Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants

AN ENCYCLOPEDIA of USEFUL HERBS

Globally, for nearly every traditional culture, herbs have not only helped fulfill basic human needs for survival, but also, in many cases, helped link humankind to the natural world and to the divine.

Tens of thousands of plants have been recorded as having traditional uses by humans, either in areas where they are found naturally or in regions where they have been introduced—sometimes accidentally, as weeds hitchhiking in the hold of a sailing ship or on the bottom of a traveler’s shoe, or intentionally, as cultivated plants brought to a new place because of their perceived value.

This A to Z encyclopedia section highlights more than 180 species of herbs from around the world, each with folk or commercial uses. Most can be grown outdoors in the United States or, in the case of tropical and subtropical species, indoors in areas where winters are cold. We’ve chosen these herbs based on a variety of criteria—some are familiar essentials for the kitchen or medicine cabinet, others are exotics that, until recently, were not well known.

As the world becomes more cosmopolitan, more and more of these unusual plants have begun appearing in our markets. They offer interesting new flavors and healing properties, as well as other uses, from A to Z: exotic aphrodisiacs to plants used in the practice of Zen and other spiritual belief systems. Some can be found in specialty produce markets, others are sold in health food stores as commercial preparations, and many can be ordered as seeds or plants to grow and enjoy in your garden.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The herbs in the following section are arranged alphabetically by scientific botanical name—genus and species. In their plant profiles, you’ll find as many as five common names. About those botanical names: For some plants, you’ll see new names instead of the familiar names you’ve come to recognize. Why change a plant’s name? Remember that botany is a dynamic science, with exciting discoveries made daily, including the identification of new plant species.

Botanists are also gaining a better understanding of phylogeny, the evolutionary relationships between plant groups. As a result, botanists change the names of individual plant species and plant families from time to time as they develop more advanced concepts of plant evolutionary relationships. New and very sophisticated molecular tools are enabling botanists to develop a very clear understanding of how plants evolved and are related and to determine more precise groupings of plant families, genera, and species. So the names of plants change, and new species are added to our knowledge of the plant kingdom at a rate of about 2,000 per year.

Many herbs in commerce—including those in your local nurseries and seed catalogs—as well as in books, databases, and Web sites, are known by their former names, which are considered “synonyms.” While the newly accepted name takes precedence over the synonym, you’ll still find lots of good information linked to the older name (or names). So in this encyclopedia, we’ve recognized the most current scientific name of the individual species of herb, followed by the synonym in parentheses below it. For example:

Senna alexandrina (= Cassia senna)

The first name, Senna alexandrina, is the currently accepted name; Cassia senna is a synonym—a previous name you’re likely to find on some product labels and in catalogs, books, and Web sites. As gardeners, cooks, and herbal devotees, the popular and scientific names of a plant are important to know. (See Chapter 2 for more about this.)

USING HERBS WISELY

The herbal profiles also include information about each plant’s origin, name derivation, lore, and significant properties, as well as tips for growing and using it. Many of these plants have a long history of traditional medicinal use, and some of those traditional uses are now finding scientific support through rigorous clinical studies, while others are not. (Keep in mind that most herbs haven’t yet been studied scientifically—or science hasn’t yet explained their effectiveness.) In a very few cases, traditional uses have proven downright dangerous. For these plants, we’ve included cautionary statements, or we’ve excluded the plants entirely.

But remember: Anyone can have an unexpected reaction to a plant or any other foreign substance. This can range from a mild skin rash from touching a certain plant to, in very rare cases, a severe or fatal reaction from ingesting a plant substance (which could be a common food). Also, new discoveries in plant pharmacology and toxicology are published daily. So although the following section includes some cautions, it can’t cover every possibility. Please do not rely on the information in this section for self-medication. Using herbs to achieve and maintain wellness requires the guidance of a health-care professional who’s trained in the use of these therapeutic substances and who knows all of their properties, as well as how they will affect you as an individual.

STORIES FROM THE FIELD

Ethnobotanists have many stories. In my case, most are derived from 4 decades of travel and study with traditional cultures—working with people in some of the world’s most remote areas. Some stories came from my own backyard—herbal healers within a few blocks of The New York Botanical Garden, located in the Bronx. You can find a few of these stories, called “Field Notes,” in this section. They include my personal experiences, as well as interesting anecdotes I’ve collected and various things I’ve learned over the years about herbs and their uses.

Feel free to share these notes when speaking with garden club friends or even at a cocktail party. “Informed herbal conversation” is a true art, and this book might help you sharpen this skill. The legendary plant breeder, botanist, and horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849–1926) wrote that “flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine for the soul.” Perhaps he was referring to herbs.

Achillea millefolium

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Milfoil, Yarrow

Description: Perennial, 1 to 3 feet tall, with feathery gray-green foliage and erect stems; broad, flat flower heads composed of numerous white, yellowish, or rosy pink florets; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Summer to early autumn

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Europe and Asia; sunny meadows and roadsides

Archaeologists have found evidence of yarrow in Neanderthal burial caves, suggesting this herb’s association with humans for at least 60,000 years. Native to Europe and Asia, this pungently scented perennial has naturalized throughout North America and other temperate regions of the world. Look for its white, yellowish, or pink flat-topped flower heads and fernlike foliage in sunny, open places, such as along roadsides and in fields.

One of the plant’s common names, milfoil (from the French mille feuille, meaning “1,000 leaves”), refers to its feathery leaves, which are divided into thousands of tiny leaflets.

The genus name Achillea is derived from the legendary Greek hero Achilles, who reportedly used the herb as a styptic to treat his troops’ bleeding wounds during the Trojan War, which also explains its ancient name, “military herb.”

CULINARY USE

At one time, yarrow was used as a substitute for hops in brewing beer. You can use small amounts of yarrow leaves to flavor salads, soups, and egg dishes.

MEDICINAL USE

Yarrow leaf contains a complex mixture of chemical substances. Two of them, achilletin and achilleine, increase blood coagulation, which encourages the healing of wounds. Flavonoids in the plant stimulate gastric secretions to improve digestion. Yarrow also may have anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties, and it has been used to treat menstrual and stomach cramps.

Caution: Yarrow should not be taken during pregnancy. People who are allergic to other members of the family Asteraceae, such as ragweed, may experience skin inflammation and itching when exposed to yarrow.

ORNAMENTAL USE

An excellent garden plant, yarrow attracts butterflies, resists deer, and tolerates drought. The showy, long-lasting blooms add color to perennial borders, cutting gardens, and informal cottage gardens. The flowers also dry beautifully, making them ideal for everlasting arrangements and wreaths. Popular cultivars include ‘Apple Blossom’ (soft pink blooms), ‘Summer Pastels’ (burgundy blooms), and ‘Paprika’ (red blooms with gold centers).

OTHER USES

Valued for its ability to heal and cleanse the skin as well as to firm connective tissue, yarrow is an ingredient in many cosmetic products. The flowers also yield a yellow dye to wool mordanted with alum (see this page). Use the flowers and leaves together to dye iron-mordanted wool an olive shade.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Yarrow flourishes in rich, well-drained soil and full sun. Plant root divisions in spring or fall, or sow seeds in spring. Because the long-blooming flowers attract beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, consider planting yarrow in mixed flower borders and in vegetable gardens to help control pests. To propagate yarrow, divide the roots of 3- or 4-year-old plants in either spring or autumn. For medicinal use, harvest yarrow while it’s in bloom; the plant’s leaves, flowers, and stems can be used fresh or dried.

FIELD NOTES

An Herbal Band-Aid

It’s possible that an herbalist first brought yarrow to North America, wishing to grow this important plant for its medicinal properties. It certainly has taken root in its new home and is now very common, especially in pastures, meadows, and along roadsides. Native Americans recognized yarrow’s ability to heal a variety of conditions. They made an infusion of the whole plant to treat fevers and colds, and they applied the leaves to skin to heal boils, open sores, swellings, burns, cuts, sprains, and eruptions.

Also known as “nosebleed,” yarrow at one time was applied inside the nose to stop bleeding. But early European herbalists noted that putting the rolled-up leaves inside the nose had the opposite effect—it caused bleeding, which was a technique used in those days to treat headache.

Next time you are wandering through a field and happen to cut yourself, grind up a few yarrow leaves and apply them to your wound, just as people have done for hundreds of years. Be careful, though: If you are allergic to other plants in this family or if your skin is sensitive to the sun, don’t use it.

—M. J. B.

Acorus calamus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Calamus, Cinnamon Sedge, Sweet Flag, Sweet Myrtle

Description: Erect, sword-shaped leaves up to 5 feet long; small yellow-green to brown flowers; thick, creeping rhizomes; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Acoraceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Rhizome

Range/Habitat: Native to Asia, Europe, and North America; wet soils and shallow water in ditches, marshes, river edges, and ponds

Native to India, Europe, and North America, this irislike perennial grows worldwide, especially in wet places. During the Middle Ages, the aromatic yellow-green leaves of calamus were strewn on the floors of churches and houses to ward off fleas, lice, and other pests. In modern India, the powdered rhizome is used as an insecticide to protect stored crops, such as rice.

Although traditional medicine has ascribed many healing properties to this grassy-looking herb, the FDA has judged it unsafe and has banned its use in food and medicines. The essential oil of the root of most varieties contains compounds (asarone and beta-asarone) known to promote tumor formation, although the roots of certain North American and East Asian varieties contain much less of these compounds.

MEDICINAL USE

In traditional medicine, the dried rhizome is chewed or taken as a tea or tincture to stimulate appetite and relieve indigestion, as well as many other conditions of the digestive, nervous, circulatory, respiratory, urinary, and reproductive systems. Calamus has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties; in Ayurvedic medicine and other therapies, a paste of the rhizome is used externally to treat rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and hemiplegia—a type of paralysis that affects one side of the body.

Known in Sanskrit as vacha (“vocabulary power” or “speech”), calamus is also thought to bring clarity to the mind and improve spoken language. In Ayurveda, the herb is used to treat stroke victims and epilepsy. Native American tribes chewed pieces of the root to instill energy and focus the mind.

Caution: Depending on its chemical composition and variety, this plant can be very harmful. In animal studies, malignant tumors occurred in rats exposed to high doses of calamus.

OTHER USES

Sweetly scented calamus has long been used in perfumery. The rhizome can also be added to potpourris and sachets.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow this aquatic plant in a sunny location in shallow water or rich, wet soil with a pH of 5.0 to 7.0. In a marsh or at a pond’s edge is ideal. In spring or fall, plant the rhizomes 4 to 6 inches deep and 1 foot apart. Harvest large, 2- to 3-year-old rhizomes in early spring or late fall. Propagate by dividing the rhizomes in spring or fall after several years of growth.

Actaea racemosa (= Cimicifuga racemosa)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Black Bugbane, Black Cohosh, Black Snakeroot, Rheumatism Weed, Squaw Root

Description: Grows 4 to 7 feet tall; small, creamy flowers on tall, branching spikes; broad, ovate leaves up to 2 feet long, divided into three-lobed leaflets with toothed margins

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Ranunculaceae

Flowering: Early summer to midsummer

Parts Used: Roots

Range/Habitat: Eastern North America; woodlands

Native Americans called this plant “black cohosh” because of the dark color of its roots; “squaw root” describes its traditional use as an aid in childbirth and as a treatment for women’s menopausal and premenstrual symptoms. A member of the buttercup family, black cohosh is native to eastern North America and is one of about 8 Actaea species that grow in North America. Another 13 species grow in Asia and Europe.

In the 19th century, black cohosh was a widely promoted herbal remedy and a favorite of Dr. John King (1813–1893), a professor of obstetrics at the Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati, Ohio. King prescribed it for the treatment of nervous disorders, menstrual irregularities, and menopause. Although the herb fell out of favor with the American medical establishment in the early 20th century, the herb’s popularity grew in Europe as German researchers remained interested in its use for treating menopausal symptoms. In recent years, black cohosh has regained popularity in the United States.

MEDICINAL USE

The roots and rhizomes of black cohosh have historically been used for their mild sedative and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be used to treat the pain of arthritis. The herb is best known, however, as a treatment for menopausal symptoms, especially hot flashes and night sweats. It is also used to treat conditions associated with menopause, such as insomnia, nervousness, tension, and depression. The plant contains triterpene glycosides, which may be responsible for its activity. Recent large-scale clinical trials have raised questions concerning the efficacy of this herb for the treatment of certain menopausal symptoms, but other studies are ongoing.

Caution: This herb should not be taken by pregnant women.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The tall, majestic spires of black cohosh add vertical interest to woodland gardens and contrast with lower-growing, rounded plants such as cranesbills (Geranium spp.) in borders.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Black cohosh grows in moist, humus-rich soil in sun or partial shade. In warmer regions, choose a site with consistent moisture and shade from afternoon sun to keep the foliage from browning. Plant root divisions at any time during the growing season, or sow fresh seed outdoors in fall. The plants grow slowly. Harvest the roots of mature plants in fall, when bioactive compounds are at their highest levels. Divide and replant the remainder of the roots, leaving at least one bud per division.

Aesculus hippocastanum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Buckeye, Chestnut, Horse Chestnut

Description: Deciduous tree up to 60 feet tall with a broad, domed crown; palmate leaves; spikes of fragrant white flowers followed by spiny green fruits containing shiny reddish brown seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Hippocastanaceae

Flowering: Spring to early summer

Parts Used: Seeds and bark

Range/Habitat: Native to central Asia, naturalized throughout temperate Northern hemisphere

Native to central Asia, horse chestnut has been grown as a shade tree in North America since the 1700s. The common name “buckeye” comes from the appearance of its shiny reddish brown seeds, known as “conkers,” which resemble the eyes of a deer. People sometimes mistakenly think the horse chestnut is an edible species—confusing it with the true chestnut—but it is not, and it can be poisonous. Native American tribes crushed the fresh seeds and scattered them in the water when fishing; chemical compounds called saponins, present in the seeds, slowed or stunned the fish and made them easier to catch.

MEDICINAL USE

Horse chestnut contains a substance called aescin, which helps strengthen and increase vein elasticity. Studies have shown horse chestnut seed extract to be highly effective for treating varicose veins and chronic venous insufficiency, a condition that causes blood to pool in the veins of the lower legs after standing or sitting. Practitioners also use it to treat hemorrhoids and edema (fluid retention).

Aescin diminishes the number of openings in capillary walls, helping to prevent fluids from leaking into surrounding tissue. For this reason, horse chestnut is a good topical treatment for bruises and sports injuries. Horse chestnut gels can reduce swelling and tenderness after an injury. The herb also has anti-inflammatory properties; herbalists sometimes recommend it to relieve arthritis pain, eczema, phlebitis, and other inflammation.

Caution: Raw, unprocessed horse chestnut bark, stems, seeds, and leaves can be toxic and should not be ingested. Horse chestnut preparations should not be used internally by pregnant women. External preparations should not be applied to broken skin.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The horse chestnut tree has a large, spreading canopy and fragrant white blooms. It makes an attractive shade tree for home landscapes and parks.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Fast-growing horse chestnut trees prefer well-drained, fertile soil in sun or partial shade. Plant the young trees or seeds in spring or fall. To speed germination, soak seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting. Established trees require little care other than occasional pruning in late winter. Harvest the seeds (inside the prickly pods) and bark in fall.

Agastache foeniculum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Anise Hyssop, Blue Giant Hyssop, Fennel Giant Hyssop

Description: Upright 3- to 6-foot-tall plant with slender stems and maroon-tinted leaves; dense, terminal spikes of bright blue flowers; toothed, opposite leaves; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Flowers and leaves

Range/Habitat: Naturalized throughout North America and Central America; dry, open areas, such as roadsides

This striking member of the mint family takes its botanical name from the Greek words agan (very much) and stachys (an ear of corn or wheat), referring to the plant’s spiky blue-purple flowers. A favorite of hummingbirds and bees, anise hyssop is the source of a delicious, slightly anise-flavored honey. The herb is native to the midwestern United States and has naturalized throughout North and Central America.

CULINARY USE

Anise hyssop’s leaves and flowers have a very sweet, licorice-mint flavor that complements salads, dressings, fruits, soups, stews, and meats. Try adding a tablespoon or two of the fresh, minced leaves and flower buds to fruit desserts, especially those with peaches, nectarines, berries, and melons. Steep the leaves in milk or cream to make delicious ice creams and custards. The herb also makes a delightfully refreshing hot or iced tea.

MEDICINAL USE

Traditionally used by Native Americans to treat colds and coughs, the leaves of anise hyssop contain ingredients that increase perspiration (thus helping “break” a fever) and help clear bronchial congestion. The plant also might contain antiviral compounds useful in treating herpes. A related species, Agastache rugosa, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat heartburn, symptoms of gastric reflux, and other digestive problems such as bloating, nausea, and vomiting. A. rugosa is also used in a lotion applied to treat ringworm, a skin fungus.

 HOW TO GROW IT

An excellent garden border plant, anise hyssop prefers well-drained sandy loam and full sun but will tolerate somewhat poor soil and dry conditions. Plant it in spring. Pinch back plants early in the season to encourage branching. Harvest leaf sprigs just above a leaf joint in spring and summer; the leaves are most flavorful when the plant is in the early stages of bloom. Harvest young flowers in summer. Cut back plants by one-third after they finish blooming to encourage a second flush of bloom. Propagate by division, cuttings, or seed.

Agrimonia eupatoria

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Agrimony

Description: Upright, slightly branched stems up to 5 feet tall; leaves are alternate, toothed, and downy; numerous small yellow blooms on spikes, followed by bristly burrs; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Rosaceae

Flowering: July to August

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in the United States and Asia; woods, field margins, roadsides, and along fences

Once used as a throat-soothing gargle by speakers and singers, agrimony has astringent properties that make it a useful medicinal herb. Native to Europe, this member of the rose family produces small yellow flowers at the top of tall, slender spikes. The flowers become prickly seed burrs with hooked bristles that commonly attach themselves to passersby. The botanical name may come from the Greek arghemon,translating to “albugo,” an eye disease once treated with the plant. Another explanation is that the name comes from the Latin agri moenia, or “defender of the fields,” because of the plant’s tendency to grow in groupings near fields.

MEDICINAL USE

The leaves, stems, and flowers contain astringent and antibacterial tannins. Agrimony has been used to treat diarrhea; to staunch bleeding wounds; and to soothe inflammation of the skin, throat, mouth, and pharynx; and for many other therapeutic purposes. It was a component of a special remedy produced in the 14th century to treat the gaping wounds produced by a primitive gun known as the arquebus.

In studies conducted with laboratory animals, agrimony has been shown to have liver-protecting effects, which are thought to be due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. A related species, Agrimonia pilosa, is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat nosebleeds, bleeding gums, and blood in the urine.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Agrimony’s 5-foot spikes of small yellow flowers add vertical interest to wildflower borders, as well as to woodland and cottage gardens.

OTHER USES

Agrimony is well known for the yellow dye that can be made from its leaves and stems.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Agrimony grows in well-drained, fairly dry soil in full sun. Plant it in groups of six to eight, leaving 6 inches between plants. Harvest blooms in midsummer, before they begin to develop into burrs. To keep the plants from spreading aggressively, cut the stalks before the seeds begin to drop. For yellow dye, harvest the leaves and stems in late fall. For a lighter buff color, harvest in early fall. Propagate by gathering seeds, or divide the roots of established plants.

Allium sativum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Garlic

Description: Compound bulb of 4 to 15 cloves enclosed in a papery sheath; linear leaves arise from base; small white flowers in umbels on stems up to 4 feet tall

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Amaryllidaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Bulbs and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, widely naturalized

Garlic, a powerful cooking and healing herb, can inspire extraordinary passion among people. On any given weekend from July through September, thousands of garlic lovers pay homage to the “stinking rose” at dozens of garlic festivals held throughout the United States and Canada.

A member of the amaryllis family, garlic is generally believed to have originated in Asia. Its edible underground bulb is made up of 4 to 15 “cloves” enclosed in a papery white or pale purple skin. Aboveground, this perennial bears long, flat leaves and an umbel of greenish white to pink flowers. Garlic’s name is thought to have originated from the Anglo-Saxon words gar (spear) and lac (plant), referring to the plant’s spear-shaped leaves. Sativum, the species name, means “cultivated.” Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum) produces bulbs that lack the plant’s characteristic papery skin.

CULINARY USE

One of the world’s most popular cooking herbs, garlic adds flavor to an enormous variety of foods, including salad dressings, pasta sauces, soups, vegetables, meat and fish dishes, vinegars, and herb butters and salts. The entire bulb can be baked or roasted, softening the cloves into a paste used as a seasoning or a spread. For a milder garlic flavor, mince garlic greens and use them as you would chives on soups, salads, pasta dishes, and other savory foods. Tip: To peel garlic easily, use the flat side of a knife blade to lightly crush the clove and loosen its skin.

MEDICINAL USE

People have used garlic for health and healing for more than 5,000 years. In ancient Egypt, the builders of the Great Pyramids ate garlic to prevent colds, bronchitis, and other upper-respiratory conditions. During the Middle Ages, French priests used garlic for protection against bubonic plague. During World War I, soldiers in Europe applied garlic to external wounds as a disinfectant; during World War II, Russian soldiers used garlic so extensively that the herb became known as “Russian penicillin.”

The chemistry of garlic is complex, and researchers still don’t understand exactly how it works. Garlic contains allicin, a sulfur compound activated when the herb is crushed. Allicin is believed to be responsible for garlic’s strong flavor and aroma, as well as its medicinal benefits. Sometimes called the “pungent panacea,” garlic has potent antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties. It is commonly used to treat diarrhea, as well as colds and other upper respiratory infections. One clinical study suggested that taking garlic supplements can help prevent the common cold. Regular use of garlic can also gently lower blood pressure.

For the greatest health benefits, use raw crushed garlic—cooking reduces the herb’s beneficial compounds—or take garlic capsules with at least 4 to 8 milligrams of allicin. Some health practitioners advise their patients to chew a whole garlic clove twice a day at the first sign of a cold. (Take the clove with olive oil or sauce if plain garlic is too much for you!)

Caution: Consuming large quantities of garlic can cause gastrointestinal upset and might reduce your body’s ability to form blood clots. If you’re planning to have surgery and you take garlic supplements or eat more than four cloves a day, tell your physician; he or she might want you to stop or reduce your use of garlic before the procedure.

OTHER USES

Some gardeners crush garlic and mix it with water to make a pest-repellent spray. Others report that simply interplanting garlic with vegetable and fruit crops deters pests.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Garlic prefers rich, moist, sandy soil and a sunny location. It requires a period of cold (40° to 50°F) to trigger sprouting. In the North, plant garlic in October or November, before the ground freezes; in the South, plant garlic in December or January. Plant the cloves 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. When the bottom two or three leaves turn brown in early to midsummer, knock the stems over with a rake. Withhold water for a few days, then carefully dig up the plants. Dry them on a screen in a warm, dark, airy location for several days, then brush off any remaining soil.

FIELD NOTES

A Clove a Day . . .

Popular folklore suggests that eating garlic will ward off mosquitoes and save you from dousing your body with external repellents, either natural or synthetic. That might be the case. But in a recent study, people who ate large quantities of garlic suffered just as many bites from this irritating pest as they did when they had eaten no garlic. At least the garlic did not attract mosquitoes.

Garlic does have some very positive properties, though. Studies have shown that taking garlic can help lower blood pressure, prevent colds, and reduce the risk of colorectal and stomach cancers. Clinical studies of other reputed health benefits have had both positive and negative results. My take is that you should eat garlic as often as your friends and family will permit.—M. J. B.

Allium schoenoprasum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Chives

Description: Dark green, hollow, cylindrical leaves up to 10 inches tall; small, pale purple or pink umbel blooms; small perennial bulb

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Amaryllidaceae

Flowering: Late spring to early summer

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, and bulbs

Range/Habitat: Native to Asia and Europe; moist pastures and along stream banks

A relative of garlic and onion, chives have been a popular flavoring for nearly 5,000 years. The tender, dark green spears were probably first used in Asia; by the 16th century, the plant had earned a place in European gardens. The name “chives” derives from the French word cive, which comes from the Latin name for onion, cepa. The cooking and healing properties are similar to those of garlic, but milder.

CULINARY USE

Chives impart a mild onionlike flavor to cheese, egg, and potato dishes. This is due to the presence of sulfur-containing compounds known as disulfides. The herb complements artichokes, asparagus, carrots, corn, onions, peas, spinach, and tomatoes, as well as fish and poultry. Both the minced leaves and whole flowers can be used as a garnish and flavoring in soups, salads, spreads, and dips. The flowers are also attractive and tasty in herb vinegars. For an interesting presentation, tie whole chive leaves around individual servings of baby carrots or asparagus. Chives are an ingredient in the popular French herb mixture fines herbes, which also includes chervil, parsley, and tarragon.

MEDICINAL USE

Historically, chives were used to treat colds, flu, and lung congestion because of the herb’s high vitamin C content. The leaves also contain fiber and potassium. Chives are not commonly used in modern herbal medicine.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Rarely bothered by pests, pink-flowered chives make a neat, edible edging for flower, herb, and vegetable gardens. The leaves and flowers also dry beautifully and make lovely additions to dried herb and flower arrangements.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant clumps of up to six bulbs 5 to 8 inches apart in moist, rich soil and full sun. To harvest, snip blades about 2 inches above the ground, cutting no more than two or three blades from each clump. Divide clumps of established, 3- to 5-year-old plants in early spring or fall.

To bring chives indoors for winter use, pot up the plant in late summer but leave it outside until the tops die back. (A cold, dormant period is needed to initiate new growth.) Then bring the pot indoors and set it on a sunny windowsill or below a fluorescent light. Plants will sprout within a few weeks.

Aloe vera (= A. barbadensis)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Aloe, Aloe Vera, Barbados Aloe

Description: Clumping perennial up to 3 feet tall; spiky, succulent green leaves; yellow, orange, or red flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Xanthorrhoeaceae

Flowering: Mature (4-year-old) plants grown outdoors will bloom spring to summer

Parts Used: Gel from leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to East Africa, naturalized in other regions, including the Caribbean

Aloe has been used to heal wounds, soothe burns, and soften skin for thousands of years. Native to East Africa, aloe was used by ancient Egyptians as an embalming ingredient and to treat skin conditions such as burns. Cleopatra is said to have considered aloe lotions to be the source of her renowned beauty. Legend has it that the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) told Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) to conquer the East African island Socotra so that a reliable supply of aloe would be available to Greece.

The plant’s name comes from the Arabic word alloeh, meaning “bitter and shiny,” which accurately describes the gel found inside aloe leaves.

MEDICINAL USE

Aloe contains polysaccharides thought to speed the healing of skin tissue and reduce inflammation. Aloe leaf juice and gel (a clear, jellylike substance) can be used to soothe burns, superficial skin wounds, sunburn, eczema, and rashes caused by poison oak and poison ivy. Aloe gel has also been applied to fingernails to prevent nail biting. Taken internally, the gel can be soothing to the digestive tract and has been used to treat colitis, Crohn’s disease, and peptic ulcers. Studies have shown that aloe could help lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Aloe latex, or aloin, a brownish yellow gel found under the leaf blades, has traditionally been used as a laxative. Aloe latex is extremely harsh, however, and in 2002, the FDA issued a ban on over-the-counter laxative drug products that contain aloe ingredients. Aloe latex can still be purchased as an herbal supplement.

Caution: Aloe latex is extremely harsh. Do not use it if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, kidney disease, or hemorrhoids. It can cause gastric upset, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping in some people. In addition, long-term use of products that contain aloe latex can lead to dependency. Commercial aloe gel and juice do not contain aloe latex. Externally, aloe gel can cause minor skin irritation.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Aloe is easy to grow in well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. In Zone 9 and colder, grow aloe indoors, in a pot filled with a coarse medium. Do not overwater. Potted aloe seems to grow best when slightly crowded; if necessary, repot in late winter or spring. When harvesting aloe gel, cut the outermost leaves first; new growth is produced from the plant’s center. To propagate, uproot and replant offshoots that are 2 to 3 inches tall.

Aloysia triphylla (= A. citriodora, Lippia citriodora)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Lemon Verbena, Verbena

Description: Deciduous shrub, up to 6 feet tall; spikes of small white to pale purple flowers; long, finely toothed yellow-green leaves; highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Verbenaceae

Flowering: December to January

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Chile and Argentina

Lemon verbena’s attractive leaves and pleasant scent have made it a favorite garden plant since Victorian times, when it was known as the “lemon plant.” Native to South America, this tall, deciduous shrub bears small white to pale purple flowers and long, finely toothed yellow-green leaves that have a sweet, lemony fragrance and flavor. Its flavor is the most intense of all of the lemony herbs, including lemon balm, lemongrass, and lemon thyme.

CULINARY USE

Lemon verbena adds bright, lemony flavor to a variety of foods including preserves, marinades, seafood, poultry, salads, dressings, desserts, and wine. To give recipes a lemony lift, combine 7 to 10 leaves with a bit of water in a blender, and substitute the puree for some of the liquid in your recipe. Lemon verbena also makes a delicious hot or cold tea, and it has been used to flavor liqueurs in its native South America.

MEDICINAL USE

Traditionally used as a treatment for settling the stomach, lemon verbena contains a volatile oil (mainly consisting of citral, cineole, limonene, and geraniol) that benefits digestion. A tea of lemon verbena leaves or flowering tops can be used to relieve digestive upset, reduce fever, and improve lethargy. The plant contains flavonoids and iridoids, which give it antispasmodic, sedative, and fever-reducing effects.

Caution: Lemon verbena can cause contact dermatitis in some people.

OTHER USES

Commercially, the oil is extracted to make cologne and soap. At home, use aromatic lemon verbena leaves in potpourris, sachets, and cut flower arrangements, or make a simple infusion to scent bathwater.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Lemon verbena does best in light, well-drained soil in full sun. It can survive winters in areas where the ground does not freeze; in colder areas, grow it in a pot in a cool sunroom or unheated greenhouse during winter. Pinch back the plant tips to encourage bushy growth. If the plant is very large by fall, cut it back by half before bringing it indoors for winter. (Use the leaves!) Remember that lemon verbena is deciduous, so don’t be concerned when it loses leaves in fall. Harvest the leaves in summer, when growth is lush. Dry them on a screen and store them in a jar in a cool, dark location. Start new plants from cuttings taken in summer.

Alpinia galanga

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Blue Ginger, Galangal, Greater Galangal, Thai Ginger

Description: Grows up to 6 feet tall with 20-inch lanceolate leaves; 3- to 4-foot racemes bear pale green, orchidlike blooms and red fruit; rhizomes can have a pink hue

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Zingiberaceae

Flowering: May to August on larger stems

Parts Used: Rhizome

Range/Habitat: Southeast Asia

Closely related to ginger, galangal is widely used as a cooking spice and healing herb in Southeast Asia. This 6-foot-tall perennial bears attractive pale green orchidlike blooms and red fruits. Its thick, fragrant rhizome—the part most often used for cooking and healing—is smaller and lighter in color than ginger’s. During the Middle Ages, galangal was believed to have aphrodisiac properties.

Galangal blends well with lemongrass, garlic, and chile peppers. Use it to flavor curries, soups, stews, vegetables, and fish, but start with small amounts—its flavor is intense.

CULINARY USE

While several different plants are known as galangal, greater galangal (Alpinia galanga), which is native to South Asia and Indonesia, is the type used most often in cooking. Galangal has a warm flavor similar to ginger but with notes of black pepper and pine. It is commonly used in Indonesian, Malaysian, and Thai dishes and is an essential ingredient of nasi goring, a traditional fried rice dish.

MEDICINAL USE

A stimulant and carminative (an agent that helps dispel intestinal gas), galangal is used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine to treat nausea and digestive problems. Ayurvedic practitioners use the rhizomes to treat arthritis and inflammation of the mucous membranes. Galangal oil is considered an antispasmodic and is suggested for treating respiratory conditions such as asthma. An extract of the rhizome is sometimes used to treat impotence. Galangal can be taken as a tea, extract, or capsule. It can also be applied externally as a poultice.

 HOW TO GROW IT

In Zone 8 and colder, grow this tropical plant in a warm greenhouse in rich, well-drained soil and partial shade. Galangal thrives on humidity; mist it often. Begin harvesting rhizomes for fresh use in late summer of the plant’s fourth year. Or clean the rhizome of its roots, slice it thickly, and dry it for future use. Reconstitute the dried root in water before using it in recipes.

Althaea officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Mallow, Marshmallow

Description: Erect perennial up to 4 feet tall; soft, velvety grayish green leaves; five-petaled pinkish white blooms followed by round, downy fruits; tapering, woody taproot

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Malvaceae

Flowering: July to September

Parts Used: Roots, young leaves, and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and western Asia, naturalized in eastern North America; grows in moist places, such as salt marshes and coastal wetlands

Before gelatin and other products were used to give marshmallows their pillowy consistency, this herb’s roots created the effect. But the plant has a long history of other uses, too. Native to marshy areas of Europe and Asia, marshmallow is a 3- to 4-foot-tall perennial with attractive white or pale pink blooms. It belongs to the genus Althaea, a name derived from the Greek word for “heal.” Ancient Greek physicians used marshmallow roots to treat wounds, toothaches, and insect stings, while the Romans recommended using the roots and leaves as a laxative. By the Middle Ages, the plant was used to relieve a range of medical conditions, including coughs and lung infections, stomach problems, ulcers, and bladder infections. Externally, the leaves were applied to wounds, bruises, and sprains.

CULINARY USE

The original marshmallow confection was the French pâté de guimauve, made from the plant’s root. Use the tender young shoots and leaves of marshmallow in spring salads, soups, and stews. The roots have more substance. To prepare them, boil them gently for a few minutes, then drain and sauté them with onions.

MEDICINAL USE

Marshmallow roots and leaves contain mucilage, a substance that soothes inflamed mucous membranes in the mouth, throat, and gastrointestinal tract. Studies have shown that marshmallow root preparations can reduce the duration and severity of coughs. Marshmallow tea and decoction can also be used to treat sore throats, oral inflammations, and gastrointestinal irritations such as ulcers and diarrhea. Externally, marshmallow root compresses and poultices can soothe skin irritations.

Caution: Do not take other drugs for 1 hour before or several hours after taking marshmallow, as it could slow the absorption of those medications.

OTHER USES

Because of its soothing and emollient properties, marshmallow is used in cosmetic preparations to treat irritated skin. Try using a decoction of the root to make a hydrating facial mask.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Marshmallow is easy to propagate and grow from seed, cuttings, or root divisions. Plant it in full sun and fertile, moist soil with good drainage. In summer, mulch generously with straw, shredded leaves, or compost to retain soil moisture. Harvest young leaves and shoots before the plant begins to bloom in midsummer. Harvest roots in late fall from plants that are at least 2 years old. To prepare the roots for storage, remove the lateral rootlets, wash the roots, peel off the corky bark, and dry them whole or in slices.

Ananas comosus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Pineapple

Description: Stout stem 2 to 5 feet tall, surrounded by long, straplike leaves with spiny edges; small red or purple blooms develop into a single cone-shaped fruit

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Bromeliaceae

Flowering: December to January, when day lengths shorten

Parts Used: Fruit and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to southern Brazil and Paraguay

Known universally for its succulent yellow fruit, pineapple is an exotic member of the family Bromeliaceae, native to South America. This herbaceous perennial has a short, sturdy stem and bears a rosette of spiny green leaves. In the plant’s second year, a flowering stalk emerges from the center; the inflorescence resembles a miniature pineapple covered with small red, pink, or pale purple flowers. This slowly develops into what we know as a pineapple, ripening brown on the outside and yellow on the inside.

The plant’s common name refers to the appearance of the fruit, which looks like a very large pinecone. Ananas comes from the Paraguayan word nana, which means “exquisite fruit.” Pineapple is cultivated throughout the tropics, with the largest production in Brazil, Thailand, and the Philippines.

CULINARY USE

Fresh pineapple fruit has a tangy, citrusy flavor that complements fruit desserts and salads. The fruit can also be sautéed, broiled, grilled, or baked. Try pineapple in sorbets, ice creams, relishes, syrups, and sauces. Pineapple salsa gives grilled pork and salmon a tropical twist. Use pineapple juice with brown sugar and mustard as a glaze for poultry. Top burgers with grilled pineapple rings and a sauce made of ketchup, mayonnaise, and chile paste.

MEDICINAL USE

Pineapple fruit is a good source of vitamins A, B, and C. It contains bromelain, an enzyme that aids in the digestion of protein and relieves stomach upset. Other enzymes in pineapple include amylase, which digests starch, and lipase, which digests fat. Bromelain has anti-inflammatory properties, making it useful as a dietary supplement to help your body heal more quickly after surgery and for those suffering from arthritis and stomach or digestive problems. When taken regularly, bromelain may help reduce inflammation and scarring of the arteries that can lead to cardiovascular disease. Fresh pineapple is a good source of fiber, which helps relieve constipation. Its juice has mild diuretic properties. A juice made from the leaves is considered a powerful purgative and antiparasitic in Ayurvedic medicine. In clinical studies, it has been shown to be similar in effect to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Commercially, bromelain is obtained from the stem of the plant.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Pineapple thrives in tropical conditions and fertile, well-drained loam soil with an acid pH. In cooler climates, pineapple can be grown in a pot indoors and moved outdoors during summer, after nighttime temperatures remain above 60°F. Provide at least 6 hours of bright light daily and feed it monthly during the growing season. Avoid overwatering. After about 20 months, when the plant is at least 24 inches tall, flowering and fruiting may occur. Harvest the fruit when at least half of it has turned gold in color. Pineapple is commonly propagated vegetatively from the crown (the leaves at the top of the fruit).

Caution: Wear gloves when handling this plant; its spiny leaves can tear skin.

FIELD NOTES

Sweet Healer

The Greek physician Hippocrates (460–377 BCE) suggested, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” Pineapple is a wonderful example of a healing food—delicious and healthful. I first saw a pineapple in a supermarket in Philadelphia. As a young child, this rather massive green fruit was extraordinarily interesting to me—it didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before. And when we let it ripen in the house, a wonderful sweet smell filled the air. The rough, almost impenetrable skin had turned a soft golden brown, and it was ready to eat and enjoy.

Fast-forward 40 years later to a scientific expedition in the remote Brazilian rainforest. Coming into an open area, I saw a field of bromeliads with what looked like little pineapples growing from their centers. Here was the center of origin of the cultivated pineapple, and these were the wild relatives that the local people had used as a food many years before. I tasted one—it was fibrous and sour. Many generations of selection and breeding were required to develop the pineapples we enjoy today.

Local people that I stayed with showed me how the leaves of these plants are used to make a fiber that can be woven into a soft cloth or cord. The tender young shoots can be cooked and eaten. And the skin of the fruit grown in the gardens around their homes can be made into a tasty fermented beverage. I’ve experienced firsthand the remarkable journey made by the pineapple—from a small and mostly inedible wild species to a sweet and succulent fruit cultivated on tens of thousands of acres throughout the tropics.—M. J. B.

Anethum graveolens

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Dill

Description: Upright stems, up to 2 to 3 feet tall, topped by yellow-green umbels up to 6 inches across; feathery, bipinnate leaves; flat, ribbed seeds; aromatic

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: July through September

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean and southern Russia; naturalized in North America

This herb has graced gardens since the days of ancient Athens and Rome. Native to the Mediterranean region and Asia, dill bears feathery foliage, umbels of yellow flowers, and aromatic seeds. Romans in the 1st century considered the plant a symbol of good fortune. They crowned returning war heroes with fragrant garlands of dill and hung wreaths of dill blossoms in their banquet halls. In the Middle Ages, magicians used dill in spells and charms against witchcraft, as well as in love potions and aphrodisiacs.

CULINARY USE

Dill has a distinctive, tangy flavor. The leaves, known as dillweed, and the stronger flavored flowers and seeds can be used fresh or dried. Fresh dill leaves pair well with eggs, seafood, salads, and vegetables.

MEDICINAL USE

Both dill seed and dill seed oil have long histories of use in Western and traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of flatulence, particularly in children. The seeds and leaves contain a volatile oil that acts as a digestive aid, relieving intestinal gas and calming the digestive tract. Dill also retards the growth of E. coli, a type of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal and urinary tract infections. Chewing dill seeds is believed to alleviate bad breath. Dill seed and leaf teas have been given to nursing mothers to increase milk production, and babies have been given the tea, called “gripe water,” to relieve colic.

OTHER USES

The flower umbels of dill are a favorite food of beneficial insects, such as lacewings, ladybugs, and hoverflies, which help control aphids and other insect pests. Encourage these insect helpers by interplanting dill with food crops and flowers.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Dill grows best in well-drained, slightly acidic soil in full sun. Sow the seeds directly in the garden in spring, after danger of frost has passed; transplanting isn’t always successful due to the herb’s single taproot. For a steady supply of fresh leaves and flowers, reseed every 3 weeks until midsummer. Begin snipping leaves when the plants are well established, cutting off sprigs where they meet the main stem. Harvest seeds when they turn light brown, 2 to 3 weeks after blossoming. Fresh leaves will maintain their quality for about 3 days in the refrigerator. Leaves and seeds can be dried in a warm, dark location and stored in an airtight container.

Angelica archangelica

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Angelica, Archangel, European Angelica, Norwegian Angelica

Description: Long, hollow stems up to 7 feet tall; 2- to 6-inch umbels of greenish yellow flowers, followed by small green fruits, or seeds; pinnate leaves with coarsely toothed leaflets

Hardiness: Biennial

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Late spring or early summer of the second year

Parts Used: Entire plant

Range/Habitat: Northern Europe and Asia; found near streams, marshes, and swamps

This tall, robust member of the parsley family was once believed to possess extraordinary powers of healing and protection. The name comes from the Latin herba angelica, or “angelic herb,” due to its reputation as a magical plant that could ward off witchcraft and illness, including the black death. European peasants placed necklaces of angelica leaves around the necks of their children to protect them, and early European and North American hunters used the herb’s aromatic roots to attract wild game and fish.

CULINARY USE

Angelica roots and fruit (commonly called “seeds”) are used to flavor vermouth, gin, Benedictine, and Chartreuse. The stems and leaves—which taste like a blend of vanilla and juniper—pair well with almonds, ginger, oranges, and rhubarb. The young stems can be steamed as a vegetable or candied and added to fruit desserts, ice cream, or mousse. (At one time, candied angelica was used as the green candies in fruitcake.)

MEDICINAL USE

One of the most popular herbs in Europe during the 15th century, angelica contains digestion-enhancing volatile oils that support its historical use as a remedy for indigestion. The roots and fruit are used to treat appetite loss, flatulence, and abdominal discomfort. The herb is sometimes used to treat colds, bronchitis, and asthma.

Caution: Angelica can cause a skin rash in some people who are exposed to sunlight after ingesting the herb. This herb should not be taken by women who are pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive, nor should it be consumed by children younger than 2 years old. Some herb–drug interactions are possible; for example, angelica root interferes with warfarin. Angelica roots should be thoroughly dried before use; they are poisonous when fresh.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Angelica prefers mild summers and struggles in very hot climates. Give this large plant plenty of room and rich, moist, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Plant in either spring or fall, but don’t cover the seeds—they need light to germinate. Harvest tender young stems in late summer the first season or in spring the second season, before the plant blooms. Cut stems at ground level. A biennial, angelica self-seeds readily in its second year.

Angelica sinensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Chinese Angelica, Dong Quai

Description: Round, hollow, purplish stems up to 7 feet tall; bright green, slightly serrated, pinnate leaves; small white or greenish yellow flowers formed in umbels; honeylike aroma

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Late spring to early summer

Parts Used: Rhizome

Range/Habitat: Native to China, Korea, and Japan; found along stream banks and in ravines

A perennial member of the parsley family, dong quai is best known as a treatment for gynecological conditions. The herb grows at high altitudes in China, Korea, and Japan. Like other angelicas, the plant has lacy flower umbels, hollow stems, and large, lobed leaves. The flowers have a honeylike aroma.

The name dong quai means “must return.” According to a legend, a young husband had to leave his bride to go up into the mountains. He told her that if he did not return after 3 years, she should assume he had not survived and should remarry. After 3 years, the husband did not return, and the wife reluctantly remarried. Eventually the man did return, however, causing the woman to fall into a deep despair. He gave her a medicine made from the roots of a plant (dong quai) that he had found in the mountains; when she took it, she was restored to health.

CULINARY USE

In China, people add the chopped dried roots to soups. You can also add the fresh roots to salads or cook them as a vegetable.

MEDICINAL USE

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use the herb to treat menstrual problems, menopausal symptoms, and a variety of gynecological conditions. The root contains coumarin, which dilates blood vessels, stimulating the central nervous system and increasing blood flow throughout your body. It has been used to treat high blood pressure, poor circulation, and anemia. Researchers have found that dong quai stimulates the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body, thereby increasing energy and combating fatigue. It’s commonly referred to as female ginseng.

Caution: Dong quai should not be used during pregnancy. Some people could experience a skin rash when exposed to the sun after ingesting the herb. There have been reports of herb–drug interactions when dong quai is used with warfarin.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Dong quai thrives in fertile, moist soil in sun or partial shade. Plant the seeds outdoors in fall, or start them in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse during winter, then transplant the seedlings to the garden in spring. After about 3 years, you can dig up the rhizomes, slice or chop them, and then use them fresh or dried. To propagate, collect seed heads after they have dried on the plant. The seed doesn’t keep well, so plant it as soon as possible.

Anthriscus cerefolium

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Chervil, Garden Chervil

Description: Branched stems up to 2 feet tall with delicate, light green, deeply cut leaflets; small white flowers in compound umbels

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: May through July

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized in North America

Popular in European gardens and cooking, chervil is an herb with a pleasant, subtle flavor. A member of the parsley family, it resembles parsley in appearance, but its leaves are paler in color and more finely dissected. A basket of chervil seeds was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (ca. 1370–1352 BCE), hinting at the importance of this herb in ancient Egypt, although little has been written about its use during this period. In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder wrote about the use of chervil to season food and suggested that it could be used to cure hiccups.

CULINARY USE

Chervil’s mild, aniselike flavor is best when the herb is eaten fresh. The flavor does not hold up to prolonged heat, so add chervil to foods just before serving, or use it finely chopped or as a garnish. Chervil enhances the flavor of carrots, cheese, corn, cream, fish, peas, sorrel, and spinach. Bearnaise sauce and classic French vinaigrette benefit from a bit of chervil, too. Together with parsley, tarragon, and thyme, chervil is one of the ingredients in the popular French herb mix fines herbes.

MEDICINAL USE

Chervil’s active compounds include coumarin, a volatile oil, and flavonoids. Coumarin is used as the basis for anticoagulant drugs such as Coumadin. The 17th-century English physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) wrote that eating chervil would “moderately warm the stomach, and is a certain remedy to dissolve congealed or clotted blood in the body” from bruises and falls. Modern herbalists suggest taking chervil leaf tea to aid digestion and for its diuretic effects. The tea can also be applied externally (with a cotton ball) to treat superficial wounds and skin irritations such as eczema. Nutritionally, the herb is a good source of the minerals magnesium, potassium, and selenium.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Chervil thrives in rich, light soil that retains moisture. The plant will bolt in high temperatures or intense sunlight, so a site in partial shade is best. For a steady supply of leaves, sow seeds every 2 to 3 weeks from early spring to fall. (Seeds sown in fall will germinate the following spring.) Thin seedlings to 8 inches apart. Cut the leaves in 6 to 8 weeks, before the plant flowers. Chervil is also easy to grow in a pot on a cool, sunny windowsill indoors.

Arctium lappa

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Burdock, Gobo, Greater Burdock

Description: Branched plants, 3 to 6 feet tall; crimson-purple, thistlelike flowers; large, alternate leaves have a heart-shaped base; spiny seed heads are covered with stiff hooks

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Summer to fall

Parts Used: Root, seed heads, leaves, and young stalks

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized worldwide; common in disturbed sites, such as ditches and roadsides

Love it or loathe it, burdock is a plant that demands to be noticed. Native to Europe and Asia, this weedy biennial grows freely in temperate regions all over the world, bearing long leaves and thistlelike flowers that attract butterflies and bees. Its spiny seed heads are covered with stiff hooks that cling stubbornly to clothes and animals. These burrs are said to have inspired the Swiss inventor George de Mestral (1907–1990) to develop Velcro, which was patented in 1955. The plant’s common name comes from “bur,” for its tenacious burrs, and “dock,” an Old English word for plant.

CULINARY USE

In Japan, burdock root is commonly eaten as a vegetable called gobo. The roots are slivered, soaked in water to remove their bitter flavor, and stir-fried with sesame oil and soy sauce. Found in sushi bars worldwide, burdock roots are also eaten raw in salads or cooked like carrots. In Scandinavian countries, the young spring leaves are eaten in salads.

To prepare burdock root, peel, chop, then soak the root for about 30 minutes in several changes of cold water. Try combining the prepared root with shredded carrot, minced fresh ginger, and lemon juice for an appetizer or salad. Young stalks can be peeled, chopped, and steamed, like asparagus.

MEDICINAL USE

Burdock roots and seeds contain bitter glycosides, flavonoids, and tannins. In traditional Chinese medicine, burdock has long been considered an important blood purifier and is included in formulas designed to detoxify the liver and improve digestion. It’s also taken internally to treat inflammation. Native Americans used an infusion of the roots or seeds to cleanse blood and applied a poultice of the boiled leaves to sores.

Modern research indicates that burdock may have a liver-protective effect, as well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It also contains a substance called arctigenin, which has shown antitumor effects in animal studies. Burdock is a mild antibacterial agent, making it useful in the treatment of skin conditions, including acne and boils, and as an ingredient in some shampoos, creams, and lotions.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Burdock thrives in full sun and fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Sow the seed directly in the garden when the temperature has warmed; thin seedlings to 6 inches apart. Some gardeners mix wood chips or sawdust into burdock beds to loosen the soil, making the 3-foot-long roots easier to harvest in fall or the following spring.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bearberry, Kinnikinnick, Uva-ursi

Description: Creeping evergreen shrub with short, dark stems and long fibrous roots; small, glossy, undivided leaves; pink bell-shaped flowers; small, round, glossy red berries

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Ericaceae

Flowering: April and May

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and berries

Range/Habitat: Throughout the Northern Hemisphere; dry, rocky areas

Marco Polo (1254–1324) discovered this herb’s uses when he traveled to China, and Kublai Khan learned of it during his invasions. By the 13th century, European herbalists recognized uva-ursi as an important healing herb.

Native to Europe, Asia, and North America, this low-growing evergreen shrub produces sour red berries that are a favorite of bears—explaining both the common name bearberry and species name (“bear’s grape” in Latin). The Native American name kinnikinnick (meaning “that which is mixed”) refers to the practice of combining the plant’s leaves with tobacco and other plants for smoking. Various groups of Native American people ate kinnikinnick berries fresh, dried, or mixed with other edibles.

MEDICINAL USE

Native Americans made a poultice of the plant’s leaves, stems, and other parts for treating skin sores and burns, back pain, and back sprains. Some tribes also drank an infusion of the leaves, stems, and berries for back pain, possibly caused by kidney problems.

This herb has long been used to treat urinary tract infections and can reduce inflammation. The leaves contain astringent tannins, as well as the antibacterial compounds hydroquinone and arbutin. Hydroquinone can cause liver damage and other problems, however.

Caution: Pregnant or nursing women and children should not take uva-ursi, nor should those with high blood pressure or certain other conditions.

ORNAMENTAL USE

With glossy evergreen foliage and pink bell-shaped flowers, uva-ursi is a lovely groundcover along a walkway, around a patio, or in a container. Look for varieties specially bred for their bright berries or dense foliage.

OTHER USES

An extract of uvi-ursi is used commercially in skin lightening agents. It has replaced pure hydroquinone, which has fallen out of favor for this purpose and is being evaluated as a possible carcinogen. Uvi-ursi can also be used to make a green dye for alum- or iron-mordanted wool or a light brown dye for unmordanted wool (see this page).

 HOW TO GROW IT

Uva-ursi (often sold as bearberry) needs little care in your garden other than watering when conditions are very dry. Occasionally pinch back the young plants to encourage branching and compact growth. Propagate new plants by layering one of the plant’s runners, or start new plants from green stem cuttings.

Armoracia rusticana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Horseradish

Description: Perennial; 12 to 24 inches tall with large, broad, lance-shaped leaves; tiny, white, four-petaled flowers; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Brassicaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Roots and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia; widely cultivated

For centuries, this herb was considered a medicine, not a condiment. The French called it moutarde des allemands, mustard of the Germans, and indeed, the Germans and Danes were the only Europeans of the Middle Ages to use the root at the dinner table.

This large-rooted perennial has been valued by herbalists as an internal and external medicine, and it has been cultivated since ancient times. The Egyptians used it as early as 1500 BCE, and it is one of the five bitter herbs of the Jewish Passover ceremony.

CULINARY USE

Horseradish is best known today for the sharply flavored condiment prepared from its root. To make it, simply grate the fresh root and put a bit of it on food, or combine it with vinegar. The mildly spicy leaves can be added to salads.

MEDICINAL USE

Nutritionally, horseradish is a good source of calcium, dietary fiber, manganese, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, and zinc. Long recognized for its healthful properties, horseradish has been used to treat disorders such as asthma, coughs, toothache, ulcers, worms, and inflammation of joints and tissues. The root contains isothiocyanates (sulfur compounds also found in garlic and onions), as well as sulforaphane, an antioxidant in broccoli. Released when the root is crushed, both agents clear sinus congestion, open nasal passages, and promote blood flow. Horseradish also has antibiotic properties, making it useful for treating respiratory and urinary tract infections.

Caution: Pregnant and nursing women, very young children, and people suffering from gastrointestinal or kidney disorders should not take horseradish in large amounts. Also, remember not to eat horseradish or other members of the mustard family for at least 3 days before taking a test for blood in the stool, as these foods can cause a false positive.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Horseradish prefers loose, rich, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant root divisions in early spring or fall. Do not overwater. Harvest the leaves in spring; dig up the roots in fall. Propagate established plants by dividing the rhizomes in early spring or fall.

Caution: In some areas, horseradish spreads easily; consider growing it in a container.

Arnica montana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Arnica, European Arnica, Leopard’s Bane, Mountain Arnica, Mountain Tobacco

Description: Erect, branching stems, 1 to 2 feet tall, emerge from basal rosettes of oval, downy leaves; yellow-orange daisylike blooms; creeping rhizome

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, central Asia, and Siberia; mountain meadows, pastures, and open woodlands

Arnica’s ability to soothe muscle aches, sprains, and bruises has been known for centuries, both in Europe and North America. While European herbalists used their native mountain arnica to make healing remedies, Native Americans used native North American species, such as broadleaf arnica (Arnica latifolia) and heartleaf arnica (A. cordifolia).

Arnica bears oval, hairy leaves and yellow, daisylike flowers. Its name may be derived from arnakis, the ancient Greek word for “lambskin,” in reference to the plant’s soft leaves.

MEDICINAL USE

A popular remedy around the world, arnica has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, the former ascribed to the compound helenalin and the latter due in part to compounds related to thymol. It is used externally to treat sprains, bruises, swelling, and joint pain, and it is a key ingredient in many first-aid creams and gels.

To make your own remedy for bruises and sore muscles, gently heat 1 ounce of arnica flowers in 1 ounce of oil for several hours. Strain and let the infused oil cool before using it. (For more about making and using infused oils, see this page.)

Caution: Arnica is toxic if ingested and should not be taken internally except in homeopathic preparations under the guidance of a health-care professional. Arnica ointments or creams should not be applied to broken skin. The herb can cause contact dermatitis in some people.

Because arnica has been overharvested in the wild, choose preparations made from cultivated plants, or use alternative plants such as calendula (Calendula officinalis) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to make your own preparations.

OTHER USES

Arnica can be found in a highly diluted form in mouthwash, although it is strictly for rinsing and should not be swallowed.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow mountain arnica in well-drained, acidic, humus-rich soil in full sun. (The native North American species will tolerate some shade.) Plant root divisions in spring, or sow seeds in fall. In areas where winters are very wet, grow arnica in a raised bed to prevent root rot. Harvest the flowers when they are fully open. Propagate arnica by seed or by dividing the roots in spring.

Artemisia abrotanum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Garderobe, Lad’s Love, Lover’s Plant, Southernwood

Description: Branched; 2 to 4 feet tall; perennial with finely divided, downy gray-green leaves; inconspicuous yellow-white flowers; highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native of Italy and Spain, naturalized in the United States

This highly aromatic perennial has had a variety of uses, ranging from aphrodisiac (hence its common name, “lover’s plant”) to a deworming medication. People even carried the sharply scented herb with them to church to help them stay awake during sermons! A close relative of wormwood, southern-wood is native to Italy and Spain.

MEDICINAL USES

Southernwood contains eucalyptol and camphor, chemical compounds that contribute to its strong scent. Herbalists consider this species a “bitter” and use it to treat digestive problems. An extract of the leaf can be applied to small wounds to stop bleeding and promote healing. A homeopathic formulation produced from the young flowering leaves and twigs is sometimes given to livestock.

Caution: This plant should not be ingested during pregnancy.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Southernwood’s foliage—fine and feathery in texture, silvery in hue—is an excellent foil for brightly colored flowering plants in beds, borders, and bouquets. Attaining a height of up to 4 feet, southern-wood generally works best at the back of a border. Or plant it as a low-growing hedge along a walkway or other location to enjoy its aroma as you brush against its leaves.

OTHER USES

Southernwood is sometimes used as an insect repellent, rubbed directly on the skin or used in closets and in drawer sachets. In crafts, southern-wood can be used in wreaths and dried arrangements. The branches make a yellow dye for wool.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant southernwood divisions or cuttings 2 feet apart in average, well-drained soil and full sun. The plants are drought tolerant and easy to care for. In early spring, prune the plants back and remove older, woodier growth from the center. In midsummer to late summer, harvest the leafy branches, cutting back to the woody stems. Dry the branches in bunches, hanging them in a warm, shady location. To propagate, take root cuttings in summer or divide plants in early spring or fall.

Artemisia absinthium

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Green Ginger, Wormwood

Description: Many branching stems; 2 to 5 feet tall; small, yellow-green flowers on erect panicles; downy, deeply divided gray-green leaves; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in Asia and the United States; found along dry roadsides and in pastures

This bitter-tasting—and smelling—perennial is native to Europe but now grows in Africa, Asia, and the United States. It is distinctive, with silvery stems and green-gray leaves that have whitish undersides. Early herbalists valued wormwood for treating intestinal parasites, as the herb’s name implies. In 1597, John Gerard published his classic Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, and noted that “wormwood voideth away the worms of the guts, not only taken inwardly, but applied outwardly . . . it keepeth garments also from the Mothes; it driveth away gnats; the bodie being anointed with the oyle thereof.” Wormwood’s pest repellent properties were also recognized by Native Americans, who put pieces of the branches in bedding to repel bedbugs and other pests.

MEDICINAL USE

In folk medicine, wormwood has been used as an antiseptic, local anesthetic, topical insect repellent, digestive aid, worming treatment and, since the Middle Ages, treatment for gastric irritation. Native Americans, who had many traditional uses for wormwood, gathered and boiled the tops of the plants and applied them as a warm compress to sprains and strained muscles.

Caution: This plant should be avoided during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

OTHER USES

Planted in the garden, wormwood is said to repel insect pests. The leaves can also be mashed in water to make a botanical pesticide. (Always test homemade pesticides on a small area before treating an entire plant.) Pick some of the stem tips, dry them, and place them in clothes closets to repel moths and fleas.

Wormwood is an ingredient in the spirit absinthe (see “The Green Fairy”) and is sometimes included in vermouth and bitters.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Wormwood is drought tolerant and easy to grow in full sun and well-drained soil. Avoid rich soil; wormwood is more aromatic in poor, dry soils. Keep in mind that wormwood’s leaves and roots secrete chemicals that can suppress the growth of nearby plants, and the plant can become invasive. Consider growing it in a large container. Plant wormwood in spring or fall, spacing the plants 15 to 30 inches apart. To harvest, gather the tops of the flowering plants. Hang bundles to dry in a warm, shady location. Store the dried tops in airtight containers. Wormwood can be propagated from semihardwood cuttings taken in late summer or fall, or by division in fall.

FIELD NOTES

The Green Fairy

Near the end of the 18th century, wormwood began to be used in a digestive tonic developed by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French expatriate living in Switzerland. This 136-proof green liqueur with a bitter licorice or anise flavor possessed powerful psychoactive properties and was all the rage in Europe during the 19th century, when it became an important part of the Parisian Bohemian scene. Vincent van Gogh was among the famous artists of the time who were ardent fans of absinthe, as were writers such as Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire. Absinthe gained the name “the green fairy,” and the cocktail hour, between 5 and 7 p.m., became known as the green hour (l’heure vert).

A combination of many herbs, absinthe contained the toxic compound thujone, thought to be responsible for some of its sought-after properties—and also now known to cause brain damage. As the consumption of absinthe increased, a new disease, absinthism, emerged. This form of alcoholism was characterized by delirium, hallucinations, tremors, and seizures. By the 20th century, the drink was banned in most places around the world.

A few decades ago, interest in absinthe reemerged, and versions were made based on the original recipes but without significant quantities of thujone. Since then, consumption of this beverage has increased. If you happen to be in an airport in Europe and wander through a duty-free shop that sells alcoholic beverages, you might find absinthe for sale. Remember, however, that some countries’ versions of the drink are mixed with herbs banned for import into the United States, such as Cannabis sativa, or marijuana. Read the labels carefully, and make sure you ask whether or not the drink can be imported legally.—M. J. B.

Artemisia dracunculus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Estragon, French Tarragon, Tarragon

Description: Upright stems 24 to 30 inches tall; smooth, undivided leaves 1 to 4 inches long; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat:Native to southern Europe and Asia

Tarragon bears smooth, aromatic leaves with a distinctive mint-anise flavor that makes it popular for cooking, but this herb also has healing properties. Its name is a corruption of the French esdragon, derived from the Latin dracunculus (“little dragon”), which could allude either to the herb’s sharp taste, its reputation as a treatment for poisonous insect bites and stings, or its purported ability to kill intestinal parasites. Tarragon is native to southern Europe and Asia.

CULINARY USE

Tarragon leaves, widely used in French cooking, enhance egg and chicken dishes, sauces, and salad dressings. The herb is a key ingredient in béarnaise sauce and is included in the popular French herb mix fines herbes. Use tarragon to flavor vinegars, oils, and butters.

Storage note: Tarragon does not hold its flavor when dried; freezing the leaves is a better option for long-term storage. Better yet, grow tarragon indoors throughout the winter to provide fresh leaves for cooking.

MEDICINAL USE

Like other culinary herbs, tarragon has antibacterial properties. The oil contains rutin, which strengthens blood vessel walls, as well as eugenol, which has anesthetic properties. Chewing the leaves can temporarily numb your tongue, an effect the ancient Greeks used to their advantage when treating toothaches. Externally, you can apply the crushed leaves directly to your skin as an antiseptic to treat minor wounds. Tarragon also contains the chemical estragole—a carcinogen when given in large amounts to animals and a suspected genotoxin (harmful to DNA), but the plant also has anticarcinogenic compounds and is generally regarded as safe for culinary use.

Caution: Therapeutic doses of tarragon should not be taken by pregnant or nursing women, although it is safe to consume in small doses in food. Do not take the herb therapeutically for periods exceeding 4 weeks.

 HOW TO GROW IT

For cooking, be sure to buy Artemisia dracunculus ‘Sativa’, not Russian tarragon (A. dracunculoides), which is less flavorful. Plant tarragon in rich, well-drained loam in full sun or partial shade. Begin harvesting leaves 6 to 8 weeks later. Pinch off any flowers to encourage lush leaf growth. Tarragon requires a period of winter dormancy for best growth. To grow it indoors during winter, pot a mature plant in summer, then cut it back to the base. Wrap the pot in plastic and set it in a cool location (such as a refrigerator) until fall (2 to 3 months). Unwrap the pot and place it in a south-facing window to break dormancy and encourage sprouting. Harvest sprigs as needed throughout winter. To propagate tarragon, divide established plants in early spring, or take cuttings in late spring. Dividing the clumps every 2 to 3 years will help keep the plants vigorous and flavorful.

Artemisia vulgaris

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Mugwort

Description: Multistemmed 4- to 6-foot perennial with soft, dark green, deeply divided leaves with whitish undersides; terminal spikes of greenish yellow blooms; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and buds

Range/Habitat: Europe, Asia, and North and South America; roadsides and wastelands

Found throughout most of Europe, Asia, and North America, this shrubby perennial was once believed to offer protection from evil spirits, wild animals, sunstroke, and fatigue. Ancient Roman soldiers put the dark green leaves of this herb in their sandals to avoid fatigue. (Perhaps the soldiers absorbed mugwort’s bioactive compound, thujone, through their feet.) Mugwort was also planted in gardens to repel insects and was used to protect clothing from moths. The origin of its name is unclear, but some think it derives from mugwort’s use as a flavoring for drinks, including beer, since ancient times.

CULINARY USE

Mugwort is a familiar culinary herb in Europe and Asia, where the young leaves and buds are used in soups, poultry dressings, salads, and stir-fries. In Korea, the herb is used in rice cakes, teas, soups, and pancakes. Use the herb sparingly, as it is strong flavored and bitter.

MEDICINAL USE

Milder in action than other Artemisia species, mugwort has been used to treat indigestion, intestinal worms, and anxiety. It is a very important herb in the traditional Chinese medicine practice of moxibustion, during which heat from the burning dried leaves is applied to acupuncture points on the body. Ayurvedic practitioners use mugwort to treat heart problems and general malaise.

Caution: Avoid this plant during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

OTHER USES

Mugwort is often mixed with other herbs to create dream pillows. The diluted tea can be used as a garden insecticide; be sure to test it on a small area before spraying the entire plant.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Mugwort, sometimes considered a weed, is very easy to grow. Plant it in average to poor well-drained soil in full sun. The plant can grow very large (to 6 feet), so a site that provides support, such as near a wall or fence, is best. Harvest leaves and buds before the flowers open in midsummer to late summer. Propagate by division in early spring or fall.

Aspalathus linearis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Red Bush Tea, Rooibos

Description: Shrub, up to 6 feet tall, with needle-like leaves and small, yellow flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to Western Cape of South Africa; high elevations

This member of the legume family is a shrub native to the Western Cape of South Africa. Three centuries ago, the indigenous people of the region began producing a sweet, pleasant tea from the shrub’s needlelike leaves and stems. Commercial cultivation of the plant began in South Africa in the 1930s, and today most red bush tea is grown in the country’s Cederberg region north of Cape Town. It is called a “red” tea for the color produced through oxidation, which occurs when the green leaves are crushed, bruised, moistened, and put in piles to dry. The Afrikaans name rooibos means “red bush.”

CULINARY USE

Red bush tea is caffeine-free and is becoming increasingly popular as a substitute for tea (Camellia sinensis). When brewed, the leaves produce a brilliant red infusion. South Africans usually drink rooibos with lemon and sugar or honey, although the herb has a natural sweetness. It can be prepared as a hot or iced tea.

MEDICINAL USE

Traditionally, red bush tea has been used to soothe digestion; relieve stomach cramps, colic, and diarrhea; and to treat allergies and asthma. The herb is rich in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamin C and has antiviral properties. It may also enhance immune functions and provide cardiovascular benefits by reducing oxidative stress on the body; studies in this area are ongoing.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Red bush is difficult to grow outside of its native habitat in South Africa. The shrub requires well-drained, sandy, acidic loam and full sun. If you wish to try growing it, start the seeds indoors (a greenhouse is best) in early spring. Soak the seeds overnight in warm water or scarify them (see this page) before planting to encourage germination. Plant seeds in a flat filled with a damp mix of compost and sand or perlite, and set the tray in a warm location. In a few weeks, transplant the seedlings to individual pots filled with a 50-50 mix of acidic compost and sand.

The following spring, transplant 1-year-old plants outside, if you live in Zone 9 or warmer. (In colder locations, grow red bush in a large container in a greenhouse.) After 12 to 18 months, the leaves can be harvested. Finely chop them, moisten them with water, and set them in a warm location to oxidize for 24 hours. When the leaves have turned red, spread them out and allow them to dry.

Astragalus membranaceus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Astragalus, Huang Qi, Milk Vetch, Yellow Leader

Description: Multistemmed, 1- to 2-foot-tall perennial; compound leaves composed of 12 to 18 pairs of bright green leaflets; yellow pealike flowers in long clusters; fibrous branching rhizomes

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Root

Range/Habitat: Native to Mongolia and northern China; cultivated in other Asian countries and North America

The root of this perennial member of the bean family has been used in China as a medicine for thousands of years. Native to Mongolia and northern and eastern China, where it grows in dry, sandy soils, astragalus is considered a very important tonic plant, providing endurance and a feeling of well-being to those who take it.

CULINARY USE

In China, mildly flavored astragalus is a common culinary ingredient. During cold and flu season, add pieces of the sliced root to soups and stews during cooking; remove them before serving.

MEDICINAL USE

Astragalus is one of the most important plants in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is a common ingredient in many Chinese medicine formulas. Its yellow root contains compounds that stimulate your immune system, promoting the formation of antibodies, increasing the production of T cells, and boosting the supply of infection-fighting white blood cells. It is also used in TCM to treat diabetes. It has been shown to be a cardioprotective species and is used to treat heart disease and angina. Combined with other Chinese medicinal plants, astragalus has been studied as an adjuvant to conventional chemotherapy in the treatment of some cancers. Some herbalists suggest using it as part of a treatment for certain viruses and pneumonia.

Caution: Do not use this species if you are pregnant or nursing.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Astragalus thrives in very well-drained soil and full sun. To improve germination, scarify the seeds before planting them directly in your garden, after all danger of frost has passed. (For information on seed scarification, see this page.) If you start the seeds indoors, be careful when transplanting the seedlings—astragalus roots are sensitive to injury. Astragalus is drought tolerant, so do not overwater it. In areas with harsh winters, apply a winter mulch to protect the root. In fall of the plant’s third to fifth year, you can begin to harvest the roots. Remove the leafy top growth and lateral roots, then clean the main root and allow it to dry. After several weeks, slice the root into smaller pieces and allow them to dry completely.

Atropa belladonna

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Belladonna, Deadly Nightshade

Description: Branching perennial, up to 3 feet tall; alternate elliptical leaves with paler green undersides; nodding bell-shaped purple flowers; berries mature from green to deep purple to black

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Solanaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, Asia, and Africa; found in woods, thickets, and wastelands

As one of its common names implies, this perennial is highly poisonous and potentially deadly! The plant’s scientific name comes from the Greek Atropos, one of the Fates who held the shears to cut the thread of human life, suggesting that its toxic properties were well known long ago. The common name belladonna (Italian for “beautiful lady”) is derived from its use by women of the Middle Ages. They dropped the sap of this plant into their eyes to dilate their pupils, believing it made their eyes appear more brilliant. (Period paintings of Italian women show them with large pupils, which were considered beautiful.) The practice had a very dangerous downside, however; it impaired their vision for days. Since time immemorial, people have compromised their health in the name of beauty.

MEDICINAL USE

Every part of this herb contains the toxic alkaloid atropine, which relaxes and relieves spasms in the heart muscle and the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. A carefully prepared pharmaceutical formulation containing atropine is still used by physicians to dilate pupils, as well. Today, several prescription medicines use the active ingredients in belladonna to treat intestinal disorders such as diarrhea, irritable colon, and peptic ulcer. This plant is extremely toxic, however, its use can result in rapid heartbeat, delirium, confusion, blurred vision, and many other symptoms. In fact, it was used in poisonings throughout history, as well as to torture prisoners into confessions—often false. It contains scopolamine, once used as “truth serum” in interrogations.

Caution: All parts of this herb are considered toxic.

OTHER USES

Belladonna is thought to be one of the principle ingredients in the hallucinogenic witches’ brews of medieval Europe. It has been suggested that some women mixed an extract of this species with fat and other plants to make a hallucinogenic “flying ointment,” which they then applied to their skin with a broom or staff. After it was absorbed and had entered the bloodstream, it reportedly caused the sensation of flight—perhaps accounting for the popular image of a witch “riding” a broom. Please don’t try this at home!

 HOW TO GROW IT

Belladonna can sometimes be found cultivated in flower gardens, but it must be kept out of reach of those who might be harmed by its toxicity. Eating as few as two or three of the succulent berries has proven to be fatal to children. Some recommend using gloves when handling this plant, as all parts of the plant are highly toxic, and it is possible to absorb its chemicals through your skin.

Avena sativa

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Oats

Description: Grass, 2 to 5 feet tall, with flat leaves and smooth, thin stems; pendulous, seed-containing spikes appear in summer

Hardiness: Annual; dies back after flowering

Family: Poaceae

Flowering: Late spring to midsummer

Parts Used: Seed heads and stems

Habitat: Descended from species native to the Mediterranean

Oats: They’re what’s for breakfast—and much more. Cultivated throughout Europe since around 2000 BCE, this annual grass is believed to have originated in areas around the Mediterranean. Oats are now grown in temperate areas across the globe, wherever water and humidity are plentiful. The plant has flat leaves and smooth, thin stems. Its pendulous, seed-containing spikes appear in early summer.

CULINARY USE

The hulled seed heads of oats can be eaten whole (as groats, with the nutritious bran intact) or rolled (steamed and flattened). Rolled oats are a common ingredient in breakfast cereals, such as muesli, granola, and oatmeal, as well as in baked goods. For a healthier breakfast, substitute steel-cut oats for instant oats. You can use oat flour, made from ground whole oats, to make breads, cakes, and cookies. You can also substitute oat flour for wheat flour as a thickener for soups and sauces and as a coating for fish and chicken. Oat bran, which is very high in fiber, can be added to many foods. Add sprouted seeds to sandwiches and salads to boost the vitamin and mineral content and add crunch.

MEDICINAL USE

Oat bran contains soluble fiber, which increases the elimination of cholesterol and has been shown to lower cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels. When oats are consumed, soluble fiber traps cholesterol in the intestines and eliminates it through the stools. Fiber also helps prevent constipation by attracting water, creating soft, bulky stools that stimulate bowel movements. Oats are used externally in products that help relieve the pain and itching of skin conditions such as dryness and eczema. Oatmeal baths are also helpful in treating these conditions, as well as for treating herpes and shingles. Herbalists sometimes recommend a tonic made from immature oat seeds to treat anxiety and exhaustion, although clinical studies have not proven this use to be effective.

OTHER USES

Oats are commonly grown as animal fodder in temperate areas across the globe. Horses given oats as part of their feed are said to be healthier, leaner, more muscular, and more energetic.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Sow in early spring in well-drained soil and full sun. Harvest in summer, before the seeds are fully ripe. Cut the plants near the base when most of the growth has turned brown and the seeds are no longer milky.

Oats can also be used as a soil-building cover crop planted in late summer to early fall. In spring, till under the stubble to add organic matter and nutrients to your soil. Wait 2 to 3 weeks before planting garden crops where oats have grown; a compound in oat residue can inhibit the growth of other plants.

FIELD NOTES

Wild Oats?

While we think of oats primarily as a healthy and nutritious breakfast food, this plant has a long history of medicinal use. To treat colic or a sharp pain in your side, English physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) recommended putting oats in a bag with bay salt, heating it in a frying pan, and applying it “as warm as can be endured.” Boiled oats in vinegar were suggested for the treatment of spots and freckles on the face and body. Culpeper also advised mixing oats with bay oil and applying it as a poultice to treat itches, leprosy, and other ailments.

More than 3½ centuries later, on the Internet, oats are being touted to increase libido, genital sensitivity, and orgasms in men and women. The claims are based primarily on anecdotal evidence, personal testimonials, and a single human trial conducted by a commercial entity. A “buy this product” box usually appears next to the spectacular claims.

What to do? Oats don’t seem to cause adverse effects in most people, unless there is a specific food allergy, such as intolerance to gluten and related compounds. Herbalists I know do recommend oat extracts in formulas designed to increase desire and performance, and most of these ingredients are thought to be safe and effective. So eat your oats, work with a knowledgeable medical professional to address any concerns you have about issues related to libido, and experiment with formulas deemed safe.—M. J. B.

Betula spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Birch

Description: Fast-growing trees, up to 90 feet tall; alternate, ovate leaves with serrated edges; tiny flowers borne on catkins, followed by tiny winged “nuts”; papery black or white bark

Hardiness: To Zone 2 or 3

Family: Betulaceae

Flowering: Summer and fall

Parts Used: Leaves, bark, twigs, and sap

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, Asia, and North America

Widely cultivated as landscape trees in the northern regions of the globe, birches have attractive, peeling bark that once was used to make writing paper. But the 30-plus Betula species—native to Europe, Asia, and North America—are much more than ornamental. In North America alone, Native American people used birches for many purposes, including canoe making, basketry, dishes, dyes, and medicines. These handsome trees are still valuable sources of medicine, lumber, and more.

CULINARY USE

Birch bark and twigs have a pleasant, wintergreen-like flavor. The bark and sap of sweet birch (Betula lenta), which is native to the eastern United States and Canada, can be boiled, sweetened, and fermented to make birch beer.

MEDICINAL USE

Birch oils, distilled from the trees’ buds, leaves, and twigs, are rich in methyl salicylate, a pain reliever (and the main ingredient in aspirin) that does not irritate the stomach. Salicylate staves off your body’s production of prostaglandins associated with fever and the inflammation of muscles, bones, and connective tissues caused by injuries or arthritis. Birch oil is also used topically in creams and ointments to treat eczema and psoriasis. Birch bark contains phytochemicals that may have astringent, diuretic, antiviral, and antitumor properties.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Birch trees—including the European birch (B. pendula), as well as native American species such as sweet birch, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), and river birch (B. nigra)—are favorite landscape specimens, valued for their interesting bark and bright yellow fall foliage.

OTHER USES

An extract of white birch (Betula alba) is used in cosmetics and to scent soaps, shampoos, and other products, as well as to flavor candy.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Birch trees do best in well-drained, sandy or loamy acidic soil and full sun. Prune in summer or fall to avoid excessive “bleeding” (loss of sap), which can occur with late winter and early spring pruning. Harvest leaf buds, young leaves, and twigs in spring. Propagate by planting seeds on the surface of a moistened seed-starting mix. (The seeds need light to germinate.) Mist frequently until germination occurs, in 2 to 3 weeks.

Bixa orellana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Achiote, Annatto, Lipstick Tree

Description: Evergreen small tree or shrub, 6 to 24 feet tall; spirally arranged leaves with dark green tops and gray-green undersides; panicles of fragrant pink flowers; greenish brown or red fruits have numerous seeds with bright orange-red fleshy coats

Hardiness: To Zone 11

Family: Bixaceae

Flowering: Late summer or fall

Parts Used: Seeds and seed pulp, leaves, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to the Caribbean region, Mexico, and Central and South America

Native to the Caribbean region, Mexico, and Central and South America, the annatto tree bears spiny red fruits that contain numerous seeds covered with a waxy red paste. Although the fruits are inedible, the seeds and paste (known botanically as arils) have many medicinal and culinary uses.

One of the plant’s common names, achiote, comes from the Nahuatl (an indigenous language spoken in Central America) word achiotl. The name lipstick tree is said to refer to the traditional use of the bright red seed paste as body paint. Spanish explorers introduced the plant to Asia in the 17th century, and today, annatto is commercially cultivated in its region of origin, as well as in India. The major exporting countries are Peru and Kenya.

CULINARY USE

Annatto seed paste is used as a coloring for margarine, cheese, microwave popcorn, and other yellow and orange foodstuffs. In its pure form, margarine is a white substance, developed in the 19th century as an inexpensive substitute for butter. In the United States and elsewhere, dairy farmers concerned with possible competition from margarine promoted laws that banned the addition of color to this product, hoping to distinguish it from real butter. When these laws were eliminated, food companies began to enclose coloring packets with their products, and annatto was one of the important ingredients used for this purpose, as it is considered a safe additive to food. Annatto is widely used in Caribbean and Latin American cooking as a dye, flavoring, and spice. The herb’s earthy flavor complements many meat dishes, as well as rice and beans. Annatto paste, a popular Mexican flavoring, typically contains annatto, coriander, cumin seeds, oregano, peppercorns, and garlic. The spices are ground together and then blended with bitter orange juice or vinegar to make a marinade.

MEDICINAL USE

The herb may have anti-inflammatory, diuretic, laxative, and expectorant properties. Annatto seeds and leaves have been used internally to treat indigestion, fevers, and intestinal parasites and topically to treat burns. The leaves have also been used to treat heartburn and stomach disorders, and in the Amazon region the sap from the leaves is used to treat eye infections. The astringent red seed pulp is used to treat measles, as a purgative, and for stomachache. A beverage made from the seeds and leaves is reported to be used as a female aphrodisiac, and a drink prepared from the roots was traditionally used to treat dysentery, jaundice, diabetes, and influenza.

OTHER USES

As synthetic colorings face stricter regulation and consumers favor more natural ingredients in their foods and cosmetics, annatto is gaining importance as a dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

This small, tropical evergreen tree or shrub requires a frost-free humid climate, evenly distributed rainfall throughout the year, and full sun. Gardeners in southern Florida or Hawaii can grow annatto outdoors; in Zone 10 and colder, annatto can be grown indoors in a large container. Provide well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil. Under favorable conditions, annatto begins fruiting about 18 months after planting, and full crops of seeds are possible in 3 to 4 years. To propagate annatto, sow seed from freshly gathered ripe seedpods outdoors in fall, or take woody stem cuttings.

FIELD NOTES

Sunscreen, Insect-Repellent Lip Color

In my first few weeks of graduate studies in ethnobotany at Harvard University, my mentor, Professor Richard Evans Schultes, known as a luminary in this field, suggested I go to the Amazon Valley of Colombia in search of a doctoral dissertation topic. Accompanied by another of his graduate students, James Zarucchi, I traveled to a remote Indian village on the Vaupés River.

There, I became fascinated by Bixa orellana, a small tree known in Spanish as achiote and locally by other names. The people harvested its mature fruit capsules just before they split open, revealing many red-colored seeds. They used the seeds for cooking and to dye the bark clothing they wore for ceremonial purposes. But the most interesting use was as a removable body dye that helps prevent sun damage to the skin and is said to help repel insects, as well. During many years of working with indigenous cultures, I have observed native peoples use this waxy red dye to color not only their skin, but also their hair, fabric, vessels, and weaponry.

Now cosmetic companies are using the plant to make lip colorings for Western consumers. I’ve always thought that it would be more fashionable to fully adopt the traditional indigenous use: to cover your entire face with the dye of this plant. But then again, what do I know about trends?—M. J. B.

Borago officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Borage, Starflower

Description: Succulent stems, 12 to 18 inches tall, with thick, gray-green leaves covered with rough hairs; nodding clusters of small, bright blue, star-shaped flowers

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Boraginaceae

Flowering: Throughout summer

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and seed oil

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean and naturalized throughout Europe, parts of North America, and parts of Australia

Borage is an annual that bears bright blue, star-shaped flowers that are loved by bees. The plant’s name is thought to derive from the Latin borra, meaning “hairy garment,” in reference to the herb’s bristly leaves. Native to the Mediterranean and naturalized throughout Europe, parts of North America, and parts of Australia, borage has a long history of use in herbal medicine. Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician (1652) noted under its “virtues” that borage “. . . leaves and roots are to very good purpose used against putrid and pestilential fevers, to defend the heart, and to resist and expel the poison or venom of other creatures . . . and the seeds and leaves are good to e[i]ncrease milk in women’s breasts. . . .”

CULINARY USE

Borage’s bright blue flowers make an attractive garnish for cold soups, iced beverages, and cakes.

Caution: Do not consume borage leaves and flowers in large quantities, as they contain compounds toxic to your liver. Oil extracted from the seed is safe to consume, however.

MEDICINAL USE

Borage seed oil is a rich source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a compound that helps balance abnormalities of essential fatty acids. It can be taken to relieve premenstrual discomfort, thrombosis, and chronic inflammation, as in multiple sclerosis. The oil is also used to treat fevers, bronchial infections, oral infections, and chronic nephritis. Borage seed oil has been shown to reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis during a human clinical trial. According to another clinical study, borage seed oil may reduce the effects of stress on the body by lowering heart rate and systolic blood pressure. It is also recommended for treatment of fibrocystic breast disease.

OTHER USES

In addition to its use as a dietary supplement, GLA-rich borage seed oil is used in cosmetic products; its anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties help heal dried and cracked skin, as well as other skin conditions, such as eczema.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Borage grows best in well-drained, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds in spring, and thin seedlings to 18-inches apart. Harvest the young leaves in spring or summer, as the plant begins flowering; pick the flowering tops just as they begin to open. A prolific plant, borage will self-seed rapidly in your garden.

Boswellia serrata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Boswellia, Indian Frankincense, Indian Olibanum

Description: Small evergreen tree, up to 12 feet tall; peeling, ash-colored bark; opposite leaflets with serrated margins; racemes of small white flowers; oval-shaped green fruit; fragrant sap

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Burseraceae

Flowering: During the cool, dry season of the area where it is grown

Parts Used: Bark and gum

Range/Habitat: Native to tropical Asia and Africa

A member of the frankincense family, boswellia is native to tropical Asia and Africa, and it is often found in hilly areas of India. Plants in the family Burseraceae, which grow as evergreen bushes or small trees with small, white, fragrant flowers, are characterized by resin ducts in their thick, aromatic bark. When cuts are made in the bark, a milky fluid emerges and hardens upon contact with the air. The solidified resin of boswellia is made into capsules, tablets, creams, perfumes, and cosmetics.

MEDICINAL USE

Creams containing boswellia extract are used to relieve the aches and pains of arthritis. Boswellia resin contains nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory compounds, including boswellic acids, which may be helpful in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and bowel disorders such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Studies have shown that boswellia may be as effective as synthetic drugs in treating these conditions, without the side effects of pharmaceuticals.

In Ayurvedic medicine, boswellia (called shallaki) is used as an astringent to treat diarrhea and is included in ointments used to treat sores and boils.

The essential oil of Boswellia carterii (the related species known as frankincense) is said to alleviate anxiety.

OTHER USES

Boswellia creams are used to moisturize dry skin and minimize wrinkles. The highly aromatic resin of several Boswellia species is commonly used to make perfumes and burned as incense.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Boswellia grows in dry, hilly areas in warm climates. In Zone 9 and colder, you can try growing this small tree in a large container in a warm greenhouse. The plant prefers well-drained to dry, alkaline soil in full sun. Water the young plants daily until their root systems are established, then cut back to watering just a few times a week. Trim back the plant from time to time. In the wild, the resin from older plants is harvested by making a slash in the bark and “bleeding” the resin, which then hardens and can be used.

Calamintha nepeta

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Basil Thyme, Lesser Calamint, Mountain Mint

Description: Perennial shrub forms a tidy mound, 15 to 18 inches tall, of small, bright green leaves; lavender-pink bloom spikes last 6 weeks or more; fragrant

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Late summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and naturalized in eastern North America

This peppermint-scented perennial shrub is native to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and has naturalized throughout parts of eastern North America. The compact plants bear small leaves, which resemble those of oregano, and pale lavender bloom spikes appreciated by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The common name calamint comes from the plant’s ancient Greek name, kalaminthe, which means “beautiful mint.” In legend, this herb was a tall fruit tree until it offended Mother Earth and was reduced to its present small size as punishment. But like many mints, lesser calamint can spread rapidly throughout the garden if not controlled. Perhaps that is its revenge.

CULINARY USE

Lesser calamint is a popular ingredient in Italian cuisine, where it is sometimes called nepitella. Tuscan cooks add the herb to sautéed mushrooms, zucchini, and tomatoes. In southern Italy, it is used to flavor goat’s milk cheese. Its distinctive flavor—a blend of mint and savory—complements garlic-based sauces, as well as soups and stews.

MEDICINAL USE

Lesser calamint’s modern medicinal use is limited: The leaves are used in preparations to treat indigestion and other stomach problems, anxiety, and painful menses. The herb has expectorant properties and may help break a fever by promoting sweating. In ancient times it was used to treat insomnia, expel worms from the body, and promote digestion. It is also said to have been used as a tonic, stimulant, antiseptic, and treatment for flatulence.

Caution: Do not use this herb if you are pregnant. It contains a significant quantity of pulegone, which may cause miscarriage.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant lesser calamint in moist but well-drained soil and full sun. Once established, this carefree perennial requires minimal watering. It is rarely bothered by insect pests or disease. While calamint is not invasive the way other mints can be, it does spread readily; to keep this herb in check, grow it in a container and remove seedling volunteers as they appear. Harvest the leaves just as the plants come into bloom. Propagate by division in early spring or fall, or dig up and transplant seedlings.

Calendula officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Calendula, Pot Marigold

Description: Branching plant, 1 to 2 feet tall; orange or yellow ray blooms up to 4 inches across; lance-shaped leaves and stems covered with fine hairs

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: June to September

Parts Used: Flower petals and leaves

Habitat: Native to areas around the Mediterranean; naturalized in temperate regions worldwide

This bushy Mediterranean annual bears yellow or orange flowers so brilliantly colored that they once were said to be reflections of the sun. Calendula’s long bloom period was noted by the ancient Greeks and Romans—the name “calendula” comes from the Latin calendae, for “calendar.”

The herb has a long history of use. Early Greeks and Romans drank calendula tea to relieve stomach ailments, and they applied the herb externally as a poultice to treat superficial skin wounds. During the Middle Ages, the dried flowers were added to soup and stew pots (hence the name pot marigold) to help ward off illness. Calendula has also been used as a dye for food, fabric, and cosmetics.

CULINARY USE

Calendula petals make colorful additions to green salads and have been used as an economical, though less vividly colored, substitute for saffron in cheese, rice dishes, and soups. Calendula leaves can be eaten raw, but some people find their flavor unpleasant. The dried, powdered herb also can be used as a food coloring.

MEDICINAL USE

Calendula has anti-inflammatory properties, and the herb has long been used to relieve inflammation of the stomach, throat, mouth, and skin. A tea made from the flowers or a tincture made from the entire plant can ease inflammatory digestive conditions such as gastritis, colitis, and peptic ulcers. Calendula tea can also be taken as a mouthwash or gargle to treat mouth and throat inflammation.

Used externally in salves, creams, and ointments, calendula helps heal skin wounds and irritations, such as rashes, insect bites, and burns. A mild infusion can be used as a douche to treat vaginal yeast infections.

Caution: Those allergic to other members of the family Asteraceae, such as ragweed, may be sensitive to calendula.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Calendula is an attractive plant for containers or informal cottage and cutting gardens. Modern cultivated varieties expand the color palette to include peach, apricot, cream, and bicolor single and double blooms.

OTHER USES

This plant, sometimes listed as “marigold,” is an ingredient in many personal-care products. Used in hair rinses, calendula brings out gold highlights. Extracts of the flowers are combined with other herbal ingredients in soothing topical creams used to treat inflamed skin conditions, infections, lesions, and ulcers of the leg. Calendula flowers can also be mordanted with alum to make a yellow dye for fabric (see this page).

 HOW TO GROW IT

After danger of frost has passed, sow seeds in your garden in well-drained soil and full sun. Seeds will germinate in 7 to 14 days. Thin seedlings to 6 to 12 inches apart. Calendula self-seeds readily, so remove the dead flower heads immediately to prevent excessive self-seeding and to extend the flowering period. For culinary or medicinal use, harvest the flowers when the plant is dry, then remove individual petals and dry them on paper in the shade. Spread the petals in a single layer, not touching one another, to avoid discoloration. Store the dried petals in an airtight container.

SUNNY CALENDULA PILAF

Calendula can turn ordinary rice into a vibrantly colored, flavorful side dish that’s good for you, too!

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 tablespoons diced celery

2 tablespoons blanched sliced almonds

1 long-grain brown rice

2 water

¼ cup fresh calendula petals

1 teaspoon chopped fresh lemon thyme

1 teaspoon minced lemon zest

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot, celery, and almonds. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and the almonds are lightly browned. Add the rice and cook for 1 minute more. Add the water, calendula, thyme, and lemon zest. Bring the mixture to a boil, then cover it and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 45 to 50 minutes, or until no more steam rises from the pan. Remove the covered pan from the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and serve.

Camellia sinensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Black Tea, Chinese Tea, Green Tea, Tea

Description: Small evergreen tree or shrub, 3 to 30 feet tall; elliptical dark green leaves; fragrant, 1-inch white flowers with yellow stamens

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Theaceae

Flowering: Late summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to western China and northwestern India; widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas

Native to Asia, the tea plant is extensively cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries, including China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Japan. Some tea gardens in China have continuously produced this valuable beverage leaf for more than 1,000 years.

Tea has a remarkably long history of use as a beverage in China, Japan, and India, the largest tea-producing nation in the world. These cultures believe that drinking tea optimizes health and ensures longevity. The plant’s leaves contain caffeine, a mild stimulant; Eastern religious practitioners once drank this herbal beverage to stay awake during long meditations.

CULINARY USE

Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage. The plant’s leaves are used to make four basic types of tea: black, oolong, green, and white. Black tea is fully oxidized (the chlorophyll breaks down and combines with oxygen in the air); oolong tea is partially oxidized; and green tea is wilted but not oxidized. White tea is neither wilted nor oxidized—it is made from the plant’s immature leaves and buds, which are steamed and dried immediately after harvesting.

You can impart tea’s delicate herbal flavor to prepared foods by replacing some or all of the cooking water with brewed tea. Experiment by adding tea when preparing rice, couscous, and other grains; soups; puddings; and baked goods, such as scones and sweet breads.

MEDICINAL USE

Both black and green teas are rich in free radical-fighting antioxidants, and both have similar heart health and anticancer benefits. Since the mid-1980s, an impressive number of scientific studies have supported green tea’s ability to protect your body against cancer, heart disease, and ulcers. Drinking green tea also invigorates your mind and central nervous system and can help control diarrhea. Externally, green tea has been used as a mouthwash to prevent plaque formation on the teeth. A topical cream produced from green tea and used for the treatment of genital and anal warts caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) was approved by the FDA in 2006. This was the first approval of a whole botanical extract as a prescription botanical drug. Studied in clinical trials of nearly 400 adults, the product (Veregen ointment) proved effective at eliminating the warts.

Like green tea, black tea has a stimulating effect on the central nervous system, generally evinced by a feeling of comfort and exhilaration. It also acts as an astringent, which makes it useful for treating diarrhea.

Caution: Tea contains caffeine, which can cause nervousness, heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and digestive disturbances. It should be avoided by pregnant women and by people who suffer from hypertension, anxiety, eating disorders, diabetes, and ulcers.

OTHER USES

Tea is found in many cosmetic products. It is valued for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and skin protective properties.

 HOW TO GROW IT

The tea plant grows best in a warm, humid climate that receives ample rainfall. The soil, altitude, and climate in which the tea plant grows can affect the flavor of the leaves.

In Zone 8 and warmer areas, you can grow tea in your garden as a small evergreen tree or shrub. In cooler regions, grow the plant in a large pot and move it indoors for winter. Provide rich, moist, but well-drained soil with neutral to slightly acid pH and direct sun or partial shade. Water regularly, especially the first year. In midspring to late spring, snip back tips of branches to encourage bushy growth.

Harvest the tender leaves and buds at the ends of the branches in spring, beginning in the plant’s third year. After harvesting, spread out the leaves to wilt for a few hours (for oolong tea), or for 2 to 3 days (for black). For green tea, wilt the leaves by cooking them quickly in a skillet or wok for about 2 minutes. To finish drying all three types, spread the leaves on a baking sheet and place it in a 250°F oven for 20 minutes. Store the dried tea in an airtight container.

REFRESH YOUR BODY WITH TEA

Tea is a magical plant with many uses! Here are just a few ways to use this valuable herb to cleanse, soothe, relax, and refresh your body.

• Relieve sore feet and keep them smelling sweet by soaking them for 20 minutes in a bath of strong black tea.

• Mix witch hazel with strong (cool) black tea to make a stimulating scalp toner; massage in the liquid after shampooing. Wait a few minutes, then rinse with water. Follow up with a conditioner.

• Use cool black tea as a mild astringent skin toner; apply with a clean cotton ball.

• Soothe insect bites and cuts by applying a cool, used black tea bag. To reduce inflammation from sunburn, hang four or five tea bags from the faucet when filling your tub; soak in the warm water.

Cananga odorata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Ylang-Ylang

Description: Evergreen tree, up to 100 feet tall (50 to 60 feet when cultivated); drooping branches with long, oblong leaves; strongly scented yellow flowers; dark green oval fruits ripen to black

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Annonaceae

Flowering: Year-round

Parts Used: Flowers and wood

Range/Habitat: Native to tropical lowland forests in areas ranging from India to northern Australia; cultivated in tropical areas of Africa and Asia

Ylang-ylang means “flower of flowers,” and indeed, the fragrant yellow flowers of this exotic evergreen tree are highly prized for their essential oil, which is clear with a yellow tinge. A member of the cherimoya (custard apple) family, ylang-ylang is native to tropical lowland forests in areas ranging from India to northern Australia, and it is cultivated in the tropical areas of Africa and Asia. Depending on where the tree is grown, the scent of ylang-ylang oil can vary substantially. As a result, commercially available ylang-ylang oils can have distinctly different aromas, from fresh and floral to sweet and slightly fruity.

MEDICINAL USE

Ylang-ylang’s flowers and essential oil have sedative and antimicrobial properties. The oil also has a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. Aromatherapists consider ylang-ylang to be one of the most relaxing fragrances for both mind and body. It is often combined with other oils—particularly bergamot, lemon, and sandalwood—and made into a massage oil or added to a bath to enhance relaxation.

Caution: Use the essential oil of ylang-ylang externally only. Also, use it lightly; the intensity of its scent may cause headache or nausea.

OTHER USES

Ylang-ylang is widely used to scent cosmetics, soaps, candles, and perfumes. Along with rose and jasmine, it is reportedly one of three floral fragrances in the legendary Chanel No. 5 perfume. Its wood is used for house construction in the Pacific Islands, as well as for making cooking fires. The flowers can be woven together to make fragrant garlands and leis.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A tropical rainforest tree, ylang-ylang grows in well-drained, moist soil and full sun in areas of extreme humidity and minimum temperatures of 50° to 64°F. Established trees will tolerate occasional temperatures of 30° to 32°F, however. Because of these requirements, most North American gardeners cannot grow the standard species.

Dwarf ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata var. fruticosa) is a good choice for the home garden because it produces the same fragrant flowers as the species but, at 6 feet tall, can be grown in a pot that you can move indoors for winter. Add compost to the potting mix to help retain moisture and provide nutrients. Water regularly. To increase humidity, set the pot on a tray of pebbles, and mist the plant frequently. From spring through summer, fertilize ylang-ylang monthly to encourage bloom, which will begin in 1 to 4 years. Ylang-ylang flowers are most fragrant at night during summer, when both temperatures and humidity are high. Harvest fully mature, deep yellow flowers (about 20 days after blossoming begins) in very early morning, when the essential oil content is highest.

FIELD NOTES

The Essence of Royalty

For more than a decade, I have studied the traditional uses of plants in Micronesia, a very remote area of the Pacific Ocean. On the island of Pohnpei, people cover their bodies with a protective skin emollient made from coconut oil perfumed with essences from local plants—flowers, leaves, and even certain aromatic woods.

I was fortunate to learn the process of making this scented oil from Maria Raza, widely recognized as the maker of the best perfumed coconut oil in her area. Maria uses the flowers of the ylang-ylang tree, locally known as seir en wai. It is the only perfuming ingredient still used for making traditional oil on Pohnpei and the island of Kosrae—the others have been forgotten over time. After the yellow-green flowers are carefully picked, the fragrant petals are removed and then added to heated coconut oil. Throughout the day, the petals’ highly aromatic essential oil infuses the coconut oil. The mixture is then cooled and strained. The process is repeated over the next several days—more petals are added, and the oil takes on a delightful yet subtle fragrance.

According to ethnographers who visited the region a century ago, this oil was widely used by the royalty who ruled the island. Commoners also used the “royal oil,” but bathed and anointed their bodies less frequently. With the advent of European clothing, the need to protect one’s skin from the equatorial sun was reduced, and traditional customs such as the daily use of this oil were slowly lost. Today, visitors to the Micronesian islands can purchase similar oil—infused with ylang-ylang, local gardenia, frangipani, or turmeric roots—in souvenir shops.—M. J. B.

Capsicum annuum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Cayenne Pepper, Chile Pepper, Guinea Spice

Description: Short-lived perennial shrub, up to 24 inches tall; small, white, bell-shaped blooms; green fruits (technically berries) ripen to red, orange, yellow, or other colors

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Solanaceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Fruits

Range/Habitat: Native to South America; cultivated widely throughout the world

A member of the nightshade family, the chile pepper is a tender, short-lived perennial shrub native to South America and cultivated in warm regions throughout the world. The species, which has been cultivated for thousands of years, includes not only types that bear pungent fruits (like the cayenne, pimento, and jalapeño), but also sweet peppers. The distinction is important because while sweet peppers—particularly ripe red ones—are rich in vitamins and nutrients, they lack the beneficial chemical capsaicin associated with hot peppers.

Chile peppers bear white, bell-shaped flowers that are followed by fruits that turn red, orange, yellow, or other colors as they ripen. The genus name, Capsicum, is thought to refer to these hollow fruits; the Latin capsa means “box.” Used by ancient Maya Indians to treat mouth sores, the chile pepper and its benefits were described in 1493 by a physician traveling with the explorer Christopher Columbus. Before then, the chile pepper was not known beyond the Western Hemisphere. Explorers, in their quest for a western route to the spice lands of the East Indies, called the new plant “pepper” because its fruits were pungent, like those of Indian black pepper (Piper nigrum).

CULINARY USE

Chile pepper is among the world’s most popular foods and many varieties are available, ranging in flavor from sweet and mild to extraordinarily sharp and burning. (A pepper’s heat, determined by its capsaicin level, is commonly measured in Scoville heat units.) The zesty fruits can be eaten fresh or dried, alone or mixed with other foods. They are especially popular in the dishes of tropical and subtropical countries, including Mexico, Spain, and India, where they are included in curries, chutneys, and bean, egg, and cheese dishes. The plant’s leaves are cooked as greens or used in soups in Filipino, Japanese, and Korean cuisines.

Peppers can be preserved by drying, pickling, or freezing. To dry peppers, simply hang them on a string in a warm, well-ventilated location. When they’re completely dry, the peppers can be finely ground in a food processor. Store the chile powder in a cool, dry place.

MEDICINAL USE

The fruits of the chile pepper contain antioxidant carotenoids and are rich in vitamin C. Pungent varieties also contain the well-known and -studied constituent capsaicin. In products for external use, such as ointments and creams available over the counter and by prescription, minute amounts of capsaicin irritate body tissues, which increases blood supply to painful areas and blocks the transmission of pain impulses throughout the body. Capsaicin is used in this manner to treat conditions such as arthritis, minor sprains, shingles, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Commercially available capsaicin creams—not homemade pepper preparations—should be used for these purposes.

The chile pepper also has antiseptic properties and has been proven to inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria shown to cause ulcers. It is believed to help warm the body and has been used to treat fevers and to stimulate the digestive and circulatory systems.

Caution: Chile peppers should not be eaten by those who have peptic ulcers or acid indigestion, nor should they be taken in medicinal doses by pregnant or nursing women. The herb is very irritating to the eyes and mucous membranes. It should not be applied to wounds or broken skin. When cutting these hot peppers, wear rubber gloves and do not touch your eyes.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Chile peppers grow in rich, well-drained soil in full sun. In temperate climates, grow this tender perennial as an annual. Plant seeds in containers indoors about 6 weeks before the last spring frost date. After all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed, transplant the peppers to your garden, spacing them about 18 inches apart. Black plastic mulch can help warm the soil in northern areas. Harvest unripe green peppers at any time; harvest ripe peppers when they have attained their full color.

Peppers can also be grown in pots and moved indoors for winter. Ornamental varieties—suitable for containers and even landscape use—are available, as well.

FIELD NOTES

The Chile Grenade

The active compound in chile peppers, capsaicin, is used to produce “pepper spray” for police use and for self-defense against animals or people. In India, a “chile grenade” for police and military use was developed from one of the world’s hottest chile peppers, Bhut jolokia. This chile, which is eaten in India and used in traditional medicine, is produced by a closely related species identified as Capsicum chinense and contains genes from another species, Capsicum frutescens. Plant breeders continue to use this species to develop even hotter chile varieties.—M. J. B.

Carica papaya

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Papaya

Description: Fast-growing evergreen herb, up to 20 feet tall; seven-lobed, palmate leaves and pear-shaped yellow to orange fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Caricaceae

Flowering: Year-round

Parts Used: Fruit, leaves, seeds, and stems

Range/Habitat: Lowland tropical forests of South America; cultivated in tropical regions throughout the world

Papaya is a fast-growing evergreen native to the lowland forests of the American tropics. Although many people think of the papaya plant as a “tree,” it’s actually an herb, as it does not have a woody stem. The papaya bears seven-lobed, palmate leaves and pear-shaped yellow to orange fruits that can be small or weigh up to 11 pounds. Most of the papaya fruits now sold in supermarkets are produced by a relative of the cultivar ‘Solo’; they are a little larger than a pear and perfect for one or two people. Papaya fruits are not only delicious and nutritious, they’re also valuable for their ability to support digestive health.

CULINARY USE

Ripe papayas are an excellent source of vitamins A and C. You can eat them as a fresh fruit or include them in desserts. Unripe, green papayas can be steamed, boiled, or roasted like a vegetable. Papaya’s black peppery-tasting seeds can be added to salads and salad dressings.

The papaya leaf has a place in the kitchen, too. Hundreds of years ago, native Caribbean people noticed that when they wrapped meat in papaya leaves, the meat became more tender. This is due to an enzyme known as papain; it’s found in the white sticky latex of the plant, which is located in the fruit, stems, and leaves. Today, papaya extract is the primary ingredient in many commercially available meat tenderizers.

MEDICINAL USE

Papaya contains the enzyme papain, which is similar to the human digestive enzyme pepsin. Eating the ripe fruit and drinking the leaf tea supports digestion and could help protect your stomach from ulcers caused by aspirin and steroid medications. (Papain is also available as a supplement that can be taken to treat indigestion and stomach inflammation.) Papaya leaf tea also might stimulate your immune system.

In Central America, people apply a combination of the ripe fruit and crushed seeds to their skin to heal wounds, cuts, and infections. The papaya’s round black seeds aren’t considered edible (they have a sharp, peppery taste), but people of various cultures have eaten them to treat stomach parasites. The seeds have also been fed to animals as a deworming medication.

Caution: Papaya’s seeds, leaves, and unripe fruit should be avoided during pregnancy. In addition, papaya leaf should not be ingested by children younger than 2 years old.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Papaya “trees” grow in rich, moist soil in full sun, in areas with high humidity and minimum temperatures of 55° to 59°F. Both male and female trees are needed for fruiting, but the cultivar ‘Solo’ produces male and female flowers on one plant. You can buy young nursery-grown trees or start this fast-grower from seed.

When temperatures have warmed to about 75°F and all danger of frost has passed, sow the seeds in a sunny, sheltered location in your garden or in a 15-gallon pot. (Plant papaya where you intend it to grow; it does not transplant well.) Plant extra seeds—you will cull most of the non-fruit-bearing male plants. Amend the soil or potting mix with compost, and water regularly. Feed regularly with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as fish emulsion. When the plants are about 3 feet tall, they will begin to flower. Pull out all but one of the males (distinguished by their long, thin stalks and small blooms; female blooms are larger and close to the trunk). The trees should begin fruiting about 10 months after you’ve planted them. Harvest the leaves at any time; for fresh eating, harvest fully colored, slightly soft fruit.

FIELD NOTES

Papain Usually Stops the Pain

Here’s a trick to sweeten papaya fruit: As it ripens, make shallow cuts in the flesh to release its clear, bitter sap.

The sap is interesting for another reason: It contains the enzyme papain, which reduces the toughness of meat by digesting some of the protein. This quality was long ago recognized by indigenous people, who used the latex from the papaya’s fruit or stem, as well as the leaves, as a meat tenderizer. The sap is also commonly used to treat stings, bites, rashes, and cuts and to help heal wounds.

I’ve learned the hard way to always carry a commercial meat tenderizer with papain as a main ingredient in my first-aid kit when traveling to marine regions. When my son was brushed by a jellyfish many years ago and was in great pain, I managed to find a jar of meat tenderizer in a local store on the isolated island we were visiting. Much to my surprise, he screamed out in even more pain when I rubbed the powdered tenderizer on his wound. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “This works every time.”

“It’s burning like crazy now,” he replied. I put on my glasses and looked carefully at the label—the highly seasoned meat tenderizer contained chile pepper powder. He never let me forget this incident!—M. J. B.

Carthamus tinctorius

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: False Saffron, Safflower

Description: Stems, 1 to 3 feet tall, branch toward the top; orange-yellow thistlelike compound flowers, up to 1½ inches wide; alternate ovate leaves; seedlike fruits

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Flowers and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to the Middle East; cultivated all over the world

Safflower is a cultivated plant with a long and colorful past. It has been a source of cooking oil since the days of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, and the plant’s distinctive orange-yellow blooms were found inside the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen (ca. 1370–1352 BCE), woven into a decorative necklace. Ancient Egyptians extracted a yellow dye from the flowers as early as the 12th dynasty (1991–1778 BCE). In Europe and North America, where safflower has naturalized, the plant has been used medicinally to treat constipation, fevers, respiratory problems, and other conditions. Today, safflower’s primary use is as a cooking oil.

CULINARY USE

Safflower oil, derived from the plant’s seeds, is believed to lower harmful cholesterol levels. Dried safflower petals can be used to enliven the hues of soups, marinades, sauces, salad dressings, basting liquids, flavored vinegars, pasta salads, and curries. The dried flowers produce a red color. To heighten the flavor of safflower, crush the flowers lightly with the back of a spoon before use.

MEDICINAL USE

Safflower blossom tea has traditionally been used as a diaphoretic (a substance that causes sweating) and treatment for common children’s ailments, such as measles, fevers, and skin problems. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use the dried flowers (called hong hua) to stimulate blood circulation, promote menstruation, and reduce pain and bruising. The unpurified seed oil has laxative and purgative properties.

Caution: Do not consume the flowers or seeds if you are pregnant.

OTHER USES

As suggested by its species name, tinctorius, safflower is a valuable dye plant. The flowers produce yellow and red pigments used to color cosmetics and textiles, including the robes of Buddhist monks. The oil is added to commercially made cosmetic lotions and salves, as well as to margarine. At home, you can add dried safflower petals to oil infusions to produce a deep orange color.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Safflower is easy to grow in full sun and average soil. Sow the seeds in early spring directly in the garden or in pots; the plants do not transplant well. Thin the seedlings to about 6 inches apart. If you wish to use the fresh flowers, harvest them just as the buds begin to open. If you plan to dry the flowers before use, harvest the fully open blooms.

Carum carvi

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Caraway

Description: Hollow, grooved stems, up to 2 feet tall, topped with white or pink flower umbels; finely cut leaves, 6 to 10 inches long; oblong seeds with distinct, pale ridges

Hardiness: Annual or biennial; hardy to Zone 3

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Leaves, seeds, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Asia Minor, widely naturalized in North America and Europe

A member of the parsley family, this biennial is native to Asia Minor but now grows widely throughout the world. Caraway seed (which technically is a fruit) has been used medicinally and in cooking since at least 3500 BCE. This herb is one of the few whose primary medicinal use (as a digestive aid) has remained the same throughout history. English physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) mentions that it is one of the most celebrated carminatives (gas-relieving remedies), and herbalist John Gerard (1545–1611) suggests that it be used as part of a mixture of herbs to treat “dropsie,” or edema of the soft tissue, such as occurs with congestive heart failure.

CULINARY USE

Every part of the caraway plant is edible. Caraway seeds are popular in the cuisines of Germany, Austria, and Hungary, where they are used to flavor cheeses, breads (especially rye), meats, stews, vegetables, sauerkraut, and pickling brines. The minced fresh leaves, which have a mild flavor similar to the seeds, can be added to salads, soups, and casseroles. Even the root can be used, steamed, pureed, or chopped, and added to winter stews. Caraway seed can become bitter if cooked for too long; add it only during the last few minutes of cooking.

MEDICINAL USE

The volatile oil of caraway smells sweet and peppery; it contains the compounds carvol and carvene, which account for its ability to soothe your digestive tract and help expel intestinal gas. The herb has a long history of use for the treatment of flatulence and colic in babies. Caraway also has antispasmodic properties and may be useful in the treatment of menstrual cramps and diarrhea. The aroma of the oil is said to be calming and soothing.

Caution: Pregnant or nursing women should avoid medicinal doses of caraway, though small amounts used in cooking are not harmful. If administering the herb to colicky infants, use a diluted infusion.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Caraway is easy to grow in fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Plant the seed directly in your garden in spring or early fall; caraway does not transplant well. Gather the ripe seed heads just as they turn brown. Snip entire stems and hang them upside down over a paper-lined tray to finish drying. After a few weeks, when the seeds are completely dry, store them in an airtight container for future use. Propagate new plants from some of the collected seeds.

Caulophyllum thalictroides

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Blue Cohosh, Squaw Root

Description: Erect, bluish green stems, 1 to 3 feet tall, topped by clusters of small, greenish yellow to brown flowers; dark blue berrylike fruit in fall

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Berberidaceae

Flowering: Late spring to midsummer

Parts Used: Rhizome and roots

Range/Habitat: Eastern North America; deciduous woods and moist stream banks

Blue cohosh grows wild in much of eastern North America, primarily in forests and other moist, shady areas. It has a long history of use in Native American medicine, particularly for women’s health. The seeds and roots are cytotoxic, however. They contain saponins and a nicotinelike alkaloid that give the fruits and roots a bitter flavor. Ingesting them can cause severe gastrointestinal problems and, in some cases, hypertension, sweating, weakness, coma, and paralysis that could lead to death.

MEDICINAL USE

Native American women used a decoction of the root to treat menstrual cramps (by promoting blood flow and easing pain) and uterine inflammation. Some tribes used it to suppress profuse menstruation and to speed childbirth. It was also used by men to treat genitourinary infections.

Scientific reports are unclear regarding blue cohosh’s usefulness—and its dangers—but the herb is taken widely by women (and, to a lesser extent, men) for bronchial and muscle ailments. Women ingest the rhizome and root, which contain components that stimulate uterine contractions during childbirth, encourage the onset of delayed menstruation, and alleviate heavy menstrual bleeding and cramps.

Caution: In view of the toxicity of blue cohosh and evidence of its potential adverse effects, be very careful when using this herb, particularly during pregnancy, and take it only under the direct supervision of a trained medical professional.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Although blue cohosh is not a showy plant, its foliage is decorative. The reddish purple leaves of the young plant turn an attractive blue-green at maturity. Long-lasting blue fruits appear in fall. Plant clumps of blue cohosh in a woodland garden.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Blue cohosh thrives in partial shade and prefers rich, moist, humusy soil with an acid to neutral pH. Plant seeds or rhizomes in either spring or fall. If planting in fall, sow the seeds in a cold frame or other protected area outdoors. Harvest the roots and rhizomes in fall, when they contain the greatest concentration of active compounds. Divide established plants by cutting the rhizomes and replanting them in fall.

Ceanothus americanus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: New Jersey Tea, Prairie Redroot, Redroot, Wild Snowball

Description: Deciduous shrub, up to 3 feet tall; alternate, finely toothed leaves are dark green on top with light green undersides; airy white flowers on racemes; three-lobed seedpods

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Rhamnaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Roots, root bark, leaves, and flowers

Range/Habitat: North America; dry plains, prairies, and open woodlands

This ornamental deciduous shrub grows wild in the dry plains, prairies, and open woodlands of the eastern and central United States. Its deep, woody roots allow the plant to survive repeated exposure to wildfires.

Native Americans made a pleasant, healing beverage from its leaves, a healing tea and dye from its reddish taproot, and a fragrant body wash from its saponin-rich flowers. European settlers learned from them to use the shrub’s leaves to make a tea, which they substituted for British-taxed black tea during the American War of Independence. New Jersey tea is a favorite food of deer and wild birds, and its flowers provide nectar for many types of butterflies.

MEDICINAL USE

The plant’s roots contain antiseptic and astringent tannins, as well as a blood-clotting agent. Native Americans made a tea from the roots and root bark to treat colds, fevers, intestinal problems, mouth sores, respiratory conditions, and skin irritations. Root teas and washes were also traditionally used to treat an enlarged spleen or lymph nodes, hemorrhoids, high blood pressure, nosebleeds, ulcers, and uterine hemorrhaging.

The leaves have been used to make a tea or gargle to relieve sore throats and mouth sores. Modern herbalists recommend preparations of this plant for conditions affecting the lymphatic system or liver.

Caution: Do not use this herb if you are pregnant or nursing.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The puffy summer blooms of New Jersey tea are a welcome addition to mixed perennial borders or foundation plantings, where they will attract butterflies and birds.

 HOW TO GROW IT

New Jersey tea adapts well to either full sun or partial shade and light, well-drained soil. Prune the shrub in late winter to early spring to control its straggly habit. Gather the leaves when the plant is in full bloom, and dry them in the shade. Harvest a small amount of the roots when the shrub is dormant, in late fall or early winter. To propagate, take cuttings in summer and root them in a cold frame or greenhouse.

Centella asiatica

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Gotu Kola, Indian Pennywort

Description: Low-growing, creeping evergreen perennial with round, scalloped leaves; clusters of small white or pink flowers are followed by small, oval fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Tropical and subtropical climates in Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia; near water

This perennial member of the parsley family produces clusters of scalloped leaves and tiny white or pink flowers on low-growing plants. Native to tropical and subtropical climates in Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia, gotu kola has traditionally been used to lengthen life and is one of the most important plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. According to South Asian folklore, the elephant acquired its long life and remarkable memory by eating large amounts of gotu kola leaves.

CULINARY USE

In Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka, gotu kola leaves are eaten raw in salads (often combined with freshly grated coconut and lime juice) or cooked in curries, chutneys, and sauces. The leaves are also juiced and consumed as a beverage.

MEDICINAL USE

Gotu kola is used to help heal superficial wounds and skin problems, such as psoriasis; to reduce scarring after surgery; and to improve circulation and memory. Its leaves contain glucosides—potent healing agents with anti-inflammatory properties. This explains the herb’s ability to accelerate the formation of collagen and reduce the formation of scar tissue. Gotu kola, which also has adaptogenic properties, is a common ingredient in topical preparations used to treat burns, sunburn, and wounds.

Gotu kola strengthens veins by stimulating the development of connective tissue, and it can be helpful in the treatment of varicose veins and edema. The herb also contains precursors to the neurotransmitters that are important for memory and learning.

Caution: Gotu kola may cause sensitivity to sunlight. The herb should not be taken by women who are pregnant or nursing, or by children younger than 2 years old.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Gotu kola grows abundantly in marshy and wet areas. Plant the seeds in spring in moist to wet soil in partial shade, and allow it space to spread out—this plant produces plenty of runners. In Zone 8 and colder, grow gotu kola in a container and move it indoors when temperatures drop in fall. Indoors, mist the plant often and, if your home is dry, consider enclosing it in plastic to increase humidity. Keep the soil evenly moist indoors and outdoors. Harvest gotu kola leaves year-round. Propagate by root division in spring or fall.

FIELD NOTES

Remember This Herb

I first learned about gotu kola during a trip to India to study Ayurvedic medicine and the plants used in its therapies for thousands of years. This very low-growing species covers the areas it colonizes with a carpet of round, scalloped leaves. Picking a leaf and tasting it, I found it somewhat bitter, but delicious. I understood why it is used not only for healing, but also as a salad green and cooked vegetable in Southeast Asia.

Gotu kola is one of those wonderful herbs that should be used more widely in the United States. Numerous clinical studies have shown how beneficial it can be for various conditions. In one study, people who used a standardized extract of gotu kola had faster reaction times and increased cognitive performance and memory compared with those who took a placebo. The study’s authors suggested that this plant might increase alertness and exert a calming effect, improving attention and memory.

Another clinical trial demonstrated gotu kola’s efficacy in the treatment of chronic venous insufficiency (a condition where, due to malfunctioning leg vein valves, the leg veins cannot pump sufficient oxygen-poor blood back to the heart), which affects up to 5 percent of the population in the United States. According to another study, gotu kola could also help people afflicted with the leg condition flight microangiopathy, a condition of the blood vessels that includes blood circulation and coagulation problems and which can occur during long air flights.

It was a wonderfully educational journey, and I returned home a great fan of gotu kola and other Ayurvedic herbs, which, in my opinion, deserve more attention and clinical evaluation.—M. J. B.

Chamaemelum nobile (= Anthemis nobilis)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Dog Fennel, English Chamomile, Roman Chamomile

Description: Perennial evergreen groundcover with feathery leaves and daisylike flowers; fresh, applelike scent

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Late spring through late summer

Parts Used: Flowers

Range/Habitat: Mediterranean region

Native to the Mediterranean region, used by ancient Egyptians, and first recorded in England in 1265, Roman chamomile is cultivated throughout Europe and other temperate areas of the world. Unlike German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), a 2- to 3-foot annual with which it is frequently confused, Roman chamomile is a perennial ground-cover. The name “chamomile” comes from the Greek chamaimelon, meaning “apple on the ground,” due to the strong applelike scent that emerges when the plant’s foliage is stepped on or crushed. It was used during the Middle Ages as a “strewing herb”—an herb placed on paths to release its pleasant aroma when walked upon.

MEDICINAL USE

Roman chamomile contains a volatile oil that supports the herb’s long-standing use to relieve indigestion and stimulate appetite. Chamomile tea (made from the plant’s flowers) can reduce stomach cramps, gas, colic, and nausea. Taken before bedtime, warm chamomile tea is also very effective for the treatment of insomnia.

Roman chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties. Used externally in a salve or compress, it helps superficial wounds, skin irritations such as eczema, and puffy eyes. In aromatherapy, the essential oil is used to treat inflamed, irritated skin and nervous conditions, such as anxiety.

Caution: Although Roman chamomile is a very safe, time-tested herb, it can provoke an allergic reaction in people sensitive to ragweed or other members of the aster family. Roman chamomile can also cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Roman chamomile is an attractive, fragrant alternative to lawn grass for areas that receive light traffic. ‘Treneague’, a nonflowering cultivar, is known as lawn chamomile. Space the plants 6 inches apart and water regularly until the plants form a solid groundcover. Set your lawnmower blades on high to mow.

OTHER USES

Essential oil of chamomile is used in perfumes, shampoos, lotions, bath oils, and salves. For a soothing bath, pour boiling water over chamomile flowers and steep them for 30 minutes; strain, cool, and then add the liquid to your bathwater. A chamomile infusion can also be used to add golden highlights to your hair. Roman chamomile flowers make a bright yellow dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Roman chamomile grows in almost any type of soil but prefers moist, well-fertilized loam in full sun. Plant seeds or nursery-grown plants in spring or fall. Propagate by division in early spring. Harvest the flowers just as they begin to open. To dry them, spread out the cut blooms on paper towels. Store the dry flowers in a cool, dark location.

Cichorium intybus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Chicory, Succor

Description: Deep-rooted perennial with rigid stems, up to 6 feet tall; hairy leaves with ragged edges; sky blue dandelionlike blooms, up to 1½ inches across

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized throughout North America; found along roadsides and in fields

Chicory grows wild throughout much of the world. Its distinctive blue daisylike flowers are a familiar sight in cleared or abandoned areas and fields, as well as along roadsides, where it often spreads aggressively.

Chicory has been used medicinally since ancient times. It is mentioned as a healing herb in the 1st-century writings of the Greek physician Dioscorides, and the ancient Romans used the plant as both a medicine and a food. Thomas Jefferson, who held chicory in high regard, cultivated the herb as a groundcover, cattle fodder, and “tolerable salad” green. In a 1795 letter to George Washington, Jefferson described chicory as “one of the greatest acquisitions a farmer can have.”

CULINARY USE

Italian chicory (also known as radicchio) produces heads of red, green, or variegated leaves. Radicchio imparts a pleasantly bitter, spicy flavor to salads and is complemented by sweet fruit, such as oranges and figs. Radicchio can also be brushed with olive oil and grilled, cooked with risotto, or added to pasta sauces and fillings. Chicory roots can be dried, roasted, ground, and then blended with coffee for a flavorful, reduced-caffeine beverage.

MEDICINAL USE

Chicory root is a rich source of inulin, which may encourage the growth of beneficial microorganisms in your intestines. In folk medicine, chicory root is believed to have mild diuretic and laxative effects, similar to dandelion. Ancient Egyptians used the root to treat rapid heartbeat, and they mixed the plant’s juice with wine to treat liver and bladder conditions. Native Americans included the roots in nerve formulas and applied a root poultice to fever sores.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use the aboveground parts of this plant to promote digestion, to increase appetite, and as a diuretic. The crushed leaves can be applied topically to treat skin lacerations, swelling, and inflammation.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Chicory grows best in fertile, well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade. For summer greens, sow seeds in late spring; for fall greens, sow seeds in midsummer. Chicory is very cold hardy, and in all but the coldest regions, it is possible to extend the harvest season into winter with the use of a floating row cover, cloche, or cold frame.

If you plan to harvest the roots, do not allow the plant to go to seed. Harvest roots of 2- or 3-year-old plants in fall.

Cinnamomum cassia and C. verum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Cassia, Cinnamon, True Cinnamon

Description: Tropical evergreen tree, 25 to 50-feet tall; leathery, bright red leaves mature to green; small, yellow flowers followed by purple berries; aromatic, reddish brown bark

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Lauraceae

Flowering: Varies depending on location

Parts Used: Bark

Range/Habitat: Native to humid, tropical forests in southern India and Sri Lanka

Of the genus Cinnamomum’s approximately 250 species, two are very important to the spice trade: “true” cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and “cassia” cinnamon (C. cassia). Cultivated in the West Indies, Asia, southern India, and Sri Lanka, these evergreen trees in the laurel family are native to southern Asia. Cinnamon’s aromatic, light brown, paperlike bark is harvested from young branches during the rainy season, when it is most pliable. When dry, the bark curls into long quills used, powdered or whole, as a spice. In our supermarkets, whole, unground cinnamon is usually sold in the form of rolled bark (called cinnamon sticks) that’s about as thick as a lead pencil.

Cinnamon has a long history of use for a variety of purposes beyond the kitchen. Ancient Egyptians used it in the embalming process, and the Romans used it as an aphrodisiac and perfume. By the 16th century, cinnamon was so valued as a spice that the Portuguese invaded the Indian island of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) to obtain a monopoly on cinnamon production. In the late 1700s, the Dutch began to cultivate cinnamon and the Dutch East India Company became a leading supplier of the treasured bark.

CULINARY USE

A beloved cooking spice, cinnamon is used around the world to flavor sweet dishes, such as cookies, breads, cakes, and pies, as well as savory curries, soups, and stews. Its flavor complements black pepper, cardamom, clove, fennel, ginger, nutmeg, and vanilla. Although the chemical properties of “true cinnamon” and “cassia cinnamon” are similar, their flavors differ. True cinnamon (sometimes called Ceylon cinnamon) is less sweet and has a more complex, citruslike flavor that goes well with fruit dishes. The more familiar cassia cinnamon, popular for baking, is sweeter and more sharply flavored.

MEDICINAL USE

A reference to cinnamon’s use in treating diarrhea was recorded in China in 2700 BCE. Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans all used cinnamon to treat indigestion. Cinnamon bark contains volatile oil and tannins, which could explain its effectiveness as a treatment for gastrointestinal disorders, including bloating, flatulence, and vomiting. The bark also contains eugenol, a natural antiseptic and anesthetic compound that can help kill bacteria and viruses, prevent infection, and ease pain. Diluted essential oil of cinnamon is an ingredient in some dental products, such as toothpastes and mouthwashes.

Research has shown that cinnamon powder

Caution: Pregnant women should not use cinnamon medicinally, but the herb is safe to use in small quantities as a spice. Undiluted essential oil of cinnamon is highly irritating to sensitive skin; follow the label directions when using liniments and other products that contain it.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Cinnamon trees grow in moist, tropical or subtropical conditions in well-drained soil and full sun or bright shade. In Zone 9 and colder regions, grow the plant in a large container in a heated greenhouse, or move it indoors during cold seasons. A sandy, slightly acidic growing medium enriched with compost to retain moisture and provide nutrients is ideal. Keep the soil evenly moist year-round. To obtain the inner bark used for the spice and essential oil, the young shoots are harvested and their outer bark is scraped away. The tree can be propagated by seed or by cuttings taken in summer. may help lower blood sugar and may be useful in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, although not all studies have proven this effect. Cinnamon is used to warm the body and clear mucous congestion due to colds and flus. It also improves circulation, especially to cold fingers and toes.

FIELD NOTES

A Case for Conservation

In a volcanic cloud forest on the tiny island of Pohnpei, Micronesia, grows Cinnamomum carolinense, a species found nowhere else in the world. Locally known as madeu, this unique cinnamon has several important uses. Local people carefully scrape off the inner bark of the tree to make a hot tea, which they serve in small glasses to guests. This traditional tea is also used to treat backache, to stem the flow of excessive menstrual bleeding, and for other healing purposes. Unfortunately, many of the ancient specimens of these very useful trees were cut down and harvested long ago.

During our studies of this forest, we met a local madeu harvester, Yosio Pelep, who expressed great concern that this magnificent tree is disappearing from his island. Yosio—who is participating in a reforestation and tree protection program to ensure thatmadeu does not go extinct on his watch—showed us the sustainable method he developed to harvest the tree’s valuable bark.

Cinnamomum carolinense is on the verge of extinction, and scientists have not yet had a chance to study its chemical properties and therapeutic potentials. I believe we all have a stake in ensuring the conservation of the world’s biodiversity—not only for the benefit of indigenous communities such as on Pohnpei, but also for the benefit of future generations all over the world.—M. J. B.

Coffea arabica

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Arabian Coffee, Coffee

Description: Evergreen shrub, 15 to 40 feet tall; glossy, elliptical leaves; dense clusters of fragrant white flowers and red fruits; fruits contain two seeds, known as beans

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Rubiaceae

Flowering: In the tropics, flower buds form during the dry season and open after the first heavy rains

Parts Used: Seeds and fruits

Range/Habitat: Native to northeastern Africa; cultivated in tropical areas around the world

The source of one of the world’s most widely consumed beverages, Coffea arabica is native to northeastern Africa and cultivated in tropical areas around the world. The genus contains about 90 species of small trees and evergreen shrubs, and while C. arabica is the most widely grown, the species C. liberica and C. canephora also are used commercially to produce coffee. Coffee’s red fruits each contain two seeds, known as beans, which are used to make the popular drink. Initially, people made a type of wine from the fermented juice of the plant’s ripe berries. The hot beverage we now know as coffee is thought to have been made first by Arabian people, around 1000 CE. (For another account of the drink’s origins, see “Field Notes” on this page.) Until late in the 17th century, Arabia supplied almost all of the world’s coffee beans. As the popularity of the beverage grew, the beans were introduced to other favorable climates—the West Indies, Java, India, and Brazil. Today, Brazil and Colombia are leading exporters. Coffee farming and trade support the economies of many developing countries. In the United States alone, more than 100 million people drink coffee daily.

CULINARY USE

Besides being the essential wake-up beverage for millions, coffee is also used to flavor liqueurs and desserts, such as Italy’s classic espresso-soaked tira-misu. Espresso is a highly concentrated form of coffee made by forcing water under pressure through finely ground coffee beans. Variations include lattes (served with steamed milk), cappuccinos (with milk and steamed foam), and mochas (with chocolate). The drink can be enjoyed hot or iced.

MEDICINAL USE

Coffee contains the bioactive compound caffeine, as well as an abundance of healthful antioxidants. Caffeine acts as a stimulant, a laxative, a diuretic, and an appetite suppressant. Besides keeping you awake and alert, coffee can lift your mood, sharpen your cognition, alleviate asthma, and possibly protect you from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, various kinds of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and kidney stones.

Recent research has shown that coffee berries—the fruit enclosing the “bean”—are also rich sources of antioxidants. Compounds in the berries are thought to benefit your skin by reducing inflammation, wrinkles, and sun damage. You can buy coffee berry extract as a dietary supplement at health food stores. Many skin-care products include it, too.

Caution: Coffee can cause insomnia, jitteriness, and irritability. Coffee is not advised for people with high blood pressure, gastric ulcers, glaucoma, or heart disease. It should be avoided during pregnancy and when trying to conceive.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Coffee grows in well-drained, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Although coffee thrives in warm, humid climates with a minimum temperature of 50°F, the shrub can be grown elsewhere in a large container kept indoors during cold seasons. Plant the seeds in rich loam amended with compost. Water regularly and feed with a diluted liquid fertilizer. In a dry environment, such as a heated home, mist often to increase humidity. As a houseplant, coffee will yield few, if any, berries. In tropical climates, the berries are harvested when they turn bright red, signaling that they are ripe. The green seeds (or beans) are then removed and roasted for use. Coffee is easily propagated from seed.

FIELD NOTES

That Heavenly Coffee

Ethiopia is the center of origin of coffee, and a local legend explains its accidental discovery: A goat herder named Kaldi lived in this region 1,000 years ago. One day, the noise and activities of his goats startled him awake from his nap. Normally peaceful, they were jumping on their hind legs. After observing them eating from a low-growing tree with bright red berries, Kaldi chewed a few himself. Soon he felt wide-awake, and the nearby fields suddenly looked much brighter. He no longer wanted to nap. He took the beans to a local holy man and explained what had happened. The priest became angry and threw the beans into the fire, saying they “are the work of the devil.” The wonderful aroma that came from the fire drew the attention of everyone in the monastery, who came running to see what was happening.

The chief priest ordered the fire extinguished and the berries to be added to hot water so that their aroma would infuse the liquid. After drinking it, the priest declared that this would become a daily beverage, “keeping us awake during our evening prayers—truly a gift from heaven!”—M. J. B.

Cola nitida

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Cola, Kola

Description: Evergreen tree, 40 to 60 feet tall; greenish yellow to white flowers have purple margins; rough-textured fruit, up to 8 inches long, contains more than 10 individual seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Malvaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Nut

Range/Habitat: West African rainforests

Perhaps best known as an original ingredient in the popular carbonated beverages of the same name, cola is one of approximately 125 Cola species native to the lowland and mountain rainforests of west Africa. The tree bears fruits (called “nuts”) valued for their stimulatory properties, which derive primarily from caffeine (2.0 to 3.5 percent by weight) and theobromine (1.0 to 2.5 percent by weight).

In Africa, people traditionally chewed the bitter-tasting nuts to lessen fatigue and hunger, or they ground the nuts to make a beverage. Today, cola nuts are still used ceremonially, presented as a sign of hospitality to visiting guests or to mark an important event, such as a wedding ceremony. In some regions, the nuts have sacred significance and are used in divination.

CULINARY USE

Together with the coca leaf, the source of cocaine, the cola nut was a key ingredient in the original Coca-Cola drink, invented in the late 19th century. In 1903, cocaine was removed from the coca leaves used to produce the drink, but the coca leaf and cola nut are still used to flavor this much-loved beverage.

MEDICINAL USE

The cola nut stimulates the production of digestive system acids, speeds up your heart rate, and acts as a diuretic. The herb has been used to suppress hunger, as well as to treat diarrhea and asthma. (Caffeine acts as a bronchodilator, helping to open air passages.) In contemporary European herbal medicine, the powdered nut, liquid extract, and tincture are approved to treat mental and physical fatigue.

OTHER USES

The wood of the cola tree is used for carpentry and construction. The seeds are also used to make a dye, as well as soaps and fertilizers.

 HOW TO GROW IT

This tropical tree thrives in full sun or partial shade and wet, humid conditions where the temperature remains above 40°F. In Zone 9 and colder, it can be grown in a large container kept indoors during cold seasons. Cola is easy to grow from seed. To speed germination, soak the seed in water for 24 hours before sowing. Germination occurs best at 85°F. Add compost to the potting medium to help retain moisture and provide nutrients, and water and mist the plant regularly. Cola can be propagated by seed or cuttings. Be patient if you hope to obtain cola nuts: The trees generally require 7 years to begin fruiting.

Coleus forskohlii (= Plectranthus barbatus)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Forskohlii, Hausa Potato

Description: Aromatic, herbaceous perennial grows up to 2 feet tall; bright green, ovate leaves with scalloped margins; clusters of blue-purple blooms on 10-inch spikes

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves and roots

Range/Habitat: Dry hillsides and mountain slopes of India, Nepal, Thailand, and Sri Lanka

A relative of mint and lavender, forskohlii grows wild in India on the dry plains and in the foothills of the Himalayas. Other members of this genus of more than 150 species grow in the tropical and subtropical regions of the Indian subcontinent. The leaves are aromatic, with a camphorlike aroma, and have been used to cleanse and deodorize skin.

CULINARY USE

In India, where forskohlii is cultivated on a large scale, people eat the roots pickled or as a condiment.

MEDICINAL USE

This Ayurvedic herb could be beneficial in the treatment of a wide range of conditions, including asthma and other respiratory disorders, angina, congestive heart failure, hypertension, glaucoma, eczema, psoriasis, and insomnia. The leaves and roots of Coleus forskohlii are the source of a compound called forskolin, first isolated in the 1970s. Research has shown that it has the potential to lower high blood pressure, relax smooth muscle tissue (such as in the bronchial airways), increase hormone release from the thyroid gland, and stimulate digestion. The compound also holds promise as a treatment for obesity: In recent preliminary clinical research conducted with men, the compound significantly reduced both their percentage of body fat and fat mass.

Caution: Scientific research on this herb is preliminary. What is known relates primarily to its compound forskolin, rather than the entire herb.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Forskohlii thrives in light, well-drained loam in sun or partial shade. In subtropical climates (Zone 9 and warmer), the herb can be grown outdoors as a perennial. In cooler climates, grow forskohlii as a potted plant; in fall, or when the temperatures cool, bring it indoors to a warm, sunny location. Native to arid and semiarid locations, forskohlii is drought tolerant, so avoid overwatering. Indoors, provide the brightest light possible—a greenhouse is ideal. For medicinal use, collect the leaves and roots in fall, when the herb’s active constituents are at their highest levels. Propagate established plants by taking cuttings or by dividing the roots in summer.

Commiphora myrrha

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Myrrh

Description: Aromatic shrub or small tree grows up to 12 feet tall, with thorny branches; three-part leaves composed of oval leaflets; small, pointed fruits; aromatic sap

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Burseraceae

Flowering: Blooms repeatedly

Parts Used: Resin

Range/Habitat: Northeastern Africa, Middle East, and western Asia; deserts

Frequently mentioned in the Bible and one of the gifts the wise men brought to the infant Jesus, myrrh is an aromatic, dark-colored resin produced by the Commiphora myrrha plant, a shrub or small tree native to the deserts of northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Myrrh has been used in ritual incense and perfumes since prebiblical times. The ancient Egyptians used it both as a fumigant and to embalm their dead. Today, myrrh resin is produced commercially in Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Arabian Peninsula and is sold in lumps of varying sizes.

MEDICINAL USE

Myrrh has disinfectant properties and acts as an astringent, tightening and drying the body’s tissues. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460–377 BCE) prescribed a myrrh liniment for sores. About 500 years later, Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE), a Greek physician, suggested a breath-freshening mouthwash that included gum myrrh, wine, and oil. Today, myrrh is an ingredient in many commercial mouthwashes and toothpastes. An analgesic and antiseptic, myrrh also makes a soothing salve for cuts, burns, and wounds.

In Asian medicine, it is used to treat stomach, bone, and abdominal pain; amenorrhea; hemorrhoids; and injuries from trauma. It is also recommended for arthritic and circulatory problems.

OTHER USES

Veterinary medicine has long used myrrh in unguents for wounds, especially for horses. The resin is also used in perfumes and incense, especially for use in religious ceremonies. When burned, myrrh repels mosquitoes.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Native to the deserts of Africa and Asia, Commiphora myrrha prefers hot, arid conditions, full sun, and very well-drained, sandy soil. It is rarely grown in the United States, and the plants and seeds can be very difficult to obtain. If you are able to obtain seeds, stratify them to improve germination (for more on seed stratification, see this page). In Zone 9 and colder, grow the plant indoors in a spot that will receive bright light. Water sparingly. To harvest myrrh for commercial use, collectors make small incisions in the tree’s bark. The resin that exudes is collected and allowed to harden and is then either distilled for oil or ground into a powder. Plants can be propagated from cuttings taken from young branches or from seeds.

Coriandrum sativum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Coriander, Cilantro, Chinese Parsley

Description: Bright green, finely cut compound leaves; umbels of tiny white flowers on 18- to 24-inch stems; clusters of spherical, ribbed, brownish seeds

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to the eastern Mediterranean region and southern Europe

This annual member of the parsley family has a split personality: The plant’s finely cut upper leaves are known as cilantro and the rounded seeds of the fruit are called coriander. Both are used to flavor many foods. Native to southern Europe and nearby areas, coriander has been cultivated there for more than 3,000 years and is now grown throughout the world. The erect plant has pungent leaves and white flowers, followed by pale brown, mildly aromatic fruits. The genus name Coriandrum comes from the Greek koriannon, which was a type of bedbug thought to have an odor similar to that of this herb.

CULINARY USE

Coriander seeds and cilantro leaves taste very different, but both are used widely in cooking. Whole coriander seeds—which taste like a mixture of lemon and sage—are used in marinades, pickling brines, and in some beverages, such as mulled wine. Ground coriander seed is a popular ingredient in curry blends, soups, and baked goods, especially in Scandinavia and Thailand. Fragrant cilantro has a distinctively pungent flavor reminiscent of parsley and citrus. The leaves are used in the highly seasoned cuisines of Mexico, the Caribbean, India, and Asia. Cilantro root is a popular ingredient in Thai salads and relishes.

MEDICINAL USE

Coriander seeds have carminative properties, so they have been used as a mild digestive tonic to improve appetite and relieve flatulence, intestinal spasms, bloating, and cramps. In ancient Egypt, as well as medieval Europe, coriander was considered an aphrodisiac. In Ayurvedic medicine, dried coriander fruits are made into an infusion, or other preparation, to treat sore throat. The oil is used to treat joint and nerve pain. Coriander seeds can be chewed to sweeten your breath, particularly after eating garlic.

OTHER USES

The flowers of this plant are an important source of nectar for the beneficial insects that prey upon pest insects.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Coriander grows best in well-drained soil and full sun. For a summer harvest, plant the seeds of this fast-growing herb in spring; for a fall harvest, plant it in midsummer. Cilantro leaves are usually ready to harvest 1 month after germination, and the seeds develop in about 6 weeks. For the best-flavored cilantro, gather the fresh leaves before the plant blooms. Harvest coriander seeds when they turn brown, indicating that they are ripe.

Crataegus laevigata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: English Hawthorn, Hawthorn, May Tree, White Thorn

Description: Deciduous, thorny shrub or small tree, up to 15 feet tall, with dark brown bark; clusters of aromatic white flowers, followed by dark red, egg-shaped fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Rosaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, and fruits

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, India, and northern Africa, naturalized in upper Midwest United States and Canada

A relative of the rose, the hawthorn is a deciduous shrub or small tree that bears clusters of aromatic white flowers followed by dark red, egg-shaped fruits. These fruits, sometimes called haws, resemble rose hips or tiny apples. The fast-growing, thorny shrub is a common sight in old English hedgerows—in fact, the word “haw” is an early Anglo-Saxon term for hedge. The genus name Crataegus comes from the Greek word for “strength”—a reference to the hawthorn’s hard wood.

CULINARY USE

Hawthorn fruits can be made into wines, sauces, and jellies. The edible flowers can be added to salads or steeped to make a tea.

MEDICINAL USE

Hawthorn leaves, flowers, and fruits contain compounds that can dilate coronary vessels and lower blood pressure. The herb has been used to treat a wide range of heart conditions, including hypertension related to a weak heart, angina, arteriosclerosis, the early stages of congestive heart failure, age-related heart disorders, and arrhythmia. Practitioners often encourage the use of hawthorn products for several months or years to reap optimum benefits.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the fruits of the related species, Crataegus pinnatifida (known as shan zha), are often recommended to stimulate digestion. Both Native American and Chinese medical practitioners have used various species of hawthorn to treat diarrhea, to strengthen the heart, and for other curative purposes.

Caution: Unlike some medicinal plants that act on the heart, hawthorn is relatively nontoxic. However, those taking digitalis should consult with their health-care provider before taking this herb because it necessitates a reduction in the dosage of digitalis.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Hawthorn’s attractive foliage, flowers, and berries add year-round beauty to the landscape. Its scented flowers attract butterflies, and the bright red berries persist into winter, providing food for birds such as thrushes and waxwings. Plant hawthorn individually or in hedges. For a more formal look, prune and train the plants espalier-fashion.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Hawthorn is easy to grow in an open, sunny site with moist, well-drained loam. Plant fresh seed in a cold frame in fall for germination the following spring. If seed is not fresh, scarify it before sowing to speed germination (for more on seed scarification, see this page). Harvest the flowers and leaf buds in spring; harvest the berries after they ripen in fall. Propagate by seed or by grafts taken in late winter to early spring.

Crocus sativus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Saffron, Saffron Crocus, Spanish Saffron, True Saffron

Description: Linear, grasslike leaves up to 18 inches tall; 2-inch lilac-purple to whitish flowers rise directly from the soil from corms

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Iridaceae

Flowering: Early fall

Parts Used: Stigmas

Range/Habitat: Asia Minor; widely cultivated

Like other crocuses, saffron bears attractive purple or white, cup-shaped flowers and linear leaves—but, unlike most other Crocus species, saffron blooms in fall. Saffron has been treasured and traded as a spice and used as a medicine for more than 4 millennia. As early as the 10th century BCE, ancient Persians cultivated saffron and used its threads in textile dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Saffron (Crocus sativus) is often confused with autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), but the two are very different. Autumn crocus, a highly toxic plant, is the source of the powerful pharmaceutical colchicine, which is used to treat gout.

CULINARY USE

Pungent and aromatic, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Each saffron flower contains three stigmas, which are the part of the plant used for the spice. Saffron flowers must be handpicked, and it takes more than 14,000 stigmas to make 1 ounce of saffron. But a very little saffron goes a long way in cooking. Saffron adds flavor and color to Mediterranean dishes such as bouillabaisse, risotto, and paella, as well as to baked goods and liqueurs. The spice complements mild cheeses, eggs, rice, lamb, fish, poultry, pork, duck, corn, sweet peppers, onions, garlic, and oranges.

MEDICINAL USE

Saffron is still used in the traditional medicine practices of India and China. Herbal practitioners use saffron to relieve indigestion and colic, to encourage perspiration, and to ease menstrual pain, although equally effective and much less expensive herbs are available. Saffron is also sometimes used to treat high blood pressure and to improve circulation. In Persia, it was traditionally used to treat dementia and depression. Modern scientific studies have supported saffron’s potential for treating conditions such as mild to moderate depression, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as for improving visual acuity.

Caution: Saffron should not be used in large, medicinal doses during pregnancy.

OTHER USES

Saffron yields an unparalleled yellow dye that is associated with royalty and wealth. One part of crocin, saffron’s major pigment, can color up to 150,000 parts of water. Saffron has also been used in beauty-care products since ancient times. Cleopatra is said to have added it to her bathwater to enhance her beauty and increase the pleasure of her lovemaking.

 HOW TO GROW IT

You can grow saffron in a perennial border, container, or rock garden. Plant the corms in fall or spring in well-drained soil and full sun. Set the corms 3 to 4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Harvest fully open flowers. Pluck and dry the stigmas, spreading them out on paper. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry location.

Curcuma longa

The brightly colored rhizomes of Curcuma longa contain compounds with powerful anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Common Turmeric, Indian Saffron, Turmeric, Yellow Ginger

Description: Stemless perennial, 16 to 36 inches tall; yellow to orange tubular blooms and large, lanceolate leaves; tuberous rhizome is a bright yellow when cut open

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Zingiberaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Rhizome

Range/Habitat: Native to southern Asia, widely grown in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries

An aromatic, yellow-flowering perennial with large, glossy leaves, turmeric is native to southern Asia. Its tuberous rhizome, which is golden yellow when cut open, is the source of both a pungent spice and a brightly colored dye traditionally used to color the robes of Buddhist monks in India and Asia. The herb is cultivated commercially in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries with tropical growing conditions.

CULINARY USE

Turmeric is a vital ingredient in East Indian, Persian, and Thai cooking. The spice—a powder made from the plant’s dried rhizome—gives many popular curry blends and curry dishes their distinctive yellow color and pungent flavor. The fresh rhizome can also be used much like fresh ginger-root, stir-fried with other ingredients or cut into pieces and pickled. Whole, fresh turmeric leaves can be wrapped around fish or vegetables before they are cooked to impart a unique flavor. Turmeric gives the condiment mustard its bright yellow color. It’s also sometimes used to color and flavor pickles, relishes, broths, and rice dishes.

MEDICINAL USE

Turmeric is a wonderful example of an edible medicinal used to prevent or treat a broad range of health conditions. Long revered in traditional Asian healing practices, turmeric is considered an excellent anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antioxidant. Several compounds, including curcumin—the compound that gives turmeric its bright yellow color—account for this herb’s potent health benefits, and scientists are now investigating turmeric extensively. More than 1,000 scientific papers on turmeric have been published, seeking to understand how it works in the human body and its potential applications in contemporary medicine.

Caution: Turmeric should not be used medicinally by pregnant women or by those suffering from bile duct obstruction, gallstones, stomach ulcers, or stomach hyperacidity.

OTHER USES

Turmeric has long been used as a fabric dye when a rich golden hue is desired. You can experiment with this at home by dissolving the powdered spice in a pot of boiling water, then adding a piece of cloth to the cooled liquid. The longer the cloth steeps, the darker its color becomes. Because of its powerful antiseptic properties, turmeric is added to some cosmetics to improve and protect skin.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A tropical perennial, turmeric thrives in bright indirect light, temperatures above 60°F, and high humidity. If your climate is not suitable for turmeric, you can grow this herb indoors in a container. In spring, plant the rhizome (sold in the produce section of some specialty food markets) about ½ inch deep in well-drained, compost-enriched soil. Cover the pot with plastic, then place it in a warm location. When shoots emerge in about 3 weeks, remove the plastic and move the pot to a warm, bright location. Water and mist regularly.

When the leaves begin to die back and growth slows in fall, the plant is entering its dormant phase, which can last several months. During this period, reduce watering and provide brighter light, if possible. This is also the best time to harvest and divide the rhizomes. When new growth emerges in late winter, return the pot to its original location and resume watering.

FIELD NOTES

A Golden Healer

From time to time, I stay at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge in Costa Rica, an organic, biodynamic farm and ecotourism hotel surrounded by tropical rainforest. At this farm, the crops are carefully selected to build, not destroy, the soil. One of the farm’s specialty crops is turmeric, a plant that I consider to be among the most important healing herbs.

For thousands of years, turmeric has been a premier plant of the Ayurvedic formulary. Its bright orange-yellow roots are used as food and medicine and in rituals. Applied to your skin, turmeric improves and tones your complexion, helps heal wounds, and improves acne. In India, a paste of turmeric root and ground lentils is traditionally used to wash the face and body, ridding the skin of bacteria, cleansing it, and curing skin conditions—all without the drying effects of soap. Skin treated with turmeric takes on a radiant beauty and pleasant golden glow.

As a food or herbal product, turmeric has extraordinary benefits, too. Recent medical research on both animals and humans has validated many of turmeric’s traditional uses for the prevention and treatment of conditions associated with inflammation. These include certain cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. If you have a chance, take an hour to survey the research literature on turmeric via your favorite search engine—you will be astonished at the overwhelming evidence of its benefits. That’s why turmeric is an important part of my diet and that of many health professionals whom I know.—M. J. B.

Cucurbita pepo

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Pumpkin

Description: Herbaceous vine with hollow stems and large, deeply cut leaves; yellow flowers; large, thick-skinned fruits

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Cucurbitaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruit

Range/Habitat: Central, North, and South America; cultivated worldwide in temperate regions

Native to the Americas and cultivated for more than 10,000 years, the pumpkin is valued for its colorful, edible fruit and healthful seeds. The thick-skinned fruit—borne on long, trailing vines—is commonly associated with holiday pies and Halloween jack-o’-lanterns. But for Native Americans, the pumpkin and other squashes (all members of the genus Cucurbita) were a dietary staple that they prepared in many different ways: baked, roasted, and mashed; added to soups and other dishes; or dried and then ground into a meal for use in puddings and sauces. Native Americans also used the pumpkin medicinally. Most widely used to expel worms, pumpkin seed was also employed as a diuretic, a skin cleanser and softener, and a treatment for arthritis.

CULINARY USE

Nearly all parts of the pumpkin—leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruit—can be used in cooking. Pumpkin blossoms, like those of other squashes, can be stuffed, dipped in batter, and then fried, or they can be baked into breads and cakes. Pumpkin leaves are good sources of vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. Chop the tender young leaves and then steam them, or sauté them alone or with other vegetables. Try cooking them in a bit of canola oil along with chopped onion, garlic, and freshly grated ginger. Finish with lemon juice.

The versatile fruit, an excellent source of vitamin A, can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. Mash or puree the roasted flesh and serve it as a side dish, or use it in soups, cakes, pies, breads, puddings, pancakes, or cookies. Cubed pumpkin can be stir-fried with chiles and basil, added to curry dishes, or combined with coconut milk and spices for soup. To prepare a whole pumpkin as a main dish, slice off the top and scoop out the seeds and fiber; fill the interior with vegetable stew or a stuffing of bread cubes, cheese, garlic, and herbs, and then bake.

MEDICINAL USE

Research has found that pumpkin seeds exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The seeds are dense in several nutrients, providing protein, fiber, iron, calcium, linoleic acid (believed to help prevent hardening of the arteries), and the minerals zinc and selenium (important for prostate health). Germany’s official pharmacopoeia, known as the Commission E monographs, recommends eating 10 grams of ground or whole pumpkin seed daily for the treatment of irritated bladder conditions and the early stages of benign prostatic hyperplasia, a swelling of the prostate that affects urination. Eating pumpkin seeds could also help prevent osteoporosis and reduce the symptoms of inflammatory conditions.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Pumpkin is easy to grow in average garden soil and full sun. To speed germination, scratch the seed coat lightly with a nail file. Plant seeds directly in your garden in spring, after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has completely warmed. (In cold climates, you can speed soil warming by using black plastic mulch.) Sow the seeds 1 inch deep, placing four to six seeds per 2-foot-diameter hill; space the hills 5 to 6 feet apart in rows 10 to 15 feet apart. Several weeks after the seeds have germinated, thin to two or three plants per hill. Feed the plants weekly with diluted fish emulsion or compost tea. Harvest pumpkins in fall, before the first heavy frost, when the fruits have attained a deep solid color and the skin has hardened. Use a sharp knife to cut fruit from the vine, allowing 3 to 4 inches of stem to remain attached to the fruit. Store the fruit in a dry location at 50° to 55°F.

TOASTING PUMPKIN SEEDS

As you prepare a pumpkin for carving or cooking, save the seeds. Rinse off the yellowish fibers that surround the white seeds, then spread out the seeds and let them air-dry. Toast the dry seeds with a small amount of oil in a nonstick skillet, or place them on a nonstick baking pan or foil and toast them in a 250°F oven until crispy. (This usually takes less than an hour.) Lightly salted toasted pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) make an excellent snack—even the shells are edible and are a good source of fiber. Experiment by adding garlic powder, cayenne pepper, or other herbs and spices for flavor. (If you dislike eating pumpkin hulls, grow ‘Lady Godiva’—a variety that produces hull-less, or “naked,” seeds.)

Cymbopogon citratus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Fever Grass, Lemongrass, West Indian Lemongrass

Description: Clumping tropical grass, 3 to 6 feet tall, with long, linear leaves; small greenish flowers on curving stems; highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Poaceae

Flowering: Rarely

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and oil

Range/Habitat: Possibly native to southern India and Sri Lanka, naturalized in other tropical and subtropical regions

This thick-stemmed, dense perennial grass has sharply tapered leaves that emit a strong lemon scent when broken. The name Cymbopogon derives from the Greek words kymbe (boat) and pogon (beard)—a reference to the appearance of the tiny flowers of plants in this genus. Although the precise origin of lemongrass is unknown, scientists believe it could be native to the tropical region of southern India and Sri Lanka, where it has been used for centuries as a treatment for fevers, digestive problems, and nervous conditions.

CULINARY USE

Lemongrass is an integral part of Thai, Vietnamese, and Sri Lankan cuisines. The hearts are eaten as a vegetable with rice, and the chopped leaves are used for sauces, curries, and pastes, as well as in seafood, poultry, and pork dishes. A major source of lemon flavoring and fragrance, lemongrass is used commercially in ice cream, candies, and baked goods. At home, use lemongrass in curries, soups, stews, and seafood dishes—or whenever you want to add a refreshing lemony note to food or beverages without the acidity of lemon juice or lemon peel.

MEDICINAL USE

In East India and Sri Lanka, lemongrass tea (called “fever tea”) is traditionally used to reduce fever, and modern herbalists also use the herb for this purpose. Because lemongrass is believed to relax your stomach and intestines, the tea is also used to help relieve flatulence and diarrhea. Lemongrass oil has anti-fungal and antiseptic properties. To treat skin conditions such as ringworm and athlete’s foot, herbalists sometimes recommend a compress of lemongrass oil. You can also apply the leaves directly to your skin to repel insects.

OTHER USES

Highly aromatic lemongrass oil is one of the bestselling essential oils in the world. It is used commercially in perfumes, sachets, candles, cosmetics, and bath products. At home, you can infuse bathwater with this soothing herb: Fill a mesh bag with chopped lemongrass leaves, then place the bag under hot running water in your bathtub.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Lemongrass thrives in tropical and subtropical climates in well-drained, fertile soil in full sun. In cold climates, you can try to root lemongrass clumps sold in Asian markets. Place a clump in a shallow container filled with about 1 inch of water. Several weeks later, after roots have formed, plant the lemongrass in a pot filled with a medium rich in organic matter. Or plant it directly in your garden, if all danger of frost has passed. Water regularly. Be sure to bring this tropical species indoors before the first frost, and you can enjoy it all winter. Harvest the bulb and leaves for cooking, or use the leaves to make a soothing tea. To propagate, divide and replant lemongrass roots in spring.

FIELD NOTES

Soothing Lemony Tea

When is a lemon a grass? When it is Cymbopogon citratus, a dense perennial grass found in the Philippines and other tropical regions of the world. Pull up a clump of this grass, close your eyes, and crush the leaves—a wonderful, pleasing, lemony aroma is released. Traditionally, people have made a hot tea from the leaves (sometimes along with the roots) for the treatment of fevers, coughs, and colds. The root was also mashed in local vegetable oil and used to massage sore backs and muscle spasms, as well as rubbed on the forehead to treat headaches. I drink lemongrass tea from time to time when traveling in areas where it is commonly grown and used.

To make the tea, steep a few crushed leaves in hot water for 5 minutes, allow the tea to cool, and enjoy this caffeine-free beverage. It will promote digestion and help you relax. If you can’t grow this species outdoors, you can always find the leaves for sale at local ethnic markets or supermarkets—it is widely used in Thai cooking.

Lemongrass is closely related to one of the best-known plant-based insect repellents, citronella oil, which is derived from the leaves and stems of Cymbopogon nardus. Citronella is particularly effective as a mosquito repellent, and it’s one of the products I carry in my backpack in the field when insects will be a problem.—M. J. B.

Digitalis purpurea

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Digitalis, Foxglove, Purple Foxglove

Description: Produces rosettes of downy leaves in its first year; spikes of 2- to 3-inch pink, purple, or white bell-shaped flowers follow in the second year; flower stalks up to 6 feet tall

Hardiness: Biennial; to Zone 4

Family: Plantaginaceae

Flowering: Late spring to midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region and Europe; woodland clearings and mountain slopes

Native to parts of Europe and Africa, this striking member of the plantain family is naturalized throughout North and Central America. Both the common name foxglove and the genus name Digitalis refer to the tubular shape of the plant’s flowers, which appear to fit over the fingers like a glove. Digitalis derives from the Latin digitus, meaning finger. Although all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous, foxglove has been cultivated for medicinal use for more than 1,000 years. The 16th-century English herbalist John Gerard recommended boiling foxglove in water or wine for use as an expectorant. The herb’s main use, for treating a weak heart, was not described until 1785, when English physician and botanist William Withering (1741–1799) published An Account of the Foxglove and Some of Its Medicinal Uses. (See “Field Notes” on this page.)

MEDICINAL USE

Foxglove, a diuretic, contains cardiac glycosides that have been used in traditional and modern medicine to increase the force of the heart’s contractions. In the past, the herb was taken in leaf form to treat irregular heartbeat and heart failure. Foxglove is still the source of the widely used pharmaceutical drugs digoxin and digitoxin—important therapies for heart disease—but the plant’s leaves are no longer used because the correct dosage is hard to determine. In several cases, ingesting this powerful plant has resulted in death. In one, a closely related species was mistakenly added to a commercially sold internal herbal cleansing product, leading to cardiac arrest and death; apparently it was believed to be plantain leaf. In other cases, people harvest foxglove (confusing it with comfrey or another plant), use it as a tea, and become seriously ill.

Caution: Foxglove is extremely toxic and should never be ingested.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Gardeners love foxglove for its beauty. Its tall bloom spikes add early summer color to cottage gardens and mixed perennial borders, and the plants naturalize readily at woodland edges. Select tall cultivars, such as pink ‘Giant Shirley’ or rose-pink ‘Candy Mountain’, for a dramatic display in front of a stone wall, hedge, or fence. Foxglove combines well with goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus), bugbanes (Actaeaspp.), and yuccas (Yucca spp.).

OTHER USES

Foxglove is sometimes used as a dye. When mordanted with alum (see this page), the flowers produce a chartreuse color.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Foxglove grows in moist, humus-rich soil in full sun or partial shade. Sow seeds indoors in seedling trays in late winter, then transplant the seedlings to the garden after the danger of frost has passed. Seeds can also be sown directly in your garden in late summer. Plants generally bloom the second year. Once established, foxglove needs little attention and will self-seed readily. For a more tidy look, lift the plants after they have finished flowering, remove the faded bloom stalks, and replant the remaining rosettes for next year’s bloom.

FIELD NOTES

From an English Garden to the World’s Pharmacy

In 1775, the English physician and botanist William Withering (1741–1799) was asked to evaluate a folk cure for “dropsy,” an ancient name for the swelling caused by an accumulation of fluid (edema) in body cavities or under the skin. This condition produces the characteristic swollen ankles now known to be the result of congestive heart failure, which results when that organ can no longer pump enough blood throughout the body.

Withering found an herbal mixture used by a person he described as “an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed.” He identified more than 20 different herbs in her mixture and determined that foxglove was the “active herb.” Withering then used foxglove to treat his patients with dropsy and observed that the herb controlled heartbeat in a different way than other medicines did. Over time, and with some failures, his experiments resulted in more standardized foxglove extracts that successfully healed a high percentage of his patients. One contemporary evaluation of his therapies and their results suggested a success rate of 65- to 80 percent! It is remarkable that the plant used by the “old woman in Shropshire” has been, in its various forms, a first-line therapy for centuries. Sometimes, Grandmother knows best.—M. J. B.

Dioscorea villosa

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: China Root, Colic Root, North American Wild Yam, Rheumatism Root, Wild Yam

Description: Deciduous vine up to 30 feet long; heart-shaped leaves; small, greenish white flowers; creeping woody roots with tuberous rhizomes

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Dioscoreaceae

Flowering: June to August

Parts Used: Roots and tuber

Range/Habitat: Native to North America, naturalized throughout the warmer regions of the world; edges of woodland areas

The wild yam is native to North America and naturalized throughout the warmer regions of the world. Approximately 800 species make up the genus Dioscorea—a group of tropical and subtropical climbing plants. While some yam species produce tasty, edible tubers, the tubers of D. villosa are bitter and used primarily for medicinal purposes, especially to relieve abdominal cramping.

MEDICINAL USE

With strong anti-inflammatory properties, wild yam root has a history of medicinal use for cramping or contractions in the pelvic area, including false labor pains, menstrual cramps, uterine spasms, gallbladder pain, and intestinal spasms and cramps. Wild yam contains a steroidlike compound called diosgenin that once was used in contraceptive hormones such as birth control pills. Though wild yam is now widely promoted for menopausal symptoms, studies have found it to be no more effective than a placebo. Many wild yam creams (mostly marketed to ease menopausal symptoms) contain human progesterone created in a laboratory, often synthetically derived from diosgenin.

Caution: As a precaution, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and women with a history of hormone-related cancers should avoid wild yam.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Found in damp woodland areas, wild yam thrives in rich, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Plant root divisions in spring or fall, or plant seeds or bulbils in spring. Commercial preparations use the dried root, which is harvested in fall.

FIELD NOTES

The Chief’s Yams

On the island of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, related yam species are a traditional source of food. Yams are also grown on that island for ceremonial presentation to the Chiefs. During the yam feast, tubers of the species Dioscorea alata are dug up, ceremonially presented, and then replanted so that they can continue to grow. I have seen yams of this type that weighed nearly 250 pounds. Local stories tell of the presentation of even larger yams—these yams are said to be the size of small cars and must be carried on poles by 10 or more men!—M. J. B.

Dysphania ambrosioides (= Chenopodium ambrosioides)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Epazote, Mexican Tea, Wormseed

Description: Multibranched reddish stems up to 4 feet tall; small, toothed leaves; clusters of small yellow-green flowers, followed by many shiny dark brown to black seeds; strongly aromatic

Hardiness: Annual or short-lived perennial

Family: Amaranthaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Mexico and the tropical regions of Central and South America

An annual herb native to Mexico and the tropical or subtropical regions of Central and South America, epazote is widely naturalized in open areas, along roadsides, and around streambeds. In its various forms, this herb is both a medicine and a poison. The essential oil, which contains the compound ascaridole, can be toxic to humans when ingested in excess. Yet the plant has a long history of use as a remedy for intestinal parasites, first in the Americas and more recently in Europe and Asia. Epazote is also a popular culinary herb.

CULINARY USE

Traditionally used in Mexican cooking, epazote has a strong, pungent flavor and distinctive camphorlike aroma. It is a common ingredient in chilis, egg dishes, enchiladas, and tamales. Add the leaves to dishes and soups that include beans, corn, fish, or mushrooms. In bean dishes, it is reputed to help reduce intestinal gas and promote digestion.

MEDICINAL USE

Epazote was an important Native American medicinal plant. The herb was used in many forms to expel intestinal worms; one traditional treatment was to ingest a small quantity of the juice from the herb’s crushed leaves, once daily, for several days in a row. To treat children, the herb was mixed with milk. Epazote was also used to treat stomach problems and headaches and was considered a spring tonic.

Caution: Many adverse reactions have been reported from the use of this plant for therapeutic purposes. Be cautious when using this herb medicinally or when handling the plant itself. Epazote has caused photosensitization (resulting in a red, swollen rash) in some people who have harvested it.

OTHER USES

This species is the main active ingredient in a botanical insecticide known as Requiem, used to control aphids, mites, thrips, and other sucking insects on fruit and vegetable crops.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Considered an invasive weed in some areas, epazote is easy to grow in well-drained soil and sun or partial shade. Pinch back the plants to encourage leafy growth and prevent flowering and seed formation. For cooking, harvest young leaves from plants that have not gone to seed. Epazote self-seeds readily.

Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia, E. pallida

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Echinacea, Kansas Snakeroot, Pale Coneflower, Purple Coneflower

Description: Sturdy stems 2 to 3 feet tall; coarsely toothed leaves up to 8 inches long; composite flowerhead with cone center surrounded by purple, pink, or white rays

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: July to August

Parts Used: Roots

Range/Habitat: Native to North America; found in open woodlands, roadsides, and fields

This native North American perennial bears showy purple, pink, or white daisylike flowers with large, orange-brown centers. Echinacea, derived from the Greek echinos, meaning “hedgehog,” refers to the flower’s bristly center.

Echinacea is among the most important plants in Native American traditional medicine. Fragments of the plant have been found in archaeological digs of Native American sites dating back to the 17th century. The herb was used as an analgesic to relieve pain and as a treatment for coughs, infections, colds, flus, snakebites, and superficial sores and wounds.

MEDICINAL USE

Three species, primarily, are used in herbal medicine: Echinacea angustifolia, recognized by its narrow leaves; E. pallida, known by its narrow, drooping petals; and E. purpurea, which is also often grown for its ornamental blooms. Echinacea roots, flowers, leaves, and seeds contain polysaccharides and other compounds that stimulate your immune system; the compounds in plants of this genus also have antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.

Clinical studies with some commercial preparations of echinacea have shown its ability to help reduce the symptoms and duration of upper respiratory infections and to prevent the common cold. The herb is most effective if taken during the earliest stage of infection. A tea made by simmering the root in water for 10 minutes, then straining it, can be taken up to three times a day to treat colds and flu. Echinacea salves and tinctures are excellent for healing skin wounds, cuts, canker sores, leg ulcers, and burns.

Caution: People sensitive to other plants in the aster family could experience an allergic reaction to echinacea. When purchasing echinacea products, choose those made with cultivated plants, as some species are endangered in the wild.

ORNAMENTAL USE

In your garden, echinacea is showy and easy to care for. Its deep taproots make it extremely tolerant of heat and drought.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Echinacea thrives in average, loamy soil in full sun. Sow the seeds in your garden in fall, or indoors in seedling trays in late winter. If sowing indoors, you can improve germination by refrigerating the seedling trays for 4 to 6 weeks before moving them to a bright place. Harvest the roots in fall; fall is also the best time to propagate echinacea by taking root cuttings. Leave the seed heads on the plants to provide winter food for birds.

Elettaria cardamomum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Cardamom, Green Cardamom, True Cardamom

Description: Tropical perennial with stems 4 to 8 feet tall; dark green, lance-shaped leaves up to 1 foot long; small white flowers on trailing racemes; ribbed, light tan seedpods; thick rhizome

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Zingiberaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Seeds and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia; rainforests

Cardamom, the seed of a tropical perennial in the ginger family, is one of the oldest spices in the world. Nearly 2,000 years ago, cardamom was considered the “queen of spices” and was sold along the trade routes of the Middle East and Europe. Native to humid forests of South India, the plant bears long, lance-shaped leaves and clusters of white flowers with purple-striped lips. Its fruits, or seedpods, are pale green and contain dark brown, highly aromatic seeds. The fragrance of the seeds is similar to that of eucalyptus, and it dissipates when the seeds are ground. In ancient Egypt, cardamom was used to make perfume.

CULINARY USE

Cardamom is widely used in both Scandinavian and East Indian cooking. It is one of the primary flavorings of the popular herbal beverage known as chai. Use cardamom seed to add a warm, spicy flavor to baked goods, curries, bean dishes, marinades, and fruit dishes. One medium-size pod contains 10 to 12 seeds, which make about 1⁄8 teaspoon of the ground spice. Use cardamom leaves as a flavorful wrap for fish, rice, or vegetables, or mince them and add them to curry dishes.

MEDICINAL USE

Cardamom contains an essential oil (up to 4 to 8 percent of the seed by weight) that supports the herb’s traditional use as a digestive tonic. The herb “warms” and stimulates digestion, and it may relieve intestinal spasms and gas and ease stomach pain. A study in laboratory animals showed that compounds in cardamom helped inhibit stomach ulcers. Cardamom has a pleasant flavor and is often used in herb blends not only to ease digestion but also to mask the flavor of less-pleasant herbs, such as bitter gentian (Gentiana lutea). Cardamom can also help sweeten breath, especially after eating garlic. The herb has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine as a diuretic, expectorant, carminative, and energy booster. Some cultures consider it an aphrodisiac.

OTHER USES

Add the seeds to potpourris and sachets for a lovely spicy scent. The highly fragrant essential oil can be added to soaps, perfumes, bathwater, and body-care products.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Cardamom grows in tropical areas with rich, moist, well-drained soil and partial shade. In temperate regions, cardamom can be grown in a heated greenhouse or a very warm, humid location indoors. Although it will rarely flower or fruit indoors, you can still enjoy its handsome (and edible) leaves. Mist it daily and feed it with diluted fish emulsion during spring and summer. If seedpods do form, harvest them just before they open in fall.

Ephedra sinica

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Chinese Ephedra, Chinese Joint Fir, Ephedra, Ma Huang

Description: Shrub, 3 feet tall, with wiry, gray-green stems and scalelike leaves; yellow-green flowers and small bright red cones

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Ephedraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Stems

Range/Habitat: Western China; dry desert areas

Ephedra is native to central Asia and is found throughout western China. The low-growing shrub has greenish stems and tiny, scalelike leaves. Ephedra—Greek for “climbing”—refers to the plant’s tendency to climb across dry, rocky soil. Traces of the herb were found in a Middle Eastern grave dating back 60,000 years, suggesting that ephedra could have been used as a medicine as early as the Stone Age. Much folklore surrounds this powerfully stimulating plant. Zen monks reputedly used ephedra preparations to stay alert during protracted meditation and prayer. Guards in Genghis Khan’s army also are said to have used ephedra—apparently the penalty for falling asleep at one’s post was execution.

MEDICINAL USE

Ephedra was mentioned in the classic Chinese herbal Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, written between 300 BCE and 200 AD. It is one of the first Chinese herbs to be widely used in Western medicine. Ephedra derivatives are the main ingredients in many over-the-counter decongestant pharmaceuticals. The herb had been an ingredient in preparations sold to stimulate weight loss and to boost energy and athletic performance, but after serious adverse effects in association with these products were reported, the FDA banned the use of ephedra in botanical supplements in 2004.

Ephedra contains ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine, alkaloids that stimulate the central nervous system, elevate blood pressure, dilate the bronchi, decrease intestinal tone and motility, and cause cardiac stimulation and tachycardia. Ephedra is an effective nasal decongestant used to treat the common cold, sinusitis, and hay fever and to relieve the congestion of bronchial asthma and the symptoms of allergies. Side effects, including insomnia and high blood pressure, can occur when the recommended dosage of over-the-counter ephedra products is exceeded.

Caution: Ephedra and its chemical components may cause hypertension, insomnia, and, in large doses, even death. It should not be used by pregnant or nursing women or by people who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, or glaucoma. Ephedra acts as a thyroid stimulant and may increase the effects of pharmaceutical MAO inhibitors.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Ephedra thrives in full sun and dry, sandy soil. If you wish to grow ephedra as a specimen or ornamental, plant it in well-drained gravelly soil in spring. Divide the roots in either spring or fall.

Epimedium spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Epimedium, Horny Goat Weed, Yin Yang Huo

Description: Low-growing perennial up to 20 inches tall; arching stems of delicate rose or yellow blooms; heart-shaped leaves turn a copper color in fall

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Berberidaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to China; woodlands

This low-growing herb, which is native to China, has been used to treat kidney, liver, and joint disorders and to increase sexual desire in both men and women. Legend has it that long ago, a Chinese herder noticed his goats becoming more sexually excited and active after grazing on this plant. The herb’s reputed aphrodisiac properties are thought to be due to the flavonoid compound icariin, which is closely related to compounds in at least two erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals and works in a similar way to these modern medicines.

MEDICINAL USE

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), epimedium stems, leaves, and flowers are steeped in wine to make a treatment for impotence. The herb is said to increase sexual activity and the production of sperm and to stimulate sensory nerves. Epimedium appears to lower blood pressure (and could interact with drugs for hypertension). It also slows clotting and has been used in TCM to dissolve blood clots.

Caution: People who take medications that lower blood pressure or slow blood clotting should use this herb with caution.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Epimedium, an attractive groundcover, thrives in moist, well-drained, acidic loam and shade. Plant it outdoors in spring after the danger of frost has passed. Mulch your plants with leaf compost to retain moisture. For medicinal use, harvest the leaves in summer or fall, 2 to 3 months after the plants flower. To propagate, divide roots in fall or early spring.

FIELD NOTES

Less Is More

The herbal section of your local health food market contains products with horny goat weed, used to treat impotence or enhance male sexual activity or desire. While the plant does contain a similar compound to those found in pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for this purpose, the plant contains a much lower dose, and other chemicals in the plant may contribute to its activity. On the Internet, I found herbal epimedium products that appeared to be “spiked” with icariin to levels many times that found in nature—closer to being a single compound pharmaceutical. However, pharmaceuticals, such as those for the treatment of impotence, are thoroughly studied before they are approved for sale. Their dosages are established through long-term controlled scientific studies, so these “enhanced” herbal products should be avoided.—M. J. B.

Equisetum arvense

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bottle Brush, Horsetail, Scouring Rush

Description: Sharp-toothed leaf sheaths on jointed stalks topped with flower spikes; later, whorls of needle-like leaves appear on hollow, 18-inch stems

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Equisetaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Stems

Range/Habitat: Naturalized throughout most of the world; moist woods and roadsides

Horsetail has been called a “living fossil”—its relatives were abundant in forests more than 100 million years ago, and some of these ancient horsetails grew to 90 feet tall! Those towering species are now extinct, but the smaller descendants of this genus still grow in the wet areas of every continent except Antarctica. These herbaceous plants have hollow stems, scalelike leaves, and brownish cones borne at the ends of the stems. The stems contain silica, which explains the plant’s common names “bottle brush” and “scouring rush.” The stems can be dried and tied in bundles, then used as an abrasive to scour pots, shine metal, or sand wood. The belief that horsetail can strengthen nails, hair, teeth, and connective tissue is unsupported, however; your body cannot use silica in this form.

MEDICINAL USE

Horsetail contains flavone glycosides and a saponin, which are thought to account for its diuretic properties. Teas and extracts made from the dried stems are taken to treat bladder infections and kidney stones. Applied directly to a wound, the herb can help stop bleeding. Native Americans used Equisetum arvense to treat rashes, cuts, and sores; to promote urine flow; and to ease headaches, kidney troubles, and other problems. In China, Equisetum hyemaleis used for various conditions, including fever and dysentery.

OTHER USES

Horsetail gives a yellowish green color to wool mordanted with alum and a deeper green when an iron mordant is used (see this page). Although some cultures reportedly eat this plant, this probably isn’t a good idea; some species contain a compound that destroys thiamine (vitamin B1), a vitamin essential to all mammals. A thiamine deficiency can lead to the condition known as beriberi, which can result in severe sickness and even death.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Horsetail is rarely cultivated because once it’s established, it can be extremely difficult to eradicate. If you wish to enjoy this interesting plant at home, plant it in a container and keep it just below the surface of a pond or water garden. Horsetail thrives in humus-rich, moist soil with an acid to neutral pH and full sun to partial shade. Harvest the stems in fall, when the silica content is highest. Propagate by division.

Eucalyptus globulus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Blue Gum, Eucalyptus, Fevertree, Southern Blue Gum, Tasmanian Blue Gum

Description: Evergreen tree, 50 to 80 feet tall, with large bands of shedding bark and bluish green, highly aromatic leaves

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Myrtaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Australia, naturalized in North and South America, southern Europe, Africa, and India

A tall evergreen with large bands of shedding bark and bluish green, highly aromatic leaves, blue gum is the most familiar of the more than 600 eucalyptus species. The species is native to Australia and is commonly cultivated in Europe, Africa, India, and the Americas, including the southwestern United States. Long before it was carried to the West during the 19th century, blue gum was valued in traditional Australian Aboriginal medicine.

Also known as fevertree, blue gum played an important role in halting the spread of malaria in several countries during the 19th century. Planted in mosquito-infested marshes, the trees dried out the swampland through their heavy feeding, destroying the mosquitoes’ breeding habitat. Researchers have also discovered that eucalyptus oil contains a compound as effective against mosquitoes that carry and transmit malaria as 20 percent DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, an active ingredient in many commercial insect repellents).

MEDICINAL USE

The tree’s leaves contain eucalyptol, an active ingredient in over-the-counter chest rubs used for colds. Inhaling the vapor of a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil placed in boiling water can help clear sinus and bronchial infections.

With antiviral and antibacterial properties, essential oil of eucalyptus can be used to treat diseases such as flu, measles, and typhoid, and as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory rub for muscles and joints. Cooling on the skin, diluted eucalyptus oil also can be used topically to treat insect bites, stings, wounds, and blisters. Eucalyptus oil is used in mouthwashes to treat bad breath, plaque, and inflammation of the gums.

Caution: Never ingest pure eucalyptus oil, and always dilute it before applying it to your skin. Eucalyptus should not be used by those with severe liver disease, inflammatory disease of the bile ducts or gastrointestinal tract, or by children younger than 2 years old. Additionally, eucalyptus preparations should not be used on delicate areas, such as near the nose or eyes.

OTHER USES

Eucalyptus is used to make paper. High-quality honey is made from the nectar of some species of eucalyptus, and the didgeridoo, a traditional Aboriginal wind instrument, is made from eucalyptus stems that have been hollowed out by termites.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Eucalyptus trees grow quickly in areas with warm summers, temperate winters, well-drained soil, and abundant sun. In Zone 7 and colder, grow eucalyptus in a greenhouse where temperatures remain above 50°F. Avoid overwatering; too much moisture causes the leaves to blister. Harvest the leaves before the tree flowers.

Filipendula ulmaria

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Meadowsweet, Queen of the Meadow

Description: Creeping stems, 3 to 5 feet tall, with 6-inch clusters of creamy white flowers; forms broad clumps of deep green, pinnately divided leaves

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Rosaceae

Flowering: Late spring to summer

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia; naturalized throughout North America

This hardy perennial is native to Europe and Asia and has naturalized throughout North America. The herb was once called “meadwort,” in reference to its use as a flavoring for the honey wine called mead. A member of the rose family, meadowsweet has attractive feathery foliage and creamy white, almond-scented flowers that are the source of the plant’s other common name, queen of the meadow.

MEDICINAL USE

Meadowsweet was revered as a sacred herb by ancient Celtic Druid priests as early as 600 BCE and was mentioned in English herbal guide books dating to the 16th century. A tea made from the herb’s flowers and leaves was used to treat feverish colds and to alleviate pain in muscles and joints. Aspirin, one of the world’s most common and important drugs, was developed from the meadowsweet plant. In 1597, John Gerard recommended this plant, boiled in wine, be consumed to treat bladder pain. In 1839, the compound salicylic acid was identified from its flower buds and became widely used to treat pain—but one side effect was an upset stomach. In 1899, the company Bayer AG began to sell a synthetic form of this compound known as acetylsalicylic acid, which was more potent but had fewer side effects. The name chosen for the new compound was aspirin—a combination of “a” for acetyl and “spirin” for spiraea, the former name of the meadowsweet plant. Meadowsweet also acts as a carminative and antacid, soothing the digestive tract, reducing acidity, and relieving nausea. It has been used to treat gastritis and peptic ulcers. Because it has a gentle astringent effect, it is useful for treating diarrhea in children.

Caution: People with a sensitivity to aspirin (salicylates) should avoid using meadowsweet.

OTHER USES

Meadowsweet flowers are made into an essential oil with a wintergreen scent and are used in potpourris. When added to cooked fruits and jams, the flowers impart a flavor reminiscent of almonds. The plant’s roots yield a black dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Meadowsweet thrives in rich, moist soil in sun or partial shade. If the foliage becomes tattered, cut the plants to the ground and fresh leaves will emerge. Clumps spread rapidly and require frequent division; lift and divide them in fall.

Fragaria vesca

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Alpine Strawberry, Fraises Des Bois, Wild Strawberry, Woodland Strawberry

Description: Compact perennial, up to 10 inches tall; evergreen, coarsely toothed, tripartite leaves; flat, white flowers; small, cone-shaped white to red fruit studded with brown seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Rosaceae

Flowering: Spring and summer

Parts Used: Fruit, leaves, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia and naturalized in northern temperate areas; found in fields, open woodlands, along paths, and in clearings

Alpine strawberry, a member of the rose family, is native to Europe and Asia and is widely naturalized in northern temperate areas. Based on archeological evidence, it appears that people have been eating the plant’s fruits for at least 10,000 years—perhaps longer. Alpine strawberry was first cultivated in ancient Persia; from there, its seeds were carried and planted in many other areas. Compared to the modern cultivated strawberry, a hybrid, the everbearing alpine strawberry bears smaller, more aromatic fruits. The plants are low-growing, evergreen, and very hardy.

CULINARY USE

Alpine strawberry leaves are frequently used in herbal tea blends. The small, delicious fruits can be eaten fresh; cooked in desserts, preserves, and sweet or savory dishes; or made into wine.

MEDICINAL USE

Alpine or wild strawberry was traditionally used to treat liver and digestive disorders as well as gum disease. Seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) advised that “the leaves and roots boiled in wine and water, and drank, [will] cool the liver and blood . . . [and] provoke urine.”

Today, strawberry leaf tea is used to treat diarrhea and infections of the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. The fruits, which contain vitamins B, C, and E, have mild diuretic properties. A natural bleach, the fruits can be crushed and mixed with baking soda to clean stained teeth or applied externally as a poultice to lighten skin and soothe sunburn. Strawberry is used as a homeopathic remedy for skin and mouth conditions.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Native to woodland areas, alpine strawberries thrive in well-drained, humus-rich, acidic soil and partial shade. Cultivated varieties that produce few or no runners make a neat, attractive groundcover or edging plant. Sow the seeds in your garden in fall or indoors in late winter, directly on the soil surface—do not cover them. The seeds germinate best in consistently moist soil at a temperature of 65° to 75°F. Water plants regularly throughout the growing season; they will slow or stop producing if they receive less than 1 inch of water per week. Harvest the berries when they are fully ripe; gather the leaves as needed throughout the season. Divide 3- or 4-year-old plants in fall.

Frangula purshiana (= Rhamnus purshiana)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Cascara Sagrada, Sacred Bark

Description: Deciduous tree or shrub, 5 to 25 feet tall; 2- to 6-inch-long veined leaves with serrated edges; umbels of greenish yellow flowers followed by small scarlet to black berries

Hardiness: To Zone 7

Family: Rhamnaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Bark

Range/Habitat: Native to the Pacific Northwestern United States and western Canada; high-altitude forests, thickets, and canyon walls

Native to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, this deciduous tree is a member of the buckthorn family, bearing dark green, serrated leaves and scarlet berries that ripen to black. Seventeenth-century Spanish explorers named it cascara sagrada (or “sacred bark”), perhaps because of its value to Native Americans as a medicinal plant. The most important use of the distinctive reddish gray bark was as a laxative. Settlers to the West learned to make a tea by soaking a piece of the dried bark in cold water overnight. In 1877, the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis first marketed the herb, and a year later, the company introduced a liquid extract of cascara bark as a treatment for constipation.

MEDICINAL USE

The tree’s bark contains a gentle laxative that stimulates contractions of the large intestine, helping to move food through the digestive system. In 2002 the FDA issued a ban on over-the-counter stimulant laxative drug products that contain cascara sagrada. Today, cascara sagrada can be purchased as an herbal supplement.

Caution: Cascara sagrada should not be used by pregnant women, nursing mothers, or young children; tell your health-care provider that you are using this laxative. Overuse of stimulant laxatives such as cascara sagrada and aloe can create a dependency on their use.

OTHER USES

The bark of cascara sagrada can be used to dye wool various shades of gray, brown, and yellow. The tree’s wood has been used for making fence posts and as fuel.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A shrub or small tree, cascara sagrada grows in moist, fertile soil and full sun to partial shade in Zone 7 and warmer. It can be propagated by seed, layering, or cutting. For medicinal use, harvest the bark in spring or fall. Before use, cure the bark for at least 1 year. Aging is essential because consuming the fresh bark can cause vomiting and intestinal spasms.

Galium odoratum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Sweet Woodruff, Sweet-Scented Bedstraw

Description: Perennial groundcover, up to 8 inches tall; small, white flowers; narrow leaves in whorls of six or eight around each stem

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Rubiaceae

Flowering: May and June

Parts Used: Whole plant

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia; found in moist, wooded locations

Once used as a scenting herb in homes and churches and as a stuffing for mattresses, sweet woodruff is a perennial groundcover native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia. When cut and dried, the plant’s leaves and stems smell pleasantly of vanilla and freshly mown grass. The fragrance can persist for years due to the presence of coumarin, a chemical used as a fixative for perfumes.

MEDICINAL USE

Sweet woodruff has diuretic properties and can stimulate perspiration, helping your body eliminate waste through your skin. Coumarin, present at about 1 percent in this species, dilates blood vessels, which increases blood flow. This compound is used as the basis for anticoagulant drugs such as warfarin.

Native Americans traditionally used several related species of Galium to treat skin problems such as eczema, poison ivy, and ringworm, as well as gallstones, kidney trouble, and many other conditions. Some tribes considered the plant poisonous.

Caution: In large doses, coumarin can be toxic.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Sweet woodruff forms a lovely, low-maintenance groundcover in shaded locations, particularly beneath azaleas, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas. It establishes quickly and is rarely bothered by pests or diseases. Plant it along pathways, intermingled with spring-blooming bulbs, or under bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis).

OTHER USES

The flowers and leaves add a sweet vanilla fragrance to potpourris, herbal wreaths, sachets, and perfumes; the dried leaves have also been used to repel moths. The stems and leaves make a tan dye in wool mordanted with alum (see this page); the roots yield a red dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A woodland plant, sweet woodruff thrives in moist, well-drained humus and shade. Provide an acidic soil rich in nutrients; leaf mold compost is ideal. After planting in spring, mulch to retain moisture and control weeds. Harvest sweet woodruff foliage as needed. To dry the sprigs, hang them in a warm, dark, airy place, or chop the herb immediately and spread it out to dry in shade.

Caution: There are reports of allergic skin reactions from handling plants in this genus.

Gaultheria procumbens

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Eastern Teaberry, Teaberry, Wintergreen

Description: Creeping perennial, up to 6 inches tall; glossy, evergreen leaves and tiny, bell-shaped white flowers; round, red berries appear in late summer and persist through winter

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Ericaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves and berries

Range/Habitat: Native to eastern North America; wooded areas and clearings

Wintergreen, known for its stimulating aroma and minty flavor, is a low-growing evergreen native to North America. Although the familiar flavor is now produced synthetically, oil of wintergreen was once used in many popular candies, cough drops, chewing gums, and toothpastes.

Native Americans used wintergreen medicinally to treat a wide variety of conditions. During the American War of Independence, some colonists substituted wintergreen for imported British tea, hence the common name teaberry.

CULINARY USE

Wintergreen’s edible berries and leaves—which have a delightful, spicy flavor—are a favorite of foragers from fall through early spring. Clark’s Teaberry chewing gum, first produced in the early 1900s, was inspired by the flavor of wintergreen.

MEDICINAL USE

Native Americans such as the Penobscot, Sioux, and Nez Perce traditionally used wintergreen leaf tea to relieve fever, sore throat, upset stomach, and ulcers. They crushed the leaves to make a poultice for treating muscle, nerve, and joint pain, as well as swelling, rash, inflammation, and toothache. Wintergreen stimulates temperature-sensitive nerve endings, temporarily overriding nearby pain signals. The plant contains methyl salicylate, a compound with properties similar to those found in aspirin. Primarily used in over-the-counter topical ointments, methyl salicylate is now produced synthetically.

Caution: Wintergreen oil can be toxic if consumed even in small amounts. People sensitive to aspirin should not use wintergreen or other products containing methyl salicylate in any form (including topical creams), as this compound is absorbed easily into the bloodstream.

ORNAMENTAL USE

With its glossy, evergreen foliage and bright red berries, wintergreen is an attractive, low-maintenance plant for shaded locations, such as woodland gardens. Although it rarely forms a dense carpet, wintergreen mixes beautifully with other woodland plants, such as blueberry and bunch-berry dogwood (Cornus canadensis).

 HOW TO GROW IT

Wintergreen grows best in partial shade and evenly moist, fertile soil with an acid pH of 5.0 to 6.0. Native to hardwood and pine forests, wintergreen benefits from pine straw mulch, which will help retain moisture and block weeds. Water it regularly during dry periods. Wintergreen leaves can be harvested at any time; gather the berries when they’re red, which signals that they’re ripe.

Gentiana lutea

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Gentian, Yellow Gentian

Description: Herbaceous perennial, up to 6 feet tall; bright yellow, 2-inch flowers from axils of uppermost leaf pairs; smooth, oval leaves up to 6 inches across and 1 foot long

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Gentianaceae

Flowering: July and August

Parts Used: Roots

Range/Habitat: Native to the mountains of Europe and western Asia; cultivated in Europe and North America

Gentian, a brightly colored ornamental plant with large golden flowers, is perhaps best known for its bitter-tasting roots, which are used to flavor vermouth and Angostura bitters. Native to mountainous regions of central and southern Europe and western Asia, gentian is cultivated commercially in North America and Europe. Gentiana, the genus name, derives from Gentius (180–167 BCE), a king of ancient Illyria said to have discovered the herb’s medicinal values.

MEDICINAL USE

Gentian’s bitter flavor is so strong that it is detectable even at dilutions of 1:20,000. The herb’s rhizomes and roots contain components that stimulate the production of saliva, bile, and gastric juices, thereby improving appetite and digestion. Gentian is the major ingredient in dozens of digestive bitters and tonics taken before eating a heavy meal, particularly one rich in fatty foods. It is also recommended as a treatment for anemia and as an appetite stimulant during periods of convalescence. Gentian is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, and herbalists consider it a tonic and energizer.

Caution: Gentian should not be used by those who have gastric or duodenal ulcers, irritation, or inflammation. Pregnant women and people with high blood pressure should also avoid this herb.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Gentians of all kinds are valued for their beauty in rock gardens and informal wild gardens.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Gentian grows best in moist, rich soil with good drainage and bright light, although it will tolerate partial shade. Plant the seeds directly in your garden in fall, or plant crown divisions in spring. (When started from seed, gentian begins to flower in about 3 years.) If you garden in the colder parts of gentian’s range and receive little or no snow cover, protect the plants with a winter mulch of straw or evergreen boughs.

Gentian roots take as long as 10 years to reach maturity. The roots, which can be harvested in late summer or fall, must be cured by drying before they can be powdered and used. Good-quality roots are dark reddish brown, tough, and flexible, with a strong odor. They should taste sweet at first, then deeply bitter.

Ginkgo biloba

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Ginkgo, Maidenhair Tree

Description: Large deciduous tree, up to 100 feet or taller; fan-shaped leaves are deeply notched to form two lobes; females bear yellow-orange, odoriferous fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Ginkgoaceae

Flowering: On separate male and female trees, appearing in March and April

Parts Used: Leaves and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to China; cultivated in Asia, France, and southeastern United States

Ginkgo is the world’s most ancient tree and the only surviving member of its genus. Native to China, where it has long been considered a sacred species, the ginkgo was first planted in the United States in 1784 on an estate near Philadelphia. The tree is rarely found in the wild today, and scientists debate whether even these small stands are truly wild.

The name ginkgo comes from the Japanese gin (silver) and kyo (apricot). Because the plant is believed to have positive effects on memory, brain function, and circulation, it has been called the “antiaging” herb and is one of the best-selling herbal supplements in the United States. Ginkgo is grown commercially in the United States, France, China, and Japan.

CULINARY USE

Although raw ginkgo seeds can be toxic, the cooked seeds (called nuts) are considered a delicacy in China. To obtain ginkgo nuts, remove the fruit pulp, then crack open the nuts’ outer shell. (Wear gloves when you do this; the fruits are notoriously foul-smelling, and handling the nuts can cause contact dermatitis in some people.) In China, ginkgo nuts are added to vegetable and rice dishes and are served at weddings and other special occasions. In Japan, the nuts are eaten after meals to aid digestion.

MEDICINAL USE

Ginkgo seeds have been used as medicine in Asia for thousands of years. The Chinese eat cooked ginkgo nuts to increase strength and sexual energy and to restore hearing loss. Boiled as a tea, the nuts are used to treat coughs, asthma, allergies, and wheezing.

Modern herbalists primarily use ginkgo leaves. The leaves have antioxidant properties and contain flavonoids (called ginkgo flavone glycosides) and terpenoids (called ginkgolide and bilobalide) that could help improve blood flow to the extremities and to the brain, eyes, and ears, particularly in the elderly. Ginkgo supplements have been researched for the treatment of tinnitus, high blood pressure, and concentration and memory problems, as well as for slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. While there are clinical studies that showed promise in this area, several recent studies have failed to substantiate the supplements’ effectiveness for these conditions. Because of the plant’s ability to dilate blood vessels, the herb is also used to treat intermittent claudication (intense cramping in the calf muscles).

OTHER USES

Ginkgo leaf extract, rich in flavonoids and di-terpenes, is used widely in cosmetics, shampoos, and skin creams. The hardy, long-lived trees are often planted along city streets. They’re also a favorite subject for bonsai.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Ginkgos are commonly grown for their beauty and ability to withstand cold temperatures, pollution, insect pests, and diseases. Plant ginkgo in full sun and well-drained, fertile soil. Most home gardeners plant only male trees grafted from other males to avoid the smelly fruits borne by females. If you wish to harvest ginkgo nuts, however, you’ll need to plant both male and female trees. Prune young trees to a central leader. For making an extract, harvest the leaves in fall and then them.

FIELD NOTES

An Ancient Memory

During fall in New York City, I often see families collecting ripe ginkgo fruit beneath the city’s female ginkgo trees. Ginkgo seeds—found inside the orange-yellow fruits—are highly valued in the cuisines of China, Korea, and Japan. While some cities no longer plant female ginkgo trees because of the fruits’ terrible odor, caused by butanoic acid, the stately ginkgo certainly deserves a place in modern cities.

For me, looking at a ginkgo tree is a humbling experience, as it is considered a “living fossil.” The genus Ginkgo is known from Chinese paleobotanical specimens more than 200 million years old. The renowned botanist Carl Linnaeus named the plant in 1771, basing the genus name Ginkgo on the plant’s Japanese common name and the species name biloba on the two lobes found on each leaf. Ginkgo arrived in the United States through the botanist and plant explorer André Michaux in the late 1700s. Today, this ancient Chinese medicine is being studied extensively to evaluate its efficacy in the treatment of conditions ranging from lung problems to memory loss. The next time you see a ginkgo, remember that its ancestors have been around for as long as Mother Nature can remember.—M. J. B.

Glycyrrhiza glabra

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Licorice, Russian Licorice, Spanish Licorice, Turkish Licorice

Description: Erect, branching perennial, up to 6-feet tall; spikes of ½-inch pale blue to violet flowers; alternate, pinnate leaves with 9 to 12-leaflets; long taproot

Hardiness: To Zone 7

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Roots

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region and central and southwest Asia

A member of the pea family native to the Mediterranean region and Asia, licorice is a perennial with downy stems and pale blue flowers that appear in loose spikes. The plant’s deep taproot sends out thin, horizontal rhizomes. The Greek name for the plant is “sweet root” and, in fact, licorice root is about 50 times sweeter than sugar. Although licorice is often associated with a candy flavoring, most licorice-flavored candy today is flavored with anise oil. Licorice has a very long history of therapeutic use, however, and herbalists still value it for its pharmacological properties.

CULINARY USE

Licorice makes a flavorful herbal tea. Commercial producers of beers and soft drinks, pastries, ice creams, puddings, and soy products use licorice extract as a flavoring.

MEDICINAL USE

Licorice has anti-inflammatory properties and has traditionally been used as a treatment for arthritis and allergies. Modern herbalists also use the herb as an expectorant and demulcent because it stimulates mucus secretions of the trachea. Its soothing effect on mucous membranes makes it useful for treating sore throats and coughs, as well as for protecting and healing your gastrointestinal tract.

The primary component of licorice root is glycyrrhizin, a compound that acts much like cortisol, stimulating the excretion of hormones by the adrenal cortex. For this reason, licorice is thought to benefit people suffering from adrenal weakness. However, glycyrrhizin can also cause water retention and an increase in blood pressure. To reduce these side effects, researchers have developed a form of the herb called deglycyrrhizinated licorice, or DGL, from which 97 percent of the glycyrrhizin has been removed.

To make licorice tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of the dried and sliced root in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink two or three times per day for up to 7 days.

Caution: Do not take this herb if you are pregnant or have heart or liver disease or hypertension.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Licorice grows in full sun and rich, moist, sandy loam. Plant divisions or cuttings in a prepared garden site in early spring or late fall, and water frequently until plants are established. In Zone 6 and colder, grow licorice indoors in a 12-inch-deep pot. Harvest the roots of 3-year-old plants in late fall. Dig a trench on one side of the plant to expose the roots. New plants will grow from roots left in the soil. Dry the harvested roots in a dark location with very low humidity for 6 months, then store them in an airtight container.

Grindelia spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Asthma Weed, Grindelia, Gum Plant, Gum Weed, Tarweed

Description: Coarse, shrublike perennials or biennials, up to 3 feet tall; slightly toothed, spade-shaped leaves; numerous sticky, yellow disk flowers surrounded by ray flowers, occurring in heads

Hardiness: Varies according to species

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Late summer

Parts Used: Flowers and roots

Range/Habitat: Dry prairies from Saskatchewan to Mexico; most species occur west of the Mississippi

The 60 species of Grindelia, a North American perennial, are characterized by the presence of rigid, bristlelike spikes (known as phyllaries) just below the flower petals. Many species have common names that refer to a gummy substance that forms on the flower heads. In some parts of the world, children use this substance as chewing gum. Although the herb didn’t come into use in Western medicine until the latter part of the 19th century, Native Americans traditionally used grindelia to treat respiratory and skin conditions.

MEDICINAL USE

Grindelia can be used externally to relieve skin irritations caused by poison ivy and poison oak, as well as burns. The yellow flowers produce a sticky resin that contains an anesthetic constituent. Grindelia squarrosa is said to be especially effective for this purpose. To make a poultice for poison ivy or poison oak rashes, boil 1 ounce of the plant’s leaves, stems, and flowers in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Cool, strain, and soak a cloth in the cooled liquid, then apply the cloth to the affected skin.

Taken internally, grindelia has expectorant and antispasmodic properties. The herb helps rid your lungs of excess mucus while relaxing and dilating your airways. It has been used to treat bronchitis, asthma, and whooping cough, although it can be toxic if taken in large doses.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A coarse, shrublike plant without ornamental qualities, grindelia is cultivated almost exclusively for medicinal purposes. Grow the herb in full sun and moderately rich, well-drained soil. Start with seeds, cuttings, or divisions. If starting with seeds, sow them outdoors in fall and cover only lightly with soil. Or sow them in a cool greenhouse in early spring, then transplant the seedlings to the garden when temperatures have warmed. Harvest leaves and flowering stems when the plant is in full bloom. Plants can be propagated by seed, cuttings, or division.

Hamamelis virginiana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Witch Hazel

Description: Deciduous shrub or small tree, 8 to 15 feet tall, with long, forking branches; bright yellow, threadlike flowers; coarsely toothed leaves turn bright yellow in fall

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Hamamelidaceae

Flowering: Early autumn

Parts Used: Twigs, leaves, and bark

Range/Habitat: Eastern and central North America; moist woods and stream banks

This large, multistemmed shrub or small tree grows wild in eastern North American woodlands and along stream banks. Although witch hazel appears rather nondescript in summer, it shines in fall, when its leaves turn golden yellow, and its fragrant yellow flowers appear as late as December.

Native Americans found many medicinal uses for this plant—as a pain reliever, cold remedy, treatment for skin irritations, and much more. Some groups also attributed certain supernatural powers to the plant: The Mohegans, for instance, used the shrub’s pliable forked branches to locate hidden water supplies and buried treasures. European settlers used the plant in similar ways. The plant’s common name derives from the Old English word wych,meaning “pliant.”

MEDICINAL USE

Witch hazel is valued as an astringent, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic. Native Americans prepared a leaf or bark tea that they used as a general tonic, cough-and-cold remedy, and rinse for mouth or throat irritations. Soaking the leaves and twigs yielded a soothing extract, which they applied as a compress or wash to cuts, bruises, insect bites, rashes, and other skin irritations, as well as for eye inflammation, headache, and muscle and joint pain.

Today, witch hazel is a common ingredient in many personal-care products, including deodorants, aftershave lotions, disposable wipes, soaps, and body creams. Witch hazel is usually applied topically to treat superficial cuts, hemorrhoids, and insect bites.

Caution: Used internally, witch hazel can irritate your stomach.

ORNAMENTAL USE

With fall blooms and bright fall foliage, witch hazel makes a striking addition to naturalistic plantings and shrub borders in your landscape. The Chinese species Hamamelis mollis and Chinese–Japanese hybrids (H. × intermedia) include many outstanding garden cultivars with fragrant golden, copper, or red flowers. Most of the hybrids bloom a bit later (January to March) than the native American species.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Witch hazel flourishes in partial shade and moist, rich soil with a neutral to acid pH. Plant nursery-grown shrubs in spring. Propagate by seed or by layering. To improve the germination of collected seeds, keep them at 70°F for 2 months, then chill them at 40°F for 3 more months before planting.

Helleborus niger

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Black Hellebore, Christmas Rose

Description: Perennial, up to 1 foot tall; deep green, evergreen leaves divided into seven to nine toothed leaflets; two or three white roselike blooms produced from an underground stem

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Ranunculaceae

Flowering: January through March

Parts Used: Flowers (ornamental)

Range/Habitat: Central and southern mountainous regions of Europe, naturalized in parts of North America

One of a genus of 15 poisonous perennials, this European evergreen takes one of its common names from its beautiful roselike blooms that appear in the depth of winter. What can be seen aboveground is actually the plant’s flower stalk, topped with its white or pinkish white flowers; the plant’s true stem is underground.

This species was introduced as a garden plant and escaped, naturalizing in the northern United States and Canada. The genus name comes from the Greek elein (which means “to injure”) and bora (which means “food”); the species name refers to the dark color of the plant’s root.

In the Middle Ages, people strewed black hellebore flowers on the floors of their homes to drive out evil influences. Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), a Roman naturalist and philosopher, reported that the healer and diviner Melampus used this plant as a purgative for the treatment of manic conditions around 1400 BCE.

MEDICINAL USE

This plant is toxic and is not used in modern medicine. Black hellebore contains the cardioactive steroids hellebrin, helleborin, and helleborein, which act in a similar way to digitalis, causing irregular heartbeat. Even handling the plant—particularly its roots—can cause severe skin irritation and blistering. In ancient times, black hellebore was used as a powerful purgative for the treatment of parasites and as a treatment for certain mental conditions. But even at that time, using this plant therapeutically was considered very dangerous.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Blooming in late winter to early spring, black hellebore adds welcome beauty to perennial borders, foundation plantings, rock gardens, and open woodland settings. Grow it alone or in groups.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Black hellebore thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil and partial shade. Slugs can become a problem; if so, use diatomaceous earth. Fertilize the plants in spring. Black hellebore can be propagated by seed or division; divide established (6- to 7-year-old) plants in spring, after they have flowered.

Caution: Wear gloves when handling this plant; some people experience severe dermatitis when touching the bruised leaves and roots of black hellebore.

Hibiscus sabdariffa

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Hibiscus, Roselle

Description: Bushy, 8-foot-tall plant; lobed leaves with reddish veins and petioles; large, cream-yellow flowers with red centers and red calyces

Hardiness: To Zone 8; grown as an annual in cooler areas

Family: Malvaceae

Flowering: September to October

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native from India to Malaysia; cultivated in subtropical and tropical regions

This Old World plant, native from India to Malaysia, has quite different uses depending on the cultivar. Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa produces edible flowers with red calyces (the outermost flower parts), which are used to make a beverage. The stems of the variety H. sabdariffa var. altissima, which rise to 16 feet, produce a fiber used to manufacture burlap bags, rope, and string.

Introduced to the southern United States in the late 19th century, hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa var. sabdariffa) is a bushy plant that grows to 8 feet tall and bears showy yellow blooms. When the flower fades and closes, the reddish calyx begins to swell and becomes fleshy, ripening from the bottom of the plant to the top. Eventually the fruit matures and releases the seeds.

CULINARY USE

Hibiscus flowers can be used to make beverages, syrups, jams, or jellies. Karkade, a refreshing Middle Eastern drink served cold, is made from whole flowers that have been soaked for 24 hours. Whole hibiscus flowers can also be floated in drinks or stuffed with cheese and baked.

The red calyces—which contain vitamin C and significant amounts of calcium, niacin, iron, and riboflavin—are widely used in East Africa, Thailand, the Caribbean, and Mexico to make hot and cold drinks. In Mexican markets, bags of dried calyces are sold as “Flor de Jamaica.”

To make hot or cold hibiscus tea, harvest the calyces when they have turned bright red. Make a cut on the side of each one and remove the seeds. Steep the remaining part in water—the liquid will turn bright red—and add lemon and sugar to taste. You can also add the chopped fresh calyces to fruit salads, or you can cook them with sugar to make a sauce. For a finer-textured syrup, run the cooked sauce through a sieve. The syrup can be added to puddings or salad dressings, or used as a topping for desserts.

Hibiscus’s young leaves taste something like spicy spinach. Add them to salads, or cook them with vegetables, rice, or fish, as they do in Senegal.

MEDICINAL USE

Most parts of the hibiscus plant are used in the traditional healing practices of many world cultures. In East Africa, the heated leaves are applied to wounds and other skin irritations. In India, a decoction of the plant’s seeds, which are considered a diuretic, is given to relieve painful urination and indigestion. The calyx tea is also believed to be a diuretic.

Folk traditions suggest that the tea is good for treating anxiety, and numerous clinical trials have shown that those who consumed the tea had lower blood pressure levels than those who took a placebo or drank another type of tea. One study showed that consuming a powder made from the calyces reduced blood glucose levels and total cholesterol, as well as triglycerides.

Hibiscus can also help with constipation. The bitter roots are valued for their emollient properties and for toning the stomach and increasing appetite. The plant is rich in anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid), which are thought to provide some of the health benefits.

Caution: Do not consume any part of hibiscus if you are pregnant or taking acetaminophen.

ORNAMENTAL USE

With showy yellow flowers, bright red calyces, and bright red stems with contrasting dark green leaves, hibiscus makes a beautiful addition to the garden—even in areas where the growing season isn’t long enough for the plant to set fruits. In subtropical or tropical regions, the bushy plant can be grown in a border or as a hedge. In temperate regions, grow it in a large container on a sunny deck or patio.

OTHER USES

An extract made from the calyx is used as a natural red food coloring. Hibiscus seeds have been used as a coffee substitute, chicken feed, and source of oil. Some consider the seeds an aphrodisiac.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Frost-sensitive hibiscus thrives in full sun and moist, fertile soil. It can be started outdoors from seed in Zones 8 through 11. In cooler regions, start the seed indoors and move the plant outdoors after all danger of frost has passed and temperatures have warmed. The plants take up to 8 months to fruit.

Humulus lupulus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Hops

Description: Vigorous perennial vine grows up to 25 feet or more, producing new stems from the plant’s base each year; bright green, deeply lobed leaves; flowers mature into pale green, papery bracts

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Cannabaceae

Flowering: August to September

Parts Used: Female flower

Habitat: Temperate areas of Europe, western Asia, and North America

Native to North America, Europe, and Asia, the hops plant is a tall, spindly, clinging vine with bright green, deeply lobed leaves. Its common name comes from the Anglo-Saxon hoppan, meaning “to climb.” The cone-shaped fruits of the female plant give beer its distinctive flavor. Hops are grown in nearly every country of the world, but especially in the United States and Germany, which are both renowned for their beers. The observation that hops pickers often became unusually tired and sometimes were found napping on the job inspired the creation of sleep pillows, or “dream pillows,” containing hops. Today, these sleep-inducing pillows often contain lavender or rose petals, as well.

CULINARY USE

Hops provide the bitter elements used to brew beer. The young shoots can also be boiled, steamed, or eaten raw and served like asparagus.

MEDICINAL USE

The fruit of the hops plant contains resinous bitter substances, essential oil, and flavonoids that have sedative and spasmolytic properties. Herbalists use hops tinctures, teas, and capsules to relieve anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, and lack of appetite.

Caution: Avoid using hops if you have been diagnosed with depression.

OTHER USES

In the landscape, the hops vine makes an attractive cover for a fence, arbor, or pergola. You can also cut and dry the flower heads to make beautiful wreaths or everlasting arrangements.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant hops vines in spring in full sun or light shade in deep, moist soil enriched with compost. Choose a site that receives good air circulation to prevent mildew, and provide strong support for the vigorous vines. Vines begin bearing during their third year. Harvest the papery cones in early fall. For best flavor and effectiveness, use fresh hops quickly. If you must store hops, dry them immediately in a 125° to 150°F oven, then keep them in a cool location, away from light. Propagate hops from young softwood cuttings taken in spring (6- to 8-inch cuttings should have at least two sets of buds each), or from leaf bud cuttings taken in early summer.

Hydrastis canadensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Goldenseal, Orange Root, Yellow Root

Description: Perennial, 6 to 12 inches tall, with deeply divided, five-lobed leaves; oblong orange-red berries with two shiny black seeds inside; golden roots

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Ranunculaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Rhizomes and roots

Range/Habitat: North America; moist woodlands, meadows, and open highlands

A member of the buttercup family, goldenseal bears deeply toothed leaves and red, raspberrylike berries. The plant’s common name refers to the golden marks on the rhizomes, thought to resemble the wax seals once used on envelopes.

Native Americans used the bright yellow roots as a dye and as a remedy for a wide range of conditions that included skin inflammations, digestive problems, and ailments of the eye, ear, lung, heart, and liver. Goldenseal quickly became a popular home remedy among European settlers, as well.

At one time the plant grew throughout the moist, rich woodlands of eastern North America, but goldenseal’s popularity as a medicinal led to the overharvesting of the wild plants; today this species is considered endangered. Goldenseal remains one of the top-selling botanical products sold by the health-food industry, and some commercial suppliers now cultivate it.

MEDICINAL USE

Goldenseal root contains the alkaloids berberine and hydrastine, which stimulate digestion, increase bile flow, and lower blood pressure. Believed to have antibacterial, antiseptic, and astringent properties due to the presence of berberine, the herb is used to treat diarrhea, respiratory infections, colds, eye infections, and (as a mouthwash) sore gums and throats. Commercially prepared goldenseal salves and ointments (sometimes blended with comfrey or plantain) are available for treating sores, cuts, and other skin irritations. While clinical studies have shown that the compound berberine could be beneficial for treating some infections, clinical studies have not been conducted using the whole plant extract.

Caution: Goldenseal should not be used during pregnancy or by very young children.

OTHER USES

With mordants (see this page), the root produces permanent dyes ranging from pale yellow to orange. Mixed with indigo, it produces an attractive green.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Goldenseal thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil in dappled shade. The genus name Hydrastis is Latin for “water,” referring to goldenseal’s affinity for a damp growing environment. Budded rhizomes (available from specialty suppliers) are easiest to grow. Plant them in soil enriched to a depth of 10 inches with compost, leaf mold, and sand. In winter, mulch with shredded leaves. Harvest the roots of established plants (at least 4 to 5 years old) in late fall.

Hypericum perforatum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: St. John’s Wort

Description: Erect perennial, up to 2 feet tall; spreads by underground runners; small, oblong leaves; bright yellow, flat flowers; turpentine-like smell

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Hypericaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia; naturalized in North America in woods, meadows, and along roadsides

St. John’s wort, a perennial, bears bright yellow, five-petaled flowers and red, pink, orange, green, or brown berries. The flower petals have tiny black dots near the margins that give the plant its species name, perforatum. The common name possibly comes from the plant’s bloom time—around St. John’s Day (June 24)—or from the reddish color of its crushed flowers, symbolizing the saint who is often depicted in a red robe. For more than 2,000 years, people have used St. John’s wort to treat insomnia, anxiety, and mild depression. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460–377 BCE) was an early proponent of the plant’s therapeutic value.

MEDICINAL USE

Many scientific studies have confirmed the safety and effectiveness of St. John’s wort for treating mild to moderate depression, along with accompanying fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia. The compound or compounds responsible for the herb’s antidepressant activity are not yet known. Its flowers and unopened buds contain hyperforin (a compound that has antibiotic properties) and hypericin (a substance that gives St. John’s wort oils and tinctures a deep red color). When used externally, St. John’s wort seems to help nerve pain, wounds, burns, and insect bites. It is a common ingredient in skin cleansers, as well as face, body, and hand creams.

Caution: Fair-skinned people using St. John’s wort should avoid excessive exposure to sunlight because this herb can increase sun sensitivity. Talk to your physician or pharmacist before using St. John’s wort if you are taking prescription medications, as the chance for herb-drug interaction is high. Do not use this herb if you are taking prescription antidepressants.

OTHER USES

The stems can be used to dye alum-mordanted fabric a brownish red (see this page). The flowers produce a yellow, orange-red, or mauve dye, depending on the mordant and dyeing method used.

 HOW TO GROW IT

St. John’s wort grows best in full sun and well-drained, fairly dry soil. Plant the seeds or root divisions in spring or fall. St. John’s wort spreads by runners; pull out unwanted plants to control their growth. For medicinal use, cut the flowering stems just as they begin to bloom; use the flowers fresh or dried.

Caution: St. John’s wort can become invasive and can be toxic to cattle if consumed in extremely large quantities.

Hyssopus officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Hyssop

Description: Compact perennial, 2 to 3 feet tall, with opposite gray leaves and dense spikes of blue double-lipped flowers; highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Flowers and leaves

Range/Habitat: Grows freely in the Mediterranean region, especially in the Balkans and in Turkey

A member of the mint family, hyssop bears soft, hairy gray leaves and double-lipped blue flowers that are highly attractive to bees and butterflies. In times past, people placed branches of this strongly aromatic and antiseptic herb on the floors of sickrooms and kitchens. It was so highly regarded as a medicinal panacea that, according to an old saying, “Whoever rivals hyssop’s virtues, knows too much.” The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460–377 BCE) named the plant hyssopus, from the Hebrew ezob, meaning “holy herb”—although it is not the same hyssop mentioned in the Bible. The biblical hyssop is believed to be another member of the mint family, Origanum syriacum.

CULINARY USE

Hyssop tastes like a combination of sage and mint. Traditionally, people used it to flavor soups and meat dishes. Try adding small amounts of this strong-flavored herb to bean dishes, salads, and fruit dishes. Hyssop is an ingredient in Chartreuse liqueur and a renowned flavoring for honey in France.

MEDICINAL USE

Hyssop contains flavonoids, tannins, resins, and terpenes, including marrubiin, which is a strong expectorant. The plant also contains compounds that have antiviral, antibacterial, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Herbal practitioners use hyssop to relieve the symptoms of colds, flus, and other respiratory infections, as well as asthma in both children and adults. It is also useful for treating indigestion, gas, bloating, and colic. Externally, a poultice of crushed hyssop leaves can soothe skin inflammations, cuts, and bruises.

Caution: Hyssop should not be used during pregnancy.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Hyssop is easy to grow in a sunny, dry location. In early spring, sow seeds ¼ inch deep; thin seedlings to about 1 foot apart. For medicinal use, harvest the flowering tips just before the blooms begin to open. Propagate hyssop by seed, root division, or cuttings.

Ilex paraguariensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Maté, Paraguay Tea, Yerba Maté

Description: Evergreen shrub or small tree, 15 to 50 feet tall; oval, leathery leaves with serrated edges; small, greenish white, four-petaled flowers and red berries

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Flowering: Late winter to early spring

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to South America; grows wild near streams

A member of the holly family found in subtropical South America, maté is a caffeine-containing evergreen shrub or small tree used most commonly to produce the slightly bitter tea of the same name. After the leathery leaves are harvested, they are heated, ground, and then stored in sacks for approximately 1 year before being used to make the beverage.

More than 300 years ago, indigenous people taught Jesuit missionaries about the stimulant properties of this tea, and the missionaries then introduced maté tea to European colonists in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and elsewhere. The Jesuits named the herb from the Spanish word for “gourd,” a reference to the gourds from which the South American indigenous people drank their tea.

In parts of South America, people still drink maté from a small gourd (cuia), using a straw (bombilla). Those who enjoy maté sip their beverage throughout the day, reusing the ground leaves and refilling the gourd with hot water.

CULINARY USE

Maté is so popular in South America that more than 200 brands of the tea are sold in Argentina alone. Maté is usually enjoyed plain, although milk, lemon, or sugar are sometimes added for flavor. A cup of maté contains about half as much caffeine as a cup of brewed coffee; it also contains vitamins A and C, along with minerals, including iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc. In South America, the herb is used to flavor foods ranging from bread to soft drinks.

MEDICINAL USE

In addition to caffeine, maté contains astringent and antiseptic tannins similar to those in green tea (Camellia sinensis). The herb stimulates the nervous system, relieving mental and physical fatigue, and it has diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties. In South America, maté is taken as an appetite suppressant and used to relieve mild depression, nervous tension, migraine headaches, and joint pain.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Maté thrives in moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade; it requires a minimum temperature of 20°F. As a houseplant, it will reach a mature height of 2 to 4 feet. For best growth indoors, provide full sun and a minimum temperature of 50°F. Harvest the leaves when the berries ripen to red. Propagate from seed or semiripe cuttings.

Illicium verum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Chinese Star Anise

Description: Small, rounded, evergreen tree, up to 15 feet tall and 9 feet across; small, greenish white or red flowers and glossy foliage; aromatic seedpods open to a star shape when ripe

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Schisandraceae

Flowering: March to May

Parts Used: Fruit (seedpod)

Range/Habitat: Native to South China and Vietnam

Chinese star anise is a small evergreen tree native to China and Vietnam. Shaped like an eight-pointed star, the fruits (or seedpods) have a warm, sweet licorice flavor similar to that of aniseed. After a heavy meal, you can chew the pods to freshen your breath and stimulate digestion. But first, be sure you have the right star anise: Chinese star anise is sometimes confused with Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum), a related species with highly toxic fruit. The fruit of the Japanese species is slightly smaller, tastes somewhat bitter, and lacks a sweet smell. Some people who unknowingly consumed the Japanese species have been accidentally poisoned.

CULINARY USE

Chinese star anise is a key ingredient in Chinese five-spice powder and is used to flavor many Asian dishes. Use a pinch of the ground pods to flavor Asian soups or Peking duck. It is also an important source of flavoring for liqueurs, such as anisette.

MEDICINAL USE

This herb has carminative (gas-relieving), stimulant, and diuretic properties. In traditional medicine, the fruit has been used as an expectorant and to treat constipation and dysentery, upset stomachs, spasms, and toothaches. In traditional Chinese medicine it is used as a tea to relieve colic and has been used to treat arthritis.

Shikimic acid extracted from Chinese star anise was used to produce the antiviral medication Tamiflu, originally developed to lessen the severity and duration of common colds and influenza. This drug has become the first line of defense against more serious viral infections, such as H5N1 avian influenza (bird flu). Limited supplies of this herb and the worldwide threat caused by influenza epidemics have resulted in a search for other methods of obtaining shikimic acid, such as bacterial fermentation.

OTHER USES

Chinese star anise is a flavoring in some medicines and toothpastes. The essential oil adds a licorice scent to soaps and cosmetics. Use the attractive pods decoratively in potpourri or as part of handmade holiday ornaments and garlands.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Provide a humid environment, filtered sunlight, and moist but well-drained soil with a neutral to acid pH. In Zone 8 and colder, grow Chinese star anise in a container, and move the potted plant indoors when the weather turns cold. This slow-growing plant may take several years to begin flowering and fruiting. Harvest the fruits just before they ripen. Propagate by taking semiripe cuttings.

Impatiens capensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Impatiens, Jewelweed, Touch-Me-Not

Description: Annual, 3 to 5 feet tall, with oval, toothed leaves; trumpet-shaped 1-inch orange flowers with red spots; long seedpods pop open when touched

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Balsaminaceae

Flowering: July to October

Parts Used: Entire plant

Range/Habitat: Native throughout most of North America; found in moist woodland areas

Touch the ripe fruits of this North American orange-flowered annual and they will burst open, releasing seeds in all directions. Also known as “touch-me-not,” jewelweed grows along creek beds, in moist woods, and in other locations where there is plenty of moisture. It has a beautiful translucent, succulent green stem, which is all the more apparent when held up to the light. The name jewelweed comes from the way rain forms silvery beads—reminiscent of jewels—on the plant’s leaves. The species is related to garden impatiens, and it bears bright orange trumpet-shaped blooms that are highly attractive to hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Jewelweed is a very important medicinal plant that’s been used by Native Americans for a variety of purposes, both internal and external. It grows in the same environments as poison ivy, which is helpful, because jewelweed can be used to treat rashes and hives caused by contact with skin irritants such as poison ivy and poison oak, as well as stinging nettles.

MEDICINAL USE

The most common traditional Native American use for this plant was as a dermatological aid, applied as a poultice, ointment, or wash. The people of various groups used the crushed plant or its parts to treat burns, cuts, bruises, skin rashes, eczema, poison ivy, nettle stings, sprains, and sore limbs. Some tribes also used infusions of this plant to ease childbirth, as a diuretic, or to treat fevers.

OTHER USES

Native Americans used this plant to make an orange-yellow dye for cloth. The whole plant was chopped and then boiled together with the cloth in water; rusty nails were sometimes added to the pot.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Considered a weed in some areas, jewelweed grows easily in moist, fertile soil and partial shade. The seeds need light to germinate, so sow them directly on the soil surface (without covering them). For best results, plant fresh seeds of jewel-weed outdoors in late fall for germination the following spring. Or give the seed 4 weeks of cool stratification (see this page) before you sow it outdoors in spring. Keep the soil moist until plants become established. The plants self-seed freely.

FIELD NOTES

Put Skin Troubles on Ice

Growing up, I spent a lot of time hiking and camping in Northeastern forests, surrounded by massive trees and picturesque outcroppings. During these walks, I learned a great deal about native plants and their uses. One of my favorites was jewelweed, a plant that often grows in moist areas near two hiker’s scourges—poison ivy and stinging nettle. When I brushed against a stinging nettle and irritating hives began to form almost immediately, my guide grabbed a handful of jewelweed stem, crushed it in his hand, and told me to rub it on the painful, burning area. Almost immediately the stinging disappeared, as did some of the redness. Native Americans used jewelweed the same way to treat poison ivy and poison oak rashes, as well.

I still use this plant today, but because it is an annual with a short life (and I am not always by a stream or wetland when I need it), I preserve it for future use. After harvesting the stems, I rinse off any soil, then chop the stems in a blender for a few seconds to produce a sticky, fibrous, clear green liquid. Then I freeze the liquid in an ice cube tray (see photo). Whenever I need to soothe poison ivy or another skin rash or irritation throughout the year, I apply a cube to the area several times daily until the problem is resolved.—M. J. B.

Indigofera tinctoria

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Indigo, True Indigo

Description: Deciduous shrub, 2 to 6 feet tall; small reddish flowers produced in racemes; opposite leaflets

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: June and July

Parts Used: Leaves, stem, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to India, naturalized in Hawaii and the southern United States

Indigo, a member of the pea family native to India, is a tropical deciduous shrub that bears small reddish pink flowers. Although the leaflets and branches of many Indigofera species yield a natural blue dye, I. tinctoria—which was used at least 6,000 years ago in China—is used most commonly today. Approximately 660 pounds of I. tinctoria are required to produce about 2.2 pounds of dye. The ancient Greek word for the dye, indicon, means “blue dye from India.” Ancient Romans used the word indicum, which later became “indigo” in English. The worldwide cultivation of indigo declined sharply with the advent of synthetic dyes in the 20th century.

MEDICINAL USE

Although not often used in contemporary Western herbal medicine, indigo root and stem are thought to cleanse the liver and blood, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and fight fever. In one animal study with rats, indigo was shown to have liver-protectant properties. In Ayurvedic medicine, indigo has a broad range of uses: It promotes hair growth, acts as a purgative, treats intestinal obstructions, and can be used in a poultice to treat skin conditions such as scabies, wounds, and sores. Fresh leaf juice is used to treat whooping cough, asthma, and heart palpitations. The herb known as wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), also of the pea family, is used medicinally as an astringent, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and fever reducer, but it contains several compounds that are quite toxic.

OTHER USES

The fermented leaves of this species can be used to produce a blue dye for fabric. To ferment the leaves, steep them in water for 12 to 48 hours, stirring frequently. The blue sediment that forms is the dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

This frost-tender tropical plant prefers a hot, humid climate, full sun, and well-drained sandy loam. It will not thrive in clay. In colder regions, grow it as an annual. To improve germination, scarify (see this page) the seeds gently with sandpaper, then soak them in warm water for 24 hours before sowing. Prune hard to encourage the new growth that produces flowers. Propagate by cuttings taken in summer. A nitrogen fixer, indigo enriches the soil where it is grown.

Inula helenium

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Elecampane, Horseheal, Scabwort, Wild Sunflower

Description: Perennial, 4 to 6 feet tall, with a stout, woolly stem; flowers 3 to 4 inches across have a center disk surrounded by yellow rays; toothed leaves up to 2 feet long

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Roots

Range/Habitat: Native to central and northern Europe and northwest Asia; naturalized in parts of North America along roadsides and woodland edges

The species name of this sunflower look-alike is said to reflect its association with Helen of Troy: Elecampane either sprang from her tears, or she was holding a branch of it when Paris stole her away. Two of the plant’s common names come from its early use by veterinarians to treat pulmonary disorders in horses and skin diseases in sheep. The ancient Romans used elecampane’s roots to relieve the symptoms of post-banquet indigestion. “Let no day pass without eating some of the roots of elecampane . . . to help digestion, to expel melancholy, and to cause mirth,” wrote the Roman scholar Pliny (23–79 CE) many centuries ago.

CULINARY USE

Elecampane roots can be candied or used to flavor desserts. To make an aperitif, infuse the roots in wine, along with other herbs or fruit.

MEDICINAL USE

Herbalists throughout the world have used elecampane’s thick, fleshy root to treat diseases of the chest. Rarely used alone, the dried, crushed root is said to be an effective ingredient in many compound medicines. Native American herbalists used elecampane root in combination with spikenard and comfrey roots to treat bronchial and other lung ailments. In China, where the native species of the plant is known as hsuanfuhua, elecampane syrup, lozenges, and candy are used to treat bronchitis and asthma.

Besides relieving lung problems, elecampane is also thought to relieve stomach cramps and other digestive ailments. Taking a mixture of the powdered root with sugar or steeped in tea is believed to help regulate menstrual cycles. The root also works as a diuretic; at one time, it was used as a treatment for water retention due to congestive heart failure, then known as dropsy.

Elecampane root tea is still sometimes used as a remedy for coughs and other minor respiratory ailments.

Caution: Avoid using this herb if you are pregnant or nursing or are allergic to ragweed.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow elecampane in moist but well-drained clay loam and partial shade. Harvest the roots in fall during the plant’s second or third growing year, after a hard frost or two. (The roots of older plants are too woody for use.) To propagate the plant, take offshoots or 2-inch root cuttings from a mature plant during fall. Cover the cuttings with moist, sandy soil, and keep them at 50° to 60°F until growth occurs, which should happen by early spring.

Isatis tinctoria

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Woad

Description: Biennial or perennial; 3 to 5 feet tall; bluish green oblong leaves up to 4 inches long; stalks topped with small yellow flowers appear in second year; black seedpods

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Brassicaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Asia and Europe, naturalized throughout North America

This perennial or biennial species, native to Asia and Europe, was once a dominant source of blue dye. One of the earliest recorded uses was by the ancient Egyptians, who used it to dye the cloth used to wrap mummies. In the British Isles, ancient warriors painted their bodies with woad to frighten their opponents, and according to folklore, the herb was one of the dyes used to color the green tunic of Robin Hood. The plant was cultivated as a major industry and trade item until the mid-17th century, when it was largely replaced by indigo. Both woad and indigo have been eclipsed by synthetic dyes.

MEDICINAL USE

Woad is a very astringent herb and is believed to have antiviral properties. Ancient herbalists considered it useful for reducing the inflammation of external wounds and sores and used it as a styptic by applying it as a poultice or plaster. A woad poultice was also thought to help alleviate an enlarged spleen. Contemporary herbalists use woad topically to treat skin rashes and abscesses.

Caution: Although woad may have astringent properties, it is toxic and should not be taken internally.

OTHER USES

To produce the blue dye, fresh leaves are macerated, rolled into balls, and sun-dried. Following this, the balls of woad are crushed, mixed with water, fermented, and then made into a powder for use as a dye. It is the lengthy fermentation process that can produce a strong and offensive odor, reminiscent of the smell of sewage. For that reason, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen of England, would not allow the manufacture of this dye within 5 miles of her royal palaces. There were also issues of woad cultivation taking up too much arable land in England at a time when there was a serious food shortage. Queen Elizabeth I also issued the 1585 edict “By the Queene. A Proclamation against the Sowing of Woade” that forbade new plantings of this dye crop in areas where food plants could otherwise be produced.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow woad in rich, well-drained soil and full sun. Avoid growing woad near other members of the family Brassicaceae, such as cabbage or broccoli, to reduce the chance of disease and pests. Sow seed directly in the garden in either spring or late summer. To make dye, gather leaves just before the plant blossoms, beginning during the second season. Established plants self-sow freely.

Caution: Woad is considered an invasive weed in some western states, and its growth is prohibited or quarantined in several places. Check with your local extension office before planting it if you live in the West.

Larrea tridentata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Chaparral, Creosote Bush

Description: Thorny, olive green or yellow evergreen shrub, up to 6 feet tall; dark green leaves with opposite leaflets; bright yellow flowers up to 1 inch across; highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Zygophyllaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, and stems

Range/Habitat: Found throughout desert regions of the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico

Chaparral is a thorny, olive green or yellow evergreen shrub with a strong odor of tar, or creosote. The plant dominates the landscape of the desert regions of North America, forming vast populations. For many Native American groups, chaparral was a panacea, useful for treating a wide range of conditions that included dandruff, snakebite, and low energy. The wood was used to make arrows and tools, and the fiber was used as a building material.

MEDICINAL USE

Traditionally, Native American people made a chaparral leaf wash or poultice to treat arthritis, bruises, and wounds, and to treat aching or sore areas of the body. An infusion of the leaves was considered to be an antiseptic and was used to wash and cleanse the skin. It was also used to treat the sores on domesticated animals caused by the rubbing of a collar or strap. Chaparral tea was taken internally to relieve asthma, colds, sore throats, diarrhea, and many other conditions.

Chaparral contains nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA), a powerful antioxidant formerly used by the food industry to preserve cooking oils. This compound is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. The herb also has antimicrobial, antiviral, and hyperglycemic properties. According to a study published in the Journal of Dental Research, using chaparral mouthwash reduced cavity formation by 75 percent.

Caution: Do not take chaparral internally; internal use of this herb has been known to cause severe liver and kidney damage. Do not use chaparral internally or externally if you are pregnant, nursing, or have liver or kidney disease.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A desert plant, chaparral thrives in dry conditions, sandy or gravelly soil, and full sun. Consider growing it in a large container because its roots contain chemicals that can kill nearby plants. To improve germination, scarify the seed (see this page), then soak it in water for 24 hours before sowing it in a flat indoors. Cover the seed with a small amount of soil. After the second set of true leaves appears, transplant the seedlings. Water periodically for the first 2 years, but allow the soil to dry out completely before watering again. Allow seed heads to dry on the plant before collecting them for propagation.

Laurus nobilis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bay, Bay Laurel, Grecian Laurel, Sweet Bay, True Bay

Description: Dense pyramid-shaped evergreen shrub or tree, up to 50 feet tall; shiny, dark green, leathery leaves up to 3 inches long; umbels of inconspicuous flowers; dark purple berries

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Lauraceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region and Asia Minor; widely cultivated

The leathery, dark green leaves of this small Mediterranean tree symbolized success to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who wove its branches into crowns to honor scholars, poets, generals, and Olympic victors. Derived from the Latin laus, meaning “praise,” Laurus nobilis is still used to signify victory or achievement. Herbalists of the past used bay leaves and berries to treat various conditions—including hysteria, flatulence, and colic. Today, bay is most valued in the kitchen.

CULINARY USE

Dried bay leaves are very popular in French, Spanish, and Creole cuisine and are used to flavor poultry, stews, vegetables, and meat dishes. Bay is an ingredient in bouquet garni, a group of herbs (usually parsley, thyme, and bay) tied together or placed in a cheesecloth bag and used to flavor soups. Always remove bay leaves before eating; they have very sharp edges and, if swallowed, can injure your throat.

MEDICINAL USE

Though bay is primarily a culinary herb, it is also used as a digestive tonic to stimulate appetite, increase the secretion of digestive juices, and settle your stomach. When used in cooking, bay leaves help break down foods, especially meats, making digestion easier. Liniments and salves containing essential oil of bay can be used externally to ease arthritis pain, sprains, and bruises.

Caution: Essential oil of bay may irritate the skin of sensitive individuals and should be applied only in dilute (approximately 2 percent) concentrations.

OTHER USES

An infusion of bay leaves can be added to bathwater. The fatty oil extracted from the fruits is used in some skin-care products, shampoos, and soaps.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Bay is an ideal container plant and can be easily pruned and maintained at a mature height of about 5 feet. Provide well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade, and shelter the plant from cold and frost. Propagate by taking semiripe cuttings, and plant them in fall. Bay leaves can be collected year-round and dried for future use. Flatten the drying leaves with a board or other object to prevent curling. Store them in an airtight container in a dark location.

Lavandula angustifolia

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Lavender, True Lavender, English Lavender

Description: Bushy branching shrub, 2 to 3 feet tall; narrow, gray-green leaves; spikes of small purple, blue, or pink flowers; highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to France and the western Mediterranean, naturalized in Europe, the Middle East, and India; dry, stony soils

Vast fields of cultivated and wild lavender color the countryside of southern France, Spain, and other areas of the western Mediterranean region. One of the world’s most beloved herbs, this highly aromatic plant in the mint family bears narrow, gray-green leaves and purple or pinkish flowers. The genus Lavandula includes several dozen species and hundreds of cultivars. Lavendula angustifolia, sometimes called true or English lavender, is a favorite garden species.

The common name lavender comes from the Roman lavare (“to wash”), a reference to the herb’s use as a scent for bathing and washing clothes. But the versatile herb has had many other uses, too. During the Middle Ages, people believed lavender to be an aphrodisiac, and they sprinkled lavender water on a lover’s head to keep him or her faithful. In the 19th century, women prone to fainting revived themselves with lavender-scented handkerchiefs. English farmers even tucked lavender under their hats to prevent sunstrokes and headaches.

CULINARY USE

Lavender flowers and leaves add color and a pungent, slightly bitter flavor to salads. The plant is sometimes used to flavor oil, vinegar, cheese, jam, honey, sugar, and ice cream and other desserts. The flowers can be candied and used to decorate cakes. On its own or in tea blends, lavender makes a delicious hot or cold beverage.

MEDICINAL USE

Well known for its soothing effects, lavender contains chemical compounds that appear to have anti-inflammatory, muscle-relaxing, pain-relieving, and sedative properties. It benefits digestion by stimulating the secretion of gastric juices, including bile. Lavender’s long-standing reputation as a powerful antiseptic has been supported by many studies, and recent research suggests that it has antifungal and antiviral properties, too.

The flowers are often used in sleep pillows—small sachets tucked under pillows to help ensure restful sleep. Lavender flower tea has been used to relieve anxiety, depression, indigestion, insomnia, and restlessness. It’s also been used as a mouthwash for halitosis and as a douche for vaginal yeast infections.

Undiluted lavender oil can be used to reduce pain and speed the healing of minor burns, insect bites, and other wounds. Try adding the fragrant oil to massage oil or bathwater to relieve sore muscles and tension. Inhaling the diluted oil, as in aromatherapy, promotes calmness.

Caution: People with sensitive skin could experience contact dermatitis when exposed to lavender oil. Test a small amount of the oil on your skin before applying it to a large area, or dilute it with a carrier oil or water.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Lavender is an excellent choice for borders, rock gardens, and hedges. The herb releases its scent when touched, so it is often planted in entryways, along paths and decks, and in other areas where passersby will brush against it. Lavender’s gray-green foliage and purple or pink flowers pair attractively with roses, yarrow, and echinacea.

OTHER USES

Aromatic lavender is used to scent skin lotions, shampoos, soaps, perfumes, potpourris, and herbal sachets. Lavender “wands” (made by weaving the bloom spikes) can be hung in closets or placed in drawers to scent clothing and deter moths.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant lavender in well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. Cut the bloom spikes just as they begin to open. Dry them in small bunches inside paper bags. Strip the dry buds from the stems, then store them in an airtight container. Replace woody, overgrown plants with new ones every 4 to 5 years. Propagate by taking semiripe cuttings in summer.

FIELD NOTES

Essential Antiseptic

If you have a dissecting microscope, you can look at the underside of a lavender leaf and see its many small round glands. These glands are filled with the powerful substance known as lavender oil.

From earliest times, lavender was recognized not only for its wonderful aroma, but also for its remarkable disinfectant powers. The Romans filled their communal baths with lavender flowers, and during the Middle Ages, houses were scrubbed with lavender extract to cleanse and disinfect them. During the Great Plague of London (1665–1666), glove makers scented their wares with lavender to ward off disease. (Lavender repels fleas, now known to have transmitted the plague.)

René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, discovered the healing powers of lavender after being burned in a laboratory accident in 1910. His hands started to develop gas gangrene, but he rinsed them with lavender oil and within a day or so they started to heal. Gottefossé is known as the father of aromatherapy; not only did he coin the term, but he also spread the word about the medical use of essential oils, such as lavender, through his research, teachings, and writing. During the First World War, lavender oil was employed as an antiseptic and is said to have saved many lives by preventing infection. Today, many scientific studies and clinical trials support the traditional uses of lavender oil for healing and improving health.—M. J. B.

Lepidium meyenii

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Maca

Description: Rosette of leaves forms a mat against the ground; cream, purple, or yellow tuberous taproot up to 3 inches across; flowers in racemes

Hardiness: To Zone 5 (but often cultivated as an annual or biennial)

Family: Brassicaceae

Flowering: Summer of the second season or sooner, if taproots are used for propagation

Parts Used: Root

Range/Habitat: Native to high elevations of the Andes Mountains

A perennial related to mustard, maca grows at very high elevations—to 15,000 feet—in the Andes Mountains. It withstands conditions that many other species cannot—freezing temperatures; intense sunlight; high winds; and poor, rocky soil. Maca grows low to the ground. Its flattened taproot—the part used as food and medicine by Andean farmers in Peru and Bolivia—is about the size of a radish. In ancient times, this traditional crop was traded for cassava, rice, quinoa, and other tropical crops grown by lowland-dwelling peoples. It’s said that when the Spanish came to the high Andes, their horses suffered from the elevation, but after foraging on maca they recovered and became energetic.

CULINARY USE

Maca is an excellent source of carbohydrate (60 to 75 percent), protein (11 to 14 percent), and fiber (8.5 percent). In its native growing regions, the taproot is roasted in a pit oven and eaten as a cooked vegetable, boiled and mashed into porridge, or made into a type of flour. The delicious porridge includes sugar and milk and has been said to taste similar to butterscotch. A beer known as Kuka is also made from maca by the Andean Brewing Company.

MEDICINAL USE

Maca is traditionally known as a food that increases stamina and energy, as well as fertility, virility, and libido. Studies of animals as well as humans seem to confirm these traditional beliefs. Herbalists use maca to treat male impotence and erectile dysfunction, as well as menstrual disorders, menopausal symptoms, hot flashes, and fatigue.

Caution: Not enough is known about possible problems associated with maca use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so avoid using it under these circumstances.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Maca thrives in well-drained, alkaline soil, cool temperatures, and full sun. Little is known about growing this high-altitude mountain plant in North America, but it is believed to do best as a winter crop planted in early fall. Sow the seeds directly in your garden (try a cold frame or cool greenhouse in Zone 6 and colder), covering them lightly with soil. Harvest the roots the following spring. Propagate by seed.

Levisticum officinale

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Lovage

Description: Perennial, up to 6 feet tall; basal rosette of finely cut foliage; greenish yellow flower umbels; aromatic seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Late spring

Parts Used: Leaves, roots, seeds, and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to mountainous slopes of southern Europe and southwestern Asia

The only plant in the genus Levisticum, lovage is native to the mountainous areas of southern Europe and southwestern Asia. It produces celery-flavored leaves in early spring—often before other fresh herbs are available—followed by tiny yellow flowers and aromatic seeds. Both its common and genus names come from the Latin word ligusticum, or Ligurian, for the Italian province where this herb once grew abundantly. The species name officinalerefers to its value as an herbal medicine.

CULINARY USE

You can eat every part of the lovage plant. In the Lombardy region of Italy, lovage leaves are made into a traditional stuffing for capons, with sautéed giblets, walnuts, Parmesan cheese, fresh bread crumbs, eggs, cream, and nutmeg. The leaves, which have a celerylike flavor, can also be steamed or blanched and eaten as a vegetable or added to soups, stews, salads, and omelets. You can cook lovage roots as a vegetable and add the sweet-flavored seeds to desserts and liqueurs. Use the fresh, hollow stalks as straws in cocktails, including the tomato juice and vodka beverage called a Bloody Mary.

MEDICINAL USE

In medieval times, this herb was thought to have aphrodisiac properties, and in the early 17th century it was used to scent bathwater. Lovage contains a volatile oil that has sedative and anticonvulsant properties, so it would provide a relaxing bath. A tea made from the leaves has been used as a tonic for the digestive system to treat conditions such as indigestion, gas, colic, and poor appetite. An oil distilled from the root is used in aromatherapy for these conditions, as well. Lovage could also be helpful in the treatment of upper respiratory conditions such as bronchitis.

Caution: Lovage should not be used during pregnancy or by those with kidney disease or weak kidneys.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Lovage grows well in deep, rich, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Choose a site at the back of a border for this tall plant, and amend the site with compost before planting the seeds in spring or fall. Harvest leaves and young stems before the plant flowers. Propagate by dividing the roots of established plants in spring.

Ligusticum porteri

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Osha, Bear Root, Mountain Lovage

Description: Perennial, up to 3 feet tall; finely dissected leaves; flat heads of white umbel flowers followed by ribbed, oblong fruits; dark, fibrous root with a yellow-white interior

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Late summer

Parts Used: Leaves, roots, and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to the Rocky Mountains and high elevations of northern Mexico; moist wooded areas and meadows

Osha is a perennial herb native to the mountains of western North America, from Montana to northern Mexico. The entire plant, including its dark brown, fibrous roots, has a strong, camphorlike scent. Osha root was, and continues to be, an important Native American healing herb. Some say people learned of the plant’s healing powers by observing bears (an animal associated with healing) digging up the roots and chewing them or rubbing them on their fur. The Zuni in New Mexico made an infusion of the root and rubbed it on their bodies to treat aches and pains; they used the crushed root to treat sore throats. Other groups, such as the Apache, ate raw osha as a vegetable. Commercial demand for this herb, combined with the difficulty of cultivating it, has led to the over-harvest of some wild populations. To help protect it, moratoria on its wild harvest have been implemented from time to time. Osha is easily confused with poison hemlock, which grows in similar areas, so collectors must be sure to identify the plant correctly.

MEDICINAL USE

Osha has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and may be useful in the treatment of sinus, throat, and upper and lower respiratory system infections. Osha helps loosen respiratory secretions and relaxes smooth muscle tissue, making it beneficial for treating coughs and asthma. This is due, in part, to the plant’s chemical compounds known as phthalides, which have sedative and muscle-relaxant properties. The herb also helps with wound healing. Recent research has shown that the roots and shoots of the plant have significant quantities of melatonin and serotonin, human neurotransmitters involved with conditions such as depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Caution: Do not take osha if you are pregnant or nursing.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Osha is considered difficult to cultivate, especially outside of its native range, perhaps due to specific soil requirements. If you wish to try growing this plant, sow fresh seeds in fall in a cold frame, or stratify the seeds (see this page) by chilling them in your refrigerator for up to 10 weeks before planting in a flat indoors. In spring, transplant the seedlings to a fertile, well-drained site that receives full sun. Osha is slow growing and can take up to 10 years to produce large roots for harvest.

Linum usitatissimum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Flax, Flaxseed, Linseed

Description: Slender, branching annual, up to 30 inches tall; delicate, five-petaled blue flowers followed by fruits containing up to 10 glossy brown seeds

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Linaceae

Flowering: June to August

Parts Used: Stems and seeds

Range/Habitat: Believed to be native to Egypt

Flax—a slender, branching annual that bears delicate, five-petaled blue flowers—is one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants and certainly the oldest textile fiber. Although its origins are not fully known, flax is presumed to be native to Egypt, where it has been used since ancient times to make linen. In Biblical times, three grades of linen were made, ranging from coarse to extremely fine.

CULINARY USE

Flaxseed adds a subtle nutty flavor to salads, baked goods, and cereals. Try adding the nutritious seeds to breakfast smoothies, or mix them with honey for a tasty breakfast spread. The seeds are most easily digested when they’re ground—but ground or whole, they should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. Use flaxseed oil in salad dressing. Flaxseed oil is highly perishable, so store it in an opaque bottle in your refrigerator.

MEDICINAL USE

Flaxseed oil is a rich source of the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, which is required for the formation of cell membranes in your body. Fatty acids are converted into prostaglandins that may help reduce inflammation and allergies. Flaxseed oil has been shown to be effective in lowering blood cholesterol levels. It may offer a protective effect against cancer, particularly breast cancer. The seeds have a long history of use in treating chronic constipation. Applied externally, flaxseed may help draw toxins from your blood, reduce inflammation, and speed the healing of superficial wounds.

Caution: Flaxseed should be taken with at least 6 ounces of liquid; otherwise, it can promote constipation. Do not take flaxseed if you believe you have a bowel obstruction.

OTHER USES

Flax fibers can be woven into fabric, called linen, or used for making baskets or crafts. Obtaining the fiber involves soaking the flax stems in water, drying them, and then crushing them so that the stem’s woody core separates from the usable fibers. To make linen, the fibers are combed, spun, and then woven.

Raw, unprocessed flax oil is used as a nutritional supplement, while processed oil from the seeds of this plant, combined with additives, is known as linseed oil. Linseed oil is used in paints, putty, and finishes for wood.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Flax thrives in deep, fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. It prefers relatively cool temperatures and should be sown outdoors at the same time peas and other cool-weather crops are planted. For the best-quality fiber, cut stems about 3 months after planting—after they’ve flowered but before seedpods form. To obtain seeds, pull up the entire plant when the lower leaves turn yellow and the seedpods are golden. Hang the plants in a warm, dry location. When the seedpods are dry, place them in a bag and crush them with a rolling pin or other hard object; separate the broken pods from the seeds with a sieve or colander.

FIELD NOTES

More Than Fiber

In the past, flax was much more than a food, medicine, and fiber plant. In parts of Europe, it was a good luck charm with the power to ward off evil. Flax was planted around houses and graves, added to coffins, and suspended above doorways to protect against spirits from the underworld.

Curiously, in many of these legends, the spirits were distracted from their evil deeds because they stopped to count the plant’s small seeds, fibers, or threads. Flax garments also had great religious and spiritual significance; for Israelite priests, for example, linen was the proscribed clothing.

To me, a field of blue flax flowers, waving with every wind, is a beautiful sight. When the plants are ready to harvest, the field is a sea of brown capsules ready to release their tiny seeds. And while we can’t evaluate the veracity of some traditional beliefs about flax in today’s laboratories, we do know that including flaxseed in our diets can help provide protection against some serious diseases and promote good health.—M. J. B.

Lobelia inflata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Lobelia, Gag Root, Indian Tobacco, Puke Weed, Vomit Root

Description: Branched stems, up to 3 feet tall; loose spikes of violet-blue blooms; inflated seedpods; lanceolate, toothed, alternate leaves. Stems exude milky latex juice when broken

Hardiness: Annual or biennial; to Zone 2

Family: Campanulaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to eastern North America and eastern Siberia; open fields and woods

The genus Lobelia, named for the 16th-century Flemish botanist Matthias de L’Obel, contains more than 400 species. Native to eastern North America, Lobelia inflata was well known to the Cherokee, Iroquois, and other Native Americans, who used the powerful plant to treat a variety of conditions. Samuel Thomson, an American herbalist-physician of the early 19th century, recommended lobelia as a muscle relaxant during childbirth; as a poultice for healing abscesses; and for the treatment of epilepsy, tetanus, diphtheria, dysentery, and whooping cough. Many herbalists of the time believed that the vomiting induced by lobelia cleansed the patient.

The herb’s powerful and toxic effects on the central nervous system have caused it to fall from favor in recent times. Lobelia is not an herb for home experimentation—confine it to the “history” portion of your garden, and keep it far away from children. All parts of the plant contain toxins; ingesting it can be fatal.

MEDICINAL USE

Native Americans smoked lobelia leaves to relieve asthma and bronchitis (hence the common name Indian tobacco). The herb contains a muscle-relaxing alkaloid called lobeline, which is related to nicotine. By relaxing the muscles of the smaller bronchial tubes, lobeline opens airways, stimulates breathing, and promotes the loosening of phlegm. It has also been used to induce vomiting in people who have been poisoned. The plant is highly toxic, however, and should never be used internally for its traditional purposes. Some herbalists still use it externally to relieve muscle tension and to soothe bruises and bites.

Caution: Even a miniscule amount of this herb, alone or in an herbal preparation, can cause paralysis, coma, and death.

 HOW TO GROW IT

An attractive garden border plant, lobelia thrives in well-drained, fertile soil and full sun to partial shade. Sow the seeds in moist soil, either directly in your garden in spring or in seed flats indoors in late winter. The seeds need light for germination; do not cover them with soil. Space plants 8 to 12 inches apart, and water during dry spells. Propagate by gathering seed in fall.

Lycium barbarum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Goji Berry, Wolf Berry

Description: Woody perennial up to 9 feet tall; alternate, lance-shaped leaves; light purple, bell-shaped blooms; oval red berries up to 1 inch long contain small yellow seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Solanaceae

Flowering: June through September

Parts Used: Fruit, leaves, and root bark

Range/Habitat: Native to southeastern Europe and Asia, naturalized in other parts of the world, including North America; dry, mountainous areas

The oval red fruits of this 9-foot-tall woody perennial are a rich source of amino acids, vitamin C, and antioxidants. In recent years, goji berry has gained a worldwide reputation as a superfood, often packaged and sold commercially as juice, dried berries, or a supplement. Native to southeastern Europe and Asia, the plant is a member of the same family as the tomato, pepper, and potato. Its preferred common name is derived from the Chinese name for the berry, Ningxia gouqi. During the 19th century, Chinese railroad workers introduced the plant to parts of western North America, where some wild stands still grow.

CULINARY USE

Goji berries have a sweet, tomatolike flavor. In China, the fruit is used to make tea and other beverages and is added to stews, soups, jellies, and rice congee, and to pork, chicken, and vegetable dishes. The mildly bitter-tasting leaves can also be added to soups or cooked with meat.

MEDICINAL USE

In traditional Chinese medicine, goji berries are believed to “brighten the spirit” and promote long life. Both the dried fruits and root bark of this plant are used to treat impotence, backache, weakness, dizziness, and diabetes. The root bark is also used to relieve sore throats, joint pain, and pneumonia. The berries are considered an aphrodisiac.

The goji berry contains antioxidants, including the carotenoids beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, which some believe protect our eyes from macular degeneration (although recent research has not substantiated this). A few studies have supported other benefits, however. In a recent clinical study, people who consumed goji berry juice had increased feelings of well-being and indicators of immune response compared to a placebo group. Another clinical study of a small group of people showed that drinking goji berry juice increased feelings of well-being and improved neurological and psychological performance, as well as bowel function.

Caution: Taking this herb regularly in combination with blood thinners or diabetes and blood pressure drugs could interfere with or increase the activity of the pharmaceutical drugs.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow goji berry in full sun and well-drained, alkaline soil that’s been amended with compost. Space the plants several feet apart, and pinch new growth occasionally to encourage bushiness. Fruiting begins in the plant’s third year. Cover ripening fruits with netting to shield them from birds and other wildlife. Pluck the berries by hand when they are bright red (like cherry tomatoes) and sweet. Propagate by seed or cuttings.

Marrubium vulgare

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Horehound, White Horehound

Description: Herbaceous perennial, 2 to 3 feet tall, with branching stems and soft, hairy leaves with serrated edges; white flowers in dense whorls

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Spring to early summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to southern Europe, central and western Asia, and North Africa, and naturalized in North America; dry, sandy places

This woolly leaved perennial thrives in dry, sandy areas across Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa. The genus name Marrubium is thought to derive from marrob, the Hebrew word for “bitter juice,” and horehound may have been one of the original bitter herbs of the Jewish Passover tradition. The herb’s common name possibly comes from the ancient Egyptians, who called it the Seed of Horus, or from the ancient Greeks, who were said to have used it to treat the bites of mad dogs. Folk legend held that horehound could break magic spells.

Horehound was said to relieve chronic hepatitis, tumors, tuberculosis, typhoid, paratyphoid, snakebite, worms, itches, jaundice, and bronchitis. But it was especially valued for its actions against coughs and lung troubles. Horehound cough syrups and drops were used as early as the 1600s; the English herbalist John Gerard (1545–1611) wrote that “a syrup made of the fresh green leaves and sugar is a most singular remedie against the cough and wheezing of the lungs.” While horehound remains an ingredient in some over-the-counter and prescription drugs, especially cough syrups, today it is known best as an old-fashioned candy flavoring.

CULINARY USE

Horehound’s menthol-flavored leaves are used to make confections and throat lozenges. To make horehound candy, add sugar to an infusion of the leaves, then boil until the mixture reaches a thick consistency. Pour it into a shallow pan and cut it into squares after it cools.

Horehound seed can be added to iced tea and lemonade. In England, horehound has been used as a substitute for hops in beer, and horehound ale is still sold in Europe.

MEDICINAL USE

Horehound’s primary medicinal constituents include tannin and marrubiin. (Marrubiin does not exist in the living plant but is formed during the extraction process.) Marrubiin has expectorant properties, which might contribute to the herb’s value as a cough soother. The herb also has a high concentration of mucilage, which eases sore throats. Traditionally, the leaves have been used to make a soothing tea for coughs, colds, and sore throats.

Sometimes horehound was infused with other herbs. One old-fashioned cold remedy that could be taken several times a day was a tea made from equal parts horehound, licorice root, marshmallow root, and hyssop. Mothers also gave children horehound syrup to settle an upset stomach.

Horehound tea is sometimes taken as a bitter to produce gastric action and aid digestion. Scientists

A small-scale human clinical trial involving this species showed that it had some positive effects on patients with type 2 diabetes, lowering plasma glucose levels slightly, with more substantial reductions in cholesterol and triglycerides. Further studies are needed to determine whether horehound could be used as a treatment for this condition.

Caution: Do not use this herb if you are pregnant or nursing. Also, be cautious if you have a history of heart or gastrointestinal trouble; reported side effects from using large amounts over a long period include arrhythmia, low blood pressure, and diarrhea. Do not confuse this plant with black or stinking horehound (Ballota nigra), which may be toxic in large quantities.

OTHER USES

In the past, horehound stems and leaves were used as insect repellent. The 1st-century Roman agriculturist Columella recommended horehound for “cankerworm” in trees; others have suggested that the herb repels grasshoppers and flies. In a 2004 lab experiment comparing the effect of eight different herbs on the feeding activity of Colorado potato beetles, an extract of Marrubium vulgare was found to be “strongly repellent.”

 HOW TO GROW IT

Horehound is a useful addition to any garden, as its flowers are a favorite of bees. Plant it in full sun and well-drained, sandy loam in early spring. Horehound tolerates dry conditions and can survive on as little as 12 inches of water a year. Harvest lightly the first year, cutting no more than the top third of the plant. The plants should begin to bloom in their second year. For the highest oil content, harvest the leaves just as the flower buds begin to form. The plant loses flavor quickly; to preserve the leaves, remove them immediately from the stems and chop them. When they have dried, place them in airtight jars and store them in a cool, dark location. have found that marrubic acid, formed from marrubiin, stimulates the flow of bile in rats. Horehound also serves as a mild laxative.

HOREHOUND COUGH SYRUP

You can make an old-time cough remedy by mixing horehound tea with honey. Boil 1 ounce of fresh or dried horehound leaves in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Strain off the leaves, then measure the remaining liquid. Add twice as much honey as liquid, and mix well; if necessary, warm the mixture over low heat until it is a uniform consistency. Pour the syrup into a clean bottle with a tight-fitting lid. Store the syrup in your refrigerator for up to 2 months. To soothe a cough, take 1 up to four times a day.

Melissa officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Lemon Balm

Description: Loosely branched perennial up to 2 feet tall; opposite toothed leaves on square stems; clusters of tiny white flowers, highly attractive to bees; lemon scented

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the mountains of southern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia, widely naturalized

This powerfully lemon-scented perennial in the mint family bears toothed, oval leaves and tiny white flowers that are highly attractive to honeybees. (Melissa is the Greek word for honeybee.) At one time, people rubbed beehives with lemon balm to encourage the bees’ productiveness. The chemical composition of lemon balm oil is very similar to a pheromone found in worker bees; this pheromone helps them locate their colony and sources of nectar.

Native to southern Europe and western Asia, lemon balm has been grown for more than 2,000 years. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine, especially as a sedative and antispasmodic. In potpourris and perfumes, it adds a fresh, lemony scent.

CULINARY USE

The fresh leaves impart a citrusy flavor to salads, soups, sauces, vinegars, and fish dishes, as well as hot and cold teas. Try adding the chopped fresh leaves to a pound cake. Or stuff sprigs into poultry or whole fish before cooking.

MEDICINAL USE

Lemon balm has been used since ancient times to lift mood and reduce fever; the Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) prescribed it in the 1st century. In the Middle Ages, people used the herb to reduce stress and anxiety, promote restful sleep, improve appetite, lower fever, and ease the pain and discomfort of indigestion. Lemon balm is one of the ingredients in Bénédictine and Chartreuse, healing liqueurs developed by monks hundreds of years ago. The 16th-century physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) also added this herb to his famous elixir that promoted revitalization.

In modern aromatherapy, herbalists recommend essential oil of lemon balm to promote relaxation and rejuvenation, especially in cases of depression and nervous tension. The herb is believed to have carminative, nervine, antidepressant, sedative, and diaphoretic properties. It contains caffeic and rosmarinic acids, which offer antiviral effects against herpes simplex 1 and 2. In Europe, lemon balm ointment is widely used to treat herpes blisters. Due to its pleasant flavor and soothing nature, this herb is especially suitable for treating children.

To make a tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over five or six fresh leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves. Steep for 5 minutes. Strain and sweeten, if desired. Drink several times per day.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Lemon balm thrives in moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers, beginning in early summer. Lemon balm is a prolific self-sower; pinch off blooms to discourage its spread. Propagate by seed, cuttings, and root division.

Mentha spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Mint

Description: Square-stemmed perennials, up to 2 feet tall; terminal spikes of tiny purple, pink, or white flowers; opposite toothed leaves; highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native or naturalized along streams and in other moist areas in temperate regions throughout the world

The genus Mentha, named for the mythological nymph Minthe, includes many species used for flavor, fragrance, or medicinal purposes. Most are native to Europe and Asia and have naturalized widely—the spreading roots send up new plants that can quickly overtake other plants in the area. All have square stems; spikes of tiny purple, pink, or white flowers (loved by bees); and highly aromatic leaves.

Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) bears smooth, purple-tinged leaves and spikes of lilac-pink flowers. Ancient Greeks and Romans not only used the herb to flavor sauces and wine, but also wore peppermint crowns during feasts. Popular varieties include lemon or orange mint (M. × piperita var. ‘Citrata’), lime mint (M. × piperita ‘Lime’), and chocolate mint (M. x piperita ‘Chocolate’). Spearmint (M. spicata) bears spikes (or “spears”) of pale pink-violet flowers and wrinkled, bright green leaves favored for teas and cocktails, such as the mint julep and mojito. Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens), also known as apple mint, has purple-pink flowers and light green leaves with a fruity aroma and flavor.

Many mints, including spearmint (Mentha spicata), aid digestion.

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is a traditional flea repellent.

Perk up salads with leaves and blooms of peppermint (Mentha × piperita).

CULINARY USE

Add mint to desserts, salads, sauces, and jellies, and to hot and cold teas and cocktails. For a refreshing complement to hot or spicy foods, combine chopped fresh mint with chopped cucumbers and plain yogurt. Also try fresh mint in tuna salads; dress it with lime vinaigrette. Mint pairs especially well with peas (including split peas), carrots, and new potatoes.

MEDICINAL USE

Spearmint and peppermint can be used to treat gastrointestinal disorders such as stomachaches and nausea, as well as fatigue. Peppermint’s main constituent is a volatile oil, which is generally about 50 percent menthol. Both the fresh and dried leaves of the plant, as well as its essential oil, generate an antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscles of your gastrointestinal tract. By stimulating digestive flow and the production of bile, peppermint may help relieve gastrointestinal conditions such as flatulence, painful digestion, intestinal cramping, irritable bowel syndrome, and nausea due to stomach upset, motion sickness, or pregnancy.

Peppermint oil is used to treat the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and is most often recommended as an enteric-coated pill that will open and release the oil in your intestines, rather than in your stomach. In aromatherapy, peppermint oil is used as a stimulant to increase concentration and reduce sleepiness. Placing a drop of the essential oil in a pan of hot water and inhaling the steam may help relieve lung and sinus congestion.

Spearmint oil is considered gentler than peppermint oil (it contains much less menthol than peppermint does), but it also can be used to treat digestive complaints. In aromatherapy, it is used to treat fatigue as well as respiratory conditions such as colds, coughs, and bronchitis.

In the past, pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) tea was used to treat stomach problems and to promote menstruation, but consuming tea of this species has been linked to cases of acute liver damage and infant death. Pennyroyal should be used only under the supervision of a highly qualified health-care practitioner.

Caution: Pennyroyal should not be used by people with liver or kidney disease, or by pregnant or nursing women. The essential oil is highly toxic.

OTHER USES

Mint oil is used commercially to flavor candies, chewing gum, cough drops, breath mints, digestive aids, dental products, and cold and flu remedies. Many skin-care, hair, and beauty products contain mint because it has a cooling and stimulating effect.

Pennyroyal was traditionally used as an insect repellent: The species name, pulegium, derives from the Latin word for flea. But the essential oil of this plant is extremely toxic; never apply it to your pet’s skin or fur.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Popular in kitchen herb gardens, mint grows best in moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Most mints spread readily, so consider planting them in large containers or a confined area of your garden. Harvest the leaves several times per season, before the plant flowers. Mints are easy to propagate by root division or cuttings.

MAKE YOUR OWN MINT TOOTHPASTE

The refreshing flavor of mint makes it a natural for toothpaste and other dental products. To make your own minty mouth cleanser, bring ¼ cup of water to a boil along with 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh peppermint leaves. Remove the pan from the heat and steep for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together ½ teaspoon of baking soda, ½ teaspoon of cornstarch, and ½ teaspoon of grapeseed oil; stir until smooth. Strain the cooled mint tea, then add the liquid to the baking soda mixture. Bring the mixture to a boil again, stirring until it’s slightly thickened and smooth. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Mitchella repens

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Partridge Berry, Squaw Vine, Twinberry

Description: Creeping evergreen perennial with small, rounded leaves; tubular pinkish white flowers in pairs, fused at their bases; scarlet berries have two small indentations

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Rubiaceae

Flowering: Late spring to early summer

Parts Used: Fruit, leaves, and stems

Habitat/Range: Native to eastern and central North America; woodlands, slopes, and stream banks

This delicate-looking evergreen vine with bright red, dimpled berries can be found creeping over woodland floors in eastern and central North America. In late spring, the vines produce pairs of white or pinkish tubular flowers that are fused together at their bases. The fruits, which persist through winter, are a favorite of ruffed grouse, bobwhite, and other wildlife. Also called squaw vine, the herb has long been used by Native American women to alleviate menstrual problems and ease childbirth.

CULINARY USE

The fruits have a slight wintergreen flavor and can be used in jams; frost is said to improve their flavor. Native Americans dried the raw, mashed, or cooked fruits and stored them for later eating. The Iroquois prepared them as a sauce or added them to corn bread.

MEDICINAL USE

Partridge berry contains alkaloids, glycosides, mucilage, and tannins. Native American women made a tea from the leaves and fruit of this herb to treat menstrual pain and cramps, to regulate menstrual cycles and relieve heavy bleeding, and to induce childbirth and ease delivery. Lactating women used a salve made from the herb to soothe sore nipples.

Native Americans also used the plant for urinary and intestinal disorders, fever, joint pain, and swelling. European settlers adapted the Native American uses, and some modern herbal practitioners still use it in similar ways. In addition, the fruits have been used to make a sedative tea and an astringent skin wash.

Caution: Do not use this herb if you are pregnant or nursing unless you are under the care of a health professional.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Partridge berry thrives in fertile, acidic soil and partial shade. Try growing this woodland native as a low-maintenance groundcover beneath evergreen trees or acid-loving shrubs, such as azaleas, where the plants will not be disturbed. Water during dry spells. Harvest the leaves and stems from late spring through early summer. If you wish to use the berries, harvest them when they ripen (turning bright red) in midsummer to fall. Propagate by softwood cuttings.

Momordica charantia

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bitter Melon, Bitter Gourd

Description: Annual vine, 6 to 10 feet long; alternate, deeply lobed leaves; yellow flowers; oblong, warty fruit ripens to yellow-orange; seeds of ripe fruit covered in bright red pulp

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Cucurbitaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Fruit, leaves, shoots, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and the Pacific Islands

Bitter melon, a vining herb that can reach 6 feet or more, grows in tropical areas, including parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and the Pacific Islands. The species includes two basic forms: a wild type with very small (about 1½-inch-long) inedible fruits and a cultivated form with much larger fruits reminiscent of a ribbed cucumber, covered with warts or bumps. When ripe, the fruit turns yellow-orange and splits open to reveal seeds covered with red pulp. Despite its extremely bitter flavor, the fruit is eaten as a vegetable—raw, pickled, or cooked—in its native regions, and it is commonly sold in Asian markets in North America. Bitter melon has a long history of use in Asian traditional medicine, as well.

The fruit of the cultivated bitter melon (left) is edible and much larger—8 to 12 inches or more in length—than the fruit of the wild type (right)—1 to 2 inches long—which is not eaten and is used for its medicinal value.

CULINARY USE

Usually, bitter melon fruit is harvested and eaten when green; as it ripens, it loses its distinctive bitterness. The fruit is often cooked in soups and with meat, stuffed, or cut into pieces and boiled. In India, the peeled fruit is soaked in salt water before cooking to reduce some of the bitterness. Thai cooks fry the fruit with eggs. Asian cooks also stir-fry the shoots and young leaves, which are a rich source of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium. The people of the remote Pacific Islands of Micronesia even cook and eat the plant’s roots.

MEDICINAL USE

This plant is used as a healing herb wherever it grows. In Thailand it is used as a tonic and to treat skin diseases. Ayurvedic medicine recommends the fruit, leaves, and roots for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Laboratory studies with animals have shown that both a fruit extract as well as the fried fruits improved glucose tolerance, one of the goals of treating type 2 diabetes. A small study with humans showed an increase in glucose tolerance in 73 percent of patients who consumed the fruit juice.

In India, the fruit of the wild plant is used to lower fevers, while the cultivated fruit is eaten to treat arthritis, gout, and liver and spleen conditions. In Belize, where this is one of the most important medicinal plants, people boil the leaves and vines of the wild plant to make a beverage that they drink to treat parasites, amoebas, and constipation. The plant is also added to bathwater to treat skin infections, tick and chigger bites, sores, and wounds.

Caution: This herb should not be used by pregnant women, nursing mothers, or young children.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Bitter melon is easy to grow in fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Start the seed indoors 4 to 6 weeks before your last frost date, then transplant the seedlings to your garden after all danger of frost has passed. Provide support for the climbing vines, and water them regularly. Fruiting should begin about 60 days after transplanting; harvest when the fruit are light green. Propagate by seed.

FIELD NOTES

Bitter Melon and Type 2 Diabetes

In many of the places I’ve traveled throughout the tropics, a curious little fruit-bearing vine can be seen climbing over fences and rocks and along the ground. The plant has two forms: this wild species, and another that has been domesticated to produce a larger, edible fruit known in commerce as bitter melon. Both forms are used medicinally to treat type 2 diabetes, and in several places, the plant is even called “vegetable insulin” (referring to its use, not its composition). At my local Asian market, imported packages of the sliced dried fruits are sold to make what is said to be a blood sugar–lowering tea.

Now many scientists are investigating bitter melon’s potential. For her recently completed doctoral dissertation, a student I worked with, Amy Keller, PhD, studied the antidiabetic activity of the cultivated fruit of Momordica charantia both in laboratory assays using living cells and with animals. She found one component of the fruit to be rich in saponins—a class of chemicals in many plants traditionally used as natural soaps. Dr. Keller also discovered that the saponins were able to stimulate insulin secretion in a lab assay—the first time this has been observed with bitter melon. Recently, Egyptian scientists announced their intention to make a bitter melon extract into a therapy for type 2 diabetes. Where this path will lead is unknown, but it could someday be another example of the healing powers of nature.—M. J. B.

Monarda spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bee Balm, Bergamot, Horse Balm, Monarda, Oswego Tea

Description: Bright scarlet, lavender, or yellow flower heads grow in tiers atop 3- to 4-foot stems; opposite, dark green, ovate leaves with toothed margins

Hardiness: To Zone 3 or 4, depending on species and variety

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: July to August

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to North America; habitat varies according to species

Monarda is a genus of 17 native North American aromatic perennials related to mint. Their showy flower heads—which range in color from bright red (Monarda didyma) to lavender (M. fistulosa) to yellow (M. punctata)—are extremely attractive to bees. The common name “bee balm” refers to its use as a poultice for the treatment of bee stings. Named for Nicolas Monardes (1493–1588), a 16th-century Spanish physician who documented many New World plants, herbs in this genus are also known as bergamots because their fragrance is similar to that of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia).

The monardas, which grow wild throughout North American woodland edges, prairies, and along stream banks, were widely used by Native Americans and early European settlers. Native Americans prepared infusions and poultices from the plants to treat fevers, colds, flus, respiratory and kidney conditions, abdominal discomfort, skin infections, wounds, and many other ailments. During the American War of Independence, Colonial Americans dried the leaves of Monarda didyma and used them as a substitute for British-imported tea. The common name “Oswego tea” was coined by the renowned 18th-century botanist John Bartram (1699–1777), who encountered the herb at Fort Oswego, New York, where it grew abundantly.

CULINARY USE

A blend of Monarda didyma leaves, mint, and orange peel makes a delicious iced tea. The plant’s flowers are also edible and can be added to salads or used to decorate cakes, fruit punches, or iced teas. Use M. fistulosa leaves in teas or to flavor bean and meat dishes. M. citriodora, known as lemon bergamot, also makes a tasty tea and flavorful accent for fish and meats. Try mincing the fresh leaves of any type and adding them to plain yogurt with a bit of honey as a topping for fresh fruit. Or include a handful of the fresh leaves when making jelly. Strain the leaves before boiling down to the gel stage.

MEDICINAL USE

Plants in this genus contain a compound with antiseptic and expectorant properties. Monarda punctata has been used to treat digestive ailments such as indigestion, nausea, and vomiting and upper respiratory conditions such as cold and flu. It also helps to reduce fever by increasing sweating, and it encourages the onset of menstruation. Combined with other herbs, M. didyma is helpful in the treatment of urinary tract infections and indigestion, and laboratory studies have suggested that it may inhibit the growth of certain viruses.

Caution: Monarda species should not be taken during pregnancy.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Long blooming and deer resistant, monardas make excellent garden plants. Their bright blooms attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies and add color to cottage gardens, informal borders, and cut flower arrangements. Recommended cultivars include ‘Blue Stocking’ (violet-purple blooms), ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ (bright red blooms), ‘Croft-way Pink’ (rosy pink blooms), and ‘Snow Maiden’ (white blooms).

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant Monarda didyma in rich, moist soil in full sun. M. fistulosa and M. punctata prefer dry, light, alkaline soil in full sun. Pinch back the tops of your plants in late spring to encourage bushier growth. Harvest leaves for tea just before the plant flowers in midsummer to late summer, and again after flowering has finished. To obtain the best flavor for tea, strip the leaves from the stems and dry them in a warm, shady place for 2 to 3 days. Longer drying periods tend to produce less-flavorful teas. Store the dried leaves in an airtight container in a cool location.

After 3 to 4 years, bee balm clumps tend to die out in the center. To rejuvenate your planting, dig up the roots in fall and replant only the outside sucker shoots. Space the new plants about 2 feet apart.

FIELD NOTES

Learning from the Birds, Bees, and Butterflies

With a profusion of blood red flowers that glow in the late summer sun, bee balm (Monarda didyma) can transform the landscape into a spectacular palette of color. Large numbers of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds congregate around each planting to feed on the refreshing nectar. But not every creature can procure the saccharine treasure—they must have long tongues that can reach down into the floral tubes. We can enjoy this essence, as well: Pour a cup of boiling water over a teaspoon of fresh bee balm flowers or leaves, allow the tea to steep for 10 to 15 minutes, and then sweeten it to taste. Try this wonderful tea in the evening before sleeping, particularly if a cold is coming on.—M. J. B.

Morella cerifera (= Myrica cerifera)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bayberry, Candleberry, Southern Bayberry, Wax Myrtle

Description: Shrub, 15 to 20 feet tall, with long, leathery leaves and inconspicuous flowers; females bear clusters of waxy, blue-gray berries in fall; leaves and berries aromatic when crushed

Hardiness: To Zone 7

Family: Myricaceae

Flowering: March to April

Parts Used: Berries and root bark

Range/Habitat: Southeastern United States; coasts, wetlands, and forests

The long, leathery leaves of this native American evergreen shrub contain aromatic compounds that release a pleasant fragrance when crushed. Both Southern bayberry and the similar Northern bayberry (Morella [Myricapensylvanica) belong to the family Myricaceae, which derives its name from the Greek myrike, meaning “fragrant plant.”

Bayberry male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Females yield small, blue-gray waxy berries that are an important food source for several birds. A wax extracted from the berries of this and related species was used to make the fragrant candles popular during the winter holiday season, but today many of these products have been replaced with synthetic substitutes. The wax was obtained by boiling the fruits in water, then skimming the thin layer as it collected on top of the water. After the wax was filtered, candles were made by dipping a wick into the collected wax, or by molding the wax.

MEDICINAL USE

Native Americans traditionally used the root bark, leaves, and stems of bayberry for healing. The Choctaw boiled bayberry leaves and stems in water and used the decoction to treat fevers; they prepared the root similarly to relieve sore throats. European settlers used bayberry to treat pain, convulsions, and other conditions. Herbalists in the 18th and 19th century commonly prescribed it for colds, flu, diarrhea, and fever.

Bayberry contains the antibiotic and antioxidant compound myricetin. As an astringent and tonic, the root bark is believed to tighten and dry mucous membranes. Modern herbalists sometimes recommend decoctions and tinctures of the root bark for nasal congestion, colds, sore throats, and diarrhea.

Caution: There are reports of toxicity with this plant, and the wax of bayberry may have carcinogenic effects. This plant should not be used by pregnant women.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Southern bayberry is an attractive, fast-growing landscape shrub that makes an outstanding evergreen screen or hedge. The plant is rarely bothered by insect pests, diseases, or drought.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Bayberry is easy to grow in moist, rich, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. Plant 1- or 2-year-old nursery-grown shrubs in spring or fall. Both male and female plants are needed to produce fruit. Bayberry responds well to pruning. Harvest the blue-gray berries when they ripen in early fall. Harvest the root bark from mature shrubs in spring. To propagate, take softwood cuttings in early summer to midsummer.

Myrrhis odorata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Anise, Sweet Cicely

Description: Perennial, up to 3 feet tall; lacy, fern-like foliage that’s spotted underneath; umbels of white flowers, followed by shiny, dark brown, ridged seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: June to August

Parts Used: Leaves, seeds, stem, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in North America; grassy areas and woodland edges on mountains and hillsides

An aromatic perennial native to Europe and naturalized in North America, sweet cicely was once believed to offer protection against bubonic plague. There is evidence of its use in ancient times, too; Roman herbalist Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) may have mentioned it in his writings about local plants. Like other members of the parsley family, the herb has lacy, fernlike foliage and bears numerous white flowers in umbels that are attractive to bees. Versatile sweet cicely is both a food and a medicine. In earlier times, the leaves were commonly cooked as a “potherb” with other vegetables, and the entire plant was valued for healing digestive disorders. A related plant also known as sweet cicely, Osmorhiza berteroi, is native to North America and has been used in similar ways.

CULINARY USE

Sweet cicely tastes like a combination of celery and anise. The plant is naturally sweet, and both the leaves and green seeds make an excellent, calorie-free substitute for sugar in fruit or vegetable salads, jams, desserts, syrups, or anywhere else a sweet accent is needed. You can also press the leaves into fish before grilling. The root can be steamed, simmered, or cooked and pureed, just like parsnip. Try adding the grated fresh root to breads and muffins.

MEDICINAL USE

The leaves, stems, and seeds of this plant are used to treat intestinal gas, increase appetite, and aid digestion. Sweet cicely tea has long been used as a mild laxative. The boiled root can be used to prepare an antiseptic ointment to help heal bites and wounds. To freshen your breath, simply chew the leaves.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Start from purchased plants, if possible. Sweet cicely seeds require a period of cold and moisture to germinate. To provide this, sow the seeds in a container filled with moist seed-starting medium. Enclose the container inside a plastic bag, then store it in a refrigerator for about 8 weeks. After 8 weeks, move the container to a warm, bright location. Seedlings should appear 2 to 3 weeks later. Outdoors, plant sweet cicely in moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil and partial shade. Harvest the herb’s leaves as needed throughout the growing season; the leaves are best when they’re fresh and do not dry well. Harvest seed heads when the seeds are still green. Hang the stems upside down to dry; store the dry seeds in an airtight container.

Nepeta cataria

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Catnip, Catmint

Description: Perennial, 2 to 4 feet tall, with opposite, coarsely toothed, gray-green leaves; spikes of tubular ¼- to ½-inch spotted white or blue blooms; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: June to August

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Eurasia; naturalized in North America; rocky, mountainous areas and dry roadsides

A relative of mint, catnip is a unique herb—it’s stimulating and intoxicating to cats but relaxing to humans. Early Greeks and Romans cultivated the plant not only for cats, but also for their own use as a culinary and healing plant. It was mentioned in Apicius, a collection of recipes used in ancient Rome. In medieval times, catnip leaves and young branches were used in salads and as a seasoning. A Middle English herbal recommended catnip tea for “evils that a man has about his throat.” The herb came to America with the colonists, and in 1796 it was listed as a commercial crop. Early American writers Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all mentioned catnip in their writings.

CULINARY USE

In the past, catnip was a popular kitchen herb, valued for its mintlike flavor and ability to aid digestion. Try adding a small amount of minced leaves to salads, sauces, and stews. It also makes a pleasant tea.

MEDICINAL USE

This gentle herb has been used medicinally for at least 2,000 years. It contains nepetalactone isomers, components similar to the sedative compounds found in valerian. Like valerian, catnip has traditionally been used as a mild tranquilizer and sedative. When taken after a meal, catnip tea can help relieve indigestion and heartburn. Because this herb stimulates perspiration, it’s also used to treat fevers. The Chinese use the related herb jing jie (Nepeta tenuifolia) to treat skin infections, colds, sore throats, and fevers.

Caution: Catnip should not be ingested during pregnancy because its volatile oils could irritate the uterus. Drink the tea in moderation; large amounts can cause nausea.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Long blooming, deer resistant, and tolerant of dry conditions, catnip is an excellent choice for your ornamental garden. As a bonus, the brightly colored flowers draw butterflies and hummingbirds.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Catnip flourishes in well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. The herb is drought tolerant, but it grows best with consistent watering. Harvest the leaves as needed throughout the season. To encourage a second flush of bloom, cut back the faded flower stems in midsummer. (Dry the leaves from the cut stems for later use in teas.) Propagate catnip from seed or by root division; established plants self-seed freely.

Ocimum basilicum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Basil, Sweet Basil

Description: Annual with leafy stems, 1 to 2 feet tall, topped with racemes of white flowers; highly fragrant leaves are opposite, oval, and 2 to 3 inches long

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: July to August

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Believed to be native to India, tropical Africa and Asia; cultivated extensively

This star of the summer garden and kitchen is believed to be native to India, tropical Africa, or Asia. A member of the mint family, basil has been cultivated and used in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used the herb in embalming preparations and burned it (with myrrh) in ceremonies to appease the gods. They also used it to scent water for washing their hands and faces. Curiously, the ancient Romans associated basil with love, while the Greeks considered it a symbol of mourning.

The genus name Ocimum is derived from the Greek “to smell,” acknowledging the plant’s powerful aroma. Important varieties include ‘Anise’ (purplish leaves and a sweet licorice scent); ‘Cinnamon’ (pink flowers and a strong cinnamon scent); ‘Genovese’ (considered by many to be the best-flavored basil); ‘Purple Ruffles’ (an ornamental variety with dark purple, fringed leaves); and ‘Lemon’ (citrus-scented leaves).

Large-leaf sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), favored for cooking.

Bush basil (Ocimum minimum) is perfect for pots.

Tulsi or holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) is an Ayurvedic adaptogen.

CULINARY USE

Basil’s strong fragrance and flavor—sometimes described as a cross between licorice and cloves—make it a favorite in many cuisines. Basil is a primary ingredient in Italian pesto sauce and the French pistou,both of which are made with olive oil and garlic. It is also a key flavoring in many Asian dishes.

Use basil with tomatoes and in tomato-based dishes, or in place of lettuce on sandwiches. It can be used in soups, stews, and seafood dishes, as well as with cooked squash, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables. Add it near the end of cooking to preserve its fresh flavor. Italians often place fresh basil on the table in a small vase of water to be used as a seasoning, like salt and pepper, during meals. Basil loses much of its flavor when dried. To enjoy the herb throughout the winter, chop the leaves of freshly harvested basil and put them in an ice cube tray. Fill the tray with water and freeze for later use in soups, stews, and sauces.

MEDICINAL USE

Basil is a good source of vitamins A and C. The leaves, rich in volatile oils, are used to improve digestion. The herb may help relax intestinal spasms and relieve gas, bloating, and nausea. It is also useful as a treatment for intestinal parasites.

Basil has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. A poultice of the crushed leaves can be used to treat acne or applied to insect bites to relieve itching. Several commercially available topical healing preparations contain extract of basil.

This herb is also used to help reduce fevers and relieve colds, coughs, and flu symptoms. It has mild sedative properties, as well, and has been used to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia. In aromatherapy, essential oil of basil can be added to massage oil and used externally to relax muscles.

Caution: Basil essential oil should not be used internally, nor should it be used in any form during pregnancy. It should always be heavily diluted in a carrier oil and never applied directly, in its pure form, to your skin. It contains the compound estragole, which evidence shows may be a carcinogen and mutagen (causing mutation). If used in excess, the oil can be stupefying—causing confusion or worse.

OTHER USES

Basil essential oil is used in some soaps, perfumes, and cosmetics. Many people believe that its scent is uplifting. In Italy and Greece, the aromatic herb is commonly grown in pots on porches or windowsills to help repel flies and mosquitoes. Try rubbing the fresh leaves on your clothing to do the same. Or apply a few drops of a diluted tincture of basil leaves to your clothing, being careful to avoid contact with your skin. You can also try filling your aromatherapy diffuser with basil oil and putting it outdoors on a balmy summer day when mosquitoes are around.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Basil prefers light, rich, well-drained to slightly dry soil in full sun. Plant seeds or set out transplants only after all danger of frost has passed and soil temperature is at least 50°F. In areas where the growing season is short, seeds can be started indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date. For the strongest flavor, harvest sprigs before flower buds form. Pinching back the stem tips every 2 to 3 weeks will encourage strong, bushy growth. Keep the cut stems in a vase with a little water on your kitchen counter; the leaves will remain in good condition for up to 5 days. To enjoy fresh basil throughout the winter, root cuttings in water, then grow the potted cuttings in a bright, warm location.

Oenothera biennis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Evening Primrose

Description: Herbaceous biennial, up to 6 feet tall; crinkled, lance-shaped leaves form a rosette the first year, grow spirally on a stem the second year; fragrant yellow flowers open at dusk

Hardiness: Biennial; to Zone 3

Family: Onagraceae

Flowering: Late spring to late summer

Parts Used: Seeds, flowers, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to North America, widely naturalized

Native to eastern and central North America, evening primrose is widely naturalized throughout the world. This tall plant bears beautiful, fragrant yellow flowers that open each day at dusk. The genus name is derived from the Greek term for “wine-scenting,” referring to the ancient use of the roots of related species to flavor wine. Native Americans ate the seeds of Oenothera biennis as food and made a poultice from the whole plant for treating skin conditions such as bruises. Early American settlers used evening primrose to treat gastrointestinal upset, sore throats, and rashes.

Today the herb is valued mainly for its seed oil, which is used medicinally and as an ingredient in some cosmetics. As many as 5,000 seeds are needed to produce one capsule of evening primrose oil.

CULINARY USE

Harvested at the end of the first season, the thick roots have a sweet flavor, similar to that of parsnips. Add the young leaves and shoots to soups and stews; you can also add the flowers to salads. Roast the ripe seeds in the oven and use them in breads, cereals, or other foods.

MEDICINAL USE

The oil pressed from ripe evening primrose seeds is a good source of gamma linoleic acid (GLA), an unsaturated fatty acid that reduces inflammation and ensures the health of cell membranes. Some studies have shown that evening primrose oil may help reduce joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis, and it could be useful in the treatment of eczema. People also take the herb for nerve damage associated with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, breast pain or tenderness, and other conditions, but additional clinical studies are needed to support these uses.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Grow evening primrose at the back of an informal border, along a fence in a cottage garden, or in a wildflower meadow. Its bright yellow blooms attract sphinx moths and bees; the seeds draw goldfinches.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Evening primrose grows well in poor, dry soil, including coastal sandy areas, in full sun or partial shade. Plant the seeds directly in your garden, scattering them on the surface of the soil, in either spring or fall. Or start seeds indoors in early spring, then transplant seedlings to the garden 6 to 8 weeks later. Harvest the young leaves in early summer. To harvest the seeds, look for the seedpods in midsummer to late summer, after the flowers have faded. Collect the pods when their tops turn brown; inside the pods, the mature seeds should be dark brown and hard. Harvest the roots in fall. Considered an invasive weed in some areas, the plant self-seeds freely.

Origanum majorana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Marjoram, Sweet Marjoram

Description: Bushy, 12-inch-tall perennial; branching stems with opposite, fuzzy, gray-green leaves; spikes of small white or pink flowers; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 7

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of India, naturalized in southern Europe; often found on rocky slopes

Origanum, the genus name for both oregano and marjoram, comes from the Greek oros, which means mountains, and ganos, which means joy—a reference to the cheerful appearance these plants give to the Mediterranean hillsides where they grow. The genus, which includes more than 40 species, was valued primarily for its healing properties before it became popular for cooking. Oreganum majorana,marjoram, is thought to be native to North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of India and has naturalized in southern Europe. The ancient Greeks also used this aromatic herb as a spice, a tea, and a hair pomade. In ancient Crete, distinguished leaders wore a sprig of marjoram as a badge of honor. Today, oil of marjoram is used as a fragrance in soaps, creams, lotions, and perfumes.

CULINARY USE

This herb, which has a much more subtle flavor than its close relative oregano, is excellent for use in Mediterranean meat or seafood dishes, soups, tomato sauces, and pasta dishes. It also combines well with carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, and squash.

Oil of marjoram is a common flavoring for commercially produced beverages, ice creams, baked goods, soups, and condiments. The herb is also used as a food preservative.

MEDICINAL USE

An ingredient in ancient “sneezing powders” used to treat rhinitis, marjoram can relieve symptoms of the common cold. When taken into the respiratory system through steam inhalation (the herb’s volatile oil is vaporized by boiling water), marjoram may help unblock sinuses and relieve laryngitis. Essential oil of marjoram can be added to a bath to encourage relaxation and to alleviate the symptoms of a cold or flu. Marjoram oil is included in massage oils to help relieve muscle cramps, including those brought on by menstrual and joint pain.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Marjoram thrives in rich, well-drained dry soil and full sun. Start seeds indoors 6 weeks before your last spring frost date. Space seedlings 18 inches apart in your garden after danger of frost has passed; avoid overwatering. Just before the plants bloom, cut the stems to within 1 inch of the ground. Dry the stems in a warm, dark place, then rub them on a screen to remove the leaves. Discard the stems and store the leaves in an airtight container. Propagate by cuttings or root division.

Origanum vulgare

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Oregano

Description: Fragrant, bushy, 2-foot-tall perennial; opposite, hairy, oval leaves; spikes of pink, purple, or white flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, central Asia, and the Mediterranean region

This fragrant, bushy perennial grows to 2 feet tall, bearing hairy oval leaves and branched clusters of pink flowers that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Native to Europe, central Asia, and the Mediterranean regions, oregano has been used since prehistoric times as a food and medicinal plant. The ancient Greeks considered it a sign of happiness when the plant was found growing on the grave of a loved one. Before hops plants were introduced to England (probably in the late 15th century), oregano’s flowering tops were added to ale and beer as a preservative and flavoring. In medieval times, the plant was strewn, along with rushes, on stone floors to release a sweet scent when walked upon.

CULINARY USE

Fresh or dried, oregano is popular in Italian, Greek, and Mexican cuisines. It complements cheese, tomato, bean, pasta, meat, and egg dishes. Also called the “pizza herb,” oregano imparts a flavor that is universally known. Commercially, it is used to flavor some alcoholic beverages, baked goods, and meat products.

MEDICINAL USE

The essential oil of oregano contains thymol and carvacrol, chemicals that have powerful antiseptic, antibiotic, and antifungal properties. The herb is used to improve digestion, to kill intestinal worms, and as an expectorant to treat inflamed bronchial membranes. To relieve a cough, you can take oregano as a tea or inhale it by steam. (The herb’s volatile oil is vaporized by boiling water.)

Externally, the leaves can be applied as a hot compress—as the ancient Greeks did—for treating skin conditions, swellings, joint pain, and colic. Diluted oregano oil can be applied to insect bites and athlete’s foot.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use oregano to treat gastrointestinal and respiratory conditions, childhood malnutrition, and fevers.

OTHER USES

Oregano leaves and flowers are fragrant additions to potpourris; the dried flowers can also be used in wreaths and crafts. Essential oil of oregano is an ingredient in some men’s colognes.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Oregano thrives in well-drained to dry soil in full sun. Start with nursery-grown plants; if possible, taste the herb before purchasing because individual plants can vary in flavor. Beginning during the second year, cut back the stems almost to the ground just as the plants begin to bloom. Dry the stems in a warm, dark place, then rub them on a screen to remove the leaves. Discard the stems and store the leaves in an airtight container. Propagate by cuttings or root division.

Panax quinquefolius; P. ginseng

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: American Ginseng; Asian Ginseng

Description: Single stem, up to 16 inches tall; glossy green, lobed leaves; mature plants bear umbels of green flowers, followed by bright red berries; wrinkled roots

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Araliaceae

Flowering: June to August, depending on location

Parts Used: Root

Range/Habitat: Panax quinquefolius is native to hardwood forests in eastern North America, P. ginseng is native to northern China and Korea

Ginseng, one of the most important and widely used herbal remedies of our time, has a long history of use for healing. The genus name, Panax, comes from the Greek word for panacea, or cure-all. Six species are used in traditional medicine around the world. The best known are Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng) and P. ginseng (Asian ginseng). (Eleuthero, Eleutherococcus senticosus, the so-called Siberian ginseng, is not a true ginseng.) A perennial, ginseng bears single stems with three to six leaves and a flowering stalk that produces bright red berries. The fleshy root is the part most often used medicinally.

American ginseng (photo opposite) is native to the cool, hardwood forests of eastern North America, where it is still wild harvested. (Some American ginseng is cultivated in North America and China.) Native Americans used the root of this plant in many medicinal compounds, including a remedy that induces sweating to lower a fever.

Asian ginseng is native to northern China and South Korea but is nearly extinct in the wild. The herb is widely cultivated in China, Korea, Russia, and Japan, and it is considered very important in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). If you go into an Asian herb shop or grocery, you might see ginseng roots on display in bottles—their thick, gnarled shapes sometimes have an uncanny resemblance to the human form.

CULINARY USE

Ginseng root has a sweet, slightly bitter flavor. It is used in teas and soups, as well as in some commercial soft drinks and chewing gums.

MEDICINAL USE

Ginseng has an impressive history of medicinal use dating back 2,000 years. Herbalists use the herb to relieve and prevent mental and physical fatigue, and studies have shown that it can also reduce the frequency and severity of colds. The root contains stimulating compounds known as ginsenosides, which might gradually improve your body’s response to stress, minimize the effects of depressants such as alcohol and barbiturates, and lower blood sugar levels.

In TCM, Asian ginseng is considered a warming herb, which means that it benefits the blood and circulatory system. Practitioners use it to treat exhaustion, impotence, lack of appetite, and diseases that sap strength, such as cancer.

American ginseng, which is considered less potent than Asian ginseng, is considered a cooling herb that benefits the respiratory and digestive systems. Healers use it to treat nervous indigestion, weak stomach, loss of appetite, and mental exhaustion. Some herbalists believe American ginseng to be especially beneficial for people who are overstressed and overworked.

To make ginseng tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of the dried and sliced or powdered root in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink 1 or 2 cups per day.

Caution: Because wild American ginseng is an endangered species, you should purchase only roots that have been commercially cultivated. Use Asian ginseng if American ginseng is not available.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Ginseng prefers cool and shady hardwood forests. The plant flourishes in areas with ample moisture in summer and freezing temperatures in winter. Because it is susceptible to fungal diseases and rodent predation, it can be difficult to grow, and the seed is not readily available. If you are able to obtain seeds, plant them in fall. When the plants are 5 to 6 years old, you can begin harvesting the roots, although ginseng plants are not considered fully grown until they are about 20-years old.

FIELD NOTES

The Roots of Vitality

Ginseng root is a remarkable medicinal herb. Many years ago, I was nodding off at a scientific meeting—it was 2:30 in the afternoon, and the postprandial dip from eating a full lunch was kicking in. My friend, who also was feeling a bit tired, took out her small box of ginseng roots and began to chew on a piece the size of a pencil eraser. She suggested I try it, which I did. Within a few minutes this small root produced a newfound alertness and energy.

The two types of ginseng, American and Asian, have very useful properties that are similar in some ways. American ginseng reduces postprandial glycemia in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as in nondiabetics. It also benefits mental performance and enhances cardio-respiratory endurance, boosting athletic performance.

Asian ginseng is an excellent general tonic, known in herbal medicine as an adaptogen. It is used to improve the body’s response to stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Human studies involving athletic performance have not always supported this benefit for this species, however. One clinical trial suggested that Asian ginseng helped ease menopausal symptoms. Herbalists also recommend ginseng as an aphrodisiac, to treat erectile dysfunction.—M. J. B.

Passiflora incarnata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Maypop, Passionflower, Passion Vine, Purple Passionflower

Description: Vine, 25 to 30 feet tall, with alternate, lobed leaves; showy flowers have white petals, lavender sepals, and a bright pink or purple corona; 3-inch yellow or orange fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 7

Family: Passifloraceae

Flowering: Early to late summer

Parts Used: Flowers, fruit, and roots

Range/Habitat: Ranges from southeastern North America to northern South America, as well as the Caribbean and Madagascar; edges of wooded areas, thickets, and fence lines

This evergreen perennial vine grows naturally in fields and along roadsides from southeastern North America to northern South America. Sometimes called maypop, the plant produces egg-size, sweet, edible fruit that makes a popping sound when mashed. The filaments of the showy blossoms were thought to resemble the crown of thorns worn by Christ during his crucifixion, and the five anthers represented the five wounds he received. Because of this, the Spanish friars who saw the flowers of this genus in South America called it the “flower of passion,” or as it is known today, passionflower. Passiflora incarnata is the most useful medicinal plant in this genus.

CULINARY USE

A sweet pulp covers the seeds of the maypop’s ripe fruit. Native Americans boiled the fruits to make syrup and crushed and strained them to make juice. You can prepare the fruit in similar ways, using a sieve or strainer to remove the hard seeds. Also, try the pulp in jellies and frozen desserts.

MEDICINAL USE

Native Americans made preparations from the roots to treat wounds, ear infections, and liver problems; they also used the plant as a sedative to treat nervous conditions. Other medicinal uses for this herb include the treatment of colic, menstrual pain, dysentery, diarrhea, and muscle spasms.

Today, passionflower is best known for its sedative and tranquilizing properties, and it may be used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and nervousness. A recent clinical trial showed that drinking passionflower tea at night improved patients’ sleep quality, as compared with a placebo. Another human clinical study showed that this herb could manage some of the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder; after several weeks of comparison against patients using oxazepam—a member of the benzodiazepine class of drugs (which includes Valium)—the group using passionflower extract showed less “job performance impairment” as compared to the group using oxazepam.

Caution: Do not use this plant if you are pregnant.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Passionflower grows easily from seed or cuttings in deep, fertile, well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. (If you live in Zone 6 or colder, you can grow the vine in a large container; bring it indoors in fall.) For best blooming, enrich the soil with compost, and fertilize two or three times during the growing season. Prune out weak or crowded stems in early spring each year. Passionflower is considered invasive in some areas; control its spread by removing suckers regularly. Harvest the fruit when it turns yellow-brown.

Paullinia cupana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Guarana

Description: Climbing woody vine, up to 40 feet long; glossy compound leaves with toothed leaflets and pronounced veins; spikes of small white flowers are followed by bright red berries with shiny, dark seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 11

Family: Sapindaceae

Flowering: Periodically throughout the year

Parts Used: Seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to the rainforests of the Amazon basin, especially northern Brazil

Guarana is a climbing perennial vine indigenous to the Amazon basin, particularly northern Brazil on the Maués Açu River. The red-orange fruits of this species pop open to reveal shiny black seeds surrounded by a thin white pulp, giving the fruits an eyelike appearance. The common name, guarana, derives from a Tupi-Guarani reference to this resemblance.

Indigenous people used guarana as a stimulant and appetite suppressant as they traveled rainforest paths for days or weeks at a time. The plant contains three to five times the caffeine found in coffee beans—up to 5 percent by weight. The caffeine is thought to serve the plant as a kind of chemical defense, allowing it to repel pathogenic organisms that might otherwise attack the fruits and seeds.

CULINARY USE

The pulverized seeds of guarana are made into a thick, brown syrup used in carbonated beverages that are widely consumed by the people of Brazil, as well as other guarana aficionados around the world. Marketed by Brazilian, Peruvian, and multinational corporations, the soda can often be found in supermarkets and small stores that cater to South American shoppers. It is also used as a caffeine source in energy drinks. (See “Field Notes” for more about preparing the beverage.)

MEDICINAL USE

The seeds’ high caffeine content speeds heart rate, relaxes blood vessels, and opens bronchial airways. Other potentially bioactive compounds in the seeds are tannins and saponins, which could be responsible for some of this herb’s effects. Guarana is taken to treat fatigue, headache, and diarrhea, as well as to increase libido. A recent small clinical trial with healthy adults showed that guarana can improve cognitive performance as well as mood. The authors of this study noted that the result was most likely due not only to the caffeine in guarana, but also to other as yet undetermined substances. There are case reports of heart palpitations caused by taking large doses of guarana supplements, similar to the effects some people report after large doses of caffeine. Guarana also has diuretic activity. It is widely used in weight-loss formulas.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A tropical rainforest plant, guarana requires warm to hot conditions, high humidity, and acidic soil. Throughout most of North America, you’ll need a greenhouse to grow this tall vine.

Start with the freshest seed possible. Soak the seed in water for 24 hours, then plant it in pots filled with a moist growing medium. Set the pots in a bright location, atop a germination mat; maintain a minimum temperature of 65°F. Transplant 3-inch-tall seedlings to 8- to 10-inch pots (with drainage holes) filled with an acidic medium (a pH of 3.5 to 4.5). Provide good air circulation, and keep the soil moist but not saturated. Mist daily in the morning, but do not fertilize, so the soil will remain acidic.

Continue to pot up the growing plants, and provide support for the growing vines. Beginning in the second year, prune out old or damaged branches and unwanted new growth. Wait until the orange fruits split open to reveal black seeds. Remove the seeds, rinse them, then let them air-dry in a warm place. Toast the seeds in a moderately hot oven, then grind into a fine powder and store in an airtight container. To use, mix with warm water.

FIELD NOTES

Guarana: Gift from the Amazon

In the early part of my career as a tropical botanist, I spent a great deal of time in the Amazon Valley, having been sent there by my mentor, Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes, the most widely recognized Amazon plant explorer and ethnobotanist of his time. Much of my PhD dissertation research was spent in this region, with the indigenous people who used plants as part of their daily lives. One of these plants was guarana, a bright green vining herb found in the forest and cultivated near their houses.

I learned that its shiny black seeds are harvested, ground into powder, mixed with a local starch to give it a doughlike consistency, hand-rolled into 1-inch-wide cylinders, and heat dried. As needed, these are rasped against the dried, filelike tongue of the pirarucu fish to produce a brown powder, which is then added to hot or cold water and is often consumed with a bit of sugar.

I drank a lot of guarana in those days, and I found that it reduced my appetite and gave me an energizing lift. One of my favorite artifacts from the Harvard Botanical Museum was a beautifully sculpted bottle of ZIL, a guarana-based “champagne” introduced during the 1950s. It did not sell well, and I always presumed one reason was that partygoers found out that after drinking a few bottles, they were happier and livelier . . . but they probably could not go to sleep for a day or two.—M. J. B.

Pausinystalia yohimbe

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Johimbe, Yohimbe

Description: Evergreen tree, up to 100 feet tall; glossy, dark green leaves; red to yellow wood; clusters of tubular white or pink flowers followed by winged, papery seedpods

Hardiness: To Zone 11

Family: Rubiaceae

Flowering: May to July in its native range

Parts Used: Bark

Range/Habitat: Native to the forests of western Africa

Yohimbe is a 100-foot-tall evergreen tree native to the forests of western Africa, particularly in Cameroon, Zaire, and Gabon. A relative of the coffee plant, yohimbe has red to yellow wood; glossy, dark green leaves; and clusters of tubular white or pink flowers.

In its native region, yohimbe is valued as a stimulant, male aphrodisiac, and mild hallucinogen; the gray-brown bark is taken as a tea, smoked, or sniffed. This plant is highly toxic when taken in large doses, however, due to the presence of a group of psychoactive indole alkaloids. Because of increased demand for this herb, yohimbe trees have been overharvested in the wild, and there is concern that the tree soon will become endangered.

MEDICINAL USE

A bitter, warming herb, the bark of the yohimbe tree has a reputation as an aphrodisiac in Africa, particularly among the Bantu people. One of the indole alkaloids in the bark is yohimbine, which has been made into the pharmaceutical drug yohimbine hydrochloride, used to treat impotence and erectile dysfunction. An extract of this plant also has been used to increase saliva flow in patients taking antidepressants who experience dry mouth as a side effect.

In herbal medicine, however, yohimbe is not widely used because of its potentially toxic effects, which include increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure. Other side effects associated with the use of this herb include dizziness, headache, shaking, anxiety, nausea, and vomiting.

Caution: Yohimbe should not be used by those with high blood pressure or kidney or liver disease. Excess use can cause depression. Use this herb only under the supervision of an experienced medical professional.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Yohimbe grows in tropical conditions that include moist soil, high humidity, and minimum temperatures of 59° to 64°F. In North America, it will survive outdoors only in the warmest locations, such as Hawaii, southern Florida, or Puerto Rico. In colder areas, try growing this plant in a large, warm greenhouse. (Although it’s difficult to find propagating material of this species in the commercial trade, sources of seeds can sometimes be found on the Web.) In Africa, the bark is collected throughout the year and dried in strips.

Pelargonium spp. and hybrids

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Scented Geranium

Description: Herbaceous perennial, up to 3 feet tall, with frilly, aromatic leaves—some velvety soft, others crisp; flowers in a variety of colors, usually in umbellate clusters of five sepals and petals

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Geraniaceae

Flowering: Varies depending on variety

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to South America, naturalized in the Eastern Mediterranean region, India, Australia, and New Zealand; widely cultivated

The genus Pelargonium includes more than 200 species of annual, perennial, and subshrub plants commonly known as geraniums. The Pelargonium species and hybrids grown for their culinary, fragrant, and medicinal qualities are known as scented geraniums. Native to parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, scented geraniums have been cultivated for centuries, but they gained their greatest popularity during the mid-1800s. The French discovered a way to substitute the oil from rose-scented geraniums for attar of roses in perfume making, introducing a popular commercial use for scented geraniums. Later, Victorian gardeners and herbalists used them in bouquets, potpourris, ointments, poultices, teas, desserts, and wines.

Popular species include rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium capitatum and other species, as well as hybrids), nutmeg-scented geranium (P. × fragrans), and lemon-scented geranium (P. crispum). The name of this genus comes from the Greek word pelargos, meaning stork, a reference to the beak-shaped fruits of scented geraniums.

CULINARY USE

Use scented geranium leaves to flavor teas, vinegars, breads, and desserts. Rose-scented geranium makes a flavorful jelly. To add subtle flavor to a cake, place scented geranium leaves flat on a buttered and floured pan just before pouring in the batter. Discard the leaves after removing the baked cake from the pan. To flavor sugar with geranium leaves, alternate layers of sugar and rose- or peppermint-scented geranium leaves in a jar, and set the jar in a sunny window. Remove the leaves after 2 weeks.

MEDICINAL USE

Scented geraniums contain complex volatile oils with more than 2,000 components. The oils are extracted by steam distillation of the leaves, stems, and flowers. Geraniol, an antiseptic compound found in geranium oil, is commercially used in the manufacture of many high-quality perfumes. In aromatherapy, essential oil of scented geranium, especially rose geranium, is used as an ingredient in facial creams and bath and massage oils. It is also used as an antidepressant and to help ensure restful sleep. It is particularly useful in skin care, for the treatment of conditions such as acne, burns, cuts, and wounds, and as a natural mosquito repellent. In South Africa, where many of the scented geraniums are native, the leaves have been used to treat diarrhea.

Caution: Do not use geranium oil if you are pregnant.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Scented geraniums make lovely house and garden plants, filling the air with delightful scents when brushed. Many varieties also offer striking blossoms and foliage. Grow them where their aromatic leaves can be touched and enjoyed.

OTHER USES

As in the past, the dried leaves and flowers of scented geraniums make fragrant sachets and potpourris. Mildly astringent and stimulating, the leaves can be used for herbal facials and in baths. Certain scents are still used in the commercial perfume industry.

With bright blooms and fragrant foliage, pelargonium hybrids add charm to garden beds and containers.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Scented geranium is a commonly grown aromatic garden plant that thrives in well-drained neutral to alkaline soil in full sun or partial shade. A tender perennial that requires minimum temperatures of 45° to 50°F, scented geranium can be grown year–round in a container moved indoors for the winter. Propagate by softwood cuttings. For maximum oil content, harvest the leaves just before the flowers begin to appear, preferably early on a dry, sunny day. Dry the leaves out of direct light to preserve their fragrance.

Petroselinum crispum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Parsley

Description: Plant, 10 to 18 inches tall, with flat or curly leaves divided pinnately into sections; umbels of tiny greenish yellow flowers form in the second year

Hardiness: Biennial; hardy to Zone 3

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Spring or summer of second year

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Sardinia east to Lebanon; cultivated throughout temperate zones

Although this aromatic biennial is best known as a garnish for other foods, parsley is much more than a frilly face. Native to the Mediterranean region and naturalized in Europe, parsley is cultivated throughout the world. The plant’s curled leaves have a fresh, slightly peppery flavor. One of the first herbs to appear in early spring, parsley is used in the traditional Jewish Passover meal (known as the Seder) to represent new beginnings. Ancient Greeks planted parsley on graves and fed the herb to chariot horses. Ancient Romans ate parsley with soft cheese on bread. The ancients also used wreaths of parsley to ward off drunkenness.

CULINARY USE

Among the world’s most popular culinary flavorings, parsley is used in sauces, fillings, and savory dishes. It pairs especially well with egg and chicken salads, tomatoes, cheeses, egg dishes, and peas. The herb makes a tasty addition to pasta dishes and is a crucial component of the Middle Eastern bulgur wheat salad called tabbouleh. In Burgundy, France, persillade, a fine mince of garlic and parsley, is added at the final moment of cooking to grilled meats, sautés, and poultry. Parsley is also one of the herbs in bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs used to flavor soups and stews.

MEDICINAL USE

Parsley is a good dietary source of iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C. Used since ancient times to freshen the breath, parsley contains high levels of chlorophyll, an ingredient in many commercially available breath fresheners. It is soothing to the digestion and may be taken to relieve intestinal gas and bloating. The herb has a diuretic effect and has been used to treat urinary tract infections, edema, and kidney stones. Parsley also has traditionally been used to relieve menstrual pain.

Caution: Parsley leaf should not be used in medicinal amounts during pregnancy or by individuals with kidney disease. Photodermatitis, a rash caused by the sun, occurs in some people who harvest or handle parsley routinely.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Parsley grows in rich, well-drained, neutral soil in full sun or partial shade. Although parsley is a biennial, it is often planted as an annual because it develops a bitter flavor during its second year. Plant seeds or transplants in spring or early summer, after the soil temperature has warmed. Harvest leaves as needed throughout the growing season, removing the outer stems first. Crush the dried leaves and store them in an airtight container.

Phytolacca americana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Inkberry, Poke, Pokeroot, Pokeweed

Description: Perennial, up to 9 feet tall; oblong leaves up to 12 inches long, with an unpleasant scent; white or purplish flowers in terminal racemes followed by deep purple berries

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Phytolaccaceae

Flowering: June through September

Parts Used: Berries for birds; medicinal use not recommended

Range/Habitat: Throughout North America; roadsides and edges of fields and clearings

Pokeweed is a perennial native to North America and naturalized around the Mediterranean and in northern Africa. It bears spikes of greenish white flowers, followed by juicy, deep purple berries that are a good source of food for birds. Native Americans used the berries to stain baskets a dark blue, and poke berries (called ink berries in some localities) provided one of the first natural inks used by settlers of the New World. The ink proved so lasting that it can still be seen on period documents preserved in museums. In the 19th century, tinctures made from the root were popular for joint pain, but poisonings were common due to the plant’s toxicity. Pokeweed berries, roots, leaves, stems, and seeds are poisonous.

CULINARY USE

Eating pokeweed is not recommended, as it can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. Traditionally, the young shoots were cooked and eaten as a spring vegetable in parts of the southeastern United States, but foragers recommend against this practice unless you are very experienced in preparing this species.

MEDICINAL USE

Pokeweed has stimulant, purgative, and emetic properties. Native American people and traditional herbalists used the roots, berries, and leaves to treat conditions such as acne, arthritis and joint pain, fungal infections, scabies, folliculitis, and sore or infected nipples. A few modern herbalists recommend the herb to stimulate the thyroid or lymphatic system.

Caution: Pokeweed is highly toxic. When consumed, all parts of the plant can cause digestive irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, and decreased blood pressure. Overdoses can be fatal. Pokeweed should be used only under the guidance of a qualified health practitioner, if at all. Some authors recommend handling this plant with gloves, as toxins can be absorbed through cuts, scrapes, and other breaks in your skin.

OTHER USES

Poke berries can be used to create a red, brown, or pink natural dye. In a hedgerow or wild area of your landscape, pokeweed berries provide food for many wild birds.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Pokeweed thrives in woodland areas and open spaces in rich, moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. It is rarely grown in the garden and can become invasive. If you choose to grow pokeweed in a wild area as a wildlife food or ornamental, plant the seeds or root divisions in a location with moist but well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. Harvesting the plant for medicinal use is not recommended. Pokeweed self-seeds readily throughout its native range.

Pimenta dioica

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Allspice, Jamaican Pepper

Description: Slow-growing evergreen tree, up to 40 feet tall; large, leathery leaves; grayish white peeling bark; clusters of small white flowers followed by purple berrylike fruits; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Myrtaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Fruits, seeds, and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to tropical areas of South America and the West Indies

This evergreen tree is indigenous to South America and the West Indies, and it’s grown extensively in Jamaica. Christopher Columbus found it growing on that island in 1494, during his second voyage to the Caribbean. Its wood was once in such demand for the making of walking sticks that the tree was nearly harvested to extinction. The dried berries are used to produce allspice, a common culinary flavoring. The botanical name Pimenta is derived from the Spanish word for pepper because the ripe fruits resemble peppercorns.

CULINARY USE

One of the most popular baking spices, ground allspice adds a sweet, warm flavor to pumpkin pie, banana bread, and cookies. Allspice also contributes a key flavor to barbecue sauce. The whole fruits are used to flavor soup, brine, mulled wine, and cider.

MEDICINAL USE

Allspice has been used to treat ailments such as indigestion, flatulence, and muscle pain. It contains the compound eugenol, an anesthetic and antiseptic. In Belize, the berries and leaves are made into a flavorful warming tea to treat upset stomach, gas, and infant colic. To prevent and cure fungal infections of the feet—a frequent consequence of living in tropical rainforest conditions—local people crushed allspice berries into a fine powder and mixed this with animal fat, rubbing the concoction liberally on the affected sites. Laboratory studies have confirmed that compounds in this plant have antifungal activity. For toothaches, indigenous people chew allspice leaves or berries into a paste and apply it to the sore tooth and surrounding gum. A similar preparation is used externally to ease joint pain: The crushed berries are boiled into a paste, applied to a cloth, and used as a plaster.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Jamaican allspice requires warm, frost-free growing conditions with rich, well-drained soil and full sun. In Zone 9 and colder, grow this small tree in a large container that can be moved indoors for the winter, or grow it in a warm greenhouse. Amend the soil or potting medium with compost. Feed with a tropical plant fertilizer every 3 to 5 weeks, and water during dry periods. The tree should begin fruiting during its third year; harvest berries about 4 months after they form, while they are still green and unripe. When sun-dried, they turn brown and can be used. Propagate by planting fully mature seed.

Pimpinella anisum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Anise, Aniseed

Description: Stems, 2 feet tall, topped with yellowish white flower umbels; feathery, divided leaves; flattened oval gray-brown seeds up to 1⁄8 inch long

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Apiaceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Seeds and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia; widely cultivated

Anise, a member of the same family as parsley and carrots, is widely grown throughout North America, Europe, and Asia for its seeds, which are used medicinally and in cooking. The herb has been recommended for health problems since at least the 6th century BCE, when the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 580–ca. 500) suggested that holding it could prevent epileptic seizures. The 1st-century Roman herbalist Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) stated that anise “removed all bad odors from the mouth, if chewed in the morning.” The Romans mixed anise seed with other savory spices and meal to make a cake called mustaceum, a digestive aid and dessert served after heavy meals.

Dogs love the scent of anise: In greyhound racing, the artificial hare is scented with this herb.

CULINARY USE

Anise imparts a licorice flavor to foods. The seed can be used whole or ground with eggs, fruit, cheese, spinach, or carrots, as well as in bread or crackers. Anise seed intensifies the sweetness of desserts. Anise liqueurs, including the Greek ouzo, are made all over the world. To make anisette, combine equal parts anise, coriander, and fennel seed, and steep them in vodka; sweeten with simple syrup (one part sugar dissolved in one part boiling water).

MEDICINAL USE

John Gerard, in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, published in 1597, noted that anise seeds were good for the treatment of intestinal gas (“winde”) and “belching and upbraidings of the stomacke.” He counseled that the seeds could be chewed to make the breath “sweete,” and when eaten with bitter almonds (a wild almond related to the cultivated species), anise would “helpe the old cough.”

Anise seed is used today to relieve gas, bloating, nausea, bad breath, and indigestion. It has antispasmodic and expectorant properties, which may make it helpful in the treatment of menstrual cramps and respiratory complaints such as asthma, coughs, and bronchitis.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Sow anise seeds directly in your garden in light, well-drained soil and full sun. Harvest whole seed heads after the seeds have ripened, but before the heads open, clipping them directly into a bag so the seeds do not scatter. Dry the seeds in the sun or in a warm, dry area indoors. Store the dry seeds in airtight containers. Start new plants from the saved seeds.

Piper methysticum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Awa, Kava, Kava Kava, Sakau, Yangona

Description: Sprawling, perennial shrub, up to 8 feet tall; bears large, heart-shaped leaves and small green spikes of tiny flowers; stout rhizomes

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Piperaceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Roots and leaves

Range/Habitat: Believed to be native to the Pacific Island nation Vanuatu; sunny, moist highlands and tropical forests

People have grown kava for so many centuries that its original birthplace is unclear, although the highest diversity of cultivars (often an indicator of a plant’s origin) is found in the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu. Today, kava grows throughout the Pacific Islands from Hawaii (where it is called “awa”) to New Guinea. A member of the pepper family, this tender, sprawling, perennial shrub has stout rhizomes and bears large, heart-shaped leaves and small green spikes containing tiny flowers. The plant roots are harvested only after the plants have grown for at least 3 years. The remaining long, thin stems are then cut into sections and replanted, to be harvested when mature. Traditionally, people macerate the roots and make them into a beverage consumed for ritual use and social interaction (see “Field Notes” below). Kava derives from a Greek word meaning “intoxicating.”

MEDICINAL USE

Kava contains kavalactones, compounds that relieve pain and relax muscles. Kava root extracts in the form of tinctures, pills, or capsules are used to treat nervousness, anxiety, stress, and restlessness. Human clinical studies have shown that dosages containing 60 to 120 milligrams of kava-lactones can be very effective for treating anxiety disorder. Some studies have found kava to work as well as benzodiazepines (a class of drugs that includes Valium). One study showed that kava might help prevent the uptake of noradrenaline, a hormone that initiates a stress response.

In traditional use, people chew kava to relieve the pain of a sore throat or toothache; they also apply the leaves to wounds and stings. Kava’s anesthetic properties are about twice those of aspirin. Combined with pumpkin seed oil, kava has been used to treat irritable bladder and irritable bowel syndrome.

To make a kava tea, gently simmer 1 teaspoon of the dried and sliced root in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes. Strain. Drink 1 or 2 cups per day.

Caution: Kava should not be taken by pregnant or nursing women, and its long-term use should be monitored by a health-care professional.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Kava grows in moist, sunny highlands or wet tropical forests at elevations to 1,000 feet above sea level. The plant cannot tolerate temperatures below 55°F, but you can grow it in a container in a warm greenhouse if you mist frequently to maintain a high humidity level. Amend the growing medium with coarse sand or grit to ensure good drainage and aeration. Gradually increase the pot size and replant as needed. Begin harvesting the roots when the plants are 3 years old. After harvesting the roots, propagate new plants from stems that contain two or three nodes.

FIELD NOTES

Sakau: The Sacred Root

On the remote tropical island of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, where I have studied plants and their cultural uses since 1997, the most powerful, sacred, and important plant is kava—known locally as SakauBite on the root and it tastes somewhat peppery, with a numbing quality; people place the leaves of the plant on an area stung by a stingray to dull the pain.

Traditionally, the roots are pounded, releasing a bioactive liquid, then mixed with other substances and consumed. The bitter root extract is an acquired taste, but the effects are quite pleasant—mild euphoria, amicability, and greatly reduced anxiety. It is also a muscle relaxant, so drinking too much Sakau results in a lack of motor coordination (so moving around is not suggested) while your mind remains crystal clear.

On Pohnpei, people come together regularly to drink Sakau and to discuss the day’s issues, exchange stories, and gossip. The beverage promotes social interaction, perhaps in the same way as that first glass of wine at a dinner party. In Germany, where physicians are trained to prescribe both pharmaceutical and herbal medications, Sakau (kava) is recommended for the treatment of anxiety, stress, and restlessness. Tinctures and teas of this plant can usually be found in your local health food store under various brand names. Note that the tea should not be made with extremely hot water, as the kavalactones—the bioactive compounds—are thought to degrade with high heat.—M. J. B.

Piper nigrum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Black Pepper

Description: Woody vine, up to 12 feet tall; bears large, oval leaves and spikes of tiny white flowers; clusters of small berries turn red when mature; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Piperaceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Fruit

Range/Habitat: Native to India; cultivated in tropical regions worldwide

The genus Piper includes about 2,000 species of climbing plants, shrubs, and small trees. Piper nigrum (black pepper) is native to Southwest India and is cultivated in tropical areas throughout the world. This woody-stemmed, pungent-smelling climber bears large, oval leaves; spikes of tiny white flowers; and clusters of small berries (called peppercorns) that turn red when mature.

Black peppercorns consist of the entire fruit, called a drupe, harvested from plants that are at least 3 years old, and then dried. Although black pepper is relatively inexpensive now, it was once so highly valued and so difficult to obtain that it was used as currency. In 408 CE, the Mongol warrior Attila the Hun is said to have requested 1½ tons of black pepper as a ransom during his siege of Rome. In the 15th century, European explorers searched for trade routes to the Far East, where they could obtain peppercorns. The wealth of some European ports, such as Venice, resulted from the quest for black pepper.

CULINARY USE

Black pepper, one of the world’s oldest-known spices, is used in some form in nearly every regional cuisine. Before the invention of refrigeration, black pepper was used to preserve meat and to mask the taste of meat that was not fresh. Today, the spice is used to flavor savory dishes, including meats, dressings, and pickles. It is an ingredient in many commercially available food products, such as baked goods, condiments, and nonalcoholic beverages. Whole black peppercorns, ground immediately before use, provide more flavor than preground pepper. White pepper, which comes from the same plant but is prepared differently, has a slightly milder flavor because it lacks the fruit coating.

MEDICINAL USE

High in antioxidants, black pepper contains volatile oil and alkaloids that cause the herb to have a stimulating, warming effect on your digestive and circulatory systems. Used to relieve stomachache, nausea, constipation, bloating, and flatulence, black pepper is also taken to stimulate appetite by increasing gastric secretions. In China, where black pepper is known as hu jiao, the herb is popular for alleviating phlegm from a cold, stomach reflux, and diarrhea. Essential oil of black pepper, produced by steam distillation of the fruit, has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It can be diluted in carrier oils and applied externally as a chest rub to warm your body and alleviate congestion from cold and flu. The oil is also added to liniments and creams to ease sore joints and relax tight muscles.

Caution: Essential oil of black pepper is for external use only.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Black pepper grows in rich, well-drained soil in full sun to light shade. It requires high humidity and moisture and will not tolerate temperatures below 60°F. In colder climates, black pepper can be grown as a houseplant in a warm spot that receives bright sunlight. Support the vine on a stake or trellis, and mist the plant to maintain humidity. Hand-pick the fruits when they are half-ripe (red-green in color). Propagate by stem cuttings.

FIELD NOTES

Pepper: The World’s Most Important Spice

Cultivated in tropical regions throughout the world, pepper is produced on large plantations or in fields managed by small farmers. The low-growing evergreen vines are usually planted on poles, for easier harvest of the berries. If you walk through a pepper field, you’ll see several crops growing together in layers—the pepper vines on their supports, annual crops (such as cucumbers or squash) at their bases, and, often, tree crops overhead.

Thousands of miles away, on our supermarket shelves, we can find different kinds of pepper: black, green, and white. All come from Piper nigrum but are handled differently. Immature berries are used to produce green pepper. Half-ripe, red-green berries are used to produce black pepper. And fully ripe, bright red berries become white pepper, after the fruit’s outer layer is removed. Each type has a different flavor, but all contain the alkaloid piperine, one of the compounds that give the seed of this species its pungent flavor. By the way, the “red pepper” seeds in some P. nigrum blends are not from a pepper at all—that’s the seed of Schinus molle, an invasive tree native to the Peruvian Andes. That species, in the same family as poison ivy and poison oak, can provoke allergic reactions if handled by those sensitive to it and can be toxic when ingested.—M. J. B.

Plantago major

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Broad-Leaf Plantain, Greater Plantain, Rat-Tail Plantain

Description: Thick, grooved leaves with longitudinal veins form a rosette near the ground; tiny yellow-green flowers on slender 6- to 18-inch spikes

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Plantaginaceae

Flowering: May to September

Parts Used: Leaves and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to Eurasia; naturalized throughout North America in disturbed areas, such as roadsides and fields

The wide green leaves and yellow-green flower spikes of broad-leaf plantain are a familiar (and, usually, unwelcome) sight in lawns and gardens throughout North America, where this weedy perennial has naturalized. The species is native to Eurasia; its common name, plantain, is the French version of the Latin plantago, which means “plant.” Some Native American tribes called plantain “Englishman’s foot” because it seemed to flourish in areas visited by British colonists—as a weedy species, it would spread to disturbed habitats, including the fields, pastures, and roads developed by the settlers. Despite its wild nature, broad-leaf plantain can be highly useful.

CULINARY USE

Young plantain leaves can be eaten in salads or steamed lightly and eaten as a vegetable. In recipes that include cooked spinach, try substituting cooked young plantain leaves. Noted forager “Wildman” Steve Brill suggests using the older, fibrous leaves along with other herbs and vegetables to make a mineral-rich vegetable stock. (Remove the plantain leaves before eating.)

MEDICINAL USE

Plantain leaves have long been used as a folk medicine. In Shakespeare’s 16th-century play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo tells Juliet that plantain leaf is excellent as a treatment for broken skin. Indeed, plantain leaves contain soothing, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and vulnerary (blood coagulant) compounds. The astringent, antibacterial leaves, bruised or crushed and rubbed against the affected area, are a traditional remedy for poison ivy, insect bites and stings, superficial wounds, and skin conditions such as eczema. Plantain leaf tea is also soothing to the respiratory system and the urinary tract, and it makes a good mouthwash, reputed to help heal sores. It has been used as a diuretic and to relieve dry cough.

Caution: Plantain may cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Avoid harvesting plantain from roadsides or other areas commonly treated with herbicides or otherwise exposed to toxic substances.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plantain grows in moist sandy or gravelly soil in full sun or partial shade. Considered an invasive weed throughout most of the United States, the plant self-seeds freely. Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers.

Podophyllum peltatum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: American Mandrake, Duck’s Food, Ground Lemon, Mayapple

Description: Perennial, 12 to 18 inches tall; stems each bear one or two large, deeply divided lobed leaves; nodding white flowers give way to 2-inch fleshy green fruits that ripen to yellow; long, creeping rhizomes

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Berberidaceae

Flowering: April and May

Parts Used: Ripe fruit and rhizome

Range/Habitat: Eastern North America; damp, open woods and moist meadows

Native to the moist woodland areas of eastern North America, the mayapple bears large, umbrella-like leaves that form a lush groundcover during spring. Its scientific name derives from the Greek words podos and phyllon,meaning “foot-shaped leaves,” and peltatum, which means “shieldlike.” After the leaves develop, a single, white, strong-smelling flower forms, followed by a fleshy yellow fruit known as the mayapple.

CULINARY USE

In some folk traditions, the ripe fruit is used to make jam. If you wish to try making mayapple jam, harvest only fully ripe fruit (the green, unripe fruit is poisonous). Ripe mayapples are soft, lemon yellow in color, and fragrant. Use only the pulp—not the rind or seeds—for jam. To do this, cook the fruit, mash it, and then squeeze the puree through a sieve to separate the pulp. Process the pulp the same way you would for other jams.

MEDICINAL USE

Native Americans used mayapple roots or rhizomes as a laxative and purgative, as well as a treatment for joint pain, cancers, and many other conditions. Several tribes employed the fruit to remove skin warts. By the late 18th century, American settlers were also using the resin from the roots of mayapple as a laxative and treatment for cholera, dysentery, genital warts, hepatitis, tumors, and other conditions and diseases. An antitumor agent identified in the plant’s roots is the basis for modern drugs used against certain cancers. An extract is also used topically to treat genital herpes. (See “Field Notes” on this page.)

Caution: Other than its ripe fruit, which can be eaten in small quantities, mayapple is extremely poisonous and should not be taken internally.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Mayapple can form a handsome groundcover in woodland areas. If you wish to grow it as an ornamental, provide rich, moist, humusy soil and partial shade. Sow the seeds in spring, or divide the plant in early spring or fall and plant the root divisions immediately. The plants colonize by underground rhizomes and can take 5 years or more to become established. Harvest ripe yellow fruits when they are soft and fragrant, in late summer to fall.

FIELD NOTES

The Plant Kingdom’s Untapped Potential

Throughout northeastern forests of the United States, it is easy to find large colonies of mayapples, which spread by their underground rhizomes. Native Americans, such as the Penobscot of Maine, used these rhizomes to treat warts and certain cancers. A century and a half ago, American medical practitioners also began using mayapple widely against various tumors, polyps, and other skin granulations. In the late 19th century, a resin derived from the root (which contains a compound known as podophyllin) was used to treat genital warts. Two modern derivatives of this compound, etoposide and teniposide, are now used as anticancer therapies for conditions including testicular cancer, small-cell lung cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and lymphomas. These drugs block the replication of rapidly dividing tumor cell DNA, leading to cell death.

The mayapple is just one example of the plant kingdom’s potential. While many plants already have provided important pharmaceuticals used in modern medicine, only a very small percentage of the several hundred thousand plants known to exist on earth have been exhaustively studied for their chemical composition and healing potential. So much remains untapped.—M. J. B.

Pogostemon cablin

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Patchouli

Description: Perennial, 2 to 3 feet tall, with serrated leaves, hairy stems, and white or pale pink flowers; highly fragrant leaves

Hardiness: Tender perennial

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midautumn to early winter

Parts Used: Leaves and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to tropical regions of India and Malaysia

Best known for its richly scented essential oil, patchouli is native to the tropical regions of India and Malaysia. The 2- to 3-foot-tall plant has soft, fragrant leaves and small, pale pink or white flowers that appear in fall to early winter. The name patchouli comes from the Tamil pachchai and ilai, meaning “green leaf.” Most of the world’s patchouli oil now comes from Indonesia, where the plant is often grown in rotation with other crops or as an understory plant. After the leaves are harvested, they are partially dried, stacked, and fermented, then sent to steam distilleries for extraction of the essential oil. The oil is highly valued as a perfume ingredient, as well as for healing.

MEDICINAL USE

Patchouli oil has antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. The oil is used externally—mixed with carrier oils, creams, or gels—to treat conditions such as dry, cracked, or oily skin and scalp; athlete’s foot; acne; inflamed skin; and eczema. Alone or mixed with other oils, patchouli oil is also a good insect repellent. In aromatherapy, the oil is used to treat exhaustion, depression, and stress, and to enhance libido. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use the whole plant to treat headache, stomach gas, vomiting, and diarrhea.

OTHER USES

Prized for making perfume, the fragrant oil of patchouli has a warm, spicy scent that improves with age. It is used to scent massage and bath oils, soaps, and cosmetic products. The leaves and oil can be added to potpourri or used in drawers and closets to scent linens and clothing and to repel moths.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A tropical understory plant, patchouli thrives in moist, warm, shady conditions and languishes in temperatures lower than 50°F. In cooler climates, it can be grown as an annual or as a potted indoor plant. Indoors or outdoors, provide bright, indirect light and rich, moist soil. Never allow the soil to dry out completely; mist frequently to increase humidity. Pinch back stem tips to keep the plant bushy. In late summer, harvest up to one-third of the plant by cutting back the stems along with their leaves and any flowers. Dry them in a warm, dark location for 7 to 10 days. To promote flowering in winter, keep the plant in total darkness after sunset, starting in fall. Patchouli is easy to propagate by cuttings.

Portulaca oleracea

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Pigweed, Purslane

Description: Trailing, 6- to 8-inch-tall plant with clusters of flat, succulent, dark green leaves; smooth stems often have a reddish hue when mature; small, yellow flowers

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Portulacaceae

Flowering: Early summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to Eurasia, widely naturalized throughout the world

An annual plant found wild and cultivated in many areas of the world, this low-growing succulent green is eaten fresh or cooked wherever it is found. In the United States, it grows in vacant lots, fields, and gardens, where it is often considered an invasive weed. Yet this common plant is uncommonly nutritious. Writing about his voyage to the South Seas, Englishman and adventurer Sir Richard Hawkins (1562–1622) observed that his crew, suffering from scurvy, was saved by eating “the hearbe purslane,” which they found in abundance on an island they visited. Purslane is a very rich source of vitamin C, a deficiency of which is the cause of that terrible disease.

CULINARY USE

The tender young leaves of purslane can be pinched off of the young stems from summer to fall and added fresh to salads or cooked in the same way as spinach. Eaten raw, purslane has a tart, lemony flavor with peppery undertones. One Pennsylvania German folk recipe combines chopped fresh purslane, egg, bread crumbs, currants, and seasonings. The mixture is formed into small cakes that are sautéed until light brown; the cakes make a very tasty and nutritious substitute for sausage. The stems can be pickled like cucumbers or blanched and frozen for use in winter.

MEDICINAL USE

Purslane is an important plant in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is cultivated throughout China. The young leaves are ground and used as a wash for treating skin problems, such as sores. It is a cooling plant thought to relieve “fire toxicity” and is taken internally for urinary problems, as well as for dysentery. Human clinical trials have shown both purslane juice and tablets to be effective against intestinal parasites such as hookworm. The herb is also used topically to treat swellings and stings.

A nutritional powerhouse, purslane is high in omega-3 fatty acids, containing more than any other leafy vegetable, as well as vitamins A, B, C, and carotenoids. For those who don’t eat enough omega-3 fatty acid–rich fish, purslane should be the herb of choice to maintain optimum health and prevent disease. The leaves also contain a great deal of oxalates, however, so people with a history of oxalate-based kidney stones should avoid eating too much of this plant.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Purslane can often be found growing in garden beds or between paving stones. If you don’t find it there, it’s easy to grow in full sun and sandy, well-drained soil. Sow the seed on the surface of the soil after danger of frost has passed. Harvest young leaves and stems and use them fresh; remove flowers to prevent unwanted seedlings.

Primula veris

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Cowslip

Description: Basal rosette of dark green leaves; thin stems up to 10 inches tall bear clusters of nodding, bright yellow, bell-shaped blooms; fragrant

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Primulaceae

Flowering: April to May

Parts Used: Flowers and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized in other temperate regions; open fields and meadows

In country meadows throughout much of the world, the sweet-smelling, yellow, bell-shaped blooms of cowslip are nearly synonymous with spring. The attractive perennial—which bears clusters of nodding flowers atop long, thin stems—is native to Europe and western Asia and has naturalized in temperate areas of the world, including the northeastern United States and Canada. Cowslip is strongly associated with springtime. In Spain and Italy, this perennial herb is known as primavera, meaning “spring.” The name “cowslip” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon cu-sloppe, a reference to the plant’s tendency to bloom among herds of dairy cattle.

CULINARY USE

Cowslip flowers have a very distinctive fresh fragrance, and they make a nice addition to springtime salads. Also try candying them like you would violets to make a decorative garnish for desserts.

MEDICINAL USE

Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes reference to a traditional belief that cowslip flowers are good for the complexion. Modern herbalists use cowslip flowers prepared as a lotion to treat skin blemishes, and for sunburn. The flowers have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and diuretic properties. Taken as a tea, they are used to treat asthma and allergies. Cowslip tea is also a traditional treatment for anxiety and insomnia.

The roots, which contain triterpenoid saponins, have powerful expectorant properties. Decoctions of cowslip root have been used to loosen phlegm in people with chest colds.

Caution: Do not use cowslip if you are pregnant or taking aspirin or prescription anticoagulant drugs, such as warfarin.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Long-blooming, deer-resistant cowslip is a good choice for mixed borders, woodland plantings, and cottage gardens. Its long-stemmed blooms make attractive springtime bouquets. Related Primula species have yielded many garden cultivars, including the pastel-colored mix drumstick primrose (P. denticulata), pink ‘Quaker’s Bonnet’ (P. vulgaris), and purple ‘Wanda’ (P. juliae).

 HOW TO GROW IT

Cowslip grows wild in fields and pastures with chalky soil. It prefers dry, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds in summer; root divisions can be planted in late spring or early fall. Harvest the flowers and roots in spring.

Prunella vulgaris

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Heal All, Self-Heal

Description: Low-growing perennial with creeping rhizomes; reddish stems bear small, oval leaves and spikes of violet-blue blooms

Hardiness: Hardy throughout most of North America

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to autumn

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to Eurasia, naturalized throughout temperate regions

Heal all, a low-growing mint relative, is native to Eurasia and can be found in temperate regions worldwide. Naturalized throughout North America, the plant spreads so readily that it’s often considered an invasive weed. Its scientific name can be traced to a fever known as “the browns” (for the brown-colored tongue coating of infected patients), which spread through German armies during the 16th century. Because heal all was a common treatment for the browns, the herb became known as Brunella, and later Prunella.

CULINARY USE

The minty flavored leaves, stems, and flowers of heal all can be used in salads, soups, or stews or boiled as a potherb. To make a tasty, healthful tea, bring 2 cups of water to a boil, then pour the water over 1 ounce of fresh leaves or flowers. Steep for 5 minutes, then strain.

MEDICINAL USE

As its name suggests, heal all has been used to alleviate a wide range of conditions. It can be taken as a tea, tincture, mouthwash, poultice, or salve. The plant is rich in rosmarinic acid, which regulates the production of thyroid hormone, making it useful in the treatment of overactive or underactive thyroid. As an immune-system stimulant with antiviral properties, it may be beneficial in the treatment of the herpes simplex virus. The herb also soothes inflamed mucous membranes and has been taken traditionally to relieve gingivitis, sore throat, and diarrhea. In lab studies, it has been found to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use an extract of the herb to treat hypertension. The great 17th-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) recommended applying heal all externally as a plaster or unguent to treat skin wounds and other sores. Heal all is a key ingredient in many natural skin-care products.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Heal all commonly grows on sunny banks, in grassy areas, and in open woodlands. It can be propagated by seed or by division of the creeping rhizomes, although the plant spreads quickly and is considered weedy. For best germination, chill seeds for about 1 month before sowing them indoors in flats. Transplant 8-week-old seedlings outdoors in early spring, spacing plants about 1 foot apart in either full sun or partial shade. Keep the soil evenly moist for the first year. Harvest the flowering stems just before the blooms open.

Punica granatum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Pomegranate

Description: Evergreen tree, 15 to 20 feet tall, with twisted, multiple trunks; red flowers are followed by scarlet fruits up to 5 inches in diameter; seeds are covered with a juicy red pulp

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Lythraceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Fruit and root bark

Range/Habitat: Native to central Asia, from Iran to the Himalayas

The pomegranate is a 15- to 20-foot-tall evergreen native to central Asia from Iran to the Himalayas. Mentioned in the Bible, Koran, and other ancient books, the tree has been cultivated since ancient times throughout the Mediterranean region of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Its red flowers develop into rounded, scarlet fruits up to 5 inches in diameter. The name comes from the Medieval Latin words pomum (apple) and granatum (seeded), and indeed the fruits are filled with crunchy seeds, each of which is encased in the sweet or somewhat sour red pulp known botanically as an aril. Believed by some to be the forbidden fruit of the biblical Garden of Eden, the pomegranate has been regarded as a symbol of fertility, prosperity, and even immortality by ancient cultures. The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BCE), one of the world’s oldest medical texts, discusses the plant’s healing properties. The rind of the fruit has long been used as a dye. Depending on the preparation method and what the rind is mixed with, it can produce yellow to green tints.

CULINARY USE

Flavorful, crunchy pomegranate seeds and their juice are important ingredients in many traditional Middle Eastern sauces, salad dressings, marinades, soups, and desserts. The seeds can also be used in salads, ice creams, custards, breads, muffins, chutneys, and more.

To remove the seeds from the fruit, cut the fruit in half, then submerse the halves in water. (Be careful; the pulp-covered seeds can stain.) Gently scoop out the seeds with your fingers, letting them sink to the bottom of the bowl, then skim off any pith that floats to the surface. Pour the water through a mesh strainer to separate the seeds. To obtain the juice, wrap the seeds in cheesecloth and squeeze the liquid into a bowl.

The seeds from one pomegranate will yield about 1⁄3 cup of juice, which can be used to flavor sauces, vinaigrettes, marinades, or desserts. The original grenadine syrup, used in cocktails, was made with pomegranate juice.

MEDICINAL USE

This fruit is both medicine and food, low in calories and rich in many important nutrients and compounds. Pomegranate juice is gaining popularity as an antiaging, free-radical-fighting antioxidant “superfood” that protects cells from oxidative stress and reduces inflammation. It could also prove helpful for treating or preventing many health conditions, including diseases of the heart and blood vessels. In Ayurvedic medicine, pomegranate’s astringent root bark has been used to expel worms, especially tapeworms, from the body. Its astringent fruit rind is very rich in tannins and highly effective for treating diarrhea. To treat infants with that condition, the rind is powdered and mixed with buttermilk. In some studies, pomegranate rind has also inhibited the herpes simplex virus.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Older plants develop an appealing sculptural form with multiple twisted trunks. Ornamental cultivars have been developed with large double blooms and white or pink flowers and small, inedible fruit. Dwarf varieties make attractive potted ornamentals and can be used for bonsai.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Pomegranate thrives in subtropical climates with slightly alkaline, loamy soil, such as in the southwestern region of the United States. Provide full sun and well-drained soil. Feed in late winter and spring with a slow-release, balanced organic fertilizer. Pomegranate is self-fruitful, but potted indoor plants require hand pollination to set fruit. Or, for insect pollination, move the pots outdoors when the weather warms up in spring; bring them indoors when temperatures drop below 40°F in fall. Pomegranate can be propagated by hardwood cuttings taken in late winter, or by layering.

FIELD NOTES

From Ancient Symbol to Modern Superfruit

The Old City of Jerusalem is honeycombed with narrow alleys that twist and turn, eventually opening into larger open spaces. Wandering through this area is like visiting an earlier culinary, cultural, and spiritual time. Here and there, vendors stand behind tables with small steel presses and large pyramids of pomegranates. They shout out a friendly invitation to sample the fruits’ refreshing red juice.

According to archeological evidence, the pomegranate tree has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years. Native to the Middle East—most likely Persia—it is believed by some to be the biblical “tree of knowledge.” Since ancient times, the fruit was considered a symbol of fertility because of its many seeds. The cultivation of this fascinating plant eventually spread to India, northern Africa, Asia, Europe, and the New World. As modern research began to uncover the fruit’s many health benefits, pomegranate has gained popularity. Known to relatively few Americans just a decade ago, the pomegranate is now considered a “superfood,” widely consumed as a fresh fruit, juice, and in an array of commercially packaged products and supplements.—M. J. B.

Rauvolfia serpentina

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Indian Snakeroot, Serpentwood

Description: Small deciduous shrub, 2 to 3 feet tall; oval evergreen leaves, 3 to 8 inches long, in whorls; clusters of tubular pink and white flowers; long, tuberous roots; tiny purple-black fruits

Hardiness: Tropical

Family: Apocynaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Roots

Range/Habitat: Native to India, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, and Ceylon; moist tropical forests

Named in honor of the 16th-century German physician and explorer Leonhard Rauwolf, the genus Rauvolfia includes more than 100 species native to the moist tropical forests of the Pacific region, South America, Asia, and Africa. Serpentwood, Rauvolfia serpentina, is a small deciduous shrub that grows as an understory plant in India, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, and Ceylon. According to legend, holy men in India, including Mahatma Gandhi, chewed the root of serpentwood to help achieve a state of philosophic detachment while meditating. The herb was first mentioned in the ancient Indian medical text Charaka Samhita (ca. 600 BCE) as useful for the treatment of mental illness. It also has a long history of use in India as a treatment for snake and insect bites, diarrhea, fever, and worms.

MEDICINAL USE

In traditional Indian medicine, this plant was valued as a sedative and tranquilizer. In 1952, serpent-wood was found to contain an alkaloid called reserpine, which has powerful depressant and sedative properties. Reserpine—isolated from the dried, thick, snakelike roots of Rauvolvia that gave the plant its common name—was found to be useful as an antipsychotic and antihypertensive drug. At one time, reserpine was the only drug available to calm patients with serious psychological illnesses. Other tranquilizers have replaced reserpine in mental health therapy, but it is still used in some parts of the world, often in combination with other therapies, for the treatment of hypertension. Because of its numerous side effects and interactions with other medications, reserpine has been replaced in Western medicine by other antihypertensive drugs.

Caution: This plant should be administered only under the supervision of a health-care professional.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Serpentwood thrives in tropical climates, where temperatures do not drop below 50° to 55°F. To grow serpentwood in a greenhouse, provide rich, acidic soil; high humidity; and full sun to partial shade. In winter, reduce watering. Propagate by taking stem cuttings in spring or summer, or take root cuttings in winter. For commercial preparations, roots of mature plants are harvested (leaving the taproot intact) in winter.

Ricinus communis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Castor Bean, Mole Plant

Description: Shrub, 8 to 10 feet tall, with alternate, palmate leaves up to 2 feet across, gray-green or dark purple-red; flower clusters on terminal spikes; spiny, 1-inch fruit capsules with seeds (beans)

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Euphorbiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Seed

Range/Habitat: Native to tropical Africa and East Indies, naturalized throughout the tropics

Although the castor bean plant is considered a weed in many of the world’s tropical regions, the plant is cultivated in temperate regions, not only for its seed oil but also for its beauty as an accent plant in the garden. Castor bean is native to parts of Africa and India and has been used in these areas for cosmetic, healing, and household purposes since ancient times. Seeds of the plant have been found in 4,000-year-old Egyptian tombs. The Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text dating to ca. 1550 BCE, specified that the oil was useful as a laxative. In the Middle Ages, European herbalists used the herb as a liniment.

The seeds, commonly called beans, contain up to 5 percent of the protein ricin, which is one of the most toxic natural poisons. The extraction process used to produce oil from the beans removes the poisonous compound.

MEDICINAL USE

In addition to its use as a mild laxative, commercially produced castor bean oil can be applied topically as a skin moisturizer and to treat skin inflammations and warts.

Caution: Castor bean oil (also called castor oil) is not recommended for pregnant and nursing women and young children. The beans should never be taken internally in any form; the body can absorb the ricin in the seeds and the result can be severe poisoning and death.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Fast-growing castor bean is a popular foundation plant for new homes in southern regions. The plant’s height and large, showy leaves also make a dramatic backdrop for lower-growing ornamentals in mixed borders. Planted in a large container, castor bean gives decks, porches, and verandas a lush, tropical look.

OTHER USES

Sometimes called “mole plant,” castor bean reputedly deters rodents and rabbits, so some gardeners plant a castor bean hedge around their vegetable garden to repel animal pests. It is said that if you put a few seeds in a mole’s hole, the little animals will move elsewhere. Certain ecofriendly mole repellents have castor oil as a major ingredient. Researchers at Michigan State University found that a commercial mole repellent containing 65 percent castor oil was effective for a period of 1 to 2 months. The bean’s toxicity is probably a mechanism that evolved to ward off insect and pest attacks. It has been studied as a potential insecticide, but this would seem to be very toxic to humans and animals, as well.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant castor bean seeds 1 inch deep in fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. In Zone 7 and colder, grow castor bean as an annual. Start the seeds indoors about 1 month before the last spring frost date, then transplant the seedlings outdoors after all danger of frost has passed. Keep plants well watered and away from young children and pets. Harvesting the plant for medicinal use is not recommended.

FIELD NOTES

Castor Oil and Early Flying Machines

When I think of early aviators, the romantic image that immediately comes to mind is of the World War I pilot, sitting in an open cockpit wearing a leather jacket, goggles, and a white silk scarf that’s wrapped around his face. Cutting through the clouds in acrobatic formations with the high winds whipping against his face, the smell of the rotary engine permeating the air—those early days of flying machines were indeed magnificent.

The goggles and scarf were not just a fashion statement; they were an essential part of flying. The design of the rotary engine that powered many of these planes—the fact that it spewed lubricating oil into the air during flight—caused the pilot’s face and parts of his body to be covered with the spray. Castor oil was the best lubricant for this type of engine, which meant that pilots ingested a great deal of it during each hour of flight. And because castor oil is a purgative, this had an immediate effect on the pilot’s intestinal system, resulting in the need to run to the facilities after every flight. Thus, the long, protective silk scarf wrapped in many layers around the pilot’s nose and mouth became a mandatory part of flying gear. In later years, closed cockpits and other types of engines eliminated the need for the scarf, but the style was set. Today, there are still some high-performance motor lubricants that contain oil extracted from the castor bean.—M. J. B.

Rosa spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Rose

Description: Mostly deciduous upright bushes, but also shrubs (taller and arching in form) and climbers; stems usually thorny, with five to nine alternate leaflets; flowers solitary or in branched clusters of five or more petals; berrylike hips ripen to red

Hardiness: Select varieties bred to survive -35°F

Family: Rosaceae

Flowering: May to frost

Parts Used: Flowers and fruit

Range/Habitat: Native to temperate regions in both hemispheres

A member of the rose family (which also includes apple, strawberry, peach, and hawthorn), this familiar perennial is known by its fragrant flowers, serrated leaves, and thorny stems. The showy blooms—which range in color from pink and red to lavender, yellow, and white—give way to scarlet berries called rose hips. The genus Rosa includes more than 100 species, distributed throughout temperate regions in both hemispheres.

Roses were probably cultivated first in Iran, at least 3,000 years ago; from there, garden roses were introduced to ancient Greece and, later, Rome. Sappho, a 6th-century BCE Greek poet, called the rose “queen of flowers.” Ancient Romans (not known for their restraint) also were enamored with the crimson blooms of Rosa gallica. They wore rose garlands and crowns, and they lavishly scattered the petals across banquet tables and floors and in the paths of victors.

In North America, Native Americans used wild roses ornamentally, as well as for food and medicine, long before Europeans introduced garden roses. Native American healing preparations included a mixture of rose petals and bear fat for mouth sores, rose petal powder for fever sores and blisters, and rainwater-soaked roses for soothing irritated eyes.

CULINARY USE

Rose hips and petals can be made into teas, fruit drinks, jellies, jams, candies (such as Turkish delight), and syrups. Also, try substituting the tart-flavored hips for cranberries in sauces, relishes, and muffins. Add rose petals to fruit or vegetable salads. Fill dessert crepes with rose jelly and garnish them with candied rose petals. Rosewater, a distillation of rose petals in water, is a popular flavoring in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Lassi, an Indian yogurt drink, is traditionally flavored with a few drops of rosewater.

MEDICINAL USE

The rose isn’t used much in modern herbal medicine. Pure rose essential oil, known as rose attar or attar of rose, is used in aromatherapy and in perfumes. Rose oil has mild sedative, antidepressant, and anti-inflammatory effects. Rose hips, which usually come from Rosa canina (dog rose), are a good source of vitamin C. Studies using rose hip powder derived from a specific cultivar of Rosa canina grown in Denmark have shown promise for treating the symptoms of osteoarthritis.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The rose is beloved as a garden plant, and thousands of varieties have been developed. Many are disease resistant and bloom virtually nonstop from late spring through frost. Versatile roses can be used in mixed borders, formal garden settings, and informal cottage gardens; as hedges and groundcovers; and as flowering covers for fences, pergolas, and trellises.

OTHER USES

The rose is a favorite source of fragrance for perfumes, bath oils, soaps, ointments, creams, and more. Varieties of Rosa × damascena, R. gallica, and R.× centifolia are the most fragrant. To obtain 1 ounce of essential oil of rose, 60,000 roses are needed, but you can make a less-potent rose oil at home simply by soaking rose petals in a light oil, such as grapeseed oil. Rosewater is sometimes used as a mild astringent in skin-care products. To make rosewater, place 6 cups of fresh rose petals in a medium-size saucepan; add 1 quart of water. Heat the mixture gently and then simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and steep for several hours. Strain out the petals. Store the rosewater in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Rose petals also add fragrance and beauty to potpourris and sachets.

Fragrant Rosa gallica, sometimes called the apothecary rose, is valued for perfumes and cosmetics. The hips of dog rose (R. canina) make a vitamin C–rich tea.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Roses thrive in well-drained, moist, fertile, neutral to slightly acidic soil in full sun. Space the plants at least 30 inches apart to provide good air circulation. Prune them in late winter or early spring to remove old or dead canes, and thin them lightly to increase bloom size. In spring, top-dress beds with compost, then feed plants weekly with compost or manure tea through midsummer. Keep roses well watered and mulched during dry weather; remove all mulch in spring, when temperatures have warmed. To propagate roses, take hardwood cuttings in fall.

Harvest rose petals before the blossom opens completely. Pluck the petals from the bloom’s center, and dry them in the sun until crisp. Harvest rose hips when they are fully mature, after the weather turns cold.

FIELD NOTES

The Apothecary Rose

Known botanically as Rosa gallica var. officinalis, the common name for this rose denotes its early use in medicine, as well as the fact that it was commonly grown outside of apothecary shops—a living sign that the establishment prepared and dispensed healing herbs. Its flowers have been used for herbal therapies since ancient times, when the Romans steeped the petals in wine to treat hangovers. Today this species is prized as a garden plant; its fragrant petals can be used for potpourri, and the essential oil, produced by steam distillation, is used in cosmetics. You can mix a few drops of the essential oil with several tablespoons of a carrier oil to make a rose-scented massage oil. During the War of the Roses in England (a civil war fought between 1455 and 1487), this red rose was the House of Lancaster’s insignia.—M. J. B.

Rosmarinus officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Rosemary

Description: Upright shrub up to 10 feet tall; needlelike evergreen leaves are green on top and white below, giving the plant a gray-green appearance; clusters of blue blooms along the branches; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 7

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Winter through spring

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to hills along the Mediterranean, Portugal, and northwest Spain

A bushy evergreen shrub with pale blue flowers and needle-shaped, aromatic leaves, rosemary belongs to the family Lamiaceae—also known as the mint family. The scientific name for the genus comes from the Latin ros (“dew” or “spray”) and marinus (“sea”), a reference to the plant’s tendency to grow on ocean cliffs in its native Mediterranean habitat. An old French name for this herb was incensier because it once was used as an inexpensive substitute for incense in religious ceremonies.

Rosemary has long been an emblem of fidelity and memory. Traditionally carried by brides, the herb appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” In the home, rosemary has long been valued for its antiseptic and antibacterial properties. At one time, it was rubbed on meat not only for flavor but also to help delay spoilage. Rosemary was also placed in sickrooms to fight illness and infection, and World War II nurses are said to have burned a mixture of rosemary leaves and juniper berries to disinfect hospitals.

CULINARY USE

Rosemary’s flavor is pungent, somewhat piney, and mintlike. The fresh or dried leaves complement soups, breads, roasted meats (especially lamb, poultry, and pork), eggs, cheese, pasta dishes, marinades, sauces, and dressings. Rosemary also enhances tomatoes, spinach, peas, mushrooms, squash, and lentils, and it combines well with other herbs, such as chives, thyme, parsley, chervil, and bay. Finely chop the rough-textured leaves before you add them to fresh or cooked foods.

Fresh sprigs of rosemary and rosemary flowers can be steeped in vinegar, wine, or olive oil to add a subtle flavor. Use rosemary branches as skewers for grilling meat and vegetable kebabs.

MEDICINAL USE

Rosemary leaves have antispasmodic, carminative (gas-relieving), antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. The herb is used primarily to treat poor digestion and appetite, joint pain, and sluggish circulation. It may help increase the flow of blood to your heart, and it has been recommended for elderly individuals with impaired circulation and for young adults who lack physical stamina. The herb also has been shown to have some liver-protective and anti-tumor properties.

Oil of rosemary, made by steam distillation of the herb’s fresh flowering tops, is used to ease irritation by increasing the blood supply to your skin. The oil is also useful as a steam inhalant, helping relieve nasal and chest congestion from colds, flus, and allergies. Rosemary oil contains natural camphor, which has an affinity for the nervous system. Applied externally, the oil has been used to relieve muscle and nerve pain, such as sciatica. In aromatherapy, rosemary oil is believed to have stimulating properties.

OTHER USES

Rosemary’s pleasant fragrance and antioxidant properties make it a beneficial addition to cosmetics, skin creams, soaps, and lotions. Diluted rosemary oil can be rubbed into the scalp or added to shampoo to stimulate hair growth and prevent dandruff. A rosemary bath or facial, made by adding a strong rosemary infusion to water, is stimulating and refreshing. You can also add antiseptic rosemary oil to your homemade cleaning products.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Shrubby rosemary varieties make handsome landscape plants, especially in warm, dry climates. Use them near foundations, in rock gardens, or in containers on porches or decks, where their blue blooms and aromatic leaves will be within sight and touch. Plant trailing forms where they can cascade over the edge of a stone wall, hanging basket, window box, or pot.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A drought-tolerant plant, rosemary requires well-drained, fairly dry, rocky to sandy soil in full sun. Rosemary does not tolerate cold temperatures well, although several named cultivars—including ‘Arp’ and ‘Hill Hardy’—are reported to tolerate temperatures as low as -10°F. In general, varieties with lighter colored flowers and thin leaves are most hardy; prostrate varieties are least hardy. In areas where temperatures drop below freezing, mulch rosemary during the winter. To overwinter rosemary indoors, lightly prune back the top, and then pot the plant before the first hard freeze. Rosemary is susceptible to root rot, so use a porous container and a medium that drains well. Keep potted rosemary in a cool, bright location indoors. Do not overwater, but mist regularly. Rosemary can be propagated by seed, cuttings, or layering. Harvest sprigs as needed throughout the growing season. To dry rosemary, hang small bundles upside down in a warm, dark location for 1 to 2 weeks. Strip the needles from the stems, then store them in an airtight container.

Rubia tinctorum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Madder

Description: Slender, jointed stems up to 4 feet tall; 2- to 4-inch-long leaves with prickly margins; panicles of tiny, greenish white flowers; succulent reddish brown branched roots up to 3 feet long

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Rubiaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Roots

Range/Habitat: Native to southwestern Asia, naturalized throughout Europe

A relative of coffee (Coffea arabica), this southwestern Asian perennial has been valued since ancient times as a source of red dye for fabrics and leather. The species name in Latin refers to its use for dyeing. A piece of fabric dyed with madder root was found in the tomb of the Egyptian King Tutankhamen (ca. 1370–1352 BCE), and there is very early evidence of its use to dye clothing in India, as well. Even the “red coats” of 18th-century British soldiers were colored with madder dye. Madder began to fall out of favor as a dye in 1869, when scientists were able to synthesize alizarin, one of the pigments found in madder root.

MEDICINAL USE

Madder roots and stems were once used medicinally, especially by the ancient Greeks. The herb was believed to stimulate menstruation and to promote the flow of urine. At various times, it also was said to cure jaundice, inflammations, kidney stones, dysentery, diarrhea, and more.

Although some lab experiments have shown that madder can stimulate uterine contractions, there is little clinical data on the efficacy of madder when used internally. Due to its possible risks and side effects, madder was not recommended by the German Commission E monographs for internal medicinal use. Applied externally, however, it can be used to treat wounds.

The compound alizarin is used in medical testing to color bone tissue, cells, and fluids for study.

OTHER USES

Artisans still use madder as a natural red or orange dye for wool, cotton, and silk.

To prepare madder for making dye, the roots are dried and then peeled. (Removing the root’s outer layer of bark makes a better-quality dye.) Dyers recommend grinding the roots and then putting the powder in a cheesecloth bag before adding it to the dye bath. To make the dye colorfast, a mordant blend of alum and cream of tartar is often used.

Ancient Egyptian artists are believed to have made the world’s first two red pigments, using madder root and cinnabar. The best reds were said to come from madder that had grown in alkaline soil.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Madder thrives in deep, well-drained soil and full sun. The herb takes a long time to establish from seed, so start with nursery-grown plants, if possible. Space madder plants at least 1 foot apart. After 3 years, you can harvest the roots after the plant’s top growth dies back in fall. Medium-size roots are best for making dye.

Rumex crispus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Curly Dock, Yellow Dock

Description: Flowering stem, 1 to 3 feet tall, emerges from a basal rosette of leaves; dull green, oblong leaves up to 6 inches long; 6- to 18-inch-long panicle of small, yellow-green flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 1

Family: Polygonaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Roots and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized throughout North America; found along stream banks, in meadows, and along roadsides

The scientific name of this green-yellow native European perennial refers to the shape of the plant’s leaves: Rumex means “lance” and crispus means “curly.” The genus consists of cultivated species (the sorrels) used mainly in cooking and wild species (the docks) used mainly as medicinal plants. Dock roots have been used throughout history as a laxative, a remedy for anemia, and a blood “purifier.”

Native Americans applied the crushed roots and leaves to cuts, swellings, itchy areas, and boils. They also cooked and ate the leaves, often together with other greens. Eating yellow dock as a vegetable isn’t recommended, however: Although the leaves are nutritious, they’re also high in oxalic acid, which can damage your kidneys and liver if eaten in large amounts. Eating the leaves can also irritate your mouth.

MEDICINAL USE

Yellow dock root has been taken internally as a laxative and to strengthen blood and used externally to provide relief from inflammatory skin conditions, boils, rashes, and burns. A poultice of the leaves can be used to treat ringworm and other skin fungi. When applied to an area touched by stinging nettle, it is said to relieve the irritation and pain. In the mid-1800s, practitioners of Eclectic medicine—a branch of medicine based on botanicals and natural healing that developed in the United States—prepared an ointment from the roots to treat irritated skin sores and swellings. The plant’s roots contain iron, calcium, and tannins that are astringent and antibacterial.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Considered an invasive weed throughout North America, yellow dock thrives in rich, heavy soil in full sun. Buried seed can remain viable for 50 years or more. Wild plants can be found in disturbed sites, such as ditches and roadsides, as well as in moist clearings, along stream banks, and in meadows. If you harvest wild dock, be sure it has not been treated with herbicides.

Ruta graveolens

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Common Rue, Herb-of-Grace, Rue

Description: Semiwoody evergreen shrub, 2 to 3-feet tall; grayish blue, spade-shaped leaves; bright yellow flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Rutaceae

Flowering: June through August

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to southeastern Europe and northern Africa; locally naturalized in old fields, and waste areas and along roadsides

The namesake of the rue family and kin to citrus, rue is native to southeastern Europe and is cultivated worldwide. This evergreen shrub bears grayish blue, spade-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. It has a repellent odor. Its genus name, Ruta, is thought to come from the Greek word reuo, meaning “to set free,” referring to the plant’s reputed ability to free people from disease. The herb once was used as an antidote to poisons and as a protection against witches and the bubonic plague. In ancient Rome, artists ate rue to preserve their eyesight. The common name herb-of-grace comes from the Catholic tradition of using a rue brush to sprinkle holy water during mass.

CULINARY USE

Add rue leaves to cream cheese, salads, and egg dishes; use the herb sparingly, however—it has an acrid flavor. Rue is very popular in Ethiopia, where the fresh leaves are used as a flavoring for coffee. It is also an essential ingredient in the Ethiopian spice mix berbere. Rue leaves are used to flavor some varieties of the Italian grape liqueur grappa, as well.

MEDICINAL USE

Once considered an important herb for treating hypertension, diabetes, and allergic reactions, rue is no longer widely used in medicine. Rue leaves contain volatile oil, bitters, astringent and antiseptic tannins, and the flavonoid rutin, which helps strengthen capillaries (explaining the herb’s traditional use as a treatment for failing eyesight). Today, rue is primarily used to regulate the menstrual cycle. It contains alkaloids that have antispasmodic effects, making it useful not only for treating menstrual cramps, but also digestive upset, bowel tension, and spasmodic cough.

Caution: Do not use rue if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. It is a very powerful plant that contains toxic compounds. Exposure to sun following contact with this plant, such as handling it in your garden, can cause severe photodermatitis.

ORNAMENTAL USE

With its mounded form, beautiful yellow blooms, and finely textured leaves, rue makes an attractive garden plant. Butterflies love it, while dogs and cats seem to avoid it. Rue’s blue-green leaves are a nice foil for roses in informal beds and borders. Tolerant of hot, dry conditions, rue also shines in rock gardens. Or grow the plants to form a low hedge or edging, such as for a knot garden. The flowers are good for cutting and drying, too.

OTHER USES

Rue may have antibacterial and antifungal properties. The essential oil, extracted from a steam distillation of the fresh flowering plant, is sometimes used in soaps, detergents, creams, and lotions. But because it is an oral toxin and skin irritant, the oil must be used at extremely low concentrations.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Rue thrives in well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. Start seeds indoors under lights in late February, and transplant seedlings to your garden in spring, when the soil and air have warmed. To propagate, take semiripe cuttings in summer, root them in the shade, and plant them in a sunny location. Rue can also be grown in a pot on a sunny windowsill.

Harvest rue leaves before flowers form. Dry them in the shade, then store them in an airtight container.

FIELD NOTES

Powerful Protector

Rue is an extremely important plant in the traditional medical systems of Belize. Working with my colleagues and friends Dr. Rosita Arvigo and Dr. Gregory Shropshire, we developed an understanding of the variety of uses of this plant during more than a decade of fieldwork with dozens of traditional healers who collaborated with us on a project to inventory the useful plants of that nation.

In Belize, rue is used internally for certain conditions, but only under the watchful eye of an experienced healer. A few drops of juice are carefully squeezed out of nine small branchlets and into a glass of water; this is strained and consumed twice daily for stomach cramps or to rid the body of intestinal worms, reduce nausea, and calm a nervous person. More commonly, the leaves are soaked in alcohol and used externally as a liniment for sore muscles, backache, and muscle spasms.

The most common use of rue in Belize is as a charm that protects a person from evil and from the envy of others who wish to do them harm. People carry a few sprigs of leaves with them for this purpose, or they form the sprigs into the shape of a cross and place it over the entrance of their home, thus cleansing anyone who may enter with harmful intentions. Does it work? Local people swear by its protective powers, and it has been a prominent protective amulet for centuries in the area.—M. J. B.

Salix alba

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: White Willow, Willow

Description: Deciduous tree up to 75 feet tall; gray-brown bark; narrow, alternate, lance-shaped leaves; flowers in cylindrical catkins

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Salicaceae

Flowering: Midspring

Parts Used: Bark

Range/Habitat: Native to temperate climates in Europe and western and central Asia; usually found near water

Willow, one of 400 Salix species, is a large tree native to Europe and western and central Asia. Salix, derived from a Celtic word that means “near water,” refers to the plant’s tendency to grow in damp soil or near waterways. Willows have slender, supple branches and large fibrous root systems. The lance-shaped leaves of the white willow (Salix alba) are covered with fine hairs, which give the foliage a silvery sheen. In the folklore of many cultures, the willow is associated with death and the afterlife. The tree was sacred to several ancient Greek goddesses of the underworld and was linked to the mythological Orpheus. According to legend, he received his gift of poetry and music after touching a willow.

MEDICINAL USE

Commonly called “herbal aspirin,” the bark of the willow tree has been used for more than 2,000 years to reduce fever and relieve pain. In the first century CE, the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that willow “mashed with a little pepper and drunk with wine” could relieve lower backache. Native American healers used the bark of white willow and related North American species as a poultice to treat sores and stop bleeding and as an infusion to treat diarrhea, fever, and head and body aches.

Willow contains salicylic acid, which was synthesized by the Bayer company from the herb meadowsweet as the basis of pharmaceutical aspirin. Bayer was looking for a substitute for its popular pain formula, which included as ingredients toxic wintergreen and black birch oil. Willow has a weaker action than aspirin, but it also provokes fewer side effects. The tree does not share aspirin’s blood-thinning effects, nor does it irritate the lining of the stomach.

Caution: Willow should not be used by pregnant or nursing women, by people who are sensitive to aspirin or have stomach ulcers, or by children younger than age 16 who have a fever related to cold, flu, or chickenpox.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The soft, graceful form and foliage of the willow adds a tranquil look to the landscape. It is a favorite for planting near pools and water gardens, and it can help control erosion on stream banks.

OTHER USES

Astringent decoctions of willow bark can be used in facial preparations and herbal baths. Though not easily worked, willow wood has been used to make tool handles and fencing. The pliant young stems are prized for basket weaving.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Willow trees grow in heavy, moist to wet soil in full sun. The trees are difficult to transplant, but cuttings root easily in summer. Harvest bark from 2- to 5-year-old trees in spring or summer.

Salvia officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Garden Sage, Sage

Description: Woody-stemmed shrub, up to 30-inches tall; opposite gray-green velvety leaves; spikes of purple-blue flowers; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region

An evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region, Salvia officinalis bears oval-shaped silvery green leaves with a velvety texture and white, pink, or violet flowers. The botanical name Salvia derives from the Latin salvere,meaning “to save,” a reference to the herb’s reputation as a powerful healer. In medieval England, people added sage to ale as a toast to good health. The Chinese held sage in such high esteem that they traded it for black tea (Camellia sinensis).

The genus Salvia includes many other interesting and useful species, including blue sage (S. clevelandii), an evergreen shrub that bears wrinkled aromatic leaves and spikes of blue-violet flowers; diviner’s sage (S. divinorum), which has large green leaves, white flowers, and psychoactive properties; Greek sage (S. fruticosa), which bears lavender-scented leaves with downy undersides and mauve to pink flowers; narrow-leaved sage or Spanish sage (S. lavandulifolia), an evergreen perennial with hairy stems bearing wrinkled gray lavender-scented leaves; Chinese sage, or red sage (S. miltiorrhiza), a popular Chinese medicinal herb that has red roots and bears purple flowers; and painted sage (S. viridis), which has erect stems and bears soft leaves and small pink or purple flowers. Many of these species and their cultivars are beautiful and useful garden plants.

CULINARY USE

Sage tastes lemony, camphorlike, and pleasantly bitter. Add the young leaves to salads, omelets, fritters, soups, breads, pasta dishes, cheeses, and meats (especially pork and poultry). Sage also partners well with beans, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, squash, corn, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. For a unique and tasty appetizer or accompaniment for potatoes, dust larger sage leaves with flour, then fry them in ¼ inch of hot oil for about 30 seconds, until crispy. Sage leaves and flowers can also be candied.

Because sage has strong antioxidant and antibacterial properties, people traditionally added it to sausage and other meats as a preservative and flavoring. Commercial beverage-makers add sage oil to both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages, including vermouth and bitters.

MEDICINAL USE

Salvia officinalis has antimicrobial properties and contains volatile oils that help soothe mucous membranes. The herb is a classic remedy for sore throats, coughs, and colds. Herbal practitioners suggest drinking sage leaf tea or using it as a gargle to treat laryngitis, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, gingivitis, and mouth sores. Sage also seems to relax the stomach and may ease indigestion and flatulence.

One of the traditional uses of this plant is to enhance memory, and a recent small pilot study using Salvia officinalis extract confirmed that it could help in the early stages of illnesses involving cognition. Other studies have shown that sage can help reduce hot flashes and night sweats during menopause. German health authorities recognize the herb as a treatment for excessive perspiration.

To make sage leaf tea, pour 1 cup of hot water over 1 teaspoon of dried (or 2 teaspoons of fresh) sage leaves. Steep for 10 minutes, then strain. Drink, or use the tea as a gargle.

Caution: Do not use sage in therapeutic amounts if you are pregnant or nursing. (Culinary use is safe.)

ORNAMENTAL USE

The silvery green leaves of garden sage add a restful accent to the ornamental border and can serve as a beautiful backdrop for orange lilies and day-lilies or red roses. The varieties ‘Aurea’ (compact with gold and green variegated leaves), ‘Purpurea’ (aromatic purple foliage), and ‘Tricolor’ (variegated cream, purple, and green leaves) offer added garden interest.

OTHER USES

Traditionally used to control excess perspiration, sage is an ingredient in some present-day antiperspirant formulas. Sage also stimulates the skin when used in lotions or bathwater. A sage leaf and lavender infusion makes a soothing, astringent aftershave. Traditionally, women darkened their hair by rinsing it with sage leaf tea.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Sage grows best in fairly rich, well-drained loam in full sun. Mulch the plants to retain moisture during extended hot, dry periods. Where temperatures drop below 0°F, apply winter mulch.

Harvest the leaves as needed for fresh use. To dry sage leaves, snip them from their stems and spread them on cloth or paper in the shade. Store the dried leaves in an airtight container.

Replace or divide the plants every 3 years to encourage vigorous, productive growth. Propagate sage by seed, cuttings (taken in fall and planted in spring), or root division. When dividing sage, replant only the outer, newer root sections.

Salvia sclarea

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Clary, Clary Sage, Muscatel Sage

Description: Erect biennial (or short-lived perennial), 3 to 4 feet tall; broad; opposite, heart-shaped leaves 6 to 9 inches long; spikes of purple or pale pink flowers; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Leaves and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region

An erect biennial in the mint family, clary sage is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. The herb is best known as a traditional treatment for eye afflictions; in fact, its species name, sclarea,is derived from the Latin word clarus, meaning “clear.”

Clary sage was also once used as an ingredient in wine and beer. During the 16th century, German wine merchants made an infusion with clary sage and elder flowers, and then added the liquid to Rhine wines to make them taste more like expensive muscatel wines. In England, the herb was sometimes substituted for hops when making beer.

CULINARY USE

Use the fresh or dried leaves of clary sage as you would use garden sage (Salvia officinalis). The chopped fresh or dried leaves add an earthy flavor to beans, eggs, pasta dishes, pork, potatoes, poultry, salads, and soups.

MEDICINAL USE

In the Middle Ages, clary sage was a very important medicinal herb used as a treatment for eye problems, digestive disorders, menstrual and uterine conditions, and kidney disease. Because a decoction of the seeds is mucilaginous, traditional herbalists believed that its use as an eyewash would clear foreign matter from the eyes.

Today the herb is not used widely for these conditions, although some herbalists still recommend clary sage seed eyewash for removing foreign particles. An infusion, or tea, made from the herb’s leaves can help soothe digestive discomfort.

Essential oil of clary sage, obtained by steam distillation, is commonly used in aromatherapy because it is less toxic than the oil of Salvia officinalis. The oil is considered effective for treating muscle tension and pain, menopausal hot flashes, acne, skin inflammation, and dandruff.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Clary sage thrives in average, well-drained soil and full sun. The herb is easy to grow from seed sown in spring, but the plants will not flower until their second year. Harvest the leaves as needed for fresh use. To dry clary sage leaves, snip them from their stems and spread them on cloth or paper in the shade. Store the dried leaves in an airtight container. In areas with harsh winters, mulch the ground around the plants with straw or evergreen boughs when the soil has frozen to about 1 inch deep.

Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Black Elder, Elderberry

Description: Shrub or small tree, up to 12 feet tall; compound, opposite leaves; flat-topped clusters of creamy white flowers followed by small, seedy berries ripening to a deep purple-black

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Adoxaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Bark, flowers, and fruit

Range/Habitat: European elder is native to Europe, American elder is native to eastern and central North America; found in moist or wooded areas

Both the European elder (Sambucus nigra) and North American elder (S. canadensis) grow naturally along riverbanks and in moist woodland thickets. A shrub or small tree, the elder bears flat-topped masses of sweetly scented, cream-colored flowers that are followed by purplish blue edible berries. In many of the folk tales of northern Europe, the elder held supernatural powers and was believed to ward off evil. The name Sambucus is similar to the name of an ancient musical instrument and could refer to the traditional use of the plant’s hollow stems as a whistle or flute.

CULINARY USE

You can use fully ripe elderberries to make delicious juice, wine, and preserves. Mix the flowers into pancake batter; coat them with milk and eggs and then cook them to make fritters; or use them to make tea, wine, or vinegar.

Caution: Unripe fruits of Sambucus can be mildly toxic.

MEDICINAL USE

Elderberry has been called “the medicine chest of the people” because of the plant’s many therapeutic uses. The herb has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, and the flowers have a long history of use for relieving the symptoms of sinusitis, colds, fever, and flu. Commercial syrups and extracts made from elderberry fruit are widely available in health food stores. Studies have shown that elderberry syrup and extracts can reduce flu symptoms and duration, as compared to a placebo. Elderberry is also believed to have diuretic and diaphoretic (sweat-promoting) activity; herbalists recommend warm elder flower tea to promote sweating and reduce fever.

OTHER USES

The berries produce a deep blue dye. The leaves can be used to make a green dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow elder in rich, moist soil and full sun or partial shade. Amend the site with compost or aged manure before planting, and water the plants regularly until they’re established. Harvest the flowers in spring and early summer; harvest fully ripe berries in late summer. To propagate elderberry shrubs, take softwood cuttings in summer or hardwood cuttings in winter.

Caution: Be careful when harvesting elderberry. While reports of poisoning are rare, the leaves, stems, roots, and unripe fruit of European and American elderberry can be toxic. Also be careful if you’re harvesting berries from wild plants; similar-looking species have highly toxic berries.

Sanguinaria canadensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bloodroot, Red Paint Root, Red Puccoon

Description: Herbaceous perennial, 4 to 6 inches tall; naked stems rise from thick, horizontal rhizomes; 1- to 2-inch white flowers; deeply lobed palmate leaves up to 8 inches across at maturity

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Papaveraceae

Flowering: April

Parts Used: Rhizomes

Range/Habitat: Native to eastern North America; cool, moist woodland slopes

Bloodroot, native to the deciduous woods and woodland slopes of eastern North America, is a relative of the poppy (Papaver spp.). This low-growing perennial bears white flowers and a single, rounded, gray-green leaf that wraps around the flower. The genus name Sanguinaria comes from the Latin sanguis, or “blood,” which refers to the red sap found in the plant’s rhizomes and roots. Native Americans once used the red-orange liquid as a fabric dye and body paint. They also made a tea from the plant’s roots to treat colds, sore throats, fevers, joint problems, and many other conditions. Tribes in the Lake Superior region applied the sap to cancerous growths on the skin.

MEDICINAL USE

The rhizomes of bloodroot contain many types of alkaloids; one of the most important is sanguinarine, which has antifungal, expectorant, antispasmodic, cathartic, and cardiovascular actions. The herb has a relaxing effect on the bronchial muscles and has proven useful in the treatment of bronchitis. In extremely small doses administered under the supervision of a medical professional, bloodroot has been used to treat asthma, croup, and laryngitis.

Bloodroot is sometimes used externally to treat conditions such as skin sores, eczema, warts, nasal polyps, and benign skin tumors. Bloodroot extracts are used in dental hygiene products, such as mouthwash, to fight plaque formation and gum disease, although it is known to induce mutations in DNA, and some sources suggest that long-term use of these products should be avoided.

Caution: Bloodroot is considered a toxic plant and shouldn’t be ingested or used during pregnancy. It should only be used under the supervision of a qualified medical professional. Bloodroot has been overharvested in the wild and is at risk of becoming endangered. If you buy this herb, check the source to be sure that the herb has been cultivated, not harvested from the wild.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The pure white blossoms and uniquely shaped foliage of bloodroot are a lovely addition to informal shade gardens and woodland plantings. The cultivar ‘Multiplex’ has full, long-lasting blooms.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant nursery-grown plants or sow seeds in partial shade and moist, well-drained soil amended with compost. Space plants 6 to 8 inches apart. To harvest the rhizomes, dig up mature plants (5 years or older) in early fall. Reserve some of the rhizomes and replant them at their original spacing.

Sanguisorba minor

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Burnet, Salad Burnet

Description: Perennial, up to 3 feet tall, in bloom; basal rosette of toothed, parsleylike leaves; small, thimble-shaped, purplish to pinkish flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Rosaceae

Flowering: May to June

Parts Used: Leaves and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to western Asia and Europe, naturalized in North America

A relative of the rose (Rosa spp.), salad burnet is one of 15 to 20 species in the genus Sanguisorba—a name that refers to the herb’s traditional use to staunch wounds. Sanguisorba comes from the Latin sanguis, meaning “blood,” and sorere, meaning “to soak up.” Native to Europe and western Asia, this perennial herb was once a common addition to salads and wines and was extensively cultivated as fodder for sheep and cattle. The dried leaves of salad burnet are popular for making pressed flower arrangements.

CULINARY USE

When bruised, salad burnet leaves smell and taste like cucumber. Use the tender, young leaves in salads, dressings, herb vinegars, herb butters, and iced beverages. Add the seeds to vinegars, marinades, and cheese spreads. Toss the edible pink flowers into salads or use them as garnishes.

MEDICINAL USE

Salad burnet contains astringent and antiseptic tannins and has been used throughout history to staunch the bleeding of wounds. Herbalists still sometimes suggest applying a leaf poultice of this herb to stop external bleeding. A tea made from the herb’s roots and leaves has been used to stop internal bleeding and to treat diarrhea and fevers. A salad burnet leaf infusion can be applied as a wash to soothe sunburn and other skin irritations.

ORNAMENTAL USE

In spring, salad burnet’s flowering stems grow to 3 feet tall, bearing rounded heads of tiny pink flowers. Consider using it as an edging plant for your herb or kitchen garden.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Salad burnet prefers full sun to partial shade and average, well-drained soil. It is not drought tolerant, so provide water during dry periods. Remove flower stems to encourage new foliage growth. Although it’s easily grown from seed sown directly in the garden, the herb can also be propagated by root division in spring or fall. Once established, burnet needs little attention. Harvest the leaves for fresh use as needed throughout the growing season. (The leaves do not hold their flavor well when dried.) A few of the roots of established plants can be harvested in fall.

Saponaria officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bouncing Bet, Soapwort

Description: Single, erect, leafy stem, up to 2 feet tall; opposite, lanceolate leaves up to 3 inches across; terminal clusters of five-petaled pink blooms

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Caryophyllaceae

Flowering: July to September

Parts Used: Leaves and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Asia and Europe; naturalized throughout sunny, open areas of North America

This pink-flowered, leafy-stemmed perennial is native to Europe and Asia and is naturalized throughout sunny, open areas of North America. Long ago, native peoples learned that rubbing this plant’s roots in water would produce foamy suds. This is due to the presence of compounds known as saponins, a term derived from the Latin word for soap. Soapwort contains 15 to 20 percent saponins by weight. Before soap was invented in the early 1800s, soapwort and other saponin-rich plants were used to cleanse both the body and clothing. At one time, soapwort was also added to beer to create a frothy head. In the Middle Ages, the herb was called Herba fullonis, referring to its use to “full” or clean and thicken woolen cloth.

MEDICINAL USE

The root may have antibacterial and expectorant properties. In folk medicine, it has been taken internally to treat upper respiratory conditions, such as coughs and bronchitis, and applied externally to treat skin problems, such as eczema, psoriasis, acne, and poison ivy. Soapwort and other plants that contain saponins are not widely used in herbal medicine today, however, as these compounds are very irritating to the intestinal tract and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

ORNAMENTAL USE

A familiar wildflower, soapwort is lovely when naturalized along the edge of a woodland garden or hedgerow. The blooms draw butterflies and hummingbirds. The double-flowered variety ‘Rosea Plena’ and others have been bred for garden use.

OTHER USES

When mixed with water, the viscous saponin in soapwort forms a lather that can be used to cleanse delicate fabric or skin. Soapwort can cause eye irritation, so be cautious if you use it as a body cleanser.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Soapwort is very easy to grow in average soil and full sun to partial shade. Plant seed outdoors in either spring or fall or, for earlier bloom, start seed indoors under lights in late winter. The plants will self-sow, and propagation is rarely necessary. To prevent soapwort from becoming invasive, cut back the plants immediately after the flowers have faded. Use the cut tops to make natural cleaning products. Dig up roots for the same purpose in fall.

Sassafras albidum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Sassafras

Description: Tree or large shrub, up to 50 feet tall; leaves have two or three distinct lobes; rough, gray, furrowed bark; clusters of yellow-green flowers are followed by pea-size blue fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Lauraceae

Flowering: Spring, before leaves appear

Parts Used: Leaves and root bark

Range/Habitat: Native to eastern North America; dry, sandy soils along the edges of woods

The root of this handsome native North American tree was one of the first exports to Europe—and possibly the first medicinal herb—from the North American colonies. Sassafras bears clusters of aromatic yellow-green flowers, followed by distinctive “mitten-shaped” leaves that turn bright yellow or orange in fall. Native American tribes of the eastern woodlands and colonial settlers used the tree’s root bark to make a soothing tea taken as a spring tonic and as a remedy for circulatory, digestive, and respiratory disorders, as well as skin conditions. The leaves were also used to flavor food.

CULINARY USE

Sassafras oil was used to flavor foods, root beer, and chewing gum until the FDA banned its use in commercially prepared foods after studies showed that safrole, a major ingredient in sassafras oil, is a carcinogen. Today, safrole is removed from sassafras extracts to make them safe for use in foods.

When mixed with water, the finely ground leaves of sassafras (known as filé) make a flavorful thickener for soups and stews, such as the Cajun dish gumbo. Sassafras leaves contain relatively little safrole; using a pinch of filé powder in cooking is generally considered harmless.

MEDICINAL USE

This plant has a long tradition of use in Native American medicine as a general tonic and as a healing poultice and wash for treating skin conditions such as bee stings, burns, and measles. Although the herb should not be taken internally unless the safrole has been removed, sassafras preparations are still used externally to treat skin irritations such as insect bites, eczema, psoriasis, and poison oak and ivy.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Sassafras adds spectacular foliage color—shades of yellow, orange, and red—to the fall landscape, and the tree’s young leaves have a pleasant citrus fragrance. Sassafras is ideal for naturalizing in poor, rocky soils or damp locations.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant sassafras in moist, well-drained, acidic soil in full sun or partial shade. The trees have long taproots, and only the smallest trees transplant successfully. For commercial use, the roots are harvested in spring before the leaves appear or in autumn after the leaves have fallen. Propagate sassafras from root cuttings or suckers taken from mature trees.

Satureja hortensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Summer Savory

Description: Bushy, fine stems, up to 18 inches tall; soft, gray-green leaves attach directly to stems in pairs; small white or pale pink flowers in groups of three to six; highly aromatic

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer through frost

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region, naturalized in Africa, Asia, and parts of North America

Native to the Mediterranean region, summer savory is naturalized in southwest Africa, Asia, and North America and is a popular garden plant in temperate and warm areas throughout the world. The plant is a small annual that has widely branched stems and bears whorls of white or pale pink flowers. Used as a food flavoring for more than 2,000 years, summer savory tastes like a cross between thyme and mint. The genus Satureja, which includes 30 species of annuals, perennials, and subshrubs, is so often included in pea and bean dishes that Germans call the herb bohnenkraut, which means “bean herb.” Its genus name is derived from the Latin word satyrus, meaning “satyr,” because summer savory is reputed to be the food plant that gave these mythical creatures their sexual powers.

CULINARY USE

Summer savory is milder in flavor than its perennial relative, winter savory (Satureja montana). In recipes, summer savory is a heavier substitute for mint and a lighter substitute for sage. It adds a piquant flavor to soups, meat and fish dishes, beans, eggs, and pâtés. It also complements tomato sauce, potatoes, eggplant, asparagus, squash, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Use the herb sparingly, though—a small amount goes a long way.

MEDICINAL USE

Like many culinary herbs, summer savory helps improve digestion and relieve intestinal gas. This is one reason it is so often added to bean dishes, which can cause this problem. It is also used in herbal medicine to treat nausea, colic, menstrual disorders, and to ease muscle spasms and alleviate lung congestion. Summer savory contains astringent and antibacterial properties, making it a useful remedy for diarrhea.

Caution: Summer savory should not be used in medicinal doses during pregnancy. Small amounts used in cooking do not pose a problem.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Summer savory is easy to grow from seed sown in neutral to alkaline soil and full sun. Use only fresh seed, however—viability decreases quickly after the first year. Begin harvesting leaves when the plants are about 6 inches tall; snip often to prevent flowering and extend leafy growth. When flowering begins, cut the whole plants and dry them on a screen or piece of paper in a warm, shaded location. Strip the dried leaves from the stems, and store them in an airtight container.

Senna alexandrina (= Cassia senna)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Alexandrian Senna, Indian Senna, Tinnevelly Senna, True Senna

Description: Woody shrub, up to 6 feet tall with spreading branches; slender, opposite leaflets in pairs; yellow flowers followed by pealike seedpods up to 3 inches long; fragrant

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: Varies depending on where it’s growing

Parts Used: Leaves, fruits, and seedpods

Range/Habitat: Native to Egypt and Sudan; cultivated in India and other warm regions

A member of the pea family, Alexandrian senna is native to Egypt and Sudan and is cultivated in the warm regions of the world, particularly India and Somalia. Used for centuries as a tea to treat constipation, Alexandrian senna now is an ingredient in many commercially prepared, over-the-counter laxatives. It has a very strong effect and is generally recommended for use only when other remedies—such as lifestyle and dietary changes, as well as more gentle laxatives—have not been effective.

MEDICINAL USE

Alexandrian senna has a long history of use as a laxative in both Eastern and Western herbalism. Arab physicians first wrote of the herb’s bowel-stimulating effects in the 9th century, but it was probably used for centuries before that. The herb contains compounds called anthraquinones, which stimulate the colon. Most modern commercial products are made from the plant’s leaflets or fruits, but some authorities say products made from the seedpods have a more gentle laxative effect than those made from the leaves. When digested, the herb provokes intestinal muscle contractions (peristalsis), thereby speeding the body’s elimination of waste. It’s often taken with carminative (gas-dispelling) herbs, such as ginger (Zingiber officinale), both to reduce intestinal cramping and to mask senna’s bitter and unpleasant—even nauseating—taste. This plant has been well studied in clinical settings.

Caution: Alexandrian senna may cause intestinal discomfort and cramping. To reduce the risk of laxative dependency, the herb should not be used for more than 1 week unless directed by a health-care provider. It should not be taken by women who are pregnant or nursing, by children younger than 10 years old, or by anyone suffering from chronic gastrointestinal conditions, such as colitis or ulcers.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Alexandrian senna grows in moist but well-drained soil in full sun. In Zone 9 and colder, grow this herb in a large container and move the plant indoors when temperatures drop below 45°F. Plant seeds in spring, when temperatures have warmed. Harvest the leaves in summer and the pods in autumn. Propagate the herb from seed or take cuttings in early summer.

Serenoa repens

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Sabal Palm, Saw Palmetto

Description: Clumping evergreen palm, 6 to 12-feet tall; fan-shaped, sharply toothed leaves; tiny, fragrant flowers in dense clusters followed by small, blue-black fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 7

Family: Arecaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Fruit

Range/Habitat: Native to southeastern United States; pinelands and coastal dunes

This evergreen palm is the only species in its genus; its natural habitat includes pinelands, coastal dunes, and sand hills. Saw palmetto was named in honor of Sereno Watson (1826–1892), the American botanist who undertook many collection expeditions while a curator of the herbarium at Harvard University. Native Americans ate saw palmetto seeds as one of their staple foods and used the leaves for making medicine baskets. This species was first commercialized as a therapeutic medicine by Eli Lilly and Company in the early 1900s.

MEDICINAL USE

Once called “the old man’s friend,” saw palmetto has long been recommended as a treatment for enlarged prostate, and preparations of this fruit are now widely prescribed by health-care practitioners for the treatment of prostate conditions. Saw palmetto berries contain fatty acids and steroids, which help strengthen the male reproductive system, supporting healthy prostate and urinary function. The herb appears to inhibit the production of dihydrotestosterone (DHT), the compound that causes the multiplication of prostate cells, resulting in prostate enlargement. It also may relieve symptoms related to enlarged prostate, including trouble with urination. In addition, saw palmetto has been used as a sleep aid and a treatment for cystitis, chronic bronchial coughs, and laryngitis.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Saw palmetto thrives in well-drained, moist soil in full sun or light shade. It does best with a minimum temperature of 50° to 55°F, but it can survive temperatures as low as 0°F. If given adequate light, saw palmetto can be grown as a houseplant.

FIELD NOTES

A Most Useful Palm

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has used the saw palmetto for many purposes, including construction, handicrafts, food, and medicine. My friend and colleague Bradley Bennett, PhD, who studied this species, noted that, “for humans, saw palmetto is one of Florida’s most versatile plants, providing food, fiber, oil, medicine, wax, and roof thatch.” He and his coworkers estimated that nearly 7 million kilograms of fruits are harvested annually in Florida to be processed into preparations for the treatment of enlarged prostate and other conditions. To date, 17 human clinical trials have shown that “the old man’s friend” has value in contemporary medicine.—M. J. B.

Silybum marianum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Milk Thistle, St. Mary’s Thistle

Description: Erect stems, up to 6 feet tall; prickly, alternate, lance-shaped leaves contain a milky sap; solitary purple flowers followed by black seeds with hairy tufts

Hardiness: Annual or biennial; hardy to Zone 1

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Seeds and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region, naturalized throughout North America; found in dry soil, roadsides, ditches, and fields

European settlers carried milk thistle with them to North America. An annual or biennial native to the Mediterranean, the herb bears oblong, spiny, variegated leaves and purple flowers, followed by black seeds. The common name milk thistle comes from the milky sap that exudes from the plant’s leaves, as well as its traditional use of stimulating milk flow in nursing mothers. The name St. Mary’s thistle derives from a Biblical story. According to legend, Mary, mother of Jesus, was resting beneath a thistle plant while nursing the baby Jesus when a drop of her milk fell on the plant, producing the leaves’ characteristic white markings.

CULINARY USE

Remove the prickly outside edges of young thistle leaves, then lightly steam the leaves and eat them as a spring vegetable. The seeds are high in antioxidants, protein, and healthy fat. To prepare the fresh seeds, soak them overnight, and then drain them. Use a mortar and pestle or spice mill to grind them into a powder, and sprinkle it on cereal or add it to smoothies. You can also lightly roast the seeds, grind them, and then brew them with water (like coffee) to make a hot beverage. Store whole seeds in your freezer for future use.

MEDICINAL USE

For more than 2,000 years, people have used milk thistle to treat liver conditions such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and drug-induced damage. The seeds contain silymarin, a complex of flavonoid compounds that are powerful antioxidants that reduce inflammation. Herbalists value standardized milk thistle products for their ability to protect the liver from damage by environmental toxins, medications, and alcohol. More recent studies suggest that the extract may also protect the kidneys in a similar way.

Herbal practitioners also believe that milk thistle can help the liver repair damaged cells and generate new ones. In Europe, milk thistle extract is used along with standard medical interventions to treat poisoning from mushrooms in the genus Amanita, a deadly group of fungi.

Milk thistle has been used to treat poor digestion, female hormone imbalance, constipation, mood disorders, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, atherosclerosis, and skin conditions including psoriasis and acne. Milk thistle seeds are high in protein and linoleic acid, a healthy fat that might help balance the menstrual cycle and improve cardiovascular health.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Considered an invasive (and in some states “noxious”) weed, milk thistle self-seeds readily and is not recommended for the garden. To harvest wild milk thistle, look for the plants in dry, stony soil in fields or ditches. (Be sure the plants have not been treated with an herbicide.) Cut off the seed head after it has dried, remove the seeds, and then remove the hairlike fringe from the seeds.

Solidago spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Goldenrod

Description: Perennial, 3 to 7 feet tall, with showy yellow flower spikes and simple, alternate leaves; woody stems seldom branch

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Late summer

Parts Used: Flowers and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to North and South America, Europe, and Asia; found in open fields and along roadsides

There are more than 100 species of goldenrod, a fast-growing perennial with yellow flowers, found throughout North and South America, Europe, northern Africa, and some parts of Asia. This late summer–blooming plant is often unfairly blamed for causing “hay fever” because it flowers at the same time, and often in the same locations, as the truly allergenic ragweed.

Traditionally associated with wound healing, goldenrod’s genus name, Solidago, derives from the Latin solida, meaning “whole,” and ago, meaning “to make.” Native Americans are reported to have used nearly two dozen different Solidago species for a variety of conditions, ranging from external applications as a hair rinse and a wash for burns, sores, and boils, to internal use to treat diarrhea, fevers, and sore throat. Because of its pleasant smell and aniselike taste, goldenrod tea was once used to disguise the unpleasant flavors of other ingredients—an early herbal equivalent to sugar coating on a pill.

MEDICINAL USE

Three species in particular, Solidago nemoralis (gray goldenrod), S. odora (sweet goldenrod), and S. virgaurea (European goldenrod), have been used as astringents, diuretics, and diaphoretics (sweat inducers). A tea made from the flowers of sweet goldenrod has been used to treat urinary obstructions, while goldenrod leaf tea has been used for flatulence and vomiting. European goldenrod has been administered for gum disease, arthritis, and kidney inflammation, as well as for wounds and skin conditions such as eczema, sores, and insect bites. In traditional Chinese medicine, European goldenrod is prepared as a headache remedy and for treating flu, sore throat, malaria, and measles.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Several horticultural varieties have been developed with larger flower heads and a more compact form. These dwarf varieties add bright color to ornamental borders in late summer.

OTHER USES

The flower heads dry to a nice golden color that looks lovely in everlasting herb and flower arrangements. Goldenrod blooms can also be used to make a yellow dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Goldenrod species, as well as named cultivars, are sold as plants or seeds. If you aren’t able to find the herb at a retail garden center, check mail-order suppliers that sell native plants. Don’t bother to enrich the soil—goldenrod thrives in average to poor soil and full sun. Harvest goldenrod when it is in full bloom, cutting the top third of the plants. Hang bunches of two or three stems upside down to dry in a warm, airy location.

Stachys officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Betony, Purple Betony, Wood Betony

Description: Herbaceous perennial, 1½ to 3 feet tall; tubular, lavender flowers borne in whorls at tops of stems; deep green, hairy, coarsely toothed leaves grow in pairs along the stem

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Europe, northern Africa, and western Siberia; shady areas in woods and meadows

A member of the family that includes the mints (Mentha spp.), wood betony is native to Europe and naturalized in many parts of the world. This soft-textured plant bears stiff, slightly hairy pointed leaves and lavender-pink flowers arranged in whorls on top of the spikes. Its genus name, Stachys, is Greek for “spike.” Once known as woundwort, betony was traditionally applied to stop the bleeding of wounds, draw out splinters, and drain boils. The herb’s healing powers were esteemed by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Anglo-Saxons. Antonius Musa, the physician to the Roman emperor Augustus (ca. 63 BCE–14 CE), listed 47 diseases treatable with wood betony. The common name “betony” is said to derive from the ancient Celtic words for “good head,” a reference to the herb’s early use as a treatment for headaches.

CULINARY USE

Wood betony has a refreshing, astringent flavor. Although it is not usually used in cooking, the leaves can be a pleasant-tasting substitute for black tea (Camellia sinensis).

MEDICINAL USE

Wood betony leaves contain the alkaloid betonicine, which has the ability to reduce inflammation and is used to strengthen the nervous system and treat nerve pain. Wood betony also has sedative properties and has long been used to treat headaches, particularly those due to tension and anxiety. The herb’s astringent and antiseptic tannins account for its early use to staunch wounds and for digestive conditions. Once considered a cure-all, wood betony is not widely used for healing today.

Caution: Do not use wood betony if you are pregnant.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The lavender bloom spikes of wood betony are attractive in mixed flower borders, cottage gardens, and woodland plantings, as well as in cut flower arrangements. Shorter varieties are also suited to rock gardens. The plants are drought tolerant and deer resistant.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Found in meadows and open woodlands, wood betony prefers a well-drained, dry, neutral to acidic soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds in spring or fall; root divisions can be planted when the herb is dormant. Harvest the flowering plants in summer.

Stellaria media

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Chickweed

Description: Spreading annual forms mats 4 to 8-inches tall, 16 inches across; small, oval, opposite leaves; white, star-shaped flowers with five clefted petals

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Caryophyllaceae

Flowering: Spring through fall

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to southern Europe, naturalized in temperate climates worldwide

Native to southern Europe and a member of the family that includes garden pinks (Dianthus spp.), chickweed now grows throughout the world as a common weed. A hardy, low-growing, spreading annual, chickweed often overwinters, meaning that it does not completely die back during the winter months. It bears oval leaves and small, white, star-shaped flowers. The genus Stellaria takes its name from the Latin word stella, meaning “star,” a reference to the shape of the species’ flowers. Chickweed has been a popular healing herb for centuries. In many countries, it was also used as a food for birds and domestic fowl.

CULINARY USE

Fresh chickweed leaves, harvested in early spring, taste like spinach and are a nutritious addition to salads, soups, or stews. Cook the delicate leaves for no more than 5 minutes.

MEDICINAL USE

Although chickweed has been used medicinally in the past, there has been very little research conducted on the herb. Chickweed leaves have been applied externally as a juice, ointment, or poultice to treat irritated skin, eczema, psoriasis, ulcers, and boils. The leaves contain steroid saponins, which may help soothe rashes and relieve itching. Native Americans used a chickweed leaf decoction to treat sore eyes. In homeopathy, it is used in minute amounts to treat psoriasis and rheumatic pain. Chickweed has also been used as a digestive aid. The root of a related species is used in Chinese medicine to treat fevers.

Caution: Do not use chickweed if you are pregnant. Excessive amounts of the herb may cause vomiting and diarrhea.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Considered an invasive weed in some states, chickweed is not recommended for the garden. Look for wild plants growing in moist soil in sun or partial shade. For culinary use, harvest the leaves of untreated plants in early spring. For medicinal use, harvest the leaves as needed.

Stevia rebaudiana

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Stevia, Sweetleaf

Description: Small perennial, 1 to 3 feet tall; hairy stems with opposite, serrated, dark green leaves; white, tubular flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 11

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Mature plants bloom constantly

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to subtropical highlands of Paraguay and Brazil

This low-growing bushy perennial bears dark green, serrated leaves that are intensely sweet. In recent years, stevia has grown in popularity as a healthful sugar substitute; it’s sold in leaf, liquid, and powdered forms. Stevia extracts are said to be 200 to 300 times sweeter than granulated sugar, but with no calories and apparently none of sugar’s negative side effects, such as causing tooth decay. The plant has been used commercially in various parts of the world for more than 3 decades. It is especially popular in Japan, where it is used to sweeten many products, including soft drinks, chewing gum, and pickles. In Paraguay, where this species grows wild, stevia leaf has been used for centuries to sweeten the herbal beverage maté. The sweetness in this plant comes from compounds known as steviol glycosides, initially identified in 1931. The first commercial use of these compounds took place in Japan, in 1971, in response to concerns over the possible toxicity of other artificial sweetener products in use at that time. Crystals of stevia extract are produced by drying the plants and processing them in water to collect the steviol glycosides, then treating the extract with alcohol, causing the glycosides to crystallize.

CULINARY USE

Intensely sweet, stevia can be used as a healthful substitute for sugar and artificial sweeteners. It has a mild, aniselike aftertaste that most people enjoy. Powdered commercial products that contain crystallized leaf extracts are available for use in baking and for sweetening beverages. Because they are, by weight, so much sweeter than cane or beet sugar, use them sparingly; depending on the product, 1 to 4 teaspoons of stevia extract equals the sweetness of 1 cup of sugar. Stevia will not brown or caramelize the way sugar does when heated, so it cannot be substituted in certain desserts.

MEDICINAL USE

Although stevia’s principal value is as a noncaloric natural sweetener, it could benefit people with hypertension or type 2 diabetes, as well. The plant contains rebaudioside and stevioside, glycosides responsible for its sweet flavor. A clinical study published in 2003 showed that patients with mild hypertension taking a capsule of stevioside powder over a 2-year period had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and no adverse effects. A small-scale human clinical trial also supported stevia’s effectiveness for lowering blood sugar in type 2 diabetics, a traditional use for the plant. Stevia has also been used traditionally as a contraceptive in Paraguay.

Caution: Because of limited data showing that stevia may prevent conception, the herb should not be used by pregnant women or by those trying to conceive.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow stevia in full sun and well-drained soil. It will not survive freezing temperatures, but it is easy to grow in a 10- or 12-inch pot filled with a lightweight growing mix. The potted plant can be kept outdoors when temperatures are above 50°F and there is no danger of frost. Stevia is difficult to grow from seed, so start with young, nursery-grown plants (available from several mail-order suppliers). Water lightly but often during the summer; a thin mulch of compost will help keep the plant’s shallow feeder roots from drying out. During the growing season, feed plants with a slow-release, low-nitrogen organic fertilizer. Harvest the leaves in fall, when shorter days and cooler temperatures have intensified their sweetness. Dry the leaves on a screen in full sun for about 12 hours, then crush them by hand or with a coffee grinder and store them in an airtight container. Stevia can be propagated by root division or cuttings.

FIELD NOTES

Searching for Sweetness

In the early 1980s, plant explorer D. D. Soejarto, a student of Professor Richard Evans Schultes and my classmate, investigated native Stevia populations in Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. During a period of 3 months, he and his team collected more than 30 species in this genus. Each time he collected a plant, he tasted the fresh leaves, noting their taste and degree of sweetness. He also gathered information from people in each area, recording the traditional uses of these species. In Paraguay, a root decoction of Stevia balansae is used to treat diarrhea; in Peru, the whole plant of S. macbridei is made into a decoction and used for a bath for women; in Mexico, the leaves and stems of S. salicifolia are treated with water and used as a rub for people with joint problems. Carefully gathering data, Soejarto and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Economic Botany that S. -rebaudiana, the commercial source of stevia sweetener, was the only member of this genus that had sweetening properties. He also warned that the species’ genetic diversity was being diminished by the destruction of native habitats for farming, logging, and other uses.

Tragically, this story is being repeated around the world with many species—wild populations of plants critical to our future are being destroyed for short-sighted and unsustainable resource extraction. Their genetic diversity could someday help plant breeders create varieties more tolerant of warming, drought, floods, and other challenges posed by global change.—M. J. B.

Symphytum officinale

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Comfrey, Healing-Herb, Knitbone

Description: Upright perennial, up to 3 feet tall; purple, pink, blue, or white tubular flowers on short, curved racemes; deep green, hairy leaves up to 10 inches long; black rhizomes are white inside

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Boraginaceae

Flowering: May through frost

Parts Used: Leaves and rhizomes

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized throughout North America; found along stream banks and in moist meadows

Comfrey is a stout, vigorous perennial plant that bears large, tapered, prickly leaves and purple, pink, blue, or white bell-shaped flowers. It has been used as a medicinal plant since ancient times, and its botanical name refers to the plant’s traditional use to repair broken bones: Symphytum is from the Greek symphytos, which means “to unite.” “Comfrey” comes from the Latin con firma, meaning “with strength.” Women whose virginity was in doubt were once encouraged to bathe before marriage in water infused with comfrey. The herb was believed to repair a woman’s hymen, and in some places it is still used for this purpose, considered to be able to repair tears in the vagina. Although the leaves were at one time added to soups, stews, and salads, this use is no longer recommended due to the plant’s toxicity.

MEDICINAL USE

Comfrey root and leaves contain allantoin, a chemical that promotes cell proliferation and may contribute to the healing properties of the plant. The herb has been used to heal burns and insect stings, as well as broken bones, strains, and sprains. A paste of the root, spread on cloth, will stiffen into a cast. A compress of comfrey tea, applied immediately after a sprain, may help reduce the sprain’s severity. Comfrey is a common ingredient in herbal ointments and salves. A synthesized form of comfrey is used in pharmaceutical hemorrhoid preparations.

Caution: Comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which may cause liver damage and are considered toxic. Comfrey leaves should not be used internally, except under the advice of a qualified medical professional. Comfrey root preparations should not be used internally under any circumstances, nor should they be applied to broken skin. The herb should not be used in any form by pregnant or nursing women. Poisonings have occurred when people have collected the highly toxic foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), mistaking it for comfrey.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Comfrey grows wild in marshy areas, meadows, and ditches, but it will thrive in any good garden soil in sun or partial shade. The plant can be invasive. To keep it contained, many gardeners plant it in a submerged pot with drainage holes. Plant seeds or root divisions in spring or fall. Harvest leaves in summer; lift the roots in fall.

Syzygium aromaticum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Clove

Description: Evergreen tree grows up to 30 feet tall; glossy green, lance-shaped leaves; clusters of white or pink flowers are followed by long berries; entire plant is highly aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Myrtaceae

Flowering: Depending on its growing environment, flowers form fall to midwinter

Parts Used: Flower bud

Range/Habitat: Native to southeastern Asia, cultivated worldwide in tropical areas

A highly aromatic evergreen, the clove tree grows up to 35 feet tall in tropical southeastern Asia, where it is native. The dried, unopened flower buds are commonly used in cooking. Clove buds also yield a pale yellow essential oil used in dental products, soaps, creams, lotions, and insect repellents. It’s said that in China, during the Han Dynasty, subjects who addressed the emperor were made to hold cloves in their mouths as a breath freshener.

CULINARY USE

Clove buds are a distinctive spice, commonly used whole or in powdered form as an ingredient in curries, pies (particularly pumpkin pie), pickles, tea blends, and mulled wine and cider. The sharp, strong flavor complements beets, carrots, squash, fruit dishes, and desserts.

MEDICINAL USE

Clove oil contains a high concentration of eugenol, which has pain-relieving and mildly antiseptic properties (but can be toxic to the liver if used in large amounts). The oil is an ingredient in liniments used to relieve muscle and arthritic pain. It’s also used to alleviate toothache and is included in dental cements, fillings, and other preparations. Because of eugenol’s antiseptic properties, clove has the potential to fight bacteria, viruses, and fungi, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans. Clove oil is also thought to have carminative (gas-relieving) activity and is used to treat stomachache and flatulent colic. In aromatherapy, clove oil is used to reduce drowsiness and alleviate the pain of headaches.

To treat a toothache, stomach discomfort, or indigestion at home, make a soothing infusion by steeping cloves in hot water for 10 minutes. Clove oil can also be applied to cotton and used to alleviate toothache by pressing it against the affected site.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Clove trees thrive in humid, tropical conditions with well-drained, fertile soil and full sun or partial shade. In Zone 9 and colder, grow your clove tree in a heated greenhouse. Be sure the growing medium includes compost or other organic matter to ensure good drainage, and protect the young plants from direct sun. Provide 1 inch of water per week to keep the soil consistently moist, and mist frequently. Feed in spring and early summer with a slow-release organic fertilizer. Commercial growers harvest the flower buds when the lower parts of the flowers turn purple. They are then sun dried until they are a deep reddish brown.

Tanacetum balsamita (= Chrysanthemum balsamita) (= Balsamita vulgaris)

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Costmary

Description: Perennial, 3 feet tall, with oblong, hairy, gray-green leaves up to 12 inches long; topped with loose clusters of ½-inch yellow, daisylike flowers; fragrant

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Late summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized throughout much of North America

The genus Tanacetum is named for the Greek athanasia, meaning “immortality”—a reference to the plants’ long-lasting flowers. Costmary, a 3-foot-tall perennial, bears clusters of yellow, daisylike blooms in late summer. It was once known as Bible-leaf because early American settlers used its long, balsam-scented leaves as bookmarks. Legend has it that this bookmark served double duty on Sunday mornings. If a person had difficulty staying awake during a sermon, they simply had to scratch the dried leaf or chew a bit of it and the invigorating scent revived them—at least temporarily! A native of Europe and Asia, costmary was introduced to England in the 16th century, and it quickly became a widely cultivated and popular garden plant. Today, it’s rarely seen in herb gardens; you’re more likely to find it in an old family Bible, marking a page for later reference.

CULINARY USE

Costmary’s tender leaves have a refreshing, minty flavor that complements iced tea, lemonade, iced soups, and fruit salads. Also try adding the minced leaves to tuna, egg, or shrimp salads. Steep fresh or dried costmary leaves to make a hot tea.

MEDICINAL USE

In 17th- and 18th-century Europe, costmary was widely used as a diuretic, gentle laxative, and remedy for acute fever. Today, the leaves are used externally to treat wounds, burns, and bee stings. Its properties are thought to be similar to those of its botanical relative, tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

ORNAMENTAL USE

Costmary’s appealing yellow blooms attract butterflies. Plant groups of three or five plants at the back of a perennial border or in a cottage garden.

OTHER USES

The herb’s astringent and antiseptic qualities are soothing to the skin. Use an infusion of the leaves as a facial toner, or add it to bathwater. The balsam-like fragrance of the leaves is pleasant in potpourris and sachets, too.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Costmary grows best in a site with well-drained loam and full sun. Plant it in spring, spacing the plants about 2 feet apart. Costmary spreads easily and requires division every few years. Harvest a few leaves at a time throughout the growing season; most of this herb’s leaves grow from the base of the plant. To preserve the leaves, dry them at a temperature of about 100°F, then store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark location.

Tanacetum parthenium

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Feverfew

Description: Vigorous, hardy biennial or perennial, 2 to 3 feet tall; small, white, daisylike flowers in tight, flat-topped clusters; strongly scented alternate leaves up to 4 inches long

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Flowers and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in temperate regions, including North America

Feverfew’s common English name refers to its earliest use to treat fevers, along with headaches. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) valued the herb for its effect on the uterus. It was often used in childbirth to help with the delivery of the afterbirth, if contractions were not regular. In more recent times, it has been taken as a tonic, and a Cuban variety has been used as an ingredient in confectionaries and wines, as an aromatic to ward off disease, and as an insect repellent.

CULINARY USE

Feverfew has an extremely bitter taste. In Italy, it is sometimes used as a seasoning (in small amounts) to stimulate the appetite.

MEDICINAL USE

Feverfew has long been used to treat fevers and headaches. In the 1970s, it was discovered that consuming the fresh leaves could ward off migraines along with the nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light that accompany them. This discovery, made by a Welsh physician’s wife, spawned a great deal of clinical research on the bioactivity and clinical efficacy of this plant. The herb contains the compound parthenolide, a sesquiterpene lactone that inhibits the release of prostaglandins and histamine, preventing the blood vessel spasms in the head that cause migraine attacks. For best effect, the herb, often in pill form, is taken regularly and at the onset of a migraine. Feverfew also has antispasmodic activity, making it useful in the treatment of indigestion and menstrual problems such as cramps and amenorrhea. Feverfew leaves can be applied externally to soothe the pain and itching of insect bites.

Caution: Feverfew should not be used during pregnancy. Those who take blood-thinning medications should consult with their health-care provider before using this herb. Some people are allergic to feverfew and other members of this plant family.

ORNAMENTAL USE

The herb has many outstanding cultivars. Plant low-growing varieties as annuals in rock gardens, window boxes, or containers for summer and fall blooming.

OTHER USES

The pulverized flowers can be used to make an insect repellent spray or dust.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Feverfew grows in well-drained, dry soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds or root divisions in spring or fall. Deadhead the flowers to prevent self-seeding. Harvest leaves and flowers as needed throughout the growing season.

Tanacetum vulgare

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Tansy

Description: Vigorous perennial, up to 4 feet tall; spreads by underground rhizomes; dark green, fernlike foliage; loose clusters of yellow flower heads, 1⁄3 to ½ inch across

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized throughout North America; found along roadsides

Like its cousin, feverfew, tansy is native to Europe and naturalized throughout North America. According to Greek mythology, the plant gave immortality to Ganymede, the cup-bearer of the gods. Both its common and genus names come from the Greek word for immortality, athanasia. Because of its strong odor, tansy is a natural insect repellent. In the Middle Ages, dried tansy was strewn on floors, hung from rafters, and packed between bed sheets and mattresses to discourage lice, flies, and other vermin from attacking people as they slept. It has also been used in embalming, packed in coffins, and wrapped in funereal garments to keep away insects, as well as rubbed on meats as a preservative.

MEDICINAL USE

In the past, tansy was used to relieve indigestion, rid the body of intestinal worms, and induce abortion; however, the plant contains varying levels of toxic thujone, a compound also found in wormwood and used to make absinthe.

Caution: Even in small amounts, tansy is highly poisonous and not recommended for medicinal use.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Tansy’s lush foliage and golden, buttonlike blooms add interest to garden beds and everlasting arrangements. Try fernleaf tansy (Tanacetum vulgare ‘Crispum’)—a shorter form with more delicate foliage—in a container or along a pathway, where passersby will brush against the leaves to release their fragrance.

OTHER USES

As a dye, the young leaves and flowering tops produce yellows and greens in wool. Tansy was also traditionally used as an insect repellent, although modern housekeepers and gardeners report mixed results. Consider experimenting with the old-time practices of planting tansy near a doorway to deter flies, or tucking sprigs into kitchen cabinets to repel ants.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Considered a weedy plant, tansy is extremely easy to grow and can become invasive if not contained. If you wish to grow it in a border or garden bed, plant it in a pot with drainage holes, and sink the pot into the ground. Plant tansy in spring or fall in average soil and full sun to partial shade. Harvest the leaves and flowering stems as needed throughout the growing season.

Taraxacum officinale

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Dandelion, Lion’s Tooth

Description: Herbaceous perennial, up to 18-inches tall; dark green leaves with toothed margins grow in rosettes close to the ground; golden yellow flower heads open in the daylight

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Asteraceae

Flowering: Late spring

Parts Used: Entire plant

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized throughout temperate regions of the world; lawns, fields, and roadsides

This seemingly ubiquitous perennial, with its characteristic thick taproot, is both a stubbornly pervasive weed and a useful medicinal and culinary plant. Dandelion bears toothed leaves, a single bright yellow flower that opens with the morning sun and closes in the evening, and ribbed fruits with fine white hairs. The name “dandelion” comes from the Latin dens leonis, which means “lion’s teeth,” in reference to the plant’s toothed leaves. The French name pissenlit (“wet the bed”) refers to the plant’s potent diuretic effects. Its medicinal use was recorded in the 10th-century medical journals of Arabian physicians. By the 16th century, British apothecaries considered dandelion a valuable drug and referred to it as Herba Taraxacon or Herba Urinaria, for its diuretic effect. By the 19th century, dandelion had become a valuable potherb in Europe and America. Native to Europe and Asia, dandelion is grown commercially in North America and Europe, especially in France.

CULINARY USE

Young dandelion leaves are a tasty green vegetable, rich in antioxidant carotenoids, potassium, and vitamins A, B, C, and D. The slightly bitter-tasting leaves can be added to salads or cooked like spinach. Dandelion flowers can be minced and added to butters or herbal vinegars for color, or they can be used to make wine. The roots of the plant can be roasted, ground, and used as a coffee substitute.

MEDICINAL USE

Dandelion has powerful diuretic effects. Unlike conventional diuretics, which deplete the body of potassium, this herb is a good source of potassium, leaving the body with a net gain of the mineral after the herb is taken. As a result, there is less chance of a problem from electrolyte imbalance, compared to pharmaceutical diuretics. Dandelion root is believed to increase the body’s flow of bile, which helps digest fats and may help prevent gallstones. The herb has been used to detoxify the liver, gallbladder, and kidneys, and it is often taken to treat skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Dandelion root has mild laxative effects and moderate anti-inflammatory properties. It has traditionally been used to treat joint pain and stiffness.

Caution: Dandelion should not be taken by people who have gallstones or bile duct obstruction.

OTHER USES

Dandelion is reported to be a tonic herb externally, as well as internally. Use the leaves in herbal baths and facial steams. Dandelion flowers can be used to make yellow dyes for wool; using the whole plant produces a magenta dye.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Dandelion, a very easy-to-grow plant, prefers moist to dry, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. For cooking and healing, you can dig up “weedy” dandelions from your lawn or another location that hasn’t been treated with herbicides. Or you can plant a dandelion variety specifically developed for the garden. Horticultural strains are available with longer leaves and a milder flavor. Plant the seeds in spring, summer, or fall, and thin seedlings to 6 inches apart. Deadhead the plants to prevent excessive spreading. For culinary use, harvest very young leaves.

FIELD NOTES

When Is a Plant a Weed?

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who asserted that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have never been discovered.” Growing up in the Northeast, I was trained to consider dandelions weeds—their brilliant yellow spring blossoms exploding into seeds, quickly spread by the wind to the four corners of the yard, producing hundreds more of these plants each year. We pulled them out of the ground and we poured herbicides on them—mostly to no avail. It was not until I began to study ethnobotany in Belize that I realized how useful this plant actually was. One of the traditional healers I worked with, the late Mr. Percival Reynolds, had an herb garden where he carefully tended the remedies his patients needed. All were species that could survive the hot, humid environment of the tropics.

One day he told me his dream was to grow dandelions and use them to treat his patients, particularly people with urinary problems. While dandelions grew quite abundantly around my home garden up North, I never brought him any viable seeds as I didn’t want to introduce what to me was an invasive weed. Actually, we both were correct in our perceptions of dandelion—a weed to some, a food to others, and to healers, a remedy.—M. J. B.

Teucrium chamaedrys

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Germander, Wall Germander

Description: Slender herbaceous perennial, up to 18 inches tall; opposite, oval, bright green leaves with serrated edges; rose to purple blooms on small stalks in groups of two or three or in whorls of six or more

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Ornamental

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in North America and Europe

Germander was once known as “poor man’s box” because the plant could be substituted for the more expensive boxwood in gardens. Its glossy, dark green foliage can be clipped to form a miniature hedge, such as those that edge Elizabethan knot gardens.

MEDICINAL USE

In earlier times, germander was also used to treat gout, and Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) recommended it for the treatment of coughs and asthma. Herbalists also once recommended this plant for gallbladder conditions, fever, stomachache, and diarrhea. Some people have used it as a mouthwash to help kill germs and freshen breath. In the early 1990s wall germander, alone and mixed with other plants, was sold as a weight-loss product in Europe and caused several dozen cases of toxicity, including one fatality.

Caution: Germander is no longer recommended for medicinal use due to significant safety concerns including possible liver toxicity and even death. The United States still allows small quantities of the herb to be used as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Compact in form and drought tolerant, germander is an ideal edging for pathways and borders. Try it also in the crevices of a rock wall, allowing the stems to cascade downward, as the plant’s common name suggests. Several cultivated forms have been developed, including a compact variety that grows to only 5 inches tall. With glossy, dark green leaves and long-lasting, lavender flowers, it makes an excellent groundcover, low edging, or rock garden plant. However, if growing it in your garden, remember that it is a toxic species.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Germander thrives in full sun and a well-drained, slightly acidic soil; its ideal growing medium consists of peat, sand, and organic matter. Seeds can take up to 1 month to germinate. For a faster start, buy young plants or use cuttings. Space established plants 1 foot apart. To create a formal edging, clip the plants in spring to encourage branching.

Theobroma cacao

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Cacao, Chocolate, Cocoa

Description: Small evergreen tree, 20 to 50 feet tall (smaller when cultivated); long, thin leaves; small, yellow flowers develop into oblong seedpods that contain cocoa beans

Hardiness: To Zone 11

Family: Malvaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Seed

Range/Habitat: Native to tropical rainforests of Central and South America; cultivated in Africa, Indonesia, Hawaii, and elsewhere

The genus Theobroma, which translates to “food of the gods,” includes T. cacao—the source of our beloved chocolate. Native to lowland tropical forests in Central and South America, cacao is a small evergreen tree that bears long, thin leaves and small yellow flowers formed directly on the plant’s stems. The flowers develop into small, football-shape seedpods that contain the valuable beans. Cacao has been cultivated in Africa since the 19th century, and today, much of the world’s cocoa bean supply comes from that region.

In Central and South America, cocoa beans formed the basis of the traditional Aztec drink chocolatl (also known as xocoatl, meaning “bitter water”), which was enjoyed by the ancient Inca, Maya, and Aztec peoples. Because the drink was made of pounded cocoa beans and spices, without sweeteners, it had an extremely bitter taste. Most people could afford the expensive drink only on special occasions, but members of royalty consumed this beverage frequently as a sign of their elevated position. The ancient Aztec king Montezuma believed the plant had powerful aphrodisiac effects. According to the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés, Montezuma consumed large quantities of chocolatl daily—drinking it from golden goblets—and freely shared it with Cortés. Cortés sent cocoa beans to the king of Spain, where it became popular in Europe in the mid-17th century. Today, the tree’s seeds are dried and roasted to produce cocoa powder, cocoa butter, chocolate, and a skin-softening ingredient used in cosmetics.

CULINARY USE

Cocoa is best known as the base ingredient of chocolate. There are several types of chocolate: dark chocolate, which has the lowest sugar content; milk chocolate, which contains dried or condensed milk; and white chocolate, which is made from cocoa butter with added milk and sugar—but no cocoa solids. Chocolate can be used in candy, baked goods, and beverages, as well as in savory meat dishes and sauces, including Mexican mole sauce. It is also used to flavor liqueurs.

MEDICINAL USE

Chocolate is a rich source of the antioxidant compounds flavonoids and catechins. Studies show that chocolate may have an effect similar to that of red wine; daily consumption of dark chocolate—the variety highest in flavonoids and lowest in sugar—may help prevent cardiac problems, including reducing the risk of stroke. While chocolate does contain saturated fat, it does not raise cholesterol levels when enjoyed in moderation. Because chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine, it provides a mildly stimulating effect without the jitteriness that coffee can cause.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Cacao trees grow in fertile, moist, well-drained soil in shade. The trees require a minimum temperature of 61°F and high humidity, and they must be sheltered from the wind. In temperate North America, the cacao tree can be grown in a large pot in a warm greenhouse, exposed to bright but indirect light. After 2 or 3 years, flowers may form, and a few of these may in turn form seedpods. The pods contain edible white pulp and 20 to 60 seeds, which can be used to make cocoa. Commercial growers dry the seeds in the sun for 2 to 8 days, then roast and process them for use as cocoa. Plants are propagated by seed.

FIELD NOTES

Rx Chocolate

The Maya people of Mexico and Central America make a chocolate beverage that is quite different from the sugary hot chocolate we know and love. They toast fresh cocoa beans on an open griddle and then pound them into a powder that they put in boiling water over a cooking fire. A piece of fresh vanilla pod, bursting with seeds, is tossed into the pot along with some very spicy chile pepper. As the water continues to boil, other ingredients—such as black pepper, cornmeal, and sometimes plantains—are added.

This fragrant brew tastes piquant, with no sugar or sweetness added to help the drink go down. After awakening in a hammock in the moist, cool forest, sipping this beverage is a most pleasant way to start the day. Its ingredients have helped indigenous people, such as Panama’s Kuna Indians (who drink several cups daily), avoid hypertension and other conditions associated with aging. Interestingly, those Kuna who have migrated to the capital city and have begun to drink processed cocoa drinks have high rates of hypertension.

I believe we can learn to adapt to new foods and preparations, particularly if they offer a better quality of life and health. Try purchasing ground cocoa seeds, add a few spices (such as vanilla and chile pepper) to the boiling water, and see if this brew can become your new morning drink—it’s certainly much healthier than what we call “hot chocolate.”—M. J. B.

Thymus vulgaris

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Garden Thyme

Description: Sprawling woody plant with wiry stems, 4 to 18 inches tall; tiny, aromatic, evergreen leaves; mauve-pink or white flowers

Hardiness: Zone 5

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region, naturalized in temperate regions worldwide

Thyme, a member of the mint (Mentha spp.) family, is among the most popular garden and kitchen herbs. Its tiny, gray-green leaves have a pungent, slightly lemony flavor and minty aroma. Native to the Mediterranean and southeastern Italy, thyme has naturalized in temperate regions throughout the world. The genus includes about 350 species of aromatic woody perennial shrubs and subshrubs that vary in flavor and aroma, but most can be used in cooking. Scientists believe that thyme was cultivated in Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia as long ago as 3000 BCE.

The plant’s name is thought to come from the Greek word thumus, meaning “courage.” In ancient times, people believed that thyme promoted bravery, and medieval knights carried sprigs of the plant as a symbol of their valor. At one time, thyme also symbolized death, and the souls of the dead were believed to rest in the herb’s flowers. Ancient Romans burned the herb in the hope that the scented smoke would repel scorpions; they also strewed the sweet-smelling herb on floors and used it to flavor cheese. The emperor Charlemagne ordered the planting of thyme in all of his gardens for its culinary and medicinal attributes.

The herb’s antibacterial properties—correctly ascribed in the 1700s to the presence of the compound thymol—helped preserve meats before refrigeration was available. The ancient Egyptians also used thyme as a preservative; the essential oil was used for embalming the dead.

CULINARY USE

Thyme is a popular and widely used flavoring in poultry, seafood, and vegetable dishes. The herb pairs particularly well with carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, summer squash, and mushrooms. It retains its flavor in slow-cooked dishes and can be bundled together with bay and sage to make a bouquet garni for soups, stocks, and stews. For hundreds of years, bees on Mount Hymettus near Athens, Greece, have produced a beloved wild thyme honey. Benedictine monks added thyme to their famous liqueur.

MEDICINAL USE

Thyme was used by the ancient Romans to treat coughs, improve digestion, and expel worms—much as the herb is used today. Thyme is rich in volatile oils that have powerful antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and antispasmodic properties, but it is best known for its expectorant effects. Thyme tea eases coughs and bronchial spasms and helps clear the congestion and mucus of a cold.

Like most culinary herbs, thyme benefits digestion by relaxing the smooth muscle tissue of your gastrointestinal tract. Thyme is also rich in disease-fighting antioxidants. Extracts of the herb can be used as an antibacterial against Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria thought to cause stomach ulcers. Thyme’s antibacterial properties can be used externally, too. Placing crushed thyme leaves on a minor cut, scrape, or other wound can prevent bacteria from entering.

Used in massage oil, essential oil of thyme helps warm and relax tired and sore muscles. Thymol, an extract of the herb’s volatile oil, is an ingredient in many commercially available products, including cough drops, mouthwashes, dental-care products, chest rubs, and cosmetics.

Caution: Thyme should not be consumed in large amounts by pregnant women; small amounts used in cooking should not be a problem. Thyme essential oil is for external use only; always dilute it and do not give it to children or use it during pregnancy. The oil can irritate skin and mucous membranes.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Thyme makes an attractive edging or groundcover in garden borders, beds, and containers. Creeping varieties, such as ‘Bressingham Pink’ and ‘Coconut’, are excellent for planting between stepping stones in a pathway; the plants will grow to form a dense, carpetlike filler and will not be harmed by foot traffic. Thyme also adapts well to rock gardens, rock wall plantings, and raised terraces, where it can sprawl and cascade. The flowers attract butterflies and bees.

OTHER USES

Dried thyme leaves add a pleasant scent to sachets and potpourris. Some gardeners plant thyme near members of the cabbage family to discourage flea beetles, cabbageworms, whiteflies, and other pests. People have also used thyme indoors to repel moths.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Thyme thrives in well-drained soil and full sun. Plant nursery-grown transplants in spring. Or, about 8 weeks before your last frost date, start seeds indoors in flats under lights; transplant the seedlings to your garden when the weather warms. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Mulch seedlings to prevent weed competition until the plants are established. Harvest sprigs of established plants just prior to flowering, in early summer. (Harvesting sprigs after flowering can make the plants more susceptible to winter kill.) Propagate thyme by root division in spring or fall, or by cuttings taken in summer.

Trifolium pratense

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Red Clover

Description: Fast-growing, up to 24 inches tall; three oval leaflets with pale, crescent-shaped markings; mauve-pink flowers on upright stems

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: Late spring to midsummer

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and sprouts

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, western Asia, and northwest Africa; grows widely throughout North America

A member of the pea family, red clover is native to Europe, Western Asia, and Northwest Africa, but it grows throughout North America. The herb bears pink flower heads on upright hairy stems; the flowers are highly attractive to bees and are an important source of wildflower honey. Clover’s leaves grow in groups of three oval leaflets with pale crescent markings: The genus name Trifolium means “three leaves.” To the ancient Druids, these three leaves symbolized earth, heaven, and ocean. And of course mutations of this plant that have four leaves are considered to bring good luck.

CULINARY USE

Red clover is abundant in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, D, E, and K. Add red clover sprouts, flowers, and leaves to salads. The flowers can also be added to soup stocks or steeped to make tea.

MEDICINAL USE

The round, flowering tops of red clover contain estrogenlike compounds known as isoflavones, making the herb useful for treating menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. Red clover contains the compounds daidzein and genistein (also found in soy), which may help prevent cancer. Considered an expectorant, the herb is a traditional treatment for coughs, bronchitis, and chest congestion; a soothing tea can be made by steeping the dried flowers in hot water for 10 minutes.

Red clover has diuretic and liver-cleansing properties, and it can help rid your body of toxins. Herbalists recommend it to purify blood. A small-scale human trial has shown that ingesting red clover increases elasticity of the arteries, as compared to a placebo, and could reduce your risk of heart disease, although much more work is needed to confirm this. Externally, the herb has traditionally been applied as a poultice to cancerous growths and to treat skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, especially in children.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Red clover grows in moist, well-drained, neutral soil in sunny areas such as meadows and along paths. It can tolerate shady habitats. The herb is easy to grow from seeds planted in spring, summer, or fall. Harvest leaves for salads before the plant blooms; harvest flowers just as they come into bloom. Dry the flowers in a warm, airy location.

Trigonella foenum-graecum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Fenugreek

Description: Plant with three-lobed leaves, grows 12 to 24 inches tall; white flowers are followed by curved 2-inch seedpods containing up to 20 aromatic brown seeds

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Fabaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to western Asia and the Mediterranean, naturalized in North America, India, and northern Africa

Fenugreek, an annual native to southeastern Europe and western Asia, has been a source of flavoring, medicine, food, and fodder for thousands of years. Archeological remains of fenugreek seeds dating to 4000 BCE have been found in Iraq.

Bearing three-lobed leaves and white flowers on slender stems, the plant resembles wild clover. Its species name, foenum-graecum, in Latin means “Greek hay,” referring to its use as a livestock food—valued for its ability to stimulate appetite and promote health. Because of the herb’s unique scent (often compared to maple syrup), it also was used to disguise the smell of moldy fodder. Benedictine monks brought fenugreek to Western Europe during the 9th century. Today it is cultivated all over the world, with India being the largest commercial producer.

CULINARY USE

The ripe, dried seeds are commonly used as a spice in Asian and African cuisines. Their nutty flavor, which combines the taste of celery and maple, enhances meats, poultry, marinated vegetables, curry blends, and condiments, such as chutney. Use the whole seeds in pickling brine, or sprout them and add them to salads.

MEDICINAL USE

Fenugreek has been used to treat digestive disorders and ulcers, respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, and sore throats, fevers, and diabetes. It has also been used to promote lactation. Studies have shown that fenugreek might help lower cholesterol levels and, for those with type 2 diabetes, could help regulate blood sugar levels.

This herb also has a long tradition of use for soothing skin. It has been used externally to treat conditions such as boils, ulcers, hives, and eczema.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Fenugreek thrives in full sun and rich soil that has been deeply cultivated. Broadcast the seed thickly when the soil has reached a minimum temperature of 55°F; in cold, wet soil, root rot can occur. Harvest seedpods when they are ripe but before they begin to shatter. Remove the seeds and dry them in the sun.

Tropaeolum majus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Nasturtium

Description: Mounding types up to 12 inches tall, trailing types up to 6 feet long; large, funnel-shaped blossoms of red, orange, or yellow; rounded leaves with prominent veins; aromatic

Hardiness: Annual

Family: Tropaeolaceae

Flowering: Through summer until frost

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and seeds

Range/Habitat: Native to the Andes Mountains of South America

A popular garden flower, the nasturtium bears large, boldly colored blooms and rounded leaves on trailing stems. Its common name comes from the Latin for “twisted nose,” a reference to the herb’s pungent scent. Originating in the Andes Mountains of South America, nasturtiums were brought from Peru to Spain by the Spanish conquistadors during the 16th century, and their reputation as a culinary herb gradually spread across the continent. The plant was not grown in North America until the 18th century, when it was introduced by European settlers.

CULINARY USE

Nasturtium leaves and flowers have a peppery flavor, reminiscent of radish. Add them to salads, sandwiches, or butters, or float the flowers in soup or punch. The young seedpods can be pickled and substituted for imported capers.

MEDICINAL USE

Nasturtium has disinfectant and antibacterial properties due to the presence of mustard oil compounds. The seeds were traditionally used as a poultice to treat sores and boils, and a drink made from the whole plant was taken to help rid the body of toxins and to treat urinary conditions. Some herbalists recommend a hair tonic of nasturtium leaf and rosemary extract to slow hair loss.

Caution: While nasturtium flowers and leaves are rich sources of vitamin C, there have been reports of toxicity associated with overconsumption of this species.

ORNAMENTAL USE

These brightly colored, long-blooming annuals are a favorite of gardeners, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Use the compact varieties in mixed borders and rock gardens. The trailing types are perfect for containers, window boxes, hanging baskets, walls, or banks—anywhere the stems can spill casually over the sides.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Nasturtiums grow best in full sun and well-drained, moist soil. They are easy to grow from seed, either sown directly in the garden in spring or started indoors in late winter and then transplanted to the garden when the soil warms. Space the seedlings 6 to 9 inches apart. To grow nasturtiums in a container, use a coarse, porous medium that is not overly rich. Keep the container in full sun and water when the soil feels dry beneath the surface. Harvest the young leaves and flowers as needed. Propagate by gathering the ripe seeds late in the season.

Ulmus rubra

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Slippery Elm

Description: Broad tree up to 60 feet tall; rough, hairy, toothed leaves; small, light green flowers; thick, brown bark; winged seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Ulmaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Bark

Habitat/Range: Eastern and central North America

Named for its slick inner bark, slippery elm is native to eastern and central North America. The 50- to 60-foot deciduous tree has thick, reddish brown bark and bears red-brown winged fruits.

Native Americans traditionally used the tree to make canoes and baskets, as well as for food and healing; slippery elm teas and poultices were used to treat wounds, coughs, colds, sore throats, and many other conditions. By the 18th century, European settlers had learned to use the plant in similar ways. Soldiers applied slippery elm poultices to gunshot wounds during the American War of Independence. In the 19th century, the herb became a popular treatment for gastrointestinal problems.

CULINARY USE

The bark powder of slippery elm makes a restorative hot breakfast cereal. Mix 1 teaspoon of the powder with cold water to form a thin, smooth paste. Then add 2 cups of boiling water and cook the mixture for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring constantly. If desired, flavor the cereal with cinnamon, nutmeg, or lemon peel.

MEDICINAL USE

The inner bark of slippery elm contains soothing mucilage, making it a gentle treatment for cough, gastrointestinal conditions, including diarrhea, heartburn, and ulcers; and sore throat. It can also be applied topically to treat superficial skin wounds, inflammatory skin conditions, boils, abscesses, and burns. Slippery elm is available commercially in powder, tea, syrup, lozenge, and pill forms—although there is concern about the long-term viability of this popular herbal remedy due to the overharvesting of wild trees. To make slippery elm tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of the powdered bark and steep for 5 minutes. Sweeten with honey, molasses, or stevia, if you like. You can also add cinnamon, ginger, or nutmeg for additional flavoring. Drink the tea two or three times per day.

Caution: Take other drugs 1 hour before or several hours after consuming slippery elm, as it could slow the absorption of oral medications.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Slippery elm grows best in moist, rich soil and full sun, but it will tolerate average soil. If you’re planting this tree from seed, use only freshly harvested seeds collected in spring, and plant them immediately with the “wings” intact. (Removing them can damage the seeds.) Plant the seeds directly in prepared garden soil. Most of the seeds will germinate the following spring, after a cold period. The bark of established trees (10 years old and older) can be harvested in spring or fall. Harvest only from larger branches, never the trunk. If possible, use pruned branches because stripping the bark of existing branches increases the tree’s susceptibility to Dutch elm disease. After the coarse outer bark is removed, remove the inner bark in strips or chunks, and dry it in a warm, well-ventilated area. Store the bark in a cool, dry location.

Uncaria tomentosa, Uncaria guianensis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Cat’s Claw, Uña-de-Gato

Description: Twining, woody vine to 100 feet long; large, glossy leaves; thorny spines curved like cats’ claws grow at stem leaf junctions; tiny, yellowish white or red-orange flowers

Hardiness: Zone 11

Family: Rubiaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Bark

Range/Habitat: Native to the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Valley and surrounding regions

A relative of the coffee plant (Coffea arabica), cat’s claw grows wild in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. Two species are of medicinal interest, Uncaria tomentosa and U. guianensis; both are found in the Amazon Valley. The plant’s twining woody stem, which can grow to 100 feet, bears large, glossy leaves and thorny spines curved like a cat’s claws. In its native region, indigenous people have traditionally used cat’s claw as a contraceptive and as a treatment for a wide range of health conditions. Much of the supply of this herb used for commercial purposes is wild-harvested from plants in South America, although cat’s claw is increasingly being harvested from cultivated sources or managed plantings in secondary forests.

MEDICINAL USE

Cat’s claw is a known anti-inflammatory agent. It has been used to treat osteoarthritis of the knee and rheumatoid arthritis (in conjunction with conventional therapy), as well as Crohn’s disease, chronic prostatitis, canker sores, gastric ulcers and other stomach problems, sinus infections, and flu. The plant’s roots and stem bark are believed to contain compounds that can stimulate the immune system. Cat’s claw could be useful in the treatment of viral infections and for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Caution: This herb should not be used during pregnancy, by those taking ulcer medications, or by transplant patients. The plant has been over-harvested in the wild; choose products made from sustainably harvested stem bark.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Cat’s claw thrives in rich, moist soil; ample rain; and heat—typical conditions of a tropical rainforest. You can try growing it in a warm greenhouse where it will receive ample light—in the wild, its long vine helps bring this plant into the canopy of the rainforest. Harvesting begins when the plant is at least 8 years old; the vine is cut from the top to within a foot of the ground, and the bark is stripped and dried for use. Basal parts of the stem and roots are left in the ground to ensure that the rapidly growing vine continues to flourish. Propagate the vine from stem cuttings.

FIELD NOTES

Sacred Seeds

The world’s first Sacred Seeds Sanctuary—for the conservation of medicinal plants and the promotion of indigenous knowledge of healing traditions—was founded at Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica. Semillas Sagradas, as it is known in Spanish, is dedicated to “preserving both medicinal plant species and cultural memory.” Gardens with this purpose are now found in more than 1,000 places as part of an international network. Located in a magnificent Costa Rican rainforest preserve and organic biodynamic farm and ecotourism lodge, Sacred Seeds Sanctuary is home to hundreds of medicinal plant species from Central America, as well as from many other regions.

I’ve had the chance to walk through the sanctuary with several of the preserve’s founders (and my good friends), Rafael Ocampo, Steven Farrell, and Tom Newmark. We stopped along a rainforest trail, and Don Rafael began to tell the story of the uña-de-gato plant, which climbs up into the forest canopy. We learned of its medicinal properties, as well as its indigenous uses against inflammation, diarrhea, dysentery, rheumatism, and arthritis. We also learned how it is grown, harvested, and prepared—and that more than 1.5-million pounds of the plant’s bark was collected from the Peruvian Amazon and exported to two dozen countries around the world in a single year, reducing the wild populations dramatically.

Don Rafael then explained why this important commercial herb must be sustainably harvested and cultivated—so that its extraordinary healing properties will be available to anyone who needs them. It was clear why Sacred Seeds Sanctuaries and places like them are so essential: They can help improve the health of millions of people around the world today, and they serve as a “Noah’s Ark” to preserve these precious plants and the knowledge of their healing properties for future generations.—M. J. B.

Urtica dioica

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Nettle, Stinging Nettle

Description: Single-stemmed perennial up to 5-feet tall; clusters of tiny, greenish flowers; heart-shaped leaves with toothed edges, covered with tiny, bristly hairs

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Urticaceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and root

Range/Habitat: Native to North America and Eurasia, widely naturalized in temperate areas

Native to North America and Eurasia, nettle is a 5-foot-tall perennial widely naturalized in fields and woodland edges of temperate areas worldwide. The genus name comes from the Latin urere, which means “to burn.” Like other plants in its family, nettle is well known for the burning sensation that occurs if you come in contact with the plant’s hairy, toothed leaves. Interestingly, you can relieve the stinging by rubbing the affected area with the leaves of yellow dock (Rumex crispus) or jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which often grow near nettle.

Ancient Greeks used nettle juice medicinally to treat many conditions, ranging from snakebites to coughs, and Roman soldiers rubbed nettle on their skin—a practice known as urtication—to improve their tolerance of cold temperatures. From the Bronze Age through the early 20th century, people used the strong fibers of nettle stems to make cloth and paper.

CULINARY USE

Nettle leaves are a favorite spring green. Cooking (and drying, for use in winter) destroys the plant’s sting. To prepare the leaves, you can steam, sauté, or stir-fry them; puree them and add them to soups; or substitute them for spinach in recipes. In Scotland, people make a traditional pudding with nettle, leeks, broccoli, and rice. The herb is also used in Russian and Italian dishes, such as Russian nettle soup and risotto with wild greens.

MEDICINAL USE

Nettle leaves—which contain vitamins A and C, as well as the mineral iron—have antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, astringent, and diuretic properties. Practitioners use nettle to treat anemia and poor circulation; to relieve arthritis, seasonal allergies, heavy menstrual bleeding, and inflammatory skin conditions; and to ease and prevent urinary tract infections and kidney stones.

Impressive research supports the ability of nettle root to ease the symptoms of enlarged prostate, including frequent and nighttime urination. The condition, known as benign prostatic hyperplasia, affects many men older than 50.

Herbalists frequently recommend nettle tea for its nutritive value and as a general tonic and “blood builder.” To make nettle leaf tea, steep 2 teaspoons of the herb in 1 cup of hot water for 10 minutes. Strain, then sweeten the tea, if desired. Drink up to 3 cups per day. Wear gloves when handling the fresh herb; heat deactivates the plant’s sting.

Other nettle preparations include extracts, tinctures, and fresh juice. The fresh leaves can be applied externally as a poultice to relieve joint pain and inflammation.

OTHER USES

Shampoos and other commercial hair-care products often contain nettle. The herb is thought to thicken hair and make it shiny. You can use a nettle infusion as a hair rinse or facial steam. Some gardeners use nettle tea as a fertilizer for garden plants.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Nettle grows easily in moist, nitrogen-rich soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds or root divisions in spring; to prevent unwanted spread, grow nettle in a large container. For medicinal use, wear gloves and harvest the whole plants in late spring or summer, just before the plants flower. For culinary use, pick young leaf tips from plants less than 4 inches tall.

IN THE KITCHEN: THE SOFTER SIDE OF NETTLE

Nettle can be a wonderfully nutritious and tasty spring green—if you learn to handle this prickly plant with care. To protect yourself from the herb’s notorious sting, be sure to wear gloves when harvesting and preparing nettle.

For cooking, choose young plants, ideally no more than 4 to 6-inches tall. If the plants are older, use only the younger (top) leaves and discard the stems. While wearing rubber gloves, gently rinse the nettle and then chop it. Cooking nettle deactivates the sting. Steam it alone or with other vegetables, cooking the greens just until they wilt—3 or 4-minutes. Serve cooked nettle as a side dish, or add it to risotto, pasta sauces, or quiches. Here’s another way to make the most of this springtime tonic and treat.

Spring Nettle Soup

1–2 tablespoons olive oil

2 shallots, chopped

1 stalk celery, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups young nettle leaves, finely chopped

1 cup arugula, coarsely chopped

2 cups milk

2 cups vegetable stock

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

Salt (optional)

Pepper (optional)

2–3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons chopped parsley

In a 3- or 4-quart pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the shallots and celery in the oil for about 5-minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1-minute, then add the nettle leaves and arugula. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook the greens just until they wilt, about 3 minutes. Add the milk and stock, then raise the heat just until the liquid comes to a boil. Add the potatoes. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. In a blender or food processor, puree the soup in batches to thicken it. (When pureeing hot soup, take care to avoid splashing yourself.) Return the soup to the pot and reheat over low heat. Season with salt and pepper, if using; add the grated cheese and garnish with the parsley just before serving. Serves 4.

Vaccinium spp.including V. angustifolium, V. corymbosum

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Blueberry

Description: Shrubs (varying in height from trailing to 12 feet tall); dark green, oval leaves; bell-shaped white or light pink flowers; light blue to black fruits

Hardiness: To Zone 2, depending on species

Family: Ericaceae

Flowering: Spring to early summer

Parts Used: Fruit and leaves

Range/Habitat: Most are native to eastern and central North America; woodlands and bogs

The oak and pine forests of eastern and central North America are home to more than a dozen Vaccinium species commonly known as blueberry. Depending on the species, the shrubs range in height from ground-hugging to 12 feet tall. All bear dark green leaves, white or pink bell-shaped flowers, and sweet, round fruits that range in color from light blue to black. Selections of Vaccinium corymbosum (northern highbush blueberry) have produced a wide range of cultivars grown commercially in North America and throughout the world.

Blueberries were a staple food of Native Americans, who ate the fruit fresh, dried, or cooked into desserts, relishes, cakes, and sauces.

CULINARY USE

Fresh or dried, blueberry fruits are delicious in baked goods, such as muffins, cakes, and pies. They also make tasty jellies, jams, and syrups and can be added to many foods.

MEDICINAL USE

Blueberry fruits contain relatively large amounts of vitamins B6 and C and the mineral manganese. They are also rich in antioxidants and flavonoids, which could inhibit the production of LDL (bad) cholesterol, improve heart health, and help prevent or reverse memory loss due to aging. One study with a small group of older men and women who had mild age-related memory decline showed that drinking three glasses of wild lowbush blueberry juice each day increased memory test scores compared to a group that drank a placebo. Other research suggests that eating blueberries may help prevent urinary tract infections.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grow blueberries in full sun and moist, acidic (4.0 to 5.0 pH) loam. Blueberries won’t thrive in soil that has a neutral or alkaline pH. Lower the soil pH before planting by amending with peat moss or elemental sulfur and composted leaves. After planting, mulch with a 4- to 5-inch layer of composted leaf litter or pine needles, and replenish it annually. Fertilize each spring with composted manure, cottonseed meal, or another high-nitrogen fertilizer. Plants begin bearing fruit during their third year. Cover the ripening fruits with netting to protect them from wildlife. Propagate by hardwood cuttings.

Vaccinium macrocarpon

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Cranberry

Description: Creeping evergreen shrub, 1 to 3 feet tall; leathery, green leaves; nodding pink or white flowers followed by white fruit, turning deep red when ripe

Hardiness: To Zone 2

Family: Ericaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Fruit

Range/Habitat: Native to northeastern North America and the West Coast; bogs, swamps, coastal areas

The cranberry is a low evergreen shrub native to the coastal areas, bogs, and swamps of northeastern and western North America. The creeping plant bears dark pink flowers with curved petals, followed by white berries that turn deep red when ripe. European settlers in eastern North America called the plant craneberry because they thought its curved flower petals and anthers resembled the head of a crane. Native Americans used the fruit as food, often making it into cakes or mixing it with meat to make pemmican, which they used throughout the winter.

CULINARY USE

Because of their tartness, cranberries are generally cooked with sugar when they’re made into sauces, jellies, jams, and baked goods. The fruits can also be dried and eaten like raisins or added to salads and desserts.

MEDICINAL USE

Cranberry fruits, which are high in vitamin C, were at one time eaten to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. The berries contain anthocyanins and flavonol glycosides, which have antibacterial properties. Studies have shown that drinking cranberry juice or taking cranberry extract tablets reduces your risk of a bladder infection—although there is little evidence that cranberry can cure an infection once it’s begun. Active compounds in the fruit inhibit microorganisms from adhering to the cells lining your urinary tract, making a less hospitable environment for infection-causing bacteria such as E. coli. The same compounds are said to help prevent various types of bacteria from forming dental plaque, and some preliminary research suggests cranberry could inhibit the growth of Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria that can cause stomach ulcers. Cranberry also might benefit men with chronic prostatitis.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Cranberry requires a unique combination of growing conditions to thrive: moist to wet acidic soil, cool temperatures, and a long growing season (April to November). The plant’s creeping roots must remain cool and wet; commercial growers cultivate cranberries in bog soil composed of alternate layers of sand, gravel, and organic matter, adding new layers of sand every 2 to 5 years. If you do not have a natural wetland area, try growing cranberries in a sunken bed and flood it periodically, or use drip irrigation to keep the soil constantly moist. Cranberry fruit matures about 80 days after bloom, usually by late October; the ripe fruit is bright red and firm. The plants can be propagated by softwood cuttings taken in spring.

Vaccinium myrtillus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Bilberry, Whortleberry

Description: Small, deciduous shrub, up to 2 feet tall; pink or yellow-green flowers; small, aromatic, dark blue to black fruits

Hardiness: Zone 2

Family: Ericaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Fruit and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and western North America; woodlands and meadows

Bilberry grows primarily in pine forests and meadows in Europe and western North America. The shrubs bear small, round, bluish fruits that can be distinguished from blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum and others) by their dark blue, aromatic flesh. (Blueberry fruits are white or pale green when cut open and are not as aromatic.) Another difference is that bilberry fruits usually form singly or in pairs, while blueberries appear in clusters.

Bilberries are rarely cultivated; the fruits are generally harvested from the wild for food or medicinal use. Several related species, including Vaccinium membranaceum (big huckleberry) and V. deliciosum(Cascade bilberry), are also native to western North America and can be used in similar ways. Native Americans ate the fruit of the big huckleberry fresh, cooked, or dried, and they used an infusion of the plant’s roots and stems to treat heart disease and arthritis.

CULINARY USE

The fruits of the bilberry and its relatives are more acidic and seedy than blueberries. But when cooked with sugar, they make delicious pies, syrups, and jams. You can also use them to make breads, muffins, compotes, and wine.

MEDICINAL USE

Bilberry has been used medicinally in Europe for more than 1,000 years. The fruits are rich in vitamin C and were eaten to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency. In 17th-century England, people mixed bilberries with honey to form a mixture called “rob,” which was used to treat diarrhea. During World War II, British pilots ate bilberry jam before night missions, claiming it improved night vision.

Bilberry fruits contain antioxidant pigments called anthocyanosides, which help improve blood flow by maintaining strong, flexible cell walls. Bilberries are especially beneficial for vision, because they increase blood flow to and oxygen levels in the eyes. Scientists believe that eye conditions such as cataracts and macular degeneration are promoted by free radical or oxidative damage.

Bilberry also might benefit the cardiovascular system by helping to reduce the buildup of calcium plaque deposits in arteries, inhibiting blood clot formation, and increasing heartbeat strength. Besides taking bilberry in its fresh form, you can also take the herb as a commercially prepared tea (made from the dried ripe fruit or leaves) or extract.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Although this plant is rarely cultivated, it is possible to find commercial suppliers of seed. Sow the seed on the surface of the soil in fall. Bilberries thrive in moist, acidic soil in sun or partial shade; to propagate, take semiripe cuttings in summer. Harvest the berries when they turn blue-black.

Valeriana officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Garden Heliotrope, Valerian

Description: Stems, 3 to 6 feet tall; dark green, lance-shaped serrated leaves; clusters of small white or pink flowers; large, pungent-smelling rhizomes

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Valerianaceae

Flowering: Midsummer

Parts Used: Roots and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and western Asia, naturalized in North America; damp meadows and wooded areas

According to folklore, the Pied Piper led rats out of the city of Hamelin, Germany, not with music, but because he carried valerian in his pockets. This tall perennial herb contains compounds similar to those in catnip (Nepeta cataria), and cats—as well as rats and mice—tend to find the unique scent of valerian appealing. Although the plant’s pink or white flowers are sweetly fragrant, its leaves and roots have a strongly pungent odor that most people consider highly unpleasant. Like catnip, valerian has a calming effect on people, and the herb’s common name is believed to derive from the Latin valere, which means, “to be well.” Valerian is native to Europe and western Asia and is naturalized in North America.

CULINARY USE

Despite its strong scent and flavor, valerian was once eaten in salads and used as a pot herb. Today, extracts of valerian are used commercially as an apple flavoring in baked goods, soft drinks, beer, and tobacco.

MEDICINAL USE

Valerian root—taken in tea, extract, or capsule form—contains more than 100 physiologically active chemical compounds. Used as a mild sedative since ancient Roman times, this natural sleep aid is nonaddictive and has no known side effects, such as the hangover feeling associated with prescription sleep aids.

Valerian also dilates coronary arteries and helps normalize heart rhythm. It is used to relieve excitability, exhaustion, and anxiety-related symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, and feelings of panic. During World War I, it was used to treat soldiers with “shell shock” (a short-term condition now referred to as combat stress reaction), which can include memory loss. Valerian has antispasmodic properties and is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Clinical trials have shown it to be as effective (and sometimes more effective) at treating anxiety as some conventional pharmaceuticals.

To make valerian root tea, cover 1 teaspoon of the dried root with 1 cup of boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes and sweeten if desired.

Caution: Valerian can cause stomach upset in sensitive individuals, and in a small percentage of people it can be stimulating rather than calming. The herb should not be used together with a prescription or over-the-counter sleep aid, particularly a CNS depressant, or with alcohol. Pregnant women should avoid this herb.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Valerian thrives in moist, fertile soil and full sun or partial shade. Plant root divisions or seeds in spring or fall. Mulch with composted manure and remove flowers to increase root size. Harvest roots starting in fall of the plant’s second year. Dry the roots in a 170°F oven until brittle. Harvest leaves for salads or soups as needed.

Vanilla planifolia

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Vanilla

Description: Climbing evergreen vine, up to 50-feet long; thick, succulent stem; bright green, pointed leaves; clusters of pale greenish yellow flowers; fruit contains hundreds of tiny seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 11

Family: Orchidaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Pod

Range/Habitat: Native to Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies

The only orchid that bears an edible fruit, Vanilla planifolia is a climbing evergreen perennial vine native to Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies. Vanilla has a thick, succulent stem and bears bright green, pointed leaves and clusters of showy, pale greenish yellow flowers. Its fruit, commonly called the vanilla bean, is a pendant pod that contains hundreds of tiny seeds. Vanilla beans have been highly prized for hundreds of years for use in sweets and perfumery.

CULINARY USE

A much-loved food flavoring around the world, vanilla was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the Spanish, who learned of its use in Mexico. Its enchanting flavor and aroma are due to a substance called vanillin, which develops during the curing process. To impart a delicate flavor to sugar, add a vanilla bean to your sugar bowl; use the sugar to flavor desserts and teas. Vanilla extract is used commercially to flavor ice creams, baked goods, syrups, soft drinks, and liqueurs, such as Kahlúa.

MEDICINAL USE

In folk medicine, vanilla has been used to stimulate the brain, prevent sleep, increase energy, and improve digestion. In aromatherapy, the scent of vanilla is believed to promote feelings of confidence and calmness. Massage oils that contain vanilla are said to have aphrodisiac properties.

OTHER USES

Vanilla is often included as a fragrance in hand and body lotions, soaps, cosmetics, deodorants, scented candles, and potpourris. In some places, the pods are woven into aromatic handicrafts.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Vanilla is cultivated in plantations in many parts of the tropics, and it can be grown in a warm greenhouse if given a soil mix formulated for orchids, plenty of moisture, shade, humidity, and an average daytime temperature of 80°F with slightly cooler nights. Plant cuttings that are several feet long. Hand-pollinate the flowers to ensure that the plant will set fruits, or beans. Vanilla beans ripen in 5 to 7 months; harvest them when they’re fully ripe but before they split open. In commercial production, the 10-inch-long beans are allowed to “sweat”—either by heating them in the sun or scalding them with boiling water—to produce an enzymatic reaction, then are stored for 3 to 6 months to develop their flavor. The pods can be stored whole in an airtight container.

Caution: Handling this plant can cause an allergic reaction in some individuals.

FIELD NOTES

The Orchid and the Bee

The forests of Mexico and Central America are home to a very special vine—the vanilla plant, which is the only orchid used as a spice or food. Vanilla vines grow pressed against trees, creeping up to the canopy, and hanging down from branches. When their beautiful, large yellow flowers open, they are pollinated by a single type of insect, known in Mexico as the “mountain bee.” Shortly after the bee does its work, the pod starts to grow and eventually opens, spreading its seeds.

In nature, the chances of this bee pollinating the vanilla flower are very small. So when people began transplanting the vanilla orchid to other places in the world, it was clear that an artificial method of fertilization was needed. In the 1840s, a system was developed that involved using a sliver of wood to open the flower and a finger to move the pollen from the anther to the tip of the stigma—ultimately putting the bee out of work. Today, this hand-pollination method is more or less equivalent to what was used 150 years ago, and it is employed in vanilla orchid plantations around the world.—M. J. B.

Verbascum thapsus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Common Mullein, Torch Weed

Description: Rigid stems up to 6 feet tall; silvery green, velvety leaves up to 18 inches long; dense spikes of bright yellow blooms, followed by seed capsules with numerous small brown seeds

Hardiness: Biennial; to Zone 1

Family: Scrophulariaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia; naturalized throughout North America; found along disturbed sites, such as ditches and roadsides

At 6 feet tall with dense spikes of golden blooms, common mullein makes an impressive display in fields, ditches, and other disturbed sites throughout North America. Mullein is also called torch weed because people used to soak its tall, rigid stems in oil and then used them for lighting. The hardy biennial self-seeds readily and is considered a pest in many areas, but healers long ago recognized the plant’s virtues.

The Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) prescribed mullein for lung conditions 2,000 years ago. In North America, where the plant has naturalized, Native Americans found a multitude of uses for the velvety leaves and golden flowers. Many groups smoked the leaves or made them into a tea to treat coughs and colds, asthma, sore throat, and sore joints. Externally, they applied a poultice of the fresh, pounded leaves to cuts, swellings, abscesses, sores, bruises, sprains, earaches, and toothaches.

MEDICINAL USE

The plant’s leaves and flowers contain antibacterial and astringent tannins and soothing emollient mucilage. Although little research has been conducted to support mullein’s effectiveness, the herb has a long tradition of use, especially for treating respiratory problems. Modern practitioners recommend mullein leaf tea or decoction for respiratory conditions, as well as for sore throats, digestive discomforts, and urinary tract problems.

The fresh or dried flowers can be used to make an oil infusion for external use, such as for skin conditions, earaches, and joint pain. To make mullein tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of the fresh leaves. Steep for 10 minutes. Strain, then sweeten and drink as desired. Filter out any irritating plant hairs by pouring the liquid through cheesecloth or a coffee filter.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Considered an invasive weed in many areas of the United States, common mullein can be difficult to eradicate and is rarely grown in the garden. The plant thrives in full sun and open, somewhat dry locations. Harvest the leaves and flowers in summer.

Verbena officinalis

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: European Verbena, Vervain

Description: Stems grow 2 to 3 feet tall topped by slender spikes of small, tubular, pale purple flowers; opposite, deeply divided leaves

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Verbenaceae

Flowering: Midsummer to late summer

Parts Used: Leaves and stems

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, naturalized in North America

Vervain was revered as a sacred herb by many ancient peoples, including the Romans, Persians, and Druids. The Egyptians believed the plant originated from the tears of the goddess Isis as she wept for the dead god Osiris. Vervain was also associated with the crucifixion: According to legend, the herb was pressed onto Christ’s wounds to staunch the bleeding.

The genus name derives from the Latin for “sacred boughs,” while the common name is believed to come from the ancient Celtic words fer (“to drive away”) and faen (“stone”), reflecting a belief in the herb’s ability to treat kidney stones. Native Americans prepared a decoction of the roots for the treatment of liver and kidney problems.

MEDICINAL USE

Vervain has been reported to have astringent, antispasmodic, diaphoretic (sweat-promoting), diuretic, and other healing properties, but there is virtually no scientific evaluation of its efficacy. The herb could have the ability to clear bronchial passages, stimulate the digestive system, promote lactation, flush excess water from the body, reduce inflammation, and relieve anxiety.

Vervain tea or tincture is sometimes recommended for the treatment of coughs, bronchitis, and sore throats, as well as for bladder infections, nervous tension, and joint pain. Herbalists recommend a vervain leaf poultice for headaches, nerve and joint pain, sores, abscesses, and burns. In Spain, vervain is mixed with other herbs to make a poultice used to heal wounds on cattle.

Caution: Do not use vervain during pregnancy. Also, a glycoside in vervain may cause vomiting.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Vervain is easy to grow in full sun or partial shade and rich, moist soil. Amend the soil with compost prior to planting the seeds after the last frost in spring. Or start seeds indoors in late winter to early spring, and transplant the seedlings to your garden after the weather has warmed. For medicinal use, harvest the leaves and stems before the plant flowers, and use them fresh or dried. To propagate, divide the roots in fall or allow the seed heads to dry on the plants, then remove and collect the seeds.

Viola odorata

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Sweet Violet, Violet

Description: Creeping perennial, up to 6 inches tall; oval to heart-shaped leaves and sweet-scented, dark purple or white, five-petaled flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Violaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized in North America; found along roadsides and in woodland areas

The delicate, dark purple or white flowers of violet have a wonderful, sweet fragrance, but due to the plant’s chemical composition, the scent fades quickly. Native to Europe and Asia and naturalized throughout the temperate regions of the world, violet has had a place in the kitchen, medicine cabinet, and garden for centuries. The ancient Romans infused wine with violets, then sweetened the drink with honey. The 1st-century herbalist Pliny the Elder wrote of the violet’s medicinal virtues, recommending it for gout and disorders of the spleen. The flowers were the favorite of French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and his first wife, Josephine. When she died in 1814, Napoléon planted violets on her grave. Before he was exiled in 1815, he picked some of the violets and put them in a locket, which he wore around his neck until the end of his life.

CULINARY USE

Violet flowers add color to salads and can be used fresh or candied as a dessert garnish. The fresh flowers can also be floated on cold soups.

MEDICINAL USE

Violet leaves and flowers have a mild expectorant action, and a tea or syrup made from them can be taken to treat coughs, colds, and congestion. Herbalists have used violet tea to alleviate headaches, lower fevers (by inducing sweating), and relieve gastritis and bladder inflammation. Externally, this species is used as a poultice or to make an ointment for treating skin conditions. A decoction of the roots can be applied as a dressing to sore and swollen joints. The plant contains salicylic acid, the primary chemical compound found in aspirin.

The tea of a related species, Viola adunca, is sometimes given to children to treat stomach pain and asthma.

Caution: This plant contains saponins. Consuming large amounts of violet leaves can cause diarrhea and vomiting.

ORNAMENTAL USE

Violets add welcome spring color to window boxes and other containers, rock gardens, and informal borders. In the garden, plant violets in large groups or masses for best effect.

OTHER USES

Violet leaf oil is used in various perfume and cosmetic products. Because it’s made from the plant’s leaves, the fragance is described as “green” and fresh, rather than sweet or floral.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Plant violets in well-drained, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Sow the seeds outdoors in fall, and mulch with leaf litter for winter. Or plant divisions in early spring, spacing the plants about 1 foot apart. Harvest violet leaves and flowers as needed throughout the plant’s flowering season. Use them fresh or dried.

Viscum album, Phoradendron spp., Arceuthobium spp.

PLANT PROFILE

Common Name: Mistletoe

Description: Semiparasitic plant, 20 to 60 inches tall; thick, evergreen leaves; small flowers followed by dense clusters of waxy white or yellow-green berries; sticky seeds

Hardiness: Varies with species

Family: Santalaceae

Flowering: Midspring to early summer

Parts Used: Leaves, fruit, and stems

Range/Habitat: Viscum album is native to Europe and Asia; Phoradendron spp. are native to the warm parts of North, Central, and South America; and Arceuthobium spp. are native to North and Central America, Asia, and Africa

Mistletoe is a semiparasitic plant that lives on trees, tapping water and nutrients from its host. European mistletoe (Viscum album), native to northern Europe and Asia, bears oval evergreen leaves and dense clusters of waxy white berries. More than 40 related mistletoe species (including those of Phoradendron and Arceuthobium, the latter known as dwarf mistletoe) grow in North America. Mistletoe seeds are usually spread by birds, which feed on the juicy berries. This mode of propagation could explain the plant’s common name, which is said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon mistel, meaning “dung,” and tan,meaning “twig.”

Mistletoe figures prominently in folklore and mythology. In pre-Christian Europe, the plant was associated with romance and male vitality, and the Celtic Druids believed it possessed magical powers to protect and heal. Perhaps because of its pagan associations, mistletoe is also said to have been used for the cross of Jesus and for that reason was doomed to depend on other plants for its survival.

MEDICINAL USE

Although highly toxic, mistletoe species have a long history of use in traditional medicine. European mistletoe (Viscum album) has been used externally to treat varicose veins and leg ulcers.

Native Americans used Phoradendron leucarpum externally in steam baths and in infusions rubbed on the body to treat numbness and painful limbs and joints. An infusion of P. californicum was rubbed on sores, and crushed P. juniperinum plants were used for arthritis. Traditionally, species of Arceuthobium have been used to treat joint pain, lung disorders, stomachaches, and coughs.

Standardized extracts of Viscum album are used to treat certain cancers.

Caution: All forms of mistletoe and mistletoe extracts must be used only under the direction of a qualified health practitioner. Mistletoe plants are highly toxic and the ingestion of any part—including the berries—warrants an immediate call to your local poison control center.

 HOW TO GROW IT

A parasitic plant, mistletoe is not usually cultivated. Plants used for medicinal preparations and decorations are harvested from the wild.

Vitex agnus-castus

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Agnus-Castus, Chasteberry, Chaste Tree, Vitex

Description: Woody shrub, 10 to 15 feet tall and up to 20 feet across; aromatic, palmate leaves; fragrant, tubular purple flowers in panicles, followed by small, dark purple berries

Hardiness: To Zone 6

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Late spring to early summer

Parts Used: Fruit

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia

This fragrant deciduous shrub bears showy purple flowers followed by dark, fleshy, peppercornlike fruits that are sometimes known as chasteberries. Native to the Mediterranean region and western Asia, this species has long been associated with chastity. According to the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), the fruits were placed, as a symbol of faithfulness, on the beds of the wives of soldiers going off to war. In the Middle Ages, branches of the herb were strewn on the ground as women entered convents, and monks are said to have consumed the ground dried berries to suppress their sexual urges. Even today, the flowers are used in Italian monasteries as a symbol of chastity.

MEDICINAL USE

Vitex has been used to treat female reproductive ailments for at least 2,500 years. The Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–370 BCE) recommended using the herb after childbirth. About 500 years later, the Greek physician Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) suggested consuming a beverage made from the plant’s fruits to lower libido.

While there are no scientific studies of vitex’s effect on libido, studies have confirmed the benefit of this plant for alleviating the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, including breast tenderness, edema, tension, and constipation. Its long history of use to stimulate the production of breast milk in nursing mothers has also been confirmed by clinical studies.

Vitex has been used to regulate the menstrual cycle when there is excessive or too-frequent bleeding and to treat uterine fibroids, infertility caused by low progesterone levels, and problems associated with menopause. While vitex does not contain hormones, it does affect the pituitary gland, which has a regulating effect on hormone levels. It could be helpful in reducing hormone-related teenage acne in both genders.

Caution: Do not use vitex if you are pregnant, taking birth control pills, or receiving hormone replacement therapy.

ORNAMENTAL USE

This large, showy shrub produces a profusion of fragrant purple blooms that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Use it as a landscape specimen, in a mixed border, or in a large container. The flowers can be harvested and dried for arrangements or crafts.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Vitex is easy to grow in most any well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade. Once established, it is drought tolerant. Feed it lightly with fertilizer in spring and early summer. Prune back all bloom spikes immediately after flowering to encourage a second flush of bloom. For commercial extracts and tinctures, the ripe berries are harvested in fall and dried. Propagate by cuttings or seed; before sowing, chill the seeds for 3 months to improve germination.

Vitis vinifera

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Grape, Wine Grape

Description: Deciduous, woody vine, up to 12 feet long; alternate palmate leaves; inconspicuous greenish flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 7; modern crosses and varieties hardy to Zone 3

Family: Vitaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Fruit, seeds, and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to southern Europe and southwestern Asia

Grapes are cultivated in warm, temperate regions throughout the world. The deciduous climbing vine has a twisted trunk and bears clusters of oval to round, green to black fruits long used for food and drink.

Wine made from grapes has been tremendously important to many of the world’s cultures. The earliest-known wine making is recorded through archeological findings from the Caucasus region in Europe around 8,000 years ago and in Iran around 7,000 years ago. Wine produced from grapes was a staple beverage and very important to ceremonial life in ancient Egypt at least 4,500 years ago. Grapes and wine are mentioned frequently throughout the Bible.

A recent study of important grape cultivars, using genetic mapping techniques, pinpointed the origin of Vitis vinifera as Georgia, in Eurasia. Most of the familiar varieties used to make modern wines originated with this species, although native North American grape species, such as V. labrusca, have been crossed with the European grape to make flavorful hybrids that are more cold hardy and disease resistant than the European varieties.

MEDICINAL USE

Grapes are rich in flavonoids that appear to lower the risk of heart disease. The fruits are mildly laxative, and the dried fruits (raisins) have mild expectorant properties. The skin of red grapes contains resveratrol, a strong antioxidant; both red wine and red grape juice are believed to offer antioxidant and heart-protective benefits. Grape leaves have astringent properties and may be used to treat diarrhea and varicose veins.

Grape seed contains the strong antioxidants oligomeric procyanidins (also known as procyanidolic oligomers, or PCOs). The antioxidant effects, along with the ability to bond with collagen, help promote skin health, elasticity, and flexibility, providing a more youthful appearance and possibly slowing your skin’s aging. Extract of grape seed has been used to treat circulatory problems such as capillary fragility and varicose veins, and to reduce inflammation.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Grape vines thrive in full sun and fertile, slightly acidic soil. The site should be well drained; the plants will not tolerate standing water. Planting on a southern slope or near the south side of a building will help ensure the plants get the warm temperatures and sunlight necessary for ripening. Each vine will require 8 feet of sturdy trellis to support the fruiting canes. Plant 1-year-old bareroot plants in spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Remove all but the most vigorous cane, then shorten the cane to two strong buds. After planting, apply balanced slow-release fertilizer on the surface of the soil around each vine; repeat monthly until early July. Proper pruning and thinning are essential, and many good books are available on the topic. Protect ripening fruits from birds with netting.

Withania somnifera

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Ashwagandha, Indian Ginseng, Winter Cherry

Description: Semiwoody, evergreen shrub, up to 6-feet tall; thick, grayish stems bear oval leaves and small green to yellow flowers; red berries

Hardiness: To Zone 9; grown as an annual in colder climates

Family: Solanaceae

Flowering: Summer

Parts Used: Roots, berries, and leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to India; widely naturalized and cultivated in Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean region

Ashwagandha grows in the dry, stony soil of the mountains of India and countries around the Mediterranean and Africa. A small evergreen shrub, the plant bears oval leaves and inconspicuous green to yellow flowers. Its name is Sanskrit for “horse’s smell,” a reference to the root’s strong aroma, which many say is reminiscent of a sweaty horse! The plant has tiny red berries that contain yellow seeds enclosed in a paper-thin calyx.

A very popular and important herb in India, ashwagandha is mentioned in 3,000-year-old Ayurvedic texts on health care. It is often used as a tonic, much like ginseng, although its effects are calming rather than stimulating. The species name somnifera refers to the herb’s traditional use as a sedative.

CULINARY USE

The long, tuberous roots of ashwagandha have a bitter, sharp flavor. In India, they are used to make a tonic wine or are combined with milk, sugar, or rice to make a restorative food given to the elderly and the weak. The berries have been used as a thickener, much like rennet, for making cheese.

MEDICINAL USE

Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen—a substance that increases immune function and helps your body cope with stress. The roots are widely used in Ayurvedic medicine to prevent premature aging and to treat age-related physical debility and impotence. Bittersweet and astringent, ashwagandha acts primarily on your reproductive and nervous systems and is believed to have sedative, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and immune-strengthening properties. It is also considered a libido enhancer and aphrodisiac.

Animal studies have shown that ashwagandha protects the lining of your stomach and acts as an analgesic. A study with mice showed that one of its constituents significantly improved memory deficits. In other lab studies, the herb showed promise as an anticancer medicine.

Externally, ashwagandha leaves have been used to treat superficial skin wounds, sores, and inflammation. Rubbed on the skin, the leaves also reportedly repel insects.

To make ashwagandha tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of the chopped root in 8 ounces of water or milk for 10 minutes. Strain, then drink the tea once or twice per day.

Caution: Do not take this herb if you are pregnant; it can cause miscarriage when taken in large quantities. Also avoid taking it if you are taking a pharmaceutical sedative.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Start the plants in a warm indoor location 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost date. Sow the seeds in flats, covering them with a thin layer of growing medium. Keep the medium moist but not saturated; germination usually occurs in 2 weeks.

When the weather is warm, transplant the seedlings to your garden or to a large outdoor container. Ashwagandha thrives in a slightly alkaline, sandy loam and full sun or partial shade. Allow the soil to dry completely before watering. In fall to early winter, when the berries turn bright red and the leaves begin to dry out, cut the stems to the ground and gently dig up the roots. Dry the roots for later use. Propagate by seed.

FIELD NOTES

Ashwagandha for the Ages

One common name of this plant, “Indian ginseng,” is quite misleading. Ashwagandha is not related to ginseng—it is not in the same plant family—nor are its adaptogenic properties entirely similar to those of ginseng. Although both ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Withania somnifera have antistress activity, the former is more of a stimulant, while the latter has sedative properties.

In my travels to India to study Ayurvedic medicine, I learned how this plant’s thick root can be ground to make medicinal preparations for treating bronchitis, asthma, ulcers, insomnia, and senile dementia. Local research hospitals and clinics have conducted many animal and human trials using this herb and have obtained promising results. One yearlong human study with healthy, middle-aged men showed that ingesting this root did have antiaging effects.

In Egypt, where this plant also grows, ashwagandha fruits were part of the floral collar found in the great King Tutankhamen’s embalming cache—materials used in the mummification process and then buried with the body. According to the beliefs of the time, people were buried with the possessions they thought were necessary in the next world. Did King Tut consider ashwagandha so essential that he ordered its seeds to remain very close to his body so they could be planted and used for their important properties in the life to come?—M. J. B.

Zingiber officinale

PLANT PROFILE

Common Names: Ginger

Description: Herbaceous perennial, up to 2 feet tall; grasslike leaves; 6- to 12-inch stems topped with conelike spikes of yellow-green flowers occurring between overlapping green bracts

Hardiness: To Zone 9

Family: Zingiberaceae

Flowering: Rare when cultivated

Parts Used: Rhizome and leaves

Range/Habitat: Believed native to India; cultivated throughout the tropics and subtropics

The thick, pungent rhizomes of this tropical plant have been a favorite of cooks and healers for millennia. Greek bakers reportedly imported ginger from the Orient more than 4,000 years ago, and the plant has been used medicinally in Asia for at least 5,000 years. A relative of cardamom and turmeric, ginger bears long, pointed, lanceolate leaves and yellowish green flowers with deep purple lips. Botanists believe that the species is native to India. In the 1500s, the Spanish introduced ginger to the Caribbean and Central America, where it was developed as an export crop for Europe. Today, China and India are the leading commercial producers of ginger.

CULINARY USE

Ginger is essential to Asian cuisine. Fresh or dried, it flavors curries, chutneys, pickles, meat and fish dishes, soups, and marinades. The people of India and China also combine ginger root with cinnamon to make a warming tea.

Powdered dry ginger is a popular ingredient in pies, cakes, cookies, and muffins. The grated root can be added to salads, dressings, and smoothies, as well as to cooked carrots, squash, and tomatoes. It adds a warm, spicy flavor to custard and ice cream when the milk is infused with sliced fresh ginger root. Ginger leaves impart a similar but more subtle flavor. Use them to stuff chicken, or wrap fish with them before poaching in water. Remove the fibrous leaves before eating.

Ginger oil—extracted from the freshly ground, dried rhizome—is used commercially to flavor ice cream, candy, and soft drinks (including ginger ale).

MEDICINAL USE

Ginger—a premiere remedy for easing nausea, vomiting, and upset stomach—is an important herb in many ancient traditional medicines. Ayurvedic medicine recommends eating the root daily, before afternoon and evening meals, to promote digestion. Traditional Chinese medicine formulas use ginger to treat stomach ulcers, stomachaches, diarrhea, and nausea.

Ginger’s thick rhizomes, which contain anti-inflammatory and antiseptic compounds, can be added to soups or used to make a tea for relieving cold and flu symptoms, joint pain, and poor circulation. To make ginger tea, simmer 1 teaspoon of the chopped fresh root in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes, then strain. Or, pour 1 cup of boiling water over ½ teaspoon of powdered ginger, and steep for 10 minutes. Pour off the liquid and discard the powder. Drink 1 or 2 cups of the tea per day, or use it as a gargle to ease a sore throat.

Ginger tea is used externally, too. Hot ginger tea compresses are applied to painful or stiff joints, strains, and sprains. Cool ginger tea compresses are used to ease the pain of minor burns and rashes.

Caution: Although safe when used as a spice, ginger should not be taken medicinally during pregnancy or by those who have gallstones.

OTHER USES

Ginger oil is used as an antiseptic and fragrance in soaps, body creams, and perfumes.

 HOW TO GROW IT

Ginger thrives in well-drained, humus-rich soil in sun or partial shade. It will not tolerate freezing temperatures, but it is easy to grow indoors. Plant the rhizome in a container filled with equal parts loam, sand, and compost. Keep the pot in a warm, humid location and provide even moisture. When the weather is warm, move the potted plant outdoors to a semi-shaded location. To harvest the rhizome, remove the plant from its pot 8 to 12 months after planting. Cut off the leaves and remove the fibrous roots. Save a piece of the rhizome for replanting.