Orchards have always served communities as an integrated resource of produce. Mycorrhizal fungi networks increase a tree’s capacity to defend against harmful diseases and companion planting increases the likelihood of this unification.
As we know from Forest Gardening, we are able to design layers of the forest – from shrubbery to tree tops – to orchestrate the growth of a biodiverse orchard. This transitional season begs us to wonder: what can we do to further serve the health of our trees and our communities in our urban landscape?
Every forest garden begins with one seed;verity hobbs
Birthed by a mother tree, and cared for by its surrounding communities.
Forest gardens for all
At The Orchard Project, we have held workshops at schools across London to introduce the idea of companion planting to children, and I wanted to continue our work by dedicating this blog to helping others navigate their first steps into forest gardening (being new to this concept myself).
It is fascinating to understand how root networks grow cohesively, unseen in an underground symbiosis of nutrient exchange and structural support. If this stimulates your appetite, a feast of knowledge (quite literally) can be found when studying TOP’s course in Forest Gardening.
Below I have compiled a list of companion plants that you may already find and forage* alongside your orchards, as well as common plants bursting with abilities that you can add. I’ve also featured some creative recipe ideas to try out at home. Why not bring the produce back to your community orchard to share with others at an open picnic, gathering together to celebrate nature as our ancestors would have done?
*Please be aware that foraged foods may have been in contact with pesticides or animals and should be washed thoroughly before use.
Ideas for the Medicinal Forest Garden
Elderflower for relief – (Sambucus nigra – tree/shrub)
An extract of the elderflower is commonly used in modern pharmaceuticals. With anti-inflammatory properties, it is used for sinus infections, bronchitis, swelling, flu, diabetes and constipation. It is an aid for hydration, helping with digestion and passing urine. Its uses are seemingly endless, and when utilised in its natural form it can help restore homeostasis within the body. Its natural essence from the petals has been used to sweeten vinegars, and to botanically flavour our wines. Here is one of many ways to reap the benefits of the plant, and create a delicious product:
Elderflower cordial recipe
- You’ll need 2 ½kg white sugar, either granulated or caster; 2 unwaxed lemons; 20 fresh elderflower heads, stalks trimmed; 85g citric acid (from chemists).
Hawthorn for your heart (Crataegus monogyna – tree/shrub)
Used in ancient traditional medicines as a heart tonic, hawthorn can be found in medicinal journals across Chinese, Native American and European cultures. You can easily plant this shrub as a companion plant for its berries, leaves, and flowers. The berries are anti-inflammatory; they lower cholesterol, relax blood pressure and also improve cardiovascular function. Teas are an incredible way to ingest the benefits of a plant, and most often requires very minimal foraging. Only take what you need, don’t make haste or forage with greed!
Hawthorn tea recipe
- You’ll need 1 teaspoon of leaves/flowers or berries in 30ml of boiled water. Leave for 6 minutes.
- You can drink hawthorn tea up to 3 times per day.
Rosemary for your mind – (Rosmarinus officinalis – shrub/herb)
Used medicinally and to flavour food, the Ancient Greeks decorated themselves with rosemary garlands to indicate great thinkers, educators, and students. They frequently used rosemary as a medicinal herb to improve cognitive function. Usually planted in a sunny, sheltered position, rosemary will also adapt to dappled shade beneath a fruit tree. In numerous studies, rosemary has also been shown to stimulate serotonin and improve mood, and has been compared as a natural alternative to antidepressants.
Rosemary tea recipe
- You’ll need 1 teaspoon of rosemary leaves (dried or fresh) in 30ml of boiled water. Leave for 6 minutes.
Sorrel for your stomach – (Rumex acetosa- groundfloor herb)
Sorel has benefitted us over time in many ways, and still does – making a delightful accomplice in salads – it is a foragers dream. I have recently seen sorrel popping up around my London-based shared garden, proving its hardiness and accessibility, even to the central city dwellers. If it hasn’t emerged in your local community orchard already, sorrel as a design choice would make a delightful addition to any space. Sorrel is rich in fibre and iron, improves vision health, and provides health benefits to the digestive tract when eaten.
Sorrel salad dressing recipe
- Handful of sorrel, ½ cup of olive oil, ¼ cup of cider vinegar – and mix!
Drunk on dandelion – (Taraxucum officinalis -groundfloor ‘weed’/herb)
To weed or not to weed? Dandelions host an array of wildlife, providing food for insects and contribute to a structurally healthy root network overall. We often dig them up from our flower beds without realising their beauty, and their multiple uses.
All parts are edible, and nutritious, especially the root; more specifically London-based restaurants such as Levan have bridged out and explored integrating dandelion into their vinegar recipes; other culinary artists have explored steaming the leaves, which stimulates the digestive system.
Dandelion contains potent antioxidants, and is said to improve crucial liver and kidney function. Amazingly, it can be turned into a Spring tonic, also known as dandelion wine, which when ready can be brought back to your community orchard to share.
Dandelion wine recipe
- It’s a little more detailed than the others, so please read this article to successfully create dandelion wine!
Want to know more? A short history of Forest Gardening and Ethnobotany – exploring the relationship between plants and people
Different cultures have practised medicinal forestry for centuries: exploring, planning, interplanting and foraging on the land from the ground upward.
Evidence-based successes can be seen in the sustenance of the South American Maya Forest, which has stood as a cultivated woodland for over eight millennia. El Pilar is one of the largest Maya sites in the Belize Valley and lies approximately 50 kilometres from the major prehistoric city of Tikal in Guatemala. It has been academically recognised as a cultivated garden since the 1980s.
More recently, the Amazon rainforest has been recognised as a ‘patchwork of gardens’, ecologically cultivated by indigenous communities long before European colonisation. In Asia, fungi such as the Cordyceps sinensis have served both Tibetan and Chinese communities for centuries.
Whilst spiritual foraging practices continue to be carried out by various indigenous communities across a multitude of environments, pharmaceutical manufacturing and the popularisation of alternative medicines have led to exploitation of resources and a distance between the consumer (us) and the producer (the earth).
The humble hawthorn – paving the way for forest gardens across the UK
Appearing across European cultures in the wreath of the Green Man, hawthorn has been represented as a Pagan symbol of death, fertility and May Day – the original maypole prior to metal and ribbons.
By May, delicate white flowers speckle the flowing green canvas, thick with foliage, thorns, and berries. Hawthorn experiences the seasonal transition, from darkness into a period of light and life, rich in cultural history and symbology.
Utilised for medicinal purposes – with a long history of consumption for the improvement of blood circulation and many other benefits – hawthorn sets the immune system up for a season of gathering, foraging and exploration. More recent studies have proven the health benefits to both humans and animals, making hawthorn a useful tool in agroforestry for hedging, wind protection, wood, and consumption.
By highlighting the importance of this singular common shrub, we are able to imagine the vastness of opportunity that an interplanted orchard can bring – and the wealth of resources that become accessible to our green fingertips.
Written by Verity Hobbs