The Druid's Garden

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

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!

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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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Druid Tree Workings: January Tree Blessings and Wassail for Abundance January 6, 2017

Deep, in the darkest months of winter, a variety of cultures offered blessings to the trees for abundant harvests. A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about Wassailing at a friend’s orchard; since then, I’ve done wassailings each year and have built this as an important part of my yearly cycle as a druid.

 

Abundant harvests of apples!

Abundant harvests of apples!

Since learning about wassailing, I’ve grown interested in tracking down other kinds of tree and land blessings for abundant harvests, especially those taking place in January. I have uncovered some small tidbits that suggested that Native American tribes here in the the Northeastern USA offered maple blessings to ensure a long maple sap flow for the coming year in the dark winter months, however, I haven’t found any of the details of these ceremonies or when exactly they were held.  Also, I have recently gotten word of a few other ceremonies. One of my blog readers, John Wilmott, reports that in Scotland up into the 1980’s, January 6th was “herring and tattles” day, where the nets of the fishing communities are smeared with gravy and mashed potatoes and herring are flung into the sea; afterwards, people bless themselves through dancing. This isn’t a tree blessing per say, but is a sea blessing for those who depend on the sea for their sustenance (in the same way an oak tree blessing would be used by an acorn-dependent culture).

 

Today’s post looks at tree blessings from this broad perspective. Given the importance of treecrops and harvests of all kinds, I suspect that these tree blessings were once very common in many cultures, but obviously, many haven’t survived till the present day. However, the druid tradition offers some insights for those of us wanting to reconnect with our trees and do tree blessings. I thought that given the time of the year, I’d share a few ways that we can go about blessing trees this January!  So in this post I’ll cover both how to do a traditional wassail for apple trees, and also share a general blessing that can be adapted for nut-bearing trees, sap-bearing trees, fruit-bearing trees or general trees upon the landscape. But first, we’ll delve into a bit of why tree blessings are so important through exploring perennial agriculture and history.

 

Treecrops and Tree Blessings

Why we bless the trees is the same reason we bless many other things–to ensure prosperity, health, and abundant harvests.  While these blessings many seem like quaint celebrations now, simply nostalgic remembering and honoring of an old tradition, it is important to understand just how critical trees–and treecrops–were for human survival. In the time before factory farms and supermarkets, humans depended intimately on trees for clean beverages, nutrient and calorie dense foods, and foods that stored well for the winter months.

 

Treecrops offer humans enormous harvests for very little input; they can support both hunter/gatherer types societies as well as supplement agriculturally-based ones. Treecrops are simple to grow–you plant and tend the tree, or, better yet, you find the tree in the wild and honor it and harvest from it. Compare this to traditional agriculture, which requires a tremendous amount of input: hoeing/tilling the ground, planting the seeds, tending young seedlings, watering and ensuring adequate soil, dealing with pests, harvesting, putting the food by for darker months, and saving the seeds, all to do it again at the start of the next season. Treecrops and other perennial crops don’t require all of this input; they don’t require us to till up the ground each year (disrupting the soil web); they don’t require us to water or fertilize (as long as we maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem). This is part of why permaculture design focuses so much on perennial agriculture (nuts, berries, perennial greens) as opposed to annual crops. Some fruit trees do benefit from pruning of course, but any visit to a wild or abandoned orchard will tell you that apples have no problems producing without our tending!  This is all to say that trees give of themselves freely, without asking much in return. It is no wonder that so many ancient peoples, from all around the world, have honored them.

 

Many cultures survived on treecrops as staple foods or supplemented their diets heavily with them: here in Pennsylvania,  for example, according to an old manual from the PA Forestry Department from 1898, a full 25% of our forests were chestnut before the blight, with another 25% in oak and 10% in walnut. That’s 60% of our forests in perennial nut crops that offered high calorie, abundant, starch and protein. This is not by accident, but rather, by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans, who used these nuts as their staple food crops.

 

In fact, many “acorn eating” and “acorn dependent” cultures were slowly driven out by colonization here in the US; however, acorns and other nut crops remain a critical food source for wildlife (and wild food foragers, like yours truly).  As a wild food forager, I can’t speak highly enough of the abundance of these treecrops.  Once you start harvesting nuts as part of your food stuffs, you grow to quickly appreciate how crazy abundant trees are in certain years–even with harvesting only once a week and leaving most for wildlife, I was able to harvest sacks of apples, hickories, walnuts, and acorns and enjoy them all winter long.

 

Acorns

Acorns

Two other tidbits about these treecrops. Sugar maple, and other sugary trees (birch, even walnut) also offered a fresh source of drinkable and pure liquid and also offer one of the only sweeteners available (other than robbing a beehive, which is not exactly a pleasant encounter!). So they, too, were blessed by native peoples. Finally, apple was introduced by colonizers from Europe, and in that culture, represented opportunity both for fermentation into alcohol and for fresh eating for winter storage. Johnny Appleseed wasn’t just spreading those apples across the US for fresh eating–rather, hard cider was what was on the mind of him and many others as the apple took root here in the US.  And with the apple came, of course, the apple orchard blessing.

 

We can see from some of the above is that treecrops are a critical staple both for Europeans and European settlers living in temperate climates as well as for traditional hunter/gatherer cultures (and for many wild food foragers and homesteaders today). Treecrops offer tremendous staples in any diet and are very worthy of blessing for an abundant harvest.  These dietary blessings are in addition to the trees’ ability provide warmth and shelter in nearly any situation!

 

The Timing of Tree Blessings in January

Like many things shrouded in long-standing tradition, the origin of the timing of these tree blessings, of various sorts, is not entirely clear, although most often, they take place either on January 6th or January 17th.

 

I have a theory from my own experience, however, and I’ll share it here. With exceptions like mulberry, nearly all treecrops have really good storage capacity, some six months or longer, enough to see you through a long and dark winter.  Apples, walnuts, acorns, pears–these all store extremely well, allowing people to make it through the cold dark months.  When these folks are watching their fruit and root cellars grow smaller and smaller, and those blessed apples and nuts are still there, storing well and filling the belly, it is no wonder that the tree blessings emerged in the darkest and coldest months of the year.

 

Another reason (and one commonly given) for the timing of Wassail in January is that this is also the same season in which pruning was done (as trees need to be pruned while they are dormant).  So while you are in your orchard anyways, it is a good time to honor the trees with a little wassail!

 

A final reason might have to do with the timing of cider fermentation–apple cider takes some time, and if you are pressing it and fermenting it around Samhuinn, it is likely ready to bottle and drink by early January; a perfect time to begin the cycle of harvesting again for the upcoming year.

 

The timing of these blessings has a few derivations.  Wassail takes place either on January 5th or 6th (the 12th night from the Winter Solstice) or January 17th (as is the custom in some places in south-western England and here in the USA).  Most of the literature on the surviving custom in the Southern Parts of England talk about this ceremony being done on January 17th specifically.  Both of these dates are called “old 12th night” by various sources. I would suspect, also, that the Native American tradition of blessing the maples comes around this period–as blessings are likely to precede a harvest (and the harvest of maple sap starts in mid-February at the earliest).

 

Given all of this, I’d like to propose that January seems like a very good time for all kinds tree blessings, especially for our fruit, nut, and sugar trees. Now that we’ve got some sense of the treecrops and blessings as well as timing and importance, I’m going to share two different blessings here that you can use on treecrops.

 

Wassail (Waes-Hael) for Apples and Pears

I’m going to share the details of the Waes Hael first, because we will use some of the key features of this surviving tree blessing ritual in the othe ritual I’ll present.

 

A good harvest of wild apples

A good harvest of wild apples

The wassail tradition, coming from Anglo Saxon “waes-hael” means good health.  There are actually a series of related traditions surrounding apples and their beverages that are called wassail. Wassailing, in general, took place on either on New Years or all of the 12 days of Christmas.  A drink was placed in a large “wassail bowl” containing mulled cider, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, sometimes cream, sometimes baked apples, and other things. This drink was brought around to others for their good health during the New Year (its where we get the song, “Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wassailing, So fair to be seen…”).

 

This same drink and bowl made their way into the Apple Orchard for the Apple Wassail (and in some cases, Wassail was also done for pear trees with perry, or fermented pear cider). The tree blessing ceremony, Apple Wassailing, which is centered around apple trees and focuses on blessing the orchard for abundant crops in the coming year. The goals of this ceremony, as passed in the traditional lore, are to awaken the trees, to drink to their health, and to scare away evil spirits which may interfere with a good harvest.  As in many old customs, there are many parts to the ceremony and a lot of derivation depending on what sources or places you are talking about.   Here is one version:

 

Supplies needed: mulled cider (wassail) in a wassail bowl; mugs; toast; noisemakers/drums

 

The Ritual:

1.  One tree is selected to receive the blessing for the orchard.  This is usually a large, old, or otherwise dominant tree with space to move about it, branches that people can reach, and accessible roots.

2.  People gather around the tree with noisemakers (drums, buckets to pound on, etc).   The first wassail song can be sung (we never knew any melodies for them so we made them up!)

3.  Cider is ceremoniously poured from the steaming wassail bowl into each participant’s cup.

4.  Participants pour an offering of cider from each of their cups on the roots of the tree and then drink to the tree’s good health.

5.  Participants bless the tree with an offering of toast, dipping toast in their mugs and then hanging the pieces of toast from the tree’s branches. Alternatively, a King and Queen are chosen, the king offers the queen his mug, she dips the toast in the mug, and then hangs the toast on the branches of the tree.)

6.  More wassail songs are sung.

7.  A lot of noise is made around the trees to scare away the evil spirits that may be lurking there.

In some traditions, the trees are also beat to ensure a good harvest.  I wrote about tree beatings a bit in my post on Walnut (and I will write about them again in my upcoming post about the sacred apple tree). Beating trees (which obviously damages them) can force the tree to bear more fruit as it is damaged and wants to produce more offspring.  Beating apple trees at certain times of the year also forced them to set fruit faster.  As a druid, I absolutely do not advocate the beating of trees (you can see my response below under the tree blessings).

8.  The official ceremony is over, and people may enjoy a potluck with apple-themed ingredients (at least, that’s how we did it in Michigan!)

 

There are a few key aspects of this ritual I’d like to point out, for we’ll see them again in the more general rituals I’m proposing. First is the selection of a single tree that receives–and radiates outward–the blessing to all other trees.  This is important (for, after all, it is hard to bless each tree in the whole forest!) The second is a specially-prepared offering (ideally from its own fruit but lovingly crafted by human hands).  The third is raising energy through sounds around the tree to drive off any evil. Finally, there is this extremely long-standing tradition of beating trees, which I think we should mitigate in any blessing ritual.

 

Druid’s Winter Tree Blessing (With Variants for Oak/Nut Trees and Maple)

This is what we are looking for!

This is what we are looking for!

I think we can adapt the Wassail to bless many other kinds of trees in much the same way, also drawing from the druid tradition.  Here is an alternative blessing ritual that could be used for a variety of crops (I’m offering some variants here for those of you who would like to bless other fruit trees, other nut trees, sap-offering trees, or any trees).

 

Opening. Open a sacred space (I would use the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening or the OBOD’s Grove Opening for this).  This helps establish the energies for the ritual and really should be included.  If you are including the Energetic Blessing, including the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (as part of the Solitary Grove opening)  or some other way of invoking the three currents at the start of this ritual is a wise idea (you can learn the AODA”s SOP from John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook or Druid Magic Handbook).

 

Honoring. After the space is opened, honor the trees with a simple blessing that establishes the intentions of the ceremony.  If you have poetry that is specific to those trees, it would be well to use it.  If not, a simple blessing like this one would work:

“Trees of life, of bounty, of peace, and of wisdom
Strong in your growth, your branches shelter us
Deep in your roots, you hold fast the soil of life
Many are your leaves, to share breath with us
Abundant are your [fruits, sap, nuts], that remove our hunger
Wise in your knowledge,  your teachings guide us
Quiet in your growth, you bring us the sun
Today, we are here to honor you
Today, we offer you blessings for the coming year
Today, we wish you long life, health, and abundance!”

For maples: You might add the following line:
“Oh maple tree, may your sap flow strong and sweet!”

For Oaks, you might add the following:
“Oh mighty oak, may your nuts rain down upon us!”

Make Offerings of Bread and Wine.  Offer the trees bread and some kind of fermented beverage. In the tradition of the Wassail, if these are home baked and home brewed, I believe it would be most effective. For fruit trees, offer toast with some fruit preparation (fruit fermented into wine or fruit jam); for nut trees, consider an acorn-nut bread (see Sam Thayer’s Nature’s Garden for more on harvesting and preparation). For maples, consider offering toast with maple syrup on it.

 

Make your offerings to the tree, much like the wassail ritual (pouring offerings into each participants’ cup and then letting them offer them at the roots) and offer the bread to the tree’s branches.

 

Radiate an Energetic Blessing. In one of my earlier posts on land healing, I described “energy” from the druid revival tradition, explaining the three currents (Solar, Telluric, and Lunar).  Here, I would suggest using words, movement, and visualzation to invoke these currents and radiate this blessing out to the land (those AODA members practicing the SOP should find this quite familiar):

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s trunk above you in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in orange light. Say, “We call upon the solar current and the radiant energy of the celestial heavens. May a ray of the solar current descend and bless these trees with the fire of the sun!”  All participants should envision a golden ray coming down from the celestial heavens, through the tree, into its roots.

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s roots in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in purple light.  Say, “We call upon the telluric current and the healing energy of the deep earth.  May a ray of the telluric current rise and bless these trees with the blessing of the heart of the earth!”  All participants should envision a green/gold ray arising from the heart of the earth and filling the tree with green/gold light.

 

All participants should visualizing the solar and telluric currents mingling within the tree.  Say, “We call upon the lunar current, the Awen, to radiate outward and bless this [forest/orchard].  With our blessing, may these trees grow heavy with [fruits/nuts] and be healthy this year!”  All participants should touch the tree and envision a glowing sphere of white light radiating outward from the tree to the whole forest.

 

End in Music, Drumming, or Song. You might end your ceremony with additional music, drumming, or singing for the benefit of the trees.

 

Close Your Space. Close out your ritual space.

 

Hug the tree. To mitigate the many tree beatings over the years, I would suggest ending the ritual after you’ve closed the space by giving the tree a hug.  Such a fitting ending to mitigate the many beatings that walnut, apple, and likely others faced to offer humans fruit.

 

Closing

I hope that this post was helpful for those of you considering doing a January tree blessing of some sort or another!  If you do these ceremonies, please write in and let me know how they go for you. Also, if anyone has any more information on tree blessings from other cultures (especially for abundance), I would love for you to share them here in the comments.  Finally, this year, a number of AODA members are wassailing all over the Americas on January 17th–we would love to have you join us.   Find out more in the AODA Forums on this thread. Blessings of January upon each of you!

 

Wild Food Recipe: Autumn Olive Fruit Leather at the Equinox September 21, 2016

I can’t get enough of autumn olives. I wrote about them, honoring them, around this time last year and shared my autumn olive jelly recipe. In my area, the sacred time of the equinox is the sacred time to go out and gather–it is just when they start getting really tasty and ready to harvest in large quantity!  This year, I introduced a number of new friends to them, and we gorged ourselves eating handfuls of them for hours.  I wanted to share, today, my favorite recipe for these delightful treats–a fruit leather recipe!

Autumn Olive Close up

Autumn Olive, Close up

So, let’s just start by saying that Autumn Olive is awesome, and it is certainly one of our first responder plants–fixing nitrogen in the soil, bringing health and fertility back to the land, providing nectar and habitat, and perhaps most awesomely, producing bountiful tasty berries that are high in lycopene and delicious.  I know some people crab about it, but that’s not the subject of this post–instead, we are here to celebrate Autumn Olive’s awesomeness with another recipe.

 

A few words of advice on harvesting–different bushes ripen at slightly different times, and may have smaller or larger fruits. They also have slightly different flavors–taste your way around bushes, if you have options, and find the ones that have abundance and excellent flavor. Usually, the harvest window on these is a few weeks, up to a month, if you have access to a lot of bushes. I have more details on harvesting and finding them in my earlier post.

Amazing Autumn Olive in the Equinox Afternoon Sun!

Amazing Autumn Olive in the Equinox Afternoon Sun! Oh beautiful, bountiful one!

Autumn Olive Fruit Leather

For this fruit leather recipe, you want to get at least 8 or so cups of autumn olives (not hard most years).  Look for trees that have extra juicy and abundant berries–if you look around, you will likely find enough. The nice thing is that this recipe has one ingredient (or two, if you want to add some honey) so you don’t really need to measure anything.

Ingredients:

  • Autumn Olives (fresh and rinsed)
  • Small amount of water
  • Honey (if desired; makes sweeter)

Note that this fruit leather recipe works for any fruit–you may have different ways of processing your fruit (removing seeds, pits, etc) but essentially you need cooked (or pureed raw) fruit and optional sweetener.  It really is that easy!

 

Making Your Fruit Leather: Step by Step

Preparing the autumn olives. You are going to start out by “garbling” your autumn olives. This means you want to make sure there aren’t little spiders, or bugs, or something that isn’t autumn olive in with your mix.  Also pull out any leaves, etc, that might have gotten harvested.  As part of the garbling, I like to give them a rinse and save any little bugs who accidentally got harvested.

Autumn olives after harvesting

Autumn olives after harvesting – like little gems waiting to be eaten

Now, add your autumn olives to a pot and start mashing.  You will likely need to add a bit of water (I added about 1/2 a cup for my 8 or so cups of autumn olives) to get a good mash and make sure they don’t burn.  As they cook, they mash easily.  Here’s a photo after about 5 min of cooking.

Cook them and mash them!

Cook and mash!

As you cook and mash, stir frequently to prevent burning.  You’ll see that as they cook, they turn really opaque and creamy.  Eventually, you’ll end up with some autumn olive puree, that will look like this.

Autumn Olive Puree

Autumn Olive Puree – finger lickin’ delicious!

It doesn’t matter if they are 100% mashed–what I have above is fine for the food mill that I own.

At this point, you will want to let it cool a bit and then remove the seeds.  The best way to remove the seeds is with a small food mill. You can find these readily at thrift stores, garage sales, and the like. Here’s mine in action.

Food mill taking out the seeds

Food mill taking out the seeds

The nice thing about cooking is that it kills the seeds, so you don’t have to worry about thousands of autumn olives coming up in your compost pile. After you have processed all the autumn olive (which takes maybe 5-10 min) you can then add any sweetening agents you’d like.  I find that honey and autumn olive go perfectly together.  In this case, I had some amazing early season honey that was actually made from autumn olives and I added this.  Talk about full circle!  Wow!

Early spring autumn olive honey!

Early spring autumn olive honey.  I can’t believe this survived a whole year of me eating it.

I added honey to taste–for my batch, about 4 tablespoons took the edge off the tartness and added delightful sweetness. To incorporate the honey, the mixture should still be warm (or you can warm it up again on the stove, but stir frequently!)

Transfer the mixture to some dehydrator trays.  Sometimes it can stick, which you can address by slightly greasing the trays (although it will come off).  Wax paper doesn’t’ work nearly as well, and if it dries out too much, can get really stuck on there permanently.

Ready to dehydrate!

Ready to dehydrate – don’t spill your trays!

Then, you dehydrate till the water is gone–typically, somewhere around 24 hours depending on your dehydrator.  You could also do this in the oven on the lowest setting with the oven door slightly cracked.

Autumn olive fruit leather is super flavorful and amazing.  I like to take little bits of it out on the trail with me and eat it with nuts, etc.  It stores well for over a year in a simple mason jar (cool, dark place).  I hope you enjoy this recipe–and happy foraging!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Hawthorn (Lore, medicine, magic, and mystery) October 30, 2015

Hawthorn branches and leaves

Hawthorn branches and leaves

In honor of Samhuinn, a festival of beginnings and endings, today we’ll explore the most sacred of trees–the hawthorn. This is the 6th post in my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series where I examine abundant trees in the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the USA, exploring their many qualities: physical, magical, herbal, mythological, and so on.  Previous posts have include Eastern Hemlock, American Beech, Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar, and Hickory.  Each of these posts takes 20-30 hours to research and write, not to mention the countless hours I spend with the trees to understand them and share their stories as best I can.  And now friends, let’s enter the forest and visit the hawthorn.

 

There are few trees quite so enigmatic in either western herbalism practice or contemporary druidry as the sacred hawthorn—and this is the first of the sacred trees of the Americas series that is included in the traditional Ogham, although I want to add to our knowledge of this tree.  With its small, tart berries, its lovely white or pink flowers, and its thorny, protective trunk, this is a tree that has woven its way into the hearts and tales in many parts of the world.  And certainly, its  a tree that has much power during this sacred time.

 

I remember when I was a child, running through the hawthorn grove behind my house. Hawthorns here in Pennsylvania, as in many forests, function as under-story trees, so they would grow in the second layer of the forest—and the forest in parts was thick with them. We would gather apples from the crab-apple on the hill, and place them in the thorns of the hawthorns as “offerings” to the trees so that they could let us pass into the forest, which we believe was another realm. We would gather the thorns and stick them into the mud or in the sand in our sandbox to create mini groves of thorny trees, a wonderland of its own. It’s amazing to me now, in studying the ancient lore of the hawthorn tree, how our instincts and intuition as children are often right.

 

As an adult, I would be thrilled to come across a hawthorn in full fruit, ready and waiting for a harvest.  Just as I was a child, I would first leave an offering in that tree’s thorns (an apple, a piece of bread, a song on my flute) and then pick the haws (fruit) from the tree or the ground—they are ready when they give freely, and they drop when you pick them. Many trees, when you work with them, bestow some of their gifts just from being near them, from harvesting from them, from breathing them in or sitting next to them. Hawthorn has always had this effect on me—when I was heartbroken, harvesting flowers and then preparing them simply soothed my aching heart. Come with me now, into the grove of the Hawthorn tree!

Hawthorn tree in early summer

Hawthorn tree in early summer

 

About Hawthorn (Physical)

Hawthorns (Crataegus spp) have many folk names including thorn, thornapple, may-tree, whitethorn, quickthorn, mayblossom, hagthorn, hedgethorn, quickset, hawberry, halve, bread and cheese tree, Huath, lady’s meat, may bush, tree of chastity.  According to Grieve’s herbal, “quick” terms come from its ability to quickly grow; the “hedgethorn” name comes from its ability to produce effective hedges (more below), and whitethorn from its light coloring. The Latin word for the tree, crataegus, comes from the Greek kratos hardness (of the wood) and akis sharp, suggesting these trees have sharp, strong thorns. Hawthorn trees are a whole range of sub-species that usually have slightly different bloom and berry ripening times; nearly all are used interchangeably in herbalism and magical practice.  Its range spans most of North America and is likewise found in Asia and throughout Europe.  Not all varieties are trees—some are rather large shrubs—the ones that make good hedges.  All of the, however, have their enigmatic thorns—the secret to both the medicine and magic of the hawthorn tree.

 

Hawthorn trees are an important part of the ecosystem, being a nectary for insects in the spring and providing food and shelter for many birds and mammals.  Because the haws are a very late-dropping fruit and some may remain on the trees even into the winter, thrushes and cedar waxwings will eat them and spread the berries through their droppings.  Certain moths and butterflies feed exclusively on the nectar and leaves of the hawthorn tree.

 

Hawthorn has long been a hedge plant; the German word for Hawthorn is Hagedorn; haw is also an older word for hedge. Hawthorn, especially in the UK, was planted heavily in hedges for boundaries to fields; while it was used throughout the ages for this purpose, in the 18th and 19th century with new fencing laws, the hedges grew even more prominent. It was from these hedges, full of medicinal and magical plants, that the “hedge witch” term derives. In terms of human uses of hawthorn, it has a very hard and rot resistant wood, and so in the US, it was used frequently for fence posts and handles, even in some cases for wood engravings and carvings.  M. Grieve reports that hawthorn root wood also has a fine grain and finishes well—so the root wood is used for decorative boxes and combs. Charcoal of hawthorn is so fine that it was apparently used in pig iron furnaces for the creation of “coke” for making steel—although given the strong prohibitions against cutting or burning it, I’m surprised that anyone would use it for charcoal!

 

Example of hawthorn rust

Example of hawthorn rust

One of the physical problems that hawthorns have in the USA (especially those where I lived in Michigan) had was Rust (cedar/apple rust blight).  This rust was carried by Eastern Red Cedar (juniper) trees and was transmitted to any apples or hawthorns in the area, sometimes being fatal.  I haven’t seen rust impacting the hawthorns here, but I noticed many of them dying off in the immediate area—older hawthorns of a dwarf variety all dead in one season—so I’m not sure what is going on.  It is worrisome.

 

A final use of a hawthorn tree is that of a rootstock or graft for other related cultivars—primarily for quince, pear, or medlar. From a permaculture design standpoint, this is wonderful to know, because you could end up with a hawthorn tree that also has pear, medlar, and quice grafts—what an abundant opportunity!

 

Harvesting Hawthorn

For medicine making, the flowers and leaves can harvested, along with the berries.  Of course, if you harvest the flowers, there won’t be berries, so there is always a choice to make! You can use a pair of scissors or just your hands to harvest leaves and flowers. Do realize that many hawthorns, especially in their flower stage, are home to a variety of insect life.  Shake the branches and check the flowers and leaves carefully before drying them, tincturing them, etc.  Let the life that lives on the flowers stay outside to gain the hawthorn’s blessing!

 

Later in the season, the hawthorn berries  ripen—depending on the cutivar, either rin September or October (if there are many hawthorn trees around, you’ll be able to harvest for 1-2 months straight from different trees!) Hawthorns, like apples, give of their haws (fruit) when they are ready—when you lightly tug on the haw and it is ripe, it will come easily from the tree, and likely others with it. If you tug on the haw and you get resistance, come back later, and the fruit will be ready. Or it may be all on the ground, which is a fine place also to gather it up. When they are perfectly ripe, they start dropping to the ground in quantity. When harvesting haws, there are all shapes and sizes – larger ones almost crab apple sized and tiny ones no bigger than the tip of your pinky finger.  Hawthorns can come in red (most common),  yellow and black (least common) varieties.

 

A hawthorn loaded for harvesting! (This one was very friendly!)

A hawthorn loaded for harvesting! (This one was very friendly!)

In terms of harvesting, some hawthorn trees are more “friendly” than others, meaning they have less thorns on the branches.  I’ve met trees who simply aren’t interested in being harvested by humans—they have lots of thorns on the branches and stick you with them when you reach in.  Better to find a nicer hawthorn tree—many are quite personable if you give them an apple or something as an offering!

 

After harvesting, check your hawthorn berries for worms. Hawthorn berries often have small worms in them (again depends on the tree), so I find its easiest to use a masher (like a sauerkraut masher, a solid wooden one) on a wooden cutting board.  I smash open the berry with a gentle tap, see if there are worms inside, remove the seeds ,and then dry it or tincture it or whatever.  If there are wormy bits, I simply remove them and use the rest of the seed.  You do want to remove the seed of the berry for sure—the seeds, like the seeds of apples and cherries, contain cyanide.

 

Grieve reports that the fruits have names other than “haws” – she lists “pixie pears,” “cuckoo’s beads,” and “chucky cheeses” (who would have known that the pizza joint was named after the hawthorn tree? The things you learn studying herbalism and magical plants!)

 

Hawthorn in Herbalism

Culpepper notes that hawthorn is a tree of Mars. He also suggests that a distilled water of the flowers “stays the lax” (translation = keeps leprosy away) and will draw out thorns or splinters.   If the seeds are bruised and boiled in wine, its good for “inward pains” (pretty self-explanatory).  Gotta love Culpepper!

 

Physcial heart healing: More modern knowledge of western herbalism recognizes that Hawthorn is one of the greatest herbs anywhere on the planet for use in healing the heart—both physically and emotionally. Hawthorn functions as a troporestorative, that is, it has long-term restorative benefits to the heart and circulatory system when taken over time—it heals the heart and helps it function better.  Unlike many traditional remedies, hawthorn has a wide variety of study from aleopathic (modern) medicine, so the uses are backed up by scientific study. It is used for high blood pressure, where it relaxes tension and helps dilate the blood vessels to allow blood to flow more freely.  It strengthens the heartbeat and aids in smoothing out the rhythm of the heart. The berries are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant.

 

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn – here’s my masher!

Sore Throats and inflammation: Flowers and berries are astringent, according to M. Grieve, and therefor useful in a decoction for sore throats (especially the wet, goopy, inflamed ones, given hawthorn’s anti-inflammatory powers).

 

Soothing Hot Excesses: Hawthorn has a potent nervine effect of calming the heart and soothing hot excesses. Herbalist David Winston uses hawthorn for ADHD clients to help calm down a bit as he illustrates that hawthorn calms the spirit. Herbalist Sean Donohue uses it for stress induced asthma.  In each of these cases, we see hawthorn having a calming effect on the nerves and the heart.  Overall, Hawthorn is a mood brightener and mood lifter.  In his Cherokee Herbal, Garret reports that the Cherokee likewise used hawthorn as a relaxant.

 

Emotional heart healing: On the emotional and spiritual side, hawthorn is a great herb for heart healing. Herbalist Jim McDonald also uses it to help people establish their own emotional space. As Jim McDonald has discussed, about anytime that you’ve had heartbreak—you can literally feel your heart hurt, and wounded, and as part of this to prevent further hurt, you close up/constrict yourself and are unwilling to open yourself again. Hawthorn helps us heal from this kind of emotional damage—we can see this in the tree itself, who offers its medicine freely but also creates a protective space with its thorns.  Hawthorn, therefore, provides an energetic/etheric protection to the heart and helps us establish our own space.

 

Hawthorn is a wonderful tree to help with heart guarding or heart healing.  You can use this energetically or physically. According to Jim McDonald, it can be as simple as carrying a bag of haws with you or rubbing tincture on your heart.  It can be a daily ritual or affirmation and can help you connect with your intentions.  You can use it for emotional issues, emotional body army, emotional overprotection. David Winston says that Hawthorn calms the heart and spirit, especially calming the spirit when the spirit is easily affected by what is around a person (because of this, he uses it to treat ADHD/ADD).

 

In terms of making medicine from hawthorn, the most complete medicine is a combination of flowers, leaves, and berries in a tincture; you can also make decoctions of berries; tea with leaves; tincture; herbal vinegar; glycerate; elixir; hydrosol (flowers); syrup; and food (conserves, jellies, jams).

 

  • Teas: To create teas (infusions and decoctions) from the hawthorn, use the leaves and flowers or de-seeded berries.  For a strong medicine, pour boiling water over the leaves and flowers, seep for 10-20 min, and drink (with honey, if you’d like!).  For the berries, bring water to a boil, add berries, and boil covered for at least 20 min (depending on if they are whole or smashed prior to drying).
  • Syrups: Chop of hawthorn and cover with 1 quart of water. Boil this for an hour or so, then strain the berries.  Boil it down to 1 cup, then add your choice of sweetener (honey, maple syrup).
  • Elixirs: Tincture in brandy with honey or maple syrup; Elixirs as concentrated as a typical tincture
  • Paste: Hawthorn berry powder can be made into paste or pastilles with a bit of honey.  Spread it, ball it up and eat it, however you’d like!
  • Hawthorn Schnapps: Tincture of fresh berries in lower-proof vodka (80proof) for an enjoyable beverage!
  • A pregnancy infusion for preeclampsia: hawthorn, nettle, raspberry leaf, and oat straw: this functions as a troporestorative for the liver and can be used as early as the 1st trimester.

 

Hawthorn and New England Aster and Cauliflower Mushroom all harvested on the same day

Hawthorn and New England Aster and Cauliflower Mushroom all harvested on the same day

Hawthorn in Legend and Lore

Native American Lore

In this series, one of my main goals was to examine how trees, like hawthorn, work in the North American context.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be found in the Native American literature on the hawthorn (which is surprising, given how prominent this plant is in most other parts of the world where it grows.)  One of the few stories I could find was a Chippewa legend, “Why Porcupine has Quills” where porcupine is being hunted by bear, and he needs some defenses. He takes hawthorn branches and places them on his back, and when Bear came to eat him, Bear was pricked by the thorns and went along his way. Nanabozho, a trickster god, witnessed what happened and was impressed with Porcupine’s tricking of Bear. He took hawthorn branches and thorns and peeled them so they were white, then put some clay on Porcupine’s back and added the thorns. Ever after, Porcupine was protected from those that would eat him, like Wolf or Bear. In another tale, a Senaca legend, a bird (personified as a woman) is in search of her mate. She sings to men along a riverbank, and eventually settles on seeds to eat. In this story, Hawthorn is what is eaten by the bear, her second suitor.

 

The only theme I gather from these stories is the “protective” role that hawthorn plays, which we certainly see physically as well as medicinally in the plant. When we examine the lore in other parts of the world, particularly the British Isles, a more elaborate picture emerges.

 

Hawthorn in Celtic Lore

Hawthorn as a Gateway to the OtherworldIn the lore of many tales specific to the Celtic Isles, hawthorn is a gateway tree; that which holds a doorway between our realm and the fairy realm. This is clearly discussed throughout the lore and literature. One such example (of many) comes from Sir Samuel Ferguson’s “The Fairy Tree,” where a group of maidens sneak out to dance on a hill with the hawthorn (the fairy tree), ashes, and rowans. They slow down and quickly fall asleep and are enchanted, “For, from the air above, the grassy ground beneath, and from the mountain-ashes and the old Whitehorn between, a Power of faint enchantment doth through their beings breathe, and they sink down together on the green.” The fairies come to visit them (and I’m not talking about Walt Disney fairies here), and one of their number, Anna Grace, is taken away and never seen again.

 

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

The Magic of Sleep: As the above story describes, Hawthorn has the power to put people to sleep.  This is explicated in another story, The King of Ireland’s Son by Padric Colum from 1916.  In this story, the King of Ireland’s son is in love with a woman, Fedelma.  At one point in the story after her love, the King of Ireland’s son falls asleep and will not awaken, she asks the King of the Land of Mist to pluck a hawthorn branch and put her to sleep as well—she does this, and for part of the story, she stays asleep as long as the hawthorn branch is with her.

 

The Gateways of the Seasons: Hawthorn, along with another very sacred tree, Rowan or Mountain Ash, flowers traditionally somewhere around May 1st (or a bit later, for those that live in colder climates) and its berries ripen and fall sometime in mid to late October.   This puts the power of the hawthorn tree near two critical Celtic festivals: Beltane, the festival of fertility in the Spring and Samhuinn, the festival of the final harvest, the new year, when its berries fall.   Normal Lockyer (1909) makes note of the connection of these trees to Beltane and Samhuinn in Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered. In the story of Thomas the Rhymer (as told by Donald Alexander Mackenzie in 1917 in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend), the Fairy Queen comes when the “milk white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour.”

 

A Fairy Tree and the Cutting of the Thorn.  As the stories above suggest, the Hawthorn is strongly associated with the fairy, and is said to be their tree.  Plucking one, or cutting one, is very liable to garner their wrath—not a good idea in the slightest. In the story  In the poem “The Fairy Well of Laganay” bu Samuel Ferguson, the speaker is in deep mourning and says, “I’ll go awawy to Sleamish hill, I’ll pluck the fairy hawthorn-tree, and let the spirits work their will, so they but lay the memory, which all my heart is haunting still!”

 

In a connected tale, in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde (1887) Wilde tells a tale called “The Fairies’ Revenge” where a wealthy farmer buys some land and builds his house on a fairy hill; he cuts the hawthorn tree on that hill and incurs the fairies wrath.  The fairies begin to harass their only son, and eventually, he dies and the farmer is ruined.  The house slowly returns to the land, and the fairies dance there once more.  In a second story, Lady Fancesca discusses the hawthorn again, “Their favorite camp and resting-place is under a hawthorn tree, and a peasant would die sooner than cut down one of the ancient hawthorns sacred to the fairies, and which generally stands at the center of a fairy ring.”

 

A Tree of The Heart: Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde also  describes a traditional Irish Wedding.  In that Wedding, the bride and groom meet with guests in a field under a large hawthorn tree covered in colored fabric and with rush candles in the branches.  This heart connection can be seen woven all through the medicine and magic of the hawthorn tree.

Hawthorns form a gateway

Hawthorns form a gateway

Revival Druidry & Magical Alphabets: Coelbren and Ogham

I would be remiss if I didn’t look to the Hawthorn Tree in the druid tradition. In Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas (1862), Iolo presents a magical alphabet called the Coelbren of the Bards, derived from Welsh and a wooden frame called a pillwydd which the letters can be carved into.  One of the trees Iolo suggests is Hawthorn.  (For more information on the Coelbren of the Bards, see John Michael Greer’s article in Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Volume II).

 

Hawthorn, or Huath, represents the letter H in the traditional Celtic Ogham.  Numberous interpretations of the hawthorn exist—let’s take a look at two of them.  In the Druidry Handbook, John Michael Greer describes the hawthorn.  His upright meaning for it includes, “Patience, reserve, retreat.  A time of waiting and planning rather than action.  Obstacles that can be overcome.  Success after a delay. Temporary obstacles.”  Reversed, it’s the opposite, “Inappropriate action, rushing ahead when patience and planning are called for.  A risk of failure.  You need to stop and reconsider” (p. 82).  In both of these cases, we see hawthorn being connection to either the right timing, overcoming obstacles, or taking the action at the wrong time.  The Greek concept of “kairos” which is summed up “right time, right place” comes to mind here.  Hawthorn gives us messages of the heart, and if we can listen to our hearts, we know when the right (or wrong) time to act is.

 

In a second book, Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires also describes the hawthorn in detail.  His discussion of the ancient lore on the Ogham from the Book of Ballymore links the hawthorn (whitethorn) to a pack of “meet of hounds” that is “formidable owing to its thorns” (44).  Blamires also notes that the letter H in Galeic grammar is neither consonant or vowel, but functions to strengthen other letters. Cuchulain, the great hero of the Ulester Cycle, provides his own list, indicating that hawthorn is “difficult night” (47) and a whitening of the face.  Blamires, in his own interpretation, suggests that Hawthorn not be invoked during magical work, but rather that it be used as a “warning to the magician to prepare for something about to happen” which might be backlash for some kind of action(111). His interpretations stem from the idea that the thorns of the hawthorn, along with the old terminology, suggest that the hawthorn is hostile but can also be defensive in its thorns.  He concludes be suggesting that hawthorn may bring about disruption, but this disruption is temporary and can be put to positive use (113).

 

Numerology

The hawthorn, with its protective thorns, has flowers with five petals (in which a shape of a pentagram can be drawn); the leaves are typically divided into either three or five segments.

 

Abundance

Abundance

My Experiences: In Search of the Hawthorn

My own experiences with hawthorn are a bit…whimsical.  I have found that hawthorn trees generally like to be seen when they are ready.  Northeast of the sacred circle on my former homestead in Michigan is a line of trees; within that line, a hawthorn. I had lived there and worked to establish and maintain the circle for years….only three years after I moved in did I see the hawthorn tree.  Once I saw her, she beams at me radiantly.  I found another hawthorn just across the property line in my neighbor’s yard; it had also been there for some time, but I was only ready to see her when I was ready.

 

For several years, every hawthorn I had visited in my immediate area in Michigan was not blooming and was not bearing fruit due to a rust that was harming the trees.  I had hoped to gather flowers in May to make a tincture and glycerite, but never managed it.  Then, just when I needed it, the hawthorn was there. I remember a fine spring day, not very long ago, when I was making the transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania. Less than 12 hours before I was to leave Michigan, I had received some news that really broke my heart, and I cried on my drive most of the way home (I was visiting my parents before moving into my new home). The morning when I awoke in the home of my childhood, I walked down into the woods, and saw that the hawthorns were in full bloom–huge hawthorns, bigger than any I had ever seen, all covered in their beautiful white flowers. I had been so sad since I had arrived home because of the news. I gathered the flowers later in the day, and that evening, I simply sat with the fresh flowers, picking out the little green bugs and inch worms that had made them their home.  As I sat, I could feel the energy of the hawthorn flowing over me, calming me, and soothing my heart.  It was a transformation–even in the process of making the tinctures, I was amazed in the healing power of those flowers.  Needless to say, I partook of the hawthorn each day after that–it is truly a plant connected to the healing of the heart and also the mystery and magic of the land.

 

My Interpretations

My entry on this tree is longer than some of my others, because it seems that we have two, potentially contradictory aspects of hawthorn showing up in the literature. My experience with individual hawthorn trees is that each unique hawthorn tree has a range of mannerisms—from those that freely give of their haws when you come near to those who stick you repeatedly just from walking by.  The trees with opposite mannerisms might be growing next to each other—I find that when I am out looking for flowers or haws for medicine, the individual temperaments of the trees vary widely.

 

On one side, we have this super-protective, heart healing plant, that is some of the best medicine that we know of for the heart and a plant that, in the Native American lore, also demonstrates protection. On the other hand, we see that it bodes of warnings and things not to be trifled with—the “whitening of the face” and “pack of hounds.” I think both of these are equally true of the hawthorn, and perhaps, represent light and dark sides of this tree, like two sides to a coin.  Hawthorn responds differently depending on how you approach it.  If you ram yourself into a hawthorn, its going to hurt and you aren’t going to get anywhere—and you may wish you never came upon it.  But, if you are mindful, you can can carefully work with it and reap rewards.  If you are true of heart and kind go the land, the hawthorn is likely to be your ally. It’s a tree of mystery and magic, as much as it is a tree that opens the heart. Its defensiveness can be aggressive when warranted, but nurturing when it wants to be.

 

 

Special Thanks:  I want to specifically thank Jim McDonald for sharing his knowledge of this amazing tree.

 

Building Sacred Relationships with Food: Seasonal Food Rituals, Agricultural Blessings, Prayers, and Honoring Our Food May 28, 2015

Modern culture prevents many of us from engaging in a critical part of our human heritage—developing a sacred relationship with food. I’ve talked about developing such a sacred relationship with food on this blog before with regards to growing it and/or foraging it—how gardening allows me to develop a sacred relationship with plants, how seed saving and starting completes that cycle, how wild food foraging and medicine making allow for that connection, and how locally-based seasonal diets can help reconnect us.

 

However, I’m staying with my family for a few weeks before making my official move to PA, and trying to eat as I usually do (locally, seasonally, organically) has presented some serious challenges. The truth is that in poor, rural areas in the USA, organic and local food is simply not as available (or affordable) as it is in the cities or suburbs. In other places, poor areas of cities may also have no access to food. Where my parents live, farmer’s markets are practically non-existent out here, at least that I have been able to find. When I went to purchase some food I can get locally in Michigan, the markup around here was incredible ($12 for a tiny jar of tahini (not organic) compared to a much larger jar of organic tahini for $6 in Michigan, $2 for a single organic orange (compared to a bag of organic oranges for $3.99, $4.99 for gluten free noodles (also not organic) compared to $1.99 organic brown rice noodles, and so on. I was used to paying half of that for these kinds of staples, even in a much more expensive and wealthy area. So, given this situation that I’m seeing here, I’m using this blog post to explore other options for creating a sacred relationship with food that doesn’t have to do with the procurement or purchase of food itself.

 

The question is, what can we do to honor our food if buying local and growing our own food is off the table? This post explores other ways we can use prayer, ritual, and celebration to help bring the sacred back to our food—of any origin.

 

Everyday Prayer and Energy Blessings for Food

Special food created for a feast!

Special food created for a ritual feast!

The tradition of praying over food is used in many religious traditions, and it certainly has a welcome place within earth-based spiritual traditions and druidry. Prayers don’t have to be complex, but taking a moment to honor our food acknowledges the life that was taken (either plant or animal) to eat that meal. I also think that simple prayers can offset the problematic energetics that accompany industrialized foods. Here’s are two simple prayers that I use to honor the food (using the five elements):

 

With the blessing of the earth, I honor the lands that sustained this meal.

With the blessing of the air, I honor the hands that prepared this meal.

With the blessing of fire, I honor the labor that produced this meal.

With the blessing of water, I honor the lives that were given for this meal.

With the blessing of spirit, I wish a safe journey to those who now move on.

In gratitude, love, and peace, I recognize that all are part of the great web of life and that I, too, will one day return.

           

Another simple “prayer” was taught to me by a friend who runs a sustainable living center, Strawbale Studio. She has people of many faiths and traditions visit each month for full moon potlucks and began doing a simple physical energy blessing. Since nothing is said during this prayer, its very appropriate for mixed groups, and it works surprisingly well on its own.

 

Start by rubbing your hands together, generating heat and friction. After a few moments, when you feel your hands tingling, place your hands over the food and send the positive energy that you raised into the food. Then, move your hands outwards to face any others in the room, sending positive energy in their direction. Finally, sweep your hands above your head and circle them down to the earth below to bless the land and all its inhabitants.

 

Food as a blessing to others

A special apple pie, baked for a friend as a housewarming gift!

A special and protective apple pie, baked for a friend as a housewarming gift!  And yes, it was the best pie I ever made!

I like to give others the blessing of an extra special home-cooked meal or beautiful and tasty dish for difficult times or special occasions. This was once a common thing–to bring an elderly or sick neighbor a hot meal, to show up on a new neighbor’s doorstep with freshly baked bread to welcome them, or even to give food as gifts for fiends and family.

I like to continue this tradition as much as possible. Even this simple little gesture really brings a sacredness to the food, showing them that you were willing to cook it, to think of them, to bring it to them.  This kind of food is appreciated so much mroe than normal food–it lends a positive energy to the whole experience.

 

Blessings for the Land – Traditional Ceremonies

Traditional cultures had many blessings for the land—in fact, this is where most of the festivals associated with the Wheel of the Year came from—all had something to do with the crops, the livestock, the harvest, the dark and cold times. But for now, let’s look at some specific ceremonies that anyone can do and that function as land blessings directly tied to our food system and lands that produced them.

 

Many traditions had blessings specific to treecrops and harvests. For example, Native Americans blessed maple trees in the late winter before the sap ran to ensure a good maple sap harvest (given that maple sap was one of their only sources of sugar, it was a very important harvest)! Dancing and erecting a maypole is also a wonderful way of bringing fertility to the surrounding land. In the United Kingdom, Wassail traditions were used to bless apple orchards to encourage bountiful apple harvests—again, apple was a critical crop for both food and drink. This is a tradition that I’ve been blessed to participate in while living in Michigan. Wassail ceremonies can also be adapted more broadly to honor all of the food-bearing plants on the land—and they very much appreciate the positive energy such a ceremony provides!

Part of Wassail Ceremony

Part of Wassail Ceremony

I think there are many places we can draw upon for inspiration to engage in land blessings—and blessing the land that provides our food is a way of honoring that food, that land, and bringing in a sacred awareness of our dependence upon the soil, sunlight, rain, microbial life, plants, bees, and so much more.  Even if you aren’t eating locally, the blessing radiates outward to all life. We can begin to enact them again with our friends, family, and in our communities. This work is powerful, meaningful. The first time we put up a maypole, the land was blessed. The first year we did a wassail, the trees were piled with fruit!

 

But we can also create simple new traditions that honor the land—and by extension—the food we eat. An example of a very simple ceremony is putting out home-cooked food for the land as an offering. I like to put out homebrew (wine or cider) with cakes that I bake especially for the ceremony. This can be done at any point, although you could time it astrologically to make an offering on the full moon (or another auspicious harvest day—any old Farmer’s Almanac will provide all such days for the year). I like to make regular offerings in this way, taking some of the best food I prepare and leaving it as an offering.

 

Truthfully, whether or not you draw upon an ancient tradition like the Wassail or something right out of your head is not important—the important thing is to honor the land from which all of our food flows. I think we have a great opportunity to spread “oak knowledge” by offering such blessings of the land and inviting others to do the same. The land in our world today, at least here in America, often get no such honor.  Through these kinds of celebrations, we can shift our consciousness and recognizing the importance of maintaining a physical and spiritual connection with the natural world upon which our food systems and lives are based.

 

Seasonal Ritual Feasts and Dinners

Feasting and ceremony have a tremendously long history, and using food and the act of partaking in sacred rituals surrounding food goes back before recorded human history—in the USA, of course, Thanksgiving is our traditional ritual feast, honoring our history and seeking to be thankful for what blessings we have been given. Its unsurprising that in this massive age of consumerism, our “giving thanks” and partaking a traditional, seasonal meal has been subsumed in the consumerist hysteria of black Friday.

 

Given this, we can again, draw upon ancient traditions or create our own traditions and rituals surrounding food. For me, at least once a year, I like to hold a ritual dinner, honoring my food, eating in silence, and simply being with it. This is usually done by cooking one of my last harvests of the year, right before I pull out the main part of my garden. I cook all my food from the garden, say prayers, make offerings, and generally just be thankful for the food and my opportunity to develop a relationship with it.

 

A second kind of simple seasonal food ritual is simply creating a meal based on foods available at that season. Root stews with beans in the winter, greens and salads in the spring, corn and potatoes in the fall, and so on. You can create a whole menu of seasonal, special foods and recipes that you create to honor the season (and tie these with the wheel of the year). I have done this—and some of the recipes shared on this blog, like dandelion wine, are part of seasonal food preparation that I’ve done to honor the land and develop a deeper connection. While my recipes are tied locally to my land, they don’t have to be, and I think the attempt is what is important.

 

I hope what this post has suggested is that there are many, many ways in which we can develop a more sacred relationship with food–even when certain options are closed to us. There are so many other kinds of things you can do with ritual and food—and the sky is really the limit!

 

A Guide to Farmer’s Markets: Avoiding Fraudulent Farmers, Building Relationships, and How to Buy from the Best March 26, 2015

A trip to the local farmer’s market has become one of my very favorite activities.  Here you can sample a variety of locally-produced, high quality goods, meet interesting people, and come home with bags and bags of fresh veggies, meat, eggs, and more. But, not all farms are created equal, and its really important to have a critical awareness of who is selling what–and when–at a farmer’s market.  This post is meant as an introduction to how to support the *right* vendors at the farmer’s market and avoid people selling industrialized food who are masquerading as farmers.

 

I write this blog post based on my regular attendance at over a dozen farmer’s markets in three states as well as my experience in vending at our local area farmer’s market for the last two seasons, where I happened to get stuck next to what I eventually realized was a “Fraudulent Farmer” most weeks at the market (so I was able to covertly observe his shady activities). Its also based on conversations I’ve had with several friends who are local certified organic and naturally grown farmers and my own various experiences in homesteading over the last six years.

 

A beautiful display of homegrown veggies and herbs from my dear friend, Nature's Harvest Organic Farm!  Photo by Sarah Angelini

A beautiful display of homegrown veggies and herbs from my dear friend, Nature’s Harvest Organic Farm! Photo used with permission (Taken by Sarah Angelini)

Going in with the right expectations

A farmer’s market focuses on locally grown and handmade products–fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads, various prepared foods, meats, eggs, handcrafted goods (like jams), honey, local art, and much more.  Even small towns can boast impressive farmer’s markets, with a wide variety of produce and locally made goods. A farmer’s market promises a different experience from the grocery store–everything there should be produced or grown locally, which means that your local farmer’s market is the antithesis to the grocery store.  It also means that the face of the farmer’s market changes as the season progresses.

 

Beware of Fraudulent Farmers

The biggest thing to watch out for at farmer’s markets is what I call “Fraudulent Farmers” — practically every farmer’s market I’ve been at has them, although some markets have them more than others (I have found them to be much more prevalent in larger city markets, like Detroit’s Eastern Market or Flint’s Farmer’s Market than in small markets, but even my local market has one–who I will describe below). Purchasing from a fraudulent farmer is no different than purchasing from the grocery store–this is because Fraudulent farmers aren’t farmers at all, they are distributors.  Better fraudulent farmers at least go to local farms and buy their stuff, serving as a middle man.  The worst of the bunch go to larger distributors (like Gordon Foods) or port areas where stuff is brought in (like Detroit’s Eastern Market) and buy produce wholesale.  Then they go to your nearby farmer’s market, set themselves up a booth, and sell with everyone else. You end up getting one thing (industrialized, GMO, pesticide-laden food) when you are expecting another (fresh, local, chemical free food).

 

How can you tell if a farmer is a fraudulent farmer? Let’s start with a story, which will illustrate many of the tell-tale signs you can look out for. “Farmer Fred” (this is also the name of his booth, name changed for the purposes of this post) is a farmer who vends regularly at my local farmer’s market. When I first started going there and didn’t know about fraudulent farmers, I often bought things from him because he had beautiful looking fruit and vegetables, a very wide selection, and fantastic prices. In fact, Farmer Fred routinely undersold everyone else at the market. If the going rate for nice, plump red pepper was $1.00, Farmer Fred would be selling them for 75 cents. He also never made claims about the organic nature of his vegetables but he did list things like “Farm Fresh Vegetables” (which is really kind of meaningless). When I started asking Farmer Fred questions about his produce, I got really vague answers. I asked, “Do you grow your own vegetables?” and he would say, “No, my family does.” I responded, “Where is their farm?” His response, “Up north.” I said, “What’s the name of their farm?” He responded, “They don’t have a name. Do you want to buy something?”  Then, when I started looking at his vegetables–what was he doing with cantaloupes, tomatoes, and watermelons in early June in Michigan? These plants are seedlings in the ground then–not even more than a few inches high. And I noticed something else–he was opening boxes that had been sealed, full of vegetables. I started asking around, and sure enough, among the other vendors, Farmer Fred had quite the reputation.

We are looking for the REAL thing!

We are looking for the REAL thing!

 

One of my dear friends who also vends at this market had been a farmer for thirty years. She was a one-woman operation–certified organic, all biointensive farming methods. Her vegetables were beautiful. She grew her plants with love and care–but could never charge so cheap a price as Farmer Fred. In fact, in the five years that she had been selling her produce seriously at this market, she had yet to turn a profit. But, she loved what she was doing, she loved educating others, and so she kept on doing it. But here was Fraudulent Farmer Fred, underselling her at every step…and he wasn’t even a farmer at all.

 

Spotting Fraudulent Farmers

So, what do we learn from this tale? Don’t give one’s business to Fraudulent Farmer Fred’s…give it to real, hardworking farmers. You can spot fraudulent farmers with observation and tact:

 

1) Out of season veggies and fruits. You want to learn what fruits and veggies should be in season and buy from people who clearly are offering veggies in season. Note that if a farmer has a hoop house or poly tunnel, he or she may be a full month or more ahead of the growing season (this shelters the plants from extreme temperatures, so I’m taking that into account in my list below). In my bioregion (Zone 6 Michigan), here’s what you can expect at the different points in the year.

  • Year round (with a hoop house or cold storage): spinach, lettuce, arugula, minzua, kale, various other leafy greens, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, cabbage, potatoes, apples, onions, winter squash, microgreens, garlic, sprouts.
  • Spring and early summer crops: primarily leafy greens and peas, chives, some wild edibles.
  • Mid summer: garlic, garlic scapes, herbs, green onions, strawberries, some early berry varieties
  • Late Summer (July – August): corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, watermelon, cantaloupe, raspberries, blackberries, plums, pears
  • Fall (October – November): Greens, cabbage, onions potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, squashes, apples

    A typical mid-July harvest!

    A typical mid-July harvest in my bioregion!

 

2) Out of region veggies and fruits: Under no circumstances can people grow bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, pineapples, coconuts, papayas, and so on in my bioregion. The only citrus that can be grown outside here is hardy kiwi and paw paw (that I am aware of); hardly anyone grows hardy kiwi, and paw paw I’ve only seen at the market twice because it goes bad very quickly. If you see bananas or oranges, you know they are outsourcing their veggies.

 

3) Boxes that appear like wholesale boxes, especially if they are sealed. Note that some real farmers buy such boxes for moving produce, so this in and of itself shouldn’t be the only sign. Its a good idea to sneak around the back of their booth and see how they are unpacking their veg. A lot of the farmers at our market use plastic coolers, plastic tubs, or wooden boxes that are reusable for many seasons.

 

4) Veggies that have stickers on them (or that Farmer Fred tries to skillfully remove). Yeah, that’s not from a real farmer.

 

5) Prices that don’t reflect the real cost of locally farmed food. This is the fraudulent farmers underselling all other farmers at the market–if its cheaper than everyone else, its probably too good to be true.

 

6) Lack of other farm goods. Many farmers make ends meet by selling additional farm products: wool or yarn, homemade jams, baked goods, infused vinegars, honey, beeswax candles, salves and creams, even smudge sticks! A fraudulent farmer has no farm, so wouldn’t take the time to handcraft other goods (but certainly could buy and sell stuff from national companies that offer these kinds of products). Not all farmers do this, but a lot do!

 

7) No dirt on the veggies. Veggies straight from the field often take a bit of the field with them (especially squash, cukes, potatoes, carrots). Some farmers will wash their veggies (although a lot will not due to the extra work involved). If there is not a lick of dirt on the veggies, it might be a sign that you have a fraudulent farmer!

Farmer's market booth--the dirt is real, folks!  (Photo by Sarah Angelini)

Farmer’s market booth–the dirt is real, folks! (Photo by Sarah Angelini)

 

8) No dirt under Farmer Fred’s fingernails, no calluses on his hands. This is pretty self explanatory–if you aren’t farming, you aren’t going to have dirty hands and calluses. Try shaking the Fraudulent Farmer’s hand and see what happens.

 

8) When questioned, give vague answers about their produce or where it comes from. “Area farms” “The Mennonites” or “My family” are all kinda abstract.

 

Speaking of questions….What’s really fun to do with Fraudulent Farmers is to ask them really specific questions about farming that a farmer would innately know, but that a Farmer Fred would not. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “What’s your soil PH like on your farm?”  (every area has a unique soil profile, and if the farmer doesn’t know that, he or she has no business growing veggies. So this can give you a VERY good indication as to whether or not they are fraudulent. My own Farmer Fred failed this question miserably when asked, telling me he had “perfect soil with a perfect PH” when he got to his farm, even though everyone else’s soil around here is Alkali. BUSTED!).
  • “Who do you source your seeds from?” (Good farmers will have favorite seed sources, especially GMO free ones like Victory Seeds, Seed Saver’s Exchange, or Baker Creek).
  • “What varieties are you growing this year? Which are working out the best?” (Good farmers know what they are growing and how its doing).
  • “Wow, these watermelons are really early for Michigan.  How did you grow them?” (Really, even with a hoop house, you can’t have a ripe watermelon in May or June).
  • “How did you get your cabbages to get so uniform?” (Uniformity can be a result of chemical sprays and GMO crops; but some farmers are better than others at achieving uniformity, and they know its an expectation from consumers, so this question may lead to mixed results).
  • What’s your favorite thing to grow? (Fraudulent farmers will give some lame response to this question!)

Ask away and watch them squirm.

 

Another shot of my local farmer's market!

My local farmer’s market!

Getting to Know Your Real Farmers

Most real farmers love what they do and are excited and eager to talk about their farm, their growing processes, and so on. Its a great idea to develop close relationships with a few of your farmers at the market, especially if you want to do some canning and bulk buying or off-season buying. Its also nice to get to know your farmers so you know who you can trust and avoid the fraudulent farmers.

When getting to know your farmer, here are some good questions to ask:

  • What are your growing practices? (e.g. do you use chemicals?)
  • Where are you located?
  • How long have you been farming?
  • Are you certified organic or certified naturally grown?
  • How large is your farm?
  • Do you offer produce in the off-season? (Some offer local pickup services)
  • What’s your favorite thing to grow?

These kinds of questions provide really helpful insight into your farmers. It bears mentioning that some farmers may do more than one market at a time, and may hire people to sell their vegetables at other markets. This isn’t necessarily cause for immediate concern, but it is really nice to talk to the person themselves who grew the vegetables.

 

Certified Organic, Naturally Grown, and Chemical Free

The certifications that farmers can get also bear some mentioning here. Getting “certified organic” is a legal designation that ensures only that crops are grown without pesticides or chemicals (they can still be grown on an industrialized scale). Certified Organic is really a certification that benefits large growers, not small family farms, and the USDA designed it so. This is because it requires what I feel is ludicrous amounts of record-keeping (literally down to what tools were used in what field on what day and every input to the farm). It also costs about $1500 or more per year. It takes a typical farmer 2-3 months do to the initial preparation for certification and immaculate record-keeping in the years that follow. Because of this, and given the already tiny profit margin on most small family farms, you won’t find a ton of farmers at the market with organic certification. A few of my farmer friends who have had this certification in the past are instead opting

Awesome organic lettuce!

Awesome organic lettuce!

Some farmers may opt for another certification called “Naturally grown.” This is a much more reasonable option for small family farmers–its a peer-review system where farmers who are Certified Naturally Grown visit other farmers and ensure their practices meet the standards. Naturally grown uses the same practices as organic, but without the price tag (in other words, no chemicals, no sprays, etc.)  It also doesn’t require the extensive paperwork or intensive record keeping or financial burden. Either Certified Organic or Certified Naturally grown are excellent indications that your farmer is engaging in good farming practices.

The final thing that can happen, which is the case with a lot of new farms, is that they may opt for no certification and say they are “chemical free” or “no sprays or pesticides” and you have to take their word for it. If they seem trustworthy and passionate about what they are doing, that’s really not an issue. And you can use the other methods in this guide (like understanding what is in season when) to visually evaluate their produce. Apples and fruits are something to watch out for–a lot of organic integrated pest management systems are harder with orcharding, so I would be especially careful about apples and fruit.

 

The Look and Feel of the Booth

Another thing I pay attention to to evaluate a potential farmer is the name of the farm and how the booth looks and feels. The name of the farm can sometimes give you great insights into the mind of the farmer. “Peace Farms” for example gives a much different vibe (sounds like a farming collective or intentional community) than “Jackson Farm” (which sounds like a family farm). Its also nice to take a look at the care and creativity put into a farmer’s market booth.  Is it clean?  Do they display their veggies with pride?

Sodas and Sundries Booth I shared with a friend.  Good times!

Sodas and Sundries Booth I shared the last two years. Good times!

 

Appreciate Your Farmer!

I’ll conclude by mentioning that these farmers are growing your food–the food you put in your body for sustenance and survival–and they are doing it with the love and affection that only a small family farmer can. So thank them for their hard work, respect their efforts, and be grateful to them that you aren’t stuck shopping at the grocery store for produce that comes from who knows where and has who knows what chemicals sprayed on it.  They are regenerating the landscape as they grow, providing ecosystems and habitats, and growing food in a system that has the decks stacked in the opposite direction.  Small family farming is a thankless job and a difficult one to make ends meet due to the unreasonably low cost of industrialized agriculture–so let’s show them some love!