By Sherry Smith
The summer canning season is in full swing. We’ve been harvesting in earnest and preparing the empty beds with compost for the next round of planting. Our tomatoes and tomatillos are finished, as are the summer squash. We will replant the squash and tomatoes for a fall crop. The watermelons are ripening. The red ripper cowpeas are huge and should start producing any day now. Our new bees are busy pollinating everything and we can definitely see the difference in our garden’s productivity. We have jars of pepper relish, serrano pickles, pickled jalapeños and serranoes, and various jams and jellies being added to the pantry weekly. Our freezer is stocked with sweet corn and green beans. This is the time of year when we are truly rewarded for all of our hours of labor and toil in the garden.
I love gardening, it’s true, but my favorite type of gardening is herb gardening. Herbs are hands-down the most versatile and useful plants in my entire yard. The bees love them. They smell good. They taste good. They make other foods taste good. They can be used for food, for beauty, for medicine, for crafts. They are easy to grow. They can be grown in small pots on the windowsill or tucked into small empty spots in the garden beds. Herbs are just amazing plants.
Being a Horticulture major, I’ve studied a lot of ethnobotany (people-plant interactions throughout history) and I’ve learned quite a bit about the various uses our ancestors had for different plants that aren’t commonly used today. I read about them and immediately want to try them (plant nerd!). I study and practice herbalism. I love to cook. I have a large herb garden that I’m planning to make even larger this fall. I plant herbs in my vegetable garden, my flower beds, in pots on the porch, wherever I can find a spot for them. They’re great for companion planting, as many of them repel garden pests and diseases or boost the health of other plants. There’s only one problem: my herbs grow out of control. We rarely have any hard freezes, so the herbs don’t really die back in the winter. They just get a new flush of growth.
I harvest my herbs and dry them, of course, as well as making macerated oils and tinctures. I use them to make soaps and lotions, creams and salves. I use them for medicine. I also freeze them. Obviously, I snip fresh herbs for cooking. It just seems like as many uses as I have for them, I just can’t seem to use them all up. So, to that end, I started experimenting. I’ve begun making herbal jellies.
It all began when I was outside picking blackberries to make jam. We have a wild honeysuckle vine growing around the shrubs that protect our well. I picked a flower and sucked out the nectar (yes, I still do that. Why should kids get all the good stuff?), and thought about what it would be like to be able to taste that floral sweetness all year. That’s when it hit me: why not make a honeysuckle jelly? I presented the idea to my husband, and off we went to forage for honeysuckle flowers.
We gathered about 2 ½ cups of honeysuckle flowers from the trees around our house. I rinsed them and trimmed off any leaves, etc. I brought 2 cups of water to a boil, poured it over the flowers, and let them steep overnight. Adapting an old recipe, I came up with a good recipe for a small batch of jelly. The next day, I strained out all of the plant material and consigned it to the compost heap. I used the decoction to make jelly. It set beautifully and made the prettiest golden yellow jelly that tasted just like the honeysuckle flowers. It has a sweet taste with light floral undertones that is indescribable. Okay, so that was a definite success. Inspiration struck again: why not use several of my other herbs?
So, for the past week, I’ve been experimenting with making jelly using herbs and edible flowers from my garden. So far, I’ve made a jelly using lemon balm that tastes exactly like the old-fashioned lemon drops we ate as children. I’ve made jelly using my garden mint (that is currently taking over one of my flower beds) that tasted like candy canes. I’ve made jelly using lavender flowers and vanilla extract that has a definite sweet floral taste. Next on my list is a jelly using lemongrass and a piece of ginger. This has proven to be a very good use of my excess herbs, and we are already rooting cuttings of the honeysuckle vines to plant along our fence.
Lemon Balm Jelly
Lavender Vanilla Jelly
I’m currently planning my herb garden. I always have a long list of herbs that I want to plant: herbs for medicine, herbs for cooking, herbs for crafts, herbs for beauty care. This time, though, I’m taking special note of those herbs that might make a new and interesting jelly. My recipe is below. Enjoy!
Yield: approximately 4-8 oz. jars
• 2 cups of fresh leaves/flowers, rinsed (I only used ½ cup of lavender flowers since it has such a strong flavor)
• 2 cups boiling water
• Juice of 1 lemon
• 4 cups pure cane sugar
• 1 tbsp. vanilla extract (optional)
• 1 pouch of liquid pectin
1. Sterilize jars, bands and lids.
2. Pour the boiling water over the plant material. Allow it to steep overnight.
3. Strain out plant material. Pour decoction into a large pot. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat.
4. Stir in lemon juice, extract if using it, and sugar. Continue to heat until it reaches 220°F. Allow it to boil for a full minute.
5. Add pectin and continue to boil for 2 full minutes.
6. Remove from heat and pour into jars. Wipe rims clean, put lids and bands on jars, and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
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