"There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine." So said the late English humorist P.G. Wodehouse. Fortunately, cultures found less fatal ways to remedy bad-hair days. This was more than just a beauty issue. Glossy, thick hair was a sign of good health and youth when disease reduced the average life span to just 35 years.
Whether it was to brighten blond hair or make brunettes look shiny, the sources of nearly all hair-care products were plants. Steeped teas made of herbs were valuable hair rinses. They cut through the homemade tallow-soap residue and left natural oils that made freshly washed tresses light and bouncy.
Rosemary was the most favored herb for brown hair and is still found in some hair-care products. Pour a pint of boiling water over a cup of freshly chopped rosemary leaves. Allow it to stand until cold. Then bottle it and rinse hair after washing.
For darkening lighter shades of brown hair or dealing with gray, garden sage was used. Create a rinse by steeping a half-cup of freshly chopped sage in a quart of boiling water for 20 minutes. The longer it is boiled, the darker the rinse will be. Strain liquid and pour over hair. Allow it to remain for 15 minutes, then rinse with clear water.
In a similar way, American pioneer women steeped hulls (not the nut) of black walnuts to make a very effective darkening rinse. It tones down gray and should be treated as a real hair dye. (Hulls of walnut, pecan and shagbark hickory are old-time natural dyestuffs used to color yarn, cloth, leather and baskets.)
To bring the natural highlights back into blond hair, chamomile was used. Add four tablespoons of dried flowers to a pint of water in a saucepan. Boil for a half-hour. Allow to cool and strain off flowers to yield the rinse. After washing your hair, wring it out and apply the rinse, allowing it to remain on the hair as you dry it the usual way.
Blond hair was greatly admired in ancient Rome. Women brought out golden highlights by using mullein flowers. In the Middle Ages, marigold petals were used to create a hair-tinting rinse.
Native Americans of the Southwest used yucca to wash their hair. The large roots of this plant contain gentle saponifiers that cleanse the hair without damage or residue. Roots were dug up, chopped finely and steeped in water for a half hour. Suds are worked up by rubbing the roots to create a thick lather. Remove the roots and apply lather to the hair. Even after modern soaps were available, many tribal groups preferred yucca for its gentle cleansing that did not strip or dry the hair.
Keep in mind that only the wealthy could afford prepared cosmetics, which fueled a cottage industry of natural herbal cosmetics. Dinnertime wasn't the only reason for going out into the garden to pick rosemary.
By Maureen Gilmer Scripps, Howard News Service