White Sage and Bees and our other sage friends

bee in sage

One of my favorite plants in the garden (I’ve posted about it before) is in bloom right now: the white sage, Salvia apianaSalvia apiana means “bee sage” and boy howdy did they get that one right. This sage puts up tall spikes covered with small white flowers that bees can’t resist. Unfortunately, our white sage is situated right by the garden path. So these days, every time I go into the garden I have to squeeze past the leaning spires, praying I won’t be stung, because the plant is thick with bees. Covered. It hums.

Now, these workers are so busy that they don’t have time to be aggressive. For instance, they let me stand around taking blurry pictures of them working, until I got the one above. But stings happen by unfortunate mischance in crowded conditions. I suppose I could cut back the spikes, but whom am I to interrupt this passionate sage & bee love affair?

Besides, it’s really pretty. The spikes are about six feet high, but delicate, like fairy lances.

white sage spires

Here is a pic of the white sage as seen from our back door. I decided to leave in the wheelbarrow and some buckets of who knows what, and The Germinator ™ for scale.  Right now this salvia is the star of the garden.

white sage off our patio

All the sages are blooming now, actually.  The ability to fill the yard with huge, wildly fragrant sages is, to my mind, one of the principle inducements toward living in Southern California. I enjoy the aromatics of our Mediterranean and native chaparral plants as much as the bees do. Here’s what we’ve got going right now–and I think I’m going to add more this fall.

Below is our native black sage, Salvia mellifera, just coming into flower. The bees like this sage, too. (They like all sages). This one arranges its flowers in little sipping cups for them. It has dark green leaves, which is less common than greyish foliage in the native sages. It brings reliable dark green foliage into the garden, and the foliage is powerfully fragrant. If you want to mellow out or soothe sore muscles, you could try throwing a a branch of this in the bath.

black sage blossom

Our other native sage, Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandi, lives a harsh existence out in the front of our house, occupying a formerly barren strip of sun baked clay above the black roof of our subterranean garage. The heat out there has moved its time clock along at a faster pace than the mellifera in the shady back yard. The blossoms are almost spent on the Cleveland. I’m not sure what else could live in that spot, except for prickly pear, so I’m very happy it’s been so sporting about growing there. And of course, bees like it.

sage garage

We also have an expanding patch of clary sage, Salvia sclarea in our back yard. This sage is native to the Mediterranean. I planted this one on a whim, to fill a temporarily empty spot, but since then it has spread and really established itself as a player in the garden and now I find I’m just going to have to keep it and work around it. Most of the year clary sage is about knee high, with big, thick, fuzzy green leaves. But in the spring it sends up flower spikes to compete with the Salvia apiana. They are really gorgeous.

clary sage flower

The flowers are structured like the white sage flowers, but bigger. This particular shape seems to make bees giddy with happiness.

clary sage leaf

Above are the big fuzzy leaves and a flower that has yet to open. And below is the shape of the flower spikes. The spikes stand chest high, but like to fall over, like this one:

clary sage

Clary sage has medicinal uses, but I’ve not tried it for anything myself. I’ve also heard you can make fritters of the leaves….which is interesting. Of course, I’d eat just about anything if it was made into a fritter.

And last but not least is my culinary sage, tucked in with some thyme and mint, and beleaguered by the nasturtium. It’s not flashy, but its strong and knows what it’s about. It’s also indispensable in the bean pot.

culinary sage

Do you have a favorite sage? Do you have any recommendations for my next round of planting? I’m thinking about adding at least two more to the grounds of our estate.

It’s Calendula Season!

buck and calendula

Just a reminder to you all that Calendula officinalis (aka Pot Marigold) is super-easy to grow in the garden. Why should you grow Calendula? To make Calendula infused olive oil, of course– as I’m doing above, with inevitable feline assistance.

Well, that’s why I grow it. Calendula infused olive oil is the base of all my lotions and potions, because it is such a potent healer of dry, itchy, burnt or otherwise irritated skin. I’m using it right now to treat my sunburn–which is what made me think of this post.

But outside of this, it’s an all around useful herb.  Here’s a couple of profiles to check out if you need convincing: Plants for a Future;  University of Maryland

It takes about 60 days for Calendula to reach maturity from seed, so if it’s spring where you live, now is a good time to plant it. Note that Calendula is a happy volunteer. Once you plant it, you may never have to plant it again. The volunteer flowers are not as big and fancy as their parent flowers–they revert to their wild form quickly–but they work just as well.

I like Calendula so much that I’ve already written a whole series of posts on it:

Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

Continue reading…

Wild Edible: Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae )

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo by MathKnight

It’s Bermuda buttercup season in Los Angeles. Burmuda buttercup, also known as sourgrass, soursop, African wood-sorrel and  many other names, is a member of the wood-sorrel family. It originated in the Cape region of South Africa and is now found all over California, parts of Australia and probably other places as well. Here, it comes with the rain and vanishes with the heat.

It’s a “weed” (Wikipedia describes it as a noxious weed and an invasive species) so if you look it up on the internet you’ll mostly find information on how to eradicate it. It’s true, it’s terribly persistent, because it spreads through underground bulbs. But I think its attractive–usually more attractive than whatever neglected patch of landscaping it has colonized. More importantly, it’s super tasty.

It packs a potent, lemony punch, like true sorrel, which makes it an excellent salad green, and that’s how I use it–raw, in salads. The leaves, stems and flowers are all tasty, but for salads I just use the flowers and leaves. They provide a bright, lemony note which is just wonderfully fresh and tasty with tender new lettuce–springtime in a bowl.

As its true name, Oxalis, indicates, it is high in oxalic acid (as are many more common greens, like spinach), and (mandatory warning) oxalic acid should not be consumed in enormous quantities or if your physician has warned against it for some reason. But its sour nature makes it unlikely that you could stomach enough to hurt you.

Give it a try if you haven’t yet. If this form of oxalis doesn’t grow near you, other edible wood sorrels– or naturalized true sorrel–might. Have a look around.

Note the structure: 3 hearts joined at the center, and the distinctive brown freckles on the leaves.

Oxalis pes-caprae has another use–as a dye. I’m experimenting with that this week, and will talk about the results in a future post.

Indigo 101

Graham stirs the vat with his “witchy stick” –which is tinted many beautiful shades of blue.

One of the primary lessons of gleaned from my Shibori Challenge is that cotton is difficult to dye with natural dyes, whereas wool and silk take these colors beautifully. Know your materials!

Building on that, I’ve also figured out that the reason indigo dye is the favored dye for shibori techniques is because indigo gets along very well with cotton (and other plant fibers) and the dyeing characteristics of indigo are ideal for shibori. In fact, the idiosyncrasies of indigo probably led to the development of shibori, way back in the mists of time. So, if I want to make shibori patterned cotton cocktail napkins, as was my challenge to myself, I may as well fall in with thousands of years of tradition and dye with indigo.

Book reading and Internet surfing are all well and good for gathering knowledge, but to learn an unfamiliar process, nothing works better than to find someone who knows what they’re doing and go watch them. That way, you learn via a pleasant form of osmosis, rather than by frowning at at a glowing screen.

Our friend Graham Keegan dyes with indigo and sells his beautiful canvas and leather creations in his own Etsy shop. He kindly invited me to come to his studio and watch him dye some test swatches yesterday.

Continue reading…

The Whip: A Homemade Moisturizer How-To from Making It

A quick little project: lavender infused moisturizer, two Calendula/plantain salves and a chamomile infused lip balm. Enough unguents to see me through Christmas.

Note 3/16/13: When I posted this I never expected this to become one of our most popular posts.  Since so many people are looking at this recipe, I feel like I should let you know a couple of things about it before you try it.

1) The first is that it is not perfect. I love it, but it may not be for everyone. It depends on your priorities. Mine are simplicity and purity of ingredients. I don’t care so much about consistency– or rather, simplicity trumps it. This means sometimes the recipe doesn’t work, and more often than not there’s some separation of water. This is “normal.”

2)  See, it’s not really possible to make a perfect lotion with these ingredients. Their union is not stable. I think my lotion might be defined as a temporary emulsification brought around by force.  To create something stable, like store bought lotions, you really need to use chemical emulsifiers /emulsifying waxes. And I’m not saying that’s bad–I personally am not interested in playing junior chemist. I use beeswax because we have a hive, and olive oil because it is on my shelf.  There’s many recipes out there that can show you how to make really smooth consistent lotions if you want to buy the ingredients.

3) One possibility for improving the emulsification in this recipe is combining the beeswax with a pinch of pharmaceutical grade borax. I haven’t tried this yet, because opinions are mixed on both the safety of borax and of the actual efficacy of the borax and beeswax combo. It’s a possibility, though.

4) Trying to get water to bind with oil is just plain difficult if you want to stick with really simple ingredients. A much easier option is to craft a body butter out of shea and/or cocoa butter and some high grade oils and use that as your primary moisturizer.

4) Finally, I am experimenting to see if I can improve the technique and instructions on this recipe to make more “bomb-proof.” So, I’d say go ahead and give this a try–it works for me and many others–but also check back to see if I come up with anything new.

Thank so much for your interest, your enthusiasm, and your patience!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Confession: I can’t live without my homemade moisturizer. This is not true of all things. I like take-out food sometimes, and I prefer Ibuprofen to willow bark tea. However, I’ll never go back to store bought lotion.

This recipe appears in Making It as Olive Oil Whip. It’s my every day body lotion/face cream and I figured it was about time to share it with you. It only has three ingredients. It’s safe and wholesome and very effective. Heck, you could eat it!

You might find it heavier than what you’re used to, because it doesn’t contain all the chemical dryers that store-bought stuff has (see the Skin Deep database for the scoop on what’s in your favorite moisturizer). But I promise you that if you use it for a week you’ll get used to the difference–and then you’ll get hooked. My skin has never been so happy as it has since I started using this stuff, and I’m saving tons of money.

The Whip

Ingredients:

1/2 cup olive oil  (It’s particularly nice to make this with herb-infused oils, but it’s also very good with plain oil. I just made a batch with oil infused with lavender buds. Heavenly!)

2 tablespoons (.5 oz) of cosmetic grade beeswax, either in bead form or grated and packed into the spoons. (You can use vegan waxes instead).*

1 cup of tepid water, filtered or bottled or distilled is best.

Optional: Essential of your choice for scent, about 10 drops

*I know, I know, you have to buy wax, which is sort of a pain, but it’s very worth it because if you do, you can make salves and lip balm, too. If you have a honey person at your local farmer’s market, you might ask them. I also like the pastille (bead form) beeswax that they sell at Mountain Rose Herbs. It’s very convenient. If you get a block of wax, you’ll have to grate it. The charm of that wears off fast. It’s not such a good idea to use ground up candles or hardware store beeswax, because you just don’t know where it comes from.

Equipment:

You need a double boiler, an improvised double boiler–which would be a heat proof bowl balanced over a saucepan–or my favorite method, a Pyrex measuring cup sitting in a small saucepan.

You will also need a countertop blender or a powerful stick blender. A weak stick blender may not be up to the task. ETA: Since I’ve posted this recipe I’ve had a lot of feedback which indicates that a decent stick blender really is the best tool for the job, especially when used in a confined space, like the lotion’s jar, or a Pyrex cup (rather than, say, a mixing bowl).

A couple of clean and dry jars to store your lotion in. This recipe makes about a 1 1/2 cups.

Wax and oil heat up in Pyrex measuring cup in a saucepan. Our grimy stove is now immortalized on the Interwebs.

The Procedure:

Put the olive oil in your double boiler setup and add the wax. Heat over gently simmering water until the wax vanishes into the oil.

Meanwhile, measure out your tepid water. Cold water will make the lotion seize up too fast. Hot water makes the texture strange. Tepid water is what you want.

Optional step: I find it helps to pre-warm the blender jar by filling it with hot water prior to blending. See, some of the liquid wax will solidify when it hits the cool glass of the jar. This isn’t a huge problem, but you might scrape some of those chunky bits of wax into your finished lotion when you’re emptying out the blender. Heating it first minimizes the problem. So just fill it with hot water and let it sit until you’re ready to blend. Empty it out at the last second. You don’t have to dry it.

Get your blender or your stick blender all ready to go. Do a pre-flight on the blender. Make sure the ring at the bottom is tight. If you’re using a stick blender, you can actually blend the lotion in the jar you’re going to keep it in, which eliminates a lot of clean up.

With a stick blender you can make the lotion right in the jar.

Take the oil off the stove. Now is the time to stir in the essential oil if you’re using it. Don’t dink around and let it oil/wax moisture cool. Move promptly to the blender site and pour the oil into the blender or the container you’re using with the stick. Start your engines. Pour the tepid water in steady stream into the whirling oil. It will start coming together immediately. If the blender chokes, stop it, scrape down the sides and start it again. Incorporation should only take a few seconds. Look for unincorporated pockets of water and keep blending until they’re gone.

(Once in a rare while I’ll end up with a little water that just won’t incorporate because the emulsification process finishes and for whatever reason, it didn’t get included. If this happens, just pour it off. But generally you should be able to get the whole cup mixed in. You can experiment with using less water if you want. As you reduce the amount of water, the moisturizer will become more like a butter and less like a lotion. A ratio of equal parts water and oil makes a butter that is a really dense weather barrier, good for extreme conditions and outdoor activities.)

While the lotion is still warm, pour it into your chosen vessels. Leave the lids off until it cools. It will thicken some on cooling.

Storage:

This keeps at room temperature for at least a month or two. Signs of decay include texture changes, color changes and outright mold. I’ve only seen this happen in little jars of the stuff that I’ve used for travel and have forgotten about. I might go through my usual supply too fast for it to go bad. This is a natural product, though, so you should make it as you need it, rather than making it in bulk and expecting it to keep for a year.

Clean up:

Oil and wax can be tricky to clean off glass, and hard on your pipes, too. The secret, I’ve discovered, is baking soda. Shake some in and wipe it around. It picks up grease just like sawdust picks up vomit on a fairground midway. Dump the greasy soda lumps in the trash. Boiling hot water rinses help, too.

Last note:

This lotion and even more so the Silky Cream in Making It are good make-up removers/cold cream substitutes. You can slather this on and tissue it off to clean your face, or for a light moisture treatment.

Salvia Means Salvation: White Sage

Salvia apiana, photo by Stan Shebs

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Today I was lucky enough to be able to take part one of a two part class taught by Cecilia Garcia and James Adams, Jr., authors of Healing with Western Plants at the Theodore Payne Foundation. I’ve blogged about their book before, and was thrilled to be able to see them in person.

Cecilia is a Chumash healer. James is a professor of pharmacology and a botanist. In both the book and in person they do a wonderful tag-team act, delivering both the Chumash message and the Western scientific take on various plants. Not that they’re doing a Scully and Mulder. James is very taken with the gentleness and efficacy of these plants and repeatedly said he wished western medicine would reconsider their value.

I thought I’d give you a taste of today’s lessons by telling you a bit of what I learned about white sage, Salivia apiana, we’wey (waykway) in Chumash. The most fragrant and beautiful of all Salvias.

Flower of Salvia apiana, photo by Stan Shebs

White sage is a native Californian plant which is grown in many places, as long as it can grown in dry conditions (overwatering will kill it quick) and the winter temps aren’t too cold. See Plants for a Future Database for details. It has beautiful soft silvery foliage and white to pale purple flowers that bees adore. We’ve got two planted and are looking forward to having our own homegrown supply. After today, I want to find a place for another plant.

Even if you think you don’t know this plant, you do. This is the stuff that New Age types like to burn in their smudge sticks–because it smells good, and has a sort of fuzzy reputation as being sacred or protective or cleansing. This, unfortunately, has led to over-harvesting in the wild to meet the demand. Cecilia had a long, funny rant about smudge sticks. Suffice it to say she does not like them, because, at very least, they are wasteful. They’ve been getting larger and larger, as if bigger = more mojo. All a big smudge stick does is keep more precious white sage leaves unavailable for any purpose other than burning.

She said that if you felt the need for the smoke, you should burn a single leaf, and pray while you do it. She said that white sage should never be burned thoughtlessly, like incense, because it is their most sacred plant.

A better use for white sage is in your water bottle. 

Cecilia recommended that we (the class, aka people with interest in plant healing) drop a single white sage leaf (dry or fresh) into our water bottles and so drink a bit of its essence every day. She uses does this herself and takes it further, keeping a leaf in the 1 gallon bottles she uses for cooking, as well as in her water bottle, so she is ingesting a tiny bit of her most sacred plant on a daily basis.

Why? To keep you calm, to repair your soul.  As she says in the book:

It is our everyday plant. It is a spirit plant. If you don’t have it, everything is going to bother you. You drink it by putting a leaf in cool water every day. You are going to be calm enough to be rational. It will enhance any medicine you take and protect you from the toxicity of medicines. It tickles your spirit, your conscience, and helps you keep your integrity. If you drink it every day, you won’t’ get as many colds.

 Does it work? Well, I’m willing to try it, because I love sages and have a deep affinity for them, and trust my experience with garden sage and colds enough to believe in the medicinal qualities of any Salvia. I’ve been sipping my sage enhanced water bottle all day.  Don’t know if it’s making me calmer, but it does lend a pleasant taste to the water.

As to the mental/spiritual effects, I cannot speak with any authority. James does note that it contains a compound called miltirone which may act like Valium to relieve anxiety. My purpose here is not to convince skeptics, nor to get all “woo-woo” on you, but to present traditional wisdom as it has been told to me.

White sage has a multitude of medicinal uses*, which you can read about in their book, or elsewhere. But I will share with you is Cecilia’s advice on using it as a hot tea, as her instructions were quite specific. White sage is very powerful, so if you wish to brew a hot cup of tea to address a cold or other illness, you should prepare it this way:

Put one leaf in one cup of cold water. Bring the water (and the leaf) to a gentle simmer.

• Do not let it reach a full boil.
• Do not sweeten the tea with anything.
• Only drink this tea at night, before bed, never during the day.
• Do not drink more than one cup a night.

Oh, one last note of interest. She firmly believes that essential oil of white sage is dangerous and discourages its use strongly–not only for internal use, but external use as well, even mixed into massage oil. This is holds for any of the native plants. They are powerful on their own–their properties do not need to be consolidated. As she and James say, for her, the standard dosage is 1 leaf per day. Think about how essential oil is made: a huge armload of foliage (or more) will yield a teeny tiny bottle of oil. Each drop of that stuff equals god knows how many leaves. She made this point many times during the class, so I’m passing it on.

—-

* ETA: After some comments have come in, I’m thinking I should clarify something here. Salvia apiana is very powerful stuff. Many sources say it should not be used medicinally. Obviously the Chumash disagree. But you can see from the very strict guidelines around the tea recipe that Cecilia takes its strength seriously.

All salvias have medicinal qualities. Plain old culinary sage can make fantastic medicine and is much safer to play with, especially if you’re just starting out with herbs. If you have access to white sage, I’d encourage you to try the white sage leaf in the water bottle–just to experience where that sort of relationship with a plant might lead you. But for other purposes I’d recommend you stick to culinary sage, unless you’ve studied this plant, maybe have Cecilia and James’ book, and are clear on what you’re doing.

Here’s a quick overview of the medicinal properties of regular sage from herbalist Susun Weed: http://www.susunweed.com/Article_Sage-the-Savior.htm

Bolloso Napoletano Basil

Another winner from Franchi, Italy’s oldest seed company: Bolloso Napoletano basil. It has been slow to go to flower, pest resistant, prodigious and flavorful. The huge leaves are the size of iPhones but make much better pesto (iPesto?).


As usual, I can’t find much information on this variety in English. Someone correct me if I’m wrong but I believe the name translates roughly as “blistered Neapolitan” a reference, most likely, to the wrinkled leaves. Bolloso Napoletano will be the official Root Simple compound basil from now on out.