Category Archives: Wildcrafting

Druid Tree Workings: Cutivating Recpiprocity

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

Norway spruce resin, harvested  with honor and reciprocity from the land

When I was still quite young, my grandfather used to take me and my cousins into the deep forest behind our house and teach us many things about nature.  One of the fun things he taught us, for example, was that you could use spruce gum or white pine resin not only as a chewing gum (something that gave us endless enjoyment) but also to cover over a cut to help heal it or draw out a splinter or stinger. I remember once day we were walking in the woods and I fell on the ground and scraped my knee quite badly on a rock.  He went to a nearby spruce tree and got some of the sticky resin, then carefully spread it on my knee and covered it with a tulip poplar leaf.  The resin stuck the leaf right to my skin, and we began the long ascent back up the mountain to the house.  Ever since that moment, the memory always stuck with me–how spruce offered me something that aided me greatly in a time of need, and how my grandfather had that key knowledge, a knowledge of herbalism and wild foraging, that helped me build the connection.

What had happened is that the spruce and I had made a deep and personal connection.  The spruce had saved me and soothed my wounds. This experience made that spruce tree a cherished friend–each time I would enter the woods, including long after grandpa’s death, I would stop by that spruce tree and say hello. As I was recently reading many stories about Spruce as I was researching my recent post on Spruce, I was struck by the resonance of my own experience.  Historical references point to the pervasive belief, by both many Native American peoples and early North American colonists, in the cure-all properties of the spruce.  As I read source after source learning more about the herbal uses of spruce, my mind returned to my grandfather’s simple actions.  Since he has long passed on, I can’t ask him who he learned this from, but it remains cherished knowledge to me.

If you read the lore and myths of any traditional peoples, peoples who did not have industrialization and lived close to the land, what you discover is that most of the magical qualities of trees, plants, or other natural features are usually directly tied to the useful qualities of these plants. I’ve discovered this pattern time and time again in exploring the magic and mythology of the trees of my own ecosystem. What you start to see is that the human uses of the tree have a very direct connection to the magical qualities of that tree. What this suggests to me, in a very clear way, is that most indigenous nature magic is based, in a large part, on reciprocity. In other words, if you want to work deep magic with trees, it is important to find ways to reciprocate and work with the trees not just spiritually, but physically.  It is this physical connection that leads us to a magical connection (as within, so without!)

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connections among beings are built on trust and reciprocity.  Human culture today is a good example–I would argue that part of why we have such a terrible breakdown in civility and trust in our culture is because nobody actually needs anyone else.  You don’t have to make peace with your neighbors if you can pay a specialist to come out and take care of whatever you need, rather than supporting your neighbor when they need a hand or vice versa.  You don’t need a neighbor to raise a barn, help bring in the harvest, or survive a long winter.  This creates an environment where we depend on money and other people’s goods and services rather than our friends, neighbors, and ourselves.  I learned this firsthand in the natural building community–if you want to put up a roof without heavy equipment and a construction crew, you better have many hands to help.  If there is no reciprocity, there is no actual reason for people to stay civil with each other.

The same is true of nature.  If we never learn how to use nature–ethically, thoughtfully, and with gratitude–we are never going to develop deep and abiding connections with her.  The reason that spruce was so revered pre-industrialization was that she provided incredible medicine, food, shelter, boat building materials, and more.  She was revered because she was useful, an incredible grandmother with incredible gifts. The same is true of all aspects of nature. We can no more expect to value nature highly if we do not understand or seek its uses. There is a magic that comes with an experience like my spruce tree experience–it creates an inherent value based on need that cannot otherwise be replicated.

I’ve long argued for the respectful use of plants, trees, and other parts of nature.  But moving into this use requires us to strip some of the problematic western cultural mindsets that are often subconscious and invisible.  I think that at the very base level is that what we want to avoid is treating nature like your local Walmart or Supermarket–as humans we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that food and supplies come from shelves and stores, not nature. Supermarkets and big-box stores literally strip away the human connection with our broader ecosystem. One of the ways to think about industrialization and mass consumerism is that it signals that humans no longer have to directly depend on nature. Large-scale systems of extraction, harvest, and distribution mask the reality that has never changed: literally, everything we have comes from the living earth.  But because we are socialized into this industrialized/consumer-based thinking, we have to intentionally create different ways of directly interacting with nature. In the many years, I’ve taught wild food foraging, I often often see people more than excited to strip the earth bare of resources rather than reciprocate. Reciprocation is something that has to be taught and carefully learned–and it takes intentional actions.

Tied directly to the problematic mindsets associated with mass consumption is the issue of living on colonized soil and being part of a legacy of colonization.  This, too, is subconsciously woven into the fabric of our interaction with the landscape and her peoples. Colonization has left a horrific legacy that many of us who are living on colonized soil have to continually work to address.  We have a lot of work ahead of us in rebuilding sacred connections with the land outside of our door and honoring indigenous wisdom. Reciprocity helps shift us from these mindsets into ones that build connections.

Reciprocation and Tree Workings

As I’ve outlined above, one of the ways of connecting with nature and her spirits on a more deep level is creating reciprocal relationships: that is, where you offer something to nature and nature offers something to you.  This moves us away from mindsets that harm the land to those that reconnect us and heal.   For the rest of the post, I’ll share a bit about how to do this, using a few examples.

Trees

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Find a tree you’d like to build a connection with and get to know that tree.  Learn what you might be able to make from that tree, and learn what that tree might need or want for you in return.  If at all possible, connect these uses to your basic human needs: shelter, food, drink, medicine, etc.  Try to find a tree that is close enough to where you live that you can visit often–reciprocal relationships happen more easily if you can maintain them.   Here are a few possibilities to get your own ideas flowing:

Oak.  Oak trees are good choices because they produce flavorful and nutritious acorns, which with a good amount of sweat equity can be turned into acorn flour or acorn grits–and make delicious breads and cakes for rituals and more.  Acorns also happen to make outstanding inks, again for a variety of uses.  Oak wood is tough and strong and is great for natural building and carving.  Oak offers a range of benefits to humans and is an excellent tree to start this reciprocal relationship with.

Hickory. Hickory trees are another great tree to start these practices with: hickory nuts are amazing and can be made into nut milk or eaten straight from the tree. Hickory bark can be infused into an excellent hickory syrup, and of course, the branches and wood are fantastic for both indoor hearth cooking and outdoor fire-based cooking.

Spruce. Spruce is another excellent choice here.  Homebrewers would seek spruce for the delicious tips, while herbalists would use those same tips in teas and salves.  Spruce gum is a source of fantastic medicine for a range of issues.

Reciprocation: What would reciprocation look like for what you can offer your tree friend?  Part of it is physical and part of it is metaphysical.  On the physical side–before you do anything, always ask permission and gain it.  Make offerings and offer gratitude with each interaction in your tree.  Gather up the acorns, hickory nuts, or spruce cones and spread these seeds far and wide.  Help your tree friend extend their genetic legacy beyond what they normally would.  Start small seedlings and give these to friends or replant them.  Make offerings of your body (liquid gold) to gift your nitrogen to the tree.  Recognize that the tree has agency, has spirit, and is a being worthy of respect.

Rivers, Lakes, and other Bodies of Water

Perhaps you want to befriend a river and learn how to offer a reciprocal connection to this amazing body of water. Again, find a body of water that you’d like to build a connection with and take time to know this body of water: what commonly lives there? What is a “normal” and “healthy” functioning for this water?

Activities: Be present in the body of water, seeing what this body of water may offer you.  On the physical realm, this could include swimming and cooling off, kayaking, tubing, paddle boarding, ice skating, and more.  Find this body of water as a place of tranquility or rest for you. Learn about what you might harvest from the body of water: smooth stones, river sticks, fish, aquatic edible or medicinal plants (like cattails, arrowroot, etc).  Learn how this body of water might provide for some of your basic needs–a meal for your family, a place to rest and recuperate, a place to cool off.  Always make sure you are only taking a very small part of anything the water has to offer.

Reciprocation:  Remember that the river/lake/stream, like every other aspect of nature, is a being of agency, deserving of respect.  Ask before you do everything, and in everything you do, offer gratitude. Rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water are usually littered with garbage–pick it up and make sure that the area stays clean.  Many larger bodies of water have organizations that support ongoing clean-up, recreation, and more–see if you can join and financially or physically contribute to that work.  Find ways of doing other things for the body of water—water testing, learning about issues of runoff, and other such activity.

I hope these two examples have given you a nice idea of the ways in which we can build more reciprocal relationships in our daily lives.  It certainly works worth doing!

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Spruce (Picea glauca, Picea pungens, Picea spp.)

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape on a mountain in Western PA

When I lived in a walkable small town, what drew me every day was a line of beautiful blue spruce trees. Right around the corner from my house, they were on my daily walking commute to work.  We used to say hello and do an energy exchange each day. One day that following summer, I watched as the city landscaping people came through and ruthlessly cut them back away from the power lines (they were not growing even close to the lines) and I held space for the trees. Over the next few months, those trees began to heal, and they produced copious amounts of amazing tree resin as a first line of defense.  In the years that followed, eventually, the resin grew hard and the trees invited me to harvest small amounts that could be harvested without any damage to the tree.  That resin was powerful stuff–it had a very pine and musk smell and allowed for all sorts of powerful herbal and magical preparations.  I was honored by their gift and made good use of it–and I still have some, even years later.

Spruce is an important tree woven into the fabric of North America.  Common varieties include blue spruce, white spruce, black spruce, and Norway spruce. For the purposes of this post, we’ll talk about spruces of a few varieties, but focus my energies on Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce, both common trees throughout most of North America and both frequently found in the North-Eastern US planted as an ornamental and naturalized.  While neither of these two spruces is native to the Eastern seaboard, they are naturalized here and are so frequently found that they are one of the most common conifers in many parts of the US.  In fact, at the computer where I write all of my posts, just outside the window are two friendly Norway Spruce trees, always ready to say hello!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For the methods for how I research these posts, see this page. Other trees in this series include SpicebushRhododendron, American Hazel, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.  This material will all be part of my forthcoming Tree Alchemy oracle project!

Spruce Ecology

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Spruce is a common tree found in many of the temperate regions of North America–there are about 35 different species of spruce globally.  Blue spruces can grow up to 75 feet in the wild but often aren’t found more than 45 high in parks or yards. Norway Spruces are a much faster growing and larger tree and can get up to 150 feet high. All spruces are conifers and evergreen; they are extremely easy to find in the winter months when the deciduous trees have all lost their leaves.

All spruces have characteristics that make them very identifiable–for one, they usually have shorter, stiffer needles and all their needles have four sides. All spruces also have cones that are covered with thin scales that eventually open when the cone is ready to share its nuts/seeds on a warm day.  If you compare these needles and seeds to another common conifer, the pine family, you’ll see that the pines have much longer and flexible needles and much harder and more rigid cones. John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes that spruces also have needles that are spirally arranged on the twig (tying of course to the sacred geometry and sacred patterns that are present in all life). Most spruce needles, when crushed, have a strong smell–some are quite nice (Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce) while other spruces may smell piney and yet foul (White Spruce).  For all conifers, looking at the shape and distribution of the needles is usually the easiest way to tell the difference.

Blue spruces have a very “classic” holiday tree look, with a bluish tint and a very triangular shape. Other spruces may vary in shape–the many Norway spruces we have in our yard look like weeping trees more so than the classic triangle, but still, have that larger triangle shape.  Note that in urban areas, some spruces may be cut at the bottom so that people can sit underneath them–so you will want to look for indications that that has been the case, and then you can visualize the true shape of the tree.  This is also where you can often find copious amounts of sap–some tried or dripping off the tree that can be carefully and reverently harvested.

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Most spruce trees, particularly those that grow in northern areas of North America (white spruce, blue spruce) are slow-growing (growing only 6″ – 12″ a year).  Some spruce varieties, like Norway Spruce, grow much faster–up to 3′ a year, which is why Norway Spruce is often a tree selected for landscaping.  This is part of why Norway spruce has been so widely planted–it grows quickly and tall, and thus can provide effective privacy, shade, and so on.   In fact, Old Tjikko, a Norway Spruce located in Sweden, is one of the oldest trees in the world at 9,950 years old.  Norway Spruces are clonal trees, meaning that Old Tjikko has regenerated new roots, bark, and branches over a period of millennia from a single genetic ancestor.  It is amazing to think about a tree that has regenerated itself over the millennia

In terms of Spruce’s role in the ecosystem, while wildlife uses these trees extensively for shelter during the harsh winter months, Spruce needles provide little nourishment to white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and other large herbivores and so these animals are not likely to feed on them.  As John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes, however, they were a favorite of the now-extinct Mastadon!  Finally, some spruces, including Norway Spruce, may develop galls from the Eastern Spruce Gall Aphid; these galls appear like a pineapple-shaped Gall on the new shoots.  If they are abundant they can cause damage to the health of the tree.

Human Uses: Wood and Tools

Spruce wood is considered a softwood tree, but it is harder and more durable than many varieties of pine.  Thus, spruce wood is commercially used and is fine-grained, light, and tough.  Primarily it is used as a wood for pulping for paper–many paper mills use Spruce for the production of paper throughout Europe and North America. Norway Spruce is a particularly good tree for this purpose due to its quick growth habit. John Eastman notes that Spruce wood is sometimes used for piano sounding boards, instruments, and boat building.  It is also used as an interior construction wood–it does not withstand the elements well but is light and strong for interior construction applications (it is sold as “whitewood” or “SPF” (spruce, pine, and fir) wood).

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid's Garden homestead

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid’s Garden homestead

Another common use for Spruce today is in holiday decorations. Both Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce, when young, have the classic “Christmas Tree” look, and thus, both are regularly grown to be used as holiday trees.  Unlike Eastern Hemlock (which drops needles within a week or so of cutting), spruce trees hold onto the needles for longer, allowing them to stay through a holiday season.  Each year, we have spruce trees that can use some trimming.  Thus, we make beautiful wreaths that will last for months indoors to bring some of the evergreen energy into our home at the darkest time of year.

Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes offers extensive coverage of the Red, White, and Black spruces indicate that North American Native American tribes and early colonists to North America used Spruce trees extensively for a variety of purposes.  This includes extensive use in treating scurvy, especially in colonial America (see more below on medicinal uses).  Erichsen-Brown mentions that many tribes called spruce the Annedda tree and would strip the bark and needles off of the tree, boil it in water, and drink it to cure a variety of ailments. The roots of the spruce were used as lashing for canoes, baskets, and other weaving projects in many Eastern tribes.  The divided roots of spruce would be woven into very fine baskets that could hold water (these baskets were often used as boil baskets where hot stones were dropped into the liquid to heat up the water). The resin was also used to make pitch to seal canoes. Spruce wood was also steamed and bent to use for the inside of canoes.  Finally, the wood was used for the creation of various kinds of handles.

Here on the Druid’s Garden homestead, we just finished up a round of maple sap boiling with our new boiler system.  Since we have a lot of Norway spruce, I went through our tree stands and cut a number of the lower dead branches at the bottom of several spruce trees.  They burned hot and bright–perfect for keeping the sap boiling as the day went on. Of course, they have too much pitch to burn in indoor fires, but if you needed a hot outdoor fire with high flames, spruce is an excellent choice.

Human Uses: Herbalism and Edible Qualities

Spruce offers a range of wonderful range of medicinal qualities and can be used in a variety of herbal preparations. Be aware that most spruces are pretty pointy and can be hard to handle with bare hands–especially blue spruce. Thus, when harvesting needles or tips, it is wise to wear a pair of gloves or avoid getting sore fingers!  One of the most common ways of harvesting spruce is harvesting the young spruce tips.  The tips, here in PA, usually come into season in late April and into mid-May and can be harvested while they are still young and supple for a variety of herbal or edible concoctions.  In terms of the ethics of harvesting, what I usually do is first ask permission from the tree to harvest.  Second, I make an offering (such as using this blend).  Third, I take only 1-2 tips per branch so that I’m not causing damaging the tree, and spread my harvest across trees.  If I know that we have to do any pruning, I will obviously harvest all of the tips from that branch.

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

All spruces are high in Vitamin C, which allows you to make a tea that supports the immune system or brew up a spruce tip beer, which was originally a Native American creation (Ericsen-Brown) but later was widely adapted by colonial America. Also be aware that different varieties of Spruces have different levels of “skunkyness” which may impact any of your herbal preparations.  In my experience, Blue Spruce has the sweetest smelling tips and resin, where White Spruce is downright skunky and a bit unpleasant.  Norway spruce definitely has a bit of musk but is still great to use for most things.

The tips have an incredible range of uses. Black spruce or blue spruce tips were commonly made into spruce beer (originally made, according to Rollins in Edible Wild Plants of North America, because many people had vitamin C deficiencies and spruce tips are high in Vitamin C). Herbal uses for spruce tips are wide-ranging include a spruce needle or spruce tip tea, which can be used to boost the immune system. A strong tea can also be used as a sore throat gargle (to address a range of sore throat conditions); a mouthwash (for handling open sores in the mouth or bleeding gums).   The Spruce tips themselves are quite tasty and can also be used in dressings (like an infused oil); this is one of my favorite uses (a similar approach can be used with other conifer tips, like Eastern hemlock tips, which I share here). I like to gather the tips in spring and then infuse them in oil for a salad dressing or other herbal treats.

Another traditional use of spruce was the resin the tree produces. If you want to use it for incense or other spiritual purposes, you can check out my post on tree incenses from North America for details about how to use tree resin as incense.  Both blue spruce and Norway spruce make a very nice incense! Old-timers in the Northern Appalachian mountains (like my grandfather did) check “spruce gum.” Folks would look for mostly dried spruce resin and chew it just like chewing gum. I enjoy it from time to time, and it’s pretty good but certainly different than modern chewing gum. The resin is highly medicinal and can be used to make spruce salves for a range of skin conditions (it has anti-microbial uses).  Here’s a great recipe for a spruce and pine tip salve and chest rub and here is a video of making a bushcraft spruce salve for wound healing. If you are out in the field and have a sting or other skin issue, you can use the fresh gum right from the tree to cover a wound and draw out any toxins/stingers, etc–cover it with a leaf of plantain and be on your way.  Even deep puncture wounds can be aided by a bit of spruce resin in the field.

Finally, the inner bark of a spruce tree has been used for centuries as nourishing emergency food.  I haven’t had to opportunity to try this, thankfully, but I certainly will if we end up having spruce come down in a storm!

Western Magical Traditions and Spruce

Like many of the trees I explore in this ongoing series, Spruce does not get a lot of activity in the Western Magical tradition. In the typical sources, I consult for this series including a range of magical herbal books, hoodoo plant magic books, and western occult books.  However, I wasn’t able to find much mention of spruce.  Thus, it does not appear that spruce has any traditional uses that I can find in the Western Magical traditions–but I would love to hear from readers if they know of some sources that I do not!  Please share :).

Erichsen Brown does give an early reference (1475) to Islandic peoples using spruce both as a food and as an incense.  The cones were roasted coals and then people would dig out the kernels and eat the seeds. The resin used for incense.  Erichsen-Brown also notes that tribes throughout North America likewise used spruce for incense, but specific purposes or uses were not recorded.

Native American Traditions and Spruce

Spruce branches

Most of the traditional Native American uses already described, but I wanted to share some of the myths that are present.  These are largely in line with the curative and potent healing properties of the spruce tree.

Tying to the medicinal uses above, the Micmac believed that Glooscap, who was the first human created, gifted their people with extremely powerful medicine that could cure the ills of the world.  The ingredients included spruce along with ground hemlock (which may be Canadian Yew), willow, and black cherry.  In another legend on the same theme, In an Iroquois legend, Ahneah The Rose Flower, Ohsweda the Sprit of the spruce tree guards sacred spring in the forest. He shares the guardian duties with Ochdoah, the bat. Oshweda guards the spring from sunrise until noon, and while he guards it, everyone who drank of the clear waters of the spring had their illnesses cured and were filled with joy. but Ochdoah the Bat turned the spring water to poison on his watch.  In a third legend, this one Cherokee, “How the World Was Made” Spruce was listed among other medicines who are “always green” and always green medicines are the greatest of medicines

Spruce is tied in some tribes to a link to creation itself. It is often one of the first trees named (in relationship above to potent medicines) in creation stories or the first tree created. Another theme of these legends is the use of Spruce to build fires. In “When the Animals and Birds were Created” by the Makah. In this legend, two brothers of the sun and moon come to earth and start to create life there. As part of this legend, spruce is called an “old creature” whose “heart is dry” and therefore, will always be good for dry fires when the trees get older.  In “The Wolf Dance” which is a Salish legend, a spruce seed is linked to creation itself. So we can see some themes emerging from these different legends that honor the spruce tree a creative, healing force upon the land and for her peoples.

Divination Uses

As with other trees in this series, I’d like to propose three themes for magical practice and divination, given all of the variety of material above.  Here are three possibilities for the sacred spruce tree:

Endurance. One of the key features of spruces globally is their ability to endure.  We have the example of Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce that is literally one of the oldest trees in the world.   We see this same quality in many conifers who grow slow–the enduring nature of these ancient trees, who stand green through bitter cold and dry summers—the spruce endures on.  It is a powerful lesson to us, as people, to find the will and strength to endure.  This is why we see so many spruces in otherwise inhospitable parts of North America–these trees can endure very little light, long and cold winters, and continue to thrive.

Longevity.  Another key feature of the spruce tree that is clear from this material is the spruce’s tied to longevity.  It’s hard to imagine Old Tjikko, and other ancient spruces, seeing more than the whole of human recorded history.  When I encounter a spruce tree out in remote forests, I wonder how old they must be, knowing that they have the ability to regenerate their roots, branches, needles, and even their trunk.  This longevity is tied to this tree’s ability to remake itself in the face of challenges.

Supportive Healing. Nearly all of the trees in North America have specific ways in which they might heal–our physical bodies, our spirits.  Spruce’s healing powers, I believe, are tied to the well-loved tips and resins, both of which offer the base materials (Vitamin C, nutrients) that we can use to heal ourselves.  Thus, it’s not that spruce directly heals the body, but rather, facilitates the conditions and nutrients for the body to stay resilent.  That’s a very different kind of healing than something like hawthorn, which works directly on the body’s circulatory system and heart.  So spruce strengthens our bodies and gives us the capacity to heal.  That’s a realy beautiful thing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of spruce–the medicine, uses, mystery, and mythology.  This is a tree that was hard to research because there isn’t a lot about its mystical uses that I could find.  I’m very interested in hearing from you about your own stories and experiences with the incredible spruce tree!  Blessings.

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

As I continue to explore some of the most important understory trees in the US East Coast and Midwest region, we turn our attention today to the amazing Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin).  Historically, Spicebush was an incredibly important plant, medicine, and spice both to Native Americans and early white settlers in the US and yet today has largely been forgotten in history. Spicebush is a native understory tree with a large range in North America, spanning from Maine to Florida and all the way across the south and Midwest to Texas and up to Ontario. While I’ve taught this plant routinely on my plant walks, and what amazes me is that nobody can even identify it, much less recognize how it might be used. Spicebush has an incredible flavor, medicinal value, and offers much in the way of magic and mystery. It certainly deserves a place in our consciousness and in our traditions.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022). For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Widely distributed across North America, Spicebush is an understory tree that prefers damp soil and can grow in full shade, part shade, or full sun. Spicebush can grow up to 6-12 feet tall.  Spicebush reproduces by colonizing, thus, when you find it, it often grows in large patches in the forest understory. Here in the Appalachian mountains, you will find it growing in deciduous forests on damp hillsides, in wet areas where there are ephemeral springs, or along river bottoms.  When you see spicebush, it is often indicative of rich and fertile soil; it also prefers to grow in areas rich in limestone. Here on the Druid’s Garden Homestead land, we have it throughout our property as an understory tree with Oak-Hickory-Sugar Maple-Black cherry overstory.

Spicebush tree with berries

One of the key features of Spicebush is that it has an extremely early bloom time with fragrant flowers reminiscent of lemon. The clustered bright yellow blooms appear earlier than almost any other tree in our ecosystem. In Western Pennsylvania, it is typically blooming in early March, which is about the same time you start to see the Skunk Cabbage and Crocuses pop up and usually when the maple sap is running! You can often see this blooming sometimes while the snow is still on the ground (making it a very interesting counterpart to Witch Hazel who blooms in very late fall, from a bloom perspective). In the case of Spicebush, it blooms early so it can set its fruit early, well before the overstory trees bloom out and shade out the Spicebush. This is so characteristic of many of the other understory trees and bushes–all of them adapt themselves to be at peak in colder or darker times when light reaches the forest floor.

Spicebush is an important food source for wildlife. Larger mammals like whitetail deer, opossum, and eastern cottontail rabbit feed on the leaves, twigs, and berries. Many species of birds, both game birds, and songbirds, also feed on the berries, particularly in the winter months.  Spicebush is host to two butterflies–the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio Troilus) and the Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia Promethea).  The spicebush swallowtail lays eggs on Spicebush and then the larvae curls up the leaves to create a cocoon.

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

Spicebush is also known as Wild Allspice, Appalacian Allspice, Spicewood, Feverbush, Snap-bush, Snapwood, and Benjamin-Bush.  Many of these names are tied to the fragrant and amazing spice this bush produces for culinary arts. In fact, Spicebush has been seeing something of a renaissance within the foraging community in the last decade or so.  Even so, its more widespread use as a spice and food has not so far seemed to permeate beyond wild food foraging at present and into regional cuisine, which is honestly a shame.  In fact, Marie Viljoen who wrote the 2018 book Forage, Harvest, Feast makes the bold statement that if Spicebush were better known, it could form a cornerstone of regional Appalachian cuisine, demonstrating the power of this plant for cooking and culinary use.

Spicebush twigs and leaves can be made into a fragrant, slightly spicy tea that is reminiscent of a chai.  The tea is slightly spicy, slightly sweet, and quite pleasant to drink.  This is actually one of my favorite wild teas when I’m camping or foraging–just pick a few leaves and brew them up.  There are places I camp every year that are rich in spicebush and I always look forward to this warming tea on a gentle summer night.

The second way you can make tea when there are not leaves is by harvesting fresh twigs. To make a tea from the twigs, just brew them up with a lid on for 20-30 min (using low heat or even a crockpot to preserve the flavor).  The tea is similar to leaf tea: spicy, warming, and slightly sweet.

The real magic of the Spicebush from a culinary and wild food perspective is in the spicebush berry.  The green berry (unripe) and red berry (ripe) offer two different culinary experiences. The green berries are very sharp, lemony, and peppery and can be harvested anytime before they go red. The green berries are most intense when they are smaller and less plump. They can be used as a pepper substitute due to their very strong taste.

The berries go red in the early fall (you can see this from my images; the leaves start to yellow just as the berries go red). As they go red, you can begin to harvest them.  They will actually stay on the bush for 2 months or more, so you have a very long window for harvest. A good spicebush harvest can offer you several years of spice, which is pretty incredible.

I have found that the easiest way to preserve either red or green berries is to dehydrate them and then place them in the freezer. This prolongs their shelf life and intensifies the flavor. It is important to note that fresh spicebush berries can have a very numbing sensation on the tongue. By drying the berries, all the good spice is left with none of the numbing presents in the fresh berries. Once dry, you will taste that wonderful spice, very much its own flavor but with hints of allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, grains of paradise, citrus, and pepper, but you will also have your tongue go numb.  You can also use them fresh in curries and the like; cooking also can remove the numbness.

Marie Viljoen offers over 50 recipes in her Forage, Harvest, Feast that uses spicebush including combining it with citrus for refreshing drinks, using it as a seasoning in many diverse dishes, and using it as a dry rub on meats.  Here are a few recipes online to get you started:  foraged spicebush macaroons, acorn baklava with spicebush berry, a foraged dry rub (I’ve made a version of this and it is divine), a wild curry mix, and making a spicebush ice cream!

Traditionally, as Danie Moerman describes in Native American Food Plants, Native American uses of Spicebush were similar to what I have described above: spicebush was used by the Cherokee and Chippewa to make a beverage, including the stems to make tea.  The spice berries themselves were used to flavor opossum or groundhog. The Chippewa specifically used the berries to help mask or change meats with a strong or gamey flavor (p. 141).

Spicebush in Herbalism

Spicebush is infrequently Traditional Western Herbalism today, but historically, it was frequently used to treat a range of conditions. One of its names, fever bush, offers key insight into the nature of this plant.  King’s American Dispensatory and Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensary describes Spicebush bark and berries being used for medicine here in the Americas.  Spicebush is an aromatic herb being used primarily to treat fever (hence its name fever bush). A decoction (strong tea) was one of the treatments used as a diaphoretic (to support a healthy fever response and regulate body temperature).  It was used to treat all fevers including auge, typhoid, and rheumatic fevers. The berries were used primarily as a stimulant being used for a range of applications including supporting a healthy digestive system (carminative) particularly for alleviating excess gas. The berries can be distilled to create an essential oil of spicebush that is particularly useful for topical applications like bruises and rheumatism.

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

Spicebush in the Magical and Occult Traditions. Like many of my other understory plants, powerful yet unnoticed and unremarked upon, Spicebush has no mention that I can find in this lore.  This includes within the Hoodoo tradition and within the broader Western Occult traditions. However, the Latin name offers us some insight. The reason that the Latin name of Spicebush is Lindera Benzoin is that the oil found in all parts of the plant (part of what makes it tasty, see below) contain benzoic acid, which is the same chemical compound as Styrax Benzoin (for anyone who has used Benzoin incense). Burning the leaves, stems, or berries can give you a benzoin-like aroma, making it a great local incense source (for more on creating incenses generally, see this post on the general practice and this one on local tree incenses). I believe this plant has the potential for a local replacement for anyone who is using Benzoin or other incenses.

Spicebush berries in hand

Native American Traditions. Beyond food uses, I was unable to find anything about mythology, herbal, or other uses by Native Americans for spicebush.  While Native Americans also used this plant for medicine and food, (see the Ethnobotany of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) the specific uses are not specified.  One note in this entry is that Spicebush growing is a sign of a healthy and rich forest.

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

Based on all of my research as well as my own experiences, I want to share three possible divination and magical uses for spicebush.

Masking or illusion. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality has been used in culinary traditions for a variety of enhancements, alterations, and masking of strong flavors.  As suggested by the doctrine of signatures, this kind of quality can not only apply to the use of this tree as a culinary herb but also, as a magical one.

Enhancement. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality also lends itself well to any workings where something needs to be elevated or enhanced in some way.  The spice of the berries literally take ordinary foods and turn them into something unique and extraordinary–and the same can be said of other ways in which you might bring this unique and wonderful tree into your life.

Acting Swiftly and being Early.  Another meaning of the Spicebush is the power in doing things early, swiftly, and ahead of time.  The Spicebush takes advantage of the late winter sun when the overstory is still bare to set fruit and prepare for the season.  Thus, she offers us a powerful lesson with regards to action and focusing on being prepared in advance.

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Hazel (Corylus americana) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

American Hazelnuts in a cluster getting ready to ripen

For three years, I have had my eye on our American hazel bushes here at the homestead. When we first moved to the property, much of the understory was damaged with the logging the previous owners did and it took time for the hazels to recover.  Thus, for the last few years, I’ve watched the hazels grow taller and larger each year and kept looking excitedly for any signs of nuts setting. This past fall, I was delighted to find handfuls of delicious wild American hazelnuts and connect with the incredible wisdom that they offer.

While Hazel is a critically important tree in the mythology and magical tradition of Druidry and in Europe more broadly, The Hazel is one of the sacred trees identified by the druids as a tree tied to wisdom and the flow of Awen, and it is one of the sacred trees found in the Ogham.  But here in North America, despite having our own native hazels (American Hazelnut and Beaked Hazelnut), we often turn our eyes towards Europe’s mythology and understandings. Thus, in this post, I’d like to share more about the American Hazelnut, and the ecology, uses, herbalism, magic, and myths of this most sacred tree.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

The American Hazel is an understory tree that is native to the eastern half of the United States and into the Eastern half of Canada. The second native Hazel we have is the Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), which has an even wider range in North America–both have fairly similar growth habits.

As a deciduous tree, the American Haze produces brownish-yellow foliage in the fall and is in the birch (Betulae) family. It can tolerate a wide range of soil and light conditions, including acidic or alkali soil and full sun to part shade.  I’ve primarily seen it in the Allegheny mountain region of Western PA either as a full shade understory tree or along part-shade edges of damp deciduous forests.  It has simple, alternate leaves that are shaped like a heart or oblong (which have some variation from region to region) and tiny little hairs running up the branches.  The leaves are toothed and soft to the touch.

Hollie and Ivy Goose help me with this year’s hazelnut harvest!

The Hazel only reaches a height of about 12-15 feet at maturity and spreads in a thick cluster where many smaller hazel trunks will grow out of a single root structure and span 10 feet or more.  Thus, when you find one American Hazel tree cluster, you will often find many more  Hazel grows quickly once planted; it can grow 12-24″ in a single season.  Within seven years (planting from seed), it can produce its first crop of hazelnuts and most of these trees can produce nuts for over 40 years.

While hazels will produce both male catkins and female flowers on the same plant, they are not self-fertile, and thus, require several in order to properly reproduce.  Thus, if you are planning on planting some, keep this in mind.  The male catkins are visible all winter.  In early spring, like spicebush, tiny red clusters (the female flowers) burst forth.  After pollination, the male catkins dry and drop off leaving the female flowers to transition into nut pods that feature two large green bracts (one of the characteristic looks of the hazel).  When the nuts are ripe in the fall (here, this is sometime in September), the green bracts start to go yellow and then brown. An easy way to spot these in the fall as just as the leaves are beginning to come down, you can

Not only are the nuts delicious for humans, they are also highly sought by wildlife including squirrels, deer, turkey, woodpeckers, grouse, pheasants, beavers, fox, quail, and even blue jays.  The male catkins, which stay on the trees all winter, are foraged by ruffed grouse during the lean winter months.  Of course, like all other nuts in the region, nut weevils may be present (in this case, hazelnut weevils, curculio neocorylus).  When you harvest hazels, its a good idea to let them sit for about 7-12 days and let the weevils come out.  I return those to the land and enjoy the rest!

Food Uses

Most obviously, American Hazel produces delicious nuts and they are well worth seeking out if you do any foraging.  Here is a great blog post on foraging for either variety of hazelnut that grows wild in the Americas: beaked hazel or American hazel.   It is important to realize that the wild American Hazelnut is going to be smaller and more flavor intensive than the domestic counterpart; this is because most commercial hazelnuts sold are either European Hazels (about twice the size of American Hazel) or are hybrids.  This is a very common thing among wild foods: the domestic varieties have been bred for size or hybridized, but often at the expense of flavor.  A wild hazelnut will be so rich and flavorful compared to what you will find in the store (also true of wild strawberry, wild raspberry, etc).

Hollie and Ivy can’t wait to try the hazelnuts!

Hazelnuts are able to be enjoyed directly from the tree.  When you harvest them, simply peel off the catkins and you will be left with a nut surrounded by a thin (and easy to crack) shell.  This is for American hazel specifically; the beaked hazels are much harder to shell and you usually have to rot the catkins away (Sam Thayer discusses this technique more in his  You can eat them like this and store the nuts for up to 18 months in a cool place.  If you want to take it a step further, you can  I prefer to roast them slightly in the oven.  To do this, you can crack the nuts and then roast them at 275 for 15 or so minutes–you want them slightly brown but not scorched.  Or, if you have a wood-burning stove, you can just put your nuts on the top of the stove for 10 -15 minutes in their cracked shell and roast that way.  If you have enough, you can grind up your roasted nuts and make incredible nut butter. Beyond roasting, you can use American Hazelnuts in any recipe that would call for commercial hazelnut:  cookies, ice cream, sprinkled over salads, etc.

In Edible Plants of Eastern North America (1943), Fernald and Kinsey note that American Hazels were harvested extensively in the country and ground into a meal, which was then baked into a cake-like bread.

John Eastman in Forest and Thicket notes that the hazelnut oil, when pressed, can be used for perfumes and that the wood has traditionally been made into charcoals for drawing.

Other Uses

Within the permaculture community, Hazelnuts are an important crop for food forests and to support perennial agriculture.  The entire idea behind perennial agriculture is that we can plant trees or other crops once and then gain many harvests, and cultivate a food forest rather than an annual vegetable garden.  This has made nut crops, like chestnut and hazelnut, important symbols in that movement.

Beautiful Hazels

American Hazel, like all other hazels, has the ability to be coppiced.  This means that once established, you can cut the tree back to the roots and harvest the thin trunks. There are coppiced hazels in parts of Europe that have been a continual source of raw material for centuries; this is a very sustainable and regenerative practice. Within a few years, the hazel will send up new wood and regrow.

Because Hazels are understory trees without thick trunks, most of the wood applications in Hazel have to do with their ability to produce lots of small, flexible branches and be coppiced. Hazelwood has been traditionally used for building small structures like fences, in wattle and daub natural construction, in building the traditional coracle boat, or for creating supports in a garden.

Native American Uses

American Hazel in Winter with large Catkins

Erichsen-Brown notes in Medicinal and other uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes the extensive uses of Hazelnut among Native Americans in North America. Archeological evidence demonstrates Hazelnuts at an Iroquan site and in caves in what is now Ohio in Pennsylvania; this evidence dates from 800-1400 AD that large amounts of nuts were consumed by the tribes living here.  Hazelnuts were dried, ground up, made into meals and gravies, and used to create mush.  The oil was also used for hair and mixed with bear grease by the Iroquis.  

Medicinally, the Hurons used a bark poultice of the hazelnut tree for ulcers and tumors.  The Chippewa used hazel and white oak roots combined with the inner bark of chokecherry and the heart of ironwood for hemorrhages or serious lung conditions.  Similarly, the Ojibwa used the bark poultice on cuts.

The inner bark was used by the Chippewa (along with butternut or inner bark of white oak) as a dye for blankets, rushes, and more.  A recipe given in Erichson-brown is to use the hulls from the nuts to set the black dye of butternut when boiled with tannic acid.  The Chippewa and the Ojibwe also made drumsticks of hazel along with brooms and twig baskets.  The bark was also used to expel worms, in a similar fashion to walnut.

Hazel does not appear to feature much in the legends that I have read of Native American traditions. Since so much was lost due to the cultural and physical genocide of many tribes, however, it is hard to say what magic the Hazel may have had to these amazing peoples.

Hazel in the Western Magical Traditions

Simple Hazel wand

In Celtic mythology, Hazel was an extremely important tree and tied directly to the mythology of the druid tradition. In Irish mythology in the Finnean cycle, it is written that the Hazel tree is the very first tree to come into creation and that all of the knowledge of the world was contained in the Hazel tree.  The Salmon of Wisdom (An Bradán Feasa) lived in the Well of Wisdom (Tobar Segais) which was surrounded by nine sacred Hazel trees with their wisdom-containing nuts. The nuts of the trees dropped into the water and eaten by the Salmon. The first person to catch and eat the Salmon would gain this knowledge.  While many tried and failed, Finnegas spent seven years fishing and finally caught it. Finnegas sets his apprentice, the young Deimne Maol, to prepare the fish but not to eat it.  Deimne sets the fish upon a spit and begins to cook it. In the process of cooking when the fish is nearly prepared, Deimne burns his thumb and puts his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain–and, of course, acquires all of the knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom. Deimne becomes Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fin McCool), the leader of the fabled Fianna and hero of many Irish tales. Those students of Welsh druidry will note the similarities between this story and the one describing how Gwion became Taliesin.  In modern revival Druidry, the wisdom of the hazel and the Salmon of Wisdom in the sacred pool remains very important symbols of our tradition.

Greer notes in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic that Hazel has been used by magicians extensively throughout the West.  Hazel is best used for wands and various kinds of divination rods and sticks (including dowsing).  Cut the hazel with a single stroke with a consecrated knife at sunrise on a Wednesday for the best effect.  Hazelwood makes an excellent wand and transmits energy effectively. Greer also notes that the nuts are excellent for communing with Mercury or connecting with Mercurial energies.   One area that I disagree with Greer about, however, is that he says that Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) and American Hazel are interchangeable. In my own experience, while witch hazel became the traditional wood for dowsing rods, I do not believe these woods serve similar functions on the landscape, and thus, I have found them to have different magical qualities.

In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the wood was used for dowsers extensively in the British Isles.  In the Ogham, hazel is noted as the “fairest of the trees” and is tied to the flow of Awen, divine inspiration, particularly for the crafting of poetry.  The other thing Blamires notes, which I have not been able to find an original source for, is that there is a ritual by the druids called “Diechetel Do Chenaid” where chewing hazelnuts were used for inspiration or to learn of something lost.  I’m not sure if this ritual comes from myth or is speculation, so if anyone knows more about it, I would appreciate them sharing!  Finally, Hazel wands (probably due to their Mercurial connections) were used as a symbol for a herald.

Hazelnut does not appear to have any uses within other folk traditions in the Americas, such as Hoodoo.

The Divination and Magic of the Hazel

American Hazel Harvest

Given everything above: the ecology, food uses, and mythology surrounding hazel, I’d like to propose the following three divination and magical uses for American Hazel.

Wisdom.  While the mythology surrounding wisdom and creative inspiration comes from the British Isles, I think that mythology is strong for those of us practicing druidry in the US today.  Thus, the American hazel is associated with Wisdom and knowledge, just as the British counterpart.

Creative Inspiration and the flow of Awen. Flowing inspiration of all kinds comes from working with the Hazel tree.  Be inspired by the joy and connection this tree offers.  Eat of the hazelnuts and find your inspiration!  Bring hazel into your life through the crafting of wands, amulets, and more to encourage that flow.

Renewable tools.  Hazel offers many tools and gifts for those seeking a sustainable lifestyle and to transition to more sustainable practices.  Thus, Hazel offers the knowledge and uses of its many tools and the idea of sharing these practices widely.  Hazel offers much hope for us to think about how to transition from mono-crop agriculture that is destroying the land to instead, work with the energy of the hazel, a tree that can be infinitely renewable and incredibly generous.

Friends, readers, I would love to hear your experiences with the Hazels where you live!  What have you experienced or discovered about them?

Beyond the Anthropocene: Druidry into the Future

Druidry into the future

Druidry today has both ancient and modern roots, and there have been several distinct “phases” of druid practice historically. While it’s not critical that the practitioner of the modern druid traditions know what I share, it is helpful to have a sense of where the tradition comes from and the forces that shaped it–particularly so that we can think about where we are going.  I want to talk today about both the past of druidry in order that we might talk about its future.  How do we shape our tradition today so that we become the honored ancestors of tomorrow? What is the work that we might consider doing now, as druids, to create a tradition that endures?

Modern druidry is inspired by the Ancient Druids, a group of wise sages who kept history, traditions, and guided the spiritual life of their people. The Ancient Druids lived in areas of Britain and Gaul (modern-day France) as well as in other parts of Europe; the earliest records of the Ancient Druids start around 300 BCE and go about the second century CE, when they were wiped out by the Romans. The ancient Druids had three branches of study: the bard (a keeper of history, stories, and songs), the ovate (a sage of nature or shaman), and the druid (the keeper of the traditions, leader of spiritual practices, and keeper of the law). Much of what we know about the Ancient Druids today comes through their surviving legends, stories, mythology, and the writings of Roman authors. The druids themselves had a prohibition against writing anything down that was sacred, and so, we have only fragments of what their tradition looked like. But fragments cannot be a full spiritual tradition.

Centuries later, at a time when industrialization began to rise in the in the British Isles in 18th century, a new group of people in the British Isles became interested in the Ancient Druids. Modern Druidry’s spiritual ancestors watched as the wheels of industrialization radically and irrevocably changed the landscape: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress; the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities; deforestation and pollution becoming commonplace; and the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to that of a machine. Modern druidry’s spiritual ancestors began to shape a new druid tradition, inspired by the ancient druids, and beginning with the fragments that had been left behind by the ancients: texts and stone circles alike. The Druid Revivalists reached deeply and creatively into history to return to an earlier time where humans and nature were connected. The Druid Revival movement, therefore, sought to reconnect with nature through ancient and ancestral roots in a time where the broader wheels of industrialization was pushing humans into a very different kind—and ultimately destructive—relationship with nature. It is for this same reason that people today are drawn to the modern druid tradition–there is “something” missing for them and what is missing is often rooted in that lack of connection with the living earth. (Note: This discussion of the rise of modern druidry is heavily influenced by the work of John Michael Greer in the Druidry Handbook.

It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how druidry is a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world. Despite the early promise of industrialization and, later, consumerism, we are now living in a world on the brink of ecological collapse. Many of us recognize that we must make a different way forward, and druidry offers one such way. For over 300 years, the ancient druids have offered modern people sources of inspiration and reconnection. The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as much as it is a crisis of culture. Druidry, then, is helping us find our way “home.”

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--rebuilding sacred landscape features

Stone Circles – Honoring the ways of our ancestors and creating the sacred spaces for the future

Sharing historically where the druid tradition came from helps us get to what I see as the core of druidry today: focusing on what an ecologically-centered, wildcrafted, localized and living druidry today can look like, how it can help us reconnect, and how it offers us spiritual and practical tools for responding—and taking care of ourselves and the living earth—during the ecological crisis of our age. 

Descending in spirit from the Ancient Druids and descending in principle from the druid revival several centuries ago, the Druid tradition in the 21st century is shaping up to be a vibrant one that focuses both on drawing deeply from the past but also creating a living tradition, and evolving tradition, that meets the needs of both druids and the earth today. I really want to push us to deepen and extend druid practices and the druid tradition—not by eliminating or removing pieces from the existing tradition, but building upon it.

Druidry, as a tradition in its current form (that is, as a path of nature spirituality) has been around less than two centuries. Many druids are scattered around the world, being in small groups or always as solo practitioners. Communities of druids are formalizing, expanding, and establishing their own traditions and paths, rooted in the frameworks of the druid revival tradition.

Druidry is a language that we are starting—only now—to learn how to speak. The metaphor of how a new language is formed is a helpful metaphor in terms of the druid tradition. New languages often form from what is known as a “contact zone.” This is when two established languages come into contact (say, through trade, resettlement, or colonialization) and speakers of each language intermingle and have to figure out how to communicate. What initially forms is what linguists call a “pidgin” language, a language with limited vocabulary from both languages, simplified grammar (usually borrowed from one of the languages, often the dominant one), and limited ways of communicating. This is not anyone’s native language, but something created out of a basic need to communicate. In time, typically a generation or two, the pidgin language becomes a creole language. This happens when children are born hearing the language and acquire it as native speakers. These new native speakers help shape the pidgin language beyond its initial simplified form with more elaborate grammatical structures that can allow for more complex meaning, a richer vocabulary, and so on. Eventually, given enough time, the creole language becomes its own language that is distinct and fully independent from either the parent languages.

Learning how to speak a new language of connection

Many of us are speaking druidry as a pidgin language—we began to walk this path within a contact zone of other dominant religions and childhood religions that have shaped our thinking, reactions, and beliefs. And the basic forms of druidry, like those published in many pioneering books and early curricula from this tradition, helped us get the job done as we developed our unique nature spirituality.  These included basic practices like connecting with nature, celebrating the seasons, practicing the bardic arts, working with spirit. But as we grow into our own druidry, both as individuals and as communities, the kinds of material and practices becoming part of this tradition are expanding considerably.

I believe that druidry as a community is in the place of transitioning from a pidgin to a creole language. As more and more people find our tradition and practice it seriously, and as children begin to be born into and grow up in this tradition, as we are increasingly surrounded by groves and communities, we are able to fully develop and expand various parts of the druid tradition to fit these expanded needs. I’ve witnessed this here in the United States on the East Coast, for example, with tremendous growth not only in the number of druid gatherings per year and number of people wanting to attend, but also the kinds of activities we now do at gatherings: community building, coming of age ceremonies, bardic competitions, croning, and saging rituals, the development of permanent sacred spaces and the creation of widespread energetic networks, and more. Our language of druidry is expanding, and each new voice and perspective has much to offer.

So then, how might we “expand” the language of druidry?  I think every single person on this path, from those new to those who have been walking it for a long time has the opportunity to do so.  Here are some of the ways we might engage in this practice:

1. Develop and Share Wildcrafted and Localized Druidries. While druidry originated in the British Isles, there are more people who practice druidry worldwide and here in North America than ever before.  While I think we should see the British Isles as part of the wisdom and background, it is part of that original contact zone language for those of us who are not in the British Isles.  We will certainly be inspired by the mythology, sacred sites, and spiritual practices–but we must embrace the idea of creating something new that is specifically adapted to where we are rooted today.  For those who don’t live in the British Isles, it is very important to develop locally-based and wildcrafted practices.  The Ancient Order of Druids in America is very committed to a wildcrafted druidry path and has an entire curriculum built around wildcrafted druidry as a core principle. Through learning about ecology, planting trees, spending time in nature, and exploring nature through the bardic, ovate, and druid arts, druids get a deeper sense of place and are able to thus, create a wildcrafted druidry that fits their own immediate ecosystem.

Once you have developed these approaches to druidry, I really want to encourage you to share them.  Put that information out there in the world so that others who live in similar bioregions can learn localized practices.  If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that’s a lot of what I’m doing here–my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, the Allegheny Ogham, how to make Tree Incenses, Acorn Flour, Tree Wassailing, so many more pieces–these are all pieces of localized druidry that I have developed while living in both the US Midwest and the US Mid-Atlantic regions.  If these pieces help others, the tradition becomes richer and more robust. 

2. Put tired debates of authenticity behind us and instead focus on today and tomorrow. Perhaps this is my revival druid path bias showing, but I am growing very tired of talking about authenticity. I don’t think it moves our tradition forward in any meaningful way, and I think it is disrespectful to our direct spiritual ancestors. Yes, a lot of the early druid revival works and authors have been discredited for taking liberties and creating texts; I find these attempts to discredit them problematic for several reasons, particularly for those who practice druidry.  First, they were working within the bounds of acceptable practice within their own age, not ours. This was an age where forgery and plagiarism of texts were common. Second, the practices of the druid revival tradition work—as attested by tens of thousands of druids worldwide.  If it works, obviously, it was inspired. Third, at this point, some druid revival texts, such as Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas, have considerably shaped our tradition for several centuries. And finally, regardless of some of their practices, the Druid Revivalists as a group had an enormous impact in a wide range of fields including modern archeology, poetry, culture, and certainly, nature spirituality.  We have fragments from the ancients, and we have a rich history from the revival–both of those shape who we are today.  But it is modern practitioners–you and I–shape who we are tomorrow. So I suggest we set aside these discussions, acknowledge that the practices work, and think about what we are doing today–and how we can move into a better tomorrow.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

4.  Focus on being a good ancestor. It strikes me that in the age of the present predicament we face, one of the most important things we can do is live today in a way that makes us good ancestors. What can we do today–spiritually, physically, socially, creatively–to create a better world than the one we live in? That preserves the diversity of life on this planet? That helps humans reconnect with the living earth?  These are the kinds of questions that I find really important now, both for my own practice and in the mentoring and support that I offer those in the AODA and broader druid community.  Druidry offers an alternative perspective to the dominant narratives that are currently killing our planet.  It is important that concepts like nature spirituality are rooted firmly now so that these ideas may flourish beyond our own lives. 

5. Create refugia and regenerate ecosystems. As I’ve discussed before on this blog, there are physical and metaphysical practices we can do now, given the challenges we face as a world.  One of the most powerful we can do is preserve small pockets of life and foster ecosystems in any way we can.  Refugia are how so many species–including humans–survived the last ice age.  Small pockets of abundant life not only support the many species on this planet (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, etc) but also offer humans places to deepen their connection to nature.  You can learn more about how to create a refugia or one example of a refugia here.  Another method that is extremely empowering is learning and practicing permaculture design.  These approaches allow us to do more than honor nature or work with it metaphysically, but be a force of good right now, today, and a champion of all life.

6.  Practice resilience.  If events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that the concept of resilience is going to be a critical skill in the years and decades to come.  Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems were those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure.  This same concept, I believe, is central to any spiritual work we do.  We need to become both physically and spiritually resilient so that we can continue to face the difficulties that will only grow in seriousness as we live our lives and continue to walk our spiritual paths.

But resilience isn’t easy–it is a process.  I would argue that it requires both inner and outer work. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave. Practicing resilience requires us to privilege our own self-care, put things in perspective, and continue to work through our own feelings. It requires us to understand our own fears, weaknesses, and shadow selves.  Resilence in our physical lives is something that, thankfully, many more people are attending to now than they were a year ago.  It means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented (like global pandemics or food shortages).  Physical resilience is about having your basic hierarchy of needs met, even in a time of disruption. It is a good time to start growing some of your own food, look into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and make sure that you have a monthm at a minimum, of stores to meet your needs. Physical resilience is also about being flexible and opportunistic, almost like the understory trees I wrote about several weeks ago–learning how to be resourceful and adaptable.  I would argue that resilience is a mindset that you can learn.  Resilience is the great challenge of our age, and will allow us to face any other challenges with strength, wisdom, and peace.  It will certainly help facilitate our work in other areas, and will allow us to thrive even in difficult conditions.

I think these are only some of the things we might do now to help us shape a better future for tomorrow.  But I like to think along these lines, in a positive way, because that allows all of us to do good in the world and keep moving in peace, joy, and hope.

Wildcrafted Druidry: Using the Doctrine of Signatures, Ecology and Mythology to Cultivate Sacred Relationships with Trees

A stream in winter

Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.

With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices.  The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.

In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees.  You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham).  You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own. 

The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!

Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important.  As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection.  Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features.  Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate.  You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you.  If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done.  All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.

Background

As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021!  This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore.  A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel.  These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.

This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project.  I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!

Developing Personal Tree Lore

The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below.  Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts).  In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.

Insight, Experience, and UPG

The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience.  Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below.  The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree.  What sticks out to you here?  What relationship with the tree do you already have?

The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here.  These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.

All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree.  Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant.  A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us.  Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact”  or something that applies to everyone.  As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem.  For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community.  That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.

The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source.  In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique.  I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards.  I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years.  And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder.  In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well.  Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces.  And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Mullein has lessons to teach!

Mullein has lessons to teach!

The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs.  The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.

The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer.  Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.

This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations.  Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc.  This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.

Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem

You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions.  Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know.  For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp.  Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.

You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem.  John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US).  My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better.  And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says.  A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.

The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!

Folk Naming Practices

Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to  However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.

Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family.  Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant.  You get the idea.

Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

The human uses of wood

Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally.  What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like?  Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things?  Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities.  Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods.  For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!

I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you.  You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.

Human Uses: Food

Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on.  Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online.  You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare.  I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!

Human Uses: Herbalism

Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning.  Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.

Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way?  Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc?  This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.

First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees.  These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer.  A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk.  Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk.  Do your research here because it matters.

Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns.  As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues.  Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).

Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.

Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions

This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list.  This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book.  Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree.  Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively.  Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here.  When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic).  Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species.  I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name).  While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties.  Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!

Traditional Native American Uses and Lore

Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore.  If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition.  I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth.  In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that  I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants.  At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own.  So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.

Bringing it All Together

The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree.  But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together.  From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you?  How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice?  How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all?  And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?

It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way.  That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Ironwood or Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana, Carpinus caroliniana)

Ironwood tree ecoprint from my upcoming Tree Alchemy Oracle!

There are actually two tree species that are known as both “hornbeam” and “Ironwood” along the US East Coast and into the midwest: The American Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and the American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).  After doing a lot of research and interaction with both of these trees, I see them as interchangeable.  First, they are both in the Beech family (Order: Fagales, Family: Betulaceae). They actually have a very similar growth habit and look to their bark (like muscles), their wood is quite similar, and the hop-looking fruits are similar on both trees.  Thus, if you can find either of these trees, you can apply the information I’m sharing.  I have primarily focused on Ostrya Virginiana (Ironwood/Hop Hornbeam) in my comments here as it is the more dominant tree in my specific ecosystem.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

The Ironwood (Ostrya Virginia) has many names in the US, including leverwood, ironwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  These names can teach us quite a bit about the uses of this tree.

Ecology

Ironwood is a small, native tree to the Eastern and Midwest in the United States.  It is an understory tree, and thus, even the largest specimens are typically under 40 feet tall (I have yet to see one even that tall).  These trees are widely dispersed in the US, spanning from Minnesota and down to parts of Louisana and the whole way up the eastern seaboard to Maine–and everywhere in between.

The most distinct feature of this tree is the muscle-like quality of the wood–the wood is a smooth gray and as it grows, it twists and turns, looking almost like biceps or muscles–this tree has clearly been working out!  The tree has leaves like beech and can be mistaken for the American beech upon first glance.  The trees often lean and grow crooked; the largest specimen here on our property is growing in a haphazard way over the stream and into the bank!  The crown is often flat-topped and open, partially because it is a fully shade/understory tree.

I have always seen Ironwoods in forests or along streams, although their growth habit may be different outside of the Allegheny Mountains in Western PA.  I typically see these trees 15-20 feet tall, often thriving in deciduous forests in large thickets.  Most often, you can find them in deciduous forests growing alongside sugar maple, beech, oak, hickory, and birch. They are typically found in shady forests, on damp hillsides, and especially along the edges of streams, where they can handle occasional seasonal flooding and prevent erosion.

John Eastman writes about this tree in his Book of Forest and Thicket.  He notes that the tree is important to wildlife.  Birds, including pheasant, ruffed grouse, and northern bobwhites eat the catkins.  In the winter months, warblers, foxes, the game birds above, and squirrels eat the nutlets.  Beavers also use them in their building and white-tailed deer can eat the foliage, particularly in the winter.

Historical and Herbal Uses

The strength of these trees is incredible–the wood is very tight-grained, white, and quite dense.  I cut some rounds a while ago for woodburning and had to significantly turn up the heat on my burner to make any mark (usually the highest is reserved for ash, hickory, or oak, but it had to go higher than those three!)  Historically, it was used for handles and fence posts for this reason and while it has a small circumference, it is a mighty tree. As I described above, there is some historical record of this tree being used for handles and smaller wooden objects.  However, primarily due to its size, it is not a tree that is part of the lumber industry.  John Eastman notes that if you attempt to chop down this tree, the axe will literally bounce back at you–hence the well-earned name of “Ironwood.”  Finally, Eastman notes that because of its density, its charcoal was once used in making gunpowder.

Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants describes a range of uses that Ironwood had in historical times in North America.  Of the physical uses, the heartwood of the trees (the strongest part) were used for things requiring strength such as ox goads, cogwheels, handles, sleigh runners, and finishing poles.  Erichsen-Brown notes that the Chippewa used the wood for the frames of their dwellings and as poles in wigwams.

Erichsen-Brown also notes some of the traditional Native American uses of the tree as medicine.  The strong decoction of the heartwood of branches was used for a general tonic, having actions on the liver, kidneys, and muscles.  A strong heartwood decoction was used for “auge” (general sickness), particularly with intermittent fever.  It was considered an alterative, supportive of the liver function and for dyspepsia.  The Chippewa specifically used the heart of the Ironwood along with the inner bark of chokecherry and roots of the hazel and white oak to address lung hemorrhages and other lung conditions.  Again, the heartwood was used as a strong tea to support kidney function and those dealing with stiff joints or rheumatism.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used it as one of several “cramp barks” and to treat the flux.

Despite these sources being detailed in Erichsen-Brown, a thorough read of my herbal books comes up empty–suggesting that this tree is not well used, if at all, in the herbal community here in the US or beyond.

Magical Uses

Despite a range of uses physically and herbally, I was unable to find any reference to this tree in any magical sources, including in the American Hoodoo tradition, within traditional Western occultism, or in folk practices.  This isn’t surprising to me–many of the trees that are dominant in North America and that do not grow in the old world do not get any treatment in typical magical texts.

Divination Meanings

Since there is not a magical or mythological tradition associated with this tree, I’d like to propose three things that are tied to the ecology, history, and herbal uses of this tree.

Strength. The first and obvious choice for a  tree called “Ironwood” is unyielding strength.  The wood is beyond strong, toughest in the face of floods, axes, and anything else.  Thus, we can gain tremendous strength from this tree.  I also think that we can tie this to traditional Native American herbal uses of this tree–the heartwood of this tree, the very core of the tree, offers relief from a variety of ailments.  I plan on making a decoction of Ironwood heartwood and using it to strengthen and endure.

Endurance and Stamina. The second obvious choice for Ironwood is stamina and endurance.  I learned this by observing the Ironwoods that grow along the creek behind my house.  We had several 100-year floods in 2019.  These are floods that are supposed to happen once in a hundred years, but with the extreme weather events that are too common in the 21st century, we had three of them in a month.  The mighty Ironwoods by the stream were 3 feet under the flood waters…when the waters receded, the ironwoods were still there–leaves and all!  These trees endured countless floods that year–and held the riverbank firm.

Small but Mighty. The final meaning that we can derive from the Ironwood is that one can be small, even underwhelming, but still mighty.  The ironwood is one of the smaller, less noticeable, and less known trees of the Eastern US–and yet, it is one of the most mighty.  Stronger even than oak, hickory, or ash, the Ironwood teaches us that you don’t have to be flashy or large to carr ya quiet strength.  As someone who is routinely underestimated because of how I look, I really appreciate this energy present in Ironwood.

Well, dear readers, those are my thoughts, experience, and research on the amazing Ironwood tree.  I would love to hear from you–do you have stories or experiences to share that can help us develop sacred uses and divination meanings for this tree?  Blessings!

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow) Tradition at Imbolc and through the Light Half of the Year

Last year’s butzemann, dressed in her finery (Technically, she was a Butzefrau!)

For the last three years, I’ve spent part of my Imbolc celebration making a Butzemann for our land.  The Butzemann is a really interesting tradition from PA Dutch (German) culture called the Butzemann (literally, Boogieman).  In a nutshell, the Butzemann is a magical scarecrow that protects the land for a season.  He is created at Imbolc from natural materials and given clothes and a heart. At the Spring Equinox, the Butzemann is shown the property and the breath of life is breathed into the Butzemann, naming him/her for the season.  Then the Butzemann is displayed prominently throughout the season to protect the and.  Before or on Samhain, the Butzemann is burned and the protective spirit is released and then at Imbolc, a new tradition begins. Today I thought I’d share this tradition with my readers, in case they also wanted to build this tradition into their celebrations.  The time is right to start thinking about creating your Butzeman for the coming season!

As I mentioned, this tradition comes to me from a few sources: the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage that is part of my ancestry, talking with local people about how they construct scarecrows in my region, and also some of the fabulous research of the Urglaawe community, who have been working tirelessly to develop a PA Dutch heathenry and who have done much research on the folk traditions surviving in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a very magical land. With the founding of Pennsylvania, William Penn offered more religious tolerance than could be found in most parts of Europe during the colonial era.  Thus, we had large groups of Germans (PA Dutch or PA Deutsch) among other radicals like Quakers and Shakers settle in Pennsylvania. As you drive through Pennsylvania, it is not uncommon to see pentacles and pentagrams protecting houses or hex signs on barns.  Even as you drive through the countryside, you can often see the scarecrows (Butzemann) in the fields, homemade and protecting the crops. And of course, we have the most famous weather prognosticator in the land: Punxatawney Phil, the magical groundhog!  These traditions were passed on in small ways through my grandmother to me, and I’m proud to continue them as part of my own spiritual path.

When the Butzemann tradition was taking root in Pennsylvania and being adapted from the old world, most of the people living here were farmers or depended in part on raising their own animals and growing their own food to feed themselves.  Having a blight strike the crops, having animals sicken and die, or having a drought could be the difference between thriving and starvation during the long winter months.  Given this, doing magical work to protect the home, the land, the crops, and the animals was central.  Even if you don’t have crops or farm animals to protect, you can certainly create a Butzemann to protect your home or place of dwelling.  As a homesteader with many bird flocks and gardens, this tradition is an extremely important one to my own practice and something I do every year.

In my own research, I have found that the Butzemann tradition has many different varieties here in Pennsylvania. In speaking with several of my German friends from Germany, I have also been told that this tradition has a number of approaches in Germany.  One of my German friends told me that I could certainly make a “Butzefrau” (a female Butz) if I preferred!

Imbolc: Constructing your Butzemann

The Back of the Garden Butzemann!

The first step is to construct your Butzemann at Imbolc. I like to go through the woods and our fields and glean dried grasses, corn cobs, gourds, and so forth to make my Butzemann. Sometimes, I gather these in the period between Samhain and the Winter solstice if I feel led, or sometimes I just gather them in the week or so leading up to Imbolc. This includes anything leftover from the garden, straw, etc. You can also create a lifesize Butzemann by sewing old clothing shut and then stuffing your entire Butzemann with straw.  This kind of Butzemann looks great watching over a garden!  Really, there is no right or wrong way to construct your Butzemann except you want to explicitly use materials from the land where the Butzemann will be protected if at all possible and everything should be natural so that it can burn.

Here are some of the features of a traditional Butzemann as you are constructing yours at Imbolc:

  • The Butzemann is constructed or filled with herbs, leaves, straw, sticks, and other natural materials from the land over which he will protect.  This is very important–he must be physically connected and constructed from the and.
  • The Butzemann is given clothing (regular size or smaller that you sew) out of natural materials that can burn.  You can also give him a hat.  Remember that all of the clothes on the Butzemann are burned at Samhain, so keep this in mind. The clothing is the first “gift” to the spirit who will reside in the Butzemann.
  • The Butzemann is given a heart  (I like to use a dried nut or acorn for this) to help bring the Butzemann to life.  You can put additional symbols, sigils, or words on the heart to assist the Butzemann.
  • If you want, you can put other things in the Butzemann (runes, ogham, prayers, slips of paper, and so forth) to help with protective magic and enchantment
  • The Butzemann should have some representation of eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth.  This helps him have all of his senses, which is necessary for protecting the flocks, home, or land that he is placed on to guard.

As you are creating your Butzemann, a name may come to you.  Or, it may come later as we approach the Spring Equinox.  At this point, the Butzemann is not yet a magical creation–it is just the shell.

Spring Equinox: The Breath of Life and Protecting the Land

So much harvest thanks to the protection of the Butzemann!

The Spring Equinox is the time where the breath of life is breathed into the Butzemann and where he goes from being a simple shell to a house for a protective spirit that will guard your land for the coming season.

The first thing that is done is that the Butzemann is ritually named and a good, protective spirit is welcomed in.  You can create your own ritual for this or you can use this one from the Urglaawe community.  The steps of the ritual are:

  • Open up a sacred space (being aware you will be moving through your property)
  • Breathe life into the Butzemann (literally breathe or blow on the Butzemann); this invites a good spirit to enter and stay for the season
  • Give the Butzemann a name (see naming, below)
  • Close the space.

As the second part of your ritual, you should walk your Butzemann around the property he is to guard.  Then, place him somewhere prominently so that he can see the area he is to guard clearly.  It is good to make regular offerings to your Butzemann, speak to him by name, and visit him as the season progresses.  This helps establish reciprocation between you and the guardian spirit of the Butzemann.

Naming conventions: The Butzemann tradition has some very specific naming conventions.  Each generation of Butzemann you create takes not only his own name, but the names of his predecessors.  The naming conventions are a bit tricky, so I suggest looking at this link  for more detailed information.  In a nutshell, the first generation will have a name with “der Nei” indicating the first. Everything after the first generation (each year you create a Butzemann) will have additional names and the first generation name with “san” (the family name).  Example:

  • Year 1: Gerania der Nei
  • Year 2: Thyme Gerania Geraniasan
  • Year 3: Sage Thyme Gerania Geraniasan
  • Year 4: Parsley Thyme Gerania Geraniasan

Samhain: The Burning

Burn Butzeman, burn!

Burn Butzeman, burn!

At or before Samhain, your Butzemann must be burned.  At Samhain, the Butzemann’s spirit will leave and if you do not burn it, a bad spirit may take up residence.  Thus, you should burn your Butzemann before the end of Astrological Samhain.  I like to build a sacred fire as part of my Samhain festivities.  When it is time to burn the Butzemann, I begin by scattering some of the season’s herbs into the fire as an offering, also sharing my gratitude and thanks.  I carefully place the Butzemann on the fire and watch the Butzemann burn.  I put the ashes in the garden, and wait for Imbolc to return.

The Cycle Begins Again

After Samhain, we reach the full cycle of the Butzmann tradition.  The flocks are snug in their coops while the snows fall, and the land once again falls asleep.  But as soon as the sugar maples start running, the Butzmann tradition can be born.  Since we started doing a Butzemann here on our homestead, we have noticed a difference: less challenges with predators, abundant harvests even through a drought, and a general presence on the land that supports everything we do.  I think this is a wonderful tradition to start and continue, and I hope some of you will consider it!

Another Butzefrau! This is a design I like a lot 🙂

Sacred Tree Profile: Devils Walking Stick (Aralia Spinosa)

The mighty Devil’s walking stick in early spring–look at those spikes!

The Druid’s Garden Homestead is located on a 5-acre parcel of land in Western Pennsylvania that is currently regenerating from intense logging. Three years ago, just before we bought the property, the family who owned it logged about three of the five wooded acres.  This has led to a host of possibilities where we can work on forest regeneration, observing the changes in this damaged place as it regrows, and certainly, opportunities for wildtending and creating food forests. As you walk through this regenerating landscape, one of the most striking understory trees is the Devil’s Walking Stick, Aralia spinosa. Looking like a very spiky and menacing walking stick (it has a name fitting of its visage), this tree is also known as Prickly Elder, Prickly Ash, Shotbush, Pigeon Tree, Angelica Tree, or Hercules club. These varied names really speak to the grotesque and yet wonderful nature of this plant and, I believe, give us some sense of its deeper meaning and uses.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

This entry is going to differ somewhat from my previous entries in this series for a simple reason: there is almost no mythology, herbal, or magical knowledge about this tree. The giant stack of books and online databases of mythology that I regularly consult when developing this series have come up empty on this tree. Thus, I am going to rely much more on ecological knowledge, historical uses, and personal observations.  Regardless of its lack of use traditionally, I think this tree is worthy of our attention and fills an important niche in the ecosystem of the US East Coast as a dominant pioneering tree with powerful energy.

Ecology

Aralia Spinosa, or the Devil’s Walking Stick, is in the ginseng family.  It prefers part shade, moist soils, and can tolerate a range of soil conditions (fertile to poor, a wide range of PHs, and a wide range of soil types).  As an aggressive pioneering species, it comes in after disruption in forest and field conditions, where it colonizes predominantly through rhizomes and sending out roots in different directions.   The range of the Devil’s Walking Stick is quite widespread–it is native from Maine to Texas and grows up and down the entire eastern seaboard the whole way to Florida.

Devils walking sticks in early winter (mature)

As the USDA Plant Database suggests, the Devil’s Walking Stick grows to a height of 35 feet, although as it is colonizing new areas, you can often find much smaller specimens. The leaves are compound and opposite, and every stalk literally is covered in spikes, even below the leaves and onto the leaf stems. The entire tree is covered in spikes, which do thin out as it gets larger. Some sources report that this tree can cause contact dermatitis if the roots or stalks are handled, but I have not found this to be the case (and in fact, have worked with the wood of it without any trouble!).

We actually have some very mature Devils Walking Sticks behind our garden, which are about 30-40 feet tall, and when they are in bloom in August, you can see thousands of butterfly moths, bees, and other insects all over the blooms. Their blooms look a lot like angelica with large umbles of small white flowers–the umbles can reach 12-24″ across and are massive on older trees. After the flowers go to seed, you can often see small birds feasting on the seeds along with deer and other wildlife. In the fall, the foliage turns dark yellow or purple and then pretty quickly drops from the leaves.  The berry clusters remain a little longer and are early winter forage for birds.

One of my favorite quotes about this tree comes from the University of Florida State Extension office, “Devil’s walking stick…literally thrives on neglect.”  It is also listed as “too aggressive for gardens”.  Thus, if you want to plant it, the best thing to do is plant it and then leave it alone (and understand that planting one will lead to many as they colonize by roots and suckers!

Plants for the Future suggest that this tree may be very ancient and that the spines covering the stem and leaves are an earlier evolutionary development to dissuade larger herbivores (read dinosaurs, mammoths, etc) who might seek to eat it. Deer and elk do not browse on it.  Given its very defensive and menacing appearance, that makes sense.

History of Human Use

Devils Club in late Winter getting ready to sprout

One of the few recorded uses of Devil’s Walking Stick is that it was grown in gardens in the Victorian era as a “grotesque ornamental.” The  Victorians were notorious for their love of the grotesque–those are things that are strange, hideous, or unpleasant while also being somehow mysterious, fantastical, or magnificent.  In some ways, it was the juxtaposition of something that was fantastical aong with being unpleasant or strange that lead to the idea of grotesque. I actually think that this “grotesque” concept is an excellent fit for Devil’s Walking Stick, which is certainly a slightly weird, wonderful, and yet disturbing tree to come across!

Another recorded use of the Devil’s Walking Stick was with the Cherokees, as described by Hannah Dinkins in Plants of the Cherokees and their Uses.  They were reported to harvest and roast the older roots and use them as an emetic (emetics are herbs that induce vomiting) or into a salve for healing old sores. Only the older roots were used this way, however, the young and green roots were considered poisonous.  The other use is, which is clearly a more energetic healing approach, is to burn the wood, and then as the wood burned, the smoke was blown on a person who had paralysis to treat the paralysis.

In the New Garden Encyclopedia by L. D. Seymour, Seymor notes that herbalists have used the root of devil’s walking stick, which they dry and grind into powder, for treatment of rheumatism, asthma, and coughs. In all of my years of studying herbalism, I have not come across any teachings of this plant that were not in obscure references and there are very few listings (none in places like Wood’s Earthwise Herbal).

Plants for the Future notes that eating large amounts of the berries are poisonous. They suggest that the young leaves (with their slender spikes) must be gathered before the prickles harden and then can be finely chopped and used as a potherb). While this might be the case, even the young plants are pretty vicious and I’m not sure this plant has any desire to be eaten!

Really not something you want to grab hold of!

The wood itself that comes from the trees is extremely light, soft, and brittle.  It has a lot of larger air holes, making it akin to something like young elder or staghorn sumac, but not as firm. Because of the nature of the wood, it does not have many human uses (although it will certainly start a decent campfire).  I’ve worked with it a bit and have found that you can certainly make small things from it like wands, a walking stick, or staves, but I’m not sure you’d want it for any tough job (like a handle).

The Magic and Meanings of the Devil’s Walking Stick

I was unable to find any specific mythology or magic surrounding the Devil’s Walking Stick tree, despite its widespread growth here in the US.  Based on the above information, we might consider at least three possible meanings for this tree:

Opportunistic and cunning. The Devils Walking Stick offers very opportunistic and cunning energy.  It grows in areas that have been disrupted (like our logged forests) where it quickly colonizes and spreads, growing quickly and taking the opportunity provided.

Over-the-top Defenses. The Devil’s Walking Stick is one of the most defended trees here on the US East Coast.  While its toxicity and thousands of thorns, nothing is going to get through to eat this tree.  I think this tree obviously signals that defenses are needed, perhaps more than are necessary.  I could see this tree being of use if you were feeling like you were being attacked or under duress.

Overcoming Adversity and Exorcism.  The energy of this tree would be good for helping you overcome any kind of adversity that you face and exorcise unwanted things from your life (physical or metaphysical).  This tree pulls no punches and stands in its power–and it will help you to do the same.

Don’t mess with me! Devil’s Walking Stick

I will also note that if you are developing a local ogham, Devils Walking Sick could be a potentially very good replacement for the Ogham Straif (Blackthorn).  Like Blackthorn, Devil’s Walking Stick is a pioneering species with a host of defenses and, frankly, the right kind of energy

I think that because this tree does not have a rich mythology or magical tradition, there’s a lot of opportunities to work with it, to experiment, and to see what comes.  I would love to hear from you, my readers, about any insights, stories, or experiences you may have with the powerful Devil’s Walking Stick!

 

Additional Sources:

https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=arsp2

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=arsp2

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c294

https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1764

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st080

Herbs for Visionary Work at the Winter Solstice

Plants are our medicine, our teachers, our friends, and help us connect deeply to spirit in a wide variety of ways including through spiritual work. Long before recorded history, our ancient ancestors used plants of all kinds. Ötzi, the ancient ancestor who was preserved in ice and who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE, was found with multiple kinds of plants and mushrooms, including birch polypore (a medicinal mushroom) and the tinder fungus, a mushroom often used for transporting coals starting fires.  I love plants, and I love the ancestral connections and assistance that they can provide. In more recent history, we can look to a variety of cultures that use plants in ways that help alter or expand consciousness.

What better time to do some deep visionary work than at the winter solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness? It is in these dark times that we can look deeply within, work with the spirits that guide us, and have insights that help us more deeply understand the world and our place in it.  It is in this darkness that we can go for visionary walks (including in the long and dark nights), do spirit journeying, and engage in other forms of divination or communion with the living earth.

What are visionary herbs?

Visionary herbs are those that can help us with deep spirit journeying, deep meditations, and the kinds of self-expression that lead to deeper awareness. There are at least two categories of visionary herbs.  One category is what are traditionally called the teacher plants, the ones that cause radical shifts in consciousness and awareness.  These are the plants with the strongest effects and include a variety of psychedelic substances including strong herbs and mushrooms. While these plants were once quite illegal (at least here in the states), laws in the last few years have really become laxer and allowed these plants to be more accessible. I’m not writing about this group of plants today, but there are certainly books and resources out there about them if you want to learn more.

The visionary herbs I’m talking about today are milder, legal herbs that can help us shift our consciousness and vision, but that are less potent. To me, the difference between the two is that the teacher plants will take you on a journey whether or not you want it and requires pretty much nothing on your part–once you take teacher plants, you are on the journey of whatever kind it is for the duration. The visionary herbs I’m discussing today are milder and are more like aids or companions. Many of these visionary herbs have spiritual and mental effects that may make you more open, aware, or attuned at the moment, and are tied to helping bring the subconscious and intuitive sides forward.

The herbs I will share about today come from both teachings given to me as well as from my own experiences and connections with nature. Some of these herbs require you to build a relationship with them, while others will simply open the doors for you regardless of how long you have been acquainted. All herbs for any spiritual purpose work better when you have a relationship with that herb. Think about it like this–you meet someone, and you have a great conversation over a cup of tea. You think to yourself, wow, this person could be a great friend to me! That initial experience is wonderful. Ten years later,  you are sitting with your long-term friend and have that same cup of tea. The nuance and interaction is much richer–you can give each other just a look, or say a single word, and there is much more meaning. You’ve created a shared history together, and that history connects you on a much deeper level. This is why we build relationships with these visionary plants over time–the longer you have a relationship with a plant species (or even more ideally, the same lineage of plant or same plant), the depth of what you can do together grows.  When I say the same lineage of plant, what I mean by that is either the same plant from season to season (perennial plants) or the daughter and grandaughter plants born from the seed of your first plant.  These don’t have to just be plants you grow, but can be plants that you visit regularly.  Building plant relationships takes time, but it is time well spent.

Visionary Herbs for Awareness, True Sight, Memory, and Relaxation

So many different plants can go on this list, but for our purposes today, I’m going to share two plants from four different categories that I find are useful for visionary work.  You can agree or disagree, and in the comments, I’d love to hear your suggestions for plants that you have used.  I will also say that there are a lot of plants that *could* go on this list, but I’m only offering those that I have direct experience with over a period of years.

Herbs that Open up Awareness: Mugwort and Ghost Pipe

Our first set of herbs are those that open up our awareness and give us new perspectives and vision. Perhaps we need to see things from a new angle, rethink patterns of behavior and belief that have caused us difficulty, or do shadow work within ourselves. My favorite two herbs in this category are mugwort and Indian ghost pipe.

Mugwort: Artemesia vulgaris

Mugwort from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Long used as a dreaming herb and smoke cleansing herb, mugwort helps with any kind of meditative or subconscious work.  Within both psychology and the occult traditions, there is an acknowledgment of the multiple selves within us.  One interpretation is that we have a rational self, that self that is “in our heads” and that typically we are projecting when we are out and about in the world.  This is the thinker, the doubter, the one that can hold a career or do math. The second self we have is our intuitive self, the self beneath the layers of rationality (and there are many of those layers), perhaps the one that comes out during meditation, spiritual work, and other deep practices.  This is the self that is where our intuition resides and is a bridge to the many subconscious and unconscious realms within us. The third self is the spirit self, the piece of us that transcends death and that reincarnates, the self that is connected to everything else. Connecting with this self and other spiritual powers is one of the goals of most spiritual traditions and practices. I believe that channeling the awen through bardic arts or doing journey work are ways to help the intuitive self bridge to the spirit.  This long explanation is to say that mugwort is very, very good at helping us with this kind of work. Mugwort not only helps us have more vivid, intense, and lucid dreaming but also connects with those deeper selves, which leads to a more fruitful understanding of ourselves, our world, and our connections to all living things.

Indian Ghost Pipe: Monotropa uniflora

Ghost Pipe from the Plant Spirit Oracle

While mugwort helps bridge to the deeper selves, Ghost Pipe is particularly good for working with the rational self. The rational self is the product of a lot of outside influences: people’s external pressures about how we should behave, what we should do, what we should say, etc.  Sometimes, we end up living to the expectations of others rather than following our true path. Ghost pipe is very good at helping us slog through those layers and get to the heart of the issues at hand. Thus, ghost pipe offers us distance, perspective, and new understandings.  The best way I can describe this is with a metaphor of the forest and the trees. We live our lives on the ground, in the middle of the forest. Some of us might be walking a clear path in that forest, and others might be wandering (by choice or not). Ghost pipe helps temporarily lift us out of the forest and let’s us see the broader picture–it helps us expand our perspective.  I will note that due to overharvesting, Indian Ghost Pipe should be used *ONLY* as a floral essence.

Herbs that Aid with Seeing Clearly: Eyebright and Blue Vervain

Another thing that we need to do is see clearly.  Perhaps our own past experiences cloud our judgment.  Perhaps our past traumas and experiences prevent us from being able to clearly see what is before us.  Perhaps ongoing things in the world have put us in an emotional place and we need to break free.

Eyebright. Euphraise Officinale, Euphrasia spp.

Sometimes, the magic is in the name of the plant itself, and that is certainly the case with Eyebright.  On the physical level, eyebright helps strengthen the sight and the eyes, and many people take it as a healing herb for this reason.  But this same medicinal action happens on the level of our spirit, where work with eyebright helps us to see true.  We can see to the heart of things, to the heart of issues, and that true sight offers us new ways of being, healing, and inhabiting the world.

Blue Vervain. Verbena Hastada

Blue Vervain from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Blue vervain is a visionary herb that does essentially two things.  The first thing it does is allow us to let go of those things we cling to too tightly (e.g. things have to be a certain way, maybe a bit of OCD we are harboring) and instead, it allows us to go with the flow.  It thus connects us with that deeper, intuitive self by giving the rational self a bit of ease and relaxation.  Blue vervain works over time, so it’s particularly good to start taking it in some form and keep taking it for a while to get it to work for you in this way.  Once we are able to let go of the things we cling to, we are offered new visions and ways forward.  The second way Blue Vervain works is by putting us more in touch with our emotional side.  Blue vervain always lives by water–it understands how to help us navigate our difficult emotions and offers vision beyond them.

Herbs that Sharpen the Mind and bring Focus: Lavender and Rosemary

Sharpening our mind and our focus is something that we can all benefit from.  These herbs seem even more critical after nearly a year of long-term trauma from the global pandemic when many are now suffering the effects of overload, burnout, and more.

Lavender. Lavendula Spp.

Lavender is a herb that helps bring focus and clarity. It has a very gentle action that promotes the body to relax while the mind focuses.  This is an excellent combination for meditation and spirit journeying–bringing the mind into a place where it’s not going to wander while you are attempting your visioning work, while also bringing the body into a place of calm and tranquility.  Other herbs do this well too  (Lemon balm is another solid choice), but I think lavender is particularly good at bridging that mind-body connection that is necessary for powerful spirit work to take place.

Rosemary. Rosmarinus Officinalis.

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary has long been associated with memory and remembrance.  If you are doing memory work of any kind, Rosemary is an excellent ally (including ancestor work, as linked above). Rosemary strengthens our memory and encourages us to use our memories in new ways, shaping them, and storing them.  Rosemary is particularly good for memory mansion work, using method of loci techniques that have been handed down by masters from the ages.  If there is a memory you want strongly to retain or a memory you want to bring back, rosemary is your guide.

Herbs that relax the Body and Release Tension: Kava Kava and Passionflower

Our final set of herbs can help foster a deeper sense of relaxation and allow us to go more deeply into sacred dreaming, meditation, or simply relax more fully.

Kava Kava: Piper methysticum.

Kava Kava is the only herb on my list that doesn’t grow in the US East coast, but I wanted to include it because there is nothing else like it–and because you can ethically source it from small farms effectively in Hawaii, thus supporting sustainable farming practices.  Kava Kava is a deeply relaxing herb, working on both the mind and the body. When you take kava in either tincture or tea form, it somewhat numbs the lips briefly. That same effect is later passed onto the body–not so much numbing, but taking away pains, deeply relaxing the muscles, and putting you into a relaxed state.  I like to use Kava Kava as part of my spiritual practice when I’ve had a long day and that day has really gotten into my body–I am carrying the worries of my day or my life in my physical body.  This means that I get literal aches and heaviness, and that makes it difficult to do spiritual work.  Kava helps me relax into myself and allows the spiritual work to flow.  (If you take a lot of kava, you will be impaired at driving, so please keep this in mind).

Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata

Passionflower is an outstanding nervine plant that helps our nervous system relax and thus, our bodies relax.  Passionflower is one of many nervines, but I find it particularly good for relaxation when the goal is spiritual work.  Part of it, perhaps, is that it is such an otherwordly flower–looking like the full moon on an enchanted evening.  But also, each different nervine has their own unique qualities–and passionflower helps one get into that place of calm so that the world of spirit can flow.  In a temperate climate, you can grow it yourself by keeping it as a vine in your home during the winter and then letting it grow wildly during the summer, offering it trellising.  Cut it back when the frost comes and bring it in for the winter months.  After a few years, your vine will produce many flowers and later fruits each year–which are an absolute delight!

Obtaining visionary herbs

Obviously, if you are going to use any of these herbs, you have to figure out the best way to obtain them. If you can grow them or harvest them yourself, this is probably the best thing you can do because it helps establish a deep relationship. I would pick one or two herbs that you really want to work with and cultivate them–even a pot on a windowsill can produce a beautiful rosemary or lavender plant! The alternative is to try to get them from an ethical, organic grower.  You don’t want conventional (read – chemically sprayed) herbs for any of your visionary work. The chemicals themselves can harm the spirit of the plant.  These plants are used to working with humans as friends and guides, and the spraying of poison on them really damages that relationship. So please, please be careful about ethical sourcing and chemical-free plants when you are sourcing herbs.  I would also be very careful of the “wild harvest” label, particularly for at-risk plants like kava or ghost pipe.  Wildharvested is often not sustainably harvested, so you want to be careful.  Places that are good for sourcing herbs are small farms like Black Locust Gardens or larger, ethical companies like Mountain Rose Herbs.

Taking visionary Herbs

You have a number of options for working with and taking visionary herbs. I’ll list the options, and which herbs might be best for each option.  All of the herbs I’ve listed are safe and non-toxic, so you can do a lot with them.

Rosemary smudge

Smudges and smoking blends: Mugwort is commonly used in smoking blends and smoke clearing sticks (smudge sticks).  Lavender and rosemary also work great in smudge sticks or incense blends.  Here, the idea is that you burn the plants and inhale the smoke–either in the air around you (with incense/smudges) or by smoking it in a sacred way.  For smoking, a little bit goes a long way!

Teas. Many of the plants on this list make excellent teas: mugwort (brewed briefly, too long and it gets bitter), rosemary, lavender, kava kava, and passionflower are all good choices.  Blue vervain is a very bitter herb, so I suggest using it as a tincture instead.

Infused oils. Any of these herbs are great as an infused oil, which you can then rub on your body or temples for spiritual work.  See my instructions for how to create an infused oil here.

Tinctures. Any of the herbs can be made into a tincture with a long shelf life. Alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine make good menstrua for making a spiritual tincture.  Alcohol and vinegar have an indefinite shelf life while glycerin lasts about a year. The tincture is easy to make and I have instructions here.

Flower Essence. This is the only way I recommend using Indian Ghost pipe because of serious challenges with overharvesting this plant in recent years.  To make a flower essence, you’ll have to seek out the plant when it is in bloom (in my region, that’s usually late June to late August) and do a simple flower essence.  Here are instructions.

Conclusion

I hope this post has offered you some new tools for working–and embracing–the darkness during the period of weeks before and after the Winter Solstice.  There is something extremely magical about this time that allows us to dig in deeply with ourselves and do important work.  Blessings of the Winter Solstice!