Coming from an Iowan farm background as I do, I still split my year up between the light half which is winding down this month and the dark half of the year. This is kind of in keeping with the historical practice of most agricultural cultures, but I sometimes wonder if my people didn’t settle in this area because the weather reminded them of home.
I am outside for a lot of the light half of the year, so I don’t much care what my house looks like, but when I come in to hibernate, I like it to be cozy. One thing that brings me absolute joy is the week I spend doing fall cleaning.
Really, I mean that. My other deep dark secret is that I actually love to iron.
I am really never happier than when I start up my Ceili’s Muse CD, get out my steamer with all its bits, and then I take things apart and really deep clean. I know some people clean in the spring, but I like to make sure that I’ve got all the crumbs swept up before the cold weather forces all the critters to try to move in for the winter. That brings me to making strewing herbs.
I don’t know if anyone else does this, I just know that I use them. I suppose that seems odd to a lot of people, but I save myself a fair amount of money being able to grow my own rather than buying those cans of spray that give me a headache.
Strewing herbs was once a common practice. In the past, floors were insulated with rushes and straw which were only changed at the a couple of times a year. Rushes were often used to make a soft spot to sleep as well. The Senchus Mór recommends that furze be incorporated into the rushes and in later years the soft tops of pine trees are mentioned as being used for this as well.
To counter smells that accumulated in these layers people started strewing fragrant dried herbs and flowers as a routine part of preparing the house for guests. Shakespeare even wrote about in the Taming of the Shrew.
“Where’s the cook? is supper ready, the house trimmed, rushes strewed, cobwebs swept…”
Everyone had their favorite. Gerard wrote that strewing thyme drives serpents away but he seemed particularly fond of mede-sweet (meadowsweet) saying:
“The leaues and floures farre excell all other ſtrowing herbes for to decke up houſes, to ſtraw in chambers, halls and banqueting houſes in the ſommer time; for the ſmell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighteth the ſenſes: neither doth it cauſe head-ache or lothſomeneſſ to meat, as ſome other ſweet ſmelling herbes do.”
As you can imagine bugs and rodents, also liked to hang out in these materials. So to counter this, people would also strew plant materials which released strong fragrances when crushed due to the coumarins or other repellent constituents they contain. The Roman farming treatise De Re Rustica (4th Century CE) recommend strewing cumin and cucumber seeds to rid the house of lice and nits. Charlamagne issued a proclamation that all medicinal gardens should grow tansy due to its ability to repel bugs.
This is one of the original uses for Galium odoratum known commonly as sweet woodruff which I grow for this purpose because it can handle a bit of shade. Another herb from that same family, Galium verum called lady’s bedstraw, was used to stuff mattresses because it repel fleas which were known for carrying typhus. Actually if you live in Los Angeles county in California, you might already know that can be a problem.
Ceremonial Strewing of Herbs and Flowers
The practice eventually made its way into seasonal folkways and songs. On Domnach Chrom Dubh the Irish were known to known to strew garlands of flowers around the ceremonial sites. Thugamar féin an Samhradh linn (Ourselves Have brought the Summer In) is an Irish song that speaks of the Beltaine practice of welcoming summer by bringing green branches and flowers into the home or strewing them around doors and on windowsills. When my kiddos were in Irish Dance, their instructor taught it in their spring programs. Here are the words if you want to give learning it a try.
How I Make and Use Strewing Herbs
To begin with, I grind my strewing herbs with coarse sea salt. Salt impedes bacterial growth and sort of acts to preserve the herbs, but it’s also useful because it desiccates flea eggs. Flea prevention has become kind of important to me as my menagerie grows around here.
Like Gerard, I stay away from intense perfume herbs, because that’s not really my thing. In addition to homegrown sweet woodruff, I add mugwort, wormwood, and tansy. This year, I also used spruce needles because I have bags of them. It’s not fancy. You just grind equal amounts of everything and toss it around.
I put them under my appliances and the lazy Susan where I keep most my gallon jars of grains and legumes, between my box spring and mattress when I flip it, and in my furnace vents after I vacuum them. That’s why I like to add an aromatic like pine or spruce, because those are scents I enjoy.
We also line a flat plastic container with herbs to put our brewing demijohns in. It keeps fruit flies and the like away. I’ve honestly found that it works quite well because the brews warm up a little bit as they get going and that releases the aromatics of the plants. It kind of helps knock back that funky brewing odor, too.
On a rare occasion, I will get some ants in the summer and these stink bugs are sneaky, but I have a lot fewer problems with fruit flies, meal moths and the usual infestations common in a crunchy household. I know this because it’s kind of been a work in progress around here for the last 20 years, and it wasn’t always that way.
I make bags of herbs to hang in the closet. Since they are kind of mesh and see through, I try to make them a little prettier. Tansy blossoms dried properly will stay a beautiful yellow for most of the winter. So will rosebuds, but the petals deteriorate pretty quickly. I have other uses for them. Rue and wormwood have nice contrasting colors which they both hold pretty well if dried properly and are good at keeping the moths away from my husband’s wool suits.
I might post a picture of those eventually, but right now I am haven’t made any new ones because someone needs to do the fall purge of stuff we don’t wear before I am done with the closets.