Monday, June 29, 2015

Aloes, Alliums, and Mints … Oh My!

potted aloe vera
Potted Aloe vera
At last week's local Farmers' Market, a lady asked her husband to buy her “that burn plant.” She was referring to one of my potted Aloe barbadensis (also called Aloe vera) plants. The plant does offer excellent first aid for burns and also sunburn. I started keeping a pot of it on my kitchen windowsill years ago for just that purpose. You may have noticed that aloe vera is an ingredient in many modern skin treatments. The plant was used medicinally by the Egyptians and Greeks at least 2,400 years ago, but has fairly recently been “rediscovered”. It was used both externally and internally. J.D. recently pointed out a bottle in the grocery food supplements that is a fruit juice and aloe vera mixture. To use the plant on burns, cut off a piece of one of the fleshy leaves and squeeze the internal gel over the burn. The gel has both anesthetic and antiseptic properties. The pain decreases very quickly. Unless the burn is severe (and should be treated by a doctor), it should leave neither scar nor skin discoloration.

Chives in bloom
Chives in bloom in Annake's garden
This got me to thinking about all of our plants that serve more than one purpose. For example, we have Allium (onion family) plants throughout our gardens. Not only are many of them good to eat, but some garden pests including deer tend to avoid them. Also, others have attractive flowers and are grown primarily for their blooms. Giant purple alliums and cheery yellow sunny twinkles come to mind. I would grow common chives (Allium schoenoprasum) for their flowers, even if they were not so useful in the kitchen. They have lovely round heads of lavender flowers in late spring. Our garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) produce star-shaped white flowers later in the summer. Put leaves, stems, and even flowers of chives into a bottle of vinegar I prefer white wine vinegar seal, and leave for a couple of weeks or until the scent and taste of the vinegar suits you. Onions have been used medicinally, too. I remember my grandmother making creamed onions for me when I was little and had a bad cold.

Blooms of purple alliums and yellow Sunny Twinkles
Blooms of purple alliums and yellow Sunny Twinkles

On the same market day, we were offering freshly harvested peppermint (Mentha piperita), spearmint (Mentha spicata), and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Despite the difference in scientific names, all three are mints as are scarlet-flowered salvia, bee balm, catnip, and many other plants. I learned the use of peppermint tea to cure stomach upsets from Frau Hauk, our landlady in Germany. I keep both frozen and dried leaves on hand to make it. The mints are full of chemicals like thymol and menthol, both of which are useful for arthritis relief, especially for those of us who are allergic to capsaicin. Both peppermint and spearmint are delightful additions to summer iced tea. If you have an old-fashioned ice cube tray, freeze single leaves in water in each compartment. They not only add to the taste of the tea: they are pretty as well. Chop either or both mints finely, mix with sugar and serve on top of grapefruit halves or fresh pineapple.

Specimens of peppermint, spearmint and lemon balm

Of all the many plants that have “lemon” in their names, I like lemon balm the best. Its fragrance alone is reason to grow it. I have never offered it to a woman who didn't like the scent although there was a man who said it smelled like furniture polish. It tastes just as good as it smells, too. It is a welcome addition to salads, including fruit salads, and a good garnish for vegetable and fish dishes. I especially like it with early green peas.

Lemon balm
Lemon balm in Annake's garden
The “balm” in its name shows that it has been used medicinally. My research told me that Roman soldiers used it as a poultice on wounds, claiming it helped them heal without infection. While gathering fresh herbs one morning, I suffered a nasty cut to the palm of my hand. I cleaned the cut, washed some lemon balm, and applied it to the cut, wrapping a clean cloth around the hand. The pain decreased right away and soon ceased altogether. When I checked it an hour or so later, I could actually see the sides of the cut drawing together. By afternoon, there was only a bright pink line across my palm. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it! The cut healed completely and left no scar. We tend to disregard the wisdom of the ancients, but they were wise in many ways or else we wouldn't be here!

Another of my favorite mints is horehound. It is a pretty plant with small, oval, gray-green leaves edged neatly with white. The tiny white flowers form fluffy little wreaths around the joints of the stem, peeking shyly out from under the leaves. The plant is both fragrant and tasty. I remember my father buying me horehound candy when I had a sore throat. Fortunately, there is a shop in a town we visit frequently that still sells old-fashioned candies like anise, horehound, and sassafras.

horehound plant and flower
Horehound, plant and flower specimen

How do you know a mint when you meet one? They have square stems, rather than the round or oval stems that most green plants have. Sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme and basil are mints. The lavender in bath salts and oils (and my anti-static dryer sheets) comes from mints, as does the patchouli in many popular perfumes. The multicolored Coleus species that we cultivate as houseplants are tropical mints. In Panama, we saw trees of the Hyptis species which have square trunks and can sometimes reach a height of 40 feet. Now that's a MINT!

Just for fun, try a new herb this week. I think you'll like it!






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