I came across the attached article in one of the newsletters I subscribe to from Garden Simply. It’s an idea I’ve heard of but never really
investigated. It’s a simple concept and can be done simply. The idea is to reduce runoff and create an attractive area that takes little care and management. I have a couple of places on my property that I could build one of these gardens. I’m thinking Vetiver Grass would be a perfect plant to add to it along with other plants that can take a wet/dry cycle.
Those of you who know me or have been reading The Herb Cottage Newsletters for a while, know I love to visit gardens. My most recent visit to a garden took place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law and I visited Peckerwood Garden, not too far from here, outside of a small town called Hempstead, a little more than an hour northwest of Houston.
The Garden is only open to visitors occasionally. One open day is the 4th Saturday of the month. So, we were in luck and made our way there.
From the website:
“There are many ways to describe Peckerwood Garden: it is a collection of more than 3,000 plants including many rarities; it is a conservation garden containing examples of numerous threatened species, many of which are no longer found in the wild; it is a laboratory garden testing a wide range of ‘new’ plants and our Mexican discoveries.
It is a garden with a mission to encourage other gardeners to see a beauty in landscape that is consistent with our plants and climate; it is a pioneering garden exploring new plants and cultivation methods and aesthetic concepts for other gardeners. It is a garden that looks to the future, not to the past.
Yet, most essential, it is my studio, a place where artistic and horticultural research are fused to create an environment that stimulates all of the senses, including the most elusive of all, our sense of time.”
—John G. Fairey
We were greeted by such friendly staff! Our visit was lead by 2 docents who are very knowledgeable about the many species of trees and other plants planted on the property. The plants are mostly introductions from Mexico and Asia, that thrive in the local climate. There are native Texas trees and plants, too.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the plants. I felt I was completely stuffed with plant information by the time our tour ended.
There were so many trees I’m unfamiliar with. We were told that Mexico has more types of oak trees than any other country in the world, including China and the US.
Below is a beautiful specimen of a Mexican Magnolia. There are many here, all grown from seed collected in Mexico.
I’ll leave the rest of the pictures for you to enjoy on the tour, below.
I hope you can make a visit Peckerwood Garden one day.
My husband and I recently visited Big Bend National Park for the first time for both of us. It was an unforgettable experience.
If you’re not familiar with Big Bend National Park, it is 800,000 acres of Texas wilderness comprised of mountains and desert. It abuts the Rio Grande River at the “big bend” in the river, hence the name. It is very remote. It took us about 10 hours to drive there with stops for food, gas, etc. It is the most remote National Park in the lower 48 states- 300 miles from El Paso and about 400 miles from San Antonio. It is also one of the darkest spots in the lower 48 states- terrific for star gazing.
The experience of visiting Big Bend National Park and the surrounding areas is difficult for me to describe. The words used to describe an open, wild or mountainous landscape pale in contrast to the place itself. Nor do pictures give the scope of the grandeur and monument of the landscape.
That said, I will let the pictures I took speak for themselves and, instead, talk about the plants we saw that so enchanted me.
AT FIRST GLANCE the number of species of plant life seem not so numerous. Certain species stand out in the rocky desert, seen over and over again: Sotol, Yucca, Agave, Creosote Bush. These are easily seen when driving along the roads in the Park. But, when walking, many more, smaller plants can be seen and examined closely.
The area is so different from where our farm is located, I wanted to stop and look at each plant that I was unfamiliar with. And, mostly, I did!
What’s interesting to me, of course, is how the native desert dwellers used the plants we saw. From clothing and shelter to food and medicine, it seems each plant has many uses. Below, I’ve briefly detailed the main uses of some of the plants in the Big Bend area. There is a bibliography at the end of the article with books for further study.
The Uses of Chihuahuan Desert Plants
From the website of University of Texas, El Paso:
“Human societies in desert terrain found numerous ways to sustain themselves through the use of plants that grow there. They harvested seeds, fruits and nuts, and used many other parts of the plants for making household objects, clothing, building shelter, and treating illnesses or injuries. As “modern” society engulfs traditional ones, it is important to preserve the knowledge that our predecessors on this land had – and have – about these native plants.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish and other colonial settlers, desert survival depended on knowledge of local plants. The new arrivals introduced new plants and new ways of building houses or making clothes, but the use of local plants has continued, especially in rural areas, up to the present day. Native plants are still used by curanderos in treating various ailments – but it is strongly recommended that no one experiment with plants as medicine. The effects are unpredictable and can result in serious problems, even fatalities. Care should also be taken in trying out plants for food – an incorrect identification could give you a stomach-ache, or much worse.”
We saw lots of Honey Mesquite Trees in areas where a little water would collect. The Honey Mesquite Tree was perhaps the most important food plant in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The seed, or bean, pods were eaten raw, or collected, ground, mixed with water, and eaten as is or dried into cakes.
No heat was needed to produce this food.
Mesquite flowers and leaves could be boiled up for tea. Various brews of leaves and twigs served as disinfectant for cuts and eyewash for conjunctivitis. Mesquite branches made the best bows. Mesquite firewood was prized – as it is today- for grilling.
There were several species of Agave in the desert, easy to identify.
All parts of the plant were used for food. Even the pineapple-like stem on some types were roasted and eaten- after the leaves were removed. The cooked stem was mashed and eaten. The liquid that was extracted was fermented and made into a beer-like drink called pulque. True Mescal and Tequila are distilled from pulque.
Fibers produced from the leaves by soaking and pounding were used to make bowstrings, clothing, rope, nets, baskets and sandals.
Another Chihuahuan Desert stalwart, the sotol, was also roasted for food, as well as providing fibers, as did the yucca, one of the most useful of desert plants.
Native Americans made soap using the detergent-like compound from the sap of the yucca roots. Yucca stalks, blossoms and seeds were also eaten.
Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) was as common as the yuccas and agaves. It has a strong odor that gives it the name. The morning we left the park, it was fairly early, 8 a.m. or so and we were driving with the windows down. The odor of the creosote bush was very strong due to the dew drying off the plants as the sun rose above the desert.
It is known to repel pests. Stems crushed in water helped reduce the pain of rheumatism. Creosote tea, a foul-tasting liquid, was used to treat tuberculosis, and its vapor inhaled for other respiratory ailments. And the lac insect that lives on the plant provides a shellac-like material for mending pottery and making baskets waterproof.
Various cactus species also provided food. The fruits were eaten raw or cooked, and the seeds were ground into meal. The flat pads of the prickly pear
could be eaten after the tiny spines called glocids were rubbed or singed from the jointed stems, which were then boiled. These are known today as nopalitos, and used in many traditional Mexican recipes.
Native Americans were well aware of the medicinal properties of the ephedra plant.An infusion prepared from either green or dried stems treated numerous ailments – canker sores, colds, kidney troubles, and stomach troubles. Dried roots and stems, ground to a powder, were used on wounds and burns.
There are many more plants, of course, in the Chihuahuan Desert in and around Big Bend National Park. I think my favorite plant is the Ocotillo. It looks like a cactus, but it isn’t. It’s a shrub called Fouquieria splendens. It has spiny stems and tiny leaves which come out after rains. The tips sprout red flowers.
We saw very few blooming Ocotillo and I was glad to get the picture on the left.
Bathing in water that contains crushed flowers or roots of Ocotillo has been used to relieve fatigue.
Native Americans are known to place the flowers and roots of ocotillo over fresh wounds to slow bleeding.
Ocotillo is also used to alleviate coughing, achy limbs, varicose veins, urinary tract infections, cervical varicosities, and benign prostate growths.
The wood is used for firewood and the plant is still used for living fences.
Many of the other dozens of plants I saw in the desert have various uses.
The Desert Willow, (Chilopsis linearis) was widely used for construction, as its pliable wood can be bent into shapes without breaking, and it is very resistant to decay. I have a Desert Willow growing here at my place, that I started from seed many years ago. I was thrilled to see them in their native habitat!
Bark from trees such as junipers and needles from pines could be turned into fibers for baskets and ropes, and their cones were harvested for edible seeds (piñones).
The plant life is so rich in the desert environment of South Texas. The land, at first glance, looks forbidding, parched and rather uninviting. It takes a certain type of person to live there and appreciate the environs for it’s stark beauty and to accept what is available there.
I hope this is not my last visit to the Big Bend. There is so much more to explore. I would like to visit in the Spring when many more of the cacti and other plants are in bloom.
For more detailed information: How Indians Used Desert Plants by James W. Cornett Gathering the Desert by Gary Paul Nabhan Thanks also to Dr. Armando González Stuart of the UTEP/UT-Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program for his informative guide on medicinal uses of Chihuahuan plants.
QUOTE FOR THE MONTH
There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts.
-George Matthew Adams, newspaper columnist (23 Aug 1878-1962)
Earlier this Spring, I was privileged to present a program for the Comal (TX) Master Gardener Association. Their facility is on the west side of New Braunfels, TX. I arrived early for my talk since I wasn’t sure exactly how long it would take me to get there. I’m very glad I did!
The facility has been planted with various gardens, all flourishing under the care of many dedicated volunteers.
The following is an annotated photo tour of the gardens.
The rose bed was past it’s first big flush of blooms, but still was full of blossoms.
The bed borders the vegetable area.
Neat rows of mature vegetables with drip irrigation installed.
Onions, Swiss Chard, Cabbage, Broccoli, a huge patch of Potatoes! And more!
I was so impressed with the condition of this vegetable patch. Volunteers must put in many hours of hard work!
And, here is one of my favorite features of the garden –
A Keyhole Garden done in limestone and actually mortared together. Very nice!
Across the parking lot, near the building is this bed full of succulents and other native or adapted plants for the Hill Country. The day I was there, Ruby Throated Hummingbirds were visiting the Aloe blossoms.
Then, I discovered the beds in the back of the building!
Herbs! Lots of herbs!
Native plants, including various types of Bluebonnets were planted with Salvia greggii, a fabulous blooming plant for dry and sunny areas. Notice the limestone edging bordering the beds.
Did you notice the little touches such as the brightly painted mailboxes used to store tools? Stacked rock wall bordering the Herb Bed?
Most of the plants in the beds are clearly marked, which I particularly like. The facility harvests rainwater for the gardens and everything is well mulched. I’ll say it again- I am very impressed with this facility and the gardens surrounding it. Good job, everyone!
We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color. -Maya Angelou, poet (b. 4 Apr 1928)
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?
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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- )
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.
Dandelion- Taraxacum officinale
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.)