Friday, January 13, 2012


Ginger plantExcerpted from a 1911 Encyclopedia, this is a detailed account of the ginger plant including some interesting history.

GINGER is a perennial reed-like plant growing from 3 to 4 ft. high. The flowers and leaves are borne on separate stems, those of the former being shorter than those of the latter, and averaging from 6 to 12 in. The flowers themselves are borne at the apex of the stems in dense ovate-oblong cone-like spikes from 2 to 3 in. long. The leaves are alternate and arranged in two rows, bright green, smooth, tapering at both ends, with very short stalks and long sheaths which stand away from the stem and end in two small rounded auricles.

The plant rarely flowers and the fruit is unknown. Though not found in a wild state, it is considered with very good reason to be a native of the warmer parts of Asia, over which it has been cultivated from an early period and the rhizome imported into England. From Asia the plant has spread into the West Indies, South America, western tropical Africa, and Australia. It is commonly grown in botanic gardens in Britain.

The use of ginger as a spice has been known from very early times; it was supposed by the Greeks and Romans to be a product of southern Arabia, and was received by them by way of the Red Sea; in India it has also been known from a very remote period, the Greek and Latin names being derived from the Sanskrit.

So frequent is the mention of ginger in similar lists during the middle ages, that it evidently constituted an important item in the commerce between Europe and the East. It thus appears in the tariff of duties levied at Acre in Palestine about 1173, in that of Barcelona in 1221, Marseilles in 1228 and Paris in 1296. Ginger seems to have been well known in England even before the Norman Conquest, being often referred to in the Anglo-Saxon leech-books of the 11th century. It was very common in the 13th and 14th centuries, ranking next in value to pepper, which was then the commonest of all spices.

Three kinds of ginger were known among the merchants of Italy about the middle of the 14th century: (1) Belledi or Baladi, an Arabic name, which, as applied to ginger, would signify country or wild, and denotes common ginger; (2) Colombino, which refers to Columbum, Kolam or Quilon, a port in Travancore, frequently mentioned in the middle ages; and (3) Micchino, a name which denoted that the spice had been brought from or by way of Mecca. Marco Polo seems to have seen the ginger plant both in India and China between 1280 and 1290. John of Montecorvino, a missionary friar who visited India about 1292, gives a description of the plant, and refers to the fact of the root being dug up and transported. Nicolo di Conto, a Venetian merchant in the early part of the 15th century, also describes the plant and the collection of the root, as seen by him in India. Though the Venetians received ginger by way of Egypt, some of the superior kinds were taken from India overland by the Black Sea. The spice is said to have been introduced into America by Francisco de Mendoça, who took it from the East Indies to New Spain. It seems to have been shipped for commercial purposes from San Domingo as early as 1585, and from Barbados in 1654; so early as 1547 considerable quantities were sent from the West Indies to Spain.

Ginger is known in commerce in two distinct forms, termed respectively coated and uncoated ginger, as having or wanting the epidermis. For the first, the pieces, which are called “races” or “hands,” from their irregular palmate form, are washed and simply dried in the sun. In this form ginger presents a brown, more or less irregularly wrinkled or striated surface, and when broken shows a dark brownish fracture, hard, and sometimes horny and resinous. To produce uncoated ginger the rhizomes are washed, scraped and sun-dried, and are often subjected to a system of bleaching, either from the fumes of burning sulphur or by immersion for a short time in a solution of chlorinated lime. The whitewashed appearance that much of the ginger has, as seen in the shops, is due to the fact of its being washed in whiting and water, or even coated with sulphate of 28 lime. This artificial coating is supposed by some to give the ginger a better appearance; it often, however, covers an inferior quality, and can readily be detected by the ease with which it rubs off, or by its leaving a white powdery substance at the bottom of the jar in which it is contained. Uncoated ginger, as seen in trade, varies from single joints an inch or less in length to flattish irregularly branched pieces of several joints, the “races” or “hands,” and from 3 to 4 in. long; each branch has a depression at its summit showing the former attachment of a leafy stem. The colour, when not whitewashed, is a pale buff; it is somewhat rough or fibrous, breaking with a short mealy fracture, and presenting on the surfaces of the broken parts numerous short bristly fibres.

The principal constituents of ginger are starch, volatile oil (to which the characteristic odour of the spice is due) and resin (to which is attributed its pungency). Its chief use is as a condiment or spice, but as an aromatic and stomachic medicine it is also used internally. Externally applied as a rubefacient, it has been found to relieve headache and toothache.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Cumin, a low-growing annual herb of the Nile valley, but cultivated in the Mediterranean region, Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, India, China, and Palestine from very early times, (See Isaiah xviii, 25-27 and Matthew xxiii, 23.) Pliny is said to have considered it the best appetizer of all condiments. During the middle ages it was in very common use. All the old herbals of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries figure and describe and extol it. In Europe it is extensively cultivated in Malta and Sicily, and will mature seed as far north as Norway; in America, today, the seed is cataloged by some seedsmen, but very little is grown.

The plant is very diminutive, rarely exceeding a height of 6 inches. Its stems, which branch freely from the base, bear mere linear leaves and small lilac flowers, in little umbels of 10 to 20 blossoms each. The six-ribbed, elongated "seeds" in appearance resemble caraway seeds, but are straighter, lighter and larger, and in formation are like the double seeds of coriander, convex on one side and concave on the other. They bear long hairs, which fold up when the seed is dry.

After the seed has been kept for two years it begins to lose its germinating power, but will sprout reasonably well when three years old. It is characterized by a peculiar, strong aromatic odor, and a hot taste.

As soon as the ground has become warm the seed is sown in drills about 15 inches apart where the plants are to remain. Except for keeping down the weeds no further attention is necessary. The plants mature in about two months, when the stems are cut and dried in the shade. The seeds are used in India as an ingredient in curry powder, in France for flavoring pickles, pastry and soups.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Linn.), a very diminutive perennial shrub, of the natural order Labiatæ, native of dry, stony places on Mediterranean coasts, but found occasionally naturalized as an escape from gardens in civilized countries, both warm and cold. From early days it has been popularly grown for culinary purposes. The name is from the Greek word thyo, or sacrifice, because of its use as incense to perfume the temples. With the Romans it was very popular both in cookery and as a bee forage. Like its relatives sage and marjoram, it has practically disappeared from medicine, though formerly it was very popular because of its reputed properties.

The branched, slender, woody stems, which seldom reach 12 inches, bear oblong, triangular, tapering leaves from ¼ to ½ inch long, green above and gray beneath. In the axils of the upper leaves are little pink or lilac flowers, which form whorls and loose, leafy spikes. The seeds, of which there are 170,000 to the ounce, and 24 ounces to the quart, retain their germinating power for three years.

Thyme does best in a rather dry, moderately fertile, light soil well exposed to the sun. Cuttings, layers and divisions may be made, but the popular way to propagate is by seed. Because the seed is very small, it should be sown very shallow or only pressed upon the surface and then sprinkled with finely sifted soil. A small seedbed should be used in preference to sowing in the open ground first, because better attention can be given such little beds; second, because the area where the plants are ultimately to be can be used for an early-maturing crop. In the seedbed made out of doors in early spring, the drills may be made 4 to 6 inches apart and the seeds sown at the rate of 5 or 6 to the inch. A pound should produce enough plants for an acre. In hand sowing direct in the field, a fine dry sand is often thoroughly mixed with the seed to prevent too close planting. The proportion chosen is sometimes as great as four times as much sand as seed. Whether sown direct in the field or transplanted the plants should finally not stand closer than 8 inches—10 is preferred. When first set they may be half this distance. In a small way one plant to the square foot is a good rate to follow. The young plants may be set in the field during June, or even as late as July, preferably just before or just after a shower. The alternate plants may be removed in late August or early September, the alternate rows about three weeks later and the final crop in October.

Thyme will winter well. In home garden practice it may be treated like sage. In the coldest climates it may be mulched with leaves or litter to prevent undue thawing and freezing and consequent heaving of the soil. In the spring the plants should be dug, divided and reset in a new situation.

When seed is desired, the ripening tops must be cut frequently, because the plants mature very unevenly. But this method is often more wasteful than spreading cloths or sheets of paper beneath the plants and allowing the seed to drop in them as it ripens. Twice a day, preferably about noon, and in the late afternoon the plants should be gently jarred to make the ripe seeds fall into the sheets. What falls should then be collected and spread in a warm, airy room to dry thoroughly. When this method is practiced the stems are cut finally; that is, when the bulk of the seed has been gathered. They are dried, threshed or rubbed and the trash removed, by sifting. During damp weather the seed will not separate readily from the plants.

Of the common thyme there are two varieties: narrow-leaved and broad-leaved. The former, which has small grayish-green leaves, is more aromatic and pleasing than the latter, which, however, is much more popular, mainly because of its size, and not because of its superiority to the narrow-leaved kind. It is also known as winter or German thyme. The plant is taller and larger and has bigger leaves, flowers and seeds than the narrow-leaved variety and is decidedly more bitter.

The green parts, either fresh, dried or in decoction, are used very extensively for flavoring soups, gravies, stews, sauces, forcemeats, sausages, dressings, etc. For drying, the tender stems are gathered after the dew is off and exposed to warm air in the shade. When crisp they are rubbed, the trash removed and the powder placed in stoppered bottles or tins. All parts of the plant are fragrant because of the volatile oil, which is commercially distilled mainly in France. About one per cent of the green parts is oil, which after distillation is at first a reddish-brown fluid. It loses its color on redistillation and becomes slightly less fragrant. Both grades of oil are used commercially in perfumery. In the oil are also crystals (thymol), which resemble camphor and because of their pleasant odor are used as a disinfectant where the strong-smelling carbolic acid would be objectionable.

Monday, February 9, 2009


No herbs are so easy to propagate by means of cuttings as spearmint, peppermint, and their relatives which have underground stems. Every joint of these stems will produce a new plant if placed in somewhat moist soil. Often, however, this ability is a disadvantage, because the plants are prone to spread and become a nuisance unless watched. Hence such plants should be placed where they will not have their roots cut by tools used close to them. When they seem to be extending, their borders should be trimmed with a sharp spade pushed vertically full depth into the soil and all the earth beyond the clump thus restricted should be shaken out with a garden fork and the cut pieces of mint removed. Further, the forked-over ground should be hoed every week during the remainder of the season, to destroy lurking plantlets.

The other perennial and biennial herbs may be readily propagated by means of stem cuttings or "slips," which are generally as easy to manage as verbenas, geraniums and other "house plants." The cuttings may be made of either fully ripened wood of the preceding or the current season, or they may be of firm, not succulent green stems. After trimming off all but a few of the upper leaves, which should be clipped to reduce transpiration, the cuttings—never more than 4 or 5 inches long—should be plunged nearly full depth in well-shaded, rather light, porous, well-drained loam where they should remain undisturbed until they show evidences of growth. Then they may be transplanted. While in the cutting bed they must never be allowed to become dry. This is especially true of greenwood cuttings made during the summer. These should always have the coolest, shadiest corner in the garden. The cuttings taken in the spring should be set in the garden as soon as rooted; but the summer cuttings, especially if taken late, should generally be left in their beds until the following spring. They may, however, be removed for winter use to window boxes or the greenhouse benches.

Often the plants grown in window boxes may supply the early cuttings, which may be rooted in the house. Where a greenhouse is available, a few plants may be transplanted in autumn either from the garden or from the bed of summer cuttings just mentioned, kept in a rather cool temperature during the winter and drawn upon for cuttings as the stems become sufficiently mature. The rooting may take place in a regular cutting bench, or it may occur in the soil out of doors, the plantlets being transplanted to pots as soon as they have rooted well.

If a large number of plants is desired, a hotbed may be called into requisition in early spring and the plants hardened off in cold frames as the season advances. Hardening off is essential with all plants grown under glass for outdoor planting, because unless the plants be inured to outside temperatures before being placed in the open ground, they will probably suffer a check, if they do not succumb wholly to the unaccustomed conditions. If well managed they should be injured not at all.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Fennel, a biennial or perennial herb, generally considered a native of southern Europe, though common on all Mediterranean shores. The old Latin name Fœniculum is derived from fœnum or hay. It has spread with civilization, especially where Italians have colonized, and may be found growing wild in many parts of the world, upon dry soils near the sea coast and upon river banks.

It seems to be partial to limestone soils, such as the chalky lands of England and the shelly formation of Bermuda. In this latter community I have seen it thriving upon cliffs where there seemed to be only a pinch of soil, and where the rock was so dry and porous that it would crumble to coarse dust when crushed in the hand. The plant was cultivated by the ancient Romans for its aromatic fruits and succulent, edible shoots. Whether cultivated in northern Europe at that time is not certain, but it is frequently mentioned in Anglo-Saxon cookery prior to the Norman conquest. Charlemagne ordered its culture upon the imperial farms. At present it is most popular in Italy, and France. In America it is in most demand among French and Italians. Like many other plants, fennel has had a highly interesting career from a medical point of view. But it no longer plays even a "small part" in the drama.

Common garden or long, sweet fennel is distinguished from its wild or better relative (F. vulgare) by having much stouter, taller (5 to 6 feet) tubular and larger stems, less divided, more glaucous leaves. But a still more striking difference is seen in the leaf stalks which form a curved sheath around the stem even as far up as the base of the leaf above. Then, too, the green flowers are borne on more sturdy pedicels in the broader umbels, lastly the seeds are double the size of the wild fennel seeds, ¼ or ½ inch long. They are convex on one side, flat on the other, and are marked by five yellowish ribs. Though a French writer says the seed degenerates "promptly," and recommends the use of fresh seed annually, it will not be wise to throw away any where it is not wanted to germinate, unless it is over four years old, as seed as old even as that is said to be satisfactory for planting.

Fennel is considered indispensable in French and Italian cookery. The young plants and the tender leaves are often used for garnishes and to add flavor to salads. They are also minced and added to sauces usually served with puddings. The tender stems and the leaves are employed in soups and fish sauces, though more frequently they are eaten raw as a salad with or without dressing. The famous "Carosella" of Naples consists of the stems cut when the plant is about to bloom. These stems are considered a great delicacy served raw with the leaf stalks still around them. Oil, vinegar and pepper are eaten with them. By sowing at intervals of a week or 10 days Italian gardeners manage to have a supply almost all the year.

The seeds are used in cookery, confectionery and for flavoring liquors. Oil of fennel, a pale yellow liquid, with a sweetish aromatic odor and flavor, is distilled with water. It is used in perfumery and for scenting soaps. A pound of oil is the usual yield of 500 pounds of the plant.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Herb Garden: Rosemary

As its generic name implies, rosemary is a native of sea-coasts, "rose" coming from Ros, dew, and "Mary" from marinus, ocean. It is one of the many Labiatæ found wild in limy situations along the Mediterranean coast. In ancient times many and varied virtues were ascribed to the plant, hence its "officinalis" or medical name, perhaps also the belief that "where rosemary flourishes, the lady rules!" Pliny, Dioscorides and Galin all write about it. It was cultivated by the Spaniards in the 13th century, and from the 15th to the 18th century was popular as a condiment with salt meats, but has since declined in popularity, until now it is used for seasoning almost exclusively in Italian, French, Spanish and German cookery.

The plant is a half-hardy evergreen, 2 feet or more tall. The erect, branching, woody stems bear a profusion of little obtuse, linear leaves, green above and hoary white beneath. On their upper parts they bear pale blue, axillary flowers in leafy clusters. The light-brown seeds, white where they were attached to the plant, will germinate even when four years old. All parts of the plant are fragrant—"the humble rosemary whose sweets so thanklessly are shed to scent the desert" (Thomas Moore). One of the pleasing superstitions connected with this plant is that it strengthens the memory. Thus it has become the emblem of remembrance and fidelity. Hence the origin of the old custom of wearing it at weddings in many parts of Europe.

Rosemary is easily propagated by means of cuttings, root division and layers in early spring, but is most frequently multiplied by seed. It does best in rather poor, light soil, especially if limy. The seed is either sown in drills 18 to 24 inches apart or in checks 2 feet asunder each way, half a dozen seeds being dropped in each "hill." Sometimes the seedbed method is employed, the seed being sown either under glass or in the open ground and the seedlings transplanted. Cultivation consists in keeping the soil loose and open and free from weeds. No special directions are necessary as to curing. In frostless sections, and even where protected by buildings, fences, etc., in moderate climates, the plants will continue to thrive for years.

The tender leaves and stems and the flowers are used for flavoring stews, fish and meat sauces, but are not widely popular in America. Our foreign-born population, however, uses it somewhat. In France large quantities, both cultivated and wild, are used for distilling the oil of rosemary, a colorless or yellowish liquid suggesting camphor, but even more pleasant. This oil is extensively used in perfuming soaps, but more especially in the manufacture of eau de cologne, Hungary water and other perfumes.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Borage is a coarse, hardy, annual herb of the natural order Boraginaceæ. Its popular name, derived from the generic, is supposed by some to have come from a corruption of cor, the heart, and ago, to affect, because of its former use as a cordial or heart-fortifying medicine. Courage is from the same source. The Standard Dictionary, however, points to burrago, rough, and relates it indirectly by cross references to birrus, a thick, coarse woolen cloth worn by the poor during the thirteenth century. The roughness of the full-grown leaves suggests flannel. Whichever derivation be correct, each is interesting as implying qualities, intrinsic or attributed, to the plant.

The specific name indicates its obsolete use in medicine. It is one of the numerous plants which have shaken off the superstitions which a credulous populace wreathed around them. Almost none but the least enlightened people now attribute any medicinal virtues whatever to it.

The plant is said to come originally from Aleppo, but for centuries has been considered a native of Mediterranean Europe and Africa, whence it has become naturalized throughout the world by Europeans, who grew it probably more for medicinal than for culinary purposes. According to Ainslie, it was among the species listed by Peter Martyr as planted on Isabella Island by Columbus's companions. The probability is that it was also brought to America by the colonists during Queen Elizabeth's time. It has been listed in American seedsmen's catalogues since 1806, but the demand has always been small and the extent to which it is cultivated very limited.

Borage is of somewhat spreading habit, branchy, about 20 inches tall. Its oval or oblong-lanceolate leaves and other green parts are covered with whitish, rather sharp, spreading hairs. The flowers, generally blue, sometimes pink, violet-red, or white, are loosely racemed at the extremities of the branches and main stems.