Coffee – A Bean with a History

By Maryann Readal

Coffee tree with fruitCoffea arabica is certainly an interesting herbal plant. This simple, evergreen, small tree or shrub with white flowers is grown in tropical climates. It is native to southern Ethiopia and South Sudan and has been naturalized in Brazil and other South American and African countries. It takes three to four years for a tree to produce the red berries, sometimes called “cherries.” The fruit is hand-picked and the pulp removed to uncover the two seeds in each fruit. These seeds are dried, roasted, and ground to make the coffee that we drink. Scientists at Kew Gardens in England (Kew, 2019) say that the arabica species is now endangered due to deforestation and climate change. However, the less popular robusta species, which is already used in instant and decaffeinated coffees, grows well in Africa and other areas of the world and can fill the needs of the world’s coffee culture.

Coffee cherries close-upIt is said that coffee was discovered around 850 CE in the Ethiopian highlands by a goat herder who noticed that his goats became lively after eating the berries from the coffee plant. The herder took this observation back to a monk in a nearby monastery. The monk thought it would be worth trying the bean to help him get through his all-night prayer vigils. It worked! Coffee beans then became a way for the religious to sustain their long nights of prayer. From there, the use of the bean spread to Yemen and Turkey, where the Arabs began using the bean both as a medicine and as a stimulating drink. 

Turkish coffee mug with a side of chocolatesThe first coffeehouse in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) was established in 1475. There was debate within the Muslim religious community whether or not coffee was an inebriating drink prohibited by the Quran. It was finally decided that since the Quran did not specifically mention coffee, it was allowable for Muslims to drink it. Until 1690, Arabia monopolized the coffee supply. Foreign visitors were forbidden to visit coffee plantations, and only beans that had been roasted or boiled could be exported since the processing made them infertile. The coffee monopoly ended when a man named Sufi Baba Budan smuggled coffee beans taped to his stomach out of Yemen to his native India. The beans grew into coffee plants, plantations followed, and the rest is history.

With the beginnings of coffee production and trade in India, coffee spread throughout Europe. When the drink came to Italy, it was believed to be a Muslim drink and was associated with Satan. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) tasted the coffee drink, liked it, and declared that coffee was not the drink of Satan and subsequently baptized it; the popularity of coffee in the Christian world then soared.

Coffee harvestThe first coffeehouse in Europe was opened in Oxford, England, in 1650, and by 1700, there were 2,000 coffeehouses in London alone. The popularity of coffeehouses in Europe coincided with the Enlightenment period, and they became the place where writers, philosophers, and political activists exchanged ideas. British coffee shops became known as “penny universities,” because a cup of coffee cost one cent and you could learn a lot while drinking it and listening to the discussions. In 1675, King Charles II tried to abolish coffeehouses, because the open discussion that occurred in them was perceived to be a danger to the government. However, it was an unpopular decision and did not succeed. The coffeehouse movement continued to grow in England, and many coffeehouses even became specialized. Some became institutions that still exist today, such as the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London. 

The French Revolution was born in the Paris coffeehouses. The Café de Foy was the place where those who made the call to arms and then stormed the Bastille gathered.

1952 coffee break with June Allyson and Dick PowellIn America, the American Revolution was plotted in the Green Dragon Tavern, a tavern/coffeehouse in Boston Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party, which did much to unseat tea as the beverage of choice in the new world. Today, Americans drink 517 million cups of coffee per day (2 cups per day per person) (National Coffee Assoc., 2022) and spent $74.2 billion on coffee in 2015. Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world after oil. It battles beer for third place as the most popular drink in the world after water and tea. Starbucks, created in 1985 with just a few coffeeshops, has grown to over 9,000 shops worldwide.

The medicinal effects of coffee have been one of the factors responsible for its early success. The stimulating caffeine in the beans is what brought it to the attention of the Ethiopians in the first century. Avicenna, the Arabian physician, wrote of the medicinal qualities of the coffee beans in the 15th century. Today, coffee, in many forms, is still used in traditional medicines of Africa and Asia to treat stomach ache, diarrhea, and low blood pressure. Some aspirin products, such as Bayer® Back & Body aspirin, contain caffeine to relieve headache, body aches, and arthritis pain.

Bayer Back & Body AspirinAccording to Sampath Rarthasarathy, Ph.D., “Coffee is one of the richest sources of phenolics and polyphenols, which are antioxidants. Research shows that these compounds may help prevent or even repair some types of cell damage. A 2018 study found that those who drank coffee were less likely to die early than those who didn’t. And prior research suggests that coffee may reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, and diabetes” (Rockwood, 2019).

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported the results of another study done on patients who had suffered prior myocardial infarctions. This study concluded that, “Drinking coffee, either caffeinated or decaffeinated, may lower the risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease) and IHD (ischemic heart disease) mortality in patients with a prior MI (myocardial infarction).“

Coffee breakAs if all of these qualities of coffee were not enough, scientists have also discovered that caffeine is a natural pesticide and speculate that caffeine developed along with the coffee plant as a protection for the plant against harmful insects. They have found that adding caffeine to other natural pesticides increased their effectiveness against insects such as mosquito larvae, hornworms, mealworms, and milkweed bugs.

I wish I did not know that coffee can also be used as an insecticide. However, I won’t let that fact stop me from enjoying my cup of strong morning brew.

Coffee is the Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for September.

Photo Credits: 1) Coffee tree (Creative Commons; 2) Coffee “cherries” (Creative Commons); 3) Turkish coffee “mug” with a side of chocolates (Stacy Readal); 4) Arabian coffee break (Wikimedia Commons); 5) Arabian coffee urn (Creative Commons); 6) Coffee harvest (Creative Commons); 7) 1952 coffee break with June Allyson and Dick Powell (Public Domain); 8) Bayer Back & Body medication (Public Domain); 9) Coffee break (Creative Commons).

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

References

Coffee facts and statistics. (n.d.) Accessed 7/18/22. http://www.professorshouse.com/food-beverage/beverages/coffee-facts-statistics.aspx

Dongen, Laura H., et al. 2017. Coffee consumption after myocardial infarction and risk of cardiovascular mortality: a prospective analysis in the Alpha Omega Cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 106, Issue 4, October 2017. Accessed 8/3/2022. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.117.153338

Feleman, Ellen. 2022. Coffee and tea: drink choice and effects on stroke, dementia, and post stroke dementia. Relias Media, February 21, 2022. Accessed 7/19/22. Consumer Health Complete Database.

Kew Gardens. 2019. Kew scientists reveal that 60% of wild coffee species are threatened with extinction, causing concern for the future of coffee production. Accessed 8/3/22. https://www.kew.org/about-us/press-media/kew-scientists-reveal-that-60-of-wild-coffee/ 

National Coffee Association. n.d. History of coffee. Accessed 7/18/22. https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee

Paterson, Cathy. 2012. No. 2846: Coffeehouses. Accessed 7/18/22. https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2846.htm#:~:text=In%201675%2C%20King%20Charles%20II,%2C%20percolated%20to%20America%2C%20too.

Rockwood, Kate. 2019. 5 myths about coffee. Prevention, Vol 71, Iss. 10, p. 68-71.   

Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. 2020. How coffee fueled revolutions–and revolutionary ideas. Accessed 8/3/22. https://www.history.com/news/coffee-houses-revolutions


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.

Herb of the Month – Lemon Balm – Medicine for the Plague and the Blues

by Karen Cottingham

20220731_183255Lemon balm, that delightfully lemony herb, has been used medicinally for centuries. The many beneficial properties of Melissa officinalis were recorded as early as 300 BCE by Theophrastus in his great work on natural history, Historia Plantarum. In a later compilation of useful plants, De Materia Medica (50-80 BCE), the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote of lemon balm’s ability to “sweeten the spirit”. From that time on, physicians, herbalists, and naturalists from Greek and Roman antiquity, ancient Persia, the monasteries and convents of medieval Europe, the emerging scientific world of Renaissance England, and the newly settled American colonies all extolled the virtues of lemon balm as a reliable remedy for emotional distress and other disorders. 

Avicenna, the great 11th century Persian physician (980-1037), found that “balm makes the heart merry and joyful, and strengthens the vital spirits.”

A century later, Saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote that “lemon balm contains within it the virtues of a dozen other plants”. She recommended a tea of lemon balm and fennel fronds, saying that “lemon balm reduces the effects of harmful humours [sic] and prevents them from gaining the upper hand.” 

The 16th century Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was so confident in the medicinal properties of lemon balm that he prescribed it for “all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.” His famous “Elixir of Life,” a miraculous concoction said to revive patients close to death, prevent senility, and cure impotence, depended primarily on lemon balm for its miraculous healing effects. 

Another highly regarded healing elixir was Carmelite Water, first prepared about 1380 by the nuns of the Carmelite Abbey of Saint Juste and still available for purchase. The original formula is shrouded in mystery, having been passed down in secrecy from nun to nun, but was most likely a combination of lemon balm, angelica, nutmeg, and lemon peel infused into wine or brandy. 

Over the years, the ingredient list for this elixir quite remarkably expanded to include orange flower water, lily of the valley, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage, mugwort, lavender, Roman chamomile, elecampane, savory, fennel, sandalwood, great yellow gentian, galangal, bitter orange, green anise, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, and/or clove. The one constant, though, was lemon balm; with its reputation for calming a nervous disposition, the heart-shaped lemony leaf was always the featured ingredient. 

For a gloomy mood or a broken heart that needs soothing, Carmelite water can still be purchased or, better yet, made at home. See https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/herbal-carmelite-water-recipe or https://picnicinakeldama.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/carmelite-water-a-herbal-tonic-for-mind-body-and-soul/ for instructions. 

Elderflower_cordial_in_bottles by Jim ChampionThe marvelous reputations of lemon balm and Carmelite Water spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance, where the healing herb and its elixir were particularly admired by the great English herbalists.

John Gerard (c.1545-1612), the English botanist, herbalist, and barber-surgeon, compiled the massive 1,484-page illustrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1597. His assessment of lemon balm echoed his herbal predecessors: “drunk in wine, it (lemon balm) is good against the bitings of venomous beast, comforts the heart, and drives away melancholy.”

Another admirer of Carmelite Water was Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), the English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer. In his 1563 book, The English Physician, (later re-titled The Complete Herbal), he wrote that Carmelite Water “causeth the Mind and Heart to becom [sic] merry … and driveth away al [sic] troublesome cares and thought.” 

Culpeper also added that lemon balm could be used to “open obstructions of the Brain; and hath so much purging quality in it…as to expel those melancolly vapors from the Spirits.” 

Specially designed herbal elixirs were available for every ailment imaginable, including infections. Starting in the 14th century, waves of deadly pandemics spread all over Europe, eventually reaching London as the Great Plague of 1665-1666. Desperate to control these mysterious and devastating outbreaks, physicians, herbalists, apothecaries, and interestingly, housewives devised their own complex versions of protective “Plague Waters.” 

L0014459 Portrait of Nicholas CulpeperAgua epidemica” was a popular Plague Water that included lemon balm, along with masterwort, angelica, peony, butterbur, viper-grass, Virginia snakeroot, rue, and rosemary. All the herbs were infused in spirit of wine and then distilled.

The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion is Eliza Smith’s massive 1727 cookery book. Mrs. Smith included her own version of Plague Water, which also contained lemon balm:

Take rosa folis, agrimony, betony, scabious, century tops, scordium, balm, rue, wormwood, mugwort, celandine, rosemary, marigold leaves, brown sage, burnet, carduus, and dragons, of each a large handful; and angelica-roots, piony-roots, tormentil-roots, elecampane-roots and licorice, of each one ounce; cut the herbs, and slice the roots, and put them all in an earthen pot, and put to them a gallon of white wine and a quart of brandy, and let them steep two days close cover’d; then distill it in an ordinary still with a gentle fire; you may sweeten it, but not much.

You have to admire a housewife, “Accomplish’d Gentlewoman” or not, who had the skills to put this recipe together! And by the way, “dragons” in this Plague Water recipe probably denotes tarragon. To the medieval eye, the roots of tarragon apparently looked like the tail of a dragon, giving rise to its common name “little dragon” as well as its official name Artemisia dracunculus.

plant-flower-summer-food-herb-produce-729961-pxhere.comToday, although we no longer use lemon balm for infections, numerous clinical studies have shown that lemon balm taken in a wide variety of ingested forms relieves chronic anxiety, reduces laboratory-induced psychological stress, and improves sleep quality (Cases, Ibarra, Feuillère, Roller, and Sukkar, 2011). Our modern scientists now concur with what the herbalists and physicians of old had known so well – that lemon balm is an excellent medicine to “sweeten the spirit” and “expel those melancolly vapors”!

For more on the fascinating world of lemon balm and other lemon-scented herbs, please read Karen’s article in the South Texas Unit Newsletter for August 2022  For more information, a beautiful screensaver, and recipes please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month web page. 

Photo Credits: 1) Melissa officinalis (Erin Holden); 2) Avicenna (public domain); 3) Hildegard von Bingen (RichHein via Wikimedia); 4) Cordials (Jim Champion via Wikimedia); 5) Nicholas Culpepper (Wellcome via Wikimedia); 6) Lemon balm cordial (public domain)

References

Cases, J., A. Ibarra, N. Feuillère, M. Roller, and S. G. Sukkar. 2011. Pilot trial of Melissa officinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Med J. Nutrition Metab. 4(3): 211-218.

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.


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

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.

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.

Calendula – Herb of the Month – An Herb of the Sun

By Maryann Readal

Orange flowers against dark green leavesCalendula officinalis is a plant in the Asteraceae family and is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for May. In my Texas Zone 8b garden, I planted calendula in November and it is now in full bloom, and will continue to bloom until the hot summer sun puts a damper on its bright yellow and orange blossoms. Planted in organic, well-draining soil, and with enough sun, this herb will reward you with its bright blossoms for a very long time. Deadheading does increase its blooms. Calendula can tolerate some freezing temperatures and it does reseed easily. I cannot imagine a garden without it.

This herb has been called marigold or pot marigold since early times. The name marigold is said to have come from the use of the golden flowers during celebrations for the Virgin Mary (Mary + gold), after Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. Some claim that the golden petals were like the rays surrounding the Virgin’s head. In the thirteenth century, the German poet, Konrad von Wϋrzburg, included calendula among the twelve flowers symbolizing the Virgin (Larkin, 2010). 

The herb was added to soup pots and stews during the Middle Ages. It was also used to color cheese and butter. In India it was a sacred herb, where it adorned statues and temples. 

However, calendula should not be confused with the garden flower we call marigold (Tagetes spp). The flowers of marigold plants, although they look somewhat similar, are not the same and are generally considered to be non-edible. Other important differences include:

  • Calendula originated in the Mediterranean area and some parts of Asia, while the marigold originated in the Americas. 
  • Europeans brought calendula to the Americas. Tagetes spp. were brought to Europe after they landed in America.

Orange flowers on white paper towelThe Romans are believed to have named the calendula after the Latin word calendae (a word referring to the day of the new moon), because they observed that the flowers opened on the day of the new moon. Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its botanical name in the 1750s. 

In early days, calendula was often associated with magical powers. If you wore calendula flowers while in court, you would be victorious in legal matters (Cohen, 2021). People would sprinkle the flowers around their door to keep evil away, and under their beds to ensure that good dreams would come true.

Shakespeare’s writings contain at least six passages about marigolds (Macht, 1955). In several passages, he notes the use of marigold in honoring the dead. The passage in The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 3, reflects the common belief that marigold was also a heliotropic plant.

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mint, savory, marjoram:

The marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping.

Glass bottle of light yellow oil surrounded by orange flowersSometime in history, it was discovered that calendula could be used as a medicinal plant. Since early times it was used as an effective treatment for skin irritations. During the U.S. Civil War, the flowers were used to stop bleeding and to promote healing of battle wounds. British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll led a campaign during World War I to raise calendula to supply British hospitals in France (Keeler, 2016). 

In traditional medicines, calendula was used to treat a variety of skin irritations. It was also used to treat earaches, eye and mouth irritations, jaundice, and menstrual problems. Clinical use today shows that it is effective in treating radiation burns (Patil, 2022).  Some recent studies conclude that Calendula officinalis shows promise as an effective medicine, even as a treatment for some cancers (Patil, 2022), but that more clinical research needs to be done.  Its antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and astringent properties make a healing treatment for the skin when infused in oil.

Calendula is also known as “poor man’s saffron.” The petals can be dried and used in place of the more expensive saffron. However, the taste is not the same as that expensive herb. The colorful petals and young leaves can be tossed into salads. The petals can be cooked with rice and mixed into egg salads, cakes, puddings, and soups.  

Orange calendula petals on a white paper towelThe petals have been used as a dye for fabrics and as an ingredient in cosmetics. Dried petals give a nice contrast color in potpourri.  Some say that if the flowers are fed to hens, the resulting egg yolks will have a rich, yellow color (Barrett, 2009). 

This very useful, colorful, and easy-to- grow herb deserves a place in every garden.  For more information, recipes, and a beautiful screen saver, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpagehttps://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html

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.

 

References

Barrett, Judy. 2009. What can I do with my herbs? College Station, TX: Texas A & M Press.

Cohen, Bevin. 2021. The artisan herbalist. Canada: New Society Publishers. 

Fischer, Fern. 2017. History of calendula. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.gardenguides.com/78027-history-calendula.html

Herb Society of America. 2008. Calendula: An Herb Society of America guide. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/210f18de-fb79-4fe8-b79c-8b30bdca4885

Keeler, Kathy. 2016. Plant story: Marigolds in history – pot marigolds (Calendulas). Accessed 4/3/2022. Available from http://khkeeler.blogspot.com/2016/10/plant-story-marigolds-in-history-pot.html

Larkin, Deidre. 2010. Calendar girl. Accessed 4/16/22. Available from https://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2010/11/05/calendar-girl/

Macht, David. 1955. Calendula or marigold in medical history and in Shakespeare.  Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 29:6, 491–502. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44446726.

Mehta, Devansh, Parkhi Rastogi, Ankit Kumar, and Amrendra Kumar Chaudhary. 2012. Review on Pharmacological Update: Calendula officinalis. Linn. Inventi Rapid: Planta Activa. Vol. 2012. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229067785_Review_on_Pharmacological_Update_Calendula_officinalis_Linn

Patil, Karthikeya, et al. 2022. A review of calendula officinalis-magic in science. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 16:2, 23-27. Accessed 4/4/22. Available from Explora from Ebsco.


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.

Dianthus – Herb of the Month – A Plant of Beauty and Meaning

By Maryann Readal

Photo of pinks, Dianthus caryophyllusDianthus is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for April. The timing is perfect as the weather is beginning to be spring-like, and these plants are now available in our garden shops. The Greek botanist, Theophrastus (371-287 BCE), is credited with giving these flowers their name. He combined the Greek word for dios, “divine,” with anthos, “flower” and came up with dianthus. Dianthus have been cultivated and bred for over 2,000 years, and many different colors and flower types have been developed along the way. With successive breeding, however, many of the cultivars have lost their native clove-like scent. 

The old-fashioned plant that our grandmothers called pinks, Dianthus plumarius, can be a perennial or an annual. It is a compact, evergreen, clove-scented, low-growing species of Dianthus. Like other Dianthus, it prefers an alkaline soil and plenty of sun. The perennial variety blooms later than the annual plant, which blooms in early spring. It makes a nice border or rock garden plant and blooms better if the spent flowers are removed. It can be propagated by seed or with cuttings.

“And in my flower-beds, I think, Smile the carnation and the pink.”

                                        – Rupert Brooke

There are several ideas why these plants are called pinks. One idea is that the edges of the flowers look as though they were cut with pinking shears. Another idea is that the name derives from the German word pfingsten, which was the German name for flowers that bloomed around Pentecost (Ecavade,1998).

Glass of Chartreuse liqueurDianthus caryophyllus is the botanical name for the flower we call carnation. It has been in cultivation for over 2,000 years and is native to the Mediterranean region. Other names for this flower are gillyflower or clove pinks because of the clove-like scent of the original flower. Carl Linnaeus described the plant in his Species Plantarum in 1753 and gave the plant its botanical name.

Carnations are an edible flower, if they have not been sprayed with chemicals. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the flowers were used to flavor wine, earning the nickname “sops-in-wine” (Belsinger and Tucker, 2016). They are also one of the 130 herbs and aromatic plants used to make the French liqueur, Chartreuse, which is still the only naturally green liqueur in the world today. While we do not use them to flavor wine today, they are used as an edible, decorative flower and can be made into syrup or candied. The petals can be put into salads, vinegars, and sauces. 

It is thought that the common name, carnation, came from the Latin word for the crown, corona, worn during Roman and Greek ceremonies. Another theory is that the word came from the Latin word for flesh, Photo of Red carnationcaro, referring to the natural color of the native flower. In religious symbolism, the flower represents “God made flesh in Jesus” or the incarnation. To carry through with the religious symbolism, it is said that the carnation sprung from the tears Mary shed during the crucifixion. The carnation is a frequent artistic floral motif in mosques and Islamic art.  

The carnation holds considerable importance as a symbol today. Indeed, the colors of the flower carry special meanings in the floral industry. Red flowers symbolize love. White flowers mean true love and good luck. Pink carnations are a symbol of a mother’s love and are the Mother’s Day flower. Yellow carnations mean disappointment and rejection (Escavade, 2020). 

Carnations have also been used to give additional meaning to political events. The red carnation was the 20th anniversary of Black January in Azerbiajansymbol of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution when the authoritarian regime was overthrown in 1974. In some countries, it represents the socialist worker’s movement and is often used during May Day demonstrations. In Azerbaijan, red and pink carnations memorialize the people’s uprising against the Soviet crackdown in January, 1990. The red carnation has become a symbol of that tragedy, now christened Black January. The red carnation is the state flower of Ohio. It was chosen to honor Ohio Governor and United States President William McKinley who wore a red carnation until his assassination in 1901. The red carnation is the national flower of Spain, Slovenia, and Monaco.

At Oxford University, some students wear carnations while taking their exams. A white carnation is worn on the first day and red on the last day of exams. Pink carnations are worn on the exam days in between.

Bottle of L'Air du Temps perfumeThe essential oil is also used in making the French perfume, L’air du Temps. Dianthus caryophyllus can be found in European herbal medicine to treat coronary and nervous problems.

Carnations are perennial to Zone 6. They prefer well-draining, alkaline soil in full sun and bloom from summer into the fall. Again, deadheading of the flowers is the key to continuous blooming. As a cut flower, carnations are long-lasting.

And then there is Dianthus superbus, which grows in China, Japan, and in some parts of Europe. This Dianthus is called qumai in Chinese, and the flowers are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Its use was first mentioned in the 1st century CE in the Chinese herbal, Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica. Qumai is still used today to treat kidney stones, urinary tract infections, constipation, and dysmenorrhea. 

Researchers are investigating the medicinal potential of this Dianthus species. Recent research indicates that its components may be effective in treating airway inflammation due to asthma (Shin, 2012). In a recent review of the plant, authors concluded “the traditional applications of Dianthi herba have been confirmed, including the treatment of urinary tract infection and dysmenorrhea” (Liu, 2022).

Dianthus superbus can be grown as an annual or perennial and can be propagated by seed or cuttings. Like other Dianthus, it prefers well-draining, alkaline soil in a sunny location. The flowers are harvested Photo of sweet William flowersjust before they open for medicinal applications.

This article would not be complete without at least a mention of Dianthus barbatus, sweet William. This short-lived perennial or biennial species is very different in that it has a cluster of dianthus-like flowers sitting on top of a one to two-foot stem. The cluster attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. It is a favorite plant in cottage gardens. 

Though very little research has been done on the medical applications of sweet William, it does contain saponins. In 1596, Gerard mentioned sweet William in his plant catalog, praising its beauty but made no mention of any medicinal properties.

It is not certain how the name sweet William originated. However, it is a common name used for young men experiencing unrequited love in English folk songs. Interesting to note that when England’s Prince Photo of Kate Middleton's wedding bouquetWilliam married Kate Middleton in 2011, Kate included sweet Williams in her bridal bouquet as a tribute to her husband-to-be (Dillon, 2021).

For more information about Dianthus, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html

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) Dianthus (pinks) flowers (Maryann Readal); 2) Chartreuse liqueur (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Ospalh); 3) Carnation flower (GNU Free Documentation License); 4) 20th anniversary of Black January in Azerbiajan (ElxanQəniyev); 5) L’air du Temps bottle (Walmart.com); 6) Sweet William flowers (Creative Commons, Andrey Korzun); 7) Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet (Dan Kitwood).

References

Abdel Wadood, M., and M. Panayotidi. 2014. The floral and geometrical elements on the Ottoman architecture in Rhodes Island. Egyptian Journal of Archaeological and Restoration Studies. 4:2, 87-104. Accessed 3/5/22. https://journals.ekb.eg/article_7264.html

Belsinger, S. and A. Tucker. 2016. The culinary herbal: growing and preserving 97 flavorful herbs. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Bown, Deni. 2001. New Encyclopedia of herbs and their uses, Revised. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Cornet, Peggy. 1998. Pinks, gillyflowers, carnations the exalted flowers. Accessed 2/20/22. https://www.monticello.org/house-gardens/center-for-historic-plants/twinleaf-journal-online/pinks-gilliflowers-carnations

Chevallier, Andrew. 1996. The encyclopedia of medicinal plants. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Dillon, Rachel. 2021. Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet meant more than you think. Accessed 3/17/22. https://www.thelist.com/354146/kate-middletons-wedding-bouquet-meant-more-than-you-think/

Ecavade, Sakshe. 2020. Carnation flowers: meaning, history, symbolism & colors.  Accessed 2/20/22. https://www.giftalove.com/blog/carnation-flowers-meaning-symbolism-history-colors/

Liu, Qian, et al. 2021. Dianthi herba: a comprehensive review of its botany, traditional use, phytochemistry, and pharmacology. Chin Med17:15. Accessed 3/3/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8780776/

Shin, In-Sik, et al. 2012. Dianthus superbus fructus suppresses airway inflammation by downregulating of inducible nitric oxide synthase in an ovalbumin-induced murine model of asthma. Journal of Inflammation 9:41. Accessed 3/3/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3551699/

Stevens, John. 1996. The complete herb garden. New York: Reader’s Digest.

Sweet William. 2021. Accessed 3/4/22. https://gardening.usask.ca/articles-and-lists/articles-plant-descriptions/perennials/sweet-william.php 


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

Know Your Tarragon – The Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

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

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

French tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus (syn. dracunculoides)

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

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

Mexican tarragon — Tagetes lucida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bay Laurel – Herb of the Month, Herb of Achievement

By Maryann Readal

Bay laurel as a small treeBay laurel, Laurus nobilis, The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February, has been a symbol of achievement, power, and victory from early Greek and Roman times until our present day. The origin of laurel as a symbol rests with Apollo and his love for the nymph Daphne. Unfortunately, the love was not mutual and at her request, the gods turned Daphne into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo’s advances. Apollo loved the laurel tree and decided to use it as a sign of achievement. The Greeks called the bay laurel tree Daphne.

Early Olympic Game winners were awarded laurel garlands, and Greek poets and musicians wore laurel wreaths. Romans adopted the symbolism and crowned their emperors with leaves of laurel. To this day, the crowns of some European monarchs incorporate the laurel leaf.

An early belief was that the laurel tree was fireproof and could deter lightning strikes. Therefore, laurel trees were planted near doorways or sprigs of laurel were hung in doorways to prevent fire. Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal said, “neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where bay tree is” (Mieseler, 2009).

Today, we use terms such as poet laureate and Nobel laureate, both describing someone who has achieved a high honor in their field. We are familiar with the phrase “resting on one’s laurels,” which means that someone who has achieved much can rest on their achievements and need not do more. “Our word baccalaureate comes from the custom of crowning young doctors of medicine with laurel leaves and berries, bacca lauri,” notes Theresa Mieseler (2009). Laurel branches are still used as a part of graduation ceremonies in some colleges and universities worldwide today. A laurel wreath is awarded to the winner of the Grand Prix. You will also see the laurel wreath on coins and on the emblems of nations. Its symbolism is meaningful.

The Victorians adopted the laurel as a symbol of never-ending love. My own wedding ring is a circle of laurel leaves, which I did not realize the significance of until researching for this article. The bay laurel motif has also been used in architecture. This herb is a part of our culture without us even realizing it.

Cultivation
Laurus nobilis is a plant that prefers a warm climate. It was thought to be native to the Mediterranean area; however, genetic testing shows that its origin is in the Middle East. In my USDA Zone 8b garden, I can grow bay in the ground year round. But to be safe, it should be grown as a container plant, unless you are willing to test it in the ground in zones less than 8.  It is an evergreen tree or shrub depending on how it is pruned, and can reach a height of eight to ten feet or more. It likes full sun or partial shade. It is dioecious, meaning there is a male plant and a female plant, and its small yellow flowers bloom for only a few weeks in the spring.

Bay with small yellow flowersPropagating bay takes patience as it is very slow to germinate and grow. The Herb Society of America’s guide to bay offers a method for propagating bay laurel.

The ASPCA cautions that bay laurel is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Caution is advised when purchasing other plants with laurel in the name, such as mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). These are not in the same family as bay laurel and are poisonous.

Uses
We grow bay laurel as a source of fresh leaves for cooking. It is one of the herbs in bouquet garni and is used to flavor soups, sauces, stews, and roasted meats and fish. It is sometimes boiled in milk or cream to flavor puddings. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay call it a “liaison” herb because it helps to blend flavors together (Mieseler, 2009). It is best used in recipes requiring a long cooking time. The leaf does not soften with cooking and should be removed before serving. California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used as a substitute for bay laurel in cooking; however, its flavor is stronger than Laurus nobilis.

Round-pruned laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein CastleBay laurel branches are pliable and lend themselves to making wreaths. The leaves are also used for potpourri. Many of us remember the old-fashioned way of keeping flour and grains insect-proof by adding a bay leaf or two to the container. The essential oil of bay is used in perfumes and soaps.

Of course, bay has had many uses as a medicine throughout history. A renowned use has been for treating rheumatism. It has also been used in traditional medicines to treat stomach issues, gas, and respiratory ailments.

Recent studies focus on its antiviral and antibacterial properties, particularly effective for treating MRSA (Otsuka, 2008). A recent article in Environmental Chemistry Letters hypothesizes that a possible reason for a lower incidence of COVID mortality in southern Italy may be due to extensive forests containing bay laurel. The emission into the air of immuno-modulating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in bay laurel are suggested as a reason (Roviello, 2021).

For more information and recipes for bay laurel, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February. The Society’s Guide to Bay also contains information about this herb.

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) Bay laurel as a small tree (Erin Holden); 2) Julius Caeser (Mithrandire, Creative Commons), Princess Lilian of Sweden (Public Domain), and George Washington (Public Domain) with laurel crowns; 3) World Health Organization flag (Public Domain) and laurel wreath for a graduate student (Archeologo, Creative Commons); 5) Bay laurel in flower (Maksim, Creative Commons); 6) Bay laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein Castle (Reinhold Moller, Creative Commons)

References  

ASPCA. n.d. Bay laurel. Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/bay-laurel

Dyer, M. 2021. Are some bay leaves toxic-learn which trees are edible. Accessed 7/7/21. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/bay/which-bay-trees-are-edible.htm

Gaumond, A. 2021. Essential guide to bay laurel. Accessed 1/4/22. https://www.petalrepublic.com/bay-laurel-meaning/

Kowalchick, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1998. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Mieseler, T., ed. 2009. Bay: An Herb Society of America guide.  Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/1cd1802d-70ea-4fb8-a14b-4f4bb72e2435

Mieseler, Theresa. 2009. Bay earns laurels as Herb of the Year. The Herbarist: 75:27-30.

Otsuka, N. et al. 2008. Anti-methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) compounds isolated from Laurus nobilis. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 31:1794-1797. Accessed 1/10/22. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/bpb/31/9/31_9_1794/_article

Roviello, V. and G. Roviello. 2021. Lower COVID-19 mortality in Italian forested areas suggests immunoprotection by Mediterranean plants. Environmental Chemistry Letters. 19:699-710. Accessed 1/4/22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32837486/


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

Viola Species – Herb of the Month, Herb for the Heart

By Maryann Readal

pansyThe Viola species are the  January 2022 Herb of the Month for The Herb Society of America and also the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year™ for 2022. Heartsease (Viola tricolor) is one of the species in this group of herbal plants. This little unassuming flower has symbolized love, death, and rebirth since Roman and Greek times. During those early days, it was believed to be an aphrodisiac and was also used to treat heart conditions. Hence, one of its many names was heartsease.

The little flower has inspired poems, plays, and even books, many of them dealing with love issues. Roman mythology tells us that Eros struck a viola and caused the flower to smile. Cupid worshiped heartsease, making Aphrodite so jealous of the little flower that she turned it from white to tricolored.

In Shakespeare’s play, Midsummer Night’s Dream (ca 1595), heartsease is a catalyst as the comedy unfolds. Shakespeare tells us that Cupid, the god of love, aiming his arrow at a vestal virgin, hits a delicate white flower called love-in-idleness (Viola tricolor). The flower turns to purple, and from it comes a juice that is a love potion. When placed on the eyelids, the juice makes one fall in love with the first creature he or she sees.

Heartsease Edwin_Landseer_-_Scene_from_A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream._Titania_and_Bottom_-_Google_Art_Project

In the play, Oberon orders Puck to fetch the flower so that he can play a trick on his lady, Titania. He drops juice from the flower on her eyelids while she is sleeping. The first creature Titania sees when she awakes is a donkey, and falls in love. Oberon, fortunately, was able to reverse the magic spell on Titania, and Titania sees the donkey for what he was—a donkey. Other couples in the play are matched by using the viola juice on the eyelids trick. Lovers are reunited because of the love potion from the little flower of heartsease.

It was believed that heartsease could cure the effects of illicit love too, which resulted in what some countries called the French disease, also known as syphilis. John Gerard (1545-1612) and Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), both herbalists and physicians, prescribed heartsease as a cure and as a pain reliever for syphilis, although it was not a common practice at the time (Watts, 2007).

Heartsease, also known as wild pansy, is the ancestor of the colorful pansies that we plant in our spring gardens. The story is that if you put pansies under your pillow, new love will find you. If you plant pansies in a heart shape and they thrive, your relationship will thrive as well.

Heartsease is a common European wildflower. It may reseed itself in your garden. For more information about Viola species please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for January and the March 2021 Herb Society blog article about it.

I leave you to ponder a poem about heartsease and lost love by C. Day Lewis. Lewis was a popular young poet in the 1930s.

The Heartsease

Do you remember that hour
In a nook of the flowing uplands
When you found for me, at the cornfield’s edge,
A golden and purple flower?
Heartsease, you said.
I thought it might be
A token that love meant well by you and me. 

I shall not find it again.
With you no more to guide me.
I could not bear to find it now
With anyone else beside me.
And the heartsease is far less rare
Than what it is named for, what I can feel nowhere.

Once again it is summer:
Wildflowers beflag the lane
That takes me away from our golden uplands,
Heart-wrung and alone.
The best I can look for, by vale or hill,
A herb they tell me is common enough—self-heal.

 

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) Pansy heart (Maryann Readal); 2) Scene from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (Edwin Landseer, Wikimedia Commons); 3) Viola tricolor (Muriel Bendel, Wikimedia Commons) 

References

Lewis, C. Day. 1992. Complete poems of C. Day Lewis. “The heartsease.” London. Accessed 12/2/21. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Shakespeare, William.  ca1595. Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Accessed 11/30/21. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/midsummer/full.html

Watts, D. C. 2007. Dictionary of Plant Lore. San Diego: Elsevier Science & Technology. Accessed 12/2/21. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Wells, Diana. 1997. 100 flowers and how they got their names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.


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

Cloves – A Holiday Spice and Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Botanical print of cloveThe spice that we call cloves comes from the clove tree, Syzygium aromaticum. This evergreen herbal tree is in the Myrtle (Myrtaceae) family and is native to the Molucca Islands in the Pacific Ocean. These islands were once called the Spice Islands and now are a part of Indonesia. 

The tree needs a warm, humid climate, and deep, loamy soil to grow well. It is said that it also needs to see the sea in order to thrive. It does indeed grow well near the coasts of tropical islands. The clove tree can reach a height of 26 – 40 feet and begins to flower when it is about five years old. At 20 years, it is ready to begin harvesting the cloves, which are the unopened flower buds, growing in clusters of 10 – 15 buds. The tree continues to produce cloves for more than 80 years. A tree can produce about 7 – 40 pounds of cloves a year. 

Hands holding clove flowers and leavesThe clove bud is harvested when the bud begins to turn from green to pink. The clove that we use in cooking is the stem of the flower and the round ball in the center is the unopened flower. Buds are hand-picked and dried in the sun, mostly in the fall. As they dry, the buds release a strong aroma that can be smelled from miles away. The mature fruit of the tree is called “Mother Clove” and contains a single seed. The oldest clove tree, named “Afo,” is on the island of Ternate in the Moluccas and is believed to be about 400 years old. 

Cloves drying on Pemba IslandThe History

The origin of the name “clove” comes from the Latin word for “nail” which is clavus. Cloves have been used as a culinary spice and as a medicine in many countries around the world. It was an important traditional plant in the Spice Islands. Families celebrated the birth of a child by planting a clove tree. The health of the tree was a good omen for the health of the child. 

Early Chinese writings from the 3rd century BC reveal that the spice was called “chicken-tongue spice,” and that visitors to the Han Emperor would first chew cloves so that their breath would be sweet when Clove treespeaking with the emperor. Arab traders brought cloves to the Romans in the first century AD, where Galen, the famous Greek physician, used cloves in a soothing ointment (Donkin, 2003).

Europeans did not discover the Moluccas until the 1500s, when Magellan’s circumnavigation trip brought him and his crew to these islands with their treasured spices. His ship returned to Portugal in 1522 with 53,000 pounds of cloves, representing a 2500% profit for the voyage (Donkin, 2003). Because of this discovery, Portugal controlled the spice trade until they were defeated by the Dutch in 1605.

The Dutch East India Company then controlled the trade in cloves, nutmeg, and mace from the Moluccas. In an attempt to preserve the lucrative trade in those spices, the Dutch destroyed all of the clove trees except those on the island of Ambon, which they controlled. It is said that, beginning in 1770, French missionary Pierre Poivre was able to smuggle seedlings out of the islands and began planting them in French colonies like Mauritius, thus initiating the decline of the Dutch East India’s monopoly of the spice trade. Seedlings then reached the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, where until 1972, there was a law on the books that made Pack of clove cigarettessmuggling cloves from the island punishable by death (Mosely, 2020). Today, the finest cloves are said to come from Zanzibar, and they remain an important cash crop for Tanzania. Cloves are still harvested in Indonesia, but 80% of the crop is used in the manufacture of the fragrant, domestic clove cigarette called kretek and is also used as a flavoring in the preparation of betel nut quids (Sui and Lacy, 2015). 

Culinary

Throughout history, cloves have been valued as a food preservative because of its antiseptic properties. It has a strong, intense aroma and is slightly sweet and hot to taste. It is an ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder, Indian garam masala, Arabic baharat, Moroccan ras el han out, Tunisian galȃt dagga, Ethiopian berbere, Mexican mole sauces, and the French quatre épices

Dried clove budsThe French stud an onion with cloves and use it when making chicken broth. Cloves are an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce and ketchups. Amaretto and some vermouths use cloves to amplify other flavors in the liquor (Stewart, 2013). Our holidays would not be as flavorful without ground cloves in pumpkin pie or on a ham that is studded with this nail-like spice or in the mulled wine or apple cider that we toast the holidays with. And of course, there is the orange that we stud with cloves during the holiday season, using it both as a decoration and as a room freshener.

Medicinal Uses

Clove, as a medicine, was used in the 3rd century BC in China. It was used as a warming herb, as a tonic and stimulant, as an antiseptic, and to treat toothaches and scorpion stings (Hancock, 2021). Introduced to India in roughly the first century AD, “cloves were used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine and were used to remove bad odors from the mouth and cure it of all impurities” (Donkin, 2003). References to the medicinal applications of cloves during the Middle Ages in Europe are found in medical texts of that era. During that time period, cloves were used for stomach complaints, and the oil was used to dress open wounds.

Today, studies show that the antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of cloves show promise for use in food preservation, among other uses. “Clove essential oil is traditionally used in the treatment of burns and wounds and as a pain reliever in dental care as well as treating tooth infections and toothaches” (Batiha, 2020). I have memories of my father using oil of cloves to ease a sore tooth.

Model ship made of clovesArtistic Use of Cloves

Similar to how we construct buildings with plastic Lego®s, Indonesians build intricate model boats and houses using cloves. These intricate models are a common craft item on the Moluccan island of Ambon. Some models from the 17th century are on display in the Troopeen Museum in Amsterdam and in London’s British Museum.

For more information about cloves, recipes, and a beautiful screen saver, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html

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) Clove botanical print (public domain); 2) Clove flowers and leaves (public domain); 3) Cloves drying in the sun on Pemba Island (Creative Commons, Pemba.mpimaji); 4) Clove tree (Creative Commons, Midori); 5) Clove cigarettes (Creative Commons, Meequo); 6) Dried clove buds (Creative Commons, David Monniaux); 7) Clove ship (Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures).

References

Ambon Information Website. (2011). Accessed 10/31/21. http://www.websitesrcg.com/ambon/history/history-maluku-01.htm

Batiha, G.E. etal. (2020). Syzygium aromaticum L. (Myrtaceae): Traditional Uses, Bioactive Chemical Constituents, Pharmacological and Toxicological Activities. Biomolecules, 10(2), 202. Accessed 10/2/21.  https://doi.org/10.3390/biom10020202

The clove tree that ended the monopoly. (2017). Accessed 10/5/21. https://thetreeographer.com/2017/09/08/the-clove-tree-that-ended-a-monopoly/

Donkin, R.A. (2003). Between East and West: the Molucca and the traffic in spices up to the arrival of Europeans. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. Internet Archive. Accessed 10/17/21. https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_B4IFMnssyqgC/page/n173/mode/2up

Hancock, John. (2021). The early history of clove, nutmeg, & mace. Accessed 10/10/21. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1849/the-early-history-of-clove-nutmeg–mace/

Mosely, James Allen. (2020). The mystery of herbs and spices. Maine: Winterwood Publishing Company.

Stewart, Amy. (2013). The drunken botanist. New York: Workman Publishing.

Sui, Cindy and Anna Lacy. (2015) Asia’s deadly secret: the scourge of the betel nut. BBC News. Accessed 12/1/21. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-31921207


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