A herb a day in December (Part 2) 24 December 2017 Concluding my tour of herbs in December… Birch in autumn Birch in winter Herb 18 is another tree, the birch. My neighbour’s birch tree gives me huge pleasure in every season. In spring as it leafs up, in autumn when it is golden against the sky and now when it is a silhouette against the morning sky and sunsets in winter. Birch bark has medicinal uses and birch sap also has benefits. For me though it is the visual aspect that is so pleasing. Drawback is the leaf fall in late autumn… but a minor problem as the tree is not in my garden, but in my borrowed landscape. Sage Herb 19 is sage (Salvia officinalis), essential for making the stuffing for any festive meal, all through the year. The golden variegated form, S. officinalis ‘Icterina’, is still glowing in the raised herb bed. It makes a large spreading mound of colour and I do cut it back from time to time. I use sage in stuffings and to flavour cooked meat dishes, in particular pork. I also make a sage and apple sauce for serving with sausages in autumn. The blue and white flowers of ordinary grey-leafed sage are arranged in short spires and are magnets for bees. A bonus! I also use its leaves fresh or dried in teas, and, although it is growing well in the garden, I do freeze or dry them for later use. Lemon eucalyptus Herb 20 is eucalyptus, another of the trees that has herbal/medicinal uses. At this time of the year its foliage is often included in festive door wreaths. Originally from Australia it has a mixed reception in countries where it has been imported. In some places it has become a positive menace as it outcompetes indigenous plants and finds itself on a list of prohibited species. Its festive appearance apart it has many medicinal uses. I particularly remember in my childhood being offered inhalations of eucalyptus oil to relieve colds and flu. For me the best of the eucalypts is one that I have grown from time to time, from seed – lemon eucalyptus (E. citriodora): its high-octane lemon aroma sends me off to lemon groves in my mind every time I crush its leaves. Worth going out to the greenhouse for on a winter’s day! This tender evergreen tree in its native habitat can grow more than 30m (100ft) in height. I grow the lemon eucalyptus in a container, so it will never make that height. Thyme Herb 21: Sorry for the pun but it is time to think about thyme: what could be more in tune with the festive season than this aromatic herb for use in stuffings for vegetarian dishes as well as for meat and poultry dishes? There are so many different thymes to grow with varying scents, as well as growth habits. Lemon thyme, variegated lemon thyme, caraway thyme, orange-scented thyme and the basic upright thyme that is the first choice for use in the kitchen. For ringing the changes in the garden there is woolly thyme, creeping thyme and the bushy camphor thyme. Thyme has strong antiseptic qualities. In the kitchen apart from its savoury uses I like to use lemon-flavoured thyme to cut through the sweetness of some dessert syrups. And in summer small but abundant flowers are a-buzz with bees and provide the garden with a mass of white, pink or mauve colour. Winter savory Herb 22 is a double offering – two winter savories, Satureja montana, a perennial, semi-evergreen and creeping savory (S. spicigera). They both have pungent spicy flavour so I combine with other herbs, including bay, to make a bouquet garni or herb bundle for winter casseroles. In summer the plants are covered by a mass of small white flowers that attract bees. Creeping savory makes good ground cover and is evergreen. Summer savory (S. hortenis) or the bean herb is invaluable cooked with freshly picked broad beans. Pine and fir Herb 23 Pines, spruce & other conifers: you knew that with my interest in Christmas trees (The Christmas Tree Book is still available from me) festive trees would get in here somewhere and here they are! Conifers including firs, spruce, larch and pines, in particular, have medicinal and commercial uses. Think of those wonderful nostril-clearing aromas that bring everything you remember about the festive season to mind and that is the scent of conifers. Pine needles can be used in festive cocktails, in teas and pine nuts feature in many recipes. Most of all, branches and cones from a range of conifers, as well as the festive tree itself, are among the plants that deck the halls and front door wreaths at this time of year. Holly Herb 24 is holly, which gets itself indoors and onto door wreaths to brighten our winter days at the festive season. The first book I wrote was The Holly and the Ivy (now out of print). I learned that beyond our common holly, Ilex aquifolium, there were over 400 species of evergreen and deciduous hollies (and a similar number of ivy species). Such wonderful variations in habit, leaf colour and shape, as well as, in the case of holly, berry colour. And some hollies have medicinal uses. Many are used for their foliage to make tea, especially in South America, where I. paraguariensis foliage is used to make yerba mate. Hot or cold, yerba mate is mostly drunk through a metal ‘straw’ from a highly decorated dried gourd. Mistletoe Herb 25 Mistletoe and my Christmas wishes to you! Mistletoe is a parasitic species that is often found on oak trees, avenues of lime trees or in apple orchards. It has so many associations with love, so kissing under the mistletoe is part of the festive scene. All parts are toxic if consumed, but there are many traditional medicinal uses associated with different species of mistletoe. This particular bunch comes from an apple tree in a dear friend’s garden. Many, many years ago she and I inserted squished mistletoe berries into small cuts in the tree’s bark. The intervention was successful and I have been the recipient of a similar bundle annually ever since. I hope you have enjoyed my herb advent notes. Writing them has lifted my spirits and brought me once more to Christmas Day. I hope you have a very happy and peaceful time with family and friends. Thank you for your blog friendship over this year. I hope that we will all be happy and well in 2018 and that our gardens thrive.