The Druid's Garden

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

Building Deep Plant Relationships at Lughnassadh July 29, 2018

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Last weekend, some druid friends came over for a retreat with a focus on land healing. As part of the ritual we collaboratively developed, we wanted to make an offering to the spirits of the land. I went to my sacred tobacco patch and carefully gathered leaves drying at the bottoms of the plant and flowers for use in this offering, humming a song that the tobacco had taught me and making sure that none of the leaves hit the ground in the process. The ritual went beautifully well and the offering was well received by the spirits.  After the weekend, it struck me how long my relationship with these particular tobacco plants was–more than a decade at this point from seed to leaf to flower to seed.  And how I had something to share about cultivating this relationship over time.

 

So I thought I’d take a short–yet related–detour from my “connecting with nature series” to talk about plant spirit and plant relationship work, specifically tied to Lughnassadh, and building sacred relationships with plants over time, using the wheel of the year and wheel of the seasons.

 

Lughnassadh and Sacred Plants

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

Lughnassadh is an ancient Gaelic festival still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.  Of course, Lughnassadh is also a holiday celebrated by many druids and other neo-pagans today as part of the wheel of the year.  While traditions vary from region to region and group to group, it is largely agreed upon that Lughnassadh always was and is a “first harvest” festival.  In my neck of the woods, early August is just when some of the most important crops are coming into season: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, wild berries, elderberries, and more. I’ve come to see Lughnassadah as a festival dedicated to the plant kingdom, not only because of the abundance that the plants produce this time of year in temperate climates, but also become of my long-term work as an herbalist.

 

As I wrote about some years ago, Lughnassadh is a perfect time to make sacred plant medicine and harvest herbs. The power of the sun is energizing, the herbs are in full bloom and many are at the peak of their growing, and the weather is warm for wandering among the weeds. It is after that moment in early August that we start seeing die back and die off of many medicinal herbs as the fall grows nearer and nearer.

 

Today, though, we aren’t just talking about any herb harvesting–we are talking about cultivating deep relationships with one or more plants on a long-term, perhaps lifetime journey.  I first share my story of the sacred tobacco that I have been growing for over a decade, and then share ideas for you to start cultivating your own deep relationship with a special plant.

 

The Story of Sacred Tobacco

I remember tucking the small packet of seeds, a gift from a gardener, herbalist, and wise woman, into my bag ever-so-carefully.  A gift like this was meant to be cherished, and I couldn’t wait till the next spring when I would be able to start some of the seeds. Like little specs of dirt, the tobacco seeds called to me, “plant me, plant me, give me good soil” and I assured them that all of this would come to pass.

 

In the spring, after opening up a sacred grove for planting (something I do regularly with my spring seed starting) I scattered them on some growing trays, and covered them with the finest layer of soil. They sprung up almost immediately, with almost 100% of them germinating, their little fuzzy green leaves reaching toward the light. Within two weeks, I transplanted them, and they grew quickly, getting big succulent leaves and putting up stems.  I transplanted them again, and they grew even bigger.  By the time the last frost had come and gone, they were in large plastic cups straining to get in the ground. I created a special wheel of the year garden for them in a warm and sunny location and into the ground they went.

 

The continuity of the seed....

The continuity of the seed….tobacco pods ready to harvest.

Its fun when you are growing a new plant for the first time; all the photos or descriptions in the world never substitute for the plant itself and its glorious spirit.  This is especially true when you don’t even know what the plant exactly is! I hadn’t grown tobacco before.  My tobacco plants, the 15 or so that took root, were delighted with their new space.  They put on leaf, and then, grew masses of beautiful little flowers that looked like elongated yellow parasols.  As the flowers grew ready to fall off, the plant told me to harvest them and dry them, and I did.  The flowers turned into large seed pods, which eventually grew brown–along with the rest of the plant–and burst open, self seeding for the following spring.

 

At Lughnassadh that first season, I carefully harvested the leaves and lay them in the sun to dry–since my intention was an offering tobacco, something grown solely as an offering to the land and not smoked–I didn’t have to worry about the complexities surrounding the curing of tobacco. I later learned that I wouldn’t have wanted to either way, as this variety has an extremely high nicotine content (and I am not a smoker, ceremonially or otherwise). I let the leaves dry out and go brown and yellow, and then crumbled them up, added the flowers I had already saved, and stored it all in a jar.  I created a little leather pouch and filled the pouch with the tobacco, and went off to make some offerings. The land loved the offering and asked for more and more, so I carried the pouch with me and used it often. I saved the seeds and began sharing them with some people I felt drawn to give them to. I saved the stalks and used them in my smudge sticks. This is the same tobacco (and later, tobacco blend) that I recently talked about in my Beltane Offering Blend post–that blend is my current favorite for creating an offering.

 

Later, I learned that these seeds were nicotinia rustica seeds, also known as “wild tobacco”, “shamanic tobacco” or “Aztec tobacco.”  It is native to North America (and hardy to zone 8), but is no longer widely cultivated in the Americas because the more common tobacco, nicotinia tabacum, is what is now prized and grown. Nicotina Tabacum is much less harsh, with 1-3% nicotine content, which is what people smoke in cigarettes and pipes.  Rustica, on the other hand, has up to 9% nicotine; in some places in the Americas, it is used as an entheogen or as one of the ingredients in herbal blends that also contain Ayahuasca (likely, this is why it is called “shamanic tobacco”). It is believed by some South American Shamans that tobacco is a plant that gives you access to the spirit of many other plants; it is like a gateway plant to the deeper plant mysteries.  I have found this to be true, even though I only use it as the plant has directed–as an offering.

 

Each year I had a garden, I planted this plant, and gave it a privileged space. If I planted only a few things when I didn’t have a garden, my tobacco would always be planted first to be planted. And each year, I saved seeds. Each year, I kept my pouch with me and offered the tobacco regularly to the land–and it was always extremely well received.

 

Over time and over various harvests, the plant shared some of its deeper mysteries with me, a song for harvesting, for example.  Now, when I start new seeds in the early spring, the first sprouts are like an old friend, greeting me once more. I sing the songs, I sow the seeds.  Since I save the seeds, my relationship with these particular seeds, this particular plant continues and persists throughout my lifetime, and in the many cycles of this annual plant’s lifetime. As Lughnassadh is here this week, I will continue my annual tradition of harvesting the plants as they go to seed, laying the leaves in the sun, and continuing this cycle into the future years. I will once again mix my blend and fill up my jar for the year till the spring when I plant again.

 

My choice of tobacco originally wasn’t my own; they were gifts of seeds and I wanted to see them grow.  But in retrospect, I am delighted that this tobacco is now so firmly in my life. I really like the fact that my sacred tobacco has only one use to me–an offering–and that use is critical for my interaction with the broader land.  I also liked the idea of “reclaiming” tobacco from the ways that it has been abused (and grown in a toxic and unceremonial way) by my broader culture.  So part of this work was “reclaiming” a native sacred plant, and part of it was building a brand new relationship with that plant that was my own, not built on any previous culture’s use.

 

This isn’t my only plant relationship–each of the relationships is unique and its own.  But this is certainly one of my more potent ones, and therefore, is a good illustration of the larger technique I’m sharing today.

 

Plant Spirit Connections and Practices

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

So here’s a simple technique you might do, based on what I’ve written about above: choose a plant to cultivate a deeply sacred relationship with. Plan on this relationship spanning a period of time, years or decades, if possible. Rituals and sacred actions have meaning in part because we repeat them; the more repetition we have over the years, the deeper the connection and meaning.

 

I would recommend choosing a plant that has some sacred use to you and that you can grow, even if its in a pot or on a sunny windowsill.  For the method I offer above, I think the cultiavation of it is important.  If you aren’t cultivating the plant, I would suggest one you have regular access to, and that you can “tend” in some way (pruning, scattering seeds, etc).

 

In terms of sacred use, there are so many options:

  • an offering plant, one that you use to make offerings to the land, ancestors, spirits, diety, etc (this is where my tobacco mainly fits)
  • a smudge stick or incense plant, one that is used to help purify and cleanse a space (also can be an offering)
  • a culinary plant that you use for cooking special meals or creating sacred drinks at sacred times (see, for example, my elderflower recipe)
  • a visionary plant, one that helps you open new doorways
  • a brewing plant, one that can be used to create sacred alcoholic beverages (and you might check out Buhner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some inspiration)
  • a plant for sacred decor, see for example my post on Yule decorations
  • a sacred crafting plant, a plant you can make something from (like cordage, plant dyes and inks, cattail paper, etc)

 

Spend some time selecting your plant–there is no rush.  The plant will be there when you are ready.  Your plant has lived hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, she will wait for you to be ready to begin this work.  In my case, I had no previous relationship with tobacco at all (and had avoided my culture’s use of it); but for other plants I work with in this way, I certainly have had previous relationships (sometimes spanning back to my childhood). By the time I do this work, they are already good friends :).

 

Begin simply by planting your plant or finding it in the wild, watching it grow.  If it doesn’t yet grow where you live, cultivate it. When you interact with your plant, especially for sowing and harvesting, try to do so in an open grove/sacred space.  This helps establish, from the beginning, the sacredness of your relationship with this plant.

 

Visit your plant often. Pay attention to how it grows, how it moves in the wind and how the rain washes over it. Learn your plant in the physical world: learn how it grows in each stage of its life cycle. If it is a perennial, watch it die back and be reborn in the spring. If it is an annual, carefully save its seed each year and plant again to bring your sacred relationship with you as the years go on. Learn what pests may eat it and how to prevent those pests.

 

Connect with the plant in spirit. Listen for the plant’s inner song (each plant has a song, and may reveal that song in time to you). Find out if the plant has a sacred name she wants you to use–and call her by that name.  Find out if you can use that name with others, or if she wants you to keep it to herself.

 

If you can consume part of the plant, do so, and see how it works within you. Do some meditation after consuming your plant; see how it feels and what it reveals. If you want to get even more radical, do a fast and consume only the plant (or tea from the plant) if it is edible; let it sustain you (again, Buhner’s work on fasting may be helpful to you here).

 

Ready to harvest!

Ready to harvest!

Find your sacred harvesting time–perhaps it is Lughnassadh, perhaps some other sacred day on the wheel of the year or a full moon.  Discover how the plant wants to be harvested and prepared; use your intuition and go with the flow of it. Use the plant respectfully, taking just enough to get you to the next harvest (perennial) or saving the seeds carefully (annual).

 

Let the years pass, and continue to build your relationship with the plant. Be slow to speak of this work, and speak of it only when directed by the plant (as tobacco has asked of me); this will keep the magic between you and the plant.  As the years pass, you will grow quite close–and your sacred plant will always be there, with you, offering her quiet presence. The plant will help show you the way to her magic, her stories, her songs. All that you need to do is begin with an open mind, patience and perseverance, and let her guide the way.  Blessings of the plant kingdom this first harvest season!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part II: Nature Wisdom July 14, 2018

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

As any mushroom hunter knows, mushrooms are tricksy little buggers.  What one looks like in one setting may not necessarily be what one looks like in another, depending on soil conditions, moisture, sun, size of the mushroom, insect damage, and/or regional variation. Mushroom species can vary a lot, even from one small region to another, and that variation can spell trouble for someone who hasn’t yet gained the wisdom to understand such variation.  Mushroom books offer perhaps 1-2 photos of mushrooms, and a good book will also offer a mushroom hunter the “keys” (features that distinguish one mushroom from another, like attached gills, color, etc).  However, only lived and true experience can help you not make a dangerous mistake when it comes to the mycelium kingdom.  The difference here, I think, epitomizes two key things: the different aspects of nature wisdom, specifically, the difference between book knowledge and lived experience.  But also, it epitomizes the importance of being rooted firmly in one’s local ecosystem and learning that ecosystem and from sources as connected to that specific ecosystem as possible. In last week’s post, we explored the four ways in which we can connect deeply through nature: through nature wisdom, nature activity, nature reciprocity, and nature reverence.  This week, we’ll delve deeply into the idea of nature wisdom and its three aspects: knowing nature, understanding nature, and probing nature.  We might frame this as a triad:

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

Knowing nature includes the basic skills of identification and naming–all of which can be started to gained through reading and study or from learning from others. For humans, being able to recognize something, and know its name, is a powerful act. For building my own nature knowledge, what I’ve done over a long period of time is commit to learning 15-20 new plants, trees, animal tracks, rocks, or other aspects about nature each year.  After a few years, you will be able to learn more and more trees, plants, animal tracks, and so on–and this knowledge really empowers you. In 5 years with this method, you could know 100 or more plants and trees!  Slow and steady over a period of time is the best way to learn.  However, reading about plants and trees and so on in books is only half the battle of learning them–the other half is actually finding and experiencing them.

 

I’ll give a nice example of this process.  For years, Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest and Nature’s Garden have been my two favorite wild food foraging books.  I’ve read them cover to cover; in the wintertime, I’ve studied them extensively.  Some of the plants he lists in the book, like wild rice, I’ve never seen, but I’ve at least got a basic idea from his books about what they might look like in the event that I can come across some. In May, I visited a friend who just moved to some new property and she wanted me to help identify some things.  We walked through and there was a lot of great things growing–including what I believed to be some highbush cranberry.  I hadn’t ever met this plant, but I wanted to very badly, so I had studied it extensively and when we found it, I knew what it was. It was growing on a giant rock pile in the middle of a field and had some little leftover dried cranberries.  We took photos and a few sample leaves, and sure enough, it was highbush cranberry. This kind of nature study is so useful so that when you are out and about, you can do some identification.  Had I had my books with me (I did not), it would have been even more useful!

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Before the modern era and the general loss of this knowledge in westernized society due to industrialization and commodification, a lot of this knowledge was shared, it was cultural, it was part of the body of knowledge that was taught to people in order to survive and thrive in connection with the natural world.  Largely, that’s not the case anymore, although you will find people here and there who really know a lot about nature and are willing to share ( a lot of these folks I’ve found in the herbalism, woodcraft, and bushcraft movements). I absolutely delight when I find anyone who can teach me something new about the natural world and take every opportunity to learn from them!

 

To learn any aspect of nature, books and resources are critical, and classes/teachers are even better if you can find them.  Here are some of my favorite books and resources to get you started:

  • Botany in a Day is my favorite book (recommended to me some years ago by one of my blog readers).  This teaches you basic plant identification through pattern recognition.
  • I aslo love Newcomb’s Flower Guide for an easy method of plant identification for any flowering plants. For animal tracks, Animal Tracking Basics by Tiffany Moore and Jon Young is a great book to start with.
  • Other books by Jon Young, like What the Robin Knows  are also excellent for understanding how nature works and the signs in nature.
  • Otherwise, the many field guides out there offer much with full photos and information.
  • Other books I love that teach about relationships are three books by John Eastman –The Book of Swamp and BogThe Book of Forest and Thicket; and The Book of Field and Stream.
  • Finding Your Way Without a Map and a Compass is an absolutely fabulous book about nature awareness.
  • There are also a number of great plant and nature identification apps like Leafsnap that can be quite helpful. Finally, purchasing a Loupe (Jeweler’s Loupe) as a small magnifying glass can aid in learning and observing nature.
  • And for wild food foraging, Samuel Thayer’s books, which offer detailed information on how to find plants, when to find plants, and how to prepare plants (more on this in next week’s post!)

 

Bringing nature knowledge into your nature interactions allows you a much deeper sense of the natural world–it empowers you. Getting to know nature can literally last a lifetime.

 

Understanding Nature

As my opening discussion of the challenges of mushroom hunting illustrate, there are two kinds of nature knowledge–the knowledge that comes through reading and study, and the understanding that comes through experience in both the inner and outer worlds of nature. Both are critical to developing ovate knowledge about the natural world and “nature wisdom.”

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

The understanding that comes through direct experience cannot be replicated by reading books. All the books in the world cannot help you gain the deep understanding of nature as you observe the unfurling of a frond of a fern or watch ants busy at work removing soil from their nest. This is the kind of “knowing” that comes from regular engagement in the natural world.  Any engagement is good; in AODA, we recommend at least 15 minutes per week in nature, some of it spent in stillness and focus.  I’ve used this practice for over a decade and not only has it helped me know nature, it has certainly helped me be at peace and connect to it.  Earlier in this blog, I detailed the “druids anchor spot” technique; this is a great way to learn a single place and deeply connect to it.  This, combined with journaling and regular meditation in nature can be of great aid.

 

What I have found to be the most effective in aiding my building of understanding nature is to shift frequently between book knowledge and real-world experience.  Read some books the night before I go out on a journey, then take a book or two with me (like Newcomb’s) and then cross reference what I am seeing with what I’m learning.  Or finding a new plant, photographing it carefully, and working to identify it and learn what I can about it.  Remembering where it grows, checking it through the season and its life cycle.  Knowing and understanding, then, become like two sides of the coin of nature wisdom–it is necessary for us to have both to fully embrace this kind of connection with nature.

 

Probing nature

A final way in which you can build nature wisdom is in the tradition of the many naturalists who have contributed scientific knowledge of the natural world: Leopold, Darwin, Audobon, Humbolt, etc.  This kind of nature wisdom, which I am calling “probing nature” is engaging in the study of nature in some way.  Most of the time, we think about study in the form of systematic observation with notetaking (think the field journals of the naturalists) or through experimentation (think gardening experiments to see which plants produce a higher yield.) Most of the time, people think that this kind of thing is left only to scientists working in the field, but everyday people can also engage in a number of different kinds of things.

 

On the most basic level, this is simply a matter of satisfying your curiosity, and seeking answers to questions like, “I wonder what….”  or “Why does this…”  I recently did this on my property after seeing trees that had a hazel-like leaf and I was excited to discover that I potentially had “beaked hazelnuts” (a tree I hadn’t encountered before).  Now I can systematically observe this tree each day as it goes through its life cycle and see if the hazelnuts actually appear in the fall!  In order to do this, I’m observing the trees carefully 1-2 times a week and looking at them throughout their life cycle.  A second example is through my “potato bucket” experiment.  I had a bunch of sprouting potatoes back in March and it had been still so cold and the ground was frozen.  But these potatoes wanted to grow!  So I put some of them in buckets and large planters with holes and put them in the greenhouse to see what happened.  Would I get any yield? Now, it is mid June and I’m able to harvest the potatoes from these buckets.  As I have grown this variety before, I am certain that the harvest is not as great, but it is still something and is a very fantastic early potato crop.  This was a simple gardening experiment, and I learned a bit more about how to grow potatoes.

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

A second avenue for “probing nature” and one I highly recommend is citizen science, where you help contribute to a larger dataset of observations that are then used to build an understanding about the natural world.  I wrote about this here. These are projects, like Project Budburst, that help track different things happening in the ecosystem: the flight of the monarchs; the sighting of birds; the arrival of buds in the spring; the movement of wildlife, the various potential effects of climate change.  These, to me, are very important ways for druids and others who are committed to nature spirituality to get involved and help build our knowledge about the living earth.  I think this work is even more critical today than ever before: funding for climate change research and basic science surrounding the natural world is continuing to be cut; people like you and I can help fill in these gaps as volunteers and contribute to larger studies that make a difference.

 

Conclusion

Knowing nature is one of four ways I’ve outlined that we can cultivate a connection to the living earth. In the years that I’ve been practicing druidry, I have come to believe that it is my knowledge of nature that has helped me develop a much deeper connection to the living earth in so many different ways. It’s one thing to go out in a natural setting and appreciate and respect what you are seeing; it is a completely different experience to go out and be able to identify plants, animal tracks, stones, be able to read the water movements of a river, or predict weather changes by observing the clouds and wind.  You have a deeper appreciation of it, you are closer to it, and it is this deeper knowing that connects you in all kinds of new ways. Suddenly, you know plants names, their uses, how rare or abundant they are, if they are endangered, and even from this information, you can begin to ascertain their magic and spiritual connection.  And so, to me, the foundation of all of this rests in respecting the earth and in knowing her.

 

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

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

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

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

 

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

 

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

Choosing Your Material

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Distillation Process

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

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

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

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

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

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

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

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

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

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

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

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

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

The full system

The full system

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

 

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

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

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

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

 

Elder (Sambucus Canadensis): Sacred Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Uses of the Elder Tree March 4, 2018

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

I remember when I first found the massive elderberry patch. It was a few summer solstices ago. There is an overlook deep in the state forest lands, where the roads are more goat path than vehicle worthy, and it takes about 45 minutes to go only a few miles. The overlook is facing east and you can see across multiple counties, for countless miles. Visiting the overlook earlier in the summer, I had said to my mother how much I’d love to witness the summer solstice sunrise from that spot. And so, at 4:30 am on the morning of the solstice we got up and were dismayed to find that it was overcast and drizzling. With hope in our hearts that it would clear, we made our way up the winding path, avoiding potholes and huge rocks, and eventually to that mountain overlook.  It was still gray and overcast, the opposite of what I had hoped to witness that day. The sun was not interseted in coming out to greet us. We were a bit saddened by the experience, and began our drive back. Suddenly, something caught my eye—a whole lot of something. A massive patch of hundreds of elderberry bushes, all in incredible bloom. We had bags for foraging in the car (my family is rather obsessed with foraging and mushroom hunting; you don’t leave the house without foraging gear) and so we stopped to pick them.  It was magical.  and I made my first batch of elderflower cordial later that day.

 

That morning so dreary, and the elder was so bright. She lived in a swampy area, so my sandaled feet were covered in mud. She had brambles growing all below her, so I was scratched up from tangling with the brush. But getting to pick that beautiful cluster of flowers, and taste the joy of the elderflower cordial—it was a true delight. There is so much transition here–and transition is one of the key themes that Elder offers. And so, in today’s post, we will explore the magic, medicine, folklore, and mystery of the elder tree. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. We’ll do this to understand elder’s role on the landscape and what gifts she may offer us—and how we, too, may seek her deep mysteries.

 

About the Elder Tree

The Elder tree (Sambucus spp.) has over 26 different varieties found throughout the world. Here in the Eastern US, the most common elder we have is Sambucus Canadensis, or the black elder. I will focus the remaining post on the black elder as this is the elder that I have the most experience with, but do recognize that most of what I’m discussing can likely apply to other kinds of elders. Sambucus Canadensis is known by a variety of names including the common elder, American elder, black elder, elder blow, Canada elder, sweet elderberry.  According to Grieve in her Modern Herbal, more names for Elder include Pipe tree, bore tree, bour tree, hylder, hylantree, eldrum, and ellhorn.  All of these names have rich histories and are seeped in lore and tradition.

 

Elder typically grows in areas that are damp or wet such as ditches, flood plains, near streams and lakeshores, but I’ve also seen it growing in typical moist forests as well, either along the edges or as an understory species. It can grow in full sun or part shade, but shade will likely reduce the number of flowers and berries produced. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman describes the cup-shaped fungus (auricularia aricula) that grows on elder in the spring and fall. This mushroom, called a “Judas ear” or “Brown ear” is a delicious culinary treat. In rich wet soil with ample sun, elder can produce an amazing amount of flowers and berries that provide habitat and foraging for over 40 species of birds along with a host of mammals including squirrels, foxes, mice, and groundhogs. And, as anyone who has gone to gather elderflowers at midsummer knows—ample insect life. Not to mention, delicious flowers and berries that humans can enjoy.

 

Edible Qualities of the Elder

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderberry is an incredible food and medicine for humans, and we have long cultivated a rich relationship with elder. As a food, Elderberry is high in Vitamin C, as well as A, Iron, Calcium, and Potassium. However, fresh from the bush, elderberry has a bit of rankness or skunkyness; this is completely eliminated by drying or canning. Some sources suggest that the fresh elderberries should not be eaten raw because they can sometimes cause an upset stomach. I’ve read this statement in a lot of books, and maybe it is true, but I’ve never heard anyone who has actually gotten a stomach problem from them. As a child, my cousins and I enjoyed them every year and ate them fresh from the bush. We were fine, but we are also hardy mountain people!  It may be that this is true of Elder species other than Sambucus Canadensis.

 

The fruits and flowers both are culinary treats, used in creating beverages as well as jams and jellies. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus (which is, to this day, one of my very favorite foraging books), Euell Gibbons describes his version of elderberry jelly, to which he also adds staghorn sumac. I’ve modified his recipe as follows to be a lower-sweetener/sugar version employing Pamona’s pectin (for low sugar canning) rather than normal pectin. First, you begin by stripping the berries of stalks (the easiest way is actually to freeze the berries—then they pop off of the stalks easily). You don’t want the stalks as they are not edible. Next, cover the berries with water and simmer for 30 min, mashing them as they cook in the water. While the berries are simmering, take several heads of staghorn sumac, break them up, and soak them in water for 10 or so minutes). Strain both elderberries and staghorn sumac. Combine 1 cup of staghorn sumac juice to 3 cups elderberry juice (or any higher amount, using this ratio) with between ¼ or ½ cup sweetener (I use honey or raw cane sugar) per cup of liquid (so this recipe would call for a minimum of 1 cup sweetener and up to 2 cups sweetener). Add 4 teaspoons of Pamona’s pectin and 4 teaspoons of calcium water (which you make with the Pamona’s pectin) and bring the whole mix to a hard boil for one minute. Mix these very well, then add to sterilized jars and hot water bath can them for 20 minutes. Gibbons also offers a “juice” version of this that uses no pectin, but in similar ratios to the above to taste. I want to make a note about the pectin used here—Pamona’s pectin is a special low sugar pectin that allows you to “set” jams and jellies using very low amounts of added sugar; normal pectin requires high amounts of sugar for setting.

 

 

Another recipe Gibbons offers is an “Elderberry Rob”, which is where you take a quart of the elderberry juice (prepared in the manner I described above) and add 1 stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and a whole nutmeg. You boil this for 30 minutes, and then add a cup of sugar or honey (if you add honey, you can also use this as a cough syrup). If you are adding raw honey, wait till it cools down so that you also get the medicinal benefits of honey. Finally, a recipe I have yet to try is Gibbon’s “Old time face cream”, where you add 1oz lanolin, 8oz cocoa butter and a handful of elderflowers in a double boiler, then strain and pour into small jars. I like the sound of this!  Elderflower is slighty asringent, so it would make sense that this cream would tone the face beautifully.

 

The Elusive Sambucca and Childhood Toys

As children know, you can make a simple instrument or blow gun from the Elder tree. Culpepper describes this in his herbal, “I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder.” A youngish stalk can have the pith hollowed out to make a hollow tube. The tube can be used for a number of things including flutes, blow-guns, and even, taps for maple syrup trees (homemade spiels), as Gibbons describes in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. As the elder matures, the walls of the stalks thicken and the soft white pith gets less pliable, so younger stalks are often better for these than old granny stalks (and who would want to cut old granny stalks of elder anyways? That would just lead to bad things).

 

In fact, the etymology of the Latin term for elder, Sambucca, has an interesting history. I have found references to a Sambuca (or Sambuke in Ancient Greek) that is an ancient instrument that apparently gave Elderberry its Latin name. In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood explains that panpipes were originally made from Elder and tied to Pan, the lord of the forest.  As someone who plays the panpipes, I can attest to the truth in this statement!

 

What I haven’t been able to find in any detail is how to actually craft the panpipes themselves out of elder—but that hasn’t stopped me from trying, as panflute is my primary instrument. So far, I’ve failed primarily in the harvest department—the wood gets thicker and thicker till it’s too thick for a good tube. That’s about what I’ve learned so far—there’s a lot more work on this project to be done and someday, I will post more about it once I figure it out. There are some good instructions on making more simple elderberry flutes, for those who are interested. But, I do wonder, what does the elder flute sound like? What haunting melodies would emerge from a Sambuca? Would it only play for the spirits, or would human ears be able to hear it? Given the richness of the elder “song” in the Native American legends, I cannot wait to hear it for myself.

 

One of Elder’s anachronistic names also offers some additional insight: the Anglo-Saxon term “aeld” means “fire.” According to Grieve, Aled eventually became Elder. The original “fire” use referred to the hollow stems being used as a fire tube for blowing oxygen onto the flame. I actually think this is a really important aspect of Elder here in the US and one not to be overlooked.

 

Medicine of the Elder

The Elder is a highly medicinal tree with a range of uses for the bark, leaves, flowers, and berries. The flowers are primarily used as a diaphoretic, that is, they increase periphery circulation and are used for fever support. According to herbalist Adele Dawson, Elderflower is a wonderful support for influenza, especially for addressing the achiness that is so present in the body. Elder increases circulation and sweating, which helps rid the muscles of some of the toxins that build up during influenza.  Herbalist Jim McDonald recommends using elderflower in conjunction with boneset for supporting a healthy fever response (which is not the same as suppressing a fever). Here is a great video of Jim teaching about elder.

 

Elderberry is a strong immune system supporter and can be part of a daily herbal routine to combat regular seasonal illnesses (such as the horrible flu that goes around every year). Elderberry and Echinacea Purpea form a very powerful immune support team.  As I was taught about this plant from herbalist Jim McDonald, elderberry is best used for daily immune system support, to keep you from getting sick. Once you get sick though, it is better to take Echinacea because that stimulates an acute immune system response (through increasing white blood cells).  I actually make an elderberry elixir, a recpie I’ve shared on this blog before, and take that regularly during the year to avoid sickness and boost the immune system.

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Matthew Wood notes that elder bark is semi-toxic, and because of this, it.can be used for an emetic drink—to induce vomiting if that is needed. How like the elder–she’ll give freely of her fruit and flowers, but take her bark and pay the price! John Eastman describes that the Onodaga would drink a brew of elder bark to try to remedy for poison hemlock poisoning (it would make you throw up the poison if you drank it quickly enough). Given that elder and poison hemlock have very similar growing conditions, this makes sense; a lot of “cures” can be found right next to the “poison” itself.  Although I think the best approach would be to avoid poison hemlock to begin with….

There’s a lot more to say about the medicine of the elder—I just detailed several of many uses.  You can see Jim’s video (above) and the link to Grieve’s entry on Elder here for more information.

 

 

Magical Uses of the Elder in Western and American Magical Traditions

Because of its place as an Ogham tree and potent magic, Elder has long been recognized as an important plant ally and has an incredibly rich tie to magic and folklore.

 

Elder is one of the 22 trees in the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet. It is distinguished by five lines and is tied to the Ogham letter “R” and “Ruis.” The Elder, as an Ogham tree, has strong connections to the fairy realm (as both a gateway as well as the tree representing the Queen of the Fairy, in some tales).  In Ogham, the general divination meaning of Elder is tied to Venus (as a water-loving plant) and to the element of water. Her meanings are many, but are often tied to transformation; regeneration; life, death and rebirth; endings; and fate.  In the Celtic Tree Oracle, for example, Liz and Colin Murry tie this “rebirth” quality to the Pair Dadeni, the Celtic cauldron of rebirth, which is said to be able to revive the dead (as described in the second branch of the Mabinogi).

 

Like any powerful magical plant, Elder has both beneficial aspects as well as warnings to heed, as with any other very potent plant ally. In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes Elder as both “harmful” and “helpful” depending on how it is used. As long as elder is kept out of the house, it can bring a host of magical protection. People have planted elder outside of their houses, for example, for deflecting hostile magic; similarly, elder was planted in cemeteries to allow the dead to rest in peace.  Elder was used to fasten doors shut or tied to windows and doors to keep out the fey as well as other kinds of hostile magic and also used in barns for this same kind of protection.  If the elder was gathered on Beltane eve, it was particularly potent for this purpose. In Hoodoo, likewise, elder pegs were dressed (rubbed) with High John the Conqueror oil  and driven into the earth around a business or home to keep the law away (see Yronwode, Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, for more details).

 

All of these good and protective qualities, however, go away if you take Elder indoors in most cases—the tree spirit gets a bit angry and feisty. If you burn elder wood, you summon evil spirits. A baby crib made of elder for example, angers the tree spirit and the spirit pinches the baby till it is bruised and crying. Similarly, napping under an elder tree is a very bad idea; it is believed to cause madness (probably because of its association as a gateway to the otherworld and fairy traditions).

 

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

In the American Hoodoo tradition, it is similarly used as a protective herb; when leaves, berries, or roots are carried they offer protection, particularly against illness. In Hooodoo Root and Herb Magic, Cat Yronwode shares a particularly interesting ritual involving elder.  First you cut a fresh elder stick, draw a circle in the dirt around you, standing inside the circle, and make your wish or prayer.  Hoodoo practitioners don’t seem to have the prohibitions against elder being indoors that the Old World magical traditions seem to have.  For example, hoodoo practitioners use pieces of it inside the house to protect the house from thieves, shield one from prying eyes, and proved physical and spiritual protection. I wonder if this has to do with the different nature of the otherworld on American soil vs. European soil—or perhaps Sambucus Canadensis is simply more friendly than its European counterpart, Sambucus Nigra.

 

Matthew Wood, in the Earthwise Herbal describes how the North American Indians and Europeans were in the tradition of making offerings to the elder.  North American Indiana made offerings at each elder plant when picking them for use. Europeans believed Elder was the “elder mother” or “hylde moer”, who was Queen of the Fairy or Queen of the Underworld—a powerful and potent force. Each elder tree had a “little elder mother” that lived there; they would make offerings at the base of the elder tree, to the little elder mother, to encourage good harvest and potent medicine from the elder.

 

Elder in Native American Mythology

Native American mythology offers us some additional insight into the magic of the elder tree, as it manifests on the soil here in the Americas.

 

In one Miwok legend, How Tol-le-loo Stole Fire, Tol-le-loo has an elderberry flute that he takes with him to a village. Tol-le-loo has the intention of stealing the villager’s fire; to further his goal, he plays his flute and all of the villagers start to fall asleep. Wit-ta-bah, a robin, sees what is happening and spreads his wings over embers to protect it, but the flute eventually puts Wit-ta-bah to sleep as well. Tol-le-loo cuts a hole in Wit-ta-bah’s wing to get at the fire, steals the fire embers, and puts the fire in his flute for safekeeping while he climbs up to the top of a mountain. The fire stays in the flute till he takes it out.

 

In  a second Miwok legend, the Birth of Wik’-Wek and the Creation of Man, there is but a single elder tree, the lah’-pah, in the world at the dawn of time.  This single elder tree was located “where the sun gets up” in the east, surrounded byt a den of rattlesnakes.  The passage from the story is so beautiful, I want to share it here:

 

“Its branches, as they swayed in the wind, made a sweet musical sound. The tree sang; it sang all the time, day and night, and the song was good to hear. Wik’-wek looked and listened and wished he could have the tree. Near by he saw two Hol-luk’-ki or Star-people, and as he looked he perceived that they were the Hul-luk mi-yum’-ko–the great and beautiful women-chiefs of the Star-people. One was the Morning Star, the other Pleiades Os-so-so’-li. They were watching and working close by the elderberry tree. Wek’-wek liked the music and asked the Star-women about it. They told him that the tree whistled songs that kept them awake all day and all night so they could work all the time and never grow sleepy. They had the rattlesnakes to keep the birds from carrying off the elderberries.

 

So in the first legend, the song of the elder flute put people to sleep, but in this case, the song of the elder tree allowed the star-people to keep working and created the “soft whistling song of the elderberry tree.” But these people aren’t normal people, they are star-people and chiefs, so that might be part of the difference. Eventually, Wik’-wek is able to secure a piece of the elder tree and plant it all over the country to offer the Indian people food, music, and medicine. In another tale, which talks talks about this same legend from a book called Tower Legends, the author notes that since all of the elderberry trees came from that singing tree, elderberry trees sing even when there is no wind.

 

In the Tsimshian Texts, a brief note is indicated that Elderberry bush gave birth to her children before little stone, and this is part of why Indians do not live as long. There is not more than this short story, but it does also give the “life and death” theme we find above.

 

Elderflower in hand....ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Elderflower in hand….ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Finally, in the Hoo’-Koo’-E’-Ko legend, “How O’-Ye The Coyote-man Discovered his Wife”, O’-ye the Coyote man is the creator of the world.  The world was covered in ocean, but eventually the waters receded and there was enough land. O’Ye planted the most important trees to the people: buckeye, oak, and elderberry with many other plants in order to help make the world.

 

Conclusion: Sacred Meanings of the Elder Tree

The Elder is a tree richly steeped in lore and mysticism around the world. Given all of the above, here are several magical and divinatory meanings, based on the tree’s role here in North America:

 

  • Elder is a tree of transitions.  Elder is a boundary tree; she gaurds the boundaries between life and death, between sickness and health, between this world and the otherworld.  Like any transition point, this can be a dangerous road to travel, but can also lead to rich rewards.

 

  • Elder “sings” and offers a magical spirit song that can be used for a variety of purposes. Elder’s long associate with woodwind instruments (sambucca, flutes in the Americas) as well as the many legends about the elder trees in song suggest that a magical sound comes from the tree herself as well as any instruments created from elder branches.  These instruments, always some kind of flute, can be used to slow things down (putting people to sleep, into a revere, into a quiet meditation) or to speed things up/raise energy.  It is all in the intention of the tree or the musician.

 

  • Elder requires caution and wisdom in use. In both of the magical uses above, Elder has two sides: a healing and a harming side; a side of death and a side of life. Knowing how to use her well, how to seek her as a guide, is something that requires wisdom and knowledge of her inner workings.  Here, I also point to the elder’s use as a fire blow stick–she is a lot like the fire itself.  Tend and respect the fire carefully and you have a warm house and a hot meal.  Fail to respect her, and she will burn your house to the ground. And so, failing to use her medicine and magic wisely can end you in a lot of trouble (being caught in the rattlesnake den, trapped in the otherworld, or being tortured by the spirit of the little elder). Tread carefully, friends.

 

As the new spring season is quickly upon us, you might see if you can seek some elder this year–and learn the many things she has to teach.  Blessings!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: White Pine’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings December 3, 2017

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

In the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend, there was a terrible conflict between five different nations of people. This conflict was rooted in cycles of pain, revenge, and chaos. A messenger of peace sent from the Great Spirit, the “Peacemaker,” sought to unite the five warring tribes. After convincing them to unite, they came together to make peace, but they still carried their weapons. The Peacemaker uprooted a White Pine tree and had them throw all of their weapons into the hole. He then replanted the tree, and the underground waters carried away the weapons. On the tree, the needles grew in clusters of five, to represent the five nations who came to find peace. The roots of the tree spread out in four directions, to the north, south, east and west; the roots are called the roots of peace. An eagle perched on top of the tree to watch over the roots of peace. Under the tree, the branches spread wide for all to gather. It is from this Native American story that we can understand why the White Pine, Pinus Strobus, is called the “Tree of Peace” and why the White Pine carries such power here on our landscape. In today’s post, we explore the White Pine and his peaceful energy, examining the mythology, magic, medicine, and uses of this incredible tree.

 

This post is from a larger series on sacred trees that have included Sassafrass, Ash, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut. I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Ecology and Growth of the White Pine

The White Pine is a magnificent tree reaching up to 100 feet in height.  With beautiful green needles that have a soft, feathery appearance, it is one of our most iconic forest trees on the Eastern Seaboard of the US. The further north you travel up the East Coast, the more dominant White Pine becomes in the ecosystem. Here in PA, we have White Pine planted primarily in urban and suburban areas with fewer of them found in forests. Because they like it cold, you can often find them up on the ridges. Another reason we have less here is that White Pine doesn’t tolerate logging well; hemlock and other shade-resistant hardwoods (maple, cherry, beech, birch) will take the place of White Pine if they are cut.  But if you head further north, into New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and those areas, you will see that White Pine is an incredibly dominant tree.

 

White Pine grows tall and straight, with a massive canopy of feathered, soft needles stretching out from long and strong branches. You might find White Pines in clusters or planted in rows–she makes an incredible “cathedral” tree for sacred spaces and people to gather.  In fact, in New Hampshire, a place called the “Cathedral of the Pines” exists. For many years, White Pines stood in and around the gathering space. A tornado devastated many of the ancient pines in that place in the late 1980’s, but old photos show how incredible this sacred place was with the White Pines towering over all (and there are still some nice white pines there!) I have been to other places where White Pines were planted in a long line and have this cathedral appearance.

 

History and Early American Uses of White Pine

In New England, Eric Sloane writes that White Pine survived logging primarily because it made really poor charcoal; the “coaling” activities that were fueling industrialization at the turn of the 20th century decimated many other species and yet left intact patches of White Pine. This means that even where coaling and logging were dominant, we still have many old-growth forests with White Pines, a true beauty to behold. However, today, White Pine is now used extensively in construction, cabinet making, pattern making, and more; it is a soft, warp-resistant and light wood, meaning that these old trees are sought out for their economic value.

 

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

According to Using Wayside Plants, by Nelson Coon (1969), straight White Pine trees were known as “mast trees” in British Colonial days as they were used as masts for ships. The emissaries of the king would go through the woods a mark the White Pines with the King’s Broad Arrow indicated that tree would be used as a mast on one of the British Fleet. This symbol told anyone else that this tree was the king’s property and none other could cut it. Interestingly enough, the “broad arrow” mark in some, cases, looks a ton like the Druid’s Awen symbol /|\.

 

In Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane writes about the White Pine as being one of the most important trees to early Americans, as from it, people could produce paint, tar, turpentine, firewood, building materials, lampblack, tanbark, resin, and pitch. White Pine was most frequently used for creating these products, followed by Pitch Pine. Sloane also notes that even though they are called “blackboards,” most early colonial blackboards were actually white pine boards that were sanded and painted black. Further, he writes that, in the 18th century, many houses in the MidAtlantic and New England were built from White Pine due to its soft, strong, and workable qualities. Early Americans also used the branches to make wreaths and to create ropes.

 

If you’ve ever read Thoreau’s Walden, you might recall that Thoreau built his house out of White Pine and interacts with white pine often.  He writes, at one point, about an old man who used to come fishing at the pond who used a White Pine canoe.  The White Pine canoe was fashioned from two logs, dugout.  The old man hadn’t made the canoe, and as Thoreau puts it, “it belonged to the pond.”

 

According to Using Wayside Plants, the cambium (inner bark) of the White Pine was used as a food both by Native Americans and colonists. The cambium could be powdered and used as a flour (or added to flour in order to stretch it further). White Pine seeds are very spicy and were used by Native Americans to cook meat (I will add that they are generally not easy to get–the squirrels always have gotten to them before me!) The material suggests in this section that White Pine is an incredibly useful tree to humans and has been in relationship with humans for a very long time.

 

White Pine in the Esoteric Arts

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

White Pine, being an American tree, doesn’t get any considerable coverage in the Western esoteric literature (although more generally, pine of other species does get such coverage). For example, in the Ogham, Alim is either translated as pine or fir (or “conifer” more generally).  In the Ogham, this symbol is often associated with healing, wayfinding (that is, finding one’s life purpose, finding a home, setting one’s feet upon the path), protection, and purification.

 

Hoodoo, an African American Magical tradition, looks at pine in a very similar way. In Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, Yronwode describes it as a as a spiritual cleanser. Pine needles (fresh) in a bath help offer clarity and remove mental negativity. Burning pine wood can be used to clear a new home of unwanted spirits. Unopened pine cones help bring in health and longevity. If you keep a pine cone near you, as long as it stays closed, it will bring this in. Yronwode writes that if the pine cone starts to open, plant it and get a new one. Pine of all kinds also are connected with abundance or finances. Its evergreen nature also means it draws in steady money.

 

In the “Book of Sacred Magic by Abramelin the Mage“, a 15th century magic manuscript translated by S.L.M. Mathers, the Ambramelin describes the sacred place for which magic is to happen (what he calls the “operation”). In the many details he gives, he indicates that the floor should be made of white pine and swept clean.  Ambramelin does not specify why the floor should be of white pine, but given some of the other lore associated with it, one might infer it is for the purifying and protective nature of the tree.

 

Medicinal Uses of White Pine

White Pine, both physically and energetically, appears to be able to draw things out.  This is true not only of the pine pitch but also of the simple presence of pine.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine for people who have problems with breathing due to smoking. Further, Wood describes how White Pine was widely used by Native Americans (primarily, the bark was used medicinally) and adapted for use by colonists and early doctors in North America. Chewing the inner bark was used for respiratory infections (especially with sticky green phlegm) or used when an infection started to keep it from getting worse. Native Americans also used a “patch” of pine pitch to seal up wounds and prevent infections (White Pine, like Blue Spruce, is antiseptic and will also draw debris out of a wound). White Pine pitch can also be used on wounds that are already infected to draw out the infection and heal the wound. Wood also notes that the Ojibwe use White Pine bark (along with wild cherry and wild plum) to treat gangrene.

 

Pine is used as one of Bach’s flower remedies.  The essence of Pine is said to help with nervousness, allow for deeper contemplation/introspection, and help release any guilt or self blame. Pine more generally can be used as a “pick me up” by placing a few drops of pine oil or fresh pine needless in a bath for general tiredness, especially if one has been “burning the candle at both ends” so to speak.

 

Native American Mythology

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

I’ve already shared what I believe to be the most important legend of the White Pine, the Iroquois story of White Pine as a tree of peace. Here are three other stories that give us some deeper insight into the White Pine:

In one Micmac legend, three brothers seek out a great magician, Glooskap, in order to be granted three wishes. The first brother wants to be exceedingly tall so that he would be admired by all of the women. The second brother wanted to stay in the forest, beholding its beauty, and never work again (a man after my own heart!). The third brother wished to live in perfect health till old age. The way to see Glooskap was fraught with trials and difficulty, but the brothers persevered and arrived. After sharing their wishes with Glooskap , Glooskap calls upon Cuhkw, the earthquake, and asked him to plant the three brothers feet in the ground. And they turned into three white pines. The first brother was the tallest white pine in all of the land, he towered over everyone. The second brother got his wish of staying in the forest as a magnificent tree. The third brother stood healthy and strong.

 

In a second legend, a Kwakiutl tale (from the Kawkiutl Indians in British Colombia) the Great Inventor took a girl for his wife. He puts the gum of the White Pine in his mouth and lays with her, and she is immediately pregnant.

 

In “The Origin of People“, a legend from the Shoshoni people of what is now present day Nevada, the animals (Coyote, Mouse, Woodpecker, Crow, and more) work to get pine nuts from people who have hung them in a bag on a white pine tree. They play games with the people to distract them, and finally, succeed in getting the nuts. They eat and eat the nuts and then there is but one nut left. The humans woke up and grew angry and chased them down. Coyote’s people relay the nut to the fastest runners, and finally, Crow bites the end off of the nut, hides it in his leg, and runs. He is shot and killed but his leg with the nut in it keeps going up into the mountains. Now, white pines grow there in the mountains but not where the people originally harvested them (only Juniper grows there now).

 

Sacred Meaning of White Pine: The Work of Peace

In summarizing all of the above with regards to the white pine, we might see that this tree is a powerful symbol and broker for peace in a variety of different ways.

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

The Work of Peace. The work of the White Pine in the opening story, especially here in the region where the tribes of the Iroquois once lived, makes it clear that this tree is powerfully associated with peace of all forms. Perhaps when we think of peace, we think of human relationships (and certainly, the White Pine is needed here).  But Peace isn’t just about human to human relationships, but relationships with the past of all kinds.

 

Human-human relationships. White Pine, as the story suggests, offers much to promote peace between humans. Given the contentiousness, seething anger, and intensity we have in these days, we might all spend some time with the White Pine to help facilitate peace among our friends, family, neighbors, community, and broader world.

 

Human-land relationships. I think its particularly interesting that while all of the other trees were cut down and coaled, the great White Pines largely remained intact. In my experience, these trees retain their roles as peacemakers for us today in order to rebuild human-land connections. Often on damaged lands, even if no other spirits or trees are open to communication, the White Pine will be the intermediary. When I first went to speak to the spirits of the land on my old homestead in Michigan, the spirits were angry at having the land so mistreated. The only tree that would speak to me was a towering White Pine in the middle of the land–this tree taught me much about how to build a relationship with the land, do repair work, and cultivate peace between us. This tree did this, all the while the stump of its partner white pine, oozed sap after being cut down next to it. Since that time, I have found the peacemaking qualities of the White Pine to be true–the peace-honoring nature of white pine makes it a good choice for a variety of land healing and repair work.

 

Peace within One’s Self.  Perhaps one of the hardest ways to broker peace is within one’s self. Healing and growth begins with making peace with the past and coming to a place of acceptance. Begin angry at yourself, not letting the past go, and continuing to hold onto old hurts is so common for us as humans.  It causes wars and tension between people, and certainly, it can cause pain and stagnation within our own hearts. The White Pine powerfully suggests to us that it is time to let it go. To heal, to renew, to simply stop beating ourselves up over what we’ve done, or to stop holding onto what was done to us.

 

The work of peace is difficult work, and to do this, we can look at three other messages that seem present in the White Pine based on my synthesis of the above material:

 

Drawing Out. It think its no coincidence that this tree’s sap has been used to draw out poisons, splinters, infection, and other kinds of things unwanted from the body. In order for the process of peace to happen, we must pull all of the old pain and festering wounds  and allow peace to flow within us. The White Pine, in its work of peace, does this for us.  Drawing out past anger, sadness, and pain so that peace can take place. This can happen on every level: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual.

 

Cleansing and Purification. Also associated with the power of peace is the work of cleansing and purification. Once the pain of old wounds is drawn out, the site must be cleansed and purified for the work of peace to continue so that nothing else can work its way back in. White Pine does this work, and does it well, both on the physical body as well as the mind and spirit.

 

Wayfinding. After peace has been brokered, the question of where to go next is an important one. What happens to the solider when there is no longer a war to fight? What happens to a person when he or she finally lets go what has been occupying his or her heart for years?  This period of time can be confusing, disorienting, and potentially very scary–but White Pine is here to help us find our way and to see a clear path forward.

 

Conclusion

White Pine is an incredible tree with much to teach us in an age with so much pain, suffering, bad blood, and relational difficulty. As an evergreen, Pine tells us the work of peace is never ending–it is work we must continue in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own families, and in our hearts. When you see a White Pine, stop and enjoy his towering presence and his peaceful energy–and know that he is there to help broker peace in the many different ways we–as people, as a society, and as spiritual beings–need it.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

 

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

 

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

 

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

 

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

 

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

 

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

 

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

 

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

 

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

 

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

 

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

 

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

 

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

 

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

 

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

 

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

 

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

 

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

 

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

 

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

 

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

 

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

 

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

 

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

 

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

 

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

 

Poison Ivy Remedy: Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel July 11, 2017

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

As I spend copious time in the outdoors, I often end up covered with poison ivy at least once or twice in the summer.I happen to like poison ivy as a plant a lot–she is beautiful, she is powerful, and she teaches us awareness (more on her soon).    But the contact dermatitis that I get from her on a regular basis kind of sucks.  Given that, I have a simple recipe that I make and keep on my shelf that seeks the healing power of two other plants: witch hazel and jewelweed.  This jewelweed infused witch hazel is a great remedy for poison ivy and clears it up very quickly.

 

If you can’t find jewelweed, I believe this recipe would be fairly effective with plantain or chickweed.  But Jewelweed is really the best.

 

Harvesting Jewelweed

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is also known as spotted touch-me-not, orange touch me not, and orange balasm.  It is an annual plant that self seeds readily, so once you know where it grows, you can easily find it in the same spot year after year.  It prefers damp, shady, forested enviornments, although I’ve also found it in wetter part sun or mostly sun environments.  The key is that it likes a moist forest floor.

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

On a recent plant walk, one of my attendees told me that jewelweed was named this way because if you put it under water in a flowing stream, it looks like a beautiful jewel!  So try it and see if you agree.

 

This plant’s primary use in herbal medicine is as a poison ivy remedy.  You can use it in two ways:

  • Fresh jewelweed can be applied to a location that was just exposed to poison ivy.  For this, simply pick a plant (especially getting the lower stem area and the places where the leaves join the stem that are very juicy), crush it, and rub it on the affected area.  This may take off the oils from poison ivy and prevent you from getting contact dermatits also known as poison ivy.
  • You can pick it and tincture it in witch hazel (or vinegar, in a pinch) and use this to dry out and soothe the poison ivy.
A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

If you are making the remedy, you will need enough jewelweed (chopped up and crushed) to loosely fill a mason jar of whatever size you want to make.  Unless you are in poison ivy all the time, probably a pint or half pint jar is all anyone needs for a while.  It does keep indefinately, so it doesn’t hurt to make more.

 

I also like to leave an offering (a pinch of home-grown tobacco) for the jewelweed for the harvest, of course, to honor the plant and the land.

 

Making Your Poison Ivy Remedy

Poison Ivy on the skin is caused by the oils in the plant reacting with the skin.  This makes the skin blister up and get very itchy.  The more you scratch, you the more spread the poison ivy (by spreading the oils) all over your skin.  What this remedy does is help heal and take out the itch (jewelweed) and dry out the afflicted areas (witch hazel).  It works wonderfully.

 

Ingredients and Materials:

Scissors or a knife

1 bottle of witch hazel (you can make your own from the witch hazel plant by distilling the branches in the early spring or you can go to the drug store and pick some up)

5-10 jewelweed plants (depending on how much you want to make)

1 mason jar

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

 

Step 1: Crush up your jewelweed.

To make your preparation, you will want to get as much juice from the jewelweed as possible into your preparation.  To do this, I like to first crush the jewelweed with my hands or a blunt object. I don’t crush it too much, but enough that it will expose more surface area to the witch hazel.  Pay attention to the thicker areas where the leaves attach to the stem–these are very juice filled (and the juice is the medicine).

Crushing up the jewelweed

Crushing up the jewelweed

Step 2: Chop up jewelweed finely into the jar.

Chop up (or tear up) the jewelweed and add it to the mason jar. A good pair of kitchen scissors will help this process quite a bit–I find that better than any knife for this work.  You don’t want to over-fill the jar, but do fill it up loosely.

Chopping up Jewelweed

Chopping up Jewelweed

 

Step 3: Crush it some more in the jar.

At this point, I continue to crush the jewelweed.  Here, I used my fingers, but I oculd easily use a pestle (the round thing used to grind herbs in a mortar) or some such similar tool.  Get as much juice out as you can at this stage.

Crushing further

Crushing further

 

Step 4: Add witch hazel.

Now, pour in your witch hazel, ensuring that it covers the Jewelweed fully.  If the jewelweed is too firmly packed, you’ll end up with less (after you remove the plant material in a few weeks).

Add witch hazel

Add witch hazel

 

Step 5:  Lit sit (macerate) 2-3 weeks and then strain.

Let your preparation sit for a few weeks in a cool, dark place.  Then, you can strain out the jewelweed (you can do this by hand, or with a hand held potato ricer or tincture press).  Place the liquid back in the jar, ensuring that you don’t have any extra plant material.

 

Using your Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel

You can use the jewelweed infused witch hazel when you have an active outbreak of poison ivy dermitis. Use a Q-tip or cotton ball and liberally apply the preparation to the affected area. Repeat this several times a day (or more, I usually do it 5-6 times a day or any time I enter the bathroom).  It will clear up the poison ivy very quickly!

 

I hope this small remedy helps many a forest wanderer this summer!

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