Just sneaking in under the wire for this week’s One-a-week Photo Challenge!

The week’s prompt has been Shadow. Of course, I couldn’t take that literally, so here’s my interpretation based on a Book of Shadows. This one happens to be a chapter heading from the wonderful Solitary Witch: The Ultimate Book of Shadows for the New Generation by Silver RavenWolf, whose many talents include a blog here on WordPress.

Many of the objects in my photo have appeared in previous posts, particularly those of October 2016, so this image also represents shadows of things past!

Thanks to nanacathydotcom and Wild Daffodil for this challenge. I’m looking forward to the next prompt, Rust!


Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage (Part 1)

Where I live, the woods are greening nicely, fruit trees have finished blooming, and lilacs are coming to their end. Now is the time for longer, warmer days with lots of sunshine, perennials … and herbs. I yearn for a garden, but, living in an apartment, the most I’ve managed so far this year are pots of lavender, thyme and basil. But I have fond memories of herb gardens past, and, if I had a plot of land, I’d devote it to a few old-fashioned flowers, lots of vegetables and tons of herbs. It seems only natural, then, that my theme this month is In the Herb Garden.

I’m currently reading Dark Witch by Nora Roberts (Berkley, 2013) – first in the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy along with Shadow Spell and Blood Magick (both published in 2014). Set in Ireland, the story involves the descendants of a 13th century sorceress, magick passed down through generations, and the power of strong women and family. I’m not happy with the inclusion of hokey elements such as the witches’ ability to conjure fire from their hands, make plants grow with a flick of a finger, and send up fountains of water with a thought. But there are spells and misty woods and a workshop filled with the scents of rosemary, basil and lavender. And the main character works in a riding stable and communes with horses: something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s light reading that I enjoy in the morning when I’m gearing up for the day, with a pot of tea and delicious local wildflower honey.

The book inspired this vignette:

Ancient sandalwood a-waft i’ the air;
strong tea brewed with sweet water.
In rich black soil she pots the herbs,
her bench alight with bees’ candles.

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage, Part 1
© 2017, Valerie Barrett



Real Neat Blog Award – a first!

real-neat-blog-awardA few days ago, one of my WordPress friends (and fellow medieval hut-dweller) Samantha nominated me for the Real Neat Blog Award on her lovely site, samanthamurdochblog. If you have a moment, please visit her for funny and insightful thoughts on crystals, cats, canines and other characters. Thank you, Samantha, for maintaining such an entertaining and informative blog, and for being a steadfast supporter of my own!

Here are the rules for the Real Neat Blog Award:

  1. Post the award logo on your blog.
  2. Answer 7 questions asked by the person who nominated you.
  3. Thank the people who nominated you and link to their blog.
  4. Nominate any number of bloggers you like and link to their blog.
  5. Let them know you nominated them by leaving a comment on their blog.

So, without further ado, these are my answers to Samantha’s questions:

1. Sunshine or rain?
Rain, definitely. Let’s just say that the sun and I don’t get along; I’m very fair-skinned and will burn to a crisp in about 20 minutes. (The night and the moon are my faithful companions!) I love rain: pearl-grey mist, a gentle drizzle, the soft, all-day patter on the cottage roof, getting caught in a sudden downpour whilst looking for wildflowers in the field behind my brother’s house.


Ophelia by John William Waterhouse, 1910 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

2. If you were a herb, what would you be?
Given the name of this blog, I suppose I ought to say the gillyflower, or carnation, because it’s a pretty, old-fashioned, clove-scented flower-herb. In the Middle Ages, it was combined with cinnamon in cooking sauces and used to flavour wine and ale. Because it could be grown year-round indoors on windowsills, it was sometimes used to pay rent! However, in the Victorian language of flowers, the gillyflower’s symbolism is rather unfortunate: a red carnation means alas for my poor heart, and striped and yellow varieties signify refusal and disdain. No, if I had to pick one over-all herb to represent me, I’d choose rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). I can’t pass a rosemary plant without brushing its fragrant sprigs with my fingers, and one of my favourite foods is warm rosemary bread fresh from the oven. I appreciate its long history, too. Used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, brought to England probably in the 12th or 13th century CE and to America by the 1600s, this versatile herb has so many culinary, medicinal and cosmetic uses as to render it indispensable to cooks, healers and homemakers everywhere, past and present. From scented monastic garden hedges to a pest-controlling strewing herb, as a flavouring for meat, eggs and baked goods, an antiseptic in balms, washes and tonics and an ingredient in potpourris and incense, rosemary has it all. Sir Thomas More wrote of it in the 16th century: As for Rosemary, I lette it run all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herbe sacred to remembrance and therefore to friendship. Nearly a century later, The Bard himself perpetuated the idea of memorializing the dead with a sprig of rosemary. In Hamlet, Ophelia, who is about to commit suicide, urges her loved ones not to forget her when she’s gone: There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.

3. First thing you ever cooked or baked?
Oh my, I simply don’t remember! I learned family favourites – scrumptious goodies like lemon bars, spice drops and no-bake peanut butter cookies – from my mother. I regret never having taken up offers from an aunt and my mother-in-law (now gone) to learn how to make bread and pastry by hand. Many of my attempts at fancy cooking have been epic fails (I blame it on a temperamental oven), so I stick to the simplest recipes possible! By far the most delicious, crowd-pleasing, no-fail dessert I’ve ever learned to make is a recipe from my mom, which I share here:

Helen’s Skor Bar Candy

Preheat oven to 350° F • Line cookie pan with parchment paper, including the sides • Lay an even layer of unsalted soda crackers in pan (you may have to cut some to fit) • Slowly melt together 1 cup butter and ¾ cup brown sugar and bring to a gentle boil for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly and taking care not to scorch the mixture • Pour syrup evenly over crackers • Bake for 10 minutes on middle rack • Remove from oven and push any crackers which have floated around back in place • Sprinkle a 300 g bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips into the pan; as they melt, spread evenly over the crackers • Cool pan in refrigerator • When hard, break into pieces to serve • Keep refrigerated in airtight container • Challenge yourself or your friends to eat just one • When you lose the challenge, go see your doctor about the diabetes you now have • You’re welcome.


Faithful friends: Sherry and a 7-year-old me

4. First Pet?
Sherry, the sweet-tempered, long-haired daughter of an adopted stray, was the cat I grew up with and the only one I’ve actually owned. (My husband isn’t fond of the beasts, so for years I’ve indulged my love of cats vicariously, as an aunt to other people’s pets.) Sherry loved cantaloupe and stealing sips from unattended coffee cups, caught dragonflies from the creek behind our house, eating everything except the dry and unappetizing wings, slept at the foot of my bed (acting as an alarm clock by placing a wet nose strategically in my ear), and accompanied us each summer to the island cottage where she could roam free in her own private feline paradise.

5. What country would you like to visit and why?
England, for a second time. I did take a wonderful three-week trip to England and Wales way back in 1992 and intended to return a couple of years later, but wedding plans and a job change got in the way. Other than a weekend visit to the States, it’s the only country I’ve ever travelled to. Our focus was on castles and ancient monuments, and we were well-satisfied, but since then I’ve compiled a list of so many other sites I’d love to see, such as the snickelways of York (see my post about them here), Sherwood Forest and ancient sunken lanes and holloways.

6. What one piece of advice would you give to your 16 year old self?
Finish your math, science and physics courses, take the long, harder road, and study to become a veterinarian.

7. Favourite drink (alcoholic or otherwise)?
Tea. Supermarket-variety orange pekoe tea, in bags (I’m lazy). I couldn’t live without it. Because I generally work in the afternoons and evenings, I have the luxury of being able to down a whole pot (4 cups), leisurely, as my day-starter, and I’ll often have more tea later on. I find it relaxing, comforting and stomach-soothing, and my co-workers would tell you that a large Tim Horton’s steeped tea with two milks and fourteen grains of sugar (not 13, not 15) is my personal bliss. I’m thoroughly addicted, but I console myself with the supposed health benefits (flavonoids, polyphenols, tannins and fluoride) of black tea. As for alcoholic beverages … I’m not a drinker, but I have been known to enjoy the very occasional champagne, ice wine or mead. For medicinal purposes, natch.


My favourite teacup and new cobalt Blue Betty – the best teapot in the world!

I hope these answers give you a little more insight into how I roll! Now it’s my turn to nominate some of the bloggers and sites I admire.

My nominations for the Real Neat Blog Award:

(I’d have nominated Gillian at PaperPuff, but Samantha got to her first!)

Here are my seven questions for the nominees:

  1. What motto or quote do you live by?
  2. Why did you decide to start a blog?
  3. Besides blogging, what are two other favourite things you like to do?
  4. What is your favourite book, TV show and movie? (All three, please!)
  5. What is your biggest pet peeve?
  6. Other than a parent or family member, which person (real or fictional) was the biggest influence on you growing up?
  7. If you were headed into the woods alone for a week, what one item (besides some sort of fire starter) would you take with you?

These nominations are a mark of appreciation and a way of getting to know each other and spreading the love. There is, of course, no pressure to accept. If you do choose to participate, please follow the rules at the beginning of this post. Thank you – and have fun!

Witches, Get Your Broom On (or, Get On Your Broom)!


Miniature besoms using a variety of materials on linden wood handles. Top, L to R: rosemary, pine needles, yew, sage. Bottom: linden twigs

When most people think of witches, what more iconic (albeit laughable) image is there than a warty old hag flying across the face of the full moon on a crookedy old broomstick? Where did that stereotype come from, anyway?

The story goes that, back in the Middle Ages, witches made “flying ointments” using hallucinogenic herbs such as mandrake and belladonna. They would smear the stuff on their bodies (possibly applying it with broom plant fibres), then run around fields mounted on their broomsticks, jumping up and down to “teach” the crops how high to grow. The psychoactive drugs would enter their bloodstream and produce a feeling of flying.

Besom (BEE zum) is just another word for the household broomstick, which was traditionally made with broomcorn stems or birch twigs lashed by thin willow withies to a stave (handle) of ash, hazel or hawthorn. All of these plants had symbolic or sacred significance, and modern-day pagans have adopted the besom for ritual cleansing of a space or readying a circle for casting. In handfasting ceremonies, an ancient Celtic tradition, couples join hands and jump over a broom to celebrate fertility, sexuality and the unification of male (ash, and the handle’s shape) and female (birch, and the triangular shape of the bristles).

Besoms are seen as protective symbols to be placed standing upright outside a door. Smaller versions can be hung in other parts of the house as a blessing. They are used to sweep prosperity in – always through the front door – and negative influences out through the back door. Usually this is done symbolically, with the end of the broom held a few inches off the ground. I’ve even seen a Pinterest article showing how to make paintbrush besoms from twigs and herbs!

I spent yesterday afternoon making up several small besoms, each a little different. They don’t cost much to make. I already had almost everything I needed from foraging outdoors and from my crafting; I purchased the fresh herbs from the grocery store and will use them for cooking later.

The method is pretty straightforward. Although I like to keep my crafts as natural as possible, I did use a glue gun on the twig and pine needle besoms; for the others, I used a twist tie to keep the stems in place while I was arranging and tying them.

The besoms shown here are 6 to 9 inches long. Of course you can make yours any length you want, including full size, but they won’t hold up to actual use. Real broom-making is quite a skill and art. If you’re interested in functional broomsticks, see this wonderful tutorial from craft broom maker, Shawn Hoefer.


Using a pyrography tool, I woodburned the bindrune for joy, protection and harmony on the linden wood stave.

• Small branch or wooden dowel for the handle, cut to desired length
• Bristle material: twigs, shrub stems, herb sprigs, raffia, straw, pine needles, etc., cut to desired length, either all the same or slightly different lengths for a rustic look
• String to tie on the bristles and for a hanging loop: household or baker’s string, twine, raffia, jute, hemp, embroidery cotton, ribbon or wire
• Scissors, utility knife or pruning shears
• Twist tie or rubber band
• Drill or Dremel™ tool, or eye hook (both optional)
• Hot glue gun (optional)
• Sturdy needle (optional)
• Optional adornments:  woodburning tool, markers or paint to decorate handle; crystals or beads; pentacle, etc.

If you’ll be hanging the besom, drill a small hole through the stave (handle) about ¼ inch from the top. (Alternatively, screw an eye hook into the flat top end.) • Cut a handful of bristles to length, either all the same or varied for a more rustic look. • Arrange bristles around the bottom inch or so of the handle, laying them side by side as flat as possible. Make sure to cover enough stave so you can wrap string a few times around to secure the bristles. • Use a twist tie or elastic band to hold them down temporarily as you work, or hot glue in place. • Tie a long piece of string tightly around the bristles and thread free end onto needle. • Pulling tightly as you go, wrap string around bristles several times until they feel secure. If desired, use the needle to thread under existing loops for extra security. • Tie off the string with a knot and trim, tucking the end under some of the loops or hot-gluing it down for a neater look. • Trim the bristle ends into desired shape. • You may wish to decorate the handle or add other embellishments; for my twig besom, I woodburned a bindrune using a pyrography tool.


Whether for ritual, decoration, a blessing or drying herbs, hand-made besoms are a personal way to bring natural materials and a bit of history into the home. So mote it be!

For the pine needle besom, I laid the needle clusters (they usually come off the tree in bundles of 2 or more, depending on the species) with the sharp ends pointing to the handle’s top, and the clustered end (where needles are attached to each other) flush with the stave bottom – this is where I added tiny dabs of hot glue. I wrapped the bristles a couple of times with string, then gently bent the needles back over themselves and the string toward the stave bottom. Fresher needles will flex; some will break. Holding them in place temporarily with a twist tie, I did the finally wrapping and tying off with the same piece of string, which I brought up through the bristles to the outside.

I had fun making these besoms. They smelled lovely as I was working with them, and each has its own character. I might hang one from the mirror in my car; the besoms made with rosemary and sage are a cute way to dry the herbs for later use!

Ill Humours & Old Medicine

dsc_3166-6In medieval Europe, herbalism and medicine were practiced chiefly by monks, barber surgeons and village wise women. These healers would base their treatments on what they saw in nature; they’d note the plants that animals ate and the effects the plants had, and would then use the same ones on their patients. Sometimes plants would be used to treat the body part they resembled, or would be chosen for the warming or cooling effect they were thought to have on the body’s constitution. Charms, curses and counter-curses were also important tools of the trade! Monasteries maintained charitable healing centres where folk could come for their cures; herbs commonly found in infirmary gardens included betony, chamomile, comfrey, dill, hyssop, lavender, rue and sage.

If you were living in, say, 12th century England, you would most likely be familiar with the following ailments, as well as their remedies and the people who administered them. (Hark! If squoodgy things make your tum-tums go weak as water, read no further.)

Ague:  Fever and chills

Barber Surgeon:  Trained in monasteries, barber surgeons looked after soldiers during and after battle, and were expected to do everything from cutting hair, giving enemas and pulling teeth to bloodletting, setting broken bones, amputating limbs and other surgeries. Talk about multitasking!

Bloodletting:  3,000-year-old medical procedure still in use today. In the past, patients would be bled from various parts of the body to regulate the humours [See Humours] and “cure” their disease. Unfortunately, this procedure weakened the patient and encouraged infection, and patients sometimes died not from their malady but from the therapy itself. (Charles II and George Washington are famous victims; Washington, suffering from a throat infection, was drained of 3 litres of blood in less than 10 hours and died the next day.) Modern bloodletting is known as therapeutic phlebotomy and is used in western medicine to treat conditions requiring the reduction of the number of blood cells. See Scarification.

Botch:  A bump or sore on the body

Bubo(e):  Also known as gavocciolo, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin, armpits or neck, usually oozing pus or blood; the most common symptom of (but not limited to) bubonic plague

Catarrh:  Acute influenza; inflammation of the mucous membranes

Chilblains:  Painful, itchy red or purple swelling on the hands or feet from prolonged exposure to cold

Dead Man’s Tooth:  Application of the tooth of a deceased person to heal an open wound

Fat of a Hanged Man:  After a hanging, the body was left to dangle for days, probably as a cautionary example to the public. As putrefaction progressed, greasy excretions would drip and form a puddle under the deceased. Gross, but, hey, it is almost Hallowe’en! This fat (and other body parts) would be collected by the executioner, who did things like set broken bones and sell herbal medicine on the side; it was rendered and made into a salve thought to benefit a number of ailments, including arthritis, lameness and broken bones. Shakespeare refers to this practice in Macbeth: The three witches add “grease that’s sweaten / From the murderer’s gibbet” to their bubbling potion.

Flux:  Excessive discharge or hemorrhage of bodily fluids, especially diarrhea; also a women’s menses

Humours:  It was believed that all diseases were caused by the imbalance of the body’s four “humours” (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, which correspond to the elements of earth, air, fire and water). Bloodletting and purging were the chief methods of ridding the body of ill humours.

Gout:  Known since antiquity as “the king of diseases and the disease of kings”, this is the red, tender, hot swelling of a joint (inflammatory arthritis) usually caused by genetics, obesity and a diet high in rich meats and alcohol.

Gripes:  Digestive upset or food poisoning, usually caused by eating unrefrigerated or improperly cured meat

Headache:  A mixture of goat’s cheese and bull’s blood was drunk to cure an aching head. No guarantees as to what it did to the stomach.

Herbarium:  A room housing a collection of preserved plant specimens and their associated data

King’s Evil:  Scrofula or tuberculosis of the neck and lymph glands; so-called from the time of Edward the Confessor because it was believed disease could be cured by the king of England’s touch.

Leeches and Maggots:  Introduced to a wound to help prevent blood poisoning and infection. By sucking blood, leeches draw away toxins, and maggots consume decaying flesh, thus cleaning the wound.dsc_3194-4

Lepers:  Known to the ancient Greeks as elephantiasis, and today as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is a not-very-contagious bacterial infection thought to be caused by respiratory droplets. An effective cure, discovered in the 1940s, involves using antibiotics for several months. Before this, however, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious, spread simply by being near an infected person, and there was no cure. (The other common belief, that leprosy causes toes and other appendages to rot and fall off, is a myth; nerve and tissue damage and secondary infection are the real culprits.) Lepers caused fear and panic wherever they went, and as a result became social outcasts, relying on religious houses for charity and medical assistance. In the Middle Ages, they were required to carry a bell to announce their presence; this also served to attract attention for charity. Leprosy features prominently in two excellent books:  The Leper of St. Giles, a Brother Cadfael mystery by Ellis Peters, and The Island by Victoria Hislop.

Mandrake:  Perhaps because of its resemblance to the human body and the fact that it’s hallucinogenic – as well as extremely poisonous and potentially deadly – Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), a member of the nightshade family, has a long history of use in magic ritual and medicine. It’s mentioned in the Bible as an aphrodisiac/fertility aid and appears many times in literature (Shakespeare, Donne, Beckett, Steinbeck, Conan Doyle, Rowling) and on screen (Excalibur, Robin of Sherwood, Harry Potter), particularly as protection against the devil.

Mould Poultice:  Bread or yeast soaked in honey and applied to an open wound to halt infection

Officina:  The storeroom in a monastery where herbs and medicines were kept. The species names officinale or officinalis (eg. lemon balm, Melissa officinalis) are a clue that the plant was used by monastic healers.

Physician:  Not the neighourhood GP, but medieval academics who worked in universities as medical observers and consultants. Although they often took up residence in castles to tend their wealthy patrons, physicians considered surgery beneath them, and rarely performed it.

Purge:  An emetic to rid the body of poisons; purging often made the condition worse, not better, as it tended to dehydrate the body

Rale:  Wheezy, congestive rattle in the lungs, and the “death rattle” often heard just before the patient shuffled off this mortal coil

Scarification:  One of several types of bloodletting, in which a scarificator, a small box containing multiple sharp blades, was used to scrape open the skin. Other methods of bloodletting included arteriotomy (puncturing a vein at the temple), venesection (at the elbow), cupping (placing a heated glass dome over broken skin to remove air and blood by suction) and the application of leeches.

Simpling; Simples:  Distilling and brewing herbs; the resulting medicinal brews and distillationsdsc_3227-8

Stillroom:  The distilling room in a great house or castle where herbs and flowers were hung to dry, and medicines, preserves, cosmetics, alcoholic beverages, cleaning products and soaps were made. The final products would be stored and dispensed here as well, making the stillroom part laboratory, part brew house, and part infirmary. Think:  Claire’s work- and storeroom at Castle Leoch in Outlander.

Tetter:  Sore, pimple, mark or scar; the scab of a healing wound

The English Sweate:  Sweating sickness was a baffling and highly contagious disease which ravaged England and Europe in a series of epidemics during the 15th and 16th centuries. The cause is still unknown, but a form of hantavirus has been suggested as the culprit. The onset and progression of the Sweate was sudden and dramatic; one could wake up in the morning feeling perfectly fine and be dead before nightfall. Symptoms included an immense sense of dread followed by chills, then the “hot” (sweating) stage, followed by extreme exhaustion, collapse and, finally, death. Some people did manage to recover from the earlier stages, but that didn’t guarantee immunity; many suffered multiple relapses before finally succumbing. It was believed at the time that bloodletting and working up a “natural sweat” by vigorous exercise could ward off the disease. The outbreaks stopped as quickly as they had come, and by 1578 had completed disappeared from England.

Wale, weal, welt:  Ridge or line on the skin

Wen:  Benign boil or cyst, usually on the scalp or face

Whelk:  Raised lesion on the skin; acne

Wine & Egg Whites:  After a patient had been bled, the incision would be dressed with a mixture of strong wine and egg whites. This isn’t as odd as it seems:  the alcohol’s anaesthetizing and sterilizing properties as well as the astringency and binding qualities of egg whites may actually have helped.

Worms:  Were thought to cause cavities

Ye Olde Apothecarie: Electuaries, Oxymels & Cordials

Behind a studded oak door, in the shadowy, stone-lined stillroom of an ancient castle, a healer thumbs through the parchment pages of her leather-bound herbal. Her patient, a lad of ten, sits with his mother beside the hearth, at once shivering and sweating in the grips of a troublesome ague. He coughs, his bony body shuddering painfully, and his mother hastens to tuck a woolen shawl more snugly around the ailing boy’s throat. The wisewoman slides them both an appraising glance, thinks a space, then nods and closes the book with a decisive thud, sending the candles sputtering. She bustles about the workroom, taking down herb jars from a cupboard, opening a pot of dark golden honey, her mortar and pestle at the ready. She knows what to do…

The wisewoman – perhaps someone like Claire in Outlander – likely chose an electuary, oxymel or cordial to treat her young patient. These are old-time remedies that most people have never heard of, but which some folk still use today.

20161012_122046-3Electuaries are herbal pastes made by mixing medicinal powders with a sweet binding agent (an excipient) such as honey, sugar-water syrup, nut butters, maple syrup, molasses or jam. In the past, they were a common way to make any unpleasant-tasting medicine more palatable; electuaries can be used today to help ease mild sore throats or colds, i.e. minor complaints which do not require a doctor’s supervision. The consistency can range from a syrupy liquid to a thick paste; adjust the ratio of sweetener to herbs for the desired texture. A good rule of thumb is 1/4 tsp of each dried, powdered herb to 1 tbsp honey. Electuaries can be eaten right off the spoon as needed (usually one teaspoon a day for a short period; do not overuse), rolled into lozenges, stirred into hot water, milk, tea, a smoothie, yogurt or oatmeal, or spread on fresh or toasted bread. Here are some choices for cold and flu season; use another type of sweetener if you don’t like or can’t use honey.

Cold Buster:  Powdered echinacea root and/or sage in honey
Vitamin C:  Equal parts hibiscus and ground rosehips in honey
Throat Lozenges:  Equal parts powdered peppermint leaf, sage and marshmallow root in honey thick enough to roll into a marble-sized ball (to suck on); roll lozenges in marshmallow root powder and set on parchment-lined cookie sheet to dry; store in jar.
Be Well:  1 tsp dandelion root powder, 1 tsp slippery elm powder in 2 tbsp honey
Tummy Tamer:  Equal parts powdered ginger and peppermint leaf in honey to calm upset stomachs
Get Your Rest:  Chamomile in honey

⇒ Never give honey to children under two years of age.
⇒ Do not give lozenges to small children, as these could be a choking hazard.
⇒ Before taking any herb, be knowledgeable of its benefits, risks and contraindications. If unsure, consult a licensed health care professional before embarking on any kind of therapy.
⇒ Avoid using if you are on medication or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
⇒ Honey is high in calories and high on the glycemic index, so use in moderation.

Oxymels are made by combining honey and apple cider vinegar, both of which have health benefits, with herbs. The ratio of vinegar and honey varies depending on taste; if you prefer a sweeter oxymel, use 1 part vinegar to up to 5 parts honey. For a tarter mixture, use 1 part honey to 3 parts vinegar. I’ve never made an oxymel, but the method seems simple:  fill a jar 1/4 to half full of herbs; mix raw honey and apple cider vinegar, pour over herbs and continue filling the jar to an inch from the top. Close lid tightly and let sit in a dark, cool place for 6 to 8 weeks. Shake or turn the bottle upside down every day or so. Strain out the herbs and store in a tightly-closed jar for up to a year.

Cordials can be syrup, a boiled infusion of honey and fruit, leaves or flowers, or an alcoholic liqueur. (Remember when Diana gets tipsy on ‘raspberry cordial’ – which turns out to be currant wine – in Anne of Green Gables?) Alcoholic cordials, also known in bygone days as robs, were taken for medicinal purposes. Non-alcoholic varieties made with sugar or honey are more common these days (technically speaking, a syrup is made with fruit juice and sugar, and cordials are made with honey). They can be taken for their health benefits, or used to flavour drinks, as sauces, or simply sipped on their own.

dsc_2965-5How to Make Elderberry Cordial:  For centuries, people have been easing cold symptoms and warding off the flu with a cordial or syrup made from black elderberries (Sambucus nigra), which contain Vitamin C and immune system-boosting antioxidants. Throw in the benefits of honey (antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory) and rob’s your uncle – you’ve got a delicious, versatile and healthful old-time home remedy!

2/3 cup dried elderberries (available at health and natural food stores and online)
3 ½ cups water
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger root
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp whole cloves
1 cup raw honey (Manuka or buckwheat are great for colds)

To a medium saucepan, add water, elderberries, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by about half. Remove from heat and mash the berries with the back of spoon or other flat object. Pour the liquid through a fine sieve into a large glass measuring cup or bowl; discard (or compost) the berries. To the lukewarm liquid add the honey, mixing well. Pour the cordial into a glass bottle or jar and allow to cool completely. Keep tightly sealed in the refrigerator for two weeks or more. Elderberry cordial can also be frozen; try pouring into ice cube trays and thaw for individual servings when needed. Makes 2 cups.

To take:  Children ½ tsp a day during peak cold and flu season; Adults 1 tsp a day. If you get sick, these amounts can be doubled until you start feeling better. Take from the spoon or add to hot water for a soothing drink.

⇒ Elderberries can be a mild laxative, so use in moderation.
⇒ Please see other Cautions above.

In Awe of October

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWithout a doubt, autumn is the season I love best, and there’s something about October that’s just better than September. Don’t get me wrong; September is quite lovely, with clear azure skies and garden blooms giving way to fields of goldenrod and purple and white asters. But, as far as I’m concerned, most of that month is too much like August. After all, the equinox doesn’t occur until its third week, summer’s heat often clings with sweaty hands beyond the official start of Fall, and leaves don’t yet know whether they want to stay green or go out in a blaze of glory. October, on the other hand, is more decisive about its status as the All-Autumn-All-the-Time Channel.

In October, we’ll still have our share of warm, dry weather and cool evenings when a hoodie or knitted shawl seems like a good idea. Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated next weekend, and we all know what happens at the end of the month! But I also welcome October’s occasional moodiness: soft grey skies and the “Scotch mist” which laid a fine veil of gems across my windshield yesterday; the sharp tang of woodsmoke in the air; night fog looming like ectoplasm over creeks and damp meadows. More than the season’s showy reds, ambers, greens and golds, it’s the overall turning-inwardness we experience as the days shorten and the world of candlelight and shadow draws near that I find comforting, mysterious and quite wonderful.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have many ideas for autumn- and October-related posts which I’ll be sharing over the next weeks. Since this is the month of Hallowe’en and Samhain, I’m feeling particularly witchy (in all the right ways), so I’ll be talking about seasonal traditions, homemade brews and concoctions, herbal and apothecary lore, and old-time folk remedies geared especially for the upcoming cold and flu season.

Speaking of which, I greeted October, unfortunately, with a head cold. So today, to help clear my sinuses and impart my home with an autumnal air, I put on a pot of warm simmering spices. This easy home fragrance method has been around for years and beats using expensive, chemical-laden scented candles; not only is it delightfully fragrant, it helps humidify your home during the dry, colder months. Plus, there’s no need to go out and buy special ingredients. Just use whatever combination of fruits (fresh or dried slices or skins) you have on hand and whole or ground herbs and spices which a-peel to you, and don’t worry about exact measurements. With elements such as oranges, lemons, apples, cloves and cinnamon, you really can’t go wrong!

To Make Simmering Spices:  Fill a small pot with water, bring to a boil on the stove, add your ingredients and boil for a couple minutes more. Reduce heat and let pot gently simmer, uncovered, for as long as you like. Set a timer to check the water level every 30 minutes, topping up as needed. You can also set the pot to steam away on a woodstove or radiator; some recipes call for a crockpot. Keep children and pets away from the stove and pot, and turn off the heat if you leave the house. Simmering spices are for home fragrance only; do not ingest.20161003_114124-5Today’s Recipe:  Spiced Lemon & Ginger Simmering Pot

This zesty combination of fruits and ginger will help relieve those stuffed-up noses in no time!

  • A few slices each of apple and lemon (fresh or dried); I used some that had been in the fridge for a while – a good way to use up past-its-best fruit
  • 2 – 3 small slices fresh ginger root
  • 1 – 2 cinnamon sticks, broken
  • 10 whole allspice (optional)
  • 3 whole star anise (optional)

More autumn-inspired simmering pot recipes to come. In the meantime, try your own combinations, and if you have a favourite recipe, feel free to share it in a comment. Enjoy the bountiful scents of the season!