Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review - Encyclopedia of Herbs

The Encyclopedia of Herbs: A Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance
By Arthur O. Tucker, PhD and Thomas DeBaggio (published by Timber Press, 2009)

I have always wanted the definitive book on herbs, which is really an impossibility, but this book is probably the closest I've found.  Written by a botanist, Arthur O. Tucker and an herb specialist Thomas DeBaggio it is  a "meticulously researched compendium provides every aspect of growing, identifying, harvesting, preserving, and using more than 500 species of herbs."

It begins with sections on plant identification and naming then progresses through understanding an identifying the flavors and tastes to maximizing flavor and fragrance of herbs into how to grow them and keep them healthy.  Then it provides a profile of 500 different plants.  Providing a plant's botanical name and family, (as well as common names in various countries where it is grown,) whether it is an annual or perennial, its height, hardiness, light requirements, water consumption, required soil type, and pH. The often fascinating history of the plant, the chemistry of its essential oils, and its culinary, landscape, and craft uses are also included, as is advice on how to propagate.  The practical parts of the text, like how to propagate and tidbits of history were the brain child of Thomas DeBaggio.  This is actually a revised version of their first publication The Big Book of Herbs.  The authors received The Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature from the Herb Society of America. With this version they have added new plants and updated the nomenclature.  It does have an index which is invaluable with a book of this magnitude.  They also went to the trouble of providing plant name pronunciation guides including a way to know what the letters should sound like.  I thought that was a great touch, so we can say them right in the company of our herb peers and not feel silly.  The book also references GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) characteristics for the various plants profiled.

It has line drawings of herbs rather than photographs which I think was helpful and not so helpful depending on how you wish to use the book.  For plant identification it is not as helpful without a few color photos, but the other information it provides, more than makes up for this.  There are 145 line drawings included in the 604 pages of text.  The index includes topics as well as Scientific names and common names to make searching for herbs easier.

About the Authors

Joyce and Thomas DeBaggio taken by Melissa Block/NPR
I have to admit that I am biased toward Thomas DeBaggio, he was a self-taught herb grower who I got to know through his writing for the Herb Companion magazine back when I first got interested in herbs in the late 1980s. He was the founder of DeBaggio's Herb Farm and Nursery, now located in Chantilly, Virginia, and run by his son, Francesco.  He unfortunately died in 2011 after a long fight with Alzheimer's Disease.  One of my friends in herbs once said, Tom had forgotten more about herbs than he would ever learn in his lifetime.  Mellisa Block of NPR, had this to say in her obituary of this remarkable man:

"DeBaggio lived for plants and the garden. He started out selling tomato plants in Styrofoam cups from his driveway in Arlington, Va., for 25 cents apiece. That backyard business grew into a thriving herb farm and nursery with 100 varieties of tomato plants, three dozen kinds of basil — everything leafy and beautifully strong and fragrant.

"When DeBaggio was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's, he set to work, writing two books about living with the disease. He described with remarkable candor the frightening progression of his illness.
"This is an unfinished story of a man dying in slow motion," he wrote in the first book, which he titled, with his typical brutal honesty, Losing My Mind."

Dr. Arthur O. Tucker is a professor of botany at Delaware State University. He is a botanist specializing in the identification and chemistry of plants of flavor, fragrance, and medicine. He teaches and writes and is a Research Professor and Director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium.  He has published widely on many herbs and essential oils, is an acknowledged authority of the lavenders, and is on the editorial board of Economic Botany and Journal of Essential Oil Research as well as an advisor for many other journals and groups. 

If you want to get your self a copy of this wonderful hardcover book, check out this link to DeBaggio's Herb Famr and Nursery:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Herb of the Week - Garlic

I have been putting off writing about Garlic because I have been trying to decide if it is a real herb or not. It is generally classified as an herb, but all of the other herbs I grow, I use the leaves, or sometimes an occasional flower, whereas when I harvest Garlic, I discard the leaves, and just use the bulb.

But I finally decided that if Chives, which are the smallest member of the onion family are an herb, than it stands to reason that Garlic, the largest member of the onion family must also be an herb.

The Herb Society of America defines herb as: A plant that is valued for it’s flavor, scent, or other qualities.  Based on that definition, I suppose just about everything I grow is an herb.

But there is another reason I chose Garlic this week: tomorrow is National Garlic Day. So today we will celebrate the Herb of the Week Garlic(allium sativum )
Garlic is native to central Asia, but its use spread across the world more than 5000 years ago. It was worshipped by the Egyptians and fed to workers building the Great Pyramid at Giza, about 2600 BC. Greek athletes ate it to build their strength. Garlic came to the Western Hemisphere with some of the first European explorers, and its use spread rapidly. In the United States it was first cultivated in New Orleans by French settlers. Missionaries brought it to California, where it is grown today.
Gilroy California is home of the Annual Garlic Festival, the last week of July, where visitors can try everything from Garlic Aspic to Garlic Zucchini. The recent winner in the garlic cook-off was Spicy Garlic Butter Cookies with Garlic Goat Cheese and Honey. I have included the recipe below.


The word Garlic, near as I can tell comes from the old Anglo Saxon Gar meaning spear and Leac, (leek). The word Leek, at various times in history has defined not only the plant we know as Leeks today, but also any member of the onion family, and any herb with a grasslike appearance, So Gar-Leek would simply be a spear shaped grass, with bonus points given if it belonged to the onion family.

In ancient times, people used to eat garlic before making a journey at night. It made them belch and gives one a foul breath. The primitive belief was that evil spirits would not come within the radius of that powerful smell.  German miners took cloves of garlic with them into the mines to ward off evil spirits. It is no wonder that garlic's Sanskrit name means "slayer of monsters". Throughout other parts of Europe, India, China, Japan and Asia Minor, garlic is used as protection against the evil eye and witchcraft. The Koreans of old ate pickled garlic before passing through a mountain path, believing that tigers disliked it.  According to Islamic tradition, garlic is said to sprout any place where Satan placed his left foot during the time that he was being driven from paradise.

In Cuba, it is believed that if one wears a necklace of 13 garlic cloves for 13 days, jaundice will be cured. In England, nannies used garlic to treat whooping cough by putting it inside children's socks. In parts of Europe, people believe garlic can cure smallpox, leprosy, the plague and other infectious diseases. Also, it is said to prevent dropsy, sunstroke, hysteria and cure intestinal diseases.

Superstition aside, medicinally, Garlic is one of the safest herbs, and as such can be taken often. It does, however, have its drawbacks, as we all know. Bear this in mind when using remedies (especially internal ones), and cut back when family and friends start avoiding you.  Garlic has scientifically-proven medicinal properties. Allicin, has anti-bacterial properties that are equivalent to a weak penicillin. It appears that cooking garlic weakens the anti-bacterial effects considerably, however, so don't count on cooked garlic with meals for much in the way of a curative.

Garlic has been used at times, to treat wounds, ulcers, skin infections, flu, athlete's foot, some viruses, strep, worms, respiratory ailments, high blood pressure, blood thinning, cancer of the stomach, colic, colds, kidney problems, bladder problems, and ear aches, to name a few.

Eating garlic raw is probably the most potent way to take it. However, due to the obvious lingering odors associated with this, a tincture can be made by soaking 1/4 pound of peeled and separated garlic cloves in 1/2 quart of brandy. Seal tightly and shake every day. Strain and bottle after two weeks  If you like it enough to eat it raw, the odds are good that your health will benefit from it.  Current research is showing Garlic will lower bad cholesterol.

To Grow

Garlic, while sometimes getting a bad rap as being too strong or sharp, is one of the most coveted and useful herbs in the garden. There are three primary types of Garlic. Common Garlic, Hard-Neck Garlic and Elephant Garlic.

Elephant Garlic grows bigger bulbs, but is somewhat lacking in flavor. In fact, one of my sources said it “has absolutely enormous cloves, but has no garlic flavor worth mentioning.” I personally wouldn’t be quite so harsh. I have tried it, and it sort of tastes like garlic, but it certainly is weak garlic, I find Garlic chives have a more robust flavor than Elephant Garlic.

Of the Common Garlic there are two primary types. Artichoke, and Silverskin.

Artichoke varieties generally have either very white or white blushed rose outer skins with a row of decent sized cloves around the outside, and irritatingly smaller, thinner cloves in the interior. These are harder to peel and cook with, but are the ones that lend themselves best to braiding and will keep the best through the winter.

Silverskins have the strongest flavor, and have numerous small cloves. They are very white, with a soft brittle skin which breaks away easily, but provides very little protection in the root cellar.  These are the Garlic cloves most often found at the grocery store.

Hard-Neck Garlic gets its name from the tough stem that grows up the center of the bulbs. It is usually surrounded by 7-12 cloves and will have very little outside protective layers.

Growing Garlic is incredibly easy. Folklore says that Garlic should be planted on the shortest day of the year. While this may be fine for those in Europe, the ground here is generally frozen in mid December. My grandfather always planted his Garlic in the fall, and then covered the garden with leaves. This was part of putting the garden to bed for the winter.
Garlic will do best in full sun but can be grown with satisfactory results in partial shade. It can tolerate periods without rain, but best results come from plants that receive regular watering.  Garlic is grown as an annual, started from cloves broken out of the bulb. Garlic is best planted in the fall and allowed to overwinter in the ground, to be harvested the following summer. In mild climates garlic will grow all winter; in cold climates areas, it will go dormant in the winter, and should be mulched.

Garlic almost never produces fertile seeds. It must be propagated vegetatively. Divide garlic bulbs into individual cloves and plant them, flattened end down, about 2-3 in (5-7.6 cm) deep and 3-4 in (7.6-10 cm) apart. Rocambole can be started from cloves or from the little bulblets that are produced on the top of the looping stem, but the cloves grow faster.
You can buy seed garlic from a nursery or garden shop, but truthfully you can just use the cloves from the grocery store.  A serious gardener will buy several heads of garlic and the pick off only the biggest cloves to plant, using the smaller ones in their own kitchen.

The bigger the clove is when you plant it, the bigger the head of garlic will be when you harvest it.

Plant garlic with the flat end down, and the pointy end up. plant single cloves 4-6" apart in rows about 12" apart. Garlic will work in a container, but keep in mind that the mature plant may well be almost 3' tall, so plan accordingly.

Once you plant it, Garlic is relatively maintenance free. You just leave it alone until it grows and blooms and then, when the plant starts to die off and turn yellow you harvest it.

You can cut the tops off and dry the heads, or, you can braid the tops into an attractive Garlic Braid – I think I did a post on this a long time ago.

No matter how you choose to keep your garlic, remember that it is important that it be kept dry, or it will mold.

Garlic Dip

8-10 large garlic cloves
1/4 tsp. sea salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon or to taste
4 Tbls. extra-virgin olive oil

Add the garlic and salt to food processor bowl. Process and add oil through the feed tube very slowly. Add lemon juice, again very slowly; process until the mixture is very creamy, like mayonnaise. You MUST add the oil VERY slowly or it won't mix properly. It just ends up being very oily.  Use the dip with bread or crackers or as a flavoring in sour cream.

Garlic & Herb Dip
You can make this with Backyard Patch Garlic and Herb Combination Herb Mix or you can make it fresh by adding the herbs to freshly minced Garlic.  This recipe is for making with fresh garlic.

1 to 2 Tbls. Fresh minced garlic (to taste)
1 Tbls. Fresh chopped basil leaves
1 Tbls. Fresh chopped parsley leaves
1 tsp.  paprika
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
Pinch gr. Red pepper (optional)

Blend with ½ cup olive oil for a bread dip, or stir into 1 cup sour cream for a chip or vegetable dip.  Blend with 2 sticks of butter to make garlic bread.

Spicy Garlic Butter Cookies with Garlic Goat Cheese and Honey
Makes 20-25 cookies

1 cup all-purpose flour (unbleached preferred)
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. baking powder
1 stick plus 3 Tbls.unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup. sugar
5 cloves roasted garlic
3 ounces goat cheese, softened
3 cloves roasted garlic
Hungarian paprika

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the cloves of roasted garlic and beat for another minute or until cloves are incorporated. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture. Mix until just combined. Form dough into an 8″ to 10″ log (approximately 2″ diameter) and wrap it in plastic wrap. Chill dough until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Cut log into 1/8″ to ¼” slices and fill ungreased large baking sheet(s), arranging slices about 1″ apart. Bake cookies until the edges are golden, approximately 12 minutes. When pulled from heat, immediately indent center of each cookie with the back of a spoon. Cool on the sheets then transfer to wire racks to completely cool.

Meanwhile, combine softened goat cheese and 3 cloves of roasted garlic in a small bowl, combining well. Once cookies have cooled completely, add a good-sized dollop of garlic goat cheese mixture in the center of each cookie. Drizzle some honey over each, add a dash of Hungarian paprika and serve.

Garlic Soup

26 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
2 1/4 cups sliced onions
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
18 garlic cloves, peeled
3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
4 lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 26 garlic cloves in small glass baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake until garlic is golden brown and tender, about 45 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic between fingertips to release cloves. Transfer cloves to small bowl.

Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and thyme and cook until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add roasted garlic and 18 raw garlic cloves and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken stock; cover and simmer until garlic is very tender, about 20 minutes. Working in batches, purée soup in blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan; add cream and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring occasionally.)

Divide grated cheese among 4 bowls and ladle soup over. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon wedge into each bowl and serve.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Herb of the Week - Castor Bean

The bold look is back in garden design, so not surprisingly, castor beans have reappeared as backdrops for gardeners wanting to make a prominent statement in their plantings. Everything about castor bean is bold and a bit audacious, so gardeners with a bit of maverick in them seem to be drawn to this big plant. It was a very popular plant in 1890s gardening and cam be a great focal point in your garden.  Because the bean make a useful oil, one can loosely consider them and herb, so this week’s

Herb of the Week is Castor (Ricinus communis).

Castor bean (Ricinus communis) is a member of the spurge family and is native to tropical Africa where it grows as a tree to 40 feet tall. When grown as an annual it is usually a more modest 10 feet tall, which I what it will be when grown in Illinois where I live. Its leaves are star shaped with five to nine lobes and can be as large as a garbage can lid. The selections grown as ornamentals usually have a maroon tinge to the foliage.

The flowers of castor bean are borne near the top of the plant in panicles. But lacking petals they are not especially noteworthy. As the seed mature, the three-celled, spiny capsules turn bright red on foot long panicles and make an interesting distraction to the bold foliage.

It is from the extracts of this seed that castor bean gains its real significance. The oil is used commercially for everything from lubrication to cosmetics and is one of the most important industrial crop oils.

Children of my parent’s generation, probably know castor oil as a not-so-gentle laxative. The purgative powers of castor bean have long been known. The ancient Egyptians believed that food was the source of disease, so they drank beer laced with castor bean three times a month for a hearty flush of the digestive track.

As a teen-ager my encounter with castor bean expanded when I tried Castrol motor oil in hopes it would make my old Ford run like a race car. It didn’t help. The oil is used commercially in cosmetics, medicine and waterproofing treatments.

But castor bean seeds have one other characteristic that merits attention - they are poisonous. The poison is ricin, a proteinaceous molecule similar in structure and mode of action to the bacterial toxin found in anthrax. It’s said to be 1,000 times more toxic than cobra venom.

Castor bean is sometimes called mole plant from the practice of placing castor bean seeds in mole runs where the rodents will hopefully eat the seeds and perish. When you spot a castor bean growing in the middle of someone’s lawn, you can bet that the moles missed one.

Because of poor absorption of the phytotoxin from seed, fatalities from accidentally ingested seeds are uncommon. In fact, I can find no direct reports of fatalities from the seeds unless some nefarious plot was at work. But prudence dictates that castor bean plants should not be planted if small children are around.
Castor oil has been used medicinally in the United States since the days of the pioneers. As Americans moved west after the Civil War, settlers were very attracted to Indian medicines and popular "cure-all" remedies. The stronger smelling and the more vile tasting the concoction, the better, and some medical historians have described the latter part of the 1800's as the "age of heroic cures." Traveling medicine men peddled their elixirs throughout towns of the west, and often their products contained up to 40 percent (80 proof) alcohol. Castor oil was one of the old-fashioned remedies for everything from constipation to heartburn. It is indeed a very effective cathartic or purgative (laxative) and is still used to this day; however, there are milder, less drastic methods of inducing regularity. Castor oil is also used as personal lubricant: It is sometimes applied externally as a soothing emollient for dry skin, dermatitis, other skin diseases, sunburn, open sores, and it is the primary ingredient of several brand name medications. Several additional little-known uses for castor oil include hair tonics, ointments, cosmetics, and contraception creams and jellies. One remarkable old remedy mentions administering castor oil to induce labor during pregnancy.
One of the reasons castor plants have become so successful is their extremely viable seed that germinates readily in a variety of soils. In fact, desperate vegetable gardeners have been known to place the poisonous seeds in the burrows of gophers and moles, thus propagating and dispersing the plant. Because of its ability to grow wild and reseed itself, castor plants are recognized by botanists as naturalized weeds throughout the southwestern United States.
Castor beans, despite their colorful history, are still good garden plants. They are best used at the back of the flower border where they form a fast growing, bold screen. Seeds should be planted where the plant is to stand in mid spring after the last chance of frost is past. They do best in full sun in any good garden soil. They are intolerant of wet locations.
Lavender Water Voile
The word voile in French means veil and is used to describe something that is very light and delicate.  When used to describe fragrance a voile is gentle and soft, just a whisper of fragrance on your skin.  You can also use a different favorite floral scent in this recipe, such as jasmine or rose.

¼ cup filtered or distilled water
12 drops castor oil
6 to 8 drops lavender essential oil

Mix together all ingredients and stir well.  Pour into a clean container with a tight-fitting lid.
Directions for use: Splash on after bath or shower.

Peppermint Lip Balm
3 tsp. jojoba Oil
1 tsp. castor oil
1 tsp. full-scented Cocoa butter
1 tsp. beeswax
10 drops peppermint essential oil
  1. Melt the cocoa butter together with beeswax.
  2. Add the jojoba and castor oil. 
  3. Stir and allow to cool slightly before adding the essential oils and blend thoroughly. 
  4. Pour into lip balm container.
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