Herbal Trees and Shrubs of the Plains and Prairies

By Katherine Schlosser

From place to place, season to season, and year to year,

the colorful mixtures and combinations of flowering herbs 

are influenced by permutations of weather, grazing,

competition with grasses, and seed abundance.

                                                    ~David S. Costello                        

Since childhood the words “For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain” colored my impression of the landscape of the western part of our country. Visits to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and masses of cousins didn’t disappoint my vision. It wasn’t until adulthood that I fully understood that those words were essentially a drone fly-over.  

For some of us, it takes paying attention not only to the larger landscape, but to the details as well to appreciate the enormous botanical diversity of our country. From the tallest coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) to the tiny littleleaf pyxie moss (Pyxidanthera brevifolia) and its 1/4-inch flowers peering out from 1/5-inch leaves, there is a lifetime of plants to observe and learn. Narrowing the focus to herbal plants, those with uses for flavoring and medicinal purposes, makes the task a little easier, but there is still a world of plants to learn.

Following are just a sample, and for further inspiration I recommend the sources listed in References:

Red false yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)—though not a Yucca species—is a perfect summer blooming perennial plant that approaches shrub size at 3 – 5 feet tall and 4 – 6 feet wide. Arching evergreen leaves, with the appearance of a narrow Yucca leaf but softer, grow from a basal clump and have fine white curling filament hairs on the margins. In colder climates, the leaves will turn a purplish-red in winter.

Native to Texas and northern Mexico, red false yucca needs six hours of direct sunlight and good drainage. The plant is drought tolerant and can survive in urban settings but does not do well in damp soils. In temperate climates, it blooms only in the summer, and in warmer areas it can bloom year-round.

The leaves and fruits/seeds are toxic, but the flowers can be eaten: cut the flowers off the stem, leaving the base, stamen, and stigma in place to produce seed. Use only the flower petals in stir fry recipes (sautéing with onions, celery, carrots, squash, or other vegetables), in omelets, in salads or as a garnish. Add the petals toward the end of cooking.

This sweet bison calf, with her mother not far away, is enjoying the early fruits of the western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). It makes me wonder if that is how humans learned to eat the fruits—by watching wildlife. One taste would have told us YES, eat the fruits. They are luscious if you can get to them before the birds devour them. 

The western serviceberry is smaller than A. arborea (downy serviceberry) and others that grow in eastern states. Generally less than 20 feet tall, western serviceberry makes full, well-rounded shrubs with fruits easily within reach of bears, bison, deer, and other animals, as well as the expected birds. Pure white, star-like flowers appear in May, with dark purple fruits ripening by July. Habitat varies, but a certain amount of water is needed for good fruit set. They adapt to stream banks, moist hillsides, or open areas (as above), and grow from near sea level to sub-alpine areas.

The fruits were very important to Northwest tribes and were in such abundance that they could be dried and stored for winter use. Combined with leaves of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and field mint (Mentha arvensis), they were a major ingredient of pemmican. Dried fruits also flavored meat stews and sweet puddings. Now, we make jam, pies, and wine with them and add them to muffins and pancakes. Daniel Moerman (1996) devotes two full pages to the herbal and other uses of western serviceberry.

Western serviceberry grows in most states west of the Mississippi River, including Alaska.

Mountainspray, Holodiscus dumosos, is a stunning shrub that first caught my eye during a 1996 trip to the northwestern states. This reliable plant grows well across ID, WY, NV, UT, CO, AZ, and NM. It also blooms from June to August, making chances of finding them highly likely. 

This is a slender, deciduous shrub with oval, coarsely toothed, aromatic leaves and reddish stems. The flowers are slightly smaller (½” – ¾”) than its cousin, H. discolor (1 3/8” – 2 3/4”), which grows a bit further north. The shrub itself, though slender, can reach seven feet tall.

Mountainspray roots are brewed to make a pleasant tea, and the leaves are boiled to make a tea for treating flu. A beverage tea is also made from the bark. There are many other medicinal uses, enough for Moerman to fill a full page, along with toolmaking and hunting and fishing uses.

Mountainspray is enough of a beauty to put it on my “find one of these” list.

We don’t often think about our western states without thinking about “sagebrush.” Artemisia tridentata (named for the three lobes at the tip of the leaves) is the iconic big sagebrush of the West. It grows across most of the states we describe as “western.” Big sagebush is easy to identify with its aromatic, wedge- to fan-shaped leaves that are three-lobed at the tips and remain on the shrub through winter. Average height is 3 – 4 feet, but can range from as much as 15 feet in certain habitats – generally dryish, well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soils. They bloom with small yellow flowers in mid-fall.

Artemisia tridentata can develop a thick woody base, which was used for firewood in the absence of trees. Smoke from burning branches cleansed the air of impurities in ceremonies, and branches were tied together to make brooms.

Uses of the plant are many and mostly medicinal. However, the seeds were used to add a touch of bitter flavor to soups and stews and also made their way into liqueurs as a bittering agent.

Big sagebrush provides food and shelter for a broad range of animals and birds.

Wild tarragonI couldn’t end this post without mentioning another of the many Artemisia species: wild tarragon, a favorite of herb gardeners. This plant is recognized by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as native to all states from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific coast. A few scattered populations also appear in Wisconsin and Illinois, and in one county each in New York and Massachusetts. There are some who suggest that our A. dracunculus can be traced to the garden variety, stating that it may have naturalized many years ago. Given its range and history of use by Native American tribes, I suspect it was here before colonists arrived.

Wild tarragon has been used to treat a great many health problems due to its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, digestive, and antimicrobial properties; it was added to tobacco for flavor; branches were burned to sedate bees around their nests and to discourage mosquitos; as an insecticide; and to add a pleasant fragrance to baths and hair dressings.  

It is still a popular herb in the kitchen with an anise-like flavor that graces a multitude of dishes, salad dressings, and beverages. I have not tested the theory but am told that those growing on prairies and plains are not as strongly flavored as those available commercially.

It grows far better in the West than it does in my Mid-Atlantic garden, for in spite of droughts that seem to be happening more often, if my red clay holds moisture too long, the Artemisia dracunculus roots suffer. A friend up the road, however, has no difficulty keeping it as a perennial in her garden.

Regarding the information available to us about the Native American uses of various trees, shrubs, and plants, I am partial to the statement below:

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is the on-going accumulation of knowledge, practice and belief about relationships between living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways (Newman, 2021).

I, too, have great respect for the knowledge and wisdom we have gained from the Indigenous Peoples of this land. That knowledge saved many from starvation and death and taught us much about this land.  

When you have the opportunity or need to add a tree or shrub, or replace one or more, consider some of our choices among native plants. Especially as we watch our climate change, there may be more choices for those of us in eastern states than we ever dreamed possible.

Photo Credits: 1 & 2) Hesperaloe parviflora (red false yucca), photos taken near Yuma, AZ; 3) Amelanchier alnifolia (Western serviceberry) enjoyed by as bison calf, photo taken in Idaho. 4) Amelanchier leaves and growing fruit (Sally & Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org); 5) Holodiscus dumosos (mountainspray); 6) Lochsa River along Lolo Pass, near Warm Springs Trailhead in Clearwater National Forest; 7) Artemisia tridentata (big sagebrush); 8) big sagebrush habitat in southern Idaho; 9) Artemisia dracunculus (wild tarragon). All photos courtesy of the author, except No. 4.

References

Brown, Lauren. (undated). The Audubon Society Nature Guides: Grasslands. Alfred A. Knopf, NY. 

Costello, David F. 1975. The Prairie World. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.

Johnson, James R. PhD, and Gary E. Larson, PhD. 2007. Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains. South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD. 

Kershaw, Linda. 2000. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies. Lone Pine Publishing, Renton, WA.

Moul, Francis. 2006. The National Grasslands. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 

Moerman, Daniel E. 1996. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Oregon.

Newman, R. 2021. Human Dimensions: Traditional Ecological Knowledge—Finding a Home in the Ecological Society of America. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, pre-publication, article e01892. https://doi.org/10.1002/bes2.1892. Accessed 06-18-2021. 

Williams, Dave. 2010. The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA.

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.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level. 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.

A Forager’s Life: Reflections on Mother Nature and My 70+ Years of Digging, Picking, Gathering, Fixing and Feasting on Wild Edible Foods

A Book Review

By Paris Wolfe

Mike Krebill, now in his late 70s, has been foraging for more than 70 years. In his second book, A Forager’s Life, he reflects on his experiences as a naturalist, teacher, and most importantly, a champion of wild foods.  

DG.3 KrebillHe has many reasons why folks should be interested in wild edibles, but the most compelling, he says, “Historically, wild edibles were crucial survival fare during depressions. Now some of them command high prices in fancy restaurants. Trying something new can add variety to your diet at home.”

While the 264-page text released in early 2021 is a folksy, linear progression through Krebill’s life, reading the pages in order is unnecessary. In fact, it’s fulfilling to disregard convention and flip through the pages at random, settling on whatever shiny thought catches your attention. 

The narrative is broken up by recipes, lists, and images. In my case, I was eager to see what foraged botany starred in the 21 recipes. I own at least a dozen wild food books, and Krebill’s recipes are unique to this tome. They include Queen Anne’s Lace Pancakes, Clover Flower Spoonbread, Sumac Black Raspberry Lemonade, and Hickory Nut Sandies, among others. 

Page 123 lists 40 common wild edibles, including several mushrooms, that the reader will likely recognize. Upon reflection, Krebill recalls tasting 190 plant and 44 mushroom varieties. He’s tried foraging insects, but much prefers foraging for plants.

With the help of grade school students, he tasted and tested acorns from different trees and identified their different characteristics. He prefers the flavors and tannin-balance of the swamp white oak. Students also helped him identify that paw paws, like apples, have different flavors.

ST LYNN'S PRESS - FORAGER'S COVERThree warnings he offers include that mayapple fruits are only safe to consume when they are ripe; sumac may cause allergic reactions in some folks; and all mushrooms should be cooked before eating.

While going back and forth through the pages, I was drawn into Krebill’s storytelling. First, about his cousin trying to defy poison ivy to reach a generous stash of hickory nuts but then finding himself hospitalized with an angry rash. And second, when a middle school class was chowing down on a particularly delicious fried puffball and suddenly discovering wriggly little creatures inside. Both serve as warnings to newbies…pay close attention to the project whether gathering or cooking. 

Perhaps the most important parts of the book are safety precautions for the human and the planet. First, for the human he lists:

  • Be positive of a plant’s identity.
  • Know the edible part and when it can be eaten.
  • Don’t collect in polluted areas.
  • Know how to prepare it.
  • Eat a small amount the first time so that you can see how your body reacts to it.

For the planet he recommends regenerative harvesting:

  1. If plants seem crowded, thinning may help them grow.
  2. When harvesting tender leaves and stems from a plant, take no more than 30 percent of the plant, and be careful to avoid damaging the roots.
  3. Cut new shoots a few inches above the ground, instead of right at the ground. It allows them to regenerate.
  4. Make sure to leave a good number of seeds in the landscape. Help disperse them to encourage reproduction.
  5. Encourage runners like mint, nettle, and wild bergamot by cutting out small patches with roots intact, then transplant them. To keep a patch healthy, don’t uproot the runners during harvest.

For your copy of A Forager’s Life: Reflections on Mother Nature and My 70+ Years of Digging, Picking, Gathering, Fixing and Feasting on Wild Edible Foods, visit stlynnspress.com. If you want more information on identifying wild edibles, pick up Krebill’s book, The Scout’s Guide to Wild Edibles, also by St. Lynn’s Press.

St. Lynn’s Press publishes a wide range of books, from body-mind-spirit to enlightened business to all things “green.” Over time, they’ve gone deeper into the green side, and since 2010 have been publishing, almost exclusively, books on organic gardening, sustainable living, and ways to live gently on our little piece of the planet.

Photo Credits: 1) Mike Krebill; 2) Krebill Book Cover. All photos courtesy of St. Lynn’s Press.

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.


Paris Wolfe is a travel and food writer, and blogger. Away from the keyboard, Paris may be herb gardening, at farmers’ markets or traveling. She is often in the kitchen cooking, eating, drinking wine/spirits/tea and entertaining. 

Delectable Native Edibles

By Andrea DeLong-Amaya

tradescantia flowersYou may be one of the growing numbers of home gardeners who have put shovel to soil in the effort to nourish themselves and their families with wholesome, organic, fresh, and ultimately local vegetables and fruits. It is empowering to know exactly where your food comes from. And, while gardening is perfect exercise…it can be a lot of work! What if you could grow food plants that all but took care of themselves? Or better yet simply harvest, with caution of course, from the wild.

Native produce? Yes! The plants I’m about to tell you about are all easy to cultivate within their home ranges and, once established, may not require any attention outside of harvest. There are many virtues of raising locally native plants, such as decreased use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and promoting regional identity, and providing for wildlife. But those aren’t my main motivators for sharing these untamed delicacies with you. These foods are often disregarded and overlooked but are, quite frankly, yummy!

The correct way to consume wild edibles: harvest from sizable colonies and always with permission from the landowner. Whether collected from natural areas or from plants in your garden, understand that otherwise safe and nutritious foods may become toxic IMG_7781in large amounts. As with any new food in your diet, add small amounts at a time until you know how your body will handle them. And, most importantly to note: before consuming any wild food, be absolutely certain of its proper identity! Many plants have look-alikes. If there is any doubt, do not partake. You can eat anything at least once, but you want to be around to enjoy the good stuff again!

When harvesting perennials, clip leaves and stems from the plant at or above ground level, leaving the roots undisturbed and allowing the plant to resprout. Cut the tips off of annuals, which will continue growing until they reach the end of their season, or harvest the entire plant. 

The following plants are indigenous to most of the U.S., meaning they have evolved over time in a given region without human introduction. There are many non-native and even invasive plants that also make for good eats, but in the interest of space, I’m limiting the list to natives.

Late in the year, many of us can revel in the luscious sweet treats offered by the Eastern persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Trees vary in the quality of their fruit, and common wisdom suggests they are best after a frost. In any case, immature fruit are very astringent and not recommended. Black persimmon (D. texana), a related species occurring in Texas and Mexico, delivers delectable sugary lumps of fruit with a floral hint as early as July. When you eat them, you are in tune with nature.

vitisMembers of the genus Vitis, or grapes, are most commonly used for making mouthwatering jelly, juice, and wine that can be enjoyed year-round. But, have you ever tried tangy green grape pie? Wow! In mid-spring when tender grape leaves emerge, you can brine them for making dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Young leaves wrapped around chicken, then grilled, impart a mild tangy note to the meat and help keep it moist. If the leaves are edging on tough, keep chewing them as a savory and tasty “gum.” You can seemingly chew forever; the wad won’t go away.

Early spring encourages tender new growth on a variety of native plants that are suitable for the table. Native potherbs are generally tastiest during the spring before hot weather turns them bitter. 

Potherbs are leaves or stems of herbaceous plants that can be cooked for use as greens or for seasoning. “In vitamins, minerals, and protein, wild foods can match and even surpass the nutritional content of our common foods,” according to Delena Tull in her book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. Try out some of these:

smilax

Greenbriar, Cat Briar (Smilax bona-nox) – You may not have thought there was much use for this annoying, thorny vine, but the soft early shoots in spring (and summer when we’ve had rain) are tender, tasty, and nutritious. Pick the asparagus-like tips before the prickles harden, and throw them into salads or nibble them right off the vine.

Pink Evening Primrose, Showy Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) – Beautiful in bloom and abundant throughout much of the country, these greens offer their best flavor when collected before flowering. However, it takes someone who is very familiar with this wildflower to identify it out of bloom. Toss the greens into a salad or add to soups or stir-fries.

oxalis

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.) – Many species of wood sorrel occur in the U.S., and some are common garden pests. After your next weeding session, add a few leaves, flowers, or green seed pods to a salad or soup as you would French sorrel. The flavor is strong and sour, so add sparingly. Rich in vitamin C, it also contains high amounts of oxalic acid, similar to spinach, which when eaten in large amounts, may tie up calcium.

Spiderwort

Spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.) – There are several species of native spiderwort, and many are cultivated. Attractive plants with typically purple, blue, pink, or white flowers have winter foliage resembling daylilies. Above ground parts may be sautéed or eaten raw.

Wild Onion, Wild Garlic (Allium canadensis, A. drummondii.) – There are many bulb forming plants that resemble wild onions, and some are toxic. Only harvest plants with the distinct odor of onions. The chopped green leaves can be used like chives, and the bulbs are cooked as any other onions.

Bon appetit!

References: 

Cheatham, S. and M. C. Johnston.  1995. The Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains, and Northern Mexico. Vol. 1, Abronia-Arundo. Austin: Useful Wild Plants, Inc.

Tull, Delena.  1987. Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 1) Tradescantia gigantea (Michael Dana); 2) Diospyros texana (Andrea DeLong-Amaya); 3) Vitis mustangensis (James Garland Holmes); 4) Smilax bona-nox (Joseph A. Marcus); 5) Oenothera speciosa (W.D. and Dolphia Bransford; Sally and Andy Wasowski); 6) Oxalis drummondii (Mary Kline); 7) Tradescantia gigantea (Stephanie Brundage); 8) Allium canadense var. canadense (Joseph A. Marcus).

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.


Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. For more information about native plants, visit www.wildflower.org.

A Weed Lover’s Manifesto


By Andrea Jackson

I love weeds. There, I said it.  Don’t worry, I do pull them (there’s a reason why they’re called weeds, after all), but I am much more likely to make a tincture or a salve or something good (yes, good) to eat than to discard them completely.

After all, weeds were really the first herbs. Emerson said “weeds are but an unloved flower.” They have also been called a plant out of place. Consider a field of commercial dandelions with a single forlorn rose bush growing in the middle. Now which one is the weed?

Plantago_major_SZ356869_Freshwater_MCotterill_IWNHASWeeds tell wonderful stories, and as we learn them, they take us on a journey to discover where they came from and how they came to be who they are today. 

For example, there’s the common broadleaf plantain (Plantago major). Broadleaf plantain is everywhere, which is a good thing for us because chewing a leaf and applying it to a sting will relieve it instantly. It is an unparalleled remedy for skin conditions and finds its way into just about every salve I make. The common name evolved from the Roman name planta, or the sole of man’s foot, because it seemed to follow the Roman legions wherever they went throughout Europe. This is certainly a good indication that plantain has been around for quite a while. The Anglo-Saxons called it the mother of herbs and used a magical verse anytime it was applied to a wound.

If you have a garden, you almost certainly have purslane (Portulaca oleracea). It has succulent leaves, which look rather like a prostrate jade plant spread out in all directions. Although it is an annual, even the tiniest stem left behind will sprout a new plant. Purslane has been enjoyed all over the world as a potherb, thus its specific epithet, oleracea, meaning “used as food.” It is known as the vegetable for long life in China. 

purslanePurslane is one of the highest plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids and can be used in simple summer soups and salads. Each summer, I make a wonderful purslane relish that far surpasses any relish from the grocery shelf. The recipe is in my current favorite wild foods book, The Forager’s Feast, by Leda Meredith.

Garlic mustard (Alliaira petiolata) and black mustard (Brassica nigra) are certainly some of the most invasive plants around; fortunately, they are also delicious. A yummy pesto can be made with the young leaves. You can also sauté a crushed clove of garlic, toss in a handful of garlic mustard leaves and violet leaves, and cook for no more than 30 seconds; then, sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and a dash of soy sauce, and you have a healthy, garlic mustarddelectable side dish.

This is just a teaser to help you to see weeds in a different way. Since they have always been with us and will always be with us, perhaps it’s time to get to know them better. For more fascinating information about these plants, read Just Weeds by Pamela Jones or A City Herbal by Maida Silverman.

 

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.


Andrea Jackson is a member of the Western Pennsylvania Unit of the Herb Society of America. She started her herbal adventure over 30 years ago after attending an herb walk led by Piccadilly Herb Club, of which she ultimately became a member.  When she lived in Baltimore, she was a founding member of Partners in Thyme. She also belongs to the American Herbalists Guild, and the American Botanical Council.

Herbs aside, Andrea is a registered nurse and a Master Gardener and lectures extensively to groups ranging from professional organizations to garden clubs.  She was featured on the local affiliate of ABC news in a segment on medicinal herbs.

Her particular interests lie in the medicinal uses of herbs, herbal lore, and weeds, which she considers to be the first herbs. When she is not spreading the herbal gospel, she is tucked away in her herb room formulating various concoctions. 

Spicebush to the Rescue

Spicebush to the Rescue

By Kaila Blevins

Author Volunteer TripWhile on a volunteer trip in Orlando, Florida, I was desperate for bug spray. In the middle of December, the mosquitoes nibbled on any exposed skin they could find, leaving me and the rest of the unprepared Maryland native participants with patches of red swollen bumps on our ankles and arms. Our guides, a retired couple who volunteers with the state parks, became our heroes on the second day of the trip. During our lunch break, the husband saunters over to us, carrying a branch from a nearby shrub and states, “This is spicebush. Crush its leaves and rub it onto your arms. Keeps the bugs away and helps the itch.” Immediately, we passed the branch around, ripped the leaves off the branch, crumpled them, and rubbed the lemon-peppery scented oil onto our skin.

A couple years later, I would learn that spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has a multitude of uses. The fragrant multi-stemmed shrub is native to the margins of wetlands and along woodland streams in the Eastern United States. It can grow close to 10 feet tall, and in spicebush flowersApril, yellow flowers begin to appear on the branches. By the end of the summer, the flowers are replaced by cherry red fruits. Spicebush is integral to the native ecosystems, as it serves as the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and birds are known to snack on the seeds. However, Native Americans and early settlers relied on spicebush’s herbal properties.

Native Americans would brew tea with the bark, twigs, leaves, and berries. When ingested, the tea would induce sweating. The increased perspiration would help fight off fevers and ease body aches. In addition, ingestion would assist with removing intestinal parasites. The tea could be applied topically as well. Compresses soaked in spicebush tea would be applied to the skin to ease the pain from arthritis, rashes, bruises, and itching. Once settlers arrived in the new world, they sought help from the Native Americans.

The settlers did not know much about the peculiar plants growing in North America, so Native Americans taught them the herbal benefits of the native plants. Lindera benzoin fruitSettlers used spicebush for similar ailments as well as typhoid fever. They also used the plant in culinary dishes. The dried seeds and bark became milder substitutes for allspice and cinnamon, respectively. Beyond its herbal uses, settlers used the presence of spicebush as an indicator for rich soil that could be converted into agricultural land.

Spicebush’s herbal properties may get overlooked by its ecological importance or showy yellow leaves in fall, but it was a staple for Native Americans, early settlers, and my volunteer trip. For more information on spicebush, check out HSA’s Essential Fact Sheet.

 

Photo Credits (from top): Author on field trip; spicebush flowers (courtesy E. Holden); spicebush fruit (courtesy E. Holden)

References

Keiffer, Betsy. “Lindera Benzoin.” Cultivation Notess, Sept. 1998, riwps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Lindera_benzoin.pdf.

“Lindera Benzoin.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=LIBE3.

“Lindera Benzoin.” North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lindera-benzoin/.

Nesom, Guy. “Spicebush.” Plant Guide, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program , 2003, plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_libe3.pdf.

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.


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Kaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.

Harbinger of Spring Look-Alikes: Dead Nettle & Henbit

By Susan BelsingerIMG_8189

The first spring wildflowers, herbs, and weeds are popping out all over. Two that frequently appear together are both members of the mint family, Lamiaceae: dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) and henbit (Lamium amplexicaule). Since they often grow in a patch together, are about the same height, and both have bright green leaves and purplish-pink flowers  that bloom at the same time, at first glance, they are often mistaken as the same plant. However, held side-by-side and inspected a bit closer, they are very different in appearance. Similarities also include how and where they grow. Their early spring blooms are some of the first food for honeybees, and the tubular shape of their flowers attract hummingbirds.

Both of these spring harbingers prefer sunny spots where the land or garden soil has been disturbed, along roadsides and in meadows and lawns, and will tolerate some shade. They are often found growing side-by-side and intertwined together in patches in moist, fertile soil. I’d say that they grow anywhere from 8-to 12-inches tall, sometimes being the same height in a group together, though occasionally the henbit stretches just a little bit taller than the dead nettle. The henbit is a bit rangier and will even sprawl along the ground, whereas dead nettle is upright.

IMG_7862

Henbit (left) and dead nettle (right) have obvious differences when compared side by side.

Harvest unsprayed, tender spikes early in the season—both the leaves and flowers are edible— and be sure of the correct identification of the plants before you eat them (dead nettle has some look-alike plants before it flowers). Both plants are easy to identify once they bloom. I find that many of our weedy harbingers taste green and earthy; I get strong mineral flavors from nettles and henbit similar to chickweed. Although they are members of the mint family, there is no mint to their flavors. If the stems are tough, then I remove them; if tender, I often add them to my Wild Greens Salsa Verde recipe (see below) since it will be pounded or pureed.  

Wild, edible greens are powerful, good food and offer a variety of flavors for free; they are nutritious and usually high in vitamins and minerals. In Europe, the gentle word “potherb” is given to wild greens that offer the knowledgeable forager herbs for the cooking pot. Both of these plants can be eaten raw in salads, sandwiches, wraps, and salsas, or cooked in soups and sauces, or combined in a mess o’ greens with other potherbs or green leaves like kale, spinach, chard, tat soi, etc. I prefer to combine them with other greens rather than eat them in quantity on their own.

Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)

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Dead nettle

Sometimes called red nettle, purple nettle, and even purple archangel, it is thought that this is called dead nettle because its leaves resemble stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), though they do not have the stinging characteristic of Urtica. Spotted nettle (Lamium maculatum) is closely related, however its leaves have whitish spots or blotches. 

The foliage of purple dead nettle is wrinkled and hirsute (hairy), and the edges of the heart-shaped leaves have rounded teeth. The leaves grow opposite one another on their noticeably square stems, mostly on the lower stem and at the top (leaving the center stem bare), where they overlap and give the appearance of being overcrowded. Foliage is a medium, bright green although depending upon growing conditions, the leaves clustered at the very top are often purplish-red in color. It is quite attractive against the dainty, single, tubular, lavender-pink flowers. Beginning foragers might want to wait to harvest when the plant is in flower—that way there is no mistaking it for another plant.

In doing research on the medicinal aspects of dead nettle, there are many actions listed: antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, astringent, diuretic, diaphoretic, purgative, and styptic. Since it has astringent and styptic qualities, the fresh leaves are recommended for external wounds or cuts. Tea from the leaves is purported to aid in digestion and is used as a mild laxative. It is also used for women’s issues for heavy menstrual flow and cramps. Caution: dead nettle should not be taken while pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) 

This plant is often mistakenly called dead nettle (L. purpureum). I’ve read that henbit gets its name because chickens like it and seek it out, though I am not sure about that—the chickens that I know don’t pay it much attention—though they have lots of other plants and insects to forage. While dead nettle has petioled leaves (little leaf stems attaching the leaves to the central stem), henbit’s lower leaves grow on short stalks, and the mid-to upper, ruffled and scallop-edged leaves appear in a half-circle, clasped around the square stem.

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Henbit

I love how Billy Joe Tatum perfectly describes the flowers of henbit in Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook: “The tiny flower buds look like beet-colored velvet beads, as small as a pinhead at first. As the buds open you see silken purplish flowers with long corollas, looking like Jack-in-the-pulpits in miniature.” Often upon close inspection, the tiny flowers are pale pinkish inside with deeper-colored spots; each flower turns into a four-seeded fruit.

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Chickens in the dead nettle.

Henbit’s properties are somewhat similar to those of dead nettle and include: anti-rheumatic, diaphoretic, diuretic, febrifuge, laxative and stimulant. Henbit has been used to support good digestion, whether consumed raw or made into a tea, and has also been used  to reduce a fever.

To prepare foraged greens:

To quickly capture the best flavor and nutrients, bring the greens to the kitchen as soon as they are harvested. Assemble a salad spinner or washing bowl, a cutting board, and the compost bucket. Run one gallon of water into the spinner or bowl. Add about 1/4 cup distilled white or apple cider vinegar to the water.

Methodically pull the tips or tender leaves from the stems. Pinch off leaves with yellow edges, or brown or black spots. Place the edible parts in the vinegar water as you work and submerge the mass in the water, plunging up and down several times to loosen foreign matter. Let the greens soak in the water for several minutes and the grit will fall to the bottom of the container. Lift them out and drain them. Discard the vinegar water and spin or pat the greens dry. Use fresh or cooked. If not using all of them, wrap them in a kitchen towel and store in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for a few days.

 

Wild Greens Salsa Verde

(Makes about 2 1/2 cups)IMG_8217

This traditional green sauce goes well with any type of vegetable, whether it is grilled, steamed, oven-roasted, or crudités; it is also good with simply-prepared meat, chicken, fish, and pasta, or even tortilla chips. Vary the herbs that you have on hand or what is in season. When I can, I make this a wild green sauce by adding whatever I can forage: dead nettle, henbit, sorrel, chickweed, dandelion greens and/or flowers, purslane, lambs’ quarters, violet leaves, field cress, monarda, wild onions, or garlic. You can fill in with any seasonal greens from the garden if need be like parsley, fennel fronds, cilantro, arugula, spinach, etc. Sometimes, I add other ingredients—about 1 tablespoon of capers, a chopped boiled egg, or a handful of nuts, like pine nuts, walnuts, or pecans. The sauce can be made without the bread; it just helps to thicken it a bit.

1 1-inch slice country bread, crusts removed

3 large garlic cloves, slivered

About 1/2 cup olive oil

About 3 to 4 cups of mixed edible green leaves, picked over, washed and spun dry 

1/4 cup minced sweet-tasting onion

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Soak the bread in a little water for 10 minutes, then squeeze most of the liquid from it. Add the bread and the garlic to the mortar or food processor and pound or pulse to coarsely chop.

Rough chop the greens. Add them a handful at a time, and pound them in a mortar and pestle or chop in a food processor. Use a little olive oil to loosen them.

Add the olive oil to the herbs as if making a mayonnaise, a few drops at a time, blending or pulsing to incorporate.

When most of the oil has been added, blend in the onion and vinegar. If you want to add capers, nuts, or a hardboiled egg, now is the time; pulse or pound to mix. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, and taste for seasoning. The sauce should be a little thinner than pesto—add a bit more oil, vinegar, or even a bit of water if need be. 

Let the sauce stand at least 30 minutes before using—that way the flavors will develop and meld. Adjust the seasoning and serve at room temperature. The olive oil will not emulsify completely; a little will remain on top of the sauce. Store any leftover sauce in a tightly-covered glass container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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.


sb self portrait moors of ireland (1)Susan is a culinary herbalist, food writer, educator, and photographer whose work has been published in numerous publications. She has authored a number of award-winning books. Her latest book, The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs, was co-authored with the late Dr. Arthur Tucker. Susan is passionate about herbs and her work, sharing the joy of gardening and cooking through teaching and writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell and taste.

Ramps

By Paris Wolfe

When Jeremy Umansky was at culinary school in 2006, a professor took him foraging in the Hudson Valley. They were looking for fiddlehead ferns, morel mushrooms, and ramps. Umansky –a James Beard award semi-finalist, and owner of Larder Deli in Cleveland – was converted. He has been harvesting that harbinger of spring, ramps, ever since. 

For those who haven’t yet heard, Foraged.Ramps 14the ramp – also called a wild leek — is a species of wild onion (Allium tricoccum) that is native to North America. The bulbs resemble a scallion, but the leaves are wide and flat. They cover Appalachian forest floors before trees fully leaf out. The flavor is a mix of garlic and onion. And, if you eat too many raw, you will sweat that aroma.

Ramps are high in vitamins A and C, and in lore, they are considered a blood cleanser and part of a good spring tonic. In April and May, ramp festivals and dinners are common throughout their growing region and the plants often pop up on farmers market stands.

A staple of Appalachian cooking for centuries, today’s chefs are incorporating them into their menus. “We use every part of the plant,” Umansky says. “We use the greens the way you’d use any fresh herb. We use leaves in a salad, for a pesto, chopped finely as a seasoning.” He takes inspiration from a variety of cooking styles including Southeast Asian, Mediterranean, and more. He also pickles the bulb for a garnish long after the season has ended.

Ramp Biscuit Trio

Ramp Biscuits

Cooking, he warns, will mellow the flavor. “That’s why we like to use the greens as fresh as possible,” he says. “If we really want that ramp flavor, we’ll treat them as a scallion.”

“Last year we shifted our approach and only plucked greens, no bulbs,” he noted. “Every few years we do that to give the bulbs a break and keep our private patch healthy.”

For those who don’t have Umansky’s training and imagination, books and blogs inspire. Perhaps one of the best cookbooks about ramps is Ramps, The Cookbook: Cooking with the Best-Kept Secret of the Appalachian Trail (St. Lynn’s Press, 2012).ST LYNN'S PRESS RAMPS Cover

The fully illustrated book brings together recipes from chefs, food writers, and bloggers around North America. They’re good with eggs for breakfast or in a curry for dinner, and they are delicious in soups, fritters, and jelly. Or, try pairing Cream of Ramps with Wild Asparagus soup with ramp pesto cornmeal muffins. 

Editor’s note: West Virginia hosts many ramp festivals in the spring. Check out this website for more info on events held throughout the state – this is a good time to plan next year’s trip! Ramps, like many wild plants, are vulnerable to overharvesting, which depletes native populations. As always, please purchase plant material from reputable sources and/or practice sustainable foraging techniques. United Plant Savers suggests harvesting one leaf per plant, harvesting the leaves only, and even learning how to grow your own.


Paris Wolfe is an award winning writer of business, food, and travel articles.

Dandelion – June Herb of the Month

Dandelion – June Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal, HSA Secretary

dandelion-1.jpgDandelion, Taraxacum officinale, a common weed, is in fact a treasure trove of vitamins and minerals. We need to be harvesting dandelions instead of weeding them from our yards and gardens. I remember as a child being paid by the bushel for pulling dandelions from my parent’s lawn. I never thought about eating them, though. How things have changed!

Early in the growing season is the perfect time to harvest dandelion leaves for soup or salad. Leaves tossed with a tangy vinaigrette dressing with blue cheese and dates makes a delicious and nutritious salad. The leaves are full of vitamins A, C, D, and B complex as well as a long list of minerals including iron, zinc, manganese, potassium, and magnesium. Dandelion leaves are the richest source of beta carotene of any of the green vegetables.

The roots are chock full of the same vitamins and minerals. However, roots harvested in the fall are a bit sweeter. The dried and roasted roots can be used as a coffee or tea substitute.

Native Americans, Chinese, and Arabian peoples have used dandelion in their medicines for a long time. Western medicine is beginning to study it for medicinal applications, including testing its effectiveness against several drug-resistant cancers.

dandelion wishEveryone remembers blowing on the round, fluffy dandelion seed heads as a child. But do you know the legend behind this popular childhood activity? To discover the legend, you will have to go to The Herb Society of the Month’s Herb of the Month web page and read about dandelion. You will find some very interesting recipes using dandelion here as well. Now is the time to try them out.

For more delightful and informative articles about dandelion, read the dandelion posts on this HSA blog.

Ready for Dandelions

Save those Dandelions for Wine

Violets are Delicious

Violets are Delicious

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America

violet bouquetOne of the loveliest flowers of spring is the Viola odorata or as it is commonly referred to, the “Sweet violet.” Violets have been used in herbal healing remedies for centuries, in fact St. Hildegard of Bingen, the famous 12th century German mystic and healer, was said to have made a healing salve of violet juice, olive oil, and goat tallow for its use as a possible anti-bacterial.

I use violets whenever I can for their healing virtues, and they are also an absolutely delicious ingredient in salads, drinks, and desserts. Back in the day, violet flowers, and leaves mixed into salads were one of my favorite spring remedies for pre-menstrual melancholy. When chopped liberally into extra virgin olive oil with some fresh comfrey leaves, they make a poultice that can soothe rashes , irritations, sore muscles, and tender breasts.

When infused into a simple syrup they enliven fresh lemonade or an elegant champagne cocktail. You can also use a delightful crème de violette in place of the syrup. If you are going to make a lavender lemonade, freeze some violet flowers into ice cubes to use in your glass. There’s really nothing prettier.

When I was 23, I met Jim and, shortly after we married, we bought a small farm in Burton, Ohio, complete with a century home, small barn, and several acres of unspoiled land. It was nestled on a little bit of hillside with an artesian spring that bubbled up by a little oak grove, providing me with fresh watercress whenever I desired.

We named the farm “Windesphere,” the place on earth where the winds and waters meet. We moved in that December and I’ll never forget that first spring. As the snow thawed, I began to see treasures in the gardens. First were the snowdrops that dotted the hillside like a blanket of down and the soft catkins of the pussy willows. Next flowering buds started to appear everywhere. I found a quince bush and several heirloom apple trees and a blackberry grove. field of violets

Then there were the violets. I’ll never forget when I found them. It was on one of those warm, early spring days when you’ve just shed your coat and begun to think that maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to put away your long underwear for a bit. I decided that it was a good day to go for a walk in the back just to see what was budding. We had a beautiful back porch made of fieldstone and the steps that went towards the back yard were hand hewn and lovely. As I walked, I began to notice the fragrance…something just a bit sweet and very green.

When the fragrance was so strong that I couldn’t ignore it, I looked down. In the grass all around me were the most beautiful little violets in shades of deep purple, lilac, and white. The smell was intoxicating. Over the years I picked them for little bouquets, crystallized them for desserts and made them into massage oils, tinctures, vinegars, and syrups. They appeared every spring, growing more abundant every year. I will always remember my son Alex lying face down in a huge patch of them and whispering for me to join him and the violet fairies.

IMG_7820In honor of all these memories I’ve made a violet ice cream with a lovely Fortnum and Mason tea from England that features roses and violets. I’ve also added some of my thick and sticky homemade blackberry jam just to gild the lily. This ice cream is rich, creamy and just perfect for spring. See the recipe below.

If you’ve never had them, crystallized violets are absolutely beautiful, sparkling little jewels and much better than candy. I became addicted the first time my sister brought these treasures home from Paris. Fortunately for me, they are so easy to make. All you need are fresh violets, beaten egg white (not quite frothy), superfine sugar and a soft, sable paintbrush.

Be certain to harvest your blooms from areas that haven’t been touched with pesticides or animals because you will not be rinsing them. Paths through the woods are usually the perfect place to find them.

After harvest, separate flowers from the stems. Then, dip your paintbrush into the egg white and gently apply it — very lightly — to the violet. Cover the entire flower or petal. Then turn the violet upside down, and while holding it over a plate, sprinkle with the superfine sugar to coat it evenly. Place each violet on a tray lined with parchment and allow to completely dry. You can hasten the process a bit by putting the tray into a 150-degree oven with the door left ajar or you can simply leave them in the oven with the light left on overnight. Whatever you do they won’t be around for long because they are absolutely delicious. Once completely dry store for up to six months in an airtight jar.

IMG_7819VIOLET ICE CREAM

1 pint whipping cream
2 cups sweetened coconut milk
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons crème de violette
1/4 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
3/4 cup Fortnum and Mason Rose and Violet Tea
4 ounces Ghirardelli white chocolate baking bar
4 tablespoons candied violets, (handmade or purchased)
3 tablespoons blackberry Jam
2 organic egg yolks

Combine the cream and coconut milk in a saucepan and bring to a shallow boil. Whisk in the honey, crème de violette and vanilla, then turn off the heat. Add the loose tea and let it infuse for at least 15 minutes stirring occasionally. When the flavor is as bright as you want it to be, strain the milk mixture through a fine mesh strainer and press the tea through the strainer to extract the maximum essence. It will still be quite warm. Put the milk /cream mixture into a high-speed blender and add the chocolate, candied violets and jam. Turn the blender on and adjust to one of the highest settings. Add the egg yolks and blend for a minute or two.

Pour the custard blend into a dish suitable for freezing or if you¹re lucky enough to have an ice cream maker use that. Freeze until solid, scoop into pretty bowls or glasses, garnish with candied violets, a light shortbread cookie and enjoy.

This recipe will easily serve about 6 reasonable people or two very greedy ones…you decide!
Note: Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs may increase the risk of foodborne illness.

Plantain, Good For Everything, and Usually Under Foot

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

plaintain1Plantain. Let’s be clear. Not the banana. We’re talking about Lantago major, also called broadleaf plantain, white man’s foot, ribble grass, way bread, great rat’s tail or greater plantain. It is, in fact, related to the banana, as a species of perennial flowering plant in the plantain family. It is also related to hosta, also known as plantain lily, which it somewhat resembles.

Still not a banana. This herb is a leaf vegetable rich in calcium and vitamins A,C and K. The leaves are produced in a flat, broad oval rosette. The flowers are many, tiny, greenish in color, and held aloft above the leaves by a tall, single spire of a stem. Those flowers produce tens of thousands of seeds per plant, which are dispersed by the wind.

Once its job is done, that tall stem has historically been dried, twisted, and braided into useful objects, such as twine, baskets, and mats.

Plantain’s name, white man’s foot, came from the observation by indigenous people that it followed European expansion, having been introduced from Europe. Plantain thrives in disturbed soil, appearing trodden into the wasteland by intrusive feet.

The leaves have been ingested as a tea or tincture as the mucilage from its crushed leaves soothes inflamed membranes. Young leaves are tender and something like spinach. More mature leaves might be better stewed.

plantain floweringUsed for healing where ever it is found, it has been applied externally as a poultice and is valued for its anti-microbial, astringent, and regenerative qualities. There are strong traditions that a poultice of plantain is particularly valuable in drawing out venom from the bites of snakes and spiders and the stings of bees and wasps. Perhaps.

One of the customary ways to prepare that poultice is to chew the leaves into a paste, and apply that to the wound. Here, I recall the time my darling daughter offered a baby finger to the parrot, Merlin. Merlin bit. Amazon parrots have beaks like bolt cutters, so we were lucky that her finger was wounded, but intact. Our pediatrician ordered a round of antibiotics, not because parrot bites are particularly likely to become infected, but because any toddler is going to stick the injured finger in her own mouth, making the injury, in effect, a human bite. And a human bite ALWAYS gets infected. That said I would advise against the traditional method of preparing a plantain poultice. Others who have long and deep herbal knowledge may disagree with me. Perhaps its best to follow the always-reliable, historic herbalist Hildegard of Bingen and simply apply the juice of the leaf.

Hildegard also suggests ingesting the leaves, with or without water, as a remedy when one has been given a love potion. Which is, I suppose, something like having been bitten by a venomous creature…. but worse. Of course, she recommends following up with a great quantity of strong drink. That should help.

Plantain is probably growing at the edges of your yard, or between the cracks in the sidewalk. People may spray pesticide to banish plantain from their lawn or garden, but wind-dispersed seeds by the thousands per plant are a solid survival strategy for the plant. If you harvest your own plantain, be aware whether the area has been treated with chemicals or in a pet area. You can buy the dried leaves from Amazon and herbal suppliers.