Category Archives: Herbs

Dandelions

Dent-de-lion or fairy clock, with its sharp jagged leaves and gossamer seedhead,  is almost universally despised by adults yet adored by children. What four-year-old has not cheerfully picked a fistfull of dandelions and presented it with pride to parents or grandparents, saying, “These are for you! I picked them myself!” What parent has not watched with some dismay as their young child delightedly puffed on the feathery seedheads, sending seeds drifting across the neighborhood.

And yet in earlier times the dandelion was happily grown in medicinal gardens. Its common names hint at its usefulness as a diuretic: pis en lit, piss a bed, pee in the bed. According to my herbal guides, all parts of the plant can be used safely. An infusion of the leaves and roots can help the liver, gallbladder, and kidneys function normally. To stimulate the appetite or improve the complexion, drink dandelion tea or eat fresh leaves regularly. To treat warts, dab on a little of the white juice that flows from the plant when cut  (you should not, however, be alarmed if the warts first turn black before disappearing, according to The Country Diary Herbal ). During World War II, when coffee was in short supply, many people  substituted  drinks made from the chopped and roasted roots of dandelion. The leaves are full of vitamins and minerals and can be eaten fresh in salads (though Joy of Cooking recommends that you cut the leaves early before the plants flower).

Many of my neighbors have recently begun their battle against dandelions, going around their yards with spray bottles, taking aim at the lion’s teeth. Not wanting to use chemicals on my yard but wanting to be neighborly, I try to dig  the dandelions out, trying to get the entire taproot using a pointed digger, preferably before the  seed heads form. Seldom can I get them all, of course, and within days new dandelions will have sprouted all over the yard. A couple years ago, I had let them go too far before attempting to dig them up, so I decided to make dandelion wine. The recipe calls for a quart or so of flower heads to make a gallon of wine, which didn’t seem like too much, but I didn’t notice until later that the recipe said not to leave any of the green parts in, just to use the yellow petals. Naturally, this ended up being a bigger project than I had thought, pulling all the tiny petals off the green caps until I had a quart of them. And that was only the beginning.

Making wine is not a hobby for the impatient. After I had filled a quart measure with yellow petals and mixed them with the rest of the ingredients (sugar, water, golden raisins, acid blend, Campden tablet, yeast energizer, tannin, yeast), it was time to begin the long period of waiting: waiting for fermentation to begin, then waiting for it to slow down, then straining, racking, re-racking until the wine was “clear and still” and finally ready to bottle. Then after bottling, more waiting until that unknown future date when it would actually be drinkable (at least six months, according to the recipe). Even at that, I probably should have let it ferment a bit longer before bottling, until the wine was completely clear. I picked the dandelions in April 2008 and bottled the wine almost a full year later, in March 2009. Five months after that, in August 2009, I tried the first bottle, optimistically humming to myself, “dandelion wine, feeling fine” and imagining a lazy afternoon by the creek, but I was seriously disappointed by the harsh and unfinished taste of the wine.

But this week, after digging up dandelions all one afternoon, I decided it was time to try the wine again. With some trepidation, I went down to the basement, where the three remaining bottles have been fermenting on their sides inside a dark box for over a year, and picked out a bottle. After I poured myself a drink, I held the glass up to the light and noticed with a smile its deep golden color (with only a hint of cloudiness). Perhaps this would be all right. Next I swirled the liquid in the glass and smelled the bouquet several times,  pleased with the bouquet of all those golden afternoons rolled into one. It was time to taste the wine.

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Chives

I’ve had chives on the brain for the last couple of days. They help keep my mind off other things that I have no control over whatsoever, like how the local elections turned out or what’s going to happen after my son deploys to Afghanistan this summer or when the caldera we call Yellowstone Park might erupt again without warning.

The chives look so delicate this early in spring, with their slender hollow leaves, but just try to pull them out without breaking them off at the roots. Even with a dandelion digger, it’s hard to get the whole plant out. And they are coming up everywhere, including between the cracks of the sidewalk out near the street. Later this spring, they will form clumps that will grow to about eight inches tall and produce charming puffs of lavendar flowers. I know I won’t want to cut them back at that time, because the bees are fond of the flowers, and so it will begin again, with me next spring wondering why I didn’t trim them back before they went to seed.

Chives are part of the allium family, along with garlic, leek, and onions; they are native of Eurasia. They like full sun and well-drained soil, and (as I have discovered) are easy to grow from seed and will self-sow if the flowers are allowed to fade. I read once that they make good companions for roses, keeping away black spot and aphids, so I have a clump planted under the white bush rose. By chance, they are also reputed to chase off the carrot fly, and last year I also had a patch of carrots growing on the other side of the rose bush near. Unlike many herbs, chives have no medicinal value, but both the leaves and flowers are edible and give a light onion flavor to soft cheeses, butter, eggs, potatoes, and salads. If you want to have fresh chives all year, the clumps can be lifted in the fall and planted in pots inside.

Although I like the naturalized look of my gardens, some plants, such as the chives and wild marjoram and lemon balm, have made themselves too much at home and have spread out into neighboring areas, crowding out other plants. When the plants are still relatively small and the days still pleasant in early spring, I like to think that I can get some control over the runaway plants and impose something like a design. So I have been scanning the gardens these past few weeks, paying attention to which plants are thriving where, trying to decide which ones to let stay, which ones to transplant to a different location that will suit me better, which ones to pull out, knowing that whatever I might decide, nature will find its own way.

My garden books offer plenty of suggestions about designing gardens, along with helpful sketches and photographs of gardens at their prime, but all seem to assume that you are starting with a clean palette. Some suggest theme gardens, such as gardens dedicated to culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, or ornamental herbs. Some focus on elements of design, such as color of bloom or texture of leaves or height of the plants. Some focus on the growing conditions of the plot (amount of sun, composition of the soil, how much moisture). I am enough of a realist to know that I could never maintain one of the elaborate formal herb gardens so popular in Victorian England, much as I would enjoy having such a garden, with its intricate knots, paths, and fountains. But even the informal gardens exhibit a measure of control that I need to keep in mind.

Several of my books on herbs mention a checkerboard pattern, which seems to combine elements of the formal with the informal in a way that seems promising. The idea is to make a checkerboard of paving stones or bricks and then plant different herbs in each of the open spaces. The paving stones provide a place to put your feet while walking across the garden; the open spaces provide numerous tiny gardens that are easy to tend and can also keep invasive plants from spreading too wide. Like the edges of a piece of drawing paper or the form of a sonnet, the formal elements impose some restrictions within which one can happily create. Last year I rounded up all the stray bricks I could find about the place and laid them in a rough checkerboard pattern across the “herb garden” out near the street. But of course, once the plants got going, I allowed them to creep across the bricks and out of their boundaries in an untidy way.

Now that I have pulled out a great many of the single chive plants, I am focusing on the larger clumps and trying to decide how many to keep and where I’d like them to be. Perhaps I’ll see if any have already placed themselves anywhere within the checkerboard and dedicate those squares to chives. The rest I may move beneath the rose bush.