Garlands of hops may be seen decorating the ancient walls and arches of the Physic Garden with the approach of autumn. Hops are the flowers of the hop plant - Humulus lupulus – also called seed cones or strobiles. The plant is a vigorous, climbing herbaceous perennial usually trained to grow up strings in a Hopfield or hop garden when grown commercially. They are used mainly as a flavouring and stability agent in beer imparting a bitter taste with different varieties being used for particular styles of beer. Hops are usually dried in an oast house before they are used in the brewing process.
The first documented hop cultivation was in 736 in what is present day Germany but it was not until 1524 that hops were first grown in the southeast of England where they were introduced as an agricultural crop by Dutch farmers. Beer was first imported from Holland around 1400 and hops followed from France, Holland and Germany but carried a despised import duty.
Male and female flowers of the hop plant usually develop on separate plants (that is the plant is dioecious) but because viable seeds are undesirable for beer brewing only female plants are grown in hop fields, thus preventing pollination. Hop plants are planted in rows about 2 metres apart. Each spring the roots send out new bines that grow up the strings to an overhead trellis. The cones grow high on the bine and in the past these were picked by hand.
This incurred the need for massed migrant labour at harvest time which had a big social impact. Hops were grown locally, especially in Buriton. Here the local labour force was supplemented with people from Portsmouth who stayed in huts during the season. The village school term and the church harvest festival were both delayed until early October to accommodate the needs of the harvest. Although no longer a commercial crop here many hedgerows sport escapee hop bines.
In addition to beer hops are also used in herbal teas and soft drinks. In medicine they are used in a similar fashion to valerian as a treatment for anxiety, restlessness and insomnia and a hop filled pillow is a popular folk remedy for sleeplessness.
Beware the hops look attractive but can cause dermatitis and are poisonous to dogs!