Spring is the busiest time of year on the island. All winter long nothing much seems to happen. When spring arrives, suddenly, an overwhelming number of activities vie for our attention. The garden needs planting. The grass needs cutting. People come to visit. C. gets busy preparing his boat for the salmon fishing season.
This year’s spring has been no different, though it has been rather late arriving, and chilly as well. Spring is the most fleeting of seasons; here suddenly, gone already. The elusive blossom and floral scents, the first warm days of sunshine, the first few bees buzzing about are all so rare and precious.
I have been busy the past month or so trying to get the garden planted, to put the seedlings that I have been nurturing for months indoors into their final resting places in the ground.
A few days ago I stuck in the last of the squash plants and the last of the brassicas, mulching them with some of the grass, cut recently, on one of the dryer days, in the yard around the house. One small patch of ground waits for some more lettuce, spinach and scallions which should do well as the cool weather continues. It is about time to start a whole new batch of brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) to be set out for the fall and for overwintering in the cold frames.
The mason bees, and their other bee friends, have also been busy. Attracted by the sweet scent of spring flowering plants, they have been pollinating all manner of blossom from apples to berries to Brussels sprouts and parsnips (that I am growing out for seed).
I can see their wee nesting box is getting filled up; the bee’s eggs, deposited along with a dollop of food for the future hatchlings, are bunged in with a plug of damp clay carried cleverly by the little mason bees themselves. By the end of June the mason bees will have stopped their activity and I will take their little house to a safe place indoors away from possible invaders such as parasitic wasps, ants and sow bugs.
Beginning to feel stressed out about the garden not getting planted quickly enough, I almost forgot to stop and smell the blossom myself.
I began to wonder how one might be able to capture the elusive scents of spring, to hold them over to the dark part of the year when they would come as a welcome spirit-lifter. I had read a couple of articles about making floral beverage syrups, or cordials, from various spring and summer blossoms including lilac and lavender.
I was also reading, and thoroughly enjoying, the well-known Canadian poet Susan Musgrave’s latest book, a gorgeous and very entertaining picture-recipe-island-lifestyle volume entitled A Taste of Haida Gwaii, published by Whitecap Books, 2015. In this delightful book I found a recipe for elderflower cordial using the fluffy cloud-like blossom of our native red elderberry shrub.
Having lived in England, I was familiar with the European elderberry from whose blossom a delightful and delicately floral-scented beverage is often made, both at home and commercially. I have long wondered if one could use our native red elderberry blossom in the same way. The problem is that most parts of the red elder are toxic; at least the leaves, seeds and woody parts are, although according to Ms. Musgrave, the blossom itself is not.
I thought about this as I went about my garden work. I wanted to try making a floral cordial, but did not want to poison anyone who might sample my concoction. That’s when I noticed, not for the first time, another garden plant that thrives a little too happily in my garden.
The sweet cicely plant is an old-fashioned herb native to Great Britain. Myrrhis odorata has a delicious, licorice or anise-like scent. Its blossom is a delicate white compound umbel whose tiny, soft flowers, are similar to both the European and our native red elderberry shrubs.
Unlike the elder, the entire sweet cicely plant is known to be edible and not poisonous at all. It has been used as a salad herb and its roots, leaves, and seeds boiled as a vegetable. Wondering how a cordial made of sweet cicely blossom might taste, I decided to follow the recipe for elderflower cordial substituting sweet cicely blossom for the elderflowers.
The resulting syrup, or cordial, turned out to be very tasty indeed! A dollop of cordial in an ice-filled glass, topped up with sparkling water with a slice of lemon or lime is a very refreshing beverage after a long, hot day in the garden.
I thought I was very clever to have invented this. Then I decided to Google “sweet cicely” to see what else I might learn about this lovely, but somewhat invasive, plant. It turns out I am not the first person on earth to come up with the idea of sweet cicely cordial. Or champagne, or any other number of edibles involving the naturally sweet plant.
Sweet cicely has been around for a very long time and has been consumed in a multitude of ways. The essence of sweet cicely is said to be an aphrodisiac! Sometimes used to sweeten the breath, the anise-scented sweet cicely seeds were also known to be used, of all things, to polish and scent oak floors and furniture!
So, it seems, there is more than one way to capture the heavenly scents of spring to enjoy at a later date!
Sweet Cicely Cordial
30 sweet cicely blossom heads
4 cups water (1 quart)
4 cups sugar
2 lemons, zest and juice
1 tsp. citric acid (available at pharmacies or wine-making shops)
Gently snip or pull the blossom from the stalks into a large stainless steel or glass bowl.
Zest the lemons and add to the bowl along with the juice of both lemons and the citric acid.
Bring the water and sugar to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Let this syrup cool to room temperature.
Pour the syrup over the blossom and lemon mixture. Cover with a clean cloth and leave in a cool place for 2-4 days.
Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve, lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel, into a clean jar. Seal the jar and store in the fridge.
To serve, pour 1-3 tablespoons of the syrup into a large glass, add ice and sparkling or plain water. Finish with a slice of lemon or lime. Enjoy in the shade on a hot summer’s day!