Chicory, Scrappy Yet Elegant

Chicory, Scrappy Yet Elegant


By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Two sorts of plants are known as “chicory.”  One, Cichorium endivia, is grown around the world as a food plant, and used frequently in salads. It’s endive.

The other, Cichorium intybus, is the chicory we see freely glorying in roadsides and waste spaces.  It is a rigid, branching perennial plant that can reach about three feet in height. In July through September it bears groups of sky blue (very rarely, pink or white) ligulate flower heads. That blue will take your breath away, especially coming, as it seems to, out of nowhere.

Common names for Cichorium intybus include wild bachelor buttons, blue daisy, blue dandelion, and bunk. In Dutch, it is called, “witlof”.

It is not a rewarding cut flower.  My late mother-in-law, in an attempt to impress her own new and disapproving mother-in-law, gathered a lovely bouquet of chicory and displayed it in a silver tea pot. By the time the moment came to show it off in a spot of honor, the flowers and foliage had turned black, blasted and mushy.  You have been warned.

There are, however, many other impressive qualities to the lowly roadside chicory.  For one, while it has long grown wild in Europe, it was not a native of the New World until introduced, the story goes, by Thomas Jefferson himself. He procured seeds from Europe for Monticello.  It obviously thrived.

In another brush with greatness, chicory flowers distilled in water are mentioned by Cervantes in his Don Quixote, as a valued sleep aid, although Sancho Panza preferred something stronger.

Inulin, a component of chicory, has been valued as a support to the digestive system.  Another component, plant phenols, have been linked to reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The bitter foliage has long been used as animal fodder, but can, when blanched to remove the bitterness, be served as a salad, and is particularly popular in France and Belgium. It is cultivated as a food crop, and sometimes forced indoors for a winter salad.

CAUTION: It would be best to only eat chicory cultivated for food use: the roots can absorb chemicals applied nearby, and the foliage can become toxic.

Roasted chicory root can sometimes be found as a component of dark European beers, such as the Dutch “Witlofbier.” The long, branching, hairy roots, when roasted and ground are used as a coffee additive or substitute. This is especially characteristic of New Orleans cuisine, in part because of its affinity to French cuisine, and also because of the legacy of the American Civil War.

Coffee and beignetCoffee had become scarce in Europe from time to time, after the Continent had become famously addicted to the stuff, either through legal prohibition or as a consequence of war.  The French had responded to the blockades of the Napoleonic Wars by substituting chicory. And so, when the Union naval blockade of Confederate ports made the import of coffee difficult, the chicory root became a common substitute throughout the American South. The plant’s inulin caramelizes when roasted, giving the brew a rich dark color and a sweeter taste than unroasted roots.  What began as necessity became stylish, and the New Orleans brew still often contains chicory. You can purchase chicory granules on Amazon.


Make Syrup When Elderberries are Ripe

Make Syrup When Elderberries are Ripe

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

Beth 1When I was 8 years old my mother had me join a pre-Girl Scout group in the hopes that I would follow in my big sister’s footsteps and become a full-fledged Girl Scout.  My mother was a wonderful troop leader and she found amazing things for us to do and wonderful places to go. Among them was her best friend’s horse farm.  I never wanted to leave.

When it became time to become a Girl Scout, Mom wasn’t surprised when I refused.   Laughingly she asked me what I wanted to do. “I want to spend every day at the pony farm with Dolly,” I said. That request began one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.

Dolly was a delightful woman from Virginia who owned 36 of the most incredibly beautiful acres in Moreland Hills, Ohio, complete with a gorgeous Georgian mansion, horse barns, orchards, gardens and pastures. She raised the most beautiful Arabian horses and had several lovely little Welsh ponies.

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I just loved her.   She raised and butchered her own chickens and Muscovy duck. And she made the best elderflower and dandelion tonics.  She knew every plant that grew on her land and often she would send me out with a basket to gather plums, strawberries, blueberries and, in t

he springtime, elderberry flowers. She used these to make the most delicious fritters ever. She showed me how to identify the elderflowers properly, so that I wouldn’t pick the deadly water hemlock instead.

She taught me how to deliver a foal and how to work in an herb garden. She tapped her maple trees for sap for syrup. Dolly was a wealthy woman, but insisted upon doing everything herself. She used everything that she raised from fruits and vegetables to the animals that she kept.  She taught me to forage on her property and was the first person to teach me the value of eating wild plants.

She’s been gone for quite a while and I still think of her almost every day, especially when I begin to harvest elderberries. And, make elderberry syrup for the upcoming year.

Beth with elderberriesIn Northeast Ohio when we’re in the middle of a raging flu season, elderberry syrup can be one of the best immune-support weapons. Historically, elderberries are traditional folk remedy. So, when elderberries are ripe, I mix up a batch of my favorite elderberry syrup for the long and chilly midwinter days.

Elderberry is readily found along roadsides and in slightly damp areas. Often it’s found in old gardens tucked in a corner where it’s simply been forgotten. In the springtime, you’ll know it by the glorious bunches of white lacey flowers and it’s absolutely wonderful fragrance, reminiscent of vanilla and ripe raisins that you can smell from yards away.

The most important thing that you need to know about the elderberry is how to prepare it. Believe it or not, this beloved plant can be dangerous if you don’t know how to harvest it. The leaves, bark, roots, stem and un-ripened berries are full of cyanide.

Not wishing to poison anyone, I have devised my own method of harvesting the very ripe berries. I learned it last year when the elderberry bush in our Western Reserve Herb Society Garden was covered with more berries than we’d ever seen. We had to pick them quickly lest the birds took the entire harvest. Soon I found myself in the kitchen with a garbage bag full of ripened berry heads and no help. That’s when I discovered that freezing whole clusters of elderberry overnight and them bringing them out one at a time to run a fine-toothed comb through the berries was the way to go.  Do it this way and the ripened, frozen berries will fall right off the stems into your bowl, leaving you with simply the unbroken stems to discard.

elderberriesOnce you have all the berries you want, you can freeze them in vacuum sealed packets for later or make a wonderful elderberry syrup which you can use for so many different things.

My elderberry syrup is infused with herbs and fresh fruits from my gardens and honey from the local bees. When it’s ready I process it in mason jars in a water bath. Thus, I have plenty for the thick of winter when I use it most.

Last year’s batch was infused with fresh summer blueberries, lemon balm and sage. I also added fresh mullein leaves and flowers –historically used to cleanse and refresh the lungs — and linden leaves and flowers — traditionally used in France to help soothe the nerves. I also add fresh lemon peel and plenty of ginger, cinnamon, star anise and cardamom to help boost the supportive qualities of this syrup.

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Wellness aside, this syrup tastes really good and that’s before it’s added to anything. My husband loves it spooned over vanilla ice cream…I love it added to my midday cup of jasmine tea! You can even add it to vodka for a wonderfully herbal martini or hot whisky for a completely delicious toddy.


The Herban Farmgirl’s Elderberry Syrup

Yields: 5 pints

  • 6 cups ripe elderberries
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • 4 tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh mullein leaves and flowers
  • 4 tablespoons dried linden flowers (you can get these from
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 1 cardamom pod
  • 2 cups of local honey
  • 2 cups of turbinado sugar
  • 1 sliced Meyer lemon
  • 1 cup of lemon juice
  • 3 quarts of spring water

Put everything—except lemon juice — into a non- reactive pot. Bring it to a slow boil, stirring often. After 30 minutes strain out the lemon and herbs (the spices are fine to leave in) to prevent the syrup from becoming bitter. Continue to simmer for another 60 to 90 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated to approximately 2 1/2 quarts and is syrupy.

When the liquid has reached the consistency of maple syrup add the lemon juice. Stir. Then, strain out remaining solids. Pour the hot syrup into sterilized pint mason jars. Use a water bath canner to process these jars of syrup for approximately 15 minutes adjusting for altitude. If you’ve never water bath canned before, please go to for safe and easy instructions.

DISCLAIMER:  Even with a remedy as familiar as elderberry, please remember to consult with your doctor, pharmacist or licensed healthcare practitioner.  The content given here is for educational purposes only. The information is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.

Advertisement 4Please bear responsibility for your, the home of a wonderful book named Foraging and Feasting by medicinal herbalist Dana Falconi. There are many excellent resources. Please feel free to comment and share some of yours!

Elderberry – Scary and Delicious, part 1

Kathleen Hale, member Herb Society of America, Western Reserve Unit

Elderberry_Blend_largeThe elder is a scary plant.

Oh, sure, it’s hardy and lovely. In June it is crowned with showy, flat umbels of fragrant flowers above its lacy foliage. Later come rich clusters of dark purple fruit, useful as a dye plant and in making delicious pie or jam. It is a valuable plant for native butterfly and bird species.

But people have often sensed something other-worldly about elder. Rightly so.

In the Harry Potter universe, a wand made of elder turns is a critical plot point balancing the battle of  good versus evil.  In J.K. Rowling’s Tales of Beetle the Bard, three wizarding brothers conjure a bridge to cross a perilous stream. And Death himself appears.

Pretending to be impressed with the brothers’ skills, he offers them the magical prize of their choice.  Supreme among those choices turns out to be the Elder Wand, which renders its owner invulnerable.  As with most deals offered by malevolent supernatural entities, the reality is a bit more complicated.  After seven Harry Potter novels, the power of the Elder Wand is ended.  Probably. You never know.

Stories about elder will tell you that witches are very fond of the elder tree. They will dance under it, in fact, as do fairies. Of course, other stories will tell you that witches fear the elder. All sources agree that mere ordinary humans should be very careful about touching the elder without first seeking permission from the Elder Mother.  She is the plant’s guardian, and is notoriously touchy.

In the 1944 film, Lavender and Old Lace, the sweet and dotty Brewster sisters selectively poison lonely old men with home-brewed elderberry wine. For their special guests, the wine is laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch” of cyanide.  My personal research has shown that a very nice, and non-toxic, brunch drink for summer is a simple mix of St. Germaine elderflower cordial and prosecco.

Actually, every part of the elder is poison without careful handling. It’s cyanidin glycosides and alkaloids are toxic, and the berries is rendered edible only if ripe, cooked and completely separated from the tiny stems affixing them to the plant.

elderberry_blend_large1.jpgThe elder, Sambucus negra, grows throughout Europe, and Sambucus canadensis grows throughout North America as well.  It grows wild in open woods and damp ravines.

In the Iroquois tradition the bark proves useful when scraped and steeped.  That tea is used as a tonic in the Spring and Fall (much like my mother, a coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia, used to make a stewed rhubarb concoction to “thin the blood”).  It has also been used for millennia for what might be delicately called “internal cleansing.”

In flu season, many people seem to be adopting the Central European tradition of ingesting Elderberry C syrup, both as a general health inducer and as a treatment for/preventer of respiratory infections. The fruit, fresh, dried or powdered, may be stewed with warming spices, themselves deemed to be soothing, and combined with honey.

Given the toxicity of the plant generally, this is a tricky proposition. As is typical of herbal preparations for health and wellness, success in clinical trials has proven elusive.  And, if you go foraging for your own elderberries, you will not only need to remember how dangerous preparation of the real thing can be, you will need to make sure you are, in fact, dealing with elderberries. Both pokeberry and hemlock have been mistaken for elderberry.  Socrates died drinking hemlock.  Don’t do it.

The Storied Uses of Verbena

By Kathleen Hale, Member, The Herb Society of America

verbenaVerbena, or vervain, is a plant with a very large family of about 250 species, and a long, rich history in its interactions with humans. It has been our companion in pagan sacrifice, in battle, in feasting, in comforting the wounded and in fostering visions.

In fact, vervain is usually highly venerated.  In pre-Christian times it was called “Isis’ Tears” and “Hera’s Tears.” In Christian legend it was used to staunch the wound in Christ’s side at the crucifixion.  The name, “verbena,” comes from the Latin for a plant sacred to the gods, and it was one of the plants customarily burnt in the worship of Jove.

In the Middle Ages, magical attributes of vervain –generally the repelling of evil — were legendary. Carrying leaves of vervain into battle could protect the wearer from his enemies.

Then again, vervain just wants to have fun: four leaves and four roots of vervain, soaked in wine, produced a potion that, when sprinkled around a feasting place, would ensure all would be merry.

In the Shawnee tradition, vervain is one of the herbs used to foster beneficial visions. The Iroquois tradition has a more pragmatic use: Giving the mashed leaves steeped in cold water to an obnoxious son-in-law or daughter-in-law to induce them to leave.

Historic herbalist Hildegard of Bingen advised that water in which vervain has been stewed may be used on linen cloths to draw out infection, and even worms, from wounds. There have been claims, too, that vervain might be useful in treatments to remove lice.

North American native verbena, often called blue or purple verbena, is hardy in zones 3 to 8, and common in the eastern United States. Glandularia canadensis, or “rose verbena,” like most of the American native varieties, is happy in damp places.

20180621_082536 (1)In contrast European verbena varieties insist on good drainage. Authorities differ on whether European verbena is, in fact, a verbena. But it is a splendid perennial, good in zones 5 to 8, mingling happily with silvery companions, and requiring very little attention.

Medical disclaimer

Yet another variety, lemon verbena is grown widely today for its use in teas or for its essential oils. It is believed to have a calming effect on the digestion, and to be useful in fostering weight loss, perhaps because it may act as a diuretic. Proving these claims in controlled trials has been elusive, but lemon verbena is certainly refreshing and its scent is uplifting.





Hitchhiking Sprout is Beautiful Vitex Tree

By Mary Nell Jackson, HSA member

VitexWho knew this hitchhiker would grow into a beautiful tree. My first vitex came tucked in the soil of a plant I purchased long ago. I wasn’t sure of the little sprout that appeared and let it grow. It turned out to be Vitex agnus-castus, my lucky day!

This herbal tree is also called Abraham’s balm, Indian spice, chaste tree, and monks’ pepper. The common name of monks’ pepper refers to the medieval belief that potions made from the black berries that form after bloom time helped monks maintain their vow of chastity.  It is also used medicinally to help with female PMS.

Its name “vitex,” is derived from the Latin word “vieo meaning to weave or tie up.  Indeed, the flexible limbs of some species of vitex are used for basketweaving.

Bees and butterflies love this small tree which makes it a great choice to plant near a butterfly garden. Vitex is a Texas Superstar Plant and comes in lavender/blue, pink and white blossom colors. Vitex agnus-castus is native to the Mediterranean area and is hardy to Zone 6. Even if it dies back to the ground, it will return and bloom on new wood.  It easily reseeds in the right growing conditions.

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Many gardeners refer to this tree as Texas lilac… I call it my Hitchhiker.


Medicinal Disclaimer – This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

The Immortal House Leek

By Kathleen Hale, Member, The Herb Society of America

Everybody loves the story of someone ordinary, much like ourselves perhaps, who becomes a princess, a rock star, a famous and sought after celebrity. With apologies to Meghan Markle, the House Leek did it first.

Its botanical name Sempervivuns, “always alive,” hints at this dual nature.  What could be more magical?  But, at the same time, what could make it more appealing to the timid gardener?  It is something that even the most forgetful caregiver cannot kill.

But the House Leek (also known as Hen and Chicks, Saint Patrick’s Cabbage and Welcome-Home-Husband-Though Never-So Drunk) promises so much more.

Other names link Sempervivuns with divinity, like Jupiter’s Beard (Jovibarba), and Thor’s Beard (Donnerbart). This might be the link with its more domestic names and uses: the House Leek was believed to protect the home from lightning.  If you could establish a colony on your roof, it was wise to do so.

Modern brides have embraced the Sempervivuns as part of their wedding planning.  Real plants are very dependable additions to table decorations, and lend a pretty, silvery, blue green backdrop for pretty much any color scheme.  Artificial plants are astonishingly lifelike.  And wedding cakes are now frequently topped with sprays of Hens and Chicks, modeled in fondant and frosting.

Sempervivuns has been grown for its reputed healing properties, which are much like those of aloe, which is somewhat resembles.  Its mucilaginous, acidic sap has been used to soothe skin irritations and burns. When it produces its sprays of pink, or sometimes white, flowers it will attract pollinators.  When it produces its first, luscious regrowth in Spring, it will be nibbled by mammals, but will quickly recover. Some varieties are crowned with an intricate networks of delicate web-like threads.  Some have rosettes sheathed in velvet.

In the Language of Flowers, Sempervivuns is linked with “vivacity.” Historic herbalist  Hildegard of Bingen promises something rather more. “If a man eats house leek who was healthy in his genital nature, he would be on fire with desire.” She also advises that, properly administered, it also restores hearing to the deaf, and thus is known as “Earwart”.

Unlike most succulents, Sempervivuns are sturdily able to survive frost, and can be grown in USDA zones 3 to 11.   Where they have adequate root drainage, they can live up to their botanical name and propagate through side shoots into large, dense mats. Where they are very happy, they grow wild. And this has led to the wholesale theft of roadside, hillside colonies of free range Sempervivuns for resale to the Asian domestic market. California coastal highways are being denuded, and the plants smuggled to Japan, China and Korea, where they are a high-status houseplant.

Those of us who have painstakingly nestled baby Sempervivuns plants onto sopping wet sphagnum moss wreaths could tell these aspiring Asian home gardeners that they’re in for a challenge.  The paradox lies in how difficult it can be to get a plant that thrives on neglect to flourish indoors. It has a mind of its own, and that pretty much sums up the nature of something both domestic and divine.

Herb Oils & Tinctures Elevate Massage

Herb Oils & Tinctures Elevate Massage

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

IMG-4620When Lauren Palsa was eight-years- old she’d mix yard clippings from her Munson, Ohio, backyard into magic potions. The only child of two self-employed parents had a vivid imagination and used these potions to heal her neighbors’ pretend ailments. Twenty-plus years later Lauren is still doing the same thing. Well, not quite. As a massage therapist  the holistic healer has added herbs into her body work. She works with oils, tinctures, salves and more to elevate the massage experience.

For example, when I recently visited her in Willoughby, Ohio, she used an oil infused with St. John’s Wort as a hormone balancer and anti-inflammatory while pressuring tension from my trapezius and rhomboid muscles. Then, she worked oil infused with foraged Solomon’s seal into the skin of my arthritic big toes. Both were wonderful.

IMG-4616“The plant I use most often – Solomon’s seal — is a result of my body work,” she says.” It is an incredible musculoskeletal ally. Infused in oil and rubbed on the skin it helps people with aches, strains, pains. I also drop kava, chamomile, or passion flower tincture down the spine to sooth and restore the nervous system.”

While she doesn’t make medical claims, Lauren is a trained herbalist who discusses a client’s medical history and medications before suggesting herbs. An herbalist is defined as “an individual collaborating with plants to facilitate health and wellness.”

Lauren’s favorite herb is always changing, often following the season. “I was just on a dandelion kick,” she says. “I was drinking dandelion tea as I was making dandelion tincture as I was drying dandelion roots.” Dandelion is purportedly good as a skin toner, blood tonic, and digestive tonic and more.

To learn more about herbalist Lauren or subscribe to her newsletter, visit

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