Grace’s Herbal Savvy

Why grow herbs? – Let me count the reasons.

(Posted: Spring 2014)

Winter seemed so slow in leaving us this year, and spring seemed so long in coming that I was starting to wonder if I really wanted to get out and resurrect my raised beds and pots. Of course, that thought was fleeting, but it did get me thinking about why I garden and grow the things I do.

Then the Herb Society began planning a presentation for the Boone County Library and someone suggested we build it around a top ten list, albeit one with more serious content than David Letterman normally has in his “Top 10s.” That got me thinking even more.

Finally, I decided to jot down some of my own reasons for growing herbs. — As you can see, I came up with a lot more than ten. — You can probably think of even more.

  1. Herbs are beautiful, and they come in many varieties and colors.
  2. Herbs are easy to grow. Sage, lavender, and thyme, for instance, need little water, although basil, chives, and mint need lots.
  3. Herbs thrive in small spaces, small containers, or gardens. You can use short herbs as edgers, or in window boxes, or tuck them in perennial borders.
  4. Herbs produce a large harvest in small places. They thrive on being harvested multiple times. The more you pick, the more they produce.
  5. Growing your own fresh herbs means the flavor is superb.
  6. Big money savings! A small bunch is expensive to buy, so a small raised bed or container of herbs can save you money. And, you’ll also know they’re fresh.
  7. Grow your own – you can’t get more local that that.
  8. Healthier eating! Using herbs to flavor foods reduces the need for salt, oil and sugar
  9. Wonderful fragrances – the clean scent of lavender, the brightness of mint, the sweetness of rose geranium, and the magic of lemon verbena – as well as the fun of discovering many more varieties to grow and enjoy.
  10. Butterflies, hummingbirds,and bumble bees will thank you.
  11. Less waste – if you shop and buy a big bunch of herbs, some will inevitably go to waste.
  12. Herbs are a link to history. Lavender, for instance, was cherished by monks, queens, wise women, and herbalists throughout history. Shakespeare even wrote about lavender in his plays.
  13. Availability of many varieties. It’s easy to obtain seeds and grow herbs that would otherwise be hard to find locally such as summer savory, lemon balm, and unusual mints.
  14. Herbs can be used to brew many different teas or to garnish other drinks.
  15. Automatic aromatherapy. A few minutes in the herb garden relieves a day’s worth of stress. Pick a bouquet to scent your kitchen as you work. A sprig of lavender under your pillow will help you relax and sleep. Herbs (mint and lavender) in your closet repel insects and mice.
  16. Many herbs can be used as basic first aid treatments and in making natural cleaning aids, cosmetics, and perfumes, thereby reducing the number of artificial chemicals you use.
  17. Herbal bouquets are great hostess gifts or can be dried for ornamental use in your own home.
  18. Herb gardening gets you outdoors a few times a week, to harvest, water, and tend them for pure enjoyment. It’s also great exercise!
  19. You’ll learn, and life-long learning helps keep you young and involved in the world.
  20. A bounty of tasty herbs to use will inspire you in the kitchen. No more ho-hum dishes. – I’ve discovered some of my best dishes through my mistakes in cooking!
  21. You’ll have fun and be a part of the world of herbs, a world that’s filled with wonderful people and wonderful, interesting plants.

Elderberry – Herb of the Year for 2013

(Posted: January 2013)

The elderberry bush is a native plant to North America, but its popularity bush isn’t high by any means. Still, it is an exciting plant, part of an exciting genus (Sambucus, Moschetel family), and it may be one of the most versatile plants offered in the seed catalogs.

Elderberry bushes are mostly known as wildlife plants, and they look great in a natural setting. They’re hardy plants that bloom with white flowers in late spring and then produce dark, edible berries that are ready for harvesting when their color is dark purple (or even black). This usually occurs by late summer or early fall (August-September).

Elderberry bushes are a versatile plant. The flowers look great in any part of your yard or garden and in any landscape setting.

You’ll get the most practical use out of the berries, which are mainly used as an ingredient in syrups, pies, jams, jellies, wines and champagnes. The flowers can also be ground up for the same uses. Just make sure the berries are fully ripe and properly cleaned before you use them, just as you would any fruit. Do not use any red berries! They are poisonous.

Elderberries are chock-full of antioxidants, and contain high amounts of Vitamin C and potassium, which aid your immune system in preventing and fighting off cold and flu symptoms. You may have heard that unripe elderberries in addition to the plants, twigs, stems and roots, contain traces of cyanide. This is true, but the amount is miniscule. Just make sure berries are very ripe and clean before consumption. The leaves, twigs, stems and roots should also be avoided to begin with.

You’re going to want to plant an elderberry bush in spring. Mail-order varieties are shipped at the proper planting time for your growing region. Plant your bush as soon as you receive it. It likes a moist, well drained environment. It will need to be watered often. Cultivation and fertilization (a good timed-release fertilizer is good) are essential to the elderberry bush. Keep the area around your bush free of weeds.

New canes appear on the plant each year, usually hitting their full height during the first season. This is where the flowers and fruit will grow and develop, so let the plants run wild the first season or two. Canes usually don’t need pruning until after the second year, when the wood becomes weak and less vigorous.

Click here to open a recipe for a tasty Elderberry Syrup.

Papalo – an alternative to cilantro?

(Posted: Fall 2012)

I’ve been very frustrated having to plant cilantro every week just so I’d have a supply on hand when my tomatoes ripened and were ready to make fresh salsa. So, I started surfing the web searching for an alternative and came across a website called Appalachian Feet which I’ll tell you more about another time. What I found there is papalo, an herb also known as poreleaf, mampuito, summer cilantro, and Bolivian coriander.

Papalo’s flavor isn’t exactly the same as cilantro. It tastes more like a combination of nasturtium, lime, and cilantro. That alone makes it pretty interesting.

In Bolivia, Mexico, and other parts of Central America, papalo is so popular that it is kept fresh in vases on the dining tables. Diners can then pluck the leaves and shred them onto their food. before eating it. This is the preferred way of using it. Papalo doesn’t dry well. It can, however, be frozen for storage. Just puree it with water or oil, pour it into ice-cube trays, and freeze until needed.

In the garden, papalo flowers are purple to bronze-green starbursts and are very showy. They eventually turn into “puffs” like dandelions, only larger. That’s when you should collect the seeds at the base of the puff. They can be directly seeded into your garden after the frost is over. Papalo will also re-seed itself like dandelions do and is easily spread by the wind. So, you may find it growing anywhere in your grass or in other places where the seeds have been blown.

A single plant can reach 4-6 feet by the end of the season. I have mine in a pot and it is a foot high now. If you plant it directly in your garden, you might want to try giving it a full square foot of space the first time you plant it.

I don’t think it’s in the nurseries yet. I ordered my seeds from Johnny’s Seeds and planted two pots.

The seeds look a little like marigold or cosmos seeds. Keep them moist and warm until they germinate. If you plant indoors in pots, wait until the plants are 6 inches tall and then set them outside to harden before planting in the garden. To make the plants bushy, pinch off the growing tips, just as you do to your other herbs. Papalo prefers full sun, but my plants only get sun until about 2 p.m. and they’re growing well. They are a lovely addition to my herb garden and seem to be oblivious to drought, pests, and disease.

Cooking with papalo.

Papalo can be used as a substitute in almost any recipe that calls for cilantro, but it’s not a one-for-one substitution. Use only one-third as much papalo as the amount of cilantro specified in the recipe.

There are several tempting recipes for using papalo on the Appalachian Feet website. The one I found most intriguing was Papalo Pesto. Why don’t you give it, or one of the others, a try?

So much lavender to see, smell, pick, eat, and buy!

(Posted: June 2012)

Forgive me if this sounds like a commercial for Jaybird Farms. Vivian Pfankuch and the other fine folks who run Jaybird Farms deserve to have their praises sung.

Seven NKHS members drove to Sardinia, Ohio to see the lavender farm that is a key part of Jaybird Farms’ overall operation. The trip was glorious! It wasn’t as hot as we thought it would be. The van was very comfortable, and Michael was an excellent driver. We talked the complete time in the van and had so much laughter and fun!

When we got there, they had a lovely shelter set up with a cooler of iced water bottles and jars of lavender tea and lavender lemonade. Both were delicious. The tables themselves were covered with lovely hand stitched quilts with lavender patterns. – I wanted them all!

I bought the mixed herbs (lavender, mint, rosemary, lemon verbena) Vivian used for the lavender tea. I have all of these growing in my garden, so I will dry them and mix them for tea this winter.

Lunch was chicken salad on a croissant, cole slaw, fruit cup and a rum lavender muffin. – All were very delicious.

The lavender field was right next to the shelter where we ate, and Vivian walked us around and explained what type of lavender was in each row. The air was perfumed with all that lavender and the field so lovely. We could pick it if we wanted, and they had several home-made products for sale. I bought some lavender honey, jams and soaps, also a lovely purple stretch bracelet for my great-granddaughter, Riley Grace who will be three years old in September.

Everyone was so friendly and accommodating. – I had a great time.

Saving herbs for later use

(Posted: September 2011)

Running out to the garden to snip herbs as you need them and then using them immediately can’t be beat. It’s the perfect way to use herbs, and I love to do it when I can. It ensures that the herbs are at their best in terms of flavor and appearance, and it’s very satisfying to cook knowing that the ingredients couldn’t possibly be any fresher.

But, as the growing season in this area nears its annual end, I’m reminded that we can’t always cook this way. There are a few herbs we can take inside and keep in pots on the windowsill to snip throughout the winter, but most herbs are now approaching the point where they need to be harvested before the plants die or fall dormant for the winter.

The good news is: there are a lot of herbs we can harvest. The bad news is: cutting and bringing in the harvest is only the beginning of what needs to be done to prepare those herbs for future use.

You can read about several ways to preserve and store herbs in our 3-page handout titled An NKHS How-To Guide: Storing and drying herbs. Here, I’m going to talk a little bit about freezing.

Most herbs can be frozen and kept for a year. — Basil, chives, cilantro, dill, and all varieties of parsley are particularly good herbs to freeze because they retain so little of their flavor if they are dried and preserved that way. — Freezing helps them maintain their color and flavor as well as most of the nutritive value in their fresh young leaves.

There are four different approaches to freezing herbs you may want to experiment with. In all cases, you can freeze one herb at time and keep each one separate from the others, or you can combine two, three, or more herbs to create your favorite flavor blends. You can store your herbs “in bulk” and measure them out as you use them, or you can pre-measure them and store them in smaller, single-use containers.

  1. Put the herb leaves and stems in a plastic bag; remove all air from the bag, seal it, and place in the freezer. Alternatively, after sealing the plastic bag, you can place the bag in a rigid container to protect the herbs from being damaged and to make them easier to stack in the freezer.
  2. Finely chop the herbs and spoon them into ice cube trays; fill the trays with water and freeze. When completely frozen, empty the cubes into a resealable plastic bag where they can be stored for up to a year. Take cubes out as needed and drop into soups, stews, or sauces.
  3. Put the herbs in a blender, add oil, and blend into a paste; pour the paste into ice cube trays and freeze. When completely frozen, empty the cubes into a resealable plastic bag where they can be stored for 3-6 months (less than water-based cubes). Take out and use these cubes for sauteing meats or veggies.
  4. Finely chop the herbs and mix with butter that has been warmed to room temperature at a ratio of 8 tablespoons of herbs per stick of butter (1/4 pound). Reshape the herbed butter into a stick or cylinder on a tray and place uncovered in the freezer. When completely frozen, place in a resealable plastic bag. Salted butter can be stored for 3 months; unsalted butter for up to 6 months. Use to saute, cook omelets, or top freshly-cooked hot veggies.

Green tea and black tea don’t come from different plants.

(Posted: January 2011)

Did you know that all true tea – although not every beverage we sometimes call “tea” comes from the leaves of the same plant (camellia sinensis)? Despite what some people think, there are not green tea plants and black tea plants. There are just tea plants whose leaves become black or green depending on how they’re processed. Drying tea leaves produces green tea; fermenting them produces black tea.

Did you also know that both green tea and black tea can help prevent heart diseases and cancer but only green tea has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer?

Five quick and easy ways to use fresh-snipped herbs.

(Posted: July 2010)

Cool mint fruit salad – In a large bowl, combine ¼ cup each of dry white wine, orange juice, and chopped fresh mint plus 1 tablespoon of honey. Halve, seed, and cube 2 fresh, ripe cantaloupes. Hull and quarter 2 cups of fresh strawberries. Add the fruit to the liquid and toss to coat. Refrigerate at least 4 hours (overnight is better) before serving.

Herbed marmalade glaze – Combine chopped fresh rosemary leaves and marmalade in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high power for 1 minute, then let stand for 15 minutes. Brush over grilled chicken or pork.

Better vinaigrette dressing – Pour one bottle of low-fat vinaigrette dressing into a blender. Add fresh oregano or thyme leaves. Blend for no more than 20 seconds. Transfer back to the bottle and use as needed. It may be kept refrigerated for up to two weeks.

Bagel heaven – Spoon fat-free, plain yogurt into a sieve lined with a coffee filter. Set over a bowl and refrigerate overnight to drain. Stir in chopped fresh dill and chives. Spread on bagels. Keep remaining spread refrigerated and use within a few days.

Herb seasoning log – Mix chopped fresh tarragon, dill, and/or other herbs with softened butter or margarine. Transfer onto a sheet of waxed paper and form into a log. Wrap well and freeze until needed. To use, cut off ¼ inch slices of the frozen log and toss with hot, cooked vegetables.

Sipping hot, herbal teas.

(Posted: January 2010)

January is the ideal month to plan and dream, plot and scheme, and read seed catalogs. It is also the ideal time to select all we want to grow in the spring and the time to plan our herb gardens and vegetable gardens. It’s also a perfect time to drink warm and comforting herbal teas made from the herbs we grew and saved last summer.

Mints are my favorite herbal teas. Mints can be grown anywhere. And, if planted in a container and then inserted in the ground, they will not spread as fast. They need to be kept clipped in order to make more leaves and be shared with friends and neighbors.

And, don’t ever think you have to limit your tea to one kind of herb. Blends of herbs or combinations of herbs and fruits can be particularly tasty and tantalizing.

For instance, rosemary and mint is a wonderful yet very simple mixture. Or, try combining six parts of peppermint with one part each of sage and rosemary.

Another peppermint combination involves equal parts of lemon verbena, lemon balm and peppermint with a pinch of dried grated lemon or orange peel.

Among my other favorite herbal tea blends are equal parts of sage, thyme, marjoram, or oregano with chamomile flowers.

Also remember that herbal teas offer more than a refreshing taste. If the crisp taste and heady aromas aren’t enough to convince you to drink them, remember the long history of herbal teas being used and valued for their cleansing and healing powers. Here are a few of the most widely accepted and least controversial uses of herbal teas for health care.

For headache relief, try a tea made of equal parts of lavender, rosemary, and thyme.

For relief from colds and flu, mix equal parts of peppermint, lemon balm, and ginger. Or, drink teas made from each of these alone.

To calm the nerves, use equal parts of sage, thyme, marjoram, and camomile.

And, to slow the aging process and halt wrinkles, drink sage tea.

Fall is a bitter-sweet time of year for herb-lovers.

(Posted: November 2009)

The annual transition from late summer into fall and then on into the holiday season brings mixed feelings and moments of pensive reflection every year. This year is no exception.

I’m always sad in late summer and early fall when I have to put my gardens to bed for the winter. That’s the time when I clean all the debris from my herb beds, get rid of any diseased plants, and begin making plans for next year’s planting. — And, that’s a sweet note. — Making those plans always brings happy dreams of the herbs I’ll be planting in the spring.

Another happy note is that I’m usually able to take some of my herbs indoors where they winter over just fine. If you haven’t done this before, you should try it. Take some cuttings of your favorite herbs, rosemary and basil seem to work particularly well, and plant them in small indoor pots. Place them in a sunny south or southeast window and watch them thrive.

If you didn’t bring pots of basil inside for the winter, consider planting some. It’s fairly quick and easy to grow from seed, and planting it now will let you enjoy having fresh basil leaves to cook with all through the winter.

Right now I’m thinking about the wonderful herbs I can use for the holidays. — Rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, chives, and are my favorites; I love using all of these herbs in my holiday cooking. — Sage, oregano, and thyme are wonderful in my turkey stuffing. Rosemary cookies and punch are a distinctive treat. And basil pesto can be used in whatever strikes my fancy.

I hope you have dried and put away a sufficient supply of herbs to last you through the winter.

The history of herbs is as long as the history of mankind. 

(Posted: July 2009)

The Bible speaks of herbs used to flavor food and to preserve bodies for burial. The Romans used herbs for medicine for themselves and their animals. They used herbs to disguise the flavor of meat that had gotten rancid and to flavor stale fish. They covered their floors with herbs to sweeten the air in their homes and layered herbs among their clothes to make them smell better. Herbs were used for cosmetics, to dye clothes, and for medicine. …

People have used these plants since earliest times. For many, herbs were a livelihood or money-making project. … Today herbs are so plentiful we take them for granted.

Monks were the first to have organized beds of herbs and the first to catalog them according to medicinal purposes or for cooking. They also published books on the use of herbs.

Values have changed as societies were formed. Cities were built. People found better ways to preserve food, make cosmetic and dye cloth. We have synthetic drugs now. So some of the old wisdom became suspect as primitive and unreliable – people were called witches if they dispensed herbs.

But, when I was a youngster, my grandmother taught me about herbs and gardening. I had to help pick them, weed them, and scour the forest for wild herbs. She dosed us for all our illnesses, colds, flu, coughs, headaches, cuts and bruises. We had early salads, even before our garden was ready. We gathered wild beet, leeks, wild onions, wild lettuce, and water cress. She used willow for headaches (aspirin,) and wild cherry bark for cough syrup.

Now times have changed again – herbs are back in favor and they are a great money making enterprise. The Astors gathered ginseng during our pioneer period and converted it to barrels of silver dollars and made their fortune.

My husband had to take a drug for gout and was very allergic to it, so the doctors gave him a herbal drug called Colchicine and August Crocus. I had some in my garden at the time and offered to dig some roots for him, but he opted to use the doctor’s prescription. There are herbalists who have a herb for every ailment known to man. There are many courses in college and on television available to us.

Just remember, that coming from nature does not mean a plant is safe. Check with a knowledgeable expert to find out if an herb is edible or toxic before you sample it. Herbs are not regulated by the FDA.

You can grow herbs in sunny windows, formal beds, containers or flower beds. Scented geraniums, lemon balm, pennyroyal help keep the bugs away if planted around patios or in a vegetable garden.

The main thing about planting an herb or an entire garden is to enjoy it and have fun. Try something new, if it doesn’t work out – do it another way. There is no right or wrong way if you provide plenty of light and water and food for your plants.