Friday, May 24, 2013

Know Your Herbs?

Today's Know Your Herbs is a bit different. Instead of giving you one herb to identify, I'm giving you two. More than that, I'm giving you two that look very similar when coming up in the spring. (To get a closer look at the details of these plants, be sure to click on the images for the full sized image.) I specifically took the photos where both plants were similar in size and didn't have last year's stalks in view giving you other clues as to the identification.

These plants are both medicinal herbs native to the North Eastern United States. The shoots of one of these herbs can be eaten if prepared correctly. The other is toxic and no amount of cooking will change that. This is a wonderful example of why you must be able to correctly identify not only a plant but any possible look-a-likes before ever harvesting a single leaf.

Think you know what these are? Check your answer here.

Herb #1

Herb #2

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Spring Blooms - Eastern Redbud Tree

A favorite spring tree of mine is the native eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). It is a spring blooming small tree that creates clouds of pink pea-like blooms.  The tree has a pleasing shape with a round or flat-topped crown which lends that shape to its cloud-like appearance of pink blooms.

I urge you to consider this beautiful, care-free tree in your landscaping plans. To learn more about the tree and its needs, see one of the following:

USDA Plant Guide or USDA Fact Sheet
Missouri Botanical Garden
Wild Flower Center

And for an always fascinating read, be sure to read the Plants for a Future entry on the redbud. Did you know that the flowers are edible? (I can attest to that since I've nibbled the blooms on hikes.) And did you know, that like so many of our native plants, there are herbal uses of the redbud? Read the PFAF entry for more!

To help showcase its appeal, here are some photos of the redbud in bloom:

Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis
Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis

Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis
Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis - blooms sprout from the trunk and branches

Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis, at Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic Labyrinth
The eastern redbud (seen left) is a beautiful specimen tree for your landscape. 
It is seen here in the plantings around the Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic's 
labyrinth gardens.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Just Take a Breath

Dame's Rocket  (Hesperis matronalis)
Dame's Rocket
While you can certainly use tripods in your botanical photo taking, I find that lugging the extra equipment around and then setting it up destroys the ability to capture the essence of simple beauty and the sincerity of the moment that Mother Nature presented to us. All my nature photography is done without tripods and without "gardening" or otherwise setting up the shot. I take the shots as I find them for I believe that Mother Nature has the best eye for photo composition.

But since all the shots are taken by hand, it requires more - if you'll excuse the pun - focus put into each shot otherwise the result is a fuzzy mess. To do this, isn't hard and it starts with a simple breath. Take a breath and hold it for just the moment it takes for you to snap the picture. Amazingly in that held moment, you become so mindfully aware of your body and its every motion. It is a moment of mindful meditation where you become more aware of the tiniest of details - things that are often below your threshold of awareness. And in that attentiveness, you become still and you become very focused. So with breath held, body stilled, and your attention sharpened, you look to your subject and gently press the camera's button.

Give it a try. What moments of gentle beauty can you capture?

To inspire you, I captured the shot above and the couple below on a ten minute walk this morning...

Apple blossoms (I love the blush of pink)

Banded snail on dandelions
Banded snail on dandelions

Wild grape - new foliage
New foliage and flower clusters on wild grape

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Herb of the Week: Asparagus

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
Like so many of our food plants and culinary herbs, asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a plant that offers us something for our dinner plate as well as being an herb with medicinal uses. It is the earliest cultivated food item that I harvest each spring. Surely our ancestors appreciated that and it may be part of the reason why this plant has been harvested for more than 5,000 years.

Yesterday I harvested the first asparagus of the season. They are so good and so fresh, I always munch a few spears before I even get the bag to the house. Because this early vegetable is so tasty and so nutritious, rather than speak of the medicinal or other herbal qualities of this plant or the other species in the Asparagus genus*, I will share a simple recipe that I'm sure you will love as much as I:

Grilled Asparagus

Fresh asparagus spears
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
  1. Wash and drain asparagus well. Snap tough ends off.
  2. Preheat broiler or grill - this recipe will work with either method. I usually do them under the broiler. 
  3. Arrange on a sheet pan in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil (approx. 1-2 tbsp. for 1 lb. bunch). Roll spears around to coat evenly with oil. 
  4. Sprinkle with sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste.
  5. Put pan under the broiler or lay spears directly on your grill. Cook until bright green and done to your preference. Flip half way through cooking. 
  6. Optional: Use other seasonings for different tastes - lemon pepper, garlic salt, etc.
This recipe is naturally gluten free, lactose free, and vegan.

* There are other edible and medical members of the Asparagus genus. To learn more about them, search for "asparagus" at Plants for a Future Database.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Herb of the Week: Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)
Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

Few things say Thanksgiving more than cranberries but they are good for more than a turkey dinner side-dish. Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a low-growing, native North American plant. While it doesn't require a bog to grow, it like its sister the blueberry, loves acid-rich soil and needs to be well-watered.

The cranberry's fruit is a powerful antioxidant as well as having nutritional benefits like vitamin c. (Read this article for more on the fruit's phytochemical benefits.) When I was growing up and there was mild urinary complaints in the house, cranberry juice was one of the home remedies we always tried. Studies seem to be inconclusive and contradictory whether or not the juice is effective for such complaints. But either way, it tastes good and is healthy! The leaves of the cranberry as well as the fruit can be used for herbal purposes. (Read more about the medicinal uses of the cranberry here.)

If you have the right conditions, look to add this native plant to your own home and gardens.

Herb of the Week Redux

When I launched this site I truly intended to have a new "Herb of the Week" feature each week. I started off with good intentions but found life got too busy to write the mini-monographs I was doing each week. I even have the next article partially drafted but it has been in that state for months - too many months.

So rather than abandon the feature, I will relaunch it with a different format. The feature will include photos and some brief info, links, or just my experiences with the plant - a teaser, to you dear reader, to learn more about the plant. I hope you enjoy the new format and articles!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Teaching Plant

Photo of Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) plant.
Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
A reoccurring theme in the plant and garden forums I regularly frequent is parents that suddenly become concerned about the toxic plants in their yards and gardens. If you are one of them, I do applaud your concern, but I am sorry to say that there are many toxic plants that share the world with you. There may be ones in your yard, your gardens, the wild spaces around you, the parks you visit and more. And those plants were also in the lawns and gardens of your parents and you have grown to a healthy adulthood in spite of them! Just breathe. Relax. And read on.  

So what is a parent to do? When my own children were tiny toddlers, I did not turn them loose outside unsupervised. I stayed with them, played with them, and taught them. Not only did I protect them from the dangers beyond just poisonous plants that could present themselves to such tiny ones, I developed a much closer bond with my children. What parent wouldn't want that?

As they grew older, more teaching crept in. One of the very first outdoor lessons was plant safety. At the time, bittersweet nightshade grew everywhere at our place. Rather than go crazy trying to obliterate every trace of this toxic plant, as some parents in the forums I read would do, I took an alternate approach. I showed my children the plant with its brilliant red and rather appetizing looking berries. I explained that not all wild plants and berries were edible. In fact, some could make you sick and some could kill you. Their eyes grew big as that thought settled into their brains. The thought scared them - as well it should. I must say, I am not prone to exaggerating or "candy-coating" anything - my children learned that young. If I said it, I meant it and they believed it. They still do. 

So, what did I do next? I taught them how to identify this plant by its distinctive leaves, clusters of fruit, and purple blooms with yellow stamens. They could identify the plant at our home as well as at the parks and hiking trails we visited - places where I certainly could not obliterate every toxic plant that existed! I gave them power over this toxic plant. Further more, I also taught my children to never taste any unknown plant or fruits. They were to treat those plants and fruits as poisonous for they very well might be -- just like that nightshade they learned so well. They were only to eat wild plants and fruits if an adult they trusted (I can't stress how key this is) told them the plant or fruit was safe.
Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) berries
Bittersweet berries

In time and with age, they joined me in picking wild berries, wild herbs, and food from our gardens and u-pick farms. They learned how to identify those plants, when it was ripe, and what parts are usable. When I was absolutely sure they could ID those with no error, they began to pick their own without my direct supervision. My youngest loves picking wild blackcap raspberries, strawberries, and mulberries. Summer is his time for he is a huge berry lover. These skills will stay with them the rest of their lives and I am sure will pass to the next generation.

So my advice? Shield and protect closely when children are too young to accept safety lessons by staying with them outdoors. As they get older, teach them how to be safe rather than trying to "bubble wrap" their world. The lessons will serve them the rest of their life in your yard and way beyond it. That said, I strongly advise you do some research into the ornamental plants you want to add to your gardens. You may wish to avoid highly toxic plants like castor beans and monkshood until your children are much older.  Or avoid them completely if poisonous plants give you pause.

Enjoy your gardens, enjoy your children, and enjoy the living world we are part of!

Be sure to learn more about bittersweet nightshade at the Poison Garden website:

Friday, April 19, 2013

Laughing in Flowers

If the Earth laughs in flowers, then spring must be quite the season of giggles and belly-laughs!

Some of my favorite flowers, such as violets, bloom this time of the year. Violets are one of my oldest and dearest favorites. I have very fond memories of them even as a young child. Some think of them as weeds - which is quite impossible to my way of thinking! Here are a couple of snaps of a few of my violets in bloom at the moment.

Viola odorata 'Rosina'

Viola odorata "Rosina"

A wild growing Viola sp. in my lawn (perhaps another Viola odorata)

Photo of a wild Viola sp.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Get Down Onto Your Belly

Photo: Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
The biggest tip I could give people for taking good plant pictures (other than buying a good camera to start with!) is get low, real low. Get down to the plant's level to take your photo. Sometimes in the case of tiny plants like wintergreen, it means you are at least kneeling or even on your belly to take the shot. The lovely part of getting down to take this picture was the soft and incredibly carpet-like nature of the moss bed in this beech grove (visible in this shot).

Monday, March 18, 2013

I Go to Nature to Be Soothed and Healed

Barnes Creek, Canandaigua, NY in Winter
Barnes Creek, Canandaigua, New York

"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses
put in order." 

John Burroughs, (American Essayist and Naturalist, 1837-1921)

If you are like me in that you retreat to Nature for solace and healing, you will want to read these articles: Find Therapeutic Healing in 'Forest Bathing' and Forest Bathing for more information about Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing which is a Japanese tradition of therapeutic walks in the forest. Now you have a name and some supporting science for what you already knew to be true!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Signs of Spring

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
(photo by Dori, Wikimedia Commons)
Unlike some, I find the return appearance of the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) a poor indicator of the coming spring season. Too many times I have seen these birds looking cold and miserable as a late winter snow storm pounds the area. No, I find a less beautiful bird a much better indicator and harbinger of the coming spring. The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) doesn't make his return to my area until spring is very close - usually syncing their appearance with the emergence of pussy willow catkins and skunk cabbage flowers which are other seasonal signs I look for.

Over this past weekend I saw my first turkey vultures of the season plus my pussy willow tree is also getting large and fuzzy catkins. I'll have to go out hiking to look for other pussy willows (Salix spp.), skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) to get a better guess as to how close spring is.

Either way, I had better finish my garden planning for the upcoming season - it will be here soon!

Update: Shortly after publishing this article, I happened to spy another one of my key spring signs. A Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was visiting my place and looking to lay his claim again to my yard. These highly territorial and migratory birds are warm weather only visitors at my house. All summer long I get to hear their bird "Top 40" - as I call their repertoire of copied bird song. Many times the male mockingbirds have they fooled visitors to my house thinking I have resident bluebirds. No bluebirds here but their copied song by proxy!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Know Your Herbs?

Here is another entry in our herb identification feature, Know Your Herbs? Can you ID the plant pictured above? (Two more images follow if you need to see more of the plant.) All the plants featured in Know Your Herbs have some sort of culinary, medicinal, or utilitarian use.

Think you know what it is? Check the ANSWER to see if you are right!

A Detail of the Seed Head

Entire Plant (Click to see larger image)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Orchids to Combat Gray Skies

As we await for the snow to recede and our own indigenous plants to awaken from their winter slumber, greenhouses, conservatories, and flower shows can give us that needed glimpse into the coming seasons. A local historic park, Sonnenberg Gardens, is holding its annual orchid show this weekend, March 1 - 3. Each year I visit the show and see orchids of all types and colors to help give me that little "boost" to make it another month when our own wildflowers will begin to put on their show.

If you are in the area, be sure to visit the show - see the Sonnenberg's website for details. If not, enjoy a few sights from last year's show. (Click on the images to see a larger view.)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Northeast Wildflowers and Wild Plants

As time allows, I will be creating and uploading videos featuring wildflowers and other plants of the woodlands of the Northeastern United States. These videos will feature identification tips, ethnobotanical information, and various bits of related trivia. I have created a playlist at YouTube for this series which you may find at YouTube or you may view it below. At the time of this writing, I have three videos available but visit often since there will be more!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Coming Season

Bloodroot - One of the heralds of spring
I often wonder if people who live in warm, green places all year long can appreciate what kind of gift that truly is. It has been months since my world was green and so it is about this point in the winter that I begin to long for the green of spring and become anxious for those few first blooms that are heralds of the coming season.

Don't get me wrong - I love winter. It is a quiet season, where like the Earth herself, I am able to turn inward to refresh and renew myself for the coming year. But winter is a season of browns, grays, white, and black and I miss the green of the growing and vibrant plant world - my green neighbors are all asleep. And so May is my favorite time of the year. May cloaks the world in a vivid bright green. That green of May is so vivid and so full of life that it is palpable. It takes on a magical quality that puts a smile on your face and a spring in your step. You feel like you are dancing on air and it is no wonder why our ancestors held various spring celebrations like May Day. They felt that energy and joy too.

So while I do not want to wish the season away, I do await those first few blooms of late winter and early spring with bated breath!

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Hedgehog in Your Garden

While the botanical or scientific names of plants may only seem like Greek to you - and sometimes they truly are just that, there can be clever insights into the plant buried in those names.

The Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a staple in many sunny ornamental flower and herb gardens. What is not to like about this beautiful and hardy native plant? It is a perennial with stunning and long-lived blooms, few if any pests, and it needs no special care or water once established. It is also a plant that has often been used medicinally as an immune system booster. Learn more about this and other echinaces here.

According to the Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen J. Coombes,
Echinacea. From Gk. [Greek] echinos (a hedgehog) referring to the prickly receptacle scales.
While you may see the hedgehog in central disks of the vibrant summer blooms as the picture above shows, I think it is with the winter snow-frosted seed heads where the name becomes even more evident - as the picture I snapped this morning (below) shows. I think all the picture needs is some beady little eyes and pointed nose to complete the hedgehog visual, don't you agree?

(Garden Tip: Next fall do not remove all the dead plant material like the old coneflower stalks from your garden beds. They provide for much winter interest in your sleeping garden.)

Purple Coneflower - The Hedgehog in
your garden?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Free Seed Giveaway

Balloon Flower - win seeds for this
beautiful medicinal herb
In combination with Classical Formulas, we will be giving away a free set of seeds to one lucky winner. The seeds included in this giveaway are:

Herbs (Culinary)
Chives, Mixed Sweet & Thai Basil, Sweet Basil

Herbs (Medicinal)
Plantain (P. Major), Marshmallow, Mountain Mint, Elecampane, Catnip, Purple Coneflower, Borage (Blue & White), Lemon Balm, Chicory, Yellow Dock, Feverfew, Bee Balm, Balloon Flower, Selfheal, Common Milkweed, Calendula

Broccoli, Lettuce, Sunflower, Squash, Radish, Carrot, Tomato (2 varieties), Turnip

To enter this free drawing, send your name, address, email, and phone number to by midnight February 28, 2013. Winner to be announced March 1, 2013. Please include in your email if you wish to be added to the Classical Formulas mailing list to receive occasional communications from Classical Formulas about upcoming herbal education classes and events.  (One entry per household and US recipients only.)

Good luck!
Update: We have drawn our winner - Stephanie L. of Rochester, NY. Thank you all who entered. May each and everyone of you have a wonderful and green growing season!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Beauty of Seeds

Left: Tuscarora Bread Bean;  Top: Romano Pole;  Right: Seneca Speckled Egg 
Yesterday the first of my many seed orders arrived. Each year I try new varieties and wonder which will be new favorites to earn a permanent spot in my vegetable garden.

While the seeds of one variety of tomato may look exactly like another variety of tomato, the same cannot be said of beans. I always open up the bean seed packages to see what shape, color, and possibly patterning the seeds have. The seeds I received yesterday had two varieties new to my gardens this year: "Seneca Speckled Egg" and "Tuscarora Bread Bean" as well as a favorite from a previous year, "Romano Pole." The beauty of these seeds did not disappoint!

I'm especially excited to try the Tuscarora Bread Bean which is an heirloom variety that was originally passed on from a Tuscarora elder - the Tuscarora are one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois). You can read more about the history of this bean on the beans product page at the Sample Seed Shop. This bean variety is used in the making of a traditional Native cornbread that has beans in it. The addition of beans makes this a heartier, more nutrition ladened cornbread. Interested in trying bean bread? You can find a recipe for bean bread on the Cherokee Nation website.

Looking for these seeds? Visit the The Sample Seed Shop.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Companion Planting with Pole Beans

Pole beans and borage
I must freely admit to being a bit of a "wild gardener." It is my term for gardeners who are the exact opposite of the gardeners who have their tidy, well-mulched gardens carefully planned, each plant with its defined and labeled space, and everything is rather prim-and-proper. "Wild gardeners" have a looser and more organic-style style to the gardens. We work with the natural tendencies of the plants to create gardens that take on a more natural and full look. Volunteer plants, those that self-seed themselves, are often seen as a bonus rather than something to be eradicated. Ok, I think I'm a very wild gardener.

Honeybee on a borage flower
This last spring and summer I had a slow start to planting the second half of my vegetable garden. By the time I got to planting the pole beans in one area, self-sown borage had sprouted. Borage (Borago officinalis) is probably one of the best self-seeders in my gardens outside of feverfew. Borage is potherb and medicinal plant - see more about its history and uses here. Even so, I really don't use borage outside of flowers for the salad bowl. But I do like to have borage in my vegetable garden because it is a terrific bee magnet. And once it starts blooming, it doesn't stop until the frosts kill it. The blooms are pretty and they bring pollinators to my garden in droves. So in a moment of "why not?" I left the young borage plants in place and planted my beans around them.

It wasn't long before the beans began their skyward climb up the poles I had put in place for them. The borage on the other hand, began its sprawl over the ground. Yes, borage is not a neat and tidy plant that respects the space in which you put it - it sprawls and it self-seeds. But I found it a wonderful underplanting for the pole beans. The borage smothered out the weeds plus provided a living mulch to keep the ground shaded and cool around the base of the beans. Best of all the borage plants attracted the bees that the beans so needed for pollination. It was a lucky happenstance that worked out very well.

In planning out your gardens this year, you may wish to try underplanting your pole beans with borage.  I'm going to do it this year -- but this year by choice!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mid-Winter Sights

Even though it is in the middle of winter, some plants still provide beauty and edibles. Last week, prior to unseasonably warm temperatures and a thaw, I took some pictures of a few of the evergreen or "still going strong" plants peaking through the snow.

The picture of the sunrise on January 8th (to the right) was too beautiful not to share as well. It is a rare day here in winter when the sky is clear enough to see a sunrise let alone one so spectacularly colored. Enjoy.


If I recall correctly, this kale variety is "Fizz." The one you can barely see behind it is "Nero di Toscana." I have quite a number of different kale varieties in the garden still green and still very tasty. This is always a great plant to add to your veggie garden but especially if you end up getting a late start to things. Kale will happily grow into the fall and winter extending out your fresh harvest season.

Bloody Dock

While this plant is a little hidden by some grass - it did plant itself here after all, the beautiful red veining for which this dock was named, is visible. While you can add young leaves of this dock to the salad bowl, I like it better for it ornamental qualities since I don't find the flavor anything special.


Sage (Salvia officinalis) is one my favorite herbs and garden plants. As a garden plant, what is not to like? It has striking grey-green foliage and blue-violet flowers and is a well-mannered and evergreen plant. In the winter my sage takes on purple colors - hints of that can be seen even in this picture. Some years, depending upon the severity of winter, they get even more purple. Even though the sage hails from the sunny Mediterranean, it survives Western NY State winters quite nicely.


Like kale, I have a variety of mustards, radishes, green onions, and other cold tolerant plants still available in the garden. This is one of the many mustards still green in the garden. I can't seem to recall this variety's name at the moment but if I do recall correctly, it was from Kitazawa Seed Company. Kitazawa is a great source for Asian vegetable seeds of all sorts. 


This strikingly colored broccoli came along very late in the season. I got the seed in just as our summer-long drought began and so these plants got a slow start - my fault, not the seeds'. Even so, as our rains finally returned in the fall some of the plants that were in a "holding pattern" all summer finally began to grow. This variety is called "Purple Peacock" and I got the seed from Horizon Herbs. I've always been very happy with seeds I've gotten from Horizon Herbs - they are plant people who truly love their plants and the seeds always have shown that.