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Spikenard has been used for centuries as both a healing and a ceremonial plant. It is mentioned many times in the bible. In the Song of Songs 4:13-14, the bridegroom sings of spikenard:
Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
With pleasant fruits,
Fragrant henna with spikenard,
spikenard and saffron,
calamus and cinnamon,
with every kind of incense tree,
with myrrh and aloes,
and all the finest spices.
The most well known biblical reference to spikenard is found in Mark 14:3-9, New King James Version
The Anointing at Bethany
3 And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. 4 But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? 5 For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply.
6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. 7 For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. 8 She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. 9 Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
Many people know the phrase the poor will be with you always, but few know the context or the meaning. Mary Magdelene was preparing for Passover with Jesus, attending a seder at Simon the Leper’s house in Jerusalem. She anointed Jesus’ feet with spikenard then dried the excess oil with her hair. This is symbolic at many levels. She was devout sitting at his feet, but she uncovered her hair, which a Jewish woman would not have normally done. This business annoyed Judas, a guy known for stealing from the poor box. Judas wants to know why she did not sell the spikenard and put the proceeds in the poor box so he can steal it. Jesus explains that she is anointing him for burial. There is some discussion about whether it was his feet or his head or both that she anointed. This was not the main issue. She used a great deal of fragrant oil and then went around with it all in her hair as a human incense. This act was extremely unusual and divinely inspired. You notice Mary did not make it into the last supper paintings, but she has been depicted anointing.
Pope Francis has used the spikenard in his coat of arms because in the Catholic church it represents Saint Joseph.
I like to wear some around my neck and shoulders when I feel I need to transform anything. I also love to fragrance my home with it, especially during winter. Although I guess it is an Easter symbol, I find the deep notes that linger in the air uplift my spirit in the darkest days. I buy a high quality essential oil, run a diffuser in my home, and also take it with me to the steam room for another way to feature it. I learned about spikenard kind of late in life, but am happily impressed with the results when I use it. It is a deep root note in perfume that holds the bass note long after the high notes have evaporated. Not everyone will love the smell as a single note, but with some mixing it works for most tastes. I am fond of mixing frankincense, myrrh and spikenard together, which are all very deep notes. I feel it lingering in the air. I like to saturate my home for full effects. Do you use essential oils, gentle reader? Aromatherapy is powerful medicine, often with deep historical meaning. The physical potential is excellent, but the symbolic and magical significance of spikenard can take you to a new place.
These Italians have perfected the art of making containers from citrus peels. They use bergamot, but I have seen this kind of box made out of an orange peel. The scent remains for a few years after the box is created, making it perfect for tea, or other aromatic products. The specialty here is a tobacco pouch, which is light and fragrant. I am crazy about this idea, and am the producer of hundreds of grapefruit peels each year. I have so many that my compost gets full of citrus and hard to digest. I hate to waste them, but really do not eat candy. The candied peels are a treat to some, but require as much work as these containers. I have looked for a way to use these byproducts of my juicy winter crop, and I think I have found one to try. Martha Stewart does hers in the oven and keeps them right side out. I like the whole process the Italians use, but do not want a tobacco pouch as a result. I tried Martha’s oven method with some lemon peels, but they warped after I thought they were done. Her method is tedious and it requires the use of the oven. I live in Arizona where ample sunshine should be able to do this job. I will try a simple shape with a lid, and skip the sand step and building of presses. If they go free form, like my first attempt, I will need to deal with the fit of top to bottom. My lemon bowls are all wonky because I took them from the oven after 40 minutes. If I were in survival mode and had to use them, they might hold something, but they are a failure at a design level. I plan to try some grapefruit peels this week inside out to see if I can be a peel artist. These Italian ladies are obvious professionals, shaping it around the form like a pice of clay. I admire their skill, and aspire someday to make a swanky shape. Like clay, I need to start with a good cylinder and move on from that. I have at least 100 grapefruit still on the tree, so there will be plenty with which to experiment. Have you ever seen this done, Gentle Reader?
My favorite herb in the garden is lemon verbena. I like to make tea with it all the time, but there are many other uses for this luscious herb. As a bath herb it brightens and refreshes the body and mind. The fragrance is used extensively in perfumery for the lemony zest it adds. In cooking it creates a lemon taste with no bitterness or aftertaste. It can be added to baked goods, salad dressings, drinks, sauces, and fruit salads to brighten a dish. Simple syrup of lemon verbena is useful for many drink and popsicle recipes with or without alcohol. Mixed with citrus fruit it becomes a big flavor enhancer. Rice pilaf, carrot cake, gazpacho, and other dishes can benefit from a pinch of this delicious herb. Store it in a glass jar in the dark to preserve freshness.
I love herbal bathing as retreat and meditative practice. The first one I tried about 20 years ago was rosemary bath. I brewed a strong tea of rosemary and added it to my bath. This method works well, as does the brewing of the tea in the tub by running hot water over a sachet, allowing it to steep, then filling the tub. When you choose the herbs and when you enter the water you can make the entire process a mindfulness experience. Drinking tea made with the same herbs will enhance the aromatic sensory intake. I am planning to take some baths this week with matching beverages and bath herbs. If you have a favorite herb you can try this at home. If the bath is taking place at the cocktail hour I think it is suitable to include the herb in a tasty concoction from the bar that aligns with the indented purposes.
These are ideas for you to design your very own aroma world to enliven your senses and change your mood. There is an art to choosing herbs for the desired mood, but there are very few side effects that inhibit experimentation. If you like an herb you can research it fully or simply determine that it is not toxic, then try it in a bath. The effectiveness may surprise you. When all the pores of your skin are soaking in the active ingredients the results are swift. Bringing to the mind’s eye the results you want to see is the strongest link that brings this practice into the meditational realm. By creating sensory stimulation and awareness at once we step out of our normal situation and into synesthsia of our own design. We use the aroma as an anchor for our meditation. At the least you can enjoy smelling and feeling bit better from the herbal bath. At the most it can be a rebirth and transformation.
Mintha, Greek goddess of the mint plant is a fertile herbal mother. Stewing, growing, and drinking mint can cause euphoric uplift. Soothing, aiding digestion of food and intuition, mint tea opens the senses and the mind. Bathing or washing with mint stimulates the skin and the circulation. The high notes of these aromas evaporate quickly. The use of mint in aromatherapy is widespread and well accepted. Peppermint oil is used for everything from headache cure to memory tonic. In the middle east, especially Morocco, mint tea is the beverage of choice for all occasions.
Growing mint is easy. I grow several varieties, with the most dominant ones winning out and taking over the space. A source of moisture is all they need to spread like crazy underground. To harvest it, cut it and hang your bundles in a dry dark place until dry. I store mine in brown paper bags once dry because I have too much to use jars. I harvest mass amounts throughout the year. In the summer we drink it every day for the cooling qualities. Mints mix very well with other herbs and fruits to create flavor layers in tea.
Mintha, the water nymph of myth, had an affair with Haides, god of the underworld, pissing off Persephone, his wife. In an all too common scenario in Greek mythology, angry wife takes revenge on the nymph, in this case by by stomping on her. She turns into the mint plant so that every time Persephone steps on her the aroma of mint wafts all over the angry queen. So whether you want to uplift your spirits or annoy an angry queen, the goddess Mintha is the tool for the job.