Scary Food

So what’s scarier?

This? Or this? The above is an Opuntia ficus-indica (well, probably, as I am no botanist), commonly known as the “prickly-pear cactus,”  and the structure she has commandeered is a six-foot fence.  But it’s really hard to appreciate the massive size of our Opuntia without standing right next to her, inches away from the spines. And man, are there spines. Two types, actually; the large fixed ones like canine teeth that appear on the broad, flat green plates (“nopales”) . . .

. . . and then the tiny, delicate, nearly invisible “glochids” that are most evident on the fruits (“tunas”). “Evident” being a relative term, as the ones that get under your skin and make you crazy really aren’t detectable by sight at all.

Opuntias make you wonder about the Wisdom of Nature and all that.  For a plant, isn’t the whole point of producing a fruit involve convincing some ambulatory creature to eat it and deposit the (prefertilized) seed somewhere else?  Wasn’t I taught that in middle school? How on earth can this be achieved when the fruit is more insanely hostile than North Korea?  This plant is better-armed than the soldiers in “Aliens.”  Even our neighborhood squadron of highly-trained squirrels — rodents who have successfully broken into our garage to get at a rumor of birdseed as well as perfecting the launching physics of fig-cannonballs at our dogs — even they avoid even going near the Opuntia.

Enter me, of course.

Confronting the Opuntia involves extremely basic technology. A chair, a stick, some tongs and really long, really thick rubber gloves. Alright, the rubber gloves aren’t really “basic” but you get what I’m saying. When the fruits are ripe, they will be a gloriously brilliant red, plump and tempting and eager to send you to the emergency room with the spines, where you will be mocked mercilessly by junior doctors practicing their tweezer skills at $1,000 an hour.   But that doesn’t have to happen.  Use the stick to knock down the high fruits, the tongs to twist off the lowers, and eventually you weave through the squirrel-fig cannonade with what you were after.

They look like grenades for a reason.

Now here’s where the rubber hits the road, and I’m not kidding about the rubber. You need gloves. Big thick ones.  On the Web there are many reports of people singeing off the spines and glochids by holding them over an open flame.  That’s all very Paleo and very hip. But as a matter of principle (I like my house not being a smoking hole in the ground) and painful experience (I like my skin being intact) I avoid open flames unless I absolutely have to use them, so I’ve adopted a much simpler technique: rubber gloves, a green scrubby sponge, and the sink.

Once the scrubbing is done and the sponge thrown away (do NOT mess that part up), you end up with these guys:  The juice is deeply red and will stain anything within thirty feet, so be aware.  Cut the fruits into quarters and then throw them into the biggest stewpot you have.  About twelve fruits will make a nice batch of syrup or jelly. 

On the lowest setting on the stove, let the fruits think about things for a while. You don’t have to add water.  In time the fruits will start to release liquid.  It’s kind of a sauna for them. That’s when you finally get your revenge and bring out the Masher.


Once you’ve got some liquid in the pot, bring out a potato masher and go to town.  You’re going to be doing this for a while, so make sure you don’t try this when you’re on the hook for meetings, first dates, or your caesarian appointment.  Mash the fruits and then let them sit a bit more on the lowest heat possible. Do it again. Do it again.

Enjoy every bit of it.

Eventually, you’ll end up with a pot full of skins and simmering mash.  Turn everything off, let it cool a bit, and then sieve out the skins and seeds. Any fine strainer will do, but once I bought a big Chinoise strainer I’ve never looked back.

Now, you simmer.

You’ve got a pot full of prickly pear juice. If you have about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of juice, which is about what twelve fruits will get you, you’re ready to go.  If you have more than that, bring it up to a simmer and let it reduce a bit.  Then add:

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 5 cups sugar

“Five CUPS?” I hear you cry. “Five CUPS”?  Yup.  No joke.  You’re not going to get a decent syrup or have the base for a jelly without that amount of sugar.  There are recipes and entire websites dedicated to faking food with “healthy” chemical this and thats, or the latest herbal miracle sweetener that will also burn fat and do your dishes and walk your dog and make your husband love you, but this isn’t one of them. Now boil it. HARD. For about two minutes.  You should see it becoming viscous and agreeable, like honey or maple syrup.  Check with a spoon; it should sheet off instead of drip.  Then you’re done.  You’ve made prickly pear syrup.  Let it cool, package it up, put it in the fridge. Break it out to add to lemonade, margaritas, mojitos and fizzy water.  Tomorrow, I’ll post how to use it to make a ferocious hot sauce and a sweet, complex and frisky barbecue sauce.  I think these things are why the Hive Queen/Opuntia puts up with me at all.





I cannot possibly thrive in these conditions.

This year I am trying to grow my tomatoes in containers.  The side raised bed was shaded a bit too much by the neighbor’s overhanging tree last summer, so early this year I decided to dedicate that bed to herbs and partial-shade-agreeable vegetables.  Of course, the neighbor — a good one — trimmed his tree about a month ago, so here I am with my tomatoes in containers and a side bed of herbs and lettuce that as far as I can tell are having a 24/7 party.

That’s an Italian Red Plum in the first picture, though it doesn’t look plumlike at all at this point.  I’m not in the least surprised by this.  One year I planted a Paul Robeson tomato (round beefsteak, chocolate brown) in the same bed as a bunch of heirloom plum tomatoes. I ended up with half chocolate plum tomatoes and a very confused beefsteak plant that produced a few plums, a couple big round ones, and then gave up completely in a Hollywood-worthy breakdown of wilt and spiders.  The only things we were lacking were a DUI and rehab.  (It’s a good thing tomato plants don’t know how to handle car keys.) There’s only so much cognitive dissonance that you can ask from people, much less plants.

I’m working on it.

Now this guy is an actual beefsteak plant, a snazzy hybrid that’s supposed to be able to withstand wilt, virus, pests, bacteria, molds, poor soils, intermittent watering, lightning strikes, bad interior design choices, nuclear armageddon and the zombie apocalypse.  (Seriously, who writes those gardening catalogs?) It doesn’t seem to be too perturbed by the fact that it’s planted in a (potato bag).

Did I say that last part out loud?  Well, don’t tell the tomatoes, they seem to be doing well so far. The Italian Red Plum has decided to be zebra-striped and entirely unplumlike?  Cool with me.  The hearty beefsteak has decided to produce many small fruits instead of a few big ones? Fine.  The classic Roma across the way can’t decide whether it wants to set fruit or not (“I am a Glorious Magnificent Flower, Woman!)?  Do what you will, dear.

After a few years of gardening, which makes me barely a novice, I am finally learning to stand still with my hands in my back pockets sometimes.  Now if only I could apply that lesson in other parts of my life.


When “Garbled” Is Good

I frequently garble phone messages, phone numbers, combination locks, simple instructions, passwords and punchlines, but there is one time when garbling is a good thing — when you’re handling herbs.

Usually, to garble something means to distort it profoundly, so that it loses its true meaning.  But in herbalism, the verb means almost exactly the opposite.  “Garbling” an herb means to strip it of everything but its useful essence: to remove any extra twigs or stems, dirt, bugs, or deteriorated leaves, and carefully retain everything good and graceful about the plant.

A small cut of golden lemon thyme, garbled after drying.

A few days ago, a friend delivered unto me a pretty amazing quantity of sweet marjoram from her garden.  She wasn’t sure what it was, but I’ve been growing it for years and I knew the look on that plant’s face when she dropped the pile on my counter.  Her reports of the plant’s behavior confirmed the identification.  It can’t be killed, she said.  I cut it down to nothing and it’s still back.  I think it’s hostile.  Should I call somebody about this.

No no, I said, I got this one.  I was feeling like I’d hit the lottery, because marjoram is an incredibly underrated herb.  While we tend to limit our herbal seasonings to basil, oregano, and maybe a little bit of thyme when we’re feeling all foodie (rosemary scares people), marjoram provides an entirely new level of herbal flavor.  Imagine a combination of flowery thyme, bitter oregano, and maybe a tiny resinous zap of rosemary all rolled into one.  It’s an herb that’s regarded by many as being absolutely necessary to make the iconic kielbasa biala surowa, or fresh Polish white sausage, and that adds an incredibly complex and memorable touch to vinaigrettes, marinades, light tomato sauces, and fresh salads. Finally, this amazing gift comes from a plant that refuses to die even under the most adverse circumstances, such as a gardener that’s giving it the hairy eyeball every day.

It’s an indication of how underrated this herb really is that the only picture I have of it is one from two years ago.

The marjoram (top back) knows that I was really only taking a picture of the tarragon and thymes.

But I’ve finally learned to appreciate the oddballs among us, and when that pile of marjoram hit the deck I was ready to go.  A quick cleaning swish and then it was stacked in the dehydrator, which to me (see the earlier Strange Herbs post) is the best way to preserve herbs.  In the dehydrator, a few hours at exactly 95 degrees and the fan’s gentle breeze keeps much of the herb’s color and essential oils in the leaves, without the dust, burning, or contaminant problems that can come from air or oven drying.

Out of the dehydrator. There are two more frames beneath.

Once it’s out of the dryer, then the garbling process begins. You need to get the leaves off the stems and twigs, choosing which to keep and which to discard, while keeping them as whole as possible.  (For dried herbs, keeping the leaves whole is important — you crush them when you use them, and not before.  This way you avoid the tasteless dust frequently sold as herbs in grocery stores).   You use your hands in a very gentle way, rubbing your fingers along the dried stems to release the leaves while trying to preserve them intact.  It is a peaceful and almost meditative process, because you remain engaged in what you are doing while at the same time your mind roams around in deep and profound places.  I imagine for some people it would be horrifically boring.  I’m not admitting to anything here, but music helps.

Garbling herb is well performed in solitude, where it provides a prime opportunity to simultaneously garble one’s attitude and beliefs about life.  — James Green, “The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook,” pp. 62-63 (Berkeley: Crossing Press 2000)*


From the three dried frames of my friend’s generous gift, I ended up with enough marjoram to stock the cabinet for sausages and sauces and marinades for the year.  A good day.

More than enough.

*Endnote:  This sentence is a lovely example of a syllepsis, a language construction where a word (usually a verb) has multiple meanings when it is applied to the words that it governs in a sentence.  “He lost his coat and his temper.” There is apparently a fight to the death among grammarians as to whether it is distinct from, or simply a form of, something deeply incomprehensible called a zeugma.



When we moved into what we now call the Zoo, there were two large, well-established, and obviously aging landscaping-type bushes installed along the driveway. Some part of our arrival made them completely despondent, because bits of each began pointedly dying, shriveling, and collapsing in pathetic little brown heaps all over the place for months.  Every morning was a new “J’accuse!” of curled, leafless branches. Yes, we watered, fertilized, organically pest-controlled, provided verbal encouragement, hummed classical music, did little amusing dances,  the whole nine yards of Attachment Gardening.  Yet still they withered.

So I dug them up and sent them to the composters, because I am a heartless and merciless virago.  But while committing this crime, I noticed that there was a little vine that was growing right next to one of the I Am A Helpless Victim of Society bushes.  It was small, about as long as my forearm, wiry, and completely unimpressive in every way.  It had no redeeming color, structure, flowering, or rarity qualities whatsoever. Hell, it barely had any leaves.  It was simply a nondescript weed, clinging with absolute determination to its shaded, starved spot there along the driveway.

Something told me to leave it where it was, even as I did the stewardess “Bye-bye” wave at the “Where’s My Guvmint Paycheck” bushes.  But then I had two big open holes in the ground and a single, scrawny, might-as-well-be-a-dog-chewed-electrical-wire of a plant left behind.  My gardener guy at the time poked it quizzically and said, “I’m pretty sure it’s a grapevine. But I dunno, could be poison oak.”  He was kidding, I think.  But I knew he was right in his first call, because I also knew that the Zoo’s builder made his own wine in a shed in the side yard. I knew this because his recipes are written on the walls in that shed in a delicate, graceful, now-fading pencil.

So what do you do when you have what you’re pretty sure is a grapevine that seemingly came out of nowhere, resisting with its whole heart any plans to “landscape” a property, simply to survive?  The answer was pretty clear to me.  You build this tough little thug a house.

Now for a grapevine, a “house” is an arbor, and I had two open spots from our recently vacated tenants in which to frame an arbor. The guy on the left is my “volunteer” — the chewed, wretched, starved shoestring that grew on its own, without anyone wanting it there, and refused to give up.  I had to balance it out, so I bought a Thompson seedless grape plant from a nursery (kind of like the private-school kid, if you think about it) and put it on the right side.

We discovered a year after planting the Thompson that there was yet another volunteer. There’s another wine grapevine (we think) that emerged at the base of the right-hand arbor posts.  The picture above is what’s going on right now with everyone, about two years into the process. The tree in the center is a dwarf nectarine; the bigger guy right next to it is a Mission fig.  And this year, for the first time, we have these:

The Tough Kid’s grapes.


We don’t know if these are red or white wine grapes, and can’t wait to find out.  But the Thompson, not to be outdone, is also popping out bunches as fast as it can.

Oh yeah? Bring it.

But you see, the grapevine isn’t the only volunteer here at the Zoo.  At the base of the Mission fig, every year, something spectacular happens.  It’s a giant snapdragon, I think, and it requires nothing but admiration.

I have a new, deep, and abiding respect for “volunteers” around my house now.  As I think I quoted in another post, gardens teach you patience more than anything else (well, on some days I’d argue “frustration” is more accurate, but then again I’m neither pundit nor priest.)  “Hold on a bit, let’s see what happens” is, however, now one of my New Age Affirmations.  Now if only I could apply it to something aside of plants — then we’d really be getting somewhere.


The passion of the Passiflora

How hard can it be?

The screwy weather in Northern California continues.  We’ll have chilly, windy temperatures for a week, and then soar into the 80’s for a day or two, then drop back into the 60’s again.  Night temperatures remain cold — mid 40’s — and it’s making the peppers and the two new Passiflora Incarnatas (passionvines) rather unhappy.  I’ve begun taking the Passifloras inside the house at night in hopes that they won’t up and die on me, as every other Passiflora has to date. There is something about Passifloras I’m just not getting.  They’re practically an invasive weed in every other part of the country except my backyard, where they dramatically clutch their little throats and shrivel up.  (You can see the Passifloras in Picture #1, right in front of the snazzy new potting bench and tool rack that Incredibly Useful Husband put together for me without effort despite the world’s worst instructions.  The nifty device the vines are climbing is called a “Spiraclimb,” which is really just a big cheap spring and I wish to God I’d thought of it first.)  — Garden Update to friends, May 2011

I have a “thing” for the passionflower vine, and not least because it was reputed to be incredibly hard to kill.   (Don’t underestimate that.) But given that I am one very special snowflake when it comes to gardening, I was able to cripple or outright murder several victims before the stars came into alignment and a couple of them clung to life. This summer, things seem to have turned the corner.

A little backstory first.   Passifloraceae are perennial vines.  The genus contains a large number of variants and cultivars, the latter largely hybrid for the quality of their blooms — all of which are completely unique, absolutely spectacular, and perfectly ephemeral, as they last only a single day.   It’s a well-known plant in the southern part of the United States, to the point where the august Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs notes that it’s “a rather weedy specimen and is not of great interest to many gardeners.”  Herbalists are deeply interested in it, though.  A few specific varieties have been recognized as containing calmative and sedative properties in their leaves and flowers, very useful in a tea and tincture, as well as producing a delicious and unique fruit.  Two of those varieties are the edulis and the incarnata.

Below is Ed, our Passiflora edulis.  He began his career in the backyard in a large (and I thought quite attractive) pot, but soon expressed his deep unhappiness with the conditions by dropping leaves, refusing to grow, and doing everything but taking out a New York Times ad accusing me of negligence.

Ed (Passiflora edulis).

Concerned, I transplanted him into Actual Dirt with a trellis along a fenceline, which I thought might please his essential vininess. He proceeded to sulk for two years.  I gave him the “do what the hell you want” watering treatment I used on the alyssum.

This morning, though, I went outside to find three of these. I guess he’s forgiven me.

The Passiflora incarnata has a more dramatic story, which involves a moral choice that I think anyone would torture themselves over.  Below is a picture of an Incarnata flower — you can see the similarity between it and Ed, but the variations are distinctive.

Passiflora incarnata, a.k.a. “Maypop”

What I didn’t know when I started out with the passionvines is that there is a butterfly called the Gulf Fritillary that prefers P. incarnata plants, above everything else, to lay its eggs on.  The butterfly is very beautiful.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and eating everything you care about.


Last summer, when I had two Incarnatas growing in the backyard, I started noticing a large number of these lovely creatures flitting and soaring around me as I puttered about.   It made me very happy and peaceful.

And then, in the fog of butterflies, I noticed this.

Cue the “run screaming to the Internet” behavior.  I soon discovered that what was almost certainly happening was that all those glorious butterflies were starting their careers on my Incarnatas.  So I went out to investigate.  The following picture is NSFPeopleWhoHateBugs.


I grew up in Michigan, the Land of Ugly Caterpillars, but this guy beat all.  I’d never seen anything like it. But after the panic attack I realized that those gorgeous butterflies beating their fragile stained-glass wings around my head every morning were relying on my precious Incarnatas as a food and shelter source for their young. As terrifyingly ugly as they were.

Cutting to the chase: I let them eat the vines. I’m not going to pretend to be noble here — it’s just that I don’t use pesticides, and I wasn’t even close to handpicking them off.  (Go ahead, you touch that.)  And I’ll admit that the grace and beauty of the butterflies made up for a lot of the frustration.

But there’s an upside to this. The vines did survive the Butterfly Onslaught long enough to produce some fruit before they were turned into dry little sticks by the munching horror stories.  All fruit came from the Incarnatas, as Ed was still sulking.  I hear that his fruit is larger and more purple, if, in fact, he ever decides to produce any.  I’m not betting on it, but anything can happen.

The butterfly survivors.


(The best indication I’ve found for ripeness for a passionfruit, incidentally, is going out every morning and picking them off the ground.  The vines drop them when they’re ready. You have to be fast to beat the squirrels.)



Ready to go.

Passionfruit, like the prickly pear, has one of those utterly unmistakeable flavors that is difficult to describe.  I gouged out the flesh and strained the seeds out, and then, without any ideas of what to do with it, froze the batch until lightning struck.

Enter: Hot Sauce. Habanero pepper, prickly pear, and passionfruit.

Sweet and hot.

The Incarnatas were eaten down to sticks last summer, but came back this year to my complete surprise.  One of them has exploded with flowers and I see no caterpillars as of yet.  Ed, unaffected by the Butterfly Onslaught, is on his own agenda. At this point, I’m going to wait and see what happens.

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.

Time Enough

“A garden is a grand teacher.  It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”  — Gertrude Jekyll

For the first few years in the house, I gardened almost exclusively in containers:  big ones and little ones, plastic and ceramic, pots scavenged from the street and from nurseries, and recycled from the house’s “staging” for sale.  (Needless to say, the previous residents of the staging pots had long before migrated to the yard waste can, largely due to the watering problem I’ve mentioned.)  The motley collection made a somewhat unconventional landscaping scheme in the back yard.

On one side of the house, though, there was a narrow, unused side yard that led to a shed.  It had about ten years’ worth of dead leaves stacked up in it, and I guess I was simply too terrified of the prospect of cleaning it out to do anything but scuttle past on the way to tending more pots.  (Too many Steven King novels had me paralyzed with the conviction that there was Something In There.)  But once you get even a little success with gardening, you start looking to expand — and there wasn’t much more room for containers.

So I put my big-girl gardening gloves on and pulled out all the leaves.  We tried planting directly in the dirt that I eventually discovered was under there, but it was almost solid clay, and the plants didn’t do well. So the next spring I called Naturalyards ( and ordered this sweetheart of a cedarwood raised bed planter.

Once it was installed, I found that I had some well-used bricks and a few garden ornaments had that been left behind by the previous owners.  I also found several forks, a single dress shoe, and a headless Barbie.  (The latter was disposed of with the alacrity that only a dedicated Steven King reader can appreciate.)  Now safe from the Barbie, I decided to use the bricks and ornaments to make a little spot for a statue of St. Francis overlooking the new garden bed.

I planted some “Carpet of Snow” sweet alyssum around him. The first year the alyssum seemed, well, unpersuaded about the whole idea.



The next year the alyssum was showing a little more enthusiasm, but it was hardly the lavish, billowing display I’d had in mind.  Periodically it would lose most of its flowers and shrivel up into angry little sticks, but then come back weeks later. I’d water it with an irritable “Look, do whatever the heck you want,” because nothing else seemed to work. There were plenty of other plants to fuss over.

During the cool, rainy winters here, I generally empty the annual pots, clean things up a bit, and leave the perennials to overwinter on their own.  It’s been a successful strategy for most of the hardier herbs, like the thymes, marjoram, sage, and the Oregano That Ate Detroit.  It’s also a successful strategy for me, as I prefer to stay inside during the winter in fleece pajamas, whining bitterly about the damp.

This spring like every spring I finally emerged, blinking owlishly in the sun, to see what happened to everyone over the winter.   I had no illusions about the alyssum, given its track record.  But I was delighted to discover what this cranky, reluctant, miserly plant had finally done. During all those drab, bleak, cold days, completely without my attention or assistance, it had decided to flourish.  It needed only one thing from me: patience. And maybe a little water this summer too.




Let’s talk about Valerian

I learned early in this adventure that herbs are probably the best bet you’ve got going when  a) you know absolutely nothing about gardening  b) you have no actual land to garden on and c) you tend to forget basic principles like “plants require watering.”  Let me advise you, if you hit all three marks like I did: get a small pot (the drugstore probably has them for a buck or less), buy a small herb (I recommend thyme, the stuff is practically idiotproof) and a small bag of dirt (again, drugstore), put said herb into said dirt into said pot, and put it into some sort of sun — inside, outside, whatever.  There. You’re good.

Once you’ve killed a few, you’ll start remembering the watering part.  And then you’ll be ready to handle more interesting herbs, like valerian.

This is a two-year-old valeriana officianalis, started from seed:  it’s nicknamed “The Brave Little Valerian” because I figured I would kill it as a seedling, but didn’t, and then I figured I would kill it when I dug it up last fall and cut off its roots, but didn’t.  It’s still here and in my face, with weird-smelling flowers that even the bees don’t particularly appreciate and the squirrels that predate my backyard avoid at all costs.  This is one hellraiser of an herb, and it’s well worth cultivating for more than a few reasons.



First:  the ancient Romans used this plant, the medieval English thought it could cure practically everything (it was called “all-heal”), and it was included in the United States Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1942  as a tranquilizer.  If you’ve got a history like that, you’ve got a track record worth considering. Right now, valerian is recognized (particularly by the Germans, in their Commission E reports) as a mild sedative and anxiety-reliever that has few, if any, aftereffects. You can pick up capsules with powdered valerian root at most health-food stores.  Many people report that valerian helps with insomnia even better than prescription drugs.

Second:  There’s no reason to go through life without cultivating something that smells so bad that it got the historical name “Phu.” As Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs notes, “[t]he whole plant, with the exception of its flower, has a fetid smell.”  I hate to disagree with an authority as august as Rodale’s, but as I noted above, even the bees approach the flowers like starving kids given broccoli for dinner.

Third: The act of harvesting this plant for its useful parts has a certain atavistic pleasure. Observe:

These are the roots of the Brave Little Valerian, after its first year.  The active compounds of valerian are reportedly concentrated in its roots, but boy does this plant not want to give them up. It’s probably perfectly happy nodding peacefully off in the sun day after day and just wants to be left alone. Alas, life is hard, even for plants.  After more than enough time sweating and wrestling and cursing, I managed to get this into the kitchen. This picture is after about an hour of soaking and vigorous washing. It hardly bears mention that this might not be a project for the easily bored or frustrated.

Once the soaking and washing are done, it’s time to chop. Believe me, after an hour of trying to wash the dirt off these roots, you’re more than ready to take a sharp knife to them. (Actually, you’re thinking about a chainsaw at this point, just for the sheer roaring satisfaction).  But keep the end goal in mind.  The raw herb root can be used immediately in infusions or decoctions, or preserved in tinctures. Tinctures draw the active elements out of an herb and preserve them fairly indefinitely in carriers like alcohol, glycerin, or vegetable oils, while infusions (like hot-water teas) and decoctions (cold-water steeping) can provide the benefits of an herb on a more immediate basis. Celestial Seasonings offers a tea mix of chamomile and valerian root for insomnia (“Sleepytime Extra Wellness Tea”).  For me, that’s the whole point of this exercise: to get an organic, homegrown valerian root for a tea mix with my chamomile.


Here’s the Brave Little Valerian chopped and ready for the dehydrator. While you can dry herbs in other ways — in the oven on low heat, or in the sun outside, or spread on mesh sweater-dryers, or hanging on accordion laundry racks — in my experience, a dedicated dehydrator produces the best results.  I use an Excalibur 9-rack machine, but I’ve done all of the above too.  The jar on the right side of the picture below shows what I came up  with after all the effort.

What’s probably most remarkable about this entire exercise is what happened after I ripped up the Brave Little Valerian and chopped off its roots. I was left with the “root crown,” which is a hard, circular, and fairly mystifying object.  Not knowing what else to do with it (well, I did briefly consider it as a dog frisbee), I put it back into a pot and watered it.  (See second paragraph).

It not only re-rooted and branched and leaved, but has now flowered for the first time.  I am pleased to report that The Brave Little Valerian abides.