The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata) October 13, 2019

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.

 

 

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Cherry (Prunus Serotina)’s Magic, Mythology, Medicine and Meaning June 23, 2019

Butterfly on choke cherry

When most people think of cherry trees, they think about plump, juicy, red or purple cherries from cultivated cherry trees.  However, here in the USA, we have a variety of wild cherries that are an interwoven and rich part of our landscape. An enigmatic tree found throughout the eastern part of North America and South America is prunus serotina, the wild cherry, black cherry, mountain black cherry, or rum cherry tree. Most people interact with this tree not in its living form, but through the beautiful reddish-brown heartwood that this tree produces, and that can be frequently found in their furniture and flooring.  And yet, this tree has so much more to offer than just beautiful wood! While I’m targeting my comments today about the black cherry, many of the material found here can be about *any* cherry tree local to you, including domesticated cherries.  Many other kinds of wild cherries may also be found along the US East Coast region: prunus avium (the wild sweet cherry) and prunus virginiana (choke cherry). Black cherry and other wild cherries of the prunus species are truly American trees and hence, should be considered as part of our magical landscape here in the USA.

 

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more. I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees. Thus, this series provides research and insight on the many trees here in the US East Coast.  Previous trees in this series include Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  And now, let’s learn more about the Black Cherry!

 

Black Cherry Growth and Ecology

Black cherry is a medium sized tree, often found on the edges of forests. When it is young, it can be shade tolerant, but older cherries prefer to have more sunlight, and thus, you can often find them along the edges of forests, pushing the forest into new areas. Cherries are prone to being blown over by strong winds because they primarily have lateral/fibrous (spreading) root systems rather than a deep tap root. Cherries can live between 150 and 200 years.  They are commonly found in the ‘dry’ or ‘mesic’ forest habitats more broadly. Here in Western PA, they are a very common tree, often growing in mixed oak/beech hardwood forests or hickory/oak forests, but also found on the edges of hemlock forests.

 

Identification of the tree depends on its age. Leaves are typically about 2-5 inches in length with fine tooth and an ovate-lacerate shape (elongated oval with points). Young cherry trees have a dark, smooth bark which is banded with lighter brown lines that are horizontal.  Older cherry trees have very dark gray/dark brown or almost black bark that is highly textured, but you can still see the bands (see photos).  A strong almond scent (very unique to cherries) can be smelled when leaves are crushed or branches are broken–more on this later in the post).

 

Younger and older black cherry trees

Birds, butterflies, and moths feed and grow on black cherry, including the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, who lays eggs individually on the black cherry leaves.  Other caterpillars who depend on the trees include the red-spotted purple caterpillar and the coral haristreak caterpillar. Unfortunately, it is also a favorite of the destructive eastern tent caterpillar, which can make large nests in the tree and strip trees of leaves. Usually, the cherries can bounce back the following year after a serious Eastern Tent Caterpillar issue. When the cherry is in bloom, it is a nectar source for many insects including bees, wasps, and butterflies. When the cherry is in fruit, it is a food source for many animals and birds including raccoon, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bears, and more.

 

Wood and Other Uses

The wood of the cherry is well known, as it is a common wood used for interiors, furniture, tools, flooring, and more. Cherry is a beautiful, reddish brown wood with a straight grain. It is a favorite of woodworkers as it is delightful to work with and beautiful when polished.  It is not as hard as oak, near as soft of maple, making it a wood that is firm yet beautiful to work with.

 

The berries, when using methods I’ve described before on the blog, can be made into a great ink or dye; it offers a purple/blue color. It doesn’t have a good light fastness (like most other natural berry dyes) but in my experience, if you use alum as a mordant, it can improve the light fastness. The berries are almost always in abundance, but they can be difficult to reach on high up trees.

 

The cherry pits (seeds) are also often harvested and eaten by wild critters. If you visit the base of an older wild cherry tree, you will often see the little half-cups of the seeds, dried and brown. If you are interested in natural crafts, these can make nice beads (with a tiny hole bored or drilled into them).

 

Cherry Leaves and Cyanide

Cherry is an interesting tree because while the fruit is edible and medicinal, and the inner bark is also medicinal, most of the rest of the tree is extremely toxic. Cherry foliage and pits contain hydrocyanic acid. You can smell this when you crush a leaf or cut a part of a cherry tree–it has that distinct bitter almond smell. The leaves have the highest concentration of hydrocyanic acid, and as the leaves wilt, they produce cyanide. This makes the leaves extremely toxic to humans and many livestock animals, such as goats or sheep.  In fact, we had planned on getting goats for our homestead here for fiber, milk, and for clearing brush, but after we learned about the toxicity of the cherry leaves (which we have everywhere on the property) we decided not to do so and went a different route with our animals.  This is because one handful of wilted cherry leaves is enough to kill a full size goat!  Needless to say, Cherry’s toxicity is not to be trifled with.

 

Foraging for Cherries

Thick bark of an older black cherry tree

At the same time that cherry’s leaves have such poison, black cherries are delightful and abundant to eat, high in antioxidants and nutrients, and an excellent wild food. Sam Thayer notes in the Forager’s Harvest that you should harvest the berries only when they are overripe, that is, a deep purple color.  I will also note that in my experience, different trees may produce slightly different tasting berries, some more or less bitter than the others.  If you are going to forage for them and you have some choice, I suggest tasting various trees! The variety in different trees can be quite distinct, with some tasting almost like a commercial cherry and others being nearly inedible and very bitter. So, once you find a tree that you can eat raw, you have found a good tree to turn the fruit into jelly or other tasty treats.  Even if a cherry tree has a little bit of bitterness, you can usually use sweetness to counteract it and allow for an enjoyable tasty tree.

 

Like many other fruits in the rose family (including apples and peaches), cherry pits also do contain hydrocyanic acid, and those, should be removed during or before preparation.  You can cook them slightly, mash them down, and strain out the pits, which is probably the easiest method of removing them.

 

This bitterness of any wild cherry can be reduced with the use of sugar, but any jams or jellies that you produce from it will still have some bitterness if your fruit started off bitter.  I have found that the bitterness is pretty tasty combined with meats or fish and add dimension and complexity (and bitter foods are healthy for our digestion). A simple recipe, offered by Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus book is a cherry jelly.  He suggests adding apple juice to the jelly to improve the flavor.  Take any number of quarts of black cherry and add 1 cup of water.  Take unripe apples and slice them and add them (or add some pectin as per package instructions).  Simmer this for 30 min then strain.  Take 2 cups of cherry juice and 2 cups of apple juice, and add 4 cups sugar (you could also add less sugar by using Pamona’s pectin; I prefer to can with honey using this approach).  Boil till it jells and then hot water bath can using standard fruit approaches (10 min for half pints, 15 min for pints, etc).

 

In Using Wayside Plants, Nelson Coon notes the difference between serotina (wild cherry) and virginiana (choke cherry) are as follows: chokecherry has more pointed leaves, bitter/acidic fruit, and shorter fruit clusters  He notes that while both can be made into tasty jellies, the choke cherry produce more bitter fruit.  I have also found this to be the case, and often, the serotina and virginana are growing right next to each other!  Sam Thayer recommends another approach to working with black cherry. After harvesting them, he puts them in the fridge for two days.  This reduces the astringency and bitterness, and then you can make jellies or fruit leather.

 

Cherry as Medicine

In Matthew Wood’s Earth Wise Herbal: New World Herbs, Wood notes that in the 19th century, wild cherry was considered an “indispensable” medicine by both pioneers and Native Americans; he suggests that it was likely one of the most commonly used herbs native to the US during that time period.  Wood notes that wild cherry works as a sedative, particularly for the circulatory system.  It is particularly useful for coughs due to irritation, coughs that linger on after an infection has passed, and those that have fluid or mucus in the lungs, such as through bronchitis, pleurisy, etc. He recommends collecting root bark if at all possible, and preferably in the spring when the cyanogens are lowest. He notes that while the bark does contain trace amounts amounts of cyanide, it is not enough to cause any health issues, particularly when it is used medicinally and for short term issues.

 

Prussic acid in found in wild cherry trees are particularly useful for coughs and many herbalists use it as a their go-to cough syrup remedy.  For this, you want the inner bark from any wild cherry. This is to be used for acute conditions short term only, but it is very effective. A simple cough syrup is to boil down 1/2 cup of the chopped inner bark of wild cherry for 30 min in 1 pint water.  Then, strain it and let it cool. Add raw honey at this point to taste.  Usually, I will freeze this in ice cub trays, then you can keep using it as needed and keep it till you need it.  Alternatively, you can simply make a strong tea of the wild cherry bark that you dry.  If you have a wild cherry nearby though, no need to dry it in advance–just harvest it fresh and prepare it as needed!  I have used this recipe many times myself, and it is just as effective as over-the-counter medicines.

 

Euell Gibbons gives another recipe for wild cherry cough syrup in his Stalking the Wild Asparagus book that I really like: 1 cup red clover blossoms, 1 cup white pine needles (preferably new growth), 1 cup mullein leaves, and 1/2 cup inner bark from the wild cherry.  Boil all of this in a quart of water covered for 20 min.  Strain and add 1 pint honey, then can it.  (I like this recipe, but I’d omit the honey and can it without, then add the honey later.  Raw honey is amazing, but heat removes much of the medicinal virtues).

 

Magic of the Cherry Tree in Global Traditions

Cherry does not seem to have much of a place in the traditional western magical traditions, particularly those deriving from Europe–which makes sense, as cherry is a North American Tree.

Leaves of cherry tree

In the European traditions, when it shows up, it does not often show up as a tree of power.  For example, in Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire, the book describe the Battle of Godeu (or the Battle of the Trees) and in this battle with Hades, while many trees fought valiantly (oak, hawthorn, heather, holly) many others, including the poor cherry tree did not fare so well and was broken during the battle. This battle is told in the Book of Taliesin as well.

 

What information there is about the cherry’s power suggests that cherry is tied to love, emotions, and romance, something that is consistent both from Europe as well as from folk magic here in the US.  Culpepper notes in his Herbal that cherry is a tree governed by Venus. In the American hoodoo traditions, according to Cat Yronwood’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, cherry is used primarily in love-drawing spells for drawing love, romance, or enticing someone. Thus, in American Hoodoo, it is frequently used in love-drawing mojo bags, oils, dressed candles. We see this same association in an old book, Grimories, who talks about using the “essences of the cherry tree” when when desires another. Interestingly enough, Native American talking sticks can also be made of cherry, and when they are, they are also tied to expression, emotion, and love. Yet, Cherry trees do not feature prominently in the stories that I have been searching (and that I usually share as part of these posts). Occasionally, someone eats a cherry in a story, or, someone notes that cherry is not good for making bows. But the tree has no distinct magical connection in the mythology of the Americas that I can ascertain.

 

In another American classic grimore, The Long Lost Friend by John George Hoffman (1820), which is one of the premier books in PA Dutch Braucherei, the cherry tree is used to help cure the “poll-evil” in horses. The Poll Evil is an inflamed back of the head which can burst (today, this is treated with antibiotics). The full charm involves breaking off three twigs from a cherry tree, one in the morning, one in the evening, and one at midnight.  You wrap these in pieces of your shirt, then clean the poll-evil with it.  Then you have to poop on the twigs while the twigs are facing north. Then you stir the wound again with the dirtied twigs a day or two later.  Yep, good stuff :P.

 

One of the places that cherry tree is very dominant is in Japan, and Cherry has different meanings in eastern societies.  Japanese cherries, or “sakura” symbolize the concept of “mono no aware,” or the understanding that life and things are transient, impermanent, and that a small amount of sadness or wistfulness can be had at their passing.  Cherry blossoms, which bloom en masse in Japan are thus symbolic of “mono no aware” and encourage people to reflect on the transience of all things.  We also see the tie to love from myths like “the Holy Cherry Tree of Musubi-no-Kami Temple” where a magnificent old cherry tree encouraged people to build a shrine dedicated to the “God of Love”.

 

Meanings and Magic for North America

So to summarize all of the above, we can see three distinct meanings for the Cherry tree, based on its ecology, medicine, uses, and mythology:

 

Cherry tree as a drawing love and romance.  The American traditions are strongly consistent in this, showing that cherry here in the US has the power for love: to bring it, to help it last, and to foster romance.

 

A small grove of cherries on the edge of the homestead

Cherry tree emphasizes the fragility, impermanence, and ephemeral nature of life.  The Japanese tradition is strong here, but so is, frankly, the fact that cherry can produce such a noxious poison.  The leaves of the cherry tree wilt and cause livestock (or people) to die who consume them.  That ecology sends, to me, a very strong emphasis on the idea that life is fragile!

 

Cherry, likewise, sends the message that the same aspects of nature can be both healing and destructive. Cherry is a tree of extremes: both one of the best natural medicines we have native to the Americas while also being one of the most destructive poisons we have.  Much of nature is like this, and this is a powerful natural lesson. The ocean is a very good example of this: the ocean can provide food and medicine, but also tidal waves and tsunamis.  I think every part of nature is truly like this: and cherry so beautifully emphasizes this lesson.  Nature is.  It is not good, it is not evil, it simply is.  I can be harnessed as a powerful tool, or it can harm or kill you.  Part of that depends on your own knowledge, and part, on the conditions at hand.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Juniper’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings February 3, 2019

Here on the East Coast of the USA, we are still in deep winter. Soon, the maples will be flowing.  Soon, the winter snows will melt.  Soon, spring will return.  But until that time, the conifers, particularly offer strength and wisdom.  One of my favorite conifers is Juniper, also known as Eastern Red Cedar.  It is delightful to come across a wild juniper in the winter months, with her sweet and pine-scented berries and her delightful sprigs that offer friendship and hope through the darkest times.  So come with me today as we explore the sacred Juniper tree.

 

Juniper here on the land

Juniper here on the land

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more!  I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees.  So this series does just that–providing research and insight on the many trees here in the US East coast.  Previous trees in this series include Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the Juniper tree!

Description

In Eastern North America, our dominant Juniper variety is Juniperus virginiana, also known as Eastern Red Cedar. Other names for Juniper include: red juniper, baton rouge, pencil cedar, savin, or just cedar. Despite being called a Cedar, Juniper is actually in the cypress family, offering different kinds of needles (which are technically leaves)-very sharp, pointed, and prickly when they are young, and flattened, scale like, and overlapping as they age. These older needles are reminiscent of Eastern White Cedar, perhaps this is why the two are sometimes both called cedar.

 

According to John Eastman, Juniper is a long and slow growing tree.  It can live 200-300 years, and prefers open fields and other sunny locations. Junipers can produce cones starting between age 10 and age 25; some trees bear female cones and other trees bear male cones and the cones are wind pollinated. The tree is not very shade tolerant, so needs the sun in order to thrive. According to Grimm, Junipers can grow up to 30-40 feet high with a trunk diameter of 1-2 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Juniper that large here in PA, as it is often instead found on dry or rocky soils, on limestone outcroppings or soils, and in abandoned fields. Unlike many conifers, Juniper cannot handle fire and can’t rehabilitate or re-establish after fire-burned sites.  However, Juniper is great at helping repopulate what are often called “wastelands” – overfarmed and abandoned fields, old gravel pits, and the like. At a distance, the Juniper tree looks like a flame, blazing up on the landscape–they are easy to spot and since they are conifers, they stay green year-round.

 

In the summer, you might come across a Juniper that looks more like an alien, with strange orange tentacles coming out of it everywhere! I remember the first time I saw this and I had no idea what i was seeing! Turns out it is the Cedar apple fungi (G. Juniperi-virginianae), which is largely harmless to the Juniper but which infect apple and hawthorn trees with a gymnosporagium rust. The rust is very detrimental to harvests of both apple and hawthorn, meaning that many who have orchards prefer to cut Junipers down rather than let them grow and possibly carry the rust.  You can tell whether or not a Juniper is infected with the rust–it will have large brown galls on it on the outer branches that have small holes within them, almost looking like potholes all over the gall. The orange alien-like tentacles come out of the nodules to spread the rust once a year–quite a sight to behold!

 

Juniper produces leaf litter that is high in calcium, creating slightly alkali soil (as compared to most conifers, whos leaf litter produces a more acidic soil).  Because of the increase in calcium, it is also an excellent place to find earthworms if, say, you wanted to go fishing.  Here in Western PA, we hae particularly acidic soil, almost too acidic, so juniper leaf litter is very useful for helping bring the acidity back into balance.

 

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Further, almost 90 different birds feed on the fruit of Juniper, Birds help disperse the seeds, which require cold stratification to sprout.  Others who eat the delicious fruit include chipmunks, mice, and opossums, voles, coyotes, red squirrels, and foxes. In the late winter, you will often see multiple species feeding on a juniper tree when there is little else to be found!

 

Regenerating Damaged Landscapes

Juniper is quite good at growing in thin or depleted soils, or soils that are polluted.  This makes it a critical tree for replanting and regeneration of the land, particularly in the rust belt region of the USA.  In the Rust Belt, three centuries of heavy mining activity has left a lot of boney dumps and other kinds of wastelands–places where there is only shale, no soil, and it gets hot and its hard for any plants or trees to take root. Thus, we often see this tree planted as part of replanting efforts after mining efforts; the tree’s roots help hold back erosion and over time, build soil, and slowly regenerate the land.  I’ve been to areas where there are hundreds of acres of juniper and scrub pine (pinus virginiana) and little else. Eventually, these two trees will help replant the entire landscape, but for now, I’m glad there is *something* that can grow there and begin nature’s healing process.

 

 

Juniper Berries and Wood Uses

The heartwood of Juniper is a beautiful red, with the outer wood going to cream or white, making it a highly sought after wood for a variety of woodworking endeavors.  This includes making “cedar” chests and other furniture as well as using it for decorative wood paneling. A lot of pencils are made from the Juniper wood; you might remember those nice smelling #2 pencils from your childhood! “Oil of Cedar” which is frequently used in polishes, medicines, and perfumes is distilled from the leaves and the wood of the Juniper tree.  The inner bark has also been used to make a reddish dye–it is a very beautiful dark red and just delightful.

 

Probably the most famous use of Juniper berries is for flavoring Gin. Juniper berries are used for flavoring in many contexts. Juniper oils in the foliage are toxic in higher doses, so the berries are used almost exclusively for this purpose

 

Juniper berries are ripe when they are a dark purple/black, often with a white residue on the surface.  You can eat them throughout the late summer and into the late winter, and on an abundant and mature juniper, the tree can produce hundreds.  They do contain a center seed, which you want to remove, so you are essentially nibbling on the fruit on the outside of the seed (which is like a thin skin).

 

You can do a variety of wonderful things with the juniper berry, and wild foraged ones are oh-so-good!  One of my favorite things to do is to make an infused vodka by taking a nice high quality vodka and putting in a good handful of berries.  Let macerate for a month, and you have this delightful beverage to share with friends.  Another favorite of mine is including them in a tea, particularly with nettle leaf, mint, and oatstraw.

 

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Tarot of Trees Incense with Juniper Berry

I developed this incense recipe as the perfect complement for the Tarot of Trees. This incense blend is a non-combustible powdered incense blend that you will need to burn on a charcoal block. Charcoal blocks can be purchased at most metaphysical stores and also online. You will need a mortar and pestle to grind your ingredients and tin or jar to keep the incense dry and fresh. The recipe is as follows:

  • 2 parts frankincense
  • 2 parts sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon (powdered)
  • 1⁄4 part sweet orange Essential Oil
  • 1 part juniper berries (dried or fresh, see below)
  • 1⁄2 part lemongrass (dried)
  • 1⁄2 part yarrow (dried)

In a mortar and pestle, powder your frankincense as finely as possible. Combine the frankincense with the sandalwood and cinnamon until blended. Set aside. In the mortar and pestle, crush the juniper berries. They will be fairly easy to crush if they are dried. If they are fresh, freeze them for 30 min or more and then crush them–they will crush much easier. Crush your lemongrass and yarrow separately. Combine all ingredients, including sweet orange essential oil, in the mortar and pestle and blend thoroughly. Enjoy!

 

 

Herbalism and Juniper

Juniper has been used in multiple traditions (western, TCM, Ayurveda) as a blood tonic and blood purifier.  In folk herbalism, it was considered a “fall tonic” plant, to compliment Dandelion and other spring tonics, and would be used to help support the kidneys and “clear” or “thicken” the blood.  What this essentially means is that in both spring and fall, our bodies need to prepare for the extremes: the heat of the summer sun and the work of planting and harvest, and the cold of the winter with less food and activity. Juniper, as a fall tonic plant (along with Sassafras and Sarsaparilla) helps prepare us for the cold of the winter.  Most of the fall tonics are warming and are said to “thicken” the blood (in folk herbal terms) so that you will stay warm and healthy during the winter.

 

Translating that folk wisdom into modern herbal practice, we know that Juniper has an diuretic action on the kidneys, meaning it helps flush the kidneys through urine production.  Stagnation is one of the worst things you can have in terms of the body, and keeping the kidneys moving and healthy is key to a healthy elimination system.  Juniper is a wonderful complement to that system, along with a number of other herbs such as dandelion leaf and nettle.

 

Juniper also has strong anti-inflammatory action, with at least three specific chemical constituents that help reduce inflammation in the body, and it is often taken for this purpose as well.

 

Magic of the Juniper in the European and Western Traditions

In the Western Esoteric traditions, Juniper has a long history of use, particularly tied to the work of fire, as a purification herb, and as something used to drive away disease. Its interesting always to see how the herbal wisdom ties to the magical uses and practices surrounding plants–and we can certainly see that at play with Juniper. We’ll now consider some of these uses:

 

John Michael Greer in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic suggests that Juniper is tied to the element of fire, with its astrological aspects being Mars in Aries (can’t get much more fiery than that!) Juniper was traditionally used in spells to get back property that was stolen and as a deterrent to theft. It was also used in purification rites, as it both helps purify and drive away lingering spirits. We can see this from its use in the Key of Solomon (which lists Juniper as a herb tied to invocations of Saturn). The purification uses of Juniper go back to the Greeks, who burned it and to the Egyptians, who used it both medicinally and to embalm their dead.

 

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree; it is often used as a bonsai

Culpepper suggests that the Juniper is a “solar shrub” and the berries are hot in the 3rd degree and dry in the first degree.  He notes that they were used as a counter poison, against venom and other kinds of poison.  He also notes that they are “as great a resister of the pestilence, as any growing.”

 

Juniper seems to have a connection to animal purification as well. In Scotland, a tradition developed of fumigating animals, barns, and homes to prevent disease.  In “A Journey in Southern Siberia” Jeremiah Curtin (1909) describes how the Siberian Shamans used the smoke of juniper to purify animals prior to their sacrifice.

 

A book specializing in lore from Italy, “Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition” (1892) from Charles Godfrey Leland describes a charm.  In the book, a woman has a beautiful baby and it is attacked by a cat; she believes this attack was caused by witches.  She creates a charm to protect her child, and that charm includes the protection of the juniper berry, along with the cat’s hair, frankincense, cumin, salt, bread crumbs, iron filings, and much more.

 

Magic of the Juniper in North American Contexts

In an North American context, Juniper has uses in folk magic, hoodoo, and Braucherei, particularly surrounding getting back stolen property. Juniper is used in Hoodoo, and is interchangeable with any other Cedar.  It is used, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, when a “benevolent power” is needed for various activities: to rent one’s home, to get someone to move away (like a neighbor), or to get your love to move with you.  This same kind use of Juniper can be seen in Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic, or Braucherei, as described in Long Lost Friend by John George Hopman.  In one particular charm, a juniper tree is used to help get the Thief to return stolen goods.  In this case, the tree is bent towards the rising sun with the left hand in a kind of sympathetic magic (which is a lot of what Braucherei is). As the Braucher bends down the tree and ties it fast as part of the magic, the magic will bend will of the thief to return the stolen goods. Finally, Juniper berries in Hoodoo are also used for romance and sexuality-oriented workings.

 

In some Native American legends, juniper berries are featured prominently as a nutritious food important to the people.  This is the case of the the Hopi Legend Balolookongwuu and the Coyote, as well as the Apache legend, Turkey makes the Corn and Coyote Plants it.  Another Hopi Legend notes that Juniper is one of the chiefs of the world.  In one Navajo legend, Juniper helps two monster slayers overcome noxious vapors from a monster that they killed. They chew on the juniper and it offers them recovery. In a Blackfoot Legend, Sacred Otter, it describes an altar to the sun, with juniper laid upon it. In one of my favorite Seneca legends, one I’ve written about on the blog before, the Junipers are one of the many conifers who stand against old man winter and bring the return of spring.

Juniper’s Magic and Meanings

To summarize, Juniper, particularly through her wood and berries, is an absolutely wonderful tree with a wide range of uses.  In terms of overall meanings in a North American context, we might summarize with the following:

 

Juniper here on the land ...

Juniper here on the land …

Juniper is about warmth and fire. Juniper helps warm people up and is a strong fire-dominant tree, suggesting many associations with fire: passion, energy, warmth, and the sun.

 

Juniper offeres hope in dark times.  Juniper’s berries have long been a staple through the darkest of winters, and I see this both physically and metaphorically.  Culturally, we are in a period of darkness, and trees like Juniper can help see us through.

 

Juniper offers regeneration and bringing things back. Juniper’s ability to grow in places few other trees can demonstrate that this tree is a true land healer, offering us hope in these dark times and sharing the critical message of the healing power of nature. I also think this is tied to its sympathetic magic uses in the American magical traditions–Juniper helps bring things back.

 

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the juniper tree!  I would love to hear any stories or additional insights about the Juniper tree that you are willing to share. Blessings of the Juniper!

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Oak’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings November 11, 2018

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

There is nothing quite as majestic as an oak, which is likely why ancient druids met in groves of them to perform their ceremonies.   As I write this, I look at my glorious black oaks, white oaks, and burr oaks in the surrounding landscape and their incredible mantle of gold, tan, crimson and oranges.  Where I live, the oaks keep the green on their leaves through most of the fall season, and begin their transition into color just before Samhain. The oaks and beeches, here, are the very last to lose their leaves–if they lose them at all.  Many of the oaks, especially the younger ones, keep their leaves all winter, dry and crackling, and only drop them before they bud out again in the spring.   Their behavior in the fall and winter months is certainly a testament to their energy and strength.  All across the land, the oaks’ powerful presence here at this time of no time, holding space for all of us as we move further into the dark half of the year.

 

This is a post in my “sacred trees in the Americas” series where I explore sacred trees in the context of North America, particularly the upper Midwest and East coast. Often, the meaning of trees and the place of these sacred trees in the ecosystem differs from traditional European sources, and so I’m working through a number of dominant trees here with extensive research, exploring their physical uses, meanings, magic, sacred traditions, and more.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. Today, we will be exploring the majestic oak, a dominant tree in much of North America.

 

Oaks in Many Forms

In North America alone, over 56 species of Oaks make their home.  Where I live, we have about 20 different species of oak, although certainly, a few oak species dominate: chestnut oak, white oak, northern red oak, swamp oak, and black oak.  In other parts of the US and Canada, different oaks may be present or dominant.  The good news is pretty much wherever you go that is not a desert here, you can find oaks!  And this is great news for druids, as the oak has been a primary symbol of druidry since the time of the ancients.

 

One dominant, majestic oak in the eastern seaboard is the White Oak (quercus alba); white oak is the most dominant species in North America. White oaks can grow up to 100 feet high, with a 5 foot diameter trunk.  One of the few places you see such large oaks are in old growth forests, such as Cooks Forest in Western PA.  Black oaks (quercus veluntina) are much smaller trees, getting up to 80 feet high with a smaller 3′ trunk.   All oaks have a very strong, hard wood with a close grain.  Oak in past times was used for any situation where strength and durability were required: old barns, oak barrels, railroad ties, posts, ships, hardwood floors, and furniture, to name a few.

 

Like most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow growing and long lived.  Some white oaks can live 600 years or more. Oaks are considered a “climax” species, meaning that once mature oaks are present, the forest is considered mature and no additional ecological succession will take place. Oaks are a keystone species in many forests on the East coast and in the Appalachian mountains: the oaks provide understory, food, and habitat for many other species and drive the overall shape of the forest.  A typical mixed oak forest may also include hickory, white ash, tulip poplar, beech, sugar maple, or black cherry with an understory of serviceberry, spicebush, or witch hazel.  This is contrast to the other typical forest type, which here, would be the birch/beech/hemlock forest with an understory of witch hazel.  Of course, I am writing here of the typical types of forests found in the Allegheny mountains; your own observations of your local ecosystem will also be helpful to determine how oak functions where you live.

 

Honey mushrooms (known around here as “pa-pinkies”) can be found on the roots of oaks infected with them. The infection that produces the honey mushrooms is armirillia root rot; it can be characterized by, as   writes in Field and Forest, “blackish, fibrous, rootish strands extending up the tree beneath the bark.”  Unfortunately, honey mushrooms, while delicious, kill oak trees.  The cycle of life can be a fierce one; I’ve seen honey mushrooms take out ancient oaks, turning them into soil once again, and have watched young acorns sprout in the remains of their ancestors.

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

“The World looks different when you eat acorns.”  Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden

Most oaks, like other hardwoods, have to be between 30-40 to produce acorns and up to 60 years to produce a full crop of nuts. Oaks flower in the spring; depending on the frosts that year, the frost may impact their nut harvest.  According to Samuel Thayer in Nature’s Garden, oaks produce a strong acorn crop every 2-3 years.  This is an ecological adaptation to prevent the populations of squirrels and other rodents that eat acorns to eat the entire crop each year.  Smaller crops for two years keep populations small, and a large crop in a 3rd year will ensure the survival and continuance of the oak.  Further, smaller crops train animals to “hoard” the nuts, stowing them in the ground and forgetting them, so that more oaks are born.

 

All acorns are edible, but in order to eat them, they have to be properly prepared.  Different oaks have smaller or larger nuts–around here, my favorite for eating is the chestnut oak or the white oak, both of which produce very large nuts.  These nuts are also both delicious when roasted.  Acorns, like all other parts of the oak, contain tannic acid, which makes the acorn bitter without preparation.  Leeching the tannic acid out of the acorns (through water extraction or boiling) turns acorns into incredibly delicious nuts and flour.  For extensive instructions on how to harvest, leech, and prepare acorns, I suggest Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden.  Another good resource is the book Acorn and EatEm by Suellen OceanEuell Gibbons has several great recipes for Acorns in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, including candied acorns, acorn grits, acorn meal, and acorn bread and cakes.

 

The Native Americans used acorns as a key food source, making acorn meal and creating a flatbread that was eaten by many tribes (acorn was so important to so many tribes, they were called “acorn eating” tribes).  Native Americans also used the inner bark (containing tannins up to 11%) which could be used as an astringent for many internal purposes. Thayer suggests that because of the history of exploitation and conquering in North America, part of the reason that acorns are widely thought to be poisonous was due to European-Americans disdain for Native American peoples.  Returning, then, to the acorn as a food source can help us not only connect with the oak, but also deeply honor the ancestors of the land.

As druids know, the term “druid” is commonly translated “oak knowledge”, “oak-knower” or “oak-seer” referring to the fact that druids had knowledge of the oaks (and as oaks are a pinnacle species, therefore, druids had knowledge of the broader landscape) or perhaps, understood oaks on the inner and outer planes.  In the druid tradition, oak is tied to that same ancient symbol of the druid possessing strength, knowledge, and wisdom.  Through taking on the term druid, we bring the power and strength of the oak int our lives and tradition.  We don’t have a lot of surviving information about the Ancient Druids and their rituals, but one of the most famous was described by Pliny the Elder describes the druids as “magicians” who “hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.”  The ritual is that two white bulls are brought, a white-clad priest climbs the oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and then they sacrifice the bulls and pray.  This mistletoe, growing on the oak, was said to be the most powerful medicine, curing all poisons and allowing an infertile animal to reproduce.  Pliny notes that druids performed all of their rites in sacred oak groves; when the druids were destroyed, the Romans cut all of their sacred oak groves down.  You can imagine what those ancient groves must have been like when you encounter even a single ancient oak tree–majesty and presence.

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that oak is a tree of power you can use it to direct and channel high levels of energy., particularly earth magic or weather magic.  He suggests that the oak is the “most powerful of trees in Northern European tree magic.”

 

In the American Hoodoo tradition, Cat Yronwode describes in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic that Oak (especially Quercus Alba) can be brewed into a tea and then added to a bath to remove jinxes; usually, a rootworker will also rub the client vigorously downward and pray as part of this removal.  She also notes that oak and mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed people or to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house/place of business (I wonder if this oak and mistletoe combination ties back to the ancient druids? Most certainly!).  She also notes that oak galls increase the power of any herbal blend for any magical purpose; it can be carried or brewed into a tea for bathing to increase the potency of other workings.

 

Culpepper’s Herbal notes that the oak is governed by jupiter and that the oak is known to to help resist poison of both “venomous creatures” and those of herbs and plants.   

 

Finally, in alchemical circles, an article by Jean Dubuis titled The Preparation of a Powerful Spagyric Elixir without a Laboratory  also offers some additional insight on the oak (here’s a link to one version).  Dubuis essentially made a vitalizing spagyric tincture of acorn (for those not familiar with spagyrics, spagyrics are plant alchemy and allow you to make powerful, energetic plant medicine made in line with the alignment of the planets using specific techniques.)   This oak elixir is vitalizing, carrying the energies of life.

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

Primarily, oak is used as an astringent to help tone and firm up lax or leaky tissue.  Of the astringents available in North America, it is one of the most potent.  I was taught by herbalist Jim McDonald to harvest the inner bark of oaks for this purpose, specifically, the oak’s cambium.  This, we dried and made into a tea/toner or into a tincture for internal use.  Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) likewise shares that oaks’ astringency is present in any oak tree.  He mentions specifically the usefulness of oak for gum disease/loose gums, varicose veins, and other such lax/goopy conditions in the body.  He also notes that oak can be used mentally just like it is physically.  He writes that Oak, when used as a flower essence, “is the great remedy when the integrity of mind or body has been broken down by long, arduous suffering or usage….persons who struggle against adversity; never give up but never succeed; [oak] helps a person choose the battles they can win” (294-5).

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

I have already written of the critical importance of oak as a sustaining food for many of the tribes of North America, spanning the whole way from the east to the west coast.

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In “American Indian Fairy Tales” Margaret Compton tells a story where the prince of the hares, a trickster, has his feet burned by the sun and then decides to go on a journey.  Finally, he comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands tall.  He asks the trees what they are good for, and ash, birch, and oak responds.  Oak tells him, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.

 

In an article with a modern Native American elder of both O’odham and Chicano heritage, Dennis Martinez.  In the article Martinez shared a number of features of oaks in the US west coast.  He noted that both red oak and white oak were considered so important to the native peoples of California that they considered the oak the “tree of life” because of its benefits both as food and medicine.  There were many acorn-eating cultures in California up even until the 19th century in the US.

 

In one of my favorite Senaca legends, the mighty oak stands along with the tribe of the conifers (white pine, hemlock, and the others) to hold his leaves and to wear down the winter and bring spring in again.  Not only does this show the strength of the oak during the winter months (when many other deciduous trees are sleeping) but it also shows the connection of the oak to longevity and power.

 

A Sioux legend, The Man and the Oak, tells a story of a young woman who is taken in by a chief’s family.  She falls in love with the chief’s son, but since she is now a member of the family, it is not permissible.  The young woman sneaks into the son’s tent for several nights, and in attempting to see her face by stoking a fire, accidentally burns her.  He is so distraught that he goes under an oak tree and stays there all day and into the night.  A small oak tree grows up through him and pins him and he cannot move. The young woman disappeared, and the oak tree is found to be a curse.  A thunder god appears and frees the man of his curse, crumbling the oak tree.

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

An incredibly consistent image of the oak seems present from the different kinds of literature, mythology, herbal, and magical traditions in both North America and Europe.  Here are three core meanings for the oak:

 

  • Strength: The oak is obviously a sign of strength, both the strength of its branches and wood, and its strengthening qualities as a medicine and magical tree.  All cultures have revered the oak and sought such strengthening qualities, and that strength can be seen throughout the lore.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge: Tied to the ancient term for “druid” as “oak knowledge” oak has long been associated with knowledge and wisdom.  We can see this also in the Native American lore, where oak “makes space for councils”.
  • Vitality/Life: The most ancient druid ritual we have, as well as new work by Dubuis and others, suggests oak’s vitalizing quality.  Oak can heal poison, strengthen the sick, and certainly, bring vitality and energy through the blessing of the acorn, as a “tree of life.”
  • Thunder/Weather: As we can see from both the IndoEuropean traditions as well as certain native american lore, oak is also tied to weather/thunder and thunder deities.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the majestic oak tree–and if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit an oak as it dons its incredible fall mantle of colors, perhaps this is the week to do so!  Dear readers, I would also love to hear from you any stories you want to share about the incredible oak tree.

 

Plant Spirit Communication Part III: Spirit Journeying September 2, 2018

Plants have been teachers and guides to humans for millenia. Deeply woven into our own DNA are receptors for certain plants and plant compounds. Our ancestors understood this, and in different parts of the world, cultivated thousands of medicinal plants, healing plants, teacher plants, for use on mind, body, and spirit. While the physical plant can offer much to our bodies in terms of healing, strengthening, and support (which is the basis of herbalism practice), plant spirits can offer the same thing to our hearts and spirits.  While there are lots of ways you might go about doing this, one useful tool is to enage in plant spirit journeys.  This is the third post in my plant spirit communication series; if you haven’t yet read the first two posts, go here and here.

 

Journeying is a catch all term that describes “inner” experiences that people have where they go to new places, meet spirits and guides and other beings, and interact in various ways. Depending on the tradition, worldview, and belief systems of the practitioner, these journeys be described as taking place in the realm of the imagination or on alternative planes or dimensions that are as real as the material plane we inhabit. While what you believe about the experience is important, especially to your own processing of it, it doesn’t actually change the fact that, with practice, anyone can do spirit journeys regardless of what they believe–as long as they are open to the experience. The act of journeying is ancient, from accounts and records of indigenous peoples all over the world and the myths and legends worldwide, this practice was a common practice, a human pratice, a tradition of many ancestors in many places. Sometimes, and in some cultures and traditions, journeys are supported with the use of teacher plants or mushrooms to put people in a more receptive state; other times, they are supported with chanting, drumming, or other ways of achieving a deep meditative state. Today’s post explores the idea of inner journeying for the purpose of connecting with plant and tree spirits. What I’m offering here are some of my own techniques that I’ve adapted and developed for specific use with plant spirit work; these techniques are heavily informed by both my studies in the druid tradition as well as my experiences studying the Celtic Golden Dawn.

Spirit of Tobacco Painting (Part of my Plant Spirit Oracle project)

Spirit of Tobacco Painting (Part of my Plant Spirit Oracle project)

 

Just as we experience on the physical plane, journeys have power. In our everyday lives, journeying to new places and experiencing new things helps us grow tremendously. A journey offers us a chance to step away from our everyday rhythms and life, to see new things, eat new foods, meet new people, gain new insights, and go new places–all of which helps us process old wounds and grow as people. Journeys can offer our physical bodies and minds relaxation and rejuvenation. Everything that I just wrote about “outer” journeys an also be true of “inner” journeys, including plant spirit work. In both cases, the journey helps us experience new things and do deep work on ourselves, our healing, and our own spiritual and mental development. And in the case of journeying with/to plant spirits, the plants have much to offer us in terms of teachings, healing, and insight.

 

Preparation of Mind, Body, and Space

Plant spirit journeys do require a few kinds of preparation. Preparation helps ensure a good and productive plant spirit journey.

 

Preparation of the mind.  Building your own skill in meditation and focus can greatly aid you in your plant spirit journeys. I shared some of the fundamentals with regards to getting ready to do deep work with plants in my earlier post, particularly concerning meditation. I suggest if you haven’t read those two posts, please review them.  Before you do a plant spirit journey, it is also helpful to check your mental state: if you are in a place of high emotions (anxiety, anger, elation, etc) you may not be in a balanced place to have a good journey and your own emotions may cloud or otherwise disrupt the journey. I would suggest choosing a different time for plant spirit work where you are calm and in a good mental head space.

 

One of the skills needed for inner journeying is visualization. In conjunction with meditation, it also can be a skill that takes time to establish. If you haven’t done exercises in visualization before, here is one to get you started. Begin with the candle meditation (described in my earlier post). Focus your eyes on the candle as it flickers and continue your breathwork. Have the image of the candle firmly in your vision. Now, close your eyes; continue to see that candle in your inner vision. Practice this, and eventually, you can attempt to visualize other things: forests, stone circles, anything you like, to practice in preparation for your journey.

 

Preparation of the body. Preparing yourself physically can also help you get into a receptive state of mind for the journey to take place. There are a lot of options here, and you should choose what most appeals to you. I like to do a bath in candlelight, and then don simple yet comfortable cotton robes to do my plant spirit journey work. If you don’t have time for the bath, you might do a simple smudge technique. Again, what this is doing is helping you prepare, washing or smudging away some of the worries of the day, and so forth.

 

Preparation of the space. Physically preparing the space where you will do your plant spirit journey is also helpful. If you are outdoors, you might have to find the “right spot” and then perhaps setup a small altar for the elements.  If it is during anytime where bugs would bother you (and oh my goodness, can mosquitoes ruin a good journey) I would suggest finding a way to keep them off of you.  I actually use my backpack tent; it has a fully screened inner area (and an outer rainfly). If I set it up (which takes all of 5 min), I can then go into the tent, still be outside, and not let the bugs bother you.  This isn’t always necessary, but in areas where there are dominant horse flies and mosquitoes (pretty much anywhere I’ve lived from July to September) it is a wonderful way to maintain your focus and still be out in the world.

 

If you are indoors, again, setting up a small altar or lighting the space with candlelight can be useful. I have my main altar in my art studio; under the altar is a thick carpet that is perfect for laying down and doing journeying work. I will tend the altar (setting up the elemental bowls, getting incense lit, lighting candles, etc) before I begin.  If I have a specific plant I want to meet, I will use a piece of the plant (physically) or image of the plant and place it on the center of the altar.

 

Prepare others in your life. Minimizing distractions is a really important part of inner journeying.  You don’t want to have your partner or child disrupting your journey work–it can be extremely disorienting (and rude to the plant spirit). So make sure you are able to find quiet for this work–that might mean doing it late at night or early in the morning before others you live with are awake, etc. It also means tending to any pets that may be disruptive (not all are, my cat, Grimalkin, will often join me in my ritual space and serve as a gaurdian). The point here is to give yourself a quiet, safe space for this work–and give yourself a span of whatever time you need.

 

Preliminaries: A Sacred Space and a Sacred Grove

Establishing Sacred Space

Before you do any journeying work, you need to establish a sacred space from which you can work. Many traditions offer you tools to do this. In the druid tradition, we open up a sacred space (what we call a sacred grove) by doing some combination of the following:

  • Declaring our intent for the ceremony and announcing the opening of the grove
  • Declaring peace in the quarters (May there be peace in the East…)
  • Saying the Druid’s Prayer or other prayers
  • Offerings to ancestors, spirits of the land, plant spirits, etc.
  • Calling in the four (or seven) elements; possibly also doing banishing work to remove negative influences of those elements from the space; possibly using them for blessing, consecration, or raising energy work
  • Casting a circle or establishing a sphere of protection around the space.

At the end of the journeying, you take the sacred space down: thanking the elemental powers in the four directions, perhaps saying another prayer or two, perhaps making another offering, unwinding the circle/sphere of protection, and declaring the ceremony over.

 

It is important to establish your sacred space each time you sit down to do journeying. Establishing a sacred space helps put you in the right frame of mind; it also assures that any unwanted influences, spirits, and so on, are kept from the space for the duration of your plant spirit journey.

 

Your Inner Sacred Grove

Spirit of the Birch

Spirit of the Birch

Many traditions that use journeying, including both the Celtic Golden Dawn and OBOD Druidry, use an inner grove, or series of inner groves, to help you establish a safe space for journeying work. Establishing a safe space on the inner planes is critical for long-term plant spirit work, and can put you in a place of comfort from the very beginning.

 

Your Sacred Grove.  The first stage of plant spirit journeying should be in establishing and exploring a space that you find or designate as your inner grove. Your inner grove is a space that your visualize and travel to that is your starting point.

 

To begin to establish a sacred grove, you might think about an outdoor place that you really love or envision an outdoor place that you’d love to be in. This space should be completely peaceful and safe for you. What features of this space do you want to include? A stone circle? A ring of trees under the moonlight? A beach with the waves lapping against the shore? Once you have decided upon a space that suits your needs.   Start by visualizing these features in your inner eye. Work to establish this image as firmly as possible; the first time you go in. If you are new to journeying work, it may take some time–and that’s ok. There is no rush, and these practices take the time they take. (As a reference, when I started this kind of work in my adult life, it took me several months of regularly journeying work to get to a place where I felt comfortable in and around the sacred grove).

 

You might also find that it is helpful to create a “key” to enter your sacred grove. A tune of music, a particular drumbeat, a specific word or chant–something that helps put you in a receptive space to enter that inner grove can be very helpful. Train yourself to your key by using it just before you aim to enter the inner grove.

 

Once you have the grove established, you might do some exploration–what is where in your sacred grove? Do you see paths, gateways, and so on?  is there an altar? Objects on the altar? What is growing? Is there anyone in your sacred grove? (You might already have spirit guides, plant spirits, and other guardians in that space to interact with). You will likely find that a whole landscape begins to grow as you do this work. The more you put into visiting and exploring the sacred grove, the more rich experiences you will have.

 

Preliminaries: Plant Interaction

If you are preparing to meet a particular plant spirit, it is very helpful in the day(s) before you do that journey, you have interaction with the plant on the physical plane if at all possible.  Interaction can mean a lot of things: planting seeds or harvesting part of the plant, sitting with the plant in meditation or observation, drinking a tea or eating some of the plant, smoking some of the plant, making things from the plant, working wood from the tree, you get the idea. Use the plant, interact with it, and if at all possible–bring it into your body in some way (if it is safe to do so). This “primes” you for the spirit connection.

 

You can do this priming for days or even weeks in advance.  For example, put rosemary in your food, create a rosemary smudge stick, sit with your potted rosemary and tend her, drink a rosemary tea–and when you go to do your plant spirit journey, you are likely to have gotten Rosemary’s attention. The plants, particularly the healing plants, want to work with us, but we have to show them that we want to work with them too.

 

For example, I primed myself for meeting tobacco on the inner planes by harvesting it at Lughnasadh in a ritual, laying it out for drying, and also writing about it on my blog. When I went to do another plant spirit journey as part of developing my Plant Spirit Oracle, it was unsurprising that Tobacco showed up with his wisdom and offered me a painting for the deck!

 

Going on a journey--where will it lead?

Going on a journey–where will it lead?

The Plant Spirit Journey

You’ve prepared your mind, body, and spirit for the work.  You’ve established a safe inner grove that you can begin with–now the time comes for the plant spirit journey itself–which has several steps.

 

Prepare your mind, body, and space.

 

Open up your sacred space. 

 

Make an offering: Begin your plant spirit journey ceremony by making some kind of offering to the plant.  Offerings can be many things: compost, music, liquid gold, cornmeal, tobacco, even a bit of special rainwater you collected, etc.  Let the plant spirit know that you are calling to them and honor them–get their attention.

 

Prime yourself. As you begin your inner journey work, you may find it helpful to prime yourself with the plant–drink a tea, use an oracle card or image to focus on the plant or a piece of the plant or the potted plant.  Have it with you physically in some way as you enter your inner grove.

 

The Journey.  Make yourself completely comfortable (sitting, laying) so that you can stay still for an extended period of time.  Enter your inner grove.  Call out to the plant spirit and ask them to guide you. Wait for the spirit to arrive (helpful plants, like herbs, are almost certain to come! Other spirits may take more work and multiple calls, especially those who are less connected with humans).  Let the spirit guide you on the journey.

 

Journal. Keep a journal about your experience; I suggest writing in your journal prior to even closing out the space. I literally keep my journal next to me as I do my journey, and as soon as I come back to my physical body, I write everything down.  If you wait too long, your mind will no longer be in the state it was during your journey, and you may lose details (and the details are important!)  So get it all down so you can reflect on it later.

 

Close out the space. Thank the spirits and powers you summoned, bring yourself back to this plane.

 

Do some grounding. Ground yourself after the experience–eat something, allow yourself time to re-integrate back into your life.

 

Meditate on your experience.  Spend some time reflecting and meditating about the experience in the week or so after your journey.  You will often find that you can have additional and deeper insights if you meditate on portions of the journey each day in the days after the journey.  This meditation process can take some time.  For some journeys, it can take weeks of reflection to “unpack” everything that is present in the journey!

 

Plant spirit journeys are amazing ways to connect deeply with yourself and the plant kingdom and it can be a regular part of your spiritual practice offering deep awareness, insight, and joy.  I wish you blessings on your travels!

 

Plant Spirit Communication, Part I: Your Native Langauge August 19, 2018

When I was  new to my first job, a colleague had given two of us both who had been recently hired an elephant ear plant seedling for our offices. Our offices were next to each other, both with the same window. Each plant was planted in an identical pot and in identical soil. My elephant ear plant grew quite large and beautiful, while my colleague’s plant kept sending up small shoots and dying back. Finally, she said to me, “Why is your plant doing so much better than mine?” And I responded as a druid, totally without thinking, “I just talk to the plant and it tells me what it needs.” She rolled her eyes at me, let out an exasperated sigh, and walked away. She was never a very pleasant person, but she was particularly nasty to me for some time after that. Perhaps she thought I was mocking her, or unwilling to offer the right information, but I wasn’t. What I had said to her was true, but she couldn’t accept it. Eventually, I saw her watering the plant a tiny amount, and I bought her a bigger watering can and some organic fertilizer (I used my own liquid gold, but that is certainly not something I was going to tell her!) and eventually her plant did grow. But, this short interchange offers some insights into the cultural challenges present for those of nature-based and animistic paths with regards to plant spirit communication.

 

A great place to commune with the plants

A great place to commune with the plants

It seems that only modern western industrialized civilization scoffs at the idea of plant spirit communication, or any spirit communication. Further, this culture insists such things aren’t “real” because they can’t be scientifically observed and measured; and science is often put at odds with spirituality. This means that for those of us growing up in mainstream westernized cultures, particularly here in the US, it means that that we likely haven’t acknowledge or had the opportunity to cultivate a whole set of human gifts that humans in other places and times have.  For some of us, it takes a while to strip this cultural conditioning to be able to communicate–but we all have this ability.  It’s just about acknowledging it and honoring it.

 

Westernized culture is a bit of an anomaly in terms of spirit communication, however. In ages past, and in most indigenous cultures still today, the idea of communicating with the spirits of animals and plants was a daily part of life, something that at least a portion of the population did regularly. In fact, you can see examples of spirit communication in nearly every major culture in the world other than modern western culture. For some cultures, every person had this ability, but in many, often it was certain people who had the gift or were selected and specially trained to communicate with the spirits in more deep ways. Some cultures–ancient or modern–had an animistic perspective (see Graham Harvey’s amazing book on animism for more on this) while others preferred to talk with other non-corporeal entities, like ancestors, spirits, deities, and so forth, but the basics of spirit communication is the same. Deep listening, respect and reverence, and time are all needed.

 

In a recent post, I talked about developing deep relationships with plant spirits through cultivation, harvest, and sacred relationship.  In an earlier post, I’ve also talked about listening to trees on the inner and outer planes, both of which connect to today’s topic. So for the next few weeks, we’ll explore plant spirit and tree spirit communication in more depth. This applies to all kinds of plants, large or small, and I’m just going to use “plant spirit” to mean pretty much everyone.

 

Cultural Deprogramming

To develop plant spirit communication techniques, many of us from Western civilization have to engage in some cultural deprogramming before we can begin the actual plant spirit communication. The first is illustrated in my opening interchange–getting past the “disbelief” that this can’t really happen, that it is a made up fantasy, that it is not real. Because these things are continually reinforced in daily interactions, moving beyond these cultural mindsets can be hard thing to do and it can take considerable time. It may also take time due to the programming our birth religions may have left us with (this was a real struggle for me). This work ultimately involves deprogramming ourselves of that “inner voice” that tells us that we are “making up” and encourages us to disbelieve.

 

This deprogramming process can take time, and it is certainly a cyclical process that you may need to return to as your own practices deepen. A few things that helped me both with cultural and birth religion deprogramming are as follows:

  • Talking to others on the path. Having a second person, or group of people, validate your experiences, and share plant spirit communication experiences of their own is deeply gratifying.
  • Avoid the “shoulds/Shouldn’ts”.  Don’t tell yourself what you should believe, what you should do, what you should or shouldn’t experience.  Just be open to the experience and try to withhold judgement.
  • Examine places where you feel uncomfortable. These may have to do with longer unexamined ideas or patterns from culture, birth religion, etc. Getting to the bottom of these places can help you understand them and move beyond them.
  • Going in with an open mind and open heart. Be willing to suspend judgement and simply experience what comes. Set aside preconceived ideas about what you may experience and simply be open.

 

Ultimately, this deprogramming and coming to a place of acceptance is a matter both for the mind and the heart. To me, some of the primary work is move us out of a “head centered” or “logic dominated” space and into a “heart centered” space of feeling and intuiting. Its not that we discount the mind and its inner workings; its just that Western ways of thinking essentially deny heart spaces, they deny intutition, and these non-physical ways of knowing, and so its important to recognize, and cultivate, and opening of the heart.

 

Plant Spirit Communication: Your Native Langauge

Wild strawberries - friend of humans!

Wild strawberries – friend of humans!

In working with a lot of different people over the years wanting to learn spirit communication, what I’ve found is this: we each have a “native language” when it comes to spirit communication. This native language can manifest in a lot of different ways:

 

  • Clairaudience: Being able to hear the plant spirits speak.
  • Clairvoyance: Being able to see things on the inner planes, or see the spirit of the plants
  • Empathy: Being able to feel emotions tied to spirits or places
  • Intuition: Having a deep “knowing” about a plant, a knowing that comes from within
  • Energetic: Being able to sense the flows of energy of a plant or place
  • Tool-based: Being able to read and interpret messages with the use of tools (pendulum, tarot, ogham, runes, bones, etc)
  • Signs and Omens: Reading the physical landscape for signs and omens (a breeze, clouds, movement of birds, swaying of leaves, etc.)

 

When a person starts out exploring plant spirit communication, he or she will likely find that you have a “knack” for one or more of these, but may have great difficulty with the others. For example, one member of my grove had an incredible ability to read the energies of plants and sense emotions, but couldn’t hear or see anything. I, on the other hand, started out the opposite–hearing messages clearly, but not seeing or feeling much for a long time. With time and patience, all of these different gifts can be cultivated powerfully.

 

I’ve found that the key to cultivating your plant spirit communication is to start by discovering what your “native langauge” is and then strengthening it, working with it first, as much as possible. This is going to be what is easiest for you and what you’ll get good success with, especially initially. Once you have a good handle on that form of communicating, try branching out into one or more other areas. Recognize that these are skills that need to be cultivated, and that cultivation takes time. For some of us, these are entirely new ways of engaging with the world, so be patient and kind to yourself as you learn.

 

Meditation as the Gateway

The spiral of spirit (painting by Dana O'Driscoll)

The spiral of spirit

Westernized culture is afraid of silence. It fills our minds constantly with other people’s images, words, and chatter: from televisions in waiting rooms to smartphones to constant news streams in airports and doctor’s offices, it is as if our minds never have a moment to be quiet. This culture seems to fear quiet and fills it as best it can. Because of this, deep inner listening for the voices of the plants can be difficult at first.  If all these other voices are talking, and if our own voices are talking, the soft voices of the plants have no room to be heard. Even for those of us who have worked to create a peaceful space in our lives and homes, we can’t always easily avoid the pressures of daily living or their regular stressors. This means we still need a “buffer zone” in order to effectively cultivate or use any of the above methods. Meditation is this buffer zone, and daily meditation can create this safe space.

 

There are many ways to meditate, but I’m going to focus on suggesting three that are particularly useful for setting you up for plant spirit communication:

 

Empty Mind / Candle Meditation. This technique I see as almost the prequel to many other kinds of meditation. Set a candle in front of you and simply focus on your breath. Begin by taking three deep breaths and focus on looking at the candle and breathing. If thoughts come into your mind, let them go. See if you can get to 10 or 20 breaths (harder than you think!). The point of this is to help clear your mind so that spirits can communicate. If you always have a running narrative in your mind, or your mind is full of other people’s noise, you won’t have any room to allow the spirits to speak.

 

Nature-Based Observation Meditation. This next technique is a variation on the first, but using a natural setting (preferably, near one of the plants where you want to communicate). Seat yourself comfortably near a plant and quiet your mind. Breathe naturally and lightly. Observe the plant – notice features of the plant like its petals, leaves, the way it moves, the way the sunlight or rain interacts with it. This second meditation can lead directly to one form of plant spirit communication, see next section.

 

Music / Drumming Focus. A third precursor to the actual meditation work is to use some kind of musical aid to help you with your focus. Many traditions use a steady beat of some kind – a drum, a rattle, an instrument playing low tones – to engage and focus the mind. You can do this by playing yourself, using a recording, or listening to someone else play. Even regular music, like classical music, can be used as a focus aid, where your goal is to only listen to the music and lose yourself in it (or get into a trance as it is called). The point here is to let the beat focus you so that you can listen.

 

Practicing regular meditation is the single-most helpful thing you can do to prepare yourself, and your own spirit, for plant spirit communication.  Even if you do nothing else for months or years, this preparatory work will aid you considerably.

 

Next week in this series, we’ll look at different aspects of plant spirit communication and techniques you can use. Our final post will go into more depth about plant spirit journeying.  May the blessings of the plants be with you!

 

Tree Alchemy: Hydrosols and Essential Oils from Sacred Trees May 20, 2018

Nature can provide tremendous wisdom and healing, especially when we work with our local ecosystems and ecologies. One of the most powerful ways of working healing with nature, I believe, is to combine the innate healing properties of plants with your own various kinds of medicinal preparations. The plants and trees offer the raw material and your hands and tools shape that material into something that heals the body, mind, and/or spirit. Working to transform tree and plant matter through alchemical processes into medicine–and then taking that medicine–can be an incredibly powerful way of establishing deep relationships not only with the living earth but with the trees themselves. Today, I want to talk about a particular kind of medicine known as a “hydrosol” and talk about how you might make your own with plant and tree material.  This is especially beneficial for today as many of us are thinking about planning our year, what we will be planting and growing in containers and in gardens, and so forth.

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

Alchemy is the ancient art of matter transformation. Alchemists worked to turn base metals into gold, to render the philosopher’s stone for that purpose. Alchemists also worked with plants through spagyrics, the practice of plant alchemy. It was believed by the alchemists that the process of alchemy, as the material moved through the black, red, and white phases, didn’t just happen on the physical plane, but rather facilitated transformations of mind, body, and soul.  I, like most folks of this time period, have never done anything with metal alchemical work (it is highly toxic).  But for many years, I’ve been fascinated by spagyrics, and have made a number of preparations using those techniques.  (For good reading on the subject, I suggest Mark Stavish’s Path of Alchemy as an introduction).  Because Alchemy is an inner and outer process, there is a whole movement of “inner alchemy” or “spiritual alchemy” work, work that can be can be used for inner transformations. The thing about any alchemical process is this: matter has to be broken down with fire and heat in order to be reformed in a more pure manner.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the work we might do with trees and alchemy and have been experimenting in various ways in that direction. Basic spagryic preparations (which are detailed in Mark Stavish’s excellent work) combine macerating plant matter in high-proof alcohol (that is, soaking it for a period of time) and going through a process of refinement where the material that was macerated is burned and the ash is further refined. Eventually, the refined materials are combined for a highly potent medicine.

 

I think there are other kinds of work you can do with plants and tree matter that are a little less direct. On the most passive side that requires little tools, preparation, or time, a simple flower essence (where a bowl of spring water is held up to a leaf or flower of the plant, imbuing that plant energetically) is a good first step. Somewhere in the middle, requiring some preparation, tools, and time, we have the hydrosol and the creation of an essential oil. On the far side, requiring much preparation and time, we have the full spagyric plant preparation.

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

Hydrosols are also known as “floral waters” although they can be made of much more than just flowers.  They are produced by a simple distillation process. You can purchase fancy equipment (often known as an Alembic or Still) to do this or you can do it with stuff you likely have already in your kitchen (I am going to offer information on both approaches.)  I used the simple stovetop approach with kitchen materials for many years before, using about $10 worth of materials from the thrift store for very small batches.  Then, last year, I finally invested in a medium-sized copper alembic to do more advanced preparations.

 

The process of making a hydrosol, which I’ll detail with photographs below, involves gathering fresh plant material that is aromatic in nature.  You will need a lot of plant matter – usually several pounds.  It involves heating the material up to create steam, cooling that steam and condensing it back into a liquid form that is medicinal and relatively shelf stable).

 

Hydrosols are sacred medicine in their own right, although they are often seen as “by products” of the essential oil distillation process.  When you heat up plant matter that has high amounts of volatile oils, those oils also come out through the distillation process and sit on the top of the hydrosol.  Most people working on this process at home, particularly with sacred trees, may not produce enough oil to make it worth their while, although some plants, like lavender or goldenrod, certainly can do so, especially if you do several batches of distillation.

Choosing Your Material

Harvest your plant material with reverence and respect. Hydrosols and distillation take a good deal plant material (particularly if you are using an Alembic and doing a higher amount of distillation). Keep this in mind as you are planning for the garden this year! Plant material should be safe to consume or at least put on the body. Despite my positive relationship with Poison Ivy, I would not, under any circumstances do a steam distillation of it!

 

Any plant or tree that is typically used in herbal practice and that has a scent would be a good choice. Common kitchen herbs are often used such as:

  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Rose(petals)
  • Mints
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Monarda/bee balm
  • Scented geranium

In terms of trees, the leaves or needles would work.  Ones I’ve experimented with include:

  • Blue Spruce (needles)
  • White Pine (needles)
  • Eastern Hemlock (needles)
  • Black Birch (budding branches)
  • Sassafras (root)

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

Harvest your material on a sunny day when it is not raining. The rain, particularly for flowers or aromatic leaves, can dilute the plant oils and overall result.  Harvest the plant matter in abundant areas or grow it yourself to ensure that you are not taking too much from the plant matter. Generally speaking, if the plant is rare, doing a tincture is probably the best way to use that plant’s energy because it is the most efficient.  If the plant is very abundant, a steam distillation would be a good choice.

 

The timing also matters–plants have different levels of aromatic oils at different times of year. If I was doing a black birch preparation, I would do this in the early spring due to the amount of sweet oil in the birch branches that time (due to the flowing of sap). Other plants, like the conifers, don’t matter as much. Flowers and herbs should be harvested at their peak–so when lavender is in flower, for example, but before it goes to seed.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A friend and I went out and harvested a number of plants to fire up the copper alembic. We did four distillations, two of herbs (goldenrod and sweet clover) and two of trees (eastern hemlock and blue spruce). We experimented with different kinds of approaches to the distillation.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

 

Distillation Process

Now I am going to walk step by step through the distillation process.

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

Once we were home, we removed large stem material and did our best to crush up the hemlock needles. We had not done this with the blue spruce (instead, placing whole small branches in the alembic) and that proved to give us very little essential oil, but certainly, a nice hydrosol. Breaking up the hemlock material took more work, but we believe, it was worth it as we had a better preparation.

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

After we soaked the needles, we added fresh spring water (harvested at my local sacred spring, Heffley Spring) for the distillation. If you can’t get access to fresh water, I would consider using distilled water. The point is this: the process is very potent, and I certainly wouldn’t want any human-added chemicals, like chlorine, in my distillation.

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

My alembic also has an addition column where you can cram more plant matter in and the top that also takes plant matter. So I did this–so both the base and column are filled with plant matter (this photo shows Goldenrod), and the base is also filled with water. That gives you a lot of plant matter at once to steam distill–probably 10x what I used with my other method.

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

In the traditional method, Rye flour is used to seal up the alembic prior to steaming it. If you have severe allergies to gluten, I would suggest a sticky rice flour or tapioca flour in the place of rye.  I haven’t tried this, but I think it would work. First you mix a big batch of the Rye flour up.  It looks a lot like a sticky bread dough.  I didn’t measure, just added enough water till I got a nice paste.

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Then you basically smear it into the cracks and crevices of the entire alembic to hold it together. The idea is to seal it up so that as it starts to steam, it doesn’t leak steam anywhere.

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

Distillation works with the heating up of the plant matter and water to create steam then cooling it down quickly for condensation. That’s the entire process.  So you will need something to heat it up (I used a small outdoor burner) and you will need something to cool it down (I used lines with a small submersible fish tank pump and ice cold water).

The full system

The full system

I forgot to take a photo of the pump part of the system. The condenser unit has two cooper pipes sticking out of it–the top one flows water in and the bottom one pulls water out. You can keep the system cold if you flow cold water into it. Online, some people just use this from their tap, if they have a spring or well, the water is cold enough if you keep flowing it through. I didn’t have this, so instead, I used several bags of ice and a cooler. I placed the submersible pump at the bottom of the cooler and then ran the tubing through it and into the condenser. I used a little clamp to regulate the pressure of the water (so it would stay level, which required some work).

 

I found that the unit took about 30 minutes to heat up and about 45 minutes to actually start condensing the steam.  I let it run two or so hours, until the water no longer looked cloudy when it was coming out of the condenser unit.

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

This final water has both your essential oil and the distillation in it.  You can purchase a fancy oil separator (which I didn’t have when I did this) but I used a different method.  In my case, the only plant that produced enough essential oil to really take off the top was goldenrod.  To do this, I simply poured it all into a mason jar and then froze the whole thing.  The hydrosol freezes but the oil does not. I then pulled it out of the freezer and used a pipette to pull the oil off the top of the jar, then unfroze the hydrosol and put it in neat little spritzer bottles.

 

Conclusion

Since doing this last fall, I have shared these hydrosols with many friends in the druid community. They remark on their potency–the spruce gives an incredible lift me up, the white pine brings peace, and the hemlock brings stability and space (mental space/clarity, is the way one person described it). In truth, the goldenrod got a little skunky/funky, but did produce  a nice oil, so I’m not sure I’ll do that one again (and I didn’t give that one away!).

 

Creating tree hydrosols and essential oils represents a unique and beautiful way to connect with the potent medicine of the trees and work with them for healing and transformation. What seems like an intimidating process is actually a very simple one: refining potent medicine through the application of fire, water, and ice.  The practice of alchemy, of course, isn’t just about producing a physical medicine–but rather, the refinement and work on the level of the soul. Alchemical preparations not only as medicine for the body, but medicine for the soul.

PS: After this post, I will be taking several weeks off of regular posting on this blog to do some travel.  I look forward to returning later in June to my regular posting.  Blessings!