How Hot Is It?

By Carol Kagan

Hot pepper-V GardenNot the weather – that PEPPER! Although we usually get heat here, in Pennsylvania, and typically, plenty of it all at once, we speak here of chile peppers.

Your taste buds are craving salsa, so it’s time to check those peppers growing in the back garden. There are many varieties of “hot” peppers in various lively colors, but just how hot are they? We turn to the Scoville Scale for the answer.

Developed by chemist Wilbur Scoville, the scale is a way to measure and assign the hotness of peppers by measuring the capsaicin (cap-say-ah-sin) content. How do you measure a Scoville Heat Unit? To measure a pepper’s capsaicin concentration, a solution of the chile pepper’s extract is diluted in sugar water until the “heat” is no longer detectable to a panel of tasters. A rating of 0 Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) means that there is no detectable heat. The test’s reliance on human tasters, and the fact that plants grown in different conditions may be hotter or sweeter, makes the scale basically good for comparisons only. Regardless of the rating, use caution when handling or eating hot peppers.

So here goes, a listing of some of the most popular types are below. You can find the Scoville Scale on the Internet for a more complete listing.chart

Counter-Attack for the Burn

Capsaicin is an alkaline oil. Thus, water and alcohol don’t help alleviate the burn because they won’t dissolve the oil; they only spread it around. Acidic food or drink may help neutralize the oil. Try lemon, lime, or orange juice, cold lemonade, or tomato drinks (but not a Bloody Mary–see above).

Dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, sour cream, and ice cream are acidic and are considered helpful. Additionally, according to Paul Bosland, New Mexico State University Regents Professor and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, “It turns out that milk has a protein in it that replaces the capsaicin on the receptors on your tongue. It’s really the quickest way to alleviate the burning feeling.” Eating carbohydrate foods, such as bread or tortillas, may also help by absorbing some of the oil. Chew these but don’t swallow right away for the greatest benefit. (Did you know that most hot-chile-eating contests provide bowls of powdered milk and water to participants?)

For skin irritations (You mean, you weren’t careful?), wash off the oil with soap and warm water. Dry and repeat if needed. Remember, capsaicin is an oil and can be spread to other parts of the body by touching. Also, wash all utensils and cutting surfaces with soap and water after use to avoid spreading the oil.

chile peppers and glass of milk

For an upset stomach after eating hot peppers (yes, they make their way through eventually), try drinking milk–the more fat content the better–or eating carbohydrate foods such as bread and crackers. Sleep or rest in an upright or slightly inclined position to prevent heartburn and acid reflux.

Benefits of Capsaicin

Paradoxically, capsaicin’s knack for causing pain may make it helpful in alleviating pain. National Institute of Health research supports the topical use of capsaicin for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis by lowering sensitivity to pain. Look for over-the-counter creams and plasters containing capsaicin.

Research continues on many other possible benefits, including in cancer treatments, for anti-inflammatory use, weight loss, and lowering cholesterol. Another benefit of capsaicin is that the burning sensation causes actual pain, which releases endorphins. These are the pleasure chemicals also released during exercise. Perhaps eating hot peppers is a lazy person’s substitute for running and time at the gym!

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) Chile pepper (Carol Kagan); List of peppers (Carol Kagan); Glass of milk with chiles (American Chemical Society).


Herb Sampler 2nd ed coverCarol Kagan is the author of the Herb Sampler, a basic guide about herbs and their wide variety of uses. She has been active in herbal organizations for over 40 years, designing and maintaining herb gardens and providing docent services at a variety of historic properties. She is a member of The Herb Society of America and the American Public Gardens Association. Carol is also a Penn State Extension Master Gardener in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and is Co-Coordinator of their Herb Demonstration Garden.

Celery Seed – The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

smallage flowersCelery seed comes from a variety of celery that is different from the celery (Apium graveolens) we see in grocery stores. The seed comes from an ancestor of celery called smallage or wild celery. The smallage variety is native to the Mediterranean area and the Middle East and is grown in India, China, and France specifically for the harvesting of its seeds.  The seeds are very small: 760,000 seeds make one pound. They have an aromatic, earthy smell, and a flavor that has a touch of spiciness. The seeds are used whole in brines, pickles, and marinades and in salads like coleslaw and potato salad. They can be added to breads, soups, and dressings, thus giving a celery taste without the bulk of fresh celery stalks. The seeds are used in French, New Orleans Creole, and other cuisines around the world. They are also ground and mixed with other spices to create unique herbal blends like Old Bay Seasoning, celery salt, Products containing celery seedCajun seasonings, etc.

These tiny seeds pack a lot of punch when it comes to nutrition. A teaspoon of the seed has only 8 calories and 0.5 grams of fat. They supply 0.9 milligrams of iron per teaspoon which is 11% of the daily requirement for men and 5% for women. Celery seed supplies trace amounts of zinc, manganese, and phosphorus, too. According to the late Dr. James Duke, an American economic botanist, ethnobotanist, and author of The Green Pharmacy, the seeds contain at least 20 anti-inflammatory properties. He credited his robust life to the celery seed being among his “baker’s dozen” of essential herbs. The seeds also contain coumarins, which help in thinning the blood. This component of celery, as well as its anti-inflammatory properties, has been the subject of recent research, but its effectiveness in treating humans still needs to be investigated. Celery seed is sold as a dietary supplement in many natural-foods stores and other stores specializing in natural remedies. It is available as an extract, as fresh or dried seeds, and celery seed oil-filled capsules.

It is said that celery was first cultivated for medicinal purposes in 850 BC. Ayurvedic physicians throughout history have used the seed to treat colds, flu, water retention, arthritis, and liver and spleen conditions. Celery was considered a holy plant in the Greek classical period and a wreath of smallage leaves was worn by the winners of the Nemean Games, which began in 573 BC. The Greeks also used it to create the wine they called selinites, while the Romans used celery primarily for seasoning. The Italians domesticated celery and developed a plant with a solid stem and without the bitterness of smallage. Thus began the development and popularity of the Pascal celery that we find in grocery stores today.

Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray SodaDr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda is a celery flavored soda that is made from celery seed. This celery inspired soda has been around since 1868, when it was developed as a tonic that was touted to be “good for calming stomachs and bowels.” It paired well with salty, fatty foods, like pastrami, and became popular in New York’s Jewish delicatessens and with Eastern European immigrants whose cuisines already included fermented botanical beverages. Dr. Brown’s is being noticed again as healthy botanical drinks become more popular. Author Stephen King once said “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”

Oil is extracted from celery seeds to make “celery oil,” which can be added to colognes, perfumes, and soaps. A few drops of the essential oil can be added to water in a spray bottle or a diffuser for use as an effective mosquito repellent.

Some say that celery was an herb associated with death, and that a garland of smallage leaves was placed around King Tut. Some evidence of this association with death later occurred in a Robert Herrick (1591-1674) poem titled:

To Perenna, a Mistress

“DEAR Perenna, prithee come

and with smallage dress my tomb:

And a cypress sprig thereto,

With a tear, and so Adieu.”

Celery is a biennial plant, producing flowers and seeds in the second year of its growth. The flowers are white umbels similar to parsley blooms. It must have a relatively constant temperature of around 70 degrees and a lot of water and nutrients to grow. It needs a long growing season and does not tolerate high heat or frost. This would be a very difficult combination of requirements for me to grow celery in my southern Zone 8b garden! Seeds of the smallage variety of celery can be purchased online, if you are interested in trying your luck in growing celery for the seed and leaves. The stalks of smallage tend to be bitter.

As with using any herbal medicinal products, a health professional should be consulted. Allergic reactions and interactions with medications you may already be taking can be a danger to your health. Celery seed is not recommended for pregnant women.

For more information about celery seed, recipes, and a screen saver, please go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/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.

References

American Botanical Council.HerbClip: Interview with Botanist Jim Duke.” April 30, 1999. http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbclip/155/review42307.html

Crowley, Chris. “Celery Forever: Where America’s Weirdest Soda Came From and How It’s Stuck Around.” Serious Eats.  August 2018. https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/10/dr-browns-cel-ray-celery-soda-history.html

Foodreference.com. “Celery History.” http://www.foodreference.com/html/celery-history.html

Kerr, Gord. “Celery Seed Extract Side Effects.”. https://www.livestrong.com/article/369362-celery-seed-extract-side-effects/   August 19, 2020.

Tweed, Vera. “4 Amazing Uses of Celery Seed.” Better Nutrition. September 2019.

Photo Credits: 1) Smallage flowers (Britannica Encyclopedia online); 2) Assortment of products containing celery seed (Maryann Readal); 3) Dr. Brown’s soda (Beverage Direct).


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

A Bit about Bitters, Part II

By Erin Holden

Welcome to Part II on herbal bitters! For a little background info on what bitters are, why we taste them, and where we taste them, see Part I posted on 2/17/20. It’s a worthwhile read, but not necessary if you just want to jump in with this article.

Historical Uses: Egyptian medical papyri from as far back as 2650 B.C. mention bitter herbs, such as frankincense, myrrh, aloe, and wormwood, being macerated in alcohol. Knowing now what we do about bitters, it’s reasonable to think some of these concoctions were used for stomach ailments that call for bitters today. Fast forwarding a bit, we find the origins of the famous Swedish Bitters in the mid 1700s. Considered a universal medicine, it contained, among other herbs, aloe, saffron, rhubarb, gentian, and myrrh. Another common ingredient was theriac, a “composite” medicine consisting of up to sixty-four vegetable, animal, and mineral parts. Several of these – caraway seed, ginger, angelica root, and fennel to name a few – are still used in contemporary bitters formulae.

In Cocktails: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention bitters as they are used in cocktails. Many countries, such as Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, have “the tradition of consuming an Range_of_Cocktailbittersherbal, bittersweet liqueur as an aperitif or digestif”, to either stimulate or aid digestion before or after a meal (Parsons, 2011). However, during the 1850s in the United States, the temperance movement, along with high taxes on potable alcohol (alcohol consumed as a beverage), forced these types of drinks to fall out of favor, and led to the increased popularity of stomach bitters, a nonpotable alcohol (so not subject to the same taxes). Unfortunately, many unscrupulous companies began making outlandish claims for their products, forcing the federal government to step in and lay down restrictions. This, along with Prohibition in 1919, knocked bitters off the U.S. map for a good long while.

DandelionIn Food: Many countries that traditionally partake of alcoholic bitters also have a history of harvesting and consuming bitter spring greens. Plants such as burdock, dandelion, and cresses pop up early in the spring, and their bitter leaves not only helped stimulate digestive systems turned sluggish from a winter of consuming preserved foods, but provided much needed vitamins and minerals. Additionally, many bitter plants are anthelmintic, meaning they help kill intestinal worms. It gives new meaning to the term “spring cleaning!”

Bitters Today: Building on a long history of use, herbalists today suggest bitters for a variety of digestive disturbances – from dispelling gas, increasing bile production and secretion, to supporting healthy blood sugar regulation. As stated in Part I, though, bitters are produced by plants for defense, and as such can be pretty powerful. Always consult a trained herbalist first if you’re considering taking bitters.

Regarding their use in cocktails, herbal bitters have taken off in recent years. I remember when Angostura Bitters were all I could find, but within just the past few years, my local liquor store has started offering many more brands and flavors. Trendy bars have also taken to concocting their own special house bitters, and books are being written on the subject.

Bitter Herbs: The list of bitter herbs is a long one, so I just wanted to highlight a few. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is most famous for its role in the liqueur Absinthe; itsWormwood_shoots by Eddideigel common name comes from its use in killing intestinal parasites. Cinchona (Cinchona spp.) is the botanical source of quinine, the widely used antimalarial agent. Gentian (Gentiana lutea), the archetypal bitter, is a main ingredient in most commercially available cocktail bitters, including Angostura Bitters. Some plants that don’t have an overt bitter flavor, such as fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and ginger (Zingiber officinale), are also sometimes classified as “bitters” by herbalists due to their therapeutic action on the digestive system.

Thanks for sticking with me through this rather long “intro” into herbal bitters. If this topic tickles your fancy, I highly recommend the following resources: two books on bitter foods and cocktail bitters, with recipes, and a fascinating paper on the history of Swedish Bitters. The book by B.T. Parsons is available for checkout to members from the HSA library for the cost of shipping.

Ahnfelt, N. & Fors, H. 2016. Making early modern medicine: Reproducing Swedish Bitters. From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for the History of Science; 63(2): 162-183.

McLagan, Jennifer. 2014. Bitter: A taste of the world’s most dangerous flavor, with recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press.

Parsons, B.T. 2011. Bitters: A spirited history of a classic cure-all. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

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


Erin Holden is the gardener for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of The Herb Society of America.

 

 

A Bit about Bitters, Part I

By Erin Holden

From grapefruit to coffee to arugula – lots of plants are bitter. And while some people will cross the street to avoid a bitter veggie, others can’t seem to get enough. Why is this? Join me on a two part journey as I delve into the science and use of one of nature’s most divisive flavors.

The What: How do you define a bitter? If you’re a chemist, they’re structurally unrelated compounds that, well, taste bitter. If you’re an herbalist, bitters are plants that are used for their therapeutic effect on the digestive system. And if you’re a bartender, bitters are aromatic flavoring agents made from various plant parts to enhance the taste of a drink. Based on these definitions it’s easy to see that bitters fulfill many roles in our lives. But why can we taste bitter to begin with?

The Why:Rat poison The main reason plants create bitter compounds boils down to one simple thing: defense. Since plants can’t run and hide from predators, they devised their own chemical defense system – the first instance of chemical warfare, you could say. When an insect bites into, say, a broccoli plant, it gets a mouthful of glucosinolates, sulfur containing compounds that are toxic to insects and rodents, and gross to some people. Plants see us as essentially giant rodents that want to eat them, and create a wide variety of nasty tasting compounds to deter us from doing so. In turn, since some of these compounds not only taste bad but can also kill humans, we evolved taste receptors to detect them, therefore potentially skirting death.

The Where: So, where exactly do we have these taste receptors? I’m sure many of you learned the “flavor map” of the tongue in school, like I did, which outlines where we can detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter (poor umami got left out on that one). Well I’m here to tell you, that map is bunk! It’s based on the misinterpretation of a graph from 1942, that plotted out areas of relative sensitivity of the tongue to the various flavors. Later on, low areas of sensitivity were mistakenly interpreted as having no sensitivity, leading to the incorrect map we’re all familiar with today. All flavors can be detected across the whole tongue, the back of the roof of the mouth, and the epiglottis. Other research has suggested that while areas of the tongue do show varying levels of sensitivity to the five known flavors, these differences are not significant (Wanjek, 2006).

Taste_buds

Photo Credit: MesserWoland

Having taste receptors on the tongue is no surprise, but you may be surprised to learn bitter receptors have also been found in the brains, airways, gastrointestinal tract, testes, and pancreas of various mammals (including humans). This leads back to WHY? The prevailing hypotheses boil down to the same thing – protection. If our airways are full of bacteria that are producing bitter compounds, our cough response is triggered, so we cough up and expel the offending invader. If an ingested bitter toxin makes its way to our guts, it’ll essentially trip the “abandon ship” alarm, causing our body to purge itself of the potential poison in unpleasant ways.

I’ll stop there with that thought. Keep an eye out for the follow-up, where I’ll talk about the historical uses of bitters, their role in herbal medicine, and mention some specific bitter herbs.

Wanjek, C. 2006. The tongue map: Tasteless myth debunked. Live Science. From Livescience.com. Accessed January 31, 2019. Available from https://www.livescience.com/7113-tongue-map-tasteless-myth-debunked.html on 1/31/2019

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


Erin Holden is the gardener for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.

 

 

 

The Better Part of (Herbal) Wisdom

By Chrissy Moore

Spend any time with me and you’ll learn quickly that I am a “waste not, want not” kind of person, and that includes food. I have been known to push the envelope with expiration dates–tempting fate, if you will–only occasionally experiencing unpleasant consequences. Not that that’s good practice, mind you, but before you cast the first stone, tell me that you have never ever strategically removed that tiny spot of green on that otherwise perfectly good hunk of cheese in your refrigerator! I thought so.

Recently, I was making a pot of soup, the ingredients for which I had purchased the previous weekend in anticipation of the cooking session. When it came time to throw in the fresh spinach, I noticed that some of the leaves looked a bit dodgy, but decided to risk it. Why? Because that’s just what I do in my personal culinary (mis)adventures. What’s the worst that could happen?

Historical advertisement for castor oil laxative

Historical advertisement for castor oil laxative

I didn’t eat the soup that day, but did have a few spoonfuls as part of the tasting/seasoning process. No harm, no foul…well, until later that night. I was starting to feel a wee bit off, but didn’t think much of it until I was going through my nightly ablutions. The gastric distress came on suddenly with little warning, but, admittedly, it wasn’t the worst I had ever experienced. I skated by on that one. Was it the soup? Maybe the spinach was more “mature” than I originally thought. Or maybe it was the seafood I had the previous night at the restaurant. Either way, I wasn’t about to throw out a whole pot of perfectly good soup on circumstantial evidence. So, in the name of science, I made to find out for sure by eating a small amount of soup for dinner the following day and awaited the results.

While lying in bed that night anticipating the tell-tale signs of digestive misgivings, my mind wandered to herbs with strong purgative properties. (Isn’t that what you think about in the middle of the night?) When people tell me something is “natural” or invoke Mother Earth as if she is some benevolent, gentle grandmother, my first reaction is, “Pff! You have seen National Geographic, haven’t you? ‘Mother Earth’ will kill you in a heartbeat!”

Rhamnus_purshiana_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-121

Rhamnus purshiana

In that same vein, purgative herbs, such as Rhamnus purshiana (cascara), if not used properly, can produce severe side effects. Castor oil, extracted from the seeds of Ricinus communis, is another purgative remedy known for its unpleasant, though highly-effective laxative properties. As with cascara, castor oil can cause harmful side effects if not used properly. When contemplating herbal remedies, you should always keep in mind–and remind others who may try to sweet-talk you with herbal accolades–that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or gentle. The proper respect should always be paid to herbs, no matter their use, and it is always the better part of wisdom to consult a professional before tinkering with herbs’ powerful properties.

The same wisdom should probably be applied to dodgy soup, too.

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.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.  She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.