Watch Webinar on Native Wildflowers

By Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair


American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) a globally rare plant species

The diversity of the world’s plants has dwindled and/or is threatened. In fact the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that 54 percent of the 19,000 plant species they have identified are at risk. In New England it is estimated that almost 20 percent of New England’s native plants are on the verge of being lost and  another 5 percent has already disappeared. Native plants are under threat from invasive species, habitat loss, climate changes among other impacts.

The New England Wildflower Society seeks to preserve New England native plants. Based at the Garden in The Woods botanic garden in Framingham, Massachusetts, their mission is, “to conserve and promote the region’s native plants to ensure healthy, biologically diverse landscapes.” They secure and preserve seeds from rare plants to protect genetic diversity. They also educate everyone from hobby gardeners to landscape professionals on the importance of natives as wells as encourage the use of natives in the home garden.

dan jaffeThe New England Wildflower Society is a terrific resource. Their “Go Botany” page offers a rich, searchable database which is a wonderful aid in helping to self-identify natives and learn about plants indigenous to the area. Beyond that they propagate natives that are sold to the general public making them more accessible to enthusiasts. Plants are available during the growing season at Garden in the Woods and Nasami Farmursery in Whately, Massachusetts.

While visiting the New England Wildflower Society is not feasible for everyone you will have an opportunity to learn from them. The society’s propagator and stock bed grower, Dan Jaffe, is the Herb Society of America’s guest webinar speaker at 1 p.m. EST on Thursday, September 27. Dan is known for his infectious enthusiasm, beautiful photography, and rich knowledge of natives. Don’t miss “For Us and Them: Edible Native Plants for Pollinators.” This program is free to Herb Society members and just $5 for the general public. Sign up for the webinar.

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A Tiptoe Through the Tulips

A Tiptoe Through the Tulips

By Maryann Readal, HSA Secretary 

On a recent trip to Turkey, I became fascinIMG_0994ated with tulips (Tulipa spp.) and their history. But it seemed a questionable topic for a blog post for the Herb Society of America because we all know that tulips are not herbs—or  are they?? Well, using the definition of an herb by Holly Shimizu, HSA member and former Executive Director of the U.S. Botanic Garden and first curator of the National Herb Garden, tulips definitely could qualify as herbs. According to Holly:

“Herbs are defined as plants (trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, biennials or annuals) valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide.”

Tulips definitely fit the history part of the definition as they have been cultivated in Turkey since 1000AD. Tulip history did not begin in Holland.  These bulbs grew wild in central Asia and were first cultivated for medicinal purposes by the Turkish people as early as 1000AD.  Suleiman the Magnificent, Turkish ruler from 1520-1566 grew many tulips in his gardens. It is said that he gave the bulbs to his ambassadors as a gift to Holland.

Carolus Clusius, a botanist at the University of Leiden is credited with bringing these bulbs to the attention of the world in the early 1600’s. Captivated by these beautiful spring bulbs, the Dutch began to grow them and the tulip industry became a big business, leading to an era called ‘Tulip Mania.’ Speculation on tulip bulbs began and rare bulbs became extremely valuable as people speculated on tulips as they do on gold and futures today. Some bulbs were valued at thousands of dollars each. This led to an economic crisis in Holland in 1637 when the tulip market crashed, causing what some say was the first economic bubble to burst. But what survived from this crisis was that Holland became the epicenter for tulip bulb culture in the world, exporting over 3 billion bulbs annually  .

IMG_0977In Turkish culture, tulips became a symbol of paradise on earth. The Turkish word for tulip is ‘lale’ and when written in Arabic, it has the same letters as Allah resulting in the tulip becoming a holy symbol. Europeans are credited with naming the flower ‘tulip’ which was derived from the Turkish word for turban, which the tulip resembles.

The tulip has long influenced the arts. Ceramic tiles with tulip motifs decorate the walls, ceilings and floors of historical buildings and mosques in Turkey. Turkish ceramics today still incorporate the popular tulip flower. The tulip is the Turkish and Iranian national flower and is also the logo for Turkish Airlines. It is also the logo for the Parkinson Society as a worldwide symbol of the disease. Tulip motifs can be found in many paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and were the subject of classic and modern Persian literature. The Black Tulip is the title of a historical romance by the French author Alexandre Dumas. The story takes place in the Dutch city of Haarlem, where a reward is offered to the first grower who can produce a truly black tulip.

Some ancient medical books have reported medicinal uses of tulips.  Interestingly it is said that research on the medicinal uses of tulips was prohibited by the high cost of the bulb. Tulip flowers have been used as a poultice for insect bites, bee stings and have provided relief from scratches, itches and skin irritations, although some report an allergic reaction to it.  Tulip sap also has diuretic and antiseptic properties and has been used to treat coughs and colds. In Afghanistan, the tulip was eaten to gain strength.

IMG_0976Cosmetic uses of tulips include using the essential oil as a skin moisturizer. Also red tulip petals can be crushed and rubbed on the cheeks to give a natural blush and to conceal blemishes.

During World War II and the famine of 1944-45 in Holland, the Dutch ate tulip bulbs because there was nothing else to eat. They also ground the bulbs into a flour to make bread. Today, we use only the petals of the tulip in culinary preparations as parts of the bulb can be toxic. The colorful and tasty sweet petals can be used in salads or as holders for chicken or other salads. HSA member Pat Crocker in her new book Herbalist’s Kitchen: Cooking and Healing with Herbs suggests using tulips in cooking as you would use squash flowers.

Today there are more than 100 species and more than 3,000 varieties of tulips with new varieties being created all of the time. Tulips are the third-most popular flower in the floral industry.  This is no wonder because in the meaning of flowers, the red tulip is a symbol of true love.

Medical disclaimerA tiptoe through tulip history reveals the many uses and meanings of the ever popular tulip, which I believe, according to Ms. Shimizu’s definition, we could call an herb. But you can ponder that question for yourself as you plant your tulip bulbs this fall.

Annatto: Herb of September

By Karen Kennedy, HSA Educator

Annatto WallpaperIn keeping with its educational mission, the Herb Society of America names an Herb of the Month throughout the calendar.

The herb for September 2018 is annatto. It is an orange-red dye or colorant, flavoring for food and healing agent derived from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana)The tree is an evergreen native to tropic and subtropic zones of the Americas. Annatto is often found at ethnic grocers or online.

  • Annatto is available powdered or pre-ground, whole seeds, paste, blocks and flavored oil.
  • It is commonly used in Mexican cooking, especially in the Yucatan; it is also used in Caribbean and Filipino dishes. Aztecs used it to enhance the color of hot chocolate.
  • In large amounts the flavor has been described as earthy, slightly peppery and sweet. Used in small amounts as a colorant it has no discernable flavor.
  • Foods colored with the pigment range from yellow to deep orange. They include chorizo sausage, cheese (like cheddar and American), smoked fish, popcorn, oil, butter, margarine, rice as well as processed products like snacks and breakfast cereals
  • The herb can be found in skincare products past and present. Historically rainforest tribes and natives of the Caribbean used it as body paint. They called the plant “the lipstick tree” because of this.
  • Antimicrobial and high in antioxidants and carotenoids, the paint was also used as a sunscreen, and bug repellent.

Susan Belsinger Named Herb Society’s 2018-2020 Honorary President

By Maryann Readal,IMG_5679 HSA Secretary

Susan Belsinger – a nationally known herbalist – was chosen as The Herb Society of America’s Honorary President 2018-2020 for her extensive involvement in the world of herbs. HSA chooses an Honorary President every two years to coincide with the HSA President’s term of office. The Honorary President is chosen based on exemplary work in the field of herbs and in areas important to The Herb Society of America.

“Susan lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal,” says Rie Sluder, HSA’s president for 2018-2020. She has written books and her work has been published in notable herbal magazines and newspapers around the country. She has spoken extensively throughout the United States and Canada and has appeared on many TV programs including Good Morning America, CBS Morning News, NPR, to name just a few.

At the 2018 HSA meeting of members Susan energized members with her challenge to spread their passion and enthusiasm about herbs. “They are downright fun,” she said, adding that she has “even sold herbs to the grocery store checker.”

The Culinary Herbal book

Susan intends to be an active honorary president. She encouraged members to renew their passion and enthusiasm for herbs and to work toward increasing membership in The Society. “Get out there and show the rest of the world how to use them (herbs) and what fun they are,” she said.

Follow Susan’s weekly blog at Her blogs are full of gardening information, travel and great recipes. Her latest book is The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs is co-authored by Arthur O. Tucker. More information about Susan and her work can be found at

Clary Sage May Increase Effects of Alcohol

By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

IMG_8287Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) had the coolest name in the Middle Ages: “Oculus Christi”, or the “Eye of Christ”. It is also known as clear eye and eye bright. Which makes it sound both sublime and cozy.

Clary is a native of the northern Mediterranean region, and grows cheerfully to Zone 5, when provided with full sun and excellent drainage. It grows as a biennial or tender perennial, producing soft, furry gray green rosettes in the first year, and sprouting spires of pale lilac flowers in the second. While it is part of the salvia family, like true sage, clary has its own habit and uses.  The two sages are not the same. But since oil derived from clary is lower in the shared component thujone, it is sometimes used as a substitute. Its reputed ability to help reduce stress and ease depression appears to be associated with thujone’s interaction with the production of dopamine.

Clary is now grown primarily for its flowers, which are used in aromatherapy and as a fixative in perfumes and potpourri. But historically clary seeds were used to relieve diseases or discomfort of the eyes. Each seed is encased in a thick, gluey goo coating described as “mucilaginous.”  When the seed is deposited in the eye of someone suffering from an eye malady, this might soothe the eye, and might adhere to something caught in the eye, facilitating removal of the irritant. Since it is also reputed to have antibacterial properties, it might also help with inflammation and infection. Of course, you are still talking about putting a goopy seed in someone’s eye.


Medical use of clary goes back to at least the 4th century BCE in Greece, and it is mentioned by the great Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder in the 1st century CE.  Our old friend Hildegarde of Bingen, 11th century abbess and wonder woman, concocts an antidote to poison by cooking clary sage with honey and rue, combining it with a little thorn apple, and straining the mixture through a cloth.  A patient consuming this preparation can be expected to make the previously ingested poison pass “through vomiting or through the bowels, unless the poison is so strong that it brings death.”

It had more mundane uses, too.  You could chop it up and put it in an omelet or in wine.  It is said to have sweet, nutty odor, or a fragrance similar to lavender. Or balsam. Or camphor.  Or something else pleasant. But sniff it before you commit.  I think it smells nasty.

Clary is now added to hair preparations, because (like rosemary, with which it is often combined) it is supposed to foster hair growth. It was also added to ale to “make it more heady, fit to please drunkards.” This is a particularly interesting observation, because it also reputed to increase the effect of alcohol.Medical disclaimer

But if this leads to a later indisposition, Hildegarde advises a warm clary compress: “tie the head with a piece of cloth, and sleep that way; the person will get better.”

Save Herb Seeds from Home Garden

By Peggy Riccio, author of

20180830_094851.jpgAs your herbs flower and set seed think of what you would like to save for next year. Saving seed can be easy and cost effective. In addition to saving seed to plant in your garden next year, you can give away seed packets as gifts or participate in seed swaps.

To save seeds, you have to separate the seeds from the fruit and dry them completely. If you strike a seed with a hammer and it shatters or if it snaps cleanly when bent, the seed is dry enough. When they are this dry, store in a cool, dark place in jars or put in envelopes. Always label with a plant name and date.

While two methods exist for separating and cleaning the seed, I use the dry method for seeds that are in dried flowers, dried husks, or dried pods like marigolds, cone flowers, calendula, dianthus, basil, mustards, fennel.

Dry Method of Saving Seeds

20180830_094532Usually the plant has more than one flower head, each with their own timeline of flowering and setting seeds. During the summer, when the individual flower head has dried or when most of the seeds appear to be dried, cut the seed head and put in a paper bag. Cut when the stalks are brown at least an inch down from the seed head. Label the bag with the plant name and date. Continue to cut and save this way until you are ready to separate seed.

Some flowers, such as nasturtiums, have a single flower that blooms and drops revealing a seemingly empty calyx. Soon though a seed will grow and become prominent, making it easy to separate and save.

In the winter, when I can’t go outside and garden, I gather all my bags and sit down at the dining room table. I put the seed heads on a white dinner plate or a cookie sheet to make it easier to see the seeds and prevent them from rolling off the table. By this time, the seeds and husks are completely dry and I simply pull apart the seed from the husk on the plate. If it is easy to remove, like marigolds, I put the seeds in a glass jar. If it is a fine seed with a lot of husks, I thrash it around in a large paper bag so that the seed falls to the bottom. I pull out and throw away the stems and pods and dump out the seeds on a cookie sheet. I separate further on the plate or I use a sieve. If the seed has a lot of chaff, I continue to separate seed by screening with a sieve. Eventually I work my way down from large grocery bags to small jars.

Open Pollinated versus Heirloom Plants

20180830_094831When saving seeds, it is important to know if your plant is open-pollinated or a hybrid. If they are open pollinated, then the next generation will be the same. You will get the same plant with the same characteristics such as flower color or flavor. Heirlooms are open pollinated so you can save seeds of heirlooms and grow the same plant each year.

If the plant is a hybrid, it was produced by crossing two genetically distinct parents. The hybrid was bred to have desirable characteristics such as disease resistance or better flavor. In seed catalogs, hybrids are often referred to as “F1”s – filial 1 hybrid. If you save the seed of this plant, the next generation may not retain the same desirable characteristics. You will get the same type of plant, but the plant may not be the same color or not be resistant to a disease.

Try these simple methods to save seed for your own home garden or to give as gifts. Consider saving seeds for seed swaps with friends or local seed swap events.

Author Peggy Riccio gardens in a typical suburban Northern Virginia home. She graduated from Virginia Tech with a horticulture degree and has been involved in horticultural communications for more than 20 years. Currently, she is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America. Riccio produces, a local gardening website for the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC metro area. Pegplant offers local gardening news, resources, and information about gardening, gardens, and plants.membership ad 2

Jimson Weed is an American Patriot

By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Jimson weed flowerPerhaps the first struggle between American colonists and the Crown was fought, not with cannon or muskets or even tea, but with a sinister native herb. Datura stramonium, also known as jimson weed, thorn apple, hell’s bells, locoweed, devil’s cucumber and the devil’s snare, was the enemy. A member of the nightshade family, its name “jimson” is a corruption of “Jamestown,” the name of the first continuous English colony on American soil.

Jimson weed is an annual, growing into an erect shrub up to five feet tall, with large, smooth leaves, and long, trumpet-like tubular white flowers. The flowers smell lovely, but the rest of the plant stinks. It doesn’t just stink, it tastes bad as well. At least, that’s what I hear, and I am content not to test that.

Although jimson weed was valued and widely introduced to Europe for its medicinal values, its effects can be nasty, even lethal. And so, European gardeners are urged to remove any plants that they find.  And they are advised to wear gloves. The seeds are contained by the hundreds in a spiny, protective capsule). This is easier said than done because seeds can lie dormant for several seasons before sprouting, and are carried widely by birds.

Every part of the plant contains dangerous levels of the tropane alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine which, in carefully controlled quantities, have been used for anesthesia and to induce visions.  A tiny bit more can kill you. And something in between will cause a nauseated delirium.

People being people, some have tried to use D. stramonium to obtain a recreational high.  It’s usually not tried twice.  In Haiti, a tradition suggests ingesting the seeds leads to creation of zombies.

That brings us to the reason the plant’s common name includes a reference to Jamestown. In 1676, colonist Nathaniel Bacon had a beef with colonial Governor William Berkeley. Because of a widely held perception that the governor was corrupt and that English authorities were repressive a popular rebellion started and grew.

As part of the rebellion colonists chased the governor out of town and torched the settlement.  Any rebellion would be alarming, but Bacon’s Rebellion united both free white settlers and indentured servants and enslaved persons. British authorities found that a very dangerous state of affairs indeed.  This would sound noble; however, one of the rebels’ aims was to annihilate or remove native tribes.

Skirmishes continued for years.  During the time – according to a story reported in 1705 by Robert Beverly – some of the occupying force was given D. stramonium to eat in a “boiled salad.” The king’s representatives spent the next 11 days in the town lockup, delirious and incapacitated. But they did get better, and we are told, forgot what had passed.  The story is immortalized in the plant’s common name, jimson or Jamestown weed.

Medical disclaimerPeople still show up in emergency rooms with poisoning from exposure to jimson weed.  This can present a real challenge to medical personnel, since the patient is incoherent, and may have no idea what he or she ingested to cause the problem. Entire families have been laid low after enjoying a stew of foraged greens.

And so, the plant deserves a little respect.