Coffee – A Bean with a History

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fennel: A Multitasking Herb

by Peggy Riccio

Fennel in bloomI grow fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, in my Virginia garden for many reasons. As an accent in the garden, fennel grows easily from seed to a few feet tall. Sometimes, they are erect and sometimes they bend from the weight to weave among the perennials and shrubs. Their tubular stems mingle with the pumpkin vines on the ground or rest on top of the chrysanthemum shrubs, while their green, fern-like foliage peaks through the zinnias.

Throughout the summer, I can harvest the foliage for use in the kitchen. The leaves have an anise flavor and are good for flavoring fish and chicken dishes and root vegetables. Snips of the foliage can be sprinkled on salads, soup, eggs, and tuna salad sandwiches. 

In the summer, the fennel blooms with large, starburst-like structures, comprising many small yellow flowers. These attract beneficial insects and pollinators, which are good for the rest of my garden. Sometimes, I clip the flower heads for floral arrangements, but I always let some flowers go to seed. 

Fennel as filler in the gardenIn the fall, I clip the seed heads and put them in a paper bag. I save some seeds for sowing next year and some for the kitchen. The seeds have medicinal qualities (the foliage does not) and are often served at the end of the meal in restaurants to help with digestion and to freshen the breath. Eating the seeds or making a tea from the seeds can relieve flatulence, bloating, gas, indigestion, cramps, and muscle spasms. Fennel seeds are also called “meeting seeds,” because when the Puritans had long church sermons, they chewed on the seeds to suppress hunger and fatigue.

Fennel seedsIn the kitchen, seed can be used whole or ground or toasted in a dry frying pan. They can be used as a spice for baking sweets, bread, and crackers, or in sausage or herbal vinegars and in pickling. The seeds have the same anise flavor but are so sweet, they taste like they are sugar-coated. For me, it is like eating small candies, especially tasty after drinking coffee. 

I grow fennel for the caterpillar form of the black swallowtail butterflies. The caterpillars love to eat the foliage, and it makes me happy to grow food for them and to support the butterfly population.

Sometimes the fennel comes back the next year, but it really depends on the winter. I have heard that, in warmer climates, it gets out of control, but in my zone 7 garden, it has not been an issue. After a hard freeze, when I am cleaning up the garden, I cut back the old fennel stalks revealing new foliage at the base. In December, the new foliage is just as lush and green, providing me with more fennel for my recipes, as well as a nice garnish for holiday meals. 

Fennel in DecemberFennel is easy to grow from seed and should be sowed directly in the garden. The plants have a tap root and do not like to be transplanted. The plants prefer full sun but can tolerate some shade, and they need well-drained soil. Treat them like summer annuals and sow seeds every year. 

I should point out that there are two types of fennel: Foeniculum vulgare, which is the leafy one I grow, and Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce, which is the bulbing type. I have grown the bulbing type before but not for the accents it provides in the garden bed. The bulbing type is a shorter plant with a bulbous base, so it is harvested for the bulb before it flowers and sets seed. The bulb is often sliced fresh for salads or cooked with fish and vegetables. One could consider the bronze fennel a third type; it grows like the leafy fennel, only it is a dark bronze color, not bright green. Bronze fennel also can be used in the kitchen.

 

In the kitchen, use the foliage for:

  • green salads
  • fruit salad (nectarine/apricot)
  • egg dishes
  • soups and chowders
  • chicken salad or tuna salad
  • dips and cream sauces
  • yeast breads
  • fish (put a fish filet on bed of leaves and broil, or mix leaves with butter and drizzle over the fish)
  • vegetables such as root vegetables, peas, and potatoes
  • combine with parsley, chervil, and thyme, or make a fennel, parsley, thyme, and lemon juice rub for white fish

Seeds can be used for:

  • fish soup/stock
  • cucumber salads
  • soft cheeses
  • bread/biscuits/crackers
  • sausage mixtures and pork dishes
  • pickling vegetables
  • marinades for meat
  • bean, couscous, lentil, or bulgur wheat dishes
  • potato salad
  • dry rubs or spice blends/powders

Photo Credits: 1) Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) flowers; 2) Fennel as filler in the garden; 3) Dried fennel seeds on plant; 4) New fennel fronds in the December garden. (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.


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

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

by Karen Cottingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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


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

Award-Winning Four Elements Organic Herbals: An Interview

By Chrissy Moore

Jane Hawley Stevens owner of Four Elements Organic HerbalsTo continue my periodic series on The Herb Society of America’s business members, I’d like to introduce our readers to Jane Hawley Stevens, owner of Four Elements Organic Herbals in North Freedom, Wisconsin. I first heard Jane speak at an Herb Society annual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago. She has a thriving business and has herbal insight to share!

When did you first encounter herbs? Have you always known you wanted to work with plants/herbs?

JHS: Yes, I chose horticulture as a career path when I turned 18. This was inspired by picking berries with my grandmother out in the north woods. This is where I felt in heaven, so I knew I needed a career outdoors. My first job after receiving my degree, I was requested to install an herb garden. 

Jane Hawley Stevens with purple coneflowerDo you have formal training in horticulture and/or herb use? Did you have any mentors that particularly inspired or encouraged you? 

JHS: I received a Horticulture degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981. After establishing my first herb garden for a research facility in 1982, I gained experience in growing herbs, then using them for crafts and cooking. When my son was born in 1987, I started using herbs for medicine. I found herbs way more effective than conventional medicine. Before too long, I was making products for herb events and health food stores. The market was way different back then! I began when there were very few herb books, but always loved herbalists and authors Rosemary Gladstar and David Hoffmann.

Aerial photo of the Four Elements herb farmHow did you go about establishing an organic herb farm?

JHS: I say my land was a gift from Gaia. I was able to secure 130 acres in a protected land area as a single mom with an herb business. This seemed like a miracle. Eventually, my husband and I teamed up. He is a horticulturist that has the same vision, and although he is the curator at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum-Longenecker Gardens, he puts in full time here, too, during our long summer days. 

(To see Jane describe her farm in action and business philosophy, please watch this great video she has provided.)

How many different herbs do you grow, and do you grow everything you use in your products?

JHS: We grow about 80 species of herbs. We aim to grow everything we use in our products, but sometimes fall short and must source out herbs from other organic growers. Our recipes are designed to be made with herbs that we can grow in my region.

Lavandula angustifolia flowersWhich herbs do you find the most challenging to work with and why?

JHS: Our beloved lavender is a challenge due to our cold winters and wet springs. It is hard to get the best-scented varieties to survive our winters. It is [also] difficult to grow some native perennials from seeds, like black cohosh and ginseng, due to the double dormancy of the seeds. 

How did you learn about the methods for drying and processing the herbs you use to make teas, tinctures, salves, etc.?

JHS: Not only have I gone through state certifications for commercial kitchens, but I also have occasional visits from the FDA. This fine-tunes us to all the regulations. I have been on the working group for the state of Wisconsin to create standards for herb drying and processing.

Four Elements Herbals "best sellers" productsFor many business owners, they must sacrifice a lot in terms of personal time and preferences. But, there are also rewards in being the curator of your own products/services. What has been your driving philosophy as you’ve grown Four Elements Organic Herbals?

JHS: Not only do herbs provide a plethora of uses and delights, but my experience using plants for food and medicine makes me believe [that] everyone should try herbs as remedies, because they are so effective with so few side effects. This is where my inspiration comes from. I want to connect people to plants for their wellbeing and the health of the planet. Even pharmaceutical companies look to nature for the wonders of their healing potential to get various molecules to patent. I get inspired by “Cultivating Nature’s Wisdom.” I also feel the sense of family created among the Four Elements employees. We are really a team and make working there, even after 35 years, easy.

Four Elements received the 2020 MOSES (Midwest Organic Sustainable and Education Service) Farmers of the Year Award. That must have been a joyous recognition of everyone’s hard work at 4E.

JHS: Yes, it was wonderful to see this award go to a value-added herb company instead of a typical dairy, field crop, or noble Community Supported Agriculture farm. This was a first!

Beige-White-Blue-Sandwich-Food-Travel-Blog-TitleWhat advice would you give someone interested in starting their own herbal product line? 

JHS: Start out by trying your products at farmers markets. Then, you can fine-tune your recipes and packaging. Make sure and put enough for you in your pricing to honor all your hard work. [Ask yourself], what aspect of herbalism excites you?

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Jane Hawley Stevens except 5) Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender (blumenbiene, Creative Commons license).


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As steward of the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics, as well as shepherds the garden’s “Under the Arbor” educational outreach program. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

Image of basil leavesBasil, Ocimum basilicum, still reigns today as the King of Herbs. Its royalty was established by the Greeks, when they gave the herb its name based on the Greek word basilikon, meaning “king.” Alexander the Great is said to have brought basil to the Greeks. According to legend, St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother, followed a trail of basil leading to the remains of Jesus’ cross (Lum, 2020). Since that time, basil has been considered a holy herb in Greece. Basil is used in the Greek Orthodox Church for sprinkling holy water, while some Greeks bring their basil to church to be blessed and then hang the sprigs in their home for health and prosperity (MyParea, n.d.). However, on the isle of Crete, basil somehow gained a bad reputation and was thought to be a symbol of the devil. There seems to be a thread of bad history associated with basil since early times.

Hindu man worshiping tulsi plantAlthough named by the Greeks, basil originated in India 5,000 years ago. In India today, the herb is considered a sacred herb. Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (also known as tulsi), is considered to be the manifestation of the goddess Tulasi, wife of Krishna. It is thought to have great spiritual and healing powers. According to legend, only one leaf of tulsi can outweigh Vishnu’s power. Every devout Hindu home will have a special place for a tulsi plant. It is believed that the creator god, Brahma, resides in its stems and branches, the river Ganges flows through the plant’s roots, the deities live in its leaves, and the most sacred of Hindu religious texts are in the top of holy basil’s branches (Simoons, 1998). Nurturing a tulsi plant ensures that a person’s sins will be forgiven and everlasting peace and joy will be had. (Simoons, 1998). The dried stems of old holy basil plants are used to make beads for Hindu meditation beads. Twentieth-century herbalist Maude Grieve said, “Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a basil leaf on his breast. This is his passport to heaven. It is indeed considered a powerful herb” (Grieve, 1931). 

Image of Egyptian embalmingFrom India, basil spread to Egypt, where the herb was used for embalming and has been found buried with the pharaohs. The herb then moved on to Rome and southern Europe, where the Romans fell in love with it. In Italy, basil was considered a sign of love. If young girls were seeking a suitor, they would place a pot of basil on their windowsill. If a potential suitor showed up with a sprig of basil, the girl would love him forever. 

Ocimum spp (16)Italy became the home of pesto, which basil has made famous. “Pesto was created by the people of Genoa to highlight the flavor of their famous basil. Using a mortar and pestle, they combined simple ingredients to make one of the world’s most famous pasta sauces” (Blackman, 2010). The simple sauce contains only basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Pesto is still a very popular sauce for pasta or crackers, especially in the summer, when fresh basil is plentiful.

During the Middle Ages, they believed that in order to get basil to grow, one had to curse and scream while planting the seed. This is the origin of the French verb semer le basilic (sowing basil), which means “to rant.” It was also thought that if you smelled basil too much, scorpions would enter your brain. Today, the French call basil l’herbe royale, “the royal herb,” and pots of it are found in outdoor restaurants, not to deter scorpions but to deter mosquitoes. Fresh basil leaves are used to make pistou, the French version of pesto.

Image of sign at garden center apologizing for not carrying basil due to downy mildewBasil, a sun-loving member of the mint family, is an annual herb that thrives in summer heat. In fact, it will languish if planted in the garden before temperatures reach a consistent 70 plus degrees. Frequent harvesting of the leaves before flowers appear prolongs its growing season. It can be propagated by seed or cuttings. However, it is very susceptible to downy mildew, which researchers are constantly trying to overcome by breeding more disease-resistant varieties. The new gene editing CRISPR technology may show a promising solution to this problem (Riccio, 2022).

There are more than 100 varieties of basil and counting! Some basils are grown as ornamental plants because of their beautiful blooms. In fact, the Chinese name for basil translates to “nine-level pagoda,” which is a good description of its blooming stalk. African blue basil and wild magic basil are two examples of basils with nice blooms that I have found are bee magnets during the summer. If you are interested in attracting pollinators, your garden should certainly have these basils. Cardinal basil, which shows off its large burgundy flower clusters in late summer, is spectacular in the summer garden. It can also be used as a culinary basil. Lemon basil and ‘Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, both having a lemon scent, are perfect for adding to lemonade, fruit salad, or ice cream. Add cinnamon basil to cinnamon flavored desserts. The showy leaves of purple ruffles basil, O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’, make a nice contrast among other plants in the summer garden. When cooking with basil, it should be added at the end of cooking.

Varieties of basilBasil is not usually considered a medicinal herb, but it was used medicinally in the time of Hippocrates who prescribed it as a tonic for the heart and to treat vomiting and constipation. Pliny the Elder commented that it was good for lethargy and fainting spells, headaches, flatulence, and other digestive issues (Pliny, 1855). China and India have a long history of using basil as a medicinal herb as well.

 Basil does contain a healthy amount of vitamins A, C, and K and has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, which helps fight disease. Studies show that it can help reduce blood clots by making the blood less “sticky.” Animal studies suggest that it might help slow the growth rate of some types of cancer (Todd, 2015).

A plate of brownies with cinnamon basilSo, do enjoy fresh basil this summer. Remember to dry some for the winter, freeze the leaves, or combine chopped leaves with water and freeze in an ice cube tray for later use. However, you should take careful consideration before putting basil on your windowsill lest you attract an unwanted suitor.

Basil is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for June. 

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2010. Basil it’s not just for Italian food anymore. Texas Gardener. Vol. 29, Issue 2, p. 20-25.

Lum, Linda. (2020). Exploring basil: a simple plant with a complicated history. Accessed 5/16/22. https://delishably.com/spices-seasonings/All-About-Herbs-Basil

Matel, Kathy. 2016. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/

MyParea. (n.d.) Basil in Greek culture. Accessed 5/15/22. https://blog.myparea.com/basil-greekculture/#:~:text=For%20ancient%20Greeks%2C%20basil%20was,used%20to%20sprinkle%20holy%20water

Pliny the Elder. 1855. The natural history. John Bostock, M.D. (ed.). London: Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. Accessed 5/15/22. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=20:chapter=48&highlight=ocimum 

Riccio, Peggy. 2022. Breeding better herbs. The American Gardener. Vol. 101, No. 2, p. 30-34.

Simoons, Frederick. 1998. Plants of life, plants of death. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Todd, Kathy. 2015. Basil: King of herbs. Environmental Nutrition. Vol 38, Issue 7, p.8.

Yancy-Keller, Alexandra. 2020. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://www.nutrifitonline.com/blog/news/history-of-basil/

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

Photo Credits: 1) Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum) (Maryann Readal); 2) Man worshipping tulsi basil (Wikimedia Commons, Shirsh.namaward); 3) Egyptian embalming (Catrina’s Garden, https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/); 4) Variegated basil leaves (Ocimum cv.) (Chrissy Moore); 5) Sign at garden center regarding basil and downy mildew (Maryann Readal); 6) Varieties of basil (US National Arboretum); 7) Plate of brownies made with cinnamon basil (Chrissy Moore).


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

Soursop and Bush Tea

By Scott Aker

Soursop, Annona muricataI succumbed to my weariness with winter and decided to spend a week with my cousin Barb in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. She knows my fondness for plants and planned several plant-related activities for me, including a visit to the St. George Village Botanical Gardens and local nurseries. One of the most memorable plant highlights was my first ever tasting of soursop, Annona muricata. I encountered this large, spiny green fruit in Hawaii many years ago, but was only able to buy it the day before we were to leave, and I couldn’t bring it home. I had tried it, even though the store clerk told me I had to let it ripen to the point that the flesh would yield when softly poked. Because it was unripe, it really had no flavor.

When I arrived, she pointed out a soursop in a wooden bowl in the kitchen. She saw that I knew the fruit, and she admonished me, like the clerk in that store in Hawaii, that we could not sample the fruit until it was very soft and mushy. She had frozen some soursop pulp from a fruit she had ripened prior to my arrival, and we scraped it into a kind of sorbet and ate that for dessert. So, I did get a delicious preview of what the fresh fruit would be like. The days went by, and I checked it daily with her. When I thought it was soft enough, she determined it was not quite there and that we would sample it tomorrow.

Author eating soursopWhen the time came to eat the fruit, she asked me to come to the kitchen counter to eat it with her. There were no plates, no knife, and no spoons. I asked what utensils would be needed, and she indicated that the most authentic way to eat this delicacy was with our hands and nothing else. After we thoroughly washed our hands, she plunged hers into the fruit, splitting the skin and revealing the very juicy, soft, and fragrant contents within. She grabbed some of the pulp, which was clinging to the large black seeds, and explained that we shouldn’t eat the seeds, but instead spit them out and place them in some of the skin of the fruit for later disposal. I followed her lead, and my tastebuds instantly rejoiced at the balanced sweetness and sourness of this creamy fruit with overtones of custard, pineapple, and strawberry, all with a smooth, creamy mouth feel. We finished most of that fruit. Later, I asked her where she bought it, and she laughed and said that she picked it from a tree growing at their church.

When I went to Christmas services there with her, I saw the tree. It had many fruits on it, and many seemed to be ripe. It bore a resemblance to the pawpaw, Asimina triloba, in my own backyard. The leaves and stature of the tree were smaller than the pawpaw, but similar enough to signal their close kinship in the Annonaceae family. I thought it odd that others would not have taken these fruits from the tree, but she said that this is a very common dooryard tree on the island and most likely parishioners have trees or know neighbors who do.

A few days later, we stopped for lunch, and I decided to try the bush tea that appeared on the menu. I’d seen this on other menus, but wasn’t sure what might be in bush tea, so I had opted for iced tea instead.  This menu mentioned the ingredients in the bush tea, and I noted that among other things it had soursop listed. I was hoping this meant that the tea would have the deliciously complex sweet and sour flavor of the fruit, but it did not. It had a lovely reddish pink hue and was clear. It had some sourness, no doubt from roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, and a complex taste that had overtones of mint and artemisia, along with other flavors that I found hard to pinpoint. I did not detect any of the fruitiness of the soursop fruit, and when I asked the staff, they told me that tea contained soursop leaves.

The inside of soursop fruitI was stunned by this revelation. I knew that most things, except for the larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, avoid eating leaves of pawpaw and other Annonaceae because of the presence of acetogenins in the leaves, seeds, twigs, and skin of the fruits. Knowing that biochemistry tends to be similar within most plant families, I was slightly concerned that the bush tea I drank had such substances in it. I have accidentally tasted the skin of pawpaw, and I can attest to the astringency and bitterness of acetogenins.

I did not detect the bitterness in the bush tea I drank, and this prompted further investigation. I looked for recipes. I quickly found that there is no set recipe for bush tea. I read the Crucian Contessa blog post (Bailey-Roka, 2012) on bush tea and learned that it consists of plants collected on the spot with no set formula in mind. The constituents may change with the need of the day. With regard to soursop, the author states that, “If you couldn’t sleep, the leaves from the soursop tree would help you rest.” Further research revealed that one of the acetogenins that both soursop and pawpaw produce is annonacin, which is a neurotoxin. I guess a mild neurotoxin may be effective in inducing sleep when overactive nerves are in play.

My cousin also mentioned that bush tea was the Crucians’ cure for any ailment, much as our grandmother considered caraway-flavored kümmel schnapps the cure-all for our childhood ailments. We agreed that the schnapps was a miracle cure only because we quickly learned to never complain of any illness to avoid its very strong and vile flavor. She told me that such was not the case with bush tea. Many islanders consider it a key part of their health regimen and start each day with a cup or more.

Soursop beverageBush tea is so highly esteemed that the local health department had to advise Crucians that bush tea is not effective against viral and bacterial infections. Crucians are known for creativity in making do with local ingredients that nature provides, historically limited by the resources present on their small island. Many of the other constituents may provide vitamins and antioxidants, so they may play a positive role in keeping them healthy.

Those acetogenins have another interesting angle. They are behind most of the cancer-treatment claims behind pawpaw, soursop, and other members of the Annonaceae. Extracts of soursop have also been investigated for treatment of diabetes, ulcers, and a host of other health issues (Mutakin, 2022). While the jury is still out, medicines derived from soursop are not likely to hit the mass market, because it is very difficult to prepare drugs since acetogenins are not stable when subjected to heat. Perhaps one need not worry about drinking a hot cup of bush tea with soursop leaves used in its preparation after all. On the more worrisome side, there has been some thought that consumption of soursop fruit and bush tea may have some link to the higher than expected rate of Parkinson’s Disease present in the Caribbean.

What is most fascinating to me about soursop is what we still do not know. It has been a prized fruit cultivated long before European conquest, yet we don’t fully understand the implications of using its leaves in bush tea. Plants have much to teach us, and we have much to learn.

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) Soursop fruit, Annona muricata; 2) Author trying the ripe fruit; 3) Inside of ripe soursop; 4) Bush tea. All photos courtesy of the author.

References

Bailey-Roka, Tanisha. 2012. Bush tea. Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.cruciancontessa.com/2012/12/20/bush-tea/

Mutakin, M., R. Fauziati, F. Nur Fadhilah, A. Zuhrotun, R. Amalia, et al. 2022. Pharmacological activities of soursop (Annona muricata Lin.). Molecules 27(4). Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8878098/


Scott Aker is Head of Horticulture and Education at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. He authored Digging In in The Washington Post and Garden Solutions in The American Gardener.

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

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mint, savory, marjoram:

The marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author.

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

                                        – Rupert Brooke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: 1) Dianthus (pinks) flowers (Maryann Readal); 2) Chartreuse liqueur (Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Ospalh); 3) Carnation flower (GNU Free Documentation License); 4) 20th anniversary of Black January in Azerbiajan (ElxanQəniyev); 5) L’air du Temps bottle (Walmart.com); 6) Sweet William flowers (Creative Commons, Andrey Korzun); 7) Kate Middleton’s wedding bouquet (Dan Kitwood).

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gain Confidence in Your Identification of True Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

By Cecilia Dailey

Illustration of Taraxacum officinaleDandelion is flowering right now and is a widely known plant to many laypeople. But, do you really know how to differentiate true dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) from other yellow-flowering asters?

It’s common in lawns, pastures, old fields, and waste places. Dandelion is often battled as an agricultural weed and featured as an enemy in chemical lawn care regimes. T. officinale is the most common species, but all species in the genus Taraxacum have nutritional and medicinal benefits that have been documented since antiquity. Although human trials are lacking, there is a “large volume of information that supports the traditional medicinal use of this plant” (Martinez 2015). T. officinale is found worldwide. It is popularly foraged in Italy (Martinez 2015). It was widely used by Native American tribes across the Photo of Taraxacum officinale, Charleston County, South CarolinaUnited States (Moerman 2022). Dandelion flowers, collected and fermented as wine, as well as cooked as a potherb, are documented in African American food history in the South (Yentsch 2008). Recently, researchers found the greens of dandelion (T. officinale), and to a lesser degree, chicory (Cichorium intybus, also called red-ribbed dandelion), active against COVID-19 in vitro (Tran et al. 2021).

There are common look-alikes, all in the Asteraceae family, which may cause confusion when trying to identify the true dandelion (T. officinale). The species listed here are both exotic and native in origin and can occupy the same habitat–ruderal or periodically mowed lands along roads, trails, and cultivated areas.

Photo of Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, Mt. Pleasant, South CarolinaOn the South Carolina coast, I often find Asiatic hawksbeard (Youngia japonica), Carolina false-dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), dwarf-dandelion (Krigia spp.), and sow thistle (Sonchus spp.), all common yellow asters flowering in the spring. When not in bloom, wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.), with white or purple flowers, might be mistaken for dandelion because they also form a basal rosette and have lobed leaves.*

When Taraxacum is in bloom, the flowering stem will not have any branches as seen in Y. japonica and P. carolinianus. Botanists use the word ‘scapose’ to describe a dandelion, because it has a naked stem called a scape. Some Krigia species are scapose (Radford et al. 1968).

Before flowering, get familiar with the serration of the dandelion leaves. Lobes and teeth are angled back toward the stem. There are no prickles, and the leaf is flat and thin.

Photo of Sonchus oleraceus, Charleston County, South CarolinaProper identification of species is paramount in wild harvesting. In the past, medicinal plants were grown in backyard food gardens, and colloquial knowledge of plants was common, passed down by word of mouth and experience in the home. Today, many people who become interested in herbs don’t have access to pristine, rural land where medicinal plants may be found. You may buy them online or resort to wild harvesting in (hopefully) clean and legal locations. Leafy greens can bioaccumulate heavy metals, so care should be taken with site selection (Giacomino 2016).

Photo of Krigia virginicaBotanical understanding of a species is paramount to wild harvesting. Take the time to look closer, and collect plants for inspection at home. Don’t eat them yet, but grow them in your home garden, and look closely at anything similar in your region. Early spring is a great time to work on this group. There will always be botanical surprises the more closely you look at the details, no matter your level of expertise.

Botanical texts with dichotomous keys used for identification of plants in the Southeast include Radford et al. (1968) and Weakley (2020).

*See “Dandelions and dandelion-like species” on Namethatplant.net for additional comparison photos of plants not pictured here. As always in botany, there is more to study. Hypochaeris radicata and Hieracium venosum are additional yellow-flowering asters you might encounter in the Southeast not mentioned in this article. http://www.namethatplant.net/mobile/gallery_compare.shtml?compare=Dandelions%20and%20Dandelion-like%20species 

Medical 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 education 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) Illustration of Taraxacum officinale, dandelion (Radford et al., 1968); 2) Taraxacum officinale, Charleston County, South Carolina; 3) Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; 4) Sonchus oleraceus, Charleston County, South Carolina; 5) Krigia virginica. All other photos courtesy of Richard Porter used by permission.

References

Giacomino, Malandrino, Colombo, Miaglia, Maimone, Blancato, Conca, and Abollino. Metal Content in Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Leaves: Influence of  Vehicular Traffic and Safety upon Consumption as Food. Journal of Chemistry. Volume 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/9842987

Martinez, Poirrier, Chamy, Prüfer, Schulze-Gronover, Jorquera, and Ruiz. Taraxacum officinale and related species—An ethnopharmacological review and its potential as a commercial medicinal plant. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Volume 169, 1 July 2015, Pages 244-262.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874115002263?casa_token=ja_3p4paoGoAAAAA:71L3885ZrbZvAi0-y8mqL57AyjOxLi3LE5uXnoiGM0xy85smab799l-sUZra36IWNHsnhVi_32E

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany Database, search for “taraxacum officinale,” last accessed 27 March 2022. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=taraxacum+officinale

Radford, Ahles, and Bell. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Tran, Le, Gigl, Dawid, and Lamy. Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) efficiently blocks the interaction between ACE2 cell surface receptor and SARS-CoV-2 spike protein D614, mutants D614G, N501Y, K417N and E484K in vitro. bioRxiv preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.19.435959; this version posted 19 March 2021. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.03.19.435959v1.full.pdf

Weakley, Alan S. Flora of the Southeast. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU), North Carolina Botanical Garden, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2020. https://ncbg.unc.edu/research/unc-herbarium/flora-request/ (download request)

Yentsch, Anne. Excavating the South’s African American food history.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter, Volume 12, Issue 2 June 2009. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1802&context=adan


Cecilia Dailey is a biologist, conservationist, author, and artist. Celie is a DHEC-certified wild mushroom forager in South Carolina and Georgia and has a Certificate of Native Plant Studies from Clemson University. 

Know Your Tarragon – The Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

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

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

French tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus (syn. dracunculoides)

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

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

Mexican tarragon — Tagetes lucida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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