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Robert K. Henderson

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Freelance Writer, Editor, Translator, and Photographer

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Subherbs: Foraging for "Wild" Herbs in Your Own Backyard Food and medicine from common weeds and ornamentals.

Labrador Tea Rediscovering an important part of our herbal heritage.

Brass Under Fire: World War II Army Signalmen in the Amateur Radio Service Hams who answered the call.

Real Men Drink Tea Hold on to your boxers, brothers! Tea's back for a rematch.
On other sites:
Foraging in Residential Areas is my overview on collecting wild edibles in urban and suburban settings, available from Herbsearch.com.

Subherbs: Foraging for "Wild" Herbs in Your Own Backyard
Copyright 2001 by Robert K. Henderson

(An edited version of this article appeared in The Herb Companion.)

Euell Gibbons, the forager-extraordinaire who sent thousands scurrying after wild asparagus, was once asked how he came to know so much about living off the land. "Poverty," replied the author, with characteristic modesty. People who can't get food elsewhere, he explained, rely on what's in their own backyard. Few take the master at his word, however. Most of us imagine that wild herbs are best gathered in forests and country meadows, never realizing our own yards are packed with promise. Suburban herbalists can expand their harvest considerably without hoeing an extra foot of ground if they take a page from Gibbons and reacquaint themselves with a few herbs usually written off as weeds or ornamentals.

A scarlet past

Because it roots readily in poor soil, resists pests and disease, and thrives most anywhere, juniper has been a landscaping stand-by for centuries. I have even identified the sites of houses long vanished by the junipers still guarding their foundations. Suburban foragers should get to know these useful, ubiquitous shrubs.

Juniper's blue to gray-green "berries" are actually tiny cones whose scales are so tightly clenched that they appear round. These are the source of gin's characteristic bitterness. In fact, the word "gin" is a corruption of genièvre, the French word for juniper. Gin's ancestor, also called geniËvre, was invented by French Flemings about four hundred years ago and is still distilled in northwestern France. When a noxious bathtub version became the crack cocaine of 18th century London, patriotic "beer societies" promoted honest English lager as an antidote to the epidemic. However, the alleged power of juniper berries to cause miscarriage ensured gin's popularity in bordellos, earning both liquor and herb an unsavory reputation neither has completely lived down. Even today, in some backwaters, folk wisdom warns that "evil women drink gin."

Nasty bit of luck for the honorable juniper, which is prized in medicine throughout Europe, Asia, and the New World. Many cultures believe juniper foliage has antiseptic properties. Native American healers in the Rockies light the ends of tightly-braided juniper fronds and ritually cleanse people and places with the smoke. Europeans use the steam from boiling juniper boughs to purify sickrooms and ease cold, bronchitis, and asthma symptoms. Woodstove owners add juniper to their humidifiers to freshen stale winter air. Infusions of juniper berries are taken internally to treat kidney and urinary tract difficulties, as well as menstrual complaints and nausea.

Dried juniper berries are also a useful seasoning for acidic or strong-tasting foods. Juniper is part of the complex flavor of the Rhine country's succulent sauerkrauts, and a distinctive herbed vinegar is made from juniper berries. To add a smoky, resinous bite to meats and stews, roast dried juniper berries in a slow oven until black, grind fine, and add to taste. An intriguing coffee-like beverage can be made from this spice, though picking enough little berries to brew a potful of it is a saint's labor. Less patient foragers mix the ground roast berries with real coffee, or make tea by steeping with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Stir in honey and heavy cream for a luxurious winter treat.

Only female junipers produce berries, and only in the presence of male plants. If you have a lot of juniper but no berries, you probably haven't got both sexes. Though juniper berries contain oils that may be unhealthy in large quantities, the bitterness of most species rules out consuming enough to cause harm. However, the large blue berries of the California juniper (Juniperus californica) are less bitter than those of other junipers, and can be eaten out of hand. Should you encounter these berries, which are native to the deserts of southeastern California, enjoy them in moderation.

A living medicine cabinet

Frequently associated with the Deep South in the popular imagination, magnolia trees flourish worldwide. Southern magnolias rely on a warm, humid climate to survive, but others endure the harsh winters of the North and Midwest. Magnolia's large, often fragrant blossoms make it a favorite yard and street tree, and in residential areas one is usually nearby.

Magnolia has been a staple of Asian medicine for thousands of years. Chinese magnolia even boasts the noble officinalis species name, conferred only on the most versatile herbs. Magnolia officinalis bark and flowers counter about forty maladies in traditional Chinese medicine, including anorexia, malaria, and sexual dysfunction. The Chinese use other magnolias to treat seasickness, stress, and alcoholism.

Nor are the Chinese alone in their appreciation of magnolia. Traditional healers in the American South turn to sweet bay magnolia (M. virginiana) to fight fever, dysentery, and joint problems. In Turkey, it's a sudorific and heart tonic. Mexican herbalists treat scorpion stings with a local magnolia, while the Ainu, Japan's Caucasian aboriginal people, soothe cold symptoms with yet another variety.

Magnolia is also a tasty culinary herb. Chinese cooks stir pickled magnolia seed pods into rice to add flavor. Fresh saucer magnolia (M. soulangiana) flower buds, common in northern suburbs, lend a subtle horseradish-like zing to soups, salads, and sandwiches. Pioneer kitchens so relied on the seed pods of a Midwestern magnolia that to this day it bears the common name "cucumber tree" (M. acuminata).

Ever eat a pine tree?

While only the fruits of trees are usually eaten, to quote Euell Gibbons, many parts are edible. Those who have the courage to try the following tree-born suburban herbs will be richly rewarded:

Tender new Japanese maple leaves (Acer palmatum) are delicious in salads, where they contribute color and a surprisingly clean, tart flavor. They also lend an artistic touch when floated on soups or used as a garnish. Pick just-opened leaves and use them immediately. If refrigerated for more than an hour or two, Japanese maple leaves lose their tang and begin to taste like, well, leaves.

The soft new growth of some needle-bearing evergreens is both delicious and nutritious. Fir, spruce, and hemlock (not to be confused with the parsley-like plant that killed Socrates) all bear tasty buds, each with its own unique flavor and high in vitamin C. Spruce beer was once a favorite throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Sweet young spruce and hemlock tips also make excellent tea. Simmer in water over low heat, strain, sweeten, and enjoy. Douglas fir tea, on the other hand, is helpful against diarrhea. Conifer tips add a Mediterranean dimension to meats and sauces, and may be dried for year-around use.

Willow bark (Salix ssp) is undoubtedly the most useful, if overlooked, medicinal herb in suburbia. Willow bark tea is effective against nearly all of life's minor pains. Its use goes back at least as far as the ancient Chinese, and is probably as old as medicine itself. Nineteenth century chemists isolated the active ingredient and dubbed it acetyl salicylic acid. (Salicylic refers to Genus Salix.) Tablets of this were sold under the brand name "Aspirin," taken from the Greek word for willow in homage to Hippocrates, father of Western medicine. According to the great doctor's own casebook, he literally advised many patients to drink a cup of willow tea and call him in the morning. Beautiful and vigorous, willow abounds in residential areas.

Herb on the lam

It's a curious fact that many of our most hated weeds were intentionally introduced to this continent by our ancestors, who valued them as herbs. As society's values changed, these orphaned plants were forced into a life of crime. Today, a host of valuable herbs routinely suffer poisoning and uprooting in suburbia as they await political rehabilitation.

Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a particularly deserving candidate. Chickweed thrives in soft, fertile earth, making it particularly vexatious to gardeners. An annual, it is present year-round in mild climates and is readily identified by its small, tongue-shaped leaves and tiny star-like white blossoms. Chickweed's luxurious mat of foliage grows from a single weak stem.

Topical uses alone might have earned chickweed's passage on those crowded sailing ships of yore. A warm poultice of simmered, masticated chickweed was the early colonists' treatment of choice for nearly every skin disorder they encountered, including cuts, scrapes, infections, swellings, hæmorrhoids, sties, eczema, and boils. The pulp was applied to fresh wounds, and the water poured over the bandages afterward. Patients then ate chickweed or drank chickweed tea while the wounds healed, and thus fought illness on two fronts.

Chickweed also enjoyed a reputation as a treatment for colds, scurvy, and constipation. High in potassium, vitamin C, and other nutrients, chickweed was valued as a restorative for victims of famine or malnutrition and as a diet food.

Fresh chickweed gives flavor and color to soups and sauces. A few sprigs make salads and sandwiches more interesting, too. Dried chickweed has an earthy, alfalfa-like scent similar to parsley but more pronounced.Crumbled and kept in an airtight container, it's a terrific parsley substitute. A strawberry jar with chickweed spilling voluptuously from its pockets, placed on a doorstep not far from the kitchen, is as beautiful as it is useful.

Hidden Treasures

Many of the trees, shrubs, and weeds we take for granted are actually herbal time-capsules, treasured by our ancestors and waiting to be rediscovered. Take a look around your own neighborhood. You may be surprised how wealthy you are.

Copyright 2002 by Robert K. Henderson

Email: rkhen@softhome.net

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