Allusionary Assembly

The Writing of Kerry E.B. Black



F is for Flax

F is for Flax

Written by Kerry E.B. Black


Humans have harvested flax since ancient history. Archeologists discovered flax remnants in Stone Age lake-side dwellings in Switzerland. The ancient Egyptians created fine linens from flax fibers, as well as the wrappings for royal mummies. Phoenicians apparently brought linen to Gaul and Britain, and the Romans spread linen production through their empire. The plant most likely originated in the Mediterranean region.

Flax is mentioned in the Bible several times. Leviticus tells priests wore garments made of flax. Exodus instructs the devout on using twined flax linen to create curtains for the tabernacle. When men were sent to scout out Jericho in the Book of Joshua, the men hid under stacks of flax. Ezekiel describes a sail made of fine flaxen linen from Egypt, and the dead are wrapped with flaxen linen before their internment in the tomb.

Walt Whitman’s “Faces” mentions using flax for fabric production in “Faces” (“…Her ample gown is of cream-hued linen, hand grandsons raised the flax, and her granddaughters spun it with the distaff and the wheel…”) and again in “A Carol of Harvest for 1867.” (“…Clip the wool of California or Pennsylvania, cut the flax in the Middle States…”) Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Work and Contemplation,” Jonathan Swift in “To Stella Who Collected and Transcribed His Poems,” and Countee Cullen in “Heritage” mention working with flax, as did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his tribute to “Keats.” Ralph Waldo Emerson lists it among important plants on a farm in “Hamatreya.”

Judy Grahn in “Helen in Hollywood” takes a different approach to the plant, describing a starlet with the line “… her flesh is like flax, a living fiber…” In the Christian Hymn 125, Christ’s compassion for the weak and tempted is described thus: “…He’ll never quench the smoking flax, but raise it to a flame; the bruised reed he never breaks…”

The flower of the plant is described by Longfellow in “The Wreck of the Hesperus” (…blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax, her cheeks like the dawn of day, and her bosom white as the hawthorn, that ope in the month of May…”) as did A.E. Housman in “Bring in This Timeless Grave to Throw.” (…but if the Christmas field is kept awns the last gleaner overstept, or shriveled flax whose flower is blue, a single season, never two…”)

Producers grow two types of flax, seed flax which is grown for its linseed oil, and fiber flax grown for the fibers in its stems. Linseed meal is fed to livestock, and chickens fed a diet of flax produce high omega-3 eggs. Flax is included in some skin treatments and makeup products, and consuming it is believed to keep human hearts healthy. Linseed oil is used in oil painting and varnish. Flax continues to be made into textiles, ropes, and papers. In fact, these days, a major flax paper product is cigarette paper.


E is for Echinacea


E is for Echinacea

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

According to a report by consumer adviser Dr. Wallace Sampson, a Swiss herbal supplement maker was “erroneously told” many Native Americans in the South Dakota area used Echinacea for cold prevention. Thus began a craze in alternative treatment. Extract tinctures, and juices are made from the drought-tolerant, perennial, herbaceous plant. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the plant became one of the most popular herbal remedies in America. The medical community, however, points to a lack of controlled trials of the resultant product and warns against its use. Despite these concerns, many people continue to tout the medicinal virtues of the Echinacea.

Some Native American tribes did and do, indeed, use Echinacea for specific symptoms. The Cheyenne and Kiowa treated sore throats with the plant, and the Pawnee and Lakota use it as a pain medication. Prairie folk medicine used Echinacea Purpurea as a help for cold symptoms, as well.

Known as a prolific gardener, Emily Dickenson mentions purple coneflower in her herbal notes, and poet Alice Wilde’s poem “Echinacea – My Mother’s Garden” says, “…I am all to myself. Alone. At home under their stems…”

Echinacea is a member of the daisy family, and nine species and over sixty varieties of these “purple coneflowers” exist in eastern and central North America. Their name derives either from the Greek word for “hedgehog” or the Latin for “sea urchin” because of the appearance of the spiny center of the Echinacea’s large flower head. Plants can reach four feet in height, and they can secrete a chemical which prevents competing plants from growing.

Two species, the Echinacea Tennessensis and the Echinacea Laevigata appear on the US Endangered Species list.


C is for Chamomile

For 2017’s A to Z challenge, I’ll write about herbs and plants in literature. I hope to include information about their uses and our ancestors’ beliefs regarding them.

chamomile tasha tudor

C is for Chamomile

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

“This herbe is called camomyl…if it be doike with wine it will beke the stone and distroyeth the yellow evel. It helpeth with akying and the diseas of lyver…” said Anthony Askham in “A Little Herball” from 1550. Elizabethan herbalist Gerard called it “a remedy against all wearisomenesse.” Big expectations for a little perennial in the Aster family.

Chamomile is one of the “Nine Sacred Herbs” mentioned in the ancient Anglo-Saxon “Lacnunga.” In Elizabethan England, the aromatic plant featured in gardens. It was a “strewing” herb. When trodden on, its fragrance filled a space with its prized apple-sweet scent. William Shakespeare referenced the plant in Henry IV, Part I, saying “…though the chamomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears.”

The momma in Beatrix Potter’s “Tales of Peter Rabbit” serves chamomile tea to her bunnies. Tea is made from dried flower heads and petals and is said to calm nerves, sooth sore throats, and relieve flatulence. However, no more than four cups a day should be taken, and those with ragweed allergies may experience bad reactions.

The name for the plant derives from Greek and means “ground apple”.  In Spain, it flavors a light sherry called manzanilla. Monks brewed it into beer before hops were used.

Medieval Norse people made a shampoo of chamomile, a practice continued by many cultures to this day. Likewise, modern cosmetics companies sometimes add chamomile to their products, like the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics show the plant used as a cosmetic.

Juliana H. Ewing has her character Jack mention Chamomile’s benefits in her “Six to Sixteen.” In his 1911 “Herb Garden,” Frances A. Bardswell calls it the “plant’s physician” and claims chamomile keeps other plants in a garden healthy.


B is for Balm

For 2017’s A to Z challenge, I’ll write about herbs and plants in literature. I hope to include information about their uses and our ancestors’ beliefs regarding them.


B is for Balm, Bee Balm, or Bee Plant

Written by Kerry E.B. Black


Bees find balm attractive. Hence its common name. Scientifically, though, this lemony-scented perennial is designated Melissa Officinalis. With its square stem and persistent reproduction, balm belongs in its mint family. It bears small white flowers in spring.

William Shakespeare mentioned the plant in “Anthony and Cleopatra” when the queen resorted to befriending hungry asps. “…as sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle. O Anthony!” A contemporary botanist Gerard believed “…baume makes the heart merry and joyful.”

In Beowulf, the writer describes the ideal woman as “a balm in bed to her battle-scarred husband…”

To the medieval mind, balm healed wounds and illnesses and prevented putrefaction, but Biblical references probably referred to a resin from a different plant, balsam. In the Old Testament, a caravan from Gilead bore “spicery, balm, and myrrh.” Jeremiah later asked “Is there no balm in Gilead?” In the late 1800’s, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Raven” referenced Jeremiah’s question.

The ancient Greeks most likely the resin and not the herb to preserve Hector’s body preserved during the Trojan War. This use as a fragrant way to conserve finds its way into our modern word “embalming,” or preparation of the dead.

The North American cousin to the English bee balm is found in the monarda family and is used to create Oswego teas. Its produces larger flowers which tend to be pink, purple, or red. Many Native American tribes use the plant as a medicinal aid for stomach and bronchial complaints, and early US colonists made tea from it.

Balm is sometimes called Bergamot, which is not to be confused with the French citrus of the same name. There is also a lemon balm, and the plant was believed to be sacred to Mary.

The word balm was used as a verb meaning to anoint with balm or medicine. It also means soothing and healing, and it is used metaphorically as well as literally. Because of its memorable scent, balm is applied during many religious ceremonies. It is an ingredient in some perfume, cosmetics, and shampoos, as well.


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