Borage: It’s what’s for dinner

image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Our friend Milli (Master Gardener of the Milagro Allegro community garden) stopped by today to pick up some sourdough starter. On seeing our back yard swamped abundant with borage (Borago officinalis), she mentioned that she’s been really digging borage tacos lately. This was very exciting news to us, because we’d never eaten our borage leaves–only the flowers.

So tonight I went out and cut a whole mess of stiff, prickly borage leaves. The prickles vanish on cooking. Some sources say only to use small leaves for cooking but I say fie to that. I used leaves of all sizes and after cooking there was no difference between them. Borage is actually rather delicate under all its spikes and cooks down considerably in to a very tender, spinach-like consistency.

Instead of making little tacos with it, we folded it into tortillas with a bit of goat’s milk gouda to make yummy green quesadillas–a quick, light and satisfying meal at the end of a busy day.

How did we cook it? –>


We cooked the borage as we cook all of our greens, no matter what kind. It seems we can’t be bothered to develop any variations on this theme. First we saute chopped garlic in lots of olive oil along with chile pepper flakes, then add piles of chopped wet greens–any greens– to the pan. These get tossed until they wilt to the point where we want them, which varies. If any green seems particularly tough, we put a lid over the skillet for a moment to steam them. Salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon finishes them off.

I used this technique on the borage and it came out very nice. Tender, as I said, with pleasing bit of cucumber flavor. There is also the faintest hint of a mucilaginous texture, but nothing off-putting. Borage is a cooling herb, like mallow (Malva sylvestris)–which we like to eat as a green as well. Because of this cooling quality, both are refreshing to eat, especially on a hot day. I’m writing this a few minutes after dinner and this coolness lingers in my throat. It’s also supposed to be a soothing, grounding herb and now I’m wondering if I don’t feel a bit more grounded, too, post-quesadilla.

Borage is also a medicinal plant–as a compress, tea, tincture or oil extract it has different uses and effects, which will have to be covered in another post.

More people are familiar with borage’s star-like edible flowers, which can be preserved in sugar for cakes, or tossed into salads. I’ve heard of freezing them in ice cubes for fancy drinks, which is a lovely idea.

Obligatory health warning:  I’m going to quote this directly from the very useful Plants for a Future database, from their entry on borage:

The plant, but not the oil obtained from the seeds, contains small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause liver damage and liver cancer[238]. These alkaloids are present in too small a quantity to be harmful unless you make borage a major part of your diet, though people with liver problems would be wise to avoid using the leaves or flowers of this plant.

Also, I’ve seen warnings regarding pregnant and nursing women eating borage here and there, too, although I don’t know the exact reasons for the warning. As per usual, check with your doctor if you have concerns.

We figure as long as we’re only eating borage a few times a week, and only for a limited period–”borage season,” as it were–these pyrrolizidine alkaloids are not going to get us down.

Poached eggs and greens on toast with wildflowers

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

This is a fancy iteration of one of our springtime go-to dishes: eggs and greens on toast. Today, Erik was inspired (perhaps by the spirit of Spring?) to sprinkle nasturtium blossoms and little arugula flowers over the plate.

It was dee-lish–so much so I had to blog it. I sincerely hope we haven’t blogged this before, but it seems like we would have, because we make this dish so often.

Anyway, it’s easy to make:


All you have to do is cook up a mess of greens of your choice: steam them, saute them, do whatever you like. The greens can be spiced up with onions, garlic, hot pepper, etc.–or absolutely plain.

At the same time, get some water going for poached eggs. While that’s heating, toast up some nice big slices of bread. Dress that toast how you like–with butter, olive oil, S&P, a rub of garlic, maybe a bit of some gourmet spread you’ve got in the fridge–whatever.

(And by the way, just because it’s not part of our plan doesn’t mean that some bacon or ham might not have a place in this scenario.)

When the water is simmering, crack the eggs in and cook until they’re poached and still runny–for us, that’s two minutes. This dish is all about runny yokes. When you carve into it, the yoke runs everywhere, coating the greens, soaking into the bread, and doing unspeakably yummy things with the cheese. If you’re no fan of yolk, this is not your dish. Without the yoke factor, it’s not half as good. (We know this because we sometimes overcook the eggs, and then there is much sadness as we pick at our dry toast.)

While the eggs are poaching, pile the greens on the toast. When the eggs are done, slide the eggs on the greens. Add some S&P.

The final stage is cheese. This time, Erik just dusted the whole thing with grated parmesean. You can go one step further and lay thin slices of the cheese of your choice over the eggs, then pop it under the broiler ’til the cheese melts.

Serve it fast, while it’s hot, and the yoke is flowing like golden lava.

Regarding the flowers: Nasturtium flowers are edible, mildly spicy to taste, and strong enough to be tossed in a salad. Arugula flowers (got by letting your arugula go to flower) are delicate white little things. They don’t keep at all–you have to deploy them as soon as you pick them–but they have a very pleasant, sweet flavor all their own. Sometimes I eat them off the bush, much to the consternation of the bees.

Thirsty bees

Did you know bees need to drink water? They seek out shallow water sources like puddles and bird baths.

Even if you don’t keep bees, you can help out our little pollinator friends (and a host of other wildlife) by keeping a bird bath or even just putting a saucer of fresh water out for them. You can do this even if you don’t have a yard–try keeping a saucer of water on, say, a balcony railing or in a window box.

If you keep it full, and in the same location, word will spread and the bees will come and belly up. It may take a couple of weeks for a worker to discover the water source, but once she does, she will take that information back to her hive and they will never forget where it is.

The benefit to you is that if bees are coming to drink in your yard, they’ll do you the return favor of pollinating your garden.

Bees are not known as good swimmers, so it really helps if you put a stone or something in your bird bath–even in a saucer–so they have somewhere safe to perch while they drink. We keep this odd calcified beach-thing in our bird bath. (Don’t worry, it’s not salty anymore.) The bees really dig the way the water rises up into the nooks and crannies.  I dare say our bath is one of the most popular bee bars in town.
One of the busiest bee hang outs we’ve ever seen is a piece of modern sculpture by Aristide Maillol at the Getty Center. It’s this massive marble block thing that is skinned with a continuous flow of water. On one nice spring day we watched as hundreds of bees used it as their drinking fountain. If you ever happen to go to the Getty, check it out. It’s down in the little garden at the base of the hill where the trams come and go. Nice to see modern sculpture is good for something. ;)

Addendum to the previous post: Nasal irrigation and pressure points

[I'm going to spare you an illustration on this one]

Mrs. Homegrown here, again:

While I credit my recovery from this nasty cold/sinus thing largely to the herbal steams of my previous post, I also used a bit of nasal irrigation and pressure point therapy, so I thought I’d cover them too, real quick.


Nasal irrigation is the practice of cleaning out the nasal cavities with a saline solution. This dislodges gunk, and feels really good on dry, inflamed, or swollen tissue. It’s a good technique to use to keep a cold from becoming worse, and to alleviate symptoms–it helps temporarily clear a clogged nose, and can ease sinuses.

These days lots of folks use neti pots, an Indian import, to do this with some semblance of dignity. I don’t own a neti pot, so can’t speak to how to use one of those. I learned to do this the messy way long ago from my stepmother, who was a nurse.

All you do is dissolve 1 teaspoon of sea salt or kosher salt in 2 cups of water. The water should be close to body temperature, otherwise you’ll be uncomfortable when you snort it. Put the water in a cup or bowl big enough to get your nose into. You’ll have to play around to get the hang of this–it’s never pretty.

First, stand over a sink. Then fiddle around with the bowl and the angle of your head until manage to get your nostrils under water, plug one nostril with your fingers, and inhale with the other. The idea is to snort as much water up your nose as you can. You’ll know you’re doing it right when you taste the salt water at the back of your mouth. Then let go of your nostril and allow the water and snot to drain out into the sink. Change sides and repeat.

It is gross, but it’s worth doing because you’ll feel so much better afterward: all clean and fresh.

***

The second technique that I found helpful for sinus pain was pressure points. I don’t know much about this therapy, a friend suggested it and I just did as she said. I found it helped, or at least distracted me, when I wasn’t under my steam tent. I used two sets of points:

1) Press the tips of your index fingers on either side of your nostrils. Not on the nostrils themselves, but on the cheek right next to the nostrils. Hold firm for three or four minutes.

2) Press the tips of your index fingers on either side of the bridge of your nose, not at the corners of your eyes, but just under the corners, right beneath the squishy tear ducts. Hold for three or four minutes.

Strange brew: herbal steam for a chest cold and sinus pain

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve had a bad cold for almost a week now. It’s gone through all the classic steps: the sore throat, then the snot factory, then the ghastly “productive cough” that keeps you awake at night, and on top of it all, the lost voice. Oh, the fun! I thought I was almost out of the woods, but then I seem to have hit a cul-de-sac involving the sinuses. Sinus trouble is a new malady for me–I’m just not prone to it–so it’s been a learning experience. My new best friend in this experience is my steaming pot-o-herbs.

Most folks know that you can inhale steam to ease congestion, whether that be in a hot shower, a steam room or by tenting a towel over a bowl of boiling water. What I’m going to talk about here is the bowl technique, tricked up by spiking the water with powerful healing herbs.


My inspiration came from the book by well-known herb expert, Stephen Harrod Buhner called Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria. It’s a slender, informative book profiling the actions of a short list of top antibacterial botanicals, some of which, like ginger and garlic, are quite commonplace. Highly recommended reading.

This is Buehner’s steam for upper-respiratory infections:

Get yourself a big cook pot–stainless, glass or enamel are recommended for working with herbs.

Fill it with a gallon of water

Into the cold water put:

2 oz. dried eucalyptus leaf
1 oz. dried sage
1 oz. dried juniper or crushed juniper berry

Bring to a rolling boil, then take off heat (I kept the pot covered to keep the good stuff in).

No need to transfer the liquid out of the pot into a bowl. Just put a trivet or folded towel on the table and put the pot on it. Lean over the steam with a towel over your head. Breath deep until the steam dies, or you can’t stand it any longer.

Don’t throw out the pot contents. Just put the lid back on when you’re done and heat it up when you need it again. If it seems to be losing potency, throw in another handful of herbs.

I used my pot for a night and a day before it began to look a little tired. It was also completely full of solid matter! At that point I dumped it out in the yard and started a fresh pot.

Alternative herbs:

You may not have all these ingredients, and that’s okay. You could get by with just one–e,g. only juniper. If you have access to fresh material instead of dried, that’s good, if not better. Don’t worry too much about quantity, just toss handfuls in the pot.

You can also use essential oils of the same herbs in the water if you have those on hand. Buhner says 30 drops of each–I think that’s overkill. I’d start with 2 drops of each and see how that works for you.

My first steam contained dried sage and juniper, and a few juniper berries. I had no dried eucalyptus. Eucalyptus has that nice, lung-opening menthol action which is hard to replace. Fortunately, I had some eucalyptus essential oil and would add one drop of it to the water each time I went into the tent. From now on I’m going to be sure to have eucalyptus essential oil on hand at all times.

On steam round two, I wanted to freshen the mix and had no more dried sage or juniper, so I added a big spray of fresh pine (baby cone and all) from the neighbor’s yard. Pine is considered a good substitute for juniper, followed by fir, cedar and spruce–in that order. You might not have a well stocked herb cupboard, but most neighborhoods and parks have evergreen trees. Just make sure you don’t pick the branches of the yew tree (the conifer with thimble-like red berries), because yews are toxic to consume. I don’t know if the steam would harm you, but I wouldn’t fool with it. I don’t know of any other toxic evergreen.

Remember, these particular herbs were chosen because of their strong antibacterial properties. You can also take steams with other healing herbs that may not have quite the power of these, but which have their own benefits. I’d recommend trying lavender, rosemary and mint as more gentle, but pleasing alternatives.

And failing all that, a plain water steam is better than nothing.

The results:

The idea here is that aromatics opened up my poor nose, sinuses and bronchial passages, loosening all that gunk so my body could  send it on its way. Beyond that, I believe the antibacterial steam killed, or at least inhibited, the nasty bacteria it found on the way. I steamed intensively for 24 hours (every 2 to 4 hours, I think–whenever my head hurt I went back to the tent). Today I feel a lot better, so only did a steam in the morning.

When my sinus pain was at its worst, I’d take a washcloth in the tent with me, wet it in the herb water and use it as a compress over my sore face while I was breathing the steam.

The foremost effect of steaming for me was keeping sinus pain at bay–which it did very well. Ibuprofen did nothing. (And I don’t like OTC decongestants, in case you’re wondering) Steam took care of it just fine. The secondary effect is that my nose and chest have cleared up. The third effect is that my facial pores are now remarkably refined. ;)

Tonight I am pain free, snot free, feeling chipper and happily noshing on a cupcake Erik baked I post this.

Bees: Shown to the Children

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Homegrown Neighbor lent us this beautiful little book. The author is Ellison Hawks (what a name!) and dates to 1912. This book is part of a series of books for kids on various natural history topics, all titled the same way (i.e. X: Shown to the Children). I’d love to see the whole collection.

Every time I read an old children’s book, I’m struck by the sophistication of the language and themes presented, and wonder why this has been lost, and then try not to despair for civilization. Take this passage about intruders to the hive, from the chapter called Workers in the City (in the book, the hive is conceptualized as a bee city). It’s poetic and morbid and violent fascinating–all things I would have loved as a child:

Sometimes a mouse or a snail enters the hive, and then indeed there is great excitement. Imagine a great elephant-like creature, thirty or forty feet high, with a tail thirty feet long, to come walking into one of our cities, and you will have some idea what it seems like to the bees when a mouse is foolish enough to poke its head in the hive! But the bees are not frightened; the guards are promptly called out, and the poor mouse is soon put to death by hundreds of stings. Having made sure that the intruder is quite dead, the bees leave his body to the scavengers, who are confronted with the problem of disposing of it. If it were left it would cause disease and pestilence throughout the city, and it is too big and heavy for them to move. It is true that they might bite it into tiny pieces and thus carry it outside the hive, but this would take too much of the bees’ valuable time. A better plan is thought of, and the body is soon covered over with a thin coating of wax. It is thus embalmed in a beautiful white tomb, which is made perfectly air tight. If the tomb is near to the door, and interferes with the passing in and out of the workers, tunnels are cut through it. Sometimes when we look inside a hive, we may see two or three of these little mounts of was, and we may be sure that each one is the grave of some intruder who had no right to be there.

Granted, I believe foreign bodies in the hive, such as mouse corpses, are actually covered with propolis, not wax, but I’m not going to hold it against the authors. First, I’m not sure if I’m right or not, and at any rate, the idea is the same, and very well described.

There’s so much good to say about this book. It’s illustrated with early photos, line drawings, and pretty full color illustrations. In somewhat more than 100 pages it covers bee anatomy, behavior, the process of collecting nectar, hive society, beekeeping basics and even includes a chapter on “The Ancients” which addresses the apparently long-lasting ancient supposition that bees are born from the rotting bodies of oxen (?!?). I’m wondering if that was more of a symbolic conceit, because surely the ancients were no dummies and could tell the difference between blowflies and bees. But it makes for colorful reading, and again, as a child, I would have been entranced. Even if I couldn’t understand half the words.

Turns out this book is hard to find in the US because it’s an UK title. There’s only one Amazon listing, and it’s $23, and a couple more expensive at Alibris, but lots of UK listings for less. We may have to begin direct negotiations with Homegrown Neighbor for this copy.

UPDATE: A reader wrote in to tell us the whole book is available online, for free, at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. So if you want you can jump over there and page through it. I’d checked Google books, and it’s not there. I’m glad to learn of Hathi. They’ve got three other books in the series, too, btw.

Build a Worm Tower

Host: Leonnie Shanahan. More info: www.ecofilms.com.au

Mrs. Homegrown here:

One of our commenters on the compost debate, Nick H., offered up a link to a great video about worm towers, so we thought we’d share. A worm tower is a wide (at least 50cm dia.) pipe sunk halfway into the ground, with access holes on the lower half to allow the worms to come and go. Food and bedding is dropped in the top, which is kept capped.

We happen to have worm & compost expert Nancy Klehm staying with us this weekend, and she explained to us that this particular technology makes a lot of sense for hot, dry climates (note the video comes from Australia), because it’s sunken and it allows the worms to distribute themselves in the cool soil during the day. Conversely, I can imagine this wouldn’t be such a great thing in rainy climates as it could easily flood.

Nancy told us the worm holes clog up, so you do have to remove the pipe for cleaning fairly regularly, and perhaps take that opportunity to reposition it. I imagine that’s when the casting harvest would occur, and harvest promises to be a pretty messy process. 

The video speaks of using PVC pipe for the tower. PVC is cheap and easy to work with, but it’s pretty well established that it leaches toxins as it degrades, so you might want to seek out pipe in other materials. As an aside, we used to use PVC pipe in our self-irrigating pots, still still have PVC in some of them, but are phasing it out in favor of metal or bamboo pipe. Yet we still have PVC lines as part of our irrigation system. This is something you have to weigh and decide for yourself. 

Once Erik dragged home a section of ceramic sewer pipe he found in the street. It lingered in our yard for years, and was finally returned to the street. Now we’re singing the pack rat’s lament (See! See what happens when you throw things away!), because it would have been perfect for this.

On first glance I’d characterize this system as a novel idea, one which is worm-friendly, and best suited to hot, dry climates. It looks convenient to set up and use, but probably not the best system to use if you’re primarily interested in the castings.

If we can find another length of sewer pipe we’ll try it out and report back.

Why not plant some Calendula?

Calendula glows like the sun.

Mrs. Homegrown here, leaving the composting controversy behind…

One of my favorite plants in the garden is Calendula officinalis, aka pot marigold. It should not be mistaken for common marigold, or Mexican marigold, both of which are in the genus Tagetes. Tagetes marigolds are popularly used in companion planting (to ward off bugs in the garden), and for combating nemadtodes in the soil. Calendula is for helping people.

I grow Calendula in order to make lotions, balms and salves. I’m a firm believer in its healing power, my belief based on the happy response by family and friends who use my salves. Calendula is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It soothes, heals and helps regenerate skin. You’ll find Calendula extract as an ingredient in expensive beauty products, but you can make your own Calendula salve for pennies. I’m going to come back to how to do that in a later post, but first, I want to talk about planting Calendula so you can get some going in your own yard (or on your balcony) this spring.


Planting Calendula:

Calendula is beautiful and easy to grow, even for beginners. It’s not at all picky and will adapt to various soils and light conditions like a trooper, though–like most things–it does best if planted in rich, loose soil and given full sun. Even if you’ve had bad luck with flowers in the past, try Calendula. I’d be surprised if it let you down.

It’s technically a short lived perennial, so in very mild climates it might be a permanent garden flower, However, it doesn’t live through freezes or extreme heat. Here is southern California it’s a self-seeding annual. It seeds like crazy, so if you don’t want volunteers all over your yard, trim off the spent blooms–”deadhead” them–before they go to seed. (Calendula seed is trippy: big, gnarly crescent shaped pods, each one a little different–very unlike most seed, which is quite conformist.)

It does very well when grown from seed planted directly in the ground. In years past I’ve let Calendula range all over the yard as casual volunteers, all descended from some long forgotten planting, so obviously it’s not particular about planting conditions.

However, when it came time Phan of Pharmacy ™,  I wanted to start fresh, so I bought seeds. And I wanted to start the seeds while I was preparing the ground, so I started the seeds in flats and transplanted the seedlings when they were about three or four inches high. This worked very well. Calendula isn’t particularly pest-prone, but some things will munch on it, particularly when it’s small. Transplanting the seedlings when they were larger may have given them the oomph to withstand attacks. They also didn’t mind the shock of transplanting–I had no losses.

The Rundown on Calendula:

  • When to plant: Almost any time after frost: early spring into early summer. It doesn’t do well in scorching heat, so the earlier the better.
  • Where to plant: As above, it’s not too picky about soil. You want part to full sun. 
  • How deep to plant: About a 1/4″.
  • How far apart:  If planting in flats, seeds can be close, maybe 3 or 4 inches. If you’re planting straight into the ground you need to consider the final size of the plant, and how close you want them together. I like mine close, so in the Phan they are about 8″ apart. I think 8″ to 1 foot is a good range.
  • How big is it? Depends. A foot or so high, maybe more if it’s older or very happy, and probably about a foot across. 
  • Water: Calendula needs regular water. The one thing you have to do is remember to water it.
  • Fertilizer: You don’t really need it, but if you’ve got some nice compost you can spread some around the plants. 
  • Harvest: To save flowers for medicine, pick them when they’re open and at their peak. Don’t worry about picking too much. Picking just forces them to send out more flowers. Not picking is what leads to plants going to seed and closing up shop. Take the heads inside and dry them face down out of direct light. When dry enough to be crunchy, strip the petals and transfer to jar.
  • Pots: Calendula takes well to containerized life. Try it in pots or window boxes. It would do well in self-irrigating container, too.
  • Seeds: Look around for interesting flowers. As long as the seed pack reads “Calendula officinalis” you’ve got the right stuff. This year I planted the “Pacific Beauty Blend” from Botanical Interests and like them quite a lot. They have a wide range of colors, from almost cream to bright yellow to this cool peach color to the classic vibrant orange. Some of them are beautifully double flowered, others have more of the traditional daisy thing going on.
The seeds and some heads brought in from the garden for drying.

One last note: Calendula is edible. It’s not flavorful, but it’s fun to add the petals to salads. Dried calendula leaves look a little like saffron and can also be used in cooking for color. Calendula also can be brought indoors as a cut flower.

The Chihuahua Menace

Gardeners face many threats: drought, flood, frost and the occassional plague of locusts. But no force of nature is more terrible and awe inspiring than a determined Chihuahua.

Our neighbors Anne and Bill sent us this shocking footage of one of these creatures ravaging their pea bed. Note how the Chihuahua seems to draw other creatures into its destructive vortex. Even a cat is inspired, against all natural law, to nibble on peas. This is called The Facilitator Amplification Effect.

Viewer discretion is advised.