Ring Ye Solstice Bells: Reflections on the Longest Night of the Year

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

A1576943-59AB-44B3-9200-12D5BB70C619I was sitting here at my desk trying to think of what I could say about the Winter Solstice that I have never said before. Then I started to think about the last two years. As the COVID virus forces us, once again, to reconsider the way that we celebrate with each other, I am reminded that taking the time needed to reflect with joy and gratitude that I am still alive, as are my loved ones, is what must take center stage.

As I look back, though, the overwhelming feeling that I have is gratitude. Gratitude that I’m alive. Grateful to have those I love around my table or at least still with us. Grateful to be able to still live our lives, love and laugh together. Living alongside this joy is the stark reality of the last year, and walking hand in hand with me is the grief that so many I love are living with empty chairs and tears this December.  

Untitled (Facebook Post)I always laugh and say when I am asked, that celebrating the Winter Solstice has always been how two Jewish women who absolutely love Christmas find their own place within those traditions. Normally, my sister and I have a huge party on Solstice eve in her beautiful log cabin that was once a maple sugar house. We decorate like mad, fill up the house with herb wreaths, holly boughs, evergreens, and beautifully scented Christmas potpourri—a special gift from my dear friend, Kathleen. 

We take turns blessing the remnants of the previous year’s Yule log, making our wishes for the coming months before we use it to light the new fire. We have all of our friends over for a beautiful feast, the table laden with bayberry candles, wonderful holiday foods, and a groaning board of homemade desserts.

There’s always a copper kettle filled with steaming mulled wine redolent with roasted warming spices or cocoa, and a pot full of “Lamb’s Wool,” my favorite of the ancient punches (see recipe below). This is always rounded off by a huge punch bowl of eggnog and another of icy bourbon milk punch. Eighty-plus people usually join us, and it gets loud and lively. For close to 20 years, this party has always been the high point of my holiday season, but for obvious reasons, it just cannot take place this year.

I have found myself wondering for weeks now how to keep this tradition that I love so much, and then a little voice in my head whispered simply, “You have to be willing to let go of the old to make room for the beautiful and new….Why don’t you just begin at the beginning?”

Suddenly, I realized what had been in front of me all along, what I couldn’t see because I was longing for what had been. I needed to acknowledge where the past year has brought me, and so I began to ponder the traditional origins of the Winter Solstice celebration.

Photo ofTraditionally, the Solstice has always been one of the quietest nights of the year, and indeed, the longest night of the year. The months and weeks leading up to the Solstice were full of great intention and action for the harvest must be brought in; the onions and garlic braided; fruits, vegetables, and herbs dried; and the animals slaughtered for meat, along with the beef tallow needed for cooking, soapmaking, candles, and salves. The milk from goats, sheep, and cows needed to be turned into cheese that would last through the winter. The honey and beeswax from the hives needed to be harvested and turned into candles. The fields had to be put to bed in preparation for the following spring, and only then could thoughts turn towards celebration. 

Some years, the people weren’t so lucky. There were wars and famines. Hives failed. Animals meant for food starved, and their milk dried up. The abundance of food, warmth, and light that we take for granted just did not exist even 100 years ago, and more often than not, there would be a sense of foreboding, and there would be many challenges, including the challenge of disease without many options to fight it.

So much is so readily available to us that we have mostly forgotten what it means to live within our own world, to live with each other and to be self-reliant. As I thought about this, I realized quite suddenly that we are perhaps closer to understanding how our forebears must have felt than ever before. Having the days grow longer and lighter must have seemed like such a miracle to them. Finding ways to fight the virulence of diseases and the pests that ravaged their farms and families must have filled them with such hope.

Finding ways to make sense of what was happening in the natural world, using traditional skills and new discoveries must have seemed like real magic to them, and the silver lining of the last year is that, in many ways, we are watching the same phenomenon unfolding right now, in real time.

21C369CA-169A-4728-AE00-A7B200EFFAD3Those of us who are herbalists, cooks, and gardeners know very well what I am saying. After all, in 2020 could you find a new Ball jar for canning in any store? I couldn’t! There was no garden soil anywhere, and mulch was sold out. Seeds were sold out by the end of January. Yeast for baking was nowhere to be found. Elderberry, echinacea, and goldenseal products were sold off of shelves as quickly as they appeared, with many stores putting limits on what could be purchased.

Very quickly, I realized that what I’d always taken for granted simply wasn’t there. I have to admit to not feeling frustrated, but instead finding it oddly thrilling.

So many people learning so many new skills. A walk around my neighborhood would make me smile. Vegetable and herb gardens were being put in everywhere, and so were fruit trees.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was talking about survival, honeybees, and sustainability.

I called my Herb Society of America friends, and we shared mason jars and seeds. We shared cuttings and bags of soil. That summer, I began to harvest, forage, and preserve with an energy I’d never had before. I was actually shocked and very proud when my husband announced to me that I’d filled the freezers with soups, stews, and sauces, and that there was no room left for anything else.

IMG_4271-1Coincidentally, with this blossoming awareness, the talks that I gave as Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society began to focus on gardening, foraging, harvesting, and preserving, as well as maintaining soil health organically. Suddenly, everyone wanted to ask me about companion planting, foraging for native foods, native plants, and pollinators. My inbox is always filled these days asking me for suggestions for learning about herbs and foods that are believed to help support immunity. I get asked so many questions now about eating seasonally.

What I realized, and am realizing still as I write, is that the last hard years have brought us home, and in so many ways we are perhaps the better for it. This year for the Winter Solstice, Jim and I will have a bonfire outside with a special Yule log, a few of our neighbors, and we’ll drink mulled wine, milk punch, and Lamb’s Wool!

We’ll feast on traditional dishes of dried fruit and melted cheese, roasted pork with sweet potatoes and kale from our garden, really good gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, rosemary and lavender shortbread, honey‐sweetened pears from our own trees, and rum‐soaked fruitcake. Instead of bright lights, I’ll have candles lit all over the porch and fresh greens everywhere. We’ll all share what we are thankful for and we’ll grieve our losses, celebrate the joy and honor the fear that is still present for so many of us. We’ll keep it simple, full of gratitude and the joy of just being together, and maybe we’ll sing some of the old English carols. I’ll wassail my fruit trees with the leftover cider in hopes of a plentiful harvest next year.  We’ll walk in the woods and listen for owls at midnight, the traditional harbingers of luck on Solstice eve, and then we’ll await the sunrise.

F0EAF7D3-AB1A-4B9F-B2C7-3EF94E51D015Suddenly, people like us (and if you’re reading this, that’s you!) are madly in style. Many of us have a special calling in this new world to teach all that we know about the herbs and plants we love. We have a unique opportunity to build a bigger table, to share our knowledge generously in these challenging circumstances. Our horticultural skills can help feed the hungry, support the healing we all need and crave, and simply make this world a lovelier, greener place.

During this season of light, on this wintry Solstice night, please remember to be generous with yourselves.

 

“May you find your peace in the promise of the long Solstice night….”

Lamb’s Wool Recipe for Solstice

Lamb’s Wool is a truly wonderful ancient drink made from a delicious blend of baked apples, mulling spices, cider, and dark ale slowly simmered until the apples are “woolly!”

  • The first thing that you’ll need to do is bake a plate of apples! Simply core four or five small apples and fill the insides with raisins, slivered almonds, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spices, amaretto, and butter. If the ingredients spill all over the apples, even better. Bake them until soft and caramelized.  In a pinch you can use cinnamon applesauce, and it will taste very good, but I like the baked and buttered apples better! 
  • Next, pour a gallon of good cider into a pot, and add 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar, several cracked cinnamon sticks, 1/2 teaspoon of whole cloves, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and a teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, and add the apples and all of their juices. Let them simmer for a bit or until the apples explode and get all “woolly.” Trust me, you’ll know what I mean by that!
  • Then bring down the heat a bit, and add one bottle of very good dark ale and half of a bottle of red wine (something you like the taste of and not too cheap). Simmer for another minute, and then add one stick of organic salted butter. When the butter has melted, give the whole thing a good stir, and then taste. Adjust the seasonings and the sugar, and then add a couple of cups of rum. You’ll have to taste as you go, but that’s the only way to get it the way you want it! I love to use Myers Dark Rum because it is so rich, dark and as sweet as the molasses it’s made from.  

Photo Credits: 1) Fireplace and solstice fire at author’s sister’s house; 2) Barn in the snow (Canva print); 3) Author’s friend, Kathleen’s, homemade dried herb Christmas potpourri and bunch of holly on author’s porch; 4) Author’s homemade eggnog; 5) View of author’s raised bed garden from porch; 6) Author’s yard, kept as a pollinator mead; 7) Chestnuts that author roasted with rosemary and butter over a fire. (All photos courtesy of the author except #2.)

 


Beth Schreibman-Gehring is the Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society, a unit of The Herb Society of America. She is also a member of Les Dames de Escoffier International (Cleveland), The Herb Society of the United Kingdom, The International Herb Association, The Herb Society of America, and Herbalists without Borders. Her book, Stirring the Senses! Creating Magical Environments & Feasts for All Seasons, can be found on Amazon.

The Pleasure of Pomanders

By Pat Kenny

The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, pomme for apple, referring to the round shape of the early scent balls. Ambre is derived from ambergris, a substance washed up on beaches from the sperm whale which was the chief fixative for fragrances in Renaissance times.

One of the first reasons for making pomanders was the carrying of religious keepsakes (Fairamay, 2018). Adelma Simmons tells us, “originally pomanders were not made of oranges or apples but of small balls of various materials that would hold herbs, herbal scents, spices, and perfumes.  Sometimes beeswax was used for the medium. Other bases included garden soil, mold, or well-drained apple pulp.  The balls that were made only of gums and spices were costly and not available to the average household.”

There were many types of pomanders. Through the years, spices, essential oils, and green herbs including rue, sweet bay, lavender, and rosemary were used not only for their sweet scents but also for protection against contagious diseases. Historically, pomanders were either located somewhere in the home, worn around the neck, or attached to the belt like a bit of jewelry to safeguard against infection, disease, and bad luck.

Medicinal pomanders, some for curing fevers, some for insomnia, many for the medieval counterpart of what we call “nerves”, became popular.  They were a part of stillroom activities and a source of revenue for the professional apothecary.  Silversmiths and jewelers made exquisite cases for balls containing expensive perfumes, and these were worn as ornaments about the waist, while tiny ones were fashionably worn as lockets.  Sometimes beautiful metallic globes were fashioned to hold the scented material, and they were often pictured hand-held on chains in portraits of persons of high standing.

Pomanders were also carried by men in many professions.  Doctors, while visiting the sick, carried them.  Lawmakers and judges who argued and heard cases in closed courtrooms with prisoners “infected with jail fever” considered pomanders invaluable.  The dandy on the battlefield drew long breaths from a scented box to mitigate the stench of battle, and the traveler who walked along the streets lined with open sewers often carried his herbs and spices in the head of a cane which was opened and sniffed at will.

Courtiers traveling luxuriously in sedan chairs lifted languid hands to hold a pomander to the nose during passage through odorous crowds.  In pioneer New England the spice balls, clove apples, or clove oranges were placed in homemade coffins that were kept in many attics ready to receive the bodies of those who did not survive the long winters.  Often the graves could not be dug until spring, and farms were too isolated to call on the services of professional embalmers.  Pomander balls were then put to their ancient uses of preservation and fumigation, and known as “coffin balls”.

At the least, the pomander enabled its owner to escape the stenches of rotting garbage and open sewers in the airy pleasantness of garden herbs and exotic spices.  The delicate ladies and foppish gentlemen of the aristocracy would daintily wend their way through the bitter realities of the streets, sniffing their pomanders.

To turn to a happier use of pomanders, it was an English custom recorded in the time of Henry VIII to give one to each guest at New Year’s tied with a sprig of rosemary for remembrance.  This was not only a sign of esteem but of good luck.

However, today the pomander is merely an aromatic novelty, though many of the original uses stand the test of legitimacy.  Pomanders can be hung from ribbons in a room or closet, or tucked away into drawers and chests to keep moths away and give an aromatic scent.  They can be wrapped in a colorful cloth or fancy netting or just stacked in a bowl; their uses are varied and the pomander brings a welcome fragrance.  It’s an aromatic delight!

How to Make a Pomander

Pomanders are usually made with apples, crabapples, oranges, lemons, or limes.  Apples are the easiest because you can usually push the cloves into the apple’s skin with your thumb.  Lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit often have to have their skin broken with a bamboo or metal skewer in order to insert the clove.  Kumquats are little, their skin is thinner; they dry faster and are cute for miniature table trees.  They are not always available; watch out for them around the holidays, they last long in the refrigerator so buy them when you can.

I have rolled the completely-cloved fruit in mixes of ground orris and spices, yet some people are allergic to powdered orris root and the mix gets caked between the cloves. In my opinion, the mixes make the pomander hard to handle and just plain look awful.  One writer reminds us that frugal New England housewives who used pomanders would have found the cloves expensive enough without adding the orris and other ground spices recommended in more modern times.

All my most successful pomanders have been dried by simply hanging them in a warm, dry place, i.e. over the refrigerator warmth, next to a radiator or in the warmth of a pilot-lit gas oven for days or weeks, turning them if necessary.  

Materials

Paper towels

Bowls to help sort cloves, partial pieces saved

Tweezers or hemostats to help grasp cloves

Long-nosed pliers to twist the central hanger

Rubber-coated wire or other wires

Bamboo or metal skewers 

Long needles for threading

Large paper clips to use as s-hooks when drying, however you can dry the cloved fruit lying down (you may have to turn it over or around periodically).

Ribbons, bows, yarns, etc. With or without a central hanger, pomanders can be wrapped and hung in netting or stacked in a bowl. Spice oils of clove, cinnamon, etc. can be added.

Remember, I usually dry mine in an old-timey oven that has a pilot light or next to an old-timey radiator, turning it periodically. Cute, guess I have become old-timey myself; lucky me!

Procedure

  1. Choose a solid fruit.
  2. Skewer the central diameter of the fruit with care.
  3. Create a hanger through the center; includes deciding what you want to happen at the bottom of the pomander (empty loop, bead, bell?).
  4. You could sort your cloves at any time, deciding the size(s) and/or the ones with or without the dried bud and/or the thickness of the pedicel.
  5. Depending upon the type of fruit and the thickness of the skin, decide whether there is a need to make a hole with a skewer first before the insertion of the clove. Space cloves, remembering shrinkage makes them become closer.
  6. Cuddle the fruit, if necessary, with a folded paper towel which will absorb juices.
  7. After the fruit is cloved the way you want, put it where it will dry, checking it often and cuddling it within both palms if necessary to push the cloves in as it shrinks.
  8. If storing the pomanders long-term, give them a freeze treatment for about a week to kill off any pests or eggs. Make sure the pomander is dry and hard before doing so.

If you do desire to use a spice mix, here is a simple recipe:

1 tbsp. each: cinnamon and ground cloves with 1 tsp. ground orris root; place bowl in warm place and roll pomander in it twice or more a day for 3 days; remove it from bowl and set it in warm place for 2-3 weeks to dry out completely.  Decorate your pomanders with ribbons, flowers, herbs, beads or bells to hang on your holiday tree, in windows or in closets.

Photo Credits: 1) Orange and clove pomander (Wendy Piersall); 2) Silver pomanders of the 17th century (Wellcome Images); 3) Portrait of a woman by Bartholomaeus the Elder (public domain); 4) Portrait of a man by Christopher Amberger (public domain); 5) European pomander in the shape of a ship (public domain); 6) Apple and other fruit pomanders (Pat Kenny); 7) Banana pomander (Pat Kenny); 8) Pomander Pat (Sue Betz)

References

The previous writings of the following were consulted for this post:  Adelma Simmons, Mrs. Henry C. Martin,1968; Eleanor Sinclair Rhodes, 1969; Ann Tucker Fettner, 1977; Sarah Garland, 1979; Sylvia Lloyd & Arlene Linderman, Linda Foldan, 1984; Barbara Milo Ohrbach, 1986; Edythe Skinner, Hartman’s Herb Calendar, Dec. 1988; Barbara Radcliffe Rogers, Herbitage Farm, Richmond NH; Pat Kenny, 1989; David Merrill, 1991; Janet Walker, USNA Newsletter, 1996.

Fairamay, T. July 2, 2018. Thorn and thread: Warding off plague and other miasma with pomanders. Accessed 12/8/2021 from https://thornandthread.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/warding-off-plague-and-other-miasma-with-pomanders/#_edn13

Mabberley, D.J. 2008.  Mabberley’s plant book: A portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mabey, R. 1988. The new age herbalist: How to use herbs for healing, nutrition, body care, and relaxation – With a complete illustrated glossary of herbs and a guide to herb cultivation.  Macmillan, New York. 

Ordish, G. 1985.  The living garden: A 400 year history of an English garden. Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston.


While working as a medical illustrator for over thirty years for a “modern medicine” research factory in Bethesda, Maryland, Pat Kenny simultaneously followed her heart/mind in the path of nature and practiced balancing herself with Tai Chi and herbal studies. She began to play with like-minded others through county community programs, The Herb Society of America, the Prince George’s Herb Society, the Michigan Herb Associates, and the North Carolina Herb Association. Now retired, she is cleaning house after all those years of not, using up things she has been saving for what?…an herb business of some sort? (in another life!), giving herb talks to share the herbal stuff, and seeking ways she can facilitate the cause of alternative health practices, especially botanical healing during the rest of her life.

Herbs for Holiday Baking

By Peggy Riccio

Pumpkin pie with sage leaves and marigold flowersWhen I think of herbs for Christmas, I always think of the Simon and Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair” song:  “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Sure, there is peppermint and plenty of spices, but these herbs seem to be the most popular during the holidays. I think that is because these plants are still green in the garden. In my USDA Hardiness Zone 7 Virginia garden, I can still pick these plants in December to use in the kitchen. My mint plants, always in containers, overwinter well, and I can harvest spearmint and peppermint.

When using these herbs, don’t just think of flavor and cooking. Think of the plant itself, the structure, size, weight, and texture of the branches and leaves. Think of how the stem or leaf can be used to decorate the dish and your table. 

Parsley

Parsley is a biennial plant, hardy to Zone 4. It grows to about a foot tall the first year, and then flowers and sets seed the second year. There is the curly type and the flat leaf type. For flavor, use the flat leaf type. The curly type is great for garnishing. In my garden, I sow seed every year to have fresh parsley. We have mild winters, so the plant remains evergreen all winter long. Parsley is best used fresh. It has a very delicate leaf structure and stem that will wilt easily. Compared with these other herbs, parsley has a relatively benign fragrance. This makes it an ideal garnish; however, it wilts too fast to use as a holiday flat-leaf parsley in the gardendecoration. But picture the color of green parsley in a red cranberry dish or the pretty scalloped leaves—or tightly curled leaves—in a bowl of mashed potatoes for interest.

Parsley mixes well with garlic and butter, either melted butter or a parsley/butter mix for the table. To make parsley butter, simply add a few tablespoons of chopped, fresh leaves to a stick of butter that has softened. Mix and put in the fridge to harden again or put in molds. Parsley with garlic can be added to stuffing or a breadcrumb topping for a casserole dish. Parsley, and other herbs, can be added to roasted vegetables, including roasted potatoes. Melted parsley butter is great with seafood, especially lobster and shrimp.

Sage

Sage is a perennial plant that becomes a small woody shrub. It is hardy to Zone 4 and remains evergreen during the winter months. Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) has green leaves, but there are many other types of sage with variegated leaves, blue-green leaves, or even broader leaves. All sages are edible. (Edible, in this case, means it won’t harm you. However, they may not be as tasty as Salvia officinalis.) Use the culinary sage for cooking, but if you have other sages, look at their leaves for decorative uses. The leaves are thick and large enough that they can be used for decoration if cut a few days in advance. Sage leaf and butter on baked potatoFor example, tie a sprig of sage and rosemary with red ribbon and put on the place settings. Add variegated sage to floral arrangements. Use varieties with large leaves such as ‘Berggarten’, or use large, mature leaves from other types to serve as a garnish for vegetable dishes, pumpkin pie, or sweet potato pie. With the large-textured leaves, make butter pats and place on baked potatoes (pipe soft butter on sage leaf and place on tray, and then place in fridge to harden). 

Traditionally, sage is used in stuffing or dressing and as a poultry rub. Sage works well with cooked corn, cornbread, and corn chowder. Sage can be added to cheese spreads, potatoes, roasted vegetables, squash, sweet potato, and Brussel sprouts. Sage also pairs well with citrus fruits.

Rosemary

Rosemary is a perennial that grows to be a large woody shrub, several feet tall. It is marginally hardy in the Washington, D.C. metro area, so it is best to pick a cultivar that is known for being hardy, such as ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Nancy Howard’, ‘Dutch Mill’, and ‘Salem’. Rosemary is a great plant to have in Rosemary leaves and flowersthe garden, because it has many uses. Because the long stems are flexible, and the leaves do not dry out quickly, you can use rosemary for decorating as well as cooking. Cut a 6- to 8-inch branch, roll in a circle, and tie with florist wire. Attach decorations and color with a hot glue gun such as small cones, plaid bows, and red berries to make a small wreath. Or, don’t add anything and use it to wrap around candles and napkins. Rosemary stems can be inserted in glass vases with red and white candy canes, added to any floral arrangement, or placed under a turkey or ham on a platter. 

In the kitchen, rosemary is great on roasted vegetables, biscuits, pork, as a poultry rub, or with butter. It does well with yeast breads, rolls, and biscuits, and stuffing or dressing. It also pairs well with apple and pear desserts. If you are making mulled wine or mulled apple cider, consider adding a sprig of rosemary as a stirrer.

The small rosemary plants that are for sale during the holidays can serve as table-top Christmas trees by adding mini-lights, balls, and bows.

Various thyme cultivarsThyme 

Thyme is a perennial groundcover that is hardy to Zone 5. Thyme has very thin, wiry stems and small leaves. Because the leaves are small and lightweight, they are ideal for “confetti” on small appetizers or on a thick chowder. The stems themselves are too brittle to use for decoration, but if you have an indoor floral or green arrangement, you can insert a chunk of your thyme (pulled from your plant in the garden) to spill over the edges of the container as a “spiller.” 

Thyme is great in yeast rolls and biscuits, cooked vegetables such as carrots, squash, and mushrooms, cheese spreads, potato, pork and seafood, stuffing and dressing. Thyme also pairs well with butter and garlic. As with sage, there are many types of thyme that are all edible, but the flavor may vary. There are plants with silver leaves, plants with gold-edged leaves, and plants with gold leaves. These can be used as decoration. Then, there are “flavored” thymes such as orange, lemon, or coconut, which work well in baked goods. Consider lemon thyme pound cake and orange thyme cookies.

Mint

Mint in a containerMint is an herbaceous perennial hardy to Zone 5 and very invasive. If you are growing mint, grow only in a container. It is so hardy that it will survive winters here in containers, which should be about a foot high and wide. Mint roots very easily. If you are going to use a lot of mint in your holiday baking, you can take cuttings in the fall to increase your plants. You can even take cuttings so you can give mint plants away as gifts, tied with a red bow, and a recipe card.

There are many types of mint available for use, but during the holidays, spearmint and peppermint are the most popular. These leaves do not wilt quickly; they are firm with great texture. This makes them ideal for garnishing and decorating baked goods. Place mint leaves on cupcakes, cakes, fruit salads, and use as a garnish for drinks. 

Fresh peppermint leaves can be chopped and added to chocolate chip cookie dough or a brownie mix. A sprig of peppermint can be added to hot cocoa, like a stirrer. Fill glasses with peppermint sprigs and real peppermint candy canes. Add crushed spearmint leaves to whipped cream and add to fresh fruit. Use spearmint to make a jelly for pork or lamb, or add to vegetables, such as carrots and peas. 

Spearmint leavesMake a simple syrup with mint and pour over fruit salad, add to a drink, or use when baking. Make a syrup by boiling one cup water with one cup sugar in a small saucepan. Add one cup of fresh herbs and smash the leaves up against the pot with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 15 minutes, cool and strain, and pour the syrup in a glass jar. Keep in the fridge for a few weeks. 

These are just ideas to get you started, but once you start working with an herb, seeing the leaves, smelling the aroma, you will get inspired to use these other herbs for your home during the holidays.

 


Peggy Riccio is the owner of pegplant.com, an online resource for gardening in the Washington, DC, metro area; president of the Potomac Unit, Herb Society of America; regional director of GardenComm, a professional association of garden communicators; and is the blog administrator for the National Garden Clubs, Inc.

Bayberry Candles

By Katherine K. Schlosser

The season of lights is upon us. During this darkest time of the year, we gravitate to earthly sources of light to keep things merry and bright.

Drupes2_zoomed in to see waxEarly in our history as a country, many were short on money and luxuries such as candles. Livestock numbers were as yet too low to produce the quantity of tallow needed to make candles affordable, so following the lead of Native Americans, householders turned to candlewood to provide light on winter evenings.

We know candlewood as fatwood or pine knots—the resin-impregnated heartwood of pine trees.  Pines that were cut to clear land, build homes, and provide heat for warmth and cooking left stumps in the ground. Those stumps, full of resin, hardened and became rot-resistant…and were an easy source of candlewood. Slim slivers cut from the wood burned hot and bright.

Alice Morse Earle, writing in the 1800s about life in Colonial America, quoted a statement made by Rev. Mr. Higginson in 1633:

     They are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree, cloven in two little slices, something thin, which are so full of the moysture of turpentine and pitch that they burne as cleere as a torch.

Though efficient, abundant, and readily available, candlewood produced copious amounts of smoke, along with a strong scent of turpentine, making it less desirable than more traditional candles. Those living along the coast had the advantage of another source of light: fish oil, with which they filled lamps.

It wasn’t long before enterprising New England Colonists discovered the virtues of bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), a deciduous shrub common along coastal plain areas.  The branches, leaves, and fruits are sweetly aromatic, and were used by Native Americans for a variety of medical complaints, including gum disease.20201223_103259

Here in North Carolina, southern bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is evergreen and native to our coastal plain and the Outer Banks.  There are other species, mostly on the East Coast. Morella cerifera, wax myrtle, is native from Maryland south to Florida and westward to Texas. Morella inodora, scentless bayberry, grows from Georgia to Louisiana and south to Florida. The outlier is M. californica, California wax myrtle, reaching from southern California through Oregon and into Washington.

The dark blue berries (non-edible drupes) of these waxy species are covered with a grayish-white waxy substance. Boiled in large vats of water, the wax floats to the surface, where it is skimmed and transferred to another pot for refining. Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist writing in 1748, reported that the wax “acquires a fine and transparent green color. This tallow is dearer than common tallow, but cheaper than wax.”

The end product was somewhat brittle, but burned slowly and without smoke.  Even better, when extinguished, the candles yield a pleasant, warm aroma with the exception of M. inodora.  Kalm also reported that “in Carolina they not only make candles out of the wax of the berries, but likewise sealing-wax.”

The berries are small and the waxy coating thin, making enormous quantities necessary to make a candle—eight pounds of the berries are required to make one pound of wax. The candles were so popular that in 1687, Brookhaven, New York, passed a law to help protect the plants: gathering of the berries before September 15th of the year brought a fifteen shilling fine.  

To alleviate the problem of brittle candles, a small amount of beeswax was added before forming the candles. Bayberry was the longest burning candle of all, giving rise to the uniquely American tradition of burning bayberry candles on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  

The bonus to these clean, attractive, long-burning candles, was the fragrance released in a whiff of smoke when extinguished. So nice, in fact, that people were tempted to periodically extinguish and re-light the candles to enjoy the scent. That might, technically, violate the luck-bringing requirements of the New Year’s Eve tradition:  

A Bayberry Candle
burned to the socket 
brings Luck to the household, 
Food to the larder 
and Gold to the pocket.

Bayberry candle by Katherine K SchlosserNot only must the candle be burned on New Year’s Eve, but must be burned through one night and into the next day/year. A contemporary ten-inch taper will burn about 5-7 hours, so lighting one at dinner should last past midnight. If you stay up to bring the New Year in, your candle will probably burn down shortly thereafter. If you retire early and hesitate to leave an unattended candle burning, a friend suggests putting  your burning candle, securely in a candle holder, into the kitchen sink with no curtains or such nearby. You will miss the fragrance as the flame dies down, but you will have good luck for the next year.

You can grow bayberry in sandy or well-drained soil, slightly on the dry side, and in full sun or part shade (determine the native habitat in your area).  The shrubs where I live grow from three to eight feet tall, and if you have both male and female plants, and do not fertilize heavily, you will have a source for making your own candles.

If you purchase your candles, make sure to get those with actual bayberry wax rather than just bayberry “scented,” and enjoy a bright and happy holiday season.

Photo Credits: 1) Morella cerifera fruits, showing waxy coating (Erin Holden) 2) Morella cerifera hedge (Erin Holden); 3) Bayberry candle (Katherine Schlosser)

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.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level.  She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen deConway Little Medal of Honor.  She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.

Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part II

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esLast week we looked at some of the beverages important to a Trinidad Christmas. Now let’s talk about some of the foods and the special ingredients needed to make them.

So what is on the menu in Trinidad for Christmas? Here is what Ann told me. “Dinner is ham, of course, pastelles, baked chicken, fried rice, pelau, callaloo, macaroni pie…and everybody makes homemade bread. And, of course, sorrel drink and ponché de crème. And you have to have black cake, of course….Everything is homemade, nobody buys anything.” 

Pastelles are the West Indian version of tamales and reflect the Mexican/Aztec heritage in the Caribbean. Making pastelles can be labor intensive, and according to Ann, many families make the work fun by turning it pastelles on leafinto a party and making large quantities assembly-line style. This is part of what makes them such a Christmas treat. Every island has their own version, and in Trinidad, it is traditionally cornmeal stuffed with beef, chicken, or pork (or a mixture) with olives, capers, and raisins and steamed in banana leaves. There are also versions made with fish or shrimp, and vegetarian versions made with soy products, lentils, or mushrooms. It is the flavorings that really make them special, and the usual additions include onion, garlic, tomato paste or ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Trinidad pimento peppers, and roucou.

Pimento peppers are ubiquitous in Trinidad cooking, but they are NOT the same pepper we call pimento here in the United States; they do not look or taste the same other than both being non-spicy. They are a completely Trinidad Pimento Peppers Seedwisemild Capsicum chinense (the species known for blazing hot peppers like habaneros) and are easily found in most Caribbean markets here in the U.S., as well as most backyards in Trinidad, according to Ann. The taste is described as the flavor of very hot peppers without any of the heat, and they are an essential ingredient in many dishes. This pepper seems relatively unknown outside of Caribbean circles, but you may find seeds marketed as Capsicum ‘Trinidad Pimento’ or ‘Trinidad Seasoning Pepper.’ 

Roucou (pronounced roo’-koo) refers to the fruit of Bixa orellano, a shrub or small tree native to Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America and is cultivated in many countries. It is more widely known by the common names annatto and achiote and is used as red/orange dye and food coloring and flavoring. The rou coucolor comes from the waxy coating that covers the seeds. In Trinidad, it is common to grow roucou in your yard. The spiky capsules are harvested when ripe, split open, and the seeds are removed. The seeds are placed in water, then soaked and agitated (wear gloves!) to release the coloring. The now vibrant red/orange liquid has salt added as a preservative, the seeds are strained out, and the liquid is refrigerated to use as needed. It is a common ingredient in many dishes in Trinidad and adds not only a beautiful color but a subtle unique flavor as well. Annatto powder may be substituted and is easily purchased online and at International markets.

Another dish commonly eaten at Christmas, and especially at New Year’s (which is called “All Years Night” in Trinidad), is the unofficial Trinidad national dish pelau (pronounced pay-lauor puh-lau’). Pelau is a hearty one-pot meal of chicken, rice, and pigeon peas flavored with onion, garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, and a delicious flavor concoction called green seasoning. 

What is green seasoning, you ask? If you looked inside many refrigerators in Trinidad, you would find a fresh batch of this green herbal magic. There is no set recipe, and it can be simply made with whichever ingredients are on hand. It can also be purchased bottled, but fresh is far superior. Ann says it generally includes garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, chives, cilantro, celery, green onions, thyme, chadon beni, and pudina.  

Eryngium foetidum1 20050729 CU 65949HChadon beni (pronounced “shadow benny”) is the common name for the leaves of Eryngium foetidum, a tropical perennial in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and known in the United States as culantro. Imported by French settlers, the name derives from “chardon béni,” which means “blessed thistle.” (It is not actually a thistle but looks a bit like one.) According to Ann, it grows like a weed everywhere in Trinidad and is easy to cultivate. The flavor is similar to cilantro but even stronger and more pungent. It is one of several herbs that are an essential component of the flavor of Trinidadian cuisine. The fresh leaves can usually be found in Caribbean markets.

Pudina is the local name for Plectranthus amboinicus (syn. Coleus amboinicus), a fleshy-leaved perennial in the mint family that is known by many common names: Mexican mint, SpanishPlectranthus amboinicus thyme, Indian borage, Cuban oregano, and many more. It is naturalized and cultivated widely in the tropics and as an herb. It has a strong oregano-like flavor.

For dessert, they have black cake, a dense, rich, and alcohol soaked fruitcake believed to have descended from British desserts such as plum pudding. It is quite different from American fruitcake. It is made with lots of butter, eggs, and rum, and is almost black in color due to the addition of “browning,” which is made by almost burning brown sugar syrup. Browning can be purchased, or in a pinch, molasses can be substituted. Black cake is one of those foods for which every family has their own closely guarded recipe with a slightly different ratio of spices and fruits. Most recipes I found online direct you to soak the dried fruits in alcohol for at least a few days or weeks. But according to Ann, it is an important tradition to soak them for an entire year! Just after Black CakeChristmas, you prepare the fruits and cover them in a jar with a blend of alcohols and leave it in a dark place for a year, shaking periodically. Spices are also essential to making the quintessential black cake, which typically include cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, and tonka bean. 

Tonka bean is the seed of Dipteryx odorata, a tropical tree in the pea family (Fabaceae) that has a complex and highly prized flavor said to remind one of a blend of vanilla, cherry, almond, cinnamon, caramel, and honey. Tonka beansBecause it contains coumarin, a chemical that is toxic in larger amounts, tonka bean has been banned as a food ingredient in the U.S. since 1953. It is now better understood that the concentration of coumarin in tonka bean is too low to cause illness without one consuming a nearly impossible quantity. However, the ban remains. 

So, now you can set your table with a feast including ham, pastelles, pelau, and black cake. And to drink you’ll have sorrel drink, ponche de crème, and ginger beer. The house is freshly painted and new curtains have been hung. Neighbors and family will be dropping by soon. Panang music will fill the air, and the rum will flow. Merry Christmas from Trinidad!

Ann AbdulRecipes

Recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential books on Trinidadian cuisine found in almost every home.

 

Pastelles

Makes approx. 24 

  • 2 lb. boneless beef, chicken or pork, diced 
  • 3-4 TBSP roucou liquid
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • ½ cup finely chopped chive
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • hot pepper to taste
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 TBSP vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ cup finely chopped pimentos
  • 3 TBSP capers
  • 2 TBSP stuffed olives, chopped
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 3 cups hot water
  • 2-3 TBSP vegetable oil or 2 oz. or 4 TBSP margarine
  • Soharee or banana leaves, cleaned, greased and cut in 7” or 8” squares

(If using banana leaves, scald until soft and pliable.)

Directions

  1. In a bowl, mix meat with onion, chive, and thyme, garlic, hot pepper, black pepper, and 1 tsp salt.
  2. Heat oil in skillet and add roucou liquid and beef mixture and fry until tender; cool and mince.
  3. Return beef to skillet and add ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, pimentos, capers, olives, and raisins.
  4. Cook for 2-3 minutes more and adjust salt and pepper; leave to cool.
  5. Combine cornmeal, water, oil, and 1 tsp salt; stir until mixture sticks together.
  6. Take heaped tablespoons of cornmeal and form balls (approx. 1½” in diameter).
  7. Place a ball of cornmeal on a piece of leaf, cover with a piece of plastic wrap and roll or press to desired size approx. 6” square. Remove the plastic. 
  8. Place a heaped tablespoon of meat mixture along one side of cornmeal and fold leaf in half, then fold edges of leaf over to seal.
  9. Place a few pastelles in steamer or colander, and steam for about 20-25 minutes.

Pelau 

Serves 8-10

  • 3 lbs. chicken pieces, skinned
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 TBSP mixed green seasoning (or as much as half a cup! Depends on your taste. Ann says more is better.)
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 TBSP ketchup
  • 2 TBSP vegetable oil
  • 2-3 TBSP brown sugar
  • 2 cups parboiled rice
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • ½ cup chopped pimento peppers (any mild pepper can be substituted)
  • 1½ cups cooked pigeon peas
  • 1 TBSP salt
  • 1 whole hot pepper with the stem
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 cups chicken broth or water

Directions

  1. Season chicken with salt, pepper, green seasoning, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
  2. Heat oil in large heavy iron pot or skillet.
  3. Add sugar and allow to burn until brown
  4. Add seasoned chicken, and stir until pieces are well coated with burnt sugar; brown for 5 minutes.
  5. Add rice, and turn often until well mixed. Cook for 3 minutes more.
  6. Add onion, sweet peppers, and peas, and cook for a few minutes, stirring a few times.
  7. Add salt, hot pepper, coconut milk, and broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer until rice is cooked and all liquid is evaporated (about 25-30 minutes).
  8. Add more liquid if rice is still hard and continue to cook for a few more minutes.

Notes: Pelau could also be baked in the oven. Cover pot with lid or foil and bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes. 

Green Seasoning (recipe adapted from https://healthiersteps.com)

  • 1 bunch chadon beni leaves (can substitute cilantro)
  • ½ bunch parsley
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 3 green onions/scallions
  • Small bunch of chives
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 small onion
  • 1” piece fresh ginger
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 3 sprigs pudina (optional, can be found at Caribbean markets)
  • 5 Trinidad pimento peppers (or other mild peppers such as ‘Aji Dulce’, banana, or Cubanelle)

Directions

  1. Roughly chop up all ingredients and add to a food processor.
  2. Process until the mixture looks pureed like baby food, scraping down sides as necessary.
  3. Store in the refrigerator. Use about 2 TBSP of green seasoning per recipe. 

You can also prepare in large batches and freeze in ice cube trays and store cubes in freezer bags. These quantities are merely suggestions. Most people develop their own recipe with their own preferred ratio of ingredients based on personal preference. 

Trinidad Black Cake (Christmas Cake)

Serves 36 (or three cakes)

  • 1 lb. prunes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 lb. raisins
  • 1 lb. currants
  • 1 lb. sultanas
  • ¼ lb. candied mixed citrus peel (e.g., lemon, orange)
  • ½ lb. cherries, chopped in half
  • ¼ lb. chopped almonds
  • 1½ cups cherry brandy
  • 2 cups rum
  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar  
  • 10 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. grated lime peel
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup browning (darkly caramelized sugar)
  • 3 cups mixture of rum, cherry brandy, and sherry, 1 cup for each cake

Directions

  1. A few days, or up to one year, before baking the cake, combine prunes, raisins, currants, sultanas, mixed candied peel, cherries, almonds, cherry brandy, and rum in a jar or other suitable glass container. Cover, and leave in a dark place to meld flavors, shaking the container occasionally, until ready to use.
  2. Line three 8” round cake pans with double layers of wax or parchment paper.
  3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Beat in eggs one at a time; add lime peel and vanilla.
  5. Combine flour, baking powder, and cinnamon; fold into creamed mixture gradually.
  6. Drain soaked fruit and add to mixture. Add enough browning to give desired color; stir well.
  7. Put in lined baking pans ¾ full and bake in a preheated oven at 250 F for one hour; reduce heat to 200 F – 225 F for the remaining 1½ hrs or until tester comes out clean.
  8. Prick hot cakes, and soak each with the mixture of rum, brandy, and sherry.

As alcohol soaks in, pour more and continue to do so for 12 hours.

Photo Credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Pastelles (Wikipedia); 3) Pimento peppers (Capsicum chinense) (seedwise.com); 4) Roucou (Bixa orellano) (Wikipedia); 5) Chadon beni (Eryngium foetidum) (National Herb Garden); 6) Pudina (Plectranthus amboinicus) (National Herb Garden); 7) Black cake (dishmaps.com); 8) Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) (Wikipedia); 9) Ann Abdul (Ann Abdul).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.

Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part I

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esI was visiting my mother just a few weeks before Christmas in 2017. She had recently moved to a wonderful small family-run assisted living home. The owner, Ann Abdul, asked me if I’d like to taste some “sorrel drink” she had made for the holiday season. I had no idea what that was. It looked Christmassy–a brilliant ruby red. I took a sip, and the most delicious taste filled my mouth. It was a rich, complex, and unfamiliar burst of flavors. But it tasted like Christmas, too—it was sweet, and I thought I could detect cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. But it also tasted a bit like lemonade with a pronounced citrusy tartness. I loved it, and I had to know more! 

Ann and her family are from Trinidad, and over the next two years, I learned so much from her about Trinidad cuisine and culture. The island nation Trinidad & Tobago has a complex history of colonization, slavery, indentured labor, and immigration from all around the world, which has led to a cuisine and a culture that blends Indian, African, Creole, Amerindian, British, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Middle Eastern ingredients and traditions. It is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world and is full of bold flavors. 

There are certain recipes–food and drink–that are essential for Christmas in Trinidad. Ann says it simply isn’t Christmas without them. Maybe you will want to explore some of them and add them into your own celebrations. First, let’s look at what drinks are important to Christmas in Trinidad.

20171009_171414It turned out that “sorrel” is a name for the calyces of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant commonly known as roselle, as well as the beverage that is made from them. If you have ever tasted Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea, then you have tasted sorrel. (This sorrel is not related to the leaves of Rumex acetosa, also known as sorrel, which is used as a salad green and fresh herb.) In the Caribbean, the fleshy calyces are used fresh or dried to make the beverage. They are boiled along with various whole spices, then strained, sweetened, and cooled. It is served cold, with or without rum. The exact recipe varies from family to family, but the spices used would typically include cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cloves, allspice, ginger, star anise, and orange peel. Ann’s recipe calls for cinnamon, bay leaf, clove, and vanilla. In Trinidad, many people grow their own Hibiscus sabdariffa so they can harvest the fresh, but highly perishable, calyces, which ripen around Christmas-time, for making their sorrel. (Fresh sorrel may be hard to locate in some sections of the United States, but packets of dried sorrel are easier to find in the International food sections of stores or through Caribbean/International markets online.) For additional information on Hibiscus sabdariffa, check out the blog’s previous post on roselle.

Angostura bittersAnother essential Trinidadian Christmas drink is one more familiar to most Americans. Ponche de crème is their flavorful take on eggnog. Served straight or spiked with rum, this delicious drink must contain a special Trinidad ingredient: Angostura Bitters. You may be familiar with Angostura Bitters as a cocktail ingredient. It has a history that goes back to the early 19th century and is worthy of a post all its own! It is a concentrated alcoholic herbal concoction said to contain as many as 40 botanical ingredients, the exact recipe of which is rumored to be known by only five living people! It started out as a medicine and made its way into flavoring food and drink. Although the recipe is unknown, it is widely believed to include orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon, anise seeds, juniper berries, cocoa nibs, and the intensely bitter Gentiana lutea, a European alpine wildflower with a long history in medicine and brewing. Just a dash of Angostura Bitters is enough to help flavor most recipes. And in Trinidad, according to Ann, a dash is added to almost everything, particularly fruit juices. 

IMG_20201027_074741_444Lastly, the third beverage essential to Christmas in Trinidad is also enjoyed year-round: ginger beer. Ginger beer is a strongly flavored version of ginger ale that is non-alcoholic. The rhizome of Zingiber officinalis contains volatile oils, such as zingerone and gingerols, that give ginger its characteristic “zing.” Most families in Trinidad, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, make their ginger beer at home from fresh ginger rhizomes, and the resulting ginger beer often has a very strong punch of ginger flavor. It contains other spices such as cinnamon and clove. It is made very strong, and it can be diluted with water or club soda to suit your taste.

Next week: Trinidad Christmas foods!

All recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” (which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential cookbooks on Trinidadian cuisine, found in almost every home, according to Ann.)

Ann’s Sorrel Drink

  • Dried sorrel1 package dried sorrel (Angel brand easily available online or in Caribbean market)
  • 10 cloves
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 8 cups of water

Boil until tender, then cool. 

When cool add:

  • 1-2 cups sugar or to taste (sorrel is extremely tart)
  • ½ cup rum (optional)
  • 1 TBSP vanilla extract

Store in refrigerator and enjoy throughout the season!

Ponche De Crème

  • 6 eggs
  • Peel of one lime
  • 3  15 oz. cans evaporated milk
  • 1½  14 oz. cans sweetened condensed milk (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp Angostura bitters
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup rum or more to taste

Directions:

  1. Beat eggs and lime peel until light and fluffy.
  2. Add evaporated milk.
  3. Sweeten to taste with condensed milk.
  4. Add bitters, nutmeg and rum according to taste.
  5. Remove lime peel.
  6. Serve with crushed ice.

Notes:

You can substitute 1 ½ cups pureed steamed pumpkin for eggs. Consuming raw eggs carries risk of salmonella bacteria illness. Using pasteurized eggs reduces this risk.

Ginger Beer

  • 1 lb. fresh ginger root
  • 8 cups water
  • juice and peel of one lime
  • 4 cups granulated sugar (or to taste)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4-6 cloves

Directions:

  1. Wash, peel, and grate ginger root.
  2. Place in a large bottle with 8 cups of water and juice and peel of one lime.
  3. Leave in the sun for one day. Next day, drain and sweeten with sugar.
  4. Pour into clean bottles and place in the refrigerator. Allow to settle for 2 days.

If too strong, dilute with club soda or water to taste.

Photo credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Hibiscus sabdariffa (sorrel/roselle) calyces (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 3) Angostura Bitters (angosturabitters.com); 4) Zingiber officinale (ginger) rhizomes (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 5) Dried sorrel calyces (angelbrand.com).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.

Holiday Herb Words Unscrambled

By Pat Greathead

Did you get all of the herbs correct in the Holiday Herbs Word Scramble posted on Christmas Day? Below are the answers to the scramble along with some of the symbolism associated with each of these herbs.

Holiday word scramble prize

The winner of the Word Scramble Contest is Belinda Renno of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Belinda posted her correct answers on December 25th at 7:44AM. Congratulations to Belinda! She will receive a nice assortment of gift items from The Herb Society of America’s Thyme and Again Gift Shoppe. Belinda says she enjoys gardening and reading the HSA blog.

Now….here are the answers to the Holiday Herb Word Scramble and their associated meanings.

  1. neip – pine – pity
  2. sabli – basil – love, good wishes
  3. decra – cedar – strength
  4. eru – rue – disdain, grace, clear vision
  5. wye – yew – sorrow
  6. esor – rose – love
  7. yiv – ivy – fidelity, marriage, I have one true heart
  8. gaes – sage – esteem, wisdom, immortality
  9. intm – mint – virtue, warmth of feeling
  10. aby – bay – success, glory
  11. lolyh – holly – foresight
  12. mtyhe – thyme – courage, activity
  13. yaeplsr – parsley – friendship, gratitude
  14. eacitts – statice – never ceasing remembrance
  15. yamtscor – costmary – fidelity
  16. dalgmiro – marigold – grief, contempt, jealousy, disdain
  17. lemtry – myrtle – love, peace and prosperity
  18. sepycrs – cypress – death, mourning
  19. ooxbodw – boxwood – stoicism
  20. tteeilosm – mistletoe – I surmount difficulties
  21. smorreay – rosemary – remembrance, love
  22. mowwdroo – wormwood – safe travels, absence
  23. aalldnceu – calendula – health
  24. jamorram – marjoram – happiness, blushes, joy
  25. tlaanions – santolina – great virtue, avoids evil

The herb meanings come from two classic books, which are available online.

Mayo, Sarah C Edgarton. The flower vase; containing the language of flowers, and their poetic sentiment. 1850. Available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101068142429&view=1up&seq=159

Greenaway, Kate. Language of Flowers. 1846-1901. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31591/31591-h/31591-h.htm

Happy New Year to all of our blog readers.


Pat Greathead is a very active Life Member of The Herb Society of America and the Wisconsin Unit.  She gardens in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Holiday Herbs Word Scramble

By Pat Greatheadholiday herbs

Now here is something for you to do when you have a free minute or two over the holidays. You can unscramble these herb words for a chance to a win a prize!

Holiday word scramble prizeThe first person to email me (patherbs@frontier.com) with the correct answers receives a very nice gift from The Herb Society of America’s Thyme and Again Gift Shoppe. 

Contest ends at midnight on December 31. Answers will be posted on this blog on January 1.

(If you have completed this scramble before, please do not enter this contest!)

 

  1. neip
  2. sabli
  3. decra
  4. eru
  5. wye
  6. esor
  7. yiv
  8. gaes
  9. intm
  10. aby
  11. lolyh
  12. mtyhe
  13. yaeplsr
  14. eacitts
  15. yamtscor
  16. dalgmiro
  17. lemtry
  18. sepycrs
  19. ooxbodw
  20. tteeilosm
  21. smorreay
  22. mowwdroo
  23. aalldnceu
  24. jamorram
  25. tlaanions

With sincere wishes that your holidays are truly merry and magical.

Hugs, Pat


Pat Greathead is a very active Life Member of The Herb Society of America and the Wisconsin Unit.  She gardens in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

The History of the Christmas Tree

By Susan Leigh AnthonyChristmas tree

For the past six years I have worked at a wonderful, high-end garden center.  Among the many seasonal items we sell throughout the holidays are Christmas trees and a wonderful array of cut evergreens. Surrounded by this abundance of holiday décor, I began to wonder about where the idea of bringing the greens inside the home during the winter season originated. Although I had some sense that there was a connection to pagan solstice celebrations, I really didn’t know a whole lot more. I definitely felt compelled to learn more and ended up finding that the notion of decorating with greens reaches back much further than I had realized and there are countless facts and legends associated with the traditional use of evergreens.

The Christmas trees we put up and greens we use to festoon our homes each year evolved from very ancient traditions. The ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, and Chinese used evergreens to symbolize eternal life. In particular, the Egyptians used evergreens as part of their celebration of their god, Ra.

In my research, I have learned that Jews must never incorporate any symbols of Christianity in their celebrations. However, I also read the following which forms a connection, though quite distant, between the ancient Hebrews and what we now know as the Christmas tree.  The following is just one of several stories I read about Nimrod and Semiramus. “Two key figures in the origin of Christmas are Nimrod, a great grandson of Noah, and his mother and wife, Semiramis, also known as Ishtar and Isis. Nimrod, known in Egypt as Osiris, was the founder of the first world empire at Babel, later known as Babylon (Genesis 10:8-12; 11:1-9). From ancient sources such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and records unearthed by archeologists from long-ruined Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities, we can reconstruct subsequent events.

After Nimrod’s death (c. 2167 BCE), Semiramis promoted the belief that he was a god. She claimed that she saw a full-grown evergreen tree spring out of the roots of a dead tree stump, symbolizing the springing forth of new life for Nimrod. On the anniversary of his birth, she said, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts under it. His birthday fell on the winter solstice at the end of December” (Bibletools, 2019).

Saturnalia, the ancient Roman winter festival, honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture, is where we first hear of decorating the tree with pieces of metal.

“During the Middle Ages, the Paradise Tree, which symbolized man’s fall and salvation, became popular in churches and upper-class homes. Fir trees were hung with apples symbolizing man’s fall, small white wafers representing Holy Eucharist, and sweets symbolizing the sweetness of redemption” (Holiday Legends, 2003).

ball blur christmas christmas balls

Photo by Bruno Joseph on Pexels.com

It is said that in the 16th century, Martin Luther was the first to add candles to Christmas trees after seeing the stars shining through the evergreen trees. He is also credited with bringing the Christmas tree indoors.

The following is a delightful tale from northern Europe. “When Christianity was spreading though Europe, three angels, Faith, Hope, and Charity, were sent to Earth to put lights on the first Christmas tree. Their mission was difficult because they had to find a tree as high as hope, as great as love, and as sweet as charity. The tree also had to contain the sign of the cross. The angels’ search came to an end when they found the fir tree of the frozen north. (If you break off a fir needle and look at the stub on the branch you will see the cross.) They lit the fir with stars to make the world’s first Christmas tree” (Holiday Legends, 2003).

Clearly, whatever the origin of the Christmas tree and greens, they have always been viewed as a symbol of hope and rebirth.

And here’s an odd fact behind the relatively new trend of hanging a Christmas tree upside down, which turns out to be a not-so-new idea after all. “Many early Christmas trees, usually firs, seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains that were hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks. This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages when Europeans did it to represent the Trinity. But now, Christmas trees are set up with the tip pointing to heaven, as some think an upside-down Christmas tree is disrespectful or sacrilegious” (The Spruce, 2019).Christmas Homer

In England, Christmas trees became popular after the London Illustrated News published a wood engraving of the royal Christmas tree on December 23, 1848.  The issue contained an engraving by Winslow Homer of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, five of their children, and a governess gathered around a decorated evergreen tree on a table full of unwrapped presents. The tree was lit with candles and was topped with an angel. The next year, royal or not, people in England began putting up Christmas trees. Other magazines started writing about the royal Christmas trees each year adding to the popularity of the tradition.

Christmas HaleIn 1850, the Christmas tree phenomenon spread to the United States when Sarah Josepha Hale, who also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” published a similar engraving in her monthly magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale “Americanized” the engraving – removing Victoria’s tiara, Albert’s royal sash and moustache, and the boxes of German biscuits from beneath the Christmas tree.

“The Godey’s engraving was one of the first widely circulated illustrations of a decorated Christmas tree in the United States, and it was soon followed by similar depictions in Harper’s and other major American publications. As a result, Christmas trees came into vogue in America as they had in England.” (Leoma Lovegrove, 2017)

And there you have it, some stories and legends to add to your own personal stories about the Christmas tree tradition.

More information can be found on these websites:

“Bible Verses about Semiramis.” Bibletools. Available at https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/770/Semiramis.htm

“The Christmas tree: From pagan origins and Christian symbolism to secular status.” ABC. Available at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-19/the-history-of-the-christmas-tree/8106078

“The Christsmas tree came to America in 1850.” Leoma Lovegrove. Available at https://www.thespruce.com/upside-down-christmas-trees-1976407

“Holiday Legends.” University of Illinois Extension. Available at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/hortihints/0312c.html

Hollaway, April. “Christmas tree has its roots in ancient tradition.” Available at https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/christmas-tree-has-its-roots-ancient-customs-001163


Susan Leigh Anthony is a longtime member of the New England Unit of HSA.She runs a garden design business named Doveflower Cottage and is a perennial buyer and expert at Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate, MA.

Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, and Other Christmas Greens

By Susan AnthonyChristmas greens

 Holly, ivy, and mistletoe are common additions to our Christmas decor.  Read on to learn more about the very interesting meanings some of these traditional greens have.

The Romans first, and later the Christians, began to deck their halls with boughs of holly as it was believed to have protective powers.  Dr. Leonard Perry explains the traditional use of greens at Christmas time in his article “Holiday Greens and Their Traditions.” He said, “Holly was often hung on doors to chase away evil spirits, or else to catch them with their prickly leaves.  The Romans also considered holly sacred, a good omen, representing immortality, and sheltering elves and faeries. This latter belief may have come even earlier from the Teutonic tribes to the north.  Romans gave holly as gifts during the festival of Saturnalia– a week-long party based partly on earlier Greek and Egyptian solstice festivals.

The early Christians in Rome decorated their homes with holly as well, and it gradually became a Christmas symbol as Christianity became the main religion.  To the Christians, the holly with its prickly leaves represented the crown of thorns on Jesus, and their red berries the blood he shed.” (Perry, 2019)

Christmas wreathCommenting on ivy, Perry said, “The song “The Holly and the Ivy” has its roots in an English tradition from the Middle Ages.  The soft ivy was twined around the more prickly holly in arrangements.  Not only was this for aesthetic purposes, but also the holly symbolized males and the ivy females, and their combination represented a good-natured rivalry between the two.

The use of ivy as a decoration once again dates back to Roman times, when it became associated with Bacchus–the god of good times and revelry.  It symbolized prosperity and charity, and so for early Christians, it was used during Christmas– a time to celebrate good times and to provide for the less fortunate.  If ivy was growing on the outside of houses, it was thought to prevent misfortune.  If it died, though, this was a sign of approaching financial problems.”

Perry goes on to explain that “Mistletoe occupies a fascinating place in the folklore of many early cultures, especially those of northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles. A botanical curiosity, mistletoe is the only complete plant that is a true parasite, often killing the hardwood tree it infests.  For this reason, it was credited with magical properties by ancient societies and held sacred.”

The Druids associated mistletoe with luck and good fortune and used it in their winter solstice celebrations and ceremonies. One ceremony involved Druid priests climbing into trees, cutting the mistletoe and letting it fall to the people below. If the mistletoe hit the ground, it would bring bad luck. It was believed that catching it would ensure fertility for the animals. One can only imagine the scene below as robe-clad people scurried around to catch the falling mistletoe.

“In ancient Scandinavia, mistletoe was believed to symbolize peace.  If enemies happened to meet under trees with mistletoe, they would disarm and call a truce for the day.  With our images of rough Norse soldiers, this paints an interesting and seemingly unlikely picture!” (Perry, 2019)

Perry states that “Mistletoe also grows in the warmer climates, and was used as medicine by the Native Americans.  Also known as “allheal,” it was used to treat dog bites, toothache and measles.” He goes on to explain where the custom of kissing under mistletoe comes from. “Many believe it is an English custom, which dictates that after each kiss, one of its white berries must be plucked from the bunch and discarded.  When the berries are all gone, the kissing must stop.”  Mistletoe bunches with the most berries must have been eagerly sought after by young men and women.

The custom of kissing under mistletoe dates back much further though, once again to Scandinavian mythology, Dr. Perry claims. “An arrow made of mistletoe killed Balder, the son of Frigga who was the Norse goddess of love.  Her tears, falling on the mistletoe, turned into white berries.  In her sorrow she decreed that mistletoe would never again be used for death, but rather for love. Whomever should stand beneath it should receive a kiss.”

Regarding the use of evergreen branches, Perry says that “It was perhaps during the Victorian era in America that the fir and pine we commonly use today became popular.  These, together with hemlock, yew, bay, and the more historic greens, were made into lavish arrangements.  Another tradition of the 19th century was to use these to form wreaths, stars, and crosses to decorate graves at Christmas.  These greens were later brought home to enjoy through the rest of the winter, just as we do now during the holidays.”

“Rosemary is another plant with extensive holiday traditions, symbolism, and legends. Associated with remembrance, friendship, and fidelity, rosemary was used extensively during the Medieval Period. An altar decorated with rosemary ensured special blessings and protection to the worshipers. Floors of churches and homes were strewn with the herb. The traditional boar’s head for the Christmas feast was decorated with rosemary.” (“Holiday Legends,” 2003)  And there is also the legend that when Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were fleeing Egypt, Mary placed her blue cloak on a rosemary bush and the flowers turned from white to blue.

I hope these stories will add to your enjoyment of the Christmas holidays.Christmas fruit

More information about legends surrounding the use of Christmas greens can be found online on these Internet sites:

Briggs, Johnathan. “Mistletoe Legends.” Available at http://mistletoe.org.uk/homewp/index.php/traditions/

“Holiday Legends.” 2003. University of Illinois Extension. Available at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/hortihints/0312c.html

Perry, Leonard. 2019. “Holiday Greens and Their Traditions.” University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science. Available at https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/greens.html


 

Susan Leigh Anthony is a longtime member of the New England Unit of HSA.She runs a garden design business named Doveflower Cottage and is a perennial buyer and expert at Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate, MA.