It was a lovely way to end this year’s Plants for Life series. At 3pm in Bungay library last Sunday, we did a round up of the events and spoke about what we’d enjoyed and learned from them. Then we took a visit to the Drôme region of south-eastern France with Eloise Wilkinson. This was via a brew of the tisanes (herb teas) and a taste of the honeys from the place where she spent the early part of her life.
Plants for Life – a quick review
Each month between eight and forty people came for a talk, walk or workshop on the theme of plants as medicine. We met mostly in the library where the central bed of the courtyard garden also showcased the theme. I curated this throughout the year, with the help of others in Sustainable Bungay, most notably Richard Vinton.
Each Plants for Life session featured a guest ‘plant person’ speaker and included medical and lay herbalists, authors, organic and biodynamic growers, and home winemakers.
We looked at the medicine under the ground as we connected with our roots in January, learned growing tips in February (never water basil in the evening, morning is always best for the roots; keep coriander moist it hates beings dried out), adopted a herb to focus on for the year in March, walked with weeds in April, heard about hedgerow medicine in May, made midsummer wildflower oils in June, went on a bee and flower walk in July, had our world shaken by 52 flowers in August, made autumn tonic tinctures in September and medicinal wines in October.
I asked everybody on Sunday to think about two things to share with the group about these events. First, a general feeling about why it had been worth coming to them, and then something specific thing they'd learned during the plant medicine year.
People expressed an increase in their general awareness of the plants around them, and were inspired by the open sharing of knowledge in the sessions. After the plantain oil-making workshop in June with Rose, Eloise said her four year-old daughter became obsessed with plantain and had spent the summer telling all her friends about it! Coming to think of it, I spent all summer doing the same thing!
Having the rhythm and continuity of a regular monthly event was felt to be key, as was looking at plants in so many different ways. "I try not to say 'weed' anymore," said Lesley. "It's fascinating to find out about how everything's connected in an eco-system. And I've now embraced nettles!"
"It's really good for the imagination," said Charlotte. "Everything from foraging to growing to connecting with the different times of the year. And I loved the practical stuff. I knew nothing about winemaking until the session with Nick. The fight between the yeast and the sugar really grabbed me."
Richard has loved wildflowers since he was a child, and enjoyed the tea-making at the meetings. "When you find out all the things a common plant like Yarrow can do, for example," he said, "you wonder why you bother going to the chemist so much."
"It's been really productive," said Nick. "And I've enjoyed all the variety. Talking of yarrow, when we went Walking with Weeds, I was stunned when you asked everybody if they recognised the leaf, and a six-year old boy answered immediately, 'That's Yarrow!' "
Newcomers Linda and Tony had both been inspired by the last few events to find out more about the qualities of plants. "Raspberries," said Tony. "I had no idea about all the benefits of raspberries."
For more about the specific Plants for Life sessions, do visit the archive on Sustainable Bungay’s website, where you’ll find previews and write-ups of the events.
Ô les belles tisanes de la France - A Visit to the Drôme with Eloise Wilkinson
La Drôme is an extraordinary area in south-eastern France, where three different landscapes/eco-systems meet. There are the plains of the Rhône river, the low-lying hills in the Valley of the Drôme and the bigger Massif Alpin mountains. To the south are the mountains of the Mediterranean. The three climates are continental, alpine and meditaerranean. In this place of convergence, half of the total number of plant species in France are to be found.
After speaking about the nature of the land, Eloise turned her focused to tilleul, as limeflowers are such a part of the French cultural fabric. Lime trees in France are somewhat like our English oaks in that they are the traditional tree of justice under which meetings, councils and even courts were held. But tilleul is probably best known as a relaxing and digestive herbal tea.
“When I was a young child, every evening the adults would make a large pot of limeflower blossom tea, tilleul. I’d get the really strong feeling that the evening I was allowed to join in with this tea ritual would mark my own transition to becoming a grown-up.”
There used to be an annual Foire au Tilleul (Limeflower Fair) in the area, which lasted a whole week and where the price of tilleul was fixed for the coming year. The last one was held in 2003, although there is still a (much smaller) fête.
“I think often about this area which is so unique in terms of the meeting of such different landscapes and what effects climate change and instability could have on it,” said Eloise.
It was time to drink some tilleul from the Drôme ourselves. The flowers smelt delicate with a honey sweetness to them. And shortly after we drank the infusion, several of us remarked on just how relaxing it was. No one wanted to get up from their seat.
“We might be staying the night,” I laughed.
I dragged myself downstairs to make a second pot, this time of ‘Couleurs d’automne’ (Autumn colours), which was made up of a mixture of hawthorn, mallow, spearmint and again limeflowers. Delicious, but just as relaxing. We didn't get round to trying the sweet and resinous thyme tea, thym serpolet (Thymus serpyllum) another Drôme native, and like other thymes, a boost for the immune system.
Eloise passed around various honeys from the Drôme for everyone to taste: rosemary, lavender, limeblossom and pine. And sweet chestnut. They were all extraordinary. The tree honeys were dense and intense, particularly the sweet chestnut, with its definite medicinal smell.
Then we sat in silence for a while, infused by the teas and the honey. Infused by plants for life.
Community Well-being and the future
Throughout the summer I paid a weekly visit to the library garden to hold a ‘plant medicine surgery’, where anyone could come and share any aspect of their plant knowledge or ask questions. We watched as the giant burdock (blood purifier and organ restorer) became more giant and the native vervain (restorative of the nervous system) put out its tiny star-like flowers like points of light. And a common theme or question emerged from these meetings: what does well-being entail, not just on the individual but also on the community and the planetary or ecological level? Can individual well-being really exist in isolation from the whole or on a too-stressed planet?
Next year Sustainable Bungay will form a new Arts, Culture and Well-being subgroup with these questions in mind. Anyone and everyone is welcome to join in and it will be the topic for the first Green Drinks of the year on 8th January at 7.30pm. The brief is open and there will be a monthly conversation, practical activity or workshop, exploring the different elements that constitute community well-being and culture: topics so far include growing food together, permaculture, meditation and creative non-fiction writing and journalism along with social and other media.
Meanwhile I would like to thank all the plant people who contributed so generously to the Plants for Life project this year, those who came to speak, to listen, to join in... and to those growing all around us. Mark Watson