HSA Webinar: A History of Chocolate

By Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

20190613_150017Chocolate: food or medicine? For centuries, chocolate was consumed primarily as medicine. Cacao, from which chocolate is derived, was the basis for prescriptions promising relief from such ailments as anemia, alopecia, fever, gout, heart disease, kidney and liver disease, along with tuberculosis. Prescriptions from the 16th and 17th centuries would combine cacao with cinnamon, sugar, pepper, cloves, vanilla, and/or anise to ease common complaints. Certainly modern day amoxicillin could benefit from such a delicious concoction.  

It was only in the 19th century that chocolate became more of a food staple and less of a medicine. This was in part because of the expansion of where cacao could be grown. Cacao is a New World food, but the Portuguese brought the cacao tree to the African tropics. The development of machinery made it easier to separate cacao butter from the seeds, and so the making of chocolate became easier. As advances were made, chocolate became mainstream with Nestle, Godiva, La Maison du Chocolat, Fauchon, Lindt, Suchard, and Sprüngli elevating chocolate to a decadent treat. Today, it is consumed in all sorts of shapes and for different reasons: to soothe the day’s stress, to celebrate birthdays, or to show one’s love on Valentine’s Day. 

0004Join us on January 12th at 1pm EST when HSA’s guest speaker and author, Sarah Lohman, joins us for a “History of Chocolate.” During this program, we’ll uncover the history of chocolate, from its roots as an ancient Meso-American beverage to a contemporary melt-in-your-mouth chocolate bar. You’ll learn how a yellow, football-shaped tropical fruit transforms into high-end dark chocolate and what “Mexican Hot Chocolate” actually has in common with what Montezuma drank. We’ll cover botany, “Chocolate Wars,” and what makes Hershey’s distinctive flavor.

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today and enjoy all our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over 50 program titles. To register visit www.HerbSociety.org/hsa-learn/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) Box of chocolates (Chrissy Moore); 2) Author and speaker Sarah Lohman (Sarah Lohman).


Sarah Lohman is a culinary historian and the author of the bestselling book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. She focuses on the history of food as a way to access the stories of diverse Americans. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as on “All Things Considered.” Sarah has also presented across the country, from the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., to The Culinary Historians of Southern California. Her current project, Endangered Eating: Exploring America’s Vanishing Cuisine, will be released with W.W. Norton & Co. in 2021.

Parsley – Herb of the Month and Herb of the Year

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bayberry Candles

By Katherine K. Schlosser

The season of lights is upon us. During this darkest time of the year, we gravitate to earthly sources of light to keep things merry and bright.

Drupes2_zoomed in to see waxEarly in our history as a country, many were short on money and luxuries such as candles. Livestock numbers were as yet too low to produce the quantity of tallow needed to make candles affordable, so following the lead of Native Americans, householders turned to candlewood to provide light on winter evenings.

We know candlewood as fatwood or pine knots—the resin-impregnated heartwood of pine trees.  Pines that were cut to clear land, build homes, and provide heat for warmth and cooking left stumps in the ground. Those stumps, full of resin, hardened and became rot-resistant…and were an easy source of candlewood. Slim slivers cut from the wood burned hot and bright.

Alice Morse Earle, writing in the 1800s about life in Colonial America, quoted a statement made by Rev. Mr. Higginson in 1633:

     They are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree, cloven in two little slices, something thin, which are so full of the moysture of turpentine and pitch that they burne as cleere as a torch.

Though efficient, abundant, and readily available, candlewood produced copious amounts of smoke, along with a strong scent of turpentine, making it less desirable than more traditional candles. Those living along the coast had the advantage of another source of light: fish oil, with which they filled lamps.

It wasn’t long before enterprising New England Colonists discovered the virtues of bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), a deciduous shrub common along coastal plain areas.  The branches, leaves, and fruits are sweetly aromatic, and were used by Native Americans for a variety of medical complaints, including gum disease.20201223_103259

Here in North Carolina, southern bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is evergreen and native to our coastal plain and the Outer Banks.  There are other species, mostly on the East Coast. Morella cerifera, wax myrtle, is native from Maryland south to Florida and westward to Texas. Morella inodora, scentless bayberry, grows from Georgia to Louisiana and south to Florida. The outlier is M. californica, California wax myrtle, reaching from southern California through Oregon and into Washington.

The dark blue berries (non-edible drupes) of these waxy species are covered with a grayish-white waxy substance. Boiled in large vats of water, the wax floats to the surface, where it is skimmed and transferred to another pot for refining. Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist writing in 1748, reported that the wax “acquires a fine and transparent green color. This tallow is dearer than common tallow, but cheaper than wax.”

The end product was somewhat brittle, but burned slowly and without smoke.  Even better, when extinguished, the candles yield a pleasant, warm aroma with the exception of M. inodora.  Kalm also reported that “in Carolina they not only make candles out of the wax of the berries, but likewise sealing-wax.”

The berries are small and the waxy coating thin, making enormous quantities necessary to make a candle—eight pounds of the berries are required to make one pound of wax. The candles were so popular that in 1687, Brookhaven, New York, passed a law to help protect the plants: gathering of the berries before September 15th of the year brought a fifteen shilling fine.  

To alleviate the problem of brittle candles, a small amount of beeswax was added before forming the candles. Bayberry was the longest burning candle of all, giving rise to the uniquely American tradition of burning bayberry candles on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  

The bonus to these clean, attractive, long-burning candles, was the fragrance released in a whiff of smoke when extinguished. So nice, in fact, that people were tempted to periodically extinguish and re-light the candles to enjoy the scent. That might, technically, violate the luck-bringing requirements of the New Year’s Eve tradition:  

A Bayberry Candle
burned to the socket 
brings Luck to the household, 
Food to the larder 
and Gold to the pocket.

Bayberry candle by Katherine K SchlosserNot only must the candle be burned on New Year’s Eve, but must be burned through one night and into the next day/year. A contemporary ten-inch taper will burn about 5-7 hours, so lighting one at dinner should last past midnight. If you stay up to bring the New Year in, your candle will probably burn down shortly thereafter. If you retire early and hesitate to leave an unattended candle burning, a friend suggests putting  your burning candle, securely in a candle holder, into the kitchen sink with no curtains or such nearby. You will miss the fragrance as the flame dies down, but you will have good luck for the next year.

You can grow bayberry in sandy or well-drained soil, slightly on the dry side, and in full sun or part shade (determine the native habitat in your area).  The shrubs where I live grow from three to eight feet tall, and if you have both male and female plants, and do not fertilize heavily, you will have a source for making your own candles.

If you purchase your candles, make sure to get those with actual bayberry wax rather than just bayberry “scented,” and enjoy a bright and happy holiday season.

Photo Credits: 1) Morella cerifera fruits, showing waxy coating (Erin Holden) 2) Morella cerifera hedge (Erin Holden); 3) Bayberry candle (Katherine Schlosser)

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


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level.  She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen deConway Little Medal of Honor.  She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.

Christmas Herbs of Trinidad, Part I

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esI was visiting my mother just a few weeks before Christmas in 2017. She had recently moved to a wonderful small family-run assisted living home. The owner, Ann Abdul, asked me if I’d like to taste some “sorrel drink” she had made for the holiday season. I had no idea what that was. It looked Christmassy–a brilliant ruby red. I took a sip, and the most delicious taste filled my mouth. It was a rich, complex, and unfamiliar burst of flavors. But it tasted like Christmas, too—it was sweet, and I thought I could detect cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. But it also tasted a bit like lemonade with a pronounced citrusy tartness. I loved it, and I had to know more! 

Ann and her family are from Trinidad, and over the next two years, I learned so much from her about Trinidad cuisine and culture. The island nation Trinidad & Tobago has a complex history of colonization, slavery, indentured labor, and immigration from all around the world, which has led to a cuisine and a culture that blends Indian, African, Creole, Amerindian, British, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Middle Eastern ingredients and traditions. It is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world and is full of bold flavors. 

There are certain recipes–food and drink–that are essential for Christmas in Trinidad. Ann says it simply isn’t Christmas without them. Maybe you will want to explore some of them and add them into your own celebrations. First, let’s look at what drinks are important to Christmas in Trinidad.

20171009_171414It turned out that “sorrel” is a name for the calyces of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a plant commonly known as roselle, as well as the beverage that is made from them. If you have ever tasted Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea, then you have tasted sorrel. (This sorrel is not related to the leaves of Rumex acetosa, also known as sorrel, which is used as a salad green and fresh herb.) In the Caribbean, the fleshy calyces are used fresh or dried to make the beverage. They are boiled along with various whole spices, then strained, sweetened, and cooled. It is served cold, with or without rum. The exact recipe varies from family to family, but the spices used would typically include cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cloves, allspice, ginger, star anise, and orange peel. Ann’s recipe calls for cinnamon, bay leaf, clove, and vanilla. In Trinidad, many people grow their own Hibiscus sabdariffa so they can harvest the fresh, but highly perishable, calyces, which ripen around Christmas-time, for making their sorrel. (Fresh sorrel may be hard to locate in some sections of the United States, but packets of dried sorrel are easier to find in the International food sections of stores or through Caribbean/International markets online.) For additional information on Hibiscus sabdariffa, check out the blog’s previous post on roselle.

Angostura bittersAnother essential Trinidadian Christmas drink is one more familiar to most Americans. Ponche de crème is their flavorful take on eggnog. Served straight or spiked with rum, this delicious drink must contain a special Trinidad ingredient: Angostura Bitters. You may be familiar with Angostura Bitters as a cocktail ingredient. It has a history that goes back to the early 19th century and is worthy of a post all its own! It is a concentrated alcoholic herbal concoction said to contain as many as 40 botanical ingredients, the exact recipe of which is rumored to be known by only five living people! It started out as a medicine and made its way into flavoring food and drink. Although the recipe is unknown, it is widely believed to include orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon, anise seeds, juniper berries, cocoa nibs, and the intensely bitter Gentiana lutea, a European alpine wildflower with a long history in medicine and brewing. Just a dash of Angostura Bitters is enough to help flavor most recipes. And in Trinidad, according to Ann, a dash is added to almost everything, particularly fruit juices. 

IMG_20201027_074741_444Lastly, the third beverage essential to Christmas in Trinidad is also enjoyed year-round: ginger beer. Ginger beer is a strongly flavored version of ginger ale that is non-alcoholic. The rhizome of Zingiber officinalis contains volatile oils, such as zingerone and gingerols, that give ginger its characteristic “zing.” Most families in Trinidad, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, make their ginger beer at home from fresh ginger rhizomes, and the resulting ginger beer often has a very strong punch of ginger flavor. It contains other spices such as cinnamon and clove. It is made very strong, and it can be diluted with water or club soda to suit your taste.

Next week: Trinidad Christmas foods!

All recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” (which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential cookbooks on Trinidadian cuisine, found in almost every home, according to Ann.)

Ann’s Sorrel Drink

  • Dried sorrel1 package dried sorrel (Angel brand easily available online or in Caribbean market)
  • 10 cloves
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 8 cups of water

Boil until tender, then cool. 

When cool add:

  • 1-2 cups sugar or to taste (sorrel is extremely tart)
  • ½ cup rum (optional)
  • 1 TBSP vanilla extract

Store in refrigerator and enjoy throughout the season!

Ponche De Crème

  • 6 eggs
  • Peel of one lime
  • 3  15 oz. cans evaporated milk
  • 1½  14 oz. cans sweetened condensed milk (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp Angostura bitters
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup rum or more to taste

Directions:

  1. Beat eggs and lime peel until light and fluffy.
  2. Add evaporated milk.
  3. Sweeten to taste with condensed milk.
  4. Add bitters, nutmeg and rum according to taste.
  5. Remove lime peel.
  6. Serve with crushed ice.

Notes:

You can substitute 1 ½ cups pureed steamed pumpkin for eggs. Consuming raw eggs carries risk of salmonella bacteria illness. Using pasteurized eggs reduces this risk.

Ginger Beer

  • 1 lb. fresh ginger root
  • 8 cups water
  • juice and peel of one lime
  • 4 cups granulated sugar (or to taste)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4-6 cloves

Directions:

  1. Wash, peel, and grate ginger root.
  2. Place in a large bottle with 8 cups of water and juice and peel of one lime.
  3. Leave in the sun for one day. Next day, drain and sweeten with sugar.
  4. Pour into clean bottles and place in the refrigerator. Allow to settle for 2 days.

If too strong, dilute with club soda or water to taste.

Photo credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Hibiscus sabdariffa (sorrel/roselle) calyces (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 3) Angostura Bitters (angosturabitters.com); 4) Zingiber officinale (ginger) rhizomes (Michael Rayburn, Rayburn Farms); 5) Dried sorrel calyces (angelbrand.com).


Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.

Cinnamon – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Cinnamon is the name for several plant species in the laurel family (Lauraceae). It is a small tropical evergreen tree with aromatic leaves and bark. The spice, cinnamon, is the bark of the tree which has been shaved, rolled, and dried into the familiar tubes called “quills.”  

cinnamon_1 Creative CommonsThe two most common cinnamon species are “true” or Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum). “True” cinnamon is grown in Sri Lanka. Cassia cinnamon is grown in Southeast Asia and is the one found in the spice section of your grocery store. The two cinnamons differ in taste and color, with the “true” cinnamon having a more subtle, delicate flavor and a lighter color. It is also more expensive. The picture is a good illustration of the difference between the two cinnamons. The cinnamon on the left is the coarser cassia cinnamon. The cinnamon on the right is Ceylon cinnamon. Notice how the quills of the Ceylon cinnamon are tightly rolled.

Cassia cinnamon has a higher content of the natural ingredient coumarin. Scientists discovered that coumarin may cause reversible liver damage in susceptible people. This discovery led the European Union in 2011 to limit the amount of coumarin in food to 6.8mg per pound of food (about one teaspoon). This created a furor in Scandinavian countries where the cinnamon bun, which has a high cinnamon content, is a traditional baked good, and cinnamon stars are a popular cookie. Sweden found a way around this restriction by claiming that the cinnamon bun was a traditional food, and therefore, was subject to the higher coumarin limit of 22.7mg per pound of food. The Danish baking industry argued that switching to the “true” or Ceylon cinnamon, with its lower coumarin content, would ruin the taste of their traditional food and make it much more expensive as well. As you may imagine, this issue was very important in a country which celebrates National Cinnamon Bun Day on October 4th, and which looks forward to its daily fika tradition of having coffee along with their famous cinnamon bun. 

cinnamon Maryann ReadalCinnamon was first traded by the Arabs who protected their source of the spice by telling fantastic tales of how wild birds guarded the cinnamon trees. References to cinnamon were found in ancient Chinese botanical medical texts dating back to 2800 BCE. Cinnamon has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. The Egyptians used cinnamon in the embalming process, as a medicine, and as a flavoring for beverages. There are a number of references to cinnamon in the Bible as an ingredient in Moses’ anointing oils (Exodus) and as a token of friendship between lovers and friends (Proverbs), while the Romans burned cinnamon on their funeral pyres. In 65 CE, Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon during his second wife’s funeral ─ a wife who he had assassinated. 

In medieval Europe, cinnamon was an indicator of wealth. It was burned as incense, as well as used to preserve meat. During the Bubonic Plague, sponges were soaked with cinnamon and cloves and placed in the sick room. It was also used to cure coughs and indigestion. 

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the demand for cinnamon grew at the same time as traditional trade routes were threatened by unrest in the Arab world. Portuguese sailors began to look for alternate sources of spices, leading to Chrisopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas,  as well as the discovery of the source of cinnamon – Ceylon.  By the time the British East India Company gained control of the spice trade in the 19th century, demand for cinnamon had waned and was replaced by coffee, tea, sugar, and chocolate.

cinnamon tree Creative Commons Magda WojtyraSo where are we today with cinnamon, besides it being a necessary ingredient in our cinnamon buns, cinnamon candies, and apple pie? Several clinical studies have shown that cinnamon does help control fasting blood glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetic individuals. It has also been found to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. However, the National Institute of Health feels not enough study has been done to make a definitive recommendation for using cinnamon as a treatment. They do recommend that, if using cinnamon as a food supplement or medicine, the lower coumarin Ceylon cinnamon should be used.

Here is hoping you will enjoy many ─ but not too many ─ cinnamony treats this holiday season.

Photo Credits: 1) Quills of cassia cinnamon (left) and Ceylon cinnamon (right) (Creative Commons); 2) Cinnamon bun (Maryann Readal); 3) Cinnamon tree (Creative Commons, Magda Wojtyra).

References

Aubrey, Allison. Cinnamon can help lower blood sugar, but one variety may be best.  https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/12/30/255778250/cinnamon-can-help-lower-blood-sugar-but-one-variety-may-be-best.  Accessed 11/18/20.

Bundesinstitut fur Risikobewerlung (BfR). FAQ on coumarin in cinnamon and other foods.  https://www.bfr.bund.de/en/faq_on_coumarin_in_cinnamon_and_other_foods-8487.html.  Accessed 11/18/20

National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. Ciinnamon. May 2020. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cinnamon. Accessed 11/20/2020.

Osborne, Troy David. A taste of paradise: cinnamon. https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/cinnamon. Accessed 11/11/20.  

Ting Lu. Cinnamon extract improves fasting blood glucose and glycosylated hemoglobin level in Chinese patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutrition Research.  June 2012. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22749176/  Accessed 11/17/20.

The Guardian. Cinnamon sparks spicy debate between Danish bakers and food authorities. December 20, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/20/cinnamon-intake-food-argument-denmark  Accessed 11/11/20.

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


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

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

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


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

Celery Seed – The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

smallage flowersCelery seed comes from a variety of celery that is different from the celery (Apium graveolens) we see in grocery stores. The seed comes from an ancestor of celery called smallage or wild celery. The smallage variety is native to the Mediterranean area and the Middle East and is grown in India, China, and France specifically for the harvesting of its seeds.  The seeds are very small: 760,000 seeds make one pound. They have an aromatic, earthy smell, and a flavor that has a touch of spiciness. The seeds are used whole in brines, pickles, and marinades and in salads like coleslaw and potato salad. They can be added to breads, soups, and dressings, thus giving a celery taste without the bulk of fresh celery stalks. The seeds are used in French, New Orleans Creole, and other cuisines around the world. They are also ground and mixed with other spices to create unique herbal blends like Old Bay Seasoning, celery salt, Products containing celery seedCajun seasonings, etc.

These tiny seeds pack a lot of punch when it comes to nutrition. A teaspoon of the seed has only 8 calories and 0.5 grams of fat. They supply 0.9 milligrams of iron per teaspoon which is 11% of the daily requirement for men and 5% for women. Celery seed supplies trace amounts of zinc, manganese, and phosphorus, too. According to the late Dr. James Duke, an American economic botanist, ethnobotanist, and author of The Green Pharmacy, the seeds contain at least 20 anti-inflammatory properties. He credited his robust life to the celery seed being among his “baker’s dozen” of essential herbs. The seeds also contain coumarins, which help in thinning the blood. This component of celery, as well as its anti-inflammatory properties, has been the subject of recent research, but its effectiveness in treating humans still needs to be investigated. Celery seed is sold as a dietary supplement in many natural-foods stores and other stores specializing in natural remedies. It is available as an extract, as fresh or dried seeds, and celery seed oil-filled capsules.

It is said that celery was first cultivated for medicinal purposes in 850 BC. Ayurvedic physicians throughout history have used the seed to treat colds, flu, water retention, arthritis, and liver and spleen conditions. Celery was considered a holy plant in the Greek classical period and a wreath of smallage leaves was worn by the winners of the Nemean Games, which began in 573 BC. The Greeks also used it to create the wine they called selinites, while the Romans used celery primarily for seasoning. The Italians domesticated celery and developed a plant with a solid stem and without the bitterness of smallage. Thus began the development and popularity of the Pascal celery that we find in grocery stores today.

Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray SodaDr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda is a celery flavored soda that is made from celery seed. This celery inspired soda has been around since 1868, when it was developed as a tonic that was touted to be “good for calming stomachs and bowels.” It paired well with salty, fatty foods, like pastrami, and became popular in New York’s Jewish delicatessens and with Eastern European immigrants whose cuisines already included fermented botanical beverages. Dr. Brown’s is being noticed again as healthy botanical drinks become more popular. Author Stephen King once said “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.”

Oil is extracted from celery seeds to make “celery oil,” which can be added to colognes, perfumes, and soaps. A few drops of the essential oil can be added to water in a spray bottle or a diffuser for use as an effective mosquito repellent.

Some say that celery was an herb associated with death, and that a garland of smallage leaves was placed around King Tut. Some evidence of this association with death later occurred in a Robert Herrick (1591-1674) poem titled:

To Perenna, a Mistress

“DEAR Perenna, prithee come

and with smallage dress my tomb:

And a cypress sprig thereto,

With a tear, and so Adieu.”

Celery is a biennial plant, producing flowers and seeds in the second year of its growth. The flowers are white umbels similar to parsley blooms. It must have a relatively constant temperature of around 70 degrees and a lot of water and nutrients to grow. It needs a long growing season and does not tolerate high heat or frost. This would be a very difficult combination of requirements for me to grow celery in my southern Zone 8b garden! Seeds of the smallage variety of celery can be purchased online, if you are interested in trying your luck in growing celery for the seed and leaves. The stalks of smallage tend to be bitter.

As with using any herbal medicinal products, a health professional should be consulted. Allergic reactions and interactions with medications you may already be taking can be a danger to your health. Celery seed is not recommended for pregnant women.

For more information about celery seed, recipes, and a screen saver, please go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/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.

References

American Botanical Council.HerbClip: Interview with Botanist Jim Duke.” April 30, 1999. http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbclip/155/review42307.html

Crowley, Chris. “Celery Forever: Where America’s Weirdest Soda Came From and How It’s Stuck Around.” Serious Eats.  August 2018. https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/10/dr-browns-cel-ray-celery-soda-history.html

Foodreference.com. “Celery History.” http://www.foodreference.com/html/celery-history.html

Kerr, Gord. “Celery Seed Extract Side Effects.”. https://www.livestrong.com/article/369362-celery-seed-extract-side-effects/   August 19, 2020.

Tweed, Vera. “4 Amazing Uses of Celery Seed.” Better Nutrition. September 2019.

Photo Credits: 1) Smallage flowers (Britannica Encyclopedia online); 2) Assortment of products containing celery seed (Maryann Readal); 3) Dr. Brown’s soda (Beverage Direct).


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

Don’t Throw That Away!

By Angela Magnan

A former roommate once picked on me because I saved the crumbs from the bottom of cracker, chip, and pretzel bags. A few years later, he admitted he was rather impressed with all the different uses I found for them, from incorporating them into quiche crusts and coating fish, to topping casseroles and mixing them into meatballs. So it is not surprising that I am often astounded by the bags of trash that get brought to the curb after my neighbors host summer barbecues. I can’t help but wonder: how much of my neighbors’ food waste could be used for something else?

corn silkOne of the great pleasures of summer is fresh corn on the cob, and one of my least favorite things is the silk that often interferes with that pleasure. But these silky strands can be dried and used as a tea. Corn silk was used by Native Americans to treat urinary tract infections, malaria, and heart problems. It has been used in China, Turkey, and France as well to treat kidney stones, prostate disorders, bedwetting, and obesity. Studies on rats have shown some merit for its use as a diuretic agent, a blood sugar regulator, and an antidepressant. It also has high antioxidant activity. Traditionally, corn silk was collected prior to pollination, but research has shown that mature corn silk from fully developed ears actually has a higher level of antioxidant activity. 

onion skin teaOnion skins can also be used for tea. Simply add boiling water to onion skins and let it steep to a beautiful chestnut color. Onion skins contain quercetin, a compound found in many other fruits, vegetables, leaves, seeds, and grains, including apples, grapes, and black and green teas. Quercetin has shown anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties in studies on rats, but some research has shown that quercetin degrades without the presence of Vitamin C, meaning that both would need to be present to be beneficial. 

Although not as tasty and naturally sweet as the purchased corn silk tea I tried, I found the onion skin tea only slightly bitter with a smooth, pleasant earthy taste. It might taste even better, and be more effective, with a splash of OJ. 

wood trim stained with onion teaOr let it steep longer and use it as a fabric dye or wood stain. After steeping for 24 hours, I dipped one side of a spare piece of basswood trim in the onion skin tea and let it soak for more than an hour. It made a light honey-colored stain that is certainly less smelly and more eco-friendly than oil-based stains. Initially, I tried to wipe the stain onto the wood with a rag, and that didn’t work, so I would recommend this only on dippable small projects.

Do you have leftover lemon peels from making lemonade or lemon bars? Lemon peels are used for fragrance and deodorizing and have antimicrobial and insecticidal properties. Internet searches return results such as “50+ Ways to Use Lemon Peels.” Some of the recommendations include adding lemon peels to your bath; putting dried peels in mesh bags IMG_1934and placing the bags in a drawer or in your shoes to make them smell better; rubbing the peels on your skin when you run out of insect repellent or to eliminate garlic and onion odor; using them to polish your stainless steel sink or chrome faucets; starting a fire with the highly flammable dried peels; and rubbing the peel over your cutting board to sanitize it.

Although research validates that lemon peels do have antimicrobial properties, they seem to be more effective on some microbes than others. One research study found that lemon juice was very effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that often causes food poisoning, but it was slightly less effective against Salmonella and even less so against E. coli. Another study using essential oils found lemon oil to have similar results. So, I am not sure I would trust a lemon peel to sanitize my cutting board, but I might be more inclined to add lemon to my water when attending my next barbecue. Just in case.

Sources:

Clax, J. “10 DIY wood stains that are homemade easily.” The Basic Woodworking: A Complete Guide. https://www.thebasicwoodworking.com/10-diy-wood-stains-that-are-homemade-easily/

Hasanudin K, Hashim P, Mustafa S. Corn silk (Stigma maydis) in healthcare: a phytochemical and pharmacological review. Molecules. 2012;17(8):9697-9715. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6268265/

Li Y, Yao J, Han C, et al. Quercetin, Inflammation and Immunity. Nutrients. 2016;8(3):167. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4808895/

Oikeh EI, Omoregie ES, Oviasogie FE, Oriakhi K. Phytochemical, antimicrobial, and antioxidant activities of different citrus juice concentrates. Food Sci Nutr. 2015;4(1):103-109. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4708628/

Ozogul Y , Kuley E, Uçar Y, and Ozogul F. Antimicrobial impacts of essential oils on food borne-pathogens. Rec Pat on Food, Nutr & Agr. 2015;7(1):53-61. Retrieved from: https://www.eurekaselect.com/132210/article

Vrijsen R, Everaert L, Boeyé A. Antiviral activity of flavones and potentiation by ascorbate. J Gen Virol. 1988;69:1749–51. Retrieved from: https://www.microbiologyresearch.org/docserver/fulltext/jgv/69/7/JV0690071749.pdf?expires=1597169419&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=3E98B31038B249A2FA74F0BDF07D4707

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) Corn silk (FreeImages.com); 2) onion skin tea (author’s photo); 3) wood trim stained with onion tea (author’s photo); 4) lemon peel fire starter (author’s photo).


Angela Magnan grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and has degrees in biochemistry, horticulture, and science writing. She now lives in Maryland and has worked in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum since 2012.

An Herbal Obscurity

By Chrissy Moore

If you asked me about my favorite herbs, you’d likely be surprised by my response. I tend to gravitate toward more obscure plants and topics in the herb world. My most recent herbal revelation is no exception.

Train journal and cotton wasteOne of my friends is a complete and total railroad aficionado. I love these kinds of people because they often have gems of obscure information at the ready for anyone willing to listen, and as a naturally inquisitive person myself, I am almost always a willing listener. Recently, this friend–I’ll call him James–was explaining to me the wheel systems on trains, pre-21st century. (I told you it was obscure, but I love it!). Midway through his explanation, he said, “And they packed the journal [part of the wheel system] with cotton waste, and…”

“Wait, what? What did you say? Cotton what?”

“Cotton waste. They’d soak it in oil, pack it under the journal, and the lubrication would help reduce friction between the journal and the wheel bearing.”

“What the heck is cotton waste?” (Clearly I was distracted from the main point of the conversation.)

“You know, scraps of cotton fabric or fiber or whatever.”

Recycled cotton waste“Where did they get it? Did they just tear up old shirts or something? That’s a lot of old shirts for all the trains in the country!”

James cocked his head in response with a quizzical look on his face. I don’t think anyone had ever prodded him about this particular topic before. Leave it to me. Hah!

If you’re not involved in the textile industry in some way, as I am not, you may not be familiar with the term “cotton waste.” James’s wife, who is very familiar with cotton waste, she being a seamstress, intervened in the conversation and explained it to me. Essentially, it is the leftover scraps of fiber or fabric from clothes manufacturing or the like. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of it hanging around.

Gossypium hirsutum 'Mississipi Brown'I was so excited to learn about this use of cotton–as obscure as it may be to most of us–because cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is one of my favorite herbs! The fibers are used in so many applications, it’s hard to recount them all: from clothing (the obvious) to cotton swabs/balls to movie film cellulose (now a thing of the past); from cling film to its use in the food industry (cottonseed)… these are just a few examples. Talk about a jack-of-all-trades. And here was yet another use for this amazing plant: the inner workings of a train. Who knew?! James did, of course.

Because my interest was piqued–as any herbal nerd’s would be–I decided to dig a little deeper into cotton waste’s uses. The waste can be environmentally dodgy and potentially dangerous, since it’s basicallyRecycled cotton waste into housing insulation flammable material laying about (a whole other topic). But as it turns out, there are various companies and non-profit organizations that collect the waste–either the fabric or fiber–and recycle it into things like new garments, furniture, or housing insulation. (You gotta admire people’s ingenuity.) According to one insulation manufacturer, their insulation is fire-retardant, mold/mildew resistant, has no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and has excellent noise-dampening qualities. While I cannot speak to the veracity of those claims, the mere idea that cotton fiber can be used in a different format, yet again, is a perfect example of what it means for a plant to be “herbal.”

Whether used for culinary purposes, for fragrance or medicine, or in this case, industrially, plants that give and give and give again rank high on my personal list. My thanks go out to James (and the many enthusiasts like him) for inadvertently introducing me to a new use for this hard-working herb. Next time someone asks me about my favorite plants, I now have a great herbal obscurity at the ready to share with any willing listeners!

Photo credits: 1) Train journal with cotton waste packing (Steve Smith, Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum); 2) Cotton waste (Artistic Fabric & Garment Industries); 3) ‘Mississippi Brown’ cotton boll, Gossypium hirsutum ‘Mississippi Brown’ (author’s photo); 4) Recycled cotton waste housing insulation (Bonded Logic).


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

Growing Chia – A “Pet Project” in Wisconsin

By Erin Presley

IMG_0374A few years ago, I was researching plants native to Mexico and Central America for a Mexican-themed garden at my work, Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin.  As an important early center of plant diversity and domestication, some of our favorite garden plants originally hail from Mexico, including tomatoes, corn, and chiles, as well as zinnias, cosmos, dahlias, and petunias. One less familiar plant also turned up on my list:  chia.

Among edible plants, chia may have some of the most bizarre associations. Many people remember the 1980s chia pet craze. More recently, chia seed has become popular as a “superfood” and has made its way into chips and crackers, bakery items, and beverages. IMG_0360It’s high in protein, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants. However, the gelatinous texture of the soaked seeds can be disconcerting for some. I remember having a visiting Californian friend who forgot a bottle of chia kombucha in his car one Wisconsin winter night. An explosion of grape kombucha slush full of sticky seeds is not a pleasant morning surprise in the backseat of your rental car.

IMG_0449When I learned that chia is actually a species of sage, Salvia hispanica, and saw photos of its pretty blue flowers, I was intent on growing it. My seed search led me to Dr. Tim Phillips, a plant scientist at the University of Kentucky working on breeding early flowering chia suitable for cool northern climates. Tim introduced me to the importance of chia in Mayan and Aztec cultures – for the Aztecs, chia was the third most important crop after corn and beans and could even be used as a form of tribute similar to a tax payment. I knew he would be an entertaining colleague when he also related the Aztec legend that chia had originally been sneezed from the nose of the maize god, Cinteotl.

Tim generously sent some of his early flowering chia up to Wisconsin, and we have had great success with it ever since. Direct sown after frost danger has passed, the seeds sprout readily, and the plants grow to about four feet with spiky periwinkle blue flowers. IMG_0354When the plants start to turn brown, we look for mature charcoal gray or white seeds within the calyces and then hang the plants to dry for a few days if the weather is rainy or humid. After that, the dried calyces and seeds are stripped from the stalks and sifted through a series of colanders and screens to separate the seeds, and the last bits of chaff are blown out using a gentle stream of air. The seeds are stored for incorporation into food and beverages and for growing in subsequent years. Check out our tasty recipe for rhubarb agua de chia below!

DSC01837The chia plants have been such an attractive and easy to grow garden highlight, with so much interesting history, that we grow them every year. Unfortunately, the early flowering chia seed strains are under patent until 2029, and not available to home gardeners (yet). Tim did suggest trying to track down two other salvias with edible seeds, Tarahumara chia (Salvia tilifolia) and golden chia (Salvia columbariae).

 

Rhubarb Agua de Chia

The cheery pink color, refreshing tartness, and slippery chia seeds make this a perfect thirst quencher on a hot day.  

Makes 6 cups finished beverage

A few hours or the day prior to serving, make the rhubarb water.  In a large pot, combine 1 pound coarsely chopped fresh rhubarb, 1 ½ cups sugar, and 6 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then allow to cool for one hour and strain.

One hour prior to serving, stir in ½ cup fresh lime juice and 1 Tbsp chia seeds and allow to stand for one hour as the seeds swell. Serve over ice.

Photos courtesy of the author: 1) blue chia flowers with senescing plants from an earlier sowing; 2) hand-cleaned chia seed; 3) blue flower spikes; 4) author cleaning chia seed; 5) drying chia seed heads ready for harvest.


Erin is a horticulturist at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a free public garden on the shores of Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin, where she loves to experiment and share fun, innovative, and productive ways to grow and use edible plants! She can be reached at:

epresley@cityofmadison.com

Instagram:  @presleyspreferredplants