On the whole, I’m a pretty rugged sort of person. A disproportionate amount of my gardening time seems to be spent hammering scaffold boards together, or powering my way through waist high weeds at the business end of a petrol strimmer, or hauling improbably deep tree roots out of pits in the ground.
But the anti-bramble gauntlets, steel toecapped boots and safety helmet hide a more delicate soul. The soul of a person who likes tussie-mussies.
I love the word tussie-mussie. I always think of it as an Americanism: their version of our more prosaic nosegay (bit prim, that) or posy. But the Americans came to tussie-mussies late, around two centuries late in fact, when New England ladies took to carrying them on their way to church. The word was first coined in 15th century England, long before we even knew there was an America (there is an excellent rundown of its meanings, including one rather surprising one I won’t mention here as it’s a family-friendly blog, here).
The 1400s were a time when gardens were inescapably useful, usually tended by monks (if the gardens were big) or peasants (small) and producing herbs for strewing, medicine and particularly scent. Things were very smelly in Middle England. Pomanders were one solution: containers, usually wooden, occasionally more elaborate, laced with perfumes and spices (oranges and cloves came later).
But if you were a peasant you couldn’t afford such luxuries, so your only option was to fall back on the little herb patch scratched from the ground outside the back door of your hovel. A little bunch of herbs and scented flowers held in the hand close to the nose (hence nosegay) was just the thing to take your mind off the stench of open sewers, old food and – at a time when the threat of plague hung noisomely in the air – things you really didn’t want to think too much about.
These days tussie mussies are seen mainly at weddings. But I think they’re long overdue for a little revival. I came across the ones in the pictures at the American Museum, where they pop them in the ladies’ loos. Think I might do the same here: our bathrooms do occasionally smell a little mediaeval (sorry, I know, too much detail, but the house has two teenagers in it, that’s all I’m going to say).
To make your tussie-mussie:
1: Pick your scented ingredients from the garden, preferably in the morning when their essential oils are at their most concentrated. Most of the plants you’ll need are probably already growing in your garden (if not, plant some straight away as they’re among the most lovely you can grow).
I’m talking lavender, rosemary, mint (in pots), deeply scented roses (the apothecary’s rose, Rosa gallica officinalis, for authenticity). Lemon verbena and lemon balm add a citrussy note, while sage and artemisia are more savoury; scented-leaf geraniums come in peppermint, rosewater or orange scented.
2: Start with the centrepiece – usually a rose; then surround it with stems of a contrasting flower (say, lavender). Then a layer of a herb – rosemary perhaps? – and keep going, building up your posy in concentric circles around the central flower, until you have a substantial fistful.
3: Tie the whole thing together with fine string, pulling it tight to hold your posy together, and finish off with some raffia or ribbon if you like. Or stop after the string and pop your tussie-mussie in a small jar of water (those square mustard jars look nice), then tie the ribbon round the top of the jamjar and pop it on the bathroom windowsill.