Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dill: AKA Spearsleymeg

Dill, or Anethum graveolens, has two different word origins. It's botanical name anethum comes from Dioscorides (a very well-known Greek herbalist) in his pharmacopoeias, he refers to a plant which he calls anethon. Many believe that dill was what he was referring to based on his in-depth description of the plant. The common name comes from the Norse word "dilla" which meant to soothe.
Dill is a very tough annual herb from the Umbelliferacae family, which can be almost stubborn at times. I know personally trying to uproot a dead dill at the end of the season was one of my toughest battles in the garden this past season. It originated in the Mediterranean region of Europe and in the southern Russian region and made its way around the world from there. It is well-known for its wispy leaves, dominant flavor and umbels of bright yellow blooms. It is a wonderful companion plant with onions, cabbage, lettuce, and cucumbers, and is well-known for attracting beneficial insects with its alluring blooms. Dill is not recommended as a companion for carrots and tomatoes. A very happy dill plant can reach heights of almost five feet within a season! The herb prefers well-drained soil in full sun and is prone to tipping over once it gets taller, so staking may be needed.

Dill has had many uses throughout history (what herb hasn't?): In Egypt, according to records, it was used in a pain-killing medicine by doctors. Romans would adorn returning war heroes with a crown of dill, since dill was considered an herb of luck. It was a sign of wealth to the Greeks. The Norse warriors would drink dill tea before battle to ensure their luck in battle. A reading from the Gospel of Matthew tells us that the Jews of biblical times used dill along with mint as a payment of tithes (taxes): "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hyprocites! You tithe with mint, dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law..." In the medieval times, mystics would wear a satchel of dried dill over their heart to ward off the "evil eye" or bad magick. It was thought that if you served a witch dill tea, she would be robbed of her powers. In puritan times of the North American settlers, the dill seed was chewed on during long sermons to stave off hunger and came to be known as the "Meeting House Seed". Dill infusions or "gripe water" became a treatment for colicky children because of its abilities to help with indigestion. Remember the discussion of the language of flowers in Japan and in the Victorian era? Well, these "tussie-mussies" (as they were called in the Victorian era) included dill, which was an herb meant to convey the sentiment of good cheer.
Tussie-mussies: the Victorian precursor to modern-day texting.
Dill has its place in witchcraft as well, thought to be an herb of the god Mercury/Hermes, the speedy messenger god. As such, the herb is thought to be infused with the element of air and is thought to help speed up your thinking. Remember the famous lines of Macbeth?
"Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
    Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the caldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
    Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
    Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble." 
...well, they don't mention dill in there. BUT, Shakespeare WAS mentioning many other different types of herbs! This language that he used is what is known as the herbal code. Herbalists/magicians would use coded phrases to discuss their recipes rather than plainly state what they used. For example, "tounge of dog" was code for hounds tounge and "adder's fork" was a plantain (the plant, NOT the fruit). Dill was very important in this herbal code, having many different codes such as "Seed of Hermes" for dill and "Hair of a Hamadryas Baboon" for dill seed.
^Not this^                                                            ^THIS^
I would be remiss if I did not mention the most common area of dill use: the kitchen! Dill and its seed are used thoroughly in the kitchen, though not just with fish as most people would think of immediately. Dill is suggested as a wonderful compliment to: eggs, pork, lamb, chicken, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes....AND THE LIST GOES ON! Dill leaves, seeds and flowers are vital in the flavoring of pickles. For those looking at decreasing their salt intake, crush some dill seed on your next meal instead of sprinkling some salt! In Lao cuisine, dill is known as Laotian coriander and is used in different curried dishes. Dill is also an herb used in the following cuisines: Arabian, Indian, Vietnamese, Iranian, Thai.

Medicinally, dill has a variety of uses: making an infusion of dill seeds is great for indigestion, the hiccups, for insomnia, or even as a nail-strengthener. What makes dill oil good for indigestion is its antispasmodic qualities, which calm the muscles of the digestive system. The essential oil of dill contains four different compounds: carvone, myristicin, and dillapiole. Carvone, as discussed in my post about mint, smells strongly of spearmint. Myristicin is a compound found in parsley, dill and in larger quantities in nutmeg. Dillapiole is a compound that has the flavor similar to parsley.

I know that the last chemical discussion was a bit silly to mention, but I thought it was quite interesting to see that essentially, dill is nutmeg, parsley and mint mixed together! So next time that you taste some "Hair of the Hamadryas Baboon", see if your finely-tuned palette can detect those three distinct flavors!


  1. I have some dill seedlings coming along but they were too slow to be planted in the pottager. I will find them a spot in the vegetable garden...not near the tomatoes. Thanks again for an informative and entertaining post. I will be sure NEVER to drink dill tea so that I am not robbed of my powers.

  2. GG,
    Thank you for a most informative post on one of my favorite seasonings. I enjoy using it to make oil and vinegar infusions but knew little of its historic significant. Thank you. - G

  3. Hi! I have not try growing dill yet. After reading your post I am considering to add dill in my herb collection. Does dill keep some pest away too?

  4. Another amazingly detailed post! Well done! Now I have to go cook something with dill...

  5. Thanks, folks!

    Malay, I know that the carvone in dill is a mosquito repellant. I'm not sure of any other uses, though I have seen mention of dill oil used against potato beetle larvae? Anyone that knows anything else, feel free to chime in.