The Pleasure of Pomanders

By Pat Kenny

The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, pomme for apple, referring to the round shape of the early scent balls. Ambre is derived from ambergris, a substance washed up on beaches from the sperm whale which was the chief fixative for fragrances in Renaissance times.

One of the first reasons for making pomanders was the carrying of religious keepsakes (Fairamay, 2018). Adelma Simmons tells us, “originally pomanders were not made of oranges or apples but of small balls of various materials that would hold herbs, herbal scents, spices, and perfumes.  Sometimes beeswax was used for the medium. Other bases included garden soil, mold, or well-drained apple pulp.  The balls that were made only of gums and spices were costly and not available to the average household.”

There were many types of pomanders. Through the years, spices, essential oils, and green herbs including rue, sweet bay, lavender, and rosemary were used not only for their sweet scents but also for protection against contagious diseases. Historically, pomanders were either located somewhere in the home, worn around the neck, or attached to the belt like a bit of jewelry to safeguard against infection, disease, and bad luck.

Medicinal pomanders, some for curing fevers, some for insomnia, many for the medieval counterpart of what we call “nerves”, became popular.  They were a part of stillroom activities and a source of revenue for the professional apothecary.  Silversmiths and jewelers made exquisite cases for balls containing expensive perfumes, and these were worn as ornaments about the waist, while tiny ones were fashionably worn as lockets.  Sometimes beautiful metallic globes were fashioned to hold the scented material, and they were often pictured hand-held on chains in portraits of persons of high standing.

Pomanders were also carried by men in many professions.  Doctors, while visiting the sick, carried them.  Lawmakers and judges who argued and heard cases in closed courtrooms with prisoners “infected with jail fever” considered pomanders invaluable.  The dandy on the battlefield drew long breaths from a scented box to mitigate the stench of battle, and the traveler who walked along the streets lined with open sewers often carried his herbs and spices in the head of a cane which was opened and sniffed at will.

Courtiers traveling luxuriously in sedan chairs lifted languid hands to hold a pomander to the nose during passage through odorous crowds.  In pioneer New England the spice balls, clove apples, or clove oranges were placed in homemade coffins that were kept in many attics ready to receive the bodies of those who did not survive the long winters.  Often the graves could not be dug until spring, and farms were too isolated to call on the services of professional embalmers.  Pomander balls were then put to their ancient uses of preservation and fumigation, and known as “coffin balls”.

At the least, the pomander enabled its owner to escape the stenches of rotting garbage and open sewers in the airy pleasantness of garden herbs and exotic spices.  The delicate ladies and foppish gentlemen of the aristocracy would daintily wend their way through the bitter realities of the streets, sniffing their pomanders.

To turn to a happier use of pomanders, it was an English custom recorded in the time of Henry VIII to give one to each guest at New Year’s tied with a sprig of rosemary for remembrance.  This was not only a sign of esteem but of good luck.

However, today the pomander is merely an aromatic novelty, though many of the original uses stand the test of legitimacy.  Pomanders can be hung from ribbons in a room or closet, or tucked away into drawers and chests to keep moths away and give an aromatic scent.  They can be wrapped in a colorful cloth or fancy netting or just stacked in a bowl; their uses are varied and the pomander brings a welcome fragrance.  It’s an aromatic delight!

How to Make a Pomander

Pomanders are usually made with apples, crabapples, oranges, lemons, or limes.  Apples are the easiest because you can usually push the cloves into the apple’s skin with your thumb.  Lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit often have to have their skin broken with a bamboo or metal skewer in order to insert the clove.  Kumquats are little, their skin is thinner; they dry faster and are cute for miniature table trees.  They are not always available; watch out for them around the holidays, they last long in the refrigerator so buy them when you can.

I have rolled the completely-cloved fruit in mixes of ground orris and spices, yet some people are allergic to powdered orris root and the mix gets caked between the cloves. In my opinion, the mixes make the pomander hard to handle and just plain look awful.  One writer reminds us that frugal New England housewives who used pomanders would have found the cloves expensive enough without adding the orris and other ground spices recommended in more modern times.

All my most successful pomanders have been dried by simply hanging them in a warm, dry place, i.e. over the refrigerator warmth, next to a radiator or in the warmth of a pilot-lit gas oven for days or weeks, turning them if necessary.  

Materials

Paper towels

Bowls to help sort cloves, partial pieces saved

Tweezers or hemostats to help grasp cloves

Long-nosed pliers to twist the central hanger

Rubber-coated wire or other wires

Bamboo or metal skewers 

Long needles for threading

Large paper clips to use as s-hooks when drying, however you can dry the cloved fruit lying down (you may have to turn it over or around periodically).

Ribbons, bows, yarns, etc. With or without a central hanger, pomanders can be wrapped and hung in netting or stacked in a bowl. Spice oils of clove, cinnamon, etc. can be added.

Remember, I usually dry mine in an old-timey oven that has a pilot light or next to an old-timey radiator, turning it periodically. Cute, guess I have become old-timey myself; lucky me!

Procedure

  1. Choose a solid fruit.
  2. Skewer the central diameter of the fruit with care.
  3. Create a hanger through the center; includes deciding what you want to happen at the bottom of the pomander (empty loop, bead, bell?).
  4. You could sort your cloves at any time, deciding the size(s) and/or the ones with or without the dried bud and/or the thickness of the pedicel.
  5. Depending upon the type of fruit and the thickness of the skin, decide whether there is a need to make a hole with a skewer first before the insertion of the clove. Space cloves, remembering shrinkage makes them become closer.
  6. Cuddle the fruit, if necessary, with a folded paper towel which will absorb juices.
  7. After the fruit is cloved the way you want, put it where it will dry, checking it often and cuddling it within both palms if necessary to push the cloves in as it shrinks.
  8. If storing the pomanders long-term, give them a freeze treatment for about a week to kill off any pests or eggs. Make sure the pomander is dry and hard before doing so.

If you do desire to use a spice mix, here is a simple recipe:

1 tbsp. each: cinnamon and ground cloves with 1 tsp. ground orris root; place bowl in warm place and roll pomander in it twice or more a day for 3 days; remove it from bowl and set it in warm place for 2-3 weeks to dry out completely.  Decorate your pomanders with ribbons, flowers, herbs, beads or bells to hang on your holiday tree, in windows or in closets.

Photo Credits: 1) Orange and clove pomander (Wendy Piersall); 2) Silver pomanders of the 17th century (Wellcome Images); 3) Portrait of a woman by Bartholomaeus the Elder (public domain); 4) Portrait of a man by Christopher Amberger (public domain); 5) European pomander in the shape of a ship (public domain); 6) Apple and other fruit pomanders (Pat Kenny); 7) Banana pomander (Pat Kenny); 8) Pomander Pat (Sue Betz)

References

The previous writings of the following were consulted for this post:  Adelma Simmons, Mrs. Henry C. Martin,1968; Eleanor Sinclair Rhodes, 1969; Ann Tucker Fettner, 1977; Sarah Garland, 1979; Sylvia Lloyd & Arlene Linderman, Linda Foldan, 1984; Barbara Milo Ohrbach, 1986; Edythe Skinner, Hartman’s Herb Calendar, Dec. 1988; Barbara Radcliffe Rogers, Herbitage Farm, Richmond NH; Pat Kenny, 1989; David Merrill, 1991; Janet Walker, USNA Newsletter, 1996.

Fairamay, T. July 2, 2018. Thorn and thread: Warding off plague and other miasma with pomanders. Accessed 12/8/2021 from https://thornandthread.wordpress.com/2018/07/07/warding-off-plague-and-other-miasma-with-pomanders/#_edn13

Mabberley, D.J. 2008.  Mabberley’s plant book: A portable dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mabey, R. 1988. The new age herbalist: How to use herbs for healing, nutrition, body care, and relaxation – With a complete illustrated glossary of herbs and a guide to herb cultivation.  Macmillan, New York. 

Ordish, G. 1985.  The living garden: A 400 year history of an English garden. Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston.


While working as a medical illustrator for over thirty years for a “modern medicine” research factory in Bethesda, Maryland, Pat Kenny simultaneously followed her heart/mind in the path of nature and practiced balancing herself with Tai Chi and herbal studies. She began to play with like-minded others through county community programs, The Herb Society of America, the Prince George’s Herb Society, the Michigan Herb Associates, and the North Carolina Herb Association. Now retired, she is cleaning house after all those years of not, using up things she has been saving for what?…an herb business of some sort? (in another life!), giving herb talks to share the herbal stuff, and seeking ways she can facilitate the cause of alternative health practices, especially botanical healing during the rest of her life.

Bayberry Candles

By Katherine K. Schlosser

The season of lights is upon us. During this darkest time of the year, we gravitate to earthly sources of light to keep things merry and bright.

Drupes2_zoomed in to see waxEarly in our history as a country, many were short on money and luxuries such as candles. Livestock numbers were as yet too low to produce the quantity of tallow needed to make candles affordable, so following the lead of Native Americans, householders turned to candlewood to provide light on winter evenings.

We know candlewood as fatwood or pine knots—the resin-impregnated heartwood of pine trees.  Pines that were cut to clear land, build homes, and provide heat for warmth and cooking left stumps in the ground. Those stumps, full of resin, hardened and became rot-resistant…and were an easy source of candlewood. Slim slivers cut from the wood burned hot and bright.

Alice Morse Earle, writing in the 1800s about life in Colonial America, quoted a statement made by Rev. Mr. Higginson in 1633:

     They are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree, cloven in two little slices, something thin, which are so full of the moysture of turpentine and pitch that they burne as cleere as a torch.

Though efficient, abundant, and readily available, candlewood produced copious amounts of smoke, along with a strong scent of turpentine, making it less desirable than more traditional candles. Those living along the coast had the advantage of another source of light: fish oil, with which they filled lamps.

It wasn’t long before enterprising New England Colonists discovered the virtues of bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), a deciduous shrub common along coastal plain areas.  The branches, leaves, and fruits are sweetly aromatic, and were used by Native Americans for a variety of medical complaints, including gum disease.20201223_103259

Here in North Carolina, southern bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) is evergreen and native to our coastal plain and the Outer Banks.  There are other species, mostly on the East Coast. Morella cerifera, wax myrtle, is native from Maryland south to Florida and westward to Texas. Morella inodora, scentless bayberry, grows from Georgia to Louisiana and south to Florida. The outlier is M. californica, California wax myrtle, reaching from southern California through Oregon and into Washington.

The dark blue berries (non-edible drupes) of these waxy species are covered with a grayish-white waxy substance. Boiled in large vats of water, the wax floats to the surface, where it is skimmed and transferred to another pot for refining. Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist writing in 1748, reported that the wax “acquires a fine and transparent green color. This tallow is dearer than common tallow, but cheaper than wax.”

The end product was somewhat brittle, but burned slowly and without smoke.  Even better, when extinguished, the candles yield a pleasant, warm aroma with the exception of M. inodora.  Kalm also reported that “in Carolina they not only make candles out of the wax of the berries, but likewise sealing-wax.”

The berries are small and the waxy coating thin, making enormous quantities necessary to make a candle—eight pounds of the berries are required to make one pound of wax. The candles were so popular that in 1687, Brookhaven, New York, passed a law to help protect the plants: gathering of the berries before September 15th of the year brought a fifteen shilling fine.  

To alleviate the problem of brittle candles, a small amount of beeswax was added before forming the candles. Bayberry was the longest burning candle of all, giving rise to the uniquely American tradition of burning bayberry candles on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  

The bonus to these clean, attractive, long-burning candles, was the fragrance released in a whiff of smoke when extinguished. So nice, in fact, that people were tempted to periodically extinguish and re-light the candles to enjoy the scent. That might, technically, violate the luck-bringing requirements of the New Year’s Eve tradition:  

A Bayberry Candle
burned to the socket 
brings Luck to the household, 
Food to the larder 
and Gold to the pocket.

Bayberry candle by Katherine K SchlosserNot only must the candle be burned on New Year’s Eve, but must be burned through one night and into the next day/year. A contemporary ten-inch taper will burn about 5-7 hours, so lighting one at dinner should last past midnight. If you stay up to bring the New Year in, your candle will probably burn down shortly thereafter. If you retire early and hesitate to leave an unattended candle burning, a friend suggests putting  your burning candle, securely in a candle holder, into the kitchen sink with no curtains or such nearby. You will miss the fragrance as the flame dies down, but you will have good luck for the next year.

You can grow bayberry in sandy or well-drained soil, slightly on the dry side, and in full sun or part shade (determine the native habitat in your area).  The shrubs where I live grow from three to eight feet tall, and if you have both male and female plants, and do not fertilize heavily, you will have a source for making your own candles.

If you purchase your candles, make sure to get those with actual bayberry wax rather than just bayberry “scented,” and enjoy a bright and happy holiday season.

Photo Credits: 1) Morella cerifera fruits, showing waxy coating (Erin Holden) 2) Morella cerifera hedge (Erin Holden); 3) Bayberry candle (Katherine Schlosser)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Katherine Schlosser (Kathy) has been a member of the NC Unit of The Herb Society since 1991, serving in many capacities at the local and national level.  She was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature and the Helen deConway Little Medal of Honor.  She is an author, lecturer, and native herb conservation enthusiast eager to engage others in the study and protection of our native herbs.