Friday, April 18, 2014

Lavender Blues

Lavandula angustifolia - English lavender
"'I'm all right,' he said. 'Claire, I'm all right, now. But for God's sake, get rid of that stink!' 
It was only then that I consciously noticed the scent in the room - a light, spicy, floral smell, so common a perfume that I had thought nothing of it. Lavender. A scent for soaps and toilet waters. I had last smelled it in the dungeons of Wentworth Prison, where it anointed the linen or the person of Captain Jonathan Randall. 
The source of the scent was a small metal cup filled with herb-scented oil, suspended from a heavy, rose-bossed iron base and hung over a candle flame. 
Meant to soothe the mind, its effects were plainly not as intended. Jamie was breathing more easily, sitting up by himself and holding the cup of water the monk had given him. But his face was still white, and the corner of his mouth twitched uneasily." 
-- From OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 38
As Tom Robbins, another of my favorite authors, says in his novel,  JITTERBUG PERFUME, "with immediacy and intensity, smell activates the memory, allowing our minds to travel freely in time." Of all the senses, the sense of smell appears to evoke the most detailed and emotional memories. Scent is processed via the olfactory bulb, which is part of the limbic system, that part of the brain involved in emotional memories and the fight-or-flight response.

It is no wonder, then, that the smell of lavender, Black Jack Randall's signature scent, would have such a profound effect on Jamie Fraser. That "stink," as Jamie called it, overwhelmed him with disturbing memories of the violence, humiliation and revulsion he experienced in their encounter at Wentworth Prison.

This strong connection between scent and emotion explains why one person's poison is another person's pleasure. What makes the difference is the event the smell is associated with. For most of us, the scent of lavender is soothing because it reminds us of fresh laundry, being in the garden on a summer day or getting a massage. But for Jamie it was completely different.

Botanical Information

Family: Lamiaceae
Genus: Lavandula
Species: Lavandula angustifolia
Common name: English lavender
Other cultivars: there are many including: L. dentata, French lavender; and L. stoechas, Spanish lavender

Lavender, a member of the mint family, is native to the Mediterranean region, southern Europe, northern and eastern Africa, southeast Asia and parts of India.

L. stoechas, Spanish lavender

Medicinal Uses

Lavender is used in aromatherapy. It is valued for its ability to reduce anxiety and help people sleep. Lavender pillows or sachets are created for those purposes. A few drops of lavender oil is often added to the oil massage therapists use.

Lavender oil has also been used to treat skin conditions including burns and inflammation. However, lavender honey, made by bees feeding on lavender nectar, has been found more effective than the oil for treating uninfected wounds.

Some caution should be used as undiluted lavender oil can irritate the skin.

Lavender in Cooking

I am not that big a fan of edible flowers. However, I have been surprised by lavender. Lavender shortbread, for example, is very tasty. And one of my favorite desserts of all time was the rose water and lavender ice cream created by restauranteur Hussein Khazaal, founder of the Phoenecia at Alki in West Seattle. But alas, when he passed away a few years ago, he took the recipe with him.

Of course, if you want food connected with the Outlander universe, you have to consult Theresa Carle-Sanders' brilliant blog, Outlander Kitchen. Yesterday I read through her lengthy list of Outlander inspired recipes hoping to find something containing lavender. There I found this: Black Jack Randall's Fudge for Tobias Menzies. Sounds delicious, easy to make and it's gluten-free!


Lavender does best in situations that mimic its native conditions: full sun, well drained soil, low humidity, little or no fertilizer. To keep your plants looking their best, shear them after blooming. Don't be timid - cut them back about half way. This will keep them from getting too leggy.

After a few years, it is typical that the plants become woody and fall open. You can try pruning them hard and hoping that new buds will appear along the older branches. This takes a bit of patience because even if new growth appears, it will be a couple of seasons before the plants look very good. So when this happens, I recommend replacing them. The plants are not expensive and you will likely be happier with the result.

If you want flowers for cooking, sachets, etc., keep in mind that the oil content is highest just as the flowers begin to open, so that's when you should harvest them.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rhododendron Hell

"Roger didn't need to read it; he knew well enough the thoughts that were going through the other's mind. The same thoughts he'd wrestled with, during those weeks between Beltane and Midsummer's Eve, during the search for Brianna across the ocean, during his captivity - and at the last, in the circle in the rhododendron hell, hearing the song of the standing stones." -- DRUMS OF AUTUMN,  by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 71

Where I live, in Washington State, "rhododendron hell" is the experience of renovating giant specimens of this shrub, planted 50 0r 60 years ago, that now block the windows of the house. Rhododendron hybrids do very well in the Pacific Northwest and were popular landscape plants in Seattle in the 1940s and 50s. Today most of my landscape design clients tell me that they don't like rhodies - mostly because they have had it with the varieties planted back in the day. But there are many smaller species to choose from, many with interesting foliage or unusual flowers. So I suggest that clients either visit a nursery or The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and take another look before crossing them off their list forever.

On the other side of the US, in Georgia and North Carolina, "rhododendron hell" means something quite different. Something that Roger could definitely relate to. This video sheds more light on the history and the phenomenon.

Botanical Information

Family: Ericaceae
Genus: Rhododendron
Species: There are over 1,000 species of this plant, most of them hybrids

People often ask, "What is the difference between rhododendrons and azaleas?" Azaleas are a type of rhododendron, with certain botanical differences, such as the number of stamens, from the main category. You can read more about the differences on this page from the New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society.

Rhododendrons are found on every continent except Antarctica. The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Washington, in the US, and Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden in Tasmania, Australia feature plantings of rhododendrons collected from their natural habitats around the world.
Rhododendrons and azaleas along Azalea Way at the
Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle. Peak bloom is April - May.

Rhododendron varieties have adapted to a wide range of environments, from the extreme conditions of the Himalayas to the tropical forests of Borneo. In tropical jungles, they may be epiphytes, living in the tree canopy. In open areas, they are shrubs or small trees. They tend to like acidic soil and sharp drainage.
Exbury azaleas are deciduous and their sherbet colored
flowers are wonderfully fragrant.

Food or Poison?

In Nepal, where the rhododendron is the national flower, the flowers are eaten fresh, dried or pickled.

However, no one should think that it is safe to eat any part of this plant. Rhododendrons are highly toxic to horses and other grazing animals. In humans, effects ranging from hallucinations to death have been reported. Wikipedia has this to say about eating honey from bees that consume nectar from rhododendrons and azaleas.
"Xenophon described the odd behaviour of Greek soldiers after having consumed honey in a village surrounded by Rhododendron ponticum during the march of theTen Thousand in 401 BC. Pompey's soldiers reportedly suffered lethal casualties following the consumption of honey made from Rhododendron deliberately left behind by Pontic forces in 67 BC during the Third Mithridatic War. Later, it was recognized that honey resulting from these plants has a slightly hallucinogenic and laxative effect."
And that is yet another version of what is called "rhododendron hell."

Friday, April 11, 2014

Garlic - a Food, a Medicine, an Aphrodisiac?!

"The basket on Mrs. Fitz's arm carried a profusion of garlic cloves, the source of the summer's crop. The plump dame handed me the basket along with a digging stick for planting. Apparently I had lazed about the castle long enough; until Colum found some use for me, Mrs. Fitz could always find work for an idle hand."-- OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 6
Claire might not have known how to grow garlic before Mrs. FitzGibbons handed her that basket of cloves and a digging stick, but she was undoubtedly familiar with garlic's medicinal value from her work as an Army nurse during World War II.

In the 1940s, one of the first mass-produced antibiotics, penicillin, was available to treat wounded soldiers. But when supplies ran out, the medical staff turned to garlic, which had been used successfully from ancient Roman times through World War I to prevent gangrene and fight infections. This was particularly true in Russia, which is how garlic came to be called "Russian penicillin."

During World War I, planting garlic was patriotic. In 1916, the British government asked civilians to grow more garlic to assure that there was enough to supply military medical needs.

Botanical Information

Family: Liliaceae
Genus: Allium
Species: Allium sativa
Common name: garlic

Garlic is believed to be native to central Asia.  The exact origin of the first plants is not known. What is called "wild garlic" in many regions is in fact cultivated garlic that has naturalized, setting up colonies of its own wherever conditions were favorable. It is mentioned in the histories of ancient civilizations going back 7,000 years.

Garlic is in the same genus as onions, shallots, chives and ornamental alliums.

Health Benefits

The National Center for Biotechnology Information has a detailed article online about the history and medical uses of garlic, which I suggest you read if you want more information and links to numerous studies involving this plant.

Here's an overview of some of the health benefits garlic has to offer.

  • Garlic contains sulphur compounds, such as allicin, which are antibiotic and anti-fungal. 
  • It has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels and lower triglycerides. 
  • Garlic is an antioxidant. 
  • It has high levels of Vitamin C, and thus can prevent scurvy.
  • Studies indicate that garlic prevents cancer by boosting the immune system.
  • Garlic has been used to reduce the size and stop the growth of cancerous tumors.

Companion Planting

Plants, like people, grow better in the company of friends. Mrs. Fitz, of course, knew this. These are the instructions she gave Claire for planting garlic:
"Divide 'em and plant the buds single, one here and one there, all round the garden. Garlic keeps the wee bugs awa' from the other plants. Onions and yarrow will do the same." 
Besides being a bug repellant, garlic has the ability to accumulate sulphur compounds that are in the soil. Sulphur is a good natural fungicide. In fact, sulphur is being used more and more in vineyards and orchards as farmers transition from chemical pesticides to natural pest and disease control. An easy way to add sulphur to the soil around susceptible plants is to plant garlic, or other members of the Allium family, along with them. I plant garlic chives under my roses, for example, to keep black spot away.

Garlic is easy to grow. Here's a video from Kitchen Gardeners International to show you how.

Garlic as an Aphrodisiac?

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that garlic is a "performance enhancer" for men.  In her book, PLANTS WITH BENEFITS, an Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Fruits, Flowers & Veggies in Your Garden, Helen Yoest explains that garlic is a "hot" herb and that it increases blood flow, an important factor in male performance. Good blood flow means that men can "be ready when the time is right," to quote a popular commercial.

For this reason, devout followers of certain religions, including Hindus, Jains and celibate Buddhist sects, have traditionally practiced abstinence from eating garlic. They believe that it stimulates sexual desire and aggressive behavior, which gets in the way of spiritual practice. But not all religious folk see this as a bad thing, Yoest says. "On the other hand, we have the prophet Ezra to thank for commanding the eating of garlic on the eve of the Sabbath, to ensure the mitzvah of conjugal pleasure."

Besides the blood flow issue, garlic may be a natural remedy for another condition, described in drug advertising aimed at men, as "low T." Garlic contains a compound called diallyldisulfide which enhances the release of a hormone that stimulates testosterone production. This may not turn a 50-year-old into a frisky teenager, but it might be all a guy needs.

So all you men out there - are you ready to kick the drug companies out of bed? If so, you need to eat more garlic.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Stinging Nettles

"His expression was unfathomable. Still holding my eyes with his own he reached out his free hand, fumbling over the rocks until he touched a bunch of nettles. He drew in his breath as his fingers touched the prickly stems, but his jaw clenched: he closed his fist and ripped the plants up by the roots.  
'The peasants of Gascony beat a faithless wife wi' nettles,' he said.  
He lowered the spiky bunch of leaves and brushed the flower heads lightly across one breast. I gasped from the sudden sting, and a faint red blotch appeared as though by magic on my skin." 
-- From DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 29

If you've ever encountered a stinging nettle, you have no trouble understanding how being flogged with a bunch of them would be an effective punishment. Or how one's first experience with nettles would leave a lasting impression.

Seattle author, Langdon Cook, tells a story in his book, FAT OF THE LAND: ADVENTURES OF A 21ST CENTURY FORAGER, about his first encounter with the nettles as an eleven-year-old. He was playing softball with some friends, working on the fine arts of fielding and throwing a runner out on first. After his turn, he took a seat on the bench with his teammates. A second later, he leaped into the air, howling in pain. On the bench was a clutch of stinging nettles, strategically placed there by the team prankster. He'd been "nettled."

Cook is all grown up now and over the trauma of that day. (Although the memory of his buddies' laughter may still sting.) Today he writes enthusiastically about this plant because of its extraordinary nutritional benefits. (see below)

The sting this plant is famous for is caused by the release of histamine, acetylcholine and other chemicals from tiny, needle-like hairs, called trichomes, on the stems and tops of the leaves. 

Botanical Information

Family: Urticaceae
Genus: Urtica
Species: Urtica dioica
Common name: Stinging nettle 

Stinging nettles are native to Asia, Europe, North America and northern Africa.

Ready for a bit of Latin trivia? The medical term for hives - a raised, itchy rash often associated with allergy - is Urticaria, from the Latin word for nettle and the genus name for this plant, Urtica

Nutritional Value

Counterintuitive as it may seem, people have been eating stinging nettles for centuries. I suppose that once they realized that cooking or soaking nettles in water would eliminate the chemicals that cause the sting, they were free to experiment. 

Stinging nettles are at the top of the list of "super" greens. They are rich in vitamin C, making them another good food for preventing scurvy; as well as vitamin A, B-complex vitamins and beta-carotene.  Nettles also have a high mineral content including: calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, iodine, and sulphur. 

But wait, there's more! According to Cook, "Perhaps most famously, they are about the best source of protein in the plant kingdom. The ability to get protein from a source that didn't run away must have been very important to early humans, not to mention other protein-craving omnivores - which may explain why the nettle has evolved its formidable defense."


You aren't going to find stinging nettles at the grocery store. So if you want to try them for yourself, you're going to have to go on a foraging adventure. In this video, Theresa Carle-Sanders of Outlander Kitchen, shows how to harvest nettles in the wild. She also demonstrates how to eat a raw nettle leaf without getting stung! 

Cooking with Nettles

There are many ways to use nettles in cooking: in soups, sauteed as a side dish, as a substitute for spinach in lasagna, in pesto, as a tea (using the dried leaves).

Theresa has several nettle recipes on Outlander Kitchen, including this one for Claire's Nettle-Kissed Buns. She lists a half dozen more on her Outlander Pantry page. 

Langdon Cook also has a number of nettle recipes on his blog, Fat of the Land, including this one for Stinging Nettle, Potato & Leek Soup.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Little Blue Flower At The Start Of It All

 'What are you doing?" he asked. His hands rested gently on my shoulders.  'Looking for that plant,' I answered, sticking a finger between the pages to mind my place.  'The one I saw in the stone circle. See...' I flipped the book open.  'It could be in the Campanulaceae, or the Gentianaceae, the Polemoniaceae, the Boraginaceae -- that's mostly likely, I think,  forget-me-nots....'"  
-- From OUTLANDER,  by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 2

If it is possible for plants to travel through time, forget-me-nots would be well suited for the journey. They produce seeds that germinate easily and are contained in small pods that have a sticky surface, like a plant's version of velcro. When people or animals brush by them, the pods cling to clothing or fur and "hitchhike" to new locations, where they fall and the seeds start to grow. This spirit of adventure has carried cultivars of the Myosotis species from their native lands in Europe and New Zealand into gardens and woodlands all over the world.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Claire was so charmed by these pretty little blue flowers that she went back to the standing stones to see them again. In Michael Pollan's book, THE BOTANY OF DESIRE, he suggests that plants manipulate human beings, just as much as we humans manipulate them. With examples like apples, tulips, and marijuana, he explains how plants have used tactics, including sweetness, beauty and the ability to intoxicate, to persuade humans into cultivating, hybridizing and spreading them far and wide. If tulips can do it, why not forget-me-nots?

We'll never know if a tenacious seedpod, hoping to be transported to another time and place, was clinging to Claire's skirts as she approached the stones on that fateful day in the Scottish Highlands. All we know is that she went to look for tiny blue flowers at Craigh na Dun and fell through the stones. And so began the saga of OUTLANDER.

Botanical Information

Family: Boraginaceae
Genus: Myosotis
Species: Myosotis sylvatica
Common name: Forget-me-not

There are several species of this plant. M. sylvatica is native to Europe so would be most likely the species Claire found at Craigh na Dun.

Plants are short-lived annuals or biennials. They reach 12" in height and the tiny flowers are usually blue with orange or white centers. There are also pink and white varieties.


Forget-me-nots are easily grown from seed. Plant in early spring, as soon as the soil is warm enough to work. You will only have to plant seed once. If the plants are happy where you've started them, they will keep resowing themselves.

I've noticed that forget-me-nots often get powdery mildew shortly after they bloom here in the Pacific Northwest. I believe that is because they like moist soil and as the rains slow down and the temperatures warm, they don't get as much water as they would like. This stresses them out and makes them susceptible to disease. Dinna fash, though. They come back again, year after year.

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