Lost in the Sods

By Chrissy Moore

Dolly Sods Wilderness AreaI have a bumper sticker on my car that reads: “I’d rather be lost in the Sods than found in the city.” A friend introduced me to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia back when I was in college (and back when few people ever ventured that far outside of Washington, DC), and I have been hiking in the West Virginia mountains ever since. They are truly special in so many respects.

One of the main reasons I consider the WV mountains so special is because of the abundant, and often unique, native plants found on the mountain tops and down in the hollers. I am one of those plant nerds that can’t stop hunting for plants, even while on vacation. (What can I say? It becomes an obsession after a while.) Identifying plants in the wild is entertaining enough, but as an herb gardener, I’m always rooting around for the plants’ uses as well to round out the botanical adventure. Many of these plants have been used by the Indigenous Peoples and mountaineers for centuries as medicine, for beverages, for utility, for charms…you name it. Discovering those native gems is often more thrilling than…hmm, can’t think of anything.Gaultheria procumbens leaf and fruit

While not terribly unique in mountain locales, I always love to see Gaultheria procumbens leaves in fall colorGaultheria procumbens (American wintergreen; Eastern teaberry) dotting the forest floor. As heretical as this may sound, I actually dislike the taste of wintergreen, but I find the scent uplifting and enjoy crushing a leaf to release its heavy perfume. The leaves’ fall color is also some of the most beautiful I have seen. Historically, American wintergreen has been used as a flavoring for teas and even chewing gum. According to Foster and Duke (1990), “Traditionally, leaf tea [was] used for colds, headaches, stomachaches, fevers, kidney ailments; externally, wash [was used] for rheumatism, sore muscles, lumbago.” But, care must be taken when consuming Gaultheria. Its essential oils are very toxic when ingested internally.

Vaccinium macrocarpon (American cranberry) is especially exciting, because it grows in very specific conditions that you don’t often encounter during everyday hikes—acidic wetland bogs, usually alongside carnivorous plants and sphagnum mosses at higher altitudes. There are a number of formally recognized bogs or botanical areas in West Virginia, but I stumbled upon my latest find in an off-the-beaten-path trail where a boggy area was the last thing I thought I’d find. It was a small “hidey-hole” of a place, so it was a wonderful botanical surprise.

Cranberries are well-known for their more modern uses in fruit juices, in Thanksgiving side dishes, and medicinally to treat urinary tract infections, though the efficacy of this use remains in question. Many American Indian tribes used cranberry as part of their diet. They used the fruit or made a leaf tea for purifying the blood, as a laxative, and for treating fever, stomach cramps, and colic, or inhaled smoke from burning flowers for “madness” (Foster and Duke; Powwows.com).

Goodyeara procumbens leavesDowny rattlesnake-plantain (Goodyeara pubescens) is a member of the Orchidaceae family and a native herb that I have encountered only once, despite it being a common species of orchid in the mountains of the eastern United States. I spotted it during my recent foray into the southern WV mountains, where it was sparsely distributed amongst the leaf duff under a stand of varying oak (Quercus) species. It is a rather unique-looking plant that I might have missed had I not been tuned into the forest floor. GoodyearaGoodyeara procumbens flowers has dark green leaves with pronounced light-green to white venation arranged in a basal rosette, and the white flowers are born on tall, slender stalks.

Though not used anymore, particularly because it is too infrequent to collect (not that you should collect from the wild anyway!), but doctors would use the leaves to make a poultice for tuberculosis swellings and also as a tea. American Indians used it to treat snakebites, colds, burns, skin ulcers, and more (Foster and Duke, 1990).

Getting “lost in the Sods” (or anywhere in between) is easy when you have an obsession with the plants those mountains support. Fortunately for me, there are endless hollers and high places yet to explore. So, don’t look for me in the city for a very long time!

West Virginia mountainsMedicinal 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) Dolly Sods Wilderness Area; 2) Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) leaves and fruit; 3) Gaultheria procumbens fall color; 4 & 5) Vaccinium macrocarpon (American cranberry) leaves and fruit; 6) Goodyeara pubescens (downy rattlesnake-plantain) leaves; 7) Goodyeara pubescens flowers. All photos courtesy of the author.

References/Works Cited

Foster, Steven and James Duke. 1990. Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin. New York, New York.

North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. Gaultheria procumbens. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/gaultheria-procumbens/. Accessed 20 January 2023.

Powwows.com. 2013. “Cranberries were a Native American superfood.” https://www.powwows.com/cranberries-were-a-native-american-superfood/. Accessed 22 January 2023.

United States Forest Service. “Cranberry Glades Botanical Area.” https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mnf/recarea/?recid=9913. Accessed 22 January 2023.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. Aside from garden maintenance in the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics. She serves as co-blogmaster of The Herb Society’s blog, is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America, and is an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist. When not doing herbie things, she can be found looking after many horses.

Good, Great, Gulp-able Ginger

by Pat Crocker

A tan and beige stoneware jar of ginger beerThe fresh or dried rhizome of ginger (Zingiber officinale) has been used “as a condiment and aromatic stimulant from ancient times”. And from as early as the 15th century, ginger was exported from Zanzibar—a possible origin of the Latin, Zingiber—for use by healers, monks, and herbalists in tisanes, syrups, tinctures, and other carminative simples.

In England, from around the middle of the 18th century, ginger was fermented with sugar, water, and a starter culture to make an alcoholic beverage that quenched thirst and quelled stomachs at the same time. That drink was called ginger beer and it has survived—with and without alcohol—right up to the present time.  

Almost a century later (1890 to be precise), an enterprising Canadian chemist, John McLaughlin, began bottling his own soda water. Never one to coast, McLaughlin’s experiments with natural flavorings and recipes led him to his greatest accomplishment, Canada Dry® Pale Ginger Ale, invented in 1904. Originally made with real ginger, McLaughlin’s soda was designed as a non-alcoholic, refreshing drink, but it also became a perfect bedside anti-emetic as well as a mixer for alcoholic drinks.

Ginger rhizomeAnti-emetic? Ginger root is used as a natural remedy for nausea and vomiting, which is why many people of my generation actually remember being given a serving of ‘flat’ ginger ale if we were sick with the flu. Ginger ale was decanted to a glass and set aside to rest until all of the bubbles disappeared, leaving a sweet, ginger-flavored liquid that was effective in calming upset tummies. Today, this home remedy isn’t possible because Canada Dry® Ginger Ale does not list ginger in the ingredients.

Fast-forward to 2023 and the recent “discovery” and excitement around fermented foods, which fostered a modern take on historic ginger ‘beer’ or ginger ‘ale’ drinks. It’s called Ginger Bug (recipe follows) and is made by combining grated fresh ginger with a small amount of sugar and water. Sound familiar? The now popular Ginger Bug drink is actually ginger beer. However, while it is fermented, it contains no significant amount of alcohol. We’ve been taking great gulps of ginger for medicine, as a thirst-quencher, and to mix with alcoholic spirits for a very long time. What follows is a slightly carbonated, fermented ginger drink. Enjoy its non-alcoholic buzz.

A closeup of a bubbly fermenting cup of grated gingerGinger Bug          

Makes about 2 cups

This drink is probiotic because it uses friendly bacteria, similar to bacteria that are already inside your body, especially your gut, to produce a slightly sour-tasting, naturally carbonated drink. Probiotics boost the immune system, prevent and help heal urinary tract infections, improve digestion, and help treat inflammatory bowel conditions.

2 large pieces (each two inches long) fresh ginger rhizome, divided

1/2 cup sugar, divided

2 cups cold, non-chlorinated water

  1. Wash your hands and start with clean utensils and a quart glass jar. There is no need to sterilize since the culture comes from bacteria on you, in the air, and in your kitchen.

  2. Peel (if the ginger is not organic) and grate 1 piece of ginger into the quart jar. Add 3 tablespoons of sugar and the water. Stir with a wooden spoon. Cover the jar with a piece of cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter secured with a rubber band. Set aside on your countertop (do not refrigerate).

  3. Every day for the next 5 days, stir the mixture and add 1 tablespoon grated ginger and 1 tablespoon sugar. The mixture will start to ferment—bubbles form at the top and the mixture smells slightly sweet and yeasty—usually within 5 days, but it could take as long as 7 to 8 days of adding grated ginger and sugar to start the fermentation. Mold should not appear, but if it does, scrape it off and if it reoccurs, start the process again.

  4. When you see signs of fermentation (described in step 3 above), refrigerate.

To use the lightly carbonated ginger drink, strain the liquid using a fine mesh strainer. Save the grated ginger in a sealed container and use in recipes calling for fresh ginger or compost it. Store the strained ginger liquid in a clean jar with a lid for up to 3 weeks, adding 1 teaspoon each of grated ginger and sugar once per week.

To Use Ginger Bug for Fizzy Drinks: In a jug, combine 1/4 cup strained Ginger Bug and 4 cups chilled mint or lemon herbal tea or fresh apple, peach, pear, or orange juice.

Join Pat Thursday, January 19 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Sizzle and Snap with Ginger. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $7.50 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

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

Photo Credits: 1) Stoneware bottle of ginger beer (Auckland Museum, via Wikipedia); 2) Ginger rhizome (Pat Crocker); 3) Fermenting ginger bug (EliseEtc, via Wikipedia)

References                                                    

Le Strange, Richard. 1977.  A history of herbal plants. Arco Publishing Company: Michigan.


Pat Crocker’s mission in life is to write with insight and experience, cook with playful abandon, and eat herbs with gusto. As a professional Home Economist (BAA, Metropolitan Toronto University) and Culinary Herbalist, Pat’s passion for healthy food is fused with her knowledge and love of herbs. She has honed her wellness practice over more than four decades of growing, photographing, and writing about what she calls, the helping plants. In fact, Crocker infuses the medicinal benefits of herbs in every original recipe she develops. An award-winning author (one of which is the G.H. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature), Pat has written 23 herb/healthy cookbooks, including The Herbalist’s Kitchen (Sterling, 2018), The Healing Herbs Cookbook, and The Juicing Bible. http://www.patcrocker.com

Thai Herbs, Part I – Papaya

By Chrissy Moore

Papaya fruit on immature treeOne of the enchanting things about working in the National Herb Garden is the myriad people I meet from around the world. Ne’er a week goes by that I don’t see or get to speak with someone personally from another country. I’m often brazen enough to confront people directly and, figuratively speaking, “pat them down” for herbal information from their homeland!

Just such an opportunity presented itself this past summer. As I was sitting on a bench awaiting my coworker for a brief meeting, I noticed a woman and her teenage daughter walking through the garden. I got up the nerve to ask her where they were from. The mother was Thai, while her daughter was Thai/Maltese, the father being from Malta. I asked the mother (her name was Dao), if I could inquire about plants from her homeland, and so began her almost two-hour tour around the garden…the garden that I have worked in for over 25 years! Whoever said you “learn new things every day” wasn’t lying. Dao enthusiastically recounted stories of how the people from her village used such-and-such plant “back when I grew up and we had no electricity!”

While not all of the plants she discussed with me are currently in our inventory, I learned that they should be, and I’ll do my darndest to find them. But, mostly, she pointed out the plants that we already had, so I’ll start with a popular fruit tree, Carica papaya.

Picture of papaya leafPapaya is a small tree, relatively speaking, growing to about 30 feet tall. Interestingly, it only lives for five to ten years, which is pretty short in tree years. It has deeply lobed leaves reminiscent of fig leaves (Ficus carica), hence the obvious relationship with fig’s specific epithet. Generally, Carica is dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers are on separate trees, and the tree will start bearing fruit in one year to 18 months from seed. The resulting fruit can be anywhere from three to 20 inches long and can weigh in at a hefty 20 – 25 lbs! The fruit’s skin turns from green to yellow when ripe, and the flesh is a lovely tropical yellow to orange and is filled with hundreds of wrinkly black seeds (Britannica, 2022). While most people consume just the papaya flesh or juice, there’s no need to throw those seeds away; they have a strong, pepper-like flavor and can be used as a spice in various culinary preparations.

Ripe papaya fruit with interior seedsThe juice can be found in numerous commercial brands, particularly those from Latin and South America. In fact, papaya is native to Central and South America, not Southeast Asia, which may seem odd given this article is about Thai herbs. Let’s just say that papaya is well-traveled (unlike me). It has a long history of being moved from one country to another, then to another, each time being propagated, and then shipped off again to yet another tropical part of the world. The Spanish chronicler, Oviedo, first described Carica papaya in 1526 A.D. In the early 1600s, Spanish explorers to the New World carried the seed to Panama and the Dominican Republic. From the Caribbean, Spanish and Portuguese sailors carried the seeds to Southeast Asia and India, to Australia and even to Italy. Between 1800 – 1820, papaya was sent on to Hawaii, and by 1900, papaya had come all the way back to the New World, landing in Florida. In all of these locations, it was introduced as a plantation, or agricultural, crop (TFNetwork, 2016). “Papaya has become an important agricultural export for developing countries, where export revenues of the fruit provide a livelihood for thousands of people, especially in Asia and Latin America” (Evans and Ballen, 2018).

1671 etching of papaya trees in a tropical settingToday, Mexico has moved into first place as the number one exporter of papaya, with virtually all of its exports going to the United States, which “ranks as the largest importer of papayas globally” (FAO, 2021). Who knew?! So, I guess it isn’t that surprising that it was here in the United States–not Thailand–that I met Dao who shared with me about one of the most popular tropical plants in her home country, as well as mine.

Picture of Thai papaya saladAccording to Dao, the green (unripe) fruit is used as a vegetable to make papaya salad, and it can also be fried with meat. If boiled with meat, it makes the meat softer and more moist. The leaves, she explained, are eaten in Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, where they are cut and fried or eaten raw. Medicinally, papaya is considered by many Thai as an old-fashioned remedy good for the body, diabetes, and cancer. The leaf juice was/is used to treat intestinal cancer, and the ripe fruit is good for relieving constipation (personal communication).

Much of this makes perfect sense when you analyze the chemical constituents of papaya. It is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber (UFL/IFAS, 2016). The Tropical Fruit Network states, “Furthermore, papaya also contains [potassium, copper, phosphorus, iron, and manganese], carotenes, flavonoids, folate and pantothenic acid, and also fiber. These nutrients help to promote a healthy cardiovascular system and provide protection against colon cancer. Fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol level[s] in [the] human body. Papaya and its seeds have proven anti-parasitic and anti-amoebic activities, and their consumption offers a cheap, natural, harmless, readily available preventive strategy against intestinal parasites.” What scientists have lately confirmed, the people of Thailand have been putting into practice for centuries.

Picture of raw meat with papaya skin slices for meat tenderizerBoth the papaya leaves and the fruit’s skin produce a latex substance from which a digestive enzyme called papain can be obtained. Papain is similar to the human digestive enzyme pepsin, and thus, is an effective plant-based meat tenderizer, “useful in digesting or coagulating, clotting, and converting proteins into smaller parts” (Tyler et al., 1988). (Bromelain, an enzyme from pineapples, is used similarly.) Hence, the Thai method of mixing papaya with meat effectively tenderizes the meat during the cooking process. (Note: If one has a latex allergy, caution should be used.)

Picture of Papaya Complete extractSuch uses transcend “old-fashioned” methods by including modern applications as well. Papain is used in some contact lens cleaning solutions (Tyler et al., 1988), as well as in the production of products like chewing gum, shampoo and soap, beer, in drug and anti-bacterial preparations for some digestive ailments, and in wound care. Papaya extracts are also effective in the textile industry for “degumming silk and softening of wool” (TFNetwork, 2016). In 2021, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center also noted on their website that “papaya leaves and their extracts are sold as dietary supplements to improve the immune system and increase platelet counts….A few clinical studies found benefits of papaya leaf extract in treating dengue fever and in increasing platelet counts,” though they suggested that more studies were needed.

Papaya juice and ripe fruit with seedsIn my small world, papaya has always been “that fruit” (or juice) that I’ve never actually tried and for no particular reason. Fortunately for me, I learned something new that day–that papaya is not just a one-trick pony as I had previously thought; there are plenty of ways this plant is useful to humans, especially for people like Dao from Thailand. Having the opportunity to speak with people like her who have such personal relationships with many of the herbs we grow in the National Herb Garden never gets old!

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) Carica papaya immature tree with fruit (Creative Commons, Bmdavll@EnglishWikipedia); 2) Papaya leaf (Creative Commons, Marufish); 3) Ripe papaya fruit with seeds (Creative Commons, love.jsc); 4) 1671 etching of Carica papaya trees (Public Domain); 5) Thai papaya salad (Creative Commons, Ken2754@yokohama); 6) Strips of papaya being used as a meat tenderizer (Creative Commons, Thai Food Blog); 7) Papaya extract (Public Domain); 8) Papaya fruit and juice (Bincy Lenin’s Kitchen, youtube).

References

Britannica Online. 2022. Papaya. Accessed 28 Dec 2022. https://www.britannica.com/plant/papaya.

Evans, Edward A. and Fredy H. Ballen. 2018. An overview of global papaya production, trade, and consumption. University of Florida, Food and Resource Economics Department, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension. Accessed 12 Dec 2022. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/FE913.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2021. International Trade Major Tropical Fruits: preliminary results 2021, p. 13. Accessed 28 Dec 2022. https://www.fao.org/3/cb9412en/cb9412en.pdf

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 2021. Papaya leaf: Purported benefits, side effects, and more. Accessed 7 Jan 2023. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/papaya-leaf

Tyler, Varro E., Lynn Brady, and James Robbers. 1988. Pharmacognosy. 9th Edition. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.

TFNet News Compilation. 2016. Papaya – Introduction. International Tropical Fruits Network. Accessed 28 Dec 2022. https://www.itfnet.org/v1/2016/05/papaya-introduction/


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. Aside from garden maintenance in the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics. She serves as co-blogmaster of The Herb Society’s blog and is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America. Chrissy is also an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. When not doing herbie things, she can be found looking after many horses.

Hogmanay

by Beth Schreibman Gehring 

“The house was bright that night, with candles lit in the windows, and bunches of holly and ivy fixed to the staircase and the doorposts. There were not so many pipers in the Highlands as there had been before Culloden, but one had been found, and a fiddler as well, and music floated up the stairwell, mixed with the heady scent of rum punch, plum cake, almond squirts, and Savoy biscuits…Something of the light of that Hogmanay feast lingered on his face, and I felt a small pang, seeing it.”
Diana Gabaldon – Voyager

Hogmanay fireworks over Edinburgh Castle_Chris Flexen_UnsplashIn Scotland, December 26th marks the beginning of the week leading up to Hogmanay, a yearly celebration of farewell that takes place on December 31st. The history of Hogmanay is somewhat vague, with roots beginning in the 16th century. It’s an ancient celebration of the arrival of the New Year in a way that’s full of fire and ritual.

A contemporary New Year’s Eve celebration has never held much interest for me, so instead, for many years when we still lived on our farm in Burton, we would gather on December the 31st for a Hogmanay inspired celebration, fueled by really good single malt, folk music, celebratory bonfires, soup, roasted meats, and candlelight. I have always felt a deep affinity for anything and everything Scottish, and I married a man with a deeply Celtic soul, a family tartan, and a love of raucous gatherings.

Windesphere, our farm, was built in 1848 by a Scotsman named Samuel McBride, and our home was perched atop a hill lined with willow trees. It was a magical place to gather with my family for any holiday, but the quiet of New Year’s Eve after the hustle of the holidays was perfect. 

Living on that small farm gave me a completely different connection to the natural world and it was easy for me to imagine what it must have been like in centuries past as the days got longer and colder and darker. I am completely sure that the attitude with which the New Year would have been greeted is one of absolute revelry.

Hannah Pemberton for UnsplashLoving any excuse for continuing wassailing and caroling, the week after Christmas would find me preparing for the New Year, making clove-studded oranges and lady apples to simmer in apple cider, red wine, more spices, rosemary, hops,  honey, rum, and ale for my traditional New Year’s wassail bowl. In some parts of Scotland, wassailing is a still a traditional part of the Hogmanay celebrations, and in centuries past the farmers and their families would go out to their orchards, singing at the top of their lungs while drenching the trees with the delicious wassail and hanging wassail-soaked toast in the branches. This ritual would supposedly get rid of any evil spirits lingering, while blessing the trees so that the following year would bring an abundant harvest.

Every December 31st, after a very thorough house cleaning and smudging with a blend of sage, lavender, and pine, out would come the fragrant bayberry and beeswax tapers that I’d been saving for months. They would be lit, infused with our intentions for an abundant year. We’d then lift our glasses to toast the new year and “sain” the house, an old Hogmanay blessing custom from the Scottish Highlands. Years before I even knew what I was doing, I’d take a crystal pitcher and dunk it into the artesian spring by our barn, and then I’d bring the fresh water in to use for the blessing, sprinkling it all over the hearth, rugs, and beds, finishing with hugs and kisses all around. Traditionally in Scotland and in my home, “Auld Lang Syne” is sung to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight as the wheel turns to the new year.

Beth Schreibman GehringOne of the most well-known traditions of Hogmanay is called ‘first footing’. When the first visitor to a household in the new year appears, he will traditionally bring gifts that are thought to bring great fortune and luck to the house in the coming new year. The person who has the honor of first footing the household (hopefully a dark haired man for the best kind of luck!) gets a healthy dram of whisky, cookies, and plenty of kisses for his trouble!

Living as far out as we did, there weren’t a lot of dark handsome strangers roaming about, so instead, when my son and nephew were still very small, we would pretend that we were Vikings and build a large bonfire up on the back hill. Then we’d wander out into the pastures to look and listen for the first owls at midnight, a new year’s pastime we still call “owling”.

We’d walk through the back woods as quietly as we could, and if we were lucky we’d see deer as well as the occasional fox or raccoon. Suddenly, the three of us would be taken by surprise by a great span of wings overhead, powerful yet unearthly quiet. We’d stand very still, huddled warmly together, and we’d wait for the hoots to begin! It always felt like the very best kind of good fortune with which to begin the New Year!

Stephane Juban for UnsplashIn those shared moments, I learned that magic is truly possible when allowed to bubble away happily in the cauldron of your heart. We three had so much fun stalking the wild things ever so quietly under the New Year’s moonlight while splashing cups of wassail all about, tying pieces of wassail soaked toast onto our apple trees and hanging homemade pinecone ornaments of bird seed and peanut butter for the winter birds to enjoy!

Life is very good this year and I am most grateful for it all, especially my husband’s good health and my beautiful new grandson.

As I write, my dog Malcolm is sleeping peacefully in the corner and my cats are curled up on the couch by the fire with not a care in the world, totally stoned on fresh catnip sent by a friend. I’m filled with the peace of another year gone swiftly by, making potato leek soup and watching the snow falling softly outside my kitchen window.

I wish all of you a warm and cheery Hogmanay, filled with love, peace, joy, and everything else that you could possibly desire and more. As they say in Scotland, “Lang may your lum reek.”

I feel so blessed to have all of you in my life. Thank you for reading my words and letting me know that they’ve touched you.

It means everything to me.

See you on the other side of 2022!

Beth’s Wassail recipe:

Pomanders from CanvaFirst things first! Make several pomanders using some of the smaller apples that you’ve picked as the base. You’ll do this by taking the apples and studding them with cloves in all manner of beautiful patterns. While you’re doing this, create patterns that you love and use them as a simple way to make a very good wish for a safe, abundant, and love filled New Year. Then do the same with several small seedless oranges and set them aside. Use as many cloves as you wish, because the fragrance will be absolutely intoxicating! When you’re ready to use them , slice the oranges in half. Remove the core from the apples and halve them as well.

Then in your favorite cauldron (I used to make this in a cast iron pot on top of my wood burning stove when I lived in the country) add one gallon of freshly pressed cider, two cups of honey, one tablespoon of fresh powdered cinnamon, about five large cinnamon sticks, one teaspoon of good vanilla extract and half  a teaspoon of fresh nutmeg, five star anise pods, three tablespoons of dried or fresh rose petals for love (from your garden if you have them), one tablespoon of fresh rosemary for remembrance, about one cup of dried hops flowers for relaxation and fertility, and the pomanders.

Bring this all to a lovely rolling boil and then turn down the heat so it’s just simmering. Add one bottle of very good red wine, a couple of bottles of dry hard cider and about two and a half cups of dark spiced rum, and then stir in one stick of salted organic butter. You can add more honey if you’d like a bit more sweetness, or even brown sugar. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes then turn down the heat. Keep this hot but not boiling and serve it happily and carefully, as this is one potent brew!


Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the Senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/, or contact her at  beth.gehring@stirringthesenses.com

Sloe Gin – A Marriage of Prunus and Juniperus

By David McDaniel

White flowers on Prunus spinosaIn the U.S. National Arboretum, a few little thorny trees bearing small astringent fruits are tucked away in a research field. These trees are called blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The fruits, called sloes, are very bitter, and when eaten raw, will dry out your mouth in a second. Generally, they’re unpleasant until frozen, and even after that, they are not great. But when steeped in gin with sugar, the flavor and color of the resulting drink is comparable to a sweet red wine.

Prunus might be a familiar genus, containing the cherry, plum, and apricot to name a few. Prunus spinosa generally stays small and blooms a brilliant white in mid spring (Fern, 2022). The fruits are not useful for very much until frozen, when the cold breaks down the astringent compounds (Fern, 2022); however, the fruits are plentiful in many parts of England owing to their presence in many hedges. The branches are Flowering Prunus spinosa in hedgerowthorny, and trunks can grow densely together making blackthorn ideal for use in hedgerows, where it was employed heavily in that role in England after the Enclosure Act. The Enclosure Act was the creation of private land in England, and landowners wanted what was in their lands kept in and what was outside kept out (Shaw, 2016). Therefore, a spiny tree with tough wood was perfect for their needs. Most hedges were a mix of different species, and blackthorn was often included in the mix. 

Common juniper (Juniperus communis) fruit is the only required herb in the creation of gin. No juniper, no gin. You can add whatever other ingredients you want, and it will still be a gin as long as it meets the next requirement: gin must be 40% alcohol by volume (Department of Treasury, 2007). Gin was first marketed in the Netherlands in the mid-1600s by Franciscus de la Boe as a medicinal tonic. But, people really liked it…to the point where people made up a lot of “illnesses” that could only be remedied by this new tonic (Ciesla, 1998). It became a regular drinking spirit not too long afterward and eventually made its way to England in 1700 (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019). 

The earliest mention of sloes in alcohol is in the book, British Wonders, by the satirical poet and London tavern owner, Ned Ward, published in 1717. It is a densely written chronology of what Ned Ward perceived as societal ills in post-Queen Anne Britain. Within his 18th-century description of the Gin Craze, Ward says, “But made at home twixt Chip and Dash, Of Sugar, Sloes and Grocers Trash.” The use of the phrase “Grocer’s Trash” in this line could be a reference to the ingredients of the homemade alcohols made by anyone interested in cashing in on the popularity of gin. In an effort to make these homemade alcohols appear as Juniperus communis fruit and foliagelow class and horrible as possible, the author specifically refers to their ingredients as something a grocer would trim off of their goods or refuse to sell. This is, perhaps, specifically in reference to the juniper berries in gin not being used for much else in England at the time. The Gin Craze Ward speaks of was when cheap spirits, mostly gin, reached London, England. The popularity of gin was the result of various factors: 1) spirits becoming easier to distill; 2) economic protectionism from the British monarchy against the French; and 3) the expansion of London (Vorel, 2020). Essentially, there was a new monarch that wanted to shield Britain from France, and in turn, hurt the French. So, there were tariffs on French goods, including the drink of choice at the time—brandy.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

It was already expensive and a special niche drink as a result, but those looking for liquor had to turn elsewhere, and gin was easy to distill using poor quality grain masked by juniper. The new accessibility of stills, and the lack of government oversight into the practice of distilling, meant that the price per gallon dropped below that of beer (Vorel, 2020). The population boom of London was brought on by once-rural farmers moving to the city for work. This was after the Enclosure Act forced them out of the communal fields. Jobs were not guaranteed in London, so money was tight; therefore, cheap spirits were the go-to for wetting their whistles (Vorel, 2020). As a side note, “gin” in the Gin Craze wasn’t the gin we think of today. It was incredibly strong and was mixed with things like sulfuric acid and turpentine to add “bite.” These adulterants made it toxic (Forsyth, 2019). The early drink was called “Madam Geneva” by some in London due to the original marketing of it as “Jenever,” the Dutch word for juniper, and Geneva is a similar sounding city in the Netherlands (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019). It was then shortened to “gin” in 1714, giving us the name we now know (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). 

Sloe Fruit Prunus spinosa Nobury Inkberrow WorcestershireSloe gin is made by adding 500g of sloes and 250g of sugar into a liter of gin and then letting it steep for two to three months. The resulting solution is bottled after running it through a filter to catch any skins or other undesirable bits. This is then decanted into bottles, where it continues to mature until enjoyed (Cadogan, 2014). Sloe gin is traditionally enjoyed straight and warm, but when sloe gin reached America in the early 1900s, it became popularized by the Sloe Gin Fizz cocktail (Lee, n.d.). The tradition of drinking sloe gin warm may be a product of the fruit being picked around mid-October and the preparation taking three months to reach initial maturity. The drink would be truly ready to enjoy in the middle of winter, but would be “good enough” on or around Christmas, when a warm beverage would be a treat on a chilly day. 

After hunting around town for a while, I finally found some sloe gin to try for myself. Because it may not be readily available in all areas, I recommend going to a really large liquor store, which is bound to have some. Sloe gin is typically less than 40% abv, so it might be with the cordials as opposed to the gin section. I tried two different kinds. One was a straight sloe gin, just gin and sloes. It was delicious. I loved the sweet plummy flavor and the slight punch of juniper from the gin. When mixed in a Gin and Tonic or a French Mule instead of taken straight, it is a sweet variation on these traditional favorites. Another bottle was a more complex sipping gin that had, including sloes: grapefruit, angelica, jasmine, bitter orange, lemon, cassia, coriander, and orris. (Perhaps a list for blog articles!) All of the other flavors, including the focus on citrus, were tasted throughout the gin. It was a much more challenging drink, and was enjoyed best over ice and slowly sipped to taste every flavor more independently, as opposed to all at once in a shot. This botanical sloe gin does not mix well with traditional mixers such as tonic or ginger beer. It’s a balancing act of flavors, and my mixing skills could not thread that needle. Perhaps someone more skilled than I could make that mix taste good, but I could not. 

I like alcohols that have unique flavors not found elsewhere in other culinary pursuits. The unique flavors that come from the distillation, fermentation, or other processes performed in the production of alcohol, make them special. When drinking, I would prefer something unique as opposed to another cider or lemonade experience. Sloe gin is another I’ll add to my repertoire of unique experiences to enjoy only in alcohol.

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) White flowers of Prunus spinosa (John Winder); 2) Prunus spinosa at U.S. National Arboretum (John Winder); 3) Juniperus communis foliage and fruit (Chemazgz, Openverse Creative Commons); 4) Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751 (Public Domain); 5) Prunus spinosa sloes (rodtuck, Openverse Creative Commons); 6 & 7) Sloe gin (David McDaniel).

References

Cadogan, M. 2014. Sloe gin recipe. BBC Good Food. Accessed on: 22 November 2022. Available from: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/sloe-gin 

Ciesla, W.M. 1998. Non-wood forest products from conifers. Food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. Rome: FAO. 

Department of Treasury. 2007. The Beverage and Alcohol Manual. Department of Treasury. 

Fern, K. 2022. Prunus spinosa. Useful temperate plants. Accessed November 22, 2022. Available from: https://temperate.theferns.info/plant/Prunus+spinosa 

Forsyth, M. 2019. The 18th-century Craze for Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/gin-craze-panic-18th-century-london-when-came-england-alcohol-drinking-history/ 

Lee, L. Drink in History: Sloe Gin Fizz. Accessed on November 22, 2022. Available from: https://chilledmagazine.com/drink-in-history-sloe-gin-fizz/ 

Online Etymology Dictionary. Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.etymonline.com/word/gin 

Shaw, M. 2016. The Commodification of a Blade of Grass: Enclosure in England. University of Georgia. Accessed on November 22, 2022 Available from: https://ctlsites.uga.edu/whatthehistory/the-commodification-of-a-blade-of-grass-enclosure-in-england/ 

Sipsmith. 2015. Exploring the History of Sloe Gin. Sipsmith Blog Accessed on November 30, 2022. Available from: https://sipsmith.com/exploring-the-history-of-sloe-gin/ 

Ward, N. 1717. British Wonders. Accessed on 22 November 2022. Available from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/British_Wonders 

Woodland Trust. Hedgerows. Woodland Trust Accessed on 30 November 2022. Available from: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/habitats/hedgerows/ 

Vorel, J. 2020. The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death. Paste Magazine. Accessed on 7 December 2022. Available from: The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death – Paste (pastemagazine.com)


David McDaniel is the National Herb Garden intern for the 2022-2023 season, where he’s digging into the herbal uses of plants, as well as learning the ins and outs of public gardening.

HSA Book Club Top Picks from 2022

by Lin Lange and Karen England

Virtual book club groups sprang up a bit like dandelions during the Covid years and have persisted even as pandemic restrictions have eased. The Herb Society of America has at least four groups (possibly more) meeting online monthly to share herbal reading across various genres, including fiction, mysteries, non-fiction, and even science fiction. 

The West District club meets on fourth Friday mornings and mixes up fiction and non-fiction choices. Three fiction-focused clubs meet in the afternoons on the second and third Wednesdays of each month, and in the evenings on the fourth Wednesday. The reading lists from the clubs are posted in the Members-Only space on the HSA website. These groups were asked to choose their top favorites from the past year’s reading, using the rating system described at the end of this blog. Although the selection process was somewhat inconsistent, a clear winner emerged.

Top Choice – Fiction

Book cover of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa SeeThe Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (2017):  Author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple. In a remote village bypassed by the Cultural Revolution, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. Their rituals and routines are interrupted by a foreign visitor seeking the special Pu’er tea grown in the region.

 

Other Favorites – Fiction

Book cover of A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers by Hazel GaynorA Memory of Violets: A Novel of London’s Flower Sellers by Hazel Gaynor (2015): Step into the world of Victorian London, where wealth and poverty exist side by side. This is the story of two long-lost sisters, whose lives take different paths, and the young woman who will be transformed by their experiences.

 

Book cover of The Last Garden in England by Julia KellyThe Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly (2021): A poignant and heart wrenching tale of five women in three eras, whose lives are tied together by one very special garden.

 

 

Book cover of Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden by Reginald ArkellOld Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden by Reginald Arkell  (2003): A classic British novel of the garden, with a title character as outsized and unforgettable as P. G. Wodehouse’s immortal butler, Jeeves.

 

 

Non-Fiction Favorites

Just as “herbal reading” includes a broadly defined palette that quickly moves beyond specific plants to stories of gardening, botanical exploration, and horticultural history, so also does the reading include memoirs, essays, and various non-fiction categories.  The following were favorites from this year’s reading:

Book cover of The Plant Hunter: A Scientist's Quest for Nature's Next Medicines by Cassandra Leah QuaveThe Plant Hunter: A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicines by Cassandra Leah Quave (2022): Dr. Quave weaves together science, botany, and memoir to tell us the extraordinary story of her own journey. A leading medical ethnobotanist tells the story of her quest to develop new ways to fight illness and disease through the healing powers of plants .

 

Book cover of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria JohnsonAmerican Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson (2018): Finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The untold story of Hamilton’s—and Burr’s—personal physician, whose dream to build America’s first botanical garden inspired the young republic.

 

Book cover of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn HarkupA is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup (2015):  Investigates the poisons Christie employs in fourteen of her mysteries, discussing why the poisons kill, how they interact, obtainability of such poisons, and which cases may have inspired Christie’s stories. 

 

 

Book cover of The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor HansonThe Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson (2015): Despite their importance, seeds are often seen as commonplace, their extraordinary natural and human histories overlooked. A book of knowledge, adventure, and wonder, spun by an award-winning writer with both the charm of a fireside story-teller and the hard-won expertise of a field biologist.

 

Book cover of This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael PollanThis is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan (2022): Pollan dives deep into three plant drugs—opium, caffeine, and mescaline—and throws the fundamental strangeness, and arbitrariness, of our thinking about them into sharp relief.

 

 

Wild Card: Science Fiction

Book cover of Semiosis: A Novel by Sue BurkeSemiosisA Novel by Sue Burke (2018):  Human survival hinges on a bizarre alliance in this character driven science fiction novel of first contact by debut author Sue Burke. Sentient plants and human space travelers learn to communicate and cooperate. You may never feel the same about pollinators, roots, and chemistry!

 

 

The HSA Herbal Book Clubs’ Rating System 

It is pretty simple: if you give a book two lavender sprigs, that means you loved it, but if you give it two wormwood sprigs you hated it, with few variations on the theme (see below).  

Rating system

Happy Herbal Reading in 2023!


Linda “Lin” Lange is president of The Herb Society of America, which really cuts into her reading time; but she manages to keep up with two of the clubs mentioned above. She also teaches “Mysterious Places,” a book-clubby class for Osher Life-long Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Denver.

Member at Large Karen England lives, works, and gardens on two steeply sloping acres in Vista, a small town in northern San Diego County, California, just nine miles as a crow flies from the Pacific Ocean. When she’s not drinking herbal cocktails, she drinks tea. Find her on Instagram @edgehillherbfarm.

Vanilla – An Expensive Spice

By Maryann Readal

Vanilla planifolia flowerVanilla, Vanilla planifolia, is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for December. It is the perfect month to feature vanilla, since its flavor will be a fragrant ingredient in many of the desserts that are served during the holidays. But where to begin a discussion of this historic spice, which is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron?

Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid flower. It is a long, dark brown seed pod, which contains thousands of  tiny black seeds. Those tiny black seeds are the specks you see in good vanilla ice cream. Vanilla extract is extracted vanilla beansfrom those seed pods. The vanilla orchid grows in the tropical climates of places like Mexico, Réunion, Tahiti, and Madagascar. Today, 80% of vanilla comes from the island nations of Madagascar and nearby Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Vanilla grown in Madagascar is the most desirable and is often called “Bourbon Vanilla” (Oon, 2020). However, the vanilla vine, which grows to about 300 feet, was first grown in Mexico. At first, Mexico was the only place where vanilla grew, because it needed the Melepona bee to pollinate the flower in order to produce the seed pod. Hernán Cortéz is credited with discovering vanilla during his exploration of Central America in the 16th century, where the Aztecs combined vanilla with cocoa to create their famous drink, xocolatl. The plant was eventually brought to Europe and other tropical climates, but the plants could never produce the vanilla bean, because the Melepona bee pollinator was not present to pollinate the flowers. That is, until one day in 1841, a young boy on the Réunion island in the Indian Ocean discovered how to manually pollinate the vanilla orchid. Soon, growing pod-producing vanilla vines was possible in other tropical countries.

Vanilla flower hand pollinationBut the process of producing the vanilla was—and still is—a laborious one. It takes three years for a vanilla plant to bloom. Each vanilla flower opens for only one day, and hand-pollination has to be done during a very short window of time. (Watch this video to see how vanilla flowers are pollinated.) Once pollinated, it takes five to nine months for the pods to ripen. When ripe, but before the pods split open, the vanilla pods are picked by hand and then subjected to a multi-step curing process that takes another six months to a year to complete. It is only after this curing process that the vanilla bean develops its distinct vanilla fragrance and flavor. The cured beans are then shipped to an extraction facility, where the beans are ground and soaked in alcohol and water, infusing the vanilla flavor into the liquid that becomes vanilla extract. This long process is the reason for the expense of real vanilla extract.

Woman sorting vanilla pods in MadagascarIn 2022, the price of Madagascar vanilla was between $178 and $206 per pound (Salina Wamucii, 2022) after being only $20 per pound five years before. After two devastating cyclones, which destroyed much of the vanilla crop growing in Madagascar in 2017, prices have soared. The expensive and scarce vanilla has forced farmers to imprint a code on each of their growing vanilla beans in order to deter thieves. Companies that import large quantities of vanilla have banded together to help farmers deal with the environmental problems that are affecting their vanilla vines. They decided that helping the farmers is easier than changing formulations based on a new vanilla product and changing the labels needed for a new product.

Madagascar "Bourbon" Vanilla ExtractThe demand for vanilla flavoring far exceeds the supply. Vanilla contains between 250-500 different flavor and fragrance components. The most prominent is vanillin, which scientists learned how to create in the laboratory in the late 19th century. Vanillin can be made from petrochemicals, from wood pulp, and from eugenol, which is a component of clove oil. This synthetic or imitation vanilla is much cheaper than the real vanilla extract made from the vanilla beans. It is most likely the one used in vanilla-flavored food products that we are familiar with. “The vast bulk, 99 percent of vanilla-flavored products on the market, from vanilla flavored vodka to vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, don’t actually contain vanilla” (Rupp, 2014). For consumers, who are increasingly demanding natural products, vanilla made from petrochemicals or wood chips is a difficult choice to make.

Vanilla ice creamSo, which vanilla product should you use this holiday season—the cheaper imitation vanilla or the real, but expensive, vanilla extract? Some say that if you are baking something that requires a temperature over 300 degrees, you can just as well substitute the imitation for the real thing. But if you are making puddings, custards, or vanilla ice cream, you should use the real thing—vanilla extract.

For recipes and to find out more about vanilla, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.

Photo Credits: 1) Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0); 2) Vanilla beans (Creative Commons); 3) Hand pollinating vanilla flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 us); 4) Woman hand sorting vanilla beans (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0); 5) Vanilla ice cream (Life Made Simple); 6) Madagascar “Bourbon” vanilla extract (Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0).

References

Baker, Aryn. 2018. Vanilla is nearly as expensive as silver. Accessed 11/2/22. https://time.com/5308143/vanilla-price-climate-change-madagascar/

Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. 2022. What are vanilla beans? Accessed 11/13/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/history-of-vanilla-beans-1809274

Laws, Bill. 2018. Fifty plants that changed the course of history. United Kingdom: David & Charles.

My Green Pets. n.d. How to pollinate the vanilla orchid, step by step. Accessed 11/15/22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RdoTcDD2EU

Oon, Samantha. Vanilla beans: the cost of production. Accessed 11/5/22. https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/vanilla-beans-the-cost-of-production

Rupp, Rebecca. 2014. The history of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/plain-vanilla

Selina Wamucii. 2022. Madagascar vanilla prices. Accessed 11/2/22. https://www.selinawamucii.com/insights/prices/madagascar/vanilla/#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20the%20approximate%20price,is%20MGA%201517195.19%20per%20kg.

Sethi, Simran. 2017. The bittersweet story of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/bittersweet-story-vanilla-180962757/


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. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Many Herbal Thanks!

We want to personally thank each and every one of you, our blog readers, for your continued support. We strive to bring you fresh, educational, insightful, and herbally delightful information every week, and it is our hope that you benefit from the articles as much as we do!

Fall color at US National ArboretumWe especially want to thank our many authors who contribute their time and talents to spread herbal wisdom around the globe. We tip our hats to you all. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Gratefully,

Erin and Chrissy, blog masters

Photo Credits: 1) Mexican sunflower (Tithonia sp.); 2) Solanum valerianum ‘Navidad, Jalisco’; 3) Lantana camara cv. and Petunia cv.); 4) Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus); 5) Native woodland fall color, US National Arboretum. All photos courtesy of John Winder (National Herb Garden volunteer extraordinaire!).

Devil’s Tongue (Amorphophallus konjac)

by David McDaniel

A mass of compound-seeming leaves atop squishy stalks pouring out of a large pot in the central circle of the theme garden at the National Herb Garden was labeled “Devil’s Tongue.” Replanting was simple enough, and I did not think much about the plant after that. I figured it was a non-woody shrub of sorts. I recognize that the inability to categorize the plant into defined botanical terms should have tipped me off that it has an interesting life cycle, but it was not until I was making labels that I discovered just how interesting it is.

Amorphophallus konjac is a perennial corm in the Araceae family that grows a single, highly divided leaf, and once the corm reaches maturity it sends out a single inflorescence (Mahr, n.d.). The single leaf divides into the form of a small tree that serves to gather energy for the corm to either further maturity or regenerate after production of an inflorescence. The inflorescence has thousands of flowers at the base of the spadix within the spathe. The spathe is the part of A. konjac that wraps around the central spadix almost like a collar. The spadix is home to the inflorescence at its base and protrudes from the center of the spathe. The flowers are pollinated by carrion flies that are attracted to the smell of dead animals that emanates from the inflorescence (Mahr, n.d.). This plant is native to the Yunnan Province in China, but has become popular around the world for its unique culinary uses (Flora of China, n.d.). 

The winged compound leaves of Amorphophallus konjac

The corm is an engorged stem base, shaped almost like a donut, that stores energy collected by the single leaf it sends up every year. The corm of the plant is edible, but cannot be consumed raw due to the formation of calcium oxalate crystals that cause intense discomfort in the mouth and digestive system (North Carolina Extension Toolbox, n.d.). The calcium oxalate crystals are broken down at baking temperatures; therefore, the peeled and sliced corm must be baked and then ground into a fine powder before it can be used (Fern, 2010). 

A orange package of mango-flavored konjac jelly candyThe powder, when combined with water, makes a jelly. The jelly is traditionally formulated with seaweed to give it a pleasant brine flavor. It is gray when seaweed is used in preparation but is white when prepared without. In Japan, the finished jelly product is called konnyaku, konjac (NC State Extension, n.d.). The English form of the word is pronounced like the liquor, cognac. The jelly takes on the flavor and color of any additional ingredients. Modern uses still have both traditional options, but fruit and vegetables are sometimes added for flavors used in candies and the bubbles in bubble tea. In bubble tea it is used as a replacement for tapioca when a sweet flavor, as opposed to a savory flavor, is desired. More generally, the jelly can be used as a vegan replacement for anywhere gelatin is used. It can also be used as a replacement for seafood. The seaweed preparation of konjac lends a fish flavor to dishes and is used as a vegan substitute for fish. 

Another preparation of konjac is in the form of noodles. The noodles are translucent and are known as shirataki. Shirataki noodles are low calorie, gluten free, and light on carbs (Spritzler, 2018). Keto diet circles hail them as a “miracle food” since they are like wheat noodles, but are not as carbohydrate heavy or high in calories since they are 97% water and only 3% flour (Spritzler, 2018). The noodles can be substituted in recipes that have wheat noodles, provided some limitations are considered (Spritzler, 2018). The primary limitation is the lack of flavor when prepared on their own; however, the noodles will absorb a lot of flavor in the dish when cooked with other ingredients. 

A bowl of konjac noodles in a white bowl with a blue rim, next to a package of noodles with a rooster on the coverThe medicinal properties of konjac come from the glucomannan in the flour, as it is a source of good carbs for gut microbiota while not being available for uptake by humans (Spritzler, 2018). Feeding gut microbiota gives konjac prebiotic properties (Spritzler, 2018). The lack of bioavailability of the glucomannan is another reason konjac is popular in keto diets (Spritzler, 2018). The glucomannan also relieves constipation and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (Fern, 2010; Spritzler, 2018). The mechanism that allows glucomannan to work as such a good source of dietary fiber is that it has a high rate of water absorption by weight, which allows for a higher water content in bowel movements (Devaraj, 2019). The prebiotic properties are due to the preference of healthy bacteria native to the gut for glucomannan over other available sugars (Devaraj, 2019). 

The konjac at the National Herb Garden did not flower this year, but the leaves were large enough we had to plant it in the ground since it was bursting out of the pot. There’s a good chance in the upcoming years that it will flower brilliantly and I hope to see it. After reading about all of the uses of konjac I will be on the lookout for konjac foods and candies on my grocery trips! 

Photo Credits: 1) The tree-like single compound leaf of Amorphophallus konjac (Sebastian Stabinger, via Wikimedia); 2) A group of A. konjac inflorescences, showing the collar-like spathe round the central spadix (James Steakley, via Wikimedia); 3) Close-up of the winged compound leaf (David McDaniel); 4) A packet of mango flavored konjac jelly (Open Food Facts); 5) Konjac noodles (Alpha, via Flicker)

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 

Devaraj, R. D., C. K. Reddy, & B. Xu. 2019. Health-promoting effects of konjac glucomannan and its practical applications: A critical review. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules. 126: 273-281. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30586587/ 

Flora of China (Internet). n.d. Amorphophallus konjac K. Koch, Wochenschr. Gärtnerei Pflanzenk. 1: 262. 1858. Flora of China. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=242302696

Fern, K. n.d. Amorphophallus konjac. Tropical Plants Database. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Amorphophallus+konjac 

Mahr, S. n.d. Voodoo lily, Amorphophallus konjac. Wisconsin Horticulture. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/voodoo-lily-amorphophallus-konjac/

North Carolina Extension Toolbox (Internet). n.d. Amorphophallus konjac. NC State Extension. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/amorphophallus-konjac/#poison

Spritzler, F. 2018. Shirataki noodles 101. Healthline. Accessed November 6, 2022. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/shirataki-noodles-101 


David McDaniel is the National Herb Garden intern for the 2022-2023 season where he’s digging into the herbal uses of plants, as well as learning the ins and outs of public gardening.

Cranberry – Herb for the Holidays

By Maryann Readal

Cranberry fruitThe cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is a native American fruit, as well as an herb that is full of nutrition and medicinal value. It is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for November. Cranberry is native to the eastern part of the United States, southern Canada, and the southern Appalachian area. It is a perennial, low–growing, trailing vine. The vine can reach a length of six feet with upright stolons growing up along it. It is these upright stolons that bear the flowers and then the cranberry fruit. Rich, boggy wetlands are the ideal environment for cranberries to grow, but they are also grown in areas with a shallow water table. Cranberry plants in bogFlowers bloom in May and June on the stolons and terminal ends of the vine. Because the flower pollen is too heavy to be carried by the wind, pollination is dependent on native bees and honey bees. Fruit matures after about 80 days, and harvesting begins at the end of September and extends into October. To harvest the berries, the growing area is flooded. Then, the plants are “beaten” with specialized equipment causing the berries, which have four small air pockets in them, to float to the top. (These air pockets also make fresh cranberries bouncy.) The floating berries are corralled into one area and then harvested using conveyor belts. This “wet harvesting” method is used for berries that become cranberry juice and sauce. "Wet" cranberry harvestingAbout 5% of berries are “dry harvested” and packed for use as fresh fruit. Dry harvesting is done by mechanized “combing” of the fruit from the vines (Cranberry Institute, n.d.).

Native Americans use the cranberry to make pemmican, a dried food cake. They were the first to use cranberries to make a sweet sauce using maple sugar (Caruso, n.d.). They also use cranberries as a poultice to treat fevers and wounds. The juice is used as a dye for their blankets and rugs.

Cranberry blossomThe Pilgrims named the berry “crane berry,” because the unopened flower resembled the head, neck, and bill of a crane. The name was later shortened to cranberry. Some also called it “bear berry” because bears liked to eat the berries.

Cultivation of cranberries began in the early 1800s in the northeast US. The first commercial cranberry bed was planted by a Revolutionary War veteran, Henry Hall, in 1816 in Massachusetts. Today, more than 40,000 acres of cranberries are farmed in the United States alone (Cranberry Marketing Committee, 2022). In the beginning, shipments of cranberries were packed in water in barrels containing 100 pounds of fresh fruit. The 100-pound barrel continues to be the standard measurement for cranberries. 

Ocean Spray founder, Elizabeth LeeElizabeth Lee, in New Jersey, made and sold the first cranberry sauce in 1917. Due to the success of her sauce, Bog Sweet Cranberry Sauce, she partnered with two other growers and formed the company Ocean Spray in 1930.

Cranberries contain a high amount of Vitamin C.  In the early days, they were eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy. Today, cranberries are thought to prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). However, studies show that cranberries do not cure these infections (Mount Sinai, n.d.).  But chemicals in cranberries may help to prevent bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract walls, which could prevent UTIs from developing. In 2020, the FDA allowed cranberry producers to label their products saying that there is “limited” evidence to support the claim that cranberries prevent urinary tract infections.  

Cranberry supplementRecent research shows that cranberries can be healthy in other ways. Some research suggests that they can prevent bacterial infections that cause ulcers in the stomach. They also may help slow the buildup of dental plaque. Cranberries have two dozen antioxidant compounds, which help protect cells from damage that can lead to serious diseases such as cancer and heart disease (WebMD, 2020). Cranberries also contain salicylic acid, which can help reduce swelling and prevent blood clots from forming. 

In 2002, several studies found that the antioxidants in cranberries appear to give some protection against Alzheimer’s disease (Univ. of Maine, 2012). In the past, cranberry has been used to treat the common cold, enlarged prostate, and kidney stones. However, there is no good evidence to support the effectiveness of these uses of cranberry.

Resized_20220928_122605Cranberries are a popular accompaniment at holiday meals. A meal of roasted turkey is not complete without the sweet tanginess of cranberry sauce. About 20% of cranberries are consumed at Thanksgiving. It is interesting to note that cranberries are more tart than lemons and also contain less sugar than lemons (Alfaro, 2021). Adding a quarter teaspoon of baking soda can help reduce the tartness of cranberries and, therefore, reduce the need for extra sugar. 

Fresh, frozen, or dried cranberries can be added to pies and cakes. Dried cranberries may need to be rehydrated before being used. Dried cranberries can also be substituted for raisins in many recipes. Fresh Handful of harvested cranberriescranberries are used to make sauces and jellies. When cooking fresh cranberries, they should only be cooked until the skins begin to pop. Chopped fresh cranberries make a colorful addition to salads. They can be a zingy substitute for cherries or pomegranates as well. Fresh cranberries can be frozen and kept in the freezer for up to a year. Frozen cranberries do not have to be unthawed before using. The Cosmopolitan drink is made with cranberry juice. White cranberry juice is made with cranberries that have not yet ripened.

Fresh, dried, or frozen, this is the season to add cranberry, one of our native fruits, to your meals for color, taste, nutrition, and good health. For more information, a beautiful screen saver, and recipes for using cranberry, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.

Photo Credits: 1) Cranberry fruit (Chrissy Moore); 2) “Wet” cranberry harvesting (Public Domain); 3) Cranberry flower (Public Domain); 4) Elizabeth Lee, founder Ocean Spray company (Public Domain); 5) Cranberry supplement (Public Domain); 6) Cranberry fruit and plant (Chrissy Moore); 7) Cranberry fruit (Public Domain).

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

Alfaro, Danilo. 2021. What are cranberries. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/what-are-cranberries-5199220

Cranberry Institute. n.d. About cranberries. Accessed 10/4/22. https://www.cranberryinstitute.org/cranberry-health-research/library/category/new-researchCranberry 

The cranberry story. n.d. Accessed 10/17/22 https://www.nj.gov/pinelands/infor/educational/curriculum/pinecur/tcs.htm

Filipone, Peggy Trowbridge. 2019. Cranberry cooking tips. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/cranberry-cooking-tips-1807845

Griffin, R. Morgan. 2021. Cranberries and your health. Accessed 10/11/22. https://www.webmd.com/diet/supplement-guide-cranberry

Mount Sinai. n.d. Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon. Accessed 10/11/22. https:// www.mountsinai.org/healthlibrary/herb/cranberry#:~:text=Aspirin%3A%20Like%20aspirin%2C%20cranberries%20contain,drink%20a%20lot%20of%20juice.

Natural History of the American Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon Ait. Accessed 10/4/22. http://www.umass.edu/cranberry/downloads/nathist.pdf

University of Maine Cooperative Extension. n.d. Cranberry facts and history. Accessed 10/11/22. http://extension.umaine.edu/cranberries/cranberry-facts-and-history


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. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.