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.

Mastic: Something Herbal to Chew On

By Chrissy Moore

George Arisitidou from Great British Bake-offI fully admit to living under a rock. Many a friend and coworker has informed me of this character “trait.” Because I am not so worldly as others, I learn things by more circuitous routes. For example, my latest herbal discovery resulted from watching a recent episode of The Great British Bake Off. George, one of the bakers, remarked that he was including mastic in his bake. Of course, Paul Hollywood, one of the show’s hosts, commented with raised eyebrow, “A little mastic goes a long way.” George returned fire, stating, “You can never have too much mastic!” Clearly, mastic was near and dear to this Greek baker’s heart.

Unless you’re familiar with Greek cuisine or custom, as I am not, you may not have come across mastic–also known as Chios mastiha–in your comings and goings. But, if you are anything like me, you’d immediately start rooting around for information about this herbal ingredient, like a squirrel for a nut. I’ll save you some digging.

Map of Pistacia lentiscus native rangeMastic is a resin extracted from Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia L. (Chios mastictree, mastic), which is a member of the Anacardiaceae family (GRIN-Global; Browicz, 1987). (Cashew, Anacardium occidentale L., and pistachio, Pistacia vera L., are also members of this family.) This small shrubby tree is native to numerous countries around the Mediterranean, from southern Europe to northern Africa to western Asia (Sturtevant, 1919), but it is most notably—and historically—linked to the Greek island of Chios in the northern Aegean Sea, about nine miles west (the way a crow flies) of the Turkish Çeşme peninsula.

Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, Syros

Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros

It’s so linked to this island, in fact, that the island is referred to as the “mastic island,” since it has been the world’s largest producer of mastic resin for many years (Groom, 1992). “The production of mastic currently amounts to 160—170 tons per annum and plays an important role in the economy of the island Mastic harvesting preparationconstituting the main source of income for approximately twenty villages in the south of Chios” (Browicz, 1987). The trees reach their full height after 40 – 50 years, but harvesting reaches its full potential after 12 – 15 years (FAO, 2021). Similar to frankincense (Boswellia spp.) and myrrh (Commiphora spp.), the mastic harvester nicks the tree bark to produce “tears,” or droplets, of resin, which then harden and are scraped off. These hardened blobs of resin are gathered and taken for processing (masticlife.com).

The resin undergoes some in-house cleaning and processing before it is given to the cooperative, Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA), for grading. Afterward, the graded mastic gum is shipped to and processed by the Union of Mastic Producers, who grinds it into a powder (FAO, 2021). The powdered form can then be incorporated into various foodstuffs, medicinal products (Varro et al., 1988), or left whole for chewing. Mastic is considered an early form of chewing gum, particularly for freshening the breath (Schery, 1972; Simpson and Ogorzaly, 2001; Sturtevant, 1919; Tyler et al., 1988). Currently, the largest importer of Chios mastic is Saudi Arabia, where chewing gum companies have incorporated the tree resin into numerous candy and confectionery products, particularly those of the dietetic variety (Batook, 2021; FAO, 2021).

Greek plants: Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, SyrosIf you haven’t picked up on the etymological relationship by now, translated from the Greek, mastic means “to gnash the teeth,” or in modern parlance, to chew or masticate…an appropriate term for the gummy treasure. Spurred on by the mention of it on The Great British Bake Off, I was on the hunt for this chewy, new-to-me herb. Fortunately, we have a husband-and-wife team of volunteers in the National Herb Garden, who just happened to live in Greece for a number of years. What better resource than these two to probe for information—outside of knowing a native of Chios, of course.

Bottles of mastika and ouzoThey confirmed that mastic was, indeed, a ubiquitous flavoring in parts of Greece, including its use in mastika, a sweet liquor flavored with the resin (something else I had never heard of before) and ouzo, another Greek spirit. They said that you can find mastic gum and Turkish delight-esque candies all over Chios (well, in Greece, generally, and also in surrounding areas), as well as in well-appointed Mediterranean markets, even in the United States. I asked them what it tastes like, and they both hemmed and hawed trying to find the right words to describe its unique flavor. I immediately assumed it would be “pine-y” or “camphor-y” or something of the sort, since it is a tree resin, after all, but they both still hemmed seeming to suggest that it wasn’t exactly that strong. 

Well, what then? What does it taste like? The only remedy for this inquisition was for them to seek out a market near where they live outside of Washington, DC, that might carry some sort of mastic-containing products. And they delivered! The following week, I was handed not just mastic chewing gum, but also mastic jellied candy. The candy was passed around amongst our volunteer group, and those adventurous enough to try plucked out a confectioner’s sugar-covered cube and commenced to masticate.

Mastic jellied candyThey were right: not exactly pine-y, but not exactly anything else either. I moved the candy around in my mouth trying to find words to describe it. Yes, it certainly had resinous, “pine-y” kinds of notes, but it also had a bit of a flowery essence to it. It was certainly unlike what I was expecting. Not nearly as strong as I thought it would be, but also not without character.

Not being particularly chef-y (I’m more of the baking sort), I’ve been trying to imagine what it would taste like in cooked or baked goods. Given that mastic rides that pine-y line, a heavy-handed cook might well overdo it. (Paul Hollywood was not without legitimate concern.) It’s a bit like using rose or lavender in food preparations: too much, and it can veer dangerously close to soap territory. But, used in moderation, it could pair nicely with other herbs/flavors. If you try it, let me know how it turns out!

Picture of Fahrenheit pefumeSpeaking of other herbal uses, mastic is also found in perfumes, personal hygiene products, and medicines. The resin has been used for centuries as a component of incense, particularly for the production of “moscholivano, [which] is a solid essence that, when burned, releases a pleasant odour” (FAO, 2021) and as an ingredient in chrism, the anointing oil used in the Eastern Orthodox Church (and others). In The Perfume Book, Groom says, “In early times the gum was used in pomanders and the oil was used to absorb other plant fragrances in the process of enfleurage. In modern perfumery, the extracted oil is used as a fixative in various perfume compounds; it appears, for example, in ‘Fahrenheit’.” According to Verrill, the resin is used as “a fixative for honeysuckle, lavender, sweet pea, mimosa, and other perfumes” (1940).

Medicinally, mastic has taken on a number of roles over the centuries. In early Greek history, mastic was considered a cure-all in traditional Greek medicine, “relieving the diverse gastrointestinal disorders, such as abdominal pain, dyspepsia, gastritis and peptic ulcer for more than 2.500 [sic] years. More precisely, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galenos, among other Ancient Greek physicians, cited its properties and recommended its use” (CGMGA, 2021). A lengthy paper published by the Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association states,

Toothpastes containing mastic

Toothpaste containing mastic

“Nowadays, it is used as a seasoning in Mediterranean cuisine, in the production of chewing gum, in perfumery, in dentistry, and for the relief of epigastric pain and protection against peptic ulcer. It is of vital importance to mention that solid scientific evidence is constantly being produced regarding the therapeutic activity of Chios Mastiha. Its gastro-intestinal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, and anticancer activity, as well as its beneficial effects in oral hygiene and in skin care are firmly documented…. Mastiha is considered now as a traditional medicine for both stomach disorders and skin/wounds [sic] inflammations” (2019). In the Greek City Times, 12 December 2021, the authors note that studies of mastic’s wide-ranging health benefits are ongoing, merely echoing, perhaps, what thousands of Chios natives have known for centuries. (Some of us are a little slow on the uptake!)

Picture of megilp varnishIf you thought this story was over…not so fast. Mastic has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Mastic is used as a component of dental fillings, in dentifrices, and mouthwashes, helping to knock down pesky bacteria in the mouth. It should also be noted that “thanks to its quality as a colour stabilizer, mastiha is used for the production of high-grade varnishes” (CGMGA), such as those used in oil painting (megilp), and as a protective coating on photographic negatives. Rosin, a by-product of gum mastic’s distillation process, is used in myriad industries as well.

To put an exclamation mark at the end of this herbal story, mastic is certainly not a one-trick pony. On the contrary, I think Paul Hollywood was wrong and George was right: “You can never have too much mastic!” Something to chew on.

Photo Credits: 1) Baker George Arisitidou from Great British Bake Off (radiotimes.com); 2) Nativity map of Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Botanical Museum, Helsinki, Finland); 3) Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros (John Winder); 4) Mastic harvesting preparation (masticlife.com); 5) Mastic resin “tears” (Creative Commons–Ailinaleixo) and mastic resin (Creative Commons–פארוק); 6) Pistacia lentiscus leaves and fruit (John Winder); 7) Bottles of mastika and ouzo (Public Domain); 8) Mastic candy and chewing gum (C. Moore); 9) Mastic jellied candy (C. Moore); 10) Fahrenheit perfume (Public Domain); 11) Mastic toothpaste (ANEMOS); 12) Megilp containing mastic (Public Domain).

References

Batook, Incorporated. 2021. http://www.batook.com/about/. Accessed 16 December 2021.

Browicz, Kazimierz. 1987. Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Anacardiaceae) on Chios Island.
Plant systematics and evolution, Vol. 155, No. 1/4, pp. 189-195. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23673827. Accessed 16 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). https://www.gummastic.gr/en#gkContent. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). 2019. Overview of the major scientific publications on the beneficial activity of Chios mastiha. https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.gummastic.gr//images/brochures/en/Scientific_References_2019_en.pdf. Accessed 15 December 2021.

Greek City Times. https://greekcitytimes.com/2021/12/10/mastic-tree-resin-is-one-of-greeces-most-valuable-products/. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The University of Arizona Arboretum. https://apps.cals.arizona.edu/arboretum/taxon.aspx?id=216. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Forest resource utilisation and management in the Mediterranean. https://www.fao.org/3/x5593e/x5593e03.htm. Accessed 15 December 2021.

GRIN-Global Database. https://npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/taxon/taxonomydetail?id=28647. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Groom, Nigel. 1992. The perfume handbook, p. 142. London: Chapman & Hall.

“Mastic: Cultivation and Processing.” masticlife.com. https://masticlife.com/pages/mastic-cultivation-harvest-production. Accessed 4 January 2022.

Schery, Robert W. 1972. Pectins, gums, resins, oleoresins, and similar exudates, p. 244. In: Plants for man. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Simpson, Beryl B., Molly C. Ogorzaly. 2001. Hydrogels, elastic latexes, and resins, p. 259. In: Economic botany: plants in our world, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sturtevant, Edward. 1919. Sturtevant’s notes on edible plants, p. 440. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, State Printers.

Verrill, A. Hyatt. 1940. Perfumes and spices including an account of soaps and cosmetics, p. 259. Clinton, Mass.: L.C. Page and Company.

Tyler, Varro E., Lynn R. Brady, and James E. Robbers. 1988. Resins and resin combinations, p. 143. In: Pharmacognosy, 9th Edition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lea & Febiger.

Uphof, J.C. Th. 1968. Dictionary of economic plants, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Lubrecht & Cramer Ltd.

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.

Nasty Plants and the Reasons to Love Them

by Erin Holden

Scrunched up faces. Tongues sticking out. Sounds of choking and disgust. Unfortunately this is the usual reaction when I’m finally able to coax someone into trying medicinal herbs. When we move past the more pleasant plants like lavender, chamomile, and peppermint and delve into the deeper waters of herbal medicine, not everything is so user-friendly. Many plants taste bitter, smell like old socks, or even feel slimy. But often, it’s these same nasty characteristics that provide the therapeutic benefits we’re looking for. Let’s take a look at a few plants and see what makes them so “nasty” as well as useful.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Many people may be familiar with the distinctive aroma of valerian root; old socks, wet dog, and horse manure are just a few things to which the odor has been affectionately compared. In fact, the constituent responsible for the smell, valeric acid, is also one of the components that causes swine manure to smell so badly (Chi, Lin, & Leu, 2005). Despite its odiferous qualities, valerian has been used for its sedative effects for over 2000 years. Valerian root is taken to relieve anxiety, promote sleep, and relax gastrointestinal spasms (Braun & Cohen, 2006). Some research shows that another compound, valerenic acid, may mediate anxiety by binding to GABA receptors in the brain, although the exact medicinally active compounds haven’t yet been pinpointed (Benke et al., 2009).  It’s possible that valeric acid also has a role to play, as multiple constituents acting together may account for these effects (Spinella, 2002).

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
marsh-mallow-jcs-althaea-officinalis-54735 from biopix dot comGlycosaminoglycans, the medicinally active polysaccharides found in marshmallow root, have an appropriate abbreviation: GAGs. Mixing the powdered root with water or preparing an infused tea results in a slimy, mucilaginous mess that can be difficult to choke down. But it’s this very sliminess that causes marshmallow to work so well at soothing irritated tissue. Marshmallow is used for coughs, as a urinary demulcent, and for irritated skin. The mucilage forms a bioadhesive layer that acts as a barrier, protecting the tissue and allowing it to heal (Deters et al., 2010). Extracts of the root have also demonstrated antibacterial properties (Lauk, Lo Bue, Milazzo, Rapisarda, & Blandino, 2003; Watt, Christofi, & Young, 2007).

Gentian (Gentiana lutea)
Gentiana_lutea_090705 by Bernd Haynold via wikimedia commonsNo pub or bar would be complete without a bottle of bitters, with Angostura® being among the more popular brands. Although the recipe for Angostura® Bitters is a well-guarded secret, gentian is listed on the label as an ingredient and is likely a major contributor to the bitter flavor. By itself, gentian is considered extremely bitter and has been used as a yardstick when rating the bitterness of other herbs (Olivier & van Wyk, 2013). Bitter compounds in general have been shown to stimulate the secretion of saliva and digestive juices by activating the vagus nerve (Bone, 2003). The active constituents in gentian, gentiopicroside and amarogentin, are no exception.  These molecules account for gentian’s use in improving digestion, increasing appetite, and relieving flatulence (Braun & Cohen, 2006).

Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
Lobelia_inflata_8820er_1586426759 by Paul Rothrock from SERNEC websiteWhat list of nasty herbs would be complete without pukeweed? This alternate common name for lobelia says it all. The emetic qualities of this plant were made (in)famous by Dr. Samuel Thomson in the 19th century. As a boy, Thomson would cause his friends to vomit by tricking them into eating lobelia leaves. Later in life, he founded the Thomsonian medical movement and employed lobelia and its purging properties as his main treatment (Loyd & Loyd, 1930). This unpleasant effect is attributed to lobeline, an alkaloid found in the above ground parts of the plant (Miller & Ruggiero, 1994). Lobeline is also responsible for lobelia’s therapeutic use as a bronchodilator and muscle relaxant (Hanson, 2005). This herb has been taken to relieve asthma, ease tense skeletal muscles, and calm nervous anxiety (Snow, 2009).

As you can see, even though some plants might make you want to “lose your lunch” or plug your nose and run for the hills, we should embrace them as they might be the very thing needed to help us feel better. Perhaps this perspective will help make ingesting nasty herbs a bit easier to swallow.

Photo Credits: 1) Valerian (Morton Arboretum, via Sernecportal.org); 2) Marshmallow (Biopix.com); 3) Gentian (Bernd Haynold, via Wikimedia Commons); Lobelia (Paul Rothrock, via Sernecportal.org)

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

Benke, D., Barberis, A., Kopp, S., Altmann, K.H., Schubiger, M., Vogt, K.E., Rudolph, U., & Möler, H. (2009). GABA A receptors as in vivo substrate for the anxiolytic action of valerenic acid, a major constituent of valerian root extracts. Neuropharmacology, 56(1), 174-181. 

Bone, K. (2003). A clinical guide to blending liquid herbs. St. Louis: Churchill Livingston.

Braun, L. & Cohen, M. (2006). Herbs and natural supplements (2nd ed.). Sydney, Australia: Churchill Livingstone.

Chi, F.H., Lin, P.H., & Leu, M.H. (2005). Quick determination of malodor-causing fatty acids in manure by capillary electrophoresis. Chemosphere, 60(9), 1262-1269.

Deters, A., Zippel, J., Hellenbrand, N., Pappai, D., Possemeyer, C., & Hensel, A. (2010). Aqueous extracts and polysaccharides from Marshmallow roots (Althea officinalis L.): Cellular internalisation and stimulation of cell physiology of human epithelial cells in vitro. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 127(1), 62-69.

Hanson, Bryan A. (2005). Understanding medicinal plants, their chemistry and therapeutic action. New York: The Haworth Herbal Press.

Lauk, L., Lo Bue, A.M., Milazzo, I., Rapisarda, A., & Blandino, G. (2003). Antibacterial activity of medicinal plant extracts against periodontopathic bacteria. Phytotherapy research, 17(6), 599-604.

Loyd, J.U. & Loyd, C.G. (1930). Drugs and medicines of North America, 1884-1887. Cincinnati, Ohio.

Miller, A.D. & Ruggiero, D.A. (1994). Emetic reflex arc revealed by expression of the immediate-early gene c-fos in the cat. The Journal of Neuroscience, 14(2), 871-888.

Olivier, D.K. & van Wyk, B.-E. (2013) Bitterness values for traditional tonic plants of southern Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 147(3), 676-679.

Snow, J. (2009). Materia medica: Lobelia inflata. Personal Collection of J. Snow, Maryland University of Integrative Health, Laurel, MD.

Spinella, M. (2002). The importance of pharmacological synergy in psychoactive herbal medicines. Alternative Medicine Review, 7(2), 130-137

 Watt, K., Christofi, N., & Young, R. (2007). The detection of antibacterial actions of whole herb tinctures using luminescent Escherichia coli. Phytotherapy Research, 21(12), 1193-1199.

 

 

Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

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.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

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.


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

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.