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vietnamese balm face tonerIn the warmer months, when my thoughts turn frequently to that bit of green on our back balcony and what I’m going to do with all those herbs growing out there (Mint Juleps, anyone?), my bookstore peregrinations change course ever so slightly, veering less toward fiction and more toward the gardening section, the cooking section, and, when fortune would find me in a really good bookstore, the herbal and natural medecine section. My love for folk medicine is well documented in these pages. Equally, my love of a good bath (here and here). While I’ve found some true gems of recipes from various sources over the years, I’ve yet to find my herbal skin care Bible. I would love to have a well-loved, dog-eared tome sitting on my shelf, full of pioneering wisdom and my own notes scribbled in the margins. But until such a book turns up, I continue to float. vietnamese lemon balmIMG_4893 IMG_4895 IMG_4896vietnames balm steamer tab

Which is not always a bad thing. Sometimes you find a project on a blog or in a book that clicks as the perfect use of whatever ingredients you have laying around. This time it was a fragrant bouquet of Vietnamese Lemon Balm (or Mint Balm) from a friend’s herb patch. What to do with this mysterious herb. Actually, not so mysterious in East Asia as a bit of research into the plant revealed. A common herb included in salads, soups and curries, Vietnamese balm is often brewed as a tea for treating hangovers (useful after a few Mint Juleps), and is added to steam baths for clarifying the skin. Sounded like a good place to start and as I had a bunch of the stuff, it was time to get to work.IMG_4918 IMG_4919 IMG_4923

Toner tabs are made the same was as bath bombs — baking soda, citric acid, essential oils and witch hazel — just with more attention paid to choosing ingredients for specific skin concerns. For me that meant adding a few drops of Tea Tree oil for cutting oils and killing bacteria, mixing some fresh aloe vera gel in with Thayer’s Rose Witch Hazel, and of course, adding a few spoonfuls of chopped fresh Vietnamese balm. The result was a fragrant and potent brew that opened up my pores and cleared my troublesome skin.
IMG_4907 IMG_4910 IMG_4943 IMG_4950 IMG_4948Homemade skincare is too good to keep to oneself, and a piece of twine does a tidy job tied around a stack of herb-specked toner tabs. We may be starting a little bartering system with our Vietnamese balm providers. Herbs in exchange for product? Not a bad exchange at all.

Herbal Toner Tabs

1 cup baking soda

1/2 cup citric acid

2-3 Tablespoons of fresh or dried chopped herbs

10-15 drops of an Essential oil of your choice (I used Tea Tree. Lavender, rosemary or juniper berry would work very nicely as well.)

1/4 tsp aloe vera gel

Witch hazel for spritzing

Mix dry ingredients and herbs thoroughly. Add drops of Essential oil, stirring often to keep citric acid from fizzing. Shake aloe vera and witch hazel together in a spray bottle. Using one hand to spritz and the other to mix, spritz the dry ingredients with the witch hazel mixture, while stirring continuously with your other hand. If the mixture starts fizzing, slow down and keep mixing. When you can squeeze the mixture together and it holds its shape, stop spraying. You don’t need a lot of liquid, just enough to bind the mixture together loosely. 

Fill molds with tab mixture. Press down until compacted. Leave to dry over night. The next day, pop out of molds gently. 

To Use: Drop one tab in a sink or bowl full of hot water (not boiling!). Use a towel to make a tent over your head. Steam your face under the towel for a few minutes. Great to do before a face mask or at night after cleansing. Retain toner water and use either to wash off your face mask or keep in a spray bottle in the refrigerator and use as a toner for 2-3 days. 

Do you have any recommendations for really good herbal remedies and skincare books? I’m all ears. I got the inspiration for this recipe from Maria’s Self, though there are tons of recipes online.

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IMG_4860{Hearts-a-burstin’}

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There is at least one welcomed side effect to the nonstop rain we’ve been having here. In our desperation for Vit. D and fresh air, we our prepared at any moment to be impulsive. Gap in the rain? We drop whatever we’re doing and go on a walk. Even if it’s just to the mini nature preserve across the street.

I’m ashamed to say that in the two years we’ve lived in our current apartment, we’ve made the five minute journey on foot to Woodland’s Garden a mere two times. One of those times was yesterday. What we found was a well-watered native plant habitat and a woodland sanctuary for us nature-starved city dwellers (and a swarm of mosquitos, but let’s keep things romantic.)

It must be a sign of adulthood when suddenly plants go from being those pretty, generic things that have names our grandparents know, but so long as I can spot Poison Ivy I’m happy not knowing too many of them, to being a source of on your knees in the dirt fascination. That was me yesterday. On my knees, reading the labels for wild ginger, sassafras root, mountain blueberry, climbing hydrangea, toadshade trillium, and hearts-a-bursting.  Fist bump to the volunteers who put out all those labels. Also for the volunteers who trail blazed the winding labyrinth that may soon become my go-to walk in future. And another fist bump to the folks who put out the fairy villages (I’m not making this up) and built the screened-in woodland pavilion (complete with fire place), that I will shortly be reserving for up coming small group meetings.

Can I admit that the hardest part about leaving for two months on our trip was handing over our beloved garden to the care of friends? Though we knew they’d be in trustworthy, green thumbed hands, it was heartbreaking to give up, at least temporarily, that joyful patch of green on our balcony. I sound ridiculous, I know. Proof that kids are still a loooong way off.

In any case, you can imagine our delight when we picked up our beloved garden last night and saw how much they grown. Here they all are happily reinstalled back on our patio. Our tomatoes and one lone sunflower were too big to transport, so they’re staying with our friends. Thanks to the generous amount of rain that has fallen on the southeast these past weeks (this is the first summer in my teenage/adult memory where we have not been in a drought), it was necessary to prune some of the herbs. Bunches of the fragrant leaves are now drying in my kitchen and there’s a bouquet of basil waiting to be turned into pesto. While I was taking pictures, a pair of inquisitive cardinals flew down to inspect my work. You can see the female, just next to my cheese mouse window pendant. And down below on the basket.

After a busy final week of living out of suitcase (on the heels of two months of travel), nothing feels better right now than to sit outside, coffee in hand, and watch my garden grow.

IMG_4386 IMG_4356 IMG_4306 IMG_4240 IMG_4283 les toiture en toiles IMG_4218 IMG_4210 IMG_4199 IMG_4371 IMG_4219 IMG_4354Two of Provence’s most striking (and photogenic) features didn’t once fail to elicit a gasp and a click of our camera shutter on this last trip. Scarlet poppies growing in wheat fields, along hedges and out of rock walls were the first, les toiture en toiles, or, clay tiled roofs, were the second. It helps that the villages are mostly all built along cliffs or into hillsides, so you get a lovely layered view of the roofs when you stand at the top. As for the poppies, let’s just say Luke finally understands why I used to go wax poetic every time the subject of Provence came up. The typical response used to be, “The air smells of lavender and rosemary, and the countryside is a series of vineyards, fruit trees and wheat fields, and vivid red poppies fill in all the gaps.”

I still stand by that description, except now I’d add that Provence tastes of Pastis.

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