Category Archives: Food

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

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

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

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

Ecology

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

Spicebush tree with berries

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

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

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spicebush in Herbalism

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

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

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

Spicebush berries in hand

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

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

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

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

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

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Wild Grape (Vitis Labrusca) Mythology, Medicine, and Meanings

Wild Grapes

Wild Grapes

I remember when I first spotted to Wild Grape patch from the dirt road. “Is that all wild grape?” I said to my friend in an excited voice. We pulled the car over, and sure enough, there were thousands of grape bunches on a patch of vines that stretched hundreds of feet, almost ripe. A week later, we came back to the spot with a larger group of friends–there were more than enough wild grapes to go around.  After giving thanks for the abundance and promising to return to the spot for some wassailing in the winter, I harvested almost 5 gallons of wild grape that day. We worked to press all of the wild grapes with a friend’s with a small fruit press, and converting those grapes into the most amazing jelly you ever tasted!

Wild Grapevines, most commonly on the US East Coast the Fox Grape (Vitis Labrusca) variety, are truly a wonderful vine to get to know. They offer a variety of wonderful fruits with medicinal and culinary uses, a whimsical and sacred presence in our forests, and important spiritual lessons to learn. Like apples, pears, and other stonefruits, humans have an extremely longstanding and healthy relationship with grapes.  This is, in no small part, the role of wine and other fermented beverages in human history.  Before we had modern medicine, the wine was not considered simply an alcoholic beverage but also an important medicine. Grapes, their fruit and leaves, are also an important food source.In today’s post, we will explore the incredible grapevine!  While I’m focusing my comments on the most common grapevine along the US east coast, Vitis Labrusca, the fox grape, or wild grape, you can apply the content of this post to all grapevines.

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

Grapevine Ecology and Growth Habits

Ecoprint of the Wild Grape Leaf

Fox Grape is widespread along the US Eastern seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Georgia, and its range stretches through most of the eastern half of North America to the Mississippi.  Because of this, it is quite easy to find Fox Grape in foraging adventures, and when found, it is often abundant (although not always easy to reach if it is growing high up in the trees).  Fox grape, like other grapevines, is not a freestanding tree. Rather, it depends upon the support of other trees, most often in a symbiotic relationship, where the grapevines are growing with other living trees.  However, over time, the vines can strangle the trees, eventually pulling them down. You might see places like this in the forest–it often appears as a U-shaped bowl where thousands of grapevines are growing up the trees–and the center is a mass of grapevines that have pulled down smaller trees and continue growing outward.  Several other growth habits I’ve witnessed include wild grape taking over an abandoned pile of wood (imagine a very large brush pile covered in wild grape) or a huge amount of wild grape on the edge of a field/forest, taking up much of the edge space. Most commonly though, you will find a grapevine here or there, often climbing up into the host trees.

The woody vine of the wild grape is usually 10-40′ long with a base of several inches and up to 12″ in diameter for the oldest vines.  It uses forked tendrils (also edible) to slowly climb up adjacent trees where it uses its tendrils to anchor itself to branches and continue its ascent.  The bark is medium brown and usually appears shredded, with some of it flaking off over time as the vine grows in girth.  At regular intervals, the vine will have nodes where stems come out to produce leaves. The leaves are alternate and heart shape with three palmate lobes.  In the late spring or early summer, the wild grape will produce greenish-yellow bunches of flowers–they aren’t very showy, and it Is usually easy to miss them. The flowers slowly develop into green grape clusters and then, in the late summer or fall, the 1/2″ – 3/4″ grapes ripen to dark purple or bluish-black. Of course, this is the time to go foraging for wild grapes!

Wild grapes grow in a variety of soils and tolerate a range of conditions, but they prefer wetter conditions and have some flood tolerance.  They usually thrive in part sun conditions, and as they climb, they bring themselves into more sunlight, sometimes blocking out the light of their host tree.

Wild Grape History

An abundant harvest of wild grape!

The Fox grape has an interesting history. It is likely that in the 11th century when Leif Erikson and the Vikings were exploring coastal North America, they named the land they saw as “Vineland” because of the numbers of grapevines present.  Fox grapevines along with other Vitis species were later exported to Europe during the 19th century.  However, all North American grapevines carry the phylloxera louse that devastated many of the Vitis vinifera  (European) varieties of grapes but that the American varieties are immune to.  Europeans eventually overcame the phylloxera by interbreeding Fox grape with native European grapes to build resistance.  Thus, most of the grapevines in the world have a bit of Fox Grape in them.   The Concord grape was also bred from the Fox Grape in the 19th century in Concord, MA and after that other varieties such as the Niagara and Deleware were developed.

Wild Grape as Food

The Fox Grape is a very potent red grape variety, which has a skin that can be easily slipped off, offering easy access to the grape flesh and 4-5 small seeds in the center. According to Winker, Cook, Kliere, and Lider from General Viticulture (1974), the fox grape is known as “fox” because it has a strong, musky aroma that is earthy, sweet, and quite unique. These features make it highly sought out as a wild food.

In Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, Daniel Moerman describes the widespread uses of wild grapes by a variety of Native American tribes for food.  This included eating the fruit raw, using the fruit to make juice and dumplings, drying the fruit into raisins, and more.

Pressing wild grapes using a small fruit press

Today, as traditionally, wild grapes are used as a food source in a number of ways.  First, the small forked tendrils coming out of the vines are good for a trailside nibble–they are tart and fresh tasting (you could never gather many of these without harming the vine, so enjoy a few as you hike but don’t consider this a major food source!)

The leaves are a culinary delight: they can be steamed or marinated in oil and then used to make dolmas, casseroles, or other dishes calling for grape leaves.  You can preserve them in oil or even parboil and freeze them if you want a ready supply of grape leaves into the winter months.

Of course, the prime food source from the grape is the fruit itself.  In the late summer or early fall, keep an eye out for wild grapes that are ripe. Confirm that they are wild grapes (both poison ivy and Virginia creeper can produce a look-alike, identify the difference between the leaves and the size of the fruit). Usually, wild grapes stay on the vine a number of weeks if the wildlife doesn’t get to them first, giving you a long harvest window. As Sam Thayer in the Foragers Harvest notes–and this is important–when you are harvesting, you either need to process your grapes right away or ensure that you do not crush them. The grapes will immediately begin to ferment if crushed (as grapes do!). When you crush them, crush them gently because the seeds can be bitter and that bitterness can be transferred into the grape juice if the seeds are crushed.  Thayer notes that a small fruit press or jelly bag is good for this work–I’ve also found you can step on them in a clean bucket with clean feet!  Return any seeds or unwanted materials to the living earth.

One of the most important things to know about harvesting wild grapes, at least the Fox Grape variety, is that they contain a compound known as tartrate (a salt/esterate of tartaric acid, found in all grapes but high in wild grape). Different vines have it in larger or smaller amounts, in my experience.  After crushing, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly or the Tartrate can start to make your hands burn after about 45 min to 60 min.  After you have your juice, put it in the fridge or a cool porch for 24 hours in a large jar.  You will see a gray-brown sludge form at the bottom (usually about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total volume).. Pour off everything that isn’t the sludge and discard the sludge in your compost or outside (it is important to return any “waste” to nature.  If you don’t pour off the Tartrate, it will provide an “off” taste to your finished juice (or any fermented products you make with it).

Some wild grape juice needing to rest–more to process as you can see!

What is left is an amazing, very potent, and delicious grape juice.  You can mix it with other juices (it goes well with apple or pear), ferment it, make a jelly, drink it fresh, or anything else. At this point, you can use any recipes you want for those calling for Concord or Niagra grapes.  My favorite thing to do with it, since I don’t drink alcohol at all, is to turn it into the most incredible jelly you will ever taste!  A fruit leather (fruit roll-up) is another excellent use, especially when combined with another fruit like ripe pureed apple.

Wild Grape as Medicine

It’s important to remember that before modern medicine, wine (particularly red wine) was considered as much a medicinal substance as it was a culinary one. Due to the reservitol, which supports healthy heart function, wine has long been used as a medicinal drink and health tonic in many cultures.  As Matthew Wood describes in his Earthwise Herbal: Old World Herbs, herbs were often macerated (soaked) in wine, and then it was diluted with honey and water for medicinal use.  As Wood notes, in the late Middle Ages, distillation techniques invented which allowed wine to be turned into spirits, creating an even more potent medium for tincturing herbs. Wood notes several other historical uses of grapes including liquid drops from living grapevines being used on the eyes to help heal eye issues and the grape leaves (which are astringent) were used to address a variety of wet or damp stomach conditions.

Wild Grape in the Western Magical Tradition: Europe and the Americas

Vine or Muin is associated most commonly with grapevine, although grapevines are not native to Ireland, where the ogham associated.  Still, many contemporary uses of Muin tie it to the wild grapevine (I use it in the Allegheny Mountain Ogham as well). In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the word Muin is tied to the “highest beauty and strongest effort” in the ancient texts, suggesting that vine grows from tree to tree, connecting the forest, which offers one key interpretation of vine through the ogham (p. 147).

In the American Hoodoo tradition as described by Cat Yronwoode in Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, the grape is used for revealing adultery revealing spells and also for a very specific kind of curse lifting. If a man has difficulty urinating due to a curse, a rootworker cuts a grapevine to the height of his crotch and then bends it in a glass jar and lets it sit overnight. This will produce a liquid.  He should wash his privates with this liquid, which will cure him of the curse.

In The Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that grapes have been considered magical substances by humans since before we had recorded history.  The ancient Greeks called the grapevine the “blood of the earth” representing their critical importance.  JMG notes that grapes are tied to the Sun in Pisces and are airy and warm in the 1st degree, moist in the 2nd degree. While grapes were used traditionally in love magic of all kinds, JMG notes that grapes are excellent at carrying the energies of other herbs or substances, which is part of why wine can be the base for many potions, baths, and washes (p. 115).

 Wild Grape in Native American Mythology

The Chickasaw Legend describes the Raccoon Clan, a clan of bright and well-adapted people, hanging large bunches of wild grapes up to dry for the winter months. In the History and Traditional Lands of the Huron-Iroquois Nations, the tale describes a large bridge constructed by the Iroquois over the Ohio river which broke after several explorers attempted to cross it. In a similar Senaca legend, the Lazy Man makes a grapevine swing and hangs out in his swing all day rather than doing anything productive like hunting. In The Origin of the Iroquois Nation, the spirits of the sky came down and gave each of the five Iroquois nations a gift. To the Onondaga were given grapes, squashes, and tobacco.  In a final Senaca legend, the Adventures of Yellowbird, at one point Yellowbird, who is a shapeshifter, is summoned by a neighboring chief.  In animal form, he runs to meet her but is stopped repeatedly by an invisible tangle of grapevines.  He knows these vines were put in his way by the chief.

The Magical and Divination Meanings of Wild Grape

Beautiful grapes!

Binding and Holding Fast. The first meaning of the wild grape is due to the very nature of grapevine–as vines grow, they grow around other trees and plants, in some cases, strangling them and pulling them down over time.  even the small tendrils can cause great difficulty to living plants.  This meaning is clear, both in the ecology of the plant as well as in some of the legends surrounding the plant.

Transmission of energy. Just as the grapevines connect multiple trees and the wine can be used to transmit the qualities of herbs, the grapevine as a whole offers a transmission of energy and is a worthy vessel for any sacred sacrament – herbs, magic, and more.  Wine is a carrier, it can help carry sacred energies of ritual and more.  You might consider how vine can be used as such a transmission source in your own practice–through the wood, through the leaves, or through food and drink that you create.

Dear readers, what are some of your experiences with the wild grape? I would love to hear your insights and thoughts!

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

A Walk Through a Sacred Garden

View of some of our gardens at Lughnasadh!  Here you can see our main garden (on the left, annuals) and the meditation garden (on the right; smaller perennials). We also have other perennial patches we are cultivating on other parts of the property.  And of course, our wonderful greenhouse in the center!  Behind the greenhouse is a compost tumbler.  In front of the greenhouse, you can see our duck enclosure (more about that later).  Towards the back in the center, you can see our guinea/chicken enclosure and goose enclosure.  The compost area is off to the back left.

Today, we are taking a walk through the sacred gardens at the Druid’s Garden Homestead.  There are so many lessons to learn with a simple walk in a beautiful garden.  Today’s Lughnasadh garden walk reminds us of the power of nature to heal wounds, strengthen our spirits, and help us through challenging times.  For more on the creation of some of these gardens, please see the meditation garden with hugelkultur beds and creating our greenhouse from an old carport. You can also learn more about the principles behind this garden through sacred gardening principles as well as permaculture design. These principles are what we use to guide our decision making in the space.  With that said, let’s begin our walk….

The way I’ve written this article is that the main text in between the photos offer spiritual lessons, while the captions on the photos describe what you are seeing.  You might choose to read captions first, and then go back and read the main text.  It is a weaving of inner teachings with outer practices.

The mighty mullein, garden gaurdian, standing tall in the back of our vegetable garden!

The mighty mullein, garden guardian, standing tall in the back of our vegetable garden!  Mullein is a medicinal plant that can support the lungs (leaf) and also help address ear infections (flower).

Three sisters garden- corn, beans, and squash. We had trouble with corn germinating due to the drought.  Three sisters is an ancient technique used by the Native Americans to create balanced growth: the beans replace nitrogen in the soil, the corn supports the beans and squash, and all is abundant.

All gardens are always in the process of cycling and change. The cycle and progression of the season are constant.  Each season progresses through seed starting, planting, growth, harvest, and fallow times.  Gardening brings us powerfully back into the cycles and the seasons and reminds us to enjoy the moment, for the change is always afoot.  Plants bloom, they produce flowers and fruit, they go to seed, and they die or go fallow.  This cycle repeats again and again–both in the garden and in our own lives: times of new seeds being planted, times of growth, times of harvest, and times of passing on. Taking part in this in a sacred garden can help us have a deeper insight into these patterns and cycles in our own lives.

Upper garden beds just before the garlic harvest. Weeds got a little crazy this year, but the plants still grow!  We have alliums in our upper beds this year along with perennials: lemon balm, asparagus, strawberries, clove currant, and more.

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden.  It took about three years for it to be this healthy and abundant–the caterpillars kept eating it to the ground. Milkweed is a fantastic edible plant with at least four different harvests–learn more about it here.  And of course, it is host to many butterfly and moth populations, including the endangered monarch butterfly.

While these larger cycles and seasons are always at work, each season is also uniquely different.  A single season is different than the year before, even if there are similarities and broader patterns. For example, this year, we’ve had one of the driest years on record (and two years ago, we had the wettest year on record) and are in a borderline drought.  From this, we learn adaptation, we learn how to grow with more heat and less water–it has been a hard summer.  We learn, for example, that certain plants thrive in this heat (sages, rosemary, monarda, mugwort) while others struggle (annual veggies, especially squash with broad leaves).  This is the nature of gardening now, with unpredictable weather patterns and climate change.  Just like other cycles we humans face–some of us struggle and some of us thrive, depending on the individual circumstances.  Seeing the land respond to this intense sun and heat has helped me respond to many intensities in my own life (and the lives of us globally at present). I learn to take on the quality of sage, basking in the seemingly eternal scorching heat and growing strong despite months with no rain. I learn to grow thick like monarda, to protect my roots with my leaves and flowers.  I learn to bask in the sun like rosemary, with small leaves that can withstand drought conditions. I learn the rest need a lot of water, and I am grateful for the spring that provides.  I learn to carry on.

A medicinal flower and herb polyculture in our meditation gardens: sunflower, poppy, feverfew, st. johns wort, pumpkin and tomato, zinnia, and probably some more!  Polycultures, made up of plants that grow in harmony, are beneficial to the land.  Most of these self seeded from last year and now the garden just flourishes.

Inside our greenhouse. You are looking at the back (north-facing wall) where we have a cob and stone heat sink wall to absorb heat during the day and relase it at night. The shelves hold our seedlings in the springtime. We have hot crops and long-season crops in here: this year, we have two gourds, our hardy fig, a number of white sages, tomatoes, and kale. Everything but the fig and Kale will come out in the fall, where we will plant late fall/winter crops.

Inside our greenhouse. You are looking at the back (north-facing wall) where we have a cob and stone passive heat sink wall.  This wall is most effective during spring, fall, and winter, where it absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. The shelves hold our seedlings in the springtime and can store supplies in other times a year. We have hot crops and long-season crops in the greenhouse at present: this year, we have two gourds, our hardy fig, a number of white sages, tomatoes, and kale. Everything but the fig and Kale will come out in the fall, where we will plant late fall/winter crops.  I let the grass in the paths grow till late in the year, this will provide fresh greens for geese and our tortoise.

Another lesson as we walk through this amazing garden at Lughnasadh is the lesson of reciprocation. I write about this often because its a lesson that is lost to most in our present age. The sacred garden reminds us that we are always in a relationship, as equals, with the living earth.  We tend and honor the land, and the land provides our needs. We can cultivate this same kind of relationship with the garden: the soil web of life, reminding us of the interconnection with all beings.  With the seeds that I harvested from our spinach just this morning–the spinach died back leaving the seeds of hope for a new generation to be born, trusting that I will make sure those seeds are planted and tended. This sacred relationship is why, at Lughnasadh, a time of first harvest, we make offerings.  The philosophy is simple: an offering encourages reciprocal relationships rather than one rooted only in extracting resources.  While we tend and honor the garden, the garden tends and honors our spirits.

Our main garden with tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and chives.  We regularly rotate our annual beds and support the soil web with no-till gardening using sheet mulching. We have multiple supports for the tomatoes, which get heavy and like to fall over this time of year.  Beans are rotated in after the tomatoes to ensure nitrogen and other minerals are put back into the soil.  We top dress with compost each fall.

A walk through a sacred garden is perhaps best at Lughnasadh, at least here in our ecosystem in Western PA.  This seems to always be the time when the garden is at its peak: peak vegetation, so many fruits, and vegetables being ready to harvest.  The bulk of the harvest is still before us, and the plants are just abundant and full.  Its a good lesson and good energy now, when we are in such challenging times.  We are weary.  The garden opens up to us, welcoming us, encouraging us to stay awhile, sit with that amazing energy, and remember that this cycle too will end.

One of the most integrated parts of the garden: duck enclosure on a hill just above the main garden. The ducks require clean pools each day, so all of that duck water is dumped into the swale in front of this “wet bed.”  This is where we grow brassicas and celery and other crops that like it very, very wet!  The duck enclosure also serves as our blueberry patch–so we are stacking many functions with this space.  The bed never dries out, and has been a real blessing during this drought.  Putting the ducks next to the garden also provides us on two sides with a “duck moat” – the ducks eat bugs that would want to fly or hop into the garden and give us trouble.

The garden gander, Widdershins! He oversees everything that happens on the property and guards the land.  He also loves dandelion greens and grapes. If there’s any trouble, Widdershins’ powerful honk lets us know to come outside.

I hope you have enjoyed this walk through the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead!  There are so many lessons to learn and take from any garden you visit.

PS: I will be taking a short writing break from the blog for a few weeks. I have been asked to spend the next two weeks reviewing the galley proofs from my publisher for my book that is coming out in 2021 – Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  I’ll see all of you in a few weeks!  If you have any topics you’d like me to cover when I get back, please let me know!

Lughnasadh for Solitary Practitioners

In a typical year, at Lughnasadh, my grove would be gathering for our favorite celebration of the year.  This is typically a weekend of rituals, feasting, fire, and merriment, all hosted here at our homestead in Western PA. With the pandemic raging around us, this kind of gathering cannot happen at present. As much as I enjoy our yearly Lughnasadh gathering, I’m taking time this year to focus on my solitary practice and enjoy Lughnasadh in a different way.  Looking at the history and lore of Lughnasadh offers some wonderful solitary practices that honor the history of this holiday and have a fun time.  For a historical look at Lughnasadh (and where some of the inspiration for this post was drawn), you can see Máire MacNeill (1962) The festival of Lughnasa: a study of the survival of the Celtic festival of the beginning of harvest published by Oxford University Press. For my other posts on other ways to celebrate Lughnasadh, please see building sacred plant relationships at Lughnasadh and Sacred Herbalism at Lughnasadh.

Visits to Sacred Wells (Springs, Waterways, other Bodies of Water)

A local mineral spring worthy of a visit!

A local mineral spring worthy of a visit!

A Lughnasadh tradition that stems back to ancient times is the journey to a holy well or sacred spring.  Although wells and springs do not necessarily have the sacred significance in some parts of the world (like the US) that they have in others, it is still an excellent experience to find a local spring, well, or other waterway and make the journey.  You can begin to build a relationship with a spring, well, or other water source which in turn can offer you deep spiritual practices. For more on practices that you might do at a sacred spring, see Seeking Sacred Springs for Inspiration and Healing.  If you want to find a spring local to you, you can use www.findaspring.com.

Pilgrimage to a Hill or Mountain

Another very common tradition is the act of climbing a hill or mountain.  Like many other traditions, climbing mountains as a sacred act was appropriated by Christianity as part of the coversion of the British Isles.  One such modern tradition called “Reek Sunday” where pilgrims climb a mountain sacred to St. Patrick (like everything else, it is likely an older sacred site that was transformed into a Christian monument).  Regardless of who claims the practice today, it certainly had pagan origins and was taking place long before the arrival of Christianity.

For your own mountain or hill climb, you will want to think about something that has local significance or personal significance to you. For example, since I live in Western Pennsylvania, one of the best options is to hike to one of the overlooks in the Allegheny mountains–we have several peaks and ridges that are excellent climbs, offer a beautiful overview when you reach the top, and are certainly sacred to me.  Finding a spot to climb can be part of the fun!

Once you have your hill or mountain picked out, you can decide if you want to plan something (e.g. bring sacred water, offerings, have a picnic, do a ritual) or keep things spontaneous when you reach the top.

Creating a Garland

Garland creation used to be a common occurrence in the British Isles, seeped in tradition and spiritual significance, but the practice has largely been lost in the Western world (but is still practiced in many other places). A garland is a decorative wreath of flowers and greenery that can be worn as a headdress, a necklace, hang over an altar, laid a an offering (such as at the top of the mountain or next to the sacred spring), or hung in the house as a blessing. Garlands were often used for spiritual purposes,  including for celebrations, rituals, offerings, and more.  At Lughnasadh, garlands were often placed around holy wells and could also be used for the many weddings and unions that happened at these times.  Here is a nice introduction for how to create a garland out of fresh flowers and plant material.  I’ll be writing more about garlands and how to build in druid and pagan symbolism soon!

An offering of “First Fruits” or Giving Back

Lughnasadh is a traditional time of first harvest, when the “first fruits” of the land were offered in thanks. Traditionally, offering back part of the first harvest demonstrated reciprocation, interdependency, and the importance of sustaining and nurturing the land. I believe that without these kinds of traditions, we forget how much we depend on, and therefore need to nurture and sustain, our living earth. If you grow something (or go wild food foraging for berries, etc), an early harvest here is an excellent choice for an offering. Even if you don’t grow anything yourself, you can think about an appropriate offering to the land for her bounty: a prayer, a song, a poem, picking up trash, anything that can show that you are giving back. For more on offerings and gratitude practices, you might want to see this post.

Cook a Special Meal with Local / Homegrown Foods

Another take on the “first harvest” is preparing a special meal and taking a little bit of that meal for an offering. Go to a farmer’s market, get what is in season, harvest from your garden.  You can also tie it to a ritual–having a ritual meal where you open up sacred space, break bread with loved ones or commune silently with spirit, and simply enjoy the experience of good, local food.

A good place to spend some time

A good place to spend some time

Simply Be / Forest Bathing

I think this last one is really important in today’s hectic life: just take some time to be present in nature. Take a blanket into the woods or a local park. Rest, relax, and allow your mind to wander. Spend time simply in nature, enjoying being outside.  Taking an hour or two to do this will be relaxing, grounding, and effective.

 

Dear readers, I hope you have a very blessed Lughnasadh in the coming week!  If you have other solitary ideas for celebrating Lughnasadh, I’d love to have you share.

 

 

 

Garlic Scape and Leek Scape Pesto and Preservation

Garlic Scapes and leek scapes are coming into full season here at the Druid’s Garden homestead, so I thought I’d share my method of preserving garlic scapes for use throughout the year.  After a few years of experimentation, I’ve perfected my process for creating a yummy pesto and preserving the pesto for a variety of uses.

This year’s harvest (along with some rapini!)

Garlic scapes and leek scapes mature at about the same time, usually around the summer solstice where I live here in USDA Zone 6, Western Pennsylvania. Garlic is planted in October the previous fall, which allows you to harvest scapes and then later bulbs the following season.  Leeks have to be treated in a similar way to result in scapes–you won’t get any get scapes on leeks unless they overwinter.  This past year, I planted some last September and didn’t harvest them all, so they overwintered, so now they are growing delicious scapes ready for processing. If you don’t have scapes of your own, any farmer’s market is likely to have many scapes to purchase!  Buy a few bunches to enjoy and prepare.

In terms of flavor, garlic scapes have a spicy and complex flavor, a lot like garlic bulbs but a bit less pungent. The leek scapes are more mild and oniony with a hint of sweetness.  You can process them separately or you can just mix them together if you have both.

The way that I like to process scapes is a fresh scape pesto. A garlic or leek scape pesto can be made in a very brief amount of time and can then be frozen and stay good in your freezer for up to a year (if it would ever last that long!)

The Versatile, Amazing Scape Pesto

Garlic scapes ready to eat!

Pick your scapes or get them at the farmer’s market.  If you are picking, you will want to monitor them as they start to emerge.  You want to get them after they emerge for a few days and once they’ve curled over.  If you wait too long, they can get a bit tough and if they stay on the garlic plant long term, they will redirect a lot of energy away from your garlic bulbs, so they are necessary to harvest for a good garlic crop.

This recipe is greatly speeded up with a food processor.  You could do it by hand–chop the scapes up coarsely and then use a larger mortar and pestle or just finely chop with a knife.  Getting the pesto pulverized is the goal.

Ingredients:
–Garlic scapes
–Olive oil
–Salt
–Optional: parmesan cheese, pine nuts or walnuts

Your food processor can handle a good handful or two of scapes at a time.  I begin by loosely chopping the scapes (in 1/2 or 1/3), just enough to fill my food processor about halfway full.  From there, I pour in a few tablespoons of high-quality olive oil (usually about 3-4 tbsp for a half-full processor of scapes) and a pinch of salt.  Process until you get a thick green pesto.   You will likely want to stop the processor several times and use a spatula to scrape the bits of garlic off the sides. If the pesto is too runny, you can add more scapes, and if it’s too thick, add a bit more olive oil.  If you are processing a lot of scapes, you may have to do it in several batches.  Since I freeze my pesto, I am going for a thicker consistency.

Food processor–this is a good consistency if you want to freeze it.

You can add other ingredients as you see fit.  I like to add some parmesan cheese (2-3 tablespoons) and pine nuts to make a more traditional pesto.  You can also add lemon juice and tahini for another kind of twist (this turns it into a kind of dressing).

Preservation and Freezing

Once you have your pesto finished, you can freeze it for up to 1 year.  What I like to do for this is either use an ice cube tray or simply scoop your pesto out into 2-3 tbsp scoops on a cookie sheet lined with parchment.  I place either the trays or cookie sheet into the freezer for 12 hours.  Pull them back out.  Now you can place all of these in a freezer bag and pull out 1 or more cubes of pesto as you need them.

Getting ready to freeze

Ready to pull out of freezer and enjoy!

Pesto Uses

There are countless ways that you can use this garlic or leek scape pesto.  Here are a few:

Rice: Add 3 tbsp or more of fresh pesto to 3 cups freshly cooked rice–I like to do this when you fluff the rice with a fork after cooking and let it sit for 10 min.  This gives the rice a delicious garlic flavor.  You can also do the same with other grains like quinoa.

Hummus: Add 2-3 tbsp to a homemade hummus for an extra garlic or leek flavor.

Garlic dip. Mix 3-4 tablespoons with 1 cup sour cream and add salt and parmesan to taste.  You can also add a bit more fresh garlic or garlic powder to round out the flavor.

Meats and grilling.  This pesto makes an excellent marinade or baste for chicken, fish, and other meats.  You can use it in a variety of ways: on the grill, in the oven, as part of a sauce for over top meat, and more.  I like to add 2-3 tablespoons to meatloaf and/or burgers.

Pasta: Sautee zucchini or other fresh garden veggies until they are nearly done. Toss 3-4 tablespoons in the skillet and cook an additional minute.  Add a few splashes of cream and toss with pasta.  (Top with fish or scallops!)

Sandwich spread:  This pesto can be used on its own or mixed with mayo to create a delicious spread for any kind of sandwich.

Drizzle. Add a bit more olive oil and parmesan and use this as a drizzle over a variety of dishes.

I hope that many of you can enjoy this delicious and amazing treat this season!

Wild Food Profile – Eastern Hemlock Buds: Fresh Eating, Tea, and Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing

Eastern Hemlock is one of my very favorite trees.  The tall, regal personal, the needles and branches that offer a bluish light beneath them as the sun shines, the cathedral-like quality of the ancient ones. This time of year, you can see the bright green buds on the Eastern Hemlock that represent the growth of the tree for this season.  As the buds grow older, they darken to the beautiful viridian green that is characteristic of the Eastern Hemlock tree. But, for the short window of time when the trees are budding–right now–Eastern Hemlock buds are a delicious treat.

Harvesting Eastern Hemlock buds

We happen to have many of these trees on our property, and some of the branches are starting to grow into our paths and have to be trimmed back. There are thousands of beautiful tiny green buds on each of the branches to be trimmed, which offered a good opportunity to create some new delicacies and experiment with a larger-than-usual volume of Eastern Hemlock buds.  In this post, I’ll share three ways to enjoy the buds as well as some harvest instructions.  If you want to learn more about the Eastern Hemlock’s magical and medicinal qualities, you can check out my earlier post.

Harvest

If you are going to eat these delicious treats, you need to first know how to harvest buds.  You will want to get the buds as they are emerging–you have usually a 1-2 week window each year, and the exact timing will depend on the warmth or coolness of your spring (for us here in USDA Zone 6 in Western PA, that’s usually sometime in May).

The buds will first emerge in little casings; wait until they have fully emerged, like in my photo below. I recommend the buds when they are fully spread out but still bright green.  They are prime when they have emerged and spread out a bit but haven’t gotten to the darker green color yet or too large.

Buds at perfect harvest time

You will want to be very careful about how much you harvest, as each bud is potential new growth for the tree.  If you are trimming a tree branch I am, then obviously you would harvest all of the buds on the branch that will be cut.  But if you are harvesting from a tree without any trimming, you want to make sure you aren’t compromising the growth of that tree.  I would suggest never harvesting the buds on the ends of the branch (this will prohibit future growth) but rather, harvest a bud or two per branch from further down the branch.  I would also recommend harvesting from mature trees, not small trees (who need all of their growth). Finally, please be aware that the hemlocks are under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, which may or may not be present in your area (do not harvest from any tree that is fighting this terrible pestilence–these hemlocks need all the help they can get! Instead, how about some ritual for them? )

Of course, like any other harvest from the land, harvest with gratitude.  Offer something in return.

Flavor

Buds ready for eating!

In my opinion, the Eastern Hemlock has the best tasting “tips” in my bioregion. The tips have a strong lemony taste with a hint of pine and a slightly bitter aftertaste.  They are really delicious for fresh eating or in recipes.

They can delicious and quite strongly flavored in bulk, so they are really useful as a marinade or dressing, where the flavor can really have an impact.

Eastern Hemlock buds, like most other conifers, are high in Vitamin C.

Recipe 1: Fresh Eats, Salad, and Garnish

The first recipe is not really a recipe at all–you can simply nibble on the hemlock buds as a trailside treat.  You can add them to fresh salads or as a garnish. They are amazing when sprinkled on top of meats or roasted veggies.  Harvest them fresh and add whole buds to the salad.  Harvest them fresh and chop them up as a spice. I really like them as a garnish for a baked or pan-fried fish!

Recipe 2:  Tea (Hot or Cold)

Hemlock buds make an amazing, light, and refreshing tea.  You can dry them or use them fresh (you can also use the mature needles, which have a stronger flavor that is also amazingly delicious).  Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 TBSP fresh buds or 1/2 TBSP dried buds/needles.  Cover and let seep for 5 minutes.  Add fresh honey to taste and enjoy!

Recipe 3: Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing / Spread / Marinade

This is a recipe that my sister and I created this season and experimented with to find just the right combination.

The base is:

  • 1/2 cup of Eastern Hemlock buds
  • 1/2 cup of good quality olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fire cider vinegar (or regular apple cider vinegar)

I would strongly suggest adding:

  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 3 TBSP maple syrup or honey (to taste)

Start by adding your olive oil and Eastern hemlock buds to a food processor (if you don’t have a food processor, you can chop finely and stir everything by hand).  Process them until they are fairly chopped up.  Add your apple cider vinegar and maple syrup and pulse a few times. If you are going with the base dressing, then you are done and it is delicious!

After some processing, this is your base dressing

If you want to make a spread or thicker dressing, add your tahini. If you pulse this a lot, you will end up with a thick spread, almost the consistency of mayo (good for spreading on a sandwich). If you stir it by hand or pulse it only a little, you will end up with a lovely dressing for salads, marinades, and more.

If you process it for a minute or more with tahini, you get this great spread

We had a nice salad and then a lunch of sauteed veggies (asparagus, celery, summer squash, broccoli, and kale) with the delicious dressing as a marinade and drizzle over some rice. I hope you enjoy this delightful wild-foraged treat and spend time communing with the beautiful and majestic Eastern Hemlock, my favorite of the trees.

Delicious as a marinade and sauce for veggies

Have it on a fresh salad!

Introduction to Sacred Gardening: Connection, Reciprocity, and Honoring Life

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Walking into a sacred garden is like walking into another world, one full of joy, happiness, and wholeness.  Fruit hanging from happy branches, plants coming up from all angles inviting a nibble, a taste, a touch.  The pathways spiral and you get lost, looking at flowers, breathing in the fresh air, and tasting the tart berries on your tongue.  An indoor sacred garden is much the same – a bright window with a chair asking you to sit, stay awhile, and meditate with the plants (or even reach up and take a lemon-scented geranium leaf in your hand and breathe deeply).  Sacred gardens are places that are intentionally cultivated to be in harmony and balance, that are carefully tended by loving hands, and that offer many possibilities for spiritual practice and deeper spiritual connection.

 

It’s amazing to see that this year, so many new people are taking up gardening.  While I’ve written on these topics before (obviously, this blog is called the Druid’s Garden!), I’m returning to this topic today to offer an overall philosophy of sacred gardening that I hope can help you deepen your practice or start a new garden.  I’ve been engaged in these practices for over a decade, greatly aided by my permaculture design certificate and permaculture teacher training, which offered me much in the way of working with nature and developing deep observation, interaction, and ethical skills. I realize that other authors, especially those coming from different spiritual traditions, may have a very different take.  But this is mine :).

 

Sacred Gardening: A Triad of Reciprocity, Life Honoring, and Connection

To define sacred gardening, let’s start by looking at the definitions for the two terms.  A garden refers to a place where ordinary people can grow food.  Beyond that, gardens actually vary pretty widely based on the philosophy and practices of a gardener.  You can have gardens that are organic and holistically managed or those that are full of chemicals, weed killers, and poisons.  You can have gardens that are diverse and support life or those that are focused on keeping all life that isn’t intended out with some pretty violent means.  You can have large or small gardens, indoors or out.  They can be perennial or annual. Gardens, then, are defined by crowing food, cultivating plants for human benefit; they are often (but not always) very human-dominated spaces.

Sacred refers to something that is dedicated to a spiritual or religious purpose, something that is deserving veneration, being worthy of awe; and/or something that is entitled to reverence and respect.  When we think of something that is sacred, it is a special place where we offer honor, respect, and reverence.  Where we tend to our interactions and be intentional in our practices. For thinking about nature as sacred, several concepts emerge that are critically important to our discussion here they are: connection, reciprocity, and honoring life   It is in these three concepts that we can arrive at a useful definition of sacred gardening.

Diverse garden!

Diverse garden!

Actions here represent the third aspect that is important to define.  The ultimate point of most gardening is growing food, using whatever means an individual chooses.  What makes that gardening sacred is how the gardener chooses to interact with the land, the specific choices and behaviors that gardener engages in, and the intentions put forth into the space.  As with many things, while intentions matter a great deal, it is actions that determine our relationships and reality to the land. You can have all of the sacred intentions in the world, but walking into your garden with a backpack sprayer full of Round-Up sends a very different message.

 

At the same time as actions speak intentions into the world, it is also important to recognize that the physical and metaphysical are affected by each other and that there are many metaphysical aspects that can affect a physical space and vice versa.  Thus, we can think about sacred gardening as being about both inner and outer practices, practices that help not only support the physical presence of the garden but also the spirit.

 

Thus, I see three guiding principles, a triad in the druidic sense, that can help us with a full definition of this practice:

Three principles for sacred gardening:
Deepening inner and outer connections with the garden
Engaging in reciprocity with the garden
Honoring and creating spaces the diversity of life in the garden

Thus, sacred gardening is a practice of cultivating a space (indoors or outdoors) that allows for not only growing food but also spiritual connection, reciprocity, and honoring life through both inner and outer practices.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll explore these three concepts and offer both “inner” (metaphysical) and outer “physical” practices

 

Connection: Building a Relationship

The first principle is connection.  Sacred gardening is connected gardening, where a big part of the goal of sacred gardening is to cultivate a deep relationship with the garden: which might include plants, soil, bird or insect life, stones, and other features.  Connection allows us to learn and grow in the garden by building a deeper relationship with that garden. Connection can mean many things in a garden setting, from developing a long-standing relationship with seeds that you carefully harvest and save each year to learning more about your space.   So now let’s look at three “inner” and “outer” connection practices.

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Inner Connection Practices for sacred gardening. These three practices don’t have to be taken up all at once. I suggest you start with one of them and build to others over time–it can take years to establish deep connections. Think about inner connection work as taking a seasonal approach: each season you can grow and deepen your practice

.

  • Plant Spirit Communication. Learning how to directly communicate with your plants and the spirits of your land is a fantastic way to build deep connection.  By practicing and learning these communication techniques, you can learn from nature and grow in deep ways–as plants have been teachers of humans long, long, before recorded history.  Many of our garden plants, especially the culinary herbs like rosemary, lemon balm, and sage, have extremely long relationships with humanity and are almost always willing teachers.  For more on plant spirit communication techniques, see Plant Spirit Communication 1, Plant Spirit Communication 2, Plant Spirit Communication 3, and Plant Spirit Communication 4.
  • Meditation. Meditation techniques, including walking meditation and meditation where you are in stillness within the space, are excellent ways to build connections.  Consider doing your regular meditative practices in your garden as often as you can.  Even taking 5 or 10 minutes a day in your garden to meditate and connect can be a very positive experience–for you and for the garden!
  • Planting and Harvesting Rituals.  Relationships are built, in part, by recognizing the spirit in the plants and honoring that spirit.  I have found that planting, blessing, and harvesting rituals are a great way to build a spiritual connection between yourself and your garden plants.  Here are a few rituals for you to try: land blessing, planting ritual 1, planting ritual 2.

Outer Connection Practices.  Outer connection practices help signal to the spirits of the land your intentions.  Humans in this age often take the easy and quick ways out (e.g. plowing, pesticides, chemical fertilizers), and those easy and quick ways are often at a high ecological cost.  By taking things differently, and slowly, we can demonstrate sacred intent.

  • Supporting the soil web and soil health.   One critical physical connection in gardens is the soil and building soil health.  I would suggest as part of your connection to the garden, you work to attend to your soil–of which there are many different practices.  One of the most important is, for outdoor gardens, taking up the practice of no-till gardening, for example, using sheet mulch or hugelkultur approaches.  Supporting a healthy soil web begins with avoiding tilling a garden; tilling each year destroys the soil web and is quite destructive on the soil bacteria, nematodes, worms, mycelial networks, and more.  Adding rich compost (finished compost, coffee grounds, etc) and natural amendments help cultivate rich soil.  Here’s more on a few compost techniques: composting for city dwellers, composting options for outdoors, and vermicompost.
  • Observation and interaction. One of the first principles of permaculture design is a very useful one to list here.  To build a connection, you have to interact, to be present, and to do so frequently throughout the season.  Observe your plants as they grow.  Spend time with them, watch how they grow.  Look at them at different points in the season and at different times of day.  Take a full moon walk and see the glistening of the dew in the early morning.  This kind of walking meditative practice, where you are simply present with your garden, will offer you much.  More on observation and interaction. 
  • Seed starting and seed choices. Another connection practice focuses on seeds.  Seeds today can be difficult to navigate and choose because of the proliferation of GMO seeds (which I don’t recommend for sacred gardening)–this guide offers some suggestions for seeds.  Once you’ve selected some good seeds, you can start some for yourself (even starting a few will really give you a connection with the plant).  And I would suggest saving at least some varieties of seed from year to year.  For example, I have tobacco seeds that I use for ceremonial purposes and I’ve cultivated a many-year relationship with those seeds. At this point, each time I welcome up the new tobacco, it is greeting an old friend!

Connection allows us to begin to establish deep relationships with our sacred garden both in inner and outer ways.  I believe that connection is a basic requirement for sacred gardening–and the other two steps begin with this one.  Let’s now turn to the second principle–reciprocity–and see how it leads directly from connection.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Reciprocity: Giving Back

Reciprocity refers to the ongoing relationship that is mutually beneficial where each side continues to gain positive benefits from the relationship.  In the case of a sacred garden, abundant land produces yields to sustain you.  In the case of the gardener, the gardener does things to improve the diversity and health of the land and ecosystem–not only for the direct benefit of growing food but beyond.

Inner Reciprocation Practices help us to shift our mindset from those commonly assumed and indoctrinated in our culture to something more sacred and reciprocal.

  • Offerings and Gratitude.  In a sacred garden, whether it is indoors or outdoors, I like to have a space reserved for gratitude and practice gratitude regularly–this is the first step.  I usually build some kind of small shrine (whether that is on the windowsill or in a corner of a larger garden) and leave regular offerings. Offerings may be physical, musical, or spiritual (energetic).  More on gratitude practices from an earlier post.
  • Meditations and critical thinking work. Another good practice here is to spend time dismantling (though discursive meditation or other thought processes) the underlying assumptions about nature that we might not even consciously be aware of.  Our present culture has a constant assumption that 1) nature is there for our benefit and profit and 2) we can take from nature heedlessly and constantly.  These kinds of assumptions run through everyday life in unexpected ways and it can take some serious work to distance ourselves from them and to develop more healthy and productive beliefs about our relationship with nature.  For some good reading on this topic, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings of the LIving Earth.

Outer Reciprocation work helps us create gardens and plans that give back as much (or more) than we take, and establishes balance and harmony with us and the living earth.

  • Closed-Loop Systems and replacing what is taken. One of the reasons that chemical fertilizers are so popular is that as we remove nutrients from the soil, they have to be replaced (even so, we know that these kinds of farming techniques have caused a considerable nutritional decline over the decades).  Ultimately, the loss of nutrients permanently from the soil is a problem with reciprocation.  At minimum, we need to be replacing nutrients that are lost through erosion and harvest–but I’d argue that we need to do one better and add even more than was originally present. Practicing composting is one way, and for more radical folks, humanure and liquid gold offer ways to have a truly closed-loop system. Adding healthy amendments (I especially like to get coffee grounds from nearby coffee shops and interrupt other waste streams to divert to my garden).  Gathering up fall leaves and using them as part of your gardening practice is another resource.
  • Reduction or Elimination of Fossil Fuel Use. Another issue with reciprocation has to do with our over-dependence on fossil fuels, a dependence upon which is literally killing life on our planet and threatening our very existence as a species. As an act of reciprocation and acknowledgment of the problems with fossil fuel, I make it a point to do as much of my gardening by hand as I possibly can (even in a 1000 square foot garden!).  When I must make use of fossil fuels (such as to bring off-site compost to establish new beds), I make sure that I am making minimal and conscious use of these resources.
  • Scattering Seeds and Wildtending. As part of the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have a “refugia” where grow a number of rare medicinal species and regularly scatter their seeds to wild and untended places, particularly places that have suffered ecological devastation after logging or other disruption (common where we live).  We grow both full sun perennials (like St. Johns Wort and New England Aster) as well as shade-loving woodland medicinals (wild ginseng, blue cohosh, black cohosh, ramps, goldenseal, bloodroot).  We also make sure to give seeds and seedlings out to others as much as we possibly can.  This is a direct response to many of these plants being lost in our local ecosystem and offers one way to give back.

 

Honoring Life through Sacred Gardening

Garden with sacred statuary

When you start thinking about connection and reciprocation, this is all leading to the most important sacred principle of all: that of honoring all life.  This is tricky–gardens are traditionally human-dominated spaces and the goal is traditionally to grow food for humans.  When the potato beetles or squash borers come knocking, “honoring life” is probably the furthest thing from your mind as you literally watch your hard tended squash plants wither and die on the vine.  This is when you might be tempted to go to your nearest big box store for a chemical solution. But it is exactly these situations that test us as sacred gardeners, druids, and nature-honoring people.  Nature herself has ways of bringing those squash beetles in balance, and there are many things we can do.  The principle here of honoring life is so critical because it is this principle that is so broadly lacking.

Inner Principles focus on cultivating a diversity of life principles as part of our gardening practice.

  • A full season of blessing rituals. Offering regular rituals in the space that bless and welcome life is a great way over time to affirm your relationship with the sacred garden and raise positive energy for the space.  Here’s one such approach based on land healing.
  • Inviting others in. One of the ways to honor the life of your garden is by inviting others in, sharing with them, and helping others understand these basic principles.  Once you’ve done enough that you have something to share, invite others in to learn, grow, and enjoy the space.  I try to do this often, and as I offer a “garden tour” I share not only what is going, but the life-affirming philosophy that is present in the garden space and how we bring that into reality.
  • Permaculture ethics. Meditations on the three ethics of permauclture (earth care, people care, and fair share) can really help one develop a mindest that honors life and the resulting behaviors. I like to regularly meditate on these concepts and also create signs for my home that remind me of these concepts.

Outer Principles

  • Welcoming the diversity of life – pollinator hedges and more.  When designing for spaces and when planning, I think its important to design just not for what we want to eat but to welcome in diversity, particularly insect and amphibian diversity.  Insect diversity can help us with integrated pest management (below) but also just with cultivating spaces that have room for life.  A simple way to do this, for example, is to use a pollinator hedge–fill it with perennial species like borage, mint, comfrey, sage, milkweed, and more.  These pollinator hedges help welcome in insect life into your space and create habitat, food, and forage for non-human life.  Another common feature is a small frog pond and bee drinking area; a place for frogs, toads, and other amphibians to lay eggs, shelter from the hot sun, and get a drink.  A final thing here to consider is that life-honoring gardens are usually a little more “wild” than their human-dominated counterparts!
  • Integrated pest management. There are so many ways to deal with pests naturally.  Planting pollinator species, particularly the kinds that attract parasitic wasps, can help you with a host of pest problems.  Letting your chickens or ducks run through the garden.  Using cayenne pepper or copper tape to address slugs–the list goes on and on.  Most garden pests have several natural solutions in the short term.  In the long term, fostering a healthy ecosystem allows the predatory species of insects to handle the ones that could cause you trouble.  This approach does take more work and knowledge than a chemical one, and you are likely to lose some crops along the way–but in the end, it will be a much more life-respecting and affirming choice.
  • Making full use of the harvest. Another aspect of reciprocation is to use fully what is harvested and not contribute to food waste.  I think its really important that, in a time where up to 50% of the food grown is wasted, we make every effort to honor what was grown and produced in our gardens. This often means taking up some kind of food preservation, such as canning or drying produce.  Another way of thinking about this is also offering the harvest up to other life–e.g. if I can’t eat all my tomatoes, can some of my neighbors or friends enjoy them? What about offering leftovers to my chickens who convert that garden produce into eggs and manure?

Beautiful patio garden

Conclusion

I hope these principles will help those of you who are starting gardens with the intent of having sacred gardens or for those of you who already have a gardening practice and want to make it more sacred and intentional.  I would love to hear from you in the comments about other ways that you’ve engaged in sacred gardening techniques and things that you do.

 

 

 

Ancestral Herbalism and Samhain: Working Deeply with Rosemary

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

As we quickly approach Samhain, it is a useful practice to spend some time with rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and build her into your Samhain practices. In this post, we look into some of the magic and medicine of Rosemary, and I share a number of ancestor and Samhain-focused practices that you can use with Rosemary.

 

An Ancestral Ally of Humans: History, Medicine, Magic

Before we get into what you can make or do with rosemary, let’s spend some time exploring and understanding this ancient herb. Rosemary has been with humanity almost as long as we have written records. Native to the mediterranean region, rosemary was first found referenced on cuineform tablets from Ancient Egypt that are from 5000 BCE–thus, humanity has at least an 8000 year old relationship with this herb (but I suspect it is much longer than our written history!). It was spread to China as early as the 2nd century CE, and to Europe in the middle ages.  It came to North America and South America in the 1700s and now has global reach.

 

The “officinalis” in Rosemary’s latin name indicates that this was an herb used as of the materia medica in ancient Rome and beyond. While Linneaus in the 18th century came up with the Latin taxonomy of naming plants, and thus gave Rosemary her official “officinalis” designation, the uses of this plant go back quite further.  In fact, the term “rosemary” derives from Latin, ros marinus (“dew of the sea”).  Even the word itself has a wonderful history.

 

Rosemary has been considered by many cultures as a sacred herb tied to memory and remembrance, and love. This was certainly known in Ancient Greece and Rome as well as in much of the other cultures in the Mediterranean, where rosemary was used both for weddings (in the form of sprigs or wreaths) as well as for funerals to honor the dead.  It is burned as incense, used in cooking, used as medicine and used in funeral ceremonies–a tradition that continues to modern times in Australia and other nations. Thus, you might say that Rosemary is an ally to us both in life, and in death.

Rosemary in flower

Grieve speaks of the different rosemary customs in her entry in A Modern Herbal, particularily surrounding memory and rememberance. This is a common and well known use, such as represented in Ophelia’s line in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”  Many herbalists recognize the usefulness of rosemary both for strengthening the memory, but also working with us a plant spirit ally in helping us remember. Memory can be a fickle thing this day and age, especially with phones rather than our minds and hearts doing the rememberance.  Rosemary, thus, is a potent ally for us, particularly at Samhain when reflecting back, honoring the past, and honoring those who came before us is central. 

 

Rosemary is also an incredible herbal ally. Pliny the Elder was one of the first to write of Rosemary and its many uses.  Modern herbalists recognize rosemary as useful both as an essential oil as well in its plant forms.  Every part of the plant can be used medicinally. Both the oil and the herb can be used as a carminitive, that is, offering beneficial and healing action on the digestive system and aiding in the reduction of gas and digestion of food (in fact, you will find that many culinary herbs aren’t just for taste, but have these same kinds of actions–which is probably why they were traditionally used in cooking!)   Rosemary, in tea or tincture form, can also be used to help calm the nerves.   Finally, rosemary is very useful in a hair wash to strengthen the hair and encourage new hair growth (I use a vinegar infused with rosemary often!)  Research has also shown that rosemary oil can be used to increase alertness and cognitive function, which is pretty cool!

 

There’s a lot more that could be said about rosemary’s virtues, but I think you get the idea–Rosemary is an amazing Samhain herb for so many reasons.  So let’s get to some of the stuff you can make and do with rosemary as a focal herb for this time of year.

 

 

Rosemary Smudges and Incense

Rosemary smudge for ancestor altar

Rosemary (on its own or combined with other herbs) make fantastic herbs for doing any kind of memory work or clearing work. Make sure you use fresh rosemary for your smudge stick making–dried rosemary is brittle and easily falls off the branch. I usually gather up rosemary in the weeks before hard frost (for me in Western Pennsylvania on the US East Coast, this is usually 1-2 weeks before Samhain arrives).  Some I save for culinary use, and the rest I use in smudge stick making. I have full details for how to make your own smudges and a list of recipes for smudges. For Samhain, and ancestor work, I like the following combinations:

  • Rosemary (alone) for deep ancestor work or memory work (such as working with the ancient art of memory mansions, etc)
  • Rosemary, Lavender, and Mugwort for deep dreaming work (which is best done between Samhain and Imbolc)
  • Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme for helping me shift my energies from the light half to the dark half of the year, and accept the frost and cold that is to come.

If you are growing rosemary itself, don’t overlook the roots as another useful part of the plant for incense and smudges–it has a more woody and deep aroma and is excellent!

Rosemary Oil for Visioning and Past Life Work

You can construct an herbal oil using rosemary leaf and rosemary essential oil that excellent.  I like to use a combination of rosemary and borage for this work, but you can use other plant combinations.  To make your oil, crush fresh or dried rosemary and borage and place in a small mason jar.  Cover the jar with fractionated coconut oil (prefered over olive oil for this recipe, but you could also use almond or olive oil–whatever you have around).  Wait 1 week (for fresh herbs) or one moon cycle (for dried herbs) and then strain.  For a bit of added punch, add rosemary essential oil (2% dilution, or about 10-15 drops per cup of oil).

Keep your rosemary oil in an oil roller or jar and rub on your temples and heart for any kind of visioning or past life work.  It also doubles as an excellent “memory” oil for wanting to jog the memory or wanting to hold something important in your memory and not lose it.

 

Rosemary Tea for Tea with the Ancestors

One of my very favorite Samhain traditions is to invite my ancestors to tea.  For this, I typically make a tea of three herbs: rosemary, lavender, and mugwort (small amount of mugwort because it can be bitter) and I sweeten it with honey.  To make the tea, boil water, add your herbs (about 1/2 tbsp of herbs per cup of tea), let seep for 5-10 min, and then strain and stir in your honey.

 

The ritual is simple and can be performed anytime around Samhain (I like to do this Samhain eve).  To set up the ritual, you will need a teapot and two teacups and candles.  I start by  then light a candle and leave it in my western window (also traditional).  I light candles around my space and place a blanket on the floor for me to sit on.  You should also have a large empty bowl.

Rosemary

To begin the ritual, I open up a sacred space (using AODA’s Solitary Grove ritual) and when opening the space, indicate that the sacred space is traversable by any ancestor who wishes to visit.  I then pour myself a cup of tea and wait. When an ancestor arrives, I likewise pour them tea and we sit and converse using spirit communication techniques (if you haven’t yet honed your skill in this area, a divination system like an oracle deck would work great).  After we are done conversing, the ancestor has taken their tea energetically.  I then pour it into the bowl and see if another ancestor wants to come and have tea.  I have met many fascinating ancestors this way–of land, tradition, blood, and bone.

 

Samhain Cooking with Rosemary

Samhain is one of my favorite times to really “cook” for a festival, particularly cakes, breads, and other doughy goodness.

If you are lucky enough to have chestnut flour available (which you can create yourself if you have access to some chestnuts), this is an amazing cake for Samhain that combines rosemary with the hopeful and strong chestnut.

For those who aren’t off hoarding and cracking chestnuts, I highly recommend this rosemary bread that you can make in a dutch oven.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Rosemary is such a powerful and potent plant ally for us, particularly at Samhain.  Dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with Rosemary.  Let me know if you try anything here!

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

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.