Herbal Trees and Shrubs of the Plains and Prairies

By Katherine Schlosser

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

the colorful mixtures and combinations of flowering herbs 

are influenced by permutations of weather, grazing,

competition with grasses, and seed abundance.

                                                    ~David S. Costello                        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level. She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen de Conway Little Medal of Honor. She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.

Welcoming Spring in the Year 1400

By Zainab Pashaei

Haft-Sin tableI’m not talking about time travel. Nowruz—the equivalent of the New Year—was just celebrated on the spring equinox in Iran as well as in numerous other countries and among ethnic groups in the Middle East. In Iran, the first month of the year is called Farvardin, which began on March 20, 2021 (spring equinox). Although the year is specifically 1400 in Iran, Iranian traditions for Nowruz are thousands of years old and pre-date the emergence of Islam in the country. In contrast to Western nations, the importance of nature and spring plays a critical role in new year festivities of the nation. Many of these festivities are symbolic and involve herbs, nature, and light (fire).

JumpingDuring the festivities, which start on the Wednesday before the spring equinox, Iranians will gather and jump over fires and light fireworks in observance of Chaharshanbe Suri (loose translation = Wednesday celebration). It is like the pre-game show to the Nowruz celebration. Then Nowruz, the beginning of spring, is celebrated by gathering with family and friends, eating, and making a Haft-Sin table for display. The Haft-Sin table is very symbolic of what you hope for in the new year. Iranians will decoratively place seven items which begin with the letter ‘s’, or “sin” in Farsi. Depending on the preference of the person who arranges the Haft-Sin, you may also notice a book of wisdom, such as the Quran, the Bible, the Avesta, the Shahnameh, or the divān of Hafez. Almost always, the sprouts of wheat or lentils are placed on the table and tied with a ribbon symbolizing “sabzi” or greens. (Wheat, by the way, is one of the most important agricultural products of Iran and originated in ancient Mesopotamia.)

Persians_in_Holland_Celebrating_Sizdah_Bedar,_April_2011_-_Photo_by_Persian_Dutch_Network-PDNWhen the 13th day of Farvardin comes, Iranians celebrate Sizdah Bedar, which means “13 Outdoor” or commonly called “Nature’s Day.” Some say this is an unlucky day to stay inside, though it is unclear whether people believe it is unlucky due to Western influence or due to the history or traditions of Iran. Nevertheless, Iranians go outdoors to enjoy nature and picnic. The wheat or lentil sprouts are returned to nature or thrown out. Some young boys and girls pluck two strands of grass and tie a knot in hope of finding love.

Then Iranians will go above and beyond in cooking for this outdoor picnic. Kabobs and herb stew or herb soups are often prepared. If you ever sit down and eat with an Iranian, you can see how much they appreciate nature with the abundance of herbs in almost every dish. Herbs are symbolic of new life and beginnings! So cheers to new life and new beginnings to all those who are part of the herbal community!

Recipe for Ash Reshteh (Persian Noodle and Herb Soup)

Serves: 8 – 10  people

2 – 15 ounce cans of dark red kidney beans 

Ash Reshteh soup1 – 8 ounce cup of lentils

*4 ounces of Ash Sabzi dried herbs (a mixture of spinach, cilantro, parsley, leek, and mint)

*8 ounces of reshteh noodles (may substitute with Thai linguine rice noodles if Gluten Free)

2 bunches of fresh spinach

1 bunch cilantro (may substitute with green onions if cilantro averse)

1 bunch parsley

4 large onions

6 garlic cloves (may substitute with garlic powder if necessary)

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 tablespoon of ground turmeric

1 lime

Salt/pepper according to taste preference

*Optional Kashk (may substitute with full fat yogurt/sour cream)

Optional dried mint 

Optional French fried onions (Gluten Free versions do exist)

 *Can be found in Middle Eastern markets. Add more according to taste preference.

Directions:

Soak all dried herbs in equal parts water. Soak lentils in equal parts water. Drain both after half an hour to an hour. Wash fresh herbs and coarsely chop. 

Chop all onion and garlic and fry on medium-high heat in olive oil until golden and tender in a large stock pot. Once the garlic and onion are tender, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the fresh herbs with soaked dried herbs. Add the turmeric and a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper to the herbs. Then add enough water so that the herbs do not stick, and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. 

While this is simmering, boil the lentils until tender (this may take 15 – 20 minutes as well). Then drain/set aside. After 20 minutes have passed, you should be adding more water to fill the pot so that noodles and beans may cook and everything can freely move around inside the pot. Now, add the lentils and red kidney beans and simmer for about 5 – 10 minutes, then add the reshteh noodles and cook until tender. Remove from heat and squeeze one fresh lime and stir.

You know your ash reshteh is ready when there is some viscosity or thickness to the soup. If you have dried mint in your home, you may simmer a teaspoon or two and add for enhanced flavor or add more salt/pepper. Kashk is often mixed in with this dish (a few teaspoons will suffice). Kashk is like the curds from cooking yogurt so it has a strong taste. You can substitute this with full fat yogurt or sour cream. Topping the soup with French fried onions is also common, so indulge if you must!

Bon Appétit or as the Iranians say, Nooshe Jan!

Photo Credits: 1) Haft-Sin table decoration (Mariam Pashaei); 2)  Members of the Laki community in the Lorestan Province, Iran, playing a traditional game, Daal Palan (Kian Kakoolvand); 3) Persians in Holland celebrating Sizdah Bedar (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Ash Reshteh soup (Zainab Pashaei).


Zainab Pashaei Headshot NHG Rose GardenZainab Pashaei was the 2019 National Herb Garden Intern. She is a Washington, D.C., native and a proud at-home grower of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Zainab obtained her Bachelor’s of Science in Community Health at George Mason University. After graduating, she returned to school for graduate studies in Landscape Design at George Washington University. Zainab also worked with a floral design company in Fairfax, VA. In her free time, she continues to grow plants for food, health, and aesthetics.

Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

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.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.

Delectable Native Edibles

By Andrea DeLong-Amaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

smilax

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

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

oxalis

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

Spiderwort

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

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

Bon appetit!

References: 

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

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

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

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


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

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part II

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

“Plain vanilla is very much like that little black cocktail dress—always welcome, simply chic, so quietly dramatic.”

                —Lisa Yockelson, from Baking by Flavor

Vanilla in the Kitchen

P1110888Although I am a chocolate lover, I have always adored the fragrance of vanilla. More than once as a child, I tasted vanilla extract straight from the bottle—knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it—I just could not resist, because it always smelled so good.   

Back in my early adult years—and the beginning of my lifetime association with natural foods, herbs, and spices—I used vanilla beyond the kitchen. I found the aroma alluring, so why not use it like perfume? I would dab it behind my ears and on my pulse points. Occasionally, I would sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg on my hands and run them through my hair. Ah, the innocence of youth—here I thought I smelled exotic and delicious (vanilla is known as an aphrodisiac)—and most people probably thought I smelled like a cinnamon bun!

The fragrance of pure vanilla extract and the essential oil is at once exotic, tropical, warm, and sensual—a combination of flowery and resinous, with a slight hint of bitterness. Due to its enticing scent, one would think it tastes sweet and flowery, but that is not the case. We associate vanilla as being sweet because it is used in every type of confection and sweet food from cereals, buns, and cakes to cookies, ice creams, and, of course, chocolate. Some vanilla beans have that exotic flowery scent, while others smell like bitter chocolate, winey, or even slightly smoky. I think they taste fruity—rather raisin-like—sometimes flowery, smooth, and slightly sweet and resinous.

P1110219Vanilla is everywhere today—we seem to take it for granted—and it isn’t just plain old vanilla anymore. It partners with many other flavors—not just desserts—but drinks, soups, sauces, and rice dishes; with seafood, from lobster with vanilla butter to seafood salad; as a glaze for poultry and pork; in barbecue sauces and in condiments from vinaigrettes to mustard…even mashed potatoes! It makes chocolate seductive, and works well with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger—while subtly enhancing just about any baked good. It complements dairy products, coffee, and tea and brightens any fresh fruit bowl or cooked compote. Generally, vanilla highlights most foods without being too forward or overbearing.

Vanilla Products

Vanilla comes in many forms. Although vanilla pods are the source for pure vanilla extract, they aren’t commonly used by the home cook as often as the extract is used. The following list of vanilla products should help you know your beans better:

Whole Vanilla Beans 

The largest producers of Vanilla planifolia are Madagascar and Mexico, and they are renowned for growing and curing the world’s best beans. Tahitian vanilla beans, V. tahitensis, are known for their intense perfume, though they are said to be less flavorful. When purchasing whole beans, they should smell fragrant, should be a dark chocolate brown, and somewhat pliable rather than hard and dried. Store them in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place away from light, and they should last a few years. Do not freeze or refrigerate.

Pure Vanilla Extract

To extract the flavor from vanilla beans, alcohol must be used. It is usually done with a menstruum of alcohol and water (rather like making a tincture). An extract must be 35% alcohol—the label should read “Pure Vanilla Extract.” If it is less than this, it is considered a flavoring. Read your labels: imitation vanilla is often made from artificial vanillin rather than natural vanillin, which is usually synthetically made and is a by-product of the paper industry. Mexican vanilla extract can be very good if it is pure, but beware of inexpensive extracts; it should alert you to the fact that it is probably synthetic.

Vanilla Bean PasteVanilla bean paste

This thick brown paste is made from pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, water, and a natural thickener, gum tragacanth. The label states equivalents of 1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste equals 1 vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. It is sweeter than vanilla extract and much thicker but can be used anywhere you would use vanilla extract. I use it in all kinds of baked goods from muffins and cakes to cookies and bars. It elevates oatmeal to another level when combined with fresh sliced peaches or dried blueberries or cherries and maple syrup.

Pure Vanilla Powder

This fine-textured powder is made from vanilla bean extractives and maltodextrin and is alcohol-free; it can be used in place of vanilla extract. Upon tasting it, it is slightly sweet and leaves a residue on the tongue. It can be used for dry mixtures and liquid- or color-sensitive products. You can sprinkle it on fruit or in your coffee, tea, or cocoa. I have used it in whipping cream, buttercream, and angel food cake. 

Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla sugar has been made for centuries by placing a vanilla bean in sugar to give it a lovely vanilla perfume and flavor. Nowadays, vanilla sugar can be purchased commercially, but you can easily make your own. 

For those willing to venture out from the grocery store offerings, below are some easy-to-make vanilla staple recipes.

Vanilla Bean Syrup

When I was a kid my favorite snowball flavor was Egg Custard. I could never figure out why it was called that—it tasted like vanilla to me. This syrup reminds me of that egg custard flavor. In fact, try it over shaved ice for a snowball. It also makes an excellent vanilla bean soda when mixed with sparkling water or served over ice cream for a vanilla ice cream soda. Use it with coffee to make a vanilla latte or as a sweetener in your hot or iced tea. It can be used in fruit salads, or drizzled over baked goods warm from the oven, like pound cake, scones, breads, or muffins. My kids used to object to the aesthetics of the little black seeds—I rather like them— so if they bother you, strain the syrup through fine cheesecloth or muslin to remove them. This can be made with maple syrup instead of sugar; however, the maple flavor will dominate.

(Makes a little more than 2 cups)

1 cup organic sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 vanilla bean

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and cut it into thirds crosswise.  

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, add the vanilla bean pieces, and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and barely simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.  

Remove vanilla bean and reserve the pieces—they can be dried and used to make vanilla sugar. Pour the syrup into a bottle or jar and label. It will keep in the refrigerator for one month or can be frozen for about six months. 

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Most pure vanilla extract is about 35% alcohol and contains water, sugar, and vanilla bean extractives. It is pretty easy to make your own version. It won’t taste just like the commercial brands—it probably won’t be quite as intense in vanilla flavor, but I find it very satisfactory. Vodka will allow the most vanilla bean flavor to come through. However, I often make mine with brandy or rum because I like the flavor of them. Remember, you only use 1 to 2 teaspoons in a recipe, so a little goes a long way. Try experimenting to see what you like best.  

(Makes about 1 cup or an 8-ounce bottle, or halve the recipe for a smaller amount.)

P11101942 or 3 vanilla beans

8 ounces of vodka, rum, or brandy

Cut the vanilla beans in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put them into a clean, dark glass, 8-ounce bottle. (I save my old vanilla extract bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the alcohol into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. Place in a cool place out of direct light.  

The extract should be shaken once a day, at least for the first week. I do it whenever I go into the pantry and think about it. I usually uncap it and take a whiff—it is a form of kitchen aromatherapy for me, the wealth of the cook. You can use it after a week, but it is best after three or four weeks and gets better as it ages.

The longer it sits, the more intense the flavor. While commercial vanilla extract has the beans removed, I leave the beans in the bottle and as I use the extract, I top it off with more alcohol. Occasionally, I add another bean.

Vanilla Vinegar

Once you have this on hand, you will begin to use it in many dishes, and you will wonder why you never had it before. I use organic apple cider, umeboshi plum, rice wine, or white wine vinegar, which are naturally made and good tasting. Do not make this with distilled vinegar. I often make fresh fruited vanilla vinegars, with peach or raspberry being my favorites. (Add 1 whole, ripe peach, peeled and sliced, or 1-pint raspberries to the jar when combining the vinegar and vanilla bean, and let macerate for at least three to four weeks. Strain, if desired.) I use vanilla-flavored vinegar in small amounts in vinaigrettes, dressings, fruit and vegetable salads, and sauces. I particularly love what it does to Waldorf salad.

(Makes 1 pint)

1 pint good-quality vinegar, preferably organic

1 whole vanilla bean

Cut the vanilla bean in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put the pieces into a clean, 1-pint bottle. (I save used vinegar or soy sauce bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the vinegar into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. I leave the bottle on the kitchen counter for about two weeks and shake it every day, twice a day. You can use it after a week, but it is best after 3 or 4 weeks.  

The longer it sits, the better the flavor. As the vinegar gets used up, I top it off with a little more vinegar. I also add pieces of dried vanilla bean that I have already used.

Preparing Vanilla-Scented Sugar

Scented sugars can easily be made the same way that the Europeans have been making vanilla sugar for years. Placing a vanilla bean in a pint jar of sugar transforms the sugar into a pleasing, fragrant addition to beverages, cakes, cookies, custards, whipping cream, and all sorts of sweets. Sprinkle a little on fruit and toss it, or stir some into your tea or coffee cup. If you do a lot of baking, make this in larger quantities—say a quart or half-gallon jar— as you will find that you use it often.

(Makes 2 cups)vanilla-2519484_1920

About 2 cups organic sugar

1 vanilla bean, cut into 3 or 4 pieces

To prepare scented sugar, use a clean pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the jar about one-third full with sugar, and place one or two pieces of vanilla bean in the sugar. Cover the vanilla bean with additional sugar so that the jar is two-thirds full, add another piece or two, and cover with sugar to fill the jar, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. Shake the jar and place on a shelf in a cool, dark place.  

The sugar will be ready to use in two to three weeks and will become more flavorful with age. As the sugar is consumed, add more plain sugar to take its place and it will take on the fragrance in the jar. I also add dried pieces of vanilla beans that I have already used for another purpose.

Since vanilla beans contain moisture, the sugar will absorb some of it and perhaps cake together, or even harden. If this happens, just use firm pressure to crumble it with either your hands or the back of a wooden spoon.

Hot Vanilla Milk

Make this milk when you can’t sleep and cocoa might keep you awake, or for those rare individuals who don’t like the flavor of chocolate. You can use sugar to sweeten, but I really like the maple syrup best; go light on the sweetener as you hardly need any. If you don’t have vanilla bean paste, use a generous teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons sweetener, or add 2 tablespoons of Vanilla Syrup.

(Makes 1 cup, easily doubled)

1 cup milk (whole, 1 or 2 %, or oat or almond milk)

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

1 teaspoon pure maple syrup or organic sugar

In a small saucepan, bring the milk almost to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir in the vanilla bean paste and sweetener and blend until it is dissolved. If you are using extract, remove the warmed milk from the heat and add the extract and sweetener; stir to dissolve. 

Taste the milk—if you have a sweet tooth, you may want to add another teaspoon of sweetener. Pour the vanilla milk into a mug. Inhale the vanilla aroma before you take your first sip. Relax and enjoy. 

Vanilla Butter Cookies with Cacao Nibs

This is a simple butter cookie recipe (from not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes), though instead of using herbs, cacao bean nibs are added. They are further enhanced by using vanilla bean sugar as well as pure vanilla extract; the vanilla compliments the flavor of cacao. These cookies keep well in a tin for a week or two, and they also freeze well.

(Makes about 5 dozen cookies)

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softenedcocoa nibs

1 cup vanilla bean sugar

1 extra-large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cacao nibs

In the bowl of a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. When combined, beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Gradually mix in the flour and salt. Add cacao nibs and pulse just to combine. 

The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.      

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the plastic wrap, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets, and bake for about 10 minutes until the cookies are nice and brown.  Remove the cookies from the baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Author overlooking Costa Rican forest (S. Belsinger); 2) Vanilla products (S. Belsinger); 3) Vanilla bean paste (C. Moore); 4) Bundle of dried vanilla pods (S. Belsinger); 5) Vanilla bean sugar (Pixaby); 6) Cocoa nibs (C. Moore).

References/Resources

Here is a link to a BBC article about vanilla grown in other parts of the world—you’ll see why it is so expensive and actually how dangerous it can be to cultivate this valuable crop nowadays. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/madagascar_vanillla

Conversation with Matthew Day for assistance reconstructing vanilla bean harvesting and curing information in Costa Rica. 

Belsinger, Susan. 2005. not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes. Brookeville, Maryland: Herbspirit.

Gargiullo, Margaret, Magnuson, Barbara and Kimball, Larry. 2008. A Field Guide to Plants of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical Publications.

Laws, Bill. 2010. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books. 

Rain, Patricia. 2004. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. New York: Philip Lief Group, Inc.

https://www.vanillaqueen.com

https://www.rainforestspices.com/farm-tour/

https://www.rainforestspices.com/learn-about-vanilla/

http://www.srl.caltech.edu/personnel/krubal/rainforest/Edit560s6/www/plants/epiphytes.html


1-Susan BelsingerSusan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part I

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

Vanilla in the Rainforest

P1110204Before going to Costa Rica, I researched gardens, restaurants, herbs, spices, botanicals and the rainforest—places where I wanted to go, see, and experience. Once I visited Villa Vanilla’s website, https://www.rainforestspices.com/, I knew that I had to go there. I made reservations for the farm tour in advance. It was one of my favorite things in Costa Rica—I loved seeing the tropical spice plants up close and personal—and I got to smell and taste so many things, which was a memorable sensory experience! 

During the half day Spice Plantation Tour, visitors experience the sights, tastes, and aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and other tropical spices, essential oil plants, and a wide variety of tropical ornamental P1110256plants. The tour begins and ends at the post-harvest warehouse, where my eyes feasted on the spectacle of the ground covered with burlap sacks, which were spread with vanilla beans in various stages of fermentation and curing, and my nose filled with the delightfully overwhelming perfume of vanilla.

Vanilla is the main crop that is cultivated on this farm, with Ceylon cinnamon as a secondary crop. However, they also cultivate cacao, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, chiles, turmeric, cardamom, ginger (mostly ornamental), and a large number of epiphytes. 

On our tour, we sampled delicious treats made by the chef, who used the farm’s spices to titillate our taste buds. To cool off, we first had a glass of chilled hibiscus infusion while gazing out at the tropical paradise. The next sample was a lovely, smooth vanilla bean custard, not too sweet, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We were served a demitasse of hot chocolate flavored with a hint of cinnamon and chile accompanied by a crunchy, vanilla shortbread P1070032cookie speckled with cacao nibs. And the grand finale was a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh milk and cream from the farm’s own dairy cow. 

After visiting the Spice Shoppe, we walked back to the small warehouse where we were able to view different spices in various stages of drying. Our guide described and showed us some of the processes of harvesting and processing both vanilla and cacao pods, and we saw Ceylon cinnamon being barked. 

We learned about the process of the vanilla bean from harvest to cured, saleable bean. Once the plant has produced the green pods, they swell as they mature. When they are ready to harvest, they pull off easily from P1110195the stem. Green pods are placed in a large, clear plastic bag, which begins the fermentation process. Then they are laid outdoors in the sun every morning for four hours. Next, they are placed in insulated boxes while they are still warm from the sun and brought inside the warehouse for twenty hours. This is repeated every day for about three to four days. This process of sweating the beans in the sun makes a superior fermented end-product. (In other parts of the world, green beans are dropped in boiling water rather than curing in the sun.) After a week, the pods have turned brown, and they are removed from the plastic bags and spread out on burlap sacks. The four hours of sun/twenty hours in the dark process is continued for another three to four weeks until the pods have begun P1110187to shrivel and have lost about 80% of their original weight. Then they are left to cure—and this time varies among farmers—from nine months to two years. Villa Vanilla cures their beans for two years for best flavor and quality.

After curing, the beans are graded and separated according to size—there are about four sizes from thin to medium to large and extra-large. An extra-large bean is something to behold indeed! They are magnificent, thick and plump and slightly moist, bursting with the mouthwatering and intoxicating, inimitable scent of vanilla. 

Vanilla’s Aromatic Pedigree

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine that can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants—the orchids (Orchidaceae)—currently known to contain more than twenty-five thousand species and counting. Of all the orchids, the Vanilla genus is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop separate from the rare, hothouse exotic orchids cultivated and traded for their beautiful, colorful flowers. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal: a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

vanilla-flower-542019_1920The vanilla orchid’s flower is not showy; it has only a slight scent with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale-yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits we call “pods” or “beans,” just like extra-long green beans. Pollination in the wild is very iffy, so most growers hand pollinate to ensure a viable crop. This is very labor intensive and has to be done when the flower is just open, which is a very brief window of time–literally a few hours on a single day. Each pod contains tens of thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call “vanilla.” Drying, curing, and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes at least another nine months. Understandably, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world. 

P1070023There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large aromatic pods that can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico. At least two other species, V. pompona and V. tahitensis, also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable, and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the V. planifolia

Stay tuned for Vanilla Part II, including recipes from Susan, coming 8 March, 2021!

Photo Credits: 1) Villa Vanilla poster; 2) Drying vanilla beans on burlap sacks; 3) Vanilla custard; 4) Green, unripe vanilla pods; 5) Dried vanilla pods; 6) Vanilla flowers; 7) Vanilla vine. All photos courtesy of the author, except 6) (Pixaby).


1-Susan Belsinger

Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

HSA Webinar: Weird Herbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Get Warmed Up with “Fire Cider”

By Karen O’Brien

DSC06193At this time of year, people often investigate remedies for winter ailments, be it the flu, colds, or even just warming brews. Many herbalists make a version of a vinegar-based drink called “fire cider,”* guaranteed to warm you up and may just possibly help with warding off upper respiratory infections. I always have a batch brewing, as I don’t want to be caught without this when the winds blow and the winter descends.

Made with apple cider vinegar, this drink is sure to wake you up and wow your taste buds. DSC06194(Apple cider vinegar is made by adding yeast to apple juice, which breaks down the sugars into alcohol. Then, other bacteria are added to turn the alcohol into acetic acid. These bacteria are what’s referred to as the “mother.” Some brands of apple cider vinegar have had the “mother” filtered out for clarity; some brands retain it. The best kind of cider to use is one that has retained the “mother.”) I like it straight, but many add a spoonful of honey to “help the medicine go down.” You can add or subtract to the recipe as you see fit, or you can find many versions online. The typical ingredients are horseradish, garlic, onions, ginger, and hot pepper. I add turmeric to mine as I like the anti-inflammatory nature of that rhizome. Enjoy!

FIRE CIDER

DSC027331 large horseradish root, peeled

3 medium size fresh ginger rhizomes

5 – 6 fresh turmeric rhizomes

5 – 10 small hot peppers

2 small onions 

4 heads of garlic, peeled

Apple cider vinegar, enough to cover the ingredients, approximately 2 ½ quarts

Directions          

DSC01054Grate the horseradish in a food processor and place in a large bowl. Shred the turmeric, onions, garlic, ginger, and hot peppers and add to the bowl. Mix well. Place ingredients into two large (2-quart) canning jars and cover with apple cider vinegar. I used 2 1/2 quarts of vinegar with the “mother,” being sure I covered the shredded roots. If you don’t have the large jars, you can use any extra large wide-mouthed jar, or use several smaller ones. If using metal lids, be sure to place a layer of wax paper between the lid and jar, as vinegar will corrode the metal over time. Place in a dark place for 4-8 weeks, shake frequently, then strain and re-bottle. The strained fire cider will last several months in a cool place, but is best stored in the fridge. 

*There was a huge controversy in the herbal community some years ago when three herbalists were sued for marketing their own version of this herbal blend. A company had trademarked the term “fire cider” and went after these herbalists in order to protect their investment. After a long trial, it was determined that the words “fire cider” were, indeed, a generic term and could not be trademarked. See the following article on the herbalists’ fight in court: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/10/20/herbalists-defended-their-brew-court-they-won/r94hvWnBghLvdwsnw7W7JN/story.html

Further Reading: Gladstar, Rosemary. Fire Cider!: 101 Zesty Recipes for Health-Boosting Remedies Made with Apple Cider Vinegar. 2019. Storey Publishing, LLC.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author.

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 O’Brien is a Master Gardener and owner of  “The Green Woman’s Garden” (www.greenwomansgarden.com) in Richmond, New Hampshire. She lectures and presents workshops on all aspects of herbs and gardening. Karen is also the Northeast District Member Delegate for The Herb Society of America (HSA), was the Botany and Horticulture Chair of HSA, past Chair of The New England Unit of HSA, was past Secretary of the International Herb Association (IHA), and is Past President of the Greenleaf Garden Club of Milford, MA. She is the editor and contributing author to several Herb of the Year™ books, including Capsicum, Satureja, Artemisia, and Sambucus, produced by the IHA. Karen also writes a gardening column for the Richmond Rooster and is an alternate Agriculture Commission member for Richmond.

HSA Webinar: A History of Chocolate

By Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

20190613_150017Chocolate: food or medicine? For centuries, chocolate was consumed primarily as medicine. Cacao, from which chocolate is derived, was the basis for prescriptions promising relief from such ailments as anemia, alopecia, fever, gout, heart disease, kidney and liver disease, along with tuberculosis. Prescriptions from the 16th and 17th centuries would combine cacao with cinnamon, sugar, pepper, cloves, vanilla, and/or anise to ease common complaints. Certainly modern day amoxicillin could benefit from such a delicious concoction.  

It was only in the 19th century that chocolate became more of a food staple and less of a medicine. This was in part because of the expansion of where cacao could be grown. Cacao is a New World food, but the Portuguese brought the cacao tree to the African tropics. The development of machinery made it easier to separate cacao butter from the seeds, and so the making of chocolate became easier. As advances were made, chocolate became mainstream with Nestle, Godiva, La Maison du Chocolat, Fauchon, Lindt, Suchard, and Sprüngli elevating chocolate to a decadent treat. Today, it is consumed in all sorts of shapes and for different reasons: to soothe the day’s stress, to celebrate birthdays, or to show one’s love on Valentine’s Day. 

0004Join us on January 12th at 1pm EST when HSA’s guest speaker and author, Sarah Lohman, joins us for a “History of Chocolate.” During this program, we’ll uncover the history of chocolate, from its roots as an ancient Meso-American beverage to a contemporary melt-in-your-mouth chocolate bar. You’ll learn how a yellow, football-shaped tropical fruit transforms into high-end dark chocolate and what “Mexican Hot Chocolate” actually has in common with what Montezuma drank. We’ll cover botany, “Chocolate Wars,” and what makes Hershey’s distinctive flavor.

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

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) Box of chocolates (Chrissy Moore); 2) Author and speaker Sarah Lohman (Sarah Lohman).


Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian and the author of the bestselling book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. She focuses on the history of food as a way to access the stories of diverse Americans. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as on “All Things Considered.” Sarah has also presented across the country, from the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., to The Culinary Historians of Southern California. Her current project, Endangered Eating: Exploring America’s Vanishing Cuisine, will be released with W.W. Norton & Co. in 2021.

Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part II

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esLast week we looked at some of the beverages important to a Trinidad Christmas. Now let’s talk about some of the foods and the special ingredients needed to make them.

So what is on the menu in Trinidad for Christmas? Here is what Ann told me. “Dinner is ham, of course, pastelles, baked chicken, fried rice, pelau, callaloo, macaroni pie…and everybody makes homemade bread. And, of course, sorrel drink and ponché de crème. And you have to have black cake, of course….Everything is homemade, nobody buys anything.” 

Pastelles are the West Indian version of tamales and reflect the Mexican/Aztec heritage in the Caribbean. Making pastelles can be labor intensive, and according to Ann, many families make the work fun by turning it pastelles on leafinto a party and making large quantities assembly-line style. This is part of what makes them such a Christmas treat. Every island has their own version, and in Trinidad, it is traditionally cornmeal stuffed with beef, chicken, or pork (or a mixture) with olives, capers, and raisins and steamed in banana leaves. There are also versions made with fish or shrimp, and vegetarian versions made with soy products, lentils, or mushrooms. It is the flavorings that really make them special, and the usual additions include onion, garlic, tomato paste or ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Trinidad pimento peppers, and roucou.

Pimento peppers are ubiquitous in Trinidad cooking, but they are NOT the same pepper we call pimento here in the United States; they do not look or taste the same other than both being non-spicy. They are a completely Trinidad Pimento Peppers Seedwisemild Capsicum chinense (the species known for blazing hot peppers like habaneros) and are easily found in most Caribbean markets here in the U.S., as well as most backyards in Trinidad, according to Ann. The taste is described as the flavor of very hot peppers without any of the heat, and they are an essential ingredient in many dishes. This pepper seems relatively unknown outside of Caribbean circles, but you may find seeds marketed as Capsicum ‘Trinidad Pimento’ or ‘Trinidad Seasoning Pepper.’ 

Roucou (pronounced roo’-koo) refers to the fruit of Bixa orellano, a shrub or small tree native to Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America and is cultivated in many countries. It is more widely known by the common names annatto and achiote and is used as red/orange dye and food coloring and flavoring. The rou coucolor comes from the waxy coating that covers the seeds. In Trinidad, it is common to grow roucou in your yard. The spiky capsules are harvested when ripe, split open, and the seeds are removed. The seeds are placed in water, then soaked and agitated (wear gloves!) to release the coloring. The now vibrant red/orange liquid has salt added as a preservative, the seeds are strained out, and the liquid is refrigerated to use as needed. It is a common ingredient in many dishes in Trinidad and adds not only a beautiful color but a subtle unique flavor as well. Annatto powder may be substituted and is easily purchased online and at International markets.

Another dish commonly eaten at Christmas, and especially at New Year’s (which is called “All Years Night” in Trinidad), is the unofficial Trinidad national dish pelau (pronounced pay-lauor puh-lau’). Pelau is a hearty one-pot meal of chicken, rice, and pigeon peas flavored with onion, garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, and a delicious flavor concoction called green seasoning. 

What is green seasoning, you ask? If you looked inside many refrigerators in Trinidad, you would find a fresh batch of this green herbal magic. There is no set recipe, and it can be simply made with whichever ingredients are on hand. It can also be purchased bottled, but fresh is far superior. Ann says it generally includes garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, chives, cilantro, celery, green onions, thyme, chadon beni, and pudina.  

Eryngium foetidum1 20050729 CU 65949HChadon beni (pronounced “shadow benny”) is the common name for the leaves of Eryngium foetidum, a tropical perennial in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and known in the United States as culantro. Imported by French settlers, the name derives from “chardon béni,” which means “blessed thistle.” (It is not actually a thistle but looks a bit like one.) According to Ann, it grows like a weed everywhere in Trinidad and is easy to cultivate. The flavor is similar to cilantro but even stronger and more pungent. It is one of several herbs that are an essential component of the flavor of Trinidadian cuisine. The fresh leaves can usually be found in Caribbean markets.

Pudina is the local name for Plectranthus amboinicus (syn. Coleus amboinicus), a fleshy-leaved perennial in the mint family that is known by many common names: Mexican mint, SpanishPlectranthus amboinicus thyme, Indian borage, Cuban oregano, and many more. It is naturalized and cultivated widely in the tropics and as an herb. It has a strong oregano-like flavor.

For dessert, they have black cake, a dense, rich, and alcohol soaked fruitcake believed to have descended from British desserts such as plum pudding. It is quite different from American fruitcake. It is made with lots of butter, eggs, and rum, and is almost black in color due to the addition of “browning,” which is made by almost burning brown sugar syrup. Browning can be purchased, or in a pinch, molasses can be substituted. Black cake is one of those foods for which every family has their own closely guarded recipe with a slightly different ratio of spices and fruits. Most recipes I found online direct you to soak the dried fruits in alcohol for at least a few days or weeks. But according to Ann, it is an important tradition to soak them for an entire year! Just after Black CakeChristmas, you prepare the fruits and cover them in a jar with a blend of alcohols and leave it in a dark place for a year, shaking periodically. Spices are also essential to making the quintessential black cake, which typically include cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, and tonka bean. 

Tonka bean is the seed of Dipteryx odorata, a tropical tree in the pea family (Fabaceae) that has a complex and highly prized flavor said to remind one of a blend of vanilla, cherry, almond, cinnamon, caramel, and honey. Tonka beansBecause it contains coumarin, a chemical that is toxic in larger amounts, tonka bean has been banned as a food ingredient in the U.S. since 1953. It is now better understood that the concentration of coumarin in tonka bean is too low to cause illness without one consuming a nearly impossible quantity. However, the ban remains. 

So, now you can set your table with a feast including ham, pastelles, pelau, and black cake. And to drink you’ll have sorrel drink, ponche de crème, and ginger beer. The house is freshly painted and new curtains have been hung. Neighbors and family will be dropping by soon. Panang music will fill the air, and the rum will flow. Merry Christmas from Trinidad!

Ann AbdulRecipes

Recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential books on Trinidadian cuisine found in almost every home.

 

Pastelles

Makes approx. 24 

  • 2 lb. boneless beef, chicken or pork, diced 
  • 3-4 TBSP roucou liquid
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • ½ cup finely chopped chive
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • hot pepper to taste
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 TBSP vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ cup finely chopped pimentos
  • 3 TBSP capers
  • 2 TBSP stuffed olives, chopped
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 3 cups hot water
  • 2-3 TBSP vegetable oil or 2 oz. or 4 TBSP margarine
  • Soharee or banana leaves, cleaned, greased and cut in 7” or 8” squares

(If using banana leaves, scald until soft and pliable.)

Directions

  1. In a bowl, mix meat with onion, chive, and thyme, garlic, hot pepper, black pepper, and 1 tsp salt.
  2. Heat oil in skillet and add roucou liquid and beef mixture and fry until tender; cool and mince.
  3. Return beef to skillet and add ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, pimentos, capers, olives, and raisins.
  4. Cook for 2-3 minutes more and adjust salt and pepper; leave to cool.
  5. Combine cornmeal, water, oil, and 1 tsp salt; stir until mixture sticks together.
  6. Take heaped tablespoons of cornmeal and form balls (approx. 1½” in diameter).
  7. Place a ball of cornmeal on a piece of leaf, cover with a piece of plastic wrap and roll or press to desired size approx. 6” square. Remove the plastic. 
  8. Place a heaped tablespoon of meat mixture along one side of cornmeal and fold leaf in half, then fold edges of leaf over to seal.
  9. Place a few pastelles in steamer or colander, and steam for about 20-25 minutes.

Pelau 

Serves 8-10

  • 3 lbs. chicken pieces, skinned
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 TBSP mixed green seasoning (or as much as half a cup! Depends on your taste. Ann says more is better.)
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 TBSP ketchup
  • 2 TBSP vegetable oil
  • 2-3 TBSP brown sugar
  • 2 cups parboiled rice
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • ½ cup chopped pimento peppers (any mild pepper can be substituted)
  • 1½ cups cooked pigeon peas
  • 1 TBSP salt
  • 1 whole hot pepper with the stem
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 cups chicken broth or water

Directions

  1. Season chicken with salt, pepper, green seasoning, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
  2. Heat oil in large heavy iron pot or skillet.
  3. Add sugar and allow to burn until brown
  4. Add seasoned chicken, and stir until pieces are well coated with burnt sugar; brown for 5 minutes.
  5. Add rice, and turn often until well mixed. Cook for 3 minutes more.
  6. Add onion, sweet peppers, and peas, and cook for a few minutes, stirring a few times.
  7. Add salt, hot pepper, coconut milk, and broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer until rice is cooked and all liquid is evaporated (about 25-30 minutes).
  8. Add more liquid if rice is still hard and continue to cook for a few more minutes.

Notes: Pelau could also be baked in the oven. Cover pot with lid or foil and bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes. 

Green Seasoning (recipe adapted from https://healthiersteps.com)

  • 1 bunch chadon beni leaves (can substitute cilantro)
  • ½ bunch parsley
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 3 green onions/scallions
  • Small bunch of chives
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 small onion
  • 1” piece fresh ginger
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 3 sprigs pudina (optional, can be found at Caribbean markets)
  • 5 Trinidad pimento peppers (or other mild peppers such as ‘Aji Dulce’, banana, or Cubanelle)

Directions

  1. Roughly chop up all ingredients and add to a food processor.
  2. Process until the mixture looks pureed like baby food, scraping down sides as necessary.
  3. Store in the refrigerator. Use about 2 TBSP of green seasoning per recipe. 

You can also prepare in large batches and freeze in ice cube trays and store cubes in freezer bags. These quantities are merely suggestions. Most people develop their own recipe with their own preferred ratio of ingredients based on personal preference. 

Trinidad Black Cake (Christmas Cake)

Serves 36 (or three cakes)

  • 1 lb. prunes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 lb. raisins
  • 1 lb. currants
  • 1 lb. sultanas
  • ¼ lb. candied mixed citrus peel (e.g., lemon, orange)
  • ½ lb. cherries, chopped in half
  • ¼ lb. chopped almonds
  • 1½ cups cherry brandy
  • 2 cups rum
  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar  
  • 10 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. grated lime peel
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup browning (darkly caramelized sugar)
  • 3 cups mixture of rum, cherry brandy, and sherry, 1 cup for each cake

Directions

  1. A few days, or up to one year, before baking the cake, combine prunes, raisins, currants, sultanas, mixed candied peel, cherries, almonds, cherry brandy, and rum in a jar or other suitable glass container. Cover, and leave in a dark place to meld flavors, shaking the container occasionally, until ready to use.
  2. Line three 8” round cake pans with double layers of wax or parchment paper.
  3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Beat in eggs one at a time; add lime peel and vanilla.
  5. Combine flour, baking powder, and cinnamon; fold into creamed mixture gradually.
  6. Drain soaked fruit and add to mixture. Add enough browning to give desired color; stir well.
  7. Put in lined baking pans ¾ full and bake in a preheated oven at 250 F for one hour; reduce heat to 200 F – 225 F for the remaining 1½ hrs or until tester comes out clean.
  8. Prick hot cakes, and soak each with the mixture of rum, brandy, and sherry.

As alcohol soaks in, pour more and continue to do so for 12 hours.

Photo Credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Pastelles (Wikipedia); 3) Pimento peppers (Capsicum chinense) (seedwise.com); 4) Roucou (Bixa orellano) (Wikipedia); 5) Chadon beni (Eryngium foetidum) (National Herb Garden); 6) Pudina (Plectranthus amboinicus) (National Herb Garden); 7) Black cake (dishmaps.com); 8) Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) (Wikipedia); 9) Ann Abdul (Ann Abdul).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.