Summer is the season of greenery—plants peak at their vitality and vigour in the full aromas and juices they extract. Over the millennia, humankind has developed relationships with plants, discovering their most positive effects. Likewise, we use their arsenal of chemistry for our benefit, healing, and sensory experiences.
Summer is always the best time to make sauna whisks and harvest herbs, apart from conifers, which can be used to make whisks all year round. The most widely used trees to make sauna whisks are birch, oak, maple, linden, and juniper bushes, among which various herbs such as mint, angelica, blackcurrant, sage, and rosemary, amongst others whose pleasant aromas and 'goods' can be enjoyed. For herbs that are for imminent use in the sauna ritual, it is appropriate to use any herbs that are mature enough not to fall apart at first contact with heat and the body. Whisks for longer preservation, one must select more carefully.
Birch tree twigs are best to pick between the summer solstice and mid-July. Make sure that the birch leaf has not been feasted on by bugs and is not yet blooming.
Linden twigs are at their best during flowering. The tantalizing fragrance of the blossom is preserved even by deep freezing and skilfully drying them. Moreover, the herb is said to have a joint pain relieving effect. Therefore, it is wise to pick it during flowering so that sauna aficionados can also take advantage of its therapeutic scent.
Now, oak and maple are more resistant. The best time to collect them for preservation purposes is from the summer solstice to the end of July. Watch out for pest damage on the leaves, which becomes more frequent as the summer progresses and can significantly reduce the quality of the herb.
Whisking oneself with a choice of oak will rebalance the flow of energies in the body, improving mood and sleep. Oak can also help in cases of obesity and high blood pressure.
The branches of hazel trees make a fine companion to the birch twigs when one wants to invigorate the spirit or ward off skin diseases. Hazel combined with elk hemp has a powerful and zestful effect. Soak the whisks in water and brew an infusion in a sit-in bath. It has a soothing impact on prostate issues.
A juniper whisk stimulates the blood circulation of the skin, and its scent is good for the respiratory system. After the juniper, you can gently stroke yourself with a compress made of a more common choice of wood (whisker) to lull the skin. Juniper must be freshly plucked for immediate use, as the thorns tend to fall off quickly, often already within a day or two.
The whisks should always be dried in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room. Avoid excessive humidity, draughts, and direct sunlight. The newly plucked plant should have all cells alive and full of water. If the water is released too slowly, the active substances may decompose or become toxic due to the ferments produced. Excessive humidity also encourages the growth and development of mould and micro-organisms, which can render the herb unusable. On the other hand, excessive exposure to sunlight causes the plant to lose its natural colouring and significantly depletes it from its active substances.
The soaking process is to be done to one’s liking. If you prefer a more rough and prickly whisker with a more intense scent, you can leave it to soak in the lukewarm water for 3-4 hours. For more delicate skin, the branches can be softened by keeping the temperature of the soaking water at a level where it is tolerable to put one's hand in for a few seconds without a burning sensation.
Methods of awakening dried whisks vary drastically – it depends on whom you ask. Some prefer a quicker ‘wake-up’ in hot water (about 50°) for half an hour or slightly longer, if necessary. Others prefer a milder, longer-lasting alternative, in cool or room-temperature water for about 5-6 hours, after which (before whisking) the whisk is either gently steamed over a hot stove or allowed to stand in hotter water (50-60°C) for a minute or two. In either case, it is important that the leaves are soft before use. The latter also determines the duration of the revival process.
Both methods have their individual advantages. I, personally, am committed to the latter, purely based on a gut feeling.
(Paraphrasing, the Estonian classic film "Men, don't cry")