Herb Week

The herbs in the spotlight this year are:

  • Elderflower/elderberry
  • Saffron
  • Totara
  • Hawthorn.

(For more information about these featured herbs, go to the Herb Federation of NZ website and click on the herb name.)

Saffron is the most expensive food in the world – the stigmas of the Crocus sativus flowers must be removed by hand and there are only two or three per flower. Iran is the capital of saffron, producing about 90 per cent of the world’s crop. However, there are saffron growers in New Zealand and this 2010 article about Terraza Saffron (Hawke’s Bay) gives some idea of the back-breaking labour involved in producing the spice.

Cornish saffron cake is a traditional recipe from Cornwall in England. Legend has it that the spice came to the remote area courtesy of the Phoenicians (hailing from what is modern-day Lebanon) who traded it for tin. This recipe is for a Swedish saffron cake traditionally made in December.

Hawthorn has a bit of a reputation in New Zealand for being weedy. I spotted the tree in the photo while in Wellington Botanic Gardens and duly noted its name. However, when a double check threw up a possible misidentification, the staff at the gardens were good enough to set me right (the tree had been labelled wrongly).


Photo: Sandra Simpson

Crataegus laevigata Masekii hasn’t set any fruit in Wellington and so isn’t proving a  problem.

Hawthorn is one of Britain’s most common trees and the shrubby, thorny Crataegus monogyna was used in the past in this country as a stock-proof hedge (vestiges are still around in Taranaki). The Herb Society link above includes a recipe for hawthorn jelly made from the berries or haws of C. monogyna.

Elderflower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

 The elder tree is another prolific seeder but if you’ve ever tasted elderflower cordial or elderflower champagne you may be inclined to forgive it. I bought a box of cordial from a woman at Feilding Farmers’ Market a couple of years ago – mix it with soda for a refreshing summer drink (a recipe for elderflower sparkler is on the Herb Society link).
But there is a warning: Don’t keep the bottles inside. We had one explode and it was a big, sticky mess to clean up. The garden shed might be better than under the stairs.
New Zealand’s native totara tree has some amazing properties, not the least of which is its natural antimicrobial (antiseptic) action. Read more about its uses in Maori medicine here.

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