The secret valley close to where I live is encircled by hills. The steeper slopes as well as the valley floor, which is subject to regular flooding, have not been ploughed in living memory and, quite probably, not at all. As a consequence, providing the sheep or cattle haven’t grazed them too heavily, the grass sward is peppered with wild flowers. In the spring there are cowslips and, as the year advances, orchids and the delicate, nodding flower heads of Quaking Grass can be found.
Although the orchids are a joy, the plants that excite me most are the wild, culinary herbs, the scarcest of which is wild thyme, for it grows only on the driest and steepest of the banks. Thyme can, of course, be readily bought in supermarkets all year round, either dried or fresh, and it is easily grown at home in a pot or window box. All it requires is sunny spot and a free-draining and not over-rich potting compost to thrive.
Whenever, I see the wild thyme I always think of Shakespeare’s immortal line, I know a bank where the wild thyme grows. The secret valley is only about twenty-five miles as the crow flies from Stratford-upon-Avon and so there is a rather satisfying sense of connection across the centuries, as well as the miles, whenever the tiny flowerheads peep out from amongst the grass. In fact, Shakespeare’s words and the secret valley’s meadows were inspiration for an early blog post of mine on creating wild flower meadows way back in 2009! You’ll find that one by clicking on this link.
Thyme’s cousin, marjoram is nowhere near as diminutive in both its scent or its flowering. Standing tall on wiry, strong stems it is a magnet for bees and butterflies. Once again, it is a useful garden plant not just for kitchen use but also good as a front of border edging. It spreads steadily but is never a nuisance. In the wild, grasses and other plants prevent it from becoming too dominant but when you discover a good stand of it swaying in a warm, summer breeze the perfume is unforgettable.
One plant that is often overlooked although it is quite tall is Salad Burnet. Its dark red, tightly buttoned flowers can be used in floral arrangements but it is only the young leaves that are edible. Used in salads and also added to sauces, they have a mild and slightly bitter cucumber flavour. Sharp eyes are needed to find it growing amongst tall grasses for its rosette of pinnate leaves hug the ground. Fortunately, once again, there is no need to forage from the wild for they grow happily in the garden.
Along the lane that leads out of the valley, and also somewhat surprisingly, growing amongst trees close to our house, chives can be found. A common kitchen ingredient and native to Britain they have a remarkably widespread range over much of the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America. Although they are plentiful, how much easier it is to pick them from a pot close to the kitchen door!
It is one of the pleasures of summer to seek out these wild food plants for it is reassuring to know that, if ever the need arose, they are there to flavour my meals. However, even under lockdown, there is never a real need to harvest a wild plant; how much better to leave it for the bees and butterflies?