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.

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.

Four Thieves Inspire Flu-Fighting Soup

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society

Originally published on January 30, 2019

flu-soupLast winter the urgent care center diagnosed me with the flu, and I’ve never been quite as sick as I was for that month. I spent several days in bed and used all sorts of herbal remedies to support healing. Daquil/Nyquil just made me feel worse and went straight into the garbage.

I started with homemade bone broth. Herb and spice-spiked chicken broths are well known to promote the movement of nasal congestion and are thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. I felt better with every bowl I ate, proving the old adage: Let your food be your medicine.

For a powerful immune-boosting soup I took cues from the Legend of the Four Thieves. In this story, aromatherapy, herbal, and alchemical worlds collide and take on mythical proportions. The legend takes place when the bubonic plague hit Europe and killed a large percentage of the population.

flu-woodcutSupposedly, four thieves from Marseilles were robbing plague-ridden corpses without getting sick. They are thought to have been perfumers with access to and knowledge of essential oils, herbs, and spices.

At their trial, the King offered the thieves leniency in return for the formula that protected them from the plague. Their list included lavender, sage, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, eucalyptus, rosemary, thyme, onion, mustard seed, cloves, oregano, and lemon.

While the legend has never been confirmed and their recipe is interesting, all of the herbs and spices (except eucalyptus) read like a delicious and immune-boosting chicken soup recipe to me, so into the stock pot they go. If I’m lucky enough to have fresh stinging nettles, I’ll add them in as a mineral rich bonus.

To serve, I top each bowl with whole basil leaves, hard boiled eggs, a dash of Himalayan salt, and a squeeze of fresh lime. I can’t help but feel better with every bowl I eat. Legions of Jewish and Asian grandmothers absolutely knew what they were doing.

Another application of the legend is a Four Thieves spray. I make it with white wine vinegar and essential oils — lemon, lavender, cinnamon, clove, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and eucalyptus. My formula is three cups of vinegar and 20 drops of each oil.  To use it, I shake well and spray countertops, cellphones, and other surfaces.

These same oils can also be diffused in an essential oil diffuser. Likewise, mixed into a body cream or lotion, eucalyptus oil, lemon, sage, and lavender oils (no more than three drops of each oil!) make a soothing, aroma-therapeutic chest rub.

Edited to add: In this era of Covid-19 and flu season, if you find yourself in need of immune support, treat yourself to soothing herbal self-care and pampering.

Nicole TelkesTo learn about other herbs that can help keep you healthy during cold and flu season, join Nicole Telkes for her webinar, Supporting Immunity with Herbs, on November 16th at 1pm EDT. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit  www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/.

Photo Credits: 1) Healing herbal soup; 2) Apotheycary’s Shop by Hieronymus Brunschwig (1450-c.1512); 3) Nicole Telkes (courtesy of Nicole Telkes)

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.

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.

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.

The Other Side of Yew

By Erin Holden

As an herbalist I’m interested in many aspects of plants – from their use in herbal and conventional medicine, to lore that informs us how those in the past viewed the plant. I knew that Taxol was a cancer drug made from the yew tree, but when a friend mentioned its poisonous aspects, I decided to dig a bit deeper.

Taxol, the well-known cancer treatment, was first isolated and studied in the early 1960s into the late 1970s, and approved as a cancer drug in the early 1990s. Paclitaxel, the common chemical name of Taxol, was initially extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). It was quickly realized that extracting enough paclitaxel to meet demand would wipe out this species in short order, so scientists turned to its faster-growing cousin, the European yew (Taxus baccata), as an alternative. A precursor of Taxol is extracted from the leaves of the European yew and then synthesized into the desired drug. Use of the leaves instead of the bark, as well as its fast growth, means the European yew is a more sustainable source of this cancer treatment.

Taxus baccata by Maigheach-gheal in the Church of St. Mary and All Saints in Great BritainThis all sounds well and good, but if we look at the history of yew, we see that it didn’t always have the best reputation – quite the opposite. Whereas Taxol belongs to a chemical group called taxanes, another group, the taxines, is quite deadly. These toxic compounds are found in every part of all Taxus species, in varying amounts, except for the red, fleshy aril. When ingested, taxines act directly on the heart and inhibit its ability to pump properly, causing a drastic drop in blood pressure, arrhythmias, and death. There is no treatment for yew poisoning, and supportive care is not always successful in saving a patient. A brief peek into the medical literature shows that yew has been used in many suicide attempts, both successful and non-fatal. Even as far back as 53 B.C., Julius Caesar recounts how a king of Eburones, Cativolcus, took his own life by drinking the juice of the yew. This deadly aspect of yew, as well as its evergreen nature, likely contributed to yew being associated with death and immortality in both Druidic and Christian cultures.

Church_of_St_Mary_and_St_Christopher,_Panfield_-_churchyard_yew_treesWhile researching, I stumbled upon an interesting “explanation” for how yews became poisonous, written in the 17th century. Since Druids considered yew sacred, many were planted all over England. Their long association with death likely led to cemeteries of new churches being placed near the trees. It was thought that decaying bodies released noxious gases on the south and west sides of a church yard, which then gathered under and were taken up by the yews. Yew roots were thought to “run and suck nourishment” from the dead, whose flesh is “the rankest poison that could be”, and so the trees themselves became poisonous. Because of this association, the church itself was built on the north or north east side of existing trees (https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/).

I find it fascinating how facts and lore surrounding a plant can mix and have such an impact on various aspects of human activity – from medicine to community planning. And how a life-saving plant can also have a sinister side. Think about it the next time you pass by your ornamental yew. 

Photo Credits: 1) Taxus baccata arils (Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia); 2)Taxus baccata at The Church of St Mary and All Saints in Great Britain (Maigheach-gheal, geograph.org.uk/p/2209844); 3) Line of yew trees in the churchyard of St. Mary and St. Christopher’s Church, Painfield, Essex, England (Image © Acabashi; Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0; Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 Resources:

Grobosch, T. et al. (2013). Eight cases of fatal and non-fatal poisoning with Taxus baccataForensic Science International, vol. 227, issues 1-3, pgs 118-126. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0379073812005324?via%3Dihub

Laqueur, T. W. (2015). Beneath the yew tree’s shade. The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/; Accessed 2/22/2021. 

Lee, M.R. (1998); The yew tree (Taxus baccata) in mythology and medicine. Proc. R. Coll. Physicians Edinb. vol. 28: 569-575;  https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/vol28_4.1_12.pdf

National Cancer Institute; Success Story: Taxol® (NSC 125973) https://dtp.cancer.gov/timeline/flash/success_stories/S2_Taxol.htm; Accessed Jan 22, 2021.

Rickard, J. (26 March 2009); Cativolcus, king of the Eburones, d. 53 B.C.  http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_cativolcus.html; Accessed 1/22/2021.

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.


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.

Heartsease–Herb of the Month

A Tiny Herb Worth Knowing

by Maryann Readal

Heartsease, Viola tricolor, also called Johnny-jump-up, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March. It is the perfect time to learn about this delicate little woodland herb that will be popping out of the warming earth very soon. You may know V. tricolor by one of its many other names. There are dozens of names for it including wild pansy, hearts delight, come-and-cuddle-me, love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, and kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate, etc. 

Viola_tricolor_aggr Muriel Bendel. Wikimedia CommonsV. tricolor is in the violet family (Violaceae). The flowers can be purple, yellow, or white but are most commonly all three colors. The herb is native to Europe and Eurasia and was thought to be brought to the United States by colonists. It can be an annual, biennial, or a short-lived perennial. It will reseed itself and thrives in cooler weather.

This unassuming little herb is rich in folklore. In both Greek and Roman mythology, Viola tricolor was associated with love. The Romans believed that Cupid, the god of desire, hit the flower of Viola tricolor with his arrow by mistake, causing the white flower to become tricolored and the juice to become a love potion. A Greek legend tells of the love that Eros had for the white flowers. Aphrodite, being jealous of his love for the flower, turned it into the three colors to stop his love. Early Christians thought that the three-colored flowers of heartsease symbolized the Holy Trinity. The Druids made magical potions with it and used it in purification rituals. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table believed the lines on the petals foretold their future. 

Viola tricolor was Queen Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) favorite flower. She embroidered the flower on gifts to her family, and some of her elaborate dresses had the flower woven into the fabric. 

Elizabeth I (the Hardwick House portrait) 1592 or c. 1599-02 by nicholas hilliardShakespeare (1564-1616) used the love potion legend of V. tricolor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1, saying about heartsease that the “the juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid, will make a man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.” Viola tricolor appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as in Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1.

 But my favorite story comes from Germany, where heartsease is called “Stiefmütterchen” (little stepmother). The story is that the large bottom petal (the stepmother) sits on two sepals, the two petals on either side of the bottom petal are the daughters and they each have their own sepal. The two petals at the top are the stepdaughters and they share a single sepal and are in the back of the other petals.

V. tricolor is the mother of the beautiful pansies with huge, striking faces that we plant in our gardens in the spring. These pansies were introduced as hybrids of the wild pansy in 1813 in Britain by Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, who hybridized them with her gardener, William Richardson. Around the same time in England, Lord Gambier was working with his gardener on hybridizing the wild pansy as well. By 1833, there were over 400 named pansies developed from the tiny viola that we call heartsease.

An interesting and observable characteristic of heartsease was noted by Maud Grieve in her book The Modern Herbal: “The flower protects itself from rain and dew by drooping its head both at night and in wet weather, and thus the back of the flower and not its face receives moisture.” V. tricolor is self-fertile and readily reseeds itself. Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on the plant, and various bees, thrips, and flies visit it.

Viola tricolor and V. arvensisThe flowers of V. tricolor are edible and are used in salads, butters, and in ice cubes to dress up a beverage. They make a colorful garnish. The leaves are mucilaginous and can be used to thicken soup. A tea is made from the leaves.

Other uses include using the leaves as a litmus test and using the flowers to make a yellow, green, and blue-green dye.

Viola tricolor has a long history of use in traditional medicines. Its use is documented in the Pharmacopoeia of Europe. Its anti-inflammatory properties have made it a traditional medicinal remedy for skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, scabs, and itchy skin. It has also been used to treat inflammation and chest conditions such as bronchitis and asthma. Research shows that the cyclotides in V. tricolor may have promise in the treatment of cancers. However, more research still needs to be done. 

When I see the dainty little flowers of V. tricolor, I remember the gardens of my sweet mother and grandmother who always had them growing in their gardens. I also think of this quote from William Bullein, an early English physician, who said in 1562, “Pray God give thee but one handful of Heavenly Heartsease which passeth all the pleasant flowers that grow in this worlde.” 

May you be inspired to plant some heartsease in your garden this spring.

For more information of heartsease, Viola tricolor, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Viola tricolor (Muriel Bendel, Wikimedia Commons); 2) Elizabeth I, Hardwick portrait, with Viola tricolor on bottom left (Nicholas Hilliard); 3) Viola tricolor and V. arvensis (C.A.M. Lindman (1836-1928), Wikimedia Commons)

References

Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications. 1971. (reprint)

Hellinger, Roland, et al. Immunosuppressive activity of aqueous Viola tricolor herbal extract . Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24216163/

Hodgson, Larry. The Year of the Pansy. 2017. https://laidbackgardener.blog/tag/icicle-pansy/

Lim, T.K. Edible Medicinal and Non Medicinal Plants: Volume 8, Flowers. Springer. 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=-nvGBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA815#v=onepage&q&f=false

Plants for a future. https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?latinname=Viola+tricolor, 

North Carolina Plant Toolbox. Viola Tricolor. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/viola-tricolor/

Wells, Diana. 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 1997.

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.


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 gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Parsley – Herb of the Month and Herb of the Year

By Maryann Readal

The spotlight is shining on parsley this month. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January and the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2021. The three most common varieties of parsley are P. crispum or curly-leaf parsley,  P. crispum var. neapolitanum or flat-leaf Italian parsley, and P. crispum var. tuberosum or turnip-root parsley which is grown for its root and is used in soups and stews.

Parsley has an interesting history dating back to Greek and Roman times. To the Greeks, parsley symbolized death and was not used in cooking. However, according to Homer, the Greeks fed parsley to their chariot horses as they thought it gave them strength. The Greeks believed that parsley sprang from the blood of one of their mythical heroes, Archemorus, whose name means “the beginning of bad luck.” From then on parsley had an association with death and misfortune. Victorious athletes in the Nemean games were crowned with wreaths of parsley, symbolizing the contest’s origin as a funeral game dedicated to Archemorus. The Greeks had a saying: “De ‘eis thai selinon” (to need parsley), which meant that a person was near death. They also decorated their tombs with parsley.

parsley italianThe Romans, on the other hand, wore wreaths of parsley to ward off intoxication and used it at meals to mask the smell of garlic. Perhaps this is where the idea of parsley as a garnish originated. It is said that the Romans also covered corpses with parsley to cover the smell of decay. 

The Romans and the Greeks used parsley as a medicine. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), in Chapter 20 of his book The Natural History, talks about using a decoction of parsley seeds for  kidney troubles and ulcers in the mouth, and goes on to say that “fish also, if they are sickly in ponds,  are revived by fresh parsley.”  

The Romans brought parsley to England, where colorful folklore arose around the herb, much of it centering around death and ill luck. In Devonshire, it was believed that transplanting parsley would offend the guardians of the parsley bed and that the person doing the transplanting would be punished within the year. In Surrey, it was believed that if someone cut parsley, that person would be crossed in love. In Suffolk, it was thought that parsley should be sown on Good Friday to ensure it coming up double. It was believed that when planting the seeds of parsley, the seed went to the devil nine times and back, with the devil keeping some of the seeds for himself.  This may have been an explanation for the slow germination of parsley seeds. 

parsley root school projectParsley began to be eaten during the Middle Ages.  Charlemagne was said to have grown large quantities of parsley in his gardens for this purpose. Early immigrants brought parsley to the Americas where it was used as a culinary herb.

The association of parsley with death and misfortune played out again in 1937 with the execution of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. An immigrant’s safety depended on if they could pronounce the word “parsley” correctly. This was called the Parsley Massacre and you can read about this tragic piece of history connected with parsley at https://www.ibtimes.com/parsley-massacre-genocide-still-haunts-haiti-dominican-relations-846773.

parsley pestoParsley is a versatile herb in the kitchen. It adds brightness when sprinkled over any finished dish, and is good in salad dressings, soups and stews. It is one of the ingredients in fines herbes, the French persillade, South American chimichurri, and Mexican salsa verde. The Japanese deep fry parsley in tempura batter, and the Swiss serve deep fried parsley with their fondue. And of course, it is used in pesto. It truly is a universal herb.  Herbalist Madalene Hill, former President of The Herb Society of America, in her book Southern Herb Growing, says that her green butter recipe “should accompany most steaks and that its use will probably relegate the steak sauce and ketchup bottle to the back of the refrigerator where they belong.”  Her recipe is simply one stick of softened butter combined with two cups of finely chopped parsley and one tablespoon of lemon juice.

Parsley is a biennial herb and is easy to grow in moist soil in sun or part shade. It is a good companion plant in the garden, warding off asparagus beetles.  Tomatoes, peas, carrots, peppers and corn will also benefit by having parsley nearby.  The flowers attract bees and hoverflies which eat aphids and thrips. It is also said to improve the scent of roses and keeps them healthier. I like to use parsley as a border plant in my garden, which the Greek and Medieval gardeners were also fond of doing. A benefit of including parsley in your garden is that it is a host plant for the swallowtail butterfly, which will frequently lay eggs on the plant.

Parsley swallowtailWithout a doubt, parsley does have medicinal benefits. It is high in vitamins A, C, and K, and contains antioxidants. The leaf, seed, and root are used in medicine. People have used it to treat bladder infections, kidney stones, gastrointestinal disorders, and high blood pressure. Some apply parsley to the skin to lighten dark patches and bruises. It is also used for insect bites.  Pregnant women are advised not to take parsley in medicinal amounts, as it increases menstrual flow and has been used to cause abortion.

For more information on parsley, go to The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month web page and the Essential Facts for Parsley.

Photo Credits: 1) Curly leaf parsley (Amanda Slater); 2) Italian parsley (Maryann Readal); 3) Parsley root (schoolphotoproject.com); 4) Parsley pesto (Wikimedia Commons); 5) Swallowtail caterpillar (Wikimedia Commons) 

References

Fowler, Marie. Herbs in Greek mythology. The Herbarist. 2010. 

Gardening Know How. Information about parsley. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/parsley  Accessed 12/13/20.

Ghosh, Palash. Parsley Massacre:  The genocide that still haunts Haiti-Dominican relations. International Business Times. https://www.ibtimes.com/parsley-massacre-genocide-still-haunts-haiti-dominican-relations-846773  Accessed 12/21/20.

The Herb Society of America. Essential facts for parsley. https://herbsocietyorg.presencehost.net/file_download/inline/140a12b8-0fe0-4a52-ac2c-2b61ea6e786a Accessed 12/22/20.

Hill, Madalene and Barclay, Gwen. Southern Herb Growing. Fredericksburg, TX., Shearer. 1997.

History of parsley-Proverbs & folklore.  http://www.ourherbgarden.com/herb-history/parsley.html Accessed 12/15/20.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History.  Internet Archive. http://www.attalus.org/info/pliny_hn.html Accessed 12/21/20.

WebMD. Parsley. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-792/parsley Accessed 12/22//20.

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.


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 gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

HSA Webinar: Molé, Pan and Chapulin–Oaxacan Style

by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

Face it, 2020, for the most part, has been a bust! The pandemic has cancelled events, reduced travel, and all but eliminated herbal adventures. As we dream of a future where we can begin to move about the globe more easily and safely, now is the perfect time to research new destinations. mapInterestingly, just south of the US border in Mexico there is a unique community that is home to sixteen distinct indigenous peoples living in a mild climate, enjoying unique botanic diversity. 

Oaxaca, Mexico, is a community known for its culture, crafts, textiles, ceramics, cuisine, and complex use of plants. While Mexico is known for its Day of the Dead celebrations, Oaxaca offers the most spiritual and unique Dia de los Muertos Celebrationcelebrations of them all. The Day of the Dead festival (or Dia de los Muertos) is celebrated from October 31st thru November 2nd. During this time, locals believe the gap between our world and the spirit world opens, and loved ones are invited back for a celebration. Offerings are placed on altars in homes, schools, cemeteries, and more. Of course, the spirit world needs nutrition to support their return to the mortal world, so delicious foods play a central role. This melting pot of cultures has created signature dishes including molé (generic for sauces used in Mexican cuisine), pan (an egg based sweet bread made especially for the Day of the Dead), and chapulines (Sphenarium grasshoppers).

Dia de los Muertos panJoin the HSA Webinar series on October 28th at 1pm EDT to celebrate the Day of the Dead with HSA members Sara Holland and Mary Doebbeling as they present, “Molé, Pan, and Chapulin–Oaxacan Style.” A recent journey took them to Oaxaca, Mexico, where they had the opportunity to study and use local herbs and plants. Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today and enjoy all our webinars for free. Visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars or click here to sign up.

Photo Credits: 1) Enchantedlearning.com; 2) Dia de los Muertos Celebration (Holland/Doebbeling); 3) Pan bread (Holland/Doebbeling).


Sara Holland and Mary Deobbeling

Sara Holland and Mary Doebbeling are active members of the Pioneer Unit, giving local presentations and traveling throughout southwest Texas presenting interesting herbal programs. In addition to being active locally, they have both served as South Central District Membership Delegates and have made contributions to HSA Essential Guides, worked on steering committees for district gatherings, and contributed to various committees including the Research Grant Committee.