Why Is Peppermint Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Why Is Peppermint Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

peppermint for XmasMy herb spiral is my mad scientist laboratory.  Just outside my kitchen door, it is the only part of my garden to experience full sun.  The soil is much-amended with compost.  And, that is where I plant essential kitchen herbs and the occasional experiment, like a new herb that bears close watching.

However, over the last few gardening seasons, it has devolved largely into a jungle of mint.  Mystery mint.  Muddle mint.  A promiscuous genetic mix of whatever mint I have ever planted, plus whatever mint blew in on its own. In my defense, that’s what mint does.  And sometimes, the result is something else.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a hybrid plant, a cross between water mint (Mentha aquatica) and spearmint (Mentha picata).  It was first mistakenly identified by Linnaeus in 1753 as a separate species, and can self-propagate by root (exuberantly) both in the garden and in the wild. But peppermint can also pop up spontaneously among its parent plants. Because it is a hybrid, peppermint cannot set fertile seed.   Peppermint is fond of damp places, like stream beds, and isn’t at all particular.  In places where it was introduced for its oil, peppermint has broken free and is now considered invasive. Even where a gardener uses best practices and plants peppermint sunken in a pot to segregate its rhizomes from the rest of the garden, it will break free.

The leaves and flower tops of either wild or cultivated peppermint may be harvested and dried. Cultivated specimens produce more potent oil.  Peppermint has a warm, sweet aroma and taste, which is soothing to the digestion and freshening to the breath and palate. Some people feel that it repels mice, but recent experiments in my pantry are inconclusive. It is also supposed to be a deterrent to spiders, although I have never wanted to deter spiders. Peppermint oil applied externally can ease the soreness of muscle or arthritis pain. And a freshly brewed peppermint tea is clearly soothing to body and soul.

candycane.jpgSo, how did peppermint come to be associated so strongly with Christmas?  It’s hard to say.  It’s not evergreen, like so many Christmas plants.  It’s not red, although most peppermint-flavored foods are represented in a red and white striped form, like candy canes.  But candy canes themselves, introduced in the 1670’s by a choirmaster in Cologne to quiet children in church, were made from plain white sugar candy and bent into a shepherd’s crook shape as a nod to the Christmas.

Bicolored candy canes seem to have first appeared in the 19th century in the United States.  Although there was a patent awarded in the 1920’s for a candycane producing machine, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Bob’s Candy, in Albany, Georgia, came up with a candy-making machine that produced the twisted red-and-white spiral that we now think of as classic candy cane. Those peppermint spiraled candy canes were explosively popular…and were flavored with peppermint. So, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the classic candy cane seems to be a mid-century American Christmas innovation. And, from there, “Went down in hi-sto-ry!”

 

Herbal Kitchen Gift-Giving: A Large Stainless Bowl

I’ve asked five blog contributors to share their favorite herb-related gift ideas.  HSA’s blog will be running one per day during the first week of December.– Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster

By Peggy Riccio, member, Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America

stainless-steel-bowl.jpgWhen I was studying horticulture at Virginia Tech, I was required to complete an internship. I spent the summer with a young married couple on a Maryland farm. The land came from the husband’s side of the family and the wife, armed with her masters in horticulture from Virginia Tech, was determined to turn it into a successful produce farm. Although they had help from the local high school kids, I was their first college intern.

At the end of the summer, they thanked me by giving me a large metal bowl. Thirty-six years later, they have a very successful produce farm and I use this bowl almost every week. It is the perfect size and weight for washing herbs. Although I do not spray my herbs, I always soak them in cold water after I cut them. Inevitably, something crawls out.

The bowl is heavy enough to be able hold the weight of the water and large enough for handfuls of green herbs. I have also learned that cheap plastic bowls are flimsy and collapse under the weight of the water. To anyone growing herbs, I recommend purchasing a large metal bowl to wash your herbs regardless if you spray or not.

Gift giving contest

Author Peggy Riccio gardens in a typical suburban Northern Virginia home. She graduated from Virginia Tech with a horticulture degree and has been involved in horticultural communications for more than 20 years. Currently, she is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America. Riccio produces pegplant.com, a local gardening website for the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC metro area. Pegplant offers local gardening news, resources, and information about gardening, gardens, and plants.

 

 

 

 

 

Herb Gardener Gift-Giving Idea: Light

I’ve asked five blog contributors to share their favorite herb-related gift ideas.  HSA’s blog will be running one per day during the first week of December. – Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

light.jpgBeing a somewhat difficult person, what I want most during the holiday season is what, by definition, is in shortest supply…light.  Candles in the darkness are very sweet.  But I mean LIGHT.

We are all starved for light in the darkness of winter.  But gardeners, in spite of exchanging hopeful and philosophical images on Facebook about how all the growing things are only sleeping, are left bereft.  Plant and seed catalogs will soon arrive, and whether you consider them aspirational or plant porn, they feed the hunger for the time when light returns and growth becomes visible.  But gardeners are patient. They can wait.

Gift giving contestUnless they have a really awesome light rig!  Yes, I have a lot of natural light in this house, when there’s any to come by.  But I also have a three-tier, pebble tray lined light cart, with growing lights on a timer and a gentle clip-on fan to wheedle the plants and seedlings entrusted therein into thinking this is the real thing. It is presently serving the needs of scented geranium cuttings, a bunch of amaryllises brought back to life from last year, assorted Christmas cacti and the mighty Cthulhu, the first aloe I ever acquired, now too big to put anywhere else.

I inherited my light rig from my late mother-in-law, Mertena Hood Hale.  She was an extraordinary gardener. So, in my case, the light is brighter, because it also brings with it the magic of a torch passed from one gardener to another, across time.

 

Magic Mushrooms May Power Santa Claus

Magic Mushrooms May Power Santa Claus

By Mary Nell Jackson, Guest Contributor

red mushroomWhen I was researching Winter Solstice I learned that Amanita muscaria mushrooms play a meaningful role in today’s Christmas tales. In fact, these red and white mushrooms may have had a significant influence on the depiction of Santa and his reindeer. It’s possible they directly or indirectly inspired Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas.

The late ethno-mycologist James Arthur listed many connections. One of the most simple is the colorful mushrooms appearance under pine and birch trees, similar to the Christmas tree. Another is Santa’s ruddy complexion, which could be caused by eating the mushroom. Yet another is his joyous ‘ho ho ho’ as ethno-botanists describe an ecstatic laugh in people who partake of these mushrooms.

My research took me to historic Siberia where Koryak people ate these mushrooms in small doses for hallucinogenic properties. A shaman would gather and prepare the mushrooms, then transport them to a ceremony in a white sack, much like Santa’s toy bag.

To reduce toxicity a shaman would hung mushrooms from tree branches to dry. This is a lot like hanging ornaments today.

IMG_8162And, it’s interesting to note the Koryak people lived in yurts. When the front door was hidden by snow drifts, they entered through the chimney.

Legend has it that Santa’s reindeer ate mushrooms as they grazed near pine trees. Thus, their odd reindeer behavior becomes explainable.

On NPR’s Morning Edition, commentator Richard Harris shared the following story about touring Harvard University’s Herbarium. At tour’s end, Harris eyed a glass case containing Christmas decorations shaped like red mushrooms with white flecks — amanita muscaria. He asked curator and biology professor Donald Pfister “Why?”  Pfister told Harris that each December he gathers introductory botany students and tells them about Santa and the psychedelic mushrooms.

IMG_8163Unconvinced? Anthropologist and professor John Rush from Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., shares yet another tale. A few hundred years ago Arctic shamans handed out psychedelic mushrooms on the Winter Solstice. People often hung them on trees or at the fireplace to dry. Rush also points out that the traditional dress of the shamans was red suits with white spots … which factors into the Santa tale.

These are, of course, speculation. I must say it has given me pause to think about the relationship of Santa Claus and these colorful magical mushrooms.

 

 

Parsley: More than Just Food

Parsley: More than Just Food

parsley in jarBy Jen Lenharth, NorthEast Seacoast Unit, Herb Society of America

Ancient Greeks thought it signaled death. Ancient Romans kept it from their women and babies out of fear of fits. And the Old English believed it could make you unlucky in love. Oh, how wrong they were!

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), we now know, is one of those ‘super-­‐foods’ and has many culinary, medicinal, cosmetic and decorative applications.

While parsley is a biennial, it is grown as an annual in our New Hampshire climate. Most people purchase young plants in the spring because it can be difficult to propagate from seed. Parsley does well in containers (which allows it to be brought inside when fall arrives), and makes a great companion plant or garden edge.

ParsleyThe two common types of parsley are curly and Italian flat leaf. While the curly leaf is decorative, the Italian flat leaf is generally preferred for culinary purposes because of its more pronounced flavor. Well known in the kitchen, parsley is terrific fresh for eating and brightens flavor in meats, vegetables, breads, soups and even beverages. It is best to add parsley towards the end of cooking so it retains full flavor.

Parsley is a source of vitamin K, which helps in bone and brain health; vitamin A which helps maintain eye health; and folate which helps the body maintain overall health. Research into the value of flavonoids, particularly the apigenin found in parsley, suggests they are useful in preventing cancer recurrence, including colon and prostate cancers.

Eating parsley can help build healthy skin from the inside, but it is also valuable in skin care products. Consider a homemade witch hazel skin toner or use parsley tea pouches to relieve under eye circles.

Parsley-Witch Hazel Skin Toner:

Add ½ cup of chopped parsley to ¾ cup of boiling water and let steep at least two hours. Filter out the parsley and reserve the water. Add ¼ cup of witch hazel to the water and transfer to a sealable bottle. Store in the fridge and apply with a cotton pad to clean skin as a toner.

Herb Update: Chocolate is Now Pink

Herb Update: Chocolate is Now Pink

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

ruby_chocolate_official_image_01Chocolate is part of the herb world. Or so I’ve decided after doing a little reading and research. In fact,

Herb Society of America’s own education coordinator Karen Kennedy says,

“I’m sure it depends on who you talk to.  It seems to me that chocolate itself is not because it is a product made from several different ingredients. Cacao, from the tree Theobroma cacaofits our definition of an herb.  Cacao, derived from this tree has both flavoring and medicinal properties, including as a stimulant, diuretic, lowers blood pressure, etc. Cocoa butter is used for damaged and sore skin.  If you look up this tree and perhaps the ethnobotany of it, you will find both historical and modern day uses.  Chocolate is both a flavor and a food, so in a sense–it is an herb!”

Her answer is enough for me.

And just when I thought I knew a lot about this herb, along comes a brand new type of chocolate. Move over dark, milk and white. Make room for ruby chocolate, just introduced by international chocolate-maker Barry Callebaut. The company describes the chocolate as “an intense sensorial delight. A tension between berry-fruitiness and luscious smoothness.”

ruby_chocolate_with_cocoa-1-e1505903828685.jpgTurns out ruby chocolate is made from the ruby cocoa bean and gets its color and flavor from it. No berry flavor or color is added.  The beans come from different places in the world and the chocolate company has created an innovative process to capitalize on its unique properties.

Introduced to the world on September 5, 2017, ruby chocolate is purported to have different flavor profiles from its siblings, something I’m longing to test. I’m continuing to watch for more information as it becomes available.

 

 

Heirloom Update: Ground Cherry

Heirloom Update: Ground Cherry

by Susan Liechty, Member and Former President of The Herb Society of America

IMG_1637 (2)The ground cherry –often called Cape gooseberry, husk tomato or poha berry – is gaining ground with heirloom lovers.  My husband grew up in Indiana eating ground cherry pies and preserves made by his mom.  She had them in the garden every year. Today they are showing up at local farm markets as heirlooms become popular. That is good news.  Bringing back heirlooms is important to our botanical future.

The official name is Physalis pruinosa and it is part of the nightshade family that includes tomatoes and peppers.  The fruits are small, yellow balls hiding in a paper husk, similar to tomatillos.  The “berries” start green and turn yellow when ripe. As they ripen they fall from the plant, still in the husk.

A single plant can produce up to 300 fruits.  Four to six plants can easily supply an average family of four. They self-seed easily so keep in mind that you will probably have them in the garden for years to come.

IMG_2385My advice to anyone tasting a new fruit for the first time is to eat it plain with no sugar or additions so you know what the flavor is. The green fruit will definitely be tart and taste a bit like a green tomato.  The yellow ripened fruit has been described as a combo of orange and strawberry, or pineapple and vanilla. An advantage of the flavor confusion is it works well as a savory or sweet addition in your kitchen.  You can use the fruit in muffins, quick bread, salsa, added to your fruit salad, or made into jams, preserves, and pies.  Enjoy as they are low in calories, low fat, no cholesterol, high in Vitamins A and C, and are a good source of niacin.

There are wild and cultivated varieties available today. The varieties of wild ones are Physalis heterophylla or P. subglabrata.  The wild versions have smaller pea sized fruit while the cultivated ones are larger, about the size of a grape.  Aunt Molly, an heirloom variety from Poland, has been mentioned in catalogs and books since 1837.  This variety has a high pectin content and tastes like pineapple/vanilla.  This is a great one to try as your first variety.

The plant can be one to three feet tall and can spread.  It likes full sun and warm temperatures.  So don’t get too ambitious and plant outside too early.  Wait until the end of May to plant when frost has gone and the soil is warming up.  You can pick the fruit beginning in August and continue up to the end of September (zone 5 -6).  It will not completely die back until a hard frost hits.

Disease is not much of an issue with ground cherries.  As they are a relative of the tomatillos, they can be bothered by flea beetles or whitefly, but usually not enough to bother the harvest. Wait to eat once they have fallen to the ground and turn a lovely golden color. You can leave the fruits out to ripen even more for a few days; they only become sweeter.

 Warning:  leaves, stems and unripe fruit can be toxic if you eat too many. 

After you purchase your first package of seeds, you should be set.  Some sources are Johnny’s Seeds – http://www.johnnyseeds.com, rareseeds.com (Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds), territorialseeds.com, and seedsavers.org.  A few varieties to try and easy to find are Aunt Molly’s, Goldie, and Cossack Pineapple.  Bon Appétit.