Sensory Herb Gardens for Special Needs Children

By Candace Riddle

IMG_0317Ever since Beatrix Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit, children and gardens have had a special friendship. That friendship is even stronger between children with special needs and special gardens called “sensory gardens.” 

The difference between a sensory garden and a “regular” garden is the human factor— regular display gardens are designed primarily for visual beauty, while a sensory garden is designed to stimulate all the senses: sight, sound, scent, touch, and taste. A display garden is meant to be viewed or seen from either a short or long distance, whereas a sensory garden is meant to be experienced close and personal using all five of the human senses.  

Educators describe a sensory herb garden as peaceful and calming with the ability to draw kids into the moment; even non-verbal kids can show their feelings about their garden experience.

When we use the term “children with special needs” in this writing, we are painting with a broad brush including physical, mental, emotional, and educational disabilities. When planning a sensory herb garden, consideration must be given to not only the garden plan—both hard and soft scaping—but also how children with any of these special needs can interact with the garden.  

_DSC0301As with any garden plan, sensory herb gardens start with the lay-out and hardscape: the beds should be narrow enough for children to reach into (from any side, the depth should be no more than 24 to 30 inches; that is one of the advantages of the tiered square design–it allows access on four different sides at three different levels, see photos), and the paths must be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, which would preclude the use of gravel or a soft ground cover and mandate concrete, bricks, or flagstones. Mulch can also be used as part of the sensory experience. Pine needles, for example, have a sweet scent; wood chips have a tactile feel; and oyster shells have a scent of the sea and a smooth or sharp feel. A water feature can bring several things to the sensory garden: trickling sounds, the sensation of feeling water or wetness, even taste (usually happens when you are not looking!). Windchimes can be a pleasant addition for both the sound they provide and the visual appearance of wind moving through the garden.  

Once the hardscape has been planned, it is time to move on to the plant material, which is, of course, the fun part. Plants should be chosen for the special values they possess to enhance the sensory experience of the children. Below are some examples of plants that may be used in a sensory garden: 

Sight: lavender, nasturtiums, English thyme, anise hyssop, sage, and other Salvias 

Sound: pollinator plants, including Mondarda spp. (bee balm), that will encourage bees to make their happy buzzing sounds (of course, special instruction and close supervision must be in place to protect children and bees!). Balloon flowers and false indigo could be included for sound, as their seed pods make popping and rattling noises as they mature.  

Smell: Any strongly scented herb would be a good addition. Some of the most popular are rosemary, hop, fennel, thyme, sage, basil, chives, and, of course, scented geraniums.

Touch: lamb’s ear, yarrow, coneflowers, rosemary, and lemongrass 

Taste: basil, dill, and anise hyssop 

As you can see from the examples above, there is a lot of crossover as far as the plants go; they can provide multiple sensory experiences. Children should be supervised closely when in the garden to ensure their safety. While you want the fullest experience, the safety of the children is the most important factor. 

While the best way to provide a sensory garden experience is outdoors, children can have a satisfactory adventure using enclosed areas such as an enclosed courtyard or even a container garden. These are both good options for populations of students with a tendency to bolt or elope from the area.

IMG_0824The photograph depicts a newly created sensory garden in Maryland’s northern Baltimore County farmland. This garden was designed to be a part of the agricultural tourism initiative that is taking hold in rural areas. “The Farmyard” is a new agriculture venture started by a local farming family to introduce children to all aspects of a working farm, not the least of which is allowing children to sponsor farm animals and help in their care throughout the year. “Farm School” runs all year long offering classes in animal care and upkeep, crop growing, food preservation, and self-sufficiency. As part of the farm school, a class on herbs and their uses is taught. The sensory herb garden is a part of the education of students in the knowledge of herbs in daily life. All students are encouraged to touch all the herb plants, smell them, and taste them. An herbal educator is available during public events to guide children through the garden and explain the uses of the different plants. The focus in this garden is useful herbs in everyday life. (Though all of the senses are considered in this garden, touch, taste, and smell probably are better represented than sight and sound.)

The design of this garden was limited to the structures already in place, which worked out well as the terraced beds allow children of all heights to view at different levels, and the beds are also shallow enough to allow visitors to reach into the entire garden—all tiers are accessible. To increase the visual appeal of the gardens, snapdragons and zinnias, with their colorful flowers, were added to each garden section. Some of the other plants that were included in the gardens are: 

Rosemary—scent, touch, taste 

Sage—scent, touch, taste (The turkey in the pen next to the garden was a bit uncomfortable with the Thanksgiving herb right next door!) 

Fennel—scent, sound (for the wind moving the fronds and the pollinators that they welcome); visitors were invited to dig up the bulbs and taste them in the fall

English thyme—scent, sight (pointing out that the little flowers are used for baby fairies’ sleep!)

Dill—scent, sight (the full seed pods are beautiful!), and of course, the taste (just like dill pickles)

Lamb’s ear—touch, sound (the bees love this herb) 

Marigolds—sight, smell 

Basil (sweet and Thai)—scent, taste, sight 

This sensory garden is a work in progress, and it is expected to welcome children of all ages and circumstances for years to come. It is the long-range goal to have schools target this farm and garden as a field trip destination once schools resume a normal schedule.  

IMG_0427While the herb sensory garden at The Farmyard is on private property and maintained by dedicated volunteers, this is not the case in most public gardens. While public gardens often attract groups to plan and build sensory gardens, ongoing maintenance during the planning stages, as well as after the garden is established, is often performed by staff of the public facility. 

Gardens are an important element in many people’s lives, and sensory gardens, in particular, can add an immeasurable richness to the lives of children and especially children with special needs. We encourage you to explore supporting a sensory garden in your area.

Photo credits: 1) Sensory garden at The Farmyard (Candace Riddle); 2) Children in the National Herb Garden (Chrissy Moore); 3) Herb collage (Chrissy Moore); 4) Tiered sensory garden, The Farmyard (Candace Riddle); 5) Herb collage (Chrissy Moore); 6) Children and chaperones visiting the sensory garden (Candace Riddle).


Candace Riddle is a retired educator and an herbal enthusiast for forty years. She has been a member of The Herb Society of America for over twenty years and is a founding member of the Mason-Dixon Unit. She lives in Maryland.

HSA Workshop: The Basics of Propagating Pelargoniums and Other Plants

By Jen Munson

Thanks to a renewed interest in self-sufficiency and pandemic gardening, seed starting has enjoyed a resurgence. Fedco Seeds and Baker Creek Seeds have already indicated that they are experiencing difficulties with keeping up with seed demands. Those fighting online shopping carts for seeds may be pleased to know that expanding your plant collection can done through cuttings.

blog 3Join HSA Member, Mary Maran on February 25th from 2pm – 2:30pm EST for, “The Basics of Propagating Pelargoniums and Other Plants.” Mary will share her propagation techniques so you can make more of the plants you already have or obtain a cutting from a friend’s plant and grow your own plant from it. Propagation by cuttings allows the grower to increase the number of plants in their collection while ensuring the characteristics of the “new” plant remain true to the parent plant. Some plants are just easier to replicate with cuttings, such as bay, scented geraniums, lavender, rosemary, and many others. 

This interactive workshop is $5.00 for HSA members and $7.00 for guests. Not a member? Join today and automatically be entered into a drawing for a registration to our virtual conference being held June 10-12th. To register visit http://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/workshops.html  Please note that this program will not be recorded.

blog 1Cuttings can be taken at any time of the year but ideally when the plant is in its growing season. In its most basic form, plant cutting is simply cutting a stem of a plant at an angle, dipping it into rooting hormone, and then inserting it in potted rooting media which is kept damp until roots grow, about a month. Sounds simple enough; however, this rudimentary method has a success rate of between 40-60%. During this interactive webinar Mary will share her tips and tricks to increase your success rate to well over 80%.

Photo Credits: 1) Pelargonium cuttings dipped in rooting hormone (Canva) 2) Cuttings potted up in rooting media (Canva) 3) Mary Maran (courtesy of Mary Maran)

(Source: Pandemic Gardeners Contribute To Growing Demand For Seeds : NPR) (Cronin, 2021)


mary maranAbout Mary Maran: Mary is a long-time member of The Herb Society of America. She started her membership as a member of the Long Island Unit and in later years moved to Pennsylvania where she is an active member of the Philadelphia Unit. Mary is an avid grower of pelargoniums. For years she has donated specimens from her diverse and superb collection to numerous plant sales including the Long Island Unit’s Annual Symposium and the Horticultural Alliance of the Hampton’s Annual Garden Fair.

HSA Webinar: Weird Herbs

Sponsored by the Baton Rouge Unit
by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

lambs earGardening has long been a popular pastime. The pandemic, and subsequent lockdown, has only increased gardening’s popularity. Planting perennials and annuals for beauty, texture, and joy, while rewarding, is tame. It is when you cross into the herb gardening world that things get a little weird. 

The Herb Society of America identifies herbs as any plant or fungi that has a use beyond purely ornamental. This includes plants used for botanical dyeing, culinary,yellow skunk cabbage economic, and medicine, among other uses. This is where things can get strange. For example, lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) has been and can be used as a natural bandage or even toilet paper! Still stranger are the leaves of the Western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), which can be used like parchment paper for wrapping meat and fish prior to cooking. Surprisingly, the plant’s stinky scent is not transferred to the meat.* 

at3-page-001Looking for more weird? Join us on February 16th at 1:00pm EST for horticulturist and author Amanda Thomsen’s program titled, “Weird Herbs.” In this fun, fast-paced webinar, participants will learn about new and unusual herbs and see examples of using everyday herbs in strange ways. Admittedly, I am curious if Amanda will be able to identify plants that have not yet gained the attention of our experienced members. Undoubtedly, Amanda will spark our creativity, and our “plant wish lists” will expand while enjoying a few horticultural giggles. 

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today and enjoy all our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over 50 program titles. To register visit www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/

*(Caution: The leaf, flower, and root contain calcium oxalate that can irritate the mucosa in the mouth and throat. It should never be eaten raw. Traditional cooking recipes recommend changing the water several times to boil out the calcium oxalate. Overdose can cause gastric irritation, nausea, and diarrhea.)

References:

http://www.mossomcreek.org/swamp-lanterns-skunk-cabbage/

http://www.homesteaddreamer.com/2015/01/14/using-natures-tin-foil/

 http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/slider-1/

 https://ethnobotanywesternoregon.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/skunk-cabbage-%E2%80%93-weird-and-wonderful/

Photo credits: 1) Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), Pixaby; 2) Western skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum), Pixaby; 4 & 5) Amanda Thomsen.

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. 


amandaAmanda Thomsen is a horticulturist, garden designer, keynote speaker, freelance writer, backyard consultant, and author living in suburban Chicago. Amanda wants to help the world live more sustainably (but without a load of effort and twice the fun!). She is the author of two books: Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Terrific Yard Totally Tailored to You (Storey 2012) and Backyard Adventure: Get Messy, Get Wet, Build Cool Things, and Have Tons of Fun (Storey 2019). She is half of The Garden Girls podcast and produces abook one-woman gardening show, Mud Life Crisis. She has a monthly column in the garden center industry magazine, Green Profit. Amanda was chosen to attend the Better Homes and Gardens Stylemaker event in NYC in 2017 & 2018.

About the Baton Rouge Unit– Based in Louisiana, the Baton Rouge Unit is one of 40-plus chapters of The Herb Society of America. This active unit maintains a synergistic relationship with the Burden Horticultural Gardens and is currently engaged in the development of two herb gardens on the property. One is a heritage garden exploring the cultivation and use of herbs through the different ethnic influences in Louisiana. The other is a traditional Cajun traiteur’s garden as part of the Rural Life Museum. When they aren’t fundraising for this important project, they hold regular meetings at the Burden Conference Center at LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens. Learn more by visiting https://www.hsabr.org/

Herbal Hacks, Part 3: Garden Care and Herb Drying Tips

The good ideas just keep coming! Read on for the third installment of reader-submitted herbal hacks: garden care and herb drying tips.

flowers-5792157_1920_Image by Prawny via Pixabay In summer, I dry herbs in paper bags in the rear window of my car. It only takes 2-4 days, depending on the amount of sun. – Gail Seeley

Fill a lidded, plastic trash can with water, then measure out and and add your favorite water soluble plant food. Store your watering can inside. This tip will make caring for plants in containers much easier. –Holly Cusumano

Folded and rolled towel cropped_Carol KaganExcerpt from Herbal Sampler, 2nd ed. You can dry herbs in your frost-free refrigerator. This method results in good quality and keeps the bright color of the herbs. Make sure the herbs are clean and dry. Remove the leaves from stems and place on a section of paper towel. Roll or fold the towel to cover the herbs on all sides. Secure with twist ties or rubber bands. Label. The paper towel absorbs the moisture evaporating from the herbs and the refrigerator will evaporate it from the towel. Place it in the crisper section or on a high shelf. Do not put it in a plastic bag or container. Should be dry in 2-3 weeks. –Carol Kagan

Always grow mint in a container so that you can take cuttings and give it as gifts, especially unplanned ones like a hostess gift or to give to a new neighbor. Include a recipe card with a recipe of how you use mint in the kitchen. –Peggy Riccio

Yellow_and_red_Tropaeolum_majus_(Garden_nasturtium) by Mary Hutchison via WikimediaMy husband started us on hydroponics last winter. We were thrilled with the grow lights in the basement for early starts. Basil and parsley did well. However, when we put them on the cart in the driveway to harden them off, here came the bugs. The hole-eaters even hitched a ride back into the basement at night to keep up their meal. So, my idea is to put the plants in a deep, translucent sweater box. Fill it with dirt, put the pots in the dirt and cover the top with an old window screen. The double source of soil helps the roots have more space and keeps them cooler in the heat. It is like a mini greenhouse. The sweater boxes can be found cheaply at the thrift stores. –Elizabeth Reece

Nasturtiums repel whiteflies, aphids, and squash bugs. I like planting them all around my veggies! –Shawna Anderson

herbs-drying from thegardeningcook dot comI have great luck using my car as a dehydrator. Sometimes I set up a clothesline using the coat rack hooks in the back seat to secure the clothesline and then hang herbs to dry, or I will lay them out in the trunk to dry. When we are experiencing the dry heat of the summer they dry in just a day or two! The added bonus is the scent of herbs fills the car. –Jen Munson

I was having problems with slugs on my basil, so I pulled lemon balm leaves, tore them up, and put them around the basil, which was only an inch high. It worked! I deliberately did not use mint because I was concerned it would root and then escape into the garden. –Peggy Riccio

Photo Credits: 1) Floral border (Prawny from Pixabay; 2) Paper towel technique for drying herbs in the fridge (Carol Kagan); 3) Yellow and red Tropaeolum majus (Mary Hutchison from Wikimedia); 4) Herbs drying (thegardeningcook.com)

Making More Little Herbalists

By Andrea Jackson

DSC_0161When we love something, it’s impossible not to share it with others, particularly those we care about most. Herbs and children are such a natural combination, it’s easy to draw a child in by offering them a smell or a taste or by telling them a fascinating story about the plant. Then, before you know it, you are making all manner of herbal goodies together.

My granddaughter, Marin, lives about three hours away, but each time she comes to visit, she wants to explore my herb room and I’m thrilled to oblige her. We smell and taste and put things together. Each time she comes, she wants to make a potpourri, and so, has ended up with quite an array in her bedroom. From there, we graduated to making lotions, which she loves to slather on and share with her mom. When she was seven, she wanted to have an herbal birthday party. She invited ten of her friends, and we made rose lavender potpourri and lavender lotion. It was quite hands on for the group, but flower-2510254_1920they all were excited to participate. They loved the way everything smelled, and each little girl went home with a little bottle of lotion and a small bag of potpourri. Now, she is almost a teenager and her interests have waned somewhat, but she still wants to make potpourri each time she comes.

My niece, Gabby, seems to have a natural affinity for plants. From a young age, she was pulling weeds in the parking lots of restaurants. And now, she loves herbs and frequently calls with questions. Her mom grows a wide variety of them, and she sent me a video of Gabby with a necklace of intertwined herbs answering the question, “How can you tell something is in the mint family?” She confidently shouted, “Square stems.” We make jams together whenever we can.

picking-flowers-391610_1920Then along came my granddaughter, Gemma, who not only lives locally but whom I babysit weekly. That provides lots and lots of time for herbal teaching. Since she was eighteen months old, she’s been out in the garden tasting and rubbing leaves and smelling the wonderful scents. On the way to the playground there is a field of weeds, and we always take time to tell their stories. One day my daughter called  to tell me that Gemma was “eating the landscape,” so we instituted the rule never to eat a plant unless I gave it to her.

We plant a tiny container garden each year, which she tends, and she is thrilled when the plants come up and she has something new to taste and share. In addition to caring for her garden, she has been making potpourri with me. She is four now and can distinguish between some mints, and she loves lavender.

When she was three, we took a walk and passed a field of plants. Gemma said, “Look at all the burdock.” I can certainly die happy. 

Photo credits: 1) School children visiting the National Herb Garden (Jeanette Proudfoot); 2) Potpourri (Monfocus, Pixabay); 3) Child gathering wildflowers (SMBlake, Pixabay).


Andrea JacksonAndrea Jackson is a member of the Western Pennsylvania Unit of the Herb Society of America. 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. 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.

Herb Society of America is Now Accepting Proposals for an Intro to Herb Series

By Jen Munson, Education Chair

rfp imageThe Herb Society of America is seeking proposals from speaker/educator(s) qualified and capable of planning, executing, and producing a series of recorded and interactive online classes. The purpose of this project is to deliver an interactive online classroom experience that meets the information and content expectations of a targeted audience. HSA requires the educator to have demonstrated experience in herbs along with developing and producing such program(s).

Our target audience is the amateur gardener or those looking for a refresher on how to grow and use major herbs. We are seeking three to five recorded online courses. Each class would be approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour in length, and would highlight how to grow and use herbs. At the conclusion of the online program, participants will be able to:

  • Define what makes a plant an herb
  • Identify 5-10 common herbs
  • Grow an herb garden
  • Implement basic uses for herbs in the home
  • Design a theme garden 
  • Extend the life cycle of herbs through harvesting, drying, and storing 

Use of previously generated HSA content may be accessed and included for the development of the classes. This may include, but is not limited to, essential guides, Herb of the Months, newsletter articles, website, and The HSA Beginners’ Guide to Herbs. All courses and content created under this Request for Proposal (RFP) would be for the complete and exclusive use of HSA.

business-man-2452808_1920If you and/or your organization are interested in submitting a proposal, please obtain a copy of the RFP by contacting Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair at jenmun08@gmail.com. Please share this request with other individuals or organizations that may be interested. 

HSA Webinar: The Chakra System Displayed in a Garden

by Jen Munson, Education Chair

It’s accepted that good health can be found in nature, from the benefits of hands in the dirt to the reduction of stress from a walk in the woods. Another modality for good health is the chakra system. Chakra is Sanskrit for wheel or circle and references the wheels of energy located in the body. The chakra system is a network of energy channels that are mapped throughout the body. Although some may not ascribe to this way of thinking about the body, others embrace a life of learning and exploring this modality.

Join us on September 24th at 1pm EDT for our webinar titled, The Chakra System Displayed in a Garden. Herbalist and business owner Jane Hawley Stevens will be our guest presenter. At Jane’s award-winning organic farm, Four Elements Herbal, she created a garden that organizes plants according to the body systems. Her Chakra Garden has seven distinct areas with plants specific for each body system that help heal and rejuvenate. Learn about this eastern system of healing, the herbs, and the garden design that explains it.

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Visit  https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars or click here to sign up. Become a member today and enjoy all of our webinars for free, and as an added bonus, you’ll automatically be entered into a raffle for a free educational conference registration to our 2021 conference being held in Baton Rouge, LA, from April 29th to May 1st, 2021.

In preparation for our upcoming webinar, continue reading to become more familiar with the chakra system. There are seven primary chakras found along the spine starting at the perineum and moving straight up to the top of the head. Each chakra vibrates at a different energy level and reflects a different color and part of the body and its function.

First Chakra – Root – Located at the perineum, this chakra connects us to the earth and is associated with the color red. It entails the spinal column, kidneys, legs, and colon. Plants for this chakra include dandelion root, garlic, parsnips and other root-like herbs.

Second Chakra – Sacral – Located by the sacrum, it’s connected to pleasure and emotional balance. It’s represented by the color orange and is Chakra Image-page-001associated with the reproductive organs, prostate, and bladder. Herbs for this energy channel include calendula, sandalwood, vanilla, carob, fennel, and licorice.

Third Chakra – Navel – Located by the belly button, it is the center of our emotions, including willpower and assertion. With its yellow color it covers the pancreas, liver, and stomach. Plants to support this wheel include celery, rosemary, cinnamon, peppermint, spearmint, turmeric, cumin, and fennel.

Fourth Chakra – Heart – Located centrally near the heart, this chakra represents love, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and intuitiveness. The color is green and the associated body systems are heart and the circulatory system. Plants for the fourth chakra include cayenne, lavender, marjoram, rose, basil, sage, and thyme. 

Fifth Chakra – Throat – Located at the throat, it entails communication, self expression, creativity, and truth. The color is blue and the organs associated with it are the thyroid, hypothalamus, throat, and mouth. Plants for this chakra include lemon balm, red clover, eucalyptus, peppermint, sage, salt, and lemongrass.

Sixth Chakra – Third Eye – Located in the center of the brain, this chakra represents wisdom, intuition, and analytical abilities. The color is a deep purple and the associated organs are the pineal gland, nose, ears, and pituitary gland. Herbs to support this energy wheel include mint, jasmine, eyebright, juniper, mugwort, poppy, and rosemary. 

Seventh Chakra – Crown – This chakra is found just above the crown of the head and connects us to divine energy. Its color is light purple, indigo blue, or white. No organs are associated with this energy wheel, and herbs that support this energy center include lavender and lotus flowers.

Photo Credits: 1) Sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera (Erin Holden); 2) Chakra system


jane hawley stevensJane Hawley Stevens has been working with herbs, from starting seeds to creating herbal wellness, since 1981. Jane and her husband, David, own and operate a 130-acre certified organic farm in Baraboo Bluffs, Wisconsin. Just this year, Jane and David were named the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) 2020 Organic Farmers of the Year! 

Their farm is also home to Four Elements Organic Herbals. Their property is composed of cultivated fields, prairie, and woodland. Jane believes that healing comes from nature, so dedicates her power to nurturing healing herbs, both cultivated and wild. These are hand harvested at peak potency to create her unique line of remedies. In this rural setting, Jane has contributed her message of honoring nature to schools, civic groups, and through Four Elements’ Annual Open House over the past 30 plus years.

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. 

Backyard Butterfly Weed

By Kaila Blevins

Butterfly weed flowersI, like many other people preparing for the COVID-19 lockdown, frequented my local garden center to purchase vegetable seeds and buy plants for the different backyard projects intended to keep myself occupied as the weather warmed. One of the projects that I tasked myself with involved creating a pollinator garden in a wonky, pain-in-the-butt-to-mow patch of grass in my backyard. While walking through the garden center’s aisles, looking for plants to complement the coneflowers (Echinacea) and bee balm (Monarda) I had already placed in my cart, I came across butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Originally, I was drawn to the numerous orange flowers that would bloom from mid-summer through the fall that would potentially allow me to see a variety of butterflies, moths, and maybe even a hummingbird, when I peer out of the kitchen window while washing dishes. But, once I got home, I researched butterfly weed’s uses outside of being pollinator friendly. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several Native American tribes in the eastern and southwestern portions of the United States used butterfly weed medicinally.

Butterfly weedBased on the historical texts I read, the seeds and roots of butterfly weed were used in numerous treatments. The seeds harvested from the ripened pods were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. However, most of the different tribes primarily used the roots, which were applied externally to tighten the skin or smashed to create a paste to treat bruises, cuts, sores, and bites. In addition to topical use, the roots were ingested or steeped to create beverages. Raw roots were consumed to treat pulmonary and respiratory issues; dried roots were administered to treat chest pains as well. Drinks were given to women after childbirth to ease the pain and bring comfort to the new mothers. Lastly, individuals believed that rubbing their legs and running shoes with butterfly weed would enhance their running capabilities.

Butterfly weedSince planting the garden back in May, it has been a delight watching the different insects interact with the butterfly weed, but it was also fun learning how people used it in ways other than just adding pops of orange to their garden. For more information on other native herbs and native herb gardening, check out The Herb Society of America’s Notable NativeTM and GreenBridgesTM web pages.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Butterfly weed flowers; 2) Butterfly weed developing seedpod; 3) Butterfly weed in author’s garden. All photos courtesy of the author.

Sources

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary: Timber Press, 2009.

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.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila 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.

Nose-Twisting Nasturtiums

By Susan Belsinger

Bloody Mary1Plant Profile
Family: Tropaeolaceae
Scientific name: Tropaeolum majus
Common names: nasturtium, Indian cress, trophy cress, trophywort
Native Habitat: Peru, parts of South America
Plant Type: Annual
Growth Habit: Dwarf bushy cultivars grow from 8 to 18 inches in height, while the climbers can easily reach 6 to 10 feet, or more.
Hardiness: Hardy in frost-free locations
Light: Best in full sun; can tolerate a few hours of shade, which produces more leaves with fewer flowers
Water: Moist but not wet; will tolerate some drought
Soil: Friable and porous garden loam, well-drained soil; does well in containers
                                                                                   Propagation: Seeds in spring

“Nasturtium is an herb which for me has three uses: it lights sober herb beds with its bright colors of orange and yellow; all summer it decorates salads with leaves and gay flowers; and in the autumn it provides green seeds for pickling. Does it not earn for itself a place in an herb garden?”

                                                                                                                    —Annie Burnham Carter
                                                                                                                        In An Herb Garden

One of my very favorite flowers that I grow in all of my gardens for many reasons are nasturtiums, and I affectionately refer to these garden rowdies as “nasties”. They are easy to cultivate and effortlessly fill in garden spaces with their mounds of fun foliage even before their showy colors appear. The unusual foliage has rounded, wavy-edged leaves that are attached to their stems from the underside, directly in the center of the leaves, so that they resemble fairy umbrellas. These center-stemmed leaves radiate veins from a center dot looking somewhat star-like and range in various shades of green: grey-green, bright green, blue-green, and variegated. The spurred, trumpet-shaped flowers are available in a palette of bright colors from tropical creamy yellow, peach, and coral to vivid primary yellows and reds, in addition to knockout oranges, golds and even mahogany. Many are splashed or dotted with colors and my new favorite, ‘Bloody Mary’, has a different design and range of colors on each bloom. It is said that due to the shield-like form of the leaf and the helmet-shaped blooms that the botanical name derives from tropaion, the Greek word for “trophy.” 

DCF 1.0

No wonder Monet cultivated them liberally throughout the gardens at Giverny, where he captured the mounding masses of jewel-colored blooms in numerous of his famous paintings. Thomas Jefferson planted nasturtiums in his garden every year and lamented when he couldn’t get seed enough for a bed of them measuring 10 x 19-yards. In Green Enchantment by Rosetta Clarkson, she writes of a Dr. Fernie commenting on “nasturtium flowers giving out sparks of an electric nature at sunset.” Richard Mabey of The New Age Herbalist notes that, “It is said that on hot summer days sparks are emitted from the heart of the flower due to its high phosphoric acid content.”   Others, however, have attributed this phenomenon to an interesting optical illusion produced by the interplay of our eyes and the contrast of the flowers and foliage at dusk. For further explanation, read this interesting, informative article about nasturtiums: https://heirloomcottagegarden.weebly.com/blog/nasturtium-tropaeolum-majus

We owe our gratitude to the Spanish conquistadores for bringing the fiery-colored Tropaeolum minus back to Europe from South America more than 500 years ago. The species is a vine that can easily grow about 8 to 10 feet and likes a fence or trellis for support, while the more common nasturtium cultivars grow in mounds or trail along borders, spill over walls or over the edges of containers. Nasturtiums start easily from seed in average soil and full sun; I put them in early in my Zone 7 garden (about the same time that I put in early greens) in late March, early April. I like the ritual—going about the garden with my seed packs—poking the fat bumpy-round seeds (which sort of remind me of a small chickpea) in the cold earth with my finger along the edges of the kitchen bed. I plant them anywhere from 8 inches (for masses) to a good foot apart. Keep them well watered; however, do not fertilize too much or you’ll get massive leaf growth with few blooms. Harvest leaves regularly to keep them bushy. 

nasties (3)I just love that their name combines the Latin nasus for “nose” and tortus for “twisted” describing how our nose twists or wrinkles when we inhale their spicy scent. In The Fragrant Path by Louise Beebe Wilder she agrees, “ …perhaps the individual odours of the summer garden are derived from certain plants which persons of hyper-sensitive nasal organs may turn from in disgust. I call these plants Nose-twisters, because the rough and heady scent of Nasturtium, which seems to have in it something bitter, something peppery, and a vague underlying smoky sweetness, is representative of them.” 

In the kitchen, you can use both the fresh foliage and flowers to add a pleasant hint of heat and pungency (this dissipates when cooked so I use them mostly fresh) to many summer dishes. The leaves are high in vitamin C and add a peppery cress-like flavor to salads, sandwiches, green sauces, or they can be shredded and tossed with pasta, rice, couscous or chicken salad, or chopped as a topping for pizza. 

flower & herb butter (14)The blossoms have the same pepperiness as the leaves, but are milder with a hint of floral scent. They make excellent containers for cold salads—egg, chicken, and vegetable—as well as cheese spreads. Since they are a bit fragile when filled, I tend to put them on a slice of vegetable or bread in order to pick them up easily. Whole flowers can be used in salads or as garnishes; vinegar flavored with nasturtium flowers is lovely in color and interesting in flavor; or cut flowers and leaves into chiffonade (thin ribbons) and blend with butter, or toss with egg salad, noodles, vegetables, or fish. The unopened buds, marinated in wine or vinegar, make an unusual refrigerator pickle. Seeds are harvested and pickled and used as a substitute for capers.

To harvest leaves, pick them and remove stems, wash and use like lettuce. For flowers, pick them with long stems and keep them in a glass of water until ready for preparation. Rinse blooms gently and shake or pat them dry. Pull the bloom from the stem and use whole or gently tear into separate petals. While they can stand cool weather, they will succumb to the first frost.

Sources
Belsinger, Susan and Arthur O. Tucker. 2016. The Culinary Herbal. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

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

Carter, Annie Burnham. 1947. In An Herb Garden. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus). Retrieved from https://heirloomcottagegarden.weebly.com/blog/nasturtium-tropaeolum-majus

Wilder. Elizabeth Beebe. 1996. The Fragrant Path. Point Roberts, Washington: Hartley & Marks Publishers, Inc.

Photos courtesy of the author. 1) Bloody Mary; 2) Alaska series; 3) Nasty bouquet; 4) Flower and herb butter


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 & writing, and inspiring others to get in touch with their senses of smell & taste.