Works in Progress

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A quiet corner of my worktable, where items for my shop and blog wait patiently for completion by the World’s #1 Procrastinator!

A Page from My Herbal: Common Chicory

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Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus), a welcome sight along roadsides, fields and waste places

Ah, the cheerful Chicory, brightening our roadsides and waste places in summer and fall! This pretty alien, originally from Europe, was introduced to North America and is now widespread. Although it is considered an invasive species, it’s still one of my favourite wildflowers.

Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus), a woody perennial, is a member of the dandelion family with blue, white or (rarely) pink flowers. Traditional names include blue daisyblue dandelionblue sailorsblueweedbunkcoffeeweed, cornflowerhendibehhorseweedragged sailorssuccorywild bachelor’s buttons and wild endive. Common chicory is related to curly endive (C. endivia), which is the familiar salad leaf; a variety, C. foliosum, is sometimes called radicchio or Belgian endive.

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An early advertising sign for R. Paterson & Sons’ Camp Coffee, a coffee + chicory syrup

Chicory in Folklore & Medicine:  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about chicory, citing it as part of a simple yet healthful diet. In European lore, its blue flower was a symbol of inspiration, hope and beauty and was believed able to open locked doors. Medicinal uses included treating wounds, gallstones, sinus infections and digestive issues. Native American Indians used it as a nerve tonic. The plant contains volatile oils which are effective in ridding animals of intestinal parasites, and as such, chicory is still an important forage food for livestock today. Chicory root extract is a dietary supplement.

Chicory in the Kitchen:  Chicory is high in inulin, a starch used in the food industry as a sweetener. It is also a good source of potassium and magnesium, and 3 cups of chopped leaves contain only 20 calories. Its sprouts, leaves, buds and flowers are added to many regional dishes of Europe, and the roots can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute or additive to coffee (and even beer). Camp Coffee, for example, is a Scottish-made coffee and chicory essence in production since 1876. It was invented as a quick way of brewing coffee in the military and was the world’s first instant coffee. It became very popular in the U.K. in World War II and during times of coffee bean crop failures, and is still found in grocery stores today. The syrup can be used in many ways:  mix it with warm milk (as you would with cocoa) to make coffee or with cold milk for iced coffee. It can be added to baking such as coffee cake, or to flavour buttercream icing and other confectionery.

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Illus. by Gordon Morrison, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Lawrence Newcomb, Little, Brown & Co., 1977)

Ways to Use Chicory:

  • Add the raw young leaves and buds to salads. Flowers can be used for edible decoration.
  • Use in place of spinach; cooking reduces the bitterness.
  • Chicory Mustard Greens: Cook greens in boiling water for 3 minutes, remove and rinse under cold water; drain and coarsely chop, then sauté with olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and (optional) anchovies until heated through; toss with vinaigrette and serve chilled or at room temperature.
  • Add to pasta.
  • Some coffee drinkers find that chicory adds a certain je ne sais quoi to their brew. Note that chicory coffee is not caffeine-free.

At the close of an early autumn day

dsc_2180-3Clouds cover,
a soft rain falls,
and twilight’s blue creeps in.
But we, like bees, have gathered
and now turn to.
Corn and rye, we’ve stacked the barley;
but there are damsons to put up,
and apples will be scrumpy before the final frost  ̶
much still to do!
’Though at even’s veil we trim the wicks,
scrape chairs ’cross flags and sit close,
content the plough’s at peace and we are warm,
mending our nets by the fire.

“At the close of an early autumn day” © 2016 Valerie Barrett. All rights reserved.

Plants from the Past: Nine volumes for apothecary-herbalists

20160924_111926-3Most of these books have huddled happily together in my library for years. I really only use them occasionally, especially when I need to look up an
archaic reference or remedy. All, however, contain fascinating information on the history, properties and applications of therapeutic, ornamental and culinary plants  ̶  invaluable for herbalists, gardeners and anyone interested in traditional folk medicine.

  1. Herbs in the Middle Ages by Evelyn Meagher (Grant Printing, 1983). In the preface to this slim booklet, the author quotes a medieval herbalist commenting on his own observations, “Most of these I am confident are true, and if there be any that are not so – yet they are pleasant.” How well that must have summed up the extent of 12th century medical wisdom! Brief but interesting facts are given on monastery, royal and kitchen gardens, the development of herbals (reference books of plant knowledge), symbolism, medieval beliefs, food and customs, archaic plant names and a list of herbal remedies used long before modern therapeutics were known. Check used & out-of-print book services.
  1. Plants from the Past: Old Flowers for New Gardens by David Stuart & James Sutherland (Penguin, 1989). “Even the most modern garden can be full of history.” The first part is a gardening history from ancient Mesopotamia to English cottage gardens of the 19th The rest is an extensive list of plant “antiques” which graced the flowerbeds of yesteryear but still work well in today’s modern plots. Includes photos and illustrations. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Proven Herbal Remedies by John H. Tobe (Provoker Press, 1969). This volume also gives a comprehensive history of herb use from ancient times to the present. The notes on the flyleaf, however, state, “It is important that you remember that, unlike drugs, these natural healing herbs bring you their healing benefits without doing you any harm whatsoever.” We know now, of course, that herbs are drugs, and sometimes quite powerful ones, so they should always be used with common sense and caution. The author zealously defends the individual’s right to choose his or her own type of treatment, whether it be herbalism (“mankind’s oldest form of healing”) or more modern methods; the rant goes on at length and becomes rather tiresome. (The publisher’s name is a good clue.) However, the book does include a long list of plants and the ailments they’re supposed to treat, plus sections on the different forms of medicinal preparations, a glossary of terms and tables of doses, weights and measures. Tobe also discusses herbal teas and methods for plant gathering and preservation. Text only. Check used & out-of-print book services.
  1. A companion book to the television series of the same name, The Victorian Flower Garden by Jennifer Davies (BBC Books, 1991) brings the garden plots of the nineteenth century to life. Davies was the associate producer and researcher for a trilogy of PBS series, all of which featured the expertise and reminiscences of Harry Dodson, longtime head gardener at an estate in Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire. Highly detailed information is given on Victorian flowerbeds, herbaceous borders, wild gardens, greenhouses and conservatories, and the craze for cut flowers, flower shows, orchids, ferns and roses. The charming “language of flowers” is discussed as well as the Victorian preoccupation with death and memorial flowers. Lots of beautiful illustrations and photos. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Guide to Medicinal Plants by Paul Schauenberg & Ferdinand Paris (Keats Publishing, 1990) was originally published in French in the 1970s. The plants presented in this book are grouped by the substances they contain, such as alkaloids, vitamins, antibiotics, flavonoids, oils, resins and tannins. A true guidebook, it lists the Latin and common names, origin, range, habitat, description, active constituents, properties and applications for each species. There are also herbal recipes, a brief list of famous figures in the history of medicine, a glossary of botanical terms, and a list of maladies and the plants to treat them. Pretty botanical illustrations in colour round out this intriguing collection, which I have referred to time and again while writing a novel featuring a wise woman in Dark Ages Britain. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Herbs in Ontario: How to grow and use 50 herbs by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown (Breezy Creeks Press, 1975) is another bare-bones, illustration-free booklet that delivers exactly what it promises. The most common kitchen garden herbs are here, plus instructions on making a Tudor knot garden as well as potpourri, sweet bags and tussie mussies. Check used & out-of-print book services.
  1. World of Herbs by Lesley Bremness (Ebury Press, 1990) outlines the use of seeds, leaves, flowers, roots, bulbs and essential oils in culinary, cosmetic, medicinal, household and decorative applications. There are some recipes scattered throughout. The section on essential and carrier oils is particularly helpful, as it points out which ones are skin- and food-safe. (For the record, I would neverknowingly ingest an essential oil.) Mostly text with a few decorative and not particularly useful line drawings. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada by MacKinnon et al. (2009) is one of many nature guides issued by Lone Pine Publishing. Categories include trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, sedges and grasses, ferns and poisonous plants with a photograph for each species. As the title suggests, their historical, traditional and modern uses as food, drink and medicine are discussed, as well as other applications (past or present) such as smoking, tinder, spiritualism and superstition, furniture and construction, clothing and bedding, dyes and more. Toxicity and contraindications are also covered. Note: Peterson and National Geographic publish similar guides which I haven’t yet had the pleasure to read. Available in bookshops and new & used from Amazon.
  1. I recently purchased The Complete Book of Incense, Oils & Brews by Scott Cunningham (Llewellyn Publications, 2016; originally published 1989). Reviews on the back cover tout this book as a “magical cookbook” and “a natural, Earth-oriented approach to magic that should make readers more aware of their connection to the Earth Mother and all of her children.” Indeed, the focus (I really, really want to say hocus-pocus focus) is on using herbs and herbal preparations for ritual magic, which Cunningham defines as “the use of natural energies to bring about needed change”. The main chapters of the book are devoted to incense, oils, ointments, inks, tinctures, herb baths, bath salts, brews, sachets, charms and powders, with some recipes and helpful information on scent combining, artificial ingredients and substitutions. Here you will also learn about more obscure plant and animal materials such as ambergris, civet, copal and storax. Mostly text with a few decorative line drawings. Available new, used & in Kindle format from Amazon.20160924_110913-9

Of course, there are many more beautiful herbals and guides out there; I’ll follow up with a personal wish list of the ones I’d love to get my hands on!

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Tsunami • Digital art © 2016 Valerie Barrett

Mabon • Harvest Home • Second Harvest • Autumnal Equinox

dsc_2112-9“Some bless the Cart; some kiss the sheaves; Some prank them up with Oaken leaves.”

(Excerpt, “The Hock-Cart” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674). A hock-cart was the last wagon, usually decorated, brought in from the harvest.)

Today marks the autumnal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator on its southward journey, and day and night are of equal duration. Nature is in balance — temporarily. From now on, the hours of darkness increase, and the warm days are followed by the longer chill of clear autumn nights.

This special time has been celebrated by the Celts since 3,000 BCE; the word Mabon (‘divine youth’) is a modern invention. Mabon occurs after the second harvest and is a time to rest and remember the warm embrace of the sun, celebrate the reaping of crops, and prepare for winter. We give thanks for any bounty we may have and the circumstances that have led us to this point near the closing of the year. It’s a time to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses, to cull whatever is no longer spiritually or physically useful or needed, perhaps start a new venture, and to share what we have with others.

20160922_145013-8Mabon symbols include ears of corn, wheat sheaves, a loaf of bread, the grape and apple, a chalice of wine and the cornucopia, a Mediterranean symbol of plenty adopted by the Celts.

Ways to celebrate Mabon for the next few days:  Take a walk in the woods or park and (lawfully) gather acorns, grasses, pine cones and colorful fallen leaves, taking a moment to give thanks to the field or trees which offered them. Harvest apples at a local pick-your-own orchard, or visit a pumpkin patch for gourds. Use them to decorate your home or altar. Make a corn dolly or a symbolic besom or broom. In the evening, light a beeswax candle and perform your autumn ritual, perhaps by repeating an invocation like this:

Mabon brings the scent of autumn
Golden glow and sun’s soft kiss.
Magick swirls and eddies onward
Season’s end demands all this.

The fruits are heavy on the trees
Yellow, gold, and orange leaves
Nature’s show of alchemy
Ever clear to you and me.

(Mabon Invocation excerpt, Solitary Witch: the Ultimate Book of Shadows for the New Generation by Silver RavenWolf, 2003)

Happy Autumn and Blessed Be!

Summer’s End

dsc_8886-16the soft subsidence
of summer; sharp-scented thyme
a dried memory

“Summer’s End” © 2016 Valerie Barrett. All rights reserved.