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Herbs: save money and connect with nature this holiday season

In addition to being attractive plants, herbs have medicinal, culinary and decorative uses, as well as their own history, language and folktales.

Many moons ago I took a year-long course in herbal medicine that only intensified my attraction to this broad category of plants. They remain on of my most potent ways to “connect” with both nature and myself.

Now that I am finally beginning the overall landscaping of my home, I find the longest plant list by far is my herb list.

So far it’s a page long and includes all my favorites for medicinal use as well as for cooking and fragrance, decoration and household use – with a fair amount of overlap between categories.

There is something that harks back to simpler times in working with herbs, yet the sensual connection of fragrance, taste and touch keeps me here in the moment as I work with them. They add dimension to food in the preparing and cooking as well as the eating.

The more I know about them, the more layers of enjoyment I find in their use.

Lavender, for example, is a marvelous aromatic. And like all the strongly aromatic herbs, spices and oils (peppermint, cinnamon, clove, lemon, orange and so on), its oil is both antimicrobial and antiviral.

A few drops of lavender essential oil in a spray bottle or bucket of water is a healthy, and inexpensive, substitute for chemical surface cleaners and floor washes.

A small bottle of essential oil runs from $7 to $10 and can replace a year or more of multipurpose cleaners.

I find myself much more willing to tackle formerly despised household chores like dusting and mopping when surrounded by the fragrance of beeswax-and-lavender furniture polish or lemon-basil mop water.

I can change fragrances with the seasons or my moods and know that I am not inhaling toxic chemicals as I work.

But lavender also has culinary uses in Herbes de Provence mixtures and recipes that range from meat sauces to desserts to liqueurs, even teas. It makes wonderful sachets and moth repellents as well as wreaths and other decorative items.

In the language of flowers, lavender signified distrust, acknowledgement and assiduity.

The language of flowers was a nonverbal form of communication – a sort of code – that peaked in Victorian England. Friends, lovers, courting couples and others sent mixed bouquets or small “tussie-mussies” to convey complex emotional messages that social mores might not allow them to put into words.

Medicinally, lavender is an antispasmodic used for stomach and intestinal ailments, including nausea, intestinal gas and gall bladder problems.

The fragrance is also used in aromatherapy for relaxation and to alleviate low moods, depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Mixed with rose petals in a small “sleep pillow,” lavender will induce better sleep and, if mugwort is added, vivid dreams as well.

Herbal oils, vinegars, mustards, honeys, jellies, liqueurs and my personal favorite, chutneys, make wonderful homemade gifts for holidays and special occasions and are affordable as well. In attractive glass jars and bottles they make an elegant presentation and offer a personal touch.

You don’t have to can like Grandma to create thoughtful and flavorful gifts.

One of my absolute favorite books, “The Herbal Pantry” by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead, offers exquisite photographs and recipes that start with store-bought ingredients such as Dijon mustard, commercial jellies and honeys, adding interest and flavor with fresh or dried herbs.

The book is currently out of print but available used from online sellers. All of Tolley and Mead’s books are fantastic and well worth purchasing for the photos alone.

Vinegars and oils require little effort or expense, herbal syrups and liqueurs contain little more than herbs, water and sugar, but all make a beautiful gift the recipient can use for days to months.

One of my best friends, who lives in Northern California, adores olives – which she knows I cannot stand. We have a running joke about olives served at holiday parties and meals.

This year I plan to surprise her with a selection of herbed olives that start with good quality store-bought olives – an easy and affordable gift.

The herbal gifts I make this year may not all come from my garden, but they are inspiration for the garden as it continues to grow and will afford me minutes and hours of enjoyment and connection to nature as I plan and create them.

Especially in the current tight economy, thoughtful, homemade gifts of food, decorations, healthy herbal cleaning products – even fresh herb plants – will be welcomed by your loved ones while keeping your holiday budget “real.”

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