Herb of the Year for 2023: Ginger ( (Zingiber officinale). 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: Pick Your Cuppa from a Tree
May 2: The first week in May is always National Herb Week, celebrating the special plants that have contributed so much to human lives.
May 5: Cinco de Mayo, a festival honoring Mexican-American culture.
May 6: Kentucky Derby Day. Bring on the mint juleps!
May 9: At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, sassafras-flavored Hires Root Beer was introduced to a thirsty nation.
May 14: Mother’s Day. Give your mom a hug. If you’re not with her, virtual hugs are sweet. So are flowers. (Just sayin’.)
May 15: About this time, England celebrates Be Nice to Nettles Week, introducing modern folk to a useful plant they usually encounter–painfully–only on picnics
May 20: On this day in 1810, Dolley Madison is said to have served the first ice cream at the White House. Not so: Thomas Jefferson beat her to it, but the myth lives on. For the real scoop, check out this post.
May 22: Victoria Day. Canadians celebrate their reigning monarch’s birthday on this day. Also the unofficial beginning of the warm season north of the border. Canadian gardeners, raise your trowels!
May 23: The birthday of Carl Linnaeus (1707). A Swedish botanist, Linnaeus helps us keep things straight with his binomial system of plant names.
May 27: 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 (called Decoration Day when it was first marked in 1868) is observed on the last Monday in May. Remembrance is symbolized by the red poppy.
Did you know that you can pick your daily dose of caffeine off a tree? Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is native to southern North America, as far west as the Texas Hill Country. A small evergreen tree that tolerates heat and drought and produces pretty red berries in winter, yaupon is North America’s only caffeinated plant. One of its historical uses is reflected in its species name: vomitoria—so called because some Native American tribes consumed it (in vast quantities) in purification rituals. Only men were allowed to drink it during these rituals, while women (naturally) got to brew it.
Yaupon’s caffeine content (around 60 mg per cup) is about a third lower than that of coffee, and its theobromine and theophylline help to boost mental clarity without the jitters or stomach upsets sometimes caused by too much caffeine. And don’t worry: this herb is not an emetic. It won’t make you throw up.
During the 1700s, yaupon was grown for export on colonial plantations in the southeast and marketed across Europe as “Appalachian tea.” During the Civil War, it replaced unavailable tea and coffee. In the 1930s and 40s, the federal government encouraged Southern farmers to plant it as a cash crop alternative to cotton and tobacco. But the plant’s reputation, encoded in its unfortunate name, made it unattractive, and cheap coffee and tea imports muscled it out of the market. The government program never got off the ground.
In recent years, that’s changing, for demand has soared for this healthy caffeinated drink. Growers are harvesting, roasting and selling more than 10,000 pounds of yaupon holly each year.
If you live in the southern tier of states, look around. Your next cuppa may be growing right outside your door, or you can find plenty of sources online. (Just look for “yaupon tea.”) If you gather the leaves, dry them first. Use as-is, or for a nuttier taste, toast in a skillet until they turn dark. To brew, pour not-quite-boiling water over the leaves and let steep for five minutes, longer if you prefer. Unlike other teas, yaupon won’t “taste tannic” from over-brewing. Sweeten if you like, drink hot or iced.
Enjoy the new audio releases of China Bayles’ first three mysteries: Thyme of Death, Witches’ Bane, and Hangman’s Root. Releasing this month in audio after 20+ years in print and narrated for you by Julia Gibson, who has narrated the later books in the series. Books 4, 5, and 6 will be released this summer
Fiesta time! Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a traditional Mole Poblano. (The word mole comes from the Náhuatl molli, sauce or mixture.) Here’s the backstory on that interesting sauce. There are many complex recipes (with many interesting ingredients.) If you’re short on time, here’s one that’s simpler and just as tasty.
In case you can’t wait for Derby Day, here’s a mint-julep how-to. Make a syrup by boiling 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water together for five minutes. Refrigerate overnight with 6-8 sprigs of fresh mint. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup or glass with crushed ice, 1 tablespoon mint syrup, and 2 two ounces bourbon. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.
Root beer the old-fashioned way. The first recipe for Hires Root Beer was very 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.
Note: this recipe uses sarsaparilla, which has a taste similar to that of sassafras, a small tree. The FDA banned the use of sassafras after research linking it to cancer. For another opinion on its toxicity, read this post (and the recipe for root beer syrup).
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