Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Medicinals and Super Foods

These days the line between food and medicine at our house has grown so blurry that we're not sure which is which anymore.  When we get sick or tired, or have indigestion, the very first thought to enter our minds is, "I wonder what I'm not getting in my diet that I need."  So we brainstorm, hit the herbals, the internet, and then the garden.  And if we don't have it we order some seeds.  And if we can't grow it, because our soil is wrong, or we live in the wrong climate, we look for an alternative that we can grow.  There is no need to order fancy medicinals and super foods from the other side of the world.  That commerce didn't exist when we all naturalized in different areas and climates spanning the globe for tens of thousands of years.  What we need is generally right around us, but we're lucky these days, because we now benefit from the knowledge of various medicine cultures all over the planet, and throughout history, and we can buy those seed stocks, and work them into our food and medicine systems at home.  Several of the herbs in this article are not native to North America, but they grow well here, so we can benefit from them and their healing powers in a future that is reliant on different kinds of medicine and food production systems.  Please allow me to introduce you to some new superstars in our garden.  Some of you will no doubt be growing these already, but if I can turn you on to a great new medicinal food plant or two that'll make my day.

This is a famous plant in the South but today hardly anyone recognizes it.  Hint: the root was ground up and used as a substitute for coffee during the Civil War when Union forces cut off the Confederacy's coffee.  We may have to use it for that purpose again one day, although not for the same reason.  It's chicory (Chicorium intybus), and it has many more uses than stretching coffee.  C. intybus var. sativum is the specific plant grown for that purposes; the one above is grown specifically for its leaf.  It's a close relative of our native dandelion, and serves many of the same soil structuring purposes, which we've discussed in previous posts.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a more mineral dense addition to salads, though you'll want to use it in small doses as it's fairly bitter.  I also chop some up to include in meat pies.  Even without human uses, it's a world-class livestock forage, particularly for rabbits, and an ecological superstar in the garden.

If you can grow lavender I hope you are.  Few plants serve more functions than this one.  There are 39 species of this mint family plant, and one of them is likely to grow in your climate and soil type.  We use it in calming teas, scald it in milk to make wonderful aromatic scones, it's one of the four herbal ingredients in our popular medicinal cream, we sell sprigs of it at the farmers market, scent drawers of clothes with it, it attracts a variety of pollinators, and is absolutely stunning in the garden with its silvery foliage and bright purple blossoms.  I could go on for a while about lavender but I won't.  I shouldn't have to.  This plant is a giant in the botanical world, and a must-have for anyone taking responsibility for their health back from the sick care system that plagues the industrial world.

This is another new crop for us - turmeric, the yellow part of Indian curry.  I planted it because we have a decent Indian population in our town and I thought I could sell it to them at the market along with ginger, and a colorful variety of eggplants for their cuisine.  But as with so many plants, once you start studying its nature it pops out from the crowd as a medicinal superfood extraordinaire.  Reading the Wiki page on turmeric I started wondering if I had accidentally slipped into the page for bamboo, there were so many uses for it!  It needs heat and it needs moisture, but if you have those two things, please grow some.  Physically it pairs well with the strawberries growing in the same bed, but we'll see if there are any cultural conflicts. 

This is a dynamite new shrub in my repertoire.  It's pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) and it is as low maintenance as it is beautiful.  It can reach 20 ft tall, but takes really well to pruning so put it where you want a large shrub with cinnamon bark and silvery leaves, and trim it to fit your ideas.  The flower petals are reported to taste like cinnamon cotton candy.  The fruits are plum shaped and unique - I've even heard someone say they taste like Juicy Fruit gum, and can be used in myriad ways, particularly in tropical-flavored recipes.  The fruit is rich in Vitamin C, good for eyes and heart, skin and hair, and as with most mineral dense foods, useful against cancers of the digestive system like stomach, prostate, and colon cancers.  Migratory birds absolutely love it.

At some point kale has to stop being considered a new food plant, but in the South we're just introducing it to people who cut their teeth (and probably the inside of their mouths) on collard greens.  Vitamin and mineral density galore, both the Tuscan (Dinosaur) and Red Russian varieties I grew this year have done amazingly well.  They can produce their bounty straight through winter in our zone 8b climate with a light row cover, and then keep on trucking right through summer too!  Just mind-boggling!  Here it is Fourth of July weekend and I've just recently added a little composted cow manure and fresh straw to recharge the patch because we've harvested so dang much food from these plants.  I keep expecting them to cash it in in the stifling heat of a south Georgia summer, but noooo, not kale, it just keeps on happily producing handfuls of superfood-quality leaves through triple digit dog days.  And they are beautiful bluish plants too!

Lemongrass is also enjoying its rookie season at Small Batch.  Talk about robust.  Like turmeric, it takes a while to get going, waiting for some summer heat to drive its engine, but it is highly prized in southeast Asian cuisines, particularly Thai.  With a unique lemony flavor that can't really be replicated by limes or lemons, it is thought to be an effective medicinal herb for fighting colds, flus, and even some cancers.  Totally care-free too, as far as I can tell.

There are three herbs in this photo - Blessed thistle at the top, skullcap to the right, and valerian to the left.  I want to focus on valerian.  Valium is derived from valerian, so right away you can see that it is a respected herb in the West for its sedative and anxiolytic properties.  The ancients called it "All-heal"and its specific epithet is officinalis (Valeriana officinalis), so right away we know it was a highly respected "official" or "noble" medicine far back into history.  Unfortunately, and ironically, because of the respect it has garnered from allopathic medicine, many medicinal descriptions of valerian are garbled with reductionist, isolationist thinking.  Botanical sources change course here, and talk about its value as a nurse plant, improving the health of anything it is planted next to, and how its small blue flowers attract plenty of pollinators, which I think might be terribly useful in a future more focused on holistic health of both garden and gardener.  We will definitely be expanding its range in our garden.

The next two species are hibiscus family plants.  This one is Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which I didn't know existed before this spring.  Some gardening friends gave me a start and it seems to be robust and thriving.  It's another long hot season plant, like turmeric and lemongrass, and this one is as multi-functional as any.  It gets about 6' tall, has beautiful dark rosy red flowers with a fleshy calyx that is made into a variety of beverages all over the world's tropical and subtropical regions, both soft and hard, and a unique delicious jelly.  The plants are rich in anthocyanins and flavonoids, and the seeds are a good source of lipid-soluble antioxidants.  As with any hibiscus, roselle flowers attract a suite of specific  pollinators, and the green leaves are main ingredients in some regional curries.  This is a top shelf medicinal food plant that will become a staple in our production system.  (And now I'm going to go have a piece of toast with that delicious roselle jelly...) 

Alright I'm back. Yum!  Glad I got that education in roselle!!  On the left mound in this shot is  roselle's second cousin okra, the staple of the South, and while I'm sure there is much more to learn about okra's potential as a medicinal superfood, this picture has been included solely for the purposes of comparison with the lead photo from my last post.  What a difference two weeks can make!

Here's a good example of running into a need for a plant and going out to get it.  This is a young witch hazel transplant that seems to be settling in just fine.  Life on the farm has demanded a variety of herbal sprays from us at times, like fly spray for the dairy cow and horse, etc, and we typically use witch hazel solutions as a carrier.  So let's grow it!  Lacking a steady supply of confidence in long range, high energy supply chains, we leave nothing up to chance.  Now we just need to build a little still to extract the witch hazel essence.  And we won't use it for any other purpose...I promise;)

Not everything in the garden has a direct human purpose.  The sage-looking bush to the left is Buddleja, a fantastic butterfly attractor (which of course benefits the rest of the garden), and the plant front and center is blue salvia.  Amazing flowers and the ruby-throated hummingbirds around here just love it.  I would be OK with hummingbirds in the garden even if they served no ecological purpose.  But then, that's not how this works, is it?