The western tip of the North Downs near Guildford is a beautiful piece of countryside.  Green hills roll like waves all around you and at this time of year myriad wild flowers spring from every bank, lean as far as they can over rivers and cover every patch of ground that isn’t grass or tarmac.  From this walk, I chose a plethora of plants to write about and can now barely make a decision.  Looking back at the photos however I absolutely have to post these bluebells:

There was no wind this day – weather that always makes wild places feel other-worldly.  Imagine then chancing upon this carpet of bluebells in the woods to the right of your dusty, tree-rooty path.  The blue hovers a foot above the ground like dry ice floating over a stage in an eerie scene at the theatre.

There are few sights more characteristic of shady old English wood than this.  But beware!  There are invaders to be wary of and I keep seeing them; Hybrid Bluebell and Spanish Bluebell.  They seem to grow anywhere, in direct sunlight, up from under fences along pavements, from beside gravestones and in people’s gardens.  They’re a lighter blue and the flowers are more bell than trumpet-like.  The natural history museum asks 3 questions to decide if your bluebell is a true Brit.  These ones are because 1. they have a strong sweet smell, 2. they’re narrowly tubular and the petals are strongly curved and 3. the flower spike nods at the tip.  Look:

This plant grows from bulbs which are poisonous.  I haven’t squeezed any, but it says in The Modern Herbal, that they contain a sticky juice so glutinous that it was used to starch those projecting collars worn in Elizabethan times.  More exciting, it was used to stick feathers to arrows and, if you have a really really old book bluebell juice could be the binding gum!

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This plant looks nothing like ivy.  It seems it got its name because of the way it grows all over a patch of ground to form a mat, like ivy sort of does. …but then ivy climbs trees and buildings while ground ivy can do nothing of the sort.  I see this plant all the time, usually in slightly more shaded areas near a tree or around a hedge or fence, but I am always happy when I do see my old friend.  We met during my uni days when I first found it’s picture in Roger Phillip’s book.  I soon discovered it was an edible herb (though too much of it is bad for horses…) and now rarely pass it by without putting a leaf to my lips and thrilling my tastebuds with its strong herbal taste.

In earlier days I used to confuse it with red deadnettle as they both grow to roughly the same height with similar leaves and the flowers look similar to my eyes!  In fact, the leaves are very different with ground ivy’s having relatively deep lobes.  The biggest difference seems to be the location of the flowers which in red deadnettle form only around the top but in ground ivy hang from points all down the stem.  Ground ivy also tends to be darker.

Anyway, on to its uses.  It is a nicely flavoured herb, like a weak mint, useful for flavouring cooking etc but best of all, it makes a very fine tea.  That is the reason I have a handful of its leaves in the picture above.  I carried these home in my trouser pocket and dried them on the windowsil for about a week:

Looks like considerably less now, doesn’t it.

Anyway, tonight I popped the dried leaves into a mug, poured on boiling water and let it brew for 5 minutes – like a proper northerner.  Is this too much detail?  Well, it looked pretty weak compared to what we’re used to seeing in a mug, even though I pressed and squeezed the leaves as much as I could.  The aroma was great though so I put mug to lips and sipped.

Bitter.

I added a third of a teaspoon of sugar and hey presto, flavour sensation!

This is called Gill Tea, from the french ‘guiller’ which means ‘to ferment beer’ – ground ivy used to be used before hops to clear beer and flavour it.

The taste at first hits the nostrils and one thinks it could be mint but not quite; only a mild mint.  In the mouth it reminds me of nettle tea, but that is perhaps just the rounded ‘green’ taste of any wild plant.  All in all though, I finished the cup and could quite happily drink it every day to refresh the senses in it’s minty way or warm the body on a cold spring day.

So, what’ll it do for me?  Well, the ‘Modern Herbal’ written in 1931 quotes centuries older sources that say it’s slightly stimulant and an excellent tonic for nervous headaches and clearing coughs.  The recipe for the latter, however, was sweetened with honey.  I read somewhere that honey in itself is as good as most cough medicines for doing the same.  I wouldn’t listen to the old texts too much though as, reading on, it seems the plant has been used at some stage for curing almost every malady.  Just like a normal cup of tea then.

Eeee, ‘ave a cuppa tea.