Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
I'm not sure how unusual comfrey can be considered to be but not everybody has it, and actually not everybody wants it as it spreads like mad (but does suppress the weeds) but what a plant. It is the ultimate power plant really. Its large tap root goes deep and retrieves a host of minerals from the soil to feed its fast growing leaves. These can be harvested three or four times a year and can be used as an ingredient for comfrey liquid fertiliser. Making your own couldn't be easier; add comfrey leaves to rainwater (ideally) and leave for 4/5 weeks. This liquid is then ready to use - dilute it 10 to 1 for spuds and tomatoes and 20/1 for everything else. Comfrey contains high levels of the NPK nutrients which are in expensive chemical compounds which we buy at vast expense at garden centres.
It is a brilliant compost accelerator, encouraging your compost heap to heat up and thus speeding the break down of organic matter. It is also a perfect mulch for fruit trees, shrubs and perennials (chop up the leaves and add to the base of plants), and can be mixed with leaf mould to make a good base for your own potting compost. Potatoes and tomatoes particularly thrive on a good liquid feed of comfrey juice. I've tried wilted leaves as a food for my bantams and they seemed appreciative too. If you want a non seeding variety try Bocking 14. Otherwise, try setting aside an area and have your own 'comfrey bed'. Oh, and it is great for bruises, grazes and nettle stings and the bees love the clusters of tubular flowers which come in a range of colours.
Lemon verbena. (Aloysia citrodora)
Actually I think I could write a thousand words on my first choice alone which is the delicious and versatile lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), and before I start I'm dashing down to the greenhouse to see how my plant is coming along considering that I cut it right back in the autumn as it had got pretty leggy.
It is half hardy and makes a good pot plant in that you can not only place the pot where you would brush past it going to and fro when the leaves will emit their delicious citrusy lemon scent but also it makes it easier to take in for winter protection unless you have a particularly sheltered and balmy corner on offer. Lemon verbena makes a delicious herbal tea and is simplicity itself. Just collect a few leaves, pour a cup of boiling water over them, leave for five minutes or so and then drink. The plant's properties are myriad – it is useful as a liver tonic (hangovers) or to ameliorate nervous conditions leading to digestive complaints, de-stressing and feverish colds. The list goes on, and to add to this it has its culinary uses and can be used for adding a zing of lemon to chicken and fish dishes, jams and sorbets. I like the idea of using the plant in bouquets, the flowers are small, lilac and white and the leaves long and pointed so all in all a fine plant.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
We experimented with a young leaf of sorrel yesterday and my colleague described the taste as a 'lemony explosion' in her mouth and she's right. This acidity is due to the oxalic acid content in the plant. Full of Vitamin C and iron, sorrel looks not dissimilar to a dock and actually is sometimes known as Spinach Dock. Easy to grow from seed, this isn't a plant you grow for its looks but the leaves and stems are edible, both to butterflies and moths and ourselves. It has been cultivated for centuries, is an indigenous British plant and is used in kitchens in Eastern Europe, the Far East and India for all sorts of different dishes. It can be used as the basis for soups and added to salads to provide a distinctive tangy flavour and is perfect in a simple sauce for oily fish such as mackerel. Just shred a few leaves into butter and you have it, a simple sauce. Wild sorrel has shield shaped leaves which can be found where weedkillers haven't been used but the cultivated variety, which is a perennial, has larger leaves which turn crimson as they mature.
Hyssop (Hyssopus offinalis)
Thompson&Morgan sell 'Tricolour Mixed' seeds of this small herb combining plants which flower in combinations of pink, white and blue. Another perfect plant for pollinators, hyssop is particularly aromatic and combines looks with usefulness. Preferring a dryish soil in full sun, seeds can be started off now particularly as our season is so late this year. It is a member of the mint family, has evergreen leaves, a sweet scent and can be used for flavouring both fish and meat as well as being added to salads. Its flavour is described as 'warm and bitter' and honey made from hyssop is delicious. The flowers are pretty small but the flowering period is a long one with the first of the blooms appearing in June and then going on into September and beyond. As with comfrey, the hyssop has traditionally been used for the treatment of bruises with a 'tea' applied externally.
Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
I love this plant. It is so pretty and has such a pretty name. Grown traditionally by the back door and used traditionally in rhubarb dishes as a sugar substitute, it has soft feathery leaves and flowers not unlike cow parsley but much more delicate if that is possible. Give it light shade and it will meander around your garden. Encourage it for not only is it charming, but its leaves have a taste of anise to them and the seeds can be used instead of cloves in apple pies. It flowers early and the bumble bees appreciate this. It is still used by Carthusian monks to make Chartreuse and has been used in this country, of which it is native, for centuries. You can make a tisane with a tablespoon of fresh leaves to a cup of boiling water to 'lift the spirits' and some fresh chopped ginger added to the mix is said to help with digestive problems.
Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and the sourcing and supplying of interesting garden plants.
Bring along your plant queries to put to Sue Whigham at Wealden Times Midsummer Fair's 'Any Gardening Questions'. For more information, and to book tickets to the fair, visit www.wealdentimes.co.uk/events.