The queen of herbs, Margaret Roberts, and her daughter and business partner, Sandy Roberts, share their journey of discovering the powerhouse foods. Here we learn about sesame and roselle.
Words and Pictures: Julia Lloyd
There is nothing like a working farm on the go. The smell of compost and the soil being turned, water pumps whirring in the early morning and the evening, and the folk always planting, pruning and picking. Such is the farm of South Africa’s great herb grower, Margaret Roberts, at De Wildt near Hartbeespoort Dam, in the farming province of the North West. There, every inch of space is utilised, everyone is busy, and every corner shouts out health and abundance.
It’s been almost 50 years since Margaret first potted a handful of precious lavender slips from plants her grandmother had grown and, since then, she has become known as Mrs Organic, a truly deserved title (she received a laureate from Pretoria University for her organic endeavours) as she fought for natural growing while the rest of us glibly heaped as many chemical fertilisers as possible on our garden.
As importantly, Margaret’s passion for herbs has given us hundreds of herbs to choose from. “But I’m now also working on superfoods,” she says, showing me her plant trials of an extraordinary little scarlet-flowered item called roselle. “The superfood story is just as exciting as herbs because here we have the real foods, the foods that build wellness month by month. And we just have no idea how badly we need them. Because of the need for farmers always to find a quick fix for their harvests from chemical companies, we, the end users, are enveloped in chemical toxicity and our body has to fight to be healthy. Out there are 150 000 or so chemicals going into our foods, our eyes, our skin, our hair, and all I want to do is help the body be well, naturally, with good organic practices and natural composts and sprays that are safe.”
It’s taken Margaret the natural scientist 40 years of unearthing pharmacopoeias, sourcing and growing the plants and then embarking on some serious experimentation. “The old pharmacopoeias were so invaluable because they contained recordings of ancient medicinal uses, most of which have been verified by medicinal science today,” she says. “It was a mission to get them but I never stopped searching.”
She explains that superfoods are organically grown fruits or vegetables with a high multi-vitamin or mineral content that gives the plant a specific use. “For example, blueberries for macular degeneration. Oats and barley sop up cholesterol. Pawpaw is natural laxative. An exciting journey that will see food take on a new dimension.”
For Margaret it’s key to know where your food comes from. “This is why having your own organic garden is the most important thing that has ever happened. It doesn’t have to be a big space. You can feed a family of four on a garden the size of a door, and can always grow microgreens in pots. What’s important is that your garden receives about eight hours of sunshine a day.”
Margaret’s daughter, Sandy, product developer at the Herbal Centre, is better described as a magician in her kitchen on the property, where she creates the exciting menus for the restaurant.
“I just love using all the herbs and edible flowers,” says Sandy. “You get their essential oils in your food while combining flavour and good health, and you have a plate that looks and tastes beautiful.” Certainly the pair of them are quite the formidable team.
“It’s one of the top superfoods and growing my own plants is extraordinary. It’s decorative and so easy to grow. The pretty, pink, edible flowers are wonderful in salads and stir-fry beautifully.”
In the Garden
Sesamum indicum is an annual that reaches about 1.5m in height, with edible summer flowers. It is easy to grow – best in trenches– by sowing unhulled seeds in spring. Give it full sun, a watering twice a week and a mulch.
The seed and leaves contain vitamin E, B1 and B2, plus copper, iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus. Their sesamin is an antioxidant and also lowers cholesterol. Seed improves digestion and circulation, lowers blood pressure and cleans the liver and kidneys. It also calms an overwrought nervous system.
Add them to muesli, breads, salads, stir-fries, stuffings and savoury biscuits. The oil enriches and soothes very dry skin, cracked heels, problem hair and brittle nails, and is delicious in cooking. Make a tea by boiling ¼ cup chopped roots and 2 teaspoons seed in 2 cups water, and strain. It helps with coughs, chest ailments, blurred vision and is a superb tonic.
- Sesame Oil: Make your own miracle moisturiser (and oil for salads, stir-fries and mayonnaise) by warming 1 cup olive oil in a double boiler, with ¾ cup sesame seeds crushed and pounded in a mortar, and 1 cup fresh sesame flowers and leaves. Stir for 20 minutes. Cool, strain through muslin and store in a glass bottle.
- Sesame Lotion: Simmer ¾ cup sesame seeds and 1 cup fresh sesame leaves and flowers (we use the seeds shaken out of the pods so they still have their husks on them). Simmer for 20 minutes, cool and strain. Add 2 tsp sesame oil and shake the bottle well every time you use it. Wipe gently with cotton wool over the face as an excellent moisturiser and toner.
- Sesame Brittle: This is delicious on its own but can be broken into finer pieces to make a superb muesli. Work quickly as it dries fast. In a bowl combine pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and poppy seeds to make up 2 cups. In a pot melt together ½ cup castor sugar, ½ cup honey and 1 cup water. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes until golden brown. Mix in the seeds and pour into a greased pan, patting down with an oiled spoon. Break into pieces when cool. Chopped almonds, goji berries or cranberries can be added.
In the Garden
Hibiscus sabdariffa is an annual that should be established in pots and then planted out into a sunny area in rich soil – about 40cm apart – when all frost is over. Flowers are ready at summer’s end. Remember to remove the calyx and save the seed for next year’s planting. The dried calyx can be stored in a screw-top glass jar.
Often called rosella, it is packed with vitamins C, B, D and E, as well as potassium, iron, calcium, and several amino acids. A tea helps cure coughs, colds, bronchitis, chest ailments, and inflammation of the tonsils and throat. A tea with honey can be cooled and dabbed on problem skin, or used as a rinse on oily hair or to cure dandruff.
The boiled calyxes make a natural red food colouring (no more tartrazine). Eat the steamed leaves as a delicious sour spinach, and boil 2 cups of chopped roselle stems and leaves in two litres of water for 20 minutes and use as a spray for insect bites, rashes and sunburn.
- Roselle and Stevia Iced Tea: Add 8 calyxes of fresh or dried roselle to 1 litre boiling water and 1 thumb-length sprig of stevia, a safe, sugar-free sweetener. (With stevia, always use the green leaf, fresh or dried, not the white powder). Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon and add to taste. Serve chilled.
- Roselle Tea with Honey and Lemongrass: Add 2 leaf blades of lemongrass (about 10cm in length) to ½ cup roselle calyxes and simmer in 1 litre of water for 10 minutes. Strain and sweeten with a little honey to taste. Serve hot or cold.
Organic plants and seed are available from the Margaret Roberts Herbal Centre. Seed can be posted to you.