I recently visited the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle in North Cornwall. It was a humbling experience and a mixture of information about old folklore practices, wise women and men and myths and images of the 'witch'. I left with the knowledge of how lucky I am to live now, rather than several hundred years ago. And, how sad it is that many of our talented predecessors who knew so much about plants and their uses, were ostracised or even killed for their knowledge and practices.
Having perused the jars of herbs presented as museum exhibits, I recognised many herbs that I use today as medicine, flavourings and ingredients. From top left to bottom right: Hawthorn leaves and flowers , gorse flowers (Ulex gallii and Ulex europaeus), elder flowers (Sambucus nigra), yarrow leaves and flowers, dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinalis) and bell heather flowers (Erica cinerea).
There were several accounts of Cornish witches making confessions of their practices, mostly in the 1600s, which really brought the situation home. So, back to the 21st Century, where foraging is currently 'cool' and in fashion. Where some of us, maybe many of us, wish to keep plant- knowledge alive.
The medicinal plant 'Ling'
I can't remember if the herb Ling, aka Heather, (Calluna vulgaris) was in the museum. Though it would have fitted in well. Calluna is derived from the Greek word kalluno, which means to sweep, as the twigs of heather were often used as brushes and brooms. The broom, of course, was one of the symbols associated with witches. In actual fact, it seems that this association was an easy way to degrade the practices of common, working people, who would be the very people who would sweep and clean.
Ling/Heather was also used as a medicinal herbal tea. Both the leaves and flowers can be seeped in freshly boiled water for 10 minutes and has been used in European folklore for hundreds of years. It's qualities as tea are also for cleansing, in particular the bladder and other gastrointestinal issues. The active ingredients of quercetin are excellent at treating urinary and kidney infections by flushing out toxins and infections from the system. Heather tea may also be beneficial for inflammatory diseases like arthritis, or muscular pains.
It is always advised to consult with a medical herbalist when treating a health condition, as heather tea should not be used for long-term use. However, occasional or short-term use as part of a body cleanse could be appropriate if supervised by such a professional.
What is Ling?
Ling is a moorland plant that flowers between July and September. It can be found across Europe and North America.
A cup of Ling tea
Use a tablespoon of ling leaves and flowers per cup and sip before bed when you need to sleep, or for health conditions (see notes above). It has a delicate flavour and can be used as a version of moorland tea.
Mug by Devon potter Mary Cutchee, references: Food for Free (Richard Mabey) and The Illustrated Book of Herbs their Medicinal and Culinary Uses (Jiri Stodola and Jan Volak).
As August has been unfolding I have been sneaking up to the moors and delighting in the tinges of purple, pinks and yellow as the heath-land takes on its late-summer coat. Bell heather (Erica cinerea) is the first to appear with her larger purple bell-shaped flowers. Followed by heather, also known as Ling (Calluna vulgaris) with its smaller, pinkish flowers. Bright yellow Gorse flowers (Ulex europaeus and Ulex gallii), one of my favourite moorland plants, are scattered throughout.
When the air is warm and the wind is blowing the right way, I love breathing in these subtle scents, of which heather also have a reputation for inducing sleep. Being softer than the prickly gorse bushes, I can say from experience that heather makes a great springy bed to take a nap on, and so hardy that it just bounces back afterwards. I wonder how many weary travellers have used heather in this way, as a single plant can be up to 50 years old.
I, almost, find it enough to gaze at this undulating landscape of colour, smell it and doze on it. However my foraging memories usually drive me to gather a few sprigs for my kitchen creations too. Previously I've worked with a cook at a National Trust property who made heather syrup to drizzle over mini steamed puddings - delicious. Though I also simply like tea.
Apparently 'moorland tea' was one of the poet Robert Burns' favoured tea. His version was heather tops (ling) combined with the dried leaves of bilberry, blackberry, thyme and wild strawberry. It sounds like a perfect heath-land combination and I'm sure Robert Burns knew a fair few things about tea. Yet, how one likes a brew is such a personal thing. For me, my go-to combination is bell heather and gorse. Perhaps because I know these two so well, or perhaps because I haven't tasted Robert's 5-herb cuppa. I've made a mental note to try and recreate his moorland tea blend, though meanwhile bell heather and gorse are so easy to spot that I find myself returning to my own mix.
When and where and how to pick
Heather and gorse can be found in heath-lands, moors, bogs and mountain slopes across Europe and North America. The presence of heather usually indicates poor soil, as it prefers mildly acidic soils and thrives best when it has good exposure to sunlight. Over the last 200 years the amount of moorland in the UK has reduced by over 80%, hence more recent efforts to preserve and protect these areas and the plants and wildlife that rely on it.
I love sitting by heather and watching the bees feed and taking my time to pick a few flower heads from each bush, ensuring my foraging efforts are practically invisible. Gorse is always in flower somewhere (as in the UK we have 2 varieties that also hybridise) and heather flowers from July through September.
My moorland tea mix and how to make it
A blend of fresh gorse flowers and bell heather flowers can be used to make a herbal tea, though I prefer to dry them. That way, I can make tea when I want it and use it through autumn and winter. Today's a perfect herbal tea day - rainy and cool outside and ideal for hot, soothing drinks.
I dry the flowers on tea towels in a warm place. It should take two days maximum. Then I place in clean, sterilised jars and use a teaspoon or two of each herb for a cup of tea. It is good with a spoon of honey in too. As I sip my homemade moorland tea, I'm temporarily transported to the moors where I see, smell and nap on these late summer bushes and am flooded with good memories again.