Wednesday 13 November 2013

Guest Mentee Post: Mother of Herbs Part 1

Maddie is one of the Australian members of the Kitchenherbwife Mentorship Scheme. This is her first post about her 2013/4 Herbal Ally, Mother of Herbs. Thank you, Maddie, for sharing your experiences with us. 

I have chosen ‘Mother of Herbs’ as my herb ally – but I really believe I had no say in the matter. She chose me – ‘cos she knew we needed her! Several other herbs took my interest including Gotu Kola, Passionflower, and Purslane - and Herb Robert (which I’m presently looking for). I’ve planted Purslane seeds in a pot, which germinated within 4 days. These, and some self-seeded, young Passionfruit plants growing wild, courtesy of the birds, will be looked at in depth, later on. 

In the meantime I’m taking photos of their growth. But for some unknown reason my pull was towards ‘The Mother’.   All through the long, hot, dry weather we’ve been having, ‘Mother of Herbs’ just keeps on keeping on. Don’t know how it got into my garden, really.  I can’t remember planting it, but it grows so profusely here in our sub-tropical climate that I’m forever thinning it out as it tends to suffocate the other plants around it. So easily grown, it just takes root here wherever it hits the ground. We also had it growing in our other home many years ago, but didn’t use it back then. These days it’s a regular in our kitchen – in Italian dishes, tomato based meals, seasonings , pesto & whatever I think might be improved by its addition, but otherwise,  til now  have never taken much notice of it – Big Mistake!

Officially known as Plectranthus amboinicus, from the Family: Lamiaceae (mints/aromatics), and also was known as Coleus amboinicus  (syn), and tends to grow in a similar sprawly nature.) However it has the thick, fleshy, and  hairy/velvety leaves of a succulent, on thick stalks and clear sap. The leaves are almost heart-shaped with scalloped, serrated edges; the main vein from the stem is a darkish  pink for about two-thirds of its length (but sometimes the leaf is all green, depending, it seems on how much shade its in, though the stems still seem to keep the pinkish tone.) 

The tiny flowers form along the length of spikes up to 45cm long. Mine are light purple, but I believe there are also white and pink flowering ones too.  The herb is very aromatic and I liken it to the smell of the dried mixed herbs that was once found in every housewife’s cupboard, if not still is. It is known by many common names – Five Seasons Herb, One in Five Herb, All-Herb, Queen of Herbs, Puerto Rican Oregano, Spanish Sage, Spanish Thyme, Chinese Three in One, Broad Leafed Thyme, 10 Herbs in One – and perhaps many more. 

There seems to be some dispute about where it originated, and at the rate it grows here I can understand why. Its considered a valuable Folk/Traditional Herb in Northern Africa, India, the Caribbean, South America, and sub-tropical Asia,  who all seem to lay claim to its origin, as it favours the hotter climates, where its culinary use was for flavouring and to mask the strong flavours of goat, fish etc. I’m thinking that ‘strong’ could be a nice way of meaning  ‘off’ as it has anti-bacterial properties – much the same as Europeans used their selection of herbs to flavour rancid meats before  refrigeration  eg. France.   

As well as a culinary herb, it’s also an important medicinal herb as well as a decorative plant, especially the variegated leaf variety which I only recently discovered existed.  Both leaf types have the same properties. While both primarily favour the warmer climates, they can be grown in cold climates with a bit of TLC and if brought inside during the cooler months.

In studying this herb for the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that it acts differently depending on its position in the garden. Compare the colour of the leaves – the dark green with the pink main vein in the top picture where it is growing in almost complete shade, to the second pic - the same plant growing with a geranium in full sun, and in much drier conditions under a presently bare Frangipani tree. Here the leaves are much lighter (tending to almost lime in colour) and are curved upwards in a cupping mode (perhaps, I’m thinking, to capture and hold any moisture/dew or whatever?) and the serrated edges of the plant are pink, but not the main vein.   

Actually the pic doesn’t do it justice – the pink edges are much brighter in colour than the pic shows making it a very attractive looking plant. And to think I never noticed this before. Perhaps later on in the mentorship, I may try to draw this plant highlighting the pink edges – but I’m guessing any attempt at this might need to be loosely called abstract. Such is my skill at artwork. 
It wasn’t until I started researching this plant for the Mentorship that I became aware of just how symbolic the common name is to its all-encompassing nature – though perhaps I’m reading far too much into it as more than likely the name was coined for its likeness to so many herbs. It could be co-incidence I guess … or not.  But from my point of view she well deserves the title ‘Mother’.

‘How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life’ Isabell Shipard.
Various miscellaneous sources.


chookie2 said...

Nice post Maddie, I have no knowledge of this herb so find it very interesting. I may look for it as an indoor plant for winter as I am sure our cold southern winters would turn it mush. What does it taste like?

Sarah Head said...

Sue, I'm not sure if Maddie can respond on blogs but she may send an email if she sees this. I'm fairly sure Mother of Herbs is known in the UK as "Sticky Thyme". I had a cutting given to me by one of my writing group who had been gifted it by a friend returning from the Caribbean, where they used it to flavour gravy. I thought it had a minty/lemony smell. It grew very well on my windowsill in the kitchen which gets all the afternoon sun, but I was very disappointed when I tried it in tea as there was very little flavour. Maddie's plant may be much stronger because it is grown in a sub-tropical climate. Maybe we'll learn more in Part 2!

mainlynancy said...

Glad to see posts from other people that are interested in using herbs! Thanks!