Preserving Herbs: Gather Garden Herbs Now for Winter Cooking and Health

Winter may seem a long way off, but summer is the time to cut and preserve herbs for your favorite recipes and for healthful supplements during the winter months.  For the last three days, my granddaughter and I have been tying bundles of thyme, lovage, oregano, winter savory and sage to dry on a wooden laundry rack in my kitchen.  We have been preparing infused herbal vinegars and oils to add to the pantry, and picking chamomile, peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm and red clover to make teas.  We are also stocking the cupboard with Medicinal herbs.  This is a busy time of year for the herbalist and gardener.

 Not all Herbs Dry Well

Drying in a warm, airy place, or in a food dehydrator, until paper dry, and then storing in clean, dry glass jars works for many herbs, but not all herbs retain their flavor well when dried. Parsley, basil and French tarragon are examples of this limitation.  Fortunately, these herbs can be preserved by other methods. 

Oil-based Condiments

 Many people know that one way of preserving basil is to grind it with garlic, olive oil, black pepper and pine nuts (I use the less expensive raw almonds) to make pesto.  Fewer people are aware, however, that parsley can be prepared in a similar manner to make a condiment known as baguetBaguet is amazingly delicious.  A couple of years ago, I made some and used it with shrimp sautéed in butter and lemon.  It was superb.  I even loved eating the baguet alone with a spoon.  I will include some recipes at the end of this blog.  To store baguet and pesto, I like to freeze them in cocktail sized ice-cube trays until solid, then remove them from the trays and place in freezer bags kept in the freezer.  This gives me portions that are handy to throw in an omelet, add to spaghetti and fettuccine sauces, or to flavor an herb butter.  I am going to experiment with preparing cilantro and tarragon in this way.

Infused Oils

Tarragon may grace your winter dishes by using it to infuse olive oil.  I just fill a jar with the fresh herb and pour enough olive oil over it to completely fill the jar.  It is very important that the oil completely fills the jar to avoid condensation, as condensed moisture from the herb may cause the oil to become rancid.  The jar is then placed in a very warm place, such as a greenhouse or sunny window for a couple of weeks.  Some people suggest leaving the lid loose for a few days to allow any moisture from the herb to evaporate.  Since I placed mine in the greenhouse, I didn’t loosen the lid, as I don’t want insects getting into the jar.  I think it would be good however to put the jar in a food dehydrator set at 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  It may take less time than the other ways.  In about two weeks, the oil is strained off.  Dispense with any water or sediment that has settled to the bottom of the jar, as these can make your oil become rancid.  The infused oil is then stored in a cool dark place.  Many herbalists do not suggest storing it in the refrigerator as this encourages condensation.  I have never had a problem with this myself, but I’ll not buck the experts. A dry root cellar or cool basement would be ideal. Basil is another herb that may be used to infuse oil with good results.

Herb vinegars

Herbs that don’t dry well may also be preserved by vinegar infusion.  Every year, I make several herb vinegars.  I make a tarragon vinegar, a country-style herb vinegar and an Italian-style vinegar.  This year, I might try a raspberry vinegar.  I just pack my chosen herb or herb combination into a jar and cover it with apple cider vinegar.  I then let it sit for two weeks and strain it.  Very simple. Again, keep it in a cool, dark place.  You could use balsamic or wine vinegars for the Italian style, or the tarragon, and apple cider vinegar for the country style.  Just don’t use distilled white vinegar, as it has no nutritional or therapeutic value.

Be Sure to Preserve Enough Herbs to Use as Gifts

I always make my vinegars and oils very strong.  That way, a little goes a long way.  I can give a half-pint jar to a loved one, and that person can add more vinegar or oil to easily have two to three times the amount to use in their cooking.  One of my daughters looks forward to the tarragon vinegar I always bring her at summer’s end.  She has a recipe for a tarragon marinade she uses on grilled chicken breast.  She likes to add the basil oil to an artisan-style homemade bread.  Good cooks will love you for your herbal offerings.  Herbs make great hostess or Christmas gifts.

Freezing Herbs

The following instructions are from Stocking Up: How to Preserve the Foods You Grow, Naturally by the Editors of Organic Gardening and Farming:

 “Tie sprigs of fresh-picked herbs into small bunches and blanch them, one bunch at a time, in a steaming basket for 1 minute.  Then plunge each bunch into ice water to cool it quickly. Shake off excess water, pack loosely in a plastic bag, and seal with wire twists.”

Some cookbooks suggest you tie your favorite combinations of herbs into bunches and blanch and freeze them to add to your favorite soup and sauce recipes later.

Health and Nutritional Value of Culinary Herbs

Some people may question the value of all of these somewhat elaborate preparations.  After all, aren’t herbs just something gourmet cooks use, and not practical additions to the diet?  Just something extra? In fact, some people think that spicy food is not even good for you.

The fact is, there is a fine line between herbs that are used for culinary and medicinal, or health, purposes.  There is a great deal of overlap between the two.  Many Western herbalists are becoming aware that food can be used like medicine, an insight that is common in Chinese herbalism.  And herbalists think that one reason herbal supplements generally have less undesirable side effects on the human body, is that our bodies treat herbs as food products and metabolize them the same way.

 Many of our culinary herbs have medicinal uses.  They are often rich in volatile oils which not only give them the rich flavors we love, but they often have antimicrobial properties that protect against infectious diseases.  Before the days of refrigeration, these same antimicrobial properties were why herbs and spices were highly prized for food preservation, and why the spice trade was so lucrative in the Middle Ages.

 In addition, many of our culinary herbs are nutrient dense.  Parsley, for example, is loaded with vitamin C, and contains vitamin A.  Parsley and garlic are of particular importance for the health of the pituitary gland, which controls our thyroid gland.  English thyme, oregano, parsley and lovage are considered rich sources of nutrients.  Those nutrients can be extracted with vinegar.

 Pinki Mattu, practicing herbalist and instructor for Dominion Herbal College, informs her students of the uses of herbal vinegars as a vitamin and mineral supplement.  Using the nutrient-dense culinary herbs, wild spring greens, and other herbs, one can use apple cider vinegar to extract valuable nutrients to supplement the diet.  She says that one can even add natural homegrown eggshells to the vinegar to extract calcium and other minerals! Like many herbalists, she only recommends the apple cider vinegar (not apple cider flavored) because it has health values of its own.  One takes a couple of teaspoons a day.

 Using herbs in food for health reasons is a longstanding folk tradition.  In Eastern Europe, peasants add calendula to winter stews and oxtail soups (with the bones) as an immunostimulant.  It is a tradition in some cultures to gather the new wild greens, such as sheep’s sorrel and nettles, in the spring to cleanse the body of toxins.  By the way, nettles are a great source of trace minerals, as well as vitamins.  Mother’s chicken soup is a primary example of folk food medicine.  I have my own variation: if I am coming down with a winter cold and sore throat, I make a big pot of pinto beans with lots of broth into which I add ample amounts of cayenne, onions and garlic.  I sip on the broth, and my sore throat is always soothed, and often even goes away in one day.

Wrap-up and Recipes

 So there you have it–easy straightforward ways to preserve your garden herbs for winter use, and ways to use them for your family’s health.  I will include some recipes below for baguet and pistou, a basil preparation that is similar to pesto.  I hope this blog encourages and inspires you to prepare for winter by laying up some of your own favorite herbs for teas, vinegars, oils, condiments, and for topping off your spice jars.  May your days be filled with herbs.

The following recipes are from Keeping Foods Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante:

Baguet (Parsley Condiment)
1 part shelled nuts
1-2 parts parsley (to taste)
1 part garlic and onion (mixed)
A little vinegar
Salt
Olive oil
* Optional: a few anchovies ( I haven’t tried this addition)
Small jars and lids

Grind all the nonliquid ingredients together very finely.  Add the vinegar; put the mixture in jars, and cover it with oil.  Without the vinegar, preservation is iffy.  With the vinegar, it’s a sure thing.  Use for pasta and soups. 
Unless you have a cool dry cellar, I suggest you freeze this as I described above.  And don’t forget using it with sautéed shrimp and lemon butter.  Too good.

Pistou (Basil Condiment)

Pistou is the Provencal version of the more familiar Italian pesto, which usually includes pine nuts.

1 large bunch basil
4 cloves garlic
Salt
1 cup olive oil
Small jars and lids

Grind the garlic and basil, add a pinch of salt, and cover with oil. Mix all the ingredients well and spoon into small jars.  You can top off with two or three basil leaves, but make sure they too are covered with oil.  The jars will keep very well if they are kept in a cool place.
* Again I recommend freezing this, as described above, if you don’t have a storage place that maintains a constant 45 degrees F. or less, such as a cool cellar or basement.
  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Agrarianism, Blog, Herbalism, rural life, The Garden | 9 Comments

Get Your Kids Outside: Reasons for Teaching Young People to Garden

Obvious Mental and Physical Health Benefits 

 Yes, we should have our children work with us in the garden.  Not only does gardening get kids away from video games, text messaging and social networking, but being outside enables them to get exercise, metabolize Vitamin D from sunlight, and boost their immune systems.  All the fresh veggies and fruits we harvest will provide additional health benefits.  Surveys indicate that most children who participate in gardening activities actually LIKE eating garden vegetables.

Lessons from the Garden 

Garden Science

Gardening can also be educational.  For one thing, observing plant growth and the seasons can teach all kinds of science, and can inspire young people with awe at the intricacy of the natural world.  One example of science lessons that can be taught in the garden is a study of insects that are beneficial or harmful to humankind.  Also plant / pollinator relationships are an interesting subject of investigation.  Did you know that bees prefer to pollinate plants with a minty smell and flowers blooming in a range of blues and pinks, whereas moths prefer white flowers with heavy fragrances?  This is why hyssop and oregano are swarmed with bees when they are in bloom.

 The effects of day length on plant growth may also be observed in the garden.  Two plantings of the same crop made a month apart, may often bloom at the same time.  Why?  As the summer days grow shorter, certain plants are “triggered” to set out flowers, trying to make that all-important seed before winter comes.  Because of the effects of day length on plant growth, northern gardeners must plant onions that are bred for long day lengths, and gardeners in the South must choose onion varieties bred for short days.

 A stellar example of what can happen when kids garden is the story of Glenn Drowns, recounted by Carol Deppe in her book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties.  Living in northern Idaho, Glenn started gardening at age two and a half, when he helped his family plant flowers. At age four, he started helping in his neighbor’s garden. His love of gardening grew until, at age eight, he had his own 500 square foot garden, and was ordering his own seeds.  At age sixteen, Glenn started breeding his own vegetables, and by age twenty, he had bred a watermelon that is the most cold-soil tolerant, early-ripening watermelon in the world.  It is called Blacktail Mountain watermelon. If Glenn did  nothing more for the rest of his life, he still would have given an incomparable gift to humanity, but Glenn went on to become a schoolteacher.  I believe he teaches science.  The valuable science lessons he teaches to his students are also a legacy of those adults who included Glenn in garden activities and passed down their knowledge to him.

Diligence and Hard Work: the Most Important Lesson

 One of the most valuable lessons that kids learn in a garden are the rewards of hard work and diligence.  We all need meaningful work and purpose, and that sense of purpose begins at a young age, when we know that we contribute to our families.  This is a little-emphasized fact that has fallen out of fashion, much to our peril.

Progressive Social Agendas: Undermining Family and Work Ethic

 John Gatto, in his book, A Different Kind of Teacher,  tells how modern Progressives implemented a social agenda that alienated young people from their families and immediate communities, such as churches.  This same agenda taught an aversion to work, putting pressure on poor and working-class families to cease from time-honored practices that required their children to work alongside their parents on farms, in the fields and elsewhere.  According to  Gatto, an award-winning teacher who taught for 30 years in New York, we are left with a generation of students who are alienated, purposeless, and adrift in society.
 Mind you, I am not advocating that children work in mines or sweat shops, but that they prosper from the kinds of safe, easy paced, domestic work that makes a contribution to the welfare of their homes and immediate communities.

 I can assure you that a child’s education will suffer if that child has not learned the benefits of hard work and diligence.  A garden, with the necessity to maintain a routine of weeding, watering, and caring for plants, is a primer in these rarely-touted virtues.

 I find it ironic, that President Obama wants to require all youth to “volunteer” two years of work for their country, in order to impart a sense of belonging and service to this generation.  In other words, after Progressives have imposed their social agenda on our culture with devastating results, they want to solve the resultant problems by requiring young people to work for the State.  But if Progressives, had not undermined the traditional structures and safeguards in the first place, their solutions wouldn’t be needed.

Teaching Liberty: To Whom Does Our Labor Belong?

 Here lies the rub: our labor belongs to ourselves, and not to the State.  It is better for children to contribute to their own families first, and then by extension to their own particular communities, to the degree in which they are willing, and/or have opportunity.  When they have families of their own, they can then train their own children to contribute to their families, and mentor them in the skills they will need for life.  By teaching the precepts of family loyalty and hard work, we teach some of the foundations of liberty.

Skyrocketing Food Prices and Economic Instability

 The final consideration in this discussion is that the ability to grow food is becoming a lost art.  Fewer and fewer adults know how to do so, and fewer young people are going into agriculture for a career.

 Jim Rogers, financial analyst and entrepreneur, says that the average age of farmers in the world is fifty-eight.  Consequently, he says, this is leading to worldwide food shortages, and food prices will skyrocket over the next ten years.  He believes this is already happening.  There is a short video of his viewpoint here http://newwaveslave.com/tag/food-shortage/ 

 If we don’t want to pay a small fortune for food in the future, we need to have family gardens and orchards, if at all possible.  We also need to pass these skills down to our children, and to other young people.  Some of us may need to gain these skills in the first place, so that we can then pass them down.

 The best way for children to gain this precious knowledge and practice these skills is to participate in the natural apprenticeship created by working side-by-side with their own parents or grandparents.

Posted in Agrarianism, Blog, politics, rural life, Social Commentary, The Garden | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

It’s not Too Late to Plant a Garden: the Month of June

Even if you haven’t planted a thing in your garden yet, it is not too late to plan for an abundant fall harvest, and some good summer eating.  Even in zone 4b, June is a great month to plant. 
 It’s a good thing for me, as I have almost nothing in the ground yet, except for perennials, such as berries, asparagus and herbs.  This spring has been unseasonably wet here, and on the few sunny days we’ve had, our rototiller has broken down!  (I thought that statement truly merited an exclamation point.)
 Fortunately for me, the urge to tear my hair out in lamentation is calmed by the knowledge that not all is lost.  There is still time to plant.  I am also soothed by the existence of a greenhouse containing pots and flats of tomatoes, peppers, squashes, cucumbers, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and more herbs.  As soon as the ground is prepared, I shall pop these starts into the soil, so I guess I do have a garden of sorts begun.

The Merits of a Garden Journal

So how do I know what is still possible to plant?  I keep a garden journal, of course.  Checking back on brief notes and dates jotted down three years ago, I find that I didn’t plant potatoes until June 12, as I was teaching school until the first week of June.  Two years ago, I replanted corn on June 11, because we had a killing frost on June 9.  I didn’t set out my winter squash starts until June 15, and I still harvested baskets heaped with lovely orange squash. 
 My notes reassure me that there is still time to plant potatoes, green beans, corn, radishes, lettuce, carrots, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, mixed salad greens, kale, chard, broccoli, raab, and snap peas.  
 I can’t recommend a minimal garden journal too highly.  Even a few notes with a sketch of your garden showing where you planted each crop is invaluable.

A Brief Note on Crop Succession

 In fact, many crops that you wish to store in a root cellar or leave in the garden late into the fall, can be planted in the first week of July.  I will plant just a single row of carrots and beets for summer eating, and plant a later crop for winter, as these crops tend to get woody if left in the ground too long.  Plant lettuce for summer eating, and later plant head lettuce for storage.  Plan to replant radishes and salad greens.  Kale can stay in the garden even during hard freezes in the fall.  One year, I even planted leaf lettuce in August.

Soil Temperature

It is useless to plant some crops, such as corn and cucumbers, without protection if the soil has not warmed up.  The slower rate of growth will overcome any advantage you think you are gaining by planting earlier in cold soil.  This poses a problem where I live, as the average summer soil temperatures are quite cool. Average nights are 45 degrees F.  Our soil never does really warm up.  This is where successful zone 4 gardeners gain their mystique.  We have our ways.

Strategies for Short Season Gardens

You have several options for harvesting abundant crops in short growing season regions.  I discuss some of them below:

Option # 1: Provide Physical Protection

You may use devices made of glass or plastic to keep cold winds off your plants, collect heat during the day, and protect your plants from light frosts.  Such devices include cold frames, row tunnels (also currently known as hoop houses), a product known as Wall-of-Water sold at garden stores, and even milk jugs with the bottom cut out, so that you can use them as a cap over individual plants.
 Peppers, cucumbers and melons will benefit from a black plastic mulch to attract heat to their roots.  Try to provide them with tepid water, not cold, to speed their growth.  To see an idea for using cans as reservoirs in the center of cucumber and squash hills, look back at my previous blog “Ode to the Old-timers.”
 If you don’t like black plastic, that is understandable.  A friend is going to try peat moss this year, since it is dark.  This gave me the idea of mixing the peat moss with ashes from last winter’s fireplace.  Ash is alkaline and peat moss is acidic.  I thought the two of them might give a balanced pH, and the ash will darken the mixture.  Use lots of charcoal and water.  Of course, you can let me try it first and report back, if you don’t want to experiment.

Option # 2:  Plant Varieties that are Cool Soil Tolerant, or that can Mature in Short Seasons

 I have mentioned before that the varieties you choose are of crucial importance.  I plant a cool-soil tolerant variety of corn called Hookers Sweet Corn. Seeds of Change, www.seedsofchange.com, describes it as “an early variety grown for over 50 years by Ira Hooker of Olympia, Washington.   Flavorful, white 5-6” ears mature to dark purple.  Great for small spaces. Prefer[s] a mild summer climate.”
 Seeds of Change lists other varieties of corn that are cool-soil tolerant. 

For potatoes, I have chosen early varieties, such as Dark Red Norland and Superior.  Both are short season, scab resistant and store well.  They are available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds,  Johnnyseeds.com .
 

For green beans, I like to plant Early Contender.  These are the earliest ever open-pollinated green bean, maturing at 49 days.  They are tender and reliable.  These are available from a variety of seed houses now.  They can be found at Vermont Bean Seeds, a branch of Totally Tomatoes, and now Gurneys carries them, Gurneys.com

 I planted Black Beauty zucchini this year, ready to eat in 45-50 days.  This variety is also widely available.  You might check out Seed Savers Exchange, www.seedsavers.org.  This stupendous organization carries other great varieties, and for more access to heirloom seeds, you can become a member and get their extended members’ catalogue.

I plant Hungarian Wax peppers and Sweet Banana peppers, because these are the only open-pollinated peppers I know of that are able to tolerate the cold conditions where I live and yield a bumper crop.  When I lived at a lower altitude, just a few miles from here, Early Jalapeno did well, but the malingering cold up here knocked it out three years ago, and I haven’t tried it since.  I like to order my tomatoes and peppers from Totally Tomatoes, http://www.totallytomato.com/

Don’t Rule Out the Hybrids

I am not a purist.  I do prefer to plant open-pollinated varieties because I am trying to establish which varieties can be grown for seed in my region, but if the season is late and I don’t have time to order specific varieties, I will plant hybrid short season maturing hybrids, just to get a crop this year.  There are some dandies out there. 
 

For example, I have planted Cool Breeze cucumber, a cool-soil tolerant hybrid that yields abundant crops of pickling cucumbers that are tasty fresh, as well as marinated or pickled.  I have also grown a hybrid variety called Little Tyke.  I just love the name, not to mention the fact that they are ready to eat in a whopping 35 days.   These can be found at Totally Tomatoes, too, http://www.totallytomato.com/.

 I have planted Packman Broccoli, a prolific broccoli that can be harvested at 48 days, and a 51-day hybrid cabbage called Stonehead.

 Gurneys lists a hybrid corn that is cool-soil emergent labeled Northern Xtra-Sweet.  I haven’t tried it, but I would if necessary.
 There are hybridized early peppers that look intriguing as well.
 
No doubt you will discover varieties, open-pollinated or hybrid,  that are suited to your own region and purposes.

Option #3:  Plant Varieties that can be Grown in Pots and Brought into the House or Greenhouse in the Fall.

 Some varieties are suited for container growing.  Tiny Tim tomato, for example, only grows about 15 inches tall, and yields small cherry tomatoes.  They are delicious and if they don’t ripen outside, bring them inside in the fall.  They are also open-pollinated and this year, I am going to collect seed from them. 
 Another container cherry tomato I am trying is Red Robin, maturing in 55 days, and supposed to be perfect for windowsills, hanging baskets and patios.  It only grows 8-10 inches.
 I might add that, even if you won’t be using these little cherry tomatoes for making your own paste or sauce to can, they do dry nicely in a food dehydrator.  I dried Tiny Tim a couple of years ago, and they were quite tasty in pasta dishes and bread, not to mention a low-cal cottage cheese dip with other dried veggies and herbs.
 For a larger tomato, though still smaller, I am going to try growing Silvery Fir Tree tomato in larger pots.  It is recommended for containers. 
 

Bushy Cucumber is touted as being suitable for container growing.  It matures in 45-50 days and has a compact growing habit, with vines that are five feet long. I believe that a more suitable choice might be Spacemaster, which has vines that are only three feet long.
 

Minnesota Midget is a cantaloupe that one catalogue says is useful for container growing.  The last two varieties are found at Seed Savers Exchange, http://www.seedsavers.org/.
 These are just a few of the varieties that can be grown in containers.  They may also be kept in a greenhouse that is properly vented and cared for in the summer.

Wrap-Up

I have discussed a number of strategies that can assist you in having a successful garden year, even as the season grows late for planting in the north.  As I write this blog, the rain is pouring down and my rototiller is in the shop being repaired.  Please pray for sunshine soon.  In the meantime, I will be transplanting tomatoes into larger pots, starting lettuce, peas and greens in flats, and placing seed potatoes into boxes of shallow soil to get them started rooting. This is where one cultivates faith as well as vegetables.

May you have a blessed summer and harvest.

Posted in Agrarianism, Blog, rural life, The Garden, Zone 4 gardens | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Plant Snobbery

Wild Lady SlipperLet’s face it.  Some of us are snobs.  My brother says I’m a coffee snob, because I won’t drink coffee that is over one hour old.  He might have a point,  but he doesn’t have much room to talk, for he is a plant snob.  Let me explain.

Twenty-five years ago, my brother moved here from western Oregon.  He had been a landscaper there, where lush rhododendrons grow to the size of small trees, and camellias abound.  As a child, I remember plunging my face into dewy Peace roses and breathing in their fruity aroma.

If an Idahoan travels to the west side of the Cascade mountains in February, eyes that are accustomed to the white and blue-gray winterscape are startled by glowing emerald.  It’s chlorophyll overload.

When my brother first arrived  here, he would eye our wind-stunted rhododendrons, and sniff at our demure yards.  He craved tulip trees, azaleas, massive blue hydrangeas and dogwood–that luscious fare on which his eyes were accustomed to dine.  To his mind, nothing grows here.

I, who had arrived five years earlier, scarcely noticed, for here, our woodlands are graced with plants considered at-risk elsewhere.  Trilliums and mountain lady slippers are almost as common as buttercups in other locales.  Twinflower forms glistening mounds at the base of conifers.  Turks Cap lily waves above the tall grasses, and from under Solomon Seal’s plaited leaf stalk, flower pairs dangle like pearl earrings.

I think one settles into it.  No longer provided with the magnificent and expansive colors of the West Coast, one begins to focus in on the delicate varied forms of the Inland forest. Katherine S. White, a garden writer and editor in the 1950’s, and also the wife of E.B. White, the English stylist, was from Maine.  Her tastes in plants were cultivated by her region.  In the preface to a collection of her writings, called Onward and Upward in the Garden, her husband writes, “New England was what she knew as a child, and the roots of her ancestors went deep in the soil of Maine and of Massachusetts.  The things that grew in New England, therefore, were ‘correct.’  They occupied a special place in her heart, an authenticity not enjoyed by flowers that made the mistake of blooming in other parts of the country.”  A devoted gardener, Katherine never cared for gladiolas or dahlias, or even for the gentle camellia.

To each their own, I say.  To me, a touch of the flamboyant is always welcome and I think the local country women  who grow long garden rows of dahlias and gladiolas are owed a debt of beauty.

Nevertheless, I confess I have been a bit persnickety.  Because I came to herbalism through my love of wild plants, for a long while, I remained emotionally distant from the common cultivated herbs.  If someone suggested catnip or chamomile as a remedy for colic, for example, I would respond with a lukewarm “hmmm.”  I’m sure this must have been annoying.   When I received the materials for my beginning course in herbal studies, I was a bit disappointed that so many of the monographs dealt with our everyday plants, such as horehound, mint and plantain.  In other words, I turned up my priggish little nose at the homely plants which have served our forbears so faithfully for millennia.  As my studies progressed, however, I learned how exciting these plants really are; their chemical makeup and pharmacological effects on the human body became fascinating to me.  Now I cultivate these understated plants with tender solicitude.

Oh, I still long to cultivate the False Unicorn, an excellent uterine tonic, or the now-rare American Ginseng.  I still go into paroxysms of joy at the discovery of Aralia nudicaulis, used medicinally by over 70 Native American groups, growing wild by my home.  But I do have new found respect for the so-called common plants.

In fact my loyalty now even goes so far as wishing to extend a word of praise for the overlooked pansy.  Who has not heard the slanderous saying, “Don’t be a pansy,” as an admonishment to not be a weakling.  Pansies are anything but– they are one of the few cultivated flowers that can withstand our chilling spring frosts and winds.  Their blooms often peek out from under early snows.  I ask you, is that not a face you can love?

About a year ago, my brother made a fall visit to the West Coast.  On the final part of the drive home, he passed through woods hushed by dampened grasses of lavender and russet, bronze and brown, a forest floor sheltered by beaten-gold larch and defined by light blossoming over the fiery mountains.

“What was I thinking?” he said later, shaking his head over his early ill-impressions.  I smiled.  I knew then… he had settled in.

Posted in Agrarianism, Blog, Herbalism, Nature Writing, rural life, The Garden, Zone 4 gardens | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments