A lunchtime stroll around the distillery perimeter yesterday revealed all sorts of edible plants, at an interesting intersection of promise and abundance, partly in bud, partly in bloom. Here are a few notes about the wild bounty we found on our doorstep.
The south-facing bank at the edge of the Conisby road was literally a purple patch in the Spring with all the dog violets. Now it has the first heather I’ve noticed in flower on Islay – earlier than to be expected after a warm, bright May.
The same ditch plays host to several members of the carrot family some more friendly than others [be careful with the umbellifers, close relations are deadly, read more > ] This is a wild carrot about to bloom. Perhaps because of it’s folk name “Queen Anne’s Lace”, perhaps because it’s always a mini triumph for me to ID it, perhaps because of its regal ruff-like leaves, perhaps because it is the progenitor of a “proper vegetable”, it always feels special to see one amid the riff raff of an everyday location.
This is hogweed, also carrot family, on the other side of the ditch by the bonded warehouses of the distillery. It’s furry stems can cause blisters on your skin so it’s best picked with caution. The buds just now are very good steamed and doused in butter then peeled. Earlier in the year the young leaves and shoots are a tasty vegetable; later in the year the seeds are packed with exotic carrot-y orange cardomom flavours.
Clover red and clover white. It’s at its fullest right now. I’ve been using the separated florets in and on top of creme anglaise, but the flavour impact is more noticeable if the honey heads are bobbing about in the top of a Botanist and tonic…
Meadowsweet is a good marker of damp ground; soon to be flagged all over the island with tall creamy flowers of Filipendula ulmaria. The red stems and symmetrical leaves are other good identifiers. It’s a plant in the rose family with a long history of medicinal usage (salicylic acid which goes into aspirin was isolated from its leaves in 1827) and folklore, being one of three plants sacred to the Druids and getting a mention in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale.
You can tell that purple vetch is in the pea family if you look at how it is reaching with its tendrils from the top. The pursed, almost orchid-looking flowers with appear on one side in a vertical stack. The whole stem is good gracing a gin and tonic, or will substitute a pea snap in a salad. So tasty, that the caterpillars have seemingly got there before us on this one.
It seems to be a good year for flowers of all varieties, from those on the trees to those in the ditches. I really love the smell of the nettles in flower, and there’s no shortage of them. There are still some individual plants that haven’t yet bloomed, which we used at the distillery to great effect in a recent green risotto, blended with another common weed – plantain. Stinging nettle seeds are also worth looking out for – nutty sweet in flavour, go for small doses, as they are apparently a natural stimulant.