All herbs contain medicinal properties of some kind. Because of their pleasant smell and flavor, some herbs, as well as being medicinal are also used for culinary purposes. I will refer to both culinary and medicinal herbs throughout this article, meaning; the ones we use to cook with and the ones we use for medicine, respectively. In some cases the same herb may be contained in both categories.
Our family tries to grow at least some of the herbs from both categories that we use, but our selection is somewhat limited due to the requirements of growing as many plants as we do. Because Mom has done an extensive amount of research on medicinal herbs, we feel confident in growing some of the more mild and gentle herbs that our family uses on a somewhat regular basis for colds, cuts and bruises, burns, chapped lips, etc. Beyond these frequently used herbs we rely on commercial sources for what we need.
Through the years we've tried growing numerous culinary and medicinal herbs for our family's use. Some do better for us than others, including basil, which we grow extensively, and marshmallow and comfrey, which are becoming rather noxious. I think we will need to dig those two up and plant them in the woods so that they don't keep encroaching on our garden and we don't have to keep weeding out their tenacious offspring. Other herbs, such as parsley and thyme haven't done consistently well for us through the years so we don't bother much any more with them. Winters here tend to be a little too cold for sage. Though some survive, they never quite recover, so we take cuttings in the fall and keep them in the house over winter to plant the following spring. Little by little we learn what grows well for us and what really doesn't pay for itself.
The concentration of beneficial constituents found in medicinal herbs is generally at its highest around bloom time. The leaves contain greater amounts of the unique properties God gave them then than at any other time, so the prickly comfrey leaves can be found drying in our basement while bees swarm over the plants outside. With culinary herbs it isn't so important when you pick them, so we gather their leaves all season long as they mature. This also provides a greater quantity, which suites us well since we use more volume in the way of culinary herbs than we do medicinal herbs. We have found that the tiny leaves of oregano, thyme and savory are extremely time consuming to harvest. This, combined with our inability to get many of them to grow, make these herbs unsuited for our home production.
Those herbs that provide a root harvest, such as Echinacea and marshmallow, are best harvested in the fall after a summer of collecting and storing the good things God made them to contain. Fast spreading plants like the marshmallow provide enough roots for harvest in the way of little plants that pop up all over the garden, so we just collect the roots as we weed them out. Echinacea on the other hand is not nearly as aggressive, so to get a harvest from it we dig up the whole slowly increasing clumps and chop them up, leaving a small division to grow bigger for next time. The rest of the clump is scrubbed up and dried for tea. Unlike marshmallow that grows so rapidly it can be collected after six months, Echinacea takes four or five years to produce roots big enough to warrant harvesting. For this reason we dig only one of our four clumps per year and rotate through them. By the time we get back to the first clump it's grown big enough to harvest again. Other herb parts that are used include flowers, like chamomile, and berries such as rose hips. With these it's obvious when to harvest them.
Though we do grow some of our own herbs we have found it to be much more efficient to mail order herbs in bulk. Growing and harvesting your own herbs takes both time and space. For these reasons we are not expanding our herb collections except where we want fresh herbs for cooking. I am trying to cultivate a little herb garden by the back door with sage, basil, oregano and chives and I hope to add thyme and parsley next year. The plan is that since it's so handy, maybe we'll use more fresh herbs in our meals.
Growing herbs takes quite a bit of time and any work with medicinal herbs requires knowledge and research. Some herbs are extremely potent and some can be fatal under certain circumstances so use caution and get council from experienced people and/or books before attempting anything along this line. I do not recommend growing or using herbs for medicine unless an adequate education in this field has first been acquired. All plants contain properties that affect our bodies in one way or another. It is important to know just how a given herb relates to our bodies before we choose to administer it.
But let me leave you on a lighter note! Growing and drying your own herbs can be lots of fun. It's rather rewarding to crumble a handful of dry, fragrant basil into a pot of soup, knowing as you inhale the aroma that you grew it yourself. Picking leaves is a great, simple job that the children can do, as long as they're careful with the plants, so we get our little ones involved helping the family in this way. For some of us, fresh herbs during the summer may be all we can handle and for others we may be able to dry all we need for the winter, too. Whether much or little, herbs are a very nice addition to many dishes, and by growing them ourselves we learn to appreciate the God who made them and who makes them grow.
Here are two of our favorite herb rich recipes.
This is a tasty spread made from basil leaves that we use on our bread at dinner.
Approx. 2-3 cups fresh basil leaves
1 cup olive oil
3 Tbs walnuts
1/2 tsp salt
5 cloves garlic (less if you prefer)
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
In a blender combine the oil, nuts, salt and garlic. Blend. With the blender running take the center out of the blender lid and drop the basil leaves in as fast as the blender can take them. It will quickly slow down as the oil thickens with basil. Once it is very thick and will not pull the basil down into the oil, turn it off and stir in a handful more. Turn it on and wait for it to blend them up. Repeat this process until the oil/basil mixture will not take any more basil easily. Mix in the cheese and refrigerate until used. Pesto freezes well, just remember to get it out to thaw the night before you will be using it.
We try to avoid using much salt in our diet and we have found that one great way to provide flavor without using salt is with herb blends. Here is one we've used.
1/2 cup dry basil
6 Tbs dry parsley
4 Tbs dry oregano
4 Tbs onion powder
2 Tbs garlic powder
1 tsp dry sage
1/2 tsp cayenne powder, opt.
Blend the dry herbs in a blender until fine. Use a large holed shaker to dispense. Blending dry herbs gets a lot of fine particles into the air, especially if you do very much like we do, so there may be a bit of sneezing during the process.
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