- I make some new friends and got some questioning looks while I was foraging for old blooming shrubs and certain kinds of flowers that I had seen here and there but didn’t grow myself.
Lee Bailey, Lee Bailey’s Country Flowers
It’s close to midnight on May Eve and my daughter, Shaw, and I are slipping through the alleys of Seattle, armed with clippers and black plastic trash bags. We dodge dogs, splash through puddles, dash between shadows. Security lights flicker on in our wake. We know our way through these back streets. We’ve been doing this for years. So far we have not been caught.
We have come, as we do every year, to gather flowers for May baskets. Because we live in an apartment building and have no garden of our own, the flowers we collect are purloined. We clip purple blossoms from lilacs overhanging backyard fences, snip the snowball-shaped white flowers that grow on shrubs along the sidewalk, snap twigs studded with pink petals off trees in parkways. Until I began my year-long project of getting to know the plants in my neighborhood, the lilacs were the only flowers I could name. We knew the others by the common names we gave them: snowball flowers (viburnum) and bell-flowers (Pieris japonicus).
At home, we spill our take onto newspapers spread on the floor. The air fills with the sweet scent of lilac, the musty aroma of hawthorn, the spicy odor of viburnums. Sometimes we arrange the flowers in cones, fashioned from colored paper twisted and stapled shut, with a ribbon for a handle. One year, inspired by Martha Stewart, Shaw arranged the flowers in tiny glass jars and twisted wires around the rims for handles.
Late at night, we tiptoe through the halls of our apartment building, hanging a floral tribute on each glass doorknob. So far we have not been caught.
Foraging. That’s what I call this activity of gathering plants I have not planted. A broad word for a broad activity. To forage is to wander, to raid, to rummage, to strip of food. In fact, the word food comes from the same root word as forage, a root that also gives us foray, fodder, foster, pasture, pastor, antipasto and repast.
Animals forage for food. Bees for blossoms. Birds for berries. Wildlife biologists have theories abut how foraging happens, including the optimal diet model, patch selection theory and the marginal value theorem.
Eric Charnov, the scientist who came up with the Marginal Value Theorem, explains it this way: If you are collecting apples in an orchard, you will pick the most easily accessible apples from the closest tree, before moving to another tree. It would be inefficient for you to strip all the apples from one tree or to flit between trees selecting just a few choice apples from each.
I came to foraging by a meandering path. For over twenty years, I’ve been writing about holidays, a topic that has fascinated me since I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, poring over dusty volumes of folklore in the Gothic gloom of the library.
Because of the holidays, I fell in love with the seasons, and because of the seasons I fell in love with plants. Each plant flourishes at a particular moment in time and that moment is specific to a particular place on earth.
In medieval England, young people roamed the woods on May Eve looking for flowering branches of the May tree so they could bring in the May. (Plus it was a great excuse to go frolic in the sweet-scented darkness of early summer.) Lilies-of-the-valley are the flowers of May Day in France, tucked into every buttonhole, while lilacs are associated with May Day in Ireland. And for every country, every province, every county, the flower that blooms on the first of May will be different.
So I began looking for the plants associated with each season in my neighborhood. Though I have long harbored a romantic fantasy of buying land in the country and building my own cottage, I’ve chosen to live in Seattle, in an urban village (Capitol Hill) in the heart of this major metropolis. And so the plants I can gather at the start of spring, at the height of summer, in the waning days of the year, are plants that grow in the city.
Fortunately I have an abundance of materials available to me. One May Day, we made baskets out of orange pill containers with ribbon handles stapled on and filled them with viburnum flowers, cherry blossoms, the lacy fronds of wormwood, the foliage of St. Patrick’s tongue, and some purple flowers that I have not yet been able to identify. One thing that was missing which we usually include was lilac: although it is blooming in our neighborhood, I couldn’t find any blossoms I could reach while prowling around in the dark with my plastic bag and clippers.
This week take a stroll around your neighborhood and create a bouquet of the flowers and foliage that you find. (You might have some ethical concerns about what you can and can’t collect. When in doubt, asking is always recommended. Although I figure that plants growing wild in alleys and vacant lots and freeway verges, are free for the taking.) Bring them into your house, use them to make a wreath or put them in a basket and leave them on a friend’s doorstep. The idea is to find out what is available right now, on this turning point in the year when we celebrate the flowers.
All the photos are mine except for the lovely lily of the valley which was taken by Carmine Profant.
There are several explanations for the derivation of the word Furry, for instance, that it derives from Flora, the Roman goddess (see Apr 28) or from the word for fire? But most likely it comes from the Latin word for fair (feria). It is the name given to the Beltane-like festival celebrated in Helston Cornwall, and featuring decorating with greenery, dancing and singing. It is one of the oldest communal Spring festivals in Great Britain, celebrated for centuries.
On May 1, there is a preliminary event, with music in the morning and night, and spontaneous dancing by children. The festival on May 8th, has a formal structure. There is an Early Morning Dance at 7 am (getting up early is always a feature of May Day rituals) and like most of these early morning rituals is celebrated by the young people, who all wear lilies-of-the-valley (also the flower of May Day in France). Other young people are out in the woods gathering green branches. There is a procession with young men dressed as St Michael, St George, Robin Hood and his men, who sing an ancient song, welcoming the Summer. At ten o’clock children, dressed in white and wearing lilies of the valley, dance. At noon, there is another dance led by the Mayor in his official regalia, and followed by men and women in couples, the men in top hats and morning coats, the women in summer dresses. They dance through the main streets and in and out of all the gardens, shops and houses. There is another dance at 5 pm, which visitors can join, so that the whole town is dancing. In earlier times, there was also a ball at night.
Like other May Day festivities, there’s also an association with water. The young people took anyone caught working on this holiday to the river where they were ordered to either pay a fine or leap across it (which because of its width meant getting wet). They could also demand a toll of any stranger entering town.
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Paladin 1978
Plant profile written by herbalist, Corinne Boyer of Opal’s Apothecary
In the autumn and wintertime, the hawthorn tree with her gnarled bark covered in grey green lichens and her gangly branches reminds me of an old woman. She is a small tree that can usually be found on older homesteads. But in the spring and early summertime she boasts vibrant green leaves that surround many small bouquets of white blooms, often tinged with pink. She becomes a queen! This tree is like the matriarch gatekeeper of the nature spirits in my mind. Many plants/trees seem to possess supernatural powers and hawthorn is one indeed. Here we will find a wealth of folklore and older uses that have been recorded throughout history.
There are around 200 known Cratagus species and they apparently cross easily. The Latin Cratagus comes from the Greek kratos meaning hardness, referring to the strength of the wood. The common European species is Cratagus monogyna and C. oxacantha. The Northwest has a native species, C.douglasii, known as black hawthorn. The genus is native to all temperate zones; Europe, North America and Asia.
Common names for hawthorn include May Flower, May Blossom, White Thorn, Thorn Apple, Hag Thorn, Ladies, Meat, Bread and Cheese Tree and Quick Thorn. The ship the Mayflower from England was named after Hawthorn. The word “haw” comes from the old word for hedge, for which this tree has been used extensively. The planting of hawthorn to provide fencing for pastures, or hedgerows, began in Roman times. Currently in North America, Hawthorn is planted for ornamental purposes and also as a tree that provides both food and shelter to birdlife.
The flowers are gorgeous but smell somewhat stinky and acrid. As the flowers are pollinated by flies and insects that are attracted to carrion, this smell has been compared to the smell of “carnal love” and of rotting flesh! The lime green leaves shine and have a shape that is unmistakable once learned. The autumn display shows off the haws, the fruits of the tree, in various shades of red, from bright to deep. In the winter time the wise tree stands naked, beautiful and her strong thorns can be found with ease.
In European folklore, this tree was considered sacred before the arrival of Christianity and afterwards. In particular, lone standing hawthorns or thorns, that is hawthorns that were not planted but occurred naturally, were known to be fairy trees. It was considered an act of vandalism to remove a bough, or take away fallen branches firewood. If one of these solitary thorns was removed, it could bring death to the family to the person who removed it. It was also believed that if the thorns were ploughed up, all fertility would leave the land. It is amazing to think back to the times when the powers of nature spirits, not science, ruled the collective consciousness.
It was advised to never fall asleep under one, for fear of be taken over by the fairies that abound. An Irish belief is that hawthorn grows over graves or buried treasure. Hawthorns also mark wells. In early May, people tied rags and trinkets to the branches of a hawthorn companion to a holy well. In the Lake District, hawthorns were also associated with justice and older court systems, and were planted near important meeting places.
Hawthorn is strongly associated with May Day celebrations because it blooms around the first of May. Going “a maying” was a happy custom where people would gather the flowering boughs alongside music and horn blowing. At sunrise, the branches were hung over the doorways of homes, which was originally a protective act. Bathing in the dew from a hawthorn on May Day ensured a beautiful complexion. In some parts of England, one was doused with water if a hawthorn sprig was not pinned on during the May Day celebrations.
On May eve, hawthorn could be used in a love divination. A girl would hang a branch of it from her signpost. In the morning, her future husband would come from the direction which it was pointing. If it fell, it foretold no marriage. Hawthorn is associated with love, interesting because of its carnal smell. It is connected with marriage rites and it is often incorporated into a bridal garland or chaplet. It is symbolic of fertility, love, marriage, hope, fruitfulness and spring.
Hawthorn is also associated with witches. In the Channel Islands, they believe witches meet under the solitary hawthorns and that it is dangerous to sit under a thorn on May eve as the tree is likely to transform herself into a witch. Interestingly, this “witch” tree was also used for protection from witches, by way of hanging crosses made of its wood over the house door. Driving a small hawthorn peg into a grave site could prevent the spirit from coming back to haunt the living or from turning into a vampire.
Hawthorn was associated with the powers of protection from lightning, as it was said that the white thorn was never struck by lightning. In fact, it was thought that cutting down the tree itself would cause a thunder and lightning storm. Attaching a sprig to the cradle of a newborn protected the child. Mothers in Burgundy France took their sick children to a flowering hawthorn tree and prayed to the tree for their health. It was thought that carrying a dying person round an ancient thorn three times and bumping against it would help recover their health.
Despite this, it was considered unlucky to bring hawthorn inside and one should never pick the flowers before May eve. An old Cheshire saying goes “May in, Coffin out.” Another old saying goes “Hawthorn tree and Elder flowers, Fill the house with evil powers.” In Ireland the flowers were never supposed to enter the home before June, and by then they would be done, I imagine. Apparently sleeping next to thorn flowering indoors in May would bring great misfortune.
Hawthorn has been used medicinally. The bark was used to soothe sore throats in Scotland, while an infusion of the flowers was good for anxiety and for stimulating the appetite. Also, this leaf infusion was used to ease childbirth pains in East Anglia. In Russia, hawthorn was used to treat conditions of the heart, much as it is used today, in particular for heart pain, angina. Traditional Scottish herbalists used hawthorn for balancing high blood pressure. The use of hawthorn as a heart tonic comes specifically from an Irish physician from the nineteenth century. An infusion of hawthorn leaves was used topically to draw out splinters and bring boils to a head.
The young buds of hawthorn were called ‘pepper and salt’ by country folk or ‘bread and cheese’. I have seen older salad recipes that include young hawthorn leaves in the long list of ingredients. Wine and mead can be made from both the flowers and berries. I like to make mead with the dried flowers–it is excellent! The berries can be infused in brandy or made into conserves along with other fruit, as they are mealy and dry but high in pectin. They are called “pixie pears” in some places. The berries were thought to be best after Halloween, when witches had flown over them.
I love hawthorn tea, made from the dried flowers and leaves of the tree. After drying, the stinky smell seems to lessen. It is a great tonic for circulatory and heart concerns, best used without any other medications and taken for 3-6 months to produce an effect. I make a decoction from the dried berries along with rosehips, hibiscus, cinnamon chips, allspice and a few cloves. This makes a beautiful “Red Velvet Chai” as I like to call it, delicious with a little milk and honey. I have a friend who likes to extract the berries in port wine. Here are some unique and interesting recipes to try.
Hawthorn Flower Syrup- from A Country Harvest- Pamela Michael5 Cups hawthorn flowers Extra sugar- see recipe 4 Cups sugar 5 Cups water 6-7 Tablespoons lemon juice 6-7 Tablespoons rosewater
Layer the flowers with sugar in a jar, until full. Heat the 4 cups sugar, water and strained lemon juice until sugar has dissolved, boil for 3 minutes. Set aside to cool, then add rosewater. Pour the cooled syrup into the jar of prepared flowers. Screw the lids on loose and place in a saucepan on sheets of folded newspaper, with the folded paper between jars to prevent them from touching. Fill pan with cold water and bring to boil then lower heat to barely simmering for one hour. Lift jars and tighten lids. When cold strain and pour syrup into bottles and cork. Store in refrigerator. Keeps for months.
Hawthorn Berry Jelly– From same source above3 Pounds Haws, pick larger ones if possible 3 ¾ Cups of water 1 pound sugar 1 pint lemon juice, strained
Wash berries thoroughly, place in saucepan with water and bring to a boil, cover cook gently for one hour. Occasionally mash berries with wooden pestle. Drip through double thickness of muslin or a jelly bag overnight. Measure juice into a large saucepan, adding sugar and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring continuously until sugar has dissolved, then boil hard for rapidly for 10 minutes or until jelly sets and pour into jars to seal.
References:Treasury of Tree Lore, Josephine Addison, Cherry Hillhouse, 1999 A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Roy Vickery, 1995 Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition- The Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, Gabrielle Hatfield and David Allen, 2004 Hatfield’s Herbal, Gabrielle Hatfield,2009 Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine , Gabrielle Hatfield,2004 Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore , D.C. Watts, 2007 A Modern Herbal Volumes 1 and 2, Maude Grieve, 1931 A Country Harvest, Pamela Michael, 1980
Close-up of white May flowers by Kami Jordan
All other photos taken by Waverly Fitzgerald
First published May 12, 2012
The Turks celebrate the start of summer with picnic outings. One of the traditional dishes served is a Yayla Chorbash, a yogurt soup, which features many foods associated with May Day including dairy, fresh herbs and the colors of white and green.
Spicer in The Book of Festivals says that throughout Eastern Europe, young men go into the woods on May Eve to chop down young fir trees for their sweethearts. The tree is decorated with ribbon and colored eggshells and planted outside the bedroom window, before the gate or on the roof of the house of the beloved. Spicer says that the longer the tree, the longer her life, but I wonder, given the phallic connotations of the Maypole, if the length of the tree really represents something else.
In Scandinavia and Germany, May trees were important for both people and animals and were set up before doors, sometimes one for each animal in a stable. These countries, in which a pastoral lifestyle was an important part of the economy, preserved the sense that this was a time of the year when protection was necessary.
It’s my belief that as you go farther north, and the weather gets colder, seasonal customs further behind, so that the Maypole is more frequently found at Midummer in Scandinavian countries although it is still called the majstang or maypole.
In Italy, Maypoles are called alberi della cucagna (trees from the land of milk and honey). They are greased poles with prosciutto, mortadella cheeses and money dangling from the top. The men try to get these prizes by climbing the pole which is greased with lard. Eventually the grease wears off and someone gets the prize. (A similar custom is found in Wales.) According to Carol Field, Italians also decorate garlands with lemons and ribbons and bring male and female trees into the piazza to be married on May Day, both customs that seem to be part of the Maypole tradition.
In English villages, the Maypole is often decorated with a broom or bush and brought in from the woods with girls riding astride it. The Puritan Stubbes reports (with some disgust) in 1583 on the revelry which surrounds the Maypole:
They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nosegay of flowers tied on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and greens, bound round about with ribbons from top to bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colors, with two or three hundred men and women and children following it with great devotion. And this being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top, they strew flowers on the ground, bind green boughs about it, and set up summer halls, bowers and arbors, hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself.
The cavalier poet, Robert Herrick, reflects on the mating and fertility aspect of the Maypole, referring in this poem to the garlands his daughters made to be placed on the Maypole in hopes of catching rich husbands:The May-pole is up, Now give me the cup; I’ll drink to the Garlands a-round it: But first unto those Whose hands did compose The glory of flowers that crown’d it. A health to my Girls, Whose husbands may Earls Or Lords be, (granting my wishes) And when that ye wed To the Bridal Bed, Then multiply all, like to Fishes.
The Puritans so disapproved of the heathen implications and phallic connotations of the Maypole, that they outlawed them altogether on April 8, 1644 with these words:
And because the profanation of the Lord’s-day hath been heretofore greatly occasioned by Maypoles (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness), the Lords and Commons do further order and ordain That all and singular May-poles that are, or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed.
Yet, the custom was already passing away, as recorded by poet, William Fennor, in 1619:Happy the age and harmless were the days (For then true love and amity were found) When every village did a Maypole raise, And Witson-ales and May-games did abound… Alas, poor May Poles; what should be the cause, That you were almost banish’d from the earth? Who never were rebellious to the laws; Your greatest crime was harmless, honest mirth.
In a similar vein, one of the medieval Welsh poets, Griffith ab Adda, wrote a sad poem chastizing the May pole, which has given up its green grove to wither in the town. I hadn’t thought before about the pathos of the cut tree, like the sadness I feel when I see discarded Christmas trees stuffed into trash cans after Christmas. Here are a few lines from the poem as translated by Joseph P Clancy:Songs of all sorts, well-fashioned, I heard in your green home; Herbs of all kinds grew under Your leaves amid hazel shoots, When to a maiden’s pleasure You dwelt last year in the grove.
Resources:Clancy, Joseph P., Medieval Welsh Lyrics Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun Spicer, Gladys, The Book of Festivals First published April 19, 2011
Labor Day as a worker’s holiday evolved out of struggles of American workers to get the legislature to enact laws reducing the working day from ten to eight hours. The law declaring an eight-hour day passed by the Illinois legislature in 1867 took effect on May 1st and was celebrated with a procession and mass meeting. However, this was only the beginning of the struggle as many states did not adopt similar laws and even in Illinois, the law only applied where written contracts existed with the workers.
The National Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Assemblies decided to support the cause by calling for a general strike on May 1 1886. Although the May 1st processions and strikes were peaceful, the strike continued in Chicago and led to violence outside the McCormick reaper factory on May 3rd and at Haymarket Square on May 4 with both workers and police killed and injured.
In 1889, a congress of World Socialist parties meeting in Paris decided to hold a demonstration in support of American workers on May 1, 1890. The custom spread throughout Europe, reaching its zenith in the spectacular parades in Moscow during the Soviet period.
It seems likely that those who sponsored the holiday were simply taking advantage of an earlier holiday, just like the Christians capitalized on pagan holidays. May Day was already a sort of Labor Day, a day when people took off from their usual work to frolic in the woods. Making it an official day off simply acknowledged what was already common practice. Unfortunately, it also lost that delicious flavor of impulsive abandon, somewhat like school-sanctioned Senior Ditch Days.
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Excerpt from my May Day/Beltane holiday e-book:
Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Or flowers are placed in baskets and left on doorsteps for the recipients to find when they arise in the morning.
In Ireland, Beltane is the only safe day for wearing Irish lilacs (I’m not sure why). In France, the flower of May Day is the lily of the valley. Any wish made while wearing it comes true. The marsh-marigold or kingcup is called the herb of Beltane and is strewn against evil in the Isle of Man. Rosemary is another Beltane herb.
In England, there was a tradition of carrying about May garlands. At Horncastle in Lincolnshire, young boy carried May gads: peeled willow wands were wreathed with cowslips. In other parts of England, the garlands are small wooden crosses covered with flowers and greenery. But the hoop-garland is the most common: made from a framework of intersecting hoops so that the final effect is of a flower-covered globe. Sometimes a May Doll (sometimes said to represent Flora) is placed within or upon it. In Italy, the Bride of May carries the maggio, a green branch garlanded with ribbons, fresh fruits and lemons.
Sometimes flowers were given as messages: plum for the glum, elder for the surly, thorns for the prickly, and pear for the popular. In Lancashire, the flowers rhymed with their qualities. Any kind of thorn meant scorn (except for whitethorn or May), while holly was folly, briar for liars, rowan for affection and a plum in bloom rhymed with “married soon.” According to Porter, in Cambridgeshire, boys gave the popular girls sloe blossoms, while “the girl of loose manners had a blackthorn planted by hers’ the slattern had an elder tree planted by hers; and the scold had a bunch of nettles tied to the latch of her cottage door.” According to Hole, lime (which rhymes with prime) was a compliment and so was pear which rhymed with fair. The rowan (or quicken) since it rhymes with chicken was a sign of affection. But briar, holly and plum stood for liar, folly and glum while the alder (pronounced “owler” in some districts) rhymed with “scowler.” A nut-branch meant the woman was a slut, while a gorse in bloom implied her reputation was doubtful. Other plants you did not want to receive included nettles, thistles, sloes, crab-tree branches and elders. Obviously there are some contradictions in this list, and some unkindness as well.
I find it interesting that the three plants most often associated with May Day: Sweet Woodruff, Lily of the Valley and Hawthorn, all are connected in folklore with the heart. Summer is the time when Chinese medicine places the emphasis on strengthening the heart and the circulatory system. It also seems appropriate for the time of the year when we are focused on relationships and coupling.
For many more ideas on celebrating May Day and Beltane, see my May Day e-book.
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Granada Publishing 1976
Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press 1997
Porter, Enid, Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore, 1969, quoted in Hutton
Image Credit: The hawthorn illustration is from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
First published by April 19, 2010
In Germany, April 30th is Walpurgisnacht, the night when it was believed that witches flew on their brooms to mountaintop gatherings where they danced all night around bonfires. This night is named after St Walpurga, who came from England in the 8th century to become the abbess of a German monastery. Her name became attached to what seems to be a long-standing tradition of celebrating spring on the eve of May Day with bonfires and frolicking.
Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book:
Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is one of my favorite plants. It is a low-lying ground cover with narrow dark-green leaves that grow in whorls around a central stem. It blooms around the first of May: small white flowers with four petals. Woodruff grows best in shade; mine is happy in a part of my garden which is rather moist. In Germany, it is called Waldmeister (master of the forest).
Woodruff does not have a strong fragrance until picked. But once dried, it develops a wonderful sweet aroma, a mixture of hay and vanilla. The scent comes from coumarin, a fragrant chemical also found in melilot and tonka beans. Coumarin is also an anti-coagulant and is used in blood-thinning medication.
Because of the presence of coumarin, the FDA only permits the use of sweet woodruff in alcoholic beverages (does that make sense?). Apparently large quantities have been known to cause vomiting and dizziness. It is probably best not to consume woodruff if pregnant or taking anti-coagulants.
Folk remedies call for the application of woodruff to fresh wounds; Rose speculates this would have kept the blood from clotting and prevent infection. Sweet woodruff was also made into a medicinal tea which soothed the stomach. It was recommended for heart and liver problems. The dried herb is wonderful for scenting potpourris, can be stuffed into sachets and tucked between linens to scent them. It is used to flavor May wine but it also has a reputation for provoking lechery, which may be another reason for its association with May Day.
Woodruff can be grown easily from starts. Mine came from my mentor and friend Helen Farias. Just dig up a little clump, roots and all. Plant it where it will get shade and its roots will stay moist. The plant spreads rapidly but is not invasive.
During my experiments with capturing the scent of plants, I was most successful with sweet woodruff. I let it sit in jojoba oil for about a week and now the oil is delicately flavored with that dry hay/tobacco/vanilla scent that I associate with lying in the grass at midsummer.
The illustration comes from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. The photo was released into the public domain by the photographer. I found it at Wikipedia.
First published April 19, 2010
Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book
May Wine is served on May Day. In Germany, May Wine is the quintessential summer drink. It is usually flavored with Sweet Woodruff (Waldmeister or Maikraut), perhaps because it improves the taste of thin, new wine. May wine is also the name for any wine punch flavored with herbs, fruits, berries and occasionally flowers.
To make May wine, pick sweet woodruff that does not have open blossoms several days before you want to serve the wine. Tie the stems with cotton thread and hang until dry so the sweet vanilla scent of the herb emerges. Then immerse the dried herb in a bottle of wine, usually Rhine wine, although Adelma Grenier Simmons uses champagne or a mixture of half Rhine wine and half champagne.
Some recipes advise you to leave the woodruff in the wine for days, even weeks. Others suggest removing it after ten or fifteen minutes, probably because woodruff contains coumarin, an anticoagulant and may cause headaches. However, it is probably not dangerous, unless you are pregnant or taking anticoagulants.
Michael Moore, writing about Northwest medicinal plants, suggests using vanilla leaf, another herb containing coumarin, to create a substitute for Polish sweet vodka, by putting a handful of the dried leaves in a fifth of vodka and steeping it for at least a month. He says it gives a nice green tint to the vodka, as well as a sweet flavor. Anyone want to try this with woodruff?
And Adelma Grenier Simmons says that a German friend of hers steeps woodruff in brandy year round, then adds the flavored brandy to the May wine. I have to say a little bit of woodruff goes a long way, and I probably wouldn’t leave it steeping in the brandy for much more than a week. Woodruff can also be used in the same way to flavor milk or apple juice if you prefer a non-alcoholic May drink.
The traditional Mai Bowle also has strawberries in it. Simmons garnishes her May bowl with fresh woodruff, Johnny jump-ups and violets. In Germany, the Mai Bowle is served every day during the month of May.
You can find more May Day food ideas, including a special minestrone and frittata served for May Day in Italy and a yogurt dish served for Hidrellez (the Persian celebration of May 1) in my May Day e-book.
Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972
Simmons, Adelma Grenier, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, Plume (Penguin) 1990
First published April 19, 2010