens to see what seems content to flourish here. Rosa rugosa grows like a weed, originally from northeastern China, it is hardy and extremely tough. It grows in thickets, its stiff and prickly stems repulsing all invaders. The scent is wonderful but the flowers sporadic compared to the roses we grow on the farm in Sussex. My biggest surprise is the sheer quantity of Kniphofia or Red Hot Pokers, a plant more often found in the Cape Province of South Africa. It’s all over the place along with Gunnera, that massive beast of a plant reminiscent of rhubarb on steroids. I keep a spade in the back of my car, digging it up wherever I see it, I have become an anti-Gunnera warrior.
It so interesting what settles itself here, eventually naturalising into the landscape. The ferociously promiscuous Crocosmia or Montbretia is also everywhere spreading itself up on to the hills and escaping from any garden that tries to contain it. It’s another South African plant. They are just so tough.
Meanwhile the Harris Machair or seashell sand meadow is now in full flower, it is delicate and beautiful, a tapestry of yellows, purples, blues and whites. It is what stole my heart the first time I visited here. I’d never seen such a large expanse of totally unspoilt meadow, humming with bees and other insects. Harebells, Clovers both red and white, Euphrasia, Daisies, Buttercups, Orchids, Knapweed, Gentian, Ladies Bedstraw, Centaury and Thyme, to name but a few, grow in abundance. To walk out on it, is to feel such an intimate connection both to the tenacity of these plants and the frailty of this eco system. As part of our Croft we have become guardians of a section of the Northton Machair, which we watch over with a careful eye.
My daily walks to the beach at the end of the road are taking longer and longer as the plants that line the little road come into flower and I’m carefully stopping to look at them all. It takes a certain kind of meditative walking to pause long enough to spot every change, as many of the plants are so small. The Meadowsweet will soon be flowering which I’ll pick for the A.S Apothecary Mineral Powder and to make a delicious cordial. People rave about Elderflower cordial and it is very good but I love Meadowsweet, it has a more complex flavor. I’ll include a recipe below from Monica Wilde (www.monicawilde.com).
And talking of skincare, we use Calendula flowers that we grow in virtually all of our products but the humble Daisy is a powerhouse of healing. With its anti-inflammatory and healing action it is wonderful for bumps and bruises. It tones up tissues and is wonderful for the face and decollete and for massaging the skin during pregnancy to prevent stretch marks. Simply pick the flowers, let them rest overnight for a little of the water to evaporate and then pack them into a jar until about ¾ full, cover with really good olive oil (we love MESTO), shake and be sure all the flowers are covered and then leave for a cycle of the moon, in a sunny spot (but not direct sunlight), shaking each day. At the end, strain the oil mix through a muslin and your oil is ready for action. Simple and effective.
Recipe for Meadowsweet Cordial
2 litres of water
500g Sugar – I like raw cane sugar
2 lemons – juiced
4 large handfuls of Meadowsweet flowers – remove the flowers from the stem with a fork, you don’t want to add any stem or stalk as they taste really medicinal
Bring the water to the boil. Dissolve the sugar in it, add the lemon juice. Then add the flowers, push them down so they are fully submerged. Remove from heat and leave to infuse overnight covered with a cloth. Next morning filter off the flowers, return to the boil and add another 250g of sugar. Boil but not too hard for 5 minutes, pour into sterilized bottles and seal whilst hot.
If you are wondering why there is so much sugar, it acts as a preservative and this is a cordial so you will be diluting it with sparkling or still water to taste. If you prefer, the flowers can be dried and used as a tea or fermented in a kefir.
And to finish a short poem from Anna Crowe – it’s not Harris but Ardnamurchan another beautiful, remote spot…
I Have Lost My Bearings
A fox barks and the door creaks
as though the wood
remembered the tree it once was.
I write this at a kitchen table
in the city, a plane passing
every minute, day and night.
It is time to go north. I want
to listen to silence and unpick its voices:
the wind that surges through pines
is only one of them, with the burn
that gurgles, chants, or roars in spate;
the buzzard mewing, wheeling overhead,
the oyster-catcher piping her way
across moorland, whisper of bog-cotton
surrendering to the wind. At Sanna
the machair will be bright with orchids.
Do you hear a humming, like fridge-song?
An emerald damsel-fly hovers above the burn.