Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Prime Thyme Mysteries 3

Thank you, Karen, for hosting me today! This blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery. China (for those who haven’t yet been introduced to 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. Each book in the series includes a signature herb that has something to do with the story, the characters, and or/the themes of the book. In this post, I’ll be telling you something about the herbs in Books 7, 8, and 9. (For posts on other books, check out the tour calendar.)

Chile Death

In China’s seventh mystery, Pecan Springs is rattled by the news that somebody has put peanuts into an entry in the chili cookoff. Peanuts in Texas chili? All by itself, that’s a crime (Texans never put peanuts in chili)—but it gets worse when a cookoff judge dies. Was it a culinary error (bad enough) or premeditated murder (worse)? The investigation takes China into a couple of hot spots and nearly costs her life. But the good news is that lover Mike McQuaid (shot in the previous book) is on the mend. Are those wedding bells we hear, or the crackle of chiles roasting over an open flame?

The signature herb? Chiles, of course! Chile peppers are not only super in your salsa, but good for what ails you: poor circulation, headaches, stomach distress, and ulcers, maybe even as an alternative to Viagra. (Chiles have long had a reputation as an aphrodisiac.) While the heat of capsaicin (the chief chemical compound in this herb) can burn, it also takes the pain out of shingles, rheumatism, and arthritis.

There’s lots more about this hot herb—a member of the nightshade family—at Wikipedia. If you’d like to try one of China’s favorite chile recipes, add some jalepeno peppers to cornbread. Or put some chile powder in your hot chocolate for an exotic (and seductive) drink.

Lavender Lies

I always think of this book as the “wedding” book—although between a murder investigation (a local real estate broker is shot to death in his garage) and a surprise guest named Hurricane Josephine, China’s wedding almost doesn’t happen. But it does, and of course it’s an herbal wedding, with rosemary for remembrance, thyme for courage, sage for long life and happiness, and lavender for devotion.

If you’re devoted to lavender, you're not alone. The clean, refreshing scent of its delicate flowers was cherished by the Egyptians (who used it, with other herbs and spices, to make mummies), the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans (who called it lavender, from their verb lavere, to wash), and by gardeners everywhere. Lavender is used to scent soaps, cosmetics, potpourris, and sachets. You can also use it in your bath, or put a few drops of essential oil on your hair brush. To help you sleep, put a few drops on your pillow. You can even use lavender flowers to flavor cookies and cakes, make tangy vinegars and punches, and brew fragrant teas.

For recipes from China’s and Ruby’s tea room (newly-opened in Lavender Lies) and ideas for a lavender tea party of your own, check out this page. And for a very good review of lavender’s medicinal properties, read this article from the University of Maryland.

Mistletoe Man

It's Christmas, and China has opened her home for the annual Pecan Springs Holiday Home Tour. But she's also worrying about her friend and partner Ruby Wilcox, who hasn't been herself lately. To further complicate matters, China has to round up a supply of mistletoe, the season's most popular herb. It seems an easy enough task—until her chief mistletoe supplier turns up dead.

Mistletoe is rich in lore, mostly due to the unusual growth habit of this parasitic herb. (In fact, some linguists trace its name to the Old English word mistil, meaning different.) Mistletoe grows on host trees, from seeds planted in the bark by the birds who feast on the white berries that ripen during the winter. The plant has been a part of Yule or winter solstice celebrations since the Druids, and the "kiss of peace" that was once exchanged under this plant by warring North Country clans has now evolved into the Christmas kiss. In folk cultures, mistletoe has been used to enhance fertility and to treat epilepsy; medicinally, European mistletoe is used as a sedative and to slow a rapid heartbeat. Recent research suggests that it may also slow the growth of cancerous tumors, and it is employed in Germany to supplement chemotherapy. Mistletoe is not a culinary herb, but the berries are not deadly, as is popularly believed. Please note that European and American mistletoe are not the same species. Many traditions link the two, but they are very different.

For a serious discussion of mistletoe’s medicinal properties, go here. For a more general overview of the plant (and another view of its cancer-curing properties), check out this page.

Readers often tell me that they enjoy learning about herbs while they are entertained by the story. But I have to say that China Bayles has taught me so much about herbs. For instance, I don’t think I would ever have taken the time to explore the herb mistletoe, if China’s supplier hadn’t gone and gotten himself killed!

Thanks again, Karen, for hosting me here at Rurality. And thanks to all you folks who are trekking through cyberspace with me on this blog tour. I appreciate your notes and comments—I’ll be gone for a couple of days this week, but I’ll be dropping in again when I get back.

About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour

If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But do it now, before you forget. The drawing for Rurality closes at noon on April 4, 2008.

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.


Mary said...

When I read Lavender Lies I learned from China that there are spieces of Lavender that are acclimated to the wseather of Central New York. I did a little research- writing my notes in the back cover of the book- and took my book to the nursery. Now I have enough lavender to use in my crafting.
How do you choose the herbs to feature in a book? Does the herb come first or the plot?
With these three the herb is a traditional symbol of the plot or season but in others it is different.

Pam/Digging said...

I didn't know that mistletoe isn't deadly. How nice to find out a plant isn't as toxic as you thought, rather than the other way around. Not that mistletoe is something I'll be trying to grow in my garden.

Susan, I look forward to meeting you at the Spring Fling this Saturday!

robin andrea said...

This is the first time I've encountered the Prime Thyme Mysteries tours. Wow. What a great idea. The books sound like very good reads. I'm going to have start at the beginning. What fun.

Kerri said...

It's fun learning about the herbs along with each of the books in the series.
Lavender is a favorite of mine, but I haven't had much luck getting it to winter over here in upstate NY. I'm hoping the Munstead I planted last summer has made it through this winter.
I'm beginning to feel I know China well, even though I have yet to read one of your stories. I'll be doing so soon!

roosterhen said...

The trouble with the China Bayles books is that they make so many herb related crafts sound like something I absolutely MUST try- and I have tried many of Ruby's recipes- loved the chile ones. After Indigo dying, I wanted to plant indigo and try making dye. Just finished Spanish Dagger and found myself joining a papermaking forum and perusing catalogs for molds and deckles!
I can hardly wait to get my hands on Nightshade and see what paths it leads down!

susanalbert said...

Hi, Mary--
I'm glad you were able to find the lavenders that grow best in your climate. It's adapted itself to many different climates/soils--it's almost as if there's a lavender for everyone!

I like to choose herbs that have interesting (preferably ominous!)names, or that I can work into a book title. The lavender and rosemary books are sort of an exception--those herbs are so familiar and I wanted to use them, but had a little trouble working them into the title. I love it when the herb suggests a plot, like Dead Man's Bones (had to be a book with a forensic anthropologists and several skeletons, literal and figurative). I love the words "Bloodroot" and "Bleeding hearts" and "Love Lies Bleeding." Now, there's a book--LLB--where the herb clearly suggested the plot. Good questions!

susanalbert said...

Pam/digging: You can grow it, if you can figure out how to "plant" it in a tree! Get a bird to help. There's so much ritual lore about European mistletoe. It's a fascinating plant. Yes, I'll see you on Saturday! Let's hope it doesn't rain--so far, the weather promises to be clear.

susanalbert said...

Robin Andrea--China and I hope you like her adventures! We've been having a LOT of fun on the tour. BTW, did you get a look at the hummingbird moth on Rurality's March 30 entry? For me, a big part of the fun of the tour is getting acquainted with great blogs, like this one!

susanalbert said...

Kerri, I suggest that you find an herb group in your area and ask them which species of lavender they've had good luck with. Munstead makes it through northern England's winters--so it might, where you are.

susanalbert said...

Everybody, I apologize for dumping so many comments in all at once, but I'm doing a couple of other things, and was a little late getting over here.

Roosterhen, I had to laugh at your problem. If you think YOU'VE got troubles with China's crafts, think about me! I learned to spin/dye with Indigo (and still do a lot of that), make paper with Dagger, and on and on. Nightshade is different--no crafts, although you might be tempted to grow a few tomatillos!

Jinni Turkelson said...

I've been away and am tryimg to catch up on the blog tour. It's so interesting to visit all the sites but the best thing is to visit one of the sites in person.I was in Mechanicsburg,PA, the day after your blog at Rosemary House and visited the store. What a great place! (The friend I visited there is a Lutheran minister and she conducted the funeral for your friend Bertha.)I bought some of their Roastmary and can't wait to try it.
While I was gone my copy of Nightshade arrived and it's all I can do to not start reading it tonight. If I do I won't get any sleep!
See you on the next blog!

Rurality said...

Susan, thanks so much for guest-blogging here! That was both educational and fun. :)

PawsN2Stamp said...

I love Lavender! I have several plants! I can't wait to read Lavender Lies. Just starting out with the first book, tho, so it will be a little while.

Thanks for taking the time to do this tour!!