Sunday, September 30, 2012

Prince of Herbs

This post is from an encore series on herbs first published this summer.

Origanum, the species to which both oregano and marjoram belong,
has been cultivated in one variety or another for centuries.
According to, 
the ancient Egyptians grew origanum more than 3000 years ago,
and the Hittites engraved images of the plant even earlier: 1600 BCE.
The Herb Society fact sheet cites R. Le Strange 1977 and Ernest Small 1997 
as saying the herb was often referred to as the "Prince of Herbs"
--probably because of its medicinal, culinary, and religious uses.

Alice M. Coats, in Flowers and their Histories
says the ancient Greeks referred to the plant as
"joy of the mountains" and often decorated 
the graves of their ancestors with the herb 
because it was supposed to ensure a peaceful eternal rest.
Coats also says it was a popular wedding flower 
because its sweet scent was said to be the result 
of the herb having been touched by Venus herself.

Origanum vulgare, or wild marjoram, 
is described as an English native by Coats.
She also cites Nicholas Culpeper, 
who pronounced the herb 'exceedingly grateful,'
no doubt because of the herb's reputation as a healer of all sorts of infirmities,
most interestingly, ''wambling of the stomache.''
Elinour Sinclair Rohde in her book The Old English Herbals
says that 16th-century herbalist John Gerard 
recommended wearing sweet marjoram  
for those persons "who are given to over-much sighing."


Coats also has an interesting story about origanum,
probably derived from Aristotle's observations
about origanum being an antidote to venom,
which I will paraphrase here:
It seems a tortoise would eat  some of the herb before fighting serpents
because it gave him great strength.
But one day a serpent spied the tortoise fortifying himself,
and so cut it up and removed it to foil his advantage. 
The tortoise found himself deprived 
and therefore perished from the serpent's bite.

On a more positive note, Coats tells us that the herb 
was also good for drawing out thorns and splinters
and healing toothaches.
The Herb Society describes a more romantic use, 
one described in a number of  their sources.
According to folklore,
 if a young woman wanted to know who would one day be her husband,
she should place origanum in her bed before she slept.
Then in the night, Aphrodite would appear to her
and reveal his image.
Interesting that her prince charming appears to her 
with help from the prince of herbs.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Master of the Forest

This post is an encore from a series on herbs that first appeared this summer.

Years ago I planted some sweet woodruff  in one of the flower beds
that we had laid out under some black cherry trees.
The sweet woodruff didn't grow as well there as I had hoped;
however, I was able to preserve some of it through drying. 

In the years after we sold that house, 
I kept the dried sweet woodruff inside a glass box,
probably because I had always intended to use it in a recipe I had for May wine.
And I thought it would be fun to honor my German ancestry 
by celebrating May Day with mai wein.
But the dried sweet woodruff remained overlooked for some years.
When I did finally happen upon the box,
the woodruff smelled as sweet as the day I dried it.
Maybe that is one reason why sweet woodruff, asperula odorata,
is called waldmeister or "master of the forest" in German.

sweet woodruff:

But sweet woodruff is not just a German plant, of course.
It has been celebrated in England for centuries as well.
In Flowers and their Histories, Alice M. Coats says that Queen Elizabeth
would bestow a sprig of sweet woodruff on those she favored.
Coats also quotes the herbalist Gerard, who describes sweet woodruff
"'being made up into garlands or bundles, 
and hanged up in houses in the heate of sommer,
in order to "attemper the aire, coole, and make fresh the place...' "

Earlier this summer, 
I planted some sweet woodruff  in a cool, shady, and moist spot.
Thus far it sits, still green, 
but hardly the lush and invasive groundcover I've read it to be.
Perhaps next year it will find its way
and I'll finally make that May wine.
Or I'll tie it into garlands and freshen up the place.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Some Sage Advice

Today's is the second blog in an 8-day encore series on herbs first published this summer.

This one concerns sage.
I have a few varieties of sage in my garden:
common sage, golden sage, variegated sage, purple sage, 
and one of my favorites, pineapple sage.
They are new plants so still very small, 
but sage has a way of growing large and vigorous
when left to its own devices.
Perhaps that vitality is why, historically, 
sage is said to impart immortality to anyone 
who eats it or drinks tea made from it.

golden sage:
 pineapple sage:
  variegated sage:

But the real story I want to share about sage is one described by Alice M. Coats
in her book Flowers and their Histories.
Coats says this story is from the 14th-century Italian author Giovannai Boccaccio.
I'm paraphrasing Coats' report  here:
It seems a certain man was strolling with his paramour through a garden.
He reached down, plucked some sage leaves, 
rubbed them over his teeth and gums,
and promptly fell dead.
His  lady companion was questioned about his death 
and subsequently the judge and others in the court accompanied her to the garden.
She described her lover's death, then took a leaf 
and demonstrated how he had rubbed the sage across his teeth.
She too fell dead upon the ground, much to the shock of all attending.
The judge ordered that the bed of sage be torn up and burned.
And under the sage was found a toad,
who had "infected the Sage with his venomous breath."
This was a warning, then, to all who would clean their teeth 
with the nubby leaf of a sage plant.

I must say I already knew about using a sage leaf for polishing one's teeth.
My mom showed this to me when I was a child, 
and I have rubbed a leaf against my teeth whenever sage has been at hand.
Believe me, 
there is no match for the fabulous way it makes one's teeth feel 
when the tongue is run across them.
It's easy to see why the man in Boccaccio's story 
would have been unable to resist the sage leaf's charms,
especially if he had in mind stealing a kiss from his lady.
But perhaps good advice is good advice, 
regardless of the century in which it comes.
So follow this ancient admonition to "look before you leap."
Check for toads in beds of sage and  follow the wisest course.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Elecampane and Eletelephony

This is the first in an encore series on herbs that first appeared during the summer.

Through the years I have planted small herb gardens 
at the places I have lived. 
Sometimes just a strawberry pot full,
sometimes a whole garden of herbs.
But always some.
And currently, despite the lack of full sun in all my potential planting areas,
I have a few herbs slowly growing here in the Shire. 

But I persist, having always loved the versatility and history of herbs.
Recently I have discovered a couple of old plant books
whose authors had the privilege of studying manuscripts
of some of the best known early English herbals;
for example, Leech's, Gerard's, and Parkinson's, among others.

So I decided to write an 8-day series on herbs, starting today with elecampane.
But my research immediately digressed--not a bad thing in some cultures
because digression in writing is expected and respected,
just not here in the U.S.
Even so, I decided to cover both the herb elecampane
and the poem that comes into my head 
every time I see the herb's name in print:
"Eletelephony" by Laura E. Richards.

We'll start with elecampane.
According to the book "Flowers and their Histories"
by Alice M. Coats,
elecampane, inula helenium, is a tall yellow-blooming plant
that has become naturalized in Europe and America.
Coats says that the herb is called inula helenium
because Helen of Troy was said to have been holding
a bouquet of elecampane
when "Paris carried her away to Phrygia."
Coats also explains that elecampane
was favored by Empress Julia Augusta.
 "A Modern Herbal" by Margaret Grieve,
published by,
attributes this information to Pliny, who wrote
 that the Empress chewed elecampane root daily 
because it was thought to be help "digestion and cause mirth."
I don't have any elecampane growing and have never seen it here.
But for photos of elecampane, search "elecampane"
in Google Images. They have some good ones.
For me, the alliterative effect of the first two syllables
 in elecampane and "eletelephony"
cause these two words to be immediately associated.

So to start, a brief biographical sketch
of Pulitzer Prize winner Laura E. Richards,
from this web site:
According to C. D. Merriman,
Richards was the daughter of Samuel Gridley Howe
who co-founded the school for the deaf
where Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller were students.
And Richards' mother was Julia Ward Howe,
who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Richards wrote "Eletelephony" as part of her 1918 book Tirra Lirra.
Here it is:

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant --
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone --
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I've got it right.)

Howe'er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee --
(I fear I'd better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)

It's a fun poem, and like elecampane,
guaranteed to bring mirth.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Txoria Txori

Sometimes in life, 
shadows fall across us and incredible sadness visits us.
This is the case for our family this week 
as we say good-bye to a man who was a devoted and loving husband, father, 
son, brother, uncle, and friend to so very many.
Everyone who knew him sensed he understood life in ways that few of us could.
He was, and will remain, one of the finest men we have ever known.
In the Euskara (Basque) song "Txoria Txori" (loosely, A bird is a bird)
written by J. A. Artze and sung by Mikel Laboa,
the singer laments the loss of his beautiful bird after it has flown away forever.
Here are the words in English:

If I had cut its wings it would have been mine, 
it wouldn't have flown away.
But then
it would have been a bird no longer,
and it was the bird that I loved.

Here's a link to the song, which has a beautiful melody:

There are so many things one wants to say, so many things. 
But at the heart of life there is only stillness and ultimately, acceptance.
So we loosened our hold and let him fly from us because we loved him.
If only we could have kept you with us a little longer, Rick.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Sweet Surprise

A couple of springs ago, I bought a small stevia plant.
It was already a little gangly in the store; 
but its leaves were soft and green, 
and I had read that it was a good sugar substitute. 
And true, the tiny leaf I had picked off in the store tasted incredibly sweet.
So I brought the stevia home and planted it along the northwest side of my house,
about the only potentially sunny spot I could offer.

That summer the stevia hung on, but it didn't grow very thick.
Even so, every leaf tasted sugary sweet.
I liked it a lot, and one of my dogs who has an un-indulged sweet tooth
even wanted to chew on the plant leaves 
after I let him sniff a sprig I had broken off.

Autumn and winter came and went.
I assumed the stevia wouldn't overwinter, 
especially since the bee balm I had planted next to it hadn't survived.
But the stevia surprised me and returned this spring.
Still not thick and lush, but a plant with a very determined spirit it is.
In searching for sufficient sun, the central stalk grew and grew,
until it was too heavy to stand up on its own.
So it lay down across the stone edging and grew on, 
reaching more than four feet by summer's end. 

Then I went outside a day or two ago and was surprised to see
that the whole plant had flowered.

Tiny white flowers clustered at the ends of the narrow stalks.
The shape of the blossom reminds me of the tiny petals
on Queen Anne's Lace or Baby's Breath.
And so this ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan,
and that's a sweet surprise.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

When Things Begin to Mushroom

Suddenly this week, mushrooms or toadstools, whichever they may be,
are popping up all over what is left of our summer lawn.
Unfortunately, their emergence appears to be utterly random,
not the charming "fairy ring" of white mushrooms 
growing up from the grass in a large circle.

No, our mushrooms are without allure. They are fleshy, tan and smooth.
Some of them are small with tall stems clustered together like enoki mushrooms:

Others look a bit like a lighter colored version of cloud ear mushrooms:

And still others look like tawny parasols:

while others have more of a snout-like quality,
perhaps mocking truffle-hunting pigs:

I enjoy fresh mushrooms on occasion, 
but these yard volunteers don't get an invitation to my table.
I assume that any fungus that pops up in my yard is a poisonous menace.

Fortunately, they have a short life span and quickly go from this:

To this rotting mass:

To looking a bit like the wicked witch after Dorothy threw water on her:

What a world, what a world.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Celebrating the Autumnal Equinox

One could look upon the autumnal equinox 
as the one day in the year when time and space are in perfect, if fleeting, balance.
The autumnal equinox brings us equal measures of day and night
although the difference isn't evident as we go about our weekend plans.

And it is this time of year that makes so many people feel energetic 
and even blissful about the things they are up to.
In the last couple of days, 
I've heard a half-dozen people remark about how glad they are
cooler weather is about to prevail.
Of course, I'm not one of them; so I don't even pretend to agree.
I just smile and say, "Really?"

But I do understand the ebullience someone feels 
when the wheel of time finally rotates back around to their favorite season. 
For many people, the Summer of 2012 
has been memorable for all the wrong reasons:
desperately dry, oppressively humid, and devilishly hot.
In fact, records were set for drought conditions across the United States.
Yet not here in Tidewater,
where we nearly floated away on the rains of August.
But almost everywhere,
the summer brought withering hot temperatures that easily turned this:

Into this:

It can only get better from here.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Virginia Creeper Redux

Everyone can agree that the Virginia Creeper's 
Latin name is parthenocissus quinquefolia
but how it got the name "creeper' is another matter.
Fortunately, given this vine's habit of creeping across the ground
and up, across, and through trees, the mystery is easily solved.

This week another mystery about the vine was solved for me.
I had read before that the Virginia Creeper produces berries in the fall, 
but I had not recalled ever seeing any, 
despite the prevalence of Virginia Creeper around our house. 
So I googled Virginia Creeper berries and what did I find?
A photo very similar to one I had taken at the Dismal Swamp 
only a couple of weeks before:

I had to laugh at my complete lack of awareness.
 I can't imagine how I failed to make that connection before, but there it was. 
So now I have another reason that I like Virginia Creeper so much:
its beautiful blue berries on those lipstick red stems.

I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard a suite of Chopin's nocturnes. 
When my favorite one came on, Nocturne No. 2,
I thought its chords evoked the vining, trailing habit
of the Virginia Creeper as it meanders and weaves its way through the forest.

This is a link to pianist Yundi Li performing Chopin's Nocturne No. 2.
It's one of the most beautiful compositions for piano I've ever heard:

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Virginia Creeper

If the cooler temperatures here in the Shire
hadn't indicated autumn's approach,
then the red, yellow, and orange leaves that are beginning to appear 
in the trees certainly would have.

Our neighborhood is planted with dozens of crepe myrtle trees,
and I noticed yesterday the first colors of fall showing in them.
Crepe myrtle leaves have just started to turn a vivid orange this fall 
which is quite eye-catching.
When I saw that yesterday, I figured the leaves of the Virginia Creeper vines
must not be too far behind.
So I went exploring in the forested area behind our house.
And there they were:

There color is more of a blushy pink right now,
although the longer the season goes, the more brilliant red they will become.

Many people confuse Virginia Creeper with poison ivy,
but it is not at all the same. Poison ivy has three leaves, 
Virginia Creeper has five and they have toothed edges.
One thing the two vines do have in common is that insects enjoy munching on them.
The insects that lunched on these Virginia Creeper leaves
loved them so much, they chewed out little heart shapes:

That's probably the insect version of  'playing with your food.'
Tomorrow, a couple of more thoughts on Virginia Creeper.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Tao of Autumn

He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.
                                                                        --Lao Tzu

I noticed yesterday that fallen leaves are scattered along city streets.
And when I got home, I realized that our river birch 
had already lost nearly half of its leaves.
There's nothing that says approaching autumn more than falling leaves.
And seeing so many thousands of leaves drifting from the trees
always makes me marvel at the abundance nature brings.

I've mentioned before my dad's reminiscences, 
and one thing he often remarked upon was 
how much he enjoyed his extended family's working together 
to harvest the remaining fruits of summer and early autumn.
He would talk about the orchard "at home," saying:

There's nothing better than coming home from school in the afternoon
in the fall of the year and going out to the orchard,
and climb up clear to the top and get a nice big, juicy peach and eat it.

That remark has always stuck with me. 
Not just because of the image of my father as a happy young boy,
but because something whispers to me 
that his appreciation of the harvest and the season 
offers a simple yet profound wisdom 
about the good things that life gives us 
without our first seeking after them.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bright Star

One of the earliest memories I have of my paternal grandfather 
is from a summer night 
when he and my grandmother sat in lawn chairs in their backyard,
looking up at the night sky.
 I was running myself silly chasing my cousins around the house, 
stopping occasionally to wiggle my way into Grandpa's chair 
before jumping out to continue the chase.
One time after pushing my way on and off of his chair,
he said, "Stay here with me and look at the stars."
I looked  up; the sky was dark, the stars sparkling. 
And then I was off again.

Image courtesy of :
Looking at the stars has always been a family pastime.
Some summer nights, we would sit on blankets in the front yard and stargaze.
My dad would point out the only two constellations he knew: 
the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.
Then he would direct our attention to the Milky Way Galaxy's billions of stars
 sweeping across the sky.
We didn't really care that we didn't know the names of the stars.
It was enough to sit together in the dark and see them twinkling.
The other morning we were awake before dawn, 
and my husband told me there was another bright star in the sky.
I went outside and looked. The bright star in the eastern sky sparkled brilliantly.
I'm not sure if it was Venus or Sirius, the Dog Star.
As in my childhood, the sparkle was the more important part,
and I was excited to see that the dark sky was full of bright stars.
I had been thinking of stars since then, how much I like them,
how infrequently they are visible amidst the wash of city lights.
Then yesterday, a friend of mine showed me a poem he had copied:
Bright Star by Keats. 
That seemed a happy coincidence, and the poem is beautiful,
so I want to include part of it here:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task,
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors ...

The poem finishes with a declaration of love.
Love and stars remain intertwined through the centuries.
And it's nice to know that when we're looking up at the stars here,
someone we love may be looking up at them from afar.
As the lyrics of the song "Somewhere out There" reassure us,
we might be wishing on the same bright star.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

To Watch the Wind

To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
                                                                 --Lao Tzu

Sometimes there are days so filled with obligations,
there is little time for anything else but tending them.
On those days, I often find myself wishing that I could just stop everything: 
the plans, the demands and activities of the day,
the planning for tomorrow, for next week, and for a month from now.
And if I could stop it all for a moment, I would sit.
I would feel the warmth of the afternoon sun on my face.
I would listen to the birds sing and 
watch the wind blow through the grass.
And I would stay there until the evening shadows fell around me.
Most western cultures are ageric
meaning they value ceaseless productivity and action.
In these cultures, just spending one's time sitting is considered slothful.
But in non-ageric cultures, sitting is a respected pastime.
The value of just sitting as the moments slip away is understood.
And as the autumnal equinox approaches, 
it seems to me that if seasons were cultures, 
spring and summer would be ageric 
and fall and winter would be non-ageric.
In autumn the striving of summer ceases, 
and everything begins its rest.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

The Color of September

If one were asked to name the colors of September,
answers would likely include oranges, yellows, and golds,
or reds ranging from burgundy to scarlet to vermilion.
But to me, the color of September is blue.

September in the Shire brings clear blue skies:

Not turquoise, not midnight blue, nor teal, nor robin's egg blue.
No, for me, the only blues that are emblematic of September
are lapis, French ultramarine, deep sky blue, Egyptian blue, or sapphire--
any blue that is saturated and pure without influences of yellow, red, or gray.

Like a lot of people, I probably got the idea that months have colors
by reading lists of birthstones and flowers by month.
I remembered that September's birthstone is sapphire 
and its flower is an aster, likely a clear blue aster.
Some lists include forget-me-nots and morning glories--both a rich blue.

But I read an interesting article in Wikipedia about birthstones.
The wikipedia article cites several sources, including those below.
They explain that the tradition of assigning gemstones to a month 
dates back to before the tenth century.
Bruce G. Knuth, author of Gems in Myth, Legend, and Lore (Revised Edition)
writes that in the original practice, devotees owned 12 gemstones,
one symbolizing each apostle or possibly one for each sign of the zodiac,  
and wore one each month.
Somewhere that practice evolved into each month being assigned its own gem.
Knuth also cites a 19th-century Hindu text, Mani Mala,
that listed birthstones by months.
In the Hindi tradition, the gem for September was zircon, 
which can be aquamarine blue or dark gold.

But a month's birthstone has not remained the same in Western culture. 
Over the centuries, a month's corresponding gemstone has changed repeatedly.
Up until the early part of the 20th century, 
the gem for September was alternately listed as peridot or topaz.
Sapphires were the gems for April.
George F. Kunz, author of The Curious Lore of Precious Stones 
says that sapphires were assigned to September 
by the National Association of Jewelers in 1912.

The Planetary Gemologists Association at
says that sapphire is the gemstone for the planet Saturn
because Saturn transmits cosmic energy through the gem.
In this regard, a sapphire-Saturn astral talisman can deflect envy,
avert dangerous influences, and protect one during travel.
The site recommends one wear the sapphire talisman on Saturdays
for two hours and forty minutes before the sun sets
and after reciting a mantra twenty-three times.

Well, I am intrigued.
It would be great if that were effective for curing one's ills.
My personal astrology chart shows Saturn rising, 
but the PGA web site warns that in such a case,
Saturn can sometimes cause stupidity. 
So in consideration of that, I'll forestall any further risk to my intellect
and refrain from trying the talisman ritual.
Enjoying the blue skies of September from here in the Shire 
will be cosmic energy enough for me.

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