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Forgotten herb: mugwort

Oh wow, that’s a terrible name. This herb could be the cure for cancer (unlikely, but follow me here), and everyone would overlook it because it’s called mugwort. In the plant world, you’ve got to be in some serious purgatory to be slapped with a name like mugwort…or…that’s how we’d see it now. In ancient times, names were pretty practical.

Let’s break it down

Mug. Ok, what’s that supposed to mean? Like you can put it in a mug. Yep, now I’m catching up. So, like, you can make tea with mugwort. Yes! Women used it to ease the symptoms of menstruation and menopause. Ancient wisdom says mugwort tea relaxes you and alleviates stomach aches. Another popular use was as a flavoring for beer before the widespread use of hops. Beer…mug.

In fact, with the growing popularity of homebrewing and foraging, mugwort beer is making a comeback. Here’s a simple recipe that uses dried mugwort leaves in Mugwort Lemon Beer, originally published by Grow Forage Cook Ferment.

Not to mislead you, it’s not what we think of as beer. This is a fermented, bubbly beverage, but it’s not made with hops. Instead, mugwort gives the drink herby, woody, slightly bitter notes.

Does that mean the “wort” part is like “wart”? Probably not. Mugwort is medicinal, but it’s more likely to be blended into a balm to relive itching than into a wort cream. Wort is probably just a derivation of the Old English word for “root”, which seems plausible given that the German word for root is Wurzel.

People argue that a tonic made with the root gives you energy. I find that confusing given the same online research claims a tea made from the dry leaves provides calming, anxiety-relief. Lots of potential avenues for study here.

Where do I find mugwort?

Practically everywhere. And, if you are familiar with the herb, you’ll recognize it in every season. It was once a medicinal, cooking and brewing herb, which means everyone grew it. It spreads easily, which made the plant an invasive weed in most parts of the world.

Mugwort is all around you, and yet, it is almost invisible to most people. Mugwort hides in plain sight. Here’s a strip of mugwort growing wild around the edges of forest and field. It looks like a green divider through the center of this photo. You’ve seen it a million times but did you ever notice it?

During warm months, you’ll see lots of adorable baby mugwort just beginning to sprout. You can wack one of those things 20 times with your lawnmower, and it will just shrug it off and keep on growing. Joke’s on you cause the roots get stronger. Maybe that’s why there are rumors that travelers and wary soldiers wore mugwort in their belts and shoes.

I took Chicago’s Orange line from the loop to Midway last Autumn and took a picture of mugwort growing along the railroad tracks.

My neighbor shouldn’t mind too much that I walked over to the edge of his yard and captured this late-season mugwort in it’s golden-brown glory.

Photographic proof that mugwort is all around us. It begs the question: why don’t we use this herb anymore? Well, supply is not an issue. Plentiful would be an understatement. There’s just no demand for mugwort.

Lack of interest

My best guesses: the flavor is unusual (Strike one) and the name is weird (Strike two). One possible problem, there is no popular dip made with mugwort. Who are we kidding? People love dips. If you don’t use an herb to flavor a salsa, shellfish or chip dip, the marketing department just isn’t going to call.

Tough to put that in a recipe, isn’t it? Imagine trying to impress your friends with a recipe that calls for delicious lemon, fresh thyme, smooth cream and…and…something weird called mugwort. Try telling your 14 year old that you’re baking some chicken and mugwort. Let me know what sort of a look she gives you.

Like a book judged by its cover, or wine judged by its label, the herb mugwort is judged by its awful name. Perhaps I can start a petition to change the common nickname of Artemisia vulgaris? Ugh, (eye roll) even its Latin name sounds like a venereal disease.

Let’s brainstorm

What would be a better name than mugwort?

Have you smelled or tasted mugwort? It’s in the lavender range but less floral and more woody. How about holinwood? A quick internet search tells me that’s not taken. It seems appropriate as the herb is a cousin to wormwood, a potent ingredient in absinthe.

I admit holinwood doesn’t have the same ring as sage, cilantro or dill, but it’s got a certain acceptable herbal masculinity. Too masculine? I mean, cilantro is kind of masculine, and it’s popular.

Herb of legend

There are all kinds of legends about mugwort. I mentioned travelers and soldiers carrying the leaves with them, which may have been for strength, as the internet suggests, or for the pleasant scent and use as an evening tea. Jury’s out until St. John the Baptist or a Roman soldier confirm their association with the herb.

Mugwort has a darker reputation…as an allergen. Some quick search engine checks show me that lots of people search for “mugwort allergy”. Strike three! I skimmed some academic articles on the subject. Mugwort pollen gives people hay fever. Guilty as charged.

Actually, it’s even darker. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive, avoid ingesting mugwort. While it is difficult to study, legend and academic literature agree that mugwort is too risky for pregnant women.

What do we know for sure?

There’s a bunch of other stuff on the internet about mugwort legends. It’s an ancient herb with a rich history. You can do a quick search if interested. It’s highly repetitive, and it looks like every blogger who ever wrote about mugwort just copies these legends from the same places.

There’s no way to verify whether this stuff is true or some writer (me) made up a new common name for mugwort (holinwood) and then it became internet fact.

What I will share with you, is info I know for a fact. Herbal fans like to stuff dried mugwort leaves into dream pillows. Fact.

I first heard about mugwort at a yard walk housewarming party (read about yard walks here). Our hostess suggested making dream pillows full of dried mugwort leaves, which she loves. I can see how this practice came about, the scent is like a woodier, calming lavender. Some people describe it as a sage-mint, which is close, but it’s not as potent as mint. Maybe mugwort smells 80% like a medicinal sage and 20% like mint.

The small, handmade pillow is a little bigger than a pouch and is supposed to bring you vivid dreams. I’m not so convinced, but wouldn’t it be fun to try? Please leave a comment if you had a vivid, PG-rated dream because of mugwort.

She’s a keeper

My family and I attended a rehearsal lunch for a cousin who got married last year. It was October in New England, and the dads took three of the flower girls outside to play in the gardens around the restaurant.

The little girls picked the stems of long weeds growing along the banks of a creek, a favorite habitat for mugwort. They danced with them, dipped them in puddles and used them as brushes to write their names on the pavement.

I walked outside and just blurted out, “oh, it’s mugwort. Hey, girls, crush one of the leaves and tell me what you think about the smell.”

One of the dads said, “mugwort?” And I told them all about how it used to be used to brew a beer. Someone mentioned I’d be useful post-apocalypse. I get that a lot. And someone else shouted to my husband, “she’s a keeper!”

Consult the history books

Here’s the really good stuff. I saved the best for last.

Who can resist info I found about mugwort in really old books. Emphasize O-L-D. What I love about Google Books is that they scan pages as they appear with yellowed pages and historic font. Reading tip: the second “s” in a word looks more like an “f” to modern eyes.

Nicholas Culpeper mentions mugwort at least five times in this manual for midwives published in 1676, two decades after his death. Mugwort teas and tonics were thought to help expel the afterbirth, among other uses. But, wow, Culpeper gives his readers terrible advice about bleeding people and giving them toxic mercury: absolutely the wrong things to do. Do not go near mercury.

I love this Gardener’s Dictionary from 1768. The tag line is “Containing the best and newest methods.” The latest and greatest straight out of the 18th century! I guess we can’t chuckle too much, considering that mugwort is now almost forgotten, and we don’t even mention it in gardening books anymore.

Samuel F. Gray offers some brief notes about mugwort and its relatives in this manual from 1821. Common mugwort is on page 449.

The practical, everyday advice in these books drives home the point that everyone used this herb all the time, and then somehow knowledge of mugwort just faded away.

To combat that knowledge loss, the next time you see something that might be mugwort, would you just pick some leaves, crush them in your hand and rediscover the fresh scent?

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Forgotten herb: balsam apple

balsam apple pods in my hands

A funny thing happened on the way to the drug store…ah, this is so me. We were on vacation in the Florida Keys, and I took a short walk across the street to pick up a few things at the drug store. I stopped to admire a pretty bush with silvery leaves, and something bright caught my eye. A neon orange, spikey fruit called the balsam apple dangling from a vine. I had to know more.

Bright orange balsam apple hanging from vine. Poisonous

When I came back from my walk, I searched the web for more info. Then, I went back to the bush and collected samples of the vine, fruits and seeds. You don’t think the drugstore would mind that I borrowed their weeds, do you? I had so many questions. What are the uses? Is it native to the US? How did it get there? Is it historic?

The scientific name is Momordica balsamina. That is only important if you feel compelled to buy seeds. It’s not an apple, and you don’t make balsamic vinegar from it. If you grew up in Asia or Africa, you might know this herb or one of its close cousins, like the bitter melon. It is used as a herb or a vegetable in some Asian and African nations, but balsam apple is pretty much unknown in the US.

It is historic though, even in the US. Thomas Jefferson grew balsam apples at his experimental garden at Monticello. I’ve read a few books about that garden. In addition to eating the leaves and unripened pods, our ancestors used balsam apple to treat wounds. Sadly, most of the knowledge about how to use it to treat wounds has been lost to time. The former president was a big fan of flowering vines, but the plant is not native to the US. It is believed to have originated in Africa.

Little yellow flowers of balsam apple

Unique look

Balsam apples are so ugly, they’re beautiful. The vine is long and straggly. The balsam apples themselves begin life as adorable little yellow flowers, which become lumpy, warty green fruits. If left to ripen, the green fruits turn neon orange and squishy. When they open, there are three rows of sticky, wax-covered red seeds inside. You can see some of the sticky wax on my fingers in this photo.

red wax covered seeds of the balsam apple

How to use a balsam apple

Young, green fruits and leaves can been eaten raw, stewed or fried. While I wouldn’t recommend eating random vines you find growing on the side of parking lots, I did taste the leaves. They’re bitter. Really bitter. Even though I enjoy strong flavors, I am not so sure about eating any quantity of balsam apple raw. And there are some warnings

Do not ever eat the seeds or the ripe, orange fruit. It is poisonous and can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Avoid ingesting balsam apple if you are pregnant, for fear of causing miscarriage. That really freaks me out. I would avoid balsam apples and bitter melons entirely if I were pregnant or planning to be pregnant.

Ashley at My Heart Beets wrote a funny post and recipe for the cousin of the balsam apple (even though she refers to bitter melon as balsam apple, it isn’t, but they’re close). She compares the flavor of bitter melon to a potent beer.

However, this recipe for Cassava root and balsam apple sounds pretty intriguing. Here, the leaves are used as an herb to flavor the dish than as the bitter, pungent star of the meal.

balsam apple pods in my hands

Should I sell balsam apple at my farm stand?

Referring back to the whole concept of farmstand culture, if you have a farm stand that serves people from Africa or Asia, especially India, China, Mozambique, Nepal, or Vietnam, you might consider growing balsam apple or bitter melon. Start asking your neighbors if they would be interested in this mostly forgotten herb.

When they’re in stock, you can snag a pack of seeds here. Once you grow the balsam apple vine, you should be able to harvest plenty of seeds for future plantings and never need to buy seeds again.

Considering its strongly bitter flavor, balsam apple would be a tough sell to people who did not grow up with the herb, like most Americans. It will attract a ton of attention, but you’ll have to do a ton of educating. You could try one of my recommendations to increase your farm stand income and pair a small pint of green balsam apples with a recipe. Your patrons will need more information and ideas.

Remember, once ripe, the orange balsam apples are dangerous and should never be sold. If you don’t harvest them when they are very young and green, do not sell the fruit to your farm stand patrons. I would include a warning about the risk of miscarriage, which is likely a big buzz kill for your farm stand customers.

The plant is pretty prolific. You should get a lot of unripe, green balsam apples from each vine, and, but be careful, as the residents of South Florida have discovered, the plant can become a bit invasive. It’s not hard to weed out; it’s a pretty simple vine. I’d say, oh I don’t know, chives are a much bigger problem if they go to seed.

An introduction to balsam apples, a cousin of bitter melon, that grows wild in warm, tropical climates. Balsam apples were popular a US President grew them in his garden...but are now mostly forgotten.

Future of balsam apples

Once a featured conversation-starter in a president’s garden, balsam apples now grow in complete anonymity in the bushes along the drugstore parking lot. It is a rare and fascinating herb. One that deserves more study. What properties made it so attractive to our ancestors to use to treat wounds? The true benefits and risks of balsam apple vines remain mostly a mystery.

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Balsam apple opening sticky red seeds
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Forgotten herb: sorrel

Sorrel comes in a bunch of different varieties. I grow French sorrel in my garden. Wild sorrel grows in the woods and along parking lots throughout the US and Europe. My French and English friends might be surprised that I’m writing about sorrel in a  forgotten herb series. They haven’t forgotten it. Americans have.

close enough pronunciation “sore-uhl”

french sorrel

We imported it in earnest in the 1700s and forgot about it entirely sometime in the 1900s. Hey, it’s ok. A 200-year run is longer than I will have.

One of my favorite gardening moments happened last year when a friend from my kid’s preschool pulled into my yard in her Tesla. She saw me in the garden and decided to stop by. She spent a few minutes asking me to identify plants for her. You know I loved it! Then without me saying a word, she gasped, “Oh sorrel! I haven’t seen it since I was a kid in Belgium.” I told her she could have some anytime.

Americans are surrounded by wild-growing sorrel, but most of us never even notice it. Although, Google Trends tells me there is a slow, steady increase happening in the number of searches for “sorrel”. I mean slow increase though. We’re in year eight, still going.

Again, Vermont leads the States in searches for a forgotten herb. Number two by the skin of their teeth is Utah. Why Utah? Someone from Utah please tell me why your people are searching for sorrel. By the way, if you do just a few more googles in Utah, you’ll bump Vermont down to #2. Just letting you know.


Sorrel in the wild

You probably crushed some sorrel by accident the last time you went on a hike. It grows wild almost everywhere in the US. I never suggest you eat anything growing wild. It’s  dangerous, especially if you haven’t taken classes or become an expert at identifying wild plants. However, if you were an expert plant identifier and lost in the forest, you could survive on sorrel for awhile; then, you’d get kidney stones from all the oxalic acid.

But, on the bright side, you’d bunk scurvy because one cup of sorrel has more Vitamin C than an orange. It might be even healthier than a cup of kale. I don’t know. We can debate it.

Eating sorrel

Sorrel is delicious as a fresh, green bed for steamed white fish. In fact, my number one recommendation for cooking with sorrel is to use it fresh, wash it and lay it down under a steaming, hot piece of seasoned white fish. Do not steam the sorrel. It doesn’t really hold up well when cooked. It’s better with a raw crispness to it.

My second favorite way to eat sorrel is just straight from the garden. The tart leaves bring a burst of flavor to salads. It would be delicious used as an accent herb in a coleslaw.

Online (or in France) you’ll see sorrel cooked into a soup or a sauce. It’s just good, not great made into a soup. Je suis desolee. It gets a little slimy when heated. I have not tried it chopped into an herbed butter, but I think I’d like that better.

It tastes sour, which shouldn’t become a craving, but I crave the flavor of sorrel. I get my quick fixes with common wood sorrel that you may recognize from a crack in the sidewalk nearest you. Wood sorrel grows everywhere, but please don’t ever eat anything you are unsure of or haven’t researched extensively. Wood sorrel looks like other plants that will at least give you a stomach ache.

Wood sorrel growing in my garden

Sometimes on the internet, I see the taste of sorrel described as citrus. Oooh, that’s not exactly accurate. What they probably mean is that it is a bit tart. There is a sour, lemon-like quality. But if you are expecting an orange or grapefruit flavor when you bite into sorrel, you’ll be disappointed. It’s more like a slightly unripe kumquat.

Why I grow sorrel

I started growing French sorrel in my garden because I read about it in old gardening books. Apparently, our great-great grandparents would be surprised we go our whole lives without eating sorrel in the States. Of course, our great-great grandparents likely had accents from places that did and do still eat sorrel regularly.

My favorite thing about this rich, green plant is that it is the first arrival in my garden in the Spring. Its green shoots give me Spring fever every year, and I just can’t wait to get into the garden and start planting some more.

I’m in Zone 6a. The internet tells me sorrel is only a perennial up to Zone 5. Since my sorrel grows right through the snow in March, I wonder if it doesn’t push that zone a little more. Would someone in a lower zone please weigh in on that?

Blood-veined sorrel is really beautiful.

I grow this French sorrel in my backyard garden. It’s low maintenance for sure!

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I did not know people did this. What is a yard walk?

Little kid walking on a trail in the woods

I wish I knew sooner about yard walks. It never even occurred to me that people did this, but when I did, I loved it.

Now, I owe my friend, Kaye, for introducing me to yard walks.

YARD WALK: a stroll around your own backyard with an expert in identifying herbs (and other plants), who can tell you the story behind the herb. Is it is medicinal, edible, toxic, native, invasive, infamous, or forgotten? It’s a good time. You should organize a party around it. 

Kaye bought a new house last year. Instead of inviting us to a pretty traditional housewarming and touring everyone through all the rooms on the inside of the house, she made her first get-together about the outdoors. Most of us can relate to her feelings about indoor tours causing too much pressure to paint and clean and unpack. Most of us have said, “Oh you gotta see the new place. Some time, when it’s ready, I’ll have you over.”  Instead of procrastinating and pretending like she would ever feel ready for a full-blown housewarming party, Kaye invited us to a yard walk at the new place.

There are so many interesting ‘weeds’ in your yard. If you don’t have a yard, there are interesting wild things growing in your flower pots, at the park down the street or between the cracks in your sidewalk.

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An experienced yard walker can stand in one spot and point to 12 different plants around you, identify them and tell their stories. Are they native plants or stowaways from some long-ago ship voyage? Can you eat them? Are they poisonous? Are they medicine? What did people do with them 200 years ago? Did we forget about them?

In 45 minutes of walking Kaye’s yard, I learned (and retained) as much as I have in some college courses. It reframed the way I looked at my own yard…


Ok, that’s not my yard.  It’s Torrey Pines in San Diego. But it’s such a nice view. More about that later.

Many of us are looking for easy ways to connect with others, to spend time with friends or invest time in forming new friendships. We come up with ideas like bookclubs, guys nights out or cookie swaps. I recommend you add hosting a yard walking party to that list of ideas for get-togethers. Even if you or your friends are not nature buffs, it is an experience. It’s empowering to learn how to look at something that’s been hiding in plain sight your entire life and identify it.


The everyday weed in this photo is mullein. Up until the last 100 years, the leaves were brewed into a tea for sore throats. (Full disclosure, I did not see this one on Kaye’s yard walk, but I have some in my own yard.)

Problem: it’s not exactly like yard walkers advertise like lawyers. You won’t see their photo on the side of a city bus.

If you have a local university, botanical or garden center, that would be a good place to start. Many local agencies have departments that study native or invasive plants and may offer you some resources. Try the American Herblists Guild membership lists. They might not exactly have what you need, which is more like a wild plant ranger. You can do an online search for “wild herb walks” or “herblists” near you.

If you are lucky enough to have a nature center near you, they may offer foraging hikes or woodland discovery tours that are in the same spirit of a yard walk but lack some of the personal connection. I mean few things are as personal as getting acquainted with the hundreds of plant species growing in your own backyard or on your block.

Would you help me brainstorm other places to find experienced yard and herb walk guides?

Hey you. Me?

Yes, you, the person reading this article. If you can think of additional resources or you’ve been on an herbal or yard walk, please add a comments about it.

For the do-it-yourselfers, there are field guides you can buy. Peterson’s are popular, but I found myself squinting at some of the sketches not really sure if I was looking at an invasive or a native. Please don’t ever eat wild plants you are unsure of or if you don’t know whether they might be sprayed with pesticides.

When I was at Torrey Pines getting that photo pictured earlier, my family and I hiked the cliffs along the shore. While we were passing through the trails, I spotted some native wild sage. Not only could I identify it on sight, my proud mama moment was when my six year old spotted it and yelled, “Sage!”

Come on. How is that real life? But it was. Well done, kid.


If you want to learn more, visit my on-going series about forgotten herbs.


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Queen Anne’s Lace: Both Royal Diva and Outlaw

A beautiful article from The Herb Society of America about a pretty herb that most people probably overlook. Add some Queen Anne’s Lace to any flower arrangement. Snap the stem and breathe in the delicate scent of wild carrot, a cousin to the bigger roots you might eat with humus.

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Forgotten herb: chicory

Wild chicory blue flowers wildflowers

Imagine it is April 24, 1862.

You live in New Orleans, Louisiana, and set out on a beautiful Thursday morning to go pick up a copy of the local newspaper.

If you are a lover of fine hot beverages, you were about to have a really disappointing day. In fact, the day’s headlines likely made you think, “Oh darlin, we may never taste coffee again.” (You have to read it with a Southern accent.)

Oh well, you knew this day would come. There were Union blockades of the shores all around the south. You heard the bombs and gunfire, but on that day in April, the boys in blue were more than near your shoreline. They had captured the city, and no more coffee was getting through those lines.

If you’re an optimist, your second thought would be, “I’m going to find an alternative.”

Allow me to reintroduce you to chicory.

Unlike some of the less-invasive forgotten herbs, you’ve probably been around chicory your whole life without really noticing it. Do these little blue flowers look familiar?


Chicory is not native to the US. If you lived in Europe or with someone who did, you might already know all about using chicory in coffee. One of my French roommates absolutely craved it. It was in her blood as the French have a long history with chicory coffee, too. They also experienced a war-time blockade that pushed them toward the need for an alternative hot beverage.

To be fair, there are other varieties of chicory, most of which you might have know as different types of endive or Italian dandelions. Their roots can be roasted into coffee alternatives as well.

Even though Europeans introduced chicory seeds to the US during colonial times, the nation-wide spreading of the wildflower is a direct result of the American Civil War negatively affecting the availability of tea and coffee in the divided country.

Back in the day, the plant was widely cultivated in private gardens. When it was mature, the root was dug up, roasted and ground into a brewed hot drink, an alternative to coffee. It’s not really a thing of the past. Some Americans still prefer the flavor of coffee blended with roasted chicory root. Je te regard…I’m looking at you, Café du Monde.

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Chicory is not a wildflower at all. It’s an escaped prisoner. Much like my experience cultivating chives, chicory was just not well-behaved. It busted out of our ancestors’ garden centuries ago and now stretches its roots along highways and roadsides in pretty much every city in the US.

One more thing, that might just split the audience here…chicory is caffeine free.

Chicory wildflower blue flower blooms

I hope you enjoy these articles.

You can read about more forgotten herbs in the on-going series.

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Forgotten herb: calendula

Weird name. Amazing herb.

Close enough pronounciation “ca-len-juh-la” (how a “d” makes a “j” sound in English, I suppose it’s my Connecticut accent.)

calendula colander.JPG

Calendula is the weirdest looking seed I plant in my garden. Really, it looks like something from an alien nation. It’s mildly spikey and curved, almost in an arrogant way. It grows easily and goes to seed easily, if you don’t harvest the blooms.

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Planting is easy. I just mix the seed lightly into turned soil with my hand, and it fills my cedar raised bed with bright yellow flowers.


When your flowers are almost fully open, it is time to harvest. If it rained recently or the petals still have morning dew on them, take a photo but don’t start your harvest. It pays to wait until the sun dries off any dampness. The blooms snap off the stems easily. You can layer your plantings a bit and gather them by hand almost all season from summer to fall. Consider getting yourself an airy and convenient basket for harvest time.

I don’t eat my calendula with the exception of a little petal here and there. They have a bitter taste.

In terms of other uses, I am not sure why would you need to do this, but Dr. Weil notes that you can mix white rice and calendula flowers together to color the rice without adding flavor. Someday, I may suggest that to my kids as a fun and interesting STEM experiment.

My favorite use for calendula isn’t making a stunning bouquet, although you could. I like to infuse olive oil with a bunch of dried calendula flowers. Then, I can add the infusion add it to salves. Salves are just heavy, solid lotions that are intended to be soothing to the skin or to wounds.

Not one to waste something so precious, I like the idea of chopping up those oil-soaked petals and mixing them into homemade soaps. Do not compost them. You shouldn’t compost oil or oil-infused herbs. Your bin will stink.

How do you dry calendula flowers? It doesn’t take much effort.

Oh, I know the internet will tell you to separate out the blooms on an old screen in a dry, dark place between two elevated stands. But I’ll tell you that during our BIG reno last year, I put my calendula flowers on a paper towel on top of our refrigerator. How’d it go? Just fine. I must have left them up there for a month or two, and dutifully, they dried out. I will likely include some in a salt or sugar scrub for beauty’s sake.

calendula marble2

I should confess that my husband is 6’3″ tall. He could see the top of our old fridge and was not a fan of my messy flower drying station. Everyone else was oblivious.

About the scent, I am almost at a loss for words to describe it. Calendula is only lightly floral. It’s about 5% tangy, 5% medicinal, 60% fresh, 20% floral and 10% other. Mainly, I would describe calendula as a fresh scent. It’s not earthy. It’s more like the woods after a rain shower.

My calendula bed went above and beyond this year, producing three harvests. I only actually reseeded it once during the mid-summer season.  Calendula is so easy. It is one of the best students in my garden class. I feel like I ask calendula nicely to keep producing blooms, and it does its best to comply.

Calendula is such a happy flower. As you go about your day today, from time-to-time think back to this joyful bloom.


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Return to the Forgotten Herbs series.

Find out what borage is.

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Forgotten herb: clary sage

A year one clary sage plant growing in my organic backyard garden

There can only be one reason we forgot about clary sage: modern pharmaceuticals.

close enough pronunciation “clare-E  sayjuh”

Clary sage was THE go-to herb for our female ancestors to reduce the monthly discomfort of menstruation cycles. Your great-grandmother probably looked forward to the relief of a cup of brewed clary sage tea as she busied around the house.

But, we still forgot an herb that half of our ancestors likely used on a monthly basis.

The scent is like a deeper, more woody lavender. In soaps, lotions and diffusers, clary sage smells great blended with lemon or black pepper.

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Don’t get me wrong. It is not a ladies-only herb.

You can use clary sage in recipes like its cousin, garden sage, the better-known complement to pork and risotto dishes. The famous herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, wrote about using wild English clary to flavor beer and wine in 1653.

clary seedling.JPG

I grew my clary sage from seed within a raised garden bed, which actually seems almost cruel. The plant stretches its stems like arms with big, leafy hands. As my clary sage grows, it seems to try to escape the confines of the bed.

It is a really beautiful plant. If you like big, broad leaves with interesting texture, you should consider growing this in your garden. The leaves have a soft kale-like appearance, and the stems are a rich, deep rose-purple. Clary sage can even join your regular landscaping. It is a biannual in most parts of the US and would be beautiful along a walkway or mixed in between grasses.

clary up close2.JPG

Over the years, I developed an appreciation, maybe almost a preference for biannual plants. There is something special about a plant that only appears for two years and reinvents itself each time it greets the growing season.

In year one, you can expect your clary sage to feature stunning wide leaves. In year two, it will flower as long as it’s in a sunny location. If you let it go to seed, it will pretty much reward you with a life-time supply.

clary plant

Culpeper had some unusual ideas about clary seeds. Unlike him, I do not recommend putting them in your eyes. Given my past experiences, I think it would be much better to clip the towers of flowers and tuck them into a vase for a powerful floral and herbal display.

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Forgotten herb: Nasturtiums

Close-enough pronunciation: “Nah-stir-shums”

Spicy little things and tough too.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you have heard of this one. It probably puts you in the 1% of Americans who have, but it’s not completely erased from memory.

And now, some actual statistics. According to Google Trends (as of September 2018), you are most likely to have searched for nasturtiums if you live in…Alaska! Fascinating.

Nasturtiums are most popular in Alaska and Maine according to Google Trends
Nasturtiums receive the most searches in Alaska (source: September 2018)

It does require a little patience to grow nasturtiums. I don’t often see them at nurseries. They don’t transplant well, but it will save you time and money to grow nasturtiums yourself from seeds. I buy one cheap packet of seeds every Spring and place them all over my yard.

As long as you are patient with the little sprouts, nasturtiums grow well from seed, which might mean getting your hands dirty. But, if you are willing to plant them yourself, you will save a bundle over buying seedlings. You do need some patience. The seedlings are straggly for a little while.

Nast leaf.JPG

When they finally mature and start to bloom, the flowers are abundant. The colors are absolutely bright and brilliant. Keep scrolling for a stunning display of the wide variety of nasturtium colors you can find online.

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You can eat the flowers and the leaves. The flavor is spicy. They make beautiful butters and add a peppery bite to salads. The leaves and flowers can be brewed into tea. Peppery tea. I think I’d have fun mixing fresh nasturtium tea with complementary flavors, like lemon, orange and lavender.

One of the best characteristics is the sturdiness of the flowers. These blooms might look like tissue paper, but they are surprisingly long-lasting in an arrangement.

For the perfect impression and an affordable alternative to orchids, pick a bowl full of nasturtiums and place one bloom on each plate just before your guests arrive for brunch. You can use the leaves as garnish for hors d’oeuvres and platters.

My grandmother, Peg (born 1929), loved nasturtiums. Her sons could identify the plants on sight. Proof positive that we only started to forget this herb recently.

I was on vacation when she passed away in 2016. In my grief and the confusion to pack up and get home asap, I forgot to send flowers to the funeral home. I had a wonderful grandmother who adored her flower gardens, and I…forgot…to…send…flowers…to…her…funeral. Ouch.

It’s not that there weren’t any flowers there. My parents and relatives ordered beautiful, big arrangements with sashes on them: Mother, Grandmother, Aunt, Sister. But, when I arrived at the wake and realized there was nothing from me to her, I felt hollow.

The afternoon before her funeral, I was wandering through the garden in search of some peace and calm. It was mid-August. My nasturtium vines were covered in blooms. What a saving grace.

I picked about 20 flowers and honored Gram’s Irish heritage with a beautifully-simple, hand-gathered arrangement: one big lime-green hydrangea circled by orange and white nasturtium flowers.

Thanks to for letting me take photos of her beautiful variegated nasturtiums for this article.


As promised, here’s a display of some of the stunning colors in the nasturtium rainbow.

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View the whole forgotten herb series.