Herbs in Colonial America

This post was originally published as the July 2004 Newsletter.

Happy Independence Day, everyone. It’s the morning of July 4th as I write this. I’ve been listening to the audio book called Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts.

Book cover Founding Mothers

It tells the stories of many of the women related to or married to the founding fathers of the United States. It’s an uplifting and fascinating book.

Anyone interested in learning how the women of our young country contributed to its beginnings would find the book a good read. I was interested in the part where the colonists boycotted “English Tea”, which was their preferred drink. What kinds of “tea” did they then drink, I wondered? So, after a little research, I came upon some interesting information.

Of course, not everyone in The Colonies could afford to drink the imported English Tea, which was actually imported from either India or China. Some of the native herbs used for tea were bee balm, Monarda didyma, wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens,a variety of goldenrod, Solidago odorata, New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, and leaves of the raspberry bush. In the southern colonies, sassafrass tea was enjoyed, made from the bark of sassafrass root. This also is the original ingredient in root beer.

Bee Balm Plant
Mondarda didyama, Bee Balm, Oswego Tea
Wintergreen leaves and berries
Wintergreen leaves and berries
Leaves of the Sassafras Tree
Leaves of the Sassafras Tree
New Jersey Tea
New Jersey Tea,


In the Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Virginia, January 13, 1774 is an article signed by one Philo-Aletheias that details the patriotism of the “English Tea” boycott and gives some examples of “Liberty Tea”. The article begins as follows: “Can posterity believe that the constitutional liberties of North America were on the Point of being given up for Tea? Is this exotic Plant necessary to Life? … But if we must through Custom have some warm Tea once or twice a day, why ma be not exchange this slow poison which not only destroys our Constitution but endangers our Liberties and drains our Country of so many thousands of Pounds a Year for Teas of our own American Plants, many of which may be found pleasant to the taste, and very salutary, according to our various constitutions…”

And, Mr./Ms Philo-Aletheias gives 17 examples of substitutions, some of which are: “Sweet marjoram and a little mint; mother of thyme, a little hyssop; sage and balm leaves joined witha little lemon juice, rosemary and lavender, a very few small twigs of White Oak well dried in the Sun with two leaves and a Half of Sweet Myrtle; Clover with a little chamomile; Peppermint and Yarrow; Twigs of liquid Amber Tree (commonly called Sweet Gum) with or without the flowers of Elder…” The list goes on.

Herbs certainly were used for more than tea during the colonial period of our history. A well stocked medicine cabinet would contain portions of dried herbs for poultices or to make a soothing draught for a cold or sore throat.

The kitchen was not neglected, either, when it came to using herbs. Some of the notes on cookery that survive mention sassafrass flavored New Orleans gumbo, rose water added to a wedding cake, and Sally Washington’s chicken dressing had thyme in it. A “smothered veal” dish contained the heady combination of parsley, thyme, carrots, turnips, roast chestnuts, potatoes, onions and celery root. In Louisiana the French flavored their dishes with Bay Leaves , thyme, cloves, garlic, cayenne pepper, mustard, tomato and parsley. In the West, marjoram was a Spanish influence added to cayenne peppers.

Many of the colonists brought over seeds and a few plants from the gardens they left behind. Since regular shipping routes were in place, plants and seeds were soon being sent for. Some newspaper clippings have survived with notices such as this one from the South Carolina Gazette in 1735: “Just imported from London to be sold by John Watson… mustard seed”, and from the same paper, December 28, 1738: “Just imported from London by Doctor Jacob Moon… anis seeds, carraway seeds, sweet fennel seeds.”

So, as you celebrate this Independence Day, think about the people who came to the Americas and made a life here, eventually risking all for freedom from England. And, if you’d like a different take on the history of the Revolution, read “Founding Mothers” and you’ll realize all the people of the colonies played a part in the birth of our nation.

(Much of the information for this newsletter came from a book originally published in 1933, Gardening with Herbs for Flavor and Fragrance, by Helen Morgenthau Fox. It was reprinted in its entirety in 1970, and is sold by Dover Books)

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter, and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. -Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President (1809-1865)

A Seedy Tutorial- Growing from seed

Originally Published December 2004

Cold weather and gloomy skies have come to my part of Texas. We’re experiencing the most rainfall in a year than we’ve had in some time. In one way, it’s good because my outdoor watering chores are kept to a minimum. And, since it’s been cloudy a good bit of the time, even the pots in the greenhouse are slow to dry out. In another way, though, the over-abundant rain has caused problems. Around several parts of Texas there has been flooding, causing people to evacuate their homes, and the fields are very wet… too wet to plow and plant with winter crops.

This time of year I turn my focus to planning and planting for spring. Like many of you, I look at the catalogs that come in the mail, dreaming about next year’s crops of flowers, herbs and vegetables. I look for new items that I think would be attractive to my customers or items that compliment the collections I already offer. One thing I’ve noticed is more and more seed companies are offering seedlings for sale of their, presumably, best sellers. I guess they’ve figured out that many people prefer already grown plants to starting their own seeds. After all, I’m in the plant business, too, because I saw a market for plants. I am offering more seeds this year, however, for those of you who would like to grow your own herbs, vegetables and flowers from seed.

Some varieties of plants really do better from seed in your own garden than started plants. One that comes to mind is the sweet pea. Here in the southern U.S., we plant sweet peas in fall or winter and they grow and then bloom in early to mid spring. Those of you in the more northern reaches of the U.S., will plant them as soon as possible after the last frost. The old varieties of sweet peas are grown not only for their lovely flower colors, but also for their spicy or sweet fragrance. I love them in a vase perfuming the house. Continue reading “A Seedy Tutorial- Growing from seed”

August in the Garden

Originally Published August 2004

Well, it’s been hot here in Texas. No surprise, there, right? I was spoiled after our cool, wet spring and cooler-than-normal July. I was lulled into believing summer wasn’t so bad after all. Wrong!!

August is summer. Pots need water every 24 hours or they get really heat stressed. It’s easy to see which plants are pot-bound and need potting up into larger containers. They’re the ones that seem to need water morning and afternoon! Even my “drought tolerant” plants start looking a little weary. The chickens spend the afternoons in their house where it’s shady and cooler, bathing in the dust that makes up the floor of their house.

Yesterday was somewhat cooler due to a weak “norther”. That’s air flowing in from the north rather than the hot dry west or the hot, humid gulf. North is where our cold weather comes from, too. You might hear me complain in the winter about a “blue norther”, a very cold front that sweeps down over us freezing everything.

But, now a norther is quite welcome. I took advantage of the temps only in the low 90’s and cleaned up the herb bed, pulling out bermuda grass, pruning my Vitex tree and other herbs that had grown rampant and ungainly. I decided the Vitex would be better as a single trunk tree, rather than a multi trunk specimen, so I pruned off the lower branches. I was surrounded by the wonderful aroma of Vitex while the branches were falling around me. I will loose blooms, though, as I cut off a lot of foliage. The area looks neater, though, and there’s now room underneath for other plants.

My big Poliomintha longiflora, Mexican Oregano, was looking very poorly. It only had blooms and leaves on the tips of the branches. It’s gotten very woody with many stems about an inch in diameter. New growth is showing in the middle, though, so I cut it back to 6 or 8 inch stems. I’ll see how it recovers. I may decide to dig it out and divide the mass of woody stems, replanting only a few in the spot in the herb garden where it’s growing, and pot up the rest. But, that’s a job for a much cooler day in the fall. This practice is necessary for many of the perennials that become woody over time. The center of the plant looses the ability to produce leaves and the plant sprawls and no longer produces dense foliage. To be sure, more frequent, lighter pruning would be better, but as I am nowhere near a perfect gardener, I do not get to those chores on a regular basis. Continue reading “August in the Garden”

Herbs in the Kitchen

Originally Published October 2004

Fall….. autumn….. vernal equinox. To me, fall brings images of the late afternoon sun slanting into the chicken house with a warm glow as I close the flock up for the night. Darkness falls earlier and earlier. It’s always surprising to me how fast the days shorten once the equinox passes. It’s a time of thinking about colder days ahead, comfort foods in the kitchen and baking to warm up the house a little.

I do very little baking in the summer. In our farm house with an air conditioner used only in the bedroom when it’s extremely hot and sticky over night, the kitchen (and the rest of the house) stay very warm for about 3 or 4 months. We do lots of outdoor cooking and quick meals. But, during the cooler months, the kitchen again releases those wonderful aromas of bread, cookies, stews, bean pots and sauces.

Many people don’t think of herbs as an ingredient in dessert food or sweet treats. We all know herbs are used liberally in dishes like stew, casseroles, pasta sauce, soup and roasted fowl or meat and, of course, tea. But, baked goods are a perfect place to incorporate more herbs in your meals. And, remember, herbs are not used only for flavor. Many of the common culinary herbs we use every day have health benefits. The seemingly small amounts of herbs used daily add up to give the body added immune properties, vitamins and other health benefits.

I have favorite herbs for desserts and sweet treats and like to experiment, too. An easy way to incorporate herbs in baking is to find a quick bread recipe that is rather plain. Then, chop some lemony herbs to add to it. Or, if you don’t want little green specks in the bread, steep your lemon herbs in the required liquid over night, remove the herbs and use the flavored liquid. I think either lemon balm or lemon verbena works best for this type of recipe. For a holiday splash, instead of using lemon herbs, use the flowers and leaves of pineapple sage. You’ll have red and green speckles throughout the bread.
Continue reading “Herbs in the Kitchen”