Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Herbs in the Spotlight - 2015 - Savory and Dittany

2015 Herbs in the Spotlight
Jan/Feb '15

Each year 2 herbs are chosen for study.  The  International Herb Association chooses what is known as “The Herb of the Year,“ and the Herb Society of America chooses a “Notable Native.”   The Notable Native program, beginning in 2012, is fairly new to the arena, but the Herb of the Year has been going strong since 1995.
One of the most amazing things about these programs is that they bring up a plant for discussion and use, and by the end of the year we all know a good bit more about it than we did going into the year.  Recent examples for me are horseradish (HOTY 2011) and spicebush (NN 2012).  Neither of them held much interest for me, but in researching and writing about them, I came to learn that they both have a great deal to offer us.  Our woods are filled with spicebush, and there’s a large patch of horseradish out in the back border now.  In all honesty, I’m looking at the two choices for 2015 with the same lackluster interest, but am certain that by the end of the year I will have a new respect for and knowledge of them both.

Herb of the Year:  Savory Saturea ssp.

There are two types of Savory, Winter (Satureia montana) and Summer (Satureja hortensis).   They are from the Lamiaceae, or Mint family.  Winter Savory is a semi-evergreen perennial and blooms in winter.  Summer Savory is an annual.  Although Winter Savory has a sharp flavor and Summer Savory is more sweet, they are used interchangeably as a seasoning. The name itself has come to mean a specific type of food, full of flavor and depth.  The piney and peppery Winter Savory is (in my mind) more responsible for that.  Folklore has it that Winter Savory decreases the sex drive, while Summer Savory enhances it, so you may want to keep that in mind while flavoring those side dishes. 

Savory is known as "the bean herb."  In fact the German word for the herb is Bohenkraut - which means bean herb and that might be due to its ability to help with bloating, and flatulence.  It can be made into a tea as well as used as a seasoning, and helps with colic, stomach upsets, diarrhea, and indigestion, and because it contains tannins as well as possessing antibiotic properties, it helps with sore throats.  It is also mildly expectorant.  It can help relieve abdominal cramping.

On the west coast, varieties of Savory (as well as several other herbs) may go by the nickname Yerba Buena.  Satureja douglasii and Satureja viminea are two of these that are made into teas and sipped as "the good herb."  However, depending on location, there are several mints and quite a few other plants that also go by that moniker.

It can be made into a mild salve to help with insect stings and rashes.  To do that, one would simply steep the Savory in a fat or oil, strain, and combine with enough beeswax to make it the proper feel.

Winter Savory was used in knot gardens during the Tudor era in England, and often beehives were located near them so that the honey would be flavored with the herb.

Both Winter and Summer Savory grow easily and quickly from seed.  They aren't fussy, but Summer Savory might grow so quickly that it falls over, so be sure to cut it often and use it! 
If you don't get around to using it right away, Savory dries beautifully.

Savory contains essential oil  Commercially it is used in soaps and toothpastes. As with all essential oils, this one will cause skin irritation if used without proper dilution.  It should not be taken internally.

All in all, not a bad little herb to have around.

Notable Native:  Common Dittany Cunila origanoides

Several years ago my sister and I went out to Somerset for a couple days to take part in an herb gathering that Barb and Fred Will of Sugar Grove Herbs were holding.  We stayed at a nearby campground that was only a road and a skinny little scratch of woodland away from a large lake. The plant diversity we saw in that area was staggering. That little bit of land between us and the lake yielded many first time sightings for me.  There were mayapples that had been allowed to ripen, for instance.  Our deer don't let that happen.  So I got to taste a mayapple.  There was ghost pipe growing in the rotting hardwood leaf litter.  Crossing a strip of dry, sunny land, we were struck with the sharp scent of oregano.  Looking down there was this scraggy little plant with tiny whorls of pinkish flowers.  It was Dittany, a plant I'd never seen before, couldn't identify at the time, but will not soon forgot. 

Also in the Lamiaceae family, this perennial sub-shrub is nicknamed wild oregano, stonemint, and frost flower. Frost flowers are an unusual and interesting phenomena described as follows by the Missouri Dept. of Conservation's website:
"Frost flowers occur only in late fall after the first few hard freezes and while the ground is still warm. Their season is brief, and they disappear quickly on the day they occur, melting like frost when the air warms or rays of sunlight fall on the delicate structures.While the plants’ stems are ruptured by the first hard freeze, the root system is still sending up plant sap from the warmer ground. The sap pushes through the broken stem and freezes on contact with the cold air. As more saps moves up, it forces the freezing stream of white ice crystals into ornate, folded ribbons that look like petals, puffs of cotton candy, or snarls of white thread."

The taste of the leaves is sharp, but the infusion or tea is fairly pleasant.  Just like the Savory discussed above, Dittany is also terrific for all of the gassy, bloaty, crampy bellies, and helps with heartburn and upsets too.  It can be used for headaches colds and fevers and encourages perspiration.  Not recommended for pregnant women, as it is sometimes used to bring on menstruation.

Considering how strongly this plant carries a scent that closely resembles Oregano, it also has many similarities in medicinal uses.  It is useful against upper respiratory infections, sinus congestion, coughs, tonsillitis, and any lung or bronchial debility.

An essential oil, known as cunila oil, obtained from the plant is antiseptic, aromatic and stimulant and can be useful against joint pain and muscular strains. 

Dittany is antifungal, making it terrific for athlete's foot, or any fungal skin infection.  Great on insect bites, skin rashes, and scrapes, this is a great contribution to a salve blend - or could be the single herb used, for that matter (although I'm thinking some plantain and comfrey would be nice).

Common Dittany grows easily from cuttings.  It dries well for use over the winter.

I find it extremely interesting that although the plants chosen for this year's study are completely different (although both in the mint family) they have very similar applications medicinally. 

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