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)

Lemon Eucalyptus

by Peggy Riccio

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on July 5, 2021 at https://pegplant.com/2021/07/05/lemon-eucalyptus/

Small lemon eucalyptus in a black pot on a table

Lemon eucalyptus in May

A few months ago, I was at a farmer’s market in Alexandria, Virginia, when a particular plant caught my eye. It was a lemon eucalyptus plant (Corymbia citriodora). It was less than a foot tall in a plastic container. I love lemon scented herbs – I think I am subconsciously collecting them. The seller told me it was from Australia and was not hardy here in Zone 7, so it would have to be brought indoors in the fall.  

I brought it home and placed it in the garden in full sun, where it thrived so well I had to move it to a larger container within a few months. At first, it resented the move but now it is flourishing, still in full sun. It did not even mind the recent heat wave. 

The lemon scent is so strong, all you have to do is brush the leaves with your hand and you will visualize a bowl full of lemons. Of all my lemon scented herbs — lemon balm, lemon grass, lemon verbena, lemon mint, lemon thyme, and lemon scented geranium – this is one of the most fragrant. I pulled a leaf off and compared it with the lemon verbena, which I think is the other most pungent lemon herb I have. The lemon eucalyptus leaf was very coarse with small bristles. The scent was strong but more of a musky lemon. The lemon verbena leaf was not as coarse and had an equally pungent lemon scent but was sweet, like sugar and lemons. 

Lemon eucalyptus in a terra cotta pot, with echinacea in the background

Same plant in July

The lemon eucalyptus plant is about three feet now and not very bushy.  In October, I will bring it indoors so it probably will not get much taller than 4 feet. In its native habitat, it would grow to be a tall evergreen tree and bloom tiny white flowers. I could have planted it in the ground and just let it die with frost but how often does one come across such an unusual plant here in Virginia? 

This is not a culinary herb – it is not to be ingested. It is a medicinal herb though; the leaves are used in traditional aboriginal medicine. The essential oil in the leaves is an antiseptic and is used in perfume. The plant is a rich source of citronella, which is a mixture of many compounds including citronellol, citronellal and geraniol. The oil of eucalyptus is an effective mosquito deterrent, although the plant itself cannot deter mosquitoes, so don’t be fooled into thinking that a plant on the patio will keep you bug free. 

Large lemon eucalyptus in a terra cotta pot on a porch

Much bigger by November

There is a difference between the essential oil and the oil of eucalyptus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recognized oil of eucalyptus (OLE) as effective in deterring mosquitos. OLE contains p-Methane-3,8-diol (PMD), a naturally occurring compound obtained from the spent distillation of the leaves. PMD can also be synthesized in a laboratory. PMD is the only plant-based mosquito repellent that has been recognized by the CDC to be effective in repelling mosquitoes while posing no risk to human health. However, children under the age of three should not use this because it can irritate the eyes. PMD has been registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an effective plant-based mosquito repellent. If you want a commercial, plant-based mosquito repellent, look for a product that lists “oil of lemon eucalyptus” as an active ingredient, which should provide up to six hours of protection. Lemon eucalyptus essential oil has a lower level of PMD and is not effective in repelling mosquitoes. The essential oil is made by steam distilling the leaves and twigs.  

When I bought my plant, I wasn’t thinking mosquitoes, I was just thinking it had a pretty lemon scent. Personally, I think I will use the leaves in my potpourri, maybe with a touch of lavender.

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.


Peggy 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.

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.

The Other Quince

by Matt Millage

PXL_20210402_173312198After a brief email exchange with a colleague last fall around this same time, I set off to collect some fallen treasures from the forest floor from a tree I had never collected from before. The fruit was large and aromatic, but I was unfamiliar with its culinary use. Suddenly the sweet scent of ripening flesh let me know that the bounty was close, and true to smell, the six-inch long, bright yellow fruits of the Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis) were scattered beneath a tree. Much larger than its cousin, the common quince (Cydonia oblonga), which is used often in fruit production and tree grafting, the Chinese quince has a reputation for being rather astringent, and I had never thought of cooking with it. 

After informing my colleague that the harvest was complete, I inquired as to how he planned on using the crop. He explained that quince made a lavish addition to an apple pie, among other seasonal dishes. From there, I dug in further to the culinary and ethnobotanical history of the Chinese quince and was pleasantly surprised to discover the versatility and medicinal properties of this interesting plant.

A monotypic species in the Rosaceae family, this tree alone could be an ornamental addition to most temperate gardens. They grow easily in USDA hardiness zones 6a-8b and in a variety of soil types.  Standing 10’ – 20’ at maturity with exquisite exfoliating bark and wonderfully scented pink-white flowers in the spring, it adds multiple layers of interest year-round. Autumn, though, is when it gives up its true prize—the large fruits which have been used historically for medicines, as an edible for jams, jellies, pie fillings, liqueurs, candies, and eaten as a sweet meat (Facciola, 1990).

Korea, Japan, and China have used the fruits medicinally for centuries as an antitussive, and for  asthma, the common cold, sore throats, mastitis, and tuberculosis. Descriptions of these efficacies have been found dating back to the 18th century in Japan. It contains several medicinally active constituents including organic acids, plus the flavonoids rutin and quercetin (World Health Organization, 1998).  Recent research has shown that extracts of Chinese quince fruit have various biological functions, such as antibacterial, antihemolytic (Osawa et al., 1997), anti-inflammatory (Osawa et al., 1999), antitumor (Chun et al., 2012), anti-influenza (Hamauzu et al., 2005, Sawai et al., 2008, Sawai-Kuroda et al., 2013), antioxidant (Hamauzu et al., 2006, Hamauzu et al., 2010), and gastroprotective (anti-ulcerogenic) (Hamauzu et al., 2008) activities. 

Medicinal plants are often boiled to extract functional ingredients, suggesting a decoction of Chinese quince fruit may be rich in various phytochemicals. Decoctions have been used for medicinal purposes but can also be used for manufacturing processed foods, such as fruit jelly. These traditional methods offer both positive and negative effects on the medicinal properties, as some research shows that the thermal effects can have a reductive effect on the polyphenols (Hamauzu et al., 2018).  

PXL_20211020_123304152_2So, in addition to being a delicious addition to the fall harvest, it also has an increasing number of positive side effects attributed to its consumption. Which, I believe, begs the question, when are you going to add some quince to your apple pie? There are lots of fantastic recipes on the Internet, but here is one that I tried last year after my colleague piqued my interest enough to see how they taste during fall pie season. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did as it truly does add a lavishness and texture that I had never experienced before with a typical apple pie. I used the Chinese quince but am sure that the common quince could be used as an easy replacement. Even if you just keep a bowl of them on the counter for a sweet fragrance, I hope that you can find a way to enjoy the Chinese quince in your home this fall, too! 

 

Apple Quince Pie

Ingredients

  • 3 cups thinly sliced peeled quinces (about 2 medium)
  • 1 can (5-1/2 ounces) unsweetened apple juice
  • 1 teaspoon whole cloves
  • Pastry for single-crust pie (9 inches)
  • 5 cups thinly sliced peeled tart apples (about 5 medium)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Topping:

  • 1/3 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon cold butter
  1. In a large saucepan, combine the quince and apple juice. Place cloves on a double thickness of cheesecloth; bring up corners of cloth and tie with string to form a bag. Add to the saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 12-15 minutes or until quince are crisp-tender.
  2. Uncover; simmer 8-12 minutes longer or until liquid is reduced to 2 tablespoons. Discard spice bag. Cool for 5 minutes.
  3. Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Trim to a 1/2 inch beyond edge of plate; flute edges. In a large bowl, combine the apples, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. Gently stir in quince mixture. Spoon into the crust.
  4. For topping, in a small bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon; cut in butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over filling.
  5. Bake at 375° for 50 – 60 minutes or until the apples are tender and crust is golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

Photo Credits: 1) Chinese quince flower; 2) Exfoliating bark; 3) Chinese quince hanging from branches; 3) A large, fully ripe fruit. All photos courtesy of the author.

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.

References

Chun, J.M., K.J. Nho, A.Y. Lee, et al. (2012). A methanol fraction from Chaenomeles sinensis inhibits hepatocellular carcinoma growth in vitro and in vivo. Journal of the Korean Society for Applied Biological Chemistry. 55: 345-351.

Facciola, S. (1990). Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Vista, California: Kampong Publications.

Hamauzu, Y., T. Inno, C. Kume, M. Irie, and K. Hiramatsu. (2006). Antioxidant and antiulcerative properties of phenolics from Chinese quince, quince, and apple fruits. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 54: 765-772.

Hamauzu, Y., M. Irie, M. Kondo, and T. Fujita (2008). Antiulcerative properties of crude polyphenols and juice of apple, and Chinese quince extracts. Food Chemistry. 108: 488-495.

Hamauzu, Y., H. Kishida, and N. Yamazaki. (2018). Gastroprotective property of Pseudocydonia sinensis fruit jelly on the ethanol-induced gastric lesions in rats. Journal of Functional Foods. 48: 275-282.

Hamauzu, Y., H. Yasui, T. Inno, C. Kume and M. Omanyuda. (2005). Phenolic profile, antioxidant property, and anti-influenza viral activity of Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis Schneid.), quince (Cydonia oblonga Mill.), and apple (Malus domestica Mill.) fruits. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 53: 928-934.

NC State Extension. Pseudocydonia sinensis Fact Sheet. Accessed on Oct 5, 2021 from NC State Extension https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/pseudocydonia-sinensis/

Osawa, K., K. Miyazaki, H. Imai, and K. Takeya. (1999). Inhibitory effects of Chinese quince (Chaenomeles sinensis) on hyaluronidase and histamine release from rat mast cells (in Japanese with English summary). Natural Medicines. 53: 188-193.

Osawa, K., H. Yasuda, H. Morita, K. Takeya, and H. Itokawa.  (1997). Antibacterial and antihemolytic activity of triterpenes and β-sitosterol isolated from Chinese quince (Chaenomeles sinensis) (in Japanese with English summary). Natural Medicines. 51: 365-367.

Sawai, R., K. Kuroda, T. Shibata, R. Gomyou, K. Osawa, and K. Shimizu. 2008. Anti-influenza virus activity of Chaenomeles sinensis. Journal of Ethnopharmacology.118:108-112.

Sawai-Kuroda, R., S. Kikuchi, Y.K. Shimizu, Y. Sasaki, K. Kuroda, T. Tanaka, and T. Yamamoto, et al. 2013. A polyphenol-rich extract from Chaenomeles sinensis (Chinese quince) inhibits influenza A virus infection by preventing primary transcription in vitro. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 146: 866-872.

World Health Organization, R. O. (1998). Medicinal plants in the Republic of Korea : information on 150 commonly used medicinal plants. Manila: WHO Regional Publications: Regional Office for the Western Pacific.


Matt has worked in public gardening for a little over six years and is currently the horticulturist in the Asian Collections at the U.S. National Arboretum. He previously worked at Smithsonian Gardens in a variety of capacities. Matt is an ISA-certified arborist and an IPM manager certified with both Virginia and DC.

Unearthly fragrance, cat-scratching thorns

By Rachel Cywinski

(This article is an abridged version originally appearing on the Native Plant Society of Texas website, November 30, 2020. Thanks to the author for allowing us to reprint her article here.)

Huisache flowersThe portals of heaven open to announce [that] spring will soon return—that’s the only way that I can describe the aroma of huisache (Vachellia farnesiana) in bloom. Texas A&M University’s Aggie Horticulture website describes this tree as “intensely fragrant.” 

For years, I was drawn to this delightful scent but stayed away because of an extreme sensitivity to bee stings. Never are bees more evident than when huisache blooms. Many people also stay away because they fear the thorns.

Huisache tree in Alamo Defenders Cemetery in San Antonio, TexasBut one day, looking for emerging native plants as I often do in the neglected historic cemeteries of San Antonio, I ducked under the branches and stood near the trunk. My senses were transported by the unearthly fragrance and the amazing sound of thousands of bees, who were all so entranced by the blooms, that they had no interest in what a human was doing. As I deeply inhaled the fragrance, breezes moved the fine leaves like caresses across my face. I was hooked. Ever since, when I see huisache blooming in the hot and high parts of San Antonio, I look for it each week in places a little farther north or more shaded, until all the trees have bloomed, and spring has arrived.

picture of Guerlain's Apres L'Ondee perfumeIn the 1800s, some enterprising Europeans imported what we in southern and central Texas take for granted; the macerated blooms of huisache grown commercially in southern France and Portugal are used in some of the world’s most expensive perfumes made in Cannes. Huisache is an “overlooked indigenous plant” that is “very valuable” to urban gardens by fixing nitrogen in the soil and attracting pollinators, said San Antonio City Arborist Mark Bird. “The bees and other pollinators can’t resist.” The Native Plant Project states that the bees particularly need the pollen more than the nectar of this tree and cites it as attracting insects and birds (1).

ISA-Certified Arborist® David Vaughan, one of the charter members of the ISA-Texas chapter, recommends huisache for dry sites. Vaughan listed benefits of huisache as being a pioneer species, fast-growing, maturing to a medium size, fragrant and “gorgeous” with early spring flowers that last a month, with the perk that “compound leaves are small and do not need to be raked.”

Huisache thorns adult and juvenile forms

Young huisache trees have large thorns on new foliage (right). More mature trees have sharp pairs of barb-like thorns at junctures.

Mature trees do have two small barb-like thorns at the base of each leaf, but only the youngest trees have the long spiky thorns to protect themselves. This adds to their attractiveness in urban landscapes, where so many birds fall prey to domesticated cats let outdoors. Birds nest in huisache, according to the Natives of Texas website. Native Plant Project lists it of particular value for white-winged doves (1).

Huisache, a Nahuatl term meaning “many thorns,” is the most common name for Vachellia farnesiana, though it has been called an “acacia” for so long that many will likely continue to remember it as such. The gum derived from the tree is considered higher quality than gum arabic. Other historic and current uses of huisache include medicine, wood, dye, tannin, ink, pottery, glue, toothbrushes, and firewood (2). David Vaughan cautions that, although huisache and mesquite wood have a similar appearance, grilling meat over huisache wood will ruin it.

Other medicinal uses recorded for huisache include: an astringent and demulcent; in treatment of wounds, skin inflammations, and swellings; sore throat, diarrhea, typhoid, stomachic, dyspepsia, dysentery, leucorrhoea, conjunctivitis, uterorrhagia, neuroses, and headaches (3).

Vachellia farinesiana seed podsThe ebony-colored seed pods appear to bulge with numerous small seeds that contain a toxic alkaloid. But that does not prevent them from being invaded by insects as soon as they drop to the ground. If you plan to start huisache from seed, be on the lookout to get the seeds before they are eaten.

Mark Bird has found huisache valuable for controlling erosion and restoring degraded soils. He said, “In some ways the tree can be considered a pioneer species, because it can establish in poor quality soils and lead to future, ‘more desirable’ trees, such as oaks and elms.”

Another ISA-Certified Arborist®, Mark Peterson, concurs with Bird. Peterson, who is a project manager in the Conservation Department of San Antonio Water System, said huisache “is definitely a pioneer species. In certain regions of south and southeast Texas, it is the primary woody species during the first five to thirty years of succession after land clearing.” Peterson has observed that establishment of huisache and mesquite improves soil quality for later growth of hackberry, pecan, mulberry, or oak, particular to site conditions.

Huisache tree blooming and Diana Kersey Art on bridge over San Antonio RiverVachellia farnesiana’s native range is considered to cross from southern Florida to southern California, south to northern South America. Vaughan said, “a few grow more north, but seldom survive the occasional very cold winter of the [Texas] hill country.” Huisache is not freeze-hardy, but it is fast-growing and exceptionally drought-tolerant. Peterson says, “The only thing that can seriously affect its growth is over-watering.” In the San Antonio area, one could almost draw a map of the waterways by the presence of huisache, as it is pervasive on the upper banks of streams, creeks, and the river. I think of it as one of those unique plants that so often grows near, but never in, waterways as they are uniquely able to tolerate periods of moisture and yet withstand dry conditions.

This past spring, I happened to be in northwest San Antonio near the place of the most extraordinary annual sight of huisache in bloom. The trees near where I live, between Salado Creek and the San Antonio River, had bloomed a few weeks earlier. And so, I realized this might be the time that trees along creeks in more elevated areas were blooming. Indulging in huisache viewing would really brighten my day, I rationalized—and there were so many trees [from which] I could get whiffs of the fragrance just driving past.

Huisache trees along byway

Huisache trees between the roadway and hike-and-bike trail provide visual calm to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River in southern Bexar County.

With great anticipation, I found my way to a large roadway that serves traffic exiting and entering a main entrance of a major local employer. I remembered how stunningly the display of golden blooms gleamed all along the upper bank of a stream tributary to Zarzamora Creek and took deep breaths to maintain calm as I rounded the bend, where the setting sun would create such a breath-taking display.

I did not remain calm. I rounded the bend and saw the sunset. There was nothing between us. I pulled over. There were no trees: there was nothing. Where was the “rain of gold” that blooming huisache made in the wind? 

As I stared, stunned, another motorist pulled her car in front of mine, and came running back, asking if I was okay. “The huisache [trees] are GONE,” I said to her. She looked at me with confusion.

She asked several times whether I was all right, and I continued to explain the huisache were gone. Her confusion concerned me. Perhaps she might think I was some dangerous person. Then we both changed the conversation. I asked her if she didn’t remember the huisache. Clearly, she didn’t. Then I realized that she just did not know the NAME of the trees. She probably missed them but did not know what they were called. So, I explained it was the trees that always had such beautiful blooms every year, the ones that looked like shining yellow all along this area. I motioned to where the trees had been and said, “It makes me want to cry.”

Huisache blooming at Ecumenical Center of San Antonio, TexasThe woman stared open-mouthed then looked to where the trees had been, then at me, then to the stream bank, as if trying to remember. But she couldn’t.

The woman explained it was very dangerous to stop a car along the roadway, even with flashers on. I asked if it wasn’t between shifts when there would not be so many employees driving. She agreed, and said it was still very dangerous. Even though there were many lanes, there were constant motor vehicle collisions. It was not safe even to be on this roadway. 

I told her that I was going to leave. But, I insisted, didn’t she miss the trees that had been there? Again, she seemed confused and unable to place any trees where they had been. She said if I was okay, she was leaving, but that I really needed to get my car off the road altogether; there were too many drivers who ran into people here.

Huisache tree bloomingI thanked her. As I waited for her car to move, I began crying in earnest. How many times had the concerned woman driven past the beautiful delicate-looking green of huisache branches dancing over the breeze? Had she passed golden huisache blooms thousands of times and never noticed them?

To me, this was the saddest thing of all.

*For more information about supporting native herbs in the landscape, visit The Herb Society of America’s GreenBridges™ Initiative website.

Photo Credits: 1) Huisache (Vachellia farinesiana) flowers (R. Cywinski); 2) Huisache tree in Alamo Defenders Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas (R. Cywinski); 3) Perfume by Guerlain containing huisache essential oil (public domain); 4) Mature and immature thorns (R. Cywinski); 5) Mature and immature seed pods (Creative Commons, Starr Environmental); 6) Huisache tree blooming and Diana Kersey Art on bridge over San Antonio River (R. Cywinski); 7) Huisache along roadway (R. Cywinski); 8) Huisache bordering the Ecumenical Center of San Antonio, Texas (R. Cywinski); 9) Huisache flowering boughs (R. Cywinski).

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. 

References

(1) Native Plant Project. https://www.nativeplantproject.com/. Accessed 8 October 2021.

(2) Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plant Products. https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Acacia_farnesiana.html. Accessed 8 October 2021.

(3) Plants for a Future Database. https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Acacia+farnesiana. Accessed 8 October 2021.


Rachel Cywinski’s professional background is in journalism and mathematics education, including degrees in international business and business economics. She is a native plant enthusiast (with a special affinity for plant identification) and serves as a volunteer for the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in the San Antonio region and is a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Herbal Trees and Shrubs of the Plains and Prairies

By Katherine Schlosser

From place to place, season to season, and year to year,

the colorful mixtures and combinations of flowering herbs 

are influenced by permutations of weather, grazing,

competition with grasses, and seed abundance.

                                                    ~David S. Costello                        

Since childhood the words “For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain” colored my impression of the landscape of the western part of our country. Visits to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and masses of cousins didn’t disappoint my vision. It wasn’t until adulthood that I fully understood that those words were essentially a drone fly-over.  

For some of us, it takes paying attention not only to the larger landscape, but to the details as well to appreciate the enormous botanical diversity of our country. From the tallest coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) to the tiny littleleaf pyxie moss (Pyxidanthera brevifolia) and its 1/4-inch flowers peering out from 1/5-inch leaves, there is a lifetime of plants to observe and learn. Narrowing the focus to herbal plants, those with uses for flavoring and medicinal purposes, makes the task a little easier, but there is still a world of plants to learn.

Following are just a sample, and for further inspiration I recommend the sources listed in References:

Red false yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)—though not a Yucca species—is a perfect summer blooming perennial plant that approaches shrub size at 3 – 5 feet tall and 4 – 6 feet wide. Arching evergreen leaves, with the appearance of a narrow Yucca leaf but softer, grow from a basal clump and have fine white curling filament hairs on the margins. In colder climates, the leaves will turn a purplish-red in winter.

Native to Texas and northern Mexico, red false yucca needs six hours of direct sunlight and good drainage. The plant is drought tolerant and can survive in urban settings but does not do well in damp soils. In temperate climates, it blooms only in the summer, and in warmer areas it can bloom year-round.

The leaves and fruits/seeds are toxic, but the flowers can be eaten: cut the flowers off the stem, leaving the base, stamen, and stigma in place to produce seed. Use only the flower petals in stir fry recipes (sautéing with onions, celery, carrots, squash, or other vegetables), in omelets, in salads or as a garnish. Add the petals toward the end of cooking.

This sweet bison calf, with her mother not far away, is enjoying the early fruits of the western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). It makes me wonder if that is how humans learned to eat the fruits—by watching wildlife. One taste would have told us YES, eat the fruits. They are luscious if you can get to them before the birds devour them. 

The western serviceberry is smaller than A. arborea (downy serviceberry) and others that grow in eastern states. Generally less than 20 feet tall, western serviceberry makes full, well-rounded shrubs with fruits easily within reach of bears, bison, deer, and other animals, as well as the expected birds. Pure white, star-like flowers appear in May, with dark purple fruits ripening by July. Habitat varies, but a certain amount of water is needed for good fruit set. They adapt to stream banks, moist hillsides, or open areas (as above), and grow from near sea level to sub-alpine areas.

The fruits were very important to Northwest tribes and were in such abundance that they could be dried and stored for winter use. Combined with leaves of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and field mint (Mentha arvensis), they were a major ingredient of pemmican. Dried fruits also flavored meat stews and sweet puddings. Now, we make jam, pies, and wine with them and add them to muffins and pancakes. Daniel Moerman (1996) devotes two full pages to the herbal and other uses of western serviceberry.

Western serviceberry grows in most states west of the Mississippi River, including Alaska.

Mountainspray, Holodiscus dumosos, is a stunning shrub that first caught my eye during a 1996 trip to the northwestern states. This reliable plant grows well across ID, WY, NV, UT, CO, AZ, and NM. It also blooms from June to August, making chances of finding them highly likely. 

This is a slender, deciduous shrub with oval, coarsely toothed, aromatic leaves and reddish stems. The flowers are slightly smaller (½” – ¾”) than its cousin, H. discolor (1 3/8” – 2 3/4”), which grows a bit further north. The shrub itself, though slender, can reach seven feet tall.

Mountainspray roots are brewed to make a pleasant tea, and the leaves are boiled to make a tea for treating flu. A beverage tea is also made from the bark. There are many other medicinal uses, enough for Moerman to fill a full page, along with toolmaking and hunting and fishing uses.

Mountainspray is enough of a beauty to put it on my “find one of these” list.

We don’t often think about our western states without thinking about “sagebrush.” Artemisia tridentata (named for the three lobes at the tip of the leaves) is the iconic big sagebrush of the West. It grows across most of the states we describe as “western.” Big sagebush is easy to identify with its aromatic, wedge- to fan-shaped leaves that are three-lobed at the tips and remain on the shrub through winter. Average height is 3 – 4 feet, but can range from as much as 15 feet in certain habitats – generally dryish, well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soils. They bloom with small yellow flowers in mid-fall.

Artemisia tridentata can develop a thick woody base, which was used for firewood in the absence of trees. Smoke from burning branches cleansed the air of impurities in ceremonies, and branches were tied together to make brooms.

Uses of the plant are many and mostly medicinal. However, the seeds were used to add a touch of bitter flavor to soups and stews and also made their way into liqueurs as a bittering agent.

Big sagebrush provides food and shelter for a broad range of animals and birds.

Wild tarragonI couldn’t end this post without mentioning another of the many Artemisia species: wild tarragon, a favorite of herb gardeners. This plant is recognized by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as native to all states from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific coast. A few scattered populations also appear in Wisconsin and Illinois, and in one county each in New York and Massachusetts. There are some who suggest that our A. dracunculus can be traced to the garden variety, stating that it may have naturalized many years ago. Given its range and history of use by Native American tribes, I suspect it was here before colonists arrived.

Wild tarragon has been used to treat a great many health problems due to its anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, digestive, and antimicrobial properties; it was added to tobacco for flavor; branches were burned to sedate bees around their nests and to discourage mosquitos; as an insecticide; and to add a pleasant fragrance to baths and hair dressings.  

It is still a popular herb in the kitchen with an anise-like flavor that graces a multitude of dishes, salad dressings, and beverages. I have not tested the theory but am told that those growing on prairies and plains are not as strongly flavored as those available commercially.

It grows far better in the West than it does in my Mid-Atlantic garden, for in spite of droughts that seem to be happening more often, if my red clay holds moisture too long, the Artemisia dracunculus roots suffer. A friend up the road, however, has no difficulty keeping it as a perennial in her garden.

Regarding the information available to us about the Native American uses of various trees, shrubs, and plants, I am partial to the statement below:

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is the on-going accumulation of knowledge, practice and belief about relationships between living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways (Newman, 2021).

I, too, have great respect for the knowledge and wisdom we have gained from the Indigenous Peoples of this land. That knowledge saved many from starvation and death and taught us much about this land.  

When you have the opportunity or need to add a tree or shrub, or replace one or more, consider some of our choices among native plants. Especially as we watch our climate change, there may be more choices for those of us in eastern states than we ever dreamed possible.

Photo Credits: 1 & 2) Hesperaloe parviflora (red false yucca), photos taken near Yuma, AZ; 3) Amelanchier alnifolia (Western serviceberry) enjoyed by as bison calf, photo taken in Idaho. 4) Amelanchier leaves and growing fruit (Sally & Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org); 5) Holodiscus dumosos (mountainspray); 6) Lochsa River along Lolo Pass, near Warm Springs Trailhead in Clearwater National Forest; 7) Artemisia tridentata (big sagebrush); 8) big sagebrush habitat in southern Idaho; 9) Artemisia dracunculus (wild tarragon). All photos courtesy of the author, except No. 4.

References

Brown, Lauren. (undated). The Audubon Society Nature Guides: Grasslands. Alfred A. Knopf, NY. 

Costello, David F. 1975. The Prairie World. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York.

Johnson, James R. PhD, and Gary E. Larson, PhD. 2007. Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains. South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD. 

Kershaw, Linda. 2000. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies. Lone Pine Publishing, Renton, WA.

Moul, Francis. 2006. The National Grasslands. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 

Moerman, Daniel E. 1996. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Oregon.

Newman, R. 2021. Human Dimensions: Traditional Ecological Knowledge—Finding a Home in the Ecological Society of America. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, pre-publication, article e01892. https://doi.org/10.1002/bes2.1892. Accessed 06-18-2021. 

Williams, Dave. 2010. The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA.

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.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level. 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.