Making Mrs. Corlyon’s red oil, Part 1–the ingredients

Ingredients for Mrs. Corlyon's red oil.

Herbal ingredients for Mrs. Corlyon’s red oil: alkanet, valerian, agrimony, hibiscus, and St. John’s wort.

So I have decided to take a stab at making Mrs. Corlyon’s “Redd Oyle speciallye good to heale a small cutt or a great wounde.” I will have to make some modifications based on what I have available, but my goal is to stick as closely as possible to the intent of the original recipe. Hopefully my substitutions won’t harm the final product too much. After all, Mrs. Corlyon says that if you don’t have the other ingredients, a simple alkanet-infused oil will still be healing. But it will be so much more fun to make the complete version, and it almost–almost–makes me wish I had more wounds to try it on.

The original recipe calls for:

  • 16 oz rapeseed (canola) oil
  • 2 oz alkanet root
  • 3 “good handfuls” serpent’s tongue (a.k.a., English adder’s tongue) (Ophioglossum vulgare)
  • 2 handfuls valerian
  • 1 handful love-in-idleness (Viola tricolor)

The herbs are finely chopped and infused into the oil by heating. Then the oil is strained and left to sit in the sun. Optionally, you can then add the following:

  • another 16 oz rapeseed (canola) oil
  • 3 or 4 handfuls of St. John’s Wort blossoms, harvested at Midsummer
  • 1 oz alkanet

Once again the herbs are chopped and heat-infused into the oil, then strained out. This new oil is added to the oil from the first part, and the whole thing left to sit in the sun again.

Why these ingredients?

I discussed each of these briefly along with the original recipe in this earlier post, but the ingredients deserve another look to see how they all work together.

I suspect canola oil was just the most widely available vegetable-based oil in England in 1606, when Mrs. Corlyon wrote her book, as opposed to being chosen for medicinal benefits. Upon Googling it I found some sites claiming it’s great for skin, others saying the opposite. I thought of doing some in-depth research–and in the future I shall–but I don’t even have any canola oil anyway, so I’ll be substituting  what I have on hand–coconut and olive.

Alkanet was used for bruises, burns, and green wounds (per Culpeper), and in modern terms is said to be antibacterial, anti-itch, astringent, and vulnerary (per Plants For a Future). Alkanet belongs to the borage family (Boraginaceae), which also includes the well-known healing wort comfrey.

Serpent’s tongue was traditionally used as a vulnerary and a styptic but alas, I do not often get to traipse about England’s green and pleasant land, so I don’t have access to this native British fern. One doesn’t find it dried, and anyway it seems it was always infused in the fresh state. What, then, might one use as a substitute? I’ll come back to this in a bit.

As I mentioned previously, valerian was formerly known as “all heal,” and was used to treat any and every internal and external wound. Nowadays it is more often used internally as a mild nervine sedative, so when applied externally one might expect it would have some pain relieving properties. The recipe doesn’t specify whether the roots or the aerial parts were used, or whether dried or fresh, but I’ll be using the dried roots.

Love-in-Idleness has similar healing properties to its cousin, Viola odorata, the violet. It’s demulcent and soothing. Again the recipe doesn’t specify exactly which parts to use, so I’ll use fresh flowers since there are some in bloom still.

St. John’s wort we still use for pain; Matthew Wood (in The Book of Herbal Wisdom) considers it especially good for puncture wounds. Unfortunately, (1)  it is not Midsummer Eve and (2) even if it were, I don’t live anywhere near where St. John’s wort grows. So it won’t be possible for me to get my hands on any blossoms. However, I do have dried leaves and stems–albeit I don’t know if they were harvested at Midsummer, oh well–so I’ll give them a try.

Magical medicine?

It seems to me that there may be more than a little magic in this recipe. My first reason for thinking so is the fact that the herbs used, except for valerian and serpent’s tongue–assuming I’m right to identify it as Ophioglossum vulgare–were selected not only for their medicinal properties but for their color. Most herbal oils and salves are some shade of green, yellow, or brown–red is pretty rare in my experience. Why was the color so important?

Well, it could have been desirable precisely because it was rare. It could simply have been considered pretty. But we have to remember that in 1606, herbalists thought in terms of the Doctrine of Signatures. Mrs. C suggests that this oil be used “blood warm,” which makes me think that the color red here may have been an intentional symbolic correspondence with blood.

The second hint is the fact that Mrs. C stipulates that we put the oil to sit in the sun after it has been infused. I mean, my understanding is that early-17th-century houses didn’t have a lot of big windows; and England doesn’t exactly have a lot of sun to begin with. I’m guessing that a 32 oz jar of oil (that’s the amount in this recipe–seriously, how often did these people get hurt?!) would not have spent a huge amount of time sunbathing on a cozy windowsill. So if it’s not functionally necessary to warm the oil again, and it was not exactly convenient to leave your enormous, heavy jar of oil in a window or doorway, the only reason I can see would be symbolic or magical. (Although, sitting it in the sun would help get it closer to blood temperature I suppose.)

Third, although the addition of St. John’s Wort is optional (it makes the oil more “medicinable”), if one does use it, one is supposed to harvest it at Midsummer. Now Midsummer is traditionally associated with St. John, in fact, St. John’s wort is supposedly so named because it starts flowering around St. John’s day, i.e., Midsummer. But in the pre-Christian wayback, Midsummer was a major solar festival, and St. John’s wort is supposed to be a favorite of faeries  (see Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom for more). Also take note that if you were going to be infusing your St. John’s wort flowers fresh, you would have picked them on Midsummer Eve and thus you’d be making the second part of the oil on Midsummer itself.

So to sum up, we have a blood-colored oil that is applied blood-warm to (bloody) wounds, a major component of which oil would be harvested and prepared on the ancient solar festival day of Midsummer, and the whole thing then allowed to bask in the sun. Sounds like magic to me.

Finding a substitute for serpent’s tongue

Because of the magical traditions that seem to have been important in making this oil , I don’t want to sub just any old vulnerary herb for the serpent’s tongue. It should be one that is healing and hemostatic; red in color; and preferably ruled astrologically by the moon (I have no idea how important astrological rulership might have been deemed at the time, but I don’t want to leave out something that might have been perceived as critical or traditional). Some possibilities are:

  • Cayenne. Pros: It’s red, it’s hemostatic yet stimulates blood circulation. Cons: It’s ruled by Mars, and it almost certainly wasn’t available to your average English housewife in 1606.
  • Agrimony. Pros: It is a famous healing and also a drawing herb. The tannins impart a rusty color to water or alcohol, but I haven’t tried infusing it into oil. Cons: It’s ruled by Jupiter BUT also by the sign Cancer, which is also the sign-ruler of serpent’s tongue.
  • Hibiscus (H. sabdariffa). Pros: According to this study and this one, a different but related hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis) is an effective wound healer, and it’s hemostatic according to The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs. It’s also definitely red. Cons: Astrological rulership unknown, but hibiscus is generally considered “feminine” like serpent’s tongue. It would probably not have been available to Mrs. C or her contemporaries.

I’m torn between agrimony and hibiscus. I like cayenne a lot, but I don’t have that much of it. I like that agrimony would have been available to Mrs. C, though I suppose the counterargument to that is that if she’d wanted to use it, she would have. Hibiscus, like cayenne, is not a European native, but it’s hard to resist using it because I really love it. Also, it’s usually regarded as “feminine,” whereas agrimony and cayenne are more “masculine.” In magical terms, both cayenne and agrimony are believed to ward off negative witchcraft (as is alkanet), whereas hibiscus is associated with love and psychic awareness.

On balance I feel like a combination of agrimony and hibiscus would capture the best possible mix of magical and medicinal characteristics, color, and astrological associations.  And I have both, so let the experiment continue!

In Part 2, I’ll go over the method and results, with pictures…

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