Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The trouble with craft fairs...

....is that that you always end up spending any money you make on the fab products on other people’s stalls.
This week, for instance, we have been at Oakham, Kibworth and Uppingham and look what we found:

Beautiful stained glass robin from Cathi at Shedglas Design

Spiced, herb-filled Christmas bauble (or three) from Jo at Maid in England

Lovely blue pottery candle holder

Yummy Christmas pudding fudge -you can smell the rum the minute you open the box

This dinky ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ badge from Rhubarb Designs, Leicester

And last but not least, this reindeer from a very nice man in a narrow boat near Kibworth.

We also bought Myrtle a plague rat from Dougals Den in Oakham. I would show you a picture but she gets so excited playing with it the photo goes all blurry.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Soap frenzy!

In the thick of the sales season with our soaps at the moment, with Kibworth farmers market and three big sales to go before we can put our feet up - and, more importantly, start to think about our herbs for next spring and what the frost has been doing to our polytunnel.

Soap sales have gone far better than we had anticipated, thanks to Sian's enticing recipes- so much so that we have had to frantically make more to ensure we are fully stocked for Stamford Christmas Market on Sunday, Oakham late-night shopping on Monday and Leicester Christmas farmers market on December 22.

This is what out kitchen looks like at the moment. And the living room. And the "storeroom" (i.e. third bedroom).

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Have your cake and wash with it

Just a quick entry today - too busy dreaming up new soap recipes.

Latest are figgy pudding, which looks like it has whipped cream on top and does have a dusting of brown sugar, and ginger chocolate, inspired by Sian's favourite Green & Blacks variety. This one has cocoa powder and ginger scent.

Why these flavours? Nothing to do with us both going on a pre-Christmas diet. Obviously.

Both will be unveiled in a couple of weeks at Leicester Guildhall and Parklands leisure centre, in Oadby.

Pictures to follow in a day or so.

Also a recipe for iced rosemary cake supplied by a friend. So we have to make that up and as it's research the diet doesn't apply.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Cleaning up

Just a brief entry today - very busy making soaps for our Christmas fairs. It is good to be making use of dried flowers and leaves from our garden. Some of the plants have been raised by us from seed and now they are decorating soaps created and produced in our kitchen.

First outing for today's soaps will not be for a month or two because they need time to cure. But (and here's some we made earlier) our soaps will be taking pride of place on our stall at Leicester Farmers' Market on Thursday.

We will have a few of our herbs there as well - the evergreens and hardy, including winter savoury and rosemary and perhaps a few myrtles.

Next dates after that are as follows:
November 13 - Kibworth Farmers' Market
November 20 - Oakham Christmas market
November 21 - Leicester winter food festival
November 27-28 - Leicester Guildhall Christmas Fair
November 28 - Parklands leisure centre, Oadby, Christmas fair
December 2 - Leicester Farmers' Market
December 3 - Gilmorton Christmas Fair
December 9 - Uppingham late-night shopping
December 13 - Oakham late-night shopping

In addition - and we are very excited about this one - we will be at Stamford Christmas Fair on December 12.

We have never ventured outside Leicestershire and Rutland before, and the fair promises to be a spectacular event. We will see if we can conjure up some herb and soap surprises for this one.

As if we were not busy enough preparing for these, it is definitely time to overhaul the website. Look out for much-improved and expanded herb descriptions in the days or (more likely) weeks to come.
You can check the progress at http://cookslaneherbs.co.uk

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

under cover

It's glorious to have all these wonderfully sunny autumn days - but never forget that the frost is lurking about most mornings now.
We've brought out the fleece to keep our herbs snuggly and protected. This includes the smaller herbs in the greenhouses which are just getting to a decent size but not quite ready to be planted out yet. Frost is a swine for destroying your herbs, particularly bay as I learned from bitter experience last year. One minute they are fine, the next they’ve gone brown and turned their toes up. If you’ve got a bay in a pot, and the forecast is for -5C or below, you’re best off bringing it indoors, not just covering it and hoping for the best. Young myrtles, too, will thank you for a cosy respite from the chill winds. Again, learned from bitter experience (and am still quite cross about it, a year on...)
Indoors, the tender herbs like scented pelargoniums, lemongrass and pineapple sage are setting up home nicely for the winter - not to mention filling the room with some fab scents!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Hello Autumn

This week, we have been mostly...

Enjoying country walks

Gathering elderberries for liqueur

Unveiling our new meadowsweet soap, which pleasingly looks like it has a happy face on it

Loving the final scarlet flush of tangerine sage

Enjoying cosy nights in

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Sometimes, a nap is the only answer

This is Myrtle, our little cat. Her hobbies include 'helping' us with the herb garden, plus catching mice, birds and frogs. Here she is, taking a break from the dizzy whirl of catdom with a nice nap. Today's so cold, wet, and miserable I rather feel like joining her.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Seeds, plans and mainlining rosemary tea

One of the (many) things I love about herbs is that they are so easy to get free plants from. Half the time you don’t need to do any work - they’ve done it for you.
Evening primrose, borage, alchemilla mollis and marigolds all self seed like mad so most of the work is making sure you can pot them on before they get too big and get grumpy about being transplanted.
Borage, especially, seems to get the hump if you let it get a hold then go and dig it up. It’s best to get it while it’s just putting out its first, bristly leaves, about the size of your thumb. Dig it up and pot it on, give it plenty of water and it will soon romp away.
We’ve left it far too late to do any potting on of the white borage in this border but they are just so pretty when they flower that I can‘t say I mind too much. You can see what I mean about the self-seeding, though (at least, you can if the picture's uploaded properly).
We had flowers on ours in October last year, so you never know. At least the weeds don’t get a chance to get a look-in and if they don’t bloom we will just make a liquid feed out of them.
Elsewhere in the garden, it’s all about harvesting seeds and renovating. I’m fed up with the way our garden looks - it’s too staid, too flat. Need more levels, or focus, or…something. Pity that I'm utterly rubbish at garden design. Hey ho. I’ll have a think. Or leaf through lots of books and steal ideas, more like.
Seeds from our once-stately angelica plant have been harvested and are being dried. Felt guilty about not leaving any for the birds - they love them - so bought a fat feeder to make up for it. Richard’s planning to make candied angelica from the stems. Hmm. Let’s hope it fares better than his yarrow beer, which exploded in the kitchen last year. The place smelled like Everard’s Brewery for a month.
I’m keen to try root cuttings for sweet cicely, it will be interesting to see if they do better than the seeds which I’ve just collected.
Right, back to work. Have taken to drinking shedloads of rosemary tea with honey. It works a treat. Better than pro-plus, I can tell you.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Back to School

September’s here and it is back to school. I’m back studying - and this time (unlike during my teenage years) I’m actually enjoying it. And not just because it’s a fabulous excuse to indulge my borderline obsessive love of stationery, whatever the other half says.
I’m halfway through the RHS Level 2 qualification which has been fascinating. I'm still a confirmed herbophile (if that's a word) but it's been a treat learning new stuff and reading so many inspiring books and learning different ways of doing things, being able to visit a garden and pick out what works and what doesn't, and why.
Now I’ve also just received the first part of my herb course with the Horticultural Correspondence College. It looks amazing and I can’t wait to get started! Am slightly concerned about fitting in two courses, coming up with herbal soaps for our Christmas markets and sowing for next year’s herbs, though. Perhaps I should cheer myself up with some snazzy notebooks....

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

soap, soap and abbeys

Lots of experimenting going on at Cooks Lane: new products being prepared for Christmas - and tried out at some of the sales we have/are doing in the next few weeks. We have a new lavender and ylang ylang cold-pressed soap that made its debut at Eastwell fete last Saturday - and sold out.

But the herbs have not been forgotten. We have some lovely young myrtle plants, some African blue basil and, at last, some sellable ginger mint, that are coming good just as the herb-growing season is winding down. Typical.

Still, there are a number of sales coming up. On Saturday, for the first time, Cooks Lane Herbs is taking on two sales on one day. Sian will be in King's Hall, Market Harborough, with some of those lovely soaps, while Richard is at Launde Abbey, near East Norton, with the herbs. We are both at Launde Abbey on the Sunday and bank holiday Monday with both soaps and herbs. A good chance to stock the garden/kitchen with herbs before the real bad weather sets in or to pick up some early stocking fillers.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Polytunnels and greenhouses, I reckon, are like London buses. You wait ages to get one, scrimping and saving before taking the plunge and putting one up. Then you quickly realise what genius they are and before you know it there’s three of them in your garden at once.

Take us: we started three years ago with a modest little greenhouse as we started growing herbs and last week, found ourselves trying to put up a 3m x 4m polytunnel in the back garden in lashing rain and howling winds.

If you count the tiny three-tier ones from Aldi, currently jostling for space in the patio, that makes five.

And there’s still not enough room!

We even have a waiting list of herbs waiting to go in – because with cuttings being taken nearly every day it’s a real struggle to find the space. Our window ledges are crammed to the rafters with softwood cuttings taken from rosemary, curry plants, lavender, southernwood and sage, to name a few.

Softwood cuttings are as the name suggests, the soft tip growth of the plants. Take cuttings in the morning – pinch off about 10cm of a non flowering shoot which has three or four pairs of leaves on it, and pop it straight into a plastic bag so it won’t start to stress too much and wilt.

Pinch out the top of the cutting, which will encourage the plant to branch, and next trim off the lower leaves.

Cut the stem near a leaf node (where the leaf meets the stem) and put it into a prepared pot of compost mixed with a good mix of grit. You can use rooting hormones, but to be honest we have never found them necessary.

Cuttings taken at this time of year may take a bit longer to strike, but they generally don’t wilt as badly as those taken in late spring/early summer. You can tell when they’ve taken if you see new growth coming from the centre of the plant.

Rosemary cuttings like this will take a couple of months to root. They like hot and humid spots, but out of direct sunlight, so a greenhouse or polytunnel is ideal. Be careful though - don't overwater rosemary or you could kill it.

Pretty soon, you won’t be able to stop yourself from walking through the garden wondering what new plants you could get free!

Saturday, 3 July 2010

From Oadby to woad

Had a fantastic time at the University of Leicester Botanical Gardens plant fair - and being there meant we did not have to watch England v Germany, which had seemed a problem in advance but in hindsight was probably a good thing.

Anyway, such was the interest at Oadby that we have sold out of quite a few species that we will not be able to raise from seed in time for the last couple of months of the season. Other plants are at last coming on, though. Mints, southernwood and chamomile cuttings and seeds are taking off and some of the plants like viper's bugloss are really coming into their own.

It will soon be time for harvesting and drying the lavender and wormwood for our sleep pillows, lavender bags, moth repellent sachets and soaps. Chamomile and marigold flowers will also be along soon.

A batch or two of yarrow beer is also in the offing. The recipe is on our website:

We also have bees now in the hive at the bottom of the garden, so hopefully that will take care of pollination and, eventually, start producing wax for truly home-made candles and honey.

But to the point. Several people have asked for a woad dye recipe. We have not yet tried this, but from a search of the internet, the following version of the recipe seems as clear as any. It is taken wholesale from www.woad.org.uk/html/extraction.html where there is a lot more useful information and to whom all credit is due

1. Harvest the woad leaves

July and August are the best months for harvesting woad in the UK. Cut leaves from first year woad plants with secateurs, near to their base, and fill a supermarket carrier bag full (about 1250 grams).

Wash them well under the tap. Wash again by dipping and shaking a handful at a time in a bucket full of water. There is almost no blue dye in the stalks and, therefore, you can remove the stalks if you have many leaves.

2. Woad production - Tearing the leaves

Tear the leaves by hand (much easier than chopping them with a knife), and do not tear them too small otherwise they will go through the colander later on. It is OK to pick woad leaves either in late morning or in mid afternoon and then process it early the following morning.

If you can't process the woad straight away, keep the leaves in a closed supermarket carrier bag in the shade but not in the fridge.

3. Dye Extraction - Steeping the leaves

Fill a 10 litre stainless steel saucepan two-thirds full with water. It is best to use soft water, e.g. rain water. Heat the water up to 90°C but do not let it boil inside the saucepan.

Put the leaves in the saucepan and let them steep for just 10 minutes in water at 80°C.
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4. Cooling the liquid

Remove the saucepan from the heat and put it in a bowl full of cold or icy water. According to Jenny Balfour-Paul, the liquid must cool down quickly. This appears to be to prevent the woad from breaking down.

I aim to get the liquid down to 55 degrees C in 5 minutes. I keep stirring the saucepan and changing the water from the bowl. Sometimes I put a tray of ice cubes in the bowl to cool it more quickly.
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5. Straining the liquid

When the liquid has reached 55 degrees C, put a colander over a bucket and then strain the liquid through the colander.

Put on rubber gloves to press the leaves and extract all the liquid. Pour the liquid back into the saucepan leaving the debris behind in the bucket. The spent leaves can then go on the compost.
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6. Adding soda ash

Fill a mug-size container with boiling water and add 3 teaspoons of soda ash (it produces less froth than washing soda), dissolve well and let it cool slightly.

Click to buy soda ash here

When the woad extract liquid in the saucepan has cooled to 50°C, add the soda ash. Do not put soda ash when woad solution is over 50°C, or you will destroy the blue.

The vat will turn to a greeny-brown colour and the pH should be about 9. Buy pH paper here.
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7. Aerating the vat

The woad vat now needs to be aerated to precipitate the pigment. To aerate the vat, whisk with an electric whisk or a manual one. Some people pour the liquid from one saucepan to another.
I usually whisk for 10 minutes with an electric whisk until the froth turns blue and then green again. Sometimes the froth remains blue however long you whisk but this does not usually affect the results. Once, in late September, I had almost no blue in the froth but, to my surprise, a large amount of woad pigment settled out.

It takes about two hours for the froth to subside and I found it better to discard the froth using a spoon. After discarding the froth you will end up with a dark green solution with no hint of blue in it.
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8. Settling out the Woad Pigment

Let the pigment settle undisturbed for 2 to 3 hours. Using a soup ladle, very gently transfer a third of the liquid from the top of the pan into a bucket. Pour the remaining liquid into 4 or 5 large coffee jars with the help of a funnel. Put the jars in the shade and let the sediment settle for a couple of hours.

Gently tip the liquid from the top of each jar into the bucket, leaving the last 6 cm of liquid in each jar. Using a large pipette (for example, a glass siphon sold as a turkey baster in kitchen shops) to siphon liquid from the top of the jar is even better. The pipette allows me to remove most of the unwanted liquid with little disturbance to the pigment in the bottom of the jar. (Pipettes sold in wine making shops are often not very useful, as they are designed to remove pigment from the bottom of a container, rather than skim liquid from the top).

Consolidate the contents of the jars into one jar.

There is a small amount of pigment in the bucket, which could be used to dye a scarf with the chemical dyeing method, but I usually throw the contents of the bucket away.

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9. Concentrating the Pigment

Let the liquid in the jar settle for a couple of hours. You may see a blue sludge at the bottom of the jar. Carefully empty 2/3 of the jar or siphon most of liquid away with a glass siphon. Then fill it again with clean water. Repeat two or three times more until there is clear water over blue sediment. This is very exciting!

[I have tried filtering woad using an old gold-plated coffee filter, but the woad went straight through. I have also tried a car pollen filter, supposed to be 100 micron, but the pigment went straight through that as well. The woad pigment does not go through proper filter paper used in chemistry. I put a square of filter paper folded inside a funnel, and the liquid dripped very slowly. It took me 24 hours to pass all the liquid through the funnel].

We are currently using a piece of Habotai silk to filter the woad pigment. First wet the silk, then place it on the funnel, with plenty of silk overhanging the borders of the funnel. Slowly pour the liquid into the funnel. A very small amount of pigment may go through, but most of the pigment stays on the silk. You let the pigment dry on the silk and gently scrape it away with a blunt knife.

In the past we used Whatman Grade 1 filter paper, which has an 11 micron retention size, but a slightly larger micron size might also work well.

Fill the jar to overflowing one last time, and put lid on tightly. The woad should last for a year or more. It is better to use a glass jar to decant and store the woad pigment. In the past, I have used plastic soda water bottles and the woad pigment stuck permanently to the walls of the bottle.
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10. Making woad dye - Drying the Pigment

The woad can now be used for dyeing or dried for more permanent storage. To dry the woad pigment, pour or siphon away as much water as possible from the glass jar, and then empty content of the jar into an old Teflon saucepan or frying pan; an old ceramic plate can also be used.

After a few days the woad dries up and peels easily from the saucepan. It helps if you keep the saucepan somewhere warm, such as near a radiator. I have tried drying on greaseproof paper, but the pigment stuck to the paper.

One large woad plant weighs about 700 grams. 1 kilo of leaves will produce between 1 gram to 4  grams of pigment. The yield depends on the soil, how well the plants were fed, and how warm the summer was. 1 gram of woad will dye about 20 grams of fibre. So if you only get a very pale blue from your first experiment don’t despair. Try feeding your plants more, and collecting the pigment from several extractions, to get darker colours.

Monday, 7 June 2010

We're back

It has been a while since we posted. What can I say? We have been busy.

It is the height of the plant sales season. We have been delighted to find so many interested and knowledgeable herb growers wherever we have been. Plenty of people have been interested in the less-common species we are growing, which is encouraging.

We have started drawing up a few basic serving suggestions and recipe ideas - you can find them on our website http://cookslaneherbs.co.uk - and there will be one for gravadlax below - but it would be fascinating to know what others out there are cooking up with their herbs. Please let us know and we will post them here or, if people want, set up a forum for you to swap ideas.

Sales are coming thick and fast at the moment. We are at Kibworth farmers' market on Saturday (June 12).

June 27 sees us at the University of Leicester Botanic Gardens plant fair. That is going to be an opportunity to see how we fare alongside better-established and bigger sellers.

Then it is back to Leicester farmers' market on July 1. The farmers' markets give us a chance to offer our soaps, lavender bags, bath melts and our latest bestseller, moth-repellent bags.

As soon as Sian can sew these they are selling. Our only problem is whether our supply of dried wormwood will last until we can produce another crop.

Research has continued - by which I mean day trips. The latest was to Chelsea Physic Garden, which has an excellent collection that provided much food for thought and many photo opportunities for Sian.

Now for that recipe.

Dill Gravadlax with mustard and dill sauce:

3-4lb/1.4-1.8kg salmon; 2tb salt; 2tbsp sugar; 2tsp crushed black peppercorns; 2tbsp brandy; 2tbsp chopped fresh dill

Spread mix of all other ingredients over salmon and rub in. Cover, with foil. Place heavy weight on top. Cure in fridge for up to 5 days. Slice thin to serve with:
1 egg yolk; 2tbsp french mustard; 1tbsp sugar; 2tbsp white wine vinegar; 6tbsp olive oil; 1tbsp chopped dill; seasoning.
Beat egg yolk,mustard and sugar until smooth. Add vinegar, then oil bit by bit, beating. Fold in dill and seasoning.
(Jane Newdick, the Magic of Herbs)

Sunday, 18 April 2010

To Kew

Went down to Kew this week and discovered the nosegay garden. It was so exciting. Exactly what we want to create - a mix of the modern culinary and the traditional herbalist.

Encouraging, too. Our garden may not be as neat and our chervil and mandrake are pygmies compared with Kew's specimens, but we have a majority of the plants already in our plot and more in the seed trays waiting to germinate.

On the sale side, there is encouragement, too. We at last have some sellable chervil, our dill seedlings are coming along nicely - most of the herbs we plan to offer are now available. Our mandrake continues to thrive, too.

We have uprooted the plants once already to re-pot. Tradition says mandrake can kill if dug up - people are supposed to have used their dogs to pull up roots so they would die if the curse struck. I do have a cold. Maybe the curse is in proportion to the size of the root.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Leicester farmers's market

Very much enjoyed our first Leicester Farmers' Market - apart from the biting wind and pouring rain.

It was heartening to find out how many people are interested in herbs of all kinds and how knowledgeable so many are about them.

Tarragon seems to be our most popular species, closely followed by sweet cicely and garlic chives. Plenty of requests, too, which will keep us busy in the greenhouse and potting shed before we return with a double header - Leicester on May 6 and Kibworth two days later.

Sian's herbal hares were a hit, too, and we will press ahead with a batch of insect repellent sachets. Grow Your Own Drugs is going to be required viewing.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Four days to go...

Our debut at Leicester farmers' market is looming. We are there on Thursday, April 1 and then again on the first Thursday in each month.
Sian is frantically sewing our latest invention - sleep pillows for children in the shape of hares. Hoppy and Lavender we are calling them. Guess what's in them?
They smell fantastic.
Hopefully, they will go down very well for Easter. That's them.

Myrtle - that's our cat - has been helping us pot on plants, in her own way. She has also been eating anything she can catch in the garden. So far, that means a couple of very early red admirals and some spiders.
With luck, we can teach her to distinguish useful invertebrates from bad and chooses her diet accordingly.
Here she is, taking a rest from her frantic exertions.

The plants have shot up. It's amazing how quickly we have gone from seedlings to decent-sized pot herbs. We also have a great many more plants coming along nicely in our bedroom converted into indoor nursery. Dill is coming along nicely, stevia, cardoon, hyssop, weld and selfheal are doing well and we are already drowning in sorrel. Woad is showing in the outdoor seed beds as well.
Lastly, here's a recipe from Sophie Grigson for lovage soup:
Ingredients: 1 chopped onion, 4 large carrots, 2 large potatoes, 4 garlic cloves, 4 tbsp chopped lovage leaf, 1 tomato, zest and juice of half a lemon, 30g butter, 1.25 litres of stock. Sweat onion, potatoes, carrots, garlic and lovage in a pan and sweat for 15 - 20 minutes. Add stock and tomato. Season. Bring to boil and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Liquidize. Add lemon juice. (Sophie Grigson's Herbs, BBC, 1999). Buy the book. It's excellent.
Lovage is one of those herbs you should probably avoid if you are pregnant.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Spring has arrived in our garden. Signs of life everywhere, even though the witchhazel is only now attempting to flower.

The mints are coming back, yarrow is springing up everywhere, the cat is getting very excited about all the insect life.

Surprisingly encouraging signs indoors as well, where half a dozen mandrake shoots have appeared in the past couple of days. It is the first time we have tried to grow mandrake and all the advice was that it was very tricky to get to germinate from seed. It is going to be very interesting to see how the plants develop.

All this sudden growth is very handy as our debut at Leicester farmers' market is coming up soon. I might yet have need of the following recipe found on the internet (I'm afraid I don't have the source to attribute it - if it's yours, please let me know and I will give credit):

Tea for nervous tension:

1.3oz St John's wort
1oz lemon balm
1oz valerian

Mix. Use a teaspoon per cup and steep for 10 minutes. Good for insomnia, too, it claims.

Monday, 15 March 2010

A day out at Launde Abbey

We made our first visit to Launde Abbey as volunteers gardeners today. We are creating a herb garden there using typical Victorian plants, although today was more about sizing up the scale of the exercise (considerable) and putting in a few basic planst such as mint, rosemary and thyme.

Pictures posted when I have had time to upload them.

They are looking for more volunteers to help out while the gardener is on long-term sick leave - and there is plenty of garden to look after. So anyone interested should get in touch with Launde Abbey directly.

It is a fantastic setting and it is going to be great fun to pop over, add plants and create a herb garden on a scale that is simply not available anywhere else.

If you are there for a retreat or one of their open days, please go and have a look at our work. But maybe not yet - there is a long way to go before it starts to look like a proper hareb garden.

Monday, 8 March 2010


Welcome to Cooks Lane Herbs' blog. We are a small herb nursery in Wigston, Leicestershire, set up by Sian and Richard in 2009, growing a wide range of herbs, including some unusual and historic varieties.

We sell at farmers markets, fairs and events across Leicestershire and Rutland.

We also produce a range of lovely things with our surplus, including soaps using chamomile and calendula (marigold) flowers, lavender bags and lavender and hop sleep pillows.

On this page, we will be keeping you up to date with what we are up to and, hopefully, sharing our fascination with all things herbal. Look out for recipes, traditional remedies (though we make no guarantees that they work!) and historical snippets of herb lore, such as this one from Culpepper about burnet (common or great - Sanguisorba officinalis):

Two or three of the stalks with leaves put into a cup of wine, especially claret, are known to quicken the spirits, refresh and clear the heart and drive away melancholy. (Culpepper, 1653)


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