Wildcrafting the Shrub: Osoberry Delight

Ripening now in the Pacific Northwest – the Osoberry. Like a cross between cherry, cantaloupe and cucumber, its flavour is unique. Here is a recipe for Osoberry” shrub,” a kind of vinegary cordial popular with the cocktail set. I ended up using it more like a syrupy balsamic vinegar in salads, marinades and glazes. Not to be missed!

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This year our warm and early summer not only brought us an abundance of Osoberry but unusually luscious ones. Trailing branches over every roadside, every forest path, and every park trail, were hung so fat with plump blue-black clusters that they practically begged to be picked. But the big question – how to preserve the bounty?

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I had sampled but never harvested the “Oso” before. I knew there wasn’t a lot of meat on the pit, but I also knew that at the height of ripeness popping one into your mouth, still warm from the sun, well it’s a little piece of heaven. Living up to its species name (meaning “cherry like”) it fills the mouth with dark cerise intensity before settling at the back of the tongue with the sultry velvet of melon. And it’s all permeated by a fresh crisp cucumber flavour. So how could I best highlight…

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Springtime in a Bottle: Plum Blossom Cordial

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Sweet and fair, she craves not Spring for herself alone,
To be the harbinger of Spring she is content.
When the mountain flowers are in full bloom
She will smile mingling in their midst.

Mao Zedong

As a prairie ex-pat, the early spring blossoms of the Pacific Northwest never fail to amaze me. Flowers in February? Madness! The first trees to burst into blossom are the plum trees—wild, cultivated and ornamental alike. The plum blossom is one of the most important emblems of the Chinese New Year. Because it blooms at winter’s end, often among frost and snow, it symbolizes perseverance, endurance and rebirth. Plum Blossom is the only flower in the “Three Friends in the Cold”(岁寒三友:Sui Han San You) along with Bamboo and Pine Tree. These three plants are highly praised in Chinese literature and arts as three friends who gracefully survive and thrive in the winter.(source)

More delicate than the showy pink puffs of the soon-to-burst cherry trees, the flowering plum is almost ethereal with her pale, fragrant finery. And how about that fragrance? If you haven’t stood under blooming plum tree at dusk…well, you should make it a point to do so! Of course, any time of day will do. Plum blossoms warmed by the midday sun are a sensory sensation. But for me, the plum tree reigns over the in between time—between night and day, between winter and spring. That’s when you’ll find me under her boughs, inhaling greedily, dreaming of ways to preserve her springtime magic.

And I’m happy to report that not only can you capture that heady scent in a bottle—you can drink it, too! Yup. A plum blossom cordial is simple to make and can be used in all kinds of recipes to impart that gossamery flavour of spring. And yes, you can taste gossamer. You’ll see.

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pink ornamental plum blossoms | ornamental plum tree | white wild plum blossoms

First, collect your plum blossoms. They’re fairly easy to identify. The shape/profile of the tree is roundish and the bark is dark. Plum blossoms can be pink (with purple leaves) or white (with green leaves) and have smooth oval petals. The buds are round with only one blossom coming out of each bud sticking straight out from the branches on a short thin stem. The blossoms are plentiful, but take only what you need. Bees rely on the gorgeous nectar as one of the first foods of the season.

Snip the blossoms into a measuring cup, taking care to avoid adding leaves which contain trace amounts of the toxin which produces cyanide. A nibble won’t kill you, but excess consumption could be harmful. Two cups of loosely packed blossoms will get you about a cup of syrup.

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Here, I used white wild plum blossoms

 

Plum Blossom Cordial

2 cups of plum blossoms loosely packed (ornamental, wild or cultivated)

1 cup organic cane sugar

1 cup water

In a small heavy saucepan, combine sugar and water. Stir sugar and water over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 3 minutes.

Remove the syrup from the stovetop and allow it to cool a bit. I let it cool to hot but not boiling. Say, cuppa tea hot.

Pour the cuppa-tea-hot syrup over the blossoms and cover with a cloth. Now, if you’re using the pink blossoms wit purple leaves you can let the blossom steep for an hour and taste. I find that the pink blossoms get a little bitter if they infuse for too long. While the last batch I made with wild plum blossoms (white with green leaves) I left overnight with no bitterness. Play with it a bit. When you like the flavour, it’s ready to strain.

Pour the blossoms and syrup through a cheesecloth lined colander into a measuring cup. Now, if you don’t care about clarity, you’re good to go. I like to add vodka to my cordial and like it to be as clear as possible. So, I heat my plum blossom syrup gently until warm and then strain through a coffee filter-lined funnel into the bottle I plan to store it in.

The syrup will keep in the fridge for at least 2 weeks. Add it to sparkling water or vodka for a positively ethereal beverage or use the syrup to flavour everything from marshmallows to meringues. Oh, the gossamery goodness of it all!

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*To make a plum blossom liqueur, stuff blossoms into a mason jar and fill with vodka to cover. Seal and store in a dark place for a couple of days. Strain and combine equal amounts plain (or even plum blossom) sugar syrup and infused vodka. Pour into a bottle and share it with your very favourite visitors.

The Perfect Yuletide Tipple: Emily Han’s Douglas-fir Liqueur

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photo credits: Laure Joliet (left) | Oriana Koren (right)

Here at Gather we adore Emily Han! Equally at home in hiking boots as she is in the kitchen, her work has inspired us for years. One of the first to transform wild edibles from survival food into good cuisine, her recipes make wild foods accessible, simple to prepare—and most of all, delicious.

You can imagine how thrilled we were to be invited to feature one of the recipes from Emily’s truly stunning new book, Wild Drinks and Cocktails. From traditional pioneer cordials, to cocktails and fizzy drinks and medicinal tonics—everything is amazing and best of all, easy to make! What was difficult was choosing only one…

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After much humming and hawing and oohing and ahhing, we settled on Douglas Fir Liqueur and for some very good reasons.  First, Douglas-fir tastes amazing—intensely green, woodsy and resinous with candied orange peel top notes. We knew we definitely wanted to make our own supply for the holiday season. And because no other tree is more iconic to the Pacific Northwest (our home) than the Douglas-fir.

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Among the world’s tallest trees, these stately conifers once blanketed all of Vancouver Island. Often called the skyscrapers of the forest, Douglas-firs are a straight-trunked tree with a spire-like crown, and can grow up to 30 stories high. Their upper branches point up while the lower branches droop down, and it’s dark brown, greyish bark is considered the most gnarly of all the conifers—deeply ridged and grooved.

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The Scottish botanist David Douglas, sent by the Royal Horticultural Society to study the tree in the late 1700’s, is responsible for its name even though it isn’t actually a fir tree at all. Here on Vancouver Island we have mostly the P. menziesii var. menziesii, called the Coastal Douglas-fir, which thrives during our dry summers and wet, mild winters.

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The indigenous peoples of Vancouver Island have many stories about the Douglas-fir. One legend tells of animals fleeing before the flames of a big fire. The mice, with their short little legs, were not quick enough to outrun the fire so they asked Douglas-fir for help. The mice took shelter inside their cones and survived the terrible fire. To this day, if you examine the cones of a Douglas-fir closely, you can see the little hind feet and tails of the mice sticking out from beneath the scales of the fir cones.

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Douglas-fir cones are easy to identify with their mice like hind-legs and tails!

Today, aggressive logging practices have decimated Coastal Douglas-fir populations and only a fragment of these green giants with their unique old-growth forest systems remain. In 2006, the BC government designated it an ‘at risk species’ and many local activists are fighting to save the old-growth stands that still survive.

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Ancient Douglas-fir logged near Port Alberni, BC. Photo by TJ Watt

And so, with no small amount of reverence, we set out for the woods to harvest needles for our liqueur. Snipping small amounts of newer growth from several trees and (as Emily cautions in her book) taking care to not cut the tops of any trees (leaving them vulnerable to disease & decay), we left with gratitude, lifted spirits thanks to the aromatherapeutic qualities of the Douglas-fir and a keen desire to make some coniferous cocktail magic!

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Douglas-fir, fresh hawthorn berries & a wee bit of usnea

A couple of kitchen notes: This recipe is simple to follow. We used fresh hawthorn berries and left out the allspice berries because we really wanted the evergreen flavour to stand alone. That, and we were out of allspice. No matter, we think it turned out brilliantly. Aromatic and warming, we enjoy it chilled, neat and served in a Grand-fir sugar-rimmed glass. Yes, we mixed our firs-that-are-not-actually-firs. We’re unorthodox that way. We’ve tucked a bottle away for a solstice toast and have promised each other we won’t tipple behind the other’s back. We’ll just see how that goes…

Without further ado, here are Emily’s (blessedly) straightforward instructions—verbatim!

Douglas Fir Liqueur

Recipe  reprinted  from  Wild  Drinks  &  Cocktails by  Emily  Han,  with  permission  from  Fair  Winds  Press,  copyright  2015

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In Spring, Douglas Fir tips are bright green with a crisp lemony flavour, and as the year progresses, the needles become more and more aromatic. You can make this liqueur with Douglas fir needles at any time of year, but I usually reserve the young tips for teas and syrups, such as the Pine Syrup on page 62 [Wild Drinks & Cocktails], and use the more resinous autumn needles for an infusion that combines sweet hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, C. laevigata) berries and warm allspice, like this one.

Pine (Pinus spp.), spruce (Picea spp.), or white fir (Abies concolor) will all work well in place of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), too. Try it with gin cocktails, such as a gimlet, to amp up the foresty feel, or pair it with whiskey or bourbon-based cocktails, like a Manhattan, to enhance its warmth.

2 large handfuls conifer tips or needles, roughly chopped
1⁄2 cup (60 g) dried hawthorn berries or 1 cup (100 g) fresh
2 whole allspice berries
1 bottle (750 ml, or 31⁄4 cups) vodka
1 cup (235 ml) Simple Syrup (recipe below)

 

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Combine the chopped conifer, hawthorn berries, and allspice in a quart (1 L) jar. Pour the vodka into the jar, making sure the ingredients are completely submerged. Cap the jar tightly. Store it in a cool, dark place for 1 to 2 weeks, shaking daily.  Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer lined with a coffee filter or flour sack cloth. Stir in the Simple Syrup. Age for at least 1 week, then bottle and store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

YIELD: ABOUT 1 QUART (940 ML)

SIMPLE SYRUP

Made from equal parts sugar and water, this indispensable syrup may be used to
sweeten alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks including cocktails, liqueurs, teas, and
lemonades.

1 cup (235 ml) water
1 cup (100 g) sugar

Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for another minute. Remove from the heat and let cool. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month, or up to 3 months with added vodka.

YIELD: ABOUT 1 CUP (235 ML)

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Cheers! (We used our Grand Fir infused sugar to rim the glass – yum!)

And if you want to learn more about the culinary and medicinal uses of Grand Fir and other evergreens click here.  Recipes for Comfort & Joy: The Healing Magic of Conifers.

 

Yoga Apothecary: Nourish Your Third Chakra With This Autumn Tea for Digestive Health

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” Herbs are powerful aids in the practice of yoga…They are useful not only for treating diseases and for rejuvenation but for awakening all our higher faculties.” Dr. David Frawley, The Yoga of Herbs.

I want to share a little background of how this warming, healing tea came to be – and how in conjunction with yoga practice (and even without!) it can be used to soothe even the most disgruntled tummy.

While most of you know me as a wild food enthusiast, I’m also a yoga teacher. And for the past three years I’ve been completing my yoga therapy certification – meaning I’ve been exploring the many ways yoga can be used to support health, recover from illness and manage chronic disease. And through my recent herbalism studies and apprenticeship with herbalist Betty Norton, I’ve been discovering the many ways plants can do the same. So its become obvious through both fields of study, that fusing the therapeutic benefits of herbs with the therapeutic benefits of yoga – just makes good sense.

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After all, both have been demonstrated to offer profound benefits for physical and emotional health, from supporting digestion and detoxification, balancing hormones, reducing inflammation and boosting our immune system to soothing anxiety and creating feelings of well-being!

And besides, it isn’t anything new.  Herbs and herbal medicines have been used in yoga for thousands of years. References in ancient Tantric and Vedic texts to the use of herbs and sacred plants abound.

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In yogic tradition the physical and subtle body is likened to a tree with different branches and different herbs were believed to interact with these branches in specific ways. Some cleansed and vitalized, others nourished and balanced the chakras and others facilitated the flow of prana through the bodies energy channels (or nadi’s).

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And according to Dr. David Frawley, some plants (especially wild ones) were believed to be particularly high in prana or life-giving essence (often called soma) which extended longevity and created “an exhilarating effect that promotes healing and transformative processes on all levels”.

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I find this especially intriguing because many plants with similar medicinal qualities to those used by yogis (and even direct relatives) grow all around us today. And because our bodies, like trees, are subject to the same energetic forces and seasonal cycles that flow through the landscape we live in, I personally believe that consuming locally growing plants can bring us into “healing harmony” with our direct environment.

So from wild botanicals to backyard weeds to garden herbs, I’ve been exploring the many ways common seasonal plants can be used in simple teas, infusions, tinctures, salves and essential oils to support therapeutic yoga practice.

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For example, digestive aliments are epidemic today. This is pretty bad news considering that over 80% of our immune system is housed in our gut, and that digestive health shapes every aspect of our emotional and physical well-being. But the good news is that both yoga and herbs have been shown to be effective in helping manage everything from irritable bowel syndrome to heartburn, to our ability to digest and detoxify.

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In yoga, certain postures and breathing techniques work to stimulate the fiery metabolic energy of digestion (agni). This assists the body to assimilate food while eliminating wastes and toxins (ama). So before a digestive enhancing practice that massages, compresses and opens the abdominal area (more on this later) I’ll use wild local plants and herbs like Wild Fennel, Chamomile and Dandelion which are renowned for their digestive supporting abilities.

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(left to right) Lemon Balm,  Chamomile, Wild Fennel, Dandelion

I might take a few drops of Dandelion root tincture or drink Fennel, Chamomile, Lemon Balm and Wild Violets in a tea – all of which are known to support the digestive organs, aid metabolic processes and the elimination of waste products.

Chamomile and Lemon Balm are also known to calm the nervous system, which helps when digestion is adversely affected by stress. Restorative yoga and meditative practices help calm nervous agitation and an overactive parasympathetic nervous system. So whenever I (and my belly) get particularly stressed out I use a combination of gentle relaxing postures in conjunction with mild sophoric plant tinctures (like California Poppy and Wild Lettuce) to help me chill – and get some sleep.

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California Poppy, Wild Lettuce

Another fascinating way to utilize yoga and herbs is in harmony with seasonal and astrological cycles. Early herbalists observed the connection between time of year, celestial cycles and cycles of plant growth. They believed that the same cycles that affect plant growth affect our bodies as well, so they correlated systems of the body with certain planets, which governed specific medicinal herbs.

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For example, last month was governed by Leo (July 23rd August 22nd) which oversees the cardiac system and upper back – so I practiced heart openers and backbends (Cobra and Bridge) in conjunction with heart supporting herbs like Calendula and Hawthorn.

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This month is Virgo (August 23rd to Sept 22nd) which governs our abdomen, intestinal track and digestive organs, so using Fennel ( A Virgo ruled herb) long renowned for it’s tummy soothing abilities is one obvious choice.  (For more info on Fennel click here). I’ll also be consuming Dandelions, Plantain and Yellow Dock in salads and pestos, all of which help cleanse the body and remove toxins from the internal organs.

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Wild Fennel

And while it all sounds a bit woo, I’m excited by the possibility that we can integrate ancient astrological knowledge with herbal and yogic traditions to achieve optimum levels of health, vitality and well-being.

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So in tandem with the celestial and seasonal cycles of the natural world – I offer you an autumnal recipe for a digestion enhancing wildcrafted tea. It utilizes the plants growing around you right now under the auspices of Virgo – which of course governs the entire digestive process.

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In yoga, the digestive system is under the dominion of the third chakra, the centre of command and control. This is the home of our gut feelings, and it not only gives us the will power and strength to carry out our intentions – it helps us fully digest the physical and emotional experiences of life.

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(left to right) Supine Twist, Knee to Belly, Boat, Bridge

So get in touch with power of your third chakra – and the energy of the season. This month, drink this tea before a practice of digestion enhancing postures like Pawanmuktasana (knees to belly) and gentle twists (like Bharadvaja) which compress and massage the abdominal area. Belly opening postures like Bridge and Bow pose can be used to help bring blood flow to the internal organs. And if your’e looking to fire up the empowering energy of the solar chakra, try Boat or Breath of Fire.

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 Autumn Herbal Tea For Digestion

Note: This is a list of local herbs and wild plants that promote good digestion (besides many other good things). Since this tea or infusion is meant to be “wildcrafted” you may not find all of the ingredients nearby, so just use the plants from the list that are growing near you. This will help bring you into harmony with the seasonal and energetic forces of your local landscape.

Ingredients (To make a one pot or about 16 ounces of tea)

About a tablespoon of:

-Fennel fronds, blossoms and seeds
Yarrow leaves
Skullcap leaves
Linden leaves
Mint (Wild if you can find it)
Lemon Balm leaves
Chamomile blossoms
Queen Anne Lace blossoms
Chrysanthemum and/or Sea Aster blossoms
-2 cups of hot water

Directions

-Muddle your plants (meaning gently crush them with a mortal and pestle or the back of a wooden spoon)
-Boil water
-Remove water from heat then place your herbs in the hot water
-Let infuse for 10 -15 minutes
-Strain and drink

Note: Starting this October I’ll be offering a series of yoga classes that will utilize locally growing common plants and herbs. If you live in Victoria and are interested in participating or learning more – send me an email here.

Nature Spirits: How to Wildcraft Vermouth In Three Easy Steps

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Photo by Kelly Brown.

Recently Gather had the great pleasure of presenting a wildcrafted aperitif for Moonrise Creative’s first Eat Together Dinner. And it was such a magical occasion! Seeing the guests laughing and chatting together in the beautiful setting of field and forest—while sipping our sparkling summer elixir—nearly brought a tear to my eye. Really.

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Before Dinner. Photo by Kelly Brown.

After all, this bittersweet, herbaceous and slightly floral herbal libation was the gratifying culmination of weeks spent infusing various Vancouver Island wild botanicals and aromatic herbs in Vancouver Island spirits.

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The goal was to craft an entirely regional pre-dinner drink that would stimulate the taste buds and support digestion – while capturing the flavours and fragrances of our local ‘terroir’.

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My plan was to begin with a herbal liqueur created in the great culinary and medicinal traditions of Chartreuse, Strega and Jagermeister – each a unique blend of plants, herbs, fruits, seeds, roots and even barks, growing in their regional landscapes. This was to be sweetened with Vancouver Island honey and blended with white wine (further infused with herbs) to become a Vermouth, Gather-style.

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But there was one little problem—finding recipes to work from. The exact ingredients of many famous herbal liqueurs are shrouded in secrecy! Only one thing is certain, all are rooted in a long history of magic, alchemy and life-giving elixirs.

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In France, Chartreuse, “the liqueur of health” is a blend of over 130 medicinal plants originating in the secret recipe of a medieval alchemist “with a great knowledge of herbs”. Strega is made from a secret blend of 70 herbs and plants in Italy by the Alberti family, but legend tells the witches in the nearby woods gifted them the recipe – hence it’s name Strega, Italian for witch.

Jagermeister, from Germany, yet another secret recipe, is made of 56 herbs, flowers roots and fruits. Its logo of a reindeer framed in the rays of the sun is a sacred pagan symbol often used to represent non-ordinary awareness – which a shot or two of this potent herbal liquor is sure to bring on!

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Monks making Bénédictine. A secret blend of Angelica, Hyssop, Lemon Balm and 27 spices and herbs.

But turns out, despite all the mysterious secrecy, creating herbal liqueurs and fortified wines is really simple. In fact our ancestors have been doing it since the beginning of time. From the ancient Egyptians to medieval monks, it all boils down to three basic steps:  1) harvest the seasonal bitter, aromatic and medicinal plants growing in your region  2) infuse them in hard alcohol and/or wine (to extract their flavours and medicinal components)  3) sweeten the final brew with syrup or honey.

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So where to begin? Well, with the season of course. And for our Eat Together Aperitif that meant the glorious profusion of high summer. From fields to sea shores, I harvested the aromatic plants that grew in abundance in the August sun: frothy anise scented wild fennel, carroty Queen Anne’s Lace, resinous bitter Yarrow, savory woodsy Coastal Mugwort and magical wild Blue Vervain.

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Sun loving Wild Fennel and Queen Anne’s Lace

From the garden I picked Calendula, Lovage, Rose, Lemonbalm, Mint and a generous sprig of Wormwood (the signature bitter of Vermouth).

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These herbs and plants are renowned for their digestive system enhancing, inflammation soothing, and immunity boosting powers. Aromatics like Fennel and bitters like Wormwood support the liver and digestive organs, while others like Rose, Mint, Lemonbalm, cool and revitalize our nervous systems.  And plunged in their vodka bath, they were all, oh so beautiful to behold. 

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After tasting my results (which still needed a little work) Jennifer and I got to work on perfecting the drink that would be served on the “big night”.  The first challenge was the ‘bittersweet’ – finding just the right balance of sweet top notes (Wild Fennel, Queen Anne Lace and Spearmint) and deep bitters (Yarrow and Wormwood). 

Next came the delicate matter of layering in the supportive flavours, i.e. the herbaceous Coastal Mugwort, savoury Lovage and Lomatium seeds, the floral scents of Rose and Lavender. Too much of one could overpower the others, so we went carefully, adding and tasting, throughout the whole process.

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After two days we took the vodka blend,  strained it and swirled it all into big pot containing a bottle of warmed white wine. This we sweetened with honey (further infused in Lavender, Rose and Yarrow) and a dash of Elderberry syrup. This we dubbed “Wild Vermouth” and we served it straight up, chilled over ice, garnished with petals of Calendula, Fennel and Queen Anne’s Lace.

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And it went down pretty good judging by the reception. So busy were we kept pouring refills, that we began to worry that our supply would run out! 

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So here is the recipe for our Wild Vermouth – but as we enter autumn remember to adapt the recipe to suit the season. Flavours and medicinal properties will change as the energy and vitality of summer blossoms and leaves moves into fall berries, seeds and roots.

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Hawthorn & Rowan Berries, Licorice Fern Root

Soon the Hawthorn and Rowan berries will ripen and the Wild Fennel will be bursting with intensely aromatic seeds. Roots like Licorice Fern, Oregon Grape and Dandelion will sweeten and surge with medicinal power. Edible blossoms like Chrysanthemums (known for their digestive properties) and Sea Asters will make their appearance.  And all will offer a new panorama of seasonal flavours and healing magic to work with!

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Gather’s Wild Vermouth

Ingredients (approximate! Use your own discretion)

  • Two large sprigs each of Wormwood, Coastal Mugwort, Wild Blue Vervain
  • 1/4 cup Yarrow Blossoms and leaves
  • 1/4 cup Wild Fennel blossoms and fronds
  • 1/4 cup Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms
  • 1/3 cup Rose petals
  • 1/3 cup of Calendula flowers
  • Handful of Lavender buds
  • 2 large sprigs of Wild Mint or Spearmint
  • 1/4 cup of Elderberries or Elderberry Syrup (optional)
  • A few pinches of macerated seeds (Lovage, Lomantium and Cardamom)
  • A few rinds of Lemon peel
  • One cup of honey (infused in your choice of herbs – or not)
  • One 750 ml. bottle of vodka 
  • Two 750 ml. bottles of dry white wine

Directions

1) First “muddle” your plant material (crush and chop) and place in a large jar. Pour a bottle of hard alcohol over it all and submerge the contents. Tuck away in a cool dark place for a day. Taste. Add a little more of this or that if you wish to steep it for another day to further deepen the flavours. Or move on to step two.

2) Open the bottle of white wine and pour in a saucepan or pot. Gently warm, then add the infused booze to the wine mixture.  Slowly mix in honey and taste as you go. This is your final chance to decide if you want to add more of a certain plant(s) as the wine sits on low heat for an hour so. (Don’t boil the alcohol away!) We added a tiny sprig more of wormwood and lavender and kept tasting until we liked the final result.

3) Cool the mixture and strain with a fine muslin bag or coffee filter (cheesecloth is too loose a weave to catch all of the particulate.) The result should be clear – and absolutely delicious! Pour into pretty clean bottles, chill and serve straight up over ice.  Salut!

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Note: Herbal liqueurs can contain medicinal ingredients best avoided by pregnant or nursing mothers and those with food sensitivities. Also make sure to check for contraindications if you are taking pharmaceutical medications.

Wildcrafted Summer Libations: Herb and Blossom Infused Sake

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What can be more delicious, cool and reviving on a warm sultry evening than Herb & Blossom Infused Sake served chilled over ice? Who knew that Sake, a dry Japanese rice wine, made such a gracious host for herbal and floral infusions? Well, the Japanese of course – but more on that later.

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Wood Sorrel & Black Hawthorn Berry Infused Sake

Infused Sake is so easy and simple to make, it’s just a matter of stepping out into your landscape and harvesting a couple of handfuls of whatever aromatic plant is at hand. Then place your leaves and/or blossoms in a large jar, pour sake over it, let it sit in the sun for 5-6 hours. Strain. Chill. Serve. That’s it.

Right top to left: Yarrow and Lavender, Fennel,  Blue Vervain, Queen Anne Lace.

Right top to left: Yarrow and Lavender, Fennel, Blue Vervain, Queen Anne Lace.

The hardest part is choosing your flavour infusions. Right now our fields are awash with the sweet vanilla carroty top notes of Queen’s Anne’s Lace, the heady anise fragrance of Fennel, the bitter resins of Yarrow, and the honeyed Chamomile gentleness of Pineapple Weed.

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In the forests, the needles of Grand Fir and Spruce offer woodsy and citrusy zest, and wild berries like Salal, Oregon Grape and Black Hawthorn Berry bring dark fruity depth.

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Spicy, tangy, woodsy or flowery – however you choose to make it – the wonderful thing about Sake is that it holds its own with stronger flavours while enhancing more subtle or delicate ones.  So far I’ve infused Lavender & Oregon Grape, Rose & Raspberry & Lemon Balm, Blackberry & Fennel,  Queen’s Anne’s Lace & Salal Berry with good success.

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From pale green and yellow to bright pink, these jewel-coloured liquids are not only a joy to behold, they are a veritable health enhancing elixir. As every herbalist knows, infusing plants and herbs in wine is a well-known way to extract their medicinal properties – and these plants are bursting with nutritive antioxidants, phytochemicals, bioflavonoids, not to mention anti-inflammatory, hormone balancing, and immune system boosting agents.

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The final thing to keep in mind when creating your Sake is its tradition. Long associated with Shinto, the ancient indigenous religion of Japan, Sake was considered the sacred drink of the Kami, the gods or natural divinity that manifests in earth, water, mountains, rocks, trees, plants and animals. In Shinto ceremonial rituals Sake is shared with worshippers at shrine festivals and important agricultural celebrations in order to bring “people and the gods closer together”.

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Sake Party

Infusing Sake with herbs and flowers was part of these seasonal traditions. Each New Year a special Sake is brewed with a blend of herbs called O-tosa, this ensures family harmony and prosperity in the coming year. Peach and Cherry blossoms were infused into Sake for spring agricultural festivals called Momo no Sekku (Peach Seasonal Festival) and Hanamizake (Flower Viewing Sake). There is even a Moon Viewing Sake Tsukimizake, to be enjoyed by the full moon of fall harvest festivals.

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Cherry Blossom Sake

So in closing, I encourage you to “wildcraft” your Sake keeping these traditions in mind.  Choose your plants to reflect the vitality, beauty and meaning of the season. Be respectful and honour their Kami.

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Shinto Sake Ceremony

And when it comes to drinking Sake remember that in Japan it is traditionally shared by family members and friends and raised to toast the most important bonds in life. Thus one should never pour your own cup of sake, it must be poured by a friend and likewise. So gather those who are near and dear, Sake is meant to be shared with the people you love. Salut! 

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Wildcrafting the Shrub: Osoberry Delight

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This year our warm and early summer not only brought us an abundance of Osoberry but unusually luscious ones. Trailing branches over every roadside, every forest path, and every park trail, were hung so fat with plump blue-black clusters that they practically begged to be picked. But the big question – how to preserve the bounty?

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I had sampled but never harvested the “Oso” before. I knew there wasn’t a lot of meat on the pit, but I also knew that at the height of ripeness popping one into your mouth, still warm from the sun, well it’s a little piece of heaven. Living up to its species name (meaning “cherry like”) it fills the mouth with dark cerise intensity before settling at the back of the tongue with the sultry velvet of melon. And it’s all permeated by a fresh crisp cucumber flavour. So how could I best highlight the Osoberry’s amazing taste?

Osoberries were beloved by the Salish and other coastal First Nations. Eaten fresh and dried for winter use they were also preserved by sealing in tall cedar boxes, covered with hot oil (usually fish). These were consumed at an annual feast held in the Osoberry’s honour during winter dance season.

Cedar Bentwood Box Coast Salish: Quwutsun'

Cedar Bentwood Box
Coast Salish: Quwutsun’

Osoberries are the fruit of the Oemleria cerasiformis, which is an extremely prolific native shrub on Vancouver Island. Common in Gary Oak groves it can grow to 20 feet high and it comes in female and male varieties, although the female is reputed to smell the best and look prettier. Birds and bears relish its sweetness (as well as a few other wild creatures) so if you want to harvest please keep this mind and take only a little from each tree.

Spring Blossoms

Spring Blossoms

My heart is particularly fond of the Oemleria because its bright green leaves and white flower pendants are the first harbinger of spring. But sadly because of its early arrival its leaves are also the first to yellow, the first bittersweet reminders of the coming fall. In the spring it’s tiny fruits ripening from salmon to crimson to blue-black, presage the first berries of early summer.

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So, I wondered, how to best pay homage to this summer’s bounteous offering of Osoberry? A quick internet search revealed some recipes for Osoberry Jelly but all the de-pitting, cooking and canning required in a hot kitchen was off-putting. I decided this was my chance to try my hand at the latest handcrafted cocktail sensation – the Shrub.

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Said to be derived from the word sharbat, from which we get sherbet, the shrub is currently making a comeback (along with homemade cordials, tonics, aperitifs and bitters). This fruity heady syrup – with just a little sparkly bite – was originally created as a way to preserve summer’s over ripening fruit.

Shrubs range from the medicinal to the liqueur and recipes vary according to cultural traditions. But all are easy peasy to make, sharing the same core ingredients: equal parts (by weight) of ripe fruit, sugar and vinegar.

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The artistry of crafting a shrub apparently lies in types of vinegar used (red wine, white wine, Champagne, and apple cider) as well in choices of sweeteners (type of sugar, honey or molasses). All will affect the final “bouquet”.

To finish, aromatics are often added according to culinary taste. Herbs and spices might include mint, lemon verbena, basil, cloves, cinnamon, or peppercorns. Commonly utilized florals are geranium, lavender and rose.

Then it’s as simple as mashing it all together, putting a tea towel over the bowl and letting it sit. Then after two weeks -voila – you’ve got yourself a delicious thirst quenching treat to be swirled into sparkling water on hot summer afternoons or excite your evening cocktail at happy hour.

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Danielle’s Osoberry Shrub

Note: Please be warned I made this up and I’m no culinary expert. For expert advice and recipes go to this very helpful site.

I chose apple cider vinegar and brown cane sugar because I wanted to complement the Osoberry’s deep tones with mellower warmer flavours. For aromatics I added a few buds of lavender and sprigs of fennel.

The final result was rich and plummy, a full-some flavour followed by a sweet frothy tang on the tongue (like a rich sweet balsamic or the vinegary bubbliness of Kombucha Tea).

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups Osoberry
  • 1/2 cup Strawberries (just for the heck of it because they were ripening on my counter)
  • 2 and 1/2 cup organic brown cane sugar (looking for warm deep flavour).
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • A few buds of fresh lavender or rose (some floral top notes)
  • A few sprigs of fennel frond (just because I’m ever so fond of its anise flavour)
  • a pinch of cardamom and black pepper

Directions:

  • Mash berries, sugar and herbs in large ceramic or glass bowl.
  • Leave this to ‘sweat’ – meaning put a tea towel over the bowl and set on the kitchen counter for a day.
  • Next take the resulting syrup and strain it through a cheesecloth or fine sieve to take out all the skins, pits etc.
  • Mix in apple cider vinegar. Then let it sit for a week before draining solids off once again. Let it sit for one final week allowing the flavor of the vinegar to relax further.
  • Decant into pretty glass bottles. To serve, begin by mixing one part shrub syrup with six parts sparkling water, leaving a bit of room in the glass to add more syrup or water, according to taste. Garnish with lavender and fennel flowers.

Then raise a glass to the Osoberry and to summer! Salut!

P.S. Shrubs will keep up to six months in fridge

P.P.S. I’ve discovered my favourite way to use a shrub is like a rich dark syrupy balsamic vinegar, for salad dressings, marinades and glazes.

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Drink: Wood Sorrel Gimlet-ish

Looking mojito, feeling gimlet

Looking mojito, feeling gimlet

The grounds of the co-op where we live are alive with the sound of Wood Sorrel, or more accuratelyoxalis acetosella. The lovely lemony Wood Sorrel may look like a shamrock and taste similar to sorrel, but it is neither. It’s… well, it’s a member of the Oxalidaceae family. And it’s delicious. I’ve been adding it to salads for the last couple of weeks and I’m very fond of the tartness it adds. You know what else is nice with tartness? Gin. And you know what’s even nicer with gin? Me. So I set out to make a Gimlet, kind of. I started off with a classic Gimlet recipe and replaced the lime juice with muddled Wood Sorrel.

Now, before you go all Wood Sorrel mad, there’s a couple of things you should know. Let’s start on the sunny side of the street, shall we? Wood Sorrel is very high in Vitamin C. It is also a diuretic and has cooling properties that come in handy when you or yours is running a fever. It also aids in digestion, helps stop vomiting and purportedly has blood cleansing properties. So, that’s pretty great, right? Tell me your gin and lime Gimlet does that!

HOWEVER, if you suffer from kidney or rheumatic disorders you should avoid Wood Sorrel as it contains high amounts of potassium oxalate and oxalic acid. And if you have gout, leave it out. Too much raw Wood Sorrel (and I mean, like a lot over a period of time) can also leach calcium out of your bones. Cooking Wood Sorrel is supposed to make it harmless, but I suspect you lose some of the nutrients. The good news is that my kidneys are a-okay (touch wood) and I’m fine with eating Wood Sorrel in moderation.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup Wood Sorrel leaves
2 ounces of gin
1 ounce of simple syrup (I used Douglas Fir Simple Syrup)
sparkling water
ice
Wood Sorrel stems & blossom for garnish

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Muddle your Wood Sorrel leaves in a shaker. I didn’t have one, so I just used a mixing glass, which was fine because I wound up scooping the leaves into the cocktail glass like a Mojito, anyway.

If you’re using a shaker, add your ice. If you’re not, save the ice for your cocktail glass and carry on.

Add an ounce of simple syrup. I used Douglas Fir syrup I had in my fridge (as one does). To make simple syrup, just add one cup of water to two cups of sugar, bring it all to a boil and allow it to cool. For Douglas fir simple syrup, boil a cup of Douglas fir tips with the water and sugar, let it steep in the covered pot for a few hours or overnight and strain out the tips. It’s so lovely. Kind of like drinking Christmas and it also makes an AMAZING lemonade.

Add two ounces of gin and shake or stir.

Pour it into a tall glass filled with ice. You can strain out the Wood Sorrel if you want something a little more pristine looking. The Wood Sorrel give it a fresh green colour. The drink needed more tartness to suit my tastes and I quite like the taste of the leaves, so I added them.

Add sparkling water to taste.

Twist a few sorrel stems together with a sorrel blossom for a tasty and pretty garnish.

Drink, congratulate yourself, repeat.

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Queen of The May – Hawthorn Blossom Cordial

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The Fairy Wood by Henry Meynell Rheam 1903

“May, queen of blossoms, and fulfilling flowers,  what pretty music
Shall we charm the hours? Wilt thou have pipe and reed,
Blown in the open mead?
Or to the lute give heed, in the green bowers.”— Lord Edward Thurlow

May is the time of year the fields and the forests are ablaze with the glistening snow-white blossoms of the hawthorn – so it’s no wonder that for hundreds of years the collecting of its blooms was known as ‘going a-maying”. Lords and ladies, as well as the common folk, all gathered its branches to adorn their halls and homes.

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In Celtic lore the hawthorn is called the “Queen of the May” and it’s blooming marks the time when the fairies would come forth from the glens and hilltops in grand procession headed by the Fairy Queen. Folkore warns that if you sit beneath a hawthorn tree on May Eve, you will hear the sound of the Fairy Queen horse’s bells as she rides by. If you hide your face, she will pass you but if you look at her, she may choose to take you away with her – forever.

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Solitary hawthorns growing near wells or at path’s crossroads were known as fairy trysting places – so one had to be very careful – touching its branches could also whisk one away to the realm of the Fay. But despite the risks, these tree’s could offer a powerful magic to those brave or foolhardy enough to ask for blessings from the fairy folk.

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Since ancient time across the British Isles, candles were lit at dusk on May Day and ribbons tied to its branches to ask for luck and blessings. Even today you’ll find “wishing trees” covered in colorful strips of fabric (red or pink for love, blue for protection, green for wealth and violet for spiritual insight) asking for the fulfillment of prayers or wishes.

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Long a herbal remedy for all things connected to the heart, hawthorn blossoms have been shown in countless medical studies to protect against heart disease, rejuvenate damaged arterial cells, increase coronary blood flow, improve circulation and lower blood pressure.

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The young spring leaves of the hawthorn are also medicinal, as well as being tender and gentle in flavor. They can be added to salads, or cooked as greens. In Germany, the leaves are dried and made into a tea. In England, the buds are used to make a suet pudding. A pie crust is rolled out long and thin, then dotted with the buds and thin strips of bacon before being rolled up, sealed and steamed for an hour or two.

But best of all the blossoms can made into a sweet, delicately flavored cordial syrup to be mixed with bubbly water for a refreshing spring drink.  With a light, almost baby powder-like aroma and soft vanilla undertones, its taste reflects the ethereal quality of its blooms. And it makes a fine traditional toast to May Day and the Fairy Queen!

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How To Make An Enchanting Hawthorn Cordial:

  • Take 5 cups of flowers (snip off the green stems) and put them in bowl.
  • Dissolve 2 cups of sugar in 2 cups of water over a low heat and then increase the heat and boil for three minutes.
  • Pour this over the flowers, give it a good stir and then return to the saucepan.
  • Bring back to the boil and then take off the heat and add the juice of a large lemon or lime.
  • Let your concoction cool and then pour it through a sieve or cheesecloth into a sterilized bottle.
  • This will keep couple of weeks in the fridge. Dilute it with water, soda water — or booze!

Drink: Lavender Leaf Lemonade

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It’s been a beautiful, flowery spring here on Vancouver Island. As a happily displaced prairie person, I’m still flabbergasted by the parade of flowers here this time of year. Crocuses and snowdrops in February, frilly cherry and apple blossoms in March and then look out for the daffodils, tulips, camas, bluebells, daisies, honesty, forget-me-nots, buttercups and a zillion other spring blooms of Aprilnevermind the lilacs gearing up for their annual purple, white and perfumed performance that’ll land them in so many Mother’s Day bouquets.

Despite all the glorious fragrant springtime commotion, lately I’ve had lavender on my mind. Maybe it’s because I’m fresh out of the buds I dried last summer. Or maybe its the tempermental nature of springone day warm, the next rainy and windythat has me longing for the hot summer afternoon scent of lavender. Third option: I’m just blooming greedy. Who knows? The heart wants what the heart wants.

And so, this past weekend, as I was testing recipes for our upcoming Wild May Picnic, I found myself standing in my front garden pondering lemonade and the fresh green leaves of my lavender plant. I’ve cooked and baked with lavender blooms a fair bit, but I’ve pretty much left the leaves alone. The whole plant really does smell wonderful… Maybe I’d been needlessly limiting myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have to wait for the blooms to experience the sweet, spicy, herbal punch that only lavender can deliver. So I got to work plucking leaves and contemplating the best way to infuse the flavour.

I settled on muddling the leaves a bit and boiling them in a simple syrup. I let the syrup cool and then strained out the leaves. Several juiced lemons later, a few cups of water and some fancy wildflower ice cubes and I had myself a lovely, fragrant lemonade perfect for an afternoon of maying or lounging in the summer sun. It does taste a little sharper than an infusion made with lavender buds, but I quite liked it. You can fiddle with the water and sugar amounts to sort out a taste that suits you best.

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Lavender Leaf Simple Syrup

  • 2 cups cane sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • bunch of fresh lavender leaves

Muddle your lavender leaves in the bottom of a saucepan. Add the water & sugar and give it a good stir.

Boil the sugar, water and leaves and simmer for few minutes, until the sugar dissolves.

Remove from heat and let steep for about an hour – or until you’re happy with the taste. Strain the leaves out and transfer the syrup to a glass bottle with a lid.

You can refridgerate this for up to a month if you’re not using it right away.

Lavender Leaf Lemonade with Wildflower Floral Ice Cubes

  • 1 cup lemon juice (5 organic lemons)
  • lavender leaf simple syrup
  • cold water
  • wildflower floral water ice cubes (see directions below)

Rough your lemons up a bit. Push on them and roll them around to make them easier to juice.

Juice enough lemons to get a cup of lemon juice.

Add the juice to a pitcher and add cold water and lavender leaf simple syrup to taste. Top off with a frosty pile of colourful wildflower ice cubes.

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To make wildflower floral water ice cubes: Fill the ice cube tray half full with water and sprinkle a few wildflowers or petals into each cube. I used honesty petals, lawn daisies, forget-me-nots, violets & mint leaves, but any edible flower will do. Obviously, once summer comes you’ll want to go nuts with the lavender buds. Once the water is frozen, add a few more flowers and top off the half-filled  cubes up with orange blossom water and/or rose water. I did six of each. As the ice melts, your drink gets more and more floral. Some kind of wonderful.

Feel free to ruffle up the pretty a bit with a splash or two of vodka. You could even sugar the glass and add some soda water, if you’re feeling fancy.