Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ointments, Balms, Herbs (oh, my)

One of the wonderful things in writing a character like Abelia Brody is learning things that I never knew. Of course, in writing any historical novel one must do research into how people lived in the past--in this case, 1917.  I've learned how to start a car in 1917. The types of stoves that people had in their homes.  How they fed their pet dogs in the age before commercial dog food.  Phonograph record players ("talking machines," as they were known then). Popular Mississippi River excursions. Prohibition. Movies.  Charlie Chaplin. To name just a few.

But Abelia is a gardener. Her favorite place to be is in her garden, butterflies fluttering playfully around her head. She knows her plants and herbs and makes good use of them. Before starting on this journey, I knew nothing about plant grafting, for instance. Or the difference between lilac and lavender. But, in order to write Abelia's story, I needed to know these things and much more: like how to make a basic salve:

Abelia had learned much from Rima Reiniger, not just how to make gazpacho. From Rima, she learned about the healing nature of herbs and flowers. She learned which plants were poisonous and which poisonous plants could be made medicinal by merely adding another herb or flower. She learned how to set bones and deal with scrapes and abrasions. After all, Rima’s husband often boxed on the weekends and on many occasions had come home with swollen limbs, near-broken ribs, black eyes and cuts. In fact, Heinrich was a much better brewer than boxer. He was very popular in Over-the-Rhine, however. After bouts he would often accompany his fans, sometimes carried heroically on their shoulders, to the local pub to down pints of his own brew. Whether he won or not was immaterial: it was really about the celebratory beers.
     When Rima returned for Spain, she left Abelia the collection of old medicinal tomes that she often consulted for her knowledge. “These books,” Rima stated with her typical dramatic flair, “have been passed down from my great-grandmother’s mother. Take good care of them.”
     Abelia smiled when she cracked the books and noticed that they were written in English. Rima winked knowingly and patted the girl on the head. It was those books that Abelia had digested over the years, pouring over every page and hand-written note in the margins. As a result, she was able to distinguish comfrey from the poisonous foxglove, knew how to make a red clover tea to aid in conception and produced a very popular basil infused headache remedy that Ellie was worried would take away business from her husband’s pharmacy. Ellie had once even complained to Gerald about this but was forced to give up when boxes of the light green elixir failed to materialize from Abelia’s two-story farmhouse. Never during this time did she once ask Abelia if she could sell the elixir in the store; she just wanted to keep Abelia out of the pharmaceutical industry.
     Due to her success with plants it was unavoidable that Abelia was sometimes consulted for her knowledge when it came to those seeking basic remedies. People didn’t like to admit this, however, and were only willing to talk to her when they desperately wanted something. And then when she provided the necessary balm or ointment, she would be left alone until the next crisis, whether a colicky child or a downed postal carrier. Doc Foster often came to her but sometimes did so on the sly, as a handful of people in Lily Springs were still unsure whether or not Abelia processed some other-worldly powers of a dark nature. Plus, most people in Lily Springs would rather not face the wrath of Ellie, who, even after all of these years, still saw Abelia as competition.
     Black eyes were nothing new to Abelia, but she sure wasn’t expecting to see one when Robert came around the following afternoon delivering the mail and newspapers.  (Lilac Wine, Chapter 18)

So here it is: Abelia's recipe for a a basic salve for bruises:


Several Marigold flowers
Several Arnica flowers
Olive oil
Beeswax (in honey)

1. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil on the stove. Be careful not to bring to a boil; don't make it too hot. Just hot enough to bring out the essence of the flowers.
2. Chop the marigold and arnica flowers as finely as possible. Add to the oil. Stir. Take off stove. Let it sit for about ten minutes.
3. Add a segment of beeswax. Let the honey drip off as much as possible before adding.
4. Stir. If necessary, add to the heat until the beeswax melts to smooth consistency.
5. Remove from the stove and place in a dish. Let cool.

Then, apply to bruised area as needed.

Marigolds have been used for centuries in healing, as they contain anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents. The Greeks actually made a marigold tea to help relieve tension. Commonly, marigolds are used to to aid in the healing of bruises. But they are also used to treat varicose veins, sore nipples and diaper rash.

Arnica, from the sunflower family, is a flower that has anti-inflammatory properties. This flower should only be used externally, as it produces harmful effects on the kidneys and liver so should never be eaten or used on unbroken skin. This is important.


Lilac Wine is a novel in progress.