Sweet Dreams ~ Making Herbal Dream Pillows
by Karyn Maier
"And myrtle cushioned there slept I, while visions past and future filled my dreamers eye."
For centuries, the fragrance of herbs have been captured in pillows and sweet bags to purify and scent the home. They were known by European mothers anxious to lure their offspring into tranquil sleep, by those seeking relief from headache or depression, and by the solitary who yearned to find true love. Fragrant herbs were sewn into pillows and placed at the head of the bed or between the linens. Often, their scent would be carried from open doorways and windows where they were carefully hung. During medieval times, herbal pillows and sachets were actually more of a necessity than mere fanciful decorations. They were actually designed to mask the consequences of poor sanitary conditions of the time, when fresh air was considered potentially dangerous.
It was the lady of the house who took pride in making these preparations and spent considerable time doing so. One can recall perhaps, grandmother's rose jar lovingly placed in the "best room" where her guests would benefit from the jar's sweet aroma. When visitors came to call, the lid was lifted and the contents stirred to release the soothing perfume. In all probability, she also made sachets or sweet bags to scent her linen and fine articles of clothing. She may even have placed small pillows of fragrant herbs near her head upon retiring to prevent nightmares and assure a good nights rest. Today, herbal pillows are all but neglected as sleeping aids. But, if you're willing to take a chance on this simple indulgence, they stand a good chance of resurrection.
Remember those anxious European mothers of restless babes? They frequently fashioned small pillows of dill (Anthuem graveolens) to encourage their children to enter sleep. The word dilla, from which the herb eventually took its name, is Norse meaning "to lull." Agrimony was also a popular herb to use in pillows since it was also believed to be soporific, or sleep inducing. An old English writing tells us that "If it is leyed under a mann's head, he shal sleepyn as he were dead; He shal never drede ne wakyn till fro under his head it be taken."
The fictional potion given to Juliet by the Friar to make her appear lifeless, was prepared with belladonna (Atropa be Uadonna) and merely brought on a deep sleep. How fortunate that was for our Juliet, since belladonna is extremely toxic, and a good dose usually does more than make one appear lifeless. However, a 16th-century practice of placing the moistened leaves of the plant upon one's forehead was performed to safely induce sleep. Another sleeping aid was the dew collected from the leaves of lady's mantle (Alchemilla vulgarus) which was administered by a generous sprinkling on the bed linens.
Herbal pillows are made by sewing dried herbs into a square of cloth or bag, but without a fixative, their aroma is short lived. Many herbs lose much of their original scent when dried. The lovely scent of the rose for instance, is greatly diminished when dried. Fixatives help to retain and develop the fragrant combination of herbs used in making potpourri, the base material for making herbal pillows.
Traditionally used animal fixatives are ambergris, civet, and musk. Ambergris is a secretion obtained from the intestines of the sperm whale, civet from the African civet cat, and musk from the male musk deer of Central Asia. These extracts are available in synthetic form, a product equally suitable, and more sensitive to the preservation of wildlife.
Orris root and benzoin are suitable plant fixatives, and are widely available. Orris root is obtained by sun-drying and peeling the fresh root of Iris florentina. After drying, the root is stored for two years to develop a delicate violet scent. Orris root is usually purchased in ground form. Benzoin, once called Benjamin or Java Frankincense, is a gum which exudes from the Stryrax benzoin, a shrub native to Java and Siam. Benzoin is a common ingredient in incense.
Spices add an interesting scent to the potpourri mixture, and also act as fixatives. Cinnamon is derived from a tree (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), grown in China, India, and the East Indies, and was used during Biblical times to make holy oils to anoint priests and altars. The familiar sticks, obtained from the inner bark of a young tree, may be ground and added to the potpourri mixture.
Sandalwood (Santalum album), native to the Malabar Coast, is another enticing additive. Since ancient times the wood of this tree was used for making fans, musical instruments, and to line closets to ward off moths. Sandalwood is also burned at the altar, and eventually became an important ingredient in incense burned in synagogues. The chips, or shavings, are most suitable for potpourri.
The bark of Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) is highly fragrant and was valued as an embalming agent in Egypt, and as a perfume by the ancient Hebrews. Native to Arabia and Ethiopia, the bark of this tree produces a bitter tasting gum once used as a cure for sore throat, and was burned by the sun worshippers of Heliopolis each day at noon until the mid-1700s. A powder form of myrrh is easily obtainable, and best suited for potpourri.
These are just a sampling of potential fixative ingredients, to which you may add endless combinations of herbs and flowers to complete your potpourri. Once you have made your potpourri mixture, store it away from direct heat or sunlight in airtight glass jars or tins for about one month to allow a heady fragrance to develop.
Various materials are suitable for pillow coverings, such as velvet, silk, or chintz. A layer of muslin or cotton should be placed between two evenly sized squares of material, which can be 12 to 18 inches, or whatever size you care to make the pillow. On this layer, the potpourri is added, and another thin layer of cotton or muslin is placed on top. The muslin layers will make the pillow soft and help prevent the plant material from bunching into one corner. Quilt batting is ideal for herbal pillows since the middle layers of cotton are built into the fabric. Another trick to prevent bunching is to knot a few threads through all the layers once the seams have been securely secured closed by needle and thread, or with a sewing machine. Decorating the pillows with bits of ribbon, buttons, lace, or everlastings, adds a personal finishing touch, and will help to make your dreams a little bit sweeter.