Dill – More Than Just Pickles
As I harvest the last of winter’s Dill, I begin to ask my neighbors and co-workers if they would like any, only to get a blank stare. I am surprised to find that most people only think of Dill as a flavor for pickles. Did you know that Dill has a medicinal history as long as our own, such as remedy for hiccups or to aid digestion? Or that Dill can be used in breads and soups as well as other dishes in the kitchen? How about the fact that Dill attracts ladybugs and any gardener will tell you these is not only lovely little creatures but they are great for eating other pesky insects. For these reasons and more, I urge you to please, give Dill a chance.
Dill, aka Dill Weed, aka Dill Seed, is the common name for Anethum graveolens, and has a long history of human use. We have written record as far back as 1500 BCE in ancient Egypt where it appears in the Ebers papyrus as an ingredient in a pain-relieving mixture. The only member of the Umbelifer or Apiaceae family it is a relative of Fennel. The name Dill may be derived from the Norse “dylla”, which means to lull or to soothe, which isn’t surprising then that it can be used to aid digestion. During the Middle Ages, Dill was used to freshen homes and banquet halls as the pungent aroma is pleasant and strong enough to remove foul odors.
The ancient Greeks are believed to have covered their eyes with the fronds to induce sleep as well as it having been a sign of wealth. Hippocrates wrote of a recipe with Dill seeds boiled in white wine and also of a recipe to clean the mouth. Ancient Romans considered Dill to be lucky and believed that it had fortifying qualities as well as being a stimulant. It was given to Gladiators on their food to give them strength, and was also used in wreaths and garlands that were worn by the victors. Soldiers applied burnt seeds to wounds to promote healing.
Dill is also said to have magical properties. Charms made of the leaves are reputed to ward off the evil eye and protect from harmful spells. Burning the leaves is thought to ward off thunderstorms. When placed over a baby’s cradle it is used as protection. It is listed as an ingredient in money spells and when added to a bath is implied that it makes the bather irresistible. Placing Dill over the doors of the home is believed to be protection against people who are envious and ill-disposed and who can’t use some help with that?
The medicinal properties of Dill have been known throughout history. Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, was known to have vials of Dill tea during banquets to stop hiccups and to aid digestion. Dill seeds were also placed in bowls on the tables to chew after meals to combat bad breath. Dill is thought to have many beneficial medicinal propertied for mothers and babies as well, but always make sure to check with your doctor first. It is reputed to help nursing mothers secret more milk and to help promote sleep in babies as well as to relieve colic. It is a good source of Vitamin A, calcium and dietary fiber as well as the mineral manganese, iron and magnesium. It also helps with kidney disorders and intestinal spasms and cramps. Dill has recently shown to protect against free radicals and carcinogens, qualifying as a chemo-protective food, much like Parsley. The volatile oil portion of Sill has been studied for its ability to prevent bacterial growth and shows “bacteriostatic” or bacterial regulating effects. This may be why German authorities have recently approved Dill as a treatment for intestinal complaints related to bacteria.
In the kitchen both leaves and seed pair well with fish, especially Tuna, Salmon and Trout. It is also used in breads, soups, meats and salads as well as with cucumbers for pickles. It may have been used in the making of pickles as it is known to be a natural preservative. Dills flavor also blends nicely with eggs potatoes, green beans and plain yogurt. Heating the seeds brings out the aroma in them and recipes sometimes call for them to be toasted. Tea can be made from fresh or dried leaves or from the crushed seeds.
In the garden, Dill is noted to reach two or three feet tall but mine usually gets up to five feet before drooping down from the weight of the seed. Because of this it is best planted in the middle or back of borders. To keep a continuous harvest, plant a few seeds each week early in the season or you will end up with a lot at one time to process and store. Dill is a hardy annual that is easy to grow and can re-seed itself so keep this in mind when deciding where to plant it. Harvest leaves first thing in the morning as the essential oils are at their peak. Harvest seeds later in the day after the dew or any other moisture have had time to dry.
When harvesting small amounts for fresh or dried use, simply cut off small side “leaves” and chop finely with a knife or clean, sharp scissors. If harvesting for large quantities cut off larger leaves or cut the whole stalk, keeping in mind once you cut the main stalk it will probably not grow back. Also if you want to harvest the seeds make sure they are ready to harvest before cutting this main stem. It is very easy to tell when the seeds are ready to harvest because the heads will start to droop, the seeds will be brown and the stalk tends to start to yellow as well. An easy way to harvest the seeds is to tie a paper bag around the heads and let them drop in as they are ready. Be sure to watch for rain as you don’t want to get the bag too wet. My favorite way is to go ahead and tie the bag around, cut the stem down and hang the entire thing to dry in a cool, dry, breezy area. You can just go ahead and process the seeds as soon as you cut the stalk and remove seeds by hand but this can be time consuming and a little messy. Once you’ve harvested leaves use them quickly or store in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Hang larger pieces to dry or lay them on something like newspaper in a cool, dry, airy place for no more than a couple days. Store the seed or the leaves in air tight containers as you would other herbs. You can freeze Dill in baggies or in ice cube trays with a little water if you have the room but this is best used only in soups and stews and for tea.
Aside from the fact that fresh Dill from the garden tastes so much better than store bought Dill, it is also thought to be beneficial when planted near broccoli, cabbage, corn, early potatoes, radishes and sunflowers. I have heard that it is best to plant away from carrots but I have never had any adverse effects from planting the two near each other. Dill naturally attracts beneficial insects to the garden too. Ladybugs lay their eggs on Dill and then the adults and the young eat lots of aphids. It also attracts Hoverflies which eat aphids as well as mealy bugs and other pests. It is also beneficial in attracting Parasitic wasps such as Braconid, Ichneumonidae, and Trichogramma, all of which do not sting humans but do quite a number on insects like hornworms.
As you can see Dill is very versatile and for good reason has been part of our own history. Whether you decide to try its magical properties to ward of thunderstorms or its medicinal properties the next time you have hiccups, remember that we humans have been using Dill for a long time. In the garden it’s a great beneficial insect attractor and is thought to help other plants too. Best of all, in the kitchen Dill can be used to freshen the air, flavor your fish or you can make it into a tea. So the next time you see Dill remember that it is so more than just a flavor for pickles.