The Druid's Garden

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

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

Butterfly on choke cherry

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

 

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

 

Black Cherry Growth and Ecology

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

 

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

 

Younger and older black cherry trees

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

 

Wood and Other Uses

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cherry Leaves and Cyanide

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

 

Foraging for Cherries

Thick bark of an older black cherry tree

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cherry as Medicine

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

 

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

 

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

 

Magic of the Cherry Tree in Global Traditions

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

Leaves of cherry tree

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Meanings and Magic for North America

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

 

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

 

A small grove of cherries on the edge of the homestead

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

 

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

 

Foraging for Pigments from Local Rocks: Making Watercolors, Oils, and Egg Tempera Paint from the Land! May 12, 2019

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

When I walk along the landscape here, I am greeted with the deep oranges and yellow oxides of our soils laden with heavy amounts of clay and iron.  These colors are reflected each time I dig into the subsoil, and as I drive through the countryside where mountains were cut through for roads. In other places, I might be greeted with reds, blues, or greens, all reflected in the geology of the land. Each region carries its own colors, and you can find the palate of the land in every stream bed.  Even an hour drive in any direction puts one in a new geological region–and this changes the colors of the stones and the soil.   You might think about these colors like a language–each landscape has its own language that you can learn to read and speak. Each landscape has its own unique set of colors, found in every stream bed. Today, we can think about expressing that language in visual form.

 

In today’s post, I’ll talk about how to forage for local pigments and learn how to grind them and prepare them as paint. That’s right, you can make your own paint from locally foraged rocks!  What is amazing about this process is that each landscape is unique: your own land’s palate will depend on the local geology.  As you forage for pigments and then turn them into your own paint, you know exactly what goes into the paint, where it came from, and you know that any paint water or other materials can return to the land. You might discover things only you, in your unique ecosystem, can discover!

Boney Dump iron oxide - my favorite pigment to date!

Boney Dump iron oxide – my favorite pigment to date!

 

Getting into Pigment Making

Everything is derived from nature, but in the 21st century, consumerism practices and “distributed by” labels often mask manufacturing processes which almost never tell us how something was made, where the raw goods came from, who produced it and under what conditions, or, what it even contains.  Art supplies are notoriously bad; labels tell us almost nothing about the pigments, and art supply companies are very tight lipped about how they produce their paints. You don’t know what chemicals are in your paint, unless they are *really* bad and carry a CL warning or other kind of warning label. These kinds of warning labels mean they are toxic to you and should be used with care: but no labels tell you about the toxicity of your products for the planet.  This means, in my art studio and in studios all over the world, people often have no idea what they are using to produce art with or what the environmental cost of those materials may be.  And for something like paint, paint water and paint byproducts often get dumped down the drain, making their way into local water systems. When I use commercial paint, I literally have no idea what I’m putting down my drain–and by way of my septic drain field–out into the land and local waterways.  Since our spetic field sits about 40 feet above a local (clean) stream, this is of serious concern to me.

 

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Given these realities, as a serious practitioner of the bardic arts, I am always looking for better ways to practice my visual art that does not require me to consume, pollute, or create demand on fragile ecosystems. Before, I had played around with various natural arts, including making my own berry inks and dyes.  The berry inks and dyes are not usually lightfast, though, and can’t be taken with me in my watercolor palate. But most of the time, my artistic medium of choice is watercolor, so I wanted to learn more. After my favorite watercolor paint supplier no longer offered watercolors in the US late last year, I started researching alternatives.  One of the things I came across were tiny watercolor companies that sourced natural ingredients and charged quite high prices for their paint.  I was intrigued, and figured that if they could do it, so could I.  I wanted paints that were more sustainable and less questionable in terms of ingredients.  So this post will share some of my successes and ideas for how you can do this yourself!

 

 

Sourcing Natural Pigments

 

A stream bank behind the homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments....

A stream bank behind our homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments….after each flood, new stones wash up on the bank!

Natural pigments literally everywhere, and if you travel, you can find a wide variety of colors.  Most of these are colors of the earth; colors of soil and of sand and of stone.  Deep greens and oranges and the colors of sunrise and mountains.  Deep reds and browns, blacks, and grays. You can also get into other kinds of pigments (lapis lazuli has long produced blue pigment; malachite has long been used for green), but for our purposes here, I’m assuming that you are working to source things locally and are going to find stones in your ecosystem.

 

You can find pigments in a lot of places, but some places are particularly good.  Pigments can often be found in exposed edges of streams, rivers and lakes; the water will expose clay banks and stones, making it easy to find pigments. Around here, fabulous places to look are what we call boney dumps; these are old piles of rocks and other mine waste that have lots of different rocks on the surface. You can find some pretty neat colors in these places  (finally, a sustainable use for a boney dump!).  The boney dumps are particularly useful for pigments becuase they would set the mines on fire and somehow use fire to process certain ore; so you also get stones changed by fire (and fire can certainly change pigment colors).  You might not have these (and be thankful you don’t), but looking for other sites where earth and stone have been dug up or exposed is good (the exposed bank that was cut in for new construction, for example).  Anywhere that a lot of rocks are exposed is potentially a good site to pick up some pigment stones.

 

 

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

Because you want pigments that are easy to process, especially when you are starting out, good pigment stones are fairly soft.  You can sometimes tell a good pigment stone by rubbing it against a harder rock.  If it produces something that looks like paint or clay on the other rock’s surface, it is likely a very good choice.  You can see immediately what your pigment may look like. You want the consistency of the pigment to get quite fine.  Grainy rocks like sandstone can also be processed, but the processing is a lot more work and some you can’t get down that finely by hand.  Harder stones may be worth processing, especially if they have unique colors. Clays can make good pigments, but not always; you can dig them out, then let them dry, and then grind them up, removing any large or hard rocks. You have to really see which pigments work and which do not–some clays I’ve used have been wonderful, and others haven’t had much pigment at all and create a sloppy mess.  Each geology and ecosystem has something different to offer you, and it requires a lot of experimentation.

 

 

Other pigment opportunities also exist. Both soot and charcoal make great pigments, so keep this in mind if you are having fires indoors or out. Soot produces more of a warm black, while charcoal produces more of a cool black.  I harvested both from our indoor fireplaces. You can also make a “bone black” from burned bones, turned into charcoal.

 

A few years ago,  I visited a mineral spring and found loads and gobs of pigment flaking off the walls from the spring –I dried this and saved it in a tin for later use.  Recently, also, and what started me on this adventure, I was given a container of iron oxide from the Tanoma Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Remediation site.  This iron oxide is what makes many of our streams, creeks, and rivers too acidic; a site like Tanoma creates pools and uses a process called tromping to help precipitate out the suspended particles, clearing the water before it goes back into the stream.  After the iron precipitates, it settles to the bottom of the pools; this can eventually be collected and used by local artists! And it requires very little processing.

 

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Tools for Paint Making

You will need to gather some basic supplies for making your own paints from foraged materials.  While you can make a primitive paint literally by crushing the pigment between two rocks and adding some water or oil, the following supplies will help you create a more refined pigment that would be suitable for paintings. Tools for creating paints:

 

  1. A mortar and pestle, dedicated to this use. You don’t want to use a mortal and pestle that you use for grinding herbs or food; get a separate one for this.  Or you can use something else; two hard rocks from the land can also work great.
  2. A glass muller or other grinding agent  Again, this is not necessary, but most fine pigments need a final ground, and this works well.  if you don’t have a muller, other glass tools may work like the edge of a small round jar. The key is you want a wide, flat surface on the bottom of whatever you use as it grabs the pigment and binder and mixes it well.  This is the most pricey of the materials ($50-$90).
  3. A palate knife, cake decorating knife, or old credit card.  You need something to be able to scoop up the pigment.
  4. A slab of glass or granite.  You need something to spread your pigment out and mix the paints carefully.  Right now, I’m using a smaller granite slab that I’ve had in my studio for various purposes, but I want to use a piece of glass instead, and will get one when I can find something recycled.
  5. A very fine mesh sifter for sifting out larger particles.  This is really useful if you are grinding your own stones.  get the finest mesh you can find. I found a strainer with 0.2mm holes, and this produces a usable paint but for certain stones, may still be gritty. A strainer with 0.1 mm (called a 100 strainer) is even better.  Look for these with sides from a scientific supply.  It is possible to refine your pigment and separate out particles without a strainer through a water suspension method, but the strainer really helps.
  6. Containers for your paint and pigments (shells or containers for paints; jars for extra pigments).
  7. Googles, gloves, and a breathing mask.  Paint pigments are not good for your lungs, and you need to take serious precautions!

 

Materials for Paint Making and How Paint Works

In order to know how to turn pigment into paint, its helpful to know how paint works.  Paint consists the pigment (color), a binder, and usually things to extend the life of the paint or improve viscosity and flow.  A binder is what “binds” the pigment to the surface; if you used only water and pigment, the pigment would flake back off the page after it dried, and your paint wouldn’t last.  In other words, a binder helps keep the paint on the page.  Gum Arabic or Linseed or walnut oil, and egg yolk are common binders.  A lot of modern paints use chemical binders, so we want to stay away from that stuff.

 

Paint Supplies: Watercolors

Watercolors are made with a combination of gum arabic and honey; glycerine can be added as well to prevent cracking.  Gum Arabic is the most common binder; that which helps the pigment stay on the page.  Since its water soluble, Gum Arabic is a great choice for watercolors. Honey helps improve the viscosity and flow of your pigment, and glycerine helps prevent the pigment from drying out or cracking.  I am currently using honey and gum arabic in all of my homemade watercolors.  You can purchase 1 lb bags of gum arabic in powder form, which you can just mix up and store in the freezer.  This is really economical, compared to buying it already prepared from an art store.

 

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

I’m currently researching a more local ingredient than gum arabic.  I’ve read some old books that say you can use wild cherry sap, ground and dried, which makes sense as it is also water soluble.  Pine resins would not be an appropriate choice for this as they are not water soluable (but they have other uses). I’ll report back on the cherry sap once I’ve experimented with it, which will be over the summer once I am able to harvest and dry some.

 

Paint Supplies: Oils

For oil paints you’ll need linseed oil and melted beeswax along with your prepared dry pigment.  Walnut oil may be a more local choice for you, and it will work almost as well as linseed oil.

 

Paint Supplies: Egg Tempera

For this you’ll need an egg yolk, water, alcohol, and your dry pigment.

I want to note that you can also make your own acrylics, but acrylics are plastics, polymers, and those go right back into the ecosystem when you are done. The materials above are more naturally sourced and based and represent more traditional sources.

 

Preparing Your Pigments

To prepare your pigments, you will need to get them ground finely while not breathing in any dust. Connect with the energies of the earth during this process and embrace the time it takes to do this. I use the following approach:

 

1. Break up rocks into smaller pieces.   First you need to break up your rocks into pieces that can be finely ground down with a mortar and pestle.  I usually use a hammer for this and a plastic bag.  Break the rocks up as fine as you can using this method.   In my case, I am using a thicker bag that is non-recyclable (this is a bag that chicken and guinea fowl treats come in). This process gives this bag a bit more life!  Put the rocks in the bag and start the breaking down process. You should do this outside and if it isn’t windy, consider a breathing mask.  If the stones are particularly strong, you might want several layers of bag (or a thicker feed bag, old tarp, etc).

Rock breaking.

Rock breaking.

 

2. Grind the pieces down in a mortar and pestle as finely as you can.  After you get the pieces much smaller with the hammer, you can start to get them finely ground. I have a granite mortar and pestle of a fairly large size for this purpose.  I grind down the pieces, working in very small batches.  You can see this reflected in the photo below–I work with smaller and smaller batches as I work the stones down into a fine pigment.  Again, use a breathing mask and do this outside if you can.  Here I am grinding down the local slate stones a friend and I found on a hike.  You might notice that the color has changed from the stone to the pigment–that often happens!  Everything is a surprise.

Slate pigment at various stages

Slate pigment at various stages.  The pigments often are a slightly different shade than the rocks themselves.

3.  Sift.  Sifting is probably the most critical part of the paint–if you don’t have a fine enough strainer, your particles will be too big and your paint will be gritty.  The goal is to get the finest particles possible–below I am using a .02 mm x .02 mm sifter.   I will take whatever won’t go through the strainer back into the mortar and pestle for a while. You can sift multiple times to get a fine grind.

 

In this case, whatever isn’t sifted is put back in the mortar and pestle for more grinding.  You can also store the extras in a jar for the next time you want to make paint. I’ve been talking to other natural paint makers, and the grinding and sifting is really an art form in and of itself–some are easy to do, and some are quite difficult–depending on the stone. It all takes patience and can be a very meditative practice.

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar/pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter (I might add some simple "walls" to it at some point!)

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar and pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter.  Since taking these photos, I purchased two additional sifters that are even better than this one!

Another option if you can’t get your particles fine enough is to do the long route using water.  If you grind up a lot of pigment, you can put it in a glass jar with a lid (I use a 1/4 pint or 1/2 pint jar for this).  Shake the pigment up well, and then quickly pour off everything but the very heavy particles that sink to the bottom.  The lighter particles are suspended in the liquid; they will likely precipitate out to the bottom.  (If they don’t, some paintmakers use a bit of alum to help them drop out).  Otherwise, if you have a small amount of water, put it in a greenhouse, dehydrator, or other sunny location and it will dehydrate.  What you are left with is a *very* fine pigment, fine enough to be a high artist quality grade paint.  The heavy particles can be dried as well and further ground up.

 

Making Your Paint

For watercolor: Place your pigment in the center of your glass plate.  Add about 1 part Gum Arabic for every 2 parts pigment, and then about 1/8 part honey. Some paintmakers are also adding a drop or two of clove essential oil for preservation, but I don’t have any so I’m not using it at present.  You can pretty much eyeball this.  If the pigment is too dry, add more gum arabic.  If its too wet, keep working it and the air will dry it out in a few minutes.

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Next, move to a muller or other tool that you can use to spread out and grind the pigment further. If you don’t have a muller, try something that can help grind the glass–like a flat glass bottomed jar. The muller is completely flat, and you can easily rub it over the surface to mix the pigment.  After you spread it out, use a palate knife to scrape up the pigment and use the muller again (see second photo, below).

Mulling pigment. This one doesn't have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.

Mulling pigment.

This first photo doesn’t have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.  If your pigment looks like this, it needs a finer grind and will be very gritty when complete.  You might need a finer sifter or to separate it with water.

What you are looking for is a very smooth grind.

The difference between these the above photo and this one is striking–and so are the results.  The second pigment here (iron oxide) has a very, very fine ground!

 

Here's the slate pigment--it turned into a pretty nice paint!

Here’s the slate pigment–it turned into a pretty nice paint because I was able to get a very fine grind and sift.  It still had a little bit of graininess to it, but works great.  A water separation or a finer sifter would have helped get the particles even smaller.

 

You may have to mull it for quite a while to get all of the pigment and binder together.  Usually 5-10 min. Once you see it as completely consistent, you can scrape it all up with a paint knife and put it in small containers to dry.

 

I have been using sea shells that I’ve had sitting around to put my paint in, but anything that has a lid (like an old Altoids can or lip balm can) would work just fine. I also had some empty plastic half pans I picked up at a yard sale, and I have also been using them.  If you want a full container of pigment, you usually have to make paint several times and add layers to the pans (as the pigment dries, it shrinks and cracks).

 

When you want to use your paint, rewet it and use it like any other watercolor.

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board.  This is a fireplace soot paint.

 

For Egg Tempera, you will want a small jar.  Start by removing the egg yolk from the white.  Egg yolks have a sack that holds the inner yolk; break the yolk and remove the sack.  This is accomplished by either puncturing the yolk and letting it drip in, or simply fishing out the sack after you’ve gotten the yolk punctured.  Add a small amount of water (1 tbsp) and put a lid on the jar, shaking your paint until everything is mixed.  Now, place your pigment in the center of your glass plate or other non-porous surface.  Add small amounts of alcohol to your pigment, and grind it or use your knife or muller (see photos above).  Finally, add enough yolk water to you get to the consistency you want and grind it some more.

Egg tempera is best used within a week; without preservatives it will go bad fairly quickly.  I will keep mine in the fridge between uses.  I don’t make these very often, but they are nice for certain applications (like traditional folk painting).

 

For Oil Paint, The process for making oil paints is the same as above, only instead of gum arabic and honey, you are adding linseed oil and a small amount of melted beeswax.  If exposed to the air, oils will eventually dry out within a week or two (just like commercial oil paints).  A lot of people will purchase metal tubes so you can keep your paint in a metal tube, just like commercial producers do ,when making oil paints – as it would be hard to mix up a whole palate anytime you wanted it!

 

Using Your Paint

Once you have your paint made, you can use it on anything!  I like the watercolors best for this process because they don’t require special storage–you just dry them out into cakes, and then they can be used and rewet as needed.  If you get a fine grind, you can make watercolors and other paints even *better* than what you can find in the store: rich, inviting, and completely made by you!

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle; tan paint is from Tanoma Iron Oxide!

The Water Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle; The tan paint in the roots is from my own handmade watercolors: the AMD Iron Oxide–the first paint I made using this method!

 

watercolor swirl painting--all of the browns were from foraged paint!

Watercolor swirl painting–all of the browns were from foraged paint!

I hope this has been inspirational and informative. Now that spring is here, I am excited to see what pigments my landscape offers and do some western PA specific paints with this local and eco-friendly palate of colors!

 

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging as I am in the final preparation for releasing my Plant Spirit Oracle deck, plantng out our gardens on the homestead, and attending the MAGUS druid gathering and doing some camping.  I’ll resume posting in early June!

 

The Druid’s Crane Bag April 21, 2019

A druid’s crane bag is a special bag, a magical bag, that many druids carry with them. Often full of shells, rocks, magical objects, feathers, stones, Ogham staves, representations of the elements, ritual tools, and much more, a crane bag is wonderfully unique to each druid! A few years ago, I shared a post about how to create a crane bag and a description of my bag at the time; today’s post revisits and deepens the treatment of this topic.  In this post, we’ll look at the concept of the crane bag and where it came from, four potential purposes for bags, and some tips and tricks for how to put them together and what they might include.  This is a wonderful part of the druid tradition that anyone, including those walking other paths, can enjoy!

 

My "ritual in a bag" crane bag, designed and created by me!

My “ritual in a bag” crane bag, which I recently completed. 

Crane Bag History and Purpose

The term “Crane bag” comes from Irish mythology.  In this mythos, Manannán mac Lir is a major sea god who is also the guardian of the otherworld.  One of his many treasures is a magical bag, known as a crane bag. As they myths go, he originally crafted the bag from the skin of a crane, hence the name. This wonderful, bottomless bag was full of many treasures: his knife and shirt, the shears of the King of Scotland, the helmet of the King of Lochlainn, the bones of Assal’s swine, a girdle of a great white whale’s back, birds, hounds, and other things.  His bag also contained human language, a powerful tool.  Some versions of the myths also suggest that the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet that is still in modern use, was also within the bag. In the myths, the bag’s treasures can be seen in the sea at high tide, but they disappear during low tide. In certain myths, the bag comes into the possession of Irish heroes such as Lug Lámfhota, Liath Luachra, and Fionn mac Cumhaill.

 

In the modern druid tradition, we are inspired by this mythology, and druids often create magical bags of their own.  A crane bag is not a singular thing, but as unique as each druid themselves: thus, the size, shape, and materials contained within the bag are up to an individual druid.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll show you various options for bags, styles, and purposes to help you develop your own crane bag.

 

Planning Your Crane Bag: Crane Bag Purposes and Options

Just as each druid’s path is unique, your crane bag should be an expression of you and your druid path. I think the most important consideration for your crane bag, even before we get into size, composition, or what goes into the bag is your purpose.  In talking with druids, particularly in the OBOD and AODA communities on the East Coast of the US, there seems to be three general purposes for crane bags: the ritual-in-a-bag approach, the power object bag approach, the field approach, or a combination of all three.

 

Some of the many things that can go in your crane bag

Some of the many things that can go in your crane bag

The Ritual-in-a-Bag.  The first approach to a druid’s crane bag is that it is a special bag that can hold all of your ritual tools. These tools, then, come with you wherever you go. For example, one druid I met at a gathering had a larger leather bag.  In this bag, she had her elemental representations, wand, a small sickle, and a small notebook. She indicated that anywhere she went, her tools could go with her, and she could easily break into “spontaneous” ritual with her tools at hand.  She also enjoyed carrying the bag to larger druid gatherings, thus, her tools went with her and also benefited from the energy raised at such gatherings. I have used this approach myself, and offer an example later in this article.

 

The Power Object Bag.  A second approach that seems common is to have a much smaller crane bag, one that is carried on your person frequently, or at all times.  Often, these will be bags small enough to fit in your pocket, around your neck under your clothing, or attached to a belt.  Contained within the bag are objects of spiritual significance to you–sacred stones, shells, sticks, herbs, teeth, bones, or whatever else is personally significant and powerful to you.  Those druids who I have spoken to who use this approach believe that you grow a stronger connection to the objects and bag the more the bag is physically with you. The objects, also, are able to lend you their strength, power, and protection throughout the day as you carry your bag.  A good friend of mine uses this approach; his is a small but ornate belt pouch that is always attached to his belt, and so each day, without fail, his crane bag goes with him.  It is with him when he works, hikes, drives, or whatever else he is doing.

 

The Field Bag. The third approach is creating a crane bag that will aid one out in nature–for this, you usually get not only objects of spiritual significance but also practical significance: land offerings, knives, folding saws, hori hori (an all purpose japanese gardening tool that is great for foraging and herbalism), bags, flint and steel or other fire-starting equipment, paracord, and more.  The philosophy behind this crane bag is that if you are going out in nature, it is useful to be prepared, particularly if you are interested in doing some wild food or medicine foraging, camp out for the evening, bushcraft, or other kinds of wildcrafting.  Thus, when a druid takes this bag with them, they are prepared for anything!

 

The Anything Goes/Combination Bag. The final approach uses a combination of all of the above–perhaps some items of personal significance along with a few ritual tools and a few tools to be out in the field.  My first crane bag, described in detail in my earlier post, uses this method (see all of the contents here). The benefit of this approach is that you end up with a multi-purpose bag that can serve a variety of needs.

 

Creating or Finding Your Crane Bag

My Crane Bag

My First Crane Bag: Repurposed secondhand find!

Today’s crane bags need not be made of crane leather, but can be made of any durable material: leather, hide, skin, linen, wool, cloth, denim, and so on. You can make your bag yourself, you can purchase it secondhand, or you can have someone make it for you. I do believe, in my conversations with many druids about their crane bags, that many prefer to make them, as it lends their own personal energy into the bag.  If you don’t make it yourself, find a special way of personalizing your bag.  For example, my first crane bag, pictured here, was a small denim bag with zippers and pockets that I found at a thrift store.  I personalized it by painting it with acrylics, and I am happy and delighted that the paint has held up for many, many years!

 

The bag can be large or small; however, you will want it large enough that it will fit your purpose and to carry what you would like it to carry (and think also about the future–what you might want to add to your bag at a later date). Depending on the size of your bag, it can be held or connected to a belt, cord, or slung across the shoulders and carried more like a traditional bag, depending on the size.  Most druids carry their crane bags into ritual (and around gatherings, if they attend), many may also carry them into the woods or other natural places, so it should also be something comfortable to take with you, particularly on long journeys or when you travel.

 

 

Items for Your Bag

Any item of spiritual or practical significance can go in your bag.  I encourage you to think about local ingredients, local materials, or those repurposed in other ways.  Many of the things in my bag are gifts from others or things that I found or made. Here’s a list of what I might consider essentials; these go in every crane bag that I have made or carry:

  • A small journal (Moleskine or other small journals work great for this). I never want to be out in the woods or anywhere else without my journal–this allows me to record my thoughts at any time. I especially appreciate this “old technology” as opposed to a cell phone for recording as I don’t think there is anything as disruptive of a sacred experience as pulling out one’s phone.
  • A few handy tools: I like to always take with me a lighter/matches, a knife, and a plastic or cloth bag or two to carry anything I find.  Even in my more “ritual tools” style crane bag, I make sure to have these with me.
  • Offerings.  I don’t go anywhere without offerings. I recently shared how to make a wildcrafted herbal blessing oil and  sacred herbal blend for offerings.  A blessed magic seed ball also makes a great offering. Anything you want to carry with you that you can offer is approrpriate.
  • Elements. As someone working within the context of both OBOD and AODA druidry, I find being able to work with the elements in physical form really helpful.  So I always have, in any bag, representations of each of these. They don’t have to be physical representations (fire, etc) but could be four small stones, woodburned images, and so on.  The sky is the limit!
Once I pull stuff out of my ritual-in-a-bag, I can make a beautiful altar setup for outdoor ritual work.

Once I pull stuff out of my ritual-in-a-bag, I can make a beautiful altar setup for outdoor ritual work.

 

Here is a much larger list that you might consider for including in your crane bag:

  • Rocks and minerals
  • Shells, corals, or sand (in a small bottle)
  • Plants, leaves, twigs, roots or pieces of bark
  • Herbs, oils, infusions, concoctions, tinctures, teas or healing brews
  • Seeds of all kinds
  • Feathers
  • Fur, nails, bones, claws, teeth or other animal parts (only those that are legal to have, of course)
  • Animal, plant, or spirit totems of any kind (for example, the small carved soapstone animals are a nice addition to a crane bag)
  • Divination tools, such as Ogham, runes, or tarot decks
  • Small musical instruments (like an ocarina, small flute, etc)
  • Jewelry or necklaces of significance
  • Tiny journals or books
  • A small altar cloth
  • Bags, jars, and other vessels for holding things (like collecting sacred waters, etc)
  • Ritual tools such as a small candle (a battery-powered candle is convenient when traveling), small sickle, knife, candle, etc.
  • Any other items with a spiritual purpose
  • Quarter stones (four or eight stones you can place at the circle to help hold the space)

 

Example Crane Bags: Druid’s Power Bag and Ritual in a Bag

I have three primary crane bags, one that fits each of the possibilities above.  My earlier post offered an example of an all purpose crane bag, so again, check that post out for photos.  I also have a regular backpack that I dedicate to foraging, but that has some sacred tools (the essentials) that will go with me on longer hikes.   I didn’t take photos of that one, as its not very pretty looking but is rather very functional.  But I did want to share examples of the other two: the druid’s power bag and the Ritual in the Bag crane bag.

 

The first bag is the Druid’s Power bag.  This is a small leather bag I made, and in the photograph, are some *examples* of what you could put in a bag.  I believe that the bag itself and the actual contents of a power bag should never be photographed, or really, even talked about.  This is a bag of sacred objects to you, and if you talk too much about it, you can talk the magic out of it.  So I am not showing you my actual contents, but I think this gives you a good example of what could contain and look like: natural items, small clay and stone statuary, beads, stones, jewelry, etc.  So in this photo we have some things people have given me, stones, stone animals, a bracelet, a ceramic bear, a painted pendant, nuts and seeds, and more.

Potential power bag with objects

Potential power bag with objects

 

The other bag I want to show today is the “ritual in a bag” crane bag. I have been working on this bag for six months, and I’m delighted to have completed it to share with you.  The goal of this bag was simple: I do a lot of ritual work outside, right on my land or in a nearby state park. What was happening is that when I needed tools, I’d put them in a basket from my altar, but the tools were quite heavy and bringing them back up the mountain on my land was a problem, and carrying them into the woods at the state park was even more of a problem (it isn’t fun to carry four large ceramic altar bowls!)  Further, when I have friends that visit, we often go into the woods with sacred intent, and I wanted a bag that I could literally just ‘grab and go’ that offered me everything I needed to do a nice ritual with the bells and whistles. I’ve also been working hard to improve my leather working skills, so this bag was also a challenge to me as a bardic practitioner. Finally, I wanted my sacred plant allies to be with me with the energy of the bag.  I wanted it small enough that I could put it in my foraging bag and still had room for other tools.

Hawthorn and elder each are on a pocket on the front of the bag, behind the flap

Hawthorn and elder each are on a pocket on the front of the bag, behind the flap

The leather bag itself I designed and put together.  I used leather tooling and then a leather acrylic and acrylic sealer on the bag itself, which I hope will last over time (we will see!)  This brought beauty into the bag and helped imbue my own energy with it.  On the bag, I have some of my most sacred plant allies: wild yam (on the edge of the strap), ghost pipe, hawthorn, and elder.  These are all plants I regularly work with and who are local to my ecosystem.

Another shot of the bag

Another shot of the bag

Inside the bag, I have everything that I need for a ritual.  This includes five copper bowls (I purchased these on Etsy from a regional craftsperson; they are great because they are super durable and light).  Four of these are for the elements and the fifth is for offerings or other purposes.  When I’m out in the woods, I usually fill the air bowl with sand or soil, then stick an incense block or cone in it.  The fire bowl gets a little candle (with jar, otherwise it will go out), the water bowl gets some local water, and the earth bowl can be filled with soil, rocks, nuts, sticks, whatever is around.  In the photo, you can also see two little incense containers and also a smoke clearing stick (smudge stick), it has its own little package.  You can also see the small altar cloth (this particular cloth was a gift from a dear friend and mentor, and is a very cherished part of my ritual gear), which rolls up nicely and fits in the bottom of the bag.

Ritual tools in the bag

Ritual tools in the bag

Finally, I have an elemental woodburning with an awen; when I place this on my altar, it reminds me of the four directions (extremely useful for someone like me with dyslexia).

Elemental woodburned piece for remembering the directions!

Here are some other things that show up in my ritual-in-a-bag: my favorite ritual flute, a small knife (used mostly for ritual, but also for herb harvesting), a vial for water (I like to save water from my rituals or from places where I do ritual and add it to a water altar), a lighter, and a journal.

More crane bag tools

More crane bag tools

One of the keys I think to keeping a small crane bag is careful packaging.  I have used a lot of special packaging to keep things together: sewing little bags for the elemental bowls, having a wrap for my tarot deck, having a wrap for my my smoke clearing stick so that it doesn’t flake off everywhere in the bag, and so forth.  One of the bags below contains all of my land offerings.

Packaging helps!

Packaging helps!

 

Even with all of these great tools, which you can carry everywhere, what doesn’t fit in the bag is Acorn!

Acorn is blessing the altar!

Acorn is blessing the altar!

 

I hope that this post helps de-mystify the druid’s crane bag and offers you a number of ideas that you might use in your own druid based, OBOD, AODA, or nature spirituality practice. In the words of John Gilbert, former AODA Archdruid of Air, “Your Druid Crane Bag is the badge of a Druid. Wear it with pride and with honor to yourself and the Druid Craft.”

 

Recipe: Wildcrafted Herbal Blessing Oil January 27, 2019

A herbal blessing oil is a simple magical tool that you can make that directly comes from the living earth. The herbal blessing oil can be used to bless tools, seed balls, trees, yourself, other people, or anything else you like. You can include it as part of your Druid’s Crane Bag. Your own unique blend of herbs and wildcrafted ingredients will make it an amazing and potent tool for your practice.  While druidry doesn’t use oils extensively, other traditions, like the American folk magic and Hoodoo, use oils a lot to dress candles and do other kinds of energetic work.

 

Choosing Plant Material

You can harvest material from one plant or from a variety of plants and combine them. Here are some possibilities for you:

  • Lavender, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Lemon Balm, Majoram, – Garden herbs that offer healing and protection.  Add one or more of these as a blend.
  • Mugwort, Yarrow, St. Johns Wort, Goldenrod, Aster – Field herbs that offer protection, vision, and inspiration.  Mugwort is particularly good for dreaming.
  • Needles from White pine, eastern hemlock, and/or blue spruce – Tree herbs that offer strength, consistency, and vitality

You might also look at my series on sacred trees ( Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Oak, and Birch) to create a specific tree oil that will be useful to you and the work you are currently doing.  You can also refer to my longer list on smudge stick making for details about many plants and their uses.  You can also refer to any good magical herbal, like John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of Natural Magic or Beryl’s Master Book of Herbalism.

The oil in my photos is a journeying oil for dreaming and deep journeying work.  It contains mostly plants I grew and dried myself, but also some wildcrafted ingredients.  The recipe is: mugwort, bay leaves, rosemary, tobacco, lavender, borage, and heather.  Given that its winter here, these materials have been preserved from earlier in the year.

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Gathering Materials

You want to gather fresh or dried plant material.  Fresh material can be obviously gathered in season; you can purchase or dry your own plant material otherwise.

Gathering Material. At a time of power (full moon, one of the eight holidays, another day of significance) go out and gather aromatic plant material. Aromatic plant material is that which has a high concentration of volatile oils (which is what essential oil is made from). When you crush the leaves of a plant or needles of a conifer and you can smell that wonderful smell, this is an aromatic plant. Even if its winter, you can gather conifers to make a potent oil.

You can gather your plant material from a variety of places a cultivated garden, an abandoned lot, an edge space, a field, or a forest. Before you gather your material, ask for permission from the plant and use inner listening skills to see if you can gather–I do not advocate taking any plant material without permission and an offering (see this herbal blend as a potential offering). If you are given permission, make an offering  and then harvest a small bit of the plant.

Purchased material. If you purchase your material, make sure it is organic and ethically sourced.  You don’t want any chemicals in your blend, and certainly, no suffering of the land.  Even though you purchased it, I suggest still making an offering to the land in thanks for the herbs before proceeding.

Dried material.  You can also use home-grown and dried materials from your garden or wildcrafted.

 

Making Your Oil

Fresh plant material. Once you’ve gathered your plant material or have obtained dried material, chop up the plant material into small pieces (1” or so in length). Spread the plant material out on a baking tray or similar surface. Allow the plant material to wilt on the counter indoors for a day so that some of the water is removed from it (wilting it in the sun will strip it of the aromatic oils). Wait till it dries out at least partially to reduce and/or eliminate the water in your sacred oil–water makes the oil go rancid.  It shows up like small bubbles at the bottom of the oil.

 

Open Up a Sacred Grove. Open up a sacred grove for magical crafting; as I described in my hawthorn post. You don’t have to do this, but I think if you are making an oil for magical purposes, its good to do so with intention and the right energy.

Making your Oil. Get a pint jar or other glass jar.  Using a pair of scissors or a mortar and pestle, break up the large plant material/grind up the plant material.  You can do this while changing, loosely pack the plant material into the jar. Now, take a good quality olive oil or other shelf stable oil (fractionated coconut oil or almond oil are other good choices) and pour the oil over the plant matter until it is completely covered.

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Infusing your oil. Let the plant matter infuse in view of the sun and moon (like in a windowsill) for at least seven days.  If the plant matter is wet, you want to infuse it no longer than 7 days.  For dried matter, you can infuse it longer, up to a single lunar cycle.

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

On the seventh day, get a fine strainer and strain the plant matter out. If you don’t have a strainer, 1 ply of a paper towel can work, but it takes a while to drip through. Sometimes, a cheesecloth or thin paper towel (one layer) can be used to get final bits of plant matter out. Getting out as much plant matter is critical because plant matter will make the oil go rancid much faster.

 

Finishing Your oil: At this point, if you want, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil. You can get a small portable bottle and take the oil with you. Store your oil in a cool, dark place.  It will stay good 1-2 years.  Make sure you label it carefully and write your recipe down so if you want to make more, you will remember how to do so!

 

Using Your Oil

Here are just some of many uses for this kind of oil:

  • Put it in your crane bag or in a bottle necklace and take it with you to bless trees, rocks, or any other aspects of nature on your journeys.
  • Consider using it to support meditations and dreams; you can dab a bit on your temples before meditation, dreaming, ritual work, journey work, and more
  • Dress candles with it, using traditional folk methods.  Dressing a candle means putting oil on your finger and holding the candle in front of you.  If you bring your finger from the bottom of the candle and up, toward you, you are “bringing in”.  If you do the opposite, and move your finger away from you and down the candle, you are “removing”.  You can do this and then burn the candle (I like the little 4″ chime candles for this purpose).  Use this for healing, meditation, and more.

I hope this is helpful to you as yet another druid tool for your crane bag!  Readers, can you share any additional tips for how you’ve used magical and sacred oils in your practice?

 

Wildcrafted Yule Tree Ornaments – Painted Wood, Wreaths, Awens, and Pentacles December 2, 2018

As the Winter Solstice is coming up quickly and the tree just went up this past week, I’ve been busy in my art studio and out on the land looking for great things to add to the Yule tree.  As a druid who is deeply concerned about the amount of plastic and “throw away‘ quick purchase items, like cheap plastic ornaments, I didn’t want to buy any ornaments for the tree, but rather, to make them from wildcrafted materials. So today, I wanted to share two simple ways to make nice ornaments for a Yule tree from natural materials and simple tools.

Handmade Stag and Pentacle Tree Topper with Handmade Ornaments

Handmade Stag and Pentacle Tree Topper with Handmade Ornaments

Painted or Burned Wooden Round Ornaments

One simple method for creating ornaments is a painted or woodburned wood rounds. These are simple slices of wood that you can decorate in a variety of ways–painting them, burning them, or staining them.

A variety of wood rounds that are burned or painted. These are just about ready to hang!

A variety of wood rounds that are burned or painted. These are just about ready to hang!

Obtaining Wood:

You can cut rounds from either fresh or dry (seasoned) wood.  Most wood cracks as it dries out, so if you are cutting wood rounds fresh, you want to cut extra because some will crack as it dries.  If it is already seasoned wood, you can cut it without too much concern as the cracks are already present.  Even if you find dry wood in the woods, if its a rainy year, it may still crack a bit as it dries. The longer the wood sits outdoors, the more dark areas it will have and at some point, it will start to break down.

 

You might spend time looking for wood–what I like to do is take a small foldable hand saw with me regularly on my walks or hikes, and if I see a nice piece of wood that has recently fallen, I’ll take a piece of it back with me, using it as a walking stick till I get home.  I store these in my garage, and eventually, I have a nice pile for cutting.   You want fairly long pieces for using the saws (see below).

 

Some of my favorite woods to use are sugar maple, red maple, oak (harder to woodburn), sassafras, walnut, eastern helmock, or cherry.  Different woods produce different grains and colors, which you can all use to your artistic advantage.

 

Cutting rounds: In order to cut your wood rounds, you need either a table saw or miter saw to cut them; you could also use a hand saw but it would be very tedious.  If you don’t have one, ask around; chances are, a lot of people have these saws and would be willing to cut wood rounds for you or let you take 30 min to cut your own. I was without such a saw for many years, but finally invested in my own.

 

Cut your rounds to any thickness or size.  A miter saw also lets you cut them on a nice angle.

 

If you are cutting wet or fresh wood, one of the ways to minimize cracking is to put your freshly cut wood rounds in a paper bag for a few days.  The paper bag slows down the drying and there is less cracking.

 

Regardless, you will want to wait a few days before painting or burning them to make sure they aren’t going to crack.

 

Cut rounds of different sizes and woods.

Cut rounds of different sizes and woods.

 

Decorating Wood Rounds: You can do many different things to decorate your wood rounds. If you have a woodburner, this is a great and simple way to decorate them. You can also paint them with acrylic. Wood stains are not meant to be precise and will likely leak all through your wood, so unless you are staining the round all one color (say, on top of a woodburned design), stay away from traditional wood stains.  Yes, I learned this the hard way!

 

If you are not confident in your drawing skills, two options may help you.  First, you can purchase or make stencils of simple shapes and symbols, and use a stencil technique for your wood rounds.  The second is to print out designs and use a transfer paper (available in any art or craft supply store) to transfer the design, then paint or burn over it.

 

Simple woodburned rounds

Simple woodburned rounds

 

Stick Wreaths, Awens, and Pentacle Ornaments

This second kind of ornament is a little more involved, but produces beautiful results.  For this, you will need some hand clippers or loppers, wire of various colors, wire snippers, and access to various kinds of brush, shrubbery, vines, and/or small sticks. Here’s a photo of what we will be making next.

Some ornaments laying out to dry out

Some ornaments laying out to dry out

Finding the Right Woods

To make these delightful ornaments, you need two kinds of wood: one that is relatively bendy and one that is relatively firm and less bendy. You can test the bendability of wood by trying to bend them in half–if they bend easily, you have a good “wreath” material.  If they snap, that is a good “straight” material.

Bendable material should be able to do this without snapping

Bendable material should be able to do this without snapping

Wreath materials can be a lot of different things: most woody fines work great (Fox grape, other kinds of grape, buckthorn, bittersweet, to name a few).  Willow branches are fantastic for this–look for them of various kinds near wet areas.  Other bushes and shrubbery of various kinds can also be used.  For mine, I used an unidentified shrub (that was planted by the previous owners of the land) as well as some very young dogwood branches (that I needed to cut back anyways near my coop). Ideally, you should be able to bend it at least as far as in the photo above before it snaps (if not more, in the case of many thinner vines, etc).  Thin materials and new growth are best for the smaller ornaments.  These materials *must* be cut fresh and used within a few hours or they will dry out and lose their bendable quality.

 

Straight materials can be anything that you like.  I have some really lovely rose bushes that produce thornless straight branches–I like them for the green color.  Other branches I used this time around were some beaked hazels, cherry, and some maple.

A harvest for wreath materials

A harvest for wreath materials

Plan on harvesting the woods the same day you will make your wreaths and ornaments.

 

Making the Wreath

Depending on the length of your bendy wreath materials, you will likely need 1-3 pieces of material for each wreath.  You will have to coax the material to do what you want it to do.  Start by making a circle of the initial material, tucking in the end so it is held by the wreath.

Making your first loop

Making your first loop

For this, I like to start with the thicker end first, and keep working around, twisting it as I go.  You may have to help the wood bend by slowly bending it till it will keep the bend–each wood is unique.  The stuff I’m working with for this demo was definately less bendy than willow or grape vine, but still did a fine job as long as I was patient.

Wreath - step 2

Wreath – step 2

At some point, you should be able to have the end tuck in around the wreath.  Don’t worry if its completely circular at this point yet–just keep adding material.

Wreath - Step 3

Wreath – Step 3

You can see above where I have a little bend in the wreath material–once I add more, you won’t be able to see the bend.

Wreath 4 - Adding more material

Wreath 4 – Adding more material

Now I’ve added in a second piece.  Don’t yet worry about the ends–we will deal with those at the end.  Keep wrapping the material until you get a wreath the size you want.

Wreath trimming

Wreath trimming

 

As the wood dries, it will become very tight and the wreath will hold together on its own and hold its own shape.  When the wood is wet, however, you may need to secure it with some wire (that you can remove when its dry).  You can also, at this stage, trim any ends that are sticking out (as I am doing so above) or wait till they are dry to trim them.

 

Make as many wreaths as you like!  They are great on the tree on their own, or, you can take it a step further and make an awen or pentacle.

Various wreaths drying

Various wreaths drying, some with temporary wire.  These are made of the unidentified shrub material (tan/green) and some young dogwood branches (red).

Awen Ornament

Choose three straight pieces and cut them to just larger than your wreath.  They don’t have to be perfect at this stage–you can always trim them later.

Cutting branches for an awen symbol

Cutting branches for an awen symbol

Once you have your three straight pieces, begin attaching them at the top.  Simply wrap a thin wire around the branches and the wreath a few times till they are secure.  You could alternatively try to glue them, but I don’t think this is a good idea with shrinkage. Try to attach them as solidly as you can–if you are working with wet wood, they may losen and shrink as they dry.

Close up of awen top

Close up of awen top

Awen attached at top and middle bottom.

Awen attached at top and middle bottom.

Once you have the top attached, attached the middle bottom.  Then you can decide how far out you want the two outer rays of the awen.

Finished Awen ornament

Finished Awen ornament

Pentacle Ornament

Once you get your feet wet with the awen ornament, you can tackle the more complicated pentacle ornament. This is one with rose bush branch and the shrub from my yard.

Pentacle ornament on the Yule Tree

Pentacle ornament on the Yule Tree

For this, you will want five straight pieces that have a little give in them. They should be fresh wood, as you will have to bend them a bit over each other to get the effect right. As an optional step, if your pieces are quite thick, you migth shave them down on one side. This isn’t necessary if you have thinner pieces.

Shaving down edge of pentacle pieces

Shaving down edge of pentacle pieces

Now, begin to construct the pentacle.  Start by attaching two of the pieces to the top of the pentacle.

Two pieces attached.

Two pieces attached.

Here’s how the back of this looks at this stage. You can see how if you shave it, you can get a closer fit.

Top of pentacle with wire

Top of pentacle with wire

Now, 1/5 of the way down from the top, attach the next two pieces at the point of the star.  This gives you two of the five sides attached. You can mess around with which ones should lay on top of each other as you go–some sticks will fit better on top or bottom than others.

Attaching second two pieces

Attaching second two pieces

Now, go ahead and attach the other star point that can be completed (on the bottom right). Next, add in your 5th branch and figure out how to best fit it (it might fit better under rather than over previously attached sticks).  Keep attaching each of the sides.

Pentacle with all five sticks

Pentacle with all five sticks

Finally, attach your last sticks. You work with these wet because at this later stage, you may have to bend them a little to attach them to the wreath together.

Finished pentacle

Finished pentacle

At this stage, let them dry out for at least two days. The wood may shrink a bit, which will firm up your wreaths but may require you to tighten up the wire (which you can do by putting a simple bend in it or re-wrapping it).

 

Once they are dry, if you want, you can brush these with paint or just leave them natural.

 

I hope you enjoyed this simple tutorial for creating wonderful yule ornaments!  If anyone does this, please share a link to your creations or tag the druid’s garden on Facebook or Instagram (@druidsgardenart).  Thanks!

 

 

Home-Grown and Wildcrafted Smudge Sticks: Plant List and Recipes November 18, 2018

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Creating homemade smudge sticks with local ingredients is a wonderful activity to do this time of year.  As the plants die back, you can harvest whatever you aren’t using for other purposes and create a number of beautiful smudges that can be used for many different purposes: clearing, honoring spirits, protection, setting intentions, letting go, bringing in, preparing for ritual or mediation, and much more.

 

A few years ago, I wrote an initial post on homemade smudge sticks using local ingredients–this has become my most popular post on my blog.  Given that, I wanted to offer a follow-up post with some additional information and share a few smudge stick recipes for specific purposes. For initial instructions on how to make your sticks, please see my first post.  This post expands the plant list that you can use to make smudges and also offers smudge stick recipes for various purposes.

 

Expanded Ingredient List for Smudge Stick Making

The following is a much expanded ingredient list from my first post–it not only talks about different plants you can explore in smudge stick making, but offers their latin names and also if they can be wildharvested or need to be garden grown.

 

Aromatic Cultivated and Wildharvested Herbs. This list represents plants that you can easily find in the wild and/or grow in a garden.  The information I’m providing is based on the US East coast/Upper Midwest, so you will need to adapt accordingly.  (C) refers to the need to cultivate this herb in most places in the US Upper East Coast or Midwest, while (W) indicates you might be able to find it in the wild.

  • Bay leaf (C)(Laurus nobilis):  Bay has a wide range of magical uses: to banish or expel, to protect, to support, to prepare folks for deeper magical work. If you aren’t sure what to use as smudge, bay is a great choice due to its flexibility! You can cultivate bay plants; alternatively, pick up some bay leaves in the spice section of the grocery store .
  • Coltsfoot (C)(Tussilago farfara): Coltsfoot is used primarily for divination, and due to its very early bloom time in the spring and beautiful yellow flower, it is also associated with sun work and the coming of spring. Leaves can be harvested in the spring or fall, you can find it along roadways in full sun or part shade areas. The leaf is large and can be used as a wrap for other smudge ingredients. The flower, looking similar to a dandelion but smaller, and blooming in early spring, can also be used in smudges.
  • Eucalyptus (C) (Eucalyptus spp.)– Another herb for clearing work; its smolders nicely and produces a powerful scent.  It combines beautifully with sage and lavender.  You have to plant this in my region–it doesn’t grow wild, but will grow to a nice size over the summer and you can use it.  You can also get whole leaf in some places if it isn’t local. While you can find it in craft stores in the US, I don’t know what they treat it with–I’d use it from an herbal supplier first.
  • Hyssop (C) (Hyssopus officinalis) – An herb with ancient connections to purification work; you can also use this to keep away negativity that is thrown in your direction.  Hyssop smells wonderful when burned.  I’ve also used Anise hyssop in a similar way; the two do burn differently (anise hyssop is more aromatic and smells and burns like black licorice).
  • Lavender (C) (Lavandula spp.) – Lavender helps with clear thinking, relaxation, and focus.  You can use both leaf stalks and flower heads in smudges–lavender flowers give smudges beautiful colors and appeal.  Lavender combines beautifully with sage or sweetgrass.
  • Lemongrass (C) (Cymbopogon): Cleansing, removing obstacles, purification.  You can grow this or even pick up stalks in the local grocery store.  Burns with a lemony scent and produces good smoke.
  • Mugwort (W, C) (Artemisia vulgaris) – Mugwort has a nice smell when burned (and its also used in a lot of herbal smoking blends).  Mugwort is specifically tied to dreams and can produce very vivid dreaming.  It is also wonderful for any other kind of trance or journeying work. While this is a powerful dreaming is a good thing in the short term, do keep in mind that vivid dreams over a long period of time can exhaust you–so use mugwort with care and not daily, but definitely use it!  Mugwort also grows beautifully straight and tall, and really does do well in smudges.  A lot of people cultivate mugwort, but I find it wild growing everywhere around where I live.  I really love this plant for both tea (harvested young) and smudges

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges--tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges–tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

  • Mullein (W) (Verbascum thapsus) – Soft, fuzzy mullein leaves have a nice “smoldering” quality–they smolder in the same way that sage smolders.  They don’t smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for “clearing” out the lungs of toxins.  In Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief.  I think, for a personal smudge stick where I was working to clear out some deep emotions and emotional recovery, I would most definitely put mullein in becuase of that clearing/grief/lung connection.
  • Rosemary (C) (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Rosemary is another clearing and protective herb.  It is also another staple for smudges.  Interestingly enough, you can use both the root and the plant of rosemary–and they have different qualities.  The rosemary stalks burn wonderfully in a smudge.  Don’t let them get too dried out or the needles fall off easily and you will have a hard time wrapping them and keeping them intact.  You might look at the different varieties of rosemary–not only do they smell slightly different, but they burn slightly different as well.
  • Sage (C) (Salvia spp.) – Sage is a clearing herb that helps purify and cleanse spaces of negative energy.  All sages energtically work similarly, but do have some fairly unique smells.  Here are some different sage options:
    • White Sage can be grown in gardens and has a potent, distinctive smell.  The seeds are rather hard to start (only about a 20% germination rate) and it doesn’t like it too wet–it likes it hot. I usually plant this in my greenhouse as it is hotter and drier than the rest of my yard for the summer months.  You can use white sage stalks and leaves in your smudge sticks.  If you can’t grow it, you often can also find sage bundles in metaphysical shops (and you can take the bundles apart and mix them with other plants).
    • Desert Sage also has a lighter, sweeter smell than white sage.  I haven’t grown this myself, but have gotten some from friends who were out west. It also is relatively easy to find in the shops.
    • Garden Sage is a wonderful choice for multiple purposes–culinary arts as well as smudge sticks.  I harvest back the garden sage plants in the fall for use in smudges and for cooking!  It has a deeper sage smell than the other two.
    • Clary Sage has larger leaves and a more musky smell.  Works great for smudges!
  • Scented Geranium (C) (Pelargonium Spp.): Geranium is associated with prosperity, happiness, and love. The leaves and stalks of scented geraniums make wonderful smudge stick ingredients.  They burn similar to the smell that the geranium has.  i have had the most experience with my lemon scented geranium for smudges, but there are many options here.  Pick one up and it will grow in a pot all summer for you.
  • Sweet Clover (W) (Melilotus officinalis) – A great locally available plant that smells fairly similar to sweet grass (and attracts spirits and honors them, like sweet grass) is sweet clover.  Sweet clover is dotted over roadsides and fields around midsummer. It does not burn quite as sweetly as sweetgrass, it has similar qualities and a similar smell.
  • Sweet Grass (C) (Hierochloe odorata) – Sweet grass gets spirits’ attention and can be used any any visionary or honoring work. I cultivate a patch of sweetgrass (moved with me several times and originally given as a gift) and it works great for smudges.  Sometimes, I will put a full section of a sweetgrass braid in a smudge (see my photos).  That really gets some attention and looks amazing.
  • Thyme (C) (Thymus vulgaris): This gentle garden and culinary herb is an incredibly powerful magical plant.  Thyme helps with the removal of negative emotions, healing, and emotional healing. It looks so pretty in a smudge bundle too, especially the lemon thyme varieties.
  • Tobacco (C) (Nicotinana Rustica): Home grown tobacco is my go-to offertory plant, making offerings in particular to the spirits of the land, particularly of the plant kingdom.  Tobacco also helps other plants do their work better (it amplifies their power and connects you deeply with their energies).  I grow my own tobacco, and I use the leaves for offerings and use the stalks in smudge sticks.
  • Valerian (C) (Valeriana officinalis) – Valerian is one of the most powerful and potent cleansing and clearing herbs. A little valerian goes a long way.  The fresh flowers smell sweet, but as they dry, they take on a potent wet-dog style aroma. The dried flower stalks work great in smudges. You can also use the roots, but the roots smell even more like a wet dog–and your smudge will smell similarly when burned.  And  your house will smell just with the roots sitting out in a smudge stick.  That physical potency lends itself well to the spirit plant, for I have found nothing better to clear out a space.  Burn with the windows open!
  • Wormwood (C, W) (Artemisia absinthium): Another super protective and clearing herb is Artemesia Absinthium (Common Wormwood).  It has a pleasant smell when it burns, and is clearing, but in a more gentle way than valerian.
  • Yarrow (C, W) (Achillea Millefolium): Yarrow is another herb I like to use a lot in my smudges for its energetic qualities; it smells a lot like itself when it burns due to the high volatile oil content.  Yarrow is used for workings where you don’t want to be seen or you need to hide or conceal something.  It is also useful for strength and divination.

Trees and Shrubs.  Traditionally, cedars (like incense cedar or red cedar) were used for smudges out in the western part of the US.  In my bioregion, conifers mostly produce the best smudges, although some a few other options exist.

  • Eastern Red Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): Junpier is a strongly protective herb and useful for male strength and for banishing. This is a wonderfully aromatic plant with berries that also are used medicinally.  I love using juniper in my smudges–but it has little prickly bits, so use it carefully so that you don’t get stabbed.
  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidantalis):  Eastern white cedar is a great smudge to help cleanse and open up a sacred space.  It also helps with cleansing negative emotions, grief, or other pain.  It is also tied to longevity and illumination. Eastern White Cedar crackles and pops when it is freshly dry due to its high amount of volatile oils.  If you use the cedar branches when they are first dried, they smell wonderful but literally crackle and pop when you burn them due to all of the volatile oils—which is a bit of a fire hazard, but also can kind of be fun. However, if you hang the cedar in your house for a few months and let it dry out, the oils slowly dry out of the cedar and then you can make your smudge sticks. The sticks at this point will smoke beautifully.
  • White Pine (Pinus Strobus): White pine is associated with peace (both outer and inner), drawing things out (including pain), cleansing and purification, and wayfinding. White pine needles burn beautifully and smell a bit like a pine-vanilla when they burn.  Wonderful in any smudge stick!
  • Blue Spruce (Picea pungens, Picea glauca): Spruce offers healing, resilience, strength, getting past the darkness. The latin name says a lot about the scent of the spruce tree: pungens – it is pungent!  The blue spruce has a very musky smell which goes well for working with animal magic and other nature-focused approaches.  The white spruce is less musky and very strengthening and potent.  Beware–most spruce needles are sharp and may need to be handled carefully when harvesting and making smudges.
  • Staghorn sumac(Rhus Typhina): Staghorn sumac is a wonderful addition to any smudge stick.  While you can use the leaves or fuzzy berry clusters, I much prefer the berry clusters.  If you are using the leaves, you need to get them into the center of the smudge stick or they crumble as they dry. You can make smudges with small clusters of berries and or collect and use the leaves after they have gone red in the fall for the best smoke.  Staghorn sumac has a very calming effect (I use it as an herbal smoke for my bees) and smolders nicely–plus, it is a beautiful red color that provides visual beauty in your smudge.  It has a fairly pleasant smoke (not very aromatic, but copious).  Staghorn sumac is a plant that offers creative approaches to thinking and cunning, which can certainly be of use.
Smudge sticks with various components--center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Smudge sticks with various components–center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Visual Components.  There is also a visual component to making a nice smudge stick, and I think this is where various wild flowers can lend a hand. Most of the flowers don’t have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of purple or yellow or white in your smudge can look absolutely beautiful (and add energetically to your smudge). A visit to any flower field in the height of the summer will certainly give you much to work with–I love adding black eyed susans, sprigs of blue queen sage, or yellow ox-eye daies to smudges.  You can also cultivate flowers like statice or baby’s breath which hold their beautify for long periods of time for your smudges (I would not buy these commercially as they are almost always sprayed with something you don’t want to make airborne). There are SO many options to experiment with!

 

 Recipes for Smudge Sticks

Now that we have so many wonderful ingredients to choose from for home-grown smudges, what kinds of combinations smell nice and work well?  The following are some combinations I have used for various purposes.  You may not have all of the ingredients on these lists–you can eliminate ingredients you don’t have and mix and match.  In the end, your intuition should be the best gauge for what plants to put together for what purposes.  Here are some of my personal favorites:

Recipes for the Wheel of the Year

  • Winter Solstice Smudge: For bringing the light back into the world. Cedar, Juniper, and White Pine.
  • Imbolc Smudge: For Purification and Renewal: Hyssop, Rosemary, Cedar, and Sage
  • Spring Equinox Smudge: Letting the Awen Flow: Lavender, Sage, and Cedar
  • Beltane Smudge Smudge: Fertility: Wormwood, Motherwort, Lavender
  • Summer Solstice Smudge: Drawing Strength and Power:  Scented geranium, wormwood, juniper
  • Lughnassadh Smudge: Land blessing/Offering: Tobacco and White Pine
  • Fall Equinox Smudge: Seeking Balance: Bay, Rosemary, Mullein, Thyme, and White Pine
  • Samhain Smudge: Honoring the Ancestors – Bay, Sweet Grass or Sweet Clover (or both), Cedar

 Recipes for Other Purposes

  • Visioning and Journeying Smudge:  Any of the following, individually or in combination: Mugwort, Bay, Lavender, Sweet Grass, Sweet Clover, Yarrow, White Pine, Staghorn Sumac
  • Letting Go of Grief/Pain: Mullein, Juniper, Thyme, White Pine
  • Really Super Cleansing: Valerian, Rosemary, Wormwood
  • Divination: Coltsfoot, mugwort, White Pine
  • Establishing Sacred/Ritual Space: Bay, Yarrow, Sage, Cedar, Staghorn Sumac

 

 

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

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

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

 

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

 

Oaks in Many Forms

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

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

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

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

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

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

 

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

 

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