ARTICLES

 
AN HERB GARDEN PRIMER
We've been extolling the virtues of an herb garden for weeks. They can be planted from seeds, or more easily from starter plants purchased at the garden center. They'll grow in just about any kind of container, and provide the perfect backdrop for the fruit trees you planted this spring. Our favorites are rosemary, sage, thyme, tarragon, fennel, anise, oregano, and of course, a California favorite, cilantro.
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HISTORY OF ORCHIDS
Symbols of beauty, affluence, and virility, orchids date back to the early Greeks, at which time they were known as Orchis, the Greek word for testes. Terrestrial (as opposed to tropical) orchids were valued for their medicinal benefits. The natural world was the emphasis of study, and the curious flowers were thought to be aphrodisiacs because the shape of the lip, the twin oval tubers, resembled the figure of a man. In the Middle Ages orchids were the primary ingredient in love potions and even in ice cream.
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MOSQUITO PLANT
P.T. Barnum may or may not have noted the birth of 60 suckers every hour, but even in the plant world, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In 2006, The International Herb Association designated scented geraniums as their Herb of the Year. A specific geranium, the Pelargonium citrosum 'Van Leenii', was touted in major articles, including the New York Times, as a wonder plant that kept yards mosquito-free.
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AN HERB GARDEN PRIMER

by Liz Forsyth

We’ve been extolling the virtues of an herb garden for weeks. They can be planted from seeds, or more easily from starter plants purchased at the garden center. They’ll grow in just about any kind of container, and provide the perfect backdrop for the fruit trees you planted this spring. Our favorites are rosemary, sage, thyme, tarragon, fennel, anise, oregano, and of course, a California favorite, cilantro. Most of them can produce several harvests. With rosemary, for example, simply clip off a stem, strip the lower part of the leaves, and root in a glass of water. When ready, plant back into the soil and you’ll have year-long taste and aroma. Rosemary, thyme and oregano are all perennials. You’ll find yourself foregoing the dried herbs for the amazingly diverse flavors of the fresh. They will enliven even the simplest of dishes, and as their taste is so much more robust than dried herbs, your children will develop a natural craving for fresh, healthy foods. And in these economic times, growing your own herbs is a positive impact on your purse!

Named the 2005 Herb of the Year, oregano, light green in color with an aromatic odor, blooms with purple blossoms from July through October. A member of the mint family, this species is a hardy perennial in warmer climates, is easily grown from either seeds or cuttings, and may be divided. (If you are growing from seeds, sow them in rows 18” apart, early in the season; cover lightly with soil, and thin the young plants to 12” apart.)

Oregano is not only a useful and usual addition to any herb garden, it also makes a wonderfully easy-to-grow houseplant! While it is still small, place it in a sunny window in well-drained soil and watch it grow. Not a fussy plant, oregano does fine in average soil, and will tolerate dry soil conditions. In fact, a native of the Mediterranean region, it is perfectly capable of withstanding droughts.

The leaves of the tarragon herb are glossy, narrow, and spear-shaped with smooth edges, and are used, along with the stems, in cooking. Its flavor is sweet with a hint of anise, and while a potent herb, often used in making flavored vinegars and oils, scrambled eggs with fresh tarragon are “a bit of heaven.” The predominant flavor in barnaise sauce, tarragon also complements fish, soup and grilled meats. This gardener wouldn’t think of preparing lemon chicken saut without including fresh chopped tarragon!

French tarragon (as opposed to Russian tarragon, which is far more mild and bitter in taste) is a sterile plant, therefore cannot be grown from seeds. When you are creating your herb garden, this is one plant that will need to be purchased. To ensure fresh tarragon all year round, chop the leaves, place them in small plastic freezer bags, and press to remove excess air before sealing and freezing.

This marvelous herb (which originated in the Far East, was brought to Europe a mere five hundred years ago, and embraced by Canadian and Native American Indian tribes as well as by French chefs), will prove to be an aromatic augmentation to your herb garden.

If you have ever eaten a savory lamb chop, a rosemary-enhanced spaghetti sauce, or grilled seafood on skewers made of the leaf-stripped stems of the rosemary plant, you already understand why it was named the Herb of the Year in 2000, and why nearly every kitchen, no matter how sophisticated or how simplistic, has, at the least, a bottle of rosemary leaves as part of its arsenal. It is one of the easiest plants to grow, in just about any USDA zone, as long as in the colder regions it is brought indoors to winter, given strong southern light, well-draining alkaline soil, and not too much water. If grown outdoors, this amazing herb may be planted in a raised bed, or in containers and pots which will make the move inside easier. The lucky gardeners in the south enjoy rosemary as a perennial that provides us with fresh taste year-round.

One of our favorite songs features in its title one of our favorite herbs. With its subtle, dry aroma and slightly minty flavor, thyme is a common seasoning used in cooking poultry and stuffing, fish sauces, and chowders and soups. It complements lamb and veal, is equally delicious in egg dishes, and enhances tomato-based sauces.

Thyme is one of the easiest herbs to grow; it prefers lean conditions, with plenty of sun, as you would expect from a native of the Mediterranean region. With over a hundred known varieties and classifications of thyme (such as upright, creeping, shrub-like, English or French thyme, garden or wild), the ways you can incorporate it into your garden are only as limited as your imagination. Often used as a ground cover, it’s also great as an edger; trailing varieties bring aroma and texture to container gardens. This hardy evergreen is a perennial in USDA zones 5 to 9+, but gardeners in colder regions can winter them inside and enjoy fresh herbs all year round.

Is it cilantro or is it coriander?

Well, actually it’s both. Cilantro refers to the leaves of the plant, and coriander references the seeds. This gentle little herb with lacy, fern-like leaves is a social creature, requiring other plants growing around it to aid in holding it up on its spindly stems that can reach 2+ feet in height; excellent companion plants are caraway, anise and dill. An annual, this native of Asia and the Mediterranean regions prefers full to partial sun. In ideal conditions, cilantro (leaves) will last about 8 to 10 weeks before flowering. To ensure such conditions (this herb is not a friend of weeds), mulch to keep the roots cool and weed-free. Once the herb flowers, producing a delicate white to lavender display, seeds will form; harvest them immediately upon the leaves and flowers having turned brown, but prior to the seeds dispersing. To do this, cut the entire plant and hang it to dry upside down in paper bags. Occasionally shake the bags to thresh the seeds, but be certain that they have fully dried; coriander seeds can be bitter if only partially dry. Once you have harvested the dried seeds, roast them in a frying pan over low to medium heat, frequently shaking the pan. Cool, then crush with a mortar and pestle just before use; this will release the flavor, and the trademark lemon-scented odor. The wise herb gardener will retain some of the seeds prior to drying for replanting every few weeks to guarantee a continuous supply.

The citrusy tang of cilantro has become a popular addition to Mexican cuisine, while Chinese, Thai, and Indonesian cuisines use both cilantro and coriander. Thai curries incorporate the chopped leaves of cilantro, while Indian curry powders owe their aromatic quality to ground coriander.

Whether you call it cilantro or coriander, the distinctive characteristics of this tiny miracle herb make it a must-have for any herb garden.

The primary aspect of herb gardening to remember is that they can be grown year-round; plant in container gardens, which can be easily moved indoors during inclement weather, or when nighttime temps drop which may cause droop. Once your palate has made the conversion from dried to fresh, you will never want to return!



HISTORY OF ORCHIDS

by Liz Forsyth

Symbols of beauty, affluence, and virility, orchids date back to the early Greeks, at which time they were known as Orchis, the Greek word for testes. Terrestrial (as opposed to tropical) orchids were valued for their medicinal benefits. The natural world was the emphasis of study, and the curious flowers were thought to be aphrodisiacs because the shape of the lip, the twin oval tubers, resembled the figure of a man. In the Middle Ages orchids were the primary ingredient in love potions and even in ice cream.

In the New World, orchids were familiar to the inhabitants long before the arrival of Europeans. In 1518, in Mexico with the intention of overthrowing the Aztec Empire and claiming it for Spain, Hernando Cortes discovered a vine-like orchid which he named Tlilxochitl (Vanilla planifolia). The Aztecs cultivated this species of vanilla for its perfume and culinary usages. They ground and mixed it with the seeds of the cacao plant to produce a drink that was thought to give them power and strength, and was the genesis of the chocolate we know today.

Epiphytic orchids, or plants that grow above the ground and derive their nutrients and water from rain, air, dust, etc., were brought to Great Britain in the 1700s from the West Indies and China. By century’s end, 15 species were thriving at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

In the early 1800s, only a minor number of botanists considered them worthy of study, most notably William Cattley. In 1818, upon receiving packing material in plants that were delivered to him from South America, he noticed an orchid. He re-potted the plant, and it blossomed, producing a pulchritudinous and powerfully fragrant flower. Somewhat of a sensation, it was shown to botanist John Lindley, one of the most important orchid taxonomists of all time, who named it Cattleya labiata after William Cattley, and in appreciation of the beautiful lip (labia) of the flower. A sad tale follows; the man who collected Cattley’s plants in Brazil, one Swainson, disappeared prior to revealing the exact location of the original find, and it was over 70 years before Cattleya labiata was rediscovered.

In the early 19th century, orchids began to catch on with the landed gentry, and soon became symbols of luxury. With huge greenhouses on their estates, which were heated to tropical temperatures by steam pipes from a boiler fired with coal, each night it was the employment of one of the servants to rise from his bed to stoke the fire. These boilers were called stovehouses, creating conditions in which a variety of tropical plants flourished. The orchids that were placed in the greenhouses under these extreme conditions, however, mostly languished, eventually dying. As more people understood their origins in nature, they were taken out of stove conditions, and exposed to more light, more air, and less heat. Because they now were easier to grow, their popularity expanded, becoming a veritable craze among the wealthy and titled. Collectors canvassed the tropics for new orchids, sending back plants by the ton, many of which perished in transit and more at the unskilled hands of purchasers. Specimens’ prices rose to enormous proportions, which is why they were considered a rich man’s plant. Harvesting without consideration for saving them became the norm, and this led to whole areas, especially in England, with barren fields and no conservation by the end of the 19th century.

Which brings us to the beginning of the 20th century and the work of European scientists Bernard and Burgeff, each working independently of the other, who were successful in germinating orchid seeds in an otherwise sterile medium in which a culture of the right fungus had been established. The hope of commercial nurserymen had been that this procedure would lead to an easily accomplished widespread availability of cheap orchid seedlings; the process remained too technical and difficult to be an efficacious method. But in 1909, Joseph Charlesworth, a non-scientist, mastered the process and was hybridizing and raising odontoglossum seedlings (an epiphytic orchid) by the thousands at his nursery at Haywards Heath in Sussex. Many hybrids today can be traced back to Charlesworth’s stud plants.

Today there are over 110,000 different hybrids; this amazing plant has withstood the test of time to survive from the early Greek ages to the present day. The American Orchid Society was formed in the early 20th century to ensure the conservation of the species and their habitats.

Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the body as a small universe that contains an array of opposing forces yin/yang, cold/warm, passive/active, etc. Using plants such as the orchid, and herbs, a balance of these opposing forces is achieved. Orchids especially are considered cures for lung illnesses and coughs. The Chinese philosopher Confucius compared the virtuous man to an orchid; their beauty is incomparable, a perfectly cultured accompaniment to any environment.



MOSQUITO PLANT

by Liz Forsyth

P.T. Barnum may or may not have noted the birth of 60 suckers every hour, but even in the plant world, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In 2006, The International Herb Association designated scented geraniums as their Herb of the Year. A specific geranium, the Pelargonium citrosum ‘Van Leenii’, was touted in major articles, including the New York Times, as a wonder plant that kept yards mosquito-free. Claimed to be a revolutionary new breakthrough from a Dutch horticulturist, Mr. Van Leenen, it was genetically created by crossing tissue cultures of an African Geranium with the Grass of China. His claim was that the grass contained citronella oil, the active repellent ingredient, and that the geranium gave it the ability to effectively repel black flies and most biting insects. Mr. Van Leenen also claimed that it eliminated the need for aerosol sprays, thus helping the environment, and had the added plus of not being a greasy chemical lotion on your skin.

Ah, but not everyone bought into Mr. Van Leenen’s claims. A recent scientific paper published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association debunks all claims made for Pelargonium citrosum, and suggested that the geranium, often sold at astronomical prices as a natural mosquito repellent, is merely a common rose-scented variety. And Dr. G.A. Surgeoner and J. Heal from the University of Guelph in Ontario tested both the effectiveness of ‘Citrosa’ and lemon thyme (thymus x citriodorus) against the biting activity of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes; their findings? There was no evidence of significant protection against mosquito bites.

Surgeoner and Heal found that if one crushed the leaves of ‘Citrosa” on the hand, it would produce an approximate 30-40% repellency. Crushed lemon thyme produced a 62% repellency. But the most effective product? The commercial Deep Woods Off produced a 90.4% reduction in biting activity.

There are several other plants that, when you rub their essential oils on yourself as an insect repellent, provide a natural, homemade option to the chemical sprays. However, you will need to apply frequently, as often as every 15 minutes. And while they may provide protection while you are dining out on the patio, or working around the yard, they are not recommended for hiking in the woods or kayaking!

  • Lemon Balm is probably the best of the lot. It is non-irritating to the skin, has a nice lemony odor, and is effective.
  • Catnip, while not the most attractive of scented plants, works extremely well as an insect repellent.
  • Rosemary may be slightly irritating to the skin.
  • Lavender has a lovely odor and does work as an insect repellent, although not as well as the others listed.
  • Peppermint is yet another herb with a strong fragrance that may prove effective as a repellent, but it also may be irritating to the skin.

Lest we have lead you to believe that the Pelargonium citrosum ‘Van Leenii’ is a useless plant, it is an ideal annual with lavender flowers that will grow to about 2 feet. It likes well-drained soil, good air circulation, and exposure to full sun of 6 to 8 hours a day. Plant it near a path so that the fragrance is released when someone walks by and brushes against the leaves. Or hang it on your patio or sun porch, and bring out the fragrance by rubbing the leaves. Even plants like a good massage!