Herb Guide: A - C

Angelica, Anise, Basil, Bay Leaf, Catnip, Chickweed, Chives, Cilantro, Comfrey

 

 

ANGELICA

(Angelica archangelica)

Member of the apiaceae (carrot) family

Common Names: garden angelica, European angelica, Root of the Holy Ghost

According to legend, one night way back in 1665 as a monk lay sleeping, he experienced a prophetic dream. A messenger of heaven (an angel, it is said) appeared to him revealing the cure for a plague, which was currently running rampant in Europe. That cure was the wondrous herb angelica. Some say, it was this monk who named this beautiful herb. They say he called it angelica in honor of the angel, who guided him so aptly.

Yet others believe, that the connection between this herb and the Archangel Michael, is clearly indicated by it's species name, archangelica. The fact that this herb often blooms on the feast day of this great angel, serves to affirm their belief.

Either way, it is appropriately named. Angelica displays a stately appearance, it is a powerful ally; truly one of nature's miracles. It's versatility provides us with both culinary and therapeutic uses.

Angelica has a fresh, celery-like flavor and is simultaneously sweet and bitter; making it a multi-faceted resource for all cooks, both novice and expert alike.

The stems of this plant can be candied and used to decorate cakes and pastries; indeed this has been a practice since early colonial times. If you are looking to keep it a bit simpler, go ahead and prepare them as a vegetable side dish. Just boil them with a bit of sugar and enjoy. Want it to be even easier? No problem! The stalks of this 'angelic' herb are quite tasty eaten directly from the garden.

Angelica stems can also help you reduce the amount of sugar in your diet! Use them to 'sweeten the pot' when you are cooking tart fruits and vegetables; such as, rhubarb or berries. A good rule of thumb when using angelica in this way, is to reduce the amount of sugar in your recipe by approximately 1/3 cup. Give it a try ... the end result will be tasty AND healthier.

Angelica's leaves are not nearly as sweet as it's stems, as a matter of fact, they are slightly bitter. They are the perfect accompaniment for fish, poultry, and pork. They make wonderful additions to dry rubs, when barbecuing. Just mix a little angelica with a bit of powdered citrus peel and some pepper ...mmmmm delicious!

The essential oil which is extracted from this plant's seeds and roots is used to flavor many liqueurs; Chartreuse and Benedictine are among them. This oil provides flavor for gin and vermouth, as well.

Medicinally, angelica reduces inflammation; making it a useful solution for skin problems. It is marvelously effective when treating psoriasis or eczema. This herb can be prepared as a fomentation to be used on skin ulcers; it will both cleanse and accelerate their healing.

If you find yourself suffering from headaches or migraines, which are a direct result of stress and fatigue, angelica is there to help. Drinking a cup of angelica tea, once or twice a day, should find you feeling better in no time.

Modern herbalists prescribe angelica as a remedy for respiratory infections; as it is an expectorant and helps to dispel mucus. They also recommend this herb be used when treating kidney infections, urinary infections, and constipation. Angelica is a mild diuretic and it assists the body with digestion.

It is sometimes used as a fever reducer, and is considered an effective menstrual regulator.

This diverse herb can be used cosmetically, as well. You will find it's essential oil is a wondrous addition when creating scent blends for perfumes, and topically it effectively conditions rough, dry skin.

Angelica bears close resemblance to hemlock, and some other members of the carrot family, all fatally poisonous. Therefore, if harvesting this plant in the wild, positive identification is essential.

This herb should be used only for short periods of time, and in sparing amounts. Prolonged or overuse may cause photo-sensitivity in some people.

When using it's root oil, be sure to avoid sunlight; uneven skin coloring may occur as a result of direct sunlight exposure.

This herb should be avoided while pregnant, and diabetics should not use it topically.


ANISE

(Pimpinells anisum)

Member of the apiaceae (carrot) family

Common names: aniseed, sweet cumin

In the early days, of the settlement of Virginia, you would have been certain to find this herb in the gardens of all European settlers. Why? They were required to plant anise in their gardens by law! Interestingly enough, this aromatic beauty is not native to either Europe or North America; it's origins can be traced to the Mediterranean and Egypt.

Today, having our choice of garden plants regulated by the government is a ridiculous thought. Still, it will benefit you greatly to include this little herbal gem amongst the plants that surround your porch. An anise plant works wonders as an insect repellent!

Perhaps, it is mice who are causing you trouble in your home, anise can assist with this as well. Place a bit of this herb in your rodent trap and mice will be unable to resist the bait!

As a culinary herb, anise is richly flavored. It is unnecessary to use more than a small amount of this herb when preparing a dish.

Throw just a few leaves in the pot of simmering soups or stews, toss them into a salad, or use them to make a tasty tea.

Anise also makes a nice addition to baked goods - put some in your next loaf of homemade bread, batch of biscuits, or even sugar cookies.

The main flavor of ouzo and anisette comes from this highly aromatic herb.

The seeds of this plant are used in teas, baked goods, salads, soups, and stews. A little anise seed can really add a nice flavor to a healthy smoothie. Also try them with your favorite vegetables, juices, stewed fruits, and egg or cheese dishes.

Anise seeds provide flavor for cough drops and cough medicines. They are particularly useful for the home herbalist who makes their own congestion relieving remedies. Note: Anise used for this purpose is primarily for flavor; it is not medicinally effective as a cough aid.

Because this herbs flavor is both pleasant and powerful, it can be effectively used to mask the flavor of other herbs. So if you want to mix an herb into a dish to reap it's health benefits, and the herb is not as pleasant tasting as you would prefer, just add a bit of anise; problem solved.

When you are having trouble falling asleep, warm up a glass of milk, drop in a few crushed anise seeds, let it steep for 15 minutes or so, and enjoy; the pleasant taste will delight your senses and you will be sleeping before you know it.

Modern research pharmacology has confirmed the ancient belief that anise is effective in relieving gastric distress. A strong tea made from the seeds of this plant have a carminative action. Think preventatively, drink a cup of anise tea while cooking dinner and you will digest your meal with ease.

Anise can be used to provide fragrance and color to cosmetic products. It will cleanse skin by opening it's pores.

Historically, the leaves of this plant were used as a freckle remover. I am not sure that this old-time belief holds validity, but I imagine it can't hurt to try!


BASIL

(Ocimum basilicum)

Member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family

Common names: sweet basil

Whether you grow your own fresh basil or purchase it, be sure to get your hands on just a bit extra. Take a few sprigs and place them in your closets and drawers. You will find that the fragrance is divine! Moths and other insects will certainly not agree, basil will keep them away.

This beautiful, aromatic, and useful herb is considered a token of love in some parts of the world. Yet, other regions feel that it is connected to ill-feelings and misfortune.

When using fresh basil to make a dish, it is ideal to purchase the herb the day you plan to cook. However, finding the time to shop and cook on the same day may not fit into your schedule. Never fear! Basil will keep well in the refrigerator for about a week; just place the ends of the stems in a glass of water, and cover the foliage with a plastic bag.

This plant has been held in high regard in Italy, since before the Christion era. Italians create the most amazing pesto with basil. Pesto is one of the easiest dishes to prepare; making it the perfect meal to serve when you are having guests for dinner. Try some at your next dinner party; everyone will be talking about it for days! Don't be afraid to make a double batch for your family to enjoy later, pesto freezes very well. It is a wonderful feeling, at the end of a hard day at work, to open your freezer and find a batch of pesto; cook a little pasta, warm a little bread and dinner is done - ahhhhh. Don't limit the use of this tasty sauce to pasta though. It really perks up veggies, chicken, and fish.

Basil leaves are sweeter when they are dried, and a bit spicier when they are fresh; either way they BELONG with fresh tomatoes. Slice a few up, drizzle them with olive oil, and toss on some basil. Just one bite of this simple treat, will make you believe, that basil and tomatoes were destined to be together.

This herb can be used to season vinegars, oils, and breads. It even makes a refreshing substitute for lettuce on your favorite sandwich. Just about any marinade is brought to life with basil. Mix it up with some sour cream and fresh garlic to dip your veggies, toss it into a salad, or blend it into some butter, or ghee.

Medicinally, this fragrant herb is quite versatile.

If you find yourself irritated by bug bites, rub a few fresh basil leaves on them; it will take away the itch.

Pliny, a Roman naturalist, reported that basil was an effective remedy for gastric distress. Research supports his claim. It will also relieve nausea; some say, even nausea as severe as that which is caused by chemotherapy.

A peppercorn and basil tea is an old time remedy for lowering fever.

Basil oil is quite useful, as well. It is considered an effective appetite stimulant, and thought to promote concentration, sharpen the intellect, and "clear cobwebs from the brain". Just burn a bit of it in an oil burner, or take a few sniffs of this fragrant gem directly from the bottle.

This herbs essential oil will provide relief from depression and insomnia, and promote both resilience and tenacity.

Basil can be used in shampoos and rinses to increase manageability and promote growth of hair.

Basil oil is not intended for internal use. It should be diluted to 0.5 percent when used externally, as it can irritate the skin.

Do not use basil oil while pregnant.

Large quantities of basil tea (two or more cups) should not be consumed for long periods of time.


BAY LEAF

(Laurus nobilis)

Member of the lauraceae (laurel) family

Common names: sweet bay, daphne

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With the proper grooming, a bay laurel tree resembles a large topiary; quite a beautiful sight. It is a majestic tree, often found along the streets of Europe. The sight of this regal beauty brings nobility to mind; explaining, why so often throughout history, it was found bordering the entrances of castles. It's majesty is also reflected in it's species name, nobilis; meaning "renowned" or "notable". Indeed, bay laurel leaves have decorated their share of "renowned" people, including; Olympian champions, Greek scholars, and Roman senators.

Bay leaf has a stiff almost "rubbery" texture when dried. The dried leaves can be used throughout the house to impede silverfish; they are particularly useful for this when placed on bookshelves. Leaves can also be place in food storage containers, to deter insects. Tape a few to the lid of the kitchen containers you use to store flours, grains, and legumes. Presto, insect free!

Bay will do more than protect your legumes from insects though. If you add them to the water used to cook these tasty veggies, you will find that you are better able to digest them.

Bay leaves are one of the few herbs which should not be used fresh. Their leaves are quite bitter, before they are dried. It is also advisable, to use this strong herb in small amounts, as a little really does go a long way. Put just one or two leaves into pots of simmering soups, stews, and sauces. You will be delighted at the result of adding a leaf or two of bay to your water when cooking veggies, potatoes, grains, or pasta. Don't forget to remove the leaves before serving your dishes. Bay leaves do not soften much when they are cooked, and they may present a choking hazard if discovered unexpectedly by an innocent diner!

Bay laurel is considered a "liaison" herb. There are three such herbs; bay, parsley, and marjoram. These culinary delights support the fusion of flavors within a dish; most useful!

Keep just a bit of bay in your diet and you will find your ability to fight off colds and flues enhanced; it is a mild immune system booster.

Because this herb incites sweating, it is an appropriate addition to massage oils; try this when you have a fever.

Bay also finds its way into cosmetics and perfumes. It is a nice addition to men's toiletries; as it has a warm, sweet, and spicy scent. It is simultaneously stimulating and soothing, making it a great addition to herbal bath blends.

Do not use bay when pregnant.

Use only minute amounts when creating cosmetic products. Bay may cause skin irritation.


CATNIP

(Nepeta cataria)

Member of the lamiaceae (mint) family

Common names: catmint, catnep, catswort, cat's-play, catrup, field balm

Catnip leaves release an oil, when they are bruised, that is effective at repelling insects which would otherwise destroy the plant. However, once a cat (even a big cat, such as; a lion, tiger, or cougar) gets a whiff of this oils aroma the plant is bound for destruction. Many freshly sown catnip plants have met their demise at the paws of an overzealous cat! Use this to your advantage; rub catnip oil anywhere that you would prefer your favorite feline sharpen it's claws, and they will oblige you! Be aware that not all cats respond to this herbs scent; a little more than 30% are unaffected.

Throughout history, many people have attempted to experience the same state of splendor a feline enjoys when encountering catnip oil. This may seem logical, but it is a futile exercise; catnip has quite the opposite effect on humans. It is calming, and has even been suggested as a natural solution for treating attention deficit disorder.

Catnip is a great herb to introduce to the lives of children. It will help them sleep, reduce fevers when they are sick, and settle colicky stomachs. Serve them some catnip tea, either hot or cold; don't forget the honey! Limiting their consumption to one cup a day is recommended.

Use a catnip infused oil to relieve the itching that is associated with measles, chickenpox, or hives. This oil is also a great choice for massaging arthritic or rheumatic joints.

In days gone by, catnip leaves were chewed as a toothache remedy; this is no longer common, but if I had a toothache I just might give it a try!

As a mosquito repellent, catnip is top notch. It has been compared to diethylmetatoluamide (DEET).

Do not consume large amounts or strong doses of catnip; as it can induce vomiting.


CHICKWEED

(Stellaria media)

Member of the caryophyllaceae (carnation) family

Common names: mouse-ear, satinflower, starweed, tongue grass, white bird's-eye, winterweed

Chickweed's pretty little blossoms tend to remain open on sunny days, and close themselves up when it is cloudy outside. Apparently, much like humans, chickweed prefers to 'come out and play' in nice weather. Some people believe that if you come across a chickweed plant, and it's blossoms are enjoying the sun, you can count on clear skies for at least four hours.

Chickens go wild for chickweed; thus the name! However, there are many animals that find this herb delightfully tasty. If you plant it outside and you have critters about, they will be sure to indulge; try to save some for yourself!

Many consider this herb a pesky weed. What a shame! Chickweed has a lot to offer. It is not a highly flavorful herb, but it does cut the bitterness of stronger greens. Toss it into your salad when you want to 'sweeten the pot'.

Chickweed is available almost year-round. It can flourish from February through December, in some parts of the country. It has high levels of nutrients, as well as minerals. It can be served as a dish by itself; saute it for only a few moments, as longer will cause it to lose a great deal of it's powerful nutritional benefits.

Modern herbalists hold conflicting views of this herb. Some feel that chickweed is useless. While others believe it is a terrific remedy for both inflamed and irritated (itchy) skin conditions, that it has alterative properties, and is capable of restoring strength to those who are recovering from illness. Many also feel that chickweed can be used effectively as a weight loss aid, because of it's diuretic properties.

At one time chickweed was used to prevent scurvy. It is easy to believe that this pretty, delicate little herb was an effective treatment for this disease; due to it's high content of both vitamins and minerals.

Modern pharmacology has shown that this herb represses the bacteria that cause tuberculosis.

Chickweed can be effectively added to lotions and bath products to soothe and soften the skin.


CHIVES

(Allium schoenprasum)

Member of the amaryllidaceae (onion) family

Common names: onion chives

It is impossible to imagine an herb guide (or a kitchen) without chives. This is a fundamental herb, and records of its use go back as far as 5,000 years. Chives are a robust antioxidant, which is packed full of both A and C vitamins.

Chives can be generously used in the kitchen. They make a great accompaniment to most any dish. Use them when cooking soups, sauces, or stews. Add them to the water of simmering potatoes, vegetables, grains, or pasta. Toss them on top of any dish you prepare; they are delicious and nutritious!

Don't forget to use these magnificent herbal wonders when making infused oils or vinegars, and be sure to break them out when whipping up eggs for breakfast. They also make a delightful addition to salads.

Whenever you use garlic, consider adding chives as well. They blend beautifully together. Unlike most other herbs, where chives are concerned, more is better.

Chives will not only liven up all of your culinary creations, they will help you digest them as well. Not to mention that they will make any bugs who are trying to take up residence in your system feel quite unwelcome; they will pack up and move out!


CILANTRO

(Coriandrum sativum)

Member of the apiaceae (carrot) family

Common names: Italian parsley, fresh coriander

If you are looking for a cilantro plant to grow in your garden, you will be searching for a very long time. There is no such thing! Where does this herbal treasure come from? It is actually the young leaves of the coriander plant.

This herb is widely used in countries of warmer climates. It is often paired with citrus juice; usually lime. Don't stop there though, if you team it up with lemon, orange, or grapefruit you will be delighted.

When cooking with cilantro you will find that it compliments foods and herbs whose flavors are strong, as is its own. It tends to overpower milder dishes. It is best used in dishes that contain spicy ingredients, such as; habaneros, jalapenos, and chipotle chili peppers.

Still, don't be afraid to try small amounts of this sassy herb with eggs and rice, or in soups and tacos. Cilantro goes well with seafood, and is an essential ingredient of salsa.

While many herbs have a warming effect on the body, cilantro is distinctive, in that it cools the body. It is perfect for hot summer days; it relieves nausea induced by heat, brings body temperature down, and reduces heat induced bloating.

Cilantro is also believed to aid in headache relief, and to purify foods.


COMFREY

(Symphytum officinale)

Member of the boraginaceae (borage) family

Common names: common comfrey, knitbone, boneset, knitback, slippery root, blackwort, bruisewort, healing-herb, ass-ear, gum plant

Dioscorides, a Greek physician and botanist of the first century A.D., declared comfrey as the first herb to be used medicinally which was detached from superstitious thinking. That is quite a claim!

The roots and leaves of this plant can be used to create a poultice; which serves it's purpose well when used to heal surface wounds.

This same poultice, when applied as a brace for broken bones, can help maintain their position while they are healing.

Comfrey contains allantoins; which are valued in some skin care products and promote the multiplication of cells. Use it in ointments and infused oils to repair damaged tissue. It has emollient and astringent properties as well, causing it to soften and tighten the skin.

This plant is easily confused with foxglove, when it is not blooming.

When using comfrey topically, never use on broken or infected skin.

While topical use of comfrey is still permitted, it's internal use has been banned in many countries, including; the U.S., Germany, Canada, and Australia.

A number of studies have proven comfrey to be toxic to the liver.

This herb should only be used under the supervision of a professional health care provider. It should never be used by children, or by pregnant or breastfeeding women.

With the limitations placed on the use of this herb, it may seem strange that it is included in this herb guide at all. I believe it is an interesting and advantageous gift from nature; if handled with care. I use it in my shampoo, with great results.

 

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