The Herbal Consumer

Experience & Experiment: Summertime and Enjoying Herbs

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HerbalConsumer-PNG-8-SmallPart of being a consumer is trying out new and different products on the market. When you’re an herbal consumer, that can extend to using those products for some DIY projects. Since herbal products originate with plants, the summer growing season can be a good time to experiment. This post will be a little different than that usual information packed article. Instead I’m sharing what I’ll be trying out this summer in the hopes that it will encourage you to be a little adventurous too.

If you’re even a little bit of a gardener, late spring is exciting. Outside the window, brown and gray is replaced with green and all the colors of everything in bloom. It also means that if you’re interested in growing your own herbs for either cooking or medicinal use, it’s time to get moving. Growing your own is a great way to experiment and also learn more first-hand about the herb.

Strawberry mint

Strawberry mint safely planted in its pot

I’ve visited one of my favorite nurseries twice so far this season and ended up walking away with something I had no inkling of getting when I walked in the store. Apparently my weakness this year is herbs that smell really good. I’ve had enough experience with mint to know how incredibly invasive it is. I laugh to myself whenever I see the plants for sale, pitying the poor soul who plants it thinking it will play nice. I never thought I would ever buy mint, and yet . . .wow, did that strawberry mint smell good! I stared at the mint while the back-and-forth arguments took place in my head. One more swipe of my hand across the foliage to smell that delicious scent and a compromise was reached. I would buy it as long as it was planted in a pot.

Lemon verbena - the summer Romeo

Lemon verbena – the summer Romeo

Lemon verbena is new to me but it also seduced me. I knew nothing about it other than the information included on the small stake stuck inside the pot. How big would it get? Up to four feet. Is it a perennial? Not in this area. That means a one season commitment – a typical summer romance.  That minty lemon scent was so wonderful. The lady who cashed me out said that when these plants came in, she bought one for herself and one for each of her sisters. Apparently lemon verbena is quite the Romeo.

My main reason for buying these plants is to use the leaves to make chilled, flavored water for the hot summer days. Cucumber and strawberry mint water – mmmmm! We’ve never made it before and it’s pretty easy to do. Add plants to water and soak (technically macerate). I can grow them in my little garden without pesticides and have them fresh and ready right in my backyard. If you don’t have room for a little garden, you can try containers on a patio, deck, driveway or in a sunny window inside. Once these plants get a bit bigger, my experimenting will begin.

While I’m waiting on that, the other herbs I have in my garden this season so far are:

  • Oregano – Yummy minced up in scrambled eggs.
  • Thyme – I made a light cream sauce with onion, garlic and thyme recently – so good! One of my favorite culinary herbs.
  • Basil – Caprese salad – enough said.
  • Rosemary – I use this more over winter, but the time to grow it is now. It stored really well for me last winter wrapped in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag and kept in the fridge.
  • Fennel – Another one I use in the late fall and winter. The seeds make a great digestive tea for after the big holiday meals. I just learned this spring that fennel is a biennial when my plant didn’t come up again. Thankfully it self-seeded in a couple of other spots. First-hand learning!
The very healthy plantain that's in my garden

The very healthy plantain that’s in my garden

Another one of my summer experiments I am working on is making a plantain salve. Not the banana-like fruit but the common weed found just about everywhere – yards, side of the road, landscape beds, sidewalk cracks, etc. The binomial name for the broad leaf one is Plantago major and for the narrow leaf one is Plantago lanceolata. Either can be used, but I have a big beautiful broad leaf one that planted itself in my little garden, so that’s what I’m using. I’m making the salve because the plant is great for dealing with bee stings and mosquito bites. I know this from first-hand learning. It draws out the bee venom /mosquito saliva so there’s no pain, no itch as long as you get in on the area before the venom/saliva is absorbed too much and goes to work. I recently came across a recipe for plantain salve and thought how great it would be to have it on hand ready to go vs. searching for a leaf and having to manually hold it on the skin.

Now, this process is more work than the flavored water, but it contains only three ingredients. Currently I’m drying the leaves (ingredient #1) that will then go into a jar with some oil (ingredient #2) to steep for a couple of weeks. After that, I’ll combine it with some beeswax (ingredient #3) and then I’ll have my salve. The recipe I’m using is from Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide.

Speaking of mosquitos, I read an online article recently about using lemon essential oil to help repel these pests. Many people are concerned about West Nile Virus, EEE virus and now the Zika virus and essential oils (EOs) are relatively easy to use. What the article didn’t mention was that certain EOs, including lemon, can cause a photosensitive/phototoxic reaction. Articles that don’t include this information are doing a real disservice to consumers. The reaction occurs when the oil is applied to the skin and then the skin is exposed to UV rays (i.e. sunlight). The reaction can be anywhere from reddened inflamed skin to blisters. For some of these oils, including lemon, it depends on how they were created (distilled or cold-expeller pressed) as to whether they are photosensitive/phototoxic or not. For more information on phototoxocity, check out this aromaweb.com page or this National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy page.

That all being said, EOs are easy to use once you know the guidelines and can be used in many different ways. (Check out past The Herbal Consumer posts on EOs, parts one, two and three.) My summer experiment with EOs will be mixing them in with an unscented body wash. I’m consulting my books for not only the potential aromatherapy benefits, but also the skin care benefits of different oils. There’s something about summer that makes you want to play around with fragrance. That’s probably why I recently pulled out my diffuser, put a few drops of lemongrass and geranium in and turned it on. Ahh . . . loved it! It’s a pretty easy way to make the house smell good without the use of those scented aerosol sprays that only end up irritating my nasal passages.

As you can see, I’m not going whole hog trying to do everything herbal. I’m fitting things in where they make sense for me, where they’re fun and where I will realistically use them. I also picked things that are easy. Easy suits me, especially in summer. What helps too is having good resources to learn and pull from such as Rosemary Gladstar’s book I mentioned before, and:

If you’re someone who likes to read during the summer, start your herb book collection or check out your local library for books about herbs. If you’re not sure where to start, Mountain Rose Herbs has their list of books they recommend. There are also plenty of books out there about cooking with herbs. There’s still plenty of time to experiment this summer, or it might give you a head start on planning for next season.