Welcome to Hill Country Herbalist

Monday, May 30, 2011

Garden Critters

The garden is strong this year. Tomatoes are taller than me! I have 8 heirloom tomatoes growing in one of the raised beds. While checking in on the tomato babies I found this striking pink moth on one of the leaves. I became mesmerized by this pink moth - so pretty and unique. I looked it up and identified it on the butterfliesandmoths.org website. This pink beauty is Pyrausta inornatalis,
or better known as southern pink moth.
Further down the tomato patch, I found a large section of leaves had disappeared! There's only one thing I know that can eat so much in so little time! Tomato hornworm! Herbhusband was shocked and made it his personal quest to find the bugger...and he did and boy was it big!

Tomato hornworms can eat and defoliate entire plants - leaving nothing left but some stripped stems. They tend to be 3-5 inches long and have a harmless spike near the rear part of their bodies. The horn looks fierce, but it won't hurt you. Even though I know that, I avoid touching it anyway.
Here's the hornworm shown beside an i-phone just for size comparison. They like to feed on nightshade plants such as peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants. I haven't had any trouble with them on anything other than tomatoes. They make a delicious treat for the birds so I toss them out in hopes a bird will come and take them away. The survivors turn into large dusty brown moths that I sometimes confuse for a hummingbird when I see them flying around. They have extremely long proboscis and they love to feed on tubular flowers in the late evening. They are kind of neat to watch. Each year, in late June or so, I see them feeding on the spider lily nectar at dusk.

The chard is doing very well. It's so fun to go into the garden and harvest these large flouncy leaves on bright red stalks. Chard is a bitter so it's excellent to add to your diet. Bitters stimulate digestion and give our digestive system the added oomph it needs to get things done.
Our lizard friends also enjoy the garden. I love anoles. These lizards are not only beneficial; they are very interesting to watch. Hummingbirds frequent the garden, too - especially since I have betony growing in two of the beds. The red throated flowers are a hummingbird favorite. Betony is in full bloom right now and adds visual interest as well as medicinal qualities so it's a win/win addition to any garden. That's the beauty of organic gardening - whether you're growing medicinal herbs or food, you can't go wrong extending a natural and safe environment for beneficial garden critters. Yes, the not so good bugs are there, but harboring a safe nurturing environment for their natural predators keeps everything in balance and harmony.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Potato Gratin with Basil Blossoms

Okay, so this post is just to share with you this amazing potato gratin I made last night. It's heaven. I really wanted to change things up on a traditional potato gratin recipe and thought about lavender blossoms but don't have any to harvest right now and thought, Aha! I have basil blossoms from the African Basil plants on my deck and they're beautiful and purple and delicious - surely they'll work...
and they did...mmmmm!

Basil blossoms have the most delicate suggestion of basil - not as strong as the leaves, but hints of the vibrant flavor and aroma. I've used basil blossoms in my summer salads, sprinkled with salt and pepper over fresh cut tomatoes, and when making chicken or vegetable stock. It's best to trim back the blossoms to encourage more leafy growth and extend the life of your basil plants. When trimming back the blossoms, think of using them in floral arrangements. I love adding basil to floral arrangements and when there are too many for that I simply add them to meals - it not only adds a touch of whimsy - it adds delicious delicate flavor. Never overpowering, basil blossoms can be added to so many dishes.

Try this one tonight!

Potato Gratin with Basil Blossoms:

- 4 to 5 medium sized organic potatoes (peeled and thinly sliced)
- 1 cup of your favorite cheese, grated (I used Fontina)
- 4 to 5 basil blossom stalks (strip the blossoms by running your fingers in the opposite direction of the blossom growth)
- 1 cup milk or heavy cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon butter

Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a casserole dish, spread the butter on the bottom and sides of the dish.
Begin layering sliced potatoes on the bottom of the dish - slightly overlapping each slice. With each layer - sprinkle with a little salt, a little pepper and a sprinkling of basil blossoms. Continue to layer and with every third layer sprinkle a portion of the shredded cheese. Once all layered, use the remaining cheese to cover the top of the casserole. Pour 1 cup of milk or heavy cream over the casserole.
Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes (or until sliced potatoes are soft and nicely brown on the top).
Let cool for about 10 minutes and dig in! Sprinkle fresh blossoms for an added special touch. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gotu Kola

I purchased this Gotu Kola plant to see how well it would do in the hill country. It is a beautiful plant with smooth, scalloped edged, medium colored green leaves shaped like miniature lily pads. I've noticed it likes to be well watered and does well in dappled sunlight. If planted in the ground, it would grow low to the ground and act like a ground cover. Since I'm afraid of it freezing, I'm keeping it in a pot.
The leaves can be harvested and eaten fresh, infused to make tea, and infused in oils to make body products. It is considered "brain food" and people in India and China have relied on it for centuries, eating one or two of the leaves daily for longevity and memory enhancement. It is a common herb in traditional Chinese medicine as well as ayurveda. It is also good when applied topically on wounds or irritated skin.

I often get approached for lotions that help sooth irritated skin. I plan on infusing the leaves in oil to make into lotions and salves to explore the topical benefits of this herb.

Most of the herbs I grow are used to explore their beneficial properties topically, rather than internally. Skin is our largest organ and it just makes sense to use pure, toxin free and ethically grown plants to keep it nourished and healthy. Our skin "breathes" and absorbs much of what we put on it so I'm always looking for nutritive plants that I can process into body care products. I'm excited to explore this particular plant since it has a long history of being used for wound healing, skin diseases, and lesions.

If someone is interested in ingesting this plant, it is important to point out that it is a mild sedative and should not be used by pregnant women or those taking antidepressants (Garrett 2001). Before exploring any new herb internally, I would consult an herbalist so they can individualize their recommendations to you. It's always good to consult an herbal practitioner so they may weigh all of your supplements and medications to determine if there are contraindications, etc.

I'll keep you posted on the progress of my Gotu Kola salves and lotions. Gotu go for now! There are 13 hibiscus plants needing to be upgraded into larger pots calling my name. I'm going to take Briar out there with me; he just loves eating hibiscus flowers.

Garrett, Howard. Herbs for Texas 2001.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Cooking Breakfast Out Of The Garden: Omelets and Apple Mint Tea

The Hill Country Garden is thriving! Pictured here is the first bell pepper out of the garden.

The Juliette tomato is stunningly prolific, as always. This heirloom tomato plant does not disappoint. It is full of blossoms and the tomatoes coming off of this plant are as big as Roma's! They are so flavorful and substantial.

I've also been enjoying the large onions coming out of the garden. When I'm not decorating with the gorgeous onion blossoms, I'm cooking with the onion stalk and the onion. Onions are a high in magnesium, potassium, protein, and riboflavin as well as vitamin A&C .

So....what to do with garden onions, peppers, tomatoes? Make a delicious omelet on a lazy Sunday, of course! The omelet is set off by the garden freshness and lovely gruyere cheese filling the fold. The cheese melts inside the fold adding a rich and tantalizing taste experience with every bite. To make the omelet, simply sauté the onions, peppers and portabella mushrooms in a skillet with olive oil and dress the omelet once it’s served on a bed of fresh greens or sautéed chard. Dress the plate with heirloom tomatoes accented with a bit of sea salt and mwaaa! Delicious!
Another plant friend of mine I'm thoroughly enjoying is Apple Mint. This lovely mint is a crowd pleaser. I've used the Apple Mint cuttings in flower bouquets, in ice cream and berry desserts and in a delicious drink infusion!

This past Sunday, I prepared special garden omelets coupled with Apple Mint tea for herbhusband and me! It was amazing!!

For a wonderful pairing, serve the omelet over freshly sautéed Chard - it's also fresh and ready to harvest in the garden this time of year. It is a wonderful way to get your vitamins, especially K from the dark green leaves. Here I have fresh Chard I picked from the garden, along with a picture of it being sautéed with onions from the garden.
I’m telling you – the sautéed Chard is fresh and nutritive and light. It is not as notable as spinach; it is much more mellow and grounding. This particular variety is Scarlet Charlotte Swiss Chard. The stalks are bright red and very beautiful in the garden. The leaves are rumpled and somewhat frilly. This plant is an eye catcher and I know some people who grow it simply for its visible beauty; however the flavor is just as satisfying (if not more!).

How to Make Apple Mint Tea:
Harvest 12-16 fresh apple mint leaves, place in a pitcher. Bring water to a boil and pour over the leaves. The aroma is amazing and you'll feel like you are in heaven when you take a whiff. Enjoy this gorgeous minty smell - it's fresh, sweet and delicious smelling. Stir in about a tablespoon of your favorite honey. Stir and allow to infuse for about 20 minutes. Pour into your favorite tea cup or serve over ice - trust me, this is a must try, even if you aren't a mint fan...this infusion is stunning! Mint is wonderful paired with a meal since it has been commonly used as a digestive aid.
If you have any left over, place in the refrigerator and use the next morning as an astringent for your face! Mint is aromatic, stimulating and astringent – perfect for your wake up routine. It’s also very high in magnesium, phosphorus, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamin A. It’s also a high source of calcium, iron, niacin, and potassium. This plant is a winner in any garden. Enjoy!