Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Soft and Fuzzy Mullein

I love Mullein, partly because it is so easy to distinguish and partly because it is so soft to touch!  I was driving by an area near my house that had been cleared for office buildings that never occurred due to the sinking economy when out of the corner of my eye I saw a beautiful Mullein rosette growing.  This plant prefers to grow in disturbed, dry and sunny grounds.

It is not native to the United States.  Early European settlers brought the plant to the new world and introduced it to the native population which quickly took advantage of the many benefits.

Mullein is not used for food but is an important herb for medicine.  If you are interested in herbal remedies, this is a plant you should have in your garden.  It is primarily used for respiratory ailments.  It has been used as an effective treatment for asthma, whooping cough, bronchitis, hoarseness, pneumonia, earaches, colds, chills, flu, allergies, tonsillitis, and sore throat.  The herb produces an expectorant action which is attributed to the triterpenoid saponins present. Additionally, it contains tannins which help shrink inflamed and swollen respiratory passages, thus allowing for easier breathing.  Mullein also is rich in mucilaginous substances, called polysaccharides, which protect mucous membranes, preventing the membranes from absorbing toxins.  This produces a soothing and cooling effect to the lungs and throat.  It also has an antispasmodic effect, relaxing muscles and relieving chronic coughing.  It has even been an effective treatment for tuberculosis since it inhibits mycobacterium, the bacteria which causes the illness.  Indians smoked the dried leaves as a remedy for lung ailments.

Other uses for this plant include as a remedy for complications to Lyme disease, urinary incontinence, recurring bladder infections, interstitial cystitis and to treat spinal and muscle injuries. It also has a mild narcotic effect on some people and has been used as a sleep aid and to relieve abdominal cramping.

Stranger uses include as "wild" toilet paper or the placement or it inside of shoes to provide some comfort and warmth. However, small hairs can get stuck in your skin which is very uncomfortable. Native American tribes used it to make dyes and torches. It is highly flammable.

Mullein packs a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. It is high in iron and is a good source of Vitamins A, B-complex, C, and D, as well as calcium, potassium, magnesium, silicon, manganese, and sulphur.

Mullein blooms from June to September.  It is a biennial plant meaning it takes at least two years before it flowers.  The first year it produces its rosette.  The rosette must be large enough to flower which is usually the following year but may rarely take up to four years.  It produces a prodigious amount of seeds (100,000 to 180,000).  The seeds generally fall near the parent plant as it has no dispersal system so you can find future plants near an old plant.  The skeletal remnants of an old plant are easy to distinguish.  Mullein seeds can last decades and still germinate.  Do not eat the seeds as they are considered toxic.  Native Americans would throw ground seeds in still water to paralyze the fish.  Really.  The seeds contain rotenone (not very toxic to humans) which is a fish poison that cause paralysis in fish and the fish will float to the surface of the water.  The blooms of the flowers do not occur all at once.  If you desire to pick the blooms for a recipe, you will have to make repeated trips to the plant to acquire enough blooms or find a very large patch of plants.

Here are some medicinal recipes:

Basic Mullein Tea


1 - 2 teaspoons dried mullein flowers and leaves
1 cup boiling water
honey to taste


Pour water over dried mullein flowers and leaves. Cover and steep for 10 - 15 minutes. Pour the liquid through a fine cloth or a coffee filter to strain out the plant's tiny hairs, which can irritate the throat. An alternative method is to place herbs in the center of a coffee filter and tie with plastic twist tie and then steep.  You can drink up to 3 cups of mullein tea daily. Sweeten the tea with honey, if desired.

Note:  You can use the basic tea without the honey as a steam to be breathed to improve lung function or in a nebulizer.

Cough Soothing Tea


2 teaspoons dried mullein leaves
1 teaspoon dried Calendula flowers
3/4 teaspoon dried marsh-mallow (the plant)
1/2 teaspoon dried licorice root
1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon honey


Cover herbs with one cup of boiling water and steep for 15 minutes. Strain tea with a fine cloth or a coffee filter, then add the juice of 1/2 lemon and 1 tablespoon honey. Drink two to three cups daily for cough relief.

Ear Ache Drops


1/4 cup mullein fresh flower
3 garlic cloves
olive oil
small jar with lid


Chop the garlic into small pieces. Place fresh dry flowers in a blender or crush in a mortar and pestle. Place the garlic and mullein flowers in a small glass jar with a lid. Cover the mullein flowers with olive oil and allow to set in the sun for two weeks shaking daily, or heat over very low heat for 4 hours.

Strain the oil through cheesecloth and store your oil in a small dropper bottle in the refrigerator.

To use, warm the oil to body temperature and drop 2-3 drops in affected ear.  If a perforated eardrum is suspected (oozing from the ear), do not use and seek medical attention.  Can be used two or three times per day.

Note: Dried flowers can be used as well.

Asthma Blend Tea


2 teaspoons dried mullein leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried sage leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried plantain leaves
1 cup boiling water


Pour water over herbs. Cover and steep for 15 minutes. Pour the liquid through a fine cloth or a coffee filter to strain. You can drink up to 3 cups daily. Sweeten the tea with honey, if desired.

Mullein Cough Drops


½ cup mullein leaves, packed
1 cup boiling water
1 1/3 cup brown sugar 


Cover leaves with boiling water and steep for one hour. Strain through a fine cloth or a coffee filter. Add brown sugar. Boil mixture until it reaches the soft candy stage and then pour onto a greased cookie sheet. With a knife, score out squares while the mixture is still soft. Cool completely and break into individual squares. Wrap each drop in waxed paper.

Notes: While the content of this blog has been tried/tested and the research diligently presented, I am not responsible for your use of it. Always try a little of the food first to test for allergies. Please do your own research. Discuss with your doctor before you use any herbal medications. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Eating Prickly Pear? Are you crazy?

You would not think that the Mid-South would be a mecca of cacti. It is odd to think of a cactus and the states of Tennessee and Georgia in the same thought. However, they do grow here. I personally have found them in Maury and Marshall counties and even near Centennial Park in downtown Nashville. What makes these desert plants grow here? Rock. Granite outcrops to be specific. This rocky terrain gets much hotter than the surrounding area as the rocks absorb heat. There is also less moisture as runoff occurs. Thus, you have a mini desert! So we have the luxury of plants that are ideally suited for these desert-like conditions which you would not find in this area otherwise. Prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) cacti is also highly edible. Both the pads and the red fruit that the plant produces can be used in numerous recipes. This cactus has been a frequent ingredient in southwestern and Native American cuisine.

The best time to harvest the cactus paddles or "Nopales" is in the late spring while the fruit or "Tunas" is in the late summer. There are two types of spines on these pads that you must eliminate before cooking. You will see large smooth fixed spines and small hair-like spines that are called glochids. It is these glochids that will cause you the most pain! They easily penetrate the skin and detach from the plant. There are two ways to remove the glochids from the pads or fruit. You can either cut/scrape it off or you can burn it off. If a blow torch is not convenient, I would suggest the scraping. To harvest, use a knife (or twisting/bending motion) and tongs. I would also suggest using gloves, thick ones. You can actually buy the cacti in Spanish markets already de-spined and sliced, ready for cooking. So when you are cursing about the stickers in your hand, remember that people pay big bucks for this delicacy! Duct tape or Elmer's glue can be used to remove splinters.

The pads of the Prickly Pear have a taste similar to green beans and a texture like okra. The red fruit is slightly sweet and similar to a cross between a pear and a beet. The pads are typically boiled, grilled or fried while the fruit is often made into jelly, added to smoothies or eaten raw. The pads are not peeled. Just carefully remove the spines before slicing and cooking. For the fruit, if you cut the ends off and then cut in half or make a slice down the side of the body, the peel comes right off. You can also easily scoop out the seeds with a spoon. The flesh is the part in which most people are interested, though the seeds are edible as well. To juice the prickly pear fruit, place the "husked" (still with seeds) prickly pears into a blender or food processor and pulse until liquefied. Poor into a fine mesh sieve and press out the juice into a bowl. Discard the remaining seeds and pulp. Depending on the size, between six and twelve prickly pear fruits will give you one cup of juice.

Research on the nutrition of the prickly pear suggests that is can lower bad cholesterol and lower the need for insulin in diabetics. It has many antioxidant properties and is rich in vitamin C, iron, beta carotene and calcium. Due to its high fiber content it has also been used to improve the digestive system.

While a person who has never eaten prickly pear before might find the idea of eating something with spines on it to be a bit crazy, there are numerous accounts of people who grew up eating it, still crave it and reverently pass down recipes for it. Here are some recipes:

Cactus Fries


1 large or two small pads of Prickly Pear Cactus
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
¼ lb cornstarch
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons garlic granules
1 tablespoon sugar

Oil for frying


Clean and then cut cactus into fry shaped slice. Place in a colander and let drain for an hour. Place slices in a dish and coat with buttermilk. Put in refrigerator to soak overnight. The next day, drain most of the buttermilk. In a separate bowl, mix dry ingredients. Dip slices into dry mix to coat. Fry in oil in heated pan or electric deep fryer until crispy.

Prickly Pear Salsa


3 large tomatoes, chopped
3 medium Golden Delicious apples, grated
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 cups diced cactus pads
2 zucchini, grated
Juice of 2 limes or lemons


Toss all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate until serving.  This produces about eight cups of salsa.

Cactus Casserole


3/4 lb cactus paddles, cleaned and sliced thin
1 tbsp canola oil
1 yellow onion (diced)
3 cloves garlic (minced) 2 cups sour cream
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 cups cooked rice
4 cups Monterrey Jack shredded cheese, divided
salt (to taste)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Boil sliced cactus in water for 15 minutes.  Drain and rinse under cold water.  Set aside

In a skillet, fry onion in oil until translucent, add garlic for one minute more.

In a large bowl, add all ingredients and half the cheese.  Mix well. 

Place mixture in casserole dish.  Top with remaining cheese. 

Bake for 30 minutes uncovered until cheese is bubbly and beginning to brown.

Prickly Pear Syrup


6 cups prickly pear (fruit) juice
6 cups white sugar
4 tablespoons lemon juice


Combine strained prickly pear juice and lemon juice and cook over medium heat until boiling.  Add sugar and stir constantly.  Keep at a rolling boil until all of the sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat.  If canning syrup, ladle into sterilized jars and water bath can for 15 minutes.  If using syrup immediately, cool syrup and store covered in the refrigerator for up to one month.

This is great for mixed drinks, on pancakes or as a marinade for chicken when mixed with pineapple!

Prickly Pear Jelly


4 cups prickly pear (fruit) juice
6 tablespoons lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
1 package no sugar pectin
4 cups sugar


Combine prickly pear juice, lemon juice, and pectin in a large sauce pan. Bring to a hard boil. (A hard boil is when the pot continues to boil, even after you've stirred it).  Begin to add sugar slowly with constant stirring, taking about 5 minutes to add sugar, and keeping juice at a boil. 

Remove from heat and ladle into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe rims thoroughly. Center hot lid on jar. Apply band and adjust until fit is fingertip tight. Water bath can for 15 minutes.

Optional: 1/4 cup jalapeno peppers diced fine added along with sugar

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Lowly Wild Onion

Wild onions (Allium species) are some of the first plants to pop up in middle Tennessee.  This year their bright green tufts began poking their heads up at the end of January.  Tennessee has wildly fluctuating weather.  One winter day can be near 70 degrees while the next day is 30 degrees with an ice storm.  Some years you have more near 70 degree weather than others and the poor confused plants start blooming early.  I actually used this to my advantage when I brought my soon to be husband home to visit my family at Christmas one year and it was barely sweater weather.  It convinced him to move here from Florida! 

Family in the 1960's
One of the few wild plants with which my family has a history is the wild onion.  My grandparents were from Denmark arriving in the United States in the 1950's with their growing family.  My grandfather was an engineer working for the government and my grandmother had worked as a midwife and nursing assistant before leaving Denmark.  By the 1960's they had four children and they divorced.  My grandfather traveled to foreign countries on long assignments for his job so he was not around.  My grandmother, who probably did not have the right credentials to continue her career in the United States nor a strong enough grasp of English, was only able to work low paying jobs. So here she was in the United States with no family support system, four children to raise and limited financial resources.  To put it bluntly, they were poor and struggling.  So poor that my mother would tell me stories about drinking Pepsi and picking and eating the wild onions on crackers for food. Not exactly complete nutrition but if you are starving, you take what you can get.  So the wild onion is a personal favorite of mine.

The main rules for onion hunting are if it smells and looks like an onion, it is an onion, and do not harvest along a roadside, industrial area, or yards that have been sprayed with pesticides.  There is a resemblance to a mildly toxic plant called Crow's Poison (Northoscordum bivalve) but it does not have an onion smell when crushed.  You would have to eat a pound of Crow's Poison to get a stomach ache.  Another look-alike is Death Camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum) and is poisonous but does not smell like onion.  It is usually found out West not in the South. Also, all onions are toxic to dogs and cats so do not feed it to them.  Onion hunters tend to find a favorite patch, often not revealing the location, and return to it to gather their onions year after year.

There are two common types of onions that you will most likely find, wild garlic (Allium vineale) and wild onion (Allium canadense).  Often you will not be able to tell them apart.  They both have long narrow leaves arising from basal bulbs. However, wild garlic has hollow and round leaves while wild onion's leaves are flat and solid.  The more common of the two is wild garlic.  All wild onions and wild garlic are edible.  They will never grow bulbs the size of store-bought onions as it is not in their genetics.  Their bulbs will be more like pearl onions.  The leaves are skinnier than the green onions that are sold in the store, and have a stronger oniony taste. They actually look more like chives. Cooking the onions mellows the flavor out.  You can replace wild onions in any recipes that call for green onions or chives.

It is common in some parts of the south and west for churches to have wild onion lunches for fund raising in the springtime.  They are typically served sauteed with scrambled eggs.  As far as nutrition goes, wild garlic and onions contain vitamin C, A and potassium.  Native Americans ate wild onions as a cure for colds.  They also rubbed the plant on their bodies to protect them from insects.  In modern times, onions have been reported to lower blood pressure, help to facilitate detoxification, act as powerful antioxidants, stimulate immune responses and reduce inflammation.

Wild onions/garlic can also be dehydrated and used for later purposes.  However, if doing it indoors, it will make your house smell like onions for days.

Here are some recipes to try:

Eggs and Bacon with Wild Onion


6 slices of bacon, diced
1 cup wild onion, chopped
10 large eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese


In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk and season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

In a hot pan, fry the bacon until nearly crisp.  Add onions and fry until bacon is crisp.  Add the egg mixture and cook, stirring until set, about 4 minutes.  Cook until desired egg texture is achieved. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese before serving.

Serve with hot sauce.

Wild Onion and Oyster Chowder


4 cups cubed frozen hashbrowns or 4 cups cubed potatoes
2 ribs celery, diced fine
1/2 cup wild onions, chopped
1 garlic clove finely minced or pressed
1 tablespoon butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
2 cups half and half
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granule
fresh coarse ground black pepper, to taste
2 (3 3/4 ounce) cans petite smoked oysters, drained
6 slices of bacon cooked crisp and crumbled
oyster crackers 


Microwave or boil potatoes until tender. Drain.

In a large pot, saute wild onions, celery and garlic with butter. Add potatoes and flour, blend well.

Add half and half, milk, bouillon, pepper, and oysters.  Cook until heated through, gently stirring occasionally.

Serve topped with bacon and oyster crackers.

Variation option:  Add 1 can drained corn

Notes: While the content of this blog has been tried/tested and the research diligently presented, I am not responsible for your use of it. Always try a little of the food first to test for allergies. Please do your own research. Discuss with your doctor before you use any herbal medications.