Celebrating the Summer Solstice

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all the loveliest longest day of the year.

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


Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at https://bethschreibmangehring.substack.com/

 

 

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

Image of basil leavesBasil, Ocimum basilicum, still reigns today as the King of Herbs. Its royalty was established by the Greeks, when they gave the herb its name based on the Greek word basilikon, meaning “king.” Alexander the Great is said to have brought basil to the Greeks. According to legend, St. Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother, followed a trail of basil leading to the remains of Jesus’ cross (Lum, 2020). Since that time, basil has been considered a holy herb in Greece. Basil is used in the Greek Orthodox Church for sprinkling holy water, while some Greeks bring their basil to church to be blessed and then hang the sprigs in their home for health and prosperity (MyParea, n.d.). However, on the isle of Crete, basil somehow gained a bad reputation and was thought to be a symbol of the devil. There seems to be a thread of bad history associated with basil since early times.

Hindu man worshiping tulsi plantAlthough named by the Greeks, basil originated in India 5,000 years ago. In India today, the herb is considered a sacred herb. Holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum (also known as tulsi), is considered to be the manifestation of the goddess Tulasi, wife of Krishna. It is thought to have great spiritual and healing powers. According to legend, only one leaf of tulsi can outweigh Vishnu’s power. Every devout Hindu home will have a special place for a tulsi plant. It is believed that the creator god, Brahma, resides in its stems and branches, the river Ganges flows through the plant’s roots, the deities live in its leaves, and the most sacred of Hindu religious texts are in the top of holy basil’s branches (Simoons, 1998). Nurturing a tulsi plant ensures that a person’s sins will be forgiven and everlasting peace and joy will be had. (Simoons, 1998). The dried stems of old holy basil plants are used to make beads for Hindu meditation beads. Twentieth-century herbalist Maude Grieve said, “Every good Hindu goes to his rest with a basil leaf on his breast. This is his passport to heaven. It is indeed considered a powerful herb” (Grieve, 1931). 

Image of Egyptian embalmingFrom India, basil spread to Egypt, where the herb was used for embalming and has been found buried with the pharaohs. The herb then moved on to Rome and southern Europe, where the Romans fell in love with it. In Italy, basil was considered a sign of love. If young girls were seeking a suitor, they would place a pot of basil on their windowsill. If a potential suitor showed up with a sprig of basil, the girl would love him forever. 

Ocimum spp (16)Italy became the home of pesto, which basil has made famous. “Pesto was created by the people of Genoa to highlight the flavor of their famous basil. Using a mortar and pestle, they combined simple ingredients to make one of the world’s most famous pasta sauces” (Blackman, 2010). The simple sauce contains only basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Pesto is still a very popular sauce for pasta or crackers, especially in the summer, when fresh basil is plentiful.

During the Middle Ages, they believed that in order to get basil to grow, one had to curse and scream while planting the seed. This is the origin of the French verb semer le basilic (sowing basil), which means “to rant.” It was also thought that if you smelled basil too much, scorpions would enter your brain. Today, the French call basil l’herbe royale, “the royal herb,” and pots of it are found in outdoor restaurants, not to deter scorpions but to deter mosquitoes. Fresh basil leaves are used to make pistou, the French version of pesto.

Image of sign at garden center apologizing for not carrying basil due to downy mildewBasil, a sun-loving member of the mint family, is an annual herb that thrives in summer heat. In fact, it will languish if planted in the garden before temperatures reach a consistent 70 plus degrees. Frequent harvesting of the leaves before flowers appear prolongs its growing season. It can be propagated by seed or cuttings. However, it is very susceptible to downy mildew, which researchers are constantly trying to overcome by breeding more disease-resistant varieties. The new gene editing CRISPR technology may show a promising solution to this problem (Riccio, 2022).

There are more than 100 varieties of basil and counting! Some basils are grown as ornamental plants because of their beautiful blooms. In fact, the Chinese name for basil translates to “nine-level pagoda,” which is a good description of its blooming stalk. African blue basil and wild magic basil are two examples of basils with nice blooms that I have found are bee magnets during the summer. If you are interested in attracting pollinators, your garden should certainly have these basils. Cardinal basil, which shows off its large burgundy flower clusters in late summer, is spectacular in the summer garden. It can also be used as a culinary basil. Lemon basil and ‘Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, both having a lemon scent, are perfect for adding to lemonade, fruit salad, or ice cream. Add cinnamon basil to cinnamon flavored desserts. The showy leaves of purple ruffles basil, O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’, make a nice contrast among other plants in the summer garden. When cooking with basil, it should be added at the end of cooking.

Varieties of basilBasil is not usually considered a medicinal herb, but it was used medicinally in the time of Hippocrates who prescribed it as a tonic for the heart and to treat vomiting and constipation. Pliny the Elder commented that it was good for lethargy and fainting spells, headaches, flatulence, and other digestive issues (Pliny, 1855). China and India have a long history of using basil as a medicinal herb as well.

 Basil does contain a healthy amount of vitamins A, C, and K and has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, which helps fight disease. Studies show that it can help reduce blood clots by making the blood less “sticky.” Animal studies suggest that it might help slow the growth rate of some types of cancer (Todd, 2015).

A plate of brownies with cinnamon basilSo, do enjoy fresh basil this summer. Remember to dry some for the winter, freeze the leaves, or combine chopped leaves with water and freeze in an ice cube tray for later use. However, you should take careful consideration before putting basil on your windowsill lest you attract an unwanted suitor.

Basil is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for June. 

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2010. Basil it’s not just for Italian food anymore. Texas Gardener. Vol. 29, Issue 2, p. 20-25.

Lum, Linda. (2020). Exploring basil: a simple plant with a complicated history. Accessed 5/16/22. https://delishably.com/spices-seasonings/All-About-Herbs-Basil

Matel, Kathy. 2016. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/

MyParea. (n.d.) Basil in Greek culture. Accessed 5/15/22. https://blog.myparea.com/basil-greekculture/#:~:text=For%20ancient%20Greeks%2C%20basil%20was,used%20to%20sprinkle%20holy%20water

Pliny the Elder. 1855. The natural history. John Bostock, M.D. (ed.). London: Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. Accessed 5/15/22. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=20:chapter=48&highlight=ocimum 

Riccio, Peggy. 2022. Breeding better herbs. The American Gardener. Vol. 101, No. 2, p. 30-34.

Simoons, Frederick. 1998. Plants of life, plants of death. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Todd, Kathy. 2015. Basil: King of herbs. Environmental Nutrition. Vol 38, Issue 7, p.8.

Yancy-Keller, Alexandra. 2020. History of basil. Accessed 5/15/22. https://www.nutrifitonline.com/blog/news/history-of-basil/

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) Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum) (Maryann Readal); 2) Man worshipping tulsi basil (Wikimedia Commons, Shirsh.namaward); 3) Egyptian embalming (Catrina’s Garden, https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/); 4) Variegated basil leaves (Ocimum cv.) (Chrissy Moore); 5) Sign at garden center regarding basil and downy mildew (Maryann Readal); 6) Varieties of basil (US National Arboretum); 7) Plate of brownies made with cinnamon basil (Chrissy Moore).


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

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)

Gain Confidence in Your Identification of True Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

By Cecilia Dailey

Illustration of Taraxacum officinaleDandelion is flowering right now and is a widely known plant to many laypeople. But, do you really know how to differentiate true dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) from other yellow-flowering asters?

It’s common in lawns, pastures, old fields, and waste places. Dandelion is often battled as an agricultural weed and featured as an enemy in chemical lawn care regimes. T. officinale is the most common species, but all species in the genus Taraxacum have nutritional and medicinal benefits that have been documented since antiquity. Although human trials are lacking, there is a “large volume of information that supports the traditional medicinal use of this plant” (Martinez 2015). T. officinale is found worldwide. It is popularly foraged in Italy (Martinez 2015). It was widely used by Native American tribes across the Photo of Taraxacum officinale, Charleston County, South CarolinaUnited States (Moerman 2022). Dandelion flowers, collected and fermented as wine, as well as cooked as a potherb, are documented in African American food history in the South (Yentsch 2008). Recently, researchers found the greens of dandelion (T. officinale), and to a lesser degree, chicory (Cichorium intybus, also called red-ribbed dandelion), active against COVID-19 in vitro (Tran et al. 2021).

There are common look-alikes, all in the Asteraceae family, which may cause confusion when trying to identify the true dandelion (T. officinale). The species listed here are both exotic and native in origin and can occupy the same habitat–ruderal or periodically mowed lands along roads, trails, and cultivated areas.

Photo of Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, Mt. Pleasant, South CarolinaOn the South Carolina coast, I often find Asiatic hawksbeard (Youngia japonica), Carolina false-dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), dwarf-dandelion (Krigia spp.), and sow thistle (Sonchus spp.), all common yellow asters flowering in the spring. When not in bloom, wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.), with white or purple flowers, might be mistaken for dandelion because they also form a basal rosette and have lobed leaves.*

When Taraxacum is in bloom, the flowering stem will not have any branches as seen in Y. japonica and P. carolinianus. Botanists use the word ‘scapose’ to describe a dandelion, because it has a naked stem called a scape. Some Krigia species are scapose (Radford et al. 1968).

Before flowering, get familiar with the serration of the dandelion leaves. Lobes and teeth are angled back toward the stem. There are no prickles, and the leaf is flat and thin.

Photo of Sonchus oleraceus, Charleston County, South CarolinaProper identification of species is paramount in wild harvesting. In the past, medicinal plants were grown in backyard food gardens, and colloquial knowledge of plants was common, passed down by word of mouth and experience in the home. Today, many people who become interested in herbs don’t have access to pristine, rural land where medicinal plants may be found. You may buy them online or resort to wild harvesting in (hopefully) clean and legal locations. Leafy greens can bioaccumulate heavy metals, so care should be taken with site selection (Giacomino 2016).

Photo of Krigia virginicaBotanical understanding of a species is paramount to wild harvesting. Take the time to look closer, and collect plants for inspection at home. Don’t eat them yet, but grow them in your home garden, and look closely at anything similar in your region. Early spring is a great time to work on this group. There will always be botanical surprises the more closely you look at the details, no matter your level of expertise.

Botanical texts with dichotomous keys used for identification of plants in the Southeast include Radford et al. (1968) and Weakley (2020).

*See “Dandelions and dandelion-like species” on Namethatplant.net for additional comparison photos of plants not pictured here. As always in botany, there is more to study. Hypochaeris radicata and Hieracium venosum are additional yellow-flowering asters you might encounter in the Southeast not mentioned in this article. http://www.namethatplant.net/mobile/gallery_compare.shtml?compare=Dandelions%20and%20Dandelion-like%20species 

Medical 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 education 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) Illustration of Taraxacum officinale, dandelion (Radford et al., 1968); 2) Taraxacum officinale, Charleston County, South Carolina; 3) Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; 4) Sonchus oleraceus, Charleston County, South Carolina; 5) Krigia virginica. All other photos courtesy of Richard Porter used by permission.

References

Giacomino, Malandrino, Colombo, Miaglia, Maimone, Blancato, Conca, and Abollino. Metal Content in Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Leaves: Influence of  Vehicular Traffic and Safety upon Consumption as Food. Journal of Chemistry. Volume 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/9842987

Martinez, Poirrier, Chamy, Prüfer, Schulze-Gronover, Jorquera, and Ruiz. Taraxacum officinale and related species—An ethnopharmacological review and its potential as a commercial medicinal plant. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Volume 169, 1 July 2015, Pages 244-262.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874115002263?casa_token=ja_3p4paoGoAAAAA:71L3885ZrbZvAi0-y8mqL57AyjOxLi3LE5uXnoiGM0xy85smab799l-sUZra36IWNHsnhVi_32E

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany Database, search for “taraxacum officinale,” last accessed 27 March 2022. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=taraxacum+officinale

Radford, Ahles, and Bell. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Tran, Le, Gigl, Dawid, and Lamy. Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) efficiently blocks the interaction between ACE2 cell surface receptor and SARS-CoV-2 spike protein D614, mutants D614G, N501Y, K417N and E484K in vitro. bioRxiv preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.19.435959; this version posted 19 March 2021. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.03.19.435959v1.full.pdf

Weakley, Alan S. Flora of the Southeast. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU), North Carolina Botanical Garden, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2020. https://ncbg.unc.edu/research/unc-herbarium/flora-request/ (download request)

Yentsch, Anne. Excavating the South’s African American food history.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter, Volume 12, Issue 2 June 2009. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1802&context=adan


Cecilia Dailey is a biologist, conservationist, author, and artist. Celie is a DHEC-certified wild mushroom forager in South Carolina and Georgia and has a Certificate of Native Plant Studies from Clemson University. 

Gather Ye Redbuds While Ye May – A Colorful Harbinger of Spring…and Edible, Too!

by Karen Cottingham

Eastern_Redbud_by Dan Keck via wikimediaHere in Texas, there’s a saying: “We have two seasons – summer and winter.” That’s not quite true; but if you’re not paying attention, spring can slip right past. And the last thing I want is to miss a single day of our glorious, but ephemeral, spring. 

The nights here are still cold – sometimes approaching freezing – but the robins have arrived, so I know springtime is near. It’s time to listen for a hushed prelude to seasonal change, time to look for intimations of life beginning to stir. Every few days, this calls for a visit to the two redbud trees in my Houston neighborhood to check the trunks and bare branches for any evidence of tiny pink flowers. Nothing to see for weeks on end; then suddenly, here they are – scattered crimson buds emerging straight from the furrowed bark, swelling with life, and some already unfolding their delicate pink wings. In a week or so, the branches will be covered with a dazzling display of vibrant spring color. Heart-shaped leaves of bronze, crimson, or vivid chartreuse will soon follow and add to the brilliant Eastern redbud by Melissa McMasters via wikimediaspectacle. 

Taking a look at the distribution map of our native redbuds, a similar burst of color might announce spring’s arrival for many of our HSA members. North American redbuds fall into two groupings, each with a number of regional varieties – Cercis canadensis, or Eastern redbud, and Cercis orbiculata, the Western redbud group. Several additional redbuds are native to Southern Europe, the Mediterranean region, and central Asia; collectively, these small leguminous trees make up the entire Cercis genus.

Many of you living in redbud’s distribution may still be snowed in or are impatiently waiting for the ground to thaw so you can prepare your garden for planting. If you’re feeling restless, just imagine the anxiety of previous generations reliant on early crops to replenish their dwindling winter stores. And then imagine their relief and delight to see the first signs of the approaching spring. 

Distribution of Cercis orbiculata (left) and C. canadensis (right).

Many crop-growing Native Americans considered the redbud just this sort of “seasonal indicator,” a long-awaited sign that fresh food would soon be plentiful. For some, the vibrant blossoms were even believed to hasten the arrival of warm weather. Members of the Kiowa tribe, for example, decorated their dwellings with redbud wreaths and twigs to help “drive out the spirit of winter.” 

Eastern redbud in full bloom with small pink blossomsWhile its ability to awaken a slumbering spring makes a lovely story, experience also proved that a blooming redbud can be dangerously misleading. According to Cherokee historian David Cornsilk, the Eastern redbud is known as Da-yi-go-gi, or “Liar,” in the Cherokee language. Don’t be deceived, the elders warn, by the Liar, the first tree to blossom in the spring. Da-yi-go-gi may put on a dazzling display against the dun and drab forest background, but it’s not always a reliable signal that winter is over. If precious seeds were planted based on the false promise of the blooming redbud, the tender plants might well be lost to a later hard freeze. It’s better to resist, for a while longer, the exuberance of Da-yi-go-gi.

Appalachian folklore also warns against naively trusting the early blooming redbud; a “redbud winter” refers to the cold snap that frequently occurs just after the redbuds bloom. 

As pioneers moved into the Appalachian Mountains, the native redbud trees played another important “indicator” role. Much of the soil there is acidic and too poor to sustain crops. Settlers soon learned that redbuds growing in a “cove” or “draw” indicated a limestone-rich basic soil suitable for successful farming.

Eastern_redbud_fruit_SEWilco via wikimediaNative Americans, along with the early settlers, also found ways for redbud to supplement their supply of food. Flowers, newly emerged leaves, young seed pods, and mature seeds are all edible. Even the twigs have a place in food preparation, being used so often to season game in southern Appalachia that the trees there are called “spicewood.” Traditionally, the flowers are eaten straight off the tree, but they have also been used for salad garnishes, teas, jellies, and pie fillings. Peter Kalm, the American agent of Linnaeus, called redbud the “sallad tree,” because its flowers were so often eaten in salads. 

Knowing this, I was thrilled to reach up, pick a tiny flower, inhale deeply, and pop it into my mouth. I’d been looking forward to this moment for months since I first read that redbud blossoms are not only edible, but are also delicious. The little flower emitted a strong floral fragrance that reminded me of honey. It was delightfully crunchy; floral, but in an out-of-focus, unrecognizable way; and sweet with a tangy lemony taste.

Encouraged, I decided to try an unopened bud, and was instantly propelled into my own Remembrance of Things Past moment. The flavor sensation of that little bud was identical to my childhood experience of munching on green peas picked fresh from the field! 

At first, this might sound strange, but it actually makes sense. The species Cercis canadensis belongs to the botanical family Fabaceae, making it a close relative of beans, peas, peanuts, tamarind, and other legumes.

Salad_of_Romaine_lettuce_and_wild_Toothwort,_Purple_Dead_Nettle_and_Redbud_flowers_-_Flickr_-_Jay_Sturner via wikimediaAs an added bonus, redbud flowers have a significantly higher vitamin C content than most common domesticated fruits and vegetables, including oranges. The flowers are also rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidant pigments that give them their magenta/fuchsia color.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own tree, here are a few ways to add redbud surprises to your spring menu (links to recipes follow):

Fresh redbud flowers make a vibrant addition to salads, but also to cakes, quick breads, crackers, muffins, and even pancakes. Pickled buds can be used like capers to garnish a salad, but even better, the rosy-red pickling vinegar can be used for dressings or vinegar-based beverages. There are plenty of recipes on the internet for redbud flower jelly, and it is even possible to crystallize the flowers for a beautiful dessert embellishment. 

One of my favorite recipe ideas is for a cucumber, cream cheese, and redbud flower-filled tea sandwich. Imagine serving that for a springtime “Afternoon Tea!” You could even brew a redbud tisane, adding a bit of lemon to bring out the fuchsia color. A simple syrup of infused redbud flowers makes a lovely floral sweetener for cocktails, herbal waters, or lemonade. And don’t forget to add a redbud cluster as a garnish!

For the devoted forager with access to sassafras, here’s another idea – a goat cheese and coconut milk tart flavored with redbud flowers and newly emerged sassafras leaves. 

And why not really celebrate the arrival of spring by adding a few crunchy pink flowers to a spring roll? Sprinkle the flowers on the rice paper wrapper first so they show in the finished roll, then add other foraged flowers and greens, perhaps some shrimp or fish, and serve with a spicy peanut sauce. 

1200px-Redbud,_Forest-Pansy,_Cercis-canadensis_IMG_7214 S_G_S via wikimedia

The flowering period of redbuds is brief; and in a few weeks, the tree will completely leaf out and start producing seed pods. Supposedly the young leaves taste rather like grass, and the young seed pods taste like snow peas or beans. Either could be added to a stir fry, but I probably won’t try that. As one writer delicately puts it, “The high fiber content may cause some unintended and unwanted digestive consequences.”

The Navajo were said to bury the mature pods in the coals of a fire and eat the roasted seeds. I’m not sure how they would taste, but as far as survival foods go, redbud seeds, at 22-27% protein and 7-8% fat, have excellent nutritional value. The seeds are also rich in antioxidants and the essential fatty acids linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid.

Quercetin, an important antioxidant flavonoid, was actually isolated for the first time from the pods of Cercis canadensis.

Cercis_canadensis,_Forest_Pansy_-_geograph.org.uk_-_2133216 by Jonathan Billinger via wikimediaSo the edible redbud plant parts clearly offered beneficial nutrients to early inhabitants of North America. But that’s not all – redbud bark is rich in therapeutic tannins and is an important medicine for several Native American tribes. Infusions of the bark are extensively used for respiratory congestion, as a cough suppressant, and to treat diarrhea and vomiting. 

In “Lenape Indian Medicines,” a compilation of the plant medicines used by the Lenape, or Delaware, tribe, Glenn McCartlin describes the remedy for vomiting used by his grandmother, Minnie Fouts: “Take six 1-1/2 ft Box Elder limbs that are pointing east. Scrape limbs starting from the end. And take two limbs from Redbud tree, and put in a pan with some cold water and drink it every little while until it quits.” I don’t know about box elder limbs, but a tannin-rich infusion of redbud bark might well have been sufficiently astringent to relieve nausea. 

And for those who suffer from depression in the dark time of the year, the traditional healers in the Ozarks prepare a tea from redbud bark that flushes out the “winter blues.” 

We tend to think of redbud as a beautiful and welcoming harbinger of spring, but it’s actually so much more – a valuable medicine and important source of nutrition, and a lively and tasty addition to your spring menus. I’m reminded of wild-food advocate Euell Gibbons challenging his TV viewers in the 1970s with what seemed to be a preposterous question, “Ever eat a pine tree?” He paused slightly, and then explained to the shocked viewers, “Many parts are edible.” I think he would have loved the colorful and edible redbud! 

I hope you enjoy it as well.

REDBUD RECIPES

Butter-Poached Panfish and Redbud Blossom Spring Rolls https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/butter-poached-panfish-and-redbud-blossom-spring-rolls

Eastern Redbud Blossom Jelly Recipe https://www.realtree.com/timber-2-table-wild-game-recipes/eastern-redbud-blossom-jelly-recipe

Edible Redbud Flowers on Ham and Cheese Omelet  https://mysliceofnice.com/f/edible-redbud-flowers-on-ham-and-cheese-omelette

Herbed Watercress Cheese & Wild Flower Crackers  https://www.wildedible.com/blog/herbed-watercress-cheese-wild-flower-crackers

Mskobaskbegit Meweyak (Redbud & Maple Syrup Cakes)  https://www.mrinconranch.com/post/mskobaskbegit-meweyak-redbud-maple-syrup-cakes

Redbud & Cucumber Tea Sandwiches  
http://livetheoldway.com/redbud-tea-sandwiches/

Redbud Flower-Sassafras Tartlet  https://www.feastmagazine.com/recipes/article_987245ba-edc6-11e4-b6c6-9f639630fae1.html

Redbud & Lemon Cornmeal Loaf Cake  https://www.ful-filled.com/2017/03/25/redbud-lemon-cornmeal-loaf-cake/

Redbud Salad  
https://tracksandroots.com/2020/04/04/redbud-salad

Redbud Sour  
https://www.oliveandmango.com/redbud-sour/

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) Cercis canadensis flowers (Dan Keck); 2) Newly emerged leaves of C. canadensis (Melissa McMasters); 3) Geographical distribution of C. orbiculata and C. canadensis (USDA Plants Database); 4) Redbud in full flower (Dcrjsr); 5) Green seed pods (SEWilco); 6) Salad of romaine lettuce, toothwort, purple deadnettle, and redbud flowers (Jay Sturner); 7) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (S.G.S.); 8) Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ fall color (Jonathan Billinger). All photos via Wikimedia, except distribution maps.

References:

Native American Ethnobotany Database (Internet). 2003. Redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=redbud

Rementer, J. 1986. Some additional Lenape Indian medicines. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/556207/SOME_ADDITIONAL_LENAPE_INDIAN_MEDICINES

Robertson, K. R. 1976. Cercis: The redbuds. Arnoldia, 36(2): 3749. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://arboretum.harvard.edu/stories/cercis-the-redbuds/

Sarcraft. 2019. Wild edible Wednesday 3/27: Eastern redbud. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://sarcraft.squarespace.com/news/eastern-redbud-edible-and-medicinal-uses

Sibray, D. 2020. Pink-flowering redbud trees guided early W.Va. settlers. West Virginia Explorer Magazine. Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: https://wvexplorer.com/2020/04/13/pink-flower-trees-redbud-west-virginia/

Some Thoughts from Polly’s Granddaughter. 2012. Beware the Eastern redbud! Accessed Feb 22, 2022. Available from: http://www.pollysgranddaughter.com/2012/01/beware-eastern-redbud.html


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

“Hazards” of the Job: Dealing with Plant Defenses in the National Herb Garden

By Chrissy Moore

Hot shot firefightersI’ve never been much of a daredevil. Overactive amygdala, perhaps, or maybe I’m just a ninny. (Usually, the latter.) And yet, I’ve always admired those individuals who brave dangerous situations for the good of others: firefighters running toward the flames; avalanche search and rescue teams; Alaska’s Coast Guard members that jump into frigid waters during gale force winds…you get the idea.

Today, I had an epiphany while watering our myriad plants in the greenhouses. Most people think that herb gardening is a quaint, bucolic endeavor, which, admittedly, has a ring of truth to it. But, those people have never worked in the National Herb Garden (NHG), where we, too, face dangerous situations on a regular basis, just of the botanical sort.

Staff handling heavy containersFor example, every year, twice a year, the NHG staff and coworkers haul many large containerized plants into and out of the greenhouses, where they spend the winter months. Many of these plants are loathsome creatures, not just because of their size (try hauling and lifting hundreds of pounds of “dead weight” for hours at a time…hope you didn’t water them the day before!), but because of the physical hazards they present. It is not unusual for plants to employ natural defenses to protect themselves from malevolent insects or browsing animals, etc. That’s understandable. Yet, when we—the benevolent humans assigned to be their nurturing handlers—are subjected to that very same botanical weaponry, it seems just a wee bit like unnecessary punishment. But, no one ever said life was fair.

Flowers and fruit of CalamondinLet’s look at our beloved Citrus plants. These shrubs have beautiful flowers with a glorious scent and delectable fruit. What’s not to love? Most people only get the occasional painful squirt of acidic juice in their eye when peeling the fruit.Thorns on Citrus plant Yeah, not us. We are repeatedly stabbed by the plants’ two- to three-inch long thorns all over our bodies and, heaven forbid, in or around our eyes. To paint the picture for you better, our method for moving all of the plants in and out of the greenhouses is by a hand truck. So, the whole upper half of our bodies is engulfed by the plant’s canopy. For the Citrus, one puncture wound is bad enough; multiple punctures is just plain mean.

A few years ago, I was visiting friends in Málaga, Spain. It was interesting to see large, in-ground specimens of plants that we can only grow in containers in the NHG. One of them, Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), is one of our more hated plants to move in the garden. (If only we could grow ours in the ground!) Like many palms, the fronds have sharp points at the end of every leaflet.

And like the Citrus plants, our date palm gets hauled around on the hand truck, with all the fronds right at face level. Death by a thousand stabs. To get the plants into their final positions, we need to navigate the narrow greenhouse walkways, which takes a lot of coordinated effort between the one hauling the plant and the person doing the guiding; more often than not, the person doing the hauling can’t see past the plant and must navigate by auditory cues rather than visual ones. As you might imagine, this only adds to the danger!

Staff with Phoenix dactylifera leaves in their face

Moving the date palm

My personal “favorites” each have minor variations on the armament theme just to keep you from getting complacent: pineapple (Ananas sp.) has upward-facing prickles along its leaves; Agave sp. has outward-facing prickles; and cascalote (Tara cacalaco) has downward-facing prickles. These are what I consider the plant versions of the Chinese finger torture: the more you dive in or pull back, the more caught you become. And, by default, the more stabbing you experience. Agave plants, in particular, are awkward to maneuver on a good day, but ours range in size from three to four feet across and two to three feet tall. Given their sprawling nature, there’s not even the remote chance of using a hand truck to move them.

You must fully embrace the pain by lifting them from the ground just under their “waists,” like a child that’s really just too big to be picked up anymore. “Bend with your knees!” has little bearing on this activity. If we’re being honest, we’re just trying to fling that thing to its final resting place as fast as we can and from whatever “reasonable” posture we can attain, wrecked clothing and hairdo be damned. How do those folks at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona do this day in and day out? No thanks…trying to quit. My assistant, Erin, is the smart one; before handling an agave, she nips the spines off with her pruners. Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?

Cascalote, while sporting dainty, pinnately compound leaves, is actually a botanical death trap. Like the agave, pineapple, and Citrus combined, its prickles are not only curved for maximum entrapment, but they also cover the entirety of the plant, nearly from head to toe. The only thing in its favor (at least for our specimen) is that it has a generally upright growth habit rather than being wild and ungainly like the pineapple and agave. Thank goodness for small blessings, short-lived though they may be. Getting caught in the cascalote is like getting sucked into quicksand—the more you move, the worse your situation becomes. I did say Chinese finger torture, didn’t I? (Side note from Erin on moving our cascalote: “Man, after moving that Tara this go around, I got home that night and had a thorn still stuck in my leg. It had worked its way through jeans and a thermal layer to hitchhike and irritate me all day. I still have a little scar!” See! We’re really telling the truth.)

The last, but certainly not least, plant on my list is sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)—and, frankly, most species in the grass family (Poaceae). If you’ve never worked with a grass of sugarcane’s magnitude, then you haven’t met the devil incarnate…yet. It hides its weaponry really well, so you’re more likely to forget rather than be vigilant. Sugarcane is replete, not only with irritating hairs Trichomes (hairs) on Saccharum (sugarcane) leaves(called trichomes) at the joints along the stem that wiggle under your clothing and irritate your skin to no end, but the leaves themselves sport razor sharp edges in a pattern similar to a sawmill blade. The leaf edges slice human skin with the accuracy of a piece of notebook paper. Yep, paper cuts are my fa-a-a-vorite! “What? You don’t enjoy paper cuts? Hmmh, go figure!” Handling sugarcane takes a bit of forethought and a deft hand. The trick is to pick up the plant so that the leaves are directed away from your own body and hopefully not toward your coworkers who are naïvely standing nearby. Invariably, though, someone will get a little too spirited in their moving, and suddenly, we’re all running for cover like kids at a piñata party.

Scanning electron micrograph of a sugarcane leaf edgeWhile not all of our plants create perilous situations (parsley and oregano are pretty benign…or are they?), we certainly hear a lot of grousing and grumbling from our coworkers and volunteers when moving day arrives…sometimes under muffled breath and sometimes hollering from the top of their lungs. That’s when you shrug your shoulders and say, “Just another day in the life of the National Herb Garden! Someone get the First Aid Kit.”

Author’s Note: I regret to inform our readers that the Phoenix dactylifera has moved on to greener pastures (pun intended). We finally decided that it was getting too big for safe handling and preferred to start anew with a smaller specimen. Our bodies are grateful for that decision.


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.

The Pleasure of Pomanders

By Pat Kenny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Make a Pomander

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

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

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

Materials

Paper towels

Bowls to help sort cloves, partial pieces saved

Tweezers or hemostats to help grasp cloves

Long-nosed pliers to twist the central hanger

Rubber-coated wire or other wires

Bamboo or metal skewers 

Long needles for threading

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

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

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

Procedure

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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


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

Herbs for Holiday Baking

By Peggy Riccio

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

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

Parsley

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

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

Sage

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

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

Rosemary

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

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

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

Various thyme cultivarsThyme 

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

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

Mint

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

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

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

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

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

 


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