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Hops can be used for more than beer

A few years ago, I planted hops — one pot that my father had bought and delayed planting and another from a friend who grows hops. They grew each year, but matured enough to set cones only this year.

I don’t expect a massive harvest, but should have at least a few handfuls of cones (hop flowers) soon. Friends and family keep asking me what I plan to do with them.

To this question, I keep saying, I don’t know. I also didn’t know when to harvest the cones. A little research reassured me that it is not too late — my cones are still green and tender, and harvest should happen when they begin to dry.

These plants grow bines — a new term I learned — out of rhizomes. Vines have tendrils (those curly little arms that plants like winter squash use to grab onto things to help them climb).

Bines do not have tendrils, and just curl around objects for support in their climb. I read hop bines always twist in a clockwise direction. I’ll have to check my plants to see if they do, or if they are rule breakers.

Hops can grow up to 25 feet in a growing season, sometimes growing up to 12 inches per day. Come frost, they die back to the ground, and start fresh the following spring.

Hop bines have tiny prickles, giving the stems a rough texture. Apparently they aren’t as rough when the shoots are very young and can be eaten like asparagus.

The plants send up male and female bines. Commercial producers typically prune out male shoots once the sex becomes evident (males have smaller flowers). Without male flowers, female cones won’t set seed, which is fine by most hops producers.

Plants are typically propagated by the rhizomes or crowns, rather than by seeds.

A hop cone is an oval shaped cascade of green petals, an inch or two long. The cones aren’t super showy, but I think they are quite pretty.

Hops have long been used in brewing beer — giving the drink its iconic bitterness. Different varieties yield diverse flavor notes, such as citrus, spiciness, floral, herbal and other profiles.

On a podcast I listened to about these plants, a grower said that the same variety can taste and smell very different depending on where it is growing.

Although most hops grown are for brewing, they also have medicinal purposes. I used a hop pillow when I had sleep issues. It was just a small bundle my sister made me filled with hops and a little lavender.

The sedative affect of this plant is well known. It might be part of why having a beer is relaxing (the other part is the alcohol itself).

Some people also use hop tincture, drink hop tea or consume in other ways as a medicine.

I read about some studies that show promising results with hops for a variety of ailments, including preliminary studies on hops for treating major life-threatening illnesses.

This doesn’t surprise me too much, as hops are in the Cannabaceae family, which includes cannabis — another plant that has a lot of medicinal properties.

Now that I know a little more about this plant, I plan to try drinking some hop tea when the cones are ripe, although I’ve read mixed reports on whether it is palatable. I will also likely dry some of the cones, or make some tincture.

In future years, when my plants have spread and I have more cones I may even try using fresh or dried hops to brew some beer.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County.