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Herb legends of Christmastide

Herb Snips


There are many legends about herbs and the roles they played in the Christmas story. We will explore some of these charming tales in this column. I hope they will add a new dimension to your festivities and a special connection with past celebrants. Herbs that are linked to the Nativity story are often called "manger herbs".

Rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis) was silent underfoot as the Holy Family traveled. The soft leaves muffled the crackling twigs underfoot thus preventing detection and ensuring a safe journey to Bethlehem. Another legend recounts that the white rosemary flower was turned to the color of Mary's blue cloak when she laid it gently upon the blooming bush as the family was fleeing from Herod's dreaded soldiers. I have a white rosemary plant in my garden and the flower fittingly has a blue tinge. I wonder if it is true that a rosemary plant will grow no higher than six feet in thirty-three years, so as not to stand taller than Jesus did. This is another belief held by people for many centuries. My rosemary plant has not attained that height in twenty years!

The word lavender (lavandula) is from the Latin word "lavare" meaning to wash. Legend has it that Mary laundered their clothing with this fragrant herb and used the bush as a clothes line. It further asserts that her clothes turned blue from contact with the flowers. In Medieval Latin the usage of the word lavender changed. It was derived from "livere" meaning "to make bluish". Not incidentally, blue is the color accorded to the Holy Mother in paintings and stories. Lavender plants were said to spring up wherever the swaddling clothes of the Holy Child were placed. It is no surprise that lavender is the herb symbolic of cleanliness, purity and mortality.

Costmary (chrysanthemum balsamita) with its sweet balsam scent is commonly called Bible Leaf or Our Lady's Balsam. There are stories of its use as a healing ointment by the Holy Mother. Culpepper, an herbalist of the 1600's, gives the following recipe for a healing salve. "Costmary makes an excellent salve ... being boiled with oil of olive, and adder's tongue, and after it is strained put a little wax, rosin and turpentine to bring it to convenient body." Culpepper compares adder's tongue to water plantain that herbalists now recommend for insect bites and sunburns. It is a wonder that something we use today may be a version of Mary's own healing balm!

Rue (ruta graveolens) is the herb of grace. The genus name "ruta" is derived from the Greek word "reuo", that means "to set free". No herb could be more appropriate in this setting where Christians believe the grace of God was bestowed on humanity. At one time brushes made of rue were used to sprinkle holy water before a Roman Catholic high mass and this ancient herb played an important role in that ceremony.

The honey like vapors activated by the heat of the body makes yellow bedstraw (galium verum) a soothing, sweet-smelling, sleeping place. It is said that the original white flowers turned their present royal golden color because of the manger's special visitors. It is often called "Our Lady's Bedstraw" because of the connection with the Holy Mother who may well have slept upon it with the Christ child cradled in her arms.

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is representative of humility in herbal folklore because it grows demurely close to the ground. When dried it has the scent of new mown hay and vanilla and repels insects. It added another delightful aroma and protection to the manger setting. It is nice to think there were no unpleasant stable odors or unwanted bugs as the cattle were lowing and the baby awoke.

The dictionary defines legend as "an unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times." May these herb connections between then and now add depth and sparkle to your Christmas celebration!

Sweet Woodruff Potpourri

Dry the leaves and flowers of sweet woodruff and add them to your favorite potpourri blend. It can be dried in a few days by hanging small bunches upside down out of the sunlight.

Costmary Facial Cleanser

Crush one ounce of fresh costmary in two cups of water. Pour into a ceramic pot. Cover and simmer for five minutes. Keep covered and allow it to cool. Strain and store in the refrigerator. Use as an astringent after washing your face by gently dabbing it on with a cotton ball.

Lavender sachets

Put dried lavender flowers in sachet bags in the bedroom for a restful night. Refresh the scent by rubbing it gently between your palms.

Rosemary Inhaler

Keep a sprig of fresh rosemary in the car to enhance mental acuity through the olfactory system.

Contact me through my Website at with your herb ideas. It is always important to use herbs that have not been sprayed with dangerous chemicals when preparing any recipe. Enjoy an herbally delightful Christmas!


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