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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Herb of The Week -- Bee Balm

The herb of the week this week is Bee Balm (monarda)
Monarda is a genus consisting of roughly 16 species of both annual and perennial plants also known as bee balm, horse mint or lemon mint (being, technically a member of the mint family), oswego tea, or bergamot.

Bee Balm is edible and medicinal, the entire plant above ground is edible used as a pot herb, and it is also used as a flavoring in cooked foods.

(pot·herb: A plant whose leaves, stems, or flowers are cooked and eaten or used as seasoning.)

This is a brand new addition to our garden this year. I had never grown it before, and had only heard of it briefly before last year.

I got our plant at a perennial swap this spring. A group of students from a botany class at the local high school grew several different plants and then brought them to the swap. Their mission, (or assignment, perhaps), was to educate people on the plants they had brought, then trade them for different plants, which they then had to take back to the school and study. So they didn't care what they traded for, as long as it was something they didn't already have.

I wish there had been such a fun class when I was in school, I may have paid attention more.

The plant that I have is reported to have bright red flowers, but it has not yet bloomed. Supposedly it blooms in June and July, if so, mine better hurry!

The variety with Red flowers is also called Oswego Tea. It was used by American colonists in place of English Tea after the Boston Tea Party, when they threw the English tea in the harbor to protest the high taxes imposed on it by the British.

Bee balm is considered a good plant to grow with tomatoes, as it is said to improve both health and flavor. It also is a good companion plant in general, attracting pollinators and some predatory/parasitic insects that hunt garden pests.

It can be grown from seeds or cuttings, and will grow quickly and if not kept in control, can become aggressive. Like most herbs, it prefers full sun to partial shade, and likes well drained, slightly alkali soil. It can be grown in clumps or masses for a nice effect as a background plant. Planting 18 inches apart would allow plenty of room.

Although not widely used as a culinary herb, largely because it is not really well known or understood, Bee Balm has a flavor slightly citrus and very slightly reminiscent of mint and oregano. It is good with fruit, in salads, in jellies, or with lamb, or wild game. It can also be used in teas or as a garnish. The flowers are edible and are often used with fruit compotes or as a garnish for desserts.
Our Bee Balm, right after it was planted

Medicinally, generally as a tea, it is reported to have beneficial properties that include improving general digestion, easing flatulence, improving appetite, relieving colic, reducing bloating, alleviating menstrual cramping, and reducing nausea and vomiting.

Externally, bee balm is a wonderful aromatherapy herb. Try placing a handful of fresh leaves in a cloth and positioning it under hot running bath water for a relaxing, lemony scented bath. Deeply breathing in the steam may also help relieve cold symptoms such as sore throat, fever, and congestion.

Bee Balm has also shown some merit as an antiseptic and antibacterial, and a clean cloth can be soaked in a tea and used as a compress, or an ointment can be made to help relieve pain and speed healing for minor wounds, insect stings, and for relief of eczema, psoriasis, cold sores, and clearing up acne.

There is some literature that suggests that Bee Balm should not be ingested if there is a history of thyroid problems, and of course, anyone who is pregnant or nursing should use care and seek advise of a professional before using any herb medicinally.

Although Bee Balm leaves can be rubbed directly on the skin as a mosquito repellent, on some people it may cause phototoxicity (sensitivity to the sun), so using undiluted is not recommended without first testing on a small area of skin.
A month after we planted it

Bee Balm uses in folklore and magic are surprisingly rather sketchy and hard to find.
It is ideal for purifying and relaxation spells, when leaves and flowers
are tied in a cloth and placed under hot running bathwater. Because of this, it is considered a good addition to spells or rituals concerning peace, happiness, contentment, restfulness, and ridding oneself of negative energies or hexes.

Bee Balm is bound to Air and Mercury, and due to the influence of both of these (Air for intellect and Mercury for success), it is believed to be a good herb for money and success in business-related spells. Carry a few leaves in your wallet to attract money, or rub leaves on the skin before a business meeting or job interview for success.

Of course, Bee balm is an excellent herb either alone or combined with other herbs for any spell or ritual that calls for a tea or infusion, and it tastes good too!

On that note, I think I'll go pick some, rub it on my hands for money, Make some delicious tea, for peace, happiness, contentment, and see if I can rid myself of any negative hexes that are hovering around. If you see any wild hexes flying away from me, please duck.

Our Bee Balm tonight

I just have to add, I had never tasted this plant, but when I went out to take this picture, I broke some off, so I brought it in and tasted it.

Wow! It really has a unique flavor. Kind of an "Italian herb, mixed with Lemon Balm" flavor. Now that I know what it tastes like, I see myself using this one a lot!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Herb of The Week -- Hens and Chicks

My Herb of the week is Hens and Chicks, sempervivum tectorum.

Hens and chicks, also known as Hens and Chickens , Jupiter's Eye (or Beard), Thor's Beard, Bullock's Eye, Sengreen, Ayron, Ayegreen, Donnersbart and Houseleek, has been a favourite herb since ancient times. The plant is native to the mountains of Europe and the Greek Islands.

The literal translation for the name is “Always Green on the Roof” and refers to the plants hardy nature and the fact that they were often planted on roofs in England, Wales, France, and much of Europe. The Frankish King Charlemagne (742-814 CE) told his subjects to plant the herb on their roofs since it reputedly warded off lightning and fire.

A perennial succulent, easy-care herb in zones 5-10, it does very well in rock gardens, along old walls, or edging pathways. Each plant will grow to four inches and produce round rosettes of leaves and flowering stems . A widely cultivated ornamental garden plant, it spreads easily and prefers sandy, dry soil.

The master plant will spread rapidly by offshoots, which can be left to form an attractive matting of plants, or rooted separately for use in other parts of the garden. The name Hens and Chicks came about because the master plant, with all the offshoots around it is reminiscent of a mother hen, surrounded by a brood of chicks.

It takes from 3-5 years for a plant to mature. When mature a plant will produce sparse purple flowers in July on an upright stem that can reach up to a foot tall. There is also a variation available in a deep maroon color. Each plant will bloom only once and then, once it has bloomed it will die, making room for the offshoots to grown and reach maturity.

I know of no culinary uses for Hens and Chicks, in fact, when taken internally, in large doses, the juice will act as a emetic or purgative.

Hens and chicks have medicinal properties similar to those of aloe vera, although in weaker concentration, and the juice is harder to extract.

Freshly pressed leaves and their juice may be used externally to soothe skin conditions, including burns, wounds, ulcers, insect bites, inflammations, hemorrhoids, eczema, and fungal infections, as well as itchy and burning parts of the skin. Folklore also says they will remove warts and corns.

In magic, Hens and Chicks are believed to be an herb of protection, luck and love.
In folk belief, it was a practice to grow Hens and Chicks at the front door so that they would be the first thing a man saw when he returned from the fields. This was believed to increase the sexual prowess of the man of the house, for which reason they were known in Dorset as "Welcome Husband."

In Scotland, ancient magicians perceived something of the Moon in the roundness of the rosettes, and associated them with with moon-magic, fancying the plant mystically capable of deflecting black sorcery.

The Romans grew Sempervivum in vases at the entrance to homes for prosperity, and to show esteem to Jupiter. This was thought to provide protection from storms, fire, and lightening, all associated with Jupiter.

Although my mother grew them as ground cover when I was a child, I never knew until just recently all the fascinating history, folklore, and medicinal value of this unassuming little plant.

Here are some all potted up cute, and ready to go to the Farmers Market this weekend.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Herb of The Week -- Comfrey

The herb of the week this week is Comfrey. symphytum officinale.

I had read something about Comfrey at the end of last season, and wanted to try it, so when I found some at the plant exchange I went to in April, I was excited to bring it home and play with it.

This is kind of stepping outside of my comfort zone just a bit, because Comfrey is not really a culinary herb, although some herbalists suggest using the tender young leaves, chopped in salads.

In fact, some people claim that it should not be taken internally at all, but we will get to that later. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Comfrey, a hardy perennial native to Europe, is member of the Boraginaceae family, a cousin to borage and forget-me-not.

With a long history as a healing plant Comfrey is commonly also commonly known as Knitbone, Boneset, Bruisewort, Ass Ear,(I personally like this one best), and Blackwort. Comfrey is an old herb that has been used medicinally for several centuries at least.

The name Comfrey comes from the Latin con firma, meaning with strength. It is believed this is a reference to the plant's ability to heal bones. The botanical name, symphytum, is from the Greek symphyo meaning to unite.

Comfrey is native to Europe, particularly to Great Britain, where is it often referred to as The Wonder Plant.

Besides its’ medicinal properties, Comfrey is very rich in nutrients with both nitrogen and phosphorus levels that exceed barnyard manure and many commercial fertilizers. The nutrients are very easy to extract, so Comfrey has become a favorite supplemental plant for many Natural and Organic Gardeners.

Comfrey is a fast growing aggressive plant, that establishes easily and perseveres stubbornly, so if you plan on growing it, you should carefully consider the location where you are putting it. Chances are, if you decide to move it, you will have two comfrey beds, the new one, and the old one.

Comfrey will grow in full sun, partial shade to almost full shade, it doesn’t like thin, dry soils. In the wild, it tends to grow in shady boggy areas, marshes and river banks.

It will root deep, so dig as deep as you can to give it the best possible start. The long tap root pulls nutrients from deep in the ground. This is why the leaves are so rich in nutrients that the plants around it may lack.

If you just want one comfrey plant it is probably best to buy one from a nursery, or get one, like I did, from a plant swap, a friend or an acquaintance.

Comfrey can be started from seed, but it requires a cold winter to germinate, so if you plant it in the spring, you may not get any plants until the following spring.

If you are looking to establish a larger quantity of comfrey this is usually done with root cuttings, lengths of root 2-6” long that are buried lengthwise in a trench.

Cuttings or plants, should be planted 4-8 inches deep and 18-36” apart. They will grow rapidly and will fill in between the plants in just a year or two. Feel free to work a little manure into the soil before you plant, even fresh chicken manure. Comfrey processes nitrogen so quickly, that there is little to no danger of burning it by adding fresh manure. In fact, in some countries, farmers use a comfrey field as a place to dispose of raw barnyard slurry. This helps keep it out of surrounding waterways.

Once you have planted, the next step is to do nothing. From this point Comfrey is pretty much self managing. Regular water is about all it will ever ask of you to remain healthy. A healthy Comfrey plant will live several decades.

Leaves can be harvested and at any time. If you are growing it to harvest the leaves you can make your first cutting when the plants are about 2' tall. Cut back to within a few inches of the crown. If you begin harvesting early, you may not get flowers. Leaves, flowers and roots are all used in traditional medicine.

One of the easiest uses of comfrey is as a mulch for other crops. Comfrey leaves will slowly release all the nutrients their long tap roots pulled up from the soil. They’re especially good around plants that like a little extra potassium, like fruits and tomatoes. Many people recommend laying a layer of comfrey leaves in the trench before you plant potatoes. The leaves will rot quickly, giving an extra burst of potasium and nitrogen to the potatoes just when they need it the most.

The other main way to use the leaves in gardening is by brewing Comfrey Tea. There are two methods for doing this.

One is to simply fill a bucket, barrel, tub or crock with leaves, weight them down and leave them in the sun for 3-5 weeks. a drainage hole at the base will allow the thick brown liquid to ooze out as it forms, and it can be collected and stored for later use. It is generally recommended that this type of Tea be diluted before using. It should be diluted with water from 1:1 to 1:10, until it is roughly the color of iced tea. It can then be applied to your plants.

The second method is to fill a vat, bucket barrel or tub 1/4th of the way with comfrey leaves and then fill it the rest of the way with water. Again 4-5 weeks in the sun will brew your tea nicely and it should be just the right concentrate to use directly on your plants.

A word of warning. with either method, you will probably have a strong smell coming from the tea as it ferments. This is an anaerobic process, and will smell kind of like raw sewage. I strongly recommend that you use a bucket with a lid, and that you resist the urge to peek in every day or two.

The second primary use for Comfrey, besides as a garden supplement, is the medicinal use.

This is the part where I need to repeat my medical disclaimer.

I am not a medical expert, or even an herb expert. Although many herbs have been shown to have effects on the human body, I include medical benefits of herbs from my research for informational purposes only. You should always consult a medical professional before beginning any herbal regimen or using any herbs medicinally. Herbs should be used medicinally only under the guidance of a trained professional.

Special care and consideration should be taken by anyone pregnant or nursing before using this or any herb medicinally.

OK, having said that, let’s get back to the medicinal properties of Comfrey.

Comfrey may be used either externally or internally. In a recent study artificially large amounts of alkaloids extracted from Comfrey were injected directly into a bloodstream, causing liver failure. This caused a great deal of concern about Comfrey. It has been banned by the FDA from use in commercially produced herbal supplements.

So although it is used widely as livestock food, and although Comfrey farmers have, for years, fed comfrey to their families as a nearly unparalleled source of protein, potassium, calcium, and vitamins A, B12, and C for years in salads, sauteed along with other vegetables, or drunk as a comforting tea, I cannot on good faith condone taking it internally without checking with your doctor. Further, under no circumstances should a pregnant or nursing woman ingest comfrey.

That brings us to the external uses.

Comfrey contains a substance called Allantoin. This is present in both fresh and dried leaves, and in even stronger concentration in the root of the plant. Allantoin is present, oddly enough, in the urine of most mammals, with the exception of humans and apes, and is part of the reason that barnyard manure makes good fertilizer.

Allantoin is, among other things, an active ingredient in over-the-counter cosmetics because it has a moisturizing effect. It increases the smoothness of the skin; promotes cell growth and wound healing, and has a soothing, anti-irritant, and skin protectant effect by bonding with and enveloping irritant and sensitizing agents.

It is frequently present in toothpaste, mouthwash, and other oral hygiene products, in shampoos, lipsticks, anti-acne products, sun care products, and clarifying lotions, various cosmetic lotions and creams, and other cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.

You can extract the allantoin from the roots and the leaves, or use them fresh, dried, or ground to make a poultice.

Making a Comfrey Poultice
What you'll need:

- enough comfrey leaves to cover the affected area in a paste
- Purified water in some form—preferably distilled water or spring water
- a clean piece of gauze, large enough to cover the affected area
- something like an Ace bandage to wrap around the gauze and a pin or tape to hold it in place
- a blender or mortar and pestle
- a saucepan

Grind the leaves with a a mortar and pestle or place them in a blender with about half as much purified water as leaves. Grind or blend away at the comfrey and water until a paste is formed. If it's too soupy, add more leaves. Once you've got your leaves mashed in one way or another, you're ready to heat the paste. In a small saucepan, over very low heat so as not to scald the herbs, heat your mixture to a comfortable, soothing temperature, stirring constantly. Once the desired temperature is achieved, spread the paste thickly onto the gauze, place the gauze onto the wound, sprain, etc., and wrap with the bandaging material securely around the gauze pad. (NOTE: If you have an open wound such as a bite or gash, place a fresh gauze pad between the wound and the poultice paste so as not to introduce debris into the wound. For a scrape or scratch, direct introduction of the comfrey should be fine.) Secure with a safety pin or other sturdy fastening, and leave in place until the poultice has dried out, at which point you'll want to replace it with a fresh one.
Suite 101 - Herb Gardens - Comfrey, The Miracle Herb,
by Kelsie Gray

An infusion of comfrey, in light olive oil, makes a massage oil that will help sooth rough skin and is said to be beneficial in treating aches and pain associated with arthritis, sprains and muscle soreness. Because it stimulates cell growth, it should speed healing on cuts, burns scrapes and other injuries.

Because it can help to reduce pain and swelling associated with injuries, it used to be believed that it actually helped to heal broken bones. This is where it got the nickname Knitbone. While it doesn't actually help the bone to heal, in my book, anything that helps with the pain and swelling is a good thing.

To make comfrey infused oil:

* dried comfrey leaf (preferably organic)
* organic olive oil
* clean quart mason jar or similar jar with well-fitting lid **(see above)
* cheesecloth
* clean bottle for finished oil (to hold approximately 16 oz.) **(see above)
Half-fill the mason jar with dried comfrey leaf. Add olive oil to within 2” of the neck of the jar. Cap, shake well, & allow to sit overnight. The next day, top-off the jar with more olive oil (the comfrey will absorb some, so the level will be lower) to within an inch of the top. Shake daily for the first 2-3 weeks. Place in a warm, dark place, if possible. Allow to stand for at least 1 month, although the longer it sits, the better.

To decant, pour contents of mason jar into a large square of cheesecloth (I put it in a strainer over a quart measuring cup). When it stops dripping, gather the edges together, twist, & squeeze. The leftovers may be composted. Pour finished oil into bottle, label, & store in fridge. It will need to be warmed to room temp before using.
Jedi Workshop, Herbal Oil for Inflammation and Pain.

Now, everyone tells me I have to use olive oil for things like, but I am going to do an experiment. I may shock the herb growing world, but, although I enjoy growing as close to naturally as possible, I am not obsessive about Organic, Natural, products. So, although everyone says not to use baby oil, the only reason I can see not to do so is that it already has some fragrance added.

So, I am going to make some of this with Baby Oil, since we seem to have a bunch of bottles around with just a bit missing. If it doesn't work, I'm not out anything but an already opened bottle of baby oil and a bunch of comfrey leaves. If it does, I saved myself the expense of buying olive oil just for this.

And last but not least, in honor of chickweed, I wanted to include this recipe:

How to Make Comfrey and Chickweed Ointment

Things You'll Need:
2 oz. dried comfrey
2 oz. dried chickweed
2 oz. dried plantain
2 cups tea tree oil or sweet almond oil
3 oz. beeswax
Cheesecloth or muslin

Place the beeswax in the top of a double boiler on low heat, and add the tea tree oil or sweet almond oil.
Leave the mixture on low heat low enough for the beeswax to completely melt, and stir in the dried comfrey, dried chickweed and dried plantain until they are thoroughly incorporated into the oils and beeswax.
Continue heating the ointment on the lowest heat setting for several hours, or until it looks like the dried herbs are totally infused into the ointment. Stir the mixture occasionally.
Fold a large piece of clean cheesecloth or muslin and lay it in a strainer. Strain the comfrey and chickweed ointment through the strainer and into a small bowl.
Put the comfrey and chickweed ointment in jars. Allow the ointment to cool, and seal the lids securely.
e-How, Herbs and Alternative Medicines.
Comfrey and Chickweed Ointment

Finally, whenever I do an Herb of the Week, I like to talk about the magical uses. Someone at the farmers market asked me just recently, if I actually believed in this.

Well, here is my take on it. It wasn't that long ago that there was a very fine, thin line between the witch, who grew herbs and cast spells and the doctor who grew herbs and cured people.
The fact that they both used herbs, and both used many of the same herbs, to treat the same things, makes me think that somewhere, there was an element of truth behind both of their philosophies.

So, while I am not sure that sleeping with a sprig of a particular herb will make me rich, I cannot discount that burning certain herbs may make me sleep better.

I include the magical uses, where I can find them, for informational purposes only. I find them fascinating and like to see the history behind the herb.

Having said that, Comfrey does not have nearly as much of a magical history as many herbs. Perhaps because it was a bona fide healing plant there was no need to create any illusion of magic to accompany it's use.

But I did find the suggestion that worn or carried, comfrey protects and ensures safety during travel. It is suggested that you tuck some into your suitcases so that they aren't lost or stolen.

Also, it is believed that comfrey root wards off the evil of unknown strangers and brings good luck in making travel arrangements. Place the root in a red bag, and keep it on your person while on the road to ensure that you return to find peace in the home and faithfulness in the marriage.

The root is also used in money spells. Reportedly, the leaves, if wrapped around your money and kept folded for three days are said to make your money attract more money, especially when used in gambling.

Upon learning this Diann suggested that I fill my pockets with Comfrey leaves. I expect if I did, it would help the lint in my pockets attract new lint...