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The Heritage Herb Gardens at the Ozark Folk Center grace the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and help us to interpret the history of the human use of plants. 

This past weeks, the garden has been dry, a perfect condition for harvesting important herbal crops. Many kinds of seeds, everlasting flower heads and pods have matured, including milk thistle, (Silybum marianum) teasel, (Dipsacus spp.), coriander, (Coriandrum sativumum) and love-in-a-mist (Nigella). These are harvested by cutting the stems and inverting the seed heads into clean plastic buckets or paper sacks. The pods of teasel and love-in-a-mist are gently tapped on the sides of the buckets or sacks. The cilantro seeds (coriander) must be gently rubbed off of the top of the stems into the container.

Milk thistle is a wild edible and medicinal herb that is native to the Mediterranean region and is found throughout Europe, Central Asia, West and Eastern Africa. It should not be confused with the bad weed, Russian thistle, (Salsola kali tenuifolia). Uncontrolled Russian thistle plants are currently dispersing ripe seeds on the wind as would milk thistle, if left to its own devices. Neither plant is welcome in hay fields or pastures.

Milk thistle has white –marbled leaves and edible flower buds. All above ground parts are stiff and covered in sharp spines. The spines are removed from the young leaves and flower buds before cooking. The flower buds are eaten like artichokes.The roots may be eaten raw or boiled. The stems are hollow and are peeled and boiled.

The ripe seeds are valuable because they contain silymarin, a complex of chemical compounds that have been shown to protect the liver against toxins. Herbalists must be on time with pruners during the harvest season because the flowers ripen their seeds during a period of two to three weeks. Milk thistles are members of the sunflower or Asteraceae family. The flower heads are packed with many individual flowers, each one producing a seed. Each seed is attached to a tuft of white hairs which helps it to disperse from the plant. Some seeds will float away on the most gentle breeze others will remain packed in the flower head. I visit my milk thistle patch daily to cut each spiny flower head at the first appearance of white fluff on the top. The flower heads continue to ripen and dry after being cut into paper bags. The seeds are pulled from the flower heads by the fluff and released to fall to the bottom of the bag. The medicine contained within the seeds is well worth the tedium and all of the prickly sticks suffered by the collector.

Like milk thistle, the teasel patch has been harvested, both to control the spread of the plant and to take advantage of its herbal charms. Teasel is known as Fuller’s Teasel, Card Thistle, Teazle, Brushes and Combs and Church Broom, according to Maude Grieve in A Modern Herbal. Western herbalists have written mostly about using the dried flower heads for raising the nap on woolen material. The flowers are covered with sharp prickles which curve at the tip, making a gentle hook that lifts the wool fibers. In Europe and North America, people cultivated teasel in cottage gardens to supply textile artisans and industry with these useful pods. The long, pointed leaves clasp the stem of the plant where water from rain and even heavy dew will collect. Folks believed that the water had curative and beautifying powers. The root was mentioned by Culpepper as having a cleansing action on the body. Asian species of Dipsacus have been used to treat arthritis and lower back pain. In recent times, herbalists are using the tinctured root of first year teasel plants to control Lyme disease. The dried, flowering stems are beautiful specimens in everlasting arrangements. These stems and freshly collected seed are available in the Herb Shoppe inside the Craft Village at the Ozark Folk Center.

We are a working herb garden. Whether you are a serious student of herbology or a person who loves gardening, there is much to see and learn here. If I don’t see you in the future—I’ll see you in the pasture!