Monday, July 28, 2014

Mint

Here's a question for you, Outlander Gardeners: 
What do mint, rosemary, oregano, lemon balm, basil, sage, hyssop, thyme, lavender, bee balm, catnip and coleus all have in common?

Answer: 
They are all members of the Mint family. (You get bonus points if you said that they all have square stems, opposite leaves and lipped flowers.)

A few members of the Mint family - top row from left, Purple Sage (Salvia dorii)Pineapple Mint (Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata'); Chocolate Mint (Mentha X piperita 'Chocolate Mint'); Golden Oregano (Origanum vulgare 'Aurea'); at bottom is English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).

The "true mints" are those in the genus Mentha; this is the clan I'm going to focus on in this post. When we say the word "mint," these are the plants that first come to mind - especially spearmint and peppermint. Diana Gabaldon Herself grows a variety of these mints in her garden. In THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, she says, "... I collect exotic mints (did you know that there are varieties of mint that smell like pineapple, bergamot, orange, apple, grapefruit and chocolate?)."

I once found a "basil mint" in a local nursery. I was excited because basil is hard to grow in the cool maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest. Basil likes warm overnight temperatures and tends to sulk, at best, or turn black around the edges and die, at worst, if it is moved outdoors too early in the season. Mint, on the other hand, loves it here and runs rampant unless it is confined to a pot. I thought that if this "mint" really did taste like basil, the finicky plant problem would be solved and I would have a perennial source of basil. I snitched a bit of a leaf to see what it tasted like - and sure enough, there was that spicy basil flavor! 

I brought the plant home and asked my husband to taste a leaf and tell me what it was. "Mint," was his reply. I said, "No really, try again." He did. Still, "Mint. Not a hint of basil." I was so disappointed. I planted it anyway, of course. And then spent the summer asking people to try tasting a leaf and telling me what they thought it was. Invariably, the women said "basil," and the men all said "mint." Go figure.

Botanical Information

Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
Family: Lamiaceae or Labiatae
Genus: Mentha
Species: True mints include: Mentha X piperita (peppermint), Mentha X piperita 'Chocolate Mint' (chocolate mint) and Mentha X piperita 'Citrata' (many common names: orange mint, lime mint, bergamot mint, eau de cologne mint); Mentha spicata (spearmint) and Mentha spicata 'Crispa' (curly mint); Mentha arvensis (corn mint); Mentha requienii (Corsican mint); Mentha pulegium (pennyroyal); Mentha aquatica (water mint); Mentha suaveolens (apple mint) and M. suaveolens 'Variegata' (pineapple mint)

Mints have been in cultivation world wide for thousands of years. Ancient texts from Chinese, Sumerian and Egyptian cultures describe the cultivation and use of these herbs for both culinary and medicinal purposes.

Mints are easy - most people would say TOO easy - to grow. Planting them in pots, rather than in the open ground, will keep them from overtaking your garden. True mints spread by way of underground runners or rhizomes. They are easily propagated from cuttings or by dividing the plant. 

Mints seem to need more water than other members of the Lamiaceae family. You can ignore lavender and rosemary, but if you want healthy mint leaves for your tabbouleh or juleps, don't let the plants dry out. 

Most of us pick leaves as we need them for cooking or garnishes. But if you want to dry spearmint or peppermint leaves to use for tea, the best time to harvest is on a sunny day, just before the flowers start to open. That is when there will be the highest concentration of oils in the leaves. 

Most of the true mints have upright growth habits, but Corsican mint and pennyroyal can be used as ground covers. 

Medicinal Uses

Mints have been used for centuries to relieve a wide range of complaints including: indigestion, coughs, colds, headaches, burns and nervous conditions. It was used to make teas, tinctures and poultices for both internal and external use. 

It is used widely today in soaps and shampoos and to flavor toothpastes and mouthwashes. 

I always keep a box of minty Altoids on hand to use for stomach upsets. Menthol and other compounds derived from mint leaves relax the smooth muscle in the digestive tract, which relieves nausea and eases cramping and pain. Mint is a carminative agent, meaning that it inhibits the formation of gas - a very welcome benefit, especially during dinner parties! 
"The menthol in peppermint also destroys bacteria, parasites, and viruses in the stomach without harming beneficial intestinal flora." - Mary Preuss THE NORTHWEST HERB LOVER'S HANDBOOK
Mint has antiseptic properties. In DRUMS OF AUTUMN, we find Claire Fraser preparing for the worst as she follows Jamie on another of their adventures. "I likely could not prevent damage; but I could try to repair what had happened already. Disinfection and cleansing - I had a bottle of distilled alcohol, and a wash made from pressed garlic juice and mint." (page 174)

Not all mints are safe to eat, however. Barbara Perry Lawton, author of MINTS (see link below), offers this warning:
"Corsican mint (M. requienii), Japanese mint (M. arvensis var. piperascens), and the pennyroyals (M. cervina, M. pulegium) all contain a toxic oil that can cause convulsions and coma." 
Best to stick with peppermint and spearmint leaves for your medicinal and culinary needs.


Culinary Uses

There are many ways to use mint in foods and beverages. Mint adds a zing to salads and fruit punches. It brings balance to the richness of fatty dishes. A cup of mint tea is a soothing finish to a meal. Mint leaves make an attractive and edible garnish. There's mint jelly and mint candies - the list goes on.

Because mint is such a prolific herb, I'm always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to use the bounty. Here are a few ideas.
Want a hearty dish for supper? On her popular Outlander Kitchen website, Theresa Carle-Sanders offers this flavorful alternative to haggis: Lamb Sausage with Fennel, Mint & Preserved Lemon. (This was the recipe that inspired me to start making my own sausage for which I am most grateful!) 
Need a refreshing cocktail for an Outlander happy hour? Amy Stewart, aka THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST, says that you should start with spearmint. She suggests varieties such as 'Mojito,' a Cuban import, or 'Kentucky Colonel,' an important ingredient in her Classic Mint Julep
And here is my recipe for Quinoa Tabbouleh, a summertime staple at my house. I prefer the sharper flavor of peppermint over spearmint for this dish. I suggest making this the day before you plan to serve it in order to let the flavors blend.
For a comprehensive guide to the entire mint family, I recommend Barbara Perry Lawton's book MINTS: A FAMILY OF HERBS AND ORNAMENTALS.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Outlandish Hair Grasses

Cappuccino Sedge (Carex tenuiculmis 'Cappuccino')
"He sat on the stool in his shirt, closing his eyes in momentary relaxation as I unbraided his hair. He'd worn it clubbed in a tight queue for riding, bound up for the last three days; I ran my hands up into the warm fiery mass as it unraveled from its plait, and the loosened waves of it spilled cinnamon and gold and silver in the firelight as I rubbed the pads of my fingers gently into his scalp."
--  from  A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 7
One of the common names for the plant shown above is "New Zealand hair grass." I thought of that as I was watering my garden the other morning. Seeing this grass glowing in the sun - all those beautiful strands of red and gold - reminded me of Jamie Fraser's hair. (That's the thing about being an OUTLANDER fan - pretty soon everything in your life seems to relate to a plot line or character from one of the books.)

My next thought was, of course, to wonder: what plant would best represent the notorious "Claire hair?"
Now before I go too far with this, I have to explain that although we often refer to these hair-like plants as grasses, they really aren't. To be botanically correct, I have to tell you that they are sedges. To tell the difference, grasp a leaf and run your fingers along it. Sedges have edges, meaning that their leaves are triangular, have micro-serrations along the margins, and feel rough to the touch. Grasses have joints and the stems are hollow. Ornamental grasses typically have showy flowers. Sedges produce small, insignificant, burr-like "fruits." These  ripen into seedpods that cling to clothes and animal fur and, like another OUTLANDER plant, Forget-me-nots, "hitchhike" to new locations. 
OK, back to Claire's "disreputable" locks. The first plant that came to mind for her was another in the Carex clan, called 'Frosted Curls.' But I quickly ruled that one out because it is pale-colored. A bit too blonde, I thought.

Red Hook Sedge (Uncinia unciniata)
Then I found this one. I love this plant because of its rich color palette, combining red and mahogany and light green. It is utterly unruly with tendrils that go every which way. It may not be the ultimate in Claire Hair - I'm going to keep looking - but for now she's a verra fine choice.

So now we have Jamie hair and Claire hair. What about Frank? The image I have in mind is that Frank has black, straight hair. The sedges I am familiar with have a wide range of colors including pale greens, green with white or yellow variegations, and bronzes, but I have never seen one that has black foliage. Still, there are over 2,000 plants in the Carex clan, so some research was in order.

Lo and behold, I found one that fits. It not only has black-ish foliage, its name is Carex buchananii 'Frank's Hair!' Unfortunately, I couldn't find a source for this plant in the US, but you can see a photo of it here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will see it on the left side.

Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planascapus 'Nigrescens')
Even though 'Frank's Hair' sedge isn't widely available, there is another good plant choice for Frank. If you want to create an OUTLANDER Hair Garden, consider honoring him with black mondo grass (which isn't a "true" grass, either, being more of a distant relative of Lily of the Valley). The green blades you see above are new growth; as they age, they will turn black.

Can you think of other OUTLANDER characters whose tresses remind you of a particular plant? If so, please share your ideas in the comments. Thank you.

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Black Jack Randall in the Garden

Blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra')
Welcome, Dear Readers, to the dark side of gardening. This post is a departure from my usual format because I cannot think of a single passage in any of the Outlander books in which Black Jack Randall's name appears in the same sentence as the word "garden." There is nothing in his demeanor that indicates that he has an appreciation for horticulture, and it's best not to dwell on some of the uses he might find for certain garden tools. 

However, there are plants that may remind us of Jack, that tortured villain we all love to hate. It might be because they have black leaves or flowers. Or it might be because their names suggest violence. Take a look. 


At Chilhuly Garden and Glass in Seattle, a glass sculpture representing the sun hovers over a mound densely planted with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens') - a classic illustration of Dark vs. Light. 


Of course, there are no true black leaves or flowers. What appears to be black from a distance turns out to be a very dark purple when you look closely or see the plant in direct sunlight. Still, this near-black hue has a striking effect in the garden, as you can see from the leaves of this Rex begonia (Begonia Rex-cultorum).


There are many daylilies (Hemerocallis sp.) that have near black flowers. This one is called 'Smoking Gun.' Others have names like 'Cinderella's Dark Side,' 'Dracula,' 'Sinners Anonymous,' and, well, you get the idea. This post on GardenWeb lists more, along with photos. 


Black hollyhocks are easily grown from seed and will re-sow themselves year after year. These in my garden have been perpetuating themselves for close to 10 years. 


Black potato vine (Solanum jasminoides 'Blackie') is a striking annual that adds interest to containers and hanging baskets.

Other BJR plants to consider:


Blood Flower (Asclepias curassavica)

Devil's Club (Oplopanax horridus)

Devil's Horsewhip (Achyranthes aspera)

Purple Contorted Filbert (Corylus avellana 'Red Majestic') - near black leaves on twisted, contorted branches

Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia sp.)

What plants can you think of that would fit the Black Jack Randall theme? Please add them in the comments. 

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Gem That Is Jewelweed

 Alas, jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) doesn't grow here in Seattle, so I can't
photograph it for you. For images of jewelweed flowers and habitat,
watch the video at the bottom of this post. The popular bedding plant
shown above, busy lizzie (Impatiens walleriana), is one of jewelweed's sisters.
"'Wonderful,' I murmured. My own immediate plans for the goose grease involved a salve of wild sarsaparilla and bittersweet for burns and abrasions, a mentholated ointment for stuffy noses and chest congestion, and something soothing and pleasantly scented for diaper rash - perhaps a lavender infusion with the juice of crushed jewelweed leaves." 
- From THE FIERY CROSS, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 34
I didn't know what jewelweed was until after I posted an article here on stinging nettles. Readers wrote to tell me that the sting from the nettles could be relieved by crushing jewelweed stems and applying the "juice" to the sting. I was told that wherever you find nettles, jewelweed can be found growing nearby.

Really?

I don't claim to be an expert on native plants of the Pacific Northwest, but this was news to me. I was pretty sure I could identify every plant in my local nettle patch, but I went back to see what, if anything, I had missed. I found plenty of horsetail (Equisetum hyemale), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) and wild clematis (Clematis vitalba), but nothing resembling the jewelweed plant that had been described to me.

So I consulted the "bible," Arthur Kruckeberg's book, GARDENING WITH NATIVE PLANTS OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST. A professor of botany at the University of Washington for more than 30 years, Kruckeberg has spent his lifetime studying and cataloging the local flora. He apparently hasn't found jewelweed here, either. He makes no mention of it in his book.

By then, I was intrigued with this plant and wanted to find out more. After a little research, I discovered that jewelweed grows wild throughout the eastern part of the United States. (No wonder I couldn't find it.) Margaret Roach, a garden writer who lives and gardens in upstate New York, describes it as a good weed because it offers so many benefits to wildlife. There are many videos on YouTube describing this plant, often shot in woodland areas of the Southeast, that show how to use the plant to protect against poison ivy rashes or soothe the itch of insect bites. It's easy to see why jewelweed comes highly recommended by readers and Twitter followers.

Botanical Information

Family: Balsaminaceae
Genus: Impatiens
Species: Impatiens capensis also known as I. biflora; the yellow-flowering variety is I. pallida
Common name: Orange jewelweed, Common jewelweed, Spotted jewelweed, Spotted touch-me-not, Orange balsam

Jewelweed is native to North America. It likes moist, mostly shady areas and can be found in ditches and along stream beds. Its showy, trumpet-shaped, orange flowers are popular with pollinators like butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

It is called JEWELweed because raindrops and dew drops cling to the leaves and look like little jewels. It has been nicknamed, "touch-me-not," because its ripe seedpods explode when touched, scattering seed everywhere. If you want to collect the seed, grasp the pod in your fist to capture the seed before it falls. Jewelweed seeds are edible, but the leaves and stems are toxic, causing vomiting and diarrhea if ingested.

Medicinal Value

Jewelweed is used to relieve skin irritations from stinging nettles, minor burns, and insect bites. It will also relieve and even prevent the rash and itching caused by poison ivy or oak.

Basic preparation is simple. If you've been stung by a nettle or an insect, grab some jewelweed, mash the stems to release the juice, and rub it on the affected area. The sooner you do this, the better the results. Many people say that if you rub jewelweed juice on exposed skin before you go near poison ivy it will keep you from getting the rash. Conveniently, in certain parts of the country, the two plants are found growing next to each other.

The beneficial qualities of jewelweed can be captured in soaps and salves, like the one Claire was planning to make for diaper rash. A "tea" can be made with it, not for drinking, but for applying topically to relieve discomfort. It is made by taking the whole plant - leaves, stems and flowers - chopping them coarsely and putting them into boiling water. When the water returns to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Cool, pour into a glass jar, put a lid on it and store in the refrigerator. When needed, wet a cloth with the tea and wipe it over the affected area.

If jewelweed doesn't grow where you live, you can still find it (sort of), at your local drugstore. According to Wildman Steve Brill, "jewelweed contains methoxy-1, four napthoquinine, an anti-inflamatory and fungicide that's the active ingredient in Preparation H." So there you have it - jewelweed is a remedy for the ages, soothing diaper rash in the 18th century and hemorrhoids in the 21st.

The video below is my favorite of the many I watched while doing research for this post. It shows you how to identify jewelweed,  harvest it, and make a soap to use when your skin is irritated. If you are lucky enough to have jewelweed growing near you, you might want to give this a try.



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