Lost in the Sods

By Chrissy Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: 1) Dolly Sods Wilderness Area; 2) Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) leaves and fruit; 3) Gaultheria procumbens fall color; 4 & 5) Vaccinium macrocarpon (American cranberry) leaves and fruit; 6) Goodyeara pubescens (downy rattlesnake-plantain) leaves; 7) Goodyeara pubescens flowers. All photos courtesy of the author.

References/Works Cited

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

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

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

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


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

Good, Great, Gulp-able Ginger

by Pat Crocker

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

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

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

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

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

A closeup of a bubbly fermenting cup of grated gingerGinger Bug          

Makes about 2 cups

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

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

1/2 cup sugar, divided

2 cups cold, non-chlorinated water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References                                                    

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


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

Thai Herbs, Part I – Papaya

By Chrissy Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: 1) Carica papaya immature tree with fruit (Creative Commons, Bmdavll@EnglishWikipedia); 2) Papaya leaf (Creative Commons, Marufish); 3) Ripe papaya fruit with seeds (Creative Commons, love.jsc); 4) 1671 etching of Carica papaya trees (Public Domain); 5) Thai papaya salad (Creative Commons, Ken2754@yokohama); 6) Strips of papaya being used as a meat tenderizer (Creative Commons, Thai Food Blog); 7) Papaya extract (Public Domain); 8) Papaya fruit and juice (Bincy Lenin’s Kitchen, youtube).

References

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Herb of the Month: Ginger – An Ancient Spice

By Maryann Readal

Ginger inflorescenceGinger, Zingiber officinale, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January. The English botanist, William Roscoe (1753-1831), gave ginger its name, which was derived from the Sanskrit word sryngaveram, which means “horn root.” However, ginger is not a root; it is a rhizome, which is an underground stem from which the roots grow. Ginger is an excellent spice to feature in January, because when infused into warm water, its spiciness warms the body on a cold winter day. Its medicinal qualities also help to relieve a sore throat or other cold symptoms that are more common in the winter.

Drawing of Arab merchants trading gingerGinger is a very old spice. The Indians and the Chinese used ginger as a medicine over 5000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments (Bode, 2011). It was also used to flavor foods long before history was even recorded. The Greeks and the Romans introduced ginger to Europe and the Mediterranean area by way of the Arab traders. It became an important spice in Europe until the fall of the Roman Empire. When the Arabs re-established trade routes after the fall, ginger found its way back into European apothecaries and kitchens. It is said that one pound of ginger cost the same as one sheep in the 13th and 14th centuries (Bode, 2011). (It’s hard to imagine something that is so common today was so expensive many years ago.) The Arab traders were also good marketers. They brought with them claims that ginger was a reliable aphrodisiac. As late as the 19th century, it was claimed that rubbing your hands in ground ginger would assure success in the bed chamber (Laws, 2018). Perhaps it was their successful marketing that created the demand for the rhizome, driving up its price.

Growing gingerToday, growing culinary ginger is not limited to the hot, humid areas of Southeast Asia and India as it was long ago. Anyone living in southern growing areas (USDA Hardiness Zones 8 – 12) can grow it as a perennial. In colder areas, it can be grown in pots and brought indoors for the winter or grown in the ground, but dug up before frost and potted up for overwintering indoors in a cool location. It prefers a rich, moist soil, good drainage, and shade in the south, but full sun in the north. If starting plants from store-bought ginger rhizomes, the rhizome should be first soaked in water to remove any growth retardant that may have been used. Each rhizome can be cut into sections with at least two eyes and planted in soil. Harvest the rhizomes when the leaves begin to fade. 

There are many beautiful ornamental gingers that are in the Zingiberaceae family that are easy to grow in warm climates. There are shell, butterfly, spiral, hidden, and peacock gingers, each with a unique bloom and bright color. All provide tropical accents in the garden.

Savory Asian and Indian cuisines would be unthinkable without ginger, but in Europe, it is added to puddings, cakes, and drinks. Ginger is used in teas in many countries as well. In some parts of the Middle East, it is added to coffee. On the Ivory Coast, ginger is ground and added to juiced fruit. And how much more tasty Japanese sushi is with those slices of pink, pickled ginger! Here in the U.S., we have ginger ale and ginger beer, gingersnaps, and gingerbread. In Hawaii, ginger flowers are one of the flowers used in making leis. Googling ginger and cooking will find many, many interesting recipes Sushi with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauceusing ginger in some form: fresh, ground, crystallized, pickled, preserved, or dried. 

Ginger is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some medicinal applications of ginger that are supported by contemporary research are for the treatment of motion sickness, nausea, osteoarthritis, and muscle pain reduction (Engels, 2018). According to Bohm, “ginger also appears to reduce cholesterol and improve lipid metabolism, thereby helping to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” It also shows promise as an anti-cancer agent against colon cancer.

Photo of Jamaican ginger juiceUnfortunately for ginger, there is a dark side to its history. Throughout the 19th Century, a patent medicine, Ginger Juice (also Jamaica ginger), or “Jake” as it was popularly called, was widely sold on street corners and in pharmacies in the U.S. It contained alcohol and a ginger extract and was used as a treatment for headaches, upper respiratory infections, menstrual disorders, and intestinal gas. Even though it had a pungent ginger flavor, it became a sought-after alcoholic drink in U.S. counties where alcohol was prohibited. When Prohibition came along in 1920, medicines with a high alcohol content, such as Ginger Juice, became especially popular. The U.S. government put in place measures to control inappropriate use of these patent medicines; alcohol-based medicines were only available with a prescription. The Prohibition Bureau (naively) considered Ginger Juice to be non-potable and too pungent and possibly did not think people would misuse it. However, Ginger Juice continued to be a popular and inexpensive “drink.”

Washington Post article about Jamaican ginger lawsuitTo circumvent the government’s restrictions/regulations placed on Ginger Juice, one manufacturer began adulterating the medicine by adding the compound tri-orthocresyl phosphate to its product. This created the illusion of pure Ginger Juice to fool the government officials, but ultimately resulted in a very toxic drink for the consumers. Soon, Ginger Juice users began reporting that they lost control of their hands and feet. They developed a peculiar walk, where their toes would touch the ground before their heels. It was called the Jake Walk or Jake Leg. Between 30,000 – 50,000 (some even estimate up to 100,000) people (Fortin, 2020) were affected before the government could remove the contaminated product from the market. Some recovered, but many did not.  This unfortunate event has been the subject of many blues songs and some books and movies. This incident contributed to the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which prohibited the marketing of new drugs that were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This winter, warm up with ginger. For more information and recipes for ginger, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage.

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

Photo Credits: 1) Ginger inflorescence (Maryann Readal); 2) Arab merchants trading ginger (public domain); 3) Growing ginger (Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder); 4) Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’  (variegated shell ginger) and Curcuma petiolata (hidden ginger) (Maryann Readal); 5) Japanese sushi with pickled ginger (Creative Commons, wuestenigel); 6) 19th-century Jamaican juice (Wikimedia Commons, public domain); 7) Washington Post article about Jamaican Juice lawsuit (Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

References

Bhatt, Neeru, et al. 2013. Ginger : a functional herb. Accessed 12/1/22. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257416254_Ginger_A_functional_herb

Bode, Ann. 2011. The amazing and mighty ginger.  Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press/Taylor Francis. Accessed 12/11/22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92775/

Engels, Gayle. 2018. The history and mystery of the Zingiberaceae family. Round Top, TX, Herbal Forum.

Fortin, Neal. 2020. Jamaica Juice paralysis. Accessed 12/9/22. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/jamaican-ginger-paralysis 

Ginger, Zingiber officinale. 2018. Accessed 12/1/22. https://mastergardener.extension.wisc.edu/files/2018/02/Zingiber_officinale.pdf

Ginger. 2022. Accessed 12/25/22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger

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


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

Sloe Gin – A Marriage of Prunus and Juniperus

By David McDaniel

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

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

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

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

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: 1) White flowers of Prunus spinosa (John Winder); 2) Prunus spinosa at U.S. National Arboretum (John Winder); 3) Juniperus communis foliage and fruit (Chemazgz, Openverse Creative Commons); 4) Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751 (Public Domain); 5) Prunus spinosa sloes (rodtuck, Openverse Creative Commons); 6 & 7) Sloe gin (David McDaniel).

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Well, Well, What Do We Have Here? A Tale of Two Acorus Species

by Erin Holden

Tall, thin green leaves with a whitish-greenish spadixWhile doing research for a presentation on herbal uses of native plants, I decided to look more into a plant I’d learned about in herb school, sweet flag (Acorus calamus). This strongly aromatic aquatic plant has long been my favorite warming digestive bitter for those times when I overindulge in a huge meal (I’m looking at you, Thanksgiving). The flavor is warm, pungent, bitter, and spicy in a black-peppery way – the flavor sort of fills up your mouth and is warm all the way down to your stomach. But as I dug deeper into the research, I discovered I’d been wrong all this time about the origin of the Acorus species I’d been using. It turns out that A. calamus is native to Europe, temperate India, and the Himalayan region, while the native species is A. americanus (also called sweet flag), although the two species look so similar that even some scientists are unsure of which species they’ve studied and reported on. There still isn’t much consensus among taxonomists as to what differentiates these two – some even classify them as the same species (Boufford,1993; eFloras, 2008). Let’s take a deeper look at the similarities and differences between these two plants. 

There are many common names for sweet flag from all over the world (Daglan, 2014), many of which describe either the flavor of the root (like bitter, sweet, pepper) or its watery habitat:

Muskrat_eating_plant Linda Tanner via wikimediaAbenaki: mokwaswaskw (muskrat plant)

Ayurvedic Tradition: vacha 

Cheyenne: wi’ukh is e’evo (bitter medicine) 

Chinese Medicine: shui chang pú (watery flourishing weed)

English: sweet flag, calamus 

Hudson Bay Cree: pow-e-men-arctic (fire or bitter pepper root) 

Penobscot and Nanticoke: muskrat root

Micmac: ig gig’wesukwul (muskrat root)  

Pawnee: kahtsha itu (medicine lying in water) 

Many Native American names connect Acorus with muskrats. According to Sue Thompson’s dissertation on Acorus (as reported by Daglin, 2014): 

There seems to be “a closely linked ecological relationship between Native Americans trapping muskrats and using Acorus, muskrats eating Acorus, and Acorus. Muskrat feeding habits may in part be responsible for the dispersal of Acorus, and Native Americans may have intentionally planted Acorus both for their own medicinal use and to ensure food for the muskrat, which was economically valuable to them (Morgan 1980). Thus, the many Native American names for Acorus, which involve muskrat as a root word, may reflect an important economic and ecological relationship among man, plants, and other wildlife.”

A border planting of tall, thin green Acorus calamus leavesBoth species are perennial, grow in zones 4 to 10, have 1’–3’ tall iris-like leaves, and can spread 1’–2’. They bloom April through June, and like full sun to part shade. The inflorescence is a green spadix with no spathe (a spathe is a hood-like structure, like the white part of a peace lily). Both A. americanus and A. calamus are freshwater aquatic plants that grow in medium to wet soil and can grow in up to nine inches of water. They’re both easily propagated by root/rhizome divisions in the spring. Since they are aquatic plants, they can be used in water gardens, ponds, or rain gardens. They can also grow in regular garden beds as long as they get adequate water, so they’re very versatile if you’re looking for tall, straight leaves (Missouri Botanical Garden, 2022).

Although the two species look very much alike, there are some subtle differences you can use to tell them apart. A. calamus has leaves with one prominent vein and undulate (wavy) margins, does not produce fruit, and will “appear to have a shriveled ovary” in late summer, whereas A. americanus has leaves with two to six veins and smooth margins, produces small green berries, and has swelling ovaries in late summer (Dalgin, 2014).

There are also some unseen differences between the two. It turns out that A. americanus is a fertile diploid species and contains almost no phenylpropanoids, a chemical family whose members play a role in the flavors and aromas of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sassafras. A. calamus is a (mostly) sterile triploid (there are some populations of a fertile diploid phenotype in Asia that are morphologically distinct from the North American A. americanus). In addition, 13% of its volatile oil fraction is made up of those phenylpropanoids, one of which is β-asarone.

Botanical illustration of Acorus calamusThis chemical distinction is important, because β-asarone has demonstrated procarcinogenic tendencies (meaning it could metabolize into a cancer causing compound), and the FDA has banned the use of “calamus, calamus oil, or extract of oil in food,” although these studies used high levels of isolated β-asarone and not “suggested doses of the whole plant in terms of mg/kg of body weight” that an herbalist would recommend. However, since A. americanus has little to no β-asarone, it’s been suggested that this species is safe to consume (Dalgin, 2014).

Sweet flag is an important plant for many native peoples. One writer said it is “considered so sacred [to the Cheyenne] that only qualified Sundance priests [can] collect it,” and it “may be the most important herb in Penobscot pharmacology” (Dalgin, 2014). 

Historically, the Dakota used a paste on their faces to “instill fearlessness and provide stamina” in battle and chewed the rhizomes to enhance endurance “during the wars of the 20th century” (Dalgin, 2014). 

Other uses for the plant include: colds, flu, and sore throat; as a tonic; for intestinal pain and as a carminative (dispels gas); as a stimulant when tired; toothache; an analgesic for muscle cramps/spasm; and in ceremonial/religious rituals.

Tall, thin leaves of Acorus americanus growing along the bank of a streamColonists also used Acorus, and Eclectic physicians (doctors in the 1800s) incorporated it into their materia medica (list of medicinal substances). Eventually, it made its way into the first edition of the  Dispensatory of the United States in 1833 (Osol et al, 1833), which cataloged drugs used by U.S. pharmacists at the time. These groups used it pretty much the same way that Native Americans use it: as a carminative, for weak digestion and flatulent colic, as a sialagogue (stimulates saliva production) and as “breath perfume,” a warming aromatic bitter, and externally for ulcers that wouldn’t heal (Dalgin, 2014). 

Some modern herbalists who use both species say that, because of its higher volatile oil content, A. calamus targets the gastrointestinal system more specifically, while A. americanus has a “more balanced” action on the whole body—working equally on the gastrointestinal and nervous system, as an expectorant (which helps clear gunk from the lungs), spasmolytic (calms spasms), and antitussive (Daglin, 2014).

Now that I know about A. americanus and its different effects on the body, I’m interested in experimenting with the two species. I’ve also planted it out in the Native American bed in the National Herb Garden. I wonder if we should also invest in a muskrat.

Photo Credits: 1) Acorus calamus inflorescence (E. Holden); 2) Muskrat (Linda Tanner, via Wikimedia ); 3) Acorus sp. used as a mass border planting (KENPEI, via Wikimedia  ); 4) Two prominent veins and smooth leaf margins of A. americanus (E. Holden); 5) The prominent midvein and undulate leaf margins of A. calamus (E. Holden); 6) Botanical illustration of A. calamus (Creative Commons, Rawpixal LTD); 7) Acorus americanus growing along a stream bank (Ryan Hodnett, via Wikimedia)

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 

Boufford, D. E. 1993+. Acorus. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. Flora of North America North of Mexico [Online]. 22+ vols. New York and Oxford. Vol. 3. Accessed 10/5/22. Available from http://beta.floranorthamerica.org/Acorus

Dalgin, R. 2014. Acorus calamus and Acorus americanus. Integrative Herbalism: Journal of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Summer, 30-78.

eFloras. (Internet). 2008. Acorus calamus. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO & Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA. Accessed 10/5/2022. Available from http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200027130

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. (Internet). 2015. Acorus americanus (Raf.) Raf. Accessed 1/7/2022. Available from https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ACAM

Missouri Botanical Garden. 2022. Acorus calamus. Accessed 1/7/2022. Available from https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=276172

Orsol, A., C. H. LaWall, F. Bache, G. B. Wood, G. E. Farrar, H. C. Wood Jr., and J. P. Remington. The dispensatory of the United States of America. Grigg & Elliot: Wisconsin. Available from https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Dispensatory_of_the_United_States_of/xikzAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1


Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America.

Baobab Tree – The African “Tree of Life”

by Maryann Readal

Baobab tree with leavesThe African baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, is a unique tree. Seeing this huge tree in the African landscape and hearing the stories about it never fails to capture my imagination.

The baobab tree is native to sub-saharan Africa, and can be found in low-lying areas of Australia, India, and Madagascar as well. The tree has been introduced into other countries over the years. Carbon dating has found that some of these trees are over 2,000 years old. However, the oldest of the African trees are slowly dying. Climate change, greenhouse gasses, and exploitation are believed to be factors affecting the longevity of these iconic trees.

Large baobab tree without leavesThe tree can reach a height 65 feet. Its trunk is a series of branches that have grown together creating a trunk of truly monumental size—36 to 46 feet or more in diameter. The inside of the trunk is hollow. This tree only has leaves during the rainy season, which lasts two to four months of the year. The other months of the year, the tree appears to be growing upside-down with its trunk and roots rising from the earth below. An old legend is that the gods became displeased with the baobab because the tree felt it was better than other trees, and so the gods yanked it out of the ground and turned it upside down to teach it humility. Each African country has its own interesting stories and legends about the baobab tree.

The tree’s flowers are white, pendulous, and very fragrant. However, as the blossom ages, it smells like carrion. It blooms only at night and the blossom is pollinated by fruit bats. It takes 8-23 years for a tree to begin to bloom. When the flower fades, the seed pod dangles from the tree’s branches and resembles a large, velvet covered gourd. The pod can be dried and used as a food or drink container. Because the seed pulp has so many medicinal and nutritional uses, research is being done on ways to shorten the time it takes for the tree to bloom, increasing the tree’s potential economic value in Africa.  

The baobab can store a large amount of water in its huge, fibrous trunk, which is why elephants and other animals chew on its trunk during dry seasons. One tree can hold 1,189 gallons of water. Indigenous peoples have used the tree for water during dry spells and hiding places during times of war. Some tree trunks were so large that they were used as jails, a post office, and even as a bush bar in South Africa. The tree’s herbal properties are still important to Africans. Various parts are used for food, medicine, to make beer, and as a source of fiber. The tree also supports many native animals, insects, and bats. Nearly 300 uses of the baobab tree have been documented (Islam-Faridi, 2020). This African herbal tree is appropriately named the “Tree of Life” because of its many uses.  

The seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, fruit pulp, and bark of the baobab tree are all edible. Baobab leaves are used in the preparation of soup, sauces, and are used as a relish. Seeds are a thickening agent in soups, and can also be fermented and used as a flavoring, or roasted and eaten as a snack. The seed pulp acts as a leavening agent in bread making. Cream of tartar was once made from the seed pulp. The seed pulp is also candied and sold in local markets, and is fermented to make a local beer.

The seed pulp is nutritional and has many health benefits, so it has become a popular health food supplement. The pulp is said to have ten times more Vitamin C than oranges and 50% more calcium than spinach. The U.S. and Europe have approved the pulp as food in recent years and it is now being marketed as a “superfood,” containing more antioxidants than other fruits. Packaged, powdered baobab pulp and leaves can be found online and in health food stores.

Three small kids standing in a hole in a baobab tree trunkThe medicinal applications of the tree are too many to cover here. The anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties of the leaves and the seed pulp have been used to treat infections and a host of other illnesses. It has been used as a prophylactic against malaria. Research studies have shown that the A. digitata is the most potent native plant for treating viruses and studies show that the seed pulp and the leaves have the highest antioxidant properties (Jackson, 2016).

In addition to the tree’s medicinal and nutritional benefits, “studies suggest that baobab preparations can promote skin cell regeneration and tone, tighten, and moisturize the skin” (Jackson, 2016). The essential oil is good for dry skin, sunburn, and the prevention of wrinkles. The baobab has now become an important tree for the cosmetic industry.

A large group of people standing in a circle around the trunk of a large baobab treeSeeing one of these giant trees in Africa and being inside one of them is certainly an unforgettable experience. Hearing the stories about the tree is even better because they tell of a deep respect for this important tree by the African people.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Baobab with leaves (Maryann Readal); 2) Baobab without leaves (Stacy Readal, dumaexplorer.com); 3) Fruits (Creative Commons); 4) Flower (Bernard Dupont, via Wikimedia); 5) Baobab seed snacks (Maryann Readal); 6) Powdered baobab leaves (Creative Commons); 7) Hadza baobab tree house in Tanzania (Creative Commons); 8) Baobab tree in Limpopo, South Africa (South African Tourism, via Wikimedia)

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

Africa Geographic. 2015. 9 fascinating baobab tree facts. Accessed 8/9/22. Available from https://africageographic.com/stories/9-fascinating-baobab-tree-facts/

Gardenerdy. 34 facts about the baobab tree. Accessed 8/12/22. Available from https://gardenerdy.com/facts-about-baobab-trees/

Jackson, Simon. 2016. Baobab: the tree of life – An ethnopharmacolocal review. HerbalGram, Nov 2015-Jan 2016, Issue 108. Accessed 8/10/22.  Available from http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/108/table-of-contents/hg108-feat-baobab/

Kabore, Donatien, et al. 2011. A review of baobab (Adansonia digitata) products: effect of processing techniques, medicinal properties and uses. African Journal of Food Science: Vol. 5(16) pp. 833-844. Accessed 8/10/22.  Available from https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=fr&user=ig1J-FQAAAAJ&citation_for_view=ig1J-FQAAAAJ:u-x6o8ySG0sC    

Nurul, Islam-Faridi, et al. 2020. New chromosome number and cyto-molecular characterization of the African Baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) – “The Tree of Life”. Scientific Reports, 8/6/20. Accessed 8/9/22. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413363/

Page, Michael Le. 2021. Efforts to domesticate African baobab trees are bearing fruit. New Scientist, 9/4/21. Accessed 8/9/22. Academic Search Complete database.


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

Coffee – A Bean with a History

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

by Karen Cottingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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


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

Award-Winning Four Elements Organic Herbals: An Interview

By Chrissy Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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