Archive for the 'herbs' Category

Harvesting and Preserving Medicinal Herbs

Sharon August 26th, 2009

A number of people have asked me to write about my new herbal adventures more, and I’ve resolved to do so. I haven’t forgotten about writing about the big questions (more to say still on the middle ground between Kingsnorth and Monbiot), but I did want to answer those who have been querying me about teas and tinctures.

For me, the most fascinating part of my whole self-sufficiency project is the plants – don’t get me wrong, I love the skills, I love animals, but I think I like best the project of getting to know plants.  The joy of herbalism is that it requires an intimacy that I really delight in – the more I learn, the better the results, and the more pleasure I take from my garden plants.

When I first started planting culinary and medicinal herbs, I pretty much treated them all the same way  – when I wanted some, or when it was a convenient time for me, I went and cut what I wanted.  But gradually I’ve learned a lot more about harvesting – when and how, and how to make best use of the plants.  Some of this is most important if, like me, you are hoping to sell dried herb, but harvesting at the right time will make anyone’s plants more medicinally active – we all know that there’s a world of taste difference between a green tomato and a red, ripe one dripping from the vine, between a tender, delicate new 6 inch zucchini and a three foot, seedy monster.  Well, herbs also have windows in which they are at their best.

Still, there’s something to be said for the “just go out and pick the herb” strategy – and for most fresh uses, I think this is probably still a good one.  There will be times when you want the most chemically active possible plant, but if your kid has an upset tummy and you have a dill head lying around, there’s really no reason to spend a lot of time wondering if you should have picked it on Friday or should wait until the seeds are fully mature.  By all means, try and harvest at the best possible moment, but don’t make yourself nuts, unless you are trying to sell your herbs.

There’s no real rule of thumb that allows you to completely avoid getting to know the plants themselves more intimately (and after all, this isn’t really something to be avoided), but there are some general principles that can be applied usefully.  Generally speaking, if what you harvest is the flower (say, chamomile or red clover) you want to harvest it just as the flowers open, as close to opening as possible (being pollinated can reduce the medicinal qualities of the flower, as in the case of clover).  If what you harvest is “aerial parts” (say, as in scullcap or feverfew) then you generally (there are some important exceptions to this) want to harvest the top foliage and flowers just as the flowers open.  If what you harvest are the young leaves (like nettle or raspberry leaves), harvest in spring, or keep cutting back or succession planting to ensure a harvest of young leaves.  Seeds (such as milk thistle and burdock are harvested when the seeds are ripe, that is fully dry. Berries and fruits (such as cayenne peppers or elderberries) are harvested when ripe, or just shy of ripe.  Roots (such as dandelion or echinacea) are best harvested in fall after die back, or in very early spring, before heavy growth is put on.  Barks, (like willow or crampbark) are a winter crop - and in fact, I wonder that more northern farmers don’t consider adding a few bark crops to add to their other winter work with wood – cutting firewood, pruning, etc…  

There are some oddities among the herbs – Gingko leaves, for example, are harvested not when young, but when they begin to yellow.  Comfrey is gentler and safer after the first spring flush – the first crop can be cut for compost or animal feed.  Rosemary is more fragrant and active after flowering, rather than during it.  Some roots need several years to develop, others are at their best.  Again, you’ll want to look at recommendations from several books, since people’s opinions vary a lot on this stuff.

What if you want to combine two herbs with different harvesting periods in, say, a tincture?  You have two choices – you can harvest both plants as close to optimally as possible, say, picking the late flowering clover and digging the burdock before frost to create a clover-burdock root combination, or you can double tincture – tincture the clover at its peak, strain, and then fill the jar again with burdock root, and tincture it again.

The two easiest methods of preserving herbs are folk-style tincturing and drying, and that’s all I’m going to talk about in this particular post.  Again, the books you use will have recommendations for how to handle these plants – and I’ll write future posts about creams and oils and other methods.  But for today, we’ll assume you are going to either tincture the herbs or dry them.  You should look to see how the plant works best – as all of us know from culinary herbs, some herbs dry beautifully, some lose their essence. The same is true of tincturing – I’ve heard herbalists say that alcoholic tinctures are the best way to preserve herbs flatly, but some plants have constituents that don’t precipitate out in alcohol – marshmallow, for example, is valuable mostly because of its mucilaginous qualities, but that mucilage is not alcohol soluble, so an alcohol tincture isn’t the best way to preserve it.

Tinctures involve preserving herbs in alcohol, vinegar or glycerin.  Glycerin has the advantage of being sweet and easy to give to children, vinegar something everyone can tolerate, alcohol’s biggest advantage, besides pulling many plant elements out, is that tinctures last forever.  That way, if you are trying to preserve an herb you can’t grow, or don’t expect to have access to forever, tinctures are really valuable.

Either way, take a quart mason jar, and chop the herb parts up finely (for particularly dry or encased parts, like woody roots or hard coated seeds, you may need to grind them up some in a mortar).  Fill the jar to the top, and add alchohol (100 proof vodka is the easiest, although you can also make tinctures in fortified wine, or in a high proof alcohol that you enjoy sipping – no reason you can’t enjoy, say tequila-lemon balm or gin macerated with elderberries – for your health of course ;-) ), glycerin or vinegar.  Put the tincture in a cool dark place and shake it daily for a month, or more.  Strain through cheesecloth and press or squeeze out all liquid.  That’s your tincture.  Store in a cool, dark place, clearly labelled with both ingredients and with warnings if necessary.  Glycerin tinctures store 1 year if made from at least 70 percent glycerine and kept very tightly capped (they suck water from the air otherwise), vinegars last 1-2 years at room temperature, alcohol tinctures last indefinitely.

Drying herbs is pretty simple – in a dry climate, you can hang them up in a warm, dry place with good air circulation and no exposure to sun, and just let them dry until crispy.  Unfortunately, at least this summer, this method hasn’t worked at all for me – plants keep absorbing humidity, and turn grey and dull.  A solar dehydrator doesn’t work for this – bright sun is not good for most medicinals.  So this year I’ve found myself using the electric dehydrator much more than I would like.  Generally speaking, you want to dry your plants as quickly as possible – within 1-4 days, and at a temperature between 80 and 100 degrees.  Once they are dry, crumble them into an airtight jar, and put them away from light. 

How do you decide whether to tincture or dry?  For me, it is often a matter of aesthetic pleasure – any herb I enjoy drinking as tea, I might as well dry.  What’s the point, say, of peppermint tincture, when peppermint tea is so delicious?  On the other hand, valerian doesn’t taste that good anyway, so I might as well cover it in cheap vodka ;-) .  Also, if you have kids, I find it a lot easier to get them to drink a cup of tea than to swallow anything alcoholic, so either that or glycerin is preferrable.  Books will have good recommendations about whether to tincture or dry, and some of it may depend on what you want to use them for.

The three books I’d really recommend starting with are James Green’s _The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook_, Richo Cech’s _Making Plant Medicine_ and for those growing their own, Tammi Hartung’s _Growing 101 Herbs that Heal_.  It should go without saying, btw, if you are not cultivating these herbs, but wildcrafting them, you are doing so completely ethically – not taking more than a fair share of any stand, encouraging them to expand their range, not harvesting endangered plants. 

Happy harvesting.


The Personal Materia Medica

Sharon July 31st, 2009

One of the projects I’ve been undertaking as I research herb growing and expand my body of knowledge is the development of my local Materia Medica – that is, what plants would I have to rely upon locally – ones I can grow well or wildcraft ethically – if I was unable to afford or locate others?  I was inspired on this project by James Green’s list of 35 Herbs that he felt were sufficient to meet most needs.  That’s great, and I’m all for it, but a lot of those don’t grow near me.  I can purchase some of them and preserve them in tincture form, if they preserve well that way, but I want to be able to renew my resources.  So I’ve set out to discover which herbs I can grow or find locally.   I’m also researching which ones I might also be able to grow for sale locally as well.

Here’s my current list:

Alfalfa, Aloe (lives happily in a pot here),  Angelica, Arnica (not A. Montana, but the less fussy native),  Astragalus (although saving seed is somewhat challenging in this climate), Barberry,  Bee Balm, Betony, Black Cohosh, Boneset,  Borage, Burdock (got enough of this to provide blood thinning and anti-cancer benefits to billions of people, approximately ;-) ), Calendula, California Poppy, Cardinal Flower, Catnip, Cayenne, Chamomile, Chickweed, Comfrey, Crampbark, Dandelion, Dill, Echinacea, Elderberries, Elecampane, Evening Primrose, Feverfew, Gayfeather, Goldenrod, Gotu Kola (tropical, but will overwinter indoors), Hawthorn,  Hops (used to be a major crop around here), Horehound, Joe Pye Weed, Lady’s Mantle, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena (drops leaves a couple of times in the winter but is happy enough indoors), Lovage, Marshmallow, Meadowsweet, Milk Thistle, Mormon Tea (maybe, it hasn’t grown that much, but it did survive in pots), Motherwort, Mullein, Mugwort, Nettle, Oats, Oregano, Pennyroyal, Peppermint, Periwinkle, Plantain, Red Clover, St. John’s Wort, Sage, Self-heal, Shepherd’s purse, Sheep Sorrel, Skullcap, Spilanthes (won’t overwinter, but will set seed), Thyme, Uva Ursi, Valerian, Vervain, Violet, Willow bark, Wormwood, Yarrow.  

I’m struck by what a long list that is, and how long it will take me to exhaust the possibilities of those many remarkable plants. I think it would be easy to get hung up on what you don’t have, but I suspect many of us have more than we think. Do you have a list?


Bullseye Medicine

Sharon July 28th, 2009

A couple of months ago, I got a urinary tract infection.  I was visiting family and had been feeling vaguely off all day, when all of a sudden I was hit with a good deal of discomfort in a spot one doesn’t really like to spend that much time attending to, while, say, out to dinner with friends.  I was pretty miserable, actually.

I was also nearly certain of what it was – I’d had them before, and the symptoms are pretty hard to mistake. I actually knew that something I’d done recently might actually cause one, but decided to risk it, foolishly, since it was easier.  I’d also treated/had treated my UTIs with both allopathic and herbal medicines in the past, and both had worked for me.  It was Saturday evening, and conventional medicine would require an extended visit to an emergency room, or waiting miserably until Monday morning when the local urgent care center was open.  Neither of these particularly appealed to me – I didn’t want to waste a rare visit to family and friends.

So I took a combination of herbal preparations – cranberry and garlic of course, to fight infection, marshmallow to sooth tissues, nettle and uva ursi… etc… etc…  I mostly knew what to use, and I used it.

Now if this were a perfect story about the merits of herbal medicines, I’d be able to say that I cured my UTI, and went home happy.  If it were a perfect story about conventional medicine, I’d be able to say that the herbs failed miserably, and then I went to get an antibiotic, and the problem was solved.  Either way, in a good story I’d have learned some useful moral, presumably.

But it wasn’t quite like that.  What happened was this – I took allopathic ibuprofen for the fever and pain, along with the herbal treatments.  And the herbal treatments definitely worked – at least part of the way.  By morning, after a lot of cranberry juice and garlic, along with the rest, I felt a lot better – the painkillers and the marshmallow had allowed me to sleep, the infection was no longer acute, my fever was gone, I could mostly pee and I had high hopes that I’d be completely better soon.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be an extremely strong infection, and while it mostly subsided, it never entirely went away, even after several additional treatments.  I was able to function perfectly well, with very minimal discomfort, due to the treatments, but I wasn’t entirely healthy, and after four or five days of trying herbal preparations, after returning home from my trip, I broke down and went to the doctor, got an antibiotic and was healed, leaving me with a story that’s hard to derive a useful moral from ;-)

 Or maybe there’s a better moral than I think.  Because I think in many ways, this illustrates a potential normal model for dealing with the medical system.  If we are to relocalize our economies, our food systems, our ecologies – we are also going to have to relocalize our medical system – and a relocalized model for medicine may be what we need – not one that excludes either “alternative” or “conventional” medicine, but one that recognizes, just as the bulls-eye diet food system does, that one starts locally, and moves outwards only when necessary. 

Right now congress is recognizing what we all know – that energy intensive, expensive industrial medicine probably can’t be made available to every person every time they want it.  So what’s needed is a way of thinking about how to ration that kind of medicine – and also how to change our relationship to it, so we don’t feel deprived.  Because less industrial medicine is not a deprivation.

I could have written this story precisely the other way around.  Last year, my children gave me strep (thanks, kids ;-) ), and it was a particularly intractable version of the disease.  In many ways the circumstances were the same – I was away from home, reluctant to stop and be sick, too busy for it.  The difference was that I went straight to allopathic responses – that is, I got a script for an antibiotic.  Unfortunately, this rather nasty infection was resistant, and after two failed treatments with antibiotics which threw my body out of whack so badly that I had a three week menstrual period, was sick for a month and had chronic nausea, I finally used what I knew about herbs, and managed to deal with the problem that way.  My intractable strep infection (and the next allopathic step was IV antibiotics in a hospital setting) was finally kicked back with yarrow, oil of oregano and lots of garlic.

The difference between my two strategies was manifest – the herbs may not have “worked” in the sense of fully killing off my infection, but they enabled me to function well, when combined with over the counter allopathic pain killers.  The antibiotics didn’t work in any sense – they didn’t affect my infection, and they made me sicker because of their harsh action.  Now had they been worth the price, perhaps I wouldn’t have complained  – but I think that in many (not all) cases, the reality is that the gentler strategy was a better way to start.

In both cases, it would be possible to say that this is only anecdotal evidence.  In both cases it would be possible to observe that I might have done things better initially – that I should have asked my doctor for a different antibiotic up front, or that I should have used different herbs, that I really only should have needed one kind of medicine.  To this I would argue that I really only did use one kind of medicine – I was sick, I used medicine.  I realize that many h erbs act very differently on the body than some drugs, and that some act similarly.  I realize that this is not a perfect parallel – but the truth is that it was all medicine.  What mattered, was the order of application.

Now I am the first to admit that this will have to be used with common sense and care – that is, there are plenty of people with medical conditions who already know they respond best to a particular conventional or alternative treatment, who shouldn’t change, since their bodies are stable in that way.  There will be acute situations only addressable with one strategy or range of strategies, and times when you shouldn’t mess around with it.  These are general rules of thumb with many exceptions, and like all things, they are made for people who are willing to take full advantage of their large cranial capacity ;-) .  For those who do not want to be responsible for themselves, who do not feel competent or wish to learn more about their bodies, this is probably bad advice.  It is both important to learn the basics of self-diagnosis and treatment, and when to admit you don’t know, and to find someone who will to check that lump or the strain.  Folks who don’t want to take that level of responsibility won’t like the bullseye diet either ;-) .

Let’s think about what I did back in May, when I developed the Urinary Tract Infection.  The first thing I did was go local for my basic treatment – to precisely the extent I was able to do so.  That is, I used my own knowledge to diagnose myself, something I was totally competent to do in this case – in plenty of other cases I wouldn’t have been, but just as you recognize your allergies or your carpal tunnel acting up, one comes to know one’s body when it is not behaving itself.  That knowledge isn’t something one should diminish – indeed, all of us who are parents use that knowledge on bodies that are not our own.  We are the ones who decide if childish fevers rate treatment or can be left alone.  Often spouses are also subject to our ministry – you are the one who says “you should get that looked at” or “no, honey, I think it is a wart, not a tumor that will kill you next week, so relax.”

The tendency is to devalue this judgement, and certainly, there are reasons for saying that we might want to be careful with it.  Like all judgement – certainly like professional medical judgement of all kinds – it is not perfect.  But that does not mean we shouldn’t trust it.  Sometimes you need a doctor or a naturopath or someone to tell you what you already know, just to be sure.  Sometimes all you need is your knowledge, or perhaps an intimate loved one’s knowledge to confirm that nothing serious really is wrong.  Sometimes you can learn what you need to know yourself, and sometimes you need help.

The neighborhood practitioner might be the next ring.  Sometimes that would be a doctor, other times a nurse or an herbalist, or even an EMT or other practitioner – someone who knows enough to say “this cannot wait” and “this you can take care of at home” or “this we should watch and see.”  If we are fortunate in a lower energy world, this person will also know how to do the things that are so often needed – how to deliver a baby when there isn’t time or resources to go elsewhere, how to splint a limb or sew up a small wound, how to tell when the end is near.  Manifestly, they must also know their limits – but the neighborhood practitioner – the person willing to trade a little of their time and knowledge to their neighbors will be the first level of response, particularly for those with no access to conventional medicine, who can’t know if they should risk a thousand dollar bill or simply treat things at home.  

Had this been the first time I experienced unfamiliar symptoms, I would have gone to a practitioner in the city I was staying in or otherwise local to where I was.  Professional medicine has to some degree disdained localism – general practice pays badly and is difficult, so many of us have to go far afield to find a “local” doctor.  Hopefully, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants and well trained naturopaths and other professionals can provide backup – but bringing home local medical care is part and parce of our collective project.  How are we to find people who can help us with the process of diagnosis and treatment?  We will need those well versed in both natural and conventional medicine to bring their respective knowledge – and perhaps best of all, those who understand both perspectives.

Only if our needs cannot be met by a local practitioner do we go out – this is not how things work now in the medical system.  Now, often we are seen by distant specialists we do not really need if we are wealthy or well insured, just to be “safe” and we are not sent outwards, to those who can help us, if we are poor or lack insurance.  Finding ways to access the practitioner outer rings will be a central project, if we are not to see lifespans decline and unnecessary harm be done to millions of people for whom we could do better.

But the bullseyes aren’t just about where you find your experts, at home or in town, or at a city hospital far away.  They are also about how you treat your situation – from before you contract it until late in the game.  And the presumption, with a few exceptions, should be local first.

Medicine of course does not begin with the disease – my urinary tract infection had a back history.  Its history was of my own practices, the one that led to contracting it.  I actually knew better – I’d noticed that I tended to get UTIs when using store tampons or pads for my period, but I was caught away from home without my reusable models, and was in a hurry, without energy to seek out unbleached options.  So the history of my illness, like almost all illnesses, is a history of my lifestyle.  My strep was also a history of lifestyle – a frantic push to finish my book, too many speaking engagements, exhaustion – all these meant that my children barely noticed their own infections, while I was laid low for weeks. 

It probably would have been possible to prevent both of these illnesses, and attention to issues of prevention, of hygeine and safety, are the beginning of medicine.  The most local steps then are these ordinary ones – eating well, getting rest, washing hands, all that boring stuff that everyone talks.  It also could have included my taking cranberry as a preventative to my UTI – I know it works, I simply was in a hurry and forgot.  Slowing myself down is the first ring of medicine.

Now there are times when one does not want to respond to an illness with self-treatment – no one wants to see someone in a life-or-death situation die because of mistreatment.  And yet the vast majority of illnesses and injuries will self-resolve on their own.  More than half of all doctor’s appointments are for the treatment of conditions that probably need no or minimal treatment.  It is important to be able to recognize those times when you should not respond with self or community level treatment – and to be able to consult resources – a neighborhood practitioner, a good book, the internet to identify these.  But most of the time, we are dealing with very ordinary things - but things that cost us something in money, time and energy.  Knowing when to act and when not to act is another part of the first ring – all of us at some point must self-diagnose, if only to the point of saying ”ok, I think I need to go to the hospital” or “I think I’m going to be ok.”

We also can respond by thinking in terms of our local conditions – how can we stop ourselves from becoming ill, how can we make ourselves less vulnerable, or more able to bear the stresses we face.  For example, perhaps we can begin to eat better, or help others do so.  Perhaps we can reduce the use of lawn chemicals or other pollutants in our community. Perhaps we can ask ourselves what we need to be healthier and more secure.

When treatment is called for, for most illnesses, I think the first step is natural medicine from things that are locally available, and ideally, directly available.  That is, bullseye medicine would say “look, I have a urinary tract infection – what do I have here that can help me with that.”  Instead of rushing to the store to buy “bladder health formula” or whatever, I can look in my garden and on my shelves and ask what I have that might meet my needs.  The elder and garlic on my shelves, the nettle and dandelion in my yard – perhaps these are tools that can help me.

Now just as some of us eating from the bullseye diet will have little space, and have to go afield for their food, so too will that be in medicine – some of us will have land and woods full of medicinal herbs and the knowledge to use them, others will need to go out, to speak to someone who knows, the local herbalist, the person who has a little knowledge they can pass on. Perhaps too they will have herbs to offer and share.  Again, the first place to look is locally - because only when we treat locally do we know if we are using populations of plants wisely, or growing what our community needs. 

But what if nothing local serves?  What if we need more?  Well, that’s when the distant things and perhaps conventional medicine begin to step in – we can say “this is not enough, or this is not the right path” and move on from there.  In a few cases, we won’t have time – we’ll have to rush right to one solution or another, but most of the time we do – we know this because even in quite urgent medical situations, often people spend a lot of time hurrying up and waiting.  We may think there’s no time to see if the herbs can do something, but the reality is that antibiotics take 48 hours too, that seeing the specialist can take a month.  Perhaps we can get over our fear that we must hurry if we accept that all medicine takes time, and while there are acute situations in which there is no time, the vast majority of situations don’t fall in that category.  Often our sense of lack of time to allow treatments to work is the fact that we are under so much time pressure – but the truth is that we can’t make ourselves heal any faster than our bodies can heal.

So the next step might be different herbs, used from different places.  Many medicinal plants are threatened, and if we were to give primacy to the local and prolific, to turn only to the rare and distant when we need it, we’d have enough.  There are things I cannot grow, there are things from far away that can provide good treatment.  Or perhaps the next step is to talk to someone else, from another community, or to seek another kind of treatment.

Perhaps now would be the time to consider allopathic drugs.  It is awfully hard to go local for pharmaceuticals – even if you live near the local Pfizer research lab, there’s nothing really local about a petroleum synthesized drug to help you maintain an erection or good blood pressure.  On the other hand, one can in some cases look to “open source” drugs, those that are no longer under patent, and can be produced by many companies.  These are often cheaper, and in some cases, if an extreme disruption of society were to occur, it is possible that local chemists might collaborate with people who are sick to produce these drugs – some drugs have very simple chemical components, others, not so much.  Only you and your doctor(s) know if this is a good choice for you, but it is perhaps a useful rule of thumb to at least consider this option, however briefly.

When we need it, we would hope that the full range of medicine would be there for us – even though it is not for many billions of people.  But the more of it we can keep available for emergencies, the better off we will be.  But keeping the infrastructure of conventional medicine available to us depends in large part on not overusing it – we are already having to admit we can’t afford a universal health care that treats conventional medicine as a given, and gives it out without limit.  It should only be sought when we need it – which means it will be a first step for type 1 diabetics and people with multiple life threatening physical traumas, and a last step for kids with ear infections and adults with obesity related hypertension.

Besides practitioners and treatments, there’s another portion of medicine that can be localized – where we are cared for, and how.  You need a nurse to give medications to 76 elderly people strapped to their beds in nursing homes, because it would be easy to make a mistake.  You only need an ordinary person willing to learn to give their mother her medication at home, in her room in your house.

You need nurses and doctors to provide care for the dying in a high tech hospital where they are strapped to breathing machines and blood pressure monitors and heart monitors.  You only need loved ones, community support and perhaps a kind hospice worker a few times a week to care for a dying person in their own bed.

You need a doctor and a labor nurse and a neonatologist to deliver a baby in a hospital for reasons of liability – but you only need a trained midwife and a loving helper to deliver a baby at home most of the time.  You need a professional consultant to help a new mother navigate her nursing difficulties if there are no other women who have nursed around her – if there are, you often need only them.

There are a whole host of situations in which the roles played by the medical system can be met by family, by friends, by community – those who are willing to do the work of nursing the sick, caring for the dying and tending new lives.  Again, it is possible to begin from the local.  There will still be times for the C-section, for the nursing home – but they are not most of the time.

It would be a tragedy if, in the times we need them, the obstetrician, the surgeon, the herbalist, the gerontogist weren’t there – or were there, and out of our reach as we suffer and die.   There are times when we have to go all the way out to the outer circles of our bullseye medical system, and those are real needs.  We know, however, we cannot afford to use those constantly, and we cannot afford ethically to use the current model, in which those who are affluent or lucky enough to have insurance get more care than they often need, and those who are poor or unlucky cannot access the outer rings.

Instead, we need to start at the local in the 90% of cases when we can do so safely.  We need to rely on one another, recognizing the limits of our knowledge, and recognizing what responses are appropriate and what are not, but presuming – beginning from the idea that we can start at the center and go outwards, rather than responding to every crisis by going further and further away.



Storing Culinary Herbs and Spices

Sharon June 2nd, 2009

My friend Pat Meadows once pointed out that American cookbooks suffer badly from what she calls the “1/4 teaspoon” problem.  That is, many of them call for such tiny quantities of herbs and spices that they are almost unnoticeable. 1/4 teaspoon of oregano in a pot of tomato sauce is, simply speaking, lost.  The only seasoning you could add to a decent sized pot of tomato sauce that you’d notice at the 1/4 tsp level is arsenic ;-) .   This habit of underseasoning is a legacy of America’s British heritage (British cookbooks are worse, actually), and the tendency towards blandness that some species of American food have suffered from. 

It also comes from the fact that seasoning for a long time was assumed to be intuitive.  Most old cookbooks simply say “add sweet herbs” or “to taste.”  But I can’t count the number of times I’ve put “to taste” in a recipe, only to receive 30 emails asking me how much I really mean ;-) .  We like quantities, we like precision – we like to be told how things are supposed to taste.  And if you look at many (not all, and things are getting better) cookbooks, things are supposted to, well, taste pretty bland.

Perhaps because my family’s favorite culinary cultures are Asian, we use herbs and spices in large quantities – I buy them in bulk at ethnic grocery stores, or order them in bulk from various suppliers (more on this later in the post).  And, of course, I grow them.  Besides the usual American culinary herbs - parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…plus oregano, mint, chives and basil, we grow a lot of others, including a range of Vietnamese herbs (Vap Ca, Rau ram, Rau om), variations on the classic themes (orange, lemon and nutmeg thymes, zaatar (an oregano), pineapple sage, african, cinnamon, holy, lemon and other basils), and less common culinary herbs (fennel, lovage, sweet cicely, lemon and lime balm, savories, salad burnet…you get the idea) 

 For most of us, as we adapt our diets to food storage, spices and herbs are going to be more important, and in simply much larger quantities than most Americans use them.  Most cultures that have relied heavily on staple foods season those foods heavily, either directly, or by using spiced and herbal condiments (I’ve written more on the value of condiments here

And that means adding spices and herbs to our food storage, and preserving/storing them correctly.  The first thing to know is the good news – most spices, provided that they are fair traded, are a good thing to buy from far away – so if you don’t live where cassia trees or vanilla orchids grow, you don’t have to worry much about using cinnamon or vanilla beans – things that are shipped in dry form, and used in comparatively small quantities (even if it is more than 1/4 tsp at a time ;-) ) are a good use of shipping. 

The best way to store spices is in their whole form, grinding them as you need them, or in small batches not kept more than 1 year.  In some cases, you may never have met whole spices before – a nutmeg, mace or true cinnamon bark is something unusual.  You will need a way to grind them – you can use a mortar, although this is quite a bit of work, or a mexican style metate (this is a bit easier, since it is rougher, but some spices do get caught in the stone and are hard to capture for eating), as long as there is power, an electric coffee grinder (don’t cross-use it with coffee, unless you like spice flavored coffee and coffee flavored spice) or a manual coffee grinder (this is what I use). 

 If you must buy ground spices, replace them every year, or keep them in the freezer for up to three years - use your nose – something that has little smell is not worth keeping.  If it has faded, you can use more, but it can be a losing proposition – you lose complexity as well as flavor over time. 

The best way to use most herbs, of course, is fresh, and chopping a few handfulls of them into food is a delight.  Depending on how much of each herb you use, a window box may be enough, or you may need a good sized herb bed.  If you live in a cold climate, you can often bring many culinary herbs inside for the winter – look for varieties suited to pot culture, and adapt them gradually – the dryness of indoor air can be a killer.  I find that basil simply doesn’t overwinter well for me, while rosemary, thyme, parsley and others do fine.  You’ll need to experiment.  Some herbs, like sage, which is at its best in the autumn anyway, will winter over with cover in even very cold places, keeping some green leaves to be harvested even in February.

If you are going to dry your herbs, you want to do so at comparatively low temperatures, away from direct light, in bundles of stem no thicker than a pencil (so that mold doesn’t form) and where there is good air circulation – I hang them in my kitchen, but you may have a better place.  Don’t hang them anywhere that gets to temperatures higher than 100 degrees.  When the herbs are dry, rub them off the stems, and store them in airtight containers away from light.

If you are growing spices (and all of us can grow some spices - I grow cayenne and other hot peppers, poppy seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, dill seed, mustard, fennel seed and celery seed), you will want to wait until the plants are ripe and, if your seasoning is the seed, wait until the seed is dry, winnow and clean the seed, and then store in a cool dark place in airtight jars.  Grind them as close to when you use them as possible for best flavor.  Or, use them whole, and “pop” them in a hot dry skillet to toast.

For chili peppers and garlic, you may need to actually dehydrate them in a solar or electric dehydrator, depending on your climate.  Some will dry right on the vine, even in my climate, but meatier peppers probably need a stint in the dehydrator.  A blender is a great tool for pureeing a bunch of chili peppers or dried garlic into powder (do remember to put the lid on – you do not want to inhale a big breath of chili peppers being blended – ask me how I know this ;-) ).

Another option for your herbs is tincturing in alcohol or vinegar.  We tend not to think of tinctures in association with culinary herbs, but with medicinals, but in fact, many culinary herbs and spices are used in tincture form – vanilla is a tincture of vanilla bean, for example.  Mint extract is a tincture of mint leaves, often in brandy.  Vinegars flavored with herbs make wonderful salad dressings, and are a form of tincture.  The advantage of tinctures is that they keep forever, and are truly essence of herb.  The downside is, of course, that they contain alcohol or vinegar, and taste of it, but small quantities, they flavor baked goods, pudding and other recipes.  I’ve been experimenting with tinctures of other herbs and some of them are excellent – tincture of rosemary, for example, is just delicious in baked goods. I love salad burnet in vinegar – the cucumbery taste goes perfectly with vinegars.

To make a tincture, take fresh or dried herb or spices, and cover them with either vinegar or 80 proof alcohol – vodka or brandy are traditional.  If the spices are whole, chop them up a bit so that the full value permeates the menstruum (a fancy word for “booze” or “vinegar” ;-) ) Leave for two weeks at room temperature (you can put the alcohol tinctures in the sun, but not the vinegar ones), and macerate the material.  Taste occasionally, when when the strength you want, strain out any plant material you don’t want.  We just leave our vanilla beans in the alcohol when making vanilla, but find that spearmint gets too intense after a while.

Finally, there are a few herbs that don’t preserve well most ways – basil, parsley, dill, cilantro.  These preserve best as frozen pestos – or if not pesto, mixed with oil.  Simply freezing these herbs doesn’t really fully capture their taste, and often results in offputting textural and color changes (basil turns black, for example) – but if you mix them with oil (or add cheese, nuts and garlic to make a pesto – and all of them make good pestos, btw), they freeze beautifully.  We put up a lot of basil puree – it is one of the best reasons for a freezer, IMHO.

The reality of food storage is that it depends heavily on the quality of your cooking – and the quality of one’s cooking depends on wise use of the wonderful and intensely flavored gifts of herbs and spices – so if you believe you may ever have to rely on it, you will want a good supply of these.

The cheapest source for quantities of seasonings is probably an ethnic grocery store near you - people from India, Asia and Latin America use a lot more seasonings in their cooking than most Americans do, and they sell spices in large quantities, and whole -  my local Indian grocer sells cumin, coriander and mustard seeds in 1lb quanties for only a couple of dollars. This isn’t always the most ethical way to get them, but it is inexpensive.

Although they are not all fair trade by any means, the best tasting spices I’ve ever had in my life come from  They aren’t cheap, but bought in bulk, the prices are reasonable for many things, and the taste is terrific.

Fair traded spices are available from (they also sell herbs and teas) and frontier bulk goods

What if you’ve been using 1/4 teaspoon of oregano, and want to add more spice to your life?  Well, the best way to do it is to just do it – google around, try some new recipes, double the quantities of garlic, turmeric or ginger in your recipes (or maybe add just a little more at a time, depending on how adventurous you are) – like everything it takes practice. 



Finding my Herb Garden

Sharon May 8th, 2009

When we came here, we knew we wanted to grow our own food, and we had sneaking intuitions that we might want to grow other things.  Gradually, I’ve been both excited and delighted to discover precisely how much we can and do grow – but figuring this out has required that we overcome the prejudices we were raised with, the first being “things area always and only just one thing.”  That is, when I began planting, I thought “these are my herbs, these are my vegetables, this is to eat, this to season it, this for beauty.”  Each thing was divided into its place.  It has taken me a while to overcome that habit, and herbalism has been one of the primary instruments of doing so – they were a living reminder that plants are almost never only one thing, even to we simple minded humans.

The side yard of my house is about 1/10th of an acre, with a birch tree (there used to be two, but unfortunately they are not long lived), a young pear and crabapple, grassy areas where the kids play, and a bunch of garden beds.  For us, this is the proverbial kitchen garden – just a step out the door from my kitchen, I can watch the boys playing under the birch from my window, and step out to clip some rosemary or pick basil leaves and come back to a pot on the stove. 

This area includes a stone porch, where we sometimes eat, and at this time of year holds the flats of plants waiting to be transplanted, a small courtyard garden where I grow tender plants with shelter on three sides – here’s where my Maypop runs up the wall, where my quinces, apricots and dwarf peaches are.  

On the other side of the path runs a sunny garden full of salad ingredients, some self-watering containers of tomatoes and greens, the long asparagus and rhubarb bed, and a few other odds and ends. 

Along the grass are a few other small trees and shrubs – a dwarf sour cherry, a couple of hazels, and here was where I established my official herb garden, when I first moved in. It was  a culinary herb bed, filled with the usual perennial things – sages and savories, three or four thymes, greek oregano, giant lovage, tarragon, catnip for the cats, sorrel, more chives than any sane household could actually eat.   The bed is made with old cinder blocks found around the house, and I each year I fill some of the small holes in the side with dianthus, johnny jump ups and portulaca, which look lovely all summer.  A few other of the holes hold pesky culinary herbs – various mints, chocolate, spear, pepper, grapefruit…and lemon and lime balms.  A cluster of tea herbs takes up a corner – bee balm and betony, mostly.  For a long time I also tried to cram in the annual herbs, since this was THE HERB BED, but it never worked that well – we wanted more basil than that, and the perennials disliked having their soil disturbed while I attempted to cram in the other plants.

So eventually, the annual and biennial herbs (and I grow a lot of them) moved to the salad beds, rotated around and integrated with the rest of the plantings.  Here is my basil plantation, with six kinds at present.  My caraway and cumin plants kuve there, as do shiso, parsleys and tender sages like pineapple and honeydew, which I grow from cuttings from the old plants each winter.  The cilantro and dill are mixed in everywhere, attracting pollinators and going in any free corner.  And I grow some uncommon culinary herbs, most of them perennials in other climates but since I’m short window space, I grow them as annuals - rau om, papalo and dittany of crete.  Other tender perennials live in the house in winter, looking increasingly grumpy about it, until they move out to the porch for a full dose of sun – rosemary, lemon verbena and curryplant among them.

So I’d always grown a lot of herbs. But until four or five years ago, I didn’t think much about herbs as medicinals – or rather, I did – I used them, and purchased them, but I didn’t grow most of them.  I’m embarassed to think how long it took me to notice that instead of buying red clover blossoms for tea, I could just pick them out of my pasture, or that the red raspberry leaf tea that I was taking in late pregnancy could have been made from the scores of red raspberry leaves growing under my spruce trees.  I was somehow intimidated by the whole project of figuring out when to harvest, when things were medicinally active, and how best to use them.

But as I looked into the uses of the herbs,  I found that I was growing a surprising number of medicinal herbs already, simply out of fascination with the plants.  For example, I wanted to make marshmallows out of marshmallow root, simply because I thought the kids would find it fun.  It was no real trouble to start them from seed, and they love our wet climate, so quickly I had more marshmallows than anyone would want to eat, and I still had the plants as gorgeous ornamentals, happily self seeding around the property.  I had cranesbill and hollyhock in my ornamental gardens, and calendulas in the window boxes.  Milk thistle grows wild in our fields and the previous owners had planted maidenhair fern, lungwort and lady’s mantle around the north side of the house.  

I wanted to make good use of the plants around me, wisely, safely, thoughtfully, but I admit, I also was fascinated by the plants as link to a past – the history of human use of botany entrances me – how did they know to use this?  What process of observation, transmission of knowledge taught us these fascinating things?  Why did someone carry these seeds across an ocean, or replant natives in their dooryards?  Is it worth trying to make nettles into fiber?  What do real marshmallows taste like?  Did my great-grandmother use the pennyroyal in her garden for fleas or to prevent pregnancy?  I will never know some of these things, and others only when I get around to it (still haven’t tried the nettle fiber), but I can’t help thinking about them, as I rub my own pennyroyal leaves on my skin to see if it makes any difference with the midges. 

Gradually, I started harvesting what I had, and reading more about how best to process the harvest.  But other than the surprisingly large number of herbs that I had lying around, I wasn’t precisely sure what should go in a medicinal herb garden, were we to grow one.  The problem has been innate good health, something that I don’t claim to be complaining about.  My boys are no more immune than anyone else to the usual sorts of colds and injuries (although we’ve had only one broken bone so far, which IMHO, is pretty good for kids who essentially live in trees like small apes ;-)), nor are Eric or I, but generally speaking, we’re a healthy bunch.  While I could see the obvious benefit of garlic and chamomile, what else? 

So that required we think about our overall health, and our overall goals and expectations from a lower energy future.  Now it is hard to know what you may need as you age, but it is possible to make some useful guesses.  Eric suffers from a mild irregular heartbeat for which he’s taken hawthorn for years, so that was easy – time for a hawthorn bush.  I get urinary tract infections now and then, and while we already had cranberries and garlic, some bearberry wouldn’t come amiss, and moist acidic soil, we’ve got.  Eli already takes flaxseed and evening primrose oil as a supplement, so growing those was no great trouble.

  Basic remedies for the kinds of things active children and farmworking adults are good too – calendula for rashes, jewelweed for poison ivy, comfrey for bone poultices.  Chamomile, catnip, dill seed and peppermint for upset stomachs.  Valerian and catnip for the occasional sleepless night.  Elderberry and rosehips for colds.  Maypop and borage for anxiety.  California poppy for pain relief.  Mullein, plantain and nettle already grew aplenty around the property, but I started encouraging them, making sure not to scythe down the mulleins that grew along the driveway, and encouraging them to go to seed.

Thinking ahead, I knew that someday I’d go through menopause, so that means plenty of sage, which is fine, since I like the stuff already – I used to avoid it in large quantities, since it can dry up breastmilk, but that’s no longer an issue.  The day will come when Eric may actually have to think about his prostate, and our nettle patch awaits.  Thinking forward to times when it might be more difficult to afford or access modern medicine, I wanted to make sure that my herb gardens included medicines to treat things that ran in our family – gotu kola and ginko for memory loss as one ages in Eric’s family, willow and cayenne for the arthritis that runs in mine, and motherwort for heart issues.

 Then there are the critters – they use herbs too.  My goats are wormed with an herbal formulation that I don’t try to duplicate, but I know its major components, and try and keep some of them – wormwood and pennyroyal – around.  We put garlic in the food of almost all the critters, and find that in improves their health.   

Well, that’s quite a list already, and the process of getting comfortable with all these herbs has been a slow one – because we’re healthy, I haven’t always had much occasion to use them, but the good thing is that alcoholic tinctures do keep.  Moreover, most of the plants I learned to like for themselves – oh, the elecampanes do try to take over, and I can’t quite convince myself that lungwort isn’t ugly, but even if I never need black cohosh for anything, who could fail to appreciate its bottle-brush beauty, or the autumnal purple waves of joe pye weed?

The habit my herb gardens had of overflowing into things not officially labelled “herb garden” was what led me to think about the possibility of growing herbs on a larger scale.  I have been wondering with what to replace the CSA – I don’t think I’m going to run one again, at least during the summer.  I loved doing it, but the time requirements are too intense while writing as well. And while I love animal agriculture, love working with the animals, I don’t ever want to be just one kind of farm, and if I have to test my heart, at the root of things, my greatest passion is the growing of green stuff.

So were herbs a possible answer?  Was there any market for the things that do very well in my climate?  I realize that we’re to cool and moist to get the highest levels of capsacin in my cayenne peppers (although we do ok), or the best essential oil levels of thyme, oregano and lavender, things that like it hot and dry and evolved in mediterranean climates.  I can make the conditions on a small scale, using my cold frames in the summer, or adding sand to make my lavender at least moderately happy, but not on a large one. 

But what about things that find our cool, moist soil useful? Obviously, that includes marshmallow, but also meadowsweet, boneset, joe pye weed, wild bergamot, valerian, liatris, blue vervain, mint, angelica, black eyed susan, burdock, cardinal flower, catnip, comfrey, elecampene, elderberry, goldenrod, mullein, nettles, potentilla, self-heal, cranesbill and viburnum?  For a long while, I’ve been mulling over how much work to invest in adapting our property, a part of which “lays wet” – should we drain it?  The cost has been somewhat prohibitive, but moreover, it has troubled my basic sense that my relationship with the land ought to be about getting the most out of what it does well, rather than forcing it into something else.

And thus came the generation of a new business idea for me – that perhaps, just perhaps, it would be possible for me to make some money sourcing plants that in many cases, either already grow here are grow easily in our conditions.  Instead of trying to grow vegetable row crops in places that lay wet, perhaps I could grow medicinal crops that thrived in those conditions.  So I asked around a little, and to my surprise several people expressed enthusiasm for a local source for some of the herbs listed above. 

We are still in the experimental stage, exploring what grows well, and what there’s a market for.  I want to make absolutely sure that I know how to produce herbs that lose as little as possible in processing.  And it isn’t clear to me on what scale we will do this – this year is all about exploring markets.  We’re also exploring whether we can grow some of the more useful woodland herbs in our woods, with minimal disturbance of the current denizens.

Around the herb beds, as I imagine them will be wet-soil tolerant food plants – we’re not interested in monoculture here. I’ve already planted swamp white oaks along the borders of the property, and have cranberry bush viburnum everywhere.  I want my property to grow food at least as much as it grows medicines.  I’m also starting to sell herb and vegetable starts – mostly as a way to compensate for my absurd overplanting habit. 

My herb garden started out as a 4×6 cinder block bed, and it has somehow expanded to include the rest of my side yard.  That might not be so remarkable, but it also now includes the meadows where I harvest my clover and the creekside from which I take the raspberry leaves.  It includes the fields that once grew my CSA vegetables and the pastures where I compete with the sheep for the chicory.  It ranges under my children’s playset, where the jewelweed insists on growing, and in that weird soggy spot near the old burn pile where there’s a ton of yarrow, which isn’t supposed to like wet places. 

When I moved here, I imagined that farms are made up of discrete lines – here the pasture, there the field, there the garden.  And they can be.  For me, I think blurred ones work better – the goats help clean up the garden in the autumn, and keep down the grass before we can get it all in.  We grow grains in the garden, and our field crops may turn out to be herbs.  We wildcraft very carefully, on our own property, but also try to increase populations steadily, blurring the lines between wild and tame.  And we are trying to tame our own impulses to subdue and reshape more than strictly necessary, to balance the need for lines, fences, will and limits with the desire to do what the land can do willingly, and within its own bounds.