Thanksgiving flavor from ancient herbs

Family and friends are gathered ’round the table. The dog sits patiently below, waiting for a morsel dropped by accident or on purpose.

Platters and bowls fill the table, a reminder of the bounty that sustained our forebears when they first arrived on this continent — and a current testament to overabundance and gluttony.

My mom gets so excited about Thanksgiving dinner that she can’t wait for the day to arrive. She often has to have turkey and dressing sometime between mid-October and Thanksgiving.

Among the smells that waft from the holiday table, the ones that elicit the strongest memory are those of the herbs used to flavor the dressing (or stuffing) and the featured poultry.

These herbs include sage, thyme, rosemary and marjoram.

Let’s take a minute to learn a little bit about these herbs so that we can be even more thankful for them.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) has been used medicinally for centuries. The name Salvia comes from the Roman name for the herb, and means to heal or feel well (the root of the word “salve”). Not only has the herb been used as a diuretic, anesthetic and tonic, but it has also been used to ward off plague and even evil. That’s one powerful herb.

Sage, along with all the other herbs we celebrate and consume at Thanksgiving, are members of the herb family. They’ll have square stems and, most commonly, blue flowers (that bees adore).

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a native of the Mediterranean, where it thrives on rocky sea coasts. The Latin name comes from ros (dew) and marinus (sea), meaning dew of the sea. It has also been long revered as a medicinal plant, and has even been used as a love charm and as a divination tool. Those wishing to divine the identity of their true love would write the name of potential suitors on pots of rosemary. The plant that grew the fastest and healthiest would foretell true love … or so the story goes.

While sage would repel plague, rosemary was said to repel witches. Having a garden full of rosemary was sometimes associated with the woman ruling the home, much to dismay of their husbands. This is probably when men started taking over the garden chores (or at least “accidentally” cutting down specific plants).

Rosemary is also a sign of remembrance, and can still be found as such a symbol at funerals, war commemorations and weddings. The significance of remembrance also led to the belief that rosemary improves memory.

Thyme (Thymus officinalis) may appear on more than just the Thanksgiving table at your house. Thyme oil contains the compound thymol, which is a strong antiseptic. Pre-antibiotics, thyme oil and thymol were used to soak bandages to reduce infection. It is still in use today, in products such as mouthwash (Listerine, for example) and natural, alcohol-free hand sanitizers. It’s even reported to be effective against toenail fungus, which explains why I’ve seen people on Facebook say to soak your feet in mouthwash.

The name, in Greek and Latin, means to “rise in a cloud,” which could be attributed to either the strong smell it gives off or to its historical use as an incense. The ancient Greeks thought that thyme incense would bestow courage, a tradition that continued through the Middle Ages when ladies’ favors given to their favorite knights would often contain the herb.

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is the least appreciated and understood of the poultry players. And with good reason. It is in the same genus as oregano, which we usually ascribe to Italian, or sometimes Mexican, cuisine, and in some parts of the Middle East the two are synonymous.

To Greeks and Romans, marjoram was a symbol of happiness. The word is connected to, but not directly derived from, the Latin word meaning “major.”

Growing your own Thanksgiving flavors

Most herbs are among the easiest-to-grow edible plants. They grow wild in regions that are dry and are usually drought-tolerant.

Rosemary, for example, does not do well with overwatering. It can typically grow on its own, without your help. Both sage and thyme are pretty hardy and there shouldn’t be any trouble growing them here. Rosemary is sensitive to harsh winter (most of them died in the Kanawha Valley last winter). Marjoram can also be tender.

Sage and rosemary grow as upright woody shrubs, while thyme and marjoram grow as woody groundcovers. They also make great houseplants.

You can usually find rosemary around the holidays, trained up to be mini indoor Christmas trees. You can sometimes also find live plants in the produce section of the grocery store. My local grocery store typically carries thyme as a live plant year-round.

Herbs like lots of light, so keep them in a very bright window or grow them under lights. If you can’t find any this time of year, be sure to add some to your garden next year to flavor your holiday favorites. You can also plan early next summer and pot up some plants to have on hand indoors to keep your turkey perky.

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