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Thursday, May 5, 2016

The magic of herbs

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's the time of year when gardens dry up and new fruits are scarce.

Drier seasons and the natural order of things brings an end to the growing season. Other than pulling unsightly plants, this is a good time to collect herbs and vegetables to store for the winter.

While reading one of my favorite folklore books, I stumbled across some interesting facts and histories regarding some of my favorite herbs: Rosemary, thyme, mint and basil.

Though pungent, the scents and aromas of fresh herbs are delightful to the senses. My wife and I use fresh herbs in our cooking as much as we can, and if you have seen me, you know that we cook often.

Often mentioned in texts as old as the Bible, herbs have been used for hundreds of thousands of years for a multitude of reasons. The many varieties of mint have long been valued for medicinal, culinary and aromatics.

We know from classical mythology that Pluto was in love with a nymph named Mintha, and that Pluto's jealous wife turned her into the mint plant whose beauty still attracts through fragrances.

In the New Testament of the Holy Bible, it is said that some gave "tithes of mint."

In Elizabethan times, people would strew mint on the floor for its pleasant aroma and in Ireland, spearmint was sprinkled in beds to get rid of fleas.

It is believed that mint mixed with a bath is soothing and relaxes sore muscles. Ancient hunters used mint to mask their own scent or the scent of previously caught animals from their traps.

Sage is considered the herb of Zeus and has always been used in the seasoning of meals. It is believed to help the brain, promote longevity, strengthen the liver and was once used as a failed cure for the plague. The Iroquois Indians used sage for colic, colds and rheumatism.

Thyme is the herb of Venus and mars and is a symbol of strength. During the Middle Ages, ladies gave their knights sprigs of thyme to increase their strength in battle. In addition, young girls believed that a sprig of thyme under their beds would give them dreams disclosing the men they would marry.

"Rosemary, that's for remembrance," Shakespeare's Ophelia said.

Also a symbol of fidelity and friendship, it was once used commonly in funeral wreaths and weddings. In the past, Grecian students would wear rosemary in their hair to help them remember. Rosemary also was strewn around a home to help keep out moths and other undesirables. I have read that rosemary will only grow for the righteous or where a woman is the head of the household. I have a beautiful and thriving rosemary plant that is two years old. Now that I think about it, my wife did tell me where I was allowed to plant it. Hmm.

Did I mention that legend has it that rosemary will only grow the number of years that Christ was alive, will not grow taller than Christ's height and that after 33 years, the plant will only increase in breadth?

Because of the many beliefs regarding remembrance, rosemary is also believed to cure all ailments of the brain and it was/is used by the bald to grow hair.

Basil, on the other hand, while a favorite in cooking, is an emblem of hatred in Greece and is supposed to be the propagator of scorpions and the antidote to their stings. Smelling basil is said to cure headaches. The Romans believed that the only way for basil to flourish is to curse at the basil while planting it. In contrast, in Africa, it was believed that smelling basil would grow scorpions in the brain. It is interesting that basil would have connections to scorpions in two places so far removed thousands of years ago.

Though herbs are primarily a cooking additive for me, I do enjoy drying my herbs even if I never use them once dried. I dry most of my herbs on my porch and I have noticed that I do not have much of a problem with mosquitoes or flies where my herbs are drying.

The herbs mentioned have been grown, harvested, used and stored for thousands of years. The lore and superstition surrounding plants is humorous yet insightful as well.