Herbalist Hildegard of Bingen

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Unit

Once upon a time, about 1098 to 1179, there was a little girl named Hildegard. She was the tenth of ten children. Her parents were “minor nobility,” but ten kids are a lot of kids. When she was eight years old, Hildegard’s parents gifted her to a convent.

Later, when she wrote her autobiography, she would say that she had started having visions from the time she was six. In these visions, Hildegard witnessed “the fiery life of divine essence,” a living light. This light spoke to Hildegard (in Latin) and explained…everything. Some modern commentators speculate that Hildegard might have suffered from migraines. The visions tended to leave her drained and exhausted.

The care and education of little Hildegard was entrusted to a remarkable woman named Jutta. They lived together in a cottage on the grounds of the Abbey of Saint Disibode, founded by an Irish monk at Disibodenberg. Hildegard became a literate and accomplished woman, took vows as a nun, and continued to have visions. She wrote her first book, Scivias, which means “Know the Ways”, between 1141 and 1151, in which she talked about her visions. She herself painted the image that became the front of the book and portrayed her repeated vision of receiving light. This is the image. She’s writing down things on a wax tablet, discussing things with her secretary. (My children claim the image reminds them of various sci-fi alien visitations.)

Hildegard's visions

The book was a great success. The Bishop of Mainz, (now in Germany), read it, and passed it on to Pope Eugenius III, who became a fan. The literal “enlightenment” that Hildegard received from her visions was examined by the Pope and a special committee. They concluded that her visions were divine. The Pope told her to go on and write whatever the Spirit told her to write. Can you imagine what a big deal that was?

The book was a big hit with women who wanted to join Hildegard, in her rather austere monastic life. The community of women at Disodenberg outgrew its quarters. So she moved to Rupertsberg, near Bingen. Although she traveled widely, she lived mostly at Bingen for the rest of her life, writing other books…and a play…and music. Hildegard wrote about everything. Theology, natural science and medicine were, for her, all part of the same spectrum of knowledge. Just for fun, she made up her own language. She corresponded with four popes and the crowned heads of Europe, giving them personal advice.

This was, as her painting suggests, a woman on fire.

Hildegard’s book, Physica, or Liber Simplicis Medicinae, begins with the study of plants. She goes on, in her delightfully methodical way, to discuss elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals. But the section on plants contains entries on more than two hundred plants with medicinal uses. Mostly these were plants that could probably be found in the monastery garden or the nearby woods and fields. Some were exotic but could be purchased. This was, after all, the time of the Crusades. People were traveling, and when they got back from all that bloodletting, they brought back cosmopolitan tastes.

Hildegard organized her observations about each plant in accordance with the understanding of the time: the division of all matter into combinations of the four elements of hot, cold, wet, and dry. It was all a matter of balance. This understanding of the universe sounds strange to modern ears. But Hildegard was a renaissance woman before the Renaissance. She may have made up her own language, but she expressed her understanding of plants in the language of the time.

Hildegard, while aware of the hand of God in all things, was essentially a pragmatist. All things were created by God to serve man. Good plants nourish, and restore elemental balance. Bad plants may be used by the devil to bring ruin to those foolish enough to be deceived by them.

Here are some of Hildegard’s thoughts – from Physica — about herbs you may have in your herb garden or pantry right now:

  • LAVENDER (Lavendula) is warm and dry since it has just a little moisture. It is not worth a person to eat it, but it does have a strong smell. If a person has many lice, let the person smell lavender frequently; the lice will die. And its smell clears the eyes since it contains the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the bitterest one. Therefore, it constrains many evil things, and evil spirits are driven out by it.
  •  NUTMEG (Nux muscata) has great warmth and good temperament in its strength. If a person eats nutmeg, it opens the heart and purifies the senses and brings a good disposition. Take some nutmeg, an equal weight of cinnamon, and a little cloves. Grind these to a powder, add a similar amount of whole wheat flour and a little water, and make a paste from this. Then eat it often. It will calm all the bitterness of heart and mind, open the heart and clouded senses and diminish all the noxious humors; it will contribute good liquid to the blood and make one strong.
  •  ROSE (Rosa) is cold and this same coldness has a useful temperament in it. At daybreak of in the morning, take a rose leaf and place it over your eye; this draws out the humor and makes it clear. Let whoever has a weeping ulcer on his or her body, place a rose leaf over it and draw out the pus. But rose also strengthens any potion or ointment or other medication when it is added to it. And these are so much better if only a little rose has been added to them. This is from the good strength of the rose, as previously mentioned.

Cloves will help a stuffy nose, gout, and dropsy. Hellebore is good for a fever. Wild thyme is curative for those suffering from “a sick brain.” And there are a lot of things that will foster sexual desire, with or without a corresponding increase in fertility.

This is a very small sample. For more, see Bruce W. Hozesli’s translation in Hildegard’s Healing Plants (2001). It’s terrific fun.

Hildegard was obviously a woman of substantial importance in her own time. A Jesuit friend of mine says she used to terrorize her local bishops. I love that. While the process of recognizing her as a saint of the Roman Catholic church began with her beatification in 1326, Hildegard wasn’t canonized until 2012, when she became a Doctor of the Church. Hildegard’s influence was there, quietly waiting for the world to catch up with her. It’s time to share, with delight, her extraordinary divine alchemy.

Incredibly Smelly Plants and the Gardeners Who Love Them

Incredibly Smelly Plants and the Gardeners Who Love Them

corpse flower

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Unit

Two of my most esteemed gardening goddess friends recently posted doting accounts on social media about the blooming of their cherished Voodoo Lilies. Amorphophallus bulbifer, belongs to a genus which includes some 170 tropical and subtropical tuberous herbaceous plants of the Arum family.

The meaning of its botanical name itself is somewhat unlovely. “Amorphophallus” comes from the Latin for “deformed phallus.”

Also known as “corpse flower,” it exudes the stench of rotting flesh. This is practical, if you –like Amorphophallus — need flies to pollinate and ensure the survival of your kind. And if — like Amorphophallas — you only produce one flower each season, that stank had better be potent.

When each Amorphophallus plant produces its single flower, that flower releases its “scent” for only a day or two, before withering and falling from the plant. After an indefinite time of rest, the tuber will produce a single leaf, which is reportedly deer resistant. The plant is not cold hardy. Those who love them must nurse the tuber indoors through the winter, in order to enjoy the next inflorescence in the late spring. That flowering, when it comes, grows quickly into an enormous priapic bloom, sometimes four to six feet long. The smell has been described by many sources as resembling that of a mouse several days dead.

There are very large varieties of these “carrion plants”. Some have tubers that weigh in excess of 100 pounds and grow more than 6 feet tall. Those are the ones that may be worth a special visit to a conservatory or greenhouse, and when the word gets out that one is about to bloom, lines can form like those for a Disney ride. But a careful home gardener can buy a tuber for a smaller or even dwarf variety, for a more personalized stench experience. It can take several years for a new tuber to mature to flowering size. In its home in the Indonesian rain forest, a plant may take ten years to bloom. In the meantime, it can be kept as a low-light house plant.

Amorphophallus is not vulnerable to the usual garden pests, but is toxic to pets and people. However, with careful preparation, it has been used by humans as food in time of famine.

The tuber of one variety of Amorphaphallas, konjac, is used to make a thickening agent in traditional Japanese cuisine, called konnyaku.

My friends presently exalting in the exquisite odors of their very own voodoo lilies are much to be admired, or even envied. But I will console myself with the fact that one may watch the annual opening of famous corpse flowers in real time on Amazon. Maybe I’ll unearth a dead mouse to keep me company.

Lemon Verbena – Herb of the Month July 2019

Lemon Verbena – Herb of the Month July 2019

lemon verbenaBy Maryann Readal, HSA Secretary

Lemon Verbena has literary connections. Were you a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House on the Prairie? If you watched the popular television series in the 70’s and 80’s, you may remember that lemon verbena was the favorite perfume of Laura’s teacher Miss Beadle. You may also recall that in Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s mother wore lemon verbena perfume. According to Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay in their book, Southern Herb Growing, it is sometimes called the Scarlett O’Hara herb.

This delicate, lemony herb was a popular herb for perfume in Victorian times. It was often sewn into seams of clothing and its lemony scent made it a favorite addition to the tussie-mussie. The dried leaf keeps its fragrance a very long time, making lemon verbena an understandable choice for potpourris.

Lemon verbena, Aloysia citriodora, is native to South America and was brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 17th century. Being from South America, it is a plant that grows outdoors best in warmer climates where it can reach a height of 6-8 feet. It must be brought indoors in the North for the winter. Here in my Texas 8b partially shaded garden, it does very well outside with little care, as long as it is protected from our occasional hard freezes.

An interesting fact about this herb is that it is deciduous. So do not give up on it when it loses its leaves in the fall. The leaves will grow back in the spring. Trimming back in the spring will keep its growth tidy.

Medicinally, the flowering tips and leaves have been used to ease digestive disorders, as a sedative, and as a fever reducer. It has antimicrobial properties but its effectiveness has not been sufficiently studied. Although it has been rated as safe for human consumption by the FDA, folks with kidney problems should use it sparingly.

Lemon verbena makes a nice tea and can be used in any recipe that calls for lemon. Fresh leaves are tough so they should be chopped finely before adding to recipes. Bury 6 or 7 leaves in a cup of sugar in a closed container and you will have a nicely flavored sugar for use in your tea.

It is summer, it is hot. Here is an easy, refreshing, and cooling sorbet to cleanse your palette.

Lemon Sorbet
1 ½ cups water, divided
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. finely chopped lemon verbena leaves
1 cup fresh lemon juice (about 6 lemons)

Combine ½ cup water and the sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring often until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and stir in remaining 2 cups of water and lemon verbena. Refrigerate sugar mixture until cold, about 2 hours. Stir lemon juice into sugar mixture. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. Freeze in a covered container until firm, about 4 hours. Makes about 1 quart.

Serve alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Sprinkle with Limoncello liqueur and finely chopped lemon verbena leaves. —  From the Texas Thyme Unit Thyme to Cook cookbook.

For more information and ideas for using lemon verbena, go to The Herb Society of America’s website for the Herb of the Month for July.

Ophelia, Herbalista

Ophelia, Herbalista

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Ophelia is having a moment. This summer she’s the heroine of a major motion picture. She is portrayed by Daisy Ridley, who is also presently portraying, Rey, the heroine of the most recent Star Wars trilogy. This may seem strange, since Ophelia is a fictional character who is more than 400 years old. But she has had her moments before, most notably in the Victorian era. She was the darling subject of several eminent British Pre-Raphaelite painters, who had their respective models/muses/mistresses pose in bathtubs to come up with images like this:


OPHELIA, John Everett Milais (1852)

Ophelia was the beloved of Hamlet, hero of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Hamlet was a very bad boyfriend, but he was a complicated guy, and things in Elsinore were dark and scary.

Everybody used poor Ophelia as a pawn, while loudly explaining to everyone else how much they loved her. She finally had enough, and ended up dead, singing herbal songs to herself as she floated downstream to her doom.

Apparently, the drowning of a poor girl, rather like this (minus the dynastic intrigue) had happened back in Stratford, and Shakespeare was impressed enough with the image to pull it out of his hat as a very dramatic end for poor Ophelia.

But why did Shakespeare’s Ophelia go fatally floating down the river singing about herbs?

She, not unlike Hamlet, had begun to talk apparent and often bawdy nonsense after the death of her own father, Polonius. Clearly, she has gone mad. Well, possibly. There’s a lot of that going around at the castle.

She hands out flowers to those around her, citing their symbolic meanings, although she keeps for herself only rue, for remembrance. Everyone shakes their heads, metaphorically, and says it is very sad. Then they let her go down to the river, where, offstage, she climbs out onto a willow branch while garlanded with flowers. When the bough broke, Ophelia fell, still singing, still wreathed with flowers, floating away until her end. Later, there’s a lot of bluster and dueling over her grave. Because they all loved her so much.

What was Ophelia trying to tell us? First, the girl is upset. She distributes the following:

  • Rosemary, to her brother, Laertes, for remembrance and faithfulness. She may be saying goodbye, or she may be putting him on his guard.
  • Pansy, for faithfulness, is, she says, “for thoughts.”
  • Fennel and columbine, given to the murderous and possibly adulterous King Claudius, mean flattery and unfaithfulness.
  • Rue, used at the time to induce abortion, is very bitter. Its meanings evolved to incorporate two aspects: for adultery and bitter repentance. This she gives both Queen Gertrude and her, although she tells the Queen, “O, you must wear your rue with a difference.” She both seems to identify with the Queen’s difficulties and to distance herself from them. Which could mean lots of things.
  • Daisy: for innocence. She discards it.
  • Violet, for fidelity. “I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.” I don’t know exactly who this targets. Hamlet killed her father accidentally, when he thought he was killing his stepfather/uncle. Did I mention things were complicated at Elsinore? But whoever is the target, it’s obviously a slam.

Hamlet, obviously, is foremost in her thoughts, although he is not present in the scene. How many of these messages are meant for him? How much is a coded message, either to the audience or to the Court? Or is this truly, only the babbling of a mad woman?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. But it has a dream logic and an elegance that draws us in. Which is why this fictional waif is still having movies made about her, I suppose. Here’s to remembrance

St. John’s Wort and Midsummer Celebrations

By Maryann Readal, HSA Secretary

Many years ago farmers called June 24th “Midsummer Day,” as it marked the halfway point between planting and harvesting. As such, it was a time to celebrate.

St. Johns wort plantMidsummer Day is also St. John’s Day and according to the Bible, the day John the Baptist was born. And it heralded the birth of Christ just six months later. For this reason, June 24th was an important day for early Christians. St. John’s Day and Midsummer Day occur near the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, which for its own reasons was celebrated since Greek and Roman times.

In pre-Christian times, turning points in the year were thought to be magical. The evening before Midsummer Day was especially so. It was thought that this was the time when magic was more powerful and the spirit world was close. It was the porter’s wife in Washington Irving’s Old Christmas who said that this was a time “when it is well known all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies become visible and walk abroad.”

In Medieval times, it was common to celebrate Midsummer Eve with bonfires and to collect special herbs. These herbs included the perennial herb St. John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum. St. John’s wort was believed to have special protective powers. It could protect one against demons and witches. Carried in your pocket it would protect you from thunder. Smelling the leaves or drinking a potion made from the plant would cure you of madness. In Medieval times, it was hung over doors, windows and religious icons to keep witches and evil spirits away. One needed to have some on hand on Midsummer Eve.

St. Johns wort flowerSt. John’s wort was also considered a special plant on this day because its bright yellow flowers looked like the sun, which was a significant coincidence around the longest day of the year. Even the Greeks and Romans thought this to be important. The flowers have five petals and long stamens that look like the rays of the sun. The stamens are topped with little golden balls of pollen giving the appearance that each flower is a sunburst. Also, it is said that the flowers are heliotropic, following the sun from east to west as it crosses the sky, which was considered a supernatural phenomenon in olden days. Some even claim that squeezing the petal of the flower will produce a red juice, reminiscent of the blood of John the Baptist, although I have not found that to be true in the species growing in my garden.

Still today in European countries, St. John’s Eve is celebrated with bonfires and is marked with the gathering of the herbs of midsummer. Indeed in some Spanish villages, special bouquets called herbas de San Xoán are made up and sold for this day.

st. johns wort mixIn northern Spain’s Galicia, it is the custom for women to place St. John’s wort and other herbs in a bowl of water after sunset on St. John’s Eve. The bowl must be left outside all evening so that dew can collect, adding its special magic to the water. According to Lithuanian custom, the dew on Midsummer Day was said to make young girls beautiful and old people look younger. On St. John’s Day, women splash the scented infusion on their face and let it dry. It is said the infusion will stop all wrinkles. A very dear Spanish friend says that it won’t cure existing wrinkles but it will prevent future ones. Who knows if it works, but the women in the north of Spain, in Galicia ARE the most beautiful in the country – so says my friend’s husband!

Whether you are celebrating Midsummer Day, the Summer Solstice, or St. John’s Day, do enjoy the sun on this the longest day of the year. Enjoy the cheerful uplifting blooms and the history of St. John’s wort and remember that it could make you beautiful, too.

Dandelion – June Herb of the Month

Dandelion – June Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal, HSA Secretary

dandelion-1.jpgDandelion, Taraxacum officinale, a common weed, is in fact a treasure trove of vitamins and minerals. We need to be harvesting dandelions instead of weeding them from our yards and gardens. I remember as a child being paid by the bushel for pulling dandelions from my parent’s lawn. I never thought about eating them, though. How things have changed!

Early in the growing season is the perfect time to harvest dandelion leaves for soup or salad. Leaves tossed with a tangy vinaigrette dressing with blue cheese and dates makes a delicious and nutritious salad. The leaves are full of vitamins A, C, D, and B complex as well as a long list of minerals including iron, zinc, manganese, potassium, and magnesium. Dandelion leaves are the richest source of beta carotene of any of the green vegetables.

The roots are chock full of the same vitamins and minerals. However, roots harvested in the fall are a bit sweeter. The dried and roasted roots can be used as a coffee or tea substitute.

Native Americans, Chinese, and Arabian peoples have used dandelion in their medicines for a long time. Western medicine is beginning to study it for medicinal applications, including testing its effectiveness against several drug-resistant cancers.

dandelion wishEveryone remembers blowing on the round, fluffy dandelion seed heads as a child. But do you know the legend behind this popular childhood activity? To discover the legend, you will have to go to The Herb Society of the Month’s Herb of the Month web page and read about dandelion. You will find some very interesting recipes using dandelion here as well. Now is the time to try them out.

For more delightful and informative articles about dandelion, read the dandelion posts on this HSA blog.

Ready for Dandelions

Save those Dandelions for Wine

The Adventures of Indiana Banana in the Perilous Paw Paw Patch

The Adventures of Indiana Banana in the Perilous Paw Paw Patch

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

pawpaw on treeYes. The paw paw bears the common name, “Indiana banana.” I don’t make up things like that. This is lore!

The Paw Paw’s official name is Asimina triloba. It is a small deciduous tree native to eastern North America, that does, indeed, produce a patch of like-minded paw paws where it finds the right venue of well-drained fertile soil. It is fond of flood plains, and spreads through suckers.
Paw paws may also be propagated by seeds, but it’s a complicated process. The seeds must not be allowed to dry out, and must be scarified (the seed surface roughened with small cuts) and stratified (chilled at a temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit for a period between nine weeks and three years). Also, it’s hard to transplant a paw paw without fatally damaging the delicate hairs of the roots. So, it seems best to purchase pot-grown specimens if you want to grow them…and you do, don’t you?

The flower of the paw paw is pretty, but its fragrance is redolent of rotting meat. Some insects are drawn to the smell, but many animals, including deer, appear repelled both by the smell and taste of the flowers and leaves. Indeed, both contain a toxin, acetogenin. One notable exception in the wildlife genre, however, is the zebra swallowtail, Protographium marcellus. That butterfly relies on the paw paw and is seldom found far away from a patch. The green and black caterpillars chew on the leaves, the adults drink the nectar, and the lurking acetogenins not only do them no harm, the toxins may confer protection from predators to this butterfly. Since the caterpillars of the zebra swallowtail enjoy munching on each other, each egg is laid individually some distance from each other on the leaves or trunk of a paw paw tree. A perilous patch, indeed.

pawpaw openThe paw paw produces a large greenish, yellowish fruit that can be eaten raw. The consistency of the fruit is compared to custard, and the taste is described as similar to a banana, a mango, and a pineapple. The name, “paw paw” may be derived from the Spanish word for papaya. The fruit, which ripens in September or October, can weigh up to a pound, but is considered a berry. The large black seeds are easily removed, and for some reason in was a custom to carry a paw paw seed or two in your pocket, probably as a lucky charm.

The paw paw grows wild in 26 states. Why have you never seen vast orchards of this remarkable fruit? Paw paws were grown and enjoyed by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (who liked his chilled). But you won’t find them in the grocery store. The truth is that they are difficult to market. They don’t travel well, and begin to ferment soon after picking. The best way to save any amount of paw paw fruit that you might be lucky enough to acquire is to freeze the pulp.

I say, join the adventure and grow your own! We’ll start a quest!