Backyard Butterfly Weed

By Kaila Blevins

Butterfly weed flowersI, like many other people preparing for the COVID-19 lockdown, frequented my local garden center to purchase vegetable seeds and buy plants for the different backyard projects intended to keep myself occupied as the weather warmed. One of the projects that I tasked myself with involved creating a pollinator garden in a wonky, pain-in-the-butt-to-mow patch of grass in my backyard. While walking through the garden center’s aisles, looking for plants to complement the coneflowers (Echinacea) and bee balm (Monarda) I had already placed in my cart, I came across butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Originally, I was drawn to the numerous orange flowers that would bloom from mid-summer through the fall that would potentially allow me to see a variety of butterflies, moths, and maybe even a hummingbird, when I peer out of the kitchen window while washing dishes. But, once I got home, I researched butterfly weed’s uses outside of being pollinator friendly. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several Native American tribes in the eastern and southwestern portions of the United States used butterfly weed medicinally.

Butterfly weedBased on the historical texts I read, the seeds and roots of butterfly weed were used in numerous treatments. The seeds harvested from the ripened pods were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. However, most of the different tribes primarily used the roots, which were applied externally to tighten the skin or smashed to create a paste to treat bruises, cuts, sores, and bites. In addition to topical use, the roots were ingested or steeped to create beverages. Raw roots were consumed to treat pulmonary and respiratory issues; dried roots were administered to treat chest pains as well. Drinks were given to women after childbirth to ease the pain and bring comfort to the new mothers. Lastly, individuals believed that rubbing their legs and running shoes with butterfly weed would enhance their running capabilities.

Butterfly weedSince planting the garden back in May, it has been a delight watching the different insects interact with the butterfly weed, but it was also fun learning how people used it in ways other than just adding pops of orange to their garden. For more information on other native herbs and native herb gardening, check out The Herb Society of America’s Notable NativeTM and GreenBridgesTM web pages.

 

Photo Credits: 1) Butterfly weed flowers; 2) Butterfly weed developing seedpod; 3) Butterfly weed in author’s garden. All photos courtesy of the author.

Sources

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary: Timber Press, 2009.

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.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_nKaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.

Spicebush to the Rescue

Spicebush to the Rescue

By Kaila Blevins

Author Volunteer TripWhile on a volunteer trip in Orlando, Florida, I was desperate for bug spray. In the middle of December, the mosquitoes nibbled on any exposed skin they could find, leaving me and the rest of the unprepared Maryland native participants with patches of red swollen bumps on our ankles and arms. Our guides, a retired couple who volunteers with the state parks, became our heroes on the second day of the trip. During our lunch break, the husband saunters over to us, carrying a branch from a nearby shrub and states, “This is spicebush. Crush its leaves and rub it onto your arms. Keeps the bugs away and helps the itch.” Immediately, we passed the branch around, ripped the leaves off the branch, crumpled them, and rubbed the lemon-peppery scented oil onto our skin.

A couple years later, I would learn that spicebush (Lindera benzoin) has a multitude of uses. The fragrant multi-stemmed shrub is native to the margins of wetlands and along woodland streams in the Eastern United States. It can grow close to 10 feet tall, and in spicebush flowersApril, yellow flowers begin to appear on the branches. By the end of the summer, the flowers are replaced by cherry red fruits. Spicebush is integral to the native ecosystems, as it serves as the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and birds are known to snack on the seeds. However, Native Americans and early settlers relied on spicebush’s herbal properties.

Native Americans would brew tea with the bark, twigs, leaves, and berries. When ingested, the tea would induce sweating. The increased perspiration would help fight off fevers and ease body aches. In addition, ingestion would assist with removing intestinal parasites. The tea could be applied topically as well. Compresses soaked in spicebush tea would be applied to the skin to ease the pain from arthritis, rashes, bruises, and itching. Once settlers arrived in the new world, they sought help from the Native Americans.

The settlers did not know much about the peculiar plants growing in North America, so Native Americans taught them the herbal benefits of the native plants. Lindera benzoin fruitSettlers used spicebush for similar ailments as well as typhoid fever. They also used the plant in culinary dishes. The dried seeds and bark became milder substitutes for allspice and cinnamon, respectively. Beyond its herbal uses, settlers used the presence of spicebush as an indicator for rich soil that could be converted into agricultural land.

Spicebush’s herbal properties may get overlooked by its ecological importance or showy yellow leaves in fall, but it was a staple for Native Americans, early settlers, and my volunteer trip. For more information on spicebush, check out HSA’s Essential Fact Sheet.

 

Photo Credits (from top): Author on field trip; spicebush flowers (courtesy E. Holden); spicebush fruit (courtesy E. Holden)

References

Keiffer, Betsy. “Lindera Benzoin.” Cultivation Notess, Sept. 1998, riwps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Lindera_benzoin.pdf.

“Lindera Benzoin.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=LIBE3.

“Lindera Benzoin.” North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lindera-benzoin/.

Nesom, Guy. “Spicebush.” Plant Guide, USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center & the Biota of North America Program , 2003, plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_libe3.pdf.

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.


57348119_2256114837761256_4232634512942563328_n

Kaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. This fall, she will pursue a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. She hopes to expand her knowledge of plants, and how they benefit human health and life. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets. Kaila also likes to stay active in the community through volunteering.

Safe Passage for Plants & Pollinators: Building GreenBridges™

By Debbie Boutelier, HSA Past President & GreenBridgesTM Chair

It’s summer and the living is easy for our pollinators. There is an abundance of blooming plants from which to choose. A little here, a little there, moving pollen around from plant to plant and increasing the abundance. It’s glorious now, but come later in the year, it will not be as easy. Our little miracle workers will be struggling to get enough to eat.  I’m also reminded as I watch these miracle workers in action that all of this is threatened, and without our help a lot of the abundance may disappear forever. 

What can we do to ensure that these summer miracles continue? We can construct GreenBridgesTM that will provide places of respite and offer safe passage for our native plants and our pollinators. The Herb Society of America offers a program to do just that. Get involved in the GreenBridgesTM program to learn best practices for creating a sustainable habitat for our native plants and pollinators, learn to identify and grow native herbs that are unique to your region and will best support your region’s pollinators, and best of all, join a community of environmentally aware herb gardeners. 

Learn more about GreenBridgesTM on the HSA website by clicking on this link: https://www.herbsociety.org/explore/hsa-conservation/greenbridges-initiative/  Then, take the next step and get your garden certified as a GreenBridgesTM garden. The process is easy: complete the application found on the web site, attach a check to cover the cost of a plaque for your garden, and mail to HSA headquarters. Be sure to include some pictures of your garden to share with other members. Your plaque and a certificate will be mailed to you shortly after receipt of your application. 

Display the plaque in your garden to open conversations with your neighbors about the importance of providing healthy ecosystems for our plants and pollinators. Introduce your neighbors to the GreenBridgesTM program and invite them to become a certified garden also. Working together by connecting our gardens to our neighbor’s garden and then to community green spaces, we can effectively create GreenBridgesTM across the nation! Our plants, the pollinators, and we will be the beneficiaries of the healthy ecosystems we create.

In closing, I’d like to share a story about continuing to impress upon my granddaughter the importance of pollinators. A couple of weeks ago, my granddaughter and I were enjoying a beautiful early summer day in the garden. She loves to help me in the garden and today we were harvesting her favorite garden treat: blueberries! She remembers me telling her that without the bees pollinating the blueberries, she would not have this luscious treat. Now, when she sees bees hard at work, she no longer runs from them, but watches intently as they complete their work.  Her comment continues to be —”Go bees!” She loves her blueberries. Now she realizes that all of the other garden treats she enjoys are also the result of bees and other garden insects hard at work. So much fun to see nature through a child’s eyes and introduce the next generation to gardening with the purpose of protecting our native plants and pollinators!


A life-long lover of all aspects of gardening and nature, Debbie Boutelier’s interest in herbs and other edibles began in the early ’80s when she planted her first edible garden with vegetables and culinary herbs. Her interest rapidly grew into a vocation spanning the many different aspects of using herbs in everyday life, and incorporating organic techniques in everything she grows. After moving to Alabama, Debbie served as a County Extension Agent for a number of years. She is an Alabama Advanced Master Gardener and has studied the medicinal uses of herbs for many years, completing a three year intensive study of the medicinal aspect of herbs at the Appalachian Center of Natural Health. Debbie now teaches nationally and presents seminars and workshops on the many aspects of herbs, organic gardening, nutrition, and other garden related topics. Debbie’s herb passion has led to the creation of her small cottage herb business, Rooted in Thyme Apothecary. Debbie is a long-time member and past president of The Herb Society of America.

The Legend Behind Vanilla

By Maryann Readalvanilla

Vanilla is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for December. We can easily conjure up the sweet, calming, and sensual smell of vanilla that we use to flavor some of our favorite desserts. But did you know that there is a legend that explains the origins of the vanilla vine?

Around the year 1000AD, the Totonac people living in the southeastern part of Mexico near Veracruz considered vanilla to be a sacred herb and used it for ritual offerings and as a perfume and medicine. In fact, their city, Paplanta, became known as the city that perfumed the world because of the abundance of vanilla plants growing there.

The Totonacs believed that a beautiful princess named Morning Star once lived in their ancient kingdom in a time before the world knew of the vanilla plant. She was so beautiful that her parents dedicated her to the temple in order to protect her. Every day Morning Star went out to gather flowers for the temple. One day a young prince, Young Deer, spotted her and immediately fell passionately in love with her. As days went by, Young Deer could no longer be content with just watching Morning Star gather flowers. He decided to capture her and run away with her.  Morning Star was startled at first but in the end she fell under Young Deer’s spell and agreed to run away with him.  Not long into the star-crossed lovers’ escape, the temple priests caught up with them and beheaded both of them.

Soon a strong vine with beautiful, delicate green-white orchid flowers grew up on the spot where the young couple was beheaded. The strong vine with sensual leaves and delicate flowers reminded the people of the two lovers. The flowers turned into fragrant brown pods which had a finer scent than any incense being offered to their gods.

It was then that the priests and the Totonac people came to believe that the blood of the lovers was transformed into the vine and flowers of the vanilla plant and declared it to be a sacred gift to their gods. Some believed that the young prince was transformed into the melipona bee, which is the only bee that is able to pollinate the vanilla flowers.

The Aztecs later conquered the Totonacs and they also fell in love with the vanilla plant and forced the Totonacs to give them the pods as taxes. The Aztecs added the pods to their chocolate drink and considered them to be an aphrodisiac. A suitable addition to the legend of vanilla, I believe.

For more information about vanilla and to find out to make your own vanilla extract, go to The Herb Society of America Herb of the Month webpage.


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

Lemon Balm – A Very Lemony Herb

By William “Bill” Varney

Here are several reasons to grow lemon balm (Melissa officinalis),  the lemony herb in your garden:

  • It is an easy-to-grow, hardy perennial growing to 1 ½ – 3 feet highLemon balm flower
  • It has crafting, culinary, medicinal, and ornamental uses
  • It likes full sun but will tolerate partial shade

From the earliest of times, lemon balm has been celebrated by poets and herbalists for its “uplifting” qualities. At one time, the whole dried plant – roots, leaves, and seed – was sewn into a piece of linen and worn under ladies’ dresses to promote “an agreeable disposition.”

Lemon balm is native to the Mediterranean. The genus name, Melissa, is derived from the Greek word meaning “honeybee.” This herb’s lemony fragrance attracts bees. Hives were rubbed with its leaves to bring in swarms. Housekeepers once used handfuls of fresh balm leaves to polish and scent their furniture.

Lemon balm thrives in cooler climates. It develops into a bushy plant with substantial roots and a stalk reaching 1 ½ to 3 feet high. Leaves are toothed, textured, and smell strongly of lemon. Yellow buds open into tiny white flowers by mid to end of summer.

lemon balmPlanting and Care – Easy to grow although seeds are slow to germinate. Start from cuttings, root division, or plants bought from a nursery. Plant as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. It accepts partial shade to full sun exposure and prefers moist fertile soil with good drainage.

Once established, plants endure in the garden unless a determined effort is made to eliminate them. They reseed easily and spread wide, so provide plenty of space. In small gardens, try growing in containers to control the plants. The stalks die with the first frost and can be cut down to the ground. In cold winter regions, place a thick layer of mulch over the crown to protect the plant; each spring it will regrow from its roots.

Harvesting and Use – One of the sweetest scented of all herbs, which makes it a delightful ingredient for sachets and potpourris. Fresh-cut stems retain their fragrance well and lend a casual flair to floral arrangements. In the kitchen, lemon balm adds a light lemony flavor to soups and stews, fish, lamb, and chicken. Freshly chopped, use it sparingly with fruits or salads. It’s a favorite replacement for salt and an inexpensive lemon zest substitute.

Always add near the end of cooking because its volatile oils are dissipated by heat. Its flavor keeps well in baked goods because it is captured by the surrounding medium. Use as a fresh garnish in hot tea and lemonade or brew as a tea. A leaf or two improves a glass of white wine. Along with hyssop, it is an important ingredient in the liqueur Chartreuse.

Lemon balm is recognized as an aid to digestion and circulation. It is reported to help relieve feverish colds, headaches, and tension. Its oil is believed to be beneficial in dressing wounds, especially insect bites.

One of my favorite recipes for using it is Lemon Balm Bars.

Lemon Balm Bars

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar 1 cup of flour
  • 1/3 cup blanched almonds 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 3 tablespoons lemon balm leaves, minced Grated zest of one lemon
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/3 cup blanched almonds

Combine butter, ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, 1 cup flour, and 1/3 cup almonds in food processor. Process until mixture forms a ball. Pat into a greased and floured 9 by 9 – inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Combine sugar, 3 tablespoons flour, minced lemon balm, and lemon zest in work bowl of food processor. Process until finely blended. Add eggs and lemon juice; blend thoroughly. Pour over crust. Grind remaining 2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar and 1/3 cup almonds in the bowl of the food processor. Sprinkle over filling. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees or until set.

Yields 9 large lemon balm bars

Varney, Bill. Herbs: Growing & Using the Plants of Romance. Tucson, Arizona, Ironwood Press, 1998.


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.

Turn Your Yard into Flowery Mead

Turn Your Yard into Flowery Mead

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America

Dandelion (1)I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those gardeners who see a perfectly manicured lawn and thinks to herself that there must be something more. Here in America, we seem to have an obsession with the pristine, green and weed free lawn, but is this is at all practical for the world we live in now? Lawn grass is the largest crop that we grow, and it serves no real purpose and requires so much water to keep it green and alive.

Lawns as we know them today began to appear in the 18th century England and France, when the trend began to move towards the large open landscape. A large swath of overly manicured green lawn with a deer park or a bowling green was seen as a sign of affluence, but today we are living in a world with completely different environmental challenges. Our pollinator populations are in peril and what makes sense is to find new ways of living sustainably in the natural world, adopting greener approaches to landscaping.

Sometimes it’s best to learn from the past. Consider allowing your lawn to revert to its original state of luscious and abundant variety or what medievalists would call a “flowery mead.” That would happen naturally if you stopped weeding and seeding.

First would come the dandelions and the sweet little flowers of chickweed and purslane would probably be next. Quickly you would begin to see small patches of flowers and different grasses and herbs begin to emerge in small patches and very quickly, all types of pollinators would begin to find them. It seems to happen like magic, but the biology is easy. Birds and small animals eat the flowers, herbs and fruits but the seeds are generally indigestible. As their droppings begin to be deposited in your lawn, these seeds begin to sprout and very quickly, a natural flowery meadow will begin to establish itself!

Untitled design (64)If you are quietly wondering if I’ve suddenly taken leave of my senses, you need look no further than the beautiful French tapestry named “Unicorn in Captivity”. The captured unicorn is sitting in the fenced paddock, surrounded by a sea of low growing flowers and herbs. That is a perfect example of a medieval “flowery mead,” or flowering meadow!

My father was an organic gardener who allowed his yard to evolve in this way and the results were truly beautiful. He turned the perimeter of his property into an English style border filled with historic roses, lilies, daisies, and many other flowers and herbs. Once his borders were well established, he allowed his lawn to be slowly transformed into the mead he desired. The result was a still a composed garden, but it was much wilder and very much alive.

My father was frustrated by the amount of work that it took to simply keep his lawn green and healthy every year. A grass lawn is a monoculture and by its very nature, not easily sustainable without a large quantity of human interference, excessive amounts of water, chemical pesticides, and herbicides. Dad’s gardening philosophy was that all plants needed different companions to thrive and his lawn was no exception to that rule. His thought was that left to its own, a lawn will revert quickly into a beautiful meadow, so why not help it along and at the same time support our pollinator friends? What started out as an amusing experiment turned into a romantic and beautiful green space. My father’s yard was always filled with the buzzing of honeybees, fluttering butterflies, and bird song.

He began by allowing plants to be naturally introduced into his lawn like violets and perennial pansies, little wild strawberries and sweet woodruff, bluebells, beautiful blue flax flowers, lady’s mantle, ground ivy, and buttercups. He had huge patches of lilies of the valley and beautiful swaths of coltsfoot everywhere.

IMG_7340He loved the dandelions and let them stay, knowing that they provided the first suppers for the bees every spring.

He allowed the chamomile and thyme to take off and spread. He let daisies spring up wherever and whenever they wanted. He had abundant amounts of multi-colored cosmos in his border that reseeded. With so many different plants his garden ecosystem easily remained strong and healthy. He had virtually no disease among his plants. On the rare occasion a plant would perish, others quickly replaced it.

If he were doing this today his yard would qualify for HSA’s GreenBridges™ certification. The GreenBridges™ Initiative creates opportunities for the safe passage of plants and pollinators and avoids habitat fragmentation. Each GreenBridges™ garden is a link in the chain across the nation, providing safe movement for the plants and pollinators that help maintain healthy ecosystems.

img_7341.jpgIf you are tired of trying to keep your lawn green and alive every summer, I encourage you to consider planting your very own wild garden. A wildflower meadow is a thing of beauty. An easy way to start is with a low-growing wildflower seed pack. I’ve had great luck simply scattering the seed, but it works even better if you can lightly loosen up the top 2 inches of soil where you want your meadow, toss the seed, and then cover them with compost and/or straw. Be sure to water frequently and soon you will be rewarded with a beautiful flowering meadow of your own. All you’ll need then is a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, some fruit, cheese a good book and thou…..

Just curious! Do you love or hate your lawn? Let me know in the comments!

People, Plants & Pollinators: The Herbal Connection

People, Plants & Pollinators: The Herbal Connection

by Debbie Boutelier, Past President of Herb Society of America & GreenBridgesTM Chair

PolliinatorsAs people we connect with other people, places and things every day. We have powerful relationship connections that we don’t even think about. But, these essential connections nurture our emotional and physical health. We need our connections.

Nature is an important connection we may not think about  – the sun coming up in the morning, the birds singing as you walk to work, the foods you eat, the mosquito buzzing around your head, the flowers that smell so nice in your yard, and so on. These connections, especially among people, plants and pollinators are crucial to our very existence. We must nurture them so they – and we — will flourish.

Until recently many people considered insects to be pests. But they are so much more: they are pollinators and without one-third of the world’s crop production would disappear.  Bees and butterflies are the most commonly known pollinators but wasps, flies, moths, ants, beetles, hummingbirds and other birds and even bats are responsible for pollinating plants. Every time one of these creatures visits a flower to gather nectar, they also gather pollen which they move from plant to plant as they forage. Plants and pollinators need each other.pollinator 2

 

People need the plant-pollinator connection for food. And so, people must nurture plants and pollinators to perpetuate the cycle and help all members flourish. There are easy things each person can do to support this successful connection.

  • Cultivate a native plant. The most widely accepted native plant definition classifies native plants as species growing in the United States before European settlement. HSA’s unique perspective is herbs, so we advocate incorporating native herbs in your gardens.  Native herbs offer a multitude of uses and advantages. In addition to the nectar, many herbs also serve as a host plant to provide food for insect larva. Native herb plants come in all sizes: trees, shrubs, garden plants and even groundcovers. An abundant and diverse array of flowering plants is the most important element of a quality pollinator habitat. Native plants are considered the best choice because of their abundance of nectar and pollen in addition to being low-maintenance, generally pest-free, drought-tolerant, erosion-control, sources of food and shelter for wildlife and naturally beautiful.
  • Shady Nook (2)Choose plants that will bloom over a long period. Have some plants that bloom early, some mid-season and some late season to provide pollinators with a continuous food supply. Don’t be in a hurry to clean up your garden in the fall. Leave the seed heads to provide food over the winter.
  • Provide watering stations. Fill a shallow container with fresh water for the birds and other pollinators year round.
  • Shrink the size of your lawn. Plant native trees and shrubs in large beds to support pollinators and to reduce the workload of maintaining a large lawn.
  • Reduce the chemical pesticides and herbicides used on your yard or consider going organic. Not only will the pollinators benefit, but so will the children and pets. A healthy garden with the appropriate plant species and an abundance of pollinators will support natural beneficial insects—reducing the need for pest control.
  • GreenBridgesLogo_LoConsider getting your yard certified as a GreenBridgesTM garden. The Herb Society of America offers our GreenBridgesTM program to create opportunities for the safe passage of plants and pollinators. Visit the website at herbsociety.org for more information and an application. Once your garden is certified as a GreenBridgesTM garden, you will receive a plaque for your garden, a certificate, newsletters with information about native herbs, and have access to a member’s only Facebook page.

Together we can create a network of GreenBridgesTM gardens across the country that will nurture the people, plant and pollinator connections that we strive to protect. From the small garden of containers on a patio to the large home garden, every garden is important in the network and can offer respite, food and water to the pollinators and plants.

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