Dreaming has almost always been pleasant for me. Nightmares have bothered me only a few times in my life, the most vivid occurring during one difficult period when I was separated from my daughters. I suffered from frequent sleepless nights. The little sleep I did get was filled with nightmares. My doctor prescribed mild tranquilizers.
When the pharmacist, who was also a friend and fellow gardener, looked at the prescription, he remarked, “I can fill this if you want, but you need freedom from the nightmares as well as sleep. These pills will make you sleep, but they won’t ease your dreaming. I’d rather fix you up with some valerian root capsules and a dream pillow.”
Back then, I didn't know that valerian was a sedative, and I had no idea what a dream pillow was, but I knew that I didn’t like taking even mild tranquilizers, so I agreed to try his recommendations. He handed me a bottle of valerian capsules and began stuffing dried mugwort leaves and a bit of lavender into a small velvet bag.
“The valerian will help you relax,” the pharmacist explained, “and the dream pillow will calm the nightmares when sleep comes. It’s not instant. You need to use the pillow nightly for a while, but I think you will be pleased with the results, and you will wake up with a clear mind.”
Within a few nights, I could sleep through the night, and the nightmares were less frequent. I began to think more clearly and work at putting my life back together. I filed away the idea of dream pillows in the back of my mind.
Some years later, I had a second encounter with a dream pillow. I was working on a landscape project in another state and staying with close friends. Their guest room was filled with pillows of all kinds, and its window looked out upon an enormous, pristine valley—elements that should make anyone sleep well. Indeed, after working hard all day, I was exhausted by evening and drifted off to sleep easily—only to be tormented by mean, ugly nightmares.
Whether my dreams are pleasant or awful, I’m vocal about them. I like to tell and hear about dreams over breakfast. During one such discussion, another friend joined us. “I’ve always had bad dreams in that room,” she commented. She related several unusually scary dreams she had had there on previous visits.
Our hostess began to think there might be an errant dream pillow among the pillow collection. After breakfast, the three of us searched through the dozen or so pillows in the guest room, feeling inside the pillow coverings.
“Here it is,” our hostess finally exclaimed, pulling out a little muslin bag with a drawstring. “Let’s see what’s in it.” On opened sheets of newspaper, she emptied the contents of the little bag. “I see why you’ve been having bad dreams,” she said. “Someone has mistakenly bagged up some potpourri. Dream pillow mixes are different from potpourri mixes, and the two aren’t interchangeable.”
Several ingredients were in the potpourri mixture that I learned should never be used in dream pillows: strong-smelling French marigold blossoms, bay leaves, any artemisia other than mugwort, and headache-inducing tansy. There was also a hint of fragrance oil, another ingredient I have learned to avoid using in dream mixtures.
Our hostess took us into the garden, where she explained how dream pillows work and gave us a lesson in some of the herbs that can affect dreaming. She noted that fragrances evoke memories faster than anything else. “Smell fresh bread baking or fresh-picked roses,” she said, “and you will likely have an instant memory of something pleasant. Likewise, the subtle scents of certain herbs, especially when combined, can bring out wonderful dreams.”
Mugwort, for example, has been used for centuries to soothe bad dreams and in blends to help you remember your dreams more easily. Lavender and roses evoke loving, relaxing thoughts while mint adds vividness to dreams. A bit of thyme in a mix is restful; rosemary adds an element of peacefulness.
The dream-pillow lessons I learned from my two friends have stayed with me over the years. I have found that dream pillows are a wonderful way to evoke creativity and relaxation while dreaming, and everything needed to make the blends can be found right in the herb garden. Now, when someone says to me, “You don’t really believe in dream pillows, do you?” I answer, “You bet I do!”
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.