The Homestead Story

By Steven Martyn

I love Homestead Blend as a daily tea for the feelings of emotional warmth and the nourishing comfort that it gives. This tea blends the flowering Anise Hyssop tops, as the primary ingredient, with two of its close friends Red Clover tops and Red Raspberry. These herbs would have been readily available for early pioneers on homesteads in the Upper Ottawa Valley.

This type of Anise Hyssop is distinct to the Southern Algonquin bioregion. I collected the first seeds from the old Khukta farm on the Madawaska at Rapid Bay, which is about ten miles from the East Gate of Algonquin Park. When I collected these seeds in the late 1980s, the log buildings of the century-old farm were well on their way to melting back into the field, but Anise Hyssop still stood beautiful and strong, in a trailing patch ten feet from the front door of the old houses. The first time I encountered this plant was here on the Khukta farm, and I was fairly sure it was a naturalized domestic plant. I had never seen it before in the bush, and have only seen it one time since on another old homestead. I was surprised to find that the plant is considered indigenous to the area. I suspect early botanists may have encountered this naturalized form.

Essentially, Anise Hyssop is a prairie plant, and there was no prairie here. The plant grows in Manitoba, much like Goldenrod does here. There may have been forms of it that evolved here, but most likely Woodland Cree brought it. The Cree traditionally extended over the range from Manitoba to the top of the Algonquin dome. It is also possible that the plants first botanized in the region in the twentieth century and were brought here at an earlier time by German pioneers to the area. I further suspect this because there were German settlers in both of the areas I’ve seen it. I have an MA in native plant use, and as a folk herbalist I’ve spoken with dozens of elders about the plants of the area, and prior to the 1990s it seemed that when I asked about Anise Hyssop (or Giant Blue Hyssop or licorice mint, its other folk names) the only people who had even heard of it were old-world Germans.

For a period I lived in Goodwood, Ontario, where my friend Angie and I worked at Richter’s Herbs, which was just down the road. Mrs. Richter, who was as old-world German as they come, used this herb in her secret herbal tea blend, but did not identify it or sell it as a lose herb. In fact, Prairie Moon Nursery and Richter’s were the only people in North America who sold the plants or seeds prior to the ’90s. At this time, the plant was used as a naturalizing meadow plant or garden plant, but was still unknown as an edible and medicinal herb or tea plant. Because of this, we couldn’t buy the herb and neither of these companies had enough seed for us to grow out. In the end a nursery ordered it for us from… you guessed it—Germany.

So the year before the tea company launched, I started 30,000 plants. It was a little ambitious so only about 20,000 actually got planted by hand into beds that covered about an acre of land. I also seeded red clover in with the starts because I could see these two grew well together in the old Khukta field. The way these plants work together on the land is how they work together in our bodies.