by Andrew Pacholyk MS L.Ac ~
No holiday is complete without the scent, taste and look of some of these most classic herbs for the season. Either used for decorating, cooking or scenting the home, these are probably the most used and sought after herbs when the temperature drops and the holiday is upon us!
Anise: (Pimpinella anisum) also called aniseed, is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. Its flavor has similarities with some other spices, such as star anise, fennel and licorice. Anise essential oil can be obtained from the fruits by either steam distillation or extraction. Anise is sweet and very aromatic, distinguished by its characteristic flavor. The seeds, whole or ground, are used for preparation of tea, as well as in a wide variety of regional and ethnic confectioneries, including black jelly beans, British aniseed balls, Australian humbugs, New Zealand aniseed wheels, Italian pizzelle, German Pfeffernüsse and Springerle, Austrian Anisbögen, Dutch muisjes, New Mexican bizcochitos, and Peruvian picarones. It is a key ingredient in Mexican atole de anís and champurrado, which is similar to hot chocolate, and it is taken as a digestive after meals in India. The Ancient Romans often served spiced cakes with aniseed at the end of feasts as a digestive. This tradition of serving cake at the end of festivities is the basis for the tradition of serving cake at weddings.
Cardamom: (E. cardamomum) is a spice made from the seeds of several plants in the genera Elettaria and Amomum in the family Zingiberaceae. It is the world’s third most expensive spice, surpassed in price per weight only by vanilla and saffron. Cardamom has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance. Black cardamom has a distinctly more smokey, though not bitter, aroma, with a coolness some consider similar to mint. Both forms of cardamom are used as flavorings and cooking spices in both food and drink, and as a medicine.
Cinnamon: (Cinnamome cascia) is the name for perhaps a dozen species of trees and the commercial spice products that some of them produce. All are members of the genus Cinnamomum in the family. Cinnamon bark is used as a spice. It is principally used in cooking as a condiment and for flavoring. It is used in the preparation of chocolate, especially in Mexico, which is the main importer of cinnamon. It is also used in many dessert recipes, such as apple pie, doughnuts, and cinnamon buns, as well as spicy candies, coffee, tea, hot cocoa, and liqueurs. Cinnamon and sugar are often used to flavor bread-based dishes, such as toast, and fruits, especially apples. Cinnamon powder has long been an important spice used in a variety of drinks and sweets.
Clove: (Syzygium aromaticum) are the aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae. They are native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, and are commonly used as a spice. Cloves are used in the cuisine of many countries, lending flavor to meats, curries, and marinades, as well as fruit such as apples, pears or rhubarb. Cloves may be used to give aromatic and flavor qualities to hot beverages, often combined with other ingredients such as lemon and sugar. They are a common element in spice blends such as pumpkin pie spice and speculoos spices. In Mexican cuisine, cloves are best known as clavos de olor, and often accompany cumin and cinnamon and used in arroz con leche.
Ginger: (Zingiber officinale) is a flowering plant whose rhizome, ginger root or simply ginger, is widely used as a spice or a folk medicine. Ginger is a warming, fragrant spice. They are pickled in vinegar or sherry as a snack or cooked as an ingredient in many dishes. The root can be steeped in boiling water to make ginger tea, made into candy, or ginger wine, used as a seasoning in recipes or ground into a powder and used as a flavoring for recipes such as gingerbread, cookies, crackers and cakes, ginger ale, and ginger beer.
Nutmeg: (Myristica fragrans) is the seed of the tree, dried from the first harvest of nutmeg trees, which usually takes place 7–9 years after planting the trees. Nutmeg is usually used in powdered form. This is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices, obtained from different parts of the plant. Several other commercial products are also produced from the trees, including essential oils, extracted oleoresins, and nutmeg butter. Nutmeg is used for flavoring many dishes, usually in ground or grated form.
Peppermint: (Mentha pipeita) is a hybrid mint, a cross between watermint and spearmint. The plant, indigenous to Europe and the Middle East, is now widespread in cultivation in many regions of the world. Peppermint is the oldest and most popular flavor of mint confectionery and is often used in tea and for flavoring ice cream, sweets, chewing gum, and toothpaste. Peppermint can also be found in some shampoos, soaps and skin care products. Menthol activates cold-sensitive receptors and is the primary source of the cooling sensation that follows the topical application of peppermint oil.
Thyme: (Thymus vulgaris) is of the genus Thymus of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and a relative of the oregano genus Origanum. Thyme is sold both fresh and dried. Thyme is used to flavor pasta sauce, omelets and scrambled eggs. Hearty beans such as kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans taste exceptionally good when seasoned with thyme. When poaching fish, place some sprigs of thyme on top of the fish and in the poaching liquid. Season soups and stocks by adding fresh thyme.
The Power of Tradition
Frankincense: (Olibanum), is an aromatic resin used in incense and perfumes, obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia in the family Burseraceae, particularly Boswellia. Frankincense was one of the consecrated incenses described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud used in Ketoret ceremonies. Frankincense is mentioned in many cultures including the Greeks and Romans and is referenced in the Old Testament as trade from Sheba (Isaiah 60:6 ; Jeremiah 6:20) and mentioned in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 4:14). It was offered on a specialized incense altar in the time when the Tabernacle was located in the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. It was one of three gifts from the Magi to Jesus.
Holly: (Ilex paraguariensis), is a genus of 400 to 600 species of flowering plants in the family Aquifoliaceae, and the only living genus in that family. The species are evergreen or deciduous trees, shrubs, and climbers from tropics to temperate zones worldwide. The holly berry ripens in winter and provides winter color contrast between the bright red of the fruit and the glossy green evergreen leaves. The cutting branches are widely used in Christmas decoration. The berries are toxic to humans and can cause vomiting and diarrhea when ingested.
Mistletoe: (Obligate hemiparasitic) attaches to and penetrates the branches of a tree or shrub by a structure called the haustorium, through which they absorb water and nutrients from the host plant. Mistletoe is relevant to several cultures. It is associated with Christmas as a decoration, under which lovers are expected to kiss. Mistletoe played an important role in Druidic mythology in the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe. In Norse Mythology, Loki tricked the god Hodur into murdering Balder with an arrow made of Mistletoe, being the only plant to which Balder was vulnerable. Some stories have mistletoe becoming a symbol of peace and friendship. Mistletoe continued to be associated with fertility and vitality through the Middle Ages and by the 18th century it had also become incorporated into Christmas celebrations around the world.
Myrrh: (Commiphora myrrha) is the aromatic resin of a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora, which is an essential oil. Myrrh resin is a natural gum. It has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine. In numerous places in the Old Testament, (Genesis 37:25) and (Exodus 30:23), myrrh is mentioned as a rare perfume with intoxicating qualities. It is also mentioned in the New Testament as one of the three gifts the magi presented to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11). Myrrh was also present at Jesus’s death and burial. Jesus was offered wine and myrrh before the crucifixion (Mark 15:23). Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea brought a 100-pound mixture of myrrh and aloes to wrap Jesus’ body (John 19:39).
Pine: (Pinus sylvestris) in particular, Scotch pine is the most popular choice for a Christmas tree. The exceptional pine scent which fill the air at home when the tree is brought indoors is perhaps the signature aroma of the holiday season. Wreaths and pine cones are also a mainstay in many holiday decorations. Several drops of pine essential oil can freshen the scent throughout the season.