Vanilla – An Expensive Spice

By Maryann Readal

Vanilla planifolia flowerVanilla, Vanilla planifolia, is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for December. It is the perfect month to feature vanilla, since its flavor will be a fragrant ingredient in many of the desserts that are served during the holidays. But where to begin a discussion of this historic spice, which is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron?

Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid flower. It is a long, dark brown seed pod, which contains thousands of  tiny black seeds. Those tiny black seeds are the specks you see in good vanilla ice cream. Vanilla extract is extracted vanilla beansfrom those seed pods. The vanilla orchid grows in the tropical climates of places like Mexico, Réunion, Tahiti, and Madagascar. Today, 80% of vanilla comes from the island nations of Madagascar and nearby Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Vanilla grown in Madagascar is the most desirable and is often called “Bourbon Vanilla” (Oon, 2020). However, the vanilla vine, which grows to about 300 feet, was first grown in Mexico. At first, Mexico was the only place where vanilla grew, because it needed the Melepona bee to pollinate the flower in order to produce the seed pod. Hernán Cortéz is credited with discovering vanilla during his exploration of Central America in the 16th century, where the Aztecs combined vanilla with cocoa to create their famous drink, xocolatl. The plant was eventually brought to Europe and other tropical climates, but the plants could never produce the vanilla bean, because the Melepona bee pollinator was not present to pollinate the flowers. That is, until one day in 1841, a young boy on the Réunion island in the Indian Ocean discovered how to manually pollinate the vanilla orchid. Soon, growing pod-producing vanilla vines was possible in other tropical countries.

Vanilla flower hand pollinationBut the process of producing the vanilla was—and still is—a laborious one. It takes three years for a vanilla plant to bloom. Each vanilla flower opens for only one day, and hand-pollination has to be done during a very short window of time. (Watch this video to see how vanilla flowers are pollinated.) Once pollinated, it takes five to nine months for the pods to ripen. When ripe, but before the pods split open, the vanilla pods are picked by hand and then subjected to a multi-step curing process that takes another six months to a year to complete. It is only after this curing process that the vanilla bean develops its distinct vanilla fragrance and flavor. The cured beans are then shipped to an extraction facility, where the beans are ground and soaked in alcohol and water, infusing the vanilla flavor into the liquid that becomes vanilla extract. This long process is the reason for the expense of real vanilla extract.

Woman sorting vanilla pods in MadagascarIn 2022, the price of Madagascar vanilla was between $178 and $206 per pound (Salina Wamucii, 2022) after being only $20 per pound five years before. After two devastating cyclones, which destroyed much of the vanilla crop growing in Madagascar in 2017, prices have soared. The expensive and scarce vanilla has forced farmers to imprint a code on each of their growing vanilla beans in order to deter thieves. Companies that import large quantities of vanilla have banded together to help farmers deal with the environmental problems that are affecting their vanilla vines. They decided that helping the farmers is easier than changing formulations based on a new vanilla product and changing the labels needed for a new product.

Madagascar "Bourbon" Vanilla ExtractThe demand for vanilla flavoring far exceeds the supply. Vanilla contains between 250-500 different flavor and fragrance components. The most prominent is vanillin, which scientists learned how to create in the laboratory in the late 19th century. Vanillin can be made from petrochemicals, from wood pulp, and from eugenol, which is a component of clove oil. This synthetic or imitation vanilla is much cheaper than the real vanilla extract made from the vanilla beans. It is most likely the one used in vanilla-flavored food products that we are familiar with. “The vast bulk, 99 percent of vanilla-flavored products on the market, from vanilla flavored vodka to vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, don’t actually contain vanilla” (Rupp, 2014). For consumers, who are increasingly demanding natural products, vanilla made from petrochemicals or wood chips is a difficult choice to make.

Vanilla ice creamSo, which vanilla product should you use this holiday season—the cheaper imitation vanilla or the real, but expensive, vanilla extract? Some say that if you are baking something that requires a temperature over 300 degrees, you can just as well substitute the imitation for the real thing. But if you are making puddings, custards, or vanilla ice cream, you should use the real thing—vanilla extract.

For recipes and to find out more about vanilla, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.

Photo Credits: 1) Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0); 2) Vanilla beans (Creative Commons); 3) Hand pollinating vanilla flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 us); 4) Woman hand sorting vanilla beans (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0); 5) Vanilla ice cream (Life Made Simple); 6) Madagascar “Bourbon” vanilla extract (Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0).

References

Baker, Aryn. 2018. Vanilla is nearly as expensive as silver. Accessed 11/2/22. https://time.com/5308143/vanilla-price-climate-change-madagascar/

Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. 2022. What are vanilla beans? Accessed 11/13/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/history-of-vanilla-beans-1809274

Laws, Bill. 2018. Fifty plants that changed the course of history. United Kingdom: David & Charles.

My Green Pets. n.d. How to pollinate the vanilla orchid, step by step. Accessed 11/15/22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RdoTcDD2EU

Oon, Samantha. Vanilla beans: the cost of production. Accessed 11/5/22. https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/vanilla-beans-the-cost-of-production

Rupp, Rebecca. 2014. The history of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/plain-vanilla

Selina Wamucii. 2022. Madagascar vanilla prices. Accessed 11/2/22. https://www.selinawamucii.com/insights/prices/madagascar/vanilla/#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20the%20approximate%20price,is%20MGA%201517195.19%20per%20kg.

Sethi, Simran. 2017. The bittersweet story of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/bittersweet-story-vanilla-180962757/


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

A Chufa by Any Other Name, Does It Taste as Sweet?

by Keith Howerton

Cyperus_esculentus whole plant_Blahedo via WikimediaWhat’s in a name? If that name is yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus), the answer is a lot of frustration, and a lot of little tubers that really like to snap off in the soil and resprout. Yellow nutsedge looks a bit like a grass, but it is actually related to sedges. This plant grows well in the heat and can tolerate wet, poorly drained sites better than turfgrasses. It is a common weed in many lawns and in agricultural fields. Since it largely spreads and reproduces by tubers, or nutlets, it is often spread inadvertently when people move soil that has these tubers present. Hand weeding, unless you are extremely thorough, is pretty much a lost cause, and most herbicides provide little effective control. No matter what you do (aside from repeated applications of a targeted herbicide), those pea-sized tubers persist in the soil. 

Despite nutsedge’s difficult personality, its tubers are actually edible; they have a pleasant nutty flavor and a texture that reminds me of shredded coconut. They’re really not bad. The ones that grow as weeds in my area are just so small that I can’t justify the effort to dig them out and clean them when they pop up in my garden.

I recall hearing in passing during a horticulture class several years ago that these tubers–called chufa in Spanish–are used in Spain to make a drink called horchata. Some people in the United States may be familiar with horchata as a Mexican drink, as was I, but the Spanish version is extremely different from the Mexican version. Mexican horchata is rice-based rather than chufa-based. Spain–and a very narrow region of Spain at that–is the only place I know that actively cultivates Cyperus esculentus and processes it to make a beverage. That’s cool and all, but when the nutsedge plants popping up in our gardens invade the space of our other plants, this doesn’t mean a whole lot. So, its culinary use in Spain remained just a fun fact in the back of my mind.

Until recently, that is, when I took a trip to Valencia, Spain, and uhh….

Cultivated field of nutsedge in Spain

Now, I know they’re growing it on purpose, but the gardener in me had a mini heart attack at this sight. Nutsedge. Nutsedge as far as the eye can see. 

A close friend of mine is from Almassera, a village just outside the city of Valencia, and a few friends and I got to visit her in the Fall of 2021. We all hopped on bicycles and started pedaling toward the city on a beautiful stretch of bike trail that passes through dozens of small farms. The ride is maybe twenty minutes to get to the middle of Valencia. 

So, if you are riding with me, it’s about a forty-five-minute ride, because I will stop every five seconds to kneel down and look at the plants. 

Wide angle shot of nutsedge growing in rows on a small farm in Spain

The farm nerd in me loved every second of the bike ride from the village into Valencia; I made the journey several times just for the fun of it. The intricate, ancient aqueduct system irrigates the brown and green patchwork of chufa, lettuces, garlic, fennel, artichokes, tomatoes, and dozens of other varieties of vegetables, as well as the orchards of citrus and other fruits I couldn’t identify at a distance. 

I have never seen anything like it in the United States. A dense urban environment immediately surrounded by small farms growing dozens of different crops with beautiful bike trails frequented by the city’s residents? What? In my own idealistic, sustainability-oriented mind, I couldn’t have dreamed up anything like this. I would have thought it unrealistic. But there it was. Just an unreasonably sustainable local food system in a major metropolitan area, and I had no idea it even existed until I happened upon it by chance. 

Pastries on a white plate next to a milky glass of horchataAnyway, back to the chufas! Horchata is prepared by washing and soaking the chufas, grinding them, pressing the juice out, and then sweetening with sugar before serving cold. It is very similar to the popular plant-based milks prepared from almonds and oats but generally much sweeter.

At the urging of our Almassera native friend, we went to a local shop in Almassera and dipped chocolate-covered pastries in the sweet, nutty drink to finish off our day of biking around the city. Reminiscent of coconut and almond, the drink was refreshing and very unique. The next day, I purchased a small bag of dried chufas just to get a good look at them and keep them as a souvenir.

These chufas must be two or three times the size of any nutsedge tuber I have pulled from my garden, so it began to make a lot more sense to me why this was a viable crop around Valencia. I don’t have a good way to find information on the particular varieties grown, but I assume this size difference is due partly to breeding for cultivation and partly to the loose, fertile soil in which they are cultivated there.

Plate full of medium sized wrinkled brown nutsedge tubersI won’t be planting this jumbo nutsedge in my garden any time soon, but I do enjoy tracing problematic non-native plants back to their origins and getting to appreciate them in the proper context. Which is why I took the liberty of bringing back some tubers and planting them throughout the National Herb Garden at the United States National Arboretum to mix things up a bit. 

(Just kidding) 

Photo Credits: 1)Yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) (Blahedo, via Wikimedia); 2) Cultivated nutsedge in Spain (Keith Howerton); 3) Small farms in Spain growing a variety of crops, including nutsedge (Keith Howerton); 4) Horchata and pastries (Photocapy, via Wikimedia); 5) Tubers of Cyperus esculentus (Marco Schmidt, via Wikimedia)

References

Chufa de Valencia. n.d. Making horchata. Accessed Nov. 22, 2022. Available from http://en.chufadevalencia.org/ver/18/Elaboraci%C3%B3n.html

Patton, A. and D. Weisenberger. 2013. Yellow nutsedge control. Purdue Extension, Turfgrass Management. Accessed Nov. 22, 2022. Available from https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/ay/ay-19-w.pdf


After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum. He has worked with restaurants and hydroponics and now works in urban forestry at Casey Trees in Washington, DC. He is obsessed with all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).

Many Herbal Thanks!

We want to personally thank each and every one of you, our blog readers, for your continued support. We strive to bring you fresh, educational, insightful, and herbally delightful information every week, and it is our hope that you benefit from the articles as much as we do!

Fall color at US National ArboretumWe especially want to thank our many authors who contribute their time and talents to spread herbal wisdom around the globe. We tip our hats to you all. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Gratefully,

Erin and Chrissy, blog masters

Photo Credits: 1) Mexican sunflower (Tithonia sp.); 2) Solanum valerianum ‘Navidad, Jalisco’; 3) Lantana camara cv. and Petunia cv.); 4) Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus); 5) Native woodland fall color, US National Arboretum. All photos courtesy of John Winder (National Herb Garden volunteer extraordinaire!).

Devil’s Tongue (Amorphophallus konjac)

by David McDaniel

A mass of compound-seeming leaves atop squishy stalks pouring out of a large pot in the central circle of the theme garden at the National Herb Garden was labeled “Devil’s Tongue.” Replanting was simple enough, and I did not think much about the plant after that. I figured it was a non-woody shrub of sorts. I recognize that the inability to categorize the plant into defined botanical terms should have tipped me off that it has an interesting life cycle, but it was not until I was making labels that I discovered just how interesting it is.

Amorphophallus konjac is a perennial corm in the Araceae family that grows a single, highly divided leaf, and once the corm reaches maturity it sends out a single inflorescence (Mahr, n.d.). The single leaf divides into the form of a small tree that serves to gather energy for the corm to either further maturity or regenerate after production of an inflorescence. The inflorescence has thousands of flowers at the base of the spadix within the spathe. The spathe is the part of A. konjac that wraps around the central spadix almost like a collar. The spadix is home to the inflorescence at its base and protrudes from the center of the spathe. The flowers are pollinated by carrion flies that are attracted to the smell of dead animals that emanates from the inflorescence (Mahr, n.d.). This plant is native to the Yunnan Province in China, but has become popular around the world for its unique culinary uses (Flora of China, n.d.). 

The winged compound leaves of Amorphophallus konjac

The corm is an engorged stem base, shaped almost like a donut, that stores energy collected by the single leaf it sends up every year. The corm of the plant is edible, but cannot be consumed raw due to the formation of calcium oxalate crystals that cause intense discomfort in the mouth and digestive system (North Carolina Extension Toolbox, n.d.). The calcium oxalate crystals are broken down at baking temperatures; therefore, the peeled and sliced corm must be baked and then ground into a fine powder before it can be used (Fern, 2010). 

A orange package of mango-flavored konjac jelly candyThe powder, when combined with water, makes a jelly. The jelly is traditionally formulated with seaweed to give it a pleasant brine flavor. It is gray when seaweed is used in preparation but is white when prepared without. In Japan, the finished jelly product is called konnyaku, konjac (NC State Extension, n.d.). The English form of the word is pronounced like the liquor, cognac. The jelly takes on the flavor and color of any additional ingredients. Modern uses still have both traditional options, but fruit and vegetables are sometimes added for flavors used in candies and the bubbles in bubble tea. In bubble tea it is used as a replacement for tapioca when a sweet flavor, as opposed to a savory flavor, is desired. More generally, the jelly can be used as a vegan replacement for anywhere gelatin is used. It can also be used as a replacement for seafood. The seaweed preparation of konjac lends a fish flavor to dishes and is used as a vegan substitute for fish. 

Another preparation of konjac is in the form of noodles. The noodles are translucent and are known as shirataki. Shirataki noodles are low calorie, gluten free, and light on carbs (Spritzler, 2018). Keto diet circles hail them as a “miracle food” since they are like wheat noodles, but are not as carbohydrate heavy or high in calories since they are 97% water and only 3% flour (Spritzler, 2018). The noodles can be substituted in recipes that have wheat noodles, provided some limitations are considered (Spritzler, 2018). The primary limitation is the lack of flavor when prepared on their own; however, the noodles will absorb a lot of flavor in the dish when cooked with other ingredients. 

A bowl of konjac noodles in a white bowl with a blue rim, next to a package of noodles with a rooster on the coverThe medicinal properties of konjac come from the glucomannan in the flour, as it is a source of good carbs for gut microbiota while not being available for uptake by humans (Spritzler, 2018). Feeding gut microbiota gives konjac prebiotic properties (Spritzler, 2018). The lack of bioavailability of the glucomannan is another reason konjac is popular in keto diets (Spritzler, 2018). The glucomannan also relieves constipation and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (Fern, 2010; Spritzler, 2018). The mechanism that allows glucomannan to work as such a good source of dietary fiber is that it has a high rate of water absorption by weight, which allows for a higher water content in bowel movements (Devaraj, 2019). The prebiotic properties are due to the preference of healthy bacteria native to the gut for glucomannan over other available sugars (Devaraj, 2019). 

The konjac at the National Herb Garden did not flower this year, but the leaves were large enough we had to plant it in the ground since it was bursting out of the pot. There’s a good chance in the upcoming years that it will flower brilliantly and I hope to see it. After reading about all of the uses of konjac I will be on the lookout for konjac foods and candies on my grocery trips! 

Photo Credits: 1) The tree-like single compound leaf of Amorphophallus konjac (Sebastian Stabinger, via Wikimedia); 2) A group of A. konjac inflorescences, showing the collar-like spathe round the central spadix (James Steakley, via Wikimedia); 3) Close-up of the winged compound leaf (David McDaniel); 4) A packet of mango flavored konjac jelly (Open Food Facts); 5) Konjac noodles (Alpha, via Flicker)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References 

Devaraj, R. D., C. K. Reddy, & B. Xu. 2019. Health-promoting effects of konjac glucomannan and its practical applications: A critical review. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules. 126: 273-281. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30586587/ 

Flora of China (Internet). n.d. Amorphophallus konjac K. Koch, Wochenschr. Gärtnerei Pflanzenk. 1: 262. 1858. Flora of China. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=242302696

Fern, K. n.d. Amorphophallus konjac. Tropical Plants Database. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Amorphophallus+konjac 

Mahr, S. n.d. Voodoo lily, Amorphophallus konjac. Wisconsin Horticulture. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/voodoo-lily-amorphophallus-konjac/

North Carolina Extension Toolbox (Internet). n.d. Amorphophallus konjac. NC State Extension. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/amorphophallus-konjac/#poison

Spritzler, F. 2018. Shirataki noodles 101. Healthline. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/shirataki-noodles-101 


David McDaniel is the National Herb Garden intern for the 2022-2023 season where he’s digging into the herbal uses of plants, as well as learning the ins and outs of public gardening.

Cranberry – Herb for the Holidays

By Maryann Readal

Cranberry fruitThe cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is a native American fruit, as well as an herb that is full of nutrition and medicinal value. It is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November. Cranberry is native to the eastern part of the United States, southern Canada, and the southern Appalachian area. It is a perennial, low–growing, trailing vine. The vine can reach a length of six feet with upright stolons growing up along it. It is these upright stolons that bear the flowers and then the cranberry fruit. Rich, boggy wetlands are the ideal environment for cranberries to grow, but they are also grown in areas with a shallow water table. Cranberry plants in bogFlowers bloom in May and June on the stolons and terminal ends of the vine. Because the flower pollen is too heavy to be carried by the wind, pollination is dependent on native bees and honey bees. Fruit matures after about 80 days, and harvesting begins at the end of September and extends into October. To harvest the berries, the growing area is flooded. Then, the plants are “beaten” with specialized equipment causing the berries, which have four small air pockets in them, to float to the top. (These air pockets also make fresh cranberries bouncy.) The floating berries are corralled into one area and then harvested using conveyor belts. This “wet harvesting” method is used for berries that become cranberry juice and sauce. "Wet" cranberry harvestingAbout 5% of berries are “dry harvested” and packed for use as fresh fruit. Dry harvesting is done by mechanized “combing” of the fruit from the vines (Cranberry Institute, n.d.).

Native Americans use the cranberry to make pemmican, a dried food cake. They were the first to use cranberries to make a sweet sauce using maple sugar (Caruso, n.d.). They also use cranberries as a poultice to treat fevers and wounds. The juice is used as a dye for their blankets and rugs.

Cranberry blossomThe Pilgrims named the berry “crane berry,” because the unopened flower resembled the head, neck, and bill of a crane. The name was later shortened to cranberry. Some also called it “bear berry” because bears liked to eat the berries.

Cultivation of cranberries began in the early 1800s in the northeast US. The first commercial cranberry bed was planted by a Revolutionary War veteran, Henry Hall, in 1816 in Massachusetts. Today, more than 40,000 acres of cranberries are farmed in the United States alone (Cranberry Marketing Committee, 2022). In the beginning, shipments of cranberries were packed in water in barrels containing 100 pounds of fresh fruit. The 100-pound barrel continues to be the standard measurement for cranberries. 

Ocean Spray founder, Elizabeth LeeElizabeth Lee, in New Jersey, made and sold the first cranberry sauce in 1917. Due to the success of her sauce, Bog Sweet Cranberry Sauce, she partnered with two other growers and formed the company Ocean Spray in 1930.

Cranberries contain a high amount of Vitamin C.  In the early days, they were eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy. Today, cranberries are thought to prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). However, studies show that cranberries do not cure these infections (Mount Sinai, n.d.).  But chemicals in cranberries may help to prevent bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract walls, which could prevent UTIs from developing. In 2020, the FDA allowed cranberry producers to label their products saying that there is “limited” evidence to support the claim that cranberries prevent urinary tract infections.  

Cranberry supplementRecent research shows that cranberries can be healthy in other ways. Some research suggests that they can prevent bacterial infections that cause ulcers in the stomach. They also may help slow the buildup of dental plaque. Cranberries have two dozen antioxidant compounds, which help protect cells from damage that can lead to serious diseases such as cancer and heart disease (WebMD, 2020). Cranberries also contain salicylic acid, which can help reduce swelling and prevent blood clots from forming. 

In 2002, several studies found that the antioxidants in cranberries appear to give some protection against Alzheimer’s disease (Univ. of Maine, 2012). In the past, cranberry has been used to treat the common cold, enlarged prostate, and kidney stones. However, there is no good evidence to support the effectiveness of these uses of cranberry.

Resized_20220928_122605Cranberries are a popular accompaniment at holiday meals. A meal of roasted turkey is not complete without the sweet tanginess of cranberry sauce. About 20% of cranberries are consumed at Thanksgiving. It is interesting to note that cranberries are more tart than lemons and also contain less sugar than lemons (Alfaro, 2021). Adding a quarter teaspoon of baking soda can help reduce the tartness of cranberries and, therefore, reduce the need for extra sugar. 

Fresh, frozen, or dried cranberries can be added to pies and cakes. Dried cranberries may need to be rehydrated before being used. Dried cranberries can also be substituted for raisins in many recipes. Fresh Handful of harvested cranberriescranberries are used to make sauces and jellies. When cooking fresh cranberries, they should only be cooked until the skins begin to pop. Chopped fresh cranberries make a colorful addition to salads. They can be a zingy substitute for cherries or pomegranates as well. Fresh cranberries can be frozen and kept in the freezer for up to a year. Frozen cranberries do not have to be unthawed before using. The Cosmopolitan drink is made with cranberry juice. White cranberry juice is made with cranberries that have not yet ripened.

Fresh, dried, or frozen, this is the season to add cranberry, one of our native fruits, to your meals for color, taste, nutrition, and good health. For more information, a beautiful screen saver, and recipes for using cranberry, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.

Photo Credits: 1) Cranberry fruit (Chrissy Moore); 2) “Wet” cranberry harvesting (Public Domain); 3) Cranberry flower (Public Domain); 4) Elizabeth Lee, founder Ocean Spray company (Public Domain); 5) Cranberry supplement (Public Domain); 6) Cranberry fruit and plant (Chrissy Moore); 7) Cranberry fruit (Public Domain).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References

Alfaro, Danilo. 2021. What are cranberries. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-are-cranberries-5199220

Cranberry Institute. n.d. About cranberries. Accessed 10/4/22. https://www.cranberryinstitute.org/cranberry-health-research/library/category/new-researchCranberry 

The cranberry story. n.d. Accessed 10/17/22 https://www.nj.gov/pinelands/infor/educational/curriculum/pinecur/tcs.htm

Filipone, Peggy Trowbridge. 2019. Cranberry cooking tips. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/cranberry-cooking-tips-1807845

Griffin, R. Morgan. 2021. Cranberries and your health. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.webmd.com/diet/supplement-guide-cranberry

Mount Sinai. n.d. Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon. Accessed 10/11/22. https:// www.mountsinai.org/healthlibrary/herb/cranberry#:~:text=Aspirin%3A%20Like%20aspirin%2C%20cranberries%20contain,drink%20a%20lot%20of%20juice.

Natural History of the American Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon Ait. Accessed 10/4/22. http://www.umass.edu/cranberry/downloads/nathist.pdf

University of Maine Cooperative Extension. n.d. Cranberry facts and history. Accessed 10/11/22. http://extension.umaine.edu/cranberries/cranberry-facts-and-history


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Ghosts and Theriac

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

It’s All Hallows Night…the time when the veils between the worlds are at their thinnest, the time when we walk around not quite alone in the night, the time when we can see unsettling things that really aren’t supposed to be there in the shadowy corners. For me, this time of year is always intriguing, because I’ve always been able to see what is, for most people, unseen.

Path through an old cemetery overgrown with ivy

Every time I’m in Europe, I can feel the ghosts of the Black Death all around me as I walk through the ancient museums, catacombs, and graveyards. You can barely miss them. The commemorative plaques are everywhere. I’m thoroughly convinced that this is why most of Europe handled Covid 19 initially with collective wisdom. After all, they’d seen it before.

The Bubonic Plague of 1348 had a catastrophic impact on the trajectory of human and European history. The political, social, economic, and psychological landscape of the countries impacted would never be the same. We know now that the Bubonic Plague was caused by a bacterium carried by infected fleas traveling on rats, but at the time a clear cause for the disease was unknown. In an era when physicians employed techniques such as bloodletting, placing pieces of snake on the pustules caused by the disease, and leeches, the future would obviously seem quite bleak.

Historical illustration of a plague doctor, wearing a black robe and a beaked maskHowever, in the search to find something, anything that would serve as a hopeful cure-all, the physicians of that time turned to an ancient, compounded preparation called theriac. Hailing from the time of Nero and prepared as a medicinal treacle in one way or another since the 3rd century until the age of the Enlightenment (late 17th century), theriac was a time consuming and multi-ingredient preparation. Although it was initially created to cure the bites of snakes, mad dogs, scorpions, and any other beasts, theriac was taken prophylactically by anyone who feared poisoning or was considered at risk of contracting any number of infectious diseases, epidemic or otherwise.

Theriac was compounded with many different ingredients, and the recipe varied from place to place. Ingredients like honey, garlic, viper flesh, cinnamon, ambergris, and opium were the most common ingredients, but there were at least 50 or 60 plant-derived compounds that were used in the making of it. Tiny amounts of poison were a common inclusion in most theriac recipes, as each natural poison was believed to draw out the poisons that were already affecting the patient.

Historic line drawing of an apothecary publicly preparing theriacTerrified people living with the continuous threat of the plague and living within a society without the medical advances we take for granted were looking for one miracle medicine that would keep them from contracting it, or at least give them a fighting chance of surviving it and keeping their families safe.

As a result, theriac treacle was being prepared all over Europe, in hopes that it would be the panacea that would finally keep the Black Death at bay. It does not seem that theriac was toxic when it was used as prescribed; however, there are many accounts of a placebo effect which I find fascinating. My brother, a surgeon by trade, always said that hope, love, and joy were the strongest medicines any sick man could ingest.

By the 19th century, the efficacy of theriac was being questioned, but to this day the legend survives. There is an over-the-counter wound ointment with the same name prepared from Manuka honey and other herbs, roots, and flowers.

Not to be outdone, the herbalists of today have revived the romantic recipes and legends surrounding theriac and are busy creating their own versions of this most curious of alchemical medicines. However, the most important ingredients are hope, love, and joy. Without those three things healing has no place to happen.

Ornately painted vase for theriacAll Hallows Eve is a time to listen to the whispers in the dark and a time when if you dare to ask, those that have crossed over will reappear, sometimes with the answers you need. Even if you don’t listen, sometimes you will feel them pulling you away from danger and then you will look. You’ll never see their misty astral bodies in the sunlight, yet I promise that you will know that they have been there.

Even with the miracle of vaccines and other medicines, our needs haven’t changed much over the centuries. Three long Covid years and many centuries later, the wheel of the year has turned once again towards winter. It brings us back into the dark, plunging us deeply into the time of year when our need to move is inside towards the hearth, away from the bone drenching cold and into the arms of our families and lovers. Every generation has its theriac, but truly? This is the most important medicine that we have.

My mother just whispered to me that I needed to make some good old fashioned chicken soup and to not forget to add the cracked pepper, rubbed sage, thyme, mushrooms, and barley.

I think I’ll listen….

Wishing all of you a blessed Samhain or the happiest of Halloweens however you celebrate.

Photo Credits: 1) Highgate Cemetery East in England (Panyd The Muffin is not Subtle, via Wikimedia); 2) A plague doctor in 1656, with a beaked masked stuffed with herbs thought to protect from the plague (Paul Fürst, Public Domain); 3) An apothecary publicly preparing theriac (Wellcome Collection Gallery); 4) Albarello vase for theriac (Wellcome Collection Gallery)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References

Gyford, P. 2022. The diary of Samuel Pepys. [Internet]. Venice treacle. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from https://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/8746/

Raj, D., K. Pękacka-Falkowska, M. Włodarczyk, and J. Węglorz. 2021. The real theriac – panacea, poisonous drug or quackery? Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 281. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874121007649

Retsas, S. 2020. Clinical trials and the COVID-19 pandemic. Hell. J. Nucl. Med. 23: 4-5. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from https://www.nuclmed.gr/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/03.Commentary-Retsas.pdf

Theriac: Advanced healing ointment. N.d. Accessed Oct. 30, 2022. Available from https://theriacheals.com/


Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the Senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/, or contact her at  beth.gehring@stirringthesenses.com

Oh My Agave!

by Joe Hughes

A group of gray green, spikey Agave sisalana plantsThe mention of our neighbor to the south typically conjures up images of sunny beaches, arid deserts and plateaus, a rich cultural history, delicious cuisine, and of course tequila. So, on a recent trip to Mexico City it came as no surprise to see the landscape dotted with agave, cacti, and various shrubs, growing ever more frequent as we slowly made our way out of the bustling city and toward Teotihuacan. It was here, at a well-established tourist outpost just outside of the ruins, that we were introduced to the many uses of the agave that can be found all over the area.

Small glass bottle of a milky pulque on a flowered table clothMost notably to us, agave is the main component in the production of tequila or mezcal. At Teotihuacan, visitors are able to enjoy a tasting tour through the various spirits that can be made from agave. We began by tasting pulque, a “non-distilled traditional alcoholic beverage produced by the fermentation of the [agave] sap known as aguamiel” (Escalante et al., 2008). This sweet, viscous, milky drink had a mild sugariness that was very pleasant, with the texture of a smoothie I had made in my blender at home. We then moved on to sampling some mezcal, a liquor that is much more similar to the tequila that many are familiar with, with one important distinction. Katie Robbins at Delish (Robbins, 2021) states that “while mezcal can be made from a blend of one of 250 types of [agave] to be classified as tequila, a bottle must be at least 51 percent blue agave (Agave tequilana).” Similarly to champagne, tequila must satisfy these certain conditions to be considered truly tequila, otherwise it is a mezcal. What better venue for this lesson than at the ruins of an ancient metropolis at 10:00 in the morning?

After a healthy amount of samples, our guides continued to explain that these herbs can provide many other products besides just spirits. The Maya and Aztecs, who lived across what is now Mexico, have been utilizing these plants for the past several thousand years to construct crude fabrics, papers, and tools that could be used for a multitude of purposes (Siegler, 2005).

Brown, pressed herbarium specimen of Agave sisalanaThough there are many species of agave in cultivation, there are a few species (notably Agave sisalana [sisal] and A. fourcroydes [henequen]) that are cultivated specifically for their ability to produce long, durable fibers that can be made into a variety of useful textiles. These fibers are acquired by scraping away the upper layers of each large, rigid leaf and “hand stripping” these fibers out of the plant, in a process called decortication (Future Fibers, 2022). The fibers must then be dried and brushed before they can be processed into a textile for use by humans. Fibers achieved through this process can be used in a variety of different ways. Most simply, these fibers can be woven into a durable thread and used as is. In turn, this thread can be further manipulated into string or twine, as well as textiles for clothing and carpets, and is especially useful nowadays as a buffing cloth for steel (Future Fibers, 2022). At a shop just outside Teotihuacan, these fibers have been used to make a wide variety of souvenirs and trinkets, in a bit of a departure from its historic utilitarian purpose.

Multicolored, predominately green blanket made from Agave fibersThese plants can also provide other sorts of products from different methods of harvest. The sharp prickles that grow at the end of agave leaves can be used as a needle, in conjunction with the sisal thread, to sew together pieces of sisal textile. The uppermost layers of the leaves can be used as a sort of paper, once peeled off into a thin, flexible sheet. A paper can also be made by pressing the pulp of the agave plant, in a manner more similar to that of paper production with woody pulp.

These agave fibers played an important economic role across southern Mexico until the early 20th century, when the introduction of synthetic plastic fibers at a much lower cost caused demand to shift away from the naturally occurring sisal. The industry faced other challenges as the world around it globalized, with sisal production being brought to Brazil and East Africa in a bid to increase production and profits. These areas, though similar in climate, have since outpaced Mexico in sisal production (Vuorinne, Heiskanen, & Pellikka, 2021). This was achieved by straying slightly from the traditional methods of cultivation, harvesting, and processing used by the Maya and Aztec peoples, and utilizing technology that was unavailable a few centuries ago.

Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan. Ancient pyramid under a blue sky with puffy white cloudsEfforts are being made to restore the historic levels of sisal production in Mexico, as well as globally, in a bid to combat the increased dependence on synthetically produced fibers. Through groups like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, emphasis is being placed on building sustainable production mechanisms that can satisfy global demand with a supply of natural sisal fiber. 

Visiting this ancient city was a wonderful experience that I cannot recommend highly enough. If seeing an archaeological wonder up close, coupled with a lesson on agave-based alcohol aren’t enough, consider the knowledge you can gain on the importance of utilizing the natural resources we have been provided by this planet, as opposed to concocting synthetic stand-ins. This experience is evidence enough we still have more to learn from the many, many generations that came before us.

Photo Credits: 1) Agave sisalana cultivated at Cooktown Botanic Gardens (Lokal_Profil, via Wikimedia); 2) Bottle of pulque (Alejandro Linares Garcia, via Wikimedia); 3) A. sisalana U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium Specimen with extracted fibers included; 4) Blanket made from Agave fibers (J. Hughes); 5) Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan (J. Hughes)

References

Escalante, A., M. Giles-Gomez, G. Hernandez, M.S. Cordova-Aguilar, A. Lopez-Munguia, et al. 31 May 2008. Analysis of bacterial community during the fermentation of pulque, a traditional Mexican alcoholic beverage, using a polyphasic approach. International Journal of Food Microbiology 124:126-134. Accessed October 10, 2022. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168160508001244 

Future Fibers: Sisal (Internet) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed October 4, 2022. Available from: https://www.fao.org/economic/futurefibres/fibres/sisal/en/

Robbins, Katie. 2021. There’s only one kind of mezcal you’ll find worms in. Delish. Accessed  October 10, 2022. Available from: https://www.delish.com/cooking/news/a38585/waiter-theres-no-worm-in-my-tequila/

Siegler, David S. April 2005. Fibers from plants. University of Illinois, Urbana. Department of Plant Biology. Accessed October 4, 2022. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20130804031742/http://www.life.illinois.edu/ib/363/FIBERS.html

Vuorinne, I., J. Heiskanen, P.K.E. Pellikka. 12 January 2021. Assessing leaf biomass of Agave sisalana using Sentinel-2 vegetation indices. Remote Sens 13(2):233. Accessed October 10, 2022. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/13/2/233 

 


Joe Hughes is a graduate of The George Washington University (2021) and in his second year as an ORISE intern at the U.S. National Arboretum Herbarium. In his free time he enjoys traveling and exploring parks around Washington, D.C.

Holiday Herbal Cocktail Party

By Debbie Boutelier

Join Debbie Boutelier for a new webinar on Thursday, October 20th, at 1 pm Eastern. See below for details!

Bourbon mint teaFall and winter are the perfect “thyme” to enjoy some new seasonal herbal libations. As we move away from the oppressive heat of summer with our icy and light drinks enjoyed by the pool or lakeside, we can curate our offerings with the stronger, more flavorful herbs. Herbal cocktails and mocktails continue to be very popular and have the perfect flavor profile for wowing our guests as we entertain for the holidays.

Throughout the ages, herbs have been added to drinks because they aided digestion; they were fortifying for the seasons; they lifted one’s mood; and they smelled and tasted absolutely amazing! Crafting a flavorful cocktail to offer your guests is easy and a lot of fun. Using your creativity and a few good herbal tricks, you can develop your own signature cocktail that your guests will be talking about and begging you for the recipe.

Here are a few tips to get you started on your creative and tasty journey:

  • Bloody Mary with celery stickStart with the classics and embellish them with herbs. One of the very first cocktails I enjoyed was a classic Bloody Mary. I loved tomato juice, and I was totally infatuated and intrigued with the celery stick garnish. (It didn’t take much to impress me at that early age!) Now, I have so much fun with a Bloody Mary, and it doesn’t taste anything like that Plain Jane Bloody Mary of years past. There are so many herbs that pair nicely with tomatoes. With a high-powered blender, add a few Mediterranean herbs to the juice. There will be a wonderful flavor without the flecks of herbs floating in the glass. Then, to top it off, add a salted rim around the top. Not just any plain salt will do. Make your own finishing salt with chile and a little lime. Yum!
  • Make an herbal infusion as the primary base of a cocktail. One of my favorites this week (it changes frequently!) is a hibiscus, ginger, and mint infusion. Add a couple of droppers of a citrus bitter that you can easily make and top with tonic water or club soda. Garnish with a sprig of mint and an orange twist.
  • Make an herbal simple syrup. Simple syrup is in the DNA of any southern gal, but is easy to make. Start with one cup of filtered water. Add one cup of organic cane sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the liquid is clear. Add an herb of choice, remove from the heat and cover. Let sit for at least fifteen minutes. Taste. If a stronger flavor is desired, remove the herb and add some fresh. Let steep a little longer. Removing the spent herb is important as it may get bitter and ruin the syrup. The syrup can be refrigerated for up to a week and frozen if needed. For fall and winter, an elderberry syrup is a good choice. Elderberries are a great way to drink your medicine as they are very effective against colds and flu. Make an Elderberry Champagne Cocktail by adding 1 ounce of gin and 1 ounce of elderberry syrup to a champagne flute. Top with chilled Champagne and garnish with a berry skewer. This takes toasting to a whole different level!

Sage gin with rosemaryNow it’s time to party! Invite a few friends over, serve some appetizers and your wonderful new herbal creations, and enjoy the accolades. Salut!

There is still time to register for Holiday Herbs Cocktail Party on Thursday, October 20th, at 1 pm Eastern. The webinar, free for members and just $7.50 for all others, will include recipes, tips, and techniques for creating your own signature holiday cocktails. A recording is emailed following the presentation if you are unable to attend. https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

Photo credits: 1) Bourbon mint tea (Creative Commons, thebittenword); 2) Bloody Mary (Creative Commons, TheCulinaryGeek); 3) Sage gin with rosemary (Creative Commons, danielle_blue).


Debbie Boutelier is The Herb Society of America’s GreenBridges™ Chair and HSA Past President. She is an Alabama Advanced Master Gardener and has studied the medicinal uses of herbs for many years, completing a three-year intensive study of the medicinal aspect of herbs at the Appalachian Center of Natural Health. Debbie now teaches nationally and presents seminars and workshops on the many aspects of herbs, organic gardening, nutrition, and other garden related topics. Debbie’s herb passion has led to the creation of her small cottage herb business, Rooted in Thyme Apothecary.

The Power of One: A GreenBridges™ Story

by Debbie Boutelier

(Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in a recent HSA newsletter. It has been edited for clarity for this post.)

Pipevine swallowtail butterflyIn a recent GreenBridges™ presentation, I mentioned the power of one several times. I’d like to share a short story about how the power of one worked in my GreenBridges™ garden. My garden was certified a number of years ago, and I have been slowly incorporating more native plants into my landscape. (We all NEED a reason to buy more plants, right???) 

When COVID hit, and we all had to stay home more, I decided it was time to kick my garden projects into full speed and actually complete those projects that had been in the planning stage for a while. (I’m not going to admit how long they were in the planning stage, so don’t ask!) I made a pledge to myself at that time that at least 90% of the plant material to finish these projects would be natives. I knew a lot of our local natives, but it was so much fun researching the lesser known species and then actually finding them. 

Monarch caterpillarFast forward to this past spring. When the weather started warming up, I noticed more pollinators busy in the garden collecting nectar from the early blooming plants. THEN, I noticed the number of butterflies that were enjoying my garden. Oh my gosh, for several weeks, I would go out into the garden and literally feel like I was in a butterfly house at a botanical garden! The butterflies swarmed around me as I worked in the beds. It made my heart so happy! I wish I had made a video, but I was living in the moment. There were different swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, skippers, hairstreaks, Eastern tailed-blues, sulfurs, American painted ladies, viceroys, buckeyes, and some I did not recognize. I enjoyed their presence immensely. Even though that period was totally glorious, I still have good numbers of the winged beauties visiting daily. 

Gulf fritillary on buttonbush flowerMy granddaughter and I enjoyed raising swallowtail and gulf fritillary caterpillars this summer. We  released 47 swallowtails and nine fritillaries. The swallowtails slowed down after having eaten every morsel of parsley, dill, and fennel in my garden. I saw more fritillaries at that time of the season as they voraciously attacked the passionvine. By the end of the summer, those vines were leafless, but that’s fine with me. I know they will be back next year to provide for the new generations.

I also need to mention the bees. They have also immensely enjoyed the bounty in the garden. Earlier in the season, my granddaughter and I stood under the Vitex trees while they were blooming and listened to the buzzing. The trees were alive with movement and sound! Even though the Vitex agnus-castus is not native to our country, it is still welcome in my garden for the amount of nectar it provides for the winged visitors.

Bee on Echinacea flowerThough just about over, this has been a spectacular gardening season. I truly believe that each of us can make a difference right where we are. The effort is so worth it!

It is easy to get your garden to be a certified GreenBridges™ garden. The application is on The Herb Society of America website: https://www.herbsociety.org/get-involved/greenbridges-initiative.html  Just answer a few questions and take a few pictures to send with the application. We are actively building green bridges across communities, towns, cities, regions, and the entire country. Let your power of one join with the rest to make a huge difference for our native plants and pollinators.

Photo Credits: 1) Pipevine swallowtail (Alabama Butterfly Atlas); 2) Monarch butterfly caterpillar (Christopher Upton, US National Arboretum); 3) Gulf fritillary (TexasEagle, CC BY-NC 2.0); 4) Bee on Echinacea flower (Christopher Upton, US National Arboretum).


Debbie Boutelier is The Herb Society of America’s GreenBridges™ Chair and HSA Past President. She is an Alabama Advanced Master Gardener and has studied the medicinal uses of herbs for many years, completing a three-year intensive study of the medicinal aspect of herbs at the Appalachian Center of Natural Health. Debbie now teaches nationally and presents seminars and workshops on the many aspects of herbs, organic gardening, nutrition, and other garden related topics. Debbie’s herb passion has led to the creation of her small cottage herb business, Rooted in Thyme Apothecary.

Well, Well, What Do We Have Here? A Tale of Two Acorus Species

by Erin Holden

Tall, thin green leaves with a whitish-greenish spadixWhile doing research for a presentation on herbal uses of native plants, I decided to look more into a plant I’d learned about in herb school, sweet flag (Acorus calamus). This strongly aromatic aquatic plant has long been my favorite warming digestive bitter for those times when I overindulge in a huge meal (I’m looking at you, Thanksgiving). The flavor is warm, pungent, bitter, and spicy in a black-peppery way – the flavor sort of fills up your mouth and is warm all the way down to your stomach. But as I dug deeper into the research, I discovered I’d been wrong all this time about the origin of the Acorus species I’d been using. It turns out that A. calamus is native to Europe, temperate India, and the Himalayan region, while the native species is A. americanus (also called sweet flag), although the two species look so similar that even some scientists are unsure of which species they’ve studied and reported on. There still isn’t much consensus among taxonomists as to what differentiates these two – some even classify them as the same species (Boufford,1993; eFloras, 2008). Let’s take a deeper look at the similarities and differences between these two plants. 

There are many common names for sweet flag from all over the world (Daglan, 2014), many of which describe either the flavor of the root (like bitter, sweet, pepper) or its watery habitat:

Muskrat_eating_plant Linda Tanner via wikimediaAbenaki: mokwaswaskw (muskrat plant)

Ayurvedic Tradition: vacha 

Cheyenne: wi’ukh is e’evo (bitter medicine) 

Chinese Medicine: shui chang pú (watery flourishing weed)

English: sweet flag, calamus 

Hudson Bay Cree: pow-e-men-arctic (fire or bitter pepper root) 

Penobscot and Nanticoke: muskrat root

Micmac: ig gig’wesukwul (muskrat root)  

Pawnee: kahtsha itu (medicine lying in water) 

Many Native American names connect Acorus with muskrats. According to Sue Thompson’s dissertation on Acorus (as reported by Daglin, 2014): 

There seems to be “a closely linked ecological relationship between Native Americans trapping muskrats and using Acorus, muskrats eating Acorus, and Acorus. Muskrat feeding habits may in part be responsible for the dispersal of Acorus, and Native Americans may have intentionally planted Acorus both for their own medicinal use and to ensure food for the muskrat, which was economically valuable to them (Morgan 1980). Thus, the many Native American names for Acorus, which involve muskrat as a root word, may reflect an important economic and ecological relationship among man, plants, and other wildlife.”

A border planting of tall, thin green Acorus calamus leavesBoth species are perennial, grow in zones 4 to 10, have 1’–3’ tall iris-like leaves, and can spread 1’–2’. They bloom April through June, and like full sun to part shade. The inflorescence is a green spadix with no spathe (a spathe is a hood-like structure, like the white part of a peace lily). Both A. americanus and A. calamus are freshwater aquatic plants that grow in medium to wet soil and can grow in up to nine inches of water. They’re both easily propagated by root/rhizome divisions in the spring. Since they are aquatic plants, they can be used in water gardens, ponds, or rain gardens. They can also grow in regular garden beds as long as they get adequate water, so they’re very versatile if you’re looking for tall, straight leaves (Missouri Botanical Garden, 2022).

Although the two species look very much alike, there are some subtle differences you can use to tell them apart. A. calamus has leaves with one prominent vein and undulate (wavy) margins, does not produce fruit, and will “appear to have a shriveled ovary” in late summer, whereas A. americanus has leaves with two to six veins and smooth margins, produces small green berries, and has swelling ovaries in late summer (Dalgin, 2014).

There are also some unseen differences between the two. It turns out that A. americanus is a fertile diploid species and contains almost no phenylpropanoids, a chemical family whose members play a role in the flavors and aromas of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sassafras. A. calamus is a (mostly) sterile triploid (there are some populations of a fertile diploid phenotype in Asia that are morphologically distinct from the North American A. americanus). In addition, 13% of its volatile oil fraction is made up of those phenylpropanoids, one of which is β-asarone.

Botanical illustration of Acorus calamusThis chemical distinction is important, because β-asarone has demonstrated procarcinogenic tendencies (meaning it could metabolize into a cancer causing compound), and the FDA has banned the use of “calamus, calamus oil, or extract of oil in food,” although these studies used high levels of isolated β-asarone and not “suggested doses of the whole plant in terms of mg/kg of body weight” that an herbalist would recommend. However, since A. americanus has little to no β-asarone, it’s been suggested that this species is safe to consume (Dalgin, 2014).

Sweet flag is an important plant for many native peoples. One writer said it is “considered so sacred [to the Cheyenne] that only qualified Sundance priests [can] collect it,” and it “may be the most important herb in Penobscot pharmacology” (Dalgin, 2014). 

Historically, the Dakota used a paste on their faces to “instill fearlessness and provide stamina” in battle and chewed the rhizomes to enhance endurance “during the wars of the 20th century” (Dalgin, 2014). 

Other uses for the plant include: colds, flu, and sore throat; as a tonic; for intestinal pain and as a carminative (dispels gas); as a stimulant when tired; toothache; an analgesic for muscle cramps/spasm; and in ceremonial/religious rituals.

Tall, thin leaves of Acorus americanus growing along the bank of a streamColonists also used Acorus, and Eclectic physicians (doctors in the 1800s) incorporated it into their materia medica (list of medicinal substances). Eventually, it made its way into the first edition of the  Dispensatory of the United States in 1833 (Osol et al, 1833), which cataloged drugs used by U.S. pharmacists at the time. These groups used it pretty much the same way that Native Americans use it: as a carminative, for weak digestion and flatulent colic, as a sialagogue (stimulates saliva production) and as “breath perfume,” a warming aromatic bitter, and externally for ulcers that wouldn’t heal (Dalgin, 2014). 

Some modern herbalists who use both species say that, because of its higher volatile oil content, A. calamus targets the gastrointestinal system more specifically, while A. americanus has a “more balanced” action on the whole body—working equally on the gastrointestinal and nervous system, as an expectorant (which helps clear gunk from the lungs), spasmolytic (calms spasms), and antitussive (Daglin, 2014).

Now that I know about A. americanus and its different effects on the body, I’m interested in experimenting with the two species. I’ve also planted it out in the Native American bed in the National Herb Garden. I wonder if we should also invest in a muskrat.

Photo Credits: 1) Acorus calamus inflorescence (E. Holden); 2) Muskrat (Linda Tanner, via Wikimedia ); 3) Acorus sp. used as a mass border planting (KENPEI, via Wikimedia  ); 4) Two prominent veins and smooth leaf margins of A. americanus (E. Holden); 5) The prominent midvein and undulate leaf margins of A. calamus (E. Holden); 6) Botanical illustration of A. calamus (Creative Commons, Rawpixal LTD); 7) Acorus americanus growing along a stream bank (Ryan Hodnett, via Wikimedia)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments. 

References 

Boufford, D. E. 1993+. Acorus. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. Flora of North America North of Mexico [Online]. 22+ vols. New York and Oxford. Vol. 3. Accessed 10/5/22. Available from http://beta.floranorthamerica.org/Acorus

Dalgin, R. 2014. Acorus calamus and Acorus americanus. Integrative Herbalism: Journal of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Summer, 30-78.

eFloras. (Internet). 2008. Acorus calamus. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO & Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA. Accessed 10/5/2022. Available from http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200027130

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. (Internet). 2015. Acorus americanus (Raf.) Raf. Accessed 1/7/2022. Available from https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ACAM

Missouri Botanical Garden. 2022. Acorus calamus. Accessed 1/7/2022. Available from https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=276172

Orsol, A., C. H. LaWall, F. Bache, G. B. Wood, G. E. Farrar, H. C. Wood Jr., and J. P. Remington. The dispensatory of the United States of America. Grigg & Elliot: Wisconsin. Available from https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Dispensatory_of_the_United_States_of/xikzAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.