Monday, May 28, 2012

Syzygium aromaticum - Clove

Syzygium aromaticum - Clove, also know as Eugenia caryophyllata, Eugenia aromatica, Caryophyllus aromaticus, Oleum Caryophylli.   The spice is the dried, unopened, nail-shaped flower bud of this lovely aromatic evergreen tree.  The generic name, Syzygium, comes from a Greek word meaning “yoked together” and refers to the union, in some species, of the petal tips into a cap that covers the stamens.  The word clove is believed to come from either the French "clou" or the Latin "clavus" both meaning "nail" in reference to the shape of the clove bud.  The genus name, Eugenia, is named after Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736).

Syzygium aromaticum is a triangular shaped evergreen tree growing about 40 feet tall with smooth gray bark and 5-inch-long, glossy opposite leaves that resemble bay leaves. The attractive red and white bell shaped flowers bloom year round in 1/4-inch clusters at the ends of the branches and have four tiny petals surrounded by a long, four-parted calyx (the “stem” of the clove) and numerous stamens. The buds are pink, but the calyx changes from yellow to deep red-pink after the stamens fall. The fruit, called mother-of-cloves, is an edible purple berry about 1 inch long and 1/2 inch across. The entire plant is extremely ­aromatic. 

Clove oil is an important ingredient in dental medicine. It has a long history as a folk remedy for toothache, relieving both pain and inflammation of the gum tissues. As an antiseptic, dentists use the clove's principal constituent, eugenol, mixed with zinc oxide as a temporary filling for root canals. Laboratory studies show that its other constituents, kaempferol and myricetin, can inhibit the growth of bacteria associated with gum disease.

Other laboratory studies have confirmed that eugenol inhibits the growth of fungi, including those that cause yeast infections and athlete's foot. Animal studies have shown that it is also a strong antioxidant and protects against cardiovascular disease.

Clove tea, used along with other herbs and spices such as allspice, bay, cinnamon and marjoram, has been used to relieve bronchitis, asthma, coughs, infection, tuberculosis, altitude sickness, nervous stomach, nausea, diarrhea, flatulence, indigestion, dyspepsia, gastroenteritis, side effects of lobelia, and depression. A few cloves added to other herbal teas is often used to alleviate mild depression and nervous irritability.

In Pakistan cloves are among many herbs used in folk medicine to treat the common cold, cough and flu to more serious conditions such as asthma, jaundice and heat stroke.  Europeans use clove tea as a digestive aid, traditional Chinese medicine uses cloves to treat fungal infections, diarrhea, hernia, hiccups, indigestion, intestinal parasites, impotence, ringworm, and kidney disorders.

During the Middle Ages, cloves were used to cure the plague and were also considered an aphrodisiac due to the similarity in shape to the human penis.  The medieval herbalist Hildegard of Bingen recommended cloves in the treatment of gout.  Cloves were also used as an insect repellent.

Cautions:  Aside from using clove oil as an emergency toothache treatment, don’t self-treat with the oil or its constituents. They can be toxic in small amounts when used internally or absorbed through the skin.  Eugenol has been found to be a weak tumor promoter in laboratory tests, making clove one of many healing herbs with both pro- and anti-cancer effects. Scientists are still not sure which way the balance tilts. Until they are, anyone with a history of cancer should avoid using medicinal amounts of clove.

Anti-Fungal Powder:  To make a powder that reduces sweating and retards fungal growth, use one cup of dried sage leaves and one teaspoon of whole cloves. Make sure the sage leaves are thoroughly dried. Place the ingredients in a coffee grinder or blender and process until finely ground. Sprinkle this powder in socks or on feet daily.

"Her breath is like honey spiced with cloves, Her mouth delicious as a ripened mango." ~ Srzgarakarika

The first references to cloves are found in Oriental literature of the Han period in China under the name "Chicken-Tongue Spice".   Cloves were brought by Javanese traders from the island of Ternate to the Imperial Chinese court of the Han dynasty about 2,500 years ago. Arab traders brought cloves to Europe 400 years later and the Portuguese were trading cloves in the Moluccas by 1511.  The Chinese used cloves extensively for cooking, medicines, and for deodorizing bad breath. The Chinese emperor was so offended by the bad breath of foreign envoys, that he decreed every visitor must chew on a clove before addressing him.

When the Europeans finally found the clove producing Moluccas islands in the 17th century, they used extreme measures to take control of the spice supply, (read The Notorious Nutmeg for more on this bloody history). Clove trees grew on many islands, but the Dutch destroyed all clove trees except those on a single island which they controlled. In 1625 alone, 65,000 clove trees were cut down. The Dutch held the monopoly on cloves for about 150 years. During this period, any unauthorized person caught growing or carrying cloves or seedlings would be put to death.

The French finally managed to smuggle some clove tree seedlings to Mauritius, an island east of Africa in the Indian Ocean; by the 1800s clove trees were being cultivated on a number of islands in the Indian Ocean and in the New World. They are now grown commercially in Madagascar, Tanzania, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Réunion, the Seychelles, and the Comoro Islands. Zanzibar and Pemba islands, off the east coast of Africa that are part of Tanzania, produce about 90 percent of the world’s cloves.

The Spanish liked cacao very much and they added water to it,
plus other condiments including cinnamon,
cane sugar and cloves. 
~ Paul Gepts

In Moluccan folklore, villagers treated blossoming clove trees like a pregnant woman. No man could approach them wearing a hat, no noise could be made near them and no light or fire could be carried past them at night for fear they would not bear fruit. Some Moluccans still plant a clove tree at the birth of a child, with the belief that if the tree flourishes, so will the child.

Cloves also have a rich history in magical folklore and are a main ingredient in various spells. To stop slander, malicious gossip and lies, a person would burn a red candle studded with cloves. It was also used to attract luck with money by either burning as an incense or using it as a gambling charm in a "money bag" along with silverweed, cinnamon and Irish moss.    In neopagan magic, cloves are used to banish evil spells cast against you, while they also purify and protect.  Worn as an amulet it will drive away negativity and hostility, stop gossip, comfort mourners, attract riches and the opposite sex.
The spice is also popular with artists in basketry and hand-crafted jewelry, and clove oil can be used to help keep oil paints fresh and moist for several weeks.

We smoked a lot of cloves.
~ Method Man

Although cloves originated in Indonesia, it is there that more than half the world's supply is imported for use in cigarettes. Clove cigarettes, kretek, (currently banned in the USA) which crackle while burning, are extremely popular; their sweet, incense-like aroma pervades nearly every aspect of Indonesian life. But as a spice, the clove is not used very much in Indonesian cuisine except in some sweets.

Only the highest quality cloves are used as a culinary spice throughout the world. The rest, along with the dried flower stalks and leaves, are processed to extract the essential oil, which is used not only to flavor foods, but also in cosmetics, dentistry, medicine, and as a clearing agent in microscopy. About 85 percent of the oil is eugenol, which is also a component of the essential oils of cinnamon, bay laurel, basil, nutmeg, and hyssop, among other familiar herbs and spices.

Cloves contain manganese, vitamins C and K, magnesium, calcium, and fiber. The flavor of ground cloves seems to last forever, whereas the flavor of most other ground spices fades rapidly. Clove is used to make vanillin, which is artificial vanilla.

Nose, nose, jolly red nose, who gave thee this jolly red nose?
 ... nutmegs and ginger, cinnamon and cloves
~ Francis Beaumont

In cooking, cloves can enhance so many kinds of food: fruits, baked goods, ham, beets, green beans, winter squash, pea soup. They are an essential ingredient in Sri Lankan cooking, Chinese five-spice powder, Indian garam masalas, American pickling spice, and spiced teas.  They are extremely popular in the Middle East and North Africa where they are used in meat dishes and to aromatize rice. In Ethiopia, coffee is roasted with some cloves in a traditional coffee ceremony.

Cloves are less popular in Europe, where their strong flavor is not appreciated. They are used for special types of sweet breads, but mostly with stewed fruits (along with cinnamon). Plain rice is often flavored with one or two cloves. In France, cloves often go into slow cooked meat stews or a hearty meat broth. In England, they are popular in pickles.

Cloves are often used to enhance the flavour of game, especially venison, wild boar and hare. They are used in a number of spice mixtures including Ras el hanout, curry powders, mulling spices and pickling spices. Cloves also figure in the flavour of Worcestershire sauce.

"Cloves must always see the sea in order to survive"
~ Ancient Legend

A vintage image of clove plantation...

Clove trees require a warm, humid climate with 50 to 70 inches of rainfall annually and a minimum temperature of 59°F; well-drained, fertile loam; and a position in full sun or part shade. Most clove ­plantations are located within 10° of the equator and close to the ocean. Commercial growers shade the young trees and protect them from wind, sometimes growing them under other trees such as mangoes or jacarandas. Trees may be propagated by sowing seeds in spring or rooting cuttings in summer. The trees flower for the first time when eight or nine years old.  Under favorable conditions, trees may live 100 years or longer.

...not much has changed.

The unopened flower buds are harvested by hand when they reach full size and are just turning pink. In Indonesia, women and children pick the clusters closest to the ground, while men either clamber into the branches or climb ladders to gather the higher clusters. Later, the buds are snapped off the flower stalks and placed on leaf mats to dry in the sun. After three days, they will have turned dark brown and weigh only one-third of their weight when first picked.  A tree may yield as much as 75 pounds of dried cloves, but the crop fluctuates from year to year.

Resourses include: 

McCormick Science Institute
The Epicentre
Emily Doyle: Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
The Herb Companion
Botanical Museum, Beja, Portugal
Purple Sage Medicinal Herbs

Monday, April 2, 2012

A long time coming....

I have planned and prepped some preliminary work on a few articles which I will be posting very soon.

This year I will not be working on a garden due to time constraints. Instead, I will be visiting some botanical gardens and arboretums and write more articles about interesting herbs.  Last year I visited two gardens during the fall season and will be posting about them soon as well.

National Arboretum, Washington DC
copyright SHD 2011

I visited the National Arboretum in Washington DC in September, (where I dropped and broke my digital camera! Ack!).  It's an absolutely beautiful place and if you live within a 3-4 hour drive of DC you should take the time to go there.  It's worth a road trip, and it's free because your tax dollars pay for it.

Temple University Ambler
copyright SHD 2011

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I stopped by the gardens belonging to Temple University in Ambler, PA. Again, it was the dead of winter (albeit a mild one), but as you can see, it promises to be a pleasant experience for the spring and summer and should prove to be a fun future article.

I would like to say "Hello!" to all my new followers, and "Thank You!" to everybody who bothers to read what I write, and especially thanks to those who make comments.  I appreciate your attention and I hope that I will justify it in the future.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Notorious Nutmeg - Myristica fragrans

Myristica fragrans - Nutmeg, also known as mace, magic, muscdier, muskatbaum, myristica, noz moscada, nuez moscada, and nux moschata, is an evergreen tree indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) of Indonesia. The nutmeg tree is important for two spices derived from the fruit: nutmeg and mace.  The name nutmeg comes from Latin, nux muscat, meaning musky nut. The genus na­me Myristica derives from the Greek 'myron' meaning balm or ointment. The species name fragrans refers to the good smell of the plant.  Nutmeg is the actual seed of the tree, and roughly egg-shaped and about 1 inch long by 0.7 inch wide, and weighing approximately 0.4 oz dried, while mace is the 'lacy' reddish covering of the seed. 

Myristica fragrans grows to about 35 feet high, has a smooth grayish-brown bark, with oblong, dark green, glossy leaves of 4 to 6 inches long.  The small, bell-shaped yellow flowers give off a pleasant aroma.  The fruit is light yellow with red and green markings, resembling an apricot or a large plum.  The outer fleshy covering (which is candied or pickled as snacks in Malaysia) bursts open to reveal the seed. The seed is covered with red membranes called an aril, which is the mace portion of the nutmeg. The nut is then dried for up to 2 months until it rattles inside the shell.  When the aril is fresh it is a brilliant scarlet, when dry it is brittle and yellowish-brown in color. The seed, or nutmeg is firm, fleshy, and white with reddish-brown veins. 

International trade in nutmeg originated with the Arabs, during the middle ages, they sold nutmeg in Venice for very high prices, but would never reveal the exact location of their source. The small Banda Islands in Indonesia were, until the mid-19th century, the world's only source of nutmeg and mace.

The early European spice trade was remarkable for its competitive ferocity. European nations struggled with each other, with deadly consequences, for control of the lucrative Spice Island market. The seemingly insignificant nutmeg was once fought over by Venice, Genoa, the Netherlands, Portugal and England, to the point where the inhabitants of the Banda Islands were wiped out.

European traders were unable to discover the location of nutmeg's source until Portugal sent ships to conquer Malacca in 1511, which at the time was the hub of Asian trade. In November of that year, after having secured Malacca and learning of the Bandas' location, Portugal then sent an expedition of three ships to find them. Malay pilots were either hired or forced to guide the Portuguese to Banda, arriving in early 1512, where they filled their ships with nutmeg, mace, and cloves. However, the Portuguese were not able to control the trade of nutmeg and they continued trading, but without a foothold in the islands themselves.

In 1621, the Dutch waged a bloody war in order to control nutmeg production in the East Indies, including the massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of Banda.  The Banda Islands were then run as a series of plantation estates, with the Dutch sending out annual expeditions to destroy all Myristica fragrans planted elsewhere.  In 1760, the price of nutmeg in London was kept artificially high by the Dutch who voluntarily burned full warehouses of nutmegs in Amsterdam. 

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the English took temporary control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch and transplanted Myristica fragrans to their own colonial holdings in Zanzibar and Grenada, where it became the national symbol and is proudly emblazoned on the country's flag. The Dutch continued to hold control of Banda until World War II. 

In eailier history, Roman author Pliny speaks of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors in the first century A.D. In the the sixth century, nutmegs were brought by Arab merchants to Constantinople. In the 12th century, Emperor Henry VI had the streets of Rome fumigated with nutmegs before his coronation. And nutmeg is one of the ingredients of a magical perfume described in 'The Key of Solomon the King.' The Arabs themselves used nutmeg as an aphrodisiac as well as to treat digestive problems. In India it was used to treat asthma and heart problems, and is still used as a sedative.

A legend states that the nutmeg's musky scent is so overpowering when ripe, that it causes birds of paradise to fall to the ground. Nutmeg was believed to possess magical properties and is still used throughout Great Britain as a lucky charm. The belief that carrying nutmeg in the pocket could cure various complaints has been recorded from various parts of that country. In Yorkshire it was thought to relieve rheumatism, in Lincolnshire it was used to cure backache and in Devon it was eaten to clear up boils. It was also believed to be a lucky charm for gamblers. In The Colbert Report's 2008 Christmas special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All," recording artist John Legend, sings about how much he loves nutmeg, in his eggnog.
Nutmeg was once used for disorders related to the nervous and digestive systems and in Elizabethan times, it was believed to ward off the plague. This caused it's popularity and price to increase to where just a few nutmegs could secure someone financial independence for life.

Used in small dosages nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea.   But in large doses, raw nutmeg has psychoactive effects.  It's intoxicating properties are very well known, but it has never been a significant psychoactive substance due to its very uncomfortable side effects. 

Common effects include an excited and confused state with headaches, nausea and dizziness, dry mouth, bloodshot eyes and memory disturbances. That's the good part, the other effects are visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations, sudden and uncontrollable convulsive attacks, delusions, paranoia, vomiting and seizures. These effects and after-effects will last for several days. Some people have also experienced abnormal personality changes, abdominal spasms, insomnia, gagging, sensations of hot and cold, and blurred visions after taking a high dosage of nutmeg.

Because nutmeg intoxication takes four to six hours before maximum effect is reached many people risk poisoning themselves by taking more, thinking they did not take enough initially.  Nutmeg poisoning is characterized by nausea, vomiting, collapse, tachycardia, dizziness, anxiety, headache, double vision, hallucinations and irrational behavior, all requiring medical treatment.  Abnormal heart rhythm, dehydration, skin irritations and fever could also appear as other side effects.

Despite this, it has been used on occasion, by prisoners and soldiers, when other substances were unavailable or unaffordable. In 1946, before his conversion to Islam, Malcolm X used nutmeg while in jail when his supplies of marijuana ran out. The high which this spice produces is not taken as a pleasant experience by everyone. Most dislike ingesting it mainly because of its horrid taste.

In cooking, nutmeg goes great with many foods including leafy green vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and cabbage. It is also great on custards, eggs, cheese, fruits, pasta, potatoes, rice, sausages, squashes, lamb, and veal.   Mace and nutmeg are very similar, though many people differ as to whether one is more potent in flavor than the other.  Both spices are strongly aromatic, resinous and warm in taste. Mace is a lighter color and can be used in light-colored dishes where the darker flecks of nutmeg would be undesirable. Some beverages improve with a little mace, especially chocolate drinks and tropical punches. 

Nutmeg quickly loses its fragrance when ground; so grating only what you need to use from a whole nut is recommended. It's freshness can be maintained longer if stored in an airtight container. Keep away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. These elements hasten the loss of flavor and aroma. Avoid storing over the stove, dishwasher, sink or near a window. Nutmeg should not be stored in the freezer. Freezing does not extend the shelf life of regularly used dried spices. If stored in the freezer, and repeatedly removed for use, condensation will form in the container and accelerate loss of flavor and aroma.

Second-rate nutmegs are used for the oil, which is used in the perfume, food, and pharmaceutical  industries. The oil can be colorless or light yellow, and is used as a natural food flavouring in baked goods, syrups, beverages, and sweets. It is also used in toothpaste, and as a major ingredient in some cough syrups. Broken nutmegs that have been infested by pests are referred to as BWP grade (broken, wormy and punky). BWP grade nutmegs must be used only for distillation of oil of nutmeg and extraction of nutmeg oleoresin. However, sometimes they are ground and sold illegally.  For the very real danger of molds on BWP nuts, consumers should buy their nutmegs whole and grind it themselves.

Myristica fragrans prefers the rich volcanic soils and hot, humid conditions of the tropics. Plenty of water in a well-drained soil, along with a constant temperature above 55F is needed along with protection from dry conditions, direct sun, strong winds and pollution.

Grafting is the preferred method of propagation since Myristica fragrans is dioecious, meaning there are female and male plants. Both are required for fertilization, the optimum situation for production being one male for every ten females.  There is no method of determining the plant's sex before it's eighth year, and propagation by seedlings will yield 50% males, which are unproductive.  Myristica fragrans does not bloom until it's ninth year, and reaches its full potential after 20 years. It continues to produce fruit for up to seventy-five years without attention.  And one hundred pounds of nutmeg will produce only one pound of mace.

Resources include: 

Wikipedia Home cooking
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
Rajib Singha
Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages
The Epicentre
Trade Winds Fruit
Yamasaki Plant Photo Gallery

Friday, November 4, 2011

Leaves Of Three, Let It Be - Toxicodendron radicans - Poison Ivy

Toxicodendron radicans - Poison Ivy, also know as Rhus radicans or Rhus toxicodendron, is a poisonous North American plant that is well known for its production of urushiol, a clear liquid compound found within the sap of the plant that causes an itching rash in most people who touch it.  The plant is not a true ivy (Hedera).

Toxicodendron is from the Latin toxicum, 'poison', and the Greek dendron, 'tree'; hence "poison tree". Rhus may come from the Greek reo, meaning 'to flow' indicating the spreading nature of the plant. Radicans is from the Latin for radiating, thus a plant with radiating stems which will form additional roots.

The leaves are alternate and compound, with three pointed leaflets; the middle leaflet has a much longer stem than the two side ones, often the two side leaflets appear stem-less.  The stems will sometimes appear to be 'hairy,' but not always.  Sometimes there will be only a few rootlets appearing on the stems.

The leaflet edges can be smooth, toothed or sometimes lobed, they can vary from stiff and leathery to thin, and from hairy beneath to no hairs at all.  The leaves vary greatly in size, from 0.31" to 2.16" in length.  They are sometimes reddish and glossy when they emerge in the spring, turn a dull green during the summer, and become various shades of yellow, orange or red in the autumn. 

 Flowers are yellowish to greenish in color and grow in small branching clusters in the axils (where the leaf stem joins the main branch).  The flowers are approximately 1/8 inch in diameter, and bloom from May through July.  They are whitish, with a waxy look. Poison ivy fruit matures from August through October.  They form in a cluster of smooth, round berries of approximately 3/16 inch in diameter. They are pale green to grayish white in color with a waxy look.

There are a lot of myths about Poison Ivy, and I hope to dispel most of those for you. So, here are some good solid facts to help if you should ever come into contact with it.
  • The plant produces Urushiol oil, which is responsible for the rash. Although some people may seem to be immune, 90% of people in the USA are allergic to urushiol oil. Sensitivity to urushiol can develop at any time, the more you are exposed to it, the more likely you will develope an allergic rash. It's just a matter of time.
  • For the first time sufferer, it takes longer for rash to show up, usually in 7 to 10 days.
  • Direct contact is needed to release urushiol oil. However, fire and machinery can cause the oil to become airborne, so stay away from forest fires, direct burning, lawnmowers, and trimmers.
  • Urushiol oil stays active on any surface, including dead plants, for up to 5 years.
  • Solutions or cures for the rash are those that annihilate the urushiol oil.
  • Breaking the blisters does not release and spread urushiol oil, but your wounds can become infected and you may make the scarring worse. In very extreme cases, excessive fluid may need to be withdrawn by a doctor.
  • Rubbing the rash won't spread Poison Ivy to other parts of your body (or to another person). You spread the rash only if urushiol oil has been left on your hands.
  • Although Poison Ivy and Poison Oak have 3 leaves per cluster, so do many other plants. Learning to identify Poison Ivy is important.  
  • It can cause a rash during any season and every part of the plant, including the roots, can cause a rash.
Identification of the plant can seem confusing, but with a little bit of attention, anyone can become a good identifier of poison ivy. Besides, this is one lesson in life that you do want to pay attention to and play on the safe side. Poison Ivy varies in size, shape and color. It can be found growing in any of the following three forms:
  • as a trailing vine that is 4-10 inches tall,
  • as a shrub up to 4 feet tall, and
  • as a climbing vine that grows on trees or some other support.
The woody vine can trail, straggle, or scramble over rocks. It can climb high due to aerial rootlets on its stems. These climbing vines have fibrous, hair like rootlets that attach to tree bark or other objects and look like fuzzy ropes.
My own personal "fast and dirty" method of identifying Poison Ivy is a simple two-step approach (or non-approach as it were).
  1. Check for the three leaves, making sure that the middle leaf has a longer stem than the other two, and
  2. Check if the stems are hairy.
If those two things are present, its a safe bet that you've discovered Poison Ivy. If the stem does not appear hairy, look a little more closely at the plant, if you see ANY aerial rootlets appearing anywhere on any of it's stems, its probably Toxicodendron. I also routinely assume that any vine climbing up a tree is Poison Ivy until I can prove otherwise. 

Poison Ivy climbing on tree and among shrubs
copyright SHD 2011
Methods and treatments for urushiol exposure do vary, but one product that most agree should never be used to treat poison ivy or the resulting rash, is bleach.  Just don't use it. (What's our motto, kiddies?  That's right, Don't Be Stupid.)  You will only make matters worse for yourself.

What you should do, if you know you have come into contact with Poison Ivy, is to rinse the affected area with lots of cold water, like with a garden hose. You have about 20 minues to an hour before the oil bonds with your skin. Do NOT try to rince the urushiol oil off with hot water, you will only cause your pores to open up and the oil will enter your skin faster. (However, if you already have a rash, using hot water can relieve the itching for a while.)

There are lots of over the counter remedies, including special soaps and wipes to wash off the urushiol oil immediately after exposure.  Corticosteroid skin creams or ointments may help reduce inflammation after rash occurs. Always follow the instructions carefully when using these products.  There are lots of other OTCs to relieve the rash, they all seem to work differenty for each individual.  If the rash is extremely bad, or persists longer than a week, you may need to see a doctor. 

Another method to prevent the rash immediately after exposure is to rub juice from the broken stem of jewelweed on the affected area. Plantain species also helps.

Hairy rope? Don't be a dope!
copyright SHD 2011
Poison ivy grows throughout most of North America, including eastern Canadian, all U.S. states east of the Rockies, and in the mountainous areas of Mexico. The first European to describe this plant was Captain John Smith in 1609.  It was he who coined the name "Poison Ivy." Ever since then, there has been confusion regarding this plant and its cousins.  There are no native European Toxicodendron species but, Toxicodendron radicans (Eastern Poison Ivy) was introduced to Europe as an ornamental in the 1600s.

Two different vines...which one is Poison Ivy?
The one on the right.    Copyright SHD 2011
The word Urushiol is derived from 'urushi', a Japanese name for lacquer. The Japanese take the toxic sap from the trunk of the Chinese Lacquer Tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, formerly Rhus verniciflua).  The sap is then filtered, heat-treated, or coloured before applying onto a base material that is to be lacquered. Curing requires "drying" it in a warm, humid closet and takes 12 to 24 hours where the urushiol polymerizes to form a clear, hard, waterproof surface. Once hardened, reactions are possible but less common.

Usually my last comments are about how to grow a plant, but for this article I'll discuss how it grows and how to eliminate it.   (Unless of course, you are a person who truely wants to grow a poison garden, or are just really sadistic.  Either way, you are on your own with this one.)

Propagation is primarily by rhizome. Leafy shoots are produced at basal stem nodes along the multi-branched rhizomes; on some sites, rhizomes may extend up to 7' beyond the parent plant. As a result of this extensive network of rhizomes, Poison Ivy frequently forms thickets under favorable site conditions. These thickets may represent a single clone or several individuals.

Commercial weed and brush killers have a mixed reputation.  Some people swear by them, others contend that only the leaves are destroyed while the roots remain to regrown later.  Most claim that the only way to get rid of Poison Ivy is to do it the old fashion way, ripping it out by hand.  Of course, you'd need to be completely covered and wearing gloves to keep from being exposed to the oil. 

There are many sites online that give good solid facts about Poison Ivy, and sadly, there are also a lot of badly written articles that seem to have done a lot of cut and paste and no real research.  So, I am going to list a few sites that I felt were worth looking at for more detailed information on Poison Ivy and the treatment of the rash that results from contact with it.  Good luck and stay safe. 

Resources include:

The Poison Garden

Monday, October 24, 2011

A quick visit to the Medicinal Herb Garden at The Cloisters

The medicinal herb garden at The Cloisters in New York City.
Copyright SHD 2011
A cloister (from Latin claustrum, "enclosure") is a rectangular open space surrounded by covered walks or open galleries, with open arcades on the inner side, running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle or garth (yard). The attachment of a cloister to a cathedral or church, commonly against a warm southern flank, usually indicates that it is (or once was) part of a monastic foundation. According to Walter Horn the cloister formed a continuous and solid architectural barrier... "that effectively separates the world of the monks from that of the serfs and workmen, whose lives and works went on outside and around the cloister."

Cloister from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa
The Cloisters, NYC   copyright SHD 2011

The Cloisters museum and gardens in New York City is a branch of the Metropolican Museum of Art, located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan.  

Located in a beautiful four-acre setting overlooking the Hudson River, The Cloisters was assembled from architectural elements from five medieval cloisters that date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century—Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, and Froville—and from other monastic sites located in southern France.
Three of the cloisters feature gardens that were planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals, and medieval works of art such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, and column capitals.

Cloister from Bonnefont-en-Comminges
The Cloisters, NYC copyright SHD 2011
I visited the Cloisters' gardens on September 13, 2011, to check out the plants in their medicinal herb garden.  It is one of the most unique places I've ever experienced, I felt like I'd gone back in time.  It is a marvelous place to visit and wander, very authentic and romantic, if you have even the least bit interest in medieval history, and you can't get to Europe, this is the place to see.

(And don't let the entrance fee of $25 deter you, the Met has a "pay what you can afford" policy.  Plus, entrance into either the Cloisters or The Met, gets you into the other for no extra charge. When I told the staffer that I was unemployed, and offered to pay only five dollars, he suggested that I could pay as little as one dollar.  That helped me even more and allowed me to buy lunch and a few items in the gift shop.)

copyright SHD 2011
Take the A train to 190th street subway station, use  the elevator to reach the surface and then turn to your right (north).  An easy 20 minute walk along a flower strewn path will bring you to the Cloisters, or wait for the M4 bus which lets you off in one stop. 

The walk is worth the effort, as the flowers and plants along the path are all derived from the medieval artworks contained in the Cloisters. Take the path and you will feel like you are beginning your travel back in time, and in a very short while you will come upon the ancient looking Monastery at the top of a hill.

The Cloisters, NYC, copyright SHD 2011
The medicinal herb garden at the Cloisters had many plants familiar to most gardeners and a few that were not so familar.  I will be doing articles on them soon.  One interesting plant that I noticed at the Cloisters was "Pellitory-of-the-Wall" (Parietaria officinalis), also known as Lichwort.  They also had Valerian, Betony, Horehound, Clary Sage, Agrimony, Nightshade, Wormwood and Mandrake.

copyright SHD 2011

Resources include: 
The Cloisters at The Metropolican Museum of Art
Walter Horn, "On the Origins of the Medieval Cloister"

Sunday, September 18, 2011


An eventful week with a trip to NYC, the dentist, and the final trip to the garden.

9/11 Memorial, NYC                                                               copyright SHD 2011

I was in New York City on Tuesday, Sept 13, 2011, to visit the 9/11 Memorial.  The fountains were open for viewing, the other buildings were not completed. 

Memorial Plaza, NYC                                                             copyright SHD 2011

The Memorial Plaza surrounding the fountains were lined with more than 400 young swamp white oak trees.   The trees were selected and harvested from within a 500-mile radius of the World Trade Center site, with additional trees coming from locations in the Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., areas that were impacted on September 11, 2001.

The Survivor Tree, Memorial Plaza, NYC
copyright SHD 2011
But the star attaction was the "Survivor Tree."  The callery pear tree became known as the Survivor Tree after sustaining extensive damage, but living through the destruction of the twin towers on September 11, 2001.

I had a little time to stop in Central Park and check out the Conservatory Garden and also visited the Cloisters, where I viewed their medieval herb garden. They had nightshade, mandrake, wormwood, and much more. The place was lovely and I'll talk about that more in a future post.

On Thursday my wallet and I both suffered through a root canal, and on Friday I finished cleaning out the garden, digging up the plants I wanted to keep and take home, including the spilanthes, patchouli, and lamb's ear.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Best Laid Plans...

...Often go awry....

Okay, so July it was the humidity that damaged the garden.  August had back to back thunderstorms and then hurricane Irene finished the month off with a real big bang....Oh! And then the earthquake for good measure! Jeese, how could I forget that?

Most of the herbs survived fine, but all the other plants were turned to mush.  LOL  Ah, well.  So it goes....

Now, early September, and I must clean out the garden before the 19th.  They are closing early because the park where we are situated will be getting some renovations done during the coming year. 

Some of the things I learned from the garden this season?  Well, I will definitely go with a smaller space next year. This 30'x30' area was fun, but it was too much for one person to handle, even when I was able to get there 3 to 4 times a week. 

What will I do next?  Plan much farther ahead.  I saw what things worked well and what did only so-so.  I will plan next year accordingly.  I am also looking into a different community garden.

I will be digging up a few items to take home, the Lamb's Ear, Stevia, Rue, Spiderwort, Blue Verbena, Patchouli, St. John's Wort, Artichoke (which did well, but never produced a flower), Spilanthes (Tooth-ache Plant, which is doing splendidly and is simply a lovely plant), and not much else.  The Wolf's Bane all died away, sorry to say. 

I was not able to visit any herb gardens or arboretums this summer due to all the extreme weather. I am planning to take some time over the next few months to hit a few places and I will take photos. 

I have one visit already planned, On September 13th, I will be going to  New York City to see the 9/11 Memorial.  I got tickets!  If you are interested in going, the tickets are free and you can get them here.  I will check what they did with the landscaping and make a report. 

I will also be visiting a few other gardens in NYC, one is The Cloisters Museum and Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

The Cloisters is a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Just the place for the aspiring herb gardener to check out exactly what types of herbs a witch might have grown way back when.  They also have a terrific Blog called "The Medieval Garden Enclosed."

And of course, Central Park, where I always stop by Strawberry Fields to pay my respects to John.

Also in Central Park is The Arthur Ross Pinetum, a four-acre landscape that features 17 different species of pine trees, as well as an Azalea Pond, Conservatory Garden, the Dene and the Gill, a great Naturalist's Walk, the Olmsted Flower Bed, and the Shakespeare Garden.   

 And last, but not least, there is Steve Brill, the "Wildman of New York." Steve is an environmental educator who gives tours and presentations in Central Park (and elsewhere) that feature a great diversity and abundance of seasonal edible and medicinal wild plants and mushrooms.  Gotta see this guy! Can't wait.