Early Spring Herbs

While we wait for Spring to really arrive, I’m enjoying these very hardy early Spring or late Winter herbs.

In the Herb Garden the flowers I love to see in early Spring are the blue of Borage, Borago officinalis

borage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and Chamomile, Matricaria recutita, with its tiny yellow and white daisy-like blooms.

chamomile_garden

Neither Borage nor Chamomile seem to be grown much around here. I don’t know why. Both reseed nicely without being invasive and are useful herbs, too.

Maybe because they’re not in the top five culinary herbs, they’re often forgotten.

Both herbs do well in average garden soil or in large containers. Both will reseed and can be easily grown from seed or from transplants. 

I like to let Chamomile come up where it wants around the garden. It’s so cheery and sweet smelling, never invasive or unwanted in my beds. 

Borage, with its rich blue flowers and large, coarse leaves is a stunning garden addition. It fills space early in the season before the weather gets too hot. Blue flowers are unusual enough that to me, Borage is very special.

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Peppermint

Candy Cane
Candy Cane

Peppermint, Mentha piperata.

Peppermint doesn’t really get the respect it deserves, in my estimation. It’s commonly found in most herb collections and many people eschew it due to its invasive habit.

Peppermint Leaves
Peppermint Leaves

And, it’s not new! Or exotic! Or called a SuperFood.

But! Peppermint is a herb for all around use! I hope you long-time herb lovers will find new information here. And for those of you who have recently discovered the wonderful world of herbs, you will find some ways to use peppermint you weren’t yet aware of, growing tips and other useful information.

Description

Peppermint is a perennial mint with coarsely serrated leaves which can reach more than 2 inches (5 cm) in length. The stems are square and can be from green to reddish in color. The flowers are pink to red, form in the leaf axils of the upper leaves and are placed in whorls of loose spikes. The whole plant can reach to 36 inches (1 m) high in a favorable environment.

peppermint
Botanical Drawing of Peppermint

 

True Peppermint is a sterile hybrid between Water Mint, M. aquatic and Spearmint, M. spicata.

This means that Peppermint does not produce viable seed. So if you see Peppermint seed for sale, you will not get true Peppermint by growing it out, but, rather, a form of Spearmint with, often, a less than pleasing aroma and taste.

 Because the mints which make up Peppermint are themselves somewhat variable, not all Peppermint smells or tastes the same. If you find a Peppermint that you really like, the best way to keep it going is through vegetative propagation: stem or root cuttings, ground layering or division.

Other Mints in the Peppermint Family

Mints in general are very promiscuous, crossing with each other when in flower at the same time. This habit can cause your mints to lose character over time, so if you have a mint you especially like, keep it isolated from its brethren, or you may lose the properties of it that you like the best. The following are either found cultivars or man-made ones that are popular.

Orange MintMentha piperata f. citrata ‘Orange’– Hardy perennial grows up to 32 inches (30 cm) with an indefinite spread. Small, pale pink flowers. Large rounded leaves, oval, dark green, can be tinged with purple. Citrusy scent.

Black PeppermintMentha piperata– Hardy perennial grows up to 2 feet, (60 cm), leaves pointed, oval and toothed on the margin, dark plum brown tinged with green.

Grapefruit MintMentha X piperata var. citrata has very rounded, fuzzy leaves, grows taller than many other Peppermints and has a citrus-like flavor.

Chocolate Mint, is a cultivar of Peppermint that smells and tastes somewhat of chocolate. It is a favorite for sauces to be served over ice cream. It has shiny, dark green leaves and dark stems.

Cultivation

Most mints are easy to grow and Peppermint is no exception. In fact, many people consider it a garden pest if it escapes into the landscape. Of course, that definition is in the eye of the beholder. If you really like Peppermint Tea or want to make Peppermint Essential Oil, you’ll need lots of Peppermint leaves, so a rambling plant may be just what you need. If not, mints grow quite well contained in pots or hanging baskets.

Peppermint likes cool moist roots and to grow into the sun. If you live in a desert area or the hot, humid Gulf Coast South, as I do, mints can tend to fail in the heat of the summer. My recommendation is to grow your mint where the plant gets morning sun and afternoon shade, especially in the summer. Under a deciduous tree is perfect- Winter sun, Summer shade.

If you’re growing your mint in a container, you can give it lots of Winter and early Spring sun, then move it to a spot where it’s shaded from the searing late summer sun. Or… you can move to Seattle or Milwaukee or Pittsburg and grow your mint in full sun where it will thrive and try to take over the neighborhood.

Peppermint is hardy to Zone 5 and grows in a wide range of soils. It likes water and does well where herbs that need better drainage will not do well. I’ve seen it growing happily under the drip of a room air conditioner or near a faucet in the garden. In containers, it still needs decent drainage. Don’t neglect to water it.

For best results with Peppermint, it’s best to divide and replant an established plant every 3 to 4 years. Cut plants back after flowering to encourage new leaf growth. Leave the flowers until they fade, though, as they attract butterflies and beneficial insects such as hover flies to the garden. In high heat areas, cutting your Peppermint back in late summer will cause fresh, new growth to come out once the fall weather arrives and you’ll have a new crop to harvest.

Healthy Peppermint Plant
Healthy Peppermint Plant

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How to Ward Off Dementia

In my endeavor to bring Health and Wellness information into my website, here’s a short article defining steps everyone can take to help minimize the risk of any various forms of dementia.

While there’s no known cure for dementia (yet), there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and in some cases even reverse symptoms of the disease.

Source: How to Ward Off Dementia

Good Reasons to Grow Aromatic Herbs

One of the aspects of herbs that many people, including me, enjoy is their aroma. Working in the garden with herbs, weeding and pruning, we are surrounded by their fragrance. 

The aromatic aspects of herbs isn’t simply pleasing, however, it’s also beneficial. The graphic below gives an overview of some of the many reasons to appreciate aromatic herbs. 
The Healing Power of Scents

 

What Herbs Are Native to the U.S.?

July 2015 Monthly Feature

Plantain Plant
Plantain at The Herb Cottage- Not a native!

We celebrated July 4th this month and that celebration of our nation caused me to think about what herbs are truly native to the United States. Join me in this discussion of common herbs, culinary and medicinal. Which ones are and which ones are not natives may surprise you. 

America is huge. It’s the second largest country in the world, only succeeded by Russia. (Some say Canada is larger. The square mileage of Canada and the U.S. is very close.) Texas, where I live, covers such a large area it contains as many as 5 distinct climate and geographical zones.

Our whole country, of course, contains even more-  from the frozen reaches of the Alaskan wilderness to the swamps of South Florida, the plains of the midwest and the rocky temperate coastline of the western states. What a glory of plant and animal life is contained within our shores!

Which herb are actually native to our land?

Are there culinary ones that are in common usage?

We know many of the common herbs we use in cooking come from the Mediterranean countries. Many of them are well established and are very at home in parts of the US. Coastal California is fortunate to have a rather Mediterranean-like climate where herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram and lavender thrive and can even become part of the landscape. Other parts of the country grow such herbs as annuals or containerized perennials. But which herbs do we use in our cuisine are native to the US?

EpazoteEpazote

One that comes to my mind is Epazote because it grows wild in south Texas areas, including my herb bed, and is used in southwest style cooking. When I looked it up, I found out it is not actually a native, but was introduced from South Mexico, Central and South America. It is much used in Southwestern cuisine as well as having medicinal properties.

Many ancient cultures in Mexico, Central and South America have used various forms of Epazote as a vermifuge- to expel intestinal worms. A decoction or strong tea has successfully been used topically to cure ringworm.

The amount of the herb used in cooking is so much less than the amount used for medicinal purposes, it is quite safe to use in the kitchen. Its most common use is in bean pots to (supposedly) keep the beans from causing flatulence. It’s definitely an acquired taste to be used sparingly. It is added in the last 15 minutes or so of cooking so it doesn’t turn bitter.

Epazote is in the Chenopodium or Goose Foot family. It will grow in shade or sun. If shade grown with ample water, the leaves are larger and the plant does not bolt as quickly as when it’s grown in more sun with less water. All plants in the Goose Foot family make hundreds of seeds and Epazote is no exception. It reseeds readily and has escaped cultivation all over the southern parts of Texas and norther Mexico.

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Redbrush Lippia 

Lippia graveolens, Mexican Oregano
Lippia graveolens growing near the Pecos River

Although the common oregano that we use, Oregano vulgare, is not native to the U.S., there is an oregano substitute that is native to the US. Known as Redbrush Lippia or Mexican Oregano, Lippia graveolens is native to the rocky hills and plains of the Rio Grand area and the Trans Pecos, west to New Mexico and California and south into Mexico and Nicaragua.

According to the TAMU, Aggie Horticulture site: “Redbrush lippia is a slender aromatic shrub or small tree, whose pubescent (felty) branches bear rounded to obtuse, bluntly serrated leaves. Fragrant flowers are yellowish or white with a yellow eye and occur throughout the year, especially after rains. Red-brush is used as a tonic, stimulant, expectorant and condiment in Central America. When crushed the leaves smell of oregano. Graveolens means “strong smelling”.

BENEFIT

Use Ornamental: Showy, Aromatic, Blooms ornamental
Use Wildlife: Nectar-butterflies, Nectar-bees, Nectar-insects, Seeds-granivorous birds
Conspicuous Flowers: yes

Lippia graveolens is used to flavor food and for a mild, medicinal tea in many parts of Mexico and Central and South America. The tea is said to help bring on late menstruation and to treat respiratory infections. The dry or fresh leaves are used to flavor many dishes including beans, corn mush, and other native foods. It can be used in place of the common oregano we’re more used to in any dish calling for oregano.

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Blue Shrub Sage

Blue Shrub Sage
Blue Shrub Sage

Salvia ballotiflora, native to the gravely, limestone hills of Texas, has a wonderful sage taste and aroma. Aside from being very drought tolerant, blooming with blue flowers, usually after a rain, this sage is used as a culinary seasoning for meats and other foods, just like Salvia officinalis, the common culinary sage, which is not native to the U.S.

BENEFIT

Use Ornamental: Aromatic, showy accent shrub.
Use Wildlife: Nectar-bees, Nectar-insects, Cover, Fruit-rodents
Use Food: Reportedly used for flavoring meats and other foods.
Conspicuous Flowers: yes
Fragrant Flowers: yes
Fragrant Foliage: yes
Attracts: Butterflies , Hummingbirds
Nectar Source: yes

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There are many types of food plants native to the U.S., and a wealth of native American herbs used for medicinal purposes. Some are or have been harvested to dangerously low levels in nature and are now being cultivated to supply the commercial needs.

One is a common herb used by many, many people: Echinacea or Cone Flower.

Echinacea purpurea
Echinacea purpurea

Native to the prairies of the midwest, Echinacea purpurea is the most common variety used to strengthen the immune system and help to ward off colds, particularly. Echinacea may be the most common herb used by Americans today. It is being farmed for production, which should take the pressure off the wild plants.

Mullein, Verbascum thapsis, or Great Mullein

Mullein
Mullein at The Herb Cottage

is seen throughout the midwestern prairie states and is thought to be an American native. It is not, however, a native American plant. It was introduced in the US, probably by the first settlers on the East Coast and has spread and become in some areas invasive. I like it because of the large size and character of the plant. It’s an outstanding garden ornament, and can be controlled by cutting the flower stalk before the seeds ripen and burst off the stem and reseed everywhere.

The herb has many medicinal and other uses and has been known as Candlewick Plant, due to the down on the leaves and stems making an excellent tinder when dry. Dried, twisted leaves and stems of Mullein were used as lamp wicks before the introduction of cotton. Other common names include Adam’s Flannel, Beggar’s Blanket, Flannel Mullein, Flannel Plant, Hag’s Taper, Jupiter’s Staff, Molene, Velvet Dock, Velvet Plant, and Woolly Mullein.

Mullein has been used in the treatment of consumption, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments as well as a hair dye as early as the Roman times. An infusion of the flowers was used by the Roman women to dye their hair a golden color. Lyte tells us, ‘the golden floures of Mulleyn stiped in lye, causeth the heare to war yellow, being washed therewithall,’ and according to another old authority, Alexander Trallianus, the ashes of the plant made into a soap will restore hair which has become grey to its original colour.

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There are many, many other useful native American plants to explore such as passionflower, yarrow, chickweed, plantain and violets, to name a few.

We have a rich history of herbal usage in our country be it culinary herbs for our food, medicinal herbs to help keep us healthy and cure our ills, or herbs for cosmetic, household and ritualistic purposes. We have the opportunity to learn from each other and from all the influences that make up America.

Let’s Celebrate Herbs!

QUOTE FOR THE MONTH
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. -Leonard Cohen, musician (1934- )

 

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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Vetiver- Grass of Many Uses, Part 2

Monthly Feature, JUNE 2015

May’s Monthly Feature Article was on the environmental, landscape and household uses of Vetiver Grass. 

This month I thought I’d cover the health benefits of Vetiver Grass. 

mature_vetiver_plantVetiver Grass essential oil (EO) has been used for centuries by various societies for its pain releiving properties, it’s calming aroma and its cooling aspect, among other benefits. In the Ayurveda healing system of India, Vetiver EO plays a prominent role in the practice. The oil is said to be uplifting, calming, soothing and healing.

The fragrance is deep, woody and earthy. It is added to many cosmetic preparations, especially ones designed specifically for men. In the Middle Ages it was used in combination with lime and rosewood. Today, Vetiver EO can be found in many, many perfumed or scented products in our Western world.

Below are some of the specific modern uses and benefits of Vetiver EO.

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