Bonfires are being prepared on the sandy beach lining the Vorskla, a river that cuts Poltava in half and hugs our hamlet within the city’s suburbs. One group of girls is busy weaving wreaths from wild flowers. Heaps of daisies, yarrow and cornflowers are spread out on the ground around them. Further along the bank, grills are being set up, and people are staking out spots with towels and empty crates. It is still early enough, several hours before the sun takes a dip in the river. The scent of hot sand, hay, wild thyme, cigarette smoke and water lilies hangs heavy in the still air. We are waiting for Ivan Kupala’s Eve.
Ivan Kupala is the Slavic version of the midsummer festival marking the summer solstice. According to the old style Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church, it’s celebrated on the night of 6/7 July in Ukraine. (In neighboring Poland, Noc Kupały, just like the Swedish midsummer celebrations, takes place on 23/24 June.) Ivan means John (as in John the Baptist) and Kupala comes from the Slavic word for bathing. Although Christian traditions are woven into the festival, the roots are clearly pagan. Water and fire intertwine in various rites, and the river is worshiped as much as the saint himself. Today, the celebrations may involve more beer and barbecue than romantic rituals, but women still float wreaths in the streams to divine their future. Candles are still lit on the river bank. Couples still jump over the bonfire to test the strength of their relationship.
In Nikolai Gogol’s story, “Midnight on the Eve of Ivan Kupala”, a young man makes a pact with the devil to find the fern flower in exchange for money, and ultimately, his beloved’s hand. Fern was said to bloom only on Ivan Kupala’s night, and if the seeker’s motives were pure, it could grant the most ardent wishes. Ferns reproduce by spores and don’t flower, but it doesn’t prevent villagers from roaming the hills in search of other herbs. It’s believed that plants picked on the eve of Ivan Kupala possess the strongest medicinal properties.
Besides the mystical, there may be a scientific explanation for the richer concentration of essences in herbs around this time. Early July is the prime blooming season for many plants in Eastern Europe. Wild thyme starts to flower, and you only need to crush a stem with your fingers and rub the fuzzy purple flowers behind your ears to be perfumed for hours. Broom smells as if someone let the honey boil over. Carnations smell searing hot of pepper and cloves. The hillsides become a patchwork of different colors, which will fade over the course of the month as the sun becomes scorchingly hot.
Earlier in the day, I set out in the meadows behind our house, walking along the Vorskla. These wildflower walks have a dual purpose–I enjoy the summery aroma of the countryside and I pick herbs for tisanes. My great-grandmother grew up in the village and lived through the hardest decades of the last century; herbs helped her survive when there was no access to medicine. Later, she supplemented modern pills with traditional herbal blends. Raspberry tea was our first aid whenever we caught colds. Chamomile tonics soothed rashes. Pine bud steam baths relieved stuffy noses. I have absorbed all of this lore as readily as I have her passion for scented flowers and beautiful fabrics.
Just outside our gate, I spot a patch of German chamomile livening up the pathway with white and yellow polka dots. It smells like spicy green apples and musty wood, and on its own, it makes for a bittersweet cup of tisane. Better yet, is to add a spoonful of dried rose petals and lavender for a richer, honeyed flavor. Since rose and chamomile are some of the best complementary notes in perfume–try Clinique Aromatics Elixir and Serge Lutens Sa Majesté de la Rose to see what I mean–there is no reason why they can’t be paired for tisanes.
The river banks are covered with a carpet of wild thyme, which turns purple-blue as the summer rolls on. At midday the fragrance fills the air, veiling the whole riverside with a spicy, pungent warmth. Why have I never found this fragrance in a perfume bottle? I stuff several stems into my purse and shirt pockets and feel glad that I skipped a splash of orange blossom cologne. On reflection, a teaspoon of orange blossom water mixed with black tea and wild thyme would be perfect, and I pick a small bunch to dry for the winter.
Immortelle is one of my favorite perfume materials for its complex scent of maple syrup, spicy musk and black walnuts. The combination sounds incongruous, but a mere accent gives fragrances like Etat Libre d’Orange The Afternoon of a Faun and Hermès Brin de Reglisse a distinctive character. If you have more tolerance for immortelle’s heavy presence, then nothing beats Christian Dior Eau Noire and Annick Goutal Sables. They smell exactly the way our sandy strip overgrown with immortelle does. I take only a single stem to dry between the pages of my diary. The paper will hold the nutty perfume for months.
Bitter is yarrow, a tall plant that blooms white or yellow. My great-grandmother swore by it for various medicinal blends, but I only smell the flowers and rub the lacy leaves, which leave a camphorous, piney scent on my fingers. Another bitter herb I spot in abundance is sage. It flowers amethyst-like purple and I can see its bright spikes all over the hills. Wormwood growth spreads like molten silver, and it’s good to sit somewhere under a pine tree, close my eyes and breathe in its intoxicating, bittersweet aroma. The horizon is still bright, but the shadows creep slowly into the valleys. The setting sun colors the grass gold and sienna, and I can see the first tentative glimmers of bonfires on the beach. Ukrainian pop songs echo through the valley. I see groups of people walking towards the river, carrying picnic baskets and blankets. I get up to join them. The Eve of Ivan Kupala is here.
Painting: Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala by Henryk Hector Siemiradzki, via wiki-images, some rights reserved. The rest of the photography is by Bois de Jasmin.