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/

 

 

People, Plants & Pollinators: The Herbal Connection

People, Plants & Pollinators: The Herbal Connection

by Debbie Boutelier, Past President of Herb Society of America & GreenBridgesTM Chair

PolliinatorsAs people we connect with other people, places and things every day. We have powerful relationship connections that we don’t even think about. But, these essential connections nurture our emotional and physical health. We need our connections.

Nature is an important connection we may not think about  – the sun coming up in the morning, the birds singing as you walk to work, the foods you eat, the mosquito buzzing around your head, the flowers that smell so nice in your yard, and so on. These connections, especially among people, plants and pollinators are crucial to our very existence. We must nurture them so they – and we — will flourish.

Until recently many people considered insects to be pests. But they are so much more: they are pollinators and without one-third of the world’s crop production would disappear.  Bees and butterflies are the most commonly known pollinators but wasps, flies, moths, ants, beetles, hummingbirds and other birds and even bats are responsible for pollinating plants. Every time one of these creatures visits a flower to gather nectar, they also gather pollen which they move from plant to plant as they forage. Plants and pollinators need each other.pollinator 2

 

People need the plant-pollinator connection for food. And so, people must nurture plants and pollinators to perpetuate the cycle and help all members flourish. There are easy things each person can do to support this successful connection.

  • Cultivate a native plant. The most widely accepted native plant definition classifies native plants as species growing in the United States before European settlement. HSA’s unique perspective is herbs, so we advocate incorporating native herbs in your gardens.  Native herbs offer a multitude of uses and advantages. In addition to the nectar, many herbs also serve as a host plant to provide food for insect larva. Native herb plants come in all sizes: trees, shrubs, garden plants and even groundcovers. An abundant and diverse array of flowering plants is the most important element of a quality pollinator habitat. Native plants are considered the best choice because of their abundance of nectar and pollen in addition to being low-maintenance, generally pest-free, drought-tolerant, erosion-control, sources of food and shelter for wildlife and naturally beautiful.
  • Shady Nook (2)Choose plants that will bloom over a long period. Have some plants that bloom early, some mid-season and some late season to provide pollinators with a continuous food supply. Don’t be in a hurry to clean up your garden in the fall. Leave the seed heads to provide food over the winter.
  • Provide watering stations. Fill a shallow container with fresh water for the birds and other pollinators year round.
  • Shrink the size of your lawn. Plant native trees and shrubs in large beds to support pollinators and to reduce the workload of maintaining a large lawn.
  • Reduce the chemical pesticides and herbicides used on your yard or consider going organic. Not only will the pollinators benefit, but so will the children and pets. A healthy garden with the appropriate plant species and an abundance of pollinators will support natural beneficial insects—reducing the need for pest control.
  • GreenBridgesLogo_LoConsider getting your yard certified as a GreenBridgesTM garden. The Herb Society of America offers our GreenBridgesTM program to create opportunities for the safe passage of plants and pollinators. Visit the website at herbsociety.org for more information and an application. Once your garden is certified as a GreenBridgesTM garden, you will receive a plaque for your garden, a certificate, newsletters with information about native herbs, and have access to a member’s only Facebook page.

Together we can create a network of GreenBridgesTM gardens across the country that will nurture the people, plant and pollinator connections that we strive to protect. From the small garden of containers on a patio to the large home garden, every garden is important in the network and can offer respite, food and water to the pollinators and plants.

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Put ‘Cardinal’ Basil on Your Planting List

Put ‘Cardinal’ Basil on Your Planting List

By Maryann Readal, Secretary, Board of Directors, The Herb Society of America

Cardinal basil (3)It seems almost sacrilegious to be talking about spring already, but that is exactly what gardeners do—they plan for the season ahead.

As I survey my East Texas garden each morning, I make notes on what has done well and what has been a disappointment.  Cardinal basil, Ocimum basilicum ‘Cardinal’, is one of the plants that has definitely made next year’s list.   While the Genovese, African, lemon and holy basils have already gone to seed and are beginning to fade, the Cardinal basil is still going strong.  The attractive celosia-like magenta flowers and burgundy stems are beginning to put on a show in the garden.  The flowers just keep getting bigger as each day passes.  And this basil is generously endowed with scent. Just brushing by it releases a wonderful aroma that makes you hungry for pesto.

Cardinal basil (1)Cardinal basil is also a culinary basil, although I have to admit that I have not tried it yet. Others report that it has the same basil flavor with a slight anise, pungent flavor. The young flowers make a colorful addition to salads or vegetable dishes.

This is one basil that you may not be able to find in a nursery, however.  But you can grow your own plants from seed as the seeds germinate easily and transplant well into the garden.  Cardinal basil grows well in Zones 4 to 10.  Like all basils, it thrives in the sun and prefers warm soil, so wait until your soil is warm enough and the temperature is consistently above 50o F to transplant it into the garden.  This basil prefers a weakly acidic to neutral soil. It forms a shrubby, well-branched plant and will reach a height of 18 inches to 2 feet.

Cardinal basil (2)

And did I mention that Cardinal basil also makes a great landscape plant?  It’s lush, shiny green leaves make a great filler in the garden border. The glossy leaves are disease- and pest-free and look great in the garden.  The flowers and the stems look and smell great in bouquets as well.

Cardinal basil is an Herb Society of America Promising Plant for 2018. This HSA program features selected herbs that are either newly introduced or are plants that are currently under used in gardens today.

This basil will definitely be a keeper in my garden in the years to come.

Seeds are available from Park Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Herb Garden Springs from Grandma’s Legacy

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

After a four-week hiatus, I’m refreshed and re-energized. Before I launch into herb-centric posts, I’d like to share my reflection on an intense, emotional week.

grandma-with-d2We buried my grandmother this week. She would have been 98 in a three weeks. It was her time to pass, though we earthbound spirits were sad to see her go.

She gave birth to 12 kids and raised 11. I was one of 23 grandchildren and gave her two of her 23 great grandchildren. Her family lived on my grandpa’s income as a coal miner and road crew, supplemented by their small sustainability farm – from fruits and vegetables to livestock and hunting. By living simply and close to the earth they paid off their four-bedroom farmhouse, avoided debt and managed to save enough for her to live and die in her own home.

This wasn’t a fashionable hipster lifestyle choice. It’s what they did to survive; and they did it well.

In her humble, God-fearing ways she was a role model for many outside the family, though I suspect our large, extended family is related to everyone in Northern Cambria County, Pennsylvania.

grandma-as-a-young-womanI can’t even imagine the changes she saw in nine decades of life. One time she told me she felt as though we’d jumped from the horse and buggy to the airplane without pause. Think about the speed of change from 1918 to the mid-1980s when she said that and you can understand why she’d felt overwhelmed. I can’t even imagine the technological shocks of the new millennium.

Her passing makes me reflective. My favorite memories of her involve food. Her gardens. Her fruit trees and bushes. Her kitchen. Her table.  Her homemade bread, chocolate cookies, apple pies. Her shelves of canned goods in the cellar.

She showed me that food is a journey as well as a destination. She showed me that the table is the altar of family. Because of her, gardening is part of my DNA.  And, that is why my herb garden has been so precious to me.

Thank you grandma Rita C. Wolfe. Rest in Peace. I love you.

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Who has inspired your gardening journey? I’d love to know.