Herb of the Year for 2020: Blackberries, raspberries, and their cousins (Rubus ssp.) Named by the International Herb Association
Birthday Flower for May: Lily of the Valley
May is National Salad Month
Feature of the Month for May: Sweet, Sweet Woodruff
May 5: National Teacher Appreciation Day. Sheltering-in-place moms and dads will testify that teaching is another frontline vocation.
May 6: National Nurses Week begins each year on May 6th (National Nurses Day) and ends on May 12th, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. This pandemic year, we are even more grateful to all our health-care professionals, who work so hard to keep us healthy. Thank you, thank you!
May 10: During this week in 1876, the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition was opened and sassafras-flavored Hires Root Beer was introduced to a thirsty nation.
May 12: Mother’s Day. Give your mom a hug–if you’re not quarantined. (If you are, virtual hugs are sweet. So are flowers.)
May 14: About this time, England sometimes celebrates Be Nice to Nettles Week, helping introduce modern folk to a plant they usually meet–unpleasantly–only on picnics
May 15: Emily Dickinson, poet and lover of flowers, died on this day in 1866. A favorite line: Forever is composed of nows.
May 16: May cheeses were traditionally made at this time. A favorite French summer cheese was Nettle Cheese, which was wrapped in fresh nettle leaves for ripening.
May 21: Celebrate National Strawberries and Cream Day with this healthy recipe from Mayo Clinic.
May 23: The birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, born on in 1707. A Swedish botanist, Linnaeus helped us keep everything straight with his binomial system of plant names.
May 27: Today is the birthday of Rachel Carson (1907), writer, ecologist, and marine biologist. Her courageous 1962 book Silent Spring alerted the world to the dangers of pesticide poisoning.
May 29: Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) is observed on the last Monday in May. Remembrance is symbolized by the red poppy.
From my youth I recall that elusive smell of woods in spring—a sweetness ascending from mold and decay but with the breath of young life rising from it. That is the odor that permeates the house when May wine is poured into the May bowl.—Adelma Grenier Simmons, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons
We know you don’t want to let the month of May slip by without a cup of traditional May wine. This drink comes to us from Germany, where the sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) carpets the spring woodlands with starry white blossoms and whorled leaves.
The odd-sounding name woodruff grew out of the earlier wuderove, or “wood-wheel” (rove comes from the French rouelle, wheel, referring to the circlet of leaves around the stem). The plant contains coumarin. When it is dried, it smells like vanilla. Sweet woodruff has long been valued for potpourris and perfumes and is a favorite in sachets. It was once used to stuff mattresses and pillows (hence another common name, bedstraw). During the Middle Ages, the herb gained a reputation as a wound healer and was used to treat digestive and liver problems. For gardeners with a shady, wooded area, sweet woodruff tops the list of Mother Earth’s “Seven Herbs That Grow in Shade.”
But it’s the herb’s centuries-old use as a spring drink that we look forward to every year. Since the custom began in Germany, it’s traditional to use Rhine wine. Here’s an easy recipe that will please a crowd. If gathering a group doesn’t seem like a good idea right now, share with your neighbors appropriately socially-distanced over the back fence or out on the front curb of your cul-de-sac. They’ll love it.
1 gallon Rhine wine (use half champagne, if you like)
12-16 sprigs of sweet woodruff, dried overnight in the oven with the pilot light on
1 package frozen strawberries, thawed
1 cup sugar
fresh whole strawberries
Steep the sweet woodruff in the wine for 3-6 days. Chill. Remove the herb and pour chilled wine into a punch bowl over a block of ice. Mash thawed strawberries with a cup of sugar and stir into the wine. Add champagne if you wish, and garnish each cup with a fresh strawberry.
Root beer the old-fashioned way. When Hires Root Beer began, the recipe was very much like this one from 1869:
For each gallon of water take ½ oz each of hops, burdock, yellow dock, sarsaparilla [Smilax regelii], dandelion and spikenard roots [Aralia racemosa], bruised. Boil about 20 minutes, and strain while hot. Add 8-10 drops of oils of spruce and sassafras mixed in equal proportions. When cooled to a warm temp add 2-3 tbsp. yeast, molasses 2/3 pint, or white sugar ½ lb. Put the mix into a jar, with a cloth covering it, let it work for 2-3 hrs, then bottle and set in a cool place.
In 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras in 1979, after research linking it to cancer. For another opinion, read this post (and the recipe for root beer syrup).
When Emily Dickinson was just 14, she wrote in a letter: “My plants look finely now. I am going to send you a little geranium leaf, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you.” If you’ve never made an herbarium, here’s how. Great science project for kids of all ages.
Introduce Carl Linnaeus to a budding young botanist in your family. Linneaus was the scientist who created the system by which our planet’s plants are named. A big job that required a giant intellect.
Did you know that strawberries were once used medicinally? Read about it in Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal (1929–not so “modern” now). She includes this charmingly fanciful 17th-century recipe for turkey “enfolded in” strawberry leaves and boiled together with every herb to be found in the kitchen garden.
Gather strawberry leaves on Lamas Eve, press them in the distillery until the aromatick perfume thereof becomes sensible. Take a fat turkey and pluck him, and baste him, then enfold him carefully in the strawberry leaves. Then boil him in water from the well, and add rosemary, velvet flower, lavender, thistles, stinging nettles, and other sweet-smelling herbs. Add also a pinte of canary wine, and half a pound of butter and one of ginger passed through the sieve. Sieve with plums and stewed raisins and a little salt. Cover him with a silver dish cover.
And then . . . dinner, we assume.
Find out what Susan is up to these days by visiting her blog, Lifescapes. There’s always something interesting going on in the Texas Hill Country. On her “other” blog, BookScapes, she posts book reviews, bookish thoughts, and notes on the fast-changing world of books