Category Archives: druid tree workings

Druid Tree Workings: Intuitive Tree Sigils and Tree Sigil Magic

Nature provides incredible opportunities for us to work with her magic, through symbolism, sacred geometry, and meditation.  Today, I wanted to share a technique I’ve been developing for land healing purposes–tree sigil work.

beech tree rising up with interesting patterns

A potential tree to work with for tree sigils

Sigils have many different purposes.  In classic Western Occultism, some of the most well-known sigils are found in the Lesser Key of Solomon and are used to identify and evoke a particular spirit or entity. Another more recent use of sigils is through the practice of Chaos magic, where sigils are often used to set an intention and use the image to focus on that intention.  I covered bardic intuitive sigils some time ago on this blog; this use is in line more with the second intention. Sigils can be meditated upon, carved into wood or stone, energized and blessed, burned or buried, or placed in key areas for reminder and reflection.

Tree sigil work can be used for either purpose. That is, tree sigils can be used to bring the energy of the tree into your life.  And tree sigils can also be used for setting intentions and magical work. Sigils can then be meditated on, carried with you, buried, burned, set on an altar, and much more.

But what about natural sigils? How might we draw upon this practice in a nature-oriented way?  Enter intuitive tree sigils!

Tree Sigils and Nature’s Patterns

If there is one constant of nature, it is the pattern.  Patterns great and small can be found all over the natural world in various ways: spirals, branches, waves, and clouds being just a few.  Patterns are reflected all through sacred trees and plants–branching patterns, wave patterns, spirals, and much more. Tree sigils are sigils created from particular patterns present in nature, such as those found in trees.  That is, we can use nature as a guide to design symbols for a specific purpose. Thus, we can look to these sacred trees for inspiration when we need it.  For further info on nature’s patterns and archetypes, you might check out my post on the basics of sacred geometry and nature’s patterns; I also have a post on the use of sigils in snow.

Tree sigils are simply images that we create after connecting to and being inspired by a particular pattern.  This pattern could be unique to a specific tree or can be indicative of all spaces of tree.  Once we are inspired by the tree, we can capture some small form of it in a sigil, which we can then work with magically.  So let’s go through the steps to do this:

Two potential tree sigils from an interesting pattern in maple bark

Two potential tree sigils from an interesting pattern in maple bark

First, you want to set an intention for your sigil work. Consider the following: Do you want to more deeply connect to the energy of a particular tree?  Do you want the tree to aid you with a specific thing? Do you want to direct energy outward towards the tree or the land for healing/blessing? Spend time setting your intentions, as sigil magic is more effective when you have a clear sense of what you want.

Once you have your intention firmly in your mind, seek out a tree that may guide you.  If you want to work with particular energy, you can seek out a specific tree species that may hold that energy (e.g spruce for healing from illness, oak for strength, hawthorn for heart healing).  You can use your intuition to find the “right” tree, the tree that speaks to you.

Three finished tree sigils

Three finished tree sigils

Once you find your tree, make an offering and ask the tree if you can work with it for creating a sigil.  If the tree says no, thank the tree and move on.  If the tree says yes, spend time with the tree using basic plant spirit communication guidelines. Quiet your mind, meditate with the tree and listen to what the tree has to say to you. Use any divination approach you want to ask further questions (a pendulum being good for yes or no questions, while something like the Plant Spirit Oracle is useful for more complex questions).  Finally, ask the tree to provide you with a sigil for your work.

Once you’ve received your message, start observing the tree really carefully.  Move away from it and then walk up to it using different angles.  Get in close, looking at the details of branches, leaves, fruit, or nuts.  Walk around the tree and see what draws your eye.  Spend time doing this–it may take a while or something about the tree may immediately speak to you.   Now, look for patterns. Most commonly, you can find patterns in the following ways

  • In the bark of the tree, including in areas that are damaged or different
  • In the branches of the tree—look up and see how the branches may grow or cross each other
  • In the pattern of the leaf of the tree or the leaf veins of the tree
  • In the pattern of nuts, flowers, and other aspects of the tree

Each tree has many patterns that you can find—the key for you is to find the one that speaks to you most strongly.  Once you have found the pattern you like, draw it on your paper.  You can redraw it, change it, or even add a second or third pattern to the tree sigil from different parts of the tree.  There is no right or wrong way to do this—just use your intuition until you have a pattern, derived from that tree, that can guide you.

From there, you can decide how to best use the sigil based on your intention. If you are bringing something into your life, you might consider turning it into a pendant and blessing it (using a tree oil, tree incense, or sacred grove work). Wear your pendant and meditate on the sigil each day.  If you are using the sigil to remove something, you might create the pendant on a larger piece of paper and wood and then have a ritual fire to burn it or cast it into running water.  If you are doing blessing work on behalf of the land or others, you might create an altar and do regular prayers and blessings, placing the sigil in the center of the altar. You can combine the sigil with any number of other tree magic practices here in this chapter.

Example: Eastern White Cedar Good Health/Revitalization Sigil

I wanted to work with a tree to develop a sigil for good health and revitalization due to a recent illness.  First, I went out onto my land and spoke my intention aloud, allowing my intention to settle across the land.  Then, I just let my intuition guide me.  I closed my eyes and opened myself to the land, allowing me to be pulled in a direction.  I opened my eyes and started to walk.  Quickly, I could feel the large Eastern White Cedar near our garage pulling me to her.

I came to her and asked to sit before her.  I saw with her, paying attention to different aspects of her: the way her needles grow closely over each other, the pattern of bark on the branches, and the pattern of the trunk.  I was drawn to the pattern of the trunk, so I meditated on it for a bit.

The cedar and trunk/branch pattern

The cedar and trunk/branch pattern

Then, I sat with my notebook and began to create the sigil.  This one happened fast–I started with a more literal representation of the trunk and branch pattern and then simplified it.  Here’s what I came up with!

From there, the next step is to use the sigil however you want.  For me, I trace the sigil into the air around me each day before I go off to work (as right now, I’m back to in-person teaching and I want to have a bit of extra magical protection as I’m exposed to many people).  I also fashioned it into a small charm made of Cedar wood that I can carry with me.

Finally, this post is material from my forthcoming North American TreeLore Oracle project!   This project focuses on creating new knowledge and magical practices surrounding common trees in Eastern North America.  This is a great way for us to reconnect to the living earth, build new traditions surrounding nature, and more deeply understand the interconnection of ecology, lore, herbalism, and much more.  If you are interested in learning more about the project, we’ll be releasing a Kickstarter for it in the next 3-4 months.  You can follow my blog and/or sign up for my newsletter for more information!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) Medicine, Myths, and Meaning

PawPaw leaf - as big as your hand!

PawPaw leaf – as big as your hand!

The PawPaw is a tree that is so wild and unique and wonderful, and yet, is often quite unknown–it is the only native citrus tree we have in the upper east East Coast and midwest areas. Like some of the other trees I have recently shared in this series, Paw Paw is an underappreciated and under-recognized tree. Within the bushcraft and permaculture circles, it is quite well known as an amazing tree to find, plant, and tend. One of the reasons that PawPaw is probably not more well known has, unsurprisingly, everything to do with the commercial viability of the fruits. PawPaw fruit is absolutely delicious but it only stays good for a few days after picking–so it would never survive the rigors of modern industrial agriculture.  You can occasionally find it at a good farmer’s market, and it is well worth seeking out! You can also seek it out in the wilds. And yet, PawPaw is the only citrus tree that grows in a north-eastern climate.  Read that sentence twice–yes, we have a native citrus tree that grows utterly delicious fruits that taste like a cross between guava, strawberry, and a banana.

This leads to the names for the PawPaw, which includes everything from Appalacian banana, Michigan Banana, Ozark Banana, Kentucky Banana, West Virginia Banana, to American custard apple, Quaker delight, hillbilly mango, and poor man’s banana. As you can see from some of these names, a bit of a stigma was once attached to PawPaw, which may be another reason it is not as sought out or well known.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a lack of discussion of PawPaw in the magical community–so, like so many of the underlooked understory trees (of which PawPaw is one), we will build a magical understanding of this tree by exploring its uses, edible qualities, medicine, natural history and doctrine of signatures (for my full methods, see this post).

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. 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–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Eastern Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, Tamarak, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, 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, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, 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 of the PawPaw

The slender stem of a five year old pawpaw

PawPaw has a native range that spans from the edges of Texas and Oklahoma all across the southeastern US into Georgia and Alabama and upward into Maryland and Pennsylvania.  As a USDA Zone 5-9 fruiting tree, people have planted it as far as New England and the upper Midwest. Pawpaw is one of the few fruit trees that can handle full shade, and when I’ve found it in the wild, that’s typically where you find it: along quiet stream beds and river valleys, in damp and fertile flood plains, and deep in the shade of the overstory. PawPaw often spread by roots to form a dense clonal colony–thus, when you find mature trees, you will often find a large patch of them growing closer together.

PawPaw is an understory tree, typically growing between 25-35 feet in height with trunks somewhere between 8-12″ in diameter at full growth. The leaves typically grow only hear the ends of the branches so PawPaw may look a bit sparse compared to other trees.

PawPaw flowers have three sepals (petal-like leaves) that surround six maroon flowers. PawPaws are predominately fly pollinated, which means that you do not want to sniff the flowers, as they often smell like rotting meat (I learned this the hard way, haha!).  Don’t stick your nose in that maroon flower! The PawPaw flower would be classified as a “carrion” flower due to this unique odor–it creates a stinking, fetid odor to attract flies and beetles that would pollinate it.

The flowers appear at the same time that the new leaves are coming forth in early spring. I will also note that the leaves and branches also may have a slightly fetid smell, so do keep this in mind as you work with this tree.  It is kind of amazing that this stinky flower and tree can produce such delicious fruit!

After spring pollination, the green fruits grow to the size of your hand or more, eventually dipping down the tender branches and dropping from the tree in September or October. Here in Western PA, it is often late September that the fruit is ready to drop from the tree, just around the Fall Equinox. The fruits typically will fall from the tree while still green and ripen on the ground.  This is when you can find them–pick them up on the ground green and then sit them on a counter or in a dark paper bag until ripe.  Keep a good eye on them, as they will ripen quickly.  Once they ripen, eat them fresh or process them into fruit leather, jam, pies, etc as they only stay ripe a few days before spoiling.

PawPaw as Anachronistic Fruit and Tree of the Ancestors

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

This PDF titled “Anachronistic Fruits and the Ghosts Who Haunt Them”  by Connie Barlow of the Harvard Arboretum gives a really interesting natural history of the PawPaw as an anachronistic fruit.  While pawpaw and other fruits (including Osage orange, Persimmon, Honey Locust, and Kentucky Coffee Tree) were originally eaten and spread by the “megafauna” at the end of the Pleistocene, these animals went extinct at about 12,700 BC, likely due to overhunting by humans. These megafauna animals included mastodons, giant sloths, giant beavers, and spread PawPaw fruits by ingesting and then pooping out the seeds.

Barlow notes that PawPaw and other anachronistic fruits developed clonal spreading techniques when there was an absence of large megafauna seed spreaders. She notes that at the Arnold Arboretum after an old PawPaw died, the underground root network had hundreds of baby pawpaw spring up almost immediately.  When humans came into North America at the end of the last Ice Age, they would have taken up the work of the Megafauna and spread the seeds of these useful and edible trees. Thus, if you find a large PawPaw tree cluster in the wild, perhaps it was deposited there by ancient human ancestors of the land.  And, anytime you are planting a new pawpaw tree by root cutting or seed, you are connecting with that ancient legacy.  So this is an ancestral tree with ancestral connections.

Human uses: Food and Wood

Obviously, the PawPaw is a great wild or cultivated food. As permaculture, restoration agriculture, and food forestry take off, PawPaw has become a shining superstar for developing native perennial-based food systems here in North America.  PawPaw are particularly good for areas where you have rich soil with shade and water. In fact, one of the first things I did when arriving on this land was to plant 30 PawPaws in the understory, much of which had been logged, as part of my forest regeneration efforts. They haven’t borne fruit yet, but I know they will in the next few years, and I’m quite excited!

As I mentioned above, the fruits typically fall from the trees in the fall.  PawPaw fruits are usually higher than you can reach in mature stands, so you have to wait for them to fall onto the ground to collect. The fruits fall green and will naturally ripen on your counter in a few days.  You can also pick them from the tree, but only if the tree is ready to give of its fruit–in other words, if the fruit is easy to pick from the tree, it is ready (just like harvesting a wild apple). If the fruit does not want to come off the tree, come back in a few days and try again–it is not ready.

The fruits are delicious when eaten raw. They have large seeds (which you can plant, but you need to keep them moist or else they lose viability–so plant just after eating!)  You can also create custards, pies, jams, and jellies from your pawpaws. There are two real keys to pawpaw.  The first is that you have to process it fast: it’s really only good for a few days on the counter (or maybe up to a week in the fridge) before it goes rotten, so you’ve got to use it while it lasts!  This post offers some great tips for where to buy PawPaw products like beer, popsicles, and more.  The second key is that it is best used fresh, dried, or baked–so with the exception of my goose egg custard, I don’t typically cook it much, as you do lose some of the flavors of the fruit. Canning a jam can work, but it’s not going to be nearly as good as a fresh or frozen puree.

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

The fruit itself really tastes like a custard already, but I’ve found it particularly good when a bit is added to a duck or goose egg custard (I use the linked recipe and replace 50% of the maple syrup with the pawpaw for either duck or goose eggs). I’ve also made a nice fruit leather using a similar technique to what I posted for Autumn olives in the above-linked post.

Beyond its delicious fruit, PawPaw has a number of other bushcraft uses. PawPaw wood is very soft and fibrous, making it excellent for use in a bow drill set, both spindle and motherboard as well as for a hand drill (needs to be quite dry to use as a hand drill).  In fact, my first bow drill set (which I made at the North American Bushcraft School’s MountainCraft Gathering in 2019, taught to me by Jeff Gotieb ) used a PawPaw spindle.  PawPaw is one of the softer woods, considered good for a beginner who is new to ancestral fire-making.

As with any uses of any tree, I always suggest you practice reciprocation: make offerings, ask permission, and do something nice for the tree in return (such as planting its seeds or offspring).  If you are going to enjoy the tree’s fruits, make sure you give something in return.

Historical and Present Uses in Medicine and Magic

In truth, there is almost nothing that I can find on the magical or mundane uses of PawPaw in any of my usual herbal books or references in the different western magical traditions (western occultism, hoodoo, herbalism, etc). Thus, it does not appear that PawPaw has traditionally been used for magical practices or herbalism. This is pretty typical of the other understory trees that I’ve studied, but I think that they are really worth getting to know!

However, what search does yield fruit is looking at some of the publications coming out of the scientific community.  Even if PawPaw wasn’t used traditionally, scientists are now discovering some of the amazing properties of this plant. For example, Nam et. al (2018) found that PawPaw fruit contained at least some anti-cancer components and may be a useful anti-cancer treatment with future study.  In another study by Nam et. al. (2019), they found that alcohol extraction of unripe fruits contained considerable anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties, suggesting possibilities for anti-aging and anti-microbial applications.  PawPaw is also being explored as a possible food additive for domestic fowl production.

PawPaw’s Magic and Divination

Given all of the above, PawPaw is a really interesting tree to think about from a divinatory and magical perspective.

Death and Underworld. Certainly, PawPaw has connections to the world of the dead and the underworld for several reasons.  The most important being that it has a carrion-smelling flower, that literally smells like fetid flesh, and that attracts flies and beetles as pollinators.  The second way that it connects is also through the doctrine of signatures–the tree itself has very sparse leaves and a very open frame, showing the skeleton of the tree (the branches and trunk) rather than being covered by leaves.  This connection might allow you to use the flowers to connect with the dead, to speak with them, or to help them on their journey.

Strong Need to Move On from a Toxic Situation.  Tied to the carrion flower that is transformed into an extremely delicious–but short-lived fruit, this tree may also signal that something that has been going on for a long time needs to end.  Sometimes we end up in situations where we should have ended a situation (a bad job, a bad relationship, a bad living situation) a long time ago, and for some reasons (fear, stress, exhaustion) we continue to persevere long past our breaking point.  PawPaw can signal the need to move on–and the healing and rewards (fruit) that come when we let go of the toxic situation.

Transience.  Because PawPaw’s fruit is so short-lived and transient, it reminds us of the transience or ephemeral nature of things.  We can never get too comfortable or used to anything in life–the only certainty is the passage of time.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look into the wonderful and delicious PawPaw tree–and may you find many on your travels!  I would love to hear of your experiences with this incredible tree!

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, and wild medicines is something that is growing as a pastime for many people. The joy of foraging from the land connects us to our ancient and primal roots and allows us a chance to build a more direct connection with nature. But with any practice rooted in nature comes the need for balance and responsibility. Thus, the following principles can help wild food foragers and wild food instructors harvest ethically, sustainably, and in a way that builds wild food populations rather than reduces them.  I share both the principles in text below as well as graphics.  The graphics are (full size and web-sharable versions, see links) and they are licensed under a Creative Commons license.  Anyone who teaches plant walks or wants to use them in foraging, wild foods, and herbalism practice is free to download them, print them, and share them! The two graphics are of the same content, rendered differently. For full size printable versions click the following links: The Foraging Flower (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG); Foraging Ethics Tree (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG)

Harvest Mindfully: Mindfully and ethically harvesting from the land to ensure sustainable harvesting, ensuring the long-term survival of wild food and medicines for the benefit of all life and future generations.

  • Take only what you need. Harvest only what you need and resist the urge to harvest everything. Find ways of preserving foods and wild medicine so that nothing goes to waste.
  • Harvest in a way that sustains long-term populations. Be careful about how much you harvest, where you harvest, and when you harvest to ensure that you are not damaging plant populations or harming individual plants. If you need to take a root harvest, it should only be done sustainably and when plants are in abundance. If you are taking a mushroom harvest, remember that mushrooms are the reproductive system; if you harvest them all, the mushroom can’t reproduce. At the same time, recognize that some plants should be harvested as much as possible–those who are spreading and harming native plant populations.
  • Harvest with gratitude and respect. recognize the gift that nature is offering you, and harvest respectfully and with gratitude. Be thankful for the plant and the opportunity to harvest.

Tend the Wilds: Our ancient human ancestors understood that creating a reciprocal relationship with nature were the only way to ensure a more bountiful harvest and sustain our lands so that they could sustain us in return. Thus, building in wildtending practices and tending the wilds should be a counter-practice to foraging.

  • Cultivate and spread wild plants. Learn how to cultivate and tend the native and naturalized plants you commonly harvest.  Work to establish new wild patches of these plants by gathering and scattering seeds, dividing and planting roots, and transplanting. Cultivate new patches which you can later harvest from.
  • Target your efforts towards at-risk plants. Look for plant populations that are in danger of disappearing (from overharvesting, loss of habitat, etc) and target your efforts to help cultivate them. This may mean that there are certain plant populations that you do not harvest until a more stable population is established.
  • Create a balance between foraging and wild-tending: Strive to balance your practices between foraging and wild tending, both in terms of working to cultivate more specific plant populations and also in terms of broader conservation and ecological work, such as protecting wildlands, replanting lands, engaging in political activism, or working with conservation groups.

Build your Knowledge: Understand the plants that you are harvesting–how they grow, how they function ecologically, and the populations of plants in your area.

  • Build your knowledge of ecology and plants. Recognize that there is a lot to know about plants and that this is a lifetime of study. The more you know, the more you are able to apply to your foraging and wildtending practice. Read books, attend workshops, and learn about how your plants function in the ecosystem: where do they grow? how do they grow? What insects/animals depend on them?  Which plants can you harvest as much as you want? Start by learning about a few plants and build from there.
  • Observe and interact.  Don’t depend on the wisdom only in books but get out into your local landscape, observe, and interact.  Recognize that the populations in your local area of plants and mushrooms may be radically different than what you read about.  Understand what is happening in the areas that you spend time in specifically so you can be more mindful of your interaction.
  • Connect, learn, and share with community.  We can do more as a community than as individuals, so find ways to connect with like-minded others, building and sharing knowledge.  The more we spread these principles and ethical foraging approaches, the more good we can do in the world.

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

I started teaching wild food foraging almost a decade ago after a lifetime of cultivating an ethical practice of foraging and working to regenerate damaged landscapes.  I began teaching foraging with the naive and simple premise that if people understood that nature had value for nature, they would honor and respect it, work to protect it, and cultivate a relationship with it. However, this is not the case. But with increasing frequency, as new people get into wild food foraging, I’m seeing something very different emerging: communities of people who see wild food foraging as a treasure hunt, going into areas without any knowledge of the plant populations or sustainable harvesting techniques, and pillaging the ecosystem.  And in these same communities, there is strong resistance to any discussion of limits, ethics of foraging, or cultivating reciprocation with the land.  But, this situation offers us a chance to grow and to learn how to be better stewards of the land.  With that said: what an opportunity for change. We are always learning and expanding our understanding, foraging is an opportunity for this. Be open to changing your perspective and be forgiving and understanding of yourself and others on this foraging path.

Unfortunately, in the wild food community, we see the same colonizing and capitalist attitudes that pervade other aspects of Western society. Here in North America, one of the underlying issues is that nature is treated by most people in the 21st century no different than it was treated in the 16th-19th centuries: as a resource that you can take as much as you want from. The history of colonization here in North America turned carefully cultivated food forests into deserts and destroyed the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples who lived in harmony with nature. The current practices of land ownership and individualism stress this further–the assumption is that if it’s your land, you can do what you want with it regardless of how it impacts other life living there. Many people born into Western culture are enculturated into this colonizing mindset and may not even be conscious of how much it impacts our assumptions and relationship with nature. This mindset drives a set of behaviors that are literally putting our planet–and all life–at risk. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear to me that at least some behavior surrounding wild food foraging is a new take on the very old problem of colonialism.

I’ll give three examples to illustrate the impetus for the principles I offer. When I was a child in the Allegheny Mountains, Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was easy to find. My grandfather used to harvest it in small quantities and brew it up for us as a special treat. In the years since, with the increasing demand from China and the rising prices for American Ginseng, in all my time spent in the forests here, I have never found a single wild ginseng plant growing.  This means that the medicine of American Ginseng is completely closed to the people of the Appalachians, and it should not be. I have only had the opportunity to interact with wild ginseng that someone (myself or others) has planted. And in cultivating it, I’ve realized how incredibly hard it is to establish and grow. Most people cultivating it have less than a 20% success rate with either seeds or roots. In a second example, when a friend and I were co-teaching a wild food class, we came across a patch of woodland nettles. Some of the students in the class immediately went into the patch of nettles like vultures, taking every last nettle. Not 15 minutes before, we had had a discussion of wild food ethics and sustainable harvesting, but this was quickly forgotten with the excitement of the harvest.  That nettle patch has since regrown with some careful tending, thankfully, but it took about four years to get as large and beautiful as it was. In a final example, one wild food foraging online group in my region, a person posted a picture of six 5-gallon buckets full of ramps, including the bulbs. This represented an extremely unsustainable harvest for several reasons, not the least of which being that ramps take 1-2 years to germinate from seed and up to 7 years to mature. When I kindly shared information about how to harvest ramps more sustainably (very limited or no bulb harvests depending on the population, being mindful of the amount being taken, scattering seeds to propagate ramps), I was banned from the group for “pick shaming.”  Most online groups have very strong and immediate reactions to anyone discussing ethics, sustainability, or limited harvests, which prevent any conversations from taking place.

These three examples illustrate the challenges present with overharvesting and were part of the impetus for the above principles. I will also note that all of these examples come from the United States; I don’t know if the issues I’ve witnessed apply to other contexts or cultures.

I’ve never met a wild food instructor, teacher of herbalism, or earth skills instructor who didn’t do their best to teach at least some of the principles I’ve outlined above.  But it seems that we need to do more, particularly as large numbers of new people are picking up wild food foraging and that many online spaces are opposed to discussions of the ethics of practice. These principles can be a critical part of every class we teach, every social media post, every Youtube video we create, and every publication we author. By adhering to a set of ethical standards that put wild food foraging in the broader context of building a reciprocal relationship with nature, I believe we can create a more balanced and ethical practice for all.

Examples of the Ethics in Action: Working with Milkweed, Garic Mustard, and Oak

Here are three specific examples how this might be done, both from a teaching standpoint and from a practitioner standpoint:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of my favorite wild edible plants, with four different harvests throughout the season. A wild food foraging practice that includes common milkweed has a chance for causing harm. Overharvesting shoots can prevent the plants from growing at all; overharvesting flower buds, immature seedpods, or silks can prevent the milkweed from going to seed and spreading.  In most areas in the US, common milkweed is in decline due to new farming techniques, spraying, mowing, and land-use changes. Thus, our land needs a lot more common milkweed, which is a critical food source for declining insect populations, including the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly.

When I teach common milkweed, I start by passing out small packets of common milkweed seeds that I have grown in my garden from local seed stock.  I tell people about what a wonderful wild food that common milkweed is, how good it tastes, and how to prepare it.  And, I ask that people work to cultivate their own patch (in their garden, yard, or in a wild area) so that they can eventually start harvesting it themselves.  I explain that I do not, ever, harvest this in the wild but rather, I cultivate new patches and eventually return to them to harvest. In this example, I teach Common Milkweed in context: not only what it is but how to harvest, but the challenges surrounding it.  And, I put the direct tools for change–seeds–in their hands, so that they can spread them and begin their relationship with milkweed from a place of reciprocation and stewardship.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is another plant I commonly use and teach.  The lesson of this Garlic Mustard is a very different one: Garlic mustard is an opportunistic plant (I avoid the term “invasive”, also for ethical reasons) and by harvesting, we can control the populations of this plant.  Because it is always abundant and opportunistic, not only do I teach this plant, I encourage those on my plant walks to harvest as much of it as they can while we are on the plant walk.  I will sometimes bring a garlic mustard pesto or another dish that they can taste to see how delicious it is.  On social media, I will share recipes and information on how to find it and cook it, so that others can also start harvesting this plant abundantly.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Oak (Quercus Rubra, Quercus Spp.) is another one of my favorite trees from a foraging perspective. When I teach oak in the fall, I usually bring a sample of acorn bread or cake so people can get a sense of how delicious the oak is.  This helps people recognize and honor the oak tree as such an abundant resource. We discuss the principle of the “mast year” and how you can harvest acorns. We discuss how to identify good acorns to harvest based on examining their caps and shells.  We do talk about how much one can reasonably harvest and process–and how to leave acorns for wildlife.  I also teach wildtending practices with Oak in two ways: first, I encourage them to be like a squirrel, not only harvesting acorns but, after harvesting, taking a stick and popping some of them back into the ground to propagate the oak.  I also encourage people to return to their favorite oak in the spring and dig up some of the small oak seedlings to spread elsewhere, ensuring the genetics of the tree survive.  This creates a balanced relationship with the oak, and helps repopulate a keystone species in our bioregion.

In all three examples, I’ve developed both a teaching and foraging practice based on examining the specific context in which a plant or tree grows, its abundance, and the ecological needs it has.  In the case of Milkweed, declining amounts of milkweed (including in my immediate ecosystem) have led me to cultivate it in a number of places, spreading those seeds outward, and considerably limiting how much milkweed I enjoy eating.  The case with Garlic Mustard is the opposite–I harvest and eat as much of it as I can as a way of limiting the spread.  One of the practices of the oak is to participate in acorn planting and spreading oak trees.  Each of these wildtending practices allows me not only to ethically balance a foraging practice but to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living earth.

I would love to hear thoughts on these principles and other ideas for how we can cultivate ethics of reciprocation within wild food foraging!

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Eastern Sycamore (Plantaus Occidentalis) – Magic, Medicine, Ecology and Uses

The glorious sycamore tree!

The glorious sycamore tree!

Here in Western Pennsylvania, we have a wonderful set of scenic rivers that lend themselves to kayaking, whitewater rafting, and overnight kayak camping trips. This is one of my favorite pastimes, especially as climate change has had the tick population skyrocket in the last 10 or so years and pushed us into more heatwaves. One of the quintessential features of our waterways here are the Sycamore trees. Sycamores are easy to spot even at a distance: the mottled bark, dark on the bottom and giving way in patches to light white tips; the craggy and interesting growth formation, making the trees appear whimsical and distinct. As you kayak through many parts of Western PA on our larger rivers, you will encounter these little islands that are held there by many old, weathered and small sycamores.  As you drive through the countryside, you will find many river valleys just full of sycamores of various sizes and heights. Sycamores are synonymous with moving water here, and they are truly a delight to experience.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. 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 North American East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, 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, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, 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

Sycamore is often called buttonwood, buttonball, American sycamore, American Planetree, western Plane, Occidental Plane, or water beech, has a native range stretching from Vermont to the bottom of Georgia and across the midwest into Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa.  Thus, it spans most of the eastern seaboard and midwest and is quite common throughout its range.  It has also adapted to life outside of its range and thus can be found in other parts of the US, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina.

Sycamore Leaves

Sycamore Leaves

The Sycamore tree is the largest deciduous tree located in Eastern North America -they can typically grow up to 130 or more feet high and get to more than 6 feet in diameter. The “Buttonball Tree” is the largest Sycamore in the world at present. Buttonball tree is located in Sunderland, Massacutsess, and is 174 feet high and 4 feet in diameter.  Pennsylvania’s largest sycamore is 148 feet tall and is actually located in one of my favorite kayaking spots–a wilderness Island on the Allegheny River in North-western Pennsylvania.  The Allegheny Sycamore along with her millions of siblings line the Allegheny river and help control erosion.

The Eastern Sycamore is a beautiful tree that is very easy to identify because of its distinctive bark pattern–the darker bark flakes off in puzzle piece shapes to reveal lighter bark underneath, giving the tree a look almost like a jersey cow!  I love the way the sycamores grow–at odd angles, with strange knobs on the branches and exposed roots.  They really have a quite magical and whimsical appearance.  Sycamore often grows with divided trunks or secondary trunks as they age, and has a very open spread of limbs branching out.

In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman notes that the sycamore can grow up to 70 feet in only 17 years, making it both very fast-growing and yet long-lived. It is shade intolerant, which is part of why it grows so well on our sunny waterways. He also notes that it is common for mature trees to develop hollow portions within their trunks where the inner wood decays.  This creates a great home for opossum, raccoon, wood duck, owls, birds, bats, and more. Sycamore is often found with other lowland species, including Willow, Eastern Cottonwood, Silver Maple, American Elm, Ironwood, and Elder.

Sycamore on the edge of the river holding back erosion!

The sycamore has small flowers in round (globose) heads that bloom April – June depending on the region, and the flowers give way to a hanging seed pod that is a tight round ball that dangles from the tree.  The seed ball persists throughout fall and winter and is about 1″ or so across.  In the winter, you can see the sycamores with thousands of seed balls dangling, looking mightily festive!  The leaves resemble maple leaves but with less pronounced lobes; the leaves are usually 5-10″ long with 3-5 lobed areas.

One of the threats to Sycamore is the anthracnose canker, which was introduced by importing Plantaus Orientalis (the Oriental Plane).  Plantaus Orientalis is very resistant to anthracnose, but American Sycamore is not.  While the canker will not kill the tree outright, it will often defoliate the tree in spring.  If you see a “witches broom” on a sycamore (a huge mass of tangled branches) this is one sign that the tree is battling the anthracnose canker.

One of the major functions of the Sycamore ecologically is to control erosion–the extensive root structures, even among small patches of tiny sycamore, will hold hillsides, banks, and islands in place from the fiercest floods.  The small seedlings will grow all over small islands in rivers and all along banks, and can handle being completely submerged during seasonal flooding and will bounce right back once the floods are over.  This is a tree that understands how to endure the rise and fall of the rivers and is evolved to do so.  While we do have willows in the region, they are more found along with areas of standing water like lakes or marshes and are not as dominant in this function as the mighty Sycamore.

The American sycamore once had a much wider range–it once grew abundantly in the forests of Greenland and the Arctic in the Cretaceous (145-66 million years ago) and Phanerozoic eras (66 million to 2.6 million).

Human Uses

American Sycamore was once extensively planted as a shade tree in cities and can handle a city environment.  However, due to the effects of the anthracnose canker and the defoliation that the canker causes, London Plane (resistant) is often planted instead.

The wood of the sycamore is heavy and quite hard, but also difficult to work.  It is coarse-grained and twisted, but brittle. Traditionally, this is the wood used for butcher blocks as well as barrels, boxes, crates, drums, pails, and various kinds of storage devices.  Occasionally, it is also used to make furniture, siding, and musical instruments.  I couldn’t find this in any of my sources, but it strikes me that people also made buttons from this tree, hence the buttonwood name. Sometimes these folk names are a really good indication of what the tree was once used for.

According to Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood, the Sycamore was used extensively by eastern indigenous peoples to create huge dugout canoes that could hold 10-30 or more people.  They used massive sycamore trunks for this task and would chip and burn away the wood.

Sycamore by a gentle stream

Sycamore by a gentle stream

Another human use of the Sycamore is also tied to water–the Sycamore is one tree that can be tapped in the spring as an emergency clean water source and also for boiling down the sap.  While I have not boiled the sap, Euell Gibbons has.  According to stalking the wild asparagus, Gibbons collected copious amounts of sap from the tree and boiled it down, getting a scant amount of sap that tasted like bad molasses. So after his report, I’m not too keen to try!

Beyond these uses, the American Sycamore does not appear in the magical sources I frequently consult, including those in the western occult tradition, herbal material medicas, American hoodoo, PA dutch traditions, and more.  There are historical references to other Plantaus species that are common to Europe or to the Biblical Sycamore (which is a fig tree), but there does not appear to be any magical tradition based in North America for the sycamore.  I don’t want to present this information on other sycamores as it does not apply to American Sycamore, so I will instead base the rest of this based on the ecological and traditional folk functions of the tree.

The Magic and Divination Of the Sycamore Tree

Because of the lack of a magical or even herbal tradition of this tree, I am going to draw upon this tree’s ecological function to consider how we might use it for magic and divination practices.

Helping us navigate “watery” issues. In druidry, the realm of water (tied to the west) is tied to our emotions and mental selves.  Sycamore, being traditionally both located on the waterways and also used for large boats and navigation, is a perfect tree to help us work with our emotions productively, understand our emotions, and navigate emotional issues with others.

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

Dealing with trauma and intense emotions. A second feature of the sycamore ecologically is its ability to control for erosion and handle major floods.  We can translate that into a magical ability to help us in really difficult emotional situations: in a situation where there’s an emotional flood (a breakdown, a trauma, an explosive event, etc), Sycamore is a tree that can be used to hold fast to, to hold onto something beyond the flood.  And once the emotional flood recedes, Sycamore is a first-rate healing tree to help you recover.

Shadow work. The peeling and intricate bark of the sycamore, the fact that sycamore often goes hollow in older age, and the fact that it has been used to create numerous water-faring and water-holding vessels also speak to this tree’s ability to help us work with our deeper emotions and shadow selves.

Now that I’ve written so much about sycamore, I’m itching to get out on my kayak so I can admire the sycamores that line all of our waterways and spend time with them!  I would love to hear your own stories and information on the American Sycamore tree! 🙂

PS: I will be taking some time off of blogging for the next 4 weeks while I finish writing TreeLore Oracle / North American Sacred Trees book project as well as working on AODA’s Apprentice Guide and New Candidate Guides in preparation for releasing our curriculum update.  I look forward to returning in mid-August!  Have a great Lughnasadh!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Juneberry Tree (Amelanchier spp., Serviceberry, Shadbush, Sasakatoon) Medicine, Magic, and Divination

Juneberry Tree in Abundance

We are now at the time when it is at peak throughout the Eastern US and thus,it is a great time to learn about this wonderful tree. Juneberry, also known as Amelanchier, Serviceberry, Saskatoon, or Shadbush is a grouping of 20 deciduous small trees or large shrubs. Juneberry is a delightful understory tree or shrub that is widely loved and sought out among the Appalacian peoples here in Western PA and across the midwest and the southeastern United States.  I remember a warm summer day a few years ago when the Juneberry pickings were quite good–I and two friends made our way to a local park, where we gorged ourselves in delicious berries and picked over four gallons–with so many berries still left on the tree.  The next few days we enjoyed the berries fresh, canned them into jam, baked them into pies, and just were in awe of the abundance of these delightful trees.  Today, I would love to share this abundance with you and explore the ecology, lore, magic, and mystery of the delightful Juneberry tree!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. 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–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Tulip Poplar, Tamarak, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, 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, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, 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

Going harvesting with friends at the park!

Juneberry is often found as a large shrub or small tree, appearing anywhere from about 6 feet tall to up to 25-40 feet in height with a trunk no larger than 6-12″ in diameter. According to Linda Kershaw in Trees of Michigan, while it is easy to identify the Juneberry species, identifying the specific subspecies can prove very difficult or impossible due to hybridization (I’ve found this to be the case as well!). In fact, some scientists aren’t clear if Juneberry is one species or 20! Because of this, I am going to discuss the Juneberry/serviceberry species as a whole, with special attention to those that are common in the US Midwest and East coasts. Most of my experience comes from Smooth Serviceberry (Amelanchier Laevis) and Appalachian Serviceberry (Amelanchier Canadensis) which appears as a small understory tree throughout the Alleghenies as well as various ornamental cultivars that appear more like shrubs in urban and suburban settings.  And these are the two places you will find Juneberry–taller understory trees in forests throughout its range as well as urban cultivars in housing developments, on campuses and in parks.

The Juneberry has distinctive bark that is smooth, gray, with thick and darker vertical lines.  Once you learn to ID it, it is very distinctive from other trees you might encounter, making it fairly easy to identify even in the winter months.  They are slow-growing and relatively long-lived trees. The serviceberry can grow in a number of different conditions, with the exception of very wet areas or wetlands. It prefers drier soil, and so you are more likely to find it higher ground/uplands, etc. For example, in my region, the area that I know that has lots of Juneberry is our Gallitzin State Forest–this is literally the highest point in the county, on top of the Babcock ridge in the Allegheny Mountains at 2600 or so feet.  The Juneberry trees grow up and down the mountainside; you won’t find it in the damp valleys with the Eastern Hemlock or Witch hazel, only on the sides and peak of the mountain.

Unripe Juneberry (late may, a few weeks before ripening)

Unripe Juneberry (late may, a few weeks before ripening)

Juneberry tree produces 5-petaled flowers that are really beautiful in very early spring.  The flowers here often come out before leaves are on any of the trees (another characteristic of the understory trees–they take advantage before the overstory covers everything up).  If you are seeking out serviceberry for the first time, this is probably the best time to find as it is really easy to spot the flowers when the rest of the trees are still pretty bare.  Look for little clusters of white flowers. Once the flowers are gone, you can look for the fruits which go from green to red to deep purple that droop in nice fat clusters, or to the alternately-placed leaves with a tiny tooth edge ridge that is oblong and the smooth bark.

John Eastman notes in The Book of Forest and Thicket that Juneberry is particularly susceptible to gypsy moth damage as well as the destructive gymnosporanguim rust. This rust is hosted by Juniper / Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginia) and when it travels to a Juneberry or apple tree, it creates swollen fruits and distorted twigs that have powdery fungus. It’s a real disappointment to see your favorite serviceberry tree covered in this stuff!

A variety of wildlife enjoys the fruits including, according to Eastman, 22 different bird species – Cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, hermit thrushes, and northern orioles, to name a few. Beavers, foxes, red squirrels, bears, and white-tailed deer also enjoy the berries, fruits, bark, and foliage.

Young Juneberry Trunk

Young Juneberry Trunk

Elder Juneberry Trunks (notice the lines)

Elder Juneberry Trunks (notice the lines)

Food and Edible uses

The most important thing to understand about the Juneberry is that while the berry tastes kind of like a watery blueberry when fresh, cooking transforms its flavor into an incredibly delicious, rich, cherry-almond flavor that is hard to describe. Juneberry jam is one of my favorite jams because it is so delicious and unique!

In my experience, the challenge with finding these trees in the forest is that there is no way of reasonably picking the berries.  You can gather from what drops to the ground, but often that amounts only to a few handfuls.  I have had much better luck foraging these delicious berries in suburban and urban environments. My favorite harvest spot at present is at a local park where they have dozens of bushes planted as an ornamental!  Of course, with any foraging, please make sure you practice reciprocation–do something in return for nature, ask permission, and make offerings before you harvest from the tree.

A haul of Juneberry–so amazing and abundant.

In Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, Rollins notes that Juneberry was well esteemed by both early European explorers and Native American tribes. Native Americans would gather the berries, beat them into a paste, and dry them into cakes. The dried berries were then mixed with cornmeal and used in old-style puddings. Further, John Eastman notes that the berries were one of the primary fruits included in traditional pemmican–a mixture of dried meat (often venison or bear), fat, and berries that offer high calories and fat. In Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown, a range of indigenous uses of the berries are described, including how the Iroquois would ferment dried Juneberry, sugar, and water to make a refreshing drink (noted in 1916). The Chippewa found them so refreshing that the term “Take some Juneberries with you” was a common expression to be told to relax.  Many tribes dried the Juneberry for eating in the winter months and used it for various winter food applications.

Other Human Uses

The wood of the Juneberry is very heavy, hard, strong, and close-grained.  It has a dark red-brown appearance with lighter colored sapwood.  Today, it is a favorite wood of spoon carvers and, in larger pieces, it is good for wood turning. Erichsen-Brown notes that the wood was used to make arrow shafts and pipe stems by indigenous peoples, particularly because it was so hard.

Eastman notes that the Juneberry has traditionally been used as a seasonal clock widely in North America, and he indicates that no other tree has quite this feature. In Colonial times, the blooming of the Juneberry was used by fishers to know when the spawning of shad fish happened (hence the common name “shadbush” given to the tree).  The term “serviceberry” also was noted to mark the time for burial services for people who had died over the harsh winter (from cold, starvation,etc). Today, we can also see the timing of the gypsy moths from this tree.

Juneberry in Western Occultism and Herbalism

Like my other understory trees, the Juneberry does not get much notice or love from traditional western herbalism or occult communities.  All of my usual sources I consult do not have entries for the serviceberry, which is unsurprising.  I also cannot find references to this tree in any modern herbals (and I own many!)

Serviceberry on your morning cereal! Delicious!

Most of what I have found about herbal uses comes from the work of Erichsen-Brown.  She notes that the roots and bark were traditionally used by some tribes as medicinal tonics. Medicinally, Erichsen-brown notes a number of uses being tied to women’s health, particularly surrounding pregnancy. The Chippewa combined the bark of Juneberry was combined with that of pin cherry, chokecherry, and wild cherry decocted and drank for feminine issues (p.167). She notes that the Ojibwe used the bark also for an expecting mother, while the Iroquois used the fruit to treat post-childbirth pain and hemorrhage.  I haven’t been able to find much in discussion of Juneberry in modern herbals, but it is clear from Erichsen-Brown’s work that this tree is traditionally connected with women’s health.  Plants for a Future lists a few additional uses, including being used in the treatment of snow blindness, use for a spring tonic, and astringent qualities.  Since Juneberry is in the rose family, these last two certainly fit!

The Magic and Divination of Juneberry

Time and keeping natural time.  The folk and traditional uses of serviceberry as a “natural” clock as well as its slow-growing and long-lived nature obviously lend this tree well to being tied to any issue dealing with time, particularly when things need to happen or should happen at a certain point.

Cycles. Tied to time as well as to the herbal uses of serviceberry, we have the idea of cycles, including cycles of the moon, the sun, our own human cycles, and the seasons.  Serviceberry reminds us that everything moves in a giant circle around the sun and the cycles of the seasons continue to spiral ever-forward.

Juneberry in the woods

Juneberry in the woods

The magic of naming.  This is a tree that carries a number of different names, and I think the names are important.  I originally called this berry by its most common name, “Serviceberry” thinking that the berry and tree were always “in service” to others. But in doing deeper research on this berry, and finding that the service referred to a funeral service, the name lost its magic.  So I shifted to calling it by the other name I had heard as a child–Juneberry.  You have a choice with names–and this berry reminds us that we can be named by what we are associated with or surrounded with.  It reminds us of the power in a name–what it can teach us about the world.

I am so glad to share the amazing Juneberry with you.  I would love to hear from you–have you met this tree? Do you have one? have you tried the berries?

Druid Tree Workings: Exercises for Deepening Tree Relationships

A wonderful tree to get to know!

A wonderful tree to get to know!

Trees are wonderful and amazing beings, true teachers, friends, and wonderful introductory guides to nature’s mysteries.  Sometimes though, we don’t realize what a powerful impact different trees have had on our lives.  As one step towards cultivating a deep relationship with trees, this week I offer a series of exercises that can help you explore your memories of trees and see what existing connections you may already have.

These exercises and meditations can help you develop relationships with trees or deepen relationships that you’ve already started. You can do them either as meditations or as freewriting activities.  Discursive meditation or journey work would be appropriate if you wanted to use these as meditation tools. In a discursive meditation, you might meditate on the question or theme given (in each exercise) and work through your thoughts. In a journey meditation, you would use the prompt to astrally travel to see the tree in question and interact. If you want to use these strategies as freewriting prompts, have a notebook or a few sheets of paper in front of you and write whatever comes to mind.  Don’t worry about your grammar or penmanship, just write from the heart.

At the end of these exercises, you may have a deeper appreciation for the tree and plant relationships that you’ve cultivated in the past and a deeper insight into these trees’ relationship with you.

Your Most Powerful Tree Memories

The first exercise is a meditation to focus on your most powerful memories with trees.  I suggest a series of meditations for this exercise.  The first meditation should simply be uncovering the question: What are my most powerful memories with trees?   Start by creating a list in your mind.  Once you’ve created a list, you can use journey work, freewriting, or discursive meditation to work through each of the memories.

If You Were a Tree, What Tree Would You Be Activity

The second exercise is to consider what kind of tree you would be.  Consider the qualities that you have–or share–with specific tree species.  Which has always drawn you the most?  Which may you resonate with?  If you are doing this as a discursive meditation or freewrite, you can work through different possibilities.  If you are doing this as a meditative journey, you can envision yourself as a tree on the astral and then seek identifying features to tell you which tree you are.

Trees

Trees

A Tree that has Done Something for You

In this exercise, spend time reflecting on the gifts that trees have offered you, or perhaps a special tree that has done something for you.  Again, you can make a list if you have multiple things to consider, and work your list with a series of meditations, journeys, or freewrites.   This could be something physical, like the chestnut or oak beams holding up your barn or the sassafras that came down in a storm whose roots you harvested for medicine, or something metaphysical, like a powerful energy exchange you had with a tree or teachings that a tree offered.

A tree that You have Done something For

Now, consider the question: What have I done for trees? Consider the times you’ve helped trees or done something for them: planting new trees, gathering and scattering nuts, cleaning up garbage in a forest, teaching someone something about a tree and more.

A Tree that You Remember/Miss

The final exercise asks you to reflect on a tree that you miss.  This could be a tree that still lives out in the world but that you are far away from.  Or, it could be a tree that you once new and that has since been cut or died.  Bring this tree firmly into your awareness, thinking about the experiences that you had with this tree, the gifts this tree offered.  If appropriate, make an offering of gratitude in honor of this tree.

Working with Your Tree Relationships

What these activities (and the grandmother tree activity from a few weeks ago) helps you do is to recognize what tree allies you already have that you might consider doing additional deep spiritual work with.  Perhaps you have a tree that you haven’t seen for a long time but that is important to you–and it would be wise to pay this tree a visit. Or, you might realize that while you had a really good friend as an apple tree when you were a child, you no longer have a deep relationship with an apple tree, so maybe it is time to call a new one.  Or, if you are constructing a personal ogham, you might realize that some of these trees should belong in this ogham system.  The possibilities are endless for this kind of deep tree relationship work!

PS: My new book, Sacred Actions, Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Based Sustainable Practices is available now for preorder and is coming out in less than a month!  Please consider supporting me by purchasing my book.  You can purchase it on Amazon (US), from the Publisher (global), in the UK, or in Australia here.

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Tamarak / Larch – Larix laricina – Magic, Mecicine, and Mythology

A tamarak tree growing in a wetland

I remember when I first saw a Tamarack tree.  It was growing in a bog where I was hiking in late fall.  I looked at the Tamarack tree in its golden splendor and wondered if the tree was sick or had gotten too wet–was this confier dying?  It had knobby cones and branches, sitting there looking like it was in its death throes.  When I commented on it to my friend, she responded, No, that’s just the tamarack tree, a friend of mine said, and we examined the tree growing on the edge of a beautiful wetland.  Sure enough, a few weeks later, the tree was bare for the winter and only grew back in the spring. The Tamarack tree has a special place in the ecology in North America, especially as a mid-succession tree in very wet and swampy areas.

The Tamarack tree is known by many names: the Larch Tree, Eastern Larch, American Larch, Black larch, Red Larch, Hackmatack, Juniper cypress, Larch Tamarack. The term “larch” is an old German word like Hackmatack is the Abnaki word for “snowshoes”, suggesting one clear use of this tree.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. 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–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, 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, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, 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

Tamarack is particularly interesting from an ecological perspective for a number of reasons.  First, while Tamarack is in the pine family, it is quite distinct because it is deciduous (and is the only conifer that is deciduous in much of its range). Thus, it drops its needles in the fall and follows the maples and oaks rather than its pine brethren. It literally serenades the sun with a brilliant yellow-orange color before it drops its needles for the cold months of the year. Tamarack also is a mid-succession tree, growing in bogs and marshy areas, providing food and habitat, and eventually making way to the Eastern White Cedar tree, the pinnacle species.

Tamarak Needles

Tamarak Needles

As John Eastman notes in The Book of Swamp and Bog, Tamarack has early rapid growth for the first 40 years of its life—it puts on growth very early in the season (around Beltane) and slows down by Midsummer. It produces small oval-shaped cones that usually appear on branches that are between two and four years old. These cones will be wind-pollinated in the spring by pollen cones that appear yellow on the same tree, and eventually mature, open, and drop seeds in the fall.  As the tree loses its needles in the fall, these cones and branches look a little wicked and nobby, like an old woman! Like many other trees (Oaks) the Tamarack is strategic about seed production, producing bountiful seed only every 3-6 years. In the northernmost parts of its range, Tamarack may reproduce by way of the layering of lower branches on the ground and sending up a shoot.

As a mid-succession tree, Tamarack prefers nutrient-poor sites, including bogs, and its presence in a wetland may suggest it is growing at what Eastman notes is a “hinge line” or “transitional zone” between floating fen-mats in a bog and more grounded acidic bogs where plants like sundew grow. However, growing in such a wet environment does mean it develops shallow root systems and thus may be easily blown over by the wind. This bog environment also supports the germination of new Tamarack seeds—they often germinate on sphagnum moss. It also is frequently found with leatherleaf (promoting its germination through its ‘nurse tree’ status), and can be found with poison sumac, eastern white cedar (which succeeds it ecologically), shrub willow, and bog birch. Here in Western Pennsylvania, we often see the Tamaracks on the edge of acidic bogs that grow such wonderful and carnivorous plants like sundew and pitcher plants.

John Eastman also notes that in boggy environments, Tamarack is a “nurse tree” which allows it to produce shelter and biomass to allow other shrubs and smaller plants to grow in otherwise inhospitable conditions, particularly leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne Calyculata). Tamarack is also a favorite nesting site for Great gray owls as well as habitat for black-backed woodpecker, common snipe, common yellowthroats, and song sparrows.

Tamarak needles - underside

Tamarak needles – underside

A destructive pest—the larch sawfly (Pristiphoera Erichsonii) eats the Tamarack needles and has been responsible for destroying nearly all of the old-growth Tamarack trees in the Eastern US and Canada in the early 20th century.  Tamarack has slowly rebounded from this destruction and you can once again find healthy stands of Tamarack in many parts of its range. This sawfly is an excellent food source for blue ays, sparrows, woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, grosbeaks, and sparrows. At least half of the seeds dropped are consumed by ruffed grouse, wild hare, red squirrel, gray squirrel, porcupine, and white-tail deer. These animals also consume the inner bark, which is nutritious (and also an emergency food for humans).

Human Uses

Tamarack is not a very sought-after wood these days, which is somewhat surprising, given its many uses–this is likely due to the historical loss of much of the Tamarack wood due to the larch sawfly and its inconvenient growth location in swamps and bogs.  Still, the wood is heavy, hard, strong, coarse-grained, and has excellent rot resistance, particularly in wet conditions or when exposed to water. It has been traditionally used for many applications where rot resistance matters: fence posts, telegraph poles, railway ties, building materials, ladders, floorboards, and various kinds of poles. In 1938, it was noted that it has been used extensively for building ships, especially for parts of ships that are directly exposed to water.

Tamarak Branch

Tamarak Branch

According to Charlotte Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants, the Tamarack had a wide range of uses for the Native American people and early white Colonists of North America. The Ojibwe used Tamarack resin to seal boats (similar to white pine) and the bark to cover their wigwams. The roots were used to weave bags and sew the edges of canoes as the Tamarack root fiber is particularly durable compared with other materials. The inner bark was used as an emergency food by many, as nearly all conifers have nutritious inner bark. One of the things that Native Peoples often used tamarack wood for was boiling maple sap—it is a hot, fierce wood that burns brightly—exactly what you need for a good sap boil!

Turpentine can also be made from Tamarack trees. The trees were tapped, in a very similar method to maple tapping, and the sap collected–this is the process of making a “gum” turpentine as opposed to a “wood” turpentine (which is done with the stripped bark). After the trees were tapped, the gum is distilled to produce a volatile oil that was strong and mixed with paints and varnishes for lasting quality. This same sap was also used for all manner of wound healing in earlier times in North America.

Medicine and Herbal Qualities

Unfortunately, while Tamarack had a range of traditional colonial uses, it has limited coverage and uses in present-day herbals.

The best references to the medicinal qualities of the tree can be found in ethnobotanical sources. Erichsen-Brown notes that that the Ojibwe used the crushed needles and bark similar to how they would use white pine.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used the roots and bark from the trunk.  The fresh inner bark is used for poulticing wounds/inflammation; seeped bark as a tea.  It was used also as horse medicine; the inner bark was shredded and mixed with other feed grains to create a soft and supple hide.

Another shot of the tamarak tree

Another shot of the tamarak tree

The only coverage of the plant I could find in modern herbal sources was through M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, which offers insight on the bark, which she notes is used as a laxative, tonic, diuretic, and alternative.  She notes that it has widely been used for treating issues with the liver, rheumatism, jaundice, or dysentery.  Her dosage indicates that 2 tablespoons of the decoction of the bark are necessary.

I have been experimenting with some of the Tamarack’s medicine in the form of salves for bruises (one traditional use) and they seem pretty effective.  I’ll keep updating this post as I try some of the other traditional uses and if I find more information.

Magical Uses in the Western Tradition

Part of the reason I spent so much time in this post on ecology and human uses is that–unsprisingly –there is no real tradition of the magical use of the Tamarack tree.  While this isn’t surprising (as many of the trees I am covering in this series lack such coverage), it does mean that we have to use the tree’s ecological functions to ascertain its magical meaning.  It is not found in the Hoodoo traditions, nor in the traditional western occult texts, nor in the PA dutch and other folk magic traditions. (It you have info I don’t about this, please share!)

Magical and Divination Qualities of Tamarack

Addressing Stagnation. Tamarak’s medicinal and ecological function includes it growing and addressing a range of stagnant, watery conditions. In the body, stagnation leads to all kinds of illness and atrophy; in the wild, stagnation can lead to anaerobic bacteria formation (stinky, nasty piles of compost for example).  One of Tamarak’s key magical and divination qualities, then, is being able to address this stagnation and help get it flowing again.

Standing up to emotional challenges. Flowing from the first meaning, the second key meaning of Tamarack is helping you endure a stagnant emotional condition.  For example, perhaps you are in a difficult family circumstance that seems to keep repeating itself, you are dealing with cycles of abuse, PTSD, or other draining and long-standing emotional conditions.  Tamarack will help you stay the course during this time and offer you strength to endure (and not rot away in the mire!)

Surprise. A final divination and magical meaning this tree suggests is that while it is in the pine family and is a conifer, the tree does not follow the same pattern as most other pines–rather, in a surprising twist, it drops its needles after serenading the sun.  Seeing Tamarack in a reading may suggest to you that things are the opposite of what you expect and to be surprised with the outcome.

I hope that this post brought you happiness and joy as spring turns to summer. And perhaps you will have an opportunity to meet the wonderful Tamarack tree and share in her magic.  Blessings!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida) Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

With the advent of Beltane, it is an excellent time to share about the magic and sacredness of the dogwood tree–a tree that is in bloom across the landscape this time of year. I feel like dogwood is one of those trees that everyone knows, but nobody takes the time to know well.  In all of my time in the druid community, when people talk about their favorite trees, I don’t think I’ve ever heard dogwood mentioned.  She’s a quiet and unassuming understory tree, and after her spring show of white or pink bracts and yellowish tiny flowers, she fades into the rest of the forest.  And yet, in studying her medicine and ecology, we can gain so much from this wonderful tree.

Dogwood is a popular tree here in North America, both as a native tree found in the understories and edges of Oak-Hickory forests throughout its wide range (from Ontario to Florida, and across to Kansas and Oklahoma and down to Texas). It is also a common ornamental tree, and thus, an excellent one for both those who are urban or suburban druids and rural druids to know.  Let’s take a journey today into the magic, mythology, medicine, and human uses of the dogwood tree! North America has many, many varieties of dogwood. Today I’ll focus most of my comments on the common “Flowering Dogwood” (Cornus Florida, pictured in my photos) but recognize that many dogwoods are similar enough energetically to have similar features.

Dogwood in bloom!

Dogwood in bloom!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on our landscape. 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–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Spruce, Spicebush, 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, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, 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

Dogwood in early spring

Dogwoods are abundant in North America, with seventeen species in the United States alone, including four tree species and thirteen species of shrub; the flowering dogwood is one of the four tree species. Flowering dogwood is an understory tree characterized by beautiful showy white bracts (that appear to be white petals) with an inner cluster of yellow flowers that bloom in spring.  If you look closely at a dogwood, you can see the difference!  Where I live in Western Pennsylvania, Flowering Dogwood is typically blooming from Mid-April to Mid-May, depending on how quickly things warm.  The dogwood, like other understory plants, blooms early, before leaves are on the tree, and takes advantage of the light before the overstory cover grows.  Pale yellow flowers eventually give way to showy red berries that grow in small clusters (just like the flowers) in the fall (October), to complement the beautiful red-purple fall leaves.

One of the characteristics of flowering dogwood is the growth habit of the tree which you can see from the photos in this post–branches often grow mostly horizontal and then, at the very ends, turn to the sky and are tipped with beautiful white or pink bracts and yellow flowers.  Some may grow more spindly or more full, depending on the location, environmental features, or cultivar. The leaves are opposite on the trunk, but the entire tree has a very “open” quality to its growth habit appearing, at times, almost bonsai-like.  The dogwood is a fairly short-lived tree, living about 80 years and prefers slightly acidic soil.

As an understory tree, you can often find flowering dogwood on well-drained and fertile soil in dappled sunlight.  It is larger than a shrub or bush (so higher than spicebush) and is a small understory tree.  Flowering dogwood is commonly found in the understory of oak-hickory forests as along fertile edges (you can often see them along a fence row or between fields).  When they are in the forest, they are often 10-20 feet high and have a 4-6″ trunk, but when they are out in the open, they can grow up to 40 feet high with a thicker trunk, particularly in the southernmost areas of its range.  Of course, a range of ornamentals with varying heights and flower colors are present and can be purchased at nurseries.

While some dogwoods produce very delicious edible fruit (such as the Kousa Dogwood), the Flowering dogwood’s fruits are small, bitter, and not very palatable, although the bitter quality of the fruit can be used to make digestive bitters (see below).  The Flowering Dogwood fruit is an excellent food source for birds (who help distribute the seeds).  Dogwood also is a larval host for a number of moths, including the Dogwood Thyratid Moth, the Stinging Rose moth, and the Grand Arches Moth.

If you are interested in finding some dogwood–the time is now.  Here in Western PA, the leaves are just starting to come back onto the trees and the white-pink dogwood bracts are in bloom, so you can go through any forest and very easily pick out the dogwoods (and apples, hawthorns) due to their blooming.  In a few more weeks, they will fade into the rest of the understory!

Human Uses

Close up of dogwood bark with a bit of English Ivy

Despite its small size, dogwood has a very valuable wood that is hard and tough, close-grained, and quite heavy.  traditionally, according to Grimm, it is used for shuttles for weaving due to its toughness.  It has also been traditionally used for turning (tool handles, mallet heads, golf club heads, engraver’s blocks).  According to Sargent, Dogwood was also used for bearings of machinery or even the hubs of small wheels due to its strength.

It was also used for making inks and dyes.  Emerson notes that a blank ink can be made from the bark of the branches and trunk (especially if mixed with gum arabic and iron sulfate – see here for how to make a rust garden for harvesting iron sulfate), while a scarlet dye was made from the roots (I have yet to test either of these, but they sound wonderful!).

Emerson notes that the Micmac Indians dried the bark and smoked it, combining it with tobacco. Emerson also notes that when the flowers appeared on the dogwood, many Native tribes in the Eastern US used this as a sign to plant their corn.

In the bushcraft communities, Dogwood is known as a hard but useful spindle for making friction fires (either bow drill or hand drill technique), especially when combined with American Sycamore, Red Elm, or Red Cedar (Juniper).  The harder the spindle, the more difficult it is to make a fire, and hence, it is considered a wood appropriate for more advanced friction fire makers.  Due to its hardness, Dogwood also produces very nice cooking coal and also can be used to produce charcoal.

A fungus called anthracnose fungus has been attacking dogwoods of all kinds, leading to a widespread decline in this tree and making it critically endangered in several states in the US, including New York and Vermont.

Medicine

Dogwood in a forest setting in late spring

Dogwood was historically very important for the treatment of malaria, typhoid, and influenza, but, according to Matthew Wood in the Earthwise Herbal: New World Plants,  it has gone out of favor in more recent times, primarily because Malaria is on the decline.  The most important traditional treatment of Malaria was Quinine, which was made from the Cinchona tree that grows in Central and South America. According to Rafinesque in 1828 (as cited in Emerson), it is the best North American substitute for Quinine, although it contains differing amounts of the same chemicals present in Quinine.  Both Quinine and Dogwood are potent medicines that do produce side effects: Dogwood raises one’s pulse and may also produce abdominal cramping, but will strongly support a body’s fever response and destroy the malaria infection.

The traditional use is peeling the bark, drying the bark for some months,  and then making a strong tea (decoction).  Some early doctors noted that they preferred to use the bark of the root as opposed to the bark of the tree for this purpose (Emerson). All traditional sources indicate that the bark should be dried for a period of months (up to a year) which will reduce stomach cramping and produce more effective medicine.

In colonial times, the twigs of the dogwood were used as tooth sticks to help keep the teeth clean and the gums in good health. “Yellow Water”, which was a decoction of the bark, was used to cure distemper in horses. When combined with Sassafras, it was used to help clean ulcers and treat cancer.

A tincture of the berries was also used for digestive bitters–both sources I have (Emerson and “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests”) both suggest they were used by poor people or country people for this purpose.  I’m getting the sense from the wording of these that these dogwood berry bitters may have been considered a “poor person’s” medicine or folk medicine.

During the civil war, the inner bark of Flowering Dogwood was used both to treat malaria (as described above) and as an astringent to stop wounds from bleeding out.  This, in particular, saved many soldiers in the Confederacy (who published a book called, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural.”

Matthew Wood notes that dogwood is intensely bitter, so much so that the bitter literally “shakes the frame, specific for intermittent chill and fever attacking the system” (127).  He also notes that it was considered to be one of the “elk medicines” by the indigenous Americans, specifically used to treat kidneys and sexual function.  It is used for constriction/tension as well as stagnant states.   It has a very specific use for influenza or chronic malaria where the body has intermittent fever and chills along with digestive atonicity (from repeated chills) including indigestion acidity, acid reflux, diarrhea, and/or nausea combined with great exhaustion.  Wood recommends a fluid extract OR tincture (5-10 drops) as larger doses upset the stomach.  Decoction of small branches and twigs may be less upsetting to the stomach.  It is a bitter/acrid plant with astringent and slightly aromatic bark.

Western Magical Traditions

The beautiful dogwood behind our shed on the homestead!

Like many other quiet understory trees, the dogwood does not have a place at the table in terms of magical uses.  This doesn’t mean the tree doesn’t have its own amazing magic–it simply hasn’t been acknowledged (as far as my research has indicated) in the literature, either of American Hoodoo, Traditional Western Magical Practices, or Folk magical traditions.

Culpepper notes that the dogwood is under the power of Jupiter, which Culpepper notes governs luck, increase, nourishment, and the “spirit of life”.  I think this is an important quality to note, and one that will come into play in my own magical and divination uses of this sacred tree.

The one traditional Appalacian folk tale about dogwood that is prevalent comes from the Christian tradition, where Jesus was said to be nailed to a cross of dogwood, and dogwood decided to never again grow tall enough to be made into a cross again.  This tale is actually quite dominant in the Southern and Northern Appalachians (I heard it here as a child), and actually is quite in line with the other meanings I believe dogwood to have, based on its medicinal features.

Naming and Etymology

John Eastman offers a theory of his own for the name dogwood–he says that the fresh-cut wood has a “fetid smell” that resembles the smell of dog feces (p. 72).  I will note that this does not appear to be the case with Flowering Dogwood in my experience, but some of the shrub-style dogwoods certainly have that odor!  I can’ find no other reasons listed in my sources for why “Dogwood” is called “Dogwood!”  I will also note that dogwood has a number of names including corner, bunchberry, box-wood, arrow-wood, or white cornel.   Some of these can speak to the historical uses of the tree.

Magic and Divination Uses of Dogwood

The Dogwood tree, while small and unassuming, has powerful lessons to teach.  In the absence of mythology

Bitter Medicine. Dogwood’s most distinct feature is its use to treat severe flu-like illnesses including malaria, typhoid fever, and various “auges.” And while Dogwood is as effective as quinine for this treatment, she also comes at a cost–both physically being very bitter medicine and offering the recipient stomach cramping and an increased heart rate.  While the medicine can be tempered through time, the bitterness and acrid quality of dogwood’s root and bark is ever-present.  Thus, Dogwood teaches us the value of bitter medicine and bitter lessons–those we need to have but don’t necessarily want.  Communing with dogwood during such lessons may offer us deeper insights into ourselves and the nature of our own necessary experience in the world.

Short-term Pain for Long Term Gain. A second theme that we can learn from the dogwood is the importance of the phrase “no pain, no gain.” Dogwood teaches us that life is often full of pain that can be short-term, but in the long run, open us up for rich opportunities–if we are in the right mindset. Learning from our struggles and pain and transforming them into good is a core part of what it means to be human, and Dogwood is our companion on this path in this regard.

Confidence and Grit. The Dogwood is one tough little tree, growing in the understory, blooming early, and offering extremely dense wood and powerful medicine. She encourages us to develop the “grit” (determination, endurance, resiliency, and adaptability) to survive the coming onslaught of so much.  Even though she doesn’t have much stature, she is sure of herself and her skills and is able to face the world with confidence.

For all three of these meanings, one of the things I want to stress is that the Dogwood, while offering its bitter medicine, is under the dominion of Jupiter, the planet of luck and good fortune. This powerful combination allows us to know that despite any challenges or pain we face–we can survive!

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.