Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ Indigenous Garden

by Erin Presley, Olbrich Botanical Gardens Horticulturist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PBS Wisconsin recording of Indigenous Garden presentation by Erin and Rita

Media coverage from local TV station

MILKWEED SOUP:

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

Prep the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca):

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

Prepare the soup:

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

Dumplings:

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

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


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

A True Double Mint – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Red-stemmed apple mint leaves and flowersMentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’ (double mint) is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for July. It is a fitting herb to be singled out for attention by The Herb Society because Madalene Hill was an HSA President,1986-1988. Madalene was considered to be the Grande Dame of Herbs in the United States and received many awards and accolades for her work with herbs. She passed away in 2009 at the age of 95.

Madalene broadened the cultivation and use of double mint. Discovered by Hill in Virginia, she began growing it in the 1950s at her legendary Hilltop Herb Farm near Houston, TX. Madalene described this mint as rare, “a handsome plant and a rare jewel” (Hill, 1987). Madalene is credited with either introducing or discovering a total of seven herbs (Lindner, 2009). Two of these herbs, one of them being double mint, were named after her.

Photo of Madalene Hill, past president of The Herb Society of AmericaDouble mint is the only mint that has both peppermint and spearmint oils, which gives it a very unique flavor and pleasant fragrance. This mint is also called red-stemmed apple mint. It is a hybrid between Mentha arvensis (wild mint) and Mentha spicata (spearmint). Past Honorary President of The Herb Society and herself a noted herbalist, Susan Belsinger remarked  that double mint “combines the sweetness of spearmint and the coolness of peppermint, and so its use extends beyond desserts and is especially good in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks” (Belsinger, 2016).

Like all mints, double mint is very easy to grow but does need to be contained. It will fade away at the end of the growing season but comes back in the spring. It will grow in sun or part shade. Double mint’s smooth, pointed leaves, upright growth, and dark red stems make it a standout in the garden. The white to pale violet flowers, too, are noteworthy for a mint. It is great in fruit salads, teas, or fruit pies. Use it as a garnish for iced tea. It is good tossed with peas or beans. It is also used in Vietnamese cuisine. Though it is an aphid and rodent deterrent, gardeners will find it to be a welcome source of nectar for pollinators.

Photo of Wrigley's Doublemint gumYou may wonder if there is any connection between Wrigley’s Doublemint® gum and the double mint herb. The exact ingredients of the gum are a Wrigley’s trade secret. However, the company does disclose that the main ingredient of the gum is peppermint; and on its packaging, it displays two peppermint leaves, side by side. So, I don’t believe there is a connection between the double mint herb, Mentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill,’ and the Doublemint® gum, other than they both contain mint.

For more information about double mint, please visit the HSA Herb of the Month webpage.

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

Photo Credits: 1) Mentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’ (double mint); 2) Madalene Hill, The Herb Society of America Past President and Pioneer Unit member; 3) Wrigley’s Doublemint® gum. All photos courtesy of the author.

References:

Askey, Linda. 2006. Texas’s first lady of herbs. The American gardener. March/April 2006. P. 34. Accessed 5/31/22. https://ahsgardening.org/wp-content/pdfs/2006-03r.pdf

Belsinger, Susan and Arthur O. Tucker. 2016. The culinary herbal: Growing and preserving 97 flavorful herbs. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Doublemint ‘Madalene Hill’ (Mentha gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’). December 8, 2016. Accessed 5/23/22. https://arborgate.com/picks/doublemint-madalene-hill-mentha-gracilis-madalene-hill/

Hill, Madalene and Gwen Barclay. 1987. Southern herb growing. Fredericksburg, TX: Shearer Publishing. 

Lindner, Kelly. 2019. Madalene Hill 1913-2009. HerbalGram. Issue #82. Accessed 5/24/22. 

https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/82/table-of-contents/article3403/

Lotz, C.J. April 25, 2017. Meet the mints. Accessed 5/23/22.  https://gardenandgun.com/articles/meet-the-mints/ 

Spearmint, red stem apple mint. (n.d.) Accessed 5/23/22. https://hillcountrynatives.net/catablog-items/spearmint-red-stem-apple-mint-mentha-x-gracilis-madalene-hill/


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

HSA Webinar: Breeding Better Herbs

by Peggy Riccio

dillAs a Virginia home gardener and herb enthusiast, I grow many of my culinary herbs from seed at the beginning of the summer and I purchase a few tropicals. I have my staples, simple names such as pineapple sage, lemongrass, lemon verbena, basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley. Of course, the garden is littered with the perennials: sage, lavender, rosemary, oregano, knot marjoram, thyme, germander, yarrow, chives, and lovage. All of them have stories; their useful properties have been known for generations.

Some of them also have stories that speak about a better trait, be it flavor, cold hardiness, or fragrance, but more specifically, the story is about the person who discovered that trait and introduced it to the market. Serendipity often played a major role but so did the craft of vegetative propagation (i.e., stem cuttings). In time, these “better” plants themselves became stories about the people who discovered them. 

Rosemary Collection by Chrissy MooreSome of the well-known stories involve better rosemary plants. The cold-hardy ‘Arp’ cultivar was discovered by Madalene Hill, who managed Hilltop Herb Farm in Texas. While visiting family in Arp, Texas, she noticed a robust rosemary plant blooming in January and took cuttings. Years later, Cyrus Hyde, owner of New Jersey herb nursery Well-Sweep Herb Farm, noticed a sport, a naturally occurring mutation, on one of his ‘Arp’ plants. He propagated the sport, which was more compact with greener foliage, and named it ‘Madelene Hill’. Today, ‘Arp’ and ‘Madelene Hill’, also known as ‘Hill Hardy’, are some of the most cold hardy rosemary plants on the market. 

Theresa Mieseler, owner of Shady Acres Herb Farm in Minnesota, introduced ‘Shady Acres’ rosemary, known for its outstanding culinary properties. Of the plants she was growing, she noticed one that stood out with dark green leaves, an upright growth, and excellent fragrance. She propagated the plant via stem cuttings and sent a sample to a laboratory. The chemical analysis proved ‘Shady Acres’ to be exceptional for cooking because the foliage had a low percentage of camphor essential oil but high percentages of pine, rose, and rosemary notes.

Mentha Jim's Candy Lime by Piper ZettelJim Westerfield, owner of an Illinois bed and breakfast, was an amateur breeder who loved mints. By cross pollinating mint varieties, he produced more than 50 hybrids with interesting names and flavors such as ‘Iced Hazelnut’,‘Jessie’s Sweet Pear’,‘Marshmallow Mint’, and ‘Cotton Candy’. It took Jim seven years to produce one of the only patented mints, ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon Mint’, named after Hillary Rodham Clinton. His mints live on through trademarks and patents and are only available at Richters in Canada and Fragrant Fields in Missouri. 

Lately, others are seeing the value in herbs, especially fresh herbs. The pandemic caused an increase in gardening, a reason to cook from home, plus more time to watch cooking shows. With that came an increased interest in herbs. Baby boomers like me grew up with dried herbs in jars, but now millennials and Generation Z expect potted fresh herbs in the produce section.

sweet basil (2)Now, instead of serendipity playing a role, companies are intentionally breeding for “better” traits. Driving this is consumer demand of course, but in the world of culinary herbs, consumers can be just about anyone from field growers, hydroponic growers, grocery stores, nurseries, seed companies, gardeners, and non-gardeners who just want to buy a fresh basil plant for the kitchen counter. I talked with many seed companies, university researchers, and growers to learn what traits they were interested in and why. I learned who was focusing on certain herbs, which herbs have a lot of possibilities for our market, and new herb cultivars that will be available to the public. Join me in this behind-the-scenes look at efforts to improve your herb garden as well as expand your staples of plants.  

Join Peggy Tuesday, June 21 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Breeding Better Herbs. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $7.50 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

Photo Credits: 1) There are many types of dill now since it is a very versatile herb that is also used in floral arrangements (Peggy Riccio); 2) Rosemary collection at the National Herb Garden (Christine Moore); 3) ‘Jim’s Candy Lime’ mint hybrid (Piper Zettel); 4) Basil is the top selling, most commercially important herb crop in this country that has been hard hit by downy mildew (Peggy Riccio)


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

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wines from the Gardens and Fields of Scotland

By Catherine MacLennan

(This article was originally published in The Herb Society of America’s annual journal, The Herbarist, 41(1975): 37-40. Almost 50 years later, Mrs. MacLennan’s narrative still evokes vivid images of foraging for edible plant material on her family’s property in Scotland.)

West Highlands ScotlandVisitors to the West Highlands admire so much our woods and mountains, especially when the heather spreads its bright purple mantle of flowers, but how many ever stop to think of the numerous delicious wines which can be made from our shrubs and trees, their flowers, their berries and leaves.

Somewhere beside every West Highland croft or farmhouse in olden times, there grew—and may still be found growing—the Elder tree, called in Lowland Scots the Boor tree. Another name given to it—‘Buttery wood tree’—always causes argument. Some writers maintain it refers to the soft white inner pith of the young wood, others that it springs from one of its many uses.

On farms and crofts there used always to be a small stone-built dairy or milk house, where milk was set in flat pans and where cream was kept for churning. During summer small branchlets of Elder wood were kept in the dairy, as these banished flies and kept milk and cream fresh and sweet. Hence ‘Buttery wood.’

Whatever the name, the Elderflower produces one of the best of our home-made wines, light pale gold or goldy green, the home-made wine most nearly resembling Champagne. The Elder berries also make a delicious wine resembling Port when properly matured. Both these wines are health giving; an excellent stimulant at all times. The Elder flower buds were also used as a pickle to be served with cold meats.

Gooseberry Jelly flavoured with Elderflowers is a delicious preserve. Put a fully open spray of Elderflowers in a muslin bag and add the bag to the jelly during the final five minutes of cooking. Beauty aids, creams, toilet water and salves were all made from Elderflowers. As well as beautifying, it freshened and rejuvenated even the most dull and tired skin.

Another very common tree flowering in early summer is the Hawthorn or Mayflower. Its creamy blossoms are very fragrant and scent the air around it. The wine made from these blossoms is light, pleasant and has a delicate vanilla bouquet. A flavouring essence may also be made with Hawthorn blossom by using one pound of flowers to three pounds of powdered sugar. Layers of blossom with layers of sugar alternately are placed in a stone jar until all is used. Cover the jar closely and put in a cool cellar. (West Highland people with no suitable cellar used to find the milk house ideal.) Leave for full 24 hours, then remove to where the sun shines hot on the jar. After 48 hours strain this delicious essence into a bottle and stopper carefully.

Later, the Hawthorn berries make what I consider a wine even more exotic, when well matured, than that from the blossoms. It has a most unusual bouquet, smooth, rich and mellow.

Gorse flowersA shrub, usually thought of as a weed, which grows in the West Highlands by roadsides, hillside and lochside, and never seems to be out of flower, is the Gorse, Furze or Whin. It is so prickly that no animal will eat it, but its golden yellow flowers make a rich, rather heavy-bodied wine which is also very intoxicating. It must be given at least a year to mature and is worth waiting for. Its flavour is most unusual, a hint of almond with a touch of scent of the flowers.

Of all the wines I have made—and there are few which I have not made—Birch wine was always my favourite as regards making. Not my favourite wine, Elderflower is that, but I loved tapping the Birch trees to draw off the sap, searching the moss wood on a warm spring day for the most suitable tree, and making sure it was not a tree which already had been tapped the previous year or the year before that.

Betula pendula (silver birch) barkIt was like stepping back in time one century. Birch wine was a favourite wine of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and throughout the years of her long reign large quantities had to be made at Balmoral every year. The time for tapping the Birch trees is when the leaf buds are swollen ready to open, usually early March. Having decided on the trees, you then get pieces of young Elder wood about four inches long, and scrape out the soft white pithy core leaving a hollow tube. Next take a brace with a bit, and bore a hole in the trunk of the Birch tree 18 inches from the ground, to allow the hollow posset of Elder wood to fit in firmly. When boring the Birch tree, as soon as the clear sap shows, stop, fit the posset and fix a clean, dry, sterilized bottle under the posset. The sap runs freely into the bottle, and whenever the bottle is full it must be securely corked. As many trees as possible should be tapped each day to give at least one gallon of sap, which is the best quantity to make at a time. The sap is clear and sparkling. If any hint of colour shows in the sap drawn off, discard it. One thing to remember, if the leaf buds have opened do not tap the tree; the sap will be slow to run as well as unsuitable for wine. It is certainly fascinating and challenging, waiting for just the right moment. When the possets are removed from the Birch trees, carefully fill up the holes with pieces of wood or resin and seal over with any form of wax to exclude all airborne diseases.

Tapping birch treeThe wine is made by boiling one gallon of sap with three and a half pounds of best sugar and the rind and juice of two lemons for about one hour. Strain into a jug or basin large enough to hold this quantity. When tepid add yeast, leave covered for four days, when the ferment will have caused a heavy scum to rise which must be carefully removed. Strain into a storage jar fitted with fermentation trap. In a month to six weeks the wine will have cleared. Decant into another storage jar and leave for one year. It is the home-made wine most nearly like Vodka and was a favourite in Scandinavian countries and Russia.

Then there is the Mountain Ash or Rowan Berry wine. Strip the berries from the stalks when fully ripe and brilliant scarlet, but not over ripe. To each gallon of berries add one gallon of boiling water, cover and allow to stand four days. Then strain, add the yeast and three and a half pounds of sugar to each gallon of liquor. Cover closely, leave to ferment for 16 days, then skim and strain into a storage jar with fermentation trap. When clear and working has finished, bottle and keep nine months to a year.

Rowan berriesI have not given quantity of yeast as there are different yeasts available specially for wine makers. In all the very old recipes which stated “spread one ounce of yeast on a slice of toast and add to the liquor,” I found this always far too much and used only a small teaspoonful to a gallon.

These are only some of the wines which our countryside provides. There are also the wines from our gardens, Rose Petal wine and liqueur, both delicious and health giving and used in days gone by to ‘reduce fevers’ in very ill people.

From the kitchen garden, there is Parsley wine. When well made and fully mature this is a light, rich sparkling wine with no hint of Parsley flavour but with an almost exotic flavour of mingled almonds and Curly parsley leavesvanilla. A glass of it sipped at bedtime was believed to induce natural health-giving sleep.

The humble potato with barley produced a wine which was more like whisky. Excellent for coughs and colds.

Beetroot wine is always popular, and was said to be a sure cure for anaemia. Unfortunately its very ease of making and clearing is its undoing; it looks so clear and sparkling it is used too soon. Beetroot wine carefully made and kept for one and half years is an excellent table wine, tasting of anything but beetroot; instead it is a very pleasant smooth red wine.

The list is endless. I have had a lifetime’s experience of all sorts of wine making. One year, we had a splendid crop of peas and I made quite a lot of Pea Pod wine; it was excellent. Two years later I used it as the basis for a mint liqueur and now, six years from making the Pea Pod wine, I still have a small bottle of Mint Liqueur for very special friends only.

One more special brew is Heather wine; in spite of the work involved picking the tiny flowers—no green or stalk must be used—the result is a wine which makes one really believe the Fairies first discovered Heather wine.

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

Photo credits: 1) West Highlands, Scotland (scotlandsgreattrails.com); 2 & 3) Elder flowers and berries (Sambucus nigra) (Dr. Peter Llewellyn); 4) Hawthorn flowers (Crataegus monogyna) (Wikimedia Commons, Jamain); 5) Hawthorn fruit (Crataegus monogyna) (Creative Commons, H. Zell); 6) Gorse flowers (Ulex sp.) (Creative Commons, John Haslam); 7) Silver birch tree (Betula pendula) (Creative Commons, Arthur Chapman); 8) Birch tree tapping (Creative Commons, Jelle); 9) Rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) (Creative Commons, Dave_S.); 10) Curly parsley leaves (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) (C. Moore); 11) Pea pod (Creative Commons, Maria Keays); 12) Heather flowers (Calluna vulgaris) (Creative Commons, foxypar4).


Catherine MacLennan (d. 1975) was from Tomuaine, Port Appin, Argyll, Scotland. She had “a remarkable store of information about flowers, birds and beasts, the history and legends of Appin, and much else. Her extremely modest and retiring nature disguised a penetrating mind and a retentive memory…. She came of farming stock…. Her green fingers and knowledge of garden plants turned a small piece of garden ground into a treasury of beautiful and rare plants.” (From The Oban Times, by Dawn MacLeod)

Starting Anew, Again

 

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of the author.


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

Lemon Eucalyptus

by Peggy Riccio

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on July 5, 2021 at https://pegplant.com/2021/07/05/lemon-eucalyptus/

Small lemon eucalyptus in a black pot on a table

Lemon eucalyptus in May

A few months ago, I was at a farmer’s market in Alexandria, Virginia, when a particular plant caught my eye. It was a lemon eucalyptus plant (Corymbia citriodora). It was less than a foot tall in a plastic container. I love lemon scented herbs – I think I am subconsciously collecting them. The seller told me it was from Australia and was not hardy here in Zone 7, so it would have to be brought indoors in the fall.  

I brought it home and placed it in the garden in full sun, where it thrived so well I had to move it to a larger container within a few months. At first, it resented the move but now it is flourishing, still in full sun. It did not even mind the recent heat wave. 

The lemon scent is so strong, all you have to do is brush the leaves with your hand and you will visualize a bowl full of lemons. Of all my lemon scented herbs — lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon verbena, lemon mint, lemon thyme, and lemon scented geranium – this is one of the most fragrant. I pulled a leaf off and compared it with the lemon verbena, which I think is the other most pungent lemon herb I have. The lemon eucalyptus leaf was very coarse with small bristles. The scent was strong but more of a musky lemon. The lemon verbena leaf was not as coarse and had an equally pungent lemon scent but was sweet, like sugar and lemons. 

Lemon eucalyptus in a terra cotta pot, with echinacea in the background

Same plant in July

The lemon eucalyptus plant is about three feet now and not very bushy.  In October, I will bring it indoors so it probably will not get much taller than 4 feet. In its native habitat, it would grow to be a tall evergreen tree and bloom tiny white flowers. I could have planted it in the ground and just let it die with frost but how often does one come across such an unusual plant here in Virginia? 

This is not a culinary herb – it is not to be ingested. It is a medicinal herb though; the leaves are used in traditional aboriginal medicine. The essential oil in the leaves is an antiseptic and is used in perfume. The plant is a rich source of citronella, which is a mixture of many compounds including citronellol, citronellal and geraniol. The oil of eucalyptus is an effective mosquito deterrent, although the plant itself cannot deter mosquitoes, so don’t be fooled into thinking that a plant on the patio will keep you bug free. 

Large lemon eucalyptus in a terra cotta pot on a porch

Much bigger by November

There is a difference between the essential oil and the oil of eucalyptus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recognized oil of eucalyptus (OLE) as effective in deterring mosquitos. OLE contains p-Methane-3,8-diol (PMD), a naturally occurring compound obtained from the spent distillation of the leaves. PMD can also be synthesized in a laboratory. PMD is the only plant-based mosquito repellent that has been recognized by the CDC to be effective in repelling mosquitoes while posing no risk to human health. However, children under the age of three should not use this because it can irritate the eyes. PMD has been registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an effective plant-based mosquito repellent. If you want a commercial, plant-based mosquito repellent, look for a product that lists “oil of lemon eucalyptus” as an active ingredient, which should provide up to six hours of protection. Lemon eucalyptus essential oil has a lower level of PMD and is not effective in repelling mosquitoes. The essential oil is made by steam distilling the leaves and twigs.  

When I bought my plant, I wasn’t thinking mosquitoes, I was just thinking it had a pretty lemon scent. Personally, I think I will use the leaves in my potpourri, maybe with a touch of lavender.

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

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author.


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

BOOK REVIEW – The Artisan Herbalist by Bevin Cohen

by Karen O’Brien

ArtisanHerbalist_CatBevin Cohen is living the dream. Quitting his corporate job, he decided to live small and simple. And it looks like he made the right choice – he’s doing what he loves and teaching others to take small steps to be more independent and sustainable.

His latest book, The Artisan Herbalist, is a well-composed book, just the right blend of background information (including folklore and history) and the how-to component of making teas, tinctures, and oils at home. Even a well-seasoned herbalist would find the historical perspective and current use of herbs informative. He describes in detail the thirty-eight plants he finds to be most useful. Some can be foraged, some can be cultivated, and some you would need to purchase. 

Whether you live in a rural area, suburban tract, or even in the city, Bevin gives simple but detailed advice and easily understood steps and tips to craft your own herbal products. Basic recipes are included for salves, balms, and lotions, and he explains how they are different.

The book is both concise and practical, yet charming and visually appealing. Each of the herbs he discusses has wonderful photos, interesting footnotes, and practical advice. He ends the book with solid information on starting a business, from dealing with licensing and health boards to labeling and marketing your product. Bevin is living life as he wants it to be, and we are all beneficiaries of his quest to bring you to your own wellness journey.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Bevin Cohen

Open laptop with hands typing, with coffee, notebook, and pens nearbyIntroducing the Herbs Online Learning Experience

HSA is launching a new online course with Bevin Cohen, a self-paced introductory course on growing and using herbs. It includes 12 lessons, 3 hours of video instruction and demonstration, quizzes, handouts and a certificate of completion. Registration opens on Saturday, April 16th!

HSA Webinar: Tea Gardening with Camellia sinensis

by Christine Parks

White flower and 2 green leaves in a white tea cup with a blue border, on a dark blue tableclothMany gardeners are surprised to learn that Camellia sinensis is the most popular camellia in the world. And most tea drinkers in the U.S. have no idea that tea is made from the leaves of a camellia. Like them, I enjoyed tea for decades without giving a second thought to its origin. All I knew was that Golden-tips came from Assam, Genmaicha from Japan, and Red Rose Tea from the grocery store. I got my daily dose of caffeine from coffee and drank as much herbal tea (tisanes) as traditional caffeinated teas. Flash forward 25 years, I’ve given up on coffee and become intimately involved with tea – a relationship grown, both literally and figuratively, through gardening.

Much has been written about herbal tea gardening. I have several of these books, along with various texts on herbal medicines, and an older favorite from my grandmother’s bookshelf, The Herbalist by Joseph E. Meyer and Clarence Meyer (1934). But my own introduction to tea gardening began with Camellia sinensis after moving to North Carolina with my husband, David, when he came home to run Camellia Forest Nursery. Founded in 1979 by his mom, Kai Mei Parks, the nursery started as a small mail order operation built on his dad’s collection of Camellia species and breeding program. 

At first, I didn’t know much about Camellias (just like tea) but soon came to appreciate the diverse flowers of Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. It was their close cousin, Camellia sinensis, though, who stole my heart. While the nursery had grown and sold tea plants for decades, it was my first (and only) trip to China to adopt our daughter that ignited my fascination with tea. While visiting Hangzhou, home to Longjing (Dragonwell) tea, I was amazed by the national tea museum and discovered the qualities of a really fine tea. As we welcomed our daughter home, I fell head over heels into tea and knew how I wanted to spend the rest of my life – tea gardening! 

A basket of fresh tea leaves and three white flowersIn 2005, we started our first tea garden here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina—including our Camellia Forest favorites—varieties that grow well and are proven to be cold hardy (having survived -15°F in 1985), along with one-of-a-kind tender accessions from his father’s collection (including Assam-type plants and close relatives), and new plants from other North American sites, China, and Korea. Every five years since, we’ve started a new garden, trialing selections from the last along with new acquisitions. 

Our expanded plantings have given us plenty of leaf to process, and I’m exploring which plants are best for the different tea types—white, green, oolong, and black. When I started, practical information on tea processing was limited outside the tea industry. I’ve studied the many types of processed tea, learning what variables contribute to their flavors and aromas. I’ve also met many generous tea lovers who come to share their favorite teas and taste teas made from Camellia Forest leaf. I am learning, sip by sip, which qualities delight and how to achieve them.

Camellia Forest Tea Gardens has grown from a collector’s and hobby garden to a community space for learning, sharing tea, and growing new friendships. Since the beginning, the garden was intended to be a place where people can learn about growing and making tea. We regularly host interns and volunteers, tours, and students in classes designed to empower and inspire gardeners. I also wrote the book I wished I had when I was starting: Grow Your Own Tea (Timber Press, 2020). My current intern, a student in agricultural education, has developed our volunteer program. Recently, we have begun creating content for Patreon to share our story and help support the garden and our educational mission; not everyone can visit for in-person classes, but all are welcome to join our gardener’s membership and learn alongside us here at Camellia Forest! 

Close up of two young green leaves and a bud from the tip of a bushAny long-term relationship takes effort, and sometimes I have to ask myself, Why do I love growing tea? One of my favorite reasons is that tea gardening requires slowing down to meet the rhythm of the plant over the years and seasons. Fourteen hundred years ago, tea traveled alongside Buddhism to Japan and Korea—a perfect pairing. The relaxing qualities imparted by L-theanine, together with the stimulating effects of caffeine, support focused attention. Harvesting and processing tea by hand can be a timeless and meditative activity. Tea aroma is especially pleasurable, even intoxicating, as the leaves travel from garden to teacup—plants in the sunshine, freshly plucked leaf, and the aromas that develop with processing. Last, but not least, bees love tea (flowers)! 

I’m looking forward to presenting a guide to tea gardening for The Herb Society of America, which will include plenty of “how to.” Thanks for letting me share my personal “why.” 

Join Christine Wednesday, March 23 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Grow Your Own Tea. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author

“Hazards” of the Job: Dealing with Plant Defenses in the National Herb Garden

By Chrissy Moore

Hot shot firefightersI’ve never been much of a daredevil. Overactive amygdala, perhaps, or maybe I’m just a ninny. (Usually, the latter.) And yet, I’ve always admired those individuals who brave dangerous situations for the good of others: firefighters running toward the flames; avalanche search and rescue teams; Alaska’s Coast Guard members that jump into frigid waters during gale force winds…you get the idea.

Today, I had an epiphany while watering our myriad plants in the greenhouses. Most people think that herb gardening is a quaint, bucolic endeavor, which, admittedly, has a ring of truth to it. But, those people have never worked in the National Herb Garden (NHG), where we, too, face dangerous situations on a regular basis, just of the botanical sort.

Staff handling heavy containersFor example, every year, twice a year, the NHG staff and coworkers haul many large containerized plants into and out of the greenhouses, where they spend the winter months. Many of these plants are loathsome creatures, not just because of their size (try hauling and lifting hundreds of pounds of “dead weight” for hours at a time…hope you didn’t water them the day before!), but because of the physical hazards they present. It is not unusual for plants to employ natural defenses to protect themselves from malevolent insects or browsing animals, etc. That’s understandable. Yet, when we—the benevolent humans assigned to be their nurturing handlers—are subjected to that very same botanical weaponry, it seems just a wee bit like unnecessary punishment. But, no one ever said life was fair.

Flowers and fruit of CalamondinLet’s look at our beloved Citrus plants. These shrubs have beautiful flowers with a glorious scent and delectable fruit. What’s not to love? Most people only get the occasional painful squirt of acidic juice in their eye when peeling the fruit.Thorns on Citrus plant Yeah, not us. We are repeatedly stabbed by the plants’ two- to three-inch long thorns all over our bodies and, heaven forbid, in or around our eyes. To paint the picture for you better, our method for moving all of the plants in and out of the greenhouses is by a hand truck. So, the whole upper half of our bodies is engulfed by the plant’s canopy. For the Citrus, one puncture wound is bad enough; multiple punctures is just plain mean.

A few years ago, I was visiting friends in Málaga, Spain. It was interesting to see large, in-ground specimens of plants that we can only grow in containers in the NHG. One of them, Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), is one of our more hated plants to move in the garden. (If only we could grow ours in the ground!) Like many palms, the fronds have sharp points at the end of every leaflet.

And like the Citrus plants, our date palm gets hauled around on the hand truck, with all the fronds right at face level. Death by a thousand stabs. To get the plants into their final positions, we need to navigate the narrow greenhouse walkways, which takes a lot of coordinated effort between the one hauling the plant and the person doing the guiding; more often than not, the person doing the hauling can’t see past the plant and must navigate by auditory cues rather than visual ones. As you might imagine, this only adds to the danger!

Staff with Phoenix dactylifera leaves in their face

Moving the date palm

My personal “favorites” each have minor variations on the armament theme just to keep you from getting complacent: pineapple (Ananas sp.) has upward-facing prickles along its leaves; Agave sp. has outward-facing prickles; and cascalote (Tara cacalaco) has downward-facing prickles. These are what I consider the plant versions of the Chinese finger torture: the more you dive in or pull back, the more caught you become. And, by default, the more stabbing you experience. Agave plants, in particular, are awkward to maneuver on a good day, but ours range in size from three to four feet across and two to three feet tall. Given their sprawling nature, there’s not even the remote chance of using a hand truck to move them.

You must fully embrace the pain by lifting them from the ground just under their “waists,” like a child that’s really just too big to be picked up anymore. “Bend with your knees!” has little bearing on this activity. If we’re being honest, we’re just trying to fling that thing to its final resting place as fast as we can and from whatever “reasonable” posture we can attain, wrecked clothing and hairdo be damned. How do those folks at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona do this day in and day out? No thanks…trying to quit. My assistant, Erin, is the smart one; before handling an agave, she nips the spines off with her pruners. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?

Cascalote, while sporting dainty, pinnately compound leaves, is actually a botanical death trap. Like the agave, pineapple, and Citrus combined, its prickles are not only curved for maximum entrapment, but they also cover the entirety of the plant, nearly from head to toe. The only thing in its favor (at least for our specimen) is that it has a generally upright growth habit rather than being wild and ungainly like the pineapple and agave. Thank goodness for small blessings, short-lived though they may be. Getting caught in the cascalote is like getting sucked into quicksand—the more you move, the worse your situation becomes. I did say Chinese finger torture, didn’t I? (Side note from Erin on moving our cascalote: “Man, after moving that Tara this go around, I got home that night and had a thorn still stuck in my leg. It had worked its way through jeans and a thermal layer to hitchhike and irritate me all day. I still have a little scar!” See! We’re really telling the truth.)

The last, but certainly not least, plant on my list is sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)—and, frankly, most species in the grass family (Poaceae). If you’ve never worked with a grass of sugarcane’s magnitude, then you haven’t met the devil incarnate…yet. It hides its weaponry really well, so you’re more likely to forget rather than be vigilant. Sugarcane is replete, not only with irritating hairs Trichomes (hairs) on Saccharum (sugarcane) leaves(called trichomes) at the joints along the stem that wiggle under your clothing and irritate your skin to no end, but the leaves themselves sport razor sharp edges in a pattern similar to a sawmill blade. The leaf edges slice human skin with the accuracy of a piece of notebook paper. Yep, paper cuts are my fa-a-a-vorite! “What? You don’t enjoy paper cuts? Hmmh, go figure!” Handling sugarcane takes a bit of forethought and a deft hand. The trick is to pick up the plant so that the leaves are directed away from your own body and hopefully not toward your coworkers who are naïvely standing nearby. Invariably, though, someone will get a little too spirited in their moving, and suddenly, we’re all running for cover like kids at a piñata party.

Scanning electron micrograph of a sugarcane leaf edgeWhile not all of our plants create perilous situations (parsley and oregano are pretty benign…or are they?), we certainly hear a lot of grousing and grumbling from our coworkers and volunteers when moving day arrives…sometimes under muffled breath and sometimes hollering from the top of their lungs. That’s when you shrug your shoulders and say, “Just another day in the life of the National Herb Garden! Someone get the First Aid Kit.”

Author’s Note: I regret to inform our readers that the Phoenix dactylifera has moved on to greener pastures (pun intended). We finally decided that it was getting too big for safe handling and preferred to start anew with a smaller specimen. Our bodies are grateful for that decision.


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