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.

Wines from the Gardens and Fields of Scotland

By Catherine MacLennan

(This article was originally published in The Herb Society of America’s annual journal, The Herbarist, 41(1975): 37-40. Almost 50 years later, Mrs. MacLennan’s narrative still evokes vivid images of foraging for edible plant material on her family’s property in Scotland.)

West Highlands ScotlandVisitors to the West Highlands admire so much our woods and mountains, especially when the heather spreads its bright purple mantle of flowers, but how many ever stop to think of the numerous delicious wines which can be made from our shrubs and trees, their flowers, their berries and leaves.

Somewhere beside every West Highland croft or farmhouse in olden times, there grew—and may still be found growing—the Elder tree, called in Lowland Scots the Boor tree. Another name given to it—‘Buttery wood tree’—always causes argument. Some writers maintain it refers to the soft white inner pith of the young wood, others that it springs from one of its many uses.

On farms and crofts there used always to be a small stone-built dairy or milk house, where milk was set in flat pans and where cream was kept for churning. During summer small branchlets of Elder wood were kept in the dairy, as these banished flies and kept milk and cream fresh and sweet. Hence ‘Buttery wood.’

Whatever the name, the Elderflower produces one of the best of our home-made wines, light pale gold or goldy green, the home-made wine most nearly resembling Champagne. The Elder berries also make a delicious wine resembling Port when properly matured. Both these wines are health giving; an excellent stimulant at all times. The Elder flower buds were also used as a pickle to be served with cold meats.

Gooseberry Jelly flavoured with Elderflowers is a delicious preserve. Put a fully open spray of Elderflowers in a muslin bag and add the bag to the jelly during the final five minutes of cooking. Beauty aids, creams, toilet water and salves were all made from Elderflowers. As well as beautifying, it freshened and rejuvenated even the most dull and tired skin.

Another very common tree flowering in early summer is the Hawthorn or Mayflower. Its creamy blossoms are very fragrant and scent the air around it. The wine made from these blossoms is light, pleasant and has a delicate vanilla bouquet. A flavouring essence may also be made with Hawthorn blossom by using one pound of flowers to three pounds of powdered sugar. Layers of blossom with layers of sugar alternately are placed in a stone jar until all is used. Cover the jar closely and put in a cool cellar. (West Highland people with no suitable cellar used to find the milk house ideal.) Leave for full 24 hours, then remove to where the sun shines hot on the jar. After 48 hours strain this delicious essence into a bottle and stopper carefully.

Later, the Hawthorn berries make what I consider a wine even more exotic, when well matured, than that from the blossoms. It has a most unusual bouquet, smooth, rich and mellow.

Gorse flowersA shrub, usually thought of as a weed, which grows in the West Highlands by roadsides, hillside and lochside, and never seems to be out of flower, is the Gorse, Furze or Whin. It is so prickly that no animal will eat it, but its golden yellow flowers make a rich, rather heavy-bodied wine which is also very intoxicating. It must be given at least a year to mature and is worth waiting for. Its flavour is most unusual, a hint of almond with a touch of scent of the flowers.

Of all the wines I have made—and there are few which I have not made—Birch wine was always my favourite as regards making. Not my favourite wine, Elderflower is that, but I loved tapping the Birch trees to draw off the sap, searching the moss wood on a warm spring day for the most suitable tree, and making sure it was not a tree which already had been tapped the previous year or the year before that.

Betula pendula (silver birch) barkIt was like stepping back in time one century. Birch wine was a favourite wine of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and throughout the years of her long reign large quantities had to be made at Balmoral every year. The time for tapping the Birch trees is when the leaf buds are swollen ready to open, usually early March. Having decided on the trees, you then get pieces of young Elder wood about four inches long, and scrape out the soft white pithy core leaving a hollow tube. Next take a brace with a bit, and bore a hole in the trunk of the Birch tree 18 inches from the ground, to allow the hollow posset of Elder wood to fit in firmly. When boring the Birch tree, as soon as the clear sap shows, stop, fit the posset and fix a clean, dry, sterilized bottle under the posset. The sap runs freely into the bottle, and whenever the bottle is full it must be securely corked. As many trees as possible should be tapped each day to give at least one gallon of sap, which is the best quantity to make at a time. The sap is clear and sparkling. If any hint of colour shows in the sap drawn off, discard it. One thing to remember, if the leaf buds have opened do not tap the tree; the sap will be slow to run as well as unsuitable for wine. It is certainly fascinating and challenging, waiting for just the right moment. When the possets are removed from the Birch trees, carefully fill up the holes with pieces of wood or resin and seal over with any form of wax to exclude all airborne diseases.

Tapping birch treeThe wine is made by boiling one gallon of sap with three and a half pounds of best sugar and the rind and juice of two lemons for about one hour. Strain into a jug or basin large enough to hold this quantity. When tepid add yeast, leave covered for four days, when the ferment will have caused a heavy scum to rise which must be carefully removed. Strain into a storage jar fitted with fermentation trap. In a month to six weeks the wine will have cleared. Decant into another storage jar and leave for one year. It is the home-made wine most nearly like Vodka and was a favourite in Scandinavian countries and Russia.

Then there is the Mountain Ash or Rowan Berry wine. Strip the berries from the stalks when fully ripe and brilliant scarlet, but not over ripe. To each gallon of berries add one gallon of boiling water, cover and allow to stand four days. Then strain, add the yeast and three and a half pounds of sugar to each gallon of liquor. Cover closely, leave to ferment for 16 days, then skim and strain into a storage jar with fermentation trap. When clear and working has finished, bottle and keep nine months to a year.

Rowan berriesI have not given quantity of yeast as there are different yeasts available specially for wine makers. In all the very old recipes which stated “spread one ounce of yeast on a slice of toast and add to the liquor,” I found this always far too much and used only a small teaspoonful to a gallon.

These are only some of the wines which our countryside provides. There are also the wines from our gardens, Rose Petal wine and liqueur, both delicious and health giving and used in days gone by to ‘reduce fevers’ in very ill people.

From the kitchen garden, there is Parsley wine. When well made and fully mature this is a light, rich sparkling wine with no hint of Parsley flavour but with an almost exotic flavour of mingled almonds and Curly parsley leavesvanilla. A glass of it sipped at bedtime was believed to induce natural health-giving sleep.

The humble potato with barley produced a wine which was more like whisky. Excellent for coughs and colds.

Beetroot wine is always popular, and was said to be a sure cure for anaemia. Unfortunately its very ease of making and clearing is its undoing; it looks so clear and sparkling it is used too soon. Beetroot wine carefully made and kept for one and half years is an excellent table wine, tasting of anything but beetroot; instead it is a very pleasant smooth red wine.

The list is endless. I have had a lifetime’s experience of all sorts of wine making. One year, we had a splendid crop of peas and I made quite a lot of Pea Pod wine; it was excellent. Two years later I used it as the basis for a mint liqueur and now, six years from making the Pea Pod wine, I still have a small bottle of Mint Liqueur for very special friends only.

One more special brew is Heather wine; in spite of the work involved picking the tiny flowers—no green or stalk must be used—the result is a wine which makes one really believe the Fairies first discovered Heather wine.

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) West Highlands, Scotland (scotlandsgreattrails.com); 2 & 3) Elder flowers and berries (Sambucus nigra) (Dr. Peter Llewellyn); 4) Hawthorn flowers (Crataegus monogyna) (Wikimedia Commons, Jamain); 5) Hawthorn fruit (Crataegus monogyna) (Creative Commons, H. Zell); 6) Gorse flowers (Ulex sp.) (Creative Commons, John Haslam); 7) Silver birch tree (Betula pendula) (Creative Commons, Arthur Chapman); 8) Birch tree tapping (Creative Commons, Jelle); 9) Rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) (Creative Commons, Dave_S.); 10) Curly parsley leaves (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) (C. Moore); 11) Pea pod (Creative Commons, Maria Keays); 12) Heather flowers (Calluna vulgaris) (Creative Commons, foxypar4).


Catherine MacLennan (d. 1975) was from Tomuaine, Port Appin, Argyll, Scotland. She had “a remarkable store of information about flowers, birds and beasts, the history and legends of Appin, and much else. Her extremely modest and retiring nature disguised a penetrating mind and a retentive memory…. She came of farming stock…. Her green fingers and knowledge of garden plants turned a small piece of garden ground into a treasury of beautiful and rare plants.” (From The Oban Times, by Dawn MacLeod)

Lemon Eucalyptus

by Peggy Riccio

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on July 5, 2021 at https://pegplant.com/2021/07/05/lemon-eucalyptus/

Small lemon eucalyptus in a black pot on a table

Lemon eucalyptus in May

A few months ago, I was at a farmer’s market in Alexandria, Virginia, when a particular plant caught my eye. It was a lemon eucalyptus plant (Corymbia citriodora). It was less than a foot tall in a plastic container. I love lemon scented herbs – I think I am subconsciously collecting them. The seller told me it was from Australia and was not hardy here in Zone 7, so it would have to be brought indoors in the fall.  

I brought it home and placed it in the garden in full sun, where it thrived so well I had to move it to a larger container within a few months. At first, it resented the move but now it is flourishing, still in full sun. It did not even mind the recent heat wave. 

The lemon scent is so strong, all you have to do is brush the leaves with your hand and you will visualize a bowl full of lemons. Of all my lemon scented herbs — lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon verbena, lemon mint, lemon thyme, and lemon scented geranium – this is one of the most fragrant. I pulled a leaf off and compared it with the lemon verbena, which I think is the other most pungent lemon herb I have. The lemon eucalyptus leaf was very coarse with small bristles. The scent was strong but more of a musky lemon. The lemon verbena leaf was not as coarse and had an equally pungent lemon scent but was sweet, like sugar and lemons. 

Lemon eucalyptus in a terra cotta pot, with echinacea in the background

Same plant in July

The lemon eucalyptus plant is about three feet now and not very bushy.  In October, I will bring it indoors so it probably will not get much taller than 4 feet. In its native habitat, it would grow to be a tall evergreen tree and bloom tiny white flowers. I could have planted it in the ground and just let it die with frost but how often does one come across such an unusual plant here in Virginia? 

This is not a culinary herb – it is not to be ingested. It is a medicinal herb though; the leaves are used in traditional aboriginal medicine. The essential oil in the leaves is an antiseptic and is used in perfume. The plant is a rich source of citronella, which is a mixture of many compounds including citronellol, citronellal and geraniol. The oil of eucalyptus is an effective mosquito deterrent, although the plant itself cannot deter mosquitoes, so don’t be fooled into thinking that a plant on the patio will keep you bug free. 

Large lemon eucalyptus in a terra cotta pot on a porch

Much bigger by November

There is a difference between the essential oil and the oil of eucalyptus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recognized oil of eucalyptus (OLE) as effective in deterring mosquitos. OLE contains p-Methane-3,8-diol (PMD), a naturally occurring compound obtained from the spent distillation of the leaves. PMD can also be synthesized in a laboratory. PMD is the only plant-based mosquito repellent that has been recognized by the CDC to be effective in repelling mosquitoes while posing no risk to human health. However, children under the age of three should not use this because it can irritate the eyes. PMD has been registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an effective plant-based mosquito repellent. If you want a commercial, plant-based mosquito repellent, look for a product that lists “oil of lemon eucalyptus” as an active ingredient, which should provide up to six hours of protection. Lemon eucalyptus essential oil has a lower level of PMD and is not effective in repelling mosquitoes. The essential oil is made by steam distilling the leaves and twigs.  

When I bought my plant, I wasn’t thinking mosquitoes, I was just thinking it had a pretty lemon scent. Personally, I think I will use the leaves in my potpourri, maybe with a touch of lavender.

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.


Peggy 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.

Gather Ye Redbuds While Ye May – A Colorful Harbinger of Spring…and Edible, Too!

by Karen Cottingham

Eastern_Redbud_by Dan Keck via wikimediaHere in Texas, there’s a saying: “We have two seasons – summer and winter.” That’s not quite true; but if you’re not paying attention, spring can slip right past. And the last thing I want is to miss a single day of our glorious, but ephemeral, spring. 

The nights here are still cold – sometimes approaching freezing – but the robins have arrived, so I know springtime is near. It’s time to listen for a hushed prelude to seasonal change, time to look for intimations of life beginning to stir. Every few days, this calls for a visit to the two redbud trees in my Houston neighborhood to check the trunks and bare branches for any evidence of tiny pink flowers. Nothing to see for weeks on end; then suddenly, here they are – scattered crimson buds emerging straight from the furrowed bark, swelling with life, and some already unfolding their delicate pink wings. In a week or so, the branches will be covered with a dazzling display of vibrant spring color. Heart-shaped leaves of bronze, crimson, or vivid chartreuse will soon follow and add to the brilliant Eastern redbud by Melissa McMasters via wikimediaspectacle. 

Taking a look at the distribution map of our native redbuds, a similar burst of color might announce spring’s arrival for many of our HSA members. North American redbuds fall into two groupings, each with a number of regional varieties – Cercis canadensis, or Eastern redbud, and Cercis orbiculata, the Western redbud group. Several additional redbuds are native to Southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, and central Asia; collectively, these small leguminous trees make up the entire Cercis genus.

Many of you living in redbud’s distribution may still be snowed in or are impatiently waiting for the ground to thaw so you can prepare your garden for planting. If you’re feeling restless, just imagine the anxiety of previous generations reliant on early crops to replenish their dwindling winter stores. And then imagine their relief and delight to see the first signs of the approaching spring. 

Distribution of Cercis orbiculata (left) and C. canadensis (right).

Many crop-growing Native Americans considered the redbud just this sort of “seasonal indicator,” a long-awaited sign that fresh food would soon be plentiful. For some, the vibrant blossoms were even believed to hasten the arrival of warm weather. Members of the Kiowa tribe, for example, decorated their dwellings with redbud wreaths and twigs to help “drive out the spirit of winter.” 

Eastern redbud in full bloom with small pink blossomsWhile its ability to awaken a slumbering spring makes a lovely story, experience also proved that a blooming redbud can be dangerously misleading. According to Cherokee historian David Cornsilk, the Eastern redbud is known as Da-yi-go-gi, or “Liar,” in the Cherokee language. Don’t be deceived, the elders warn, by the Liar, the first tree to blossom in the spring. Da-yi-go-gi may put on a dazzling display against the dun and drab forest background, but it’s not always a reliable signal that winter is over. If precious seeds were planted based on the false promise of the blooming redbud, the tender plants might well be lost to a later hard freeze. It’s better to resist, for a while longer, the exuberance of Da-yi-go-gi.

Appalachian folklore also warns against naively trusting the early blooming redbud; a “redbud winter” refers to the cold snap that frequently occurs just after the redbuds bloom. 

As pioneers moved into the Appalachian Mountains, the native redbud trees played another important “indicator” role. Much of the soil there is acidic and too poor to sustain crops. Settlers soon learned that redbuds growing in a “cove” or “draw” indicated a limestone-rich basic soil suitable for successful farming.

Eastern_redbud_fruit_SEWilco via wikimediaNative Americans, along with the early settlers, also found ways for redbud to supplement their supply of food. Flowers, newly emerged leaves, young seed pods, and mature seeds are all edible. Even the twigs have a place in food preparation, being used so often to season game in southern Appalachia that the trees there are called “spicewood.” Traditionally, the flowers are eaten straight off the tree, but they have also been used for salad garnishes, teas, jellies, and pie fillings. Peter Kalm, the American agent of Linnaeus, called redbud the “sallad tree,” because its flowers were so often eaten in salads. 

Knowing this, I was thrilled to reach up, pick a tiny flower, inhale deeply, and pop it into my mouth. I’d been looking forward to this moment for months since I first read that redbud blossoms are not only edible, but are also delicious. The little flower emitted a strong floral fragrance that reminded me of honey. It was delightfully crunchy; floral, but in an out-of-focus, unrecognizable way; and sweet with a tangy lemony taste.

Encouraged, I decided to try an unopened bud, and was instantly propelled into my own Remembrance of Things Past moment. The flavor sensation of that little bud was identical to my childhood experience of munching on green peas picked fresh from the field! 

At first, this might sound strange, but it actually makes sense. The species Cercis canadensis belongs to the botanical family Fabaceae, making it a close relative of beans, peas, peanuts, tamarind, and other legumes.

Salad_of_Romaine_lettuce_and_wild_Toothwort,_Purple_Dead_Nettle_and_Redbud_flowers_-_Flickr_-_Jay_Sturner via wikimediaAs an added bonus, redbud flowers have a significantly higher vitamin C content than most common domesticated fruits and vegetables, including oranges. The flowers are also rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidant pigments that give them their magenta/fuchsia color.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own tree, here are a few ways to add redbud surprises to your spring menu (links to recipes follow):

Fresh redbud flowers make a vibrant addition to salads, but also to cakes, quick breads, crackers, muffins, and even pancakes. Pickled buds can be used like capers to garnish a salad, but even better, the rosy-red pickling vinegar can be used for dressings or vinegar-based beverages. There are plenty of recipes on the internet for redbud flower jelly, and it is even possible to crystallize the flowers for a beautiful dessert embellishment. 

One of my favorite recipe ideas is for a cucumber, cream cheese, and redbud flower-filled tea sandwich. Imagine serving that for a springtime “Afternoon Tea!” You could even brew a redbud tisane, adding a bit of lemon to bring out the fuchsia color. A simple syrup of infused redbud flowers makes a lovely floral sweetener for cocktails, herbal waters, or lemonade. And don’t forget to add a redbud cluster as a garnish!

For the devoted forager with access to sassafras, here’s another idea – a goat cheese and coconut milk tart flavored with redbud flowers and newly emerged sassafras leaves. 

And why not really celebrate the arrival of spring by adding a few crunchy pink flowers to a spring roll? Sprinkle the flowers on the rice paper wrapper first so they show in the finished roll, then add other foraged flowers and greens, perhaps some shrimp or fish, and serve with a spicy peanut sauce. 

1200px-Redbud,_Forest-Pansy,_Cercis-canadensis_IMG_7214 S_G_S via wikimedia

The flowering period of redbuds is brief; and in a few weeks, the tree will completely leaf out and start producing seed pods. Supposedly the young leaves taste rather like grass, and the young seed pods taste like snow peas or beans. Either could be added to a stir fry, but I probably won’t try that. As one writer delicately puts it, “The high fiber content may cause some unintended and unwanted digestive consequences.”

The Navajo were said to bury the mature pods in the coals of a fire and eat the roasted seeds. I’m not sure how they would taste, but as far as survival foods go, redbud seeds, at 22-27% protein and 7-8% fat, have excellent nutritional value. The seeds are also rich in antioxidants and the essential fatty acids linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid.

Quercetin, an important antioxidant flavonoid, was actually isolated for the first time from the pods of Cercis canadensis.

Cercis_canadensis,_Forest_Pansy_-_geograph.org.uk_-_2133216 by Jonathan Billinger via wikimediaSo the edible redbud plant parts clearly offered beneficial nutrients to early inhabitants of North America. But that’s not all – redbud bark is rich in therapeutic tannins and is an important medicine for several Native American tribes. Infusions of the bark are extensively used for respiratory congestion, as a cough suppressant, and to treat diarrhea and vomiting. 

In “Lenape Indian Medicines,” a compilation of the plant medicines used by the Lenape, or Delaware, tribe, Glenn McCartlin describes the remedy for vomiting used by his grandmother, Minnie Fouts: “Take six 1-1/2 ft Box Elder limbs that are pointing east. Scrape limbs starting from the end. And take two limbs from Redbud tree, and put in a pan with some cold water and drink it every little while until it quits.” I don’t know about box elder limbs, but a tannin-rich infusion of redbud bark might well have been sufficiently astringent to relieve nausea. 

And for those who suffer from depression in the dark time of the year, the traditional healers in the Ozarks prepare a tea from redbud bark that flushes out the “winter blues.” 

We tend to think of redbud as a beautiful and welcoming harbinger of spring, but it’s actually so much more – a valuable medicine and important source of nutrition, and a lively and tasty addition to your spring menus. I’m reminded of wild-food advocate Euell Gibbons challenging his TV viewers in the 1970s with what seemed to be a preposterous question, “Ever eat a pine tree?” He paused slightly, and then explained to the shocked viewers, “Many parts are edible.” I think he would have loved the colorful and edible redbud! 

I hope you enjoy it as well.

REDBUD RECIPES

Butter-Poached Panfish and Redbud Blossom Spring Rolls https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/butter-poached-panfish-and-redbud-blossom-spring-rolls

Eastern Redbud Blossom Jelly Recipe https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/eastern-redbud-blossom-jelly-recipe

Edible Redbud Flowers on Ham and Cheese Omelet  https://mysliceofnice.com/f/edible-redbud-flowers-on-ham-and-cheese-omelette

Herbed Watercress Cheese & Wild Flower Crackers  https://www.wildedible.com/blog/herbed-watercress-cheese-wild-flower-crackers

Mskobaskbegit Meweyak (Redbud & Maple Syrup Cakes)  https://www.mrinconranch.com/post/mskobaskbegit-meweyak-redbud-maple-syrup-cakes

Redbud & Cucumber Tea Sandwiches  
http://livetheoldway.com/redbud-tea-sandwiches/

Redbud Flower-Sassafras Tartlet  https://www.feastmagazine.com/recipes/article_987245ba-edc6-11e4-b6c6-9f639630fae1.html

Redbud & Lemon Cornmeal Loaf Cake  https://www.ful-filled.com/2017/03/25/redbud-lemon-cornmeal-loaf-cake/

Redbud Salad  
https://tracksandroots.com/2020/04/04/redbud-salad

Redbud Sour  
https://www.oliveandmango.com/redbud-sour/

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) Cercis canadensis flowers (Dan Keck); 2) Newly emerged leaves of C. canadensis (Melissa McMasters); 3) Geographical distribution of C. orbiculata and C. canadensis (USDA Plants Database); 4) Redbud in full flower (Dcrjsr); 5) Green seed pods (SEWilco); 6) Salad of romaine lettuce, toothwort, purple deadnettle, and redbud flowers (Jay Sturner); 7) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (S.G.S.); 8) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ fall color (Jonathan Billinger). All photos via Wikimedia, except distribution maps.

References:

Native American Ethnobotany Database (Internet). 2003. Redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=redbud

Rementer, J. 1986. Some additional Lenape Indian medicines. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/556207/SOME_ADDITIONAL_LENAPE_INDIAN_MEDICINES

Robertson, K. R. 1976. Cercis: The redbuds. Arnoldia, 36(2): 3749. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://arboretum.harvard.edu/stories/cercis-the-redbuds/

Sarcraft. 2019. Wild edible Wednesday 3/27: Eastern redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://sarcraft.squarespace.com/news/eastern-redbud-edible-and-medicinal-uses

Sibray, D. 2020. Pink-flowering redbud trees guided early W.Va. settlers. West Virginia Explorer Magazine. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://wvexplorer.com/2020/04/13/pink-flower-trees-redbud-west-virginia/

Some Thoughts from Polly’s Granddaughter. 2012. Beware the Eastern redbud! Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://www.pollysgranddaughter.com/2012/01/beware-eastern-redbud.html


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.

“Hazards” of the Job: Dealing with Plant Defenses in the National Herb Garden

By Chrissy Moore

Hot shot firefightersI’ve never been much of a daredevil. Overactive amygdala, perhaps, or maybe I’m just a ninny. (Usually, the latter.) And yet, I’ve always admired those individuals who brave dangerous situations for the good of others: firefighters running toward the flames; avalanche search and rescue teams; Alaska’s Coast Guard members that jump into frigid waters during gale force winds…you get the idea.

Today, I had an epiphany while watering our myriad plants in the greenhouses. Most people think that herb gardening is a quaint, bucolic endeavor, which, admittedly, has a ring of truth to it. But, those people have never worked in the National Herb Garden (NHG), where we, too, face dangerous situations on a regular basis, just of the botanical sort.

Staff handling heavy containersFor example, every year, twice a year, the NHG staff and coworkers haul many large containerized plants into and out of the greenhouses, where they spend the winter months. Many of these plants are loathsome creatures, not just because of their size (try hauling and lifting hundreds of pounds of “dead weight” for hours at a time…hope you didn’t water them the day before!), but because of the physical hazards they present. It is not unusual for plants to employ natural defenses to protect themselves from malevolent insects or browsing animals, etc. That’s understandable. Yet, when we—the benevolent humans assigned to be their nurturing handlers—are subjected to that very same botanical weaponry, it seems just a wee bit like unnecessary punishment. But, no one ever said life was fair.

Flowers and fruit of CalamondinLet’s look at our beloved Citrus plants. These shrubs have beautiful flowers with a glorious scent and delectable fruit. What’s not to love? Most people only get the occasional painful squirt of acidic juice in their eye when peeling the fruit.Thorns on Citrus plant Yeah, not us. We are repeatedly stabbed by the plants’ two- to three-inch long thorns all over our bodies and, heaven forbid, in or around our eyes. To paint the picture for you better, our method for moving all of the plants in and out of the greenhouses is by a hand truck. So, the whole upper half of our bodies is engulfed by the plant’s canopy. For the Citrus, one puncture wound is bad enough; multiple punctures is just plain mean.

A few years ago, I was visiting friends in Málaga, Spain. It was interesting to see large, in-ground specimens of plants that we can only grow in containers in the NHG. One of them, Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), is one of our more hated plants to move in the garden. (If only we could grow ours in the ground!) Like many palms, the fronds have sharp points at the end of every leaflet.

And like the Citrus plants, our date palm gets hauled around on the hand truck, with all the fronds right at face level. Death by a thousand stabs. To get the plants into their final positions, we need to navigate the narrow greenhouse walkways, which takes a lot of coordinated effort between the one hauling the plant and the person doing the guiding; more often than not, the person doing the hauling can’t see past the plant and must navigate by auditory cues rather than visual ones. As you might imagine, this only adds to the danger!

Staff with Phoenix dactylifera leaves in their face

Moving the date palm

My personal “favorites” each have minor variations on the armament theme just to keep you from getting complacent: pineapple (Ananas sp.) has upward-facing prickles along its leaves; Agave sp. has outward-facing prickles; and cascalote (Tara cacalaco) has downward-facing prickles. These are what I consider the plant versions of the Chinese finger torture: the more you dive in or pull back, the more caught you become. And, by default, the more stabbing you experience. Agave plants, in particular, are awkward to maneuver on a good day, but ours range in size from three to four feet across and two to three feet tall. Given their sprawling nature, there’s not even the remote chance of using a hand truck to move them.

You must fully embrace the pain by lifting them from the ground just under their “waists,” like a child that’s really just too big to be picked up anymore. “Bend with your knees!” has little bearing on this activity. If we’re being honest, we’re just trying to fling that thing to its final resting place as fast as we can and from whatever “reasonable” posture we can attain, wrecked clothing and hairdo be damned. How do those folks at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona do this day in and day out? No thanks…trying to quit. My assistant, Erin, is the smart one; before handling an agave, she nips the spines off with her pruners. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?

Cascalote, while sporting dainty, pinnately compound leaves, is actually a botanical death trap. Like the agave, pineapple, and Citrus combined, its prickles are not only curved for maximum entrapment, but they also cover the entirety of the plant, nearly from head to toe. The only thing in its favor (at least for our specimen) is that it has a generally upright growth habit rather than being wild and ungainly like the pineapple and agave. Thank goodness for small blessings, short-lived though they may be. Getting caught in the cascalote is like getting sucked into quicksand—the more you move, the worse your situation becomes. I did say Chinese finger torture, didn’t I? (Side note from Erin on moving our cascalote: “Man, after moving that Tara this go around, I got home that night and had a thorn still stuck in my leg. It had worked its way through jeans and a thermal layer to hitchhike and irritate me all day. I still have a little scar!” See! We’re really telling the truth.)

The last, but certainly not least, plant on my list is sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)—and, frankly, most species in the grass family (Poaceae). If you’ve never worked with a grass of sugarcane’s magnitude, then you haven’t met the devil incarnate…yet. It hides its weaponry really well, so you’re more likely to forget rather than be vigilant. Sugarcane is replete, not only with irritating hairs Trichomes (hairs) on Saccharum (sugarcane) leaves(called trichomes) at the joints along the stem that wiggle under your clothing and irritate your skin to no end, but the leaves themselves sport razor sharp edges in a pattern similar to a sawmill blade. The leaf edges slice human skin with the accuracy of a piece of notebook paper. Yep, paper cuts are my fa-a-a-vorite! “What? You don’t enjoy paper cuts? Hmmh, go figure!” Handling sugarcane takes a bit of forethought and a deft hand. The trick is to pick up the plant so that the leaves are directed away from your own body and hopefully not toward your coworkers who are naïvely standing nearby. Invariably, though, someone will get a little too spirited in their moving, and suddenly, we’re all running for cover like kids at a piñata party.

Scanning electron micrograph of a sugarcane leaf edgeWhile not all of our plants create perilous situations (parsley and oregano are pretty benign…or are they?), we certainly hear a lot of grousing and grumbling from our coworkers and volunteers when moving day arrives…sometimes under muffled breath and sometimes hollering from the top of their lungs. That’s when you shrug your shoulders and say, “Just another day in the life of the National Herb Garden! Someone get the First Aid Kit.”

Author’s Note: I regret to inform our readers that the Phoenix dactylifera has moved on to greener pastures (pun intended). We finally decided that it was getting too big for safe handling and preferred to start anew with a smaller specimen. Our bodies are grateful for that decision.


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.

Bay Laurel – Herb of the Month, Herb of Achievement

By Maryann Readal

Bay laurel as a small treeBay laurel, Laurus nobilis, The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February, has been a symbol of achievement, power, and victory from early Greek and Roman times until our present day. The origin of laurel as a symbol rests with Apollo and his love for the nymph Daphne. Unfortunately, the love was not mutual and at her request, the gods turned Daphne into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo’s advances. Apollo loved the laurel tree and decided to use it as a sign of achievement. The Greeks called the bay laurel tree Daphne.

Early Olympic Game winners were awarded laurel garlands, and Greek poets and musicians wore laurel wreaths. Romans adopted the symbolism and crowned their emperors with leaves of laurel. To this day, the crowns of some European monarchs incorporate the laurel leaf.

An early belief was that the laurel tree was fireproof and could deter lightning strikes. Therefore, laurel trees were planted near doorways or sprigs of laurel were hung in doorways to prevent fire. Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal said, “neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where bay tree is” (Mieseler, 2009).

Today, we use terms such as poet laureate and Nobel laureate, both describing someone who has achieved a high honor in their field. We are familiar with the phrase “resting on one’s laurels,” which means that someone who has achieved much can rest on their achievements and need not do more. “Our word baccalaureate comes from the custom of crowning young doctors of medicine with laurel leaves and berries, bacca lauri,” notes Theresa Mieseler (2009). Laurel branches are still used as a part of graduation ceremonies in some colleges and universities worldwide today. A laurel wreath is awarded to the winner of the Grand Prix. You will also see the laurel wreath on coins and on the emblems of nations. Its symbolism is meaningful.

The Victorians adopted the laurel as a symbol of never-ending love. My own wedding ring is a circle of laurel leaves, which I did not realize the significance of until researching for this article. The bay laurel motif has also been used in architecture. This herb is a part of our culture without us even realizing it.

Cultivation
Laurus nobilis is a plant that prefers a warm climate. It was thought to be native to the Mediterranean area; however, genetic testing shows that its origin is in the Middle East. In my USDA Zone 8b garden, I can grow bay in the ground year round. But to be safe, it should be grown as a container plant, unless you are willing to test it in the ground in zones less than 8.  It is an evergreen tree or shrub depending on how it is pruned, and can reach a height of eight to ten feet or more. It likes full sun or partial shade. It is dioecious, meaning there is a male plant and a female plant, and its small yellow flowers bloom for only a few weeks in the spring.

Bay with small yellow flowersPropagating bay takes patience as it is very slow to germinate and grow. The Herb Society of America’s guide to bay offers a method for propagating bay laurel.

The ASPCA cautions that bay laurel is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Caution is advised when purchasing other plants with laurel in the name, such as mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). These are not in the same family as bay laurel and are poisonous.

Uses
We grow bay laurel as a source of fresh leaves for cooking. It is one of the herbs in bouquet garni and is used to flavor soups, sauces, stews, and roasted meats and fish. It is sometimes boiled in milk or cream to flavor puddings. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay call it a “liaison” herb because it helps to blend flavors together (Mieseler, 2009). It is best used in recipes requiring a long cooking time. The leaf does not soften with cooking and should be removed before serving. California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used as a substitute for bay laurel in cooking; however, its flavor is stronger than Laurus nobilis.

Round-pruned laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein CastleBay laurel branches are pliable and lend themselves to making wreaths. The leaves are also used for potpourri. Many of us remember the old-fashioned way of keeping flour and grains insect-proof by adding a bay leaf or two to the container. The essential oil of bay is used in perfumes and soaps.

Of course, bay has had many uses as a medicine throughout history. A renowned use has been for treating rheumatism. It has also been used in traditional medicines to treat stomach issues, gas, and respiratory ailments.

Recent studies focus on its antiviral and antibacterial properties, particularly effective for treating MRSA (Otsuka, 2008). A recent article in Environmental Chemistry Letters hypothesizes that a possible reason for a lower incidence of COVID mortality in southern Italy may be due to extensive forests containing bay laurel. The emission into the air of immuno-modulating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in bay laurel are suggested as a reason (Roviello, 2021).

For more information and recipes for bay laurel, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February. The Society’s Guide to Bay also contains information about this herb.

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) Bay laurel as a small tree (Erin Holden); 2) Julius Caeser (Mithrandire, Creative Commons), Princess Lilian of Sweden (Public Domain), and George Washington (Public Domain) with laurel crowns; 3) World Health Organization flag (Public Domain) and laurel wreath for a graduate student (Archeologo, Creative Commons); 5) Bay laurel in flower (Maksim, Creative Commons); 6) Bay laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein Castle (Reinhold Moller, Creative Commons)

References  

ASPCA. n.d. Bay laurel. Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/bay-laurel

Dyer, M. 2021. Are some bay leaves toxic-learn which trees are edible. Accessed 7/7/21. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/bay/which-bay-trees-are-edible.htm

Gaumond, A. 2021. Essential guide to bay laurel. Accessed 1/4/22. https://www.petalrepublic.com/bay-laurel-meaning/

Kowalchick, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1998. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Mieseler, T., ed. 2009. Bay: An Herb Society of America guide.  Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/1cd1802d-70ea-4fb8-a14b-4f4bb72e2435

Mieseler, Theresa. 2009. Bay earns laurels as Herb of the Year. The Herbarist: 75:27-30.

Otsuka, N. et al. 2008. Anti-methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) compounds isolated from Laurus nobilis. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 31:1794-1797. Accessed 1/10/22. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/bpb/31/9/31_9_1794/_article

Roviello, V. and G. Roviello. 2021. Lower COVID-19 mortality in Italian forested areas suggests immunoprotection by Mediterranean plants. Environmental Chemistry Letters. 19:699-710. Accessed 1/4/22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32837486/


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.

Mastic: Something Herbal to Chew On

By Chrissy Moore

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

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

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

Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, Syros

Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toothpastes containing mastic

Toothpaste containing mastic

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Cloves – A Holiday Spice and Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

Cloves drying on Pemba IslandThe History

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

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

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

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

Culinary

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

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

Medicinal Uses

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

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

Model ship made of clovesArtistic Use of Cloves

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Other Quince

by Matt Millage

PXL_20210402_173312198After a brief email exchange with a colleague last fall around this same time, I set off to collect some fallen treasures from the forest floor from a tree I had never collected from before. The fruit was large and aromatic, but I was unfamiliar with its culinary use. Suddenly the sweet scent of ripening flesh let me know that the bounty was close, and true to smell, the six-inch long, bright yellow fruits of the Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis) were scattered beneath a tree. Much larger than its cousin, the common quince (Cydonia oblonga), which is used often in fruit production and tree grafting, the Chinese quince has a reputation for being rather astringent, and I had never thought of cooking with it. 

After informing my colleague that the harvest was complete, I inquired as to how he planned on using the crop. He explained that quince made a lavish addition to an apple pie, among other seasonal dishes. From there, I dug in further to the culinary and ethnobotanical history of the Chinese quince and was pleasantly surprised to discover the versatility and medicinal properties of this interesting plant.

A monotypic species in the Rosaceae family, this tree alone could be an ornamental addition to most temperate gardens. They grow easily in USDA hardiness zones 6a-8b and in a variety of soil types.  Standing 10’ – 20’ at maturity with exquisite exfoliating bark and wonderfully scented pink-white flowers in the spring, it adds multiple layers of interest year-round. Autumn, though, is when it gives up its true prize—the large fruits which have been used historically for medicines, as an edible for jams, jellies, pie fillings, liqueurs, candies, and eaten as a sweet meat (Facciola, 1990).

Korea, Japan, and China have used the fruits medicinally for centuries as an antitussive, and for  asthma, the common cold, sore throats, mastitis, and tuberculosis. Descriptions of these efficacies have been found dating back to the 18th century in Japan. It contains several medicinally active constituents including organic acids, plus the flavonoids rutin and quercetin (World Health Organization, 1998).  Recent research has shown that extracts of Chinese quince fruit have various biological functions, such as antibacterial, antihemolytic (Osawa et al., 1997), anti-inflammatory (Osawa et al., 1999), antitumor (Chun et al., 2012), anti-influenza (Hamauzu et al., 2005, Sawai et al., 2008, Sawai-Kuroda et al., 2013), antioxidant (Hamauzu et al., 2006, Hamauzu et al., 2010), and gastroprotective (anti-ulcerogenic) (Hamauzu et al., 2008) activities. 

Medicinal plants are often boiled to extract functional ingredients, suggesting a decoction of Chinese quince fruit may be rich in various phytochemicals. Decoctions have been used for medicinal purposes but can also be used for manufacturing processed foods, such as fruit jelly. These traditional methods offer both positive and negative effects on the medicinal properties, as some research shows that the thermal effects can have a reductive effect on the polyphenols (Hamauzu et al., 2018).  

PXL_20211020_123304152_2So, in addition to being a delicious addition to the fall harvest, it also has an increasing number of positive side effects attributed to its consumption. Which, I believe, begs the question, when are you going to add some quince to your apple pie? There are lots of fantastic recipes on the Internet, but here is one that I tried last year after my colleague piqued my interest enough to see how they taste during fall pie season. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did as it truly does add a lavishness and texture that I had never experienced before with a typical apple pie. I used the Chinese quince but am sure that the common quince could be used as an easy replacement. Even if you just keep a bowl of them on the counter for a sweet fragrance, I hope that you can find a way to enjoy the Chinese quince in your home this fall, too! 

 

Apple Quince Pie

Ingredients

  • 3 cups thinly sliced peeled quinces (about 2 medium)
  • 1 can (5-1/2 ounces) unsweetened apple juice
  • 1 teaspoon whole cloves
  • Pastry for single-crust pie (9 inches)
  • 5 cups thinly sliced peeled tart apples (about 5 medium)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Topping:

  • 1/3 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon cold butter
  1. In a large saucepan, combine the quince and apple juice. Place cloves on a double thickness of cheesecloth; bring up corners of cloth and tie with string to form a bag. Add to the saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 12-15 minutes or until quince are crisp-tender.
  2. Uncover; simmer 8-12 minutes longer or until liquid is reduced to 2 tablespoons. Discard spice bag. Cool for 5 minutes.
  3. Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Trim to a 1/2 inch beyond edge of plate; flute edges. In a large bowl, combine the apples, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. Gently stir in quince mixture. Spoon into the crust.
  4. For topping, in a small bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over filling.
  5. Bake at 375° for 50 – 60 minutes or until the apples are tender and crust is golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

Photo Credits: 1) Chinese quince flower; 2) Exfoliating bark; 3) Chinese quince hanging from branches; 3) A large, fully ripe fruit. 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

Chun, J.M., K.J. Nho, A.Y. Lee, et al. (2012). A methanol fraction from Chaenomeles sinensis inhibits hepatocellular carcinoma growth in vitro and in vivo. Journal of the Korean Society for Applied Biological Chemistry. 55: 345-351.

Facciola, S. (1990). Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Vista, California: Kampong Publications.

Hamauzu, Y., T. Inno, C. Kume, M. Irie, and K. Hiramatsu. (2006). Antioxidant and antiulcerative properties of phenolics from Chinese quince, quince, and apple fruits. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 54: 765-772.

Hamauzu, Y., M. Irie, M. Kondo, and T. Fujita (2008). Antiulcerative properties of crude polyphenols and juice of apple, and Chinese quince extracts. Food Chemistry. 108: 488-495.

Hamauzu, Y., H. Kishida, and N. Yamazaki. (2018). Gastroprotective property of Pseudocydonia sinensis fruit jelly on the ethanol-induced gastric lesions in rats. Journal of Functional Foods. 48: 275-282.

Hamauzu, Y., H. Yasui, T. Inno, C. Kume and M. Omanyuda. (2005). Phenolic profile, antioxidant property, and anti-influenza viral activity of Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis Schneid.), quince (Cydonia oblonga Mill.), and apple (Malus domestica Mill.) fruits. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 53: 928-934.

NC State Extension. Pseudocydonia sinensis Fact Sheet. Accessed on Oct 5, 2021 from NC State Extension https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/pseudocydonia-sinensis/

Osawa, K., K. Miyazaki, H. Imai, and K. Takeya. (1999). Inhibitory effects of Chinese quince (Chaenomeles sinensis) on hyaluronidase and histamine release from rat mast cells (in Japanese with English summary). Natural Medicines. 53: 188-193.

Osawa, K., H. Yasuda, H. Morita, K. Takeya, and H. Itokawa.  (1997). Antibacterial and antihemolytic activity of triterpenes and β-sitosterol isolated from Chinese quince (Chaenomeles sinensis) (in Japanese with English summary). Natural Medicines. 51: 365-367.

Sawai, R., K. Kuroda, T. Shibata, R. Gomyou, K. Osawa, and K. Shimizu. 2008. Anti-influenza virus activity of Chaenomeles sinensis. Journal of Ethnopharmacology.118:108-112.

Sawai-Kuroda, R., S. Kikuchi, Y.K. Shimizu, Y. Sasaki, K. Kuroda, T. Tanaka, and T. Yamamoto, et al. 2013. A polyphenol-rich extract from Chaenomeles sinensis (Chinese quince) inhibits influenza A virus infection by preventing primary transcription in vitro. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 146: 866-872.

World Health Organization, R. O. (1998). Medicinal plants in the Republic of Korea : information on 150 commonly used medicinal plants. Manila: WHO Regional Publications: Regional Office for the Western Pacific.


Matt has worked in public gardening for a little over six years and is currently the horticulturist in the Asian Collections at the U.S. National Arboretum. He previously worked at Smithsonian Gardens in a variety of capacities. Matt is an ISA-certified arborist and an IPM manager certified with both Virginia and DC.

Carob – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

Minolta DSCHave you heard of St. John’s bread or locust bean? These are all names for the carob tree, Ceratonia siliqua. This herbal tree is a native of the Mediterranean region and is also grown in East Africa, India, Australia, and California. It can grow in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9-11 – places with dry, Mediterranean-type climates. Carob is disease and pest resistant, tolerates dry, poor, rocky soils, and is drought tolerant due to a very deep taproot (125 feet) that enables the tree to survive in arid climates. It is in the pea family (Fabaceae), and like other members of this family it fixes nitrogen, improving the fertility of the soil in which it is planted.

Carob is a multi-stemmed, evergreen tree that can reach 50 feet high and 50 feet wide, and its broad, dark green leaves make it a good shade tree. It is mostly a dioecious tree, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The flowers grow from the old, woody bark along the branches. Only the female trees produce fruit, starting when the tree reaches 8 years of age; however, fruit for commercial production begins when the tree is 20 years old. A mature tree can produce up to a ton of fruit in one season. The fruit is a sword-shaped pod that can grow to 12 inches long. When the pod turns from green to brown, it is ground into a powder and roasted. The result is used as a substitute for cocoa powder and flour. The seeds are a bit larger than watermelon seeds and are used to make locust bean gum, a food additive that thickens and stabilizes foods like ice cream and salad dressings.

History

The carob tree has a 4,000-year history of use. Some say that the tree is a survivor from a now-extinct group of the Fabaceae family (Loullis, 2018). Because carob seeds are fairly uniform in weight, ancient jewelers used the seeds for weighing gems and gold. One carob seed was the smallest weight for a diamond, giving the name “carat” to the measurement. Egyptians used carob to bind the wrappings of mummies and used it to make beer. They also treated wounds and eye conditions with it.

There are several biblical references to the use of carob. Its name, “St. John’s bread,” refers to St. John the Baptist being sustained in the desert by eating “locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4). Locusts were mistakenly (some say) thought to be carob pods (Gardner, 2012). It was nutritious and easy to digest, and so porridge was made from it and fed to the elderly.  Because there was so much available and could be easily stored, it was a significant part of the diet of poor people during biblical times. 

carob, Nevit DilmenCarob pods discovered in the storehouses of Pompeii show that the Romans were harvesting the tree as early as 79AD. The Romans ate the carob seeds for their sweetness. The Greeks used carob pods as fodder for their pigs and food for their people.

In 1854, the U.S. Patent Office imported 8,000 carob trees from Spain and sent most of them to California. A profitable crop was not able to be produced from the trees so they were used for landscaping instead. In a prescient statement in 1914, Santa Barbara Agricultural Commissioner, C.W. Beers, commented that “The day may come when the deserts will be extensive forests of carob trees” (Kauffman, 2018).

The carob tree has been a source of nutrition during times of war and famine when supply chains of basic ingredients were interrupted. It was a lifesaver for many during the Spanish Civil War. It was the “chocolate of occupation” during WWII and was used as a substitute for flour and coffee. It has been considered to be the food of the poor, and was food for domestic animals. At one time, singers chewed the pods believing that it cleared the throat and voice.

Current Uses

Even today, carob has an amazing number of uses—from medicines, food for humans and animals, photographic film emulsions, adhesives, paints, inks, and polishes, and even cosmetics. Its wood is prized by wood craftsmen and also makes good charcoal. Italians use the seeds for rosary beads. The nutrients in carob have made it a health food staple, as it is high in fiber and natural sugars and is also a low-fat, no caffeine substitute for chocolate. Medicinally it’s used as both an anti-diarrheal and a mild laxative.

Recent research shows that carob powder is a rich source of the antidiabetic compound D-pinitol, a type of sugar. D-pinitol can decrease blood sugar levels and prevent obesity by suppressing the increase in human adipose tissue. In addition, the polyphenols in carob fiber have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation in some cancers (Loullis, 2018).

My favorite story about carob comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

One day, Honi the Wise Man was walking along the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, ‘How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ The man answered, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi replied, ‘And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?’ The man answered, ‘Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees (Vamosh, n.d.).

Carob is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November. More information about the tree along with recipes and a beautiful screensaver can be found at https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Carob tree (Pedro Servera); 2) Male carob flowers (Erin Holden); 3) Female carob flowers (Rick J Pelleg); 4) Carob seed pods (Nevitt Dilman); 5) Carob candy (Relivate)

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

Carob. (2010). In Leung’s Encyclopedia of common natural ingredients: Used in food, drugs, and cosmetics by Ikhlas A. Khan and Ehab A. Abourashed. 3rd ed. Hoboken: Wiley. (Online through Ebsco)

Carob-the black gold of history. (n.d). Accessed 9/28/21. https://cretacarob.com/en/blog/news/to-charoypi-o-mayros-chrysos-tis-istorias/

Gardner, Jo Ann. (2012). The everlasting carob. The Herbarist. Issue 78, 2012. 

Kauffman, Jonathan. (January 31, 2018). How carob traumatized a generation. The New Yorker. Accessed 9/28/22. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/how-carob-traumatized-a-generation

Loullis, Andreas, Eftychia Pinakoulaki. (2018). Carob as cacao substitute: a review on composition, health benefits and food applications. European Food Research and Technology. Springer. Accessed 9/27/21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00217-017-3018-8

Vamosh, Miriam Feinberg. (n.d.) Food at the time of the Bible. Israel, Palphot Ltd. 

Vamosh, Mirium Feinberg, (n.d.) Carob trees, the Bible, and righteous gentiles. Accessed 9/28/22. https://miriamfeinbergvamosh.com/carob-trees-the-bible-and-righteous-gentiles/

What is carob? (n.d.) Carobana Confectionary. Accessed 9/20/21. https://carobana.com.au/carob.html


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 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.