Herb of the Year 2014 Artemisia

Copyright, 2014 Jim Long
The official Herb of the Year for 2014 is Artemisia, which encompasses a large and diverse family of plants. Probably the best-known Artemisia relative is French Tarragon, which a decade ago was on the list of the top 10 most-purchased plants in the U.S. (It has fallen off the top ten list, replaced a few yeas back in popularity and sales, by cilantro; to read more about the Top Ten Most Popular Herbs, from my nationwide survey, read my book by that title, click here for info).

French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus 'Sativa')
Another in this family of plants is absinthe (Artemisia absinthium), best known for the anise-flavored beverage, Absinthe. The spirit once had a bad reputation, mistakenly for the belief the ingredients could cause mental illness. It had great popularity as an alcoholic drink in the late 1800s, especially among writers and artists in France. Prohibitionists portrayed it as a dangerous and addictive drug and Absinthe was banned. Current studies have shown absinthe's properties were greatly exaggerated, and it was the over-consumption of alcohol, not the plant chemicals (thujones) present, that caused the problems. Absinthe is now manufactured by a variety of companies in both Europe and America. The plant itself is easy to grow and quite attractive.
Artemisia absinthium
With delightful gray-green leaves, the plant reaches to about 3 ft. in height and makes an excellent background or foliage plant in the landscape.
Leaves of the absinthe plant.
Yet another member of the Artemisia family is mugwort, (Artemisia vulgaris). It is seldom if ever used as a culinary herb, but its reputation in dream blends is well know. I use it in my own dream pillow formulas because it has been shown to help a person remember their dreams. (To read more, visit my Dream Pillows page of my website, or go to my Dream Pillows blog for stories about Dream Pillow use for quieting nightmares).
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).
Upon first glance, Mugwort and Absinthe might look very similar but if you look closely, you'll see the leaves of Absinthe are more rounded and gray on top and bottom. Mugwort, by contrast, has pointed ends of the leaves and is green on top and gray on the underneath side. Another difference is Mugwort is invasive like mint, while Absinthe stays put as one plant much better.

To learn more about the Herb of the Year, visit the International Herb Association's website, click here.


Elderberry Cultivation and Recipes

Elderberries are highly adaptable, hardy to Zone 4, and can be found across much of the United States and into Canada. Related varieties are found in Europe, as well. While you will find the plant growing in damp ditches and along roadsides, it will grow in average garden soil, as well. Plants thrive in both full sun and part shade.

One of the nation’s largest commercial elderberry farms is just outside Hartsburg, MO. Owner Terry Durham grows more than 37 acres of elderberries on his Missouri River bottomland and sells to processors who turn the berries into syrups and tinctures. Part of his production is made into jellies, juice and syrup, as well as elderberry cuttings from his selected varieties, which he markets from his Elderberry Life Farm (riverhillsharvest.com). 

Medicinally, elderberry has a reputation in treating bruises, skin conditions, headaches, flu, sore throat and coughing. Hippocrates is quoted as having said the elderberry bush was his “medicine chest.” The extract, sold commercially as Sambucus Extract is claimed to lower cholesterol, due to the plant’s claimed antioxidant activities, although  much more research needs to be conducted. A few studies have suggested that elderberry may be helpful in treating bacterial sinus infections and bronchitis. Some studies suggest 1 tablespoon of elderberry syrup four times a day is helpful in fighting the flu. Elderberry lozenges, combined with zinc, are also said to be helpful once a cold begins.

Never eat or drink any product made from raw elderberry fruit, flowers or leaves. All parts of the plant are sometimes listed as poisonous.  (Note: while some references list raw elderberry as poisonous, it is due to the potential for vomiting and nausea. I have tasted not-ripe berries many times without any negative effects. While I don’t recommend doing that, the berries are not a serious poison unless lots were eaten, and that is prevented by the fact they simply taste awful; you would not mistakenly eat more than one).

For those who have an allergy to elderberry pollen, taking elderberry supplements may cause a negative reaction. For those with diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, consult a doctor before taking elderberry supplements. Additionally, elderberry supplements could interact with chemotherapy in cancer treatment, or cause problems for those who are on immuno-suppressant drugs or diuretics. Elderberry is also not recommended for children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

In the Landscape
Elderberry is an excellent addition to the edible landscape. Grown at the back of the garden or even as a specimen plant in the yard, the masses of white flowers are a delight. The flowers bloom in clusters, often 12-16 inches across that attract a wide variety of butterflies and pollinating bees. Clusters of blue-black berries follow and often the plant will have both flowers and berries at the same time for many weeks. Birds also like the ripe berries and may get to them before the gardener does, but because the berries are produced in such profusion, there’s usually enough for all.

You can easily make your own elderberry syrup to use for pancakes, or for treating a cold or flu. It’s a tasty, fruity syrup for adding to water over ice for a summer drink, or a couple of teaspoons added to a cup of hot water makes a delicious winter drink, too. Note: the berries freeze well for use later.

Elderberry Syrup
1 1/2 cups freshly-picked berries (or substitute 3/4 cup dried organic berries)
3 1/4 cups water
1 1/4 cups honey - raw, local honey if available
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
3-4 whole cloves
1 large piece candied ginger (or substitute 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger)

1 - Combine everything but the honey and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and slowly simmer for about 25 minutes.
2 - Using a potato masher, crush the berries and set aside to cool for several hours.
3 - Strain, discarding solids, then add the honey and mix to dissolve.
This makes approximately 4 cups of syrup and can be stored in the refrigerator for about 8 weeks. This can also be frozen in ice cube trays for longer storage and taken out as needed.

Elderberry tincture from the store is made with alcohol, which is the accepted method of preserving most tinctures. You can also make a non-alcohol based tincture using this recipe.

Elderberry Tincture with Glycerin

Vegetable glycerin is available at many health foods stores.

1 cup vegetable glycerin
1 cup water
1/2 pound dried elderberries

1 - Place the dried elderberries in a quart glass jar and pour the glycerin over the berries. Place a lid on the jar and keep it in a cool, dark place such as the pantry for 6 weeks. Gently shake the jar daily to keep the berries from settling.
2 - Strain the mixture through a colander or cheesecloth, squeezing out all of the liquid from the berries. This can be stored in the pantry in an air-tight container, or in the refrigerator, for 5-6 months. It makes about 2 cups. Most people use 4 teaspoons daily at the first signs of cold or flu.

Pense Nursery
Mountainburg, AR
pensenursery.net; (479) 369-2494

Elderberry Varieties from Cuttings:
River Hills Harvest,
Hartville, MO
Terry Durham (573) 999-3034

Dried elderberries:
Mountain Rose Herbs; mountainroseherbs.com
Horizon Herbs; horizonherbs.com

Elder Cream Organic Skin Salve
Evening Shade Farm, Osceola, MO
Cindy Parker: (417) 282-6985


Is Elderberry an Herb of Fruit?

Ripe elderberries, summertime.

Is elderberry a fruit, a berry or an herb? You’ll find it listed in the berry section of mail order catalogs, yet Cornell University lists the elderberry as a, “minor fruit.” You’ll find elderberry on the remedies shelf of most natural health stores. Additionally, the International Herb Association (IHA) has designated the plant as the official Herb of the Year for 2013. So just which category is right? 
Elderberry blossoms, up close

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis & S. Nigra) fits easily into all of those categories, and more. The berries are collected in summer and used for making pies, jams, jellies and juices. The flowers are made into fritters, a bit like funnel cakes, only better. Old cookbooks list fermented flowers being made into a champagne-like beverage and an old-time folk remedy for sore throat was elderberry syrup. In not too distant times, elderberry wine was considered a tonic, much like taking elderberry tincture is today. In Romania, a traditional summer beverage called “socata,” is made by macerating the flowers in water, adding yeast and lemon and mildly fermenting the mixture for 3 days to give it a slight carbonation, or fizz, before straining and serving over ice.

The International Herb Association (IHA) has designated the elderberry as the official Herb of the Year for 2013. IHA chose the plant because it has a long history as a medicinal herb, as well as its use in cooking and in a variety of crafts. Because of elderberry’s reputation for possibly lowering cholesterol, syrups and extracts have gained in popularity in recent years. You can learn more about the Herb of the Year and this very useful herb by visiting the IHA website (iherb.org) and the Herb Society of America website (herbsociety.org). Both organizations publish an Herb of the Year book with recipes and uses.

In the next posts, I'll add recipes for using this versatile plant. Happy gardening!


Tasty Roses for Your Garden

Ketchup and Mustard, a floribunda from Weeks Roses.
I've been adding some new roses to the garden, ones that have fragrance and good flavor. This new one, Ketchup and Mustard, I hadn't seen before. It's from Weeks Roses, a floribunda that makes a salad or cake just sing with color.
This grandiflora, Stike it Rich, is also from Weeks.
Another I've added is Strike it Rich, also from Weeks Roses. It has a spicy frangrance with hints of fruit undertones. It's a medium-tall bush type and I look forward to using this in all kinds of foods and decorations.

Weeks Roses, an old and reliable wholesale rose grower, recently went bankrupt. Jackson and Perkins Roses, one of the oldest and most respected growers, went into bankruptcy last year. Weeks grew a lot of Jackson and Perkins plants and were owed money for the roses they were growing for the larger grower. When J and P went under, they pulled Weeks along with them. Here a summation of comments I found on the web relating to the bankruptcy:

"Gardens Alive purchases Weeks Nursery in Bankruptcy. Gardens Alive is part of the Spring Hill and Michigan Bulb Company, two companies that have a reputation for poor quality plants."

That doesn't give much encouragement for new and exciting, high-quality roses coming along. But for eating, fragrance and flavor, the old fashioned shrub roses are still available to us, thanks to Antique Rose Emporium and others like them.


Roses at Herbal Affair, Sand Springs Oklahoma

Roses everywhere!
Roses were a big thing at the Herbal Affair in Sand Springs, Oklahoma this year. Their 26th year marked the most vendors selling roses I've ever seen. Finally, the rose has caught on as an herb! Unfortunately none of the rose vendors were selling my How to Eat a Rose book, but I did my part at our booth.

Festival view.
This fragrant red and white rose is in bloom in our garden this week. It's tasty and an old-fashioned shrub rose.


Tiny Rose Cookies

I'm embarrassed. A customer who'd bought my How to Eat a Rose book called 2 days ago to inquire if something might have been left out of the Tiny Rose Cookie recipe, on page 30. The book's been in print for several years and I've not had any complaints about the recipe before. So I used my recipe to make a batch of cookies to see what might be the problem.

Maybe it was a mistake she'd made?  Maybe something was missing in the recipe? I had to know. In looking at the recipe, I guessed it was missing some flour. But how much?

The first batch of cookies turned out just as the customer had said - they spread out together, a mess. They were too moist to roll into balls, as well. The recipe called for 3/4 cup of flour, with rose flower water, and the other ingredients.

The lighter colored ones were from the old recipe, the second trial was better but still not quite right.

I made a second batch, adding an additional one cup of flour. The cookies turned out like they should, but had little rose flavor.  The rose water I was using was some I'd had in the pantry for no telling how long. I hate to throw spices and such things away. So I made another batch, this time omitting the rose water and replacing it with 1 1/2 tablespoons of rose syrup and an additional 1/4 cup of flour. The cookies came out rosy! (I made it with both 1 3/4 cups of flour, and also 2 cups, both work but the 2 cups made the cookies too crisp the following day).
Rose syrup works better in this recipe.

When I retyped the recipe from my notes, or possibly when the book designer retyped it, the one was left out. The difference between making a large pancake, and cookies apparently is one cup of flour!

 Here's the revised recipe and this one works just fine. Try it. These are dainty little nibbles. (Note, when adding the rose syrup, if the dough isn't stiff enough, add a bit more flour, but the amounts listed below work well).

Tiny Rose Cookies
Dainty little nibbles for tea time.

1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 3/4 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons rose syrup
Tiny pinch of mace or 2 drops vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 370 degrees F.
Cream sugar and butter, then add remaining ingredients, mixing well. Chill in refrigerator for 10 minutes. Roll pinches of dough into marble-sized balls and place about an inch apart on a greased baking sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes or until edges brown. Cool on wire rack. Makes approximately 30 cookies.
Marble sized pinches of dough, ready to bake.
Here's the way they turn out with the recipe corrections. These are tasty little cookies.

See my earlier posts about a good source for excellent rose water from Urbanherbal.com.


Rose Water Pound Cake

I saw William Varney had posted a note about his Rose Geranium and Rose Water Pound Cake on FaceBook and I asked him if he'd share it with our readers here. Here's his kind reply. Thanks William!

Hi Jim,
Here is the recipe:

Rose Geranium & Rose Flower Water Pound Cake

Men often present women with roses, chocolate, perfume, music and other pleasurable treats to put them in a romantic frame of mind. “Awaken his or her senses” seems to be the unstated motto of suitors. This cake certainly follows suit.

6 rose-scented geranium leaves
2 2/3 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
6 large eggs
2 teaspoons rose water
½ teaspoon lemon extract
3 cups unbleached flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream
Zest from one small lemon

Powdered sugar, bittersweet chocolate, organic red roses, rose geranium leaves as optional garnishes
Preheat oven to 300 F. Butter and flour a 10 inch tube pan. (We like to use a heart shaped pan.) In a food processor, finely mince geranium leaves with sugar. Add butter and cream mixture until light. Mix in eggs, one at a time. Add rose water and extracts. Blend well. Sift flour, salt and soda together 3 times. Add alternately with the sour cream to the butter mixture. Add lemon zest and blend well. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 1 to ½ hours or until golden and firm. Loosen edges with a knife, and let stand for 15 minutes in the pan, then invert on rack to cool. Glaze or dust with powdered sugar, or drizzle with bittersweet chocolate. Garnish.
William K. Varney www.URBANherbal.com

Note: Urban Herbal sells their own rose water so visit their website if you'd like to order it.

Urban Herbal's Rose Flower Water.