HSA Webinar: Breeding Better Herbs

by Peggy Riccio

dillAs a Virginia home gardener and herb enthusiast, I grow many of my culinary herbs from seed at the beginning of the summer and I purchase a few tropicals. I have my staples, simple names such as pineapple sage, lemongrass, lemon verbena, basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley. Of course, the garden is littered with the perennials: sage, lavender, rosemary, oregano, knot marjoram, thyme, germander, yarrow, chives, and lovage. All of them have stories; their useful properties have been known for generations.

Some of them also have stories that speak about a better trait, be it flavor, cold hardiness, or fragrance, but more specifically, the story is about the person who discovered that trait and introduced it to the market. Serendipity often played a major role but so did the craft of vegetative propagation (i.e., stem cuttings). In time, these “better” plants themselves became stories about the people who discovered them. 

Rosemary Collection by Chrissy MooreSome of the well-known stories involve better rosemary plants. The cold-hardy ‘Arp’ cultivar was discovered by Madalene Hill, who managed Hilltop Herb Farm in Texas. While visiting family in Arp, Texas, she noticed a robust rosemary plant blooming in January and took cuttings. Years later, Cyrus Hyde, owner of New Jersey herb nursery Well-Sweep Herb Farm, noticed a sport, a naturally occurring mutation, on one of his ‘Arp’ plants. He propagated the sport, which was more compact with greener foliage, and named it ‘Madelene Hill’. Today, ‘Arp’ and ‘Madelene Hill’, also known as ‘Hill Hardy’, are some of the most cold hardy rosemary plants on the market. 

Theresa Mieseler, owner of Shady Acres Herb Farm in Minnesota, introduced ‘Shady Acres’ rosemary, known for its outstanding culinary properties. Of the plants she was growing, she noticed one that stood out with dark green leaves, an upright growth, and excellent fragrance. She propagated the plant via stem cuttings and sent a sample to a laboratory. The chemical analysis proved ‘Shady Acres’ to be exceptional for cooking because the foliage had a low percentage of camphor essential oil but high percentages of pine, rose, and rosemary notes.

Mentha Jim's Candy Lime by Piper ZettelJim Westerfield, owner of an Illinois bed and breakfast, was an amateur breeder who loved mints. By cross pollinating mint varieties, he produced more than 50 hybrids with interesting names and flavors such as ‘Iced Hazelnut’,‘Jessie’s Sweet Pear’,‘Marshmallow Mint’, and ‘Cotton Candy’. It took Jim seven years to produce one of the only patented mints, ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon Mint’, named after Hillary Rodham Clinton. His mints live on through trademarks and patents and are only available at Richters in Canada and Fragrant Fields in Missouri. 

Lately, others are seeing the value in herbs, especially fresh herbs. The pandemic caused an increase in gardening, a reason to cook from home, plus more time to watch cooking shows. With that came an increased interest in herbs. Baby boomers like me grew up with dried herbs in jars, but now millennials and Generation Z expect potted fresh herbs in the produce section.

sweet basil (2)Now, instead of serendipity playing a role, companies are intentionally breeding for “better” traits. Driving this is consumer demand of course, but in the world of culinary herbs, consumers can be just about anyone from field growers, hydroponic growers, grocery stores, nurseries, seed companies, gardeners, and non-gardeners who just want to buy a fresh basil plant for the kitchen counter. I talked with many seed companies, university researchers, and growers to learn what traits they were interested in and why. I learned who was focusing on certain herbs, which herbs have a lot of possibilities for our market, and new herb cultivars that will be available to the public. Join me in this behind-the-scenes look at efforts to improve your herb garden as well as expand your staples of plants.  

Join Peggy Tuesday, June 21 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Breeding Better Herbs. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $7.50 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

Photo Credits: 1) There are many types of dill now since it is a very versatile herb that is also used in floral arrangements (Peggy Riccio); 2) Rosemary collection at the National Herb Garden (Christine Moore); 3) ‘Jim’s Candy Lime’ mint hybrid (Piper Zettel); 4) Basil is the top selling, most commercially important herb crop in this country that has been hard hit by downy mildew (Peggy Riccio)


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.

HSA Webinar: Female Poisoners

by  Sarah Penner

The_Love_Potion by Evelyn De Morgan_public domainSherlock Holmes said it best in the 1945 movie, Pursuit to Algiers: “Poison is a woman’s weapon.” It’s a statement not without evidence – historical records tell us that female poisoners were prevalent. Throughout England in the 18th and 19th  centuries, the largest population of accused poisoners consisted of wives, mothers, and female servants, between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. Motives ranged widely; grudges against employers, the removal of inconvenient spouses or lovers, death benefits or the inability to financially support a child.

As I state in the historical note at the back of The Lost Apothecary, death by poison is an intimate affair; an element of trust generally exists between victim and villain. Easy access to both victims and poison cannot be underestimated when considering the prevalence of historical women poisoners. Think of the household roles common for women before the 20th century: a fatigued mother, a betrayed wife, the caretaker of a convalescent, begrudged cooks or servants. These roles permitted women not only intimate access to members of a household, but to an array of food and drink, medicine, even pest control toxins. Women have always been closest to the victim and the victual.

And let’s face it: women simply evoke less suspicion. Who really believes a young, sheepish housemaid capable of killing her prosperous employer? 

Poison, when done right, leaves no trace: no wound, no evidence. This would logically appeal to a female killer who, fearing she may be physically weaker than a man, needs to avoid a direct confrontation. Said another way: poison lets a woman be sly about things. 

A_Glass_of_Wine_with_Caesar_Borgia_-_John_Collier via wikimedia_public domainArguably the most well-known historical female poisoner is Giulia Tofana, an Italian woman who lived in the mid-17th century. She invented the concoction known as Aqua Tofana, which contained arsenic, lead, and belladonna. It was colorless and tasteless and therefore easily mixed with food or wine. Aqua Tofana was an especially cunning poison because it did not kill the victim immediately, but rather multiple doses were necessary, giving indication that a patient grew ill over a period of days or weeks. 

Giulia Tofana was known to frolic with apothecaries, hence her strong knowledge of toxins and their uses. She sold her famous concoction to women who wanted to escape their abusive or inconvenient husbands. Ultimately, under torture before her death, she confessed to killing 600 men.

I’m often asked if Giulia Tofana inspired the apothecary poisoner in The Lost Apothecary, and the answer is no. I centered my research around English poisoners in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I didn’t learn about Giulia Tofana until well after the book had been written. 

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Sketch_of_Circe,_1911-1914Still, there’s a reason I was drawn to the idea of women poisoners and, more importantly, the ways that women sought agency in a historical sense. The Lost Apothecary is an exploration of women rebelling against the patriarchy and exerting power in one of the only ways available to them. Prior to the mid-20th century, leaving a marriage or household employment due to abuse or betrayal was not really an option. It meant poverty, homelessness, physical abuse, even legal repercussions. In The Lost Apothecary, I propose an alternative: don’t leave, just get rid of the man. I provide a few (fictional) examples of this, such as a young housemaid seeking vengeance on her employer, or a disgruntled wife whose husband is having an affair, or a sister who discovers that her brother intends to kill their beloved father.

The Lost Apothecary takes place in 1791. The late 18th century was an ideal time to set a book about an apothecary poisoner, because it wasn’t until the mid-19th  century that early toxicologists were able to reliably detect poison in human tissue. In bills of mortality prior to this time, poisoning homicide is little more than a footnote. Yet after this science came to fruition, poisoning deaths skyrocketed. Coincidence? No. People had always used poison to seek vengeance, but these deaths were chalked up to other causes. Further proof that poison really is the perfect murder weapon, at least two hundred years ago.

One of the characters in The Lost Apothecary says it quite succinctly: A killer need not lift her long, delicate hand. She need not touch him as he dies. There are other, wiser ways: vials and victuals. 

Leave it to the women to find a way to kill a man without so much as touching him.

Female poisoners_Sarah Penner webinarJoin Sarah Tuesday, May 10 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Unburying the Secrets of The Lost Apothecary. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

Photo Credits: 1) The Love Potion, by Evelyn De Morgan (public domain); 2) A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia, by John Collier (public domain); 3) Sketch of Circe, by John William Waterhouse (public domain); 4) Sarah Penner and The Lost Apothecary (courtesy of the author).

BOOK REVIEW – The Artisan Herbalist by Bevin Cohen

by Karen O’Brien

ArtisanHerbalist_CatBevin Cohen is living the dream. Quitting his corporate job, he decided to live small and simple. And it looks like he made the right choice – he’s doing what he loves and teaching others to take small steps to be more independent and sustainable.

His latest book, The Artisan Herbalist, is a well-composed book, just the right blend of background information (including folklore and history) and the how-to component of making teas, tinctures, and oils at home. Even a well-seasoned herbalist would find the historical perspective and current use of herbs informative. He describes in detail the thirty-eight plants he finds to be most useful. Some can be foraged, some can be cultivated, and some you would need to purchase. 

Whether you live in a rural area, suburban tract, or even in the city, Bevin gives simple but detailed advice and easily understood steps and tips to craft your own herbal products. Basic recipes are included for salves, balms, and lotions, and he explains how they are different.

The book is both concise and practical, yet charming and visually appealing. Each of the herbs he discusses has wonderful photos, interesting footnotes, and practical advice. He ends the book with solid information on starting a business, from dealing with licensing and health boards to labeling and marketing your product. Bevin is living life as he wants it to be, and we are all beneficiaries of his quest to bring you to your own wellness journey.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Bevin Cohen

Open laptop with hands typing, with coffee, notebook, and pens nearbyIntroducing the Herbs Online Learning Experience

HSA is launching a new online course with Bevin Cohen, a self-paced introductory course on growing and using herbs. It includes 12 lessons, 3 hours of video instruction and demonstration, quizzes, handouts and a certificate of completion. Registration opens on Saturday, April 16th!

HSA Webinar: Tea Gardening with Camellia sinensis

by Christine Parks

White flower and 2 green leaves in a white tea cup with a blue border, on a dark blue tableclothMany gardeners are surprised to learn that Camellia sinensis is the most popular camellia in the world. And most tea drinkers in the U.S. have no idea that tea is made from the leaves of a camellia. Like them, I enjoyed tea for decades without giving a second thought to its origin. All I knew was that Golden-tips came from Assam, Genmaicha from Japan, and Red Rose Tea from the grocery store. I got my daily dose of caffeine from coffee and drank as much herbal tea (tisanes) as traditional caffeinated teas. Flash forward 25 years, I’ve given up on coffee and become intimately involved with tea – a relationship grown, both literally and figuratively, through gardening.

Much has been written about herbal tea gardening. I have several of these books, along with various texts on herbal medicines, and an older favorite from my grandmother’s bookshelf, The Herbalist by Joseph E. Meyer and Clarence Meyer (1934). But my own introduction to tea gardening began with Camellia sinensis after moving to North Carolina with my husband, David, when he came home to run Camellia Forest Nursery. Founded in 1979 by his mom, Kai Mei Parks, the nursery started as a small mail order operation built on his dad’s collection of Camellia species and breeding program. 

At first, I didn’t know much about Camellias (just like tea) but soon came to appreciate the diverse flowers of Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. It was their close cousin, Camellia sinensis, though, who stole my heart. While the nursery had grown and sold tea plants for decades, it was my first (and only) trip to China to adopt our daughter that ignited my fascination with tea. While visiting Hangzhou, home to Longjing (Dragonwell) tea, I was amazed by the national tea museum and discovered the qualities of a really fine tea. As we welcomed our daughter home, I fell head over heels into tea and knew how I wanted to spend the rest of my life – tea gardening! 

A basket of fresh tea leaves and three white flowersIn 2005, we started our first tea garden here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina—including our Camellia Forest favorites—varieties that grow well and are proven to be cold hardy (having survived -15°F in 1985), along with one-of-a-kind tender accessions from his father’s collection (including Assam-type plants and close relatives), and new plants from other North American sites, China, and Korea. Every five years since, we’ve started a new garden, trialing selections from the last along with new acquisitions. 

Our expanded plantings have given us plenty of leaf to process, and I’m exploring which plants are best for the different tea types—white, green, oolong, and black. When I started, practical information on tea processing was limited outside the tea industry. I’ve studied the many types of processed tea, learning what variables contribute to their flavors and aromas. I’ve also met many generous tea lovers who come to share their favorite teas and taste teas made from Camellia Forest leaf. I am learning, sip by sip, which qualities delight and how to achieve them.

Camellia Forest Tea Gardens has grown from a collector’s and hobby garden to a community space for learning, sharing tea, and growing new friendships. Since the beginning, the garden was intended to be a place where people can learn about growing and making tea. We regularly host interns and volunteers, tours, and students in classes designed to empower and inspire gardeners. I also wrote the book I wished I had when I was starting: Grow Your Own Tea (Timber Press, 2020). My current intern, a student in agricultural education, has developed our volunteer program. Recently, we have begun creating content for Patreon to share our story and help support the garden and our educational mission; not everyone can visit for in-person classes, but all are welcome to join our gardener’s membership and learn alongside us here at Camellia Forest! 

Close up of two young green leaves and a bud from the tip of a bushAny long-term relationship takes effort, and sometimes I have to ask myself, Why do I love growing tea? One of my favorite reasons is that tea gardening requires slowing down to meet the rhythm of the plant over the years and seasons. Fourteen hundred years ago, tea traveled alongside Buddhism to Japan and Korea—a perfect pairing. The relaxing qualities imparted by L-theanine, together with the stimulating effects of caffeine, support focused attention. Harvesting and processing tea by hand can be a timeless and meditative activity. Tea aroma is especially pleasurable, even intoxicating, as the leaves travel from garden to teacup—plants in the sunshine, freshly plucked leaf, and the aromas that develop with processing. Last, but not least, bees love tea (flowers)! 

I’m looking forward to presenting a guide to tea gardening for The Herb Society of America, which will include plenty of “how to.” Thanks for letting me share my personal “why.” 

Join Christine Wednesday, March 23 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Grow Your Own Tea. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author

African American Plant Medicines of the South Carolina Sea Islands

By Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mitchell’s original blog post was featured in April, 2020, in anticipation of The Herb Society of America’s Annual Meeting of Members, which was postponed due to COVID-19. Below is an updated version of Dr. Mitchell’s post, who will now be speaking at the April, 2022, Annual Meeting of Members in Charleston, SC. For more information, please visit The Herb Society of America’s web site.

[A root doctor] told us that he had been born with a special knowledge of healing and had studied the science of herbs from the time he was a small boy. Some of the herbs he uses in his mixtures are Golden Seal, Yellow Dust, Golden Thread, Hippo Foot, Pink Root, Lady Slipper, Yellow Root, Blood Root, Rattlesnake Master, Black Snake Root, and John the Conqueror.

Georgia Writer’s Project, Drums and Shadows; Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, 1940

Gullah slaves painting circa 1790The South Carolina and Georgia coast, which was settled in the 1670s, is one of the oldest parts of the United States. Worked by enslaved West Africans who came to be known as the Geechee or Gullah, for centuries Sea Island plantations growing cotton, rice, indigo, and other crops produced massive wealth for white plantation owners. Today, Hilton Head, Kiawah, and other Sea Islands are known for their resorts, recreation, and high-end vacation housing.

Map of the Sea Islands, South CarolinaThe Sea Islands have a uniquely resilient African heritage that distinguishes them from other African American communities. There are several reasons for this. Prior to Emancipation, Sea Island slave plantations were typically large and had hundreds of enslaved Black people and very few whites. In addition, long after the legal end of the slave trade in 1808, traders continued to bring enslaved Africans to the islands. Finally, separated by salty creeks and marshes from the mainland, the islands were geographically isolated for more than two centuries. In some cases, connecting bridges weren’t built until the 1950s. The result was that the coastal islands from South Carolina to the upper end of Florida were home to tightly knit Black rural communities that had their own unique culture. These Gullah communities lived close to the land, working the fields, catching oysters, fish, and shrimp, and keeping alive religious, linguistic, healing, and other traditions from their African ancestors.  

The Gullah people were mostly unknown to the outside world until the first Union soldiers arrived in South Carolina during the Civil War. In fact, some of the first spirituals that captivated northern listeners were sung by freed Gullah people. Then, in the early 20th century, the Sea Islands and other Black communities caught the attention of academics who were keenly aware that the oldest of the formerly enslaved people were dying, and with them many folk traditions. These early writings are a good source of stories and songs, despite often reflecting a distressingly demeaning attitude toward the Gullah people themselves.

Cover of Hoodoo Medicine bookWhen I made my first trip to the Sea Islands in 1971, I was awed by the breathtaking, tropical beauty of the land and the water and the sense of community among the Gullah people. Although people were poor by material standards, they were rich culturally and spiritually. 

At the time, there were few doctors on the more remote Sea Islands, so on one of my trips, I decided to find out if there were traditional medicines that people used and, if so, what they were. What I learned resulted in my book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies.

Practices described in Hoodoo Medicine include using elderberry tea to treat colds, mud to cast bone breaks, and tree leaves to draw out headaches. Healing properties were also attributed to mint, Spanish moss, gum tree leaves, and much more. Some of the plants and roots people described to me were introduced from Africa or Europe, while others are plants that were first used by the American Indians. Local people distinguish between what they call good and bad “roots” medicine. “Good roots” is the use of plants, mud, and other natural materials with healing powers. Meanwhile, “bad roots” is the use of natural materials – plants, blood, bones, candles, feathers, and more – for magical purposes, akin to voodoo. Even though “hoodoo” sounds like “voodoo,” my book is about good roots! 

Botanical illustration of a cotton plant and flowerGullah healing practices remain relevant today for people interested in new pathways to health. In fact, sales of Hoodoo Medicine took off during the Covid pandemic. And fortunately, there is strong interest among Gullah descendants themselves in preserving their unique history and culture.

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) Gullah slaves, circa 1790 (freemaninstitute.com); 2) Sea Islands, South Carolina (GoogleMaps.com); 3) Hoodoo Medicine cover art (Faith Mitchell); 4) Cotton flower/plant (Gossypium hirsutum) botanical print (Public Domain).

References

Allen, William F. Slave songs of the United States. 1867). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000029312436

Davis, Henry C. Negro folk-lore in South Carolina. The Journal of American Folklore. 27, no. 105 (1914): 241–54. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/534619

Parsons, Elsie C. Folk-lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina. Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society. 16 (1923). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101068189925


Picture of author Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.Dr. Mitchell has a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to Hoodoo Medicine and a supernatural thriller, The Book of Secrets, Part 1, she has written or edited numerous policy-related publications. For more information and to purchase her books, visit Dr. Mitchell’s website.

The Path of the Artisan Herbalist

by Bevin Cohen

Wintergreen plants with red fruitsI began my herbal journey as a young teenager, living with my grandmother in a small apartment on the edge of town, where the city’s manicured lawns met the uneven wildness of the forest. In this forest, I spent a great deal of my time growing up amongst the bracken fern and mighty willows, and it was here that I first encountered Gaultheria procumbens, the American wintergreen.

A chance encounter with this low-growing, evergreen shrub led to a life-long fascination with the seemingly immeasurable bounty of Nature’s flora. If this small patch of the forest could be home to such a diverse collection of mosses, herbs, ferns, trees, foliage, and fruits, then what wonders might the rest of the world have to offer? Over the years, this fascination evolved into a near obsession as I frantically studied the many plants around me, their habitats, histories, and uses as both food and medicine. Today, my family and I are comfortably settled into a young homestead and sustainable herb farm in Central Michigan, affectionately named Small House Farm. Once again, I find myself on the edge of the forest, yet just a short drive from the trappings and conveniences of a nearby city. Small House Farm is named as a reflection of the size of our home and as a symbol of our philosophy; it is here that we seek a smaller, slower, and more intentional life.

Forest, ferns, a trail and wooden bridge over a creekIn the years since my first cup of wintergreen tea, I’ve come to understand that although Nature’s gifts are plenty, they surely are not inexhaustible. It is our responsibility as herbalists and stewards of the land to teach and to practice sustainable systems; systems that work in tandem with Nature’s cycles, systems that recognize Nature’s gifts not as commodities to be taken and consumed, but as partners, allies, with which we must learn to work together. The relationship between man and nature must be reciprocal because man and nature are, in fact, the same.

When New Society Publishers approached me with an offer to write an introductory-to-herbalism style book for their Homegrown City Life series, I naturally approached the project from the perspective of a small batch, handmade, hyperlocal, relationship-based herbalism. My third book, The Artisan Herbalist, was born.

IMG_1408An artisan is a highly-skilled craftsman that produces something in limited quantities, often using traditional methods. Just as the artisan baker endeavors to procure the finest flours for their creations, and the artisan cheesemaker lovingly crafts high-quality cheeses from the freshest local kinds of milk, the artisan herbalist adheres to these same principles of quality craftsmanship and traditional methodology. The hands-on, small-batch philosophy of the artisan allows for responsible consumption, never taking more than is needed and always focusing on producing the best possible products with the materials readily available.

Through my work I always strive to demonstrate to the beginning herbalist, and remind the experienced, that everything that we may need is always just beneath our feet and that with a bit of exploration, we’ll find that our gardens, parks, fields, forests, and even the kitchen spice rack are home to a cornucopia of herbal allies eagerly awaiting the opportunity to work with us. Herbalism on this scale is a possibility for all, whether we live on a spacious country estate, deep within the urban jungle, or nestled in a peaceful, suburban neighborhood.

In today’s frantically fast-paced, consumer-driven world, it is perhaps the pursuit of herbal knowledge that will lead one to a lifetime of contentment. A quest for healthy relationships with the plants in one’s own bioregion, working towards the critical balance required to sustain our very existence and gaining independence from a lifestyle of production and responsible, limited consumption is the only reasonable path forward. This is the path of The Artisan Herbalist.

Bevin_withsquashJoin Bevin this Tuesday, February 15 at 1pm Eastern and learn how to create teas, salves, balms, and tinctures using herbs that you can grow in your own backyard. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

 

Photo Credits: 1) Gaultheria_procumbens (Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova via Wikimedia Commons); 2) Lush forest (Max Pixel, Creative Commons); 3) Small batch salves (courtesy of Bevin Cohen); 4) Bevin Cohen (courtesy of Bevin Cohen)

 

Bay Laurel – Herb of the Month, Herb of Achievement

By Maryann Readal

Bay laurel as a small treeBay laurel, Laurus nobilis, The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February, has been a symbol of achievement, power, and victory from early Greek and Roman times until our present day. The origin of laurel as a symbol rests with Apollo and his love for the nymph Daphne. Unfortunately, the love was not mutual and at her request, the gods turned Daphne into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo’s advances. Apollo loved the laurel tree and decided to use it as a sign of achievement. The Greeks called the bay laurel tree Daphne.

Early Olympic Game winners were awarded laurel garlands, and Greek poets and musicians wore laurel wreaths. Romans adopted the symbolism and crowned their emperors with leaves of laurel. To this day, the crowns of some European monarchs incorporate the laurel leaf.

An early belief was that the laurel tree was fireproof and could deter lightning strikes. Therefore, laurel trees were planted near doorways or sprigs of laurel were hung in doorways to prevent fire. Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal said, “neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where bay tree is” (Mieseler, 2009).

Today, we use terms such as poet laureate and Nobel laureate, both describing someone who has achieved a high honor in their field. We are familiar with the phrase “resting on one’s laurels,” which means that someone who has achieved much can rest on their achievements and need not do more. “Our word baccalaureate comes from the custom of crowning young doctors of medicine with laurel leaves and berries, bacca lauri,” notes Theresa Mieseler (2009). Laurel branches are still used as a part of graduation ceremonies in some colleges and universities worldwide today. A laurel wreath is awarded to the winner of the Grand Prix. You will also see the laurel wreath on coins and on the emblems of nations. Its symbolism is meaningful.

The Victorians adopted the laurel as a symbol of never-ending love. My own wedding ring is a circle of laurel leaves, which I did not realize the significance of until researching for this article. The bay laurel motif has also been used in architecture. This herb is a part of our culture without us even realizing it.

Cultivation
Laurus nobilis is a plant that prefers a warm climate. It was thought to be native to the Mediterranean area; however, genetic testing shows that its origin is in the Middle East. In my USDA Zone 8b garden, I can grow bay in the ground year round. But to be safe, it should be grown as a container plant, unless you are willing to test it in the ground in zones less than 8.  It is an evergreen tree or shrub depending on how it is pruned, and can reach a height of eight to ten feet or more. It likes full sun or partial shade. It is dioecious, meaning there is a male plant and a female plant, and its small yellow flowers bloom for only a few weeks in the spring.

Bay with small yellow flowersPropagating bay takes patience as it is very slow to germinate and grow. The Herb Society of America’s guide to bay offers a method for propagating bay laurel.

The ASPCA cautions that bay laurel is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Caution is advised when purchasing other plants with laurel in the name, such as mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). These are not in the same family as bay laurel and are poisonous.

Uses
We grow bay laurel as a source of fresh leaves for cooking. It is one of the herbs in bouquet garni and is used to flavor soups, sauces, stews, and roasted meats and fish. It is sometimes boiled in milk or cream to flavor puddings. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay call it a “liaison” herb because it helps to blend flavors together (Mieseler, 2009). It is best used in recipes requiring a long cooking time. The leaf does not soften with cooking and should be removed before serving. California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used as a substitute for bay laurel in cooking; however, its flavor is stronger than Laurus nobilis.

Round-pruned laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein CastleBay laurel branches are pliable and lend themselves to making wreaths. The leaves are also used for potpourri. Many of us remember the old-fashioned way of keeping flour and grains insect-proof by adding a bay leaf or two to the container. The essential oil of bay is used in perfumes and soaps.

Of course, bay has had many uses as a medicine throughout history. A renowned use has been for treating rheumatism. It has also been used in traditional medicines to treat stomach issues, gas, and respiratory ailments.

Recent studies focus on its antiviral and antibacterial properties, particularly effective for treating MRSA (Otsuka, 2008). A recent article in Environmental Chemistry Letters hypothesizes that a possible reason for a lower incidence of COVID mortality in southern Italy may be due to extensive forests containing bay laurel. The emission into the air of immuno-modulating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in bay laurel are suggested as a reason (Roviello, 2021).

For more information and recipes for bay laurel, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February. The Society’s Guide to Bay also contains information about this herb.

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) Bay laurel as a small tree (Erin Holden); 2) Julius Caeser (Mithrandire, Creative Commons), Princess Lilian of Sweden (Public Domain), and George Washington (Public Domain) with laurel crowns; 3) World Health Organization flag (Public Domain) and laurel wreath for a graduate student (Archeologo, Creative Commons); 5) Bay laurel in flower (Maksim, Creative Commons); 6) Bay laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein Castle (Reinhold Moller, Creative Commons)

References  

ASPCA. n.d. Bay laurel. Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/bay-laurel

Dyer, M. 2021. Are some bay leaves toxic-learn which trees are edible. Accessed 7/7/21. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/bay/which-bay-trees-are-edible.htm

Gaumond, A. 2021. Essential guide to bay laurel. Accessed 1/4/22. https://www.petalrepublic.com/bay-laurel-meaning/

Kowalchick, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1998. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Mieseler, T., ed. 2009. Bay: An Herb Society of America guide.  Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/1cd1802d-70ea-4fb8-a14b-4f4bb72e2435

Mieseler, Theresa. 2009. Bay earns laurels as Herb of the Year. The Herbarist: 75:27-30.

Otsuka, N. et al. 2008. Anti-methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) compounds isolated from Laurus nobilis. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 31:1794-1797. Accessed 1/10/22. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/bpb/31/9/31_9_1794/_article

Roviello, V. and G. Roviello. 2021. Lower COVID-19 mortality in Italian forested areas suggests immunoprotection by Mediterranean plants. Environmental Chemistry Letters. 19:699-710. Accessed 1/4/22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32837486/


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 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.

Viola Species – Herb of the Month, Herb for the Heart

By Maryann Readal

pansyThe Viola species are the  January 2022 Herb of the Month for The Herb Society of America and also the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year™ for 2022. Heartsease (Viola tricolor) is one of the species in this group of herbal plants. This little unassuming flower has symbolized love, death, and rebirth since Roman and Greek times. During those early days, it was believed to be an aphrodisiac and was also used to treat heart conditions. Hence, one of its many names was heartsease.

The little flower has inspired poems, plays, and even books, many of them dealing with love issues. Roman mythology tells us that Eros struck a viola and caused the flower to smile. Cupid worshiped heartsease, making Aphrodite so jealous of the little flower that she turned it from white to tricolored.

In Shakespeare’s play, Midsummer Night’s Dream (ca 1595), heartsease is a catalyst as the comedy unfolds. Shakespeare tells us that Cupid, the god of love, aiming his arrow at a vestal virgin, hits a delicate white flower called love-in-idleness (Viola tricolor). The flower turns to purple, and from it comes a juice that is a love potion. When placed on the eyelids, the juice makes one fall in love with the first creature he or she sees.

Heartsease Edwin_Landseer_-_Scene_from_A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream._Titania_and_Bottom_-_Google_Art_Project

In the play, Oberon orders Puck to fetch the flower so that he can play a trick on his lady, Titania. He drops juice from the flower on her eyelids while she is sleeping. The first creature Titania sees when she awakes is a donkey, and falls in love. Oberon, fortunately, was able to reverse the magic spell on Titania, and Titania sees the donkey for what he was—a donkey. Other couples in the play are matched by using the viola juice on the eyelids trick. Lovers are reunited because of the love potion from the little flower of heartsease.

It was believed that heartsease could cure the effects of illicit love too, which resulted in what some countries called the French disease, also known as syphilis. John Gerard (1545-1612) and Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), both herbalists and physicians, prescribed heartsease as a cure and as a pain reliever for syphilis, although it was not a common practice at the time (Watts, 2007).

Heartsease, also known as wild pansy, is the ancestor of the colorful pansies that we plant in our spring gardens. The story is that if you put pansies under your pillow, new love will find you. If you plant pansies in a heart shape and they thrive, your relationship will thrive as well.

Heartsease is a common European wildflower. It may reseed itself in your garden. For more information about Viola species please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for January and the March 2021 Herb Society blog article about it.

I leave you to ponder a poem about heartsease and lost love by C. Day Lewis. Lewis was a popular young poet in the 1930s.

The Heartsease

Do you remember that hour
In a nook of the flowing uplands
When you found for me, at the cornfield’s edge,
A golden and purple flower?
Heartsease, you said.
I thought it might be
A token that love meant well by you and me. 

I shall not find it again.
With you no more to guide me.
I could not bear to find it now
With anyone else beside me.
And the heartsease is far less rare
Than what it is named for, what I can feel nowhere.

Once again it is summer:
Wildflowers beflag the lane
That takes me away from our golden uplands,
Heart-wrung and alone.
The best I can look for, by vale or hill,
A herb they tell me is common enough—self-heal.

 

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) Pansy heart (Maryann Readal); 2) Scene from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (Edwin Landseer, Wikimedia Commons); 3) Viola tricolor (Muriel Bendel, Wikimedia Commons) 

References

Lewis, C. Day. 1992. Complete poems of C. Day Lewis. “The heartsease.” London. Accessed 12/2/21. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Shakespeare, William.  ca1595. Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Accessed 11/30/21. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/midsummer/full.html

Watts, D. C. 2007. Dictionary of Plant Lore. San Diego: Elsevier Science & Technology. Accessed 12/2/21. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Wells, Diana. 1997. 100 flowers and how they got their names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.


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 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.

Four Thieves Inspire Flu-Fighting Soup

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society

Originally published on January 30, 2019

flu-soupLast winter the urgent care center diagnosed me with the flu, and I’ve never been quite as sick as I was for that month. I spent several days in bed and used all sorts of herbal remedies to support healing. Daquil/Nyquil just made me feel worse and went straight into the garbage.

I started with homemade bone broth. Herb and spice-spiked chicken broths are well known to promote the movement of nasal congestion and are thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. I felt better with every bowl I ate, proving the old adage: Let your food be your medicine.

For a powerful immune-boosting soup I took cues from the Legend of the Four Thieves. In this story, aromatherapy, herbal, and alchemical worlds collide and take on mythical proportions. The legend takes place when the bubonic plague hit Europe and killed a large percentage of the population.

flu-woodcutSupposedly, four thieves from Marseilles were robbing plague-ridden corpses without getting sick. They are thought to have been perfumers with access to and knowledge of essential oils, herbs, and spices.

At their trial, the King offered the thieves leniency in return for the formula that protected them from the plague. Their list included lavender, sage, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, eucalyptus, rosemary, thyme, onion, mustard seed, cloves, oregano, and lemon.

While the legend has never been confirmed and their recipe is interesting, all of the herbs and spices (except eucalyptus) read like a delicious and immune-boosting chicken soup recipe to me, so into the stock pot they go. If I’m lucky enough to have fresh stinging nettles, I’ll add them in as a mineral rich bonus.

To serve, I top each bowl with whole basil leaves, hard boiled eggs, a dash of Himalayan salt, and a squeeze of fresh lime. I can’t help but feel better with every bowl I eat. Legions of Jewish and Asian grandmothers absolutely knew what they were doing.

Another application of the legend is a Four Thieves spray. I make it with white wine vinegar and essential oils — lemon, lavender, cinnamon, clove, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and eucalyptus. My formula is three cups of vinegar and 20 drops of each oil.  To use it, I shake well and spray countertops, cellphones, and other surfaces.

These same oils can also be diffused in an essential oil diffuser. Likewise, mixed into a body cream or lotion, eucalyptus oil, lemon, sage, and lavender oils (no more than three drops of each oil!) make a soothing, aroma-therapeutic chest rub.

Edited to add: In this era of Covid-19 and flu season, if you find yourself in need of immune support, treat yourself to soothing herbal self-care and pampering.

Nicole TelkesTo learn about other herbs that can help keep you healthy during cold and flu season, join Nicole Telkes for her webinar, Supporting Immunity with Herbs, on November 16th at 1pm EDT. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit  www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/.

Photo Credits: 1) Healing herbal soup; 2) Apotheycary’s Shop by Hieronymus Brunschwig (1450-c.1512); 3) Nicole Telkes (courtesy of Nicole Telkes)

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.

Carob – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

Minolta DSCHave you heard of St. John’s bread or locust bean? These are all names for the carob tree, Ceratonia siliqua. This herbal tree is a native of the Mediterranean region and is also grown in East Africa, India, Australia, and California. It can grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9-11 – places with dry, Mediterranean-type climates. Carob is disease and pest resistant, tolerates dry, poor, rocky soils, and is drought tolerant due to a very deep taproot (125 feet) that enables the tree to survive in arid climates. It is in the pea family (Fabaceae), and like other members of this family it fixes nitrogen, improving the fertility of the soil in which it is planted.

Carob is a multi-stemmed, evergreen tree that can reach 50 feet high and 50 feet wide, and its broad, dark green leaves make it a good shade tree. It is mostly a dioecious tree, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The flowers grow from the old, woody bark along the branches. Only the female trees produce fruit, starting when the tree reaches 8 years of age; however, fruit for commercial production begins when the tree is 20 years old. A mature tree can produce up to a ton of fruit in one season. The fruit is a sword-shaped pod that can grow to 12 inches long. When the pod turns from green to brown, it is ground into a powder and roasted. The result is used as a substitute for cocoa powder and flour. The seeds are a bit larger than watermelon seeds and are used to make locust bean gum, a food additive that thickens and stabilizes foods like ice cream and salad dressings.

History

The carob tree has a 4,000-year history of use. Some say that the tree is a survivor from a now-extinct group of the Fabaceae family (Loullis, 2018). Because carob seeds are fairly uniform in weight, ancient jewelers used the seeds for weighing gems and gold. One carob seed was the smallest weight for a diamond, giving the name “carat” to the measurement. Egyptians used carob to bind the wrappings of mummies and used it to make beer. They also treated wounds and eye conditions with it.

There are several biblical references to the use of carob. Its name, “St. John’s bread,” refers to St. John the Baptist being sustained in the desert by eating “locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4). Locusts were mistakenly (some say) thought to be carob pods (Gardner, 2012). It was nutritious and easy to digest, and so porridge was made from it and fed to the elderly.  Because there was so much available and could be easily stored, it was a significant part of the diet of poor people during biblical times. 

carob, Nevit DilmenCarob pods discovered in the storehouses of Pompeii show that the Romans were harvesting the tree as early as 79AD. The Romans ate the carob seeds for their sweetness. The Greeks used carob pods as fodder for their pigs and food for their people.

In 1854, the U.S. Patent Office imported 8,000 carob trees from Spain and sent most of them to California. A profitable crop was not able to be produced from the trees so they were used for landscaping instead. In a prescient statement in 1914, Santa Barbara Agricultural Commissioner, C.W. Beers, commented that “The day may come when the deserts will be extensive forests of carob trees” (Kauffman, 2018).

The carob tree has been a source of nutrition during times of war and famine when supply chains of basic ingredients were interrupted. It was a lifesaver for many during the Spanish Civil War. It was the “chocolate of occupation” during WWII and was used as a substitute for flour and coffee. It has been considered to be the food of the poor, and was food for domestic animals. At one time, singers chewed the pods believing that it cleared the throat and voice.

Current Uses

Even today, carob has an amazing number of uses—from medicines, food for humans and animals, photographic film emulsions, adhesives, paints, inks, and polishes, and even cosmetics. Its wood is prized by wood craftsmen and also makes good charcoal. Italians use the seeds for rosary beads. The nutrients in carob have made it a health food staple, as it is high in fiber and natural sugars and is also a low-fat, no caffeine substitute for chocolate. Medicinally it’s used as both an anti-diarrheal and a mild laxative.

Recent research shows that carob powder is a rich source of the antidiabetic compound D-pinitol, a type of sugar. D-pinitol can decrease blood sugar levels and prevent obesity by suppressing the increase in human adipose tissue. In addition, the polyphenols in carob fiber have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation in some cancers (Loullis, 2018).

My favorite story about carob comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

One day, Honi the Wise Man was walking along the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, ‘How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ The man answered, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi replied, ‘And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?’ The man answered, ‘Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees (Vamosh, n.d.).

Carob is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November. More information about the tree along with recipes and a beautiful screensaver can be found at https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Carob tree (Pedro Servera); 2) Male carob flowers (Erin Holden); 3) Female carob flowers (Rick J Pelleg); 4) Carob seed pods (Nevitt Dilman); 5) Carob candy (Relivate)

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

Carob. (2010). In Leung’s Encyclopedia of common natural ingredients: Used in food, drugs, and cosmetics by Ikhlas A. Khan and Ehab A. Abourashed. 3rd ed. Hoboken: Wiley. (Online through Ebsco)

Carob-the black gold of history. (n.d). Accessed 9/28/21. https://cretacarob.com/en/blog/news/to-charoypi-o-mayros-chrysos-tis-istorias/

Gardner, Jo Ann. (2012). The everlasting carob. The Herbarist. Issue 78, 2012. 

Kauffman, Jonathan. (January 31, 2018). How carob traumatized a generation. The New Yorker. Accessed 9/28/22. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/how-carob-traumatized-a-generation

Loullis, Andreas, Eftychia Pinakoulaki. (2018). Carob as cacao substitute: a review on composition, health benefits and food applications. European Food Research and Technology. Springer. Accessed 9/27/21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-017-3018-8

Vamosh, Miriam Feinberg. (n.d.) Food at the time of the Bible. Israel, Palphot Ltd. 

Vamosh, Mirium Feinberg, (n.d.) Carob trees, the Bible, and righteous gentiles. Accessed 9/28/22. https://miriamfeinbergvamosh.com/carob-trees-the-bible-and-righteous-gentiles/

What is carob? (n.d.) Carobana Confectionary. Accessed 9/20/21. https://carobana.com.au/carob.html


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’sTexas 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.