An Incredible Herb Right Under Our Feet…or Above Our Heads

By Katherine Schlosser

For most of us, our garden tools are cleaned and stored, the holidays have passed, and we have a little more time to simply enjoy what we find in meadows, forests, fields, and even in our own backyards. Lichens can fill a part of the void we may be feeling. Their curious forms and means of growing and spreading, with which many of us are unfamiliar, can fill our minds with the wonders of things we normally pass without notice.  

There are more than 5,000 species of lichen and lichen-dependent fungi in North America, with colors ranging from blues, lavender, yellow, red, orange, and gray to many beautiful greens. Color in lichens can depend on whether they are wet or dry. A major paint company even created a color they call Lichen to mimic the natural, earthy beauty of the organism. Perfectly described by Ed Yong in a July 2016 issue of The Atlantic, “They can look like flecks of peeling paint, or coralline branches, or dustings of powder, or lettuce-like fronds, or wriggling worms, or cups that a pixie might drink from.”

The forms lichens take are grouped in one of several general types, including:

Foliose – mostly flat with leaf-like structures, with each side having a different appearance 

Fruticose – may have tiny “branches” and a bushy appearance

Crustose – appear like flat, crusty painted spots on trees, branches, logs, roof, or rocks

Other forms include:

Filamentous – stringy and hair-like

Gelatinous – jelly-like and somewhat formless 

Leprose – have a powdery appearance

Squamulose – small, flat leafy scales with raised tips

Lichens have been used by humans for thousands of years, mostly as medicinals but also as foods, beverages, dyestuffs, cosmetics, brewing, animal fodder—even as an indicator of atmospheric pollution. As useful as they have been, our understanding of lichens has been slow.

Until the late 1800s, lichens were still thought of as plants. In 1868 Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist, identified them as a fungus and an alga living in a cooperative relationship. Later botanists recognized the relationship as mutually beneficial, with the alga using sunlight to produce nutrients and the fungus providing shelter, water, and minerals.

Lichen, Rough speckled shield -BRP 4-30-09

Botanists held with the partnership assumption, even though they struggled unsuccessfully to get lichens to grow in the lab. What they were missing was brought to light 150 years later by Tony Spribille, who spent years collecting lichen samples and screening them for genes of basidiomycete fungi. 

What had been missed by generations of lichenologists was basidiomycetes, the third member in the partnership of lichens. With the right combination of two fungi and an algal species, a lichen would form. There is much more to learn, but thanks to Spribille, the journey has begun.

Quoting Ed Yong again, Spribille and his associates found that, through a microscope, “a lichen looks like a loaf of ciabatta: it has a stiff, dense crust surrounding a spongy, loose interior. The alga is embedded in the thick crust. The familiar ascomycete fungus is there too, but it branches inwards, creating the spongy interior. And the basidiomycetes? They’re in the outermost part of the crust, surrounding the other two partners. ‘They’re everywhere in that outer layer,’ says Spribille.” And the mystery was solved.

The most frequently noticed are the crustose lichens seen on trees, often looking like someone spray-painted blotches on tree trunks, or left a trail marker. These can vary from shades of gray to greens, blues, and yellows. They are attractive to me but lead some to think their tree has been attacked by disease.  

No need to panic; these lichens don’t sink their “teeth” through the bark and into the tree. However, there are some lichens that contribute to the breakdown, or weathering, by physical and chemical processes, of the rocks to which they are attached. Physical effects occur by penetration of the rocks by hyphae and the swelling of organic and inorganic salts. Chemical processes include the “excretion of various organic acids, particularly oxalic acid, which can effectively dissolve minerals” (Chen 2000). The result is the eventual breakdown of rock into the mix of ingredients making our soil.

Pixie cup lichen and Dracanum moss spp IMG_4681As an aside, Alexandra Rodrigues and associates inoculated newly created stained glass samples with fungi previously isolated and identified on original stained glass windows. They found that “fungi produced clear damage on all glass surfaces, present as spots and stains, fingerprints, biopitting, leaching and deposition of elements, and formation of biogenic crystals”  (Rodrigues et al, 2014). Let that be a warning to keep your stained glass windows clean. 

Of particular interest to members of The Herb Society of America are the useful aspects of these frequently overlooked species that are building blocks of our green planet. Found growing in moist, shady places, they also thrive in hot, dry lands. Though widely spread across the globe, growing on cold mountaintops to hot deserts on rocks, trees, fallen logs, on fertile soil or dry crust, each species has specific nutrient, air, water, light, and substrate requirements.

They vary widely in usability too, from serving as alerts for the presence of air pollution to providing survival food. Rock tripe, most often seen as green to black leafy-looking masses on boulders, might be the last thing you would consider putting into your mouth, but it turns out that, for thousands of years, they have saved people from starvation. After boiling and draining a few times, they can be made into a soup, even if barely palatable. 

Cetraria islandica, Darya Masalova CC-BY-NCOne of the more interesting lichens is known as Icelandic moss (Cetraria islandica ), which first came to my attention in the form of Fjallagrasa Icelandic Schnapps. If you look closely at the bottle pictured, you will see a sprig of the lichen in the bottle. Hand picked from the wilderness of Iceland, the lichen is steeped in alcohol, which extracts the color and flavor of the lichen. Sadly, I have not tasted it myself but have heard from a friend, and read, that it is a drink that requires a slight adjustment of expectations. Regardless, I’m almost willing to make the trip to Iceland just for the experience. The manufacturer recommends drinking “in moderation in the company of good friends”—a sound recommendation.

Beyond alcohol, this particular lichen has multiple medicinal uses, too. The active compounds in Icelandic moss have demonstrated antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties (Grujicˇic´ et al., 2014).The mucilaginous compounds (polysaccharides) aid in soothing oral and pharyngeal membranes, relieving coughs of common colds.

Scandinavian countries were long known to use Icelandic moss in making breads and soups. They dried the moss, reconstituted it, then dried it again and ground it to mix into flour. Due to the polysaccharides, the lichen added structure as well as flavor. Many other cultures used it as an addition to flour to cut the expense of flour. Used far less now, over the years, it was an important source of nutrients for many people.

Parmotrema perlatum, commonly known as black stone flower, is used as a spice in India and elsewhere, and is often added to Garam Masala blends. As found, it has no fragrance; exposed to the heat of cooking, it releases an earthy, smoky aroma. 

Unlikely as it sounds, some lichens can be fragrant, and some act as a fixative in the preparation of cosmetics and perfumes. Oakmoss lichen, used in perfumery, is found on oak trees, as well as a few other deciduous trees and pines.

A number of lichens are used in the dyeing and tanning industries. If you took high school science, you are familiar with Litmus strips. Those strips are made from litmus, which is obtained from a couple of species of lichens, Roccella tinctoria and Lasallia pustulata.

Winter may be upon us, but there is still plenty to see and study right under our noses in the garden, yard, and out walking on trails. Take notes, take photos, and spend a lazy afternoon identifying what you have found and what uses it may have. Future ventures into the forest will hold considerably more interest for you.

Enjoy!

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) Old man’s beard (Usnea articulate), a fruticose lichen, photo taken in Linville Falls, NC 2009 (Kathy Schlosser); 2) Lobaria pulmonaria, tree lungwort, used for its astringent properties in tanning, photo taken in Acadia National Park, 2014 (Kathy Schlosser); 3) A foliose rough speckled shield lichen (Punctelia rudecta) covered with isidia (tiny projections which can detach to form new growth and grow from the white spots and streaks), photo taken on the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC 2009 (Kathy Schlosser); 4) Umbilicaria mammulata, smooth rock tripe (Alex Graeff,  iNaturalist); 5) A crustose lichen species in Acadia National Park, 2014 (Kathy Schlosser); 6) Pixie cups lichen (Cladonia sp.) growing amongst a cushion moss (Dricanum sp.), 2011 (Kathy Schlosser); 7) Cetraria islandica, Iceland moss (Darya masalova, iNaturalist); 8) Parmotrema caperata (now P. perlatum) as it appears in Flora Batava, vol. 10, 1849 (via Wikimedia); 9) Evernia prunastri, oakmoss lichen used in perfumery (Liondelyon, via Wikimedia)

References

Adams, Ian. Shield lichens at West Woods, Geauga County. Ian Adams Photography website, March 29, 2020.     https://ianadamsphotography.com/news/shield-lichens-at-west-woods-geauga-county/  Accessed 12-04-2021.

Cetraria islandica,  Iceland moss.  https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Cetraria+islandica Accessed 12-15-2021. 

Chen, J., H-P. Blume, and L. Beyer. 2000. Weathering of rocks induced by lichen colonization: A review. CATENA. 39(2). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0341-8162(99)00085-5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0341816299000855   Accessed 12-19-2021.

Crawford, S. D. 2015. Lichens used in traditional medicine. Lichen Secondary Metabolites, chapter 2. Springer International Publishing.  DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-13374-4_2   Accessed  12-28-2021 

Daniel, G., and N. Polanin. 2013. Tree-dwelling lichens. Rutgers, N.J. Agricultural Experiment Station. https://njaes.rutgers.edu/fs1205/  Accessed 1-1-2022. 

Fink, B. 1906. Lichens: Their economic role. The Plant World. 9(11). Published by Wiley on behalf of the Ecological Society of America. Stable URL: 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/43476359   Accessed 11-18-2021. 

Graeff, Alex.  Smooth Rock Tripe, Umbilicaria mammulata.  Photo 70633379, iNaturalists, (some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND).  https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/70633379  Accessed 12-29-2021.

Grujičić, D., I. Stošić, M. Kosanić, T. Stanojković, B. Ranković, and O. Milošević-Djordjević. 2014. Evaluation of in vitro antioxidant, antimicrobial, genotoxic and anticancer activities of lichen Cetraria islandica. Cytotechnology. 66(5): 803-813.

Kops, Jan.  Flora Batava of Afbeelding en Beschrijving van Nederlandsche Gewassen, (1849).  Parmelia caperata, illus. Christiaan Seep,  Vol. X, Amsterdam, Deel.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parmelia_caperata_%E2%80%94_Flora_Batava_%E2%80%94_Volume_v10.jpg   Accessed   11-09-2021.

Lichen Identification Guide, Discover Life website.  https://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?guide=Lichens_USGA    Accessed 1-1-2022.

Max Planck Society.  The hidden talents of mosses and lichens.  https://phys.org/news/2021-12-hidden-talents-mosses-lichens.html 

Perez-Llano, G. A. 1944. Lichens: Their biological and economic significance. Botanical Review. 10(1).  Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4353298   Accessed 12-23-2021. 

Perez-Llano, G. S. 1948. Economic uses of lichens. Economic Botany. 2: 15-45.

Rodrigues, A., S. Gutierrez-Patricio, A. Zélia Miller, C. Saiz-Jimenez, R. Wiley, D. Nunes, M. Vilarigues, and M. F. Macedo. 2014. Fungal biodeterioration of stained-glass windows. International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation. 90.    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ibiod.2014.03.007. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0964830514000663   Accessed 12-19-2021. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture, U./S. Forest Service, Lichens Glossary. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/lichens/glossary.shtml   Accessed 12-04-2021.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service.  Lichen Habitat.  https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/lichens/habitat.shtml   Accessed 12-18-2021. 

U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.  Lichens—The Little Things That Matter  https://www.nps.gov/articles/lichen-and-our-air.htm  Accessed 12-21-2021. 

Yong, E. 2016. How a guy from a Montana trailer park overturned 150 years of biology. The Atlantic, July 22, 2016.  http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/07/how-a-guy-from-a-montana-trailer-park-upturned-150-years-of-biology/491702/    Accessed October 2016. 


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

Tasty Tidbits: Celebrate with Tradition and Superstition

By Bonnie Porterfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A bayberry candle

Burned to the socket

Brings food and larder

And gold to the pocket.”

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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


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

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

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Lamb’s Wool Recipe for Solstice

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

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

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

 


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

Herbs for Holiday Baking

By Peggy Riccio

Pumpkin pie with sage leaves and marigold flowersWhen I think of herbs for Christmas, I always think of the Simon and Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair” song:  “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Sure, there is peppermint and plenty of spices, but these herbs seem to be the most popular during the holidays. I think that is because these plants are still green in the garden. In my USDA Hardiness Zone 7 Virginia garden, I can still pick these plants in December to use in the kitchen. My mint plants, always in containers, overwinter well, and I can harvest spearmint and peppermint.

When using these herbs, don’t just think of flavor and cooking. Think of the plant itself, the structure, size, weight, and texture of the branches and leaves. Think of how the stem or leaf can be used to decorate the dish and your table. 

Parsley

Parsley is a biennial plant, hardy to Zone 4. It grows to about a foot tall the first year, and then flowers and sets seed the second year. There is the curly type and the flat leaf type. For flavor, use the flat leaf type. The curly type is great for garnishing. In my garden, I sow seed every year to have fresh parsley. We have mild winters, so the plant remains evergreen all winter long. Parsley is best used fresh. It has a very delicate leaf structure and stem that will wilt easily. Compared with these other herbs, parsley has a relatively benign fragrance. This makes it an ideal garnish; however, it wilts too fast to use as a holiday flat-leaf parsley in the gardendecoration. But picture the color of green parsley in a red cranberry dish or the pretty scalloped leaves—or tightly curled leaves—in a bowl of mashed potatoes for interest.

Parsley mixes well with garlic and butter, either melted butter or a parsley/butter mix for the table. To make parsley butter, simply add a few tablespoons of chopped, fresh leaves to a stick of butter that has softened. Mix and put in the fridge to harden again or put in molds. Parsley with garlic can be added to stuffing or a breadcrumb topping for a casserole dish. Parsley, and other herbs, can be added to roasted vegetables, including roasted potatoes. Melted parsley butter is great with seafood, especially lobster and shrimp.

Sage

Sage is a perennial plant that becomes a small woody shrub. It is hardy to Zone 4 and remains evergreen during the winter months. Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) has green leaves, but there are many other types of sage with variegated leaves, blue-green leaves, or even broader leaves. All sages are edible. (Edible, in this case, means it won’t harm you. However, they may not be as tasty as Salvia officinalis.) Use the culinary sage for cooking, but if you have other sages, look at their leaves for decorative uses. The leaves are thick and large enough that they can be used for decoration if cut a few days in advance. Sage leaf and butter on baked potatoFor example, tie a sprig of sage and rosemary with red ribbon and put on the place settings. Add variegated sage to floral arrangements. Use varieties with large leaves such as ‘Berggarten’, or use large, mature leaves from other types to serve as a garnish for vegetable dishes, pumpkin pie, or sweet potato pie. With the large-textured leaves, make butter pats and place on baked potatoes (pipe soft butter on sage leaf and place on tray, and then place in fridge to harden). 

Traditionally, sage is used in stuffing or dressing and as a poultry rub. Sage works well with cooked corn, cornbread, and corn chowder. Sage can be added to cheese spreads, potatoes, roasted vegetables, squash, sweet potato, and Brussel sprouts. Sage also pairs well with citrus fruits.

Rosemary

Rosemary is a perennial that grows to be a large woody shrub, several feet tall. It is marginally hardy in the Washington, D.C. metro area, so it is best to pick a cultivar that is known for being hardy, such as ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Nancy Howard’, ‘Dutch Mill’, and ‘Salem’. Rosemary is a great plant to have in Rosemary leaves and flowersthe garden, because it has many uses. Because the long stems are flexible, and the leaves do not dry out quickly, you can use rosemary for decorating as well as cooking. Cut a 6- to 8-inch branch, roll in a circle, and tie with florist wire. Attach decorations and color with a hot glue gun such as small cones, plaid bows, and red berries to make a small wreath. Or, don’t add anything and use it to wrap around candles and napkins. Rosemary stems can be inserted in glass vases with red and white candy canes, added to any floral arrangement, or placed under a turkey or ham on a platter. 

In the kitchen, rosemary is great on roasted vegetables, biscuits, pork, as a poultry rub, or with butter. It does well with yeast breads, rolls, and biscuits, and stuffing or dressing. It also pairs well with apple and pear desserts. If you are making mulled wine or mulled apple cider, consider adding a sprig of rosemary as a stirrer.

The small rosemary plants that are for sale during the holidays can serve as table-top Christmas trees by adding mini-lights, balls, and bows.

Various thyme cultivarsThyme 

Thyme is a perennial groundcover that is hardy to Zone 5. Thyme has very thin, wiry stems and small leaves. Because the leaves are small and lightweight, they are ideal for “confetti” on small appetizers or on a thick chowder. The stems themselves are too brittle to use for decoration, but if you have an indoor floral or green arrangement, you can insert a chunk of your thyme (pulled from your plant in the garden) to spill over the edges of the container as a “spiller.” 

Thyme is great in yeast rolls and biscuits, cooked vegetables such as carrots, squash, and mushrooms, cheese spreads, potato, pork and seafood, stuffing and dressing. Thyme also pairs well with butter and garlic. As with sage, there are many types of thyme that are all edible, but the flavor may vary. There are plants with silver leaves, plants with gold-edged leaves, and plants with gold leaves. These can be used as decoration. Then, there are “flavored” thymes such as orange, lemon, or coconut, which work well in baked goods. Consider lemon thyme pound cake and orange thyme cookies.

Mint

Mint in a containerMint is an herbaceous perennial hardy to Zone 5 and very invasive. If you are growing mint, grow only in a container. It is so hardy that it will survive winters here in containers, which should be about a foot high and wide. Mint roots very easily. If you are going to use a lot of mint in your holiday baking, you can take cuttings in the fall to increase your plants. You can even take cuttings so you can give mint plants away as gifts, tied with a red bow, and a recipe card.

There are many types of mint available for use, but during the holidays, spearmint and peppermint are the most popular. These leaves do not wilt quickly; they are firm with great texture. This makes them ideal for garnishing and decorating baked goods. Place mint leaves on cupcakes, cakes, fruit salads, and use as a garnish for drinks. 

Fresh peppermint leaves can be chopped and added to chocolate chip cookie dough or a brownie mix. A sprig of peppermint can be added to hot cocoa, like a stirrer. Fill glasses with peppermint sprigs and real peppermint candy canes. Add crushed spearmint leaves to whipped cream and add to fresh fruit. Use spearmint to make a jelly for pork or lamb, or add to vegetables, such as carrots and peas. 

Spearmint leavesMake a simple syrup with mint and pour over fruit salad, add to a drink, or use when baking. Make a syrup by boiling one cup water with one cup sugar in a small saucepan. Add one cup of fresh herbs and smash the leaves up against the pot with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 15 minutes, cool and strain, and pour the syrup in a glass jar. Keep in the fridge for a few weeks. 

These are just ideas to get you started, but once you start working with an herb, seeing the leaves, smelling the aroma, you will get inspired to use these other herbs for your home during the holidays.

 


Peggy Riccio is the owner of pegplant.com, an online resource for gardening in the Washington, DC, metro area; president of the Potomac Unit, Herb Society of America; regional director of GardenComm, a professional association of garden communicators; and is the blog administrator for the National Garden Clubs, Inc.

Carob – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

Current Uses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gathering and Preserving the Herbal Bounty: A New Video Series

By Susan Belsinger

Greetings and Happy Autumn!

Herbal Salts are wonderful condimnts to have on handI am writing this on the evening of the full harvest moon—it is shining bright in the night sky just over the treetops. We are also celebrating the Autumnal Equinox. I know that fall is here by the feeling in the air—cooler nights—and needing to grab that extra blanket; the smells are different—moist, earthy, and leafy; the departure of the hummingbirds since the jewelweed blooms are fading; the slowing down of plant growth in the garden and the ripening of others—herbs are maturing, flowers are showing off their last hurrahs, and many plants are producing seeds. It is time for gathering the bounty and celebrating the harvest!

I am simply delighted to share some news with you. Last harvest season, I made three educational videos featuring “Gathering and Preserving the Herbal Bounty” for members of The Herb Society of America.

These videos give instructions for harvesting and preserving herbs fresh from the garden. Simple tried-and-true techniques are shown and discussed in 15-minute segments. These video shorts cover some of the best ways to preserve herbs, with each technique discussed in detail, and relevant recipes included. 

The three videos include:  “Aromatic Herbal Pastes & Butters,” “Herb Salts, Sugars & Honeys,” and “Herbal Mustards.” Below are brief descriptions of each video.

Making herbal pastes is a great way to capture the essence of herbsAromatic Herbal Pastes and Herb Butters

Using fresh herbs to make herbal pastes is a quick and easy way to put up the herbal harvest and captures the essence for long-term storage in the freezer.

Butters are a great way to feature herbs, and the combinations are infinite as well as tasty; they can be eaten right away or stored in the fridge or freezer, whether they are made into logs for slicing or packed into crocks. 

Herb Salts, Sugars, and Honey

Adding herbs to sugar or salt is a good way to have herbs stored and readily available to use. Herb sugars can be added to desserts, baked goods, beverages, or used to rim a cocktail glass, while salts can be added to any savory dish while cooking or as a garnish for breads, crackers, salads, and vegetables. I had to add herbal honeys in at the end of this video, since I prepare and use them often and they are so easy to make.

Herbal Mustards

Making mustard is fairly easy and can be quite delicious when embellished with herbs. Knowing the process and ingredients and how they work will result in an array of tasty condiments. Do make these—they will expand your herbal horizons—you will love them!

You can use many different herbs to make savory mustardsEach one of these short videos is shot in my home kitchen and are chockablock full of information. I also include handouts with lots of information and recipes. The videos are located in the member section of The Herb Society of America website. Members have free access to these and the webinar library with over 60 titles to inspire and educate on a wide variety of herbal topics. Join today to enjoy these and other member benefits: https://www.herbsociety.org/join.html

I hope that these videos inspire y’all to get out there right away and gather your herbs to preserve your herbal bounty! These methods are great ways to capture the essence of herbs. You will be so glad that you did come winter. As a bonus, all of these homemade products make wonderfully tasty and heartfelt gifts.

Here’s to a bountiful harvest season and happy herbing!


thumbnail_IMG_0244Susan is a culinary herbalist, food writer, educator, and photographer whose work has been published in numerous publications. She has authored a number of award-winning books. Her latest book, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs was co-authored with the late Dr. Arthur Tucker.

Susan is passionate about herbs and her work, sharing the joy of gardening and cooking through teaching & writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell & taste.

Medlar – Herb of the Month

By Chrissy Moore

meldar line drawing croppedMedlar (Mespilus germanica) isn’t the first tree you think of to include in your herb garden, but it certainly gets high marks for obscure and unusual. At least by today’s terms. While we may not hear its name invoked in modern conversation with anything close to regularity, medlar has, in fact, had a long association with humans for thousands of years.

Its center of origin is somewhat in question, with various taxonomists and botanists shifting the borders this way and that, but in general, medlar can be considered a southwest Asia native, including the Balkan Peninsula. Though comfortable in that location, the Romans and Greeks spread the tree far and wide in their travels through Europe. Beyond that, botanists freely point to the tree’s adaptability, noting all of the countries from southern to central Europe in which medlar has naturalized. Mespilus can even be found growing as far north as The Netherlands, where specimen trees were planted in parks and gardens. In its native range, it can be found growing in elevations up to ~5500 feet in forest clearings. 

Medlar Range mapMedlar is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), apparent when you look at its ripe fruit, which showcases a persistent calyx typical of other rose family members, such as rose hips and apples. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8, it is generally considered a small tree, growing up to 20 feet by 20 feet, with pleasantly Medlar's twisting canopy, Netherlandstwisting canopy branches as the tree matures. The five-inch-long leaves are lance-shaped and somewhat coarse in texture owing to the hairs on the upper and lower surfaces. Their dark green hue makes an attractive backdrop for its blossoms. Medlar’s fall color is a mix of green, yellow, and burnished orange, giving it that coveted “three season” appeal. All else being equal, its fall color can make it a superb horticultural addition even in smaller gardens.

Medlar’s approximately two-inch wide, dainty, white flowers—the petals of which are reminiscent of mildly wrinkled fabric—appear in mid- to late-spring, depending upon the region in which it is grown. The flower’s center is a flurry of anthers much like a single-petaled rose blossom, though it lacks any noticeable scent. Because the flowers are showy, it may be worth siting this unfamiliar tree a bit closer in to allow for more in-depth inspection. Speaking of siting, medlar prefers full sun to partial shade with some protection from strong winds. It does not like full-on drought conditions, but fairs well throughout much of the temperate region.

Mespilus germanica flower (1)All formalities aside regarding its growing habits, medlar is most famous for its fruit, which, in all honesty, can be a quandary to the uninitiated. The brown pome ripens in the fall, but if one were to try eating it right away, they would be faced with a hard, bitter thing about the size of a large gumball (but not nearly so fun to eat). Medlar fruit is similar to native persimmons in that they must go through a prep-stage before consumption. Persimmons need a frost before becoming edible, while medlars need a go-sit-by-yourself-in-the-corner-for-a-few-weeks regimen before the fruit becomes palatable. This process is called “bletting,” and it isn’t until after the fruits have been fully bletted that the interiors become soft and edible with no trace of their bitter tannins remaining.

Unripe and bletted (or ripe) medlar fruit

The medlar was well known in Europe during the Middle Ages, where it was said to have held a high place among cultivated fruits. Today in Europe it is passing into obscurity. Though very generally cultivated in England in the 1600s and 1700s and “common in [English] gardens in the south” even in the 1800s (the fruits regularly brought to market), it was recently characterized as “neglected and forgotten” and “difficult to locate” there. In continental Europe, too, its increasing rarity has been noted, the fruit being “of no more interest” (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

medlar_jelly_el_ltdPrior to the widespread use of sugarcane, medlar was a preferred sweet ingredient, but owing to the difficulty in processing, it likely fell out of favor, even in Europe, in deference to more easily obtainable fruit from the tropics, such as bananas and oranges. Even so, a few determined individuals, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, are trying to revive interest in the tree, and some have made great strides in bringing back the requisite foodstuffs, like medlar cheeses and jams, that can sometimes be found in boutique stores or online markets. 

Speaking of the United States, medlar never became popular in this country for unknown reasons. Baird and Thieret, in their review of the literature, state:

In the United States the medlar has never been well known. Indeed, it is hardly even known here. Among those individuals who ought to have heard of it—botanists and horticulturists—many have not. Among those who have heard of it, only a few have actually seen the plant—“probably not one…among one hundred”; fewer yet have seen the fruit—“not one in five hundred”; and almost none has eaten the fruit (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

It is unfortunate to think that a once-prized fruit tree is near impossible to locate, even horticulturally, but so it is. Despite its relative obscurity, if you are up for a jaunt around Europe, there are certainly specimens of medlar that can be found growing on estates or in parks, where one might get up close and personal to examine this apparent horticultural anomaly. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) has mapped out the locations of medlar trees within its boundaries, and the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora gives a brief description of the tree with a link to BSBI’s map. Going even farther afield, the Mespilus germanica 9-9-2021 (1)organization, Monumental trees, has compiled a web site (www.monumentaltrees.com) replete with documented locations of various “monumental” tree species, including Mespilus germanica, throughout Europe. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar compilation of medlar sites in the United States, but it is more than likely that specimens and cultivars (of which there are a few) of medlar may be located in various botanical gardens and arboreta around the country, depending on climate. There is a 40+ year old specimen in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., but its structure is not nearly as expressive (or impressive) as those in Europe, a result of its original siting in the garden, which has become cramped over time.

16th century painting of medlar, poppy anemone, and pear by Hoefnagel and BocskayTurning the page, figuratively speaking, all one needs is a quick search of the literature to discover that references abound discussing medlar’s less than proper common names. Owing to the fruit’s somewhat bawdy appearance, numerous authors in centuries past, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, de Cervantes, and various other 19th century writers, as well as everyday people in Europe, thought to nickname the fruit “cul de chien” (French for dog’s arse) or some iteration thereof in one’s native tongue. Shakespeare took it one step further, calling medlar an “open-arse.” Thank goodness no one ever pointed that out in my high school literature class. We’d never have heard the end of it! (No pun intended.) In contrast to my more prudish sensibilities, Shakespeare scholar and avowed medlar lover Gerit Quealy explained to me during her recent visit to see the National Herb Garden’s medlar specimen, that the medlar is one of her “favorite botanical references in all of Shakespeare’s works,” because, as she states appreciatively in her book, Botanical Shakespeare, it is “a fruit fraught with metaphor (Quealy, 2017).” No kidding! Readers, you can take it from there….

In researching medlar, I asked former National Herb Garden intern, Zainab Pashaei, who is of Persian heritage, if she was familiar with the tree, it being native to her father’s home country, Iran. Though not personally familiar with it, according to Zainab, medlar is mostly consumed by northern Iranians, and those that travel north near the Alborz Mountain Range will be very familiar with it. (Zainab’s relatives live farther south.) She explained further that muşmula is the Turkish word for the medlar fruit, while the Persians may call it marmala or azgil (Farsi), although I have since learned that azgil is often confused with loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), which is also eaten in Iran.

This distinction is certainly with a difference, as they are two separate plants, and reiterates the importance of using correct nomenclature. On the other hand, it vividly demonstrates that correctly identifying species across languages, cultures, and hundreds of years of usage is not for the faint-hearted. Despite its literary and culinary assignments in other parts of Europe, the medlar has also been employed medicinally in some cultures. For example, the Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden located in Istanbul, Turkey, reports that the fruit is used as an antidiarrheal, and the seed’s diuretic properties are incorporated into a medicinal tea.

Given medlar’s curious, though extremely interesting, history of use in culinary traditions, in medicine, and certainly in the creative arts, it is definitely a tree worthy of investigation, and perhaps even more so, of growing. Just be prepared to explain its many virtues to your garden guests, as it is highly likely that few, if any, of them will have encountered this unique herbal tree before.

Photo Credits: 1 & 2) Mespilus germanica line drawing and map (Baird and Thieret); 3) Medlar twisting branches (www.monumentaltrees.com); 4) Medlar flower (C. Moore); 5) Bletted medlar fruit (Creative Commons); 6) Medlar jelly (www.partridges.co.uk); 7) Medlar fruit (C. Moore); 8) Medlar, Poppy, and Pear painting (Joris Hoefnagel and Georg Bocskay, J. Paul Getty Museum); 9) Medlar fruit/fall color (Creative Commons, ngawangchodron) and Loquat fruit (Creative Commons, Andres Bertens).

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

Baird, J. R. and J. W. Thieret. The Medlar (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) from antiquity to obscurity. Economic Botany. Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1989), pp. 328-372. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4255177?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 8/13/2021.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Interactive map. https://bsbi.org/maps?taxonid=2cd4p9h.vnw. Accessed 8/16/2021.

Harvey, P. D. A. Garden History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, pp. 172–175. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/1586748. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Monumental Trees. Mespilus germanica. https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/europe-mespilusgermanica/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Mespilus germanica. https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/plant/mespilus-germanica. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Pashaei, Zainab (personal communication). 8/3/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. (personal communication). 5/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. 2017. Botanical Shakespeare: An illustrated compendium of all the flowers, fruits, herbs, trees, seeds, and grasses cited by the world’s greatest playwright. New York: Harper Design.

Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden. Book No. 35. 2015. Page 237. https://ztbb.org/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.


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.

Cardamom: Tropical Spice and…Scandinavian Staple!?

 

By Amy Forsberg

Green cardamom seed podsI had what seemed like a simple question: How and why did cardamom, the spice native to southern India, become such an essential and beloved baking spice in snowy Scandinavia? I have Swedish ancestry, and absolutely love cardamom bread and other baked goods made with cardamom. In Scandinavian culture, cardamom often represents comfort and home and family and holiday treats–similar to how we in the U.S. view cinnamon, perhaps. (Of course, cinnamon is also of South Asian origin!) I started with some hazy knowledge of the history of the spice trade–that cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and ginger spread throughout the world from their places of origin via complex trade routes over the course of many centuries, contributing to the rise and fall of various empires and economies. But I was curious why cardamom, in particular, took root in Scandinavia of all places. Researching that question took me on a fascinating journey through human history and around the world, teaching me much more about the spice trade and about how all of Europe went crazy for spices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Good answers to my questions remained elusive, perhaps lost to history. But the story of the spice trade, and cardamom’s place in it, is an interesting one. So let’s talk about cardamom!

Cardamom is not as well known in the United States as in some parts of the world. The spice known as cardamom is the seed of Elettaria cardamomum, an herbaceous perennial in the ginger family, Zingerberaceae. This is the source of both green and white cardamom, which is just green cardamom that has been bleached and which has a milder flavor. The scent and flavor combines notes of citrus, mint, and pine, and can be described as sweet, spicy, herbal, and floral.

There is a lesser known cousin, black cardamom, that is derived from Amomum subulatum. The pods of black cardamom are larger than the green and have a characteristic smoky flavor imparted during the drying process. Black cardamom is used in Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine.

Elettaria cardamomum is tropical, needing shade and consistent year-round warmth (temperatures between 50° and 95°F) and humidity in order to flower and fruit. In such a setting, it can reach 15 feet tall! It grows from rhizomes, much like ginger and turmeric, and produces panicles of flowers at the base of the foliage, which then develop into pods containing 15-20 seeds each. Native to the Western Ghats mountain range in southern India, it is now grown commercially primarily in Guatemala, but also in India and Sri Lanka. It is the third most costly spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. Cardamom has been valued for culinary and medicinal uses for thousands of years. Today, it is consumed around the world, but primarily in India and the Middle East, followed by South Asia, the United States, and the European Union. 

Periplous_of_the_Erythraean_Sea.svgThe earliest recorded use of cardamom is in an ancient Sanskrit text dating to about 3000 BC that lists cardamom as one of the spices to be poured in a sacrificial fire during marriage ceremonies. Use spread throughout the ancient world, and by 100 AD, cardamom was in use throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East for cooking, perfumery, and medicine. Both Greece and Rome imported large quantities of cardamom and used it in cuisine as well as medicine. The famous Greek physician, Dioscorides, mentions cardamom, among other imported spices, as a useful medicine—especially as a digestive aid after a heavy meal. Recipes from Apicius, the first-century Roman cookbook, use generous amounts of ginger, pepper, and cardamom. The Persian and Arabian empires imported large quantities of cardamom from India, and their detailed cookbooks and medical texts specify different grades, sizes, and types of cardamom. 

Cardamom and other spices, such as ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, were brought to the Mediterranean by Arab traders and were traded in Naples, Venice, and Corsica, among other ports. Those who controlled the trade allowed their customers to remain in the dark as to the original source of the spices for centuries. Ancient historians, such as Pliny, believed cardamom grew in Arabia. The status and allure of these spices was increased by the mystery of their true origin, and this helped keep prices high. Trade involved many middlemen, and few, if any, along the routes knew where the goods had originated or where they would end up. Trade in spices was lucrative because the spices were relatively inexpensive at their source and were compact, lightweight, and non-perishable compared to many other goods. Spice routes were frequently shifting due to wars and power struggles, so by the time the spices reached a final destination, they had changed hands many times and were fantastically expensive. Thus, they were viewed as “high status” and “exotic” luxury goods.

Map of ScandinaviaBy the early Middle Ages, cardamom and other spices were finding their way up into Northern and Western Europe. The Vikings are commonly credited with bringing cardamom home to Scandinavia after encountering it in Constantinople towards the end of the Viking era in the early 11th century. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archaeologist, says in his book, An Early Meal–A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, that this is likely wrong due to a total lack of evidence. The earliest mention of cardamom in Scandinavia is in a 13th century cookbook written by a Danish monk in which the recipes that contain cardamom are nearly identical to Moorish recipes of the same era. Serra thinks the Moors likely introduced cardamom to Scandinavia. According to this theory, cardamom and other spices would have found their way from the Iberian peninsula up to London, and then from London, were traded along a German trade route up into Scandinavia.

Renaissance banquetThe exact details of the how and when cardamom first found its way to Scandinavia may never be proven precisely. But what is well-documented is how all of Europe went spice crazy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom were expensive and fashionable throughout Europe and were used lavishly in large banquets that would feature dozens of types of exotic game birds and meats, sauces and stews, and large quantities of spiced wine. These banquets could last for days and were an important way to display wealth and status. 

Green cardamom seeds

Green cardamom seeds

The cliché often repeated that spices were used in the Middle Ages to cover the taste of spoiled meat does not stand up to scrutiny. People who could afford spices could afford fresh meat, as spices were more expensive than meat. Food was commonly dried, salted, or pickled to preserve it, and spices are not an effective means of doctoring spoiled meat in any case.

In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of southern India, and at long last discovered the vast markets where the global spice trade originated. In short order, the Portuguese violently took control of the spice trade and for the first time, imported spices directly to Europe ending the circuitous Arab-controlled trade routes over land from the Middle East into the Mediterranean, and eliminating many middlemen. Prices fell in Europe, and spices came within reach of even “middle class” people for special occasions. 

Swedish cardamom roll

Swedish cardamom roll

In the 1590s, the Dutch took over spice production and trade, and prices dropped even further as supply increased. The “culinary reign” of spices that had lasted in Europe from Roman times through the Renaissance ended in the 1700s. By the 1800s, spices in Europe were plentiful and inexpensive enough to be used daily in foods like breads, cookies, and coffee, but had lost their mystery, glamour, and status. Interestingly, these same spices completely fell out of favor for most savory cuisine throughout Europe. Food was, instead, seasoned primarily with herbs, wine, and cheeses, much as today. This transition came first to Southern Europe and then spread gradually into Northern Europe. Spices largely disappeared from European cuisine, with the notable exceptions of saffron in Spanish paella and cardamom in Scandinavian baked goods and desserts. 

Again, the question of why Scandinavia, in particular, held onto the use of cardamom, in particular, is difficult to answer. Daniel Serra speculates that, because Scandinavia is on the fringes of the continent, it clung to medieval food ways longer—”outposts” are often slower to adopt changes and new styles. This is not a complete or satisfying answer, though. It is true, however, that the unique flavor of cardamom marries perfectly with sweet, yeasted bread dough, and that a good cardamom bun or braided loaf is a wonderful thing, especially when paired with coffee and shared with friends!

Scandinavian Coffee Braid 

Scandinavian coffee braid(From Scandinavian Feasts by Beatrice Ojakangas. Also known as vetebröd in Sweden or pulla in Finland, this sweet yeast dough is versatile; it can be shaped into braids (as in this recipe) or made into buns known as kardemummabullar.)

  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water (105°F -115°F)
  • 2 cups milk, scalded to 170°F and cooled
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly crushed cardamom
  • 4 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 8-9 cups flour
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk
  • ½ cup sliced almonds
  • ½ cup pearl sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast bubbles. Stir in the milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs, and four cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Add the butter.

Gradually stir enough of the remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Wash and grease the bowl, and set it aside.

Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, until it is smooth, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in the prepared bowl, turning the dough to grease it on all sides. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 ½ – 2 hours. Punch down. Turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

To make three braided loaves: Divide dough into 3 parts. Divide each part into three portions. Roll each portion into a 30” long rope. Braid three ropes together to make a loaf. Pinch the ends together, and tuck them under the loaf. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining portions of dough. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush loaves with the egg and milk mixture and sprinkle with the sliced almonds and/or pearl sugar. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not overbake. Cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Green cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 2) Green cardamom plant (Creative Commons, https://snl.no/kardemomme); 3) Green cardamom flower (Creative Commons, Reji Jacob, Mukkoottuthara, Pathanamthitta District of Kerala state) and black cardamom flower (Wikimedia Commons by Praptipanigrahi – own work); 4) Green and black cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 5) Trade route map (Wikipedia, George Tsiagalakis); 6) Spices (Creative Commons); 7) Map of Scandinavia (mapsofeurope.net); 8) Painting of Renaissance banquet (hisour.com); 9) Green cardamom seeds (C. Moore); 10) Swedish pastry interlude: a cardamom roll at the Vasa Museum cafe, Creative Commons by alykat); 11) Scandinavian coffee braid (Wikipedia).

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

Corn, C. 1999. The scents of Eden: A history of the spice trade. New York: Kodansha International.

Citron, C. 2020. Cardamom: How an Indian spice became a Swedish staple. ArcGIS StoryMaps. Esri. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a9cfbc9e11f04a79885521bc559c9815

Dunn, S. 2021. Cardamom: How did it become Scandinavia’s favorite spice? Cook’s Illustrated. America’s Test Kitchen. https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/3076-cardamom-how-did-it-become-scandinavia-s-favorite-spice

Freedman, P. 2008. Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Krondl, M. 2007. The taste of conquest: The rise and fall of the three great cities of spice. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mehra, Rupali. 2019. How spices have connected Sweden and India since the Viking Age. The Local SE. The Local Europe AB. https://www.thelocal.se/20190104/how-spices-have-connected-sweden-with-india-since-the-viking-age/

Miltner, Olivia. 2017. The hidden history of Scandinavia’s love of cardamom. OZY.  https://www.ozy.com/around-the-world/the-hidden-history-of-scandinavias-love-of-cardamom/82046/

Missouri Botanical Garden (Internet). Elettaria cardamomum. Accessed September 4, 2021. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=287608&isprofile=0&

Turner, Jack. 2004. Spice: The history of a temptation. New York: Random House.


Amy Forsberg lives in Maryland and gardens full-time at Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington D.C., where she cares for the Japanese Style Garden. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum and the U.S. Botanic Garden. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.

Understanding Plant Variety Protection

By Mara Sanders, Plant Variety Examiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources: 

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

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

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

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


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

Baklava Bias

By Keith Howerton

Lebanese BaklawiMaking baklava, or baklawi/baklawa/ba’lawa, as it’s generally called in Arabic-speaking cultures, is a real pain in the…well, everywhere. Pain in the neck, pain in the wrist, pain in the bank account. My mom used to make it with my aunt once a year, usually around Christmas, and I have managed to dodge helping every single time. Sorry mom. Since her side of the family is Lebanese, we’ve always called it baklawi, so I’ll refer to it as such here, though I usually call it baklava around other people, because otherwise, they won’t know what I’m talking about. Even my laptop doesn’t; it has already auto-corrected baklawi to baklava three times since I started writing.

Greek baklava is essentially a few dozen layers of incredibly thin phyllo dough brushed with melted butter between each layer, and then sliced, baked, and drenched in a honey-based, or sugar-based, syrup to soak into all those buttery, flaky layers of phyllo dough. Usually a light layer of nuts is added halfway through the layering, and again on the top. Sometimes the nuts are tossed with cinnamon before layering them in, and many people also add vanilla extract.

There are probably more versions of baklava/baklawi/baklawa/ba’lawa than there are layers of phyllo dough, which is why I won’t bother writing a detailed recipe here. Okay, if you insist. It’s at the bottom.

Baklava and baklawi, while nearly the same dessert, have one key difference. There will always be other subtle differences between families, bakeries, restaurants, regions, or what have you, but in my experience, there’s one ingredient swap that makes the Lebanese version (and that of the surrounding area) pretty different.

Love.

No, no…wait that’s not right.

The “secret” ingredient is rose water. Or orange blossom water, but my family uses rose water. 

The version my family makes is the same structure as what is described above, except the syrup is infused with rose water. This one ingredient substantially changes the flavor, though it may look the same as baklava. It is very easy to overdo it on the rose water, so if you decide to try out making the Levantine version, go light on the rose water the first time!

Rose water, from my understanding and some quick online searching and YouTubing, is fairly simple to make at home. It’s basically an infusion made from rose petals. I have not done it personally; we always just bought some at a local Middle-Eastern market. And I think the commercially produced stuff is a bit more interesting anyway.

Rosa damascena, or damask rose, an extremely fragrant rose resulting from a natural hybrid of a few different roses, is the preferred species for making rose water. The petals are picked by hand and then distilled. The result is two different Lebanese Rose Water Ingredient Listproducts: a waxy, oily substance called attar used in perfumery and the rose water itself. A number of different countries cultivate Rosa damascena, both for the fragrance industry and for food uses, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds trying to figure out who is producing how much and who they are exporting it to–at least for me. And I find stories more interesting than statistics, anyway. So, I went to a local Mediterranean market and took a look at the different rose water brands they offered. Well, I went to my local big-box store first and then to the Mediterranean market. Let’s start with the big-box store.

I picked up the first bottle of rose water and checked the ingredients. Yikes. I picked up the second. Yikes. Needless to say, I was shocked at the lack of quality in the rose water brands they carried! Jokes aside, I find it a bit surprising you can call something rose water when there is no rose water in it whatsoever.

The Mediterranean market was much better. Both brands I checked contained simply rose water. I purchased a bottle sourced from Lebanon. The Bekaa (or Beqaa) Valley, a sort of agricultural heartland in Lebanon and well-known for its wines and other products, boasts pretty substantial damask rose production, and it’s likely that’s where this manufacturer sourced its rose petals, although it’s Map of Lebanon and the Bekaa Valleydifficult to say for sure. 

I did not go out of my way to purchase Lebanese rose water rather than rose water produced somewhere else, but I do like the thought of us using a little piece of Lebanon to make a traditional recipe passed through my family for generations, all the way over here in the United States. 

Once the baklawi is finished, we keep it at room temperature out on the counter and someone, who will remain nameless, will sneak a piece and blame it on Dad.

It’s a painstaking, expensive dessert to make, but it is one of my favorites and one that will always hold a special place in my heart. Just not special enough to actually help. Oh, what’s that you say? We’re making baklawi? Shoot…I’m…I’m busy. Have to walk the cat.

Lebanese Baklawi Recipe

Pastry and filling

2 pounds (7 or 8 cups) chopped walnuts, pistachios, or pecans (my family usually uses pecans)

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves

1 ½ pounds butter

2 pounds (or 2 boxes) phyllo dough

Combine nuts, cinnamon, and cloves. Brush the baking pan with melted butter. Place a layer of phyllo dough sheet on the bottom of the pan and brush with butter. Repeat until you have piled up half of your phyllo dough, each one brushed with butter. Distribute the nut mixture (½ inch thick) over the top of the bed of phyllo dough.. Then add the other half of the phyllo dough on top of the nut mixture, brushing each layer with butter. With a sharp knife, cut in diamonds. Bake at 250 degrees for 2 hours until the top turns a light golden brown and the pastry pulls away from the sides of the pan. Makes 2 dozen. While it is baking, prepare the syrup.

Syrup

3 cups sugar

1 ½ cups water

½-1 tsp rose water

Juice of 1 lemon

Mix sugar, water, and rose water. Boil until tacky and then add lemon juice. When syrup is cool, pour very slowly over baklawi. Do not refrigerate.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Lebanese baklawi (Oasis Baklawa, http://www.oasisbaklawa.com); 2) Rosa ‘Autumn Damask’ and Rosa ‘Kazanlik’ (Chrissy Moore); 3) Lebanese rose water ingredient list (Keith Howerton); 4) Map of Lebanon and Bekaa Valley (www.news.bbc.co.uk).

References

Cherri, Rima. 2019. Syrian rose farmer uses skills to graft new life in Lebanon. The UN Refugee Agency/US. Accessed 6/2021. https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/stories/2019/12/5e01c9164/syrian-rose-farmer-uses-skills-graft-new-life-lebanon.html

Financial Tribune. 2019. Iran meets 90% of global rosewater demand. Accessed 7/15/2021. https://financialtribune.com/articles/domestic-economy/98443/iran-meets-90-of-global-rosewater-demand

The Herb Society of America. 2011. The Herb Society of America Essential Guide: Roses 2012 Herb of the Year. Accessed 7/31/21. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/83784ac3-dac2-4586-8d62-6bbf56a98b74

Gourmet Food World. Accessed 7/31/21. https://www.gourmetfoodworld.com/cortas-rose-water-11762#recipes

Mahboubi, Mohaddese. 2015. Rosa damascena as holy ancient herb with novel applications. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. Elsevier. Accessed on 6/2021. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411015000954

 


After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the US National  Arboretum. He has worked with restaurants and hydroponics and now works in urban forestry at Casey Trees in Washington, DC. He is obsessed with all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).