Category Archives: Growth

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Spruce (Picea glauca, Picea pungens, Picea spp.)

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape on a mountain in Western PA

When I lived in a walkable small town, what drew me every day was a line of beautiful blue spruce trees. Right around the corner from my house, they were on my daily walking commute to work.  We used to say hello and do an energy exchange each day. One day that following summer, I watched as the city landscaping people came through and ruthlessly cut them back away from the power lines (they were not growing even close to the lines) and I held space for the trees. Over the next few months, those trees began to heal, and they produced copious amounts of amazing tree resin as a first line of defense.  In the years that followed, eventually, the resin grew hard and the trees invited me to harvest small amounts that could be harvested without any damage to the tree.  That resin was powerful stuff–it had a very pine and musk smell and allowed for all sorts of powerful herbal and magical preparations.  I was honored by their gift and made good use of it–and I still have some, even years later.

Spruce is an important tree woven into the fabric of North America.  Common varieties include blue spruce, white spruce, black spruce, and Norway spruce. For the purposes of this post, we’ll talk about spruces of a few varieties, but focus my energies on Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce, both common trees throughout most of North America and both frequently found in the North-Eastern US planted as an ornamental and naturalized.  While neither of these two spruces is native to the Eastern seaboard, they are naturalized here and are so frequently found that they are one of the most common conifers in many parts of the US.  In fact, at the computer where I write all of my posts, just outside the window are two friendly Norway Spruce trees, always ready to say hello!

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

Spruce Ecology

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Spruce is a common tree found in many of the temperate regions of North America–there are about 35 different species of spruce globally.  Blue spruces can grow up to 75 feet in the wild but often aren’t found more than 45 high in parks or yards. Norway Spruces are a much faster growing and larger tree and can get up to 150 feet high. All spruces are conifers and evergreen; they are extremely easy to find in the winter months when the deciduous trees have all lost their leaves.

All spruces have characteristics that make them very identifiable–for one, they usually have shorter, stiffer needles and all their needles have four sides. All spruces also have cones that are covered with thin scales that eventually open when the cone is ready to share its nuts/seeds on a warm day.  If you compare these needles and seeds to another common conifer, the pine family, you’ll see that the pines have much longer and flexible needles and much harder and more rigid cones. John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes that spruces also have needles that are spirally arranged on the twig (tying of course to the sacred geometry and sacred patterns that are present in all life). Most spruce needles, when crushed, have a strong smell–some are quite nice (Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce) while other spruces may smell piney and yet foul (White Spruce).  For all conifers, looking at the shape and distribution of the needles is usually the easiest way to tell the difference.

Blue spruces have a very “classic” holiday tree look, with a bluish tint and a very triangular shape. Other spruces may vary in shape–the many Norway spruces we have in our yard look like weeping trees more so than the classic triangle, but still, have that larger triangle shape.  Note that in urban areas, some spruces may be cut at the bottom so that people can sit underneath them–so you will want to look for indications that that has been the case, and then you can visualize the true shape of the tree.  This is also where you can often find copious amounts of sap–some tried or dripping off the tree that can be carefully and reverently harvested.

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Most spruce trees, particularly those that grow in northern areas of North America (white spruce, blue spruce) are slow-growing (growing only 6″ – 12″ a year).  Some spruce varieties, like Norway Spruce, grow much faster–up to 3′ a year, which is why Norway Spruce is often a tree selected for landscaping.  This is part of why Norway spruce has been so widely planted–it grows quickly and tall, and thus can provide effective privacy, shade, and so on.   In fact, Old Tjikko, a Norway Spruce located in Sweden, is one of the oldest trees in the world at 9,950 years old.  Norway Spruces are clonal trees, meaning that Old Tjikko has regenerated new roots, bark, and branches over a period of millennia from a single genetic ancestor.  It is amazing to think about a tree that has regenerated itself over the millennia

In terms of Spruce’s role in the ecosystem, while wildlife uses these trees extensively for shelter during the harsh winter months, Spruce needles provide little nourishment to white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and other large herbivores and so these animals are not likely to feed on them.  As John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes, however, they were a favorite of the now-extinct Mastadon!  Finally, some spruces, including Norway Spruce, may develop galls from the Eastern Spruce Gall Aphid; these galls appear like a pineapple-shaped Gall on the new shoots.  If they are abundant they can cause damage to the health of the tree.

Human Uses: Wood and Tools

Spruce wood is considered a softwood tree, but it is harder and more durable than many varieties of pine.  Thus, spruce wood is commercially used and is fine-grained, light, and tough.  Primarily it is used as a wood for pulping for paper–many paper mills use Spruce for the production of paper throughout Europe and North America. Norway Spruce is a particularly good tree for this purpose due to its quick growth habit. John Eastman notes that Spruce wood is sometimes used for piano sounding boards, instruments, and boat building.  It is also used as an interior construction wood–it does not withstand the elements well but is light and strong for interior construction applications (it is sold as “whitewood” or “SPF” (spruce, pine, and fir) wood).

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid's Garden homestead

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid’s Garden homestead

Another common use for Spruce today is in holiday decorations. Both Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce, when young, have the classic “Christmas Tree” look, and thus, both are regularly grown to be used as holiday trees.  Unlike Eastern Hemlock (which drops needles within a week or so of cutting), spruce trees hold onto the needles for longer, allowing them to stay through a holiday season.  Each year, we have spruce trees that can use some trimming.  Thus, we make beautiful wreaths that will last for months indoors to bring some of the evergreen energy into our home at the darkest time of year.

Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes offers extensive coverage of the Red, White, and Black spruces indicate that North American Native American tribes and early colonists to North America used Spruce trees extensively for a variety of purposes.  This includes extensive use in treating scurvy, especially in colonial America (see more below on medicinal uses).  Erichsen-Brown mentions that many tribes called spruce the Annedda tree and would strip the bark and needles off of the tree, boil it in water, and drink it to cure a variety of ailments. The roots of the spruce were used as lashing for canoes, baskets, and other weaving projects in many Eastern tribes.  The divided roots of spruce would be woven into very fine baskets that could hold water (these baskets were often used as boil baskets where hot stones were dropped into the liquid to heat up the water). The resin was also used to make pitch to seal canoes. Spruce wood was also steamed and bent to use for the inside of canoes.  Finally, the wood was used for the creation of various kinds of handles.

Here on the Druid’s Garden homestead, we just finished up a round of maple sap boiling with our new boiler system.  Since we have a lot of Norway spruce, I went through our tree stands and cut a number of the lower dead branches at the bottom of several spruce trees.  They burned hot and bright–perfect for keeping the sap boiling as the day went on. Of course, they have too much pitch to burn in indoor fires, but if you needed a hot outdoor fire with high flames, spruce is an excellent choice.

Human Uses: Herbalism and Edible Qualities

Spruce offers a range of wonderful range of medicinal qualities and can be used in a variety of herbal preparations. Be aware that most spruces are pretty pointy and can be hard to handle with bare hands–especially blue spruce. Thus, when harvesting needles or tips, it is wise to wear a pair of gloves or avoid getting sore fingers!  One of the most common ways of harvesting spruce is harvesting the young spruce tips.  The tips, here in PA, usually come into season in late April and into mid-May and can be harvested while they are still young and supple for a variety of herbal or edible concoctions.  In terms of the ethics of harvesting, what I usually do is first ask permission from the tree to harvest.  Second, I make an offering (such as using this blend).  Third, I take only 1-2 tips per branch so that I’m not causing damaging the tree, and spread my harvest across trees.  If I know that we have to do any pruning, I will obviously harvest all of the tips from that branch.

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

All spruces are high in Vitamin C, which allows you to make a tea that supports the immune system or brew up a spruce tip beer, which was originally a Native American creation (Ericsen-Brown) but later was widely adapted by colonial America. Also be aware that different varieties of Spruces have different levels of “skunkyness” which may impact any of your herbal preparations.  In my experience, Blue Spruce has the sweetest smelling tips and resin, where White Spruce is downright skunky and a bit unpleasant.  Norway spruce definitely has a bit of musk but is still great to use for most things.

The tips have an incredible range of uses. Black spruce or blue spruce tips were commonly made into spruce beer (originally made, according to Rollins in Edible Wild Plants of North America, because many people had vitamin C deficiencies and spruce tips are high in Vitamin C). Herbal uses for spruce tips are wide-ranging include a spruce needle or spruce tip tea, which can be used to boost the immune system. A strong tea can also be used as a sore throat gargle (to address a range of sore throat conditions); a mouthwash (for handling open sores in the mouth or bleeding gums).   The Spruce tips themselves are quite tasty and can also be used in dressings (like an infused oil); this is one of my favorite uses (a similar approach can be used with other conifer tips, like Eastern hemlock tips, which I share here). I like to gather the tips in spring and then infuse them in oil for a salad dressing or other herbal treats.

Another traditional use of spruce was the resin the tree produces. If you want to use it for incense or other spiritual purposes, you can check out my post on tree incenses from North America for details about how to use tree resin as incense.  Both blue spruce and Norway spruce make a very nice incense! Old-timers in the Northern Appalachian mountains (like my grandfather did) check “spruce gum.” Folks would look for mostly dried spruce resin and chew it just like chewing gum. I enjoy it from time to time, and it’s pretty good but certainly different than modern chewing gum. The resin is highly medicinal and can be used to make spruce salves for a range of skin conditions (it has anti-microbial uses).  Here’s a great recipe for a spruce and pine tip salve and chest rub and here is a video of making a bushcraft spruce salve for wound healing. If you are out in the field and have a sting or other skin issue, you can use the fresh gum right from the tree to cover a wound and draw out any toxins/stingers, etc–cover it with a leaf of plantain and be on your way.  Even deep puncture wounds can be aided by a bit of spruce resin in the field.

Finally, the inner bark of a spruce tree has been used for centuries as nourishing emergency food.  I haven’t had to opportunity to try this, thankfully, but I certainly will if we end up having spruce come down in a storm!

Western Magical Traditions and Spruce

Like many of the trees I explore in this ongoing series, Spruce does not get a lot of activity in the Western Magical tradition. In the typical sources, I consult for this series including a range of magical herbal books, hoodoo plant magic books, and western occult books.  However, I wasn’t able to find much mention of spruce.  Thus, it does not appear that spruce has any traditional uses that I can find in the Western Magical traditions–but I would love to hear from readers if they know of some sources that I do not!  Please share :).

Erichsen Brown does give an early reference (1475) to Islandic peoples using spruce both as a food and as an incense.  The cones were roasted coals and then people would dig out the kernels and eat the seeds. The resin used for incense.  Erichsen-Brown also notes that tribes throughout North America likewise used spruce for incense, but specific purposes or uses were not recorded.

Native American Traditions and Spruce

Spruce branches

Most of the traditional Native American uses already described, but I wanted to share some of the myths that are present.  These are largely in line with the curative and potent healing properties of the spruce tree.

Tying to the medicinal uses above, the Micmac believed that Glooscap, who was the first human created, gifted their people with extremely powerful medicine that could cure the ills of the world.  The ingredients included spruce along with ground hemlock (which may be Canadian Yew), willow, and black cherry.  In another legend on the same theme, In an Iroquois legend, Ahneah The Rose Flower, Ohsweda the Sprit of the spruce tree guards sacred spring in the forest. He shares the guardian duties with Ochdoah, the bat. Oshweda guards the spring from sunrise until noon, and while he guards it, everyone who drank of the clear waters of the spring had their illnesses cured and were filled with joy. but Ochdoah the Bat turned the spring water to poison on his watch.  In a third legend, this one Cherokee, “How the World Was Made” Spruce was listed among other medicines who are “always green” and always green medicines are the greatest of medicines

Spruce is tied in some tribes to a link to creation itself. It is often one of the first trees named (in relationship above to potent medicines) in creation stories or the first tree created. Another theme of these legends is the use of Spruce to build fires. In “When the Animals and Birds were Created” by the Makah. In this legend, two brothers of the sun and moon come to earth and start to create life there. As part of this legend, spruce is called an “old creature” whose “heart is dry” and therefore, will always be good for dry fires when the trees get older.  In “The Wolf Dance” which is a Salish legend, a spruce seed is linked to creation itself. So we can see some themes emerging from these different legends that honor the spruce tree a creative, healing force upon the land and for her peoples.

Divination Uses

As with other trees in this series, I’d like to propose three themes for magical practice and divination, given all of the variety of material above.  Here are three possibilities for the sacred spruce tree:

Endurance. One of the key features of spruces globally is their ability to endure.  We have the example of Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce that is literally one of the oldest trees in the world.   We see this same quality in many conifers who grow slow–the enduring nature of these ancient trees, who stand green through bitter cold and dry summers—the spruce endures on.  It is a powerful lesson to us, as people, to find the will and strength to endure.  This is why we see so many spruces in otherwise inhospitable parts of North America–these trees can endure very little light, long and cold winters, and continue to thrive.

Longevity.  Another key feature of the spruce tree that is clear from this material is the spruce’s tied to longevity.  It’s hard to imagine Old Tjikko, and other ancient spruces, seeing more than the whole of human recorded history.  When I encounter a spruce tree out in remote forests, I wonder how old they must be, knowing that they have the ability to regenerate their roots, branches, needles, and even their trunk.  This longevity is tied to this tree’s ability to remake itself in the face of challenges.

Supportive Healing. Nearly all of the trees in North America have specific ways in which they might heal–our physical bodies, our spirits.  Spruce’s healing powers, I believe, are tied to the well-loved tips and resins, both of which offer the base materials (Vitamin C, nutrients) that we can use to heal ourselves.  Thus, it’s not that spruce directly heals the body, but rather, facilitates the conditions and nutrients for the body to stay resilent.  That’s a very different kind of healing than something like hawthorn, which works directly on the body’s circulatory system and heart.  So spruce strengthens our bodies and gives us the capacity to heal.  That’s a realy beautiful thing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of spruce–the medicine, uses, mystery, and mythology.  This is a tree that was hard to research because there isn’t a lot about its mystical uses that I could find.  I’m very interested in hearing from you about your own stories and experiences with the incredible spruce tree!  Blessings.

Druid Tree Workings: Finding and Working with Grandmother Trees

The Ancient Maple - An Elder of the Land

The Ancient Maple – Grandmother Tree.  This grandmother lives in a middle of a rock pile.  the three branching trunks signify she may have been cut at one time and regrew. Grandmothers can be stubborn!

A grandmother is a really special person. I remember going to my grandmother’s house when I was a little girl–it was literally my favorite place to go. My grandmother and I would go to the thrift store and buy used clothing, then spend the morning sewing doll clothes and repurposing those old clothes for amazing new clothes for me–skirts that swirled out wide and colorfully printed tops.  We’d go out into the garden and pick herbs, and she’d cook up an incredible pot of mushroom soup.  She was full of generosity and love and always fostered my creativity and joy.  My other grandmother was quite different–she was a bit of a firecracker, sassy and short-tempered. A steel mill worker’s wife, she knew how to make do with nothing and taught us the importance of honoring what we had and taking time for family. She nurtured her grandchildren, bringing us plates of crackers with peanut butter and butter, sitting on the porch watching us play, and simply being present.  Perhaps you have your own fond memories of your grandmothers, or you have others who have served a similar role in your life.

I start with a discussion here about human grandmothers because in talking about developing deep tree relationships, associating tree work to things we already understand can be helpful.  Today, we are going to talk about finding and honoring the “grandmother” trees that you may have encountered, those ancient wise trees that nurture and support you in similar ways to a human grandmother.This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For the methods for how I research these posts, see this page. Other trees in this series include SpicebushRhododendron, American Hazel, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.  This material will all be part of my forthcoming Tree Alchemy oracle project!

What are “Grandmother” Trees?

Grandmother Beech

Grandmother Beech, a nurturing soul who offered me these teachings.

I first was introduced to the concept of “Grandmother” trees by a group of ancient beech trees I had found in the forest.  I had spent two days before doing some deep and pretty painful spiritual work as part of a spiritual retreat, and the grove of ancient beeches welcomed me in and invited me to stay and rest for a few hours. The photo here is of one of these amazing grandmother beech trees. I put my blanket down in the middle of the grove of ancient grandmothers, and they nurtured me.  I dozed off, and the grandmothers appeared more human in my dream, offering me visions and tending me with their gentle hands.  They gave me the message to recall other grandmother trees and share this concept.

Grandmother trees are special trees that function in many ways similar to a human grandmother. They nurture you and feed your spirit.  They are there, welcoming and wise. These trees are usually some of the oldest trees that you meet–kind, loving trees, full of the weight of wisdom. They have the weight of centuries upon them and in their old age, they have much to share. Like a human grandmother, these trees have their own personalities–some more nurturing, some sharper, some quieter–but they are always there to give and to experience the connection with you.

The nice thing about grandmother trees is that you can have as many of them in your life as you want. Some of these trees may become a long and stabilizing presence for you, and some may come or be in your life only a short while. Either way, they are a blessing and an excellent way to cultivate deeper relationships with trees and the living earth.

Finding Your Grandmother Trees

Now that I’ve shared the concept with you, you can take this idea in a number of different directions.  Here are some options:

Identifying Your grandmother trees. The first thing you could do is think about the really meaningful trees that you’ve had interaction with that might fit this category. Create a list of those “grandmother” trees, those trees that may hold a special place for you. If you don’t yet have any grandmother trees, then skip to some of the later steps.

Interaction in spirit for those that were lost. Some of your grandmother trees may be left only in your memory.  An ancient crab apple tree was my first grandmother tree.  She was, ironically, located behind my grandmother’s house on an adjacent property that was delightfully overgrown with weeds and that was an old cider apple orchard.  When I was small, my cousins and I spent a lot of time with this tree–she had amazing branches with different “rooms” that you could climb into and it was so enjoyable to play in this tree.  We would eat her sour apples and gather them up in quantity to take to our grandmother, who would turn them into pies.  Sadly, this incredible tree was cut when I was still a child, where a neighbor decided to turn this abandoned wild orchard into a lawn. Even though this grandmother tree is gone, her memory is with me, and I return to the spot where she once grew.  I remember her, and I honor her, and the nutrients that she shared with me I carry in my bones.  Thus, it is easy to do a spirit journey to reconnect with grandmother apple and still sit at her feet and hear her wisdom.

Seek out new grandmother trees.  A grandmother tree is usually easy to spot–she’s the largest and oldest tree.  If she’s in a park, you’ll often find people congregating around her simply because they seem to want to be near her.  Or you might find one of the more remote grandmother trees, those trees that are found hidden away in forests. Here where I live in Western PA, nearly all of our forests were logged repeatedly, and thus, the oldest grandmother trees are almost always found along what was abandoned fence rows or in the middle of a rock pile (which at one time, would have been a field).  It might be that your own landscape has its own ways of finding grandmother trees.  In truth, they are not hard to find, at least not in areas with natural wood cover–just go hiking or to a nearby park and you will find them.

Working with Your Grandmother Trees

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Another amazing grandmother tree I know–a white pine! She reaches to the sky and brightens everything around her.

Find the face of the grandmother tree. Many grandmother trees, being the oldest and wisest of trees, have faces (more on face of the tree here).  If you look, you can see their amazing faces. These faces may lend you insight into the personality of this particular grandmother.  Speak to the grandmother, looking at her faces and different expressions.  Look also at her bark patterns, root patterns, and how the branches in her crown branch out.  You can learn quite a bit about this grandmother tree from these simple observations.

Build a relationship.  Like all relationships with nature, you should focus first on reciprocation and gratitude.  See if the tree is willing to communicate (these trees nearly always are, and welcome communication).  Offer gratitude and offerings.  Sit beneath your tree and look at how she grows, how her branches come in different directions.  If she is willing, sit against your tree and exchange energy, allowing her energy to flow into you and yours into her.  Play music or sing for your tree, and listen to her own song in the wind.  As you cultivate this sacred relationship, your tree may have gifts for you–a branch, a leaf, or her nuts/seeds.  She may ask you to do things or bring her things.  She may have words of wisdom for you.

Not all grandmother trees are enormous--this ancient hawthorn may grow in the understory, but she has much to teach.

Not all grandmother trees are enormous–this ancient hawthorn may grow in the understory, but she has much to teach.

And like all things, consider how your relationship is reciprocalDon’t only come when you need something–come just to spend time.  When you do, consider bringing gifts for your tree–a song, a poem, a story.  These ancient trees may be so old that they once had other such friendships over time, and they will certainly value yours.

I can’t underestimate this kind of regular interaction. Every time that I visit one of my own grandmother trees, even if it has been years (say, from a place that I moved away), I feel that both the grandmother tree and I are enriched by the experience.  And even when I can’t visit them physically, I visit them in spirit!

Learn. The most important thing you can do with these grandmother trees is open yourself up to their wisdom. Some of the oldest grandmother trees remember times before, times before colocalization and cultural genocide destroyed the land’s native peoples; times before the land was stripped bare for greed and industrialization. In their quiet voices, they will teach you: of their medicine, of their magic, and of how to relearn how to be connected to the wisdom of the landscape and tend the land.  They have more to teach you than any human possibly could, just take the time to listen.

Closing Thoughts

While the grandmother tree idea seems like a simple thing, it is an amazing way to help you cultivate deeper relationships with trees all over your landscape.  I have several trees that I am as close to as my own human friends, that I visit often, and that we share much together.  I would love to hear from you and perhaps you can share some of your own experiences with these grandmother trees and the blessings they offer!

News – The New Druidry Handbook!

Druidry Handbook – Classic Edition

As a final note, I’m excited to announce that I’ve written the new forward to Weiser Classics edition of The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer.  I am honored to be asked to write the introduction and share how much The Druidry Handbook and Greer’s work have shaped my own druid practice.  It is now available so I hope that you’ll check it out!

Druid Tree Workings: Principles for Establishing Deep Relationships with the Trees, Part I

Trees provide an abundant amount of resources…shelter, food, fire, friendship–but they also as this blog has shown, can work various forms of magic through their energetics, through their lore, through their divinatory meanings.  They are some of the most kind, giving, and accessible beings on the landscape, and certainly a place to not only begin a nature spiritual practice but deepen it over time. As I’ve written on this blog, working with the trees must be a matter of exchange–honoring them, treating them as elders, listening to their stories and songs–and if you want to work tree magic, this magic requires us to be in a sacred relationship with the trees.  I’ll be doing a short series on how to establish, maintain, and grow relationships with plants and trees.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

In this first post of this new series, we are going to focus on the concept of establishing a relationship with trees.  I start here, with the concept of relationship, as the cultural traditions of the Western World, especially for those here in the US, come out of a cultural tradition of colonialization and exploitation.  In the US at present, for example, there is no concept of the inherent sanctity of life, nor the idea of having any kind of inner life, but rather, the basic assumption is that trees–and all of nature–exist as a resource to extract and use as humans see fit.  In a rural area where I live in the US, it is very upsetting to see how people interact with nature: the assumptions surrounding the rights of people to do what they want to private land, the assumptions surrounding how best to manage land, and the lack of respect for all life.  Even for those of us walking a druid path, if we grew up in the West, we probably have a host of subconscious assumptions that will take years to recognize, interrogate, and eventually move past.  I’ve written about this before, so I’ll not belabor the point, but this challenge is why everything must be rooted in relationship and respect and why any conversations about tree magic or working with trees begin here.

I also will mention to new readers that I’ve written a lot on trees on this blog!  Other trees in this series including my entire Sacred Trees of the East Coast Series, which explores the magic, mythology, and uses of a variety of trees: Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, Oak, Devil’s Walking Stick, Rhododendron, Ironwood, and Wild Grape.  For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, helping tree spirits pass,  and the magic of the understory.

Four Foundational Principles for Tree Relationships

So let us begin by thinking about what we know about relationships already. We can see that the best relationships are built on a foundation of four principles: reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Reciprocity. Relationships that work are mutually beneficial to both parties, in that both parties gain something from the exchange.  Relationships with trees should be no less so.  In cultivating a relationship with the trees, it’s important to recognize that nature is not there to serve you, at your own whim, or when you want it.  Both parties can enter into a mutually, reciprocal beneficial relationship. Trees are often friendly; they want to talk and interact, but they also can be wary, particularly in regions of the world that have seen them exploited over the centuries.  Part of mutuality is recognizing and respecting the agency of a tree. Always ask permission, recognizing the agency of trees.  Trees have a right to say “no” just as people do.  Respect them with your words and your actions. Mutuality must form the foundation of any relationship with the trees.

Gratitude. A final core practice to working with trees is always working from a place of gratitude.  Be thankful and offer gratitude for every interaction.  I have a lot written on gratitude practices that I see as central to any nature spirituality work, and these practices likely can be central to your work with trees.  You might leave physical offerings (a small pinch of herbs that you prepared, a small cake, or a little homebrew) or you might do something directly benefiting the tree (like picking up garbage, offering your own liquid gold, bringing some compost for the roots, etc).  You can also offer your thanks, and send thanks from the heart, during each encounter you have with the trees.  Gratitude should always be a part of your practice.

Care. Care is a fundamental part of any nature-centered practice, and I truly believe that an ethic of care is at the heart of transforming our world. IIn his preface to Sacred Plant Medicine, Stephen Harrod Bhuhner describes new research on heart EM fields that demonstrate that our hearts project a measurable field–and this field can be sensed by others.  This means we project as much from our hearts as we do from minds and mouths.  Trees are unsurprisingly good at picking up our emotions–we project these just as loudly as words.  Further, on a broader scale, it is the lack of care (and the maximization of greed) that has gotten us into the Anthropocene, and I believe it is coming back to a place of deep care that can get us beyond it into a better balance with nature.

Right actions.  Actions in the world matter. There are two aspects to this: both our immediate actions and our broader lives in the world.  On the immediate action side, it is important to always act in a way that is reverent and respectful of nature–and in particular, the trees you are working with. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.  On the issue of broader actions, cultivating relationships with nature also are rooted in how we live, how much we take from the earth, and how we interact with all life creates an energetic resonance that can be read by the nature spirits.  Remember that it is not just when we walk in the woods or engage in ritual–this resonance happens all the time. For my personal path, I have found that it wasn’t enough for me to seek the trees–I also had to shift myself and my life to more sustainable practices.  But the shifts weren’t forced–as I went deeper into my spiritual work with trees, the things in my culture that energetically bound me grew less and less important.  While these shifts took work, each one brought me closer to my true self, further along, the path of sustainable living, and also cultivated a deeper relationship with the natural world and the trees.

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

All four of these principles are obviously connected, with the goal of them being to help you cultivate a relationship that is respectful and honors the tree that you want to grow a deeper relationship with. These four principles also help you take further steps in moving away from issues of exploitation, colonization, and destruction of the natural world that so many humans are now engaged in.

Meditating on the Four Principles: So now that we’ve covered the four key principles to keep in mind, I would suggest spending some time thinking about these principles and meditating on them.  Consider each of them in turn with your current spiritual work with nature and the future work with trees you are hoping to engage in.  Consider what reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action mean for you in general, and in cultivating a relationship with trees.  This foundational work will help you quite a bit and will provide you with ethics to guide your path as you move forward.

Key Aspects about Tree Relationships

In this second part of the post, I wanted to share some additional information on cultivating tree relationships.  These are things to keep in mind as you start and/or deepen your work.

All relationships are different.  Each person is going to have a different relationship with trees.  You can think about this in parallel to your relationships with humans: you have those of close friends who are equals, those of various kinds of mentorship, those between parents and children.  I have found that the same is often true of trees.  One kind is based on mutual respect and equality, such as when I meet a mature tree in the forest.  One is based on care–such as when I’m establishing new trees.  Yet another is based on mentorship–when I am seeking guidance from a wisened elder tree, one who has seen many more years than I have. A good mindset to approach such a situation is simply to be open to learning, to give, to receive, and to see how the relationship develops.

You might think about relationships you have with a few close friends. It is likely that each of them knows you in a slightly different way based on how long you’ve known each other and what you might have in common.  Given this, it’s possible that you will learn a certain side of a tree, and someone else might have a very different relationship.  This is why regardless of how many books or materials you read about others’ interpretations of trees (including stuff I post here on this blog!) it is critical to developing your own relationship.  Trust what you experience firsthand, realizing that the same oak tree might work with you much differently than me :).

Branching patterns in walnut trees

Branching patterns in walnut trees

As you grow in sensitivity and awareness, your work with trees will deepen.  If you are new to this path, give yourself time and space to learn and cultivate the sensitivity, awareness, and inner senses necessary to learn how to communicate with trees.  There is a whole set of skills that you have to cultivate in order to hear what a tree may want to communicate to you.  These include learning to listen with your inner senses, learning to focus, learning to clear your mind of your own thoughts, and learning to trust yourself that what you are experiencing is legitimate and not “all in your head.”  All of these skills take time and almost no one is good at them when they start.  For example, for me, it was almost a year before I had quieted my mind enough through meditation to let the voices of any spirits come through.  After 15 years, I can talk to pretty much any plant or tree just like I was having a conversation with a person.  But that didn’t come overnight–it was a skill to cultivate.  I shared some basic information on how to start this process here.

Relationships require time and will change over time. Just like with any other relationship, the more that you put in, the more that you will gain from a relationship.  I have found that most trees are always excited and willing to work with you.  Try to spend time with them frequently, and maintain your relationship, just as you would any other.  Further, as you continue to work with them, you will find that your relationships with trees will deepen particularly over time (just as your relationship will with any human).  More shared experiences, more conversations = more connections.  If you think about the relationships you have with old friends or people with whom you shared a tremendous experience–those relationships are different.  They are different because you share a history, a built-up trust over time.  Trees are very much the same way– you must build trust, you must put in the work of the relationship…you must do what you say you are going to do.  With this, incredibly deep relationships can be built.

Many trees have differing energy levels based on the season. Most areas have multiple seasons, and those seasons will determine how “active” trees may be and if they are able to talk.  Here in Western PA, we have four seasons, with the bulk of our deciduous trees going into hibernation for the winter.  I have found that when it is winter and the trees are bare, you aren’t going to get a lot from them–if anything.  Maybe you can wake one up, but I think that would be pretty rude.  Trees that are evergreen (like conifers) usually are always awake and you can work with them.  In our area, I have also found that the trees get very active in late winter once it starts to warm up and the sap begins to flow.  I have written more about considering the role of the seasons here.

In all of these things, it is easiest to think about extending what you know about cultivating any kind of relationship to that of trees and other aspects of nature.

I think that’s enough for this post!  In the next post, I’ll move away from thinking and into action, and we’ll start to cover a range of specific activities that you can do to deepen your relationship with the trees.  Blessings!

A Spring Equinox Meditation: The Mysteries of the Dandelion and the Three Currents

Fields of dandelion

Fields of dandelion

One of the hallmarks of spring is the blooming of the vibrant and colorful dandelion. Emerging as soon as the coldest of the temperatures ease, the blooming of the dandelions affirm that the long, dark winter is indeed over and summer is just around the corner. In today’s post, and in honor of the Spring Equinox and the incredible dandelion, I offer a spring tonic and meditative journey to celebrate the Spring Equinox and learn more about the mysteries of the dandelion. This is one of my monthly AODA-themed posts, so I hope you enjoy it and have a blessed spring equinox!

About the Dandelion

The blooming of the dandelions is a special time of year. For us here in Western PA, dandelions bloom just as the final frosts are easing, and are a sign that we can start planting some of our more tending crops in the coming weeks.  Then it is dandelion blooming week, where every dandelion growing in an area will bloom.  You will see the most amazing fields of dandelion blooms–and then the next week, they will all turn to beautiful seed puffs and scatter to the wind. If you want to make dandelion wine or dandelion jelly, you have a short window in which to collect copious amounts of dandelion flowers before they all turn to seed and scatter.

Widdershins the Gander enjoys a dandelion!

Dandelion is one of the most widespread plants in the world; it was native to Europe and Asia and is now naturalized throughout the globe. Dandelion was spread far and wide by peoples migrating from Europe and Asia for the simple fact that it is an incredibly rich source of nutrients as a healing food and also it is fantastic medicine. Dandelion is very rich in antioxidants, dietary fiber, and low in calories, making it a very good green to integrate into your diet regularly. They are particularly high in Vitamin K and A, and also contain good amounts of Calcium, Iron, and Vitamin C. It also has a range of medicinal benefits–it is known as a bitter herb, diuretic, and supports the detoxification of the body.  In many parts of Appalachia, including here in Northern Appalachia in Western PA, people would brew up a spring tonic to help “thin the blood.” What these tonics actually did was help support the liver (Sassafras) and Kidneys (Dandelion, Nettle), flush these organs of toxins, and promote more healthy elimination.  Thus, this is another reason that Dandelion is a great springtime healing herb.

Dandelion Meditative Journey

 

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

The following meditation can be used as part of a solo or small group ritual for celebrating the Spring Equinox or any other time.  This meditation focuses on exploring the dandelion’s mysteries and connecting you to the great energies of the universe.

Optional Interaction: Plant meditations work best when you have interacted with the plant in the physical world in some way prior to starting your journey.  This puts you in touch with both the.  This could be greeting a plant outside, eating some dandelion greens, or drinking a dandelion root spring tonic tea prior to the start of the ceremony.  I’ve offered two dandelion tea recipes at the bottom of this post.

The Meditative Journey

Begin with opening up a sacred grove, doing smoke cleansing, or anything else that will help prepare and protect you for the journey to come.

Slow your breathing down and do the four-fold breath:  breath in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and hold for four counts.  As you breathe, feel yourself relaxing into this time and space.

As you continue to do the four-fold breath, imagine the deep green of the dandelion leaves in the air around you.  As you breathe, breathe in that green energy, allowing it to sink within you.

You are standing before a field.  As far as your eye can see, the field is covered in blooming dandelions.  The warm spring sun is high in the sky, warming the earth. A smiling man with dandelion gold hair walks toward you.  He greets you and says, “I and my tribe welcome the sun back to the earth after a long and cold winter. The sun’s rays, full of solar energy, bless the land and energize it for the season that is to come. It seems that you, too, have experienced the darkness and cold of winter.  Come now, and lay in the field, and allow the solar current to infuse you with the joy and light of the sun. The sun’s rays will prepare you for the journey ahead.”

As the field is so inviting, you lay for a time, and bask in the sun.  You feel the sun’s rays come down upon you, nourishing you, vitalizing you, and filling you with vitality and energy for the coming season. Take a moment to Listen for any other messages or feelings you might have as the solar energy imbues you with light.

When you are finished, you stand and your guide greets you once again.  He says, “The Dandelion is unique that it is one of the few plants that offer true balance–the flowers of the dandelion, which I represent, are solar in nature and welcome back the sun.  Dandelion flowers can aid you in times of darkness by bringing back the light.  However, the dandelion also basks in the light of the moon.  Let us now meet another spirit of the dandelion and continue our journey.”

As you walk closer, you see that one cluster of dandelions grows larger and larger, until it is taller than the tallest tree.  Next to the stem cluster, you see a young woman.  She is silver-haired with brown skin and has fine features. She smiles and greets you, “I and my tribe welcome you to journey deep within the mysteries of the dandelion.  The roots of the dandelion go deep into the fertile earth, drawing up the rays of earth energy that runs through the land.  The telluric current offers strength, grounding, and purpose and allows us to shed that which no longer serves you.  Will you enter and experience the blessing of the telluric current? ”

She steps back and lifts a small green leaf to reveal a door into the center of the dandelion stalk and down into the root. The two of you enter. As you journey into the root of the dandelion, you see a green-gold pool full of telluric energy welling up from the roots of the dandelion tree.  She smiles and says, “Now that you have been energized and blessed with the solar current, you are ready to shed your weary burdens. The long and dark months of the recent past have added to your burdens.  Shed that which you no longer want to carry. Take only what you want to take forward.  When you are ready,  we will be waiting for you.”

As you shed your burdens and stay within the dark roots of the dandelion for a time, feel the energy of the Telluric current welling around you.  When time has passed and you are free of your burdens, you return to the door to be greeted by both the solar and lunar avatars of the dandelion.

Use many resources already on the homestead!

Use many resources already on the homestead!

As you exit the door, you see that night has fallen. The moon reflects in the starry night sky, and you look upon the great field full of dandelions.  All of the dandelions have gone to seed and the field appears as though thousands of full moons are there upon the earth.

Both guides come to stand together, holding hands.  “You have received the blessing of the solar current, from the sun and the turning wheel of the stars above you.  The solar current has revitalized you from the weariness of the dark half of the year. You have received the blessing of the telluric current of the spirit that resides below, of the nurturing heart of the earth, cast your burdens.  Now, we send you off on your journey to seed the future what is to come.”

You see a glowing child who is frolicking with a seed pod in their hands, far off in the field.  They laugh and begin running towards you, with dandelion seeds spiraling up into the warm sprint air.  The child says, “We children know that when you blow on a dandelion, you make wishes.  If the seeds fly far enough, wishes come true.”

After you answer, they hand you a seed pod. “Put your intentions into this pod.  Think about what you would most like to bring into being this coming season.”  As you meditate on this intention, you see the green-gold energy of the telluric current welling up below you, and the golden energy of the solar current coming down from above. The lunar energies swirl into your seed pod, adding energy to your intention for the coming season.  The child nods and blows their own seed head, and beckons for you to do the same.

As you blow, the child says, “Watch the seeds as they blow in the wind and see what messages they have.”  You do so, pausing for as long as necessary.

The child smiles and says, “The seeds are off on their journey, but they will need your help to bring your intention into reality. Think about what you might do as the next sun rises to help you on your new journey.”

The three aspects of the spirit of the dandelion come together to stand with you and the four of you watch as the full moon sets and as the sun rises with a brilliant splendor.  As the sun rises, the dandelion seeds continue to spiral around you, and you are filled with joy and purpose.

Your guides leave you with parting words, “By bringing together the energies of the earth with energies of the sun, we come into a place of balance and the lunar current is born.  And it is in this sacred connection that offers us the spark of Nywfre, the life energy that allows all things to come into being. Through the power of the sun and the moon, through the power of the heavens and earth, the dandelion will aid you on your journey to come.”

You can close your grove in the usual manner.  Finish the journey by having a cup of dandelion and other herbal tea.

About the Symbolism in the Meditative Journey

In my work with the dandelion over the years, I have always been fascinated by how this incredible plant can hold such potent solar and lunar energies.  Through these meditations and work, this journey was born. The symbolism in this journey uses the Druid Revival concepts of the solar current, the telluric current, and the lunar current, or the three aspects of spirit in a seven-element system.  In the Druid Revival, it is the synthesis of the solar current, the light coming down from the sun and heavens, with the telluric current, the light rising from the earth, that allows the spark of life, Nywfre, and the lunar current to be born.  For more on these concepts, consider checking out this post!  This system is used by the Aas our core energetic system.

Dandelion Spring Tonic Tea

If you’d like to supplement this guided journey, you can make either of these delightful teas:

Roasted Dandelion Root “Coffee”

Dandelion root tea is a very rich and warming tea that helps support the body’s natural cleansing with a specific alterative action (which supports the liver’s healthy functioning). Roots are best gathered in the fall and early spring before the dandelions have started into flowers.  Dig your dandelion roots and put them in a bucket of water.  Let them soak for a bit, and then swish them around, and repeat a few times.  This will get most of the dirt off of them–the rest can be scrubbed off.  Dandelion roots can be finely chopped and roasted for about 30 min in a 350-degree oven.  They are done when they brown nicely.  Then, you would make this like any other root tea–boil for 10 minutes with the lid on, add honey if you’d like, and enjoy.

Dandelion Flower and Leaf Tea.  Dandelion leaf also helps cleanse the body, with specific support for the kidneys, with diuretic action. Pick fresh dandelion flowers and leaves and simply pour over boiling water, let steep for 5 min, and then enjoy.  Dried leaves actually make a better tea (dried herbs have the plant cell walls ruptured, so they are easier to extract the medicine).  Be aware that dandelion leaf is a diuretic (makes you pee).

Enjoy a cup of either tea as a spring tonic and a way to begin or end your meditative journey with the dandelion.

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

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

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

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

Ecology

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

Spicebush tree with berries

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

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

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spicebush in Herbalism

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

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

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

Spicebush berries in hand

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

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

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

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

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

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

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Hazel (Corylus americana) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

American Hazelnuts in a cluster getting ready to ripen

For three years, I have had my eye on our American hazel bushes here at the homestead. When we first moved to the property, much of the understory was damaged with the logging the previous owners did and it took time for the hazels to recover.  Thus, for the last few years, I’ve watched the hazels grow taller and larger each year and kept looking excitedly for any signs of nuts setting. This past fall, I was delighted to find handfuls of delicious wild American hazelnuts and connect with the incredible wisdom that they offer.

While Hazel is a critically important tree in the mythology and magical tradition of Druidry and in Europe more broadly, The Hazel is one of the sacred trees identified by the druids as a tree tied to wisdom and the flow of Awen, and it is one of the sacred trees found in the Ogham.  But here in North America, despite having our own native hazels (American Hazelnut and Beaked Hazelnut), we often turn our eyes towards Europe’s mythology and understandings. Thus, in this post, I’d like to share more about the American Hazelnut, and the ecology, uses, herbalism, magic, and myths of this most sacred tree.

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

Ecology

The American Hazel is an understory tree that is native to the eastern half of the United States and into the Eastern half of Canada. The second native Hazel we have is the Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), which has an even wider range in North America–both have fairly similar growth habits.

As a deciduous tree, the American Haze produces brownish-yellow foliage in the fall and is in the birch (Betulae) family. It can tolerate a wide range of soil and light conditions, including acidic or alkali soil and full sun to part shade.  I’ve primarily seen it in the Allegheny mountain region of Western PA either as a full shade understory tree or along part-shade edges of damp deciduous forests.  It has simple, alternate leaves that are shaped like a heart or oblong (which have some variation from region to region) and tiny little hairs running up the branches.  The leaves are toothed and soft to the touch.

Hollie and Ivy Goose help me with this year’s hazelnut harvest!

The Hazel only reaches a height of about 12-15 feet at maturity and spreads in a thick cluster where many smaller hazel trunks will grow out of a single root structure and span 10 feet or more.  Thus, when you find one American Hazel tree cluster, you will often find many more  Hazel grows quickly once planted; it can grow 12-24″ in a single season.  Within seven years (planting from seed), it can produce its first crop of hazelnuts and most of these trees can produce nuts for over 40 years.

While hazels will produce both male catkins and female flowers on the same plant, they are not self-fertile, and thus, require several in order to properly reproduce.  Thus, if you are planning on planting some, keep this in mind.  The male catkins are visible all winter.  In early spring, like spicebush, tiny red clusters (the female flowers) burst forth.  After pollination, the male catkins dry and drop off leaving the female flowers to transition into nut pods that feature two large green bracts (one of the characteristic looks of the hazel).  When the nuts are ripe in the fall (here, this is sometime in September), the green bracts start to go yellow and then brown. An easy way to spot these in the fall as just as the leaves are beginning to come down, you can

Not only are the nuts delicious for humans, they are also highly sought by wildlife including squirrels, deer, turkey, woodpeckers, grouse, pheasants, beavers, fox, quail, and even blue jays.  The male catkins, which stay on the trees all winter, are foraged by ruffed grouse during the lean winter months.  Of course, like all other nuts in the region, nut weevils may be present (in this case, hazelnut weevils, curculio neocorylus).  When you harvest hazels, its a good idea to let them sit for about 7-12 days and let the weevils come out.  I return those to the land and enjoy the rest!

Food Uses

Most obviously, American Hazel produces delicious nuts and they are well worth seeking out if you do any foraging.  Here is a great blog post on foraging for either variety of hazelnut that grows wild in the Americas: beaked hazel or American hazel.   It is important to realize that the wild American Hazelnut is going to be smaller and more flavor intensive than the domestic counterpart; this is because most commercial hazelnuts sold are either European Hazels (about twice the size of American Hazel) or are hybrids.  This is a very common thing among wild foods: the domestic varieties have been bred for size or hybridized, but often at the expense of flavor.  A wild hazelnut will be so rich and flavorful compared to what you will find in the store (also true of wild strawberry, wild raspberry, etc).

Hollie and Ivy can’t wait to try the hazelnuts!

Hazelnuts are able to be enjoyed directly from the tree.  When you harvest them, simply peel off the catkins and you will be left with a nut surrounded by a thin (and easy to crack) shell.  This is for American hazel specifically; the beaked hazels are much harder to shell and you usually have to rot the catkins away (Sam Thayer discusses this technique more in his  You can eat them like this and store the nuts for up to 18 months in a cool place.  If you want to take it a step further, you can  I prefer to roast them slightly in the oven.  To do this, you can crack the nuts and then roast them at 275 for 15 or so minutes–you want them slightly brown but not scorched.  Or, if you have a wood-burning stove, you can just put your nuts on the top of the stove for 10 -15 minutes in their cracked shell and roast that way.  If you have enough, you can grind up your roasted nuts and make incredible nut butter. Beyond roasting, you can use American Hazelnuts in any recipe that would call for commercial hazelnut:  cookies, ice cream, sprinkled over salads, etc.

In Edible Plants of Eastern North America (1943), Fernald and Kinsey note that American Hazels were harvested extensively in the country and ground into a meal, which was then baked into a cake-like bread.

John Eastman in Forest and Thicket notes that the hazelnut oil, when pressed, can be used for perfumes and that the wood has traditionally been made into charcoals for drawing.

Other Uses

Within the permaculture community, Hazelnuts are an important crop for food forests and to support perennial agriculture.  The entire idea behind perennial agriculture is that we can plant trees or other crops once and then gain many harvests, and cultivate a food forest rather than an annual vegetable garden.  This has made nut crops, like chestnut and hazelnut, important symbols in that movement.

Beautiful Hazels

American Hazel, like all other hazels, has the ability to be coppiced.  This means that once established, you can cut the tree back to the roots and harvest the thin trunks. There are coppiced hazels in parts of Europe that have been a continual source of raw material for centuries; this is a very sustainable and regenerative practice. Within a few years, the hazel will send up new wood and regrow.

Because Hazels are understory trees without thick trunks, most of the wood applications in Hazel have to do with their ability to produce lots of small, flexible branches and be coppiced. Hazelwood has been traditionally used for building small structures like fences, in wattle and daub natural construction, in building the traditional coracle boat, or for creating supports in a garden.

Native American Uses

American Hazel in Winter with large Catkins

Erichsen-Brown notes in Medicinal and other uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes the extensive uses of Hazelnut among Native Americans in North America. Archeological evidence demonstrates Hazelnuts at an Iroquan site and in caves in what is now Ohio in Pennsylvania; this evidence dates from 800-1400 AD that large amounts of nuts were consumed by the tribes living here.  Hazelnuts were dried, ground up, made into meals and gravies, and used to create mush.  The oil was also used for hair and mixed with bear grease by the Iroquis.  

Medicinally, the Hurons used a bark poultice of the hazelnut tree for ulcers and tumors.  The Chippewa used hazel and white oak roots combined with the inner bark of chokecherry and the heart of ironwood for hemorrhages or serious lung conditions.  Similarly, the Ojibwa used the bark poultice on cuts.

The inner bark was used by the Chippewa (along with butternut or inner bark of white oak) as a dye for blankets, rushes, and more.  A recipe given in Erichson-brown is to use the hulls from the nuts to set the black dye of butternut when boiled with tannic acid.  The Chippewa and the Ojibwe also made drumsticks of hazel along with brooms and twig baskets.  The bark was also used to expel worms, in a similar fashion to walnut.

Hazel does not appear to feature much in the legends that I have read of Native American traditions. Since so much was lost due to the cultural and physical genocide of many tribes, however, it is hard to say what magic the Hazel may have had to these amazing peoples.

Hazel in the Western Magical Traditions

Simple Hazel wand

In Celtic mythology, Hazel was an extremely important tree and tied directly to the mythology of the druid tradition. In Irish mythology in the Finnean cycle, it is written that the Hazel tree is the very first tree to come into creation and that all of the knowledge of the world was contained in the Hazel tree.  The Salmon of Wisdom (An Bradán Feasa) lived in the Well of Wisdom (Tobar Segais) which was surrounded by nine sacred Hazel trees with their wisdom-containing nuts. The nuts of the trees dropped into the water and eaten by the Salmon. The first person to catch and eat the Salmon would gain this knowledge.  While many tried and failed, Finnegas spent seven years fishing and finally caught it. Finnegas sets his apprentice, the young Deimne Maol, to prepare the fish but not to eat it.  Deimne sets the fish upon a spit and begins to cook it. In the process of cooking when the fish is nearly prepared, Deimne burns his thumb and puts his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain–and, of course, acquires all of the knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom. Deimne becomes Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fin McCool), the leader of the fabled Fianna and hero of many Irish tales. Those students of Welsh druidry will note the similarities between this story and the one describing how Gwion became Taliesin.  In modern revival Druidry, the wisdom of the hazel and the Salmon of Wisdom in the sacred pool remains very important symbols of our tradition.

Greer notes in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic that Hazel has been used by magicians extensively throughout the West.  Hazel is best used for wands and various kinds of divination rods and sticks (including dowsing).  Cut the hazel with a single stroke with a consecrated knife at sunrise on a Wednesday for the best effect.  Hazelwood makes an excellent wand and transmits energy effectively. Greer also notes that the nuts are excellent for communing with Mercury or connecting with Mercurial energies.   One area that I disagree with Greer about, however, is that he says that Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) and American Hazel are interchangeable. In my own experience, while witch hazel became the traditional wood for dowsing rods, I do not believe these woods serve similar functions on the landscape, and thus, I have found them to have different magical qualities.

In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the wood was used for dowsers extensively in the British Isles.  In the Ogham, hazel is noted as the “fairest of the trees” and is tied to the flow of Awen, divine inspiration, particularly for the crafting of poetry.  The other thing Blamires notes, which I have not been able to find an original source for, is that there is a ritual by the druids called “Diechetel Do Chenaid” where chewing hazelnuts were used for inspiration or to learn of something lost.  I’m not sure if this ritual comes from myth or is speculation, so if anyone knows more about it, I would appreciate them sharing!  Finally, Hazel wands (probably due to their Mercurial connections) were used as a symbol for a herald.

Hazelnut does not appear to have any uses within other folk traditions in the Americas, such as Hoodoo.

The Divination and Magic of the Hazel

American Hazel Harvest

Given everything above: the ecology, food uses, and mythology surrounding hazel, I’d like to propose the following three divination and magical uses for American Hazel.

Wisdom.  While the mythology surrounding wisdom and creative inspiration comes from the British Isles, I think that mythology is strong for those of us practicing druidry in the US today.  Thus, the American hazel is associated with Wisdom and knowledge, just as the British counterpart.

Creative Inspiration and the flow of Awen. Flowing inspiration of all kinds comes from working with the Hazel tree.  Be inspired by the joy and connection this tree offers.  Eat of the hazelnuts and find your inspiration!  Bring hazel into your life through the crafting of wands, amulets, and more to encourage that flow.

Renewable tools.  Hazel offers many tools and gifts for those seeking a sustainable lifestyle and to transition to more sustainable practices.  Thus, Hazel offers the knowledge and uses of its many tools and the idea of sharing these practices widely.  Hazel offers much hope for us to think about how to transition from mono-crop agriculture that is destroying the land to instead, work with the energy of the hazel, a tree that can be infinitely renewable and incredibly generous.

Friends, readers, I would love to hear your experiences with the Hazels where you live!  What have you experienced or discovered about them?

Beyond the Anthropocene: Druidry into the Future

Druidry into the future

Druidry today has both ancient and modern roots, and there have been several distinct “phases” of druid practice historically. While it’s not critical that the practitioner of the modern druid traditions know what I share, it is helpful to have a sense of where the tradition comes from and the forces that shaped it–particularly so that we can think about where we are going.  I want to talk today about both the past of druidry in order that we might talk about its future.  How do we shape our tradition today so that we become the honored ancestors of tomorrow? What is the work that we might consider doing now, as druids, to create a tradition that endures?

Modern druidry is inspired by the Ancient Druids, a group of wise sages who kept history, traditions, and guided the spiritual life of their people. The Ancient Druids lived in areas of Britain and Gaul (modern-day France) as well as in other parts of Europe; the earliest records of the Ancient Druids start around 300 BCE and go about the second century CE, when they were wiped out by the Romans. The ancient Druids had three branches of study: the bard (a keeper of history, stories, and songs), the ovate (a sage of nature or shaman), and the druid (the keeper of the traditions, leader of spiritual practices, and keeper of the law). Much of what we know about the Ancient Druids today comes through their surviving legends, stories, mythology, and the writings of Roman authors. The druids themselves had a prohibition against writing anything down that was sacred, and so, we have only fragments of what their tradition looked like. But fragments cannot be a full spiritual tradition.

Centuries later, at a time when industrialization began to rise in the in the British Isles in 18th century, a new group of people in the British Isles became interested in the Ancient Druids. Modern Druidry’s spiritual ancestors watched as the wheels of industrialization radically and irrevocably changed the landscape: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress; the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities; deforestation and pollution becoming commonplace; and the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to that of a machine. Modern druidry’s spiritual ancestors began to shape a new druid tradition, inspired by the ancient druids, and beginning with the fragments that had been left behind by the ancients: texts and stone circles alike. The Druid Revivalists reached deeply and creatively into history to return to an earlier time where humans and nature were connected. The Druid Revival movement, therefore, sought to reconnect with nature through ancient and ancestral roots in a time where the broader wheels of industrialization was pushing humans into a very different kind—and ultimately destructive—relationship with nature. It is for this same reason that people today are drawn to the modern druid tradition–there is “something” missing for them and what is missing is often rooted in that lack of connection with the living earth. (Note: This discussion of the rise of modern druidry is heavily influenced by the work of John Michael Greer in the Druidry Handbook.

It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how druidry is a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world. Despite the early promise of industrialization and, later, consumerism, we are now living in a world on the brink of ecological collapse. Many of us recognize that we must make a different way forward, and druidry offers one such way. For over 300 years, the ancient druids have offered modern people sources of inspiration and reconnection. The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as much as it is a crisis of culture. Druidry, then, is helping us find our way “home.”

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--rebuilding sacred landscape features

Stone Circles – Honoring the ways of our ancestors and creating the sacred spaces for the future

Sharing historically where the druid tradition came from helps us get to what I see as the core of druidry today: focusing on what an ecologically-centered, wildcrafted, localized and living druidry today can look like, how it can help us reconnect, and how it offers us spiritual and practical tools for responding—and taking care of ourselves and the living earth—during the ecological crisis of our age. 

Descending in spirit from the Ancient Druids and descending in principle from the druid revival several centuries ago, the Druid tradition in the 21st century is shaping up to be a vibrant one that focuses both on drawing deeply from the past but also creating a living tradition, and evolving tradition, that meets the needs of both druids and the earth today. I really want to push us to deepen and extend druid practices and the druid tradition—not by eliminating or removing pieces from the existing tradition, but building upon it.

Druidry, as a tradition in its current form (that is, as a path of nature spirituality) has been around less than two centuries. Many druids are scattered around the world, being in small groups or always as solo practitioners. Communities of druids are formalizing, expanding, and establishing their own traditions and paths, rooted in the frameworks of the druid revival tradition.

Druidry is a language that we are starting—only now—to learn how to speak. The metaphor of how a new language is formed is a helpful metaphor in terms of the druid tradition. New languages often form from what is known as a “contact zone.” This is when two established languages come into contact (say, through trade, resettlement, or colonialization) and speakers of each language intermingle and have to figure out how to communicate. What initially forms is what linguists call a “pidgin” language, a language with limited vocabulary from both languages, simplified grammar (usually borrowed from one of the languages, often the dominant one), and limited ways of communicating. This is not anyone’s native language, but something created out of a basic need to communicate. In time, typically a generation or two, the pidgin language becomes a creole language. This happens when children are born hearing the language and acquire it as native speakers. These new native speakers help shape the pidgin language beyond its initial simplified form with more elaborate grammatical structures that can allow for more complex meaning, a richer vocabulary, and so on. Eventually, given enough time, the creole language becomes its own language that is distinct and fully independent from either the parent languages.

Learning how to speak a new language of connection

Many of us are speaking druidry as a pidgin language—we began to walk this path within a contact zone of other dominant religions and childhood religions that have shaped our thinking, reactions, and beliefs. And the basic forms of druidry, like those published in many pioneering books and early curricula from this tradition, helped us get the job done as we developed our unique nature spirituality.  These included basic practices like connecting with nature, celebrating the seasons, practicing the bardic arts, working with spirit. But as we grow into our own druidry, both as individuals and as communities, the kinds of material and practices becoming part of this tradition are expanding considerably.

I believe that druidry as a community is in the place of transitioning from a pidgin to a creole language. As more and more people find our tradition and practice it seriously, and as children begin to be born into and grow up in this tradition, as we are increasingly surrounded by groves and communities, we are able to fully develop and expand various parts of the druid tradition to fit these expanded needs. I’ve witnessed this here in the United States on the East Coast, for example, with tremendous growth not only in the number of druid gatherings per year and number of people wanting to attend, but also the kinds of activities we now do at gatherings: community building, coming of age ceremonies, bardic competitions, croning, and saging rituals, the development of permanent sacred spaces and the creation of widespread energetic networks, and more. Our language of druidry is expanding, and each new voice and perspective has much to offer.

So then, how might we “expand” the language of druidry?  I think every single person on this path, from those new to those who have been walking it for a long time has the opportunity to do so.  Here are some of the ways we might engage in this practice:

1. Develop and Share Wildcrafted and Localized Druidries. While druidry originated in the British Isles, there are more people who practice druidry worldwide and here in North America than ever before.  While I think we should see the British Isles as part of the wisdom and background, it is part of that original contact zone language for those of us who are not in the British Isles.  We will certainly be inspired by the mythology, sacred sites, and spiritual practices–but we must embrace the idea of creating something new that is specifically adapted to where we are rooted today.  For those who don’t live in the British Isles, it is very important to develop locally-based and wildcrafted practices.  The Ancient Order of Druids in America is very committed to a wildcrafted druidry path and has an entire curriculum built around wildcrafted druidry as a core principle. Through learning about ecology, planting trees, spending time in nature, and exploring nature through the bardic, ovate, and druid arts, druids get a deeper sense of place and are able to thus, create a wildcrafted druidry that fits their own immediate ecosystem.

Once you have developed these approaches to druidry, I really want to encourage you to share them.  Put that information out there in the world so that others who live in similar bioregions can learn localized practices.  If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that’s a lot of what I’m doing here–my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, the Allegheny Ogham, how to make Tree Incenses, Acorn Flour, Tree Wassailing, so many more pieces–these are all pieces of localized druidry that I have developed while living in both the US Midwest and the US Mid-Atlantic regions.  If these pieces help others, the tradition becomes richer and more robust. 

2. Put tired debates of authenticity behind us and instead focus on today and tomorrow. Perhaps this is my revival druid path bias showing, but I am growing very tired of talking about authenticity. I don’t think it moves our tradition forward in any meaningful way, and I think it is disrespectful to our direct spiritual ancestors. Yes, a lot of the early druid revival works and authors have been discredited for taking liberties and creating texts; I find these attempts to discredit them problematic for several reasons, particularly for those who practice druidry.  First, they were working within the bounds of acceptable practice within their own age, not ours. This was an age where forgery and plagiarism of texts were common. Second, the practices of the druid revival tradition work—as attested by tens of thousands of druids worldwide.  If it works, obviously, it was inspired. Third, at this point, some druid revival texts, such as Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas, have considerably shaped our tradition for several centuries. And finally, regardless of some of their practices, the Druid Revivalists as a group had an enormous impact in a wide range of fields including modern archeology, poetry, culture, and certainly, nature spirituality.  We have fragments from the ancients, and we have a rich history from the revival–both of those shape who we are today.  But it is modern practitioners–you and I–shape who we are tomorrow. So I suggest we set aside these discussions, acknowledge that the practices work, and think about what we are doing today–and how we can move into a better tomorrow.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

4.  Focus on being a good ancestor. It strikes me that in the age of the present predicament we face, one of the most important things we can do is live today in a way that makes us good ancestors. What can we do today–spiritually, physically, socially, creatively–to create a better world than the one we live in? That preserves the diversity of life on this planet? That helps humans reconnect with the living earth?  These are the kinds of questions that I find really important now, both for my own practice and in the mentoring and support that I offer those in the AODA and broader druid community.  Druidry offers an alternative perspective to the dominant narratives that are currently killing our planet.  It is important that concepts like nature spirituality are rooted firmly now so that these ideas may flourish beyond our own lives. 

5. Create refugia and regenerate ecosystems. As I’ve discussed before on this blog, there are physical and metaphysical practices we can do now, given the challenges we face as a world.  One of the most powerful we can do is preserve small pockets of life and foster ecosystems in any way we can.  Refugia are how so many species–including humans–survived the last ice age.  Small pockets of abundant life not only support the many species on this planet (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, etc) but also offer humans places to deepen their connection to nature.  You can learn more about how to create a refugia or one example of a refugia here.  Another method that is extremely empowering is learning and practicing permaculture design.  These approaches allow us to do more than honor nature or work with it metaphysically, but be a force of good right now, today, and a champion of all life.

6.  Practice resilience.  If events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that the concept of resilience is going to be a critical skill in the years and decades to come.  Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems were those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure.  This same concept, I believe, is central to any spiritual work we do.  We need to become both physically and spiritually resilient so that we can continue to face the difficulties that will only grow in seriousness as we live our lives and continue to walk our spiritual paths.

But resilience isn’t easy–it is a process.  I would argue that it requires both inner and outer work. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave. Practicing resilience requires us to privilege our own self-care, put things in perspective, and continue to work through our own feelings. It requires us to understand our own fears, weaknesses, and shadow selves.  Resilence in our physical lives is something that, thankfully, many more people are attending to now than they were a year ago.  It means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented (like global pandemics or food shortages).  Physical resilience is about having your basic hierarchy of needs met, even in a time of disruption. It is a good time to start growing some of your own food, look into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and make sure that you have a monthm at a minimum, of stores to meet your needs. Physical resilience is also about being flexible and opportunistic, almost like the understory trees I wrote about several weeks ago–learning how to be resourceful and adaptable.  I would argue that resilience is a mindset that you can learn.  Resilience is the great challenge of our age, and will allow us to face any other challenges with strength, wisdom, and peace.  It will certainly help facilitate our work in other areas, and will allow us to thrive even in difficult conditions.

I think these are only some of the things we might do now to help us shape a better future for tomorrow.  But I like to think along these lines, in a positive way, because that allows all of us to do good in the world and keep moving in peace, joy, and hope.

Wildcrafted Druidry: Using the Doctrine of Signatures, Ecology and Mythology to Cultivate Sacred Relationships with Trees

A stream in winter

Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.

With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices.  The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.

In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees.  You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham).  You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own. 

The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!

Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important.  As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection.  Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features.  Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate.  You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you.  If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done.  All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.

Background

As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021!  This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore.  A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel.  These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.

This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project.  I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!

Developing Personal Tree Lore

The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below.  Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts).  In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.

Insight, Experience, and UPG

The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience.  Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below.  The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree.  What sticks out to you here?  What relationship with the tree do you already have?

The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here.  These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.

All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree.  Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant.  A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us.  Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact”  or something that applies to everyone.  As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem.  For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community.  That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.

The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source.  In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique.  I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards.  I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years.  And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder.  In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well.  Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces.  And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Mullein has lessons to teach!

Mullein has lessons to teach!

The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs.  The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.

The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer.  Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.

This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations.  Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc.  This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.

Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem

You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions.  Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know.  For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp.  Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.

You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem.  John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US).  My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better.  And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says.  A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.

The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!

Folk Naming Practices

Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to  However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.

Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family.  Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant.  You get the idea.

Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

The human uses of wood

Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally.  What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like?  Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things?  Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities.  Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods.  For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!

I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you.  You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.

Human Uses: Food

Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on.  Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online.  You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare.  I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!

Human Uses: Herbalism

Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning.  Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.

Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way?  Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc?  This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.

First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees.  These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer.  A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk.  Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk.  Do your research here because it matters.

Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns.  As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues.  Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).

Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.

Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions

This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list.  This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book.  Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree.  Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively.  Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here.  When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic).  Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species.  I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name).  While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties.  Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!

Traditional Native American Uses and Lore

Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore.  If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition.  I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth.  In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that  I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants.  At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own.  So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.

Bringing it All Together

The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree.  But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together.  From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you?  How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice?  How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all?  And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?

It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way.  That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Rhododendron (Rhododenron maximum)

A Rhododendron overlooking a foot path at Laurel Hill State Park

I remember the first time I saw the largest Rhododendron Maximum tree. I had recently moved back to Pennsylvania, and I was driving on 422 towards my parents’ house when I looked to the left and did a double-take!  An enormous Rhododendron, in bloom, at least 40 feet across and 20 feet high was in full bloom.  And, it was dwarfing the house it was growing next to.  After doing a little local research, I learned about how famous this rhododendron has been in our region. Ever since then, each time I pass, the Rhododendron and I exchange a little greeting.

As someone who lives in the Allegheny Mountains, Rhododendron has a special place in my heart.  It is one of the dominant understory trees (and yes, it often is the size of trees here!), growing both in deciduous and conifer (Hemlock) forests, encrusting rivers, and streams, and adding so much beauty to our land. Often confused with Mountain Laurel (see this PDF for some differences), Rhododendron is part of the Laurel-Azalea-Rhododendron group of plants in the Heather family (Ericaceae).  Rhododendrons can be found throughout the world and have some key distinguishing features.  I’m focusing my attention today on the  Rhododendron Maximum species, which is also known as Great Laurel, Great Rhododendron, Rosebay Rhododendron, American Rhododendron, Bayis, Late Rhododendron, or Big Rhododendron. If you don’t have Rhododendron Maximum, you can substitute any number of other Ericaceae species such as Mountain Laurel, another Rhododendron variety (including ornamental), or Azaela. Many people have these shrubs growing already as ornamentals in their yards or local towns if they don’t have them in the wild, making this a good plant to work with not only for those in the Appalachian mountains but those in suburban and urban areas.

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

Ecology and Growth

The Great Rhododendron grows within most of the Appalachian Mountains, although the dominance and size can vary greatly.  It spans from eastern Georgia to Nova Scotia, and I will say, it is particularly dominant and amazing here in the Allegheny mounts of Western Pennsylvania. Here, you can see it as a small shrub, 8-10 feet high, and up to enormous sizes.  Rhododendrons can grow to 25 or 30 feet tall, twisting, beautiful, and magical. Their waxy simple leaves are evergreen, offering color and vibrancy year-round.  In June, they bloom with beautiful pink clusters of trumpet-like flowers that provide a fantastic nectar source for bees, moths, wasps, and hummingbirds.  This is why they are planted so widely as an ornamental–because they are truly stunning.

Rhododendron in bloom!

The leaves on the Rhododendron appear almost tropical. They vary from 3″ to over 8″ in length on older branches.  They grow in a spiral pattern starting at the top of the branch and spiral down the branch, demonstrating the sacred geometry present in this lovely tree.  Like other conifers, Rhododendron will drop and regrow a small number of leaves each year but stay green year-round.

In the wintertime, when the temperatures drop well below freezing, the rhododendron drops its leaves straight down and curls them up so that they look like long tubes.  This prevents the leaves from suffering cold damage.  As soon as the temperatures warm up, the rhododendron unfolds its leaves and spreads them to the winter sun. This shows incredible resilience and adaptability.   One of the ways the hillbillies here in Western PA know it is “damn cold out” is by looking at the Rhododendron leaves!

Rhododendrons particularly like to grow along the edges of streams and are found in both deciduous oak-hickory overstory forests and also in Hemlock/white pine forests.  It particularly enjoys wet areas, so you can often find it along riparian zones (particularly on the edges of smaller and medium-sized streams) and also in places where we have rocky outcrops, ravines, and hidden springs.  Rhododendrons are usually kept in check by a thick overstory.  There are cases where logging or other disruption of the overstory will allow the rhododendrons to spread for acres and acres–I once hiked through a few miles of one such situation in New England and it was quite an experience.

Woodburning Rhododendron

Rhododendrons to provide two important ecological functions: because of where they grow, their deep roots perform excellent soil and erosion control.  Because they have large leaves that are evergreen, they also provide excellent shelter–particularly winter shelter–to a host of birds and small mammals.

The rhododendrons also grow in a very whimsical way–they grow twisted, branches coming out at odd angles, and sometimes growing down and back up again.  I have long been a whimsical nature artist, and their whimsical, twisted, spiraling branches and trunks have always been an inspiration for me for my own work.

Uses

The Rhododendron, as an understory species, does not grow particularly large and thus, has limited use as a wood product. In fact, none of the books and resources that I currently use to research this series, none covered Rhododendron.

Beautiful Rhododendron Bloom

And yet, as someone who has worked with this wood, both to carve and burn, I am delighted to say that it is a wonderful wood.  I seek it out for my artwork because it is just perfect–not as hard to work as oak or hickory, it has a softness similar to maple or tulip poplar. It has a rosy, soft texture, which is excellent for doing precise woodburning and carving.  It has a very consistent light rose color from the thin bark to the core.  I like to turn it into wands, staves, and most especially, create necklaces from slices.  When I am kayaking out here on local streams and lakes, I look for recently dead rhododendron pieces for this work.

In the woodworking community, you’ll find other people posting about their experience in using it for wood carving, woodturning, and other fine wood products. One of the features of this wood that is often lauded is that it rarely cracks as it dries. The bushcraft community also uses this to make very fine charcoals for a variety of purposes.  One of my future plans is to make charcoal and see how it works for art–my choice has been grapevine or willow for a number of years, but I suspect this may also work great.

A Rhododendron in deep winter (outside temperature: 12 degrees F)

One of the big debates about using Rhododendron is that the leaves and flowers contain grayanotoxin, which can be fatal if ingested.   All evidence suggests that while the greenwood is toxic, the dried wood is fine to burn and to use (here is one such analysis).  If you are going to do woodburnings or anything else, because of the plant’s toxicity, I do suggest that you invest in a soldering smoke absorber–these are very inexpensive and can filter out any smoke you may have concerns about.

Beyond the wood, I am unaware of any other uses.  This is in part because Rhododendron (along with Azelela and Mountain Laurel) is poisonous, and thus, they do not have any herbal uses.  When a plant does not have herbal uses, I have found it also often does not have magical ones, at least recorded ones.  I have not found any lore or stories associated with this species, despite its critical importance and dominance in the ecosystem.

Divination and Meanings

Like some of my other overlooked understory plants, there isn’t a lot to go on without any magical or folklore traditions surrounding Rhododendron.  Despite this, the ecological aspects themselves offer us some key insights.  In particular, I think Rhododendron teaches us lessons about how to thrive in adversity and how to make the most of more difficult situations.  While these are lessons that are always appropriate, they are particularly useful now.

Adaptability and Opportunity.  As I recently wrote, there is a wide range of plants that thrive in the understory and that thrive in the cold and dark months when the overstory is bare.  Rhododendron is one of these plants, demonstrating adaptability, resilience, and opportunity.  Rhododendron offers a clear message: in times of dark and cold, find a way to grow, to thrive, and to make lemonade from lemons!

Extreme sheltering!

Sheltering in the extremes. The winter leaf foliage of Rhododendron takes the opportunity to spread wide when the warmer winter temperatures are present.  However, when the temperatures go freezing, Rhododendron drops her leaves and curls the leaves up tightly to prevent frost damage.  This adaptability, combined with shelter, is a powerful healing message.  There are times we need to shelter, but we should only do so when the conditions warrant it.  After a blast of sub-arctic cold and wind, it is ok to curl up tightly.  The key is to remember to uncurl when the situation changes.

Growing your own way.  Rhododendron is unlike anything else in the ecosystem here in Pennsylvania. It teaches us the power of individuality and growing in whatever whimsical and beautiful way you want. Rhododendron reminds us to be whoever we want to be.  And we can do that regardless of the circumstances that are affecting the outside world.  What a powerful and potent lesson for 2020 and beyond!

Dear readers, do you have experiences with rhododendron?  If so, are you willing to share?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  Blessings!