Sunday, April 29, 2012

Herb of the Week - Galium

Herb of the Week - Galium

Cleavers, Galium aparine
Cleavers, Galium aparine
"Galium? What kind of herb is galium?" you say. Well, galium isn't just one herb. It is a whole group of herbs or rather a whole genus of plants. Rather than just picking out one of the herbs in that group, I'll cover a couple in that group since they all make me think of spring.

I have three galiums growing at my place right now:

  • Cleavers, Galium aparine
  • Northern Bedstraw, Galium boreale
  • Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum

Cleavers (Galium aparine)

Cleavers. Wow, what can I say? It is a very prolific weed at my house. Yes, I said "weed." Ok, it's an herb too. But since I can pick it by the bushel-full out of every flower garden I have, it is a weed as well as an herb in my book. Herb-wise it is often used for its diuretic properties. I know more than one "pee tea" that includes this herb into its mix. Like many herbs, cleavers have a long list of herbal medicine uses beyond its use as a diuretic. Read more about the herbal medicine uses here.

In the days before frappuccinos, our coffee-loving ancestors tried to turn everything into a flavorful beverage. Sometimes they succeeded. Cleavers seed can be roasted and brewed for an excellent coffee substitute. Cleavers are reported to be edible, though I would think that I would find the prickly nature of them quite unpalatable.

Northern Bed Straw (Galium boreale)

Northern Bedstraw, Galium boreale
Northern Bedstraw, Galium boreale
While northern bedstraw blooms much later in the year here, it sprouts and grows very well in the spring time. Though it looks quite a bit like a smaller, darker green version of its very aggressive cousin cleavers, bedstraw is a kinder and more polite plant. It doesn't sprawl through every garden. It grows in small clumps or patches. Bedstraw, both the plant and the seeds, don't "velcro" onto your clothes or pets' fur like cleavers do. Personal experience here - picking cleaver seed out of either is no fun! Cleavers have inconspicuous flowers but not so with northern bedstraw. Mid to late summer it gets airy clouds of tiny white blooms which are very pretty in a fairy garden sort of way.

In an herbal-sense it can be used for a number of medicinal and utilitarian purposes though not as many as its clingy cousin. Northern bedstraw is reported to be edible as well. See here for the list its uses and edibility.

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)

Sweet woodruff is a well-known and pretty spring bloomer. If you have a shady location that you want filled with a herbaceous groundcover, sweet woodruff is a good plant to consider. Though take care it is not a woodland you are introducing it to. This plant is native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, not North America. Introduced, alien plants can be a problem unless controlled. I have a fir tree in our yard underplanted with sweet woodruff. It keeps to the ring of shade that the tree provides and is completely controllable that way.

Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum
Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum
One of the common names of this plant is said to be "master of the woods" which is a translation from the German name, Waldmeister. [Source] Whether that name is in reference to its ability to spread wildly through a woodland or that the Germans used it to flavor all manner of things from wine (the famous Maiwein or "May Wine") to beer to sausages and more, I'm not sure. Perhaps, the name is in reference to both! I have had May Wine. It is very tasty white wine and a perfect way to celebrate the coming of Spring and May Day.

Sweet woodruff also has a number of medicinal uses but care must be taken in using it since the plant contains coumarins which can interact with various medications and health conditions. It can also be used for dyes and strewing. Read more here about this herb's uses.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wild Strawberries in Bloom

Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana
The inches of snow that fell this week did little to stop the march of Spring. The wild strawberries here, as well as my cultivated varieties, are in full bloom. Wild strawberry plants and flowers - as well as the very fine fruit are quite diminutive compared to the cultivated varieties. But fruit? Pure ambrosia. Even the best cultivated varieties pale in comparison.

Here are a few of the wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) blooming here at this time. Be sure to note the flowers are nearly the same height as the leaves. This is one of the identifying characteristics of the more common wild strawberry or Virginia Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana. The other wild strawberry species that is also native throughout much of the United States and Canada is the Woodland Strawberry,  Fragaria vesca. The flowers of that species are held much higher above the leaves. The fruits of both species also have other identifying characteristics - but those pictures will have to come later! Enjoy these pictures of spring!

Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana


Don't know how to identify wild strawberries at all? 

The short video included below will show you the key characteristics to look for. They are probably growing closer than you thought!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spring Snows

Snow and ice covered crabapple
A month ago when we experienced a week of unusual warmth (70's & 80's), many cheered. I didn't. Don't get me wrong - the warmth and sun were enjoyable. But I feared what the unseasonable warmth would do. That sort of warmth would awaken plants far too early if cold and snow were yet to come to Western New York State. And experience said it would.

We had inches of heavy, wet snow fall over night and into today. Schools closed. Some lost power. And certainly the fruit producers of this region groaned a little more as they saw more unfavorable conditions when many fruit trees and strawberries are in full bloom. Cold temperatures damaging plants and blooms not to mention keeping the pollinators away.

I know I'm not expecting much from my strawberries that were all in bloom. Maybe the few everbearers I have since they'll push more blooms, but not the June-bearers. I guess we'll just have to see what we can see.

Included with this article are two pictures I snapped of two of my trees in flower, covered in snow. These are pretty pictures. But what I didn't include pictures of are the trees, bushes, and green plants bent or broken under the weight of the snow. I'll have to see how they look when the snow melts.

"Cherry Ice" - kwanzan cherry blooms under snow

Friday, April 20, 2012

Herb of the Week - Dandelion

Dandelion Flower

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Few things herald the coming of spring more than the dandelion. While those wishing their lawns to be a monoculture of green revile it, I cheer its arrival. The bright yellow of their blooms is a welcome sight after the long drab months of winter.

Our ancestors cheered it as well. That is why the dandelion traveled to all the corners of the globe with them. It is a hardy and robust plant - ask those that try to remove it from their lawns. But more than that, it was a plant of great nutrition and medicine sprouting up in the Spring when it was most needed for the cupboards had gotten quite bare in the long, cold winter.

Dandelion leaves have a host of vitamins and minerals including: Folate, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Copper, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Iron, Potassium and Manganese. [Source]

More than just nutritious, the dandelion offers us a number of pleasing beverages. The roots can be roasted and ground for a fine coffee substitute - with no caffeine! The flowers, roots, and leaves can be used to make a pleasing tea. But probably the most famous beverage is dandelion wine made from the flowers. The wine recipe is quite simple. But speaking from personal experience, it is a hard one to master!
Dandelion Leaves & Buds

Dandelion, the root especially, is commonly used in a variety of herbal remedies. Two of its most well known uses are as a cholagogue and as a diuretic. For more on the traditional medicinal uses of dandelion please see the Plants For a Future or the Modern Herbal entries on dandelion.

The plant also has provided great amusement for untold generations of children of all ages - who can resist scattering the seeds of the dandelion blow ball when the plant has gone to seed? I seem to also recall having read a long time ago in a book of old-timey amusements that the hollow stem dipped into soapy water could be used to blow bubbles. I think I'll pass on that one. The bitter sap would be a definite turn-off!

Finally one thought to leave you with, the history behind the name "dandelion." It is from the French phrase, dent-de-lion, meaning "lion's tooth" - which is certainly in reference to the toothed leaves. Our springtime friend the dandelion has not only the ruffled yellow mane of the lion, it has its teeth as well!


Native Medicinal Plant - Bloodroot
Except in the most extreme conditions our planet has to offer, plant life is all around us. From the tiniest plants underfoot to the giant trees towering overhead, they are there. Silently there. They are our green neighbors - and what good neighbors they are. They ask for nothing but to co-exist alongside of us in peace. In return, they give us life - they give us the oxygen we breathe, the foods we eat, medicines to heal our bodies, and the materials to clothe ourselves and to build homes.

Our Green Neighbors will be a place to find information about plants. It will range over quite a variety of topics: herbs, native plants, stewardship, gardening, seed saving, heirloom varieties, recipes, tips, photos, ethnobotany, and more. 

Our Green Neighbors will also have a weekly feature: Herb of the Week. That feature will include information and photos of a chosen herb. What is an "herb" you say? For purposes of Our Green Neighbors, it is a "useful" plant. In other words, it is a plant that can be used for a culinary purpose, medicine, color, aroma, and any number of utilitarian purposes. 

So visit often to learn about the kindly green neighbors just outside your door!