Magnolia Medicine

magnolia grandiflora

M. grandiflora

The leaves of the Magnolia grandiflora and Magnolia virginiana ( southern varieties of magnolias with evergreen leaves) have long  been used by indigenous populations in the Southeast for medicine.

Modern research has confirmed this practice.   M. grandiflora contains phenolic constituents shown to possess significant antimicrobial activity, several of which exhibit significant action against Gram-positive and acid-fast bacteria and fungi. The leaves of  M.grandiflora contain coumarins and the sesquiterpene lactones: costunolide, parthenolide, costunolide diepoxide, santamarine and reynosin. M. virginiana has been shown to have two additional sesquiterpenes: ostunolact-12β-ol and its acetal dimer.

I have heard many herbalists say that medicinally speaking all magnolias species and dogwood are interchangeable, but I question if that extends to the varieties that grow locally.

I’ve never been lucky enough to be in Nashville to see my husband’s grandmother’s trees bloom, but I have had a chance to munch on some spring leaves. Given that it is the the sesquiterpene lactones in the leaves which account for the plants actions, I really don’t believe after having smelled and tasted the grandiflora leaves that our local variety have nearly the same chemical make-up.

Magnolia .x soulangiana

Magnolia .x soulangiana

Our trees are pretty but the leaves are very different, they are  deciduous and not nearly so aromatic. The taste, what little there is, seems entirely different. Steve tells me if I ever get to smell a blossom from Grandma’s tree, I will be sure of it.
Whether this is due to variety or growing in a different climiate, the plants of the magnolia species that are hardy enough to make in Iowa are such a different creature that I don’t understand how they could possibly have the same energetics and actions and I haven’t been able to find much on their sesquiterpene content.  My guess is that the northern deciduous varieties are not nearly so potent,  although there has been some interesting work done in identifying  the acetylcholinesterase inhibiting chemical taspine in the Magnolia x soulangiana species, which will grow here in Iowa.

This seems to be supported by differential traditional use of indigenous groups.   In the  the southeast the Cherokee utilized the bark of Magnolia acuminata L far stomach ailments and toothaches. The Iroquois also utilized the bark as a medicinal.   The active constituents in M acuminata bark may be the lignans present in the bark and root. While that variety is hardy in this area, it is not necessarily native to Iowa. I couldn’t find any record of our local plains tribes  using it.

That being said I do have a nice press release from the ISU archives on which magnolias grow well here.

Magnolias for Iowa Gardens

By Cindy Haynes
Extension horticulturist
Iowa State University Extension

One of the most beautiful groups of flowering trees is the magnolia. The regal flowers of southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) grace landscapes throughout the southeastern United States. They have even appeared on a postage stamp. However, this southern beauty is just that… southern. Southern magnolia will not tolerate Iowa’s harsh winters. However, there are several other magnolia species with equally attractive flowers that perform well in Iowa. Their elegant flowers appear from early April through May.

Magnolias are a diverse group of plants with pink, purple, white and even yellow flowering types. Flowers on most are fragrant, varying slightly with species. Plant size can vary greatly as well. Many are medium to large trees with some reaching more than 50 feet tall. Others are considered large shrubs only reaching 8 to 12 feet tall. Because of their diversity, there is a magnolia for virtually every site in the landscape.

Cucumbertree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) is native to the United States from Louisiana to New York. It is hardy to Minnesota. This tree is “large” in many respects. The leaves can be up to ten inches long and the tree often reaches 50 feet or more in height. However, the flowers are relatively small — only 2 to 3 inches long and greenish yellow in color. While the flowers are quite attractive, they are not readily seen since they are often hidden by the foliage. Flowering begins in late spring and is rarely affected by frosts. The fruit, appearing in late summer, is worth searching for since it resembles a cucumber, hence the common name.

While the flowers on the cucumbertree magnolia often go unnoticed, the blooms of some of its offspring are quite showy. Because of their unusual greenish yellow flowers, the cucumbertree magnolia has been crossed with other magnolia species to develop yellow-flowering selections. ‘Elizabeth’ was the first yellow-flowering magnolia sold and is still one of the best available on the market today. Recently, several other yellow magnolias have been introduced. Competitors such as ‘Butterflies,’ ‘Yellow Bird,’ ‘Yellow Fever,’ ‘Yellow Garland,’ ‘Sundance’ and ‘Miss Honeybee’ reportedly offer more vibrant yellow flowers. Only time will tell if they can surpass the elegance of ‘Elizabeth.’ ‘Elizabeth’ will reach 30 feet tall with a 15 to 20 foot spread. Unlike the cucumbertree, the yellow magnolia hybrids flower before the leaves emerge fully in spring, making the show much more spectacular. Since the yellow-flowering hybrids bloom later than most magnolias, they are rarely damaged by frosts.

Another large magnolia with showy flowers is the saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana). Sometimes called the tulip tree, this magnolia puts on a spectacular show producing large, pinkish purple flowers in early spring. When this tree is in full bloom it can stop traffic. The flowers are lightly fragrant. Unfortunately, our fickle weather in early spring can be a problem. Freezing temperature can turn beautiful flowers into dead, brown masses. Give this species plenty of room, since saucer magnolia normally reaches 30 feet tall with a spread of 20 feet.

In locations where smaller trees are needed, the loebner magnolias (Magnolia x loebneri) are excellent choices. With heights from 15 to 25 feet, they are suitable for sites near the home. ‘Merrill’ is one of the hardiest of the loebner magnolias surviving beautifully at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (USDA Hardiness Zone 4a). The white flowers are smaller than the saucer magnolia but contain more petals (tepals, technically). They also flower a couple of weeks later than the star and saucer magnolias, oftentimes escaping injury from late frosts. ‘Leonard Messel,’ another lobener magnolia cultivar, is noted for its pale pink flowers.

Coming down in size once again is the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Star magnolia is the first magnolia to bloom. As a result, the flowers are occasionally zapped by late spring frosts. Don’t cross the star magnolia off your list because its white flowers are occasionally destroyed. In 3 or 4 years out of 5, it’s fantastic! Flowers are smaller than those of saucer magnolia but the petal count is much greater. Mature heights range from 12 to 20 feet with spreads around 12 feet. It is also one of the hardiest magnolias.

For plants with smaller statures but equally impressive floral displays there is the Little Girl series of magnolias. This series of hybrids was developed at the National Arboretum in the 1950s for shrub-like form and colorful flowers. Each of eight different cultivars, aptly named ‘Jane,’ ‘Judy,’ ‘Betty,’ ‘Ann,’ ‘Ricki,’ ‘Susan,’ ‘Randy’ and ‘Pinkie,’ are large shrubs ranging in height from 8 to 15 feet. Flowers vary slightly between cultivars but are generally challis-shaped and usually pink or purple in color. Flowers appear later in the spring season thus avoiding destruction by late spring frosts. Flowers usually appear just prior to or with the emerging leaves. The habit varies slightly between cultivars with ‘Ricki’ being rather upright and ‘Betty’ more spreading or rounded.

Planting and Maintenance

Magnolias prefer a full sun location with well-drained soils. They are adaptable to soil types, even tolerating clay soils, but they insist on good drainage. Waterlogged soils often lead to an early demise. Spring planting of larger specimens is best as most root growth occurs in spring.

Magnolias are relatively pest and disease free. On occasion, magnolia scale or mildew will attack a tree. These problems only warrant treatment in severe cases as they tend to be cyclic in nature. Contact your county extension office for treatment options if problems arise. As one magnolia aficionado once said, “Their biggest problem is not pests, it is that they don’t flower long enough.”

Magnolias are considered one of the oldest families of flowering plants. They have survived on earth for thousands of years. Thankfully they are still around to add a little elegance to our landscape every spring.

Resources:
Alice Clark et al., “Antimicrobial activity of phenolic constituents of magnolia grandiflora
L,” Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 70 (1981) 951–952.

Blunden Yang et al., “Coumarins and sesquiterpene lactones from Magnolia grandiflora leaves,” Planta medica,60 (1994): 390-390.

J. Rollinger et al., “Taspine:  Bioactivity-Guided Isolation and Molecular Ligand−Target Insight of a Potent Acetylcholinesterase Inhibitor from Magnolia x soulangiana,” Journal of Natural Products 69 (2006): 1341-1346.   

S. Farouk et al., “Isolation and characterization of the sesquiterpene lactones costunolide, parthenolide, costunolide diepoxide, santamarine, and reynosin from Magnolia grandiflora L.” Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 67 (1978) 347–350.

Q.Song et al., “Sequiterpenes from southern Magnolia virginiana,” Phytochemistry 47 (1998): 221-226.

Nocino from a Historical Perspective

It isn’t really close to time for starting nocino in my little part of the world, but I recognize that for some of you the time is drawing very near.  I’ve been asked for the recipe more than a few times this spring so I thought I would do something ahead of time, for a change.
There are so many recipes floating around out there that I thought I would speak about it more as an herbalist and less as a foodie, for a novel approach.  Before we get into all of that,  we should clear up a question that I have been asked a few times now as to which species of walnut to use in the preparations of nocino?

nocino, black walnut For those who need some identification help, I’ve added the picture to the left.  As you can see the leaves of the two types of walnut trees are quite different from one another so you should have no problems.  The leaves on top are from a black walnut (Juglans nigra) and the bottom leaves are from an English walnut (Juglans regia).  The most authentic recipes call for English walnuts.  If you look at Libovitz’s recipe you can see that he is using English walnuts, however, I remain unconvinced that one must use English Walnuts.  I would imagine the that recommendation is based on the fact that these  were the only type of Walnuts growing in Europe until the mid-17th century, but I see no reason why they aren’t interchangeable.  The early American colonists seemed to think they were, especially as they had a hard time getting English walnuts established.

nocino, black walnutI have black walnuts growing behind my house, so black walnuts are what I use and I have been quite happy with the results. If I stumble across a plentiful supply of the English variety, I will have to do a comparison.  The sacrifices I must make for my research…

As usual I like to research the history of my preparations.  I tried to pin down the origin of the drink.  I had almost given up on the idea when I found a journal article which attributes its origins to the Celts.  The authors of the journal cite literature from an Italian monastery which also confirms the use of the preparation “as a tonic and digestive aid” and attributes the origins of the drink to the Druids who traditionally collected “green unripe walnuts”at the end of their summer solstice rituals. It remains  traditional in Italy to gather the walnuts for this preparation on St. John the Baptist’s day which is the Catholic holy day that seems to have replaced the pagan solstice rituals.  So every year on St. Johns Day,  I pick his wort and start my nocino.

The following is the recipe for nocino as translated (probably poorly,  I used Google) from a pdf published by the Ordine del Nocino Modenese, the monastery which claims to have originated the drink in Italy.

INGREDIENTS:
1 liter of alcohol 95 °
700-900 grams of sugar
1 kg of walnuts (33-35 nuts about depending on the size but always in number odd)

The nuts must be strictly locally sourced and free from any treatment. They also need to be , as tradition indicates , collected at the turn of the feast of St. John the Baptist .The right consistency of the nut should be assessed and pierce it with a pin and / or verified visually by splitting in half with a knife.

Optional: Cloves and cinnamon in small quantities and dosed in such a way that the aroma prevalent in liquor is always that of the walnut and the overall bouquet you create a harmonious result.

PROCEDURE
The nuts, once harvested, they must be cut into 4 pieces and placed in a glass container (no rubber seals) together with the sugar. After being kept in the sun for 1-2 days and stir
Periodically, the nuts are ready to be added alcohol and any flavorings. The product thus obtained must be positioned in an area partially exposed to the sun, occasionally opened and shuffled, and not filtered before 60 days.

It is advisable to bottling in glass containers dark and / or refine the product in small wooden barrels… can choose either chestnut oak that provided that the barrel has been properly treated before use. The preservation of the walnut must be carried out in a cool place and for a minimum period of 12 months if you want to fully appreciate all the characteristics of this liquor.

nocino brewingThis is certainly a recipe that screams to be played around with a bit so this year I have decided to make a traditional batch with some cloves and another batch flavored with Angelica now that I have that growing in abundance.

The brew is not without a medicinal history. Although M.Grieves focuses on pickling the young nuts, there are historical references to green nuts combined in some way with sugar and used as a digestive aide. Gerard says “the greene and tender nuts boiled in sugar… are a most pleasant and delectable meate, comfort the stomach and expel poison.”   Culpeper recommends a very similar preparation saying, “The young green nuts taken before they be half ripe and preserved with sugar, are of good use for those who have weak stomachs.”  He also mentions that ounce or two of a distillation of the same age of husk, is used to “cool the heat of agues and resist the infection of the plague.”  That might be a new tradition to add to my summer solstice celebration.  I’d guess a black walnut distillation smells amazing. I may have to give Susanna Avery’s recipe for pickling the green nuts a try as well.

Let your nutts be green as not to have any shell; then run a kniting pin two ways through them; then put them into as much ordinary vinegar as will cover them, and let them stand thirty days, shifting them every too days in ffrech vinegar; then ginger and black peper of each ounce, rochambol [ Spanish garlic] two ounces slised, a handfull of bay leaves; put all togeather cold; then wrap up every wall nutt singly in a vine leaf, and put them in putt them into the ffolloing pickel: for 200 of walnutts take two gallans of the best whit vineager, a pint of the best mustard seed, fore ounces of horse radish, with six lemons sliced with the rins [rinds]on, cloves and mace half an ounce, a stone jar, and put the pickel on them, and cork them close up; and they will be ffitt for use in three months, and keep too years.

Resources:
Alamprese, C.,  “Characterization and antioxidant activity of nocino liqueur,” Food Chemistry (2005): 495-502.
Avery, S. Her Book, 12 May 1688 “To Pickel Wallnutts Green.”
Culpeper, N.,  Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, (Manchester: J Gleave and Son, 1826), 194.
Gerarde, J., The Herbal or General History of Plants, 1633 edition, (New York: Dover,1975), 1441. 

www.ordinedelnocinomodenese.it

Trapolin’s Rhubarb Pie

We visited my extended family over the weekend and as always,  I came home a little wistful for rural living.   My parents and my sister have adjoining acreages just outside of town.   They live out by the gun club, the dam and a cute little vineyard named the Hollywood Vine.   (I mention this because I find the juxtaposition of the gun club and the vineyard to be amusingly ironic.)   They have just enough woods to hunt for morels and enough sunny spaces for lots of gardening.  But my family are not your run-of-the-mill, look at my rare hostas kind of gardeners.

My family grows food.   We always have.

Even after they lost the farm,  Dad always managed a respectable garden anywhere we rented.   I think I can unbiasedly say that his pickles are the best pickles in the world.

Since Mom retired last year,  their whole set up is beginning to remind me of when I was young.   They have built four new  vegetable gardens this year, sharing a couple with my sister who lives in town.  They are  planting more fruit trees and herbs.  Mom even started a Facebook group about preserving food.   Now all they need is chickens and a milk cow, named Blondie Cow  It is kind of enough to make a girl with a .12 acre lot, neighbors who like to spray too many chemicals and a lot of city planting restrictions envious.

So I came home from the visit feeling a little jealous and a little down but with a plastic bag of rhubarb from my sister’s patch.   I was thinking I’d make jam but Steve likes rhubarb pie so we made a pie.  Trapolin helped me tweak this recipe today, because I can never leave a recipe alone.  So this is his pie and it turned out amazing.

You will need a double pie crust for a 9 inch pie. We just use a good old-fashioned flour, butter, water recipe.

rhubarb pie

Ground coconut is one of our secret ingredients.

Filling
4-5 cups of chopped rhubarb
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tbsp. lemon juice
3-4 saffron threads
3 tablespoons finely ground coconut
4 tablespoons flour (tapioca flour works here if you are gluten free)
2 tablespoons butter cut into small pieces

Finely chop the rhubarb. This is the key to avoiding the stringy chunky texture which causes youngsters to object to rhubarb pie, sometimes. Mix in the threads of saffron and then add the juices.

rhubarb pie

Trapolin’s Rhubarb Pie

I like to let it set for a bit at this point to let the saffron infuse into the juice so I start the oven preheating to 350 degrees and roll the dough out for the pie plate, at this point. Once the oven is preheated, I add the sugar, coconut and flour to the rhubarb juice mixture.

Pour this into your pie crust and then sprinkle the chopped butter over the filling. Cover with the second pie crust, crimp the edges and cut vents in the top. Bake this for 45 minutes.   If you like you can make an egg wash at this point by mixing an egg briskly with a teaspoon of water. Brush this on the pie and return it to the oven to cook for another 15 minutes.

If they wad drink Nettles in March and eat muggins in May…

An old Scottish story tells of the mermaid of Clyde who seemed to be a particularly sympathetic sort and in lamenting the demise of many young women of Glasgow said,

“If they wad drink nettles in March
And eat muggins in May
Sae many  braw maidens
Wadna go to clay”

Nettles in March

I do know that March is over but Spring is coming slowly to my part of the world.  Also, Scotland, being the equivalent to planting zone 8 or 9,  sees nettles much earlier than we Iowans do- even on a good year.  So sometimes, I have to make minor adjustments to the old ways.   The nettles are just beginning to pop up to the point that I feel okay about harvesting them.

A close-up shot of my nettle bag from Sunny Savage Designs.   The rust colored fibers were dyed with woad.

A close-up shot of my nettle bag from Sunny Savage Designs. The rust colored fibers were dyed with woad.

The Middle English name nettle descends from the Old English netele and which derives from a PIE root meaning “spin or sew” which is likely due to the fact that its fibers can be used for making fabric.
The fact that using nettles for fabric was replaced by flax was simply one of many instances in which a plant that ruggedly grew in abundance was replaced by a plant, in this case flax, which needed specialized care and tending.     The usefulness of nettles was not limited to its use in weaving.  The sap was used to curdle milk in cheese making and it was also used to seal leaks in pottery.

Medicinal uses for the plant abound although care must be taken when researching old herbals to be very careful not to use stinging nettles in the place of  red nettle known today as purple dead nettle  (Lamium purpureum) which does not have stinging trichomes.

The Old English Herbarium mentions many uses including mixing nettle seeds with hemp to cool a burn.    The Physicians of  Myddvai used a poultice of crushed nettles wrapped in cloth to staunch a bleeding nose and although it seems as though perhaps that would be a job best left to red nettles, later in the text there are formulas which call specifically for red nettles.     I think I shall still opt for yarrow for this purpose.  The Myddvai herbal also recommends using nettle seeds as a peripheral circulatory agent as follows:

FOR A COLD IN THE LIMBS. § 427. Take the seed of nettles and boil in honey, anoint your feet and arms or other parts requiring it with the same, and it will remove the cold.

According to Allen and Hatfield, the most frequent use of nettle was as a spring tonic followed by using it to sooth rheumatic complaints and measles rash.  As a spring tonic, infusions were made of the fresh leaves in the early spring in Ireland, Scotland and East Anglia to “cleanse the blood of impurities” and it is to this use which the proverb refers.

Modernly, nettle root is approved in the  Commission E Reports and in Germany physicians prescribe nettles for rheumatic diseases due to the presence of  both caffeic  and malic acids which have demonstrated anti-inflammatory action.   The roots contain a peculiar lectin–Urtica Dioca Aglutinate (UDA).  It is theorized that UDA may have an inhibitory effect on white blood cells involved involved in autoimmune issues.

Muggins in May

mugwortLiath-lus, known in English as Mugwort is an herb that has long been associated with the night. Even the scientific name Artemisia vulgaris, speaks of its asso­ciation with the moon and the dark being named for the Greek lunar deity.  Due to its nocturnal nuances, the herb has also been as­sociated with dreaming and divination.

The herb was more likely associated with Artemis in her role as patron of mater­nity and childbirth as it was commonly used by mid­wives to “restore menstru­al flow, ease delivery and cleanse the womb.”

The herb has been attribut­ed to many ancient uses. Pliny wrote that the way­farer who has this herb tied about him will never grow weary and another folk tale insists that with mugwort under his feet, a man can walk 40 miles.   The herb is frequently associated with mermaids.  A mermaid in a different Scottish tale asks the young man lamenting the coming demise of his love:

“Wad ye let the bonnie May die i’ your hand, And the Mugwort flowering i’ the land?”

 confirms that the herb was consid­ered a medicinal.  It was mentioned as a specific for consumption- an old-fashioned time term referring to pulmonary tuberculosis.

The chemical constituent of mugwort that is probably most studied thujone. Chemically thujone is classed as a mono­terpene with neuroactive properties, and was used historically for hysterical fits.  It also has “antimicrobial, anthelmintic and in­secticidal properties.”  Extremely large doses of this chemical constituent of the plant’s essential oil can cause mammalian convulsion.

Thujone occurs in many plants in­cluding the Artemesias, sage and yarrow but it does not occur uniformly. Concen­tration of the chemical varies among spe­cies and individuals of a species.  I speculate that this is a result of a variety of factors including growing con­dition. As a secondary plant metabolite most likely produced as a protective mea­sure, it makes sense that its concentration would vary in response to environmental factors.

Thujone was once considered to contribute to the toxicity of absinthe but research has proved otherwise. I will delve into that more when I cover Arte­misia absinthium

My own experience with mugwort has been that of using it in many home­made incense blends and as a part of my full moon ritual blend. I don’t find it to be as bitter as its cousin wormwood, so I don’t use it as a part of a bitters blend. I do enjoy a vinegar made out of mugwort tops early in the spring,  the acetic acid base draws out the many minerals in the plant and  the acetum makes a nice digestive tonic.

Aside from the many medicinal and esoteric uses ascribed to mugwort,  our lovely mermaid friend above though seemed to think of muggins as a useful addition to the diet.  I decided to research its traditional uses as a potherb.  In researching about I found that it was utilized, especially by the Highlanders, who used it early in the growing season when  leaves are still mild in flavor.  Sir John Hill affirms that the young leaves are “aromatic to the taste with a little sharpness.”  This bitter sharpness likely enhances digestion.

Artemisia princeps –very similar to Artemisia vulgaris– is often mentioned as an ingredient in Japanese cooking .  Mugwort soba is available on the market. It is also an ingredient in Korean recipes which refer to it as Ssuk.    I’ve searched around for a few interesting recipes for those Asian foods which call for A. princeps thinking that now might be an interesting time to try a few, but I didn’t come up with many which means I may have to experiment.

Ssukguk
Ssuk-beomul

There is this mugwort soba recipe which makes me think that I might have to give making some mugwort pasta, a try.

And I wouldn’t be me, if I didn’t link to at least one beer brewing recipe that calls for mugwort.

References
Black, Willam George. 1883. Folk-medicine: A Chapter in the History of Culture. London: Folk-lore Society by Elliot Stock 62 Paternoster Row, E.C. .
David Allen, Gabrielle Hatfield. 2004. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. Portland: Timber Press.
Dubois B, Peumans WJ, Van Damme EJM et al (1998) Regulation of gelatinase B (MMP-9) in leukocytes by plant lectins. FEBS Lett 427:275–278
John Gerard, Thomas Johnson. 1975. The Herball or General History of Plants: The Complete 1633 Edition as Revised and Enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover Publications.
Pollington, Stephen. 2008. Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing. Ely, Cambridgeshire: Anglo-Saxon Books.
Pughe, John. 1861. The Physicians of Myddvai; Meddygon Myddfai . London: Longman & Co.
 

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.