The summer months have proffered a long, hot and dry season here taking us all quite aback on Islay. With weeks of sunshine and virtually no rain, the summer has held a quick-fire procession of picking for our in-house botanist James. That was until the end of the month when a few unseasonal downpours came, more than enough to keep the island distillers happy.
In early July, James wafts into the distillery with a tub of Lady’s bedstraw (Galium Verum) – it’s delicate savoury notes bringing nostalgic delights to some while others recoiled in disgust claiming “It smells like my granny’s house”. It’s lovely. Those who disagree, it turns out, had a cold that week
Mid-month picking was yet to commence on the meadowsweet which was ‘not quite there yet’; though in last year’s calendar picking commenced a week later. The forecasted rain helped it along a little quicker through the prolonged dry spell. And then James was picking picking picking. Now, at the end of the month and after a blustery and very wet weekend it meadowsweet is looking little disheartened and wind-burned.
HOW TO PICK CREEPING THISTLE
On a recce trip for apple mint we found along the peripheries a swathe of honey scented creeping thistle ripe for the picking. What is it James looking for? “Foosily” heads he says. Fully foosiled. “It’s definitely a technical term James?” “Oh yes.” “Some of the heads are narrower and less foosily all over.” This description requires hand movements and facial expressions to fully appreciate it’s seriousness.
We are high into the nettle season now. This nitrate loving Urtica dioica is going to seed but these jaggy, stinging, needlelike fellows seeds (botanically ‘nuts’) can put a spring in your step. Though jury may still be out on the full effects, nettle seeds contain adaptogens which can act as a natural stimulant akin to caffeine. No sting to them once dried and with a quick rub down, properly prepared they pertain to a myriad of potential health benefits from circulation, an iron boost to general rejuvenation and pep.
The elder tree’s flowers were in bloom at the beginning of July sending out sweet scents along the roadsides and thought parts of Bridgend’s woodland. At the end of the month close to all has gone but rest assured many a local will have picked some for homemade ‘champagne’. However, with more of it still out (despite the wind) meadowsweet makes for a nice change in the classic recipe if you’ve missed the elder flowers.
YELLOW AND WHITE SEASON SPREADS INTO PURPLE SEASON
Zing! Yellow and white season spread into purple season as the loosestrife, vetch and bell heather creep into the hedgerows. Like gorse, Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca) sits amidst the pea family: Fabaceae. If you are 100% on your type of vetch it is safe to eat a few shoots, flowers and young leaves. Some vetches are toxic to humans. Tufted vetch has purple pea like flowers along the stem, not crowned on top and doesn’t have ‘hairs’.
‘A big trough’ has been planted up in the courtyard to help aid our Botanist tours from the Laddie shop. When thyme is of the essence on a Botanist tour, our guides and guests alike can pick ingredients for their end of tour drinks. Now just a little wait for it all to bed in and flourish over the remaining summer days. There’s sweet cicely, lemon balm, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, apple-mint and red-veined sorrel. Left overs from our Festival Botanist tent in May, they now have a happy new home.
Look at this! The burlesque-like showy cousin of our common sheep’s sorrel, we can’t help but gaze at the netted veins and midrib on the ‘bloody’ sorrel as it perks up our distillery planter. Common sheep’s sorrel is an easy at your feet find for a little citrus twist to your salads and drinks. I’ll tend to pick a nibble if I’m off walking on Islay and can’t go past it. That or I hop over the garden wall to the field behind to grab a handful for my lunchbox. Take a wander and read more on the Rumex family here from our Jane.
FLYING THINGS SPOTTED
Not far from the bonny banks of Loch Skerrols a common blue damselfly drifted lazily into the path. Not always considered one of our great UK pollinators but look and see the pollen on it’s head and back. Fly damsel, fly.
Aglais io, Aglais io, Aglais io! No it’s not a world-cup chant lingering in your ears, Aglais io is the peacock butterfly. So, on the word of pollinators at least three Aglais io merrily flew into the garden after the weekend rain to enjoy the buddleia and honeysuckle.
They come under many guises of blaeberry, bilberry, whortleberry, winberry, bog blueberry, urts, hurtleberry, fraughan, whimberry…
They come under many guises of blaeberry, bilberry, whortleberry, winberry, bog blueberry, urts, hurtleberry, fraughan, whimberry… And not only are they difficult to name but difficult to find. Likely to be on higher ground and often in the lower reaches of heather and bracken. We had a merry little gather one evening on the hillside but ticks and midges a plenty left us running down the hill with a small tub of berries of our efforts. Blaeberries are deliciously tart to the taste before cooking not like your commercial blueberries. They ooze a deep purple juice that will stain a pickers hands and an eaters lips.
This month we held another walk with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). These take place on the RSPB nature reserve at Loch Gruinart. The Nature reserve is a haven for Islay’s migratory, resident and the occasional vagrant birds. Having begun our successful walks last summer we decided to continue with them this year. It was a lovely midge free evening up at the reserve with a healthy mix of visitor and locals. Many an exclamation of: “Oh I didn’t know it tasted like that.” And “Well that’s interesting, dock seeds like buckwheat?!”.