Tag Archive: Elderberry

  1. Halloween Plant Lore

    This creepy giant jack 'o-lantern at Longwood Gardens definitely has more scare power than a wee carved beet or turnip.

    Jack ‘o-lanterns originated from the traditions of mid-nineteenth century Irish immigrants.

    All ancient festivals relating to Halloween involved the harvest as well as fruits, herbs, trees and vegetables that were believed to have magical properties. Plants historically linked to Halloween were most often used to ward off evil, gain good health, or even tell the future. Some classic examples include fruits and vegetables carved into Jack ‘O Lanterns as well as apples, elderberries, hazelnuts, and rowan.

    The Celtic Feast of Samhain

    Halloween is tied to ancient Roman harvest festivals as well as the Celtic feast of Samhain, a summer’s end festival. The Celts believed that the dead ascended from their graves on the eve of Samhain and communicated with the living through druid priests. When the Romans conquered the Celts, and Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, traditions hybridized and over the centuries culminated into Halloween as we know it today. With each new tradition, a new symbolistic use of plants was employed.

    Vegetable Jack ‘O-Lanterns

    Pumpkins are the ultimate symbol of Halloween in America.

    A combination of Old World and American traditions led to the hugely popular Halloween jack ‘o-lantern. The Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a character that fooled the devil using devious, unorthodox means, inspired the first jack ‘o-lanterns. As the story goes, when Jack died, neither God nor the devil wanted him, so he was turned away with nothing more than a burning ember for light. Jack hollowed out a turnip to hold the ember, and Jack of the Lanterns has been wandering the countryside with his glowing turnip ever since.

    The Irish, Scots, and English carved faces into turnips, rutabagas, potatoes, and beets and lit them on All Hallows’ Eve to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. It was the influence of mid-nineteenth century Irish immigrants that lead to the carving of pumpkins for jack ‘o-lanterns. Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are New World vegetables, so they are true symbols of American Halloween.

    Apples on All Hallows’ Eve

    Malus domestica 'Red Delicious' JaKMPM

    Apples are ancient fruits long associated with Halloween traditions.

    Halloween also has roots in the ancient Roman harvest festival, Pomona, named for the Roman goddess of apples and trees. Pomona and her fall fruits symbolized romantic love and fertility.

    Most European pagan religions applied important symbolism to the apple. During Samhain festivals, the druids are said to have used apples to foretell the future in divination ceremonies. The ancient practice of using apple peelings for divination was a common Halloween game until the early twentieth-century. The length of the peel and pattern it created when falling were used to determine one’s longevity.

    Other age-old apple games are still popular today. The Halloween traditions of bobbing, ducking, or diving for apples, have been American favorites since Victorian times. Most of these games are thought to have originated from seventeenth-century Ireland. Apples were put in a tub of water, and those able to bite a bobbing apple hands-free would be blessed with good health and luck for the coming year. Others used it as a marriage divination; the first to bite an apple would be the first to marry. A similar game, called snap apple, was played with apples hung from strings.

    Rowan, Elderberry, and Hazelnut to Ward off Evil

    Long ago, crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection on Halloween.

    European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), elderberry (Sambucus nigra), and hazelnut (Corylus spp.) are three woody plants once believed to ward off witches, evil spirits, and offer protection on All Hallows’ Eve. The ancient Celts believed that rowan berries magically gave good health and that rowan trees planted near grave sites would help the dead sleep. Branches were also used as dowsing rods and crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection on Halloween.

    In old Europe, elderberry branches held above doorways were thought to protect homes from malevolent spirits and witches. And, though bonfires are still a part of many European Halloween celebrations, tradition dictates that elderberry should never be burned as this will invite death or the devil.

    It was once believed that burning elder invited death and evil.

    Hazelnut trees and their nuts were thought to hold equally potent powers on Halloween night. Strands of nuts worn or kept in the home would bring good luck. They were also used in divination practices and carried by young women to ensure fertility for the coming year.

    These are just a few of the many plants and fruits with roots in the ancient and interesting holiday of Halloween. Knowing them makes the holiday a little richer and helps us understand the importance and role of seasonal plants in our traditions.

  2. DIY Herbal Remedies for Colds

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    It’s that time of the season! No, I don’t mean the holiday season; I mean the season for colds, flu and other bugs that bring us down in winter. Despite flu shots, good care, vitamins and other attempts to ward them off, these bugs always arrive, unwelcome and uninvited. So, how do you treat them other than using standard medications? Herbs and natural remedies, of course!

    There’s nothing like garlic from the garden for herbal cold infusions.

    During the summer months, I grow plenty of herbs for teas, salves, soaps and tinctures that I use in the winter months. Some years I also grow medicinal herbs indoors on my sunny kitchen windowsill. They are cheap and effective, while also smelling pleasant and tasting good. Even nicer, some of the best grow like weeds, to include peppermint, chamomile, garlic, cayenne pepper, lavender and elderberry. Others, like ginger, are tender plants that can be grown indoors in winter or outdoors in summer.

    Anyone who has grown the classic herbs peppermint and chamomile know that they’re wild and must be kept in bounds. Nonetheless, their usefulness far outweighs their weediness.

    Chamomile

    Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is a sun-loving herb that generally germinates in spring and summer, remains a low-growing foliage rosette through winter, and blooms in spring, producing a cloud of little white daisies. These choice flowers should be harvested at their prime and quickly dried to make herbal tea or inhalations. (Be cautious about letting them set seed; they become weedy!) A combination of dried orange peel and dried chamomile flowers makes a lovely tea and inhalant that will ease the stomach and gently clear the sinuses. Just add one teaspoon of dried orange peel and three tablespoons of dried chamomile flowers to two cups of boiling boiled water. Steep it for a few minutes, for tea, or breathe it in.

    Peppermint

    Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has rhizomatous roots that spread like wildfire, so I grow mine in large pots in sunny spots. The summer foliage and flowers are easily harvested and dried for year-round use. Peppermint can be used to make inhalations and compresses as well as head-clearing tea. A good, simple mint tea recipe for colds contains two teaspoons dried elderberries, two tablespoons dried peppermint leaves and a few peppercorns to fire up the spice. Add this mix to three cups of boiling water, steep for a few minutes and serve with honey.

    Flowering German chamomile plants encircle a garden space.

    Garlic

    Garlic has proven cold-fighting benefits and is truly a plant-and-leave-it crop requiring next to no care; just plant it in rich, well-drained soil in fall, and let it grow and bulb up in spring and summer. As any garlic grower can tell you, garden-fresh garlic is worlds better than the store stuff. Still, grocery garlic works just as well as a cold fighter.

    Fresh lemon garlic tea is a standby infusion for cold sufferers. Simply add three large (or four small) sliced garlic cloves and the zest and juice of two lemons to three cups of boiling water in a saucepan. Allow the mix to boil for 5 minutes before removing from the heat and straining. Add a teaspoon of honey to each cup, and you have a truly useful cold treatment.

    Cayenne Pepper

    Nothing clears the head and chest like something spicy. That’s why cayenne (Capsicum annuum) is sought after as an herbal remedy for cold sufferers. The sun- and heat-loving veggies are easy as pie to grow during the summer months and are easily dried when red and ripe. Crushed cayenne can be added to any simple herbal tea as a stimulant to get the blood flowing. It is believed to help with headache pain and clear stuffy heads.

    Peppermint flowers and leaves can be used to make tea.

    Lavender

    Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is one of the most beautiful, sun-loving plants, and its dried fragrant flowers are a versatile herbal. Not only can they be added to soaps and creams, but they make a wonderful cold inhalant when infused with one tablespoon eucalyptus leaves and two tablespoons of lavender flowers. The two fragrant botanicals are harmonious partners. In fact, their oils may help to relieve depression, inflammation and congestion, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    Elderberry

    Gardeners with a good bit of space can and should grow elderberries (Sambucus spp.). Not only do they make delicious jam, juice and wine, they are also healthful and medicinal. The shrubs can grow in full sun or partial shade, though plants grown in higher light yield more fruits. Umbels of edible yellowish spring flowers give way to edible black berries in late summer.  Both the flowers and berries can be dried to make teas. The berries also make delicious syrup that can be used to sweeten and flavor any herbal tea. All are believed to alleviate cough and allergy symptoms.

    Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis 'Nova' JaKMPM

    Elderberries can be dried and added to various herbal tea remedies.

    Ginger

    Ginger root (Zingiber officinal) is delicious and desirable in more ways than one. Like cayenne, it’s spicy, so it acts as a stimulant that gets the blood flowing and clears the head and sinuses when added to tea or an infusion. It also helps sooth stomach when added to tea. Ginger is most easily grown in a pot outdoors in summer or in a sunny window or sun room in winter. It’s plump, spicy roots can be harvested as needed.  For delicious fresh ginger tea, boil five large slices of ginger root in three cups of water with a cinnamon stick for a few minutes, strain and serve with honey.

    All of the plants mentioned grow best in soils with average to good fertility and porous drainage. Before planting them in spring, amendment with Fafard Premium Topsoil will ensure good growth for the growing months. Likewise, ginger plants grown indoors thrive when planted in Fafard Organic Potting Mix.

    Two great reference books for medicinal herbal plants are the recent book Grow It Heal It by Christopher Hobbs and Leslie Gardener (Rodale Books, 2013) and the classic Complete Medical Herbal by Penelope Ody (DK, 1993).

    Though all of these herbal remedies are deemed safe by health experts, it’s always smart to talk to your doctor before partaking in any garden herbs. Also, be sure you have no allergies to these plants before using them. Some planning ahead is required if you want to grow your own herbal remedies, but when the winter sniffles arrive, you will be glad you broke ground and took the time.