The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Ecology and Growth of the White Pine

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

 

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

 

History and Early American Uses of White Pine

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

 

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

White Pine in the Esoteric Arts

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

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

 

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

 

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

 

Medicinal Uses of White Pine

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

 

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

 

Native American Mythology

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sacred Meaning of White Pine: The Work of Peace

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

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Conclusion

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

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Poison Ivy Teachings September 24, 2017

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable.  Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.

 

Each year, I lead somewhere between 6-8 plant walks in my local area and broader region. A lot of the work of a plant walk focuses on  shifting perspectives, on reseeing “weeds” or other undesirable plants in a new light. One of the plants that I find myself always teaching about–and learning about–is poison ivy, or, as some affectionate plant people like to call her, “sister ivy.” I have a great deal of respect for Sister Ivy and find her to be a wonderful teacher and plant ally.  This doesn’t mean I am going to go roll around in a mat of poison ivy, but I am going to respect and honor her. And so today, I’d like to share some of the teachings of this particular plant ally–for she has much to teach.

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project. This part of my own work with poison ivy to better understand and work with her.

About Poison Ivy and Identification

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant native to the Eastern Part of North America. (You’d be surprised with the number of people who think it is “invasive” because in our current ill-suited language about plants, invasive = bad). Poison ivy has multiple forms.  First, it can grow as a carpet of smaller plants rising up from the ground (either in a forest setting or even in a field of tall grass). When it grows like this, it is actually a trailing vine, but you might not see the vine as it may be buried in the soil. It can also row into a large bush (which is rare where I live, but not rare in other places) and the bush can be up to three feet high.  Finally, it can grow as a vine up a tree (and blend in well with the tree leaves). In this way, poison ivy is extremely adaptable and resilient; she has many forms and disguises, and can blend in well. Given her teachings, this is very appropriate.

 

Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:

A guide to poison ivy identification

A guide to poison ivy identification

  • Leaves of three, let it be.  (Of course, there are lots of plants with three leaves that are not poison ivy, like raspberry, but it is still a well known statement).
  • Three leaves and shiny. (Again, lots of plants that fit this description).
  • Hairy vine, no friend of mine. (This, to me is more useful because in my ecosystem hairy vines do equal poison ivy).
  • Berries white, run in fright” or “Berries white, danger in sight” (This is also useful; it can refer to a number of other kinds of plants, but none of them are good – Doll’s Eyes and poison sumac are two others that are very toxic that come to mind).

The way that I teach poison ivy identification has to do with the pattern of the leaves (see my drawing to the right). This pattern is very distinct for poison ivy but some leaves display it more readily than others. I created a graphic to help you remember. Essentially, most poison ivy has two mittens (with thumbs facing outward) and a central mitten. Some plants may have more than one thumb, but the main thumb is the most distinct.  Some may have the barest hint of a thumb, but it is still there.

 

Now, we’ll move to look at what I see as poison ivy’s three main teachings.  Ironically, all of them speak to challenges of our present age: awareness, land defense, and climate change.  At the end, I’ll also talk a bit about the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis (and how to deal with it!).

 

Awareness Medicine

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

In reading a book called Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, he offers a taste of how humans could once “read” the landscape in great detail.  In the case of Gatty’s work, re-learning some of how to read the natural landscape helps with navigation and finding one’s way. The challenge is that most humans, at least here in the US, have lost their ability to be keenly aware of their surroundings. We don’t know how to quietly observe or be present, our attention spans are much shorter, and we’ve lost a lot of human wisdom surrounding interacting with the natural world. A lot of time, people pay very little attention to where they are going or what is happening in their ecosystem (and they may have headphones, eyes glued to screens, and so on).

 

Poison ivy doesn’t tolerate such behavior.  She asks us to be present with each moment.  She asks us to observe, to pay attention, to be aware.  If we are aware, we can avoid the more intense lesson she offers: that of the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis we are all so familiar with. That poison ivy is awareness medicine was a teaching was first given to me years ago by my herbal mentor, Jim McDonald, and it began helping me begin to see poison ivy in a new light.  When you start observing and paying attention for Poison Ivy, it changes the way you interact with the world.

 

Because Poison Ivy takes multiple forms, she really demands awareness in a variety of ways. Even as an experienced wild food forager, herbalist, and druid, I sometimes make a mistake and Poison Ivy teaches me a powerful lesson. For example, one year I was harvesting beautiful St. John’s Wort to make into tinctures and infused oils.  I was in this tall grass in a field with a friend, happily harvesting away, paying attention only to the St. John’s Wort plants.  And then we looked down, and we realized that about a foot lower tucked away in the grass was poison ivy.  I slathered myself in fresh jewelweed and did get a bit of the rash, but it wasn’t too bad.  Just enough for me to remember to pay attention.

 

Old poison ivy vine

Old poison ivy vine – note the many hairs.

Poison Ivy’s climbing form is particularly adept at shapeshifting and in enforcing this lesson. Her climbing vine is distinct, but can often blend right into the wood of a tree (or be climbing up the opposite side of the tree and you don’t see it).  Her leaves, then, literally blend into the leaves of whatever tree she is climbing.  This means you need to not only keep an eye on the ground, but also an eye above you.  I’ve had numerous occasions where I failed to look up and had a poison ivy branch brush my face. Fall brings yet another lesson from her climbing form. These higher branches have leaves that turn a beautiful red, and then, as leaves are apt to do, drop.  So if you are walking around barefoot, or even deciding to rake leaves and jump in them, you can be in for a surprise a day or two later.  Knowing where these vines grow, then, is part of the knowledge of the natural landscape that poison ivy teaches.

 

Sister ivy demands that we pay attention to our surroundings, that we be more alert and more aware.  This is awareness medicine, and it is a powerful and potent lesson for each of us in an age of distractions.

Defending the Land

Discussion of poison ivy as awareness medicine directly ties to her second powerful lesson: that of defense.  Poison ivy defends the land, particularly delicate ecosystems, and keeps humans out. Poison ivy is much more dominant in North America today than it used to be for a number of reasons.  One of these is that she is an edge plant that takes advantage of disruption. Humans have caused such rampant ecological destruction and environmental disruption that poison ivy has grown much more dominant in the ecosystem.

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

 

I see the rampant growth along the edges of wild spaces as a defensive act on the part of the land herself.   If you look at where and how poison ivy grows, you’ll start to see a pattern: edge spaces, tree lines, along suburban homes, along the edges of the old forests that still stand.  Poison ivy sends a strong “Keep out” message to all who are willing to see and pay attention.  You might think of this like a “No Trespassing” sign. I remember this lesson well when I was visiting Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie a few years ago. Every forest on that island was surrounded with a 30′ mat of poison ivy.  Like its own kind of “unwelcome” mat. I, and my companions, honored this forest’s request and stayed out.  I’ve also seen this a lot with ancient trees–there is often a poison ivy vine growing up them–nobody is going to want to cut it down. I’ve also witnessed this many times all along the edges of suburbia.  Where the chemical-drenched lawns end, there is poison ivy as the first line of defense for the forest.

 

Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.

Climate Change and Potency

Not only is there a lot more poison ivy present in the world today due to disruption, researchers have found that poision ivy is gaining in power as Carbon Dioxide levels globally rise.  More CO2 makes poison ivy vines more abundant; increasing their growth and biomass–they have doubled their growth rate over the last 50 years. Further, as CO2 levels  climb in our world, so too do the levels of Urushiol, the toxin within poison ivy’s sap that irritates human skin.  According to a follow-up study, with the rise in atmospheric carbon, not only does urushiol increase, but poison ivy’s chemical balance changes, meaning that its potency has doubled since 1960 and will continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. In other words, the more that the human race dumps CO2 into the atmosphere, the more of a warrior poison ivy becomes.

 

Sister Ivy offers this a direct message from the earth to stop, find a new path, and live once again in harmony with nature.

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

The vines and leaves of poison ivy contain increasing amounts of Urushiol, which, when touched by the skin, causes the allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) to affected skin. Urushiol is found in the clear liquid sap of the Poison Ivy plant; many animals can eat the leaves or interact with the plant without trouble, but it certainly affects humans. Some people are more susceptible to the urushiol than others; further, the more exposure one has, the more intense the skin reaction can be. This is why some people think they are immune–they might just not have had a lot of contact, and one day, they’ll get poison ivy dermatitis all over them (as an herbalist, I’ve heard quite a few stories of this happening!)  There are also people who appear to be totally immune to the dermatitis.

 

A simple witch hazel infusion of jewelweed is a wonderful remedy to the poison ivy rash (and I described how to make it earlier this year). Because Urushiol is oil-based, it is imperative when treating poison ivy rash to treat it with something that does not spread the oils further (like scratching does). The witch hazel infused with jewelweed is great because it dries out the rash (witch hazel) and promotes healing (jewelweed). Let’s just say with all of my adventuring in the woods each year, I end up getting poison ivy fairly regularly and this always does the trick. Applying it 4-6 times a day should clear up poison ivy within a few days and prevent it from spreading.

 

Conclusion

I see Sister Ivy as an incredibly important teacher for the 21st century. She reminds us that we need to pay attention to the world around us, that we need to be present her and now in the moment.  She reminds us that nature is all pretty flowers and fuzzy bunnies: nature is wild, powerful, and she seeks to defend herself.  Poison ivy is a part of nature that is responding aggressively to the damage we are causing this earth. She is a warrior, and, like any warrior, can be a dangerous foe or fierce protector.  I like to encourage you to build a respectful relationships with this plant.  If you respect her, she will respect you, and you may learn a great many things.

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

 

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

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

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sassafras and American History

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

 

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

 

Safrole and Safety

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Harvesting Sassafras

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

 

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

 

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

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Traditional Root Beer

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

 

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

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

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

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

 

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

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

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

 

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

 

Harvesting Jewelweed

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

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

 

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

 

Making Your Poison Ivy Remedy

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

 

Ingredients and Materials:

Scissors or a knife

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

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

1 mason jar

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

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

 

Step 1: Crush up your jewelweed.

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

Crushing up the jewelweed

Crushing up the jewelweed

Step 2: Chop up jewelweed finely into the jar.

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

Chopping up Jewelweed

Chopping up Jewelweed

 

Step 3: Crush it some more in the jar.

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

Crushing further

Crushing further

 

Step 4: Add witch hazel.

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

Add witch hazel

Add witch hazel

 

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

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

 

Using your Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel

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

 

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

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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.

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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.