Michaelmas Daisy

The Michaelmas daisy, among dead weeds
Blooms for St Michael’s valorous deeds

Any of the various asters can also be called a Michaelmas daisy, so named because they are members of the Daisy (compositae) family and they bloom through Michaelmas, providing a late show of color and bloom in the garden.

There are species of asters native to America, Switzerland and Italy. The aster amellus or Italian starwort is the original plant dedicated to Archangel Michael, whose holiday we celebrate on Michaelmas, September 29. (For more on this holiday, see this article.)

The 16th century herbalist, Gerard, commented on the aster native to England, the sea starwort (aster tripolium) which grew along the coast but flourished when brought into the garden. He called it tripolium because “It was reported by men of great fame and learning [he was referring to Discorides]..that it doth change the colors of his flowers thrice a day.”

In the 17th century, the plant collector, John Tradescant Jr. began bringing asters from North America to England. In 1633 he brought over the Virginia aster (aster lateriflorus). Later he introduced the very popular New England aster (Aster nova-angliae) and New York aster (Aster nova-belgii). These plants have since been reclassified; they are still in the tribe of Asters but under the genus name of Symphyotrichum (from the Greek words for “growing together” and “hair”—poor plant, aster is a much more appropriate and glamorous name).

Still if you were looking for one in a nursery, you’d probably say you were looking for an aster. There are many varieties available, most of them hybrids of the New England and New York asters, in many colors and sizes, with names like Harrington Pink (an heirloom aster dating from the 1930s) and Persian Rose, September Ruby and violet Carpet, Purple Dome and Wood’s Pink.

Aster Etymology

Asters are named for the stars they resemble—the name comes from the same root word as astrology and asteroid, asterisk and disaster–and in England, they are sometimes called starwort (wort simply means herb or plant with healing properties). Several legends are told about their origins. One says that Virgo scattered stardust on earth and they became asters. Another attributes their origin to the goddess Astraea (often associated with the constellation Virgo) who withdrew from earth out of sorrow and looking down wept. Her tears became asters

Aster Folklore

In ancient Greece, aster leaves were burned to keep away evil spirits and drive off serpents. Pliny the Elder recommended a tea of aster in cases of snake bite and an aster amulet to ease the pain of sciatica. Virgil wrote about it in the Georgics:

There is a useful flower
Growing in the meadows, which the country folk
Call star-wort, not a blossom hard to find,
For its large cluster lifts itself in air
Out of one root; its central orb is gold
But it wears petals in a numerous ring
Of glossy purplish blue; ’tis often laid
In twisted garlands at some holy shrine.
Bitter its taste; the shepherds gather it
In valley-pastures where the winding streams
Of Mella flow. The roots of this, steeped well,
In hot, high-flavored wine, thou may’st set down
At the hive door in baskets heaping full.

Helen Baroli in her book about Italian holiday food mentions picking yellow Michaelmas daisies on the beaches near Rome. She also made a yellow sponge cake called “Margherita” (daisy) on Michaelmas.

I don’t think the cake has any asters in it but the Plants for the Future website gives aster amellus, the native Italian aster, a rating of 2 for edibility and 2 for medicinal qualities. The roots have been used to make medicine for coughs, pulmonary infections and malaria. However they warn that although the native aster is probably safe to eat, the hybrid decorative varieties may not be.

The aster is considered a herb of Venus and like the daisy, which belongs to the same family of Compositae, it has been used in love divinations.

Growing Asters

Asters are easy to grow. I just saw a meadow full of three-foot high purplish-blue asters in a marsh on Puget Sound, where I presume they were growing wild. Although the plant can grow in poor conditions, it likes moist soil and lots of sun. Asters should be divided every three years.

One of my favorite garden writers, Paghat, offers a selection of aster photographs and tips on cultivation (at least in the Pacific Northwest) at her website.  Check her index for other asters.

She’s also the person who referred me to Picton Garden in Worcestershire, the site of the original Michaelmas Daisy Nursery founded in 1906 by Ernest Ballard. He was an English plant breeder who specialized in Michaelmas daisies.

China aster painted by Redoute

Chinese asters come from a different genus Callistephys, but they also bloom in autumn at the same time as the Michaelmas daisy. Their name means beautiful crown from the Greek kallistos (beautiful) and stephanus (crown). They were often planted in Chinese gardens in pots and arranged in a row with one shade blending into one another to produce a rainbow effect, something that might be fun to do with asters in your garden.

The sheer variety of China asters in shapes and color, is why aster means “variety” in the language of flowers. Asters are also associated with elegance and daintiness.

References:

Barolini, Helen, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italian Holidays, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 1988
Gerard’s Herbal, edited by Marcus Woodward, first published in 1597, reprint by Studio Editions 1994
Martin, Laura C., Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987
Martin, Laura C., Wildflower Folklore, Globe Pequot 1993
Martin, Tovah, Heirloom Flowers, Fireside 1999
Parson, Frances Theodora and Mrs William Starr Dana, According to Season, A Celebration of Nature, Houghton Mifflin 1990
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 1997

Illustrations:

The lovely picture of the purple aster was taken by Heather Oetkin’s elementary school students and featured at the Human Flower Project website, where Julie Ardery admits that asters are on her hated plants list.

For Cecily Mary Barker’s depiction of the Michaelmas Daisy Fairy
First published on September 9, 2011

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Plant Birthdays

Autumn Croci growing in the dirt

Autumn Croci growing in the dirt

Tell me of what plant birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

For Leopold it’s the cutleaf Silphium, blooming in the corner of an old cemetery. For me, it’s the autumn crocus, blooming on my birthday (September 4). It always catches my by surprise, even though I watch for it as my birthday approaches. I didn’t see a trace of it in its usual habitat but coming home from a BBQ on Sunday night, I spotted these autumn croci springing up from the dirt.

017Then on my way to work yesterday, I found them in the place I’ve grown accustomed to seeing them. With the sunlight shining on them, they truly resembled “the lamps of the ghoul,” the name the Arabs give this plant (according to Wilfrid Blunt) because they are so poisonous. Other names for them: naked nannies and bare bottoms.

So what does that say of me, that this is the plant birthday I oberve?

First published Sept 9, 2009

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Preserving Summer Herbs

by Erin Fossett

September is a month of changes. When our lives were bound more closely to the land, it was a time of hope, and celebration of the harvest. It was also a busy season, as farmers worked feverishly to bring in their crops before the first freeze. There was a feeling of abundance, but also of transition, of letting go.  We still feel it, watching the change of the seasons. The days continue to shorten, leaves change colors, and even in the glory of Indian summer the nights take on a chill. In our own gardens, the plants that we nurtured so carefully for months are now going to seed, losing their summertime glory. Soon it will be time to clip away the old growth and turn the soil over, preparing the ground for winter.

One way to celebrate the energy of September is to preserve the flavors and scents of summer through herbal teas, vinegars, flavored oils, and honeys. Whether you have a full garden, a kitchen window box, or buy your herbs dried and in bulk, these creations are fun and relatively simple to make, and offer another way to share seasonal bounty with your friends. (For buying dried herbs in bulk, as well as herbal making supplies, visit Mountain Rose Herbals.)

 

Herbal Iced Tea Cubes. In September, I try to make daily batches of strong herbal tea, using the last of my chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, and catnip. I let the tea steep for up to eight hours, and then pour into ice cube trays and freeze. The finished ice cubes will store in freezer bags for up to three months, and can be added to smoothies, or melted and diluted with hot water for a refreshing cup of herbal tea.

Ice cube trays are also handy for freezing big batches of fresh tomato sauce or pesto, using the last basil from your garden. Let the sauce cool thoroughly before freezing, and store the frozen cubes in freezer bags for up three months, thawing as needed.

 

Herb Infused Vinegars. Herbal vinegars make a flavorful addition to salad dressings and dips, as well as a nourishing daily tonic to help strengthen the blood or tone the digestive system. Good herbs to use in your vinegars include garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, tarragon, and sage. Experiment with combinations. Pairings of dill and peppermint, or fennel and ginger, are wonderful for upset stomachs.

Place about a cup of finely chopped fresh herbs (or ¼ cup of dried herbs) into clean pint-sized glass canning jars. Cover the herbs with organic apple cider vinegar, leaving about an inch of room at the top of the jar. (Avoid white vinegar, which is bleached with harsh chemicals.) Cover the jar tightly, label with the ingredients and date, and then store the mixture in a dark place at room temperature, shaking vigorously every few days.

After about four to six weeks, strain out the vinegar by pouring it through a colander lined with a doubled piece of cheesecloth or an old sheet. Be sure to squeeze out all of the infused liquid from the plant material before composting. Store the mixture in glass jars or tincture bottles, carefully marked with the ingredients and date. The finished vinegar will keep for a year.

Herbal Oils. You can also use herbs to make flavored olive oils, for both internal and external uses. In this case, place 1/3 cup of already dried plant materials in a clean, dry glass jar. (Make certain the jar is completely dry, as any moisture can ruin the oil.) Cover the herbs with high quality, organic olive oil, leaving an inch or two of room at the top of the jar. Cover this mixture with a cloth for the first few days, before you seal the lid, as the plants will continue to expel gasses as they absorb the oil. Also be sure to check the mixture after a few hours to see if more oil is needed to cover the herbs.

Let the oil sit in a sunny window for 10 to 14 days, shaking daily, before straining the plant material out. Store the finished oil in a dark place, and use within a year. You might want to try garlic, oregano, or basil for use in cooking or dressings. I also like to make a mixture of calendula blossoms, lavender, and plantain for a wonderful skin conditioner.

NOTE: An easy way to dry herbs is to scatter them across an old window screen outside or in a sunny window, or hang bunches upside down until the blossoms dry and can be extracted.

Herb Infused Honey. Herbal honeys provide a wonderful addition to hot teas during the winter cold season. To make these, melt a quart of locally grown (if available) wildflower honey over low heat until it is just warmed through. (Don’t let it boil.) Add ½ cup of finely chopped fresh herbs, such as lavender, ginger, lemon balm, or chamomile. (Use only ¼ cup if the herbs are dried.) Leave the mixture on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then pour the honey (without straining) into heat-resistant glass canning jars. Secure the lids and label with the ingredients and date. The herbs will continue to infuse the honey as it sits. You can then either strain out the honey as you use it, or drink the tea with the herbs still in it. The honey will keep for 18 months.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

All photos taken by Erin Fossett.

First published August 29, 2010

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Summer Celebrations: Assumption

(Photo of the Barley Moon by Catherine Kerr)

by Waverly Fitzgerald

The Full Moon Festival of August is one of the oldest continuous holidays of the Goddess. At this turning point in the year, between the yang energy of summer solstice and the turning inward of the autumn, the Goddess comes into her own as protector, provider and mediator between the worlds.

Known by many names, at this time of the year she is revered as Artemis, Hecate and the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three are moon goddesses: Artemis as crescent moon, Hecate the dark moon and Mary is often depicted standing on the crescent moon.

Known by many names, at this time of the year she is revered as Artemis, Hecate and the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three are moon goddesses: Artemis as crescent moon, Hecate the dark moon and Mary is often depicted standing on the crescent moon. All three are invoked for protection of the grain and the fruit which is so vulnerable to storms in these weeks before harvest. And all three are mediators between the worlds: Artemis in her origin as Goddess of the shamanistic cultures of the North (see Geoffrey Ashe’s book Dawn Behind the Dawn), Hecate as the one who stands at the crossroads between life and death, who goes down into the darkness of the Underworld with her two torches blazing, and Mary as the mediator between Earth and Heaven.

Below I trace the way this holiday developed and provide links to articles about how it is celebrated around the world.

Ancient Greece: Artemis-Hecate

This feast of the goddess was first celebrated in Greece at the full moon of Metageitnion. In Erkhia, Artemis (as Hecate) was invoked, along with Kourotrophos, and beseeched for protection summer storms, which could flatten and destroy the crops. This image from a Greek vase (ca 440 BCE) shows Hecate lighting the way with her torches as Persephone emerges from the Underworld to be reunited with her mother while Hermes looks on.

Rome: Nemoralia

In Rome, the Greek lunar festival honoring Artemis-Hecate was placed on the fixed solar calendar on August 13th and called the Nemoralia, also known as Diana’s Feast of the Torches. Roman women made torchlight processions to the temples of Diana and Hecate or visited the groves of Diana with their hunting dogs leashed. Hair-washing was an important ritual activity.

Early Christianity: Assumption

The story of Mary’s Assumption derives from ancient stories called the Obsequies of the Holy Virgin, which were written in Syria at the beginning of the third century (or about 150 years after the event they relate). The story of “The Departure of My Lady Mary From this World” tells how Mary was lifted up into Heaven bodily, in other words, she did not die, but became immortal (a goddess). To commemorate this extraordinary event, the Apostles proclaimed a holiday in Her honor:

And the apostles also ordered that there should be a commemoration of the Blessed One on the thirteenth Ab, on account of the vines bearing bunches of grapes and on account of the trees bearing fruit, that clouds of hail, bearing stones of wrath, might not come, and the trees be broken, and the vines with their clusters.

According to the story, Mary’s Assumption took place at Ephesus, where she was living under the care of the apostle, John. Ephesus was one of the most famous sanctuaries of Artemis, the home of the famous statue of Artemis with many breasts, symbolizing the productive and nurturing powers of the earth. Mary, who is also well known for her nurturing and protecting qualities (she is so tender-hearted she cannot deny any sincere request for help), was clearly carrying this role.

Ab is the Jewish lunar month of Av and the thirteenth of Ab is therefore a full moon. So quite early on, long before Emperor Maurice proclaimed the Assumption a Church holiday during the seventh century, the apostles chose the full-moon feast honoring Artemis-Hecate as the time to honor Mary, as protector of the crops and mediator between worlds.

Wherever this holiday is celebrated, and it is a major holiday in many parts of the world, it is blended with native customs to produce a unique celebration.

Celtic Scotland

In 19th century Scotland, this holiday was called Great St. Mary’s Feast of the Harvest. It’s probable that many of its customs were once those of Lammas Day. Women made a magical bannock (a kind of cake) on this day, from ears of new corn which were dried in the sun, husked by hand, ground with stones, kneading on a sheepskin and toasted over a fire made of magical rowan wood. Each member of the family ate a piece of the bannock, in order by age, and all walked sunwise around the fire. Then the embers were gathered into a pot and carried sunwise around the farm and field, while reciting this charm:

On the feast day of Mary the fragrant, Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks, I cut me a handful of the new corn, I dried it gently in the sun, I rubbed it sharply from the husk, With mine own palms.

On the feast day of Mary the fragrant,
Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,
I cut me a handful of the new corn,
I dried it gently in the sun,
I rubbed it sharply from the husk,
With mine own palms.
I ground it in a quern on Friday,
I baked it on a fan of sheepskin,
I toasted it to a fire of rowan,
And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling
In the name of Mother Mary
Who promised to preserve me
Who did protect me
Who will preserve me
In peace, in flocks, in righteousness of heart,
In labor, in love,
In wisdom, in mercy,
For the sake of Thy Passion.
Thou Christ of grace
Who till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
Oh, till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
– Carmina Gadelica

Poland: Blessed Mother of the Herbs

Virgin of Czestochowska

Virgin of Czestochowska

As early as the tenth century, the aroma of herbs and flowers was associated with Mary’s victory over death, and people brought medicinal herbs and plants to church (periwinkle, verbena, thyme) to be incensed and blessed, bound into a sheaf and kept all year to ward off illness, disaster and death.

In Poland, this holiday was called Matka Boska Zielna, Blessed Mother of the Herbs. Women gathered the plants growing in their gardens and brought them to church to be blessed. The blessed flowers were then tucked behind icons and over doorways in the house, and scattered into the seed sacks and feed bags, to bless them as well. Today August 15 is the day when pilgrims process to the shrine of the Virgin of Czestochowska.

In central Europe, August 15 was called Our Lady’s Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s mother kept this holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.

If you like charming little stories written in a rural, 1950’s folksy tone with lots of references to Scripture, you will like this story about a Catholic family gathering flowers and herbs by moonlight in honor of Our Lady.

Armenia: Blessing of the Grapes

In central Europe, it was called Our Lady’s Herb Day. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s mother kept this holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks, gathering wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.

In Armenia, the Sunday nearest the Assumption is called Blessing of the Grapes. None are eaten until this day when every churchgoer gets a cluster as she leaves church. This is also the name day for women named Mary, who host parties in vineyards or at their homes. The Syrian festival is characterized by offerings of new wheat and small three-cornered cakes.

Brazil: Our Lady of the Good Death

In Bahia, where Christian customs are mingled with African traditions, and the orixas are honored on the feast days of Catholic saints, a group of women created a lay sisterhood called the Sisters of the Good Death which worked to free slaves. Their descendants still celebrate the Festival of Our Lady of the Good Death today. Paola Gianturco who has been photographing women’s celebrations all over the globe has a photoessay about this festival at her web site.

Bolivia: The Virgin of Urkupiña

In Bolivia, August 15 is the holiday of the Virgin of Urkupiña and combines pagan and Christian traditions. There is a parade through town with dancing and costumes reminiscent of Carnival celebrations, followed the next day by a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin, where people leave items that represent their wishes. I learned about the holiday from Paola Gianturco, but also found descriptions of how it is celebrated at this blog and slide show at the Democracy Center web site.

Today Where You Live

Do you have any traditions you celebrate on this day? Or any customs you want to adopt? Will you pick herbs and flowers from your garden on August 15? Or do, as I do, and gather wild grasses? Will you wash your hair like the Roman women did on August 13? Will you leave an offering for Hecate on a crossroads on the full moon? Will you eat grapes for the first time on Sunday, August 16? Will you bake a magical bannock with ingredients you grew yourself? Let me know how you plan to celebrate this holiday.

First published July 21, 2009

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Fourth of July as Midsummer

I like to think of Fourth of July as a secular version of pagan Midsummer festivals.

Like many historical holidays, Fourth of July seems to have co-opted many of the symbols of the earlier celebrations at this time of year. For centuries at Summer Solstice, people stayed up all night, dancing around bonfires and rolling burning wheels down the hillsides, to honor the sun. On Fourth of July, we set off pinwheels in the street (evoking the circle, the symbol of the sun), wave sparklers around in the darkness (they look like the embers dancing up from a bonfire) and gaze at fireworks blazing overhead late into the night.

Many families spend the daytime hours on Fourth of July, at parks and lakes, enjoying a picnic lunch and eagerly waiting for the sun to set on the longest day of the year. We worship the sun and may pay for our devotion with sunburns.

Both Midsummer and Fourth of July are associated with heavy drinking. In fact, Fourth of July is one of the deadliest holidays in America due to alcohol-related traffic accidents. The traditional Fourth of July BBQ combines many of these elements: drinking and fire and spending hours outdoors with friends and family.

Midsummer has always been a time of revelry and romance. A Swedish proverb says “Midsummer’s night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” The Fourth of July places a little more emphasis on family than on coupling, but there’s no denying the romance involved in lying in your lover’s arms in a grassy park while watching fireworks burst overhead.

Of course, there are many differences between Fourth of July and Midsummer. Midsummer festivals also celebrate flowers and herbs, and often include the element of water (which we acknowledge here in Seattle by setting our fireworks off over Lake Union). Still, when I’m annoyed by the drunken crowds or frightened by the sound of firecrackers exploding, I remind myself this is just the traditional way to celebrate the height of Summer and the glory of the Sun.

First published July 3, 2010

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Flowers of July: Lotus & Water Lily

lotuses4Every Fourth of July, the talented pyrotechnicians who create the firework display that decorates the sky over Lake Union in Seattle devise new fireworks and the year I was working on this article, I was pleased to see fireworks that looked like lotuses, with outer petals fading from white to pink and central rings of rose deepening to red. The lotus, after all, is the flower for July in China. And the water lily, the flower of July in England, blooms in water. What could be more cool and refreshing during the hot days of July than contemplating the water lily?

From the earliest Indian collection of Buddhist sutras, from the reign of Ahyu, comes this description of the beginning of the world:

“Between the mountains there were many rivers, flowing in all directions along 100 different routes, moving slowly downhill, without waves. The rivers were shallow and their banks weren’t steep, making them easy to ford. The water in them was clean and pure, and flowers floated on the surface in abundance. The currents were full of them…”

According to this passage, the lotus was the first flower appearing in a world of water.

Natural Facts about the Lotus & the Water Lily

Although there is a botanical distinction, the lotus and water lily are often used interchangeably in folklore and mythology. Generally lotus refers to the water lily of India or the plant depicted in sacred art and stories, while the water lily is more often used by naturalists. As an example of the confusion, the World Book actually has two entries, one for the lotus, one for the water lily, both clearly referring to the same plant and neither referring to the other entry.

The lotus of India belongs to the Nelumbo genus (Nelumbo is the Sinhalese name for the plant). It has large flowers and leaves that sometimes grow up above the water. The plant’s thorny stalk discourages fish from nibbling on it. The upper cupule or fleshy capsule of the lotus dries out at maturity and separates from the plant. Floating about, it scatters seed from the many perforated holes in its surface.

In Asia, there is only one species of lotus with red and white blooms. Yet early Buddhist scriptures, referring to the seven precious lotuses, mention blue and yellow flowers. The water lily, native to Egypt, has blue flowers but the yellow-flowered water lily is native to North America. This mystery may be addressed in this Buddhist sutra:

“The lotuses of heaven can change according to people’s wishes, flowering when needed. In this way they bring joy to the hearts of all. There is no need to declare one false and the other real. Both are called the wondrous lotus flower.”

The water lily belongs to the Nympha genus, derived from the same word as Nymph. The Greek word nymph, besides being used to describe the feminine spirits of water and trees, also means something young and budding (like the larva of certain insects) and is the name for the labia minora. In Europe, the common white water lily, the one painted by Monet, is Nympha alba while in North America, we’re more familiar with Nuphar lutea, the yellow water lilies, also called spatterdocks or cow lilies. The English sometimes call the plant “brandy bottle” because the flowers smell like stale wine which attracts flies, the pollinators for the plant.

According to Chelsie Vandaveer, the Amazon Water Lily (victoria amazonica) imprisons its pollinators. The pure white flowers open in the evening and release a fragrance like pineapples. Beetles attracted by the smell find their way to the pale flowers on the dark water and feast on the central petals, while the flower closes over them. Then the anthers ripen and shed their pollen all over the trapped beetles. By the second evening, the flowers have turned pink and lost their fragrance. They open again and release the pollen-covered beetles which fly off in search of more white flowers with that incredible fragrance. Thus the lily is never self-pollinated since it can only be pollinated when the flower is white and fragrant. I love this description of the flower that changes colors and fragrances overnight, all in the service of sex. No wonder it’s considered a magical plant.

Yellow water lily

Growing Lotuses

The Sunset New Western Garden Book does distinguish between lotuses and water lilies.

Water lilies, listed under the genus Nymphaea, have round leaves with a notch at one side where the leaf stalk is attached. The flowers float on the surface of the water or stand above it. Water lilies sold in nurseries are hybrids. Hardy water lilies come in colors ranging from white through yellow to red. Tropical water lilies come in more colors, including blue and purple, but are more sensitive and prefer (no surprise!) to live in areas where orange trees flourish. They can be grown in colder climates, especially if the roots are stored in damp sand over the winter.

Lotuses, in the genus Nelumbo, have perfectly round leaves that spring up in summer above the water level and large fragrant flowers on separate stalks. Lotus roots should be planted in spring in 12 to 18 inches of fairly rich soil, which is then covered with 8 to 12 inches of water. They often will not bloom the first year, unless the summer is warm early. If the water will freeze in your area, the pond should be covered or filled with more water in winter. Nelumbium luteum is the American lotus, with pale, small flowers. The Indian or Chinese lotus, Nelumbium nelumbo, usually has pink flowers although white, rose and double varieties are available.

To make things even more confusing there is a genus called Lotus but it’s a completely different plant, a member of the pea family. Let’s not even go there.

Lotus Engraving
Engraving of a lotus from an old herbal.

Sacred Loremohenjodaro

When the white lotus descends to this world, it changes everyone’s life for the better. Chant from the White Lotus Sect, Ming dynasty

Jonas Balys, a Lithuanian folklorist writing on the lotus for Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia of Folklore and Mythology provides a great summary of the significance of the lotus through the ages.

The oldest representation of the lotus was made centuries before anyone ever wrote about it: a statue unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro showing a wide-hipped goddess, lifting her breasts with her hands and wearing lotus blossoms in her hair.

The Hindu goddess Laxmi, is also called Padma, Kamia and Kamalasana, all names for the lotus. She emerged from a lotus which sprang from Vishnu’s forehead (an improvement on Athena’s method of birth, I think). Vishnu himself is pictured holding a conch, a wheel, a mace and a lotus in his four hands.

lakshmiThe earliest written reference to the goddess in a supplement of the Rig-Veda describes her as born of the lotus, standing on the lotus, garlanded with lotuses. She is the hue of the lotus, lotus-eyed, lotus-thighed. She is often depicted flanked by white elephants who pour water from their trunks over her and the lotus she holds. Supposedly elephants love to eat the steam of lotuses.

In India, the Lotus also represents birth. Vishnu puts forth from his body a single giant navel on which Brahma, the lotus-born Creator is seated. This lotus has 1,000 golden petals from which mountains rise and waters flow.

Buddhism borrowed the lotus pedestal from Brahma. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus or holding a lotus. Yoga students and meditators sit in lotus position.

Legend says that when the Buddha was born, he walked seven steps in ten directions and with each step a lotus flower appeared. Look closely at the soles of his feet when you see a statue of Buddha — you may see the imprint of the lotus.

Buddhist periods are initiated by the appearance of a lotus, which indicates the location of the sacred tree of the Buddha. If there are no blossoms, no Buddha will appear. At the beginning of the current era, the Bhadrakalpa, there were 1,000 blossoms, signifying the birth of 1,000 Buddhas.

The Buddhist sutras say that the lotus has four virtues: scent, purity, softness and loveliness. Yet as Chang Chin-ju notes, many other flowers are soft, clean and fragrant. The lotus was singled out because Chinese botanists once believed that it flowered and bore fruit at the same time, thus symbolizing the ability to transcend the limitations of time.

In China, even before Buddhism arrived bringing its special devotion to the lotus, the lotus was honored as the plant of summer. One of the eight immortals holds a lotus, the “flower of open-heartedness” or a lotus-pod wand. It was an emblem of purity, fruitfulness (because of its many seeds) and creative power.

The Lotus Sect of Chinese Buddhism believes that people can be rewarded for virtuous acts by leaving the cycle of reincarnation and going to dwell in the Western Heaven. This paradise contains the Seven Treasure Pond which brims over with the Water of Eight Deeds and Virtues. The bottom of the lake is covered with gold dust and the lotuses are as big as carriage wheels. The blue flowers give off a blue light, the red a red light, the yellow a yellow light and the white flowers a marvelous fragrance. The different colors have different meanings. White represents purity, blue goodness and red enlightenment.

The Sacred Lake of Lotuses is often depicted in Temple Courtyards. Each soul has a lotus on this lake which will open to receive them after death and where they will wait until the time of its opening. The flowers thrive or droop according to the piety of the individual on earth; for the devout they open immediately when he dies, admitting the soul at once to the divine presence.

In China, the envelopes given to the family at a funeral are impressed with the outline of a lotus. And in rural areas, people still burn incense to the Spirit of the Lotus. In Chinese Buddhism, the goddess Tara is also called Lotus. And Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, is often depicted holding a lotus which she gazes at with downcast eyes, or reclining on an expanse of lotuses.

In Chinese Buddhism, the lotus became a symbol of purity. “Bathing in the clear water of the spiritual pond, the lotus’ roots dig deep into the soil.” It represented being able to distance oneself from vulgarity. But Mahayana Buddhism takes this symbolism a step further: “This flower doesn’t grow in the highlands, but rather it blooms in the vile swamps.” In other words, purity is no different than pollution—the spirit can bloom in any circumstance.

The lotus became a popular symbol in Chinese folk custom. Pictures showing fat dancing babies holding lotus leaves or flowers are purchased in the hope that people will give birth to several boys in succession (because the Chinese word for lotus sounds the same as a word meaning “one after another”). And since lotus leaves protect the goldfish under them, the lotus also symbolizes abundance year after year.

Long before the classical Hindu scriptures wrote of the lotus, the lotus was an important symbol in Egypt. In fact, the lotus may have come to India from Egypt. It was associated with the sun because it opens in the morning and closes at night. Horus, the sun-god was often depicted sitting on a lotus (like Buddha and Brahma). The lotus was also the flower of resurrection, used in funeral rites and depicted on tombs. Mourners would pray that the deceased would have the chance to bloom again, “like a water lily reopening.”

The water lily appears all over the tomb of King Tutan-kamen which was built in 1361 BC. Water lilies adorn the tops of columns. The oar King Tut is using to row to the land of rebirth is made in the image of a half-open water lily. A beautiful woman who resembles Cleopatra offers the water lily she holds in her hand to another woman to sniff.

A Dakota legend tells about the origin of the yellow pond lily common in North America. A Star Maiden came down from the night sky and wanted to live with the Dakota. The chief, Red Strawberry Man, sent his son with the maiden to consult the tribe’s advisor who lived across the lake. While rowing across the lake in the darkness, the son’s canoe hit a log and the Star Maiden tumbled into the waters. In the morning, the first yellow water lily appeared at the same spot.

Lotus Holidays

The sixth moon of the Chinese lunar calendar is called the Lotus moon. In Peking, the birthday of the lotus is celebrated on the 24th day of the sixth month, according to Burkhardt. People flock to see the pink lotuses blooming in the lakes around the Winter Palace with the same enthusiasm the Japanese bring to cherry-blossom viewing. The sight of the lotus blooming in ponds and moats signifies that prayers to the Dragon-Prince have been answered and there will be sufficient moisture for an abundant harvest.

On two Chinese lunar holidays that usually fall in the month of July, the Chinese celebrate with lotus flowers. During the festival of Tanabata, the weaver woman, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, children carry lotus flowers. And lotus lanterns are lit for the Ghost Festival on the first day of the seventh lunar month.

Thoreau wrote an entry on June 25, 1852, that implies it was the custom for young men to bring water lilies to church on Sundays while they were in bloom:

“The nymphaea odorate, water nymph, sweet water-lily, pond-lily, in bloom. A superb flower, our lotus queen of the waters. Now is the solstice in still waters. How sweet, innocent, wholesome its fragrance. How pure its white petals, though its root is in the mud! It must answer in my mind for what the Orientals say of the lotus flower. Probably the first a day or two since. To-morrow, then will be the first Sabbath, when the young men, having bathed, will walk slowly and soberly to church in their best clothes, each with a lily in his hand or bosom, with as long a stem as he could get. At least I used to see them go by and come into church smelling a pond-lily, when I used to go myself. So that the flower is to some extent associated with bathing on Sabbath mornings and going to church, its odor contrasting and atoning for that of the sermon.”

June 2

Heat lingers
As days are still long;
Early mornings are cool
While autumn is still young.
Dew on the lotus
Scatters pure perfume;
Wind on the bamboos
Gives off a gentle tinkling.
I am idle and lonely,
Lying down all day,
Sick and decayed;
No one asks for me;
Thin dusk before my gates,
Cassia blossoms inch deep.

Po Chu-I (772-864) Autumn Coolness, translated by Howard S Levy and Henry Wells

Lotus Dreams

Jian Nan Shi Gao, a Song dynasty poet, was 78 years old when he had the following dream: He met an ancient man who told him: “I am the lotus scholar and responsible for the mirror lake. But now I am leaving, and I was wondering if you could take my place minding the moonlight, wind and dew and protecting the lotuses? Every month you will receive 1000 jugs of wine in payment.”

Lotus & Palm
Lotus & Palm border from the Palace of Darius 1 at Susa. Pesian, 6th century BCE in the Musee du Louvre.

Lotus Medicine

Indian folklore prescribes the leaves of the lotus to cool the fires of ardor. Pliny says the same thing: “According to tradition nymphaecea was born of a nymph who died of jealousy about Hercules, and therefore those who have taken it in drink for twelve days are incapable of intercourse and procreation.”

Huron Smith (quoted by Coffey) noted in 1933 the medicinal use of the yellow pond lily (nelumbo lutea) among the Forest Potawatomi who call it pine snake, because of the way the roots look when exposed. The roots were cut in quarters to dry, then pounded into a pulp to be used as a poultice for inflammatory diseases.

Michael Moore, the noted North American herbalist, prescribes it for exactly the same thing that medieval herbalists did: cooling of too much heat (appropriate during the heat of the Dog Days!) Moore recommends using the dried seeds and tea made from the root for soothing inflammation of the intestinal and urinary tract, caused by “too much sex, three days driving in a subcompact in the summer—or the jalapeno syndrome.” The fresh root is especially good for soothing the reproductive organs, whether used internally or externally. Moore cautions that the root is for cooling and shrinking hot, inflamed and sharply painful conditions, not for dull, congested, subacute and achy conditions that need stimulation. The root can also be used as a poultice or bath for inflamed joints.

Warning: Although I’m convinced by the reports of reputable herbalists and the ancient folk tradition that ingesting lotus root is safe, Jeanne Rose in her herbal marks the water lily with her symbol for highly toxic. And David L Spess, in his book on Soma, posits that plants from both the Nymphaea and Nelumbo families were the source of the divine hallucinogen, known in the India tradition as soma. He says that both plants are psychoactive, as well as having rejuvenating and healing powers.

Lotus Panel
Assyrian carved stone panel of a lotus blossom from the 6th century BCE

Lotus Food

Every part of the lotus found in India (Nelumbo nucifera) is edible. Seeds are roasted to make puffs called mahkanas. The plant’s roots are ground up to make lotus meal.

Native Americans also used the ground flour of a similar plant, Nelumbo lutea. Thomas Nuttal (quoted by Coffey) made notes in 1821 of the way the Quapaws of Arkansas used the plant. The young leaves were cooked, the tubers baked, the young seeds eaten raw or cooked and the ripe seeds of winter roasted, boiled or ground into meal. Furthermore they extracted an edible oil from the seeds.

You can eat the seeds of yellow pond lily. Moore offers a recipe from an Alaskan herbalist, Janice Schofield, for Pond Lily Popcorn, made by popping 1/4 cup of seeds in 2 tablespoons of oil and flavoring them with butter, nutritional yeast and whatever else you fancy. He comments that it sounds more palatable than the way the Assiniboin and Micmac ate them: fried in bear fat.

Lotus border
Lotus border painted on cornice moulding on the Portico of Thersilion at Megalopolis

How to enjoy the water lily in the month of July

  • Rent or borrow a canoe or kayak and go out on the water near some water lilies
  • Chant Om mani padme hum (a lotus wishing-spell)
  • Sit in lotus position
  • Create a pond (perhaps using a barrel—but don’t use redwood — it discolors the water) and plant some lotuses
  • Burn incense to the spirit of the lotus
  • Make an offering to the Buddha or Laxmi of a water lily floating in water

Resources

Burkhardt, V.R., Chinese Creeds and Customs, Hong Kong: South China Morning Post, 1982
Chang Chin-ju, translated by Jonathan Barnard, “Lotus, Flower of Paradise”
Coffey, Timothy, The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers, Houghton Mifflin 1993
Jenks, Kathleen has a wonderful section on the lotus sutras, plus beautiful lotus paintings at her fabulous website, Mything Links
Kear, Katerine, Flower Wisdom, Thorsons 2000
Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Santa Fe: Red Crane Books 1993
Sunset New Western Garden Book, Menlo Park: Lane Publishing Company 1979
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972
Spess, David L., Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen, Inner Traditions 2000
Vandaveer, Chelsie, “Why does the Amazon Water Lily imprison its pollinators?”
Ward, Bobby J, A Contemplation Upon Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth and Literature, Timber Press 1999
Wells, Diana, 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, Algonquin Books of Cahpel Hill 1997

 

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Weaving Wheat

by Waverly Fitzgerald

[Excerpt from the Lammas holiday packet available at our store]

Many years ago I was in Aberystwyth in Wales on Lammas. I hadn’t planned any special activity for this, my favorite seasonal holiday, but I had gleaned some wheat stalks a few weeks earlier from a field near Rose Cottage (the home of my favorite novelist, Elizabeth Goudge, who lived outside Henley-on-Thames).

That primitive wheat weaving came back across the ocean to Seattle and for over a year sat above my stove, my very own harvest spirit, blessing the food I prepared and ate, while reminding me of my pilgrimages in the British Isles.

I didn’t have any instructions for wheat-weaving with me. All I remembered was that I had to soak the wheat, which I did in a bathtub, releasing that wonderful nutty aroma from the stalks. Then I wove it into a simple plait which I tied in a loop with a strand of orange yarn. That primitive wheat weaving came back across the ocean to Seattle and for over a year sat above my stove, my very own harvest spirit, blessing the food I prepared and ate, while reminding me of my pilgrimages in the British Isles.

In earlier times in England, the last sheaf of wheat was cut down with special pomp and ceremony and carried into the house where it was displayed throughout the winter, being returned to the soil when the fields were ploughed in spring. Sometimes the spirit of the grain was invited to inhabit weavings made of wheat stalks interlaced in intricate patterns. These were often called corn dollies, corn being a word for grain and dolly describing the shape.

To make your own wheat weavings, you must first obtain wheat, either from a craft supply store or a field (I have friends who grow a small patch in their garden for harvesting at Lammas and using in wheat-weaving and bread-baking). The excursion to get the wheat could become a part of your holiday rituals. I will never forget my first sight of wheat fields, driving one Fourth of July weekend with my daughter through the wheat country of eastern Washington. For miles and miles as far as the eye could see, for hours we drove among the silent rolling hills of golden wheat.

Maggie Oster in Gifts and Crafts from Your Garden says that wheat for wheat-weaving should be harvested about two weeks before the regular harvest when it is in the “dough stage.” Test it by pinching one of the grains with your thumbnail. If it releases a milky say, it is too green. If it is hard, it is too ripe. It should puncture easily but no sap should appear. Cut the wheat about four or six inches above the soil and bundle in sheaves about four to six inches in diameter. Keeping all the heads of wheat in one direction, bind near the bottom of the stalk and either hang them up or stack them for two weeks.

Wheat weavings were often hung on walls, not just as decorations but as protection, like the charms made in the Scottish Highlands on Lammas by tying red strings around crossed rowan-twigs and hanging them over doors.

Wheat weavings were often hung on walls, not just as decorations but as protection, like the charms made in the Scottish Highlands on Lammas by tying red strings around crossed rowan-twigs and hanging them over doors. In Wales, wheat weaving has become a traditional art form, divorced from harvest customs. Everywhere I went in Wales, I saw beautiful and elaborate wheat weavings for sale. You may be able to find someone in your area who can teach you this traditional art. Like many women’s arts, it’s hard to describe on paper–it cries out for one-to-one instruction and a kinesthetic experience.

Prepare the wheat by cutting off and discarding the second-joint straw and removing the leaf-sheaf. Soak them in warm water for at least 30 minutes. Then drain and wrap in a damp towel so they will stay moist.

Witch’s Mark or Cat’s Paw

The first set of instructions come from Helen Farias’ unpublished book, The Harvest Mysteries. This creates a long flat braid.

Tie three straws together, just below the heads with stout thread (Helen suggests buttonhole twist). Fan them out into north, east and west positions with the heads to the south. Fold the east (right) straw under the north (top) straw just before you fold the north straw over the east straw–in other words, they trade places. Then fold the west (left) straw under the north straw, just before folding the north straw over the west straw–again they trade places. Repeat.

As you work, you may wish to stretch the braid slightly. With your left thumb and forefinger (if you are right-handed) firmly hold the weaving, and move your grip up the weaving as it grows. Stop a few inches from the end and tie off.

Four Straw Plait or North, South, East, West Plait

This creates a plait with a bit more dimension. Tie four straws together under the heads. Hold the heads down (towards the floor) with your left thumb and forefinger, keeping your palm upward. Fan the four straws out in the four directions.

With your right hand (if you’re right-handed), fold the south straw to the north and the north to the south. Put your thumb across the fold. Fold the east straw to the west and the west straw to the east. Secure with your thumb. Repeat, moving your grip slowly upwards as the weaving grows, stretching it when necessary, holding it securely with your thumb. Stop a few inches from the end and tie off.

Shaping the Weaving

These braids can now be twisted into various shapes.

The simplest is a simple loop. Tie the end to the to the neck of the heads and either fan the straw ends out, snipping them at an angle, or hide them behind the heads.

Or loop the braid twice and overlap the loop, creating a vesica pisces or almond shape in the center.

Or make three concentric loops for a miniature “dolly” (with the loops as the head, the sheaves as the skirted body).

Secure the ends again, straighten the weaving and pat it until it is even and pleasing. Mist it once or twice, if it’s dried out, and place under a brick, heavy book (protected with plastic) or some other flat weight. When it has dried, decorate as you like. The traditional decoration is a red ribbon.

Mordiford Wheat Weaving

If you are now ready for a more complicated wheat weaving, try this heart-shaped “corn dolly” associated with the Mordiford district in England. I found directions for it and a picture at www.wheatweaving.com.

References:

Campanelli, Pauline, Ancient Ways, Llewellyn 1991
Farias, Helen, The Harvest Mysteries, 1990, unpublished [copy in my collection] Oster, Maggie, Gifts and Crafts from the Garden, Rodale 1988

Web Links:

American Museum of Straw Art

At this web site, you can take a virtual tour of woven straw art. It’s just like walking through a museum. Great photos and informative captions. I came away with a new appreciation of the marvelous capabilities of woven grain and the spiritual dimensions of this art.

World Wide Wheat Weavers

This association sponsors a web site that features photos of wheat weavings created by members and information on where to buy grains, find classes and buy books on the topic.

Originally published July 20, 2009

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Celebrating Summer Solstice

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Julie Coningham

The summer solstice is the time when the sun is in its glory. This is the longest day of the year and the shortest night. The date of the summer solstice varies slightly from year to year. This year it falls on June 21st. Summer solstice customs are also associated with a fixed date: June 24 the Midsummer’s Day. June 23rd is Midsummer’s Eve.

As the name “Midsummer” indicates, this is considered the height of the summer. Yet there is an undertone of darkness in the light. While we celebrate the power of the sun, we also note its decline. From now on the hours of sunlight will decrease.

The Fire and the Sun

The great solar festival of the year is celebrated from North Africa to Scandinavia with fire. This is a traditional time for a bonfire which is lit as the sun sets. People dance around the fire clockwise and carry lit torches. In some places, they set fire to wheels of hay which are rolled downhill.

Flowers and May Day wreaths are tossed into the fire. They burn and die just as the heat of the summer consumes the spring and brings us closer to the decline of autumn and the death of vegetation in winter. As we begin the decline, it’s important to remember that the wheel of the year is a circle. The spring will come again. The sun will triumph over the darkness again. Thus, the circle is an important symbol. Wreaths are hung on doors. People gaze at the fire through wreaths and wear necklaces of golden flowers.

Before the calendar was changed in the 18th century, Midsummer fell on 4th of July. When you celebrate Fourth of July, think of all those brilliant fireworks and blazing Catherine wheels as devotions in honor of the sun.

St John and Honeymoons

Midsummer’s Eve is also called St John’s Eve. The official version says that St. John was assigned this feast because he was born six months before Christ (who gets the other great solar festival, the winter solstice). Actually it may have more to do with the story of St John losing his head to Salome. In ancient times, a ritual sacrifice was made to the goddess of midsummer.

Other midsummer symbols also accumulate around St John. He’s the patron of shepherds and beekeepers. This is a time to acknowledge those wild things which man culls but cannot tame, like the sheep and bees. The full moon which occurs in June is sometimes called the Mead Moon. The hives are full of honey. In ancient times, the honey was fermented and made into mead. According to Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Year, this is the derivation of honeymoon.

Midsummer fire in Finland

This is a traditional time for honoring water, perhaps because it plays such a vital role in maintaining life while the sun is blazing overhead. Several of the goddesses worshipped at midsummer — Matuta, Anahita and Kupala — are associated with moisture and dampness. St John baptized with water while Christ baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. In Mexico, St John presides over all waters. People dress wells and fountains with flowers, candles and paper festoons. They go out and bathe at midnight in the nearest body of water. In the city, they celebrate at the bathhouse or pool with diving and swimming contests.

Herbs and Lovers

Photo by Alyss Broderick

Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. This is the most potent night (and midnight the most potent time) for gathering magical herbs, particularly St John’s wort, vervain, mugwort, mistletoe, ivy and fern seed. In some legends, a special plant, which is guarded by demons, flowers only on this one night a year. Successfully picking it gives one magical powers, like being able to understand the language of the trees.

This is also a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” According to Dorothy Gladys Spicer in The Book of Festivals, Irish girls drop melted lead into water and interpret the shapes it makes. In Spain, girls do the same with eggs. In Poland, they combine three of the symbols of the holiday for a divination. Girls make a wreath of wild flowers, put a candle in the middle, set it adrift on the river and tell the future by observing its fate.

Celebrating

This is a great festival to celebrate outdoors. Go camping. Go out into the woods or up into the mountains or down to the beach. Find some place where you can build a bonfire and light it when the sun sets. Bring along plenty of flowers (especially roses or yellow flowers like calendulas, St John’s wort, or marigolds). Fashion them into wreaths, wear them as you dance around the fire and throw them into the fire at the end of the night. Bring along sparklers too (but use them carefully). Indoors, use whatever symbols represent light and warmth to you: golden discs, sunflowers, shiny metal trays, chili pepper lights.

Gather magical and healing herbs at night on June 23. Hang St John’s wort over your doors and windows for protection; toss some on the fire as well. Harvest your garden herbs now so they will be extra potent.

To acknowledge the gift of water in your everyday life, decorate the faucets in your house. Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time suggests walking to the nearest body of water, making a wish and then throwing in a rose you have kissed to carry your wish home. She provides the following wishing poem:

Yes, you are here in the soft buzzing grass.
Yes, you are listening among the flowering gardens.
Yes, you are shining from the most royal blue sky.
Yes, you are granting me what I wish tonight.
Grant me a healthy life rich with high purpose,
A true partner to share my joys and my tears,
Wisdom to hear your voice giving me guidance,
Wealth to give to others as you have given to me.

Honoring Your Strength

The sun is associated with will, vitality, accomplishment, victory and fame. As you throw your flowers into the fire, acknowledge your accomplishments. Write about these at length in your journal, perhaps while sipping a cup of tea sweetened with honey, or gather your friends in a circle and go around several times with each person boasting about their strengths. Assign a different topic for each round, for instance, aspirations, courage, achievement, competence. Toast each other (with mead, if you can find it). This is your night to shine.

This is an excerpt from my book, Celebrating the Seasonal Holy Days, which also contains ideas and suggestions for the other seasonal holidays like Lammas, Autumn Equinox, Yule and so forth. It is available for purchase at my store.

The same material, much expanded, can be found in my Midsummer packet, available at my store.

The attributed photos were taken by School of the Seasons readers who contributed them for my Leaves on the Tree of Time weekly planner.

Some cool links I found while looking for images:

A great article from Max Dashi on Midsummer dances.

A lovely entry about Latvian Midsummer celebrations.

Article about a Polish Midsummer celebration in Washington D.C. showing girls throwing their flower wreaths into the Reflecting Pool.

First published June 20, 2010.

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Making Midsummer Wreaths

Until I bought a copy of Elizabeth Jane Lloyd’s, The Enchanted Circle, I did not think I had the ability to create a wreath. All my attempts were pitiful things, limp and disheveled with bits and pieces sticking out here and there. Looking at the photographs of the gorgeous wreaths Lloyd created I was inspired. Reading her directions on how to create a wreath, I recognized that it was a craft, like baking, which is best done when following directions. Although I know people who can bake a cake from scratch without a recipe, I am not one of them.

I failed to realize, in my early attempts, that a wreath needs a firm base. The base serves as the framework for the decorative material. You then match the delicacy of the materials to the appropriate base. There are many materials you can use for a wreath base but here are the three most common:

Wire
You can make a wire wreath by bending an old coat hanger into a circle, which has the benefit of providing a hook at the top. You can also use various strengths of wire you buy at a hardware store. Two circles of wire joined can provide a strong framework for heavy materials, like evergreens. Very thin florist’s wire should be used for a more ethereal wreath, for instance, for making a chaplet of orange blossoms. To hide the wire base, you might want to wrap the wire with ribbon or florist’s tape. The one disadvantage of a wire wreath is that you cannot throw it on the Summer Solstice bonfire because of the wire it contains.

When working with a wire base you will probably be adding materials in clusters. You can gather a group of flowers, or pieces of greenery, and place them against the wire frame, then use a thin, supple florist’s wire to hold them in place. Don’t cut the wire, but overlap the join with another cluster of flowers or greens, and continue wrapping your way around the frame.

In some wreaths, materials are arranged in a continuous circle, with all the clusters facing the same direction. To finish this sort of wreath you just need to tuck the join of the end cluster under the first cluster. In other wreaths, you might work down both sides to have the clusters meet at the bottom. With this arrangement, you will end up with a bare spot which you can cover with a ribbon or a rosette of your materials.

Wire wreaths, because they are usually delicate, tend to be used for light materials, like feathers or ivy or snowdrops. You can use a sturdy piece of wire and thread it directly through chilis (leaving them lengthwise) or apples to create interesting wreaths.

Vine
I love using vines for a wreath base since it makes the wreath totally organic. Honeysuckle, wisteria, willow and grapevine are the usual vines used for wreaths. If you can find fresh materials, twine them into a circle and let them dry. If you’ve purchased or been given vines that aren’t fresh, soak them in water until they’re pliable and can be shaped.

When working with a vine base, you can often tuck the flowers and leaves into the many nooks and crannies in the wreath, without using wire or tape. If you want to use a fastening device, but be able to keep the wreath organic, use raffia or string. For a truly organic binding device, I use bindweed (morning glory). When picked fresh, it retains that elastic, spiraling quality that makes it such a menace in the garden. Jane Lake (who has a great article on how to create a vine wreath) uses another common weed local to her area: Virginia Creeper.

Janet Lloyd uses vine bases for wreaths featuring hops, lime twigs and leaves, rose hips, berries, jasmine, roses and freesias. I tuck freshly picked hydrangea blossoms into my vine base, then add more to fluff it up as the first blossoms dry and shrivel in size.

Straw
Straw makes a sturdier but heavier base. You can buy straw wreaths at most craft stores or make one yourself by wrapping straw in a circular form and binding it with string or straw. The advantage of a straw base is that you can spike things into the straw, either using florist’s picks (sort of like bobby pins for flowers) or the stems of your plant materials. You can also use a glue gun to affix items but then your wreath will be permanent, whereas the other items can be removed when you want to change your wreath.

Lloyd uses straw bases for wreaths featuring dried flax and sandalwood flowers, dried herbs and flowers, dried poppy heads and bunches of wheat, oats and barley. Straw serves as an appropriate backdrop in both color and feel for these items. Lloyd also shows a very dramatic and effective wreath made by gathering several strands of straw into three thick strands and plaiting these into one thick braided wreath.

It is, of course, possible to make a wreath completely out of natural materials (think daisy chain) but these tend to have the same floppy nature as a daisy chain. Lloyd also shows examples of wreaths made by gluing dried flowers or seashells on a cardboard base; plaiting the stems of onions or garlic into a circle, and placing live plants in a circle of sphagnum moss.

I challenge myself to make wreaths for each seasonal holiday using only items I can find within a few blocks of my home. This keeps me aware of all the changes in vegetation in my neighborhood, constantly scanning for the materials for my next wreath.

First published June 20, 2010

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Capturing the Scent of a Flower

(Photo by Mary Kirman)

By Waverly Fitzgerald

October 2008. Legendary herbalist Jeanne Rose sat perched on a stool in the workroom of a perfume shop in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles on a Sunday morning. In front of her were ten little brown vials full of perfume, concocted by the students in her Natural Perfumery class the day before. She picked them up, one by one, unscrewed the lids, waved them back and forth under her nose, eyes closed.

“Some of these scents are nice,” she said. “Some are good.” She paused. “And some of these scents have the potential to be spectacular.”

I sat with the other nine women in the class, in a semi-circle. Each of us was properly attired, as instructed, in a white shirt or apron.  We ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties and included a script reader for a major studio, an aromatherapy teacher, a physician who specializes in fertility, the editor of a glossy food magazine, a student of acupuncture. I had come the farthest, all the way from Seattle, for this class.

I had not really intended to become a perfumer. This Natural Perfumery class was simply one of the many tasks I tackled in my quest to figure out how to capture the scent of flowers. I was more interested in the materials we had used-the essential oils, the absolutes, the waxes in the glass vials on the shelves around us-and how they were extracted from flowers. But at that moment, as we waited for Jeanne’s opinions, I dared to hope that my perfume was one of the spectacular ones.

I signed up for the class because I wanted to study with Jeanne Rose. She has been one of my heroines ever since I bought her first book, Herbs ‘n Things, shortly after it was published in 1971. Jeanne wrote it in the Sixties when she was a young woman with long dark hair and big dark eyes, living a block off Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, dressing rock stars in fringed suede jackets and bell-bottoms. She had compiled the information in the book from old herbals and some of the information seems unlikely or impossible (fennel seed boiled in wine and drunk for serpent bites?) but fascinating.

By 2008, Jeanne Rose had acquired over forty years of experience, growing, creating and selling herbal products and teaching classes. Her recent books, and the workbooks we purchased as texts for the class, are rich with information, based on her personal experience and her reading of scientific literature.

The other reason I had chosen this class was because I wanted to know how to make perfume from flowers. And a class in Natural Perfumery seemed the obvious place to learn. I was so naive I didn’t realize there is a difference between the scent of flowers and perfumes, which are artfully composed from many different elements including spices, citrus peel, woods, mosses, even seashells. I also didn’t understand the significance of the word Natural or that I had taken sides in a battle I didn’t even know was being waged, a battle between perfumers and natural perfumers.

The front window of Blunda AromaticsThe class was held in a perfume shop, Blunda Aromatics, in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles and the proprietor, Persephenie, is one of the rising stars in the field of natural perfumery. She sponsors events at her store that showcase other natural perfumers and the descriptions of these events make me wish I lived in LA instead of Seattle so I could attend and smell the fragrances.

On the other side are perfumers, like Luca Turin, my favorite perfume writer, who has only contempt for natural perfumers. Like most professionals in the field of perfume, he can’t understand why anyone would limit themselves to scents that can be extracted from natural ingredients, eschewing the marvelous fragrances that can be created in the laboratory. Turin is a chemist, as well as a scientist who has pioneered a new theory about how we smell, and he sometimes works for perfume companies, in the lab, creating new scent molecules or aromachemicals.

The main difference between synthetic perfume molecules and natural scents is that natural scents are more complex. Chandler Burr in his book The Perfect Scent, reproduces the results from a chemical analysis of a Turkish rose absolute (a solid waxy substance in which the flowers have been embedded). He lists 81 molecules, but the total list would contain between 800 and 1,000 different molecules. That’s how complex the scent of a rose is.

Some of the scents in a rose include citronellol, geraniol, nerol, nonadecane, eugenol, PEA, linalool, henicosane, alpha-pinene. You may recognize some of these molecules as they are named after the substances from which they are derived. Citron (think citrus blossom, not the fruit), geranium, neroli (another citrus flower), pine. Some  you might not recognize by name but you would by scent: eugenol is the spicy chemical that is found in basil leaves and cloves; linalool is a major aroma chemical in lavender. And those are just the scents that contribute over 1% of the total odor.

Perfume chemists have isolated some of the aromachemicals that are responsible for the scent of a rose, like damascone and damascenone, named after the aromatic damask rose. Luca Turin, scientist and perfume reviewer, says these molecules remind him of Brahms and autumn. He writes they are “outrageously fruity, and convey the full range of dried-fruit notes, all shades of translucent golden browns.”

Although I was disappointed in my quest to learn how to capture the scent of flowers, I did get plenty of  hands-on experience with a variety of perfume materials. Jeanne brought along 72 essential oils, waxes and absolutes for us to smell.

Workroom at Blunda AromaticsThese were lined up in little bottles and jars along the long wooden workbench on one side of the workroom. In a wavering row, all of the students in the class shuffled along the length of the counter, picking up each bottle and taking a quick sniff. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences well worth the cost of the whole workshop. Some of those bottles would cost hundreds of dollars to replace. Others were 40 years old, like the styrax resin, and couldn’t be duplicated today.

Each of these materials is created in a different way. And when you learn about the methods of extracting scent from flowers, you realize there is nothing very natural about it.

In steam distillation, steam is driven through the plant materials, which release their aromatic oils. The vapor that ascends contains the essential oil and water. It moved through a cooling tube into another chamber, called the condensing chamber, where the oil, because it is lighter than water will float on the top. It can be skimmed from the surface and bottled.

The vapors from the leaves were released as steam, rose to the top of the pan, condensed when they hit the cold surface of the lid, rolled down to the inverted knob and dripped down into the glass bowl. The kitchen filled with a wonderful fragrance, evoking bay rum and eucalyptus.

The fragrant water can also be collected and saved. For years, the only two flower waters that were precious enough to be bottled and saved were rose water and orange blossom water.  Jeanne Rose was the first to advocate saving this byproduct of the distillation process which she named a hydrosol. Now you can buy hydrosols of lavender, and bay, and oregano. I have all of those in my refrigerator right now.

Jeanne Rose has been distilling her own essential oils for years, using a copper still in her backyard. She also sponsors an Aromatic Plant Project which encourages wine growers in California to grow fragrant plants like lavender alongside their vines and harvest the crop for steam distillation.

I have not yet become enthralled enough to purchase my own still but I did learn how to create a kitchen still in an herbal medicine class and used that to create my first hydrosol.

I used bay leaves from the tree in my garden. I put the leaves in water in a non-reactive pan, put a metal steamer on top of them, and centered a glass bowl in the middle of the steamer. Then I covered the pot with an upside down glass lid and put a plastic bag of ice on top of that. Then I put the pot on the stove and turned up the heat. The vapors from the leaves were released as steam, rose to the top of the pan, condensed when they hit the cold surface of the lid, rolled down to the inverted knob and dripped down into the glass bowl. The kitchen filled with a wonderful fragrance, evoking bay rum and eucalyptus. I removed the glass bowl containing the liquid gingerly after turning off the heat and let everything cool down.

My hydrosol of bay was delightful-spicy and warm. It contains (I learned from Wikipedia) eugenol, the same chemical component I love in cloves (and used to love in clove cigarettes) and eucalyptol, the main ingredient in eucalyptus, the remedy my mother used (a drop of eucalyptus oil on a piece of cotton in a steamer) for childhood coughs.

Flushed with success, I then attempted a rose hydrosol, using petals from the scented rose across the street. It smelled delicious steaming in the pot but the end result was a brownish liquid that smelled nothing like roses. It did, however, smell like Brahms and autumn.

Other methods of extracting scent from flowers are more brutal. Perhaps the earliest method used was to soak flowers in fat. The Egyptians wore cones of perfumed oil on their heads which melted, spreading the perfume through their hair.

Many flowers are too fragile to sustain steam distillation. This includes many of my favorites: wisteria, lilac, lily of the valley, gardenia, jasmine, honeysuckle. The method used to capture the scent of these flowers is called enfleurage, a term much too pretty for the method itself.

chassisIn its most developed form, as practiced in Grasse, the perfume center of France, during the nineteenth century, fresh flower petals are placed on panes of glass which are smeared with purified fat. The fat absorbs the odors of the flowers, which are replenished when they are spent, until the fat is thoroughly imbued with fragrance. Then the scented fat, which is called a pomade, is washed with alcohol which absorbs the scent. The leftover scented fat was often used to make soap. The scented alcohol is called an absolute. If the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, what is left is an essential oil. This old illustration of women working with the chassis (the glass frames) comes from Sacred Earth which also features a great article on methods used to extract scents from plant materials.

There are more primitive ways of creating the same effect, including simply stirring flowers into hot fat until it absorbs their odors. This cheerful article at Mother Earth News explains how to do enfleurage in your kitchen, by placing flowers in fat, then using rubbing alcohol as a solvent to extract the scent from the fat. I’m sure Jeanne Rose would shudder at this suggestion, because rubbing alcohol has a strong odor of its own which would affect your end result.

I have not achieved much success in capturing the scent of the flowers in my neighborhood, but perhaps I was more successful as a perfumer? Alas! My perfume was not one of the spectacular ones created in the Natural Perfumery workshop. But I can’t think of anything really more marvelous than spending two days playing around with scents.

I am currently trying this home version of enfleurage but have not achieved very impressive results. I used Crisco (not being enough of a purist to want to clarify lard as the author of the article suggests) and spread it over the sides of two small tea saucers. I then placed petals of the jasmine that twines around the pillar of my front porch in the fat on both sides and clamped the two saucers together with a rubber band.

I check every few days to see if the flowers are spent (it seems to take about three days before they turn brown), then pluck them off and replace them with fresh flowers. The fat is beginning to take on an odor but it’s not entirely pleasant. I think I left some of the flowers too long and they began to mold.

I was more successful with an even more primitive method I tried when the woodruff was at its peak in late April. I put some sprigs of woodruff in a small bottle of jojoba oil and pulled out the limp stems every week and replaced them for three weeks in a row. The oil now has the marvelous smoky, almost tobacco-like scent of woodruff. I’m not quite sure what I can do with it. I may use it as a base and add an essential oil to make a perfumed cream.

Jeanne Rose in her books mentions several other forms of primitive distillation, for instance, hanging scented flowers in a corked bottle in the sun. She says the oils will drop to the bottom of the bottle and you can collect them. I tried this but my plant materials simply molded.

I have not achieved much success in capturing the scent of the flowers in my neighborhood, but perhaps I was more successful as a perfumer? Alas! My perfume was not one of the spectacular ones created in the Natural Perfumery workshop. But I can’t think of anything really more marvelous than spending two days playing around with scents.

I have come to terms with the idea that fragrance is by its very nature transient. My favorite perfume (Clinique Simply) is no longer available. My new favorite (Mimosa Pour Moi) evaporates from my skin as I wear it. The aroma of roses perfumes the summer air but is gone by autumn. I am learning to enjoy the scents of the moment.

Do you have a method for capturing and preserving the  scent of flowers?

First published July 20, 2009

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