Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners: Shades of Spring

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The quest for chicory

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia–Passover, which begins on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan (April 22), is also a spring harvest festival. In the Middle East, spring is a hot season of ripening grain, but here in Nova Scotia, spring is more like late winter, and the harvest is months away. The landscape is a semifrozen wasteland of decayed vegetation, muted browns and grays, with barely a hint of new, green life. In Israel, the barley is now ripe and ready to cut (a stage called aviv, the Hebrew word for spring), but for our own crop of timothy, which we grow for hay, we wait until late June, when the flower spike is swelling the stem but has not yet broken into bloom (we say it is “in the boot”). We are really out of sync with biblical Passover time, but we adjust our celebration according to our landscape.

Several years ago, I set out to find maror, the authentic bitter herbs at the first Passover meal of roasted lamb and unleavened bread mentioned in the Book of Exodus. I discovered that the true bitter herbs are considered to be five common weeds (chicory is one) that reflect the Exodus story in their growth cycle. They break through the ground in the winter, and their sweet, low-to-the-ground, succulent leaves may then be gathered for salad. By spring, these plants have undergone a transformation and now are small, very bitter leaves growing from a hard stem. Under ordinary circumstances, no one would eat them, certainly not raw, but it is precisely at this stage that they are eaten at the Passover seder–a combined service and festive meal–to remind us of the bitterness of slavery.

The purpose of using the bitter herbs to teach the Exodus story is succinctly preserved in the Talmud, the ancient Jewish compilation of laws and commentaries: “See this bitter herb, whose beginning is sweet, whose end is bitter–thus were the Egyptians.” That is, first the Egyptians welcomed the Children of Israel, then they enslaved them, just as the plants themselves are transformed from sweet and soft to bitter and hard. By eating these very bitter greens in an amount equal in bulk to an olive, Jews are meant to remember their days of slavery–and by association, their collective and individual journey to freedom, from darkness to light. Remembering is the link that ties us to our past and guides us in the present and future.

Before I knew or cared anything about chicory (Cichorium intybus) as an authentic bitter herb of Passover, I admired it as a wildflower. Although sparse at first, local populations have grown, spreading out from the railroad crossing several miles from the farm, bearing their shaggy sky blue daisies in thin drifts along the roadside in midsummer. I plant the cultivar ‘Magdeburg’ for its thick, white roots, which I roast to make a coffee substitute. It’s a lot of work, but rewarding, to dig up the first-year roots, clean and cut them up, slowly roast them to dark brown, and then grind them like coffee beans. I top each measure of ground coffee with ground chicory to make a strong beverage, to which I add rich Jersey milk cocoa–a great way to start the morning.

Over the years, I’ve left enough roots in the ground to ensure that second-year plants will bear a fine crop of blue flowers. As one of the plants in Linnaeus’s clock garden, chicory opens with the morning sun and closes in the afternoon, except on cloudy days when it ­remains open. Last summer it bloomed with ‘Autumn Beauty’ sunflowers, an unplanned but winning combination.

Since learning the identity of the ­bitter herbs, I still dig chicory roots and admire its summer blooms, but it has become an important, necessary part of my landscape, not just an occa­sional source of food, a pretty wildflower. Searching for chicory on a cold, windy day in April (late April this year) is far removed from the barley harvest in Israel, but on another level, the physical disparities are unimportant. Just as the Children of Israel, after their exodus from Egypt and sojourn in the desert, became the first grain of God’s harvest, so I, too, reach a spiritual plane when I push aside the cold earth and pluck the tiny leaves that we will soon eat in memory of past bitterness.

–Jo Ann Gardner

Looking for change

Newberg, Oregon–Last year, Oregon made history with the wettest year ever recorded. I feel for those gardeners who have just moved here and tried to garden between the showers. It was depressing enough for me, and I’m a native. My land has a high water table and a very heavy clay soil. One or two days after a heavy rainfall, I can walk into the herb garden and, if I stand very still, hear the water slowly percolating away.

Raised beds are the only way to go for a truly well-drained herb garden, at least here in Oregon, but my garden and herbal stock beds are too extensive to attempt to raise them. I have tried to achieve better aeration and drainage with organic soil amendments, but that requires a long-term commitment. This past fall, I decided to follow the lead of potato farmers, and I borrowed a furrowing attachment for my rototiller to make some hilled rows. Now my bed of upright thymes, which used to drown every winter, is thriving. The water was channeled between the rows, and my thymes were left high and dry–the way they like it. Over the next few years, I plan to slowly replace all my stock beds with hilled rows.

I am also considering trading in some of my traditional herb classics such as lemon balm, chives, and calendula for some of the new (and improved, according to advertisers) 1997 models. I figure it’s time to try something new in the herb garden. Of the host of new basils in the mail-order catalogs, two in particular have caught my eye: ‘Lime’, which is similar to lemon basil, and ‘Siam Queen’, which boasts a licorice aroma, higher yields than ­ordinary licorice or Thai basil, and longer harvests. I can also dress up my baked potato with a choice of two new chive selections: ‘Fine Leaf’ or ‘Staro’ with thick leaves and better keeping quality. A rehabilitated opium poppy, ‘Przemko’, which is supposed to be better for seed use (and lower in opium levels), is available as well.

How about that new ‘Erfurter Orangefarbige’ calendula variety? Its ­higher resin content is supposed to be better for tinctures and essential oil ­extraction, but I pity the people who have to harvest the flower heads. It’s really going to make their fingers stick together. The new ‘Quedlingburger Niederliegende’ lemon balm is said to be easy to harvest and give higher yields, as well as being more winter-hardy than the species. (Keeping lemon balm–the mother of a thousand seedlings–hasn’t been a problem for me.)

Many of these new varieties are also higher in essential oils. With the ever-growing interest in medicinal herbs and aromatherapy, breeders are making a concerted effort to improve herbs to meet the demands. I’m looking forward to further introductions.

–Andy Van Hevelingen

Come again

Atlanta, Georgia–One of the many pleasures of gardening is showing off my garden to visitors. After all the time, money and effort I’ve expended, with sometimes glorious results, it’s fun to show it off.

Some of my visitors are not gardeners; they do not touch dirt. Some have more expertise than I do. It is satisfying to me to answer questions about the bloom season of my lavender collection, or the fifty-three viburnum species and cultivars I have amassed on two acres, or how well my five species of hellebores are doing in Atlanta, or which thymes do best in our high humidity. They empathize with me about the urge that caused me to order six tubers of Dracunculus vulgaris, a truly vulgar plant with a blood red spathe 18 inches long and a fragrance of rancid meat that attracts flies. These visitors may marvel that the tarragon is doing well despite this climate and commiserate about the demise of the aconitum, perhaps suggesting that I try an autumn-blooming variety. These visitors don’t suggest that I weed out the towering burdock in full flower; instead, they whip out their cameras and take its picture. I ask them for their advice and their ideas. They bring me plants that I am glad to get. Better still, they invite me to their gardens, where I learn something new each time I visit.

Other visitors lust after my plants. They bring a plate of cookies or some bath salts as a gift, hoping to parley it into a debt of gratitude repayable with plants. Surely I could spare a few of the seventy-two flat-leaf Italian parsley plants that I have grown from seed, couldn’t I? Never mind that they are barely enough for the planting scheme I had hoped to install. Usually, it turns out fine, as I almost always have extra plants that I enjoy giving away. Occasionally, these visitors bring a plant to trade, and then I am a happy camper.

The most enjoyable visitor is the ­ardent and eager would-be gardener. These visitors have the odd houseplant or perhaps a balcony full of plants in containers and generally put in a ­tomato plant or two each summer but “don’t have a real garden.” They wear walking shoes, take notes, and are full of questions. The herbs growing throughout the garden become my ­ambassadors. Their intense fragrances appeal to the senses and quickly make converts. I generally start these visitors with the familiar aroma of peppermint or spearmint. I pinch back a few tips and pass the sprigs from hand to hand. Sage for turkey dressing and chives or garlic chives for dip usually come next. By the time we get halfway down the hill to the Shakespeare garden, sweet woodruff, sweet marjoram, Mexican tarragon, fennel, anise hyssop, and ­ginger have made their appearances. Lamb’s-ears, lavender, and the scented geraniums are the coup de grace. The visitors fall in love right here in my ­garden. When they leave, I load them up with pots of rose geranium, a fennel or two, an iris division, and a clump of oregano. They are hooked on herbs.

–Geraldine Laufer

Leaves of spring

Lansing, New York–When I was a child, many years ago, my father, who was of English descent, used to go out in the spring with a knife and a basket to gather young dandelion leaves (“like an Italian”, my mother said) for cooked greens and salad. My mother served them, and we enjoyed them until, as the season wore on, they grew too bitter. Then we preferred the “spinach” of lamb’s-­quarters (Chenopodium album) that my father also gathered. We preferred it, in fact, to real spinach, since it had a richer, more buttery flavor. My husband, George Sheldon, who is a linguist, disagrees with the reference books and maintains that the plant should be referred to in the singular–“quarter”, not “quarters”.

The word refers not to animals but to a period of the year, Lammastide or Lammasquarter, which is the quarter year beginning ­August 1. The “lamb’s” is a popular misinterpretation of “Lammas”, which is itself a slurred pronun­ciation of “Loaf Mass” (earlier, “Hlaf Mass”), the blessing of bread for the harvest festival.

In the past few years, I’ve added another field plant to the menu, this one for salads–oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). This common, 2-foot-tall white daisy is a native of Asia and Europe that has become naturalized in the United States and Canada. The small, dark green, toothed leaves are very good indeed and add a fine tang to salad greens. They should be collected in spring (or in fall from new plants) while they are tender.

I used to grow another chenopo­dium, C. botrys, which also goes by the names of ambrosia, Jerusalem oak, feather geranium, and oak-leafed ­geranium (although it has nothing at all to do with geraniums). Ambrosia is a more appropriate name for this wonderful plant. How is it that I let it get away from me? It used to self-sow all over the place, appearing in spring looking like tiny little pink-edged oak leaves close to the ground. These would grow and send up 2-foot slender, branched stems that produced a froth of very small chartreuse flowers that turned gold as they aged. Their fragrance was heavenly–sweet but not too sweet, a bit fruity. I used to dry them for winter bouquets and wreaths. No doubt, I lost it out of greed, taking all of its arched golden plumes and leaving none to scatter seed. I must find some and get it started again.

Ambrosia is an annual native to parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa and should not be confused with yet another chenopodium, also called ambrosia: C. ambrosioides, a Mexican species used as tea, worm medicine, and antiflatulent. You may know it as epazote.

I’m remembering another frothy, fragrant annual I must have overharvested–Artemisia annua, or sweet Annie. I believe I first saw it lining a path at Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut. It’s rather an odd plant to use for edging, since it stands 5 or 6 feet high, but it certainly caught my attention. Its aspect not being what could be called distinguished, it might have gone unnoticed among a large grouping of plants. Its green, finely divided leaves do have a fernlike appearance that makes it a good companion for flowers. The sweet, fresh scent of this herb is delicious and lasts a long time when the leaves are dried. If you make pot­pourri, try combining it with lavender, rosemary, and vetiver.

–Elisabeth Sheldon

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