Mother Earth Living

Guide to Everlasting Herbs

By Jim Becker
June/July 1994
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Everlastings are plants that dry easily, retain their shape and color, and can be incorporated into long-lasting wreaths and arrangements. Many people know the showy dried flowers such as strawflower and statice; fewer realize that many herbs are equally attractive when dried. Their flowers, pods, bracts, and buds add ­visual appeal, and they have an historical resonance unmatched by the more familiar everlastings.

When I pick a safflower, for example, I see it as not just a green and yellow thistlelike flower, but the same flower that was woven into the garlands of Egyptian mummies, used for dyeing Egyptian cloth, grown for thousands of years, picked by ­millions of hands, and passed down by countless generations of gardeners. The notion that plants can be used symbolically in ­ceremonies and in expressing emotions is an ancient one, but herbs can reveal even more, since they also represent a living chronicle of human usage.

On the following pages are some of my favorite herbs to grow as everlastings.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

"Having been regarded, almost since the discovery of this country, as subtonic, diaphoretic, alterative, expectorant, diuretic, laxative, ­escha­rotic, carminative, anti-spasmodic, anti-pleuritic, stomachic, ­astringent, anti-rheumatic, anti-syphilitic, and what not?"
—Charles Millspaugh, Medicinal Plants, 1892

Actually, Native Americans considered butterfly weed a valuable medicinal herb even before Europeans ­arrived here. Unlike most other members of the milkweed genus, butterfly weed does not exhibit the characteristic milky white sap. Like them, however, it plays host to the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly. Its umbels of brilliant orange flowers are choice nectar sources for bees and butterflies. Covered with beating wings, it is one of the showiest of herbs.

The flowers are followed by long, pointed seedpods called follicles. Pick these after they have begun to split open on the plant. They will mature to a tan color.

Propagation is by seeds.

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius)

"Old dry safflower, cadmiun, grind it together. Sprinkle it on the wound. Fasten a bandage to it and tie it. It will heal."
—Coptic medical text, 9th century a.d.

Safflower is an Old World plant that has been in cultivation since ancient times. An important source of dye since the time of the ancient Egyptians, it is increasingly grown today as an oilseed crop.

This hardy annual looks like a thistle with smooth, thick stems and painfully spiny leaves. Spineless varieties have been developed and are far easier to harvest. Each plant is well branched and will produce several flower heads. Each flower head consists of many green leafy bracts which constrict around a tuft of yellow or orange florets.

Pick flower heads just as the florets are reaching their peak of color. ­Entirely green flower heads are also useful in dried decorations; pick them before any florets appear. Both flower heads and stems are stiff and can be dried upright.

Safflowers are difficult to transplant, and so their seed is best planted directly outdoors. Choose a site with well-drained soil, as plants are susceptible to root rot.

Wormwood, mugwort (Artemisia species)

"While wormwood hath seed, get handful or twaine, to save against March to make flea refraine; while chamber is sweeped, and wormwood is strowne, no flea for his life dar abide to be known."
—Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, 1557

There are more than 200 species of Artemisia, most native to the Northern Hemisphere, that represent plants large and small, annual and perennial. Their foliage, often strongly scented, is very useful as an insect repellent, and some species were favorite strewing herbs. Many of them are still highly regarded as medicinal herbs.

Common wormwood (A. absinthium) is a semiwoody shrub up to 6 feet tall with silver-gray leaves. Mugwort (A. vulgaris) is an herbaceous perennial that quickly reaches a height of 7 feet each summer. The flowers of both species are clustered in tiny heads arranged in large, leafy spikes or panicles. Though the flowers are inconspicuous, the long, flexible, leafy stems are excellent material for wreath backings or tall floral arrangements.

Pick the stems just as the flower heads are reaching maturity, which is often just as they are releasing large amounts of pollen. Form the stems into wreath backings immediately after harvesting them. For use in arrangements, bunch the stems together and hang them upside down to dry.

Both species can be propagated by seeds. Mugwort, which spreads rapidly by underground stems, can also be divided.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

"In the worst headaches this herb exceeds whatever else is known."
—Sir John Hill, The British Herbal, 1772

Feverfew is a short-lived perennial native to Europe but naturalized throughout much of North and South America. The common name refers to its use in fighting colds and fevers. The name parthenium is derived from parthenos, the ancient Greek word for “young maiden”, as the plant used to be used to promote the onset of menstruation.

The common feverfew has pinnate leaves and heads of small daisies with yellow disks and white rays. A double form, Tanacetum parthenium ‘Flore Pleno’, has numerous white rays that nearly obscure the yellow centers of the flowers.

Both feverfews can be dried successfully, but we much prefer to use the double form. It dries to a creamy white and is less prone to shattering. Pick stems of flowers after the white “petals” in most of the heads have fully developed but before they start to turn brown. Hang bunches upside down to dry.

Feverfew is easily propagated from seeds.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

"Take a little tansy, featherfew, parsley and violets, and stampe them together and straine them with the yolks of eight or tenne eggs, and three or foure whites, and some vinegar and put thereto sugar or salt and frie it."
—The Good Housewife’s Handmaid, 1588

Tansy is a common European plant that since its introduction into this country as a garden herb has naturalized throughout much of North America. Its strongly scented foliage made it a favorite strewing herb and a useful insect repellent in both the kitchen and the closet.

The bitter leaves were popular in springtime cakes appropriately called tansies. Their bitter taste, symbolic of Christ’s sufferings, made them an ­important part of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Easter fare. Their purported ability to purify the body was also considered essential after the austere Lenten diet. Though seldom used in contemporary cooking, dried tansy leaves are still used in moth repellent mixtures.

Tansy has 1/4-inch heads of tiny, golden yellow flowers arranged in corymbs 3 to 5 inches across. Pick the stems just as the flowers in the heads have fully opened but before they begin to turn brown. The stems, which grow up to 5 feet tall, are quite stiff and can be dried upright.

The plants spread rapidly by underground stems and can be invasive if not contained. Propagation is by seeds or division.

Lavender (Lavandula species)

"An honest Ale-house, where we shall find a cleanly room, Lavender in the Windows."
—Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler, 1653–1655

The image of lavender as evoked by Izaak Walton is the traditional one of cleanliness and peacefulness. Indeed, the word “lavender” has its origin in the Latin lavo, “I wash.” The Romans used the herb to scent their baths, the British their linens, and it is a main ingredient in countless cosmetics and toiletries. Its scent is reputed to have a calming effect.

The genus Lavandula contains about twenty species as well as a large number of hybrids and cultivars. The best for drying are the English lavenders (L. angustifolia cultivars) and the lavandins (L. x intermedia), which are hybrids between English lavenders and spike lavender, L. latifolia. Lavender flowers consist of dense spikes of individual florets, each of which has a tubular calyx and a longer tubular corolla. Because only the calyces ­persist after drying, consider their color when choosing varieties for this purpose. Cultivars of L. angustifolia produce the deepest violet-purple ­calyces. These include Hidcote and Loddon Blue. The calyx color of the lavandins is green-gray with a hint of violet. Though not very colorful as dried flowers, they are very fragrant, so they’re excellent for crafts.

Harvest all lavenders just as the first few florets are opening on each spike, or harvest plants when most of the spikes are ready. Hang the bunches upside down to dry.

Cultivars and hybrids must be propagated by stem cuttings, as seedlings of English lavender are variable and the lavandins are sterile.

Rose (Rosa species)

"The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem, for that sweet odor which doth in it live."
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 54, 1609

From just 100 or so species, more than 20,000 cultivars have been brought forth into the gardens of the world. Such has been our fascination with the rose.

One of the first roses to be cultivated was Rosa gallica, sometimes called the French rose, though its cultivated origins were in ancient Persia. It is a parent of many old roses, such as the damasks and albas, and a distant ancestor of the modern hybrid teas, the roses most commonly grown today. Though R. gallica has always held a place in herbal medicine, it is the glorious scent of so many varieties that has secured their place in cosmetics, in perfumery, and in our hearts.

Roses can be air-dried successfully if they are picked in the bud stage. The best varieties to dry are those with numerous petals, such as the hybrid teas, floribundas, hybrid perpetuals, and the modern English roses. Not all varieties are fragrant, so if fragrance is as important to you as it was to Shakespeare, check before purchasing plants.

Pick the buds just as they are beginning to unfurl. Long-stemmed hybrid teas can be bunched and hung upside down to dry. Other varieties can be dried on screens. All except white roses maintain their color well on drying.

Propagation is by stem cuttings or grafting.

Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

"Here Henbane, Poppy, Hemlock here, Procuring deadly sleeping, Which I do minister with fear, Not fit for each mans keeping"
—Michael Drayton, The Fifth Nymphall, 1630

Even a master of herbal knowledge such as the subject of Drayton’s long poem shows trepidation when using the poppy, particularly when framed between two other deadly sedatives. Though the poppy has provided ­humanity with beautiful flowers for the garden, seedpods for dried floral designs, seeds for cooking, and sedatives and painkillers for medicine, it has unfortunately been sorely abused for its narcotic properties and is shunned by most gardeners.

The erect, 4-foot-high plants have coarsely toothed gray-green leaves and large, showy flowers of white, pink, lavender, or red; some show a dark splotch of purple at the base of each petal.

The immature pods are green, turning lavender-gray as they ripen and harden. The opening of pores under the cap of each mature pod is an indication that it is ready to harvest. When you pick the pods, shake the seeds into a clean container to store for use in baking. The seeds do not contain narcotic substances and are safe to eat.

The cultivar Hens and Chicks has a large central pod surrounded by numerous small, partially developed pods. Because the pores of this cultivar’s pods don’t open, pick them when they are hard to the touch.

Plant poppy seeds directly outdoors in late fall or early spring.

Bee balm (Monarda species)

"Joyful news, out of the newe found world wherein is declared the rare and singular virtues of diverse and sundrie herbs."
—Nicolás Monardes, 1569

The wealth of plant material that crossed the Atlantic from the New to the Old World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced great excitement. The Spanish physician Monardes wrote what is considered the first herbal describing plants from the Americas, including the “mervellous” tobacco, and the genus Monarda was later named in his honor.

The twelve species of Monarda are all native to North America. Their long tubular corollas are packed into dense round verticillasters. They are a favorite nectar source of hummingbirds, butterflies, and bumblebees, giving rise to the name bee balm. The leaves make a refreshing tea.

M. didyma and M. fistulosa bear their flowers in terminal verticillasters. Pick the green or tan heads after all of the corollas have fallen off. M. citriodora, a half-hardy annual, bears several verticillasters superposed along each stem. Pick these after most of the corollas have faded but before the lavender-green heads turn brown. Hang the stems of all three species upside down to dry.

Propagation is either by seeds or, for the perennials, by division or stem cuttings.

Rue (Ruta graveolens)

"With its blue green leaves and short stemmed flowers, so placed that the sun and air can reach all its parts, great is its power over evil odors."
—Walahfrid Strabo, Hortulus, 9th century a.d.

Rue is a handsome plant with nearly evergreen pinnate leaves and corymbs of delicate yellow flowers. Due, no doubt, to its pungent odor and bitter taste, it held a great reputation as a guardian against fleas, flies, and witchcraft as well as “evil odors”.

The flowers are followed by sharply lobed, woody seed capsules. Harvest them when they are dry and firm to the touch, either when green or after they have turned a light tan. Dry the seed capsules on screens or upright in a container.

Wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting rue: the essential oil can cause blistering of the skin, particularly when the exposure is in full sunlight.

Propagation is by seeds or stem cuttings.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)

"A decoction of the dried herb, with the seed, or the juice of the green herb taken with honey, is a remedy for those that are short winded, have a cough, or are fallen into a consumption."
—Nicholas Culpeper, The English Physician, 1653

Horehound has been well regarded since the time of ancient Egypt as a remedy for coughs and colds. It is an extremely bitter herb, and cough drops and syrups made from it are rendered palatable by the inclusion of large amounts of honey or sugar. The name Marrubium was first recorded by Pliny in the first century a.d. and is thought to have been derived from a Hebrew word meaning “bitter juice”. Indeed, horehound was often one of the bitter herbs partaken of by Jews at the Passover seder. Horehound is an unassuming plant, often thriving in dry, rocky waste places. The stems are woolly white, up to 1 1/2 feet tall, with wrinkled gray-green leaves and small whitish flowers. The flowers are crowded into round heads called verticillasters, which are arranged along the stems in the leaf axils. Silver horehound (M. incanum) is a much showier species. Its leaves are grayer, flowering stems taller, and verticillasters larger. These characteristics also make it more attractive as an everlasting.

Pick horehounds after the corollas have fallen or withered. Hang the stems upside down to dry.

Propagation is by seeds.

Oregano (Origanum species)

"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."
—Psalms 51:7

The hyssop referred to above is Syrian hyssop (Origanum syriacum). The use of this and other origanums as an antiseptic wash has been common since ancient times. The fragrant leaves of sweet marjoram (O. majorana) were used in ancient Egyptian perfumery and cooking, as are those of many species today. Surprisingly, only in the past few decades have many species found wide acceptance in the ornamental garden.

Origanum flowers have tiny corollas, but they are surrounded by larger, often colorful bracts that dry extremely well. The most common and productive species for dried flowers is wild marjoram (O. vulgare). Though its leaves are virtually tasteless, its large heads of purple bracts are very attractive.

Other origanums to try include O. rotundifolium ‘Kent Beauty’ and 0. libanoticum, both with rose-green hoplike flower heads, and 0. laevigatum, which has wiry stems and relatively small deep purple bracts.

Pick all of the origanums when their bracts are at their peak of color. Hang the bunches upside down to dry.

Propagation is by division or stem cuttings.

Santolina (Santolina species)

"Of the highest respect for late daies, accepted both for the beauty and forme of the herbe."
—John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris, 1629

Santolinas are small evergreen shrubs with narrow leaves that give the plant a highly textured appearance. They make excellent edgings and were popular in the knot gardens of Parkinson’s England. The aromatic foliage was a common strewing herb and is still used as a moth repellent.

Some species, such as S. chamaecyparissus, have gray foliage; in others, such as S. rosmarinifolia and S. virens, the leaves are deep green. All have round, 3/4-inch bright or creamy yellow flower heads borne singly on long, straight stems. The heads consist of tiny tubular flowers, which when open give them a fuzzy appearance. Pick them just before the flowers in the center of the heads open. Hang upside down to dry.

Propagation is by stem cutting.

Sources

• Comstock, Ferre and Co., 263 Main St., Wethersfield, CT 06109. Catalog $3.
• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, Flowery Branch, GA 30542. Catalog $2.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321-4598. Catalog free.


Jim Becker and his wife, Dotti, own Goodwin Creek Gardens in Williams, Oregon. They are coauthors of a new book, An Everlasting Garden, now available from Interweave Press, from which some of the material in this story was adapted.


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