Bitters: From Medicine Cabinet to Bar Shelf…and back again

Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions.   Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.

Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions. Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.

There has been a lot of talk of bitters lately as promoting digestion, but many times people are interested in how exactly that occurs.

In a nutshell, when we taste “bitter’ it triggers a physiological process in the body. Salivary secretion is stimulated as is the production of gastric secretions such as pepsin.  Pepsin is an enzyme responsible for breaking proteins in the stomach down into peptides. The presence of these peptides in turn stimulate the release of gastrin. Gastrin is a hormone which stimulates the release of gastric acids and cholecystokinin.  This hormone, in turn,  stimulates the pancreas and gall bladder to release digestive enzymes and bile.

This net result of all this biochemistry is improved digestion and relief of indigestion.  Some herbs have additional actions such as being spasmolytic which means  they relieve spasms in smooth muscle or carminative which means they help to dispel gas.

The earliest documented medicinal use of bitter herbs was in Ancient Egypt where archeologists have been able to determine that herbs and tree resins were steeped in grape wine. All of the major botanical medicine traditions: Greek, Chinese and Āyurvedic incorporated the use of bitter herbs.

In Italy, particularly, the preparations evolved from being medicinal preparations to being routinely served with meals. Amaro  literally means ‘bitter’.  The Italian apéritif Nocino was a medicinal bitter preparation which found its way to Italian monasteries via wandering Celts.  Historians maintain that bitter herbs brewed into malt liquors were used to “diminish the noxious effects of such potations.”

In Britain, bitter preparations began to appear that were made by steeping herbs in alcohol which extracts and concentrates their flavorful constituents. Lash’s Bitters Company began marketing these medicinal preparations in the mid-19th century but after the company moved to San Francisco they found a market for their bitters as a bar room staple in the form and other companies followed suit. Many remember the familiar bottle of Angostura bitters in the liquor closet.

So how does one use bitters “medicinally”?  Traditionally the bitters blends would have been added to soda water. Tonic water is technically a bitters preparation being made with cinchona bark.  However I don’t tend to view them as medicine,  I see them as just another component of a health promoting diet.

Apéritifs can be served  before meals to stimulate the appetite while digestifs are served afterward to aid digestion.  Digestifs tend to be more sweet and heavy than apéritifs, which are light and dry.

It is very easy to make homemade bitters. The following recipe which incorporates locally available herbs was contributed by Iowa City area herbalist, Adrian White, and is sure to be popular with those who enjoy lemon:

Sour Bitters
2 cups fresh red Sumac berries*
2 cups fresh Cedar (or Juniper) berries
2 cups fresh Lemon Verbena leaves
40 oz. High-proof brandy
1/4 cup lemon juice (or to taste) or
1 tbsp. lemon peel

Steep (herbalists call it “macerate”) Sumac, Cedar, Lemon Verbena, and Lemon Peel (if desired) in brandy for minimum of 2 weeks. (Note: A more potent concoction would be made the more herbs are ground down, chopped, or crushed.) Add lemon juice, to find taste profile and sourness you like.

One of my favorite blends is one I make in the fall when I am digging angelica root:

Angelica Bitters
3 oz. fresh angelica root
1 cups fresh basil leaves (common garden variety or Tulsi)
1cups fresh rosemary
2 tbsp. dried orange peel or ¼ cup fresh peel.
2 tbsp. fenugreek seed

Place the herbs in a blender and pour enough 150 proof vodka over the herbs to cover them. Blend the ingredients well. Pour them in a mason jar, cover tightly and let this mixture steep for 3 weeks.

There are an overwhelming number of articles flavoring cocktails with bitters, which neglects the more healthful alternatives. So instead, I’ve come up with a few ways you can use your bitters preparations to make a tasty beverage with negligible alcohol content:

Lassi Digestif
1 1/4 cup frozen fruit
1 cup yogurt
2 tbsp. honey
1/2 teaspoon bitters blend

Mix these ingredients in a blender and enjoy in place of a dessert.

My take on the traditional bitters and soda water :

Bitters and Soda Water
½ tsp homemade bitters
8 ounce glass of sparkling water
1 tsp raw local honey or a few drops of stevia extract
Slice of orange

Add the bitters and orange slice to the sparkling water and stir.

This amount of bitters adds no more alcohol content than an equal amount of vanilla extract would add, so it is safe for children. An adult may adjust the dose to a teaspoon in the case of indigestion. You can also add a few drops to a cup of chamomile tea which has been used traditionally to enhance digestion.

My own personal favorite, which avoids alcohol entirely, is to make a seasoning mixture by grinding dry versions of  bitter herbs and sprinkling this blend on my food in place of salt and pepper.

*Note: make sure the Sumac you use has red berries. Poison Sumac has white berries and should not be touched, harvested or eaten since it is very toxic.

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ISU Extension Release: Yard and Garden: Grow Not-So-Ordinary Berries

(Editorial Note: Personally, I would add Aronia melanocarpa (chokeberry) to this list as the plants are native to Iowa. I believe there are plants available still at the Backyard Abundance Plant Sale)


AMES, Iowa — Home gardeners who like a tart tasting berry or just want to grow a not-so-ordinary berry might consider planting cornelian cherries, jostaberries, honeyberries or serviceberries. Horticulturists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach answer questions about growing these lesser known fruit in Iowa home gardens. To have other questions answered, contact Hortline at or call 515-294-3108 .

What are serviceberries?
Serviceberries are members of the genus Amelanchier. Other common names for plants in the genus Amelanchier include juneberry, saskatoon, shadbush, sarvisberry and sugar plum.

Serviceberries are dual-purpose plants. They are planted as ornamentals for their masses of showy, white flowers in early spring and colorful fall foliage. They are also grown for their edible fruit. The blueberry-like fruit may be eaten fresh, baked in pies or other desserts, canned or made into wine, jams or preserves.

While the fruit on all Amelanchier species are edible, cultivars of Amelanchier alnifolia are the most productive and produce the best quality fruit. Available cultivars include ‘Smokey,’ ‘Northline,’ ‘Thiessen,’ ‘Regent’ and ‘Pembina.’

Serviceberries can be successfully grown in partial shade to full sun. However, plant in full sun for maximum fruit production.

What are cornelian cherries?
The cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is actually a species of dogwood. It is also referred to as cornelian cherry dogwood. The cornelian cherry dogwood is an adaptable, durable and relatively pest-free small tree. Plants commonly grow 20 to 25 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide. The cornelian cherry dogwood produces small, yellow flowers in round, .75 inch-wide clusters in early spring. After flowering, oblong one-half to one inch-long berry-like fruit develop. The fruit turn cherry red in late summer and are edible. The fruit are similar in taste to tart cherries and can be used for jams, jellies, pies, syrups and wine. The fruit are high in vitamin C.
Cornelian cherry dogwoods are most commonly planted as ornamentals in home landscapes. However, several cultivars (‘Elegant,’ ‘Red Star,’ ‘Pioneer’ and others) are grown for their fruit. The cornelian cherry dogwood is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 8.
What are jostaberries?
Jostaberries are a cross between black currants and gooseberries. Plants are thornless, vigorous and may grow to a height of 6 to 8 feet. Jostaberry fruit are similar in size to gooseberries and black in color. Fruit can be used in jams, jellies and pies. Plants possess excellent cold hardiness and can be successfully grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 8.

What are honeyberries?
Honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea) is a species of honeysuckle native to cold regions of Europe, Asia and North America. Other common names include blue honeysuckle or haskap. Honeyberries grow 4 to 6 feet tall. Plants produce small, yellowish white, funnel-shaped flowers in early spring. After flowering, elongated fruit develop that ripen and turn dark blue in late spring. The favor of the fruit is similar to a blueberry with black currant or raspberry overtones. Honeyberries can be used for jams, juice, syrups and wine. They also make great ice cream and smoothies. Fruit are high in antioxidants (as high or higher than blueberries).
Numerous Russian/Eastern European cultivars are available; including Berry Blue®, Blue Bird®, Blue Moon®, and Blue Velvet®. In recent years, the University of Saskatchewan has introduced several new cultivars. Fruit of the Canadian introductions are purportedly larger and better tasting than the Russian/Eastern European cultivars. University of Saskatchewan cultivars include ‘Borealis,’ ‘Tundra,’ and ‘Indigo Gem.’ Honeyberries have few pest problems and are easy to grow. Plant at least two cultivars to insure good pollination and fruit set. Honeyberries can be successfully grown in partial shade to full sun. They are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 2 to 6.

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Building Local Connections

(Editors Note: I wrote this when a friend posted a call for submissions for an agricultural zine, but after reading Ann Armbrecht’s most excellent post on a vision for building local medicine systems, I thought I would share this here on the blog even though I don’t think my audience is quite the same audience I wrote this for…)

Bloodroot plant from Echollective Farm

Bloodroot plant from Echollective Farm

Spring is upon us and thoughts of sowing the seeds of sustenance span the nation. The cultivation and propagation of medicinal plants is viewed by some as a measure of historical preservation and not afforded the urgency which is often directed to the development of local food systems. This frequently confuses me as our current dependence on corporate healthcare is as much an aspect of neocolonialism is our dependence on corporate food distribution.

The fact that you don’t know how to care for illnesses and injuries with plant-based remedies is a direct result of a corporate driven witch-hunt that began in the Middle Ages and continues today. From the perspective of an activist, the practice of growing medicinal plants and teaching people how to use them properly is an act of resistance to the corporate control of wellness. Only in recreating subsistence will we create communities which fully support our ability to engage in this work. Of course food systems are a huge part of that, but the importance of creating healthy communities cannot be overlooked as a means of supporting social change.

Self-care is a vital and often overlooked component of preventing burnout, as well. Many people involved in social change neglect their own wellness. I have often found that this is because they have an aversion to the unequal power relationships inherent in modern healthcare. Additionally, the alternative healthcare industry often brings to mind the problem “green washing” of consumerism and is distasteful to those whose philosophies lean towards being opposed to conspicuous consumption.

It needn’t be this way. As a practicing healer, I have found many of my colleagues working in under served communities and approaching the practice of herbalism as their own unique form of activism. Even amongst those community herbalists who don’t view themselves as activists, there is a growing recognition that our work with clients is only palliative until societal change addresses issues of social and environmental justice.

One group which supports this work across the country is United Plant Savers. Their mission is to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come.” While far from being a radical group, United Plant Savers mission includes the establishment of a network of botanical sanctuaries across the country. Requirements for membership include growing a variety of at-risk medicinal herbs and freely opening up your sanctuary to the public for educational purposes. Gaia’s Peace Garden, here in Iowa City was the first sanctuary to be established in southeast Iowa. This is particularly exciting because it is not as common for an urban garden to be granted sanctuary status. UPS has internships available in the cultivation of medicinal plants and offers grants for community replanting projects and should be utilized as a resource by farmers wanting to get into this field.

In writing this, I hope to bridge the gap between the herbalism and the farming communities because I see a growing need to create discourse between these two groups. Community herbalists often educate their individual clients with the express purpose of putting health back into the hands of the people and people back into nature. This practice creates a need for healthy food systems, locally sourced herbs and even starts for our own teaching gardens. Farmers looking for new and unique markets would do well to seek out your local healers and see how you can work together.

I see great promise in building connections between the these two groups.

Posted in Community Herbalism, Nourishing Relationships | Leave a comment

Starting Seeds at Home


ISU Extension recommends equal parts of top soil, peat moss and perlite. I prefer to have less sand or perlite because you don’t have to your transplants as often if there is more organic material in the soil. I use the following combination when I make my own. It also works better with the soil block makers.

I don’t use peat moss due to the negative environmental impact. Organic Gardening ran an article that explains that all very well, if you are interested.

2 parts top soil

2 parts coco peat or compost

1 part sand or perlite

I mix a few organic additives in the mix to provide nutrients to the

If you make your own soil, it needs to be sterilized.. This is very important. Soil can be sterilized by heating it in a 180 degree oven for 30 minutes. I use a crockpot or my granny roaster depending on how much soil I need.


You can use many sorts of containers to plant the seeds. To begin with I planted them in cardboard egg cartons. Then I moved up to the peat container. I had a grasp on the environmental impact of peat. Now I use a soil block maker system. I’ve had my seed block makers for four years or five years now.

Roots air prune which means they stop growing when they encounter air. If you leave room for airspace around your cubes, the roots will NOT grow together. I have never had that problem. If the cubes are touching, the roots will continue to grow into the next.

If you use egg cartons, you will need to transplant into a larger container eventually as they are not larger enough to support a seedling. You can save larger containers for transplanting. It important to make sure that you have cleaned and sterilized these containers.

If you make your own newspaper pots, they need to be a minimum of 2 ½ inches high by 2 inches in diameter. Paper pots may disintegrate within five weeks.

To fill any of the containers:

Pack them with potting soil, moisten the soil with warm water and tamp it down a bit. Allow the soil to drain and repeat as necessary to fill your containers.


Before you plant your seeds it is good to know which seeds are cold germinators and which seeds need a warmer start so that they can be placed in different spots. A kale seed will germinate at 55 degrees, while tomatoes need for it to be 75 degees. Watermelon may not successfully germinate until it is 85 degrees. Additionally some seeds germinate overnight while others take weeks. As containers need to be covered until germination, it is good to group them accordingly. Most of your vegetable seeds will germinate within 7 – 14 days. Some herb and flower seeds need a period of cold stratification before they will germinate. The best guide on how to germinate seeds I have found is available on the Internet at     The Seed Site is also a  great site, but I find his germination charts to be confusing.

1. Plant seeds. It is not necessary to plant seeds deeply. If you think about how seeds self-sow in nature, you realize that they are just lying on the surface of the soil. Thick and thin is the best motto when planting seeds.

Fine seeds simply be sprinkled on the surface or you can use the paint brush trick.

Medium seeds can be covered to a depth that no greater than the thickness of the seed. It is always better to cover the seed with too little dirt than to bury it too deeply.

Large seeds can simply be pressed into the surface and covered lightly.

2. Cover the top of your container with transparent material such as plastic film or a plastic lid to keep moisture in. Remove this cover as SOON as you see germination.


Your seedlings should be receiving at the very least eight solid hours of light per day. A 12 hour light-dark cycle is more desirable. You will likely need to use artificial light to accomplish this. It doesn’t have to be a fancy set up. You can use a shop light with one warm bulb and one cool bulb on a timer. The lights should hang between 6-8 inches above the top of the seedlings, which may mean raising the lights, as the seedlings grow. If they are trying to grow too quickly to “reach” the light, they become long and leggy. Putting your seedlings in a window will work but you will probably find that the plant grows toward the light and gets a little leggy.


It is best to keep the soil moist by lightly misting it with a spray bottle or a pump sprayer, rather than actually pouring water on top of the seedlings. This causes seeds to drift and may result in fungal problems. I like to bottom water my larger soil blocks but I wouldn’t do this with my small blocks.

Air Circulation

Once your seedlings are growing it helps to have air circulating above them. This discourages fungal growth and simulates the wind triggering thigmomorphogenesis. This is beneficial to the plant because it results in shorter sturdier stems. (Stern: Introduction to Plant Biology – 198). If you don’t have a fan, you can just ruffle your hand gently across your seedlings. For plants that need to be started at warmer temperatures such as peppers, tomatoes and basil, you can use one of those heater fans to heat the air around the trays. I have found this to be more effective than bottom heat.


If you need to transplant seedlings to a larger container this can be done any time after the first true set of leaves appears but I like to wait until the second set appears.

Hardening Off

Seedlings grown inside need to be hardened off by gradually exposing them to daylight and outdoor growing conditions. 7-10 days before you are going to plant them in the ground, set your seedlings in a protected shady place. Every day after this put them in the sunlight for successively longer periods, until they are ready to put out.

Planting Out
I like to try to plant my starts out on a cloudy day which is usually easy to accomplish in the spring. Don’t hurry the plants be sure to wait until temperatures are appropriate and soil crumbles easily in your hands. If you work damp soil too soon in the spring, you are likely to create compaction and other problems.

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ISU News Release: Plants Affected by Frigid Temperatures

By Richard Jauron, Willy Klein

Iowa gardeners should expect poor crops on peaches and sweet cherries this summer. It also is possible that the trees themselves may have been damaged.

Iowa gardeners should expect poor crops on peaches and sweet cherries this summer. It also is possible that the trees themselves may have been damaged.

AMES, Iowa — Winter can be tough on Iowa’s trees and shrubs. Low temperatures, rapid temperature changes, winter desiccation and the weight of ice and snow can damage vulnerable trees and shrubs. Horticulturists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach answer questions about the effect this winter’s frigid temperatures will have on landscape plants. To have additional questions answered, contact Hortline at 515-294-3108 or

This winter temperatures have dropped to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. What effects will the cold temperatures have on my fruit trees?

The cold temperatures may have damaged peach and sweet cherry trees. Peach trees are not reliably cold hardy in much of Iowa. Temperatures below -18 F will destroy the flower buds on peach trees. Temperatures of -25 F or below may damage or destroy the peach trees themselves. The flower buds on sweet cherries are slightly more cold-hardy than those on peaches. The flower buds on some sweet cherry cultivars can survive temperatures of -20 F. Iowa gardeners should expect poor crops on peaches and sweet cherries this summer. It also is possible that the trees themselves may have been damaged. Damage may vary from dieback of twigs and branches to complete death. On a brighter note, the cold winter temperatures should not have damaged apples, pears and sour (tart) cherries.

What effects will this winter’s cold temperatures have on my trees and shrubs?

Iowa gardeners should expect poor crops on peaches and sweet cherries this summer. It also is possible that the trees themselves may have been damaged.

Iowa gardeners should expect poor crops on peaches and sweet cherries this summer. It also is possible that the trees themselves may have been damaged.

Trees and shrubs that are native to Iowa (or similar regions of the world) are well adapted to our climate and should have suffered little or no damage. However, marginally hardy plants, such as Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus serrulata) may have sustained damage. (The maximum cold hardiness of most Japanese maple, flowering dogwood and Japanese flowering cherry cultivars is -20 F.) Damage may vary from the dieback of twigs and branches to complete death of the tree.

This winter’s cold temperatures also may have destroyed the flower buds on flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp.) and some forsythia cultivars. Temperatures of -20 F or below likely destroyed the flower buds on flowering quince and ‘Lynwood Gold’ and ‘Spring Glory’ (two popular forsythia cultivars). As a result, these shrubs likely will produce few, if any, flowers in spring. Fortunately, the cold temperatures should not have any long term effects on the shrubs. The leaf buds on flowering quince and forsythia are hardier than their flower buds. The shrubs should leaf out normally in spring.

This winter’s cold temperatures should have little impact on the flowering of forsythia cultivars ‘Meadowlark’ and ‘Northern Sun.’ The flower buds of ‘Meadowlark and ‘Northern Sun’ can tolerate temperatures to -30 F.

Deer have eaten all the foliage on the bottom portions of several arborvitae. Will the bare areas green back up in spring?

This winter’s prolonged period of snow cover has deprived deer of food on the ground. As a result, deer have been feeding on trees and shrubs in woodlands, windbreaks and home landscapes. Among evergreens, arborvitae and yews are most susceptible to browsing by deer in winter.

The extent of damage to the lower portions of the arborvitae will be determined by the presence or absence of buds (growing points). If buds are present, the lower branches will produce new growth in spring. The new growth should be apparent by early summer. The lower portions of the arborvitae will remain bare and likely never develop new growth if no buds are present.


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