Several years ago, each visit from my Italian mother-in-law was nerve-wracking. I felt trapped: she seemed to disapprove of me no matter what I said or did. A friend suggested I drink chamomile tea — no coffee — all day, as needed during my mother-in-law’s visit. “We always use it for stress,” she said.
My mother-in-law stood in the kitchen the next morning and stared at me. “Absurd!” she said. “Chamomile is only for drinking at bedtime.” Taking courage, I replied, “I like it in the morning.” In truth, I disliked the flavor. After a moment of perplexity, she asked me to prepare a cup for her too. We drank chamomile all day as long as she visited and her stay was notably less stressful on me than the previous ones. From then on, every time she visited, I made and drank pot after pot of chamomile tea. Gradually, much to my relief, my tolerance — and appreciation — for my mother-in-law changed. I soon learned to love her and the taste of chamomile.
Ever since that experience, I’ve been a true believer in how herbs can help us all cope better with our daily routine, offering a dose of that very important ingredient that I’m sure will help us all live longer: serenity.
Although we may not be able to completely escape the challenging personalities and fast pace of everyday life, we can make our time more serene and joyful with the simple addition of herbs.
Explore the deep beauty of your natural surroundings. Examine the intricacy of the leaves and blossoms of your favorite herbs.
Nature’s Calmers at a Glance
Part used: flowers
A must-have in every Mediterranean household, this wonderful gift of nature has been used since time began and has never fallen out of fashion, even now in our fast-paced, high-tech, chemical-laden world. It will relax and calm high-strung nerves, bring on sweet sleep, ease digestion, calm fussy babies and more.
A gentle breeze is nothing without the sound of it blowing through the leaves.
Tepid chamomile tea, sweetened with honey, can quiet babies, and a cup of chamomile tea in the bath water will soothe baby and help her fall asleep. This works for grownups as well. Add 3 or 4 tea bags to your bath water and have a gentle soak (or use a handful of flowers tied in a muslin bag or some cheesecloth).
(NOTE: Honey should NOT be given to babies younger than 1 year old because it can harbor potentially deadly bacteria their undeveloped immune systems can’t handle.)
To prepare a delicious chamomile elixir, place a half cup dried chamomile flowers, 1 tablespoon dried bitter orange rind and 1 stick of cinnamon in 2 cups of grain alcohol (or vodka). Cover tightly and keep in a dark cupboard for a week. Place 3 1/2 cups sugar and 3 cups water in a saucepan and stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Cool completely. Mix the herbal alcohol and sugar syrup together well; then strain the mixture through a coffee filter. Pour in a pretty bottle, seal tightly and after a week the elixir will be ready. Serve after dinner in tiny glasses and sip slowly.
Part used: flowers and bracts
This tree grows wild in the foothills of Italy’s mountains but also is widely used for parks and gardens. When the tree is in bloom in early June the sweet intoxicating fragrance can be almost overpowering and the whole canopy hums with happy bees. Linden honey is delicious and soothing.
Breathe in thoughtfully and realize the uplifting fragrances around you.
To make a relaxing bath, boil 1 1/2 cups linden flowers in 2 quarts of water for 5 minutes. Strain the fragrant water with a coffee filter. Fill your tub and add the linden water for a relaxing bath. You’ll feel renewed and soothed from the day’s stress ready for a pleasant night’s sleep.
Linden tea, a favorite in Turkey, has the same properties as chamomile.
Part used: roots and rhizomes
Every pharmacy in Italy sells valerian extract and pills over the counter as a mild sedative. A few drops taken after a long flight will help you settle in for a night of quality sleep and help get over jet lag. It also will calm hysterics, so if plane trips make you a little frantic, valerian can help.
Take every opportunity to cook with herbs; turning ordinary foods into delicious treats is good for all of your senses.
Infusions can be made in three ways:
• Stir 1 tablespoon powdered valerian roots in a glass of cold water; after 8 hours, strain and drink.
• Place a pinch of powdered valerian roots in 1 cup boiling water, filter and drink immediately.
• Make a very pleasant Sweet Dreams Tea using a mixture of 1 tablespoon powdered valerian roots, 2 teaspoons dried crumbled mint leaves, 2 teaspoons crushed dried orange leaves, 1 tablespoon dried chamomile flowers and 1 tablespoon dried linden flowers. Stir the mixture well and keep in a tightly covered glass jar. To prepare, take a pinch of the mixture, cover with 1/2 cup boiling water, strain through a coffee filter and sip while hot.
Part used: flowers, leaves and stems
This beautiful climbing plant, so entwined with stories of the Passion of Christ, makes a pleasant relaxing tonic that will calm your nerves.
Place 1 teaspoonful of dried flowers in a mug, fill with boiling water, strain, sweeten with honey if desired, and sip hot.
Use fresh passionflowers to make a relaxing tincture. Cover 1/2 cup fresh passionflower blooms, lightly packed, with 3/4 cup grain alcohol (or vodka). Cover and keep in dark cupboard for a week. Strain through a coffee filter and store in small eye dropper bottles. Use 15 drops at a time, up to 3 times a day if you are feeling really high strung. This amount before bedtime will soothe you to sleep.
Part used: seeds
Humans have used anise to calm high-strung nerves and bring on sleep for centuries. Mentioned several times in the Bible, this long-loved herb was also cultivated by the Romans, and is still a favorite flavoring in Italy for biscotti and liquors.
Take a second to feel sensational pleasure by stroking the velvety leaves of plants such as sage.
Prepare a tincture of anise by placing 1 tablespoon of crushed anise seeds in 2 cups grain alcohol (or vodka). Cover tightly and place it in a dark cupboard for 10 days. Strain and bottle. Use 1/2 teaspoon in a cup of a hot chamomile or linden tea. Sweeten with honey if desired.
Using 1 pinch of crushed seeds per cup of hot water also makes a soothing drink.
Part used: leaves
A pinch of dried sage, chamomile flowers and bee balm (Melissa officinalis) makes a relaxing, digestive tea. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the herbs, strain through a coffee filter, sweeten with honey, if desired, and sip while hot.
Helene Pizzi is a Milwaukee-born freelance writer who gardens and writes in Milwaukee and in Rome, Italy. She is a member of the permanent Commission of Rome’s Municipal Rose Gardens and the Senior Advisor for the Royal National Rose Society for Rome.
THE HERBS OF CASOLA VALSENIO
A Serenity Travel Tip
The charming town of Casola Valsenio, with a population of 2,000, was established in 1216 and is nestled 195 meters above sea level in the Apennine Mountains between Florence and Faenza. It offers an oasis of almost forgotten peace, crisp, clean air, friendly people, gourmet food, hiking and bicycle excursions, spas and a nearby golf course.
Their “Lavender Road,” Strada di Lavanda, is planted with lavender and forgotten fruits. An herbal market, Mercatino delle Erbe Officinali,is held every weekend in the summer, attracting visitors from throughout the region. The town’s main attraction however, is its extensive and beautifully maintained herb garden: Giardino delle Erbe “A. Rinaldi Ceroni”, named after the professor that founded it. Together with the Region of Emilia-Romagna and the Province of Ravenna, Casola Valsenio maintains this garden, open to the public. Here, one can wander through a fragrant sea of more than 400 different herbs used in medicine, cosmetics and food, set in an enchanting place surrounded by wooded foothills and the lavender roads.
What visitors to Casola Valsenio appreciate most is the serenity, the scents, the sounds of nature and the beauty of the area. They come to be refreshed and to shed that unavoidably accumulated fast-lane stress of today’s busy, globalized world.
There are hotels of every category, bed and breakfast accommodations, campsites and many fine restaurants specializing in herbal food. A week here will renew anyone’s spirits.
For more information, contact Ufficio Turistiche, Via Roma 50, 48010 Casola Valsenio (RA), Italy. E-mail
and these web sites: