The Druid's Garden

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

A Summer Solstice Sunrise Observance Ritual June 17, 2018

Summer Solstice Sunrise from the Water

Summer Solstice Sunrise Progression from the Water at Yellow Creek State Park on the Summer Solstice 2017

My alarm goes off at 4:00am.  I’m conveniently camping right along the lake shore, after having spent the evening watching the sunset on the eve of the summer solstice with members of our grove. My kayak is ready to launch, and I roll out of my sleeping bag and slip it quietly into the still, dark water. The starry heavens are brilliant in their glory, the moon a crescent low in the sky. But just as I begin to paddle, the first light on the horizon is present. The mists rise up from the lake water–the lake is warm like bath water even though the air itself is much cooler on this summer solstice morning. I paddle through the mist, finding a good spot from which to watch the sun rise. The lake expands around me, the trees dark shadows in the distance. Everything seems to move very slowly, and then, the light rises, faster and the light seems to rush in with each breath I take. The bullfrogs and birds help call up the solstice sun, their voices begin rising in song all around the edges of the lake. The fish start rising up to the surface; one leaps in front of me. The crows begin to caw, the hawks fly in the distance.  The world is coming awake, and I have a front row seat to all of it. The moon disappears behind some clouds that are rolling in, and for a brief moment, tiny drops of rain fall on the still water.  Then, the sun emerges from behind the mountain.  All the while, I sit, soaking in the moment. Breathing deeply, I am simply happy to be here and to witness.

 

The solstices and equinoxes are special times that celebrate the passage of the sun and the turning wheel of the year. Over the years, I’ve celebrated them in elaborate ways with large groups and also simple ways, by myself. One of the most simple rituals that I know, and use often, to celebrate is simply a sunrise observation ritual, as I began to describe in the last paragraph.  I actually wrote this post a year ago, during 2017, right after my solstice celebration with the hopes of sharing it with you before the solstice in 2018.   I’m going to share the details of this ritual today and how you can do it for this summer solstice–or any other seasonal celebration.

 

Ritual Preliminaries

There are a few preliminaries that you need to take care of to do a sunrise observation ritual.

 

Weather: Weather can be tricky. If there are clouds, storms, or it is overcast, you might not be able to see the solstice sunrise that day. However, in the druid tradition, we hold that the energy of the time is actually present three days before and three days after, so anytime in that 7 day window would work of the day itself does not (of course, the day itself is a better choice).  If you really want to do it on the day of the solstice, you might have to wait a year or two till the weather is right.  This happens, and sometimes, the wait is worth it.

 

Finding Your Observation Spot: Finding “the spot” where you will observe, from land or sea, is an important part of the ritual. You may already have a spot in mind–it should allow you to see open skies to the east, but also as far around as possible. You’ll also need to make sure you can get to that spot early enough to see the sunrise.  Since I live in the Appalachian Mountains, I prefer overlooks and/or lakes–both of these offer a wonderful view.  Last year, my grove rented a cabin for the evening on the lake, and so, I had very easy access to do the sunrise ritual.

 

When to get to the spot. If you look up sunrise times online, you’ll see two numbers, typically “first light” and “sunrise.” First light times can be deceiving; I have found that “first light” actually occurs up to an hour earlier than it indicates. For my sunrise rituals, I plan on being at my spot 1.5 hours before the scheduled sunrise (and staying about 2 hours total).  Depending on mountains and other geographic features, the sunrise time may also be off (last year, I actually saw the sun come over the mountains at about 6:10, even though 5:45 was the specified time).  If you get there 1.5 hours early, it will be completely dark, but within the first 15 minutes, you will see the sky slowly changing–and seeing that part is worth it.

 

Comfort. The Sunrise Ritual is a long one–you spend your time in stillness and reverence, observing the world around you.  Because the sun takes time to rise, you will want to make sure you are comfortable wherever you are.  Bring yourself a chair, a blanket, or get yourself seated in a cozy kayak (like I did) to watch the sun rise.  Even if the days are warm, it is likely much cooler at 4am, so bring appropriate clothes, blankets, etc.  If bugs are a problem, bring bug spray, etc.  The idea is to be as present as possible to witness this wonder of nature, not be worrying about your cold toes, mosquitoes buzzing in your ear, or uncomfortable seat.

 

Second Sunrise Ritual, a few days after the solstice in Summer 2017

Second Sunrise Ritual, a few days after the solstice in Summer 2017

The Ritual

The ritual is as simple as it can be–simply watch and observe the sunrise. Pay attention not only to where the sun will rise, but to the whole 360 degree area where you are. Fully engage with all of your senses (which is why the sacred brew is helpful): your sight, your taste (tea), the sounds, your sense of touch (feeling the temperature, the ground you are sitting on, etc), and your ears. There is so much to take in and it changes so quickly. Even if you are scanning another part of the sky or surroundings, when you look again, the light has shifted. Pay attention to the far edges of the sunrise area–sometimes, beautiful colors will appear and then disappear within 5 or so minutes (last year, there was this amazing patch of hot pink for a little while reflecting on some clouds on the edge of the sunrise).

 

Deepening the Ritual

Here are a few things that can enhance or deepen your ritual experience.  None of them are necessary; just being present is enough. But over the years of doing this ritual, I have found a few additions enhances the experience.

 

A Sacred Brew. I have found that drinking tea or another sacred brew (like elderflower cordial at the summer solstice) is a wonderful way to heighten the power of this ritual.  Prepare something sacred, something wonderful.  I drank elderflower while watching the sun rise.  In the winter, a tea of warming herbs like sassafrass root or ginger would also be welcome.  I suggest brewing the tea in the sun the day before the solstice sunrise, and take that solar energy within as you watch the sun come in.

 

A Sacred Space. If you have the time, you can add to this ritual by creating a simple sacred space around you while you observe.  While this is not necessary, I feel that it really heightens the experience. I did this in my kayak last year, going through the AODA’s sphere of protection as the light began to come in.

 

Bringing In the Sun. If you wait till you can physically see the sun, you can also bring in the light and energy of the sun for your own healing. Draw its first golden rays towards you and bring them deep within. Combining this with breathwork is powerful. Offer gratitude for the sun and its light-giving rays.

 

Music/Singing. The Awen flows strongly at the summer solstice –you might feel compelled to sing or play an instrument.  I was once given a “sunrise song” that I play on my panflute sometimes during this ceremony.  You might see it this way–roosters, bullfrogs, birds, and many others work each day to raise the sun with their voices.  By joining in, you participate in that shared magical practice.

 

Solstice Activities.  Typically, after this ritual, I go off to find some elderflower and brew it up into sacred medicine.  This, or any other solstice-appropriate activity is a great way to keep the energy of the ritual with you.

A beautiful scene from the shore in Maine at the sunrise!

A beautiful scene from the shore in Maine at the sunrise!

May the blessing of the summer solstice sun be ever with you!

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Ecoregional Druidry: A Druid’s Wheel of the Year August 27, 2017

In the 1990’s, now Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Gordon Cooper, developed the idea of “wildcrafting your own druidry”; this practice is defined as rooted one’s druid practice in one’s local ecology, history, legends and magic.  In today’s age of adapting and drawing upon many different traditions in the quest for spiritual wholeness, we sometimes forget that all knowledge, regardless of how ancient it is (like the Celtic Tree Alphabet and divination system, the Ogham) was originally developed in a local culture and ecosystem.  Thus, too, I believe our spiritual practice reflect our own local ecologies and ways of understanding.  I’m going to expand on some of Gordon’s ideas here and talk about my own work with “local druidry” or “ecoregional druidry” and how to put some of this into practice to create a “druid’s wheel of the year” that is specific to your local ecology and customs.  While I’m using druidry as an example here, anyone who is following a nature-based spiritual path and using the wheel of the year as their structure of holidays would benefit from such information.

 

Dividing Up the Landscape

The Laurel Highlands (Alleghney Mountain Range in the Appalacians).  These are the mountains I call home--my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

The Laurel Highlands (Allegheny Mountain Range in the Appalacians). These are the mountains I call home–my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

Before we get into how to adapt some of the druid path practices and material to a local setting, it’s important to understand the different ways in which we can divide a landscape into smaller units that are more uniform. Most of us understand divisions from a political sense: the line that separates two countries, states, or provinces. These divisions may help us understand some of the different cultural practices that we can draw upon that are regionally or locally-based. Local feasts, local foods, local agricultural practices, local traditions and folklore all may contribute to our own understanding of ecoregional druid adaptations (and I’ll talk more about those in a second post).

 

However, political lines only occasionally follow ecological boundaries, and so we also need to understand something about ecological boundaries. At the largest level are ecozones (like the Nearctic ecozone, which constitutes most of North and Central America) and bioregions (like the Eastern United States). These bioregions are very large areas that have many, many different ecosystems within them, but do share some broader characteristics (such as patterns of light and darkness throughout a year).  For our purposes, likely the most appropriate place to look is at the level of ecoregion (or ecological region) which is, according to Brunckhorst (2000) is a “recurring pattern of ecosystems associated with characteristic combinations of soil and landform that characterize a region.”  This may include patterns that repeat in the geology, physiography, vegetation, climate, hydrology, flora and fauna, and soils of a land area. In the case of the United States, the Laurentia ecoregion which also includes all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the upper Midwest east of the Mississippi as well as parts of South-Eastern Canada. Within this ecoregion, there are many ecosystems which are unique to their specific locations but also broader species that are shared across them.

 

With knowledge of both your regional or local traditions and ecoregion and local ecosystems, you are well on your way to adapting your druid practice.

The Adapted Wheel of the Year

The holidays that make up the wheel or cycle of the year in the druid tradition follow the path of the sun and include the solstices and equinoxes are determined by the path of the sun. The solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days manifest differently upon the earth in quiet dramatic ways. The modern wheel of the year, which is celebrated by druids, was developed in Great Britain from older agricultural holidays from Europe. While it fits the UK ecosystem quite well, it may be far less appropriate Texas, USA or Australia. Particularly, while the astronomical event of the longest day and longest night are present always, how they manifest on the earth is tied to how the holidays are celebrated. For example, in the UK or Eastern US, the Fall Equinox is a ritual devoted to harvest because that’s what’s happening in the landscape. Many different adaptations of the wheel of the year have been created by druids all over the world, unique to their ecosystems.

 

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

Further, the four season model present and assumed in the Wheel of the Year is based on a temperate climate. Some druids don’t live in regions with four seasons. Even within a temperate ecosystem each season may vary considerably by weeks or months, with different bloom times. Each year also is variable; a warm and early spring equals a growing season that has flowering and fruiting maturing earlier.  And so why the sun and solar currents are steady, dependable, and predictable, the hydrological cycles, weather, and manifestation of the season on the earth herself is ever changing.  It seems, then, to create a truly representative body of holidays, we must observe both the progress of the sun across the sky, but also consider the role of the specific season upon the earth and how it manifests where we live.

 

While the overall themes of the wheel of the year manifest in most ecosystems (a time of light/spring, a time of harvest, a time of being indoors/shelter (which might be from sun or cold, depending on the location), these are not consistent with the traditional wheel of the year in many places.  Not all locations have traditional spring, summer, winter, and fall. And so, some druids may find it necessary to develop a modified seasonal cycle and wheel of the year. For example, a wheel of the year in the tropics might include a dry season and a stormy season; this would drastically change the nature of the seasonal celebrations and the overall themes.

 

Deepening the Wheel of the Year: Adding Ecoregional Sacred Observances

Even if you live in a temperate climate (like I do) that is fairly representative of the standard wheel of the year, one of the ways you might adapt the wheel of the year is by adding in what I call minor sacred observances. These, unlike the path of the sun or cross quarter days, do not have specific dates on a calendar set by the consistent path of the sun and patterns of light and dark. Rather, they mark a period in time in the ecosystem, and that specific occurrence changes from year to year.

 

Through a period of observation and interaction, which involved being out in every season and through all kinds of weather, certain events seemed particularly meaningful and salient in my ecosystem.  These were events that I noticed happened with regularity and also that were notable or strikig to me in some way. I also used some of my own knowledge of past local history and lore. This wheel of the year took me over a decade to fully develop and, just as importantly, changed substantially when I made the move from Michigan to Pennsylvania a few years back.  Here it is in its current form:

Dana's Wheel of the Seasons

Dana’s Wheel of the Seasons

 

Anything that is in between the eight holidays is mostly variable – like the first hard frost or first snowfall.  These are particularly significant events that happen each year, and I make note of them and honor them when they occur. I also have noted important dates that connect me to seasonal activities and the land–the yearly creation of Pysanky eggs, a longstanding family tradition. Additionally, all of my gardening and homesteading activities that help root me firmly in the ecosystem like starting my seeds, preparing beds for the fall, harvesting, and so on.  You’ll also see that I have included what I consider to be important markers of changes in my local ecosystem, like the chirping of the Kaydids or the blooming of the hawthorn.

 

You’ll notice on my map, Groundhog Day is included for a simple reason: I live 40 minutes south of Punxsutawney, PA, who has an annual tradition of doing a groundhog weather prognostication (a fancy word for divination) describing how soon winter will end by reading Phil’s shadow. Because of that bit of regional and honored folk magic, I tie my own Imbolc celebrations in with the general regional celebrations for Groundhog day on Feb 2nd and do divinations for the coming year at that time.

 

Of course, a different druid (even one living in the same ecoregion) might have a very different calendar of events. For example, when I lived in the Great Lakes region of the US, the full freezing over of the ice on the lakes (so that you could walk, skate, or ice fish) was a memorable occurrence, as was when the first crack in that same ice appeared. For some druids near the coast, the monthly “tidal bulge” might be particularly salient or the blooming of the beach rose. This is all to say that your own earth-centered holidays and even more specialized seasons themselves can be developed in line with your observations of local ecosystems and ecology. The more that you know about the world directly around you, the more you will have a sense of what is sacred and meaningful about that world.  Perhaps you don’t have a winter, but you have a season of fog—that would change how and when you celebrated that season.

 

Suggestions for Developing and Extending Your Wheel of the Year

First snow....

First snow….

I see this kind of ecoregional calendar as a next step in the druid tradition: we have a set of solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days that occur with regularity and that help bring us together. And these are determined by the path of the sun.  But each druid or group of druids might find their own way forward: the general principle here is that part of the druid tradition ties sacred ecological knowledge with a honoring of the cycles of nature and the cycles of the year. Or, you might choose to keep the solstices and equinoxes and do away with the cross quarter days entirely (as they are agricultural) and instead, build in other holidays or sacred moments that are important to you and your region.

 

How you develop your own seasonal calendar is up to you—it is about what is salient on your immediate landscape, the landscape you inhabit each day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming.  You might be surprised with the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farmers and farm products. A lot of traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems.  You’ll see that reflected in my map above—the flowing of the maple sap, for example, as well as the budding of the maple tree are significant to me both because I have done sugaring most years, but also because of the broader cultural custom in this part of the US.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs (like the celebration of the maple tree present in my region) and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities, might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? For example, for me around the Spring Equinox here (late March) nothing is blooming. But what is happening are the robins are starting to return and the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts are running with their sap. And the maples, in particular, are in a place of their highest power of the year (which I understand from talking to them and sensing their energy over a long period of time).  Maple, then, features predominantly in my local druid calendar as well as in ritual work that I do at that time.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature sprits, the powerful energies of the landscape where you live, and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

And so, with some observation, intuition, and research, you can develop a highly personalized “wheel of the year” calendar that is eco-regional and very specific to your druid path.  I’ll continue to examine this topic next week, when we explore how to develop localized rituals, observances, and activities for your wheel of the year.

 

(PS: If any of my readers are heading to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for Stones Rising next weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

 

The Summer Solstice Sunrise: A Journey and Ritual of Illumination June 18, 2016

All of us are on a journey. Perhaps it is a physical journey, traveling to distant shores or a new home. Perhaps it is an emotional journey, a journey of the heart and of healing. Perhaps it is a journey of self discovering or self fulfillment. Perhaps it is a spiritual journey to reconnect with the living earth. At each moment of the wheel of the year, the sun, too, is on a journey–to rise and fall. On the moment of the summer solstice, the sun rises at the apex of his power.

 

Incredible sunrise in the mountains with the windmills

Incredible sunrise in the Allegheny mountains with the windmills

I have found that going on a journey, a physical one, to see the summer solstice sunrise is an extremely powerful initiation into deeper mysteries at the time of the summer solstice–including 3 days before, and 3 days after. My summer solstice ceremony is quite simple–well before dawn you do a night hike (not using any artificial illumination) to a high point, where you watch the sun rise and be illuminated as it occurs (I’ll share more specifics of the ceremony below).

 

I see this night hike seeking the illumination of the Solstice Sunrise as the same kind of ceremony as an all night vigil at the Winter Solstice (which I will talk about near the winter solstice)–in both cases, some of the work is readying yourself to be greeted by the rising sun.  It is the journey that matters, for illumination only happens after deep reflection and a long path traveled.  This is one path of initiation, the path into deeper mysteries, communion, and wholeness.

 

The Solstice Sunrise Journey

Choosing the Right Day. In terms of the timing of the whole ceremony, there are a few considerations.  First is the consideration about the day of the solstice–which not all people can manage, due to work obligations. I’ve done this anywhere from 3 days before to 3 days after the summer solstice (although I really try to get it “on the mark” if possible). This year, my first of these hikes (I expect to do at least one more) was 3 days before. The other consideration, of course, is whether or not it’s raining.  Sometimes a light rain is actually ok (that’s what happened to me on the one I’ll describe below) because the sun rose up, was beautiful, and then skirted into the clouds and the rain came down more.  But if it’s an outright downpour, you might want to wait for this particular ceremony (although I will likely still go out; I found bunches of Elderflowers last year at the summer solstice on a rainy morning when the cloud cover prevented me from witnessing any sunrise!)

 

Location. Location to me is one of the most important considerations for this kind of summer solstice ceremony. I usually scope out the location of my journey potentially months in advance, often finding the “right spot” sometime during my hikes earlier that year or even in the fall of the year before.  (Sometimes, the location finds me and I’m at the right place and the right time, like it did this year!)   For me, the perfect spot as an Appalachian mountain druid is one of high elevation, above the valley, where I can see an amazing panoramic view.

 

Scoping out your Spot and Hike. Visiting your spot in advance is important for a few reasons: one, as a night hike, you are going to be needing to rely on senses other than sight to get yourself up to the place where you are going. And having memories of something you traveled only a day or two before helps you through the night hike.  But second, it is about timing. You need to know how long it takes you to get up to your spot so that you can make sure you don’t miss it.  I missed it a few times because I was still hiking rather than sitting and witnessing the rising sun.  You need a lot more time than you need, and sunrise happens actually kind of quickly!

 

Still dark as I approach my viewing spot

Still dark as I approach my viewing spot

The Night Hike. Yes, you can do this, you can do it without a flashlight, and you can do it alone (or with a group).  Once your eyes adjust, you will be surprised at how effective they are at seeing in the darkness–we just don’t do it much these days.  So turn off the electronics and lights, and use your full senses to get where you are going.  This is an important part of the journey.  To me, it represents the long journey we need to have in order to reach illumination.  It also gives me great insight about myself, how I deal with problems, and so on.  You might stumble, you might run into some cobwebs, and you might be fearful of things in the dark–but trust me, this part of the ritual is worth it.  If you are traveling with a group, grove, circle, family, etc, I would suggest that you agree to do the walk in silence so that each person can experience their own journey unfolding.

 

The timing of the night hike is critical.  Ideally, you should leave an hour before sunrise, spend 15-25 minutes getting where you are going and then sit, watching the sunrise unfold fully, over the next 30-45 minutes.  Each part of the sunrise is a tapestry of colors, especially on this most magical day.  Each sunrise has a unique message for you.  The problem I’ve had in the past with this ceremony is that sometimes I don’t wake up early enough to make it happen, and then I’m still hiking and missing the sunrise.  Trust me–for this ceremony, the extra 30 minutes of sleep is simply not worth it.

 

Now, once you get to the top, if you have the time, for added punch, you can do a short ceremony.  I like to do the AODA’s sphere of protection before the sunrise, meditate and say the druid’s prayer for peace while the sunrise is rising, and then, as the sun rises higher into the air, do the OBOD’s light body exercise.

 

Illumination. The forest (or wherever you are) appears differently at the edge spaces between day and night; dusk and dawn are powerful times.  This allows you to enter a sacred space and experience some form of illumination, presence, and communion with the spirits of the land.  This is very individual, so I’m not going to say more here except listen, observe, and be open to whatever unfolds.

 

The sunrise peeking through the trees!

The sunrise peeking through the trees!

My first Solstice Sunrise journey this year took place the week leading up to the Solstice, and it was certainly unplanned. I had been at a research writing retreat for my research team (this is a yearly thing we do, since we are scattered all over the country) and we had rented a house in a very wooded and secluded area on one of the Appalachian ridges near Berkeley Springs, WV. I had done some walking while at the retreat, and had noted the sharp rise of the mountain behind our cabin. One morning, after it was light, I walked up there and spent several hours, and received the clear message that although it was a bit earlier for my solstice walk, indeed I was do to the solstice walk and journey up to the ridge where I could see the scene unfolding through the trees. That night, I had three powerful dreams, messages that are in line with something I’ve been working toward for many years.  The last of which woke me up at 4:30am (and sunrise was at 5:45 that morning), just 5 minutes shy of when I had set my alarm. I pulled on my clothes and shoes, carried some water from the spring, and began my journey up the mountain. There was no real path, but it was a serious climb, and I had to stop a few times to catch my breath as I continued my ascent. By 5:10, I had reached the spot where there were a few windows through the now-sparse trees, and a perfect spot to see the rising sun. Rocks were everywhere this far up on the ridge, and I found a nice one to sit and observe. After an hour of observation, the energy shifted, my work was done. The rains came, and I went down to join my team for breakfast.

 

I hope this ceremony and perspective on the summer solstice is useful as you plan your own solstice journey!  I’ve published it a few days before the solstice, so you should have some planning time if you want to try it.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and also your own ways that you celebrate the summer solstice!

 

PS: The Ancient Order of Druids in America just released its third volume of Trilithon, the order’s official journal.  I serve as Chief editor for the journal, and it is packed full of amazing articles about the druid path, earth-centered living, and more. I would highly recommend you check it out!

 

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

 

Cycles of the Sun and the Moon in Our Lives October 8, 2015

Humans evolved in alignment with the movement of the sun and the moon. As the sun moved, so did human camps of hunters and gathers. As the sun moved, so still move many birds, fish, and mammals as they migrate to avoid the biting cold. As the moon moved, so do the cycles within our bodies, the tides and flows, and wildlife. The sun and moon cycles are literally woven into our blood, into our DNA, and however disconnected some of humanity currently is from the cycles of the sun and moon, they are still there, ever present. How many friends or co-workers still talk about the full moon and how intense people get? How many people in the USA celebrate thanksgiving and a harvest season? How many people feel like staying inside during the darkest time of the year? The cycles of the celestial heavens are there, shining each day, if we only heed them. So today, I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the cycle of the sun in our lives, and how we can use this cycle within and without. This is especially pertinent because, at least where I live, the grumblings of winter have already begun and reflection helps us through the cold and the dark times.

 

The Moon and the Sun’s phases repeat themselves throughout our lives (whether or not we want them to), and we can see their same patterns occurring again and again. The graphic that I’ve used as a teaching tool that accompanies this post helps explain one way we can interpret these phases of the sun (and also we can apply this to understanding the moon phases as well). These are my own interpretations, but they are drawn from many years of living by the seasons as a homesteader, herbalist, and wild food forager, as well as 10 years of study in two druid orders, where we celebrate and meditate upon the cycle of the seasons.  Even if you don’t celebrate these events as holidays, they still have much to teach all of us in terms of life cycles.

Wheel of the Sun

Wheel of the Sun

The yearly cycle of the sun encourages us to understand that there are times of scarcity and abundance in our natural world, that there are times of high energy and growth and times of death and quietude, and that everything has a season. Why does winter come? So the trees and land can rest before spring is reborn anew. This cycle encourages us to understand that we must have both of these times in our lands and in our lives. The summer solstice (Alban Hefin in the druid tradition) is the high point of energy of the year, with the longest day. The winter solstice is the low point of energy of the year, with the longest night. On either mid-point, we have the equinoxes–the explosive growth and time of new beginnings at the spring equinox, and the harvest and reaping rewards and winding down at the fall equinox. The Sun’s full phase takes 365.256 days, and often teaches us lessons that are more long-term in nature (as each “year older” we are is a passing full phase of the sun); while the Moon’s full phase is 28 days (with each phase 7.38 days), and mirrors the phases of the sun in a shorter period of time. As the moon goes from dark to full and back again, it energetically creates periods of growth and beginnings, building energy, peaking energy, falling energy, and quietude.

 

Each of these phases is consistent, unavoidable, and part of the human experience. I think we’ve forgotten this quite a bit in our modern world, where each day is regimented into work weeks and we are always supposed to be at our peak performance. Dear workplace and modern life, it is not always high summer in our lands–why should you expect high summer performance 365 days a year? There isn’t a time for rest, there isn’t a time for reflection–its just go, go, go. Modern life gives us no time for anything but full “high summer energy” from us, and yet, that’s not realistic of human limitations and needs. This unrealistic expectation and leads to the glorification of busyness and the burnout of so many of us.

 

I think its interesting that we talk about it as a sun cycle, because that’s how we see it from earth. But its really an earth cycle that we are talking about–the movement of the earth around the stationary sun. The cycles are affected by the sun, but they are really earth cycles–how the sun is impacting the earth. The sun is masculine, and it is protective in nature. The moon, on the other hand, revolves around the earth and is impacted by earth much moreso than the sun–and the moon is the passive and feminine principle. So even the movement of the celestial bodies themselves reflect the principles they embody.

 

One of the wheel’s main lessons is that everything comes in a season and a cycle—if we feel we are in a time of darkness (as we might find ourselves in the Winter Solstice), we know that this will pass and that the sun will eventually be bright and full again. The cycle of the Sun, therefore, provides us the promise of change and growth.  Let’s take a look at each of these periods of time:

 

Balancing and Planning: Its during the Spring Equinox (March 21st) that we can first look to the start to a new season and begin to cultivate plans in our lives. The spring is a time where, after the long rest and rejuvenation of winter, we are able to start anew and build new ideas.  When we are excitedly making plans for the future, the message of balance is a critical one, and one that physically manifests during this period. In the physical landscape, by this point, farmers and gardeners have ordered their seeds and have begun to start them; and while we don’t see much in the way of new growth in many places in the Northern Hemisphere, the melting snows and returning light show the promise of spring. I remember on my homestead in Michigan, as soon as the pond ice would melt around this time period, you would see life in the pond. The water was only a few degrees above freezing and the ground was still covered with snow, but there was all this moving about on the warm edges of the melted water!

 

Sowing: May 1st marks the point where the “spring” energy is really coming back into the land. Traditional celebrations around May 1st (May Day) involve many fertility symbols, like the maypole or the Beltane fires. The energy of this time isn’t only about physical fertility, but rather how we might sow seeds for many other kinds of things: creative projects, more positive relationships, finding ways of expressing ourselves, and more. This is the time when the flowers come back, when the nectar begins to flow, and when green is slowly returned to our lands.

 

Energizing and Growth: With the sun shining at its brightest and strongest of the year on June 21st, the Summer Solstice is a time of energizing and growth! The sun provides Vitamin D, a critical nutrient that supports strong bones and teeth—the very foundation of our bodies. Upwards of 60% of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D–we are all in need of more sun. Spending time observing nature at this time shows us that we are in the height of summer—the first summer berries are in, the plants are growing vigorously, the trees are thick and lush, and much herbal medicine is ready.

 

Celebrating: Its not surprising that July and August are traditionally the months where people take a vacation—these months, even in a traditional society—were less busy than the coming fall harvest season. We don’t take enough times in our lives to truly just celebrate the positive things in our lives and simply spend time with those we care about—and this period of the sun’s cycle (around August 1st) encourages us to do this. These are the lazy days of summer, before schools begin again, when there is time to camp, to frolic in the fields, and to enjoy the coming harvest.

 

Balancing and Harvest: With all the work of planting, sowing, and growth comes the expectation and excitement of the harvest—when all of our hard work pays off. The land, too, is literally bursting at the seams in late August and throughout September with many of the traditional foods that would sustain people through the long winter: nuts, fruits, apples, pumpkins, winter squash, potatoes, and more. The Fall equinox (Sept 21st) also marks the point where we move from the light half to the dark half of the year—and a time for us reflecting and regaining balance in our lives.

 

Composting: We are uncomfortable with compost in this culture. Things are thrown away, discarded, but not always composted. The lesson of this time in the sun’s cycle can be a difficult but necessary one. As things that are no longer needed or no longer serve us build up around us, it is critical to clear them away and transform them so that we can move forward in our lives. Composting, in a physical sense, is what happens when the trees drop their leaves each season—these leaves turn into soil over time and that soil is host to a whole web of life. In the life of a farmer or gardener, this is when you clear out the old annual plants, trim things back, mulch your perennials, and prepare for the cold season—this is necessary work if anything is to grow. Failure to clear out the old prevents the new from coming forth. And by Samhain around November 1st, the land (at least where I live) is cold and appearing lifeless.

 

Resting: Despite modern surrounding productivity and cultural values encouraging staying busy and being workaholics; the lesson we learn from the sun cycles is that in order to be abundant and produce a harvest, we must rest, and this rest must be equal to every other phase in our lives. It is at this point, during the darkest night of the year (December 21st), that we can look to nature for guidance. The trees are still, their roots growing deeper into the earth; the perennial plants are alive and yet resting in their toots; living off of the stored nutrients of the past year. The beehive is sealed up, living off of honey stores, waiting for spring. Even many animals rest and hibernate during this part of the year. Without this resting period, the land would quickly be worn out. Without rest, we too are quickly worn out. This period of the sun’s cycle also provides an additional lesson: this is the time of darkness on our lands, but it is a naturally occurring process. This does not suggest that the dark are evil or to be avoided—they are a natural parts of our lives, and we can learn from them—and look forward to the sun’s light again.

 

Rejuvenating: As part of our rest in the dark half of the year, we need to find ways of rejuvenating our bodies, our minds, and our spirits—and February 1st is a perfect time to do this: light candles, take hot bubble baths, drink warm teas, find creative time, and get a weekend away! Rest is different than rejuvenation—after a period of rest, we are ready to inspire ourselves, treat ourselves, and start to look ahead.

 

Even if our lives in practice don’t reflect the cycles of the sun, what they do reflect for us is the importance of these periods of time in our lives. Do we get real relaxation? Do we get to nurture our own creative energies and birth things in the world? Do we have times to celebrate, to harvest, to compost, and to simply be still? The sun is there, each day, teaching us its careful and patient lesson. The moon, too, is always in her phase bringing in her quiet light. These cycles give us deeper understanding of ourselves, and principles to live by, principles that can help us create harmony and balance in our lives every day of the year.

 

I like to take time regularly to reflect upon the sun and moon cycles in my life. They help me balance, they remind me to rest, they comfort me when the composting or dark times are happening. I hope they do the same for you.

 

For more writings on the yearly cycles, see my posts on the Druid Wheel of the Year, a guided meditation, and Sustainable Activities for the Fall Equinox, Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, and Summer Solstice.

 

Making a Reishi/Ganoderma Mushroom Double-Extract Tincture August 8, 2015

Stump with reishi growing!

Stump with reishi growing!

Most plants are fairly easy to prepare in terms of medicine–you can either tincture them, use them fresh, or create a tea or something similar. Reishi, the most incredible healing mushroom, requires a bit more preparation than a standard tincture to extract all of the medicinal benefits.

 

This post will describe the method for getting the most out of the reishi mushroom commonly found on Eastern Hemlocks in forests in the midwest and eastern US.  This extraction method would work with any reishi mushroom, including those you would purchase or wildcraft.  To understand what we need to extract the mushroom’s healing properties, we have to understand where it derives its healing.

 

This link has a wonderful overview to the Reishi’s medicinal properties and the research that has been done (this link is on Ganoderma Lucidium, but research done on Ganoderma Tsugae suggets the same compounds are present). In a nutshell, Reishi is a mushroom that can aid in a long and healthy life for a number of reasons: it has anti-cancer/anti-tumor properties that essentially prevent the creation of cancerous cells and tag the existing cancerous cells to allow the body to combat them; it has anti-aging properties, is anti-inflammatory, lowers blood pressure, protects the liver, protects DNA, and so much more. Reishi basically heals through three kinds of known compounds:

Amazing reishi!  This is what I made the double-extraction from.

Amazing reishi! This is what I made the double-extraction from.

  • Polysaccharies, which are extracted by water.
  • Triterpenoids, which are extracted by glycerine or alcohol.
  • Unique antioxidant properties to the peptide protein, also extracted by alcohol (not sure about glycerine?).

So, looking at this list, we understand the nature of the problem: Reishi needs both a water and an alcohol extraction, and we also want to preserve it long term.  How do we manage that?  Using a double-extraction:

 

1.  If you are starting with fresh, wildharvested reishi, begin by cut your reishi into small pieces and drying it. Because the water content of the end double-extraction matters, starting with dried rather than fresh reishi allows you to easily know how much water is in the final product.  If you use fresh reishi, you won’t know the water content in the alcohol.

 

Obviously, if you have purchased reishi, you can skip this step, as its already dried and ready for you.  Make sure you cut it up though, if its whole.

Dried reishi in a jar

Dried reishi in a jar

 

2.  Tincture your reishi in high proof spirits (I use 190 proof, 95% alcohol, when I can).  The proof of the alcohol does matter (see my comments below)–get the highest you can.  Tincture your reishi for at least a month.  I usually don’t worry about ratios for this–I just fill the jar with reishi and then top it off with alcohol.  The reishi will expand, taking on the little bit of water content in the alchohol, so keep this in mind.

 

3.  After a month has passed, press your tincture out (there’s a LOT of alcohol held up in those mushroom bits!).  And yes, I just found this AMAZING small fruit press at a flea market that I’m using for my new tincture press!  I also have instructions on how to make a Under $30 tincture press on the blog.

Pressing the Reishi Tincture

Pressing the Reishi Tincture

Mushrooms ready to decoct!

Mushrooms pressed and ready to decoct!

4.  Now, you need to decoct (that is, make a very strong tea over a period of days) the reishi mushrooms that you just tinctured. To do this, after I press them, I add them to my crock pot with fresh spring water or distilled water and keep them on low for three days, checking the water level often.

Decoction happening!

Decoction happening!

5. I let them mixture cool, pour off most of the liquid, and then press the decoction so that I get every last drop.  This is also really important because you’ll lose a lot of the good medicine if you don’t press.  You will likely have more liquid than you need for the tincture–you can freeze this, add it to tea, etc.  Its going to be super concentrated!

 

6.  Finally, you need to combine your water and alcohol into one jar and complete the double-extraction.  This requires some math, but its not too hard once you wrap your head around it.  This home distillation calculator will be invaluable to you during this last step.

Mixing tincture and decoction- and using an online calculator to check my math!

Mixing tincture and decoction- and using an online calculator to check my math!

This is where the proof of the alcohol critically matters–you have to add the right amount of the reishi decoction to the reishi tincture to get 40% alcohol or above (it will be preserved at that ratio indefinitely).

 

The proof of the alcohol in the USA is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume.  This means that an 80 proof drink is 40% alcohol; a 100 proof spirit is 50% alcohol; a 150 is 75% alcohol, and a 190 is 95% alcohol.  Its critically important to know what the alcohol content is when you are doing the double extraction, because your goal is to end up with a 40%-50% alcohol tincture after you add your reishi decoction in water.

 

I recommend using a 190 proof alcohol to decoct your reishi, because this makes the math VERY easy.  When you add a mixture of half tincture and half decoction, you end up with 40% alcohol, exactly what you want for a long-lasting tincture.

 

Now, not everyone has access to such a strong proof alcohol depending on the state where you live.  Most people can get 150 proof, at least, however.  If that’s the case, you just need to get to 40%, which means less water and more alcohol.  For example, an alcoholic tincture at the 150 proof (75%) means you can add 40% water to the alcohol and still end up above proof.

 

So once you’ve done that–congratulations!  You now have one of the most healing substances!  It tastes just like reishi mushroom!  I take mine every day :).

 

Reishi harvest!

Reishi harvest!

 

The Wisdom of the Elder: Recipes for Infused Elderflower Honey, Elderflower Cordial, and Elder-Lemon Tea June 24, 2015

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers (flowers from the Sambucus nigra plant) are in bloom right around the Summer Solstice (at least where I live), and this is a perfect time to create delightful healing recipes. One of these recipes uses raw honey (from my hives, of course) to gain the added benefits!  If you are looking for recipes for elderberry available later in the season, I posted a delicious recipe for elderberry elixir last year!

 

Medicinal Benefits of Elderflower

Elder – both the berry and the flower– is a first-rate medicinal plant that is unmatched in its ability to bolster the immune system and fight off illness.  I really enjoy having elderflower around in the winter months, especially when flu season comes around.  The flowers of elder come into bloom anywhere from late May till early June depending on the season and where you live–but for me, usually they are a premiere summer solstice plant.  Traditionally, elder has a very wide range of herbal uses–Grieve’s herbal details some of them. In more modern herbal practices, the flowers, specifically, are taken internally as an anti-inflammatory herb, especially for conditions in the respiratory system (like the flu, bronchitis, pleurisy and so on). It has a diaphoretic action that can be help to manage fevers–and this is how I use it, most often. If you get the flu, you want elderflower nearby! Baths of the elder flower (you can make them from dried or fresh flowers) for itchy skin also work well.

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

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

Harvesting and Preparing Elderflowers

Elder are super-easy to spot when they are in bloom–look for low to medium-sized shrubs with bunches of beautiful white flowers. They usually are margin plants, meaning they like to grow on the edges and the margins–like on the edge of a forest. You may also find them out in the middle of a field or in part shade.  I’ve never found any deep in the forest. Remember that, as tempting as it may be, don’t pick elder by the side of busy roadsides as these plants are likely contaminated with exhaust (see my general suggestions for wildcrafting and foraging and avoiding toxins here.)

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

Once you find your elderflower, I suggest harvesting them with scissors or a knife. You can harvest them without either of these, but it does make it easier. A basket with a tight weave, a bucket, or even a cloth bag works very well to place your harvested flowers inside. I suggest giving the flowers a very good shake before placing them in–the elder are home to a number of small bugs, bees, and other creatures that you don’t want to take home with you.  You want to harvest the flowers that are near full bloom or in full bloom.  You also want to pay attention to the smell–different elders have different smells, and you want one that smells nice and aromatic (some of them can get a little stinky).

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Once you have your elderflower safely at home, you can keep them in the fridge up to 24 hours without them going too limp, and since it does take time to harvest and process, I sometimes will harvest on one day and then process the following day.

 

When you are ready to process them, I suggest taking your elder outside, because the hardest part of processing elderflower is making sure none of the little bugs are still in the flowers!  What I like to do (for either of these recipes) is to cut the stems off the flowers (only the flowers and berries are edible).  I do this while I inspect the flowers for bugs, worms, or other critters, and gently shake or knock them off.  You’ll be surprised how many there are in your flowers.

 

Pay attention for elders that have a really big bud–there is likely some little bug living in there (so I cut those out and leave them in a shady spot).  Make sure you remove most, if not all, of the stem.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

You’ll be left with a pile of lovely elder flowers ready to make delicious and medicinal concoctions!

Ready to take inside!

Ready to take inside!

 

Elderflower Infused Honey

One of the easiest ways of preserving fresh elderflowers is in raw, local honey. You get both the benefit of the honey as well as the elder flower–making this an AMAZING remedy.  Infusing elderflower into honey couldn’t be easier.

Freshly harvseted honey for infusing!

Freshly harvested honey for infusing!

Loosely pack fresh elderflowers into a mason jar and pour your honey over the flowers.  Fresh honey works best for this–if your honey doesn’t pour well, you can stick it in the sun for 30 min and that will warm it up (or stick it in a bowl of hot water).  If your honey is crystallized, you can stick it in a double boiler for a time and it will liquify (but don’t get it too hot or you will kill the good enzymes present in raw honey).

Pouring honey

Pouring honey

Once you’ve poured in the honey, take a knife or chopstick and gently stir the honey and elderflower together.

Stirring and pouring

Stirring and pouring

Let it sit in a warm place for 1 week, then strain the elderflower out of the honey and enjoy.  Keep an eye on the honey–honey keeps because it has a low water content.  The elder shouldn’t bring it above that level, but if it does, you’ll want to keep it in the fridge to prevent spoiling.  I’ve never had a problem with any of my infused honeys, however, especially from herbs, but there is always that possibility.

Elder infusing next to some hawthorn flowers

Elder infusing next to a hawthorn flower glycerate

Now you can eat this honey just like any other honey–but it has the added benefit–and flavor–of elderflower!

 

Elderflower Cordial

Another amazing thing to do with elderflower is to make a cordial–this recipe is for a syrup that you can add to any fizzy thing, like soda water, seltzer water, or even champagne or vodka.  You can drizzle it over ice cream or enjoy it on pancakes.  It also goes nicely in a tea. And the best part is that every time you take it, you are boosting the immune system!

The cordial recipe depends on if you want it to keep for a long period of time or if you are going to drink it right away.  If you want to drink it quickly or freeze it, you can omit the citric acid and lemons in the recipe below.  If you are going to can it (like I do) or just bottle it up and keep it in the fridge make sure you include the citric acid. If you bottle it in sterilized bottles or jars, it will keep for several months in there.

 

Here’s my recipe (makes about 8 cups):

2 quarts of water (8 cups)
2 quarts sugar (3 lbs sugar; I use raw sugar for this–you could also use honey or maple syrup)
8 heaping cups elder flowers, stems removed (about 30-40 heads, depending on the size of the head)
2 tsp citric acid (necessary if you are canning, otherwise, you can omit)
3 lemons, sliced and zested, pith removed (lemons are also necessary if you are canning to increase acid content, but gives it a really nice flavor)

 

Start by preparing your elderflowers as above. You might even dip them in water to make sure all the critters are gone, but I prefer more humane methods.

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Put your sugar and water in a large stockpot and heat it up till the sugar is dissolved.  While this is heating, prepare your lemons by zesting them and then cutting off the pith, and slicing the insides in small slices.  Many recipes don’t remove the pith, but I know from winemaking that the pith can cause wine to go bitter, so I also remove them for this recipe.

Sugar dissolved into water (I'm using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Sugar dissolved into water (I’m using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Once the sugar water has cooled down so that you can stick your finger in it, stir in the elder flower, lemon zest, and lemon slices.

Added lemons and zest

Added lemons and zest

Mixed in elderflower!

Mixed in elderflower!

Put a lid on it and wait 24 hours.

Infusing elderflower....

Infusing elderflower….

Put a clean teatowel or fine cheesecloth in a strainer and strain the mixture.  The mixture is now complete and can be enjoyed.  You can pour it into sterile jars and it will keep in the fridge for 1-3 months (you’ll know when it goes bad–it usually will grow mold on it!)

Straining Elder Cordial

Straining Elder Cordial

At this stage, I will reheat the mixture to a slow boil, then ladle it into canning jars, and process it in a hot water bath for 10 minutes (for half-pint jars, 20 min for pints) to ensure that it will keep for several years.  Not every year is a good year for elderflower, and so I will make extra in good years. I like to make this on the summer solstice and open it up at Samhuinn and the Winter Solstice to begin enjoying (and to begin bolstering my immune system for the upcoming flu season!)

 

Honeyed Elderflower and Lemon Tea

You didn’t think I’d let all those infused flowers go to waste after straining the honey or the cordial did you? Heck no! “Produce no waste” is a permaculture design principle that I abide by. From the honey infusion, when I strain it, I will keep the strained flowers with their bits of honey in the fridge and use them for tea within a week or two (since Grieve talks about elder being a good blood purifier and tonic, I think its great to take this tea semi-regularly anyways). Or, I will freeze it into an ice cube tray to use later.

 

The flowers and lemon from the cordial can likewise be dried for a tea (I do this in my dehydrator on the “herb” setting at 95 degrees, cause elderflowers are very delicate and can turn brown quickly). When its dry, I put it in a mason jar, which is good for the next year or so. Either tea will have its own sweetness already present and is delicious on its own, or mixed with other herbs.  So save your flowers, brew them up, and enjoy!