Get down and dirty in the garden
Briscoe White is owner and master grower at The Growers Exchange, an all-natural online garden center that specializes in rare and traditional herbs for culinary, aromatic and medicinal use. He has been in business for over twenty years. Member of many garden and nature-related organizations including the Garden Writers Association, when not tending his greenhouse or writing for his blog, Briscoe’s Seeds For Thought, he spends what little free time he has planning his next garden and playing with his dogs on his family farm in Charles City, Virginia.
For centuries, humans have used herbs for almost every application under the sun. We think that we know our herbs, and exactly what they do. For example, we all know aloe vera as a pain reliever, patchouli for its scent, and oregano to bring out the flavor of meats, soups and stews. However, there are also those mystery herbs, like foxglove, which can trigger fatal heart arrhythmias, or ashwaganda, the sexual stimulant known as “Indian Ginseng.” Even some plain, ordinary, everyday herbs have a peculiar use or story tied to them like, basil used to symbolize that a young woman was available, or thyme which was used to keep away bad dreams. Here are five of the weirdest herbs we’ve found that might be hiding in a garden near you.
Stevia is a natural no calorie sweeter, which has made it a boon to diabetics, while becoming a bane to big business. Stevia makes the list of weird herbs not because of any strange properties or back story, but because artificial sweetener companies convinced the Food & Drug Administration to ban importing the plant for years. Since you can’t patent a naturally occurring plant, big business didn’t like the idea of some herb horning in on their territory. Even after the ban was lifted, the plant was classified as safe for use as a dietary supplement, not a food additive. It wasn’t until 2008 that the FDA granted approval for use of the product as a food additive in a derivative form, used in products such as Truvia and PureVia.
Woad contains precious chemicals that have been used to treat measles, mumps, meningitis and even prevent cancer. It also contains a compound called indigotin, which is a natural source of blue dye. Woad has been used in cave drawings found in France by Ancient Egyptians to dye cloth used to wrap mummies, and infamously by Pict tribes in the British Isles to tattoo their bodies and paint faces; think Braveheart, not the fairground. Some even say the herb is magical and can be used to shape shift. Today, woad is still used to as a dye for garments, and offers a biodegradable alternative ink for inkjet printers.
Woad has been used as a dye for centuries. Photo courtesy Briscoe White, The Growers Exchange.
The herb known as rue has a bit of a split personality. Shakespeare hailed it as the “herb of grace” in a few of his works, and during medieval times it was lauded for its capability to ease cramps, aid in menstruation, and of course, ward off the plague and evil spirits. The Bible, however, refers to it as the “herb of regret,” and associates it with sadness and bitterness, hence the term “You shall rue this day!”
Today, rue is still valued for its medicinal properties, and recognized as the national herb of Lithuania. Traditionally, it is given to couples on their wedding day to give them clarity in their marriage, which makes the whole grace versus regret issue a bit more intriguing.
#2 Dittany of Crete
A member of the oregano family, Dittany of Crete was hailed by Hippocrates, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers as the “miracle plant”. Known for its healing, therapeutic and aromatic qualities, Dittany of Crete is useful in stomach aches, digestive problems and as a poultice for healing wounds. It was also considered a very powerful aphrodisiac. In fact, many potential suitors have died over the centuries trying to harvest the plant from the dangerous seaside cliffs where it grows—all in the name of love.
Today, the herb is classified as rare and protected by European law so it doesn’t become extinct. It is mainly used to make tea and beauty products. Modern witches still use the plant as an ingredient in love potions, and to enhance their ability to perform astral projection, separating someone’s consciousness from their physical body.
Angelica is a very versatile herb, used in the preparation of desserts, medicinally to fight infection and improve energy, and if you’re familiar with Harry Potter, is used in many witchcraft practices. Pagans highly revered angelica for its mystical properties, while Iroquois and other Native American tribes used the herb to remove ghosts from homes. It was later adopted by Christians and became the “Root of the Holy Ghost.” Legend has it that in a dream, an angel revealed that the herb could be used to cure the plague.
Though curing the plague, something that apparently was always on the minds of the medieval populace, may or may not be true, today it is known that angelica serves a variety of medicinal uses. As mentioned previously, modern doctors have found it is useful in fighting infection, aiding in indigestion, stimulating circulation and energy, as well as a remedy for the common cold and reducing fevers.
Angelica was thought to cure the plague in medieval times. Photo courtesy Briscoe White, The Growers Exchange.
Stranger Than Fiction
Edible, medicinal, magical and even political, herbs play an interesting and sometimes strange role in our lives. Though we may no longer use them in love potions or to ward off the plague, we can’t deny that they serve a magical purpose nonetheless. They are the secret ingredient in our friend’s signature dish that keeps us coming to their table, the scent that casts a spell on a potential love interest and makes them think of us long after we’re gone, and even a source of relief to a loved one. Whether we keep them in the kitchen to cook with, the medicine cabinet to keep us well, or in our back pocket to keep bad spirits away, herbs will always find a way of being transported from the garden into our lives.