3 Herb Mamas

Seasonal Living: Life is a Bowl of Cherries

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It has been said that life is a bowl of cherries. And it is…at least if you live in our area right now. It looks like the local orchards and farms will be enjoying as good a year for cherries as it has been a bad one for strawberries. A late cold snap and heavy frost with a freeze at a vulnerable time when the strawberries were blooming resulted a dismal harvest for most farmers and gardeners. It was time to renew our strawberry bed so last fall I removed all of the older, depleted plants to the compost pile and started with fresh disease-free roots this spring. As many of you may know, you cannot harvest strawberries the first year from June-bearing types, which are my favorite kind. Instead, it is necessary to remove all of the blossoms the first year as they come on so that the energy will go into building strong root systems for a heavy second year crop of delicious berries. That task was made easier for me given the severe late weather. I wasn’t expecting to harvest this year so the loss was not as acute as it was for many area farmers. Although I was able to procure a small amount of strawberries to make a couple of scanty batches of jam, the 2014-2015 culinary year promises to have very few strawberry themed dishes.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the cherries are on now and crowding center stage as only those lovely, sweet (and tart!) luscious fruits can.

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All of this, coupled with daily meanderings through our gardens, left me pondering seasonal eating. It seemed like a perfect time to kick off this facet of the 3 herb mamas blog. Grocery stores, modern food preservation methods, media and advertising have led most of us to assume that we can and should have access to everything from melons and berries to fresh cream and eggs (Yes, these do have seasons!) anytime we wish to indulge a whim for them, be it during a blizzard in February or the sultry dog days of summer. I would be the last person to suggest that we eschew all forms of food preservation for enjoying the bounty after their peak fresh eating season has passed. My pantry and freezers are always well-stocked before the first snows fly.

However, there are many good reasons to follow the seasons for the bulk of our diet as much as it is possible for each of us. These include:

*Optimum nutritional value 

*Optimum flavor and texture

*Reacquainting ourselves with natural rhythms and cycles of nature

*Either growing our own favorite vegetables and fruits or supporting others who do so locally

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Until I had tasted a literally fresh-picked pea and shelled it directly into my mouth a second or two after it came off the vine, I never understood the term sweet peas. I quickly learned that my young children preferred these over candy and found that I needed to harvest alone if I wanted any shell peas to make it into the gathering basket. Both sweet corn and peas begin to convert their natural sugars into starch as soon as they are picked. I cherish the memories of my grandfather who refused to go pick the corn for our evening meal until the water in which it was going to be cooked was almost boiling. He would run back from the garden with his arms loaded with fresh ears of corn and my cousins and I would “shuck like the wind” and rush them over to the big pot of boiling water. A meal would be enjoyed that no king’s table could surpass!

It may take time and a whole new perspective to begin to eat and live seasonally, given our current temperature controlled, monotonous daily environments and schedules, but it is well worth the effort. I promise. If you don’t have time or space or inclination to garden, then frequent your local farms and farmer’s markets. This is a great site for finding pick-your-own farms (in the U.S.) near you: http://www.pickyourown.org . Also check you phone directory for area farms. Buying direct from the grower at the peak of season is often a rock bottom bargain that no couponing or sales can match. In my area right now there are still a wide variety of greens, cherries, squash, onions, garlic, broccoli and other cole crops available.

In our own garden the spinach and cilantro are bolting but the kale is still holding on, sweet peas are maturing and producing even with our family picking every evening. The blueberries are just starting to ripen although the crop does not look as heavy as it has been some years. Radishes are done but I have left some in the ground in some of the beds after reading that this repels pests that are attracted to cucumbers and squash. The Basil is getting serious now with the warmer days and I do believe it is officially Pesto Season! The Mint and Parsley are lush and fragrant, which means there is no holding back with a family favorite, Tabbouleh. (I just love ethnic recipes that would laugh at the more typical ingredient lists for herbs and spices that measure in teaspoons and tablespoons. My Tabbouleh recipe requires me to gather a big basket of Parsley and Mint. Delicious, refreshing, and satisfying!)

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TABBOULEH

2 cups Bulgur (cracked wheat)

2 cups boiling water

3 cups Parsley, finely minced

1/2 cup Mint, finely minced

3 green Onions, chopped

1/4 tsp. freshly ground Black Pepper

1/4 tsp. ground Cumin seed

1/2 tsp. sea salt

2 medium Tomatoes, diced

2 Cucumbers, diced

3 Tbsp. fresh Lemon juice

3 Tbsp. Olive oil

Romaine Lettuce

Presoak the Bulgur by covering with the boiling water and allowing to stand for 1 hour. Combine all of the other ingredients except for the lemon juice and olive oil in a large bowl. When the Bulgur is ready add it to the large bowl along with the lemon juice and olive oil. Toss all to combine well. Chill for at least one hour before serving. Works fine to make it a day ahead. I love summer time foods like Tabbouleh because they are filling and satisfying while also being refreshing and light. Plus, there is no need to heat up the kitchen on a hot summer day. Serve rolled up in fresh, crispy Romaine leaves along with some fresh fruits or veggies from the garden.

Seasonal Living blog posts will appear the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month at least, although sometimes more often if an impending harvest warrants.

Happy Summer to All! ~Leenie

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HERBAL HALF-DOZEN FOR THE GARDEN

It’s that time of year again, Folks! Time to plan and soon, to plant your herb gardens. I am usually asked at this time of the year what to plant for a medicinal herb garden. It is really a difficult question to answer. Every herb garden is unique to the person tending and harvesting from it. There is no one size fits all. If you or your loved ones have frequent respiratory challenges then your healing garden would emphasize plants that support that system, like Comfrey, Elecampane, and Rosemary. If, on the other hand, digestive upsets are a frequent occurrence for you then you would want plants like Mallow, Mint, and Plantain. So you might have to put in a little research time before you make your plant and seed selections and begin designing your herb garden for health. Think first about what your top one or two health concerns are, google or search your herbals for appropriate plants, look up the cultivation requirements for those and make choices that suit your needs.

Below I’ve included a half dozen medicinal plants that are likely to be useful in every home. I’ve chosen them for ease of cultivation as well as their broad usefulness. I will describe my experiences growing them as well as how we use them in our home apothecary. I limited myself to half a dozen because that is both a sufficient  place to start…actually, starting with ONE plant you love or want to learn about in depth is perfectly fine…and less likely to overwhelm than planting dozens of must-have herbs that would be better grown gradually over a lifetime. So, here are a half-dozen medicinal plants that I always hope to have in my garden.

ECHINACEA

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Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea or E. angustafolia) is also known as Purple Coneflower and is as lovely and welcome in the flower garden as the medicinal garden. Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies love it so it will attract pollinators to your garden. This is our go-to plant for boosting the immune system to fight off colds and flu. It is also reliable to improve lymphatic circulation and drainage. E. purpurea is the easiest variety to grow from seed. Other varieties might be more easily obtained by most home gardeners by purchasing plants either locally or by mail order. Once established in a nice dry, sunny place Echinacea is care free. Plants should be allowed to grow a minimum of 2-3 years before digging roots for medicine making. I prefer fresh root tincture over dried plant preparations. In my experience they have proven far more effective. We have lots of shale in the ground on our little mountain top ridge and Echinacea is happy with our maniacally good drainage. I never fertilize and yet the plants reseed freely and thrive. The enemy of Echinacea is “wet feet”, or their roots being in heavy wet soil. I have known people to lose Echinacea plants who planted a border against their house where the rain water running off their roof collected and soaked the plants regularly. Echinacea can be made into whole plant preparations or root only ones. Tinctures and syrups are my preferred preparations but many people dry, powder and encapsulate it as well. I have found dried Echinacea root to be far less effective than fresh tinctured and the dried and powdered preparations degrade very quickly. If I use dried root I like to dry it myself, powder it and then promptly store it in the freezer for use as needed.

CALENDULA

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Calendula officinalis is so sunny and bright and easy to grow that I want to encourage everyone to use it. When you discover its powerful healing properties you will welcome it to your garden year after year. The flowers have a sticky resin that makes for excellent skin preparations of all kinds from daily-use lotions and creams to healing salves. It is one of the essential triad of herbs I use in my Triple Healing Salve. The blossoms are the part used and they can be gathered and dried all summer for use as needed. I also like to steep fresh flowers in extra virgin olive oil for use in salves as needed. The dried blossoms are a beautiful addition to tea blends and offer a soothing, healing component for ulcers and digestive upsets. I have used Calendula as an eyewash as well as a gargle and mouth rinse thanks to its antiseptic qualities. It also makes an excellent hair rinse, especially for blonds. You can grow this plant easily from seeds, which are widely available at nurseries and garden centers. Left in place it will readily reseed year after year. Keep clipping off blossoms and drying them to encourage more to form all summer.

MINTS

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The Mint Family is comprised many and varied members and you are bound to find one especially suited to your needs. Spearmint and Peppermint are perhaps the best known but there are many others. Lemon Balm is a particular favorite of mine. This is a huge family of plants and I can’t possibly cover them all. All can be soothing and healing for the digestive and nervous systems and make an excellent addition to tea blends to improve flavor. Many mints prefer damp, shady soil. I gather wild Spearmint from along a nearby stream and I grow Lemon Balm in ordinary garden soil. Lemon Balm is fabulous fresh but loses its unique lemony flavor quickly upon drying. I generally preserve it by chopping and freezing in ice cube trays or by steeping in white wine instead. Spearmint and Peppermint dry well while retaining their distinctive flavors. Both of these are good for promoting good digestion and thus make an excellent after-dinner tea. Or simply place a sprig on dinner plates as a garnish to chew after your meal. All three of these make wonderfully refreshing, energizing iced teas in the summer. Peppermint combined with Elder blossoms and Yarrow from the wild makes a very effective tea or tincture for bringing down high fevers. All the mints are useful additions to baths, facial preparations and body lotions or creams.

COMFREY

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Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis) is a plant I have loved and loved to grow for 25 years now. I started a patch from a tiny pinkie-sized root cutting when our first child was a newborn and have continued to divide and use the plant for more than two decades, including a transplant to our new home 18 years ago. Comfrey is a cell regenerator and thus is useful for sprains, torn ligaments, bruises and other joint injuries. Many times we’ve made a fresh leaf poultice for someone in the family who has “turned” an ankle or wrist and every time we are all amazed and grateful for the rapid healing and soothing effects. This is another essential herbal ingredient in my Triple Healing Salve. I use both root and leaf preparations and have found them to be effective both fresh and dried. It grows easily but prefers shady, damp spots best of all. Goats love Comfrey and it is full of healthy minerals for both them and us. It is a bioactivator and speeds up composting so it is an essential in the biodynamic garden. In fact, you can make a most excellent garden and house plant fertilizer by brewing a strong “tea” from fresh leaves in a 5 gallon bucket and allowing it to ferment for a week or so before watering with it.

Tulsi

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Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum or O. sanctum) grows readily from seed and makes the most delicious tea. I like to use it alone as a tea or as the base for many blends. Its uses are broad and varied. It is an excellent tonic for nervous, respiratory and digestive systems. It really has far too many uses to list. I love that it is so easy to grow from seed and yet is tasty and serves so many uses. There is hardly a bodily system or organ that will not benefit from Tulsi and it has no known side-effects. It can be grown in pots for those living in tight quarters without access to a garden. Use it both internally and externally in teas, tinctures, vinegars, herbal wines, hair and dental rinses, eaten fresh, facial masks, toners and creams, and just about any other way you can imagine. Studies are showing positive effects on blood sugar regulation for diabetics and cholesterol levels for heart patients. Tulsi is truly amazing and you can grow it in your own home garden!

BERRIES

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Although you may not think of berries as herbs in the strict botanical sense of the word, they are powerful allies for health and healing that are generally easy to grow and productive. Since these are often available only at a premium price, people often neglect to include them in their daily fare. Once established they are easy to harvest and preserve. Raspberries and blueberries, for example, can simply be gathered and frozen. Eating a cup a day is an excellent habit and will provide flavonoids and anti-oxidants in abundance. Raspberries and blackberries are happy in borders and edging places that other plants would struggle to survive in. Some varieties of blueberries can be grown in pots if space limitations are an issue. Berries are rich in vitamin C and fiber, assisting with weight management (They’re 85% water!) and managing type 2 diabetes. In studies they have provided beneficial improvement for those suffering from arthritis. They improve age-related memory loss, cataracts and eye health, as well as skin and hair health. The leaves of both raspberries and blueberries are mineral rich and make beneficial teas. Raspberry leaves are particularly useful for uterine tone and reproductive health for women and blueberry leaves help regulate healthy blood sugar levels.

Check back soon for my Wild Herbal Half-Dozen!

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