Strange Herbs

One of the better aspects of gardening is its endless ability to inspire experimentation.  After a few years of watching your magazine-standard flowers and vegetables wither into sticks for various mystifying reasons despite budget-crushing outlays on fertilizers, feeds and soils, you feel emboldened to try killing something more unusual.  Something oddball that the neighbors haven’t killed too.  Something rare and exotic, preferably from a) very far away or b) the backyard of the last surviving member of a diminutive religious denomination.  If it’s also weirdly colored for the plant it’s supposed to be, you’ve just hit the modern gardener’s trifecta.

For example, tomato fetishists (and aren’t we all) have turned this psychological phenomenon into a booming market for seeds from Japan, Siberia, Africa, various long-defunct American sectarian communes, and (I totally want this one) “a small Lebanese hill town.”  But herb gardeners in particular put the tomato folks to shame.  Once you get the herb twitch, you’ve just hit the gold mine for strange plants with long, obscure, and occasionally bizarre histories.  I am a cautionary tale.

This is the flower of Motherwort, a.k.a. Leonurus cardiaca.  I started it from seed and then transplanted it into an unassuming little pot two springs ago, where it hung out doing just enough to keep me from sending it to the composters.  This spring, however, it shot up about two feet overnight and produced an aggressively bristly flower stalk that had the bougainvillea back the hell off with an almost audible “whoa.” No dropped bracts in this pot.

Motherwort is a “women’s herb” in herbalist lore.  The reports of its use originate from Roman and medieval English times; supposedly it eases recovery from childbirth, helps balance a woman’s hormonal state, and can help with heart, digestive, and nervous system conditions as well.

This is yarrow, a.k.a. Achillea millefolium, and it’s a plant that really can’t be busted in terms of street cred.  I remember running across references to it in some of my medieval English readings.  For centuries it’s been used to stanch bleeding wounds on battlefields, resolve nosebleeds, soothe skin inflammations and conditions, and promote gastrointestinal health.  It’s also got the unfair advantage of being a very attractive cultivar, with delicately feathered, fernlike leaves that spray out beneath heavy stalks of clustered white flowers.  Like the Motherwort, this guy just ambled along for a couple years before exploding this spring in a blossom riot.

I’d been watching these two for a couple weeks, and on my morning walkabout today I decided it was time to do some harvesting.  I knew I had to start replenishing the golden lemon thyme stocks for the kitchen, and the Thumbelina dwarf lavender in the front pot had a profusion of sweet blossoms.  The herbalists recommend that harvesting be done in the morning, just as the sun is drying the dew off the leaves; the explanation is that the essential oils of the herb are most concentrated at that time.  I don’t know if that is true, but it’s a pleasant activity first thing in the morning.

After a quick rinse, I prepped the herbs for drying.  There are a number of techniques that work.  At first I used the basic technique of tying and hanging them in a protected area, like this:

You can also oven and microwave-dry herbs, but it takes a bit more attention to ensure that they don’t cook or turn into dust.

Because of the sheer mass of herbs that I need to preserve, I ended up buying a dedicated dehydrator.  It lurks like a giant black McGuffin in the spare room (which we are now calling “The Lab.” I have not yet perfected my maniacal laugh, alas).  Herbs are dried at a steady 95 degrees on a framework that allows the air to fan through every leaf.

Once they’re done drying, I’ll put up the golden lemon thyme into spice containers for cooking, pack the lavender for use in soaps (I use fresh blossoms for infusions into jellies and jam), and either tincture or oil-infuse the motherwort and yarrow.

 

Even if you’re not really sure what you’re going to do with an herb in the age of modern medicines, there is a certain pleasure in growing plants with healing histories that stretch back to the Roman Empire. From my reading, both motherwort and yarrow were certainly well-known by hedge-healers, midwives, battlefield medics, university doctors, and alchemists in the Middle Ages.  I wonder if they felt as much of a victory as I did today — a small one, of course, but a victory nonetheless — when they harvested their blossoms despite drought and flood, pests and predators.  For them, the plants weren’t strange or exotic or bargained-for on heirloom seed exchanges.  For me, they are.  And I bet my neighbors haven’t even tried to kill a yarrow yet.