Colours of Autumn
As nights draw in and the sun’s warmth diminishes, colours of harvest flood
the land. Amongst hedgerows, reds of rosehip and haw shine brightly with
subtle shades from bright red to deep crimson. High above, vermillion rowan
berries hang in tantalising bunches. Single crimson leaves from cramp bark
branches, thrust colour into fading grass.
I use a lot of hawthorn products during the year, making tinctures from
flowers with vodka and haws with brandy. I gather ripe berries wherever I am
- from trees along my field edges in the Cotswolds, my garden hedge in
Solihull and trees from as far apart as Yorkshire or Bristol, depending on
my travels. I’ve also made hawthorn vinegar, so people who don’t like to use
alcohol, can have an alternative format to choose from.
I rarely collect rosehips. The problem is the time it takes to process the
hips before drying. You should cut them in half with a sharp knife, then
thoroughly deseed before putting to dry in a warm, airy place. The seeds are
very effective itching powder. My long-suffering husband, when offering to
help, soon complains his t-shirt is uncomfortable and his hands itch. I
don’t suffer quite as badly, but holding the individual hips make my thumb
joints ache, so very few get put to dry. The majority lie abandoned in a
bowl to shrivel into hardness in their own time until I can pour them into a
glass jar to use in syrups and decoctions throughout the winter.
Another red comes from apples. Usually the wild crabapple goes from green to
yellow once it is ripe and falls from the trees. Along one Cotswold wall is
a red crabapple tree, its fruit shining above green brambles and speckled
St John’s wort oil is another bright red influence on my life over the
summer, sitting on the kitchen window ledge beaming scarlet rays when sun
shines. The beginning of October is time to strain the flowers out of the
oil and put it all away in a cold larder.
The other major colour of autumn is black – blackberries, elderberries and
the deep black/purple lustre of a copious sloe harvest hiding behind the
thorns of the blackthorn trees.
We usually think of blackberries as something to put in desserts, either
pies or puddings, but blackberries, like rosehips, are a good source of
Vitamin C and can also act as an astringent along with cinnamon if you’re
suffering with loose bowels that won’t respond to usual treatments. They
make a delightful tea with other herbs such as Echinacea and elderberry - a
pleasant immune enhancer to ward off any lurking virus.
I continue to wax lyrical about elderberry and its anti-viral properties. My
parents help collect large amounts of berries so we can try new recipes.
Elderberry Elixir is made with brandy and honey, taking at least two months
to mature. I also put up several jars of elderberry tincture and make
elderberry syrup using leftover elderberries. There are elderberries waiting
in the freezer to be made into more syrup when the need arises.
Sloe gin is not something I make every year, but when juicy, purple,
blushing sloes beg to be picked, I acquiesce, buying enough gin to make up a
bottle and a half of liqueur to sit in the hot cupboard in my kitchen beside
infusing vinegars of motherwort and sage to be ready for Christmas.
We should never forget gold and orange. Calendula flowers are prolific rays
of sunshine to cheer everyone up after constant rain. Someone once told me
she was convinced calendula was helpful in combating her winter blues and
judging by the delight the flowers bring to everyone who sees them, I
totally agree with her. The softness of the petals makes them a joy to
harvest, while the resin coating your hands afterwards reminds you what
you’ve been picking. We have been able to make a fresh flower tincture while
sun shone and on less bright days, the golden heads dry by the kitchen
All herb flowers take a long time to dry; the processing itself is an
exercise in patience. It can take an entire October weekend to process herbs
I’ve dried during the summer. This includes taking petals off all calendula
flowers, spending up to two hours sitting at the kitchen table balancing a
bowl on my lap before pouring them into their glass jars and hiding them
from the light in paper bags. The prize is using the dried petals for tea
during the darkest days, warding off infections and bringing enjoyment with
Gold is also found in the most unexpected places – hidden in roots of some
of our most helpful plants. Goldenseal, useful for its action supporting
mucous membranes is known for its golden roots, but dyers woodruff roots
also shine with gold before offering up a red colour to the dye. Nettles,
too, have tangled golden roots which, when processed, offer support and
treatment to aging prostate glands.
Finally, there is always green. When the marshmallow in my garden starts to
seed, I go down with my basket and strip stems of as many soft, green leaves
and pale green seeds as I can. These make dark-green, silky oil to use for
lubricating dry or diabetic skin and other hidden places. The dried leaves
are kept for teas to sooth irritated bowels or dry lungs.
Vervain grows profusely during most of the year. Infused oil can be made
with either fresh or dried aerial parts. The oil comes out dark and green
with no distinctive smell. This is an anointing oil to help assist an
understanding of the passing of the year, allowing us time to rest before
growth begins again.
Every season has its own unique array of colours, shapes and scents. As sun
sets to bring evening dusk, so brilliant colours of Autumn lead us towards
both quiet and chaos of winter.