Tag Archive | Herbs

Learn about Herbs: Bountiful Borage

The holidays are behind us, the garden catalogs are arriving, and it’s time to start thinking about planting! It seems like gardeners tend to fall into one of two categories: vegetable gardeners (who don’t mind also having beautiful flowers), or flower gardeners who tuck in a few veggies and/or herbs here and there. To encourage everyone to add some edibles to their garden spaces (no matter how small), I thought we’d learn about herbs.

Borage_(Borago_officinalis)The little blue flowers of borage (borago officinalis) are favorite edible garnishes, adding color to everything from salad to cake. The taste is very delicate so you can use lots, assuming you have the patience to pick them. And borage leaves are delicious, tasting mostly of cucumber with a hint of lettuce sweetness. But the fine white hairs that give them their silvery glow are not so pleasant on the palate. To get around the problem, cooks either use very young leaves in salads, or employ larger ones as removable seasonings — stepping them in white wine punches is classic.

You can also add them to cooked dishes such as chicken soup, since heat destroys the prickly quality. And borage leaves are very tasty prepared like spinach or other tender greens. That sounds like a way to use up your whole windfall: creamed borage all around! Unfortunately, borage deserves its reputation as a natural laxative, so it can’t really be used as a solo vegetable. A handful of leaves mixed with other greens is the largest amount that is wise.

Borage_Plant_-_geograph.org.uk_-_217039This is one of the most persistent self-sowers known to gardening so you’ll want to control it. The upper sections of full-grown borage plants, sparse of leaf and rich with flowers, make very pretty fillers for country-style bouquets.


The Learning Garden “Asian Garden” and “Herb Garden”

Asian Garden by OCMGA Master Gardeners Anne Anderson and Tom Wentzel

Tom and I did the square garden with Asian veggies. What I learn from the square garden is how much you can plant in one square. It’s amazing if one is limited on space how square gardening would be beneficial. The only problem was after the garden started to grow I was not sure what were weeds or the growing vegetable. Asian vegetables to me, looked like weeds or maybe they were! LOL!!! What I would do different is if there is more than one square with the same veggie, I would not have put them next to each other. Lastly, I should have brought my cats to clean up since watching them chase the mice would have been so entertaining!

Herb Garden by OCMGA Master Gardeners Mary Learman, Sue Mings, and Maureen Flanagan-Johnson

We continued the original theme by planting the more common herbs used in Greece, France, Italy and England. Since most herbs do not like wet feet, it took a little while before we saw any real growth. Then they did not stop. We framed each of the four plots with marigolds and made a Marigold Henge in the center. A couple of notes for next year will be to not to over-plant, plus to harvest more often. It actually needed little upkeep apart from the occasional pruning. But with schedules and the vagaries of the weather, they were not harvested often enough. One unexpected problem turned out to be that the voles had built a metropolis under the herb garden and it collapsed in several places. They also ate some of the roots. Ninja tactics will be employed next year.

Reprinted from the OCMGA member newsletter from the winter of 2014

The Scent of Improved Health

The following article is taken from “Renew”, a UnitedHealthcare magazine. The source quoted is The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

Chamomile: relieves anxiety; promotes sleep; is anti-inflammatory

For thousands of years, the medicinal benefits of

Lemon: energizes and uplifts the mind; detoxifies; repels viruses

inhaling aromas of certain essential oils have been known by many cultures around the world.

Today, aromatherapy — using plant extracts and essential oils for their scent — is used in some hospitals and clinics as complementary medicine.

Eucalyptus: relieves congestion; clears and energizes the mind; helps with brochitis

A 2013 study published by Bentham Science in Current Drug Targets has indicated certain health benefits of aromatherapy — from killing bacteria to improving mood disorders to combating insomnia. In 2014, a review of several studies published

in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found a positive effect from essential oils on sleep disturbances with no adverse reactions. Plus, for more than a decade, essential oils have been studied for use in cancer therapy (in tandem with conventional treatment), and the results of more than 100 studies have been promising to doctors and other health practitioners.

Lavender: reduces anxiety; produces a sense of calm; promotes cell regeneration (which is good for wounds and burns)

What’s wonderful about aromatherapy is that you can experience it at home. Essential oils are widely available for purchase, so check you local grocery or health foods store. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, naha.org, also has tips to get you started.

Here are a few ways to use aromatherapy essential

Peppermint: relieves nausea; is an analgesic for aches and pains; reduces migraines; energizing

oils at home:

  • Dilute into a spritzer and spray a room
  • Add drops to your bath water
  • Add drops into boiling water or a steamer

Planning for next year

When growing season is done and the garden has been put to bed, it’s time to start planning for next year! I love tea and drink it the way many other people drink coffee. I have an area in my flower garden devoted to herbs, and I’m thinking about adding something new:  tea.

downloadTrue tea (white, black and green) comes from one plant species: Camellia sinensis, hardy in Zones 6 to 9. This plant isn’t finicky (slightly acidic soil, a sunny location and plenty of water will keep it happy), but it grows slowly from seed. It can take three years to get a harvest and cuttings are challenging, so purchasing a plant seems like the right approach. Like me, you may already have herbs in your garden, such as mint and lemongrass, that you can use for tisanes, or herbal teas.

When using herbs for tea, it’s important to research which part of the plant is used for making tea, such as the leaves of the mint plant, the buds and flowers of chamomile or the outer stalks of lemongrass. Freshly picked herbs can be brewed right away. You can also dry herbs to keep the cupboard stocked.

Herbal tea

imagesThis hot beverage is not actually tea (not being made from the Camellia sinensis plant, but from herbs), but is called tea and is wildly popular. Some of the possible plants to use:

  • Bee balm
  • Bergamot
  • Lavender
  • Lemon Verbena
  • Raspberry
  • Rose Hip
  • Sage
  • Strawberry
  • Yarrow

Gently tear or crush herbal leaves, buds or roots to release essential oils and boost flavor, and you might consider a tea infuser or ball instead of a strainer for a simpler brewing process to avoid having a cup full of leaves.

Pharmacy in your Garden?


Traditional Medicine Market in China

There is no doubt that many plants are useful medicinally, just as there is equal certainty that many of them are poisonous. The problem is that these are often the same plants. The vast array of widely available herbal supplements and the equally huge assortment of books on herbal healing reinforce a general sense that natural products are safer than manufactured ones. But the truth is a resounding “sometimes yes and sometimes no.” Herbal medicine is a huge and complicated subject, well worth investigating but by no means something to plunge into incautiously. Things to bear in mind:

  • Very few scientifically rigorous studies have been done, largely because almost all such studies are underwritten by drug companies, and herbs, which cannot be patented, could never return the investment involved.
  • There is no way for the home gardener to standardize dosage: plants produce different amounts of active chemical agents depending on how and where they are grown, when they are harvested, and the variety characteristics of the particular plant.
  • Herbs may interact badly with other drugs, rendering them less effective or more toxic, in unpredictable ways.
  • Like other drugs, many herbal toxins are cumulative. Small doses may produce no adverse symptoms but become dangerous in the aggregate.

The don’t-mess-with-in list. A sampling of herbs that have historic reputations as medicinals but are potentially deadly: aconite (Aconitum napellus), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), lobelia (Lobelia inflata), May apple (Podophyllum peltatum), and pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides and Mentha pulegium both go by this common name, and the oils of both are toxic). Note: for an interesting literary exploration of some of these poisonous plants, check out our upcoming August 9, 2016 blogpost on the natural poisons found in Agatha Christie’s books.

In addition, many well-known herbs appear to be carcinogenic (sassafras, coltsfoot, and comfrey); cause abnormal heart rhythms and/or violent gastrointestinal symptoms (tansy, broom, and blood root); or have other downsides that make freelance experimentation unwise.

The give-it-a-whirl list. A sampling of herbs that are very unlikely to hurt you and may well do some good, assuming you use only small amounts: agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), catnip (Nepeta cataria), chamomile (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile), echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), garlic (Allium sativum), hops (Humulus lupulus), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Be careful with Borage as it absolutely deserves its reputation as a natural laxative; a few leaves go a long way!

In addition, there are herbs that emphatically should NOT be ingested but do have strong healing properties when used externally. First and foremost is aloe, most commonly Aloe vera, which deserves its high reputation as a healer of burns. [Personal side note: I incurred a really, really bad sunburn on my lips in late June of this year — I’m talking second degree burns. Since I have a lovely pot of Aloe growing in my house, I thought I’d smear a little on my lips to make them heal. I have NEVER tasted anything worse in my whole life!! I couldn’t wipe it off fast enough and it took forever for the taste to go away.]

Another healing herb to be used externally is arnica (Arnica montana) which is right up there as an easer of aching muscles, and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) does seem to promote the healing of wounds when applied as a poultice.

Drying Herbs


Herbs and flowers drying in a warm, dry spot

All herbs can be dried, but not all of them are worth the trouble. Parsley, chervil, chives, and coriander, to name four popular favorites that are widely marketed in dried form, taste more or less like hay that way, no matter how carefully they have been processed. Most of the others, including basil, dill, thyme, rosemary, sage, and tarragon, come through very nicely — changed, to be sure, but still useful.

I’m a bit of a romantic so I like to dry my herbs the old-fashioned way: hanging them in bunches in my dry basement. The scent is heavenly when several different bundles of herbs are drying together.

Most herbs have the strongest flavor right before they start to form flower buds. They should be freshly picked, preferably in the morning as soon as the dew has dried. (Basil, however, is an exception. It’s more flavorful at the end of the day.)

If the herbs have long stems with sparse foliage at the bottom, you can hang them in bunches. Use rubber bands or twine to tie loose bundles of eight stems or so. Hang them in the chosen spot (dark, dry, warm area that gets plenty of air circulation), and keep checking on them. If the herbs have tightly packed leaves (or flowers) that might rot before they could dry, strip them from the stems and spread them on screens. Prop the screens on piles of books or bricks so air can circulate.

Over the past several years, many methods of drying herbs have arisen (including spreading them on a towel in the back seat of your car when it sits out on a hot day). I found a website that details six methods of drying — depending on the amount of time and money that you want to spend. Visit Mother Earth News for some ideas.

No matter which way you dry them, the herbs are ready to store when they are brittle and should be removed from the drying area as soon as this happens. Strip the leaves from the stems, but leave them whole. Store in air-tight glass jars in a cool, dark, dry place for up to a year. Color is a clue: a pale look probably means a pale taste.


Try Freezing your Herbs

Drying herbs is pretty commonplace and, for me, there’s nothing better than the fragrance of herbs drying in my basement. However, herbs that have been frozen taste fresher than dried herbs, but only for the first 4 months or so after freezing. After that, flavor declines rapidly, so freezing should be an addition to drying.

To freeze lemon verbena, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and tarragon, use whole leaves (discard stems). To freeze dill, fennel, and thyme, use tender sprigs. Basil discolors when it is frozen, so if you want it to stay bright green, dip branches in boiling water, just for a second or two, then remove, discard stems, and gently dry the leaves.

Whatever you’re freezing should be completely dry. Spread it out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place it in the freezer. As soon as the herbs are frozen, usually in no more than an hour or two, pack them in heavy plastic freezer bags and put the bags in freezer-safe glass jars (canning jars) for storage.

Chives don’t freeze well; they don’t dry well, either. Use them fresh or substitute green onion tops.

Another popular method for freezing herbs involves chopping them and adding them to liquid (water or olive oil), freezing them in ice cube trays, and pulling out just what you need to add to soups, sauces, gravies, etc. There are many places on the web with instructions on how to freeze herbs in liquids.

Remember: freezing herbs won’t help you any if you forget to use them, something all too easy to do. As a reminder, post an inventory of frozen herbs where you will see it when you reach for the seasonings.


Next time:  Drying Herbs