Herb of the Year for 2023: Ginger (Zingiber officinale). Named by the International Herb Association
Flower of the Month for October: Marigold
October is National Chili Month
October Feature: Osage Oranges and Hedge Apples
Week 1. Spinning and Weaving Week
October 1. International Coffee Day. Yes, coffee is an herb, too!
October 7: A good Saturday to go for a walk through autumn woods and admire the colorful witch hazels
October 11: Indigenous Peoples Day
October 14: National Dessert Day
Week 3. Friendship Week (Rosemary is the friendship herb)
October 18: Today is the birthday of herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, 1616-1654.
October 22: National Nut Day (No, not that kind—think pecans, walnuts, almonds.)
October 24: On this day in 1788, Sarah Hale was born
October 25: World Pasta Day
Week 5. Witching Week (I made this one up,)
October 31: Halloween
God designed hedge apples especially for the purpose of fencing the prairies.--John A. Wright, editor of The Prairie Farmer, 1850
We have just one hedge apple tree (Maclura pomifera) here at MeadowKnoll. But when I was growing up in Illinois, the hedgerows on our little farm were full of these graceful trees. And at this time of year, the trees were full of hedge apples, dandy ammunition for farm kids. Hedge apples are about the size of a grapefruit and heavy. If you’re hit by one, by golly, you’ll feel it for a while.
Farther west, on the Great Plains, the hedge apple goes by a different common name. Osage orange refers to some of the people who used it, to the shape of the fruit, and to the orange color of the bark and wood. The Osage made bows from it, so widely respected that the tree came to be called bois d’arc, and a well-made bow might trade for as much as a horse and blanket. The Comanches made a decoction of the root to treat eye infections and skin lesions, and the Kiowa used the wood to make the staff held by the singer in the sacred peyote ceremony. The Pima tanned hides with it (the bark contains tannin) and made a yellow-orange dye.
The Indians didn’t need fences. But when the settlers came to the Plains, they saw that, planted close together, the tree’s thorny branches form an effective barrier and they began using it for fencing and windbreaks. The wood contains an anti-fungal agent that makes it rot and insect resistant, so when barbed wire began to reshape the open prairies, Osage orange was in demand as fence posts—as well as for wheels, mine timbers, and railroad ties. During the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, the WPA planted it to control erosion. And my Missouri grandmother said that her mother put it in the cupboards to control bugs.
One more interesting thing. Humans aren’t the only species to value this tree, which scientists call an “ecological anachronism.” They believe that the unusually latex-and-seed-filled hedge apples evolved during the days of the mastodons and mammoths, when giant megafauna ate the large fruit and dispersed the seeds. Mammoths aren’t the only animals that have appreciated this fruit, though. Our white-tailed deer and raccoons break them up and eat them off the ground.
The mastodons are no longer around to enable this tree to reproduce itself, but you can give it a hand. Soak the fruit in water for a couple of days, then break it up. Planted now, the seeds should germinate next spring.
By the way, the hand-hewn trencher in the photo (a trencher is a long, shallow bowl traditionally used to knead dough) is one of Bill’s woodworking projects. It’s hewn from a piece of walnut he collected on a trip to Indiana. The walnut, like the Osage orange has a long history of . . . But that story will have to wait for another day.
- Treat yourself and a friend to a 99-cent copy of A Wilder Rose, my historical/biographical novel about Laura Ingalls Wilder, her daughter Rose, and the writing of the epic Little House books.
- Learn something new during Spinning and Weaving Week. You can probably list at least two of the major fiber plants. But how about these lesser-known fabulous fibers?
- Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day by exploring Native American cookery. Start with these ideas, then focus on foods that are native to your own region. (And while it’s fairly big job, you really can make flour out of acorns.)
- Chili Month! A perfect time to read China Bayles’ 7th adventure, Chile Death, while you warm up with a bowl of red—Lady Bird Johnson’s famous Pedernales chili, of course.
- What does witch hazel have to do with witches? Exactly nothing. The Middle English word wiche means “pliant” or “bendable” and refers to the ancient practice of using the pliant shoots of small hazel trees for woven fencing. Native Americans boiled the stems of Hamamelis virginiana and treated insect bites, abrasions, and inflammations with the “magic water.” Settlers adopted the practice, using witch hazel in lotions, salves, and ointments.
- You may never have heard of Sarah Hale, but you can probably recite her poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Now, through the magic of the internet, you can turn the virtual pages of her famous 1852 cookbook and see what American women were cooking nearly two centuries ago. Use the search function (3-bar menu top left) to find Chapter XVIII, The Store Closet, and page through to see Hale’s many uses of herbs. On p. 211, you’ll find her recipe for a dry herb blend to season soups and sauces: parsley, lemon-thyme, summer-savory, marjoram, basil, lemon peel, and celery seed. Flip a few pages and see what else you can find. If you run out of vinegar, for instance, learn how to make your own (page 216).
- Looking for some Halloween reading? Witches’ Bane, the second mystery in the China Bayles series, is seasoned with spooks and other devilish doings.
- Here in Texas, it’s time for pecan harvest. So by National Nut Day, we are fully prepared to get out the slow cooker and start cookin’ up some Tex-Mex Spiced Pecans—the ones we love to snack on and give away at the holidays.
- For National Pasta Day, don’t dish out the same old spaghetti. Treat yourself to actor Danny Kaye’s Lemon Pasta. Here’s the recipe, via chef and food writer Ruth Reichl’s delicious Substack post, “The Rosemary Whisperer.” (Scroll down to the bottom.)
- Visit my Substack project, Place & Thyme, where we share our community interests in the green life, books and reading, and the pleasures and challenges of growing older. Subscribe (it’s quick, easy, free), and you can be a part of whatever we’re doing. Love to have you join us there!