Celebrating the Summer Solstice

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

unnamedOf all the times during the year that we celebrate the changing seasons, I think that two of my favorite days are the summer and winter solstices, two holidays that happen approximately six months apart. Winter solstice eve enchants me; the deep and dark quiet of that long peaceful night takes me inward in a way that encourages me to relax and rest. The summer solstice, on the other hand, is a thoroughly magical and playful day that marks both the longest day and the shortest night of the year.

The summer solstice easily provides an evening that’s perfect for a twilight celebration in the garden, with nothing but the fireflies and candles for illumination. It’s the perfect night to stay up late and bathe in the stars. For those of us who believe that there are indeed fairies living in our gardens, this is the perfect time to bake them little sweet cakes made with milk and honey, covered with candied violas and nasturtium blossoms.

unnamed (3)Summer solstice is the time when we honor the gift of sunlight. The official start of summer for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, this day is celebrated north of the equator all over the world and in so many different ways. It always takes place at this time of the year, falling between June 20th and June 22nd. All around the globe, from Stonehenge in England to the mountains in Austria and all throughout the Scandinavian countries, huge fires are lit with reverence, accompanied by drumming circles, singing, and joyous dancing. This is all done in honor of our beautiful planet and the interconnectedness we share with the fiery star so necessary for our continuing existence here on earth. When the solstice returns, we rejoice in the arrival of long summer days and hot summer nights as we celebrate the warmth and life-giving power of the sun.

Although traditionally the summer solstice is a time that we revel in the first day of summer’s warmth and joy, the most important thing that we do on this day is to begin to get our stillrooms, pantries, and larders ready for the coming winter months. After all, this celebration has everything to do with feasting on the food that we’ve grown and are beginning to harvest to keep us fed all through the coming harsh seasons.

unnamed (2)This is the time of year that my garden is overflowing with butterflies and honeybees, the weather is usually perfect, and I’m generally filled with an overwhelming optimism. Like so many of you, at this time of the year I just can’t stay out of my gardens. I spend the days collecting the rose petals from my roses to make teas, syrups, jams, infused honeys, and linen waters, along with the sage blossoms, lavenders, and mints that are blooming so abundantly in June.

There are so many wonderful rituals associated with the summer solstice. For gardeners like us, this has long been considered the day that is commonly set aside to begin the harvest, as there is a longstanding belief that this is the time when our fresh herbs contain the most flavor and “medicine”. For me, and I know for so many of you, our gardens that provide the herbs for our crafts, medicines, and culinary blends have always been at the center of our seasonal celebrations. Dandelions, pine trees, holly, lilacs, daffodils, snowdrops, pumpkins, corn stalks, and sunflowers are some of the more obvious plants visible to us during the everchanging seasons. However, it is our most useful herbs, plants like parsley, chives, lavender, sage, rosemary, calendula, comfrey, hyssop, thyme, and dill that have traditionally been the stars of the summer solstice celebrations, whether we use them in foods, herbal medicines, or love spells. They are the workhorses of our herb gardens, and they sustain us through every season.

unnamed (4)This is a wonderful day to make some delicious chutneys, jams, or jellies full of sun ripened fruit to capture the light and magic of the solstice energy for those cold long nights in winter when you need a bit of sunshine the most. I love the feelings that run through me when I crack open a jar of my raspberry and rose jam in February to spread on warmed scones with clotted cream and a pot of Earl Grey tea. I can taste the warm sun and the juice of the fresh berries I’ve picked if I just close my eyes for a minute. I don’t think there’s any stronger magic than that.

I traditionally celebrate this day with a small glass of homemade elderflower cordial, as well as strawberry and rose petal infused wine to drink as the longest day of the year draws to a close. I love to light a beautiful fire late in the evening to welcome in the summer months, and I love to do that in the company of my family and closest friends, a mandolin, a fiddle, and a few guitars. 

unnamed (1)Just like the winter solstice, the celebratory nature of the summer solstice  is a terrific excuse to throw a party and it definitely doesn’t need to (and probably shouldn’t!) be a formal gathering. I remember having a terrific solstice gathering on my farm in Burton about 30 years ago. It was set way in the back pastures with a rustic old picnic table set with mixed up patterns of china, old linen, and some beat up old candelabras. We hung lanterns in the trees, and on the tables there were antique blue mason jars filled with wildflowers spilling out everywhere. The grass was high and waving gently in the soft summer breezes, which scented everything with the glorious aroma of sun-warmed hay. Nothing on the table matched and it was absolutely enchanting and wildly beautiful.

The food was simple – fresh pea soup with mint, summer salads filled with fresh herbs, and a really delicious roast chicken with a sweet curry sauce. We drank many carafes of viognier infused with rose petals, raspberries, and basil while my horses and dogs wandered around curiously. For dessert we had drippy strawberry ice cream with chocolate sauce and iced coffee infused with fresh spearmint and cream.

It was a truly memorable evening full of friendship and celebration, and the most important ingredients that we served were on platters that were full of love and laughter. We built a bonfire and threw handfuls of lavender, rose petals, sage, mint, and fennel into the flames while making plenty of good wishes. When I put out the fire in the early hours I felt so satiated, and oddly a part of something ancient as if I’d been doing this very ritual for many centuries. It was an incredible feeling of connectedness to the many who had walked this path long before me.

Celebrating the summer solstice has been done for so much of recorded human history and probably longer before that. Fundamentally, we are not that much different than we were centuries ago. When you scratch the surface of what it means to be alive, now more than ever, we need our magic, our celebrations, and each other. We still need the moon and the sun to survive. We need our gardens and the wisdom of the old ways that allow us to survive in times good and bad. We only need to look back to the last couple of years to understand these simple gifts. Light. Water. Good soil. Warmth. Enough mason jars. Good health. Food, and the most important ingredient  of all…love.

May your summer be full of blessings and your gardens always alive with the joyful song of the honeybees.

Wishing you all the loveliest longest day of the year.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author, except Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes (public domain).


Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/

 

 

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: 1) Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum) (Maryann Readal); 2) Man worshipping tulsi basil (Wikimedia Commons, Shirsh.namaward); 3) Egyptian embalming (Catrina’s Garden, https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/); 4) Variegated basil leaves (Ocimum cv.) (Chrissy Moore); 5) Sign at garden center regarding basil and downy mildew (Maryann Readal); 6) Varieties of basil (US National Arboretum); 7) Plate of brownies made with cinnamon basil (Chrissy Moore).


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Wines from the Gardens and Fields of Scotland

By Catherine MacLennan

(This article was originally published in The Herb Society of America’s annual journal, The Herbarist, 41(1975): 37-40. Almost 50 years later, Mrs. MacLennan’s narrative still evokes vivid images of foraging for edible plant material on her family’s property in Scotland.)

West Highlands ScotlandVisitors to the West Highlands admire so much our woods and mountains, especially when the heather spreads its bright purple mantle of flowers, but how many ever stop to think of the numerous delicious wines which can be made from our shrubs and trees, their flowers, their berries and leaves.

Somewhere beside every West Highland croft or farmhouse in olden times, there grew—and may still be found growing—the Elder tree, called in Lowland Scots the Boor tree. Another name given to it—‘Buttery wood tree’—always causes argument. Some writers maintain it refers to the soft white inner pith of the young wood, others that it springs from one of its many uses.

On farms and crofts there used always to be a small stone-built dairy or milk house, where milk was set in flat pans and where cream was kept for churning. During summer small branchlets of Elder wood were kept in the dairy, as these banished flies and kept milk and cream fresh and sweet. Hence ‘Buttery wood.’

Whatever the name, the Elderflower produces one of the best of our home-made wines, light pale gold or goldy green, the home-made wine most nearly resembling Champagne. The Elder berries also make a delicious wine resembling Port when properly matured. Both these wines are health giving; an excellent stimulant at all times. The Elder flower buds were also used as a pickle to be served with cold meats.

Gooseberry Jelly flavoured with Elderflowers is a delicious preserve. Put a fully open spray of Elderflowers in a muslin bag and add the bag to the jelly during the final five minutes of cooking. Beauty aids, creams, toilet water and salves were all made from Elderflowers. As well as beautifying, it freshened and rejuvenated even the most dull and tired skin.

Another very common tree flowering in early summer is the Hawthorn or Mayflower. Its creamy blossoms are very fragrant and scent the air around it. The wine made from these blossoms is light, pleasant and has a delicate vanilla bouquet. A flavouring essence may also be made with Hawthorn blossom by using one pound of flowers to three pounds of powdered sugar. Layers of blossom with layers of sugar alternately are placed in a stone jar until all is used. Cover the jar closely and put in a cool cellar. (West Highland people with no suitable cellar used to find the milk house ideal.) Leave for full 24 hours, then remove to where the sun shines hot on the jar. After 48 hours strain this delicious essence into a bottle and stopper carefully.

Later, the Hawthorn berries make what I consider a wine even more exotic, when well matured, than that from the blossoms. It has a most unusual bouquet, smooth, rich and mellow.

Gorse flowersA shrub, usually thought of as a weed, which grows in the West Highlands by roadsides, hillside and lochside, and never seems to be out of flower, is the Gorse, Furze or Whin. It is so prickly that no animal will eat it, but its golden yellow flowers make a rich, rather heavy-bodied wine which is also very intoxicating. It must be given at least a year to mature and is worth waiting for. Its flavour is most unusual, a hint of almond with a touch of scent of the flowers.

Of all the wines I have made—and there are few which I have not made—Birch wine was always my favourite as regards making. Not my favourite wine, Elderflower is that, but I loved tapping the Birch trees to draw off the sap, searching the moss wood on a warm spring day for the most suitable tree, and making sure it was not a tree which already had been tapped the previous year or the year before that.

Betula pendula (silver birch) barkIt was like stepping back in time one century. Birch wine was a favourite wine of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and throughout the years of her long reign large quantities had to be made at Balmoral every year. The time for tapping the Birch trees is when the leaf buds are swollen ready to open, usually early March. Having decided on the trees, you then get pieces of young Elder wood about four inches long, and scrape out the soft white pithy core leaving a hollow tube. Next take a brace with a bit, and bore a hole in the trunk of the Birch tree 18 inches from the ground, to allow the hollow posset of Elder wood to fit in firmly. When boring the Birch tree, as soon as the clear sap shows, stop, fit the posset and fix a clean, dry, sterilized bottle under the posset. The sap runs freely into the bottle, and whenever the bottle is full it must be securely corked. As many trees as possible should be tapped each day to give at least one gallon of sap, which is the best quantity to make at a time. The sap is clear and sparkling. If any hint of colour shows in the sap drawn off, discard it. One thing to remember, if the leaf buds have opened do not tap the tree; the sap will be slow to run as well as unsuitable for wine. It is certainly fascinating and challenging, waiting for just the right moment. When the possets are removed from the Birch trees, carefully fill up the holes with pieces of wood or resin and seal over with any form of wax to exclude all airborne diseases.

Tapping birch treeThe wine is made by boiling one gallon of sap with three and a half pounds of best sugar and the rind and juice of two lemons for about one hour. Strain into a jug or basin large enough to hold this quantity. When tepid add yeast, leave covered for four days, when the ferment will have caused a heavy scum to rise which must be carefully removed. Strain into a storage jar fitted with fermentation trap. In a month to six weeks the wine will have cleared. Decant into another storage jar and leave for one year. It is the home-made wine most nearly like Vodka and was a favourite in Scandinavian countries and Russia.

Then there is the Mountain Ash or Rowan Berry wine. Strip the berries from the stalks when fully ripe and brilliant scarlet, but not over ripe. To each gallon of berries add one gallon of boiling water, cover and allow to stand four days. Then strain, add the yeast and three and a half pounds of sugar to each gallon of liquor. Cover closely, leave to ferment for 16 days, then skim and strain into a storage jar with fermentation trap. When clear and working has finished, bottle and keep nine months to a year.

Rowan berriesI have not given quantity of yeast as there are different yeasts available specially for wine makers. In all the very old recipes which stated “spread one ounce of yeast on a slice of toast and add to the liquor,” I found this always far too much and used only a small teaspoonful to a gallon.

These are only some of the wines which our countryside provides. There are also the wines from our gardens, Rose Petal wine and liqueur, both delicious and health giving and used in days gone by to ‘reduce fevers’ in very ill people.

From the kitchen garden, there is Parsley wine. When well made and fully mature this is a light, rich sparkling wine with no hint of Parsley flavour but with an almost exotic flavour of mingled almonds and Curly parsley leavesvanilla. A glass of it sipped at bedtime was believed to induce natural health-giving sleep.

The humble potato with barley produced a wine which was more like whisky. Excellent for coughs and colds.

Beetroot wine is always popular, and was said to be a sure cure for anaemia. Unfortunately its very ease of making and clearing is its undoing; it looks so clear and sparkling it is used too soon. Beetroot wine carefully made and kept for one and half years is an excellent table wine, tasting of anything but beetroot; instead it is a very pleasant smooth red wine.

The list is endless. I have had a lifetime’s experience of all sorts of wine making. One year, we had a splendid crop of peas and I made quite a lot of Pea Pod wine; it was excellent. Two years later I used it as the basis for a mint liqueur and now, six years from making the Pea Pod wine, I still have a small bottle of Mint Liqueur for very special friends only.

One more special brew is Heather wine; in spite of the work involved picking the tiny flowers—no green or stalk must be used—the result is a wine which makes one really believe the Fairies first discovered Heather wine.

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) West Highlands, Scotland (scotlandsgreattrails.com); 2 & 3) Elder flowers and berries (Sambucus nigra) (Dr. Peter Llewellyn); 4) Hawthorn flowers (Crataegus monogyna) (Wikimedia Commons, Jamain); 5) Hawthorn fruit (Crataegus monogyna) (Creative Commons, H. Zell); 6) Gorse flowers (Ulex sp.) (Creative Commons, John Haslam); 7) Silver birch tree (Betula pendula) (Creative Commons, Arthur Chapman); 8) Birch tree tapping (Creative Commons, Jelle); 9) Rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) (Creative Commons, Dave_S.); 10) Curly parsley leaves (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) (C. Moore); 11) Pea pod (Creative Commons, Maria Keays); 12) Heather flowers (Calluna vulgaris) (Creative Commons, foxypar4).


Catherine MacLennan (d. 1975) was from Tomuaine, Port Appin, Argyll, Scotland. She had “a remarkable store of information about flowers, birds and beasts, the history and legends of Appin, and much else. Her extremely modest and retiring nature disguised a penetrating mind and a retentive memory…. She came of farming stock…. Her green fingers and knowledge of garden plants turned a small piece of garden ground into a treasury of beautiful and rare plants.” (From The Oban Times, by Dawn MacLeod)

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

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mint, savory, marjoram:

The marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author.

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas  Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Dianthus – Herb of the Month – A Plant of Beauty and Meaning

By Maryann Readal

Photo of pinks, Dianthus caryophyllusDianthus is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for April. The timing is perfect as the weather is beginning to be spring-like, and these plants are now available in our garden shops. The Greek botanist, Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), is credited with giving these flowers their name. He combined the Greek word for dios, “divine,” with anthos, “flower” and came up with dianthus. Dianthus have been cultivated and bred for over 2,000 years, and many different colors and flower types have been developed along the way. With successive breeding, however, many of the cultivars have lost their native clove-like scent. 

The old-fashioned plant that our grandmothers called pinks, Dianthus plumarius, can be a perennial or an annual. It is a compact, evergreen, clove-scented, low-growing species of Dianthus. Like other Dianthus, it prefers an alkaline soil and plenty of sun. The perennial variety blooms later than the annual plant, which blooms in early spring. It makes a nice border or rock garden plant and blooms better if the spent flowers are removed. It can be propagated by seed or with cuttings.

“And in my flower-beds, I think, Smile the carnation and the pink.”

                                        – Rupert Brooke

There are several ideas why these plants are called pinks. One idea is that the edges of the flowers look as though they were cut with pinking shears. Another idea is that the name derives from the German word pfingsten, which was the German name for flowers that bloomed around Pentecost (Ecavade,1998).

Glass of Chartreuse liqueurDianthus caryophyllus is the botanical name for the flower we call carnation. It has been in cultivation for over 2,000 years and is native to the Mediterranean region. Other names for this flower are gillyflower or clove pinks because of the clove-like scent of the original flower. Carl Linnaeus described the plant in his Species Plantarum in 1753 and gave the plant its botanical name.

Carnations are an edible flower, if they have not been sprayed with chemicals. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the flowers were used to flavor wine, earning the nickname “sops-in-wine” (Belsinger and Tucker, 2016). They are also one of the 130 herbs and aromatic plants used to make the French liqueur, Chartreuse, which is still the only naturally green liqueur in the world today. While we do not use them to flavor wine today, they are used as an edible, decorative flower and can be made into syrup or candied. The petals can be put into salads, vinegars, and sauces. 

It is thought that the common name, carnation, came from the Latin word for the crown, corona, worn during Roman and Greek ceremonies. Another theory is that the word came from the Latin word for flesh, Photo of Red carnationcaro, referring to the natural color of the native flower. In religious symbolism, the flower represents “God made flesh in Jesus” or the incarnation. To carry through with the religious symbolism, it is said that the carnation sprung from the tears Mary shed during the crucifixion. The carnation is a frequent artistic floral motif in mosques and Islamic art.  

The carnation holds considerable importance as a symbol today. Indeed, the colors of the flower carry special meanings in the floral industry. Red flowers symbolize love. White flowers mean true love and good luck. Pink carnations are a symbol of a mother’s love and are the Mother’s Day flower. Yellow carnations mean disappointment and rejection (Escavade, 2020). 

Carnations have also been used to give additional meaning to political events. The red carnation was the 20th anniversary of Black January in Azerbiajansymbol of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution when the authoritarian regime was overthrown in 1974. In some countries, it represents the socialist worker’s movement and is often used during May Day demonstrations. In Azerbaijan, red and pink carnations memorialize the people’s uprising against the Soviet crackdown in January, 1990. The red carnation has become a symbol of that tragedy, now christened Black January. The red carnation is the state flower of Ohio. It was chosen to honor Ohio Governor and United States President William McKinley who wore a red carnation until his assassination in 1901. The red carnation is the national flower of Spain, Slovenia, and Monaco.

At Oxford University, some students wear carnations while taking their exams. A white carnation is worn on the first day and red on the last day of exams. Pink carnations are worn on the exam days in between.

Bottle of L'Air du Temps perfumeThe essential oil is also used in making the French perfume, L’air du Temps. Dianthus caryophyllus can be found in European herbal medicine to treat coronary and nervous problems.

Carnations are perennial to Zone 6. They prefer well-draining, alkaline soil in full sun and bloom from summer into the fall. Again, deadheading of the flowers is the key to continuous blooming. As a cut flower, carnations are long-lasting.

And then there is Dianthus superbus, which grows in China, Japan, and in some parts of Europe. This Dianthus is called qumai in Chinese, and the flowers are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Its use was first mentioned in the 1st century CE in the Chinese herbal, Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica. Qumai is still used today to treat kidney stones, urinary tract infections, constipation, and dysmenorrhea. 

Researchers are investigating the medicinal potential of this Dianthus species. Recent research indicates that its components may be effective in treating airway inflammation due to asthma (Shin, 2012). In a recent review of the plant, authors concluded “the traditional applications of Dianthi herba have been confirmed, including the treatment of urinary tract infection and dysmenorrhea” (Liu, 2022).

Dianthus superbus can be grown as an annual or perennial and can be propagated by seed or cuttings. Like other Dianthus, it prefers well-draining, alkaline soil in a sunny location. The flowers are harvested Photo of sweet William flowersjust before they open for medicinal applications.

This article would not be complete without at least a mention of Dianthus barbatus, sweet William. This short-lived perennial or biennial species is very different in that it has a cluster of dianthus-like flowers sitting on top of a one to two-foot stem. The cluster attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. It is a favorite plant in cottage gardens. 

Though very little research has been done on the medical applications of sweet William, it does contain saponins. In 1596, Gerard mentioned sweet William in his plant catalog, praising its beauty but made no mention of any medicinal properties.

It is not certain how the name sweet William originated. However, it is a common name used for young men experiencing unrequited love in English folk songs. Interesting to note that when England’s Prince Photo of Kate Middleton's wedding bouquetWilliam married Kate Middleton in 2011, Kate included sweet Williams in her bridal bouquet as a tribute to her husband-to-be (Dillon, 2021).

For more information about Dianthus, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html

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

Photo Credits: 1) Dianthus (pinks) flowers (Maryann Readal); 2) Chartreuse liqueur (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Ospalh); 3) Carnation flower (GNU Free Documentation License); 4) 20th anniversary of Black January in Azerbiajan (ElxanQəniyev); 5) L’air du Temps bottle (Walmart.com); 6) Sweet William flowers (Creative Commons, Andrey Korzun); 7) Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet (Dan Kitwood).

References

Abdel Wadood, M., and M. Panayotidi. 2014. The floral and geometrical elements on the Ottoman architecture in Rhodes Island. Egyptian Journal of Archaeological and Restoration Studies. 4:2, 87-104. Accessed 3/5/22. https://journals.ekb.eg/article_7264.html

Belsinger, S. and A. Tucker. 2016. The culinary herbal: growing and preserving 97 flavorful herbs. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Bown, Deni. 2001. New Encyclopedia of herbs and their uses, Revised. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Cornet, Peggy. 1998. Pinks, gillyflowers, carnations the exalted flowers. Accessed 2/20/22. https://www.monticello.org/house-gardens/center-for-historic-plants/twinleaf-journal-online/pinks-gilliflowers-carnations

Chevallier, Andrew. 1996. The encyclopedia of medicinal plants. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Dillon, Rachel. 2021. Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet meant more than you think. Accessed 3/17/22. https://www.thelist.com/354146/kate-middletons-wedding-bouquet-meant-more-than-you-think/

Ecavade, Sakshe. 2020. Carnation flowers: meaning, history, symbolism & colors.  Accessed 2/20/22. https://www.giftalove.com/blog/carnation-flowers-meaning-symbolism-history-colors/

Liu, Qian, et al. 2021. Dianthi herba: a comprehensive review of its botany, traditional use, phytochemistry, and pharmacology. Chin Med17:15. Accessed 3/3/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8780776/

Shin, In-Sik, et al. 2012. Dianthus superbus fructus suppresses airway inflammation by downregulating of inducible nitric oxide synthase in an ovalbumin-induced murine model of asthma. Journal of Inflammation 9:41. Accessed 3/3/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3551699/

Stevens, John. 1996. The complete herb garden. New York: Reader’s Digest.

Sweet William. 2021. Accessed 3/4/22. https://gardening.usask.ca/articles-and-lists/articles-plant-descriptions/perennials/sweet-william.php 


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.

Know Your Tarragon – The Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

French tarragon in a potIt pays to pay attention to plant labels. Especially in the case of tarragon–especially if you are planning to use tarragon in your cooking. If you are growing tarragon for culinary purposes, be sure the label on the plant or seed that you buy says “French tarragon” or Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’, to be sure. If the label says only “tarragon,” you may be purchasing Russian tarragon, which is not the tarragon you want for your roast chicken or béarnaise sauce. 

Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March. Read on for more information about the plants we call tarragon.

French tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’    

The botanical name for tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, comes from the Latin word meaning “little dragon” or “snake.” It is thought that the plant was given this name because its roots resemble coiled snakes, and the leaves look like a dragon’s tongue. In very early days, this plant was indeed used to treat snake bites. 

French tarragon is famous for its distinctive, anise-like taste and smell. It is a classic culinary herb in French cooking and is one of the four fines herbes, chervil, parsley, and chives making up the other three. It is used in sauces such as béarnaise, remoulade, and tartar. Tarragon vinegar is great for making salad dressings, and French tarragon enhances the flavor of meats and fish.  

Bottles of dried French tarragon and fines herbesEarly medicinal uses of French tarragon include using the herb to combat fatigue. It is said that pilgrims in the Middle Ages put sprigs of tarragon in their shoes to keep them from getting tired on their journey (Kowalchik, 1988). Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century physician and herbalist, recommended it to treat urogenital conditions, as did Johann Dragendoff, a late-nineteenth-century German pharmacist and chemist (Engels, 2014). 

Native Americans use the wild species of the plant for tea. They treat a wide range of medical problems such as dysentery, colic, rheumatism, and eye and skin issues with it. It is also used to deter insects (Moerman, 1998).

Today, tarragon is used in the European and non-European cosmetology industry, where companies add it to moisturizers, shampoos, and lotions. The essential oil is used in some perfumes. Studies suggest that French tarragon has potential use as a food preservative (Ekiert, 2021).

In 2015, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the discovery of the effectiveness of some properties of Artemisia annua in treating malaria. Since then, there has been renewed interest in researching the medicinal properties of A. dracunculus as well. The authors of a recent report say, “Contemporary research on the biological activity of the above-mentioned raw materials (leaves and essential oil of French tarragon) has proven new findings in their activity–antibacterial, antifungal, and antiprotozoal effects, as well as extremely valuable antioxidant, immunomodulatory and antineoplastic properties“ (Ekiert, 2021). So, something old is new again.

French tarragon grows in Europe and Asia and prefers the cooler areas of the United States. It needs a cold dormancy period to come back the next year and does not do well in the hot humid areas of the South. It needs fertile, well-draining soil and full sun and can grow to 2-3 feet high. It does not produce viable seeds, so must be propagated vegetatively with cuttings or by root division. Buyer beware when buying tarragon seeds. French tarragon does not produce seeds, so the seeds may be from the Russian tarragon plant, which looks similar but has a different taste.

Russian tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus (syn. dracunculoides)

Russian tarragonRussian tarragon is a French tarragon look-alike. Some people even call it an “imposter tarragon.” Its leaves are a lighter green, have a rougher feel, and do not have much flavor. Russian tarragon produces flowers and viable seeds and is easier to grow than French tarragon. It is considered a perennial in most locations. Early in my herb discovery days, I was fooled by this plant and thought I was buying French tarragon. I wondered why it did not have the anise flavor in its leaves.

Russian tarragon is native to southern and eastern Russia, parts of Asia, and western North America. It is used primarily as a medicinal herb in Russia and Middle Eastern countries to Herbal supplement with Russian tarragonstimulate the appetite, flush toxins from the body, and ease the pain of a toothache, sores, and cuts. Other traditional uses in Russia include as an aid to digestion, relief for nervous conditions, aiding the liver and renal function, and as an anti-bacterial, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory agent (Engels, 2014). Recent studies show that the anti-diabetic properties of an extract of Russian tarragon, when taken with body-building supplements, helps to create muscle mass without a need for a high intake of carbohydrates, and helps the body recover from strenuous exercise (Pischel, 2011). 

Mexican tarragon — Tagetes lucida

Also known as Texas tarragon, winter tarragon, and Mexican mint marigold, Mexican tarragon is not in the Artemisia genus at all. But its leaves have a flavor similar to French tarragon, so it can be used as a substitute for it. Its flowers and leaves can be used in salads or dried and ground to use in tea. The fresh leaves and flowers can also be infused in vinegar for use in salad dressings. The leaves were a flavoring in the cocoa-based Aztec drink chocolatl.

Mexican tarragon thrives in hot, humid weather and tolerates freezes and is not fussy about soil, making it an herb that is ideal for the South. This plant also produces bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in the fall that are a nice addition to the landscape. 

Mexican mint marigold in flowerMexican tarragon has been used in traditional Mexican medicine to treat gastrointestinal disorders, relieve mental stress or symptoms of a hangover, as well as for infections caused by parasites (Ventura-Martinez, 2020). Recent studies in the laboratory indicate that the use of Mexican tarragon to relieve some gastrointestinal problems may be an effective use of the herb.

Madalene Hill (1913-2009), noted Texas herbalist and past President of The Herb Society of America, is credited with introducing this South American herb to the United States. For those of us who like to cook with French tarragon and like a nice plant in our garden, we have Madalene to thank.

For more information about Artemisia dracunculus, please see The Herb Society of the Month webpage.

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

Photo Credits: 1) French tarragon (Andrew Yeoman); 2) French tarragon and fines herbes (Maryann Readal); 3) Russian tarragon (https://laidbackgardener.blog/2017/04/27/french-tarragon-and-the-russian-impostor/); 4) Body-building supplement with Russian tarragon (Maryann Readal); 5) Mexican tarragon in flower (Maryann Readal).

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2014. Five easy herbs. Texas Gardener. 33(13):20-24. Available from: Ebscohost.

Ekiert, H. et al. 2021. Artemisia dracunculus (Tarragon): A review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology.  Frontiers in Pharmacology.  Accessed 2/7/21. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8076785/

Engels, G. and J. Brinckmann. 2014.  Artemisia dracunculus L. (Tarragon): A critical review of its traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology, and safety. HerbalGram. 102. Accessed 1/30/22. Available from: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/102/table-of-contents/hg102-herbpro/ 

Glenn, L. Russian tarragon. Accessed 2/1/22. Available from: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbclip/herbclip-news/2013/russian-tarragon/

Hill, M. and G. Barclay. 1987. Southern Herb Growing. Fredericksburg, TX: Shearer Publ.

Kowalchik, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1988. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Moerman, Daniel. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Mueller, C. The three tarragons: French, Russian, and Mexican. Accessed 1/29/22. Available from: https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/newsletters/hortupdate/2009/jan09/Tarragon.html

Pischel, I. et al. 2011. Potential application of Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) in health and sports. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition. 8 (Suppl 1):16. Accessed 2/3/22. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3238148/

Ventura-Martinez, R. et al. 2020. Study of antispasmodic and antidiarrheal activities of Tagetes lucida (Mexican Tarragon) in experimental models and its mechanism of action. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2020. Accessed 1/30/22. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/7140642

Yeoman, A. French tarragon. Accessed 1/29/22. Available from: https://www.finegardening.com/article/french-tarragon


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 herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Gather Ye Redbuds While Ye May – A Colorful Harbinger of Spring…and Edible, Too!

by Karen Cottingham

Eastern_Redbud_by Dan Keck via wikimediaHere in Texas, there’s a saying: “We have two seasons – summer and winter.” That’s not quite true; but if you’re not paying attention, spring can slip right past. And the last thing I want is to miss a single day of our glorious, but ephemeral, spring. 

The nights here are still cold – sometimes approaching freezing – but the robins have arrived, so I know springtime is near. It’s time to listen for a hushed prelude to seasonal change, time to look for intimations of life beginning to stir. Every few days, this calls for a visit to the two redbud trees in my Houston neighborhood to check the trunks and bare branches for any evidence of tiny pink flowers. Nothing to see for weeks on end; then suddenly, here they are – scattered crimson buds emerging straight from the furrowed bark, swelling with life, and some already unfolding their delicate pink wings. In a week or so, the branches will be covered with a dazzling display of vibrant spring color. Heart-shaped leaves of bronze, crimson, or vivid chartreuse will soon follow and add to the brilliant Eastern redbud by Melissa McMasters via wikimediaspectacle. 

Taking a look at the distribution map of our native redbuds, a similar burst of color might announce spring’s arrival for many of our HSA members. North American redbuds fall into two groupings, each with a number of regional varieties – Cercis canadensis, or Eastern redbud, and Cercis orbiculata, the Western redbud group. Several additional redbuds are native to Southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, and central Asia; collectively, these small leguminous trees make up the entire Cercis genus.

Many of you living in redbud’s distribution may still be snowed in or are impatiently waiting for the ground to thaw so you can prepare your garden for planting. If you’re feeling restless, just imagine the anxiety of previous generations reliant on early crops to replenish their dwindling winter stores. And then imagine their relief and delight to see the first signs of the approaching spring. 

Distribution of Cercis orbiculata (left) and C. canadensis (right).

Many crop-growing Native Americans considered the redbud just this sort of “seasonal indicator,” a long-awaited sign that fresh food would soon be plentiful. For some, the vibrant blossoms were even believed to hasten the arrival of warm weather. Members of the Kiowa tribe, for example, decorated their dwellings with redbud wreaths and twigs to help “drive out the spirit of winter.” 

Eastern redbud in full bloom with small pink blossomsWhile its ability to awaken a slumbering spring makes a lovely story, experience also proved that a blooming redbud can be dangerously misleading. According to Cherokee historian David Cornsilk, the Eastern redbud is known as Da-yi-go-gi, or “Liar,” in the Cherokee language. Don’t be deceived, the elders warn, by the Liar, the first tree to blossom in the spring. Da-yi-go-gi may put on a dazzling display against the dun and drab forest background, but it’s not always a reliable signal that winter is over. If precious seeds were planted based on the false promise of the blooming redbud, the tender plants might well be lost to a later hard freeze. It’s better to resist, for a while longer, the exuberance of Da-yi-go-gi.

Appalachian folklore also warns against naively trusting the early blooming redbud; a “redbud winter” refers to the cold snap that frequently occurs just after the redbuds bloom. 

As pioneers moved into the Appalachian Mountains, the native redbud trees played another important “indicator” role. Much of the soil there is acidic and too poor to sustain crops. Settlers soon learned that redbuds growing in a “cove” or “draw” indicated a limestone-rich basic soil suitable for successful farming.

Eastern_redbud_fruit_SEWilco via wikimediaNative Americans, along with the early settlers, also found ways for redbud to supplement their supply of food. Flowers, newly emerged leaves, young seed pods, and mature seeds are all edible. Even the twigs have a place in food preparation, being used so often to season game in southern Appalachia that the trees there are called “spicewood.” Traditionally, the flowers are eaten straight off the tree, but they have also been used for salad garnishes, teas, jellies, and pie fillings. Peter Kalm, the American agent of Linnaeus, called redbud the “sallad tree,” because its flowers were so often eaten in salads. 

Knowing this, I was thrilled to reach up, pick a tiny flower, inhale deeply, and pop it into my mouth. I’d been looking forward to this moment for months since I first read that redbud blossoms are not only edible, but are also delicious. The little flower emitted a strong floral fragrance that reminded me of honey. It was delightfully crunchy; floral, but in an out-of-focus, unrecognizable way; and sweet with a tangy lemony taste.

Encouraged, I decided to try an unopened bud, and was instantly propelled into my own Remembrance of Things Past moment. The flavor sensation of that little bud was identical to my childhood experience of munching on green peas picked fresh from the field! 

At first, this might sound strange, but it actually makes sense. The species Cercis canadensis belongs to the botanical family Fabaceae, making it a close relative of beans, peas, peanuts, tamarind, and other legumes.

Salad_of_Romaine_lettuce_and_wild_Toothwort,_Purple_Dead_Nettle_and_Redbud_flowers_-_Flickr_-_Jay_Sturner via wikimediaAs an added bonus, redbud flowers have a significantly higher vitamin C content than most common domesticated fruits and vegetables, including oranges. The flowers are also rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidant pigments that give them their magenta/fuchsia color.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own tree, here are a few ways to add redbud surprises to your spring menu (links to recipes follow):

Fresh redbud flowers make a vibrant addition to salads, but also to cakes, quick breads, crackers, muffins, and even pancakes. Pickled buds can be used like capers to garnish a salad, but even better, the rosy-red pickling vinegar can be used for dressings or vinegar-based beverages. There are plenty of recipes on the internet for redbud flower jelly, and it is even possible to crystallize the flowers for a beautiful dessert embellishment. 

One of my favorite recipe ideas is for a cucumber, cream cheese, and redbud flower-filled tea sandwich. Imagine serving that for a springtime “Afternoon Tea!” You could even brew a redbud tisane, adding a bit of lemon to bring out the fuchsia color. A simple syrup of infused redbud flowers makes a lovely floral sweetener for cocktails, herbal waters, or lemonade. And don’t forget to add a redbud cluster as a garnish!

For the devoted forager with access to sassafras, here’s another idea – a goat cheese and coconut milk tart flavored with redbud flowers and newly emerged sassafras leaves. 

And why not really celebrate the arrival of spring by adding a few crunchy pink flowers to a spring roll? Sprinkle the flowers on the rice paper wrapper first so they show in the finished roll, then add other foraged flowers and greens, perhaps some shrimp or fish, and serve with a spicy peanut sauce. 

1200px-Redbud,_Forest-Pansy,_Cercis-canadensis_IMG_7214 S_G_S via wikimedia

The flowering period of redbuds is brief; and in a few weeks, the tree will completely leaf out and start producing seed pods. Supposedly the young leaves taste rather like grass, and the young seed pods taste like snow peas or beans. Either could be added to a stir fry, but I probably won’t try that. As one writer delicately puts it, “The high fiber content may cause some unintended and unwanted digestive consequences.”

The Navajo were said to bury the mature pods in the coals of a fire and eat the roasted seeds. I’m not sure how they would taste, but as far as survival foods go, redbud seeds, at 22-27% protein and 7-8% fat, have excellent nutritional value. The seeds are also rich in antioxidants and the essential fatty acids linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid.

Quercetin, an important antioxidant flavonoid, was actually isolated for the first time from the pods of Cercis canadensis.

Cercis_canadensis,_Forest_Pansy_-_geograph.org.uk_-_2133216 by Jonathan Billinger via wikimediaSo the edible redbud plant parts clearly offered beneficial nutrients to early inhabitants of North America. But that’s not all – redbud bark is rich in therapeutic tannins and is an important medicine for several Native American tribes. Infusions of the bark are extensively used for respiratory congestion, as a cough suppressant, and to treat diarrhea and vomiting. 

In “Lenape Indian Medicines,” a compilation of the plant medicines used by the Lenape, or Delaware, tribe, Glenn McCartlin describes the remedy for vomiting used by his grandmother, Minnie Fouts: “Take six 1-1/2 ft Box Elder limbs that are pointing east. Scrape limbs starting from the end. And take two limbs from Redbud tree, and put in a pan with some cold water and drink it every little while until it quits.” I don’t know about box elder limbs, but a tannin-rich infusion of redbud bark might well have been sufficiently astringent to relieve nausea. 

And for those who suffer from depression in the dark time of the year, the traditional healers in the Ozarks prepare a tea from redbud bark that flushes out the “winter blues.” 

We tend to think of redbud as a beautiful and welcoming harbinger of spring, but it’s actually so much more – a valuable medicine and important source of nutrition, and a lively and tasty addition to your spring menus. I’m reminded of wild-food advocate Euell Gibbons challenging his TV viewers in the 1970s with what seemed to be a preposterous question, “Ever eat a pine tree?” He paused slightly, and then explained to the shocked viewers, “Many parts are edible.” I think he would have loved the colorful and edible redbud! 

I hope you enjoy it as well.

REDBUD RECIPES

Butter-Poached Panfish and Redbud Blossom Spring Rolls https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/butter-poached-panfish-and-redbud-blossom-spring-rolls

Eastern Redbud Blossom Jelly Recipe https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/eastern-redbud-blossom-jelly-recipe

Edible Redbud Flowers on Ham and Cheese Omelet  https://mysliceofnice.com/f/edible-redbud-flowers-on-ham-and-cheese-omelette

Herbed Watercress Cheese & Wild Flower Crackers  https://www.wildedible.com/blog/herbed-watercress-cheese-wild-flower-crackers

Mskobaskbegit Meweyak (Redbud & Maple Syrup Cakes)  https://www.mrinconranch.com/post/mskobaskbegit-meweyak-redbud-maple-syrup-cakes

Redbud & Cucumber Tea Sandwiches  
http://livetheoldway.com/redbud-tea-sandwiches/

Redbud Flower-Sassafras Tartlet  https://www.feastmagazine.com/recipes/article_987245ba-edc6-11e4-b6c6-9f639630fae1.html

Redbud & Lemon Cornmeal Loaf Cake  https://www.ful-filled.com/2017/03/25/redbud-lemon-cornmeal-loaf-cake/

Redbud Salad  
https://tracksandroots.com/2020/04/04/redbud-salad

Redbud Sour  
https://www.oliveandmango.com/redbud-sour/

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) Cercis canadensis flowers (Dan Keck); 2) Newly emerged leaves of C. canadensis (Melissa McMasters); 3) Geographical distribution of C. orbiculata and C. canadensis (USDA Plants Database); 4) Redbud in full flower (Dcrjsr); 5) Green seed pods (SEWilco); 6) Salad of romaine lettuce, toothwort, purple deadnettle, and redbud flowers (Jay Sturner); 7) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (S.G.S.); 8) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ fall color (Jonathan Billinger). All photos via Wikimedia, except distribution maps.

References:

Native American Ethnobotany Database (Internet). 2003. Redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=redbud

Rementer, J. 1986. Some additional Lenape Indian medicines. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/556207/SOME_ADDITIONAL_LENAPE_INDIAN_MEDICINES

Robertson, K. R. 1976. Cercis: The redbuds. Arnoldia, 36(2): 3749. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://arboretum.harvard.edu/stories/cercis-the-redbuds/

Sarcraft. 2019. Wild edible Wednesday 3/27: Eastern redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://sarcraft.squarespace.com/news/eastern-redbud-edible-and-medicinal-uses

Sibray, D. 2020. Pink-flowering redbud trees guided early W.Va. settlers. West Virginia Explorer Magazine. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://wvexplorer.com/2020/04/13/pink-flower-trees-redbud-west-virginia/

Some Thoughts from Polly’s Granddaughter. 2012. Beware the Eastern redbud! Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://www.pollysgranddaughter.com/2012/01/beware-eastern-redbud.html


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.

Love and Gardening on St. Valentine’s Day

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

“ I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers, always.

                                                My heart is forever in Giverny. “

                                                                                                         – Claude Monet

Photo of a cup of the author's Rose petal Chocolate ChaiIt’s St. Valentines Day, and the whole world smells as if it’s been dipped in a gigantic vat of roses, violet-flavored marshmallows, and chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s been absolutely freezing here in Northeast Ohio, so like most of my herb loving friends, I’m tucked away inside with stacks of rose, seed, tree, and other various and sundry plant catalogs.

Personally? I’m also eating plenty of chocolates and drinking a cup of homemade rose petal and chocolate chai! You‘ll find that recipe below, and I think you will love it!

The luscious pastry the author enjoyed at Laduree in Paris, FranceI have spent many a Valentine’s Day in this way, but as I started writing this, I began thinking about the year that my husband asked me to meet him in France at the tail end of a business trip he’d been on in Spain. It was my very first trip to Paris, and I was completely enchanted by the city and the people I met. Valentine’s Day that year was perfect. We started with tea at Ladurée, where I enjoyed an absolutely delicious pot of jasmine tea and a delectable pastry filled with rosewater and cardamom crème topped with rose petals and fresh raspberries. We ended the day with a fabulous meal of raw oysters and confit of duck on a bed of lentils, with a sauce of orange, lavender, ginger, and honey and, of course, plenty of Champagne, because, after all, we were in Paris!

One of the flower shops the author visited in Montmartre, FranceIn between tea and dinner, Jim and I walked hand in hand through the shops and the markets. The shops in Paris are always wonderful, but February the 14th finds them filled with all of the beautiful symbols of romantic love that the French are known for: beautifully hand-dipped and painted chocolates, the softest and most luscious caramels, fabulous perfume, and gorgeous lingerie. But in truth, it’s the flower shops and market stalls that I remember the most, filled with gorgeous bouquets of all kinds and friendly men and women eager and willing to have patient conversations with me (not easy with my limited French!) about their beautiful flowers, produce, breads, cheeses, preserves, and teas. As I wandered happily sniffing and shooting picture after picture, I began to think of my father. It took me a moment, but suddenly I realized why.

When I was a child, our lives completely changed the year that my parents went to France for the first time. I’ll never forget it, because my father went first to Paris and then Giverny and came home a man enchanted. Life at home wasn’t the same after that. It was as if he’d discovered something there in the culture and the landscape, a part of his artistic soul that he’d been missing all along.

Besides possessing a Masters in Biology, Dad was also an excellent painter. But until that trip, he hadn’t paid much attention to his yard. The three acres that we had were pretty basic; what had once been a victory garden lovingly tended by my father and grandfather was covered by a swimming pool. And as for flowers? There were mostly annuals and some pretty boring ones at that. 

Until that trip to Giverny.

Photo of Monet's garden in Giverny, FranceMy father came home from France and realized what his painting had been lacking the entire time: context, or as the French would say, a raison d’être. Dad set out to build his own garden paradise, and he did so with an absolute passion. I wasn’t at all surprised. Even at a very young age, I could see that my dad was wildly romantic, and after experiencing the gardens that Monet had painted in, he couldn’t help but follow in his footsteps.

That entire winter, life became about his garden, planning his borders, reading and learning about all of the plants that he’d fallen in love with when he was in France. That spring, he began to build the beds, amending the soil, and planting the foundation plants. Within two years, his entire property was completely transformed. His favorites were the fragrant old roses, but his lilies, irises, and peonies were just as luscious. His beds were also filled with every kind of fragrant herb and flower imaginable; everything he touched just thrived. Not one to rely on traditional pesticides, antifungals, and commercial fertilizers to keep his plants healthy, he worked with his soil, which was as rich, sweet, and dark as the chocolate many of us are enjoying today. Every plant had a companion or two, specifically chosen to help it stay healthy and as pest free as possible.

Photo of the author's father's sweet woodruff patchHis roses never had that much trouble with black spot, beetles, or mildew…rarely were there bothersome pests that took over and destroyed everything. My father, ever the biologist, always planted with the  pollinators in mind, stressing native plants like serviceberry, aronia, and American cranberry alongside his beautiful flowers. He loved milkweeds and watching the Monarch butterflies. He had a carefully tended patch of sweet woodruff that was always covered with honeybees, which he used to make May wine every spring, and he loved plants like pokeberry and comfrey, letting them grow wherever they wanted to, because he knew that they were biodynamic accumulators—plants that gather nutrients from the soil to store them in a more bioavailable form. At the end of the gardening year, he’d chop these into his beds as mulch.

Photo of the Author's father's comphrey patchMy father’s gardens had the fattest honeybees and bumblebees, the biggest and juiciest earthworms, and wonderful snakes that would slither through on occasion, much to the delight of his grandsons. He was generous with his knowledge, and he taught me everything I know about building soil and keeping plants healthy without resorting to the use of chemicals. He loved to share his gardens with everyone, especially his children and grandchildren. As I got older, summer nights would find us wandering together with martinis and hoses…watering, mulching, and laughing, and later, would find us in his living room talking about the garden and listening to his extensive collection of classical music. My father lived such an artistic life in so many ways, and he loved to encourage us to do so as well. He was the first person to encourage me to follow my instincts for herbalism, and he is single-handedly responsible for my love affair with old roses and all of the things that I’ve learned over the years to make from their hips and petals.

When I came back from Paris, I began to remember my father’s lessons from his gardens, and as a result, I slowed down. I began to plan my gardens instead of just buying every plant in sight. I began asking myself what would bring me joy—to look at, to smell, and to taste. I began to think of my gardens as an extension of my inner life, my artistic life. That was when my gardens began to find their way into my kitchen, my vases, and my dreams. Everything became connected. When you look at pictures of Giverny, you can see what I mean.

You see that there is a “whole.” The house is the garden, and the garden is the house…there really is no separation.  

Picture of the author's father's Rosa rugosaEven though my father passed away before I got to share with him the joys of my own trip to Paris, I know that he’d understand when I say that our Valentine’s Day trip brought my life as a gardener into focus. Although I did not go to Giverny as he did, my wandering through France, talking with the florists and farmers, connected me to what he learned so long ago on his own pilgrimage there.

If he were still alive, he would say that gardening is not difficult, but it requires an open heart, an open mind, and a sketchpad; that there is a time to plant and a time to rest; that learning to water correctly is about listening, asking, and observing; that the soil is alive; and that most often, all you need is a great layer of compost. Lastly, that every plant has a best friend that it depends upon for support.

Much like we all do.

I wish you all the loveliest St. Valentine’s Day wherever you find yourself planted.

Dried rose petals the author uses for potpourri, teas, and jamsRose Petal and Chocolate Chai (no added tea)

You will need:

6 Tablespoons of coconut sugar (if you like it sweeter, add more)

2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon

2 Tablespoons of really good cocoa powder

2 tablespoons of finely ground organic rose petals (you can grind these in a coffee grinder)

2 Tablespoons of ground cardamom

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of ground Chinese five spice

3/4 teaspoon of ground allspice

1 inch of split vanilla bean (you’ll leave that in there for flavor)

Mix all of these ingredients together in a bowl with a whisk to break the clumps of ginger.

Store in a tightly covered mason jar away from the light.

To make a cup, take one level tablespoon without the vanilla bean (you can always add more, but be careful, it’s spicy!) and place it into a saucepan with a pat of organic butter. Add a cup and a half of almond milk or whatever milk you enjoy. Heat slowly , whisking the entire time to help the cocoa melt. You can also use a hand frother, or a Vitamix if you have one, once the mixture is hot. Sweeten to taste with more coconut sugar or maple syrup.

This recipe is entirely adjustable. Once you make it the first time, you’ll know how you like it. I’ve been known to add even more chocolate!

Photo credits: 1) Cup of Rose Petal and Chocolate Chai; 2) Dessert at Ladurée restaurant in Paris, France; 3) One of the flower shops in Montmartre, France; 4) Monet’s home in Giverny, France (Stock photo on Canva); 5) Author’s father’s sweet woodruff patch; 6) Author’s father’s comfrey patch; 7) Author’s father’s Rosa rugosa; 8) Dried rose petals the author uses for potpourri, jams, and teas. (All photos courtesy of the author except #4.)

 


The author and her husband in ParisBeth Schreibman-Gehring is the Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society, a unit of The Herb Society of America. She is also a member of Les Dames de Escoffier International (Cleveland), The Herb Society of the United Kingdom, The International Herb Association, The Herb Society of America, and Herbalists without Borders. Her book, Stirring the Senses! Creating Magical Environments & Feasts for All Seasons, can be found on Amazon.

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.

Understanding Plant Variety Protection

By Mara Sanders, Plant Variety Examiner

picture of blackberries, blueberries, and strawberriesIf you are a plant enthusiast like myself, you might get pretty excited browsing next season’s plant catalogues. But all the acronyms (from TM to PVPA) might have you wondering who spilled the alphabet soup next to this year’s exciting new varieties. After all, who has the right to protect varieties?

While protecting plants that have been freely reproducing and surviving on their own for centuries can seem like an infringement of their rights, learning a bit more about plant breeding and germplasm resources can shed light on the critical importance of variety protection and how it plays a role in creating innovation. A variety of the species, developed by human action and choice, is what is protected, not the species itself. 

picture of California Wonder green peppersImagine that you are a plant breeder at an Agricultural Extension Office at a local university. You have been hired to assist local farmers in accessing resources to make their farms more profitable and sustainable. Perhaps your area is facing unique environmental challenges and your farmers’ production is falling behind because heirloom and commercially available varieties aren’t performing in this area. For this example, let’s say that the farmers have been growing a well-known heirloom red bell pepper variety, ‘Early California Wonder’, but are looking for some added disease resistance and a different color. 

As a savvy plant breeder, you know that varieties protected under Plant Variety Protection Certificates have a research exemption under their protection. Meaning you are able to use the newest releases by the top agricultural companies and breed them with ‘Early California Wonder’ to develop a pepper that performs in your unique environment but provides the other characteristics your farmers are looking for. 

Picture of hands selecting seeds from petri dish under microscopeTo start this process, you need to make crosses between the protected variety and ‘Early California Wonder’ and select from among the varied progeny (or results), to ensure that you are retaining all the characteristics you want but adding in the disease resistance and different color. This usually takes around 8-10 years, depending on the crop. While some universities work with private companies to do this work, most will cover the cost of the field, supplies, inputs, equipment, researchers, and field personnel. In the end the university, or any breeder, has invested heavily in developing the new variety and needs to regain the income that may come from their innovation if they are to continue breeding and developing the next great variety. 

Picture of seeds germinatingAfter successfully breeding an orange bell pepper with similar traits to ‘Early California Wonder’ but added disease resistances, you hand your new variety off to the university’s technology transfer or intellectual property (IP) office to be protected. Depending on the university’s IP strategy, they might choose patents or plant variety protection, depending on how they want to market the variety. For this example, let’s assume that after considering the protections such as plant patents/utility patents/trademarks under the Department of Commerce’s Patent and Trademark Office, your IP Office chooses Plant Variety Protection. Keep in mind that it is perfectly acceptable and quite common for breeders to choose (and pay for) multiple types of protection for their new variety. 

At the Plant Variety Protection Office anyone who has developed a variety can apply for a Plant Variety Protection Certificate, including individuals, companies, or public institutions. All applicants must follow the same guidelines and application requirements. For varieties to be eligible for protection they must be:

  • New: Not sold commercially or not sold for more than one year in the United States or more than four years Internationally
  • Distinct: Distinguishable from any other publicly known variety
  • Uniform: Any variations are describable, predictable, and commercially acceptable
  • Stable: When reproduced, the variety will remain unchanged from the described characteristics

picture of Tigist Masresra, a technical assistant, working in the Highland Maize Breeding Program at Ambo Research Center, Ethiopia.After application, an examiner from our office will check the information provided by the applicant against our database of protected varieties and those of common knowledge. If everything is in order, payment has been received, and a sample of the germplasm is deposited, the applicant will be issued a certificate of protection for their variety. 

artistic display of pecans and peanutsThe certificate allows the applicant to exercise exclusive rights to market, propagate, sell, and import/export the variety. There are exemptions to the certificate that allow the public to save some seeds, produce new varieties, use the variety in research, and propagate for non-commercial use (within the limits of other protections). After 20 years of protection (or 25 years for woody trees and vines) it becomes publicly available for all to use and the process to begin again.

Resources: 

Plant Variety Protection Office: https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/plant-variety-protection 

Patent and Trademark Office: https://www.uspto.gov/ 

List of protected varieties: https://apps.ams.usda.gov/CMS/

Photo Credits: 1) Fruit (USDA Flikr database); 2) ‘California Wonder’ peppers (www.anniesheirloomseeds.com); 3) Seed selection (USDA Flikr database); 4) Seedling germination (USDA Flikr database); 5) Tigist Masresra, a technical assistant, working in the Highland Maize Breeding Program at Ambo Research Center, Ethiopia (CIMMYT/ Peter Lowe, Rural21 Journal); 6) Peanuts and pecans (USDA Flikr database).


Mara Sanders is a plant variety intellectual property professional at the United States Department of Agriculture with a research background in plant science and experience in germplasm collection and management. She holds a Master of Science in Plant Biology and a Master of Business and Science in Global Agriculture, both from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Currently, she is a plant variety examiner with the Plant Variety Protection Office at USDA, covering crops such as pepper, lettuce, potato, and grapevine. She also serves as a member of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) Technical Working Party for Fruit Crops, as an expert on the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Farmers’ Rights for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and as a member of the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) Sunflower Review Board. She is passionate about food security, specifically, the role seed systems and germplasm resources play in creating sustainable agriculture systems.