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Sacred Trees in the Americas – The Magic, Medicine, and Uses of the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

One of the most majestic experiences you can have with trees is being surrounded by old-growth Tulip Poplar trees.  Tulips grow extraordinarily tall and straight, with thick gray trunks and spreading roots. You feel like you are in a cathedral, standing under these magnificent trees. The tulip trees get their name both from the leaves–which are shaped like a tulip and from their flowers–beautiful, large, showy orange and yellow flowers that look just like a tulip. You can find these trees easily in June as the showy tulip leaves begin to drop to the forest floor. They are also easy to spot in the winter–you can look up and see the remains of the tulip flowers, gone to seed, throughout the winter months–they look like little cups reaching up to the heavens, a beautiful sight.

We have one such grove of tulip trees in a local park near here–a local park called White’s Woods. Unfortunately, some township commissioners want to harvest a lot of these magnificent trees, so our community has been in a battle to save our forest for over a year now. What has amazed me about this entire fight, however, is how the tulip tree has become the symbol of the forest: people have gone to the woods, taking photos of the trees, hugging the trees, and more.  I have faith that we can win this battle to save our majestic tulip forest! 

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The Tulip tree is known by many names–here in Western Pennsylvania (USA) we use the term “Tulip” (which is how I’ll refer to this tree in my post). Further out east and in the south, I’ve heard it called “Tulip Poplar.” In his book A Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane notes that it is also called “Whitewood”, “Yellow Poplar”, or “Popple.” It is also known as “fiddletree” and “canoewood” for reasons that will be apparent in this post. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. Whatever your name for this tree–let’s spend some time today getting to know the ecology, mythology, and magic of this most wonderful tree. The magnificent tulip trees throughout North America have much to teach us, if only we listen.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology of the Tulip Tree

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

Despite the fact that they are commonly called a poplar, tulip trees are in the magnolia family, and thus, share some qualities with other magnolias, including the large leaves and showy flowers. The Tulip tree is characterized by an extremely tall and straight growth habit and is one of the largest trees in North America. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. In extraordinary cases, they can grow up to 170-190 feet high, although the average is still about 160 feet tall. The Tulip has several key features that make it a really incredible tree: it grows fast; it has strong, light-colored wood; the wood is not brittle or weak like many other fast-growing trees; and it grows straight and tall. The base of the trunks often flare out and then meet the tall-growing trunk—this is why they are called “fiddle tree” as their root base and trunk can appear to look like a fiddle from the distance. 

The tulip tree is considered a “mid succession” tree from an ecological perspective. They are shade intolerant, so they grow fast and usually come into dominance 50-150 years after a forest regrows. As the climax species take over (hardwood nut trees: oaks, hickories, etc.), they will decline. Thus, you can use Tulip to help read the age of a forest and have a sense of a forest’s history. Here in Western and Central Pennsylvania, this is particularly useful: we had almost 92-98% of the forest cover cut due to industrialization from about 1880 to 1920. So we are in that 50-150 year range where we have many beautiful large stands of Tulip trees.

The other interesting thing to know about history is that the tulip is a very ancient tree representing older forms of tree life. The Tulip tree has an older, less evolved seed pod than other more recent trees, which also accounts for its unique flowers. We have fossils from ancient tulip trees from the upper cretaceous period (70-100 million years ago); from that fossil record, we know that it once was much more widespread but now only two species remain in the Liriodendron family: the North American Tulip Poplar tree and the Liriodendron Chinese, which grows in China and Vietnam. It is likely that many Tulips were destroyed in glaciation in the Pleistocene era.

The trees begin to flower in June here in Pennsylvania, but you might see flowering as early as April in much warmer southern states. The flowers range from light yellow to light green and have bright orange in their centers. I’ve seen photos of tulip trees with almost white flowers, but nearly all of them where I live are light yellow as the photos I am sharing suggest. The leaves also look like a tulip–the leaves grow in an alternate pattern and are 5-6″ wide, heart-shaped, and have four lobes looking like the points on a tulip flower. They are quite distinctive here in the Eastern US–no other tree has a leaf anything like Tulip, making them easy to identify. In the fall, they have brilliant yellow foliage that is brighter but the same kind of yellow as their flowers earlier in the year. Their bark is brown and has many deep ridges as the tree ages—they almost look like the ridges here in the northern Appalachian Mountains, running parallel along the landscape. Younger branches are smooth and reddish and later grow into the darker brown.

Tulip tree flower close up!

John Eastman describes some of the ecologies of these trees: they are often found with beeches and maples. I have also seen them here with Cherries and some limited hardwood nut trees (oak, butternut). Eastman says you can find them in bottomland forests, but here, we see them growing along wet hillsides and slopes. Birds including cardinals and finches, consume the seeds in the winter along with squirrels and mice.

Human Uses

Tulip tree is one of the most valuable hardwoods in North America due to its quick growth, straight growing habit, and strong wood. In the US, it is usually marketed as “poplar” but abroad it is sold as “American tulipwood.” It is used for instruments, like organs and pianos, and can also used as interior finish/veneer, used for wide floorboards, boxes, bowls, and more. It is comparable to White Pine and usually more abundant due to its distribution and growth habitat. It resistance to termites and thus, can be used for barn and house beams (I’m not sure I’d use this over black locust, but it is still a great wood!) The wood is nice to work and doesn’t split. Charlotte Erichsen-Brown notes that in Pennsylvania, natives and colonists alike used it for canoes, boards, planks, bowls, dishes, spoons, doorposts, and joiners roofs because it was so easily worked and strong.

Tulip tree is well known in the bushcraft communities for a wide range of uses. Tulip inner bark (cambium) is an excellent emergency food (which I have not tried); the inner bark can also be used as an excellent tinder to make a nest for starting a fire using a bow drill, hand drill, or flint and steel (which I have tried). You can use a single tulip poplar downed branch to start a warm fire: stripping the bark for kindling and your nest, and then using the branch wood itself to start the blaze. You can also make a nice bow drill set from tulip poplar—it is harder than a beginner set (made of something soft like paw paw) but is a great for both a hearth board and a spindle. The inner bark also can be twisted into a rope or cordage. Tulip bark, when freshly cut, can be cut and peeled in the spring, so you can use it to make really nice bark baskets, arrow quivers, and more. It is also a very popular carving wood for spoons, bowls, and other functional crafts. I often will hike through the forest and look for downed tulip trees, eagerly ready to harvest their bark if the chance permits! Here’s an overview of some of the uses.

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest


Tulip poplar makes an excellent early to midseason food source for bees, and you can sometimes find honey from Tulip trees at local farmer’s markets.Tulip flowers also have some nectar that is in the cup that can be enjoyed directly—but best of luck trying to find low hanging flowers for your to enjoy. I’ve only had a chance to taste this very infrequently in my foraging travels because usually the flowers are 150 feet up the tree! Speaking of foraging, you might get lucky and find morel mushrooms near or under these trees as this is one of the common places they grow.

The Native Americans used this tree extensively for a range of uses as described by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. For example, one name of this tree is “Canoewood” which refers to the fact that many Native American tribes, including the Harriot in Virginia, used the massive Tulip tree trunks for making large dugout canoes (using fire-based methods). Captain John Smith in 1612 described these canoes as being 40-50 feet in length and carry 40 passengers.  This, most certainly, is how the tree got its name “canoewood.”

Tulip Poplar Medicine

The tulip tree is really a tree that keeps on giving and helping humans in so many ways, and that includes a range of medicinal treatments.

Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal: New World Herbs notes that the tulip tree bark is used primarily for medicine. The bark is sweet, acrid and aromatic. Quinine, which is a very effective Malaria treatment, was made from the Cinchona tree—in the absence of Quinine, you can use the bark of the Tulip tree. Tulip tree contains salicylates, which, along with Willow and Birch, can be used for pain relief. It can also be used to support digestion, restore people to health after they are worn out with fever and tension, strengthen and calm the heart/cardiovascular system, and also supports arthritis. Other modern uses of this tree include using the leaves as a poultice for sores or scrapes. The inner bark can be used to support a healthy fever and to aid in digestion. The inner bark can help treat pinworms or other worm issues.

Traditionally, as Erichsen-Brown notes, the leaves can be crushed and placed on the forehead to help with a headache. The Osages collected the bark in the winter months for a range of treatments–the winter bark has a higher medicinal content. A bark decoction (strong tea) can be used as a dewormer for horses, as a powerful blood purifier (alterative), and for treating a variety of stomach conditions. The inner bark of the root is considered the most powerful, but any of the inner bark can work for these purposes.

The Magic and Mythology of the Tulip Tree

Tulip Roots -- this is about a 30 year old tree.

Tulip Roots — this is about a 30 year old tree.

The Tulip Tree does not appear to have any recorded uses within the traditional Western magical traditions: in consulting my giant pile of usual sources, I do not see it listed at all.  This is honestly the case with many Northern Appalachian trees I’ve been covering recently in this series–if they do not have an old-world equivalent or if they are also not located predominately in the deep south, they have no record of magical use.  This doesn’t mean that they aren’t magical–Tulip is a magical tree!  It just means that it does not appear to have use in Hoodoo or traditional Western Occultism. In a similar manner, the Tulip isn’t discussed in the Native American lore that I can find in any way outside of the utilitarian uses.

One small tidbit: the American poet, Walt Whitman, indicated that the Tulip Tree was the ““the Apollo of the woods–tall and graceful.”

Magical and Divination Uses of the Tulip Tree

Given the lack of sources on magical uses, we have to draw upon the doctrine of signatures, the historical uses of tulip, the ecology, and growth habits to explore some possible magical and divination uses for the tree.  Here are three possibilities:

Utility and Practicality: one of the things about the tulip tree is that it has a tremendous amount of utility: it grows fast, produces amazing food, shelter, and medicine, and it offers bountiful—yet—utilitarian gifts to all who seek them.  This is a tree that encourages us to be practical and to think about utilitarian uses rather than frivolous ones.

Mid-succession and Transition: I think that the fact that the Tulip is a mid-succession tree is important to its potential magical qualities. Trees often take on specific qualities depending on if they are first-aid responders / land healers, mid-succession, and pinnacle species. As a Mid-succession tree, Tulip occupies a very important place in the larger lifespan of a forest: it helps us move beyond the first responder trees, carrying on from their early work.  It holds space for a period of time, and preparing the way for what is to come. When I think about a lot of work that many of us do as land healers, permaculturists, herbalists, and druids—I think about us now as having this kind of energy. The past is gone, and with it, a lot of knowledge was lost.  We are in a very difficult time of transition and suffering for nature, but we are here to hold those spaces and help aid in the transition. Whatever is coming, we are not there yet, but we are holding space in this time and place for what is to come.  The Tulip tree tells us to stand tall and strong in this regard!

Connection to Ancient Ancestors: Because the Tulip is such an ancient tree, it can connect us with our ancient human ancestors, those whose ways and names are lost to the mists of time.  That reminder is in every seed pod and flower, and certainly, in the roots of these magnificent ancient trees.  They have survived an ice age, they have witnessed countless changes over hundreds of millions of years, and they stand with us today to share that ancient wisdom and bridge to tomorrow.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the Tulip Poplar tree! If you have any stories, information, or ideas about the Tulip tree, I would love to hear from you. Blessings!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida) Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

With the advent of Beltane, it is an excellent time to share about the magic and sacredness of the dogwood tree–a tree that is in bloom across the landscape this time of year. I feel like dogwood is one of those trees that everyone knows, but nobody takes the time to know well.  In all of my time in the druid community, when people talk about their favorite trees, I don’t think I’ve ever heard dogwood mentioned.  She’s a quiet and unassuming understory tree, and after her spring show of white or pink bracts and yellowish tiny flowers, she fades into the rest of the forest.  And yet, in studying her medicine and ecology, we can gain so much from this wonderful tree.

Dogwood is a popular tree here in North America, both as a native tree found in the understories and edges of Oak-Hickory forests throughout its wide range (from Ontario to Florida, and across to Kansas and Oklahoma and down to Texas). It is also a common ornamental tree, and thus, an excellent one for both those who are urban or suburban druids and rural druids to know.  Let’s take a journey today into the magic, mythology, medicine, and human uses of the dogwood tree! North America has many, many varieties of dogwood. Today I’ll focus most of my comments on the common “Flowering Dogwood” (Cornus Florida, pictured in my photos) but recognize that many dogwoods are similar enough energetically to have similar features.

Dogwood in bloom!

Dogwood in bloom!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Dogwood in early spring

Dogwoods are abundant in North America, with seventeen species in the United States alone, including four tree species and thirteen species of shrub; the flowering dogwood is one of the four tree species. Flowering dogwood is an understory tree characterized by beautiful showy white bracts (that appear to be white petals) with an inner cluster of yellow flowers that bloom in spring.  If you look closely at a dogwood, you can see the difference!  Where I live in Western Pennsylvania, Flowering Dogwood is typically blooming from Mid-April to Mid-May, depending on how quickly things warm.  The dogwood, like other understory plants, blooms early, before leaves are on the tree, and takes advantage of the light before the overstory cover grows.  Pale yellow flowers eventually give way to showy red berries that grow in small clusters (just like the flowers) in the fall (October), to complement the beautiful red-purple fall leaves.

One of the characteristics of flowering dogwood is the growth habit of the tree which you can see from the photos in this post–branches often grow mostly horizontal and then, at the very ends, turn to the sky and are tipped with beautiful white or pink bracts and yellow flowers.  Some may grow more spindly or more full, depending on the location, environmental features, or cultivar. The leaves are opposite on the trunk, but the entire tree has a very “open” quality to its growth habit appearing, at times, almost bonsai-like.  The dogwood is a fairly short-lived tree, living about 80 years and prefers slightly acidic soil.

As an understory tree, you can often find flowering dogwood on well-drained and fertile soil in dappled sunlight.  It is larger than a shrub or bush (so higher than spicebush) and is a small understory tree.  Flowering dogwood is commonly found in the understory of oak-hickory forests as along fertile edges (you can often see them along a fence row or between fields).  When they are in the forest, they are often 10-20 feet high and have a 4-6″ trunk, but when they are out in the open, they can grow up to 40 feet high with a thicker trunk, particularly in the southernmost areas of its range.  Of course, a range of ornamentals with varying heights and flower colors are present and can be purchased at nurseries.

While some dogwoods produce very delicious edible fruit (such as the Kousa Dogwood), the Flowering dogwood’s fruits are small, bitter, and not very palatable, although the bitter quality of the fruit can be used to make digestive bitters (see below).  The Flowering Dogwood fruit is an excellent food source for birds (who help distribute the seeds).  Dogwood also is a larval host for a number of moths, including the Dogwood Thyratid Moth, the Stinging Rose moth, and the Grand Arches Moth.

If you are interested in finding some dogwood–the time is now.  Here in Western PA, the leaves are just starting to come back onto the trees and the white-pink dogwood bracts are in bloom, so you can go through any forest and very easily pick out the dogwoods (and apples, hawthorns) due to their blooming.  In a few more weeks, they will fade into the rest of the understory!

Human Uses

Close up of dogwood bark with a bit of English Ivy

Despite its small size, dogwood has a very valuable wood that is hard and tough, close-grained, and quite heavy.  traditionally, according to Grimm, it is used for shuttles for weaving due to its toughness.  It has also been traditionally used for turning (tool handles, mallet heads, golf club heads, engraver’s blocks).  According to Sargent, Dogwood was also used for bearings of machinery or even the hubs of small wheels due to its strength.

It was also used for making inks and dyes.  Emerson notes that a blank ink can be made from the bark of the branches and trunk (especially if mixed with gum arabic and iron sulfate – see here for how to make a rust garden for harvesting iron sulfate), while a scarlet dye was made from the roots (I have yet to test either of these, but they sound wonderful!).

Emerson notes that the Micmac Indians dried the bark and smoked it, combining it with tobacco. Emerson also notes that when the flowers appeared on the dogwood, many Native tribes in the Eastern US used this as a sign to plant their corn.

In the bushcraft communities, Dogwood is known as a hard but useful spindle for making friction fires (either bow drill or hand drill technique), especially when combined with American Sycamore, Red Elm, or Red Cedar (Juniper).  The harder the spindle, the more difficult it is to make a fire, and hence, it is considered a wood appropriate for more advanced friction fire makers.  Due to its hardness, Dogwood also produces very nice cooking coal and also can be used to produce charcoal.

A fungus called anthracnose fungus has been attacking dogwoods of all kinds, leading to a widespread decline in this tree and making it critically endangered in several states in the US, including New York and Vermont.

Medicine

Dogwood in a forest setting in late spring

Dogwood was historically very important for the treatment of malaria, typhoid, and influenza, but, according to Matthew Wood in the Earthwise Herbal: New World Plants,  it has gone out of favor in more recent times, primarily because Malaria is on the decline.  The most important traditional treatment of Malaria was Quinine, which was made from the Cinchona tree that grows in Central and South America. According to Rafinesque in 1828 (as cited in Emerson), it is the best North American substitute for Quinine, although it contains differing amounts of the same chemicals present in Quinine.  Both Quinine and Dogwood are potent medicines that do produce side effects: Dogwood raises one’s pulse and may also produce abdominal cramping, but will strongly support a body’s fever response and destroy the malaria infection.

The traditional use is peeling the bark, drying the bark for some months,  and then making a strong tea (decoction).  Some early doctors noted that they preferred to use the bark of the root as opposed to the bark of the tree for this purpose (Emerson). All traditional sources indicate that the bark should be dried for a period of months (up to a year) which will reduce stomach cramping and produce more effective medicine.

In colonial times, the twigs of the dogwood were used as tooth sticks to help keep the teeth clean and the gums in good health. “Yellow Water”, which was a decoction of the bark, was used to cure distemper in horses. When combined with Sassafras, it was used to help clean ulcers and treat cancer.

A tincture of the berries was also used for digestive bitters–both sources I have (Emerson and “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests”) both suggest they were used by poor people or country people for this purpose.  I’m getting the sense from the wording of these that these dogwood berry bitters may have been considered a “poor person’s” medicine or folk medicine.

During the civil war, the inner bark of Flowering Dogwood was used both to treat malaria (as described above) and as an astringent to stop wounds from bleeding out.  This, in particular, saved many soldiers in the Confederacy (who published a book called, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural.”

Matthew Wood notes that dogwood is intensely bitter, so much so that the bitter literally “shakes the frame, specific for intermittent chill and fever attacking the system” (127).  He also notes that it was considered to be one of the “elk medicines” by the indigenous Americans, specifically used to treat kidneys and sexual function.  It is used for constriction/tension as well as stagnant states.   It has a very specific use for influenza or chronic malaria where the body has intermittent fever and chills along with digestive atonicity (from repeated chills) including indigestion acidity, acid reflux, diarrhea, and/or nausea combined with great exhaustion.  Wood recommends a fluid extract OR tincture (5-10 drops) as larger doses upset the stomach.  Decoction of small branches and twigs may be less upsetting to the stomach.  It is a bitter/acrid plant with astringent and slightly aromatic bark.

Western Magical Traditions

The beautiful dogwood behind our shed on the homestead!

Like many other quiet understory trees, the dogwood does not have a place at the table in terms of magical uses.  This doesn’t mean the tree doesn’t have its own amazing magic–it simply hasn’t been acknowledged (as far as my research has indicated) in the literature, either of American Hoodoo, Traditional Western Magical Practices, or Folk magical traditions.

Culpepper notes that the dogwood is under the power of Jupiter, which Culpepper notes governs luck, increase, nourishment, and the “spirit of life”.  I think this is an important quality to note, and one that will come into play in my own magical and divination uses of this sacred tree.

The one traditional Appalacian folk tale about dogwood that is prevalent comes from the Christian tradition, where Jesus was said to be nailed to a cross of dogwood, and dogwood decided to never again grow tall enough to be made into a cross again.  This tale is actually quite dominant in the Southern and Northern Appalachians (I heard it here as a child), and actually is quite in line with the other meanings I believe dogwood to have, based on its medicinal features.

Naming and Etymology

John Eastman offers a theory of his own for the name dogwood–he says that the fresh-cut wood has a “fetid smell” that resembles the smell of dog feces (p. 72).  I will note that this does not appear to be the case with Flowering Dogwood in my experience, but some of the shrub-style dogwoods certainly have that odor!  I can’ find no other reasons listed in my sources for why “Dogwood” is called “Dogwood!”  I will also note that dogwood has a number of names including corner, bunchberry, box-wood, arrow-wood, or white cornel.   Some of these can speak to the historical uses of the tree.

Magic and Divination Uses of Dogwood

The Dogwood tree, while small and unassuming, has powerful lessons to teach.  In the absence of mythology

Bitter Medicine. Dogwood’s most distinct feature is its use to treat severe flu-like illnesses including malaria, typhoid fever, and various “auges.” And while Dogwood is as effective as quinine for this treatment, she also comes at a cost–both physically being very bitter medicine and offering the recipient stomach cramping and an increased heart rate.  While the medicine can be tempered through time, the bitterness and acrid quality of dogwood’s root and bark is ever-present.  Thus, Dogwood teaches us the value of bitter medicine and bitter lessons–those we need to have but don’t necessarily want.  Communing with dogwood during such lessons may offer us deeper insights into ourselves and the nature of our own necessary experience in the world.

Short-term Pain for Long Term Gain. A second theme that we can learn from the dogwood is the importance of the phrase “no pain, no gain.” Dogwood teaches us that life is often full of pain that can be short-term, but in the long run, open us up for rich opportunities–if we are in the right mindset. Learning from our struggles and pain and transforming them into good is a core part of what it means to be human, and Dogwood is our companion on this path in this regard.

Confidence and Grit. The Dogwood is one tough little tree, growing in the understory, blooming early, and offering extremely dense wood and powerful medicine. She encourages us to develop the “grit” (determination, endurance, resiliency, and adaptability) to survive the coming onslaught of so much.  Even though she doesn’t have much stature, she is sure of herself and her skills and is able to face the world with confidence.

For all three of these meanings, one of the things I want to stress is that the Dogwood, while offering its bitter medicine, is under the dominion of Jupiter, the planet of luck and good fortune. This powerful combination allows us to know that despite any challenges or pain we face–we can survive!

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Spruce (Picea glauca, Picea pungens, Picea spp.)

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape on a mountain in Western PA

When I lived in a walkable small town, what drew me every day was a line of beautiful blue spruce trees. Right around the corner from my house, they were on my daily walking commute to work.  We used to say hello and do an energy exchange each day. One day that following summer, I watched as the city landscaping people came through and ruthlessly cut them back away from the power lines (they were not growing even close to the lines) and I held space for the trees. Over the next few months, those trees began to heal, and they produced copious amounts of amazing tree resin as a first line of defense.  In the years that followed, eventually, the resin grew hard and the trees invited me to harvest small amounts that could be harvested without any damage to the tree.  That resin was powerful stuff–it had a very pine and musk smell and allowed for all sorts of powerful herbal and magical preparations.  I was honored by their gift and made good use of it–and I still have some, even years later.

Spruce is an important tree woven into the fabric of North America.  Common varieties include blue spruce, white spruce, black spruce, and Norway spruce. For the purposes of this post, we’ll talk about spruces of a few varieties, but focus my energies on Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce, both common trees throughout most of North America and both frequently found in the North-Eastern US planted as an ornamental and naturalized.  While neither of these two spruces is native to the Eastern seaboard, they are naturalized here and are so frequently found that they are one of the most common conifers in many parts of the US.  In fact, at the computer where I write all of my posts, just outside the window are two friendly Norway Spruce trees, always ready to say hello!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For the methods for how I research these posts, see this page. Other trees in this series include SpicebushRhododendron, American Hazel, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.  This material will all be part of my forthcoming Tree Alchemy oracle project!

Spruce Ecology

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Spruce is a common tree found in many of the temperate regions of North America–there are about 35 different species of spruce globally.  Blue spruces can grow up to 75 feet in the wild but often aren’t found more than 45 high in parks or yards. Norway Spruces are a much faster growing and larger tree and can get up to 150 feet high. All spruces are conifers and evergreen; they are extremely easy to find in the winter months when the deciduous trees have all lost their leaves.

All spruces have characteristics that make them very identifiable–for one, they usually have shorter, stiffer needles and all their needles have four sides. All spruces also have cones that are covered with thin scales that eventually open when the cone is ready to share its nuts/seeds on a warm day.  If you compare these needles and seeds to another common conifer, the pine family, you’ll see that the pines have much longer and flexible needles and much harder and more rigid cones. John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes that spruces also have needles that are spirally arranged on the twig (tying of course to the sacred geometry and sacred patterns that are present in all life). Most spruce needles, when crushed, have a strong smell–some are quite nice (Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce) while other spruces may smell piney and yet foul (White Spruce).  For all conifers, looking at the shape and distribution of the needles is usually the easiest way to tell the difference.

Blue spruces have a very “classic” holiday tree look, with a bluish tint and a very triangular shape. Other spruces may vary in shape–the many Norway spruces we have in our yard look like weeping trees more so than the classic triangle, but still, have that larger triangle shape.  Note that in urban areas, some spruces may be cut at the bottom so that people can sit underneath them–so you will want to look for indications that that has been the case, and then you can visualize the true shape of the tree.  This is also where you can often find copious amounts of sap–some tried or dripping off the tree that can be carefully and reverently harvested.

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Most spruce trees, particularly those that grow in northern areas of North America (white spruce, blue spruce) are slow-growing (growing only 6″ – 12″ a year).  Some spruce varieties, like Norway Spruce, grow much faster–up to 3′ a year, which is why Norway Spruce is often a tree selected for landscaping.  This is part of why Norway spruce has been so widely planted–it grows quickly and tall, and thus can provide effective privacy, shade, and so on.   In fact, Old Tjikko, a Norway Spruce located in Sweden, is one of the oldest trees in the world at 9,950 years old.  Norway Spruces are clonal trees, meaning that Old Tjikko has regenerated new roots, bark, and branches over a period of millennia from a single genetic ancestor.  It is amazing to think about a tree that has regenerated itself over the millennia

In terms of Spruce’s role in the ecosystem, while wildlife uses these trees extensively for shelter during the harsh winter months, Spruce needles provide little nourishment to white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and other large herbivores and so these animals are not likely to feed on them.  As John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes, however, they were a favorite of the now-extinct Mastadon!  Finally, some spruces, including Norway Spruce, may develop galls from the Eastern Spruce Gall Aphid; these galls appear like a pineapple-shaped Gall on the new shoots.  If they are abundant they can cause damage to the health of the tree.

Human Uses: Wood and Tools

Spruce wood is considered a softwood tree, but it is harder and more durable than many varieties of pine.  Thus, spruce wood is commercially used and is fine-grained, light, and tough.  Primarily it is used as a wood for pulping for paper–many paper mills use Spruce for the production of paper throughout Europe and North America. Norway Spruce is a particularly good tree for this purpose due to its quick growth habit. John Eastman notes that Spruce wood is sometimes used for piano sounding boards, instruments, and boat building.  It is also used as an interior construction wood–it does not withstand the elements well but is light and strong for interior construction applications (it is sold as “whitewood” or “SPF” (spruce, pine, and fir) wood).

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid's Garden homestead

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid’s Garden homestead

Another common use for Spruce today is in holiday decorations. Both Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce, when young, have the classic “Christmas Tree” look, and thus, both are regularly grown to be used as holiday trees.  Unlike Eastern Hemlock (which drops needles within a week or so of cutting), spruce trees hold onto the needles for longer, allowing them to stay through a holiday season.  Each year, we have spruce trees that can use some trimming.  Thus, we make beautiful wreaths that will last for months indoors to bring some of the evergreen energy into our home at the darkest time of year.

Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes offers extensive coverage of the Red, White, and Black spruces indicate that North American Native American tribes and early colonists to North America used Spruce trees extensively for a variety of purposes.  This includes extensive use in treating scurvy, especially in colonial America (see more below on medicinal uses).  Erichsen-Brown mentions that many tribes called spruce the Annedda tree and would strip the bark and needles off of the tree, boil it in water, and drink it to cure a variety of ailments. The roots of the spruce were used as lashing for canoes, baskets, and other weaving projects in many Eastern tribes.  The divided roots of spruce would be woven into very fine baskets that could hold water (these baskets were often used as boil baskets where hot stones were dropped into the liquid to heat up the water). The resin was also used to make pitch to seal canoes. Spruce wood was also steamed and bent to use for the inside of canoes.  Finally, the wood was used for the creation of various kinds of handles.

Here on the Druid’s Garden homestead, we just finished up a round of maple sap boiling with our new boiler system.  Since we have a lot of Norway spruce, I went through our tree stands and cut a number of the lower dead branches at the bottom of several spruce trees.  They burned hot and bright–perfect for keeping the sap boiling as the day went on. Of course, they have too much pitch to burn in indoor fires, but if you needed a hot outdoor fire with high flames, spruce is an excellent choice.

Human Uses: Herbalism and Edible Qualities

Spruce offers a range of wonderful range of medicinal qualities and can be used in a variety of herbal preparations. Be aware that most spruces are pretty pointy and can be hard to handle with bare hands–especially blue spruce. Thus, when harvesting needles or tips, it is wise to wear a pair of gloves or avoid getting sore fingers!  One of the most common ways of harvesting spruce is harvesting the young spruce tips.  The tips, here in PA, usually come into season in late April and into mid-May and can be harvested while they are still young and supple for a variety of herbal or edible concoctions.  In terms of the ethics of harvesting, what I usually do is first ask permission from the tree to harvest.  Second, I make an offering (such as using this blend).  Third, I take only 1-2 tips per branch so that I’m not causing damaging the tree, and spread my harvest across trees.  If I know that we have to do any pruning, I will obviously harvest all of the tips from that branch.

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

All spruces are high in Vitamin C, which allows you to make a tea that supports the immune system or brew up a spruce tip beer, which was originally a Native American creation (Ericsen-Brown) but later was widely adapted by colonial America. Also be aware that different varieties of Spruces have different levels of “skunkyness” which may impact any of your herbal preparations.  In my experience, Blue Spruce has the sweetest smelling tips and resin, where White Spruce is downright skunky and a bit unpleasant.  Norway spruce definitely has a bit of musk but is still great to use for most things.

The tips have an incredible range of uses. Black spruce or blue spruce tips were commonly made into spruce beer (originally made, according to Rollins in Edible Wild Plants of North America, because many people had vitamin C deficiencies and spruce tips are high in Vitamin C). Herbal uses for spruce tips are wide-ranging include a spruce needle or spruce tip tea, which can be used to boost the immune system. A strong tea can also be used as a sore throat gargle (to address a range of sore throat conditions); a mouthwash (for handling open sores in the mouth or bleeding gums).   The Spruce tips themselves are quite tasty and can also be used in dressings (like an infused oil); this is one of my favorite uses (a similar approach can be used with other conifer tips, like Eastern hemlock tips, which I share here). I like to gather the tips in spring and then infuse them in oil for a salad dressing or other herbal treats.

Another traditional use of spruce was the resin the tree produces. If you want to use it for incense or other spiritual purposes, you can check out my post on tree incenses from North America for details about how to use tree resin as incense.  Both blue spruce and Norway spruce make a very nice incense! Old-timers in the Northern Appalachian mountains (like my grandfather did) check “spruce gum.” Folks would look for mostly dried spruce resin and chew it just like chewing gum. I enjoy it from time to time, and it’s pretty good but certainly different than modern chewing gum. The resin is highly medicinal and can be used to make spruce salves for a range of skin conditions (it has anti-microbial uses).  Here’s a great recipe for a spruce and pine tip salve and chest rub and here is a video of making a bushcraft spruce salve for wound healing. If you are out in the field and have a sting or other skin issue, you can use the fresh gum right from the tree to cover a wound and draw out any toxins/stingers, etc–cover it with a leaf of plantain and be on your way.  Even deep puncture wounds can be aided by a bit of spruce resin in the field.

Finally, the inner bark of a spruce tree has been used for centuries as nourishing emergency food.  I haven’t had to opportunity to try this, thankfully, but I certainly will if we end up having spruce come down in a storm!

Western Magical Traditions and Spruce

Like many of the trees I explore in this ongoing series, Spruce does not get a lot of activity in the Western Magical tradition. In the typical sources, I consult for this series including a range of magical herbal books, hoodoo plant magic books, and western occult books.  However, I wasn’t able to find much mention of spruce.  Thus, it does not appear that spruce has any traditional uses that I can find in the Western Magical traditions–but I would love to hear from readers if they know of some sources that I do not!  Please share :).

Erichsen Brown does give an early reference (1475) to Islandic peoples using spruce both as a food and as an incense.  The cones were roasted coals and then people would dig out the kernels and eat the seeds. The resin used for incense.  Erichsen-Brown also notes that tribes throughout North America likewise used spruce for incense, but specific purposes or uses were not recorded.

Native American Traditions and Spruce

Spruce branches

Most of the traditional Native American uses already described, but I wanted to share some of the myths that are present.  These are largely in line with the curative and potent healing properties of the spruce tree.

Tying to the medicinal uses above, the Micmac believed that Glooscap, who was the first human created, gifted their people with extremely powerful medicine that could cure the ills of the world.  The ingredients included spruce along with ground hemlock (which may be Canadian Yew), willow, and black cherry.  In another legend on the same theme, In an Iroquois legend, Ahneah The Rose Flower, Ohsweda the Sprit of the spruce tree guards sacred spring in the forest. He shares the guardian duties with Ochdoah, the bat. Oshweda guards the spring from sunrise until noon, and while he guards it, everyone who drank of the clear waters of the spring had their illnesses cured and were filled with joy. but Ochdoah the Bat turned the spring water to poison on his watch.  In a third legend, this one Cherokee, “How the World Was Made” Spruce was listed among other medicines who are “always green” and always green medicines are the greatest of medicines

Spruce is tied in some tribes to a link to creation itself. It is often one of the first trees named (in relationship above to potent medicines) in creation stories or the first tree created. Another theme of these legends is the use of Spruce to build fires. In “When the Animals and Birds were Created” by the Makah. In this legend, two brothers of the sun and moon come to earth and start to create life there. As part of this legend, spruce is called an “old creature” whose “heart is dry” and therefore, will always be good for dry fires when the trees get older.  In “The Wolf Dance” which is a Salish legend, a spruce seed is linked to creation itself. So we can see some themes emerging from these different legends that honor the spruce tree a creative, healing force upon the land and for her peoples.

Divination Uses

As with other trees in this series, I’d like to propose three themes for magical practice and divination, given all of the variety of material above.  Here are three possibilities for the sacred spruce tree:

Endurance. One of the key features of spruces globally is their ability to endure.  We have the example of Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce that is literally one of the oldest trees in the world.   We see this same quality in many conifers who grow slow–the enduring nature of these ancient trees, who stand green through bitter cold and dry summers—the spruce endures on.  It is a powerful lesson to us, as people, to find the will and strength to endure.  This is why we see so many spruces in otherwise inhospitable parts of North America–these trees can endure very little light, long and cold winters, and continue to thrive.

Longevity.  Another key feature of the spruce tree that is clear from this material is the spruce’s tied to longevity.  It’s hard to imagine Old Tjikko, and other ancient spruces, seeing more than the whole of human recorded history.  When I encounter a spruce tree out in remote forests, I wonder how old they must be, knowing that they have the ability to regenerate their roots, branches, needles, and even their trunk.  This longevity is tied to this tree’s ability to remake itself in the face of challenges.

Supportive Healing. Nearly all of the trees in North America have specific ways in which they might heal–our physical bodies, our spirits.  Spruce’s healing powers, I believe, are tied to the well-loved tips and resins, both of which offer the base materials (Vitamin C, nutrients) that we can use to heal ourselves.  Thus, it’s not that spruce directly heals the body, but rather, facilitates the conditions and nutrients for the body to stay resilent.  That’s a very different kind of healing than something like hawthorn, which works directly on the body’s circulatory system and heart.  So spruce strengthens our bodies and gives us the capacity to heal.  That’s a realy beautiful thing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of spruce–the medicine, uses, mystery, and mythology.  This is a tree that was hard to research because there isn’t a lot about its mystical uses that I could find.  I’m very interested in hearing from you about your own stories and experiences with the incredible spruce tree!  Blessings.

Sacred Tree Profile: Devils Walking Stick (Aralia Spinosa)

The mighty Devil’s walking stick in early spring–look at those spikes!

The Druid’s Garden Homestead is located on a 5-acre parcel of land in Western Pennsylvania that is currently regenerating from intense logging. Three years ago, just before we bought the property, the family who owned it logged about three of the five wooded acres.  This has led to a host of possibilities where we can work on forest regeneration, observing the changes in this damaged place as it regrows, and certainly, opportunities for wildtending and creating food forests. As you walk through this regenerating landscape, one of the most striking understory trees is the Devil’s Walking Stick, Aralia spinosa. Looking like a very spiky and menacing walking stick (it has a name fitting of its visage), this tree is also known as Prickly Elder, Prickly Ash, Shotbush, Pigeon Tree, Angelica Tree, or Hercules club. These varied names really speak to the grotesque and yet wonderful nature of this plant and, I believe, give us some sense of its deeper meaning and uses.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

This entry is going to differ somewhat from my previous entries in this series for a simple reason: there is almost no mythology, herbal, or magical knowledge about this tree. The giant stack of books and online databases of mythology that I regularly consult when developing this series have come up empty on this tree. Thus, I am going to rely much more on ecological knowledge, historical uses, and personal observations.  Regardless of its lack of use traditionally, I think this tree is worthy of our attention and fills an important niche in the ecosystem of the US East Coast as a dominant pioneering tree with powerful energy.

Ecology

Aralia Spinosa, or the Devil’s Walking Stick, is in the ginseng family.  It prefers part shade, moist soils, and can tolerate a range of soil conditions (fertile to poor, a wide range of PHs, and a wide range of soil types).  As an aggressive pioneering species, it comes in after disruption in forest and field conditions, where it colonizes predominantly through rhizomes and sending out roots in different directions.   The range of the Devil’s Walking Stick is quite widespread–it is native from Maine to Texas and grows up and down the entire eastern seaboard the whole way to Florida.

Devils walking sticks in early winter (mature)

As the USDA Plant Database suggests, the Devil’s Walking Stick grows to a height of 35 feet, although as it is colonizing new areas, you can often find much smaller specimens. The leaves are compound and opposite, and every stalk literally is covered in spikes, even below the leaves and onto the leaf stems. The entire tree is covered in spikes, which do thin out as it gets larger. Some sources report that this tree can cause contact dermatitis if the roots or stalks are handled, but I have not found this to be the case (and in fact, have worked with the wood of it without any trouble!).

We actually have some very mature Devils Walking Sticks behind our garden, which are about 30-40 feet tall, and when they are in bloom in August, you can see thousands of butterfly moths, bees, and other insects all over the blooms. Their blooms look a lot like angelica with large umbles of small white flowers–the umbles can reach 12-24″ across and are massive on older trees. After the flowers go to seed, you can often see small birds feasting on the seeds along with deer and other wildlife. In the fall, the foliage turns dark yellow or purple and then pretty quickly drops from the leaves.  The berry clusters remain a little longer and are early winter forage for birds.

One of my favorite quotes about this tree comes from the University of Florida State Extension office, “Devil’s walking stick…literally thrives on neglect.”  It is also listed as “too aggressive for gardens”.  Thus, if you want to plant it, the best thing to do is plant it and then leave it alone (and understand that planting one will lead to many as they colonize by roots and suckers!

Plants for the Future suggest that this tree may be very ancient and that the spines covering the stem and leaves are an earlier evolutionary development to dissuade larger herbivores (read dinosaurs, mammoths, etc) who might seek to eat it. Deer and elk do not browse on it.  Given its very defensive and menacing appearance, that makes sense.

History of Human Use

Devils Club in late Winter getting ready to sprout

One of the few recorded uses of Devil’s Walking Stick is that it was grown in gardens in the Victorian era as a “grotesque ornamental.” The  Victorians were notorious for their love of the grotesque–those are things that are strange, hideous, or unpleasant while also being somehow mysterious, fantastical, or magnificent.  In some ways, it was the juxtaposition of something that was fantastical aong with being unpleasant or strange that lead to the idea of grotesque. I actually think that this “grotesque” concept is an excellent fit for Devil’s Walking Stick, which is certainly a slightly weird, wonderful, and yet disturbing tree to come across!

Another recorded use of the Devil’s Walking Stick was with the Cherokees, as described by Hannah Dinkins in Plants of the Cherokees and their Uses.  They were reported to harvest and roast the older roots and use them as an emetic (emetics are herbs that induce vomiting) or into a salve for healing old sores. Only the older roots were used this way, however, the young and green roots were considered poisonous.  The other use is, which is clearly a more energetic healing approach, is to burn the wood, and then as the wood burned, the smoke was blown on a person who had paralysis to treat the paralysis.

In the New Garden Encyclopedia by L. D. Seymour, Seymor notes that herbalists have used the root of devil’s walking stick, which they dry and grind into powder, for treatment of rheumatism, asthma, and coughs. In all of my years of studying herbalism, I have not come across any teachings of this plant that were not in obscure references and there are very few listings (none in places like Wood’s Earthwise Herbal).

Plants for the Future notes that eating large amounts of the berries are poisonous. They suggest that the young leaves (with their slender spikes) must be gathered before the prickles harden and then can be finely chopped and used as a potherb). While this might be the case, even the young plants are pretty vicious and I’m not sure this plant has any desire to be eaten!

Really not something you want to grab hold of!

The wood itself that comes from the trees is extremely light, soft, and brittle.  It has a lot of larger air holes, making it akin to something like young elder or staghorn sumac, but not as firm. Because of the nature of the wood, it does not have many human uses (although it will certainly start a decent campfire).  I’ve worked with it a bit and have found that you can certainly make small things from it like wands, a walking stick, or staves, but I’m not sure you’d want it for any tough job (like a handle).

The Magic and Meanings of the Devil’s Walking Stick

I was unable to find any specific mythology or magic surrounding the Devil’s Walking Stick tree, despite its widespread growth here in the US.  Based on the above information, we might consider at least three possible meanings for this tree:

Opportunistic and cunning. The Devils Walking Stick offers very opportunistic and cunning energy.  It grows in areas that have been disrupted (like our logged forests) where it quickly colonizes and spreads, growing quickly and taking the opportunity provided.

Over-the-top Defenses. The Devil’s Walking Stick is one of the most defended trees here on the US East Coast.  While its toxicity and thousands of thorns, nothing is going to get through to eat this tree.  I think this tree obviously signals that defenses are needed, perhaps more than are necessary.  I could see this tree being of use if you were feeling like you were being attacked or under duress.

Overcoming Adversity and Exorcism.  The energy of this tree would be good for helping you overcome any kind of adversity that you face and exorcise unwanted things from your life (physical or metaphysical).  This tree pulls no punches and stands in its power–and it will help you to do the same.

Don’t mess with me! Devil’s Walking Stick

I will also note that if you are developing a local ogham, Devils Walking Sick could be a potentially very good replacement for the Ogham Straif (Blackthorn).  Like Blackthorn, Devil’s Walking Stick is a pioneering species with a host of defenses and, frankly, the right kind of energy

I think that because this tree does not have a rich mythology or magical tradition, there’s a lot of opportunities to work with it, to experiment, and to see what comes.  I would love to hear from you, my readers, about any insights, stories, or experiences you may have with the powerful Devil’s Walking Stick!

 

Additional Sources:

https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=arsp2

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=arsp2

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c294

https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1764

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st080

Sacred Tree Profile: Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)’s Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

 

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

As we move into the dark half of the year and move closer to Samhain, the temperatures drop, the killing frosts come and the plants die back. The leaves grow brilliant and then fall.  Brown and tan dominate the land as the earth falls asleep. But there in the waning light is the brilliant, beautiful golden yellow of the  Witch hazel!  Around here, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginia) begins a magnificent display of tiny yellow flowers, appearing to explode outward with many delicate yellow petals.  As the last of the leaves fall, if you walk through a forest with Witch Hazel, you are struck by the beauty of these wild and warm yellow flowers. everything else may look dead, but Witch Hazel is alive and thriving. The time of Witch Hazel is the time of late fall and early winter, and it is a powerful and magical tree indeed.

Witch Hazel is also known as winterbloom (for fairly obvious reasons), snapping alder, spotted alder, tobacco wood, pistachio or wych elm.  John Eastman describes that the name “witch hazel” may be derived from the Anglo-saxon wych (which is related to the word “whicker”) which means “bending.” Because the leaves have an elm-like quality, it was sometimes called wych elm.

Growth and Ecology

Witch Hazel is often found as an understory tree in both evergreen and deciduous forests.  Here in Western Pennslyvania, you can often find it as part of the understory of the Eastern Hemlock/Beech forest or even the Oak-hickory forest.

Witch hazel just as it emerges….

Witch Hazel loves a part-shade or full shade damp place to grow, so you can also often find them along forest streams.  Witch hazels are shade tolerant, slow-growing, and often have a growth form with several smaller trunks coming up from a central stem; the trunks often grow crooked and at odd angles.  When the flowers open up in the fall, they also open up their seed pods, shooting out two black seeds from each pod.  While this has not happened to me, in John Eastman’s Forest and Thicket book (a fantastic book), he mentions getting hit by the flying seeds at distance up to 10-20 feet!  The lovely flowers are insect-pollinated by gnats and late flies.

I want to speak a little about the flowers of the Witch Hazel since they are so magical and unique. The flowers emerge just as the leaves of the tree begin to turn yellow in the fall and even after the leaves drop and freezing temperatures set in, the flowers continue to persist for some time.  Here, in Western PA, you can find them sometimes into late December, depending on the year. The flowers themselves look like a little yellow firework or sparkler–the bud opens up and over two dozen very thin, long flower petals unroll and twist around. From a distance, they almost look like little pompoms popping out from the branch.  They are quite special, with a warm sunny yellow that is just bursting with hope, life, and possibility.

The Medicine of Witch Hazel

Witch hazel is in common use today. What you purchase in the store called witch hazel is actually a steam distillation of the branches of the witch hazel. Witch Hazel branches are best distilled in the spring (for this you can use an alembic, similar to making an essential oil).   Witch hazel is easily found in the distilled form in drug stores, where it is used for mouthwashes, reducing inflammation, addressing skin irritation, addressing sore throats (especially inflamed), hemorrhoids, acne, wards of certain viral infections, and much more.  You can also make a tincture of it (1 part alcohol to 5 parts fresh bark and leaves) and you can create a very astringent rub that can relieve pain.

Witch Hazel Ecoprint (part of my in-progress Tree Alchemy oracle!)

Native peoples of North America saw Witch Hazel as a critically important medicinal plant. As described by Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes,  Native Americans used decoctions of leaves and twigs as liniments and mashed up inner bark as poultices for boils, tumors, and other external inflammatory items.  The Iroquois made a tea of the leaves, sweetened with maple syrup.  They drank the leaves unsweetened for diarrhea and other internal inflammation. Today, many of the same uses found traditionally can still be used.

Other Uses

If you are interested in creating sacred smoking blends, witch hazel (the leaf and inner bark) can be a nice addition.  One of the names for the tree was “tobacco wood” and I am guessing that witch hazel can be a good base for a smoking blend (as all astringent woods and plants make a nice smoke).  I’ve only briefly experimented with this, but I think it is well worth considering. Several foraging books, including Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, suggest that Witch Hazel seeds can be eaten but that they are rather oily and bitter. I haven’t tried them yet (I can rarely find them after they pop off of the tree). Although I do not know if it is done in the present day, Native Americans used to make bows from the branches as the wood is quite flexible (Erichsen-Brown, 177). I am unaware of any other uses of Witch Hazel.

Magic of the Witch Hazel: Dowsing, Water Witching, and Wayfinding

Virgula divina. (Diving Rods)
“Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod,
Gather’d with Vowes and Sacrifice,
And (borne about) will strangely nod
To hidden Treasure where it lies;
Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine,
For to the Wealthiest (ever) they incline.”

From Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick by Samuel Shepard (1651)

As the poem by Samuel Shepard above suggests, one of the most powerful uses of witch hazel is the virgula divina, or the witch hazel divining rod, which can be used to find all manner of buried treasure or other hidden things.  European Hazels were used in Europe for this purpose, and when colonists arrived in the Americas, the Witch Hazel became the quintessential dowsing rod and was seen as a most magical of woods.

Witch Hazel branches in bloom

Dowsing is performed by turning the arms up and holding a rod in both hands. By observing subtle movements of the rod, one can sense the direction and location of various buried treasures, which can include buried springs, mineral deposits, gold and silver, salt, and potentially other buried treasures. As Erichsen-Brown describes, as early as 1631, there is a record of Witch Hazel branches being employed as “divining rods” (p. 177)   While water is the most commonly dowsed for, Erichsen-Brown also notes the use of witch hazel in the colonial era for finding gold or silver, salt mines, and more. This tradition was extremely widespread, even in sacred Mormon texts the witch hazel rod often had directions whispered to it, telling it where to help look for gold.

As Witch Hazel is native to North America, this dowsing tradition ties to the larger folk magic of Appalachia and beyond. In fact, I was told when we purchased our current homestead that our drinking spring on the property was found by a local dowser in the 1970s.  He used a witch hazel rods that he cut on the property from local wood.  He dowsed commonly and many springs and wells in our immediate area were found by him.  Although dowsing is not as common now as it used to be, it still has power and influence here in the Appalachian mountains.

One of the ways we can think about dowsing is that you can use it to find physical things but also to help find our way. Some dowsers have been able to use their rods to find anything, and this seems closely tied to the overall magic of the witch hazel.  In my own experience, Witch Hazel certainly fits that approach. It helps us find what we are looking for, in that way, it is a wayfaring or pathwalking plant.

Divination and Meanings of Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel brings light and hope into dark places and dark times. I think Witch hazel is a particularly powerful plant for us here in 2020, given the civil unrest, economic insecurity, climate change, and so many other major challenges that we are facing as a species.  It feels like our civilization is going through a very dark time–and witch hazel reminds us that we can shine in that darkness, that even if everything else is retreating and dying back, there is always room for a little hope and joy.

Witch hazel likes to bloom when the rest of the forest looks like this!

Witch hazel assists with finding hidden things. Witch hazel has the longstanding ability within the Appalachian and American folk magic traditions of finding nearly anything: water, gold, silver, salt, minerals, coal, or other buried treasure.  Thus, Witch hazel more generally can help us do that work both physically in the world and, as in our next point, metaphysically within our selves.

Witch hazel is a wayfaring tree.  The wayfinding properties of Witch Hazel make this an important tree to work with if you are on a journey, if you are seeking a new path, or if you are trying to find your way through uncertain times.

What a blessing the Witch Hazel brings us today, and always.

Daily Rituals and Daily Spiritual Practices

In my time as an Archdruid and now Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a set of questions I see often are questions surrounding the establishment of daily ritual or daily practice question. These are questions like: how do I figure out how to do something every day and actually stick to doing it?  How do I build daily rituals into my life? What are some daily rituals people do?  Why would I want to do daily practices?  Since these questions are so common, today’s post explores the idea of daily rituals and practices for druids:  I’ll share how to begin and some considerations and also share a number of examples of daily or regular practices that you can do to deepen our druid path.

Daily practice

Daily practice

The idea of a daily ritual is, of course, that you do something at the relatively same time every day and it becomes part of your daily routine.  We have tons of daily rituals that aren’t necessarily sacred, from feeding pets to sitting down for a meal to brushing teeth.  We may also have unconscious rituals, like laying in bed in the morning and reading a book or mindlessly looking at social media every time we pick up our phone.  Some of these rituals (brushing teeth) are obviously good for us while some (social media at the beginning and end of the day) may actually harm our mental health.

Daily rituals and practices within the context of spirituality can help us achieve some of our spiritual goals: attune with nature, offer us healing, improve our mental health, offer us grounding, and help us deepen our practice and our connection to core work.  Daily rituals that are established may help us when we have times of challenge or instability (hello, pandemic!) and offer support.  Daily rituals can also help us deepen our spiritual practices–you might think of daily rituals similar to how a musician practices scales.  The more we do our practices, the deeper we connect with them and the more they build both meaning and power over time.  One of the best things you can do is to find a way to engage in regular practices and ritual work, to provide some consistency and forward momentum to what you are doing.

Setting Ritual Goals and Examining Life Circumstances

What really helped me in establishing a daily ritual was to give the practice some serious thought and consideration before I began. I didn’t want to do daily rituals because someone else told me to do so.  I wanted to do daily rituals because I wanted them to enrich my life and offer grounding and connection.  Even if the daily rituals were recommended by a druid order or study program, I wanted to find the motivation intrinsically and be motivated not because I should do them but because I wanted to do them and saw a benefit.  These are the kinds of questions that you might find helpful in finding your own intrinsic motivation and discovering what you hope to gain from such a practice:

1. What do you want to accomplish with a daily ritual?  Articulating your goals will likely help you decide what practices might be appropriate.  Here are a few ideas for you:

  • Prayer or devotion
  • Connecting with nature
  • Improving mental health or clarity
  • Deepening spiritual practice
  • Staring the day in a positive / sacred way
  • Ending he day in a positive / sacred way
  • Preparing for sacred living
  • Preparing for sacred dreaming
  • Offering a daily commitment to your practice
  • Taking a quiet moment in an otherwise busy day
  • Simply feeling good

Come up with your own list of things you’d like to accomplish and go from there!

2. Does your tradition or order already offer a daily ritual or practice?  If so, this is a great place to start. Most traditions offer some kind of daily practice–a mediation, prayer, or energy working.  This connects you both to the tradition you are practicing and allows you to focus your practice in ways that are useful to continue to learn that tradition.

For example, in AODA we offer two daily practices and a weekly practice:  we encourage regular time in nature (at least 15 minutes each week) and we ask that all members perform a daily Sphere of Protection and also engage in meditation.  These three practices are at the heart of what we do and help strengthen one’s spiritual journey in AODA druidry, give connection to the order, and offer considerable spiritual benefit.  I always do these practices and have a few others I’ve added in over the years :).

3. How much time do you want to spend?  Do you have 5 minutes, 15 minutes or 30 minutes a day to spend?  My suggestion here is to have a basic practice that you can do regardless of whether you are in your normal routine, are traveling, have house guests, or whatever else it may be.  You can also have an extended practice one or two days a week.

Remember that you are in this for the long haul.  It is better to start small with something you can sustain rather than something that you will never be able to sustain long-term.  If you start small and have good results, you can always add more over time and feel good about your practice.  If you start big and can’t maintain what you are doing daily, it might make you feel bad and be a detriment to your spiritual growth.  Thus, small, slow steps are best.

For example, when I was doing a lot of work travel and often staying with others in various hotels, I tried a longer daily practice and found it difficult to maintain with the travel–and then it was harder to pick back up when I came home and my practices would fall off before I had to jump-start them again.  Since this happened with unerring frequency, I decided that I wanted a small daily practice that could be done in the bathroom at a hotel or while taking a walk in a city.  Thus, I kept it pretty basic (SOP, walking meditation, and some observation of nature), knowing that I could always do that practice regardless of what was happening in my day.  And I built in regular once-a-week larger practices that I could do when I had more time or was home.

4. What time of day is best for you?  Another factor here is to find a way to build your daily ritual into your routine at a time of day that works best.  For example, if you are exhausted at the end of the day and are non-functional for the last hour or so before bed, it’s probably not a good idea to try to meditate for 15 min because you’ll fall asleep (not that I have ANY experience with that, haha!).  A better option would be to build a daily meditation practice into your lunch break and/or morning routine.  If you are a busy mom and the only time you have is early mornings or when you take a bath, consider how you can build that in. You might have to test out a few things to see what works for you.

I will also note that some people are working in different traditions at the same time, and those traditions are not always energetically compatible (or it is too much to do it all together at once), so it may be necessary to split the practices.  If this is the case for you, you can do one set of practices in the morning and another in the evening.  For example, I also practice the Celtic Golden Dawn tradition, and I prefer to do those practices in the evening to compliment my AODA and druid practices in the morning.

5. Do you have existing routines that you could extend or daily practices that could be altered? Another way to think about building in daily spiritual practice is considering what you already do that is required and/or habituated and that you could extend into a daily spiritual practice.

For example, I am responsible for our morning animal/homesteading chores, which usually take about 30 minutes each day.  I have to do these chores rain or shine, snow or sun, because our animals need let out of their coops, fed, watered and tended.  This gives me a great opportunity to be outside and to take an additional 15 minutes a day to do my Sphere of Protection, drink a cup of tea, and do some light nature observation or meditation or a short walk on the land (pending weather).  This is what works for me now–what worked for me before I had such responsibilities was different, and thus, you should always recognize that if your routine changes, you may have to adapt to a new routine.

Testing and Habituation

So you’ve done the above and have developed a good plan for your daily ritual or practice–great!  The next thing you want to do is test it out.  Why?  Because what you have may not actually be workable, or only partially workable.  One of the things I see new druids do is use their enthusiasm and excitement to build in a ton of practices that they can’t necessarily sustain once that initial enthusiasm is over.  It is better to have a simple practice, 5 or 10 minutes a day, that you can commit to rather than an elaborate practice you can only manage to do once in a while. Thus, spending some time testing the practices to get the right timing, the right time, and the set of practices that work for your best is important.

I suggest trying out the practices for a few weeks or one lunar cycle.  Give yourself time to really dig into them and if they haven’t worked for you, try another set of practices until you find what does.  Developing daily work takes time and its important to give yourself time and be patient.

Daily walks in nature provide room for discovery

Daily walks in nature provide room for discovery

Once you are happy with the practice, then you want to work to habituate that practice. Habits are things we form that become something we simply do (often without thinking) and we almost never miss.  For most of us, brushing our teeth before bed is a good example of this kind of habit.  You don’t really think about it most times, you just go into the bathroom and do it.  Ideally, you can get to that level of habituation with your own daily practices–they are just something you always do and benefit you.  But that’s not where many of us start, and it takes a while to get into that rhythm for two reasons: first, habits take time to form (the 21 days is actually a myth, research shows that it can take anywhere from 15 – 200+ days to form a lasting habit depending on what it is and your own circumstances).

Another thing to realize here is that a major change in life circumstances may lead to a necessary change in your daily practices–and that’s totally ok.  A new home, new job, move somewhere new, new baby or family member, or any number of other things may require you to re-evaluate what you do, when you do it, and how long you do it for.  And that’s totally ok.  Always remember that these spiritual practices are for you.

Finally, be prepared to be flexible.  I like to take a morning walk on our land, but I might shift to a cup of tea on the porch if we are having a downpour.  Recognize that small variations in your daily ritual (depending on weather, if you are sick, etc) are also ok.  This practice is for you and only you.

Examples of Daily Rituals and Practices

There are so many good rituals that you can do.  I’m going to offer a few options for you to spark your own ideas.  Remember that daily rituals don’t have to be formal–they can be simply time spent in nature, a quiet cup of tea with the moon, anything that helps you with your own spiritual practice.

Daily Prayers and Altar Work.  Daily prayers and altar work are probably what most people think of when they think of daily ritual work. Your altar can be a center of your spiritual practice and tending it each day and spending time there can provide you a focus for everything else you do.  Consider any of the following:

  • Leaving a daily offering for spirit/deity/guides/etc.  I like to offer spring water as I can then offer it to a plant the next day (double offering for the win!)
  • Burning incense or lighting candles for a period of time
  • Doing daily divination or tarot card draw
  • Offering prayers or speaking affirmations (e.g. I always say the Druid’s Prayer and the Druid’s Prayer for peace in addition to a prayer that I wrote that reminds me and affirms my path as a land healer and being in service to the living earth)
  • Doing short meditations
  • Daily ritual work, like the Sphere of Protection, mentioned above.

Altar work will often evolve as you do in your spiritual journey or may change as circumstances require.

Greeting the Sun.  Whether you wake up at dawn or later in the day, it is a useful practice to greet and honor the sun (similar to the idea in Yoga of the Sun Salutation, many cultures have done this work in honor of the sun, the giver of light and warmth).  This greeting takes no more than a minute but is a powerful way of connecting you with the giver of life for our beautiful planet.  I like to do a simple greeting.  I face the east and put my arms in the air and simply feel the sun’s rays on me.  I observe the sun’s rays hitting the leaves and landscape. If its an overcast day, I still honor the sun and clouds/rains.  I raise my hands to the clouds facing east and thank the spirits for the rains.  After raising my hands, I bow my head and cross my arms in honor, and chant an “Awen” (Ah-oh-en) for inspiration for the day.

Greeting the sun!

Greeting the sun!

Communing with the Moon. The phases of the moon present another opportunity for daily ritual.  You can get or make a moon calendar (my moon calendar is wood burned and in the PA Dutch tradition).  While you can’t always see moonrise depending on the weather and time the moon rises, you can take an opportunity to acknowledge the moon.

For this, what I do is brew a cup of lunar tea (using lunar herbs like violet, mugwort, ginger, passionflower, clary sage, or hibiscus) and take my steaming cup of tea outside (unless it is really frigid, and then I’ll sit in a window instead).  I hold my cup of tea so that I can see the reflection of the moon in the tea, and wait a few minutes, feeling the connection between me, the moon.  Then I drink the tea, saving a bit in the bottom to pour on the earth as an offering.

Tree energy exchange. Go to an accessible larger tree (accessible as in you can easily get there). Place your back to the tree and allow the energy of the tree to flow through you (particularly if you are feeling tired or depleted). If you have an excess of nervous energy, place your front to the tree and allow it to subside.  (You can tie this to my “tree for a year” challenge from earlier this year!)

Mindful Eating and Honoring the Harvest. I like to build this daily ritual in for at least one meal to help connect me to the living earth and have gratitude for what the land provides.  Choose a meal where you can be alone or eat in silence (which may not be possible every day!)  Ideally, take this to a nice place where you can look out upon the land or be in the sun.  Place your hands over the meal and express your gratitude in your own words (I like to express gratitude to the land, to the farmers who grew it, and to anyone who prepared, packaged, or shipped it. If you grew it, even better!)  Now, really be present with this meal and dedicate yourself to simply being present and enjoying it.  Chew each bite and savor the taste.  Engage with your senses.  When you are finished, offer gratitude.

A winter view from my own druid's anchor spot

A winter view from my own druid’s anchor spot

Observation and a Druid’s Anchor Spot.  Another really great way to honor the changing of the seasons and to connect with nature is the practice of the Druid’s Anchor spot. I think this is one of the most powerful ways of attuning deeply with a local place.   More on the Druid’s Anchor Spot can be found in this post.

Daily Divination. Using an oracle, ogham, or tarot deck can offer you insight into your day, offer themes for meditation, and be an excellent way to really learn a divination system.  Doing a simple one-card or one stave daily draw is a nice way to start or end a day and can be combined with many other practices.

Candle Meditation. One of my favorite daily meditations is a simple candle meditation.  This meditation not only encourages calm and rest, but it also strengthens focus and cultivates inner vision (which is necessary for most advanced journey or shamanic work).  I like to do a candle meditation before I go to bed, sometimes burning some mugwort to encourage vivid dreaming.   A dark room is best for this practice.  Light a candle and place it before you.  Spent time staring at the candle, affixing how it looks firmly in your mind.  As you do this, quiet your breath and settle into a comfortable position.  After you are calm, close your eyes and keep the flame burning in your inner eye.  Breathe and focus on the flame.  If you lose your focus, simply open your eyes, affix the candle flame in your inner eye, and close them again.  Even five minutes of this practice a day will yield results.

 

In conclusion, I also want to remind you that in addition to daily work, you might have seasonal work that varies by the season–you can read all about that here.

Also, dear readers, I hope that you will share additional ideas for how to build daily rituals into your spiritual practice!

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata)

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.

 

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Cherry (Prunus Serotina)’s Magic, Mythology, Medicine and Meaning

Butterfly on choke cherry

When most people think of cherry trees, they think about plump, juicy, red or purple cherries from cultivated cherry trees.  However, here in the USA, we have a variety of wild cherries that are an interwoven and rich part of our landscape. An enigmatic tree found throughout the eastern part of North America and South America is prunus serotina, the wild cherry, black cherry, mountain black cherry, or rum cherry tree. Most people interact with this tree not in its living form, but through the beautiful reddish-brown heartwood that this tree produces, and that can be frequently found in their furniture and flooring.  And yet, this tree has so much more to offer than just beautiful wood! While I’m targeting my comments today about the black cherry, many of the material found here can be about *any* cherry tree local to you, including domesticated cherries.  Many other kinds of wild cherries may also be found along the US East Coast region: prunus avium (the wild sweet cherry) and prunus virginiana (choke cherry). Black cherry and other wild cherries of the prunus species are truly American trees and hence, should be considered as part of our magical landscape here in the USA.

 

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more. I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees. Thus, this series provides research and insight on the many trees here in the US East Coast.  Previous trees in this series include Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  And now, let’s learn more about the Black Cherry!

 

Black Cherry Growth and Ecology

Black cherry is a medium-sized tree, often found on the edges of forests. When it is young, it can be shade tolerant, but older cherries prefer to have more sunlight, and thus, you can often find them along the edges of forests, pushing the forest into new areas. Cherries are prone to being blown over by strong winds because they primarily have lateral/fibrous (spreading) root systems rather than a deep tap root. Cherries can live between 150 and 200 years.  They are commonly found in the ‘dry’ or ‘mesic’ forest habitats more broadly. Here in Western PA, they are a very common tree, often growing in mixed oak/beech hardwood forests or hickory/oak forests, but also found on the edges of hemlock forests.

Identification of the tree depends on its age. Leaves are typically about 2-5 inches in length with fine tooth and an ovate-lacerate shape (elongated oval with points). Young cherry trees have a dark, smooth bark which is banded with lighter brown lines that are horizontal.  Older cherry trees have very dark gray/dark brown or almost black bark that is highly textured, but you can still see the bands (see photos).  A strong almond scent (very unique to cherries) can be smelled when leaves are crushed or branches are broken–more on this later in the post).

Younger and older black cherry trees

Birds, butterflies, and moths feed and grow on black cherry, including the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, who lays eggs individually on the black cherry leaves.  Other caterpillars who depend on the trees include the red-spotted purple caterpillar and the coral haristreak caterpillar. Unfortunately, it is also a favorite of the destructive eastern tent caterpillar, which can make large nests in the tree and strip trees of leaves. Usually, the cherries can bounce back the following year after a serious Eastern Tent Caterpillar issue. When the cherry is in bloom, it is a nectar source for many insects including bees, wasps, and butterflies. When the cherry is in fruit, it is a food source for many animals and birds including raccoon, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bears, and more.

 

Wood and Other Uses

The wood of the cherry is well known, as it is a common wood used for interiors, furniture, tools, flooring, and more. Cherry is a beautiful, reddish brown wood with a straight grain. It is a favorite of woodworkers as it is delightful to work with and beautiful when polished.  It is not as hard as oak, near as soft of maple, making it a wood that is firm yet beautiful to work with.

The berries, when using methods I’ve described before on the blog, can be made into a great ink or dye; it offers a purple/blue color. It doesn’t have a good light fastness (like most other natural berry dyes) but in my experience, if you use alum as a mordant, it can improve the light fastness. The berries are almost always in abundance, but they can be difficult to reach on high up trees.

The cherry pits (seeds) are also often harvested and eaten by wild critters. If you visit the base of an older wild cherry tree, you will often see the little half-cups of the seeds, dried and brown. If you are interested in natural crafts, these can make nice beads (with a tiny hole bored or drilled into them).

Cherry Leaves and Cyanide

Cherry is an interesting tree because while the fruit is edible and medicinal, and the inner bark is also medicinal, most of the rest of the tree is extremely toxic. Cherry foliage and pits contain hydrocyanic acid. You can smell this when you crush a leaf or cut a part of a cherry tree–it has that distinct bitter almond smell. The leaves have the highest concentration of hydrocyanic acid, and as the leaves wilt, they produce cyanide. This makes the leaves extremely toxic to humans and many livestock animals, such as goats or sheep.  In fact, we had planned on getting goats for our homestead here for fiber, milk, and for clearing brush, but after we learned about the toxicity of the cherry leaves (which we have everywhere on the property) we decided not to do so and went a different route with our animals.  This is because one handful of wilted cherry leaves is enough to kill a full size goat!  Needless to say, Cherry’s toxicity is not to be trifled with.

Foraging for Cherries

Thick bark of an older black cherry tree

At the same time that cherry’s leaves have such poison, black cherries are delightful and abundant to eat, high in antioxidants and nutrients, and an excellent wild food. Sam Thayer notes in the Forager’s Harvest that you should harvest the berries only when they are overripe, that is, a deep purple color.  I will also note that in my experience, different trees may produce slightly different tasting berries, some more or less bitter than the others.  If you are going to forage for them and you have some choice, I suggest tasting various trees! The variety in different trees can be quite distinct, with some tasting almost like a commercial cherry and others being nearly inedible and very bitter. So, once you find a tree that you can eat raw, you have found a good tree to turn the fruit into jelly or other tasty treats.  Even if a cherry tree has a little bit of bitterness, you can usually use sweetness to counteract it and allow for an enjoyable tasty tree.

Like many other fruits in the rose family (including apples and peaches), cherry pits also do contain hydrocyanic acid, and those, should be removed during or before preparation.  You can cook them slightly, mash them down, and strain out the pits, which is probably the easiest method of removing them.

This bitterness of any wild cherry can be reduced with the use of sugar, but any jams or jellies that you produce from it will still have some bitterness if your fruit started off bitter.  I have found that the bitterness is pretty tasty combined with meats or fish and add dimension and complexity (and bitter foods are healthy for our digestion). A simple recipe, offered by Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus book is a cherry jelly.  He suggests adding apple juice to the jelly to improve the flavor.  Take any number of quarts of black cherry and add 1 cup of water.  Take unripe apples and slice them and add them (or add some pectin as per package instructions).  Simmer this for 30 min then strain.  Take 2 cups of cherry juice and 2 cups of apple juice, and add 4 cups sugar (you could also add less sugar by using Pamona’s pectin; I prefer to can with honey using this approach).  Boil till it jells and then hot water bath can using standard fruit approaches (10 min for half pints, 15 min for pints, etc).

In Using Wayside Plants, Nelson Coon notes the difference between serotina (wild cherry) and virginiana (choke cherry) are as follows: chokecherry has more pointed leaves, bitter/acidic fruit, and shorter fruit clusters  He notes that while both can be made into tasty jellies, the choke cherry produce more bitter fruit.  I have also found this to be the case, and often, the serotina and virginana are growing right next to each other!  Sam Thayer recommends another approach to working with black cherry. After harvesting them, he puts them in the fridge for two days.  This reduces the astringency and bitterness, and then you can make jellies or fruit leather.

Cherry as Medicine

In Matthew Wood’s Earth Wise Herbal: New World Herbs, Wood notes that in the 19th century, wild cherry was considered an “indispensable” medicine by both pioneers and Native Americans; he suggests that it was likely one of the most commonly used herbs native to the US during that time period.  Wood notes that wild cherry works as a sedative, particularly for the circulatory system.  It is particularly useful for coughs due to irritation, coughs that linger on after an infection has passed, and those that have fluid or mucus in the lungs, such as through bronchitis, pleurisy, etc. He recommends collecting root bark if at all possible, and preferably in the spring when the cyanogens are lowest. He notes that while the bark does contain trace amounts amounts of cyanide, it is not enough to cause any health issues, particularly when it is used medicinally and for short term issues.

Prussic acid in found in wild cherry trees are particularly useful for coughs and many herbalists use it as a their go-to cough syrup remedy.  For this, you want the inner bark from any wild cherry. This is to be used for acute conditions short term only, but it is very effective. A simple cough syrup is to boil down 1/2 cup of the chopped inner bark of wild cherry for 30 min in 1 pint water.  Then, strain it and let it cool. Add raw honey at this point to taste.  Usually, I will freeze this in ice cub trays, then you can keep using it as needed and keep it till you need it.  Alternatively, you can simply make a strong tea of the wild cherry bark that you dry.  If you have a wild cherry nearby though, no need to dry it in advance–just harvest it fresh and prepare it as needed!  I have used this recipe many times myself, and it is just as effective as over-the-counter medicines.

Euell Gibbons gives another recipe for wild cherry cough syrup in his Stalking the Wild Asparagus book that I really like: 1 cup red clover blossoms, 1 cup white pine needles (preferably new growth), 1 cup mullein leaves, and 1/2 cup inner bark from the wild cherry.  Boil all of this in a quart of water covered for 20 min.  Strain and add 1 pint honey, then can it.  (I like this recipe, but I’d omit the honey and can it without, then add the honey later.  Raw honey is amazing, but heat removes much of the medicinal virtues).

 

Magic of the Cherry Tree in Global Traditions

Cherry does not seem to have much of a place in the traditional western magical traditions, particularly those deriving from Europe–which makes sense, as cherry is a North American Tree.

Leaves of cherry tree

In the European traditions, when it shows up, it does not often show up as a tree of power.  For example, in Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire, the book describe the Battle of Godeu (or the Battle of the Trees) and in this battle with Hades, while many trees fought valiantly (oak, hawthorn, heather, holly) many others, including the poor cherry tree did not fare so well and was broken during the battle. This battle is told in the Book of Taliesin as well.

What information there is about the cherry’s power suggests that cherry is tied to love, emotions, and romance, something that is consistent both from Europe as well as from folk magic here in the US.  Culpepper notes in his Herbal that cherry is a tree governed by Venus. In the American hoodoo traditions, according to Cat Yronwood’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, cherry is used primarily in love-drawing spells for drawing love, romance, or enticing someone. Thus, in American Hoodoo, it is frequently used in love-drawing mojo bags, oils, dressed candles. We see this same association in an old book, Grimories, who talks about using the “essences of the cherry tree” when when desires another. Interestingly enough, Native American talking sticks can also be made of cherry, and when they are, they are also tied to expression, emotion, and love. Yet, Cherry trees do not feature prominently in the stories that I have been searching (and that I usually share as part of these posts). Occasionally, someone eats a cherry in a story, or, someone notes that cherry is not good for making bows. But the tree has no distinct magical connection in the mythology of the Americas that I can ascertain.

In another American classic grimore, The Long Lost Friend by John George Hoffman (1820), which is one of the premier books in PA Dutch Braucherei, the cherry tree is used to help cure the “poll-evil” in horses. The Poll Evil is an inflamed back of the head which can burst (today, this is treated with antibiotics). The full charm involves breaking off three twigs from a cherry tree, one in the morning, one in the evening, and one at midnight.  You wrap these in pieces of your shirt, then clean the poll-evil with it.  Then you have to poop on the twigs while the twigs are facing north. Then you stir the wound again with the dirtied twigs a day or two later.  Yep, good stuff :P.

One of the places that cherry tree is very dominant is in Japan, and Cherry has different meanings in eastern societies.  Japanese cherries, or “sakura” symbolize the concept of “mono no aware,” or the understanding that life and things are transient, impermanent, and that a small amount of sadness or wistfulness can be had at their passing.  Cherry blossoms, which bloom en masse in Japan are thus symbolic of “mono no aware” and encourage people to reflect on the transience of all things.  We also see the tie to love from myths like “the Holy Cherry Tree of Musubi-no-Kami Temple” where a magnificent old cherry tree encouraged people to build a shrine dedicated to the “God of Love”.

Meanings and Magic for North America

So to summarize all of the above, we can see three distinct meanings for the Cherry tree, based on its ecology, medicine, uses, and mythology:

Cherry tree as a drawing love and romance.  The American traditions are strongly consistent in this, showing that cherry here in the US has the power for love: to bring it, to help it last, and to foster romance.

A small grove of cherries on the edge of the homestead

Cherry tree emphasizes the fragility, impermanence, and ephemeral nature of life.  The Japanese tradition is strong here, but so is, frankly, the fact that cherry can produce such a noxious poison.  The leaves of the cherry tree wilt and cause livestock (or people) to die who consume them.  That ecology sends, to me, a very strong emphasis on the idea that life is fragile!

Cherry, likewise, sends the message that the same aspects of nature can be both healing and destructive. Cherry is a tree of extremes: both one of the best natural medicines we have native to the Americas while also being one of the most destructive poisons we have.  Much of nature is like this, and this is a powerful natural lesson. The ocean is a very good example of this: the ocean can provide food and medicine, but also tidal waves and tsunamis.  I think every part of nature is truly like this: and cherry so beautifully emphasizes this lesson.  Nature is.  It is not good, it is not evil, it simply is.  I can be harnessed as a powerful tool, or it can harm or kill you.  Part of that depends on your own knowledge, and part, on the conditions at hand.

Sacred Tree Profile: Juniper’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings

Here on the East Coast of the USA, we are still in deep winter. Soon, the maples will be flowing.  Soon, the winter snows will melt.  Soon, spring will return.  But until that time, the conifers, particularly offer strength and wisdom.  One of my favorite conifers is Juniper, also known as Eastern Red Cedar.  It is delightful to come across a wild juniper in the winter months, with her sweet and pine-scented berries and her delightful sprigs that offer friendship and hope through the darkest times.  So come with me today as we explore the sacred Juniper tree.

Juniper here on the land

Juniper here on the land

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more!  I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees.  So this series does just that–providing research and insight on the many trees here in the US East Coast.  Previous trees in this series include Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the Juniper tree!

Description

In Eastern North America, our dominant Juniper variety is Juniperus virginiana, also known as Eastern Red Cedar. Other names for Juniper include red juniper, baton rouge, pencil cedar, savin, or just cedar. Despite being called a Cedar, Juniper is actually in the cypress family, offering different kinds of needles (which are technically leaves)-very sharp, pointed, and prickly when they are young, and flattened, scale like, and overlapping as they age. These older needles are reminiscent of Eastern White Cedar, perhaps this is why the two are sometimes both called cedar.

According to John Eastman, Juniper is a long and slow growing tree.  It can live 200-300 years, and prefers open fields and other sunny locations. Junipers can produce cones starting between age 10 and age 25; some trees bear female cones and other trees bear male cones and the cones are wind pollinated. The tree is not very shade tolerant, so needs the sun in order to thrive. According to Grimm, Junipers can grow up to 30-40 feet high with a trunk diameter of 1-2 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Juniper that large here in PA, as it is often instead found on dry or rocky soils, on limestone outcroppings or soils, and in abandoned fields. Unlike many conifers, Juniper cannot handle fire and can’t rehabilitate or re-establish after fire-burned sites.  However, Juniper is great at helping repopulate what are often called “wastelands” – overfarmed and abandoned fields, old gravel pits, and the like. At a distance, the Juniper tree looks like a flame, blazing up on the landscape–they are easy to spot and since they are conifers, they stay green year-round.

In the summer, you might come across a Juniper that looks more like an alien, with strange orange tentacles coming out of it everywhere! I remember the first time I saw this and I had no idea what i was seeing! Turns out it is the Cedar apple fungi (G. Juniperi-virginianae), which is largely harmless to the Juniper but which infect apple and hawthorn trees with a gymnosporagium rust. The rust is very detrimental to harvests of both apple and hawthorn, meaning that many who have orchards prefer to cut Junipers down rather than let them grow and possibly carry the rust.  You can tell whether or not a Juniper is infected with the rust–it will have large brown galls on it on the outer branches that have small holes within them, almost looking like potholes all over the gall. The orange alien-like tentacles come out of the nodules to spread the rust once a year–quite a sight to behold!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Juniper produces leaf litter that is high in calcium, creating slightly alkali soil (as compared to most conifers, whose leaf litter produces a more acidic soil).  Because of the increase in calcium, it is also an excellent place to find earthworms if, say, you wanted to go fishing.  Here in Western PA, we have particularly acidic soil, almost too acidic, so juniper leaf litter is very useful for helping bring the acidity back into balance.

Further, almost 90 different birds feed on the fruit of Juniper, Birds help disperse the seeds, which require cold stratification to sprout.  Others who eat the delicious fruit include chipmunks, mice, and opossums, voles, coyotes, red squirrels, and foxes. In the late winter, you will often see multiple species feeding on a juniper tree when there is little else to be found!

Regenerating Damaged Landscapes

Juniper is quite good at growing in thin or depleted soils, or soils that are polluted.  This makes it a critical tree for replanting and regeneration of the land, particularly in the rust belt region of the USA.  In the Rust Belt, three centuries of heavy mining activity has left a lot of boney dumps and other kinds of wastelands–places where there is only shale, no soil, and it gets hot and its hard for any plants or trees to take root. Thus, we often see this tree planted as part of replanting efforts after mining efforts; the tree’s roots help hold back erosion and over time, build soil, and slowly regenerate the land.  I’ve been to areas where there are hundreds of acres of juniper and scrub pine (pinus virginiana) and little else. Eventually, these two trees will help replant the entire landscape, but for now, I’m glad there is *something* that can grow there and begin nature’s healing process.

Juniper Berries and Wood Uses

The heartwood of Juniper is a beautiful red, with the outer wood going to cream or white, making it a highly sought after wood for a variety of woodworking endeavors.  This includes making “cedar” chests and other furniture as well as using it for decorative wood paneling. A lot of pencils are made from the Juniper wood; you might remember those nice smelling #2 pencils from your childhood! “Oil of Cedar” which is frequently used in polishes, medicines, and perfumes is distilled from the leaves and the wood of the Juniper tree.  The inner bark has also been used to make a reddish dye–it is a very beautiful dark red and just delightful.

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Probably the most famous use of Juniper berries is for flavoring Gin. Juniper berries are used for flavoring in many contexts. Juniper oils in the foliage are toxic in higher doses, so the berries are used almost exclusively for this purpose

Juniper berries are ripe when they are a dark purple/black, often with a white residue on the surface.  You can eat them throughout the late summer and into the late winter, and on an abundant and mature juniper, the tree can produce hundreds.  They do contain a center seed, which you want to remove, so you are essentially nibbling on the fruit on the outside of the seed (which is like a thin skin).

You can do a variety of wonderful things with the juniper berry, and wild foraged ones are oh-so-good!  One of my favorite things to do is to make an infused vodka by taking a nice high-quality vodka and putting in a good handful of berries.  Let macerate for a month, and you have this delightful beverage to share with friends.  Another favorite of mine is including them in a tea, particularly with nettle leaf, mint, and oatstraw.

Tarot of Trees Incense with Juniper Berry

I developed this incense recipe as the perfect complement for the Tarot of Trees. This incense blend is a non-combustible powdered incense blend that you will need to burn on a charcoal block. Charcoal blocks can be purchased at most metaphysical stores and also online. You will need a mortar and pestle to grind your ingredients and tin or jar to keep the incense dry and fresh. The recipe is as follows:

  • 2 parts frankincense
  • 2 parts sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon (powdered)
  • 1⁄4 part sweet orange Essential Oil
  • 1 part juniper berries (dried or fresh, see below)
  • 1⁄2 part lemongrass (dried)
  • 1⁄2 part yarrow (dried)

In a mortar and pestle, powder your frankincense as finely as possible. Combine the frankincense with the sandalwood and cinnamon until blended. Set aside. In the mortar and pestle, crush the juniper berries. They will be fairly easy to crush if they are dried. If they are fresh, freeze them for 30 min or more and then crush them–they will crush much easier. Crush your lemongrass and yarrow separately. Combine all ingredients, including sweet orange essential oil, in the mortar and pestle and blend thoroughly. Enjoy!

Herbalism and Juniper

Juniper has been used in multiple traditions (western, TCM, Ayurveda) as a blood tonic and blood purifier.  In folk herbalism, it was considered a “fall tonic” plant, to compliment Dandelion and other spring tonics, and would be used to help support the kidneys and “clear” or “thicken” the blood.  What this essentially means is that in both spring and fall, our bodies need to prepare for the extremes: the heat of the summer sun and the work of planting and harvest, and the cold of the winter with less food and activity. Juniper, as a fall tonic plant (along with Sassafras and Sarsaparilla) helps prepare us for the cold of the winter.  Most of the fall tonics are warming and are said to “thicken” the blood (in folk herbal terms) so that you will stay warm and healthy during the winter.

Translating that folk wisdom into modern herbal practice, we know that Juniper has a diuretic action on the kidneys, meaning it helps flush the kidneys through urine production.  Stagnation is one of the worst things you can have in terms of the body, and keeping the kidneys moving and healthy is key to a healthy elimination system.  Juniper is a wonderful complement to that system, along with a number of other herbs such as dandelion leaf and nettle.

Juniper also has strong anti-inflammatory action, with at least three specific chemical constituents that help reduce inflammation in the body, and it is often taken for this purpose as well.

Magic of the Juniper in the European and Western Traditions

In the Western Esoteric traditions, Juniper has a long history of use, particularly tied to the work of fire, as a purification herb, and as something used to drive away disease. Its interesting always to see how the herbal wisdom ties to the magical uses and practices surrounding plants–and we can certainly see that at play with Juniper. We’ll now consider some of these uses:

John Michael Greer in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic suggests that Juniper is tied to the element of fire, with its astrological aspects being Mars in Aries (can’t get much more fiery than that!) Juniper was traditionally used in spells to get back property that was stolen and as a deterrent to theft. It was also used in purification rites, as it both helps purify and drive away lingering spirits. We can see this from its use in the Key of Solomon (which lists Juniper as a herb tied to invocations of Saturn). The purification uses of Juniper go back to the Greeks, who burned it and to the Egyptians, who used it both medicinally and to embalm their dead.

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree; it is often used as a bonsai

Culpepper suggests that the Juniper is a “solar shrub” and the berries are hot in the 3rd degree and dry in the first degree.  He notes that they were used as a counter poison, against venom and other kinds of poison.  He also notes that they are “as great a resister of the pestilence, as any growing.”

Juniper seems to have a connection to animal purification as well. In Scotland, a tradition developed of fumigating animals, barns, and homes to prevent disease.  In “A Journey in Southern Siberia” Jeremiah Curtin (1909) describes how the Siberian Shamans used the smoke of juniper to purify animals prior to their sacrifice.

 

A book specializing in lore from Italy, “Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition” (1892) from Charles Godfrey Leland describes a charm.  In the book, a woman has a beautiful baby and it is attacked by a cat; she believes this attack was caused by witches.  She creates a charm to protect her child, and that charm includes the protection of the juniper berry, along with the cat’s hair, frankincense, cumin, salt, bread crumbs, iron filings, and much more.

Magic of the Juniper in North American Contexts

In an North American context, Juniper has uses in folk magic, hoodoo, and Braucherei, particularly surrounding getting back stolen property. Juniper is used in Hoodoo, and is interchangeable with any other Cedar.  It is used, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, when a “benevolent power” is needed for various activities: to rent one’s home, to get someone to move away (like a neighbor), or to get your love to move with you.  This same kind use of Juniper can be seen in Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic, or Braucherei, as described in Long Lost Friend by John George Hopman.  In one particular charm, a juniper tree is used to help get the Thief to return stolen goods.  In this case, the tree is bent towards the rising sun with the left hand in a kind of sympathetic magic (which is a lot of what Braucherei is). As the Braucher bends down the tree and ties it fast as part of the magic, the magic will bend will of the thief to return the stolen goods. Finally, Juniper berries in Hoodoo are also used for romance and sexuality-oriented workings.

In some Native American legends, juniper berries are featured prominently as nutritious food important to the people.  This is the case of the the Hopi Legend Balolookongwuu and the Coyote, as well as the Apache legend, Turkey makes the Corn and Coyote Plants it.  Another Hopi Legend notes that Juniper is one of the chiefs of the world.  In one Navajo legend, Juniper helps two monster slayers overcome noxious vapors from a monster that they killed. They chew on the juniper and it offers them recovery. In a Blackfoot Legend, Sacred Otter, it describes an altar to the sun, with juniper laid upon it. In one of my favorite Seneca legends, one I’ve written about on the blog before, the Junipers are one of the many conifers who stand against old man winter and bring the return of spring.

Juniper’s Magic and Meanings

To summarize, Juniper, particularly through her wood and berries, is an absolutely wonderful tree with a wide range of uses.  In terms of overall meanings in a North American context, we might summarize with the following:

Juniper here on the land ...

Juniper here on the land …

Juniper is about warmth and fire. Juniper helps warm people up and is a strong fire-dominant tree, suggesting many associations with fire: passion, energy, warmth, and the sun.

Juniper offers hope in dark times.  Juniper’s berries have long been a staple through the darkest of winters, and I see this both physically and metaphorically.  Culturally, we are in a period of darkness, and trees like Juniper can help see us through.

Juniper offers regeneration and bringing things back. Juniper’s ability to grow in places few other trees can demonstrate that this tree is a true land healer, offering us hope in these dark times and sharing the critical message of the healing power of nature. I also think this is tied to its sympathetic magic uses in the American magical traditions–Juniper helps bring things back.

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the juniper tree!  I would love to hear any stories or additional insights about the Juniper tree that you are willing to share. Blessings of the Juniper!