Saturday, July 19, 2008

Antioxidant Herb Power: Home-grown herbs like parsley and sage fight free-radicals

By now even the most die-hard carnivores know that unless they eat five or more servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables a day, they're not warding off reactive oxygen compounds, which in turn, leave the body vulnerable to aging, cancer, and heart disease. But even vegetarians may be overlooking a powerful weapon in their antioxidant (vitamins C, E and beta-carotene) arsenal, free radical scavengers as close as the backyard garden-herbs.

"Many common dietary herbs have documented chemopreventative properties," says Mitchell L. Gaynor MD, director, Integrative Medicine and Medical Oncology at Strang-Cornell Cancer Prevention Center and author of Healing Essence: A Cancer Doctor's Practical Program for Hope and Recovery.

While it's certainly possible to obtain these herbs in supplement form, using "whole foods" from your garden is particularly satisfying.

"The very act of growing the plants, harvesting the usable parts, preparing them, and ingesting them, gives us ownership of our state of wellness," says Darryl Herren, owner of Olive Forge Herb Farm in Haddock, GA. "Even if you are not taking a therapeutic dose, you'll know you are reaping the benefits of eating whole, pure foods while adding small amounts of antioxidants to your diet consistently."

Maria Greene agrees. "I'm from the old school of 'simples," says the herbalist and owner of Greene's Herbal Apothecary and Tea Room in Cleveland, GA. "So I use fresh or dried herbs, either wildcrafted or home-grown, as an infusion, decoction, or tincture." (see page 4)

Cooking with the following antiox-herbs is also rewarding, offering tantalizing flavor to foods as well as antioxidant power. From sauteing to baking, these healthy herbs can be used in a variety of ways. Spark up an ordinary green salad with parsley and garlic, or crumble your own special blend of flavors into soups and stews. For a more concentrated flavor use infusions or decoctions. To be sure you're getting all the free radical fighters you need, use a variety of herbs, for no two plants have the same antioxidant properties.

GARLIC has been the undisputed king of culinary herbs since medieval times and was used for everything from curing poor digestion to pin worms-not to mention deterring vampires. Yet, folklore and bad breath aside, today we know that garlic not only has antioxidant properties that bind to free radicals and render them harmless, but it also contains potent phytochemicals that activate detoxification enzymes.

"The average American is exposed to more than 500 chemicals a day, including pesticides and PCBs," Gaynor says. "So we need a healthy diet to replenish substances necessary for our body's detoxification system. Otherwise, it can't stimulate reactions that break down active carcinogens in the body."

For example, garlic contains chemicals called allium compounds, which boost levels of naturally occurring enzymes that detoxify potential carcinogens.

Tilling Tips

Garlic is "hopelessly easy" to grow even for the blackest thumb, says Herren. The only caveat is to use a soil with plenty of sand; garlic doesn't like clay. "Just pick up a three-pack of garlic bulbs at your produce stand, some cheap potting soil from a large retail chain and a half-whisky barrel to plant them in-about 6 inches deep. You don't even have to bother pulling them apart or planting them just right. You could throw them over your shoulder into the barrel, but if it makes you feel more horticultural, plant them with the root hair at the bottom and the tip at the top," he says.

Northerners will need to plant garlic in the ground and add a couple of inches of mulch because the plant won't be able to withstand the cold winter in a pot, he adds. "If you plant before Thanksgiving, you should be harvesting the first bulbs by Mother's Day."

When the foliage begins to yellow, that's the sign to dig them-although Herren doesn't recommend digging per se.

"Use a sturdy stick to tip the side of the barrel over and dump the soil out onto a sheet of plastic. Then pick them up like rocks," he says. Either compost the soil or put it back in the container, along with the caramel colored bulblets that form on the sides of the garlic.

"Use the bulblets to start another planting, but let the rest dry in the sun for a day or two, then cut off the tops and put in panty hose or an onion bag. If you don't let them freeze, they'll keep up to a year."

Hint: Although you might be tempted to grow elephant garlic for easier digestion, don't. "It doesn't have the phytochemicals," Herren says. And if you're worried about reeking of garlic, "steep yourself like a tea bag in a good hot bath for about 20 minutes. That'll help."

ROSEMARY like garlic, contains a potent inducer of detoxification enzymes, carnosol, in addition to being a powerful antioxidant. And while it's not quite as easy to grow as garlic, it certainly smells better!

"This plant loves to be pruned and fills the air with a rich piney scent," Herren says. "A handful of leaves steeped in a cup of water helps that headachy, stuffy feeling you get in winter."

Tilling Tips

Olive Forge Herb Farms favorite variety is 'Brite Star,' with its dark upright foliage that maintains its compact appearance as it grows about three feet tall by four feet wide in about four years.

"The only problem we've ever encountered in 26 years of growing rosemary is root rot," says Herren. Because rosemary requires a sandy loam so water can percolate away from the root quickly, he recommends a mixture of half builder's sand and half compost.

Hint: To propagate, don't root in water, but take a five inch cutting and place in damp sand.

SAGE is another commonly-grown herb that has antioxidant properties, points out Mindy Green, director of educational services at the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, CO.

"Sage grows just like rosemary," says Herren. "In the north, it will act as a herbaceous perennial, and in the south an evergreen."

Hint: Southern gardeners may want to try the heat-resistant German cultivar Bergatten.

PARSLEY relegated to mere decoration in most mainstream cookery, contains three times the potency of vitamin C than citrus juice. In its leafy greens, like those of spinach, are the antioxidants' carotenoids- lutein and zeaxanthin. "These foods have been linked with a lower risk of both cancer and degenerative eye diseases such as cataracts," says Gaynor.

Tilling Tips

Parsley takes a little more persistence to plant than garlic, rosemary, or sage. First of all, the seeds need to be soaked in water before sowing them directly; yet, they become adhesive when wet and stick to your fingers like glue. So some gardeners advocate to instead, moisten the seedbed evenly during the 20-25 day germination period. (Soak a board with water and cover the furrow for the first two weeks, lifting it every day thereafter to water. When the first seedlings appear, remove the board. By the time the parsley is four inches high, you can begin to harvest the leaves.)

Hint: Remember this plant is a biennial so you'll need to sow a fresh crop for the "off" season.

ROSES hold another source of bioflavonoids capable of zapping free radicals. "Rosehips contain a rich source of natural, easy-to-absorb vitamin C," says Gaynor

Tilling Tips

Herren recommends growing heirloom rose varieties such as rosa carolina (wild rose) in order to avoid "all those intricate rose diseases." Don't deadhead the roses; let them stay on the stem until the hip-about the size of a small marble-turns very red.

"Pick, pound, crack, and steep for a citrus tea," he says.

BURDOCK ROOT a common weed, contains a powerful source of antioxidants. Before you pull those so called "weeds" you should know, wild and weedy plants contain higher antioxidant levels than their cultivated counterparts.

"Burdock root contains phytoestrogens similar to those found in soy," he says. "I don't believe it's any coincidence that the incidence of breast cancer is so much lower in Asians than those living in Western countries."

Tilling Tips

Although burdock root grows plentifully, especially in the north, along roadsides and waste places, growing your own can ensure the plant is pesticide and toxic free.

"You may laugh about growing a weed. After the second year you'll literally have to pull out the plants you don't want because it's very prolific," says Herren. Sow seeds directly into regular garden soil or transplant.

Hint: Because this plant is a biennial, use the root of the second year plant.

DANDELION the ubiquitous and much maligned herb might be the one, out of all the garden herbs, flowers, and weeds with antioxidant properties, that "saves us from ourselves," says Patricia Howell, founder of Living Herbs Institute in Atlanta.

Tilling Tips

Dandelion gardening is simple, adds Greene. "My daughter is in charge of propagation. She takes the flower heads and blows."


Infusions are made much like a tea. The water should be just off a boil. Put the herbs in a pot with a tight fitting lid. Pour water over the herbs and leave to infuse for 10 minutes. Strain through a sieve. Greene recommends, per serving, one and a half to two teaspoons of dried herbs, or a handful of fresh herbs per cup of boiling, distilled water.

Decoctions involve a more vigorous extraction of a plant's active ingredients than an infusion, and is used for roots, barks, twigs, and some berries. Use the same herb-to-water ratio as you would an infusion. Place the herb in a saucepan and bring to a boil, then simmer for up to one hour. Strain liquid and drink hot or cold.

Tinctures, which are taken by the drop, are made with three parts fresh or dried herbs to two parts 80 to 100 proof alcohol (Vodka is recommended). For aerial parts of the plant, steep two weeks in an opaque jar in a dark place and shake once a day; for roots, barks, and seeds, steep six weeks. Once steeping is complete, strain the mixture and store liquid for up to two years.

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