Herbs for Thanksgiving

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England for the New World with 102 passengers. Although the ship's official bill of lading has since been lost, we know it listed tools and agricultural and horticultural seeds (specifically, wheat and "pease"); we can only guess what favorite herb seeds and cuttings were brought from English gardens.

Although medicinal herbs would be a priority, basic culinary herbs in use at the time by English "goodwives" included mint, sage, parsely, thyme, marjoram, tansy, pennyroyal, rosemary and chamomile. Rooted cuttings were most likely stuck into root vegetables to help them survive the 66-day trip. In the spring of 1621, "Meresteads" (farmlands) and "Garden Plotes" (home gardens) were assigned to those who had survived the severe winter.

Garden plots were largely tended by women for whom flower gardens would have been an extravagance; however, they did plant lilacs and Eglantine roses by their houses as well as clumps of hollyhocks, tiger lilies, and peonies-all from cuttings and roots brought from England and nurtured over the winter. In the fields, the men planted the wheat and pea seeds they had brought.

In addition, the local Native Americans taught the Pilgrims about native vegetables and herbs. Along with many herbs especially valuable for medicinal uses, the settlers learned to use strawberry and blackberry leaves, sassafras root, bee balm and birch bark for tea. The native maize produced a very successful harvest that first year. On September 21 or 22, 1621, close to Michaelmas (September 29, the traditional day for harvest feasts in 17th century England), the 52 surviving colonists and a group of Wampanoag Indians began a 3-day celebration.

Although the complete menu is not documented, William Bradford tells us the colonists supplied wild ducks, geese, turkeys, swans, and passenger pigeons, along with cod and sea bass. The Indians brought venison.

The four "goodwives" who had survived the year prepared simple dishes seasoned with European and native herbs. A recipe for Oyster Cornbread Dressing called for "Onyons cut fine and of Parsley, Sage, Time, Savory."

Although our Thanksgiving occurs about two months later in the year than the Pilgrims' celebration, we season our dishes with many of the same herbs they used, especially sage, thyme and rosemary. These are all woody perennials which, in late November, are not yet completely dormant in our gardens. Sage and thyme are frost hardy; rosemary is hardy only to about 20 degrees, although it may overwinter in colder temperatures depending on location.

Two varieties of rosemary, Arp and Hill Hardy, are said to be hardy to -10 degrees, although location still seems to be a determinant of survival. Rosemary can be potted up and brought indoors where it needs good drainage (never let it sit in water), at least six hours of sunlight a day, good air circulation, and a cool room. An unheated sunroom is ideal.

Since rosemary is a Mediterranean native, some growers feel it benefits from frequent misting. Depending on the size of the plant, it can be clipped throughout the winter. Thyme needs soil with good drainage in full sun. Mulching thyme plants 6-8 inches helps to keep them from heaving in cold weather; mulch needs to be completely removed in the early spring.

French thyme, my favorite for flavor, seems to be a bit less hardy than English thyme. Thyme pairs well with sage in poultry seasoning and is a good seasoning for winter squashes. It can be snipped even under the snow. In the spring, it can be propagated by seeds, cutting, division, or layering.

Heavy harvests of sage should be complete by the first of September, although it can be clipped sparingly all winter. Sage plants tend to decline after about four years and replacements can be started by seed, layering or cuttings. In the garden, both sage and rosemary benefit from a sand mulch. In addition to adding sage to turkey dressing, the leaves can be placed in the cavity of the Thanksgiving turkey.

For a great presentation, slide your hands between the turkey breast meat and skin to loosen the skin. Rub butter or margerine on the breast meat and arrange sage leaves (this can also be done with rosemary) under the skin. Pat the skin down and roast. When finished, the leaves will show through the browned skin. As we sit down to our abundant and deliciously flavored Thanksgiving feast, we should give a thought to those hardy Pilgrims who gave us this holiday.

For your holiday décor (and for wild bird feed after the festivities), try this Thanksgiving Potpourri from your herb garden:

1 C dried sage leaves
2 C goldenrod
 1 C dried lovage (or dried celery) leaves
˝ C sunflower seed
˝ C pumpkin seeds
1 C evening primrose pods
˝ C squash seeds
2 C dried basil leaves and flowers
1 C Indian corn
2 C hickory nuts
2 C acorns

This recipe makes a colorful and fresh-scented potpourri for display in open, glass containers. After Thanksgiving, throw out potpourri for the birds; the leaves will blow away, and the birds will take care of the seeds and nuts.

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