Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

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.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.

HSA Webinar: Shedding Light on the Solanaceae: An Exploration of Our Relationship with Nightshades

by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

20170811_093151The nightshade family of plants sounds ominous  – how could it not with the use of the words night and shade? The official name of this family is Solanaceae, and these plants are characterized by the shape of the flower, which in some cases feature near perfect pentagrams of petals, sepals, and stamens, and in others the petals are fused to form long tubes.

The Solanaceae features nearly 90 genera and 3,000 species, including some of humanity’s most important plants. You may be surprised to learn that many of our everyday foods fall in the nightshade family. These include hot and bell peppers, potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes. To learn more, join HSA on April 13th at 1pm EDT when National Herb Garden gardener, Erin Holden, joins us for “Shedding Light on the Solanaceae: An Exploration of Our Relationship with Nightshades.” 

Lycopersicon_esculentum_Supersweet_100_0zz by David J StangAlthough many plants in this family are edible, others are recognized for their hallucinogenic properties, use in witchcraft, and/or some level of toxicity. The toxicity comes from the level of alkaloids the plant contains, and the effects of these alkaloids are what made them useful historically. For example, thornapple (Datura stramonium) was used by religions to aid in dreams and visions. More recognizable is the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), which was highlighted in the Harry Potter series for its role in potion making. It is surmised that the high level of alkaloids evolved out of self-preservation to prevent being consumed by animals. During our April 13th program the deep relationship between humans and members of the Solanaceae family will be further explored, from their magical uses to their application as medicine, poison, and food.  

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today and enjoy all our webinars for free. As a bonus, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a free registration to our June 10-12th, 2021 Annual Meeting of Members and Educational Conference.  To register visit www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/

Photo Credits: 1) Datura stramonium (Erin Holden); 2) Lycopersicon esculentum ‘Supersweet 100(David J. Stang)


About Erin Holden: Erin Holden works at the U.S. National Arboretum as gardener for the National Herb Garden, where she started as an intern in 2013. She received a B.S. in biology from Radford University, an M.S. in herbal medicine from the Maryland University of Integrative Health, and recently completed a horticulture minor through Oregon State University. In 2018 she helped launch Herban Lifestyles, an herbal educational series at the Arboretum that teaches participants how to incorporate herbs into everyday life, from dyeing with plants to making herbal salves.

In addition to working at the National Arboretum, Erin is a clinical herbalist and has served as a teaching assistant for different herbal medicine graduate courses. Erin has also started a small business creating art with plants. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of The Herb Society of America.

Chervil – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

chervil plantChervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, is similar to parsley but has a milder, anise flavor. It is sometimes called French parsley or garden parsley. The Romans named it cherifoliu, the ‘cheri’ part meaning delight and the ‘folium’ part meaning leaves—the joy of leaves.

Chervil is important in French cuisine, where it is an ingredient in classic sauces such as béarnaise and ravigote. These sauces pair well with fish, veal, or chicken. Along with parsley, chives, and tarragon, chervil is in the French herb combination, herbes fines. Chervil is better used fresh as it loses its flavor when dried. It should be added at the end of cooking to get the most out of its flavor. It is a good addition to omelets and salads and can be sprinkled over fresh fruit. Chervil makes a flavorful and colorful butter. The leaves and flowers can be used to flavor vinegar.

Chervil is an annual herb that prefers moist earth and the coolness of spring. In warmer areas, it will be a winter herb. It produces long, dark brown seeds that easily germinate, and the plant can reseed. Because of its taproot, however, chervil does not transplant well. It is recommended to sow successive plantings to have a continuous supply of the herb. You just about have to grow chervil yourself if you want to use it in your cooking because it is not an herb commonly found in the fresh herb section of your supermarket. You would more likely find it in a farmer’s market.chervil seed - wikimedia commons 

Chervil is in the Apiaceae family, the same family as carrots, parsley, and dill. It has the same feathery green foliage as the other members of this family, and these lacey leaves are the prized part of this herb. The plant produces flower stalks that can grow to about two feet and are topped with umbels of tiny, white flowers. Gardeners use chervil to bait slugs so that they do not bother their vegetables. 

Chervil is native to the Caucasus region of Europe and Asia. It has been used for food as well as for medicine for a very long time. It was considered a warm herb by early herbalists and was used in medicinal applications for that reason. The ancient Greeks used chervil to create healing spring tonics and herbalists used it to cure digestive problems. Many early herbalists wrote about chervil. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) said that the seed in vinegar would stop hiccups. He and Nicolas Culpeper, a 17th-century herbalist, believed that, as Culpeper put it “[it] does much to please and warm old and cold stomach.” chervilDuring the Middle Ages, chervil was used to treat eye inflammations, smooth skin wrinkles, combat the plague, and treat blood clots. John Parkinson (1567-1650), a British botanist and herbalist, recommended that the green seeds be added to herb salads dressed with oil and vinegar “to comfort the cold stomach of the aged.” In the same period, John Gerard (1545-1612), a botanist and herbalist, wrote that the roots, “first boiled; which is very good for old people that are dull and without courage: it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart, and increaseth their lust and strength.” Chervil seems to have been an herb used for the elderly, as both a tonic and to boost brain health. Chervil was also used as a blood purifier, a diuretic, and to lower blood pressure (Chevallier, 2000).

Not much modern research has been done on the medicinal effects of chervil. However, a recent report in the journal Pharmaceuticals concludes that chervil holds promise for use in anti-cancer and antimicrobial treatments (Stojković, 2021).

In the practice of some earth religions, chervil is considered to be the herb of immortality. It is believed that when used as incense, it can help bring one in touch with one’s higher self and inner spirit. 

magi-myrrhIt is thought that the Romans brought chervil to France and England. It was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons of early England. The use of chervil has roots in early Christianity. The Romans called this herb ‘myrrhis’ because the smell and taste of the essential oil were reminiscent of the oil of myrrh, which was one of the gifts brought by the Maji to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Because of this, early Christians believed that chervil symbolized birth and new life. 

It is the custom in some European countries today to serve chervil soup on Holy (Maundy) Thursday. The Germans serve chervil soup on Holy Thursday, or as they call it, Gründonnerstag (Green Thursday), although it is thought that the word grün is derived from the word greinen, which means to weep, giving added significance to why the soup is served on Holy Thursday.

German Chervil Soup

4 hard-boiled eggs

2 bunches of chervil

2 spring onions

1 tablespoon butter

13-1/2 fluid oz. chicken stock 

8-1/2 fluid oz. cream 

1/2 cup crème fraiche

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pinch sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 egg yolks beaten

Wash and dry the chervil, remove stems and chop finely, reserving a few stems for garnish.   Wash and slice the spring onions. Lightly fry the spring onions in the butter, then add the broth, cream, and crème fraiche and allow to come to the boil briefly. Season with salt, pepper, sugar, and lemon juice. Add the chopped chervil and keep warm without allowing the soup to boil.

Whisk in the egg yolks into the slightly cooled soup. Pour the soup into individual dishes.

Slice the hard boiled eggs and place them in the center of the soup. Sprinkle remaining chervil over the soup and serve.

(Recipe from German Foods https://germanfoods.org/recipes/chervil-soup/)

 

For more information and recipes using chervil, visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Chervil plant (Maryann Readal); 2) Chervil seed (Elric04, Creative Commons License); 3) Chervil flowers (CC BY-SA 3.0, Creative Commons License); 4) Adoration of the Magi by Bernardino Luini (Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons License) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

References

Behr, Edward. 1986. Chervil: One of the best and least appreciated herbs. Available at https://artofeating.com/chervil/. Accessed March 15, 2021.

Chevallier, Andrew. 2000. Encyclopedia of herbal medicine. London, Dorling Kindersley.

Crocker, Pat. 2018. Herbalist’s kitchen: Cooking and healing with herbs. New York: Sterling Epicure.

Gordon, Leslie. 1980. A country herbal. New York: W. H. Smith.

Hayes, Elizabeth.1961. Spices and herbs around the world. New York: Doubleday.

Stojković, Dejan et at. Jan 2021. Extract of herba Anthrisci cerefolii: Chemical profiling and insights into its anti-glioblastoma and antimicrobial mechanism of actions. Pharmaceuticals. 14 (1). Available from EBSCOhost. Accessed March 16, 2021.

Vyas, A. et al. 2012. Chervil: a multifunctional miraculous nutritional herb. Asian Journal of Plant Sciences, 11 (4): 163-170. Available from EBSCOhost. Accessed March 12, 2021.

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.


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. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Sensory Herb Gardens for Special Needs Children

By Candace Riddle

IMG_0317Ever since Beatrix Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit, children and gardens have had a special friendship. That friendship is even stronger between children with special needs and special gardens called “sensory gardens.” 

The difference between a sensory garden and a “regular” garden is the human factor— regular display gardens are designed primarily for visual beauty, while a sensory garden is designed to stimulate all the senses: sight, sound, scent, touch, and taste. A display garden is meant to be viewed or seen from either a short or long distance, whereas a sensory garden is meant to be experienced close and personal using all five of the human senses.  

Educators describe a sensory herb garden as peaceful and calming with the ability to draw kids into the moment; even non-verbal kids can show their feelings about their garden experience.

When we use the term “children with special needs” in this writing, we are painting with a broad brush including physical, mental, emotional, and educational disabilities. When planning a sensory herb garden, consideration must be given to not only the garden plan—both hard and soft scaping—but also how children with any of these special needs can interact with the garden.  

_DSC0301As with any garden plan, sensory herb gardens start with the lay-out and hardscape: the beds should be narrow enough for children to reach into (from any side, the depth should be no more than 24 to 30 inches; that is one of the advantages of the tiered square design–it allows access on four different sides at three different levels, see photos), and the paths must be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, which would preclude the use of gravel or a soft ground cover and mandate concrete, bricks, or flagstones. Mulch can also be used as part of the sensory experience. Pine needles, for example, have a sweet scent; wood chips have a tactile feel; and oyster shells have a scent of the sea and a smooth or sharp feel. A water feature can bring several things to the sensory garden: trickling sounds, the sensation of feeling water or wetness, even taste (usually happens when you are not looking!). Windchimes can be a pleasant addition for both the sound they provide and the visual appearance of wind moving through the garden.  

Once the hardscape has been planned, it is time to move on to the plant material, which is, of course, the fun part. Plants should be chosen for the special values they possess to enhance the sensory experience of the children. Below are some examples of plants that may be used in a sensory garden: 

Sight: lavender, nasturtiums, English thyme, anise hyssop, sage, and other Salvias 

Sound: pollinator plants, including Mondarda spp. (bee balm), that will encourage bees to make their happy buzzing sounds (of course, special instruction and close supervision must be in place to protect children and bees!). Balloon flowers and false indigo could be included for sound, as their seed pods make popping and rattling noises as they mature.  

Smell: Any strongly scented herb would be a good addition. Some of the most popular are rosemary, hop, fennel, thyme, sage, basil, chives, and, of course, scented geraniums.

Touch: lamb’s ear, yarrow, coneflowers, rosemary, and lemongrass 

Taste: basil, dill, and anise hyssop 

As you can see from the examples above, there is a lot of crossover as far as the plants go; they can provide multiple sensory experiences. Children should be supervised closely when in the garden to ensure their safety. While you want the fullest experience, the safety of the children is the most important factor. 

While the best way to provide a sensory garden experience is outdoors, children can have a satisfactory adventure using enclosed areas such as an enclosed courtyard or even a container garden. These are both good options for populations of students with a tendency to bolt or elope from the area.

IMG_0824The photograph depicts a newly created sensory garden in Maryland’s northern Baltimore County farmland. This garden was designed to be a part of the agricultural tourism initiative that is taking hold in rural areas. “The Farmyard” is a new agriculture venture started by a local farming family to introduce children to all aspects of a working farm, not the least of which is allowing children to sponsor farm animals and help in their care throughout the year. “Farm School” runs all year long offering classes in animal care and upkeep, crop growing, food preservation, and self-sufficiency. As part of the farm school, a class on herbs and their uses is taught. The sensory herb garden is a part of the education of students in the knowledge of herbs in daily life. All students are encouraged to touch all the herb plants, smell them, and taste them. An herbal educator is available during public events to guide children through the garden and explain the uses of the different plants. The focus in this garden is useful herbs in everyday life. (Though all of the senses are considered in this garden, touch, taste, and smell probably are better represented than sight and sound.)

The design of this garden was limited to the structures already in place, which worked out well as the terraced beds allow children of all heights to view at different levels, and the beds are also shallow enough to allow visitors to reach into the entire garden—all tiers are accessible. To increase the visual appeal of the gardens, snapdragons and zinnias, with their colorful flowers, were added to each garden section. Some of the other plants that were included in the gardens are: 

Rosemary—scent, touch, taste 

Sage—scent, touch, taste (The turkey in the pen next to the garden was a bit uncomfortable with the Thanksgiving herb right next door!) 

Fennel—scent, sound (for the wind moving the fronds and the pollinators that they welcome); visitors were invited to dig up the bulbs and taste them in the fall

English thyme—scent, sight (pointing out that the little flowers are used for baby fairies’ sleep!)

Dill—scent, sight (the full seed pods are beautiful!), and of course, the taste (just like dill pickles)

Lamb’s ear—touch, sound (the bees love this herb) 

Marigolds—sight, smell 

Basil (sweet and Thai)—scent, taste, sight 

This sensory garden is a work in progress, and it is expected to welcome children of all ages and circumstances for years to come. It is the long-range goal to have schools target this farm and garden as a field trip destination once schools resume a normal schedule.  

IMG_0427While the herb sensory garden at The Farmyard is on private property and maintained by dedicated volunteers, this is not the case in most public gardens. While public gardens often attract groups to plan and build sensory gardens, ongoing maintenance during the planning stages, as well as after the garden is established, is often performed by staff of the public facility. 

Gardens are an important element in many people’s lives, and sensory gardens, in particular, can add an immeasurable richness to the lives of children and especially children with special needs. We encourage you to explore supporting a sensory garden in your area.

Photo credits: 1) Sensory garden at The Farmyard (Candace Riddle); 2) Children in the National Herb Garden (Chrissy Moore); 3) Herb collage (Chrissy Moore); 4) Tiered sensory garden, The Farmyard (Candace Riddle); 5) Herb collage (Chrissy Moore); 6) Children and chaperones visiting the sensory garden (Candace Riddle).


Candace Riddle is a retired educator and an herbal enthusiast for forty years. She has been a member of The Herb Society of America for over twenty years and is a founding member of the Mason-Dixon Unit. She lives in Maryland.

Delectable Native Edibles

By Andrea DeLong-Amaya

tradescantia flowersYou may be one of the growing numbers of home gardeners who have put shovel to soil in the effort to nourish themselves and their families with wholesome, organic, fresh, and ultimately local vegetables and fruits. It is empowering to know exactly where your food comes from. And, while gardening is perfect exercise…it can be a lot of work! What if you could grow food plants that all but took care of themselves? Or better yet simply harvest, with caution of course, from the wild.

Native produce? Yes! The plants I’m about to tell you about are all easy to cultivate within their home ranges and, once established, may not require any attention outside of harvest. There are many virtues of raising locally native plants, such as decreased use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and promoting regional identity, and providing for wildlife. But those aren’t my main motivators for sharing these untamed delicacies with you. These foods are often disregarded and overlooked but are, quite frankly, yummy!

The correct way to consume wild edibles: harvest from sizable colonies and always with permission from the landowner. Whether collected from natural areas or from plants in your garden, understand that otherwise safe and nutritious foods may become toxic IMG_7781in large amounts. As with any new food in your diet, add small amounts at a time until you know how your body will handle them. And, most importantly to note: before consuming any wild food, be absolutely certain of its proper identity! Many plants have look-alikes. If there is any doubt, do not partake. You can eat anything at least once, but you want to be around to enjoy the good stuff again!

When harvesting perennials, clip leaves and stems from the plant at or above ground level, leaving the roots undisturbed and allowing the plant to resprout. Cut the tips off of annuals, which will continue growing until they reach the end of their season, or harvest the entire plant. 

The following plants are indigenous to most of the U.S., meaning they have evolved over time in a given region without human introduction. There are many non-native and even invasive plants that also make for good eats, but in the interest of space, I’m limiting the list to natives.

Late in the year, many of us can revel in the luscious sweet treats offered by the Eastern persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Trees vary in the quality of their fruit, and common wisdom suggests they are best after a frost. In any case, immature fruit are very astringent and not recommended. Black persimmon (D. texana), a related species occurring in Texas and Mexico, delivers delectable sugary lumps of fruit with a floral hint as early as July. When you eat them, you are in tune with nature.

vitisMembers of the genus Vitis, or grapes, are most commonly used for making mouthwatering jelly, juice, and wine that can be enjoyed year-round. But, have you ever tried tangy green grape pie? Wow! In mid-spring when tender grape leaves emerge, you can brine them for making dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Young leaves wrapped around chicken, then grilled, impart a mild tangy note to the meat and help keep it moist. If the leaves are edging on tough, keep chewing them as a savory and tasty “gum.” You can seemingly chew forever; the wad won’t go away.

Early spring encourages tender new growth on a variety of native plants that are suitable for the table. Native potherbs are generally tastiest during the spring before hot weather turns them bitter. 

Potherbs are leaves or stems of herbaceous plants that can be cooked for use as greens or for seasoning. “In vitamins, minerals, and protein, wild foods can match and even surpass the nutritional content of our common foods,” according to Delena Tull in her book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. Try out some of these:

smilax

Greenbriar, Cat Briar (Smilax bona-nox) – You may not have thought there was much use for this annoying, thorny vine, but the soft early shoots in spring (and summer when we’ve had rain) are tender, tasty, and nutritious. Pick the asparagus-like tips before the prickles harden, and throw them into salads or nibble them right off the vine.

Pink Evening Primrose, Showy Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) – Beautiful in bloom and abundant throughout much of the country, these greens offer their best flavor when collected before flowering. However, it takes someone who is very familiar with this wildflower to identify it out of bloom. Toss the greens into a salad or add to soups or stir-fries.

oxalis

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.) – Many species of wood sorrel occur in the U.S., and some are common garden pests. After your next weeding session, add a few leaves, flowers, or green seed pods to a salad or soup as you would French sorrel. The flavor is strong and sour, so add sparingly. Rich in vitamin C, it also contains high amounts of oxalic acid, similar to spinach, which when eaten in large amounts, may tie up calcium.

Spiderwort

Spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.) – There are several species of native spiderwort, and many are cultivated. Attractive plants with typically purple, blue, pink, or white flowers have winter foliage resembling daylilies. Above ground parts may be sautéed or eaten raw.

Wild Onion, Wild Garlic (Allium canadensis, A. drummondii.) – There are many bulb forming plants that resemble wild onions, and some are toxic. Only harvest plants with the distinct odor of onions. The chopped green leaves can be used like chives, and the bulbs are cooked as any other onions.

Bon appetit!

References: 

Cheatham, S. and M. C. Johnston.  1995. The Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains, and Northern Mexico. Vol. 1, Abronia-Arundo. Austin: Useful Wild Plants, Inc.

Tull, Delena.  1987. Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 1) Tradescantia gigantea (Michael Dana); 2) Diospyros texana (Andrea DeLong-Amaya); 3) Vitis mustangensis (James Garland Holmes); 4) Smilax bona-nox (Joseph A. Marcus); 5) Oenothera speciosa (W.D. and Dolphia Bransford; Sally and Andy Wasowski); 6) Oxalis drummondii (Mary Kline); 7) Tradescantia gigantea (Stephanie Brundage); 8) Allium canadense var. canadense (Joseph A. Marcus).

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.


Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. For more information about native plants, visit www.wildflower.org.

HSA Webinar: Virtues of Violets

by Jen Munson, Education Chair

Viola_sororia__Freckles__2010A common harbinger of spring is the showy dandelion with its bright yellow flower that pops against newly greening lawns. With dandelion sightings, so the debate begins between those who want the perfectly manicured lawn and environmentalists who see dandelions as an early food source for pollinators and beneficials. The dazzling dandelion outshines another harbinger of spring, and that is the less-assuming violet. 

Join HSA on March 23rd at 1pm EDT for the “Virtues of Violets. For guest speaker, Katherine Schlosser, the arrival of violets is one of the happiest times in her garden. While her neighbors are out spraying herbicides on their lawns, you can find her swooning over the tiny botanical treasures, harboring in the joy and knowledge that these plants chose to be present in her yard.

Kathy 2-page-001Little do many of us realize that violets have been sought after for thousands of years. They have played a role in medicine, art, literature, myths, and rituals. They found their way into our gardens, our kitchens, and our hearts. This webinar will allow time to explore a little of the botany, where they are found around our country, and some of the ways the shy little plants have found themselves in our homes. There will also be time to share experiences, stories, recipes, and suggestions for locating desired species.

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today and enjoy all our webinars for free. As a bonus, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a free registration to our June 10-12th, 2021 Annual Meeting of Members and Educational Conference.  To register visit www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/

Photo Credits: 1) Viola sororia ‘Freckles’ (Wikimedia); 2) Photo courtesy of the Herb Society of America; 3) Photo courtesy of Katherine Schlosser


Kathy UpdatedAbout Katherine Schlosser: In addition to being an author and lecturer, Katherine Schlosser has been a member of The Herb Society of America since 1990. She has served on the HSA Board of Directors, chaired the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., assumed many roles within the North Carolina Unit, established the GreenBridges™ program, and is currently serving as chair of the Native Herb Conservation Committee.

Her interests extend beyond herbs to native plants.  She has been a member of several native plant organizations, participated in a Black Cohosh Sustainability Study with the Plant Conservation Alliance and National Forest Service in North Carolina, and was appointed to the Board of the NC Plant Conservation Program, serving as chair for several years.  She writes a monthly column on native plants for her local newspaper and has spoken to groups throughout North Carolina and surrounding states.  

The Other Side of Yew

By Erin Holden

As an herbalist I’m interested in many aspects of plants – from their use in herbal and conventional medicine, to lore that informs us how those in the past viewed the plant. I knew that Taxol was a cancer drug made from the yew tree, but when a friend mentioned its poisonous aspects, I decided to dig a bit deeper.

Taxol, the well-known cancer treatment, was first isolated and studied in the early 1960s into the late 1970s, and approved as a cancer drug in the early 1990s. Paclitaxel, the common chemical name of Taxol, was initially extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). It was quickly realized that extracting enough paclitaxel to meet demand would wipe out this species in short order, so scientists turned to its faster-growing cousin, the European yew (Taxus baccata), as an alternative. A precursor of Taxol is extracted from the leaves of the European yew and then synthesized into the desired drug. Use of the leaves instead of the bark, as well as its fast growth, means the European yew is a more sustainable source of this cancer treatment.

Taxus baccata by Maigheach-gheal in the Church of St. Mary and All Saints in Great BritainThis all sounds well and good, but if we look at the history of yew, we see that it didn’t always have the best reputation – quite the opposite. Whereas Taxol belongs to a chemical group called taxanes, another group, the taxines, is quite deadly. These toxic compounds are found in every part of all Taxus species, in varying amounts, except for the red, fleshy aril. When ingested, taxines act directly on the heart and inhibit its ability to pump properly, causing a drastic drop in blood pressure, arrhythmias, and death. There is no treatment for yew poisoning, and supportive care is not always successful in saving a patient. A brief peek into the medical literature shows that yew has been used in many suicide attempts, both successful and non-fatal. Even as far back as 53 B.C., Julius Caesar recounts how a king of Eburones, Cativolcus, took his own life by drinking the juice of the yew. This deadly aspect of yew, as well as its evergreen nature, likely contributed to yew being associated with death and immortality in both Druidic and Christian cultures.

Church_of_St_Mary_and_St_Christopher,_Panfield_-_churchyard_yew_treesWhile researching, I stumbled upon an interesting “explanation” for how yews became poisonous, written in the 17th century. Since Druids considered yew sacred, many were planted all over England. Their long association with death likely led to cemeteries of new churches being placed near the trees. It was thought that decaying bodies released noxious gases on the south and west sides of a church yard, which then gathered under and were taken up by the yews. Yew roots were thought to “run and suck nourishment” from the dead, whose flesh is “the rankest poison that could be”, and so the trees themselves became poisonous. Because of this association, the church itself was built on the north or north east side of existing trees (https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/).

I find it fascinating how facts and lore surrounding a plant can mix and have such an impact on various aspects of human activity – from medicine to community planning. And how a life-saving plant can also have a sinister side. Think about it the next time you pass by your ornamental yew. 

Photo Credits: 1) Taxus baccata arils (Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia); 2)Taxus baccata at The Church of St Mary and All Saints in Great Britain (Maigheach-gheal, geograph.org.uk/p/2209844); 3)Line of yew trees in the churchyard of St. Mary and St. Christopher’s Church, Painfield, Essex, England (Image © Acabashi; Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0; Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 Resources:

Grobosch, T. et al. (2013). Eight cases of fatal and non-fatal poisoning with Taxus baccataForensic Science International, vol. 227, issues 1-3, pgs 118-126. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0379073812005324?via%3Dihub

Laqueur, T. W. (2015). Beneath the yew tree’s shade. The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/; Accessed 2/22/2021. 

Lee, M.R. (1998); The yew tree (Taxus baccata) in mythology and medicine. Proc. R. Coll. Physicians Edinb. vol. 28: 569-575;  https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/vol28_4.1_12.pdf

National Cancer Institute; Success Story: Taxol® (NSC 125973) https://dtp.cancer.gov/timeline/flash/success_stories/S2_Taxol.htm; Accessed Jan 22, 2021.

Rickard, J. (26 March 2009); Cativolcus, king of the Eburones, d. 53 B.C.  http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_cativolcus.html; Accessed 1/22/2021.

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.


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.

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part II

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

“Plain vanilla is very much like that little black cocktail dress—always welcome, simply chic, so quietly dramatic.”

                —Lisa Yockelson, from Baking by Flavor

Vanilla in the Kitchen

P1110888Although I am a chocolate lover, I have always adored the fragrance of vanilla. More than once as a child, I tasted vanilla extract straight from the bottle—knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it—I just could not resist, because it always smelled so good.   

Back in my early adult years—and the beginning of my lifetime association with natural foods, herbs, and spices—I used vanilla beyond the kitchen. I found the aroma alluring, so why not use it like perfume? I would dab it behind my ears and on my pulse points. Occasionally, I would sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg on my hands and run them through my hair. Ah, the innocence of youth—here I thought I smelled exotic and delicious (vanilla is known as an aphrodisiac)—and most people probably thought I smelled like a cinnamon bun!

The fragrance of pure vanilla extract and the essential oil is at once exotic, tropical, warm, and sensual—a combination of flowery and resinous, with a slight hint of bitterness. Due to its enticing scent, one would think it tastes sweet and flowery, but that is not the case. We associate vanilla as being sweet because it is used in every type of confection and sweet food from cereals, buns, and cakes to cookies, ice creams, and, of course, chocolate. Some vanilla beans have that exotic flowery scent, while others smell like bitter chocolate, winey, or even slightly smoky. I think they taste fruity—rather raisin-like—sometimes flowery, smooth, and slightly sweet and resinous.

P1110219Vanilla is everywhere today—we seem to take it for granted—and it isn’t just plain old vanilla anymore. It partners with many other flavors—not just desserts—but drinks, soups, sauces, and rice dishes; with seafood, from lobster with vanilla butter to seafood salad; as a glaze for poultry and pork; in barbecue sauces and in condiments from vinaigrettes to mustard…even mashed potatoes! It makes chocolate seductive, and works well with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger—while subtly enhancing just about any baked good. It complements dairy products, coffee, and tea and brightens any fresh fruit bowl or cooked compote. Generally, vanilla highlights most foods without being too forward or overbearing.

Vanilla Products

Vanilla comes in many forms. Although vanilla pods are the source for pure vanilla extract, they aren’t commonly used by the home cook as often as the extract is used. The following list of vanilla products should help you know your beans better:

Whole Vanilla Beans 

The largest producers of Vanilla planifolia are Madagascar and Mexico, and they are renowned for growing and curing the world’s best beans. Tahitian vanilla beans, V. tahitensis, are known for their intense perfume, though they are said to be less flavorful. When purchasing whole beans, they should smell fragrant, should be a dark chocolate brown, and somewhat pliable rather than hard and dried. Store them in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place away from light, and they should last a few years. Do not freeze or refrigerate.

Pure Vanilla Extract

To extract the flavor from vanilla beans, alcohol must be used. It is usually done with a menstruum of alcohol and water (rather like making a tincture). An extract must be 35% alcohol—the label should read “Pure Vanilla Extract.” If it is less than this, it is considered a flavoring. Read your labels: imitation vanilla is often made from artificial vanillin rather than natural vanillin, which is usually synthetically made and is a by-product of the paper industry. Mexican vanilla extract can be very good if it is pure, but beware of inexpensive extracts; it should alert you to the fact that it is probably synthetic.

Vanilla Bean PasteVanilla bean paste

This thick brown paste is made from pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, water, and a natural thickener, gum tragacanth. The label states equivalents of 1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste equals 1 vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. It is sweeter than vanilla extract and much thicker but can be used anywhere you would use vanilla extract. I use it in all kinds of baked goods from muffins and cakes to cookies and bars. It elevates oatmeal to another level when combined with fresh sliced peaches or dried blueberries or cherries and maple syrup.

Pure Vanilla Powder

This fine-textured powder is made from vanilla bean extractives and maltodextrin and is alcohol-free; it can be used in place of vanilla extract. Upon tasting it, it is slightly sweet and leaves a residue on the tongue. It can be used for dry mixtures and liquid- or color-sensitive products. You can sprinkle it on fruit or in your coffee, tea, or cocoa. I have used it in whipping cream, buttercream, and angel food cake. 

Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla sugar has been made for centuries by placing a vanilla bean in sugar to give it a lovely vanilla perfume and flavor. Nowadays, vanilla sugar can be purchased commercially, but you can easily make your own. 

For those willing to venture out from the grocery store offerings, below are some easy-to-make vanilla staple recipes.

Vanilla Bean Syrup

When I was a kid my favorite snowball flavor was Egg Custard. I could never figure out why it was called that—it tasted like vanilla to me. This syrup reminds me of that egg custard flavor. In fact, try it over shaved ice for a snowball. It also makes an excellent vanilla bean soda when mixed with sparkling water or served over ice cream for a vanilla ice cream soda. Use it with coffee to make a vanilla latte or as a sweetener in your hot or iced tea. It can be used in fruit salads, or drizzled over baked goods warm from the oven, like pound cake, scones, breads, or muffins. My kids used to object to the aesthetics of the little black seeds—I rather like them— so if they bother you, strain the syrup through fine cheesecloth or muslin to remove them. This can be made with maple syrup instead of sugar; however, the maple flavor will dominate.

(Makes a little more than 2 cups)

1 cup organic sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 vanilla bean

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and cut it into thirds crosswise.  

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, add the vanilla bean pieces, and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and barely simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.  

Remove vanilla bean and reserve the pieces—they can be dried and used to make vanilla sugar. Pour the syrup into a bottle or jar and label. It will keep in the refrigerator for one month or can be frozen for about six months. 

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Most pure vanilla extract is about 35% alcohol and contains water, sugar, and vanilla bean extractives. It is pretty easy to make your own version. It won’t taste just like the commercial brands—it probably won’t be quite as intense in vanilla flavor, but I find it very satisfactory. Vodka will allow the most vanilla bean flavor to come through. However, I often make mine with brandy or rum because I like the flavor of them. Remember, you only use 1 to 2 teaspoons in a recipe, so a little goes a long way. Try experimenting to see what you like best.  

(Makes about 1 cup or an 8-ounce bottle, or halve the recipe for a smaller amount.)

P11101942 or 3 vanilla beans

8 ounces of vodka, rum, or brandy

Cut the vanilla beans in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put them into a clean, dark glass, 8-ounce bottle. (I save my old vanilla extract bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the alcohol into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. Place in a cool place out of direct light.  

The extract should be shaken once a day, at least for the first week. I do it whenever I go into the pantry and think about it. I usually uncap it and take a whiff—it is a form of kitchen aromatherapy for me, the wealth of the cook. You can use it after a week, but it is best after three or four weeks and gets better as it ages.

The longer it sits, the more intense the flavor. While commercial vanilla extract has the beans removed, I leave the beans in the bottle and as I use the extract, I top it off with more alcohol. Occasionally, I add another bean.

Vanilla Vinegar

Once you have this on hand, you will begin to use it in many dishes, and you will wonder why you never had it before. I use organic apple cider, umeboshi plum, rice wine, or white wine vinegar, which are naturally made and good tasting. Do not make this with distilled vinegar. I often make fresh fruited vanilla vinegars, with peach or raspberry being my favorites. (Add 1 whole, ripe peach, peeled and sliced, or 1-pint raspberries to the jar when combining the vinegar and vanilla bean, and let macerate for at least three to four weeks. Strain, if desired.) I use vanilla-flavored vinegar in small amounts in vinaigrettes, dressings, fruit and vegetable salads, and sauces. I particularly love what it does to Waldorf salad.

(Makes 1 pint)

1 pint good-quality vinegar, preferably organic

1 whole vanilla bean

Cut the vanilla bean in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put the pieces into a clean, 1-pint bottle. (I save used vinegar or soy sauce bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the vinegar into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. I leave the bottle on the kitchen counter for about two weeks and shake it every day, twice a day. You can use it after a week, but it is best after 3 or 4 weeks.  

The longer it sits, the better the flavor. As the vinegar gets used up, I top it off with a little more vinegar. I also add pieces of dried vanilla bean that I have already used.

Preparing Vanilla-Scented Sugar

Scented sugars can easily be made the same way that the Europeans have been making vanilla sugar for years. Placing a vanilla bean in a pint jar of sugar transforms the sugar into a pleasing, fragrant addition to beverages, cakes, cookies, custards, whipping cream, and all sorts of sweets. Sprinkle a little on fruit and toss it, or stir some into your tea or coffee cup. If you do a lot of baking, make this in larger quantities—say a quart or half-gallon jar— as you will find that you use it often.

(Makes 2 cups)vanilla-2519484_1920

About 2 cups organic sugar

1 vanilla bean, cut into 3 or 4 pieces

To prepare scented sugar, use a clean pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the jar about one-third full with sugar, and place one or two pieces of vanilla bean in the sugar. Cover the vanilla bean with additional sugar so that the jar is two-thirds full, add another piece or two, and cover with sugar to fill the jar, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. Shake the jar and place on a shelf in a cool, dark place.  

The sugar will be ready to use in two to three weeks and will become more flavorful with age. As the sugar is consumed, add more plain sugar to take its place and it will take on the fragrance in the jar. I also add dried pieces of vanilla beans that I have already used for another purpose.

Since vanilla beans contain moisture, the sugar will absorb some of it and perhaps cake together, or even harden. If this happens, just use firm pressure to crumble it with either your hands or the back of a wooden spoon.

Hot Vanilla Milk

Make this milk when you can’t sleep and cocoa might keep you awake, or for those rare individuals who don’t like the flavor of chocolate. You can use sugar to sweeten, but I really like the maple syrup best; go light on the sweetener as you hardly need any. If you don’t have vanilla bean paste, use a generous teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons sweetener, or add 2 tablespoons of Vanilla Syrup.

(Makes 1 cup, easily doubled)

1 cup milk (whole, 1 or 2 %, or oat or almond milk)

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

1 teaspoon pure maple syrup or organic sugar

In a small saucepan, bring the milk almost to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir in the vanilla bean paste and sweetener and blend until it is dissolved. If you are using extract, remove the warmed milk from the heat and add the extract and sweetener; stir to dissolve. 

Taste the milk—if you have a sweet tooth, you may want to add another teaspoon of sweetener. Pour the vanilla milk into a mug. Inhale the vanilla aroma before you take your first sip. Relax and enjoy. 

Vanilla Butter Cookies with Cacao Nibs

This is a simple butter cookie recipe (from not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes), though instead of using herbs, cacao bean nibs are added. They are further enhanced by using vanilla bean sugar as well as pure vanilla extract; the vanilla compliments the flavor of cacao. These cookies keep well in a tin for a week or two, and they also freeze well.

(Makes about 5 dozen cookies)

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softenedcocoa nibs

1 cup vanilla bean sugar

1 extra-large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cacao nibs

In the bowl of a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. When combined, beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Gradually mix in the flour and salt. Add cacao nibs and pulse just to combine. 

The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.      

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the plastic wrap, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets, and bake for about 10 minutes until the cookies are nice and brown.  Remove the cookies from the baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Author overlooking Costa Rican forest (S. Belsinger); 2) Vanilla products (S. Belsinger); 3) Vanilla bean paste (C. Moore); 4) Bundle of dried vanilla pods (S. Belsinger); 5) Vanilla bean sugar (Pixaby); 6) Cocoa nibs (C. Moore).

References/Resources

Here is a link to a BBC article about vanilla grown in other parts of the world—you’ll see why it is so expensive and actually how dangerous it can be to cultivate this valuable crop nowadays. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/madagascar_vanillla

Conversation with Matthew Day for assistance reconstructing vanilla bean harvesting and curing information in Costa Rica. 

Belsinger, Susan. 2005. not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes. Brookeville, Maryland: Herbspirit.

Gargiullo, Margaret, Magnuson, Barbara and Kimball, Larry. 2008. A Field Guide to Plants of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical Publications.

Laws, Bill. 2010. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books. 

Rain, Patricia. 2004. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. New York: Philip Lief Group, Inc.

https://www.vanillaqueen.com

https://www.rainforestspices.com/farm-tour/

https://www.rainforestspices.com/learn-about-vanilla/

http://www.srl.caltech.edu/personnel/krubal/rainforest/Edit560s6/www/plants/epiphytes.html


1-Susan BelsingerSusan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Heartsease–Herb of the Month

A Tiny Herb Worth Knowing

by Maryann Readal

Heartsease, Viola tricolor, also called Johnny-jump-up, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March. It is the perfect time to learn about this delicate little woodland herb that will be popping out of the warming earth very soon. You may know V. tricolor by one of its many other names. There are dozens of names for it including wild pansy, hearts delight, come-and-cuddle-me, love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, and kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate, etc. 

Viola_tricolor_aggr Muriel Bendel. Wikimedia CommonsV. tricolor is in the violet family (Violaceae). The flowers can be purple, yellow, or white but are most commonly all three colors. The herb is native to Europe and Eurasia and was thought to be brought to the United States by colonists. It can be an annual, biennial, or a short-lived perennial. It will reseed itself and thrives in cooler weather.

This unassuming little herb is rich in folklore. In both Greek and Roman mythology, Viola tricolor was associated with love. The Romans believed that Cupid, the god of desire, hit the flower of Viola tricolor with his arrow by mistake, causing the white flower to become tricolored and the juice to become a love potion. A Greek legend tells of the love that Eros had for the white flowers. Aphrodite, being jealous of his love for the flower, turned it into the three colors to stop his love. Early Christians thought that the three-colored flowers of heartsease symbolized the Holy Trinity. The Druids made magical potions with it and used it in purification rituals. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table believed the lines on the petals foretold their future. 

Viola tricolor was Queen Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) favorite flower. She embroidered the flower on gifts to her family, and some of her elaborate dresses had the flower woven into the fabric. 

Elizabeth I (the Hardwick House portrait) 1592 or c. 1599-02 by nicholas hilliardShakespeare (1564-1616) used the love potion legend of V. tricolor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1, saying about heartsease that the “the juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid, will make a man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.” Viola tricolor appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as in Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1.

 But my favorite story comes from Germany, where heartsease is called “Stiefmütterchen” (little stepmother). The story is that the large bottom petal (the stepmother) sits on two sepals, the two petals on either side of the bottom petal are the daughters and they each have their own sepal. The two petals at the top are the stepdaughters and they share a single sepal and are in the back of the other petals.

V. tricolor is the mother of the beautiful pansies with huge, striking faces that we plant in our gardens in the spring. These pansies were introduced as hybrids of the wild pansy in 1813 in Britain by Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, who hybridized them with her gardener, William Richardson. Around the same time in England, Lord Gambier was working with his gardener on hybridizing the wild pansy as well. By 1833, there were over 400 named pansies developed from the tiny viola that we call heartsease.

An interesting and observable characteristic of heartsease was noted by Maud Grieve in her book The Modern Herbal: “The flower protects itself from rain and dew by drooping its head both at night and in wet weather, and thus the back of the flower and not its face receives moisture.” V. tricolor is self-fertile and readily reseeds itself. Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on the plant, and various bees, thrips, and flies visit it.

Viola tricolor and V. arvensisThe flowers of V. tricolor are edible and are used in salads, butters, and in ice cubes to dress up a beverage. They make a colorful garnish. The leaves are mucilaginous and can be used to thicken soup. A tea is made from the leaves.

Other uses include using the leaves as a litmus test and using the flowers to make a yellow, green, and blue-green dye.

Viola tricolor has a long history of use in traditional medicines. Its use is documented in the Pharmacopoeia of Europe. Its anti-inflammatory properties have made it a traditional medicinal remedy for skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, scabs, and itchy skin. It has also been used to treat inflammation and chest conditions such as bronchitis and asthma. Research shows that the cyclotides in V. tricolor may have promise in the treatment of cancers. However, more research still needs to be done. 

When I see the dainty little flowers of V. tricolor, I remember the gardens of my sweet mother and grandmother who always had them growing in their gardens. I also think of this quote from William Bullein, an early English physician, who said in 1562, “Pray God give thee but one handful of Heavenly Heartsease which passeth all the pleasant flowers that grow in this worlde.” 

May you be inspired to plant some heartsease in your garden this spring.

For more information of heartsease, Viola tricolor, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Viola tricolor (Muriel Bendel, Wikimedia Commons); 2) Elizabeth I, Hardwick portrait, with Viola tricolor on bottom left (Nicholas Hilliard); 3) Viola tricolor and V. arvensis (C.A.M. Lindman (1836-1928), Wikimedia Commons)

References

Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications. 1971. (reprint)

Hellinger, Roland, et al. Immunosuppressive activity of aqueous Viola tricolor herbal extract . Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24216163/

Hodgson, Larry. The Year of the Pansy. 2017. https://laidbackgardener.blog/tag/icicle-pansy/

Lim, T.K. Edible Medicinal and Non Medicinal Plants: Volume 8, Flowers. Springer. 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=-nvGBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA815#v=onepage&q&f=false

Plants for a future. https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?latinname=Viola+tricolor, 

North Carolina Plant Toolbox. Viola Tricolor. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/viola-tricolor/

Wells, Diana. 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 1997.

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.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part I

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

Vanilla in the Rainforest

P1110204Before going to Costa Rica, I researched gardens, restaurants, herbs, spices, botanicals and the rainforest—places where I wanted to go, see, and experience. Once I visited Villa Vanilla’s website, https://www.rainforestspices.com/, I knew that I had to go there. I made reservations for the farm tour in advance. It was one of my favorite things in Costa Rica—I loved seeing the tropical spice plants up close and personal—and I got to smell and taste so many things, which was a memorable sensory experience! 

During the half day Spice Plantation Tour, visitors experience the sights, tastes, and aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and other tropical spices, essential oil plants, and a wide variety of tropical ornamental P1110256plants. The tour begins and ends at the post-harvest warehouse, where my eyes feasted on the spectacle of the ground covered with burlap sacks, which were spread with vanilla beans in various stages of fermentation and curing, and my nose filled with the delightfully overwhelming perfume of vanilla.

Vanilla is the main crop that is cultivated on this farm, with Ceylon cinnamon as a secondary crop. However, they also cultivate cacao, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, chiles, turmeric, cardamom, ginger (mostly ornamental), and a large number of epiphytes. 

On our tour, we sampled delicious treats made by the chef, who used the farm’s spices to titillate our taste buds. To cool off, we first had a glass of chilled hibiscus infusion while gazing out at the tropical paradise. The next sample was a lovely, smooth vanilla bean custard, not too sweet, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We were served a demitasse of hot chocolate flavored with a hint of cinnamon and chile accompanied by a crunchy, vanilla shortbread P1070032cookie speckled with cacao nibs. And the grand finale was a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh milk and cream from the farm’s own dairy cow. 

After visiting the Spice Shoppe, we walked back to the small warehouse where we were able to view different spices in various stages of drying. Our guide described and showed us some of the processes of harvesting and processing both vanilla and cacao pods, and we saw Ceylon cinnamon being barked. 

We learned about the process of the vanilla bean from harvest to cured, saleable bean. Once the plant has produced the green pods, they swell as they mature. When they are ready to harvest, they pull off easily from P1110195the stem. Green pods are placed in a large, clear plastic bag, which begins the fermentation process. Then they are laid outdoors in the sun every morning for four hours. Next, they are placed in insulated boxes while they are still warm from the sun and brought inside the warehouse for twenty hours. This is repeated every day for about three to four days. This process of sweating the beans in the sun makes a superior fermented end-product. (In other parts of the world, green beans are dropped in boiling water rather than curing in the sun.) After a week, the pods have turned brown, and they are removed from the plastic bags and spread out on burlap sacks. The four hours of sun/twenty hours in the dark process is continued for another three to four weeks until the pods have begun P1110187to shrivel and have lost about 80% of their original weight. Then they are left to cure—and this time varies among farmers—from nine months to two years. Villa Vanilla cures their beans for two years for best flavor and quality.

After curing, the beans are graded and separated according to size—there are about four sizes from thin to medium to large and extra-large. An extra-large bean is something to behold indeed! They are magnificent, thick and plump and slightly moist, bursting with the mouthwatering and intoxicating, inimitable scent of vanilla. 

Vanilla’s Aromatic Pedigree

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine that can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants—the orchids (Orchidaceae)—currently known to contain more than twenty-five thousand species and counting. Of all the orchids, the Vanilla genus is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop separate from the rare, hothouse exotic orchids cultivated and traded for their beautiful, colorful flowers. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal: a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

vanilla-flower-542019_1920The vanilla orchid’s flower is not showy; it has only a slight scent with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale-yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits we call “pods” or “beans,” just like extra-long green beans. Pollination in the wild is very iffy, so most growers hand pollinate to ensure a viable crop. This is very labor intensive and has to be done when the flower is just open, which is a very brief window of time–literally a few hours on a single day. Each pod contains tens of thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call “vanilla.” Drying, curing, and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes at least another nine months. Understandably, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world. 

P1070023There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large aromatic pods that can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico. At least two other species, V. pompona and V. tahitensis, also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable, and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the V. planifolia

Stay tuned for Vanilla Part II, including recipes from Susan, coming 8 March, 2021!

Photo Credits: 1) Villa Vanilla poster; 2) Drying vanilla beans on burlap sacks; 3) Vanilla custard; 4) Green, unripe vanilla pods; 5) Dried vanilla pods; 6) Vanilla flowers; 7) Vanilla vine. All photos courtesy of the author, except 6) (Pixaby).


1-Susan Belsinger

Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com