What’s New?

By Conrad Richter

As a provider of herb plants and seeds, one of the most exciting and satisfying activities at Richters is to come up with new varieties every year. Nothing compares to the thrill of tracking down plants or seeds of a long sought after herb variety or of making an unexpected discovery of a new variant from among thousands of trial plants in our greenhouses or gardens. We have been doing this for over 30 years and each year it gets more interesting as we learn more about our planet’s enormous herbal wealth. There are, after all, over 100,000 known higher plant species and just about every one, it seems, offers some sort of utility to man if you dig deep enough.

A large part of what we do is to evaluate herbs for their potential interest to our professional and retail customers. This is not an exact science: there is no formula to follow but there are dozens of factors to consider: everything from how hard is it to grow or germinate to how much “sex appeal” it has.

Some of the herbs Richters is introducing for 2002 are herbs that have come out of a special initiative on Chinese herbs that we began a decade ago. Lisa Li, our specialist in Chinese herbs, has been working hard to track down authentic seeds and plants of herbs important to Chinese medicine. This year we are introducing two exceptionally important herbs, Chinese ephedra or ma huang and rehmannia, as well as several other lesser herbs.

Ma huang (Ephedra sinesis) is important because it is a major stimulant herb used in Chinese traditional medicine to dispel “wind and cold” conditions such as chills, fever, headache, cough and wheezing. Western medicine owes much to the main active molecule in ma huang, ephedrine, because just about every over-the-counter antihistamine and cold remedy contains compounds closely related to ephedrine.

In North America there is considerable controversy over ephedra and, more precisely, ephedrine-containing supplements – for two reasons. One is because ephredrine and related compounds can be chemically transformed into the illicit street drug, amphetamine, or speed. The other is because ephredrine has been added to diet pills in high concentrations, which supposedly produces the effect of raising the rate of metabolism and thus helps to burn fat. These pills have come under scrutiny for their alleged potential to cause heart attacks and strokes. It is important to distinguish between products that are made with purified ephedrine and those that are made with real ma huang leaves; the latter, we feel, may be safer because natural concentrations of ephedrine in leaves are relatively lower compared to what manufacturers are putting in their diet pills – at least that much seems logical from the thousands of years of Chinese experience using ma huang safely in the unextracted, raw leaf format.

Controversies aside, it is now possible for the first time to grow this remarkable plant, ma huang. The plant grows wild in Mongolia and we managed to have seeds collected for us this past year. The seeds are a bit of a challenge to germinate – it seems that the germination level is naturally low, about 30% – but it is a thrill to see this plant growing happily in our greenhouses from those seeds. By the way, if you have never seen pictures of the herb or grown the American species of ephedra (which do not contain much ephredrine) you will be intrigued by the thin stick-like foliage that some how takes place of normal leaves to capture light and drive photosynthesis. The plant needs full sun, dryish conditions, and is very hardy.

Rehmannia (R. glutinosa) is virtually unknown in North America, but it is a herb that you will find in many traditional Chinese medicines if ever you have occasion to browse in a Chinese herb shop. It is known as “di huang” in Mandarin Chinese and sometimes as “Chinese foxglove” in Western reference books. The root is one of the most important tonic herbs in Chinese herbal medicine with special significance for “thirst diseases” such as fever, diabetes, hemorrhages and excessive menstruation. It lowers blood sugar and has a variety of other properties that add up to its prominence a top herb in Chinese medicine. While we in North America may not be immediately driven to this plant because we have not heard of it before, it can stand on its own purely as an ornamental. As the English name suggests, it is closely related to foxglove (Digitalis) and has spikes of similarly mottled flowers. It requires full sun, sandy well-drained soil and is hardy to zone 5.

In honour of the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2002, echinacea, we added several echinacea varieties, one of which is new to North America. ‘Ruby Giant’ was developed from a single sport found in the garden of the son of a Swedish echinacea breeder, Magnus Nilsson. This variety has huge purple- pink flowers that reach up to 7 inches across! Breathtaking! And... while we were busy with ‘Ruby Giant’ we could hardly not add this year one of Magnus’ other famous creations, ‘Magnus’ echinacea, the outstanding rose- purple variety that has been in the trade for at least a decade and was celebrated as the Perennial Plant of the Year in 1998.

Many readers know long time IHA member, Jim Westerfield, owner and operator, along with his wife, of the award-winning Westerfield House in Freeburg, Illinois. Jim is an amateur breeder with a special interest in mints. Over the years we have gotten to know and love his creations starting with his first splash, ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon’ mint. Well, this year might as well be proclaimed Year of the Westerfield Mints because we are introducing no less than five of his new mints this year. For me, his ‘Margarita’ mint is emblematic of the mood we need to recreate in these post-9-11 days: a heck-with-it-all, lets-have-fun-again, bottoms-up mood for change! How about a margarita laced with margarita mint tea and garnished with its perfectly shaped, groovy leaves? As we say in our catalogue, this mint means fun! Jim’s new ‘Berries & Cream’ mint is sweet and fruity, “like a bowl of fresh berries and cream” and his ‘Candy Lime’ mint is one of Jim’s personal favourites with a sweet lime aroma that funnily enough actually gets stronger when fresh leaves are stored overnight in plastic in the fridge. We agree with Jim that ‘Candy Lime’ has lots of culinary potential and it will be interesting to see how this variety fares over the years as herb-lovers dream up creative ways to use it. ‘Oregano-Thyme’ mint and ‘Sweet Bay’ mint strikingly draw inspiration from their namesakes – they are not direct copies but similar enough in obvious and subtle ways that we feel will make them hits too.

Some readers may have heard of noni, the “miracle of Polynesia,” said to possess amazing curative powers. Noni (Morinda citrifolia) has been marketed widely in North America in a variety of juice formulations. There is evidence to suggest that this plant has potent immune-stimulant and anti-cancer properties. Now it is possible to grow it from seeds which we have flown in from Polynesia. It is a small tree that has to be grown in a warm greenhouse for success and the medicinal parts are the juice of the berries and the roots.

Hardly a year goes by without another new variety being added to the basil palette. This year’s entry has an IHA connection. Former IHA board member and conference organizer Jim Simon and his associate Mario Morales are responsible for the All-America winner for 2002, ‘Magical Michael’ basil. This variety is very decorative with its numerous button-sized purple flowerheads and compact lush growth habit, growing to about 15 inches tall. It is great for containers and gardens, and its aromatic leaves can be used in salads and pestos or anywhere where regular basil is used.

Even wild plants that we once would never have thought of selling are proving to be marketable. We added jewelweed (Impatiens biflora), commonly found along river banks and moist woodland areas in eastern North America. Jewelweed is an amazingly effective antidote to poison ivy and there are now businesses making jewelweed soaps and emergency poison ivy kits. The annual is easy to grow, but the seeds need to be freshly harvested before planting and must get a cool treatment, either by sowing outdoors over winter or by cooling the seed box in a fridge for a few weeks.

Adding new products is an essential part of business. Eventually sales decline and profits will disappear if you don’t. In these days of flat sales and overcrowded marketplaces it is essential to add new herbs to stay afloat if you are in the business of selling herb plants or seeds or if you sell herbal products made from herbs you grow. This is where companies such as Richters can help. Don’t fall behind!

Conrad Richter is Vice-President of Richters Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario, Canada. Conrad is a former board member of the International Herb Association and former chair of the IHA Foundation.

Originally published in the IHA Newsletter, Winter 2002.

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