African American Plant Medicines of the South Carolina Sea Islands

By Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mitchell’s original blog post was featured in April, 2020, in anticipation of The Herb Society of America’s Annual Meeting of Members, which was postponed due to COVID-19. Below is an updated version of Dr. Mitchell’s post, who will now be speaking at the April, 2022, Annual Meeting of Members in Charleston, SC. For more information, please visit The Herb Society of America’s web site.

[A root doctor] told us that he had been born with a special knowledge of healing and had studied the science of herbs from the time he was a small boy. Some of the herbs he uses in his mixtures are Golden Seal, Yellow Dust, Golden Thread, Hippo Foot, Pink Root, Lady Slipper, Yellow Root, Blood Root, Rattlesnake Master, Black Snake Root, and John the Conqueror.

Georgia Writer’s Project, Drums and Shadows; Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, 1940

Gullah slaves painting circa 1790The South Carolina and Georgia coast, which was settled in the 1670s, is one of the oldest parts of the United States. Worked by enslaved West Africans who came to be known as the Geechee or Gullah, for centuries Sea Island plantations growing cotton, rice, indigo, and other crops produced massive wealth for white plantation owners. Today, Hilton Head, Kiawah, and other Sea Islands are known for their resorts, recreation, and high-end vacation housing.

Map of the Sea Islands, South CarolinaThe Sea Islands have a uniquely resilient African heritage that distinguishes them from other African American communities. There are several reasons for this. Prior to Emancipation, Sea Island slave plantations were typically large and had hundreds of enslaved Black people and very few whites. In addition, long after the legal end of the slave trade in 1808, traders continued to bring enslaved Africans to the islands. Finally, separated by salty creeks and marshes from the mainland, the islands were geographically isolated for more than two centuries. In some cases, connecting bridges weren’t built until the 1950s. The result was that the coastal islands from South Carolina to the upper end of Florida were home to tightly knit Black rural communities that had their own unique culture. These Gullah communities lived close to the land, working the fields, catching oysters, fish, and shrimp, and keeping alive religious, linguistic, healing, and other traditions from their African ancestors.  

The Gullah people were mostly unknown to the outside world until the first Union soldiers arrived in South Carolina during the Civil War. In fact, some of the first spirituals that captivated northern listeners were sung by freed Gullah people. Then, in the early 20th century, the Sea Islands and other Black communities caught the attention of academics who were keenly aware that the oldest of the formerly enslaved people were dying, and with them many folk traditions. These early writings are a good source of stories and songs, despite often reflecting a distressingly demeaning attitude toward the Gullah people themselves.

Cover of Hoodoo Medicine bookWhen I made my first trip to the Sea Islands in 1971, I was awed by the breathtaking, tropical beauty of the land and the water and the sense of community among the Gullah people. Although people were poor by material standards, they were rich culturally and spiritually. 

At the time, there were few doctors on the more remote Sea Islands, so on one of my trips, I decided to find out if there were traditional medicines that people used and, if so, what they were. What I learned resulted in my book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies.

Practices described in Hoodoo Medicine include using elderberry tea to treat colds, mud to cast bone breaks, and tree leaves to draw out headaches. Healing properties were also attributed to mint, Spanish moss, gum tree leaves, and much more. Some of the plants and roots people described to me were introduced from Africa or Europe, while others are plants that were first used by the American Indians. Local people distinguish between what they call good and bad “roots” medicine. “Good roots” is the use of plants, mud, and other natural materials with healing powers. Meanwhile, “bad roots” is the use of natural materials – plants, blood, bones, candles, feathers, and more – for magical purposes, akin to voodoo. Even though “hoodoo” sounds like “voodoo,” my book is about good roots! 

Botanical illustration of a cotton plant and flowerGullah healing practices remain relevant today for people interested in new pathways to health. In fact, sales of Hoodoo Medicine took off during the Covid pandemic. And fortunately, there is strong interest among Gullah descendants themselves in preserving their unique history and culture.

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) Gullah slaves, circa 1790 (freemaninstitute.com); 2) Sea Islands, South Carolina (GoogleMaps.com); 3) Hoodoo Medicine cover art (Faith Mitchell); 4) Cotton flower/plant (Gossypium hirsutum) botanical print (Public Domain).

References

Allen, William F. Slave songs of the United States. 1867). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000029312436

Davis, Henry C. Negro folk-lore in South Carolina. The Journal of American Folklore. 27, no. 105 (1914): 241–54. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/534619

Parsons, Elsie C. Folk-lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina. Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society. 16 (1923). Available from: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101068189925


Picture of author Faith Mitchell, Ph.D.Dr. Mitchell has a doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to Hoodoo Medicine and a supernatural thriller, The Book of Secrets, Part 1, she has written or edited numerous policy-related publications. For more information and to purchase her books, visit Dr. Mitchell’s website.

Know Your Tarragon – The Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

French tarragon in a potIt pays to pay attention to plant labels. Especially in the case of tarragon–especially if you are planning to use tarragon in your cooking. If you are growing tarragon for culinary purposes, be sure the label on the plant or seed that you buy says “French tarragon” or Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’, to be sure. If the label says only “tarragon,” you may be purchasing Russian tarragon, which is not the tarragon you want for your roast chicken or béarnaise sauce. 

Tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March. Read on for more information about the plants we call tarragon.

French tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’    

The botanical name for tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus, comes from the Latin word meaning “little dragon” or “snake.” It is thought that the plant was given this name because its roots resemble coiled snakes, and the leaves look like a dragon’s tongue. In very early days, this plant was indeed used to treat snake bites. 

French tarragon is famous for its distinctive, anise-like taste and smell. It is a classic culinary herb in French cooking and is one of the four fines herbes, chervil, parsley, and chives making up the other three. It is used in sauces such as béarnaise, remoulade, and tartar. Tarragon vinegar is great for making salad dressings, and French tarragon enhances the flavor of meats and fish.  

Bottles of dried French tarragon and fines herbesEarly medicinal uses of French tarragon include using the herb to combat fatigue. It is said that pilgrims in the Middle Ages put sprigs of tarragon in their shoes to keep them from getting tired on their journey (Kowalchik, 1988). Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century physician and herbalist, recommended it to treat urogenital conditions, as did Johann Dragendoff, a late-nineteenth-century German pharmacist and chemist (Engels, 2014). 

Native Americans use the wild species of the plant for tea. They treat a wide range of medical problems such as dysentery, colic, rheumatism, and eye and skin issues with it. It is also used to deter insects (Moerman, 1998).

Today, tarragon is used in the European and non-European cosmetology industry, where companies add it to moisturizers, shampoos, and lotions. The essential oil is used in some perfumes. Studies suggest that French tarragon has potential use as a food preservative (Ekiert, 2021).

In 2015, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the discovery of the effectiveness of some properties of Artemisia annua in treating malaria. Since then, there has been renewed interest in researching the medicinal properties of A. dracunculus as well. The authors of a recent report say, “Contemporary research on the biological activity of the above-mentioned raw materials (leaves and essential oil of French tarragon) has proven new findings in their activity–antibacterial, antifungal, and antiprotozoal effects, as well as extremely valuable antioxidant, immunomodulatory and antineoplastic properties“ (Ekiert, 2021). So, something old is new again.

French tarragon grows in Europe and Asia and prefers the cooler areas of the United States. It needs a cold dormancy period to come back the next year and does not do well in the hot humid areas of the South. It needs fertile, well-draining soil and full sun and can grow to 2-3 feet high. It does not produce viable seeds, so must be propagated vegetatively with cuttings or by root division. Buyer beware when buying tarragon seeds. French tarragon does not produce seeds, so the seeds may be from the Russian tarragon plant, which looks similar but has a different taste.

Russian tarragon — Artemisia dracunculus (syn. dracunculoides)

Russian tarragonRussian tarragon is a French tarragon look-alike. Some people even call it an “imposter tarragon.” Its leaves are a lighter green, have a rougher feel, and do not have much flavor. Russian tarragon produces flowers and viable seeds and is easier to grow than French tarragon. It is considered a perennial in most locations. Early in my herb discovery days, I was fooled by this plant and thought I was buying French tarragon. I wondered why it did not have the anise flavor in its leaves.

Russian tarragon is native to southern and eastern Russia, parts of Asia, and western North America. It is used primarily as a medicinal herb in Russia and Middle Eastern countries to Herbal supplement with Russian tarragonstimulate the appetite, flush toxins from the body, and ease the pain of a toothache, sores, and cuts. Other traditional uses in Russia include as an aid to digestion, relief for nervous conditions, aiding the liver and renal function, and as an anti-bacterial, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory agent (Engels, 2014). Recent studies show that the anti-diabetic properties of an extract of Russian tarragon, when taken with body-building supplements, helps to create muscle mass without a need for a high intake of carbohydrates, and helps the body recover from strenuous exercise (Pischel, 2011). 

Mexican tarragon — Tagetes lucida

Also known as Texas tarragon, winter tarragon, and Mexican mint marigold, Mexican tarragon is not in the Artemisia genus at all. But its leaves have a flavor similar to French tarragon, so it can be used as a substitute for it. Its flowers and leaves can be used in salads or dried and ground to use in tea. The fresh leaves and flowers can also be infused in vinegar for use in salad dressings. The leaves were a flavoring in the cocoa-based Aztec drink chocolatl.

Mexican tarragon thrives in hot, humid weather and tolerates freezes and is not fussy about soil, making it an herb that is ideal for the South. This plant also produces bright yellow, daisy-like flowers in the fall that are a nice addition to the landscape. 

Mexican mint marigold in flowerMexican tarragon has been used in traditional Mexican medicine to treat gastrointestinal disorders, relieve mental stress or symptoms of a hangover, as well as for infections caused by parasites (Ventura-Martinez, 2020). Recent studies in the laboratory indicate that the use of Mexican tarragon to relieve some gastrointestinal problems may be an effective use of the herb.

Madalene Hill (1913-2009), noted Texas herbalist and past President of The Herb Society of America, is credited with introducing this South American herb to the United States. For those of us who like to cook with French tarragon and like a nice plant in our garden, we have Madalene to thank.

For more information about Artemisia dracunculus, please see The Herb Society of the Month webpage.

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) French tarragon (Andrew Yeoman); 2) French tarragon and fines herbes (Maryann Readal); 3) Russian tarragon (https://laidbackgardener.blog/2017/04/27/french-tarragon-and-the-russian-impostor/); 4) Body-building supplement with Russian tarragon (Maryann Readal); 5) Mexican tarragon in flower (Maryann Readal).

References

Blackman, Vicki. 2014. Five easy herbs. Texas Gardener. 33(13):20-24. Available from: Ebscohost.

Ekiert, H. et al. 2021. Artemisia dracunculus (Tarragon): A review of its traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology.  Frontiers in Pharmacology.  Accessed 2/7/21. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8076785/

Engels, G. and J. Brinckmann. 2014.  Artemisia dracunculus L. (Tarragon): A critical review of its traditional use, chemical composition, pharmacology, and safety. HerbalGram. 102. Accessed 1/30/22. Available from: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/102/table-of-contents/hg102-herbpro/ 

Glenn, L. Russian tarragon. Accessed 2/1/22. Available from: https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbclip/herbclip-news/2013/russian-tarragon/

Hill, M. and G. Barclay. 1987. Southern Herb Growing. Fredericksburg, TX: Shearer Publ.

Kowalchik, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1988. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Moerman, Daniel. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Mueller, C. The three tarragons: French, Russian, and Mexican. Accessed 1/29/22. Available from: https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/newsletters/hortupdate/2009/jan09/Tarragon.html

Pischel, I. et al. 2011. Potential application of Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) in health and sports. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition. 8 (Suppl 1):16. Accessed 2/3/22. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3238148/

Ventura-Martinez, R. et al. 2020. Study of antispasmodic and antidiarrheal activities of Tagetes lucida (Mexican Tarragon) in experimental models and its mechanism of action. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2020. Accessed 1/30/22. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/7140642

Yeoman, A. French tarragon. Accessed 1/29/22. Available from: https://www.finegardening.com/article/french-tarragon


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

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.

Love and Gardening on St. Valentine’s Day

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring

“ I work at my garden all the time and with love. What I need most are flowers, always.

                                                My heart is forever in Giverny. “

                                                                                                         – Claude Monet

Photo of a cup of the author's Rose petal Chocolate ChaiIt’s St. Valentines Day, and the whole world smells as if it’s been dipped in a gigantic vat of roses, violet-flavored marshmallows, and chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s been absolutely freezing here in Northeast Ohio, so like most of my herb loving friends, I’m tucked away inside with stacks of rose, seed, tree, and other various and sundry plant catalogs.

Personally? I’m also eating plenty of chocolates and drinking a cup of homemade rose petal and chocolate chai! You‘ll find that recipe below, and I think you will love it!

The luscious pastry the author enjoyed at Laduree in Paris, FranceI have spent many a Valentine’s Day in this way, but as I started writing this, I began thinking about the year that my husband asked me to meet him in France at the tail end of a business trip he’d been on in Spain. It was my very first trip to Paris, and I was completely enchanted by the city and the people I met. Valentine’s Day that year was perfect. We started with tea at Ladurée, where I enjoyed an absolutely delicious pot of jasmine tea and a delectable pastry filled with rosewater and cardamom crème topped with rose petals and fresh raspberries. We ended the day with a fabulous meal of raw oysters and confit of duck on a bed of lentils, with a sauce of orange, lavender, ginger, and honey and, of course, plenty of Champagne, because, after all, we were in Paris!

One of the flower shops the author visited in Montmartre, FranceIn between tea and dinner, Jim and I walked hand in hand through the shops and the markets. The shops in Paris are always wonderful, but February the 14th finds them filled with all of the beautiful symbols of romantic love that the French are known for: beautifully hand-dipped and painted chocolates, the softest and most luscious caramels, fabulous perfume, and gorgeous lingerie. But in truth, it’s the flower shops and market stalls that I remember the most, filled with gorgeous bouquets of all kinds and friendly men and women eager and willing to have patient conversations with me (not easy with my limited French!) about their beautiful flowers, produce, breads, cheeses, preserves, and teas. As I wandered happily sniffing and shooting picture after picture, I began to think of my father. It took me a moment, but suddenly I realized why.

When I was a child, our lives completely changed the year that my parents went to France for the first time. I’ll never forget it, because my father went first to Paris and then Giverny and came home a man enchanted. Life at home wasn’t the same after that. It was as if he’d discovered something there in the culture and the landscape, a part of his artistic soul that he’d been missing all along.

Besides possessing a Masters in Biology, Dad was also an excellent painter. But until that trip, he hadn’t paid much attention to his yard. The three acres that we had were pretty basic; what had once been a victory garden lovingly tended by my father and grandfather was covered by a swimming pool. And as for flowers? There were mostly annuals and some pretty boring ones at that. 

Until that trip to Giverny.

Photo of Monet's garden in Giverny, FranceMy father came home from France and realized what his painting had been lacking the entire time: context, or as the French would say, a raison d’être. Dad set out to build his own garden paradise, and he did so with an absolute passion. I wasn’t at all surprised. Even at a very young age, I could see that my dad was wildly romantic, and after experiencing the gardens that Monet had painted in, he couldn’t help but follow in his footsteps.

That entire winter, life became about his garden, planning his borders, reading and learning about all of the plants that he’d fallen in love with when he was in France. That spring, he began to build the beds, amending the soil, and planting the foundation plants. Within two years, his entire property was completely transformed. His favorites were the fragrant old roses, but his lilies, irises, and peonies were just as luscious. His beds were also filled with every kind of fragrant herb and flower imaginable; everything he touched just thrived. Not one to rely on traditional pesticides, antifungals, and commercial fertilizers to keep his plants healthy, he worked with his soil, which was as rich, sweet, and dark as the chocolate many of us are enjoying today. Every plant had a companion or two, specifically chosen to help it stay healthy and as pest free as possible.

Photo of the author's father's sweet woodruff patchHis roses never had that much trouble with black spot, beetles, or mildew…rarely were there bothersome pests that took over and destroyed everything. My father, ever the biologist, always planted with the  pollinators in mind, stressing native plants like serviceberry, aronia, and American cranberry alongside his beautiful flowers. He loved milkweeds and watching the Monarch butterflies. He had a carefully tended patch of sweet woodruff that was always covered with honeybees, which he used to make May wine every spring, and he loved plants like pokeberry and comfrey, letting them grow wherever they wanted to, because he knew that they were biodynamic accumulators—plants that gather nutrients from the soil to store them in a more bioavailable form. At the end of the gardening year, he’d chop these into his beds as mulch.

Photo of the Author's father's comphrey patchMy father’s gardens had the fattest honeybees and bumblebees, the biggest and juiciest earthworms, and wonderful snakes that would slither through on occasion, much to the delight of his grandsons. He was generous with his knowledge, and he taught me everything I know about building soil and keeping plants healthy without resorting to the use of chemicals. He loved to share his gardens with everyone, especially his children and grandchildren. As I got older, summer nights would find us wandering together with martinis and hoses…watering, mulching, and laughing, and later, would find us in his living room talking about the garden and listening to his extensive collection of classical music. My father lived such an artistic life in so many ways, and he loved to encourage us to do so as well. He was the first person to encourage me to follow my instincts for herbalism, and he is single-handedly responsible for my love affair with old roses and all of the things that I’ve learned over the years to make from their hips and petals.

When I came back from Paris, I began to remember my father’s lessons from his gardens, and as a result, I slowed down. I began to plan my gardens instead of just buying every plant in sight. I began asking myself what would bring me joy—to look at, to smell, and to taste. I began to think of my gardens as an extension of my inner life, my artistic life. That was when my gardens began to find their way into my kitchen, my vases, and my dreams. Everything became connected. When you look at pictures of Giverny, you can see what I mean.

You see that there is a “whole.” The house is the garden, and the garden is the house…there really is no separation.  

Picture of the author's father's Rosa rugosaEven though my father passed away before I got to share with him the joys of my own trip to Paris, I know that he’d understand when I say that our Valentine’s Day trip brought my life as a gardener into focus. Although I did not go to Giverny as he did, my wandering through France, talking with the florists and farmers, connected me to what he learned so long ago on his own pilgrimage there.

If he were still alive, he would say that gardening is not difficult, but it requires an open heart, an open mind, and a sketchpad; that there is a time to plant and a time to rest; that learning to water correctly is about listening, asking, and observing; that the soil is alive; and that most often, all you need is a great layer of compost. Lastly, that every plant has a best friend that it depends upon for support.

Much like we all do.

I wish you all the loveliest St. Valentine’s Day wherever you find yourself planted.

Dried rose petals the author uses for potpourri, teas, and jamsRose Petal and Chocolate Chai (no added tea)

You will need:

6 Tablespoons of coconut sugar (if you like it sweeter, add more)

2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon

2 Tablespoons of really good cocoa powder

2 tablespoons of finely ground organic rose petals (you can grind these in a coffee grinder)

2 Tablespoons of ground cardamom

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of ground Chinese five spice

3/4 teaspoon of ground allspice

1 inch of split vanilla bean (you’ll leave that in there for flavor)

Mix all of these ingredients together in a bowl with a whisk to break the clumps of ginger.

Store in a tightly covered mason jar away from the light.

To make a cup, take one level tablespoon without the vanilla bean (you can always add more, but be careful, it’s spicy!) and place it into a saucepan with a pat of organic butter. Add a cup and a half of almond milk or whatever milk you enjoy. Heat slowly , whisking the entire time to help the cocoa melt. You can also use a hand frother, or a Vitamix if you have one, once the mixture is hot. Sweeten to taste with more coconut sugar or maple syrup.

This recipe is entirely adjustable. Once you make it the first time, you’ll know how you like it. I’ve been known to add even more chocolate!

Photo credits: 1) Cup of Rose Petal and Chocolate Chai; 2) Dessert at Ladurée restaurant in Paris, France; 3) One of the flower shops in Montmartre, France; 4) Monet’s home in Giverny, France (Stock photo on Canva); 5) Author’s father’s sweet woodruff patch; 6) Author’s father’s comfrey patch; 7) Author’s father’s Rosa rugosa; 8) Dried rose petals the author uses for potpourri, jams, and teas. (All photos courtesy of the author except #4.)

 


The author and her husband in ParisBeth 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 Path of the Artisan Herbalist

by Bevin Cohen

Wintergreen plants with red fruitsI began my herbal journey as a young teenager, living with my grandmother in a small apartment on the edge of town, where the city’s manicured lawns met the uneven wildness of the forest. In this forest, I spent a great deal of my time growing up amongst the bracken fern and mighty willows, and it was here that I first encountered Gaultheria procumbens, the American wintergreen.

A chance encounter with this low-growing, evergreen shrub led to a life-long fascination with the seemingly immeasurable bounty of Nature’s flora. If this small patch of the forest could be home to such a diverse collection of mosses, herbs, ferns, trees, foliage, and fruits, then what wonders might the rest of the world have to offer? Over the years, this fascination evolved into a near obsession as I frantically studied the many plants around me, their habitats, histories, and uses as both food and medicine. Today, my family and I are comfortably settled into a young homestead and sustainable herb farm in Central Michigan, affectionately named Small House Farm. Once again, I find myself on the edge of the forest, yet just a short drive from the trappings and conveniences of a nearby city. Small House Farm is named as a reflection of the size of our home and as a symbol of our philosophy; it is here that we seek a smaller, slower, and more intentional life.

Forest, ferns, a trail and wooden bridge over a creekIn the years since my first cup of wintergreen tea, I’ve come to understand that although Nature’s gifts are plenty, they surely are not inexhaustible. It is our responsibility as herbalists and stewards of the land to teach and to practice sustainable systems; systems that work in tandem with Nature’s cycles, systems that recognize Nature’s gifts not as commodities to be taken and consumed, but as partners, allies, with which we must learn to work together. The relationship between man and nature must be reciprocal because man and nature are, in fact, the same.

When New Society Publishers approached me with an offer to write an introductory-to-herbalism style book for their Homegrown City Life series, I naturally approached the project from the perspective of a small batch, handmade, hyperlocal, relationship-based herbalism. My third book, The Artisan Herbalist, was born.

IMG_1408An artisan is a highly-skilled craftsman that produces something in limited quantities, often using traditional methods. Just as the artisan baker endeavors to procure the finest flours for their creations, and the artisan cheesemaker lovingly crafts high-quality cheeses from the freshest local kinds of milk, the artisan herbalist adheres to these same principles of quality craftsmanship and traditional methodology. The hands-on, small-batch philosophy of the artisan allows for responsible consumption, never taking more than is needed and always focusing on producing the best possible products with the materials readily available.

Through my work I always strive to demonstrate to the beginning herbalist, and remind the experienced, that everything that we may need is always just beneath our feet and that with a bit of exploration, we’ll find that our gardens, parks, fields, forests, and even the kitchen spice rack are home to a cornucopia of herbal allies eagerly awaiting the opportunity to work with us. Herbalism on this scale is a possibility for all, whether we live on a spacious country estate, deep within the urban jungle, or nestled in a peaceful, suburban neighborhood.

In today’s frantically fast-paced, consumer-driven world, it is perhaps the pursuit of herbal knowledge that will lead one to a lifetime of contentment. A quest for healthy relationships with the plants in one’s own bioregion, working towards the critical balance required to sustain our very existence and gaining independence from a lifestyle of production and responsible, limited consumption is the only reasonable path forward. This is the path of The Artisan Herbalist.

Bevin_withsquashJoin Bevin this Tuesday, February 15 at 1pm Eastern and learn how to create teas, salves, balms, and tinctures using herbs that you can grow in your own backyard. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/

 

Photo Credits: 1) Gaultheria_procumbens (Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova via Wikimedia Commons); 2) Lush forest (Max Pixel, Creative Commons); 3) Small batch salves (courtesy of Bevin Cohen); 4) Bevin Cohen (courtesy of Bevin Cohen)

 

Bay Laurel – Herb of the Month, Herb of Achievement

By Maryann Readal

Bay laurel as a small treeBay laurel, Laurus nobilis, The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February, has been a symbol of achievement, power, and victory from early Greek and Roman times until our present day. The origin of laurel as a symbol rests with Apollo and his love for the nymph Daphne. Unfortunately, the love was not mutual and at her request, the gods turned Daphne into a laurel tree to protect her from Apollo’s advances. Apollo loved the laurel tree and decided to use it as a sign of achievement. The Greeks called the bay laurel tree Daphne.

Early Olympic Game winners were awarded laurel garlands, and Greek poets and musicians wore laurel wreaths. Romans adopted the symbolism and crowned their emperors with leaves of laurel. To this day, the crowns of some European monarchs incorporate the laurel leaf.

An early belief was that the laurel tree was fireproof and could deter lightning strikes. Therefore, laurel trees were planted near doorways or sprigs of laurel were hung in doorways to prevent fire. Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal said, “neither witch nor devil, thunder nor lightning, will hurt a man where bay tree is” (Mieseler, 2009).

Today, we use terms such as poet laureate and Nobel laureate, both describing someone who has achieved a high honor in their field. We are familiar with the phrase “resting on one’s laurels,” which means that someone who has achieved much can rest on their achievements and need not do more. “Our word baccalaureate comes from the custom of crowning young doctors of medicine with laurel leaves and berries, bacca lauri,” notes Theresa Mieseler (2009). Laurel branches are still used as a part of graduation ceremonies in some colleges and universities worldwide today. A laurel wreath is awarded to the winner of the Grand Prix. You will also see the laurel wreath on coins and on the emblems of nations. Its symbolism is meaningful.

The Victorians adopted the laurel as a symbol of never-ending love. My own wedding ring is a circle of laurel leaves, which I did not realize the significance of until researching for this article. The bay laurel motif has also been used in architecture. This herb is a part of our culture without us even realizing it.

Cultivation
Laurus nobilis is a plant that prefers a warm climate. It was thought to be native to the Mediterranean area; however, genetic testing shows that its origin is in the Middle East. In my USDA Zone 8b garden, I can grow bay in the ground year round. But to be safe, it should be grown as a container plant, unless you are willing to test it in the ground in zones less than 8.  It is an evergreen tree or shrub depending on how it is pruned, and can reach a height of eight to ten feet or more. It likes full sun or partial shade. It is dioecious, meaning there is a male plant and a female plant, and its small yellow flowers bloom for only a few weeks in the spring.

Bay with small yellow flowersPropagating bay takes patience as it is very slow to germinate and grow. The Herb Society of America’s guide to bay offers a method for propagating bay laurel.

The ASPCA cautions that bay laurel is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Caution is advised when purchasing other plants with laurel in the name, such as mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). These are not in the same family as bay laurel and are poisonous.

Uses
We grow bay laurel as a source of fresh leaves for cooking. It is one of the herbs in bouquet garni and is used to flavor soups, sauces, stews, and roasted meats and fish. It is sometimes boiled in milk or cream to flavor puddings. Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay call it a “liaison” herb because it helps to blend flavors together (Mieseler, 2009). It is best used in recipes requiring a long cooking time. The leaf does not soften with cooking and should be removed before serving. California bay, Umbellularia californica, can be used as a substitute for bay laurel in cooking; however, its flavor is stronger than Laurus nobilis.

Round-pruned laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein CastleBay laurel branches are pliable and lend themselves to making wreaths. The leaves are also used for potpourri. Many of us remember the old-fashioned way of keeping flour and grains insect-proof by adding a bay leaf or two to the container. The essential oil of bay is used in perfumes and soaps.

Of course, bay has had many uses as a medicine throughout history. A renowned use has been for treating rheumatism. It has also been used in traditional medicines to treat stomach issues, gas, and respiratory ailments.

Recent studies focus on its antiviral and antibacterial properties, particularly effective for treating MRSA (Otsuka, 2008). A recent article in Environmental Chemistry Letters hypothesizes that a possible reason for a lower incidence of COVID mortality in southern Italy may be due to extensive forests containing bay laurel. The emission into the air of immuno-modulating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in bay laurel are suggested as a reason (Roviello, 2021).

For more information and recipes for bay laurel, please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for February. The Society’s Guide to Bay also contains information about this herb.

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) Bay laurel as a small tree (Erin Holden); 2) Julius Caeser (Mithrandire, Creative Commons), Princess Lilian of Sweden (Public Domain), and George Washington (Public Domain) with laurel crowns; 3) World Health Organization flag (Public Domain) and laurel wreath for a graduate student (Archeologo, Creative Commons); 5) Bay laurel in flower (Maksim, Creative Commons); 6) Bay laurel trees flanking a doorway at Greifenstein Castle (Reinhold Moller, Creative Commons)

References  

ASPCA. n.d. Bay laurel. Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/bay-laurel

Dyer, M. 2021. Are some bay leaves toxic-learn which trees are edible. Accessed 7/7/21. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/herbs/bay/which-bay-trees-are-edible.htm

Gaumond, A. 2021. Essential guide to bay laurel. Accessed 1/4/22. https://www.petalrepublic.com/bay-laurel-meaning/

Kowalchick, C. and W. H. Hylton, eds. 1998. Rodale’s illustrated encyclopedia of herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Mieseler, T., ed. 2009. Bay: An Herb Society of America guide.  Accessed 1/7/22. https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/1cd1802d-70ea-4fb8-a14b-4f4bb72e2435

Mieseler, Theresa. 2009. Bay earns laurels as Herb of the Year. The Herbarist: 75:27-30.

Otsuka, N. et al. 2008. Anti-methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) compounds isolated from Laurus nobilis. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 31:1794-1797. Accessed 1/10/22. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/bpb/31/9/31_9_1794/_article

Roviello, V. and G. Roviello. 2021. Lower COVID-19 mortality in Italian forested areas suggests immunoprotection by Mediterranean plants. Environmental Chemistry Letters. 19:699-710. Accessed 1/4/22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32837486/


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a 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.

Herbal Superhero: A Tribute to Steven Foster

Photographer, Author, Mentor, Friend

By Chrissy Moore

Steven Foster on hike in the woods wearing Rosemary Gladstar's beretIf you’ve spent time in the herb world, you’ve likely come across the name Steven Foster, one of the greatest luminaries of and advocates for herbs in our generation. Sadly, Steven passed away earlier this month. He touched many lives and influenced thousands more with his writing, his impeccable photographs, and his expert knowledge of herbs. If you haven’t “met” Steven yet, we hope that these remembrances will inspire you to learn more about him and his many personal, artistic, and academic herbal contributions.

The American Botanical Council’s founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, says of Steven, “[He] was one of the most brilliant people in the entire American and international herb community. The author or co-author of 19 books and hundreds of articles, and a true master of the herbal literature, especially the Eclectic medical literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, Steven was also a renowned photographer of herbs and medicinal plants with an eye for beauty in every leaf and flower who was unparalleled in the global botanical community.

Photo of Steven Foster and Mark Blumenthal“A self-taught botanist, and without any higher education, Steven knew as much or usually more about botany and the history of the literature on herbal medicine than many academics with numerous advanced degrees. His knowledge and memory of the botanical literature was almost photographic, and he had a beautifully eloquent way to explain and communicate his herbal wisdom” recounts Blumenthal (2022).

Mr. Foster was “an author with [more than] 15 herb-related books published (the first when he was 25), an associate editor for HerbalGram and other botanically-oriented publications, a board member, a consultant, and a self proclaimed ‘life-long student of medicinal and aromatic plants’” (Lindner, 2008).

Cover of the Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James A. DukeFoster co-authored the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants with the late Dr. James Duke (The Green Pharmacy), providing the photography for over 500 herbs within the text. Erin Holden, herbalist, horticulturist, and co-blogmaster of The Herb Society of America’s blog, stated that she “was sorry to hear about Steven Foster’s death. The Peterson Guide he did with Jim Duke was the first plant ID book that really helped me get into plants. As a newbie to plant ID, his photos helped me easily figure out what I was looking at in the woods, and from there, I was able to build a solid foundation before moving on to more detailed field guides. It was a gateway book, and I’m not sure I’d have stayed on the ‘plant path’ if I hadn’t found it.” Thankfully, Erin did stay on the “plant path.” She earned a Master’s in Herbal Medicine and, later, joined the staff of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum. 

Saw palmetto berry harvestTina Marie Wilcox of the Ozark Folk Center shares that, “Steven Foster began mentoring me for my position as head gardener and herbalist for the Ozark Folk Center’s Heritage Herb Garden in Mountain View, Arkansas, in 1986. His book, Herbal Bounty, the Gentle Art of Herb Culture, had been in circulation for two years. The plant kingdom planted me firmly at the feet of the master. Steven’s intellect would have been too intimidating had he not been such a patient and kindred spirit. He explained Latin plant classifications, plant identification, and introduced me to the chemistry of plants.” 

James Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians with Steven Foster's photos showing in the background

James Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians with Steven Foster’s photographs in the background

“Steven Foster lectured for herb events at the Ozark Folk Center many times over the decades, twice with Dr. James A. Duke. For the Heritage Herb Spring Extravaganza in 2009, during the evening concert, as Dr. Duke performed songs from “The Herbalbum” with Ozark Folk Center musicians, Steven’s photographs depicted the herbs on the silver screen behind the musicians. I could not have transcended any higher in those moments. I believe his spirit lives on in his work and in the next realm.”

Cover of HerbalGram Journal with Calendula flowerHolly Shimizu, Director of the US Botanic Garden (Ret.) in Washington, DC, and first curator of the National Herb Garden, recalls, “I got to know Steven in the last several years while serving on the Board of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. I was amazed at Steven’s intelligence, loved his witty sense of humor, and we both shared a passion for plants. I turned to Steven for his opinions, thoughts, and support because I recognized his intuitive wisdom. One can always tell when an herb photograph has been taken by Steven because of its excellence, detail, and extraordinary beauty. His books and articles are beautifully written, accurately researched, and trusted reference material. We once had a conversation about herbals, it turned into a long conversation, because his knowledge and collection of old herb references is absolutely amazing.”

Author, chef, and herb connoisseur, Susan Belsinger, shares the following:

“Over the years, I have been at many herbal events when Steven was there—sometimes he was presenting or getting an award, or we were both presenting—and occasionally we were there for pleasure. As much as we both loved herbs and made them our life’s work, we also loved good food and libations. 

Photo of Susan Belsinger, Rosemary Gladstar, Tina Marie Wilcox, and Steven Foster

Susan Belsinger, Rosemary Gladstar, Tina Marie Wilcox, Steven Foster

However, what I enjoyed most with Steven was heading out into nature with our cameras, botanizing with him was the best! I learned a lot from him about identifying plants and taking photos of botanicals while out on walks—and I took a photography course with him at IHS (International Herb Symposium). He had a brilliant mind and such an artistic eye—I have never seen such exquisite botanical photographs as his. Steven was a thoughtful teacher, and he guided so many of us in so many ways. It didn’t matter if you were a novice or had a number of degrees—he listened and was patient and helpful. And, of course, there was his quirky sense of humor, not to mention that impish grin, and oh, how he made us laugh! 

Steven Foster with a silly hat onSteven Foster was a serious academic and a savvy businessman; he was down-to-earth and had a heart of gold, and he shared his knowledge willingly. He was a man who lived through his senses and knew them intimately; his appreciation and knowledge of herbs and spices led him around the world. His keen eye and awareness of detail in his photography makes him unrivaled in capturing botanical images. He was truly an epicurean and shared his delight in smell and taste and the pleasures of the table. [He had a] big heart—it overflowed with his love and joy for his family and friends—you could see it in his soulful eyes.

Steven Foster and his wife, DonnaThe past few days, I have read countless tributes and memories about Steven—and all of them reveal what a sensitive, creative, and caring man he was. He was a family man—proud of every member of his tribe–and adored Donna and loved his kids and grandkids. Our hearts are broken and the herbal world has been rocked with the loss of Steven. We are thankful to have shared the time that we had with him…. He has left us too soon, though he has given us his herbal legacy in his wonderful books and photographs.”

If you have the opportunity, we encourage you to invite Steven Foster–and his work–into your life. Let him be an herbal mentor and friend to you, if only posthumously. You will be richer for it. Thank you, Steven, for all that you have done for the advancement of herbal knowledge in our world. You will be missed.

Photo Credits: 1) Steven Foster (Susan Belsinger); 2) Steven Foster and Mark Blumenthal (Holly Shimizu); 3) Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants (Public Domain); 4) Harvesting saw palmetto berries (Steven Foster); 5) James A. Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians and Steven Foster’s images showing on the screen (Tina Wilcox); 6) Steven Foster cover photo of HerbalGram (American Botanical Counsel); 7) S. Belsinger, R. Gladstar, T. Wilcox, and S. Foster (S. Belsinger); 8) Steven Foster wearing silly hat (S. Belsinger); 9) Donna and Steven Foster (S. Belsinger).

References

Blumenthal, Mark. 2022. Herbal Medicine Community Mourns the Death of Steven Foster. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/news/press-releases/2022/herbal-medicine-community-mourns-death-of-steven-foster/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.

Lindner, Kelly E. 2008. Meet ABC Board Member Steven Foster: Noted Herbal Expert, Photographer, Author. HerbalGram. Issue 80, pp. 14-15. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/80/table-of-contents/article3321/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.

All other quotations via personal communication. January, 2022.


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.

Mastic: Something Herbal to Chew On

By Chrissy Moore

George Arisitidou from Great British Bake-offI fully admit to living under a rock. Many a friend and coworker has informed me of this character “trait.” Because I am not so worldly as others, I learn things by more circuitous routes. For example, my latest herbal discovery resulted from watching a recent episode of The Great British Bake Off. George, one of the bakers, remarked that he was including mastic in his bake. Of course, Paul Hollywood, one of the show’s hosts, commented with raised eyebrow, “A little mastic goes a long way.” George returned fire, stating, “You can never have too much mastic!” Clearly, mastic was near and dear to this Greek baker’s heart.

Unless you’re familiar with Greek cuisine or custom, as I am not, you may not have come across mastic–also known as Chios mastiha–in your comings and goings. But, if you are anything like me, you’d immediately start rooting around for information about this herbal ingredient, like a squirrel for a nut. I’ll save you some digging.

Map of Pistacia lentiscus native rangeMastic is a resin extracted from Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia L. (Chios mastictree, mastic), which is a member of the Anacardiaceae family (GRIN-Global; Browicz, 1987). (Cashew, Anacardium occidentale L., and pistachio, Pistacia vera L., are also members of this family.) This small shrubby tree is native to numerous countries around the Mediterranean, from southern Europe to northern Africa to western Asia (Sturtevant, 1919), but it is most notably—and historically—linked to the Greek island of Chios in the northern Aegean Sea, about nine miles west (the way a crow flies) of the Turkish Çeşme peninsula.

Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, Syros

Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros

It’s so linked to this island, in fact, that the island is referred to as the “mastic island,” since it has been the world’s largest producer of mastic resin for many years (Groom, 1992). “The production of mastic currently amounts to 160—170 tons per annum and plays an important role in the economy of the island Mastic harvesting preparationconstituting the main source of income for approximately twenty villages in the south of Chios” (Browicz, 1987). The trees reach their full height after 40 – 50 years, but harvesting reaches its full potential after 12 – 15 years (FAO, 2021). Similar to frankincense (Boswellia spp.) and myrrh (Commiphora spp.), the mastic harvester nicks the tree bark to produce “tears,” or droplets, of resin, which then harden and are scraped off. These hardened blobs of resin are gathered and taken for processing (masticlife.com).

The resin undergoes some in-house cleaning and processing before it is given to the cooperative, Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA), for grading. Afterward, the graded mastic gum is shipped to and processed by the Union of Mastic Producers, who grinds it into a powder (FAO, 2021). The powdered form can then be incorporated into various foodstuffs, medicinal products (Varro et al., 1988), or left whole for chewing. Mastic is considered an early form of chewing gum, particularly for freshening the breath (Schery, 1972; Simpson and Ogorzaly, 2001; Sturtevant, 1919; Tyler et al., 1988). Currently, the largest importer of Chios mastic is Saudi Arabia, where chewing gum companies have incorporated the tree resin into numerous candy and confectionery products, particularly those of the dietetic variety (Batook, 2021; FAO, 2021).

Greek plants: Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree), overlooking Finikas, SyrosIf you haven’t picked up on the etymological relationship by now, translated from the Greek, mastic means “to gnash the teeth,” or in modern parlance, to chew or masticate…an appropriate term for the gummy treasure. Spurred on by the mention of it on The Great British Bake Off, I was on the hunt for this chewy, new-to-me herb. Fortunately, we have a husband-and-wife team of volunteers in the National Herb Garden, who just happened to live in Greece for a number of years. What better resource than these two to probe for information—outside of knowing a native of Chios, of course.

Bottles of mastika and ouzoThey confirmed that mastic was, indeed, a ubiquitous flavoring in parts of Greece, including its use in mastika, a sweet liquor flavored with the resin (something else I had never heard of before) and ouzo, another Greek spirit. They said that you can find mastic gum and Turkish delight-esque candies all over Chios (well, in Greece, generally, and also in surrounding areas), as well as in well-appointed Mediterranean markets, even in the United States. I asked them what it tastes like, and they both hemmed and hawed trying to find the right words to describe its unique flavor. I immediately assumed it would be “pine-y” or “camphor-y” or something of the sort, since it is a tree resin, after all, but they both still hemmed seeming to suggest that it wasn’t exactly that strong. 

Well, what then? What does it taste like? The only remedy for this inquisition was for them to seek out a market near where they live outside of Washington, DC, that might carry some sort of mastic-containing products. And they delivered! The following week, I was handed not just mastic chewing gum, but also mastic jellied candy. The candy was passed around amongst our volunteer group, and those adventurous enough to try plucked out a confectioner’s sugar-covered cube and commenced to masticate.

Mastic jellied candyThey were right: not exactly pine-y, but not exactly anything else either. I moved the candy around in my mouth trying to find words to describe it. Yes, it certainly had resinous, “pine-y” kinds of notes, but it also had a bit of a flowery essence to it. It was certainly unlike what I was expecting. Not nearly as strong as I thought it would be, but also not without character.

Not being particularly chef-y (I’m more of the baking sort), I’ve been trying to imagine what it would taste like in cooked or baked goods. Given that mastic rides that pine-y line, a heavy-handed cook might well overdo it. (Paul Hollywood was not without legitimate concern.) It’s a bit like using rose or lavender in food preparations: too much, and it can veer dangerously close to soap territory. But, used in moderation, it could pair nicely with other herbs/flavors. If you try it, let me know how it turns out!

Picture of Fahrenheit pefumeSpeaking of other herbal uses, mastic is also found in perfumes, personal hygiene products, and medicines. The resin has been used for centuries as a component of incense, particularly for the production of “moscholivano, [which] is a solid essence that, when burned, releases a pleasant odour” (FAO, 2021) and as an ingredient in chrism, the anointing oil used in the Eastern Orthodox Church (and others). In The Perfume Book, Groom says, “In early times the gum was used in pomanders and the oil was used to absorb other plant fragrances in the process of enfleurage. In modern perfumery, the extracted oil is used as a fixative in various perfume compounds; it appears, for example, in ‘Fahrenheit’.” According to Verrill, the resin is used as “a fixative for honeysuckle, lavender, sweet pea, mimosa, and other perfumes” (1940).

Medicinally, mastic has taken on a number of roles over the centuries. In early Greek history, mastic was considered a cure-all in traditional Greek medicine, “relieving the diverse gastrointestinal disorders, such as abdominal pain, dyspepsia, gastritis and peptic ulcer for more than 2.500 [sic] years. More precisely, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galenos, among other Ancient Greek physicians, cited its properties and recommended its use” (CGMGA, 2021). A lengthy paper published by the Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association states,

Toothpastes containing mastic

Toothpaste containing mastic

“Nowadays, it is used as a seasoning in Mediterranean cuisine, in the production of chewing gum, in perfumery, in dentistry, and for the relief of epigastric pain and protection against peptic ulcer. It is of vital importance to mention that solid scientific evidence is constantly being produced regarding the therapeutic activity of Chios Mastiha. Its gastro-intestinal, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, and anticancer activity, as well as its beneficial effects in oral hygiene and in skin care are firmly documented…. Mastiha is considered now as a traditional medicine for both stomach disorders and skin/wounds [sic] inflammations” (2019). In the Greek City Times, 12 December 2021, the authors note that studies of mastic’s wide-ranging health benefits are ongoing, merely echoing, perhaps, what thousands of Chios natives have known for centuries. (Some of us are a little slow on the uptake!)

Picture of megilp varnishIf you thought this story was over…not so fast. Mastic has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Mastic is used as a component of dental fillings, in dentifrices, and mouthwashes, helping to knock down pesky bacteria in the mouth. It should also be noted that “thanks to its quality as a colour stabilizer, mastiha is used for the production of high-grade varnishes” (CGMGA), such as those used in oil painting (megilp), and as a protective coating on photographic negatives. Rosin, a by-product of gum mastic’s distillation process, is used in myriad industries as well.

To put an exclamation mark at the end of this herbal story, mastic is certainly not a one-trick pony. On the contrary, I think Paul Hollywood was wrong and George was right: “You can never have too much mastic!” Something to chew on.

Photo Credits: 1) Baker George Arisitidou from Great British Bake Off (radiotimes.com); 2) Nativity map of Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Botanical Museum, Helsinki, Finland); 3) Pistacia lentiscus overlooking Finikas, Syros (John Winder); 4) Mastic harvesting preparation (masticlife.com); 5) Mastic resin “tears” (Creative Commons–Ailinaleixo) and mastic resin (Creative Commons–פארוק); 6) Pistacia lentiscus leaves and fruit (John Winder); 7) Bottles of mastika and ouzo (Public Domain); 8) Mastic candy and chewing gum (C. Moore); 9) Mastic jellied candy (C. Moore); 10) Fahrenheit perfume (Public Domain); 11) Mastic toothpaste (ANEMOS); 12) Megilp containing mastic (Public Domain).

References

Batook, Incorporated. 2021. http://www.batook.com/about/. Accessed 16 December 2021.

Browicz, Kazimierz. 1987. Pistacia lentiscus cv. Chia (Anacardiaceae) on Chios Island.
Plant systematics and evolution, Vol. 155, No. 1/4, pp. 189-195. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23673827. Accessed 16 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). https://www.gummastic.gr/en#gkContent. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The Chios Gum Mastic Grower’s Association (CGMGA). 2019. Overview of the major scientific publications on the beneficial activity of Chios mastiha. https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.gummastic.gr//images/brochures/en/Scientific_References_2019_en.pdf. Accessed 15 December 2021.

Greek City Times. https://greekcitytimes.com/2021/12/10/mastic-tree-resin-is-one-of-greeces-most-valuable-products/. Accessed 15 December 2021.

The University of Arizona Arboretum. https://apps.cals.arizona.edu/arboretum/taxon.aspx?id=216. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Forest resource utilisation and management in the Mediterranean. https://www.fao.org/3/x5593e/x5593e03.htm. Accessed 15 December 2021.

GRIN-Global Database. https://npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/taxon/taxonomydetail?id=28647. Accessed 17 November 2021.

Groom, Nigel. 1992. The perfume handbook, p. 142. London: Chapman & Hall.

“Mastic: Cultivation and Processing.” masticlife.com. https://masticlife.com/pages/mastic-cultivation-harvest-production. Accessed 4 January 2022.

Schery, Robert W. 1972. Pectins, gums, resins, oleoresins, and similar exudates, p. 244. In: Plants for man. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Simpson, Beryl B., Molly C. Ogorzaly. 2001. Hydrogels, elastic latexes, and resins, p. 259. In: Economic botany: plants in our world, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sturtevant, Edward. 1919. Sturtevant’s notes on edible plants, p. 440. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, State Printers.

Verrill, A. Hyatt. 1940. Perfumes and spices including an account of soaps and cosmetics, p. 259. Clinton, Mass.: L.C. Page and Company.

Tyler, Varro E., Lynn R. Brady, and James E. Robbers. 1988. Resins and resin combinations, p. 143. In: Pharmacognosy, 9th Edition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lea & Febiger.

Uphof, J.C. Th. 1968. Dictionary of economic plants, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Lubrecht & Cramer Ltd.

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.


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.

An Incredible Herb Right Under Our Feet…or Above Our Heads

By Katherine Schlosser

For most of us, our garden tools are cleaned and stored, the holidays have passed, and we have a little more time to simply enjoy what we find in meadows, forests, fields, and even in our own backyards. Lichens can fill a part of the void we may be feeling. Their curious forms and means of growing and spreading, with which many of us are unfamiliar, can fill our minds with the wonders of things we normally pass without notice.  

There are more than 5,000 species of lichen and lichen-dependent fungi in North America, with colors ranging from blues, lavender, yellow, red, orange, and gray to many beautiful greens. Color in lichens can depend on whether they are wet or dry. A major paint company even created a color they call Lichen to mimic the natural, earthy beauty of the organism. Perfectly described by Ed Yong in a July 2016 issue of The Atlantic, “They can look like flecks of peeling paint, or coralline branches, or dustings of powder, or lettuce-like fronds, or wriggling worms, or cups that a pixie might drink from.”

The forms lichens take are grouped in one of several general types, including:

Foliose – mostly flat with leaf-like structures, with each side having a different appearance 

Fruticose – may have tiny “branches” and a bushy appearance

Crustose – appear like flat, crusty painted spots on trees, branches, logs, roof, or rocks

Other forms include:

Filamentous – stringy and hair-like

Gelatinous – jelly-like and somewhat formless 

Leprose – have a powdery appearance

Squamulose – small, flat leafy scales with raised tips

Lichens have been used by humans for thousands of years, mostly as medicinals but also as foods, beverages, dyestuffs, cosmetics, brewing, animal fodder—even as an indicator of atmospheric pollution. As useful as they have been, our understanding of lichens has been slow.

Until the late 1800s, lichens were still thought of as plants. In 1868 Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist, identified them as a fungus and an alga living in a cooperative relationship. Later botanists recognized the relationship as mutually beneficial, with the alga using sunlight to produce nutrients and the fungus providing shelter, water, and minerals.

Lichen, Rough speckled shield -BRP 4-30-09

Botanists held with the partnership assumption, even though they struggled unsuccessfully to get lichens to grow in the lab. What they were missing was brought to light 150 years later by Tony Spribille, who spent years collecting lichen samples and screening them for genes of basidiomycete fungi. 

What had been missed by generations of lichenologists was basidiomycetes, the third member in the partnership of lichens. With the right combination of two fungi and an algal species, a lichen would form. There is much more to learn, but thanks to Spribille, the journey has begun.

Quoting Ed Yong again, Spribille and his associates found that, through a microscope, “a lichen looks like a loaf of ciabatta: it has a stiff, dense crust surrounding a spongy, loose interior. The alga is embedded in the thick crust. The familiar ascomycete fungus is there too, but it branches inwards, creating the spongy interior. And the basidiomycetes? They’re in the outermost part of the crust, surrounding the other two partners. ‘They’re everywhere in that outer layer,’ says Spribille.” And the mystery was solved.

The most frequently noticed are the crustose lichens seen on trees, often looking like someone spray-painted blotches on tree trunks, or left a trail marker. These can vary from shades of gray to greens, blues, and yellows. They are attractive to me but lead some to think their tree has been attacked by disease.  

No need to panic; these lichens don’t sink their “teeth” through the bark and into the tree. However, there are some lichens that contribute to the breakdown, or weathering, by physical and chemical processes, of the rocks to which they are attached. Physical effects occur by penetration of the rocks by hyphae and the swelling of organic and inorganic salts. Chemical processes include the “excretion of various organic acids, particularly oxalic acid, which can effectively dissolve minerals” (Chen 2000). The result is the eventual breakdown of rock into the mix of ingredients making our soil.

Pixie cup lichen and Dracanum moss spp IMG_4681As an aside, Alexandra Rodrigues and associates inoculated newly created stained glass samples with fungi previously isolated and identified on original stained glass windows. They found that “fungi produced clear damage on all glass surfaces, present as spots and stains, fingerprints, biopitting, leaching and deposition of elements, and formation of biogenic crystals”  (Rodrigues et al, 2014). Let that be a warning to keep your stained glass windows clean. 

Of particular interest to members of The Herb Society of America are the useful aspects of these frequently overlooked species that are building blocks of our green planet. Found growing in moist, shady places, they also thrive in hot, dry lands. Though widely spread across the globe, growing on cold mountaintops to hot deserts on rocks, trees, fallen logs, on fertile soil or dry crust, each species has specific nutrient, air, water, light, and substrate requirements.

They vary widely in usability too, from serving as alerts for the presence of air pollution to providing survival food. Rock tripe, most often seen as green to black leafy-looking masses on boulders, might be the last thing you would consider putting into your mouth, but it turns out that, for thousands of years, they have saved people from starvation. After boiling and draining a few times, they can be made into a soup, even if barely palatable. 

Cetraria islandica, Darya Masalova CC-BY-NCOne of the more interesting lichens is known as Icelandic moss (Cetraria islandica ), which first came to my attention in the form of Fjallagrasa Icelandic Schnapps. If you look closely at the bottle pictured, you will see a sprig of the lichen in the bottle. Hand picked from the wilderness of Iceland, the lichen is steeped in alcohol, which extracts the color and flavor of the lichen. Sadly, I have not tasted it myself but have heard from a friend, and read, that it is a drink that requires a slight adjustment of expectations. Regardless, I’m almost willing to make the trip to Iceland just for the experience. The manufacturer recommends drinking “in moderation in the company of good friends”—a sound recommendation.

Beyond alcohol, this particular lichen has multiple medicinal uses, too. The active compounds in Icelandic moss have demonstrated antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties (Grujicˇic´ et al., 2014).The mucilaginous compounds (polysaccharides) aid in soothing oral and pharyngeal membranes, relieving coughs of common colds.

Scandinavian countries were long known to use Icelandic moss in making breads and soups. They dried the moss, reconstituted it, then dried it again and ground it to mix into flour. Due to the polysaccharides, the lichen added structure as well as flavor. Many other cultures used it as an addition to flour to cut the expense of flour. Used far less now, over the years, it was an important source of nutrients for many people.

Parmotrema perlatum, commonly known as black stone flower, is used as a spice in India and elsewhere, and is often added to Garam Masala blends. As found, it has no fragrance; exposed to the heat of cooking, it releases an earthy, smoky aroma. 

Unlikely as it sounds, some lichens can be fragrant, and some act as a fixative in the preparation of cosmetics and perfumes. Oakmoss lichen, used in perfumery, is found on oak trees, as well as a few other deciduous trees and pines.

A number of lichens are used in the dyeing and tanning industries. If you took high school science, you are familiar with Litmus strips. Those strips are made from litmus, which is obtained from a couple of species of lichens, Roccella tinctoria and Lasallia pustulata.

Winter may be upon us, but there is still plenty to see and study right under our noses in the garden, yard, and out walking on trails. Take notes, take photos, and spend a lazy afternoon identifying what you have found and what uses it may have. Future ventures into the forest will hold considerably more interest for you.

Enjoy!

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) Old man’s beard (Usnea articulate), a fruticose lichen, photo taken in Linville Falls, NC 2009 (Kathy Schlosser); 2) Lobaria pulmonaria, tree lungwort, used for its astringent properties in tanning, photo taken in Acadia National Park, 2014 (Kathy Schlosser); 3) A foliose rough speckled shield lichen (Punctelia rudecta) covered with isidia (tiny projections which can detach to form new growth and grow from the white spots and streaks), photo taken on the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC 2009 (Kathy Schlosser); 4) Umbilicaria mammulata, smooth rock tripe (Alex Graeff,  iNaturalist); 5) A crustose lichen species in Acadia National Park, 2014 (Kathy Schlosser); 6) Pixie cups lichen (Cladonia sp.) growing amongst a cushion moss (Dricanum sp.), 2011 (Kathy Schlosser); 7) Cetraria islandica, Iceland moss (Darya masalova, iNaturalist); 8) Parmotrema caperata (now P. perlatum) as it appears in Flora Batava, vol. 10, 1849 (via Wikimedia); 9) Evernia prunastri, oakmoss lichen used in perfumery (Liondelyon, via Wikimedia)

References

Adams, Ian. Shield lichens at West Woods, Geauga County. Ian Adams Photography website, March 29, 2020.     https://ianadamsphotography.com/news/shield-lichens-at-west-woods-geauga-county/  Accessed 12-04-2021.

Cetraria islandica,  Iceland moss.  https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Cetraria+islandica Accessed 12-15-2021. 

Chen, J., H-P. Blume, and L. Beyer. 2000. Weathering of rocks induced by lichen colonization: A review. CATENA. 39(2). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0341-8162(99)00085-5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0341816299000855   Accessed 12-19-2021.

Crawford, S. D. 2015. Lichens used in traditional medicine. Lichen Secondary Metabolites, chapter 2. Springer International Publishing.  DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-13374-4_2   Accessed  12-28-2021 

Daniel, G., and N. Polanin. 2013. Tree-dwelling lichens. Rutgers, N.J. Agricultural Experiment Station. https://njaes.rutgers.edu/fs1205/  Accessed 1-1-2022. 

Fink, B. 1906. Lichens: Their economic role. The Plant World. 9(11). Published by Wiley on behalf of the Ecological Society of America. Stable URL: 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/43476359   Accessed 11-18-2021. 

Graeff, Alex.  Smooth Rock Tripe, Umbilicaria mammulata.  Photo 70633379, iNaturalists, (some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND).  https://www.inaturalist.org/photos/70633379  Accessed 12-29-2021.

Grujičić, D., I. Stošić, M. Kosanić, T. Stanojković, B. Ranković, and O. Milošević-Djordjević. 2014. Evaluation of in vitro antioxidant, antimicrobial, genotoxic and anticancer activities of lichen Cetraria islandica. Cytotechnology. 66(5): 803-813.

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Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the North Carolina Unit of The Herb Society of America since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level, including as a member of the Native Herb Conservation Committee, The Herb Society of America. She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen de Conway Little Medal of Honor. She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.