Wines from the Gardens and Fields of Scotland

By Catherine MacLennan

(This article was originally published in The Herb Society of America’s annual journal, The Herbarist, 41(1975): 37-40. Almost 50 years later, Mrs. MacLennan’s narrative still evokes vivid images of foraging for edible plant material on her family’s property in Scotland.)

West Highlands ScotlandVisitors to the West Highlands admire so much our woods and mountains, especially when the heather spreads its bright purple mantle of flowers, but how many ever stop to think of the numerous delicious wines which can be made from our shrubs and trees, their flowers, their berries and leaves.

Somewhere beside every West Highland croft or farmhouse in olden times, there grew—and may still be found growing—the Elder tree, called in Lowland Scots the Boor tree. Another name given to it—‘Buttery wood tree’—always causes argument. Some writers maintain it refers to the soft white inner pith of the young wood, others that it springs from one of its many uses.

On farms and crofts there used always to be a small stone-built dairy or milk house, where milk was set in flat pans and where cream was kept for churning. During summer small branchlets of Elder wood were kept in the dairy, as these banished flies and kept milk and cream fresh and sweet. Hence ‘Buttery wood.’

Whatever the name, the Elderflower produces one of the best of our home-made wines, light pale gold or goldy green, the home-made wine most nearly resembling Champagne. The Elder berries also make a delicious wine resembling Port when properly matured. Both these wines are health giving; an excellent stimulant at all times. The Elder flower buds were also used as a pickle to be served with cold meats.

Gooseberry Jelly flavoured with Elderflowers is a delicious preserve. Put a fully open spray of Elderflowers in a muslin bag and add the bag to the jelly during the final five minutes of cooking. Beauty aids, creams, toilet water and salves were all made from Elderflowers. As well as beautifying, it freshened and rejuvenated even the most dull and tired skin.

Another very common tree flowering in early summer is the Hawthorn or Mayflower. Its creamy blossoms are very fragrant and scent the air around it. The wine made from these blossoms is light, pleasant and has a delicate vanilla bouquet. A flavouring essence may also be made with Hawthorn blossom by using one pound of flowers to three pounds of powdered sugar. Layers of blossom with layers of sugar alternately are placed in a stone jar until all is used. Cover the jar closely and put in a cool cellar. (West Highland people with no suitable cellar used to find the milk house ideal.) Leave for full 24 hours, then remove to where the sun shines hot on the jar. After 48 hours strain this delicious essence into a bottle and stopper carefully.

Later, the Hawthorn berries make what I consider a wine even more exotic, when well matured, than that from the blossoms. It has a most unusual bouquet, smooth, rich and mellow.

Gorse flowersA shrub, usually thought of as a weed, which grows in the West Highlands by roadsides, hillside and lochside, and never seems to be out of flower, is the Gorse, Furze or Whin. It is so prickly that no animal will eat it, but its golden yellow flowers make a rich, rather heavy-bodied wine which is also very intoxicating. It must be given at least a year to mature and is worth waiting for. Its flavour is most unusual, a hint of almond with a touch of scent of the flowers.

Of all the wines I have made—and there are few which I have not made—Birch wine was always my favourite as regards making. Not my favourite wine, Elderflower is that, but I loved tapping the Birch trees to draw off the sap, searching the moss wood on a warm spring day for the most suitable tree, and making sure it was not a tree which already had been tapped the previous year or the year before that.

Betula pendula (silver birch) barkIt was like stepping back in time one century. Birch wine was a favourite wine of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and throughout the years of her long reign large quantities had to be made at Balmoral every year. The time for tapping the Birch trees is when the leaf buds are swollen ready to open, usually early March. Having decided on the trees, you then get pieces of young Elder wood about four inches long, and scrape out the soft white pithy core leaving a hollow tube. Next take a brace with a bit, and bore a hole in the trunk of the Birch tree 18 inches from the ground, to allow the hollow posset of Elder wood to fit in firmly. When boring the Birch tree, as soon as the clear sap shows, stop, fit the posset and fix a clean, dry, sterilized bottle under the posset. The sap runs freely into the bottle, and whenever the bottle is full it must be securely corked. As many trees as possible should be tapped each day to give at least one gallon of sap, which is the best quantity to make at a time. The sap is clear and sparkling. If any hint of colour shows in the sap drawn off, discard it. One thing to remember, if the leaf buds have opened do not tap the tree; the sap will be slow to run as well as unsuitable for wine. It is certainly fascinating and challenging, waiting for just the right moment. When the possets are removed from the Birch trees, carefully fill up the holes with pieces of wood or resin and seal over with any form of wax to exclude all airborne diseases.

Tapping birch treeThe wine is made by boiling one gallon of sap with three and a half pounds of best sugar and the rind and juice of two lemons for about one hour. Strain into a jug or basin large enough to hold this quantity. When tepid add yeast, leave covered for four days, when the ferment will have caused a heavy scum to rise which must be carefully removed. Strain into a storage jar fitted with fermentation trap. In a month to six weeks the wine will have cleared. Decant into another storage jar and leave for one year. It is the home-made wine most nearly like Vodka and was a favourite in Scandinavian countries and Russia.

Then there is the Mountain Ash or Rowan Berry wine. Strip the berries from the stalks when fully ripe and brilliant scarlet, but not over ripe. To each gallon of berries add one gallon of boiling water, cover and allow to stand four days. Then strain, add the yeast and three and a half pounds of sugar to each gallon of liquor. Cover closely, leave to ferment for 16 days, then skim and strain into a storage jar with fermentation trap. When clear and working has finished, bottle and keep nine months to a year.

Rowan berriesI have not given quantity of yeast as there are different yeasts available specially for wine makers. In all the very old recipes which stated “spread one ounce of yeast on a slice of toast and add to the liquor,” I found this always far too much and used only a small teaspoonful to a gallon.

These are only some of the wines which our countryside provides. There are also the wines from our gardens, Rose Petal wine and liqueur, both delicious and health giving and used in days gone by to ‘reduce fevers’ in very ill people.

From the kitchen garden, there is Parsley wine. When well made and fully mature this is a light, rich sparkling wine with no hint of Parsley flavour but with an almost exotic flavour of mingled almonds and Curly parsley leavesvanilla. A glass of it sipped at bedtime was believed to induce natural health-giving sleep.

The humble potato with barley produced a wine which was more like whisky. Excellent for coughs and colds.

Beetroot wine is always popular, and was said to be a sure cure for anaemia. Unfortunately its very ease of making and clearing is its undoing; it looks so clear and sparkling it is used too soon. Beetroot wine carefully made and kept for one and half years is an excellent table wine, tasting of anything but beetroot; instead it is a very pleasant smooth red wine.

The list is endless. I have had a lifetime’s experience of all sorts of wine making. One year, we had a splendid crop of peas and I made quite a lot of Pea Pod wine; it was excellent. Two years later I used it as the basis for a mint liqueur and now, six years from making the Pea Pod wine, I still have a small bottle of Mint Liqueur for very special friends only.

One more special brew is Heather wine; in spite of the work involved picking the tiny flowers—no green or stalk must be used—the result is a wine which makes one really believe the Fairies first discovered Heather wine.

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) West Highlands, Scotland (scotlandsgreattrails.com); 2 & 3) Elder flowers and berries (Sambucus nigra) (Dr. Peter Llewellyn); 4) Hawthorn flowers (Crataegus monogyna) (Wikimedia Commons, Jamain); 5) Hawthorn fruit (Crataegus monogyna) (Creative Commons, H. Zell); 6) Gorse flowers (Ulex sp.) (Creative Commons, John Haslam); 7) Silver birch tree (Betula pendula) (Creative Commons, Arthur Chapman); 8) Birch tree tapping (Creative Commons, Jelle); 9) Rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) (Creative Commons, Dave_S.); 10) Curly parsley leaves (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) (C. Moore); 11) Pea pod (Creative Commons, Maria Keays); 12) Heather flowers (Calluna vulgaris) (Creative Commons, foxypar4).


Catherine MacLennan (d. 1975) was from Tomuaine, Port Appin, Argyll, Scotland. She had “a remarkable store of information about flowers, birds and beasts, the history and legends of Appin, and much else. Her extremely modest and retiring nature disguised a penetrating mind and a retentive memory…. She came of farming stock…. Her green fingers and knowledge of garden plants turned a small piece of garden ground into a treasury of beautiful and rare plants.” (From The Oban Times, by Dawn MacLeod)

Love and Gardening on St. Valentine’s Day

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

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

                                                My heart is forever in Giverny. “

                                                                                                         – Claude Monet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until that trip to Giverny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much like we all do.

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

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

You will need:

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

2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon

2 Tablespoons of really good cocoa powder

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

2 Tablespoons of ground cardamom

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of ground Chinese five spice

3/4 teaspoon of ground allspice

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Herbal Superhero: A Tribute to Steven Foster

Photographer, Author, Mentor, Friend

By Chrissy Moore

Steven Foster on hike in the woods wearing Rosemary Gladstar's beretIf you’ve spent time in the herb world, you’ve likely come across the name Steven Foster, one of the greatest luminaries of and advocates for herbs in our generation. Sadly, Steven passed away earlier this month. He touched many lives and influenced thousands more with his writing, his impeccable photographs, and his expert knowledge of herbs. If you haven’t “met” Steven yet, we hope that these remembrances will inspire you to learn more about him and his many personal, artistic, and academic herbal contributions.

The American Botanical Council’s founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, says of Steven, “[He] was one of the most brilliant people in the entire American and international herb community. The author or co-author of 19 books and hundreds of articles, and a true master of the herbal literature, especially the Eclectic medical literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, Steven was also a renowned photographer of herbs and medicinal plants with an eye for beauty in every leaf and flower who was unparalleled in the global botanical community.

Photo of Steven Foster and Mark Blumenthal“A self-taught botanist, and without any higher education, Steven knew as much or usually more about botany and the history of the literature on herbal medicine than many academics with numerous advanced degrees. His knowledge and memory of the botanical literature was almost photographic, and he had a beautifully eloquent way to explain and communicate his herbal wisdom” recounts Blumenthal (2022).

Mr. Foster was “an author with [more than] 15 herb-related books published (the first when he was 25), an associate editor for HerbalGram and other botanically-oriented publications, a board member, a consultant, and a self proclaimed ‘life-long student of medicinal and aromatic plants’” (Lindner, 2008).

Cover of the Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. DukeFoster co-authored the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants with the late Dr. James Duke (The Green Pharmacy), providing the photography for over 500 herbs within the text. Erin Holden, herbalist, horticulturist, and co-blogmaster of The Herb Society of America’s blog, stated that she “was sorry to hear about Steven Foster’s death. The Peterson Guide he did with Jim Duke was the first plant ID book that really helped me get into plants. As a newbie to plant ID, his photos helped me easily figure out what I was looking at in the woods, and from there, I was able to build a solid foundation before moving on to more detailed field guides. It was a gateway book, and I’m not sure I’d have stayed on the ‘plant path’ if I hadn’t found it.” Thankfully, Erin did stay on the “plant path.” She earned a Master’s in Herbal Medicine and, later, joined the staff of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum. 

Saw palmetto berry harvestTina Marie Wilcox of the Ozark Folk Center shares that, “Steven Foster began mentoring me for my position as head gardener and herbalist for the Ozark Folk Center’s Heritage Herb Garden in Mountain View, Arkansas, in 1986. His book, Herbal Bounty, the Gentle Art of Herb Culture, had been in circulation for two years. The plant kingdom planted me firmly at the feet of the master. Steven’s intellect would have been too intimidating had he not been such a patient and kindred spirit. He explained Latin plant classifications, plant identification, and introduced me to the chemistry of plants.” 

James Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians with Steven Foster's photos showing in the background

James Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians with Steven Foster’s photographs in the background

“Steven Foster lectured for herb events at the Ozark Folk Center many times over the decades, twice with Dr. James A. Duke. For the Heritage Herb Spring Extravaganza in 2009, during the evening concert, as Dr. Duke performed songs from “The Herbalbum” with Ozark Folk Center musicians, Steven’s photographs depicted the herbs on the silver screen behind the musicians. I could not have transcended any higher in those moments. I believe his spirit lives on in his work and in the next realm.”

Cover of HerbalGram Journal with Calendula flowerHolly Shimizu, Director of the US Botanic Garden (Ret.) in Washington, DC, and first curator of the National Herb Garden, recalls, “I got to know Steven in the last several years while serving on the Board of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. I was amazed at Steven’s intelligence, loved his witty sense of humor, and we both shared a passion for plants. I turned to Steven for his opinions, thoughts, and support because I recognized his intuitive wisdom. One can always tell when an herb photograph has been taken by Steven because of its excellence, detail, and extraordinary beauty. His books and articles are beautifully written, accurately researched, and trusted reference material. We once had a conversation about herbals, it turned into a long conversation, because his knowledge and collection of old herb references is absolutely amazing.”

Author, chef, and herb connoisseur, Susan Belsinger, shares the following:

“Over the years, I have been at many herbal events when Steven was there—sometimes he was presenting or getting an award, or we were both presenting—and occasionally we were there for pleasure. As much as we both loved herbs and made them our life’s work, we also loved good food and libations. 

Photo of Susan Belsinger, Rosemary Gladstar, Tina Marie Wilcox, and Steven Foster

Susan Belsinger, Rosemary Gladstar, Tina Marie Wilcox, Steven Foster

However, what I enjoyed most with Steven was heading out into nature with our cameras, botanizing with him was the best! I learned a lot from him about identifying plants and taking photos of botanicals while out on walks—and I took a photography course with him at IHS (International Herb Symposium). He had a brilliant mind and such an artistic eye—I have never seen such exquisite botanical photographs as his. Steven was a thoughtful teacher, and he guided so many of us in so many ways. It didn’t matter if you were a novice or had a number of degrees—he listened and was patient and helpful. And, of course, there was his quirky sense of humor, not to mention that impish grin, and oh, how he made us laugh! 

Steven Foster with a silly hat onSteven Foster was a serious academic and a savvy businessman; he was down-to-earth and had a heart of gold, and he shared his knowledge willingly. He was a man who lived through his senses and knew them intimately; his appreciation and knowledge of herbs and spices led him around the world. His keen eye and awareness of detail in his photography makes him unrivaled in capturing botanical images. He was truly an epicurean and shared his delight in smell and taste and the pleasures of the table. [He had a] big heart—it overflowed with his love and joy for his family and friends—you could see it in his soulful eyes.

Steven Foster and his wife, DonnaThe past few days, I have read countless tributes and memories about Steven—and all of them reveal what a sensitive, creative, and caring man he was. He was a family man—proud of every member of his tribe–and adored Donna and loved his kids and grandkids. Our hearts are broken and the herbal world has been rocked with the loss of Steven. We are thankful to have shared the time that we had with him…. He has left us too soon, though he has given us his herbal legacy in his wonderful books and photographs.”

If you have the opportunity, we encourage you to invite Steven Foster–and his work–into your life. Let him be an herbal mentor and friend to you, if only posthumously. You will be richer for it. Thank you, Steven, for all that you have done for the advancement of herbal knowledge in our world. You will be missed.

Photo Credits: 1) Steven Foster (Susan Belsinger); 2) Steven Foster and Mark Blumenthal (Holly Shimizu); 3) Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants (Public Domain); 4) Harvesting saw palmetto berries (Steven Foster); 5) James A. Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians and Steven Foster’s images showing on the screen (Tina Wilcox); 6) Steven Foster cover photo of HerbalGram (American Botanical Counsel); 7) S. Belsinger, R. Gladstar, T. Wilcox, and S. Foster (S. Belsinger); 8) Steven Foster wearing silly hat (S. Belsinger); 9) Donna and Steven Foster (S. Belsinger).

References

Blumenthal, Mark. 2022. Herbal Medicine Community Mourns the Death of Steven Foster. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/news/press-releases/2022/herbal-medicine-community-mourns-death-of-steven-foster/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.

Lindner, Kelly E. 2008. Meet ABC Board Member Steven Foster: Noted Herbal Expert, Photographer, Author. HerbalGram. Issue 80, pp. 14-15. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/80/table-of-contents/article3321/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.

All other quotations via personal communication. January, 2022.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Thoughts About Wood

By Susan Belsinger

Trees covered in snowI love trees. They are a life-long study for me. When I was a child growing up in red-brick rowhouses in Baltimore, ours was the only postage-stamp backyard on the block with a tree. It was a maple, and the samaras fascinated me. We called them whirligigs or helicopters and threw them up in the air and watched them spiral downwards. Many a kid climbed that tree and somehow, I managed to drag the lid of an old wooden toy box up there and nail it down so I had a tree fort—only two small children were able to sit upon it. 

The property that I have lived on for the past 40 years or so has lots of trees, and I walk in the woods nearly every day, communing with nature and for exercise—it is my daily solace. I tend to walk in the late afternoon, often just before dusk—my favorite time of day. This way, I get to hear the honking of the Canada geese long before I see them and stop to watch them fly over—something I will never tire of. 

Autumn leaves on treesOur woods are mostly Northeastern deciduous trees that slope down to the Cattail River. Down along the river’s edge there are a lot of shaggy-barked river birch, also some really big sycamores. There are quite a few types of large old oaks, as well as hickory and maple trees, with locust and cherry amongst them and sassafras and Osage orange along the wood’s edge. The understory consists of a healthy population of spicebush, with wild rose, honeysuckle, brambles, occasional viburnum, dogwood, and holly. 

I mostly walk the deer trails, and I sometimes take my pruners with me to whack back woody growth and brambles that encroach the path. The adjoining neighbor’s farm has many horse trails, so there are different options for my daily woods walk. Heading back uphill from any direction, I pass through or by the garden where there is a large stand of bamboo, where our songbirds spend the night. As the sun sets, they flit about and flock to this multi-complex to roost, and I take great delight in the cacophony of evensong.

Wood stove with logsAlthough I grew up as a city kid, I’ve been a country gal for a long while. In order to build this house, the woods needed to be cleared to make a place for it. It is a passive solar house, however the woodstove is the main source of heat. In the winter, it is a 24/7 job; it seems that wood chores are never-ending.

“Miraculous powers and marvelous activitiesdrawing water and hewing wood

—P’ang Yun, Buddhist monk, 9th century

Fortunately, we have quite a bit of woods and often use downed trees that are easy to get to. Sometimes we cut down old or dead wood or trees that just need removing. Though they are necessary tools, I personally don’t use a chainsaw—I wait until that part of hewing wood is complete, and then I’m in for the long haul. There is the picking up of the cut logs and loading them into the wheelbarrow and wheeling them to the woodpile, if they need to age, or to the back porch, if they are dry enough to burn. There are many locations where it is not possible to use the wheelbarrow, and each log has to be carried out to a clearing. There is time during all of this back-and-forthing to enjoy the woods; resting and reflecting between trips, I find it can be meditative. 

Large pile of split woodSince the ancient tractor is not running, we’ve got an old beat-up jeep that has become the farm wagon. With the seats folded down, it can hold a surprising amount of wood. Three rows from floor to ceiling is over half a cord of wood. That’s how we measure wood here, in Maryland, and states north of here. Down South, they deal with firewood in ricks. 

Apparently, a rick of firewood is not a consistent measurement, and it varies from place to place—so one does not know exactly how much firewood they are actually getting, according to the website Firewood-For-Life (https://www.firewood-for-life.com/rick-of-firewood.html). They state: “The length of the logs dictates how much wood you get. Generally speaking, if the logs are cut 16 inches long and are stacked 4 feet high by 8 feet long, a rick will be 1/3 of a cord. If these same logs were cut 24 inches long, the rick would equal 1/2 cord.”

Wheelbarrow full of split woodRegardless of measurement, once the logs are cut into stove-size lengths and then split, they have to be picked up and put in the jeep, tractor wagon, wheelbarrow, whatever, to transport them to where they will be stacked. I can no longer push a full wheelbarrow—I can only fill it about halfway. (It is good to know one’s limitations, and I have become thoughtful about this. I like it when the strong, young adults are available to help with this task.)

Recently, I tried to move an overfull wheelbarrow, which was on an incline—I knew it was going to topple over—and so I let go just as it happened; however, I was still moving with the momentum, and so down I went. Coincidentally, just the night before, I was reading a section in Twyla Tharp’s book, Keep it Moving, and she was discussing the best way to fall: don’t fight it—don’t try to stop it by putting out your hand—just go with it. And that is exactly what I did. Fortunately, I had on many layers of clothing, so when I landed on the leaf-covered forest floor, I wasn’t hurt at all. The hardest part was getting up: think turtle on their back + bundled up like the Pillsbury doughboy = LOL. 

What I have learned in my “cronedom” is to be more thoughtful…of my body and my surroundings. When working in the woods, there are all sorts of vines and stumps to trip over (especially when my arms are full) and branches and twigs to poke me, not to mention brambles that grab my clothes, hair, and more than once, have taken off my hat! Being mindful of how to bend—taking the weight in the knees rather than straining the back—gotta’ look out for these poor old aching knees.

Each log has to be handled again to unload them and stack them in the yard or on the porch. The back porch can hold a cord of wood, though it is five steps up and down with each armload of wood. You’d think I’d have abs of steel with all of this bending and lifting…not….I’ve still got a soft Botticelli belly, most likely due to age, gravity, my penchant for cooking good food, and enjoyment of a cold beer or libation after a hard day of wood-working. 

IMG_9296There is an art to stacking wood. In a freestanding pile, the ends have to be built up in order to hold the wood. They have to be sturdy and not wobbly, and the wood has to be stacked neatly, so the whole pile won’t fall over with a 30-mile an hour wind gust (yes, it has happened). The back porch stacks are ones that can be burned right away, and generally, there is a box or bucket of kindling nearby. All stacks are covered along the top with tarps to keep the rain and snow from soaking them.

Every day, the wood box inside next to the stove needs to be filled—it is big enough to hold enough wood for about a 24-hour period. While most house members use a big canvas log-carrier bag, I tend to carry three or four logs in at a time in my arms. It takes me about ten trips to fill the wood box, whereas it takes the others only three or four trips with a full bag. Slow and steady does the trick. And then there is the stoking of the stove, which is a science in itself. First off, all types of wood burn differently: some are dense, some burn very hot, and some shoot sparks. The dryness or wetness of the wood is another factor. IMG_9446Oftentimes, if I am busy cooking or writing, I don’t think of loading the stove, and it comes close to going out. Then, I have to use smaller pieces of wood to get it going again. So, having an assortment of sizes matters. 

I am the last to go to bed, and so I stoke the stove full and then turn the vents down to just the right place so that the stove will burn all night. I know the place where the vents catch just a bit and know to back off just a half turn—I know it by feel and by the sound—it is finding the sweet spot so that the stove will have hot coals for the first one up in the morning to tend. And then the vents are opened up; the coals are stirred and brought forward; smaller pieces of wood are added and then larger ones; and the house gets toasty. A kettle of water atop the stove gets filled every time the stove gets filled to keep some moisture in the air, since wood stoves are so drying. The bowl of bread dough covered with a damp towel is set to rise on a stool alongside the stove; soup pots are reheated on the stove; and dinner Soaking in a hot tubplates or bowls are placed on top to warm. Guests tend to gravitate toward the stove and stand nearby to soak in the warmth, turning from front to back to warm both sides. Cats and dogs lay so close sometimes, you’d think it would boil their brains! There is nothing like the warmth or smell of a wood stove. 

I am thankful for the trees, that I am able to be outside and hew wood, and keep the home fires burning. And, I am especially grateful at the end of the day to draw a hot bath, adding Epsom salts and fragrant and therapeutic essential oils, to soak my body in after a day of wood work.

Photo Credits: 1) Snow-covered trees (C. Moore); 2) Tree canopy in fall (C. Moore); 3) Wood stove (Angela Magnan); 4) Pile of chopped wood (Susan Belsinger); 5) Wheelbarrow full of chopped wood destined for wood stove (Susan Belsinger); 6) Stacked wood on author’s porch (Susan Belsinger); 7) Author carrying load of wood (Susan Belsinger); 8) Bath tub scene (Creative Commons, swister_p).


thumbnail_IMG_7611Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing, or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist,” Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste, and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of The Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 – 2020). Her latest publication, Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press), co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker, is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

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

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Lamb’s Wool Recipe for Solstice

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

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

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

 


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

One Man’s Road to Herbal Success: An Interview

By Chrissy Moore

IMG_8012I have always been fascinated by people’s life stories, particularly those in the herb world. How did they end up where they did? What circumstances led them down their chosen path? Some people take decades—and numerous career maneuverings—before they settle into their career of choice; others know their life’s calling from an early age. For Bill Varney, owner of URBANherbal in Fredricksburg, TX, his life’s work encompassed all those things and more. I recently asked Bill to give me a glimpse into his world as an herbal enthusiast and business owner and what it takes to succeed. Here’s what he said:

When did you first encounter herbs?

IMG_8007BV: I first discovered plants and gardening when I was very young! When I was eight years old, my parents had a greenhouse built for me, and I would start all kinds of plants from seeds and cuttings. Later as my love for all things green grew, I developed a love of herbs. That was about 1985, when I opened a small herbal apothecary shop and small herbal nursery, Varney’s Chemist Laden.

What is your technical background (education or otherwise)?

BV: I grew up tending to people’s gardens, worked for a number of nurseries, then received a B.S. in Business with a Minor in Horticulture from Oklahoma Panhandle State University. I went there because I had volunteered to help my elderly grandparents who lived in the area. Later, I became a Texas Certified Nurseryman.

Have you always known you wanted to work with plants/herbs?

BV: Yes, I have always had a “green thumb.” I have always been intrigued by plants, their use, their contribution to the world, whether they are reproduced by seed, rooted cuttings, etc. After I finished college and had a one -year agriculture stint in Tasmania, Australia, I returned to Houston, Texas, where my family was living and went to work for a well known nursery as their landscape buyer. Later, I wanted to “get out of the big city” and moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, to manage a local nursery. It was soon after that that I started Varney’s Chemist Laden, which later grew into the Fredricksburg Herb Farm. I sold that operation in 2007 and simplified my life to URBANherbal.

Give me a synopsis of your road to URBANherbal. 

IMG_7988BV: When I owned the Fredricksburg Herb Farm, it was a very high end, labor intensive business with acres of manicured gardens, a day spa, bed and breakfast, two retail stores, a James Beard recognized restaurant, and wholesale operation that sold our products all over the world. Life was kind of crazy for me with “fires” to put out daily! I revamped and started URBANherbal. My son had finished his undergraduate degree and came home to help me for a year to open URBANherbal. A much simpler life: a laboratory, greenhouse, smaller gardens, and art galleries. For the most part, a one-man operation with a little help here and there. I make colognes, aromatherapy products, skin care for both men and women, candles, and gourmet foods. I also do landscape consulting and public speaking.

Can you describe your herb gardening style for those who are unable to visit your establishment in person? 

IMG_8017BV: I always try to build gardens that use as many natives as possible, that attract pollinators, and are drought tolerant. I have studied Frederick Olmstead and Adelma Simmons (and got to visit with her a few times) and, of course, Madalene Hill from here in Texas.

What inspired you to start the apothecary shop segment of your herb garden, and how did that lead to the skin care/fragrance lines and the culinary products?

BV: Well, originally, our first store was an herbal apothecary store, Varney’s Chemist Laden. We sold “old fashioned” scents and skincare from old, reputable companies and finally realized we could do better, and our products ended up selling faster than the ones we were retailing. I ended up hiring an elderly retired founding chemist of a manufacturing skincare company to come for a few months and help formulate. Many of our products got recognized by the media and some received awards. I really enjoy custom making things for clients.

From what do you draw the most inspiration, both in your gardening and in your product development?

BV: I always am inspired daily if I can just bring a bit of happiness to one or two people either through products, plants, or foods through all of our senses. My personal life is inspired through faith, hope and love with friends, family, and anyone I meet.

Urban Herbal Map

Is there a fragrance profile or collection of herbs that you gravitate toward more than others?

20210312_141932

BV: Personally, I love woody scents, citrus scents, masculine scents, lavender, lemon verbena, peppermint, eucalyptus, patchouli, musk, just to name a few. But I am always drawn to white flowers and night blooming flowers, not for myself on my body, but just to smell them and make PRODUCTS WITH THEM.

Which herbs/profiles do you find the most challenging to work with and why?

BV: Sweet woodruff and French tarragon because it is too hot here in Texas to grow them.

Who were your biggest herbal influences (alive or deceased), both in your younger years and as an adult? Do you have any herbal superheroes today that provide you with encouragement along your herbal journey?

BV: Well, as I said previously, I was really inspired by reading about Frederick Olmstead and his visions in landscapes. Walafrid Strabo, who around 840 A.D., wrote a beautiful poem called “Hortulus,” in which he lovingly describes clearing a garden of stinging nettles and preparing IMG_7986the soil to plant sage, southernwood, wormwood, fennel, poppy, clary, mint, pennyroyal, celery, betony, agrimony, tansy, catmint, and radish. Strabo introduces his herbs the way a mother might speak of her children, praising their qualities without neglecting their occasional blemish. In my life, Adelma Simmons, who founded Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut, and Madalene Hill, who founded Hilltop Herb Farm and later built the gardens at Round Top, Texas. In Madalene’s book, Southern Herb Growing, I was really proud that she had a few pictures in the front of her book of my first herb gardens. After her book came out, she came to my place and did a class and book signing. I have always admired Emelie Tolley and all of her books, and she and I have been friends for many years. In my book, Herbs: Growing and Using the Plants of Romance, Emelie wrote the forward. She came many times over the years and did stories on my gardens and business, and I was thrilled to visit her in New York City at her country home in NY. I have also always been inspired by Jeanne Rose. She came years ago and did a class and book signing at my place, and I have visited her in San Francisco. Betsy Williams has always been an inspiration to me. I think that my biggest inspiration is everyday herb gardeners whom URBANherbal gardenwe meet and we can share with. As James Beard, the famous chef, said, “We learn from each other and end up teaching ourselves.” Also, I have always been inspired by Lady Bird Johnson. She came into my store many times over the years and would have me make things for her to give as gifts. Her love of nature and wildflowers has done so much for our island home, Earth.

For 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 URBANherbal?

BV: Yes, having your own business is a huge sacrifice, personally in man hours and struggles. My biggest driving philosophy is: “Touching all of your senses, daily. Hearing, Touching, Seeing, Tasting, Smelling and our Sixth Sense, our Spirit.” I strongly feel that these things are where herbs can really affect our lives in spirit, balance, texture, space, and love.

What brings you the most joy in your herbal day?

BV: Making something that will help someone! Be it a small plant, a cologne, a room freshener, a cream to make someone feel better, or a simple herb vinegar or seasoning that will enhance someone’s food.

Herbs have many stories to tell, from historical uses to modern industries. Do you have a favorite herb story that you find yourself telling over and over again?

BV: I think that hearing people tell me that they can’t handle being around scents. I find that it is because they have been around “commercial scents” that are not good for you, and they are not natural! So many people tell me that they can wear my scents, and they don’t have a negative reaction. Herbs and flowers are nature’s courtesans. They elevate our moods, fragrance the air around us, and so many are edible and medicinal. For instance, rosemary and lavender can be used for fragrance, in foods, and in healing. You should have herbs and flowers around you daily!

Herbs aren’t the first thing people think of when they hear “Texas.” What do you think people are most surprised to learn about herbs or herb growing in your neck of the woods?

Theresa Wylie URBANherbal dinner tableBV: I think that when they find out how easy most herbs are to grow around here and then find out how much they can enhance our lives and they are really surprised! The fact that they attract butterflies, bees, birds, and release beautiful scents in your gardens and in pots, and trigger so many memories through your senses. The air you breathe affects not just your health but also your mood.

I’m not going to ask you your favorite herb, because that is often like picking a favorite child. Instead, what handful of herbs would you recommend every new herbie explore (for various reasons/uses)?

BV: Lavender for scent, Beauty, healing, and flavor.

Rosemary for scent, beauty, healing, and flavor.

Thyme for scent, beauty, healing, and flavor.

Roses for beauty, scent, healing, and flavor.

Rose geraniums for healing, scent, and cooking.

Allium tuberosum2 46966H

Chives for flavor and the beauty of their flowers.

Sage for beauty, scent, flavor, and healing.

Basil for flavor, fragrance, healing, and beauty.

Lemon verbena for fragrance, aromatherapy, scent, beauty, and magnificent flavor for foods and drinks.

These are just a few of my favorite herbs…….

How would you characterize your road to herbal admiration and its impact on your life?

20200507_115313BV: Working with herbs and plants, one gets to know their essence and understand they are not just a commodity. The gardener and herbalist becomes rooted to the ground with them as part of God’s creation. We are trying to be stewards of our environment. It is not an accident that the humus, or the soil, comes from the same word. It’s the base from which everything grows. Gardening and my spiritual life go together. I just can’t imagine a day in my life that I’m not using herbs in some way. I really relate to this simple quote from the designer and architect, Ettore Softass, “basil-flavored architecture,” as a way of expressing the idea of achieving much with little.

Lastly, if you were to give advice to someone embarking on their own herbal “quest,” such as starting a business or a garden, etc., what key elements have you found to be the most important for successful endeavors? 

Theresa Wylie Bill VarneyBV: Make sure you are passionate about what you want to do with herbs! Do everything you can to educate yourself about herbs. Get to know other herb lovers through organizations like The Herb Society of America or garden clubs, or online groups, because that is one of the best ways to learn. Be creative about what you are going to do. Remember, you are going to have to work hard! Have a strategy, write it down. Bounce your ideas off of friends and family. 🌺

Many thanks to Bill Varney for sharing his time and talents regarding his road to herbal success!

Photo credits: 1) Bill Varney in his greenhouse (B. Varney); 2) BV as young horticulturist (B. Varney); 3) Chef Bill (B. Varney); 4) BV with Madalene Hill (B. Varney); 5) Map of Bill’s garden (B. Varney); 6) Calamondin (Citrofortunella microcarpa) fruit and flowers (C. Moore); 7) BV with Adelma Simmons (B. Varney); 8) URBANherbal gardens (Theresa Wylie, Hey,Traveler blog); 9) Herbal salad (B. Varney); 10) Dinner at URBANherbal (Theresa Wylie, Hey, Traveler blog); 11) Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) (C. Moore); 12) Rose blossom (Rosa sp.) and bee (C. Moore); 13) BV in URBANherbal greenhouse (Theresa Wylie, Hey, Traveler blog).

 


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Making More Little Herbalists

By Andrea Jackson

DSC_0161When we love something, it’s impossible not to share it with others, particularly those we care about most. Herbs and children are such a natural combination, it’s easy to draw a child in by offering them a smell or a taste or by telling them a fascinating story about the plant. Then, before you know it, you are making all manner of herbal goodies together.

My granddaughter, Marin, lives about three hours away, but each time she comes to visit, she wants to explore my herb room and I’m thrilled to oblige her. We smell and taste and put things together. Each time she comes, she wants to make a potpourri, and so, has ended up with quite an array in her bedroom. From there, we graduated to making lotions, which she loves to slather on and share with her mom. When she was seven, she wanted to have an herbal birthday party. She invited ten of her friends, and we made rose lavender potpourri and lavender lotion. It was quite hands on for the group, but flower-2510254_1920they all were excited to participate. They loved the way everything smelled, and each little girl went home with a little bottle of lotion and a small bag of potpourri. Now, she is almost a teenager and her interests have waned somewhat, but she still wants to make potpourri each time she comes.

My niece, Gabby, seems to have a natural affinity for plants. From a young age, she was pulling weeds in the parking lots of restaurants. And now, she loves herbs and frequently calls with questions. Her mom grows a wide variety of them, and she sent me a video of Gabby with a necklace of intertwined herbs answering the question, “How can you tell something is in the mint family?” She confidently shouted, “Square stems.” We make jams together whenever we can.

picking-flowers-391610_1920Then along came my granddaughter, Gemma, who not only lives locally but whom I babysit weekly. That provides lots and lots of time for herbal teaching. Since she was eighteen months old, she’s been out in the garden tasting and rubbing leaves and smelling the wonderful scents. On the way to the playground there is a field of weeds, and we always take time to tell their stories. One day my daughter called  to tell me that Gemma was “eating the landscape,” so we instituted the rule never to eat a plant unless I gave it to her.

We plant a tiny container garden each year, which she tends, and she is thrilled when the plants come up and she has something new to taste and share. In addition to caring for her garden, she has been making potpourri with me. She is four now and can distinguish between some mints, and she loves lavender.

When she was three, we took a walk and passed a field of plants. Gemma said, “Look at all the burdock.” I can certainly die happy. 

Photo credits: 1) School children visiting the National Herb Garden (Jeanette Proudfoot); 2) Potpourri (Monfocus, Pixabay); 3) Child gathering wildflowers (SMBlake, Pixabay).


Andrea JacksonAndrea Jackson is a member of the Western Pennsylvania Unit of the Herb Society of America. When she lived in Baltimore, she was a founding member of Partners in Thyme. She also belongs to the American Herbalists Guild, and the American Botanical Council. Herbs aside, Andrea is a registered nurse and a Master Gardener and lectures extensively to groups ranging from professional organizations to garden clubs. Her particular interests lie in the medicinal uses of herbs, herbal lore, and weeds, which she considers to be the first herbs. When she is not spreading the herbal gospel, she is tucked away in her herb room formulating various concoctions.

Some Things Get Better with Age

By Chrissy Moore

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The early days of the National Herb Garden

As a young intern in the National Herb Garden in Washington, DC, I had no idea the impact that this garden–the largest designed herb garden in the United States–would have on my life. The garden captivated me then, and it still does today.

The Herb Society of America (HSA) member, Mrs. Betty Crisp Rea, championed the idea of bringing a garden dedicated specifically to herbs to a national audience. It was to be an outdoor classroom for all things herbal.

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Dr. John Creech (National Arboretum Director), Betty Rea (HSA), Hon. Robert Bergland (USDA Secretary), Eleanor Gambee (HSA), Rubert Cutler

She, along with many other HSA members, worked tirelessly to bring the idea to fruition. Partnering with the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. National Arboretum meant that that idea–that dream–would come true.

The National Herb Garden (NHG) first opened to the public on June 12, 1980. Though barely a garden then (all of the herbaceous and woody plants were newly installed, of course), the bones of what would someday be a marvelous display of useful plants could clearly be seen in the thoughtful design of landscape architect Tom Wirth of Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts.

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Holly Shimizu, NHG’s first curator, and Tom Wirth, landscape architect

But, what are herbs, exactly, and why do we need a 2 1/2 – acre garden of them? In the National Herb Garden, an herb  is any plant that enhances people’s lives, including those used for medicine, dyes, flavoring of food, beverages, historical uses, etc. (1).  The HSA members’ goal in developing this garden was to interpret that intensely strong relationship between people and the plants they use and to be an educational resource for those longing to learn more about this amazing group of plants.

Quoting from the NHG’s opening-day program:

Migrating people, across time, have carefully carried along their herbal plants and seeds, which they valued for medicinal, savory, aromatic, or economic qualities.

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The National Herb Garden in Fall

And we still value them today for these qualities: We may take horehound drops to soothe our coughs, polish our furniture with marjoram and lavender oils, sip mint juleps or rosehip tea, and season the simplest or most elegant dishes with basil or tarragon.

Thousands of herbs could be planted in the National Herb Garden. Those you see here have been selected to demonstrate the significance of plants in human life (2).

As stated above, the palette of plants available for display in the garden is astounding: plants from all over the world, from many different cultures, and from many different times. “Knowledge of herb uses is constantly increasing, and the plantings will be changed to reflect these uses. Gardens also change as plants flourish or perish, so the Herb Garden can never be static” (2).

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The Rose Garden in the National Herb Garden

It is this idea that keeps the garden interesting and relevant, no matter the era or the time of year. It is why I have dedicated my career to supporting, promoting, and maintaining the National Herb Garden (with a lot of help from many others) for all the world to experience. It is my hope that the garden remains the national–no, the international–treasure that it is for decades to come. Join me in celebrating your National Herb Garden’s 40th Anniversary!

 

 

 

1  The National Herb Garden—the largest designed herb garden in the United States—showcases plants that enhance people’s lives as flavorings, fragrances, medicines, coloring agents, and additives in industrial products. The garden exhibits these herbal plants from places and cultures around the world in theme gardens, single-genus collections, and seasonal displays for education, research, and aesthetic enjoyment.

2  Full text of “The National Herb Garden at the US National Arboretum”


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.

Plants Go To War – A Book Review

By Maryann Readal

To quote author Judith Sumner in the preface to her new book, Plants Go to War: A Botanical Plants go to war coverHistory of World War II, “The war could not have been won without rubber, but the same might be said about wheat, cotton, lumber, quinine, and penicillin, all with botanical origins.” In her book, Sumner documents many of the plants that were critical to World War II efforts on all sides of the battlefield. Indeed, her research is exhaustive in that she covers not only the military uses of plants but also civilian uses as well by the major countries involved in the war.

As the war disrupted supplies of plants needed for medicine, food, and manufacturing, governments had to look for alternatives. Some were successful in growing tropical plants and food crops on their own soil; some began to look for chemical alternatives. A chemical synthesis of quinine to fight malaria was one of those discovered alternatives.

Sumner reveals that adequate nutrition was a monumental consideration for governments. Not only troop nutrition, but also civilian nutrition, as it was important that good physical and mental health of all people was critical to support the war effort. Victory gardens were born then, with many people growing their own fruits and vegetables so that soldiers would have enough to eat. In Great Britain, people were encouraged to grow vegetables even in bombed-out craters. Schoolchildren would go on farming vacations in order to grow and harvest crops due to victory-gardens-for-family-and-country-these-victory-gardeners-are-transferring-1024the shortage of men to do the farming. In Germany, the Lebensraum idea was the impetus behind Hitler’s attempt to secure more land for German farmers to grow German native plants for food and other purposes.

In reading Judith’s book, I got a glimpse into the incredible foresight and organization governments need to conduct a war on the battlefield, while simultaneously sustaining the home front. Reading the book also enabled me to better understand some of my parents’ attitudes about food and thrift that carried over into everyday life, even when the war was over.

To those of us who are involved with the collection and spreading of plant, and particularly herb, knowledge, this book demonstrates how important that work is. For as Ms. Sumner says in her book, “practical information about how plants could be used for survival came from botanical gardens, herbaria, and notes archived in botanical libraries.”

Sumner says that her “goal was to write an encyclopedic synthesis of civilian and military plant uses and botanical connections as they relate to World War II.” I believe she has accomplished this goal with her authoritative and informative book. I am sure that it is destined to be a classic source on this topic. Her book is a reminder of how important plants and plant knowledge, collected during peace time, can be in a world crisis.


JUDITH SUMNER is a botanist and author with particular interest in the historical uses of plants. She is a frequent lecturer for audiences of all kinds and has taught for many years at colleges and botanical gardens. She lives in Worcester, MA. Judith received The Herb Society of America’s Gertrude Foster writing award in 2007.

Plants Go To War: A Botanical History of World War II by Judith Sumner. Publisher: McFarland. McFarlandBooks.com


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.

 

Love and bayberry

When I was young, my mother would put branches of bayberry in a pewter teapot. She received the twigs each year from a friend who had bayberry (Myrica) bushes around her yard. My mother would put the pewter teapot with its silver berries on the mantle next to the clock. When I saw the arrangement I knew that Thanksgiving was coming. We would soon be celebrating with cousins, aunts, uncles, and of course grandparents. During this stage of my life, the sight of bayberry evoked thoughts of friendship and family.WP_20140529_014

Later, when I was in graduate school at Rutgers University, I began a research project examining the soil arthropods under bayberry bushes. I went to a field every other week to take samples of the soil. It was hot, itchy, sweaty, and dirty work. I had to watch out for spiders and ticks—and anything else that might be lurking. But I was happy. I was following my dream.

One day when I was struggling under the canopy of beautifully scented leaves I heard a familiar voice. My long-time friend, Bill, had ridden his bicycle to the field with ice cold root beers for us to enjoy. He parked the bike and himself under the sassafras tree adjacent to the bayberry thicket and handed me the refreshment. While I drank, he asked me to marry him! Most men choose a romantic spot or setting. They try to make everything perfect. Bill, in his usual understated and reassuring way, decided to demonstrate that he wanted me, all of me, just the way I was. Sweat, dirt, ticks, and all! At that point bayberry came to represent acceptance, support, never-ending loyalty, and, most of all, love. My old plant friend had taken on a new meaning for me.

We married and moved to Cleveland Heights, OH. There the bayberry hedge around the garden of the Western Reserve Unit of the Herb Society of America gives me a quiet pleasure as I help tend the garden.WP_20140529_008

This year Bill and I celebrate our thirty fifth anniversary. We are planting bayberry bushes to make our own hedge around a new patio that is just big enough for two. Fifteen years from now the hedge will be large enough to shade us on our fiftieth anniversary, while I tell him how very glad I am that he came to visit me in the field all those years ago!WP_20140529_016

submitted by Priscilla Jones, Western Reserve Unit, Great Lakes District