In praise of rosemary

rosemary-283098_1280Whether it’s sprinkled on top of a focaccia or growing in a windowbox, rosemary is so ubiquitous that I think it’s easy to overlook its amazing healing properties. I’m guilty of that myself to some extent. I mean, I love rosemary, I grow it, but sometimes with an herb it’s not until you need it that you suddenly realize how awesome it was all along. (Well, that’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it?) In fact, if you were to grow only one medicinal plant, you could do a lot worse than rosemary.

Matthew Wood said, and I wish I could remember where but I just can’t, that the mark of a good herbalist is not how many herbs they can heal with, but how many things they can heal with a single herb. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an incredibly versatile herb and if you know this plant well, you can treat a multitude of ills. Lucky for me, it also happens to be one of the few things I can grow here that isn’t destroyed by heat or bugs. It’s pretty hard to kill, and I think everyone should have some growing, at least a little pot.

First, you have rosemary’s pungent, clearing scent. To me, rosemary is the smell of clean. It’s also uplifting, vibrant, and energizing. Culpeper says, “…to burn the herb in houses and chambers, corrects the air in them.” I can testify from experience that diffusing rosemary essential oil can dispel a multitude of bad odors, but as is so often the case, the medicinal property of this plant reflects its esoteric properties. Rosemary is an herb of purification. It’s become all the rage to smudge with white sage, and in much of the US, including where I live, it’s a good choice: it grows abundantly in the wild and has been recognized for it’s cleansing and clearing powers since time immemorial. But if you happen to not live in a place where white sage is native, why pay for some sad, shriveled sage that’s been shipped halfway around the world or sitting on a shelf for two years? Try rosemary, or a bundle or rosemary, juniper, and mugwort.

When I lived in Spain years ago, you could buy sprigs of rosemary from passing street vendors. It is believed to bring luck and to protect pilgrims and travelers. (The word for pilgrim in Spanish is romero, which also means rosemary. I believe pilgrims acquired the name from the habit of carrying rosemary, but I’m not entirely sure.)

Culpeper emphasizes rosemary’s warming properties, saying it “is very much used both for inward and outward diseases, for by the warming and comforting heat thereof it helps all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly.” Matthew Wood (The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, p. 26) refers to it as “the archetypal fiery mint.” Take a few drops of rosemary tincture directly on your tongue and you will feel that heat, as well as a tingly, diffusive feeling. Indeed rosemary’s warmth and dryness underlie all its medicine, and can serve as a mnemonic to help you remember all the various things it can do. In traditional Western herbal energetics, heat is stimulating and vivifying, and dryness counteracts damp conditions.

Therefore, rosemary can be used in any and all conditions that involve tissue “depression” (an excess of cold) or “stagnation” (excess damp that doesn’t move), wherever they occur in the body. Some common manifestations–this is by no means a comprehensive list–of stagnation and/or depression in various tissues include headache (including migraines), gas, cough, sinus infection, edema, poor memory, arthritis, gout, slow metabolism, constipation, weak digestion, lethargy, excess blood sugar, low blood pressure, and poor circulation. What you have here is a picture of underactive, slow, weak tissues and physiological processes. Rosemary can often benefit the elderly, since many of these processes slow down with age. It is a powerful decongestant for all organs subject to congestion, e.g., the lungs, sinuses, veins, liver.

The penetrating, tingly quality of rosemary’s volatile oils make it well suited for use as a massage oil for sore muscles. You can make a massage oil by diluting rosemary essential oil in a skin-friendly carrier oil (such as jojoba, coconut, almond, olive, apricot kernel, grapeseed, untoasted a.k.a. light sesame, or sunflower)–try a ratio of 10% essential oil to carrier oil, and go as high as 25% according to how you like it. And/or you can infuse rosemary in any of the oils listed above. Let some fresh rosemary sprigs wilt overnight, cut into little pieces, then place in a jar and cover with oil. Make sure there is no part of the rosemary exposed to air, and do not allow any water in contact with the oil. Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks. You can add beeswax (at a ratio of 1 part wax to 8 parts oil–this basic ratio can be tweaked to your preference) to make a salve. The oil or salve can bring some relief to arthritis sufferers. It also helps with bruises and poor circulation. You can also add a few drops of essential oil to a bath. Matthew Wood in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism notes that rosemary stimulates the involuntary musculature (e.g., of the heart, intestines, diaphragm) but relaxes the voluntary muscles.

Rosemary’s heat and dryness also tell you where not to use it: anywhere there is excess heat, irritation, or dryness already. If you are having heart palpitations, high blood pressure, or tachycardia, for example, don’t take rosemary. (Take hawthorn.)

Wood says (if I’m quoting him a lot it’s because he’s written a lot about rosemary) (TPoTWH, p. 248):

“…rosemary is indicated in people who have too strong an incarnation, so to speak, or who grasp the material world with such vigor that they get headaches and nervous tension. I do not mean that they are materialistic; it is for people who grasp life with great intensity, or not with enough intensity.”

Culturally, rosemary is most famous for its association with memory, and by extension, loyalty and fidelity. Given its manifold healing properties, it’s perhaps no surprise that rosemary’s esoteric powers are similarly comprehensive–purification, protection, attracting good luck and repelling bad, warding off evil, healing (of course!), exorcism, increasing mental powers, ensuring faithfulness, and empowering women.

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

How I use rosemary

I sometimes take rosemary as a tea, and when I have a cold with sinus congestion, I’ll put a few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of hot water, put a towel over my head and inhale the steam. I currently have my mother taking half a dropperful of rosemary tincture three times a day because she has some serious edema going on, and memory problems. Actually, she has practically every problem rosemary can be used for. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get her to take tinctures because she doesn’t like the taste. She’s also a classic example of the Boomer generation attitude that medicine comes in pill form, end of. But when I can get her to take it, I notice immediate improvement in her edema.

Speaking of edema, Wood quotes a woman describing her experience with rosemary and edema (TPoTWH, p. 252):

“The difference between rosemary and lasix [sic; Lasix is a prescription diuretic] is that it is more selective. Lasix pumps out all the fluids it can get its hands on, whereas rosemary pulls out fluids that I can feel are stagnant and need to go.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of bad odors that come from a dying person, as well as a general sense of malaise in the house. To counteract these I diffuse essential oils. I use various blends, mostly making them up on the spot depending on how I feel, but they almost always involve rosemary. One of my favorites is:

  • 2 drops common sage EO
  • 3 drops rosemary EO
  • 3 drops tangerine EO
  • 2 drops grapefruit EO
  • 1-2 drops lavender EO (optional)

It definitely improves the overall aroma and lifts the spirits. I always feel a bit more perky, a bit more able to handle it all, after diffusing this blend. The other day one of my mom’s hospice nurses said it always smells good in our apartment, like herbs. Success!

I always put rosemary in my basic surface cleaning spray.

Rosemary is also an excellent hair tonic. I use a vinegar rinse to condition my hair (equal parts vinegar and water), and frequently use a rosemary infusion in lieu of plain water. Not only does it smell lovely but the oils from the rosemary impart a lovely shine without making your hair greasy. It is said to prevent hair loss.

In the old days herbalists recommended infusing rosemary in white wine and drinking a couple wine-glassesful per day. I haven’t tried this–I extracted my rosemary in brandy to make my usual tincture–but it sounds like it might be rather delicious. Rather than infusing the herb for a month as with a tincture, it was simply infused over the course of the day. I intend to try this when I get my next bottle of wine.

And finally of course I eat rosemary! Rosemary and lemon are a simple way to bring out the best flavor in chicken or potatoes, but they’re delicious on everything.

I mentioned that rosemary was one of the only plants in my garden that has survived. My garden was hit hard by bagrada bugs, and everything but two of my plants–a rosemary and a wooly blue curls–were pulled out by the community garden “SWAT team” who are empowered to remove any infested plants. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I was when I showed up to check on my plot, which had been overflowing with green plants a few days before, and finding nothing but two plants. Suffice to say I learned a hard lesson about what plants can withstand the bagrada bug, and it appears to be members of the mint family. So, I now have two rosemary plants, a blue curls, and a lemon tree in a pot on my patio. Because my mom’s health is growing progressively worse, I had to give up my community garden plot–I just can’t get down there often enough anymore. For the time being I’ll just be growing in containers. At least I know rosemary will continue to flourish there.

Worts & All holiday gift ideas

If you’re like me, you’ve given friends and family all sorts of herbal salves, tinctures, and tea blends and you never know if they used them. No matter how long you’ve been studying herbology people still look at you like you’re trying to bewitch them with some kind of dangerous witch doctory.

I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone is as into botanical medicine as I am. But I like making gifts, and I like making things with herbs, so I am going to continue giving herbal gifts. I just have to slip the herbs into things that are a little less threatening to my giftees. (Easier said than done since even soaps seem to be threatening when I make them.) I want to stretch myself a bit beyond the usual sugar/salt scrubs, lotion bars, and bath salts (not that there’s anything wrong with those and I would be happy to receive any). I’ve been scouring the internets for ideas, recipes, and products, so without further ado, here are a few of my favorites:

Kings Road Apothecary’s Conifer Special Surprise Box

Just look at some of what’s in here: Pinon resin and white fir whipped body butter, conifer forest bath bomb, redwood + douglas fir + turkey tail tea, and pinon resin and white fir whipped body butter…(plus more). The only problem is that I would have a really hard time not keeping this for myself.

It’s fitting that this comes first in the list because it was seeing Cauldrons & Crockpots holiday gift guide that reminded me that eek it’s December already and time to write the holiday gift post I’d been planning…

Learning Herbs’ Heart-Healthy olive tapenade

Ironically, homemade food products seem to be appreciated by my giftees, even though if I wanted to bewitch or poison them, this would be the way to do it. This particular recipe would make a great gift if you can the results, and then you could make them open it and try it right in front of you. Since you use ingredients which have already been brine-preserved (olives, capers) and are adding acid (lemon juice, tomatoes), I believe you could safely can this by the hot water bath method (also known as the cold pack method). Of course I am not responsible for your results if you choose to do so.

Herbed Nuts

Last year candied nuts were a huge hit at my family’s Christmas dinner gathering. Why not make a savory version with herbs? This recipe suggests rosemary and thyme, but you could also use sage, marjoram, and savory. Remember to soak and dry the nuts in advance to improve their digestibility and make them more crispy.

Hori Knife

Ok, it’s not made with herbs. Hori-hori is a Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound this knife makes digging through soil (it also means dig-dig). This is the single most useful gardening tool I have ever encountered–you can dig, scoop, cut through roots and stems, heck mine even has a measuring guide so you can measure how deeply you’ve dug. Also a great tool for wildcrafting. Also for stabbing anyone who tries to steal your veggies (because I’m not the only one who worries about that, right?).

These Botanical Perfumes

With names inspired by literature and some really unique blends, I love Arabesque Aromas’ perfumes. They range from green and mossy to spicy orientals to delicate florals.

Or These Botanical Perfumes

Made by Kiva Rose. I haven’t tried them yet but they all sound amazing.

Honey Pacifica Honeys

These are a step further removed from the plant, but most people I know enjoy honey. If you live in Southern California, Honey Pacifica is more or less local to you. Their raw unfiltered honeys are like candy in a jar. You could even infuse them with herbs or flowers.

Ancient Forests decongestant salve

Ancient Forests decongestant salve

This winter I’ve come down with a chest cold that just won’t shift. In fact, I seem to have developed a tendency to always catch winter coughs and bronchitis. When this happens, my usual go-to immune-boosters just don’t seem to help that much, which means that this isn’t just a random bug but a constitutional or energetic trait. So I wanted something that would be warming and stimulating to get things loose and moving and open up my lungs.

It seemed like a good opportunity to try a chest decongestant salve, something that I’ve never used before. I know many people swear by Vicks VapoRub, but I haven’t touched the stuff since my mom put some on my chest as a little kid and it burned like the fires of hell. Seriously, I don’t remember much from that time in my life but I do remember how much that stuff burned! Also, it’s made from petroleum jelly and petroleum-derived mineral turpentine, which I don’t really want on me. I mean I wouldn’t eat it, so I don’t really want to massage it into my skin, you know?

I’ve seen various recipes for DIY decongestant salves, most of which are dominated by eucalyptus, peppermint, and/or camphor essential oils. If that works for you, awesome. Those are certainly effective choices. Unfortunately I don’t have any camphor, and while I do have peppermint I actually don’t like it much. I don’t deny it generally works, so I do keep it on hand, but I had already tried peppermint and eucalyptus on an earlier iteration of this cough without much success. They helped a bit, for a little while, but I wasn’t wowed and I thought this would be a good excuse to try something new to me. If my concoction doesn’t work, I can always go back to the tried-and-true formula.

But meanwhile, I was reading some old-timey herbal recipes which called for various tree resins–mostly frankincense and myrrh–and turpentine. I remembered that I have some some myrrh and frankincense (I don’t normally buy them because the trees that produce them are severely over-harvested, but happily I had received some as a free sample) and I also had another tree resin which has traditionally been used as a source of turpentine–pine tar. I collected this resin earlier this year from Loblolly pines (Pinus taeda), one of the “yellow” pine varieties. Yellow pines have a more turpentiney smell than “white” or “red” pines do. But that’s cool because the turpentine is what clears the lungs. Sidebar: I think most people think of scary chemicals when they hear the word turpentine, but the name actually derives from the Greek terebinthine, the name of the pines from which it was extracted in ancient times. Natural turpentine is just an extract of pine resin. Vicks VapoRub, and most modern applications, do not use the natural stuff, but a “mineral turpentine” derived from coal and petroleum, which is actually chemically completely different.

So anyway, I decided to base my decongestant salve on these resins, with their antiseptic, lung-opening, and drawing properties, and I added mullein (an expectorant), juniper berries (a warming stimulant), and just for good measure a fourth antiseptic tree resin, Balm of Gilead (the resin from poplar/cottonwood buds). Finally I added essential oils of rosemary, fir needle, and cedarwood.

I think it smells fantastic–like trees!–and I’m pleased to say it has been very effective at loosening things up. I decided to name this salve “Ancient Forests” in honor of the source of these beautiful-smelling, cleansing resins.

pine resin

Notes on working with resins

Tree resins require heat to “melt” and impart their medicinal qualities to an oil. You can do this the slow way, by solar infusing (if it’s warm enough where you live) or placing it by your stove, but I want to try it NOW so I decided to use the “folk method”–heating the oil in a double boiler. Also right now, there just isn’t enough sun to do the job.

One bit of advice for anyone who hasn’t made an oil or salve with resins: they will most likely stick to whatever you are heating them in, and whatever you’re stirring them with, so if possible content yourself with the prospect of disposing of those items, or dedicating them permanently to resin processing. (I’ll be adding more oil to the residue in the jar I used to heat the oil, to let it slowly absorb the smelly resinous goodness.) If you get sticky stuff on your hands or elsewhere, the rule is oily counteracts sticky. A good rub with oil should get everything nice and clean.

More old timey recipes

I had a lot of fun writing about old skool herbal recipes last time and thought I’d give it another go. Today I give you two recipes from A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon. Anno Domini 1606 (Wellcome Collection MS.213). As I did last time, I will transcribe them verbatim and then discuss them. Where I thought the archaic spelling could be confusing, I put the modern spelling in brackets. Enjoy!

A Redd Oyle speciallye good to heale a small cutt or a great wounde, and is auaileable [available] to many other purposes to be applied always Bloode warme

Take a pinte or a quarte of Sallett [salad] oyle or as much as you think good to make (for the same will continue good 6. or 7. years) then take to euery [every] pint of Oyle two ownzes of Alcanett [alkanet] rootes (which is at all tymes to be had at the Apothecaries for iii or iiii d [3 or 4 pence] the ownze) three good handfulles of Dragon or Serpentes tounge, two handfulles of Valerian and an handfull of an hearbe called Love in idlenesse. Choppe all the hearbes as smale as hearbes for the pott and pounde the rootes as smale as other spices. That doon put all togeather into the Oyle and boyle it till you thincke the hearbes sufficientlye boyled, then straine the same throughe a fyne clothe and put the Oyle so strained into a glasse and sett it in a place where the Sonn cometh as longe as you will. And to make it more perfect and medecinable, upon Midsommer Eve gather 3. or 4. handfulles of the blossomes of St Johnes woorte, and with an ownze of the said Alcanett roote pownded, boile them in a pinte of Oyle as before then straine it and put it to the other Oyle and set it altogeather in the Sonn. But if these blossomes be not to be had or that you want Oyle &c. or that any of all the said hearbes in the first receipte may not gotten, the Oyle and Rootes onlye used and boyled togeather as before will heale sufficientlye.

Regarding “Sallett oyle,” or salad oil, the official Plimoth Plantation website tells us “There’s also ‘sallet oil’ in the 17th century. It’s made from rapeseed; rapes being part of the turnip family. We [in America] now call that oil canola oil…” (of course the British call it rapeseed oil). I don’t think the type of oil matters much.

Our next mystery ingredient is “Dragon or Serpentes tounge.” It was also known as adder’s tongue (which is how you’ll find it listed in Culpeper), but it’s not to be confused with American adder’s tongue (Erythonium americanum). This recipe would be referring to the English adder’s tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum), a.k.a. Christ’s spear, a fern. Mrs Grieve says of it, “This Fern has long had a reputation as a vulnerary. A preparation of it, known as the ‘Green Oil of Charity,’ is still in request as a remedy for wounds.”

English adder's tongue

English adder’s tongue

[EDIT: I decided to double-check my identification of this plant. I note that Mrs. Corlyon says “dragon or serpentes tongue.” Well, I’ve identified serpent’s tongue, but what might “dragon” be? There are two candidates: Polygonum bistorta (also known as Persicaria bistorta), commonly known as “dragons,” but more commonly known today as “bistort,” and Arum maculatum, commonly called “dragons,” “dragon,” or “great dragon” (according to A Dictionary of English Plant Names, Vol. 10), but nowadays more often known as “cuckoo-pint.” Part of A. maculatum actually looks rather like Ophioglossum vulgatum. See what you think:

Arum maculatum

Arum maculatum

But A. maculatum‘s medicinal uses don’t seem to have extended to wound treatment (see, e.g., Mrs Grieve), so I think it can be ruled out. P. bistorta is an astringent and has been used to stop bleeding, but it doesn’t look like or bear any relation to serpent’s tongue. The way the text says “dragon or serpentes tongue” gives me the impression these were two names for the same plant, as opposed to two different plants; so on balance I think Mrs. Corlyon was referring to O. vulgatum, and that it too may have been called “dragon” in the early 17th century. Interestingly enough, given that a member of the violet genus is part of this recipe, according to this site, “serpent’s tongue” was also a magical code-name for violet! However I can’t find any indication that violets were ever called “dragon.”]

Plants For A Future (PFAF) says serpent’s/adder’s tongue is also haemostatic. Apparently “Many ferns also contain thiaminase, an enzyme that robs the body of its vitamin B complex…[but] The enzyme is destroyed by heat or thorough drying, so cooking the plant will remove the thiaminase,” so in this case heating the oil to infuse it is probably advisable, even though topical administration in small quantitites probably wouldn’t introduce much thiaminase into the body.

Love-in-idleness is an old folk name for the viola or wild pansy (Viola tricolor). Its flowers are purple or purple and yellow, and so would add to the redness of the oil. Gerard (and following him, Mrs Grieve) state that viola is demulcent and “commended…against scabs and itchings of the whole body, and healeth ulcers.” St. John’s wort of course is excellent for wounds and pain relief, and finally we have alkanet, which according to our friend Culpeper is good for bruises and green wounds. I find this recipe interesting because clearly the herbs have been selected for their function as vulneraries, and yet also for their color–except for the adder’s tongue, which reportedly will turn an oil it’s infused in green. (Mixing green oil with red would give you a brown oil, but I guess all the alkanet would overwhelm the green.) I note that the instructions even say to use the oil “blood warm,” which is to say at body temperature, but blood = red, so maybe there’s a deliberate analogue there.

Love-in-idleness.

Love-in-idleness

Although red oil (or should I say “Redd Oyle”) seems to have gone out of fashion, there is a red healing oil made with St. John’s wort from Greece, called spatholado.

Next we have a recipe for an ointment:

A speciall good Oyntement called the greene Oyntement

Take a pounde of Sage a pounde of Rhue halfe a pounde of Wormewoode halfe a pounde of Baye leaves they must be chopped and weyed seuerally, then take 5. pounde of Sheepes sewett [suet] purely tryed and mynced, two handfulles of Camomele, and one handfull of Rosemarye chopped also. Mingle all these togeather, and stampe them in a morter by a little at once Untill the Sewett be not seen. Then take a pottle of Sallett Oyle and mingle with it and so lett it stande 9. days then boile it with a softe fyre alwayes stirringe it with a sticke and after it hath boyled two howers, trye if the Baye leaves crymble [crumble] like Ashes betweene your fyngers, and then take it of from the fyre and straine it, puttinge into it one Ownze of the Oyle of Spike and so keepe it.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. A “pottle” is equivalent to half a gallon (another fun-to-say word I shall have to start using in regular conversation). “Oil of Spike” is an oil made from spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia). Of course this was the days before essential oils, as you could deduce from the fact that an entire ounce is called for, but today you could substitute the essential oil. (You can even get it at Mountain Rose Herbs.) The quantities used in these old timey recipes makes me think people really must have hurt themselves a lot back in those days!

The frustrations of the herbalist, then as now.

The frustrations of the herbalist, then as now.

Theoretically, “Rhue” could refer to either meadow rue (Thalictrum sp.) or garden rue (Ruta graveolens), which aren’t related, but from the long litany of healing properties which our friend Culpeper ascribes to the latter–including treating “running sores,” “stinking ulcers,” “dry scabs,” and “wheals and pimples,” I’m guessing the one in this ointment is the garden variety. About bay leaves he says, “the oil takes away the marks of the skin and flesh by bruises, falls, &c. and dissolves the congealed blood in them. It helps also the itch, scabs, and weals in the skin.”

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I’m consulting Culpeper and Gerard and so on instead of more recent herbals, it’s because I want to know why Mrs. Corlyon and the other authors of these home herbals chose the plants they did, and for that we need to look at the writings of their more-or-less contemporaries.

As clumsy as I am, I still just don’t get through that much ointment, salve, and infused oil–but I can’t wait to try some of these recipes!

Herbal recipes from days of yore

The Wellcome Library in London has, to my unending delight, digitized many of their domestic herbal and culinary recipe books, which date back to the 1500s. You can access them free online here, and even download pdfs. Today I thought I’d share a recipe from one of these manuscripts–MS.2330, a book simply titled “Family Receipts [Recipes]” and dating to the late 1600s–for your historical interest. I transcribe it below since the writing has faded and is a little difficult to read. I’m transcribing it verbatim, with the original (charming) spellings and punctuation.

Oyl of Charetie from MS.2330, Wellcome Library

Recipe for Oyl of Charetie from MS.2330, Wellcome Library

To make Oyl of Charetie [Oil of Charity]

Take Rosemary, Lavender, Sage, Wormwood, Cammomil, & the Lesser Vallerian, of each 2. handfulls; cut ’em small, & put ’em into Oyl Olive 1. quart; then let ’em stand thus infus’d 4. days; then set it on the fire, & let it but waumble; then strain it from those herbs, & put herbs into the Oyl, & so let it stand other seven days, & do it as before till it ha’s been 3. times seven days infus’d; then put in Valerian only; and waumble it on the fire; then strain it, & keep the (?)clear by itself in a Glass. ‘Tis very good for any inward bruise, or outward; if inward take half a Spoonful in what Liquor you please; if outward anoynt the part; it heals the Green wound; Eases the tooth Ach, if it comes of cold Rheum dipping a cloth in it, & laying it to the Cheek; ’tis good for any swelling in man or horses; & after this manner you may make Oyl of any thing that grows.

I have never seen the word “waumble” before, but presumably it means something like “warm” or “simmer.” I think I should add it to my working vocabulary though, as it’s fun to say. Waumble. Nowadays, “lesser valerian” seems to refer to Valeriana dioica, but I’m not certain that would have been the same 300+ years ago. I imagine any valerian would do if you wanted to try to replicate this recipe. As much as our ancestors have been made fun of for using herbal treatments that supposedly didn’t work, this one is proof of the contrary: rosemary, lavender, sage, and chamomile are of course all excellent for wounds, helping to heal and kill bacteria. But what about wormwood and valerian?

Today we know wormwood best as a digestive bitter and the source of absinthe; Mrs. Grieve lists it as a nervine tonic. Yet it has many more virtues. Culpeper, roughly a contemporary of the person who wrote down his or her Family Receipts, discusses wormwood at length. Mostly this is because wormwood (Artemisia) was considered to be under the astrological rulership of Mars, and Culpeper really wants us to understand that Mars is not a bad guy, as was commonly believed in his day. So I got a chuckle when I next opened Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom to read:

“[The wormwoods] are remedies for people who have been through rough, brutal, dehumanizing events or harsh environmental stress, resulting in emotional and physical coldness, lack of somatic activity, [and] suppressed psychological affect…”

As Culpeper is at pains to point out, Mars may be rough, but “This herb testifies, that Mars is willing to cure all diseases he causes; the truth is, Mars loves no cowards, nor Saturn fools, nor I neither.” (I adore Culpeper. He’s so sassy.) Anyway, it is probably for this reason that wormwood was recommended for wounds and bruises–being caused by Mars, the god of war, they would be cured by an herb of Mars.

As for valerian, Culpeper states: “It is of excellent property to heal any inward sores or wounds, and also for outward hurts or wounds, and drawing away splinters or thorns out of the flesh.” Mrs. Grieve says that in medieval times valerian was regarded as so useful that it was called “all heal.” She notes that in addition to being “quieting and soothing in its nature upon the brain and nervous system,” valerian eases pain.

Nowadays we would probably use arnica and/or comfrey in lieu of wormwood and valerian in this type of remedy, but we know that both of those herbs can be damaging to the liver, so perhaps wormwood and valerian really were the better choices. Also, we wouldn’t heat the oil so much as it is widely maintained that to do so destroys some of the medicinal components in the herbs; but heat infusion is the traditional “folk” method and arguably very necessary in England, where this herbal was written, since you really can’t rely on enough sunshine to warm your oil gradually and consistently. I’d love to try this recipe myself and see how it goes, and when I do I will certainly report the results here.

Finally here’s another recipe, this one for “a scarlet lip salve.” It comes from The toilet of Flora; or, A collection of the most simple and approved methods of preparing baths, essences, pomatums, powders, perfumes, and sweet-scented waters. With receipts for cosmetics of every kind, that can smooth and brighten the skin, give force to beauty, and take off the appearance of old age and decay. For the use of the ladies (dated 1779) (p. 163). The whole volume can be viewed and downloaded free here.

The Toilet of Flora, 1170 - recipe for a scarlet lip salve

The Toilet of Flora, 1170 – recipe for a scarlet lip salve

I haven’t yet tried infusing herbs in fats of animal origin, though it’s said that pork suet has the closest chemical/physical structure to human skin oil and is thus most readily absorbed. Beef tallow is said to be second-best. The problem is that for safety, nutritional density, and quality, you would want to get fat from pastured pigs and render it yourself, and that is both difficult and very expensive for most of us. Another reason I’ve always used vegetable fats (oils) is because they are more widely acceptable (vegetarians and vegans can use them as well as omnivores), but animal fats were widely used in the old days and that is a legitimate method. If any of you have tried it, how did you like it? Leave me a comment!

Cleaning with essential oils

There are many ways to incorporate essential oils into your homemade cleaning and health products. Now, most people think of aromatherapy or perfume when they think of essential oils, but in reality they are concentrated plant extracts. As such, they contain many of the properties of the whole plant (though not all). Of course it is true that most smell nice too.

I do almost all my cleaning with baking soda and vinegar. Since my dog has a sensitive system and my mom is chronically ill, I try to cut out synthetic chemicals wherever I can. Ok, maybe Windex isn’t going to give me cancer, but if I can get the job done with something I know is non-toxic, that doesn’t require me to open all the windows or risk getting a headache from the fumes, and that costs less–you can bet I’m going to use it.

essential oils

For me baking soda and vinegar fits the bill. I’ve heard some people say that they don’t clean as well as commercial surface cleansers. I don’t know what kind of messes they are trying to clean, but for me they work just as well.

Some people hate the smell of vinegar. I don’t mind the smell at all–especially compared to ammonia and such–but I still like to add essential oils because (1) they add their own cleansing properties and (2) they smell purty.

For general surfaces (kitchen, bathroom, hard floors, etc.), I like to use the following blend:

3/4 cup apple cider vinegar

3/4 cup distilled water

12 drops sage (common sage, not clary or blessed) essential oil

6 drops rosemary essential oil

6 drops lavender (I prefer English or “true” lavender) essential oil

I find the combined scent to be clean and green and not at all vinegary. It makes me feel calm and refreshed and gives me a sense of well-being. All three of these herbs are anti-microbial, and sage and rosemary help open the respiratory passages and ease breathing. These two herbs are known for lending mental clarity and wisdom, while lavender is relaxing and soothing.

It’s fun to experiment with your own blends, of course. Go try it! I guarantee it’ll smell better than Windex.