Baobab Tree – The African “Tree of Life”

by Maryann Readal

Baobab tree with leavesThe African baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, is a unique tree. Seeing this huge tree in the African landscape and hearing the stories about it never fails to capture my imagination.

The baobab tree is native to sub-saharan Africa, and can be found in low-lying areas of Australia, India, and Madagascar as well. The tree has been introduced into other countries over the years. Carbon dating has found that some of these trees are over 2,000 years old. However, the oldest of the African trees are slowly dying. Climate change, greenhouse gasses, and exploitation are believed to be factors affecting the longevity of these iconic trees.

Large baobab tree without leavesThe tree can reach a height 65 feet. Its trunk is a series of branches that have grown together creating a trunk of truly monumental size—36 to 46 feet or more in diameter. The inside of the trunk is hollow. This tree only has leaves during the rainy season, which lasts two to four months of the year. The other months of the year, the tree appears to be growing upside-down with its trunk and roots rising from the earth below. An old legend is that the gods became displeased with the baobab because the tree felt it was better than other trees, and so the gods yanked it out of the ground and turned it upside down to teach it humility. Each African country has its own interesting stories and legends about the baobab tree.

The tree’s flowers are white, pendulous, and very fragrant. However, as the blossom ages, it smells like carrion. It blooms only at night and the blossom is pollinated by fruit bats. It takes 8-23 years for a tree to begin to bloom. When the flower fades, the seed pod dangles from the tree’s branches and resembles a large, velvet covered gourd. The pod can be dried and used as a food or drink container. Because the seed pulp has so many medicinal and nutritional uses, research is being done on ways to shorten the time it takes for the tree to bloom, increasing the tree’s potential economic value in Africa.  

The baobab can store a large amount of water in its huge, fibrous trunk, which is why elephants and other animals chew on its trunk during dry seasons. One tree can hold 1,189 gallons of water. Indigenous peoples have used the tree for water during dry spells and hiding places during times of war. Some tree trunks were so large that they were used as jails, a post office, and even as a bush bar in South Africa. The tree’s herbal properties are still important to Africans. Various parts are used for food, medicine, to make beer, and as a source of fiber. The tree also supports many native animals, insects, and bats. Nearly 300 uses of the baobab tree have been documented (Islam-Faridi, 2020). This African herbal tree is appropriately named the “Tree of Life” because of its many uses.  

The seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, fruit pulp, and bark of the baobab tree are all edible. Baobab leaves are used in the preparation of soup, sauces, and are used as a relish. Seeds are a thickening agent in soups, and can also be fermented and used as a flavoring, or roasted and eaten as a snack. The seed pulp acts as a leavening agent in bread making. Cream of tartar was once made from the seed pulp. The seed pulp is also candied and sold in local markets, and is fermented to make a local beer.

The seed pulp is nutritional and has many health benefits, so it has become a popular health food supplement. The pulp is said to have ten times more Vitamin C than oranges and 50% more calcium than spinach. The U.S. and Europe have approved the pulp as food in recent years and it is now being marketed as a “superfood,” containing more antioxidants than other fruits. Packaged, powdered baobab pulp and leaves can be found online and in health food stores.

Three small kids standing in a hole in a baobab tree trunkThe medicinal applications of the tree are too many to cover here. The anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties of the leaves and the seed pulp have been used to treat infections and a host of other illnesses. It has been used as a prophylactic against malaria. Research studies have shown that the A. digitata is the most potent native plant for treating viruses and studies show that the seed pulp and the leaves have the highest antioxidant properties (Jackson, 2016).

In addition to the tree’s medicinal and nutritional benefits, “studies suggest that baobab preparations can promote skin cell regeneration and tone, tighten, and moisturize the skin” (Jackson, 2016). The essential oil is good for dry skin, sunburn, and the prevention of wrinkles. The baobab has now become an important tree for the cosmetic industry.

A large group of people standing in a circle around the trunk of a large baobab treeSeeing one of these giant trees in Africa and being inside one of them is certainly an unforgettable experience. Hearing the stories about the tree is even better because they tell of a deep respect for this important tree by the African people.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Baobab with leaves (Maryann Readal); 2) Baobab without leaves (Stacey Readal); 3) Fruits (Creative Commons); 4) Flower (Bernard Dupont, via Wikimedia); 5) Baobab seed snacks (Maryann Readal); 6) Powdered baobab leaves (Creative Commons); 7) Hadza baobab tree house in Tanzania (Creative Commons); 8) Baobab tree in Limpopo, South Africa (South African Tourism, via Wikimedia)

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

References

Africa Geographic. 2015. 9 fascinating baobab tree facts. Accessed 8/9/22. Available from https://africageographic.com/stories/9-fascinating-baobab-tree-facts/

Gardenerdy. 34 facts about the baobab tree. Accessed 8/12/22. Available from https://gardenerdy.com/facts-about-baobab-trees/

Jackson, Simon. 2016. Baobab: the tree of life – An ethnopharmacolocal review. HerbalGram, Nov 2015-Jan 2016, Issue 108. Accessed 8/10/22.  Available from http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/108/table-of-contents/hg108-feat-baobab/

Kabore, Donatien, et al. 2011. A review of baobab (Adansonia digitata) products: effect of processing techniques, medicinal properties and uses. African Journal of Food Science: Vol. 5(16) pp. 833-844. Accessed 8/10/22.  Available from https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=fr&user=ig1J-FQAAAAJ&citation_for_view=ig1J-FQAAAAJ:u-x6o8ySG0sC    

Nurul, Islam-Faridi, et al. 2020. New chromosome number and cyto-molecular characterization of the African Baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) – “The Tree of Life”. Scientific Reports, 8/6/20. Accessed 8/9/22. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413363/

Page, Michael Le. 2021. Efforts to domesticate African baobab trees are bearing fruit. New Scientist, 9/4/21. Accessed 8/9/22. Academic Search Complete database.


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.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Indigenous Garden

by Erin Presley, Olbrich Botanical Gardens Horticulturist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PBS Wisconsin recording of Indigenous Garden presentation by Erin and Rita

Media coverage from local TV station

MILKWEED SOUP:

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

Prep the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca):

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

Prepare the soup:

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

Dumplings:

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

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


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

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

by Susan Belsinger

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

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

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

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

Parts used: leaves and flowers; mainly seeds

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves and flowers

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves and flowers

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

yellow flowers of fennelFennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Parts used: leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

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

Parts used: leaves

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

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

 

divided leaves and white flowers of licoriceLicorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Parts used: root

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

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

 

long thin leaves of mexican marigoldMexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida)

Parts used: leaves and flowers

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

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

 

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

Parts used: roots, leaves, flowers, seeds

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

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

 

 

Basic Chemistry

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

close up of dark green basil leaves

Basil leaves

In the Kitchen

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

Fennel_seed by Howcheng via wikimedia

Fennel seeds

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

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

 

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

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

Anise Hyssop and Almond Butter Cookies

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

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

Makes about 5 to 6 dozen cookies

1 cup sugar, preferably organic

1/4 cup anise hyssop florets removed from their stems

1 extra large egg

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached flour

Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

3 ounces almonds, lightly toasted and finely chopped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 









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.

Starting Anew, Again

 

IMG_3104(1)Another move means another new time for figuring out what conditions herbs will like. It seems to me it’s never the same. I’m always learning about sun, soil, and specifics to please them. For instance, we moved to a new apartment in December from full-almost-too-much sun to very little light, and I wrote off the herbs’ survival when we moved. I went out this morning to clean up the porch, toss the debris, and see just how much work there was to be done before my annual after-Easter shop. Instead of finding dead plants, the Italian parsley in one container and the curly leaf in another have been very happy, filling up their porch pots with gay abandon, the Italian parsley even bolting and seeding. Apparently, they liked the neglect, the freezes, the lack of sun and the dreary winter. Or maybe the indirect sun from facing North is not all bad?  

Of course, I really don’t know if Easter is the right marker for planting. I’m in another climate zone now in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is much different from my pre-pandemic home in Charleston, South Carolina. Easter has been the dividing time between winter and spring planting for so long that it is ingrained in my habits. I’ve been planning to do a big spring shop after a patio sprucing for weeks, trying to figure it all out. One thing for sure, I don’t need any parsley. I do need a new wicker chair as when I sat down to take photographs, one of our two gave way with an astounding crack. (My favorite former mother-in-law gave them to me twenty some years ago, saying they were antiques. My brother and husband have been trying to get me to throw them away for the last nineteen, but I was determined to keep them as long as I could, even moving them here, just for the memory of someone I loved dearly.) 

IMG_0212Top on my list are fennel, lemon balm, sage, oregano, rosemary, and as many kinds of thyme and basil as I can get. Cilantro would be a good addition, too, maybe even keeping up with the parsley and self-seeding. Truth be told, I enjoy coriander seeds more than I do their herb, cilantro, itself. So, too, I have  enjoyed fennel over the years and favor it rather than its look-alike, dill. It seems to me to be the ideal plant, always yielding something, whether fronds for chopping, seeds for grinding, or stems for salads, and stem and fronds for poaching fish. They were the only herbs happy all year round in front of my restaurant in Social Circle, Georgia, in 1970 and beyond, reproducing wildly, tall and stately, their arms stretched out with spokes and seeds. Whatever I did, it was making the fennel happy. It was the catalyst for many of my recipes, including Fennel Bread, a favorite. The chances of replicating my former restaurant garden’s abundance now is pretty low, since it is a pot garden, but I’ll be happy with enough variety of herbs to cook all year long and some seeds to store for later use. And the kitty will be pleased with some catnip, assuming I plant it high enough so she doesn’t sit in it first thing, unknowingly destroying it like she did last year. 

Author's front door with herbsChances are there won’t be enough room to please us both with all we want, but we’ll be happy with what herbs we can get provided kitty and I can each have a place to sit in a patch of sun with a few birds to sing to us.

Editor’s Note: The Herb Society of America is grateful that Ms. Dupree will be presenting at The Society’s annual meeting of members in Charleston, SC, this week.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author.


Head shot of Chef Nathalie DupreeKnown as the “Queen of Southern Cooking,” Nathalie Dupree is a best-selling author of 15 cookbooks and her wisdom and recipes have been featured in Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, Southern Living, Coastal Living, Better Homes and Garden, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping. A beloved and respected teacher, she has appeared in more than 300 television shows on The Food Network, PBS, and The Learning Channel. She won James Beard Awards for “Southern Memories” and “Comfortable Entertaining,” as well as her most recent book, “Nathalie Dupree’s Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She was also honored with the prestigious “Grand Dame” of Les Dames d’Escoffier.

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.

Mastic: Something Herbal to Chew On

By Chrissy Moore

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

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

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

Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, Syros

Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toothpastes containing mastic

Toothpaste containing mastic

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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