Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The first quarter is always the toughest

We have officially arrived in April. And although the weather isn't behaving (it snowed this morning), it is spring and my thoughts turn toward - gardens, plants and herbal concoctions.

I am currently wading through the Viridarium Umbris by Daniel Schulke. A hefty tome of around 1000 pages, it has been a challenge and a boon to read with my book club. We are trying our hand at the various recipes, looking for the suggested plants and making progress. It comes at a good time too, as I am making plans for my own little patch of earth this spring.

So what does a mambo plant in her herbal yard, when most of what is used isn't commercially available here in Pennsylvania? Well, let me tell you that with a bit of searching, you can find quite a few Haitian herbs. At my old house, I had a small forest of banana trees, palms and assorted tropical trees just for decor.  Mixed in were aloes, pelagoriums, citrus geraniums, Dutchman pipes and all the regulars like lovage, basil and mint (over 30 varieties at one point!)

Mints are very traditional in Vodou. We make Danbala's basin with spearmint, we bath our blades in peppermint and we create various bath mixtures with them.  Everything in Vodou is about balance, so I always choose to have both mints and basil in my garden.

Basil is the favorite of Erzulie, and it's spicy notes are a welcome balance to her pink roses. Think not? I know my scents, having worked in the floral industry through high school and college.  Fresh roses should smell Peppery - not "flowery". If they smell like roses, the blooms are dying, and will not last more than a day or two. But if you sniff a rose and get pepper, buy it. That bloom has hardly off the plant more than a few hours. Basil is also a favorite of Ogoun, and our altars for the Nago warrior are awash in vases of fresh basil from the garden. Purple basil, also known as African blue is the plant to seek.  I have found it most really good garden centers that specialize in odd or rare herbs.

I also pick up a bitter melon at the Asian market and plant the seeds. This is the herb called Awowsi, and its Azaka's favorite plant. The leaves are often made into a tea, and I know diabetics in Haiti who use it to help control their blood sugar. Like most bitter herbs, its expelling nature helps the pancreas and gall bladder shed sugar from the system.

I have roses for Erzulie - pink of course, though one year only the white one bloomed, but she didn't seem to mind.

I also plant a host of lemon scented herbs - verbena, lemon balm, melissa and lemon scented pelagorium.  Citrus is a poison breaker in Haiti, and having a handful of these wonderful herbs ready  to go should be the top choice for all mambos who do any client work.

Our front garden is graced by a huge Dutchman's Pipe, also known as Aristolochia. It's a climbing vine with a huge and very ugly purple flower. This is the go-to plant for spirit attachments. A bath made of this plus some additional constituents will cleanse even the toughest case. (No, I am not giving out recipes, just covering plants!)

Two additional herbs round out my regular garden plants. The first is the anise plant. Legba loves this scent, and so I have three huge bushes out front for him. I make tea from the flowers, hydrosol from the leaves and essential oil from the stems. The second is a rosemary bush. I generally cannot get this to winter over, but I splurge every year and buy a big bush, that I keep in the sun all season. At the first sign of frost, I bring it in, and it usually manages to make it till Yule before dying. At the old house, we had a bush outside in a protect alcove. It weathered many snowy winters without issue. But here there is no protective niche, and so I must make do with a new one each year.

And finally, I have the usual kitchen herbs - chives, garlic, onions, marjoram, thyme and pepper.  These can all be found wherever you buy your herbs locally.

Although there are a few herbs that can only be had in Haiti, by and large most herbs can be found here in the USA. If your local garden center doesn't carry something, check online. Many nurseries now ship worldwide. It's no problem to find tropical plants that can help fill out your plant nursery.

As I get the plants in and things begin to grow, I'll post pictures from all the beds. I love this time of year, when I can get out into the dirt and feel the energy of the earth pushing and moving forward. I hope you get out there, too!

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