Three Exciting New Herbs to Grow

For State by State Gardening magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

If you drive through any small town across America you will find either, or both, Mexican and a variety of Asian restaurants. Where once it was only burgers and pizza, or fried chicken and mashed potatoes, now you have choices of Indian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Guatemalan or Mexican restaurants.

Each of these ethnic foods have a different set of flavors, of traditional herbs that are used for seasoning. Where our grandma used only a few herbs - sage, rosemary, thyme, maybe some horseradish, foods today rely on a completely new set of flavors.

Even the "all you can eat" Chinese buffet, does not rely on parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme for its flavors.

There are lots of new and exciting plants coming in to the marketplace that are of interest to the home gardener. Eating habits have changed and when food fashions change and restaurants begin offering new flavors, gardeners want to grow those seasoning plants in their own gardens. What that means for gardeners is that we are developing a taste for interesting, new flavors that do not include the older, more ordinary European herbs we were used to. Instead, these flavorful ethnic foods rely on herbs such as curry leaf, cilantro, kaiffir lime leaf, lemongrass, cumin, cardamom, a vast range of basils, fiery peppers and herbs that grow in the water garden.

Nurseries and garden centers follow trends and begin offering plants their customers request. Ten years ago lots of garden centers weren't offering herbs at all and now just about all of them have a section on herbs, simply because their customers asked for those plants. Here are three new herbs you might like to grow this coming season, with sources for where to find them.

1 - Green Pepper Basil (Ocimum selloi). This very attractive and unusual herb was first collected by Dr. Dennis Breedlove in Chiapas, Mexico, a dozen or so years ago. Records of its use date back to the Aztecs, who used the plant for medicine as well as seasoning. Several characteristics makes this basil unique. First, it's a robust, dark green with shiny leaves and will withstand cooler temperatures than other basils. It blooms continuously throughout the summer and fall with attractive lavender to purple flower spikes, and unlike other basils, the blooming and seed setting do not stop leaf production. (Most basils require some pruning to keep up good leaf production).

Second, the flavor is a pleasant combination of both sweet, bell pepper, and spicy basil. It's delicious in a variety of dishes, including corn soup and stir fried dishes. As an added bonus, the plant is an attractive landscape or patio plant and holds up well in hot weather. From my experience in growing green pepper basil, it also doesn't easily cross with other basils. I generally grow about eight varieties together in my herb bed. This is a very good addition to your herb garden! Source (plants): Nichols Garden Nursery, 800-422-3985 and www.nicholsgardennursery.com.

2- Vietnamese Cilantro, also known as Vietnames coriander and Ra Rom (Polygonum odoratum). You either love cilantro or you hate it. Admittedly it's an acquired taste, but if you enjoy salsa and chips, or any number of Asian or Mexican foods, cilantro is a necessary ingredient and this is an excellent, and easy, cilantro to grow. The standard cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a cool season plant, thriving in weather that's too cool for growing most garden plants. Try and grow this standard cilantro between May and September in the South and you will fail, which is why this new herb is so important. It loves Southern summers! The hotter the weather, the more humidity, the happier this plant becomes. The flavor has a lemon, coriander, curry taste and fragrance. In its native Vietnam, it grows in the marshes and my friends who grow it commercially for the restaurant trade, grow it in low, hot, humid greenhouses all summer long.

Vietnamese cilantro requires full sun and lots of moisture. In fact, it will grow in a partially submerged pot at the edge of a water garden, or in regular garden soil if kept consistently damp. However, there is one caution about eating this herb. It's necessary to keep the plant harvested regularly as the young leaves and shoots have the best flavor. If you allow the plant to ramble, then when you taste the leaves, the flavor is quite different and not totally pleasant. Like most herbs, the more you harvest the plant, the better the flavor! Use the leaves of this plant in the same way you use any other variety of cilantro. I like it in a salsa of ripe peaches or mangoes, some lime juice, a jalapeno pepper chopped, a bit of green onion and two or three leaves of Vietnamese cilantro chopped. Mixed and served with chips, it's a great afternoon appetizer. Source (plants): Richters Herbs, 1-905-640-6677 and at www.richters.com.

3- Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) is another interesting new plant to grow. If you like to cook Asian dishes, there is no really good substitute for the flavor of this plant. Kaffir lime is a necessary ingredient in Tom Yum soup (meaning hot and sour) and Tom Kha Kai (Tom means soup, in Thai). It's a citrus and should be grown like any dwarf orange or lemon and is easily started from seed or cutting. Be prepared for thorns, like other citrus plants. Easily grown in containers indoors or on the patio, the desirable part of this plant are its shiny, dark green, hour-glass shaped leaves. In Thai dishes one or two leaves are simply torn up and dropped into a dish as it cooks, or in some recipes the leaf is rolled up tight and sliced very thin and added to Thai salads. The leaves have a very pleasant, lime fragrance and flavor. Give the plant full sun in summer and bring it indoors in winter. It's an easy and attractive plant for the patio. Source: Seed available from Baker Creek Seed, P.O. Box 70, Mansfield, MO 65704; 417-924-1222 or www.rareseeds.com, and plants from Nichols Garden Nursery, 800-422-3985 or www.nicholsgardennursery.com.

If you are an adventurous cook and like experimenting with new flavors, you will enjoy these new herbs and they will be an excellent addition to your herb garden.

Jim long has written over 20 books on herbs and gardening. You can find more plant information, recipes and views of his garden on his website at www.Longcreekherbs.com.

Dill - It's Not Just Pickles!

For State by State Gardening magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

When you mention the word, "dill" most people think immediately of dill pickles. And while it's true, a cucumber in vinegar without dill is just a sour cucumber, dill is good for so many things beyond making pickles. You may have noticed that dill is used by florists for that fluffy, airy filler in summer bouquets. And that dill flowers, on their substantial stems, hold up really well as a cut flower and are sold through wholesale florist supply houses.

When I was in India doing research for a writing project, I was surprised to find dill being used in a variety of dishes. I had always associated dill with northern European foods, but it's a staple of Indian foods, although you're not likely to find a dill pickle in that country. There is is also considered a mildly medicinal herb, used as an aid for digestion and for preventing flatulence.

There are several kinds of dill and each one grows a bit differently and has different uses. For example, if you are growing dill for bouquets, the variety, 'Vierling' is the best to grow. It offers a striking combination of steel blue foliage and brilliant chartreuse blooms. It has very strong stems , grows three to four feet tall, and blooms early.

But if you want more leaves than flowers, the variety, 'Fernleaf' is a better choice. It has compact plants with multiple branches. It's shorter, growing only about eighteen inches high and is slow to bloom. You'll find 'Fernleaf' listed as 'Slow-bolt' in some catalogs.

Another dill that is slow to bloom is 'Dukat.' If you plan on using primarly the flavorful leaves more than the seed heads, then you will want a slow bolting variety so that you have dill weed for a longer period of time.

'Dukat' is one of the better dill varieties to dry for dill weed. Dry it in a warm, airy place, without light. An attic works, so does a food dehydrator, but don't use the microwave which will evaporate the plant's essential oils, which is where the flavor is.

The most common dill grown in most people's gardens is a variety usually sold as 'Bouquet." It produces harvestable leaves in about 50 days from planting and has seed for pickling use, in about 85-90 days. This one grows about thirty six inches high and blooms a bit earlier than the slow-bolt varieties.

How is dill grown? In the South you can plant dill seed in late fall or early winter. It's a cool season plant, so if the seed is planted early, it will germinate and grow when the conditions are best. Dill doesn't transplant well. While you can transplant it, the transplant never thrives as well as a seed that is planted where it will grow to maturity.

As soon as hot weather hits, dill begins going to seed. If you want dill weed over a longer period of time, it's best to do successive plantings through the spring, and to plant more than one variety. Try as you will, though, dill won't grow in the hottest part of summer.

Here's one of my favorite salads which uses fresh dill (called "dill weed.")

2 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut in 1 inch pieces 2 cups, pineapple tidbits 1/2 cup sour cream 1/4 cup fresh dill leaf, diced slightly

Combine ingredients, mixing, then chill for at least an hour before serving. Serve 1/2 cup servings on top of lettuce leaves with a fresh dill leaf on top.

Another easy recipe using dill is this dill dip:

Dill Dip

1 cup sour cream 1/2 cup mayonnaise, like Hellman's 2-3 drops Tobasco or similar hot sauce 2 drops Worchestershire sauce 1/4 cup fresh dill weed, chopped fine (or 1/8 cup dry) 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Combine ingredients and mix well. Chill for at least an hour, or overnight. Serve as a dip for fresh vegetables or chips.

Dill & Tomato Sandwich Spread one slice of bread with any good mayonnaise Spread the other slice of bread with a thick layer of whipped cream cheese Put a generous layer of fresh dill leaves over the cream cheese Top with sliced, ripe tomatoes, a lettuce leaf and thinly sliced cucumber.

Sources Nichols Garden Nurrsery 1190 Old Salem Rd., NE Albany, OR 97321 www.nicholsgardennursery.com

Johnny's Selected Seed www.johnnyseeds.com

Pinetree Garden Seeds P.O. Box 300 New Gloucester, ME 04260 www.superseeds.com

Richters Herbs Goodwood, Ontario LOC 1AO Canada www.Richters.com

Make Your Own Marshmallows!

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

In the part of my garden that has a sign marked, "Edible Flowers," I have a marshmallow plant (Althea officinalis) growing. Unlike most of the other edible flower plants I grow there, the marshmallow is grown to teach a point, rather than for it's flowers. The ordinary marshmallow plant isn't that showy, it gets leggy unless you prune it back half way in mid summer, and you could easily overlook the tiny, pale white-pink flowers completely. The fact is, this isn't a remarkable or noticeable plant at all.

But when I take visitors on tour of my various culinary and medicinal beds, on to my exotic vegetables and water plants, I like to end up at the edible flower beds. I let visitors sample the old rose variety I grow which is generally in bloom with tiny, hauntingly fragrant white flowers. It was a favorite of my mother's throughout her lifetime. I encourage the visitors to taste the tangy, tart begonias, the unfamiliar flavor of marigolds, the pungent sages, spicy dianthus, and the subtle pansies and basil blossoms. We talk about how well these flavors work in sorbets and iced desserts. Then we pause at the marshmallow and we talk about the origins of how things come to be.

"Like the marshmallow for example," I say, pointing to the leggy, fuzzy leafed plant. Can you look at this and imagine fluffy marshmallows?" If it's a children's group that I'm touring, I may have earlier stuck miniature marshmallows to the stems of the plant to make my point.

Explaining, "Here is where marshmallows first came from" often focuses the children's minds on the plant I am describing and they ask if all you have to do is harvest the marshmallows.

"Yes," I say. "See how the grow next to the stem?" and wait for someone to laugh at the silly idea.

But when you think about it, it really is amazing that anyone dreamed up that fluffy confection and it's only when you delve into the history of the plant do you come to see how plants, and food evolves with time.

The Althea plant was in use in ancient Egypt where it was used to make a honey-based condiment, thickened with the powdered Althea root and was used as a medicine for royalty, treating sore throats. Marshmallow plants made their way from Europe to the Americas, where they naturalized along the East Coast. In Europe, and later America, in the nineteenth century, doctors used the extracted juice from marsh mallow plants, cooking it with sugar and egg whites, then whipping it into a foamy meringue that became firm. The resulting candy was used to soothe the sore throats of children and adults alike. The juice of the althea, was used as a topical treatment for wounds and cuts, as well as a liquid ointment for throat problems.

By the early 1900s, gelatin had replaced Althea officinalis root in the recipe for marshmallows, making them commercially viable, but also eliminating the cough suppressing, potential immune system boosting and wound healing properties of this useful plant.

In case you missed it, this change was significant for reasons beyond medicinal. If you are vegetarian, eating a gelatin based product, such as a marshmallow, means you are eating gelatin, which comes from the boiled bones of pork and beef, as well as fresh frozen pigskins and cattle hides. You'll also find gelatin in chewing gum, cream cheese, sour cream, cake icing and the candy known as gummy bears. Gelatin is also found in the coating for pills, as well as in cosmetics, throat lozenges and ointments.

So upon closer look, it seems someone didn't just gaze upon the lowly marshmallow plant and have a light bulb moment, inventing the marshmallow. Instead, it was a useful medicinal plant, whose properties evolved into the popular fluffy candy we know today.

When I describe to my garden tours the process of extracting the juice of the marshmallow, it's even more amazing that someone ever made anything useful. The method as it was described to me is this. You dig up some marshmallow plants, replanting a few of the smaller pieces to grow new plants.

Scrub the roots, getting off the soil and dark outer peeling. Then the roots are pulverized in water, pounding them until it is just a mass. More water is added and stirred, then the sediment is allowed to settle to the bottom of the container.

The water is siphoned off, leaving the residue, which is dried and further pulverized. Finally the resulting powder is the part that is added to the sugar, beaten egg whites, vanilla and corn syrup and cooked, then poured into a pan that has been sprinkled with powdered sugar. After the marshmallow has set up, a moistened knife is used to cut the mallows into bite sized pieces and it is rolled in powdered sugar.

The juice of the marshmallow plant has been used medicinally for centuries. The bruised root exudes a mucilaginous sap, that was used for soothing burns and sore throats, it's stickiness coating the wound or sore and aiding in healing. It is this muciliginiousness that made the plant useful. Other plants related to althea include the more common hibiscus, okra and others, and each have some of these sticky juiced properties. (Okra, which came from Africa, was used medicinally, as well, although not for the exact same purposes).

Usually, though, tour groups don't get the full amount of background. Most people don't want that much information, especially children's groups. So my method is to simply perk their interest with the connection between the althea plant and marshmallows. Maybe some little tidbit will inspire a child to read more, or an adult to want to explore more about the histories of medicinal plants. While not every plant has something as visible as the marshmallow to catch someone's interest, most plants do have a history that is just as rich and colorful if we but pause to look.

Jim Long gardens in the Ozarks Mountains. His gardens are open by advance reservation only. Visit his website at www.Longcreekherbs.com.

Eat More Parsley - It's GOOD for You!

For The Herb Companion, Spring, 2006
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

I was sitting in a restaurant recently, when I overheard a conversation between a five year old boy and his mother. The boy asked, "Mummie, what's this green thing on my plate?"

I looked over to see what he was inquiring about and saw a plate of fried chicken nuggets. Next to that was a plate of half-eaten child's size pancakes and a glass of soda.

The mother said, "Oh, that's just parsley, it's for decoration, not something you eat."

Never mind it was the only fresh, healthy food on their plates. But to teach a child that parsley's not edible!

However, most people don't think much of parsley today. It's that little piece of green fluff on top of the grilled salmon. It's the green leaves scattered around sliced meats and cheeses on an appetizer tray. It is, in today's world, basically an herb that has been relegated to being just decoration.

But the Romans, and the Greeks before them, used parsley in great quantities and looked upon parsley as an essential herb, recognizing its individual flavor in foods. The Greeks held parsley in high esteem and made wreathes of it and used them in celebrations as gifts to the gods. The Romans looked upon parsley as important in keeping away drunkenness, and so, exotic salads of parsley with rose petals and violets were eaten at the great banquets to ward off inebriation.

Fresh parsley has a flavor of its own, which makes it useful in cooking, although dried parsley has virtually no flavor. Curly leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum) has pleasant flavor, but flat leaf, or Italian parsley (Petroselinum neapolitanum) has an honest, more robust, flavor that is perfect in soups, salads, salad dressings, gremolatas and pestos.

Parsley is an excellent breath freshener, thanks to its high chlorophyl content. It is high in Vitamins A and C, and one cup of minced fresh parsley contains more beta-carotene than a large carrot, almost twice as much Vitamin C as an orange, more calcium than a cup of milk, and twenty times as much iron as one serving of liver.

It's easy to grow, but slow to germinate from seed. One old European myth says parsley seeds go nine times to the devil and back before germinating. In the community where I grew up, I was told to plant parsley seed in the sign of the moon; pour boiling water on the row, cuss it thoroughly and cover with soil, then, everyday go out and cuss it some more until it peeks through the soil. From those instructions you would think the someone was trying to germinate baby dragons from rocks instead of simple parsley plants!

Parsley is easy to grow. It likes a full day of sunshine, with moderate soil, or a planter on the patio, and requires very little care. The boiling water trick I learned from my childhood, is just a method for loosening the outer shell of the seed. The cussing and yelling probably doesn't do anything for the germination.

You can also speed up germination by soaking the seed for a day or two before planting. In some regions you can plant the seed in the fall and the freezing and thawing of winter will loosen the seeds so they can sprout.

A really simple method to speed germination is this: Put four or five parsley seeds in each compartment of an ice cube tray. Fill the tray with water and put it in the freezer for a week. Then, plant the ice cubes in a row. Germination will be much improved with no yelling or cussing required. Parsley is a biennial, which means it grows one year then goes to seed the next. The flavor of the leaves is good the first year, but turn bitter as the plant goes into flowering the second year. In other words, grow parsley as an annual for continuous leaves to use.

Gremolata is a chopped parsley seasoning, used somewhat like pesto, (which uses basil instead of parsley). Gremolata is chopped parsley with garlic, lemon zest, sometimes including olive oil. It is used for adding to the cook pot near the end of cooking for flavor, as an ingredient in soups. stews, as a topping for lamb, pork, chicken or fish.

Here's a basic Gremolata recipe:.

3 tablespoons chopped flat, Italian parsley, or 6-8 sprigs 2 garlic cloves 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest Freshly ground pepper Put ingredients in food processor and chop well. Try a parsley salad: 4 cups barely chopped parsley, 1/2 cup of halved ripe cherry tomatoes, some sliced radishes, a green onion diced fine and some fresh lemon juice squeezed over with a bit of olive oil and tossed well.

Parsley is full of flavor and vitamins and the next time you see it on your dinner plate, eat it for the great breath freshener it is. Grow it, cook with it and eat more parsley - it's actually good, and good for you!

Death by Violets

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

For many years in my twenties and thirties, I worked as a landscape architect. It was the perfect profession for me because I love plants, and I enjoy designing people's outdoor environments. And, although I am a bit embarrassed to admit, I greatly enjoy spending other people's money.

Early on, when I first began my business, I landed a design job for a newly wealthy client. The couple, a handsome young attorney and his stunningly beautiful trophy wife, had just built an expansive house in the fashionable suburbs of the city. They hired me to create a total environment, with a swimming pool, multilevel decks, a variety of gardens, with patios, a water feature and a gazebo.

I understood very well what they wanted, which was lots of bling, something to make their neighbors envious. They wanted a landscape that shouted, "Money lives here."

When the job was finished, they threw a party, in honor of my work. Invited were the young movers and shakers of the community, in other words, more people like my clients. From the contacts I made at that party, I was busy with work for the next seven years and it established me as the guy to call if you had bottomless pockets for your landscape project.

The next substantial project I took on was for a wealthy bachelor. He owned several thousand acres of ranch land and chose a pristine location at the base of a bluff to build his home. An entire hillside cliff was dismantled by stonecutters who chiseled the limestone into building blocks for the house. A house in France was bought and dismantled simply for the eighty seven massive, seventeenth century doors. Another house in England was purchased for the four hundred year old English oak door frames, flooring and mantle pieces. A factory in San Francisco was torn down and the railroad car length wooden beams were transported to the site to become hand-waxed, exposed beams in the house. Slate from South America made the one hundred and three patio-sized steps leading to the front door; Italian marble covered the bathrooms. An attached arboretum held a pool, hot tub and steam rooms with a waterfall backdrop made of boulders with sculpture commissioned for the project.

My job, first, was to take the remains of dismantled bluffs behind the house and rebuild them into natural looking, aged stone cliff faces, building two fifty foot waterfalls and pools below with thousands of well chosen plants. To return the bluff colors to their mossy origins, I used a combination of buttermilk, horse manure and moss, blended into a paste and painted on the stone. I spent two years there, creating an environment of natural beauty with a sophisticated look. Wildflowers and herbs were planted between the house-sized boulders in the front lawn. Wild edible water plants edged the spring-fed ponds. Hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs were shipped from Holland, hand picked for the lawns and beds.

After the completion of the house, the owner moved in. He hired a private chef, a woman I'll call Peggy, and her caretaker/chauffeur husband, Bob. I became well aquatinted with Peggy and Bob as I was on site nearly every day, overseeing my landscape crews or ordering more plants.

Peggy and I became friends, primarily over our common interest in food. She knew I had enthusiasm for edible wild plants and culinary herbs and so we occasionally exchanged recipes. When a lavish party was planned at the house, Peggy would invite me in beforehand to taste this item or that and ask my opinion.

It was springtime and there were sweeping banks of lovely purple violets along the bluffs and creeks below the house. I'd been telling Peggy about candying violets and so one day she asked me to show her how I did it.

The house had a public kitchen attached to the spacious dining room. A four hundred year old redwood had been felled to make the dining table, which was a simple plank, five feet wide and long enough to seat forty. Next to that were several marble topped counters with hammered copper sinks and antique, gold plated French fixtures.

Behind that, was the service kitchen, the real working space. I brought in a basket of violets I had picked and Peggy broke an egg and separated it. I frothed up the egg white with a fork and began dipping the blossoms into the egg, then dropping them into a plastic bag of sugar and shaking them. Quickly we had a few dozen violet blossoms laid out on waxed paper to dry.

"I understand," Peggy said. "I had no idea it was so easy."

I reminded her to dry the violets in a barely warm oven or food dehydrator, then put them into airtight containers until ready to use (and away from direct light, which would ruin their color).

I learned there was to be a big party in a few days, a political fundraiser. Actually there would be two parties, two hundred people in each. The first group would include the governor of the state, the Attorney General, a couple of Senators and other bigwigs of the state's political machine, along with lots of the local upper crust of society.

Peggy had decided she would use candied violets to decorate her many desserts she was preparing and told me of her plan. Bob was to gather the blossoms. I asked him if he knew the plant we were talking about and showed him a patch of violets near the house.

"Oh, yes, I can see. I know what to pick," Bob had said.

I stopped by on the day of the party to make sure my crews had not left any tools or unplanted plants where the guests could see them.

"Jim," Peggy called out from the front door of the house when she say me walking up the steps. "Come and check my violets, I need your opinion," she said with a concerned voice.

When I got into the kitchen, I saw huge platters of candied violets, piled high. There were thousands of candied violets and I complimented her on her work.

"Something's wrong," Peggy began. "Taste one and tell me what you think." I chose a couple of violets nearest me from the platter and popped them in my mouth. I chewed, enjoying the sweetness. Suddenly, my throat turned numb. My tongue, also. I evidently looked startled because Peggy handed me a glass of water and asked, "Is this the way they are supposed to taste?"

After I sputtered and choked a bit and drank the water down, I muttered, "No. Those aren't violets, what are they?"

We turned to Bob, who was kind of a sweet but not terribly bright, doofus. Bob said, "Those are the ones you told me to pick, I just do what I'm told." "Show me where you picked them," I said, still not certain what the mistake was. A ray of sunshine was coming through the window, hitting the platters of violets, making their frosty purple color seem to glow.

Peggy and I followed Bob past the golf green, along the nature trail at the base of the waterfall until Bob pointed and said, "Here. This is where I picked the violets."

My mouth dropped open. Peggy's eyes got wide. What we were looking at was a tennis court-sized bed of vinca minor. Bob had simply assumed that anything with a lavender flower, had to be a violet. Never mind that one plant was a trailing groundcover with small leaves along the runners and that the other, the violets, grew in individual clumps with heart-shaped leaves. To him, if it was purple, it was a violet.

At that time I had no idea if vinca minor was edible. From the numbness in my throat and tongue, I assumed they were probably poison. My mind was spinning. Imagine it, I thought to myself, the headlines in the morning news would read, "Governor dies with violets in mouth."

I thought through the impact of the deaths of the leaders of the political party in power, how Bob might have single-handedly killed off the power structure of the state and local governments, bringing in a progressive party.

Peggy must have been thinking the same thing. She looked at me and said, "I need to get back to the kitchen. I have a new menu to put together for the party tonight."

Only years later did I learn from a pharmacist that vinca minor isn't poisonous, but not recommended for eating. It had minor medicinal properties in historic medicines. The politicians wouldn't have been killed, just very uncomfortable for an hour or so while they had their stomachs pumped., which, looking back, might have been fun.

The lessons for us were many. First, to always know the correct identity of the plant before you eat it. Second, don't judge a flower by its color. And third, politicians are lucky that people taste food beforehand, before serving it.

An Old-Time Healing Plant Saves the Lawn-mower Boy

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

Comfrey's gotten a bad rap in recent years. My own dermatologist, who's not particularly interested in herbs, cautioned me one day a few months ago that "comfrey shouldn't even be used topically, it's just too dangerous." I think he brought it up because he recalled from years before that I make myself a bit of fresh comfrey salve after my visits to him. I go about once a year to have him freeze any sunspots I've developed over the previous year. My salve is a simple mixture, just t several young, tender comfrey leaves, 1/2 cup aloe vera gel and about 1/4 cup rubbing alcohol, all put into a blender and blended until it's a thick, green goopy salve, which I then cover and refrigerate.

Then, as soon as I return from my trip to the dermatologist's, I put little dollops of the green stuff on each place he's frozen, twice a day, which rapidly promotes healing.

Once, I'd forgotten that I had an appointment with the dermatologist just 4 days before I was to appear on an HGTV program. Only when I was sitting in the doctor's office did I remember the conflict in my schedule. Afraid my face would look like a meteor shower had passed, I began using my comfrey salve that very day. Surprisingly, only 4 days later, there wasn't a mark left for the television show's make up person to hide.

There's evidence that comfrey shouldn't be taken internally, at least not on a repeated basis. And there's also evidence that regular, repeated use on your skin might have deleterious effects on your liver. It is, of course, good to err on the side of caution.

Several summers ago I had a teenage guy who came each week to mow my lawn. His goal was to earn enough money during the summer to buy a car and he was intent on quickly mowing and getting on to his next job.

One morning soon after he had arrived for his weekly mowing, Bobby came over to where I was working in the herb garden. He held up the palm of his hand to me and explained that he'd cut it a few days ago and that pushing on the lawnmower handle with that hand kept reopening the wound.

"Got anything I can put on it?" he said.

I examined his hand and saw it was a clean wound, not infected, just uncomfortable. Of course what he probably wanted was a bandage, but he didn't ask for that and so I decided it was a good opportunity to teach him about comfrey. I walked a few steps and picked a couple of tender comfrey leaves.

"Here," I said to him. "Chew these up a bit and put them on the cut." He stood there, looking puzzled. "Ah, I, er, don't think I want to put that in my mouth," he said. "It's just leaves."

"Bobby, what's under your lower lip right now?" I asked with a knowing grin. "Skoal," he said, looking a bit embarrassed.

I told him to spit it out, that comfrey was a whole lot more useful than the tobacco he so lovingly held in his lips. Reluctantly he spit out the Skoal, wiped his lips and tentatively took the comfrey leaves I held in my hand.

He felt the leaves and noted that they were fuzzy. He was like a child, stalling, avoiding doing what he was instructed. But finally, seeing that I wasn't backing down (and only after I had put a comfrey leaf in my own mouth), he put the leaves into his mouth and worried them around with his tongue, breaking the plant's cell walls, watching me all the while to see if I was at any moment going to tell him it was a joke.

After he had chewed the leaves up a bit and finally saw that I was totally serious, I said, "Now flatten out the leaves with your fingers and apply them like a fat bandage to the palm of your hand that's cut and hold it against the mower handle while you mow. I think you'll find it helps ease the pain."

Bobby did as I suggested and in a couple of hours came back to show me that the wound did, indeed, look a bit better. I picked a few more leaves for him and told him to repeat the process that night after he got home from work, then apply it again the next morning. (I also instructed him to regularly use hydrogen peroxide on the cut to cleanse it).

It was a week later when Bobby came back. No sooner had he unloaded his mower than he came bounding over to me in the garden like a puppy chasing a ball. Holding up both palms he said, grinning from ear to ear, "I bet you can't tell which hand was cut, can you?"

And it was true. There was no indication of any wound, old or new on either hand. The wound was totally healed and gone. The next thing from Bobby was a question that really tickled me. It was even more than I had hoped for. "That worked so well, so what else grows in your garden? " he asked.

And with that, I gave Bobby his first ever tour of an herb garden. He willingly smelled and tasted everything I handed him, asking questions, wondering what this was used for and what that plant was over there that I hadn't gotten to yet. It was obvious that this was the first time a garden, or plants, had caught Bobby's attention and suddenly he couldn't get the information fast enough.

Comfrey may be a plant that deserves caution, but from my point of view, it has a long history of use and I will continue to use it, carefully and sparingly.

Jim Long's gardens and books can be seen at www.Longcreekherbs.com. Readers comments and questions always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net.

Akos and the Lavender Massacre

For The Herb Companion
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

I've always been resistant to learning the metric measuring system. It's pure stubbornness on my part, dating back to my childhood when I read Americans were going to have to adopt the rest of the world's measurements. "Why"? I remember asking. No one consulted me or let me vote. I intend to live out my lifetime ignoring the difference between a millimeter and a kilometer. Neither measurement evokes a mental image for me.

With our native measurements, I know in my mind what they look like. Tell me to hold up my fingers and measure an inch, and I can, because I have a mental picture of an inch. Tell me to walk a mile and I will know how far to go. But ask me to point out a millimeter, or a decimeter, or any of those other foreign terms, and there is just no mental picture that comes in my mind. Just because the rest of the world does something, is not reason enough for me to change. Usually the world and I just agree to disagree. But for some years I hosted foreign exchange students. They came, one at at time, to work with me and learn my methods of herb growing and marketing. These students were in their twenties, had a degrees in agriculture and were reasonable fluent in English.

Akos was my first exchange student, arriving in March from Budapest, Hungary. I got him settled into a little apartment on my farm and within a few days began giving him work assignments in the garden.

Akos' first assignment was to prune my lavender plants, readying them for spring. I explained I'm very particular about my lavenders. I've learned over the years they require a raised bed in this climate; otherwise their roots rot and die. I've learned they want a bit of mulch, so I use pine needles. Too much mulch will choke them, I explained to Akos, and every year they get a light application of garden lime and never, ever, should one dig around the base of the plant. The lavenders have very shallow roots which are easily damaged.

The young man stood patiently, nodding his head and eagerly trying to absorb everything I was saying. When I would ask, "Do you understand?" he would nod a polite "Yes."

I didn't want to hover around as if I didn't trust my new student, so I handed him a pair of trimmers and explained how I wanted him to prune the lavender plants. I explained "Eight to ten inches is plenty." He nodded that he understood. I pointed out where the trimmings should be thrown over the garden fence to the goats, who, most likely, would have them for lunch.

Lavender plants do best when pruned each spring. I cut mine back in late February or early March, just when there are the tiniest green leaves beginning to appear on the old limbs. With an annual pruning, the plants will be more robust and produce a greater supply of blooms. Then, after the early summer blooming, the old bloom shoots are removed to make way for a second, late summer flowering.

I looked out the window some time later and Akos was still working diligently on the lavender bed. I could see piles of the old limbs and trimmings piled carefully to the side. I went back to my other work. When he came indoors later and said, "I'm done, come to see," I went out to inspect his work.

What I saw caused my mouth to drop open. Instead of plants which were cut back to eight inches or taller, the stark lavenders were cut nearly to their main trunks. Trying to not scare the fellow on his first work assignment, I carefully chose my words and tried to lower the pitch of my voice to near normal. But I wanted to scream or cry.

"How did you decide eight inches was not enough?" I finally managed to ask. He blushed red. "Inches?" he asked. I don't know that measurement. I cut these back to eight centimeters."

I was certain that the lavenders would die, but over the following weeks I saw the severely pruned plants were putting up new growth. I thought to myself possibly within a couple of seasons at least some of the plants might be back to their former glory.

To my continuing surprise, by mid summer my lavenders were blooming more than they had ever bloomed. The spikes were longer and more numerous. Not a single plant had died as I had so dourly predicted.

Now each spring, I laugh as I prune my lavenders, remembering Akos and my mistake relating measurements to him. I always prune them back more severely than I used to, cutting them down to four of five inches above the main stem. I give them some compost and a light sprinkling of lime, scattered on top of the bed before laying down a new layer of pine needles.

My lavenders have continued to thrive with this treatment and I send an annual thank you email to Akos to remind him of our first misunderstanding and how much I learned from it. Maybe it's time I learn a new set of measurements. Lavender is versatile and resilient, so maybe I can be, too.

Nekked in the Garden

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

People who write about gardening sometimes have unusual ways of amusing themselves when they get together. On an annual basis the Garden Writers of America meets, tours public and private gardens, listens to programs and lectures, and smoozes about the craft and work of garden writing. At those yearly conferences there will be 500 or so people including television gardening personalities, magazine editors, radio talk show hosts, newspaper and magazine columnists and lots of garden book authors.

One of the popular entertainments during this annual conference is the night of karokee. I believe the reason it remains popular year after year is the absolute joy of seeing distinguished personalities making absolute fools of themselves.

At this year's conference, after karokee had wound down one evening, a group of us were sitting and talking about gardening. Someone offerd up the question, "What's your most embarrassing moment as a gardener?"

I think the questioner had in mind something like the time you planted parsley and got rhubarb, or you planted the gladiolus bulbs upside down and they grew to China.

That was far from the answers that were soon revealed, however. One garden writer mentioned having fallen asleep beneath a well-mulched bed of sunflowers, only to be discovered by her teenage son who thought she had lost her mind.

"He actually called 911!" she said.

Another admitted to having lost her diamond ring in a patch of turnips and not finding it until after she and her husband divorced. When it was my turn I offered up my story.

"Well," I began, "this may be a bit radical for this group, but here goes." I described having moved to my remote rural area 26 years ago. At that time I would almost never saw a car pass by on my road, sometimes not for a week or more. I was 30, exhuberant at rural life, at having a real garden to tend and of establishing my self-sufficienty.

"Back then," I said, "I was a late-blooming hippy. It was just me and the earth, the basics of life. I wanted to live off the land and be totally at one with the Universe."

I began the habit of gardening without a shirt. Soon I had also left off my shoes, reveling in the feeling of the fertile soil under my feet. I hadn't experienced that since childhood. Then, noting that if anyone did happen by on my road, I could easily hear their car tires on the gravel for a half mile away and be warned, I decided to leave off the rest of my clothes, as well.

The feeling of gardening completey naked in a totally private place was a freedom I had never experienced. It became a habit, a daily routine. The dog and cat at first looked at me strangely, maybe surprised that I could remove my covering and they couldn't, but other than that, I gardened without interruption.

One day as I weeded along a raised bed of bronze fennel, talking to the butterflies, conversing with the bluebirds, I suddenly heard a soft voice nearby. I peeked over the fennel and there, not fifty feet away, stood a smartly dressed, matronly lady, her hand resting on the garden gate. Her car, along with a lady traveling companion were parked nearby in the driveway. I could see that she was driving an old Buick, the kind with big, balloon-like tires, the kind that could glide silently on graveled country roads .

I stood up, keeping the chest-high bed of fennel between me and the unwanted visitor. She wanted to know if I knew some long lost cousin of hers who had lived nearby, decades before. I didn't, I declared politely. She continued asking me questions, but in a soft voice, so I kept having to ask her to repeat her words. Finally she said, "Young man, if you would come a little closer I wouldn't have to repeat myself. It's unkind of you to make me yell.."

I knew she had more voice because she had just squalled at my dog, nearby. I thought to myself, "How rude! You're in my yard, uninvited and you are telling me where to stand so you can talk to me about people I've never heard of. And you are yelling ugly things at my innocent dog!"

But I remained courteously behind the fennel, preferring not to shock the lady. She kept up the banter, telling me about her cousins, their house, their childhood, their divorces, their wayward children, their stint in jail. Once again she insisted I join her at the garden gate, with more force this time.

"Ok," I mumbled to myself. "This is my farm, my garden and you are a pest." I stepped determindly out from behind the fennel and strode to within a few feet of the lady, just as she had requested. Her eyes grew big. She looked at the trees, then the sky, then the power lines over the garden. She watched the barn swallows diving at mosquitoes overhead,. She surveyed the torn roof on the weathered old garden shed behind me, up at the oak trees, over toward the hills beyond. Her voice trailed off in mid sentence.

She didn't apologize, nor did I. But she did refrain from any more tales of her misguided relatives and their woeful lives. Quickly, and quietly she got into her old Buick. The car's silent tires snaked their way up the gravel driveway and over the hill and out of sight. I would have loved to listen in on the conversation between the two ladies as they drove away.

My most embarrassing moment was also a moment of triumph, but after that, I kept an extra pair of shorts in the garden, just in case.

It's Poison, Don't Touch it!

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

I've always wanted to garden. From the time I was old enough to walk, I would follow my father as he used the old push tiller, "helping." I began to pester my parents by the time I was four years old, to let me have my own garden. I would spend hours looking through seed catalogs, learning about plants and asking questions.

My questions led me in interesting directions. My paternal grandparents were quite old by the time I, their only grandson, came along. My grandfather had been born right after the Civil War, in a sod house on their homestead in Kansas. My grandmother had come from Tennessee after the War, in a covered wagon. Both of them had suffered difficulties, worked hard and witnessed tragedy. And so, when I came along, full of questions and excitement about life, they worried. Boy oh boy, did they worry. Worrying was their full time hobby in their old age.

They lived on a farm and whenever we visited them I was constantly bringing in whatever new plant or fruit or flower I had found, to ask its name. The naming of plants was always important for me, but whenever I asked what this or that was called, my grandparents, both of them, had only one response.

"It's poison. Don't touch it!"

It didn't matter whether I had just picked a bouquet of poison ivy (which I once did) or a handful of grape leaves, the answer was always the same. I was taught always to respect my elders, so I didn't challenge my grandparents' answers. One day, though, I was very curious about the vines I saw growing along the fence rows and had asked my grandfather what they were. His pat answer, "It's poison, don't touch it" was all he gave.

But later that day I saw my Grandma Harper, my mother's mother, and out of curiosity, asked her the same question. To my surprise, she didn't tell me it was poison. She didn't share my Grandad and Grandma Long's view that children should be protected from everything, at all costs. Instead, she believed that the more a child knew, the better prepared he might be for life. She told me the vines were grape vines.

Grandma took me to the cellar and showed me rows of jars of grape jelly, the deep purple color showing through the glass. Then she directed my gaze to quart jars of dill pickles. Picking one up, she turned it around and said, "See the grape leaf? I put one leaf in every jar of pickles to keep them crisp."

After that I quit asking my paternal grandparents questions about plants. Anytime I wanted real information, I knew that my Grandma Harper would tell me the truth. And so, as I reached my fifth birthday, I again started asking my parents to let me have my own garden.

My father finally agreed to till up a little plot of ground for me, about six feet by six feet square. My mother would let me choose the seeds and help me order them from the seed catalog. The agreement was that I would plant the garden exactly like I wanted, with the seed I chose, but if I did, I had to weed and hoe my garden, just as they did the big garden.

I was beside myself with excitement. I made a list by tearing out the pictures and descriptions of every plant I wanted to grow. To my disappointment my mother explained that there wasn't room for everything and that I must cut the number of seed packets down by half.

I worked hard on my selections. I wanted to grow corn and radishes. I wanted a row of touch-me-nots as I liked popping their seed pods. I chose onions and lettuce, a row of zinnias, peas, carrots and sunflowers. I wanted a clump of mint and some sage, too. When my mother suggested I still had too many things for the small space, I insisted I would make it work.

When the seed order arrived in the mail I could hardly stand to wait for the package to be opened. I spread out the packets and looked at the colorful pictures on the front, imagining what my garden was going to look like. I barely slept that night as in my mind I kept arranging and rearranging the rows of plants. Next day, as soon as breakfast was over, I took my child sized hoe and rake and began making rows in my garden.

It felt like magic to me, putting little shriveled up seeds in the ground, knowing that in a week or two, they would emerge and grow into living plants.

The first plants up were the radishes, in about five days. Then the lettuce next and the carrots. Peas and corn took a little longer and I grew impatient, checking several times a day.

At first keeping the weeds out of my little garden was easy but soon, as the weeds grew faster and the other plants began to crowd each other, it became a harder job. The weather grew hot and it wasn't fun to pull the weeds everyday.

Within a few weeks I had realized my mistake. In my effort to get everything in the garden, I had planted the rows too close together (about eight inches apart). That meant the corn was overshadowing the zinnias. The mint on one corner of the garden was overtaking the peas. But no one said, "I told you so." Instead, every time I harvested a radish or an onion or a pod of peas, my mother would compliment me and make it a part of the meal. (Once, the three of us split the five peas out of one pod with both of my parents declaring they were the sweetest peas in the garden).

My parents let me make mistakes in my first garden. They didn't discourage me, or even chastise me for letting the weeds get out of control. Instead, they encouraged me and let me learn from the choices I had made.

I'm grateful for that, for their letting me make mistakes with my first garden and to learn from them. I credit them for encouraging me into an occupation that has sustained me for my entire lifetime and look back fondly on my first garden.

Questions and comments welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net and at www.Longcreekherbs.com.


Betty Wold and the Disappearing Muffins

Down to Earth column for The Herb Companion magazine, summer, 2005
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

For seven years in the late'80s and early '90s, I held an annual herb festival at my farm in the Ozarks. I dubbed it, "Herb Day in May," and the one day affair was filled with herb experts speaking about growing and using herbs.

My intention back then was to have an event which brought herb-minded people together to learn and exchange information. In those days there was little in the way of publications, not a lot of books and herb nurseries were not easy to find.

I featured herb foods for the luncheon and afternoon refreshments, had musicians and plant sellers, and generally made the occasion one of fun, education, food and festivities. One year we held a "Shakespearmint Players" play on the roof of the herb shop, with the audience seated in the herb garden. Another year we had soap makers, herbal fortune tellers, jugglers, butter churning (to make rose petal butter) and lots of elaborate herbal foods which I prepared.

To attend, you had to be on my mailing list for the little herb publication I wrote and published, reserve in advance and pay a fee. Each year the number of people coming grew larger and each year I had to turn more people away due to lack of space. Every year I increased the fee for the day, eventually charging $35 per person and every year, people complained that I didn't charge enough because of all the food and entertainment I furnished them.

Visitors came from many states. and the speakers, too, were from as far away as Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and beyond. One year my good friend and herbalist from Oklahoma, Betty Wold, presented a fascinating program on cooking with herbs. (She had actually been to the very first Herb Day in May, the one that was rained out. Having come prepared to give her program, she dressed in her garden hat, flowery dress and garden gloves and gave her program to 5 people in my living room, entertaining all of us and making us feel that we hadn't been rained on at all).

Betty began her lecture by telling us about Benje, the bisinge dog she had recently acquired. Bisinges, if you don't recall, are the Australian dog that never, ever barks, a quality that Betty liked very much.

According to Betty, she had invited several guests from New Zealand to stay with her for a few days. They were to tour her herb garden, then she would lead them on tours of some nearby botanical gardens and art galleries. On the day of the guests' arrival, Betty had made some stunningly good orange muffins with chamomile and sage. "It was a new recipe," Betty said, "something I'd dreamed up one night when I couldn't sleep and I was certain they would be delicious."

Betty set the freshly baked muffins on the kitchen counter to cool, covered by a tea towel, and went about fluffing up the house and readying it for visitors.

The guests arrived in early afternoon and everyone was enjoying visiting. Betty put on the tea kettle to make a pot of tea to serve with the muffins. She put out the napkins then went to fill a napkin lined basket with the orange chamomile muffins.

"The muffins weren't there!" Betty said. "Not a muffin remained, only the crumbs. I thought I had lost my mind. I looked in the oven. I looked in the pantry. What could I have done with those muffins? I really thought I had lost it!" Betty said with a laugh at herself.

With no muffins to serve, Betty brought out some store bought cookies and went on about hosting her guests, explaining with a laugh and some embarrassment, that she really did bake muffins for her guests. After dinner that night everyone said their good evenings and went off to their beds. As Betty described it, "All at once I began hearing giggles. Then laughter and now and then a shriek. One guest said,'Betty, we've found the missing muffins."

Betty went to look as the guests came out of their rooms, each carrying a muffin. Benje, the bisinge dog, had carefully carried each muffin and tucked one under each pillow of all of the guests' beds. Betty laughingly told us in her lecture that bisinge dogs other trait, besides not barking, is that they hoard food. Benje had put a muffin under every pillow for some future time when there were no muffins to be had, and since Betty's orange chamomile muffins were the best thing around, he thought he'd hit the jackpot.

"Benje thought he had found a hiding place where he could go get a muffin a day for days and days," Betty said.

Betty concluded her lecture by telling us that not to be afraid to use herbs in new and unusual ways. "You just never know how a recipe is going to turn out, or where your muffins are going to turn up," she said.

If you would like some recipes for using your herbs in interesting ways, check out my Recipe Blog. Happy gardening! Questions and comments welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net and at www.Longcreekherbs.com.

A Small Miracle in Every Seed

For The Herb Quarterly magazine, Spring, 2006
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

Seed. Isn't it remarkable? Seeds found in Egyptian tombs, sealed up for thousands of years, when planted, still grew.

There's a tree growing on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri that came from just such a seed, found in an archeological site in the 1950s. The seed had lain dormant for over a thousand years, yet when given light and water, sprang to life. I've sat under that tree and marveled at its history and the seed that brought it back to life.

In my closet, in neat stacks of storage boxes lie dormant my own collection of seed. Although not as exotic as a dusty Egyptian tomb, included in the cache are seed samples sent to me from correspondents around the world. Like pepino cucumber (Anchochas cyclanthera pendata), a seed so rare that the only reference I have found is in the book, Lost Crops of the Incas. It's both a medicinal herb and a vegetable, as well as being a very attractive vine.

Stored there, too, are seeds I have collected on the island of Sulewesi and West Papua, New Guinea. Next to those are herb seed from the desert region of northern India and more from Thailand. There are roselle seed (Hibiscus sabdariffa) that wonderful Egyptian tea herb, which is also the base for sorbets and summer drinks in my home.

Green pepper basil seed from Mexico lie in wait there, along with south Indian lemongrass, which is the plant source for citronella oil, that wonderful mosquito deterrent. And papalo, as well, the Mexican herb used much like cilantro in rural Mexican cafes.

Why do I have these seed collections, you might wonder? I guess because first of all, I can't throw seed away and second, I see them as being like a savings account. I withdraw some of the seed each spring and plant it, and in the fall, harvesting and replenishing the supply like an investment for the future.

When a seed is planted, a truly amazing miracle happens. The seed absorbs warmth and moisture from the soil and the interior begins to swell, eventually bursting the protective outer seed coat. Then, with more magic, a tiny root forms and heads downward deeper into the soil, seeking nutrients. At the same time, responding to light, the plant emerges upward, pushing bits of soil away as the sprouting seed takes on the immature form of a plant and pushes itself into sunlight.

Hidden inside a single seed lies the capacity to grow a new plant, and to pass on the traits of the parent from which the seed came. The new plant can mature and reproduce, creating a field or a forest of plants, all the result of that tiny seed.

When I was a child I was mystified by this process, baffled by how the germinating seed knew when, and which direction to grow. In the eighth grade, for a science project, my teacher allowed me to do experiments on seeds. I chose seed that were virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye, and planted them in trays. I kept records to compare how quickly seeds in the dark germinated as compared to those in full light. My little plant experiments were kept mostly on the wide windowsill of the classroom, which became a dangerous location for them.

Over time I discovered that other eighth graders, who had no interest whatsoever in plants or science would daily water my seedlings with Coca Cola. Sometimes they simply smashed their hands into the tender seedlings, crushing my experiments. Still, over time I was able to demonstrate several things that have served me well as a life long gardener.

First, I learned that proper light is essential, not only for seeds to germinate, but for plants to thrive. Basil, for instance, just will not thrive unless it has ample sunlight and if you give it a shady location, be prepared for an unhealthy plant.

Next I learned that plants are amazingly resilient. Even smashed into the soil by stupid eighth graders, most of my plants recovered and resumed growing. From the grass we mow on a weekly basis to trees damaged by storms, plants have the ability to survive injury.

Third, I learned that Coca Cola notwithstanding, plants require specific nutrients. Too much or too little of the basic requirements and the plants will not reach their full potential. And yet, plants are resilient enough to withstand wide variations in their nutrient supply. While my plant experiments withstood countless dousings of soda pop, they did infinitely better once given normal amounts of water and fertilizer.

From the book, Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, I learned how diverse seed, even within a species can be. Apple seed, for example, according to Pollan, virtually never come true to the parent. With four seed within each apple, the possible variations from the parent reach into the millions.

And from that book I also learned how important the relationships between humanity and plants are. Plants respond to human needs, either through selection or through the ability to evolve to take advantage of people's preferences. Like maize, a wild plant found in the Americas, but through selection and cultivation, the cultivated varieties have little resemblance to their wild counterparts.

That process can work in reverse, as well. Look to the more common variety of holy basil. If planted in the garden next to other basils, it will cross at random with any other basil in bloom and the seedlings will nearly always be a poor reproduction of either of the parent plants.

The mystery of seed is something I look forward to each spring. Not only through the seed catalogs, but through my little cache of seed from previous years, I can grasp the possibilities of yet another garden year. With trowel and seed in hand, I begin the process anew, ready for the miracle of the seed to happen all over again.

Happy gardening! Readers comments or questions always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net or www.Longcreekherbs.com.

The Lemony Herbs

For The Heirloom Gardener magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

When I first started growing herbs in earnest some twenty five years ago, I began with all of the ordinary herbs. I grew parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, bee balm, borage, tarragon, fennel, dill, and sorrel. Each year I added a few new ones, including lovage, hyssop, oregano, marjoram, basil and lemongrass.

It was probably the lemongrass that first got me thinking about plants that share a similar flavor even though they are unrelated. The fresh lemony flavor of lemongrass was something I very much enjoyed.

The flavor of young lemon balm leaves, too, shared that same fresh lemony flavor and I gave it a place in my herb garden. In a short while I was concocting recipes for using lemongrass and lemon balm in foods that would highlight those herbs' flavors. My lemon balm cake recipe came about because of those two herbs and over the years I served it many times at herb events at my farm.

The next lemony herb I found was lemon basil. It has the same fragrance oils as lemongrass and lemon balm and I made a place for it in my garden as well. Within a short time I found that lemon basil must have its flower spikes cut back on a weekly basis, otherwise it blooms, sets seed and dies. But if kept clipped, it will produce wonderful lemony leaves until the fall frosts.

Lemon basil is useful as a salad herb - simply put the clippings into tossed salads. I like to put leaves or flowers from this herb into a blender with a small clove of garlic, a tablespoon of chopped green onion, some oil and vinegar and a tiny touch of honey and whirr it up into a very quick, very tasty salad dressing.

But my favorite use for lemon basil is in mid summer, when there is a bountiful supply of the limbs and leaves, is to pick a substantial bunch, dip it in water and lay it over the grill above medium heat on the barbecue. Then I spread shrimp, still in their shell and uncooked, on top, then another layer of lemon basil on top. With the barbecue grill's lid down, it takes only about 2 minutes to steam the shrimp. They should be turned once and steamed another minute and removed from the heat. The lemony herb flavor seasons the steamed shrimp and you can eat them that way or with a dipping sauce. I like to cook the shrimp this way while visiting with my dinner guests, and let them eat the shrimp while I continue cooking the main course on the grill.

But there are lots of other lemony herbs that are as equally useful. Lemon thyme, for example. Lemon thyme combines the sweet-hot flavor of thyme (which you use in poultry dishes) and a fresh lemony flavor.

It's a small perennial plant, grown around the edges of rocks or along the herb garden border. I like to use sprigs of lemon thyme in salad dressing, and in a marinade for chicken for grilling. Chopped fine and combined with softened cream cheese, it is also very tasty spread on crackers or stuffed into cherry tomatoes as an appetizer.

Combining lemon thyme, some lemon basil and cream cheese, then spread on fresh bread, topped with cucumber slices and ripe tomato, this is a most excellent sandwich and one I look forward to each summer.

Lemon verbena is another very satisfying herb to grow. Tropical in nature, it must either be brought indoors in winter, or replaced each spring and grown as an annual. It can easily reach five feet in height in a season if not pruned and the intense lemon flavor and fragrance is easily used in a variety of ways. As a sorbet ingredient it gives a lovely, sweet flavor to the frozen dessert. Used as a simple iced tea, it's amazingly refreshing. I like to chop up a small handful of fresh lemon verbena leaves when I make a fruit salad for a large group. I combine bite sized pieces of watermelon, white grapes, strawberries, cantaloupe and lemon verbena, adding some cranberry-raspberry juice to blend it all together. After chilling the salad in the refrigerator for a few hours the lemony flavored dish is ready to eat.

To make a refreshing cold-pressed lemon verbena iced tea, put six lemon verbena leaves in a pitcher. Fill the pitcher with ice, then water to the top. Leave it for a few minutes for the lemony flavor to mix throughout the beverage, then serve. It's actually that easy!

Here's my recipe for Lemon Balm Blueberry Cake, using two of the lemony herbs:

Lemon Balm-Blueberry Cake

Herbs used:
3 tablespoons freshly chopped Lemon Balm leaves
2 leaves Lemongrass (for this use the leaf, not the bulb), snipped fine with scissors....it's important to snip with scissors, not expect the food processor to do it adequately)

1 package Duncan Hines or any brand Lemon Supreme cake mix (or your own white cake recipe from scratch) Combine the liquid ingredients called for on the box...usually 1 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup oil. Put that liquid in a blender with: 3 tablespoons freshly chopped Lemon Balm leaves and 2 leaves Lemongrass which have been snipped up with scissors. Pulse-blend until the herbs are fairly well pulverized. Add that to: The cake mix and eggs, beating well and pour into two oiled, floured round 9 inch cake pans. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool.

With cake slicer or large knife, slice each cake in half horizontally, making 4 small layers.

Filling: 1 large package instant vanilla pudding 1 large (8 oz.) package cream cheese, softened to room temp. 3 cups milk

In food processor, pulse blend filling ingredients, then stir in by hand, one small carton Cool Whip. Fold together well and refrigerate for several hours. Spread about 1/2 inch layer between the first and second layers of cake. Place the second cake on that, and cover the next layer with the filling. Put a layer of fresh blueberries over that, add the third layer, repeat with filling and berries, then place the fourth layer on top. Cover it with filling and dot liberally with fresh blueberries. Photos of this cake are on my website, just click on "Garden Visit" and you will see photos. If you want more recipes using herbs, go to my Recipe Blog. Happy gardening!


For The Heirloom Gardener magazine
Copyright© 2006 Jim Long

Did you know that salsa is now more popular than catsup in terms of sales nationally? Or that most restaurants now offer patrons hot sauce just as often as catsup and mustard?

Our food preferences have changed considerably over the past twenty years. If you're old enough, think back to the 1960s and what typical American food consisted of. T.v. dinners. Pot roast. Fried chicken. It wasn't until Shakey's Pizza opened the first national franchise of pizza restaurants around 1962 that pizza came onto the national table. Then, in the 1970s, Julia Child introduced us to French cooking in the first ever nationally televised cooking shows.

Before Shakeys and Julia, most people in the heartland wouldn't have known what to do with oregano or French tarragon, much less sorrel, rosemary or a dozen other herbs that these two made famous.

In the 1980s and'90s we saw a new wave of immigrants to our shores and with them came new foods. Ten years ago you could have driven across Missouri or Arkansas and probably not encountered a single Asian or Mexican restaurant. Drive those same roads today and it's virtually impossible not to encounter both, in most every little town you pass through.

With salsa on the top of the condiment list, it's worthy to note that salsa isn't just tomatoes any more. While tomato salsa is the primary kind you will find on the grocery store shelf, just like any food there, you can make it fresher and more tasty by making it yourself. You can make salsa from lots of other fruits and vegetables than from the standard tomato.

For some years now I've been encouraging visitors to my gardens to grow their own cilantro. And not just the standard spring and fall cilantro, but to grow some summer varieties, as well. I especially like Vietnamese cilantro (Polygonum odoratum), a plant that works perfectly in salsas if you remember to keep harvesting the leaves and tips (let it get leggy and the older leaves taste awful; keep it cut and use only new growth and it's delicious). Vietnamese cilantro loves summer heat and will grow best in damp soil, even in pots floating in the water garden.

Mexican cilantro (Eryngium foetidum), also known as culantro, thorny coriander, Ngo gai and stinkweed, is another cilantro flavored plant that works great for salsa. It's grown from seed and needs to be grown in the shade with plenty of moisture. The first year I grew this plant I put it in the full sun in my same herb beds where I grow basil (it is, after all, "Mexican" cilantro. Mexico means hot and dry in my mind. I was wrong. Cool temperatures and moisture are necessary).

It didn't totally realize how to grow this plant until I was in Thailand for cooking classes. My hosts were growing culantro (they call it stinkweed there) in full shade in moist beds next to our outdoor cooking classroom. While the plant looks kind of thorny, the name, "thorny coriander" comes from the thorny seed clusters. To keep it producing its tasty leaves, the flowering stalks must be kept cut away.

With choices of several kinds of cilantro, from Mexican and Vietnamese in the summer to Santo (Coriandrum sativum) grown in early spring and late fall, you have plenty of choices to grow and make your own salsas. And the seed can be harvested and kept for the following year, except for Vietnamese cilantro which must be grown from cuttings.

One of my favorite salsas to make in summer is fresh peach. Here's the recipe.

Fresh Peach Salsa

4-5 fresh, ripe peaches, peeled, seeded and diced 1-2 green onions, diced fine 1-2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, any variety, chopped 1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced fine 2 tablespoons (or more) sweet bell pepper, diced 1 teaspoon honey Juice of 1/2 fresh lime

Mix everything together and refrigerate for at least an hour for the flavors to blend. Serve with chips.

White Grape Salsa This is an easy salsa and has surprising, pleasant flavor.

4 cups fresh, seedless white grapes 3 green onions, cut in pieces, tops, too 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped 1 tablespoon mild honey or 1/2 tablespoon sugar 2-3 jalapeno peppers, seeds removed unless you want more heat 1 small or 1/2 large sweet bell pepper, seeded, diced Juice of 1 whole lime

Put everything in a food processor (or chop by hand) and pulse process until the salsa is coarsely chopped. Chill for an hour before serving.

Guatemalan Tomato Salsa

I learned this from a neighbor who has her own cooking show on Guatelaman cable television. The ingredients aren't unusual, but the method of preparing them is a bit different.

In advance, heat a skillet to medium hot. On it, without any oil or water, lay 2 whole green tomatilas, 1 large garlic clove, 1 large slice of onion, 2 jalapeno peppers and 3 roma tomatoes. Blacken all of these until they are totally charred on each side of each vegetable (garlic, too!). As soon as these are totally blackened, remove from heat and let cool. Meanwhile, mix the rest of the ingredients: 2-3 large, ripe tomatoes, diced 1 sweet bell pepper, seeded and diced 3-4 green onions, diced 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro Juice of 2 fresh limes 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt, optional

Then remove the stem and seed from the roasted jalapenos, dice them and add to the mixture. Dice the remaining roasted vegetables and add them to the salsa. Mix and let stand at room temperature for at least an hour before serving.

More of my salsa recipes can be found in my book, Sensational Salsas.

Pickin' Up Pawpaws

Ozarks Gardening newspaper column
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

It's pawpaw picking time! If you walk along the lake, or in deep valleys where there's moisture in the soil, you will likely smell something sweet, something not quite melon like, not quite like a banana, but fragrant and enticing. Pawpaws, when they are ripe, give off a pleasant, sweet odor that you can smell for considerable distance. But if you want pawpaws, you have to go now, because that same fragrance that you smell in the air, is also attractive to lots of woodland animals.

Squirrels,'possums, raccoons and probably bear and wild hogs, will try and beat you to the pawpaw patch. That's why it's best to find the fruit early, then shake a few off the trees and let them ripen at home.

Pawpaws are the largest native fruit in North America. They grow in 26 of our 50 states, in Zone 5 through 8, from Florida to Ontario, westward to Kansas and Oklahoma. And even though they are found over a large area, many people wouldn't know a pawpaw if it jumped over their feet.

Lewis and Clark, in their journals, wrote about how welcome the fruit of the pawpaw was for the voyagers. Indians ate it in the fall, and likely were responsible for spreading the seed of the tree across its now large range. Pawpaws are about the size of a slender potato, about 6 or 7 inches long, and two or three inches in diameter. Generally the fruit weighs from four to eight ounces and grows in clusters of two to five pawpaws in one spot.

The trees do well as a landscape tree and actually produce more fruit in a sunny location than in shade. But when left to their own habits, pawpaw trees grow in full shade as an under story tree, usually along river banks, in deep valleys and beneath bluffs. The trees bloom in very early spring with maroon, not very noticeable flowers. They are pollinated by flies, and to aid pollination, those who grow stands of pawpaws often hang rotting meat in the trees to encourage more flies.

Pawpaws have a short shelf life, meaning if you pick a green one today and put it on the kitchen countertop, it will be ready to eat in about two days, but will be past its peak in four or five days. When it's ripe the outside of the fruit will have turned black, like a very ripe banana, and it will be quite fragrant.

The flavor has been described as between vanilla pudding and a banana or cantaloupe. Some varieties have a slight pineapple flavor, and all have a custard-like texture.

The trees never produce heavy crops like apple or pear trees do, but the amount of fruit can be increased considerably if you have another variety, or even another pawpaw tree that is not directly related to the first one. Pawpaws are good in milkshakes, are a good ingredient for cakes, muffins, pies, custards and puddings. Or, they are delicious eaten fresh, just peel them and pick out the seeds (which are the size of kidney beans and easy to pick out). If you want a real Ozarks treat, the season for pawpaws will last only about ten days, so pick yourself some pawpaws.

Happy Gardening. Questions and comments welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net, and at www.Longcreekherbs.com.

Bread Poppies

For The Heirloom Gardener magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

I'm a student of Civil War plant medicines and my program, "Herbal Medicines of the Civil War" is popular in flower and garden show and historical conference circuits. Every time I present the program, (which includes "wounded" in-costume soldiers with lots of stage blood and realistic battle wounds), the question comes up regarding what the Civil War doctor used for controlling pain. That leads to a discuss of poppies, which played a critical roll in pain medications of that time.

Poppies are the source of opium and various derivatives of opium are still in use today. Morphine, from opium, is used to combat severe pain, and the semi-synthetic drugs, oxycodone (under the trade name Percodan), as well as Dilaudid, Vicodin and Immoblion, are all of immense pharmaceutical worth, all coming originally from derivatives of the poppy.

So what, you may be wondering, does the opium poppy have to do with bread poppies? Opium poppy is Papaver somniferum. Bread poppy is Papaver somniferum. You will find P. somniferum seed in bird seed mixes (where it's often called "maw" seed), you'll find it in little jars in the grocery store baking section. It's the seed found in poppyseed salad dressing and the seed that is ground and added to sauces for flavoring and thickening. You can buy poppyseed oil for cooking and poppy seed heads are available for decorative uses from many florists. They are all Papaver somniferum,

These amazing poppies vary in color from reddish purple to white, from lavender and pink to deep red and can be single or double. All produce edible poppy seed, but it's not from the seed that the opiates come. The medicinal part is the sap, the white, sticky juice of the poppy seed head after the petals have fallen.

Poppies were cultivated by the Egyptians, thousands of years ago. Also by the Romans and across India and Asia, and came to the Americas with the first colonists. The crushed seed heads, combined with chamomile, were used as a poultice, the petals were made into syrup and even the young, green leaves were cooked and eaten as a spring greens, much like people eat poke greens today.

Several seed companies list bread seed poppy as a "new, low-morphine (very minute amount) poppy to grow for culinary seed." Often in seed catalogs you will see Papaver paeoniflorum listed as bread seed poppy. It's not an official, correct botanical classification, as it is still P. somniferum. It's a widely grown plant and gardeners often don't know that they are actually growing the opium poppy in their garden.

Friends of mine who are in government jobs tell me they have to avoid eating anything with poppy seed, even poppy seed rolls, poppy seed dressing or cakes which contain even a small amount of the seed. The random drug tests they are subjected to, will show up as positive for drug use if they have eaten poppy seeds within the last ten days. Otherwise, though, poppy seed is safe to eat for most people and there is only miniscule amounts of the opiates in the seed.

So that brings up the question of whether you can legally grow poppies in your own garden. There are occasional news stories about grandmotherly types who have discovered the local police invading their yards, ripping out poppy plants and threatening to arrest the gardener.

Thomas Jefferson grew poppies in his gardens at Monticello. The seed descendants from his plants were sold at the gift shop of Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants until 1991. But a drug bust at the nearby University of Virginia panicked the Board of Directors and they removed the poppies and burned the seeds. It was a shame because within the law which relates to poppy growing, there is a clause regarding intent. The gardener has to be proven to have intended to cultivate poppies for the manufacture of opium, and obviously the gift shop was not intending to encourage opium cultivation. Still, to be safe, they erred on the side of caution.

The cultivation of Papaver somniferum is banned in the US under the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. Amateur horticulturists, however, continue to grow the flowers ornamentally in their gardens. (It's worth checking local regulations in your state if you arenervous or in doubt).

If you are planning to grow poppies in your garden, you are probably safe if you grow a small bed of poppies. Use them for color in the garden, enjoy the seeds in your cooking, and in most parts of the U.S., no one will bother you. But if you grow an acre of poppies, or start slitting the seed heads and collecting the sap, you are almost certain of landing in jail.

Shirley poppies, by contrast, are not a controlled substance. Papaver rhoeas, the Shirley poppy, give beautiful color to the garden, although the seeds aren't considered edible. The same with Oriental poppies, European corn poppies, Iceland poppies and California poppies. All of those are fine, and legal, to grow, but the seeds aren't generally considered edible.

If you buy poppy seed in the grocery store it is likely Papaver somniferum 'Hungarian Blue' which has slate-colored seed. Most of the poppy seed sold in stores and used in commercial bakeries, comes from the Netherlands. The seeds contain very little of the narcotic drug and you could chew up a bunch of the seeds (which have a good taste) and not feel any effects. It is, however, still the same opium poppy.

You can plant the seed from the grocery store and they will likely grow. For growing any poppies, they require just a few basics in order to thrive.

Choose a place where the seed can be planted early in the year and not disturbed, and a spot in full, all day sun. In the Midwest, it's best to plant poppies in late fall to early winter. I've tried planting both in October-November, and in February-March, and the earlier planted ones do better, by far. Plant the seed where you want them to grow as poppies don't transplant well. (If you aren't sure when to plant poppies in your area, plant half your seed before Christmas and the other half of the seed in early February. Plant them in two different plots in order to tell which time of planting worked best for you). The biggest mistake people make when trying to grow poppies, is planting them too late in the year. April and May is too late as that's when they are getting ready to bloom.

Scratch up the soil and mix the poppy seed with some sand so as to not get it too close together, or put it in a salt shaker and scatter the seed through the shaker top. Press the seed down, but don't cover it, just enough that the birds won't see it. If the seed are covered with soil, they probably won't germinate. Then simply leave them alone. In Zone 6 and 7 you will probably seed the tiny seedlings appear in January or February. Or you may not even notice them until late February when you see the frosty blue-green leaf rosettes of the plants. Along in late April they will spring upward with flower stalks and by May, your garden will be alive with the color of poppies.

The flowers last from three to five days, on average. If you want to use them as cut flowers, cut the flowers in early morning and with a match, singe the cut end of the stem, to seal off the loss of sap, then put them in a vase of water.

Poppy seed heads are a lot like salt shakers. Once the flower petals have fallen off, in a few days time the seed head will have turned a brownish-gray and dried. You have to be careful when cutting these seed stalks, because even slight nudge of the seed head and the tiny seeds will scatter on the ground (where they will come up next spring at the right time).

If you are collecting seed for use in baking, cut the seed stalks before they are completely dry and turn them upside down in a paper grocery bag (make sure to tape the seams in the bottom, or else the seed will spill out). Let the seed heads dry upside down for a couple of weeks, then shake them into the grocery bag. They are now ready to pour into a storage container for use in baking during the winter.

Poppyseed Dressing

1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard 1/4 cup light olive oil 1/2 cup vegetable oil 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar 2 tablespoons cup grated onion 1 tablespoon poppy seeds 1/4 teaspoon salt, optional

Mix ingredients together in bowl, stirring or whisking to combine. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week (if you substitute dry onion flakes for the grated onion, the dressing will last several weeks in the refrigerator). Serve over any greens salad, as well as over salads containing fruit such as this: 3 cups small spinach leaves, torn, 1 ripe pear, seeded and diced, 1 tart apple, seeded and diced, 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese and 1/8 cup walnut pieces. Toss with poppyseed dressing.

Jim Long is the author of 24 books on herb and gardening subjects. His gardens and books can be seen at www.Longcreekherbs.com. Questions or comments always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net.