Savouring Summer

August is waning, and our cottage vacation is over, but there is still some summer left to enjoy! I made this After-sun Spray for my sister, who spends tons of time outdoors birdwatching and capturing stunning nature photographs. (I, on the other hand, am a moon-worshipping troglodyte; even though I adore the natural world, I eschew the sun like a 14th century peasant trying to avoid the Black Death.)

Once again, this is a recipe from Pinterest, and my sister reports that it is a very successful one. The fragrant, non-greasy spray – which can be used any time, not just after sun exposure – contains aloe vera, witch hazel and Vitamin E to soothe, calm and refresh the skin. Omit the Vitamin E oil if you can’t find it or it’s too expensive.

After-sun Spray

  • 2 oz. (60 mL) glass spray bottle
  • 1 tbsp witch hazel (look for the alcohol-free kind; I like Thayers)
  • 2 tbsp aloe vera gel
  • 1/4 tsp Vitamin E oil (optional)
  • 1 tbsp fractionated coconut oil
  • 6 drops lavender essential oil
  • 2 drops peppermint essential oil

Mix ingredients well and decant into spray bottle. Shake before using. Spray on skin (avoid eyes) and gently rub in.

My sister has recently begun a WordPress blog, Nature’s Dance, where she’s just started posting about native flora and fauna, her birding and travel experiences and articles about her photography exhibits. There you’ll also find a fledgling (see what I did there?) gallery of her amazing images, plus a link to her Flickr website featuring many, many more. (She does, by the way, offer all her photos for sale…) Please do check her out!

“All these herbs are nice, but where’s the catnip?” A summery image captured a few years ago at the cottage by my sister.

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It’s All Cool

Time has flown in more ways than one. Here we are halfway through summer, and today is the one year anniversary of this blog! I haven’t been able to write much in the last few weeks, and I know I’ve missed a lot. Things have been happening – things I needed to take care of – but now they’re done, and it’s all cool.

A major project has been revitalizing my Etsy shop. I chose a fresh new name, thereby uniting my shop, blog and Facebook page with a single identity. After careful consideration, I finally settled on Gillyflower Faire, which resonates with me on multiple levels: it’s a little bit archaic, a term for a marketplace, a nod to the Wee Folk, and a description (hopefully) of my handmade baubles. So, I said a fond farewell to Wood So Wild, and set about the many tasks necessary to incorporate this change.

I’ve added many new listings to the shop, including a line of beaded jewellery. The beaded pieces feature genuine gemstones – each chosen for a specific meaning – or wood or glass seed beads, accented with sterling silver and other metals. The styles are sleek and uncomplicated – the type of jewellery I like to wear. And I enjoy working in themes, so I’ve done a few chakra/rainbow pieces, evil eye talismans, and even some using Canadian gems to celebrate this country’s 150th birthday! Here you see just a few examples; there are many more to come.

This flurry of change and activity, combined with the sultry summer heat and the lack of air conditioning at home and in my now-defunct car, has left me in a sweat. My internal temperature control has been broken for years, and now, at this stage of life, it takes very little (stress, or any ambient temperature above 0° C) to turn me into a raging inferno. My friends and co-workers, being kind souls, tell me that when I’m in the grips of a hot flash, I don’t actually show it – aside from my frantic fanning of any item within reach – but I don’t see, or feel, how that can possibly be. You ladies of a certain age know precisely what I mean.

I’ve written before about a few items I keep handy to combat those uncomfortable moments. I continue to use arrowroot powder, either as-is or scented with a few drops of essential oils, as a herbal body powder. Arrowroot powder, also known as arrowroot flour or starch, is made from the powdered rhizomes of several types of tropical plants, notably Maranta arundinacea. It was once used to treat poison arrow wounds, hence the name, and is used as a food thickener as well as in cosmetics. Natural and safe, lightweight and silky, it’s the perfect alternative to cornstarch or talc. Arrowroot powder is inexpensive and found at bulk food and grocery stores.

The batch I made this summer has a fresh, invigorating herbal fragrance and uses essential oils known for their antiseptic properties (lavender, thyme) to combat nasty, sweat-loving bacteria, as well as ones reputed to relieve menopausal symptoms (clary sage, grapefruit). If you can get the shaker top off and on again, go ahead and reuse an empty baby powder bottle. I found 4 oz. plastic shakers at one of my favourite suppliers, Voyageur Soap & Candle Co. Here’s my recipe:

Talc-free Herbal Body Powder

  • small container with shaker lid
  • arrowroot powder
  • essential oils of lavender, Roman chamomile, clary sage, white thyme and pink grapefruit, or use your own favourite combination

Fill container halfway with arrowroot powder. Add 5 to 6 drops of each essential oil. Cover top of container and shake to combine. Fill the bottle with more arrowroot and snap on the lid. Shake thoroughly. Use as a body powder, avoiding eyes.

Another way to beat the heat is a cooling body mist. I found this recipe on Pinterest and dressed up my bottle with snowflake stickers. This lovely-smelling mixture contains soothing, skin-loving witch hazel, which constricts blood vessels to create a cooling sensation that lasts for several minutes on the skin. It’s especially good on hot, tired feet. You can keep the mist at room temperature or in the refrigerator for an extra icy blast.

Peppermint Mist Cooling Spray

  • 2 oz. glass spray bottle
  • 2 tbsp distilled water
  • 2 tbsp witch hazel
  • 4 drops peppermint essential oil
  • 4 drops lavender essential oil

Combine water, witch hazel and essential oils in bottle, add cap and shake thoroughly before each use. Do not use on the face.

From Lemon to Balm

The first time I followed an online recipe to make my own natural solid perfume, I found that the method (adding essential oils to melted beeswax and a carrier oil) worked beautifully, but the resulting product had far too little fragrance; in fact, there was no fragrance at all, except for the beeswax! Don’t get me wrong … I love beeswax. I go to health food stores and stand for minutes at a time blissfully inhaling the deliciousness of every honey-scented candle. But since the idea was to use all those lovely essential oils to make an actual perfume, I was – naturally – quite disappointed.

The recipe went wrong, I think, in calling for a lot of beeswax – already quite aromatic – and sweet almond oil, and only a few drops of each essential oil. Perhaps that was, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, like “butter scraped over too much bread.” The proportions definitely needed tweaking, and as I experimented with other recipes (see some of them here), I came to the conclusion that quite a bit more essential oil was needed to make an impact.

Around the same time, I was in the midst of researching fixatives for my post on the basics of perfume formulation. I read that, besides its benefits to perfumery, frankincense oil is a good analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic; it also soothes, calms, fades scars and wrinkles and promotes wound healing. Its ability to reduce pain and swelling is shared by several other essential oils, and that’s when the lightbulb went on.

Since I didn’t want to waste the materials I’d used in my failed attempt, I figured there was nothing wrong with digging them out of the tin, re-melting them and adding the new essential oils to make a balm – one that I’ve, ahem, sorely needed for several weeks now.

Lately I’ve been suffering from a painful flare-up of arthritis in my toes, which has led to persistent swelling of my feet and ankles – particularly troublesome since my coaching job keeps me on my feet for hours at a time, and I’ve been wearing heels to my new office job. (No longer; I’ve abandoned high fashion for ballet flats or cushy moccasins.) Whenever I’m at home, I have to sit with my feet propped up on cushions, which gives only minor, temporary relief. I don’t like the idea of using one of those rub-in analgesics that contain capsaicin, which can sting terribly if it somehow gets in the eyes or mucous membranes. (You shouldn’t put essential oils there, either.) Given the new information about frankincense et al, I finally had a way to deal with the perfume-gone-wrong!

To my re-melted mixture, I added the essential oils of frankincense, sweet orange and German chamomile, all of which are supposed to be good for arthritis and painful joints. I also added another squirt of almond oil to help make it a little softer and easier to rub into the skin.

Now, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV, so I can’t make any claims as to my mixture’s medicinal or therapeutic value, but the resulting fragrance is lovely, and it makes for a pleasurable massage. I don’t know why, but it produces a slight cooling sensation for a couple of minutes after it’s rubbed in, too, which is quite nice. I’ve used it on sore joints and dry skin, and, yes, as a perfume. In fact, of all the solid perfumes I’ve attempted, this one is my very favourite!

Gillyflower’s Orange Frankincense Balm (2 fl. oz. / 60 mL)

2 tbsp beeswax
2 tbsp sweet almond oil
up to 50 drops frankincense essential oil
up to 50 drops sweet orange essential oil
up to 50 drops German chamomile essential oil
2 oz. glass or metal container

Combine the essential oils and set aside • In a Pyrex measuring cup inside a double boiler, gently melt the beeswax and almond oil together over medium heat • Remove pot from heat and let sit for 10 minutes, then add the essential oils and stir well • Dry off the outside of measuring cup and pour mixture into balm container • Allow to cool and solidify • Yields about 2 fl. oz. (60 mL)

A Beautiful Day, but … Bugs

Fern frond: the pale promise of a lush summer

On the weekend, our family travelled to the cottage to open it up for the season. The long-awaited day was sunny and warm, and all the familiar signs of an island spring were there: trilliums in the woods, wild columbine near the house, trailing arbutus flowering on rocky slopes. Warblers, goldfinches, chickadees and phoebes, back from their winter haunts, twittered exuberantly, and the sun sparkled like diamonds on the deep blue lake.

As the guys got the water system working, uncovered the chimney and carried heavy benches to our favourite shore-side lookouts, we gals busied about taking furnishings and kitchen implements out of mouse-proof storage, putting down my mother’s hand-hooked rugs, setting out iconic Muskoka chairs, sweeping old pine needles from paths and getting a start on tidying the gardens.

I reveled getting my hands dirty as I gathered up last autumn’s leaves and pulled weeds. I dug up a clump of thyme to take home with me. The original was planted many years back by my sister and has spread happily along the garden’s border and in the crevices of the concrete path and stairs leading down to the dock. In summer, when we’re there for our vacation, I love sitting on those sunny steps with a cup of tea, brushing my hands idly through the fragrant herb. Potting it up for our balcony at home will be a little reminder of those blissful times.

Blueberry bush blossoms

With these pleasant tasks and beautiful weather came a pesky scourge that can’t be avoided this time of year in southern Ontario: blackflies. (Mosquito season comes a little later, oh bliss, oh joy!) Even with the breezes from the lake, working outside or taking a photo walk in the woods invites hordes of these voracious biters. I came home with a mass of bites, mostly on my scalp and nape of the neck, but they even managed to get under my shirt, down my pants and through my socks! If you don’t know blackflies, the worst bites take a bloody chunk out of you, and the histamine in their saliva (similar to mosquitoes) causes an unsightly, itchy, oozing red lump that can last for days.

The first step in a garden-variety insect bite remedy is to clean the site with water, alcohol wipes or rubbing alcohol. (If you’re bitten by a poisonous species, or if a severe allergic reaction occurs, seek medical help immediately.) Alcohol creates a cooling sensation as it dries out and shrinks the bite, helping to reduce swelling and inflammation; it also disinfects to help prevent infection.

After that, I used what I already had in the first-aid section of the apothecary: Burt’s Bees Res-Q ointment, which contains soothing oils of olive, sunflower, soybean and canola, beeswax and cocoa butter, Vitamin E (tocopherol), plus lavender, rosemary and comfrey extracts. The ointment smells lovely and, although greasy, was instantly soothing and itch-calming. Badger’s unscented Baby Balm with chamomile and calendula, or any calendula salve, would work fine, too. Calendula is a powerful antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and wound healer and is safe on babies and for application to open cuts or bites. (However, it is known to cause allergic reaction in some individuals and shouldn’t be used by pregnant women.)

Although I got some relief with the salve, I began to wonder – as always – if I could find a cheaper alternative, using what was already in my cupboards. After some research and testing, I settled on the following simple treatments that cost pennies, or nothing at all, take only seconds to prepare, and can be found in most kitchens or gardens.

Ten Natural Bug Bite Relief Remedies

The methods marked with an asterisk (*) were tested on myself. While each provided some degree of temporary relief, I’ve listed them from the most to least effective, with a few untested ones at the end.

* Witch Hazel: Cleanses and cools, constricts blood vessels and reduces inflammation, eases pain, itching and burning and speeds healing. I found immediate, lasting relief with this one, and for me, witch hazel was the clear winner … literally, as it leaves no colour or residue, and the odor is very mild. The alcohol in the brand I used is beneficial in this case, but you can find alcohol-free varieties. To use: Moisten a cotton ball and apply to affected area up to four times per day.

 * Apple Cider Vinegar: Any type of vinegar is antibacterial and astringent. Apple cider vinegar is less acidic than other varieties, and its alkalinity helps balance the pH level of the affected area. It can be used on its own, or you can add essential oil for added benefit. This is best used on small areas; otherwise, you’ll end up smelling like salad dressing! Don’t use on open wounds. To use: Dampen a cotton ball with vinegar (white vinegar works, too) and apply to the bite. Or, add up to 5 drops of lavender essential oil to 1 tsp of vinegar, soak cotton ball and apply hourly. For a lasting effect, tape the soaked cotton ball over the bite for an hour or two.

* Baking Soda or Oatmeal: An alkaline paste of baking soda and water neutralizes the pH level of the surrounding skin and reduces itching, and oatmeal soothes inflammation. If the bites are many or the discomfort intense, soak for a few minutes in a baking soda or oatmeal bath. Spot application will leave a white or pasty residue. To use: Combine 1 tsp of baking soda or oatmeal with 1 tsp warm water to make a paste. (Optional: add a couple of drops of lavender oil.) Apply directly to skin with a cotton ball or fingers and allow to dry. Alternatively, add ½ cup baking soda or 1 cup oatmeal to a warm bath.

* Lemons and Limes: The citric acid in these fruits has itch-relieving properties. To use: Rub a slice of lemon or lime, or dab their juice onto the insect bite.

* Black Tea: The astringent tannins in black tea help shrink inflammation and reduce discomfort. Take care to avoid staining clothes with the tea. To use: After making a nice cuppa, press the warm tea bag to the affected area, reusing the same bag a few times before discarding.

* Basil or Peppermint Leaves: Basil is anti-inflammatory and contains thymol and camphor which are natural itch relievers, and peppermint works to cool an inflamed or burning bite. Note that the juice from the crushed leaves will stain the skin a light olive green until it’s washed off. To use: Crush fresh basil or peppermint leaves using a mortar and pestle or your fingers and apply the paste directly to bite.

* Honey: Honey is antimicrobial and soothing. Because it’s so sticky, this is best used on open areas that won’t come in contact with clothing, furnishings or dirt. To use: Dab raw, unprocessed honey on bite.

Essential Oils: Each of these essential oils has its own properties to help ease and heal the pain, itch and burning of insect bites and stings. You could make up a little vial or rollerball bottle for easy and portable application. To use: Dilute a few drops of one of the above in a spoonful of olive or coconut oil and dab a little on skin. Two or three essential oils can also be combined in a larger quantity of carrier oil for a more intense treatment if the bites or stings are severe.

Lavender – analgesic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, calming

Peppermint – contains menthol which cools burning and stinging

German chamomile – reduces inflammation and encourages healing

Eucalyptus – antiseptic and analgesic

Rosemary – reduces itch and irritation

Tea tree (melaleuca) – antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving (not to be used on open wounds)

Aloe Vera: Aside from a commercial preparation, you can use gel straight from the aloe plant. Make sure you have the true Aloe vera species, not another variety, as this is the only one that is therapeutic and can safely be used on skin. To use: Break off a leaf, scoop out the inner gel and apply directly to the bite.

Chamomile Tea Ice Cubes: Chamomile has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cleansing properties, and the application of cold to a bite brings down swelling and reduces pain. To use: Freeze brewed, cooled chamomile tea in an ice cube tray. Apply cube for a few seconds at a time to the inflamed bite.

DIY Natural Solid Perfume

My family likes to get together two or three times a year to celebrate group birthdays. We decided long ago to forego gift-giving on these occasions and at Christmas; just cards (the sillier the better), good food and company are all that are needed. However, the women in the family can’t seem to help themselves and sometimes bring little goodies – inexpensive ‘just because’ tokens that we know will delight. The recipients are usually the other ladies; the men, who manage to stick firmly to the no-gifts policy, are almost always out of luck, and that seems to suit them just fine.

Our latest bash, which incorporated birthdays from January through March, happened to coincide with the Easter weekend, and we did it at a local restaurant. The goodies and treats were duly produced, and soon the place settings were marked by little bags of chocolate eggs, jelly beans, cocktail napkins in pretty pastels and other small trinkets. There was lots of ooo-ing and ahh-ing from the girls. The guys just sat there bemused, drinking their beers and shaking their heads at all this flagrant frippery.

Since I’m all about fragrance-making this month, I brought along little tins of handmade solid perfume made with pure beeswax, skin-loving almond oil and essential oils. Each woman got her own blend, and I tried to match the fragrance to her unique personality. See below for the recipes, but first, here’s the how-to:

Solid Perfume Basic Method: (makes one 0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL tin)

  • 1 tsp beeswax (pellets or small pieces, firmly packed like brown sugar)
  • 1 tsp sweet almond oil (or jojoba or apricot kernel oil)
  • 75 to 90 drops total essential oils
  • 0.5 fl. oz. glass jar or metal tin with lid

Pre-mix essential oils in a small container and set aside • Add beeswax to a Pyrex measuring cup and place inside a larger pot filled with a couple of inches of water to make a double boiler • Melt wax gradually over medium-high heat • When wax is mostly melted, mix in almond oil using a disposable wooden stir stick • Remove double boiler from heat, wait a couple of minutes to allow the mixture to cool slightly (but not start to harden); this will help preserve the integrity of the essential oils • Add essential oils and mix well • Carefully remove measuring cup and quickly dry off the outside so no water gets into the poured mixture • Working quickly, pour into perfume container; the wax will start to solidify almost immediately • Allow to cool and harden completely before adding lid

Apply with fingertips or cotton swab to pulse points • Perform a small patch test first • Do not get in eyes or mucous membranes • Do not wear perfume which contains citrus oils in direct sunlight • Avoid exposing solid perfume to extreme temperatures

Tip: To clean out the container you used to melt the beeswax, replace in double boiler and heat, allowing any leftover wax to soften. Wipe out residue quickly with paper towel, then wash thoroughly in soap and water.

Try the recipes below, or check out this list of essential oils to create your own spring or summer fragrance. The post also includes formulation guidelines for a balanced, lasting blend.

Lavender Lemon solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

This delightfully refreshing blend is my take on the big-name (starts with P) lemon blossom solid perfume found in natural food stores – the one that got me started on my fragrance kick this month. I made this bright scent for my sister-in-law. The number of drops needed are listed beside each oil. (t = top note   m = middle note   b = base note   f = fixative)

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 25 lemon (t) • 25 pink grapefruit (t) • 15 lavender (m) • 20 frankincense (b, f)

Citrus Woods solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

My sister, who, like me, favours citrus/herbal/woodsy combinations, got this one. The unisex scent is orangey with a darker, slightly mysterious undertone.

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 15 lemon (t) • 15 pink grapefruit (t) • 20 sweet orange (t) • 10 cedarwood (m) • 20 sandalwood (b) 10 frankincense (f)

Like a May Morning solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

Anyone who loves the ’80s TV series Robin of Sherwood will recognize these words, used by our dashing hero to describe Lady Marion at their first meeting. It’s also my favourite diffuser blend, rendered here in a solid perfume. I gave this pretty floral to a dear relative who’s been going through rough times lately.

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 25 pink grapefruit (t) • 35 bergamot (t) • 20 jasmine (m) • 10 cistus (b, f)

Springtime in Paris solid perfume (0.5 fl. oz. / 14 mL)

This solid version of my spring blend was inspired by a charming book called The Little Paris Bookshop, lent to me by my mother. Naturally, that fine lady was the recipient of this fresh and floral perfume.

1 tsp beeswax • 1 tsp sweet almond oil • 30 sweet orange (t) • 15 rose (m) • 20 sandalwood (b) • 10 frankincense (f)

Moisturizing Hand Wash

You can make this recipe without the almond oil and glycerin, but the addition of these ingredients makes this hand cleanser silky and moisturizing. It works great if the bottle has a foaming pump – reuse an old one if possible; a regular soap or lotion bottle will work, too, but won’t dispense much foam.

Try these essential oil combinations in your hand cleanser, each of them featuring bright citrus to help deal with kitchen prep odours such as onions and garlic:

Sunny Citrus:  3 lavender • 12 sweet orange • 12 lemon (I made a bottle for myself and one for my mom, who loved it!)

Lemons ’n Roses:  8 lemon • 8 rose geranium • 8 grapefruit

Citrus Mint:  6 tangerine • 6 grapefruit • 6 lime • 6 spearmint

How To:

  • 16 oz. (500 mL) bottle with pump dispenser
  • ¼ cup unscented liquid castile soap
  • 1 tbsp sweet almond oil (or fractionated coconut/apricot kernel/jojoba oil)
  • 1 tbsp vegetable glycerin
  • up to 25 drops essential oils (a few drops more or less is fine)
  • 1 ¼ cups distilled water

Mix castile soap, almond oil and glycerin together and pour in bottle. Add your choice of essential oils. Add distilled water, making sure to leave room for the pump and to allow the mixture to foam up when shaken. Shake well before each use.

6-drop Diffuser Blends for Spring

Fresh and floral, clean and fruity, relaxing or invigorating – try these essential oil recipes in your diffuser to clarify and refresh the air in your home.

These are blends I’ve formulated and tested in my ceramic tealight diffuser, which holds about 2 tablespoons of tap water. If you own a different type, please follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

To Use: Add water to the bowl of your diffuser and drop in the essential oils. (Adjust amounts as desired.) Light the candle and enjoy! Caution: Never leave open flame unattended, and check the water level frequently.Sunrise:  2 lemon • 2 sweet orange • 2 peppermint

En Plein Air:  1 lavender • 2 cedarwood • 3 tangerine

 Raindrops:  1 vetiver • 2 peppermint • 3 lemon

Spring Cleaning:  1 rose geranium • 2 lime • 3 pink grapefruit

Herb Garden:  1 lavender • 1 rose geranium • 2 chamomile • 2 bergamot

Fresh Citrus:  1 lemon • 1 tangerine • 2 pink grapefruit • 2 lime

Springtime in Paris:  2 rose • 2 sweet orange • 2 sandalwood

Gillyflower:  3 clove • 3 lemon

Orange Grove:  2 sweet orange • 2 lime • 2 frankincense

And my absolute favourite:

Like a May Morning:  1 jasmine • 2 pink grapefruit • 3 bergamot