Wild Spring Herbs

Monthly Feature APRIL 2013

Spring is one of the most exciting times of year for gardeners and herbalists. We watch leaves break dormancy on trees and shrubs, bulbs start to show new shoots, perennials return and it’s time for working the soil in our garden beds and containers from last year. New plants are seeded and we are optimistic about the future! 

Herbalists and others in the know also watch for certain wild herbs that can be used for our health.

For centuries, as we know, plants have been used for health and medicine. No herbs are more useful than the ones that show up in Spring and are used to reinvigorate our bodies after the Winter. In countries with very cold winters and limited food availability, Spring Tonics were especially important.

Today, of course, we have a wide range of produce and other foods available to us year-round. That doesn’t mean, however, that our bodies don’t still react in a positive manner to the Spring herbs for good health and nutrition.

Some of the most common, healthy Spring herbs are Dandelion, Nettles, Cleavers and Chickweed.

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Dandelion- Taraxacum officinale

 

Dandelion

Dandelions are ubiquitous. We’re seeing them now, as Spring is in full swing here in my part of Texas. Folks up north, where the weather is still cold, will have to wait a bit for their spring Dandelions. Why Dandelions? They are considered a mild bitter herb used to stimulate the appetite and promote digestion, as a blood cleanser and diuretic. Dandelions can be harvested from areas where you know no pesticides have been used and cooked like any leafy green- steamed, braised or used in soups, pesto and soups.

You can also make a Dandelion Tea using about 1/2 tsp. freshly dried leaves per cup of water. Steep for 10 minutes and drink about 3 times throughout the day to stimulate digestion and aid in liver function.

There are cultivated varieties of Dandelion bred for food. I’ve grown Italian Dandelions from John Sheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds: Catalogna Dandelions: 60-65 days Catalogna is an early open-pollinated variety with long, deeply-cut, bright green frilly leaves. If you want to harvest it as a ‘cut and come again’ crop, sow heavily and thickly. But be forewarned, they will bolt in hot weather and become unpleasantly bitter. We enjoy pairing it with other greens in rustic salads topped with a warm, pancetta balsamic vinegar reduction dressing and homemade croutons. (OP.)

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Companion Planting

Monthly Feature FEBRUARY 2013

Red Bud Tree

Here in Texas, early Spring is knocking at our door. We’re winding down the cool season crops and looking at planting our warm season selections. At the Markets, almost everyone is asking for Basil…  note: it’s not ready yet. The nights are staying too cool, in my opinion, to have new basil plants in the garden. So, there are tiny, tiny plants in the greenhouse, on the heat mat, which will be ready in a few weeks. 
Even though, for us, time for planting is almost upon us, for much of the U.S. and parts of North Texas as well, gardens are still in the planning stage. So, while you’re looking at how to best use your garden space, whether in the next few weeks or a couple of months from now, don’t forget to plan for herbs along side your vegetables.

HERBS ATTRACT INSECT PREDATORS!

Herbs are great companion plants for vegetables and flowers, as well. Besides adding visual interest, herbs attract beneficial insects which help control the ones which come to eat your garden. For maximum effectiveness, inter plant your herbs and vegetables, rather than having single variety rows of crops. If you are a row gardener, plant some herbs in between your vegetable plants in each row. If you use the square foot plan or raised beds, just add some of the beneficial herbs to your beds wherever they fit in. Container gardeners can add herb plants along with vegetables in containers as well. Plant them near the edge of the container so they get maximum sun and don’t become shaded by a big tomato or squash!

HERBS ATTRACT INSECT POLLINATORS!

Many herbs, especially the ones with umbel-type flower heads- dill, parsley, fennel, cilantro- are great at attracting pollinators. These bees, butterflies and tiny flies pollinate the flowers of your vegetable plants so you have better yields. In past gardens, if your plants have produced a lot of flowers but few vegetables, pollination could be an issue. Especially if you garden in an urban area, you might need to give your plants extra help in pollination by planting herbs attractive to insects.

Continue reading for charts with specifics for companion planting.

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Shungiku, Edible Chrysanthemum

Monthly Feature JANUARY 2013

Even though it’s winter, we have been having a warm spell for weeks. I know there is cold weather yet to come, so I’ve continued seeding some cool season crops as well as the warm season crops for Spring. Lettuces and salad greens make quick crops here in our cool winters- most varieties can be harvested in as little as 25 days, for baby leaves. Combined with hardy herbs such as parsley, chervil, salad burnet and cutting celery and colorful edible flowers, it’s easy to make an attractive, tasty and healthy salad from the garden.

Shungiku

Since I’m always looking for additional greens to add to a salad, I thought you might be, too. A couple of years ago I discovered a versatile green known as Shungiku, Edible Chrysanthemum, Garland Chrysanthemum, Chop Suey Greens and many others. This is a salad green that can grow in the cool of our winters as well as into the warmth of Spring. The bright yellow flowers add a splash of color to the mix. These greens can also be lightly steamed, braised or added to soups as well as eaten fresh.

Shungiku
Pic courtesy of Dave’s Garden

Shungiku is easy to grow in ordinary garden soil or a container. It grows to about 20 – 24 inches tall and covers itself with the cheery little flowers. You can direct sow it or start it indoors for transplanting when ready. It can tolerate a light frost. For a constant supply of the tender, young leaves, sow every 3 weeks or so, with your other succession planted salad greens and you’ll have an unusual, tender and flavorful addition to your cool season salads.

Like many vegetables, Shungiku is good for us. Along with the various lettuce varieties, this edible Chrysanthemum is considered a bitter herb. Bitters aid digestion by stimulating bile production in the intestines. Heavy and fatty foods are better digested when bile is present upon ingestion. Hence, the practice of serving a salad course before the entree– to allow the body to become ready for the heavier course which in Western European tradition would include meat, gravies and potatoes.

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