How Hot Is It?

By Carol Kagan

Hot pepper-V GardenNot the weather – that PEPPER! Although we usually get heat here, in Pennsylvania, and typically, plenty of it all at once, we speak here of chile peppers.

Your taste buds are craving salsa, so it’s time to check those peppers growing in the back garden. There are many varieties of “hot” peppers in various lively colors, but just how hot are they? We turn to the Scoville Scale for the answer.

Developed by chemist Wilbur Scoville, the scale is a way to measure and assign the hotness of peppers by measuring the capsaicin (cap-say-ah-sin) content. How do you measure a Scoville Heat Unit? To measure a pepper’s capsaicin concentration, a solution of the chile pepper’s extract is diluted in sugar water until the “heat” is no longer detectable to a panel of tasters. A rating of 0 Scoville Heat Units (SHUs) means that there is no detectable heat. The test’s reliance on human tasters, and the fact that plants grown in different conditions may be hotter or sweeter, makes the scale basically good for comparisons only. Regardless of the rating, use caution when handling or eating hot peppers.

So here goes, a listing of some of the most popular types are below. You can find the Scoville Scale on the Internet for a more complete listing.chart

Counter-Attack for the Burn

Capsaicin is an alkaline oil. Thus, water and alcohol don’t help alleviate the burn because they won’t dissolve the oil; they only spread it around. Acidic food or drink may help neutralize the oil. Try lemon, lime, or orange juice, cold lemonade, or tomato drinks (but not a Bloody Mary–see above).

Dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, sour cream, and ice cream are acidic and are considered helpful. Additionally, according to Paul Bosland, New Mexico State University Regents Professor and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, “It turns out that milk has a protein in it that replaces the capsaicin on the receptors on your tongue. It’s really the quickest way to alleviate the burning feeling.” Eating carbohydrate foods, such as bread or tortillas, may also help by absorbing some of the oil. Chew these but don’t swallow right away for the greatest benefit. (Did you know that most hot-chile-eating contests provide bowls of powdered milk and water to participants?)

For skin irritations (You mean, you weren’t careful?), wash off the oil with soap and warm water. Dry and repeat if needed. Remember, capsaicin is an oil and can be spread to other parts of the body by touching. Also, wash all utensils and cutting surfaces with soap and water after use to avoid spreading the oil.

chile peppers and glass of milk

For an upset stomach after eating hot peppers (yes, they make their way through eventually), try drinking milk–the more fat content the better–or eating carbohydrate foods such as bread and crackers. Sleep or rest in an upright or slightly inclined position to prevent heartburn and acid reflux.

Benefits of Capsaicin

Paradoxically, capsaicin’s knack for causing pain may make it helpful in alleviating pain. National Institute of Health research supports the topical use of capsaicin for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis by lowering sensitivity to pain. Look for over-the-counter creams and plasters containing capsaicin.

Research continues on many other possible benefits, including in cancer treatments, for anti-inflammatory use, weight loss, and lowering cholesterol. Another benefit of capsaicin is that the burning sensation causes actual pain, which releases endorphins. These are the pleasure chemicals also released during exercise. Perhaps eating hot peppers is a lazy person’s substitute for running and time at the gym!

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) Chile pepper (Carol Kagan); List of peppers (Carol Kagan); Glass of milk with chiles (American Chemical Society).


Herb Sampler 2nd ed coverCarol Kagan is the author of the Herb Sampler, a basic guide about herbs and their wide variety of uses. She has been active in herbal organizations for over 40 years, designing and maintaining herb gardens and providing docent services at a variety of historic properties. She is a member of The Herb Society of America and the American Public Gardens Association. Carol is also a Penn State Extension Master Gardener in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and is Co-Coordinator of their Herb Demonstration Garden.

Growing Green in Turkey

By Zainab Pashaei

Of the many countries looking to reduce their carbon footprint through landscape restoration and sustainability, you will find Turkey among them. When discussing Turkey, you may think of Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant GardenTurkish delight, exotic spices, historical ruins, or if you are a cat-person, the infamous street cats. What most do not know is that the country broke a record on November 12, 2019, for the most tree saplings planted in an hour: 303,150. As part of the nation’s campaign to restore its forests, eleven million trees were adopted online and planted across the country on the now official National Forestation Day (November 11). After spending time this past year in Istanbul and other cities across Turkey, I did notice from the window of my tour bus the many young trees adorning the landscape. Considering growing global health and environmental concerns, instilling environmentally friendly garden practices in the youth and establishing a place for people to reconnect with nature was a priority for one district in Istanbul. On a smaller scale amidst the crowds in Istanbul, I found the herbally-relevant Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden and Farm, a serene place for people to learn more about herbs.

As part of an urban regeneration project, this was Turkey’s first medicinal plant garden, which opened to the public in 2005 on 14 acres of land in the Zeytinburnu district. The garden boasts organic treatment of its plants, including natural compost and fertilizers. By adopting these methods, the garden hopes to demonstrate the sanctity of human health, the environment, and how the two intertwine. 59c8f95545d2a027e83ce2b2The garden researches and tests herbal plant material for quality and for safe use in oils and drugs. It is open year-round to educate the public about the safe and effective use of medicinal plants and has ongoing herbal and gardening educational workshops for adults and children.

Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden and its Health and Environment School conduct health classes, such as, phytotherapy, aromatherapy, first-aid plants, Ottoman traditional medicine, and medicinal plant chemistry. The phytotherapy seminar, for example, covers Turkey’s vegetation, poisonous plants, medicinal plant names and drugs, active components in the medicinal plants, theoretical and practical cultivation, harvesting and preparation of drugs, storage and control, and finally, use, possible interactions, warnings, and prescriptions for certain health problems.

The aromatherapy course covers essential oils, fragrances, cosmetics, the sense of smell, inhalation, and external applications of essential oils, as well as prescriptions for various ailments, such as cosmetic problems, minor burns, stress-induced headaches, sinus and respiratory congestion, and mild anxiety or depression. The horticulture staff also produces essential oils on-site from the 700 plant species that are cultivated in the garden, which they, then, sell to the public.

Additionally, Zeytinburnu employs researchers who study various medicinal plants and who provide guidance to the public in order to promote the plants’ value, both through an online Turkish publication and on the garden’s web site, which highlights proper seed storage and the medicinal preparation for hundreds of medicinal plants. In addition to the medicinal classes, there are culinary classes as well. Courses cover edible herbs and flowers, herbal teas, herbal energy drinks, tinctures, essential oils, and spice making.

Spices&Herbs2Outside Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden, I strolled through the bazaar with its colorful displays of herbs and spices. Seeing the wonderful array of plant material, I realized that, in addition to their well-established spice markets, Turkey has a quietly growing green movement. I am reminded of the beauty and diversity of our herbal plants, both at home and abroad.

 

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.


Zainab Pashaei Headshot NHG Rose GardenZainab Pashaei was the 2019 National Herb Garden Intern. She is a Washington, D.C., native and a proud at-home grower of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Zainab obtained her Bachelor’s of Science in Community Health at George Mason University. After graduating, she returned to school for graduate studies in Landscape Design at George Washington University. Zainab also worked with a floral design company in Fairfax, VA. In her free time, she continues to grow plants for food, health, and aesthetics.

Dr. Faith Mitchell on Hoodoo Medicine

By Paris Wolfe

Gullah_s_carolina_1790

Gullah slaves, circa 1790

When author and medical anthropologist, Faith Mitchell, Ph.D., was an undergraduate studying anthropology at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, she spent three summers in the Sea Islands. Numbering more than 100, the Sea Islands are a chain of tidal and barrier islands on the Southeastern Atlantic. While they’re home to luxury estates today, they were still very rural in the 1970s.

At that time, Sea Island residents were mostly African-American descendants of plantation slaves. Known as the Gullah people, they had been geographically isolated from the mainland for generations. Because of that, combined with the effects of racial discrimination, Mitchell says, “They had a lot of African traditions that were maintained through oral tradition, more so than in any other parts of the south.”Copy of Sea Islands 512

Among these traditions was folk medicine that had originated in Africa and merged with Native American and European practices. Interestingly, it bears some resemblance to Jamaican folk medicine, but that’s another story.

As a student, Mitchell was fascinated by the use of plants and natural materials in healing, so she started collecting information about what locals called “roots” medicine. It’s important, she says, to distinguish between what people term good and bad “roots” medicine. “Good roots” is the use of plants, mud, and other natural materials with healing powers, she explains. Meanwhile, “bad roots” is the use of natural materials – plants, blood, bones, candles, feathers and more – for magical purposes, akin to voodoo.

CoverTo capture this cultural treasure, Mitchell wrote Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, which was first published in 1978 and then republished in 1999.

The book starts with a brief history of the area and then details medicinal roots, herbs, and plants used in Gullah culture. Artist Naomi Steinfeld produced more than 50 drawings of various medicinal plants to illustrate the book.

Practices described include using elderberry tea to treat colds, mud to cast bone breaks, and tree leaves to draw out headaches. Healing properties were also attributed to mint, Spanish moss, gum tree leaves, and much more. The healing practices remain relevant today for people interested in new pathways to health.

Unfortunately, says Mitchell, much of this tradition has been threatened over the years by the commercial development of the Sea Islands, the exodus of younger generations in search of work, and reduced isolation from the mainland and mainstream. Fortunately, there is renewed interest among Gullah descendants in preserving their unique history and culture.

Cotton Flower

Cotton flower used medicinally on the Sea Islands

Today, Mitchell is the recently-retired CEO of Grantmakers In Health and is a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC, working with the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy and the Health Policy Center. She is also developing the Urban Institute’s American Transformation project, which will look at the implications—and possibilities—of this country’s racial and ethnic evolution.

 

Faith MitchellDr. Mitchell has a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. She has written or edited numerous policy-related publications as well as Hoodoo Medicine. For more information and to purchase her book, visit Dr. Mitchell’s website.

 

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.


Paris Wolfe is an award winning writer of business, food, and travel articles.

Bergamot Orange – March Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

What do Earl Gray tea, the confection Turkish Delight, the liqueur Bergamia, eau de cologne, and some air fresheners have in common? The answer is: the essential oil from the bergamot orange, Citrus ×bergamia, The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March.

March2020 HOM Bergamot OrangeWhen I first looked into March’s Herb of the Month, bergamot orange, I was sure there would not be much exciting information about this herbal tree. What can you expect from a tree that produces oddly shaped, yellow oranges? It turned out that I was very wrong.

Bergamot orange, C. ×bergamia, has a lot to satisfy the curious mind. The tree is a hybrid of lemon and sour orange, so I don’t think you are going to eat the fruit right from the tree. The origins of the tree are debated, but many believe it originated in Turkey. In fact, the origin of its name comes from the Turkish word “beg-a-mudi” which means “pears of the Prince” or “pears of the Lord.”

Today, the fruit is grown in many places, but the fruit which is produced in the coastal Calabria region of Italy is the most desirable. In fact, the Calabria region (the toe of the boot in Italy) is an economically protected area because of the fruit’s importance to not only the region’s economy, but also to future research into the fruit’s medicinal benefits. Eighty to ninety percent of the world’s production of bergamot essential oil (BEO) comes from this 60-mile strip of the Italian coastline.

1811-Rosoli-Flacon

Original “eau de cologne” containing bergamot, by Jean Marie Farina.

BEO is very important to the perfume industry. Its history in perfumery dates back to the late 1600s – early 1700s when the essence from the skin was first used to produce cologne water (eau de cologne) or toilet water. Still today, the essential oil is used in perfumes. According to Gina Maruca, et al., “bergamot oil, [sic] is one of the most important perfume materials; its pleasant refreshing scent, [sic] blends into almost, [sic] any perfume composition so that, today, there is not a perfume which does not contains BEO (Bergamot Essential Oil)” (Journal of Science and Engineering, 2017).

For use in cosmetics, the bergapten compound of bergamot essential oil is removed because it creates a photosensitivity to sunlight whenever used on the skin. People with photosensitivity should be careful using BEO that has not had this compound removed.

The juice from the bergamot orange was used in traditional Italian folk medicine to treat intestinal parasites and malaria. The oil was used as an antiseptic and to treat fevers. In Ayurvedic medicine, the oil has been used to treat a variety of skin problems, depression, flatulence, and loss of appetite. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, BEO was used to stimulate and re-balance the flow of energy in the body. Bergamot oil is still used in aromatherapy applications because, when inhaled, its ingredients soothe and calm the nervous system, reducing anxiety and stress and helping with sleep disorders.

BergaCal

Bergamot supplement (courtesy: madeinsouthitaly.com)

Still under investigation today are the therapeutic possibilities of bergamot, and there is great interest in its antioxidant, cancer- and cholesterol-fighting components. Other uses of the fruit include using the pulp and peel in animal feed and to improve soil. Because of its antimicrobial properties, researchers have recommended the use of bergamot essential oil on fresh fruit in order to prolong shelf life.

So for an herb that did not seem interesting at first, there is certainly a lot more to it than meets the eye. Or should I say the nose.

For more information about bergamot, recipes, and a colorful screensaver, please see The Herb Society of America’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.


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 pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

 

 

HSA Webinar: Growing and Using Herbs of the Southwestern Missions

Author Jacqueline Soule will be presenting this month’s webinar on Wed, March 25 at 1pm – click here to register. This article is excerpted from her book, Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today.

Epazote – An Efficacious ‘Erbcover kino

By Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule

Did you know that you can speak at least one word of Nahuatl, the language spoken in Mexico pre-conquest? Epazote is the Nahuatl name for Dysphania ambrosioides (formerly Chenopodium ambrosioides). English common names include wormseed, Jesuit tea, American wormseed, Mexican tea, and Jerusalem oak.

By the time of contact between the New and Old Worlds, epazote had been cultivated for well over a thousand years in southern and southeast coastal Mexico.  It was, and still is, a principal flavoring for a large number of Yucatan and Veracruz dishes and is indispensable for cooking black beans.

Epazote in Cooking

Like the Old World herbs cumin and ginger, epazote has the unique ability to help break down hard-to-digest vegetable proteins. These difficult proteins are found most often in beans, peas, and members of the cabbage family. A few leaves of epazote cooked in the pot with the potential offender can go a long way towards rendering the bean proteins, well, shall we say, “ungaseous.”

epazote 4631088290 wiki cc 2.0Epazote was popular on the coast and in warmer climates of the Aztec and Mayan areas but had also made its way into Central Mexico and the Aztec National Botanical Gardens. It was traded in the marketplace of Tenochtitlan in the 1530s.  The most popular culinary uses were to cook it with beans, nopales (prickly pear cactus pads), and fish dishes.

Epazote in Medicine

Ethnomedicinally, epazote has been used in a decoction as a vermifuge (against intestinal worms) and in an infusion to help induce labor, reduce menstrual cramps, and as a general post-partum tonic. It is also used in the treatment of amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, malaria, chorea, hysteria, catarrh, and asthma. Oil of chenopodium is derived from epazote and is a proven anthelmintic, that is, it kills intestinal worms, and was once listed for this use in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. It is also cited as an antispasmodic.

Medicinals on Migration

Epazote was brought northward into the Southwest United States primarily by natives resettled into the region by Spanish decree. It is recorded as planted in the herb gardens at San Xavier del Bac Mission (outside Tucson, Arizona) in 1752.  Epazote found its way into eastern North America and Canada. It was a popular vermifuge as its effects were more predictable and less violent than European wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). There are no reports of Yankees using it for culinary purposes.

Planting and Careepazote NRCS wiki cc 0.0 PD

Plant epazote from seed in spring once night temperatures rise above the low 50s. You can also start indoors and transplant once danger of frost is past. Seeds can take as long as four weeks to germinate. Plants will thrive through the warm season and freeze to the ground at 35℉, but often regrow from the roots. At 20℉, the roots will be killed as well.

Epazote plants do well in full sun, but some afternoon shade is appreciated in the Southwest by this tropical herb. Soil can be poor, even clay, but plants grow best in average, well-drained soils. Epazote can be grown in containers that are at least twelve inches deep.

Epazote can reach five feet tall, but at that height, it will be scraggly and unattractive. Pinch epazote plants often, especially the central branches, to keep it around two to three feet tall, compact, leafy, and with an appealing form in the garden. Usually a single plant epazote AMP 1902139 web cropprovides enough herbage for a household.

Epazote reseeds readily, so pinch off the seed stalks, or be ready to ruthlessly weed out excess plants the following spring. On the other hand, seed heads turn an attractive bronze in autumn, and the lesser goldfinches enjoy the seeds. Ideally, find a less-used corner of the garden for epazote where, if seeds spread, they will not be a major problem. A strongly scented herb, epazote is reported as a deer repellent, and I can report that javalina, jackrabbits, and cottontails avoid eating the plants.

Harvesting and Use

Epazote is best used fresh for culinary purposes. Chop or mince leaves and add early to dishes that require long cooking, like beans, roasts, soups, or stews. Use one tablespoon minced leaves per cup of beans or to a two pound roast. Do not use it as a garnish since the taste is bitter. If not fresh, frozen epazote may be used as a culinary herb. In my tests, epazote does not have the same “digestive” effect after drying.

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.


Jacqueline Soule business portrait. Tucson, AZ. © 2012 Mark Turner

Jacqueline Soule Tucson, AZ. © 2012 Mark Turner

Jacqueline writes about gardening for a living. It’s a job she does in two very different USDA zones – 10 and 4. Nine months of the year she lives on an acre in the Tucson Mountains, and 3 months on an acre in Vermont. In both places she happily grows numerous herbs because they are about the only plant the local critters will not munch to the ground.

© copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. This article is excerpted from Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today written by the author. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. You can use a short excerpt, but you must give proper credit, plus you must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos. To purchase this and other books by Jacqueline Soule, visit her website.

A Bit about Bitters, Part II

By Erin Holden

Welcome to Part II on herbal bitters! For a little background info on what bitters are, why we taste them, and where we taste them, see Part I posted on 2/17/20. It’s a worthwhile read, but not necessary if you just want to jump in with this article.

Historical Uses: Egyptian medical papyri from as far back as 2650 B.C. mention bitter herbs, such as frankincense, myrrh, aloe, and wormwood, being macerated in alcohol. Knowing now what we do about bitters, it’s reasonable to think some of these concoctions were used for stomach ailments that call for bitters today. Fast forwarding a bit, we find the origins of the famous Swedish Bitters in the mid 1700s. Considered a universal medicine, it contained, among other herbs, aloe, saffron, rhubarb, gentian, and myrrh. Another common ingredient was theriac, a “composite” medicine consisting of up to sixty-four vegetable, animal, and mineral parts. Several of these – caraway seed, ginger, angelica root, and fennel to name a few – are still used in contemporary bitters formulae.

In Cocktails: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention bitters as they are used in cocktails. Many countries, such as Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, have “the tradition of consuming an Range_of_Cocktailbittersherbal, bittersweet liqueur as an aperitif or digestif”, to either stimulate or aid digestion before or after a meal (Parsons, 2011). However, during the 1850s in the United States, the temperance movement, along with high taxes on potable alcohol (alcohol consumed as a beverage), forced these types of drinks to fall out of favor, and led to the increased popularity of stomach bitters, a nonpotable alcohol (so not subject to the same taxes). Unfortunately, many unscrupulous companies began making outlandish claims for their products, forcing the federal government to step in and lay down restrictions. This, along with Prohibition in 1919, knocked bitters off the U.S. map for a good long while.

DandelionIn Food: Many countries that traditionally partake of alcoholic bitters also have a history of harvesting and consuming bitter spring greens. Plants such as burdock, dandelion, and cresses pop up early in the spring, and their bitter leaves not only helped stimulate digestive systems turned sluggish from a winter of consuming preserved foods, but provided much needed vitamins and minerals. Additionally, many bitter plants are anthelmintic, meaning they help kill intestinal worms. It gives new meaning to the term “spring cleaning!”

Bitters Today: Building on a long history of use, herbalists today suggest bitters for a variety of digestive disturbances – from dispelling gas, increasing bile production and secretion, to supporting healthy blood sugar regulation. As stated in Part I, though, bitters are produced by plants for defense, and as such can be pretty powerful. Always consult a trained herbalist first if you’re considering taking bitters.

Regarding their use in cocktails, herbal bitters have taken off in recent years. I remember when Angostura Bitters were all I could find, but within just the past few years, my local liquor store has started offering many more brands and flavors. Trendy bars have also taken to concocting their own special house bitters, and books are being written on the subject.

Bitter Herbs: The list of bitter herbs is a long one, so I just wanted to highlight a few. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is most famous for its role in the liqueur Absinthe; itsWormwood_shoots by Eddideigel common name comes from its use in killing intestinal parasites. Cinchona (Cinchona spp.) is the botanical source of quinine, the widely used antimalarial agent. Gentian (Gentiana lutea), the archetypal bitter, is a main ingredient in most commercially available cocktail bitters, including Angostura Bitters. Some plants that don’t have an overt bitter flavor, such as fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and ginger (Zingiber officinale), are also sometimes classified as “bitters” by herbalists due to their therapeutic action on the digestive system.

Thanks for sticking with me through this rather long “intro” into herbal bitters. If this topic tickles your fancy, I highly recommend the following resources: two books on bitter foods and cocktail bitters, with recipes, and a fascinating paper on the history of Swedish Bitters. The book by B.T. Parsons is available for checkout to members from the HSA library for the cost of shipping.

Ahnfelt, N. & Fors, H. 2016. Making early modern medicine: Reproducing Swedish Bitters. From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for the History of Science; 63(2): 162-183.

McLagan, Jennifer. 2014. Bitter: A taste of the world’s most dangerous flavor, with recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press.

Parsons, B.T. 2011. Bitters: A spirited history of a classic cure-all. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

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.


Erin Holden is the gardener for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum 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.

 

 

A Bit about Bitters, Part I

By Erin Holden

From grapefruit to coffee to arugula – lots of plants are bitter. And while some people will cross the street to avoid a bitter veggie, others can’t seem to get enough. Why is this? Join me on a two part journey as I delve into the science and use of one of nature’s most divisive flavors.

The What: How do you define a bitter? If you’re a chemist, they’re structurally unrelated compounds that, well, taste bitter. If you’re an herbalist, bitters are plants that are used for their therapeutic effect on the digestive system. And if you’re a bartender, bitters are aromatic flavoring agents made from various plant parts to enhance the taste of a drink. Based on these definitions it’s easy to see that bitters fulfill many roles in our lives. But why can we taste bitter to begin with?

The Why:Rat poison The main reason plants create bitter compounds boils down to one simple thing: defense. Since plants can’t run and hide from predators, they devised their own chemical defense system – the first instance of chemical warfare, you could say. When an insect bites into, say, a broccoli plant, it gets a mouthful of glucosinolates, sulfur containing compounds that are toxic to insects and rodents, and gross to some people. Plants see us as essentially giant rodents that want to eat them, and create a wide variety of nasty tasting compounds to deter us from doing so. In turn, since some of these compounds not only taste bad but can also kill humans, we evolved taste receptors to detect them, therefore potentially skirting death.

The Where: So, where exactly do we have these taste receptors? I’m sure many of you learned the “flavor map” of the tongue in school, like I did, which outlines where we can detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter (poor umami got left out on that one). Well I’m here to tell you, that map is bunk! It’s based on the misinterpretation of a graph from 1942, that plotted out areas of relative sensitivity of the tongue to the various flavors. Later on, low areas of sensitivity were mistakenly interpreted as having no sensitivity, leading to the incorrect map we’re all familiar with today. All flavors can be detected across the whole tongue, the back of the roof of the mouth, and the epiglottis. Other research has suggested that while areas of the tongue do show varying levels of sensitivity to the five known flavors, these differences are not significant (Wanjek, 2006).

Taste_buds

Photo Credit: MesserWoland

Having taste receptors on the tongue is no surprise, but you may be surprised to learn bitter receptors have also been found in the brains, airways, gastrointestinal tract, testes, and pancreas of various mammals (including humans). This leads back to WHY? The prevailing hypotheses boil down to the same thing – protection. If our airways are full of bacteria that are producing bitter compounds, our cough response is triggered, so we cough up and expel the offending invader. If an ingested bitter toxin makes its way to our guts, it’ll essentially trip the “abandon ship” alarm, causing our body to purge itself of the potential poison in unpleasant ways.

I’ll stop there with that thought. Keep an eye out for the follow-up, where I’ll talk about the historical uses of bitters, their role in herbal medicine, and mention some specific bitter herbs.

Wanjek, C. 2006. The tongue map: Tasteless myth debunked. Live Science. From Livescience.com. Accessed January 31, 2019. Available from https://www.livescience.com/7113-tongue-map-tasteless-myth-debunked.html on 1/31/2019

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.


Erin Holden is the gardener for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum 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.

 

 

 

Raspberry, Herb of the Year and Herb of the Month: History and Lore

™™™HOM Brambles

By Pat Greathead

Raspberry, Rubus spp., is the International Herb Association’s Herb of the YearTM for 2020 and The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for January (Brambles). The genus Rubus includes both the red and black raspberry and the blackberry as well as almost 700 other species. Rubus is in the Rosacea family.

My Wisconsin Unit of The Herb Society each year examines the IHA Herb of the Year.TM In this blog post, I have mainly focused on red raspberry leaf and have used information from many websites in writing this article. I hope you enjoy reading it as this is the year of the raspberry!

Raspberry leaves are among the most pleasant tasting of all the herbal remedies, with a taste much like black tea, without the caffeine. Raspberries are native to Asia and arrived in North America via prehistoric people, with the first records of domestication coming from the writings of the Roman agricultural writer Palladius in the 5th century. Evidence has been found that early cave-dwelling humans ate raspberries. Seeds were discovered in Roman forts in Britain, so it is thought the Romans and animals spread raspberries throughout Europe.

Red raspberries were said to have been discovered and much loved by the Olympian gods on Mount Ida in northwest Turkey, hence their botanical name Rubus idaeus, which means ‘bramble (branch) bush of Ida’ in Latin. According to Société’s Materia Medica blog, “In the story of Ida, the nursemaid to the infant Zeus pricked her finger while picking the snow-white berries, staining them red for all eternity.” (Société, 2018) Fruits were gathered from the wild by the people of Troy in the foothills of Mt. Ida around the time of Christ.

The leaf was traditionally used in ancient times to prepare the womb for childbirth, to aid delivery and breastfeeding, and some farmers used it for their pregnant goats. Other uses were as a remedy for common ailments due to its abundance of minerals, vitamins, and tannins. (Tannins help to tone and tighten tissue). Chemicals in the leaf were believed to help the blood vessels relax. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Ayurvedic physicians also used it widely as a treatment for wounds and diarrhea (somewhat interchanged with blackberry).

By Medieval times (5th-15th century), raspberry had a great many uses, including using the juices in paintings and illuminated manuscripts and the leaves as a woman’s tonic. Société’s blog on red raspberry states that, “In early Christian artwork raspberries were used to symbolize kindness. Its red juice invoked the energy of the blood which runs from the heart and carries love, nutrition, and kindness through the body.” (Société, 2018)  King Edward the 1st (1272-1307) was said to be the first to call for mass cultivation of raspberries, whose popularity spread quickly throughout Europe. Raspberry leaf was first described in 1597 in the book The Herbal, or A General History of Plants by John Norton, the Queen’s printer.

By the 17th century, British gardens were rich with berries and berry bushes. Culpeper (1616-1654) in his book The Complete Herbal talked about raspberry leaf as “very binding and good for fevers, ulcers, putrid sores of the mouth and secret parts, for stones of the kidneys and too much flowing of the women’s courses.”  By the 18th century, berry cultivation practices had spread throughout Europe. An old Irish beekeeper’s recipe was to gather foxglove, raspberry, wild marjoram, mint, chamomile and valerian on May day, mix with butter made that day, boil together with honey, and rub the vessel into which you want the bees to gather, both inside and out.  Place it in the middle of a tree, and bees will soon come.  Again from Société’s Materia Medica, “In Germany, raspberry was used to tame bewitched horses by tying a bit of the cane to the horse’s body. In the Philippines, raspberry canes were hung outside homes to protect those who dwelt within from any souls who may inadvertently wander in” (remember the thorns!). (Société, 2018)

When settlers from Europe came to America, they found Native Americans already utilizing and eating berries, some believing raspberry had strong protective powers against unwanted spiritual beings. Teas of raspberry leaves were given to women of the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mohawk Nations to soothe labor pains, ease contractions, and ease nausea. Due to the nomadic nature of their culture, berries were dried for preservation and ease of transportation.

raspberrySettlers also brought cultivated raspberries that were native to Europe with them to the new colonies. In 1761, George Washington moved to his estate in Mount Vernon where he began to cultivate berries in his extensive gardens. The first commercial nursery plants were sold by William Price in 1771. Jefferson planted raspberries at Monticello on numerous occasions beginning in 1774. In 1735, Irish herbalist K’Eogh described these uses for raspberry: “An application of the flowers bruised with honey is beneficial for inflammations of the eyes, burning fever and boils…the fruit is food for the heart and diseases of the mouth.”

Raspberry tea made political history after England imposed the Boston Port Act, which exacted a tea tax on the American Colonies in 1773 to help the financially troubled East India Company. Tea made from sage or raspberry leaves then became a popular substitute for the colonists’ favorite beverage.

Collected by French botanist André Michaux and included in his Flora Boreali-Americana (1803), our native red raspberry, Rubus strigosus, is now found across much of North America, including all of Canada and the northern half of the US to North Carolina and California. After the Civil War (1861-1865), major production areas emerged in the regions of New York, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. By 1880 approximately 2,000 acres were in cultivation.

By 1867 over 40 different varieties of raspberry were known. “In 1890, JM Hodge, a Scottish solicitor and raspberry grower from Blairgowrie, rented some land specifically to grow raspberries on a larger scale. He formed the Blairgowrie & Rattray Fruit Growers Association, bringing together local producers and beginning industrial production.” (Oxfordshire Gardener, 2019)

In King’s American Dispensatory (1898), it is described that the leaves and fruits are the parts of the plant that are used for medicinal purposes. The leaves impart some of their constituents to water, giving to the infusion an odor and flavor somewhat similar to that of some kinds of black tea, and that raspberry is “of much service in dysentery, pleasant to the taste, mitigating suffering and ultimately affecting a cure.”   According to M. Grieve (1931) experience has shown that raspberry leaf has been used in cases of severe dysmenorrhea. She writes an infusion of Raspberry leaves, taken cold is a reliable remedy for extreme laxity of the bowels. The infusion alone, or as a component part, never fails to give immediate relief and it is especially useful in stomach complaints of children.”

 According to the Telegraph’s Eleanor Doughty, “In the 1950’s, Scotland, known for its raspberry growing, brought raspberries down to London on a dedicated steam train known as The Raspberry Special.” (Doughty, 2015)

Today red raspberry leaf is used for gastrointestinal tract disorders, including diarrhea and stomach pains; also to treat heart problems, fevers, vitamin deficiencies, diabetes; and for respiratory system disorders, swine flu, and common flu. It is also beneficial in promoting urination, sweating, and bile production.

Many people use it for general skin and blood purification. Some use red raspberry leaf to ease painful periods, morning sickness associated with pregnancy, heavy periods, and in preventing miscarriage, as well as to ease labor and delivery. Similar to its ancient use, a strong raspberry leaf tea or tincture will soothe sunburn, eczema, and skin rashes when used externally. Swishing with a tincture or infusion of raspberry leaf is thought to relieve sore throats and the gums, and can help alleviate the symptoms of gingivitis or gum disease. In Europe, small quantities of red raspberry leaf are a source of natural flavoring in food preparation.

The website Practical Herbalist states that “Raspberry is one of the few herbs that must be processed from dry leaves. Fresh leaves contain a substance that causes stomach upset as they wilt. Making a tincture from raspberry leaves is simple. The easiest way to process this tincture is to add dried raspberry leaves to brandy.” The tincture should be shaken regularly for a few months and then strained.

For more information on raspberries and some recipes too, please see The Herb Society of America’s January Herb of the Month web page on Brambles.

Below are websites with more information about raspberries:


Pat Greathead is a very active Life Member of The Herb Society of America and the Wisconsin Unit. She gardens in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


Herb Society of America Medical Disclaimer … It is the policy of The Herb Society of America 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 medical or health treatment.

Herbalist Hildegard of Bingen

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Unit

Once upon a time, about 1098 to 1179, there was a little girl named Hildegard. She was the tenth of ten children. Her parents were “minor nobility,” but ten kids are a lot of kids. When she was eight years old, Hildegard’s parents gifted her to a convent.

Later, when she wrote her autobiography, she would say that she had started having visions from the time she was six. In these visions, Hildegard witnessed “the fiery life of divine essence,” a living light. This light spoke to Hildegard (in Latin) and explained…everything. Some modern commentators speculate that Hildegard might have suffered from migraines. The visions tended to leave her drained and exhausted.

The care and education of little Hildegard was entrusted to a remarkable woman named Jutta. They lived together in a cottage on the grounds of the Abbey of Saint Disibode, founded by an Irish monk at Disibodenberg. Hildegard became a literate and accomplished woman, took vows as a nun, and continued to have visions. She wrote her first book, Scivias, which means “Know the Ways”, between 1141 and 1151, in which she talked about her visions. She herself painted the image that became the front of the book and portrayed her repeated vision of receiving light. This is the image. She’s writing down things on a wax tablet, discussing things with her secretary. (My children claim the image reminds them of various sci-fi alien visitations.)

Hildegard's visions

The book was a great success. The Bishop of Mainz, (now in Germany), read it, and passed it on to Pope Eugenius III, who became a fan. The literal “enlightenment” that Hildegard received from her visions was examined by the Pope and a special committee. They concluded that her visions were divine. The Pope told her to go on and write whatever the Spirit told her to write. Can you imagine what a big deal that was?

The book was a big hit with women who wanted to join Hildegard, in her rather austere monastic life. The community of women at Disodenberg outgrew its quarters. So she moved to Rupertsberg, near Bingen. Although she traveled widely, she lived mostly at Bingen for the rest of her life, writing other books…and a play…and music. Hildegard wrote about everything. Theology, natural science and medicine were, for her, all part of the same spectrum of knowledge. Just for fun, she made up her own language. She corresponded with four popes and the crowned heads of Europe, giving them personal advice.

This was, as her painting suggests, a woman on fire.

Hildegard’s book, Physica, or Liber Simplicis Medicinae, begins with the study of plants. She goes on, in her delightfully methodical way, to discuss elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals. But the section on plants contains entries on more than two hundred plants with medicinal uses. Mostly these were plants that could probably be found in the monastery garden or the nearby woods and fields. Some were exotic but could be purchased. This was, after all, the time of the Crusades. People were traveling, and when they got back from all that bloodletting, they brought back cosmopolitan tastes.

Hildegard organized her observations about each plant in accordance with the understanding of the time: the division of all matter into combinations of the four elements of hot, cold, wet, and dry. It was all a matter of balance. This understanding of the universe sounds strange to modern ears. But Hildegard was a renaissance woman before the Renaissance. She may have made up her own language, but she expressed her understanding of plants in the language of the time.

Hildegard, while aware of the hand of God in all things, was essentially a pragmatist. All things were created by God to serve man. Good plants nourish, and restore elemental balance. Bad plants may be used by the devil to bring ruin to those foolish enough to be deceived by them.

Here are some of Hildegard’s thoughts – from Physica — about herbs you may have in your herb garden or pantry right now:

  • LAVENDER (Lavendula) is warm and dry since it has just a little moisture. It is not worth a person to eat it, but it does have a strong smell. If a person has many lice, let the person smell lavender frequently; the lice will die. And its smell clears the eyes since it contains the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the bitterest one. Therefore, it constrains many evil things, and evil spirits are driven out by it.
  •  NUTMEG (Nux muscata) has great warmth and good temperament in its strength. If a person eats nutmeg, it opens the heart and purifies the senses and brings a good disposition. Take some nutmeg, an equal weight of cinnamon, and a little cloves. Grind these to a powder, add a similar amount of whole wheat flour and a little water, and make a paste from this. Then eat it often. It will calm all the bitterness of heart and mind, open the heart and clouded senses and diminish all the noxious humors; it will contribute good liquid to the blood and make one strong.
  •  ROSE (Rosa) is cold and this same coldness has a useful temperament in it. At daybreak of in the morning, take a rose leaf and place it over your eye; this draws out the humor and makes it clear. Let whoever has a weeping ulcer on his or her body, place a rose leaf over it and draw out the pus. But rose also strengthens any potion or ointment or other medication when it is added to it. And these are so much better if only a little rose has been added to them. This is from the good strength of the rose, as previously mentioned.

Cloves will help a stuffy nose, gout, and dropsy. Hellebore is good for a fever. Wild thyme is curative for those suffering from “a sick brain.” And there are a lot of things that will foster sexual desire, with or without a corresponding increase in fertility.

This is a very small sample. For more, see Bruce W. Hozesli’s translation in Hildegard’s Healing Plants (2001). It’s terrific fun.

Hildegard was obviously a woman of substantial importance in her own time. A Jesuit friend of mine says she used to terrorize her local bishops. I love that. While the process of recognizing her as a saint of the Roman Catholic church began with her beatification in 1326, Hildegard wasn’t canonized until 2012, when she became a Doctor of the Church. Hildegard’s influence was there, quietly waiting for the world to catch up with her. It’s time to share, with delight, her extraordinary divine alchemy.

Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine Teaches Online

Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine Teaches Online

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

herbs for medicineWith July 4th passed, the next big calendar date is “Back to School.” When the kids return to their studies you can, too. Make your studies about medicinal  herbs.

Consider the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school with a home base in the botanically rich Appalachian Mountains just outside Asheville, NC. The school offers several opportunities to learn online, including the Herbal Medicine Making Course and the Herbal Immersion Program.

“We believe that direct connection with healing plants is the best way to learn about their medicine, and so we’ve infused our programs with a plant-centered approach to herbal medicine,” says owner and teacher Juliet Blankespoor, who has a degree in botany and a life of experience.

“One of the perks of our online format is the community support from herb lovers from around the globe. Our students range from total beginners to seasoned herbalists with established gardens and businesses. We welcome anyone who wants to learn more about growing or preparing medicinal herbs.”

Juliet-Blankespoor-in-her-gardenJuliet has had a connection to the earth since childhood.  “As a child I was a geeky introvert and bookworm,” she says. “I loved to dance and spend time alone in the woods.

“When I was eighteen I became involved with environmental activism and my vision started to turn toward the natural world. Somehow, almost overnight, I became infatuated with plants and have been involved in a love affair with the green world ever since. I wanted to know who every plant around me was.”

It only made sense to formally study plants, which Juliet did at the University of Florida. “I absorbed all I could about our local flora from my professors. In school, I would learn how to identify a plant, recognize it as a medicinal,” she recalls, “and then rush home to read about its herbal uses from one of the few books I owned on the subject.”

plantingAfter graduating Juliet founded and formulated a tincture line, Green Faith Herbals. She spent her twenties growing and wildcrafting medicine for her tincture business. At the same time she furthered her herbal studies.

In 2007, settled in the southern Appalachians, she started the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine and began teaching from home. After time, Juliet decided that she’s “a raging introvert” and moved the school online.

The virtual format offers more flexibility to students and her staff of highly experienced instructors. Studies can begin any time. The Herbal Medicine Making Course is a six-month program, while Herbal Immersion Program—which focuses on growing medicinal herbs—is completed in two and a half years.

“My mission with the school is to encourage more people to grow herbs and enjoy their medicinal and culinary bounty,” says Juliet, who uses herbal medicine as her family’s primary form of health care. “We also go to the doctor when needed but for the most part, we address everyday ailments at home.”

HSA (2)“We use herbs for preventative medicine. For example, we eat raw garlic daily to help ward off colds and to reduce the chance of cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

She also drinks a homemade tea blend of green tea, hibiscus, and calendula to support the immune system and to provide plenty of antioxidant compounds (which reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, and inflammation, in general).

“We make herbal pestos from lemon balm, holy basil, and bee balm and use just about every kind of culinary herb (homegrown, of course) in our daily cooking,” says Juliet.

For more information, visit The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine.


Medicinal Disclaimer – 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.

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