Fifty Shades of Garden

Something was drawing her, irresistibly, to the edge of the garden.  As if she were pulled by invisible bonds, Alchemist and Chickenkeeper Natty felt compelled to search — to explore — to test the edges of her gardening.

It was there, calling her.  The plant she had overlooked in the past.  Hesitantly, biting her lip, she extended her shaking hand and plunged it into the bush. What was there — hidden, unknown until now — rocked her to her very core.


Nothing would ever be the same.

Across the bustling city, the Accidental Alchemist somehow felt the same call, as if the two were horticulturally communicating in some deep, dirty way.  Unafraid, inspired by the deep throbbing of vegetation from the backyard fence, she responded.  Big Fred, the Passionflower, was waiting for her.  And he knew exactly what she needed.

Passiflora edulis

The silent command came, as she knew it would.  Taste me.

We have to go now.

A Thousand Words: (Some Of) The Garden (Almost) Entirely In Pictures

I am Gulf Fritillary. I grant you this moment to admire my beauty before I gnaw your precious Passiflora Incarnata down to a stick.
Big Fred, The Reluctant Passiflora Edulis, is finally getting busy.
This is the volunteer Cabernet Sauvignon vine. We’re going to have a lot of grapes this year.


Like, a lot. This is the prep-school Thompson’s vine.
As in, maybe kind of too many.
The Fig Tree That Was Apparently Alarmed By That Certain Event In The Bible is overdoing it again.
The squirrels have taken note. I’d better notify the dogs, because the squirrels throw the figs at them from the Squirrel Highway electrical wire above the dog run.
The pomegranate has decided to do something besides screw around with the cable wire.


The oranges are so cute when they’re little.
The Ghost Pepper, one of the hottest peppers in the world. It was the size of my little finger when I planted it late last month. I am afraid of it.
Borage from out of nowhere, squatting in the English thyme’s pot. I fear there will be war.
The yarrow, after strangling the golden lemon thyme and surviving a rather pissed-off thinning, abides. Who knew that the stalks I was discarding (the leaves and flowers are well-known for medicinal properties) are used in I-Ching divination. Well, I sure didn’t. D’oh.
The motherwort loves everyone.

The Calendula Maneuver

Useful and beautiful — the mighty but modest Calendula.

According to the inestimable Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, a poet in the 16th century wrote the following riddle:

What flower is that which bears the Virgin’s name,

The richest metal joined to the same?

John Gay was speaking about Calendula, though at the time it was called the “pot marigold” due to its ubiquity in cooking. The ancient Romans spoke of it and its popularity continued through centuries of history for all its flavorful, colorful, and medicinal properties.  It dries beautifully for arrangements, creates an attractive yellow dye for fabric, and can be seeded for a lovely display of bright, long-lasting flowers in the garden.

But that wasn’t why I was after it today.  I had randomly seeded some Calendula in the side bed right before winter, just to see what they would do, and have been drying flower after flower ever since in the McGuffin.  This plant is prolific.  I wanted the petals for two reasons:  first, they are the only flower petal I know of that maintains its color in cold process soap, and second, they are renowned for making an exceptional skin-healing and smoothing salve. My friend Natty, the Chickenkeeper Alchemist, had grown some in her increasingly expansive garden and gave some to me.  She noted as an aside that in Russia, Calendula skin salves were well known.

The Russians aren’t no fools. Herbalist manuals consistently back up the reports of Calendula’s effects on inflamed, irritated, bruised and scraped skin, minor wounds, and even sprains.  Tomes like Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, (D. Hoffman, Healing Arts Press 2003) , Making Plant Medicine, (R. Cech 2000) and the Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine (A. Chevallier, Dorling Kindersley 2000) as well as many others all confirm that this little flower can do some remarkable work in lotions, salves, and balms.  So with Natty’s words in mind, I decided to make a calendula oil and beeswax salve.

The first thing to do was to get the ingredients and equipment together. The bright orange petals in the leftmost jar had been steeping at 105 degrees Fahrenheit for sixteen hours in eight ounces of pure olive oil — after all, the most useful feature of the McGuffin is to maintain a steady temperature over many hours. (God I love that thing.) One ounce of beeswax, which came from the beekeeper a few blocks down the street, had been laboriously grated off the solid unrefined block.  (Memo to me: Next time get the pastilles if you want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome as well as peelers bent into bizarre modern art pieces.)  I had the lavender and rosemary essential oils that I’d use gently to fragrance the salve set to go, and the Chinoise strainer and cheesecloth that I’d use to clarify the Calendula oil.  Now all that was left was to suit up and get going.

Ready to herbwitch!

I’m pretty compulsive about manufacturing practices, even though this is an “anhydrous” (meaning no water) formula using completely dried herbs, so the possibility of ickies growing in it should not be an issue.  But I still wash up and sanitize all dishes, implements and containers, wipe down all surfaces with bleach solution, tie my hair back, wear gloves and a mask in case of sneezles, and of course wear the Herbwitch Hat.  It’s actually a traditional Ghanaian hat I found at, of all places, a Renaissance Faire. I immediately fell in love with it.  Call it cultural appropriation if you will, but I feel pretty cool and competent with the Hat when I’m dealing with herbal preparations because it is simply so spectacular.  I hope I’m forgiven.

Once the oil is strained of the petals, first through the Chinoise (how does anyone live without this thing?) and then through several layers of cheesecloth, it’s put in a bowl atop a saucepan of water.

Melting down the beeswax in the Calendula oil. SLOOOOOOW heat and stirring.


The beeswax gratings are added, and the mixture is very, very slowly heated, monitored and stirred frequently.  Getting it too hot will lose a lot of qualities of both the Calendula and the beeswax (in particular the fragrance), so patience is a must. The beeswax will eventually melt. Eventually. Seriously, eventually, although it does feel like geologic time now and then.

Once the beeswax is melted, the clock starts ticking a bit.  10 drops of essential oils — six Hungarian lavender, four rosemary in my formula — get mixed in and then it’s poured into the prepared containers to cool and solidify.  It will solidify fast so that’s why you need to stay focused.  Up to 40 drops of essential oils can be used, but I wanted a very gentle formula, so I stuck with ten drops of oils that have their own known skin reparative properties.

The salve is best kept in a cool place so it won’t melt and resolidify frequently, and with proper care should last for months.  As with all balms, salves, and lotions, it’s best to use something other than your fingers to get it out of the container.  But all minor cautions aside, it’s a wonderful-smelling, comforting salve that’ll come in handy the next time the wall gets spiteful with your knuckles when you’re carrying up the laundry.

Calendula oil and beeswax salve.


Do-Overs, Mulligans, and Restarts — Let’s Take It From The Top

I spent a pretty good portion of the day yesterday combing through comments posted to the blog.  Considering I’ve been out of the ring for a couple months, due to the Bad Situation and its ongoing effects, there were more than a few of them.  Over a thousand, in fact.  And most of them were autogenerated come-ons for various websites selling — well, here’s a very partial list:

replica handbags, knockoff handbags, michael kors, levitra, viagra, retin a, clarisonic, soma, parajumpers, strattera, propecia, nike, kamagra, bose, dr dre, montblanc, seo, burberry, bose, and apparently Michael Jordan.

It was pretty clear pretty fast that my filters really needed fixing, but I was unwilling to universal-wipe the comments just in case there was some gem buried in there.  (For the impatient types, there wasn’t).  Accordingly, I was able to experience the full spectrum of Interwebs barker teases, which kept raising unanswerable questions in my head as I scrolled through. Most were fairly innocuous:  If soma is a drug, how do you make a bra out of it? Who is Karen Mullen and why is her coat so important — does it make you invisible or something? Is she here standing behind me, transparent, right now? What on earth is a “parajumper” and why do I need one? Do I get a base jumper for half off if I buy it?  Is everyone on earth selling “replica” handbags except me, and if so, how did I miss the memo?

Others were a bit more disturbing — such as the website that asked, “Does Viagra work on dogs?”  or the one that promised in English not just broken but annihilated that I’d become a “supercharged dildo” if I used their SEO scripting.

I finished the job and fixed the filters (again) and then, hoping for some lighthearted entertainment, moved over to my favorite vice: the U.K.’s best rag, also known as the Daily Mail.  There, I learned about various family murders, a guy too dumb to turn off his truck when the tailpipe got buried in mud, more than enough about Kim Kardashian’s sartorial choices, and the news that a cute young woman had just received a $500,000 advance to write a book about her life buying drugs, taking drugs, having sex for drugs, and writing magazine pieces about all of the above plus some comments about makeup.

I had the John Cleese moment in “A Fish Called Wanda” — the courtroom scene where he says, “Right, that’s it” — and went outside into the back garden, wishing that life had a “Reset” button.

Well, sometimes it does.  As Robert Orben remarked,

Spring is God’s way of saying, ‘One more time!’


Chamomile and chives. I’m pretty sure that pot was empty before winter.

Instead of my usual manic winter cleanup last year, I’d decided to let the various containers, pots and the side bed do as they would without any interference.  And sure, I found a tangled mess of dead tomatoes and peppers, a marjoram that looked like it committed seppoku, and what I think are three-foot-tall dandelions in the side bed.  They’re either dandelions or they’re triffids, and I have no more bandwidth to worry.

The Brave Little Valerian x 4


But I also found that the Brave Little Valerian had not only survived me ripping it up last fall, chopping off its roots, and cutting its root crown into four pieces before replanting — but that all four of them were thriving.



The passifloras, both Big Fred and the Little Guy The Butterflies Gnaw Down To A Stick During The Summer, had also pulled through.

Passiflora edulis “Frederick,” a.k.a. “Big Fred”


Fred seems to have forgotten that he is supposed to be a “vine,” the kind of plant that climbs things, and settled into a comfortable couch potato position on the fence.




The side bed was a jungle.  I’d sown calendula seeds at random right before the rains set in, simply out of curiosity as to what they would do.  I found, amidst the three-foot-“dandelions” mentioned above,

Calendulas, an official Really Useful Plant

a riot of blossoms that I immediately started cutting and drying. (Calendula has an herbalist and culinary history since the Middle Ages. King Henry VIII insisted that his food be brightly colored and his cooks used Calendula for bright orange and yellow shades.  According to ancient and modern herbalists, it’s also a superb treatment for skin conditions, burns, bruises, and strains, and has applications for gastrointestinal disturbances as well).  But it wasn’t just the calendulas that had taken advantage of my benign neglect.

Golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, yarrow, and one determined strawberry plant



The various thymes had run riot, the yarrow was exploding, and a strawberry plant that had appeared really, truly, and seriously dead for months had resurrected itself.



Even better, the lemon verbena had come roaring back after my perhaps too-enthusiastic harvesting last fall.

A very forgiving lemon verbena.


(Lemon verbena makes a fantastic tea all by itself, adds terrific flavor other less appealing medicinal teas, and can convince almost anyone to eat their vegetables when added as a delicate seasoning, either fresh or dried.)



And much to my delight, my lavenders had survived.  I’ve had about as much luck with lavenders as I had in the past with passifloras — I’d plant them, they’d flourish for a while, and then they’d curl up and die overnight.  Less water, more water, less sun, more sun, feed them, don’t; nothing I did seemed to make any difference.  But simply being left alone was more to their taste.

Lavendula augustifolia “Hidcote” — English lavender.

There’s also another one, planted next to an aloe that also seems to have pulled through pretty well.

C’mon, little fella! You can do it!

It’s a smaller varietal which, unfortunately, I seem to have forgotten the name of, though its flowers last year had a lovely, rich, deep scent that a lot of lavenders don’t possess. (A lot of them have that cutting, acrid, headachy sweetness that smells like Grandma’s wardrobe).  It’s looking a little punky right now, but I hope the spring will inspire it as it has its companion.

It takes a lot of stress and awfulness to make someone like me ignore a garden for months.  But you’d think I would have learned from something I posted myself a while ago — sometimes, it’s not a disaster to step back, take a breath, and leave things alone for a while.  There might just be a “Start Over” coming down the road.




Who Said April Is The Cruellest Month?

When everything starts ripening and the harvest is in full swing, I’d have to argue from sheer exhaustion that it’s September.  This morning’s haul from the garden: Steel bowl top left, from top left: tarragon, rosemary, golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, silver thyme in the center.

Plastic bowl top right: Purple Ruffles basil, Pasta Perpetuo basil (a real champion performer), a Passionflower, and sweet basil.
Center little bowl: the last of the chamomile flowers, with yarrow aerials tucked underneath.
Bottom white bowl, from top right: rose blossom, Thai Dragon hot peppers, Ace sweet peppers, Barker’s New Mexico Red hot peppers, a single Concho de Toro sweet (most harvested already), and a bunch of poblanos. Hanging over the side is lemon verbena with another rose blossom.
And I haven’t even gotten to the lemongrass, sage, oregano and peppermint yet.

Most of the herbs will be going into the dehydrator, along with the rose blossoms (so nice for teas),  and the peppers prepped and either frozen or canned whole or as puree.  Now that the tomato flats are coming into the farmers’ markets, I don’t think the canner is going to be leaving the stove anytime soon.

A Day’s Alchemy

But the daily we have always with us, a nagging reminder that the dishes must be done, the floor mopped or vacuumed, the dirty laundry washed . . .  Precisely because it is so important, so close to us, so basic, so bound up with home and nurture, it is considered to be of less importance than that which is done in public . . . This may be an example of a familiarity that has bred contempt, a kind of hubris that allows men and women alike to imagine that by devaluing the bonds that connect us to the womanly, to the household, to the daily, we can rise above them.  — Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

But it is in this work — the daily, the tedious, the repetitive — that our deepest alchemy can and does reveal itself.

For most of us, the day has a predictable routine.  For me during the summer mornings, it’s making coffee, ensuring the cats have breakfast, opening the windows and screen doors to bring in the fresh morning air and the birdsongs, and then a little later making breakfast for Unbelievably Useful Husband. (The Kid is usually sleeping in.).  There’s usually some kitchen cleanup that needs doing during all this, and probably a laundry bump, and the dogs always desperately need to go out just when I’m involved in something requiring my total attention. (This set of behaviors is called “clearing the decks.”)  But breakfast is always a pleasure to cook.  If you recall from “Belay those Olallieberries,” we make our own bacon:

Homemade smoked bacon. Maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, and a bit of sweet cherry smoke.
Sliced homemade bacon. Ready to go, Captain.

. This is what the bacon looks like, when it’s sliced and ready for cooking.  Unless you have a meat slicer, you can’t get the see-through, weirdly clingy, paper-thin slices of commercial bacon, but a sharp knife and a steady hand creates a pleasantly thick piece that will fry up beautifully in the pan.


Frying homemade bacon. In the pan, slow and steady.

Homemade bacon requires a bit more time and care to cook.  All that lovely maple syrup, honey, brown sugar and molasses will burn in a flash if the heat is too high, so slow and steady wins this race.  You’ll not see any of the strange gray bubbly water boiling out of it as in commercial varieties; just bacon fat, rendering cleanly and purely and stupendously fragrantly as you cook.  Frequent turning makes sure each side is browned and crisped evenly.  A quick blot on a towel, and there’s breakfast.

No magic here except for heat — judiciously applied to an egg and some meticulously spiced, cured and smoked pork belly.

Cooks (usually women) since the dawn of more-or-less civilized time have understood the principle of judicious heat; it took medieval alchemists a lot longer to stop blowing up their labs.  More fire is not necessarily better.

Once the breakfast cook and cleanup and various animal and house-tendings are done, it’s usually time for the garden walkabout. Today, I noticed that the beautiful Gulf Fritillary butterflies were bombing around the garden again; I talked about them a bit in “The Passion of the Passiflora.”  It was the time of day, though, when the sun had just dried the dew off the herbs. Herbalists say that this is the time to harvest what you need — it’s supposedly when the essential oils contained in the herbs are at their height — so I armed myself with a basket and scissors and got the job done.

Herbs from home garden.Lemon verbena, tarragon, golden lemon thyme, various basils, oregano, and more yarrow aerials were up today.

Once you’ve harvested an herb, the clock starts ticking — you have to decide what to do with it.  Some people swear by freezing tender herbs like basils in ice cubes, saying that the technique reliably preserves the flavor and texture of the leaves.  I have no doubt that this is true, but I also have no room in my freezer because it is almost entirely occupied by a million pounds of olalliberries.

Home-grown herbs ready for dehydrating. Off to the Lab.

So off to the McGuffin the herbs will go — the Excalibur dehydrator that lurks in the Lab. I have a nine-tray model, so there’s usually no issue about running out of space. Once they’re done (a few hours at 95F for most), I’ll take them out and garble them, and then put them into my herb bottles. There — unirradiated, unpesticided, and uncrushed, they’ll retain their flavor for a long time.

The Gulf Fritillaries were still in the back of my mind even as I was fussing with the McGuffin.  I saw a few of them dancing while I was out harvesting, weeding, and watering the garden, so I thought I’d take a look at what was happening to the Passiflora incarnata.  Sure enough, we had our annual visitors.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on a Passiflora incarnata. Oh, there’s more than one of me.

Caterpillars don’t move fast, but the butterflies do. These butterflies move like fighter planes, fast and unpredictable, and I have about ten thumbs with this camera, so my brilliant idea to try to catch a picture was probably hopeless as a start.  Hope springs eternal, though, so I planted myself next to the Passiflora and waited.  One butterfly circled my head about fifteen times before she settled down.  When I took the picture, I realized that she was overseeing two large caterpillars directly below her.

Gulf Fritillary adult butterfly and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Mom, checking on the kids.

As I appeared to be entirely harmless, she stayed only a few moments before she decided that she was required elsewhere.

Adult Gulf Fritillary and caterpillars on Passiflora incarnata. Everybody looks okay. Off to yoga.

There were other household management things to do, some of which can take hours.  But after all that was done, I had a few other things to do:  I’d been infusing a jojoba and fractionated coconut oil with yarrow and mullein flowers, and it was ready for pressing and straining.  Yarrow is well known for surface skin-repairing and smoothing effects, and has been used since the classical age for stanching the bleeding from battlefield wounds.  Mullein is spoken about frequently as an assisting herb for lung conditions (Native Americans are reputed to have smoked it).  Another of its reputed effects, though, is as a healer for deeper tissues and structures even in a carrier oil.

Jojoba and fractionated coconut massage oil, infused with herbs Yarrow, mullein and Ginger Thomas herbs, infused in jojoba. I think gold costs less than jojoba.

Some minutes wrestling with cheesecloth and multiple strainers later, I had the oil I was after. I’m probably going to use it in a soap, though I’m not sure which formula yet.  Jojoba and fractionated coconut oil have absolutely marvelous moisturizing and smoothing qualities on the skin, and the herb infusions, I hope, will only amplify them.



Finally, I saw from my calendar that a curing soap was about ready to make its way in the world.  Making cold-processed soap (e.g., soap that is made from scratch, with specifically chosen oils, waxes, butters, and other ingredients, saponified with lye and left to cure for several weeks to harden) is a practice that requires patience.  It is also one of the best examples of ordinary alchemies that exist.  From a bowl of liquid oils and fragments of lye arises something entirely different.  It’s been changed in its essential nature by a chemical reaction that must have seemed like  magic for most of human history.  (Soapmaking isn’t the only process where this occurred — in the Middle Ages, alewives would mix their wort and then cross themselves and say a prayer, as the wild yeasts would begin the fermentation process.)

This soap is part of the “Sky” series I’ve been working on.  It was inspired by a photograph of the clouds, sea and horizon taken from Buck Island on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Handmade soap, inspired by St. Croix “Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

It was made with pure coconut, olive, palm and castor oils, and colored with ultramarines. The fragrance is “clean and marine” with just a touch of musk and citrus to deepen it.  I cleaned up the edges a bit, made sure it was pH safe, and told it to say “Cheese” while I took its picture.  While it’s not gold — the goal that every medieval alchemist was after, if not the elixir of eternal life — it’s still a pretty good thing to have made at the end of the day.

The same goes with breakfast, and dinner, and bacon, and herbing, and growing things, and even doing laundry and dishes and cleaning up after the spills and flaws and damages of daily life.   Each action requires some kind of applied change, a thoughtful — even if passing — alchemy to the circumstances around us.  And even if they are the things that Kathleen Norris mentions as so basic, so bound up in home and nurture, the “little things” that we disregard now in preference for the public, it’s worth remembering what Sister Teresa of Calcutta said:  “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”





Unexpected Beauties

Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is.  — Saul Bellow, Herzog

The daily garden walkabouts are usually pragmatic affairs:  this plant seems a little dry, there is some weeding to be done on the raised bed, the basil plants need pinching (again), the “Shoot-the-Moon”  Bougainvillea’s dropped bracts need to be cleaned out of pots (and the pool, and the garden umbrella, and my hair), and the like.  Some plants simply don’t make it for whatever reason, and I contemplate how their spots could be used to reseed California poppies and borage, which I need for tea; I note that there are now, briefly, a few glorious roses whose petals would be perfect for drying; and if I don’t do something about that pumped-up lemon verbena it’s going to go Thunderdome on the tarragon next door.  It’s usually a no-nonsense and task-oriented routine. But every now and then some vision jumps out at you, a picture framed as if an artist designed it just for you, at just that moment.

Mystery grapevine Every family’s got one.

The grape arbor out front is a riot of greens and grapes.  Every now and then I trim it back a bit to keep the vines from taking over the entire driveway, but on the whole I leave them alone.  The other day I noticed a bright spark of color buried in the brilliant green leaves — it was a single leaf that had burst into crimson and gold. There were no others like it.  It was gone two days later.

The same day I saw the grapeleaf beacon, I passed the plantings near the front of the house.  Here we have a plant that I call “The Martian Maw Of Death” — a plant that appears so irredeemably hostile that even the Hive Queen giant opuntia cactus is afraid of it.  Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer, once remarked that it was generally a bad idea to scare a little man; I can see that principle applying to this cactus, if that’s what it is.  But there are several more of them, and I was surprised and delighted to see that even the prickliest curmudgeon of a plant can produce something of striking and even unnecessary beauty.

Martian Maw of Death cactusPay no attention to the thorns behind these flowers.

The Hive Queen herself is no slouch in this department. For a giant cactus covered in brutal thorns, featherlike needles that can drive you insane if they get under your skin, and possessing a general posture of incipient homicide, the Queen can also strut her stuff when it’s time.

Opuntia ficus-indica, bloomingThe Hive Queen says: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful while I slash you to ribbons.

Each of these flowers tops a structure that will turn into the rare and delicious “prickly pear” fruit. The petals range in color from brightest yellow to blush pink to deepest rose, and only last a few days.  It’s always surprising to see something so delicate, so perfectly fragile and absolutely lovely, on a plant like this.  But that’s what I think Saul Bellow was getting at:  unexpected intrusions of beauty are what life is, and no matter how unlikely, they are all around us. Gardens are really good for this.

Days Go By

One of the truisms burned into my head over the years is that “dogs, cats, kids and gardens don’t care if you’re tired.”  The work has to be done anyway, anyhow, however you feel and whatever else you feel like doing (such as watching multiple episodes of “No Reservations” while in your jammies).  Everybody has to be fed, watered, often entertained and usually cleaned up after.  (It’s a good day if someone in the house hasn’t had a barfing fit. With three cats and two large dogs, you know it’s just a matter of time. “Time” meaning “minutes.”)

With that recognized, it’s also good to be aware that your agenda isn’t the only one that’s active.  For example, below is a shot from a second-floor window.  That’s a bougainvillea asking to come in.

Unbelievably Useful Husband fears it has malevolent intentions.

Yes, it has to be trimmed, but there’s a lot to be said for a bush so exuberant that it blasts itself up two stories in two months without any of the other residents of the household noticing it.  This is a ninja bougainvillea.  “This is not the bougainvillea you’re looking for.” The CIA should hire this plant and teach it to pick locks.  It’s about three inches away from being able to peel open the window as it is.  When you’ve got a landscaping plant suddenly waving at you cheerfully at the level of your second-floor office window, you get the idea that maybe it’s not all about you, what you want, or even what you do.

I’m ruminating about this because I “took the day off” yesterday. The world didn’t end, the animals aren’t all dead (well, the feedings did still occur) and there’s now a bougainvillea leaning in the window who wants to edit my posts.  There’s also a soap that had to wait one extra day before I could unmold it, because it was a lot softer than I anticipated.  I’d done a session on Friday, trying a new technique that scared the living daylights out of me. It demanded that I split the basic soap batter up into five separate containers for separate colors, and then layer them into a mold.  The inspiration for the design came from a sunset photographed from the little island in the Caribbean.

Layers of color, with the stars coming out.

The preparation for this moonshot was a little demanding.

The giant bag of coconut oil is sitting outside in the sun, warming up.

Soapmaking (like dogs, cats, kids and gardens) doesn’t care if you want to take a break to put your feet up, have a cigarette, talk to your mom on the phone or catch the latest Facebook update.  Saponification happens with a terrifying inevitability.  First the lye-infused oil batter is thin and liquid; then it gets glossy, and then it “traces” more and more heavily, and not too long after that you’ve got soap on a stick.  Once you’re on that train it’s not gonna stop. It’s alchemy at its most intense.

Accordingly, it is incumbent upon you to have your mise in order.  You’re going to be working really fast.

The colorant and mold array.


Oils, molds, colorants, containers, fragrance — everything has to be in reach and the step-by-step process has to be followed precisely without fail.



I don’t have any photos of the actual making of the soap on Friday, because it really was that high-speed and that terrifying and I don’t have minions to take the pictures. (Where are my minions? Wasn’t I promised minions? Did the Kardashians take them all?)  By the time I reached the fifth layer, the soap was setting up so hard I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off.   But somehow it all worked, and I put the mold to bed.

The next day I decided I was wiped out and wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t absolutely have to.  So the soap contemplated itself, the garden managed its own affairs, the bougainvillea apparently grew another three feet and the animals entertained themselves, with some sub rosa assistance from Unbelievably Useful Husband.  And when I rejoined the ranks of the responsible today, I unmolded the soap.

“St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”

The fragrance is a rich, deep and fruit-laden indulgence, with a base of patchouli and just a hint of herbal grassiness to cut the sweetness. This is going to be a very creamy, sensual soap when it’s done curing.  The cure will probably take a little longer than others, because I included more water in the recipe to slow down the saponification at the front end. The water must evaporate out to make the soap harder. And the evaporation cannot really be speeded up.  It’s all time and patience, without me having to “do” anything at all.  A lot like my Saturday.


Tea Alchemy

One of the more frustrating aspects of modern life is the rapid rise of the Syndrome:  a physical condition that causes its sufferers obvious distress, but can’t quite be nailed down by the docs in terms of causes or even detectable problems with body tissues.  Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome are examples.  Something’s wrong, but nobody’s really sure what’s causing it, and without long-term and expensive research even the most responsible doctors might as well be throwing darts in the dark.  In a good-faith attempt to help their patients, doctors prescribe drugs “off-label” and recommend “exercise” for virtually anything that they’re stumped by (“exercise” including your hoped-for immediate and sprightly departure into their parking lot).  And into the void rush the hucksters.  You know who they are — they’re putting up little advertising squares about “neat tricks” and “amazing fruits” on the side banner of every browser.

Enter herbal alchemy.  For various reasons both justified and unjustified, herbalism doesn’t have much better of a reputation than the snake-oil salesmen out there.  If you’re going to try it out of sheer frustration with the lack of conventional options, you should be cautious;  it requires some intelligent and focused research so you don’t poison yourself by accident.  This research is available, fortunately, because our knowledge about plant elements has advanced since the Middle Ages and the herb-women.  Some countries have produced reliable, reproducible information on the use of herbs for medical conditions (I’m thinking about you, Germany’s Commission E).  So as a person with gut problems existing since her teenage years, an anachronistic interest in medieval herbal medicine combined with the power of the Interwebs, and having the advantage of an extensive herb garden, I thought I’d try to make a tea.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing. Well no, not really.

Each one of the herbs I chose for the gut-calming tea mix has an anecdotal history — sometimes stretching back centuries — for easing digestive problems.  On the top left are California poppy and valerian; next over are yarrow flowers; directly below are borage flowers and lemon balm (also known as bee balm); and then there are the heavy hitters:  chamomile in the black cup and fennel seeds strewn beneath it.  I included lavender blooms (in the center) and rose petals (with the fennel) because while they do have some evidence for calmative properties, they also might make the tea a little more attractive taste-wise.

I grew and dried each one of these ingredients, so I know where they came from and how they were handled and stored. I also investigated each herb to determine if there was any reason why I shouldn’t use it.  Here I will invoke the august Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs again, as I will probably do until the day I die: nobody should fool around with non-culinary herbs, internally or externally, until they’ve read its section on “A Sampling of Dangerous Herbs” and preferably memorized it. And even then, no herb should be used until it has been researched exhaustively for application only on yourself, and with a reality check from a Real Doctor.  We’re not talking about acute illnesses. We’re talking about those mysterious chronic situations where real medicine (and I am not using that phrase sarcastically)  isn’t offering any solutions or really any hope except “go home and exercise.”

These reality-based cautions aside, back to the tea.  Some folks who might be a little more informed about herbal medicine might ask about the valerian and California poppy.  They’re primarily known for a mild and non-addictive sedative action, not smooth-muscle gut activity, though there is some limited evidence for the latter.  I chose to include them in the tea mix because of something I read many, many years ago.  It’s a story told by James Herriot, the Yorkshire veterinarian who became famous for his book called “All Creatures Great and Small.”  While my summary is not short, it explains my reasoning.

Dr. Herriot was called to the farm of a particularly cruel and stupid man who had botched a problematic birth of one of his sheep, and then abandoned her, suffering,  in a corner of the barn to “take her chance.”  Dr. Herriot was appalled, though the sheep was not the patient he was called out to tend.  As he wrote, “I tried not to think what lay in front of her.  Soon I would drive off and see other cases, then I would have lunch and start my afternoon round while hidden in this cheerful place a helpless animal was gasping her life away. How long would it take her to die? A day? Two days.”

Without the knowledge of the farmer, Dr. Herriot injected the sheep with enough nembutal to kill a small horse.  A few days later, he was called back to the farm to attend his original patient.  In the field outside the barn, he was astounded to see the sheep he thought he had euthanized.  When he tried to catch her, she nimbly evaded him and thundered away.

Let me quote Dr. Herriot at length now:

And as I walked back up the field a message was tapping in my brain.  I had discovered something, discovered something by accident. That ewe’s life had been saved not by medicinal therapy but simply by stopping her pain and allowing nature to do its own job of healing.  It was a lesson I have never forgotten; that animals confronted with severe continuous pain and the terror and the shock that goes with it will often retreat even into death, and if you can remove that pain amazing things can happen.  It is difficult to explain rationally but I know that it is so.


Humans are animals too, and I thought I might apply this insight to a condition that can sometimes produce violent and debilitating pain and fear.  Thus, the poppy and the valerian in the tea.

And here it is, mixed:

After all that fuss.

I’ll report back on how it works, or doesn’t.  Alchemy of any sort is innately unpredictable.




Things Work, And Sometimes Don’t

I realized on the morning garden walkabout that several herbs desperately needed harvesting, and that I had a few peppers so ready that they winked at me as I went by.

Clockwise from top left: yarrow aerials, golden lemon thyme, ancho chili peppers, bell peppers, basil “Purple Ruffles,” sweet basil, basil “Pesto Perpetuo.”

I mentioned in an earlier post, “Strange Herbs,” that herb fanciers are even crazier than the tomato freaks, and basil’s an excellent example of how obsessive you can get.  Basils, quite frankly, are even worse than thymes in how much brain and garden space they can occupy.  There are hundreds of cultivars and varieties, each one alluring in a different way (I have beautiful purple leaves!  I have glorious blue flowers!  I grow in an impossibly compact ball! My leaves were found in the excavation of a Roman Empire camp!) and each one is independently capable of ringing up your credit card at the nursery, as I have discovered.

I’m going to dehydrate the herbs to continue stocking the spice cabinet, so I had the sad task of clearing out a Failed Experiment from the big black McGuffin in the Lab.  The grapevines on the arbor out front have decided that this is the Super-Awesomest-Year-Ever* (see below) and decided that they needed the sidewalk and the driveway to express their joy.  As I would prefer not to be sued by a postal worker attacked by exuberant grapes as he’s trying to deliver my daily fifteen pounds of catalogs and Lasix flyers, I had to take the clippers out and beat them back a bit.  Once the wayward vines were in hand, the Alchemist came roaring out — What can I do with these?

Dry the leaves, of course!  Now there are lots of recipes on the Interwebs about how to salt-pickle grape leaves to make dolmas (and I’ll probably do that with the next batch of trimmings), but I had this great idea that dried grape leaves might make attractive ornamentation for stuff like . . . soap packaging.  Stripped the vines were and into the dehydrator at the classic 95 degrees!

As it happens, grape leaves don’t dry very well.  First they turn weird colors, then they curl up like you’d hit them with napalm, and then they shatter into dust if you even look at them suspiciously.

Oh well.

I imagine that even in the Middle Ages, alchemists had garbage heaps full of Failed Experiments, so I’m trying not to take it too much to heart.

* Many thanks to my friend for the phrase “Super-Awesome.”  Seriously, if grapevines could talk, they’d say “Super-Awesome” all the time.