April Violets

That which above all yields the sweetest smell in the air is the Violet.
– Sir Francis Bacon, Of Gardens, 1625

Nostalgic and delightfully old-fashioned violet perfume has been made by Lownds-Pateman of Torquay since 1921.

The sweet violet (Viola odorata, aka common or English violet) has been prized for millennia as a highly-scented garden flower and medicinal herb, lending its delicious fragrance and vibrant colour to perfume, potpourri and food.

All parts of this plant, which contains salicylic acid, have therapeutic value. The Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE) prescribed violets, which were used thereafter in folk medicine as an expectorant for respiratory disorders such as whooping cough, as a purgative, to encourage appetite, cure insomnia and treat eye, ear and skin infections.

Medieval culinary recipes called for violet-flavoured custards and omelettes, as well as a food colouring made from a syrup of violet blossoms and cowslip (primrose). Violet water and perfume, popular birthday gifts, would have been essential for keeping overpowering body odours at bay. Candied violets, a 19th century French delicacy, are still made today by brushing fresh flowers with egg white or sugar-water syrup and sprinkling with fine sugar.

Great-spurred Violet (Viola selkirkii)

The flower has been associated with purity and the Virgin Mary. Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine, so favoured the violet that it became a Bonaparte family symbol, and in the Victorian language of flowers, when plants were used by lovers to send discreet messages, the violet stood for modesty and faithfulness.

This blossom has appeared in many famous artworks, from medieval manuscripts to the late-15th century French tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, to Manet’s Bouquet of Violets and many more. Poets have opined about the modest mauve flower, too. A ‘nodding violet’ grows on a bank in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Goethe writes of ‘a pretty little violet’, blushing quietly in the meadow (Das Veilchen / The Violet), Wordsworth likens his dead sweetheart to a half-hidden ‘violet by a mossy stone’ in The Lost Love, and Cristina Rossetti frequently uses the short-lived spring blossom as a metaphor for youth and brief-flowering love. Here is an excerpt from To Violets by Robert Herrick (1591-1674):

Yet you are
More sweet than any.
You’re the maiden posies,
And so graced
To be placed
‘Fore damask roses.

V. odorata is native to Europe, not Canada. Nevertheless, sweet violets appeared in the grass at my childhood home – escaped garden plants that showed up every spring like uninvited yet welcome guests. We would gather them by the handful and set their short, delicate stems in a tiny silvered vase. The fragrance of these precious little nosegays lasted only a short time, but oh, how sweet they were!

When I was a young girl, my mother gave me a tiny cottage-shaped bottle of violet perfume. She had received it – empty – as a trinket from her aunt when she was a girl. To this day, it still retains a whiff of the fragrance, which is how I came to know the old-fashioned, sweet and powdery scent made since 1921 by Lownds-Pateman of Torquay. A couple of years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I purchased two bottles of the emerald-green perfume from eBay. (I gave one to my mom.) It’s still the same, heady fragrance that I remember, but I don’t know that I actually want to go around wearing it!

Such sweet attributes make the modest violet one of my favourite flowers. I do miss the little clumps that once adorned our lawn!

This Metropolitan “Violet Leopard” fountain pen, from Pilot’s Animal collection, pairs perfectly with J. Herbin’s dark purple Poussière de Lune ink. Shown with postcards from the early 1900s, each featuring spring violets.


Herbal Hearts & Hand Wash

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Just For You: a pretty heart of dried lavender buds and rose petals. May your day be sweetly-scented and filled with flowers, champagne, chocolate and lots of love!

Here’s a body product I’ve been meaning to make for some time now: organic scented foaming hand cleanser. This easy-to-make soap requires only three main ingredients:  liquid castile soap, distilled water and the essential oils of your choice (omit the fragrance if you wish). If you don’t have any essential oils kicking around, you can purchase the scented varieties of castile soap. If you want to try your own fragrance combinations and aren’t sure which scents work together, try the oils out first, drop by drop, on a cotton ball or makeup remover pad.

A note about Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap: It’s billed as organic, certified fair trade and 100% biodegradable and contains the following ingredients: water, coconut kernel oil, potassium hydroxide, palm kernel oil, olive fruit oil, hemp seed oil, jojoba seed oil, citric acid and tocopherol (Vitamin E). In addition to the unscented variety, it also comes in lavender, peppermint, almond, citrus, tea tree, rose and eucalyptus. Although it’s rather expensive, you only need a small amount for this recipe, and the soap has a multitude of other uses, including facial packs and body rub, for shaving, dish washing and laundry detergent, to mop floors, etc. Keep out of eyes.dsc_5418-3

Scented Foaming Hand Wash

• 500 mL (16 fl. oz.) pump dispenser bottle
• ¼ cup Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure Castile Soap in Baby Unscented
• 1 cup distilled water
• 6 to 12 drops essential oils of your choice

Combine ingredients in bottle and shake (with the dispenser cap in closed position) before using. Makes about 250 mL. It’s important to use a larger bottle than the amount you’ll make to allow space for the mixture to foam up without overflowing.

I made my softly-scented Citrus Rose hand wash (shown here) using 4 drops each of rose geranium, rosewood and lemon essential oils, reusing an empty hand soap container.

By Silk Road: Cardamom


Spice shop in Sri Lanka © 2007 McKay Savage / CC BY 2.0

In the 1995 screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (pub. 1811), when young Margaret asks the well-travelled Colonel Brandon what the East Indies are like, he replies mysteriously, “The air is full of spices.”

What an evocative image! Shimmering caravans on sunbaked sand, crowded souqs and narrow alleyways, mint tea poured from a brass samovar, smoky incense curling like cobras under dimly-lit tiled domes. By Austen’s time, the Silk Road – the ancient network of trade routes which for centuries had brought precious fabrics and gems, spices, tea and coffee from Asia and Africa to Europe – was already a legend. One can imagine the pleasure of monied Mrs. Jennings (for, surely, only the wealthiest could afford such extravagances as tea and olives) as she opened a new packet of oolong, breathing deeply of its exotic fragrance before locking it safely away in her rosewood caddy.

One of the Silk Road spices, cardamom, has intrigued me as much as Margaret’s wonder of far-flung places. Even the name is mysterious, and I was never quite sure just what it was or how it could be used.

Cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of several plants in the ginger family, native to India and other parts of Asia. There are two main types:  true or green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) and black cardamom (two species of Amomum). White cardamom is made by bleaching the green variety. The plants were known to the ancient Greeks, and India was the largest producer until their introduction to Guatemala by a coffee grower in the early 20th century. That country is now the spice’s greatest exporter, followed by India, and cardamom is the world’s third-most expensive spice by weight after vanilla and saffron.

dsc_4842-3How to Use:  Cardamom’s strong, aromatic, resinous, often smoky flavour is unlike that of any other spice, although it can impart a coolness similar to mint. It is not bitter, and – if you can bear the intensity – individual pods may be chewed like gum to freshen the breath. A flavour multitasker, cardamom can be either a sweet or savoury additive to food, drinks and seasoning blends such as masala and curries; it works particularly well with cinnamon and cloves. It’s a staple in Indian cookery and is added to coffee, tea and sweets in the Middle East. Scandinavian baking recipes such as the Jule bread, Julekake, often call for cardamom. It’s also an ingredient in gin and herbal teas. A little goes a long way with these seeds! Keep pods whole until you’re ready to use them, as they lose their flavour quickly when ground. To use exotic cardamom for yourself, try this easy-to-make, warming spiced tea:

Traditional Masala Chai

Chai or cha is the word for tea in many Eurasian languages, and masala means “mixed spice”. Originating in India, this aromatic beverage is made by brewing black tea with Karha*, a mixture of fragrant herbs and spices with a base of green cardamom. The original tea was Assam; use whatever strong black tea you have on hand. Thick buffalo milk is used in India, but any type will do (the thicker the better, but don’t use cream). Chai is served in small glasses with cardamom seeds in the bottom as a symbol of esteem for your guests!

2 ¼ cups water
¼ cup loose leaf black tea (or 4 – 5 teabags)
5 green cardamom pods, pressed with the back of a spoon until they crack
1 cinnamon stick
1 whole star anise
¼ cup sugar (I found this overwhelmingly sweet; use less if desired; honey is a good substitute)
2 cups milk (whole works best)

Add tea, cardamom, cinnamon and anise to water and bring to a boil, simmering for at least 5 minutes until the tea is dark and has reduced. Strain out the spices and add the sugar. Stir in the milk. To serve, place a couple of cardamom pods (reuse the ones you brewed) in the bottom of a small glass and pour in the chai. Makes 4 to 12 servings, depending on the size of the glass.

* Customize your karha by adding any of the following:  ginger, allspice, nutmeg, black peppercorns or fennel seeds.

All Hail Kale

Today was National Kale Day in the U.S. I mention it here because a) kale was one of the most common vegetables in medieval Europe; b) it’s really, really good for you; and c) I have pretty pictures I took a couple of weeks ago.


Ornamental kale


Kale bouquet – cute idea!

A Page from My Herbal: Common Chicory


Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus), a welcome sight along roadsides, fields and waste places

Ah, the cheerful Chicory, brightening our roadsides and waste places in summer and fall! This pretty alien, originally from Europe, was introduced to North America and is now widespread. Although it is considered an invasive species, it’s still one of my favourite wildflowers.

Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus), a woody perennial, is a member of the dandelion family with blue, white or (rarely) pink flowers. Traditional names include blue daisyblue dandelionblue sailorsblueweedbunkcoffeeweed, cornflowerhendibehhorseweedragged sailorssuccorywild bachelor’s buttons and wild endive. Common chicory is related to curly endive (C. endivia), which is the familiar salad leaf; a variety, C. foliosum, is sometimes called radicchio or Belgian endive.


An early advertising sign for R. Paterson & Sons’ Camp Coffee, a coffee + chicory syrup

Chicory in Folklore & Medicine:  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about chicory, citing it as part of a simple yet healthful diet. In European lore, its blue flower was a symbol of inspiration, hope and beauty and was believed able to open locked doors. Medicinal uses included treating wounds, gallstones, sinus infections and digestive issues. Native American Indians used it as a nerve tonic. The plant contains volatile oils which are effective in ridding animals of intestinal parasites, and as such, chicory is still an important forage food for livestock today. Chicory root extract is a dietary supplement.

Chicory in the Kitchen:  Chicory is high in inulin, a starch used in the food industry as a sweetener. It is also a good source of potassium and magnesium, and 3 cups of chopped leaves contain only 20 calories. Its sprouts, leaves, buds and flowers are added to many regional dishes of Europe, and the roots can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute or additive to coffee (and even beer). Camp Coffee, for example, is a Scottish-made coffee and chicory essence in production since 1876. It was invented as a quick way of brewing coffee in the military and was the world’s first instant coffee. It became very popular in the U.K. in World War II and during times of coffee bean crop failures, and is still found in grocery stores today. The syrup can be used in many ways:  mix it with warm milk (as you would with cocoa) to make coffee or with cold milk for iced coffee. It can be added to baking such as coffee cake, or to flavour buttercream icing and other confectionery.


Illus. by Gordon Morrison, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Lawrence Newcomb, Little, Brown & Co., 1977)

Ways to Use Chicory:

  • Add the raw young leaves and buds to salads. Flowers can be used for edible decoration.
  • Use in place of spinach; cooking reduces the bitterness.
  • Chicory Mustard Greens: Cook greens in boiling water for 3 minutes, remove and rinse under cold water; drain and coarsely chop, then sauté with olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and (optional) anchovies until heated through; toss with vinaigrette and serve chilled or at room temperature.
  • Add to pasta.
  • Some coffee drinkers find that chicory adds a certain je ne sais quoi to their brew. Note that chicory coffee is not caffeine-free.

Hedgewitchery in a Nutshell

DSC_8096 (7)In the tradition of the village wise woman, the hedgewitch (also spelled hedgewytch) has a deep respect for nature and uses herbs and natural remedies to ease suffering and promote healing. In the past, hedgewitches often performed midwifery, matchmaking and marriage counselling, sold protection charms, blessings on houses and crops, curses and counter-curses, and made divinations and prophecies.

The name ‘hedge witch’ is thought to derive from the Saxon word haegtessa, which means ‘hedge rider’. The hedgewitch often lived on the outskirts of a village and would venture beyond the hedges or fences which kept the community safe, into the wilderness to collect materials for her craft. She would have been respected – and perhaps a little feared – for her willingness to do so, and for her healing skills and the seemingly magickal feats she could perform.

For hedgewitches today, the hedge symbolizes the separation between this world and the Otherworld, and “crossing/walking the hedge” refers to making a shamanic journey (reaching an altered state of consciousness in order to interact with the spirit world). A hedgewitch spends time in the wild, usually in solitude, and prefers working with natural rather than manmade objects and materials, with an emphasis on herbalism.

Make Your Own Herb-infused Honey

For a sweet treat, try infusing honey with herbs, edible flowers and even spices! It’s easy to do, and you can experiment with one or more of your favorite flavours. Buy local honey if possible, and use dried, pesticide-free herbs (the water content in fresh herbs can be a source of mold). For this recipe, I opted for Ontario wildflower and clover honey and purchased the rose petals and lavender in bulk from natural food stores. The resulting infusion was a deep golden colour with a light floral hint. Next time, I’ll start with a milder variety of honey to give the herbs more of a starring role, and I’ll make sure to turn over the jar every day to facilitate the infusion.

DSC_9528 (4)

Lavender & Rose Petal Honey

 What you’ll need:

  • Clean glass jar with airtight lid
  • Light-flavoured honey
  • Equal parts pesticide-free dried rose petals and lavender flowers, enough to fill about ¼ of the jar
  • Wooden spoon or pestle
  • Fine mesh sieve
  • Large measuring cup with spout

Start concocting!

  • Add the rose petals and lavender to the empty jar. They should take up no more than one quarter of the space to allow for their expansion.
  • Using the end of the spoon or a pestle, lightly press the herbs to help release their oils. Try not to crush them, as the fine bits will be difficult to remove later.
  • Add some honey and stir, making sure all the herbs are covered, then fill the rest of the jar with honey. The herbs will eventually float to the top.
  • Close jar tightly and let sit in a dark place for 1 to 2 weeks. Turn the jar upside down each day to keep the herbs coated and allow the flavours to blend. You may have to open the jar occasionally to check that the expanded herbs are still covered; use this time to test the flavour.
  • When the desired strength is reached, strain out the herbs by setting a fine mesh sieve over a large measuring cup. Carefully empty the honey mixture into the sieve (you may have to do this in stages) and let the liquid drain out for several hours. Press gently on the herbs as they drain to help encourage every bit of goodness.
  • Wash and dry your infusing jar. Decant the honey into it and enjoy!

Lavender and rose petal honey is delicious in tea, baking, yogurt, salad dressing, or as a topping for ice cream. Use within a year.