Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)


Every time we visit the nice folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead they send us home with some strange plant. Thanks to PUH, who are busy actually doing things as opposed to blogging about doing things, we now have a beautiful flowering mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus).

Verbascum thapsus is one of those plants that most people think of as a weed. Native to Europe and Asia, Verbascum thapsus was introduced to North America because of its many medicinal uses, almost too many to list. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, it also makes both green and yellow dyes and doubles as a fish poison! Tradition holds that it also wards off evil spirits,with some sources saying it’s the herb Ulysses took with him to deal with the treacherous sorcerer Circe.

It’s a useful, striking and beautiful plant. It’s also classified as an invasive. The Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA), a consortium of ten federal government agencies and 260 mostly non-profit organizations, has Verbascum thapsus in its cross hairs. How the non-profit “cooperators”, as the PCA terms the many native plant organizations in the PCA consortium, can get behind a program that suggests spraying glyphosate (e.g., RoundupĀ®) and triclopyr (Garlon) in wilderness areas is a great mystery to me. The PCA is also pondering the release of non-native biological controls for mullein such as the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). So, it seems, some non-native species are o.k. while others are not? Shouldn’t we be concerned about what else the mullein moth will munch on? Better, I think, to learn to get along. The non-natives are here and we ain’t going to get rid of them. Let’s find their uses rather than spray herbicides. We humans, after all, are notoriously invasive, a moral I’m reminded of as I read the narrative of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. If Monsanto marketed a Conquistador control I’m sure the Indians would have spayed an ocean of it, but they only would have created pesticide resistant super-Conquistadors.

While I’d hesitate to plant this stuff if I lived on the edge of a wilderness area, I see no problem growing it in the city. A mix of edibles, natives, ornamentals, medicinals and especially some useful “weeds” makes for a more robust garden. So in the interest of getting along:

Read more about the medicinal properties of Verbascum thapsus on Alternative Nature Online Herbal.
More on the magical properties of Verbascum thapsus at alchemy-works.com.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).

A Close Shave Part IV

There are a few advantages to living in ugly old Los Angeles. Homegrown Revolution contributor Hairy Picfair, in an email commenting on our post about switching to an old-fashioned safety razor, reminded us that we can find replacement blades at Ross Cutlery, the shop where O.J. Simpson picked up a folding knife while shooting a commercial next door, just a month before the murder of his ex-wife. Ross Cutlery is located in the Bradbury Building where Rutger Hauer had his showdown with Harrison Ford in the thrilling conclusion of Blade Runner. Celebrity gossip aside, cutlery shops are a promising place to find alternative shaving supplies.

Mark, another HGR reader, writes to ask about alternatives to shaving creams. We’ve been testing out Colonel Conk Products’ Almond Shave Soap with a cheap shaving brush. So far we’re happy with this product and while we’re disappointed that neither the container nor Colonel Conk’s website lists the ingredients, we’ve sent a letter to the company to see if they will let us know what is in the soap. We’ll report back when we find out.

Lastly, fellow bloggist and Starcrash scholar Doug Harvey writes to suggest a visit to a traditional barber for a professional straight-edge blade experience. We used to do this until a friend of ours started cutting our hair in exchange for lunches at pupusa joints. Perhaps we can get our volunteer hairstylist to take up the blade if we switch to three martini lunches at swankier digs.

To our international readers we apologize for the O.J. and pupusa references in this LA-centric post and we send our condolences to those about to undergo that thing called winter . . .


A Close Shave Part III

Kurt Cobain once said, “The only way I would wear a tye-died T-shirt would be if it were soaked in the blood of Jerry Garcia.” Being born around the same year as Cobain, our generational bias prevents us from donning tie-dye, friendship bracelets, or sandals. It also prevents us from cultivating a flowing beard, leaving us desperately hooked on shaving products.

As the alleged developer of the “loss-leader” business strategy King Gillette figured out that if you sold folks a cheap razor handle customers would have to come back for disposable razors for which you could charge an exorbitant price. Like desperate crack addicts we’ve been patronizing Gillette for years, plopping down ever more ridiculous sums for the latest “Mach-whatever” plastic multi-blade gimmick.

We finally decided to opt out of the Gillette trap and order up a retro safety razor from Lehmans. Here’s a comparison of costs:

Gillette Mach 3: four blades for $10.59 or $2.64 a blade
Package of double-edged, stainless steel blades: ten blades for 4.95 or 49 cents a blade.

So far so good, but there’s a catch. The fine folks at Gillette are a monopoly, as rapacious as the rail barons of the 19th century and completely dominate the shaving products industry. In a practice known as “slotting” large companies pay fees, sometimes as high as $25,000 per item, to reserve space on supermarket shelves and essentially eliminate the competition. The supermarket I checked did not have any blades other than Gillette–not even even Schick, and certainly not old-fashioned safety razors. So it appears that we may have to mail order replacement blades, and with shipping fees this will make the traditional safety razor gambit less appealing.

But we’re stubborn and just can’t give Gillette, now owned by Proctor and Gamble, any more of our money. The real way out of this dilemma is to take up the even more traditional straight razor but we’ve been warned about the learning curve on that strategy, not to mention the need to keep the blade sharp. Opinions dear readers? Any straight-edged razor types out there?