Mastic: Something Herbal to Chew On

By Chrissy Moore

George Arisitidou from Great British Bake-offI fully admit to living under a rock. Many a friend and coworker has informed me of this character “trait.” Because I am not so worldly as others, I learn things by more circuitous routes. For example, my latest herbal discovery resulted from watching a recent episode of The Great British Bake Off. George, one of the bakers, remarked that he was including mastic in his bake. Of course, Paul Hollywood, one of the show’s hosts, commented with raised eyebrow, “A little mastic goes a long way.” George returned fire, stating, “You can never have too much mastic!” Clearly, mastic was near and dear to this Greek baker’s heart.

Unless you’re familiar with Greek cuisine or custom, as I am not, you may not have come across mastic–also known as Chios mastiha–in your comings and goings. But, if you are anything like me, you’d immediately start rooting around for information about this herbal ingredient, like a squirrel for a nut. I’ll save you some digging.

Map of Pistacia lentiscus native rangeMastic is a resin extracted from Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia L. (Chios mastictree, mastic), which is a member of the Anacardiaceae family (GRIN-Global; Browicz, 1987). (Cashew, Anacardium occidentale L., and pistachio, Pistacia vera L., are also members of this family.) This small shrubby tree is native to numerous countries around the Mediterranean, from southern Europe to northern Africa to western Asia (Sturtevant, 1919), but it is most notably—and historically—linked to the Greek island of Chios in the northern Aegean Sea, about nine miles west (the way a crow flies) of the Turkish Çeşme peninsula.

Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, Syros

Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros

It’s so linked to this island, in fact, that the island is referred to as the “mastic island,” since it has been the world’s largest producer of mastic resin for many years (Groom, 1992). “The production of mastic currently amounts to 160—170 tons per annum and plays an important role in the economy of the island Mastic harvesting preparationconstituting the main source of income for approximately twenty villages in the south of Chios” (Browicz, 1987). The trees reach their full height after 40 – 50 years, but harvesting reaches its full potential after 12 – 15 years (FAO, 2021). Similar to frankincense (Boswellia spp.) and myrrh (Commiphora spp.), the mastic harvester nicks the tree bark to produce “tears,” or droplets, of resin, which then harden and are scraped off. These hardened blobs of resin are gathered and taken for processing (masticlife.com).

The resin undergoes some in-house cleaning and processing before it is given to the cooperative, Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA), for grading. Afterward, the graded mastic gum is shipped to and processed by the Union of Mastic Producers, who grinds it into a powder (FAO, 2021). The powdered form can then be incorporated into various foodstuffs, medicinal products (Varro et al., 1988), or left whole for chewing. Mastic is considered an early form of chewing gum, particularly for freshening the breath (Schery, 1972; Simpson and Ogorzaly, 2001; Sturtevant, 1919; Tyler et al., 1988). Currently, the largest importer of Chios mastic is Saudi Arabia, where chewing gum companies have incorporated the tree resin into numerous candy and confectionery products, particularly those of the dietetic variety (Batook, 2021; FAO, 2021).

Greek plants: Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, SyrosIf you haven’t picked up on the etymological relationship by now, translated from the Greek, mastic means “to gnash the teeth,” or in modern parlance, to chew or masticate…an appropriate term for the gummy treasure. Spurred on by the mention of it on The Great British Bake Off, I was on the hunt for this chewy, new-to-me herb. Fortunately, we have a husband-and-wife team of volunteers in the National Herb Garden, who just happened to live in Greece for a number of years. What better resource than these two to probe for information—outside of knowing a native of Chios, of course.

Bottles of mastika and ouzoThey confirmed that mastic was, indeed, a ubiquitous flavoring in parts of Greece, including its use in mastika, a sweet liquor flavored with the resin (something else I had never heard of before) and ouzo, another Greek spirit. They said that you can find mastic gum and Turkish delight-esque candies all over Chios (well, in Greece, generally, and also in surrounding areas), as well as in well-appointed Mediterranean markets, even in the United States. I asked them what it tastes like, and they both hemmed and hawed trying to find the right words to describe its unique flavor. I immediately assumed it would be “pine-y” or “camphor-y” or something of the sort, since it is a tree resin, after all, but they both still hemmed seeming to suggest that it wasn’t exactly that strong. 

Well, what then? What does it taste like? The only remedy for this inquisition was for them to seek out a market near where they live outside of Washington, DC, that might carry some sort of mastic-containing products. And they delivered! The following week, I was handed not just mastic chewing gum, but also mastic jellied candy. The candy was passed around amongst our volunteer group, and those adventurous enough to try plucked out a confectioner’s sugar-covered cube and commenced to masticate.

Mastic jellied candyThey were right: not exactly pine-y, but not exactly anything else either. I moved the candy around in my mouth trying to find words to describe it. Yes, it certainly had resinous, “pine-y” kinds of notes, but it also had a bit of a flowery essence to it. It was certainly unlike what I was expecting. Not nearly as strong as I thought it would be, but also not without character.

Not being particularly chef-y (I’m more of the baking sort), I’ve been trying to imagine what it would taste like in cooked or baked goods. Given that mastic rides that pine-y line, a heavy-handed cook might well overdo it. (Paul Hollywood was not without legitimate concern.) It’s a bit like using rose or lavender in food preparations: too much, and it can veer dangerously close to soap territory. But, used in moderation, it could pair nicely with other herbs/flavors. If you try it, let me know how it turns out!

Picture of Fahrenheit pefumeSpeaking of other herbal uses, mastic is also found in perfumes, personal hygiene products, and medicines. The resin has been used for centuries as a component of incense, particularly for the production of “moscholivano, [which] is a solid essence that, when burned, releases a pleasant odour” (FAO, 2021) and as an ingredient in chrism, the anointing oil used in the Eastern Orthodox Church (and others). In The Perfume Book, Groom says, “In early times the gum was used in pomanders and the oil was used to absorb other plant fragrances in the process of enfleurage. In modern perfumery, the extracted oil is used as a fixative in various perfume compounds; it appears, for example, in ‘Fahrenheit’.” According to Verrill, the resin is used as “a fixative for honeysuckle, lavender, sweet pea, mimosa, and other perfumes” (1940).

Medicinally, mastic has taken on a number of roles over the centuries. In early Greek history, mastic was considered a cure-all in traditional Greek medicine, “relieving the diverse gastrointestinal disorders, such as abdominal pain, dyspepsia, gastritis and peptic ulcer for more than 2.500 [sic] years. More precisely, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galenos, among other Ancient Greek physicians, cited its properties and recommended its use” (CGMGA, 2021). A lengthy paper published by the Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association states,

Toothpastes containing mastic

Toothpaste containing mastic

“Nowadays, it is used as a seasoning in Mediterranean cuisine, in the production of chewing gum, in perfumery, in dentistry, and for the relief of epigastric pain and protection against peptic ulcer. It is of vital importance to mention that solid scientific evidence is constantly being produced regarding the therapeutic activity of Chios Mastiha. Its gastro-intestinal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, and anticancer activity, as well as its beneficial effects in oral hygiene and in skin care are firmly documented…. Mastiha is considered now as a traditional medicine for both stomach disorders and skin/wounds [sic] inflammations” (2019). In the Greek City Times, 12 December 2021, the authors note that studies of mastic’s wide-ranging health benefits are ongoing, merely echoing, perhaps, what thousands of Chios natives have known for centuries. (Some of us are a little slow on the uptake!)

Picture of megilp varnishIf you thought this story was over…not so fast. Mastic has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Mastic is used as a component of dental fillings, in dentifrices, and mouthwashes, helping to knock down pesky bacteria in the mouth. It should also be noted that “thanks to its quality as a colour stabilizer, mastiha is used for the production of high-grade varnishes” (CGMGA), such as those used in oil painting (megilp), and as a protective coating on photographic negatives. Rosin, a by-product of gum mastic’s distillation process, is used in myriad industries as well.

To put an exclamation mark at the end of this herbal story, mastic is certainly not a one-trick pony. On the contrary, I think Paul Hollywood was wrong and George was right: “You can never have too much mastic!” Something to chew on.

Photo Credits: 1) Baker George Arisitidou from Great British Bake Off (radiotimes.com); 2) Nativity map of Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Botanical Museum, Helsinki, Finland); 3) Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros (John Winder); 4) Mastic harvesting preparation (masticlife.com); 5) Mastic resin “tears” (Creative Commons–Ailinaleixo) and mastic resin (Creative Commons–פארוק); 6) Pistacia lentiscus leaves and fruit (John Winder); 7) Bottles of mastika and ouzo (Public Domain); 8) Mastic candy and chewing gum (C. Moore); 9) Mastic jellied candy (C. Moore); 10) Fahrenheit perfume (Public Domain); 11) Mastic toothpaste (ANEMOS); 12) Megilp containing mastic (Public Domain).

References

Batook, Incorporated. 2021. http://www.batook.com/about/. Accessed 16 December 2021.

Browicz, Kazimierz. 1987. Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Anacardiaceae) on Chios Island.
Plant systematics and evolution, Vol. 155, No. 1/4, pp. 189-195. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23673827. Accessed 16 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). https://www.gummastic.gr/en#gkContent. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). 2019. Overview of the major scientific publications on the beneficial activity of Chios mastiha. https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.gummastic.gr//images/brochures/en/Scientific_References_2019_en.pdf. Accessed 15 December 2021.

Greek City Times. https://greekcitytimes.com/2021/12/10/mastic-tree-resin-is-one-of-greeces-most-valuable-products/. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The University of Arizona Arboretum. https://apps.cals.arizona.edu/arboretum/taxon.aspx?id=216. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Forest resource utilisation and management in the Mediterranean. https://www.fao.org/3/x5593e/x5593e03.htm. Accessed 15 December 2021.

GRIN-Global Database. https://npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/taxon/taxonomydetail?id=28647. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Groom, Nigel. 1992. The perfume handbook, p. 142. London: Chapman & Hall.

“Mastic: Cultivation and Processing.” masticlife.com. https://masticlife.com/pages/mastic-cultivation-harvest-production. Accessed 4 January 2022.

Schery, Robert W. 1972. Pectins, gums, resins, oleoresins, and similar exudates, p. 244. In: Plants for man. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Simpson, Beryl B., Molly C. Ogorzaly. 2001. Hydrogels, elastic latexes, and resins, p. 259. In: Economic botany: plants in our world, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sturtevant, Edward. 1919. Sturtevant’s notes on edible plants, p. 440. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, State Printers.

Verrill, A. Hyatt. 1940. Perfumes and spices including an account of soaps and cosmetics, p. 259. Clinton, Mass.: L.C. Page and Company.

Tyler, Varro E., Lynn R. Brady, and James E. Robbers. 1988. Resins and resin combinations, p. 143. In: Pharmacognosy, 9th Edition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lea & Febiger.

Uphof, J.C. Th. 1968. Dictionary of economic plants, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Lubrecht & Cramer Ltd.

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.


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

Ring Ye Solstice Bells: Reflections on the Longest Night of the Year

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

A1576943-59AB-44B3-9200-12D5BB70C619I was sitting here at my desk trying to think of what I could say about the Winter Solstice that I have never said before. Then I started to think about the last two years. As the COVID virus forces us, once again, to reconsider the way that we celebrate with each other, I am reminded that taking the time needed to reflect with joy and gratitude that I am still alive, as are my loved ones, is what must take center stage.

As I look back, though, the overwhelming feeling that I have is gratitude. Gratitude that I’m alive. Grateful to have those I love around my table or at least still with us. Grateful to be able to still live our lives, love and laugh together. Living alongside this joy is the stark reality of the last year, and walking hand in hand with me is the grief that so many I love are living with empty chairs and tears this December.  

Untitled (Facebook Post)I always laugh and say when I am asked, that celebrating the Winter Solstice has always been how two Jewish women who absolutely love Christmas find their own place within those traditions. Normally, my sister and I have a huge party on Solstice eve in her beautiful log cabin that was once a maple sugar house. We decorate like mad, fill up the house with herb wreaths, holly boughs, evergreens, and beautifully scented Christmas potpourri—a special gift from my dear friend, Kathleen. 

We take turns blessing the remnants of the previous year’s Yule log, making our wishes for the coming months before we use it to light the new fire. We have all of our friends over for a beautiful feast, the table laden with bayberry candles, wonderful holiday foods, and a groaning board of homemade desserts.

There’s always a copper kettle filled with steaming mulled wine redolent with roasted warming spices or cocoa, and a pot full of “Lamb’s Wool,” my favorite of the ancient punches (see recipe below). This is always rounded off by a huge punch bowl of eggnog and another of icy bourbon milk punch. Eighty-plus people usually join us, and it gets loud and lively. For close to 20 years, this party has always been the high point of my holiday season, but for obvious reasons, it just cannot take place this year.

I have found myself wondering for weeks now how to keep this tradition that I love so much, and then a little voice in my head whispered simply, “You have to be willing to let go of the old to make room for the beautiful and new….Why don’t you just begin at the beginning?”

Suddenly, I realized what had been in front of me all along, what I couldn’t see because I was longing for what had been. I needed to acknowledge where the past year has brought me, and so I began to ponder the traditional origins of the Winter Solstice celebration.

Photo ofTraditionally, the Solstice has always been one of the quietest nights of the year, and indeed, the longest night of the year. The months and weeks leading up to the Solstice were full of great intention and action for the harvest must be brought in; the onions and garlic braided; fruits, vegetables, and herbs dried; and the animals slaughtered for meat, along with the beef tallow needed for cooking, soapmaking, candles, and salves. The milk from goats, sheep, and cows needed to be turned into cheese that would last through the winter. The honey and beeswax from the hives needed to be harvested and turned into candles. The fields had to be put to bed in preparation for the following spring, and only then could thoughts turn towards celebration. 

Some years, the people weren’t so lucky. There were wars and famines. Hives failed. Animals meant for food starved, and their milk dried up. The abundance of food, warmth, and light that we take for granted just did not exist even 100 years ago, and more often than not, there would be a sense of foreboding, and there would be many challenges, including the challenge of disease without many options to fight it.

So much is so readily available to us that we have mostly forgotten what it means to live within our own world, to live with each other and to be self-reliant. As I thought about this, I realized quite suddenly that we are perhaps closer to understanding how our forebears must have felt than ever before. Having the days grow longer and lighter must have seemed like such a miracle to them. Finding ways to fight the virulence of diseases and the pests that ravaged their farms and families must have filled them with such hope.

Finding ways to make sense of what was happening in the natural world, using traditional skills and new discoveries must have seemed like real magic to them, and the silver lining of the last year is that, in many ways, we are watching the same phenomenon unfolding right now, in real time.

21C369CA-169A-4728-AE00-A7B200EFFAD3Those of us who are herbalists, cooks, and gardeners know very well what I am saying. After all, in 2020 could you find a new Ball jar for canning in any store? I couldn’t! There was no garden soil anywhere, and mulch was sold out. Seeds were sold out by the end of January. Yeast for baking was nowhere to be found. Elderberry, echinacea, and goldenseal products were sold off of shelves as quickly as they appeared, with many stores putting limits on what could be purchased.

Very quickly, I realized that what I’d always taken for granted simply wasn’t there. I have to admit to not feeling frustrated, but instead finding it oddly thrilling.

So many people learning so many new skills. A walk around my neighborhood would make me smile. Vegetable and herb gardens were being put in everywhere, and so were fruit trees.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was talking about survival, honeybees, and sustainability.

I called my Herb Society of America friends, and we shared mason jars and seeds. We shared cuttings and bags of soil. That summer, I began to harvest, forage, and preserve with an energy I’d never had before. I was actually shocked and very proud when my husband announced to me that I’d filled the freezers with soups, stews, and sauces, and that there was no room left for anything else.

IMG_4271-1Coincidentally, with this blossoming awareness, the talks that I gave as Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society began to focus on gardening, foraging, harvesting, and preserving, as well as maintaining soil health organically. Suddenly, everyone wanted to ask me about companion planting, foraging for native foods, native plants, and pollinators. My inbox is always filled these days asking me for suggestions for learning about herbs and foods that are believed to help support immunity. I get asked so many questions now about eating seasonally.

What I realized, and am realizing still as I write, is that the last hard years have brought us home, and in so many ways we are perhaps the better for it. This year for the Winter Solstice, Jim and I will have a bonfire outside with a special Yule log, a few of our neighbors, and we’ll drink mulled wine, milk punch, and Lamb’s Wool!

We’ll feast on traditional dishes of dried fruit and melted cheese, roasted pork with sweet potatoes and kale from our garden, really good gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, rosemary and lavender shortbread, honey‐sweetened pears from our own trees, and rum‐soaked fruitcake. Instead of bright lights, I’ll have candles lit all over the porch and fresh greens everywhere. We’ll all share what we are thankful for and we’ll grieve our losses, celebrate the joy and honor the fear that is still present for so many of us. We’ll keep it simple, full of gratitude and the joy of just being together, and maybe we’ll sing some of the old English carols. I’ll wassail my fruit trees with the leftover cider in hopes of a plentiful harvest next year.  We’ll walk in the woods and listen for owls at midnight, the traditional harbingers of luck on Solstice eve, and then we’ll await the sunrise.

F0EAF7D3-AB1A-4B9F-B2C7-3EF94E51D015Suddenly, people like us (and if you’re reading this, that’s you!) are madly in style. Many of us have a special calling in this new world to teach all that we know about the herbs and plants we love. We have a unique opportunity to build a bigger table, to share our knowledge generously in these challenging circumstances. Our horticultural skills can help feed the hungry, support the healing we all need and crave, and simply make this world a lovelier, greener place.

During this season of light, on this wintry Solstice night, please remember to be generous with yourselves.

 

“May you find your peace in the promise of the long Solstice night….”

Lamb’s Wool Recipe for Solstice

Lamb’s Wool is a truly wonderful ancient drink made from a delicious blend of baked apples, mulling spices, cider, and dark ale slowly simmered until the apples are “woolly!”

  • The first thing that you’ll need to do is bake a plate of apples! Simply core four or five small apples and fill the insides with raisins, slivered almonds, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spices, amaretto, and butter. If the ingredients spill all over the apples, even better. Bake them until soft and caramelized.  In a pinch you can use cinnamon applesauce, and it will taste very good, but I like the baked and buttered apples better! 
  • Next, pour a gallon of good cider into a pot, and add 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar, several cracked cinnamon sticks, 1/2 teaspoon of whole cloves, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and a teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, and add the apples and all of their juices. Let them simmer for a bit or until the apples explode and get all “woolly.” Trust me, you’ll know what I mean by that!
  • Then bring down the heat a bit, and add one bottle of very good dark ale and half of a bottle of red wine (something you like the taste of and not too cheap). Simmer for another minute, and then add one stick of organic salted butter. When the butter has melted, give the whole thing a good stir, and then taste. Adjust the seasonings and the sugar, and then add a couple of cups of rum. You’ll have to taste as you go, but that’s the only way to get it the way you want it! I love to use Myers Dark Rum because it is so rich, dark and as sweet as the molasses it’s made from.  

Photo Credits: 1) Fireplace and solstice fire at author’s sister’s house; 2) Barn in the snow (Canva print); 3) Author’s friend, Kathleen’s, homemade dried herb Christmas potpourri and bunch of holly on author’s porch; 4) Author’s homemade eggnog; 5) View of author’s raised bed garden from porch; 6) Author’s yard, kept as a pollinator mead; 7) Chestnuts that author roasted with rosemary and butter over a fire. (All photos courtesy of the author except #2.)

 


Beth Schreibman-Gehring is the Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society, a unit of The Herb Society of America. She is also a member of Les Dames de Escoffier International (Cleveland), The Herb Society of the United Kingdom, The International Herb Association, The Herb Society of America, and Herbalists without Borders. Her book, Stirring the Senses! Creating Magical Environments & Feasts for All Seasons, can be found on Amazon.

Cloves – A Holiday Spice and Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

Cloves drying on Pemba IslandThe History

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

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

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

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

Culinary

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

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

Medicinal Uses

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

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

Model ship made of clovesArtistic Use of Cloves

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

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

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

Photo Credits: 1) Clove botanical print (public domain); 2) Clove flowers and leaves (public domain); 3) Cloves drying in the sun on Pemba Island (Creative Commons, Pemba.mpimaji); 4) Clove tree (Creative Commons, Midori); 5) Clove cigarettes (Creative Commons, Meequo); 6) Dried clove buds (Creative Commons, David Monniaux); 7) Clove ship (Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures).

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Unique View of an Esteemed Native Plant: Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal)

By Katherine Schlosser

“I may here observe, that the disease of cancer is not confined to civilized nations. It is known among our Indians. I am informed that the Cheerake cure it with a plant which is thought to be the Hydrastis Canadensis, one of our fine native dies [dyes].”

                                                                   – Benjamin Smith Barton, 1766-1815

Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, has been known for centuries for its medicinal uses ranging from a gastrointestinal aid, stimulant, tonic, emetic, and febrifuge, to helping with ear and eye complaints, heart problems, liver issues, pulmonary complaints, and more.  

Europeans learned of goldenseal’s value as a medicinal plant not long after arriving in North America. The initial knowledge of its use is often credited to the Cherokee people, but as their territory is far from where the first colonists landed, it seems likely that the Europeans first learned of goldenseal from more northern tribes. Word of mouth and trading between Mid-Atlantic tribes, such as the Cherokee and Eastern North Carolina tribes, and those in New England likely resulted in widespread knowledge of goldenseal’s uses.

USDA map of Hydrastis canadensis native rangeAs the Abenake, Algonquin, Menominee, Mohegan, Narragansett, Wampanoag, and others had local access to goldenseal, it could be that they, too, had learned about the usefulness of the plant. In whatever manner the knowledge was spread, colonists soon learned to treat it as a valuable product and began harvesting the plant for personal use and for trading. Consequently, centuries of wild collecting and habitat loss have put it at risk. Goldenseal is considered endangered, threatened, or of special concern in all 27 states in the United States that have native populations.

A rather curious fact about goldenseal is that, for as long as it has been known to have a great many medicinal uses, little scientific research has validated those uses. In fact, depending on dosage and how long it’s used, it can be harmful. Still, it is collected, bottled, and sold as effective for many of the same complaints mentioned above. It is strongly recommended that one consult a medical doctor prior to using products produced from this plant.

King Solomon's seal Star of DavidThere is another interesting story connected to goldenseal, and that is the use of the term “seal” in the common name. From about 932 – 970 BCE, King Solomon, son of King David, ruled the United Kingdom of Israel. He was a wealthy and wise man for whom many amulets and medallion seals were created. Held in great esteem over the centuries, King Solomon is remembered today in the common names of several plants including Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum), evergreen Solomon’s seal (Disporopsis pernyi, native to high altitude forests in China), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Seals were designed, in part, to verify that a document was, in fact, from King Solomon, much as we are required to verify signatures on legal documents today. A design attributed to one of Solomon’s seals was fitted to a gold ring and bore what, many years later, became the Star of David.

Drawing of cut end of Hydrastis canadensis showing "seal"What Solomon’s seal has to do with Hydrastis canadensis, the plant recently identified as The Herb Society of America’s Notable Native Herb of the Year 2022, requires research and a healthy dose of imagination. The secret is in the woody rhizomes of these plants. The plants die back in winter, and as spring arrives, one or more new shoots emerge from the rhizome. If you carefully dig up the rhizome, brush away the dirt, and slice off a section, you will see what could be called an image of King Solomon’s Seal at the site of the cut.

You can, then, replant a section of the rhizome, though it will take from 3 – 5 years for it to grow to maturity. Plant rhizome roots about 1” deep, horizontally, spreading out tiny roots and with a bud pointing upward. If there is no bud, the rhizome will grow one, which may add a little time to maturity. The bud should be just below the surface of the soil. Add some mulch (hardwood) and see that the plant gets at least a few hours of sun a day, but mostly shade. 

Hydrastis canadensis botanical printOther common names for Hydrastis canadensis include yellow or orange root, yellow puccoon, Indian paint, jaundice root, Ohio curcuma, Indian dye, eye balm, and yellow eye. If you pull up a plant, you will immediately see the reason for the common name—the slim roots growing from the rhizome are bright yellow, as is the inside of the rhizome. 

Polygonatum and Maianthemum species (Solomon’s seal), are better known for the appearance of a seal on their rhizomes. However, the “seal” appears at the site of bud scars from the previous year’s growth.

Anytime we begin to explore our native herbs, we learn a lot of history, science, botany, and legend, making the study of herbs an almost endlessly entertaining pursuit.

To learn more about goldenseal, you can download a copy of the Fact Sheet for Hydrastis canadensis at

https://www.herbsociety.org/explore/notable-native-herbsprofiles.html 

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

Photo Credits: 1) Goldenseal, showing the coloring of roots and rhizome (Charles F. Millspaugh, M.D.); 2) Distribution of Hydrastis canadensis across the United States with populations shaded in green (USDA Plants Database); 3) Hydrastis canadensis spring bloom and maturing fruit (K. Schlosser); 4) Seal of King Solomon from a Talismanic scroll at The Metropolitan of Art in New York City (Public Domain); 5) Hydrastis canadensis rhizome cut across the point of previous year’s growth (David M.R. Culbreth); 6) Solomon’s seal rhizome showing past year’s growth scar (Creative Commons, Sid Vogelpohl, Arkansas Native Plant Society).

References

Culbreth, David M.R. (1917).  Manual of materia medica and pharmacology, Lea Brothers & Co. 6th Edition.  Fig. 115.  Available online https://chestofbooks.com/health/materia-medica-drugs/Manual-Pharmacology/Hydrastis.html  Accessed September 12, 2021.

Millspaugh, Charles F. M.D. (1887).  American medicinal plants: an illustrated and descriptive guideBoericke & Tafel, New York and Philadelphia.  Pages 9 to 9-3.  Available online: Biodiversity Heritage Library:  https://ia600203.us.archive.org/15/items/americanmedicina01mill/americanmedicina01mill.pdf  Accessed April 4, 2021.

Vogelpohl, Sid.  Arkansas Native Plant Society.  https://anps.org/2014/04/03/know-your-natives-false-solomons-seal/


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the North Carolina Unit of The Herb Society of America since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level, including as a member of the Native Herb Conservation Committee, The Herb Society of America. 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.

Herbs for Holiday Baking

By Peggy Riccio

Pumpkin pie with sage leaves and marigold flowersWhen I think of herbs for Christmas, I always think of the Simon and Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair” song:  “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Sure, there is peppermint and plenty of spices, but these herbs seem to be the most popular during the holidays. I think that is because these plants are still green in the garden. In my USDA Hardiness Zone 7 Virginia garden, I can still pick these plants in December to use in the kitchen. My mint plants, always in containers, overwinter well, and I can harvest spearmint and peppermint.

When using these herbs, don’t just think of flavor and cooking. Think of the plant itself, the structure, size, weight, and texture of the branches and leaves. Think of how the stem or leaf can be used to decorate the dish and your table. 

Parsley

Parsley is a biennial plant, hardy to Zone 4. It grows to about a foot tall the first year, and then flowers and sets seed the second year. There is the curly type and the flat leaf type. For flavor, use the flat leaf type. The curly type is great for garnishing. In my garden, I sow seed every year to have fresh parsley. We have mild winters, so the plant remains evergreen all winter long. Parsley is best used fresh. It has a very delicate leaf structure and stem that will wilt easily. Compared with these other herbs, parsley has a relatively benign fragrance. This makes it an ideal garnish; however, it wilts too fast to use as a holiday flat-leaf parsley in the gardendecoration. But picture the color of green parsley in a red cranberry dish or the pretty scalloped leaves—or tightly curled leaves—in a bowl of mashed potatoes for interest.

Parsley mixes well with garlic and butter, either melted butter or a parsley/butter mix for the table. To make parsley butter, simply add a few tablespoons of chopped, fresh leaves to a stick of butter that has softened. Mix and put in the fridge to harden again or put in molds. Parsley with garlic can be added to stuffing or a breadcrumb topping for a casserole dish. Parsley, and other herbs, can be added to roasted vegetables, including roasted potatoes. Melted parsley butter is great with seafood, especially lobster and shrimp.

Sage

Sage is a perennial plant that becomes a small woody shrub. It is hardy to Zone 4 and remains evergreen during the winter months. Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) has green leaves, but there are many other types of sage with variegated leaves, blue-green leaves, or even broader leaves. All sages are edible. (Edible, in this case, means it won’t harm you. However, they may not be as tasty as Salvia officinalis.) Use the culinary sage for cooking, but if you have other sages, look at their leaves for decorative uses. The leaves are thick and large enough that they can be used for decoration if cut a few days in advance. Sage leaf and butter on baked potatoFor example, tie a sprig of sage and rosemary with red ribbon and put on the place settings. Add variegated sage to floral arrangements. Use varieties with large leaves such as ‘Berggarten’, or use large, mature leaves from other types to serve as a garnish for vegetable dishes, pumpkin pie, or sweet potato pie. With the large-textured leaves, make butter pats and place on baked potatoes (pipe soft butter on sage leaf and place on tray, and then place in fridge to harden). 

Traditionally, sage is used in stuffing or dressing and as a poultry rub. Sage works well with cooked corn, cornbread, and corn chowder. Sage can be added to cheese spreads, potatoes, roasted vegetables, squash, sweet potato, and Brussel sprouts. Sage also pairs well with citrus fruits.

Rosemary

Rosemary is a perennial that grows to be a large woody shrub, several feet tall. It is marginally hardy in the Washington, D.C. metro area, so it is best to pick a cultivar that is known for being hardy, such as ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Nancy Howard’, ‘Dutch Mill’, and ‘Salem’. Rosemary is a great plant to have in Rosemary leaves and flowersthe garden, because it has many uses. Because the long stems are flexible, and the leaves do not dry out quickly, you can use rosemary for decorating as well as cooking. Cut a 6- to 8-inch branch, roll in a circle, and tie with florist wire. Attach decorations and color with a hot glue gun such as small cones, plaid bows, and red berries to make a small wreath. Or, don’t add anything and use it to wrap around candles and napkins. Rosemary stems can be inserted in glass vases with red and white candy canes, added to any floral arrangement, or placed under a turkey or ham on a platter. 

In the kitchen, rosemary is great on roasted vegetables, biscuits, pork, as a poultry rub, or with butter. It does well with yeast breads, rolls, and biscuits, and stuffing or dressing. It also pairs well with apple and pear desserts. If you are making mulled wine or mulled apple cider, consider adding a sprig of rosemary as a stirrer.

The small rosemary plants that are for sale during the holidays can serve as table-top Christmas trees by adding mini-lights, balls, and bows.

Various thyme cultivarsThyme 

Thyme is a perennial groundcover that is hardy to Zone 5. Thyme has very thin, wiry stems and small leaves. Because the leaves are small and lightweight, they are ideal for “confetti” on small appetizers or on a thick chowder. The stems themselves are too brittle to use for decoration, but if you have an indoor floral or green arrangement, you can insert a chunk of your thyme (pulled from your plant in the garden) to spill over the edges of the container as a “spiller.” 

Thyme is great in yeast rolls and biscuits, cooked vegetables such as carrots, squash, and mushrooms, cheese spreads, potato, pork and seafood, stuffing and dressing. Thyme also pairs well with butter and garlic. As with sage, there are many types of thyme that are all edible, but the flavor may vary. There are plants with silver leaves, plants with gold-edged leaves, and plants with gold leaves. These can be used as decoration. Then, there are “flavored” thymes such as orange, lemon, or coconut, which work well in baked goods. Consider lemon thyme pound cake and orange thyme cookies.

Mint

Mint in a containerMint is an herbaceous perennial hardy to Zone 5 and very invasive. If you are growing mint, grow only in a container. It is so hardy that it will survive winters here in containers, which should be about a foot high and wide. Mint roots very easily. If you are going to use a lot of mint in your holiday baking, you can take cuttings in the fall to increase your plants. You can even take cuttings so you can give mint plants away as gifts, tied with a red bow, and a recipe card.

There are many types of mint available for use, but during the holidays, spearmint and peppermint are the most popular. These leaves do not wilt quickly; they are firm with great texture. This makes them ideal for garnishing and decorating baked goods. Place mint leaves on cupcakes, cakes, fruit salads, and use as a garnish for drinks. 

Fresh peppermint leaves can be chopped and added to chocolate chip cookie dough or a brownie mix. A sprig of peppermint can be added to hot cocoa, like a stirrer. Fill glasses with peppermint sprigs and real peppermint candy canes. Add crushed spearmint leaves to whipped cream and add to fresh fruit. Use spearmint to make a jelly for pork or lamb, or add to vegetables, such as carrots and peas. 

Spearmint leavesMake a simple syrup with mint and pour over fruit salad, add to a drink, or use when baking. Make a syrup by boiling one cup water with one cup sugar in a small saucepan. Add one cup of fresh herbs and smash the leaves up against the pot with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 15 minutes, cool and strain, and pour the syrup in a glass jar. Keep in the fridge for a few weeks. 

These are just ideas to get you started, but once you start working with an herb, seeing the leaves, smelling the aroma, you will get inspired to use these other herbs for your home during the holidays.

 


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

Medlar – Herb of the Month

By Chrissy Moore

meldar line drawing croppedMedlar (Mespilus germanica) isn’t the first tree you think of to include in your herb garden, but it certainly gets high marks for obscure and unusual. At least by today’s terms. While we may not hear its name invoked in modern conversation with anything close to regularity, medlar has, in fact, had a long association with humans for thousands of years.

Its center of origin is somewhat in question, with various taxonomists and botanists shifting the borders this way and that, but in general, medlar can be considered a southwest Asia native, including the Balkan Peninsula. Though comfortable in that location, the Romans and Greeks spread the tree far and wide in their travels through Europe. Beyond that, botanists freely point to the tree’s adaptability, noting all of the countries from southern to central Europe in which medlar has naturalized. Mespilus can even be found growing as far north as The Netherlands, where specimen trees were planted in parks and gardens. In its native range, it can be found growing in elevations up to ~5500 feet in forest clearings. 

Medlar Range mapMedlar is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), apparent when you look at its ripe fruit, which showcases a persistent calyx typical of other rose family members, such as rose hips and apples. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8, it is generally considered a small tree, growing up to 20 feet by 20 feet, with pleasantly Medlar's twisting canopy, Netherlandstwisting canopy branches as the tree matures. The five-inch-long leaves are lance-shaped and somewhat coarse in texture owing to the hairs on the upper and lower surfaces. Their dark green hue makes an attractive backdrop for its blossoms. Medlar’s fall color is a mix of green, yellow, and burnished orange, giving it that coveted “three season” appeal. All else being equal, its fall color can make it a superb horticultural addition even in smaller gardens.

Medlar’s approximately two-inch wide, dainty, white flowers—the petals of which are reminiscent of mildly wrinkled fabric—appear in mid- to late-spring, depending upon the region in which it is grown. The flower’s center is a flurry of anthers much like a single-petaled rose blossom, though it lacks any noticeable scent. Because the flowers are showy, it may be worth siting this unfamiliar tree a bit closer in to allow for more in-depth inspection. Speaking of siting, medlar prefers full sun to partial shade with some protection from strong winds. It does not like full-on drought conditions, but fairs well throughout much of the temperate region.

Mespilus germanica flower (1)All formalities aside regarding its growing habits, medlar is most famous for its fruit, which, in all honesty, can be a quandary to the uninitiated. The brown pome ripens in the fall, but if one were to try eating it right away, they would be faced with a hard, bitter thing about the size of a large gumball (but not nearly so fun to eat). Medlar fruit is similar to native persimmons in that they must go through a prep-stage before consumption. Persimmons need a frost before becoming edible, while medlars need a go-sit-by-yourself-in-the-corner-for-a-few-weeks regimen before the fruit becomes palatable. This process is called “bletting,” and it isn’t until after the fruits have been fully bletted that the interiors become soft and edible with no trace of their bitter tannins remaining.

Unripe and bletted (or ripe) medlar fruit

The medlar was well known in Europe during the Middle Ages, where it was said to have held a high place among cultivated fruits. Today in Europe it is passing into obscurity. Though very generally cultivated in England in the 1600s and 1700s and “common in [English] gardens in the south” even in the 1800s (the fruits regularly brought to market), it was recently characterized as “neglected and forgotten” and “difficult to locate” there. In continental Europe, too, its increasing rarity has been noted, the fruit being “of no more interest” (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

medlar_jelly_el_ltdPrior to the widespread use of sugarcane, medlar was a preferred sweet ingredient, but owing to the difficulty in processing, it likely fell out of favor, even in Europe, in deference to more easily obtainable fruit from the tropics, such as bananas and oranges. Even so, a few determined individuals, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, are trying to revive interest in the tree, and some have made great strides in bringing back the requisite foodstuffs, like medlar cheeses and jams, that can sometimes be found in boutique stores or online markets. 

Speaking of the United States, medlar never became popular in this country for unknown reasons. Baird and Thieret, in their review of the literature, state:

In the United States the medlar has never been well known. Indeed, it is hardly even known here. Among those individuals who ought to have heard of it—botanists and horticulturists—many have not. Among those who have heard of it, only a few have actually seen the plant—“probably not one…among one hundred”; fewer yet have seen the fruit—“not one in five hundred”; and almost none has eaten the fruit (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

It is unfortunate to think that a once-prized fruit tree is near impossible to locate, even horticulturally, but so it is. Despite its relative obscurity, if you are up for a jaunt around Europe, there are certainly specimens of medlar that can be found growing on estates or in parks, where one might get up close and personal to examine this apparent horticultural anomaly. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) has mapped out the locations of medlar trees within its boundaries, and the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora gives a brief description of the tree with a link to BSBI’s map. Going even farther afield, the Mespilus germanica 9-9-2021 (1)organization, Monumental trees, has compiled a web site (www.monumentaltrees.com) replete with documented locations of various “monumental” tree species, including Mespilus germanica, throughout Europe. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar compilation of medlar sites in the United States, but it is more than likely that specimens and cultivars (of which there are a few) of medlar may be located in various botanical gardens and arboreta around the country, depending on climate. There is a 40+ year old specimen in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., but its structure is not nearly as expressive (or impressive) as those in Europe, a result of its original siting in the garden, which has become cramped over time.

16th century painting of medlar, poppy anemone, and pear by Hoefnagel and BocskayTurning the page, figuratively speaking, all one needs is a quick search of the literature to discover that references abound discussing medlar’s less than proper common names. Owing to the fruit’s somewhat bawdy appearance, numerous authors in centuries past, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, de Cervantes, and various other 19th century writers, as well as everyday people in Europe, thought to nickname the fruit “cul de chien” (French for dog’s arse) or some iteration thereof in one’s native tongue. Shakespeare took it one step further, calling medlar an “open-arse.” Thank goodness no one ever pointed that out in my high school literature class. We’d never have heard the end of it! (No pun intended.) In contrast to my more prudish sensibilities, Shakespeare scholar and avowed medlar lover Gerit Quealy explained to me during her recent visit to see the National Herb Garden’s medlar specimen, that the medlar is one of her “favorite botanical references in all of Shakespeare’s works,” because, as she states appreciatively in her book, Botanical Shakespeare, it is “a fruit fraught with metaphor (Quealy, 2017).” No kidding! Readers, you can take it from there….

In researching medlar, I asked former National Herb Garden intern, Zainab Pashaei, who is of Persian heritage, if she was familiar with the tree, it being native to her father’s home country, Iran. Though not personally familiar with it, according to Zainab, medlar is mostly consumed by northern Iranians, and those that travel north near the Alborz Mountain Range will be very familiar with it. (Zainab’s relatives live farther south.) She explained further that muşmula is the Turkish word for the medlar fruit, while the Persians may call it marmala or azgil (Farsi), although I have since learned that azgil is often confused with loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), which is also eaten in Iran.

This distinction is certainly with a difference, as they are two separate plants, and reiterates the importance of using correct nomenclature. On the other hand, it vividly demonstrates that correctly identifying species across languages, cultures, and hundreds of years of usage is not for the faint-hearted. Despite its literary and culinary assignments in other parts of Europe, the medlar has also been employed medicinally in some cultures. For example, the Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden located in Istanbul, Turkey, reports that the fruit is used as an antidiarrheal, and the seed’s diuretic properties are incorporated into a medicinal tea.

Given medlar’s curious, though extremely interesting, history of use in culinary traditions, in medicine, and certainly in the creative arts, it is definitely a tree worthy of investigation, and perhaps even more so, of growing. Just be prepared to explain its many virtues to your garden guests, as it is highly likely that few, if any, of them will have encountered this unique herbal tree before.

Photo Credits: 1 & 2) Mespilus germanica line drawing and map (Baird and Thieret); 3) Medlar twisting branches (www.monumentaltrees.com); 4) Medlar flower (C. Moore); 5) Bletted medlar fruit (Creative Commons); 6) Medlar jelly (www.partridges.co.uk); 7) Medlar fruit (C. Moore); 8) Medlar, Poppy, and Pear painting (Joris Hoefnagel and Georg Bocskay, J. Paul Getty Museum); 9) Medlar fruit/fall color (Creative Commons, ngawangchodron) and Loquat fruit (Creative Commons, Andres Bertens).

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

References

Baird, J. R. and J. W. Thieret. The Medlar (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) from antiquity to obscurity. Economic Botany. Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1989), pp. 328-372. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4255177?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 8/13/2021.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Interactive map. https://bsbi.org/maps?taxonid=2cd4p9h.vnw. Accessed 8/16/2021.

Harvey, P. D. A. Garden History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, pp. 172–175. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/1586748. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Monumental Trees. Mespilus germanica. https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/europe-mespilusgermanica/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Mespilus germanica. https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/plant/mespilus-germanica. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Pashaei, Zainab (personal communication). 8/3/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. (personal communication). 5/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. 2017. Botanical Shakespeare: An illustrated compendium of all the flowers, fruits, herbs, trees, seeds, and grasses cited by the world’s greatest playwright. New York: Harper Design.

Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden. Book No. 35. 2015. Page 237. https://ztbb.org/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.


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

Cardamom: Tropical Spice and…Scandinavian Staple!?

 

By Amy Forsberg

Green cardamom seed podsI had what seemed like a simple question: How and why did cardamom, the spice native to southern India, become such an essential and beloved baking spice in snowy Scandinavia? I have Swedish ancestry, and absolutely love cardamom bread and other baked goods made with cardamom. In Scandinavian culture, cardamom often represents comfort and home and family and holiday treats–similar to how we in the U.S. view cinnamon, perhaps. (Of course, cinnamon is also of South Asian origin!) I started with some hazy knowledge of the history of the spice trade–that cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and ginger spread throughout the world from their places of origin via complex trade routes over the course of many centuries, contributing to the rise and fall of various empires and economies. But I was curious why cardamom, in particular, took root in Scandinavia of all places. Researching that question took me on a fascinating journey through human history and around the world, teaching me much more about the spice trade and about how all of Europe went crazy for spices in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Good answers to my questions remained elusive, perhaps lost to history. But the story of the spice trade, and cardamom’s place in it, is an interesting one. So let’s talk about cardamom!

Cardamom is not as well known in the United States as in some parts of the world. The spice known as cardamom is the seed of Elettaria cardamomum, an herbaceous perennial in the ginger family, Zingerberaceae. This is the source of both green and white cardamom, which is just green cardamom that has been bleached and which has a milder flavor. The scent and flavor combines notes of citrus, mint, and pine, and can be described as sweet, spicy, herbal, and floral.

There is a lesser known cousin, black cardamom, that is derived from Amomum subulatum. The pods of black cardamom are larger than the green and have a characteristic smoky flavor imparted during the drying process. Black cardamom is used in Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese cuisine.

Elettaria cardamomum is tropical, needing shade and consistent year-round warmth (temperatures between 50° and 95°F) and humidity in order to flower and fruit. In such a setting, it can reach 15 feet tall! It grows from rhizomes, much like ginger and turmeric, and produces panicles of flowers at the base of the foliage, which then develop into pods containing 15-20 seeds each. Native to the Western Ghats mountain range in southern India, it is now grown commercially primarily in Guatemala, but also in India and Sri Lanka. It is the third most costly spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla. Cardamom has been valued for culinary and medicinal uses for thousands of years. Today, it is consumed around the world, but primarily in India and the Middle East, followed by South Asia, the United States, and the European Union. 

Periplous_of_the_Erythraean_Sea.svgThe earliest recorded use of cardamom is in an ancient Sanskrit text dating to about 3000 BC that lists cardamom as one of the spices to be poured in a sacrificial fire during marriage ceremonies. Use spread throughout the ancient world, and by 100 AD, cardamom was in use throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East for cooking, perfumery, and medicine. Both Greece and Rome imported large quantities of cardamom and used it in cuisine as well as medicine. The famous Greek physician, Dioscorides, mentions cardamom, among other imported spices, as a useful medicine—especially as a digestive aid after a heavy meal. Recipes from Apicius, the first-century Roman cookbook, use generous amounts of ginger, pepper, and cardamom. The Persian and Arabian empires imported large quantities of cardamom from India, and their detailed cookbooks and medical texts specify different grades, sizes, and types of cardamom. 

Cardamom and other spices, such as ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, were brought to the Mediterranean by Arab traders and were traded in Naples, Venice, and Corsica, among other ports. Those who controlled the trade allowed their customers to remain in the dark as to the original source of the spices for centuries. Ancient historians, such as Pliny, believed cardamom grew in Arabia. The status and allure of these spices was increased by the mystery of their true origin, and this helped keep prices high. Trade involved many middlemen, and few, if any, along the routes knew where the goods had originated or where they would end up. Trade in spices was lucrative because the spices were relatively inexpensive at their source and were compact, lightweight, and non-perishable compared to many other goods. Spice routes were frequently shifting due to wars and power struggles, so by the time the spices reached a final destination, they had changed hands many times and were fantastically expensive. Thus, they were viewed as “high status” and “exotic” luxury goods.

Map of ScandinaviaBy the early Middle Ages, cardamom and other spices were finding their way up into Northern and Western Europe. The Vikings are commonly credited with bringing cardamom home to Scandinavia after encountering it in Constantinople towards the end of the Viking era in the early 11th century. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archaeologist, says in his book, An Early Meal–A Viking Age Cookbook & Culinary Odyssey, that this is likely wrong due to a total lack of evidence. The earliest mention of cardamom in Scandinavia is in a 13th century cookbook written by a Danish monk in which the recipes that contain cardamom are nearly identical to Moorish recipes of the same era. Serra thinks the Moors likely introduced cardamom to Scandinavia. According to this theory, cardamom and other spices would have found their way from the Iberian peninsula up to London, and then from London, were traded along a German trade route up into Scandinavia.

Renaissance banquetThe exact details of the how and when cardamom first found its way to Scandinavia may never be proven precisely. But what is well-documented is how all of Europe went spice crazy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom were expensive and fashionable throughout Europe and were used lavishly in large banquets that would feature dozens of types of exotic game birds and meats, sauces and stews, and large quantities of spiced wine. These banquets could last for days and were an important way to display wealth and status. 

Green cardamom seeds

Green cardamom seeds

The cliché often repeated that spices were used in the Middle Ages to cover the taste of spoiled meat does not stand up to scrutiny. People who could afford spices could afford fresh meat, as spices were more expensive than meat. Food was commonly dried, salted, or pickled to preserve it, and spices are not an effective means of doctoring spoiled meat in any case.

In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of southern India, and at long last discovered the vast markets where the global spice trade originated. In short order, the Portuguese violently took control of the spice trade and for the first time, imported spices directly to Europe ending the circuitous Arab-controlled trade routes over land from the Middle East into the Mediterranean, and eliminating many middlemen. Prices fell in Europe, and spices came within reach of even “middle class” people for special occasions. 

Swedish cardamom roll

Swedish cardamom roll

In the 1590s, the Dutch took over spice production and trade, and prices dropped even further as supply increased. The “culinary reign” of spices that had lasted in Europe from Roman times through the Renaissance ended in the 1700s. By the 1800s, spices in Europe were plentiful and inexpensive enough to be used daily in foods like breads, cookies, and coffee, but had lost their mystery, glamour, and status. Interestingly, these same spices completely fell out of favor for most savory cuisine throughout Europe. Food was, instead, seasoned primarily with herbs, wine, and cheeses, much as today. This transition came first to Southern Europe and then spread gradually into Northern Europe. Spices largely disappeared from European cuisine, with the notable exceptions of saffron in Spanish paella and cardamom in Scandinavian baked goods and desserts. 

Again, the question of why Scandinavia, in particular, held onto the use of cardamom, in particular, is difficult to answer. Daniel Serra speculates that, because Scandinavia is on the fringes of the continent, it clung to medieval food ways longer—”outposts” are often slower to adopt changes and new styles. This is not a complete or satisfying answer, though. It is true, however, that the unique flavor of cardamom marries perfectly with sweet, yeasted bread dough, and that a good cardamom bun or braided loaf is a wonderful thing, especially when paired with coffee and shared with friends!

Scandinavian Coffee Braid 

Scandinavian coffee braid(From Scandinavian Feasts by Beatrice Ojakangas. Also known as vetebröd in Sweden or pulla in Finland, this sweet yeast dough is versatile; it can be shaped into braids (as in this recipe) or made into buns known as kardemummabullar.)

  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water (105°F -115°F)
  • 2 cups milk, scalded to 170°F and cooled
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly crushed cardamom
  • 4 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 8-9 cups flour
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk
  • ½ cup sliced almonds
  • ½ cup pearl sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast bubbles. Stir in the milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs, and four cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Add the butter.

Gradually stir enough of the remaining flour to make a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Wash and grease the bowl, and set it aside.

Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, until it is smooth, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in the prepared bowl, turning the dough to grease it on all sides. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 ½ – 2 hours. Punch down. Turn the dough out onto an oiled surface.

To make three braided loaves: Divide dough into 3 parts. Divide each part into three portions. Roll each portion into a 30” long rope. Braid three ropes together to make a loaf. Pinch the ends together, and tuck them under the loaf. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining portions of dough. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush loaves with the egg and milk mixture and sprinkle with the sliced almonds and/or pearl sugar. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not overbake. Cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Green cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 2) Green cardamom plant (Creative Commons, https://snl.no/kardemomme); 3) Green cardamom flower (Creative Commons, Reji Jacob, Mukkoottuthara, Pathanamthitta District of Kerala state) and black cardamom flower (Wikimedia Commons by Praptipanigrahi – own work); 4) Green and black cardamom seed pods (C. Moore); 5) Trade route map (Wikipedia, George Tsiagalakis); 6) Spices (Creative Commons); 7) Map of Scandinavia (mapsofeurope.net); 8) Painting of Renaissance banquet (hisour.com); 9) Green cardamom seeds (C. Moore); 10) Swedish pastry interlude: a cardamom roll at the Vasa Museum cafe, Creative Commons by alykat); 11) Scandinavian coffee braid (Wikipedia).

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

References

Corn, C. 1999. The scents of Eden: A history of the spice trade. New York: Kodansha International.

Citron, C. 2020. Cardamom: How an Indian spice became a Swedish staple. ArcGIS StoryMaps. Esri. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a9cfbc9e11f04a79885521bc559c9815

Dunn, S. 2021. Cardamom: How did it become Scandinavia’s favorite spice? Cook’s Illustrated. America’s Test Kitchen. https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/3076-cardamom-how-did-it-become-scandinavia-s-favorite-spice

Freedman, P. 2008. Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Krondl, M. 2007. The taste of conquest: The rise and fall of the three great cities of spice. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mehra, Rupali. 2019. How spices have connected Sweden and India since the Viking Age. The Local SE. The Local Europe AB. https://www.thelocal.se/20190104/how-spices-have-connected-sweden-with-india-since-the-viking-age/

Miltner, Olivia. 2017. The hidden history of Scandinavia’s love of cardamom. OZY.  https://www.ozy.com/around-the-world/the-hidden-history-of-scandinavias-love-of-cardamom/82046/

Missouri Botanical Garden (Internet). Elettaria cardamomum. Accessed September 4, 2021. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=287608&isprofile=0&

Turner, Jack. 2004. Spice: The history of a temptation. New York: Random House.


Amy Forsberg lives in Maryland and gardens full-time at Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington D.C., where she cares for the Japanese Style Garden. Previously, she gardened at the U.S. National Arboretum and the U.S. Botanic Garden. She was the 2001 National Herb Garden intern.

Horehound – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Horehound leavesThe fuzzy, light gray, deeply-wrinkled leaves of horehound (Marrubium vulgare) offer a nice contrast to other colors and textures in the garden. I love that contrast around the base of the red roses in my garden. Horehound is a perennial herb that grows from one to two feet tall, and can spread in the garden. It prefers dry sandy soil and a sunny location, tolerates poor soil, and is hardy in USDA Zones 4‒8. It may be started from seed in the spring, although germination is slow and sometimes not reliable. Cuttings can be taken from a mature plant or the established plant can be divided. Its leaves have a very bitter taste. Horehound produces whorls of small white flowers at the top of the stalk in the second year. The flowers are very attractive to bees, which makes for a tasty honey. The barbed seeds attach to grazing animals and clothing, enabling their spread to other locations.

Horehound is in the mint family. It has the same square stem and prolific growth habit as other mints. It is native to southern Europe, central and western Asia, and North Africa. It has naturalized in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Horehound will reseed itself naturally to the point that it has become invasive in some areas. It is considered invasive in parts of Australia and New Zealand.  

History

As is the case with so many other herbs, horehound has been used as a medicine since ancient times. Horehound was important in Israeli and Arabic medicinal folk traditions. The Hebrew word for bitter juice is marrub, which could be a possible origin of horehound’s botanical name. Some writers claim that it was one of the bitter herbs used during Passover, though other writers dispute this claim.

Claeys Horehound candyThe Egyptians and the Greeks used it to treat respiratory problems, while the Romans used horehound as an antidote to poisons. Columella, a 1st century Roman agricultural writer, stated that horehound was useful in treating worms in farm animals (Columella, 1941).

In the Middle Ages, horehound was thought to ward off evil spirits, and charms containing horehound were worn for protection (Small, 2006). Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century mystic and healer, said in her book, Physica: “The horehound is warm and has enough juice, and it helps against various illnesses….And who is ill in the throat, boil horehound in water and strain boiled water through a cloth and add twice as much wine, and let it boil again in a bowl with some fat, and drinks it often, and he will be cured in the throat (von Bingen, 1998).” Later herbalists, such as Gerard (14th-15th century), Culpepper (17th century), and  Grieve (20th century), all recommended the use of horehound for respiratory ailments.

Indigenous tribes of North America use horehound as a medicine, treating mainly respiratory issues but also breast complaints, gynecological problems, and skin problems (Moerman, 1998).

In early England, horehound was not only used for its medicinal properties, but it was also used to brew a horehound ale (Botanical.com, 2021).

rock and rye alcohol beverage with horehoundAt the end of the 19th century, rock and rye liqueur–a combination of rock candy dissolved in rye whiskey and a touch of horehound and citrus—managed to survive Prohibition because it was marketed as a medicinal tonic; it was labeled as a cure for colds, congestion, and other illnesses. The liqueur could be purchased in pharmacies in the United States and was initially taxed at a lower rate owing to its “medicinal properties (Mayhew, 2021).”

Current Uses

Today, horehound ales and drinks are still being made, as well as candies and syrups, to alleviate cold symptoms. Horehound throat lozenges are easily found anywhere that cold remedies are sold.

Ricola throat dropsMarrubiin, a component of horehound, gives the herb its bitter taste. It is also thought to be responsible for its expectorant action and for increasing saliva and gastric juices, which stimulate the appetite. This explains its traditional use as a cough suppressant, expectorant, and bitter digestive tonic (Kaiser, 2015).

“The German Commission E approved horehound herb for loss of appetite and dyspepsia, such as bloating and flatulence” (American Botanical Council, 2021), and the USDA has given horehound GRAS (Generally Recognized  as Safe) status (USFDA, n.d.). However, there have not been any clinical trials to definitively prove the effectiveness of the traditional uses of horehound for respiratory and other ailments.

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for September. Visit the webpage for more information, recipes, and an attractive screen saver.

Photo Credits: 1) Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) leaves; 2) Horehound candy; 3) Rock and rye cocktail; 4) Ricola throat drops. 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.

References

American Botanical Council.  2021. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Accessed 8/3/21.

Barnes, Joanne, Linda A. Anderson, J. David Phillipson. 2007. Herbal medicines. Great Britain: Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Botanical.com. 2021. Horehound. Accessed 8/3/21. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/horwhi33.html

Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus. 1941. On agriculture, with a recension of the text and an English translation by Harrison Boyd Ash. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Internet Archive.  Accessed 8/9/21. https://archive.org/details/onagriculturewit02coluuoft/page/n17/mode/2up.

Kaiser Permanente. 2015. Horehound. Accessed 8/12/21. https://wa.kaiserpermanente.org/kbase/topic.jhtml?docId=hn-2109003

Mayhew, Lance. 2021. Rock and rye whiskey. The Spruce Eats. Accessed 8/3/21. https://www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-make-rock-and-rye-whiskey-760286

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

Siegelbaum, Rebbetzin Chana Bracha. 2018. Was horehound one of the bitter herbs of the Pesach Sedar? Women on the Land Blog. Accessed 8/3/21. https://rebbetzinchanabracha.blogspot.com/2018/03/was-horehound-one-of-bitter-herbs-for.html

Small, Ernest. 2006. Culinary herbs. Ottawa: National Research Council of Canada.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.) Accessed 8/14/21. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/food-additive-status-list#ftnH

Von Bingen, Hildegard. 1998. Translated by Pricilla Throop. Physica: The complete translation of her classic work on health and healing. Google Books. Accessed 8/3/21. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her … – Google Books


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’sTexas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Hawaiian Herbal Medicine: Rooted in Family and Tradition

By Kaila Blevins

Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry AuwaeMy grandmother grew up in Hawai’i, so my childhood was filled with trying traditional dishes like poi, and my vocabulary is peppered with Hawaiian words. But, I did not know much about traditional Hawaiian herbalism and began researching.

La’au lapa’au is one of several traditional healing methods practiced by Native Hawaiians, and it is rooted in the use of plants. A traditional healer’s job goes beyond just prescribing plants. They use a holistic approach to ensure that the body, mind, and spirit are in harmony to promote good health. The lack of harmony between the three elements results in illness. Beyond assessing the harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, healers follow traditional practices to ensure harmony with the environment as well.

Traditionally, the plants were harvested in the lush forests or were planted near heiaus, or sacred temples, if a healer resided there. Today, foraging at the temples is forbidden due to the sacredness and cultural significance of them. heiausHowever, healers from then and now continue to follow the same principles when approaching plants. They revere the plants for the gifts that they offer through their medicinal properties and act as stewards by tending to their needs and promoting sustainable foraging practices. This process acknowledges the innate intelligence of plants. As the healer approaches the required plant needed for healing, they think of the person who enlisted their help before kneeling and praying, sharing their gratitude for the plant, and asking permission to harvest. If permission is granted, the harvest begins. Once the necessary amount is gathered, the healer never turns their back to the plant–a societal norm that is also practiced when near elders–backing away, giving thanks for the gift. In some cases, the healer may not be the one to gather the medicine. Instead, this may be prescribed as part of the healing journey, and the client will forage and perform the ceremony of giving thanks to the required plants. 

Furthermore, since the plants are Earth’s gifts for humans to use, traditional healers will not charge for their services. The lack of payment ensures a lifelong commitment to the practice and prevents greed from tainting the practice. 

Between each island, the plant palette changes, so the island on which the healer resides dictates the plants used in their practice. However, some plants are indigenous to the majority of the islands, or they’ve been naturalized. Below is a brief list of plants and some of their herbal uses:

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui, candlenut)

Declared the state tree in 1959, kukui leaves are crushed into poultices, and the roasted nuts are pounded into salves to treat sores and external ulcers. Historically, mothers chewed the flowers and gave them to their children to heal sores. After recovering from an illness, the nut meat is often combined with fish and ‘uala (sweet potato) for a nutrient-rich meal. Culturally, the nuts were used in candles, and the ash collected from burned nuts was used for tattoos and canoe paint. 

Morinda citrifolia flowers and fruitMorinda citrifolia (noni, Indian mulberry)

Introduced in 1941 from Fiji, noni has naturalized across the islands and is also cultivated due to its numerous herbal benefits. The leaves are used to treat a variety of skin problems, including cuts, boils, growths, and even lice. Traditional healers use all parts of the tree as a laxative.  

Saccharum officinarum (kō, sugarcane)

Saccharum officinarum sugar caneChewing on the sugary stalk can strengthen the teeth and gums, while the juice is used to sweeten other medicines, or is combined with Ipomoea alba (tropical white morning glory) and salt to treat deep cuts and wounds. In folklore, the juice of kō is used to create a love potion. However, the correct species must be utilized since others are used to block love potions.

After I completed the draft of this blog post, I called my grandmother and discussed the topic with her. While she was not familiar with the uses of the plants, it did remind her of the landscape of her youth. Furthermore, I enjoyed learning about the Native experience and interactions they had with the environment, since their practices are rooted in respect for their environment and plants.

Photo credits: 1) Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry Auwae (Jeanella and Kehaulani Keopuhiwa, National Library of Medicine); 2) Heiaus (National Park Service); 3) Aleurites molucanna flowers and fruit (Hawaiian Plants and Tropical Flowers); 4) Morinda citrifolia (Plants of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park); 5) Saccharum officinarum (National Tropical Botanical Garden).

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

References

Aleurites moluccanus (kukui). (n.d.). Accessed 7/2020. https://www.kapiolani.hawaii.edu/aleurites-moluccana

Kalama, H. (n.d.).: Healing With Spirituality And Herbs. Accessed 7/2021.  http://heyokamedicine.com/laau-lapaau

Lincoln, N. K. (2017). Description of Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. Accessed 7/2021. http://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/cane

National Park Service. Wailua Complex of Heiaus. Accessed 8/13/2021. https://www.nps.gov/places/wailua-complex-of-heiaus.htm

Timboy, M. (n.d.). La‘au Lapa‘au: Medicinal Plants and Their Healing Properties. Accessed 7/2021. https://keolamagazine.com/agriculture/medicinal-plants/

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing. Accessed 7/2021. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/healing-plants.html


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. She is pursuing a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha, and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets.

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.