Spring Forward

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

20160309_180048 (3)At this time of year, my parents always quoted this old chestnut, no doubt learned from their parents before them. It’s a proverb possibly of English or Welsh origins (in Wales, it’s used more often for April); some say it comes from Pennsylvania. No matter where or how it started, it refers, of course, to quixotic March weather and the hope for a warm and gentle Spring. My mother has often told me that, on the day I was born in early March, she watched a brisk wind outside her hospital room window toss the willows in a chill and fitful dance. (Perhaps that presaged the highs and lows of my own nature, which can at times run to the tempestuous.) I’m sure as she gazed out at the pale and blustery landscape, that young mother had her own hopes and dreams for me, her third and youngest child.

Here in southern Ontario, we’ve enjoyed a little bit of everything weather-wise so far this month. A few warmer days, a bit of rain, some fog, and – finally – a few kinder, sunny afternoons. Last night, however, as I set out for home after work, a mini snowstorm hit, with biting winds that made the snow swirl smokelike across the road. Winter was back, but only temporarily. This morning dawned bright, still cold, but most of the snow has already melted. The sky is robin’s egg blue, and the sunlight pooling on our wooden floor feels warmer than it did last week.

In my part of the world, it is the eve of Springing Forward – changing our clocks to Daylight Saving Time. At 2:00 a.m. on the 12th (the second Sunday of March), we move our clocks ahead one hour. With that, our time zone abruptly changes from Eastern Standard Time (EST) to Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), and in November, it all changes back again. Some Canadian provinces, indeed some towns or regions, choose to opt out of this method of (supposedly) making better use of daylight and saving energy, i.e. moving an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. Different countries have different change dates.

With every new season, I like to visit a local plant nursery for a bit of fresh air and a lot of browsing. I don’t have a garden (although I can grow herbs and vegetables in pots on the balcony), but I like to roam the aisles, breathing in the scent of rich potting soil and living, growing things. This particular nursery also has an extensive shop with giftware and accessories, all arranged in charming seasonal vignettes. Almost to this day last year, I went to see what they had on offer for Spring. Soft pastels, spring greens, eggs and rabbits were all there – and lambs!

20160309_180048 (6)My mother was also born in March, near the end of the month. Last year, I completed a cross stitch sampler featuring lambs, one of her favourite creatures. I didn’t have the funds at the time to get it framed, but maybe I can do it in time for her birthday this year. If I do, I’ll post a photo of it; it’s a lovely, bucolic design, perfect for a fresh, new season.

Here is more weather-related March lore:

“A dry March and a wet May? Fill barns and bays with corn and hay.”

 “March winds and April showers? Bring forth May flowers.”

 “So many mists in March you see / So many frosts in May will be.”

 “As it rains in March, so it rains in June.”

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!