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Comely Costmary

Herb Snips

 

Costmary

It was nice to meet many of you column readers at this month's First Friday herb event. I decide to write this column because I found out that costmary is somewhat unknown. That is not surprising because the plants are not commonly sold and I have never seen it sold fresh. A good reason to grow your own! Costmary (chrysanthemum balsamita) flourished from Biblical times through the eighteenth century. It is a mystery why, with its many uses it is so overlooked today. Its minty, lemon, balsam scent is enough reason to include it in any garden.

Its many "common names" will give us an idea of its attributes and intriguing history. "Cost" is from the Latin custom meaning oriental. The plant was introduced in England from the Orient in the sixteenth century. The "mary" portion of the word might be due to its legendary connection with Jesus' mother. The plant is also called "Our Lady's Balsam" because legend has it that the Holy Mother made a healing balm from the balsam scented leaves.

This herb is known as Bible leaf because the leaves have been used throughout history as a Bible and prayer book marker. It kept ones place, and the scent would revive a parishioner about to dose off when the sermon was a bit too long. If the service was really boring, a nibble on the leaf might be necessary for revival. The amount of bibleleaf grown in a Colonial garden might indicate which church one would attend!

Alecost is another appropriate common name, because this herb was used in England to spice up ale and beer. Adding a couple of leaves to a glass of beer provides a new taste sensation even today. Other drinks such as lemonade, punch and tea benefit from its addition. Start with one tender leaf and add more to achieve the concentration you like. An infusion of costmary makes an excellent tea, which doubles as a face astringent.

The small, young leaves are the tastiest and can be used dried or straight from the garden. It will make subtler the strong flavor of salads such as tuna, shrimp and egg. Fruit salads and other dishes will be uplifted by its spicy mint flavor. Dishes to serve four people will require one-quarter teaspoon of dried or two fresh leaves.

Place a couple of leaves in the bottom of the pan before baking a pound, white or yellow cake for a lemon, mint tang. A couple of leaves placed in a roaster will enhance chicken, beef, venison, lamb and duck. Most recipes that call for mint will be uplifted by the addition of a small amount of costmary.

Due to its long supple branches, crafters weave baskets and add this delightfully scented herb to floral arrangements and potpourri. Leaves will freshen up drawers, closets and mattresses. Scatter several leaves between the mattress and box spring.

Chrysanthemum balsamita is a perennial that grows to about three feet tall with tiny yellow flowers and serrated, silvergreen leaves. It thrives in good draining soil with average watering. Grow it in the sun, because it will not flower in dark areas. Are you looking for a shimmering silver leaf for your shade garden? The runners spread above ground and produce new plants. Since there are few if any seeds, division is the path to propagation. Could this lack of seed production be why it is not commonly grown anymore?

Allow this historical plant a place in your garden! Its height, silvery leaves and yellow flowers are a lovely backdrop for low growing herbs and flowers. Use a leaf of comely costmary as a marker in your favorite book as you enjoy a cup of its strongly scented steaming tea.

Let me hear your suggestions for an herb column or herb classes you would like. Check my Website at http://www.herbbasket.net for upcoming events. Enjoy an herbally delightful month!

 
 

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