The Romans honored the Sabine goddess of blossoms and spring with six days of celebrations including games, pantomimes, plays and stripteases, which went on into the night illuminated by torchlight. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose–they represented fertility and sexuality and Venus in her role as patroness of cultivated nature. Small vegetables (one imagines cucumbers and zucchinis) were distributed as fertility tokens. Flora represented the sexual aspect of plants, the attractiveness of the flowers, and was the matron of prostitutes.
In this Roman statue from Hadrian’s villa, she looks a little too prim and proper to preside over such frivolity. The painting of Flora and the Zephyr by Waterhouse captures Flora in a more wanton pose.
Floralia sets in motion all the delightful holidays associated with May Day. The English have a saying about children born between May 1 and May 8 (Between the Beltanes): they have “the skill of man and beast” and power over both.Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999 Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987 Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994 Wikipedia has a well-documented article on the Floralia here.
There are many unique celebrations that take place on Easter Monday but most involve playful pranks, splashing with water, whipping with switches and spending the day outdoors.
In England, particularly in the Northwest and along the Welsh border, young men roved around in a group, carrying a stout chair decorated with greens, flowers and ribbons in which they placed each woman of the house and lifted her three times in the air. They then claimed a kiss and a small gift of money. On Tuesday, women went around with the chair and lifted the men. The lifting ended promptly at noon on both days.
In some places the observance was rowdier. Both men and women were hoisted into the air and kissed by roving gangs. Sometimes a rope was stretched across the road and those who were halted by the obstacle were then placed in a chair and lifted. Christina Hole in her book on British folk customs suggests that lifting was the remnant of an older agricultural and magical custom, perhaps a rite of fertility designed to foster the growth of the crops.
In Shropshire and Herefordshire, the feet of the person being lifted were sprinkled with water from a wet bunch of flowers, recalling the watery sprinkling of the Easter Service (the purification and new birth symbolized by baptism) and the New Year festivals of Thailand and Sri Lanka (Apr 13 & 16).
Gertrud Nelson Mueller when writing about how she celebrates Christian rituals always takes the day off to take her kids to water. Usually they go to a nearby marsh for birding, but splashing is a part of their celebration.
The Poles celebrate the Monday after Easter under the name of Dyngus Day or Smigus Day. The customs are familiar: boys splash girls with water on Monday; and also strike at them with pussywillow wands (both sound like remnants of fertility rituals). In earlier times, the girls had to wait for a chance to get revenge until Thursday when they threw crockery at the boys. However, now it is more common for them to fight back with water on Monday. This article discusses both names and traces them to the pagan practices of splashing with water and whipping with pussywillows.
In American cities with strong Polish communities, like South Bend, Indiana and Buffalo, New York, Dyngus Day is celebrated with parades, pussy willow whipping and squirt-gun fights and traditional food, like kielbasa and pierogi.
When my daughter and I were in Prague around Easter time 2012, she took a photo of these willow switches that were for sale for use on Easter Monday.
In Italy, this day is called La Pasquetta, Little Easter. Everyone goes on a picnic, meant to last all afternoon (like the Persian festival of the Thirteenth Outside). They take along an antipasto of a hard-boiled egg and salt and local bitter herbs like aurugula or radicchio or fennel.
Feast of the Blajini
In Rumania on the Monday following Easter, women throw red Easter eggs into running streams for the benefit of the Blajini, the lost race of spirits which live on the bank of the river fed by all the streams in the world. They live so far away, they don’t know what’s happening in our world, so this is how they know that spring has come.Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978 Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990 Nelson, Gertrud Mueller, To Dance with God, Paulist Press Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman’s Press 1937
I’m a big fan of Debra Prinzig. Naturally. Since she wrote a book called Slow Flowers (it was originally titled A Year in Flowers which worried me a little since that’s the working title for the book I’m writing about connecting with nature in my city neighborhood).
Debra is a garden writer who became alerted to the issues inherent in purchasing flowers after reading Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential, which was a wake-up call for me as well. Stewart traveled internationally to learn about the cut flower trade. In her chapter on roses, she documents the unnatural conditions in which the flowers are grown (tricked into blooming out of season with lights) , the efforts to breed flowers that are strong and long-lasting (thus breeding out fragrance and fragility), the poisons in which they are dipped (which affect the workers as well), and the long distances they travel, via airplane and refrigerated trucks, to get to your local grocery store or florist shop.
Debra began visiting the new breed of florists, flower farmers and floral designers who are focusing on local and seasonal flowers. She documents their work in her book The 50 Mile Bouquet, a play on the slow food movement’s exhortation to eat foods grown within a 50 mile foodshed.
Inspired by what she learned, Debra decided to create a banquet every week, using only local and seasonal flowers and foliage. She showcase the results in her book, Slow Flowers, and she continues to post seasonal arrangements on her blog, like those gorgeous dahlias from October 2013.
I gave myself (and the students in the Year in Flowers class) the assignment to make a flower arrangement using local and seasonal flowers. And it’s completely changed the way I walk around the block. Instead of looking at plants and naming them or pondering what I can do with them (a cordial, a salad, a salve), now I’m noting color, texture and shapes. My perception has shifted from useful to aesthetic. Now what would I pair with that fabulous leaf—purple on one side and bronze on the other? Some bright yellow calendulas? And what about those black berries? What would happen if I paired them with a cloud of white Michaelmas daisies?
I’m also noticing flower arrangements more when I encounter them. Waiting for a friend at a café, I was struck by the beauty of an arrangement of green hydrangeas in a tall jade green vase, with a few rust-colored leaves, red berries and cedar branches. And later in the day at a café in LaConner, I was impressed by the simple yet artful bouquet on our table: unique maroon buds with a sprig of something with tiny lime-green leaves tucked in on the side. I don’t even have to know their names to appreciate their beauty.
By Fiona Doubleday
Wreaths are my complete and utter passion. For me, they are a homage to the changing seasons and a ‘must have’ for every home. They help to keep us grounded in the season and connected to all that it has to offer. Traditionally a wreath is a mark of celebration and welcome and are hung on doors especially at Christmas.
The first thing to consider is the base. I am not a polystyrene foam sort of person so, for me, the base must come from our natural environment. Willow is always my first choice because the making of the base is creative in itself. Growing willow is incredibly easy and this tree thrives on being coppiced every year. You might consider growing different varieties that have different coloured wood as that makes for an enchanting wreath base. Working with willow is very therapeutic and connects you with the guardian of the garden.
Other bases include pine tree branches wrapped around a wire circle, driftwood and straw. Your wreath does not have to be a circle although that is a soothing shape to have in your home.
Taking account of seasonality presents the creative challenge in wreath making. A decorated wreath is a lovely way to welcome in spring and I adore fresh spring flower wreaths using blooms such as daffodils, hyacinths and tiny crocuses. Of course this wreath will need replenishing every few days as the blooms fade but that is part of the joy of it. An Easter wreath can follow a similar pattern but might include quail eggs for additional patterning and detail. Pussy willow catkins are usually in full glory at this time of year and add a special delicate touch to an Easter wreath.
A summer wreath should capture all that is wonderful about summer and at the heart of that is fragrance. Summer fragrance should fill your home from both fresh and dried flowers. Lavender is an obvious choice for a summer wreath and can be attached fresh and left to dry. As it dries it will shrink slightly but you can just add some more bunches into the gaps the shrinkage creates.
I love large willow circles capable of holding lots and lots of beautiful fresh blooms such as sunflowers and hydrangeas with smaller details from scabious and cornflowers. All of these blooms can be left to dry on the wreath and then you can use them in your autumn wreaths. I always adorn my summer wreaths with lots of organza ribbons to drift in the summer breezes.
Another favourite summer wreath is made using beach fragments creatively arranged on a base of driftwood. You might have to just tackle the glue gun with this type of wreath but it will be worth it. Lovely for a bathroom or a quiet place in your home.
Moving into autumn we are into the harvest season and possibly the best wreath making season. Straw bound onto a wire circle with detailing from barley makes a simple wreath. Then you can add dried blooms from the summer wreath. Orange, yellow and red are the colours of autumn but purple does like to make an appearance.
Autumn is the season of preserving summer’s bounty for the winter so I like to make herbal wreaths. I tie on small bunches of herbs—rosemary, thyme, bay, oregano and lavender–on a willow base. As they dry, I use them in my cooking and replace them with fresh bunches. Much as it is lovely to hang this herbal wreath in your kitchen it will have to contend with condensation from the cooker so put it as far away from there as possible.
Christmas is the time to create the ultimate celebratory wreath. As such it needs some preparation. I begin my preparation in September when I begin to harvest and dry seed heads such as fennel and cow parsley from the hedgerows. In October and November I am always on the hunt for rose hips which I cut with fairly long stems and dry on frames covered with muslin. They will turn a deep red colour and wrinkle slightly as they dry. You should still find fresh rose hips in December that you can add to your wreath to give the lift of a brighter red–a Christmas wreath must have red on it somewhere.
I am not a fan of wreaths made of fresh pine branches but then I am not a fan of pine trees. I prefer to use my coppiced willow as a base and tie the hedgerow bunches on with rustic string for a more natural look. I also attach cinnamon sticks and string some nutmegs attached to some dried fruit. If you want to dry your own fruit you will have to slice it into thin slices and place on a baking tray and bake on a very low oven for at least 4 hours. I add some dried heather and oregano flowers to add a lovely plum colour to the wreath and I finish with a large christmas ribbon.
Seasonal wreaths make a lovely gift. The joy is in the experimentation. Get outside and start harvesting and see what works for you. I am currently drying hydrangea heads in time for this years christmas wreaths where I am combining them with blooms made out of jute. A contemporary twist on a traditional design.
Happy wreath making. Xx
Please do not forget the birds. Birds love their wreaths too. You can make them out of strung dried sunflowers with the seeds intact ready for feeding or make your own bird seed mix using seeds and nuts bound together with melted fat. All placed in a mold to cool and shape. Perfect.
All photos taken by Fiona Doubleday.
Fiona Doubleday is the mother of four beautiful children and lives on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. They live on a smallholding where they grow herbs, cut flowers and willow. Fiona runs a small craft company With Love From Arran and is a freelance writer. She teaches online courses, blogs regularly as Scottish Island Mum and launched a new web site called One Soul Many Hearts on October 11.
by Fiona Doubleday
I am rethinking my relationship with time and, in particular with the seasons, after a recent visit to the Isle of Eigg off the west coast of Scotland. The island is only 5 miles long and is owned by the 80 residents who call it home. In 1997 the islanders raised the funds necessary to buy their island ending a long period of unsettling change. Since then I think the islanders believe anything is possible and their engagement with life is evidence of that.
Eigg is the most beautiful of islands with heather hugging hillsides that seep away towards sandy shores. To the north west of the island lies the island of Rum. This island watches over Eigg and offers up the most astonishing summer sunsets. I was humbled on Eigg as I walked the shores and climbed the hills letting the land speak its own tales.
It is a land that is carved out by crofters who continue to live off the land with their roots firmly fixed in seasonal changes. I am not sure you could live on Eigg and not live through and with the seasons. In the summer the days are so long with warmth and light to grow the food. In the winter the days are much shorter and the wind and rain take a grip on the tiny island. Islanders spoke of days and nights dictated by seasonality as part of the heartbeat of island living.
This tiny land is often battered by Atlantic storms and in those times the ferry does not sail. The people of Eigg are cut off from the people who supply them with so much, making the community pull together to survive. Self sufficient in energy, the islanders are far more aware of how much energy they are using and have become experts at living with less. Only a very few cars travel the single island road, erasing motor sounds from the soundscape. The result is true peace.
Peace is around every corner and through every flowing burn. Your ears adjust to a different way of hearing. Your body is cleansed by clean air as it learns, once more, to breathe deeply.
When I first stepped onto the island I had an overwhelming feeling that humans shouldn’t be on this land. I tried to walk gently on the land as if to acknowledge the spiritual guardian that is Mother Nature. My breakthrough moment came while standing alone on the shore.
While encircled by a wild soundscape, I entered into a deep and illuminating meditation which reached to the deepest parts of my soul. My conscious mind filled with images from my childhood: growing up in the countryside and feeling completely and utterly free. These were very old memories that had long been forgotten and I welcomed them back. As the meditative state began to depart I felt much closer to the land that is the Isle of Eigg.
My travels later that day took me to an old crofting museum where I met her. She was sitting on her wooden chair by the fire but her bones had grown cold and weary. As I sat with her she began to tell me of a life well lived with a family much adored. She was a crofter on a small Scottish island in a time now forgotten. She told me about a time when crofting was all that there was. Her family lived on the edge of survival for long periods when the weather grew harsh and the land tired.
Her tales inspired every step I took from that point onwards. She stayed with me the rest of my time on Eigg, even while I was visiting the tea rooms buzzing with locals waiting for the supplies to come off the ferry. As they chatted, she watched and I listened. When it was time to leave I looked for her but she had gone. She will be back on her chair with her bones growing cold. But now I can take her tales of a life well lived and know that, through her, I learned to walk with the land. My visit to Eigg took me back to a place located deep in my soul and I will be forever grateful.
All photos by Fiona Doubleday.
Fiona Doubleday is the mother of four beautiful children and lives on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. They live on a smallholding where they grow herbs, cut flowers and willow. Fiona runs a small craft company With Love From Arran and is a freelance writer. She teaches online courses, blogs regularly as Scottish Island Mum and is creating a new web site called One Soul Many Hearts which launches October 11.
My friend, Mary Oak, introduced me to the concept of Goethean observation. J. W. vonGoethe, who I knew only as an author, had wide-ranging interests, which included science. As a writer, he was on the leading edge of the Romantic movement and as a scientist, he moved away from the objective scientific method popular at this time. His approach was similar to what we call today a holistic approach, studying plants in their own environment, rather than as dead samples in a herbarium, and appreciating the whole plant as well as the parts. Rudolf Steiner admired Goethe’s perspective and incorporated it into his teaching, which is how Mary, who teaches at Sound Circle Center, learned about it,
None of the human faculties should be excluded from scientific activity. The depths of intuition, physical exactitude, the heights of reason and sharpness of intellect together with a versatile and ardent imagination, and a loving delight in the world of the senses—they are all essential for a lively and productive apprehension of the moment. Goethe
Under Mary’s tutelage, I used Goethean observation to get to know a rhododendron at Volunteer Park. I must admit that prior to my observation I had a lot of disdain for rhododendrons, those ubiquitous plants that decorate the yard of every older Seattle home. But going through Goethe’s process changed my perspective.
Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us. Goethe
Goethe suggested getting to know a plant by moving through four phases, from the most objective to the most subjective. In the first phase, you make precise observations. For instance: the flowers are purple, have five petals, have ten pistils and one stamen. The flowers appear in groups of ten at the end of slender branches. I could go on and on, but the point is to simply state the facts without interpretation, so even though I might want to speculate on why there are ten pistils (two for each petal?) or describe the branches as weaving a basket of flowers, I restrain myself. The goal is a list of observable facts.
There is a secret element of regularity in the object which corresponds to a secret element of regularity in the subject. Goethe
In the second phase, your goal is to look for patterns and repetition within the plant, and to imagine how the plant develops through time. For instance, you might pick leaves in various phases and lay them all in a row to see how a leaf develops. I didn’t do this with a leaf but I did observe the flower in almost every phase, from the bud to the shed petals which littered the ground beneath the plant. The flowers about to open looked wet and crinkled. When they unfolded the golden spots on the most vertical of the petals attracted bees which were crawling into the flowers. And then the petals slipped off, leaving behind the pistils and the stamen. The base of the stamen began to swell. The plant I was observing even had some dried fruits from the previous season: hard stems, brown nut-like fruits and some papery seeds inside.
During these first two phases, drawing the plant helps you develop your observation powers and slow down to more thoroughly appreciate the details of the plant. I traced around the actual shape of a flower and pressed one into the pages of my journal. The color got even brighter and more fluorescent against the white of the blank page.
We do not know what is stirring in the atmosphere that surrounds us, nor how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain—that at times we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits, and a presentiment, an actual insight is accorded to us. Goethe
In the third phase, the mystical and subjective enter the equation. Step back and allow words to enter your mind that might express the spirit of the plant. For a writer, this is the time when the metaphors and adjectives I’ve been suppressing come to the forefront. The sunlight fell through the foliage of the rhododendron creating a dappled shade underneath. The trunk grew straight up, then the branches arched and curved outward, and the thinner, more supple branches that bore the leaves and flowers bent down even more, creating a sense of enclosure. The effect was that of a temple, with the flowers as offerings to the gods. The word “glory” came into my mind, and with it a sense of joyous exaltation (and this was from someone who has never liked rhododendrons).
The fourth phase remains mysterious to me. This is the realm of the poets. It involves becoming one with the plant, so much so, that you could speak as the plant, for the plant. It takes time to develop. I will work up to it by practicing the first three steps. Still, I felt my first exposure to Goethean observation was successful. A plant that I had previously overlooked is now one I view with appreciation. If you have the time and desire to get to know a plant better, I recommend this practice.
For the past month, I’ve been focusing on the practice of phenology, with the students enrolled in my Year of Flowers class. Phenology is the practice of tracking seasonal changes in nature. Phenology pretends to be a science, but I think it’s really an art, and an art closely allied to poetry.
Change is always happening in nature, and it happens gradually. But in order to accurately annotate when change occurs, phenologists have to pinpoint the change (called a phenophase) to a particular moment in time. The data must also be attached to a particular place. At Project Budburst, where I am making reports on five plants I have chosen to observe over the year, I must name each location and provide latitude and longitude, plus details of the site where the plant grows (shading, irrigation, habitat, etc.) .)
If you want to see a truly wonderful visual example of this go to Nature’s Calendar, the British phenological site, and click on Maps. Here’s a direct link to the snowdrop map , one of my favorites. When the map is fully loaded, click on the little bar that displays two red arrows at the top of the blank graph and slide it to the right, to watch the snowdrops burst into blossom all over the United Kingdom.
The language of phenology is as delightful as it is precise. For instance, budburst is defined as the date when the widest part of the newly emerging leaf has grown beyond the ends of its opening winter bud scales. Or (at another web site) the date when the protective scale coating is shed from the bud exposing tender new growth tissues of one or more flower buds or leaves. First bloom (for most flowers) occurs when the petals are open enough so you can see the stamens inside. In plants that have catkins or cones, first flower occurs when the plant starts disseminating its yellow pollen. Other markers such as full flower and full leaf are indicated by percentages: full leaf means 90% of all the leaves on the plant are open, while full flower requires less of a show: only 50%.
These measurements help create a standard process that can be easily quantified and thus easily reported but end up omitting the true sensory experience of being with plants, like the crinkled, glossy texture of the dark green leaves of the passion flower unfurling or the spatter of spent maple blossoms on the sidewalk, crunching under foot. So although we come to phenology with a desire to be more attuned to nature, the emphasis on analysis and annotation can sometimes get in the way of truly seeing the world around us.
That’s why I asked the participants in the Year in Flowers class to also look for immeasurables. I was inspired by reading Hannah Hinchman’s book A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. In this lovely, illustrated book, Hinchman draws maps of the place she lives and sketches the plants she encounters. She makes detailed observations, for instance this about the way different trees extend their seasonal growth:Beech droops. Ash extends symmetrically. Maple makes pagodas. Oak like small mice. Horse-chestnut umbrellas. Pignut hickory like cupped hands.
One of the things Hinchman notices (and records in her journal) while walking around her neighborhood is “kinds of shadows cast on the bottoms of shallow streams by the movement of the water surface, or things floating on it.”
Different students in my class chose different immeasurables, for instance, Nancy is observing spring runoff—she noted the drinking sounds from the trees, with the thickets of aspen demonstrating the most gusto. Anne Marie is tracking seasonal affective disorder. I’m not sure how she’s measuring it but Bill Felker’s whose Poor Will’s Almanack I’ve enjoyed for years (he didn’t create a print version this year but you can check out his blog posts), used to have a system that involved points for cloud cover, weather conditions and number of hours in a day that resulted in a total score. Mary in Texas noted how the morning light streamed from the southeast, striking the table in the dining room. “Sometimes it is so bright we can’t comfortably sit at the table.” Rasma is watching reflections in water. Her observations were like poetry:Feb 16: wind ruffles, fir needle boats, blue blue sky Feb 21: snow clouds and croaking raven wings, pointillist tree back against blue and white; vee-line geese Feb 22: evening shadows with birds heading to roost; purple depths and windblown orange leaves Feb 23: sunny ripples; multiple hues of green, brown, gold against cerulean blue
What immeasurable can you measure?
Last week while downtown in Seattle, I found these glorious leaf prints on the sidewalk, and they seem to be the perfect illustration of what happens when nature meets the city (in this case concrete sidewalks).
Of course, I went looking for information about what causes leaf prints. The main theory seems to be that they are created by tannins in the leaves, the same tannins that dye the water brown when you make tea or that make your mouth pucker when you drink relatively young red wine. These tannins don’t leach out of leaves when they are green, but only when they are decaying in autumn.
The word tannin comes from the word for oak tree (Tannenbaum in German) and is related to tanning, as it was used to tan leather. Tannins that leach into water from decaying vegetation can create brown and even black colored rivers. This photo I found at Wikipedia, which was taken by Doronenko, shows the confluence of the Morava, a blackwater river, with the Danube (the light color in the top left).
In my neighborhood, most of the leaf prints have disappeared, washed into the gutters by the rain, or perhaps my neighbors swept them away before they could set. I don’t know the optimal time frame for creating a leaf print. I think it’s time for some experiments. Maple leaves seem to be the best for making prints on the sidewalk, though I’ve also seen oak leaf prints at this link.
Another website solicited names for these, besides leaf prints, and got some creative versions including leaf stains, ghost leaves, tannin shadows, leaftovers and foliagraphs.
The web is full of craft projects to do with children to create leaf prints. Most use the simple technique you probably learned as a child, painting the leaves with tempera paints and pressing them on paper. Or putting a paper over a leaf and crayoning on top of it. The craft project I found most interesting was this one which suggets using a hammer to mash the actual color of the leaves and flowers into a page of paper.
Many years ago, I was given a beautiful book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic and Medicine, by Alice Thomas Vitale which elevates leaf prints to an art form. She simply used black ink and a brayer to create this elegant studies of various leaves but the results are amazing in their detail and vitality. The text is as lovely and respectful of the plants as are the leaf prints.
I became an urban naturalist because of my fascination with holidays, an obsession that began back when I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, spending my evenings in the library, copying weird customs out of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology and led me to graduate school at UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. Somewhere along the years of studying and celebrating, I recognized that most holiday customs were related to what was happening in nature at that particular place at that particular moment in time.
This day, August 15, is one of my favorite holidays because I can celebrate it with a simple custom: gathering wild grasses. I learned about this tradition from Gertrud Mueller Nelson who learned about it from her mother, who took her children down to the river to gather wild grasses on August 15, the Catholic feast of the Assumption. They would bring the grasses home in big bundles and pray over them. This ritual derived from a German custom of gathering wild flowers and herbs on this holiday and taking them to church to be blessed by the priest.
August 15 is an old harvest holiday (probably once celebrated on the full moon), when the grain goddess (later the Virgin Mary) would be asked to protect the harvest. All I ask is an opportunity to learn more about the wild grasses that grow on my block. There are plenty of those fancy ornamental grasses, planted by homeowners for decoration, and I admire those, but I’m more interested in the wild grasses, and their resemblances to rye, barley and wheat, the grains that have nourished humankind for centuries.
For a while, I was following the blog of Henry, a professor in San Francisco, who had taken on the project of identifying all the wild grasses he could find in the city in his blog. His commitment only lasted for two months in 2007 but it inspired me. How many wild grasses can you find and identify today?
The lovely photograph was taken by Melissa West.
The lavender in my garden is finally blooming which means it’s time for lavender vodka tonics (recipe found here). I only let myself drink them during the time the lavender blooms because I like them so much. Luckily lavender will bloom far into October.
When I first began my project of writing about the flowers in my neighborhood, three years ago, I set aside the month of July for drinking flowers. I had in mind beverages like linden tea and lavender lemonade but I was also contemplating combining flowers with alcohol, a time-honored tradition.
My interest coincided with a revival of flower spirits. Some of the traditional floral flavored liqueurs, like Creme de Violette and Elderflower cordial, started showing up in fancy cocktails. Then bartenders began creating their own concoctions, infusing herbs and flowers into vodka. The latest trend is artisanal bitters and “today listing house-made bitters on the menu and displaying dozens of homemade tinctures is a benchmark for most serious bar programs,” writes Brad Thomas Parsons in his book Bitters.
So when I heard about a cocktail tasting focusing on drinks from your garden, I signed up. The class was offered by Cicchetti and featured the artistry of Jay Kuehner, bartender from Sambar. Jay calls himself a forager, and is not so much interested in using the commercially produced floral or herbal liquors, as in gathering what’s available in the garden or the neighborhood to make drinks that are perfect for the time and place. He gave us a list of plants he would consider using which included: bay laurel, rosemary, fennel, lavender, angelica, nettles, roses, mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, thyme, rhubarb, chicory, basil. For this tasting, Jay made four cocktails, each one highlighting a different technique and a different fresh ingredient, and these were paired with delicious small plates prepared by the Cicchetti chef.
Jay’s first offering was a dill-infused aquavit, perfect with a lightly smoked salmon and a goat cheese tart. Infusing is the simplest way to get the flavor of an herb or flower. Tea, for instance, is an infusion. You simply add hot water to the herb and the flavor, color and chemical constituents of the plant are diffused into the liquid.
Alcohol is another excellent way to extract flavor and other chemical constituents from plants. Since it is also a preservative, alcohol infusions can last for a long time. Jay recommended infusing an herb for three days in a cool, dark place to develop the flavors. He used aquavit, a neutral grain spirit, because it provided a blank canvas for the flavor to develop. Vodka is another favorite choice for infusions since it doesn’t have much flavor of its own.
Jay’s second cocktail employed the use of simple syrup. The most common recipe for simple syrup is one to one parts of sugar to water. Then you add your plant materials and let it boil for a few minutes, then take it off the heat and let it cool with the plant material still in it. Strain the plant materials out using a sieve, pressing them to release all the flavorful liquid. You can make simple syrup with any herb or plant. If you don’t drink alcohol you can add the syrup to soda water or combine it with lemonade or freeze it and turn it into a granita or sorbet.
Jay created a rose simple syrup from roses he had gathered that morning. I have also made rose simple syrup and I love it that every rose tastes different. The pale pink and white flimsy rosa rugosas that are blooming right now have an almost earthy (I think bread-like) flavor while the darker, older roses that used to grow in the vacant lot across the street from me had a perfumey quality.
Jay combined the rose simple syrup with muddled cucumber and Hendricks gin (which is distinctive among gins for its more herbaceous qualities including rose and cucumber notes). It was the favorite drink of the cocktail tasters, except for me. I preferred the next drink, probably because it featured one of my favorite floral flavors: lavender.
Jay infused a pisco (Peruvian un-aged grape brandy) with lavender blossoms for only a few hours. The liquor turned a brilliant purple and the lavender flavor was intense. He added a rhubarb compote (rhubarb cooked with water, sugar, lemon and orange), a splash of dry vermouth and some lemon juice, served it in a cocktail glass and garnished it with a curly rhubarb twist. The chef paired it with a lavender crusted pork loin and a fig in a rhubarb sauce. Heavenly.
A compote is made from fruit combined with water and sugar and cooked over heat, in other words, stewed fruit. Once strained, it can be added to a drink as a flavoring.
The final cocktail featured a combination of cachaça (the Brazilian sugar cane spirit), fennel simple syrup and lemon tree leaves, with angostura orange bitters and black pepper. This drink employed crushing aromatic leaves to impart flavor to a drink. Mint juleps use this technique with mint, but Jay mentioned other leaves that could be used, for instance, basil or bay laurel, lemon balm or lemon leaves. Even lavender leaves which he said imparted the same flavor as the flowers. I need to try this.
Our homework assignment for us was to find something within 30 feet of our homes and use that to develop our own signature drink to serve friends on a hot summer day. I send you forth to do the same.