An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Archive for the ‘Vegetable and Herb Gardening’ Category

Get your vitamins and omega-3s with purslane

Purslane growing in Hull St. "vegetable garden". Loaded in omega-3s, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is the eigth most widespread plant in the world.

You may never have been formally introduced to this little plant, but by the time you finish reading, you’ll be glad to know this wild superfood, which is actually the eighth most widespread plant in the world.

Purslane /Portulaca oleracea/ is a succulent annual that crawls along compacted soil. Its thick and fleshy leaves grow from a reddish stem, and its teeny, yellow flowers bloom only in daylight. Purslane is highly heat and drought-tolerant, perfect for cultivating in an Athens edible landscape. Between Trapeze Pub and Casa Mia on Hull Street, a unique vegetable garden grows. Where other vegetables are wilting from the heat and lack of watering, purslane is thriving.

Notice the reddish stem of the succulent purslane.

Ancient cultures worldwide have relied on purslane as a green leafy powerhouse vegetable par excellence. Though the weed may not be native, non-agricultural people of the Pacific Northwest foraged for purslane prior to European contact, proving that puslane has been in North America for quite some time. Among the Greeks, Cretans and Turks in the Mediterranean, purslane is a favorite wild vegetable to collect.

If stranded in a remote area, you would be fine if purslane were growing nearby. In fact, you’d probably be a lot healthier. Studies show that purslane’s nutritive value of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants is superior to cultivated foods. According to the USDA and Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, president of The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC, “Purslane is the richest vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acids.” Within this little weed is the omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and antioxidants, such as phenolic compounds, alpha-tocopherol (a vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A) and glutathione (a compound which metabolizes toxins in the small intestines and prevents their transport to other tissues in the body).

Purslane’s yield of omega-3 ALAs far surpasses any other non-aquatic source, that it just might convert you to foraging. ALAs are a proven cardio-protective nutrient, and its antioxidant-rich content means that purslane is a powerful superfood that can protect against cancer. In Trinidad and Tobago, purslane is a common herb used for diabetes mellitus. A study in mice with diabetes mellitus found a decrease in blood glucose, increase in good HDL cholesterol and a decrease in triglycerides when the mice consumed purslane. The U.S. has overlooked this weed to the detriment of our health.

Eaten raw, this culinary weed adds a delightful, juicy, sour crispness to salad, or it’s also delicious cooked like spinach. One study found that the ALA content was higher in purslane exposed to low temperatures, so you might want to put purslane you’ve just collected in the fridge for an hour before eating.

But wait, there’s more. Remember all the concern a few years ago about bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics? Purslane, the wonder-plant, can remove BPA from water in 24 hours, according to a Japanese study. Soon, purslane will be put to work in phytoremediation of contaminated industrial wastewater. Purslane keeps delivering the goods.

This article appeared in the Athens Banner Herald, June 27, 2010.

Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) for weight loss

Queen Anne's lace, Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, Crawford, GA

“Queen Anne’s lace is one of the great undiscovered herbs of the 20th century,” says Alabama herbalist Darryl Patton. “It is a weight reducer, probably the best to be found.” I think that statement applies to the 21st century, too. Also called wild carrot because its edible root is the predecessor to our cultivated garden-variety carrot, Queen Anne’s lace reduces weight through a diuretic action, and perhaps speeds up the metabolism. Many genus and species in the carrot family (Apiaceae, or Umbelliferae) have a similar diuretic action, but less powerful than Queen Anne’s lace. Due to its diuretic properties, Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) can relieve the edema in one’s ankles. The old-timey herbalist, Tommie Bass, suggests boiling 2 handfuls of leaf and flower in a quart of water for 20 minutes. Just a heads-up: This makes a bitter brew.

Queen Anne's lace, Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, Crawford, Ga

Other uses of the leaves and flowers of Queen Anne’s lace are for kidney stones and gout. It has mild liver-cleansing properties, which helps prevent uric acid from staying in the joints, causing the awfully painful gout. The leaf tea can also help to bring on a woman’s delayed menses, which is called an emmenogogue. However, first she needs to be sure that she isn’t pregnant. For first-aid in healing sores, the leaves are applied to the skin sore with honey.

The seeds are forming on the closed infloresence of Queen Anne's lace.

Queen Anne’s lace seed is taken to relieve bloating, or “wind” as it is sometimes called, evoking the natural elements. The release of wind can also give the appearance of weight loss.

Wild carrot, or Queen Anne’s lace, was a popular diuretic, anodyne (pain reliever), and antiseptic during the Civil War according to Confederate surgeon, Dr. Francis Peyre Porcher.

Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English physician-herbalist-botanist, writes about the difference between garden carrots and their wild kin, saying, “They are of less physical use than the wild kind (as indeed almost in all herbs the wild are most effectual in physic, as being more powerful in operation than the garden kinds).” That’s a little plug for learning wild plants, and even incorporating them into your landscape.

Queen Anne's Lace gracefully used in a garden. Takes full sun to partial shade.

Magnificent mullein: A friend to those with lung issues

Mullein at the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia. Looks like Verbascum olympicum, which has showier flowers than V. thapsus.

Mullein, Verbascum thapsus or V. olympicum, is that plant along the roadsides with a towering spike of yellow flowers which lingers all through winter as a dried-out, brownish-black spike. Being a biennial, mullein will grow as a circular, basal rosette in its first year where all its leaves come from the central stem. In the second year, the flowering spike will grow straight up from the middle, and the leaves will grow upwards on the stem until the flowers begin. It then ends its life-cycle when it goes to seed and becomes a stalk. New basal rosette mullein plants will grow in the surrounding area the following year.

You might notice the 6″ to 2′ bluish-gray-green leaves, which resemble the common landscape plant lamb’s ears because they are furry and soft. We typically consider this plant a benign weed, but I think it’s gorgeous and deserves to be appreciated in a garden. It’s easy to start from seed.

The whole plant is medicinal with dozens of uses. Legend has it that mullein was one of the plants so cherished by European women that when they migrated to the U.S., they sowed its seeds into the hems of their skirts, making sure they would not be without their medicine. It’s easy to understand how they felt if you’ve grown to appreciate how mullein can soothe irritated or congested lungs.

Many mullein, Verbascum thapsus. Big mullein leaves in right forefront.

American Indians quickly saw mullein’s virtues as the plant was introduced to North America. In Daniel Moerman’s tome, Native American Ethnobotany, over 25 tribes are listed to have used mullein. The uses range from applying the leaves to swollen glands or skin sores, to sore throats, to cough remedy, and asthma. Several tribes used it for magical or ceremonial purposes, attesting to the high regard the American Indians held for mullein.

Mullein is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory which is great when there is an infection in the throat, lungs, or on the skin. It’s also an expectorant, helping to move the damp congestion (catarrah) in the lungs. And as a soothing, anti-inflammatory herb, when someone has a non-productive cough that is hard, sore, and a little burning coming from the chest, not the throat, mullein is excellent. Mullein serves as a safe and effect tonic for chronic, dry respiratory inflammation in adults and kids.

For the lungs, the best method of taking mullein is through steeping the chopped leaf in boiling water for about 8-10 minutes. You will need 4-8 grams, three times a day, which is a lot because mullein is very light. Strain the tea through an unbleached coffee filter before drinking to make sure the little hairs don’t bother your throat. A common Indian method for administering herbs quickly was through smoking them. Powdered mullein leaves were smoked to help with asthma and catarrah (damp congestion in the lungs).

Mullein is a great first aid plant. If you’re out in the field and get cut, or develop a rash or athlete’s foot, find some mullein. Make a damp poultice with the leaf and then wrap another leaf around the poultice.

Mullein flowers make a famous ear oil to remove excess wax or relieve pain. A tincture of the flowers is also useful for someone prone to nervous throat clearing.

Speaking of wax, the dried stalks would be dipped in wax and burned as torches. I haven’t tried this, but I think they’d make awesome party torches for a harvest celebration.

Mint Water: Refreshing & Uplifting

About this time of year in Georgia, adding mint leaves to your chilled water can do the body-mind good.

Mint water in my recycled glass pitcher

Not only does it taste refreshing, but a study published in 2010* shows that all varieties of mint studied are capable of relieving anxiety and lifting your mood. Research also showed that mints are neuroprotective, containing antioxidants which protect central nervous system cells from oxidative stress.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) had the highest amount of antioxidants and mood lifting qualities out of all the mints studied. Water mint (Mentha aquatica) had the highest potential for lowering anxiety.

Mint is so incredibly easy to grow anywhere. Give it room to roam, or grow it in pots. And use it liberally! You can either chop the leaves or add them whole as they are in the photo. The aromatic oils will quickly flavor the water in minutes.

I also add a little mint (spearmint) to my potato salad which gives it a little pizazz.

*Lopez, V., et al (2010). Neuroprotective and neurochemical properties of mint extracts.     Phytotherapy Research, 24, 869-874.

Pomegranates Grow in Georgia

Pomegranate Tree/Shrub at the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia in Athens.

Pomegranates are a nutrient-dense food with stunning color, and versatile uses. Originally from an area between Iran and the Himalayas, they’ve been grown in the US for over 100 years, but mostly in California and Florida. Pomegranates can withstand the cold without damage until about 12 degrees F. If growing them in Georgia, it would help to plant them in an area protected from the wind. Also, pomegranates are drought-tolerant and prefer dry soil.  A popular US cultivar that is an abundant fruit producer is ‘Wonderful’.

The pomegranate pictured is ‘Toyosho’, one of at least two species growing at the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia. Three plants are grouped to make a huge shrub/tree. The flowers are double, resembling carnations. There is no reason why we can’t landscape with plants for use and beauty.

The Key to Revolution is…

In 1997 my favorite college English professor appeared in my dream. She and I were the only ones in the classroom. The professor was standing in front of the black chalkboard with a piece of chalk between her hands. She looked hard into my face and gave me a gem of truth, “Holli, the key to revolution is…” On her heel she spun around to quickly scrawl in big all-cap letters, “AGRICULTURE.” The professor turned back to face me and slowly nodded while she whispered her secret.

That dream inspired me to learn what I could about agricultural systems over time. I picked up Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which explained my professor’s statement with profound clarity. Our relationship to our food determines everything. Shifting that relationship will without a doubt shift our culture, in a positive or a negative way. A moving illustration of this truth is The Grapes of Wrath, where the collapse of small family farms and the take over of bank-owned, mega-mechanized giant farms is described in vivid prose. As American families lost their farms, America lost the capacity of human dignity as it relates to a connection with the land.

Over the past decade, a slow shift in the scale of Agriculture has been occurring, bringing with it a new understanding of quality. We are retasting our food and realizing the special gift that it is. After the chemical revolution and the great synthetic food science experiment, we have come to know in our bodies that we are what we eat. And we want our bodies and our children’s bodies to be made of real, from-the-earth elements. We don’t want to be synthetic people, manipulated by marketing practices that see us only as “consumers” and not as human beings. We want to feel like flesh and blood again. And we want to appreciate the labor and care of the farmer who nourished the soil to nourish our bodies.

A revolution is underway. According to Bill McKibben, small-sized farms have increased steadily over the last 15 years by 12-15%, and the USDA reports that for the first time in a long stretch the amount of people using land to farm is increasing rather than shrinking. Many of those farms are feeding a diversity of crops to the people in their local area at farmers markets, instead of a commodity crop to distant places.

The whole concept of farming has changed. Small scale is the new American way. And you can’t get much smaller than the hobby farmers who are growing backyard and frontyard gardens. They’re landscaping with edible shrubs, trees and perennials. Some are taking up the grass to make room for plants that produce fruit, or are medicinal. Such actions make one more self-reliant, and less vulnerable to downshifts in the economy, not to mention the mood therapy that one receives from getting outside, absorbing Vitamin D, and eating fresh veggies and fruits grown with one’s own hands. My teacher was right, the key to revolution is AGRICULTURE.

By the way, in 1999 I told Wendell Berry about my dream when I met him at a once-in-a-millennium conference hosted by Orion Magazine in Shepherdstown, WV called Fire & Grit. He just nodded, kind of like my favorite English professor.

Backyard Abundance

Happy with their harvest.

Question: How do you feed your family when grocery and gas prices are going up?

How do you get your child to eat his or her vegetables?

How do you get your kids off the couch and outside?

The Answer to all of the above: Grow your own food!

10,000 years ago at the time of the first agricultural revolution, when people complained about having to walk so far to get their food, the answer was the same: Grow your own food! After 10,000 years, we seem to have the same transportation problem: excessive energy output for less food results. Another agricultural revolution is at hand. I’m calling it “Backyard Abundance” or maybe “Edible Landscapes”. You might be amazed at how much food is produced from one inexpensive, little packet of seeds. My sister, Heidi, found out how easy it is to have backyard abundance, and her kids are learning, too.

It all started with the tomato plants she grew along the fence near the swingset. Heidi doesn’t even like tomatoes, but her husband does, so she grew them and had her sons help her pick them as they multiplied almost out of control. Heidi said when her son Jack, age 6, is just sitting around watching TV, she can say, “Come on, let’s pick tomatoes,” and he’ll drop anything to go outside with her to the tomato patch. Her oldest son, Adam, age 7, loves to pop the cherry tomatoes directly into his mouth from the vine. You don’t get much fresher than that!

Next in the evolution of her garden, at the other corner of her backyard, she started growing parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano and chives. She then was able to go out to the backyard and snip a little bit of herbs for her dinner recipes. The amount of herbs called for in a recipe costs about $1.50 to buy in a grocery store. At a nursery, she bought the whole plant, which comes back year after year, for little more than that. When I go over to help with dinner, I bring Heidi’s three boys out to the herb patch to gather what we need for the salad dressing and have them help me make it. The two-year-old, Kyle, scoops up handfuls of fresh thyme, chives and rosemary and chews them up. I have to go out and harvest more because he’s eaten so much.

For Adam’s fifth birthday, I bought him five blueberry bushes for the backyard. I gave him blueberry bushes specifically because Adam has Type-I Diabetes, and blueberries are very good for helping with the health complications that might come with diabetes. I thought it is never too early to build healthy capillaries and instill good eating practices, which are important for everyone, and even more important to Adam’s long-term health.

When Heidi saw my gift, she said, “I don’t think they’ll like blueberries.” I came prepared. The little bushes weren’t in fruit, yet, so I brought a pint of fresh blueberries with me to show them what the bushes would produce later that year. When they looked at the bowl of smooth, dark, bluish-black berries, they turned their little noses up. I took a few and started munching, exaggerating my “yums” until they slowly edged up to me and tried one. The blueberries became a hit. Adam, who was 5 at the time, and Jack, who was 3, wanted more. I told them they were lucky to have bushes in their backyard that would grow more blueberries later during the summer. Suddenly, they were excited. Now, they get many pints of berries each year, but it’s hard to really know how much they get because they eat so many of them right off the bush.

Heidi and Mike, her husband, let a few canes of blackberries grow along the fence, so they all harvested enough berries for a few cobblers. This spring Heidi added a muscadine vine that grows next to the tomatoes. Right now it’s loaded with grapes that are too hard to pick, but we’re all waiting for them to ripen so we may try them.

Unripe Muscadines, very high in antioxidants, like resveratrol!

The most recent addition to Heidi’s garden came late this spring when I brought over a packet of cucumber and pumpkin seeds. They had one more corner area along the fence that would be a good place for them, I thought. I sank the seeds into the ground with the boys helping me with spades and trowels. A few weeks later I get a call from my nephew Jack, telling me excitedly about all of the sprouts. In early July, he calls me again and tells me, “We’ve got cucumbers growing everywhere! But we have to wait for them to get 6 inches long before we can pick them.” A few days later I had the joy of sharing the very first cucumber off their vine, which was the very first cucumber Jack ever ate. He wouldn’t eat them before, but now that he has taken a part in their growing, his taste has changed.

We’re all eagerly watching the pumpkins in the pumpkin patch start to turn a beautiful orange. The boys already have one picked out to carve for Halloween. I’m thinking about pies and soups.

Kyle, the Pumpkin, and the Cuke

A week ago when we were out collecting cucumbers, the boys asked, “When these die, what can we plant next?” I smiled at my sister, and we started thinking out loud: “broccoli, collards, salad greens, peas, beans…” as we went through the seasons in our mind. I’ve been trying to talk Heidi into getting a fig tree, but she’s not crazy about it.

It probably sounds like Heidi and her family have a huge backyard, but it’s actually not that big. I added a picture of the backyard so readers could see that she lives in a typical Suburban-Atlanta subdivision with a smallish backyard. I really want readers to understand how possible it is to grow one’s own food. We haven’t done the math, but Heidi’s family and everyone she has shared her abundance with has saved money on groceries. Plus, her kids are actively involved in the revolutionary learning process of getting outside, counting the produce, watching the cycle of the seasons, learning what time of year certain foods ripen, the botanical parts of plants, and wanting to eat their harvest. That’s priceless.

Heidi's Backyard. Top left is the pumpkin and cucumber patch. Top right is the muscadine on the fence and tomatoes behind the swing set. The blueberries, blackberries and herbs are to the right of the camera, not visible.

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