The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

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

 

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

 

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

Choosing Your Material

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Distillation Process

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

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

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

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

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

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

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

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

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

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

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

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

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

The full system

The full system

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

 

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

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

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

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

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Wild Food Profile: Eat Your Hostas! May 1, 2018

Often, when you are interested in unusual and wild foods, a season for a delectable treat may only last for a few short days or weeks. A fun early spring food that is usually popping up around or before Beltane in temperate parts of North America is the hosta. Yes, you heard me–that large leafy green plant that most only consider a deer resistant ornamental. This plant is a favorite of typical landscapers; it seems to show up in nearly every suburban and urban yard. Because I like finding ways to turn typical lawns into more healthy ecosystems that create habitat, food, and joy and that “stacks functions” in permaculture terms, learning to do something with these “typical” lawn plants is a great idea. And so, hostas are a wonderful food this time of year to harvest when they are still in “shoot” form. They are quite good–have a taste that is slightly bitter, and somewhat like lettuce. Hostas been enjoyed around the world, particlarly in Japan (they also understand and eat Burdock regularly; burdock is another great spring food!) The Japanese call hosta “Urui” and eat them raw or stir fried, often with soy sauce (which is a great way to eat them).

 

In this post, I’ll walk you through how to harvest and enjoy this springtime treat!

 

The Gargoyle says, "time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!"

The Gargoyle says, “time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!”

 

Like many vegetables, the younger the plant, the more tender the vegetable. This is true of hostas–I am harvesting them after they have been coming up about a week–you can continue to harvest patches that are larger than this (although at some point, you’d switch to boiling them rather than frying them). Even larger and older hosta leaves can be treated like spinach and boiled and used in a variety of ways. But I like these tender shoots the best. This size to a bit larger (3″ – 6″) is a really good size for tasty and tender eating.

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

I have about six hosta plants at the new property, so I harvested 3-4 shoots from each plant.  According to other hosta connseours online,  you can harvest up to half the leaves without compromising the health of the plant. But I’m happy with a meal or two and enjoying the beauty of the plant for the rest of the season.

Success--shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

Success–shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

The pinkish part of the hosta that is the outer layer of the shoot as they come up is more bitter than the rest of the plant (which has only slight bitterness), so you will want to remove the outer 1-2 layers on the bottom for the young shoots. In the case of my photo below, I’m removing the two bottom pinkish layers.

Preparing the hostas.

Preparing the hostas.

Once you have your layers removed, it is time to cook them!

Ready to cook!

Ready to cook!

There are lots of ways to prepare some hostas. The simpleist way to prepare them is what I do for a lot of wild foods and mushrooms–fry them in butter and add a bit of salt and garlic.  A cast iron skillet works beautifully for this.  A good alternative is to fry them in sesame oil and add a bit of soy sauce, sesame seeds, and a pinch of brown sugar.

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Pan fry them for 3-5 minutes until they turn a darker color. Again, the younger they are, the more tender they are and the less they need cooked.  Ones this young can easily be eaten raw, but I like them better this way.

Nearly done!

Nearly done!

They make an excellent side or main dish. Here’s to many springtime foragable foods!

Delicious!

Delicious!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows February 25, 2018

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.

 

In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).

 

The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.

 

It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.

 

And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.

 

As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.

 

Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.

 

Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.

 

The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.

 

The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!

 

As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.

 

Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.

 

American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!

 

Wildcrafted Winter Solstice Decorations with Conifers, Holly, Ivy, Bittersweet, and More December 20, 2017

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Part of the fun of the holiday season is “decking the halls” and decorating for the season. By bringing the symbols of the season into our homes, for festivity and communion, we are able to deeply align with the living earth and her turning seasons. And the symbols of this particular season, at the winter solstice, span back millennia: deep red berries and dark green conifers, trails of ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens. Adding to this, the symbols of the season are also reflected in mythology, such as the battle between the Oak and Holly king and the Goddess Frigga’s wheel of the year.  These symbols have been with us for centuries in one form or another, and weaving in and out of whatever dominant tradition that is present.  And so, in this post, I will explore how we might use natural materials, gathered lovingly from the living earth, to create our own holiday decorations: holly, ivy, various dried grasses, conifers, and more.  This can compliment, supplement, or even replace purchased decorations and can be returned harmlessly to the living earth after the holiday season is over.

 

I’m going to start with some background and reasons why you might want to go a “handmade” and “grown” route, offer suggestions on things to forage and find, discuss the spirit and magical work of creating and crafting, and then talk about some easy ways you can make simple holiday decorations.

 

Why Handmade/Grown Decorations

As a druid concerned with my own ecological impact and who engages in serious land healing, putting up a tree or figuring out how to decorate always represents an ethical conundrum. Obviously, I don’t want a plastic tree, as plastic trees are just another commercialized commodity. In fact, holiday decorations are a serious industry; in 2011, Americans spent somewhere around $6,000,000,000 on decorations. This land–and landfills–are now filled with inflatable snowmen, icicle lights, and even these crazy laser shows you can project on your houses, and more. These decorations are easy to purchase, easy to use and certainly, easy to throw away.  Even holiday greenery, like fresh greens, are now a commodity to be purchased anywhere from your local grocery store to big box store. To me, I want to steer clear of commercialized holiday decorations because it feeds into the cycle of purchase-use-quickly throw away and because I can’t be sure of the manufacturing processes or ecological impact on the earth. Even a used plastic tree is problematic to me–I’m not into the facsimile, I want something real. I want it to smell real and be real.

 

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

And yet, a typical living tree also presents an ethical issue.  As someone working to live a nurturing and regenerative lifestyle, I don’t want to purchase a living tree that would be cut down so I can enjoy it in my house for a month. I think as I gain experience as a woodworker and I could put the whole tree to use, I might begin to feel differently. But at this point, putting up a tree in my house for a month to celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons simply aren’t worth a life of another being.  To address this, a lot of people opt for the “living tree” in a pot or with a root ball as an option, but they are often quite expensive and/or hard to source (around here, all you can only find cut trees; my town claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and takes great pride in high quality cut trees, so there isn’t much of a market for anything else). Long term, I might cultivate an evergreen in a pot and bring it in each year for the holiday season so that I kept using the same one again and again (otherwise, this home would be filled with conifers (not fruit trees) in a few short years!

 

And so, with this conundrum brewing and family quickly approaching for a festive feast on the 25th, this year, I decided to continue explore decking the halls the old fashioned way–with help from nature herself.

 

Gathering and Foraging Decoration Materials

Many different decorating materials from the land

Many different decorating materials from the land

Long before big box stores and plastic commodities, the only thing that was available was what nature herself provided–this is why we have evergreens and reds for this time of year: looking on the landscape, that’s what is available right now. Before commercialization, this was the only way to decorate–and I think its worth exploring how we might get back there.

 

Of course, the question of what to source and how to source it is a good one. If you are going to use real live materials for your decorations, you might start by seeing what is available in your surroundings (and I’ve offered a bit of a guide below) and even scope things out earlier in the year. I have found that its relatively easy to find materials even when I was renting: particularly, from friends, neighbors, family, or your own land.

 

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my "tree"

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my “tree”

Now, at my new land, I’m going to save “yearly pruning” of holly, ivy, and various evergreens for the Yule season–this way, any material that I want to use can be pruned and then immediately used for decorations. Often, people (think elderly relatives and neighbors) are happy for you to prune back some of their greenery–all of this makes excellent bases for creating whatever you want: holiday baskets, swags, mantle displays, and even, a “creative” tree-shaped creation. So let’s take a look at some useful materials you might use for “natural” decorations for the holiday:

Conifers

Most conifers make really nice holiday decorations–and certainly, they form the background of the “evergreen” that helps remind us of spring even in the darkest time of the year. Like anything else, they dry out and drop needles, and so finding ones that hold their needles longer is helpful if you want your decorations to last.

  • Fir trees: Many fir trees are prized for their uses for swags, wreaths, and living Yule trees.  They smell great and hold their needles for a long time.  They also aren’t too prickly to work with.
  • Blue Spruce: Blue spruce is a very prickly conifer but is quite beautiful.  If you want to work with it, I suggest you wear leather gloves. It has a really firm and strong branch and needle structure, and so, it makes a nice Yule tree, it is also good for baskets and swags.
  • White Spruce: I actually did most of my decorations this year out of white spruce, primarily because I had a lot of it to trim to make more light in my garden. It makes particularly nice wreaths as it is pliable, bendable, and won’t stab you like its blue counterpart. It also lays nicely over mantles, etc.
  • White Pine: White pine is a very feathery tree with long, soft needles that are very bendy.  It makes nice basket decorations and also nice wreaths (like white spruce).  My family used these as holiday trees for many years because we had planted them, and as kids, we always played games to see who could manage to hang the ornament on the tree on the first try (as the White Pines don’t hold ornaments well).
  • Red Pine/Jack Pine: Red pine and Jack pine are both more firm with smaller, more prickly needles.  They work great for swags, baskets, or a “constructed tree”.
  • Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock is very abundant where I live but makes extremely poor holiday decorations because the needles will drop within 2-3 days of the branches being cut. As much as I love the hemlock tree, this is one to keep outside. 

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my "tree"

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my “tree”

Evergreen Materials and Berries

Evergreen materials that are non-conifer in nature are also amazing to work with for holiday decorations.  Many of these are often planted or foragable in the wild.

  • Bittersweet vine: Bittersweet is considered an “invasive” vine in many parts of the US, and this time of year, it still holds onto its lovely red berries.  You can weave these into wreaths, mantle pieces, and more.  I had a lot of this when I lived in Michigan and I would make lovely wreaths and such each year with it.
  • Holly: Holly shrubs also produce holly berries, which gives us two of the most common colors for the holiday season.  They are evergreen and hold their shape and berries long after they dry out, making them useful for all sorts of decorations. Even when fully dry, it keeps its shape and color quite nicely (although once in a while the berries will pop off).
  • Ivy: I love working with Ivy as a holiday decoration.  I usually use it to wrap around other wreaths or as a mantle decoration.  Even when fully dry, it keeps a nice dark green color for several months.
  • Periwinkle: Periwinkle is a low, evergreen, ground cover that often moves into forests in a mat and prevents other plants from growing–so take as much as you want.  Its hard to pull out, but you can cut it close to the ground and make wreaths, etc.
  • Wintergreen: I like to use small amounts of wintergreen plants for small decorations.  They are small and low growing, but are evergreen and smell wonderful. Use only if abundant.
  • Partridge Berry: Like wintergreen, this is a small low-growing evergreen that often has red berries. Given its symbolism, I like to use this (or wintergreen, above) in the place of mistletoe, which does not grow around here.

 

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

Other Materials

You can look for what is around you for materials to finish out your holiday decorations:

  • Lichens: Certain parts of the country (north and south of me) are in areas that produce usnea and other lichens that have a silvery appearance; these are nice to weave into decorations (and use medicinally!)
  • Dried Grasses and Plants: I love using dried grasses and plants. Sometimes, I will brush some gold acrylic paint onto these to really make them pop.  My favorites include milkweed pods, dried goldenrod, dried lobelia, and more.  Take a walk in any field and you will find tons of nice things you can add.
  • Pine Cones: Can be added to many holiday decorations and, again, brushed with gold or silver for extra effect.
  • Popcorn: Stringing popcorn is a fun activity to do with friends and family and really compliments other natural decorations.

 

Additional Supplies

In addition to your foragable materials, the following supplies will help you make some great decorations:

  • Various pruning shears (small and large)
  • Green wire (for flowers)
  • Wire cutters and pliers
  • Thicker wire if you are going to be doing heavier pieces (like big wreaths, swags, or a tree “hack”)
  • Red and Gold ribbon (red, gold), preferably wired. This ribbon can be used and reused again and again.
  • Gold paint you can spray or brush on
  • Hot glue for certain projects
Some supplies

Some supplies

Bringing in the Spirit

I think part of the magic of finding your own materials is bringing in that energy and honoring the plants that you are gathering.  When I gather, I like to ask permission and honor any tree or plant that I take from.  I explain to the spirits of the plant and the land what I would like to do, and invite them into my home as I harvest the decorations and craft them.  This adds an additional magic-filled element to the preparation of these decorations.

 

I also think that crafting decorations for the Winter Solstice a few days before the solstice can help you get into the “spirit” of the season, bringing you in alignment with the everlasting qualities of the dark conifers–they stay green, and they give us the promise of spring.  Handling them, smelling them, infusing our homes and hearths with them, helps us accept the darkness and work to move beyond our own darkness.

Making Simple Decorations

Now that you’ve done your foraging and have a pile of potential decorations around you, you can start crafting it into various kinds of decorations.   These aren’t hard to make and with a bit of effort and perseverance, you can have some great decorations. Here are some options:

 

Baskets, Planters, and Vases

Baskets and vases full of greenery are about the easiest things to make and will certainly give you some easy success. Stuff some greenery in a vase, maybe add some dried grasses and berries, and then, add a bow. This year, I used old planters (that still were half full of dirt) and easily made a few baskets in under a half hour.  You can do the same with smaller vases, mason jars, and so on; really anything that has some weight to it that will hold greenery.

A simple outdoor basket -- greenery and a bow

A simple outdoor basket — greenery, dead grasses and goldenrod, and a bow

Wreaths and Swags

Wreaths are simply a circle with a hollow in the middle, and can be easily made by finding pliable conifers and wiring them together (fir, white spruce, and white pine make particularly good wreaths).  Simply place them in a circle, get green wire, and wire every four to six inches.  Then, you can wrap it with ribbon and do any final trimming necessary. Then find a nice place to hang it!

 

Swags are simply an easier kind of greenery wall display than a wreath.  You wire some branches together, add some berries and a bow, and add a hanging hook. These can replace pictures or even be added above a door, on a table, etc.

Preparing to wire the wreath

Preparing to wire the wreath

 

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce - beautiful!

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce – beautiful!

 

Mantles and Windowsills

A really easy way to use the greenery, berries, and grasses is for decorated windowsills and mantles. These allow you to have some festive cheer without necessarily having to “construct” anything. To do this, simply lay greenery in a pleasing way along your windowsills, add some ribbon or a bow, or candles. Even a few ornaments look nice in these displays.  For mine, I primarily used holly and ivy, as I had a lot of that material and it lays well.

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

The Home Constructed Tree

As I mentioned above, I made my own yule tree this year.  I had a number of branches to cut down to make more light in my winter garden (photos above), and I was determined to do something nice with them beyond simply compost them. And so, after about a half hour to an hour of wiring and pruning, I managed to get the three large branches wired together and in the house. I used strong steel wire and plyers.  Then, I carried it indoors and set it up in a tree stand. It actually worked, and from nearly every angle, looks like a weepy yet wonderful tree!

My "constructed" tree

My “constructed” tree

 

Conclusion

Once the holiday season is concluded (for me, I usually leave decorations up through the dark month of January and take them down just before Imbolc), I will gather these materials back up, save the bows for next season, and add everything to my compost bed.  Everything from these will be returned to the land to participate in the cycle of life. I hope that everyone has a blessed and wonderful winter solstice! I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging until after the New Year. Blessings of the holiday season and the darkest time of year.

 

Urban Food Profile: Cornelian Cherry Harvest and Recipe for Soda Syrup, Jam, Pickles, and More September 14, 2017

I really enjoy foraging for foods in urban environments, you just never know what you are going to find.  In the spring, keep a good eye out for various kinds of flowering trees in an urban or suburban setting–any tree that is flowering is a tree that is worth looking at closely and identifying.  Most frequently, they are flowering crabapples (which are awesome for jellies and other things) or flowering cherries but sometimes you are rewarded with something extra special. Spotting flowering trees at a distance and identifying them is how I found a boatload of urban foragibles this year. Back in June, a few friends and I harvested upwards of 10 lbs of serviceberries from a urban spot in town, and I had spotted another grouping of trees I was excited to return to in the fall–Cornus Mas, or Cornelian Cherry.

Almost ripe Cornelian Cherries

Almost ripe Cornelian Cherries

These are in the dogwood family and have absolutely beautiful flowers in the spring. Cornelian cherries are not native to Pennsylvania or anywhere in the US, but like serviceberry, they are frequently planted as ornamentals so you can find them if you look around. In fact, the ones I found were planted right near the serviceberry; they are all “small” trees that don’t get too big. I found four cornus mas trees and have been patiently checking them all summer to see their fruits ripen. As we near the fall equinox, their fruits grow deep red and drop–and are a wonderful treat for those who seek them out. In terms of flavor, Cornelian cherries are fairly similar to a sour cherry flavor, but they have more floral undertones and a different level of complexity.  After they are cooked, they also can take on a kind of cranberry taste, but without any bitterness.  Truly, they are a fruit into and of themselves, and they are well worth trying for new and interesting tasting experiences!  This post, part of my foraging / wild foods series, will introduce you to harvesting and several recipes for these delightful treats!

 

Harvest

Harvesting Cornelian Cherry requires some patience.  The fruit, while still on the tree, are usually super tart with a good amount of tannins.  They take all summer to ripen.  They go from hard and green to lighter yellow/red to darker red, and finally almost to a deep red/purple. When they are ripe, they are soft to the touch and have a hint of sweetness and are deep red, almost purple.  You can harvest them less ripe if you cook them more or let them sit out on the counter for a few days, but you won’t get that really good floral undertone that is only present with a *very* ripe Cornelian cherry.

 

Every few days, I’ve been checking in on the trees, and they are finally ripening.  One tree dropped all of its cherries while I was at Stones Rising last weekend and the birds cleaned those up in a hurry, but this week, two friends and I harvested a very nice ripe tree, and there are two more than appear to be ripe next week.  They are two different cultivars, but individual trees seem to ripen at slightly different times.

Cornelian Cherries on the tree--the ones that are ready to fall off are ripe!

Cornelian Cherries on the tree–the ones that are ready to fall off are ripe!

You can harvest them from the ground, which will give you the ripest ones.  You can also harvest them from any tree ready to give its fruit.  In this way, it is like an apple–you know the fruit is ripe when the tree gives it to you with minimal effort.  If you are there taking stems and having to pull on it, it is not quite ripe.  You can harvest under-ripe ones, but you need to prepare them differently than ripe ones.

 

Recipes

Most of the recipes for this amazing fruit come from the lands where they grow natively–Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and so on.  I have looked at a lot of recipes online for the fruit, and have made some adaptations based on safety and canning here in the US.  I have drawn a lot from Fig and Quince, but added my own touch.

Ready to be turned into tasty treats!

Ready to be turned into tasty treats!

Cornelian Cherry Persian Moraba and Sharbat (Aka. Cornelian Cherry Whole Cherry Jam + Simple Soda Syrup)

You get two kinds of products from one recipe–a whole cherry jam (that contains the pits) and a Sharbat/simple soda syrup that can be used for a variety of things.  I have adapted this for safety standards for canning so that you can get a long shelf life out of this delicious fruit!  Note that the flavors of Cornelian cherry are fairly muted and subtle–you can add other stuff (like coriander or mint, which is very traditional) but doing so loses some of the flavor of the cherries themselves.

For this recipe you will need: hot water bath canning equipment (jars, new lids, hot water bath canner, lid lifter, jar lifter, towel).

  • 6 cups of Cornelian Cherries, washed and drained
  • 6 cups of water
  • 6 cups of sugar
The Moraba (whole fruit jam).  Delicious!

The Moraba (whole fruit jam). Delicious!

Moraba / Cornelian Cherry Whole-Fruit in Syrup

Combine your cherries, water, and sugar and bring the mixture to a boil.  If you have very ripe cherries, you will want to just boil it and then immediately can it.  If you have a mix or some that are really not ripe, you will want to cook them longer; up to 10 minutes.  I have found that if you let them have their skins crack a little bit, you can get the sugar more deeply into the tart fruit, which helps. Canning will make that sugar go deeper and soften them up beautifully.  Of course, you have less firm fruit, but that’s ok.

Adding sugar and water

Adding sugar and water

Ready to can fruit and syrup

Ready to can fruit and syrup

While this is going, prepare your jars and lids for canning (heating them up to a boil to sterilize and keeping your boiling water going).  Fill your jars full of the cherries and then pour liquid over, giving 1/4″ head space for half pints and 1/2″ headspace for pints.  Leave a handful of berries floating in the remaining liquid for your Sharbat.  If you have a regular sized canner, you will need to hot water bath these for 10 minutes (15 for pints) before preparing the second recipe.

Getting Ready to Can

Getting Ready to Can

Removing jars from hot water bath

Removing jars from hot water bath

Sharbat / Cornelian Cherry Soda Syrup

The Cornelian Cherry sharbat is probably my favorite of the different preparations that I’ve tried. In Turkey, a Sharbat is a concentrated syrup beverage mixed into water. If you want, here in the US, we prepare something very similar but instead, we mix it into fizzy water/seltzer water and then enjoy it as a homemade soda. Either is a good option for this second recipe.  After you have pulled out almost all of the fruit, you should be left with a deep red liquid that has a really nice flavor–tart, slightly floral, slightly fruity, and sweet.  Make sure this is near boiling, and again, prepare your jars for canning.  Fill to 1/4″ headspace for half pints and 1/2″ headspace for pints and then can (hot water bath) these for 10 minutes for half pints and 15 minutes for pints.

The Sharbat (after removing most of the fruit)

The Sharbat (after removing most of the fruit)

Getting ready to can Sharbat

Getting ready to can Sharbat

To enjoy the Sharbat, you can add about 10-20% liquid to 80-90% cold water.  It is incredibly delicious and refreshing (and probably packed with good Vitamin C among other things!) You could also pour this into mixed drinks or over ice cream and so on.

3 tbsp of Sharbat in a mason jar of water = delicious!

3 tbsp of Sharbat in a mason jar of water = delicious!

You don’t have to can either of these–you can eat them fresh.  But this volume of material does give you enough to preserve for a long time.

 

Marinated Cornelian Cherry “olives”

In fact, Cornelian Cherries have pits like olives, so they can be made into them.  I also got this recipe from Fig and Quince, but I have some major revisions to make it tasty.  Remember that Cornelian Cherries are super tart until ripe–this recipe only works best with the ripest of ripe cherries.  Otherwise, you end up with these really tart vinegary balls that aren’t anything really like olives, they are just super sour.  If you use the most recipe cherries, however, you can end up with a really nice flavor.  The recipe is simple, you add in your very ripe cherries, then pour vinegar over them so that they are fully submerged.  You can add other things here as well if you’d like.  Keep them in the fridge (like a refrigerator pickle). A few combinations I’ve tried:

  • White vinegar / Cherries / Mint – Very good.
  • High quality balsamic / cherries – Very good.
  • Peach blush balsamic / Cherries – Awesome.
  • Apple Cider Vinegar / Cherries – Good and local.

I like the addition of the mint, but be careful you don’t add too much.  It can be very overpowering.

Making the cherries

Making the cherries

I haven’t yet tried a fruit leather, but I believe they would make a nice fruit leather as well.  This is a very versatile fruit and a little sweet added to it makes a complex and delicious flavor.  I hope that if you can find some Cornelian Cherries, these delightful recipes will help you enjoy them in the winter months!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Working with Trees in Urban Settings August 13, 2017

Maples growing up through grate--been there for years!

Maples growing up through grate–been there for years!

I walk down the sidewalk of a street in the small town that I call home.  As I journey, I see a crabapple friend with ripening fruit, her leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. I reach out to her, and tell her I look forward to harvesting some in the fall.  She is pleased, as her fruit is largely ignored, and delighted that I will return.  I see others along my walk: horse chestnuts, lindens, mulberries, serviceberries, balsam poplars–many trees that are different species from the forests where I often tread.  Finally, I walk across a grate and wave to the maples growing up from below, in the four foot space below the grate and the drainage channel and into someone’s driveway. These urban trees are often shaped by humans in ways forests are not: an odd growth habit becuase of pruning under a powerline, a trunk and roots spilling over a sidewalk, a dwarf nature due to selective breeding, growing in a place unfathomable (like the maples).  And yet, each is beautiful and unique, no different than those in less human-dominated settings.

 

As readers of my blog will likely know, I am very much a “forest druid” when at all possible.  I spend a lot of time wandering around in forests, communing and talking with the trees there in quietude, far away from bustling city and town life.  But, in the last two years in particular, I have also spent a good deal of time with urban trees as I have been living in a small town and walking everywhere. I wanted to take some time to talk about working with trees in urban settings, and how that work might be different (or similar) to some of my earlier suggestions on druid tree workings. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, and establishing deep tree workings.  You might want to look at these if you haven’t already!

 

Pruning, Cementing, and Tending

Trees have a very different relationship with people in more urban settings. Urban trees have a lot of human management–some of it good, and some of it less so.  Urban trees may be heavily pruned to keep them small, full, or away from houses or power lines.  Some pruning is healthy for the tree, but some pruning (like taking off all branches and leaving only the top of the tree so it can resprout) is very destructive. Urban trees take the shape of human desires and needs in urban settings in ways that they don’t in more natural settings. I think, in some ways, this changes their nature: the tree who simply grows in a forest is fundamentally different than one who has been carefully shaped around the power lines on a particular street with regular human interaction.  This certainly makes them different than those in the forest: not different in a good or bad way, just different.  The outer shaping does shape their personalities and in some cases, what work you can do with them on a non-physical level.

 

In the process of looking at various pieces of property (a process still ongoing), I came across a curious phenomenon.  It appears at some time in the past, old oaks were so highly regarded in this town that if one were to start to get hollow, the city would fill the oak’s hollow with concrete to keep it going.  One such huge oak, which I met while looking at a possible property, had been filled with concrete and was over 200 years old.  Of course, this means that nobody will ever want to try to cut this tree down–which I find a nice defense mechanism.  I don’t think trees are tended this way much anymore here, but it is good to know they once were.  I know of at least two other concrete-filled trees that are solid and growing well in my area.

 

In the forests and fields (particularly those forests that were at one time cleared and turned into farmland, which describes nearly all of the forests in this area) we have occasional very large, old trees.  These were all mostly fence trees or corner of property trees.  Trees that had barbed wire attached to them that eventually grew inside of them–trees that no sawmill would touch.  I think its the same with these old concrete-filled oaks.  So in some ways, being in an urban environment gives a tree a great deal of attention and, in some cases, protection that it wouldn’t get in another setting.

 

Working With Trees

Urban trees are often a lot more “awake” than many of their forest counterparts, especially trees in parks or other well-tended places.  Think about it this way– in a remote forest (or even a well visited one) there are trees who have very likely never had any human interaction at all. A human has never touched them, never tried to speak with them, and much of my earlier conversation about going “slowly” with the forest trees use this as a somewhat underlying assumption.

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

Urban trees live surrounded by humans, were almost certainly planted by humans, watered by humans, and generally have regular human interaction.  On the positive side of the interaction, in a local park children will play among the trees, climb them, make friends with trees, and hug them regularly.  Adults often come to enjoy their shade, sit against them, read a book, use them to hang up a hammock and more. On my campus, for example, we have an “oak grove” that is a very public and highly used space. The grove is probably about an acre in size and is the center of campus, so we have about 15 buildings on the edges of the grove. Within the grove are about 80 or so mostly oak trees, many of them quite old.  On a daily basis, these trees have regular interaction with the students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the campus.  They are extremely open and friendly and are used to human interaction on various levels.  These trees are wonderful to talk with and work with because of that, and I often walk through the oak grove and converse with them.

 

On the other side of this, some urban trees have experienced higher than necessary levels of trauma, and might be angry at humans.  Trees who have had vicious pruning (where they are taken to a stump or just a trunk can fall in this category, as well as those who have had branches broken for no reason, etc.  Or, what is happening in my town might happen and make the trees, as a tribe, angry.  Here, people say that “the city is at war with trees” and it seems true–sidewalk work last year has had them cutting down hundreds of old trees, eventually replacing some this spring with younglings who cast no shade.  A tree-less main street is a sad sight. But even in the 2 years I lived on one street, 12 large shade trees were all cut down (for purposes beyond me) and the street was much less pleasant. So you might also find some angry or sullen trees who feel violated by humans or who have lost very good friends (and lots of them) in a more urban setting. These trees may even physically lash out, whapping people with branches, tripping people with their roots, and more.

 

For these kinds of trees, I often do some of the land healing techniques I wrote about earlier: apology, witnessing, honoring them, giving them space but coming by often to let them know there are good humans out there.  For the sake of the tribe and the living, I also think it is good to honor the fallen trees (see more on this post here). One of my favorite things to do here involves taking charoals and doing healing drawings and ogham work on the freshly cut stumps and leaving little blessings (in the form of acorns, etc) at the trunks.

 

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

A third thing that may happen with trees in urban areas is that they live in an undesirable area (like next to warehouses, docks, or train tracks).  These trees also don’t have a lot of human interaction because of where they are, even though they are substantially impacted by human activity. They may be very open or very shut down, depending on the tree.  I have a few friends who are walnuts who live right next to the railroad tracks that come through town.  They are always happy when I stop by because otherwise, nobody pays them any mind.

 

Figuring out what kind of typical interaction that the tree has had with humans is a good start to developing any kind of deeper relationship with said tree–simple observation and interaction works well here!

 

Variety and Species

Urban settings give you a chance to meet an entirely different ecology with different kinds of trees than are typically growing wild in a nearby forest.  I have found so many delightful trees in my own town, including horse chestnut; linden; mulberry; an extraordinary amount of crab apples,  fruiting dogwoods, and serviceberry; ornamental mostly thornless hawthorn (which I don’t think have the same potent medicine as those with the thorns); fruiting sour cherries, peaches, and pears; walnuts; and many more.  Some parks, towns, or college campuses may have planting programs that focus on bringing in a lot of diversity of plant life–so you can find many rare species (and fruiting species) in those kinds of places.  I have really enjoyed finding and mapping the many different species of trees on my campus and on my walk to work as a simple ecology and nature identification practice.

 

My friend the weeping cedar.

My friend the weeping cedar.

Another feature of the urban tree is that you can also see an interesting variety of cultivated trees descended from wild stock–like this beautiful weeping White Cedar that I often pass on my walk to work.  It is a beautiful tree that I would never encounter in a forest setting because it was bred and planted.

 

Trees that are pruned or growing in a different environment may lead to a different look and growth pattern, which matters for identification.  For example, my campus has a pruned beech that allows me to reach branches to harvest nuts, a thing that *never happens* with the beeches in the forest!  And there are lots of other oddities you see–like the maples growing up from the grate in the photo that opened this post!

 

Urban trees have to stand up to different kinds of demands than their forest counterparts.  Of particular note, pollution of various kinds can be hard of certain species.  For example, at one time, sugar maples were planted heavily in city areas (and were known as the “gentleman’s tree”), but they are very pollution intolerant, and as cities began generating more pollution with the advent of power plants, factories, and automobiles, sugar maples couldn’t survive and other species were planted in these areas.  In smaller urban areas, like the one where I live, you can still find sugar maples in ways that you can’t in the larger cities due to pollution.

 

The other thing you can see in urban settings is how trees can be adapted for different kinds of uses. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen happen here is that people have taken the majestic eastern hemlock and have used it as a hedge.  I had no idea hemlock would grow in a hedge if pruned and planted correctly, but this is quite common here.

 

The Nature of the Spiritual Work

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Most of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog prior to this have involved being quiet and sitting with trees, talking with them, and more.  When you are working with trees in an urban environment, of course, you have to deal with people, and that can really change the nature of the work you are doing.  There are two ways around this: tree workings in plain sight and tree workings when others aren’t present.

 

In plain sight

Tree workings in plain sight are just as they appear: you do the work with the tree in plain sight, with others (maybe a lot of passerby) around.  This usually means you need to be quiet about the work you are doing.  I wouldn’t be lighting candles and waving around a smudge stick or chanting loudly at a tree in a local park–you’d get too much unwanted attention.  Unwanted attention from passerby can disrupt the work you are trying to do (and is rarely conducive to this kind of work).  So instead, sitting quietly against a tree, leaning quietly against a tree, having a book in your lap against a tree, for example, are all good ways.  One of my favorite ways of working magic with trees is to sit against a tree and put my headphones in my ears (but not turn them on). Then it looks like I’m just chilling out with my eyes closed, listening to music and enjoying the shade when I’m really sitting quietly and communing with the tree. This works so well and nobody looks at you twice.

I like to have people avoid staring, as I think it disrupts my own energetic work and the concentration I need to commune with the tree.  Some people or groups, however, might want to make their tree workings a much more public and open thing. The one exception to this is my flute music–I sometimes play the panflute for a tree, weaving magic and energetic work into the song, and people may stop to listen to the music.  I’m ok with this, they can enjoy it too.

 

When others aren’t present

The other way work with trees in many urban settings is to be out to do tree work when other people are not typically around. Here’s what I mean: a light warm rain is a good time to visit a tree (as long as you don’t mind getting wet). As is a the early morning, a snowstorm, or other days/times where people are less likely to be present.  My favorite time for tree workings (especially along busy walking routes) is early Sunday morning, when a good number of my neighbors are either in church or in bed!  This gives you some privacy and allows you to be undisturbed to do tree workings.

 

Of course, if you have access to trees that you’ve planted or that are growing in your yard, you have a lot more privacy and some of what I’ve said here may not apply.

 

Honoring the Fruits and Nuts

“Are crab apples edible?” is one of the most common questions that I get when I take people out on plant walks every fall. This question reflects the state of knowledge about trees and edibility and I think demonstrates why so many tree harvests in urban environment go unused (except by squirrels and other wildlife).  There are a surprising amount of people who believe that crabapples are poisonous (and then I let them sample some crabapple jelly!)

 

One of the things that has happened as humans have become disconnected from nature is that the fruits and yields of trees are no longer honored as they once were. 150 years ago, any apple tree was a prized possession, used to make cider or for fresh eating/preservation (depending on the variety), so prized that they would be wassailed and carefully pruned each year to ensure abundant harvests.  Now, people prefer to plant dwarf varities to “minimize the mess” in the fall because they won’t use the fruits. Black Walnuts were used for eating as well as dying, ink making, and medicinal preparations. Further back, entire cultures depended on the acorn as a staple food source.

 

Today, though, the abundance of trees is often seen as a waste product. In my many years in gathering leaves in the fall for my garden, I have also found incredible amounts of tree harvests thrown in those bags. Once I found about 25 lbs of black walnuts, in the same year, I also found over 100 lbs of apples that had all dropped from an urban tree and had been bagged up (my friends and I pressed them and they turned out to be a fabulous cider apple). These free foods aren’t valued to a population who aren’t sure if crab apples are edible or that know how to husk a black walnut (or how good it tastes) because that knowledge is no longer in common circulation.

 

Acorns

Acorns

And so, I believe that one of the best things that you can do to really connect with urban trees is to recognize their yields, honor them by harvesting and using their yields, and plant some of their windfall.  This is certainly sacred work, and it can become magical work as well in terms of making inks, applesauce, and other tree-based items, food, or drink that are used for ritual or ceremonial purposes.  But just as importantly, when you take the tree within you, you connect with the tree on a new level, and that’s also important work.

 

Since I took a few friends harvesting serviceberries earlier this summer, the serviceberries have greeted me with fondness and friendship.  My two friends and I quietly and excitedly gorged oursevles on the delicious berries, made offerings to the trees, and picked–and preserved–over ten pounds of serviceberry.  These were all from trees in our urban area and on campus!

 

Moving the Seedlings

Another thing that happens to urban trees that is that they don’t have the chance to reproduce like forest trees, especially because of weed wackers and mowers.  It is crushing have one’s young come up around them and then have them all destroyed year after year. Urban trees have spoken to me in depth about this and so, I make it a point to save seeds and seedlings of varieties of trees that are native or naturalized to our area and plant them in other places.  I certainly can’t save them all, but even saving a few small seedlings can make a big difference–and the next time you come through, that mother tree will be so thankful–you will have made a friend for life, both in the seedling you saved and in the tree who produced the progeny. I believe this kind of work is some of the best ways to honor urban trees (and gain their goodwill so that you can do other kinds of work with them).

 

Offerings and Songs

Urban trees, these days, are seen not usually as living beings but as something nice to make the neighborhood less sunny or look good.  This is particular true of the way that planning commissions and developers think about trees.  Bringing them back in line with sacred practice, and recognizning their worth and sacredness, is an important part of how you might work with them.

 

I like to make these little “blessing” tokens.  They are usually small stones or the caps of acorns, small pieces of bark, or the shells of hickory nuts. I gather these up in great quantity and then I bake them at 400 degrees for 15 min (to ensure that no pathogens or unknown biological agents are being spread). Then, taking my homemade walnut ink, I paint a runic symbol I designed on them, do a blessing at a major holiday, and then take a few with me anytime I am hiking or walking around town.  I use these little blessings often for work with urban trees, even as I walk to campus, I will leave one tucked in at the roots or upon in the branches.  This is a small gesture and can be done without too much attention, but shows honor to the tree.

 

Other possible offerings include singing to the trees, making music, pouring a bit of spring water around the roots, or simply raising some energy and giving it to the tree.

 

Ritual work too, works well.  One of the ways I do this expands upon the token idea.  I’ll do some ritual work designed as a land blessing and put that ritual work into water (in a typical water bottle anyone would carry) or into a token, like a stone.  After the ritual concludes, I’ll immediately take the blessed water/blessed stone to the tree itself and water the roots or place the stone somewhere with the tree.  This is always well received and can be done quietly in public areas.

 

Guerrilla Grafting and Planting

I remember a day when I was visiting some friends out west and we decided to do some “guerrilla grafting” to grow some full sized eating fruit on crab apple trees. We had cut some scion wood from healthy apple trees and took the wood, grafting tape, and pruners and small knives with us.  It was a good time for it, right around January wassailing, when the trees were dormant.  It was a quiet Sunday morning, with few cars or people.  We put on orange vests took out a few cones for good measure to look like we were supposed to be there (hiding in plain sight), and we grafted away.  I didn’t live in the area but I have been told in the years since that may of the grafts took and now the crab apples on that street also produce a nice variety of fresh eating apples.  This is a fun idea and can make urban trees that have been particularly chosen for their ornamental fruits (rather than for eating) more abundant and productive!

 

Concluding Thoughts

Just like urban people, urban trees are of a different sort–not better, not worse, just different.  Learning to work with them closely gives you unique opportunities not afforded to you in the wilds. They need you as much as you need them. I hope that some readers will also share any experiences or work that they do with urban trees!

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Wild Food and Wild Medicine Profile: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria Vesca) June 7, 2017

The delicious and delightful wild strawberry just came into season here in Western PA, and I thought I’d share a bit about how to find this plant and why it is worth seeking out both as a wild food and a wild medicine. Wild strawberry is incredibly flavorful and delicious, and in my opinion, is a really high quality wild edible that is worth seeking out (which, thankfully, isn’t that difficult). Strawberry leaves also serve a medicinal purpose as a gentle astringent. This post will detail where wild strawberry typically grows, its overall growth habit, two look-alikes that should be avoided, and some information on how to harvest and enjoy wild strawberry.

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

The wild strawberry is also known as the woodland strawberry, alpine strawberry (although there are other cultivars also known as alpines that are clumping, fragaria vesca is a running variety), or european strawberry. It is abundant and diverse and grows in many temperate places in the US and beyond. It is a great beginner wild food and wild medicine!

 

Wild Strawberry Growth Patterns

At the right time of year, you can spot the little white wild strawberry flowers underneath or alongside the wild strawberry leaves. They are in the rosacacea family, and so, have five white petals with five bracts (little leaves in between the petals) and a number of small pollen pods that are yellow surrounding a yellow stamen. About a month later (in my region, at least) you can find the delicious red fruits.

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road...

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road…

Wild strawberry prefers to grow in full sun and is found in open fields or along edges of fields and brush/forests.  This is where you will find it fruiting. I have found it a lot in fields that were once farms and with low soil fertility, also on the edges of roadways, etc.  It seems to have no problem with poor or rocky soil or soils that are partially bare and hot. But I’ve also found it along lush edge spaces–interestingly enough, the poor soils seem to produce smaller, but more flavor rich fruit. Like other wild berries, if there is little rain, fruits will be more potent and delicious than if there was a lot of rain before ripening (like this year). Wild strawberry grows other places as well, like inside forests with a bit of light, but often these plants do not have enough light to fruit.

 

Strawberry is a plant that travels as it grows–strawberries slowly creep from one area to another.  A single strawberry patch will expand eventually into a ring, and then break off in different directions; the older plants send out new runners and slowly expand as they go (which is an awesome thing to see)!  I saw this firsthand at my homestead in Michigan-what started as a sizable single patch, later turned into a ring and into diverse new patches; the original patch was taken over by ground ivy and cinquefoil, primarily.

 

 

Wild Strawberry Look Alikes

Wild strawberries are very easy to find, but so are their look alikes (and sometimes, they are all growing in the same area). There are two plants that look like wild strawberry, false strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and Cinquefoil / Polentilla spp. I’m going to cover each so you know what the differences are. 

Creeping Cinquefoil  (typically, Potentilla Reptans) is found in the same places as wild strawberry, often growing alongside it. Cinquefoil has five leaves and yellow flowers that look similar to strawberry flowers. Cinquefoil never gets a berry, however, so its pretty easy to avoid. In the photo below, There are some cinquefoils right in the middle of this strawberry patch (there’s also some small goldenrod shoots on the right next to the Cinquefoil).

Here’s a closeup of the Cinquefoil leaf (bottom) and a strawberry leaf (top).  The strawberry leaf has three leaves (trifoliate) while the Cinquefoil has five radiating leaves (palmately compound).

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil itself is medicinal, its roots are moderately antimicrobial when put in contact with infected tissue (so you can make a salve or wash with them).  But they aren’t tasty like strawberries!

 

The second look alike is known as “false strawberry”, “mock strawberry” or “indian strawberry.” It produces berry that looks a lot like strawberry, and it has leaves similar to a strawberry, but the berry is flavorless. You can eat it, but who would want to? It tastes like nothing. The berry also has seeds on the outside (not indented like the wild strawberry) and many seeds in a very orderly fashion (see below). It has a yellow flower (so if you can ID the flowers earlier in the year, you will know it is a false strawberry vs. the white flower of the wild strawberry). A simple rule of thumb is to not eat anything with yellow flowers, and stick only to the white flowers. Its been a while since I’ve seen one of these; they aren’t nearly as abundant around where I live as the Cinquefoil (which is as abundant as strawberry herself).

Here’s a photo of one (courtesy of Wikipedia, I forgot to take a photo!)

Mock Strawberry

Mock Strawberry

The false strawberries grow up, pointing towards the sky while the wild strawberries are usually hanging or growing on the ground.

 

Harvesting Strawberry Leaf and Strawberry

When doing any wild food foraging, you should make sure that you are harvesting in a safe environment, free of toxins and not too close to houses with lead paint, roads, and so forth (see my earlier post on foraging part 1 and part 2).

 

There are a few tricks to harvesting wild strawberries. Like garden strawberry varities, dense foilage can often cover the tasty berries. You can use your hand to gently move away the leaves to get at the berries. You’ll also want to work your way carefully through the patch, trying not to step on any as you work through.  Although they are small, they are often abundant, and if you gather for even 10 -15 minutes, you’ll have several handfuls for fresh eating.  Remember that there might be a ring, or a line, or several patches in the area–so look carefully!  Strawberries ripen over a period of a week or so, so you can come back every day or so for more fresh strawberries.

Wild strawberries on the ground

Wild strawberries on the ground, brush leaves aside to see even more.

Since wild strawberry is so small, I typically just eat them fresh.  If you had them in extreme abundance, they’d certainly make a nice jam.  I once combined about 2 cups of fresh wild strawberries with some I had grown that were much larger for a jam–that was great.  If you had them in a lot of abundance, you can also dry them and enjoy anytime or make a fruit leather (see my instructions here).

 

Finally, a note about balance. I think that it is important to give something in return to the plant itself if you are harvesting fruit or leaves.  This can take a number of forms: a bit of organically grown tobacco is a welcome gift to many plant spirits.   If you are willing to scatter some of the strawberries themselves (with their seeds) the strawberries will be very happy.  You might find other things to do as well, but these are two I have found are very effective.

 

Strawberry Leaf as Medicine

Strawberry leaf is packed full of vitamin C and can be enjoyed as a tea either fresh or dried.  The tea has a mild and slightly fruity flavor (and some substitue it for green tea when a person can’t have caffiene).  I like to harvest leaves (maybe one per plant) when they are first blossoming.  They get a bit stronger after the fruit come in (still fine to harvest for medicine). A lot of folks will use these gentle leaves as a nourinshing tea that is tonic on the body and soothes the digestive system, particularly for those who suffer from diarrhea or loose stools and/or could use immune system support (provided by Vitamin C).

 

Strawberry leaf is also a gentle astringent (with a high tannin content).  I like to use it as part of an eye wash for conjunctivitis/pink eye when the eyes are goopy and watery (in conjunction with plantain for healing).  It is also great for a daily rinse for the gums and teeth.   Herbalists have used this successfully in tooth powder recipes to help treat plagque and bleeding gums (typically with clay, baking soda, and so on).

 

You can also brew up a strong cup of strawberry leaf tea and use it as a treatment for sunburn, simply lathe the affected areas with a soft cloth or cotton ball.  If you combine this with calendula or plantain, it is even more effective.

 

Please know that wild strawberry leaf is much more medicinal than its domestic counterpart.  You can use domesticated strawberry, but I have found the medicinal qualities much higher in wild strawberry (this is similar to Yarrow–the more difficult growing conditions, the more medicinal and aromatic the plant!)

 

Concluding Thoughts

I love the gentle spirit of the wild strawberry.  She is giving, soothing, abundant, and magical!  I hope that you will enjoy some of the benefits of this amazing and easy to find plant!

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