Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Salve Time

It's that time again - the time when I duck under the stairs and haul out the jars of oils I've left to steep all summer. Oddball containers of St John's Wort flowers in oil (yellow flowers that turn a wonderful rusty red), jars of plantain and comfrey leaves smashed up in oil, chunks of beeswax (one of the best smells in the world), dried marigold and calendula flowers, dried cayenne peppers, lavender buds, and all our used Marmite jars.

We eat a LOT of Marmite (sorry to hear about your recent troubles with the Marmite advertisers, Paddington, but I remain a loyal Marmite fan). We eat an inordinate amount, if I may say so. More than anyone else we know, although everyone else we know hates the stuff, so that's not saying much. But the jars are PERFECT for storing herbs, spices, and my salve. They are short, roundish, wide-mouthed, and impenetrable by bright light: ideal for storing something that has a tendency to go stale. They also look spiffy with a Sheila's Magic Salve label on them (and yes, the label really DOES say that).

I've been making this salve for about 20 years, which seems hard to believe (when did I get so old?). The first times I made salve, I was living on a beach in the Kootenays after tree-planting gigs and wanting to emulate a hero of mine: Jeanne Rose. A friend had given me Jeanne Rose's Body Book and I wanted to be just like her. I wanted that Santa Cruz sunshine, that long peasant skirt, that herbal knowledge, and a life on a kibbutz/commune/beach. Not necessarily in that order, of course. I started with her salve recipe, because it seemed the most easily attainable, and I was already living in a beach commune. The instructions seemed relatively simple: Warm some oil, add some herbs, beeswax, essential oils, then bottle. My first few attempts yielded a rock-solid but fragrant mass: way too much beeswax. A few times I had some fierce geranium wafts following me everywhere. Eventually I got the hang of it, found my favourite plant and oil additions, and the rest is salve history. It's amazing for dry skin, cuts, burns, rashes, worrying skin ailments, and it's a lovely after-bath skin moisturizer. The first few batches left weird colours on my dressing gown cuffs, but a little less cayenne and the orange effect disappeared.

What is most fun these days is growing the plants I like to use in the salve. St John's Wort by the apple trees, marigolds against the basil and tomatoes, calendula anywhere it wants (calendula's like that), lavender on the sunny, dry slope, comfrey and plantain in the shade of the huckleberry bushes. All through the summer I groom them. I prune and stake. Some I clip and dunk in oil for steeping; others I dry in the dark corners of the house. Then, around this time, they get turned into something wonderful.

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