There's a primitive satisfaction to making beads from natural materials and forming colorful strands of assorted shapes and textures. Little has changed since our distant ancestors fashioned beads from wood, nutshells, seashells, stone, bone, seeds, clay, and berries. Beads of all kinds have served people since ancient times as adornment, talismans, symbols of wealth or class, and spiritual identification. The word “bead” can be traced back to the Old English word for “prayer,” but the object itself goes back farther still.
Aromatic beads are nothing new, either; many of our great-grandmothers had rose beads tucked away in a dresser drawer or Sunday purse. Back then, these scented mementos might have been produced in a convent, to which brides would send the roses from their wedding bouquets to be made into rosaries.
Besides rose petals, any fragrant plant material that can be reduced to a fine powder or puree—herbs, flowers, spices—can be fashioned easily into beads. I’ve tried lavender, lemon verbena, sage, lemon balm, peppermint, and rose. The differences in hue and scent among these materials lend the beads a great deal of earthy charm. Herb beads can be strung alone or in combination with whole spices such as cardamom, star anise, tonka bean, nutmeg, or cinnamon; adding a few drops of essential oil will enhance and prolong their aromatic life.
Strip off leaves or petals and discard stems and other coarse or nonaromatic parts. Puree fresh plant material in a food processor, blender, or old-fashioned meat grinder. A food processor breaks down herbs faster than any other method and can be used to finish blending the dough as well. You can finely mince the herbs with a sharp knife instead, but the finished beads will be coarser than those made from a puree or powder. Process dried herb leaves or flower petals in a blender or spice mill, or rub the leaves across the bottom of a fine-mesh wire sieve until you have a fairly uniform powder. Unless plant material is processed into a fine powder or smooth pulp, coarse beads will result.
Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of flour to the plant material, and enough water, starting with 1 tablespoon (if using dried herbs), to make a smooth dough. These are approximate amounts; you’ll need more flour if you’re starting with a soupy puree, and more water if the herb powder is very dry. When blended, the dough should be the consistency of children’s craft clay. If it seems too soft, add flour in small amounts to improve it; if too stiff, add a little water; if too coarse or crumbly, try adding both flour and water until the dough is workable. Don’t add essential oil yet: it evaporates too quickly during blending.
Pinch off bits of dough and roll them into beads between your palms, or roll a long “snake” (this always brings back memories of my childhood) and slice off uniform lengths, then shape them into beads. Work with a light touch and keep your hands clean to prevent the dough from sticking to them. Essential oil can be added at this point, or after the beads are dry. When sizing the beads, remember that they will shrink a bit as they dry.
String the beads using a large darning needle and heavy carpet thread. Leave at least 6 inches of thread bare to allow room for sliding the beads as they dry. Tie a big knot or a button at the end to keep the beads from sliding off.
Hang strings of beads to dry in a warm, airy place away from direct light and heat. Drying takes three to four days, depending on weather and bead size. Slide the beads up and down the string periodically to keep them from sticking to the string or each other. Store dried beads in an airtight container to preserve their scent until you’re ready to assemble a necklace. String the beads with beading thread or dental floss for strength and durability.
— Kate Carter Frederick grows, eats, cleans with, makes things out of, sells, and writes about herbs from her home in Knoxville, Iowa.
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