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It was a few days ago, when there were lots of bumblebees buzzing about in the knautia, borage and phacelia that I realised it had been some time since I’d seen a butterfly in the garden.  Not even a small white skulking around the vegetable patch looking for a cabbage to lay its eggs on.  Turns out there’s a reason for the missing butterflies – the June Gap (and yes, I know that technically it’s now July, but everything is running a little late this year…)  The June Gap is a recognised phenomenon in the butterfly world, it happens when the adult butterflies of species that have two broods in the year have mated and laid eggs but the second wave of adults have yet to emerge.  Coincidentally this is also the time when many of the single brooded species have either completed the adult stage of their life cycle for the year, or have yet to emerge.  And the result is – well no butterflies.  This is explained much more eloquently here by someone who really knows what they’re talking about.

Red admiral

While the butterflies might be missing from the garden, the flowers certainly aren’t, and they’re doing their best to add lots of colour and glamour until the prettiest of insects return.  One of my favourites just now is the pot marigold or calendula.  The simple, daisy-like flowers might not be very sophisticated, but they come in a range of sunny yellow and orange shades to brighten up even a dull summer’s day.

Calendula

I like to grow the single varieties, they last well as a cut flower (cut them while the flowers are just starting to open for longest vase life), and these are the flowers that the insects prefer… especially the hoverflies.

Hoverfly

Calendula is one of those plants you should only ever need to sow once.  If they’re happy in the garden, they will self seed to the point where you are weeding out lots of seedlings just to stop them taking over.  But if you’re worried about the plants not reappearing next year, the seeds are nice and big, so easily collected for sowing the following spring – a good project for children to join in with too.  In fact they make good seeds for children to grow – big enough to be easily sown by small fingers, pretty reliable in germination and producing flowers reasonably quickly after sowing if the weather is good.

Calendula seed

Even better, calendula petals are edible.  The petals don’t add much in the way of flavour, but they do add interest – try sprinkling them on salads for a bit of extra colour, or in cakes and icing for a shot fresh orange and yellow zing.  I’ve used calendula petals before to make the marigold buns in Jekka McVicar’s Complete Herb Book.  These were easy to make and tasted really good, so the next step was adding a mixture of orange and yellow petals to some lemon biscuits.  The biscuit recipe was based on one I found online by Martha Stewart – and as well as adding calendula petals to the original, I gave it a little extra lemon flavour with some finely chopped candied lemon peel.  The cooked biscuits were glazed with a lemony icing, with more petals sprinkled through for added for interest.

Calendula and lemon cookies

Now, I might grow calendula mainly for its good looks and because the hoverflies love it, but being as how it’s featured in Jekka McVicar’s Complete Herb Book, it must be a herb… which means I can enter this recipe in July’s Cooking with Herbs/Herbs on Saturday over at Lavender and Lovage.

Cooking with Herbs

Calendula & Lemon Biscuits

(Makes 25-30 biscuits)

210g plain flour

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp fine sea salt

1 tbsp finely grated lemon zest

2 tbsp candied lemon peel, finely chopped

2 tbsp fresh calendula petals

115g unsalted butter, softened

170g granulated sugar

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 large egg

Preheat the oven to 180oC, 350F, gas 4.  Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a medium bowl, then add the salt, lemon zest, candied lemon peel and petals.  Stir to combine.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until they are light and creamy.  Add the lemon juice and egg and beat again until all the ingredients are combined.

Add the flour mixture and fold in gently until everything is mixed, but be careful not to over mix.

Take a teaspoon sized piece of the mixture and shape it into a ball.  Put the ball on a prepared baking sheet and squash it down gently with your finger tips until it is flattened on the top and about 4cm in diameter.  Continue to make these biscuit balls from the dough spacing them a few cms apart on the baking tray.

Cook the biscuits for 15-20 minutes in a preheated oven.  The edges of the biscuits will just have turned golden brown when they are ready to come out of the oven.  Leave the biscuits on the tray to cool for a couple of minutes, then move them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Once the biscuits are cold, ice them with –

¾ cup icing sugar

3 tbsp lemon juice

1 tbsp calendula petals

Mix the icing ingredients together.  Use a teaspoon to add a small amount of icing to each biscuit.

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