Saturday, August 31, 2013

Herb Trees: The Chaste Tree

The last day of August brings the last in a series of herb trees.
Chaste tree, vitex agnus-castus, is a common ornamental tree in the South
because of the tree's beautiful violet-blue blossoms.

The Chaste tree has a hidden history as an herb supplement, however.
Chaste tree (also called chasteberry or Monk's Pepper)
was used from ancient Rome through the Middle Ages as a way 
to decrease sexual libido and to regulate ailments 
of both the male and female reproductive systems.
That's why it got the name chaste tree--
it was really supposed to ensure the chastity of anyone who consumed it.

Chasteberry tea is available commercially,
usually sold as an aid for problems with the female reproductive system.
Some sources suggest the tea has positive benefits for prostate problems too.

Despite its herbal history, most people grow the chaste tree 
as a beautiful addition to the landscape
and a plant good for attracting bees.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Herb Trees: The Bay Laurel

Probably every kitchen has a few dried bay leaves
for seasoning soups and sauces.
I have a small bag full, and it's a good thing they last a long time
because I generally can't use them all up in one winter soup season.

Some recommendations I've read for bay leaves
is to use them in potpourri or as way to repel bugs and mice.
I have tried herbal remedies for insects and mice 
in places I've lived in the past
and the pests were never once deterred.
In fact, I suspect they lolled in the herbs in their leisure moments.
My advice in that regard is to call a professional exterminator.
Scattering a few bay leaves is only going to make the vermin laugh behind your back.

Bay leaves may have limited use beyond the kitchen 
but I still have tried to grow a small bay laurel tree in a pot.
Containers are supposed to be a good way to grow it,
but I've never had success once I've brought it into the house in the late autumn.

Grow a Bay Tree

has these recommendations for successful indoor growing:
First, avoid terra cotta because the soil will dry out too quickly
and the bay tree needs uniform moisture.
On the other hand, I've read on some web sites that the bay laurel 
is tolerant of dry conditions as long as the dry spells don't extend too long.
Second consideration: the bay laurel needs lots of light and warmth.
Dry winter air and dark rooms will not be good for a bay tree.
Finally, avoid cold drafts and hot spots, 
meaning avoid placing it near doors and heating vents.

Lately, I've been thinking a tall Meyer lemon or bay laurel tree topiary
would make a good addition to my breakfast room table--
although it is near a door and a heating vent.
At some point, I'll try it anyway.
It won't be the first time I've watched the leaves fall off of a houseplant.
And who knows, a little bay laurel tree might just make it.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Herb Trees: The White Pine

I have seen gray squirrels sitting happily on the deck railing
as they ate a loblolly pine cone 
the same way humans roll an ear of sweet corn in the summer.
The squirrels strip the pine cone of its inner layers,
leaving a scattering of pine cone petals around them.

White Pine—Pinus strobus

But I was surprised to learn that many pine varieties 
are safe for human consumption, most notably the white pine (pinus strobus).
We mainly have yellow southern / loblolly pine trees here
which don't have the distinctive long narrow pine cones of the white pine.
 I'm not sure I would make a pine tree tea with our yellow pine
without doing a lot more research.

But white pine is one of Amy Jeanroy's picks for a great herbal tree
as described in her article on
Jeanroy packs the white pine's needles into a quart jar
and covers them with cider vinegar.
Then places the jar in a dark cabinet and  shakes it every day for 6 weeks.
When she feels a cold coming on, Jeanroy says she makes a pine needle tea 
using a few drops of the infused vinegar, honey, and hot water.
Apparently the pine needles are high in Vitamin C.
She says it is delicious, but I think it might taste a little bitter.

white pine has distinctive clusters of needles

Maybe one of these days I'll try it.
Until then, I think I'll stick to what I know.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Herb Trees: The Elder Tree

When I first read Amy Jeanroy's list of 4 herbal trees here: 
I wondered what an elder tree was and what it looked like.

When I started to research it, I had to laugh.
The exotic elder tree was none other than the common elderberry shrub 
(sambucus canadensis) that grew wild in ditches 
and along country roads in the Midwest where I grew up.
There's a good web site, HerbalRootZine, that shows the difference between elderberry
and the poisonous pokeberry, two shrubs that are commonly confused, 
and both of which we had in the Midwest.
for more information

I wish I had known about the elder tree's centuries-long history as a magical herb
and medicinal plant when I still lived near so much of it.
It turns out that elder tree (elderberry) is a plant with flowers and berries
that have been extensively researched by scientists
and their studies have revealed the efficacious nature of the plant.

The first National Symposium on Elderberry 
was held in Columbia, Missouri in June 2013.
Papers delivered at the symposium included one
on the use of elderberry in Persian (Iranian) traditional medicine,
one on elderberry's positive influence on the immune system, allergies,
and respiratory problems.
And there was another about its effectiveness in treating flu.
And don't forget that elderberry protects us from those ubiquitous witches
that seem to bedevil and bewitch common folk.
There was a paper given about that, too.

I found a web site that contained a paper by Purdue University horticulturist D. Charlebois
who described findings on the nutritional value of elderberry: 
high in calcium, phosphorous, Vitamin B6, A, and C.
Finally, I have a scientific reason to eat elderberry jelly.
I think I'm going to have to find some of that jelly,
and jam... and elderberry tea...
and more jelly... and cakes ... and preserves ... and pies... and ...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Herb Trees: The Silver Birch

A second herb tree described by Amy Jeanroy, herb garden guide
at, is the silver birch, betula pendula.
The silver birch is a beautiful tree
with icy white trunks:

and serrated leaves:

I had never thought of this tree as an herb tree, 
but Jeanroy says its sap is used for medicinal wine
and the leaves are used to make a tea
 that alleviates some of the symptoms of gout.
And Jeanroy cites Margaret Grieve, author of "A Modern Herbal,"
who reports the tea was also once used for relief from kidney stones.
"A Modern Herbal" also describes the inner bark as a treatment of fever.
Neither remedy is of use today as far as I know.

Jeanroy says that the silver birch gives off a sweet perfume,
especially after a rain. 
We don't have silver birch trees in the Shire,
but I'm wondering if river birches, which we have in profusion here,
give the same effect. I have noticed a similar faint fragrance after a rain
and been unable to pinpoint its source.

The leaves of the silver birch turn a soft gold in the autumn 
which really sets off the whiteness of the bark.
But another reason to like birch trees
 is the way the leaves rattle gently in the breeze.
Good reasons to have one around even if it's not used as an herb tree.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Herb Trees: the Linden Tree

For the past several blog posts, I've been writing about little known herbs
like rue, borage, and vervain.
And in the course of my research,
I came upon something I vaguely knew of but hadn't seen articulated before:
 the concept of the herb tree.
Herb trees are trees whose bark, berries, seeds, flowers, or leaves
have a history of being used medicinally.

There are several herb trees described by Amy Jeanroy,
the herb gardens guide for
So for these remaining days of August,
I thought it would be interesting to write about
some of the herb trees in Jeanroy's list.
The first one is the linden tree.

Linden trees have a lovely flower
 that has both culinary and medicinal uses:

I fell in love with linden trees the first time I saw them;
my sister-in-law had a whole row of linden trees behind her house.
The leaves were full and round
and made a beautiful wall of green along the edge of her backyard.

File:Tilia x europea-2.JPG

Linden trees live for centuries, and the wikipedia site has some images of
ancient linden trees, like this one in Germany:
File:Linde bei Frankenbrunn.jpg

I love the gnarled old trunk partially covered in moss.
Other linden trees in Europe have been documented at 2,000 years old.

Linden flowers--sometimes called limeflowers--make a light-colored honey,
and a tea made from them is supposed to be good for coughs and colds,
skin inflammations and high blood pressure.

Margaret Grieve in her "A Modern Herbal" suggests
that bathing with linden flowers in the water
is a good antidote for hysteria.
I would suspect that any warm bath would be calming,
but maybe sweet-smelling yellow linden flowers
floating atop the water would exude some kind of soothing magic.
And maybe that's what makes herb trees so special:
they carry a little magic.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Borage, borago officinalis,  is another unusual herb that I have grown in the past.
It has succulent leaves covered in a profusion of small stiff hairs.

Its edible flowers grow up to be a pretty true blue,
and as a bonus, they are shaped like little 5-pointed stars, 
which explains why borage is sometimes called starflower. 

This photo of the borage flowers is from the blog
"backyard Diva." I love her slogan: you can't grow wrong

Best of all, the leaves of borage taste and smell like cucumber.
Both the borage flowers and leaves can be used to infuse water
for a crisp & refreshing, if  faint, cucumber taste.
I've fixed it before, and it is a delicious summer drink.

This next photo is of a borage field at Bannisters Farm 
"on the Yorkshire Wolds" in the UK. 
Isn't this beautiful with its different shades of blue? 
Visit their web site here for more info: 

Many of the old herbals prescribe borage for dispelling sadness.
It's not a very pretty plant in the garden because it's gangly,
but its flowers en masse or up close 
are guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Some of the first herbs I ever grew 
I had planted in a strawberry pot 
that I bought at the old Williamsburg Pottery in Lightfoot, Virginia.
The little strawberry pot ( I still have it) held thyme, 
a sprig of rosemary, some basil, oregano,
and an unusual little herb called pennyroyal.

Pennyroyal, mentha pulegium, is a kind of mint,
but one whose essential oils are toxic to humans and animals.
M. G. Kains, in the article 
published in the 1912 American Agriculturist,
says that pennyroyal was a common ingredient in "puddings,"
but was not an herb favored by American and English cooks.
In part because of its pungency.
But I would guess also because of its potential for toxicity.
There have been a number of documented cases in the US 
of deaths caused by taking too much pennyroyal tea or its oil.
Therefore, I was never much interested in even tasting it.

Pennyroyal blossoms arrange themselves artfully on the stalk.
Photo from The Deepest Well blog:

However, decades ago I did rub it on my arms one time as an experiment.
Pennyroyal is supposed to be a good natural mosquito repellant.
Once streaked with pennyroyal juice, 
I don't recall being bothered by any insects
but the mint aroma was a bit too strong and pungent for me.
I don't know about the mosquitoes,
but I did repel myself so I washed it off.

Regardless of its strong odor and questionable safety,
 the ancient Romans weren't so cautious with pennyroyal.
The cookbook the Apicius included recipes
that required a touch of this herb,
including a pennyroyal wine.

I wonder if, given its toxicity, the amounts of pennyroyal were very small,
or if the Romans always served it 
with other foods or drinks that neutralized pennyroyal's toxins.
It's a bit of a  mystery.
I would suggest that pennyroyal remain 
one of those herbs best used as an ornamental.
It makes a lovely groundcover, looking almost like baby tears:


The flower is pretty too:

Which just goes to show,
even bad herbs can be good.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Agrimony, a member of the rose family, is another herb 
that one will probably never see for sale in most garden centers.
But it is an herb with a long and distinguished history as a folk medicine.
All parts of the agrimony plant that grow above the ground
can be used for healing teas and poultices.


Agrimony is one of the Bach flower remedies, prepared infusions of flowers
said to be soothing  for the spirit and the emotions.
The description I've read for the Bach agrimony flower remedy
is that it is useful for treating someone who wears a happy face
but is secretly suffering inside.
I suspect that would describe a lot of us at one time or another.

Historically, agrimony has been used for various ailments of the liver,
wound healing, diarrhea, acne, and kidney and pulmonary issues.
Of course, some old herbals recommend mixing the agrimony
with "pounded frogs and human blood" (Grieve, A Modern Herbal).
Fortunately for the modern reader, the presumption was 
that we would already know how many frogs to catch and how long to pound them.
In other words, thanks for not sharing that information.

For the squeamish, agrimony will also work without mixing it with anything fleshy.
A sprig placed under one's pillow is supposed to be good for inviting a deep sleep.
Ironically, (yes, witchipedia, not wikipedia--I was surprised too)
says that agrimony was once used to detect witches.
Witchipedia also says agrimony can deflect evil spells and wrongdoing.
It's too bad the medieval frogs didn't know where to get some.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Hyssop is an ancient herb, native to Europe and the Middle East.
It is referred to frequently in the Judeo-Christian Bible;
however, many scholars believe the biblical hyssop 
is not hyssop officinalis, but a  member of the caper family: capparis spinosa.

From Petunia's Garden blog, 
here is blooming hyssop interplanted with sunflowers:

Even though hyssop officinalis is not the biblical hyssop,
it is still sometimes referred to as a sacred herb 
because it was used to cleanse the altars of the gods.
In those earlier centuries, the altars were sacrificial, 
so hyssop was one of several herbs 
that would have been employed for cleaning.

On the other hand, hyssop also has a long history as a medicine.
Margaret Grieve's research ( suggests
that hyssop tea (made from the flowers) was used as a remedy 
for everything from intestinal worms to chest ailments to rheumatism.
Grieve includes a recipe for hyssop tea, copied from the book Old Cookery Book:
"infuse a quarter of an ounce of dried hyssop flowers in a pint of boiling water."
It should steep for 10 minutes 
and then be drunk with a little honey mixed in for sweetness.

This is an anise-hyssop drink from Food 52. 
Click here for the recipe:  

According to The Complete Book of Herbs by Lesley Bremness,
hyssop was also the ingredient for a popular Roman wine called hyssopites, 
first mentioned by Pliny the Elder.

blue hyssop flower

 Bremness suggests a number of culinary uses for hyssop
besides wine-making or infusing for teas.
The flowers are edible and can be used in salads, as can the leaves.
She says to rub meats like lamb and rabbit with hyssop leaves
because the herb will make the meat more easily digested.
I have seen frozen rabbit in the grocery store, 
but I'm pretty sure I'm going to leave it there.

And Bremness mentions that hyssop leaves 
are a nice complement to cranberries and fruit salads.
I think her most intriguing suggestion is to sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon
of hyssop leaves under the crusts of peach and apricot pies before baking.
She doesn't elaborate, but I suppose the hyssop 
imparts a subtle flavor to the crust. 
Still, I find it a curious idea.

Of the hyssop recipes I've seen, 
homemade hyssop-blossom flavored cheese looks very pretty,
but I can't say the anise-hyssop brew above looks that appealing.
And hyssop with peach pie? 
I've made it with chopped mint leaves and that was pretty good,
so I just might have to give hyssop a try.
Tucked under the crust, of course.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Vervain, valerian, catnip. 
These are all herbs not so well known.
Valerian is loved by rats, catnip by cats;
and vervain is loved by butterflies,
but loathed by vampires and witches.
Yet, vervain is not the only herb that vexes witches.
It shares that distinction with rue (ruta graveolens).

Rue is a pretty plant with evergreen blue lacy leaves,
a mounding habit, and yellow flowers when it's bloom time.
But rue also has some unusual qualities.

When I first planted a small herb garden,
I read somewhere that to be historically accurate,
the garden had to have a planting of rue 
 for the express purpose of keeping witches at bay.
So I planted some.
Apparently it worked well as I never had a witch darken my door.

And why wouldn't it work?
Rue is what Margaret Grieve refers to as an "anti-magical"
(See "A Modern Herbal," available here:
Anti-magicals were used as protection against spells and evil spirits.
As a bonus, Grieve says rue could bestow "second sight" 
on those who ate it.
Her entry on rue says that the plant was called "herb of grace"
because it was used to sprinkle holy water before church services.

Rue has a tiny yellow flower and lacy evergreen leaves:
Rue did have some medicinal uses in the Middle Ages; for example,
it was said to cure earache and chills, 
and  Grieve says it was once suggested as an antidote for "giddiness."
(And goodness knows, people shouldn't  get too giddy--that would be unseemly.)
But she also describes rue as having more practical uses
like killing fleas--a real concern in medieval Europe.

Rue as depicted in the Tacuinum Sanitatus:
File:Tacuin Rue35.jpg

Rue hasn't been a very popular addition in modern gardens.
Some people find its fragrance unpleasant.
Its natural oils, as with those in poison ivy, can cause severe skin blistering.
The leaves are very bitter and can upset the stomach.
Pregnant women should not eat it because of its potential for causing miscarriage.

Seed heads on the rue flower:

On the other hand, suggests
that rue leaves and seeds are an important part of cuisines in Ethiopia and the Balkans.
The Wikipedia entry also has a number of literary
and musical references that include rue.
For those interested, click here:

Rue, an interesting herb that is abhorred by witches
and disliked by cats so much
 that they won't roll in it like they do with catnip.
And that's not a bad thing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Vervain (Verbena)

Here is another herb that can join the list of those less well known: 
vervain (verbena officinialis). 
According to Mrs. Margaret Grieve, author of "A Modern Herbal"
which is reproduced at, the name vervain 
is derived from a Celtic word: ferfaen, meaning to drive away a stone.
In fact Grieve reports that in centuries past, 
a tisane of vervain was often prescribed for bladder stones.

This photo is of a selection called blue vervain (verbena hastata)
which is native to the US:

Vervain also had a reputation as a sacred herb 
primarily because it was used in sacrifices
and for cleaning and consecrating the altar.
But legend has it that vervain was also used to staunch the wounds 
of Jesus during the crucifixion.

Here's a photo of a variety called rose vervain:

Grieve says vervain was used by the Druids for making lustral water (holy water),
and sorcerers and magicians relied on vervain 
as part of ceremonial  incantations.
Some folklore claims vervain will kill a vampire--
or at least scare one off--
when the herb is woven into a chain and worn around the neck.
As an added bonus, vervain can provide protection from witches too.

This verbena may repel creatures of the dark arts,
but it also attracts butterflies and bees.
The next photo is of a butterfly on Argentinian vervain (verbena bonariensis):
Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui, Cynthia cardui) on Verbena bonariensis, Argentinian Vervain in Germany, Europe Stock Photo - 12579260

All together, vervain is an herb with a fascinating personality.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Even though the weather here in the Shire 
has been more like late autumn  than mid-summer,
I didn't want August to slip away without writing about 
those perennial plants of summer: herbs.

There are many herbs that are less well known
than the kitchen herbs of rosemary, thyme, basil, and oregano.
There are some with a long history of medicinal uses.
One of those is valerian (valeriana officinalis).

Valerian is a very pretty herb with lacy fronds 
that resemble celery leaves:

It has beautiful flowers that bloom from long stalks:

Valerian root tea has been used for centuries to calm anxiety
and to alleviate insomnia because of its sedative effect.
At different times in history, it's also been used to treat epilepsy and migraine.
And some accounts say it is as attractive to cats as catnip is.
In her book A Modern Herbal, Mrs. Margaret Grieve 
remarks that valerian was also used as a perfume and a spice.

However, before you go out and surround your house with valerian,
you may want to consider what else Mrs. Grieve said about it:
it is powerfully attractive to rats and was once used in Europe to bait rat traps.
Grieve says it is so appealing to rats, 
sources suggest that the Pied Piper  used valerian roots hidden in his clothes 
to lure the rats from the German town of Hamelin.

So there you have it: a beautiful herb that attracts vermin.
A good thing its roots quiet anxiety.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Catnip, nepeta cataria,has been delighting cats 
for more than 2,000 years 
according to Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs.

I once had catnip planted in a spot along my deck,
and our neighbor's cat Jeannie routinely flattened it by wallowing in it.
She loved catnip, and apparently, she joined a long line of felines
flattening catnip for their own pleasure.
According to Rodale, in 1754, British horticulturist Phillip Miller
wrote a "thoroughly exasperated description of cats rolling on a patch 
until it was absolutely flat."

Here's a photo of a cat in Australia reclining in some catnip:

Although I don't love catnip the way Jeannie did,
I have had catnip tea on occasion when I couldn't sleep.
Catnip tea has kind of  a hay-like aroma and minty flavor,
and it seems to help insomnia.
It's also supposed to be good for colds.
Rodale says the Romans used catnip as a salad green.

Remember Euell Gibbons,
author of the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus
and 1970s spokesman for Grape Nuts cereal?
This was his suggestion for an "after-dinner mint": candied catnip leaves. 
Dip the catnip leaf into beaten egg white and lemon juice.
Sprinkle both sides of the leaf with white sugar 
and let dry for about 48 hours.
Store in the refrigerator in a tightly closed container--
preferably away from your cat.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Wild Lemon Tree

Yesterday I wrote about Meyer lemon trees,
the small citrus fruit trees sold as table-top potted plants 
by big box stores and garden centers
In the course of my research for how to grow a Meyer lemon tree,
I came upon some information about wild lemon trees in Virginia.
Imagine my surprise to learn we have lemon trees here.
The wild lemon tree in Virginia is called a poncirus trifoliata:

Of course the first things one notices in the photo are the roundness of the lemons
and the proliferation of long pointy thorns on the branches.
You wouldn't want to run into one of those in the dark.
These wild lemons can be grown in the home garden as well:

Imagine walking in the woods and being suddenly enveloped
by a deep and heady lemon scent. 
That would cause one to pause and check it out.
I've read accounts of people harvesting the lemons in the wild 
and using them sliced in tea or in cooking.

Here's an image of wild lemons (some call them poncirus oranges)
owned by Sylvie Rowand and shown on her web site 
Rappahannock Cook and Kitchen Gardener.
Her web site looks like a lot of fun and so very interesting. 
Here's the link if you want to check it out further: 

trifoliate orange

The fruit isn't as pretty as commercially grown fruit, and it is full of  pits.
My mom would describe the look as "scrubby."
But I've read that the flavor of the wild lemon is the same as regular lemons,
so it would be easy enough to overlook their shabby appearance
if cooking with them.

I've never run across a wild lemon tree
on any of my hikes into the maritime forest,
but I would like to have the experience of finding one some day.
They must not be as prolific here in the southeast corner of the state
as further north and central in Virginia.
Still, finding a lemon tree this far north of Florida--
that would be wild. ;-)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Lemon Tree

I had planned to write about more summer herbs today,
but my sister reminded me about the "lemon tree" song
and her memories of playing a lemon tree in a school play.
So I decided to write a little about the song, 
and a little about the tree.

So first, the lemon tree song.
the song "Lemon Tree" was written by Maine resident Will Holt.
Some sources say the song is an adaptation of a Brazilian folk tune
arranged by José Carlos Burle in the 1930s.
The lemon tree song has been a popular recording choice since the 50s,
and it was the theme song for introducing Lemon Pledge in the 1960s.
Here's the sheet music for a recording of the song by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

A friend commented recently 
about her (unsuccessful) attempts to grow a lemon tree.
So I thought I'd read up a little on lemon trees,
especially since I would like to grow one too.

Container-grown Meyer Lemon trees 
that are appearing in garden centers now 
are always advertised as growing up to look like this:

Unfortunately, they usually end up looking like this,
if they retain their leaves at all:

So how to grow one of these?
Here are some tips from
Meyer Lemon trees need lots and lots of light.
They need protection from the wind 
and a temperature range of 50 to 80 degrees.
A large pot with high quality potting soil.
Most importantly, consistently moist soil.

Here are the things that will kill a potted lemon tree:
Too much water, too cold, too much or too little fertilizer.
And too little light.

It sounds so easy, 
so I'm tempted to give one a try out in my breakfast room
or maybe my living room, two rooms that get a lot of light.
My mother was given a Meyer Lemon tree by her sister
and her plant grew vigorously and produced a lot of fruit.
I wish I had asked her how she had been taking care of it,
but her kitchen had lots of light from east-facing windows.
I don't know if she ever put the container outside,
maybe in the summer.

I learned something else about lemon trees--
they actually grow wild in Virginia.
More about that tomorrow.