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Herbs Rock!

By Nancy Richter

Could you get excited about attending a conference in Cleveland, I did, and it wasn't because visiting Cleveland was on my list of things to do before I die! The reason? Herbs, of course!

Around four hundred people with a passion for herbs congregated in Cleveland June 17-19, 2004 for the Herb Society of America's Annual Conference, Herbs Rock! It was two days jam-packed with so much information that I felt like my head was going to explode by the time I boarded my flight home.

The conference consisted of workshops, presentations, garden tours, vendors, and an awards program. Some pretty prestigious names in the herb world were there: Arthur Tucker, Tom Debaggio, Deni Brown, Andy van Hevelingen, and Madalene Hill. I was in awe of them, and also of the other conference attendees who had such devotion, knowledge, and enthusiasm about herbs. Everyone was so friendly, welcoming, and eager to share their knowledge and personal experiences with herbs.

Some highlights of the conference were visiting the library at the HSA headquarters in Holden, Ohio (I sat in the room surrounded by books about herbs and said, "I could live in here!"), Holden Arboretum, and the Cleveland Botanical Garden - which has an outstanding herb garden, with rose bushes dating back to the 1500's.

I'd like to share some information with you from a couple of the presentations that I found particularly interesting.

Pat Crocker, a culinary herbalist and photographer from Hanover, Ontario, presented Getting Down to Herbal Roots. She shared medicinal, nutritional, and culinary information about the roots of wild and cultivated herbs.

An interesting concept Pat offered was that we should stop categorizing culinary and medicinal herbs as separate groups, because all culinary herbs contain some medicinal properties. Just recently, I read an article in a health publication insert in the Des Moines Register that told about the health-improving properties of twelve popular culinary herbs and spices, from cilantro to cinnamon, which reinforced that concept for me.

The term root refers to the rootstock, rhizome, tuber, corm, and bulb. Some of the roots Pat spoke about are: angelica, astragalus, burdock, chicory, comfrey, dandelion, echinacea, elecampane, garlic, ginger, ginseng, lovage, parsley, tumeric, and valerian

To harvest roots, wait until the plant has died back in the fall. Become familiar with what the foliage and flower look like, and take note of where you see the plants growing during the spring and summer so that you can return in the fall to harvest.

To roast roots, chop the fresh root and then dry it. Lay roots on a cookie sheet, place in a 350-400 degree oven, watch, stir, and turn. Store the cooled roots in jars out of sunlight, and grind when needed.

If you're not up for drying your own herb roots, Pat mentioned that Frontier Herbs (right here in Iowa!) is a good source for ordering dried roots.

Another way to preserve roots is to make a rob, which is an herb root preserved in simple syrup and vinegar. Roots can also be used to makes tinctures and oils.

Other information from Crocker's talk and handout:

There are five sense tastes on the tongue, and bitter is one of them. The bitter taste stimulates the appetite and assists the liver system. Many herb roots have this bitter taste.

Some roots for cooking:

Astragalus: use in soups or root beverages
Medicinal: immune stimulant, anti-microbial, cardio-tonic, diuretic, promotes tissue building, alleviates adverse effects of steroids.

Burdock: use as a soup vegetable and as a coffee substitute
Medicinal: anti-rheumatic, antibiotic, diaphoretic, a skin and blood cleanser, tonic, soothes kidneys and relieves lymphatics, mild laxative

Dandelion: peel and use fresh as any vegetable, chopped, fresh, or dried in spring tonics, grate fresh, raw into salads
Medicinal: liver tonic, promotes bile, laxative

Echinacea: use in soups or stocks, in root beverages
Medicinal: immune stimulant, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, anti-microbial, antiseptic,

Garlic: fresh, raw garlic is best; cooked fresh still has some medicinal benefits; powdered dry garlic has no medicinal benefit.
Medicinal: anti-microbial, antibiotic, cardio-protective, anti- carcinogen, reduces blood pressure, anti-coagulant, lowers blood cholesterol levels, lowers blood sugar levels

Ginger: Both fresh and dried ginger possess therapeutic properties; use them liberally in cooking as a tonic.

Lovage: makes a good after-dinner tonic, as it alleviates flatulence

Tumeric: use fresh if available; grate into sauces, vegetable dishes, rice, pasta, sliced to flavor vinegars, syrups; and in desserts
Medicinal: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-cancer, hinders build-up of cholesterol plaques in arteries, reduces post-exercise pain, heals wounds, liver protector, increases bile production and bile flow

Crocker cautioned against using wild ginger, monkshood, deadly nightshade, and water hemlock.
She also advised that pregnant women should not consume large amounts of parsley. (One of its essential oils can stimulate uterine contractions.)

Conference participants had the opportunity to sample Pat's mango chutney, root coffee (LINKS TO RECIPES), and root curry paste. The chutney was sweet and spicy, the coffee was surprisingly good, and the curry paste was spicy with a hot kick!

Pat Crocker has written "The Healing Herbs Cookbook". Her website address is

Dr. Peter Gail (also known as The Wizard of Weeds) of Cleveland Heights, Ohio spoke on cooking with dandelions and other weeds in his program Dinner Underfoot: Feasting on Your Backyard. Gail, an ethnobotanist and author, is director of Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living in Cleveland.

Gail chronicled how "Grandma" knew all of the useful weeds, and used them as food and in healing. He asked, "How did we move away from that?" He pointed to the end of World War I, industrialization, grocery stores, and the GI Bill. "Education drew us away from the land and made us specialists", said Gail. His theory is that chemical companies used the dandelion as a symbol to promote the idea of weed-free lawns and that concept really caught on. People equated dandelions with something bad that needed to be gotten rid of. Now, things have gone full cycle and people are speaking out for dandelions, purslane, violets, etc. You can even buy dandelion seeds from catalogs!

Some interesting tidbits culled from Gail' presentation:


Dig dandelion roots in the fall; clean, dry, roast, and grind them to use for hot drinks.
Pick the rosette of leaves, not loose leaves.
To avoid the bitter taste of mature leaves, eat them with something sweet, such as bread and tomatoes.
Use the leaves on pizza and in sandwiches.
The dandelion flower is the richest source of lecithin.
To use the flower, pinch it at the bottom, roll it, and shake the petals off.

Gail has compiled over 600 recipes using dandelions. He gave us his recipe for dandelion burgers. (LINK TO RECIPE)

Other Edible Weeds
(All these are edible raw.)

The seeds from plaintain are a good source of fiber.
Wintergrass is found under the snow in the winter.
Violet is the second richest source of vitamin C - both leaves and flowers.
Rose hips are also very rich in vitamin C.
The seeds of Queen Anne's lace can be used as a celery substitute.
Purslane is rich in omega 3
Gill over the ground, also known as creeping Charlie is another good source of vitamin C. Use it to make tea. (I had to swallow hard as I typed this because I've been fighting my neighbor's creeping Charlie that has crept into several of my herb beds!)
Lamb's quarters is more nutritious than spinach.
Clover, sourgrass - a kind of sorrel-, dwarf mallow, and burdock are also edible weeds.

Gail told about a group called Wild Food Foragers, They publish a free monthly email newsletter; view a sample newsletter on their site. Peter Gail's website is

Shortly after I returned home from the conference I was weeding in one of my beds, and I started to pull up purslane. Then, I remembered Gail's talk and started munching on it, and it was pretty darned tasty! There wasn't enough purslane to use in cooking, but it made a fine snack while I weeded. One of the members in my herb study group does a lot of pickling, and she pickled purslane.

Like the saying, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", what one person views as a weed is considered a useful plant to another. I've been interested in wild plants for some time, inspired by my younger sister who knows a lot about this subject, and, happily, was able to join me at the HSA conference.

I read Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Stalking the Wild Herbs, two books by Euell Gibbons, for the first time about a year ago, and also purchased a wild plant identification guide. I have MS and use a wheel chair, so unfortunately I can't go traipsing through the woods in search of wild plants like I used to. But, since we don't use any chemicals on our lawn, I can find dinner (or at least a snack) in my own back and front yard! I also like to take my wheelchair on trails with my husband, and it's surprising how many wild herbs and edible weeds I can identify along the way.

Note: always be sure that you can positively identify any plant that you harvest for food, and make sure that it hasn't been sprayed with chemicals.

Other presentations at the conference were: The Magical Herbs of Beatrix Potter, by Susan Wittig Albert - author of the China Bayles herbal mystery series; The Fragrance is Familiar: Herbs and Horticultural Therapy, by Nancy Stevenson, MA, HTR and Patricia J. Owen, MS, HTR: and Highlighting Gems in the Collection, by Anne Abbot, Dr. Arthur Tucker, Rexford Talbert, Madalene Hill, and Mary Northcutt.

The workshops provided lots of useful information that I'm sharing with my group, the Des Moines Herb Study Group: Starting and Maintaining a Public Garden, Growing Your Membership, Programming Tips and Ideas, Getting the Word Out: Marketing and PR, among others.

This conference was a totally positive experience for me. And, Cleveland turned out to be a very interesting city. My only regret was that I didn't get a chance to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!

I've talked about the conference so much that my enthusiasm must have rubbed off on my husband…we're planning our 2006 vacation around the Herb Society of America's Annual Conference in Indianapolis. (The 2005 conference will be held in Atlanta.)

The Herb Society of America,, was founded in 1933 to further knowledge and use of herbs. Their mission statement says, "The Herb Society of America is dedicated to promoting the knowledge, use and delight of herbs through educational programs, research, and sharing the experience of its members with the community."

Ed. Note: Nancy thoughfully brought back some recipes from the conference, archived on our website (with permission of course). Enjoy!

Dandelion Burgers
Root Coffee
Mango Chutney

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