Soursop and Bush Tea

By Scott Aker

Soursop, Annona muricataI succumbed to my weariness with winter and decided to spend a week with my cousin Barb in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. She knows my fondness for plants and planned several plant-related activities for me, including a visit to the St. George Village Botanical Gardens and local nurseries. One of the most memorable plant highlights was my first ever tasting of soursop, Annona muricata. I encountered this large, spiny green fruit in Hawaii many years ago, but was only able to buy it the day before we were to leave, and I couldn’t bring it home. I had tried it, even though the store clerk told me I had to let it ripen to the point that the flesh would yield when softly poked. Because it was unripe, it really had no flavor.

When I arrived, she pointed out a soursop in a wooden bowl in the kitchen. She saw that I knew the fruit, and she admonished me, like the clerk in that store in Hawaii, that we could not sample the fruit until it was very soft and mushy. She had frozen some soursop pulp from a fruit she had ripened prior to my arrival, and we scraped it into a kind of sorbet and ate that for dessert. So, I did get a delicious preview of what the fresh fruit would be like. The days went by, and I checked it daily with her. When I thought it was soft enough, she determined it was not quite there and that we would sample it tomorrow.

Author eating soursopWhen the time came to eat the fruit, she asked me to come to the kitchen counter to eat it with her. There were no plates, no knife, and no spoons. I asked what utensils would be needed, and she indicated that the most authentic way to eat this delicacy was with our hands and nothing else. After we thoroughly washed our hands, she plunged hers into the fruit, splitting the skin and revealing the very juicy, soft, and fragrant contents within. She grabbed some of the pulp, which was clinging to the large black seeds, and explained that we shouldn’t eat the seeds, but instead spit them out and place them in some of the skin of the fruit for later disposal. I followed her lead, and my tastebuds instantly rejoiced at the balanced sweetness and sourness of this creamy fruit with overtones of custard, pineapple, and strawberry, all with a smooth, creamy mouth feel. We finished most of that fruit. Later, I asked her where she bought it, and she laughed and said that she picked it from a tree growing at their church.

When I went to Christmas services there with her, I saw the tree. It had many fruits on it, and many seemed to be ripe. It bore a resemblance to the pawpaw, Asimina triloba, in my own backyard. The leaves and stature of the tree were smaller than the pawpaw, but similar enough to signal their close kinship in the Annonaceae family. I thought it odd that others would not have taken these fruits from the tree, but she said that this is a very common dooryard tree on the island and most likely parishioners have trees or know neighbors who do.

A few days later, we stopped for lunch, and I decided to try the bush tea that appeared on the menu. I’d seen this on other menus, but wasn’t sure what might be in bush tea, so I had opted for iced tea instead.  This menu mentioned the ingredients in the bush tea, and I noted that among other things it had soursop listed. I was hoping this meant that the tea would have the deliciously complex sweet and sour flavor of the fruit, but it did not. It had a lovely reddish pink hue and was clear. It had some sourness, no doubt from roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, and a complex taste that had overtones of mint and artemisia, along with other flavors that I found hard to pinpoint. I did not detect any of the fruitiness of the soursop fruit, and when I asked the staff, they told me that tea contained soursop leaves.

The inside of soursop fruitI was stunned by this revelation. I knew that most things, except for the larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, avoid eating leaves of pawpaw and other Annonaceae because of the presence of acetogenins in the leaves, seeds, twigs, and skin of the fruits. Knowing that biochemistry tends to be similar within most plant families, I was slightly concerned that the bush tea I drank had such substances in it. I have accidentally tasted the skin of pawpaw, and I can attest to the astringency and bitterness of acetogenins.

I did not detect the bitterness in the bush tea I drank, and this prompted further investigation. I looked for recipes. I quickly found that there is no set recipe for bush tea. I read the Crucian Contessa blog post (Bailey-Roka, 2012) on bush tea and learned that it consists of plants collected on the spot with no set formula in mind. The constituents may change with the need of the day. With regard to soursop, the author states that, “If you couldn’t sleep, the leaves from the soursop tree would help you rest.” Further research revealed that one of the acetogenins that both soursop and pawpaw produce is annonacin, which is a neurotoxin. I guess a mild neurotoxin may be effective in inducing sleep when overactive nerves are in play.

My cousin also mentioned that bush tea was the Crucians’ cure for any ailment, much as our grandmother considered caraway-flavored kümmel schnapps the cure-all for our childhood ailments. We agreed that the schnapps was a miracle cure only because we quickly learned to never complain of any illness to avoid its very strong and vile flavor. She told me that such was not the case with bush tea. Many islanders consider it a key part of their health regimen and start each day with a cup or more.

Soursop beverageBush tea is so highly esteemed that the local health department had to advise Crucians that bush tea is not effective against viral and bacterial infections. Crucians are known for creativity in making do with local ingredients that nature provides, historically limited by the resources present on their small island. Many of the other constituents may provide vitamins and antioxidants, so they may play a positive role in keeping them healthy.

Those acetogenins have another interesting angle. They are behind most of the cancer-treatment claims behind pawpaw, soursop, and other members of the Annonaceae. Extracts of soursop have also been investigated for treatment of diabetes, ulcers, and a host of other health issues (Mutakin, 2022). While the jury is still out, medicines derived from soursop are not likely to hit the mass market, because it is very difficult to prepare drugs since acetogenins are not stable when subjected to heat. Perhaps one need not worry about drinking a hot cup of bush tea with soursop leaves used in its preparation after all. On the more worrisome side, there has been some thought that consumption of soursop fruit and bush tea may have some link to the higher than expected rate of Parkinson’s Disease present in the Caribbean.

What is most fascinating to me about soursop is what we still do not know. It has been a prized fruit cultivated long before European conquest, yet we don’t fully understand the implications of using its leaves in bush tea. Plants have much to teach us, and we have much to learn.

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) Soursop fruit, Annona muricata; 2) Author trying the ripe fruit; 3) Inside of ripe soursop; 4) Bush tea. All photos courtesy of the author.

References

Bailey-Roka, Tanisha. 2012. Bush tea. Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.cruciancontessa.com/2012/12/20/bush-tea/

Mutakin, M., R. Fauziati, F. Nur Fadhilah, A. Zuhrotun, R. Amalia, et al. 2022. Pharmacological activities of soursop (Annona muricata Lin.). Molecules 27(4). Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8878098/


Scott Aker is Head of Horticulture and Education at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. He authored Digging In in The Washington Post and Garden Solutions in The American Gardener.

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.

Herbal Superhero: A Tribute to Steven Foster

Photographer, Author, Mentor, Friend

By Chrissy Moore

Steven Foster on hike in the woods wearing Rosemary Gladstar's beretIf you’ve spent time in the herb world, you’ve likely come across the name Steven Foster, one of the greatest luminaries of and advocates for herbs in our generation. Sadly, Steven passed away earlier this month. He touched many lives and influenced thousands more with his writing, his impeccable photographs, and his expert knowledge of herbs. If you haven’t “met” Steven yet, we hope that these remembrances will inspire you to learn more about him and his many personal, artistic, and academic herbal contributions.

The American Botanical Council’s founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, says of Steven, “[He] was one of the most brilliant people in the entire American and international herb community. The author or co-author of 19 books and hundreds of articles, and a true master of the herbal literature, especially the Eclectic medical literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, Steven was also a renowned photographer of herbs and medicinal plants with an eye for beauty in every leaf and flower who was unparalleled in the global botanical community.

Photo of Steven Foster and Mark Blumenthal“A self-taught botanist, and without any higher education, Steven knew as much or usually more about botany and the history of the literature on herbal medicine than many academics with numerous advanced degrees. His knowledge and memory of the botanical literature was almost photographic, and he had a beautifully eloquent way to explain and communicate his herbal wisdom” recounts Blumenthal (2022).

Mr. Foster was “an author with [more than] 15 herb-related books published (the first when he was 25), an associate editor for HerbalGram and other botanically-oriented publications, a board member, a consultant, and a self proclaimed ‘life-long student of medicinal and aromatic plants’” (Lindner, 2008).

Cover of the Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. DukeFoster co-authored the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants with the late Dr. James Duke (The Green Pharmacy), providing the photography for over 500 herbs within the text. Erin Holden, herbalist, horticulturist, and co-blogmaster of The Herb Society of America’s blog, stated that she “was sorry to hear about Steven Foster’s death. The Peterson Guide he did with Jim Duke was the first plant ID book that really helped me get into plants. As a newbie to plant ID, his photos helped me easily figure out what I was looking at in the woods, and from there, I was able to build a solid foundation before moving on to more detailed field guides. It was a gateway book, and I’m not sure I’d have stayed on the ‘plant path’ if I hadn’t found it.” Thankfully, Erin did stay on the “plant path.” She earned a Master’s in Herbal Medicine and, later, joined the staff of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum. 

Saw palmetto berry harvestTina Marie Wilcox of the Ozark Folk Center shares that, “Steven Foster began mentoring me for my position as head gardener and herbalist for the Ozark Folk Center’s Heritage Herb Garden in Mountain View, Arkansas, in 1986. His book, Herbal Bounty, the Gentle Art of Herb Culture, had been in circulation for two years. The plant kingdom planted me firmly at the feet of the master. Steven’s intellect would have been too intimidating had he not been such a patient and kindred spirit. He explained Latin plant classifications, plant identification, and introduced me to the chemistry of plants.” 

James Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians with Steven Foster's photos showing in the background

James Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians with Steven Foster’s photographs in the background

“Steven Foster lectured for herb events at the Ozark Folk Center many times over the decades, twice with Dr. James A. Duke. For the Heritage Herb Spring Extravaganza in 2009, during the evening concert, as Dr. Duke performed songs from “The Herbalbum” with Ozark Folk Center musicians, Steven’s photographs depicted the herbs on the silver screen behind the musicians. I could not have transcended any higher in those moments. I believe his spirit lives on in his work and in the next realm.”

Cover of HerbalGram Journal with Calendula flowerHolly Shimizu, Director of the US Botanic Garden (Ret.) in Washington, DC, and first curator of the National Herb Garden, recalls, “I got to know Steven in the last several years while serving on the Board of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. I was amazed at Steven’s intelligence, loved his witty sense of humor, and we both shared a passion for plants. I turned to Steven for his opinions, thoughts, and support because I recognized his intuitive wisdom. One can always tell when an herb photograph has been taken by Steven because of its excellence, detail, and extraordinary beauty. His books and articles are beautifully written, accurately researched, and trusted reference material. We once had a conversation about herbals, it turned into a long conversation, because his knowledge and collection of old herb references is absolutely amazing.”

Author, chef, and herb connoisseur, Susan Belsinger, shares the following:

“Over the years, I have been at many herbal events when Steven was there—sometimes he was presenting or getting an award, or we were both presenting—and occasionally we were there for pleasure. As much as we both loved herbs and made them our life’s work, we also loved good food and libations. 

Photo of Susan Belsinger, Rosemary Gladstar, Tina Marie Wilcox, and Steven Foster

Susan Belsinger, Rosemary Gladstar, Tina Marie Wilcox, Steven Foster

However, what I enjoyed most with Steven was heading out into nature with our cameras, botanizing with him was the best! I learned a lot from him about identifying plants and taking photos of botanicals while out on walks—and I took a photography course with him at IHS (International Herb Symposium). He had a brilliant mind and such an artistic eye—I have never seen such exquisite botanical photographs as his. Steven was a thoughtful teacher, and he guided so many of us in so many ways. It didn’t matter if you were a novice or had a number of degrees—he listened and was patient and helpful. And, of course, there was his quirky sense of humor, not to mention that impish grin, and oh, how he made us laugh! 

Steven Foster with a silly hat onSteven Foster was a serious academic and a savvy businessman; he was down-to-earth and had a heart of gold, and he shared his knowledge willingly. He was a man who lived through his senses and knew them intimately; his appreciation and knowledge of herbs and spices led him around the world. His keen eye and awareness of detail in his photography makes him unrivaled in capturing botanical images. He was truly an epicurean and shared his delight in smell and taste and the pleasures of the table. [He had a] big heart—it overflowed with his love and joy for his family and friends—you could see it in his soulful eyes.

Steven Foster and his wife, DonnaThe past few days, I have read countless tributes and memories about Steven—and all of them reveal what a sensitive, creative, and caring man he was. He was a family man—proud of every member of his tribe–and adored Donna and loved his kids and grandkids. Our hearts are broken and the herbal world has been rocked with the loss of Steven. We are thankful to have shared the time that we had with him…. He has left us too soon, though he has given us his herbal legacy in his wonderful books and photographs.”

If you have the opportunity, we encourage you to invite Steven Foster–and his work–into your life. Let him be an herbal mentor and friend to you, if only posthumously. You will be richer for it. Thank you, Steven, for all that you have done for the advancement of herbal knowledge in our world. You will be missed.

Photo Credits: 1) Steven Foster (Susan Belsinger); 2) Steven Foster and Mark Blumenthal (Holly Shimizu); 3) Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants (Public Domain); 4) Harvesting saw palmetto berries (Steven Foster); 5) James A. Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians and Steven Foster’s images showing on the screen (Tina Wilcox); 6) Steven Foster cover photo of HerbalGram (American Botanical Counsel); 7) S. Belsinger, R. Gladstar, T. Wilcox, and S. Foster (S. Belsinger); 8) Steven Foster wearing silly hat (S. Belsinger); 9) Donna and Steven Foster (S. Belsinger).

References

Blumenthal, Mark. 2022. Herbal Medicine Community Mourns the Death of Steven Foster. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/news/press-releases/2022/herbal-medicine-community-mourns-death-of-steven-foster/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.

Lindner, Kelly E. 2008. Meet ABC Board Member Steven Foster: Noted Herbal Expert, Photographer, Author. HerbalGram. Issue 80, pp. 14-15. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/80/table-of-contents/article3321/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.

All other quotations via personal communication. January, 2022.


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

Tasty Tidbits: Celebrate with Tradition and Superstition

By Bonnie Porterfield

Two glasses of champagnePop open the champagne, and let’s celebrate some of our food traditions and superstitions surrounding the New Year.

Our friends from the South begin their New Year with black-eyed peas for good luck and prosperity, along with greens and cornbread. Superstition has it that the peas represent coins, and the greens represent paper money. The addition of cornbread brings gold!

Black-eyed pea seeds were brought to this country by the enslaved people of West Africa. Black-eyed peas were considered both a crop and a food source for livestock. During the Civil War, when Sherman marched his troops through the South, they destroyed anything that was useful to the Confederates. They did, however, ignore the black-eyed peas growing in the fields thinking they were merely fodder for livestock and unfit for humans. These leftover crops were used by the Confederate soldiers who were able to survive by eating this nourishing legume, thus elevating it to good luck status.

A dish of black-eyed peasThe tradition of eating Hoppin’ John began on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and the newly freed slaves celebrated with this good luck dish. Hoppin’ John recipes vary, but generally include black-eyed peas, rice, and some form of pork, such as ham, pork, fatback, or bacon. Pigs are symbols of good luck, because they root forward as they forage, and rice is thought to bring abundance, because it swells when it cooks, thus adding even more abundance for the coming year to this already “good luck” dish.

Here in the Midwest, we are probably more used to seeing pork and sauerkraut in our New Year’s celebrations. It was a German custom that the Pennsylvania Dutch brought with them as they settled in this country. As the harvest season drew to a close, seasonal butchering was usually done before Christmas and New Year’s, thus a meal of roast pork was considered a celebration.

Plate of pork, sauerkraut, and dumplingAlso during this harvest time, cabbage was brined and pickled and turned into sauerkraut to be preserved for the coming winter. The combination of the sour, tangy kraut with the fatty pork was a perfect combination.  

Family and friends wished each other as much wealth and as long a life as the long strands of cabbage in the sauerkraut. Combined with the good luck attributed to the pig, this meal truly was a harbinger of all good things for the coming year.

With both the southern and German traditions including the superstition that pork symbolizes progress, that is enough for me to make sure to include one of these meals on New Year’s Day!  

Celebrations around the world include foods that represent long life, prosperity, and wealth. Asian cultures include long noodles representing long life, and lentils are traditional in many cultures symbolizing prosperity and luck due to their round shape. In fact, round foods, in general, are thought to symbolize wealth, as they resemble coins.

Yellow grapes on the vineIn Spain, grape growers who had an abundance of grapes supposedly started the tradition of eating twelve grapes while the clock strikes midnight as a way of encouraging people to buy their surplus grapes. Eating one grape at each strike of the clock represents the coming twelve months and provides good luck and prosperity for the coming year. Beware and take note, though, if you eat a sour grape, that month may be a challenge!

Folklore and superstition aside, there is hidden nutritional value to these traditions. Those black-eyed peas are loaded with fiber and protein, as well as thiamine and iron. Lean pork is a good source of thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and B6, in addition to potassium and zinc. Sauerkraut, being a fermented food, is loaded with probiotics as well as Vitamins C, K, and B6. Lentils also provide fiber and protein. So, starting off your new year with one of these meals not only brings good luck, it also brings good health!

Superstitions also tell us to stay away from some foods. Avoid beef as cattle stand still when they eat. Turkeys and chickens scratch backwards for their food, and crabs move sideways, and no one wants to stand still, go sideways, or backwards in the new year!

Before we get to the bubbly, some traditions not related to food include, if you kiss someone at midnight, you will not be lonely in the new year.  Opening doors will release negative energy and allow new positive energy to come into your home. You might also want to make lots of noise at midnight to scare away all of the evil spirits.

bayberry candles burning on a fireplaceOne herbal note here concerns burning a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. A reference in The Old Farmer’s Almanac includes this rhyme: 

“A bayberry candle

Burned to the socket

Brings food and larder

And gold to the pocket.”

When I was home from college my senior year, I burned a bayberry candle on New Year’s eve all night. Thinking back, I’m sure my mom didn’t sleep a wink worrying about me burning the house down. But, I do remember having a great second semester that year!

Before the clock strikes midnight, get your champagne flutes ready. The idea of celebrating with champagne had been reserved for royalty and the wealthy but was always aspirational for the rest of society. Gradually, this custom trickled down to the merchant and working classes, and it is now common to celebrate special occasions with a champagne toast.

Photo of Cafe Martin, 1908Here in the United States, drinking champagne at midnight can be attributed to two brothers from France who started the restaurant, Cafe Martin, in 1902, in New York City. It was “the place to be” for the wealthy, and on New Year’s Eve after 9 p.m., they served champagne only. Even the waiters got into the celebration by saving the corks and getting a “kickback” for each bottle they opened.  

So, now we find ourselves saying goodbye to 2021. We have much to celebrate and look forward to in 2022, so raise your glass and toast to a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year!

Cheers!

Photo Credits: 1) Champagne (Pixaby); 2) Dish of black-eyed peas (B. Porterfield); 3) Pork, sauerkraut, and dumpling (C. Schmitt, Creative Commons); 4) Grapes (B. Porterfield); 5) Bayberry candles (B. Porterfield); 6) Cafe Martin, 1908 (Imgur).


Bonnie Porterfield is a forty-year Life Member of The Herb Society of America and a member of the Western Reserve Unit. She has served in many roles during that time, including two terms as Great Lakes District Delegate, Unit Chair; Co-Chair of the Western Reserve Unit’s first symposium and member of the GreenBridges™ and Library Advisory Committees. She is an avid herb gardener, reader, learner, and supporter of local efforts in re-establishing natural areas that promote native plantings.

Ring Ye Solstice Bells: Reflections on the Longest Night of the Year

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

A1576943-59AB-44B3-9200-12D5BB70C619I was sitting here at my desk trying to think of what I could say about the Winter Solstice that I have never said before. Then I started to think about the last two years. As the COVID virus forces us, once again, to reconsider the way that we celebrate with each other, I am reminded that taking the time needed to reflect with joy and gratitude that I am still alive, as are my loved ones, is what must take center stage.

As I look back, though, the overwhelming feeling that I have is gratitude. Gratitude that I’m alive. Grateful to have those I love around my table or at least still with us. Grateful to be able to still live our lives, love and laugh together. Living alongside this joy is the stark reality of the last year, and walking hand in hand with me is the grief that so many I love are living with empty chairs and tears this December.  

Untitled (Facebook Post)I always laugh and say when I am asked, that celebrating the Winter Solstice has always been how two Jewish women who absolutely love Christmas find their own place within those traditions. Normally, my sister and I have a huge party on Solstice eve in her beautiful log cabin that was once a maple sugar house. We decorate like mad, fill up the house with herb wreaths, holly boughs, evergreens, and beautifully scented Christmas potpourri—a special gift from my dear friend, Kathleen. 

We take turns blessing the remnants of the previous year’s Yule log, making our wishes for the coming months before we use it to light the new fire. We have all of our friends over for a beautiful feast, the table laden with bayberry candles, wonderful holiday foods, and a groaning board of homemade desserts.

There’s always a copper kettle filled with steaming mulled wine redolent with roasted warming spices or cocoa, and a pot full of “Lamb’s Wool,” my favorite of the ancient punches (see recipe below). This is always rounded off by a huge punch bowl of eggnog and another of icy bourbon milk punch. Eighty-plus people usually join us, and it gets loud and lively. For close to 20 years, this party has always been the high point of my holiday season, but for obvious reasons, it just cannot take place this year.

I have found myself wondering for weeks now how to keep this tradition that I love so much, and then a little voice in my head whispered simply, “You have to be willing to let go of the old to make room for the beautiful and new….Why don’t you just begin at the beginning?”

Suddenly, I realized what had been in front of me all along, what I couldn’t see because I was longing for what had been. I needed to acknowledge where the past year has brought me, and so I began to ponder the traditional origins of the Winter Solstice celebration.

Photo ofTraditionally, the Solstice has always been one of the quietest nights of the year, and indeed, the longest night of the year. The months and weeks leading up to the Solstice were full of great intention and action for the harvest must be brought in; the onions and garlic braided; fruits, vegetables, and herbs dried; and the animals slaughtered for meat, along with the beef tallow needed for cooking, soapmaking, candles, and salves. The milk from goats, sheep, and cows needed to be turned into cheese that would last through the winter. The honey and beeswax from the hives needed to be harvested and turned into candles. The fields had to be put to bed in preparation for the following spring, and only then could thoughts turn towards celebration. 

Some years, the people weren’t so lucky. There were wars and famines. Hives failed. Animals meant for food starved, and their milk dried up. The abundance of food, warmth, and light that we take for granted just did not exist even 100 years ago, and more often than not, there would be a sense of foreboding, and there would be many challenges, including the challenge of disease without many options to fight it.

So much is so readily available to us that we have mostly forgotten what it means to live within our own world, to live with each other and to be self-reliant. As I thought about this, I realized quite suddenly that we are perhaps closer to understanding how our forebears must have felt than ever before. Having the days grow longer and lighter must have seemed like such a miracle to them. Finding ways to fight the virulence of diseases and the pests that ravaged their farms and families must have filled them with such hope.

Finding ways to make sense of what was happening in the natural world, using traditional skills and new discoveries must have seemed like real magic to them, and the silver lining of the last year is that, in many ways, we are watching the same phenomenon unfolding right now, in real time.

21C369CA-169A-4728-AE00-A7B200EFFAD3Those of us who are herbalists, cooks, and gardeners know very well what I am saying. After all, in 2020 could you find a new Ball jar for canning in any store? I couldn’t! There was no garden soil anywhere, and mulch was sold out. Seeds were sold out by the end of January. Yeast for baking was nowhere to be found. Elderberry, echinacea, and goldenseal products were sold off of shelves as quickly as they appeared, with many stores putting limits on what could be purchased.

Very quickly, I realized that what I’d always taken for granted simply wasn’t there. I have to admit to not feeling frustrated, but instead finding it oddly thrilling.

So many people learning so many new skills. A walk around my neighborhood would make me smile. Vegetable and herb gardens were being put in everywhere, and so were fruit trees.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was talking about survival, honeybees, and sustainability.

I called my Herb Society of America friends, and we shared mason jars and seeds. We shared cuttings and bags of soil. That summer, I began to harvest, forage, and preserve with an energy I’d never had before. I was actually shocked and very proud when my husband announced to me that I’d filled the freezers with soups, stews, and sauces, and that there was no room left for anything else.

IMG_4271-1Coincidentally, with this blossoming awareness, the talks that I gave as Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society began to focus on gardening, foraging, harvesting, and preserving, as well as maintaining soil health organically. Suddenly, everyone wanted to ask me about companion planting, foraging for native foods, native plants, and pollinators. My inbox is always filled these days asking me for suggestions for learning about herbs and foods that are believed to help support immunity. I get asked so many questions now about eating seasonally.

What I realized, and am realizing still as I write, is that the last hard years have brought us home, and in so many ways we are perhaps the better for it. This year for the Winter Solstice, Jim and I will have a bonfire outside with a special Yule log, a few of our neighbors, and we’ll drink mulled wine, milk punch, and Lamb’s Wool!

We’ll feast on traditional dishes of dried fruit and melted cheese, roasted pork with sweet potatoes and kale from our garden, really good gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, rosemary and lavender shortbread, honey‐sweetened pears from our own trees, and rum‐soaked fruitcake. Instead of bright lights, I’ll have candles lit all over the porch and fresh greens everywhere. We’ll all share what we are thankful for and we’ll grieve our losses, celebrate the joy and honor the fear that is still present for so many of us. We’ll keep it simple, full of gratitude and the joy of just being together, and maybe we’ll sing some of the old English carols. I’ll wassail my fruit trees with the leftover cider in hopes of a plentiful harvest next year.  We’ll walk in the woods and listen for owls at midnight, the traditional harbingers of luck on Solstice eve, and then we’ll await the sunrise.

F0EAF7D3-AB1A-4B9F-B2C7-3EF94E51D015Suddenly, people like us (and if you’re reading this, that’s you!) are madly in style. Many of us have a special calling in this new world to teach all that we know about the herbs and plants we love. We have a unique opportunity to build a bigger table, to share our knowledge generously in these challenging circumstances. Our horticultural skills can help feed the hungry, support the healing we all need and crave, and simply make this world a lovelier, greener place.

During this season of light, on this wintry Solstice night, please remember to be generous with yourselves.

 

“May you find your peace in the promise of the long Solstice night….”

Lamb’s Wool Recipe for Solstice

Lamb’s Wool is a truly wonderful ancient drink made from a delicious blend of baked apples, mulling spices, cider, and dark ale slowly simmered until the apples are “woolly!”

  • The first thing that you’ll need to do is bake a plate of apples! Simply core four or five small apples and fill the insides with raisins, slivered almonds, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spices, amaretto, and butter. If the ingredients spill all over the apples, even better. Bake them until soft and caramelized.  In a pinch you can use cinnamon applesauce, and it will taste very good, but I like the baked and buttered apples better! 
  • Next, pour a gallon of good cider into a pot, and add 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar, several cracked cinnamon sticks, 1/2 teaspoon of whole cloves, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and a teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, and add the apples and all of their juices. Let them simmer for a bit or until the apples explode and get all “woolly.” Trust me, you’ll know what I mean by that!
  • Then bring down the heat a bit, and add one bottle of very good dark ale and half of a bottle of red wine (something you like the taste of and not too cheap). Simmer for another minute, and then add one stick of organic salted butter. When the butter has melted, give the whole thing a good stir, and then taste. Adjust the seasonings and the sugar, and then add a couple of cups of rum. You’ll have to taste as you go, but that’s the only way to get it the way you want it! I love to use Myers Dark Rum because it is so rich, dark and as sweet as the molasses it’s made from.  

Photo Credits: 1) Fireplace and solstice fire at author’s sister’s house; 2) Barn in the snow (Canva print); 3) Author’s friend, Kathleen’s, homemade dried herb Christmas potpourri and bunch of holly on author’s porch; 4) Author’s homemade eggnog; 5) View of author’s raised bed garden from porch; 6) Author’s yard, kept as a pollinator mead; 7) Chestnuts that author roasted with rosemary and butter over a fire. (All photos courtesy of the author except #2.)

 


Beth 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.

A Unique View of an Esteemed Native Plant: Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal)

By Katherine Schlosser

“I may here observe, that the disease of cancer is not confined to civilized nations. It is known among our Indians. I am informed that the Cheerake cure it with a plant which is thought to be the Hydrastis Canadensis, one of our fine native dies [dyes].”

                                                                   – Benjamin Smith Barton, 1766-1815

Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, has been known for centuries for its medicinal uses ranging from a gastrointestinal aid, stimulant, tonic, emetic, and febrifuge, to helping with ear and eye complaints, heart problems, liver issues, pulmonary complaints, and more.  

Europeans learned of goldenseal’s value as a medicinal plant not long after arriving in North America. The initial knowledge of its use is often credited to the Cherokee people, but as their territory is far from where the first colonists landed, it seems likely that the Europeans first learned of goldenseal from more northern tribes. Word of mouth and trading between Mid-Atlantic tribes, such as the Cherokee and Eastern North Carolina tribes, and those in New England likely resulted in widespread knowledge of goldenseal’s uses.

USDA map of Hydrastis canadensis native rangeAs the Abenake, Algonquin, Menominee, Mohegan, Narragansett, Wampanoag, and others had local access to goldenseal, it could be that they, too, had learned about the usefulness of the plant. In whatever manner the knowledge was spread, colonists soon learned to treat it as a valuable product and began harvesting the plant for personal use and for trading. Consequently, centuries of wild collecting and habitat loss have put it at risk. Goldenseal is considered endangered, threatened, or of special concern in all 27 states in the United States that have native populations.

A rather curious fact about goldenseal is that, for as long as it has been known to have a great many medicinal uses, little scientific research has validated those uses. In fact, depending on dosage and how long it’s used, it can be harmful. Still, it is collected, bottled, and sold as effective for many of the same complaints mentioned above. It is strongly recommended that one consult a medical doctor prior to using products produced from this plant.

King Solomon's seal Star of DavidThere is another interesting story connected to goldenseal, and that is the use of the term “seal” in the common name. From about 932 – 970 BCE, King Solomon, son of King David, ruled the United Kingdom of Israel. He was a wealthy and wise man for whom many amulets and medallion seals were created. Held in great esteem over the centuries, King Solomon is remembered today in the common names of several plants including Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum), evergreen Solomon’s seal (Disporopsis pernyi, native to high altitude forests in China), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Seals were designed, in part, to verify that a document was, in fact, from King Solomon, much as we are required to verify signatures on legal documents today. A design attributed to one of Solomon’s seals was fitted to a gold ring and bore what, many years later, became the Star of David.

Drawing of cut end of Hydrastis canadensis showing "seal"What Solomon’s seal has to do with Hydrastis canadensis, the plant recently identified as The Herb Society of America’s Notable Native Herb of the Year 2022, requires research and a healthy dose of imagination. The secret is in the woody rhizomes of these plants. The plants die back in winter, and as spring arrives, one or more new shoots emerge from the rhizome. If you carefully dig up the rhizome, brush away the dirt, and slice off a section, you will see what could be called an image of King Solomon’s Seal at the site of the cut.

You can, then, replant a section of the rhizome, though it will take from 3 – 5 years for it to grow to maturity. Plant rhizome roots about 1” deep, horizontally, spreading out tiny roots and with a bud pointing upward. If there is no bud, the rhizome will grow one, which may add a little time to maturity. The bud should be just below the surface of the soil. Add some mulch (hardwood) and see that the plant gets at least a few hours of sun a day, but mostly shade. 

Hydrastis canadensis botanical printOther common names for Hydrastis canadensis include yellow or orange root, yellow puccoon, Indian paint, jaundice root, Ohio curcuma, Indian dye, eye balm, and yellow eye. If you pull up a plant, you will immediately see the reason for the common name—the slim roots growing from the rhizome are bright yellow, as is the inside of the rhizome. 

Polygonatum and Maianthemum species (Solomon’s seal), are better known for the appearance of a seal on their rhizomes. However, the “seal” appears at the site of bud scars from the previous year’s growth.

Anytime we begin to explore our native herbs, we learn a lot of history, science, botany, and legend, making the study of herbs an almost endlessly entertaining pursuit.

To learn more about goldenseal, you can download a copy of the Fact Sheet for Hydrastis canadensis at

https://www.herbsociety.org/explore/notable-native-herbsprofiles.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) Goldenseal, showing the coloring of roots and rhizome (Charles F. Millspaugh, M.D.); 2) Distribution of Hydrastis canadensis across the United States with populations shaded in green (USDA Plants Database); 3) Hydrastis canadensis spring bloom and maturing fruit (K. Schlosser); 4) Seal of King Solomon from a Talismanic scroll at The Metropolitan of Art in New York City (Public Domain); 5) Hydrastis canadensis rhizome cut across the point of previous year’s growth (David M.R. Culbreth); 6) Solomon’s seal rhizome showing past year’s growth scar (Creative Commons, Sid Vogelpohl, Arkansas Native Plant Society).

References

Culbreth, David M.R. (1917).  Manual of materia medica and pharmacology, Lea Brothers & Co. 6th Edition.  Fig. 115.  Available online https://chestofbooks.com/health/materia-medica-drugs/Manual-Pharmacology/Hydrastis.html  Accessed September 12, 2021.

Millspaugh, Charles F. M.D. (1887).  American medicinal plants: an illustrated and descriptive guideBoericke & Tafel, New York and Philadelphia.  Pages 9 to 9-3.  Available online: Biodiversity Heritage Library:  https://ia600203.us.archive.org/15/items/americanmedicina01mill/americanmedicina01mill.pdf  Accessed April 4, 2021.

Vogelpohl, Sid.  Arkansas Native Plant Society.  https://anps.org/2014/04/03/know-your-natives-false-solomons-seal/


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the North Carolina Unit of The Herb Society of America since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level, including as a member of the Native Herb Conservation Committee, The Herb Society of America. She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen de Conway Little Medal of Honor. She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.