THE THINGS WE DO...
by Orysia Paszczak Tracz
The kalyna in Ukrainian folk medicine and folklore
The kalyna has been an integral part of the natural Ukrainian landscape and Ukrainian tradition since time immemorial. Its beauty cannot be denied; its status in Ukrainian folk life is irreplaceable.
The kalyna is not just a plant because it has become a symbol, a legend - so deeply has it been intertwined into Ukrainian culture and into folklore. In literature, especially in poetry, few authors can get by without mentioning the kalyna. (H. Hordiienko)
The Viburnum opulus - the guelder- rose or high-bush cranberry - is a bush, up to 5 meters in height, which has flat white flowers and deep red berries. In Ukrainian folk medicine it is used for a number of ailments. But this is one plant which has become much more than its ordinary self - to every Ukrainian, it symbolizes beauty, love, purity and Ukraine itself.
The kalyna grows in the woods, in the bush in meadows and along riverbanks - across all of Ukraine. It grows both wild and as a cultivated, ornamental bush. In Ukraine's continental climate, it blooms in May-June, and both the white flowers and their red berries are collected.
The bark of the kalyna also is collected, in the spring, before the leaves unfold. Strips of bark are removed carefully, and are sundried, or put in a place with good ventilation. The medicinal properties of the bark are good for four years.
The flowers, which produce much nectar for honey, are gathered and dried quickly in the shade. The berries can be collected in September-October, but are best after an early frost. The fresh berries are so very tart that even birds and animals do not eat them until the frost mellows their tartness.
The kalyna's bitterness is cited in both folksongs and poetry ("My love for you is filled to the brim with the bitterness of the kalyna" - Liubov Zabashta). In a kalyna tea, the bitterness is sweetened with honey ("My heart senses the scent of the ripened steppe, and the strong tea smells of kalyna" - Mykola Synhaivskyi). The distance from tea to medicinal potion is indistinguishable ("People! Do not burn the trees! The red kalyna heals the heart, the forest and grove heal the soul" - Stepan Kryzhanivs'kyi).
The bark of the kalyna contains a mixture of flavonoids, commonly known as viburnin, tannic substances, phytosterines, oil of ether, viburnit alcohol, A-amyrin and B-amyrin, over 6 percent tar (including various acids). The berries contain sugar, flavonoids (astragalin, quericitin, kaempferol, peonidin and others), biflavolyn, amentoflavolyn, tannin, pectin and other substances, vitamin C and beta-carotene, organic acids and microelements. The flowers contain flavonoids, organic acids, vitamin C and oil of ether.
Teas and infusions of the bark, flowers or berries were, and still are, used for many illnesses and medical conditions. The bark infusion is especially effective in stopping hemorrhages - after birth, during menstruation and other female bleeding, as well as stopping hemorrhoidal bleeding. Because it has a tranquillizing effect on the muscles of the uterus, the bark is also used to stop spontaneous abortions and as a bath for vaginal problems.
The bark is also a diuretic. An infusion of the flowers is used in folk medicine for coughs, colds, asthma, sclerosis, tuberculosis of the lungs, and for stomach problems. It is also used as a throat gargle and to wash wounds.
But the berries are used the most - in juice, jam and in baking. They help against nervous anxiety, hypertonic illness, arteriosclerosis and spasms of the blood vessels. Berries cooked with honey are eaten for cough, laryngitis, asthma, liver illness, jaundice and diarrhea. Kalyna juice with honey is used in folk medicine for treating cancer of the breast, as a prophylactic for stomach cancer in hyperacidic gastritis. It is believed that systematic use of the berries improves the health of those suffering from severe intestinal swelling.
An infusion of kalyna berries is drunk as a vitamin-rich, strengthening, sweat-inducing and relaxing agent against furuncles, carbuncles, eczema and various skin problems. In dermatology and cosmetology, fresh kalyna juice works against blackheads, pimples, acne and pigmented spots on the face; and helps wounds and skin irritated by eczema.
While the finished product is tasty though tart, the smell of cooking kalyna berries is something else - really a strong unpleasant smell which one of my sons compared to someone's very old socks.
As a medicinal plant, the kalyna is ordinary - one of very many other healing plants. But in Ukrainian culture, as a symbolic special plant, it is extraordinary. It would take a thesis to investigate the origins of that symbolism.
Hordiienko's theory is that in ancient times, the habitat of the kalyna was the gathering place of people worshipping pre-Christian gods. During the feast of Kupalo, at midsummer's night, young people spent the night pairing up and merrymaking. The young women wore wreaths of fresh flowers, including the kalyna, which blooms at that time. Eventually, Hordiienko thinks, the flower came to symbolize a maiden's beauty, as well as her innocence. Numerous folk songs compare a chervona [red] kalyna to a beautiful maiden.
From beauty it is not far to love - in all its aspects. First love, especially making love and losing one's virginity, are part of many folksong lyrics, but they are couched in such beautiful symbolism that Ukrainians today do not realize how raunchy the songs really are. Kalyna is another word for the hymen, so to lose one's wreath [of kalyna], or to break the kalyna means to loose one's virginity (no matter whether inside or outside marriage).
The kalyna was part of almost every wedding song, especially after the couple's first night, when proof of the bride's virginity on her nightshirt was paraded around to show the guests. This red stain on the shirt looked very much like a crushed kalyna berry and was called "kalyna." To break the kalyna also meant lovemaking. "O, I did not break the kalyna alone, my lover broke it, too, while I bent it down" (Lemko folk song).
The mythical "kalynovyi mist" [bridge made of kalyna branches], mentioned in songs and poetry, is the symbolic Rubicon between single and married life. Therefore, it also symbolizes all that will never return. The kalyna also represents a child, or children (either because of their beauty or because they are a result of "breaking the kalyna"). It also symbolizes children born out of wedlock. "The maiden gave birth to a son, and laid out his bed with periwinkle [another symbolic wedding plant]. Girls, don't go picking the kalyna, don't wake my baby."
The kalyna also stands for companionship, loyalty and true love. When Kozaks or other soldiers went off to battle, their young women promised to plant a kalyna bush on their grave should they die. Very many songs are about the kalyna growing on a grave, with birds coming to eat her berries and bringing news from home to the soldier lying underneath. And it was up to the woman to plant the kalyna, unless he died in battle, in which case his comrades planted it. In time, the kalyna was also planted on the graves of women. "Who will cry over me like my own child? Who will plant a chervona kalyna on my grave?"
Leaping from the 1600-1700s to the first half of this century, the kalyna's symbolism carried it from representing home to a dying soldier, to representing Ukraine and its freedom. "In the meadow the chervona kalyna bent / bowed down. Our famed Ukraine has become sad. We will pick up the chervona kalyna, we will make Ukraine happy again." The anthem of Ukrainian soldiers of World War I, "Oy, u luzi chervona kalyna," clearly shows the connection. The plant with the red berries even became their emblem.
Over the decades, in the poetry of writers of all generations, the kalyna and Ukraine are synonymous. Especially when writing about their childhood, poets recall:
I know: in the land of the kalyna, the kalyna
rocked me [in my cradle] with her thin arms,
and the kalyna blood, as a singular song,
burns in my heart with bitter stars.
Emigre poets especially long for the kalyna - and for home:
Do the poplars rustle near the house? Is my
kalyna still alive / growing? Here there is
everything, even freedom .. but I have never
come across a kalyna.
(Zoia Kohut, Australia)
There must be something to it. Even though I have no reason, I am drawn to this plant. I have planted a few bushes in our yard and look forward to seeing them bloom. But I will skip the berry cooking, at least until I can figure out how to eliminate the cooking smell.
While the sunflower and the poppy are both "Ukrainian" flowers (with some symbolism attached), it is the kalyna which, for Ukrainians, represents so much more than simple physical healing.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, June 3, 2001, No. 22, Vol. LXIX
| Home Page |