THE RECIPE BOX - Sowing seeds of knowledge about plants as food and medicine

THE RECIPE BOX - Sowing seeds of knowledge about plants as food and medicine

CUMBERLAND – Judith Sumner is a botanist who specializes in ethnobotany, flowering plants, plant adaptations, and garden history. An ethnobotanist strives to document local customs involving the practical uses of local flora for many aspects of life, such as plants used as medicines, food, and clothing.

Judith, who has taught extensively at the college level and at botanical gardens, including the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., shared her knowledge of plants at the Arnold Mills Community House, in Cumberland, on Feb. 21, in a presentation hosted by the Blackstone Valley Garden Club.

A frequent speaker sought out by botanical and horticultural organizations, Judith graduated from Vassar College and completed graduate studies in botany at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and at the British Museum (Natural History) and did extensive field work in the Pacific region on the genus Pittosporum. She has also appeared on the Martha Stewart TV show.

Judith grew up just outside of Boston and described a childhood near a pond and several farms. “I’d climb over train tracks, through a steep drop-off and visit the local farmers,” she said. She fully attributes her becoming a botanist to the fact that they were never too busy to talk to a curious child and eager to impart their wisdom of the good earth.

In an excerpt from her bio, Judith explains that in the relatively recent past, all humans had to be skilled practical botanists in order to survive; they had to know which vegetables would hold up during winter storage, which herbs to use for specific illnesses, how to prepare plant fibers for weaving, and how to select the right woods for construction or cooking fires. She said we now forget many of the daily interactions with plants that were taken for granted during the past three centuries.

Speaking for myself, I was fascinated by her vast knowledge, and I learned a lot about the link connecting the early Colonial arrival of herbs and spices to modern day medicine.

She described the early settlers coming to the new world in the 1600s as having to bring what they used in Europe, not knowing what this strange place would offer. Remember, there was no refrigeration at the time, so pickling with vinegars, salt brines and herbs was a process. “They brought seeds, clippings of herbs and spices,” Judith said “used for both cookery and medicine.”

Homes in Colonial times featured a “still room,” the place where herbs were stored and dried. “If you were well off, you might have had your own equipment (a copper pot with piping) to distill and preserve your own foods.” Oftentimes, the equipment was shared, she said. The principle was different boiling points, what came out as steam was collected in droplets and the result was essential oils, she said.

Most housewives had a binder, a book where they kept the recipes for both culinary and medicinal cures. Often these were passed down in families along with what she called “folk knowledge.” This was a dicey prospect, Judith said, as some herbs in the right amount are helpful, but overdone, they can kill you.

She stated that sage was quite beneficial as a preservative for the meats kept in cold storage and effective enough to kill bacteria. But when taken in too high a dose, it caused fits much like seizures.

Early herbalists – Greeks and Romans of ancient times – thought that a physical appearance of a root of an herb was meant to fix the part of the human body that it most resembled. Called “The Doctrine of Signatures,” she said they thought the form of a plant told you something about its use.

Stating many examples and naming off several herb species, she said some interpretations were that a pansy with its heart-shaped leaf may have been used to help with cardiac problems.

Or, a flower with a bright searing yellow center may have looked like an eye and therefore was used for eye ailments.

A walnut, which looked to them like a brain, was therefore a use for head injuries. Lambs ear, with its soft green foliage, was used as an exterior bandage.

“Occasionally, they hit one that worked,” she added.

“The dose makes the poison,” was a phrase of the time, Judith recited, adding, “bio-active plants in a small amount add flavor, a little more becomes medicinal, and too much can kill you.”

In the Colonial kitchen, pickling was the way to preserve foods and bring some color to the dinner table during the dreary winter months, she said. A pickled mango, picked summer-ripe then cut in half, cored and stuffed with whatever herbs were on hand – fennel, parsley, garlic, cinnamon – tied back together with twine and set in a barrel filled with homemade vinegar was a sight to behold.

“It would be a good day to see that spicy mango in wintertime,” said Judith. This process actually became known as “mangoed” when done to any melon or fruit.

Herbs were, and still are today, used in multiple ways, everything from dyeing cloth to using garlic for treating infection, to weapons of war used during World War II when a form of mustard seed was used to create mustard gas.

Judith sees the future moving more toward herbal antibiotics with the onset of more and more resistant strains of bacteria like mercer (MRSA). “Herbs are not as broad a spectrum (when used in treatments), but what they kill, they kill well,” she said.

Our world is filled with bacteria, she added with a chuckle, laughing at how we anti-bac, sani-wipe, and blow-dry to protect our children. A little dirt under the fingernails seemed to make her smile.

Pickled Red Onions


1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 & 1/2 cups white vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

3 inch piece cinnamon stick

5 cloves

1 bay leaf

pinch of red pepper flakes

(You may also add mustard seed, cumin seed, whole allspice and/or garlic slices.)


1. Blanch the onion in boiling water for two minutes; then drain well in a colander.

2. Combine the vinegar, sugar, and spices in a saucepan and bring to a boil; cover and simmer for five minutes.

3. Add onions to the vinegar mixture and simmer for an additional minute.

4. Cool and transfer to a glass jar. This will keep for several weeks refrigerated and is very good served with various beef dishes and hamburgers.

Judith Sumner
Pickled red onions