NEEDLED GREENS, the HERBS OF DECEMBER

“…the river runs, the round world spins, dawn and lamplight, midnight, noon. Sun follows day, night, stars and moon. The day ends, the end begins.” Michael Judge, The Dance of Time.

December signals the completion of one cycle of growth and the beginning of another, the end of one calendar year and start of the next. It ushers the natural world into deep darkness and cold winter sleep at the same time it gives promise of returning light and renewed growth. The month of intense darkness and flickering new light, people have always approached December with a mix of quiet awe and high festivity.

Strings of lights shine in the dark night, candles brighten windows. Evergreens appear on doors, fences and railings: wreaths carrying the ancient message of the circle of life, festive garlands and sprays of berries bound with cut, needled greens that promise the survival of life no matter how harsh and dark the time.

Those traditional needled greens we hang on doors and decorate our homes with–fir and spruce, pine and juniper–are all herbal plants with practical, medicinal, culinary and magical uses reaching back thousands of years. The ancient festal greens of pre-Christian winter celebrations, they grow around the world. Ancient people cut them for midwinter religious celebrations for much the same reasons we do, they’re available and provide a green symbol of continuing life in a lifeless season.

Pines, firs and spruces are all classified as pines. A Semitic symbol of life and an Asian symbol of longevity and immortality, pines have always been important to humans. Like rooted pigs-of-the-forest, the entire tree was used. The wood of the towering trees provided building materials, warmth and cooking fuel. Its bark was woven into baskets and used to wrap and preserve food. The soft needles of pines provided fragrant bedding and its essential oils were extracted for medicine. Even its inner bark became food in times of famine. However, it Is pine pitch that altered human history.

Pitch was cooked until it became a thick tar. The tar, slathered on walls, roofs and anything else that might leak, was used for waterproofing. Noah, at God’s direction, pitched the Ark inside and out to make it water tight. Egyptian mummies were coated with pine tar. Ancient Greeks used it to leak-proof wine jugs. The pitch gave the wine a resinous taste still enjoyed today as Retsina. Most importantly of all, it sealed the hulls of ships. Securely waterproofed vessels allowed humans to safely roam the seas, leading to the development of trade routes, great navies and mighty civilizations.

Juniper belongs to the cypress family. Believed to be the world’s oldest incense, it has been used for magic, medicine and cooking since the beginning of human history. A symbol of asylum and protection, the thickly clustered, sharp, grey-green needles of juniper provide safe shelter for animals and birds. The blue green berries, actually modified cones, are a source of winter food. There are many old stories of junipers willingly opening their prickly branches to deserving humans fleeing for their lives. One story tells of the Holy Family, fleeing Herod’s soldiers, being beckoned to safety by an observant juniper. The belief in the protective powers of juniper was so strong that many people planted it at each entrance to their home or hung sprays on doors and windows. No evil spirit, it was thought, could enter a building that was protected by juniper. In the Middle Ages, juniper was burned during outbreaks of plague for it’s protective smoke. Monks steeped juniper berries in distilled spirits to promote good digestion. Cooks and hunters tossed the berries into thick soups and stews for the same reason.

There is some truth to the ancient belief of protection. Juniper oil, pressed from the berries since early biblical times, is still used medicinally. The essential oil has anti-viral properties and is effective in treating skin and urinary disorders as well as stimulating digestion.

The essential oil is widely used in men’s toiletry products to give them a deep woodsy smell. Juniper berries are a primary source of flavor in gin. Every time you sip a gin and tonic or enjoy an exotic martini, you are getting the medicinal benefits of juniper’s little blue berry. Nothing adds deeper flavor to slowly simmering winter stews and rich meat dishes then the addition of three or four dried juniper berries.

HERBAL TIP OF THE SEASON
Try taking potted perennial herbs indoors for the winter. Some of them may winter over nicely. Keep the pots in a cool, low light location. This is a dormant season for perennial herbs, so they don’t need a lot of water or any feeding. If you live in an old house, try wintering your potted herbs in the basement. Old houses usually have dark, damp, cool basements, perfect for sleeping plants.

AN HERBAL HEADS-UP!
Horseradish is the 2011 Herb of the Year. Celebrate by buying a bottle of fresh, ground horseradish from your supermarket cooler section. The whiter the horseradish the fresher it is. Mix it with ketchup for a seafood dipping sauce, stir it into tomato juice with a little salt and pepper for a delicious, healthy Virgin Mary or blend it with mayonnaise to spread on meat sandwiches. It delicious and good for you too! Enjoy!!

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“…the river runs, the round world spins, dawn and lamplight, midnight, noon. Sun follows day, night, stars and moon. The day ends, the end begins.” Michael Judge, The Dance of Time.

December signals the completion of one cycle of growth and the beginning of another, the end of one calendar year and start of the next. It ushers the natural world into deep darkness and cold winter sleep at the same time it gives promise of returning light and renewed growth. The month of intense darkness and flickering new light, people have always approached December with a mix of quiet awe and high festivity.

Strings of lights shine in the dark night, candles brighten windows. Evergreens appear on doors, fences and railings: wreaths carrying the ancient message of the circle of life, festive garlands and sprays of berries bound with cut, needled greens that promise the survival of life no matter how harsh and dark the time.

Those traditional needled greens we hang on doors and decorate our homes with–fir and spruce, pine and juniper–are all herbal plants with practical, medicinal, culinary and magical uses reaching back thousands of years. The ancient festal greens of pre-Christian winter celebrations, they grow around the world. Ancient people cut them for midwinter religious celebrations for much the same reasons we do, they’re available and provide a green symbol of continuing life in a lifeless season.

Pines, firs and spruces are all classified as pines. A Semitic symbol of life and an Asian symbol of longevity and immortality, pines have always been important to humans. Like rooted pigs-of-the-forest, the entire tree was used. The wood of the towering trees provided building materials, warmth and cooking fuel. Its bark was woven into baskets and used to wrap and preserve food. The soft needles of pines provided fragrant bedding and its essential oils were extracted for medicine. Even its inner bark became food in times of famine. However, it Is pine pitch that altered human history.

Pitch was cooked until it became a thick tar. The tar, slathered on walls, roofs and anything else that might leak, was used for waterproofing. Noah, at God’s direction, pitched the Ark inside and out to make it water tight. Egyptian mummies were coated with pine tar. Ancient Greeks used it to leak-proof wine jugs. The pitch gave the wine a resinous taste still enjoyed today as Retsina. Most importantly of all, it sealed the hulls of ships. Securely waterproofed vessels allowed humans to safely roam the seas, leading to the development of trade routes, great navies and mighty civilizations.

Juniper belongs to the cypress family. Believed to be the world’s oldest incense, it has been used for magic, medicine and cooking since the beginning of human history. A symbol of asylum and protection, the thickly clustered, sharp, grey-green needles of juniper provide safe shelter for animals and birds. The blue green berries, actually modified cones, are a source of winter food. There are many old stories of junipers willingly opening their prickly branches to deserving humans fleeing for their lives. One story tells of the Holy Family, fleeing Herod’s soldiers, being beckoned to safety by an observant juniper. The belief in the protective powers of juniper was so strong that many people planted it at each entrance to their home or hung sprays on doors and windows. No evil spirit, it was thought, could enter a building that was protected by juniper. In the Middle Ages, juniper was burned during outbreaks of plague for it’s protective smoke. Monks steeped juniper berries in distilled spirits to promote good digestion. Cooks and hunters tossed the berries into thick soups and stews for the same reason.

There is some truth to the ancient belief of protection. Juniper oil, pressed from the berries since early biblical times, is still used medicinally. The essential oil has anti-viral properties and is effective in treating skin and urinary disorders as well as stimulating digestion.

The essential oil is widely used in men’s toiletry products to give them a deep woodsy smell. Juniper berries are a primary source of flavor in gin. Every time you sip a gin and tonic or enjoy an exotic martini, you are getting the medicinal benefits of juniper’s little blue berry. Nothing adds deeper flavor to slowly simmering winter stews and rich meat dishes then the addition of three or four dried juniper berries.

HERBAL TIP OF THE SEASON
Try taking potted perennial herbs indoors for the winter. Some of them may winter over nicely. Keep the pots in a cool, low light location. This is a dormant season for perennial herbs, so they don’t need a lot of water or any feeding. If you live in an old house, try wintering your potted herbs in the basement. Old houses usually have dark, damp, cool basements, perfect for sleeping plants.

AN HERBAL HEADS-UP!
Horseradish is the 2011 Herb of the Year. Celebrate by buying a bottle of fresh, ground horseradish from your supermarket cooler section. The whiter the horseradish the fresher it is. Mix it with ketchup for a seafood dipping sauce, stir it into tomato juice with a little salt and pepper for a delicious, healthy Virgin Mary or blend it with mayonnaise to spread on meat sandwiches. It delicious and good for you too! Enjoy!!