A True Double Mint – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Red-stemmed apple mint leaves and flowersMentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’ (double mint) is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for July. It is a fitting herb to be singled out for attention by The Herb Society because Madalene Hill was an HSA President,1986-1988. Madalene was considered to be the Grande Dame of Herbs in the United States and received many awards and accolades for her work with herbs. She passed away in 2009 at the age of 95.

Madalene broadened the cultivation and use of double mint. Discovered by Hill in Virginia, she began growing it in the 1950s at her legendary Hilltop Herb Farm near Houston, TX. Madalene described this mint as rare, “a handsome plant and a rare jewel” (Hill, 1987). Madalene is credited with either introducing or discovering a total of seven herbs (Lindner, 2009). Two of these herbs, one of them being double mint, were named after her.

Photo of Madalene Hill, past president of The Herb Society of AmericaDouble mint is the only mint that has both peppermint and spearmint oils, which gives it a very unique flavor and pleasant fragrance. This mint is also called red-stemmed apple mint. It is a hybrid between Mentha arvensis (wild mint) and Mentha spicata (spearmint). Past Honorary President of The Herb Society and herself a noted herbalist, Susan Belsinger remarked  that double mint “combines the sweetness of spearmint and the coolness of peppermint, and so its use extends beyond desserts and is especially good in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks” (Belsinger, 2016).

Like all mints, double mint is very easy to grow but does need to be contained. It will fade away at the end of the growing season but comes back in the spring. It will grow in sun or part shade. Double mint’s smooth, pointed leaves, upright growth, and dark red stems make it a standout in the garden. The white to pale violet flowers, too, are noteworthy for a mint. It is great in fruit salads, teas, or fruit pies. Use it as a garnish for iced tea. It is good tossed with peas or beans. It is also used in Vietnamese cuisine. Though it is an aphid and rodent deterrent, gardeners will find it to be a welcome source of nectar for pollinators.

Photo of Wrigley's Doublemint gumYou may wonder if there is any connection between Wrigley’s Doublemint® gum and the double mint herb. The exact ingredients of the gum are a Wrigley’s trade secret. However, the company does disclose that the main ingredient of the gum is peppermint; and on its packaging, it displays two peppermint leaves, side by side. So, I don’t believe there is a connection between the double mint herb, Mentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill,’ and the Doublemint® gum, other than they both contain mint.

For more information about double mint, please visit the HSA Herb 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) Mentha x gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’ (double mint); 2) Madalene Hill, The Herb Society of America Past President and Pioneer Unit member; 3) Wrigley’s Doublemint® gum. All photos courtesy of the author.

References:

Askey, Linda. 2006. Texas’s first lady of herbs. The American gardener. March/April 2006. P. 34. Accessed 5/31/22. https://ahsgardening.org/wp-content/pdfs/2006-03r.pdf

Belsinger, Susan and Arthur O. Tucker. 2016. The culinary herbal: Growing and preserving 97 flavorful herbs. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Doublemint ‘Madalene Hill’ (Mentha gracilis ‘Madalene Hill’). December 8, 2016. Accessed 5/23/22. https://arborgate.com/picks/doublemint-madalene-hill-mentha-gracilis-madalene-hill/

Hill, Madalene and Gwen Barclay. 1987. Southern herb growing. Fredericksburg, TX: Shearer Publishing. 

Lindner, Kelly. 2019. Madalene Hill 1913-2009. HerbalGram. Issue #82. Accessed 5/24/22. 

https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/82/table-of-contents/article3403/

Lotz, C.J. April 25, 2017. Meet the mints. Accessed 5/23/22.  https://gardenandgun.com/articles/meet-the-mints/ 

Spearmint, red stem apple mint. (n.d.) Accessed 5/23/22. https://hillcountrynatives.net/catablog-items/spearmint-red-stem-apple-mint-mentha-x-gracilis-madalene-hill/


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

Award-Winning Four Elements Organic Herbals: An Interview

By Chrissy Moore

Jane Hawley Stevens owner of Four Elements Organic HerbalsTo continue my periodic series on The Herb Society of America’s business members, I’d like to introduce our readers to Jane Hawley Stevens, owner of Four Elements Organic Herbals in North Freedom, Wisconsin. I first heard Jane speak at an Herb Society annual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago. She has a thriving business and has herbal insight to share!

When did you first encounter herbs? Have you always known you wanted to work with plants/herbs?

JHS: Yes, I chose horticulture as a career path when I turned 18. This was inspired by picking berries with my grandmother out in the north woods. This is where I felt in heaven, so I knew I needed a career outdoors. My first job after receiving my degree, I was requested to install an herb garden. 

Jane Hawley Stevens with purple coneflowerDo you have formal training in horticulture and/or herb use? Did you have any mentors that particularly inspired or encouraged you? 

JHS: I received a Horticulture degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981. After establishing my first herb garden for a research facility in 1982, I gained experience in growing herbs, then using them for crafts and cooking. When my son was born in 1987, I started using herbs for medicine. I found herbs way more effective than conventional medicine. Before too long, I was making products for herb events and health food stores. The market was way different back then! I began when there were very few herb books, but always loved herbalists and authors Rosemary Gladstar and David Hoffmann.

Aerial photo of the Four Elements herb farmHow did you go about establishing an organic herb farm?

JHS: I say my land was a gift from Gaia. I was able to secure 130 acres in a protected land area as a single mom with an herb business. This seemed like a miracle. Eventually, my husband and I teamed up. He is a horticulturist that has the same vision, and although he is the curator at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum-Longenecker Gardens, he puts in full time here, too, during our long summer days. 

(To see Jane describe her farm in action and business philosophy, please watch this great video she has provided.)

How many different herbs do you grow, and do you grow everything you use in your products?

JHS: We grow about 80 species of herbs. We aim to grow everything we use in our products, but sometimes fall short and must source out herbs from other organic growers. Our recipes are designed to be made with herbs that we can grow in my region.

Lavandula angustifolia flowersWhich herbs do you find the most challenging to work with and why?

JHS: Our beloved lavender is a challenge due to our cold winters and wet springs. It is hard to get the best-scented varieties to survive our winters. It is [also] difficult to grow some native perennials from seeds, like black cohosh and ginseng, due to the double dormancy of the seeds. 

How did you learn about the methods for drying and processing the herbs you use to make teas, tinctures, salves, etc.?

JHS: Not only have I gone through state certifications for commercial kitchens, but I also have occasional visits from the FDA. This fine-tunes us to all the regulations. I have been on the working group for the state of Wisconsin to create standards for herb drying and processing.

Four Elements Herbals "best sellers" productsFor many business owners, they must sacrifice a lot in terms of personal time and preferences. But, there are also rewards in being the curator of your own products/services. What has been your driving philosophy as you’ve grown Four Elements Organic Herbals?

JHS: Not only do herbs provide a plethora of uses and delights, but my experience using plants for food and medicine makes me believe [that] everyone should try herbs as remedies, because they are so effective with so few side effects. This is where my inspiration comes from. I want to connect people to plants for their wellbeing and the health of the planet. Even pharmaceutical companies look to nature for the wonders of their healing potential to get various molecules to patent. I get inspired by “Cultivating Nature’s Wisdom.” I also feel the sense of family created among the Four Elements employees. We are really a team and make working there, even after 35 years, easy.

Four Elements received the 2020 MOSES (Midwest Organic Sustainable and Education Service) Farmers of the Year Award. That must have been a joyous recognition of everyone’s hard work at 4E.

JHS: Yes, it was wonderful to see this award go to a value-added herb company instead of a typical dairy, field crop, or noble Community Supported Agriculture farm. This was a first!

Beige-White-Blue-Sandwich-Food-Travel-Blog-TitleWhat advice would you give someone interested in starting their own herbal product line? 

JHS: Start out by trying your products at farmers markets. Then, you can fine-tune your recipes and packaging. Make sure and put enough for you in your pricing to honor all your hard work. [Ask yourself], what aspect of herbalism excites you?

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Jane Hawley Stevens except 5) Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender (blumenbiene, Creative Commons license).


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As steward of the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics, as well as shepherds the garden’s “Under the Arbor” educational outreach program. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Celebrating the Summer Solstice

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all the loveliest longest day of the year.

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


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

 

 

HSA Webinar: Breeding Better Herbs

by Peggy Riccio

dillAs a Virginia home gardener and herb enthusiast, I grow many of my culinary herbs from seed at the beginning of the summer and I purchase a few tropicals. I have my staples, simple names such as pineapple sage, lemongrass, lemon verbena, basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley. Of course, the garden is littered with the perennials: sage, lavender, rosemary, oregano, knot marjoram, thyme, germander, yarrow, chives, and lovage. All of them have stories; their useful properties have been known for generations.

Some of them also have stories that speak about a better trait, be it flavor, cold hardiness, or fragrance, but more specifically, the story is about the person who discovered that trait and introduced it to the market. Serendipity often played a major role but so did the craft of vegetative propagation (i.e., stem cuttings). In time, these “better” plants themselves became stories about the people who discovered them. 

Rosemary Collection by Chrissy MooreSome of the well-known stories involve better rosemary plants. The cold-hardy ‘Arp’ cultivar was discovered by Madalene Hill, who managed Hilltop Herb Farm in Texas. While visiting family in Arp, Texas, she noticed a robust rosemary plant blooming in January and took cuttings. Years later, Cyrus Hyde, owner of New Jersey herb nursery Well-Sweep Herb Farm, noticed a sport, a naturally occurring mutation, on one of his ‘Arp’ plants. He propagated the sport, which was more compact with greener foliage, and named it ‘Madelene Hill’. Today, ‘Arp’ and ‘Madelene Hill’, also known as ‘Hill Hardy’, are some of the most cold hardy rosemary plants on the market. 

Theresa Mieseler, owner of Shady Acres Herb Farm in Minnesota, introduced ‘Shady Acres’ rosemary, known for its outstanding culinary properties. Of the plants she was growing, she noticed one that stood out with dark green leaves, an upright growth, and excellent fragrance. She propagated the plant via stem cuttings and sent a sample to a laboratory. The chemical analysis proved ‘Shady Acres’ to be exceptional for cooking because the foliage had a low percentage of camphor essential oil but high percentages of pine, rose, and rosemary notes.

Mentha Jim's Candy Lime by Piper ZettelJim Westerfield, owner of an Illinois bed and breakfast, was an amateur breeder who loved mints. By cross pollinating mint varieties, he produced more than 50 hybrids with interesting names and flavors such as ‘Iced Hazelnut’,‘Jessie’s Sweet Pear’,‘Marshmallow Mint’, and ‘Cotton Candy’. It took Jim seven years to produce one of the only patented mints, ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon Mint’, named after Hillary Rodham Clinton. His mints live on through trademarks and patents and are only available at Richters in Canada and Fragrant Fields in Missouri. 

Lately, others are seeing the value in herbs, especially fresh herbs. The pandemic caused an increase in gardening, a reason to cook from home, plus more time to watch cooking shows. With that came an increased interest in herbs. Baby boomers like me grew up with dried herbs in jars, but now millennials and Generation Z expect potted fresh herbs in the produce section.

sweet basil (2)Now, instead of serendipity playing a role, companies are intentionally breeding for “better” traits. Driving this is consumer demand of course, but in the world of culinary herbs, consumers can be just about anyone from field growers, hydroponic growers, grocery stores, nurseries, seed companies, gardeners, and non-gardeners who just want to buy a fresh basil plant for the kitchen counter. I talked with many seed companies, university researchers, and growers to learn what traits they were interested in and why. I learned who was focusing on certain herbs, which herbs have a lot of possibilities for our market, and new herb cultivars that will be available to the public. Join me in this behind-the-scenes look at efforts to improve your herb garden as well as expand your staples of plants.  

Join Peggy Tuesday, June 21 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Breeding Better Herbs. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $7.50 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) There are many types of dill now since it is a very versatile herb that is also used in floral arrangements (Peggy Riccio); 2) Rosemary collection at the National Herb Garden (Christine Moore); 3) ‘Jim’s Candy Lime’ mint hybrid (Piper Zettel); 4) Basil is the top selling, most commercially important herb crop in this country that has been hard hit by downy mildew (Peggy Riccio)


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

Basil – The King of Herbs

By Maryann Readal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo Credits: 1) Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum) (Maryann Readal); 2) Man worshipping tulsi basil (Wikimedia Commons, Shirsh.namaward); 3) Egyptian embalming (Catrina’s Garden, https://catrinasgarden.com/history-basil/); 4) Variegated basil leaves (Ocimum cv.) (Chrissy Moore); 5) Sign at garden center regarding basil and downy mildew (Maryann Readal); 6) Varieties of basil (US National Arboretum); 7) Plate of brownies made with cinnamon basil (Chrissy Moore).


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

My Poison Garden

by Linda S Lange

Purple larkspur in the foreground, with apricot roses and various pots in the backgroundIt all began innocently enough, I suppose.

I mean, it’s not as if I sat down with my garden journal one morning and said, “I believe I’ll plant a poison garden over there…with some foxglove, say, and a bit of aconite for that lovely blue color.” Truly, I don’t remember how it started. But Agatha Christie may be to blame. Miss Marple, probably.

I’ve been a mystery reader for as long as I’ve been a gardener: Nancy Drew under the Christmas tree and puddling in the tomato plants with my grandmother. The two just grew up together, mysteries and gardens—organically, as it were. But it wasn’t until I had my own garden in Denver that I began to notice that some of the poisons in those mystery stories—especially those with a gardening connection—came from plants that I was growing in my backyard! Innocently enough, I probably chose them for the lovely flowers, or perhaps because I subconsciously recognized the name from a story.

Large, trumpet shaped white Datura flower in front of a mass of green vines with purple-blue Ipomoea flowersAfter awhile, however, it became more deliberate—choosing and cultivating those specimens that carried a sinister back story, and studying the properties of seed or leaf or root, often with my fellow Rocky Mountain Unit members. Reading Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mysteries and, of course, Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants. More recently, with the HSA’s Herbal Fiction Book Clubs, Sarah Penner’s Lost Apothecary and A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup. It’s such a delight to learn that something I’ve been growing for years has a dark side!

Eventually, it became a point of mischievous pride. “Did you know those morning glories are poisonous?…Or those lovely lilies of the valley?”  Amusing to watch the innocent garden visitor step back and look around carefully.

“Of course you want to wait until the elderberries (Sambucus) are fully ripe, and even then…Take care if you brush against the rue (Ruta graveolens), it’s sometimes an irritant. Rhubarb (Rheum) leaves, of course, but did you know about Caladium and elephant ear (Colocasia)?…The yew trees (Taxus spp.) are actually my neighbor’s.”

“Let me show you the fall crocus! No saffron from this one. Colchicum autumnale is a whole different family and very bad news in the kitchen!”

Reddish stone path through a backyard gardenThe thing is, so many of our common garden plants can be “irritating, obnoxious, or downright deadly,” to borrow a phrase from Amy Stewart. What’s been the most fun about deliberately cultivating known sources of poison is learning about them myself and sharing the message that our gardens are not always as innocent as we might think. Often it’s just a matter of the dose or preparation that differentiates a health benefit from something more deadly – like the heart medicine digitalis from foxglove or cancer treatment, Taxol, from the yew.

Sound plant identification is critical, of course. My initial source is usually Thomas J. Elpel’s Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America (2013).  And it’s fair to say – again – that I’m a gardener.  I’m growing these things for fun and not for use! I drink coffee from the supermarket, and rarely – if ever – tea from my garden.

Photo Credits: 1) Larkspur (Delphinium sp.) in the foreground as a stand-in for wolf’s bane (Aconitum sp.); 2) Datura sp. and Ipomoea sp.; 3) Black elderberry (Sambucus sp.), elephant ears (Colocasia sp.), and lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis); 4) Down the garden path; 5) Author with morning glories. All photos courtesy of the author.


Lin Lange (author) in front of a wall of purple-blue morning gloriesLinda “Lin” Lange is a gardener, avid mystery buff, and incoming president of The Herb Society of America. So far, at least, she doesn’t think anyone has been poisoned in her Denver garden, but several visitors have been observed to step back a bit when the plants are identified and her husband is very cautious about harvesting.

Soursop and Bush Tea

By Scott Aker

Soursop, Annona muricataI succumbed to my weariness with winter and decided to spend a week with my cousin Barb in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands. She knows my fondness for plants and planned several plant-related activities for me, including a visit to the St. George Village Botanical Gardens and local nurseries. One of the most memorable plant highlights was my first ever tasting of soursop, Annona muricata. I encountered this large, spiny green fruit in Hawaii many years ago, but was only able to buy it the day before we were to leave, and I couldn’t bring it home. I had tried it, even though the store clerk told me I had to let it ripen to the point that the flesh would yield when softly poked. Because it was unripe, it really had no flavor.

When I arrived, she pointed out a soursop in a wooden bowl in the kitchen. She saw that I knew the fruit, and she admonished me, like the clerk in that store in Hawaii, that we could not sample the fruit until it was very soft and mushy. She had frozen some soursop pulp from a fruit she had ripened prior to my arrival, and we scraped it into a kind of sorbet and ate that for dessert. So, I did get a delicious preview of what the fresh fruit would be like. The days went by, and I checked it daily with her. When I thought it was soft enough, she determined it was not quite there and that we would sample it tomorrow.

Author eating soursopWhen the time came to eat the fruit, she asked me to come to the kitchen counter to eat it with her. There were no plates, no knife, and no spoons. I asked what utensils would be needed, and she indicated that the most authentic way to eat this delicacy was with our hands and nothing else. After we thoroughly washed our hands, she plunged hers into the fruit, splitting the skin and revealing the very juicy, soft, and fragrant contents within. She grabbed some of the pulp, which was clinging to the large black seeds, and explained that we shouldn’t eat the seeds, but instead spit them out and place them in some of the skin of the fruit for later disposal. I followed her lead, and my tastebuds instantly rejoiced at the balanced sweetness and sourness of this creamy fruit with overtones of custard, pineapple, and strawberry, all with a smooth, creamy mouth feel. We finished most of that fruit. Later, I asked her where she bought it, and she laughed and said that she picked it from a tree growing at their church.

When I went to Christmas services there with her, I saw the tree. It had many fruits on it, and many seemed to be ripe. It bore a resemblance to the pawpaw, Asimina triloba, in my own backyard. The leaves and stature of the tree were smaller than the pawpaw, but similar enough to signal their close kinship in the Annonaceae family. I thought it odd that others would not have taken these fruits from the tree, but she said that this is a very common dooryard tree on the island and most likely parishioners have trees or know neighbors who do.

A few days later, we stopped for lunch, and I decided to try the bush tea that appeared on the menu. I’d seen this on other menus, but wasn’t sure what might be in bush tea, so I had opted for iced tea instead.  This menu mentioned the ingredients in the bush tea, and I noted that among other things it had soursop listed. I was hoping this meant that the tea would have the deliciously complex sweet and sour flavor of the fruit, but it did not. It had a lovely reddish pink hue and was clear. It had some sourness, no doubt from roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, and a complex taste that had overtones of mint and artemisia, along with other flavors that I found hard to pinpoint. I did not detect any of the fruitiness of the soursop fruit, and when I asked the staff, they told me that tea contained soursop leaves.

The inside of soursop fruitI was stunned by this revelation. I knew that most things, except for the larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly, avoid eating leaves of pawpaw and other Annonaceae because of the presence of acetogenins in the leaves, seeds, twigs, and skin of the fruits. Knowing that biochemistry tends to be similar within most plant families, I was slightly concerned that the bush tea I drank had such substances in it. I have accidentally tasted the skin of pawpaw, and I can attest to the astringency and bitterness of acetogenins.

I did not detect the bitterness in the bush tea I drank, and this prompted further investigation. I looked for recipes. I quickly found that there is no set recipe for bush tea. I read the Crucian Contessa blog post (Bailey-Roka, 2012) on bush tea and learned that it consists of plants collected on the spot with no set formula in mind. The constituents may change with the need of the day. With regard to soursop, the author states that, “If you couldn’t sleep, the leaves from the soursop tree would help you rest.” Further research revealed that one of the acetogenins that both soursop and pawpaw produce is annonacin, which is a neurotoxin. I guess a mild neurotoxin may be effective in inducing sleep when overactive nerves are in play.

My cousin also mentioned that bush tea was the Crucians’ cure for any ailment, much as our grandmother considered caraway-flavored kümmel schnapps the cure-all for our childhood ailments. We agreed that the schnapps was a miracle cure only because we quickly learned to never complain of any illness to avoid its very strong and vile flavor. She told me that such was not the case with bush tea. Many islanders consider it a key part of their health regimen and start each day with a cup or more.

Soursop beverageBush tea is so highly esteemed that the local health department had to advise Crucians that bush tea is not effective against viral and bacterial infections. Crucians are known for creativity in making do with local ingredients that nature provides, historically limited by the resources present on their small island. Many of the other constituents may provide vitamins and antioxidants, so they may play a positive role in keeping them healthy.

Those acetogenins have another interesting angle. They are behind most of the cancer-treatment claims behind pawpaw, soursop, and other members of the Annonaceae. Extracts of soursop have also been investigated for treatment of diabetes, ulcers, and a host of other health issues (Mutakin, 2022). While the jury is still out, medicines derived from soursop are not likely to hit the mass market, because it is very difficult to prepare drugs since acetogenins are not stable when subjected to heat. Perhaps one need not worry about drinking a hot cup of bush tea with soursop leaves used in its preparation after all. On the more worrisome side, there has been some thought that consumption of soursop fruit and bush tea may have some link to the higher than expected rate of Parkinson’s Disease present in the Caribbean.

What is most fascinating to me about soursop is what we still do not know. It has been a prized fruit cultivated long before European conquest, yet we don’t fully understand the implications of using its leaves in bush tea. Plants have much to teach us, and we have much to learn.

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) Soursop fruit, Annona muricata; 2) Author trying the ripe fruit; 3) Inside of ripe soursop; 4) Bush tea. All photos courtesy of the author.

References

Bailey-Roka, Tanisha. 2012. Bush tea. Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.cruciancontessa.com/2012/12/20/bush-tea/

Mutakin, M., R. Fauziati, F. Nur Fadhilah, A. Zuhrotun, R. Amalia, et al. 2022. Pharmacological activities of soursop (Annona muricata Lin.). Molecules 27(4). Accessed May 13, 2022. Available from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8878098/


Scott Aker is Head of Horticulture and Education at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. He authored Digging In in The Washington Post and Garden Solutions in The American Gardener.

Wines from the Gardens and Fields of Scotland

By Catherine MacLennan

(This article was originally published in The Herb Society of America’s annual journal, The Herbarist, 41(1975): 37-40. Almost 50 years later, Mrs. MacLennan’s narrative still evokes vivid images of foraging for edible plant material on her family’s property in Scotland.)

West Highlands ScotlandVisitors to the West Highlands admire so much our woods and mountains, especially when the heather spreads its bright purple mantle of flowers, but how many ever stop to think of the numerous delicious wines which can be made from our shrubs and trees, their flowers, their berries and leaves.

Somewhere beside every West Highland croft or farmhouse in olden times, there grew—and may still be found growing—the Elder tree, called in Lowland Scots the Boor tree. Another name given to it—‘Buttery wood tree’—always causes argument. Some writers maintain it refers to the soft white inner pith of the young wood, others that it springs from one of its many uses.

On farms and crofts there used always to be a small stone-built dairy or milk house, where milk was set in flat pans and where cream was kept for churning. During summer small branchlets of Elder wood were kept in the dairy, as these banished flies and kept milk and cream fresh and sweet. Hence ‘Buttery wood.’

Whatever the name, the Elderflower produces one of the best of our home-made wines, light pale gold or goldy green, the home-made wine most nearly resembling Champagne. The Elder berries also make a delicious wine resembling Port when properly matured. Both these wines are health giving; an excellent stimulant at all times. The Elder flower buds were also used as a pickle to be served with cold meats.

Gooseberry Jelly flavoured with Elderflowers is a delicious preserve. Put a fully open spray of Elderflowers in a muslin bag and add the bag to the jelly during the final five minutes of cooking. Beauty aids, creams, toilet water and salves were all made from Elderflowers. As well as beautifying, it freshened and rejuvenated even the most dull and tired skin.

Another very common tree flowering in early summer is the Hawthorn or Mayflower. Its creamy blossoms are very fragrant and scent the air around it. The wine made from these blossoms is light, pleasant and has a delicate vanilla bouquet. A flavouring essence may also be made with Hawthorn blossom by using one pound of flowers to three pounds of powdered sugar. Layers of blossom with layers of sugar alternately are placed in a stone jar until all is used. Cover the jar closely and put in a cool cellar. (West Highland people with no suitable cellar used to find the milk house ideal.) Leave for full 24 hours, then remove to where the sun shines hot on the jar. After 48 hours strain this delicious essence into a bottle and stopper carefully.

Later, the Hawthorn berries make what I consider a wine even more exotic, when well matured, than that from the blossoms. It has a most unusual bouquet, smooth, rich and mellow.

Gorse flowersA shrub, usually thought of as a weed, which grows in the West Highlands by roadsides, hillside and lochside, and never seems to be out of flower, is the Gorse, Furze or Whin. It is so prickly that no animal will eat it, but its golden yellow flowers make a rich, rather heavy-bodied wine which is also very intoxicating. It must be given at least a year to mature and is worth waiting for. Its flavour is most unusual, a hint of almond with a touch of scent of the flowers.

Of all the wines I have made—and there are few which I have not made—Birch wine was always my favourite as regards making. Not my favourite wine, Elderflower is that, but I loved tapping the Birch trees to draw off the sap, searching the moss wood on a warm spring day for the most suitable tree, and making sure it was not a tree which already had been tapped the previous year or the year before that.

Betula pendula (silver birch) barkIt was like stepping back in time one century. Birch wine was a favourite wine of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and throughout the years of her long reign large quantities had to be made at Balmoral every year. The time for tapping the Birch trees is when the leaf buds are swollen ready to open, usually early March. Having decided on the trees, you then get pieces of young Elder wood about four inches long, and scrape out the soft white pithy core leaving a hollow tube. Next take a brace with a bit, and bore a hole in the trunk of the Birch tree 18 inches from the ground, to allow the hollow posset of Elder wood to fit in firmly. When boring the Birch tree, as soon as the clear sap shows, stop, fit the posset and fix a clean, dry, sterilized bottle under the posset. The sap runs freely into the bottle, and whenever the bottle is full it must be securely corked. As many trees as possible should be tapped each day to give at least one gallon of sap, which is the best quantity to make at a time. The sap is clear and sparkling. If any hint of colour shows in the sap drawn off, discard it. One thing to remember, if the leaf buds have opened do not tap the tree; the sap will be slow to run as well as unsuitable for wine. It is certainly fascinating and challenging, waiting for just the right moment. When the possets are removed from the Birch trees, carefully fill up the holes with pieces of wood or resin and seal over with any form of wax to exclude all airborne diseases.

Tapping birch treeThe wine is made by boiling one gallon of sap with three and a half pounds of best sugar and the rind and juice of two lemons for about one hour. Strain into a jug or basin large enough to hold this quantity. When tepid add yeast, leave covered for four days, when the ferment will have caused a heavy scum to rise which must be carefully removed. Strain into a storage jar fitted with fermentation trap. In a month to six weeks the wine will have cleared. Decant into another storage jar and leave for one year. It is the home-made wine most nearly like Vodka and was a favourite in Scandinavian countries and Russia.

Then there is the Mountain Ash or Rowan Berry wine. Strip the berries from the stalks when fully ripe and brilliant scarlet, but not over ripe. To each gallon of berries add one gallon of boiling water, cover and allow to stand four days. Then strain, add the yeast and three and a half pounds of sugar to each gallon of liquor. Cover closely, leave to ferment for 16 days, then skim and strain into a storage jar with fermentation trap. When clear and working has finished, bottle and keep nine months to a year.

Rowan berriesI have not given quantity of yeast as there are different yeasts available specially for wine makers. In all the very old recipes which stated “spread one ounce of yeast on a slice of toast and add to the liquor,” I found this always far too much and used only a small teaspoonful to a gallon.

These are only some of the wines which our countryside provides. There are also the wines from our gardens, Rose Petal wine and liqueur, both delicious and health giving and used in days gone by to ‘reduce fevers’ in very ill people.

From the kitchen garden, there is Parsley wine. When well made and fully mature this is a light, rich sparkling wine with no hint of Parsley flavour but with an almost exotic flavour of mingled almonds and Curly parsley leavesvanilla. A glass of it sipped at bedtime was believed to induce natural health-giving sleep.

The humble potato with barley produced a wine which was more like whisky. Excellent for coughs and colds.

Beetroot wine is always popular, and was said to be a sure cure for anaemia. Unfortunately its very ease of making and clearing is its undoing; it looks so clear and sparkling it is used too soon. Beetroot wine carefully made and kept for one and half years is an excellent table wine, tasting of anything but beetroot; instead it is a very pleasant smooth red wine.

The list is endless. I have had a lifetime’s experience of all sorts of wine making. One year, we had a splendid crop of peas and I made quite a lot of Pea Pod wine; it was excellent. Two years later I used it as the basis for a mint liqueur and now, six years from making the Pea Pod wine, I still have a small bottle of Mint Liqueur for very special friends only.

One more special brew is Heather wine; in spite of the work involved picking the tiny flowers—no green or stalk must be used—the result is a wine which makes one really believe the Fairies first discovered Heather wine.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

Photo credits: 1) West Highlands, Scotland (scotlandsgreattrails.com); 2 & 3) Elder flowers and berries (Sambucus nigra) (Dr. Peter Llewellyn); 4) Hawthorn flowers (Crataegus monogyna) (Wikimedia Commons, Jamain); 5) Hawthorn fruit (Crataegus monogyna) (Creative Commons, H. Zell); 6) Gorse flowers (Ulex sp.) (Creative Commons, John Haslam); 7) Silver birch tree (Betula pendula) (Creative Commons, Arthur Chapman); 8) Birch tree tapping (Creative Commons, Jelle); 9) Rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia) (Creative Commons, Dave_S.); 10) Curly parsley leaves (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) (C. Moore); 11) Pea pod (Creative Commons, Maria Keays); 12) Heather flowers (Calluna vulgaris) (Creative Commons, foxypar4).


Catherine MacLennan (d. 1975) was from Tomuaine, Port Appin, Argyll, Scotland. She had “a remarkable store of information about flowers, birds and beasts, the history and legends of Appin, and much else. Her extremely modest and retiring nature disguised a penetrating mind and a retentive memory…. She came of farming stock…. Her green fingers and knowledge of garden plants turned a small piece of garden ground into a treasury of beautiful and rare plants.” (From The Oban Times, by Dawn MacLeod)

HSA Webinar: Female Poisoners

by  Sarah Penner

The_Love_Potion by Evelyn De Morgan_public domainSherlock Holmes said it best in the 1945 movie, Pursuit to Algiers: “Poison is a woman’s weapon.” It’s a statement not without evidence – historical records tell us that female poisoners were prevalent. Throughout England in the 18th and 19th  centuries, the largest population of accused poisoners consisted of wives, mothers, and female servants, between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. Motives ranged widely; grudges against employers, the removal of inconvenient spouses or lovers, death benefits or the inability to financially support a child.

As I state in the historical note at the back of The Lost Apothecary, death by poison is an intimate affair; an element of trust generally exists between victim and villain. Easy access to both victims and poison cannot be underestimated when considering the prevalence of historical women poisoners. Think of the household roles common for women before the 20th century: a fatigued mother, a betrayed wife, the caretaker of a convalescent, begrudged cooks or servants. These roles permitted women not only intimate access to members of a household, but to an array of food and drink, medicine, even pest control toxins. Women have always been closest to the victim and the victual.

And let’s face it: women simply evoke less suspicion. Who really believes a young, sheepish housemaid capable of killing her prosperous employer? 

Poison, when done right, leaves no trace: no wound, no evidence. This would logically appeal to a female killer who, fearing she may be physically weaker than a man, needs to avoid a direct confrontation. Said another way: poison lets a woman be sly about things. 

A_Glass_of_Wine_with_Caesar_Borgia_-_John_Collier via wikimedia_public domainArguably the most well-known historical female poisoner is Giulia Tofana, an Italian woman who lived in the mid-17th century. She invented the concoction known as Aqua Tofana, which contained arsenic, lead, and belladonna. It was colorless and tasteless and therefore easily mixed with food or wine. Aqua Tofana was an especially cunning poison because it did not kill the victim immediately, but rather multiple doses were necessary, giving indication that a patient grew ill over a period of days or weeks. 

Giulia Tofana was known to frolic with apothecaries, hence her strong knowledge of toxins and their uses. She sold her famous concoction to women who wanted to escape their abusive or inconvenient husbands. Ultimately, under torture before her death, she confessed to killing 600 men.

I’m often asked if Giulia Tofana inspired the apothecary poisoner in The Lost Apothecary, and the answer is no. I centered my research around English poisoners in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I didn’t learn about Giulia Tofana until well after the book had been written. 

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Sketch_of_Circe,_1911-1914Still, there’s a reason I was drawn to the idea of women poisoners and, more importantly, the ways that women sought agency in a historical sense. The Lost Apothecary is an exploration of women rebelling against the patriarchy and exerting power in one of the only ways available to them. Prior to the mid-20th century, leaving a marriage or household employment due to abuse or betrayal was not really an option. It meant poverty, homelessness, physical abuse, even legal repercussions. In The Lost Apothecary, I propose an alternative: don’t leave, just get rid of the man. I provide a few (fictional) examples of this, such as a young housemaid seeking vengeance on her employer, or a disgruntled wife whose husband is having an affair, or a sister who discovers that her brother intends to kill their beloved father.

The Lost Apothecary takes place in 1791. The late 18th century was an ideal time to set a book about an apothecary poisoner, because it wasn’t until the mid-19th  century that early toxicologists were able to reliably detect poison in human tissue. In bills of mortality prior to this time, poisoning homicide is little more than a footnote. Yet after this science came to fruition, poisoning deaths skyrocketed. Coincidence? No. People had always used poison to seek vengeance, but these deaths were chalked up to other causes. Further proof that poison really is the perfect murder weapon, at least two hundred years ago.

One of the characters in The Lost Apothecary says it quite succinctly: A killer need not lift her long, delicate hand. She need not touch him as he dies. There are other, wiser ways: vials and victuals. 

Leave it to the women to find a way to kill a man without so much as touching him.

Female poisoners_Sarah Penner webinarJoin Sarah Tuesday, May 10 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Unburying the Secrets of The Lost Apothecary. 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) The Love Potion, by Evelyn De Morgan (public domain); 2) A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia, by John Collier (public domain); 3) Sketch of Circe, by John William Waterhouse (public domain); 4) Sarah Penner and The Lost Apothecary (courtesy of the author).

Calendula – Herb of the Month – An Herb of the Sun

By Maryann Readal

Orange flowers against dark green leavesCalendula officinalis is a plant in the Asteraceae family and is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for May. In my Texas Zone 8b garden, I planted calendula in November and it is now in full bloom, and will continue to bloom until the hot summer sun puts a damper on its bright yellow and orange blossoms. Planted in organic, well-draining soil, and with enough sun, this herb will reward you with its bright blossoms for a very long time. Deadheading does increase its blooms. Calendula can tolerate some freezing temperatures and it does reseed easily. I cannot imagine a garden without it.

This herb has been called marigold or pot marigold since early times. The name marigold is said to have come from the use of the golden flowers during celebrations for the Virgin Mary (Mary + gold), after Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. Some claim that the golden petals were like the rays surrounding the Virgin’s head. In the thirteenth century, the German poet, Konrad von Wϋrzburg, included calendula among the twelve flowers symbolizing the Virgin (Larkin, 2010). 

The herb was added to soup pots and stews during the Middle Ages. It was also used to color cheese and butter. In India it was a sacred herb, where it adorned statues and temples. 

However, calendula should not be confused with the garden flower we call marigold (Tagetes spp). The flowers of marigold plants, although they look somewhat similar, are not the same and are generally considered to be non-edible. Other important differences include:

  • Calendula originated in the Mediterranean area and some parts of Asia, while the marigold originated in the Americas. 
  • Europeans brought calendula to the Americas. Tagetes spp. were brought to Europe after they landed in America.

Orange flowers on white paper towelThe Romans are believed to have named the calendula after the Latin word calendae (a word referring to the day of the new moon), because they observed that the flowers opened on the day of the new moon. Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its botanical name in the 1750s. 

In early days, calendula was often associated with magical powers. If you wore calendula flowers while in court, you would be victorious in legal matters (Cohen, 2021). People would sprinkle the flowers around their door to keep evil away, and under their beds to ensure that good dreams would come true.

Shakespeare’s writings contain at least six passages about marigolds (Macht, 1955). In several passages, he notes the use of marigold in honoring the dead. The passage in The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 3, reflects the common belief that marigold was also a heliotropic plant.

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mint, savory, marjoram:

The marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping.

Glass bottle of light yellow oil surrounded by orange flowersSometime in history, it was discovered that calendula could be used as a medicinal plant. Since early times it was used as an effective treatment for skin irritations. During the U.S. Civil War, the flowers were used to stop bleeding and to promote healing of battle wounds. British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll led a campaign during World War I to raise calendula to supply British hospitals in France (Keeler, 2016). 

In traditional medicines, calendula was used to treat a variety of skin irritations. It was also used to treat earaches, eye and mouth irritations, jaundice, and menstrual problems. Clinical use today shows that it is effective in treating radiation burns (Patil, 2022).  Some recent studies conclude that Calendula officinalis shows promise as an effective medicine, even as a treatment for some cancers (Patil, 2022), but that more clinical research needs to be done.  Its antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and astringent properties make a healing treatment for the skin when infused in oil.

Calendula is also known as “poor man’s saffron.” The petals can be dried and used in place of the more expensive saffron. However, the taste is not the same as that expensive herb. The colorful petals and young leaves can be tossed into salads. The petals can be cooked with rice and mixed into egg salads, cakes, puddings, and soups.  

Orange calendula petals on a white paper towelThe petals have been used as a dye for fabrics and as an ingredient in cosmetics. Dried petals give a nice contrast color in potpourri.  Some say that if the flowers are fed to hens, the resulting egg yolks will have a rich, yellow color (Barrett, 2009). 

This very useful, colorful, and easy-to- grow herb deserves a place in every garden.  For more information, recipes, and a beautiful screen saver, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpagehttps://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-information/herb-of-the-month.html

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: All photos courtesy of the author.

 

References

Barrett, Judy. 2009. What can I do with my herbs? College Station, TX: Texas A & M Press.

Cohen, Bevin. 2021. The artisan herbalist. Canada: New Society Publishers. 

Fischer, Fern. 2017. History of calendula. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.gardenguides.com/78027-history-calendula.html

Herb Society of America. 2008. Calendula: An Herb Society of America guide. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.herbsociety.org/file_download/inline/210f18de-fb79-4fe8-b79c-8b30bdca4885

Keeler, Kathy. 2016. Plant story: Marigolds in history – pot marigolds (Calendulas). Accessed 4/3/2022. Available from http://khkeeler.blogspot.com/2016/10/plant-story-marigolds-in-history-pot.html

Larkin, Deidre. 2010. Calendar girl. Accessed 4/16/22. Available from https://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2010/11/05/calendar-girl/

Macht, David. 1955. Calendula or marigold in medical history and in Shakespeare.  Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 29:6, 491–502. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44446726.

Mehta, Devansh, Parkhi Rastogi, Ankit Kumar, and Amrendra Kumar Chaudhary. 2012. Review on Pharmacological Update: Calendula officinalis. Linn. Inventi Rapid: Planta Activa. Vol. 2012. Accessed 4/3/22. Available from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229067785_Review_on_Pharmacological_Update_Calendula_officinalis_Linn

Patil, Karthikeya, et al. 2022. A review of calendula officinalis-magic in science. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. 16:2, 23-27. Accessed 4/4/22. Available from Explora from Ebsco.


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