Sandalwood, Cedar, and Spice: A Canadian Tradition of Crafting

Recipes would be exchanged over a cup of herbal tea and people who could cut a fine quill for writing were much in demand.
                                                                  - Dorothy Banks

With summer’s labours over, in autumn Canadian settlers looked forward to craft-making, when they finally had a little time to take pleasure in the fragrant leaves and petals which they had so carefully collected from their gardens and fields.

Crafting with herbs and spices has long been a tradition of cultures around the world - one with both decorative and practical uses,  but little is recorded about pot pourri and pomander-making by early Canadian settlers.  However, thanks to the writings of folklorists such as the late Dorothy Banks, we do know that they took pleasure in these crafts each autumn when the hanging bunches of roses, peonies, and oregano were crispy-dry and the muslin drying trays of chamomile and calendula blossoms were almost overflowing in the attic. 

Dorothy Banks, of Peterborough, Ontario, compiled many of these recipes and traditions into a booklet series, Love Spoon, published in 1979 for the nearby Lang Pioneer Village, which still uses this valuable and seemingly timeless information for educating visitors.  This series of hand-written booklets contains information on haybox cookery, making a rabbit stew, cleaning a straw bonnet, natural skin care, herbal teas from the wild, and how to build a proper mud oven, alongside Banks’ traditional fragrance crafting ideas for pot pourri and pomanders.

The Bryde Spoon Ladled Knowledge from One Generation Down to the Next
Each Love Spoon booklet opens with this introduction from the author, “Once upon a time, a Viking girl was given a Bryde spoon, or Love spoon when she married.  This was not only a love gift, but a sign of authority and knowledge of all things needed for the well being of a household, whether it was castle or cottage.”  This knowledge is handed down once more within these booklets which are hand illustrated by the author in a similar fashion to the original recipes.  The drawings were necessary,  “since few people could read or write well,” as Banks explains. 

The passages on pot pourri and pomanders, which are reproduced below, come from information collected by Banks from notes her grandmother kept in a family book in the stillroom, along with letters that also contained precious tidbits of information.  Banks tells us, “There is a sense of continuity in using it today ... reaching across the Atlantic and with a few alterations due to differences in herbal and animal life, the basics still hold good.” 

Much of the information (in particular the following recipes) is far older than the period of 1820 to 1900 which is portrayed by the village, as Banks tells her readers.  Many of the recipes and much of the knowledge that Banks has recorded in her informal memoirs have been passed down through the ages, now preserved through the existing copies of this series. 

Dorothy Banks drew pleasure from recording these time-honoured recipes.  This autumn, why not bring these history-steeped recipes back to life as you enjoy anew the Canadian tradition of fragrance-crafting?

Pot Pourri and Pomanders
By Dorothy Banks
Pot pourri often recalls only roses and lavender.  Ideally, one should collect material all summer,storing each variety by itself.  Later blend and mix to your taste for floral, oriental or fresh woodsy perfume.  The mixture must look attractive, too, so petals and small whole blossoms must be included for colour and texture, as well as scent.  Covered jars or bowls keep the finished pot pourri from fading too quickly and glass displays the beauty of the colours.

To about 4 cups of assorted petals add 1 tablespoon spices, 1 tablespoon or more of a fixative.  A drop or two of essential oil is good.  Stir gently with a wooden spoon. 

That is the basic recipe.  The fun part is in mixing and sniffing and coming up with a fragrance based on your own taste.  This is good for sachets, too.

A fixative is usually orris powder, but can be benzoin, calamus, clary, frankincense, musk, myrrh or the lichen from oak trees.  Calamus is the sweet sedge and the root is ground.

This is a very good recipe. 

Take 4 oz. rosebuds, 2 oz. cornflowers, 2 oz. calendulas, 1 oz. orange blossoms or mock orange,1 oz. oregano, 1 oz. lemon balm, 1 oz. bay leaves broken, 1 oz. peppermint leaves, 1 oz orris or calamus.  Add jasmine flowers if possible.

It was taken for granted by ladies exchanging recipes that the amounts were for dried flowers. Heliotrope was another favourite and the Clipper ships would often bring patchouli as well as the
cargo of tea.

“Pomander” comes from the old French words pomme d’ambre, meaning “Apple of Amber.”  Originally, cloves were stuck into an apple and it was rolled in ambergris to preserve the scent. 
Ambergris is a secretion of the Sperm whale and is highly valued as a fixative of perfume.

There are evidences that the ancient Egyptians used pomanders and there are references in the Bible to balls of scent.  They were worn as ornaments in the Middle Ages and Henry VIII gave one to his daughter Mary; it was encased in gold and jewels.  Oranges have since replaced apples and orris-root powder the ambergris but the sensuous fragrance is much the same.

Orris root may be purchased from the chemists.  It is the root of Iris florentina which likes short winters. 

Take a ripe healthy fruit.  Small oranges and apples are usual but lemons and limes can be used if available.  Stick the fruit full of cloves, using approximately 2 oz. per fruit.  This is a preservative so do not stint.  Roll in a mixture of orris powder and spices.  Coat well and hang up to dry.  When completely dried, tie with a ribbon.  The traditional coating mix is orris, allspice, cinnamon and cardamon.  Orris, anise, ginger, fennel, cinnamon and sassafras bark and leaves is
a mix that was used by the Canadian settlers.

A very lovely recipe came from one of my ancestral aunts who came to England to escape the French Revolution.  She used sandalwood, cedar and musk together with ambergris.  My grandmother altered the recipe to orris.

These pomanders make excellent gifts and their fragrance is long lasting.

                          - Dorothy Banks  Love Spoon 1979

      (Reproduced with the permission of Lang Pioneer Village, Peterborough, Ontario)


Dorothy Banks dedicated these booklets to her friends at Lang Pioneer Village, which was established in 1967 by the County of Peterborough to commemorate the centennial of the Confederation of Canada, established in 1867.  Many of the recipes contained in Love Spoon are used in demonstrations at this century village. 

From the archives of The Gilded Herb Magazine Vol 3 Issue 3


Gin in the Garden

Gordon’s Gin and the National Trust for England have together recreated the original juniper walk at Ham House in Surrey as part of an ongoing project to replicate the seventeenth century gardens using original drawings. This unlikely partnership of distillery and heritage preserving organization is planning to plant more of the berry-producing strain of juniper rather than the current non-berry producing plants; in this way, visitors can then enjoy the fragrance of juniper berries on the bush and not berries placed in pots, as at present. 

Gin is distilled from grain and then re-distilled with or over juniper berries, citrus peels, cassia bark, angelica root, coriander seeds, and other botanicals which give it its distinctive fragrance. First used as a medicine in Europe of the 1500's, gin (and tonic) is now one of Britain’s favourite beverages, having overcome its notorious image as the sinful balm to the gin-soaked, poverty-stricken residents (including children) of London’s slums during the industrial revolution.

At Ham House, the juniper walk of the 1700's was reserved for the privileged aristocracy only, and as such was the site of intrigue and seduction. It is said that Lady Dysart, mistress of Ham House, not only acted as a double-agent for Charles II but actually seduced Oliver Cromwell among the scented juniper bushes!
Reprinted from Vol. 1 Issue 4


Saponification Simplified

By Janette Oliver-Rodgers

Today the practice of soapmaking is more closely associated with the "herbally-attuned" crafter than with the home-making pioneer woman of the past. But handcrafted soaps have an old-fashioned appeal that reflects a simpler time and perhaps this is the secret which makes them a modern-day pleasure and luxury.

Unlike the prosaic bars of the past, today’s soaps are colourful with hues derived from the addition of herbs and spices: gold from turmeric, spicy orange from paprika, earth brown from cinnamon, or perhaps green from dill. The textures and scents of handmade soap are the imaginative and innovative creations of the experienced saponifier who has perfected the art and science of blending fats with an alkali and then taken the process one step further. The modern marriage of the practical methods of our pioneer foremothers with the addition of botanical embellishments gives us our handmade soaps of today.

Soapmaking now has moved away from its past association with ‘lye’ from hardwood ashes and the rural industry of producing ‘potash’ from the brush and trees felled to clear the land. Potash was produced by the barrelfull and sold to factories for the commercialized soap producers and glass manufacturers. On average, one acre of good elm produced two barrels of potash that in Ontario in 1859 would have fetched twenty-five dollars. Unfortunately for the labourers, this price fell and by 1874 the price on the market in Montreal was quoted at $5.72 to $7.10.

Lye, the alkali, was produced by running water through the ‘leach’ barrel containing wood ashes and great care was taken to ensure a good draw. The run-off from the barrel, lye, was boiled in an iron kettle until the lye "wrinkled". The methods of carrying out this task were not always written down and some families passed on their procedures to the next generation, usually to the daughter. One family’s test to check the strength of the lye may have consisted of floating an egg in the lye solution when boiled down, to see if it floated on top showing only the size of a dime. This would indicate that the lye was done. Another family may have given it the feather test and when a dipped feather came out as a bare quill, it too indicated a ready lye. Lye is very caustic and an ingredient to be used with caution. Today lye is purchased as sodium hydroxide in convenient soluble crystal

Soap is created when lye and fat are mixed together; therefore, the pioneer soapmaker would have saved tallow, grease, and fat for almost a year until the annual chore of soapmaking was carried out again. Nothing was overlooked and even the skins of hogs were used. The soapmaker would have required enough ‘grease’ to produce a barrel of soap, which was the usual quota required to meet the needs of a family. The grease was added to the kettle of ready lye for further boiling into soap. This process is known as saponification, the chemical process of converting fats into soap and is usually accomplished by the action of alkali (lye). 

Today’s soapmakers and consumers are showing a great interest in soaps, handcrafted from coconut, palm, and olive oils, possibly with the enriched addition of a small quantity of calendula infused oil or jojoba oil. Vegetable oils and shortening, now preferred over lard, create a clean pallet for scenting a batch, whereas pork lard may retain a scent some may find disagreeable and hard to mask. Other ingredients added for aesthetic, cosmetic, or health benefits may include rose petals, lavender, oatmeal, sage, tea tree oil, honey or even ground pumice. These additions result in the production of various soaps which are moisturizing, abrasive, antiseptic, or fragrant, etc. In the past, buttermilk may have been added in the belief that it would wash away freckles.

Herbal and fragrant inclusions would not have been a priority to a hard working pioneer woman, but rodent-repelling crushed mint leaves may have been added to the batch to deter mice from enjoying a nibble. Similarly, mint today still has a place in soaps for use in cottages and cabins, but oatmeal and honey-almond soaps are best avoided in these locations since mice savour these edible additions.

Soft soap of a semi-liquid consistency was stored in barrels usually kept in the cellar and in some households was preferred over bars for laundry, floor-scrubbing, and shaving. With the addition of salt, a smaller batch of utilitarian hard soap bars could then be produced for personal use. It quickly became evident that the more soap aged and cured the better it became, and the longer a bar would last. The practice of curing bars is still used today and can vary among saponifiers anywhere from three to six weeks. 

Today herbal soaps should not be stored away but should be displayed in a pottery dish, for example, or other vessel that complements their character and handmade quality. Let them sit in the open to scent the air in a discreet and delicate way. Handmade soap should be used within twelve months, after which discolouration and cracking may occur. 

Saponifiers of today should be respected for their efforts in perfecting their art just as great chefs are respected for creating a souffle, for example, since for both great care must be taken and the job never hurried. Despite the fact that thermometers and other testing methods are now utilized, great care must still be taken and methods must be precise.

One has only to visit a herb fair to develop a penchant for handmade soaps; the range of exhibitors who produce their own blends of soap is wide, for example:

Beekeeper - honey soap
Goatkeeper - goat milk soap
Ginseng Farmer - ginseng soap
Lavender Gardener - lavender soap
Aromatherapist - patchouli and vanilla soap

The fragrance of a lathered cake of soap massaged through the hands is an evocative experience greatly enhanced by the soothing waves of warm water. Soap that gently lifts away dirt and leaves the skin refreshed and renewed has been a part of daily life for generations. Whether relaxing in our modern bath away from computer glitches and traffic jams, or soaking in the Saturday night tin bath by the fireside, nothing compares to a good bar of soap. 

Janette Oliver-Rodgers enjoys the intertwining relationship between history and herbs. She interprets the legends and lore of herbs to visitors at Emily Creek Herb Farm in Southern Ontario. Oliver-Rodgers has found many ways to work artistically with herbs, and soapmaking has provided another medium for creativity. 

The Gardens of Black Creek Pioneer Village

In mid-nineteenth century Ontario, the household garden played a major role in the daily life of the pioneer. The plants found growing in the gardens, orchards, and fields of Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto, Ontario, are representative of those grown by the early settlers for food, medicine, and other domestic uses.

While strolling through the Village, now celebrating forty years of heritage education, visitors will encounter a wide array of gardens that have been carefully planned to resemble those of earlier times. The following three historical herb gardens are of particular interest to the herb enthusiast.

The Doctor’s Medicinal Garden

Many of the trees and plants in the garden, surrounding the restored Doctor’s home, served as a "natural pharmacy" from which the nineteenth century doctor could prepare remedies and cures for the villagers. This authentic garden was developed and maintained by the Southern Ontario Unit of the Herb Society of America. The following perennial herbs are typical of those commonly used to stock a storehouse of remedies.

Symphytum officinale 
Old time remedy herb used for compresses applied to injuries.
Inula helenium
Also known as wild sunflower, this was a very common cold remedy herb.
Eupatorium perfoliatum
As the name implies this herb was used for broken bones.
Marrubium vulgare 
Still popular today as horehound candy, 
this herb was a common ingredient
in lozenges.
Tussilago farfara 
Many old time herbs have names that reflect a use from the past but this herb was
not used exclusively for colts! This plant was a remedy for colds and bronchitis.

The Weaver’s Shop Dye Garden

Dyes derived from plants such as those growing in this display garden were used to create the warm and bright colours in woollen materials. Natural dyes from wild and cultivated plants provided a rich palette of earthy tones that were incorporated into blankets, socks, and even woollen undergarments that protected the wearer against the harsh Canadian winter. 

In early Ontario, sheep were among the most important animals raised by the pioneers, as they provided not only food but also wool for making clothing and household items. 
Here are some dye plants and the colours that the plant material 
would yield in the dyeing process.
SunflowerHelianthus annus ~ Yellow
CalendulaCalendula officinalis ~ Yellow to Orange
St. John’s WortHypericum perforatum ~ Yellow
MadderRubia tinctorium ~ Red
BedstrawGalium verum ~ Red, Yellow and even Brown tones
TansyTanacetum vulgare ~ Green-Grey
WoadIsatis tinctoria ~ Blue
SorrelRumex acetosa ~ Green-Yellow
GoldenrodSolidago spp ~ Yellow, Brown

The Pioneer Herb Garden

Many of the plants growing at the Village could be considered herbs because whether wild plants or garden flowers, they were useful in a variety of ways in the daily lives of pioneers. Every plant that could provide a use was valued - whether it supplied a moth repelling scent or provided healing qualities to a lard salve or yielded a vivid dye. Pioneer theme gardens can preserve this knowledge of heritage plants to be shared with school children, Sunday School classes or even the local boy scout troop. 

Because pioneers did not have the time to invest in fussy and demanding plants, many of these perennial herbs can be grown with the basic of care, making this an ideal herb garden for anyone to grow.

Hyssopus officinalis
This beautiful flowering herb provided flavouring for 
honey and liquors and was also used in perfume.
Salvia officinalis 
This shrub-like herb was often used to flavour and help preserve meat. 
Tea from the leaves was a common remedy for colds and sore throats.
A fresh leaf rubbed against teeth helps to remove plaque and freshens the breath. 
No Derbyshire-inspired cheese would be without the addition of sage as a final
flavour enhancement.
Achillea millefolium
This modern day roadside flower was a very common ingredient in salves made
from lard, and the fresh leaves were chewed to alleviate a tooth ache.
Monarda didyma
The fragrant leaves were used in tea and substituted for black tea when supplies
ran short.
Chrysanthemum balsamita
This scented herb, also known as "Bible Leaf" is said to have been
often used as a fresh-smelling bookmark for musty family Bibles that had been packed in traveling trunks and handed down from previous generations. 
Costmary was also used for ale- making in much the same way as hops.
Mentha piperita
This traveling herb was rubbed into pantry shelves to deter hungry mice and was
also most popular for a tummy-soothing hot drink.
Nepeta cataria
Not just for felines in those days, this herb was a popular nightcap tea utilized for its
sedating qualities. Babies were often given weak catnip tea to calm 
the gripe of evening colic.
Galium verum
The pioneers were very resourceful and the wild growing bedstraw provided a
fragrant stuffing for mattresses and pillows.
Levisticum officinale
This herb indeed was the ultimate pot herb as it provided the heartiest of flavour
to simmering stews and soups cooked over an open fire. 
Lavandula officinalis
Lavender had a multitude of uses in pioneer times much as it does today.
Fragrant lavender kept moths at bay when it was placed amongst the precious linens and dropsy and fainting spells were often treated with this multipurpose herb.

Many of the culinary herbs grown by the pioneers would have been included in the kitchen garden which was usually close at hand for easy gathering of the vegetables and cooking herbs.

To learn more about historical herbs visit the Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto, Ontario.