Tia Marta here to share some culinary ideas happening now in Baja Arizona herb gardens, and to extend an invitation to visit el jardinito de hierbas at Tucson’s Mission Garden to experience the herbs in action!
Of all the herbs in our Southwest summer gardens—presently rejoicing in monsoon humidity and in the soppy tail of Hurricane Norbert—I think the most exuberant has gotta be Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil……..
In its versatility, Mrs Burns’ lemon basil provides many possibilities for the kitchen and the cosmetic chest, the first being olfactory delight. Brush its foliage lightly with your hands and you get an instant rush of enlivening yet calming lemon bouquet. Like Monarda or lavender, this lemon basil is definitely one to plant in a “moon garden” for nighttime enjoyment, or along a narrow walkway where you have to pleasantly brush up against it, getting a hit en route, always a reminder that life is good.
I wish this blog could be “scratch-and-sniff” so you could sense the sweet lemony aroma of this heirloom right now. Maybe technology can do that for us someday, but meanwhile, find a Native Seeds/SEARCH aficionado who has planted it and get yourself a sprig to sniff. On any Saturday morning, come visit and whiff this desert-adapted basil at Mission Garden (the living history exhibit at the base of “A”-Mountain created by Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace). There, among Padre Kino’s heirloom fruit trees, in the monsoon Huerta vegetable plot, a group of herbalists known as Tucson Herbalist Collective (usually referred to as THC—like far out, righteous herbs, man, whatever) has planted a patch of traditional Mission-period medicinal and culinary herbs within reach of the fence. Lean over and touch Mrs Burns’ lemon basil for a real treat. At present (mid-September) “her” basil is a mound of dense smallish leaves and is sending up a zillion flower stalks sporting tiny white flowers. High time to snip the tops to encourage more foliage. Snippings can be used to zest a salad, to bedeck a platter of lamb chops, or to dry for a long-lasting potpourri.
Mrs Burns’ lemon basil—not your typical, soft, floppy-leafed basil—is bred for desert living, with smaller, sturdier foliage. Yes, it does need water, but it can take the desert’s heat and sun. This heirloom’s history is worthy of note and relating it honors the Burns family. The person who put “Famous” into the name Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil was Dr. Barney T. Burns, one of the founders of the seed conservation organization NativeSeeds/SEARCH and an amazing seed-saver himself, whose recent passing we mourn and whose life we gratefully rejoice in. It was his mother, Janet Burns, transplanted from Canada to Carlsbad, NM, who, with a neighbor over several decades, continued to grow and select surviving, desert-hardy seed in Southwestern heat. Barney contributed her basil seed as one of the first arid heirlooms to become part of the NSS collection. Interestingly, these tiny seeds have since traveled around the globe. One year Johnny’s Seeds picked it up, grew it out for their catalog, and sent NSS a check for $600 in royalties, having profited considerably from its sale.
You can use Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil leaf in many marvelous dishes. Layer fresh leaves with slices of farmers’ market tomatoes and thin slices of feta or fontina cheese and droozle with flavored olive oil. (I like Queen Creek Olive Mill blood-orange.) And OMG—this basil makes phenomenal pesto. Include this lemon basil with roast chicken for the best lemon-chicken ever. Dry it and put it in stuffing. Add a few fresh leaves to salad for a taste surprise. Or, add a sprig to soups to add a tang. You can even bedeck a glass of V-8 or your Bloody Mary with a lemon basil sprig to fancy up your presentation.
Once when I enthusiastically grew a 50-foot row of Mrs Burns’ basil, it produced for me bags of dried herb, inspiring some fragrant projects. I distilled the aroma-rich herb to make a gentle hydrosol spray which, I feel, carries medicinal/psychological qualities of soothing, pacifying refreshment. By first infusing this marvelous herb in jojoba oil, I create beauty bars—with Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil as the exfoliant in the soap—available at the NativeSeeds/SEARCH store, the Flor de Mayo booth at St Phillips Farmers Market, or at http://www.flordemayoarts.com.
In my mass planting of lemon basil, I observed bees going totally ecstatic over the profuse flowers and so wished that I had had bee boxes close-by. If any desert bee-keepers want to try a new gift to their bees and to us consumers of honey, I recommend they plant this one. Can’t think of anything finer than Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil honey!
Here in culinarily-exciting Baja Arizona, as we promote the uniqueness of Tucson as an International City of Gastronomy, it is fun to consider another of our unique local food plants, a wild and unlikely weed which pops up with monsoon rains in low places, including at Mission Garden and is respectfully spared there. Known as i:hug by the Tohono O’odham (pronounced eee’hook), devilsclaw or unicorn-plant by Anglos, and Proboscidea spp by taxonomists, ours is not to be confused with the herb devilsclaw of commerce, Harpagophytum procumbens native to South Africa. Our native i:hug (of which there are a few species, some yellow-flowered, some pink) is a weed of many uses.
It is primarily known as the fiber used by Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham, and N’de weavers to create the striking black designs in their coiled basketry. Otis Tufton Mason’s tome Aboriginal American Indian Basketry, first published by Smithsonian Institution in 1904, shows beautiful specimens of unicorn-plant weaving, and mentions its use by many desert people including Panamint basket-makers of Death Valley.
I have a feeling that the devilsclaws that are volunteering now at Mission Garden are the children of plants that have been grown by Native People in that very place along the Santa Cruz for many centuries.
As an ornamental, unicorn-plant or devilsclaw can be a welcome surprise of greenery in late summer into fall, making a mound of large leaves sometimes 2’ high and 3’ wide. Tucked among its spreading fuzzy branches, under velvety maple-leaf-shaped foliage, will appear tubular flowers edged in pink. Should you need a cooling touch on a hot day, just lightly brush one of its big leaves and you are instantly refreshed. The velvety look of devilsclaw foliage is actually one of the plant’s defenses against water-loss. Each leaf is covered with fine hairs. At each hair tip is a gland containing a microscopic bead of moisture. Hair causes wind-drag, slowing evaporation from the leaf surface. What evaporates from the glands acts to cools the leaf—what remains can also cool our skin, should we touch it.
Most interesting of all are the foods that our native devilsclaw can provide. After pollination of the flower, a small green curved pod emerges like a curled, fuzzy okra. When young, that is, under about 2 ½” long, and before the pod develops woody tissue inside, these small green unicorns can be steamed as a hot vegetable, stir-fried with onion, green chile or nopalitos, or pickled for a Baja Arizona snack.
When the long green pods of devilsclaw ripen, the skin will dry and slough off leaving a tough, black, woody seed-pod that splits with very sharp tips. (Beware how they can grab—they were “designed” to hitch a ride on a desert critter’s hoof or fur and thus spread the seed.) With care, and sometimes the need for pliers, open the pod and out will come little rough-surfaced seeds. If your incisors are accurate, and if you have lots of time to get into meditations on i:hug, you can peel off the rough outer seed skin. Inside is a yummy, oil-rich and fiber-rich seed that looks like an overgrown sesame seed. (In fact, scientists at one point had classified Proboscidea in the same taxonomic family as sesame but it now stands in its own.)
When I see cutesy figurines of roadrunners or Christmas ornaments made with devilsclaw pods, my first thought is, wow, what a waste of a good treat, but then gladly, I realize that this unique plant produces more than enough fresh pods and mature pods to satisfy all the purposes of Nature or hungry and/or creative humans. Give i:hug a try!