The Ginger Thomas is the official flower of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on St. Croix it is everywhere. It grows as a shrub or small tree, sometimes in thick stands, stays green all year long and produces thousands of trumpet-shaped, fluted, bright-yellow flowers. Maybe because of its ubiquity, it has nearly as many names as its blossoms: Yellow Cedar, Yellow Elder, Yellow Trumpet Flower, Yellow Trumpetbush, Yellow Bells, and in Spanish “Esperanza” (meaning hope). Or, if you’re an alchemist into Latin, Tecoma stans.
Around Blue Yonder, the Ginger Thomas stands support a thriving community of bananaquits, Anguillan crested hummingbirds, yellow warblers, St. Lucia warblers, and the occasional smooth-beaked Ani, cattle egret, zenaida dove, or one of the kestrel pair that lives down the hill.
The plant’s not just useful for the birds, though. According to Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, a remarkable book produced by the University of the Virgin Islands, the Ginger Thomas has had therapeutic uses for generations. The leaves are used externally for fever and strengthening women after childbirth. Internally, they are a treatment for colds, diabetes, headaches, high blood pressure, and jaundice. It’s not all folk wisdom, either; a 1977 study showed that plant compounds in the Ginger Thomas demonstrated hypoglycemic activity, and may show promise for developing insulin substitutes.
While it’s cool to have what is essentially part of a medicine cabinet right next to your house, though, that’s not really why I am so passionate about these flowers. There really isn’t anything like waking up to a mass of green and yellow glowing in the sunlight, and listening to the bananaquits and hummingbirds bicker their raspy, musical little complaints at each other while you have your morning coffee on the deck. The bloom is highest in August, but there are flowers all year round. There’s always a riot of green and yellow — so of course, inspired, I had to make a soap.
It’s a straightforward formula of olive, coconut and castor oils, colored with ultramarine green and lemon micas, and swirled using the “ITP” (in-the-pot) technique. The fragrance of the flower is very delicate (and believe me, you have to watch out for bees if you try to smell one), so I mixed a number of fragrance oils to try to replicate it. The scent is both blossomy and lemony, with a touch of greenery as a base note. I think, once cured, this soap will bring me right back to the island whenever I use it.
The greenery isn’t the only transfixing thing about St. Croix, though. There’s always the water.
At just the right time, usually in the late afternoon when the sun lowers, the light can turn everything it touches to gold. It will trace along the breaking waves in streaks and bolts, almost as if it is dancing with the water, and it lasts for only a moment. I’ve never caught a picture of this happening, and given my clumsiness with a camera, probably never will. But I have enough of a memory to try to replicate it.
Now I’d done more than one sea-inspired soap, the last being the “Swirling Reef of Death” — named after a snorkeling site that really isn’t. It was obvious that I needed to create and name the next one after another dive site, but I had to show the golden light on the wave, and maybe make the soap itself a little less “busy.”
I used the same “tiger stripe” technique as Swirling Reef, and pretty much the same formula, but I let the soap thicken more before pouring. I also created a “mica swirl” with some gold mica and oils set aside from the base formula, and drizzled it along the peaks and valleys of the soap top to try to show the afternoon light dancing along the wavefoam. The scent is my go-to island fragrance, sea and flowers and fruit. What resulted was “Cane Bay.”
Cane Bay is a first-rate snorkeling, sunning, and dive site on St. Croix’s North Shore, visited by both residents and tourists, and about as low-key a place as you can find anywhere in the Caribbean. It’s popular with young families because the water is warm and usually quiet. There’s a dive shop right there, because the Wall is very close by, but you don’t have to go far out to see astonishing visions of fish and corals. In fact, the UUH and I saw one of the biggest green Moray eels that I would not want to see ever, ever again, considering I was about a foot away from its astoundingly toothy face (seriously, you have never seen that many teeth in a single animal smaller than a shark) when I blundered close to its headquarters. I was amazed by how fast I could swim backwards and that it is indeed possible to wave one’s arms around Kermit-the-Frog-like while making incomprehensible but obviously alarmed sounds through a snorkeling tube at one’s husband.
I made one more soap from the images from the island. Hibiscus flowers (Hibisca rosa-sinensis), like the Ginger Thomas, grow enthusiastically everywhere you turn. They’re not only cultivated for their beauty, but for their usefulness — the flowers make a delicious traditional tea in the Caribbean. One afternoon, I saw a single deep ruby blossom floating in a tidepool, itself as blue as a robin’s egg, near the shore.
Now I had a vague idea of how to reproduce this, and it involved a two-step process — making an insert for the flower, and then placing it in another batch of blue soap once it had hardened a bit. I’d tried this before, last year during August’s Blue Moon, with a somewhat simpler insert.
“Blue Moon, for Neil Armstrong” came out pretty well, so I forged ahead.
The first problem was the flower. It’s one thing to pour soap into a tube. It’s entirely another to make it look like a flower. It stumped me until I thought of a cookie cutter — once the soap had set, I could push a cutter down the tube of soap, peeling off portions of the exterior into petal shapes.
And here’s where I made my first mistake. I didn’t pay enough attention to how big I should make the flower insert, so I used a much larger cylinder mold than I should have. Once I popped it out, I realized to my horror that not only was the bloody thing harder than a rock, it was enormous. (Spatial relations are not my strong suit.) It was so big that it wouldn’t fit into the mold I was going to use for the finished soap. Stalemate.
A panicked search through the house produced a cardboard box that just might work. And now I had to do the cookie-cuttering. It must have taken an hour to push the cutter down the insert with about as much sweating and swearing as you’d find in a boxing gym. I was so fed up with it by the time I finished that I briefly considered tossing it into the pool and saying, “THAT’S IT I’M DONE,” but fortunately rationality won that war. I lined the box I found with a patterned silicone liner usually used for fondant on cakes (hat-tip to Cake Alchemist Navi for that idea!), whipped up the blue soap, and as carefully as I could I placed the insert inside. 24 hours later I had this:
I immediately discovered ANOTHER problem.
The thing was so big it wouldn’t fit into the tank cutter.
In fact, it was so big it wouldn’t fit into the other cutter either.
It was so big that the UUH had to make another cutter especially for it. We had to use a gigantic chef’s knife to assault the thing. But in the end, after all the work and angst, we had “Hibiscus In Blue Water.”
Now I’m not kidding when I tell you this soap is BIG. While most of my soaps run between 4 and 5 ounces, these dudes weigh in at about 11 ounces. We could use this soap to deflect asteroids and then take a shower with it. The irony is that it has a delightful combination of really lovely, full fragrances — the flower is scented with osmanthus touched with a deepening amber, and the sea is the island fragrance I love. Due to its size, it’s a soap for the sensitive, discerning yeti, I suppose. But on the other hand (well, both hands) it will be a gentle, bubbly and creamy soap once it’s done curing and it will last forever. Let’s not be sizeist.
Now that I’m back on the mainland, other things are starting to take precedence. There’s a garden that needs tending, jerky and sausage and bacon to make, and the Hive Queen has some prickly pears that should be made into syrup, jellies, and hot and barbeque sauces. Calendulas and roses need drying and the front of the house needs replanting since the water main explosion. (Don’t ask.) There’s a lot of recordkeeping and paperwork and accounting to be done for Blue Yonder Botanicals — not to mention a massive reorder for supplies — that needs to be fitted into the usual routine of shopping, feeding, cleaning, and dealing with water main explosions. You know, just like everyone else’s life. So I’ll leave you with this:
Until next time.
/ps That’s Big Fred The Reluctant Passiflora in the pictures.