dill herb of the year 2010

The herb crowned by the International Herb Association as this year’s Herb of the Year is a real dilly—dill, that is. This prestigious designation is traditionally celebrated during National Herb Week in May. But, why wait? You can start commemorating the occasion right now and keep the party going through the end of the year!

“I think pickles are cucumbers that sold out. They sold their soul to the devil - and the devil was dill.” -- Mitch Hedberg, American Comedian (1968-2005)

Dill, (Anethum graveolens) is a tall, showy herb easily recognized by its feathery leaves and numerous umbrella-shaped seed heads. This Mediterranean native received its name from the Norse word dilla, which means “to lull.” The name is aptly suited since dill is regarded as being soporific, or sleep inducing. This characteristic was made plain in an old English writing that states, "If it is leyed under a mann's head, he shal sleepyn as he were dead; He shal never drede ne wakyn till fro under his head it be taken." Apparently, these words of wisdom offered some encouragement to European mothers who began to fashion “sweet bags” of dill in the hope of lulling their sleepless babies into slumber. We know these bags today as herbal dream pillows.

The early herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper, wrote that, “Mercury has the dominion of this plant, and therefore to be sure it strengthens the brain.” However, at some point, the herb’s moniker shifted directions in the world of etymology and took on several alternate meanings, some of which are quite distant from Culpepper’s assertion that dill fortifies the little gray cells. For instance, in New Zealand and Australia, the term dill describes a dimwit. Yet in North America, a sensational person or thing is enthusiastically christened a dilly. The British have an entirely different meaning for dilly, as well as a few other adaptations of the word dill that are intended to allude to the male anatomy. Most recently, the expression “dillweed” (as one word) entered the Urban Dictionary as a term to describe a ditz, or idiot. The widespread usage of this last reference, particularly among youth, is credited to the popularity of the Beavis and Butt-head television series.

In the culinary arena, dill weed literally means the dried or fresh leaf of the plant, and dill seed the whole fruit. Dill weed is a staple ingredient in many cuisines, most notably Indian, Iranian, and Swedish cooking. Elsewhere, dill is a popular addition to soups, salads, vegetables (especially potatoes), dips, butters, and egg and cheese dishes. The seeds, of course, are well known for imparting their caraway-like flavor to pickled cucumbers. In Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, dill is known as Lao cilantro and Lao coriander and commonly used to flavor steamed fish and curries featuring seafood and coconut milk.

Medicinally speaking, dill is said to quiet the digestive system as well as the mind. The seeds provide a carminative effect, which Culpepper contends will “serve to expel wind, and the pains proceeding therefrom.” Chewing a few seeds will stave off hunger pains, a practice highly recommended to Medieval European churchgoers who might otherwise offend patrons and priest by emitting growling noises from the pew.

Although both the seed and weed of dill yield an essential oil, they are different in chemical composition. The distinctive aroma of the leaf is due to the presence of up to 40% carvone, a terpenoid similar to that found in caraway. This agent is why dill is used in industry to scent soap and perfume. The seeds and leaf contain varying amounts of limonene, phellandrene, pinen, and eugenol. The latter compound is a natural insect repellent that also offers anesthetic, antiseptic, and antimicrobial properties. In fact, according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, dill effectively checks several strains of bacteria and yeasts. As an added bonus, sniffing dill is said to chase away hiccups.

Growing dill is easy. In fact, the plant is a self-seeder and needs little assistance to establish successive plants the following year. Unfortunately, dill can become quite invasive, typically depositing itself several feet from where the “mother” plant originated. It will grow nearly anywhere. In fact, it’s not surprising to find dill sprouting up between cracks in patio stone or brick. However, the plant does prefer full sun and a moist but well-drained soil. The seeds can be harvested by placing the mature seed heads upside in a brown paper bag. Once the seed heads have dried, a few gentle shakes will free the seeds and allow them to fall to the bottom of the bag.

While the flavor of dill should be freely enjoyed in the kitchen, the digestive and sleep-enhancing qualities of the herb can be harnessed in a cup of tea made the leaf or crushed seed. For a stronger dose, you can make an infusion by steeping 1 ounce of the dried leaf (or 1½ ounce fresh) in 3 cups of boiled water in a covered pot for 10-15 minutes. Strain and serve. Refrigerate any unused portions for up to 24 hours.

Dill Recipes…