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Hale Hops

By Audrey Stallsmith

humulus lupulus

I've got it wrong. That isn't ivy
entwined in the bushes round
the wood, but hops. You intoxicate me!

Boris Pasternak, "Hops"

The English Parliament once forbade the cultivation of hops, calling it "a wicked weed." At that time, British ale was fermented malt and honey, flavored with such "bitters" as heath and ground ivy. Only German beer included hops, which the English believed to cause melancholy.

The ban didn't last long, however, and one district in England became particularly famous for production of the herb. "Everybody knows Kent," Mr. Tupman in Dickins' Pickwick Papers comments. "Apples, cherries, hops, and women."

Even for teetotalers like myself, a hops vine--with leaves up to eight inches across--makes a pretty addition to a trellis or fence. Its primary "wickedness" for me is its rude good health. A vine has been known to grow as much as six inches in a day. If not kept in check, it will run rampant through the rest of your garden, that vigor perhaps leading to the once common expression "thick as hops."

The Latin title, humulus lupulus, is thought to derive from humus and lupus. The first name indicates the "earth" to which this perennial dies back each winter, and from which it lustily erupts each spring. The second, "wolf," refers to how the vine will strangle other plants as a wolf does sheep. The common name, hop, comes from the Saxon hoppan, which means "to climb."

"The Hop doth live and flourish," Gerard explained, "by embracing and taking hold of poles, pearches, and other things upon which it climeth. It bringeth forth very long stalkes, rough and hairie; also rugged leaves broad like those of the Vine(grape). . .the floures hang downe by clusters from the tops of the branches, puffed up, set as it were with scales like little canes. . ."

There are both male and female hops plants, with only the females producing the catkins called strobiles. When no male plant is nearby, a female will still yield unseeded hops. Though smaller, these are thought to be richer in scent and flavor than the seeded variety. Hops are harvested when they are yellow-green and crisp to the touch--usually in late summer or early fall--then dried in kilns called oasts.

A yellow powder known as lupulin, found on the strobiles, gives the herb its bitter taste and medicinal value. Hops tea will improve the appetite and digestion, cleanse the blood, promote liver function, and, when applied externally, quiet skin irritations. You can make a brown dye from the leaves or eat the young shoots like asparagus.

"The floures," as Gerard pointed out, "make bread light, and the lumpe to be sooner and easilier leavened, if the meale be tempered with liquor wherein they have been boiled." Like hopeful males everywhere, he also argued for "the wholesomenesse of beere. . .for the hops rather make it a physicall drinke to keepe the body in health, than an ordinary drinke for the quenching of thirst."

Although I have my doubts about that, the herb on its own has a long reputation as a sedative and pain reliever. In his book, Of Human Bondage, Maugham speaks of the hops pickers "sleeping like tops." A pillow filled with the strobiles, if warmed, will soothe earache and toothache while lulling the sufferer to dreamland.

So, despite its brawny vigor, this plant does have a gentler side. And those colorful catkins will add an interesting and unusual touch to your August-September landscape. For the garden, however, I would recommend buying only the female version. One hops vine is hard enough to keep under control without having to worry about seedlings!