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”

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

 

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)

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!”

Lemon-y Herbs for Summer

Monthly Feature APRIL 2014

Last month I wrote about Lemongrass, so this month I thought I’d continue with the lemon theme and discuss a few other lemony herbs. Lemon flavored herbs are great for summer: they make light and refreshing iced tea, add bright notes to grilled fish and seafood and combine well with salads.

Here are my favorites!

Lemon Verbena, Aloysia citrodora

Lemon Verbena Flowers

A perennial shrub from 3 to 6 feet tall, Lemon Verbena is also known as Lemon Beebrush due to its attraction to bees when in flower.

The leaves will freeze and fall off the plant at 32 deg. F, but the wood is said to be hardy to -10 deg. F. Since I don’t live where it gets that cold, I have no experience with such low temperatures. I do know, my Lemon Verbena comes back every Spring on the old wood. So, if yours freezes, do not prune the woody stems all the way down. Prune for shape, if you like, but know new leaves will soon populate the old, woody stems.
In containers, I’ve found the smaller woody stems to also freeze, but new growth reliably comes from the root system.

Lemon Verbena can be a bit of a lanky, leggy grower and a bit of Spring pruning can help shape the plant. Left on its own, it’s not the most attractive plant in the herb garden. The flavor of Lemon Verbena, however, easily makes up for any lack of physical beauty.

In the garden in the Southern US, give Lemon Verbena some afternoon shade and it’ll be very happy, providing you with lots of leaves for tea and cooking. If you have a bee garden, Lemon Verbena is a good addition. The flowers are very attractive to our little pollinating friends. It makes sprays of white to pinkish flowers. Very attractive in arrangements, too.

I like to refer to Lemon Verbena as The Queen of Lemon Herbs! It’s flavor and scent is most like a real lemon, giving it the ability to make terrific tea, hot or iced. Used in cakes and cookies, it adds a distinct lemon flavor.

Here’s a recipe I found using Lemon Verbena in a muffin recipe with another summer favorite, zucchini:

Lemon Verbena and Nut Muffins

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp grated lemon peel
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1 cup packed shredded zucchini – do not drain
  • 12 lemon verbena leaves, sliced finely

Into a large bowl, put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, lemon peel, cinnamon and nuts.
In another bowl, beat the eggs with a fork, beating in the milk and the oil.
Add to the flour mix and stir well.
Then add the zucchini and lemon verbena and stir all together.
Grease mini-muffin tins and then fill 3/4 full.
Bake at 400 deg. F for 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the tins.
Test with toothpick.

Glaze: juice the 2 lemons from above and add enough confectioners sugar to make a thin glaze. While the muffins are still hot, dip the tops in the glaze and set on wire rack to drain.

Recipe from In the Kitchen at Shale Hill Farm Continue reading “Lemon-y Herbs for Summer”

Lemongrass

Originally Published March 2014

Lemongrass Plant

Lemongrass

  • Botanical Name: Cymbopogon citratus (sim-bo-PO-gon si-TRA-tus)
  • Family: Poaceae (Gramineae) (Grass)
  • Hardy in Zones 8 – 10. Note: I am in Zone 8b and have lost lemongrass over the Winter. Most years the tops freeze back and new shoots emerge from the root zone when the soil warms up sufficiently. But, not always. So, if you live in an area where the hardiness is questionable, grow your lemongrass in a pot and protect it during the Winter.

Lemongrass is a tropical grass native to India and Southeast Asia. It has ornamental, culinary, cosmetic and medicinal value. It likes lots of sun and water. Even here in Texas where many plants wilt in our hot late summer sun, Lemongrass thrives, given enough water.

It is a clumping type fountain grass. It is not a running type grass, so it is non-invasive. The clump can grow 3 – 4 feet across and up to 5 feet tall. Attractive in containers, it can be grown anywhere as an annual. Use it in combination planters for its dramatic effect. Protect it during the Winter for continued growth. It certainly can be grown as a houseplant with good drainage and lots of light.

One caution: the blades are very sharp, as with many grasses… that’s why they call them blades! So, when pruning or tending to your Lemongrass, gloves are useful. Always rub the leaf from the bottom up to prevent being cut by the blade. Continue reading “Lemongrass”

What Do I Do With Rose Hips?

February 2014

Ripe Rose Hips
Ripe Rose Hips

My friend Karen Ribble, Hair Braider extrordinaire and long time friend asked me about Rose Hips last month, so I decided to write this month’s newsletter to answer some of her questions and to refresh my own memory about how to harvest, use and store them. Since it’s February, the month of Romance due to Valentine’s Day, I thought this aspect of roses would be very appropriate. 

Roses have been used for flavoring, ceremonies and health for centuries. Evidence of the use of roses dates back to 2000 BCE in Crete where drawings of roses appear on the walls of the Palace of Knossos.

fresco at Palace of Knossos, Crete
You can see the roses in the upper right of the picture.

 

From that period forward to today, roses are evident in many cultures, including ancient Rome, Persia, India and China, to name just a few. Here is a short article on some of the ancient history of the Rose.

In America, fossil evidence of the rose has been dated to some 40 million years ago. It was then that a rose left its imprint on a slate deposit at Florissant, Colorado. Fossilized remains from 35 million years ago have also been found in Montana and Oregon. Here is further information on the Rose in Amercia from Texas A&M Horticulture.

Now that we have determined Roses are a fabulous flower, some originating in the United States, wtih myriad uses, let’s concentrate on Rose Hips, the seed pods of the Rose. Oh, you didn’t realize Roses produce seed? Of course they do. Just like any flower. It’s just that mostly Roses are grown from cuttings or, now, tissue culture, that we rarely think of growing Roses from seed.

Not all Rose Hips are created equal. If you notice the pods or hips on various rose types, some are very large while others are much smaller. The large hips are the ones prized for collecting for tea and other uses. Many people think the rose that produces the best hips is the common wild rose, also known as the Dog Rose.

rosa rugosa with hips
Photo courtesy of Maine Organic Farmer and Gardeners Association

 

 

Other roses produce hips, of course, some larger or smaller, some tastier than others. As always with collecting plant parts from the wild or your own garden, make sure they have not been sprayed or treated with an insecticide or pesticide.

Rose hips are traditionally collected in the fall, after they turn red. They’ll be sweeter after a frost, but it is not necessary to wait for a frost to collect them. Many people who grow roses never see the hips or seed pods because they dead head the flowers when they fade. To produce the hips, the flowers must be left on the plant to wither and die on their own so they produce the seed pod.

immature rose hips
Immature Rose Hips- you can see where the flower was on the end of the hip. Don’t they look like little green apples? Well, Roses are related to apples, so it’s no accident!

 

immature rose hips

Ripening Rose Hips

Photos courtesy of CharmaineZoe

Ripe Rose Hips. You can see the seeds inside.

ripe rose hips with seeds
Photo courtesy of Mother Earth Living

Now that we’ve established what Rose Hips are and where and when to collect them, what the heck do you do with them? Are all parts of the Hip edible? Well… not really. The seeds generally have lots of little hairs around them that are irritating to the mouth and can cause internal itching if quite a few are ingested.

Most people rid the seeds of the hairs by first drying the hips. Then, pulse them in a blender or food processor- or if you don’t have one, you’ll have to pound them a bit. The idea is to break up the dried hips into pieces about the size of coarse sea salt. Then, place the broken pieces of the hips in a strainer and shake it. You’ll see dust and the little hairs fall out. That’s it! There may be a few hairs left, but that won’t hurt you. Just keep shaking and stirring the dried hips in and around the strainer to get out as much of the dust and other parts that will fall through the strainer as possible. Then, you can store the hips in an air-tight container for later use.

Recipes using Rose Hips

Continue reading “What Do I Do With Rose Hips?”

Herb Tea- Beyond Mint

Originally Published April 2014

Spring has come to most of the U.S. by now, with gardeners busily planting new gardens and tending perennials that overwintered.

peppermint

 Even here in my part of Texas where winter is but a shadow of the sesason much of the country experiences, Spring excites gardeners. Markets that I’ve attended this year have shown herbs to continue to be very popular. Many people are planting them for the first time, so I answer a lot of questions about harvesting and use of culinary herbs.

Herbs growing at The Herb Cottage
Herbs growing at The Herb Cottage

One of the most enduring questions I receive from new herb enthusiasts is “Can I make tea from Orange Mint or Basil Mint or Pineapple Sage or Lemon Thyme or Lemon Verbena or….? ” Of course, you can, I always answer. Why not? You can make tea from any herb whose flavor you like, even if it’s not considered a “tea herb”, such as mint, lemon balm or lemon verbena, for example.

 

Keeping that in mind, I thought I’d review some of the tea herbs I grow and enjoy. Even those of you readers who have grown and used herbs for years may find some combinations you haven’t tried. So, read on!

 

This is what makes Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger Tea red!
This is what makes Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger Tea red!

One of my favorite summer tea blends is a sun tea made with Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers, also known as Roselle or Jamaica, Lemon Grass, Orange Mint and a little Fennel. Many people are surprised to learn I add Fennel to this tea blend. It adds an unusual flavor that cannot be readily identified as anise if it’s used sparingly.

Another anise-flavored herb that can be added to a tea blend is Mexican Mint Marigold, also known as Texas or Mexican Tarragon, Tagetes lucida. If you live where French Tarragon grows well and you have it, you could use that, too.

Fennel growing at The Herb Cottage
Fennel growing at The Herb Cottage

 

 


I use fresh ingredients in my sun tea, except for the Hibiscus flowers or if I’m adding green tea, and the proportions vary somewhat from batch to batch,  as I simply go clip the herbs I want, add them to the gallon jug, add water and set it out in the sun for about 4 hours.

That said, here’s my recipe for a gallon of sun tea with the ingredients mentioned above (amounts are approximate!):

 

  • 1/2 cup dried Hibiscus sabdariffa flowers
  • 1 large handful of fresh Orange Mint
  • 2-3 stalks fresh Lemon Grass, either clipped into 3-4″ sections or simply folded so it fits into the jar
  • 1 leaf stalk fresh Fennel, about 6″ long, unless you really like the anise flavor, then add more
  • 3-4″ stem of fresh Stevia- more if you like it really sweet. Optional

Crush the fresh herbs a bit with your hands or clip them into smallish pieces – 2-4″ – long and add them to a gallon jar. Fill the jar with water. Set out in full sun for about 4 hours. Strain the herbs out, chill and enjoy, garnishing with mint or any of the other herbs you used and/or fresh fruit.

Pineapple Sage, Salvia elegans

Pineapple Sage likes to grow in part shade in my climate
Pineapple Sage likes to grow in part shade in my climate

 

is a shrubby plant that, in my garden, grows best with part shade. I find it a bit of a water hog in the hottest part of the summer, but I grow it anyway because I love the bright red flowers and I like to use it in tea. The flowers and leaves can both be used for tea. The flowers can also be used in baking and add a festive touch to pound cakes, sugar cookies and other light colored baked goods. Pineapple Sage makes a wonderful tea by itself and as part of a blend.

 

 

 

 

We don’t usually think of the savory herbs so much for herb tea. But, I find the flavored Thymes make a delicious addition to herbal tea blends. Lemon Thyme adds a bright, deep lemony note to teas with mint or standard green tea.

You can also use Lemon Thyme when brewing tea from “regular” black tea such as Lipton’s, Luzianne or any other black tea.

Lime Thyme adds a mild savory, citrusy flavor to tea
Lime Thyme adds a mild savory, citrusy flavor to tea

Lime Thyme is not as popular an herb as the lemon variety, but it packs a fresh, citrusy flavor. It’s wonderful used with green tea, or with any of the mints or Pineapple Sage. Hint: try it on chicken, fish or in a fruit salsa.

Another Thyme I like for tea is Lavender Thyme- did you even know there was such a plant?

Lavender Thyme has a big flavor in a small package!
Lavender Thyme has a big flavor in a small package!

 

This low growing plant has very tiny, fleshy leaves with an aroma like a savory lavender. It’s terrific added to mint tea or with a blend of lemon herbs.

 

 

 

I hope I’ve sparked your imagination a bit and you’ll try some of these herbs- and more- in your own herbal tea blends this summer. If you like sparkling beverages, make your tea extra strong by adding more herb material- not by steeping it longer- you want to avoid bitterness- and then dilute the tea with sparkling water. Yummm… refreshing and flavorful. 

For an adult beverage, try adding rum to a tea made with Mints and Pineapple Sage, with or without sparkling water. Vodka or gin goes well with any of the minty, lemony herb blends.

herbtea_graphic

QUOTE FOR THE MONTH

Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a TV remote, the average book fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture, whether of cover cloth, glazed jacket, or flexible paperback.

-John Updike, writer (18 Mar 1932-2009)

Perfect Herbal Tea

After a stressful day or for a natural pick-me-up, a cup of herbal tea is soothing and refreshing. Choose pick-me-up herbs like mints or soothing ones like catnip or chamomile. Let your mood decide. 

Use approximately 1 teaspoon fresh herbs for each cup (about 6-8 ounces). Pour boiling water over your fresh herbs (you may slightly bruise the leaves to help release their flavors) in a china or glass pot. Metals, including stainless steel, may alter the flavor of the tea. Steep for only 5 to 10 minutes for best flavor. The tea should be lightly colored and mild. Pour and enjoy plain or with a little dollop of honey.

You may use dried herbs for tea also. Just remember dried herbs have a stronger flavor so only use about 1/2 teaspoon per cup and proceed as for fresh herbs.