Claudia and I are still in Europe. There are fields of agricultural crops around here — mostly the monocultures like wheat, rye and canola. They’re beautiful to see, revealing the spiralling summer breezes or ground to smoky dust behind the harvester. There are fields of flowers too — brilliant irises and gladioli. You can stop by the roadside and pick your own. I also see herbs growing here amongst wildflowers -- beside the road and in the yards and meadows.
Many of the European herbs I learned about as a young woman, including some I have used over decades, I’ve only ever seen in dried form. Even common ones like red clover and dandelions, tall, colourful and hearty, look different here. This must be where they come from.
On the way to visit Claudia’s mum at the hospital, I thought the tiny white flowers by the path might be feverfew.
The yellow ones might be tansy. And the blue flowers the bees are loving are borage. (They still have lots of bees here.)
I was right about the tansy, which has bright yellow button flowers. It’s poisonous and used to ward off insects. They used to put it on pillows and around the bed to keep bedbugs away. People in Europe and America also used to fill coffins and make wreaths around the necks of the dead from tansy, which doesn’t inspire one to want to consume it. But it is said to be a treatment for migraines. I guess there’ve been people in history willing to take such a concoction if there was a chance to gain relief from that nightmarish headache.
The tiny white flowers I saw weren’t feverfew. I see on the net that feverfew has a yellow centre, it's a little daisy. Feverfew comes from the Balkans and is used for headaches, I read, like tansy.
Both have nasty side effects if you don’t use them properly.
Claudia’s cousin-sister is a herbalist. I asked her about the tiny white flowers I saw, which cluster in the sun-shade shape botanists call an umbrel. We have some in the garden.
“There are three flowers that grow here that look like like that,” she says. “One is something the sheep love to eat. There’s plenty of that by the roadside.”
“I’ve seen the sheep and goats eating the greenery on the hilly bits by the autobahn,” I tell her. The council-tended animals look surprisingly healthy and happy by the fume-emitting traffic. The council workers corral them with a plastic fence.
“Another plant with the same flower is the wild carrot. You can eat the young roots and leaves. The wild carrot has a leaf which delicate and curved. We call it Aphrodite’s eyebrow. That’s how you’ll know it. You have to be very careful though, because the third plant that looks like these is hemlock.”
“Oh! Very poisonous, right?” I said.
“It’s what they made Socrates — you know the Greek philosopher? They made him drink that, a tea of hemlock”, she replied.
Socrates was executed in ancient Athens for the supposed crimes of corrupting the minds of youth and impiety — that is, not believing in the state sanctioned gods.
“I’ll stay away from the little white flowers,” I reply, reflecting on the expertise needed to be a good herbalist.
Some of the useful plants here are easy to identify, though. There’s sorrel in the grass here — a common soup and salad herb in central and western Europe. I can smell it’s fresh sourness when I cut the grass. The dandelions are big enough that their roots would be worth harvesting and roasting, to be ground up and used as a bitter coffee-like tonic.
I have some dandelions in my garden at home in the desert and I do eat their leaves in salad. I eat the young leaves of the nettles, too, before they grow spikes. But you can’t eat any kind of roots coming out of that red dirt — there are too many nitrates in it, which would become concentrated in your poor little carrots and potatoes. But anything fresh and green is priceless in a town where the veges have travelled thousands of kilometres before you get to buy them (and see them wilt dramatically in the fridge the next day). The contrast with the lush countryside of southern Europe in Summer is stark. I've seen red-ribbed spinach half a metre tall growing among red poppies and irises by the roadside, whether sown by nature or a good-natured gardener I couldn't tell.
Here, on the other side of the world, familiar herbs and flowers are all over the place. Of course, they’re native to southern Europe and this is a place of plentiful rain, so different to our home in the Australian desert. I can see the impact of European colonisation in Australia more clearly when I’m in Europe. So many of the plants, animals, agricultural practices and expectations we now have in Australia came from here. They make more sense here. For example, you can keep things clean here. All the insects die in the winter. In my home of relentless dust the snakes go to sleep in winter but the ants never go away. Neither does the dirt.
Of course, I have ancestors from both places. But it is sadly easier to find out about the herbs from Europe than to learn about many of the wonderful foods and medicines native to Australia. Some of the plants in Australia are tricky to grow by European methods, like the tangy native quandong, called mangata in Pitjatjantjara, which grows wild near our home. My mouth waters and I feel homesick writing about it. It's a parasite on another plant. A delicious parasite.
Meanwhile, back in Europe we drive a lot. We have lots of family business to attend to. Claudia drives, since my brain doesn’t handle driving on the right side of the road. I get to relax, admiring small bright daisies of camomile on the verge of the road as we sit at traffic lights. While she searches the radio for news of traffic jams, I thinking that it’s a gorgeous one to feed from a spoon to a teething baby, strong camomile tea. They like it. It helps them sleep.
Driving through the forest, I can see elm trees. I don’t think they are the type with bark you can grind into a stomach soothing jelly (slippery elm powder) — those are native to North America. I’m excited to see elm trees in the forest anyway. They are ancient, well-loved trees, decimated by ecological imbalance and disease in the last 50 years.
“If you look in there now, you can see why they call it the Black Forest,” says Claudia, momentarily breaking the gaze she has fixed on the narrow, winding road. She learned to drive on these roads, which wend through the forest behind her childhood home, when she was a teenager.
The forest is dense, cool and dark. Spruce and pine trees dominate, their thick needles shading the forest floor. The forest has many deciduous trees, too, which light up in autumn. I've seen it turn to an infinity of Christmas trees under snow in winter, too. It's summer now though -- all cool shades of green.
Parts of Claudia’s childhood village are dominated by linden trees — gnarled and magnificent. Like camomile, linden tea, made from the leaves and flowers, is benign and calming. Both have soothed me and many of my patients out of insomnia on many an agitated evening.
Hops grow abundantly here too. With their familiar beery smell, they can lull an Australian woman to sleep in an evening tea. The bitter fruit of the hops plant has a colourful history. It was banned in England in the 15th century, but was the brewers choice in western Europe for centuries when the Catholic church taxed more traditional alternatives. We have native hops at home at Uluru.
Gazing across the hops fields, I’m also reminded of fields of hops and poppy flowers (for morphine) I’ve seen in growing Tasmania along with the apples and plums — happy reminders that life is not all flour and canola. And that this planet is all one, in spite of its magnificent variety.
Field of camomile flowers thumbnail by Rodrigo Capuski.