Monthly Archives: October 2010

Pumpkins Go Under the Knife

When doing my grocery shopping the other day, I noticed all sorts of moms with their little ones, picking out the “perfect” pumpkin to carve. (Some of the kids were rather small … I hope Mom or Dad is wielding the knife.) I know they know it’s a “tradition” but do they know the story behind carving pumpkins this time of year?

The “tradition” really doesn’t go back that far.  As a matter of fact, it’s not even mentioned in historical chronicles until the mid-1800’s – and that on this side of the pond.  It started in Ireland but there they carved either turnips or rutabagas. Pumpkins are more readily available here so when the tradition moved to the US, that’s what they used. (Pumpkins are also much easier to carve than turnips or rutabagas. Trust me.) The legends about why it’s called a Jack O’ Lantern are myriad. You can read some of them on Wikipedia.

Even if you don’t have children in the house, indulge your creative spirit and carve a pumpkin this year. I know a lot of folks make a yummy pumpkin pie from the scooped-out meat, but don’t throw those seeds away! Gently wash them, spread in one layer on a cookie sheet and dry in the oven on the lowest temperature you can for a couple of hours, stirring every now and again. They’ll feel a little less hard than a dried sunflower seed when done.

Pumpkin seeds are a great low-cal snack (tasty even without salt) and are rich in many minerals. They are also good for expelling internal worms. If you or your child above the age of 5 get worms (scary, but it’s a widespread problem), crush 1-2 tablespoons of raw seeds and mix with honey, giving 3 doses at 2 hour intervals. Don’t use this on younger kids. If your pet gets worms, grind up some raw seeds and add to his or her food. Garlic in a pet’s food is also good for worms (especially as a preventive measure) – if you can get them to eat it.

Magically, pumpkin is used for protection – and I’ll bet this stems from the “scary face to ward off evil spirits”. If you’ve got a problem, I suggest once the pumpkin has done its duty on your front porch that you cut off and dry a piece of it to carry in your pocket.

I don’t carve up a vegetable this time of year unless I’m planning on making stew.  (My artistic abilities are rather limited.)  I do, however, have a lit candle at the door to invite the well-behaved spirits to visit for awhile on Samhain.  It’s a wonderful evening and I’m looking forward to it again this year.

Book Review

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am a bibliophile. That means I love books. Despite all the information available electronically these days, I much prefer a bound paper book to a keyboard & mouse – or an electronic book, for that matter. In addition, I am fascinated by the historical uses of herbs in both medicinal & folkloric aspects and will read virtually anything that addresses these subjects.

About a month ago, my wonderful husband got a bonus at work that, for various reasons, he had to spend now.  Although he could have spent the bonus several times over on things he wanted, he decided to spend part of it on my book wish list. (Did I say he’s wonderful? Is there a more superlative word?) One book in particular has been there for several years. Why? It’s expensive. (US$133 shipped from England – the least expensive I could find.) When I first read about it 2-3 years ago, I looked it up, choked on the price and added it to the “sigh, someday” part of the list.

Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe by Marcel De Cleene & Marie Claire Lejeune (ISBN 90-77135-04-9, Man & Culture Publishers, Ghent, Belgium, 2003) was originally published in German in 1999, and updated in 2000 and 2003. It was finally translated to English in 2007.

It comes in two hardbound volumes with a slipcase: the first is “trees” and the second is “herbs”. However, Rose, Rosemary and Sage are classified under trees. (Since I grabbed the “herbs” volume first, I’m not sure why. I’ll find out when I get to that volume.) It covers 44 herbs and 55 trees, although it actually covers more since, for example, they group onion, garlic, leek, etc., under one heading.

Under each herb and tree the authors give you not only the Latin binomial but the common names in English, French, German and Dutch (the authors are Belgian). They describe not only the herb itself but its habitat. Then they go on to describe the mentions of the plant in mythology, how it’s used in symbolism, some magical beliefs, historical medicinal applications and, briefly, how it’s currently used in medicine. They describe how the plant is used in industry & agriculture, and in the home & garden. Lastly, they have a “did you know” section with tidbits of information you might not otherwise have known. For example, under “Iris” they tell you, “Thieves and murderers were branded with a fleur-de-lis. An adulterous woman would also be branded with a fleur-de-lis on the cheek; however, the same did not apply to males.” There are countless drawings and many, many colored plates.

Everything is footnoted so you can go back to the original source (if you have access to it, that is). And the bibliography is extensive. Heck, I added three more books to my wish list just from their preface!

My copy arrived on Monday and I dug into it immediately. O.M.G. Friggin’ awesome. It will take me months to digest all the information in these two volumes. If you have interests similar to mine, add this one to your wish list. It’s a keeper!

Edit: Volume I is “Trees and Shrubs”. I’ll buy that Rose and Rosemary can be considered shrubs, and they term Sage an “undershrub” (?) but they also include Grapevine and Ivy in that volume. I guess they had to put them somewhere!

Color Me Orange

Nearly hidden among the variety of apples available at the grocer’s this time of year, one can still find a bag or two of oranges. Orange juice fills a case or two in the dairy aisle and a glass of orange juice at breakfast (or combined with tequila and a splash of grenadine later in the day..) is a pretty standard routine worldwide. But did you know you can use not just the flesh and juice but the peel, as well?

What you buy in the store is “Sweet Orange” or Citrus sinensis. It has its uses, yes, but more medicinally-potent is the Mandarin orange Citrus reticulata or Bitter Orange Citrus aurantium.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has used the mature peel of both the Mandarin Orange and Bitter Orange for hundreds of years to improve digestion, relieve intestinal gas and reduce excess phlegm. They use the immature peel in the same way but only a TCM practitioner can determine when to use which.  You, however, don’t have to train for years to use orange peel. Although not quite as potent, go ahead and buy some of those sweet oranges at the store.  After you’ve eaten the flesh or squeezed the juice out, either add the peel to some yummy recipes found in the November 2010 issue of Herb Companion or cut the peel into pieces about 1/4″ wide and an inch long, and lay them on a screen to dry. Then powder them and add one to two teaspoons of the powder to your daily diet. The medicinal actions come from the volatile oil found in the peel, which contains the chemical d-limonene.  This has been found to be antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and quite possibly has anti-cancer properties.

The essential oils are extremely useful, too.  I knew that Neroli oil (really expensive) is distilled from the flowers of the Bitter Orange. It is a constituent in many perfumes and can be used therapeutically for anxiety, depression, PMS and some other things. I didn’t know until doing my research is that Petitgrain oil is also distilled from the Bitter Orange, but this time from the leaves and young shoots of the tree. This isn’t used much therapeutically but makes a wonderful deodorizing ingredient. You can get Sweet and Mandarin Orange essential oils, as well. Especially the Sweet, it makes a great massage oil to treat intestinal issues, help normalize blood pressure and, combined with some warming oils (like cinnamon) to fight the chills and body aches associated with the flu.

Although not a timeless tradition, orange blossoms have been added to wedding decorations here in the West for a couple of hundred years. This is probably why it’s considered a good herb to use in love sachets. The Chinese consider the orange to be a symbol of good luck & fortune, so add the peel to powders and incense used in prosperity spells. The Orange is also a potent fertility symbol: it produces both flowers and fruit at the same time. So, if you’re trying to become pregnant, make a Mimosa (one part orange juice, one part champagne) and serve it at a “special” dinner.

The color orange isn’t reserved for Hallowe’en, Samhain or Fall. I use orange candles any time of year when doing a spell for luck.

Talking about Samhain and orange … I’ve got a hankering for some candy corn.

Did You Miss Me?

No, it wasn’t you or your computer. I didn’t post last Thursday … I was sicker ‘n a dog!  (I wonder how that saying came into usage?)

Despite my best efforts, the stress I’ve been under caught up with my normally-fairly-healthy immune system. And it hit hard and fast. I felt fine on Saturday: got lots of work done in the yard. We went to dinner Saturday night and by the time we got home from the restaurant, I felt terrible: sore throat, inflamed lymph nodes and fever that only seemed to get worse with time. It hurt to talk and my voice nearly disappeared. I had strep throat a few decades ago and this is exactly what it felt like. Went to bed Saturday night and didn’t get “up” until Thursday when I hauled myself to the doctor to get a throat culture. Thankfully there was no bacterial infection so no course of antibiotics for me. Just something viral going around that decided to settle in my throat rather than my sinuses.

My normal treatment for a cold, the flu, anything respiratory is bed rest, lots of fluids, and a nice dose of Elderberry Rob (see here for the recipe) but I ran out of the Rob and was in no condition to make any more. So I sent my husband into my stash of herbs to find the elderberries and simply made an infusion of the berries and added a stick of cinnamon to each cup. The cinnamon is antimicrobial itself and ‘sides, it just tasted good.

Three cups a day for a week is working. Although the virus isn’t completely gone, I feel nearly myself again. At least well enough to get back in the kitchen and make some more Elderberry Rob!