Horsetail: The Abrasive, Prehistoric Cool Kid

Horsetail: The Abrasive, Prehistoric Cool Kid

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

horsetail 1Now appearing, ready for its close up, one of The Herb Society of America’s two Notable Native Plants of 2019, and a plant that is a living fossil: horsetail or Equisetum. Sharks get called living fossils a lot. So do marsupials, like possums and wombats. It definitely carries with it a sense of being strange, but cool.

Fossils are the remains or impression of prehistoric organisms preserved in petrified form or as a mold or cast in rock. A “living fossil” is just something that’s really, really old.  And alive, of course. The term was first used in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his “On the Origin of Species.” Living fossils have remained in evolutionary stasis — remaining much the same — since the time of now-petrified critters, long extinct.

Horsetail is the only surviving genus of the class Equisetopsia.  Horsetail might be said to have had its peak back in the late Paleozoic era, when members of its family were prolific.  But its characteristic growth pattern (with the nodes along its shoot growing increasingly close together the closer they grow to the end) inspired the invention of logarithms.  That’s pretty relevant. The 17th century Scottish mathematician John Napier found the pattern suggestive of exponential notation.  I’m not sure he ever said so.  But the claim is frequently made by plant people.

Horsetail, also known as snakeweed, horse bristle, scouring rush or puzzle weed, thrives in zones 3 to 11, grows up to four-feet tall and likes to have its feet wet.  It grows in clusters of segmented reed-like stems, and can regenerate even if cut down to the ground. Horsetail rhizomes spread readily. In fact, Horsetail relies entirely on these rhizomes to propagate, bearing neither flowers nor seeds.  In some places, horsetail grows as a valued aquatic or semiaquatic plant. In other places, like Oregon and New Zealand, it is considered invasive.

horsetail 2

If you find yourself with a patch of horsetail run amok, you can do it in by raising the soil pH.  It is an acid-loving plant, and a little lime should do the trick. Some people try vinegar.  But you know better. It might be best, if you decide to plant horsetail in a swampy part of your garden, to restrain its spread by planting it in a sunken container.

The stem of horsetail is coated with microscopic white silicates.  These have been useful in polishing and smoothing both metal and paper. Horsetails have also been used to clean woodwinds as a reed scraper.

Horsetail has been employed in a number of medicinal preparations, particularly as a diuretic. It is unwise to ingest it.  Horsetail has proven toxic to grazing animals, because of the presence of thiaminase, which can cause thiamin (vitamin B1) deficiency. This can also make it especially dangerous to people with a thiamin deficiency, a common problem for those with alcoholism. Since horsetail also contains trace amounts of nicotine, it can trigger a reaction for those sensitive to nicotine. There is a persistent belief that horsetail preparations can, when applied topically, help grow hair and nails. But there is no proof of its efficacy.

So venerate horsetail for its age, honor it for its mathematical complexity, and respect its ability to make itself at home in a big way.  But, as always, treat it with respect.

February Webinar: Herbs Work Hard in the Garden

February Webinar: Herbs Work Hard in the Garden

webinar-save-the-date-1.jpgBy Jen Munson

Learn how herbs help your garden at The Herb Society’s next webinar at 1 p.m. on February 21 EST. In Putting Your Herbs to Work in Your Garden, guest presenter Caren White, will share how herbs attract beneficial insects, repel pests, improve soil, and make wonderful companion plants in your garden.

HSA webinars are free to members and just $5 for non-members. Register here. Contemplating membership? As a bonus, HSA will credit the $5 webinar fee to membership cost if you sign up by March 4.

Caren is a lifelong gardener.  Her first garden was a 2-foot by 2-foot square along the foundation of her family home; there she grew green zinnias because of a fascination with green flowers.  In addition to being a member of the Delaware Valley Unit, Caren is a longtime volunteer at Rutgers Gardens, the arboretum and botanical garden of Rutgers University in New Jersey. As an active steward for Rutgers Gardens she grows and sells herbs for their plant sale as well as writes a catalog describing all of the herbs being sold. Caren’s fellow volunteers have nicknamed her “The Herb Lady.”

Caren enjoys sharing her knowledge through talks at local garden clubs, as an instructor at both Home Gardeners School offered through Rutgers University, and at the EARTH Center, the agricultural extension office for Middlesex County in New Jersey. Caren also maintains an active blog and Facebook page. Connect with Caren White at

Yaupon: Native American Caffeinated Tea

Yaupon: Native American Caffeinated Tea

yaupon shrubBy Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

In a small café in St. Augustine, Florida, I was served tea made from yaupon, a caffeine-containing holly shrub that grows wild in southeastern Florida. The infusion made from its dried young leaves tastes like black tea without tannic bitterness and has the pep power of the traditional caffeinated beverages. Its high-antioxidant content is a bonus.

Yaupon tea was popular with indigenous people until colonists replaced it with imported Asian teas made from Camellia sinensis. Camellia sinensis, with little exception, has proven nearly impossible to grow in the New World. Legend has it that British colonists were so intent on preserving their control of the tea trade – and its fortunes — that the native yaupon tea was given the distasteful Latin name Ilex vomiteria; thus creating a marketing nightmare.yaupon processing

Growers and distributors like Yaupon Brothers in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, are working to bring the American native tea back to the table and with it a share, however small, of the $13 billion U.S. tea market.

Bryon White, co-founder of Yaupon Brothers and self-described “plant nerd” stumbled on a thick hedge of yaupon in 2011. “I was working in the garden and came across yaupon. I had read old books about native and indigenous peoples consuming it and thought it was cool.”

So he tried it and liked it.yaupon volume

Bryon and his brother Kyle White teamed up to rekindle the yaupon tea market. They started selling yaupon in 2012. A year later they received their USDA Organic certification. Today they wildcraft the tea from 12 acres in Volusia County, Florida.

The brothers sell four products – fire-roasted, green, chai and lavender coconut. These are available in 20 states, Canada, and the UK, in more than 180 retail locations or online at and on Amazon.

In addition to selling yaupon to the retail market, the White brothers are working to introduce the easy-to-grow shrub as an alternative cash crop to Florida farmers whose citrus trees are being devastated by a lethal disease.yaupon-fire-roasted.jpeg

And, for those in growing zones 7 to 10, they’re offering one-gallon Ilex vomitoria shrubs for sale.

Learn about herbs through Twitter #herbchat

By Peggy Riccio, HSA Member

g-portrait-11-28-13If you are interested in herbs you may want to participate in #herbchat, an herb-focused Twitter chat. A Twitter chat is when people tweet about a particular topic using a hashtag. By using the hashtag, participants can tweet—talk—to each other and stay on topic. Most twitter chats occur for one hour at a set date and time, have a moderator, and stick to a predetermined theme. Participating in a twitter chat is like talking with your friends in the living room while being aware that through the windows, others on social media may be able to watch you and hear what you have to say.

Geri Laufer has moderated #herbchat for more than 7 years. “I love Twitter,” said Geri, “I started #herbchat in November 2011 when at the time, Bren Haas started #gardenchat and Corona Tools started #treechat, #plantchat, and #landscapechat but there was nothing about herbs.”

Geri announces the month’s topics in advance via Facebook (herbchat). Every Thursday at 2 p.m. ET, anyone can jump in the conversation. People also can post photos related to the conversation. Since Twitter is global there may be participants from other parts of the world, there may be “regulars” who participate every Thursday, and there may be “lurkers,” people who read but do not comment.

“I have 50 lurkers each time, they follow the hashtag but don’t tweet and participate in the conversation but that is okay, they learn something,” she says.

Since #herbchat is weekly, I asked Geri if it was difficult to come up with new topics. January alone has 5 Thursdays: January 3: new herb varieties for 2019; January 10: herbal resolutions for 2019; January 17: more new varieties for 2019; January 24: seed swaps; and January 31: seed starting methods, what’s yours.

geri leaf laughed and said that suggestions for topics are welcome. Fortunately, Geri is well versed in herbs so she is able to identify and contribute to most topics. She said that one of her favorite topics was songs with herbs in them. “We had ‘Scarborough Fair’ of course but people were so clever and inventive and dreamed up these other songs so it was fun.”

Geri’s love of gardening and herbs began as a child, raised in an organic gardening family. “My family always cooked with and grew herbs,” Geri said. “My gardening Grandmother was a big influence because she would let me do the fun stuff and did not ask me to weed so I did not grow up with bad connotations about gardening.” Geri always has been particularly interested in herbs because she suspects she has a bad sense of smell but is able to detect the herbs’ pungent fragrances.

Geri has been an Herb Society of America member for 40+ years. While studying for her Masters of Science degree in Horticulture at Rutgers University, she was a member at large. After she graduated and moved to Atlanta, she tried to change her membership status to join a local unit only to discover there was no unit in her state. Undeterred, she founded the Chattahoochee Unit which still meets today.

Armed with her degree, Geri began working as a Cobb County extension agent, was part of the team that initiated the first Atlanta Master Gardener program, and then taught horticultural classes as an adjunct professor at Gwinnett Technical Institute. She served on the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG) Board of Trustees for many years until the ABG hired her as the public relations manager. Currently, Geri manages GardenGeri, her own public relations and social media company for horticulture companies, including Corona Garden Tools and Crabapple LandscapExperts.

Some of you may know Geri as author of Tussie-Mussies, a very successful book that has been reprinted and printed in paperback. Geri obtained an Herb Society of America grant to conduct the research, visiting rare book rooms in libraries across the country. She also is a former co-editor of HSA’s The Herbarist, gives lectures and presentations on gardening and herbs, and has written more than 200 articles for consumer and trade publications. Geri also wrote the section on herbs for Allan Armitage’s app, Great Garden Plants.

If you are interested in participating on #herbchat, visit the Facebook site to learn of upcoming topics or just jump right in next Thursday at 2 p.m. ET.

Peggy Riccio is a member of the Potomac Unit of HSA. Peggy publishes a free monthly newsletter, Pegplant’s Post, which features local gardening events, new books, articles, tips, and a giveaway. Visit her website,

Prepare Herbal Potions for Romantic Valentine’s Day

Prepare Herbal Potions for Romantic Valentine’s Day

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society

“No wonder that cheek in its beauty transcendent,
Excelleth the beauty of others by far;
No wonder that eye is so richly resplendent.
For your heart is a rose and your soul is a star.”

-Frances Sargent Osgood

love potion #1‘Tis the season for old-fashioned love potions. Many of these magical blends – for love and beauty — use rose petals and rosewater. To make mine I grow many different varieties of old garden roses, in particular the Damask or Bourbon varieties which have such a sensually deep and honeyed fragrance. During winter’s sleep you can order your petals from Mountain Rose Herbs.

I love my rose bushes like I love my children. They are coddled and spoiled rotten. Because of that they grow beautifully and gift me with abundant armfuls of blossoms that I use for flavored sugars, syrups, bath oils, and teas.  There are so many ways to use an abundance of dried rose petals and I’m going to share a few of my favorites. They’re especially enchanting for private Valentine’s Day celebrations.

First, rose-infused apple jelly. Stir three tablespoons of chopped or crushed, dried, organic rose petals to a jar of fine quality apple jelly, close the lid and let the petals infuse the jelly with their lovely fragrance for a couple of days.  Spread this on a piece of hot toast with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar and a knob of fresh salted butter and offer it to your sweetheart (or yourself). Remember, roses have been the flower for lovers for good reason.

For Valentine’s Day eve, I start a week or two in advance. I stir three handfuls of petals and a cup of muddled raspberries into a decanted bottle of rose to which I’ve added a cup of raw honey, several pieces of crystallized ginger, and a bit of vanilla bean. I store this is the refrigerator for a week or two then strain into a pretty bottle.  I serve this potent love elixir chilled in little crystal glasses. One little glass prepares the senses for love-filled dreams and a wonderful day ahead. That’s all you need. Consider yourself warned!

love potions #4To make a fragrant and seductive rose petal tea throw a handful of organic dried rose petals, a handful of dried catnip leaves and flowers, a teaspoon of dried tulsi and a stick of cinnamon into a warmed teapot, cover with boiled water and let it steep for five minutes. Flavor the brew with raw honey, vanilla and for extra richness, splash in heavy cream. This is not only dessert in a cup, but it is a wonderfully restorative tea to drink whenever you’re feeling just a bit stressed or under the weather.

Roses are soothing to the skin as well as the senses, so besides drinking this lovely brew you could pour several cups — plus one teaspoon of sweet almond oil — into your bathwater for a long soak. Middle Eastern cultures have long extolled the beauty enhancing virtues of a rosewater, milk, and honey bath. I love old-fashioned milk, and honey baths, with fragrant organic rose petals floating. This bath will leave your skin velvety, fragrant and ready for attention.

Truthfully, I’d be remiss without a few recipes using the holy trinity of passion — chocolate, wine, and roses. A simple syrup of red wine and roses creates a romantic aura and adds a warm blush to a flute of champagne. Serve with a square of dark potions #3To make the simple wine syrup, mix two cups of dry red wine (Cotes de Rhône or a red Zinfandel) and two-thirds cup brown sugar. Pour into a heavy bottom pan and add a teaspoon ground pink peppercorn, a teaspoon of fresh lemon zest, a cinnamon stick, and three large handfuls of unsprayed rose petals. It will take about 30 minutes to gently reduce to a syrup. Then, strain, chill, and add a tablespoon or two into any glass of champagne or wine. Serve with good chocolate for nibbling.

Using the rose wine syrup create an old-fashioned cocoa rose cordial. It’s relaxing, restorative, and must be shared. Place 1 ½ teaspoons of cocoa and a teaspoon of brown sugar into a small saucepan. Boil a half cup of water.  Dribble just enough water into the chocolate and sugar to make a paste. Then stir in the remaining water and a teaspoon of rose-wine syrup. Bring it to a boil and add three tablespoons of fine ruby port. Pour warm cordial into two demitasse cups. Light a fire, curl up, watch the snow fall, and dream.  You can thank me later!

Wishing you the loveliest and most romantic St. Valentine’s Day!

You can find herbs at Mountain Rose Herbs. Become a member of HSA to enjoy a discount on Mountain Rose products.

Herb Guru Shares Webinar Recipe for Rose-Geranium Pesto Brioche Rolls

Herb Guru Shares Webinar Recipe for Rose-Geranium Pesto Brioche Rolls

rosegeraniumbriocheOn a recent Herb Society of America webinar, William Varney inspired viewers with a talk about enhancing life using herbs in the home, kitchen, garden, and bath. Varney, owner of URBANherbal in Fredericksburg, Texas, and co-author of Herbs: Growing and Using Plants of Romance and Along the Garden Path is a well-known, self-taught “kitchen guru” who’s appeared on the Food Network and in many publications.

Varney offered ideas for adding sensory and culinary herbs to the garden and then using those herbs to create a home that restores and balances the senses. His recipe for Brioche Breakfast Buns with Scented Geranium Pesto One brought numerous emails requesting the recipe. So, Varney has graciously shared it here.  

If you are a member of The Herb Society of America and you missed this inspiring webinar, you may view it and many others in the Members Only section of the HSA website.  If you are not a member, visit to join.

Brioche Breakfast Buns with Scented Geranium Pesto

rosegeraniumleaves.jpgDo you love scented geraniums, but you’re unsure what to do with them in the kitchen? Brioche breakfast buns with rose-scented geranium pesto will be hit with your friends, family and the love in your life. The luscious buns, with an amazing flavor from rose geranium leaves, have always been a hit with my classes and friends.

NOTE:  Plan ahead because the dough must be refrigerated overnight. Know that they can be made ahead and frozen before being iced. Simply reheat and top with the glaze before serving.

Brioche Dough
½ cup warm (105 to 115 degrees) water
1 tablespoon instant-rise, active yeast
2 ½ cups cake flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
6 large eggs, at room temperature
10 ounces (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch cubes at room temperature
Canola oil for glazing bowl

Scented Geranium Pesto
1 ½ cups sugar
12 ounces (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
18 rose geranium leaves, roughly chopped
Zest from 3 oranges
¼ cup chopped pecans

NOTE: The scented-geranium pesto is also good spread on pound cake, in empanadas or swirled into cheesecake.

1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons rose flower water (we use URBANherbal’s rose flower water)
4 tablespoons whipping cream

Make the brioche dough:  Combine the warm water and yeast in a glass measuring cup. Set aside to proof for 10 minutes, or until the liquid is bubbly and the yeast is totally dissolved.

Sift the flours with the sugar. Place in bowl of stand mixer fitted with dough hook and add the salt. Add the eggs and beat together for 1 minute at low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Slowly add the yeast and continue to beat at low speed for 5 minutes. Stop the mixer, scrape the dough from the dough hook, then beat at low speed for another 5 minutes.

Add about ¼ of the butter cubes at a time, beating just to incorporate after each addition. Once all of the butter has been added, beat for 10 minutes at medium speed.

Oil a large bowl with canola oil and wipe the entire bowl on the inside with a paper towel. Turn the dough to oil all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise in a warm draft free spot until doubled in bulk, bout 1 ½ hours.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and work out all the air bubbles by folding the dough over on itself several times while pressing down on it. Re-oil the bowl lightly and return the dough to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.

rosegeraniumbriochepesto.jpgMake the scented-geranium pesto: Combine all ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor, fitted with steel blade. Process until a smooth paste forms. Refrigerate until almost ready to use. Bring to room temperature before using.

Compose rolls: Line a large baking pan with parchment paper and set aside.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a floured work surface. Gently flatten the dough, removing all air bubbles. Roll the dough out into a 16 x 12- inch rectangle. Be sure to keep the corners squared so the dough will roll evenly.

Starting one inch from the edge of the long side of the dough, spread with the rose-scented geranium pesto. Extend the pesto to the edges on the short side and stopping from the top on the long side. Now, starting at the long side nearest you, roll the dough like a jelly roll.

When the dough is completely rolled, pinch the seams together and turn the roll so that it’s seam side down. With a sharp knife, slice the dough into 1 ½ – inch buns using forceful downward cuts. Place the buns on the parchment-prepared baking sheet, cut sides down, allowing at least 2 inches between each bun.

Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make the glaze: While rolls are rising, combine ingredients in a bowl. Whisk to make a medium-stiff paste with no lumps of powdered sugar. Set aside.

rosegeraniumbriochecloseupBake the rolls: When the rolls have risen, bake them in the preheated oven until lightly browned and they sound hollow when thumped on the bottoms, about 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the rolls to a cooling rack, set over a baking sheet. Spoon the glaze over the hot rolls, covering liberally and using all of the glaze. Allow the rolls to cool slightly before serving.

NOTE: If you wish to bake ahead of time, don’t glaze the rolls. Reheat just before serving, then spoon on the glaze and serve.


Herbs for St. Brigid’s Eve

Herbs for St. Brigid’s Eve

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society

brigid1Brrrr. It is so cold. As we dip into the negative double digits in Northeast Ohio, I find it hard to believe that spring will ever come and yet, I feel a stirring in my sleepy bones, a bit like sap beginning to rise through the trees. It’s a feeling that’s familiar to me. For over 20 years I lived in Burton, Ohio, a sleepy little Northeast Ohio town that’s known for apple fritters, maple syrup, and Sunday pncake breakfasts. We had a small horse farm with an ancient bank barn, an artesian well that I decorated with crystals and an old farmhouse built in 1848 and complete with a Civil War-era ghost.

Life on the farm was a remarkable thing because the seasons made more sense living in the country.  I had horses and barn cats and by simply watching them I could tell when the seasons were beginning to change. That farm was special because I learned there how the seasons were fluid and connected in a great spiral dance, something you don’t see as easily in the city with all of its easy conveniences.

As I write today, the world is so very cold and still. It’s mid-winter, we’re expecting a polar vortex and it seems like the sun will never return.  Yet I swear that if you listen closely, you can almost hear the underground springs begin to quicken and if you put your arms around your favorite tree, you may be able to feel the sap moving from the roots towards the sky. The ground all around you may still be covered in snow; but if you listen with all of your senses, the telltale signs of spring will begin to appear. Walk amongst the hedgerows and you will almost certainly hear some birdsong.

Since the December Solstice, the days have been getting longer in our northern hemisphere and the sun has been moving closer and closer.  Although the air is still absolutely frigid, there are signs that the earth is slowly beginning to ease out of its frozen state. Although we cannot yet feel the touch of the sun, she can. You may know the 1st of February as Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day or Candlemas. St. Brigid of Kildare and her twin sister, the Goddess Brigid of Eire are said to breathe the first signs of light and life into the earth after the long cold drought of winter and with their touch, slowly the earth begins to awaken.  Imbolc is the feast that celebrates new beginnings, the emergence of buried energies and intense focus…all three of which are needed for a seed or shoot to break through the earth’s crust and emerge as a flower.

brigid2Although many of you will have never heard of it, Imbolc, a Gaelic word that means “ewe’s milk” is a Celtic feast day that finds itself on the year’s wheel halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In early February, I watched year after year as young farm animals were born and their mothers nursed them with rich milk that they produced from the stores of fine hay and grains.  They know instinctively what they are doing, getting them ready to be weaned in the spring when the first shoots of rich green grass appear because they know in their bones that the earth is getting ready to bloom again. Their timing is impeccable.

Along with so many of her creatures, the earth’s roots are waking as well. Although we can’t easily see it, the ground below us is absolutely pregnant with the possibility of spring. I know that if I were still on the farm, I’d venture outside today to find the first few snowdrops, one of the symbols of St. Brigid and her sister goddess beginning to unfurl and the shoots of spicy watercress that were the first fresh greens that I’d eat every spring would be starting to emerge.brigid3The crocus begin to emerge from their sleep and so do the violets, although it will be awhile before we see their beautiful blooms. The catkins on our pussy-willows would be beginning to fatten up and the most obvious sign would be the early plumes of wood smoke rising from the Sugar Cabin in the center of town, where the farmers would bring their barrels of fresh maple sap to be made into the most delicious of sugary treats.

I celebrate Imbolc (or St. Brigids Eve ) every year, because I love to remember just what it meant centuries ago to be so utterly dependent upon the natural world. I love to pretend, just for a moment, that I am still that country woman looking out the window, listening and scanning the world around her for any sign of the return of the sun. When it’s as cold as it has been it’s hard to keep the faith, so every year on this night I light dozens of white candles in silver and pewter candlesticks and decorate my home with evergreen boughs, and branches of rosemary for remembrance and sage for protection, wisdom, and the granting of wishes.

brigid4I have a crystal pitcher of spring water on the table to honor the energies of all of the unseen, underground veins of water that we depend upon for our lives.  I hang the beautiful Brigid’s Cross made of rushes and tied with gold and silver threads that a dear friend brought to me from the Kildare Abbey that was founded by St. Brigid. I always leave a cloth or scarf hung outside on my door to be blessed by the Saint as she passes. It’s known as a ‘Bratog Bride’ in old Irish folklore, and it’s said to be bestowed with magical healing powers or at the very least, a cure for a headache or a sore throat. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t dream of letting her blessings pass me by.

Just like the Solstice, or Twelfth Night, we’ll invite our neighbors for a bonfire and for dinner. We’ll enjoy freshly baked bread and hard cheeses (remember the fresh milk is for the all babies right now) dense and spicy apple cake, piping hot cabbage dumplings and colcannon, that luscious blend of kale, potatoes, leeks, sweet cream and butter.  There will be Irish whisky, hard cider and of course there will be plenty of laughter.  Nothing warms me up like being in the company of my dearest friends.

Happy Imbolc to all and Blessed St. Brigid’s feast day as well. May you be warm, happy, healthy, and full to the brim with the abundant happiness and healing that this day brings us.

Spring is coming. I promise.