The Druid's Garden

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

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

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

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

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

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

 

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

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Understanding Nature

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

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

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

 

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

 

Probing nature

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

 

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

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

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

 

Conclusion

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

Advertisements
 

Walking Meditation Garden with Hugelkultur Beds June 24, 2018

As a practitioner of permaculture and as a druid, I am always looking for ways to work with the land to create sacred and ecologically healthy spaces.  That is, to create self-sustaining ecosystems that produce a varitey of yields: create habitat, offer nectar and pollen, systems that retain water and nutrients, offer medicine and food, create beauty and magic.  But conventional gardens, even sheet mulched gardens, can falter in water scarce conditions.  So building gardens long-term for resiliency and with a variety of climate challenges in mind is key.  At the same time, I am also looking to create sacred gardens, that is, not just places to grow food (which is simple enough) but to develop sacred relationships and deepen my connection with the living earth. Given all of this, I developed a design for a butterfly-shaped garden that would use hugelkultur raised beds and allow for a space for walking meditation and ritual.

 

Meditation Garden

Meditation Garden

When I came to the new homestead late last year, one thing was clear–any gardening was going to be rough going with the acidic, heavy clay soil full of rocks.  Digging down into the sunny part of the yard that was once excavated for a pool revealed virtually topsoil or humus content–basically, I was going to have to grow on clay subsoil.  A soil test revealed practically no phosphorous either.  Becuase I also have abundant wood on the property, digging down and creating some hugelkutur beds seemed like a great idea.

 

Hugelkutur beds were popularized by Sepp Holzer and discussed in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. They are used widely around the world as a way to create beds that are enormously productive due to their ability to create vibrant soil biology and hold copious amounts of water. The key to these beds is sinking a good amount of wood–large pieces–that slowly rots down over time. As the wood rots, it becomes a spongy mass ready to hold water.

 

The Hugelkultur beds certainly take some sweat equity, but they will pay out dividends in the long run. Each year that passes, more and more moisture will be held in the bed from the wood.  Microbial life will flourish in this wonderful, undisturbed system of nutrients and roots. Each year with the hugels is more abundant and productive than the last as the underlying soil structure grows more connected and diverse.

 

Choices for Hugels

One of the challenges with Hugelkultur is doing it without heavy equipment or fossil fuels. I’ve seen people make amazing hugels using a backhoe, tractor with an attachment, etc. They dig a big hole then use the machinery to pile up even more wood, making these enormous hugels. I don’t have knowledge of how to operate such machinery, so I was going to do mine on a smaller scale by hand. The question is–what can we do by hand, given these conditions?  Can we still make abundant and productive hugels on a smaller scale?

 

One of the key conditions for us was the heavy clay soil–when it rained, the water pooled in the space.  I thought that if we dug down, then the water would pool in there a bit, being able to be sucked up by the rotting wood.  After digging out the hugels (but before wood was added) this proved to be true–the water literally just laid in the heavy clay, forming pools that took days to dry out.  Yes!

 

Others, however, may find it more beneficial to go up rather than down–the key is to get the wood in it and get some layers of compost and such on top.  Your own conditions beyond that determine a lot of how you want to create your beds.  Here’s how I created mine!

 

Choices for Garden Design

In permaculture, one of the principles is “stacking functions.”  The idea behind this is that you should try to get as many different functions out of a single space as you can.  For example,  the greenhouse offers not only a great growing space for fall and spring crops, it offers shelter from frost for seedlings, and it offers a wonderful place to hang out when its 35 out and you want some sun.  Its multiple purposes, then, contribute to the overall goal of the greenhouse.  In the case of desginging a garden itself, this is also critical. The title of this blog is, after all, the “druid’s garden”–implying not only a garden but a sacred space.

 

The Lawn and Potential Space

The Lawn and Potential Space

And so, I think it is really important to consider the role of the sacredness and design in a garden space.  It’s not just a space to grow things in, to serve the pollenators and create ecosystems….but also a place of sacredness, where the act of gardening is sacred work and considered sacred practice. As is the act of being in the garden for non-gardening purposes, such as meditation and ritual.  To me, making garden spaces that can “stack functions” in this way is an important part not only of gardening, but of living a sacred life more generally and building connection and communion with nature.

 

So for this garden, I had a limited 2/3 circle space after putting in the greenhouse.  I toyed around with a large number of designs before settling on a tree of life theme.  As the garden developed, I realized I didn’t just want a set of “branches” but rather a space to do walking meditation like a labrynth, so the tree transformed more into a moth/butterfly design.

 

Building a Hugelkultur Walking Meditation Garden

Now that we’ve talked through both the mundane and sacred aspects of this particular garden design, let’s take a look at how to build one of these gardens!

 

Step 1: Observe, Interact, and Create a Design

I already had a good sense of the sunniest part of the land that was near the house and easy to access; this, was where the old owners had once had a pool.  It was here that I decided to place both the greenhouse and the walking meditation herb garden.  I observed this space in rain and sun, and also measured it out, thought about how I wanted to move among the garden, how big the beds should be, and so on.  To do this most effectively, you can get some garden stakes or sticks and then string–actually map out the location of your beds, see how it will be as you walk it, etc.  If you don’t have this, some old flour also works, just pour the flour down where you want the beds to be in lines, so that you are essentially “drawing” with flour.

Once I had a plan and was ready to proceed, I called out some friends to help get me started.

 

Step 2: Dig Down

I was blessed with some serious help from friends one weekend just after I moved in to help dig out the hugels.  First we had to remove a burn pit the previous owners left.  Then, we dug them down about a foot and a half–as far as we could go. The clay will be used for a cob wall project(more on that later in the year) that will go in the back of the greenhouse. This doesn’t look like much, but it was literally about 5 hours of work by six people!  Clay is heavy and doesn’t play nice.

Clay garden beds dug down

Clay garden beds dug down

 

 

Step 3: Add Wood

The next step is to add wood to your hugel bed. A lot of it.  As much as you can fit in it.  Here you can see me completing one half of one of the hugels. I used a lot of medium sized logs, some sticks, and also large huge logs along the bottom (not all of which you can see in the photo). The bigger logs will take much longer to break down, but that’s ok!

 

Most wood is fine to use with hugels, but you want to avoid a few kinds.  First, don’t use any woods that have chemicals that prevent the growing of other plants (black locust, walnut and alanthus come to mind). You also want to avoid rot resistant woods (cedar, black locust) as the point is to get it rotting down quickly. My beds primarily consisted of maple, cherry, and oak, as that was what was available.

Adding wood

Adding wood

Step 4: Add Additional Soil-Building Materials

The next stage is to cover the wood with anything else you can–any non-weedy garden waste, leaves, fresh or finished compost, manure, and so on. I threw some old pumpkins that were rotting in there, coffee grounds, a good pile of leaves, mulched grass, horse manure, and more.

 

In traditional hugel building, you would replace the topsoil upside down on top of the logs and keep adding more materials.  The issue I have with that is that I have 100% clay, and I don’t want to have any additional clay in my beds.  So I instead removed it for another project.

Adding leaves and materials

Adding leaves and materials

Step 5: Add Borders (optional)

A lot of people make hugel mounds and don’t add borders, but I find that the borders are really helpful to get them higher, especially with the design I was using (which consisted of fairly small beds.  Also, the borders give a clear demarkation line bewteen what your path is and what a bed is–and for good garden design, this is critical.  Paths determine garden space, after all.

 

After seeing my two friends who made a cool hugel garden with uprightlogs as borders, I thought I could do something similar.  In fact, this does not work:

I put the logs upright and then sunk them in the clay.  But…frost heaving in the winter knocked them all down.  I couldn’t dig down far enough to get them firmly in the soil without some kind of auger…. So I scrapped this idea and went to shorter beds with a rock linked edge.

This looks cool, but won't survive the winter!

This looks cool, but won’t survive the winter!

Since there is copious amounts of stone on the property (I just have to go digging and searching for it) and so I instead spent a lot of time hunting for stone on the property and moving stone for these beds.  It is empowering work!

Stone is quite heavy and moving it is a very good workout!

Moving stone is a very good workout!

 

Leaves and Stone

Leaves and Stone – I lined the beds with stone before adding the final layer. I packed the stone in with clay.

 

Step 6: Top with Finished Compost

The final step for the bed creation to top the bed with finished compost–I added about 5-6″ of compost over everything and then let it rain and settle, then added more.  This gives the plants you plant some room for growing. The beds, being so young, are otherwise difficult for the plants to take root.  Even so, the first year of the hugels as things are just starting to rot down can be not as abundant for plants.  You also want to suppliment with nitrogen–as carbon starts to break down (which is what most of your woody material is) it does suck the nitrogen out of the soil.  The most readily available form of nitrogen is, of course, liquid gold!

Adding finished compost to the bed

Adding finished compost to the bed

Step 7: Establish Paths

Becuase I wanted this to be a walking meditation garden, I needed to also think about the paths between the beds and creating them with something that would last.  I have done a lot of paths in the past at my old homestead with cardboard and wood chips; they are excellent choices, especially for a vegetable garden. Eventually, the wood chips and cardboard breaks down, and you end up with great soil you can move into your beds, then add another layer in.  However, these kinds of paths require regular yearly or at least every-other year maintenance and the paths quickly get lost.

 

But for this garden, which was more permanent and meant to also be a sacred space, I chose to use landscape fabric (which has a 20-25 year life and is breathable) and pea gravel from a local supplier. You could do a lot of things here for paths: brick work, stone work, other kinds of gravel, cardboard and wood chips, etc.  The key is to create something that you like and that fits the vibe of the garden.

 

So I laid the landscape fabric down and used steel pins to pin it in place. This fabric allows water to permeate but will not allow grass or other plants to grow.

 

Laying out the landscape fabric

Laying out the landscape fabric

Finally, I topped this with a 2-3″ layer of pea gravel (locally sourced) for walking paths.

Pea gravel going in

Pea gravel going in

 

Step 7: Plant!

The hugels can have both annual and perennial plants, trees, shrubs, etc.  I opted for this garden as a walking meditation garden filled with healing plants and some food plants.  There are three inlets and you can walk a figure eight or a loop in the garden and commune with the perennial plants.  The garden is planted with a variety of perennials and a few annuals: calendula, yarrow, horseradish, basil, thyme, new england aster, wood betony, garlic, chives, tomatoes, chamomile, rue, echninacea, St. John’s wort, and much more!

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Another view of the garden

Another view of the garden

It is amazing to see how far this beautiful garden has come from the green, consumptive lawn.  It will now produce food, medicine, habitat, nectar, beauty, and a wonderful space for ritual and meditation work. This is just one variation–of countless others–to combine solid permaculture design techniques with sacred gardening.

 

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

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

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

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

 

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

 

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

Choosing Your Material

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Distillation Process

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

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

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

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

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

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

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

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

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

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

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

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

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

The full system

The full system

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

 

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

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

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

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

 

A Beltane Blessing: Recipe for Sacred Herbal Offering Blend April 29, 2018

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Offerings to the land, spirits, and/or diety are a common stable in many traditions, druidry being no exception. Many opportunities present themselves and having something you carry with you can be built into your regular druid practice (and kept within, say, a crane bag).  Some years ago, I wrote about sustainable offerings and the kinds of offerings you can leave as part of a regular spiritual practice. These offerings might be home-grown herbs (as in the case of today’s post), home-brewed alcohol, small blessed stones, home baked bread or cakes, small shells, even your own nitrogen-rich urine.  I think the important thing with any offering is that it truly puts no strain on the ecosystem–but rather, is a true blessing.

 

In the spirit of this idea of sustainable and sacred offerings, in today’s post, I’ll share the recipe for one of my own sacred herbal blends that I often carry with me and use for leaving small offerings—in nooks of trees, on stones, in an offering bowl, as an offering as part of ritual, and so on. This kind of offering blend is a perfect thing to make at Beltane, as the energy of Beltane is full of vitality and life, of healing and blessing. Using the energy of Beltane to mix and bless these herbs brings that energy to the land and spirits throughout the year.

 

Sustainability and Suitability of Offerings

The key to leaving any offering is that it won’t damage the ecosystem or cause it harm–either in the leaving of said offering or in its creation. This means you have to take some serious care and consideration to develop an offering blend that gives back rather than takes. In the case of the herbal offerings I’m talking about today, it is critical that you leave only materials that will naturally break down and that will not spread any seeds that do not belong in the ecosystem.

 

Towards that end, I take two precautions with the herbal blend presented here. First, I use only leaf matter and flower matter (harvested long before the formation of seeds). Second, I bake the plant matter at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, killing off anything that might be present in the plant matter so that it is harmless and safe to leave (and bonus: it makes the house smell great!)

 

An alternative, another kind of herbal offering entirely, which I’ve talked about in some of my wildtending posts, is to intentionally leave seeds that are rare and in need of replanting–but that’s a different kind of thing–you can read more about that in this post. That is certainly another kind of herbal offering that you can leave.

 

An Introduction to the Herbs

A blend of herbs....

A blend of herbs….

For my blend, I wanted to use a combination of tobacco leaves and flowers (home grown), lavender flowers, rose petals, and  .  You can use any number of herbs you can grow yourself or buy organically: I like flowers a lot, as well as aromatic herbs for a nice smell (mints, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sages, etc).  Here are the herbs from this specific blend:

 

Nicotiana Rustica, or Wild Tobacco. Each year, I grow Nicotiana Rustica, which is an old form of tobacco known as “Aztec Tobacco” or “Wild Tobacco.”  I’ve grown it successfully in a garden as well as in smaller pots in a windowsill. It is super easy to grow and grows prolifically.  It will self seed if you allow it to.  Wild Tobacco is not a kind of tobacco used for smoking as it has up to nine times the concentration of nicotine compared to a traditional tobacco grown for smoking (although in some parts of South America, Shamans use it as part of entheogenic mixtures). I have found that this particular strain of tobacco is well received by the spirits of the land and they are joyful in receiving it. This variety is native to North America, but is usually not cultivated because it is too potent for the common misuses of tobacco today. By growing this plant myself, and, by being a non-smoker, I am cultivating a sacred relationship with a plant that has long been used as an offering here on the land in North America–and a plant that is often well received when given in reverence and respect to the spirits and the land. I feel, in some way, that I am reclaiming a relationship with this tobacco plant, returning it to its sacred, rather than its mundane and abused, purpose. It is still early in the year, and you can readily get seeds for this variety–so consider cultivating some!

 

I like to gather the flowers as they bud–each little stalk will produce a new flower and drop it regularly, much like common mullein. I will typically gather up most of the flowers and later, seed pods (to share the seeds).  And I will cut the stalks and allow the leaves to naturally dry (they slowly turn brown). I save the stalks for use in smudge sticks that are specifically created as “offering” and “blessing” sticks.  Both the dried leaves and stalks smoulder nicely.

 

In this blend, the wild tobacco represents an offering to the land that is sincere and represents a desire for continuing a sacred relationship with the land.

 

Nicotiana Rustica

Nicotiana Rustica

Rose / Rosa spp (flowers/petals): My second ingredient in this blend is rose petals–they produce a beautiful smell and color, and make the blend really delightful. However, they have a more important purpose, and that purpose is protective and healing in nature. Rose, medicinally speaking, helps heal the heart and also has thorns which offer protection. I gather rose petals around Lughnassadh each year (or earlier, depending on the specific species).  Rose is under the dominion of Venus.

 

Lavender (Lavandula spp) Lavender flowers are a third ingredient that comes in my sacred offering blend (and occasionally, lavender stalks and leaves, although I usually save these for smudge stick making as well).  Lavender, which is a Mercury herb, has been used for millenia for purification and warding purposes–and that’s exactly what it is used for in this blend.

 

Elder (flower, Sambuccus Canadensis; Sambuccus Spp.). I have written pretty extensively about elder in an earlier post, so you can find complete information on Elder in that post.  In this blend, I gather Elderflower (right around or on the Summer Solstice).  I turn much of this elder into Elderflower cordial and tea but save some of it for my sacred offering blend. Elder offers a connection to the realm of spirit and for bringing good energy into the land through the connection with the summer solstice and solar current.

 

These are the four plants I commonly use in my blend, but as I said above, you can use any plant that speaks to you and that you’ve developed a relationship with. Here are some ideas:

 

  • Conifers: Eastern White Cedar, White Pine, Eastern Hemlock (needles), Spruces, etc. Other tree leaves would also be fine!
  • Herbs (leaf, flower, stem): Mints, Lemon Balm, Oregano, Marjoram, Basil, Thyme (if you are unable to grow them, you can buy organic blends at the grocery store or fresh at a farmer’s market, and dry them and blend them)
  • Flowers: Any flower petal that you can dry (avoiding any seeds)

 

The key to any blend is that you think about the magical purpose and energy behind each herb/plant/tree as well as your own relationship with it. This is a great way to begin to cultivate relationships with certain plants for certain purposes as well. If you “grow your offerings” this season, by the end of the year when you are ready to make such a blend, you’ll have spent a full season with that plant. If the plant is a perennial or you save some of the seeds, then your relationship with that plant deepens over the years. For example, I’ve been growing Nicotiana Rustica for about 8 years now, and each year, as I save the seeds and replant them, and share them with friends, my relationship with this plant deepens–and the power of the offering I give also deepens.

 

To me, every part of the cultivating and harvesting of this sacred blend is, in fact, part of the sacred relationship I am cultivating with nature. By tending the plants, or finding them carefully in the wilds, I can continue to build a specific blend that honors the land our deepens our relationship.

 

Magical Crafting and Making the Blend

The good news about a sacred offering blend is there is no right or wrong way to blend it. I would suggest, in fact, that your intuition (rather than measuring select ingredients) goes further than a specific recipe. However, I do have some suggestions to follow:

 

Select a sacred time. In my case, I decided to make this blend on the full moon closest to Beltane. This draws both on the power of the moon and the energy of the sun.

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Open a sacred grove. In the druid revival tradition, this would include calling in the sacred animals, calling in the elements, blessing/purifying with the elements, saying the druid’s prayer, establishing a protective sphere or circle.

 

Cut your Herbs (if necessary). Many home grown herbs are not in very small pieces, so I find it is useful to cut them. I do this with a pair of scissors.

Cutting tobacco leaf

Cutting tobacco leaf

Blend Your Herbs. Gather your herbs together and blend them. I find that using a clockwise motion while I chant or sing helps bless them and brings some of my own energy into the mixture.

Blending the herbs

Blending the herbs

Bless Your Herbs. You might use a simple blessing to empower the herbs further with sacred intent. I used an elemental blessing, drawing upon the energies already called and simply moving each elemental bowl clockwise above the herbal blend.

 

Store Your Blend. Depending on what you are going to do next, you might put your herbal blend in a mason jar to keep it airtight. The last batch I blended was primarily for gifts, so I instead put them in little bags with labels and also filled up my own offering bag again.

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Close Your Sacred Space. Close your sacred space once your magical crafting is complete!

 

How to Use Herbal Offerings

There’s not really a wrong way to use an herbal offering, but I can give you some ideas of how I’ve used these.

 

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Land Healing Purposes. When I see land in need of healing–an abandoned lot, a tree that has been cut down, a recently poisoned lawn, I will leave a pinch of the offering. This is just to let the land know that I am here, I honor it, and I am present. I have left these pinches near cut Christmas trees during the  holiday season–again, as a space holding gesture.

 

Land Blessing Purposes. When I’m interacting with the land, I will leave a pinch. For example, if I’m camping out somewhere, when I first arrive and again when I leave, I will leave a pinch of the offering. If I’m hiking, I will leave some as a I walk at a few points.

 

Ritual Offering Purposes. Because I always honor the land and the spirits of the land as a primary part of my own ritual work, I use this blend as an offering to the land.

 

You can do a lot of things with this sacred blend–or another like it! I wish you a blessed Beltane–and happy magical crafting!

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

About the Elder Tree

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

 

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

 

Edible Qualities of the Elder

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

The Elusive Sambucca and Childhood Toys

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Medicine of the Elder

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

 

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

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

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

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

 

 

Magical Uses of the Elder in Western and American Magical Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

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

 

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

 

Elder in Native American Mythology

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Conclusion: Sacred Meanings of the Elder Tree

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Ecology and Growth of the White Pine

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

 

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

 

History and Early American Uses of White Pine

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

 

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

White Pine in the Esoteric Arts

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

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

 

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

 

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

 

Medicinal Uses of White Pine

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

 

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

 

Native American Mythology

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sacred Meaning of White Pine: The Work of Peace

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

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

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