The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Magic, Medicine, Folklore and Ecology of Ash (Fraxinus Americana) June 4, 2017

I remember the first time I met an Ash tree suffering from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) in South East Michigan. She was a young ash, about 20 years old, about 4” thick at her widest point typical age, and had begun producing seeds. She stood proudly to the south-east of my sacred grove behind my pond, and I would visit her often. All of her elders in the surrounding area had been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer some years before. The EAB is a bright green beetle that came into the Detroit, MI harbor in 2002 and spread quickly into the surrounding ecosystem (now threatening ash trees along the midwest and eastern seaboard).  The EAB larvae eats the cambium (green inner bark) of many ash species; however, the borer ignores trees that are young and instead goes for more mature trees that have a more developed cambium. As this small ash grew older, the borers came into her trunk at the thickest point, and this young one was struggling to live and produce offspring.

 

Ash tree honored as maypole

Ash tree honored as maypole

I very much wanted to save this tree. I had read about various treatments for ash trees with the EAB and had spoken to our state extension office about options, but all were using petrochemicals and none were effective at this stage of her infestation. So instead, I held space for this tree. I made regular offerings, I gathered her seeds and scattered them and started new ashes. Each year, I watched the damage get more severe, her lower bark starting to peel off, and I wept for this tree. Her children were born, in many places, and I was glad that they, at least, would live for a time, hopefully, to scatter their own seeds. And maybe that something would come along and make a good meal of the borers by then and give the ashes an opportunity to live into a ripe old age again.

 

When it came time to select a maypole for our druid grove, I found a tall, beautifully straight fallen ash of some considerable height in the forest behind my homestead. I peeled off the bark, seeing the damage from the borers. We used that maypole every year I lived in Michigan—honoring it each year, wrapping it with ribbons, and giving it offerings and honoring the ash with each ceremony. I cut it up so that I could move it–and it is still with me here in PA. When it came time to select a Yule log for our Yule celebrations, again, we selected ash, painting her with natural pigments and honoring her in your Yule fires. With each celebration, the ash played an honored role—sometimes, just as fuel for our fire (with the many dead ash trees on the property, it was my firewood of choice for years) or other times, as the center of our celebration.  We did as much as we could to honor the ashes and recognize their plight–and also their importance.

 

The Ash is a dominant tree in our history and folklore, often being seen as the “world tree”, the tree of healing, and/or the tree from which humans were created or from which humans emerged.  In nearly every culture, it has some extremely sacred significance. In much of the mythology, as we’ll explore in this post, the ash tree somehow links to the overall health of the world and the humans within it or it has been the tree from which humans are formed.  And yet, the Emerald Ash Borer here in the USA is spreading far and wide and destroying many of our ash trees. I believe that the plight of the Ash tree and challenges with the Emerald Ash Borer offers us a hard look at the larger challenges we face in the world.  Ash still very much represents a “world tree” but a world tree that is faced with sobering challenges, in many ways, reflective of the same kinds of challenges we face across this planet. I have been struggling with how to understand and represnt the Ash, Fraxis Americana, for a long time as part of my “sacred tree series.”   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, Beech, and Walnut.  I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Sacred Trees in Context

I started my discussion with ash tree here today with these stories about ash in my ecosystem, because it illustrates a critical point about considering the nature of sacred trees: our trees, like the lore from which we draw, are intimately connected to specific places and times. We can’t just generally say, “ash, it means this in the Ogham (Celtic Tree Alphabet), and therefore, that’s what it means” without also taking a close look at how that tree or plant also functions specifically in the ecosystem where we live.   The traditional meanings for the ash and other trees were formed in a different time, place, and culture. I think, in grasping for tidbits from the past and trying to reconstruct old spiritual traditions, we sometimes are quick to reach far and wide to understand the lore of things that are near us—without also considering our immediate and local context.  This is why, in addition to reading the ancient lore about sacred trees, it’s a good idea to be out in the world observing them through the seasons and working with them in various ways. Ash gives us a good reminder of this–her energy is so much different here in the USA because of the Emerald Ash Borer that the way we read those stories also has to change.  I’m not saying, necessarily, that this means the old lore and information isn’t valuable to us: it certainly still has its place.  But we must read and understand this old lore in the context of this present day and age and with the current challenges we face.

 

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

Ecology and Growth of the Ash tree

White ashes are also known as Biltmore ash, Biltmore white ash, cane ash, small-seed white ash (and we can look to the name “cane ash” to get some sense of how the wood was used by more recent ancestors). Ash trees typically grow around 70-80 feet tall and have a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet. Larger ashes may grow up to 100 feet in height and up to 5 foot in diameter, although that is extremely uncommon today. Prior to the Emerald Ash borer, most early tree books indicate that it was relatively free of disease, easy to plant, and very fast growing. Ash is commonly found in the bottom lands as it likes its feet wet and prefers moist soil.  Sometimes, you can find it growing up slopes as well, as long as the slopes aren’t too dry or covered in stones.  In Forest and Thicket, John Eastman reports that ash grows in groups on northern or eastern slopes with good drainage and along streams.  Ash prefers oak-hickory forests (either dry or mesic).

 

As Eastman reports, because ash has a tendency to grow with a cleft or central cavity (see some of the lore, below), it is often a good place for birds, especially woodpeckers (pileated, red-headed, red-bellied), to nest. After the woodpeckers have vacated, owls, wood ducks, nuthatches, or gray squirrels may take up residence.  The seeds of ash are eaten by a wide variety of birds and mammals, including turkeys, wood ducks, bobwhites, finches, grouse, grosbeaks, cardinals, squirrels, and mice. One of the best mushrooms, the common morel, can sometimes be found under white ash trees in the spring—look for them there!

 

Ash Wood Uses

Ash has long been used by humans for a variety of applications, largely in part due to its elastic yet strong and close-grained wood.  It has a beautiful brown grain with a thick, lighter sapwood.  Even the fallen ashes still make excellent choices for various kinds of woodworking. Ash has long been used for manufacturing various kinds of baskets. In fact, a good number of fruit boxes are made in part from ash (like those little ones you get berries or apples in at markets).  It is used to make crates, flooring, furniture, and for various kinds of athletic equipment: baseball bats, sleds, canoe paddles and snowshoes.  In Reverence for Wood, Sloane notes that ash “bends with supreme strength, but since it splits with precision, splints for baskets, chairs, and hoops were made from the black variety…white ash is second in value to oak, being the best material for tool handles, oars, and for any implement where elasticity and strength were required” (p. 100).

 

Ash and the Alchemical Fires

Walter de la Mare wrote in his poem, Trees: ‘Of all the trees in England, Her sweet three corners in, Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash Burns fierce while it is green.” And thus, ash has a particular alchemical quality that is worth noting here.  It has a flammable sap, so even when it is green, it works beautifully to start fires.  I have experienced this numerous times when camping when I was younger—like the conifers, ash has a way of lighting up dark places!

Given that most of the green wood is young and with the current plight of the ashes, I would never use green ash wood for this purposes.  But using ash in this way used to be a very common thing both for Native Americans as well as those who came after.  Still, it is a good piece of information to know as we unravel some of the ash’s other mysteries.

 

Young ashes rising up!

Young ashes rising up!

Medicine of the Ash Tree

Ash has some limited uses within the tradition of Western Herbalism, although it is less used in contemporary practice than it was in times before. Historically, Culpepper’s Herbal gives it a range of uses. He mentions that water distilled from the ash, in small quantity, helps those who are retaining water (so it is diuretic; it was also used this way by Native Americans).  He also mentions that the leaves decocted in white wine helps break up kidney stones (as do the seeds within the husks) and the leaves can also help with jaundice.

 

On a contemporary side, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Volume II) suggests that white ash bark (infusions or tinctures) is used for tissue states that are lax or atrophied (so it has some astringent qualities), although it is used in small doses for this. Large doses are purgative, that is, it makes you vomit. For over a century, ash has been used in small doses to treat tissues that enlarged, swollen and/or prolapsed and retaining water.

 

Native Americans used the ash more broadly: as a laxative (decoction of the leaves), as a childbirth tonic for women (leaves), as an aphrodisiac (seeds), as a diuretic encouraging the flow of urine and flushing of the kidneys, for various kinds of sores and itchy things (a bark tea). Juice from the leaves also helped with swelling an itching of bug bites.  One tribe, the San Fernando Indians, “refreshed themselves” with water from the bark of ash trees in that region.

 

Magical Uses from the Western Tradition

The Ash tree has a number of magical uses from the Western Magical Traditions. Culpepper lists ash as being a tree governed by the Sun.  John Michael Greer in the Natural Magic Handbook notes that ash was associated both as an “elf tree” and one associated with medieval witchcraft. Luckily, the winged seeds of the ash could protect one against hostile magic.  In the Ancient world, druids carried ash wands.  More recently, Greer notes that ash wood and ash seeds were used for healing and prosperity magic. In the Hoodoo Tradition, Cat Yronwode notes that Ash is less important in Hoodoo than in European Folk Magic. However, in this tradition, Ash leaves were used for protection and spells where someone wants to draw love or romance to them (or keep it with them). Leaves were placed in vehicles to help protect against accidents. Also, the leaves were kept on a person to prevent disease.

 

In the old world, Ash had tremendous power and as well documented in various books and sources. In the Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems, Thomas and Kavitt report that ash was used in the middle ages as follows: a horseshoe was buried as an offering at the roots of an ash tree to “charm” the tree. Sticks from that tree, then, that a twig from that tree could be stroked upward on the cattle to “charm away the evil.” In one county in England, you could be rid of warts by rubbing them with a piece of bacon, cutting a slit in the bark of the ash tree, and sliding the bacon under the bark. The warts would disappear from your hand and would reappear on the ash tree as knobs and bumps.

 

Ash in the Ogham

Ash is the first tree in my series to be included in the traditional Celtic Tree Ogham.  It is known as “Nuinn”, “Nin”, or “Nion” and often represents strength, health, protection, courage, and connection to the sea.  Mastery is associated with the Ogham in the ash; it encourages us to gain power and strength associated with the mastery of our selves, our knowledge, and our skills.  Ash, then, might best encourage one to “know thyself” and to encourage self mastery. This is likely why the ancient druids carried Ash trees–as a way of drawing upon their own power and promoting self-mastery, offering protection, and building courage.  The ash was also linked to the idea of the natural cycles and natural forces in the world.  For the ancient Celts, the “three cycles of being” and the past, present, and future were linked and tied to the ash tree as the world tree.

 

Ash in Native American Mythology

As part of this series, I’m combing old books and web archives of Native American mythology to try to paint a picture of some of the uses of ash trees and how native peoples viewed the ash.  These sources are synthesized into themes, which are then described.  Ash has a number of themes:

 

Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Black and White photo of Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Ash, Arrows, and Flying True

Ash was seen as a powerful tool-making tree by many Native Americans, a tradition that continued into colonial days. For example, in an Iroquis story, “Grandmother and Grandson,” the Grandson and Grandmother are the only people in the world.  In the story, the Grandmother gives Grandson many instructions, not all of which he decides to follow.  At one point, Grandson fashions a great many arrows for hunting out of a white ash tree.  He also sings and brings the animals to him so that he may slaughter one to feed his grandmother.  In the book, “American Indian Fairy Tales” (Margaret Compton, likely a Native American herself, tells the story of the “Fighting Hare.”In this story, the prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time, he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for: The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.”

 

These stories and others show the importance of ash in making arrows and in the hunt.  The ash arrows grew straight and true and were the best tree, of any, for such work.

 

Ash as Hiding or Summoning

In two of the stories I uncovered, the ash either has a role of summoning a magical being through transformation. “A Little Boy and His Dog, Beautiful Ears,” is a legend from the Senaca people. In this story, an evil woman is mistreating her son, requiring him to go fetch water from a place that makes him uncomfortable each day.  After he does so, she leaves the house saying she is going to get bark for making her fire (often stripped from ash trees, see above) and demands the son stay home. Her husband, the boy’s father, skips hunting and follows her. He watches as she bangs the back of her hatchet on an ash tree; after she bangs on it three times (and it makes a beautiful sound) a bird flies down and the bird becomes a man.  he husband shoots at the bird, but it is gone.

“The Story of the Three Strong Men” which is an Algonquin/Micmac legend, the elfin daughter of a goblin is given as a wife to a very strong man who is the son of a bear.  The elfin daughter, who is trouble, eventually hides beneath an old ash tree by a pond and, due to her magic, women see different things in their own reflection. The author also, interestingly, notes that this story may have come through a French Canadian source and then was adapted into the Algonquin tales (so some fairy magic crossover).

 

Humans Made from the Ash tree

Another Algonquin tale, “How Glooskap made the Elves and Fairies, and then Man of an Ash Tree, and last of all, Beasts, and his Coming at the Last Day,” Glooskap came to the Algonquin country (which is present day Maine, Nova Scotia, Canada) the land that is “next to sunrise.” He took up his bow and arrows and shot at the basket-trees, the Ash trees.  From the ashes, Indians came out of the bark to live in that land.

 

We see a similar “humans come from ash trees” in Greek Mythology. In http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htmWorks and Days, Hesoid writes, “Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.”

 

I find it fascinating that multiple cultures in different parts of the world both share this kind of mythology surrounding the ash tree.

 

Ash as Warding Away Snakes

Many sources report that Ash has the ability to drive away snakes, likely accounting for its “protective” qualities listed more broadly. For example, An old book of English Folklore reports that ash trees will prevent snakes from coming near a person and shares a story of a boy who befriended a snake. The boy’s mother wasn’t pleased so she wrapped him in ash to keep away the snake; the boy eventually wastes away and dies from the loss of his snake friend. John Eastman in Forest and Thicket, likewise reports that Native Americans as well as colonists in the early US placed ash leaves within their shoes, which was said to ward away rattlesnakes and prevent their bites.

Culpepper, too, writes in his Herbal that, “the young tender tops, with the leaves, taken inwardly, and some of them outwardly applied, are singularly good against the biting of viper, adder, or any other venomous beast.” He notes that he can’t vouch for this use, that he got it from Gerard and Pliny, both of whom note that the adder and ash have antipathy between them.

 

Ash and Connection to Life

 As reported in Frazier’s Golden Bough, a wide-ranging custom in England was to pass infants or young children through a “cleft ash tree” (in other words, one that was split in two) as a cure for rickets, ruptures, or a hernia (of which the child was likely to die).  The child was passed through the tree three times or three times three (nine times) naked at sunrise, “against the sun.”  The tree is quickly bound up with ropes and the split is plastered with mud or clay.  As the tree heals over time, the child’s ruptured body will be healed too, but if the cleft in the tree stays open, so, too will it in the child. If the tree dies, the child would also die. If the tree heals, the child is cured, but the child’s life now depends on the health of the tree.

We see this same thing from Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, where he reports the same tradition of healing people, and he also reports that people imprisoned mice in the split trunk of ashes to cure lameness in their cattle.

 

Print of ash tree leaf

Print of ash tree leaf

Ash as an Irish Protector Tree

Irish culture was believed to be protected by five magical trees. These were the three ashes: the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branchie Tree of Usnech, as well as a yew and an oak tree). When these trees fell, it was said that Irish paganism fell with them (Paterson, Tree Wisdom, pg. 153).

 

Ash as the Yule Log

In Western England, the Yule log, which is burned on Christmas eve, is traditionally an ash log. In Tree Wisdom, Jacqueline Memory Paterson writes, “Our Christmas custom, which is no less than the burning of Igrasil, the tree of life, emblematical of the death of the vegetation at the winter solstice.  It is supposed that misfortune will certainly fail on the house where the burning is not kept up, while, on the other hand, its due performance is believed to lead to many benefits.  The faggot [ash log] must be bound with three or more ‘binds’ or withes, and one or another of these is chosen by the young people.  The bind which first bursts in the fire shows whoever chose it will be the first to be married.” (pg 107-108).  Older traditions offer a 12-day feast, also with the burning of an ash log.

 

Yggdrasil, the World Tree

Perhaps no tale of the ash is more famous than that of the Norse World Tree. In this mythology, heaven and earth are separated, and the cosmic tree, the Ash, connects the different worlds.  In the Eddas, it is written, “The chief and most holy seat of the gods is by the Ash Yggdrasil. There the gods meet in council every day. It is the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread over the world and reach above heaven. Three roots sustain the tree and stand wide apart.”  As part of its work as the world tree, however, the Ygdrassil is in constant turmoil. The serpent at the base of the roots of the tree (representing earth/female energies) and the eagle at the top (sky/male energies) are constantly interacting, causing stress to the tree. The squirrel who serves as a messenger running between the serpent and the eagle, moves to and fro between heaven and earth (likened to humans).  Further, four deer live in the Ash’s branches, eating them, the moisture of their antlers fall to the earth below as dew. The leaves of the tree are fed upon by Odin’s goat, the goat then produces the drink of the gods, drank by warriors of Valhalla in Odin’s Great Hall. It also has a spring located at the roots, the Well of Urd, and three maidens (called Norns) who ruled over human’s destines and who water the tree daily and rubbed clay into its bark to whiten it.

In a fascinating account Edna Kenton compares the Norse tale of Yggdrasil to that of many other Native American cultures, including the Osage Indians, who, in their drawings of the cosmology of the universe, include a world tree as a bridge and the Thompson River Indians (in British Colombia) who also have a world tree. The Sia Indians in New Mexico, have six world trees comprised of spruce, pine, aspen, cedar, and two kinds of oak.   Likewise, the Mayan Cosmology also includes the Yax Che, the Green tree or the Tree of Life. Of course, we also see this same tree of life metaphor in the Hebrew Kabbala.

 

 

The Divination Meaning of the Ash Tree

Synthesizing all of the above lore and literature from above, and given where it sits ecologically, I’d like to offer the following interpretations for the ash tree:

Ash is a Mirror for Inner and Outer Realities

When we put the mythology of the world tree together with the mythology of humans springing from ash trees and the mythology of the ash trees tied to human health, a very powerful picture emerges about the role of the ash tree. I see this tied to the inner and outer manifestations of reality. The ash represents both the world (and its health) and ourselves (and our health).  The inner and the outer are both present:

  • Ash Represents the world and the health of the world.  Ash–her growth and her suffering–represent the health and vitality of the world. Healthy ashes equal a healthy world, and the plight of the ashes here in the US, I believe, represent the plight of the world.  So we might consider how we can heal ash, and therefore, heal the broader world.
  • Ash represents the health of humans. Given that human life and healthy are so carefully tied to ash trees in the mythology, I think that the ash tree represents the health of humanity. We see this certainly in the lore that ties the health of a person to the health of the tree.  So the ash represents healing, but healing tied to its own health and magic.
Ash patterns

Ash patterns

The old ashes slough off their bark as they die to reveal complex patterns..the patterns of the borer are almost identical to the patterns of suburbia you can see from aerial maps.  Clearly, these old trees have a message for us, and the patterns that we humans have wrought upon the landscape are causing the world harm, in the same way that the borer causes the ash.  We need new patterns, ways that do not harm, but heal.

 

Ash Represents Self Mastery Within and Without

On an individual level, Ash represents the ability of humans to master themselves, to build their knowledge, to overcome their demons, and to ultimately know themselves well.  This mastery, then, offers us powerful rewards and magic.

I also believe, given the first set of interpretations above, that ash offers us an opportunity as a culture and species to engage in self-mastery.  Right now, our time of excess involves little self-control: people have indulged in their whims, been sold trinkets and stuff that is literally killing our planet and threatening all other life.  Part of living in a regenerating manner is mastering ourselves, understanding our own needs (vs. our wants) and choosing consciously to live differently.  It is through this mastery of our wants and desires that we might yet help shift the tide of these times.

Another piece of this seems to be alchemical, from the ash’s ability to transform into fire even when green; certainly, inner alchemy is another step on the process to self-mastery.

 

Ash offers Protection

Ash offers a range of protective magic, as shown in the various mythologies.  Obviously, there is a protection from snakes (not a bad thing for hikers!) But if we look to the protective trees of Ireland and other places, we also see ashes as key protectors over the land and the people. We might plant ash trees as guardians and carry pieces of ash–and honor the ash each chance we get.

 

Ash Offers a Path Straight and True

The physical uses of ash by a variety of groups suggest that ash is used for its strength as well as its flexibility. The arrow, which needs to be shot straight and true, offers the ability to meet goals and go far.

Ash offers Hope

I have been dwelling on the plight of the ash, and trying to understand this tree and its mythology, for the better part of eight years.  I have had parts of this post ready to go for at least the last three years, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it.  I didn’t understand, or maybe, I didn’t want to understand, what it meant to humanity and the world that our ashes were all dying, given their protection and how tied they seem to be to humans.  However, now, I understand that while these things are true, looking at what is happening to the ashes ecologically in areas infested with the borer offers us the most powerful lesson of all: that of hope.

 

An ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

A young ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

I was recently visiting Michigan, and part of that visit included seeing some of my druid friends. And so, as is the usual way, a group of druids went into the woods to do some ritual.  Our ritual that day included communing with various sacred trees there on the landscape, and I ended up near a large ash that had long since died and had a crack; it was getting ready to fall.  And around that ash were all of the ash’s offspring, probably 8-10 years old, not yet producing seed. The spirit was still in that old ash tree and I spoke with it. The old ash was proud–she was there watching her children grow up around her, knowing that her legacy carried on. Even with all of the old ashes that reached up and to the heavens gone, she had hope that her species would carry on through the newest generation, her children, scattered at her feet.

 

After this experience, I once again returned to my old homestead to visit the the ash that was struggling in her battle against the borer.  She had lost her battle with the borer, but the young ash trees were rising up surrounding her.  Her spirit was still there, waiting for me to return a final time.  She offered me a piece of wood, and shared with me some of the lessons of the ash that I’ve shared here with you today. I crafted a simple wand from that wood and will honor such a gift.  The ash in areas afflicted by the borer are no longer a generation of elders but a generation of the young. The seeds of a new generation are the seeds of hope.  As we think about the plight of the world, we recognize that many problems were caused by many previous generations.  It is the thinking, patterns, and actions of those older generations, including many who have long since left their mortal bodies, that have us here, today, in this predicament.  And if we can begin to think differently, with a clean slate of a new generation, we have hope.  It is this powerful message of the ash, of hope, despite the adversity, that is one of the many lessons she provides.

Save

 

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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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 VII: Self Care and Land Healing April 10, 2016

Today’s post continues my long series in land healing (see earlier posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), and given the heaviness of the last few weeks of posts, today, I wanted to delve into how to do this healing work and to stay happy, healthy, and sane. Today, I want to explore and voice some of these mental health concerns and share strategies for coping, addressing, and action.  And so, in this post, we’ll look first at some challenges to help us frame these overall issues, including the concept of solstalgia, and then we’ll explore a wide range of ways that we can engage in self-care on these issues: Having the tools and cultivating hope, supporting our adrenals and physical bodies with plants, supporting our souls with healing retreats and escapes, daily protective workings, working with the energies of light and life, bardic acts of expression, visiting well-tended places, and talking with it and more. And so, off we go!

 

One of my favorites sycamores to sit under and heal

One of my favorites sycamores to sit under and heal

Solstalgia

There is good cause to talk about the subject of mental health and self care in regards to the work of land healing–as I shared a bit last week, research is emerging on the mental health implications of  living in a rapidly depleting and crumbling world. And that research is only scratching the surface, really, of what people who are spiritually aware of these things and deeply connected with the land really experience!

 

I recently came across a psychological theory–solstalgia–that sheds great light onto today’s subject, so I’ll share it here. Nostalgia is, in the psychological sense, what happens to people who are distant from home and long to return–this often occurs with people who were refugees or other people forced to leave their homes for various reasons (no work, etc).  Solstalgia, which was proposed by Albrecht and colleagues in 2007, is a similar phenomenon, and describes the stress and mental health issues that people face when experiencing first-hand devastation of their home lands. Through a series of focus groups, interviews, and surveys, they explored how a rural population experienced massive surface mining operations and extreme drought; people who live among and experience large-scale environmental destruction had a range of negative emotions, a disconnection to their sense of place and belonging, descriptions of extreme duress, and a strong sense of powerlessness. This “environmentally induced stress” was particularly difficult to manage because it happened in one’s home environment, every day, and escaping it meant leaving home. They described these chronic stressors as “generally not seen” by mental health professionals or researchers.  Although this term was proposed in 2007, it hasn’t gained much traction in the time since: and I think that’s a problem.  The longer that we pretend this stuff doesn’t affect us, the more problematic it becomes.

 

I find this concept really useful to explain some of what I’ve been personally experiencing since returning to PA, and I wonder how it plays out not just in the short term, but over time.  As an herbalist, I know that short-term stressors can give way to long-term adrenal fatigue, and eventually, adrenal burnout, where a person is in a chronic state of prolonged stress that causes depression, apathy, lack of energy, and general ill health.  I sometimes wonder if that’s what is going on here, when people have been living for so long in this chronically stressed state.  And I think its important to realize that even if people aren’t as aware of the specific ecological consequences, this stuff is hard to avoid seeing. These implications are there, I have found, whether or not you are awake and paying attention to what is happening.  All of us, on some level, know things are changing and each of us have to find our own way through it.  For many, its, as I wrote about two weeks ago, ignoring it and choosing not to see.  Its a self-preservation response to avoid even more stress.I think when you begin to open your eyes, however, and really confront this stuff through land healing, there’s a different kind of level of awareness that takes place.  In choosing to see, you also choose to experience.  Some of that pain and suffering, invariably, goes within is, and if we aren’t careful, gets lodged there.  And so, for the remainder of the post, let’s explore some of those self-care strategies that can really help land healers along!

 

Supporting our Adrenals and Physical Bodies

Some nice nettles!

Some nice nettles!

On the practical level much of our stress is handled through the body’s automatic nervous system; chronic stress often puts us into a long-term sympathetic nervous system state. (Really, daily life in industrialized cultures in the 21st century does that already, and adding on some of these environmental stressors just pushes it over the edge). Our adrenal glands produce hormones that help our bodies deal with stress, but over time, they weaken and are taxed. Chronic fatigue syndrome can set in if we are not careful; and so, finding ways of reducing the stress and replenishing our adrenals are of critical concern.  Reducing the stress and supporting our adrenals has a number of different aspects: we need physical rest and rejuvenation (see below); we need a healthy diet (no caffeine, lots of nutrients and leafy greens); we need to work to reduce stress when possible; and we need plant allies that can help physically and mentally help reduce stress and rejuvenate.  I have had a tremendous amount of success with these plant allies in coping with my own stress (from work, from all this stuff) and wanted to share. Here are a few of my favorite plant allies that are easy to grow, local, and abundant for adrenal support and rebuilding:

 

  • Oats / Milky Oats (Avena Sativa): Oats are a gentle, powerful herb and a fantastic restorative, particularly for stabilizing and rebuilding the nervous system. Any oats are tonic and nurturing, but milky oats are most so. Jim McDonald writes in his Nettles, Oats and You: “Regular usage builds up both the structure and function of nervous and adrenal tissue, resulting in a lasting strengthening effect. It is especially well suited to nervous exhaustion due to debilitative nervous system disorders, overwork (mental or physical), drug abuse, or trauma and should be used during nay period of prolonged stress.” Even a bowl of oatmeal can be restorative in this way–and taking oatstraw or milky oats is all the better!
  • Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis): Helps us recover from nervous exhaustion, insomnia, or low spirits. Has a gentle and powerful effect on the central nervous system over time.  I find lemon balm a fantastic tea for after land healing work!
  • Stinging Nettles (Urtica Dioca): Stinging nettle is a first-rate adaptogen (herb that helps us adapt to stress) that restores depleted or exhausted adrenal gland. One of the many things they do is shift our bodies from “adrenal mode” (sympathetic nervous system) to a parasympathetic nervous system state. Jim McDonald writes in Nettles, Oats, and You, “I consider it, along with Burdock, one of the most universally beneficial herbs to use as a basis for restoring and maintaining well being.”  Nettle seeds and nettle leaf should be taken consistently, long term.  Nettle seeds work a little different than the leaf–the seeds provide stable energy, while the leaf I find is more rebuilding.  Yes, they sting–use gloves when you harvest them, and as soon as you cook them even a little, they stop stinging :).  They are well worth having a patch in your garden or yard!  I have these every day as part of my stress management regimen!

 

There are many more healing plants for rebuilding the adrenals and reducing stress. Others include astralagus, ashwaghanda, schizandra, elethro root, wood betony, skullcap, ginseng, blue vervain, passionflower, holy basil, and reishi. (I’ll also mention that my sister and I are in the process of starting a herbal healing blog, so I’ll be posting much more on this subject there and will let you know when I do!).

 

Supporting our Souls: Healing Retreat Space

Another important thing that you can do is get a way from it all, to have a healing retreat and space away from everything else. This needs to be a place that is free of the damage you are seeking to heal as a land healer and from other common stressors. A small spot in a protected state forest, a small garden in your back yard, a camping retreat, a quite spot in a park–somewhere that you can go and simply enjoy being in nature, in its regenerated state.  This stuff can wear and grate on you, and you need respite from it. I think that’s part of why this concept of solstalgia is so useful to think through–the reason its so bad is that you can’t get away from it, and once you are conscious you need to do so, you can seek ways of responding.

 

Daily Protective Workings

A daily protective magical working is critical to helping you maintain your balance as a land healer or simply as a person, awake and alive, in today’s times. Most modern estoteric traditions offer some kind of protective working. The primary one that I use comes from the AODA, which is called the Sphere of Protection. I really love this ritual–it takes about 5 minutes a day, and it does a number of key things: invoking positive qualities of the elements, banishing negative qualities of the elements, connecting to the three currents, and creating a sphere of protection around the physical, etheric, and astral body.  I wrote about it more extensively for our first issue of Trilithon, which is now available freely online here.  Its a ritual that takes some time to learn; the best place to learn it is in either of John Michael Greer’s books: The Druidry Handbook or The Druid Magic Handbook.  I can give a brief synopsis of it here, however.

 

First, the Druid begins by invoking the four power (in some form: elements, dieties, archangels, etc) and physically and
energetically forming an Elemental Cross while standing facing north. Second, the Druid invokes the four elemental gateways by invoking positive qualities of the four elemental energies (Air, Fire, Water, Earth) and banishing the negative qualities of those elements in each of the four quarters.  As the druid does this, she moves through each of the quarters, drawing symbolism for each of the directions, calling in each element verbally, and using visual components.  And then she does the same thing as she banishes to drive away negativity. The Druid then invokes the remaining three gateways: the telluric current (Spirit Below), the solar current (Spirit Above), and the lunar current (Spirit Within)
using language, action, and visualization. The final part of the SOP draws upon these seven energies and circulates light in a protective sphere. This protective sphere is most typically placed around a person.

 

If the SOP doesn’t float your boat, you can do other kinds of rituals.  A good one is the Summoning or Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram (you want to alternate between summoning and banishing in order to achieve balance in your life).  Be aware that not all daily rituals that druid orders offer are protective: OBOD’s light body exercise is a rejuvenating and energizing ritual, and is extremely useful in its own right, but it is not protective in nature.  I like to use it in conjunction with the SOP or when I’m doing other kinds of work, but I don’t depend on it to keep the gunk off of me as I go throughout my daily living!

 

 

A fanatastic example of the energies of life and light--frog eggs from my parents' pond. I am so excited to meet them when they emerge!

A fantastic example of the energies of life and light–frog eggs from my parents’ pond that I saw the last time I visited them. I am so excited to meet them when they emerge!

Working with Energies of Light and Life

One of the other things that’s important to keep in mind is the balance of life and death, of light and darkness. We have both in our lives, and certainly, if you are doing land healing work (particularly the kind I talked about last week) you will see your fair share of pain and darkness. You can’t be doing the hard work of palliative care, working wit sites that will be destroyed and other forms of land healing constantly or it will fatigue you. It’s important that you go to the spaces that are abundant, and alive, and rejuvenate your energies there.  It’s important that you take frequent breaks from this work to balance your energies. I think its easy to fall into the trap of seeing everything as destroyed or damaged–and depending where you live, the balance of those things may be off–but there are always places where it isn’t so.  Even focusing on the dandelions growing up out of the sidewalk, rejuvenating compacted soil and bringing the blessings of healing medicine, is so important!

 

Embrace the magic of the spring, of the seed and of the promise of rebirth and life.  Grow some sprouts or start some seedsKeep a garden.  Bring in light into your physical home and life–open the windows, embrace the sun.  If you work with deities, make sure you work with some that focus on life and living. If you do yearly celebrations, you do all of them, and use the spring holidays for your own healing and rejuvenation.

 

Bardic Arts and Creative Expression

Of course, spending time cultivating your own creative gifts can be a source of healing energy and life–and is a critical balance for you if you are engaging in difficult healing work. I especially like to do this through my painting and ecoprinting work–I like to bring in the energies of life and light, and paint them in ways that help others embrace the energies of the earth.  I wrote about this much more extensively on my post on permaclture and self care.

 

Visiting Well-Tended and Well-Loved Natural Spaces

Me on a winter trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA. This whimsical space is in the middle of their orchid room!

Me on a winter trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA. This whimsical space is in the middle of their orchid room!

Another excellent balance for this more difficult land healing work is to spend time visiting places where humans are cultivating the land carefully, meaningfully, and with love.  This is another way to bring light and life back into your life and help drive away the darkness. Any small organic family farm often fits this bill, as do places like botanical gardens, nature sanctuaries, retreat centers, botanical sanctuaries, permaculure design sites, and more.  Time spent here, even a few hours, can really help you remember that lots of good people are doing good healing work in the world, and helping keep the scales balanced.

 

Talking About It with Others

Just speaking about your feelings, especially surrounding the stuff that I opened this post with, I believe is a really important part of our own healing work.  We have to, as Joanna Macy suggests, come to terms with what is happening, be able to voice our grief and pain about what we see, and find ways forward.  JMG talks about this as going through the stages of grief and working toward acceptance–and we do need to do that inner work.  I have found that talking to others about this really, really helps move me forward.  I know I’m not alone.  I know that others share my concerns, feel what I feel, and there is great release! (I think we even do some of this here, on the blog, for those that are scattered at a distance!)

 

 

 

Having the Tools in Hand and Embracing the Power of Hope

Being in the mindest of hope and having the tools is another especially important part of this self care practice.  I think that a lot of us feel powerless, disempowered, hopeless, and that is the worst thing.  That kind of thinking leads down a dark path that you do not want to walk.  Instead, I encourage you to focus on the power of hope even as you go about healing the destruction of others.  A personal example, here, might best illustrate this point.  As I frequently write on this blog, my primary way forward has been through my integration of many sustaining and regenerative practices that fall under my path of druidry: permaculture design, wildcrafting and wildtending, land healing, herbalism, ritual and celebration, inhabiting the world gently, and more. I have found that the more I focus on the good I can do, the better I feel. I think I was at my lowest with this stuff around 2008-2010, before I discovered and began practicing permaculture and herbalism.  As a druid that had been waking up and paying attention for a few years at that point, I was hit with the enormity of it all, but I had lacked the tools for change, lacked a lot of the healing approaches of any kind (physical or spiritual).  And so, instead, I kind of brooded on it, thought about it a lot, sat with it, but didn’t know what to do. I think my original edition of the Tarot of Trees book really reflects that state of mind: I wrote an introduction that was kind of demoralizing and talking about what was happening like a giant wave that nobody could stop–I was painting the trees in honor of the ones that had been cut. Consequently, when I re-released the Tarot of Trees 3rd edition eariler this year, I created a new card called “regeneration” and rewrote a good deal of the opening of the book to reflect that hope and renewed perspective. I give this example because the difference in what I wrote, and how I thought, had everything to do with the empowering tools of hope–and I found those tools through integrating my spiritual practice of druidry with the practical tools of permaculture.  I was now doing something, something that was making a difference, and that was incredibly important.  Melancholia strikes us all at times about this stuff–but its about not staying in that space that can help us keep moving forward.

 

Ultimately, a lot of what I share on this blog is  response to all of this–the power of doing something.  I talked about the implications of doing something in my post earlier this year, on making a difference, and how its the act of trying, of exerting effort, that really is key for our own growth.  It heals us, it heals our lands, and it helps, I believe, brighten our very souls. My solution to the solastalgia, to the destruction, is to do what I can to build a better today and a brighter tomorrow and to equip myself with the best tools to do so: the esoteric and spiritual practices of druidry, the knowledge and ethics of permaulcture, and a smattering of other good stuff: ecology, herbalism, natural building, playing in the mud, painting trees, community activism, and more.  I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey–because more land healing posts–and a lot of other things–are to follow!

 

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!