Good, Great, Gulp-able Ginger

by Pat Crocker

A tan and beige stoneware jar of ginger beerThe fresh or dried rhizome of ginger (Zingiber officinale) has been used “as a condiment and aromatic stimulant from ancient times”. And from as early as the 15th century, ginger was exported from Zanzibar—a possible origin of the Latin, Zingiber—for use by healers, monks, and herbalists in tisanes, syrups, tinctures, and other carminative simples.

In England, from around the middle of the 18th century, ginger was fermented with sugar, water, and a starter culture to make an alcoholic beverage that quenched thirst and quelled stomachs at the same time. That drink was called ginger beer and it has survived—with and without alcohol—right up to the present time.  

Almost a century later (1890 to be precise), an enterprising Canadian chemist, John McLaughlin, began bottling his own soda water. Never one to coast, McLaughlin’s experiments with natural flavorings and recipes led him to his greatest accomplishment, Canada Dry® Pale Ginger Ale, invented in 1904. Originally made with real ginger, McLaughlin’s soda was designed as a non-alcoholic, refreshing drink, but it also became a perfect bedside anti-emetic as well as a mixer for alcoholic drinks.

Ginger rhizomeAnti-emetic? Ginger root is used as a natural remedy for nausea and vomiting, which is why many people of my generation actually remember being given a serving of ‘flat’ ginger ale if we were sick with the flu. Ginger ale was decanted to a glass and set aside to rest until all of the bubbles disappeared, leaving a sweet, ginger-flavored liquid that was effective in calming upset tummies. Today, this home remedy isn’t possible because Canada Dry® Ginger Ale does not list ginger in the ingredients.

Fast-forward to 2023 and the recent “discovery” and excitement around fermented foods, which fostered a modern take on historic ginger ‘beer’ or ginger ‘ale’ drinks. It’s called Ginger Bug (recipe follows) and is made by combining grated fresh ginger with a small amount of sugar and water. Sound familiar? The now popular Ginger Bug drink is actually ginger beer. However, while it is fermented, it contains no significant amount of alcohol. We’ve been taking great gulps of ginger for medicine, as a thirst-quencher, and to mix with alcoholic spirits for a very long time. What follows is a slightly carbonated, fermented ginger drink. Enjoy its non-alcoholic buzz.

A closeup of a bubbly fermenting cup of grated gingerGinger Bug          

Makes about 2 cups

This drink is probiotic because it uses friendly bacteria, similar to bacteria that are already inside your body, especially your gut, to produce a slightly sour-tasting, naturally carbonated drink. Probiotics boost the immune system, prevent and help heal urinary tract infections, improve digestion, and help treat inflammatory bowel conditions.

2 large pieces (each two inches long) fresh ginger rhizome, divided

1/2 cup sugar, divided

2 cups cold, non-chlorinated water

  1. Wash your hands and start with clean utensils and a quart glass jar. There is no need to sterilize since the culture comes from bacteria on you, in the air, and in your kitchen.

  2. Peel (if the ginger is not organic) and grate 1 piece of ginger into the quart jar. Add 3 tablespoons of sugar and the water. Stir with a wooden spoon. Cover the jar with a piece of cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter secured with a rubber band. Set aside on your countertop (do not refrigerate).

  3. Every day for the next 5 days, stir the mixture and add 1 tablespoon grated ginger and 1 tablespoon sugar. The mixture will start to ferment—bubbles form at the top and the mixture smells slightly sweet and yeasty—usually within 5 days, but it could take as long as 7 to 8 days of adding grated ginger and sugar to start the fermentation. Mold should not appear, but if it does, scrape it off and if it reoccurs, start the process again.

  4. When you see signs of fermentation (described in step 3 above), refrigerate.

To use the lightly carbonated ginger drink, strain the liquid using a fine mesh strainer. Save the grated ginger in a sealed container and use in recipes calling for fresh ginger or compost it. Store the strained ginger liquid in a clean jar with a lid for up to 3 weeks, adding 1 teaspoon each of grated ginger and sugar once per week.

To Use Ginger Bug for Fizzy Drinks: In a jug, combine 1/4 cup strained Ginger Bug and 4 cups chilled mint or lemon herbal tea or fresh apple, peach, pear, or orange juice.

Join Pat Thursday, January 19 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Sizzle and Snap with Ginger. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $7.50 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

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

Photo Credits: 1) Stoneware bottle of ginger beer (Auckland Museum, via Wikipedia); 2) Ginger rhizome (Pat Crocker); 3) Fermenting ginger bug (EliseEtc, via Wikipedia)

References                                                    

Le Strange, Richard. 1977.  A history of herbal plants. Arco Publishing Company: Michigan.


Pat Crocker’s mission in life is to write with insight and experience, cook with playful abandon, and eat herbs with gusto. As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Metropolitan Toronto University) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. She has honed her wellness practice over more than four decades of growing, photographing, and writing about what she calls, the helping plants. In fact, Crocker infuses the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author (one of which is the G.H. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature), Pat has written 23 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Herbalist’s Kitchen (Sterling, 2018), The Healing Herbs Cookbook, and The Juicing Bible. http://www.patcrocker.com

Thai Herbs, Part I – Papaya

By Chrissy Moore

Papaya fruit on immature treeOne of the enchanting things about working in the National Herb Garden is the myriad people I meet from around the world. Ne’er a week goes by that I don’t see or get to speak with someone personally from another country. I’m often brazen enough to confront people directly and, figuratively speaking, “pat them down” for herbal information from their homeland!

Just such an opportunity presented itself this past summer. As I was sitting on a bench awaiting my coworker for a brief meeting, I noticed a woman and her teenage daughter walking through the garden. I got up the nerve to ask her where they were from. The mother was Thai, while her daughter was Thai/Maltese, the father being from Malta. I asked the mother (her name was Dao), if I could inquire about plants from her homeland, and so began her almost two-hour tour around the garden…the garden that I have worked in for over 25 years! Whoever said you “learn new things every day” wasn’t lying. Dao enthusiastically recounted stories of how the people from her village used such-and-such plant “back when I grew up and we had no electricity!”

While not all of the plants she discussed with me are currently in our inventory, I learned that they should be, and I’ll do my darndest to find them. But, mostly, she pointed out the plants that we already had, so I’ll start with a popular fruit tree, Carica papaya.

Picture of papaya leafPapaya is a small tree, relatively speaking, growing to about 30 feet tall. Interestingly, it only lives for five to ten years, which is pretty short in tree years. It has deeply lobed leaves reminiscent of fig leaves (Ficus carica), hence the obvious relationship with fig’s specific epithet. Generally, Carica is dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers are on separate trees, and the tree will start bearing fruit in one year to 18 months from seed. The resulting fruit can be anywhere from three to 20 inches long and can weigh in at a hefty 20 – 25 lbs! The fruit’s skin turns from green to yellow when ripe, and the flesh is a lovely tropical yellow to orange and is filled with hundreds of wrinkly black seeds (Britannica, 2022). While most people consume just the papaya flesh or juice, there’s no need to throw those seeds away; they have a strong, pepper-like flavor and can be used as a spice in various culinary preparations.

Ripe papaya fruit with interior seedsThe juice can be found in numerous commercial brands, particularly those from Latin and South America. In fact, papaya is native to Central and South America, not Southeast Asia, which may seem odd given this article is about Thai herbs. Let’s just say that papaya is well-traveled (unlike me). It has a long history of being moved from one country to another, then to another, each time being propagated, and then shipped off again to yet another tropical part of the world. The Spanish chronicler, Oviedo, first described Carica papaya in 1526 A.D. In the early 1600s, Spanish explorers to the New World carried the seed to Panama and the Dominican Republic. From the Caribbean, Spanish and Portuguese sailors carried the seeds to Southeast Asia and India, to Australia and even to Italy. Between 1800 – 1820, papaya was sent on to Hawaii, and by 1900, papaya had come all the way back to the New World, landing in Florida. In all of these locations, it was introduced as a plantation, or agricultural, crop (TFNetwork, 2016). “Papaya has become an important agricultural export for developing countries, where export revenues of the fruit provide a livelihood for thousands of people, especially in Asia and Latin America” (Evans and Ballen, 2018).

1671 etching of papaya trees in a tropical settingToday, Mexico has moved into first place as the number one exporter of papaya, with virtually all of its exports going to the United States, which “ranks as the largest importer of papayas globally” (FAO, 2021). Who knew?! So, I guess it isn’t that surprising that it was here in the United States–not Thailand–that I met Dao who shared with me about one of the most popular tropical plants in her home country, as well as mine.

Picture of Thai papaya saladAccording to Dao, the green (unripe) fruit is used as a vegetable to make papaya salad, and it can also be fried with meat. If boiled with meat, it makes the meat softer and more moist. The leaves, she explained, are eaten in Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, where they are cut and fried or eaten raw. Medicinally, papaya is considered by many Thai as an old-fashioned remedy good for the body, diabetes, and cancer. The leaf juice was/is used to treat intestinal cancer, and the ripe fruit is good for relieving constipation (personal communication).

Much of this makes perfect sense when you analyze the chemical constituents of papaya. It is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber (UFL/IFAS, 2016). The Tropical Fruit Network states, “Furthermore, papaya also contains [potassium, copper, phosphorus, iron, and manganese], carotenes, flavonoids, folate and pantothenic acid, and also fiber. These nutrients help to promote a healthy cardiovascular system and provide protection against colon cancer. Fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol level[s] in [the] human body. Papaya and its seeds have proven anti-parasitic and anti-amoebic activities, and their consumption offers a cheap, natural, harmless, readily available preventive strategy against intestinal parasites.” What scientists have lately confirmed, the people of Thailand have been putting into practice for centuries.

Picture of raw meat with papaya skin slices for meat tenderizerBoth the papaya leaves and the fruit’s skin produce a latex substance from which a digestive enzyme called papain can be obtained. Papain is similar to the human digestive enzyme pepsin, and thus, is an effective plant-based meat tenderizer, “useful in digesting or coagulating, clotting, and converting proteins into smaller parts” (Tyler et al., 1988). (Bromelain, an enzyme from pineapples, is used similarly.) Hence, the Thai method of mixing papaya with meat effectively tenderizes the meat during the cooking process. (Note: If one has a latex allergy, caution should be used.)

Picture of Papaya Complete extractSuch uses transcend “old-fashioned” methods by including modern applications as well. Papain is used in some contact lens cleaning solutions (Tyler et al., 1988), as well as in the production of products like chewing gum, shampoo and soap, beer, in drug and anti-bacterial preparations for some digestive ailments, and in wound care. Papaya extracts are also effective in the textile industry for “degumming silk and softening of wool” (TFNetwork, 2016). In 2021, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center also noted on their website that “papaya leaves and their extracts are sold as dietary supplements to improve the immune system and increase platelet counts….A few clinical studies found benefits of papaya leaf extract in treating dengue fever and in increasing platelet counts,” though they suggested that more studies were needed.

Papaya juice and ripe fruit with seedsIn my small world, papaya has always been “that fruit” (or juice) that I’ve never actually tried and for no particular reason. Fortunately for me, I learned something new that day–that papaya is not just a one-trick pony as I had previously thought; there are plenty of ways this plant is useful to humans, especially for people like Dao from Thailand. Having the opportunity to speak with people like her who have such personal relationships with many of the herbs we grow in the National Herb Garden never gets old!

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

Photo Credits: 1) Carica papaya immature tree with fruit (Creative Commons, Bmdavll@EnglishWikipedia); 2) Papaya leaf (Creative Commons, Marufish); 3) Ripe papaya fruit with seeds (Creative Commons, love.jsc); 4) 1671 etching of Carica papaya trees (Public Domain); 5) Thai papaya salad (Creative Commons, Ken2754@yokohama); 6) Strips of papaya being used as a meat tenderizer (Creative Commons, Thai Food Blog); 7) Papaya extract (Public Domain); 8) Papaya fruit and juice (Bincy Lenin’s Kitchen, youtube).

References

Britannica Online. 2022. Papaya. Accessed 28 Dec 2022. https://www.britannica.com/plant/papaya.

Evans, Edward A. and Fredy H. Ballen. 2018. An overview of global papaya production, trade, and consumption. University of Florida, Food and Resource Economics Department, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension. Accessed 12 Dec 2022. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/FE913.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2021. International Trade Major Tropical Fruits: preliminary results 2021, p. 13. Accessed 28 Dec 2022. https://www.fao.org/3/cb9412en/cb9412en.pdf

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 2021. Papaya leaf: Purported benefits, side effects, and more. Accessed 7 Jan 2023. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/papaya-leaf

Tyler, Varro E., Lynn Brady, and James Robbers. 1988. Pharmacognosy. 9th Edition. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.

TFNet News Compilation. 2016. Papaya – Introduction. International Tropical Fruits Network. Accessed 28 Dec 2022. https://www.itfnet.org/v1/2016/05/papaya-introduction/


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. Aside from garden maintenance in the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics. She serves as co-blogmaster of The Herb Society’s blog and is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America. Chrissy is also an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. When not doing herbie things, she can be found looking after many horses.

Herb of the Month: Ginger – An Ancient Spice

By Maryann Readal

Ginger inflorescenceGinger, Zingiber officinale, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January. The English botanist, William Roscoe (1753-1831), gave ginger its name, which was derived from the Sanskrit word sryngaveram, which means “horn root.” However, ginger is not a root; it is a rhizome, which is an underground stem from which the roots grow. Ginger is an excellent spice to feature in January, because when infused into warm water, its spiciness warms the body on a cold winter day. Its medicinal qualities also help to relieve a sore throat or other cold symptoms that are more common in the winter.

Drawing of Arab merchants trading gingerGinger is a very old spice. The Indians and the Chinese used ginger as a medicine over 5000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments (Bode, 2011). It was also used to flavor foods long before history was even recorded. The Greeks and the Romans introduced ginger to Europe and the Mediterranean area by way of the Arab traders. It became an important spice in Europe until the fall of the Roman Empire. When the Arabs re-established trade routes after the fall, ginger found its way back into European apothecaries and kitchens. It is said that one pound of ginger cost the same as one sheep in the 13th and 14th centuries (Bode, 2011). (It’s hard to imagine something that is so common today was so expensive many years ago.) The Arab traders were also good marketers. They brought with them claims that ginger was a reliable aphrodisiac. As late as the 19th century, it was claimed that rubbing your hands in ground ginger would assure success in the bed chamber (Laws, 2018). Perhaps it was their successful marketing that created the demand for the rhizome, driving up its price.

Growing gingerToday, growing culinary ginger is not limited to the hot, humid areas of Southeast Asia and India as it was long ago. Anyone living in southern growing areas (USDA Hardiness Zones 8 – 12) can grow it as a perennial. In colder areas, it can be grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter or grown in the ground, but dug up before frost and potted up for overwintering indoors in a cool location. It prefers a rich, moist soil, good drainage, and shade in the south, but full sun in the north. If starting plants from store-bought ginger rhizomes, the rhizome should be first soaked in water to remove any growth retardant that may have been used. Each rhizome can be cut into sections with at least two eyes and planted in soil. Harvest the rhizomes when the leaves begin to fade. 

There are many beautiful ornamental gingers that are in the Zingiberaceae family that are easy to grow in warm climates. There are shell, butterfly, spiral, hidden, and peacock gingers, each with a unique bloom and bright color. All provide tropical accents in the garden.

Savory Asian and Indian cuisines would be unthinkable without ginger, but in Europe, it is added to puddings, cakes, and drinks. Ginger is used in teas in many countries as well. In some parts of the Middle East, it is added to coffee. On the Ivory Coast, ginger is ground and added to juiced fruit. And how much more tasty Japanese sushi is with those slices of pink, pickled ginger! Here in the U.S., we have ginger ale and ginger beer, gingersnaps, and gingerbread. In Hawaii, ginger flowers are one of the flowers used in making leis. Googling ginger and cooking will find many, many interesting recipes Sushi with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauceusing ginger in some form: fresh, ground, crystallized, pickled, preserved, or dried. 

Ginger is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some medicinal applications of ginger that are supported by contemporary research are for the treatment of motion sickness, nausea, osteoarthritis, and muscle pain reduction (Engels, 2018). According to Bohm, “ginger also appears to reduce cholesterol and improve lipid metabolism, thereby helping to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” It also shows promise as an anti-cancer agent against colon cancer.

Photo of Jamaican ginger juiceUnfortunately for ginger, there is a dark side to its history. Throughout the 19th Century, a patent medicine, Ginger Juice (also Jamaica ginger), or “Jake” as it was popularly called, was widely sold on street corners and in pharmacies in the U.S. It contained alcohol and a ginger extract and was used as a treatment for headaches, upper respiratory infections, menstrual disorders, and intestinal gas. Even though it had a pungent ginger flavor, it became a sought-after alcoholic drink in U.S. counties where alcohol was prohibited. When Prohibition came along in 1920, medicines with a high alcohol content, such as Ginger Juice, became especially popular. The U.S. government put in place measures to control inappropriate use of these patent medicines; alcohol-based medicines were only available with a prescription. The Prohibition Bureau (naively) considered Ginger Juice to be non-potable and too pungent and possibly did not think people would misuse it. However, Ginger Juice continued to be a popular and inexpensive “drink.”

Washington Post article about Jamaican ginger lawsuitTo circumvent the government’s restrictions/regulations placed on Ginger Juice, one manufacturer began adulterating the medicine by adding the compound tri-orthocresyl phosphate to its product. This created the illusion of pure Ginger Juice to fool the government officials, but ultimately resulted in a very toxic drink for the consumers. Soon, Ginger Juice users began reporting that they lost control of their hands and feet. They developed a peculiar walk, where their toes would touch the ground before their heels. It was called the Jake Walk or Jake Leg. Between 30,000 – 50,000 (some even estimate up to 100,000) people (Fortin, 2020) were affected before the government could remove the contaminated product from the market. Some recovered, but many did not.  This unfortunate event has been the subject of many blues songs and some books and movies. This incident contributed to the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which prohibited the marketing of new drugs that were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This winter, warm up with ginger. For more information and recipes for ginger, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.

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

Photo Credits: 1) Ginger inflorescence (Maryann Readal); 2) Arab merchants trading ginger (public domain); 3) Growing ginger (Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder); 4) Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’  (variegated shell ginger) and Curcuma petiolata (hidden ginger) (Maryann Readal); 5) Japanese sushi with pickled ginger (Creative Commons, wuestenigel); 6) 19th-century Jamaican juice (Wikimedia Commons, public domain); 7) Washington Post article about Jamaican Juice lawsuit (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

References

Bhatt, Neeru, et al. 2013. Ginger : a functional herb. Accessed 12/1/22. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257416254_Ginger_A_functional_herb

Bode, Ann. 2011. The amazing and mighty ginger.  Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press/Taylor Francis. Accessed 12/11/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92775/

Engels, Gayle. 2018. The history and mystery of the Zingiberaceae family. Round Top, TX, Herbal Forum.

Fortin, Neal. 2020. Jamaica Juice paralysis. Accessed 12/9/22. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/jamaican-ginger-paralysis 

Ginger, Zingiber officinale. 2018. Accessed 12/1/22. https://mastergardener.extension.wisc.edu/files/2018/02/Zingiber_officinale.pdf

Ginger. 2022. Accessed 12/25/22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger

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


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

Sloe Gin – A Marriage of Prunus and Juniperus

By David McDaniel

White flowers on Prunus spinosaIn the U.S. National Arboretum, a few little thorny trees bearing small astringent fruits are tucked away in a research field. These trees are called blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The fruits, called sloes, are very bitter, and when eaten raw, will dry out your mouth in a second. Generally, they’re unpleasant until frozen, and even after that, they are not great. But when steeped in gin with sugar, the flavor and color of the resulting drink is comparable to a sweet red wine.

Prunus might be a familiar genus, containing the cherry, plum, and apricot to name a few. Prunus spinosa generally stays small and blooms a brilliant white in mid spring (Fern, 2022). The fruits are not useful for very much until frozen, when the cold breaks down the astringent compounds (Fern, 2022); however, the fruits are plentiful in many parts of England owing to their presence in many hedges. The branches are Flowering Prunus spinosa in hedgerowthorny, and trunks can grow densely together making blackthorn ideal for use in hedgerows, where it was employed heavily in that role in England after the Enclosure Act. The Enclosure Act was the creation of private land in England, and landowners wanted what was in their lands kept in and what was outside kept out (Shaw, 2016). Therefore, a spiny tree with tough wood was perfect for their needs. Most hedges were a mix of different species, and blackthorn was often included in the mix. 

Common juniper (Juniperus communis) fruit is the only required herb in the creation of gin. No juniper, no gin. You can add whatever other ingredients you want, and it will still be a gin as long as it meets the next requirement: gin must be 40% alcohol by volume (Department of Treasury, 2007). Gin was first marketed in the Netherlands in the mid-1600s by Franciscus de la Boe as a medicinal tonic. But, people really liked it…to the point where people made up a lot of “illnesses” that could only be remedied by this new tonic (Ciesla, 1998). It became a regular drinking spirit not too long afterward and eventually made its way to England in 1700 (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019). 

The earliest mention of sloes in alcohol is in the book, British Wonders, by the satirical poet and London tavern owner, Ned Ward, published in 1717. It is a densely written chronology of what Ned Ward perceived as societal ills in post-Queen Anne Britain. Within his 18th-century description of the Gin Craze, Ward says, “But made at home twixt Chip and Dash, Of Sugar, Sloes and Grocers Trash.” The use of the phrase “Grocer’s Trash” in this line could be a reference to the ingredients of the homemade alcohols made by anyone interested in cashing in on the popularity of gin. In an effort to make these homemade alcohols appear as Juniperus communis fruit and foliagelow class and horrible as possible, the author specifically refers to their ingredients as something a grocer would trim off of their goods or refuse to sell. This is, perhaps, specifically in reference to the juniper berries in gin not being used for much else in England at the time. The Gin Craze Ward speaks of was when cheap spirits, mostly gin, reached London, England. The popularity of gin was the result of various factors: 1) spirits becoming easier to distill; 2) economic protectionism from the British monarchy against the French; and 3) the expansion of London (Vorel, 2020). Essentially, there was a new monarch that wanted to shield Britain from France, and in turn, hurt the French. So, there were tariffs on French goods, including the drink of choice at the time—brandy.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

It was already expensive and a special niche drink as a result, but those looking for liquor had to turn elsewhere, and gin was easy to distill using poor quality grain masked by juniper. The new accessibility of stills, and the lack of government oversight into the practice of distilling, meant that the price per gallon dropped below that of beer (Vorel, 2020). The population boom of London was brought on by once-rural farmers moving to the city for work. This was after the Enclosure Act forced them out of the communal fields. Jobs were not guaranteed in London, so money was tight; therefore, cheap spirits were the go-to for wetting their whistles (Vorel, 2020). As a side note, “gin” in the Gin Craze wasn’t the gin we think of today. It was incredibly strong and was mixed with things like sulfuric acid and turpentine to add “bite.” These adulterants made it toxic (Forsyth, 2019). The early drink was called “Madam Geneva” by some in London due to the original marketing of it as “Jenever,” the Dutch word for juniper, and Geneva is a similar sounding city in the Netherlands (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019). It was then shortened to “gin” in 1714, giving us the name we now know (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). 

Sloe Fruit Prunus spinosa Nobury Inkberrow WorcestershireSloe gin is made by adding 500g of sloes and 250g of sugar into a liter of gin and then letting it steep for two to three months. The resulting solution is bottled after running it through a filter to catch any skins or other undesirable bits. This is then decanted into bottles, where it continues to mature until enjoyed (Cadogan, 2014). Sloe gin is traditionally enjoyed straight and warm, but when sloe gin reached America in the early 1900s, it became popularized by the Sloe Gin Fizz cocktail (Lee, n.d.). The tradition of drinking sloe gin warm may be a product of the fruit being picked around mid-October and the preparation taking three months to reach initial maturity. The drink would be truly ready to enjoy in the middle of winter, but would be “good enough” on or around Christmas, when a warm beverage would be a treat on a chilly day. 

After hunting around town for a while, I finally found some sloe gin to try for myself. Because it may not be readily available in all areas, I recommend going to a really large liquor store, which is bound to have some. Sloe gin is typically less than 40% abv, so it might be with the cordials as opposed to the gin section. I tried two different kinds. One was a straight sloe gin, just gin and sloes. It was delicious. I loved the sweet plummy flavor and the slight punch of juniper from the gin. When mixed in a Gin and Tonic or a French Mule instead of taken straight, it is a sweet variation on these traditional favorites. Another bottle was a more complex sipping gin that had, including sloes: grapefruit, angelica, jasmine, bitter orange, lemon, cassia, coriander, and orris. (Perhaps a list for blog articles!) All of the other flavors, including the focus on citrus, were tasted throughout the gin. It was a much more challenging drink, and was enjoyed best over ice and slowly sipped to taste every flavor more independently, as opposed to all at once in a shot. This botanical sloe gin does not mix well with traditional mixers such as tonic or ginger beer. It’s a balancing act of flavors, and my mixing skills could not thread that needle. Perhaps someone more skilled than I could make that mix taste good, but I could not. 

I like alcohols that have unique flavors not found elsewhere in other culinary pursuits. The unique flavors that come from the distillation, fermentation, or other processes performed in the production of alcohol, make them special. When drinking, I would prefer something unique as opposed to another cider or lemonade experience. Sloe gin is another I’ll add to my repertoire of unique experiences to enjoy only in alcohol.

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

Photo Credits: 1) White flowers of Prunus spinosa (John Winder); 2) Prunus spinosa at U.S. National Arboretum (John Winder); 3) Juniperus communis foliage and fruit (Chemazgz, Openverse Creative Commons); 4) Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751 (Public Domain); 5) Prunus spinosa sloes (rodtuck, Openverse Creative Commons); 6 & 7) Sloe gin (David McDaniel).

References

Cadogan, M. 2014. Sloe gin recipe. BBC Good Food. Accessed on: 22 November 2022. Available from: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/sloe-gin 

Ciesla, W.M. 1998. Non-wood forest products from conifers. Food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. Rome: FAO. 

Department of Treasury. 2007. The Beverage and Alcohol Manual. Department of Treasury. 

Fern, K. 2022. Prunus spinosa. Useful temperate plants. Accessed November 22, 2022. Available from: https://temperate.theferns.info/plant/Prunus+spinosa 

Forsyth, M. 2019. The 18th-century Craze for Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/gin-craze-panic-18th-century-london-when-came-england-alcohol-drinking-history/ 

Lee, L. Drink in History: Sloe Gin Fizz. Accessed on November 22, 2022. Available from: https://chilledmagazine.com/drink-in-history-sloe-gin-fizz/ 

Online Etymology Dictionary. Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.etymonline.com/word/gin 

Shaw, M. 2016. The Commodification of a Blade of Grass: Enclosure in England. University of Georgia. Accessed on November 22, 2022 Available from: https://ctlsites.uga.edu/whatthehistory/the-commodification-of-a-blade-of-grass-enclosure-in-england/ 

Sipsmith. 2015. Exploring the History of Sloe Gin. Sipsmith Blog Accessed on November 30, 2022. Available from: https://sipsmith.com/exploring-the-history-of-sloe-gin/ 

Ward, N. 1717. British Wonders. Accessed on 22 November 2022. Available from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/British_Wonders 

Woodland Trust. Hedgerows. Woodland Trust Accessed on 30 November 2022. Available from: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/habitats/hedgerows/ 

Vorel, J. 2020. The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death. Paste Magazine. Accessed on 7 December 2022. Available from: The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death – Paste (pastemagazine.com)


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

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

by Keith Howerton

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

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

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

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

Cultivated field of nutsedge in Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Just kidding) 

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

References

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

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


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

Cranberry – Herb for the Holidays

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Oh My Agave!

by Joe Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Holiday Herbal Cocktail Party

By Debbie Boutelier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Coffee – A Bean with a History

By Maryann Readal

Coffee tree with fruitCoffea arabica is certainly an interesting herbal plant. This simple, evergreen, small tree or shrub with white flowers is grown in tropical climates. It is native to southern Ethiopia and South Sudan and has been naturalized in Brazil and other South American and African countries. It takes three to four years for a tree to produce the red berries, sometimes called “cherries.” The fruit is hand-picked and the pulp removed to uncover the two seeds in each fruit. These seeds are dried, roasted, and ground to make the coffee that we drink. Scientists at Kew Gardens in England (Kew, 2019) say that the arabica species is now endangered due to deforestation and climate change. However, the less popular robusta species, which is already used in instant and decaffeinated coffees, grows well in Africa and other areas of the world and can fill the needs of the world’s coffee culture.

Coffee cherries close-upIt is said that coffee was discovered around 850 CE in the Ethiopian highlands by a goat herder who noticed that his goats became lively after eating the berries from the coffee plant. The herder took this observation back to a monk in a nearby monastery. The monk thought it would be worth trying the bean to help him get through his all-night prayer vigils. It worked! Coffee beans then became a way for the religious to sustain their long nights of prayer. From there, the use of the bean spread to Yemen and Turkey, where the Arabs began using the bean both as a medicine and as a stimulating drink. 

Turkish coffee mug with a side of chocolatesThe first coffeehouse in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) was established in 1475. There was debate within the Muslim religious community whether or not coffee was an inebriating drink prohibited by the Quran. It was finally decided that since the Quran did not specifically mention coffee, it was allowable for Muslims to drink it. Until 1690, Arabia monopolized the coffee supply. Foreign visitors were forbidden to visit coffee plantations, and only beans that had been roasted or boiled could be exported since the processing made them infertile. The coffee monopoly ended when a man named Sufi Baba Budan smuggled coffee beans taped to his stomach out of Yemen to his native India. The beans grew into coffee plants, plantations followed, and the rest is history.

With the beginnings of coffee production and trade in India, coffee spread throughout Europe. When the drink came to Italy, it was believed to be a Muslim drink and was associated with Satan. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) tasted the coffee drink, liked it, and declared that coffee was not the drink of Satan and subsequently baptized it; the popularity of coffee in the Christian world then soared.

Coffee harvestThe first coffeehouse in Europe was opened in Oxford, England, in 1650, and by 1700, there were 2,000 coffeehouses in London alone. The popularity of coffeehouses in Europe coincided with the Enlightenment period, and they became the place where writers, philosophers, and political activists exchanged ideas. British coffee shops became known as “penny universities,” because a cup of coffee cost one cent and you could learn a lot while drinking it and listening to the discussions. In 1675, King Charles II tried to abolish coffeehouses, because the open discussion that occurred in them was perceived to be a danger to the government. However, it was an unpopular decision and did not succeed. The coffeehouse movement continued to grow in England, and many coffeehouses even became specialized. Some became institutions that still exist today, such as the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London. 

The French Revolution was born in the Paris coffeehouses. The Café de Foy was the place where those who made the call to arms and then stormed the Bastille gathered.

1952 coffee break with June Allyson and Dick PowellIn America, the American Revolution was plotted in the Green Dragon Tavern, a tavern/coffeehouse in Boston Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party, which did much to unseat tea as the beverage of choice in the new world. Today, Americans drink 517 million cups of coffee per day (2 cups per day per person) (National Coffee Assoc., 2022) and spent $74.2 billion on coffee in 2015. Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world after oil. It battles beer for third place as the most popular drink in the world after water and tea. Starbucks, created in 1985 with just a few coffeeshops, has grown to over 9,000 shops worldwide.

The medicinal effects of coffee have been one of the factors responsible for its early success. The stimulating caffeine in the beans is what brought it to the attention of the Ethiopians in the first century. Avicenna, the Arabian physician, wrote of the medicinal qualities of the coffee beans in the 15th century. Today, coffee, in many forms, is still used in traditional medicines of Africa and Asia to treat stomach ache, diarrhea, and low blood pressure. Some aspirin products, such as Bayer® Back & Body aspirin, contain caffeine to relieve headache, body aches, and arthritis pain.

Bayer Back & Body AspirinAccording to Sampath Rarthasarathy, Ph.D., “Coffee is one of the richest sources of phenolics and polyphenols, which are antioxidants. Research shows that these compounds may help prevent or even repair some types of cell damage. A 2018 study found that those who drank coffee were less likely to die early than those who didn’t. And prior research suggests that coffee may reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, and diabetes” (Rockwood, 2019).

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported the results of another study done on patients who had suffered prior myocardial infarctions. This study concluded that, “Drinking coffee, either caffeinated or decaffeinated, may lower the risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease) and IHD (ischemic heart disease) mortality in patients with a prior MI (myocardial infarction).“

Coffee breakAs if all of these qualities of coffee were not enough, scientists have also discovered that caffeine is a natural pesticide and speculate that caffeine developed along with the coffee plant as a protection for the plant against harmful insects. They have found that adding caffeine to other natural pesticides increased their effectiveness against insects such as mosquito larvae, hornworms, mealworms, and milkweed bugs.

I wish I did not know that coffee can also be used as an insecticide. However, I won’t let that fact stop me from enjoying my cup of strong morning brew.

Coffee is the Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for September.

Photo Credits: 1) Coffee tree (Creative Commons; 2) Coffee “cherries” (Creative Commons); 3) Turkish coffee “mug” with a side of chocolates (Stacy Readal); 4) Arabian coffee break (Wikimedia Commons); 5) Arabian coffee urn (Creative Commons); 6) Coffee harvest (Creative Commons); 7) 1952 coffee break with June Allyson and Dick Powell (Public Domain); 8) Bayer Back & Body medication (Public Domain); 9) Coffee break (Creative Commons).

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

References

Coffee facts and statistics. (n.d.) Accessed 7/18/22. http://www.professorshouse.com/food-beverage/beverages/coffee-facts-statistics.aspx

Dongen, Laura H., et al. 2017. Coffee consumption after myocardial infarction and risk of cardiovascular mortality: a prospective analysis in the Alpha Omega Cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 106, Issue 4, October 2017. Accessed 8/3/2022. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.117.153338

Feleman, Ellen. 2022. Coffee and tea: drink choice and effects on stroke, dementia, and post stroke dementia. Relias Media, February 21, 2022. Accessed 7/19/22. Consumer Health Complete Database.

Kew Gardens. 2019. Kew scientists reveal that 60% of wild coffee species are threatened with extinction, causing concern for the future of coffee production. Accessed 8/3/22. https://www.kew.org/about-us/press-media/kew-scientists-reveal-that-60-of-wild-coffee/ 

National Coffee Association. n.d. History of coffee. Accessed 7/18/22. https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee

Paterson, Cathy. 2012. No. 2846: Coffeehouses. Accessed 7/18/22. https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2846.htm#:~:text=In%201675%2C%20King%20Charles%20II,%2C%20percolated%20to%20America%2C%20too.

Rockwood, Kate. 2019. 5 myths about coffee. Prevention, Vol 71, Iss. 10, p. 68-71.   

Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. 2020. How coffee fueled revolutions–and revolutionary ideas. Accessed 8/3/22. https://www.history.com/news/coffee-houses-revolutions


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 lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Soursop and Bush Tea

By Scott Aker

Soursop, Annona muricataI succumbed to my weariness with winter and decided to spend a week with my cousin Barb in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. She knows my fondness for plants and planned several plant-related activities for me, including a visit to the St. George Village Botanical Gardens and local nurseries. One of the most memorable plant highlights was my first ever tasting of soursop, Annona muricata. I encountered this large, spiny green fruit in Hawaii many years ago, but was only able to buy it the day before we were to leave, and I couldn’t bring it home. I had tried it, even though the store clerk told me I had to let it ripen to the point that the flesh would yield when softly poked. Because it was unripe, it really had no flavor.

When I arrived, she pointed out a soursop in a wooden bowl in the kitchen. She saw that I knew the fruit, and she admonished me, like the clerk in that store in Hawaii, that we could not sample the fruit until it was very soft and mushy. She had frozen some soursop pulp from a fruit she had ripened prior to my arrival, and we scraped it into a kind of sorbet and ate that for dessert. So, I did get a delicious preview of what the fresh fruit would be like. The days went by, and I checked it daily with her. When I thought it was soft enough, she determined it was not quite there and that we would sample it tomorrow.

Author eating soursopWhen the time came to eat the fruit, she asked me to come to the kitchen counter to eat it with her. There were no plates, no knife, and no spoons. I asked what utensils would be needed, and she indicated that the most authentic way to eat this delicacy was with our hands and nothing else. After we thoroughly washed our hands, she plunged hers into the fruit, splitting the skin and revealing the very juicy, soft, and fragrant contents within. She grabbed some of the pulp, which was clinging to the large black seeds, and explained that we shouldn’t eat the seeds, but instead spit them out and place them in some of the skin of the fruit for later disposal. I followed her lead, and my tastebuds instantly rejoiced at the balanced sweetness and sourness of this creamy fruit with overtones of custard, pineapple, and strawberry, all with a smooth, creamy mouth feel. We finished most of that fruit. Later, I asked her where she bought it, and she laughed and said that she picked it from a tree growing at their church.

When I went to Christmas services there with her, I saw the tree. It had many fruits on it, and many seemed to be ripe. It bore a resemblance to the pawpaw, Asimina triloba, in my own backyard. The leaves and stature of the tree were smaller than the pawpaw, but similar enough to signal their close kinship in the Annonaceae family. I thought it odd that others would not have taken these fruits from the tree, but she said that this is a very common dooryard tree on the island and most likely parishioners have trees or know neighbors who do.

A few days later, we stopped for lunch, and I decided to try the bush tea that appeared on the menu. I’d seen this on other menus, but wasn’t sure what might be in bush tea, so I had opted for iced tea instead.  This menu mentioned the ingredients in the bush tea, and I noted that among other things it had soursop listed. I was hoping this meant that the tea would have the deliciously complex sweet and sour flavor of the fruit, but it did not. It had a lovely reddish pink hue and was clear. It had some sourness, no doubt from roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, and a complex taste that had overtones of mint and artemisia, along with other flavors that I found hard to pinpoint. I did not detect any of the fruitiness of the soursop fruit, and when I asked the staff, they told me that tea contained soursop leaves.

The inside of soursop fruitI was stunned by this revelation. I knew that most things, except for the larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, avoid eating leaves of pawpaw and other Annonaceae because of the presence of acetogenins in the leaves, seeds, twigs, and skin of the fruits. Knowing that biochemistry tends to be similar within most plant families, I was slightly concerned that the bush tea I drank had such substances in it. I have accidentally tasted the skin of pawpaw, and I can attest to the astringency and bitterness of acetogenins.

I did not detect the bitterness in the bush tea I drank, and this prompted further investigation. I looked for recipes. I quickly found that there is no set recipe for bush tea. I read the Crucian Contessa blog post (Bailey-Roka, 2012) on bush tea and learned that it consists of plants collected on the spot with no set formula in mind. The constituents may change with the need of the day. With regard to soursop, the author states that, “If you couldn’t sleep, the leaves from the soursop tree would help you rest.” Further research revealed that one of the acetogenins that both soursop and pawpaw produce is annonacin, which is a neurotoxin. I guess a mild neurotoxin may be effective in inducing sleep when overactive nerves are in play.

My cousin also mentioned that bush tea was the Crucians’ cure for any ailment, much as our grandmother considered caraway-flavored kümmel schnapps the cure-all for our childhood ailments. We agreed that the schnapps was a miracle cure only because we quickly learned to never complain of any illness to avoid its very strong and vile flavor. She told me that such was not the case with bush tea. Many islanders consider it a key part of their health regimen and start each day with a cup or more.

Soursop beverageBush tea is so highly esteemed that the local health department had to advise Crucians that bush tea is not effective against viral and bacterial infections. Crucians are known for creativity in making do with local ingredients that nature provides, historically limited by the resources present on their small island. Many of the other constituents may provide vitamins and antioxidants, so they may play a positive role in keeping them healthy.

Those acetogenins have another interesting angle. They are behind most of the cancer-treatment claims behind pawpaw, soursop, and other members of the Annonaceae. Extracts of soursop have also been investigated for treatment of diabetes, ulcers, and a host of other health issues (Mutakin, 2022). While the jury is still out, medicines derived from soursop are not likely to hit the mass market, because it is very difficult to prepare drugs since acetogenins are not stable when subjected to heat. Perhaps one need not worry about drinking a hot cup of bush tea with soursop leaves used in its preparation after all. On the more worrisome side, there has been some thought that consumption of soursop fruit and bush tea may have some link to the higher than expected rate of Parkinson’s Disease present in the Caribbean.

What is most fascinating to me about soursop is what we still do not know. It has been a prized fruit cultivated long before European conquest, yet we don’t fully understand the implications of using its leaves in bush tea. Plants have much to teach us, and we have much to learn.

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

Photo Credits: 1) Soursop fruit, Annona muricata; 2) Author trying the ripe fruit; 3) Inside of ripe soursop; 4) Bush tea. All photos courtesy of the author.

References

Bailey-Roka, Tanisha. 2012. Bush tea. Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.cruciancontessa.com/2012/12/20/bush-tea/

Mutakin, M., R. Fauziati, F. Nur Fadhilah, A. Zuhrotun, R. Amalia, et al. 2022. Pharmacological activities of soursop (Annona muricata Lin.). Molecules 27(4). Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8878098/


Scott Aker is Head of Horticulture and Education at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. He authored Digging In in The Washington Post and Garden Solutions in The American Gardener.