Using herbs and spices to refine foods, to soothe body and mind and to heal has a history further back than the written word. Enthusiasts still collect wild herbs and, with the guidance of a qualified consultant, identification can be fun and rewarding. Traditionally herbs and spices were cultivated in monasteries, where the monks and the nuns studied the value of herbs for healing purposes. Many of these plants are readily available today and can be grown in any home garden. On a larger scale, growing herbs and spices for teas and pharmaceuticals, controlling their quality and getting them out onto the global market is a science in itself.
What German child can forget Oma’s fennel tea for an upset stomach, chamomile tea for any uneasiness or sweating out a cold after drinking linden blossom tea? These teas and herbs are bought today, packaged and ready-to-use in any supermarket but are considered remedies by the Deutsche Arzeneibuch and should be treated as such. Because of this, certain teas, like Echinacea, are only available in German pharmacies. Other herbs are considered weeds, their positive properties once well-known, and their popularity stays alive through classes offered by dedicated educators known as Kräuterpädagogen. And the springtime is a fine time for a herb hunt.
What the hobby gardener considers a nuisance can be for the herb enthusiast a blessing. Pulling stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) out of the garden can be a painful experience. But they are rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium and have a taste comparable to spinach. It’s advisable to blanch the leaves before eating; the fine hairs on them can irritate the urinary tract when eaten uncooked. Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) is also a nuisance in the garden. The name itself stems from its main use in medieval times. Although rich in vitamins, like the stinging nettles, studies today show that it contains no real healing substances to treat gout and arthritis except potassium. But it can also be cooked like spinach or added to a tasty quiche.
Found under trees, the white dead nettle (Lamium album) and ground-ivy or creeping charlie (Glechoma hederacea) have anti-inflammatory properties. Both can be used as an expectorant. Tea steeped from the leaves makes a tonic for colds or the leaves can be freshly picked, chopped and added to a meal. But ground-ivy is known to be poisonous for horses and rodents. That is one reason to begin collecting wild herbs with an expert. Some plants are easily mistaken for other, more harmful relatives.
Tender, springtime pine needle sprouts make a superb jelly. They are best collected in May. The needles are boiled, left covered steeping overnight and then shortly brought to a boil the next day. The liquid is then drained off and prepared like any other fruit juice jelly, with pectin and sugar or honey. Another alternative: the sprouts soaked in Korn with sugar make aromatic liquor.
|Elder blossom syrup|
Blossoms of all sorts can be collected and transformed into exquisite drinks or snacks. Teas of the pungent elder blossoms (Sambucus) blooming in late May or early June, have been used internally to treat the flu, bronchial infections, and externally to treat measles and sunburn. A old saying goes, “When you see the elder tree, tip your hat and get on your knee.” The blossoms can be steeped for tea, made into a skin lotion, dried for storing, soaked in water with sugar and lemon to make refreshing lemonade, steeped in thick, sugared water for syrup; even soaked in schnapps to make liquor or dipped in a batter and fried like tempura. The hawthorn (Crataegus) blooms white in the spring, too. The fresh or dried flowers are used as a tea or alcoholic extract for heart and circulatory disorders.
The list of wild herbs native to Germany goes on and on. Other plants and medicinal herbs, some winter hearty and some not so, and the knowledge of their properties came to northern Europe with the monks. In the monasteries, the nuns and monks polished herb and spice cultivation. The history of the monastery gardens goes backto the founding of the first Benedictine monasteries in Italy. The Romans had developed the cultivation process and the Benedictines were able to draw on this knowledge.They not only brought the knowledge but also plant seedlings into the monasteries north of the Alps. Monks and nuns also traded medicinal plants from seed and their cultivating experiences among themselves.
Today these plants are available to any hobby gardener. Adding freshly-picked sage, rosemary, lavender and basil to the cooking is a must for every good meal. Fresh peppermint ice tea augments any summer afternoon, just like warm peppermint tea made from leaves dried in the summer with honey eases a cold winter’s evening. These plants are also cultivated on a large scale to satisfy the demands of a modern market. We’ll take a look at herb farming next time. The Herbal Market Part 2
(This article by Laura Libricz appears in the Feb / March 2012 issue of German Life magazine and is my first by-line!)