I want to write about moving to Harris (oh yes I have) but I’ve decided instead to write about ingredients and sneakily talk about the Isle of Harris by way of an example. This month we’re highlighting the Wild Beauty Balm – in part because it is such a brilliant product and I would never travel, even down the road without it in my bag, but also because it illustrates a wonderful truth about our ingredients.
Whenever I do an event, the last being the beautiful Maiyet Collective at Harvey Nichols, I take little pots of plants, jars of petals (fresh and dried) and bottles of ‘things.’ I make a pathetic attempt to clean my nails, organize my hair and wear something without holes. If I’m really feeling it, I might apply a smear of lipstick, a splotch of eyeliner and a waft of perfume. As the face of A.S Apothecary I like to think that I set the standard for premier Founder dishevelment.
I take these various accoutrements to make a point – not all plants are equal and not all essential oils and aromatic waters are worth the effort of inclusion. I usually take two jars of Calendula for a compare and contrast. The pale yellow, straw textured one has been bought recently from a supplier of organic herbs. It is old, has been badly dried, is without scent and has little or no therapeutic value but if you read a brand story which talks about using actual plants you could be buying a product that includes it and it would be entirely useless. In contrast I have a jar of our own Calendula, it is bright orange, organically grown, hand harvested at exactly the right moment, full of scent and sticky with resin – it is a powerhouse of therapeutics and a world away from the other.
I also take little bottles of essential oils and resins, some I’ve made and some I’ve sourced. I take another reasonable brand to compare them with. The difference is as between night and day. There is currently a rising tide of concern over essential oils, more and more brands are excluding them from formulations citing allergic reactions as the reason. As a distiller of oils, I can see the problem. Many commercially produced oils are awful. The producers have no respect for the plants or the production method. They are as insensitively made as any other massive commercial agricultural product. When I see fields and fields of Lavender, rather than joy I feel my heart sink – it is just monoculture, it damages biodiversity, it will be machine cut and distilled in huge stainless steel stills with steam being forced through the plants for rapid oil collection with a by-product of inferior aromatic water.
On the farm in Plumpton we have about 250 Lavender plants of several different varieties. None are commercial variants, instead we sacrifice quantity in favour of quality. Each comes into flower at different times. We distil at various points in the season because the scent changes as the season progresses. The scent from Lavender with a few flowers open is different to Lavender in full bloom. We underplant our Roses with other bee friendly plants, we cover as much of the soil as we can with ground covering plants to maintain soil health and minimise watering. It is about sustainable agricultural practice and respect.
And so to Harris…
And Wild Beauty Balm…
I love every bit of this balm from the Black Seed and Pomegranate oils we cold press in Cyprus through to the essential oils we use to enhance it. It is a proper labour of love. One of the oils we use is Bog Myrtle, Sweet Gale or Myrica Gale to give it its proper name. We have had a very good supplier who I found and have been delighted with. The oil is beautifully made and perfect in the balm. However he has run out. The plant can’t be distilled until it is in season and currently it is not. It grows in peat bogs in Scotland, I’ve picked it on numerous occasions in Ardnamurchan and so has my sister on my behalf. I love it. I mean I really love it.
Regretfully then I sought another supplier. I found it mislabeled all over the place. Bog Myrtle is not Myrtus communis. That is an entirely different plant. I finally found a promising lead, bought some and was not at all satisfied with it, to the extent that it will not be used in any of our products.
So what to do.
I moved to Harris.
Not just for the Myrica gale, but it helped.
I decided to find it and add it to the ever lengthening list of oils I make myself. I found a map of 1950 distribution of Myrica gale through the Western Isles. It was there then. I put a request up on the Harris Facebook page and immediately hit a problem. Many islanders aren’t familiar with Latin nomenclature and a discussion ensued over what it is in Gaelic. Some favouring Lus na Laoithe, others Lus na Laogh – these both turned out to be Bogbean or Menyanthes trifoliata. Others suggested Coinneach or Roid – this does seem to be Myrica gale. One of the identifying features of Bog Myrtle are its rather lovely catkins, Bogbean doesn’t have these. I mentioned this on the FB page with a photo and the height and spread.
This is an important point – unless everyone is familiar with the Latin name and the plant it refers to, you just can’t be sure what is being identified. Common names vary from country to country and the Gaelic names which are well used, can be confusing even to native speakers and impossible for non Gaelic speakers to quickly verify.
I had three leads around the island so went hunting. I drove along single track roads for well over an hour, bumping up and down tracks to location number one. I could see the plants in profusion in the distance. With some excitement I ditched the car and headed off on foot. I arrived. It rained. It was Willow - it was the catkins that had caused the confusion. Sigh!
I headed off to location number 2, I saw it in the distance, I trotted towards it. It was Willow. Small yelp of displeasure.
I drove to location number 3 it was tipping down. It was Willow. There followed a stream of expletives and a small dance of frustration.
I drove home.
I was then introduced to Bob the trapper whose job it is to eradicate mink from Harris (this is another story) he knows every stone, bush and tree on the island. He has seen it and will send me the GPS of its location as soon as he sees it again. God bless Bob.
A few days later I returned to Sussex to work. I arrived to sun and business a plenty. Then yesterday I drove to the farm and wandered up and the down the rows of flowers, inspecting the treasure trove of beauties. At the very bottom of the garden, there it was, Myrica gale and then I remembered that my sister had brought me some plants that we had lovingly nursed into healthy shrublets.
I shall now propagate it back in Harris and make a Myrica gale spot on the croft so I’ll have plentiful amounts, in the meantime I’m sure Bob and his crew will find some more for me to use.
I mention all this because ingredients are everything to us and just because a brand uses plants, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are any good. It takes real determination and tenacity to find the right plants and treat them the right way to make products that actually work for your skin. But it’s worth it, because the finished product will quite simply make you and your skin glow – especially when laced with Myrica gale.
Here’s how I use the Wild Beauty Balm:
· As a rich protective day cream
· As a skin food at night, applied over a few squishes of Aromatic Water of your choice to lock moisture into the skin
· Mixed with our raw honey to make a superb face mask
· As a cleansing balm if I’m doing one pot travelling
· I’m also testing it as a midge deterrent given that Myrica gale is a brilliant insect repellant. I’ll report back on this later in the season.