Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Indigenous Garden

by Erin Presley, Olbrich Botanical Gardens Horticulturist

A narrow stone path through tall squash, corn, and milkweed, with a rustic sapling trellis.Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a 16-acre, free admission public garden in Madison, Wisconsin, in the heart of the ancestral lands of the Ho-Chunk people. The Ho-Chunk, or “People of the Sacred Voice” historically lived in southern Wisconsin, from the far southwestern corner of the state along the Mississippi River nearly up to Green Bay. This is fertile land with rolling hills and scenic bluffs where the Ho-Chunk lived in permanent villages. In fact, their oral tradition simply states, “We have always been here.” 

The area around Madison, known as Dejope or “Four Lakes,” is especially significant for the Ho-Chunk because of its abundant fresh water and resources. This land proved equally attractive to white settlers, and the Ho-Chunk were forcibly removed and Madison’s extensive lakeshore was quickly developed. In the early 1900s, Madison attorney and philanthropist Michael B. Olbrich recognized how private development would soon limit everyday people’s access to the lakes, and in 1921, he purchased over half a mile of Lake Monona shoreline property. He envisioned a sweeping park with gardens, a respite from busy workaday life, allowing everyone to be nourished by “something of the grace and beauty that nature intended us all to share.” Over the decades, additional property was purchased and consolidated within the city of Madison’s park system, and the first gardens were developed starting in the 1950s.    

A group of people in a garden listening to a presentation.Especially in Olbrich’s Herb Garden, it’s vitally important that we grow, show, and interpret plants that all types of people identify with. Herb lovers know that edible plants can act as a universal language, uniting people and making them feel at home across cultural borders. In this spirit, the Herb Garden has hosted many creative collaborative gardens over the years. Most recently, an Indian-style garden created with owners of an Ayurvedic spa oozed tropical flair with ginger and turmeric, eggplant, bitter melon, and elephant ears. 

Our partnership with Ho-Chunk tribal members began in 2020 as we brainstormed with Indigenous chefs and food activists, community organizers, and university professionals and students to envision an interactive Indigenous Garden. A walk through the “Three Sisters Living Tunnel” would invite guests to immerse themselves in dangling beans and towering corn and sunflowers. An integral part of the project would involve fun activities to draw in community members and give everyone a taste of Ho-Chunk culture.

We started with a literal “taste” when we hosted two milkweed soup samplings in summer 2021. Not many people know that the unopened flower buds of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, are edible! Ho-Chunk people celebrate them as a seasonal food known as mahic (maw-HEENCH), collected in bud before they open and turn pink, and incorporated into a brothy soup with green beans, ham or bacon (optional), and, arguably, the best part—tiny dumplings. 

Our interns foraged for milkweed buds, carefully scouting for and avoiding buds that already had tiny monarch eggs clinging to them. Once picked, the buds are soaked in salt water to clean them and to leach some of the milky latex before making the soup (see recipe below). The sample sessions were a hit with over 300 people served and great conversations wafting through the garden! A woman told us how she missed the sound of the Ho-Chunk language since her husband of many years, a Ho-Chunk man, had passed, and came hoping to hear the language spoken. A veteran related his visit to France to honor the graves of Ho-Chunk soldiers he had fought with. And, a 20-something Ho-Chunk guy from the neighborhood popped in just saying, “Hey, cool, I saw on Facebook you were serving mahic!” 

A garden sign with the English and Hoocak words for various plants.We also wanted to highlight the endangered Ho-Chunk language, since there are only 200 fluent speakers and only 50 are the older people who grew up speaking Ho-Chunk. At Olbrich, we are lucky to have on our staff Rita Peters, a 24-year-old college student of Ho-Chunk and Menomonee descent. Rita, known as Xoropasaignga (hodo-pa-SIGN-ga) or Bald Eagle Woman, is at the heart of the Indigenous Garden. She does everything from sowing seeds and harvesting sweetgrass to developing events and educational seminars. Rita worked with her aunt, a language apprentice, to create bilingual signage that even links to a YouTube recording of the words being spoken aloud. Here is the link to the video: Ho-Chunk language plant name recording from Olbrich YouTube channel

We had a hot summer, so with occasional irrigation, the garden grew to unimagined heights! The sunflowers topped out at 16 feet, with Ho-Chunk red flint corn—sourced from the Ho-Chunk Department of Natural Resources—not far behind. As harvest season approached, we planned for our fall celebration, a drop-in sweetgrass braiding activity. 

Sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata, is a fine textured, running grass that likes moist conditions in full sun. It is difficult to contain in most garden situations, so commercial growers or hobbyists typically grow it in raised beds, but at Olbrich, we have a large colony that inhabits our rain garden. The bluish green leaf blades grow to about 12 inches long by mid-June and carry an intoxicating fragrance reminiscent of vanilla. The grass is harvested and dried, then made into baskets or braids. Sweetgrass, known as cemanasge (CHAY-ma-nas-gay), is used ceremonially in Native cultures, but it is also appropriate for anyone to carry in a more everyday fashion. A sweetgrass braid is always made with good intention and then can be carried in any place that benefits from an infusion of positive energy, protection, and fragrance! So, we were able to teach people to make their own braid and also to show off the fruits of our harvest. 

Two women with large black containers full of picked sweetgrass blades.As winter approached, we carefully saved seeds for the Indigenous Garden in 2022. Our milkweed soup day in early June attracted more than 330 guests! This year we are extending the Garden’s reach by collaborating with Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, the biggest employer of Indigenous people in our area. We hope that partnerships like these will create an ever-growing network as Olbrich continues to focus our efforts on ensuring that everyone feels at home in these beautiful gardens here in Dejope. 

To learn more about the Indigenous Garden check out these additional links:

PBS Wisconsin recording of Indigenous Garden presentation by Erin and Rita

Media coverage from local TV station

MILKWEED SOUP:

Ho-Chunk people celebrate the foraging season for common milkweed flower buds, known as mahic in the Ho-Chunk language. The mahic is cooked up into a delicious brothy soup with other vegetables and tiny dumplings!

Prep the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca):

Pick milkweed flower buds prior to flowering before they turn pink, usually around mid-late June. Once they turn pink they become bitter. Only take about one fourth of the buds to leave plenty for butterflies. You can use the buds and the tiny top set of leaves.  Wash well, then soak in salted water for at least half an hour, rinse, and drain.  Milkweed can be frozen for use later in the year. 

Prepare the soup:

A woman ladling green milkweed buds into a stainless steel colander.Use equal parts of water or broth and milkweed flower buds.  You can add other vegetables (green beans, corn, carrots) or ham/bacon.  Bring broth to a boil and add milkweed or other veggies.  Simmer for 30-40 minutes until milkweed and veggies are tender.

Dumplings:

Dumplings or gnocchi are a fun addition!  Small dumplings can be made with a pinch of water mixed with a pinch of flour and rolled into a small dumpling about the size of a fingernail.  Toss individual dumplings into the soup as it simmers and cook 20 minutes until the middle of the dumpling is cooked. 

Photo Credits:1) Indigenous Garden exhibit at Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Herb Garden; 2) Visitors learning about the Indigenous Garden; 3-5) Green milkweed flower buds on the plant, picked, and prepared as soup; 6) Interpretive sign with English and Hooca̧k words for various plants; 7) Three sisters (corn, beans, and squash); 8) Ho-chunk red flint corn; 9) Tall sunflowers; 10) Sweetgrass harvest for braiding workshop; 11) Rita makes mahic, milkweed soup. All photos courtesy of the author.


Erin Presley left her heart at Olbrich Botanical Gardens while interning there in 2005.  After earning a B.S. in Horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison she gardened for nearly a decade in the private sector before returning to Olbrich in 2014, where she manages the Herb, Woodland, and Pond Gardens. In addition to teaching at OBG, Erin loves talking about plants and collaborating with herb societies and master gardeners. She has appeared on the PBS series Let’s Grow Stuff and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Garden Talk, and is a contributor to the print and online content of Fine Gardening magazine.

The Least I Can Say about Texas’ Native Bees

by Vicki Blachman, South Central District Member at Large

Honey bee on a yellow flowerThere are over 20,000 bee species in the world.  Of those, close to 4,500 are considered native to the U.S., and up to 1000 are native to Texas (I typically say “over 800”). They’re currently classified into seven families, of which six are represented in Texas. Our native bees range in size from nearly an inch long down to smaller than a peppercorn. I’ve tried to limit the scope of this article to the least I can say given that “the native bees of Texas” is a broad topic well suited to the size of our state.

As for that iconic golden yellow and black striped honey maker, the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is non-native but well established. As described by Michael Engle in 2009, it also appears to have at least one extinct ancestor (A. nearctica) that lived in North America 14 million years ago. Our challenge is that those hairy-eyed honey bees get all the love, and only recently have natives been recognized for their intrinsic value to local biomes and as the workhorses they are. Their PR needs our help.  

Bumblebee on a pink flowerHow many people even know native bees exist? They’ve pollinated every single flowering plant in North America until the 1600s when the honey bee was imported. They’re considered at least three times as effective as honey bees for pollination. Some pollinate plants that honey bees can’t, or pollinate certain crops up to 20 times more effectively. Some, like the bumble bee, are capable of buzz pollination, a technique that honey bees lack. The takeaway? Our native bees have co-evolved over time with native plants to be mutually beneficial and mutually dependent – lose one and the other will be lost as well.   

The terms “native” and “solitary” are often used interchangeably, but not all native bees are solitary, nor are all solitary bees native.  A solitary bee will mate, deposit and provision her eggs, then continue laying eggs until her death four to eight weeks after her own emergence.  Those eggs are left alone to grow and pupate, before emerging the following spring or early summer to repeat the cycle all over again.  It’s often said each solitary bee is her own queen.

By contrast, our native bumble bees are said to be social or semi-social, having the presence of two generations in a single nest at the same time.  Honeybees are called eusocial, or “true” social, due to multiple generations of individuals present, each individual having a specific role to play in the collective hive.

There are solitary bees that are non-native, bees and bee products having been imported freely until a 1922 Honey Bee Importation Law was passed. But that legislation applies to honey bees; solitary bees, which do not produce honey, continue to be imported for research and subsequent commercial use. For example, hornfaced bees (Osmia cornifrons) were first imported from Japan to Utah in 1965, but did not survive. In 1976, they were imported again into Maryland where they still thrive in a climate more like that of their home in central Japan.  The delightfully named shaggy fuzzyfoot bee (Anthophora pilipes villosula) even more recently has been imported from Japan as a managed species for commercial blueberry and other fruit pollination.

Green hollow stem of Oenanthe crocataSome solitary bees will form aggregations where nesting conditions are favorable. While a large number of individuals may be found using the site, only a very few species are actually communal, meaning they actively help each other. Dependent on their environment, the family Halictidae even has the unusual ability to switch between being social or solitary!  

The vast majority of native bees are ground nesting.  Some make cells of mud, bits of leaves or petals, resin, hairy plant fibers, wood dust, cellophane-like secretions applied with their tongues, or silk-like secretions from thoracic glands. These are placed in tunnels in the ground, abandoned rodent burrows, hollow reeds, bamboo, logs, pithy stems, softwood structures, and even holes in bricks or other man-made items such as hand tools and equipment.

Greenish halictid bee on a purple flowerWhile man-made bee houses may have benefits, in order to avoid predation and reduce susceptibility to disease they should be scattered about the site rather than clustered together.  Bee houses should have a guard of chicken wire, or other material with bee sized holes, across the opening to prevent predation by birds. The openings should face the sun in the morning and have protection from rain and insulation from extreme cold if they’re not placed inside to overwinter.  Under the Texas Death Star, it can also be beneficial to have plants growing nearby that provide afternoon shade. Habitats should also include a source of moisture and shelter from wind.  In the fall, “leave the leaves”, as well as stems and grasses, for shelter.

In closing, I repeat the takeaway I’m certain many of you already knew.  Our native bees have co-evolved over time with native plants to be mutually beneficial and mutually dependent – lose one and the other will be lost as well.   

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/bees.shtml

http://w3.biosci.utexas.edu/jha/landowner-naturalist/texas-pollinator-guides

https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_diversity/nongame/native-pollinators/bumblebee-id.phtml

https://bugguide.net/node/view/475348

Photo Credits: 1) Apis mellifera (Ivar Leidus via Wikimedia); 2) Bumblebee (Niek Sprakel, public domain); 3) Osmia cornifrons (Beatriz Moisset via Wikimedia); 4) Cellophane bee emerging from its ground nest (NY State IPM Program at Cornell University); 5) Hollow stems provide nesting sites to solitary bees (Alex Lockton via Wikimedia); 6) Buzz pollination by a halictid bee (Bob Peterson via Wikimedia)

Herb of the Month – Lemon Balm – Medicine for the Plague and the Blues

by Karen Cottingham

20220731_183255Lemon balm, that delightfully lemony herb, has been used medicinally for centuries. The many beneficial properties of Melissa officinalis were recorded as early as 300 BCE by Theophrastus in his great work on natural history, Historia Plantarum. In a later compilation of useful plants, De Materia Medica (50-80 BCE), the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote of lemon balm’s ability to “sweeten the spirit”. From that time on, physicians, herbalists, and naturalists from Greek and Roman antiquity, ancient Persia, the monasteries and convents of medieval Europe, the emerging scientific world of Renaissance England, and the newly settled American colonies all extolled the virtues of lemon balm as a reliable remedy for emotional distress and other disorders. 

Avicenna, the great 11th century Persian physician (980-1037), found that “balm makes the heart merry and joyful, and strengthens the vital spirits.”

A century later, Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote that “lemon balm contains within it the virtues of a dozen other plants”. She recommended a tea of lemon balm and fennel fronds, saying that “lemon balm reduces the effects of harmful humours [sic] and prevents them from gaining the upper hand.” 

The 16th century Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was so confident in the medicinal properties of lemon balm that he prescribed it for “all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.” His famous “Elixir of Life,” a miraculous concoction said to revive patients close to death, prevent senility, and cure impotence, depended primarily on lemon balm for its miraculous healing effects. 

Another highly regarded healing elixir was Carmelite Water, first prepared about 1380 by the nuns of the Carmelite Abbey of Saint Juste and still available for purchase. The original formula is shrouded in mystery, having been passed down in secrecy from nun to nun, but was most likely a combination of lemon balm, angelica, nutmeg, and lemon peel infused into wine or brandy. 

Over the years, the ingredient list for this elixir quite remarkably expanded to include orange flower water, lily of the valley, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage, mugwort, lavender, Roman chamomile, elecampane, savory, fennel, sandalwood, great yellow gentian, galangal, bitter orange, green anise, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and/or clove. The one constant, though, was lemon balm; with its reputation for calming a nervous disposition, the heart-shaped lemony leaf was always the featured ingredient. 

For a gloomy mood or a broken heart that needs soothing, Carmelite water can still be purchased or, better yet, made at home. See https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/herbal-carmelite-water-recipe or https://picnicinakeldama.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/carmelite-water-a-herbal-tonic-for-mind-body-and-soul/ for instructions. 

Elderflower_cordial_in_bottles by Jim ChampionThe marvelous reputations of lemon balm and Carmelite Water spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance, where the healing herb and its elixir were particularly admired by the great English herbalists.

John Gerard (c.1545-1612), the English botanist, herbalist, and barber-surgeon, compiled the massive 1,484-page illustrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1597. His assessment of lemon balm echoed his herbal predecessors: “drunk in wine, it (lemon balm) is good against the bitings of venomous beast, comforts the heart, and drives away melancholy.”

Another admirer of Carmelite Water was Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), the English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer. In his 1563 book, The English Physician, (later re-titled The Complete Herbal), he wrote that Carmelite Water “causeth the Mind and Heart to becom [sic] merry … and driveth away al [sic] troublesome cares and thought.” 

Culpeper also added that lemon balm could be used to “open obstructions of the Brain; and hath so much purging quality in it…as to expel those melancolly vapors from the Spirits.” 

Specially designed herbal elixirs were available for every ailment imaginable, including infections. Starting in the 14th century, waves of deadly pandemics spread all over Europe, eventually reaching London as the Great Plague of 1665-1666. Desperate to control these mysterious and devastating outbreaks, physicians, herbalists, apothecaries, and interestingly, housewives devised their own complex versions of protective “Plague Waters.” 

L0014459 Portrait of Nicholas CulpeperAgua epidemica” was a popular Plague Water that included lemon balm, along with masterwort, angelica, peony, butterbur, viper-grass, Virginia snakeroot, rue, and rosemary. All the herbs were infused in spirit of wine and then distilled.

The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion is Eliza Smith’s massive 1727 cookery book. Mrs. Smith included her own version of Plague Water, which also contained lemon balm:

Take rosa folis, agrimony, betony, scabious, century tops, scordium, balm, rue, wormwood, mugwort, celandine, rosemary, marigold leaves, brown sage, burnet, carduus, and dragons, of each a large handful; and angelica-roots, piony-roots, tormentil-roots, elecampane-roots and licorice, of each one ounce; cut the herbs, and slice the roots, and put them all in an earthen pot, and put to them a gallon of white wine and a quart of brandy, and let them steep two days close cover’d; then distill it in an ordinary still with a gentle fire; you may sweeten it, but not much.

You have to admire a housewife, “Accomplish’d Gentlewoman” or not, who had the skills to put this recipe together! And by the way, “dragons” in this Plague Water recipe probably denotes tarragon. To the medieval eye, the roots of tarragon apparently looked like the tail of a dragon, giving rise to its common name “little dragon” as well as its official name Artemisia dracunculus.

plant-flower-summer-food-herb-produce-729961-pxhere.comToday, although we no longer use lemon balm for infections, numerous clinical studies have shown that lemon balm taken in a wide variety of ingested forms relieves chronic anxiety, reduces laboratory-induced psychological stress, and improves sleep quality (Cases, Ibarra, Feuillère, Roller, and Sukkar, 2011). Our modern scientists now concur with what the herbalists and physicians of old had known so well – that lemon balm is an excellent medicine to “sweeten the spirit” and “expel those melancolly vapors”!

For more on the fascinating world of lemon balm and other lemon-scented herbs, please read Karen’s article in the South Texas Unit Newsletter for August 2022  For more information, a beautiful screensaver, and recipes please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month web page. 

Photo Credits: 1) Melissa officinalis (Erin Holden); 2) Avicenna (public domain); 3) Hildegard von Bingen (RichHein via Wikimedia); 4) Cordials (Jim Champion via Wikimedia); 5) Nicholas Culpepper (Wellcome via Wikimedia); 6) Lemon balm cordial (public domain)

References

Cases, J., A. Ibarra, N. Feuillère, M. Roller, and S. G. Sukkar. 2011. Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Med J. Nutrition Metab. 4(3): 211-218.

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.


Karen Cottingham lives in Houston, Texas, but she grew up in a farming community in rural Washington state. After a long career in medicine, Karen now devotes most of her time to sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm for all aspects of herbs. She serves as Program Chair of the South Texas Unit (STU), contributes articles to various STU and Herb Society of America publications, and provides the content for the HSA-STU Facebook page. Karen particularly enjoys introducing herbs to the public through demonstrations at libraries, museums, elementary schools, and public gardens.

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

by Susan Belsinger

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

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

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

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

Parts used: leaves and flowers; mainly seeds

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves and flowers

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves and flowers

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

yellow flowers of fennelFennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves

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

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

 

divided leaves and white flowers of licoriceLicorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Parts used: root

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

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

 

long thin leaves of mexican marigoldMexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida)

Parts used: leaves and flowers

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

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

 

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

Parts used: roots, leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

 

Basic Chemistry

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

close up of dark green basil leaves

Basil leaves

In the Kitchen

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

Fennel_seed by Howcheng via wikimedia

Fennel seeds

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

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

 

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

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

Anise Hyssop and Almond Butter Cookies

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

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

Makes about 5 to 6 dozen cookies

1 cup sugar, preferably organic

1/4 cup anise hyssop florets removed from their stems

1 extra large egg

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached flour

Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

3 ounces almonds, lightly toasted and finely chopped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 









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)