Folklore in My Garden: Lavender

Lavender, one of the most beloved of herbs, has been is use for more than 2500 years. The Romans are credited with naming this most aromatic of herbs, some say because of its use in washing (lavare), but others believe it derives from “livendula” (bluish.) I’m inclined to favor the latter theory.  In ancient Greece and India, and also in the Bible, this plant is called spikenard.

Although today, lavender is strongly associated with England , it is not native to northern Europe, but to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean. Originally, it was probably put under domesticate production in Arabia.  In Egypt, Phoenicia, and Arabia, lavender was used as a perfume and for mummification.  It spread from Greece into Europe around 600 BCE. The Romans made use of it in their elaborate baths.  By the early middle ages, washerwomen were known as lavenders, for spreading clothes to dry upon the bushes and for scenting clean clothes in storage. It was during the the same eras that monasteries began cultivating lavender in their “physic gardens”. Hildegard von Bingen made lavender water, a mixture of lavender and gin or brandy, as a remedy for migraine.
imageMuch of the folklore surrounding lavender is ancient. Cleopatra is said to have worn its scent (her secret weapon!) to seduce Julius Caesar and  Marc Antony, and some claim that the asp that delivered that fatal bite was hidden among her lavender bushes. Adam and Eve are credited with bringing the plant with them when expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Bible also tells us that Judith wore perfume containing lavender to charm Holofernes before killing him, and in the Gospel of Luke, Mary washes  the feet of Jesus and anoints them with ointment containing spikenard, one of its other names. According to one story, lavender got its scent from the clothing of  Jesus when his mother hung his clothes on a bush to dry. Many Christians crafted crosses with it to ward off evil.

A natural insect repellant, lavender was pressed into use as a plague antidote , worn in bunches tied to one’s wrists. (It probably repelled the fleas whose bites caused plague.) After robbing graves, thieves washed up with a concoction called “Four Thieves Vinegar”, to protect themselves from contagion. In France, it was noted that glovers, who perfumed their products with the herb, never contracted cholera. In the New World, the Quakers were the first to cultivate and sell lavender.

European royalty made lavish use of lavender in perfumes and foods. It has long been associated with love. In Tudor times, young maidens would sip on  lavender tea and say, “St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In my dreams, let me my true love see.”  Alpine girls would tuck some lavender under their lover’s pillow to foster romantic thoughts; once married they would put some lavender under the mattress to ensure marital passion and avoid quarrels. In England during the 1670′s, a love song emerged that survives in varying forms to this day:

Lavenders green, Diddle, diddle,  Lavenders blue

You must love me, diddle, diddle, cause I love you,

I heard one say, diddle, diddle, since I came hither,

That you and I, diddle, diddle, must lie together.

The modern version can be heard here.

Because of lavender’s purported ability to repel evil, it was (is) often used, especially as incense,  around Midsummer’s Day, in conjunction with St. John’s Wort. Cleopatra notwithstanding, girls who wore lavender sprigs on their persons were supposed by be well able to preserve their chastity. In magic, witches are said to prize the herb for its ability to increase clairvoyance, and a mixture  chamomile , lavender, mugwort, and rose petals will attract sprites, fairies, brownies, and elves.

Lavender has brought color and fragrance into our lives since time immemorial. Today there are over 115 species cultivated all over the world, and lavender products are inexpensive and readily available. Bring the charm of this ancient plant into your own life.

Plants for dyeing: Celandine

celandine

I’ve been doing natural dyeing demonstrations for many years. Although nearly any green plant will produce some shade of yellow, I was never satisfied with the results. About 5 years ago, in a search for a clear, golden yellow dye to make some muffatees with my homespun, I remembered the orangey sap that oozes from celandine when it’s pulled up. This plant grows wild in several areas of my yard, so I collected some and gave it a try as a dye. The results were spectacular: a soft, true, buttery yellow.

And it was easy! I simmered the plant, roots, leaves and all, in about 1 gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then removed the plant material. The yarn was mordanted in alum and cream of tartar, and submerged in the celandine bath. I simmered (not boiled) the yarn for another 1/2 hour, and was so happy with the results.

Celandine in New England begins to blossom in late May or June. The plants are perennial. Oh, by the way, the juice of celandine is supposed to be a great remedy for piles (hemorrhoids, but as I haven’t tried it myself, I’m not making any promises!

Monday Morning Poem: Winter Trees

by William Carlos Williams

photo by katknit

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

Folklore in My Garden: Roses

We are fortunate to have many varieties of roses in our Connecticut garden, and they are running riot right now. I cannot take any of the credit other than consulting, for my hardworking husband does all the bull work. Walking our paths, enjoying the luxuriant display has made me curious about the role of the rose in history and folklore.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. By the time Shakespeare wrote his immortal lines, the rose was well ensconced in the popular imagination.

Roses have been part of world folklore for several thousand years. They were probably first cultivated in Persia. Wall paintings and objects depicting roses were found in Egyptian tombs (5th century B.C.). The Greek poetess Sappho called it the Queen of Flowers, and it was believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis. Confucius (551-479 B.C.), wrote that the Emperor of China had over 600 books about Roses. The Chinese (5th century B.C.), extracted oil of roses from plants grown in the Emperor’s garden which could only be used by nobles and dignitaries. A commoner found in possession of this oil was put to death. Roman emperors had their floors strewn with petals, and brides and goddesses were crowned with roses. Cleopatra had a passion for roses. To seduce Mark Antony, she had the palace floors carpeted with rose petals and her chamber filled with two feet deep with red rose petals and fountains filled with rose water. One of better known fables from 7th century history involves Mohammed, who ordered that a bouquet of red roses be thrown into a pool to determine his wife’s fidelity. If the flowers turned yellow, she would be guilty of adultery; if not, she was innocent. The legend tells us that they turned yellow, and this is the origin of the yellow rose. In 11th century Sufi poetry, the rose was held up as the symbol of life, a representation of perfection, with its thorns symbolizing the difficulties that must be overcome to achieve that perfection. Rosewater became an agent of purification, and rose amulets were worn to protect against the “evil eye”.

Because of its association with the “infidel”, rose cultivation was discouraged by early Christian churchmen, its use connected to deception and trickery. In Arthurian tales, Merlin is trapped in a tower made from a white rose in the Broceliande forest of France. But once the Christians adopted the rose as the symbol of the Virgin Mary, who herself became known as the rosa mystica, it became prominent in medieval European thinking. The Christian take on the rose’s origin is that it came about from a drop of Christ’s blood falling upon a thorn bush. Some say that the first rosary beads were made with rose hips. In a typical medieval myth, Rosamond, the mistress of King Henry II, is poisoned by his wife, Queen Eleanor Aquitaine, in a concoction sweetened with roses. Rosamund’s grave is now adorned with Rosa Mundi, which bears pink and white flowers. It was a custom to suspend a rose above the table to remind participants that proceedings were confidential (sub rosa), and the need for secrecy made the white rose a Jacobite symbol in Scotland.

To this day, white roses are traditionally worn at weddings in the belief they will bring happiness and security.

Today, folklore and tradition have attached associations to rose colors:

· Red = Love, respect

· Deep pink = Gratitude, appreciation

· Light pink = Admiration, sympathy

· White = Reverence, humility

· Yellow = Joy, gladness

· Orange = Enthusiasm, desire

· Red & yellow blends = Gaiety, joviality

· Pale blended tones = Sociability, friendship

Today there are over 10,000 varieties of roses. Hybridization has severely diluted the fragrant properties of most roses, and for the sweetest scent, rely upon the old fashioned varieties.

Folklore in My Garden: Angelica Herb

Angelica archangelica is arguably the most incredible herb in my garden. Here in eastern CT, it grows rapidly to the majestic height of 6 to 8 feet, and, if planted in semi shade, reseeds prolifically year after year.   It never fails to bring astonished comments from visitors. Care must be taken in thinning it out, because Angelica is biennial, and you don’t want to remove all the first year growth. A member of the parsley family, it was candied and put into fruit cake.

Angelica has been used medicinally for many centuries, and information about those uses abounds on the web.  Gerard the herbalist claimed that it “cureth the bitings of mad dogs and all other venomous beasts.”  It was also put to work against “poisons, agues and all infectious maladies.”   The Chinese variety is known as Dong Quai, and today it’s used widely in alternative medicine.

How did Angelica acquire its interesting name?  There are two different legends. The first says that the angel Gabriel appeared to a monk,  telling  him that Angelica is a cure for, and protection against, the plague. Another version indicates that this plant blossoms annually on the feast day of the Archangel Michael, September 29th. Maybe that happens in Europe, but in CT, my plants have long gone to seed  on that day.  All parts of the plant were believed effective against evil spirits and witchcraft, and was often worn around the neck as an amulet.  Angelica was held in such esteem that it was called ‘The Root of the Holy Ghost.’ In America it was used by the Iroquois and other tribes as Witchcraft Medicine, an infusion of smashed roots was used as wash to remove ghosts from the house.  Angelica is a traditional birthing herb,  used to help bring on a delayed labor and to help expel the placenta. And Harry Potter and his fellow wizards use it in all manner of spells and potions. What higher endorsement can there be?!

Plants for dyeing: Pokeweed

pokeweed Pokeweed is shrub that commonly grows in dry, neglected areas. In New England, it generally blossoms in mid-summer and sets fruit in September. Throughout history, pokeweed has had several uses. One of the first plants to show itself in spring, young shoots were gathered, boiled and eaten as a tonic after the long, cold winter. As the plant matures, however, parts of it become poisonous.

The Algonquins called this plant puccoon, which means “plant used for stains or dyes.” An English name for the same plant is “inkberry”, and in my museum classes I sometimes have kids pick, mash, and write with pokeberry. Though technically a berry, which provides a stain rather than a dye, pokeweed can be used to color wool a rich shade of magenta. Unfortunately, stains fade a discolor rather quickly, and are definitely not as colorfast as true dyes. (Think of what happens on that white T shirt that gets blueberry or strawberry stains on it. )

For that reason, I have only used pokeweed to color my yarns a few times. While alum mordant is usually pretty effective with plant dyes, I have not found that it works well at all with pokeweed. My best results and truest, deepest colors have been achieved using white vinegar as mordant.

Pokeweed dyepot:

This is a simple recipe. For a pound of yarn, pick a large paper grocery bag full of pokeweed berries. Crush them until the juice runs, combine with about 1/2 gallon of water in a suitable steel or glass container. Pour in about 1 cup of vinegar. Submerge presoaked yarn skeins into dyebath, raise to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 1/2 hour. Allow yarn and dyebath to cool. Rinse yarn in cool water, allow to air dry.

If you try this yourself, I’d love to hear about your results.

Monday Morning Poem: A Child in the Garden

by Henry Van Dyke

When to the garden of untroubled thought
I came of late, and saw the open door,
And wished again to enter, and explore
The sweet, wild ways with stainless bloom in wrought,

Young Girl at a Garden Gate, by Mildred Butler

Young Girl at a Garden Gate, by Mildred Butler

And bowers of innocence with beauty fraught,
It seemed some purer voice must speak before
I dared to tread that garden loved of yore,
That Eden lost unknown and found unsought.

Then just within the gate I saw a child, –
A stranger-child, yet to my heart most dear;
He held his hands to me, and softly smiled
With eyes that knew no shade of sin or fear:
“Come in,” he said, “and play awhile with me;”
“I am the little child you used to be.”

Plants for dyeing: Comfrey

comfreyI’ve been doing natural dyeing for a long time, and was always exasperated about the absence of a good plant source for the color green. Paradoxical, isn’t it? But the green coloration in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll. In fall, the chlorophyll ceases production and gradually disappears, leaving the leaf’s true color to show. Once, while making a dye with fern fiddleheads, the only plant material available that early spring day, I discovered to my dismay that I’d left my brass kettle at home. Had to make do with the iron one, and had a pleasant surprise. The result was a lovely, soft gray-green.

But fiddleheads are around for just a short time every year. I needed a source available in the summer. Comfrey to the rescue. This plant has many advantages, the primary one being the size and abundance of its leaves. Making comfrey dye is easy: Simmer the leaves, about a grocery bag full, in about a gallon of water for about 1/2 hour, then remove the plant material. Submerge wet, alum mordanted wool into the bath and simmer in an iron container for another 1/2 hour or so. Olive green should be the result.

Using brass, glass, stainless steel containers will not yield the same results; probably a watery yellow will emerge, but who knows? Natural dyeing is more art than science.

Comfrey in New England is a perennial known for its abundant proliferation. Its tiny flowers start to blossom in  June, but the flowers aren’t used for dyeing. Medicinally, comfrey has been used to treat bruises, sores, broken bones, hemorrhoids ( there they are again), gout and joint pain. It used to be eaten in salads and tonics but has been found to cause liver damage.

Monday Morning Poem: The Rose Family

by Robert Frost

The rose is a rose,                                                      
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only know
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose–
But were always a rose.

Folklore in My Garden – Ferns

And when the sunset reddened on our woods,
I came upon a pathway fringed with ferns,
That led through brushwood to a little dell,
All dreamy with its stillness ‘mid the hills.

Lillian Gray, 1864

Ferns grow everywhere here in Coventry, CT, and to our pleasure, frequently volunteer in our more shady gardens. Long before Harry Potter, humans have wished for the quality of invisibility at will. “We have the receipt of fern-seede – we walke invisible”, wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV. There you go! Just get some seeds and carry them in your pocket next time you feel like a good lurk. But, there’s a method that must be used or the seed won’t work. On the eve of St John (June 21), bring a pewter dish into the nearest fern patch at midnight. Hold the dish under the ferns, but be sure not to touch or jar the plants, as the seed must fall spontaneously. And take care while you’re out there – the spirits have been know to intervene, and sometimes not for good. Often, no matter how much you collected, when you got home your sacks would be empty. On the other hand, occasionally a stranger might appear and hand you a purse full of gold. Speaking of money, if you place fern seed in with your cash, it is guaranteed never to diminish. How’s that for security?!

Nicholas Culpeper tells of a fern variety, moonwort, that would cause horses, if they stepped on it, to lose their shoes. This is said to have happened to 30 of the Earl of Essex’s horses in Tiverton, England. A poet (unknown) wrote of such wonders in the following little ditty:

Horses, that feeding on the grassy hills,

Tread upon the moonwort with their hollow heels,

Though lately shod at night go barefoot home,

Their master musing where their shoes be gone.

Apparently this fern has an effect on iron nails in general, as, if it is stuffed into a keyhole, the lock opens and the hinges are loosened.

Ferns tied to the ears of horses protect them from the devil. Beware of pulling ferns up by the roots, because you may cause a storm, or even worse, lose your wits. Burning ferns can also cause terrible weather; in 1636, King Charles I’s Lord Chamberlain wrote to the Sheriff of Staffordshire that this be “forborne” until His Majesty’s party “be passed the county.”

If on May Morning a dairy girl could find a lady fern frond big enough to cover the dairy’s scalding pan, it would bring good luck for the entire year.

Finally, I am particularly fond of ferns because in they are the very first plants in the early New England spring that have grown enough to use to make a dye for wool.