Celebrating the Summer Solstice

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

unnamedOf all the times during the year that we celebrate the changing seasons, I think that two of my favorite days are the summer and winter solstices, two holidays that happen approximately six months apart. Winter solstice eve enchants me; the deep and dark quiet of that long peaceful night takes me inward in a way that encourages me to relax and rest. The summer solstice, on the other hand, is a thoroughly magical and playful day that marks both the longest day and the shortest night of the year.

The summer solstice easily provides an evening that’s perfect for a twilight celebration in the garden, with nothing but the fireflies and candles for illumination. It’s the perfect night to stay up late and bathe in the stars. For those of us who believe that there are indeed fairies living in our gardens, this is the perfect time to bake them little sweet cakes made with milk and honey, covered with candied violas and nasturtium blossoms.

unnamed (3)Summer solstice is the time when we honor the gift of sunlight. The official start of summer for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, this day is celebrated north of the equator all over the world and in so many different ways. It always takes place at this time of the year, falling between June 20th and June 22nd. All around the globe, from Stonehenge in England to the mountains in Austria and all throughout the Scandinavian countries, huge fires are lit with reverence, accompanied by drumming circles, singing, and joyous dancing. This is all done in honor of our beautiful planet and the interconnectedness we share with the fiery star so necessary for our continuing existence here on earth. When the solstice returns, we rejoice in the arrival of long summer days and hot summer nights as we celebrate the warmth and life-giving power of the sun.

Although traditionally the summer solstice is a time that we revel in the first day of summer’s warmth and joy, the most important thing that we do on this day is to begin to get our stillrooms, pantries, and larders ready for the coming winter months. After all, this celebration has everything to do with feasting on the food that we’ve grown and are beginning to harvest to keep us fed all through the coming harsh seasons.

unnamed (2)This is the time of year that my garden is overflowing with butterflies and honeybees, the weather is usually perfect, and I’m generally filled with an overwhelming optimism. Like so many of you, at this time of the year I just can’t stay out of my gardens. I spend the days collecting the rose petals from my roses to make teas, syrups, jams, infused honeys, and linen waters, along with the sage blossoms, lavenders, and mints that are blooming so abundantly in June.

There are so many wonderful rituals associated with the summer solstice. For gardeners like us, this has long been considered the day that is commonly set aside to begin the harvest, as there is a longstanding belief that this is the time when our fresh herbs contain the most flavor and “medicine”. For me, and I know for so many of you, our gardens that provide the herbs for our crafts, medicines, and culinary blends have always been at the center of our seasonal celebrations. Dandelions, pine trees, holly, lilacs, daffodils, snowdrops, pumpkins, corn stalks, and sunflowers are some of the more obvious plants visible to us during the everchanging seasons. However, it is our most useful herbs, plants like parsley, chives, lavender, sage, rosemary, calendula, comfrey, hyssop, thyme, and dill that have traditionally been the stars of the summer solstice celebrations, whether we use them in foods, herbal medicines, or love spells. They are the workhorses of our herb gardens, and they sustain us through every season.

unnamed (4)This is a wonderful day to make some delicious chutneys, jams, or jellies full of sun ripened fruit to capture the light and magic of the solstice energy for those cold long nights in winter when you need a bit of sunshine the most. I love the feelings that run through me when I crack open a jar of my raspberry and rose jam in February to spread on warmed scones with clotted cream and a pot of Earl Grey tea. I can taste the warm sun and the juice of the fresh berries I’ve picked if I just close my eyes for a minute. I don’t think there’s any stronger magic than that.

I traditionally celebrate this day with a small glass of homemade elderflower cordial, as well as strawberry and rose petal infused wine to drink as the longest day of the year draws to a close. I love to light a beautiful fire late in the evening to welcome in the summer months, and I love to do that in the company of my family and closest friends, a mandolin, a fiddle, and a few guitars. 

unnamed (1)Just like the winter solstice, the celebratory nature of the summer solstice  is a terrific excuse to throw a party and it definitely doesn’t need to (and probably shouldn’t!) be a formal gathering. I remember having a terrific solstice gathering on my farm in Burton about 30 years ago. It was set way in the back pastures with a rustic old picnic table set with mixed up patterns of china, old linen, and some beat up old candelabras. We hung lanterns in the trees, and on the tables there were antique blue mason jars filled with wildflowers spilling out everywhere. The grass was high and waving gently in the soft summer breezes, which scented everything with the glorious aroma of sun-warmed hay. Nothing on the table matched and it was absolutely enchanting and wildly beautiful.

The food was simple – fresh pea soup with mint, summer salads filled with fresh herbs, and a really delicious roast chicken with a sweet curry sauce. We drank many carafes of viognier infused with rose petals, raspberries, and basil while my horses and dogs wandered around curiously. For dessert we had drippy strawberry ice cream with chocolate sauce and iced coffee infused with fresh spearmint and cream.

It was a truly memorable evening full of friendship and celebration, and the most important ingredients that we served were on platters that were full of love and laughter. We built a bonfire and threw handfuls of lavender, rose petals, sage, mint, and fennel into the flames while making plenty of good wishes. When I put out the fire in the early hours I felt so satiated, and oddly a part of something ancient as if I’d been doing this very ritual for many centuries. It was an incredible feeling of connectedness to the many who had walked this path long before me.

Celebrating the summer solstice has been done for so much of recorded human history and probably longer before that. Fundamentally, we are not that much different than we were centuries ago. When you scratch the surface of what it means to be alive, now more than ever, we need our magic, our celebrations, and each other. We still need the moon and the sun to survive. We need our gardens and the wisdom of the old ways that allow us to survive in times good and bad. We only need to look back to the last couple of years to understand these simple gifts. Light. Water. Good soil. Warmth. Enough mason jars. Good health. Food, and the most important ingredient  of all…love.

May your summer be full of blessings and your gardens always alive with the joyful song of the honeybees.

Wishing you all the loveliest longest day of the year.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author, except Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes (public domain).


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/

 

 

Love and Gardening on St. Valentine’s Day

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

“ I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers, always.

                                                My heart is forever in Giverny. “

                                                                                                         – Claude Monet

Photo of a cup of the author's Rose petal Chocolate ChaiIt’s St. Valentines Day, and the whole world smells as if it’s been dipped in a gigantic vat of roses, violet-flavored marshmallows, and chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s been absolutely freezing here in Northeast Ohio, so like most of my herb loving friends, I’m tucked away inside with stacks of rose, seed, tree, and other various and sundry plant catalogs.

Personally? I’m also eating plenty of chocolates and drinking a cup of homemade rose petal and chocolate chai! You‘ll find that recipe below, and I think you will love it!

The luscious pastry the author enjoyed at Laduree in Paris, FranceI have spent many a Valentine’s Day in this way, but as I started writing this, I began thinking about the year that my husband asked me to meet him in France at the tail end of a business trip he’d been on in Spain. It was my very first trip to Paris, and I was completely enchanted by the city and the people I met. Valentine’s Day that year was perfect. We started with tea at Ladurée, where I enjoyed an absolutely delicious pot of jasmine tea and a delectable pastry filled with rosewater and cardamom crème topped with rose petals and fresh raspberries. We ended the day with a fabulous meal of raw oysters and confit of duck on a bed of lentils, with a sauce of orange, lavender, ginger, and honey and, of course, plenty of Champagne, because, after all, we were in Paris!

One of the flower shops the author visited in Montmartre, FranceIn between tea and dinner, Jim and I walked hand in hand through the shops and the markets. The shops in Paris are always wonderful, but February the 14th finds them filled with all of the beautiful symbols of romantic love that the French are known for: beautifully hand-dipped and painted chocolates, the softest and most luscious caramels, fabulous perfume, and gorgeous lingerie. But in truth, it’s the flower shops and market stalls that I remember the most, filled with gorgeous bouquets of all kinds and friendly men and women eager and willing to have patient conversations with me (not easy with my limited French!) about their beautiful flowers, produce, breads, cheeses, preserves, and teas. As I wandered happily sniffing and shooting picture after picture, I began to think of my father. It took me a moment, but suddenly I realized why.

When I was a child, our lives completely changed the year that my parents went to France for the first time. I’ll never forget it, because my father went first to Paris and then Giverny and came home a man enchanted. Life at home wasn’t the same after that. It was as if he’d discovered something there in the culture and the landscape, a part of his artistic soul that he’d been missing all along.

Besides possessing a Masters in Biology, Dad was also an excellent painter. But until that trip, he hadn’t paid much attention to his yard. The three acres that we had were pretty basic; what had once been a victory garden lovingly tended by my father and grandfather was covered by a swimming pool. And as for flowers? There were mostly annuals and some pretty boring ones at that. 

Until that trip to Giverny.

Photo of Monet's garden in Giverny, FranceMy father came home from France and realized what his painting had been lacking the entire time: context, or as the French would say, a raison d’être. Dad set out to build his own garden paradise, and he did so with an absolute passion. I wasn’t at all surprised. Even at a very young age, I could see that my dad was wildly romantic, and after experiencing the gardens that Monet had painted in, he couldn’t help but follow in his footsteps.

That entire winter, life became about his garden, planning his borders, reading and learning about all of the plants that he’d fallen in love with when he was in France. That spring, he began to build the beds, amending the soil, and planting the foundation plants. Within two years, his entire property was completely transformed. His favorites were the fragrant old roses, but his lilies, irises, and peonies were just as luscious. His beds were also filled with every kind of fragrant herb and flower imaginable; everything he touched just thrived. Not one to rely on traditional pesticides, antifungals, and commercial fertilizers to keep his plants healthy, he worked with his soil, which was as rich, sweet, and dark as the chocolate many of us are enjoying today. Every plant had a companion or two, specifically chosen to help it stay healthy and as pest free as possible.

Photo of the author's father's sweet woodruff patchHis roses never had that much trouble with black spot, beetles, or mildew…rarely were there bothersome pests that took over and destroyed everything. My father, ever the biologist, always planted with the  pollinators in mind, stressing native plants like serviceberry, aronia, and American cranberry alongside his beautiful flowers. He loved milkweeds and watching the Monarch butterflies. He had a carefully tended patch of sweet woodruff that was always covered with honeybees, which he used to make May wine every spring, and he loved plants like pokeberry and comfrey, letting them grow wherever they wanted to, because he knew that they were biodynamic accumulators—plants that gather nutrients from the soil to store them in a more bioavailable form. At the end of the gardening year, he’d chop these into his beds as mulch.

Photo of the Author's father's comphrey patchMy father’s gardens had the fattest honeybees and bumblebees, the biggest and juiciest earthworms, and wonderful snakes that would slither through on occasion, much to the delight of his grandsons. He was generous with his knowledge, and he taught me everything I know about building soil and keeping plants healthy without resorting to the use of chemicals. He loved to share his gardens with everyone, especially his children and grandchildren. As I got older, summer nights would find us wandering together with martinis and hoses…watering, mulching, and laughing, and later, would find us in his living room talking about the garden and listening to his extensive collection of classical music. My father lived such an artistic life in so many ways, and he loved to encourage us to do so as well. He was the first person to encourage me to follow my instincts for herbalism, and he is single-handedly responsible for my love affair with old roses and all of the things that I’ve learned over the years to make from their hips and petals.

When I came back from Paris, I began to remember my father’s lessons from his gardens, and as a result, I slowed down. I began to plan my gardens instead of just buying every plant in sight. I began asking myself what would bring me joy—to look at, to smell, and to taste. I began to think of my gardens as an extension of my inner life, my artistic life. That was when my gardens began to find their way into my kitchen, my vases, and my dreams. Everything became connected. When you look at pictures of Giverny, you can see what I mean.

You see that there is a “whole.” The house is the garden, and the garden is the house…there really is no separation.  

Picture of the author's father's Rosa rugosaEven though my father passed away before I got to share with him the joys of my own trip to Paris, I know that he’d understand when I say that our Valentine’s Day trip brought my life as a gardener into focus. Although I did not go to Giverny as he did, my wandering through France, talking with the florists and farmers, connected me to what he learned so long ago on his own pilgrimage there.

If he were still alive, he would say that gardening is not difficult, but it requires an open heart, an open mind, and a sketchpad; that there is a time to plant and a time to rest; that learning to water correctly is about listening, asking, and observing; that the soil is alive; and that most often, all you need is a great layer of compost. Lastly, that every plant has a best friend that it depends upon for support.

Much like we all do.

I wish you all the loveliest St. Valentine’s Day wherever you find yourself planted.

Dried rose petals the author uses for potpourri, teas, and jamsRose Petal and Chocolate Chai (no added tea)

You will need:

6 Tablespoons of coconut sugar (if you like it sweeter, add more)

2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon

2 Tablespoons of really good cocoa powder

2 tablespoons of finely ground organic rose petals (you can grind these in a coffee grinder)

2 Tablespoons of ground cardamom

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of ground Chinese five spice

3/4 teaspoon of ground allspice

1 inch of split vanilla bean (you’ll leave that in there for flavor)

Mix all of these ingredients together in a bowl with a whisk to break the clumps of ginger.

Store in a tightly covered mason jar away from the light.

To make a cup, take one level tablespoon without the vanilla bean (you can always add more, but be careful, it’s spicy!) and place it into a saucepan with a pat of organic butter. Add a cup and a half of almond milk or whatever milk you enjoy. Heat slowly , whisking the entire time to help the cocoa melt. You can also use a hand frother, or a Vitamix if you have one, once the mixture is hot. Sweeten to taste with more coconut sugar or maple syrup.

This recipe is entirely adjustable. Once you make it the first time, you’ll know how you like it. I’ve been known to add even more chocolate!

Photo credits: 1) Cup of Rose Petal and Chocolate Chai; 2) Dessert at Ladurée restaurant in Paris, France; 3) One of the flower shops in Montmartre, France; 4) Monet’s home in Giverny, France (Stock photo on Canva); 5) Author’s father’s sweet woodruff patch; 6) Author’s father’s comfrey patch; 7) Author’s father’s Rosa rugosa; 8) Dried rose petals the author uses for potpourri, jams, and teas. (All photos courtesy of the author except #4.)

 


The author and her husband in ParisBeth Schreibman-Gehring is the Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society, a unit of The Herb Society of America. She is also a member of Les Dames de Escoffier International (Cleveland), The Herb Society of the United Kingdom, The International Herb Association, The Herb Society of America, and Herbalists without Borders. Her book, Stirring the Senses! Creating Magical Environments & Feasts for All Seasons, can be found on Amazon.

Tasty Tidbits: Celebrate with Tradition and Superstition

By Bonnie Porterfield

Two glasses of champagnePop open the champagne, and let’s celebrate some of our food traditions and superstitions surrounding the New Year.

Our friends from the South begin their New Year with black-eyed peas for good luck and prosperity, along with greens and cornbread. Superstition has it that the peas represent coins, and the greens represent paper money. The addition of cornbread brings gold!

Black-eyed pea seeds were brought to this country by the enslaved people of West Africa. Black-eyed peas were considered both a crop and a food source for livestock. During the Civil War, when Sherman marched his troops through the South, they destroyed anything that was useful to the Confederates. They did, however, ignore the black-eyed peas growing in the fields thinking they were merely fodder for livestock and unfit for humans. These leftover crops were used by the Confederate soldiers who were able to survive by eating this nourishing legume, thus elevating it to good luck status.

A dish of black-eyed peasThe tradition of eating Hoppin’ John began on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and the newly freed slaves celebrated with this good luck dish. Hoppin’ John recipes vary, but generally include black-eyed peas, rice, and some form of pork, such as ham, pork, fatback, or bacon. Pigs are symbols of good luck, because they root forward as they forage, and rice is thought to bring abundance, because it swells when it cooks, thus adding even more abundance for the coming year to this already “good luck” dish.

Here in the Midwest, we are probably more used to seeing pork and sauerkraut in our New Year’s celebrations. It was a German custom that the Pennsylvania Dutch brought with them as they settled in this country. As the harvest season drew to a close, seasonal butchering was usually done before Christmas and New Year’s, thus a meal of roast pork was considered a celebration.

Plate of pork, sauerkraut, and dumplingAlso during this harvest time, cabbage was brined and pickled and turned into sauerkraut to be preserved for the coming winter. The combination of the sour, tangy kraut with the fatty pork was a perfect combination.  

Family and friends wished each other as much wealth and as long a life as the long strands of cabbage in the sauerkraut. Combined with the good luck attributed to the pig, this meal truly was a harbinger of all good things for the coming year.

With both the southern and German traditions including the superstition that pork symbolizes progress, that is enough for me to make sure to include one of these meals on New Year’s Day!  

Celebrations around the world include foods that represent long life, prosperity, and wealth. Asian cultures include long noodles representing long life, and lentils are traditional in many cultures symbolizing prosperity and luck due to their round shape. In fact, round foods, in general, are thought to symbolize wealth, as they resemble coins.

Yellow grapes on the vineIn Spain, grape growers who had an abundance of grapes supposedly started the tradition of eating twelve grapes while the clock strikes midnight as a way of encouraging people to buy their surplus grapes. Eating one grape at each strike of the clock represents the coming twelve months and provides good luck and prosperity for the coming year. Beware and take note, though, if you eat a sour grape, that month may be a challenge!

Folklore and superstition aside, there is hidden nutritional value to these traditions. Those black-eyed peas are loaded with fiber and protein, as well as thiamine and iron. Lean pork is a good source of thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and B6, in addition to potassium and zinc. Sauerkraut, being a fermented food, is loaded with probiotics as well as Vitamins C, K, and B6. Lentils also provide fiber and protein. So, starting off your new year with one of these meals not only brings good luck, it also brings good health!

Superstitions also tell us to stay away from some foods. Avoid beef as cattle stand still when they eat. Turkeys and chickens scratch backwards for their food, and crabs move sideways, and no one wants to stand still, go sideways, or backwards in the new year!

Before we get to the bubbly, some traditions not related to food include, if you kiss someone at midnight, you will not be lonely in the new year.  Opening doors will release negative energy and allow new positive energy to come into your home. You might also want to make lots of noise at midnight to scare away all of the evil spirits.

bayberry candles burning on a fireplaceOne herbal note here concerns burning a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. A reference in The Old Farmer’s Almanac includes this rhyme: 

“A bayberry candle

Burned to the socket

Brings food and larder

And gold to the pocket.”

When I was home from college my senior year, I burned a bayberry candle on New Year’s eve all night. Thinking back, I’m sure my mom didn’t sleep a wink worrying about me burning the house down. But, I do remember having a great second semester that year!

Before the clock strikes midnight, get your champagne flutes ready. The idea of celebrating with champagne had been reserved for royalty and the wealthy but was always aspirational for the rest of society. Gradually, this custom trickled down to the merchant and working classes, and it is now common to celebrate special occasions with a champagne toast.

Photo of Cafe Martin, 1908Here in the United States, drinking champagne at midnight can be attributed to two brothers from France who started the restaurant, Cafe Martin, in 1902, in New York City. It was “the place to be” for the wealthy, and on New Year’s Eve after 9 p.m., they served champagne only. Even the waiters got into the celebration by saving the corks and getting a “kickback” for each bottle they opened.  

So, now we find ourselves saying goodbye to 2021. We have much to celebrate and look forward to in 2022, so raise your glass and toast to a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year!

Cheers!

Photo Credits: 1) Champagne (Pixaby); 2) Dish of black-eyed peas (B. Porterfield); 3) Pork, sauerkraut, and dumpling (C. Schmitt, Creative Commons); 4) Grapes (B. Porterfield); 5) Bayberry candles (B. Porterfield); 6) Cafe Martin, 1908 (Imgur).


Bonnie Porterfield is a forty-year Life Member of The Herb Society of America and a member of the Western Reserve Unit. She has served in many roles during that time, including two terms as Great Lakes District Delegate, Unit Chair; Co-Chair of the Western Reserve Unit’s first symposium and member of the GreenBridges™ and Library Advisory Committees. She is an avid herb gardener, reader, learner, and supporter of local efforts in re-establishing natural areas that promote native plantings.

Ring Ye Solstice Bells: Reflections on the Longest Night of the Year

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

A1576943-59AB-44B3-9200-12D5BB70C619I was sitting here at my desk trying to think of what I could say about the Winter Solstice that I have never said before. Then I started to think about the last two years. As the COVID virus forces us, once again, to reconsider the way that we celebrate with each other, I am reminded that taking the time needed to reflect with joy and gratitude that I am still alive, as are my loved ones, is what must take center stage.

As I look back, though, the overwhelming feeling that I have is gratitude. Gratitude that I’m alive. Grateful to have those I love around my table or at least still with us. Grateful to be able to still live our lives, love and laugh together. Living alongside this joy is the stark reality of the last year, and walking hand in hand with me is the grief that so many I love are living with empty chairs and tears this December.  

Untitled (Facebook Post)I always laugh and say when I am asked, that celebrating the Winter Solstice has always been how two Jewish women who absolutely love Christmas find their own place within those traditions. Normally, my sister and I have a huge party on Solstice eve in her beautiful log cabin that was once a maple sugar house. We decorate like mad, fill up the house with herb wreaths, holly boughs, evergreens, and beautifully scented Christmas potpourri—a special gift from my dear friend, Kathleen. 

We take turns blessing the remnants of the previous year’s Yule log, making our wishes for the coming months before we use it to light the new fire. We have all of our friends over for a beautiful feast, the table laden with bayberry candles, wonderful holiday foods, and a groaning board of homemade desserts.

There’s always a copper kettle filled with steaming mulled wine redolent with roasted warming spices or cocoa, and a pot full of “Lamb’s Wool,” my favorite of the ancient punches (see recipe below). This is always rounded off by a huge punch bowl of eggnog and another of icy bourbon milk punch. Eighty-plus people usually join us, and it gets loud and lively. For close to 20 years, this party has always been the high point of my holiday season, but for obvious reasons, it just cannot take place this year.

I have found myself wondering for weeks now how to keep this tradition that I love so much, and then a little voice in my head whispered simply, “You have to be willing to let go of the old to make room for the beautiful and new….Why don’t you just begin at the beginning?”

Suddenly, I realized what had been in front of me all along, what I couldn’t see because I was longing for what had been. I needed to acknowledge where the past year has brought me, and so I began to ponder the traditional origins of the Winter Solstice celebration.

Photo ofTraditionally, the Solstice has always been one of the quietest nights of the year, and indeed, the longest night of the year. The months and weeks leading up to the Solstice were full of great intention and action for the harvest must be brought in; the onions and garlic braided; fruits, vegetables, and herbs dried; and the animals slaughtered for meat, along with the beef tallow needed for cooking, soapmaking, candles, and salves. The milk from goats, sheep, and cows needed to be turned into cheese that would last through the winter. The honey and beeswax from the hives needed to be harvested and turned into candles. The fields had to be put to bed in preparation for the following spring, and only then could thoughts turn towards celebration. 

Some years, the people weren’t so lucky. There were wars and famines. Hives failed. Animals meant for food starved, and their milk dried up. The abundance of food, warmth, and light that we take for granted just did not exist even 100 years ago, and more often than not, there would be a sense of foreboding, and there would be many challenges, including the challenge of disease without many options to fight it.

So much is so readily available to us that we have mostly forgotten what it means to live within our own world, to live with each other and to be self-reliant. As I thought about this, I realized quite suddenly that we are perhaps closer to understanding how our forebears must have felt than ever before. Having the days grow longer and lighter must have seemed like such a miracle to them. Finding ways to fight the virulence of diseases and the pests that ravaged their farms and families must have filled them with such hope.

Finding ways to make sense of what was happening in the natural world, using traditional skills and new discoveries must have seemed like real magic to them, and the silver lining of the last year is that, in many ways, we are watching the same phenomenon unfolding right now, in real time.

21C369CA-169A-4728-AE00-A7B200EFFAD3Those of us who are herbalists, cooks, and gardeners know very well what I am saying. After all, in 2020 could you find a new Ball jar for canning in any store? I couldn’t! There was no garden soil anywhere, and mulch was sold out. Seeds were sold out by the end of January. Yeast for baking was nowhere to be found. Elderberry, echinacea, and goldenseal products were sold off of shelves as quickly as they appeared, with many stores putting limits on what could be purchased.

Very quickly, I realized that what I’d always taken for granted simply wasn’t there. I have to admit to not feeling frustrated, but instead finding it oddly thrilling.

So many people learning so many new skills. A walk around my neighborhood would make me smile. Vegetable and herb gardens were being put in everywhere, and so were fruit trees.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was talking about survival, honeybees, and sustainability.

I called my Herb Society of America friends, and we shared mason jars and seeds. We shared cuttings and bags of soil. That summer, I began to harvest, forage, and preserve with an energy I’d never had before. I was actually shocked and very proud when my husband announced to me that I’d filled the freezers with soups, stews, and sauces, and that there was no room left for anything else.

IMG_4271-1Coincidentally, with this blossoming awareness, the talks that I gave as Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society began to focus on gardening, foraging, harvesting, and preserving, as well as maintaining soil health organically. Suddenly, everyone wanted to ask me about companion planting, foraging for native foods, native plants, and pollinators. My inbox is always filled these days asking me for suggestions for learning about herbs and foods that are believed to help support immunity. I get asked so many questions now about eating seasonally.

What I realized, and am realizing still as I write, is that the last hard years have brought us home, and in so many ways we are perhaps the better for it. This year for the Winter Solstice, Jim and I will have a bonfire outside with a special Yule log, a few of our neighbors, and we’ll drink mulled wine, milk punch, and Lamb’s Wool!

We’ll feast on traditional dishes of dried fruit and melted cheese, roasted pork with sweet potatoes and kale from our garden, really good gingerbread, roasted chestnuts, rosemary and lavender shortbread, honey‐sweetened pears from our own trees, and rum‐soaked fruitcake. Instead of bright lights, I’ll have candles lit all over the porch and fresh greens everywhere. We’ll all share what we are thankful for and we’ll grieve our losses, celebrate the joy and honor the fear that is still present for so many of us. We’ll keep it simple, full of gratitude and the joy of just being together, and maybe we’ll sing some of the old English carols. I’ll wassail my fruit trees with the leftover cider in hopes of a plentiful harvest next year.  We’ll walk in the woods and listen for owls at midnight, the traditional harbingers of luck on Solstice eve, and then we’ll await the sunrise.

F0EAF7D3-AB1A-4B9F-B2C7-3EF94E51D015Suddenly, people like us (and if you’re reading this, that’s you!) are madly in style. Many of us have a special calling in this new world to teach all that we know about the herbs and plants we love. We have a unique opportunity to build a bigger table, to share our knowledge generously in these challenging circumstances. Our horticultural skills can help feed the hungry, support the healing we all need and crave, and simply make this world a lovelier, greener place.

During this season of light, on this wintry Solstice night, please remember to be generous with yourselves.

 

“May you find your peace in the promise of the long Solstice night….”

Lamb’s Wool Recipe for Solstice

Lamb’s Wool is a truly wonderful ancient drink made from a delicious blend of baked apples, mulling spices, cider, and dark ale slowly simmered until the apples are “woolly!”

  • The first thing that you’ll need to do is bake a plate of apples! Simply core four or five small apples and fill the insides with raisins, slivered almonds, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spices, amaretto, and butter. If the ingredients spill all over the apples, even better. Bake them until soft and caramelized.  In a pinch you can use cinnamon applesauce, and it will taste very good, but I like the baked and buttered apples better! 
  • Next, pour a gallon of good cider into a pot, and add 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar, several cracked cinnamon sticks, 1/2 teaspoon of whole cloves, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and a teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, and add the apples and all of their juices. Let them simmer for a bit or until the apples explode and get all “woolly.” Trust me, you’ll know what I mean by that!
  • Then bring down the heat a bit, and add one bottle of very good dark ale and half of a bottle of red wine (something you like the taste of and not too cheap). Simmer for another minute, and then add one stick of organic salted butter. When the butter has melted, give the whole thing a good stir, and then taste. Adjust the seasonings and the sugar, and then add a couple of cups of rum. You’ll have to taste as you go, but that’s the only way to get it the way you want it! I love to use Myers Dark Rum because it is so rich, dark and as sweet as the molasses it’s made from.  

Photo Credits: 1) Fireplace and solstice fire at author’s sister’s house; 2) Barn in the snow (Canva print); 3) Author’s friend, Kathleen’s, homemade dried herb Christmas potpourri and bunch of holly on author’s porch; 4) Author’s homemade eggnog; 5) View of author’s raised bed garden from porch; 6) Author’s yard, kept as a pollinator mead; 7) Chestnuts that author roasted with rosemary and butter over a fire. (All photos courtesy of the author except #2.)

 


Beth Schreibman-Gehring is the Chairman of Education for the Western Reserve Herb Society, a unit of The Herb Society of America. She is also a member of Les Dames de Escoffier International (Cleveland), The Herb Society of the United Kingdom, The International Herb Association, The Herb Society of America, and Herbalists without Borders. Her book, Stirring the Senses! Creating Magical Environments & Feasts for All Seasons, can be found on Amazon.

The Pleasure of Pomanders

By Pat Kenny

The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, pomme for apple, referring to the round shape of the early scent balls. Ambre is derived from ambergris, a substance washed up on beaches from the sperm whale which was the chief fixative for fragrances in Renaissance times.

One of the first reasons for making pomanders was the carrying of religious keepsakes (Fairamay, 2018). Adelma Simmons tells us, “originally pomanders were not made of oranges or apples but of small balls of various materials that would hold herbs, herbal scents, spices, and perfumes.  Sometimes beeswax was used for the medium. Other bases included garden soil, mold, or well-drained apple pulp.  The balls that were made only of gums and spices were costly and not available to the average household.”

There were many types of pomanders. Through the years, spices, essential oils, and green herbs including rue, sweet bay, lavender, and rosemary were used not only for their sweet scents but also for protection against contagious diseases. Historically, pomanders were either located somewhere in the home, worn around the neck, or attached to the belt like a bit of jewelry to safeguard against infection, disease, and bad luck.

Medicinal pomanders, some for curing fevers, some for insomnia, many for the medieval counterpart of what we call “nerves”, became popular.  They were a part of stillroom activities and a source of revenue for the professional apothecary.  Silversmiths and jewelers made exquisite cases for balls containing expensive perfumes, and these were worn as ornaments about the waist, while tiny ones were fashionably worn as lockets.  Sometimes beautiful metallic globes were fashioned to hold the scented material, and they were often pictured hand-held on chains in portraits of persons of high standing.

Pomanders were also carried by men in many professions.  Doctors, while visiting the sick, carried them.  Lawmakers and judges who argued and heard cases in closed courtrooms with prisoners “infected with jail fever” considered pomanders invaluable.  The dandy on the battlefield drew long breaths from a scented box to mitigate the stench of battle, and the traveler who walked along the streets lined with open sewers often carried his herbs and spices in the head of a cane which was opened and sniffed at will.

Courtiers traveling luxuriously in sedan chairs lifted languid hands to hold a pomander to the nose during passage through odorous crowds.  In pioneer New England the spice balls, clove apples, or clove oranges were placed in homemade coffins that were kept in many attics ready to receive the bodies of those who did not survive the long winters.  Often the graves could not be dug until spring, and farms were too isolated to call on the services of professional embalmers.  Pomander balls were then put to their ancient uses of preservation and fumigation, and known as “coffin balls”.

At the least, the pomander enabled its owner to escape the stenches of rotting garbage and open sewers in the airy pleasantness of garden herbs and exotic spices.  The delicate ladies and foppish gentlemen of the aristocracy would daintily wend their way through the bitter realities of the streets, sniffing their pomanders.

To turn to a happier use of pomanders, it was an English custom recorded in the time of Henry VIII to give one to each guest at New Year’s tied with a sprig of rosemary for remembrance.  This was not only a sign of esteem but of good luck.

However, today the pomander is merely an aromatic novelty, though many of the original uses stand the test of legitimacy.  Pomanders can be hung from ribbons in a room or closet, or tucked away into drawers and chests to keep moths away and give an aromatic scent.  They can be wrapped in a colorful cloth or fancy netting or just stacked in a bowl; their uses are varied and the pomander brings a welcome fragrance.  It’s an aromatic delight!

How to Make a Pomander

Pomanders are usually made with apples, crabapples, oranges, lemons, or limes.  Apples are the easiest because you can usually push the cloves into the apple’s skin with your thumb.  Lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit often have to have their skin broken with a bamboo or metal skewer in order to insert the clove.  Kumquats are little, their skin is thinner; they dry faster and are cute for miniature table trees.  They are not always available; watch out for them around the holidays, they last long in the refrigerator so buy them when you can.

I have rolled the completely-cloved fruit in mixes of ground orris and spices, yet some people are allergic to powdered orris root and the mix gets caked between the cloves. In my opinion, the mixes make the pomander hard to handle and just plain look awful.  One writer reminds us that frugal New England housewives who used pomanders would have found the cloves expensive enough without adding the orris and other ground spices recommended in more modern times.

All my most successful pomanders have been dried by simply hanging them in a warm, dry place, i.e. over the refrigerator warmth, next to a radiator or in the warmth of a pilot-lit gas oven for days or weeks, turning them if necessary.  

Materials

Paper towels

Bowls to help sort cloves, partial pieces saved

Tweezers or hemostats to help grasp cloves

Long-nosed pliers to twist the central hanger

Rubber-coated wire or other wires

Bamboo or metal skewers 

Long needles for threading

Large paper clips to use as s-hooks when drying, however you can dry the cloved fruit lying down (you may have to turn it over or around periodically).

Ribbons, bows, yarns, etc. With or without a central hanger, pomanders can be wrapped and hung in netting or stacked in a bowl. Spice oils of clove, cinnamon, etc. can be added.

Remember, I usually dry mine in an old-timey oven that has a pilot light or next to an old-timey radiator, turning it periodically. Cute, guess I have become old-timey myself; lucky me!

Procedure

  1. Choose a solid fruit.
  2. Skewer the central diameter of the fruit with care.
  3. Create a hanger through the center; includes deciding what you want to happen at the bottom of the pomander (empty loop, bead, bell?).
  4. You could sort your cloves at any time, deciding the size(s) and/or the ones with or without the dried bud and/or the thickness of the pedicel.
  5. Depending upon the type of fruit and the thickness of the skin, decide whether there is a need to make a hole with a skewer first before the insertion of the clove. Space cloves, remembering shrinkage makes them become closer.
  6. Cuddle the fruit, if necessary, with a folded paper towel which will absorb juices.
  7. After the fruit is cloved the way you want, put it where it will dry, checking it often and cuddling it within both palms if necessary to push the cloves in as it shrinks.
  8. If storing the pomanders long-term, give them a freeze treatment for about a week to kill off any pests or eggs. Make sure the pomander is dry and hard before doing so.

If you do desire to use a spice mix, here is a simple recipe:

1 tbsp. each: cinnamon and ground cloves with 1 tsp. ground orris root; place bowl in warm place and roll pomander in it twice or more a day for 3 days; remove it from bowl and set it in warm place for 2-3 weeks to dry out completely.  Decorate your pomanders with ribbons, flowers, herbs, beads or bells to hang on your holiday tree, in windows or in closets.

Photo Credits: 1) Orange and clove pomander (Wendy Piersall); 2) Silver pomanders of the 17th century (Wellcome Images); 3) Portrait of a woman by Bartholomaeus the Elder (public domain); 4) Portrait of a man by Christopher Amberger (public domain); 5) European pomander in the shape of a ship (public domain); 6) Apple and other fruit pomanders (Pat Kenny); 7) Banana pomander (Pat Kenny); 8) Pomander Pat (Sue Betz)

References

The previous writings of the following were consulted for this post:  Adelma Simmons, Mrs. Henry C. Martin,1968; Eleanor Sinclair Rhodes, 1969; Ann Tucker Fettner, 1977; Sarah Garland, 1979; Sylvia Lloyd & Arlene Linderman, Linda Foldan, 1984; Barbara Milo Ohrbach, 1986; Edythe Skinner, Hartman’s Herb Calendar, Dec. 1988; Barbara Radcliffe Rogers, Herbitage Farm, Richmond NH; Pat Kenny, 1989; David Merrill, 1991; Janet Walker, USNA Newsletter, 1996.

Fairamay, T. July 2, 2018. Thorn and thread: Warding off plague and other miasma with pomanders. Accessed 12/8/2021 from https://thornandthread.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/warding-off-plague-and-other-miasma-with-pomanders/#_edn13

Mabberley, D.J. 2008.  Mabberley’s plant book: A portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mabey, R. 1988. The new age herbalist: How to use herbs for healing, nutrition, body care, and relaxation – With a complete illustrated glossary of herbs and a guide to herb cultivation.  Macmillan, New York. 

Ordish, G. 1985.  The living garden: A 400 year history of an English garden. Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston.


While working as a medical illustrator for over thirty years for a “modern medicine” research factory in Bethesda, Maryland, Pat Kenny simultaneously followed her heart/mind in the path of nature and practiced balancing herself with Tai Chi and herbal studies. She began to play with like-minded others through county community programs, The Herb Society of America, the Prince George’s Herb Society, the Michigan Herb Associates, and the North Carolina Herb Association. Now retired, she is cleaning house after all those years of not, using up things she has been saving for what?…an herb business of some sort? (in another life!), giving herb talks to share the herbal stuff, and seeking ways she can facilitate the cause of alternative health practices, especially botanical healing during the rest of her life.

Herbs for Holiday Baking

By Peggy Riccio

Pumpkin pie with sage leaves and marigold flowersWhen I think of herbs for Christmas, I always think of the Simon and Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair” song:  “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Sure, there is peppermint and plenty of spices, but these herbs seem to be the most popular during the holidays. I think that is because these plants are still green in the garden. In my USDA Hardiness Zone 7 Virginia garden, I can still pick these plants in December to use in the kitchen. My mint plants, always in containers, overwinter well, and I can harvest spearmint and peppermint.

When using these herbs, don’t just think of flavor and cooking. Think of the plant itself, the structure, size, weight, and texture of the branches and leaves. Think of how the stem or leaf can be used to decorate the dish and your table. 

Parsley

Parsley is a biennial plant, hardy to Zone 4. It grows to about a foot tall the first year, and then flowers and sets seed the second year. There is the curly type and the flat leaf type. For flavor, use the flat leaf type. The curly type is great for garnishing. In my garden, I sow seed every year to have fresh parsley. We have mild winters, so the plant remains evergreen all winter long. Parsley is best used fresh. It has a very delicate leaf structure and stem that will wilt easily. Compared with these other herbs, parsley has a relatively benign fragrance. This makes it an ideal garnish; however, it wilts too fast to use as a holiday flat-leaf parsley in the gardendecoration. But picture the color of green parsley in a red cranberry dish or the pretty scalloped leaves—or tightly curled leaves—in a bowl of mashed potatoes for interest.

Parsley mixes well with garlic and butter, either melted butter or a parsley/butter mix for the table. To make parsley butter, simply add a few tablespoons of chopped, fresh leaves to a stick of butter that has softened. Mix and put in the fridge to harden again or put in molds. Parsley with garlic can be added to stuffing or a breadcrumb topping for a casserole dish. Parsley, and other herbs, can be added to roasted vegetables, including roasted potatoes. Melted parsley butter is great with seafood, especially lobster and shrimp.

Sage

Sage is a perennial plant that becomes a small woody shrub. It is hardy to Zone 4 and remains evergreen during the winter months. Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) has green leaves, but there are many other types of sage with variegated leaves, blue-green leaves, or even broader leaves. All sages are edible. (Edible, in this case, means it won’t harm you. However, they may not be as tasty as Salvia officinalis.) Use the culinary sage for cooking, but if you have other sages, look at their leaves for decorative uses. The leaves are thick and large enough that they can be used for decoration if cut a few days in advance. Sage leaf and butter on baked potatoFor example, tie a sprig of sage and rosemary with red ribbon and put on the place settings. Add variegated sage to floral arrangements. Use varieties with large leaves such as ‘Berggarten’, or use large, mature leaves from other types to serve as a garnish for vegetable dishes, pumpkin pie, or sweet potato pie. With the large-textured leaves, make butter pats and place on baked potatoes (pipe soft butter on sage leaf and place on tray, and then place in fridge to harden). 

Traditionally, sage is used in stuffing or dressing and as a poultry rub. Sage works well with cooked corn, cornbread, and corn chowder. Sage can be added to cheese spreads, potatoes, roasted vegetables, squash, sweet potato, and Brussel sprouts. Sage also pairs well with citrus fruits.

Rosemary

Rosemary is a perennial that grows to be a large woody shrub, several feet tall. It is marginally hardy in the Washington, D.C. metro area, so it is best to pick a cultivar that is known for being hardy, such as ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Nancy Howard’, ‘Dutch Mill’, and ‘Salem’. Rosemary is a great plant to have in Rosemary leaves and flowersthe garden, because it has many uses. Because the long stems are flexible, and the leaves do not dry out quickly, you can use rosemary for decorating as well as cooking. Cut a 6- to 8-inch branch, roll in a circle, and tie with florist wire. Attach decorations and color with a hot glue gun such as small cones, plaid bows, and red berries to make a small wreath. Or, don’t add anything and use it to wrap around candles and napkins. Rosemary stems can be inserted in glass vases with red and white candy canes, added to any floral arrangement, or placed under a turkey or ham on a platter. 

In the kitchen, rosemary is great on roasted vegetables, biscuits, pork, as a poultry rub, or with butter. It does well with yeast breads, rolls, and biscuits, and stuffing or dressing. It also pairs well with apple and pear desserts. If you are making mulled wine or mulled apple cider, consider adding a sprig of rosemary as a stirrer.

The small rosemary plants that are for sale during the holidays can serve as table-top Christmas trees by adding mini-lights, balls, and bows.

Various thyme cultivarsThyme 

Thyme is a perennial groundcover that is hardy to Zone 5. Thyme has very thin, wiry stems and small leaves. Because the leaves are small and lightweight, they are ideal for “confetti” on small appetizers or on a thick chowder. The stems themselves are too brittle to use for decoration, but if you have an indoor floral or green arrangement, you can insert a chunk of your thyme (pulled from your plant in the garden) to spill over the edges of the container as a “spiller.” 

Thyme is great in yeast rolls and biscuits, cooked vegetables such as carrots, squash, and mushrooms, cheese spreads, potato, pork and seafood, stuffing and dressing. Thyme also pairs well with butter and garlic. As with sage, there are many types of thyme that are all edible, but the flavor may vary. There are plants with silver leaves, plants with gold-edged leaves, and plants with gold leaves. These can be used as decoration. Then, there are “flavored” thymes such as orange, lemon, or coconut, which work well in baked goods. Consider lemon thyme pound cake and orange thyme cookies.

Mint

Mint in a containerMint is an herbaceous perennial hardy to Zone 5 and very invasive. If you are growing mint, grow only in a container. It is so hardy that it will survive winters here in containers, which should be about a foot high and wide. Mint roots very easily. If you are going to use a lot of mint in your holiday baking, you can take cuttings in the fall to increase your plants. You can even take cuttings so you can give mint plants away as gifts, tied with a red bow, and a recipe card.

There are many types of mint available for use, but during the holidays, spearmint and peppermint are the most popular. These leaves do not wilt quickly; they are firm with great texture. This makes them ideal for garnishing and decorating baked goods. Place mint leaves on cupcakes, cakes, fruit salads, and use as a garnish for drinks. 

Fresh peppermint leaves can be chopped and added to chocolate chip cookie dough or a brownie mix. A sprig of peppermint can be added to hot cocoa, like a stirrer. Fill glasses with peppermint sprigs and real peppermint candy canes. Add crushed spearmint leaves to whipped cream and add to fresh fruit. Use spearmint to make a jelly for pork or lamb, or add to vegetables, such as carrots and peas. 

Spearmint leavesMake a simple syrup with mint and pour over fruit salad, add to a drink, or use when baking. Make a syrup by boiling one cup water with one cup sugar in a small saucepan. Add one cup of fresh herbs and smash the leaves up against the pot with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 15 minutes, cool and strain, and pour the syrup in a glass jar. Keep in the fridge for a few weeks. 

These are just ideas to get you started, but once you start working with an herb, seeing the leaves, smelling the aroma, you will get inspired to use these other herbs for your home during the holidays.

 


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

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 II

By Amy Forsberg

Trinidad_tobago-esLast week we looked at some of the beverages important to a Trinidad Christmas. Now let’s talk about some of the foods and the special ingredients needed to make them.

So what is on the menu in Trinidad for Christmas? Here is what Ann told me. “Dinner is ham, of course, pastelles, baked chicken, fried rice, pelau, callaloo, macaroni pie…and everybody makes homemade bread. And, of course, sorrel drink and ponché de crème. And you have to have black cake, of course….Everything is homemade, nobody buys anything.” 

Pastelles are the West Indian version of tamales and reflect the Mexican/Aztec heritage in the Caribbean. Making pastelles can be labor intensive, and according to Ann, many families make the work fun by turning it pastelles on leafinto a party and making large quantities assembly-line style. This is part of what makes them such a Christmas treat. Every island has their own version, and in Trinidad, it is traditionally cornmeal stuffed with beef, chicken, or pork (or a mixture) with olives, capers, and raisins and steamed in banana leaves. There are also versions made with fish or shrimp, and vegetarian versions made with soy products, lentils, or mushrooms. It is the flavorings that really make them special, and the usual additions include onion, garlic, tomato paste or ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Trinidad pimento peppers, and roucou.

Pimento peppers are ubiquitous in Trinidad cooking, but they are NOT the same pepper we call pimento here in the United States; they do not look or taste the same other than both being non-spicy. They are a completely Trinidad Pimento Peppers Seedwisemild Capsicum chinense (the species known for blazing hot peppers like habaneros) and are easily found in most Caribbean markets here in the U.S., as well as most backyards in Trinidad, according to Ann. The taste is described as the flavor of very hot peppers without any of the heat, and they are an essential ingredient in many dishes. This pepper seems relatively unknown outside of Caribbean circles, but you may find seeds marketed as Capsicum ‘Trinidad Pimento’ or ‘Trinidad Seasoning Pepper.’ 

Roucou (pronounced roo’-koo) refers to the fruit of Bixa orellano, a shrub or small tree native to Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America and is cultivated in many countries. It is more widely known by the common names annatto and achiote and is used as red/orange dye and food coloring and flavoring. The rou coucolor comes from the waxy coating that covers the seeds. In Trinidad, it is common to grow roucou in your yard. The spiky capsules are harvested when ripe, split open, and the seeds are removed. The seeds are placed in water, then soaked and agitated (wear gloves!) to release the coloring. The now vibrant red/orange liquid has salt added as a preservative, the seeds are strained out, and the liquid is refrigerated to use as needed. It is a common ingredient in many dishes in Trinidad and adds not only a beautiful color but a subtle unique flavor as well. Annatto powder may be substituted and is easily purchased online and at International markets.

Another dish commonly eaten at Christmas, and especially at New Year’s (which is called “All Years Night” in Trinidad), is the unofficial Trinidad national dish pelau (pronounced pay-lauor puh-lau’). Pelau is a hearty one-pot meal of chicken, rice, and pigeon peas flavored with onion, garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, and a delicious flavor concoction called green seasoning. 

What is green seasoning, you ask? If you looked inside many refrigerators in Trinidad, you would find a fresh batch of this green herbal magic. There is no set recipe, and it can be simply made with whichever ingredients are on hand. It can also be purchased bottled, but fresh is far superior. Ann says it generally includes garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, chives, cilantro, celery, green onions, thyme, chadon beni, and pudina.  

Eryngium foetidum1 20050729 CU 65949HChadon beni (pronounced “shadow benny”) is the common name for the leaves of Eryngium foetidum, a tropical perennial in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and known in the United States as culantro. Imported by French settlers, the name derives from “chardon béni,” which means “blessed thistle.” (It is not actually a thistle but looks a bit like one.) According to Ann, it grows like a weed everywhere in Trinidad and is easy to cultivate. The flavor is similar to cilantro but even stronger and more pungent. It is one of several herbs that are an essential component of the flavor of Trinidadian cuisine. The fresh leaves can usually be found in Caribbean markets.

Pudina is the local name for Plectranthus amboinicus (syn. Coleus amboinicus), a fleshy-leaved perennial in the mint family that is known by many common names: Mexican mint, SpanishPlectranthus amboinicus thyme, Indian borage, Cuban oregano, and many more. It is naturalized and cultivated widely in the tropics and as an herb. It has a strong oregano-like flavor.

For dessert, they have black cake, a dense, rich, and alcohol soaked fruitcake believed to have descended from British desserts such as plum pudding. It is quite different from American fruitcake. It is made with lots of butter, eggs, and rum, and is almost black in color due to the addition of “browning,” which is made by almost burning brown sugar syrup. Browning can be purchased, or in a pinch, molasses can be substituted. Black cake is one of those foods for which every family has their own closely guarded recipe with a slightly different ratio of spices and fruits. Most recipes I found online direct you to soak the dried fruits in alcohol for at least a few days or weeks. But according to Ann, it is an important tradition to soak them for an entire year! Just after Black CakeChristmas, you prepare the fruits and cover them in a jar with a blend of alcohols and leave it in a dark place for a year, shaking periodically. Spices are also essential to making the quintessential black cake, which typically include cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, and tonka bean. 

Tonka bean is the seed of Dipteryx odorata, a tropical tree in the pea family (Fabaceae) that has a complex and highly prized flavor said to remind one of a blend of vanilla, cherry, almond, cinnamon, caramel, and honey. Tonka beansBecause it contains coumarin, a chemical that is toxic in larger amounts, tonka bean has been banned as a food ingredient in the U.S. since 1953. It is now better understood that the concentration of coumarin in tonka bean is too low to cause illness without one consuming a nearly impossible quantity. However, the ban remains. 

So, now you can set your table with a feast including ham, pastelles, pelau, and black cake. And to drink you’ll have sorrel drink, ponche de crème, and ginger beer. The house is freshly painted and new curtains have been hung. Neighbors and family will be dropping by soon. Panang music will fill the air, and the rum will flow. Merry Christmas from Trinidad!

Ann AbdulRecipes

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 books on Trinidadian cuisine found in almost every home.

 

Pastelles

Makes approx. 24 

  • 2 lb. boneless beef, chicken or pork, diced 
  • 3-4 TBSP roucou liquid
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • ½ cup finely chopped chive
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • hot pepper to taste
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 TBSP vegetable oil
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ cup finely chopped pimentos
  • 3 TBSP capers
  • 2 TBSP stuffed olives, chopped
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 3 cups hot water
  • 2-3 TBSP vegetable oil or 2 oz. or 4 TBSP margarine
  • Soharee or banana leaves, cleaned, greased and cut in 7” or 8” squares

(If using banana leaves, scald until soft and pliable.)

Directions

  1. In a bowl, mix meat with onion, chive, and thyme, garlic, hot pepper, black pepper, and 1 tsp salt.
  2. Heat oil in skillet and add roucou liquid and beef mixture and fry until tender; cool and mince.
  3. Return beef to skillet and add ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, pimentos, capers, olives, and raisins.
  4. Cook for 2-3 minutes more and adjust salt and pepper; leave to cool.
  5. Combine cornmeal, water, oil, and 1 tsp salt; stir until mixture sticks together.
  6. Take heaped tablespoons of cornmeal and form balls (approx. 1½” in diameter).
  7. Place a ball of cornmeal on a piece of leaf, cover with a piece of plastic wrap and roll or press to desired size approx. 6” square. Remove the plastic. 
  8. Place a heaped tablespoon of meat mixture along one side of cornmeal and fold leaf in half, then fold edges of leaf over to seal.
  9. Place a few pastelles in steamer or colander, and steam for about 20-25 minutes.

Pelau 

Serves 8-10

  • 3 lbs. chicken pieces, skinned
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 2 TBSP mixed green seasoning (or as much as half a cup! Depends on your taste. Ann says more is better.)
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 TBSP ketchup
  • 2 TBSP vegetable oil
  • 2-3 TBSP brown sugar
  • 2 cups parboiled rice
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • ½ cup chopped pimento peppers (any mild pepper can be substituted)
  • 1½ cups cooked pigeon peas
  • 1 TBSP salt
  • 1 whole hot pepper with the stem
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 cups chicken broth or water

Directions

  1. Season chicken with salt, pepper, green seasoning, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
  2. Heat oil in large heavy iron pot or skillet.
  3. Add sugar and allow to burn until brown
  4. Add seasoned chicken, and stir until pieces are well coated with burnt sugar; brown for 5 minutes.
  5. Add rice, and turn often until well mixed. Cook for 3 minutes more.
  6. Add onion, sweet peppers, and peas, and cook for a few minutes, stirring a few times.
  7. Add salt, hot pepper, coconut milk, and broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer until rice is cooked and all liquid is evaporated (about 25-30 minutes).
  8. Add more liquid if rice is still hard and continue to cook for a few more minutes.

Notes: Pelau could also be baked in the oven. Cover pot with lid or foil and bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes. 

Green Seasoning (recipe adapted from https://healthiersteps.com)

  • 1 bunch chadon beni leaves (can substitute cilantro)
  • ½ bunch parsley
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 3 green onions/scallions
  • Small bunch of chives
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 small onion
  • 1” piece fresh ginger
  • 8 sprigs thyme
  • 3 sprigs pudina (optional, can be found at Caribbean markets)
  • 5 Trinidad pimento peppers (or other mild peppers such as ‘Aji Dulce’, banana, or Cubanelle)

Directions

  1. Roughly chop up all ingredients and add to a food processor.
  2. Process until the mixture looks pureed like baby food, scraping down sides as necessary.
  3. Store in the refrigerator. Use about 2 TBSP of green seasoning per recipe. 

You can also prepare in large batches and freeze in ice cube trays and store cubes in freezer bags. These quantities are merely suggestions. Most people develop their own recipe with their own preferred ratio of ingredients based on personal preference. 

Trinidad Black Cake (Christmas Cake)

Serves 36 (or three cakes)

  • 1 lb. prunes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 lb. raisins
  • 1 lb. currants
  • 1 lb. sultanas
  • ¼ lb. candied mixed citrus peel (e.g., lemon, orange)
  • ½ lb. cherries, chopped in half
  • ¼ lb. chopped almonds
  • 1½ cups cherry brandy
  • 2 cups rum
  • 2 cups butter
  • 2 cups brown sugar  
  • 10 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. grated lime peel
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup browning (darkly caramelized sugar)
  • 3 cups mixture of rum, cherry brandy, and sherry, 1 cup for each cake

Directions

  1. A few days, or up to one year, before baking the cake, combine prunes, raisins, currants, sultanas, mixed candied peel, cherries, almonds, cherry brandy, and rum in a jar or other suitable glass container. Cover, and leave in a dark place to meld flavors, shaking the container occasionally, until ready to use.
  2. Line three 8” round cake pans with double layers of wax or parchment paper.
  3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Beat in eggs one at a time; add lime peel and vanilla.
  5. Combine flour, baking powder, and cinnamon; fold into creamed mixture gradually.
  6. Drain soaked fruit and add to mixture. Add enough browning to give desired color; stir well.
  7. Put in lined baking pans ¾ full and bake in a preheated oven at 250 F for one hour; reduce heat to 200 F – 225 F for the remaining 1½ hrs or until tester comes out clean.
  8. Prick hot cakes, and soak each with the mixture of rum, brandy, and sherry.

As alcohol soaks in, pour more and continue to do so for 12 hours.

Photo Credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Pastelles (Wikipedia); 3) Pimento peppers (Capsicum chinense) (seedwise.com); 4) Roucou (Bixa orellano) (Wikipedia); 5) Chadon beni (Eryngium foetidum) (National Herb Garden); 6) Pudina (Plectranthus amboinicus) (National Herb Garden); 7) Black cake (dishmaps.com); 8) Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) (Wikipedia); 9) Ann Abdul (Ann Abdul).


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.

HSA Webinar: Molé, Pan and Chapulin–Oaxacan Style

by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

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

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

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

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


Sara Holland and Mary Deobbeling

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

Chocolate – Food of the Gods

By Maryann Readal

In 1753, it was Carl Linnaeus who gave cacao, The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month, its botanical name: Theobroma cacao, from theos meaning god and broma meaning food – food of the gods. The Mayans gave it the name xocoatl, (pronounced sho-KWA-til). According to The True History of Chocolate authors Sophie and Michael Coe, the most likely history of the word “chocolate” is that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol, meaning “hot,” and the Aztec atl, meaning “water,” to produce chocolatl.

It is believed that Olmec Indians began using cacao beans for beverages as early as 250 BCE. But it was the Mayans who really domesticated the tree and discovered its many uses. They were the first to grow cacao trees on plantations. The drink they made from cacao beans was reserved for the Mayan wealthy and important and was used in religious ceremonies. The beans were also used as money in trade with the Aztecs.

theobroma

Flowers on cacao tree

The Aztecs, however, began to flavor the ground beans with other spices such as chile, cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla and then frothed the beverage with a molinillo, the Mexican chocolate whisk. The drink they created was also reserved for high government officials, priests, and the warrior classes. The Aztecs believed that their god, Quetzalcoatl, taught them about the many uses of cacao.

Along comes Christopher Columbus in 1492 on his fourth try to find a water route to India, but discovers the Americas instead. He brings back the cacao beans to King Ferdinand and Isabella, who were not as enamored with the beans as they were with the other treasures he brought from the New World.  A few years later, Hernando Cortez came to the Vera Cruz, Mexico area in the early 1500’s and learned first hand from the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, the exhilarating uses of cacao. He brought his discovery of the effects of the cacao beverage and its preparation to King Charles V of Spain, and this time it was greeted with much interest and led to Cortez conquering the Aztec Empire and developing  large cacao plantations for Spain. This was the beginning of the Spanish monopoly of cacao beans that lasted 200 years.

Europe accepted the use of chocolate as a medicine because the Mesoamericans used it as a remedy for many ailments for centuries. And Europeans found that it was a medicine that had pleasant, euphoric effects. These effects were what caused the church at the height of the Middle Ages to circumscribe its use, claiming that it caused immoral behaviors. Monks were forbidden to use chocolate and it was not allowed to be drunk while fasting. The chocolate beverage could only be drunk for medicinal reasons.

The debate about the medicinal qualities of chocolate continued well into the 1900’s in Europe, with many noted physicians chiming in on the subject. In the 18th century, it was Carl Linnaeus who wrote about the nourishment and therapeutic qualities of chocolate saying that “it could be used to lose weight, help lung and muscles diseases, hypochondria, and hemorrhoids.” In fact, cacao butter, which is the fat extracted from ground cacao beans, is still used today in suppositories for hemorrhoids. Now that will make you pause before eating a white chocolate rabbit at Easter.

The Nestle company introduced milk into chocolate to create milk chocolate in 1867, which completely changed the taste of chocolate. This new chocolate reignited the health debate concerning chocolate, with physicians claiming that the milk chocolate caused obesity, dental problems, and an unhealthy lifestyle.

In the early 20th century, chocolate became more important as food rather than as medicine. In fact, chocolate was included in World War II’s K and D rations as a healthy and quick source of energy for soldiers on the battlefield. In her book Plants Go To War, Judith Sumner discusses the use of chocolate in British Intelligence efforts in which chocolate bars were “impregnated with garlic to mimic the smell of the French whom they were impersonating.” She also reports that there was a German plan to assassinate Winston Churchill with a booby-trapped chocolate bar. The plot was never implemented.

In 1930, Nestle introduced white chocolate, which is cacao butter mixed with sugar. And in 2018 the Swiss company Barry-Callebaut introduced a ruby–or “pink”–chocolate into the market.

chocolate, pink

pink chocolate

Named the fourth chocolate, it is pink and fruity tasting.  This chocolate reportedly comes from special ruby cacao beans.

Debate and research continues on chocolate as a medicine.  Researchers do ascribe chocolate with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Some data also shows that apart from its pleasant effects, chocolate consumption improves brain function. Studies also link the flavonoids in dark chocolate with a reduced risk of diabetes. Consumption of dark chocolate is also believed to protect the heart.

However, chocolate may be returning to its Aztec roots with chocolate artisans introducing herbs, spices, flowers, and all kinds of ingredients into chocolate, making it not only a food of the gods but a food of the people, too – especially around Valentine’s Day.

A nice history of chocolate can be found at The Nibble https://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/chocolate/the-history-of-chocolate.asp.

And for more information and chocolate recipes, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page for February.


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