Culinary Herbs: The Medicinal Side of the Sweets in Your Holiday TreatsJan 21, 2021
It's holiday cooking time! Which means, it's time to talk about the sweeter side of the holidays and dive into some of the medicinal herbs and spices used for pies, cookies and whatnot during this season of feasting!
A lot of these herbs are hot & spicy, and not necessarily sweet on their own, but are used generously in so many of our traditional fall treats like pumpkin pie, baked apples and even sweet drinks such as hot cocoa and cider. They are delicious and even though you may not think of them as medicine, they truly are and you can use your kitchen as your very own medicine cabinet. Pretty cool!
It's important to get fresh (dried), high quality, organic if you can, herbs so you can get more of the flavor and medicinal benefits from them. If your grocery store has them available in bulk, start there as the quality and freshness will be peak.
Yum yum for my tum tum! I just love cinnamon! The crazy thing for me to think about is that cinnamon comes from the bark of a tree. The trees are native to Sri Lanka, SW India and Asia. I often try to imagine how the harvesting of cinnamon goes. And I recently learned that they peel the inner bark away from the tree, they let it dry, and then it curls up into the little tubes we often see when we look at cinnamon sticks. That little tube is called a Quill, did you know that? I didn’t but I think it’s cool!
Did you know that cinnamon is one of the oldest spices known to man? It was used in ancient Egypt as a beverage flavoring, medicine, and as an embalming agent. Woah!
At one point cinnamon was so highly treasured that it was worth more than gold! It was mentioned in one of the earliest Chinese botanical medicine books, with references dating to around 2700 B.C.E (before the common era). Its mentioned in the bible, and it has been said that a Roman Emperor of the first Century (CE), Nero, burned a year's supply of cinnamon at his wife’s funeral pyre to signify the depth of his loss.
Cinnamon became one of the most utilized spices in medieval Europe. Most meals in the middle ages were prepared in one single cauldron. Casseroles containing both meat and fruit were married together with the help of cinnamon. The demand of cinnamon became so high, it became the reason many explorers took off on expeditions, particularly the Dutch and Portuguese explorers.
There are over 100 varieties of cinnamon to choose from. Most commonly found on grocery store shelves is Cinnamomum cassia, or Cassia cinnamon. Cassia is a bit spicier and more pungent & typically used in more savory dishes when cooking. There is also Ceylon Cinnamon, or Cinnamomum verum which has a bit of a sweeter flavor. Ceylon Cinnamon is the stuff that is best used in desserts and such. They can be used in similar ways as far as using them as medicine.
Cinnamon is also a powerhouse in medicinal ways. It can be a great circulatory stimulant, a smooth muscle sedative, a carminative, promotes healthy digestion, diaphoretic, diuretic, antibiotic, and it can even help with ulcers. It’s helpful in cases of insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. There have been a multitude of studies that show taking cinnamon on a daily basis can help regulate blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Aim for 2 grams of cinnamon per day.
In can be very beneficial in cases of fever, or flu, or flu with fever and diarrhea included, because it is a warming, and tonifying herb. It can help with the cold chills, and tighten or tone the loose stools, plus, it’s yummy, so it’s easy to get your kiddos to take it. Cinnamon is also commonly used as a tooth powder or paste. It has antimicrobial properties to rid your mouth of harmful bacteria and helps to tone tissues such as your gums.
Cardamom grows wild in India, Malaysia, and Ceylon. It’s been used in Chinese medicinal and also in India since there have been records kept of such things. Making it one of the oldest spices in the world. The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom seeds as a tooth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used it frequently as a perfume. It’s commonly referenced in the Arabian nights as an aphrodisiac. The ancient Indians used it as a cure for obesity. It has been used to aid digestion since ancient times.
Cardamom is most commonly used as a digestive agent, as a carminative to ease gassiness and bloating, and indigestion. It improves circulation, and It can also help make things just be super yum!
The little tiny cloves you poke into a good ol’ ham, yep those guys - they’re actually an unopened flower bud of the clove tree. They’re hand-picked when they’re nice & pink and then they’re dried until they turn the deep brown color you’re so accustomed to seeing. They contain an oily compound that is key to their medicinal, nutritional and their strong tastes.
Clove is native to the spice islands of Indonesia. They’ve been consumed in Asia for more than 2000 years. Back in 200 B.C.E., the Chinese would use cloves as a breath mint with the intention to not offend the emperor when visiting the court. It was commonly used to help mask the flavor of poorly preserved foods.
Cloves are rich in a compound called eugenol, which has been shown to prevent the toxicity of environmental pollutants, prevention of digestive tract cancers, and treatment in joint pain. It is commonly used for dental issues for its antimicrobial properties, and it’s analgesic, or pain relieving, properties. A little clove essential oil, in a carrier oil, can go a long way in aiding a toothache by helping to numb it, just as chewing on a little bud also can.
Well, maybe Ginger isn’t so sweet, she’s definitely hot, but she sure does add a great kick to some of our favorite sweet dishes in the cooler seasons, and for the holidays. And, despite what the grocery store says, ginger you get there is not a root after all, it’s a rhizome.
Ginger is native to India, China, and Asia. It’s found in literature from the ancient time in Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern countries, where it has long been loved for its culinary, aromatic, and medicinal properties. The ancient Romans first began importing ginger from China about 2000 years ago. It was a common thing among the medieval renaissance trades, and was one of the spices used against the Plague. In English pubs and taverns, bartenders would put out small containers of ginger to sprinkle into beer. That is the origin of ginger ale!
Ginger has a long tradition of being used for alleviating symptoms of gastrointestinal stress. It’s a great carminative, and helps to relieve spasms of the intestines, providing relaxation and soothing to the intestinal tract. Ginger also helps to stimulate digestion, used with cardamom, cinnamon, and a bit of fresh cracked black pepper, it's even better. It’s commonly used for motion sickness especially sea sickness, and a replacement for Dramamine. It’s also helpful in cases of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy and it can help with menstrual cramps.
It has been shown to ease pain and inflammation for those suffering from arthritis, also improving their overall mobility when consuming ginger regularly. It has a particular affinity not only for the digestive system, but also for the respiratory system, and circulatory system. Ginger is also amazing during cold and flu season to get stuck mucus flowing, keep you warm, stimulate circulation, and ease a sore throat. A little tea of some fresh ginger root and honey can go a long way for someone who’s dealing with a cold and flu.
Really, ginger's list of medicinal properties is long and quite impressive. And I just love, love, love to eat the stuff; how about you? What’s your favorite way to sweeten up some ginger?
Now, we get to switch it up a bit, and talk about another favorite, that seems to be on a completely different spectrum of all of the other herbs and spices we’ve talked about, but I figured I’d leave you with a little pep in your step for the day.
Mints are native to the Mediterranean regions and its origins immortalized in a Greek myth that speaks of the tale of the nymph Minthe, who got Hades attention. Then, Hades' jealous wife Persephone attacked Minthe and was trying to trample her to death, when Hades then turned her into the herb mint.
Mint is also a symbol of hospitality and wisdom. The very smell "reanimates the spirit” Pliny has said. Ancient Hebrews scattered mint on their synagogue floors so that every step that went by would permeate the air with it’s fantastic scent. The Japanese have prized distilled peppermint oil for centuries, and further treated it to create menthol. Ancient Greeks and Romans would rub their tables with mint before their guests arrived.
The pilgrims brought mint to the Americas on the Mayflower which brought the pilgrims to this beautiful country, and then changed this land, and the peoples of this land forever. Oddly enough, a story I find sad as we celebrate “Thanksgiving” and the times that I’d say did not end in the best ways. I find it sad the way people native to this land have been treated for centuries, especially since they had such a deep connection to the land.
However, I do cherish the time I get to spend with my family, celebrating all that I do have to be grateful for today. Like you! I’m grateful you’re taking the time to learn more about using plants as medicine, and making some sort of return to this earth. We need it. Our planet needs it. And, we need more mint at our celebrations!
It’s amazing for tummy upset. It’s also what’s known as a carminative to ease gassiness and bloating that often occurs in these types of events where the main focus is feasting. This is one of the reasons I use it in my Diges-Teas tea, a blend I bring to all of the holiday feasting events. It is also rich in bitters which help to get your digestive juices flowing, like your bile, stomach acid and enzymes to help facilitate the breakdown of your foods, and be able to better absorb your nutrients. It can also ease spasms of the intestinal tracts smooth muscles. It can help uplift your mood on a dark day, and even keep you more alert. That’s one of the reasons I use it alongside Rosemary in my Where Is My Mind??? tea.
It can be useful when dealing with cold and flu as it helps to open the pores of your body allowing heat to dissipate, also known as being a diaphoretic herb. I like to use it to break up stuffy congestion in the lungs, with either herbal steam or a balm I rub on my chest.
Ahh…peppermint! Pretty sure I’m going to have to make a nice Peppermint Cocoa with raw cacao powder, fresh coconut milk, a dash of cinnamon, some mint, and maple syrup!
I’m also planning to make some Golden Milk Macaroons with some cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric, and some other bunches of yum.
What delicious desserts are you making these days? Reach out to me and let me know. Together we can make herbalism… #spreadlikewildflowers
Looking for more help with your digestive health?
Love learning about herbs?
Ready to take a class with me? Join me in this free class about the 5 Most Essential Herbs for Your Natural Medicine Chest. Click here to get signed up!
*Always remember to contact your healthcare provider when considering the use of botanical medicine as a possible treatment option and medical considerations. While the information in this article is absolutely relevant, herbs work differently for each person and each condition.
**I am a trained herbalist and not a licensed or registered healthcare practitioner. I cannot diagnose health conditions, nor prescribe medicines legally; I am not a medical doctor. However, I will recommend or suggest medicinal herbs for various health complaints, as I do believe in the safety and efficacy of botanical medicine.
***The information I’ve provided is not intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. Please consult your medical care provider before using herbal medicine, particularly if you have a known medical condition or if you are pregnant or nursing.
About the Author: Melissa Mutterspaugh
Melissa lives in Oregon, in the foothills of Mount Hood. She's a clinical herbalist, environmental educator, mother, wilderness therapist, lover, nemophilist, music-loving maniac, and the founder of Mountain Mel's Essential Goods. She is passionate about inspiring others to take better care of our planet, through taking better care of themselves, naturally!