Monday, November 8, 2010

Good Luck Lemons

Last spring, I was fretting over my Meyer lemon tree. Weeks of rain brought out a flurry of new green leaves, but nary a blossom. The previous year, you could barely see the leaves for all the tiny white blooms covering them. I could smell their fragrance through my open window as I sat at my computer thinking up clever ways for the villain in my suspense novel to thwart my detective. But after such abundance, the tree seemed to have gone into a sulk.

A friend informed me that the situation was of my own doing. Apparently, I failed to take the proper precautions to ensure ongoing bounty. She wasn’t talking about fertilizer, pruning or proper irrigation.

“Sprinkle some salt around the perimeter,” she advised. “Then burn a bit of esfand and wave the smoke over the tree.” If performed during a season of abundance, this ritual will prevent jealous neighbors from putting the evil eye on the tree and ruining the next year’s crop. Esfand comes from a shrub that grows wild throughout the Middle East, and it produces a strong, woodsy odor when burned.

I have this advice on excellent authority. My friend is from Shiraz, a city in southern Iran, famous for its lovely gardens and fragrant citrus groves. Her family grows Seville oranges in their garden, and the trees are so bountiful that the blossoms end up in a variety of dishes, with plenty remaining to form big, juicy fruit. Some of the blooms add fragrance to tea, while others are turned into moraba-ye bahar-e narenj, or orange blossom preserves. To collect the flowers, the women spread large sheets under the trees, shake the branches until the blossoms snow down all around, then gather them up in the cloths.

I even have the proper tools for protecting my lemon tree from the evil eye:

First, you heat the wand over a flame until the metal coils glow red, then you dip it in a bowl of esfand. The seeds crackle and release their scent in a cloud of pungent smoke. I burn it in my kitchen to get rid of cooking smells, especially fish. My husband complains that this simply replaces one bad smell with another, but I like the scent. It reminds me of hiking in the forest and camp fires.

The ritual precaution seemed to work well for my Shirazi friend, so I tried it. And wouldn’t you know it – my lemon tree is now covered with lovely yellow globes, nearly ready for harvesting, with a second crop of tiny green fruit following close behind. I predict a steady supply of lemons throughout the coming year.

Do you observe any superstitions or rituals in your daily life? How well do they work?


  1. Heidi, this is a most poetic piece. I love the imagery (and the aromas). I'm wondering about this wand though. What's it called and where can I get one? I'm thinking this could be a whole new way to perk up the house...say, dipping it in dried oregano or maybe some fresh cilantro?

    And esfand...what would be an equivalent scent in English?

  2. Thanks, Supriya! I don't know if that little wand has a name or where you could get one in the U.S. I bought the one in the picture at a market in Ramsar, on the Caspian Sea (It cost a whopping 200 tomans, or 20 cents.) Esfand has a smoky, pungent smell when it's burned. The closest thing I can think of is sage, though it's not quite the same. You can find it in any Middle Eastern market. It's used in a lot of rituals to ward off the evil eye or bring good luck.

    Nice idea to burn other fragrant herbs for a nice smell. I may try that!

  3. I believe here it is called African Rue and it Turkey it is called Harmal or Uzerlik. It does have some medicinal qualities - it can be used as a diarrheic or to induce vomiting; (according to some beliefs it also can help with fertility) It was brought to the USA from the Middle-East by some farmer who wanted to manufacture a Turkish Red dye from its seeds, and the plant ended up spreading all over the West Coast and especially Arizona because it is very drought-tolerant.
    And, Heidi, it is indeed such a poetic piece!

  4. Lina, I had no idea that esfand grows all over the West Coast. But I've become such a city girl that I can't identify much of the wildlife around here (even the plants that have escaped cultivation). I had no idea you could eat it (and perhaps you can't if it induces vomiting). I'm a bit skeptical of that fertility claim...maybe it does the opposite?

  5. I think there is a lot to superstitions and beliefs and this example is just fabulous! I'm looking at my lemon tree now and hoping it's bountiful next season and if it's not, I know what to do!

  6. Good luck with your lemon tree, Alli! Since it's spring in your part of the world, now's time time to get out the salt and esfand.

  7. My grand mother was a fortuneteller. A role she found early in life when she played the part as an actress in southern Poland. I only learned of her acting experience after she passed away but I always knew that she had a fondness for the supernatural, and the ability to predict the future with her worn deck of cards.

    Every visitor who came into her kitchen was treated to a feast of stuffed cabbage, kielbasa and dumplings along with a personal card reading. The cards were shuffled then carefully lined up upon the worn Formica table, while everyone waited as Grandma turned the cards to reveal the stories that were hidden within.

    Every card had a meaning. Most of the time it was good news, “ Yes! You are going to get a letter!” Or I see money coming! But every now and then she would see something that would fill the room with darkness, and through her old trembling lips she would send out a warning as if something ominous was coming. When the card of death appeared it was especially worrisome and the room fell silent, until Grandma would reassure us that perhaps it was attached to someone else.

    But it was not just the cards that had power, it seemed everything had a special meaning to Grandma. If someone dropped a spoon, it was a sign that a visitor, a woman, would be coming. If a knife fell then it was sure to be a man. If you saw a spider it was good luck, but curse you if you kill it on the end of your broom, for days of misfortune were sure to follow.

    I grew up with all these traditions and they too have become a part of my life even through I sometimes find them hard to believe. Like the time I turned on the shower just in time to watch a spider slowly wash down the drain. With in hours the water backed up and I had to call for the plumber. Oh, if only my grandma were alive she could have seen it in her cards and warned us in time.

  8. Rik, what a wonderful family story. I can see the usefulness of that spoon/knife dropping. It would be practical in Iran, anyway, where traditional houses have separate knockers for men and women (making different sounds) so you can tell which gender is at the door. Even better if you could tell in advance!

    And the spider in your drain is proof that these superstitions work! We don't believe in coincidence around here. :)

  9. What a lovely story, Rik! Thank you for sharing this. I think the spider one is universal--we have the same lack of killer instincts around here, unfortunately. We have one similar to the spoon dropping--sneezing fits mean someone's thinking about you.