Here and Now – Spring



Elder in Leaf

They say the leaves are “pinnate” and the eventual flowers are “umbels” – words with Latin roots, coming through to us via Old English and 16th Century French, describing feathers and sunshades. Elders grow readily here, and the blossom and berries are a source for significant liquid treats, in the form of elderflower champagne and elderberry whisky (see Rupert Waite’s Aelder for a most sophisticated elderberry flavour sensation.) It’s scratchy bark and haywire skinny branches projecting from near the base, plus its penchant for inhabiting ruined buildings, make it quite recognisable.

Ice plant

Bees love it, butterflies love it, but it’s deer resistant, which makes Ice plant the perfect Islay stonecrop. In the family Crassulaceae, it has several common names and a couple in Latin too – Hylotelephium spectabile, or Sedum spectabile, depending on your source. It’s closely related to Orpine, with which it hybridises to make “Autumn Stonecrop” Sedum Herbstfreude (orpine seemingly has oppositely paired leaves, and ice plant has “whorls of three”).

Edible, with juicy, pea-pod succulence and then a fusty, mushroom finish – Kevin says he’s going to try some in his egg mayonnaise, and to garnish truffle pasta. Lots of young plants have escaped into the woods from the big house, and before that, seemingly, they got here from China…

Barberry / berberis

This bush is well-established in the garden of the Academy House at the distillery – a legacy of more domestic times when it was home to the brewer and the exciseman’s families.  Wikipedia reckons, “Taller-growing species are valued for crime prevention; being very dense, viciously spiny shrubs, they make very effective barriers impenetrable to burglars.”

There isn’t much of that sort of caper on Islay, but the yellow flowers are an edible, citrus-sharp delicacy that Craig’s taken advantage of for our exquisite foraged meals.

There are over 400 species of Barberry – this is obviously not one of the evergreen varieties, but it’s hard to say exactly what its Latin name is. We’ve never yet seen this bush with berries. We’ll keep an eye on it, and see if there are more signs that give away its identity as the year goes on.

Larch Ascending

Also in the Academy garden this week, the acid green larch needles are pushing through. When the needles are young and soft they taste lemony, of green apple skin, with marked astringency, slight bitterness and a pleasing Christmas tree pine finish – good for freshening up a glass of water, garnishing G & Ts, or sprinkling on top of cream cheese for a bit of pep.

Flowering Currant

The edible flowers – Ribes sanguineum – make a gorgeous garnish, are good in syrups and apparently freeze well. The flowers come out in full giving early colour while the leaves are still sparse and its stems are tall – once you know it, you seem to see it everywhere. The RHS and the BBC websites have it pegged as low maintenance, so definitely one to put into the garden.

Three stages of willow

The willow catkins are going to pollen now, even the ones picked for a table decoration have enough stored energy to convert themselves. Here you can see catkins, pollen and new leaves all on the same branch.

Wild Garlic

There is a particular private woodland in these parts – long established elms, ash and limes, and around their trunks, original rhododendrums planted by the landed Victorian gentry – where, for about a month each spring, either side of the sweeping drive becomes carpet of wild garlic as far as the eye can see. It is the perfect time to gather it now, when the plants are well established but not yet flowering, and there are still younger leaves about; cut from the whitening stems at the base of each cluster.

It’s peppery and sweet and brilliant raw, great added to soups or curries or stews near the end of cooking.  Happy grazing, and praise Scottish law’s “right to roam” – the aristocracy won’t even miss them.

Abundance Begins

We’ve got probably 60% flowers on the gorse now, and the young dandelions are up. The gingery Magnolia buds grow right above the purple kale, that you can see in this box of pickings from Islay House Community Garden. Ice plant (see entry above) adds some crisp juicy succulence. So this bitter, sweet, spicey, floral box is already a cracking salad, and a period of abundance is upon us.

Larch Progress

Plantations of larch in the area (probably Japanese larch, Larix kaempferi, our ex-forester bulk-stock operator Kevin informs us) are exhibiting new cones, in an extraordinary raspberry hue. Harvesting the new needles that have a vibrant citrus / pine flavour for use in cooking and drinking, it’s the soft textures of both the needles and cones that most surprise. Looking again, at Larch.

Sweet Cicely

This unassuming, fern-looking plant, Myrrhis odorata, grows by a grotty crash barrier on the main road, near the quarry. The flavour is a gentle marvel – anise, but it’s carrot family so taste-wise there is a lot of extra depth and breadth. The flowers (umbels) are edible, and beautiful in a salad, and the leaves are used in the creation of The Botanist. The tell-tale signs are the smell and the white markings on the leaves, but as always with carrot family, be careful and get a triple-lock, ie three positive factors, when identifying.  Full article on sweet cicely here >

Nettles and Cleavers

Cleavers aka goosegrass aka sticky willy, Galium Aparine, is in the bedstraw family, as is coffee – that relationship meaning you can roast the burrs and grind them to drink, apparently [see these American sites, “eat the weeds“, and alt, where there is more about reputed health benefits and instructions for making tea.] The young plants can be used raw as a cucumber-like garnish in a drink (forager Liz Knight adds green flavours to birch sap by leaving them steeping in the fridge), or you can stir fry them, or add to omlettes like any other vegetable. Old ones can be a bit too tough.

Lady’s Smock

Found the first Cardamine pratensis Lady’s Smock flower today, 4th April, so named after the colour of medieval lady’s dresses. Its other folk name “cuckooflower” derives from the coincidence of its appearance and the arrival of the first cuckoos, although it’s beaten them by a long shot this year, Spring coming so early. It has a mustard, rocket-like flavour, being a brassica, and amoung our team is a favourite gin and tonic garnish in a highball glass.

Pink Purslane

There’s a glen at the back of Port Charlotte on Islay, where the burn falls and corners before going into the village. On the other side of the water, is this magical glade where we found a carpet of pink purslane today. It makes sense that it’s native to Siberia, as it lent that “unspoilt” feel to the ecosystem, which was confirmed by the realisation that the jelly lying on the grass nearby was frogspawn. It’s distinctively shaped, succulent leaves taste a bit sweet and earthy, like beetroot.


The furry leaves of Burdock (Arctium) new growth were at the foot of last year’s dried-out waist-height stalks. The characteristic give-away is the hook-covered ball seeds that stick to any passing fabric or animal, and which under a microscope supposedly inspired the creation of Velcro in the 1940s. The roots are widely eaten in Japan, and make a delicious cloudy (possibly starchy?) syrup which is great for adding a sweetness and a sort of broad foundation to cocktails; or to stewed fruit for a crumble…


A gorgeous garnish, and a great syrup to be had from the banks right by the distillery at the moment. See this recipe for violet syrup; it changes colour according to the acidity of what you add to it. There are more than 500 types in the viola genus, all having “more or less edible leaves and flower buds, though those species with yellow flowers can cause diarrhoea if eaten in large quantities” [source: “Plants For a Future” database.] We suspect these are Viola labradorica, “dog violets” or “alpine dog violets” called after the region in Canada to which, like the dog breed, they are native.

Ivy Leaved Toadflax

The leaves and flowers of this pretty climber are edible, though the flowers, being bitter, may look rather better than they taste… It is native to Mediterranean Europe and seems to have made a habit of growing on historic monuments, which may account for some of its common names Ruine de Rome, and Coliseum Ivy.  The Latin name, Cymbalaria muralis literally translates as cymbal (for the shape) of the walls.

Bittercress and Sorrel

In January, when we began this blog, “hairy bittercress” Cardamine hirsuta, the humblest of wasteland-haunting brassicas, was one of the only things we could count on to find. Now it is flowering, and the resemblance to its shoreline cousin, the wasabi-tasting brassica “scurvy grass” Cochlearia, is super-apparent (pictured below). The photo above also shows how well sorrel is flourishing just now – that’s the lemony grassland plant with the prominent central vein and small split where the leaf joins the stalk, not Kevin and Heather’s puppy, although she is lovely and almost completely housetrained now…

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