Category Archives: herbal lore

Herbs and Romance for Valentine’s Day


“There’s a few things I’ve learned in life: always throw salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for good luck, and fall in love whenever you can.” ~Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic

“My gardens sweet, enclosed with walles strong, embarked with benches to sytt and take my rest. The Knotts so enknotted, it cannot be exprest. With arbours and alys so pleasant and so dulce, the pestylant ayers with flavours to repulse.” ~Thomas Cavendish, 1532.

 “Good morrow, good Yarrow, good morrow to thee. Send me this night my true love to see, The clothes that he’ll wear, the colour of his hair. And if he’ll wed me.” ~Danaher, 1756

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“There’s rosemary and rue. These keep Seeming and savor all the winter long. Grace and remembrance be to you.”- William Shakespeare

Thyme Creeping Red

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,  Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

dill with white aster and other herbs and flowers in our garden(Dill in our garden by Daughter Elise)

 When daisies pied and violets blue And lady-smocks all silver-white  And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue. Do paint the meadows with delight.

Love’s Labours Lost

lavender 3

“And lavender, whose spikes of azure bloom shall be, ere-while, in arid bundles bound to lurk admist the labours of her loom, and crown her kerchiefs witl mickle rare perfume.”

~William Shenstone The School Mistress 1742


herb garden
“Those herbs which perfume the air most delightfully,  not passed by as the rest, but, being trodden upon and crushed, are three;  that is, burnet, wild thyme and watermints. Therefore, you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.” –  Frances Bacon 

“How could such sweet and wholesome hours Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers?” –  Andrew Marvel

The Curative Powers of Elderberry


elderflowerIt’s also known as American Elder, Black Elder, and Tree of Music to give a few of its many names. There are different varieties, some that grow no larger than bushy shrubs while others obtain the height of huge trees. Native Americans used the long, straight, hollowed stems that became woody with age for arrows.

Huge Bull Elk in a Scenic BackdropThey pushed all the soft and poisonous pith out of the stems with hot sticks. Indians also bored holes in them to make flutes which gave Elder its name ‘tree of music.’ Hunters lured elk closer with elderberry whistles. I referred to this use of elder in my American historical romance novel Red Birds Song.

elderberriesThe fruit was believed to have a cooling, gentle, laxative and urine increasing effect. Elderberry wine was thought to be a tonic. The berries are said to aid arthritis. The juice simmered until thick was used as a cough syrup and for colds. The rest of the medicinal was used with great caution and some parts avoided entirely. The inner bark of elder stems and the roots were generally regarded as too dangerous to experiment with, however women drank very small amounts of elderberry bark tea for bad menstrual cramps, to ease the pain of labor and help the child along. I used a potent dose of elderberry bark tea in my historical Native American romance novel, Through the Fire.

Indians and settlers believed that small amounts of potentially poisonous plants could be beneficial under certain circumstances to stimulate the body to heal or maybe because it was fighting off the poison. Native Americans shared their storehouse of knowledge regarding herbal treatments with colonists who used these remedies in combination with those lauded cures they brought with them. Elderberry was also a vital plant in the Old World.

From Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs:

Elderberry Syrup“One of the human race’s earliest plant companions (found in Stone Age sites) the elderberry has developed reputations for great powers of good…as well as great powers of evil. In some parts of the world, no prudent carpenter would make a cradle of elderberry wood for fear of bringing harm to the baby. The elderflower has been involved in human history for centuries, and one story suggests that it takes its name from a unique medicinal dimension. The generic name Sambucus may come from the Greek Sambuke, a musical instrument made from elderberry wood. For centuries the plant has had the reputation of healing the body, but in elderberry’s golden age, it made music to heal the spirit.

During its long association with humanity, the elderberry’s traditions have become an incredible jumble of conflicting currents. It provided the wood for Christ’s cross; it was the home of the goddess Freya. If seen in a dream, it meant illness was on the way; it was such a healthful plant that seventeenth century herbalist John Evelyn called it a remedy ‘against all infirmities whatever.’  It would ward off witches if gathered on the last day of April and put up on the windows and doors of houses; it was very attractive to witches and thus should be avoided after dark.
bird eating elderberriesElderberries worked their way into every aspect of living from dyeing hair black to showing berries just at the right time to signal the beginning of wheat sowing. Shakespeare had something to say about it. One of his characters called it ‘the stinking elder.’ The Shakers used it as a medicinal. The wood of the old stems, hard and fine grained, was prized by the makers of mathematical instruments. The list could go on and on for pages; elderberries stand in our gardens as old friends.”

From: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/elderberry

“Elderberry, or elder, has been used for centuries to treat wounds, when applied to the skin. It is also taken by mouth to treat respiratory illnesses such as cold and flu. In many countries, including Germany, elder flower is used to treat colds and flu. Some evidence suggests that chemicals in elder flower and berries may help reduce swelling in mucous membranes, such as the sinuses, and help relieve nasal congestion. Elder may have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and anticancer properties.”

*Image of elderberry syrup, also below

477900653Plant Description

“European elder is a large shrub or small tree that grows up to 30 feet tall in wet or dry soil in a sunny location. Elder is native to Europe, Africa, and parts of Asia, but it has become widespread in the United States. Deciduous leaves grow in opposite pairs and have five to seven leaflets. Flowers are white and flat-topped with five primary rays. Berries are green, turning red, then black when ripe.”

Parts Used: “The berries and flowers are used as medicine. Berries must be cooked before they are taken. Raw berries contain a chemical similar to cyanide.”

Available Forms: “Elderberry is available as a liquid, syrup, and tincture, as well as in capsule and lozenge forms. Dried elder flower is usually standardized to at least 0.8% flavonoids. Sambucol is standardized to 38% elderberry extract for adults and 19% for children. Sinupret contains 18 mg of elder flower.”

How to Take It: “Do not give elderberry or any product containing elder to a child without first talking to your pediatrician.”

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To Make Your Own Elderberry Syrup:

http://wellnessmama.com/1888/how-to-make-elderberry-syrup-for-flu-prevention/

Or order the Original Sambucus: http://www.naturesway.com/Products/Winter-Season/6970-Sambucus-Original-Syrup.aspx

Old English Roses


Excerpt from my herbal, Plants for a Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles:

rosebud

(Old fashioned rosebud)

The English Tudor Rose is the heraldic floral emblem of England. The red rose was the badge of the House of Lancaster during the English War of the Roses. The badge for the House of York was the white rose. When Henry V11 took the crown of England from Richard 111 in battle, 1485, he ended that particular war. He introduced the Tudor rose, combining a red rose, representing the House of Lancaster, and a white rose, representing the House of York, as a symbol of unity after the English civil wars of the 15th century which later came to be called the Wars of the Roses.

The exact species of the Lancaster’s Red Rose is uncertain, but it’s thought to be Rosa gallica officinalis, also known as the Apothecary’s Rose, possibly the first cultivated rose. We used to have this ancient variety, but it finally succumbed to a hard winter and needs to be replaced.

Galica Rose

Rosa gallica officinalis

“My wild Irish Rose,

The sweetest flow’r that grows.” ~Chauncey Olcott

I have an old-time rosebud salve that I love made by the American based Rosebud Perfume Company, founded in 1895 by George F. Smith. They still carry the original salve but have expanded their product line; all are gluten-free, a plus for those of us who are severely intolerant.

Roses have an ancient history. The first cultivated rose likely originated in Persia and spread out from there. The part used is the flower, although the hips are also employed in tea, jam, jellies, syrups… The hips are high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Some varieties of roses produce better hips for this use than others. Rosa canina, commonly known as the dog rose, is one that does.

Back to the flowers. The most favored rose for medicinal use is the above mentioned dark red rose, R. gallica, also known as the Provins Rose and the Apothecary’s Rose. Only flower-buds just about to open are collected, and the lighter colored lower portion is cut off from the deep red upper part. For making a confection, they are used in the fresh state. For an infusion, the flowers are thoroughly dried first and stored out of humidity.

Abraham Darby Rose by David Austen

(Abraham Darby Rose from our garden)

The old pink cabbage rose is used for making rose water by distilling the fresh petals. A soothing ointment of rose water (cold cream) is also made by blending melted wax and almond oil with rose-water and rose oil.

Culpepper gives many uses for red, white, and damask rose cordials and conserves in the treatment of internal maladies including fever, jaundice, joint aches, weakness of the heart and stomach, fainting, an aid to digestion and fighting infection, comforting the heart and strengthening the spirit. Rose ointment is recommended for most any skin condition.

In his 18th century Family Herbal, John Hill gives a recipe for Honey of Roses that sounds delightful. He specifies using red roses. And I doubt he means modern cultivars, but old.

Honey of Roses Recipe: “Cut the white heels from some red rose buds, and lay them to dry in a place where there is a draught of air; when they are dried, put half a pound of them into a stone jar, and pour on them three pints of boiling water; stir them well, and let them stand twelve hours; then press off the liquor (liquid) and when it has settled, add to it five pounds of honey; boil it well, and when it is of the consistence of thick syrup, put it by for use. It is good against mouth sores, and on many other occasions.” (Which means it has many other uses.)

Nonfiction Herbal

Nonfiction Herbal

Plants for a Medieval Herb Garden in the British Isles available in kindle and print at Amazon.

An illustrated collection of plants that could have been grown in a Medieval Herb or Physic Garden in the British Isles. The major focus of this work is England and Scotland, but also touches on Ireland and Wales. Information is given as to the historic medicinal uses of these plants and the rich lore surrounding them.

Journey back to the days when herbs figured into every facet of life, offering relief from the ills of this realm and protection from evil in all its guises.~

“It was June, and the world smelled of roses. The sunshine was like powdered gold over the grassy hillside.” ― Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy-Tacy and Tib

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Rosemary and Remembering


“There’s rosemary that’s for remembrance. Pray, you love, remember.” ~ Hamlet

rosemary-in-pot-outdoors-with-lavender-and-geranium-jpg1

Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs, mostly just because. I rarely cook with it, but I love its scent and the wealth of history behind it. The scent is said to stimulate memory so I sniff it frequently and carry little sprigs with me. I have a large potted plant growing in my sun space now that I’ve kept going for several years. In summer, it stays outdoors, but our Shenandoah Valley winters are too cold for the plants to survive. I brought it back in this week.

Known as the herb of remembrance from the time of ancient Greece, rosemary appears in that immoral verse by Shakespeare. My fascination with herbs plays a significant role in my ghostly murder mystery romance novel Somewhere My Love, as does Hamlet, for that matter. I always wanted to write a murder mystery with a focus on herbs and parallels to a Shakespearean play, and so I did. I just completed a paranormal time travel romance, Somewhere My Lady, with flavors of Somewhere My Love, but different. The new addition to my Somewhere in Time series will release in the new year.

A Modern Herbal by Maud Grieve, a wonderful source of herbal lore as well as practical information on the medicinal uses and growing requirements for a myriad of plants, is an invaluable guide. I have volumes one and two of Ms. Grieve’s work and can easily lose myself in their pages. She refers to her herbal as modern, and in comparison to the ancient herbalists it is, but A Modern Herbal is charmingly quaint and published in the early 20th century.

Regarding Rosemary, she says,

Rosemary1The Ancients were well acquainted with the shrub, which had a reputation for strengthening the memory. On this account it became the emblem of fidelity for lovers. It holds a special position among herbs from the symbolism attached to it. Not only was it used at weddings, but also at funerals, for decking churches and banqueting halls at festivals, as incense in religious ceremonies, and in magical spells.

At weddings, it was entwined in the wreath worn by the bride, being first dipped into scented water. Anne of Cleves, we are told, wore such a wreath at her wedding. 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. Together with an orange stuck with cloves it was given as a New Year‘s gift…

rosemaryIn early times, Rosemary was freely cultivated in kitchen gardens and came to represent the dominant influence of the house mistress ‘Where Rosemary flourished, the woman ruled.’

The Treasury of Botany says:

‘There is a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties, that Rosemary will not grow well unless where the mistress is “master”; and so touchy are some of the lords of creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority.’ (Meanie heads.)
Rosemary was one of the cordial herbs used to flavour ale and wine. It was also used in Christmas decoration.

“Down with the rosemary and so,
Down with the baies and mistletoe,
Down with the holly, ivie all
Wherewith ye deck the Christmas Hall.”—HERRICK.

Rosemary Christmas Trees

rosemary-decorated-for-christmas (1)Although an herb, rosemary is often shaped into lovely miniature Christmas trees. The plant is well suited for this purpose as its essential oils produce a scent similar to pine trees and it has a natural evergreen shape and needle-like leaves.

If you purchase a rosemary plant whether as a Christmas tree or for your indoor herb garden, remember it needs good light and moderate watering. Allow the soil to dry before re-watering to avoid root rot. The most common cause of death for potted rosemary is over watering. In spring transfer your rosemary to a clay pot. The clay will help wick excess water out of the soil. Fertilize monthly to maintain health. To this advice I add that you can also kill them by allowing the plant to dry out, so don’t do that either.

Because rosemary is native to the hot, dry hills of the Mediterranean, growing it indoors can be a problem. You may find you get more dense vigorous growth if it is kept outside during most of the year. Trim the plant periodically to preserve the Christmas tree shape.

And God bless us everyone.

***Rosemary Christmas Trees are available from Jackson & Perkins.

Ward Off Witches, Vampires, and Werewolves–Herbal Lore


Some highly esteemed herbs used throughout history to foil black magic, deflect spells, and ward off forces of evil.

archangel-michael, old stained glass window

(A fiery angel with a sword is also a mighty boon)

First up, Angelica:  Said to have been revealed in a dream by an angel as a cure for the plague. So sacred it’s called ‘The Root of the Holy Ghost’ and was associated with the Archangel Michael. Angelica blooms near his feast day and is connected to the Christian observance of the Annunciation, the day the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to tell her she would be the mother of Christ. All parts of the plant were believed effective against evil spirits and witchcraft.

The juice of the roots are used to make Carmelite water, considered a ‘sovereign remedy’ and drunk to ensure a long life and to protect against the poisons and spells of witches. Garlands of the leaves were also worn.

Angelica plan

(Angelica)

I’ve grown Angelia in the garden. It gets big, so allow plenty of space.

Winter beauty

The Rowan Tree has a wealth of ancient lore and many associations with magic and witches. The tree is thought to lend protection against evil and bad spells. Its old Celtic name, ‘fid na ndruad,’ means wizard tree. But it has many names. Ask an old Celt which they favor.

Rowan, known as the Mountain Ash in America, and Dogberry Tree in parts of Canada, is a familiar sight in the mountains surrounding the Shenandoah Valley. My dear grandmother who lived to be 99 and a half, and knew her trees, was fond of the beautiful mountain ash. She’d point it out to me in the Alleghenies. It’s gorgeous in autumn when covered with bright red berries, and particularly attractive to birds.

Red, the color of the berries, was thought to be the strongest color in battling the dark forces. In Ireland, rowan trees were planted near houses to protect them from the spirits of the dead; in Wales they favored graveyards for their tree plantings. In Scotland, the Rowan Tree is among the most sacred and cutting one down, or using any portion of the tree for any purpose other than spiritually approved rituals was taboo. The wood is seen as the most protective part. It’s fashioned into sticks to stir milk to keep it from curdling, pocket charms (or amulets) to ward off rheumatism and bad mojo, and made into divining rods (for finding precious metals). Because the tree is associated with Saint Bridhig, the Celtic patroness of the arts, healing, smithing, spinning and weaving, spindles and spinning wheels were made of rowan in Scotland and Ireland.

Walking sticks made of rowan were thought to lend protection to the traveler on their journey, and from evil spirits. Rowan trees planted near stone circles in Scotland were thought to be favored by fairies who held their celebrations within the protective tree enclosed circle. Fairies are extremely cautious. But the fae can also get up to mischief, so the rowan would protect you from that as well. One of those multi-use herbs/trees. 

Rowan Tree, Mountain, Black Mount, Scottish Highlands

(Rowan tree in Scotland)

To the 17th Century Scots, however, practicing folk medicine was associated with witchcraft, which could include carrying a Rowan charm, a twig tied with a red thread for protection. A cross made of Rowan wood and bound with red thread was placed over doorways.

It’s interesting to note that the rowan is also called the witch tree because they used it to increase their powers and spells and for fashioning magic wands, so there appears to be some disagreement here. Did it speed witches on their way, or empower them? These conflicting beliefs are often the way in herbal lore.

“Rowan tree, red thread, hold the witches all in dread.” ~ old herbal saying

Rowan was sacred to the Druids who believed in its protective powers and burnt it on funeral pyres, also in rites of divination and purification. The tree was associated with both death and rebirth. Because Rowan was thought to bring the gift of inspiration, ancient Bards called it the ‘tree of bards.’ I suppose all writers should have rowan.

Wood from the ash tree, in the form of ash outlining a building or circle, is showing up in paranormal TV shows with American settings, like Teen Wolf. Mountain Ash is used to ward off evil, so even if some of these characters are the nicest werewolves or witches you could ever want to meet, they cannot cross a barrier of ash.

Teen wolf

Agrimony:  Used from ancient times to treat many ailments and injuries, it’s also reputed to have magical properties.

The magic power of Agrimony is mentioned in an old English medical manuscript: ‘If it be leyd under mann’s heed, He shal sleepyn as he were deed; He shal never drede ne wakyn,Till fro under his heed it be takyn.’ (That’s darn useful to know.)

Agrimony

From The Scots Herbal by Tess Darwin: “The Gaelic name of this plant, mur-druidhean, may derive from the use of agrimony by healers to treat spiritual troubles. Ferquhar Ferguson, tried for witchcraft on Arran in 1716, admitted using agrimony to cure elf-shotten people.” (Apparently a common affliction). “Ferguson was guided in his treatment by a voice heard while sleeping, which instructed him to pull the plant in the name of the Holy Trinity.”

***Elf-shot are those persons or animals who have fallen ill after being shot by the arrows of malevolent elves. Hate it when that happens.

Agrimony is also recommended as the remedy for  ‘alle woundes’. One old writer recommends it to be taken with a mixture of pounded frogs and human blood, as a remedy for all internal hemorrhages. (Whose blood?)

Mistletoe: An herb steeped in lore from pre-Christian times.

Christmas Mistletoe Isolated

Because the plant prefers softer bark, it’s found more commonly on apple trees and is rarer on oaks which made mistletoe discovered on oaks greatly venerated by ancient Celts, Germans, and it was used in ceremonies by early Europeans. Greeks and other early people thought it had mystical powers and the plant gained a wealth of lore over the centuries. Sacred to the Druids, many wondrous attributes are accorded to mistletoe, including medicinal powers, properties to boost fertility, and ward off evil spells.

Mistletoe and werewolves: In some ancient lore, mistletoe is considered a repellent and protection from werewolves.

From http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/302/

“Mistletoe was thought to be a remarkable and sacred shrub because it seemed to grow from the air and not from the earth. Mistletoe has been considered undesirable because it feeds off other trees; however it is also thought to have a symbiotic relationship because it provides nutrients when the host is in dormancy. It also provides food for a host of animals and birds who consume its leaves and shoots

Over time its folklore has grown to include the belief that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire, that it held the soul of the host tree and placed in a baby’s cradle would protect the child from faeries.

Kissing under the mistletoe is also cited in an early work by Washington Irving, “Christmas Eve,” which tells of the festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas:

“Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”

Used as good luck charms to ward off evil, its sprigs were also put under the pillows of young girls who thought it would entice dreams of the husband to be.”

These are just a few herbal possibilities, but among the most esteemed.

Don’t Overlook Mullein–Herbal Medicine


Verbascum_densiflorum_'dense-flowered_mullein'Mullein: In Scotland (Aaron’s rod, shepherd’s club, donkey’s ears, cuddy-lugs, Rox) In North America (Indian tobacco, among many other names)

Mullein grows wild in Virginia and most everywhere else in America. I like mullein, a stately plant. The leaves are soft and fuzzy, and the flower heads impressive. Granted, it’s weedy and I don’t want it to take over, but it’s among my favorite weeds. A key herb in America, mullein is mentioned, but without nearly as much emphasis, in Scotland. Apparently, the Indians better mastered its medicinal uses, however, they are similar to those in the UK.

Perhaps because the plant is widely distributed in America, it was more greatly appreciated. The Indians smoked the dried leaves or made a smudge of them over the coals of a dying campfire and inhaled the medicinal smoke for treatment of asthma and lung conditions. The fumes were used to revive an unconscious patient. Mullein was used to ease coughs. An ounce of dried leaves were simmered in water or milk for ten minutes, strained, sweetened with honey or maple sugar, and the infusion sipped warm. This was also considered useful for diarrhea.

I’ve read of mullein leaves placed inside moccasins to sooth sore feet. The dried flowers were soaked in edible oil for several weeks, and the oil then used externally for earaches, piles, sunburn, rashes, inflammation, and internally for coughs, lung and chest trouble. Mullein oil was considered effective against disease germs and a natural antibiotic.

Herbal Lore–Boneset (Not actually used to set bones)


boneset

Boneset (Ague-weed) is a beautiful native American plant found in moist meadows, woodlands, along stream banks, or in swamps across Eastern North America and west to Louisiana and Minnesota.  A member of the aster family, it blooms July–September with flat clusters of white flowers. Once established, boneset resembles a small shrub at 3’ to 4’ tall. The base of the leaves appear to wrap around the stem, as if pierced by the stem. This perforated arrangement of the leaf and stem led to the species name E. perfoliatum. Because the leaves are wrapped around the stem, early herbalists concluded the plant would be useful as a plaster, along with bandages, for setting broken bones.

Boneset was also infused as a tea to treat fevers, colds, and digestive ailments. A Modern Herbal suggests the name boneset rose from its use as a treatment for Dengue fever, also known as Break Bone Fever, and declares, ‘Probably no plant in American domestic practice has had more extensive and frequent use.’ The summer flowers attract pollinating insects, such as butterflies. In the fall, the seeds draw a variety of songbirds.

From http://medicinalherbinfo.org/herbs/Boneset.html:

“Boneset was one of early America’s foremost medical plants, a popular panacea of extraordinary powers. Native Americans introduced the settlers to this New World herb. Its name reflects its use during a particularly harsh strain of flu called “break bone fever”. Come cold and flu season, boneset can be invaluable in relieving coughs and upper respiratory congestion. Today, it is chiefly regarded as a weed with an interesting past.”

From another interesting site: http://www.alchemy-works.com/eupatorium_perfoliatum.html

“In West Virginia folk medicine, boneset was simmered with lemon and honey to make a cough syrup. The Eclectic physicians used it with success during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. In modern herbalism, it is usually combined with elder and willow for fevers with aches, and with scullcap and milkweed for flu.”

That’s pretty darned amazing because that was a killer flu.