By Angela Magnan
A former roommate once picked on me because I saved the crumbs from the bottom of cracker, chip, and pretzel bags. A few years later, he admitted he was rather impressed with all the different uses I found for them, from incorporating them into quiche crusts and coating fish, to topping casseroles and mixing them into meatballs. So it is not surprising that I am often astounded by the bags of trash that get brought to the curb after my neighbors host summer barbecues. I can’t help but wonder: how much of my neighbors’ food waste could be used for something else?
One of the great pleasures of summer is fresh corn on the cob, and one of my least favorite things is the silk that often interferes with that pleasure. But these silky strands can be dried and used as a tea. Corn silk was used by Native Americans to treat urinary tract infections, malaria, and heart problems. It has been used in China, Turkey, and France as well to treat kidney stones, prostate disorders, bedwetting, and obesity. Studies on rats have shown some merit for its use as a diuretic agent, a blood sugar regulator, and an antidepressant. It also has high antioxidant activity. Traditionally, corn silk was collected prior to pollination, but research has shown that mature corn silk from fully developed ears actually has a higher level of antioxidant activity.
Onion skins can also be used for tea. Simply add boiling water to onion skins and let it steep to a beautiful chestnut color. Onion skins contain quercetin, a compound found in many other fruits, vegetables, leaves, seeds, and grains, including apples, grapes, and black and green teas. Quercetin has shown anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties in studies on rats, but some research has shown that quercetin degrades without the presence of Vitamin C, meaning that both would need to be present to be beneficial.
Although not as tasty and naturally sweet as the purchased corn silk tea I tried, I found the onion skin tea only slightly bitter with a smooth, pleasant earthy taste. It might taste even better, and be more effective, with a splash of OJ.
Or let it steep longer and use it as a fabric dye or wood stain. After steeping for 24 hours, I dipped one side of a spare piece of basswood trim in the onion skin tea and let it soak for more than an hour. It made a light honey-colored stain that is certainly less smelly and more eco-friendly than oil-based stains. Initially, I tried to wipe the stain onto the wood with a rag, and that didn’t work, so I would recommend this only on dippable small projects.
Do you have leftover lemon peels from making lemonade or lemon bars? Lemon peels are used for fragrance and deodorizing and have antimicrobial and insecticidal properties. Internet searches return results such as “50+ Ways to Use Lemon Peels.” Some of the recommendations include adding lemon peels to your bath; putting dried peels in mesh bags and placing the bags in a drawer or in your shoes to make them smell better; rubbing the peels on your skin when you run out of insect repellent or to eliminate garlic and onion odor; using them to polish your stainless steel sink or chrome faucets; starting a fire with the highly flammable dried peels; and rubbing the peel over your cutting board to sanitize it.
Although research validates that lemon peels do have antimicrobial properties, they seem to be more effective on some microbes than others. One research study found that lemon juice was very effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that often causes food poisoning, but it was slightly less effective against Salmonella and even less so against E. coli. Another study using essential oils found lemon oil to have similar results. So, I am not sure I would trust a lemon peel to sanitize my cutting board, but I might be more inclined to add lemon to my water when attending my next barbecue. Just in case.
Clax, J. “10 DIY wood stains that are homemade easily.” The Basic Woodworking: A Complete Guide. https://www.thebasicwoodworking.com/10-diy-wood-stains-that-are-homemade-easily/
Hasanudin K, Hashim P, Mustafa S. Corn silk (Stigma maydis) in healthcare: a phytochemical and pharmacological review. Molecules. 2012;17(8):9697-9715. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6268265/
Li Y, Yao J, Han C, et al. Quercetin, Inflammation and Immunity. Nutrients. 2016;8(3):167. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4808895/
Oikeh EI, Omoregie ES, Oviasogie FE, Oriakhi K. Phytochemical, antimicrobial, and antioxidant activities of different citrus juice concentrates. Food Sci Nutr. 2015;4(1):103-109. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4708628/
Ozogul Y , Kuley E, Uçar Y, and Ozogul F. Antimicrobial impacts of essential oils on food borne-pathogens. Rec Pat on Food, Nutr & Agr. 2015;7(1):53-61. Retrieved from: https://www.eurekaselect.com/132210/article
Vrijsen R, Everaert L, Boeyé A. Antiviral activity of flavones and potentiation by ascorbate. J Gen Virol. 1988;69:1749–51. Retrieved from: https://www.microbiologyresearch.org/docserver/fulltext/jgv/69/7/JV0690071749.pdf?expires=1597169419&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=3E98B31038B249A2FA74F0BDF07D4707
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.
Photo credits: 1) Corn silk (FreeImages.com); 2) onion skin tea (author’s photo); 3) wood trim stained with onion tea (author’s photo); 4) lemon peel fire starter (author’s photo).
Angela Magnan grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and has degrees in biochemistry, horticulture, and science writing. She now lives in Maryland and has worked in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum since 2012.