Growing Chamomile, Lemon Balm and Ginger
How are you doing? Thought so. Me too. By now, everyone I know is feeling traumatized, anxious, distressed and/or depressed. Around here, life began to change fast starting on March 5th, which I’ve come to think of as the Last Good Day (a position previously held by the Monday before Election Day 2016). One hundred and sixteen days of mounting uncertainty and fear have worn down the stoutest dispositions. Few of us are free of crankiness and most of us snap fast these days. Indeed, I find myself avoiding most active stimuli and seeking calming activities instead. As our national crisis continues to build, I’ve even given up my morning cup of black tea as it’s been making me irritable and jumpy. Instead, I’ve switched over to a bright yet calming blend of ginger, chamomile and lemon balm, with just enough honey to make it sing instead of sting.
Happily, both chamomile and lemon balm are very easy to please; indeed, once you’ve got some planted, you’ll never lack them again. They’re both huge pollinator pleasers as well, though it’s important to choose the right chamomile; Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a reliable perennial and an ardent bloomer. Given well drained soil and full sun, it will spread in low carpets of fine, feathery foliage. A shy bloomer, Roman chamomile is often used as a groundcover or a walkable lawn substitute (though it takes light use best). German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilia) is an aster cousin that produces airy clouds of little white daisies in late spring, each with a bright golden eye. A freely self-sowing annual, German chamomile is a classic kitchen herb that’s makes an excellent base for backyard tea blending. Ranging from 8-15 inches in height, German chamomile blooms in late spring and early summer. More mellow than vivid in flavor, it partners beautifully with everything from mint and rose petals to thyme and rosemary. Tea can be brewed from both foliage and flowers, though the foliage adds a peppery bite, while the blossoms offer a gentle, mildly aromatic sweetness. Harvest the flowerheads when they are almost fully open, then dry them in a single layer on a clean window screen or drying rack in a warm, dry place out of direct sun. When fully dry, store them in glass jars out of direct light or freeze in tightly sealed containers.
Lemon Balm & Ginger
Refreshing in scent and flavor, lemon balm is a hardy perennial with insignificant flowers and fragrant, tasty foliage. It’s very easy to grow and can exhibit takeover tendencies; in some of my gardens lemon balm has been almost as persistent a spreader as its mint cousins. That said, my gardens are never without it, as it has so many uses in the kitchen. In one garden, the long gravel driveway was lined with the golden form (Melissa officinalis “Gold Leaf’), which made a lovely edging and wasn’t harmed by occasional run-ins with delivery trucks. Give it a sunny spot in ordinary soil an it wil love you forever. Give it great soil and plenty of water and you may regret that impulse. Confine it to a large pot and you’ll need to refresh the soil every few years but will still get plenty of leaves for salads, sorbets and of course, herbal teas.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) has been used for millennia to treat a whole boatload of complaints, and science backs up more than a few of the claims of benefit. I especially appreciate ginger’s ability to soothe indigestion, which stress and worry can trigger in no time. Homegrown ginger is especially delicious, though in cold winters areas it needs protection. Mine lives in a large (3 cubic foot) tub, wider than it is deep, and spends the winter indoors-first in my bathroom, now in our new sunroom. It’s important to use organic tubers, since most grocery store ginger is treated with growth retardants to keep it from sprouting. Like its canna kin, edible ginger needs full sun, shelter from chilly winds, and great drainage. We recently replaced a leaky section of our covered porch with clear panels, added some old windows, and now revel in a delightful little sun room. That’s where my ginger is now, as the wet spring and cool (so far) summer won’t make ginger thrive.
Harvest As Needed
I love the tang of ginger in many foods, from teas and broths to curries and stir fries, so one large tubful produces almost enough for a year’s worth of cookery. Now that I have a sunroom again, I’m starting a second ginger tub, since it takes a couple of years to harvest large roots from small starts. By the time the current tub needs refreshing and replanting, the second one should be producing. Ginger is fairly easy to please, as long as it doesn’t get too cold. It appreciates good potting soil fortified with mature compost, and needs good drainage as well as some protection from cold winds. Like many tropical plants, ginger likes full sun up North (I’m on an island off Seattle) and filtered sun in the hotter South. Mine succeeded in the ground only when planted on a deep berm of sandy loam topped with improved soil, but it grows very happily in the large tub, where the enriched soil is replaced after each annual harvest. Ginger roots grow fairly near the surface, spreading widely but not very deeply, so the width of the pot is more important than the depth. However, more soil holds heat longer when temperatures drop, so I fill the bottom of a deep pot with sand.
Rinse the ginger rhizomes well before planting, and soak them in cool water for an hour or so if they seem dried out. You don’t need a lot to get started; a few smallish pieces will size up nicely over time. Set the pieces 6-8 inches apart, with the buds facing up; they’ll sprout into grassy stems that look a bit like baby bamboo. Cover the rhizomes with an inch or two of moist soil and gently firm them in with your hands. The grassy shoots will appear quickly in a warm, sheltered location, just needing enough water to keep it in active growth. Indoors, don’t overwater or fertilize or you risk rotting the rhizomes (ask me how I know). When the leaves begin to turn brown, dump out everything, replenish the tub with fresh soil and compost, and choose a few of the outermost rhizomes with plump eye buds for the next crop.
Chamomile, Lemon Balm & Ginger Tea
1/4 cup sliced and chopped ginger root
5 cups water
1/4 cup lemon balm foliage
1/4 cup fresh or dried chamomile blossoms
Bring ginger and water to a boil, add herbs, cover pan and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Strain and add honey to taste. Drink hot; refrigerate extra for a refreshing cold drink. Excellent for chasing colds and elevating low spirits.