The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile of Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Magical, Medicinal, and Edible Qualities November 6, 2016

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

I remember when I first met black walnut. My Great Aunt and Uncle lived on a farm, and on that farm was a colonial-era farmhouse. Near their farmhouse sat a massive black walnut tree. I remember going there when I was a young child and picking up the black walnuts for the first time when they were still green, smelling their amazing scent, and sticking a few in my coat pockets. Of course, the weather grew cold and I forgot about those walnuts in the coat pocket, and when I went to use the jacket again in the spring, I was in for quite a surprise when the brown dye of the walnut husk breaking down permeated through my jacket. Ever since that day, I felt like the walnut had provided me with an important lesson, and I am honored to be friends with such a magnificent tree species.

 

This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, and Beech. Today, we will be looking at another powerful tree ally, the Walnut. I’m going to be focusing my comments on the Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) as that is the native walnut in my area. However, most of what I’ll write applies to walnut trees throughout the world.

 

 

About the Black Walnut

The Eastern Black Walnut (or what we just call “Walnut” or “Black Walnut”) is a tree native to the Eastern US with a large range spanning most of the Mississippi watershed. Here in Western PA, I’m actually at the very edge of its natural range (although I know people plant them north of where I am!) Black walnuts are an overstory tree, meaning they need light and grow tall, forming part of the canopy of the forest. They often are found in riparian zones which are the edge spaces between streams/rivers and the land (which typically flood in early spring and offer rich soil due to the flood plains). Black walnuts are pioneer species, similar to cherry, black birch, and black locust: these are some of the first trees to regrow damaged ecosystems.

 

The black walnut typically grows tall and straight, especially in the forest, out-competing other trees for the best lithg. It grows up to 130 feet tall; the tallest one we have on record in the USA is actually well outside of its native range, on the Colombia River downstream of Portland. Walnut leaves are feather-compound, with seven to seventeen narrow, toothed leaflets. They have a spicy smell when they are crushed or rubbed.

Walnut trees produce a very strong wood that is dark in color and is easily worked. It has a straight grain, it holds shape well, and is a solid with few pores. In fact, walnut wood is so valued that sometimes people poach walnut trees (which is, in my opinion, a terrible tragedy!) Because of this, there are less and less walnuts, so we all could do some good by planting more. In fact, in the history of Pennsylvania, black walnut trees growing in groups were often a sign to the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) of good soil fertility, likely due to their connection and growth on flood plains of rich soil.

 

Walnut as an Expeller

One of the few things people often know about black walnut is that it is allelopathic, meaning that it produces a chemical called juglone that oxidizes in soil and prevents certain kinds of other plants from growing under or near it. It also can increase the soil alkalinity around the roots. Some plants, like black raspberry or serviceberry, have no difficulty growing under black walnut. Others, like tomatoes, pines, apples, or birches, cannot grow and will be poisoned by the juglone. This has been well known and documented for centuries, the whole way back to Pliny the Elder (the same Pliny that has preserved the famous druids harvesting mistletoe ritual and druid egg lore) who wrote, “The shadow of the walnut trees is poison to all plants within its compass.” Juglone is concentrated in nut hulls, roots, and buds; to a lesser extent, it also occurs in leaves and stems.

 

I want to note, and I’ll come back to, the importance of the doctrine of signatures here.  A traditional definition of this concept is  that the plant heals and works with what it looks like or how it acts.  In earlier posts on this series, I’ve proposed an equivalent doctorine of signatures for the magical properties of trees and plants–and so, we will return to this expelling quality towards the end of the post.

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Walnut as a Food Source

Walnut is considered a nut of the gods; in fact, the word juglans goes back to “jovis glans” or “nut of Juipter.” I think this speaks volumes about Black Walnut and its power and gifts.

Rather obviously, Black Walnut produces a really delicious edible nut—the black walnut nut is not easy to crack, but is well worth the effort! Like many other hardwood nut trees, most walnuts produce a really good harvest every few years, and need sunlight in order to do so. In years where there is a good crop, you can harvest them in abundance.  I typically will let the outer husks rot down and the little worms crawl out, and then once they have lost their husks, I remove the remainder and let them in their hulls till I’m ready to crack them.  Cracking them requires patience and some determination but is well worth the effort.  I typically crack them with a hammer or small mallet on a stone–one good swing and they will be ready to eat.  Put your cracked nuts in a bowl (shell and all) and then sit down with some friends to pick through them, removing the nutmeats (you might also need one of those small nut pick metal things).  Its nice to do this by a warm fire!

 

In addition to the people who enjoy the nuts, squirrels use them as a primary food source. When you are walking through the forest, you can always find out where the black walnut trees are by seeing how the squirrels have left their beautiful chewed black walnut hulls behind!  These are lovely for crafts and altars and take quite a while to break down and return to the land.

 

You can tap black walnuts similar to how you tap sugar maples (I haven’t tried this because I didn’t have large enough black walnuts). I think this would be just delightful, however, based on the deliciousness of the nut!

 

Finally, pressed walnuts make a lovely walnut oil (which you can find in specialty shops or online). Walnut oil is a wonderful oil for cooking (I like to use it for salads and dressings) with a very rich nutty flavor. Walnut oil also is very useful for sealing wood, like wooden spoons, especially when you’ll be eating from them.  I use walnut oil on my wooden bowls and spoons every few months to keep them in nice shape.  I haven’t tried to press my nuts, and my guess is that most of the walnuts that are pressed are English Walnuts, which are easier to crack and eat.  But you could certainly press the black walnuts if you were able to gather and crack enough of them!

 

 

Making Walnut Ink

One of the things I love to do with black walnuts is to make ink from them. I have a whole post dedicated to the subject of natural ink making, and I’ll direct your attention there for more details and will supplement those instructions here. In a nutshell (hah!), black walnut ink is best made once the hulls have gone brown (and usually wormy!). Put the whole nut – hulls, nuts and all, into an old pot and cover them with white vinegar. Boil them for an hour or so and let cool.  Yes, this will make your house smell very weird. Strain the ink to begin to get out the bits of hull.  I have found that it requires straining over and over again with finer and finer strainers to get all the husk pieces out–but it is well worth the effort. Once your ink is strained, return the ink to the pot and boil it down until you are happy with the consistency (usually about another hour).  You might strain it again at this point with a very fine strainer.  If you want to improve the viscosity of the ink (that is, improve how well it flows, especially through a dip pen) you can add a bit of Gum Arabic to it. I recommend using the commercially prepared Gum Arabic liquid you can get at art stores, not the resin that you need to powder up–the resin produces some lumps regardless of how fine you grind it! Let your ink cool, put it in a jar, label it, and you have a very lovely ink that will stay good for many years and can be used for many purposes!

 

Medicinal Actions of Walnuts

Black Walnut has had a large range of uses within traditional western herbalism: I’ll summarize some of the most common here.

According to M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, the bark and leaves of the walnut are alterative, laxative, and astringent, and are specifically used for skin issues like eczema, herpes, and other skin conditions.   Grieve also suggests that the juice of the green husks, boiled with honey, is really good for a sore throat/gargle. Matthew Wood, in the EarthWise Herbal, suggests a similar condition: the use of the leaves for external eczema, ring worm, itch, shingles, tumors, abscesses, boils, and acne.   The leaves, used internally, can also be used for tonsillitis, sore throat, hoarseness, internal ulcers and inflammation.  In large quantities, Grieve notes that the dried and powdered bark, as a strong infusion, is a purgative (makes you vomit!).

 

Matthew Wood suggests the hulls are useful for a wide range of things, but I have used them most frequently to deal with internal parasites, worms, and so on. A tincture of green nuts is particularly useful for dealing with internal parasites and worms (I have used this for worming animals, like chickens, as well in very small does). Other uses include low functioning thyroid and low functioning metabolism.

 

Mentally, Wood also has a suggestion that is directly in line with the expelling properties suggested by the doctrine of signatures.  He suggests it is useful when you are “too much under the influence of another person, thought, and scheme.”  I fully support this use and have used it this way myself.  Further, when I was at the American Herbalist Guild Annual Symposium, Matthew Wood also suggested that Black Walnut was particularly good for children or young adults who had experienced bad divorces; it allowed them to get beyond the experience. Wood suggests for any use of black walnut, small doses are appropriate (1-3 drops, 1-3x a day).

 

Here’s an old time recipe from Grive’s Modern Herbal:

 

To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup
‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose; lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night; then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain; then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d: then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (scimming them) till they be tender; then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close. When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’ – (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

 

Walnut in the Western Magical Traditions

Black walnut is considered a “masculine” tree associated with the element of fire and the sun. Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, writes, “This is a plant of the sun. Let the fruit of it be gathered accordingly, which as the most virtual whilst green, before it shells.”

 

The forest canopy of walnuts!

The forest canopy of walnuts!

In the American Hoodoo tradition, walnut leaves and nuts are used to put jinxes on people. Walnuts are also used to “fall out of love”; Yronwode in her Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic describes a ritual where you make a tea of nine black walnuts (husk and all) boiled in three quarts of water; boiling it till the water evaporates down to 1 quart. You bathe in this water, renouncing ties to the former love, and then throw the water out at a crossroads or against the tree. This kind of bath is not one for the bathtub, but usually done in a smaller tub.  Again, we see this expelling or removing quality associated with the walnut present.

 

Cunningham, who I’m not always apt to trust, writes of walnut being tied to mental powers, infertility, health and wishes. He suggests that witches danced beneath walnut trees in Italy during secret rites (although why, he does not say). He suggests that carrying a walnut can strengthen the heart and ward of rheumatism. If you are given a bag of walnuts, you will have your wishes fulfilled. People can place walnut leaves around the head (or in a hat) to prevent headache or sunstroke. Cunningham also suggests that a woman who wanted to remain childless after marriage could place walnuts in her bodice on her wedding day—each walnut represented one year of being childless.

 

Unfortunately, that about sums up what most sources say about the magical uses of walnut, however, we can gain much more insight from exploring some of the lore around this tree, to which we will now turn.

 

Black Walnut in Lore around the World

Walnut Cracker (Native American): Walnut was an important food source for Native Americans; it was also used for talking sticks and flutes. In one story, a man is known as “walnut cracker” who was always cracking walnuts (which makes sense, giving how difficult they are to crack!). Even after Walnut Cracker died, his spirit continued to crack walnuts and would scare people so much that their sickness or illness would disappear. This shows up in several stories in the South East Native American tribes. Again, here is that same expelling quality–this time, the spirit of Walnut Cracker removes sickeness or illness through his very presence.

 

As a talking stick, walnut (along with pecan) represent the gathering of energy or beginning of new projects.

 

Other than that, I couldn’t find much in the Native American lore. Many of the other stories involving walnut primarily focus on it as a food item, including The Ignorant Housekeeper (Cherokee) who doesn’t know how to properly prepare walnuts.

 

 

Walnut Lore: Beating and Ingratitude (Greek, Roman, European):  Let’s now turn to the other side of the world, where we can see stories from the European subcontinent. In fact, walnut features prominently in many tales. There is a long history of discussion of the “beating” of walnut trees to gain their huts—where folks went at walnut trees with sticks showing ingratitude for the nuts that are produced and harming the tree. These fables and references span quite some time. Two Greek Fables, for example, illustrate the plight of the walnut tree; later, Antipater of Tessalonica offered this epigram:

“They planted me, a walnut-tree, by the road-side
to amuse passing boys, as a mark for their well-aimed stones
All my twigs and flourishing shots are broken,
Hit as I am by showers of pebbles.
It is of no advantage for trees to be fruitful; I, indeed
Bore fruit only for my own undoing”

This same principle weaves its way into other early Roman poems as well as Aesop’s fable of the Walnut Tree, where it is treated with no respect. Into the 1500’s, a horrible proverb about how women, dogs, and walnuts all benefited from beating was widely circulated. This proverb continued to propagate the idea of walnut tree benefiting from beatings with sticks and rods to produce more nuts.

 

I’m not honestly sure what to make with this.  Some trees benefit from regular pruning, but this is the first instance I’ve seen any reference to just beating the tree with sticks.  Part of me wants to question, again, the difficult relationship we have between humans and nature.  I’ve translated this as “gratitude” below (but I’m open to other interpretations and suggestions!)

 

The Wise Walnut: Hermit Philosopher. In Georgian Folk Tales by Marjory Waldrop (1894), a wise man who lived in solitude came to a old walnut tree in his garden. He questioned why the walnut tree was so tall, growing for over 100 years, yet never producing bigger fruit, while the melons and pumpkins on the ground were so massive. He thought about it, eventually falling asleep under the walnut tree. A few nuts rain down from the tree, and he marvels in how his head would have been “broken” if not for the small size of the walnut.  In this tale, we see the walnut offering wisdom.

 

Small Beings and Things Hidden in Walnut Shell. In the traditional story of Thumbelina, a woman who wants a tiny daughter visits a witch and gets some magic barley-corn. From this corn sprouts a flower, and within the flower is Thumbelina. The woman gives Thumblina a beautiful polished walnut shell (my guess is an English walnut) for a cradle. Thumblina is later whisked away, shell and all, by an ugly toad. Thumbelina’s tale is quite similar to Tom Thumb, who also lives in a walnut shell due to his tiny size. In another tale, called Puddocky, the princes of the kingdom are given a magical mission of finding a small dog that can fit comfortably in a walnut shell, among other tasks, to become the king’s heir. In yet another story, a walnut contains a wasp whose sting is made of a diamond; and the walnut can contain the wasp within.

 

In another tale, this one from Popular Tales from the Norse by George Webbe Dasnet (1904), we hear the tale of “Boots and his Brothers.” A king in the land has offered his daughter and half his kingdom if the ancient oak (that grows each time it gets taken to the axe) can be felled and a well dug to hold water. As John (Boots) walks in the forest, he finds a magic axe, a magic pick, and a walnut that spills forth water. He takes these things up, plugging the hole in the walnut shell with a bit of moss. He is able to fell the tree, dig the well, and fill it with water from the walnut—thus securing half the kingdom and the princess. In each of these tales, something important or precious is kept safe within the hard shell of the walnut, suggesting some protective qualities.

 

Overall Magical Themes

Drawing upon all of the above lore and material, I would like to propose the following magical themes and uses for the Walnut tree.  These can certainly be added to, over time, but I hope this is a good start for those of us who want to work with walnut.

 

Walnut as a “container” for many things and as a protector. The stories of Thumbelina, Boots and his Brothers, and Tom Thumb all speak to the magical nature of the walnut to contain or hold those small things which may otherwise get lost. Now, these stories talk about English walnuts, but there is a long tradition of hiding things or keeping them safe within a walnut. This speaks to some protective quality that walnuts have.  One of the ways we might see this is using a visualization of walnut surrounding us to protect us.  I can also see us using a whole walnut as a protective object to carry.

 

Walnut as an expeller. Just as walnut has its protective “within” quality, it also has a very strong “expelling” quality without. Walnut, through its very nature of producing juglone, expels things away. Walnut’s same medicinal qualities expel parasites from the body.  We see this same expelling quality in the lore and magical lore of walnut. Given all of these parallels, it is reasonable to connect these to the spirit world: I would certainly want walnut as an ally on my side when there were things I wanted to be rid of, especially spirit activity.  I’m sure there are many ways you can use walnut for this–what comes to mind most immediately is planting walnuts around a property, or taking a bit of walnut tincture to work to remove something unwanted (like sadness, depression, etc).

 

Walnut and gratitude. The long history of people “beating” walnuts to make them grow better and the problem of over-harvesting the walnut teaches us an important lesson in gratitude.  We humans are so quick to take without consideration: the walnut reminds us of the important lesson of honoring the earth, harvesting that which is offered, but doing so in kindness, respect, and care for the living earth.  I think these

 

Embracing “First Aid Responder” Plants July 17, 2016

As I grow ever more in tune and aware of nature’s gifts, I keep coming back to one of the tragedies of our age–our incredible misunderstanding of the natural world, the sacred living earth from which all things flow. One of the things I’ve been working hard to do in this blog, and in my own community here in PA, is to restore and reconnect humans and nature. My particular way of doing it has lately been through the teaching of healing plant medicine, edible wild foods, and the like.  This means breaking down some assumptions, but really, building new knowledge and empowerment for many people in the community.  Since moving to my small town I’ve been really busy as an ambassador offering presentations on permaculture and vermicomposting, summer plant walks (wild food/medicine), herbalism classes, and most recently I am teaching children at the local UU church how to make medicine from plantain! I am finding that here, there is a great need for this kind of plant education in the community, certainly, and great interest.

 

What I am learning is that people have very limited vocabularies, frameworks, and understandings when it comes to plants. One of the things that often comes up from people, and that they latch onto, is the idea of the “invasive” vs. “native” plant. When I share a plant, they want to know if its invasive or native, and I rarely want to use those terms. As I mentioned in my last post on this subject (which was rather controversial), the concept of invasiveness is, in itself, a real problem. And I think, more than anything, it is because all invasive plants are put into a little box. If these plants were human, attaching such a label would be considered racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, etc.  But apparently, we can do it as much as we like to plants–and when we pigeonhole plants into an “invasive” or “native” category, we make assumptions about them without knowing their true nature, understanding their spirits, or their medicine and magic.

 

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

I think this is a problem for a number of reasons.  For one, the term is derogatory, and makes a set of assumptions that simply don’t fit for all plants with the “invasive” category.  Second, a lot of plants don’t fit in the whole binary very well. Poison ivy, which is one of my very favorite plants (I will have to write on it one of these days) is a native plant, yet, it doesn’t get privileged status because humans don’t like what happens when they rub up against it. Water hemlock is another native plant which which you do not want to tango. Nearly all lawn grass isn’t native, but humans like it because it mows well and mats well and creates lawn. We have all kinds of stuff we’ve planted (hello wheat, oats, barley, lettuce, onion, radish, leek….the list goes on and on).  How do any of these fit within the categories?  They really don’t.

 

So if the categories don’t fit, why do we still use them?  Probably because they are simple, and they allow people to know something (e.g. plant = good or plant = bad) about the plants.  Part of what I believe we need to do, in order to build more fruitful relationships with nature, is to rethink these terms.  So today, I’d like to present one new category that we can consider as a thinking, teaching, and relationship-building tool: the first aid responder plant.

 

Introducing: The First Aid Responder Plants

Imagine that a person who is in a really bad accident, that the person was unable to move, damaged and broken.  Who would that person want to come to their aid?  A first responder, that’s who! An ambulance and medic, someone who could help stabilize the person, get them to the hospital, and set them on the path for long-term healing and recovery.

 

If we use this same analogy with plants, we can see that this is what happens to our lands every day. I wrote about different kinds of damage extensively in my recent land healing series. Our lands are harmed with our various activities: oil extraction, logging, new construction, conventional agriculture, and so on. These activities really harm certain kinds of plant species that are slow to propagate and slow to take hold. But other plant species, those that have evolved to adapt to these kinds of conditions, can take hold and help regenerate the land. They are plants that are adapted to particular circumstances: disturbance, and the nature of that disturbance is almost always human caused, directly or indirectly. And these are our first responder plants.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of our first aid responders end up on noxious weed lists for a simple reason–they are abundant, as disturbance is abundant. This has people assume immediately that these plants are somehow “out of control” but, given the nature of where these plants grow, they are only responding to human-caused disturbance. As I’ll show here, the situation is far less clear.  For one, people only pay attention to what is happening at this moment, not what has happened or what will happen in the future.  This short-term view means that we cannot account for most of the variables in why the responder plants are here–and that’s a problem for a few reasons.

 

Ox-Eye daisy is a very good example of a first-aid responder plant (and delicous edible and medicinal plant). This plant often shows up in disturbed soil: over-grazed pastures, old potato fields, edges of parking lots, and so on. People see these dense patches of daisy and think, “oh noes! There’s the invader!” without paying attention to why it is growing there or the history of the land.  I observed a very interesting pattern with regards to daisies in my own acre-sized field on my homestead: the first year, the field was all daisy, as the previous owners mowed the field all the time.  I chose not to mow the field but instead only mow walking paths; the second year, the daisy only grew on the paths where I had mowed.  By the fourth year, there were very few ox-eye daisies other than growing out of the paths–the rest of the field had gone to milkweed, st. john’s wort, wild strawberry, and other such plants.  The truth is, you aren’t going to get rid of Ox-Eye daisy in a field–but you don’t need to if you let it do its sacred work of healing.

Ox-eye daisy my first year - this field has practically nothing after six years!

Ox-eye daisy my first year – this field has practically nothing after six years!

 

Sweet clover is another one where I’ve seen a similar pattern–areas of disturbance, especially areas that have been recently dug and mowed. I noticed this a lot in parks–fields of plants with sweet clover only on the disturbed edges.  If there is no longer disruption, it disappears after about five years (fitting my first responder category). Bees make incredible honey from sweet clover, and it is also a fantastic medicinal plant, particularly indicated for nerve damage.

 

Dandelion is yet a third fantastic first responder plant; and I’ve written on the dandelion’s magic and purpose extensively a few years ago on this blog (along with wine recipes, lol). Dandelion breaks up compacted soil and brings nutrients from deep.  It is particularly effective in regenerating lawns.  Dandelions won’t grow once ecological succession happens and the lawn is no longer a lawn–again, they are a first responder plant. And, of course, dandelion is medicinal and edible.

 

Spotted Knapweed is yet another first responder, and one my herbal mentor Jim McDonald taught me extensively about.  Jim showed us his field that used to be full of it.  The more he pulled, the more it came (of course it did, it thrives in disturbance).  He gave up pulling it out and over time, it did its work and now there isn’t hardly any of it left after about 10 years! And, if you are noticing the pattern here, spotted knapweed is also medicinal.

 

Curly Dock/Yellow Dock and Burdock, which are both fantastic medicinal and edible plants, also work with compacted soil well, and will grow to heal disturbance and break up compacted soil if given a chance to do so. Once ecological succession takes place, curly dock and burdock are nowhere to be found.

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

What you have hopefully noticed form this list is not only is this plant a first aid responder for the land, these plants are also healing and medicinal for humans!  We should be thanking them for the services we provide for our lands: healing the soil quickly and effectively, breaking up compacted soil, reducing erosion, offering us medicine and food so freely.  These plants deserve our respect and to be honored. Where would the land be without these first aid responders?  Where would we be without them?

 

I hope this framework is helpful to you as a way to expand beyond the invasive/native binary.  Now, I am full to admit that this is one taxonomy of plants, and there is another group (kudzu, buckthorn) that may rightfully deserve some of the ire that people throw at them (as these vines literally tear down forests; the long-term ecological impacts still yet to be known). I cut buckthorn down by hand when I see it, for sure.  But I don’t think by any means that the first responder plants deserve to be in the same category, not from all of my observations and research. And maybe, next time you see one, thank a first responder plant for the good work that plant is doing on behalf of all.

PS: This link tells you a bit more about how some first responder plants indicate certain soil conditions.

 

Wild Plant Profile: Stinging and Wood Nettle’s Medicinal, Edible, and Magical Qualities! July 10, 2016

Wood Nettle

Wood Nettle

Grasp, love, grasp thy nettle tight!
Beneath the blossom there be stings
Which start and stab; but out of sight
Within that flower lie folded wings
So now, ere these be set on flight
Grasp, lover, grasp thy nettle tight!

 

Those stings which, lightly touched, do harm–
If those but hold them fast enough;
Spent of their poison shall disarm;
And seeing but a little rough,
Reveal beneath the covert form
So dear, and deep, and close, and warm
–From “Now or Never,” Laurence Housman

 

The above poem, published in 1915, shares one of the stinging nettle’s secrets–that if you grab the nettle firmly, rather than gently, the nettle stings will break off harmlessly and you can handle it without the sting.  But reaching for it tentatively will have the stings all in your skin! Nettle is one of my very favorite wild foods and medicinal plants, so this week’s post is devoted to nettle’s edible, medicinal, and magical qualities.  This is a good time to be gathering nettles–and eating them with all the other wild and tasty treats of the season (like chicken of the woods mushrooms and black raspberries!) I’ll also share some harvesting tips and recipes I’ve developed for enjoying nettles.

 

Nettles, Nettles, Everywhere

Around where I live in PA, we have two kinds of nettle: stinging nettle (urtica dioica) which is a very common plant throughout the US, and is native to Europe, Western Africa, and Asia (and naturalized here in the US). Stinging nettles (urtica dioca) typically shows up on the edges of forests–I’ve found really nice patches of it on the edge of baseball fields, for example, right where the forest brushes up against the lawn.  I’ve also found it in the open around structures, like barns, and sometimes in open fields.  Sometimes it is in a stand on its own, and sometimes, it is woven in with other plants. It prefers a sunny, less moist setting than its woodland cousin.

 

Wood nettle (laportea canadensis) is a native plant to the Americas.  It prefers the moist, deep forest.  I find it almost exclusively in bottom areas that either hold a lot of moisture or that have some flooding.  Most often, I find it in small or medium sized creek beds (sometimes on the edges or even in the middle) with lots of shade.  Forest swampy parts also often hold this delightful plant.

 

The sting of wood nettle is not as potent as that of stinging nettle–some wood nettles have a lot less stingers on them.  Both are equally enjoyable and share nearly all of the same qualities from an edible, medicinal, and magical standpoint.

 

Nettle as Awareness Medicine

When I was a kid, I remember being stung by nettles and carefully rubbing jewelweed on my stings to soothe them. Back then though, I only knew I wanted to avoid the nettle, and so I paid careful attention to where it grew.  This is one of nettles many lessons: nettle awareness medicine.  It teaches us how to pay much closer attention to our surroundings, and reminding us that there are consequences for failing to do so. Most people stop at nettle’s stinging qualities; the stings, in the form of fine hairs with irritating chemicals, often prevent people from knowing nettle’s deeper mysteries. But if we instead grasp it tightly, so much of the medicine and magic of the nettle opens up before us.

Another awesome wood nettle!

Another awesome wood nettle!

 

Fire and Water as Transforming Agents

Nettle is transformed from a stingy plant that you don’t want to touch to a delightful and tasty medicine and food–with the simple application of heat, water, (steam) and time. In the nettle, we see our own inner academical processes at work:  our rough edges and prickles sometimes have to be transformed though the fires of alchemy. If we allow them to remain, we can never get to our healing or enjoy the fruits of our labor.  But if we are able to transmute these qualities, we have the potential for reaping great rewards.

 

Nettles stings are also therapeutic (see below); specifically, they bring a flush of new blood to areas that are stung, addressing stagnation in the body’s system. I believe that nettle works on the same level spiritually and offers a powerful lesson. Sometimes, we can’t avoid the pain of living and life, but it is in these most painful moments that we are able to clear away old stagnant patterns of living that no longer serve us. Sometimes, it is because of this pain that we have new opportunities for deeper growth.

 

Harvesting Nettle

You can harvest nettles simply either by doing what the poem above says–grasping the nettles tightly (although you are still bound to get stung!)–or you can use gloves and a pair of scissors, like I do :). You can harvest the tops of nettles anytime, especially before they start going to seed. Once they have gone to seed, they get quite woody (but are still good for tea, but not for fresh eating). They eventually get really mineraly, which is great for tea still, but not so good for fresh eating.

 

Nettles can be harvested very sustainably and ethically, especially if they are in abundance. If you bend stinging nettle plants down to the ground, they will send up new shoots, which you can then harvest. If you cut the tops off of them, they will also send up new shoots (sometimes multiple sets), which you can also harvest.  I spend my summers harvesting from the same nettle patch multiple times–coming back a two or so weeks later gives you a completely new batch of fresh nettle tops!

 

Harvesting stinging nettle in flower to encourage new growth!

Harvesting stinging nettle in flower to encourage new growth!

Supporting our Body’s Systems and Nettle’s Healing Powers

Nettle is both an incredible nurturing food but also a top-rate medicinal; I daresay it is one of the most widely useful and practical plants we have in the local ecosystem here. First of all, it has a tremendous amount of minerals and vitamins: vitamin K, protein, iron, and magnesium (of which we are nearly all deficient).

 

Nettle is a metabolic tonic that helps address depleted states of the adrenals and kidneys. It is what we know as an alterative herb, restoring health and balance to the body. While it works slowly, it works well over time and offers a lasting effect. The nettle personality (the person for whom nettle is particularly indicated) i someone who is constantly in the sympathetic nervous system state and is often jumpy, nervous, twitchy or anxious. Nettle helps bring people out of the sympathetic nervous system state and back into the parasympathetic.

 

Cold nettle tea is also a great diuretic, which supports the urinary tract and the kidneys.

 

Even nettle’s sting also has benefit.  It is used as an alternative treatment for any stagnant conditions of the circulatory system and the blood, particularly for arthritis and osteoarthirtis. Tendonitis can be treated by stinging the affected area and adding a salve of solomon’s seal oil or a yellow dock leaf.  Nettles sting can also be used to treat the loss of sensation in the body (e.g. in the fingers after an accident).

 

Nettle Dip - yum!

Nettle Dip – yum!

Some Nettle Recipes

Because Nettle is so abundant, I have developed a number of recipes that showcase nettle in a variety of ways.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

Nettle French Onion Dip

  • 1/2 cup of nettles (fresh)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1/2 cup of sour cream
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

This is a very simple dip–I recently made this for my plant walk, and it was a huge success!  Bring water to a boil, add the nettles, and boil 3-4 minutes to remove the sting.  Drain and press the nettles to get the excess water out.  They will look a lot like cooked spinach. Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, saute your onions in olive oil until they are brown.

 

Add the nettles and the onion into a food processor and process until chopped.  Add salt to taste, and sour cream.  If you let the flavors meld in the fridge for a few hours, this dip is even more tasty!

 

Nettle Pesto (Vegan)

For a simple nettle pesto, combine 1/2 cup blanched nettles with 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup basil, and salt to taste (you can also add Parmesan cheese to it if you like!).  You can eat this fresh on pasta or sandwiches or freeze it.

 

Nettle Palak Paneer (veg/vegan)

Palak paneer is one of my favorite Indian dishes; when I had a ton of nettle available, I thought, why not create a nettle paneer? You can do one of two things: make it all nettles or make it spinach + nettles. Either way, it is absolutely delicious!

 

  • 2 cups of nettles, blanched (about 4 cups before cooking) (You can also go 50/50 on the nettles with spinach)
  • 1/2 cup paneer cheese (substitute extra firm tofu)
  • 1 medium onion (cut finely)
  • 1/2 chunk of ginger (shredded/cut finely)
  • 1 Small tomato (finely chopped)
  • 6 tbsp ghee or cooking oil
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 green chilies (depending on your spice level)
  • 3 tbps of cream (optional)

 

Begin by blanching your nettles (and spinach, if you are using it). While it is blanching, you also want to fry your ghee/tofu in 3 tbsp of the ghee or cooking oil, browning them on all sides.

 

Strain your nettles and spinach, and allow to cool a bit. Then, add them to your food processor and process them a bit to make a rough puree.

 

In a skillet, combine 3 tbsp of ghee/cooking oil with the ginger, onion and garlic and saute for about 5 min until everything goes translucent. Add chilies and tomato and saute for another 2-3 min. Add the pureed nettles and paneer cheese, season to taste. If you want, you can add 3 or so tbsp of fresh cream.

 

Blanching nettle

Blanching nettle

Serve this over rice–delicious!

 

Vegan options: tofu instead of paneer, use cooking oil, omit the cream.

 

Nettle Nervine Nourishing Tea

I find nettle tea to be a really delightful treat. My favorite tea blend, one that supports and nourishes the body, is the following:

  • 1 part nettle leaves, dried
  • 1 part oats, dried (whole oats, not crushed oats) or oatstraw
  • 1 part lemon balm
  • 1 part catnip

Blend these together and make an herbal infusion. Boil water, add herbs, put a lid on it, and seep for at least 10 min. Enjoy with some raw honey!

 

Closing Thoughts

I hope that you take the opportunity to get to know this amazing, incredible, nurturing, and healing plant!

 

Chickweed (Stellaria Media) as a Healing Food, Medicine, and Magical Plant Ally June 6, 2016

After a long bout of cold weather, things are quickly warming up.  This means we are about at the end of our spring emphermals and summer is quickly approaching.  I would be remiss if I didn’t post about at least one delightful spring plant, and so today I want to share about the edible, medicinal, and magical properties one of my favorite plants is in abundance in the spring—chickweed (stellaria media). I found some incredible specimens of this plant just this week, so it is still out there, working its magic, in its own very humble way. This post will talk about chickweed’s medicinal and edible qualities, sharing recipes for chickweed pesto and chickweed salve, as well as its incredible magic and symbolism.

 

Chickweed (magical painting by yours truly)

Chickweed (magical painting by yours truly)

Chickweed is certainly a plant in abundance in the spring and fall through most temperate regions in the world, and it can still be found throughout the summer months.

 

Chickweed is a small, succulent plant that has a smooth stem with a line of hair running along it like a horse’s mane. It has a tiny white flower with 10 petals (in five directions). In fact, M. Grieve writes that, “It has been said that there is no part of the world where Chickweed is not to be found…it has naturalized itself anywhere that man has settled” and I have found this to be the case in many places that I have visited. Here, it is a plant that you find both in urban and wild areas–I find it here near the edges of sidewalks, around telephone poles, growing graciously in the lawns, or tucked into the edges of the woods.

 

Chickweed is a Healing, Tonic Food

Chickweed it is an extremely nutritive, healing food. We herbalists call this a “tonic” food; its when a plant is both medicinal and edible, and when you eat it, it is restorative to multiple systems in the body. Chickweed is the reason we call food medicine, and medicine food. Chickweed is very nutrient dense, like many delicious wild foods, and is high in Vitamins A, B, C, Magnesium, Manganese, Zinc, Calcium, Phosphorous, and potassium, among others.  It also helps the metabolism, broadly, to more effectively eliminate waste and soothe inflammation.  It can be consumed moderately and with effect.

 

Chickweed Pesto: You can make a chickweed pesto that is nutritive and delicious.

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup of chickweed (or more)
  • Small handful of garlic mustard (also abundant and easy to find) or 2 cloves garlic
  • Walnuts or pine nuts
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • Optional: 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese

This delicious pesto can be used in all sorts of ways: tossed in noodles, baked into bread, as a sandwich spread, as a dipping sauce for treats.  You can freeze this (I like to freeze it in an ice cube tray and once frozen, put it in a bag so I can pull out a few cubes at a time).  Then you can enjoy it all year, even when chickweed is not in season.

Close-up of chickweed (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Close-up of chickweed (courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

Chickweed Salad: I also like to make a salad with various spring ephemerals (garlic mustard, dandelion greens, chickweed).  Make sure you chop the chickweed up pretty good.  Raw, it tastes a lot like a mild corn silk.  Toss it the greens with a vinaigrette and enjoy!

 

The Healing of Chickweed

Chickweed is a first-rate herbal plant ally, helping with a number of conditions. Chickweed is a demulcent (that is, it coats and soothes dry or inflamed tissues); is cooling (addressing hot conditions, like burns or inflammation).  It is also an alterative, working broadly on the metabolism to help the body more effectively absorb and use nutrients and more fully eliminate waste. As a gentle tonic plant, it can help rebuild these systems over time.

 

Chickweed is considered a “slimming remedy” for those that specifically have underactive thyroid issues. It has a folk reputation for being a “slimming remedy” when underactive thyroid is a cause of weight gain.   But more broadly, because it works with the metabolism, it also supports digestive processes.

 

Most people use Chickweed as a skin healer—in fact, in many Amish stores in my area, you will see chickweed salve for sale! It is particularly good for any dry and inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or the may minor bites, cuts, scrapes, brush burns, bee stings and so on.   It pretty much works for any skin conditions that are dry and inflamed—although because it is demulcent, you don’t want to use it for damp or mucus laden skin conditions. You can use it fresh as a poultice for this purpose (and combine it with plantain for added effect). You can also make an amazing salve from it. A fresh poultice of chickweed is good for poison ivy issues as well.

 

I want to stress that in all of the medicinal actions I’m describing above, chickweed is an extremely gentle plant.  She is powerful, yes, but in a gentle and soothing way.  I kind of see her like a friendly old grandmother who has a careful touch, yet powerful knowledge and healing ability.

 

Chickweed Healing Salve

Here is my recipe for a simple chickweed healing salve, which you can make and use for at least a year or more.  It is fantastic on burns, scrapes, sunburns, bug bites, cuts, etc.

 

Harvesting plants: Pick some chickweed in a place where it is safe to gather (not from a yard that is sprayed, for example; see my post on foraging for more on how to harvest safely).  Please be very careful where you gather chickweed–it is often in places other things can’t grow that are typically sprayed. For added medicinal effect, also pick some plantain and add this to your mixture! The two of these combined are really stellar.

 

Ingredients and materials

  1. 1 cup chickweed (or 1/2 cup plantain, 1/2 cup chickweed); more is even better
  2. High quality olive oil (about a cup)
  3. Double-boiler with a lid
  4. Beeswax
  5. Strainer
  6. Small jars to place in salve

Begin by cleaning your chickweed (wash it off, and garble it to make sure nothing else is in there; sometimes speedwell can look very similar).  Lay it out on a towel to dry.  You will want to wilt it for a few days–let it sit on a counter or table for 24-48 more hours before continuing the recipe.  If you are using plantain, treat the plantain like the chickweed.

 

Double boiler with plant matter

Double boiler with plant matter

Chop up your chickweed/plantain fairly finely and place in a double boiler.  Bring your water to a boil, and then keep it on low, infusing for at least 24 hours (if you have to turn the heat off for a few hours while you leave the house, that’s OK).  Beware of using a crock pot for this–crock pots typically get too hot and fry your plant matter.  You want it infusing, not frying!  If you don’t have a double boiler, you can place it in the sun for about 10 days infused in the oil.  Make sure the oil fully covers your plant matter.  I just prefer the double boiler method for the reason described in the next paragraph.

 

Chickweed is a very wet plant, so you need to make sure the water is getting out of the mixture.  This is why we wilted it!  Water will make your salve go rancid very quickly.  You can do this by putting a lid on your double boiler for about 10 min and then lifting it, seeing if there is condensation.  As long as there is condensation, there is still water in the mixture.  This is ok–you just need to be aware of it.

 

After you are done with your mixture, let it cool and then strain it into a clear glass jar.  I usually put the strainer on top of the jar and let the oil drip out.  Squeezing it is sure to bring water into the mixture, which you don’t want.  Let the mixture settle overnight–if there is water in it, it will look like little bubbles on the bottom.  Pour your oil back into your double boiler. When you pour it off, avoid those bubbles and pour off only oil.

 

Reheat your oil gently in the double boiler and add beeswax (I would start with 2 tbsp to a cup of oil). You can add as much wax as you want—the more wax, the thicker your salve will be. You can check the thickness by dropping a tiny bit of the salve onto a cold spoon (put the spoon in the freezer for 5 min). Once you are happy with the thickness, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil if you’d like and then pour it into small tins. It will keep a year or more this way, and can be used for many purposes. It also makes nice gifts!

 

The Magic of Chickweed

Chickweed might be a humble, gentle plant, but she packs a magical punch.  I have spent a lot of time working with this plant over the last few years, and one of the things that I realized is that she is a very potent magical plant, emphasizing protection and healing. In fact, I’d argue magical symbolism is drawn from her botanical features (see image above).  I came to this conclusion not by reading through herbals (although they certainly have a lot to say about the matter), but through my own powers of observation.

 

Barn Sign (Hex Sign) in Ligonier, PA

Barn Sign (Hex Sign) in Ligonier, PA

One of the things we have around here a lot are barn signs; these are painted signs, called Hex signs, that people placed on their barns to ward off evil or to encourage the good to come in. They primarily come out of the Pennsylvania Dutch magical tradition. So many of these signs feature a pentacle or ring ray of petals facing outward–just like chickweed.  Here’s one such barn sign (left) that I think looks a lot like the petals of a chickweed plant.

 

When you look at the chickweed itself, close up (see photo, below), the petals themselves are paired and shoot off in five rays.  The sepals (the small leaves right behind the petals) form a pentagram.  The  pistil is shaped almost like triskele.  So much magical symbolism is present here, in this tiny, unassuming flower. Culpepper puts chickweed as under the dominion of the moon.

 

I have come to understand chickweed as an extremely protective and potent plant.  I very much welcome in it in the beds around my house, and cultivate it when it appears–its protective, healing energy is always welcome.  She is an excellent guardian, functioning quite similarly to those barn signs of old, a quiet and yet potent protection for all who cultivate and welcome her.

 

New Herbalism Blog: Star and Thorn Botanicals

I wanted to end this post by telling you about the herbalism blog I have started–this is a joint effort between myself and my sister, Briel (who is also a practicing herbalist).  You can visit the blog here. It will cover a variety of different herbal techniques and plants, drawing upon traditional western herbalist practices. I’ll post wild foods and these kinds of magically-enriched posts here, however, still :).  Please check it out!

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part VI: Working with Sites that Will Be Destroyed April 2, 2016

As I’ve mentioned throughout this series, the energetic land healing work that you do is largely based on the situation at hand–what is occurring, what has occurred, or what will occur. Sometimes, you are aware in advance that the land will be severely damaged or destroyed. Trees being cut down for new human structures, pipelines being put in the ground, new strip malls being built, new highways going in, scheduled logging, routine “cutting” of trees under power lines, massive surface mining operations and mountaintop removal, and much, much more are very common these days. Lands and waterways all over the place are under duress at present, and this kind of destruction is common in every corner of the world. Its one thing to hear about these issues, and its another thing to be directly confronted with them.  Today’s post is going to look at what we can do to help energetically and physically with sites that are going to be destroyed.  We’ll also briefly explore the self care strategies necessary for this kind of work. Today, we tackle what I consider to be the hardest situation of healing work: knowing that impending destruction will take place–and being willing to do something about it.

 

Note: Today’s post continues my land healing series, and if you haven’t read the earlier posts, I would strongly suggest you read them in order first, as this post builds on the previous ones and doesn’t explain terms that I’ve gone into depth with before. Here are links to the full series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

 

Remember that THIS is why we heal the land!

Remember that THIS is why we heal the land!

Self Care Strategies, Mental Health, and Environmental Destruction

Going to a place that will be destroyed prior to its destruction, holding space for it, and witnessing the aftermath, is in my opinion one of the hardest situations to work with as a land healer.  And so, before we can attend to the land, I want to briefly through the mental health implications of such work.  Grist magazine recently ran a story on the mental health implications of mountaintop removal, one of the first stories I’ve ever seen on this topic. As the article suggests, the loss of “homeplace”, places where one grew up or is intimately connected with the land, has severe mental health consequences.  Of particular note, high rates of clinical depression and higher rates of suicide are linked with such destruction. While the Grist article focused on mountaintop removal, other articles and studies have looked at the overall linkage to environmental destruction and mental health in places all over the globe; one study in Australia is of particular note. I don’t really think we need scientific studies to tell us how bad watching environmental destruction is firsthand is–however, maybe knowing there is scientific research helps us feel less “unbalanced” or “crazy” after working on such a site. What I really worry about are the people who feel nothing, the people who actively destroy.

 

The truth is, This is the really difficult stuff, the stuff you wish you didn’t have to see, the stuff you wish you didn’t have to experience.  No amount of daily protective or energetic work takes away that pain and suffering that you feel as a witness. I just want to clarify that, and tell you that it’s OK to feel this way. As I wrote about last week, part of what we have to do is start acknowledging, paying attention, and holding space.  It’s also OK if you feel you can’t handle something, or if you have to step back for a bit.  This stuff is overwhelming at times (especially depending on where you live).  I’ve been feeling a bit unbalanced in this regard since coming back to PA because of the many kinds of destruction here present: logging, fracking, mountaintop removal, acid mine runoff, factory pollution–to name a few.  Its hard to deal with seeing this stuff everywhere, often, and even trying to go into a natural place free of fracking wells, for example, is a difficult thing to do.

 

Given this, its important that as we do various healing work on sites–particularly those that will be destroyed or undergoing active harm–we practice self care. I have found, personally, that doing this energetic work outlined here in this post really helps me overcome the strain and pain of these kinds of situations.  For me, painting through it, or playing my flute, or visiting places that are protected for rejuvenation also helps (I’ll write about this in more detail in an upcoming post).  I’ll also note that going to places that are actively regenerating, and looking for the regeneration, and regenerating it physically is another way to work through the trauma.  But its there, and its real, and we can talk openly about it and acknowledge it for what it is.  And with that said, let’s look at some specific strategies for healing for sites that will be destroyed.

 

Strategies for Land Healing on Sites that Will Be Destroyed

 

Experiencing the powerlessness of visiting a site that will be destroyed is difficult, but you are not actually powerless.  I learned this lesson in Michigan–we had a replacement oil pipeline coming in, cutting across the whole state, to replace an old pipeline that was no longer in use.  The new pipeline required a lot of digging up of the earth, cutting of trees, damaging the land, and it was really awful (I blogged about it a bit here and some of the restoration work here; I also wrote about oil pipelines energetically here). This particular pipeline was doubly damaging because the pipeline was pumping tar sands oil through its veins, and that’s really bad stuff for the land. A good friend of mine had a number of acres of forests that would be cut along the pipeline route. She asked me to come and do what I could for the trees and the land, as a druid. And so, I and a few others came together and did what we could–and we were rather amazed by the experience.  I can tell you this–doing something, the somethings outlined here, make a world of difference when compared with doing nothing.  I’ll also mention that a lot of what you can do on such a site depends on if its private or public, and so I’m going to share some strategies that can work for different kinds of sites.  Most of these are energetic healing strategies, but a few have physical components as well, and doing some work on both levels is really effective.

 

Skunk cabbage coming back after the land has done some healing!

Skunk cabbage coming back after the land has done some healing!

Communicating with the land. I begin this kind of work by speaking with the land, using both inner and outer approaches.  For those who don’t know what I mean here, I would suggest reviewing my discussions of connecting with trees on the inner and outer planes–most of what I wrote in those posts applies.  I share with the land what I know will happen and when, and listen to what it responds in turn.  I offer to help and ask it of its needs.  Sometimes, I am asked to return at a later date.  Sometimes, I am asked to leave and not return.  But most of the time, I’m asked to stay and help as I am able.  This, as I wrote in the post on the process of unfolding, is the necessary first step.

 

Saving Seeds and Transplanting. For trees that will be cut, places that will be destroyed, etc, I highly advocate transplanting and saving seeds.  Even a single plant saved from a site that will be destroyed can be a very healing action.  For example, when my friend’s land was being logged in Michigan, I gathered hawthorn haws and apples from the trees; these I planted in fields where they would have a chance to grow.  I also saved a New England Aster plant that I transplanted to my homestead, and saved seeds from a number of other plants.  You can’t save everything, but you can save a few key things, and the land and her spirits find this kind of work extraordinarily healing. Even more powerful–if you save the seeds from those that will be lost, and later, you can go replant them in the same spot–you are engaging in extremely powerful healing work. I’ll also say that if you can bless those seeds, using something like what I wrote about here, and then replant them, that’s even better. What this does, essentially, is ensure a future for some of the plants and trees. You are saving this land’s offspring and future offspring. There is nothing more sacred and powerful than that act.

 

Now there is a whole other layer to this, I’ve discovered, through the practice of herbal medicine.  The seeds I mentioned above that I gathered are all healing plants and trees.  New England Aster, for example, is a fantastic lung relaxant plant and something that a number of people now take for treating asthma and other lung conditions (myself included!) When I replanted that New England Aster plant, I saved its seeds and I harvested some of the flowers each year for medicine. That medicine was shared with others.  So were the seeds–I started them–growing new asters, that I’ve given to people and made medicine from (in fact, I have some downstairs right now growing for new friends here in PA!)  Think about that energetically–here is a site that is devalued through human activity. When nature is replaced with something else, whether that is a strip mall, an oil pipeline, and so forth, the message is that nature is of little to no value in its current form. But, through herbal medicine, plant, and seed saving,  I’ve given that land a different narrative.  Showing that the plants it holds, through their very nature, are valued.

 

The New England Aster seeds

Saving the seeds…

Putting the Land in Hibernation. One of the best things you can do in this circumstance, and what a lot of these other strategies that I describe next are getting at, is to put the land in stasis or hibernation energetically, to help it disconnect in some way from the pain and suffering that will happen. This is really the underlying key this kind of work. If you can find a way to lower the energetic vibrations and consciousness of the land, to disconnect it, to help send its spirits away, that is the best thing you can do. Its kind of like giving a suffering person a pain killer–it helps make the process bearable, even though its still painful.  We’ll look at a number of techniques aimed at doing this–and you can also let your own intuition guide you in this respect.

 

 

Working with the Stones. I have found, at times, that with logging or other surface destruction (something that is not impacting the bedrock), you can preserve the energetic patterns of the land by sending them into them into the bedrock, into the soil, beneath the land.  This is another “putting the land to sleep” kind of strategy, and one that is particularly powerful. The rocks can hold this energy for a time, sometimes, a very long time. Its hard to put this practice into words.  Essentially, every living landscape has knowledge, wisdom, energetic patterns, that are in need of preservation in the face of destruction.  These energetic patterns are part of the land uses to heal and regenerate when the time is right.  I believe, that if you do this work with the stones before destruction, it can help regenerate the land much more effectively once regeneration can occur.

 

Part of the reason that this works was revealed to me when I was at Ohiopyle State Park in the Laurel Highlands region of PA late last year. I was walking there with a fellow druid and dear friend, and we came across all of these fossils there on the edge of the Youghiogheny river. The fossils were from very ancient forests, ancient trees and branches, shells and more. I realized, at that moment, that the stones and the living landscape were extremely intimately connected–the stones themselves had been living plants at one time–and now they are all beneath the living landscape. I had been using these connections could be used for healing work for some time, but this realization helped me understand why.  These stones, fossilized stones in particular (of which we have layers all over the planet) can handle living resonances particularly well.  And hold them for as long as necessary.

 

My method of doing this is simple–I enter a state of meditation and open myself up to the rhythms and flows of the land.  I explain what is happening, and show the spirits of the land what I could do with regards to the stones. If I get the affirmative, I essentially take those same energetic patterns, and, using the solar current, push them deep within the stones, deeper than any destruction can go. IMoving energy in this way can take a lot of effort–and a lot of practice.  Many of the energy healing practices (like Reiki) or magical practices help attune you to the movement, raising, and flowing of energy, and so those are particularly helpful for doing this work, especially on a larger scale.  Reiki practice and other esoteric forms of energy work, for example, teach you how to work with others’ energy (whether that other is a person, plant, or landscape) while not sacrificing your own or sending your own somewhere else.  Make sure, if you are doing this work, that you are practicing extreme caution in this regard.  Otherwise, this work can be extraordinarily depleting, which is not what we are going for!

 

I’ll also note that this particular “stone” technique would not be as effective for fracking and mountaintop removal.  Oil pipelines that go only 10 or 20 feet below the surface would probably be OK. I am in the process, now, of developing strategies for the fracking wells and mountaintop removal–and when I’ve done so, I can share those as well.

 

This is ghost pipe when its a little past its prime and is going to seed. There is a wild bumblebee on the flower! You can also see the dried ghost pipe sticking up as they complete their growth cycle.

This is ghost pipe when its a little past its prime and is going to seed. There is a wild bumblebee on the flower! You can also see the dried ghost pipe sticking up as they complete their growth cycle.

Working with Ghost Pipe to Distance the Pain. One particular plant spirit energy is good for this kind of work, especially for when the destruction starts happening or is ongoing. Its a plant called Indian Ghost Pipe, Ghost Flower, Indian pipe (Latin Name: Monotropa Uniflora). This plant, when used for human herbal healing, offers distancing from pain and suffering or, as Sean Donohue writes, it helps in “putting the pain beside you.” Ghost pipe also functions as a plant that helps cross the boundaries between the worlds, very useful when destruction is imminent or just beginning. I have worked extensively with this plant over a period of years, and I have found it to be an extremely potent ally for land healing work–both for you as the healer and for the land.

 

What this plant does, energetically, is essentially provide a buffer to the pain and suffering the land experiences both before the event and in the middle of ongoing destruction.  Its an exceedingly good plant to use for palliative care applications as well as this specific one.

 

Usually, to work with this plant spirit in land healing, I will do one of several things.  My first method is to see if there are any ghost pipes growing on the land (they come out in midsummer, after good rains, usually for me here that’s late June into July and August).  If they are present, I sit and connect with them.  A lot of times though, Ghost Pipe isn’t present on the land.  And so for this, I tincture the plant (I make a tincture in the same method of my write up on magical crafting and hawthorn). Note Ghost pipe is particularly watery, so a high proof alcohol is needed for the tincture.  I water the tincture down quite a bit, putting a dozen or so drops in fresh spring water (blessed through a healing ritual). Then, when I go to do the land healing work, I will bring the ghost pipe-blessed water with me, dropping it at intervals around the location, usually on trees and roots. If I can, I will try to drop it on at least the four quarters of the space, or find other prominent markers (large dominant trees work well).  Alternatively, if bringing the ghost pipe tincture and spring water isn’t possible, I will place the tincture on some stones that I will bless, and then bring them with me to the site. If I don’t have any tincture or stones, I can still summon this plant in my mind’s eye, and envision the Indian pipe rising up out of the ground and covering the land (I’ve used that particular strategy when I witness suffering–like a truckload of factory farmed chickens going off to the slaughter while driving down the highway, for example).  This year, I’m also going to make a magical anointing oil with ghost pipe (probably dried ghost pipe due to its high water content) and use that as well.

 

I would suggest if you want to use this plant in the manner I am suggesting here, you should start cultivating a relationship with it in your own life: finding it in the forest, sitting with it, tincturing it, taking some tincture when you need it, etc. In fact, it works extraordinarily well in regards to giving you processing space from the mental health difficulties associated with this work.  This plant is extremely distinctive and nearly impossible to mistake for another (and yes, its a plant, not a mushroom).

 

A recent painting of ghost pipe I did to study the plant further

A recent painting of ghost pipe I did to study the plant further

I will end by saying that Ghost Pipe has a tremendously large range in North America (see this link).  However, if you live outside of its range or in a different part of the world, I am certain that you can find another plant with similar features–you’ll need to consult local herbals (or herbalists, medicine makers, wild men/women, etc); alternatively, you can trade for some from someone living in an area where it grows (like me!).

 

Distance Palliative Care and Healing Work

A final technique that I’ll share for now involves taking a stone or some other natural thing from the land (a piece of branch, etc) that can then be worked on further at a distance. I did this kind of work when I was in Michigan a lot with regards to this pipeline and some other sites that needed ongoing palliative care–if I felt led, I would take a stone with me and bring it to a special altar I had setup on my homestead. The altar had protective warding around it (both stones and water) that helped shield the rest of my sacred sanctuary from anything that might be brought in with the linked stone. Then, at regular intervals, I would do whatever healing work I could–play music there, just sit there and hold space, pour blessed water over the stone, etc.  Sometimes, at a later point, I would return the stone to the land. Sometimes, it would stay for a long period of time, just sitting there.  I use my intuition in this regard.

 

I think that’s enough for this week–I’m over 3000 words here, and there’s lots more to say.  We’ll continue to work through these different techniques–and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences with what I’ve just posted.

 

Healing from the Hive: Honey, Propolis, Beeswax, and Herbal Practices March 5, 2016

The last time I wrote about bees on my blog, I wrote about the loss of my hives from Colony Collapse Disorder back in October.  The loss of both of the colonies of bees caused a great deal of sadness and questioning on my part, but, in the months since, I’ve done a lot of reflection on the bees themselves.  I think the long-term lessons from this experience led me to a deeper understanding of the delicacy of a hive, the delicate balance we, as humans, need to strive to protect, and reaffirmed my commitment to beekeeping as a sacred and spiritual practice.  And so, its time for another honeybee post!  In this post, I will discuss honeybees as healing agents and the benefits bees can have as partners in healing.  This post will look primarily at how we can heal people using harvests from the hive, but I’ll do a follow-up post looking at the other kinds of healing that bees do.  (FYI, I’m taking a week or more off from my ongoing “Druid’s Primer for Land Healing” series; this is because the next set of posts in that series is taking a bit longer to draft than one week! With my upcoming welcoming of a new colony of bees to the hive, I thought it would be a great post for this week!)

 

Sunflower and bee!

Sunflower and bee!

The timing of this post aligns with my first beekeeping work of 2016–this weekend, I’m moving my hives to a much closer location to where I’m renting (a friend’s house about five miles away), cleaning and preparing my hives for new bees.  In a very fortuitous set of circumstances, a friend and fellow beekeeper contacted me earlier this week to tell me he’s rescuing two colonies of bees from a building that is being torn down; the weather next week will be nice enough to move them. He’s offered one of the colonies to me, as he knows that I lost my bees last fall. And so, with the preparation work underway, we can explore the magical healing of the bees!

 

Healing Within and Without

 

As I mentioned at the start of this post, the last time that I wrote about bees on this blog, I was devastated by the loss of my two hives. The truth is, its really hard to keep bees today with the many chemicals, pesticides, mites and diseases that the bees face. In talking to a man who had been keeping bees longer than I’ve been alive, he shared with me that his hives in the 1970’s and 1980’s were 10x stronger than the hives today, that there really is no comparison. And it is during this time that we see an enormous increase in pesticide use, in chemicals, in destruction of habitat, and more. And so I think as we consider the role of the bee in healing our own lives, we also have to recognize the importance of cultivating that sacred relationship not just with the bee, but with the land that she lives upon. The truth is, I feel that the bees and their plight is very representative of the challenges facing the entire ecosystem—the bee might be more visibly damaged by pesticides and chemicals, but all aspects of the land suffer–including the humans that inhabit the land.

 

Inside the hive

Inside the hive

So part of the reason that I am sharing this material today, is that this kind of knowledge can help us cultivate a better relationship with our land.  As we use harvests from the hive to heal our bodies, we can also think about other ecosystem healing work that there is to do, and that my recent series of posts has described in depth.

 

And of course, there are important connections between our inner and outer worlds.  By working with the bees to produce healing medicine for humans, we create a powerful connection to the land, and encourage many humans to work to heal it as well.  Its a cycle that’s important to recognize, and promote–the mutual healing and benefit of humans, the land, and all of the land’s inhabitants.  This is why permaculture’s ethical system is as much about people care as it is about earth care–because the two are fuzed together, and healing one helps heal the other for the mutual greater healing of both.

 

Healing from the Hive: An Herbalist’s Perspective

Herbalism is the traditional use of plants for healing—and one of the ways we can use plants in a concentrated manner is using transformed plant material from domesticated honeybees. As master alchemists, honeybees transform plant matter–primarily plant resins and plant nectars–into incredible healing agents.  There are four things that we can harvest from their hives, all of which are extremely useful in herbalism practice (and can be used in place of other herbs that are endangered, like Goldenseal).  The material I’m presenting here comes from four places–a book called The Honey Prescription, material from Jim McDonald’s Four Season Herbal Intensive, and material from older herbal books, as well as my own direct experiences.

  • Honey: Honey is created from nectar from flowers. Bees convert the nectar into flowers by removing the water and curing the honey until it reaches below 20% water content. At 20% water content, it preserves indefinitely.
  • Propolis: Concentrated plant resin from flowers, trees, etc. Bees use it as a “glue” in their hive, but we can tincture it and use it as medicine (note that propolis must be tinctured in 95% alcohol because it is not water soluble. Whatever you tincture it in will forever have propolis on it!)
  • Beeswax: Bees can eat their honey and excrete wax from special wax glands on their abdomens. This, of course, we can use in many medicinal preparations (such as a salve).
  • Pollen: Pollen is also collected by bees from flowers. Bees keep it and use it as their protein source. Pollen use for humans is currently a bit controversial, with a lot of claims but not necessarily any science to back it up.  I haven’t used this at all, although it does seem to be one of those new fads.

 

This post will explore the first three: honey, beeswax, and propolis, and the healing that they bring.

 

Moving beehives to a new location!

Moving beehives to a new location!

Honey as a Healing Agent

Honey has been used as a healing agent for millennia. However, its important to understand that many modern honeys that you buy at the store do not have these healing properties.  This is because nearly everything that is good about honey as a healing agent is only good when it is raw. Exposing honey to heat above 100 degrees or too much light means its not nearly as effective (especially in its anti-bacterial action). Note that most beekeepers, especially larger-scale beekeepers, use heat to process honey because it flows better.  Given this, only honeys labeled as raw honey have the medicinal actions described here.

 

Honey as a Healing Food

Honey is an incredible healing food.  The best honey is raw honey, unfiltered, from a local beekeeper.  A few other tips on honey:

  • Darker honeys have higher amounts of minerals compared to lighter varieties
  • Honey is more nutrient rich than sugar or corn syrup; trace amounts of many nutrients (thiamin, riboflavin, nacin, calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, manganese, zinc)
  • Honey has prebiotic and probiotic properties to facilitate good digestion
  • Honey contains flavonoids and phenolic acids which act as antioxidants
  • Honey can aid with calcium absorption, which helps with osteoporosis, etc.

I eat honey almost every day, and try to have it in various ways.  You can cook with it, but if you do, be aware that heat zaps some of its medicinal power.  Given this, when I cook with it or add it to tea, I do it as a last step after the tea has cooled or the food is baked and I can just drizzle some honey on it!

 

Honey as Medicine: Wound and Ulcer Healing

Honey is an extremely potent and powerful medicine–I have used it firsthand in a number of ways, and it is regarded highly by herbalists in their practices. These are some of its amazing benefits:

  • Anti-bacterial activity: All honeys that have not been exposed to light or heat are anti-bacterial and sterile. Darker honeys have a stronger anti-bacterial activity; Anti-bacterial action (the anti-bacterial activity is caused by minute amounts of hydrogen peroxide).
  • Kinds of wounds: Honey can be used extremely effectively in wounds, including festering wounds, food ulcers, large septic wounds, etc. (it kills the infecting bacteria in the wound). It is extremely effective on open wounds, even deep cuts (skin gashes, ulcers, gaping wounds)
  • Honey also sucks up excess water in a wound; because of this it needs to be reapplied fairly often on serious wounds
  • Honey draws out foreign matter and removes dead tissue
  • Honey reduces wound scarring and encourages new growth
  • Honey reduces inflammation
  • Honey also deodorizes an infected wound (it kills the anaerobic bacteria which cause infections)
  • Can kill “superbugs” like MRSA, Anthrax, TB, Septicemia (see Honey Prescription, Pg 73 for more info)

To use honey in the above ways, you can directly apply it to wounds using sterile bandages with honey, under a band-aid, etc.  Depending on the nature of the wound or burn, it might require many applications of honey per day.

 

Harvesting honey

Harvesting honey

Honey as Medicine: Many other Healing Benefits

The following are some more ways we can use honey in a medicinal preparation:

  • Honey is extremely effective on burns, especially on serious (2nd and 3rd degree) burns. I have found that you can apply honey to a burn even before heading to the hospital in the case of serious burns. Honey will reduce inflammation and create a moist healing environment, stimulating new skin growth.  So many times I have used honey to heal burns!
  • Sore/Scratchy Throat + Cough: use for alleviating nocturnal coughs and upper respiratory infections (functions as a demulcent on the throat)
  • Intestinal Disorders: Gastritis can be helped by honey. It even helps soothe salmonella (I have firsthand experience on this issue, unfortunately)!
  • Hemorrhoids: Honey significantly reduces the symptoms (use a mix of beeswax, honey, and olive oil to create a salve)
  • Tooth Decay: Honey stops the growth of bacteria found in dental plaque and reduces the amount of acid reduced (can promote health if used in place of refined sugar)
  • Gingivitis: Use directly on the gums to reduce symptoms and promote healing.
  • Enhancing Immune Systems: Boost immune system and white blood cell effectiveness

 

Propolis

Propolis is the concentrated plant resins that the bees collect.  They use it as a “glue” in their hives–its very sticky at first, and then slowly dries out and becomes brittle.  It smells amazing, like the inside of the beehive on a warm summer day!  Propolis can be used similar to how goldenseal is used in many cases, and since goldenseal is so endangered and rare, its a wonderful alternative.  Its primary function is that it is a contact anti-microbial, meaning it has anti-microbial action when coming in direct contact with the tissues.  Due to its resinous nature, it also seals up wounds effectively!  Here are some more details:

  • Anti-microbial action. Propolis is very effective as a remedy for cold sores and herpes virus manifesting on the face or other parts not to be named. It has very strong contact anti-microbial properties and can function as a “seal” over wounds and sores.
  • Burn Healing: Can help heal (and seal up) minor burns.
  • Dental Cavities: Propolis can effectively be used as a mouth disinfectant, especially to limit bacterial plaque.
  • Wart Removal: Propolis can heal plantars and common warts with repeated application (one study suggested a 75% success rate)

 

Its really an incredible addition to the herbal medicine chest!  I would suggest reading The Honey Prescription for more information on this amazing healing agent!

 

Cutting comb honey!

Cutting comb honey!

Beeswax

I’m not going to write too much about beeswax here, as it deserves a longer treatment on its own, but it is widely used in herbal applications. Its especially useful for making salves and creams (like my backyard healing salve or jewelweed salve).  Its also wonderful for making candles, and shining a light in the dark places. One of the family traditions my family has done our whole lives is making Ukranian eggs (called Psyanka) where you use beeswax to mask certain colors of the egg as it goes through successive dye baths to create beautiful and colorful patterns.  These eggs could be used for protection, fertility, and more–and the beeswax is a key part of that process.

 

Herb Infused Honey

You can combine the healing properties of honey with the healing properties of other herbs for added effect.  My elderberry infused honey is a daily addition to my tea in the winter months!

 

Herbs you can use include:  Cinnamon (sticks); vanilla beans; sage, lavender, rosemary, thyme, lemon verbena, lemon balm, elder flower, rose petal, chamomile, star anise, dried lemon slices or dried lemon zest, dried ginger, mint, bee balm, and more. For this recipe, use 2-3 teaspoons of dried herbs per 1 cup of honey.

 

You will also need a mason jar, some raw honey, and a spoon or stick for stirring.

 

Here are the directions for your infused honey:

  1. Ensure your herbs are chopped up. The more chopped the herb is, the better it infuses, but the harder it is to get out.
  2. Add wax paper to the top so the honey doesn’t touch the lid (there is BPA in the lid). Or use a plastic lid.
  3. Infuse at least 1 week, turning the jar every day. Don’t sit it in a warm windowsill in direct sunlight (unlike some online instructions suggest), as this will remove some of the honey’s antimicrobial actions.
  4. IF you want, you can strain the honey, and store in a cool, dry place. (Alternatively, don’t strain it and enjoy it with the dried herbs inside–that’s what I do with my elderberry honey!)
  5. If you do strain it, you can use the leftover herbs in a tea.

*Note, you can use fresh herbs for this as well. Seep them about 2-3 weeks. Keep your infused honey in the fridge and use within 2-3 weeks. Fresh herbs add water content to the honey, which makes it no longer shelf stable. A wonderful thing to do, however, is to add the herbs, then just take a spoonful of the mixture and make it into tea! It won’t last long!
**Safety note: Honey is safe for infusing because it is very acidic (Botulism grows in a low acid, low oxygen environment; honey is not a low acid environment)

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small dip into the healing magic of the beehives–speaking of which, I have some beehives calling to me, so I best get to the work at hand!

 

Wildtending, Earth Healing, and Gathering and Sowing the Seeds January 2, 2016

Calling all land regenerators, earth walkers, and friends of the weeds!  You can help heal our lands, today, with the resources you have and the love you have to give.  What if, instead of doing less harm or less baad, we could do good?  We could work to heal?  In this post, I’m going to talk about the process of gathering, scattering, and sowing seeds, nuts, and roots in regenerating our lands. This perspective is of the wildtender, the seed scatterer, the weed wise wo(man). This is four-part series on Wildtending that I’ll be presenting over the next month–the first giving the “how to” and philosophy (this post) spiraling from my earlier writings throughout this year. So, grab a handful of seeds, nuts, and roots and let’s get started.

 

The Man Who Planted Trees

I recently came across a story called “The Man who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness” by Jean Giono. His story talks about the actions of one man, Elzéard Bouffier, who planted trees in a barren plane, and over a period of years, planted a huge forest on the barren landscape where he lived–the forest brought back water, people, and abundant life. One man’s small mission ended up transforming the lives of so many. Before you continue reading my post, I really, really, really suggest you stop and read his story.  (A PDF of the full story is here: The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness; A Youtube Animated Video is here.)  This story is empowering–it shows us that the actions of one person, determined, over time, can really regenerate a whole ecosystem.

 

Wild crafting and wild tending

I talk a lot about wildcrafting on this blog, both in terms of wild food foraging and healing medicine. And I firmly believe that gathering from the land is important. Wildcrafting is the half of the equation that gets people into the woods or into a field of weeds–going off to find wild mushrooms or berries, reconnecting to nature, and taking nature within ourselves. Its the half that encourages people to help protect wild lands and places.  Its the half that allows nature to heal us through her mere presence and through her medicine. Its the half that helps people appreciate nature and her bounty–but its only half of the equation and that’s an important piece to understand.

When you forage in lands that are abundant and healthy, you can’t see the need for doing anything but being present and thankful, maybe taking a handful of the seeds from what you are harvesting and scattering them a little further as a sign of thanks. However, when the plants that you found in abundance in one area are non-existent in another, you start to see patterns of problems that emerge. In fact, it was my wildcrafting practice in PA, in such damaged and pillaged lands, that has led me to this line of thinking and understanding.

Stories like “The Man Who Planted Trees” remind me of the importance of balance, a principle resonated in the ying-yang, or the sun-moon, or any other balanced pairing.  This is that wildcrafting (that is, ethically harvesting from  from nature) must be balanced with wildtending (that is, returning to or giving to nature). Our lands desperately need wildtending.

 

A Partner in Healing the Land

The web of life

The web of life

The most important thing to understand about wildtending is this: Nature already knows how to heal herself.  All we have to do is to help setup the right conditions for healing. We need to literally sow the seeds and help the soil–and nature will do the rest!

 

The problem we face today is simple: nature doesn’t always have the seeds or resources she needs to heal. We have a tremendous loss of biodiversity (both plant and animal life) caused by severe damage to our lands, from clear-cutting or logging forests, to creating of monocrop industrialized agriculture and lawns, to spraying and toxins. Mines and factories are polluting our rivers. Our topsoils are being eroded at an alarming rate. On top of this, our infrastructure (roads, fields, cities) and human activities prevent the natural spread of seeds and roots; further, the decline in bird populations and wildlife that would spread the seeds mean that less seeds are spread. At literally every point in our ecosystem–something is causing damage.

 

Finally, humans themselves, who used to tend the land and spread seed regularly, no longer engage in this practice.  We don’t know how, for one, and most of us are afraid to do so, for fear of causing more harm.  Even for those who see the land as sacred, who hear the land’s call–we are so afraid to do anything that might harm her further.

 

And yet, the need is great. Most of our forests and lands–even those that *appear* healthy when you walk into them, are currently devoid of may major medicinals and botanicals that once grew abundantly there.  Many critically endangered plants don’t thrive on disturbance like their weedy cousins–rather, they thrive in areas that are undisturbed.  And what forest or field has remained undisturbed in the last few hundred years, at least in the USA? Very, very few. This means we have a situation where its harder for nature to heal because she lacks the seed stores and biological diversity to do so.

 

I’ll give you an direct example here of what I mean–in the forest below my parents’ house, almost 90% of it has been repeatedly logged–except for about a 5 acre section which, for whatever reason, has been largely spared.  This section is perfect for growing certain wet and dark-loving forest plants due to its wet conditions and small early-year springs.  Abundant ramps, along with blue cohosh, white and red trillium, may apples, and trout lilies are all over this small piece of land. Everything I’ve listed, with the exception of trout lilies, show up on one of the United Plant Saver’s “at risk” or “to watch” lists–endangered medicinal and key species of plants, now disappearing from our lands. An invisible line is present in that forest–as soon as you step into the areas that have been logged within the last 30 years, the forest floor is no longer carpeted with these spring plants–instead, its mostly bare on the forest floor. Now to be clear–nothing else appears to be changed–the forest canopy is still there, the larger trees grow around.  Only knowing the history of this land, and where has been disturbed, and where hasn’t been, allows me to understand the dividing line between ecological sanctuary and ecological wasteland.

 

A carpet of magical plants...this is the area that hasn't been logged recently

A carpet of magical plants…this is the area that hasn’t been logged recently

There are lots of spaces just like this forest–spaces that used to have important plants and biodiversity, and due to various human activities, no longer do.  Only knowing what once grew there can help us bring it back. The practice of wild tending and seed scattering is putting the tools–the plants–back in nature’s hands for healing work.

 

 

Principles of Wildtending: What to Do?

Wildtending can take many different approaches, but the one we’ll talk about today is the magic of the seed. The magic of the seed is something that each of us can know. A simple practice is to start a seed on a paper towel and to simply watch it grow.  The lessons within the seed are profound. You get this same experience when you watch sprouts on your counter–that magical seed breaks forth from its casing and sends roots down and a shoot up.  Some seeds are so special that they pull moisture towards themselves and retain it for earlier and easier sprouting. It is embracing this magic of the seed where we can start our work.

 

How do I know what do do?  The first big question in wildtending is this–how do I know what to sow? How do I know it will be beneficial and not harmful? The two keys are the act of careful observation and second is ecological knowledge.

 

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

Careful observation. As I grow more and more deeply into my herbalist practice, it has given me perspective on the number and abundance of plants of many different kinds. Where you can find calamus (sweet flag), skullcap, or lobelia; how rare plants like goldenseal or even black cohosh are to see.  As a permaculture designer, I also know how to look at ecosystems and understand their needs–how they function, the different roles of plants, and how to encourage ecological succession and healing.  These two perspectives, I think, help me answer this question.

 

This question must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depend on what they are lacking, and you figuring out what that might be.  There are, however, a few places to begin. I want to draw your attention to an organization that has been around since the 1970’s, started by Rosemary Gladstar called The United Plant Savers.  They have a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings.

 

I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been reseeded with native plants that you can go visit and learn from? These are good places to look.  For example, a set of local books (nearly all older) helped me fill in the gaps.  About six months ago, I found key information on what PA’s forests had been like prior to clear cutting in an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to logging.  I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 20% of our forests!  I don’t think this was by accident, but by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans who lived here and tended the wilds).

 

How do I know I won’t do more harm than good? I also want to speak here about fear.  A lot of people don’t want to do this kind of thing cause they are afraid of screwing up nature, planting something “wrong.” Let me tell you–so many people are doing things wrong right now, and very little of it has anything to do with wanting to be of service and help.

 

I suggest using your mind and your heart.  In terms of using your mind,  As long as you research carefully,stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), its hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil–pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with (milkweed or pleurisy root are great first time plants for my bioregion) and start there. Its also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Principles of Wildtending: How do I know what to plant?

 

Different ecosystems require different kinds of seeds and approaches. I have divided up my efforts here based on the ecosystem and immediate need. Let’s start by examining the concept of a “plant guild” in Permaculture and then move into some specific approaches based on different ecosystems.

 

Understanding Plant Communities (Guilds): If you know enough about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work together (I think about the spring ephemeral plants in the patch of forest I discussed earlier–ramps, dutchman’s breeches, trillium, mayflowers, and blue cohosh along with woodland nettles, all under maples, oaks, and cherries primarily).  Our goal, as land tenders, should be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (the horizon). For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, patrtidgeberry); vining (ground nut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers. (For more on this in a home gardening/home ecosystem context, look at material found here and in the really great free PDF here.).

 

Likewise, permaculture recognizes that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere else is not a monocrop but a set of plants that often work in conjunction (that’s not to say there isn’t competition, but there is also a lot of collaboration). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” These could include nitrogen fixers (most legumes), nutrient accumulators/dyanmic accumulators (those that pull up nutrients from deep in the soil, like burdock or comfrey); nectary plants (pollen and nectar plants), biomass plants (those that create carbon-rich soil; like leaves from the fall); along with any edible or medicinal qualities. Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

A field of milkweed--a rare sight today.

A field of milkweed–a rare sight today.

 

As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what seeds to scatter:

  1. The height of the plant and growth habits
  2. The plant’s own needs for light and water
  3. What the plant does and offers (consider for many herbs bloom times and nectar)
  4. The plant’s endangered status more broadly or population locally
  5. The distinct context you are planting; considering long-term growth and other people’s actions

I haven’t given you specific lists of plants here because my lists would not be the same as your lists–this is work that each of us needs to do.  I can share my lists, and  I hope that others can share theirs as well!  I will be sharing some of my typical lists below.  I’d also recommend for those really serious to this work to check out Dave Jackie’s Edible Forest Gardens books–they contain the most detailed information on plant guilds for more cultivated plants (although I am generally distrustful of the herbal information in their books, they are otherwise really fantastic).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Places Nobody Cares About

James Howard Kunsler talks at length about the places and spaces that “nobody cares about” in relationship to urban planning and architecture.   I believe we can apply this same principle to our lands. The strip of bare earth behind a strip mall; the insipid moncrops along our highways; the recent construction site stripped bare of its soil; even the logged forest quickly regrowing.  These places, places that have been exploited and stripped, are prime areas for us to begin our wildtending work.  Why? They are places that nobody cares about, that nobody is tending–and those are the places that need wildtenders the most.

 

Bare Earth, Damaged Soil.  Sometimes you come across a place that has no topsoil and is simply exposed bare earth. These kind of situations, from my perspective, are “triage” situations–and this is where the plants that many call “invasives” thrive (after the soil is re-established, these plants almost always disappear and ecological succession continues). Road construction is a good example; when they are done, they maybe will scatter some seeds or plant some grass, but really, a lot of it just sits bare.  Another good choice is a bare area where logging occurred and its having difficulty coming back.  Or, one that I’ve been studying quite a bit since returning home–a “boney dump” where mine refuse (primary shale, still bare after 50-100 years) was piled up in huge piles and left to sit (I’ll write about these at length one of these days).  Or when the utility company comes through and digs something up, then leaves without planting anything.  There are lots of “bare earth” places in our landscape, and usually they are neglected.  These are *perfect* opportunities to begin our work as land tenders!

 

In these kinds of situations, think really carefully about how far along the ecological succession line you want to encourage this piece of ground to grow.  If its under power lines, planting a bunch of oaks is not the wisest course of action because in 20 years, they will be cut down.  Instead, here, I’d encourage a herbaceous and groundcover plants would work well or shrubbery that won’t get that high and that will provide good nutrition or forage or nitrogen fixing or whatever it is you want to provide. The combinations of plants that I’ve used on these kind of situation are:  butterfly weed (pluresy root) being one of my favorites and on the endangered list, milkweeds, along with burdock, Echinacea (mid-season bloom), New England Aster (for late blooms), Mullein (medicinal), and Alfalfa (nitrgoen fixer, mid-season bloom).  These plants thrive in full sun kinds of situations and once established, are perennial.  Not to mention that if there isn’t spraying happening, you can come back at some point, gather more seeds, and maybe even some medicine if the conditions are ok for it :).

 

Places no one cares about...

Places no one cares about…

The Monocrop. Along our highways in many parts of the USA, we see the monocrop.  Driving to visit friends and observing the highways in different seasons of the year was actually one of the inspirations for this whole line of thinking and practice–I was thinking to myself how many millions of acres are along highways and how so few of them grow anything beneficial to the land. These are also, in James Howard Kunsler’s terms, spaces that nobody cares about.

 

In the case of many of our highways in PA, they only mow the very edges, and many of them are on un-mowable hillsides.  Usually after road construction, bridge building, etc, the highway has been replanted with crown vetch or grass….essentially, a monocrop.  The thinking here is not about the ecosystem at all but about keeping something on the surface to prevent drainage and erosion. But, dear friends, we can do better.  I actually like some of the same mix for this that I shared above–in this case, my focus is really on nectar-producing plants to help our pollinators along.  My other focus is on making sure there are pockets of plants that can function like “arcs” to spread ones that we need more of along. For these spaces, I use seed balls (see my upcoming 3rd post in the series) which can easily be lobbed from a car when nobody is looking or late at night!

 

Another place that’s good for this is along train tracks–again, places nobody cares about.  You can cultivate really incredible and diverse ecosystems here on these edge spaces.

 

The Nooks and Crannies: There are lots of little nooks and crannies, small patches of land without much growing on them.  They are really all over the place–just open your eyes and see what you can add :).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Established Ecosystems

The strips of bare land are only one kind of wildtending that can be done.  After nature begins her own process of healing, you’ll find a beautiful tangle or thicket of wild plants, although, depending on the area, you might not find diversity.  Here, our mission is a bit different–simply to bring more biodiversity and help support waning plant populations.

 

The Recovering Edge of Land. You’ll come across the wild patch that was once barren and has sprung up again–this collection of beautiful plants (not weeds) often comes forth from whatever was there before in the soil and remained or whatever was wind-blown or bird-dropped into that small space.  In my area, these small patches are usually full of goldenrod and late-blooming white aster, maybe some brambles or staghorn sumac.  I like to add a bit of diversity to these small patches and encourage the spread of certain kinds of plants–milkweed is a favorite of mine for these spaces, and if its a little damp, I also like to add st. john’s wort, blue vervain and echinacea.  I also like to plant hardwoods here to help encourage ecological succession long-term.

 

The Recovering Fields.  Then there are the fields that were once farmed, and for whatever reason, are no longer farmed and are slowly returning to forest.  I have a two-pronged approach for this–one is to encourage plant diversity during ecological succession (and my favorite for this are the plants mentioned above as well as berry crops like wild black raspberry), but my longer goal here is to spread hardwood species of trees that are very rare.  My particular selection of trees is based on the context of Western PA–these are the trees that don’t recover well after logging and/or were intentionally cut: oak (especially white oak), chestnut (blight resistant), slippery elm (endangered), hickory (of all kinds, especially shagbark), butternut, and walnut.  I also think about the understory trees and the need for other kinds of fruit, and plant hawthorn and apple trees (and pawpaw, especially, if I can get my hands on seeds).

 

Woodlands. Just because you see a mature woodland doesn’t mean the species growing there are necessarily all the species that once did.  For regenerating this kind of space, I focus my energies on targeted endangered species that need to be re-introduced to our woodlands.  I do this carefully though, depending on the kind of forest I’m in.

In Pennsylvania at least, this land was almost entirely stripped to the bare earth during the logging boom that started in the 19th and carried through till the early 20th century.  Even since then, logging of much of PA continues.  While many of our lands repopulated (as nature has a way of doing that), delicate species may not have repopulated with them.  Delicate species, often those having high medicinal value or having slow propagation times (or both) have never recovered.

Scattering New England Aster seeds....

Scattering New England Aster seeds….

 

Sites that will not be logged again– This is typically where I focus my energies in forests currently.  These are sites that may be actively protected (State Forests or local forests) or other lands that are private but owned by people who won’t cut them. After the devastation of logging 100 years ago, a lot of forests around here are now 2nd or 3rd growth forests.  The 500 acre patch of land here that I often visit here in my town is like that–you can find remnants of buildings and foundations in there, and there are fracking wells in there, but largely, the land has regrown. Its primarily a tulip-chestnut oak-red oak-maple forest, with a lot of birch and a few beeches as well.  Its a healthy forest in terms of trees, but there isn’t a lot of forest floor plants.  So my focus in this area is twofold.  First, I work to bring back chestnuts, which once comprised upwards of 15-20% of our forests.  I do this by planting chestnuts in areas where there is a “gap” with the hopes that they might make it–e.g. a large tree has fallen, allowing a patch for something new to grow up.  I also plant understory trees that can make it–paw paw here is my favorite of these.  Second, I work to bring back woodland medicinals currently under severe threat: goldenseal, ginseng, and black cohosh. There are others, but these are the three I’m learning to grow and cultivate, both in terms of how to help them grow and also in the specific ecosystems they like.

 

Sites that will be logged again – I don’t always do much with these sites in terms of planting new medicine or trees, as I’m still learning which plants can recover from this kind of abuse. Right now, most of my work with forests in the logging rotation is energetic healing work (more on this in later posts, some of this is also here).  I think this will change as I discover which plants can survive and which can help a forest recover quickly.  As a simple example of this, I return to the patch of forest behind my parents’ house.  I see what the logging does to those critical woodland species, and I’m not sure trying to bring them back in the face of more logging makes any sense. My point is that sites that have ongoing ecological devastation might not be the best for this kind of work–but there’s still much we can do.

 

Wildtending as Everyday Practice

Now that we’ve talked about what to plant, where to plant it, and all of that, its time to talk about how to build this into your practice.  It can actually be really simple and all it takes is a little extra preparation.  If you are already in the business of going outside fairly often, have some seeds or nuts with you that are appropriate for the areas where you’ll be planting. Seeds are resilient–even if they are planted at the wrong season, they can often survive in the wild and come back up the following spring.  The very first and best thing you can do is start scattering seeds that are appropriate, popping nuts in the ground, and go from there.  If you see small seedling trees coming up that won’t make it where they are sprouting, dig them up and take them somewhere where they will thrive.  This work is simple, and can be built into your existing forays into this great, beautiful planet.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve outlined a number of different ways you might work to be a wildtender as much as a wildcrafter.  I hope you’ll take up the call! Look for the plants that we need in more abundance that benefit our ecosystem, that heal our bodies, that encourage health and forage.  Start with the list on United Plant Savers, and also consider trees that are in need of more planting in your bioregion. These plants and trees…let’s sow them–everywhere.  Scatter them far and wide.  Gather their seeds and spill them out of our skirts and pockets.  Throw seed balls (I’ll talk about these in an upcoming post) into recently grated highway dirt piles, “waste land” or stripped soil. Let’s work with our plant allies to put down the deep roots and begin the healing process.