Vanilla – An Expensive Spice

By Maryann Readal

Vanilla planifolia flowerVanilla, Vanilla planifolia, is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for December. It is the perfect month to feature vanilla, since its flavor will be a fragrant ingredient in many of the desserts that are served during the holidays. But where to begin a discussion of this historic spice, which is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron?

Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid flower. It is a long, dark brown seed pod, which contains thousands of  tiny black seeds. Those tiny black seeds are the specks you see in good vanilla ice cream. Vanilla extract is extracted vanilla beansfrom those seed pods. The vanilla orchid grows in the tropical climates of places like Mexico, Réunion, Tahiti, and Madagascar. Today, 80% of vanilla comes from the island nations of Madagascar and nearby Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Vanilla grown in Madagascar is the most desirable and is often called “Bourbon Vanilla” (Oon, 2020). However, the vanilla vine, which grows to about 300 feet, was first grown in Mexico. At first, Mexico was the only place where vanilla grew, because it needed the Melepona bee to pollinate the flower in order to produce the seed pod. Hernán Cortéz is credited with discovering vanilla during his exploration of Central America in the 16th century, where the Aztecs combined vanilla with cocoa to create their famous drink, xocolatl. The plant was eventually brought to Europe and other tropical climates, but the plants could never produce the vanilla bean, because the Melepona bee pollinator was not present to pollinate the flowers. That is, until one day in 1841, a young boy on the Réunion island in the Indian Ocean discovered how to manually pollinate the vanilla orchid. Soon, growing pod-producing vanilla vines was possible in other tropical countries.

Vanilla flower hand pollinationBut the process of producing the vanilla was—and still is—a laborious one. It takes three years for a vanilla plant to bloom. Each vanilla flower opens for only one day, and hand-pollination has to be done during a very short window of time. (Watch this video to see how vanilla flowers are pollinated.) Once pollinated, it takes five to nine months for the pods to ripen. When ripe, but before the pods split open, the vanilla pods are picked by hand and then subjected to a multi-step curing process that takes another six months to a year to complete. It is only after this curing process that the vanilla bean develops its distinct vanilla fragrance and flavor. The cured beans are then shipped to an extraction facility, where the beans are ground and soaked in alcohol and water, infusing the vanilla flavor into the liquid that becomes vanilla extract. This long process is the reason for the expense of real vanilla extract.

Woman sorting vanilla pods in MadagascarIn 2022, the price of Madagascar vanilla was between $178 and $206 per pound (Salina Wamucii, 2022) after being only $20 per pound five years before. After two devastating cyclones, which destroyed much of the vanilla crop growing in Madagascar in 2017, prices have soared. The expensive and scarce vanilla has forced farmers to imprint a code on each of their growing vanilla beans in order to deter thieves. Companies that import large quantities of vanilla have banded together to help farmers deal with the environmental problems that are affecting their vanilla vines. They decided that helping the farmers is easier than changing formulations based on a new vanilla product and changing the labels needed for a new product.

Madagascar "Bourbon" Vanilla ExtractThe demand for vanilla flavoring far exceeds the supply. Vanilla contains between 250-500 different flavor and fragrance components. The most prominent is vanillin, which scientists learned how to create in the laboratory in the late 19th century. Vanillin can be made from petrochemicals, from wood pulp, and from eugenol, which is a component of clove oil. This synthetic or imitation vanilla is much cheaper than the real vanilla extract made from the vanilla beans. It is most likely the one used in vanilla-flavored food products that we are familiar with. “The vast bulk, 99 percent of vanilla-flavored products on the market, from vanilla flavored vodka to vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, don’t actually contain vanilla” (Rupp, 2014). For consumers, who are increasingly demanding natural products, vanilla made from petrochemicals or wood chips is a difficult choice to make.

Vanilla ice creamSo, which vanilla product should you use this holiday season—the cheaper imitation vanilla or the real, but expensive, vanilla extract? Some say that if you are baking something that requires a temperature over 300 degrees, you can just as well substitute the imitation for the real thing. But if you are making puddings, custards, or vanilla ice cream, you should use the real thing—vanilla extract.

For recipes and to find out more about vanilla, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.

Photo Credits: 1) Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0); 2) Vanilla beans (Creative Commons); 3) Hand pollinating vanilla flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 us); 4) Woman hand sorting vanilla beans (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0); 5) Vanilla ice cream (Life Made Simple); 6) Madagascar “Bourbon” vanilla extract (Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0).

References

Baker, Aryn. 2018. Vanilla is nearly as expensive as silver. Accessed 11/2/22. https://time.com/5308143/vanilla-price-climate-change-madagascar/

Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. 2022. What are vanilla beans? Accessed 11/13/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/history-of-vanilla-beans-1809274

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

My Green Pets. n.d. How to pollinate the vanilla orchid, step by step. Accessed 11/15/22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RdoTcDD2EU

Oon, Samantha. Vanilla beans: the cost of production. Accessed 11/5/22. https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/vanilla-beans-the-cost-of-production

Rupp, Rebecca. 2014. The history of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/plain-vanilla

Selina Wamucii. 2022. Madagascar vanilla prices. Accessed 11/2/22. https://www.selinawamucii.com/insights/prices/madagascar/vanilla/#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20the%20approximate%20price,is%20MGA%201517195.19%20per%20kg.

Sethi, Simran. 2017. The bittersweet story of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/bittersweet-story-vanilla-180962757/


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.

Devil’s Tongue (Amorphophallus konjac)

by David McDaniel

A mass of compound-seeming leaves atop squishy stalks pouring out of a large pot in the central circle of the theme garden at the National Herb Garden was labeled “Devil’s Tongue.” Replanting was simple enough, and I did not think much about the plant after that. I figured it was a non-woody shrub of sorts. I recognize that the inability to categorize the plant into defined botanical terms should have tipped me off that it has an interesting life cycle, but it was not until I was making labels that I discovered just how interesting it is.

Amorphophallus konjac is a perennial corm in the Araceae family that grows a single, highly divided leaf, and once the corm reaches maturity it sends out a single inflorescence (Mahr, n.d.). The single leaf divides into the form of a small tree that serves to gather energy for the corm to either further maturity or regenerate after production of an inflorescence. The inflorescence has thousands of flowers at the base of the spadix within the spathe. The spathe is the part of A. konjac that wraps around the central spadix almost like a collar. The spadix is home to the inflorescence at its base and protrudes from the center of the spathe. The flowers are pollinated by carrion flies that are attracted to the smell of dead animals that emanates from the inflorescence (Mahr, n.d.). This plant is native to the Yunnan Province in China, but has become popular around the world for its unique culinary uses (Flora of China, n.d.). 

The winged compound leaves of Amorphophallus konjac

The corm is an engorged stem base, shaped almost like a donut, that stores energy collected by the single leaf it sends up every year. The corm of the plant is edible, but cannot be consumed raw due to the formation of calcium oxalate crystals that cause intense discomfort in the mouth and digestive system (North Carolina Extension Toolbox, n.d.). The calcium oxalate crystals are broken down at baking temperatures; therefore, the peeled and sliced corm must be baked and then ground into a fine powder before it can be used (Fern, 2010). 

A orange package of mango-flavored konjac jelly candyThe powder, when combined with water, makes a jelly. The jelly is traditionally formulated with seaweed to give it a pleasant brine flavor. It is gray when seaweed is used in preparation but is white when prepared without. In Japan, the finished jelly product is called konnyaku, konjac (NC State Extension, n.d.). The English form of the word is pronounced like the liquor, cognac. The jelly takes on the flavor and color of any additional ingredients. Modern uses still have both traditional options, but fruit and vegetables are sometimes added for flavors used in candies and the bubbles in bubble tea. In bubble tea it is used as a replacement for tapioca when a sweet flavor, as opposed to a savory flavor, is desired. More generally, the jelly can be used as a vegan replacement for anywhere gelatin is used. It can also be used as a replacement for seafood. The seaweed preparation of konjac lends a fish flavor to dishes and is used as a vegan substitute for fish. 

Another preparation of konjac is in the form of noodles. The noodles are translucent and are known as shirataki. Shirataki noodles are low calorie, gluten free, and light on carbs (Spritzler, 2018). Keto diet circles hail them as a “miracle food” since they are like wheat noodles, but are not as carbohydrate heavy or high in calories since they are 97% water and only 3% flour (Spritzler, 2018). The noodles can be substituted in recipes that have wheat noodles, provided some limitations are considered (Spritzler, 2018). The primary limitation is the lack of flavor when prepared on their own; however, the noodles will absorb a lot of flavor in the dish when cooked with other ingredients. 

A bowl of konjac noodles in a white bowl with a blue rim, next to a package of noodles with a rooster on the coverThe medicinal properties of konjac come from the glucomannan in the flour, as it is a source of good carbs for gut microbiota while not being available for uptake by humans (Spritzler, 2018). Feeding gut microbiota gives konjac prebiotic properties (Spritzler, 2018). The lack of bioavailability of the glucomannan is another reason konjac is popular in keto diets (Spritzler, 2018). The glucomannan also relieves constipation and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (Fern, 2010; Spritzler, 2018). The mechanism that allows glucomannan to work as such a good source of dietary fiber is that it has a high rate of water absorption by weight, which allows for a higher water content in bowel movements (Devaraj, 2019). The prebiotic properties are due to the preference of healthy bacteria native to the gut for glucomannan over other available sugars (Devaraj, 2019). 

The konjac at the National Herb Garden did not flower this year, but the leaves were large enough we had to plant it in the ground since it was bursting out of the pot. There’s a good chance in the upcoming years that it will flower brilliantly and I hope to see it. After reading about all of the uses of konjac I will be on the lookout for konjac foods and candies on my grocery trips! 

Photo Credits: 1) The tree-like single compound leaf of Amorphophallus konjac (Sebastian Stabinger, via Wikimedia); 2) A group of A. konjac inflorescences, showing the collar-like spathe round the central spadix (James Steakley, via Wikimedia); 3) Close-up of the winged compound leaf (David McDaniel); 4) A packet of mango flavored konjac jelly (Open Food Facts); 5) Konjac noodles (Alpha, via Flicker)

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 

Devaraj, R. D., C. K. Reddy, & B. Xu. 2019. Health-promoting effects of konjac glucomannan and its practical applications: A critical review. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules. 126: 273-281. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30586587/ 

Flora of China (Internet). n.d. Amorphophallus konjac K. Koch, Wochenschr. Gärtnerei Pflanzenk. 1: 262. 1858. Flora of China. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=242302696

Fern, K. n.d. Amorphophallus konjac. Tropical Plants Database. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Amorphophallus+konjac 

Mahr, S. n.d. Voodoo lily, Amorphophallus konjac. Wisconsin Horticulture. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/voodoo-lily-amorphophallus-konjac/

North Carolina Extension Toolbox (Internet). n.d. Amorphophallus konjac. NC State Extension. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/amorphophallus-konjac/#poison

Spritzler, F. 2018. Shirataki noodles 101. Healthline. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/shirataki-noodles-101 


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.

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.

Herb of the Month – Caraway – An Old World Herb

By Maryann Readal

White lacey flowers of carawayCaraway seed, Carum carvi, has been used in many countries of the world as a spice and as a medicine for a very long time.

The caraway plant can be either biennial or annual. It is native to western Asia, northern Europe, and north Africa. It grows as an annual in cooler climates, and in warmer regions it is planted in the fall and produces flowers and fruit the following year. Caraway does not tolerate hot, humid weather well. The flowers attract beneficial bees and wasps to the garden, and the crescent shaped “seeds” are actually considered to be fruits. The herb is in the Apiaceae family and the umbel-shaped, white-to-pink flowers resemble those of dill, parsley, celery, and other members of the family. It produces a long taproot that can be eaten as a vegetable. Because of the taproot, however, it does not transplant easily, so caraway is best grown from seed, and will reseed in the garden.

Overturned glass jar with caraway seeds spilling outReferences to caraway are found in the Ebers Papyrus (1500 BCE) and in the writings of the Greek physician, Dioscorides (50-70 CE).  Some trace its use back to the Stone Age because fossilized seeds have been found around lake dwellings from that period. The Romans used caraway and spread its use to other parts of their realm. It has been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages.  

There are some traditional legends surrounding caraway. It was once placed under the bed of “troubled children” as protection from witches. Perhaps these “troubled children” actually suffered from colic, which caraway was later used to treat. It was also used as a love potion due to a belief that it kept a lover from straying. For that reason, it was also used as food for chickens and birds to ensure that they would not fly away (Ravindran, 2017). In the language of flowers, caraway symbolizes faithfulness. In Poland, it was believed that the seeds had the highest healing powers if collected on June 24th, the feast of St. John the Baptist. Bags containing caraway seeds along with anise, fennel, and coriander seeds were worn around the neck because of a belief in their magical properties and their ability to expel gas (Knab, 2020).

Historically, caraway has been used to treat gastrointestinal problems. Recent studies support some of the folk uses of this herb. These uses include reducing indigestion, aiding in weight loss, reducing blood sugar levels, and reducing inflammation (WebMD, 2020). The essential oil of the herb can interact with prescription drugs, so it is recommended that one check with a healthcare provider before using caraway as a treatment.

Two loaves of bread with caraway seeds on topThe culinary use of caraway is well known.  Caraway is used to make the north African chile sauce, harissa. It is also used in the traditional British seed cake that is enjoyed with tea (Marchetti, 2013).  Its anise-like flavor is very popular in German and Slavic cuisines. The seed is used to flavor breads such as Jewish rye bread, sausages, cabbage, and fruit and vegetable dishes as well as cheeses such as Havarti. The leaves are added to soups and salads. The seeds are also used to make alcoholic drinks such as aquavit, kϋmmel, and vodka. The seeds can be sugar coated and used as a breath freshener or a digestive aid. The essential oil is used in perfumes, ice cream, candy, soft drinks, and to flavor children’s medicine (Bown, 2001). Growing up in a Slavic household, caraway seed was a staple spice in my mom’s kitchen.   

For more information about caraway, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month web page.

Photo Credits: 1) Carum carvi  flowers and leaves (Guy Waterval, via Wikimedia); 2) Caraway seeds (courtesy of the author); 3) Silesian bread with caraway seeds (Silar, via Wikimedia)

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

Bown, Deni. 2001 The Herb Society of America new encyclopedia of herbs and their uses. London: Doring Kindersley.

Knab, Sophie. 2020. Polish herbs, flowers and folk medicine. New York: Hippocrene Books.

Marchetti, Domenica. 2013. The caraway seed is a spice worth meeting. NPR. Accessed 8/30/22. Available from https://www.npr.org/2013/03/05/173529055/the-caraway-seed-is-a-spice-worth-meeting

Ravindran, P. (ed). 2017. Caraway: Carum carvi. The encyclopedia of herbs and spices.  Accessed 8/30/22. CABI. Credo Reference Database.

WebMD. 2020. Caraway: Is it good for you. Accessed 8/30/22. Available from https://www.webmd.com/diet/caraway-good-for-you


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

Fennel: A Multitasking Herb

by Peggy Riccio

Fennel in bloomI grow fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in my Virginia garden for many reasons. As an accent in the garden, fennel grows easily from seed to a few feet tall. Sometimes, they are erect and sometimes they bend from the weight to weave among the perennials and shrubs. Their tubular stems mingle with the pumpkin vines on the ground or rest on top of the chrysanthemum shrubs, while their green, fern-like foliage peaks through the zinnias.

Throughout the summer, I can harvest the foliage for use in the kitchen. The leaves have an anise flavor and are good for flavoring fish and chicken dishes and root vegetables. Snips of the foliage can be sprinkled on salads, soup, eggs, and tuna salad sandwiches. 

In the summer, the fennel blooms with large, starburst-like structures, comprising many small yellow flowers. These attract beneficial insects and pollinators, which are good for the rest of my garden. Sometimes, I clip the flower heads for floral arrangements, but I always let some flowers go to seed. 

Fennel as filler in the gardenIn the fall, I clip the seed heads and put them in a paper bag. I save some seeds for sowing next year and some for the kitchen. The seeds have medicinal qualities (the foliage does not) and are often served at the end of the meal in restaurants to help with digestion and to freshen the breath. Eating the seeds or making a tea from the seeds can relieve flatulence, bloating, gas, indigestion, cramps, and muscle spasms. Fennel seeds are also called “meeting seeds,” because when the Puritans had long church sermons, they chewed on the seeds to suppress hunger and fatigue.

Fennel seedsIn the kitchen, seed can be used whole or ground or toasted in a dry frying pan. They can be used as a spice for baking sweets, bread, and crackers, or in sausage or herbal vinegars and in pickling. The seeds have the same anise flavor but are so sweet, they taste like they are sugar-coated. For me, it is like eating small candies, especially tasty after drinking coffee. 

I grow fennel for the caterpillar form of the black swallowtail butterflies. The caterpillars love to eat the foliage, and it makes me happy to grow food for them and to support the butterfly population.

Sometimes the fennel comes back the next year, but it really depends on the winter. I have heard that, in warmer climates, it gets out of control, but in my zone 7 garden, it has not been an issue. After a hard freeze, when I am cleaning up the garden, I cut back the old fennel stalks revealing new foliage at the base. In December, the new foliage is just as lush and green, providing me with more fennel for my recipes, as well as a nice garnish for holiday meals. 

Fennel in DecemberFennel is easy to grow from seed and should be sowed directly in the garden. The plants have a tap root and do not like to be transplanted. The plants prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade, and they need well-drained soil. Treat them like summer annuals and sow seeds every year. 

I should point out that there are two types of fennel: Foeniculum vulgare, which is the leafy one I grow, and Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, which is the bulbing type. I have grown the bulbing type before but not for the accents it provides in the garden bed. The bulbing type is a shorter plant with a bulbous base, so it is harvested for the bulb before it flowers and sets seed. The bulb is often sliced fresh for salads or cooked with fish and vegetables. One could consider the bronze fennel a third type; it grows like the leafy fennel, only it is a dark bronze color, not bright green. Bronze fennel also can be used in the kitchen.

 

In the kitchen, use the foliage for:

  • green salads
  • fruit salad (nectarine/apricot)
  • egg dishes
  • soups and chowders
  • chicken salad or tuna salad
  • dips and cream sauces
  • yeast breads
  • fish (put a fish filet on bed of leaves and broil, or mix leaves with butter and drizzle over the fish)
  • vegetables such as root vegetables, peas, and potatoes
  • combine with parsley, chervil, and thyme, or make a fennel, parsley, thyme, and lemon juice rub for white fish

Seeds can be used for:

  • fish soup/stock
  • cucumber salads
  • soft cheeses
  • bread/biscuits/crackers
  • sausage mixtures and pork dishes
  • pickling vegetables
  • marinades for meat
  • bean, couscous, lentil, or bulgur wheat dishes
  • potato salad
  • dry rubs or spice blends/powders

Photo Credits: 1) Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) flowers; 2) Fennel as filler in the garden; 3) Dried fennel seeds on plant; 4) New fennel fronds in the December garden. (All photos courtesy of the author.)

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.


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

Herbs with Anise-, Fennel-, and Licorice-Like Flavors

by Susan Belsinger

large glass jar full of vodka and herbsOne of the main things that I love about the summer season is the many wild and wonderful flavors in the herb garden. While my chervil and sweet cicely have come and nearly gone since they have set seed, dill and fennel are showing out, and anise hyssop, basil, and tarragon are coming on strong in my zone 7, Maryland garden. 

When Agastache was Herb of the Year in 2019, I figured I’d explore some of the other herbs in this flavor category. Anise hyssop is the most popular of this genus—it is not related to anise (Pimpinella anisum), or hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) for that matter—so I am not sure how it got this moniker. It does, however, smell and taste somewhat like anise. When we speak of anise flavor, a few other herbs come into play: fennel and licorice. These three herbs have similar aromas and tastes due to a few shared chemical constituents. And these three herbs are used to describe the flavor profiles of some other well-known herbs.

Although there are probably a few other herbs that have some flavor of anise, fennel, or licorice, I will discuss the ones listed below that I am most familiar with. (Many of the flavor profiles are excerpted from The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker).

field of finely divided leaves and small white flowers of aniseAnise (Pimpinella anisum)

Parts used: leaves and flowers; mainly seeds

Chemistry: primarily (E)-anethole; germacrene D, beta-bisabolene and estragole. 

Flavor profile: When crushed between your fingers, anise seeds smell sweet, mildly fruity, and then like licorice candy. If you pop a tiny anise seed in your mouth and bite it between your front teeth, you get an immediate hit of black licorice candy flavor. At first, it might seem slightly sweet, then a bit spicy; the aftertaste has a definite bitterness. I find anise seed stronger in flavor than fennel seed.

 

tall green spikes with small purple flowers of anise hyssopAnise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

Parts used: leaves and flowers

Chemistry: primarily estragole; germacrene D, limonene, (E)-ocimene; some forms contain isomethone and pulegone. 

Flavor profile: While commonly called anise hyssop, the odor is more similar to French tarragon, though sweeter, with a hint of basil. The foliage and flowers taste similar to the aroma—sweet, with the licorice of tarragon and basil—and just a bit floral.

 

Cut basil leaves in a small glass vase on an orange tableBasil (Ocimum spp.)

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

Chemistry: primarily estragole and linalool; some forms contain eugenol, 1,8- cineole, beta-caryophyllene.

Flavor profile: The fragrance of sweet green, bush basil is heady with a clean, green aroma with anise hyssop and mint, followed by hints of citrus, cinnamon, and clove. The flavor is well rounded, full of spice, licorice, and mint, and is just slightly pungent. The fragrance of most Thai basils is a big, rounded aroma of spice that is sweet with licorice and some mint. They have a strong, perfumed flavor with hints of licorice, mint, and spice.

 

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)finely divided green leaves and small white flowers of chervil

Parts used: leaves and flowers

Chemistry: primarily estragole, some 1-allyl-2, 4 dimenthoxybenzene.

Flavor profile: At first sniff, chervil leaves have the fragrance of parsley, with a tarragon-like undernote. And indeed, many gourmets have described the flavor as resembling a refined combination of French tarragon and parsley, with perhaps a slight suggestion of pear-like fruit.

 

yellow flowers and light green fronds of dillDill (Anethum graveolens)

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

Chemistry: carvone, limonene, dill apiole, alpha-phellandrene.

Flavor profile: Dill seeds (actually fruits) and foliage, known as dill weed, smell of a spicy caraway and fennel, and are somewhat pungent with undertones of mint and citrus. The fruits smell more pungent than the foliage, which tends to be more “green.” Anyone familiar with dill pickles knows the flavor of dill, which is a combination of parsley and fennel with a bit of celery, and a pungent bite with a slight burnt taste, especially so in the seed, along with oily resinous overtones.

 

yellow flowers of fennelFennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

Chemistry: (E)-anethole, estragole, fenchone, limonene

Flavor profile: The aroma is sweet and green and aniselike. The flavor of fennel is similar to anise though more full and earthy, sweet, and herbaceous. The fruits (commonly called seeds) of fennel are pleasant-tasting, mild, sweet, and herbal.

 

thin green leaves of french tarragonFrench Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’)

Parts used: leaves

Chemistry: primarily estragole; some contain (Z)-anethole, beta-ocimene.

Flavor profile: The first whiff of tarragon leaves picks up a pleasant anise aroma followed by a combination of green grass or freshly cut hay, with a mere suggestion of mint and licorice. The rich anise-like flavor of tarragon is sweet, mildly grassy, and a little peppery. When you bite into a leaf, it numbs the tongue slightly, which is caused by the presence of the chemical methyl chavicol.

 

divided leaves and white flowers of licoriceLicorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Parts used: root

Chemistry: glycerrhizin, hexanoic acid, hexadecenoic acid, acetol, propionic acid, as well as various alkylpyrazines, flavonoid glycosides, sugars, and starch.

Flavor profile: Dried, wrinkled, brown licorice roots are very sweet—supposedly 50 to 150 times sweeter than cane sugar—with very little flavor except for the glycyrrhizin. According to Tucker and DeBaggio in The Encyclopedia of Herbs: The root is often confused with commercial licorice candy—people think that anise, fennel, and tarragon smell like licorice—although this is incorrect. Most licorice candy is flavored with anise oil and not even sweetened with the licorice root, so the aforementioned herbs smell of licorice candy and not the licorice root itself. 

 

long thin leaves of mexican marigoldMexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida)

Parts used: leaves and flowers

Chemistry: primarily estragole; (E)-anethole, methyl eugenol.

Flavor profile: Mexican tarragon (also called sweet marigold, sweet mace, and Mexican mint marigold) has an entirely different aroma from that of other marigolds; it is superficially similar to French tarragon though without the full, warm herbaceous smell of that classic culinary herb. Although it has hints of anise, it is a bit more pungent with notes of mint.

 

finely divided green leaves and small white flowers of sweet cicelySweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)

Parts used: roots, leaves, flowers, seeds

Chemistry: primarily (E)-anethole in both fruits and foliage 

Flavor profile: Sweet cicely, also called garden myrrh, sweet-scented myrrh, or fern-leaved chervil, has a long history of being cultivated for its sweet, anise-scented foliage, seeds (really fruits), and roots. The flavor is also sweet, tasting of anise with a green herbal note.

 

 

Basic Chemistry

Some chemicals are common to a variety of plant foods, which results in comparable flavors between these foods. The two main chemical constituents that give these similar flavored herbs their smell and taste are estragole and anethole. According to Tucker and DeBaggio in the Encyclopedia of Herbs, “Anethole is very similar in structure to estragole (methyl chavicol) in tarragon and safrole in sassafras, and so these oils smell similar but not identical.” Anethole is a terpenoid, and is found in anise and fennel, and also dill, which it is named after (Anethum graveolens) even though it is a much smaller amount found in dill than anise and fennel. It is soluble in oil or alcohol, though cannot be fully diluted in water. Estragole is a phenylpropene, which is a natural organic compound, also called methyl chavicol. This natural organic compound provides the main essential oil component of anise seed and star anise, basil, and tarragon. Of interest, Cis-pellitorine is an alkamide, which occurs naturally in tarragon and is what gives a tingling, tongue-numbing sensation called paresthesia (of the tongue). I find this occurs in tarragon and some basil leaves.

close up of dark green basil leaves

Basil leaves

In the Kitchen

Although anise and fennel seeds have slightly different flavor characteristics—they can be substituted for one another in most recipes—I find aniseed more assertive in flavor and fennel seed milder and a bit sweeter. They are wonderful in baked goods from breads and muffins to cakes and cookies. They are used in pickles, salads, soups, sauces, stews, with meats (especially sausages), fish, poultry, vegetables, grains, and cheeses. Though they are used in many cuisines, I find them often featured in Indian and Italian foods, and spice blends like Indian panch phoron, curry powder, Chinese five spice, and herbes de Provence. There are many liqueurs and cordials made with anise and fennel seeds.

Fennel_seed by Howcheng via wikimedia

Fennel seeds

According to https://www.spiceography.com in their post titled “Fennel Seed Vs. Anise Seed: SPICEography Showdown” they answer the following question “When should you use anise seed and when should you use fennel seed?” “While they are often interchangeable, using one as a substitute for the other is not always ideal. True anise seed (as opposed to star anise) is delicate and sweeter so that it is more at home in sweet dishes, candies, and liqueurs than fennel seed would be. For example, anise seed is the best option for two Italian favorites: biscotti and pizzelle. Fennel seed can be used as a substitute in those baked goods, but it is not ideal. The flavor of fennel seed is a little more delicate and a little woodier than the flavor of anise seed, which means that it works better in the background as a supporting flavor note that accentuates and enhances other spices. Fennel seed is better for marinara sauces and other savory dishes that contain multiple spices where it will show up, but not dominate the way anise seed would.”

Susan Belsinger at an outside table holding anise hyssop plantFoliage of these aromatic plants are used in recipes around the globe and will brighten a salad, soup, sauce, any egg dish and are tasty with pasta, grains, vegetables, fish, and fowl. Flowers have a surprising amount of flavor due to concentrated essential oils—use them as a garnish on salads or beverages—or put a flower umbel in your pickle jar. I use leaves and blooms in making herb butters, vinegars, and syrups. The famous French blend of fines herbes contains the quartet of tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chives; however, if tarragon doesn’t do well for you or the chervil has gone to seed, why not substitute leaves of anise hyssop, sweet cicely, or Mexican mint marigold or fennel fronds?

 

Celebrate these anise, fennel, and licorice flavored herbs; grow these flavorful plants in your garden and get creative in the kitchen!

Be sure to check out my trio of videos on capturing the essence of herbs and preserving their flavor—they’re available on the HSA website to watch at your convenience. Go to https://courses.herbsociety.org/courses/gathering-and-preserving-the-herbal-bounty to register for these free videos.

Anise Hyssop and Almond Butter Cookies

a hand holding a stack of butter cookiesThese are a crisp butter cookie with a crunch of almond and a hint of anise. They are tasty with a cup of tea or are lovely accompaniments to fresh seasonal fruit or ice cream. For a heartier, healthier cookie, I use a scant cup of whole-wheat pastry flour in place of one of the cups of unbleached flour. 

You can substitute 2 teaspoons fennel seed or 1 generous teaspoon anise seed for the anise hyssop flowers in these cookies—be sure to grind the seed with the sugar not quite to a powder—leave a little texture. For using other fresh herbs in place of the Agastache, finely mince a scant 1/4 cup of fresh basil or Mexican mint marigold leaves and/or flowers.  

Makes about 5 to 6 dozen cookies

1 cup sugar, preferably organic

1/4 cup anise hyssop florets removed from their stems

1 extra large egg

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached flour

Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

3 ounces almonds, lightly toasted and finely chopped

Combine the sugar and the anise hyssop in a processor and pulse until blended.

Add the egg and process for about 60 seconds.  Add the butter and vanilla and process for another 60 seconds.

Mix the flour and salt and add it to the processor.  Process for about 20 seconds until most of the flour is incorporated.  Add the almonds and process until just mixed; do not overprocess.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather it into a ball.  Divide the dough into 3 parts and roll each portion in plastic wrap into a cylinder about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.  Chill for about 1 hour, until firm, or freeze for about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Slice the dough slightly less than ¼-inch thick with a sharp knife.  Place the rounds at least 1/2 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for about 12 minutes, changing the position of the baking sheets halfway through baking, until the edges are just golden brown.  Remove from baking sheets immediately to cool on racks. When cool, store in airtight containers.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author, except 2) Pimpinella anisum (anise) (Abdullah.alkhalaf1 via Wikimedia), 4) Ocimum sp. (basil) (Chrissy Moore), and13) Fennel seeds (Howcheng via Wikimedia)

References

Belsinger, Susan. Flowers in the kitchen. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1991.

Belsinger, Susan and Arthur O. Tucker. The culinary herbal. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2016.

Coleman, Gert, editor. Agastache, Herb of the Year™ 2019: Anise hyssop, hummingbird mints and more. Jacksonville, Florida: International Herb Association, 2019.

Gernot-Katzers spice pages. Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from http://gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com/

Gruenstern, Jodie. 2021. Anice, fennel, licorice – what’s the difference? Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from https://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/anise-fennel-licorice-whats-the-difference/ 

Orr, Stephen. The new American herbal. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2014.

Reddit: forum (Internet). 2014. What makes licorice, anise, and fennel have such similar tastes, when they are not closely related? Accessed July 7, 2022. Available from  https://www.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/2gog6j/what_makes_licorice_anise_and_fennel_have_such/

Spiceography. 2022. Fennel seeds vs. anise seed: SPICEography showdown. Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from https://www.spiceography.com/fennel-seed-vs-anise-seed/

The Good Scents Company. 2021. Flavor descriptors for anise. Accessed July 9, 2022. Available from http://www.thegoodscentscompany.com/flavor/anise.html

Tucker, Arthur O. and Thomas DeBaggio. The encyclopedia of herbs. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2009.


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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 









A True Double Mint – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Red-stemmed apple mint leaves and flowersMentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’ (double mint) is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for July. It is a fitting herb to be singled out for attention by The Herb Society because Madalene Hill was an HSA President,1986-1988. Madalene was considered to be the Grande Dame of Herbs in the United States and received many awards and accolades for her work with herbs. She passed away in 2009 at the age of 95.

Madalene broadened the cultivation and use of double mint. Discovered by Hill in Virginia, she began growing it in the 1950s at her legendary Hilltop Herb Farm near Houston, TX. Madalene described this mint as rare, “a handsome plant and a rare jewel” (Hill, 1987). Madalene is credited with either introducing or discovering a total of seven herbs (Lindner, 2009). Two of these herbs, one of them being double mint, were named after her.

Photo of Madalene Hill, past president of The Herb Society of AmericaDouble mint is the only mint that has both peppermint and spearmint oils, which gives it a very unique flavor and pleasant fragrance. This mint is also called red-stemmed apple mint. It is a hybrid between Mentha arvensis (wild mint) and Mentha spicata (spearmint). Past Honorary President of The Herb Society and herself a noted herbalist, Susan Belsinger remarked  that double mint “combines the sweetness of spearmint and the coolness of peppermint, and so its use extends beyond desserts and is especially good in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks” (Belsinger, 2016).

Like all mints, double mint is very easy to grow but does need to be contained. It will fade away at the end of the growing season but comes back in the spring. It will grow in sun or part shade. Double mint’s smooth, pointed leaves, upright growth, and dark red stems make it a standout in the garden. The white to pale violet flowers, too, are noteworthy for a mint. It is great in fruit salads, teas, or fruit pies. Use it as a garnish for iced tea. It is good tossed with peas or beans. It is also used in Vietnamese cuisine. Though it is an aphid and rodent deterrent, gardeners will find it to be a welcome source of nectar for pollinators.

Photo of Wrigley's Doublemint gumYou may wonder if there is any connection between Wrigley’s Doublemint® gum and the double mint herb. The exact ingredients of the gum are a Wrigley’s trade secret. However, the company does disclose that the main ingredient of the gum is peppermint; and on its packaging, it displays two peppermint leaves, side by side. So, I don’t believe there is a connection between the double mint herb, Mentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill,’ and the Doublemint® gum, other than they both contain mint.

For more information about double mint, please visit the HSA 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) Mentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’ (double mint); 2) Madalene Hill, The Herb Society of America Past President and Pioneer Unit member; 3) Wrigley’s Doublemint® gum. All photos courtesy of the author.

References:

Askey, Linda. 2006. Texas’s first lady of herbs. The American gardener. March/April 2006. P. 34. Accessed 5/31/22. https://ahsgardening.org/wp-content/pdfs/2006-03r.pdf

Belsinger, Susan and Arthur O. Tucker. 2016. The culinary herbal: Growing and preserving 97 flavorful herbs. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Doublemint ‘Madalene Hill’ (Mentha gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’). December 8, 2016. Accessed 5/23/22. https://arborgate.com/picks/doublemint-madalene-hill-mentha-gracilis-madalene-hill/

Hill, Madalene and Gwen Barclay. 1987. Southern herb growing. Fredericksburg, TX: Shearer Publishing. 

Lindner, Kelly. 2019. Madalene Hill 1913-2009. HerbalGram. Issue #82. Accessed 5/24/22. 

https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/82/table-of-contents/article3403/

Lotz, C.J. April 25, 2017. Meet the mints. Accessed 5/23/22.  https://gardenandgun.com/articles/meet-the-mints/ 

Spearmint, red stem apple mint. (n.d.) Accessed 5/23/22. https://hillcountrynatives.net/catablog-items/spearmint-red-stem-apple-mint-mentha-x-gracilis-madalene-hill/


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.

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

Image of basil leavesBasil, Ocimum basilicum, still reigns today as the King of Herbs. Its royalty was established by the Greeks, when they gave the herb its name based on the Greek word basilikon, meaning “king.” Alexander the Great is said to have brought basil to the Greeks. According to legend, St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother, followed a trail of basil leading to the remains of Jesus’ cross (Lum, 2020). Since that time, basil has been considered a holy herb in Greece. Basil is used in the Greek Orthodox Church for sprinkling holy water, while some Greeks bring their basil to church to be blessed and then hang the sprigs in their home for health and prosperity (MyParea, n.d.). However, on the isle of Crete, basil somehow gained a bad reputation and was thought to be a symbol of the devil. There seems to be a thread of bad history associated with basil since early times.

Hindu man worshiping tulsi plantAlthough named by the Greeks, basil originated in India 5,000 years ago. In India today, the herb is considered a sacred herb. Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (also known as tulsi), is considered to be the manifestation of the goddess Tulasi, wife of Krishna. It is thought to have great spiritual and healing powers. According to legend, only one leaf of tulsi can outweigh Vishnu’s power. Every devout Hindu home will have a special place for a tulsi plant. It is believed that the creator god, Brahma, resides in its stems and branches, the river Ganges flows through the plant’s roots, the deities live in its leaves, and the most sacred of Hindu religious texts are in the top of holy basil’s branches (Simoons, 1998). Nurturing a tulsi plant ensures that a person’s sins will be forgiven and everlasting peace and joy will be had. (Simoons, 1998). The dried stems of old holy basil plants are used to make beads for Hindu meditation beads. Twentieth-century herbalist Maude Grieve said, “Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a basil leaf on his breast. This is his passport to heaven. It is indeed considered a powerful herb” (Grieve, 1931). 

Image of Egyptian embalmingFrom India, basil spread to Egypt, where the herb was used for embalming and has been found buried with the pharaohs. The herb then moved on to Rome and southern Europe, where the Romans fell in love with it. In Italy, basil was considered a sign of love. If young girls were seeking a suitor, they would place a pot of basil on their windowsill. If a potential suitor showed up with a sprig of basil, the girl would love him forever. 

Ocimum spp (16)Italy became the home of pesto, which basil has made famous. “Pesto was created by the people of Genoa to highlight the flavor of their famous basil. Using a mortar and pestle, they combined simple ingredients to make one of the world’s most famous pasta sauces” (Blackman, 2010). The simple sauce contains only basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Pesto is still a very popular sauce for pasta or crackers, especially in the summer, when fresh basil is plentiful.

During the Middle Ages, they believed that in order to get basil to grow, one had to curse and scream while planting the seed. This is the origin of the French verb semer le basilic (sowing basil), which means “to rant.” It was also thought that if you smelled basil too much, scorpions would enter your brain. Today, the French call basil l’herbe royale, “the royal herb,” and pots of it are found in outdoor restaurants, not to deter scorpions but to deter mosquitoes. Fresh basil leaves are used to make pistou, the French version of pesto.

Image of sign at garden center apologizing for not carrying basil due to downy mildewBasil, a sun-loving member of the mint family, is an annual herb that thrives in summer heat. In fact, it will languish if planted in the garden before temperatures reach a consistent 70 plus degrees. Frequent harvesting of the leaves before flowers appear prolongs its growing season. It can be propagated by seed or cuttings. However, it is very susceptible to downy mildew, which researchers are constantly trying to overcome by breeding more disease-resistant varieties. The new gene editing CRISPR technology may show a promising solution to this problem (Riccio, 2022).

There are more than 100 varieties of basil and counting! Some basils are grown as ornamental plants because of their beautiful blooms. In fact, the Chinese name for basil translates to “nine-level pagoda,” which is a good description of its blooming stalk. African blue basil and wild magic basil are two examples of basils with nice blooms that I have found are bee magnets during the summer. If you are interested in attracting pollinators, your garden should certainly have these basils. Cardinal basil, which shows off its large burgundy flower clusters in late summer, is spectacular in the summer garden. It can also be used as a culinary basil. Lemon basil and ‘Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, both having a lemon scent, are perfect for adding to lemonade, fruit salad, or ice cream. Add cinnamon basil to cinnamon flavored desserts. The showy leaves of purple ruffles basil, O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’, make a nice contrast among other plants in the summer garden. When cooking with basil, it should be added at the end of cooking.

Varieties of basilBasil is not usually considered a medicinal herb, but it was used medicinally in the time of Hippocrates who prescribed it as a tonic for the heart and to treat vomiting and constipation. Pliny the Elder commented that it was good for lethargy and fainting spells, headaches, flatulence, and other digestive issues (Pliny, 1855). China and India have a long history of using basil as a medicinal herb as well.

 Basil does contain a healthy amount of vitamins A, C, and K and has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, which helps fight disease. Studies show that it can help reduce blood clots by making the blood less “sticky.” Animal studies suggest that it might help slow the growth rate of some types of cancer (Todd, 2015).

A plate of brownies with cinnamon basilSo, do enjoy fresh basil this summer. Remember to dry some for the winter, freeze the leaves, or combine chopped leaves with water and freeze in an ice cube tray for later use. However, you should take careful consideration before putting basil on your windowsill lest you attract an unwanted suitor.

Basil is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for June. 

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2010. Basil it’s not just for Italian food anymore. Texas Gardener. Vol. 29, Issue 2, p. 20-25.

Lum, Linda. (2020). Exploring basil: a simple plant with a complicated history. Accessed 5/16/22. https://delishably.com/spices-seasonings/All-About-Herbs-Basil

Matel, Kathy. 2016. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/

MyParea. (n.d.) Basil in Greek culture. Accessed 5/15/22. https://blog.myparea.com/basil-greekculture/#:~:text=For%20ancient%20Greeks%2C%20basil%20was,used%20to%20sprinkle%20holy%20water

Pliny the Elder. 1855. The natural history. John Bostock, M.D. (ed.). London: Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. Accessed 5/15/22. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=20:chapter=48&highlight=ocimum 

Riccio, Peggy. 2022. Breeding better herbs. The American Gardener. Vol. 101, No. 2, p. 30-34.

Simoons, Frederick. 1998. Plants of life, plants of death. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Todd, Kathy. 2015. Basil: King of herbs. Environmental Nutrition. Vol 38, Issue 7, p.8.

Yancy-Keller, Alexandra. 2020. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://www.nutrifitonline.com/blog/news/history-of-basil/

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) Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum) (Maryann Readal); 2) Man worshipping tulsi basil (Wikimedia Commons, Shirsh.namaward); 3) Egyptian embalming (Catrina’s Garden, https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/); 4) Variegated basil leaves (Ocimum cv.) (Chrissy Moore); 5) Sign at garden center regarding basil and downy mildew (Maryann Readal); 6) Varieties of basil (US National Arboretum); 7) Plate of brownies made with cinnamon basil (Chrissy Moore).


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.

Calendula – Herb of the Month – An Herb of the Sun

By Maryann Readal

Orange flowers against dark green leavesCalendula officinalis is a plant in the Asteraceae family and is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for May. In my Texas Zone 8b garden, I planted calendula in November and it is now in full bloom, and will continue to bloom until the hot summer sun puts a damper on its bright yellow and orange blossoms. Planted in organic, well-draining soil, and with enough sun, this herb will reward you with its bright blossoms for a very long time. Deadheading does increase its blooms. Calendula can tolerate some freezing temperatures and it does reseed easily. I cannot imagine a garden without it.

This herb has been called marigold or pot marigold since early times. The name marigold is said to have come from the use of the golden flowers during celebrations for the Virgin Mary (Mary + gold), after Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. Some claim that the golden petals were like the rays surrounding the Virgin’s head. In the thirteenth century, the German poet, Konrad von Wϋrzburg, included calendula among the twelve flowers symbolizing the Virgin (Larkin, 2010). 

The herb was added to soup pots and stews during the Middle Ages. It was also used to color cheese and butter. In India it was a sacred herb, where it adorned statues and temples. 

However, calendula should not be confused with the garden flower we call marigold (Tagetes spp). The flowers of marigold plants, although they look somewhat similar, are not the same and are generally considered to be non-edible. Other important differences include:

  • Calendula originated in the Mediterranean area and some parts of Asia, while the marigold originated in the Americas. 
  • Europeans brought calendula to the Americas. Tagetes spp. were brought to Europe after they landed in America.

Orange flowers on white paper towelThe Romans are believed to have named the calendula after the Latin word calendae (a word referring to the day of the new moon), because they observed that the flowers opened on the day of the new moon. Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its botanical name in the 1750s. 

In early days, calendula was often associated with magical powers. If you wore calendula flowers while in court, you would be victorious in legal matters (Cohen, 2021). People would sprinkle the flowers around their door to keep evil away, and under their beds to ensure that good dreams would come true.

Shakespeare’s writings contain at least six passages about marigolds (Macht, 1955). In several passages, he notes the use of marigold in honoring the dead. The passage in The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 3, reflects the common belief that marigold was also a heliotropic plant.

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mint, savory, marjoram:

The marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping.

Glass bottle of light yellow oil surrounded by orange flowersSometime in history, it was discovered that calendula could be used as a medicinal plant. Since early times it was used as an effective treatment for skin irritations. During the U.S. Civil War, the flowers were used to stop bleeding and to promote healing of battle wounds. British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll led a campaign during World War I to raise calendula to supply British hospitals in France (Keeler, 2016). 

In traditional medicines, calendula was used to treat a variety of skin irritations. It was also used to treat earaches, eye and mouth irritations, jaundice, and menstrual problems. Clinical use today shows that it is effective in treating radiation burns (Patil, 2022).  Some recent studies conclude that Calendula officinalis shows promise as an effective medicine, even as a treatment for some cancers (Patil, 2022), but that more clinical research needs to be done.  Its antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and astringent properties make a healing treatment for the skin when infused in oil.

Calendula is also known as “poor man’s saffron.” The petals can be dried and used in place of the more expensive saffron. However, the taste is not the same as that expensive herb. The colorful petals and young leaves can be tossed into salads. The petals can be cooked with rice and mixed into egg salads, cakes, puddings, and soups.  

Orange calendula petals on a white paper towelThe petals have been used as a dye for fabrics and as an ingredient in cosmetics. Dried petals give a nice contrast color in potpourri.  Some say that if the flowers are fed to hens, the resulting egg yolks will have a rich, yellow color (Barrett, 2009). 

This very useful, colorful, and easy-to- grow herb deserves a place in every garden.  For more information, recipes, and a beautiful screen saver, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpagehttps://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html

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: All photos courtesy of the author.

 

References

Barrett, Judy. 2009. What can I do with my herbs? College Station, TX: Texas A & M Press.

Cohen, Bevin. 2021. The artisan herbalist. Canada: New Society Publishers. 

Fischer, Fern. 2017. History of calendula. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.gardenguides.com/78027-history-calendula.html

Herb Society of America. 2008. Calendula: An Herb Society of America guide. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/210f18de-fb79-4fe8-b79c-8b30bdca4885

Keeler, Kathy. 2016. Plant story: Marigolds in history – pot marigolds (Calendulas). Accessed 4/3/2022. Available from http://khkeeler.blogspot.com/2016/10/plant-story-marigolds-in-history-pot.html

Larkin, Deidre. 2010. Calendar girl. Accessed 4/16/22. Available from https://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2010/11/05/calendar-girl/

Macht, David. 1955. Calendula or marigold in medical history and in Shakespeare.  Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 29:6, 491–502. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44446726.

Mehta, Devansh, Parkhi Rastogi, Ankit Kumar, and Amrendra Kumar Chaudhary. 2012. Review on Pharmacological Update: Calendula officinalis. Linn. Inventi Rapid: Planta Activa. Vol. 2012. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229067785_Review_on_Pharmacological_Update_Calendula_officinalis_Linn

Patil, Karthikeya, et al. 2022. A review of calendula officinalis-magic in science. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 16:2, 23-27. Accessed 4/4/22. Available from Explora from Ebsco.


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.

Starting Anew, Again

 

IMG_3104(1)Another move means another new time for figuring out what conditions herbs will like. It seems to me it’s never the same. I’m always learning about sun, soil, and specifics to please them. For instance, we moved to a new apartment in December from full-almost-too-much sun to very little light, and I wrote off the herbs’ survival when we moved. I went out this morning to clean up the porch, toss the debris, and see just how much work there was to be done before my annual after-Easter shop. Instead of finding dead plants, the Italian parsley in one container and the curly leaf in another have been very happy, filling up their porch pots with gay abandon, the Italian parsley even bolting and seeding. Apparently, they liked the neglect, the freezes, the lack of sun and the dreary winter. Or maybe the indirect sun from facing North is not all bad?  

Of course, I really don’t know if Easter is the right marker for planting. I’m in another climate zone now in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is much different from my pre-pandemic home in Charleston, South Carolina. Easter has been the dividing time between winter and spring planting for so long that it is ingrained in my habits. I’ve been planning to do a big spring shop after a patio sprucing for weeks, trying to figure it all out. One thing for sure, I don’t need any parsley. I do need a new wicker chair as when I sat down to take photographs, one of our two gave way with an astounding crack. (My favorite former mother-in-law gave them to me twenty some years ago, saying they were antiques. My brother and husband have been trying to get me to throw them away for the last nineteen, but I was determined to keep them as long as I could, even moving them here, just for the memory of someone I loved dearly.) 

IMG_0212Top on my list are fennel, lemon balm, sage, oregano, rosemary, and as many kinds of thyme and basil as I can get. Cilantro would be a good addition, too, maybe even keeping up with the parsley and self-seeding. Truth be told, I enjoy coriander seeds more than I do their herb, cilantro, itself. So, too, I have  enjoyed fennel over the years and favor it rather than its look-alike, dill. It seems to me to be the ideal plant, always yielding something, whether fronds for chopping, seeds for grinding, or stems for salads, and stem and fronds for poaching fish. They were the only herbs happy all year round in front of my restaurant in Social Circle, Georgia, in 1970 and beyond, reproducing wildly, tall and stately, their arms stretched out with spokes and seeds. Whatever I did, it was making the fennel happy. It was the catalyst for many of my recipes, including Fennel Bread, a favorite. The chances of replicating my former restaurant garden’s abundance now is pretty low, since it is a pot garden, but I’ll be happy with enough variety of herbs to cook all year long and some seeds to store for later use. And the kitty will be pleased with some catnip, assuming I plant it high enough so she doesn’t sit in it first thing, unknowingly destroying it like she did last year. 

Author's front door with herbsChances are there won’t be enough room to please us both with all we want, but we’ll be happy with what herbs we can get provided kitty and I can each have a place to sit in a patch of sun with a few birds to sing to us.

Editor’s Note: The Herb Society of America is grateful that Ms. Dupree will be presenting at The Society’s annual meeting of members in Charleston, SC, this week.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author.


Head shot of Chef Nathalie DupreeKnown as the “Queen of Southern Cooking,” Nathalie Dupree is a best-selling author of 15 cookbooks and her wisdom and recipes have been featured in Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, Southern Living, Coastal Living, Better Homes and Garden, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping. A beloved and respected teacher, she has appeared in more than 300 television shows on The Food Network, PBS, and The Learning Channel. She won James Beard Awards for “Southern Memories” and “Comfortable Entertaining,” as well as her most recent book, “Nathalie Dupree’s Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She was also honored with the prestigious “Grand Dame” of Les Dames d’Escoffier.