Celebrating the Summer Solstice

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all the loveliest longest day of the year.

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


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

 

 

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Starting Anew, Again

 

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author.


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

Know Your Tarragon – The Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

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

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

French tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus (syn. dracunculoides)

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

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

Mexican tarragon — Tagetes lucida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

by Karen Cottingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy it as well.

REDBUD RECIPES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: 1) Cercis canadensis flowers (Dan Keck); 2) Newly emerged leaves of C. canadensis (Melissa McMasters); 3) Geographical distribution of C. orbiculata and C. canadensis (USDA Plants Database); 4) Redbud in full flower (Dcrjsr); 5) Green seed pods (SEWilco); 6) Salad of romaine lettuce, toothwort, purple deadnettle, and redbud flowers (Jay Sturner); 7) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (S.G.S.); 8) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ fall color (Jonathan Billinger). All photos via Wikimedia, except distribution maps.

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Love and Gardening on St. Valentine’s Day

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

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

                                                My heart is forever in Giverny. “

                                                                                                         – Claude Monet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until that trip to Giverny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much like we all do.

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

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

You will need:

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

2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon

2 Tablespoons of really good cocoa powder

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

2 Tablespoons of ground cardamom

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of ground Chinese five spice

3/4 teaspoon of ground allspice

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Mastic: Something Herbal to Chew On

By Chrissy Moore

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

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

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

Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, Syros

Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toothpastes containing mastic

Toothpaste containing mastic

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.