And suddenly it is Midsummer. My garden is running riot, my fingers are permanently stained with dirt and the nails painted brightly to hide it. My feet are bare, and my third trimester belly is burgeoning. We have been riding bicycles and attending outdoor concerts and playing in public fountains and this week, during a sweltering heat wave, we have been delighting in the glories of the public pool every single day. As a country girl, I am still amazed at the luxury of living five minutes from a city pool. It is a source of great joy- but man, does that chlorine let my many hidden silver strands of hair sparkle in the sun. Thankfully, I have henna to solve that problem.
Women have been using the henna plant for thousands of years to tint and condition hair. Cleopatra used it, as did Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. I haven’t been using it for quite that long, but I have been coating my hair with it regularly since I was 16, and sometimes that seems like a hundred years. I’ve used over a dozen different varieties sold in natural food stores, beauty supply outlets, and online. For a long time, my favorite was the German brand Logona, which is very high quality. However, these days I am able to pick up inexpensive and high quality Syrian and Indian henna from a tiny Middle Eastern storefront in the Strip District. Yesterday, I drove out to visit my farmer friend Rebecca and we pooled our collective stores of henna and prepared to beautify our long (suffering) locks.
Rebecca has naturally light brown hair, streaked with gold in the sun. When straight red henna is applied to this shade of hair, the result is an incandescent flaming red. She wore her hair red for years, but let it mellow into a lighter strawberry blonde of late. Here is Rebecca’s hair yesterday before we began our henna spree, several months after her last application of a lightly tinted henna treatment… and after many hours slaving away in the hot sun at Sparta Farm.
We gathered our materials, and began. In order to henna your hair, you must have on hand:
-large non metallic bowl (wooden, glass, plastic)
-non metallic spatula or spoon
-pair of gloves
-plastic grocery bag
-lotion, vaseline, or face cream
-paper napkins or rags for cleanup
A heightened sense of courage and lack of fear of mud and messes is extremely helpful. On this note, it is advisable to recruit a friend for help with this project. In an ideal world, henna should always be applied outside, weather permitting. It took years for Rebecca to make this brilliant discovery. A mirror set up against a fence or picnic table on the grass is perfect, and that way any clumps or drips of henna that fall from your shoulders during the application are immediately absorbed into the soil, and a garden hose makes for incredibly easy rinsing. Cleaning a bathroom after henna application is not for the faint of heart, but if you need to do so, remember to wipe up all extraneous henna immediately after the application with a slightly damp rag or towel to prevent stains. Wear an old t shirt, not a white one unless you don’t mind turning some of it orange. And…. we’re off!
Pour the henna powder into a large wooden, glass, or plastic bowl.
The henna powder must be mixed with boiling water to form a paste which can be applied to the hair. I like to save coffee grounds for a few day, mix in leftover coffee and extra water, and then boil this mixture. You can strain out the coffee grounds or include them in the henna mix.
There is a definite element of double double toil and trouble inherent in the henna process.
As the water boils, it’s time to take some lotion or vaseline and apply it along your hairline, making sure to cover the ears and back of the neck, in order to prevent henna from drying and caking on it later. I love Pond’s makeup removing cream, personally. I associate Pond’s with theatre and dancing and the removal of false eyelashes and glitter and stage makeup, and it makes me feel glamorous… which is great, since henna-ing my way is so not glamorous, at all.
All right, we are all greased up and ready to pour some boiling coffee water into the henna powder. Mix it with your non metallic spoon or spatula, add the water a little at a time, and aim for the creation of perfect mud. Not too thick, not clumpy, not too runny, but just right, like Goldilock’s porridge. If the mixture is too dry it will clump up and fall off, and if it is too wet it will run down your neck for hours, which will make you wince and shudder.
Grab the henna, your gloves and plastic grocery bag and head outside if you can, to a sunny spot with a mirror set up to guide you. Pull on your gloves and dip into the muck, applying it liberally to every strand of hair on your head. This is a very tactile process. There is no way to apply it perfectly evenly, but henna coloring is very nuanced and when done well the uneven application can lead to a hundred dollar highlight sort of look with a great depth and variation in the tinting.
After you’ve thoroughly coated your hair with the gook, it’s time to wad it up in a muddy bun on the very top of your head and plaster a bit more henna onto it along with an old stretched out hair-tie to hold it in place. The henna needs heat to process, and it needs to stay wet- so take that plastic grocery bag you have on hand and place it on your head, pretending you are an old lady and it is a stylish scarf. Tie it tightly behind your head, et voila!
Doesn’t Rebecca look startlingly like a grandmother from 60 years ago?
As I mentioned, the process of putting henna in your hair is not a glamorous process- but it can be a lot of fun, particularly if you have a partner in crime. After applying the henna paste and the plastic bag, you should leave it on your hair for at least a couple hours- it won’t hurt your hair, so if you’re patient and willing to put a scarf over the plastic bag and add lipstick and big earrings, you can even go out in public. In olden days with Rebecca, we would open a bottle of wine and watch a movie. This time, we chased children around the back yard with the garden hose. After an hour or two or five has elapsed, it is time to break out the garden hose again, or get ready for a very grainy shower. Spend a good solid five or ten minutes alternately rinsing and squeezing your hair, getting out as much of the henna as you can. You don’t need to use shampoo today, but when most of it is out, take a generous palmful of conditioner and work through your hair from scalp to roots. Finger comb, and then use a comb or brush to work the rest of the henna particles out of your scalp and hair. Rinse once more, and you are finished.
And now, now is the time for glimmer and glamor. Here is Rebecca, looking stylish and spectacular.
I love henna, and Rebecca, and the summertime.