Friday, June 30, 2006
Foxglove, Foxglove,What do you see?"
The cool green woodland,The fat velvet bee;
Hey, Mr Bumble,I've honey here for thee!
"Foxglove, Foxglove,What see you now?"
The soft summer moonlight
On bracken, grass, and bough;
And all the fairies dancing
As only they know how.
The Song of the Foxglove Fairy
Cecily M. Barker
During the time of Midsummer when the fairies are active, I wanted to feature a flower frequently associated with them: the foxglove, which is blooming now in my neighborhood. Like hollyhocks and snapdragons, the foxglove has been a favorite toy of children for centuries (although it is poisonous and thus its use must be supervised). The bell-shaped flowers fit on a child’s fingers like a glove.
The name foxglove may be a corruption of Folks Glove (meaning the gloves of the Folk or fairies) although there is a story that the fairies gave foxgloves to foxes so that they could wear them on their feet and slip into henhouses more quietly. The common name in Norwegian is Revbield, or foxbell.
Other names for the plant include Witches' Gloves, Dead Men's Bells, Fairy's Gloves, Gloves of Our Lady or the Virgin’s Gloves (in France). Bloody Fingers, Fairy Caps (in Ireland), Fairy’s Petticoats (in Cheshire), and Fairy Thimbles. The more negative names may come from a recognition of the poisonous nature of the plant, or from its mottled appearance.The German name is Fingerhut which means “thimble” which is why Fuchs, the 16th century German herbalist, gave it the Latin name of digitalis (for digit, that is finger).
In Scotland, it is the badge of the Farquharsons. Often medieval knights wore a sprig of a plant as a token to indicate their fealty. The Plantagenet kings used a sprig of genesta. The Stuarts had a thistle as an emblem. Do you know the floral badge of your family?
Medieval herbalists used the leaves externally and the Welsh rubbed the leaves on the stone carvings of their floors to bring out the design, But the foxglove has become most famous for its internal use as digitalis, a powerful heart medicine. Rodale’s tells the story of how Dr. William Withering discovered its efficacy in 1775. He had visited a woman with dropsy and found her so ill that he expected her to die within days. When he heard that she had fully recovered by drinking a herbal tea, he studied the tea and identified the active ingredient, foxglove, responsible for her recovery. In 1785, he published his findings in a report called An Account of the Foxglove, which encouraged other doctors to prescribe the plant. According to Martin he eventually married a young woman who he was able to cure of heart disease with foxglove.
As usual Mrs. M. Grieve provides a comprehensive look at the plant:
Foxglove is a biennial which means it will not bloom the first year it is planted. Instead it produces a rosette of fuzzy leaves. In the second year, it sends up a stalk which in June and July features the long, bell-shaped flowers.
Foxgloves thrive in areas with high concentrations of iron and coal. In the Soviet Union, prospectors looking for coal fields would simply look for masses of foxgloves.
Martin writes that in the language of flowers, foxglove means insincerity, but Seaton lists the following meanings: salubrity, youth and a wish.
Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale 1987
Seaton, Beverly,The Language of Flowers: A History, University of Virginia Press 1995
The foxglove fairy comes from Prints with a Past:
Thursday, June 29, 2006
In French, yellow rattle is called Crote-de-Coq or Cock’s Comb (because the bloom resembles the wattle of a rooster?) which may be one of the reasons it is assigned to St. Peter, who denied Christ three times before the cock crowed.
Here’s a picture of yellow rattle and a short description of it. This is one of those plants that is an agricultural marker: when the seeds rattle, it’s time to cut the hay. It’s also a great plant for re-establishing hay meadows.
In medieval England, this was the day when rushes, or new-mown hay, were brought into the church to be spread on the floor, according to Kightly. Great carts of plaited rushes, decorated with flowers were brought in procession to the churches. Possibly an offering of thanks given for a successful hay harvest? Is hay being harvested where you live?
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanck of Days, Thames & Hudson 1987
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
In one of my Living in Season newsletters, (you can sign up to get them at http://www.schooloftheseasons.com/) I asked my readers to nominate a birthday flower, that is a flower that blooms on your birthday. Linda Massey nominated the mimosa, which always bloomed in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania around her birthday, June 28.
I don’t know mimosa at all, except for the drink, but I like being able to feature flowers that are blooming in other areas. That’s why it’s so hard to develop a flower calendar. Not only are the flowers different in different parts of the world, but their names are different and their bloom dates vary from year to year.
I was confused when I went looking for mimosas as apparently this name is applied to many different flowers. There are yellow mimosas that are really acacias that bloom in early winter (January and February) and smell incredibly fragrant.
But I believe the mimosa that Linda knows is also called a silk tree (Albizia julibrissin). It’s a member of the Pea family and produces fragrant pink flowers in June, which look like little fireworks. It’s native to Iran, Japan and China. Here’s a web site that features many wonderful photos and a thorough description of the silk tree:
This article features the Mimosas of Texas with great photographs:
And here’s a mimosa-like flower preserved in amber from about 20 to 25 millions years ago:
You never know what you’re going to find on the web while looking for mimosa. I found a web site for Jeanne Rose, who was the author of the first contemporary book of herbal lore that I read (I have a copy from 1978 of her Herbs & Things.). Apparently she teaches classes in aromatherapy and herbal studies.
I got the illustration of a humming bird feeding on a mimosa (but which one?) from this website:
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
What savor is best, if physic be true,
For places infected than wormwood and rue?
It is as a comfort, for heart and the brain,
And therefore to have it, it is not in vain.
The plant of the day in the French Republican Calendar is Absinthe or Wormwood. One of my favorite herbs--it has such a pungent scent and such a sinister reputation. And it fits with my theme, as it is bitter indeed to get used to living without Chester the Dog.
Wormwood is a member of the Compositae family (same as the Daisy and Aster), and a member of the genus, Artemisia, which includes Mugwort, Tarragon and Southernwood. The name comes from Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the wood, who is said to have discovered them and recommended their use to the centaur, Chiron. Jeanne Rose says one of its common names is Old Woman.
According to Rodale’s, the first mention of wormwood comes from an Egyptian papyrus from 1600 BCE when it was recommended to rid the body of worms, which may be how it got its name. The 17th century herbalist Culpeper says that women give the seeds to their children to get rid of worms. He also makes it an herb of Mars, and says it is often found near forges and iron works. The taste of the plant is very bitter.
Adlema Grenier Simmons, one of the great American herbalists, loved artemisias and featured them as the plant of Autumn in her book, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons. The plant has grey foliage and grows to about 2 to 4 feet tall. It is harvested in July and August when it is in flower—take the tops and the flowers on a dry day when the sun has dried off the dew.
Simmons says it is is the key ingredient in Absorbine Junior. Rubbed on the skin in a salve, it was used to dispel headaches and bring down fevers. Wormwood was strewn on floors to repel insects like fleas, put into bedding for pets and tucked away among clothes to scare away moths.
Culpeper goes on an interesting astrological rant in his description of wormwood, in which he says that wormwood is a remedy for the bites of rodents, for mushroom poisoning, for bruises caused by beatings, for diseases of the throats, for sore eyes, for bites of stinging insects like bees and hornets, for colic, for overindulgence in alcohol, etc. Mrs. Grieve recommends wormwood tea for settling the stomach, but the active ingredient of thujone can be toxic in large quantities.
These for frenzy be
A speedy and a sovereign remedy
The bitter wormwood, sage and marigold.
Jeanne Rose says that mixed with rum it allays feverish excitement, helps heal bruises and sprains, and is said to cure flat feet, fallen arches and bad ankles if rubbed on them. An ounce of the flowers put in a pint of brandy and steeped for 6 weeks cures gout if taken one tablespoon before meals and bed. Poultices of wormwood simmered in wine relieved swelling of the joints.
This article has some interesting references to the way wormwood has been used by Native American peoples:
Wikipedia has a great and what seems like a thorough article on absinthe, the drink made from wormwood (usually combined with fennel and anise) and its history, at:
Simmons quotes Dr John Hill who says the Germans drank a wine made with Roman wormwood, that helped them eat for hours without sickness or indigestion. The English used wormwood in place of hops in making ale and also used it to flavor wine. This website (comments on Pepy’s Diary) has some enthusiastic and amateur comments on wormwood and its use:
The use of wormwood in alcohol is similar to the use of vermouth. Simmons knew an elderly man who said he drank three wineglasses a day of wormwood (one assumes wine flavored with wormwood) and attributed his old age and good health to this practice. Simmons tried it herself but found she was unable to eat and gave it up. She comments that wormwood in small doses revives the appetite but in large doses has the same effect as absinthe on the addict, of making food seem unpalatable.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Wordsworth 1995
Rodales’ Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale 1987
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset and Dunlap 1978
Simmons, Adelma Grenier, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, Plume/Penguin 1990
Illustration from Mrs. Grieve’s herbal:
The Absinthe Drinkers by Edgar Degas from
Sunday, June 25, 2006
The plant of the day in the French Republican calendar is the cucumber. I am not a big fan of cucumbers (I pick them out of my salads) and we can’t easily grow cucumbers here in the Northwest, so I’m honoring the flower of the day in Rosa’s Dial: the glorious hollyhock.
The hollyhock belongs to the family Malvaceae, which also includes the marsh mallow and the hibiscus. It from the genus Althea (which means “healer”), species rosea. (There is a Grateful Dead song that addresses a woman named Althea and the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace also wrote a poem to Althea in 1649—both can be found at this interesting web site:
Laura Martin says the name hollyhock comes from the Anglo-Saxon for holy hock (a name for Mallows) and that it was considered holy because it grew plentifully in the Holy Land--supposedly the Crusaders brought it back with them). That sounds like a spurious explanation to me, that is an explanation made up to explain the name.
Hollyhocks originated in China where they were grown in gardens but also used for food: the leaves were cooked for spring greens and the flower buds were a delicacy. The The Romans also ate hollyhock leaves and used it as a strewing herb.
The juice of the plant was considered a demulcent and used in cough syrups and as a gargle for any problems with the mouth and throat. The flowers have been used to make dye. Jeanne Rose says the violet flowers produce a lovely pale periwinkle blue.
Denise Diamond in her book Living with Flowers suggests sandwiches made with hollyhock blossoms, sliced avocado and mile cheese, topped with alfalfa sprouts.
I do not know how to make hollyhock dolls because there were no hollyhocks around where I was growing up (the San Fernando Valley). If you are deprived like me, here are some instructions:
Chelsie Vandaveer in her great web site on plant lore tells the legend of Priscilla’s hollyhock which grows in Oklahoma:
Mrs. Grieve has very little to say about hollyhocks but much to say about mallows:
In the language of the flowers, hollyhock means abundance, fertility, mother of the family, and in some versions, ambition, particularly female ambition. Makes you think doesn’t it? What is the difference between female ambition and male ambition?
Do you know of the wonderful retreat center called Hollyhock? Someday I hope to take a class there (or teach one—even better!).
And Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house in LA called Hollyhock House:
The illustration comes from Mrs. Grieve’s herbal at this website:
Jeanne Rose, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972
Martin, Laura C, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Seaton, Beverly, The Language of the Flowers: A History, University Press of Virginia, 1995 f
Saturday, June 24, 2006
The flower for Messidor 6 on the French Republican Calendar is Rosemary (Romarin in French). I’m not sure this is the right place for Rosemary—I think of it as a plant of winter, when it features prominently in Midwinter revels, plus it blooms in April and May in Seattle (and I think it will bloom again in December). Still it’s an easy plant to like and gives me another chance to remember Chester the Dog.
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance! Pray, love, remember.” The famous line from Hamlet. And we will remember Chester tomorrow when we celebrate his wake, with toasts and stories about the exploits of the Demon Dog from Hell (one of his nicknames).
The name “rosemary” comes from Latin rosmarinus, meaning the rose of the sea, which is supposedly due to the blue color of the flowers, or, according to Jeanne Rose, because it grows by the sea. There are also legends which associate this blue color with the Virgin Mary by saying that she threw her cloak on the plant while fleeing Herod (with the Baby Jesus) and the flowers which were formerly white turned as blue as her cloak. Its other common names polar plant and compass weed are not explained. In Spain, it is called “Romero,” the pilgrim’s flower. In Germany, it was called "elf leaf" [F&W].According to Mrs. Grieve it’s sometimes called “incensier” in France because it was burned as incense.
Rodale’s says that perfumers in the 16th century would bet rosemary leaves and sugar together, put the mixture in a perfuming pan and heat it over hot coals to create a pleasant scent in the air. Rosemary branches were burned in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries to keep away plague. And more recently, rosemary leaves and juniper berries were burned in French hospitals during World War II to kill germs. According to Rodale’s, scientists have verified that rosemary has antibacterial qualities.
Mrs. M. Grieve has a thorough discussion of rosemary. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/r/rosema17.html
She quotes Thomas More:
“As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our buriall grounds.” This refers to a custom, still common in Wales according to Mrs. Grieve, of distributing rosemary at funerals so each mourner can hold a sprig and toss it into the coffin, as a pledge of remembrance.
Rosemary also was frequently added to bridal bouquets. Mrs. Grieve writes “a Rosemary branch, richly gilded and tied with silken ribands of all colours, was also presented to wedding guests, as a symbol of love and loyalty.” Sounds like a lovely custom to revive. William Langham said of it in The Garden of Health: “See thee much rosemary and bathe thee therein to make thee lusty, lively, joyful, likeing and youngly.”
Gerard wrote that “Rosemary comforteth the braine, the memorie, the inward sense,” and Roman students supposedly wore wreaths of rosemary while studying for exams to enhance their mental abilities. Modern research verifies that rosemary improves circulation and stimulates the brain.
Mrs. Grieve mentions the use of rosemary in Hungary Water. It was prepared by putting 1 1/2 lb. of fresh Rosemary tops in full flower into 1 gallon of spirits of wine, this was allowed to stand for four days and then distilled. Legend says it was given to a Queen of Hungary by a hermit who told her it would preserve her beauty.
I went rattling around the Internet for a while, looking for a recipe for Hungary water and finally found this scholarly article which convinced me that most of the recipes you will find online are not authentic but that you can create a reasonable facsimile:
http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/hungarywater.htmlOn this web site
Contemporary herbalist Rosemary Gladstar created her own version, using fresh herbs and vinegar. I found the recipe at this web site: (http://www.care2.com/channels/askannie/2000/09/11)
6 small handfuls lemon balm
5 small handfuls calendula flowers
4 small handfuls rose petals
3 small handfuls comfrey
1 small handful each rosemary, lemon peel, and sage
organic apple cider vinegar, as needed
rose water or witch hazel extract, as needed
Place the herbs in a large glass jug that will hold at last a gallon of liquid. Cover the herbs completely with organic apple cider vinegar, leaving about 2 inches to spare in the jar. Screw the lid on tightly. Let it set for 4 to 6 weeks. Strain. Divide the mixture into smaller jars, and dilute to half its strength with rose water or witch hazel extract. Dab some on your fingers, and massage into your face. Make sure to avoid your eyes. Rinse with warm water if desired.
You can also make rosemary vinegar by putting a few sprigs of the herb in a jar of apple cider vinegar and leaving it out in the sun for a day or so. Mary Preus recommends using this for a hair wash, pouring it into your bath, or using it to marinate chicken or add flavor to fried potatoes. One of my favorite local restaurants, 22 Doors, http://www.twentytwodoors.com/
serves a wonderful plate of fries that come scattered with rosemary leaves and accompanied by a tartar sauce containing snipped rosemary leaves. The Welsh make cooking spoons out of rosemary wood as they make everything more nutritious.
Mrs. Grieve recommends Rosemary Tea, for headache, colic, colds and nervous diseases. And a conserve of Rosemary, made by beating up the freshly gathered tops with three times their weight in sugar, which will relieve nervous depression. I think I will try making both today.
I’ve been told (I believe in a novel by Elizabeth Goudge) that you should never buy rosemary but receive it as a gift. That's why I didn't have any rosemary for years. Finally when I got a plot in my local community garden, I found the previous gardener had left a thriving rosemary behind (they do love our climate here in Seattle). Alas, this summer I moved plots and had to leave the rosemary behind. Folklore also says that wherever rosemary thrives, the mistress is master.
Good article on growing rosemary and cooking with rosemary:
includes a page on folklore:
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Follore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper & Row 1972
Preus, Mary, The Northwest Herb Lover’s Handbook, Sasquatch Books 2000
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale Pres 1987
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset and Dunlap
I didn’t post my usual flower of the day entry yesterday because my dog, Chester, died at 10 am in the morning. In his honor, I’m naming the dog rose, the flower of the day for June 23. The French Republican calendar honors the mule on this day since it’s the 5th of Messidor, while Rosa’s Dial assigns the pasque flower to this day, which seems odd since it’s usually associated with spring.
The dog rose is rosa canina, described in wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_Rose
as a scrambling rose, and I love that for Chester was a scrambling dog. He loved to break loose and go on rampages, running through the neighborhood, chasing birds, squirrels and cats and eating garbage. I knew he was getting old (he was 15 when he died) because twice in the last few months, his collar slipped off over head while we were on a walk and he didn’t take off either time.
The dog rose is also called the sweet briar, briar rose, dogberry, wild briar and witches briar. It was the rose that grew up around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. The flowers vary in color from white to deep pink but are generally pink flowers, very thin and flat. The dog rose has lots of tiny thorns that help it grow, and produces bright red rose hips in the autumn. The rose hips are a great source of Vitamin C and can be made into syrup, jelly, jam, vinegars, soup (especially in Scandinavian cuisine), pies, tarts, quick breads, muffins, tea and wine. Rodale’s recommends substituting them for cranberries in recipes. During World War II, it was frequently planted in victory gardens in America. According to Laura Martin, gathering rose hips became a national pastime and the dog rose a patriotic symbol.
Mrs. Grieve has much to say about it in her herbal http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/r/roses-18.html
but you must page down past the rosa gallica and rosa centifolia to get to the dog rose. Hildegard of Bingen recommended rose hip tea as the initial treatment for just about every illness [Castleman]. Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist says “The fruit when it is ripe maketh most pleasant meats and banqueting dishes, as tarts and such like; the making whereof I commit to the cunning cooke, and teeth to eate them in the rich mans mouth.”
Mr.s Grieve gives two explanations for the common name “dog rose.” One is that Pliny recommended it for dealing with dog bites. (Chester only bit other dogs, and he only bit light-colored terriers—we never figured out why. Maybe he knew that Waverly really wanted a Wheaten Terrier more than she wanted a Chester dog—that is a dog of dubious pedigree. The best we can figure out is that he was half spaniel and half black lab). The other explanation is that the name comes from dag, meaning dagger, referring to the thorns.
Here’s the poem my daughter wrote in honor of Chester:
Chester, my first dog,
You were never what we expected
But you were always you.
People think they own their pets
But in the end their pets own them.
Bouncing, bright, black dog, mischief maker,
You stole my boot; we never found it.
The boot and you are eternal.
Somewhere on a sandy shore
You will steal that boot forever.
June 23, 2006
Castleman, Michael, The Healing Herbs, Rodale Press 1991
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, Senate 1994
Martin, Laura C, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Thursday, June 22, 2006
The flower of the day in the French Republican calendar is veronica or speedwell but the plant of the day on Rosa’s Dial is the passionflower and I decided to write about that since my daughter is growing a magnificent passionflower inside our house. She got the seeds from a fruit on a plant that was growing around the corner on our city block and sprouted them by putting them into dirt. She got two viable plants and gave me one which I planted in my garden but it didn’t succeed. However, the one she planted in a pot in the house has climbed up and down and up again on a string she attached to the ceiling. It’s been wonderful watching it grow. The tendrils stretch out toward the sun but then curl back around looking for something to cling to.
Although I went to one web site that tried to convince me that passion flowers could be used in spells to incite passion in your lover, I was not convinced. The plants were named by Spanish missionaries in South America, where the passion flower is a native, and used to illustrate the aspects of the passion of Christ (not a very sexy topic). Medicinally they have been used as sedatives and sleep aids. In the language of the flowers, they have various meanings including: belief, violent pain of love, faith, religious superstition and susceptibility.
Because I found so many great web sites with information about passionflowers I’m going to refer you to them, rather than try to write about them myself:
Here’s Chelsie Vandaverert’s article on the plant:
She also has an article about how passionflowers fool the butterflies that help them reproduce:
Here’s a whole site devoted to passionflowers, which includes links to what looks like every scholarly article ever written about passionflowers plus much more:
Mrs. M. Grieve has a little bit of information:
The photograph comes from Darcey at Desert Medicine Woman, a web site I heartily recommend:
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
The plant for today in the French Republican calendar is the onion. I love it that the French Republican calendar features a wide variety of plants, mostly useful ones. And I’m also impressed by how closely the plants chosen by the French revolutionaries align with their season in my neighborhood. Lindens which I featured a few weeks ago are now in bloom and, according to Steve Solomon, our local vegetable-growing expert, this is the month the overwintered bulb onions are ready to eat.
Onions belong to the Allium family (which also contains lilies), and are related to shallots, scallions, leeks and garlic. I’ve never had much luck growing them, but I realize after some preliminary research for this entry that there are many different kinds of onions, each one well adapted to a certain area, and I’ve not been growing the easiest onions to raise in my region.
The onion is a plant with a long history and a lot of folklore. It is believed that the onion originated in the steppes of Asia and probably grew wild all over the world. They are first mentioned in Egypt where they were fed to workers on the pyramids, and depicted in paintings as offerings to the gods. In Greece, athletes consumed onions to balance the blood and in Rome, they were rubbed on the skin of gladiators. Perhaps they recognized their antibacterial qualities and thus protected themselve from infection. Ibn al-Jamil, Egyptian 12th century physician, recommended onion juice rubbed on the penis as a contraceptive. One wonders if this is effective.
Although onions were used in cooking in Greece and Rome, they were also valued early on for their medicinal qualities. It was believed that onions could draw out putrefaction so they were rubbed on sores or warts, then thrown away or fed to the pigs. A country remedy mentioned in Funk & Wagnalls is made by hollowing out an onion, filling it with treacle (molasses?) and roasting it under embers, then smearing a paste of the outermost skins on plague or sores.
The fiery nature of the onion means it can be used to create heat. The Elizabethan herbalist Gerard writes “The juice of Onions snuffed up into the nose, purgest the head and draweth forth raw phlegmatic humors.” [I should think so, she says shuddering.] He also recommends anointing a bad head in the Sun with onion juice, which will “bringeth the haire again very speedily.”
The 17th century English herbalist Culpeper writes that they are plants of Mars. “They do provoke appetite, increase thirst, ease the belly and bowels, provoke women’s courses, help the biting of a mad dog, and of other venomous creatures, to be used with honey and rue, increase sperm. Being roasted under the embers, and eaten with honey or sugar and oil, they much conduce to help an inveterate cough and expectorate the tough phlegm.”
Funk and Wagnalls mentions several similar folk remedies. Onion syrup, made by boiling equal parts of onion and sugar over the teakettle, and swallowed slowly a teaspoonful at a time, is good for colds, phlegm in the throat, etc. While hot onion poultices, applied to the chest or tied to the soles of the feet, were used to get rid of chest colds and croup.
Onions were also used as protection charms. In some parts of the United States, black folks carried a red onion in the left hand or left pocket to ward off disease. In South Carolina, a necklace of small crushed onions was put around the neck of a child with diphtheria to overpower the disease. (This reminds me of the way garlic is used to ward off vampires.)
New England settlers hung a string of onions over the door to absorb germs and prevent them from harming the residents. These onions could never be eaten. The Shinnecock Indians of Long Island would put an onion in the sick room to draw the fever out; once having done so it would turn black. And scientists have confirmed the bactericidal effects of onion vapors.
It’s easy to braid onions to create one of these charms, just as it’s easy to braid garlics. Simply take a long piece of twine, tie it so that the two loose ends dangle down, then lay the stalks of the onion on top of the two pieces of twine and begin braiding as you would with any three part braid. As soon as the first onion is secure, braid in a second one.
Funk and Wagnalls records the belief that dreaming of an onion means good luck. African-Americans in Georgia create good luck by burning onion peels in the fire. And in the British Isles, young girls use them in love divinations. They scratch the names of four suitors on four onions and put them in the dark to sprout. The first one to sprout is the one she will marry. Putting an onion under your pillow on St Thomas Eve will also bring dreams of future spouse. Alas, St Thomas Eve is halfway around the Wheel of the Year at Winter Solstice.
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about onions, plus links:
More onion information, including how to cook onions and recipes:
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Wordsworth Reference 1991
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, Senate 1994
Funk & Warnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper & Row 1972
Solomon, Steve, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Sasquatch Books 1989
The lovely photo is from the National Onion Association
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
The plant of the day (Messidor 2) in the French Republican calendar is Oats (Avoine in French).
I’ve been fascinated by finding representatives of the grains growing all around my block ever since I took up the practice of gathering wild grains on August 15th in honor of Our Lady of the Harvest. I learned to identify wheat, oats and rye, with the help of a verse from the folk ballad, “The Ripe and Bearded Barley,” which I included in my Lammas and Harvest holiday packets. Here's the relevant verse
The wheat is like a rich man,
It's sleek and well-to-do.
The oats are like a pack of girls
They're thin and dancing, too,
The rye is like a miser,
Both sulky, lean and small,
While the ripe and bearded barley
Is the monarch of them all.
I haven’t found any barley growing on my block but I have found wheat, rye and oats and of them all, the oats are most like dancing girls. They’re delicate, flexible and responsive to the slightest bit of wind or movement. Susun Weed says oats are best identified by their “hanging, swaying seed heads; large milky grain; the sigh the wind makes in her hair.” She quotes E. Anderson: “Their graceful open tassels shake in the wind…glisten in the sun…give the coastal breezes their distinctive sound…a rustle as of stiff silk petticoats.”
Interestingly enough, in all my books on herbs and plants, I only found three writers who write about oats: the inimitable Susun Weed, and two medieval herbalists: Gerard and Culpeper.
After Susun Weed harvest oats, she spreads them out to dry, but not in the sun where they will become brittle. She wants them to retain their green color and some of the green seeds. When dry, the stalks will snap easily. She stores it, as unbroken as possible, in brown paper bags and uses it to make tea. The hollow stalks are known as oatstraw while the seed heads are oats. But Weed says they have similar properties. Oatstraw is lower in calories and higher in vitamin A and C than the grain. Both are soothing and nourishing. Drinking the tea or eating oatmeal helps you develop a strong nervous system and a juicy endocrine system. They also ease cramps, reduce inflammation, strengthen the heart and liven up your libido (as in “feeling your oats” or “sowing wild oats”). Weed has a whole chapter about oats and oatstraw plus many recipes and an oat meditation in her wonderful book, Healing Wise, available from Ash Tree Publishing at:
Here are some ways to get familiar with oats:
Susun Weed suggests putting a handful of oatmeal into a fine cloth and soaking it in warm water (taking it into the bath with you will do, squeezing now and then until the milky white oat cream appears. This can be used as cleansing rub, skin softener, complexion treatment and itch reliever. A similar treatment was used in the 17th century for getting rid of freckles.
The 17th century herbalist Gerard recommends putting oatmeal into a cloth, adding a bit of bay salt and heating it in a frying pan. This takes away a stitch in the side.
And here’s my favorite recipe for morning oatmeal (I just went and set this up for tomorrow morning): Put one cup of oatmeal (the heartier the better—I think instant oatmeal would get too soggy if prepared this way—I use steel cut oatmeal) in a pan. Cover with two cups of water. Cover and leave out on the stove overnight. In the morning, bring to a boil and cook for about five minutes, then reduce heat and cook for five to ten minutes more until the oats have congealed. I like to embellish my oats with raisins, butter, brown sugar or cream (and sometimes all of the above) but you can add more healthful things as well, like the sesame seeds, plantain seeds and slippery elm that Susun Weed recommends.
Chelsie Vandaveer, as usual, has a good article on oats and links to a scholarly article on oats history and some wonderful photos from a Swedish site:
A great picture of oats compared to other grains:
Information and picture from Nebraska Agriculture in the Classroom:
Wonderful photograph showing the delicacy and grace of oats:
Monday, June 19, 2006
In Flora’s Dial, the flower of the day is the mulberry and that brings back happy memories of hours spent in the treehouse my father built in the mulberry tree in our backyard in Van Nuys, California. That mulberry never bore fruit, as far as I remember, although I do vividly remember it’s bark and the ants crawling up and down it. But when we went to the Lake Elizabeth Ranch Club for Fourth of July celebrations, we always spread out our tablecloths on picnic tables beneath a row of mulberries and those mulberries had fruit, small, tart berries which we ate with glee until our faces and fingers were stained purple
According to Hageneder, whose wonderful book on trees I am ordering, there are three species of mulberry (Wikipedia lists a lot more): White Mulberry (mora alba), Red Mulberry (mora rubra) and Black Mulberry (mora nigra). The white mulberry was the tree on which the Chinese grew silkworms, while the Italians used the black mulberry for the same purpose until the 15th century, when they switched to the white mulberry as well. I believe the tree in our back yard was a white mulberry, partly because I inherited my Dad’s Sunset Flower Garden Book from 1950 and it only lists a white mulberry and partly because I remember vividly the beige color of the bark. I also remember the beautiful heart-shaped leaves with a slightly tacky surface and lightly serrated edges but I don’t’ remember any berries. Doing my research for this article, I learned that the tree in our backyard was a male “fruitless” tree, which were popular in Southern California because they were quick-growing shade trees that didn’t create a mess by dropping berries which would stain clothing and pathways.
The Romans knew and appreciated the mulberry. Mrs. Grieve quotes from Pliny who wrote: “Of all the cultivated trees, the Mulberry is the last that buds, which it never does until the cold weather is past, and it is therefore called the wisest of trees. But when it begins to put forth buds, it dispatches the business in one night, and that with so much force, that their breaking forth may be evidently heard.” Horace recommended that mulberries be gathered before twilight and Ovid explained the dark red of the berries by saying that they were stained by the blood of Pyramus and Thisbe who were slain beneath a mulberry tree.
The berries are used to make wine, cordials, pies and jam. According to Jim Conrad, the Natchez Naturalist (who discovered the meaning of life under a mulberry tree), the Natchez Indians used the stringy fibers of the mulberry to make fabric, which they dyed fabric yellow and gold with the bark of the tree. For more information about making cloth and dye from mulberries, see this web site:
The English herbalist Gerard recommends mulberries to treat sore throats, coughs and constipation. A juice of the unripe berries was used as a mouthwash. The Chinese used all parts of the White Mulberry for healing. The leaf was used to get rid of “wind heat,” thus clearing the liver and brightening the eyes. The fruit moistened and nourisheed yin while the twigs dispersed “wind” and promoted the flow of chi. The bark cooled and purged “lung heat.”
The Chinese World Tree was sometimes considered a hollow mulberry tree. A sacred mulberry grove, was planted outside the eastern gate of early royal capitals in China. The mulberry is also often found along Islamic sanctuaries or near pilgrimage routes in Arabia. According to Wikipedia, Mulberry Appreciation Day is celebrated on the last Tuesday of May.
Here are some nice images of mulberries from New York City:
Conrad, Jim, The Natchez Naturalist, May 11, 2003
Grieve, Mrs. M, The Modern Herbal,
Hageneder, Fred, The Meaning of Trees, Chronicle 2005
Hanson, J. Wesley, Flora's Dial:
The illustration is supposedly from Gerard's herbal but I can't find it in my edition.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Since it’s a day ending in 0 in the French Republican calendar, it’s associated with a tool, not a plant, and the tool for today is the Hand Cart (Chariot in French—doesn’t that sound a whole lot more romantic than Hand Cart?)
But instead of writing about hand carts, I went out and walked around the block and noted down every flower in bloom on my block:
Almost over with:
Iris—I picked the last one from my garden and brought it home
Flowers I know:
Spanish lavender (the kind that looks like it has purple wings)
St James Wort
Fuchsias (on balcony)
Bells of Ireland
Herb Robert (which may actually be a Dovefoot Geranium)
Jupiter’s beard, St. James wort
Flowers I don’t know:
blue star flower (sometimes striped blue and white)
purple-pink flower on long stalk (a mallow?)
plant with silver leaves and yellow daisy-like flowers
dark purple tiny trumpets on bush (maybe a penstemon?)
tiny orange flowers on small dark bluish-green ground cover
purple bells on long slender stalks (also come in white)
pale groundcover with little yellow flowers
silver fern-like leaves and white daisy-like flowers (same as number 3 above?)
yellow flowers that grow bunched up close on the stalk, dark green leaves
tiny purple flowers on a plant with striped yellow and green leaves radiating from a central point like stars (I think this is a wallflower)
long purple spires on tall slender stalks (this just bloomed in my garden too!)
I found a great website that can help me identify some of these unknown plants:
But sometimes I like the names I make up more. I have been calling the ceanothus, the grape jelly plant, because it smells like grape jelly, long before I learned its real name and
I still prefer mine.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
After having fallen
Its image still stands—
The peony flower
The flower for the 29th day of the French Republican month of Prairial (Meadow) is the Peony. It’s also the flower of June in the Japanese calendar.
The peonies in my neighborhood, which were only buds on June 1st, exploded into bloom during the last few weeks. I distinctly remember the first time I was introduced to peonies. I had been invited into the home of a woman who attended one of my writing workshops. She lived in a little brick Tudor cottage, tucked away under giant evergreen trees in a secret grove north of Ballard. It was my fantasy of the perfect home, a fantasy fueled by reading English novels throughout my childhood. An extravagant garden with flower beds, buzzing bees, brick paths, a sundial and lots of herbs. Inside uniquely-shaped rooms, each angled to look out on the garden through leaded windows, lots of books and art, beautiful old Mission furniture, gleaming with wax, and everywhere vases of peonies that filled the room with their spicy, clove and pepper scent. I fell totally in love with the flowers.
Years later I bought a peony for my garden plot but have not yet been a successful peony raiser. At first I got no buds and since I suspected this was because I had buried the roots too deep, I dug up the plant and replanted it. The following year I got one flower, the next, three. Then I moved it and now the buds have all soured, turned brown and I face the prospect of no peony flowers in my house this year (unless I buy them at the store or the farmer’s market—always an option).
According to the sites I’ve consulted as I write this article, my peony probably has botrytis, a fungal disease. I assume this is the same botrytis that is prized in wine making. I just went to a reisling tasting at my local Whole Foods which culminated in the sampling of a sweet, golden Eiswein made from reisling grapes that have succumbed to botrytis. (Apparently there is a good form and a bad form: the good form is called “noble rot,” the bad kind, “grey rot.”) It may also be mad at me for transplanting it—peonies hate being moved. They are long-lived plants—they can live as long as 100 years.
All peonies are from the family Ranunculaceae, cousins to the buttercup, or St. Anthony’s turnip, I featured a few days ago. There are three kinds of peonies: the European peony (paeonia officinalis); the Chinese peony (paeonia lactiflora) and the tree peony (paeonia suffruticosa).
The Chinese peony has been a prized garden flower in China since the 10th century. It is called “sho yu, meaning “most beautiful” and represents prosperity. A legend says it was created by the moon goddess to reflect the moon’s beams during the night. A similar belief about the peony lighting up the night comes from a Greek writer Aelianus (3rd century) who writes of one kind of peony that grows by the sea, opens at Summer solstice and shines like fire, while another kind, hidden away among the herbs during the day, at night shines like a star.
The peony that is best known in Europe is paeonia officinalis and that second part of the Latin name is always a clue that a plant was considered to have medicinal qualities. Pliny said that peonies are the “oldest of plants, and are an important medicine that cures twenty ills.” Peony seeds, strung in a garland and worn around the neck, were said to protect children. They were also chewed to ward off nightmares. Peony root was given to women in childbirth and peony leaves were used to cure lunatics.
Yet Jeanne Rose warns that it’s poisonous and Mrs. Grieve doesn’t include it in her herbal. And peony had a reputation for being dangerous. Aelianus also recommended typing a dog to the stalk of the plant so he can pull it up for you, thus avoiding the danger involved in picking it, which could include having your eyes pecked out by woodpeckers. Apparently one way to avoid these dangers was to harvest peony in the middle of the night. According to Martin some peony plants actually glow in the dark but I couldn’t find any confirmation of this on the web.
Michael Moore says the Western Peony (paeonia californica) has the same effects as the Asian and European peonies. He makes a tincture of the roots and uses it to ease cramping, spasmodic coughing and other conditions which cause the body to twitch and shakes. He also recommends it as a tonic for those under emotional or intellectual stress.
Martin says that the only country ever named after a flower was Paeonia located in what is now northern Greece. It was conquered during the Persian Wars.
In the language of flowers, peony means a happy marriage and virility in Japan, prosperity in China, to the French hardiness or heaviness, for the British bashful shame and in an American language of the flowers: anger or a frown.
Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Red Crane Books 1993
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset and Dunlap 1972
Seaton, Beverly, The Language of Flowers, University Press of Virginia 1995
Also lots of information, including a good history at
And you can find everything you ever wanted to know about peonies at
Good, Walter, “Peony Portraits,”
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “What Does Peony Have to Do with Poetry?”
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “Why Were Peonies Considered Dangerous?”
Illustration came from this blog, the Human Flower Project, by Julie Ardery, which I just discovered:
The plant for Prairial 28 is Thyme and I would have loved to write about Thyme, but I didn’t have time. My favorite use of Thyme is as a seasoning on buttered carrots. I slice the carrots, steam them lightly, toss them in a frying pan full of butter and sprinkle them with thyme. Yum.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
I went to the store and bought a verbena, in preparation for this day, but I seem to have bought the wrong plant for I realize now that the plant of the day in the French Republican Calendar is the Lemon Verbena (vervaine citronelle in France), which is not related to the garden Verbena which I bought (probably verbena Canadensis).
The lemon verbena is native to South America and was brought to Spain around the 17th century. Its Latin name is Aloysia triphylla. Triphylla comes from the way three leaves grow from a single node on the stem. The genus name, Aloysia, supposedly honors Queen Louisa, the wife of King Carlos IV of Spain (1751-1819). The plant is also known as Herb Louisa in English, and in other languages, for instance, Spanish herba luisa. The species name (vervain) means “leafy branch” in Latin.
Lemon verbena is an herb with leaves, which when crushed, smell even more lemony than lemons. Once a popular garden plant, now it is most often grown in containers and indoors, except in mild climates. The plant is deciduous, dropping all its leaves after a frost. It is a woody shrub, with long lance-like leaves and tiny purple tubular flowers.
The leaves are used to flavor fish and chicken dishes, but are most popular in sweet dishes and combined with fruit. They are also used to flavor alcoholic beverages and in making cologne and perfume. Make a simple infusion from the leaves to add to a bath. Rodale’s recommends putting sprigs of lemon verbena in finger bowls at a dinner party, adding the dried, crumbled leaves to batter when baking carrot, banana or zucchini bread, and sprinkling minced leaves over rice before serving it.
The French enjoy a tea made from the leaves called Verveine citronelle. For a more subtle flavor, add a single leaf to a cup of black tea. The flowers can also be used to make tea. The tea is good for colds, sinus congestions and fevers; it is calming in cases of nervousness, insomnia and stress; and it aids digestion and eases cramps.
Kowalchik, Claire and William H Hylton, Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs
Preus, Mary, The Northwest Herb Lover’s Handbook, Sasquatch 2000
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset Dunlap
Katzer, Gernot, “Lemon Verbena,” from Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages
Great pictures of lemon verbena and some interesting etymology
Mountain Valley Growers provides two cool recipes (one alcoholic and the other for a tarragon/lemon verbena sorbet) plus you can buy a plant from them:
Illustration from Mary Preus’s wonderful book on herbs
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Prairial 26 Jasmine (Jasmin)
If I could live my life surrounded entirely by fragrant flowers, I would. But which would I choose if I could only choose one? The iris? Roses? Lily of the valley? Linden flowers? Elder flowers? Daphne odora? Sweet box? Honeysuckle? Lilac? Or jasmine? I think I would choose the iris, but jasmine would come in a close second.
To my delight, one of my neighbors has planted a jasmine up against the white column at the entrance to our Federal-looking brick apartment building, built in 1910, here on the top of Capitol Hill in Seattle. So during the summer as I come in or go out of the building, I catch a whiff of that heavenly aroma.
It is said that white jasmine was first brought back to Europe from India in the sixteenth century by Vasco da Gama, the Portugese merchant and explorer who established himself in Calcutta. In India, it is called the “Queen of Flowers.” The name jasmine comes from the Persian word for “white flower.”
Martin calls Jasmine officinale, the poet’s jasmine. Jeanne Rose says that Jasmine odoratissiumum is the only jasmine that retains its scent when dried. But is is from Jasminum officinale that the oil of jasmine is obtained through enfleurage (steeping the flowers in olive oil or lard). This oil is one of the most expensive scents in the world. Rose says it is an aphrodisiac, whether added to massage oil to rub on the body or inhaled.
Mandy Aftel in her wonderful book on perfume says that the magic ingredient that makes the scent of jasmine so desirable is indol, which is also found in human feces. She quotes chemist and perfume writer Paul Jellinek who writes: “It is precisely the odor of indol, reminiscent of decay and feces, that lends orange blossom, jasmine, tuberose, lilac and other blossoms that putrid-sweet, sultry-intoxicating nuance which has led to the sum of these flowers and of their extracts as delicate aphrodisiacs, today as in the past.”
In the “Gamut of Odors” developed by Septimus Piesse in 1867, Jasmine is a high C. And there is an ancient Chinese love song called “Jasmine Blossom.” A Chinese song with a similar theme, “What a Beautiful Jasmine Blossom,” was copied by Puccini when he was composing Turandot.
Scoble and Field say Jasmine is an emblem of good luck and increase worn by Italian brides on their wedding day. They tell the story of a servant working for the Medici family who stole a branch of jasmine to give to his bride (the Duke was so proud of his plant he forbade anyone to remove even a leaf from his garden). The couple were able to grow many plants from this one purloined cutting, and became rich as a result.
Jasminum sambac (or Arabian jasmine) is worn at weddings in Java and in the Philippines. It is the national flower of Indonesia, the Philippines and Pakistan. In Hawaii it is known as pikake. It is the jasmine used in making jasmine tea (which is said to have spiritual qualities)—the jasmine flowers are placed alongside tea leaves which absorb the odor of the jasmine. For a thorough view of jasmine’s importance and uses in food, ritual and medicine in India and the Philippines, see this article by Mike at Top Tropicals:
I love the aristorcratic names of the varieties of jasminum sambac: The Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Maid of Orleans and the Belle of India.
Aftel, Mandy, Essence and Alchemy, Gibbs Smith 2004
Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset and Dunlap 1972
Scoble, Gretchen and Ann Field, The Meaning of Flowers; Myth Language and Lore, Chronicle
For everything you want to know about jasmine, see the inestimable Mrs. M Grieve
Names of varieties from:
For an article on Chinese songs about jasmine:
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
One morning, very early,
before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew
on every buttercup.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Every ten days the French Republican calendar features an animal or a tool. And the animal for Prairial 25 is the tench, a small fish that is apparently common in Europe (see the Wikipedia article) but cannot be purchased or eaten in Seattle. Another flower for today is the garden ranunculus which is associated with St. Anthony whose feast day it is.
According to the Wikipedia article,
there are many kinds of ranunculus including the lesser celandine, a flower to which Wordsworth wrote three odes.
The lesser celandine also goes by the name of pilewort as it was used to cure hemorrhoids (because the knobby tubers of the plan resemble piles) and in German, scurvywort, because the leaves are high in vitamin C. The Latin name of the plant, ranunculus, means “little frog,” perhaps because it loves water. The Celtic name of the plant is Grian, meaning sun, because the blossoms close in rain, and, according to Mrs. Grieve, they open at 9 am and close by 5 pm (but does this mean Stevenson was employing poetic license?). Shakespeare praised them with this line: “And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue do paint the meadows with delight.” (Love’s Labours Lost, V ii)
Mrs. Grieve (http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/butcup97.html)
has interesting things to say about Ranunculus bulbosus, which is also called St Anthony’s Turnip (because the roots resemble a turnip), Goldcup and Jaunet (yellow in French) and Crowsfoot. The herbalist Culpeper says it’s a plant of Mars, because of its fiery nature. It raises blisters; Mrs. Grieve mentions that beggars used it to create open sores on their skin to make them appear more pitiable. It is poisonous if eaten by cattle and other grazing stock. But Mrs. Grieve says pigs love it and will travel some distance to find it. She recommends an infusion of ranunculus in wine for curing shingles.
The English common name, buttercup, may derive from a belief that the flowers increased the amount of butter cows gave (although as we’ve seen above they’re actually mildly poisonous to cattle). Funk and Wagnalls says that Irish farmers rubbed them on the udders of their cows on May Day to encourage rich milk, but it sounds like this would cause blisters rather than increasing milk proudction. Perhaps the only association with butter is the color. Supposedly if you hold a buttercup underneath your chin and you can see a reflection of yellow, that means you like butter (but who doesn’t?).
Searching for more about the ranunculus I found a new website that features flower information. Unfortunately I find the myth associated with the ranunculus not only spurious but saccharine:
A great article from the Royal Horticultural Society on growing garden ranunculus or Persian buttercup, which is Ranunculus asiaticus:
Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, 1972
Illustration from Mrs. Grieve’s article on the lesser celandine:
Monday, June 12, 2006
I have been noticing that this is not really a blog but a new calendar that I am developing, and possibly this is not the best format for these thoughts. I’m still pondering that. I’d like to be more candid, more flexible and more personal. Instead I am feeling compelled (the fatal flaw of any researcher) to find out everything there is to know about each plant of the day and then convey that all to you in clear and interesting prose. I am having a lot of fun, but I’m not sure how long I can keep this up. At least until the end of this month.
Today (Prairial 25 in the French Republican Calendar) is the day of the bed-straw (Caille-lait in French). There are many different kinds of bedstraws, all Galiums, including one of my favorite plants, sweet woodruff. Yet it is probably Galium verum that the French were thinking of, as this plant is also known as Curdle-Milk, because it can be used instead of rennet to turn milk into cheese (vegetarians: take note!). Another name for the plant is Our Lady’s Bedstraw, which seems to me to refer to the Virgin Mary, but many sources just say that medieval ladies used it to stuff their mattresses. The stems are soft and hollow and if it smells as good as woodruff, I think it would be very nice indeed.
The 17th century herbalist Culpeper says it is an herb of Venus and strengthens the parts of the body which Venus rules. He recommends putting the leaves and flowers into an oil, which is set out in the sun for ten to twelve days, then strained; or boiling the plant in salad oil with some wax melted within to make an ointment. This is good for burns, and also to bathe the fee tof “travelers and lackeys whose long running causes weariness and stiffness in sinews and joints.”
Mrs. Grieve has much to say about it in her herbal so I will refer you there:
Wikipedia also has a good article on bedstraw:
The illustration is by A. Joseph Barrish and is from a series of flowers related to Mary which are published in a book, Mary's Flowers: Gardens, Legends and Meditations, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1999 and on this website:
Sunday, June 11, 2006
I’ve been waiting for this day since I looked ahead at the list of flowers I could feature in June, because I have many good associations with honeysuckle.
When I was young, growing up in a tract house in Van Nuys, California, there was a honeysuckle bush outside my bedroom window, or at least that’s what we called it (it was actually a shrimp plant). But just as with the honeysuckle, you could pull out the long stamen and find a drop of sweetness at the end.
The last time I visited Wales, in 1995, I found myself one evening as dusk was falling, wandering down a lane, surrounded by hedgerows of honeysuckle. The scent was intoxicating. I later wrote a poem about this experience using a medieval Welsh poetic form, the toddaid, which is a quatrain stanza which alternates between ten-syllable and nine-syllable lines. A syllable toward the end of the first line cross-rhymes into the middle of the second and the same effect is reproduced in lines three and four. The end syllables of lines two and four rhyme with each other.
After all day on the bus I arrive
In Brecon at dusk and set out
Armed with directions to the hostel
My destination, along a walking route.
One and three quarter miles by bridle trail
Baffled by stiles and signs, I turn back
Halfway there, discouraged, pelted by rain
I rest, sheltered by a haystack.
Brecon vanishes in a mist of white.
Somehow I've missed the turn and criss-cross
On turd-dotted tracks, trotting on steep slopes
Like the sheep whose paths I tread. I'm lost.
Back down the road at a hospital, nurses
Call the hostel; the path to them is plain:
"Go up the hill, past the Leisure Center,
Then turn right and follow Maggie's Lane."
There is no sign, it's just a country road
Edged by hedgerows, sweet with the perfume
Of honeysuckle; empty and quiet
In the twilight and the gathering gloom.
"An old gypsy woman, Maggie, stayed there
In her caravan," one nurse tells me,
"Every summer, many years ago."
Her eyes glow, alight with memory.
Its peace enfolds me and I drift along
Like a skiff on a river of rain,
No longer worried about my goal
For my soul is soothed by Maggie's Lane.
Later I learn this was an ancient path
For pilgrims to Saint Eluned's well
Drawn down its length at Lammas every year
To dance and be healed by the saint's spell.
The road, a black ribbon, unfurls before
My feet, gently curling to the right.
Far off in the dark shadows of the trees
I see the glow of welcoming lights.
Jeanne Rose says you can make a syrup of the flowers which is good for respiratory disorders and asthma. Its leaves infused in oil ease cramps and nervousness. And the bark can be made into a lotion for itchy skin and skin eruptions, or as a gargle for a sore throat. She provides a recipe for honeysuckle bark wrinkle cream: simmer 1 oz of honeysuckle bark in 4 oz olive oil in a nonmetal pan over a water bath for 30 minutes. Then strain, cool and use on dry or wrinkly skin. Gerard, the Elizabethan physician, in his Herbal recommends putting the flowers into oil and letting it sit in the sun, thus creating an infused oil.
Honeysuckle in the language of flowers means chains or bonds of love, because of the way it twines. In Shakespeare’s time the honeysuckle was called woodbine.; in Milton’s time, eglantine. The French name for it translates as goat leaf, which is also part of its Latin name: Lonicera caprifolium. Apparently it is a favorite food for goats.
And then there’s that great song: Honeysuckle Rose, which was written by Fats Waller.
My favorite version is the sexy, breathy rendition done by Anita O’Day.
And Marie de France wrote a romantic poem title Chevrefeuille, in which the love of Tristan and Iseult is compared to the way the honeysuckle twines around the hazel. Here’s a PDF version of that lay with annotations:
I am in luck because I know where the honeysuckle grows in my neighborhood, along the fence of a vacant lot which has been turned into a lush paradise by the neighbors so I will be able to enjoy both the scent and the sweetness today. May your day be sweet.
Color print of Chevrefeuille by Nicolais Francois Regnault published 1774-1780
Saturday, June 10, 2006
...the chamomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows...
Henry IV, Shakespeare
The flower of the day according to the French Republican Calendar is Camomile (Camomille in French). The easy way to get intimately acquainted with this plant is to make yourself a cup of Camomile tea, and if you don’t have any, head down to the nearest store to get some.
There are two kinds of Camomile: Roman (Chamaemelum nobile, formerly Anthemis nobilis) and German (Matricaria chamomilla). They are both members of the Compositae (the Daisy/Aster family). Roman chamomile grows close to the ground, forming a thick mat of green. Mary Preus recommends planting it between stepping stones. The English often used it for lawns. German chamomile is leggier. Preus says you can tell the difference between the two by slicing open the domed center of a flower. German chamomile has hollow receptacles while in Roman chamomile, the receptacles are solid. Both have feathery leaves, small daisy-like blossoms and a faint scent of apple (from whence they get their name: chamomile means “ground apple” in Greek and in Spain the herb is called manzanilla or little apple).
Chamomile has been known for centuries as a calming herb--Peter Rabbit has a cup after a hard day in the garden. According to Preus, both varieties have similar qualities but German chamomile is considered medically superior. It contains more chamazulene, a constituent that is a pain-killer, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodie and antiallergenic. This is the chamomile usually found in chamomile tea, which is often prescribed as a sleep aid or to soothe an upset stomach. Preus says that it is ready to pick when the centers turn from bright yellow to light brown. Pluck or snip the flowers off the stems and dry them on screens or newspapers at room temperature.
The Roman (or English) chamomile has the same qualities but to a lesser extent. It is primarily used externally in lotions, creams and ointments. To make an ointment of chamomile, Jeanne Rose recommends a process developed by the Egyptians of steeping the flowers in oil for 24 hours or more, then straining them out. Rub this ointment over the body of a person suffering from flu or rheumatism, put them in bed, wrap them warmly and let them sweat it out.
According to Mrs. M Grieve, chamomile was called “the plant’s physician” by ancient herbalists and if planted near ailing plants would help revive them. It was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Saxons (under the name maythen). In the language of flowers it represents: humility, calm and patience in adversity.
Warning: Some folks with allergies may be allergic to chamomile.
For much more about chamomile, I recommend my favorite herbal web site:
Preus, Mary , The Northwest Herb Lover’s Handbook, Sasquatch Press, 2000
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, edited by Claire Kowalchik and William H. Hylton, Rodale 1987
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs and Things, Grosset and Dunlap 1972
Simmons, Adelma Grenier, Country Wreaths from Caprilands, Rodale 1988
I found the picture at the top of German chamomile on an Italian website:
And the picture of a single blossom of the Roman chamomile on a French site:
Friday, June 09, 2006
Alexander Carmichael, who collected ancient Gaelic charms and incantations in Scotland in the 19th century, records several other names for St. John's Wort: the armpit-package of Columba, hail of Columba, charm of Columba, jewel of Columba, glory of Columba, noble plant of Mary and noble yellow plant. It was secretly secured in the bodices of women and the vests of men, under the left armpit, which is also the way it was worn by St. Columba. (I wonder about this: was it an early form of deodorant? Or simply a great way to hide a magical amulet?)
It was considered effective only when accidentally found and picked while saying this charm:
Arm-pit package of Columba the kindly
Unsought by me, unlooked for
I shall not be carried away in my sleep
Neither shall I be pierced with iron
Better the reward of its virtues
Than a herd of white cattle.
It was especially prized when found in the fold of the flocks, auguring peace and prosperity in the herds throughout the year.
I didn’t find it in the folds or the flocks but this afternoon I spotted it growing along the cracks of a narrow bridge that swings out over the I-5freeway, connecting downtown Seattle with Capitol Hill where I live. It seems to love these toxic environments. I’ve also found it growing out of a crack in the asphalt between a narrow road and a concrete wall and along the side of freeway onramps.
The magical herb, St John’s Wort, is hypericum perforatum, and quite different from the ornamental ground cover called St. John’s Wort (which is also known as Rose of Sharon). The wild weed is a small upright plant, about six to eight inches tall with tiny flowers that “bleed” (release a red juice that stains your fingers) when you press them. The flowers of the ornamental shrub are much bigger and wider and do not bleed.
I just spent about 20 minutes looking for a good picture of the "wrong" St. John's Wort online and found that many sites, including many that sell herbs for medical and magical purposes, show pictures of the "wrong" St. John's wort. No wonder it isn't proving effective in medical trials. I didn't choose a picture from any of these sites because I didn't want to embarrass them.
The illustration to the left is from a gardening site:
The illustration of the real, magical, medicinal St. John's wort (above) is from the Government of British Columbia's Department of Agriculture and Lands at
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Today in the French Republican Calendar (Prairial 20) honors a tool, the Pitchfork. So I went looking for plants associated with the day and found (at
(http://www.wilsonsalmanac.com/book/jun8.html) that June 8 is the feast day of St. Medard, a rain saint, whose plant is the moneywort. Not clear why, but it might have something to do with water, as moneywort loves to grow in moist ground and along streams.
Mrs. M. Grieve explains that moneywort gets its name because the leaves are set two by two on the stem, the leaves are almost circular and they lay flat on the ground, like coins. The flowers are big and golden, like money as well, and they blossom in June and July.
And there are even more detailed photographs at Dave’s Garden: Here’s one:
One of the great benefits of writing about a plant a day for this blog is that I’m now a plant detective. Yesterday, on my way to work, I tracked down another linden in my neighborhood and saw that the flowers are just hard green buds, even smaller than peas, at the moment.
Now I’m on the trail of moneywort. When
The 17th century herbalist Culpeper says that it is ruled by Venus and is good for stopping bleeding, either internally or externally, and for healing wounds. He recommends using the juice of the herb, or making a decoction in wine or water.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Wordsworth 1995
Grieve, Mrs. M, The Modern Herbal
Illustration of St Medard from:
Illustration of St Medard crowning the Rosiere:
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Linden or Lime Tree
The Linden or Lime tree (Tilleul in French) is the Plant of the Day in the French Republican Calendar for Prairial 18. But it’s a bit early for the lindens in Seattle. In July, they are in their heyday, dripping with fragrance and honeydew.
I first became acquainted with the linden about seven years ago when I was working for a dance organization in Ballard. Before that I thought of them as trees that lined avenues in European cities or roads approaching country estates in England.
But one day in July on my way to the office, I smelled this incredible haunting fragrance. I looked all over the block but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. This went on for days, driving me crazy, until finally I looked up and saw the small white flowers on the trees lining the street.
The fragrance is so wonderful, I couldn’t figure out why lindens weren’t everywhere, until I parked my car under one and returned to find it covered with tiny, sticky drops of honeydew from the aphids that thrive on lindens. A small price to pay for the intoxicating scent but I could see why they might be unpopular on streets where cars park regularly. Ballard is an older neighborhood of Seattle and I imagine the trees were planted in the Thirties or Forties.
Even after I no longer worked in Ballard, I would go back every July to smell those trees. Imagine my surprise when a few years ago, I was walking near the elementary school my daughter attended, and found two more mature lindens in bloom. And the following year, I found two trees just three blocks from my apartment on Capitol Hill. In fact, Chester the Dog and I just walked over there to see if they were in bloom. Not yet, as far as we could see (and smell).
Here’s what I learned about lindens on the Internet:
Because the wood is soft and creamy, “cuts like cheese,” according to one website, it’s easy to carve and is used for fine carving, making models, guitar bodies, and piano sounding-boards. It’s also used to make artist’s charcoals and it’s the wood favored by icon painters, because it’s easy to sand and never warps. The fibrous inner bark, which is called bast (from which derives another name for the tree, basswood), can be used to make ropes, nets and bags for carrying things.
The leaves are heart-shaped, slightly serrated on the edges and pale on the underside. The flowers hang from the middle of ribbon-like bracts. They are tiny with five yellowish-white petals. The scent is so strong you can smell it a mile away. Bees especially love lindens which is why lindens are also called “Bee Trees.” The flowers can be dried and used to make tea., which is considered good for headaches, insomnia, nerves and purifying the blood. Grieve says a bath in the infused flowers is good for hysteria. The sweet sap can be made into wine.
Funk & Wagnalls says that Scythian soothsayers turned to the linden when prophesying and wound its fingers around their fingers as they spoke. In Estonia and Lithuania, women made sacrifices in front of linden trees, asking for fertility and domestic tranquility. When Zeus and Hermes wanted to thank an old couple (Philomen and Baucis)for their hospitality, they turned the man into an oak and the woman into a linden, which grew up side by side their branches intertwining. In Germany and the Tyrol, dwarves and dragons (called Linden worms) hang out around linden trees.
For the Slavs, lindens were the habitation of the goddess of love; later they became associated with the Virgin Mary, whose shrines are often found in front of linden trees in Slavic countries. Leslie Day writes that dryads or tree spirits were said to be wedded to Linden trees (I would certainly marry a linden tree if I were a tree spirit—or maybe a ponderosa pine, or a eucalyptus--no I can’t decide which is pretty much true for me in real life). In Roman mythology the Linden tree was a symbol of conjugal love and fidelity.
Day, Leslie, “Basswood Tree,” for The City Naturalist, a feature of the 79th Street Boat Basin Flora and Fauna Society in NYC
Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper and Row 1984
Grieve, Mrs M., A Modern Herbal at
Odrowaz-Sypniewska, Margaret, “The Linden Tree—Lore and Signifance,” about the linden’s special meaning for the Slavs
Article from an old book on lindens
Webcam view of the Unter den Linden (Avenue of Lindens) in Berlin
Linden tree by Durer
Found on the site of Lyndhaven, the New Brunswick chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism
Color print of Tilleul by Nicolais Francois Regnault published 1774-1780
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
The flower of the day in the French Republican calendar is the Poppy (Pavot in French).
I grew poppies in my garden for a few years. I loved the dry seed heads, their shape and color and the way they become natural pepper shakers. I always intended to do something arty with them (like gild them a la Martha Stewart). But the foliage was so messy and the flower so transitory that I decided they weren't worth the effort. Instead I've been concentrating on flowers with fragrance and flowers I can bring indoors.
But Laura Martin writes that poppies do make good cut flowers if you cut full buds with straight stems in the evening and submerge them up to their necks in hot water.
Martin says that the ancient Egyptians used poppies in funeral rituals while the ancient Greeks thought of poppies as signs of fertility (perhaps because of the profligate way it sows its seeds). Poppy seeds were used as a love charm and as a seasoning for bread and drinks.
The poppy is sacred to Diana, and Ceres, the grain goddess, perhaps because they grow in fields with the wheat. A Greek legend says that the gods took pity on Ceres when she was wandering the world looking for her daughter and caused the poppy to spring up in her footsteps so she could rest. As the source of opium, it provides relief from pain.
Which is the poppy's dark side. I'm always surprised more people don't harvest opium from the poppies in our community garden which is right in the middle of a relatively active drug dealing neighborhood. On my way from the garden to my work, I pass a fast food restaurant where I've twice seen police removing the body of someone who died of an overdose in the bathrooms. And when I walk down the neighboring street, I often think of Curt Cobain who almost died in a car on this street after scoring some heroin nearby.
For a thorough discussion of the history and medicinal uses of the poppy plant, go to my favorite web site for botanical information:
In my garden, the California poppies have sowed themselves and are making bright splashes of orange. They fold up at night like butterflies.
Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
The picture of the poppy comes from