Making Mrs. Corlyon’s red oil, Part 2–method and results

This is Part 2 of my attempt to recreate Mrs. Corlyon’s 1606 red wound-healing oil. (Part 1 is here. And you can see the original recipe here.)

Preliminaries: figuring out the measurements

I debated about whether to make this oil in two parts, as in the original recipe, or all in one. I believe the reason for adding the St. John’s wort at a later period is that Mrs. Corlyon assumed one might have made the first part of the oil any old time (for example note that she says that alkanet is always available at the apothecary), but come Midsummer one could optionally amp up the power by adding St. John’s wort. On the other hand, if you started the whole thing on Midsummer, I’d bet that it would be ok to just put everything in together and cook it in a single batch. That is, chemically speaking, there’s no reason I can think of not to; and indeed heating the first half of the oil only once instead of twice would probably help to prevent further damage to the active herbal constituents.

Of course there is the possibility that doing the oil in two halves had some symbolic or magical significance, but if so it’s lost on me; and I’m already making this closer to Midwinter than Midsummer anyway, as well as substituting one of the herbs, so as far as keeping all the original correspondences intact I have to concede defeat already. So I decided to put everything all in together and heat it only once.

Since this is an experiment, I am also making only 8 oz this time around (1/4 the amount in the original recipe).

The next thing to consider is how much a “handful” of herb is. Mrs. C doesn’t tell us whether she was speaking of fresh or dried herbs, though we can assume the alkanet was dried if she was buying it at the apothecary. (Is it mere coincidence that this is the only herb she gives an actual measurement for? Does this mean all the other herbs were fresh?) If she was using fresh herbs, a handful would of course become considerably smaller when dried. For the full 32 oz of the original recipe, we would want the following proportions (where 1 part = 1 handful):

  • 3-4 parts St. John’s wort
  • 3 parts hibiscus/agrimony blend
  • 2 parts valerian
  • 1 part love-in-idleness

Plus 3 oz alkanet.

For simplicity’s sake I opted to equate 1 part with 0.5 oz (by weight). Since I’m making 1/4 the original recipe, that works out to:

  • 8 oz oil–I used 6 oz coconut, 1 oz olive, and 1 oz castor
  • 0.5 oz St. John’s wort
  • 0.38 oz hibiscus/agrimony
  • 0.25 oz valerian
  • 0.13 oz violas
  • 0.75 oz alkanet

Some of those amounts (0.38 oz, 0.13 oz) are difficult to accurately measure out, but clearly Mrs. C wasn’t too fussed about exactitude, so I ballparked it. Plus if anything I’m probably adding more herbs than necessary, although I think I actually used fewer violas than would be mathematically indicated; but 9 or 10 flowers came to one palmful, which is close to the original amount of one handful, so I call that close enough.


Alkanet in the large bowl; other ingredients from L to R are St. John's wort, agrimony/hibiscus, violas, and valerian.

Alkanet in the large bowl; other ingredients (clockwise from bottom left) are St. John’s wort, agrimony/hibiscus, violas, and valerian.

I measured out all my dried herbs first, and collected my violas. Watch out for stray bits of alkanet because if they get wet they’ll stain whatever they’re in contact with (says the voice of experience).

red oil 3

Here they are added to the oils in my jerryrigged double boiler.

Sorry for the blurry photo!

Sorry for the blurry photo!

As soon as I had stirred everything together, the mix was already a beautiful deep cranberry color. Since the heat on the stove was pretty high–as opposed to using a steady low heat like a crock pot–I didn’t want to overheat the oil. I let it “waumble” (<– new favorite word) about 1 1/2 hours.

I let the oil cool for a bit, then strained out the herbs using a mesh strainer and cheesecloth, pouring the oil into a pint jar.

Red oil in the sun.

Red oil in the sun.

Finally I put it in a window to soak up some sun, but there hasn’t been much. (What looks like solids in the jar is actually coconut oil that has partially solidified; at room temperature it’s completely liquid.) In the old days, I assume oils like Mrs. C’s would have been kept in ceramic jugs rather than glass jars, so ultraviolet light would have been kept out; since my oil is in glass, I’ll be storing it in a nice dark cupboard.


The color is absolutely gorgeous, the veritable definition of a jewel tone. I’ll have to make sure the label is good and legible so other members of the family don’t try to eat or drink it! I must say too, inspite of the Midsummer-solar correspondences in the original recipe, the color put me in mind of scarlet winter berries and ruby-hued mulled wines.


The ruby red oil illuminated.

I thought the scent might turn out a little acrid, because alkanet smells (to me) a bit like sour strawberry, and valerian smells…indesribable, really. Very pungent! However the result was a little like a strawberry-scented coconut, with an astringent note. I rather like it!

So, what do you think? (Seriously, I do welcome comments!) Would you try red oil?


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