Lovewort is a large, perennial, Sarvonian flowering plant which produces a resin used to prevent or forestall conceiving in human females. Its stalk can also be candied and its leaves used as a salad or potherb.
|Image description. A sketch of the lovewort plant, described by Dalmac Brandivere. Image drawn by Bard Judith.|
The mature plant stands a good
ped or more in height. A
thick emeraud stalk, at least a thumb's width or more, rises from a swollen
whitish base. Wide dark green leaves, faintly streaked with purple and crimson
spring directly from the stalk, overlapping it slightly where they join. Near
the base these leaves may be the size of a platter, while near the top they are
closer to the size of a woman's or even child's hand. They are lined with a
faint tracery of veins, similar to a butterfly's wing, which are slightly raised
and show a brighter concentration of colour.
The top of the stem becomes a graceful finial of pale green leaves cupped together in a rough spearshape. In early autumn these leaves expand, wilt, and droop outwards to reveal the bud and subsequent late-autumnal flower of the Lovewort, a rich purplish-red, flat head with many small florets. This flower is significant as it marks the plant's maturity, and the various usages (which see) of the plant must be regulated by its appearance.
The root system is basically one large, deep taproot, emerging from the bulbous base (of which perhaps the bottom third is buried in the soil, and may be the size of a child's foot ball...) The taproot can be as thick as one's wrist where it joins the base, and tapers to a finger's thickness near the bottom. Large specimens of Lovewort in a long growing season of moderate or warm climates can have taproots as long as the plant itself – a ped or more! Understandably, they are difficult to remove from the earth, and as they recur annually otherwise, care must be taken when planting for cultivation. Fortunately, though they are hardy, they do not spread widely (see Reproduction) and keep nicely to their own corner of the soil!
Territory. The Lovewort grows naturally through much of central and northern Sarvonia. Like most plants, it cannot tolerate permanent frost, but can survive in the short growing season of the Northern Wilds (cold and dry), which run from about the Tandala Highlands up past Eight Winds Bay. It does not care for wet weather, whether cold or hot, and so cannot be found in the Northern Bleak climate zones. It thrives in the Temperates, Central Balmy, and Brightlands areas, or from Nyermersys down through the Santharian kingdom to nearly Bardavos. Usually found inland and on dry, loose soil, rather than on coastal areas, marshlands, or clay. It seems to thrive in sunlight rather than shade, and prefers rich soil to build up the highest concentration of sap (and thus resin).
Usages. There are mainly medicinal and culinary uses for the Lovewort plant, but also a couple of others:
The primary importance of this plant lies in its use as a means of preventing conception in (human) females. When the thick stalk of the flowering plant is slashed below the head and between the enveloping leaves, the sap exudes as a translucent, reddish substance which hardens into globules and droplets of an opaque resin, also red with hints of purple. This resin was originally used as a glue and varnish for small decorative household objects in the earliest times of Santharia's history, but then due to its attractive scent and flavour, folk began to experiment with its culinary applications.
We know nothing more of the cunning wisewyf/herbwoman that first made the link between her regular consumption of this resin and her subsequent failure to conceive - nor (we must presume) her subsquent testing of her suspicions - except her name, which was supposedly passed down as the name of the resin and the contraceptive medicine created from it. Sylphia the Wisewyf and all her other wisdom has been lost to the chaos of time's mists, but Sylphion the preventative is known to every herbwoman worthy of the title, and to chirogeons and scholars who would take interest in such wisewyves' tales.
We must note that sylphion is only used as a preventative, not as a means to rid oneself of an unwanted babe; such misuse would not only be sacrilege to Jeyriall, but is considered to be ineffective. It has been whispered that the taking of sylphion in one's bearing time has been responsible for mis-shaping and deformity in live-born infants. While clearly we cannot confirm this formally as Compendium scholars – repugnant thought – the oral history and common gossip of over a hundred years leads us to consider this particular whisper not without foundation. With such a caution, we may continue.
For specific details of how the resin is collected, prepared, and used, we refer you to a document we have but lately restored and placed into the Compendium, which for clarity, frankness, and breadth of knowledge we cannot better, despite its antique phrasings – a “Mother's Letter to Her Daughter on Her First Moon'sday”. Suffice it to say that sylphion is no longer used for varnish, nor merely harvested secretively by learned grandmothers in the dusk, but grown without disguise in many more herbyards and farmwives' gardens across Santharia. We expect that perhaps as soon as the next generation, when our culture has become more open about the mysteries of the womb and new life, we may see great plantations of “Love's Fennel” seeded and harvested by our farmers, and sylphion prepared and sold by our gnomish apothecaries as freely as balms for wounds and ointments to relieve muscular aches!
Do forgive that digression of opining; we have yet to mention the other properties of Lovewort. Though less essential, they are still well-known, and in fact provide a useful rationale for growing the plant in less (shall we say) sophisticated areas, or under circumstances where the woman desiring to harvest sylphion has good reason for not advertising her motives. Alas for such peasant backwardness and male irrationality, which demands that we birth child after child to prove their virility, while we are the ones who risk our lives and strain our health! Surely this plant was indeed Jeyriall's gift to her faithful worshippers, not that we might reject her divine fertility, but that we might choose better the time and place to bear our children...
Lovewort's young stalks can be stripped of their overlapping leaves before the plant flowers, cut into sections, and candied. They make a delicious treat, with none of the effects of the resin, so there is no fear of giving these to children or eating them liberally oneself, either when pregnant, nursing, or attempting to conceive. We believe that either harvesting before flowering, or the boiling in the sugaring process, renders the sap's sylphion compounds ineffectual.
The leaves can be pulled from the stem and used fresh in salads or cooked as a potherb – again, before the plant flowers. Not only does one risk consuming the sylphion sap, which though less profuse than in the stalk, is also present in the leaves after flowering, but there is a most unpleasant bitterness in the mature leaves. The young leaves can be chopped or torn and used fresh, mixed with lettuces, tarepleaf, shredded cabbage, and other fresh greens. They can also be simmered in soups like any other potherb, or even stewed in large quantities, like spinach, sorrel, or oxalwort.
The whitish base is – as indicated by one of the plant's alternate names – similar to fennel, being an edible swelling in consistency rather like a pa'sneep or tuberroot. It may be harvested at any time of the year as it seems to contain no resin, but is largest and sweetest after the first frosts. The stalk with its leaves and wilted flowerhead can be cut away from the plant after the resin has been collected in summer, and the roots and base left in the ground will remain healthy until early winter. This 'love's fennel' is commonly known as 'Lovewort's Rump', 'Sylfennel', or simply 'Base Fennel', though this last may be a confusion with Common Fennel in certain regions. The white 'meat' which remains when the pale, rough skin of the base is peeled away is crisp and watery, with only the slightest hint of the sweet pungency of the rest of the plant. It can be boiled, baked, stewed, and so on, retaining its shape but softening, and absorbing the flavours it is cooked with.
The stalks are large and strong, filled with a sort of soft pith, through which the sap travels. This pith can easily be scraped or pushed out, giving a hollow 'straw' of good dimensions and sturdy structure, without the inconvenient internal divisions that windgrass and similar plants can contain. Brownies find these stalks useful in creating piping, troughs, and other carpentry projects, while hobbit and human children use them for toys such as simple whistles, blow-pipes for projecting large seeds at the back of their friends' heads, and so on. Note: In light of the properties which the resin contains, and the fact that most of these toys wind up in children's mouths, we might well use this opportunity to caution human mothers, at the very least, to be vigilant that their older female children not accidentally consume resin or sap from these toys; we cannot predict the effect on a maiden's future fertility in such a case. At this point we are not aware that sylphion has any effect on male humans, or on other races.
Lovewort is a perennial, which will continue to send up its stem and flower as
long as the root is in the ground. Each blooming season marks one year of life
for the plant, and the thick base and root system remain safe in the soil, even
when there is a thick blanket of snow on the ground. It is frost-hardy – indeed,
the edible base is tastier after the first frost – and only the stem and leaves
wither each winter, to sprout up again in the spring. Watch for the finial to
begin to droop and the flower to emerge in all its crimson glory, for that is
the sure signal that autumn is upon us!
It dies off naturally after about six to eight blooming seasons if not harvested completely (that is, the base and root removed from the ground). It is not difficult to gauge the plant's final year of life, since, in the last autumn the flower bud is replaced by a sort of corm, or miniature bulb, born at the top of the plant in the same place, and protected by the finial of leaves. The root and base will begin to wither with the first frost, along with the stalk and leaves, and the corm will drop to the ground and be naturally buried by the detritus of its mother plant. In the spring, a new young plant will bud from that bulb, if it has survived the winter.
Clearly, Love's Fennel is tough but not prolific, merely content to replace itself rather than reproduce widely. In the cultivated form, it can be moved either as a young plant when the taproot is still short, or the autumn in which it drops its corm. The corm can be collected, split carefully, and used to produce two or three 'cloves' similar to garlick, which can be planted as desired.
Myth/Lore. We know very little about the lore pertaining to this plant save what we have already mentioned: that at one point it was used for a wood varnish (we have specimens of ancient jewelry boxes finished with sylphion resin in the Compendium's Cabinet of Curiosities), that subsequently it was used in food preparation as a sweet spice (we have primitive receipts which contain references to 'silfion', 'sylfium' and even 'asaelphion'), and that a woman whom we know only as “Sylphia the Wisewyf” supposedly discovered its ability to prevent pregnancy. We suspect a confusion of cause and effect here, as the resin already has its name (in varying but clearly similar forms) in the aforesaid receipts. Due to the secrecy and reticence of past generations of writers, and to the tendency of the female oral tradition which preserved the main information about Lovewort's abilities for us to this day, we can speculate no further with any certainty.
However, for the sake of completeness, and for mere enjoyment, we offer you this very old fragment of a 'ballad' which mentions Sylphia. It may have been a teaching rhyme for women, to pass on information 'in public' as it were, a memory aid, or merely an early attempt to actually write down a piece of oral tradition. Words in brackets were missing or eroded, and are our best guess at what may have been originally there, in the spelling of the time.
'Who ys Silfia, what ys
We can surmise that if 'Silfia' is merely code for 'sylphion', then we can see not only the hints of its purpose (keeping the 'loaf', or child, from 'rising' or developing) but also an instruction for how to receive the medication (sweet tears that should be 'brought', or rather 'taken', with prayer and meditation twice daily, at 'morn' and 'night'). Our own daughters might well benefit from such wise and gentle instruction!