Sunday, September 22, 2019

Everyday Elixirs

The Essential Herbal Sept/Oct '11
Stephany Hoffelt
It is harvest time and we are all busy storing away this year’s bounty.  While I am in drying, infusing, and tincturing as well, one of my favorite ways to store my herb harvest is to make elixirs.   The idea of making a concoction with minimal amounts of sugar that still tasted good was very appealing to me.   I’d seen many recipes for elderberry syrup but they called for so much sugar and high heat; two things I am never comfortable applying to herbs.   I am also a large fan of reducing the amount of time I spend standing over a sweltering stove during harvest time.
The basic idea is to infuse dried herbs in a mixture of  80 proof or higher brandy (or some other tasty alcohol) and raw honey.   I’d like to give you exact proportions but a lot of it depends on your sweet tooth and which herbs you decide to use.   I generally end up using around 4 oz dried herbs: 15 oz liquid ingredients in a pint jar.   How much honey, you use is completely up to you.  I’ve seen people use as much as 50% honey,   but that is way too sweet for my liking.   I use very little honey and more brandy.    You will have to experiment to see what combination you like best.   I have found it that it works better to dissolve the honey in the brandy before adding it to the dried herbs.   

 Sometimes, I warm the brandy ever so slightly before I mix in the honey to help dissolve the honey.  That step probably isn’t necessary, or even desirable, if your honey dissolves without heating.   The raw honey I get locally is thick and it really helps.  After you have the honey mixed into the brandy,   you place dried herbs of your choice in a clean pint jar and pour the mixture over the herbs until the herbs are covered and the jar is full.   Cover with a tight lid and let the mixture “brew” for at least four weeks before straining and bottling.   You may need to top off the jars a bit the next morning and shake them around a bit from time to time.
Tonic herbs are particularly suitable for elixirs.  I’ve never understood why so many herb books recommend bland tonic blends when it is so easy to spice things up a bit.    If you are going to sip on something daily, it might as well taste good.     Because my taste buds seem to be easily bored, I need variety in my tonics so I play around to come up with different flavors, all the time.  I’ve come up with some fun combinations of dried herbs that I like to turn into elixirs and I thought I would share some as a jumping off point.
Remember how an apple a day keeps the doctor away? 
Well, think how much better that works when you add elderberry, rosehips and anti-microbial herbs to the mix.  Remember that it is best to use organic apples dried with the skins on.   The good stuff in apples hides in the skin.  If you really want to be frugal, you could dry the apple skins you peel for pies and use only dry apple skins.

Apple Spice Elixir
½ cup dried apples
¼ cup true cinnamon
¼ cup dried elderberries
¼ cups dried rose hips
1 tsp dried cloves

This is an elixir geared toward the specific goal of helping to balance blood sugar levels.    Burdock root is a fantastic tonic herb for so many reasons, one of which is being that it contains inulin which reportedly helps balance blood sugar.    Recent studies have also found that cinnamon and fenugreek are useful for reducing serum glucose and improving glucose tolerance.    I tend to take it really easy on the honey in this elixir, so I am sure to use true cinnamon which is sweeter than others.

Burdock Root Elixir
¼ cup dried true cinnamon
¼ cup Fenugreek Seeds
¼ cup dried orange peels
½ cup dried Burdock Root

Hawthorne is a particularly nice heart tonic herb that is rather uninspiring, as far as flavor goes.   I know there are a good many herbalists out there who like to mix it up with wild cherry bark and that is a fine elixir.  I’ve a bit of that put by in my herb closet, for evening because it is so relaxing.    During the day, I might be more inclined to use one of the following blends.    

 Spicy Chocolate Elixir
1 dried cayenne pepper
½ cup dried hawthorn berries
¼ cup coarsely ground cacao nibs

In this mixture the cayenne acts to stimulate the circulation, and the cacao nibs will contribute a lot of the wonderful benefits of dark chocolate to the mix.

Chocolate Orange Elixir
¼   cup dried orange peel
½ cup coarsely ground cacao nibs
½ cup dried hawthorn berries

Even though the orange is mostly for flavor in this blend, it still contributes Vitamin C and antioxidants.
Now the only question left is how to use your elixirs?   I tend to find that they work best when you take them in small amounts throughout the day, so I add a dropperful of elixir to mugs of my daily nourishing infusions.   My favorite thing to do with an elixir is to use it to jazz up oat straw infusions  or red raspberry infusion, which really can be pretty boring when it gets right down to it.   I suppose,  I might surprise readers  by suggesting sipping on booze first thing in the morning, but remember that you getting alcohol in a such small amounts.   In the evening you can sample a bit more heavily, if you are so inclined. 
  I’ve used elixirs to make a weak white Russian with fresh cream or in a glass of wine as an evening night cap.   However you chose to use your elixirs, I hope this article has inspired you to give them a try.   I would love to hear what you come up with. 

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Friday, September 13, 2019

Botanical Nomenclature- It's Not as Bad as You Think!

by Kathy Musser, Cloverleaf Herb Farm
previously published in The Essential Herbal Magazine (Nov/Dec '18)

If you deal with plants long enough, either as a serious hobbyist, or a professional,  eventually you run up against botanical nomenclature.  I know people who have studied plants extensively, but stopped in their tracks when it came to learning scientific names. My introduction came during courses I took at Longwood Gardens. We had to learn the botanical name, and correct spelling, for each plant we studied! And although, after more than twenty years, I don't remember them all, I learned enough about the system to make it easy to categorize many plants and also to understand the basis for many scientific names. This article will be a primer for understanding the system of botanical nomenclature,  how to navigate it in researching plants and some tips for recognizing recurring words and descriptions.

Botanical nomenclature is a uniform system for naming and classifying plants. It begins with large groups of plants with certain similar characteristics and gradually refines the classification down to a specific plant. Why was this done? If you visit several greenhouses, you might see the same plant listed under different common names. I have this experience nearly every year. A customer comes in and asks for a plant by a certain common name. If we don't have it, I ask for a description. Often, we have the plant although we list it by an alternate common name. Sometimes, plants have different common names in various locations or have an 'old-fashioned' name that has been modernized. It can be confusing when the same plant has multiple names. 

Across the spectrum of groups of plants, the importance of using botanical names varies greatly. With many annuals, herbs and more familiar perennials, common names often suffice. Using botanical names might be more important in choosing trees or shrubs, particularly if you're looking for a specific variety, identical plants for a hedge or windbreak or a plant with definite characteristics. 

The system of botanical nomenclature was developed by a Swedish botanist  - Carl von Linne, although his name is often written in the Latin form as Carolus Linnaeus. Latin names for plants may denote geographical distribution,  cultivation, chemistry or even uses of a specific plant. The system is uniform throughout the world, and a botanical name will identify the same plant here, or in France, Brazil or Latvia. The system is ever evolving, so there are periodic name changes to correct past errors or based on new information.

Each plant is given a two part name. The first word refers to its genus - a group that has common characteristics. The genus name is capitalized. Following it is the species, or specific epithet, which begins with a lower case letter. This part of the name is more specific to distinguish plants within a genus from one another. Sometimes there is a variation within a species, like a different color, a better flower or variegation. This name would be written Genus species var.(for variation.) There are also cultivars or cultivated varieties. These plants do not occur in nature, but have been developed by man, and are maintained by gardeners. They can be designated by cv., or more commonly by putting the cultivar name in single quotes. Hybrids are a cross between two species and are designated by an X. For example, Lavandula x intermedia 'Grosso' is a hybrid variety of lavender, commonly called lavandins, with the cultivar name 'Grosso' describing a large plant with long-stemmed purple flowers.

Even a limited knowledge of botanical nomenclature can be helpful. Many gardeners are anxious to provide host plants on which butterflies lay their eggs. Milkweeds are hosts for monarch caterpillars. If you recognize that the genus Asclepias denotes varieties of milkweed, you'll know that Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed), Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) or Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) will all serve as host plants for monarchs.

When I was in high school, (a very long time ago) Latin had fallen out of favor as a language to be studied. If I had known I'd wind up in a horticultural career, I would have studied Latin. But even without that background, there are recurring words used to describe many plants in the system of botanical nomenclature. If you become familiar with them, it helps to identify many common herbs.

officinalis/officinale-meaning the plant had commercial value, generally as an apothecary plant
     Rosmarinus officinalis=rosemary
     Salvia officinalis=sage

vulgaris/vulgare-common or ordinary variety
     Thymus vulgare=thyme

annua/annuum-an annual plant
     Artemisia annua=sweet Annie

procumbens/prostratus-creeping type of plant
     Rosmarinus officianalis 'Prostratus'=creeping rosemary

tinctorius-refers to plants used in dyeing 
     Carthamus tinctorius=safflower

graveolens-heavily scented
     Anethum graveolens=dill

odorata-sweetly scented
     Galium odorata=sweet woodruff

phylla-means leaves and other words or prefixes are added to further describe foliage
     microphylla=small leaves

Several words are used to describe foliage or flower color and are repeated throughout the system
     ruber=red                          aureus=golden
     virens=green                      niger=black
     alba or albus=white     

Sunday, September 01, 2019