Up in Blue Yonder (that’s her center in the picture above — she’s kind of hard to miss from the St. Croix South Shore, where this picture was taken), you’re surrounded by Ginger Thomas flowers. From the deck, you quickly become aware that there are entire nations
of birds, lizards, mongeese, bees, and other bugs you don’t really want to think about that view the place as home.
The most common birds, bananaquits and Anguillan crested hummingbirds, rely heavily on the nectar produced by the bright yellow Ginger Thomas flower. They get it, though, in two different ways: while the hummingbirds use their tongues to go into the center of the flower, the bananaquits are a little more brutal. They use their curved beak to pierce between the petals and the calyx (the little green pocket that holds the petals), to get directly to the nectar without any fuss. This might be because, unlike hummingbirds, they cannot hover and must perch to get their food. It also might be because it’s more fun that way, which is the explanation I tend to believe because of their relentless pugnacity. (Also, anyone who’s ever torn apart a baked potato might appreciate this.)
I found this time that the Ginger Thomas isn’t the only local plant that produces the nectar these guys desire. Along a stone wall above the house, some wild-looking cactuses grow. They have long, spindly, wickedly thorned appendages that look like they just stopped flailing around the second you turned to look. And this visit, I found that they produce an equally-weird looking flower that was like crack cocaine to the hummingbirds and the bananaquits.
This is the lone bananaquit I caught actually getting at the cactus flower. The rest of the time, the cactus was surrounded by a buzzing swirl of divebombing hummingbirds, who would argue in their rasping musical-saw voices with each other, the bananaquits, and me whenever I dared step foot outside. (I always apologized profusely. I doubt the bananaquits did.) Now the hummingbirds move like lightning, and I’ve never been able to get any good photographs of them. But when you’ve got the avian equivalent of a “Free Beer” sign right outside your door, you might just have a chance.
In fact, one stuffed himself so much that he had to stop and take a break.
Most of the time, in the light you have, you’ll see these guys as nearly black, tiny little projectiles whizzing around in the branches or right past your head if they’re annoyed. But in the shot above, you can really see the irridescence of their feathers. (A moment later this guy de-poofed and zipped off, yelling at the top of his lungs at an interloper.)
The ferocious competition over the Weird Cactus Flower made me start thinking about nectar, and then honey. St. Croix has a thriving apiary/beekeeper community, and the honey they produce is the best I’ve ever had. Like fish and lobsters and fruit on the island, you can buy local honey in unexpected places: for instance, from a little stand by the side of the road on the way from Blue Yonder to Christiansted. So I bought some,
(well, a lot), and when I got home I started thinking about a St. Croix honey soap.
Honey soaps can be tricky; as with any additive that involves sugars, you take the risk of massively overheating the saponification reaction in the batter, and ending up with a) a mess b) a disaster or c) a Soap Volcano, which is the absolute epitome of all soaping screwups. I’ve seen pictures of soaps that their horrified makers described as “crawling out of the mold and across the counter,” bubbling and steaming and spreading its active lye on anything that came close. (Go ahead — Google it.) But it isn’t that I’m blameless in this. I’ve had a Tiny Soap Mushroom Cloud, and that’s about as close as I want to come to this experience.
So I had to think pretty carefully about the formula I’d use, and the technique for incorporating the honey, at what temperature I’d mix the oils and lye, and how I’d handle the molded soap afterwards. It was pretty clear from my research that I had to disperse the honey in reserved water first, mix it in at “trace” (the point, demonstrated by a certain thickening, that the saponification reaction between the lye and oils is well and truly roaring along), and then whip that puppy into some ice after I molded it up. If I didn’t disperse the honey well, it might recollect in droplets inside the soap — harmless and actually kind of cool (think “sweet honey in the rock”), but not exactly what I was after. If I didn’t cool it down fast enough, I might end up playing Steve McQueen in “The Blob” to the dismay of everyone else in the house as well as the local HazMat team, who I seriously do not want to piss off.
So with all due caution, “St. Croix Honey Blossom” began to come together: olive and coconut oils, shea butter, and a generous dollop of genuine St. Croix wild bee honey premixed for addition right before the mold. I picked a combination of amber, honey, and citrus blossom fragrances to try to maintain the richness of the honey scent in the bottle I had. And then I had one of those orthogonal ideas about how to color it — I’d try the stamens from a bouquet of Stargazer lilies that the UUH had brought home out of the basic goodness of his heart. For the next couple days, every time a blossom opened, I’d carefully clip the bright-orange stamens off and collect them in a little container. Once they were done, the moment of truth arrived — would the stamens release their color at all, and if so, into what? My first experiment was a grand slam. Olive oil will release the color of the stamens, and it’s a beautiful dark red-orange. I let it set for a day, strained it a few times, and then my new natural colorant was ready to go.
The very last aspect of the soap involved the garden. It ran wild all winter after I sowed a few seeds, and I went out a few days ago to find it blanketed in Calendula blossoms. Calendula is both a flower and an herb that’s been recognized since the Middle Ages for certain medicinal properties — but that wasn’t why I was going to use them this time. Unlike almost every other herb or flower petal, Calendula petals do not turn brown when in contact with the high-pH of cold process soap. (Lavender is well known as turning into “mouse poo” after a few weeks on top of soap). I cut a few, tossed them into the dehydrator, and in a few hours had the petals I needed for the tops of St. Croix Honey Blossom.
It’s a softer soap that’s going to take a bit longer to cure, but the stargazer colorant came through as a lovely honey shade, and when it’s done it should have superior lathering and conditioning qualities due to the honey and shea butter. The fragrance is citrus blossom with a deep bottom note of pure honey.
I think both the bananaquits and the hummingbirds would be pleased.