Groundhog Day. Fake News?

By Colleen Gondolfi, Blooming Artichoke Herbary

Groundhog. Shenandoah National Park. 6.4.12. Wikipedia.

February.  It’s wet (usually).  It’s cold (almost definitely).  And by the time we get to this point in the new year, I think most of us are looking forward to signs of spring and warmer weather.  Perfectly natural that we should look for something that confirms spring is coming.  It is?  Great!  When???  Enter a 13-pound, bushy-tailed rodent, excuse me, woodchuck.  In this omniscient animal we place our faith when determining when to plant those peas and when to buy the new bikini.  But should we?

Dial back a few years to February 2, 1887 in Gobbler’s Knob, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  A group of groundhog hunters tickled a groundhog out of his burrow.  Phil the First looked around, saw his shadow and then presumably turned around and waddled back to his burrow because they were in for six more weeks of winter.  There has been a continuous succession of Phil ever since.  If Phil sees his shadow, back to the burrow.  More winter on the way.  If he does not, well probably still back to the burrow, but spring will come a lot sooner.    

If it seems unlikely that all this came about out of thin air, you are correct.  The tradition has its roots in the Christian festival Candlemas, which in turn has its origin in the Pagan festival of Imbolc.  Imbolc marked the beginning of spring and the return of the sun.  Candlemas was the day that candles were brought to the church for use in the coming year, and is also a celebration of light (as well as a commemoration of the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem).  Some people believed that if it was sunny on Candlemas, they were in for another forty days of winter.  The Germans took this a step further by electing a mascot.  In Europe, this was usually a hedgehog.  When Germans settled in America, they brought the tradition with them, but hedgehogs were thin on the ground.  Groundhogs were much more common.  And the US tradition began.

So, we have our winter/spring predictions on February 2nd.  Just how accurate is this anyway?  Analysis varies.  According to a study done by the National Climatic Data Center, Phil nails it about 50% of the time.  Coin toss anyone?  Other analysis finds him accurate between 36% and 39%.  The differences appear to be mostly due to the number of years used in the comparisons and the animals.  Though Staten Island Chuck is reported to be almost 80% accurate.  What?  Did you think Phil was the only game around?

But wait!  What if you don’t have a groundhog handy?  Could some other animal do in a pinch?  Apparently, for some people, yes.  If you go to Vermillion, Ohio you can attend the annual Wooly Bear Festival to measure the orange bands on the wooly bear caterpillars to get your winter projection.  Unfortunately, the caterpillars haven’t proven any more accurate than the groundhog.  Also, it was discovered that their bands reflect the prior winter weather.  Not so helpful, but a great excuse for a party. 

Other animals used for weather forecast include cows, cats, frogs, birds and turtles.  Folklore says that cows lay down when it’s about to get cold.  Standing lets them regulate their body temperature in warmer weather.  And while the standing bit may be true, there is no evidence to suggest that they plant themselves on the ground because it is getting chilly.  If you have a cat, watch the weather carefully if it sneezes, scratches behind its ear or snores.  I think cats are clever, talented, animals, but even I’m not buying into that one.  Frogs are supposed to get louder when bad weather is approaching.  There is actually some validation for this one, for some frogs, but whether you can make a prediction based on it is another subject.  And no, when you see birds sitting on a power line, it does not mean it is about to rain.  Neither does a turtle crossing the road mean more rain coming.  I assume they just want to get to the other side. 

My suggestion?  Aside from my knees, which are brilliant predictors of incoming weather.  Spring will get here in its own sweet time.  Prepare for the worse, hope for the best.  And when you need an immediate update, stick your hand out the window.

References

History.com Editors. History. First Groundhog Day. A&E Television Networks.  Published 11/24/09.  Updated 2/2/21. Accessed February 28, 2021. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-groundhog-day.

History.com Staff.  History. Groundhog Day: History and Facts. A&E Television Networks. Published 2/2/12.  Updated 2/2/21. Accessed 2/28/21. https://www.history.com/news/groundhog-day-history-and-facts.

Marshall Shepherd, Senior Contributor.  Forbes. How Accurate are Groundhogs and 8 other Animals at Predicting Weather?  2/2/16.  Accessed 2/28/21. https://www.forbes.com/sites/marshallshepherd/2016/02/02/how-accurate-are-groundhogs-and-8-other-animals-at-predicting-weather/?sh=76137ea74737.

Witch Hazel, the winter bloom

Witch hazels are small trees or shrubs, native to the Eastern United States.  They grow 15-30 feet high with a similar spread and flourish in USDA hardiness zones 3-8.  The plant prefers full sun to partial shade and is tolerant of a variety of soils, provided they are well drained.  Yellow to red fragrant, squiggly-looking flowers appear from October to December. Also known as snapping hazel, winterbloom, or wych hazel.

The North American native peoples used witch hazel as a medicinal plant.  Employing its use as an astringent.  The Osage used it for skin ulcers and sores.  The Potawatomi steamed twigs over hot rocks in their sweat lodges to ease sore muscles.  The Iroquoi made a tea to treat dysentery, colds, and coughs.  In the 18th century, witch hazel was brought to England where its use in treating wounds and bites continued.  It was believed that the volatile oils in the plant were highest in late fall and winter. 

Today, witch hazel is used primarily as an astringent and anti-inflammatory in the external treatment of all types of bruises, inflammations, varicose veins, bleeding, wounds, soreness and muscular aches, and specifically hemorrhoids, and internally for sore throat, internal bleeding, diarrhea and catarrh.  The leaves and twigs are the parts used in medicinal preparations, though distilled witch hazel is readily available at your nearest drugstore.  The plant is rich in tannins (2-10%), flavonoids, saponins, resin and a volatile oil. 

While there are limited contemporary studies available on the uses of witch hazel, there have been some done comparing its effectiveness as an astringent against other preparations, and also evaluating the tannin contents of the plants.  In one 1993 study, a witch hazel preparation and a steroidal cream were compared for effectiveness soothing a skin abrasion.  The witch hazel was found to be as effective. 

As with all herbal preparations, use care and consult your medical practitioner prior to using, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or using any other medications.  This information not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.  For educational purposes only.

References

Andriote, John-Manuel. The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel. November 6, 2012. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/11/the-mysterious-past-and-present-of-witch-hazel/264553/

Fielder, Mildred. Plant Medicine and Folklore. 1975. Winchester Press, New York

Hoffmann, David. Medical herbalism. 2003. Healing arts press. Rochester VT

Kane, Charles W. Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions. 2009. Lincoln Town Press

Korting HC, Schäfer-Korting M, Hart H, Laux P, Schmid M. Anti-inflammatory activity of hamamelis distillate applied topically to the skin. Influence of vehicle and dose. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1993;44(4):315-8. doi: 10.1007/BF00316465. PMID: 8513841

Weiss, Rudolf Fritz, Fintelmann, Volker. Herbal Medicine. 2000. Theime, New York

Wheelwright, Edith Grey. Medicinal Plants and Their History. 1974. Dover Publications, Inc. New York

Don’t Be a Tea Dragon!

When I’m talking to people about our teas at farmers markets there is one response that I hear fairly frequently, “I have so much tea at home”. Trying out new tea is wonderful.  But if you are just hoarding them like a tea dragon and not drinking them, it is time to do a little cabinet clearing and look at more ways to weave them into your life. 

There are so many ways to use tea, either Camellia sinensis in its black, white, and green modes, or herbal teas.  The following are just some ways to use up all that botanical wonderfulness.  Having said that, if your teas have been sitting on the shelf for longer than a year, even properly stored, first evaluate them to see if they should even be used.  If they look faded, “dusty”, or have lost their scent it is time to add them to the compost pile, and not the teapot.

  • Make a cocktail or mocktail.  This is a great place to experiment.  You can start with a strong infusion of your favorite teas, infuse the tea into a simple syrup to use in your drinks, infuse the tea directly into a spirit like gin or vodka, or infuse into a fruit juice you will use as a mixer. There are no rules here beyond what taste good. 
  • Use tea to infuse a brine for flavoring chicken or beef.
  • Add dry teas to your homemade soaps.
  • More of a latte kind of person?  Try a tea latte.  Steep 2 teaspoons of a favorite tea (herbal, or not) in ¾ cup of hot water.  Froth 1/3 cup of milk.  Stir milk into tea.  Add a sweetener, if you like.
  • Teas make an unexpected and tasty ingredient in cooking.  The Internet abounds with ideas for this, but as an example, try this recipe from Sunset magazine for Rooibos Butternut “Pizzettas”.

3 Tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon plus 1 ½ teaspoon rooibos tea leaves

2 medium-large butternut squashes

Drizzle of olive oil for baking sheets

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Pepper

2 tablespoon chopped fresh chives.

  • Preheat oven to 425°. Heat a small frying pan over medium heat and add butter and 1 tbsp. tea. When butter foams, remove from heat, cover, and let infuse 10 minutes. Strain butter through a fine sieve; discard tea.
  • Meanwhile, using a large, sturdy, sharp knife, cut off stems and seedless “necks” of squashes (save seeded parts for another use). Stand each neck on a flat side and slice peel off with 7 or 8 cuts, leaving a kind of octagonal shape. Cut necks into 1/2-in. slices. Lightly oil 2 baking sheets and place squash, slightly separated, on sheets.
  • Pulverize remaining 1 1/2 tsp. tea leaves (if already fine, skip this step). Mix with salt.
  • Brush infused butter onto tops of squash slices, then season with pepper and rooibos salt. Bake until very soft, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with chives.

(Sunset Magazine. “Rooibos Butternut “Pizzettas””, Accessed Sept 23, 2020,  https://www.sunset.com/recipe/rooibos-butternut-pizzettas)

  • Add teas to personal beauty products such as body scrubs.  A scrub, or polisher, is easy to make at home by combining 1 tablespoon of dried tea leaves to one cup of organic white or brown sugar, ½ a cup of extra virgin olive oil, or almond oil, 2 tablespoons of honey and 10 drops of your favorite essential oil.
  • Love the smell of teas?  Use them in place of potpourri.  Place an open jar or bowl of tea in a closet or on a shelf to delicately scent the area.  Or pop into a net bag and add to a drawer (or gym bag…or car).  You can even gently simmer teas on the stove.
  • Another way to use up some of that collected tea?  Get a large glass jar with lid, fill it with cool water, add your tea (in a quantity to match the water, roughly 1 teaspoon of tea per cup of water), and place in a bright sunny spot until you see a nice rich brew.  Store your sun tea in the refrigerator and you can enjoy fresh ice tea anytime.  You can also do this and put the jar directly into the refrigerator to brew, but you will get a lighter brew.

So, stop collecting teas and start enjoying them more!

Blooming Artichoke Herbary (2020)

Yarrow, the Battlefield Boo Boo Butter

Yarrow (Achillea millifolium) is a decorative plant native to the temperate zones of North America, Europe and Asia and is commonly found in fields, pastures and ditches.  It’s use as a medicinal herb goes back thousands of years and the plant comes with a rich folklore history.  How many plants can claim a god keeps it in his first aid kit?  Well, actually quite a few.  But legend has it that the Achillea in Achillea millifolium is due to the god Achilles’ use of this plant to heal his soldiers’ wounds in battle (Ranson, 1954).  Historical and contemporary use of this plant include as a styptic to slow and stop bleeding and a vulnerary to promote wound healing, as well as a diaphoretic, astringent, tonic, stimulant and mild aromatic (Grieve, 1971).  These properties let to its use as to stop nosebleed, calm bleeding hemorrhoids, treat rheumatism and toothache, as a gargle for sore throat, to reduce blood pressure, and for relief from colds, bronchitis, coughs, asthma, fevers and catarrh (Grieve, 1971)(Dawson, 1980).

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Interview on Lewistalks: Herbs and Sci Fi

A local new source just published an interview with me for Blooming Artichoke Herbary, as well as my husband, Tom Gondolfi, and his publishing company.  To learn about our joint efforts with herbs and the written science fiction word here is the article for your enjoyment.

Tom and Colleen Gondolfi: Passionate About Science Fiction and Herbs

 

Cats vs. Catnip

018At Blooming Artichoke we grow lots of different perennial herbs.  Some are easy plants to grow, some are more exact and difficult, but catnip (Nepeta cataria) has to be the most challenging of the lot because it calls out to all its destroyers within sniffing distance.

First of all, I love cats.  I’ve been a certified crazy cat lady my whole life.  I love plants.  And I have the plant geek certificates and stack of dirty garden gloves to prove it.  There are just times when those two loves do not work well together.  Catnip and furballs are a good example. 

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