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.

Continue reading “Early Spring Herbs”

Easy Pickling!

Food preservation is a skill somewhat lost in our modern lives. It is, however, a handy skill to learn. If you’re concerned about the future of our modern civilization, learning to store food without refrigeration or freezing is essential. Even if you don’t think we’re facing the next apocalypse, pickling is a fun and easy way to preserve food.

Homemade pickles make great gifts and there’s nothing like gracing your table with homemade pickles to make you feel like a culinary super star!

Here’s an easy to understand graphic that gives all the basics.

 

Source: Fix.com

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

Continue reading “Peppermint”

Chia Seeds- Tiny Powerhouses!

In keeping with my attempt to bring healthy eating and living to readers, I thought the article on Chia Seeds would be of interest. Chia seeds are not exotic nor hard to find, nor expensive. They are grown here in the U.S., are not endangered or imported. And… they have myriad uses.

I like them sprinkled on my homemade cereal and in muffins and quick breads.

This article from Organic Authority has the scoop on Chia Seeds. 

Here’s more on Chia Seeds from Health Ambition.

Here’s another, more in depth, article on Chia Seeds from Positive Healthwellness Blog.

Happy Reading!

Edible Flowers- Beyond Nasturtiums, Calendula and Violets

Did you know Red Bud Tree flowers are edible… or Carnations… or the flowers on your Bean Vines?

Redbud Tree

Picture courtesy of Horticulture Update, Texas AgriLife Extension Service
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
January-February, 2008

Dressing up green salads with edible flowers is popular in restaurants and home-cooked gourmet meals with ingredients right from the garden.

What’s prettier than home-grown salad greens brightened up with orange Nasturtiums or purple and gold Violas? These edible flowers not only brighten up the visual aspect of a green salad, they add a spicy flavor, as well. Nasturtiums are peppery, while the flavors of Violas and Pansies have been compared to Wintergreen.

Nasturtiums

Photo from The Herb Cottage

Before using any flowers as edible additions to your plate, be sure you know how and where they were grown.

For instance, I would not use flowers bought in a floral department or a florist unless they were certified organic. Many ornamental flower growers use various chemicals to combat pests so the flowers look perfect. Flowers grown in other countries can be sprayed with chemicals that are banned here in the U.S. The best practice is to only use flowers you grow- without pesticides, of course, or from friends or a farmers’ market, after you’ve assured yourself they are free of chemicals.

There are myriad edible flowers beyond the common ones to add to salads, pancakes, drinks or canapes. I mentioned the Red Bud Tree. This tree is in the Fabaceae or family of legumes, like the acacia tree or Erythrina, the Coral Bean as well as some well-known vegetables such as beans, peanuts, peas and the like. The flowers from the trees in the Fabaceae family, IN MOST CASES, are edible, although the seeds are toxic.

But, I digress…. Redbud flowers are perfectly safe to eat and can be eaten raw or sauteed. Redbuds among the first to bloom in the spring, before they leaf out. They also produce large numbers of multi-seeded pods, from spring to late summer depending where it is.

Redbud Tree
Redbud Tree at The Herb Cottage. You can see it’s blooming the same time as the Bluebonnets. This pic taken 3/24/10.

Native Americans ate redbud flowers and the young pods and seeds raw or cooked. The flowers can be pickled. They have a slightly sour taste and are high in Vitamin C . They’re a pleasant addition to salads and can also be used as a condiment. The unopened buds can be pickled or used as a caper substitute. Add them to pancake batter for a fritter or freeze them in ice cubes and serve them in drinks.The flowers on the bean and pea plants you’re growing for vegetables are edible, too. Just don’t eat too many, or you won’t have any vegetables!

Many flowers growing on your herb plants are edible as well, with flavor similar to the leaf.

  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Basil
  • Arugula
  • Borage
  • Calendula
  • Chamomile
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Rosemary
  • and … don’t forget the Rose- It is, after all, considered an herb!

Above are just a few of the herbal flowers that are edible. The flavor ranges from milder than the leaf- as in Chives- or actually stronger and more tangy as in the Rosemary.

Garlic Chive Flowers
Garlic Chive Flowers

Clilantro Flowers
Cilantro in bloom
Other blooms you might not think of to eat include Carnations and Dianthus, Tulip Petals- with flavors ranging from fresh, baby peas to cucumber- NOTE: DO NOT EVER, EVER EAT TULIP BULBS!!!, Apple Blossoms, Pineapple Guava- sweet, tropical flavor, Yucca, Squash Blossoms- traditionally stuffed and fried, Hibiscus, including Okra flowers, Dandelions- of course, and Banana Blossoms.

Why not try some of these more unusual edible flowers in your next salad, punch bowl, pancakes or as a sauté over rice, quinoa or pasta? You might be surprised at discovering new flavors and uses for those herbs and garden flowers.

Here is more extensive information about Edible Flowers.

REFERENCES:

green line

QUOTE FOR THE MONTH

You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.
-Billie Holiday, jazz singer and songwriter (1915-1959)

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)
QUOTE FOR THE MONTH

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)

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”

Wild and Weedy Apothecary

If you saw a book with the above title, would you pick it up and look at it?

Well… I did and now I have it here with me.

Here’s how I acquired the book- I attended the Texas Renaissance Festival with my sister-in-law earlier this month. One of our favorite shops is Creative Life Booksellers, not too far inside the front gate. The shop is filled with books, calenders, coloring books, cards, book marks, tarot cards and more on subjects as varied as dragons, faeries, pirates, Celtic history, the Renaissance and, of course, herbs.

The herb book selection is small, but there are always books I don’t have, and such is the case with The Wild and Weedy Apothecary by Doreen Shababy.

Book Cover

The book contains “recipes” for healing uses of herbs, simple teas, food recipes using herbs and a lot about harvesting and using herbs found in your own area. Then, there is an encyclopedic listing of herbs with remedies and recipes for each listing. For instance, under A, you will find the following– Alliums, Anise, Apple, Aromatherapy and Aunt Carols’s Manicotti– each with a recipe or useful commentary

The aspect of this book I like most, besides the content itself, is the tone. It’s friendly and helpful rather than pedantic or authoritative. It feels like you’re sitting at the kitchen table with Doreen over a cup of herb tea, discussing the herbs you’ve used, have growing in your yard or nearby outdoor area and herbs you’re interested in but have yet to grow or try. There’s no feeling of having to rush through this book. The information is easy to access and to use. It’s one to keep handy and think of when you’re feeling a cold coming on, flu-like symptoms, have irritating bug bites or one of your kids has a sore throat.

The recipes for food are for wholesome dishes with easy to find ingredients- or with ingredients right out of your own garden. There’s lots of family history tied up in food and recipes in general, and Ms. Shababy generously shares some of her family with us.

All in all, I consider this book a great find. I’ve been slowly going through it skipping from section to section as I think of herbs to look up or recipes to try.

If you’re into reading blogs, Ms. Shababy has one here.

One more book that is a little unusual that captures my imagination is an Almanac, as it follows the Calendar, rather than an alphabetical pattern. It is by Susan Wittig Albert, author of the China Bayles herbal-infused mystery series set in a fictitious Texas Hill Country town called Pecan Springs.

Book CoverThe book is called China Bayles Book of Days.

Each day of the year has a discussion of a particular herb, usually with a recipe or two to accompany it, often with gardening advice. There is a wealth of information in this book. You can read it year after year as the entries follow the calander and thus, the seasons, rather than any particular year.

There are myriad herb books that have been published, from Culpepper’s Herbal published in 1649, to the many colorful books of the present. Some are herb growing guides, some are food recipe books using herbs, some are strictly medicinal, some are about crafting with herbs, while many are a combination of the varied aspects of the world of herbs. Whichever is your choice, there are books to help you learn more and deepen your knowledge and appreciation of this vast world. Whatever your interest in herbs, it is all rooted in the plants, the soil, the natural world around us.

I hope you’re enjoying the holidays with family and friends.

CELEBRATE THE SEASON!

green line

QUOTE FOR THE MONTH
C.S. Lewis said “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

I Like Tea!

Monthly Feature AUGUST 2014

I like tea! I like iced tea and I like hot tea. I like black tea. I like green tea. I like mint tea, hibiscus tea, tea with lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon basil, lemon thyme, fennel, lavender thyme, olive leaf, holy basil, licorice root, chamomile, rose petals… you get the idea. 

Properly, only an infusion of leaves from the Camelia sinensis plant is to be called “tea”. That is the plant black tea, green tea and white tea is made from. This includes all the variations of black tea such as Oolong, Darjeeling, English Breakfast and Earl Grey, any green tea variety and the delicate white tea. All other drinks made with herbs and spices infused in water are officially called “tisanes”.

Botanical Print of Camellia sinensis
Botanical drawing from 1896 in the Wikipedia article on Camelia sinensis.

For the sake of ease and modernity, I call all infused drinks “tea”. OK- that’s settled. 

As any experienced herbalist or novice herb grower knows, making herb tea is a simple way to use herbs, to enjoy the flavor and aroma of a particular herb or blend of herbs and to extract the health benefits of an herb.

This is a terrific time of year to collect herbs for tea. Whether you live in the northeastern U.S. and are looking at a cold, snowy winter where your outdoor herbs are no longer available, you live where your herbs still look great and are full and lush looking, or you live in Texas where we’re experiencing great heat and drought right now, this is a good time to harvest and dry your herbs for winter use.

Tulsi, Holy Basil Plant

Holy Basil, aka Tulsi, growing at The Herb Cottage. A wonderful, healthful tea herb!

Continue reading “I Like Tea!”