Prime Thyme Mysteries 2, by Susan Wittig Albert

Many thanks to Pam for hosting me today. This blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery. China (for those who haven’t read this mystery series) is a former criminal defense attorney who has opted for a quieter life as the owner of an herb shop in Pecan Springs TX. Life in the slow lane isn’t nearly as peaceful as she expected, however, and in spite of China’s best intentions, she keeps turning up mysteries. In this post, I’d like to tell you something about the herbs in three more of her adventures, Books 4, 5, and 6 in the series. (For posts on other books, check out the tour calendar.)

Rosemary Remembered: “For you, there’s rosemary and rue.”—Shakespeare

In China’s fourth mystery, I tried giving the series an even sharper herbal flavor by including bits of herb information and lore at the beginning of every chapter. The signature herb was rosemary (“Here’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”). I wrote this book while we were all ensnared by the trial of OJ Simpson, and I couldn’t help thinking that the media focus was on the criminal, when it should have been on the victims. So Rosemary Remembered is about remembering the victims of crime.We know rosemary as a culinary herb and treasure it for its fresh, sharply resinous taste. But it has seen a wide variety of uses. The Egyptians used it in the preservation of mummies. The Greeks used it to help preserve meat–lamb, mostly, which is why our Easter lamb dishes are flavored with rosemary. The Romans thought that it helped to stimulate and preserve mental processes, so Roman scholars wore rosemary garlands. By association, it represented unfading love, and was carried by brides and used with funeral flowers. By Shakespeare’s day, everybody knew that rosemary symbolized remembering. And recently, research in Germany suggests that rosemary actually does help preserve memory in the brain, and might be used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.

For more about rosemary, you can listen to my podcast, check out a few recipes, and explore links to more pages about this wonderful herb.

Rueful Death

In her fifth mystery, China goes on retreat to a nearby monastery, where the sisters grow garlic for a living. But the peaceful harmony of St. Theresa’s is threatened by arson fires and a rash of nasty poison-pen letters. As she solves the mysteries and identifies the guilty, China learns about forgiveness and mercy, and discovers some hard truths about her own limitations.

While there’s a lot of information about garlic in Rueful Death, rue is the herb that gives this mystery its title. Rue isn’t a popular modern herb, but in previous centuries, it was an important medicinal. The Romans used rue as an eyewash and included it in amulets they wore to protect themselves from contagious illness. It was also thought to repel evil, so medieval priests used the plant as a brush to shake holy water as they gave the blessing—hence the name, “herb of grace.” In Shakespeare’s day, pots of rue were set in front of judges in the courtroom to protect them from any plague that might be carried by prisoners. The plant was also associated with the idea of repentance, or “ruefulness,” and hence with mercy and forgiveness.

Up through the nineteenth century, one of the most important uses of rue was as an abortifacient: an herb that causes an abortion. (Other popular abortifacients were thyme and parsley.) Rue was also thought to be an anti-aphrodisiac, suppressing sexual desire. It was used in food served in monasteries.

There’s some interesting information about rue here. For a serious discussion of rue’s powerful medicinal properties, go here.

Love Lies Bleeding

The folk names of herbs have always fascinated me. Love-lies-bleeding is the folk name for Amaranthus caudatus. Its name inspired the plot of China’s sixth adventure, in which McQuaid (China’s lover) is shot and almost dies. In Love Lies Bleeding, China has to learn some difficult truths about heroes who don’t live up to their reputations. Even good cops can be corrupted by cocaine, heroin, and marijuana—the three biggest herbal cash crops in the world.

Love Lies BleedingLove-lies-bleeding, prized for its rope-like, blood-red blossoms, has been used since ancient times to stanch bleeding and treat internal hemorrhage. It was worn by knights in the Middle Ages to symbolize purity and truth. During the Renaissance (when it was used to treat venereal disease) the herb became a symbol of corruption.

To find out why the Aztecs called this plant (and its other amaranth relatives) the “grain of the gods,” go here. To learn about its nutritional values, check out this Wikipedia page. To find out how to grow it (it’s easy!), go here. But do be careful—all amaranths are notorious self-sowers. You may wind up with more than you bargained for!

And that brings this post to a close. Thanks again, Pam, for hosting me. And thanks to everybody who has dropped in to read and comment! I’ll be around today and for the next couple of days to answer questions.

UPDATE:  March 27, 2009 Wormwood Book Drawing!


To enter the book drawing for Susan’s latest book, please click here on March 27th!