But today is not that day.
Today you get another one of my barely-counts-as-Wednesday posts. Consider it an act of social deviance, since I
Alcanna – n, A plant; and a powder, prepared from the leaves of the Egyptian privet, used by the Turkish females to give a golden color to the nails and hair. Infused in water it forms a yellow color; with vinegar, it forms a red. From the berries is extracted an oil, used in medicine. In
, it forms an article of commerce. Cairo
It's fancy botanical name is Lawsonia inermis. More commonly, it is known as the henna plant. In the Bible, it's referred to as camphire.In England, it's called Egyptian privet (which sounds far too much like Egyptian privy if you ask me), and in Jamaica it's called mignonette. It grows in Arabia,
North Africa, Iran, and the East Indies.
Emedicinal had a whole page devoted to this plant. I'll give you the highlights, beginning with a history of it's use. "Few women of today realize that they are using an herb used by women in Cleopatra’s time and for thousands of years before in
. The ladies of those remote times used Henna for dyeing their finger and toe nails also. Even the men used the herb for dyeing their beards and coloring the manes and tails of their horses. These methods were not approved of by other peoples according to this ancient writing which states in regards to captured ladies of the ancient civilization: “Then thou shalt bring her home, to thine house; and she shall shave her head and pare her nails.” So strong was the prejudice against dyeing hair that women of Egypt Europe did not use Henna until the very late 19th century. From the fashion centers of Vienna and , the use of Henna spread rapidly over the world." Paris
Another source (who I can't find again to link to, naturally) said this, which I found very interesting, "Ancient Egyptian mummies were found with nails, finger tips, palms, and soles dyed with henna. Records show that as long ago as 3200BCE, henna was mixed with indigo to make black hair dye."
And just in case you're wondering how dye is made from this plant: "The fine cut leaves or powdered leaves are made into a paste with hot water and applied to the hair and allowed to remain until the desired shade is obtained. On finger or toe nails the paste is allowed to remain over-night or paste is renewed often until the desired shade is obtained." Nice and easy and simple, right? Well, apparently folks in olden times had as much trouble with henna dye as we do with hair dye and tanning. "The old texts remind us that 'when dyeing (the hair), consider color of your eyebrows, complexion, etc., in order to get a harmonizing and natural appearance. Henna dye shows the color more after the second day of application.”
Clearly, this plant was used primarily as a dye. However, it also has/had a wide range of other uses, most of them medical. The lilac-scented oil is used in perfumery. The flowers act as an insecticide. A gargle can be made from the leaves and used internally or externally (for skin problems). As an astringent, it controls bleeding as well as being antiseptic and anti-bacterial. It can be used to treat diarrhea, amebic dysentery, liver problems, headaches, jaundice, leprosy, psoriasis, burns, ulcers, boils, wounds, and skin diseases. It's also an ingredient of eye lotions and anti-rheumatic liniments in the Middle East. How's that for a multi-purpose plant? My goodness. No wonder it was a valuable trade item.
Now that I've completely inundated you with information, I'll get to the story.
"Hurry with that, child," Zola said, pacing in front of me as if that would make the water boil faster. "You've been too long already. You know how she gets."
"No hurrying will make this water heat quicker," I said. I had already cut the alcanna leaves into slivers but bubbles hadn't even begun to form in the kettle.
"You'll get a lashing for this, and I'll share it with you most like."
"Zola." I pushed myself off the floor and took her firmly by the arms. "Calm yourself. The dye will be ready in moments. If the Sultana has us lashed for it, well, so be it. She's an impatient woman and I can only improve the appearance of imperfections, not remove them."
"Hush, child! Her eyes and ears are in every wall and curtain and cushion. If you would stay where you should be instead of running off, we would never have to worry for our backs."
"If I were to stay where I should all the time that I should, I would die of madness, dear Zola."
She threw her hands up and went back to pacing. I poured the water onto the leaves and watched the color bleed from them through the rising steam. I ground them together until the paste was right, then grabbed Zola's hand and dragged her with me towards the Sultana's chamber.