Spotlight on Dill

Origins | Description | Qualities | History | Cultivation | Harvesting
Culinary Uses | Magical Uses | Other Uses | Quotes

A Dill Pickle

by Katherine Mansfield

"You'd like almost everything about Russian life," he said warmly. "It's so informal, so impulsive, so free without question. And then the peasants are so splendid. They are such human beings–yes, that is it. Even the man who drives your carriage has–has some real part in what is happening. I remember the evening a party of us, two friends of mine and the wife of one of them, went for a picnic by the Black Sea. We took supper and champagne and ate and drank on the grass. And while we were eating the coachman came up. 'Have a dill pickle,' he said. He wanted to share with us. That seemed to me so right, so–you know what I mean?"

And she seemed at that moment to be sitting on the grass beside the mysteriously Black Sea, black as velvet, and rippling against the banks in silent, velvet waves. She saw the carriage drawn up to one side of the road, and the little group on the grass, their faces and hands white in the moonlight. She saw the pale dress of the woman outspread and her folded parasol, lying on the grass like a huge pearl crochet hook. Apart from them, with his supper in a cloth on his knees, sat the coachman. "Have a dill pickle," said he, and although she was not certain what a dill pickle was, she saw the greenish glass jar with a red chili like a parrot's beak glimmering through. She sucked in her cheeks; the dill pickle was terribly sour.

Latin name - Anethum graveolens
aka - Peucedanum graveolens, Fructus Anethi, Dilly, Dill weed, Eneldo (Spanish)
Family - Apeacia (a member of the parsley family)
Parts used - Leaves, flowers and seeds.
Purported actions - aromatic, bacteriostatic, carminative, stimulant, stomachic
Methods of use
- Culinary, medicinal, cosmetic
Constituents - 4% volatile oil which includes carvone and limonene

Origins - Dill originated in the Mediterranean regions, southern Russia, central and southern Asia. Nowadays it is cultivated throughout Europe and North and South America.

Description - Dill has a tap root like a carrot, with one long, hollow stalk coming from the root. The dill plant grows to about 30 inches. It has a feathery stalk which produces umbels of tiny yellow flowers. The seeds are numerous, they are oval, about 1/6" long, flattish with five ribs, lightweight and pungent.

Attributed medicinal qualities - Most European herbalists rely on it as a digestive aid, to treat intestinal gas and flatulence, and calming the digestive tract. It has long been used to relieve infant colic, induce sleep, and treat kidney disorders and spasms. The essential oil is purported to relieve intestinal spasms and cramps and to help settle colic.

German health authorities have approved dill as a treatment for intestinal complaints related to bacteria.

Like caraway, chewing dill seeds, not only helps digestion, but clears bad breath (halitosis).

In the form of dillwater it is popularly supposed to promote the secretion of milk; and, when taken regularly by nursing mothers, is said to help avoid colic in their babies.

History - The name Dill is derived from the Norse "dylla", meaning to lull or soothe. It has been used as a culinary and medicinal herb from the beginning of civilisation.

Dill was an ancient Egyptian remedy, first described in the Ebers papyrus (c. 1500 BCE), where it was an ingredient in a pain-killing mixture. The ancient Greeks are believed to have covered their eyes with fronds of the herb to induce sleep and thought of dill as a sign of wealth and Hippocrates wrote of a recipe for cleaning the mouth in which you rinsed with dill seed which had been boiled in white wine.  Babylonian and Syrian herbalists used it.

Ancient Romans considered dill good luck and believed that it had fortifying qualities. They thought it was an effective stimulant for gladiators who were given food covered with dill, to give them strength. They also used dill as part of wreaths and garlands to be worn about the head by their victorious heros.

During the Middle Ages, dill was used to freshen homes and banquet halls.  Its fresh, pungunt aroma was pleasant enough to remove the foul odors of the day. It was also thought to have magical properties and was used against witchcraft to ward off the 'evil eye'. If someone thought a witch had cast a spell on them, they would make a special drink which contained dill leaves to protect themselves from the spell or wear a charm made from dill leaves.  They also burned dill leaves to clear thunderstorms.  

Charlemagne had vials of dill tea available at dinners to stop the hiccups of guests. 

An old German custom was for brides to carry dill, and newborn calves were rubbed with dill and salt, which must have been a little worrying for them.

In American history, dill and fennel seed were known as "meetin' seed" because they were given to children to eat during long Sunday sermons.

Cultivation - Dill is a semi-hardy annual plant and is very easy to grow at home in the garden or in containers.

It should be grown from seed which should be planted where it will grow, for growing outside plant in April and March inside, water well.

It grows quite quickly, taking about two weeks to germinate, but does not last very long, so you may have to plant more dill every 2 to 3 weeks throughout the spring and summer. Thin out dill plants to about 10" apart and give some support as it grows taller. The plant should not be transplanted as the root is easily damaged.

Dill prefers a weed-free, semi-rich, moist soil in a sheltered sunny position.

Grow it towards the back of your herb garden as it grows quite tall and its frondy leaves make a nice background to your other herbs.

Pinch off the flowers for higher leaf production. Flower heads left to ripen will self-seed and it can take over your garden. The seed stays viable for replanting for several years.

Avoid planting dill and fennel together as they will cross-polinate.

(If you grow your own dill, be aware that the mature seeds are toxic to birds.)

Harvesting, preparation and storage - The leaves, flowers, and oval flat seeds are all edible.

Dill leaves are at their peak in flavor just before the plant goes to flower, only the top eight inches should be gathered. The leaves wilt quickly once picked, but as long as you store them correctly they should not lose their flavour. Spray whole stems lightly with a fine mist of water, wrap them loosely in kitchen paper towels, and place them in a plastic bag. Store the bag in the vegetable drawer of your fridge. They should last up to a week and perhaps even longer. You can also trim the stems, place them in a glass with an inch of cold water, loosely wrap the top with a damp paper towel, and invert a plastic bag over the top before storing in the refrigerator.

Fresh dill sprigs can be frozen for up to two months, but be prepared for it to darken a bit in color. There is no need to thaw it before using. Frozen dill weed will still have more flavour than dried dill.

The leaves can be dried by spreading them on a muslin cloth and leaving in a dark, warm, well-ventilated place, or in the microwave. However, the dried leaves only retain some of the flavour.

Dill seeds in late summer and early autumn, once the flowers have appeared it can take up to 25 days for the seeds to germinate. The seeds should be collected when they are light brown and fully formed. Collect them carefully, otherwise it could end up taking over your garden. They should be stored in a large paper bag. The seeds can be used fresh if kept in a cool, dark, dry place, but they should be used within six months for the best flavour.

Seeds can be dried by placing them in a large paper bag and leaving them in a warm place until dry. When they have dried, rub the seed heads between the fingers to separate the seeds from the husks and store in an airtight container. They should be used within two years.

Ground dill seed does not keep.

Culinary Uses - Dill leaves have a delicate flavour and are best known in the kitchen as a flavouring for fish dishes, where the frondy leaves are used, fresh or dried, although when dried it loses much of its flavour. If you must use dried dill, use it generously. The leaves should be added towards the end of cooking as their subtle flavour is greatly diminished through heating.

Alternatively the seeds have a strong slightly bitter flavour and are a popular pickling spice as they are thought to be a natural preservative. Conversely, heating brings out the aroma and flavour of dill seed, which is why recipes commonly call for the seed to be toasted in a hot frying pan before using.

Magical Uses - Dill's feathery foliage has long been a symbol of good luck.

Dill was commonly used as a charm against witchcraft in the Middle Ages and was burned to clear thunderclouds.

It was placed in the baby's cradle and over door jams for protection and it was used in money spells.

When added to baths it is said to make bathers irresistable.

When smelled it is said to cure hiccoughs.

A protection charm.

Other Uses - as a stomach soothing tea.


John Parkinson 'put among pickled cucumbers ... it doth very well agree'

Nicholas Culpepper 'Mercury has the dominion of this plant ...it strengthens the brain'

James A. Duke, Ph.D. 'For colic, many herbalists recommend a combination of dill and fennel, both herbs contain stomach-soothing oils.'

Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D. 'Dillwater works.'