The Druid's Garden

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

Wildcrafted Winter Solstice Decorations with Conifers, Holly, Ivy, Bittersweet, and More December 20, 2017

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Part of the fun of the holiday season is “decking the halls” and decorating for the season. By bringing the symbols of the season into our homes, for festivity and communion, we are able to deeply align with the living earth and her turning seasons. And the symbols of this particular season, at the winter solstice, span back millennia: deep red berries and dark green conifers, trails of ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens. Adding to this, the symbols of the season are also reflected in mythology, such as the battle between the Oak and Holly king and the Goddess Frigga’s wheel of the year.  These symbols have been with us for centuries in one form or another, and weaving in and out of whatever dominant tradition that is present.  And so, in this post, I will explore how we might use natural materials, gathered lovingly from the living earth, to create our own holiday decorations: holly, ivy, various dried grasses, conifers, and more.  This can compliment, supplement, or even replace purchased decorations and can be returned harmlessly to the living earth after the holiday season is over.

 

I’m going to start with some background and reasons why you might want to go a “handmade” and “grown” route, offer suggestions on things to forage and find, discuss the spirit and magical work of creating and crafting, and then talk about some easy ways you can make simple holiday decorations.

 

Why Handmade/Grown Decorations

As a druid concerned with my own ecological impact and who engages in serious land healing, putting up a tree or figuring out how to decorate always represents an ethical conundrum. Obviously, I don’t want a plastic tree, as plastic trees are just another commercialized commodity. In fact, holiday decorations are a serious industry; in 2011, Americans spent somewhere around $6,000,000,000 on decorations. This land–and landfills–are now filled with inflatable snowmen, icicle lights, and even these crazy laser shows you can project on your houses, and more. These decorations are easy to purchase, easy to use and certainly, easy to throw away.  Even holiday greenery, like fresh greens, are now a commodity to be purchased anywhere from your local grocery store to big box store. To me, I want to steer clear of commercialized holiday decorations because it feeds into the cycle of purchase-use-quickly throw away and because I can’t be sure of the manufacturing processes or ecological impact on the earth. Even a used plastic tree is problematic to me–I’m not into the facsimile, I want something real. I want it to smell real and be real.

 

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

And yet, a typical living tree also presents an ethical issue.  As someone working to live a nurturing and regenerative lifestyle, I don’t want to purchase a living tree that would be cut down so I can enjoy it in my house for a month. I think as I gain experience as a woodworker and I could put the whole tree to use, I might begin to feel differently. But at this point, putting up a tree in my house for a month to celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons simply aren’t worth a life of another being.  To address this, a lot of people opt for the “living tree” in a pot or with a root ball as an option, but they are often quite expensive and/or hard to source (around here, all you can only find cut trees; my town claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and takes great pride in high quality cut trees, so there isn’t much of a market for anything else). Long term, I might cultivate an evergreen in a pot and bring it in each year for the holiday season so that I kept using the same one again and again (otherwise, this home would be filled with conifers (not fruit trees) in a few short years!

 

And so, with this conundrum brewing and family quickly approaching for a festive feast on the 25th, this year, I decided to continue explore decking the halls the old fashioned way–with help from nature herself.

 

Gathering and Foraging Decoration Materials

Many different decorating materials from the land

Many different decorating materials from the land

Long before big box stores and plastic commodities, the only thing that was available was what nature herself provided–this is why we have evergreens and reds for this time of year: looking on the landscape, that’s what is available right now. Before commercialization, this was the only way to decorate–and I think its worth exploring how we might get back there.

 

Of course, the question of what to source and how to source it is a good one. If you are going to use real live materials for your decorations, you might start by seeing what is available in your surroundings (and I’ve offered a bit of a guide below) and even scope things out earlier in the year. I have found that its relatively easy to find materials even when I was renting: particularly, from friends, neighbors, family, or your own land.

 

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my "tree"

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my “tree”

Now, at my new land, I’m going to save “yearly pruning” of holly, ivy, and various evergreens for the Yule season–this way, any material that I want to use can be pruned and then immediately used for decorations. Often, people (think elderly relatives and neighbors) are happy for you to prune back some of their greenery–all of this makes excellent bases for creating whatever you want: holiday baskets, swags, mantle displays, and even, a “creative” tree-shaped creation. So let’s take a look at some useful materials you might use for “natural” decorations for the holiday:

Conifers

Most conifers make really nice holiday decorations–and certainly, they form the background of the “evergreen” that helps remind us of spring even in the darkest time of the year. Like anything else, they dry out and drop needles, and so finding ones that hold their needles longer is helpful if you want your decorations to last.

  • Fir trees: Many fir trees are prized for their uses for swags, wreaths, and living Yule trees.  They smell great and hold their needles for a long time.  They also aren’t too prickly to work with.
  • Blue Spruce: Blue spruce is a very prickly conifer but is quite beautiful.  If you want to work with it, I suggest you wear leather gloves. It has a really firm and strong branch and needle structure, and so, it makes a nice Yule tree, it is also good for baskets and swags.
  • White Spruce: I actually did most of my decorations this year out of white spruce, primarily because I had a lot of it to trim to make more light in my garden. It makes particularly nice wreaths as it is pliable, bendable, and won’t stab you like its blue counterpart. It also lays nicely over mantles, etc.
  • White Pine: White pine is a very feathery tree with long, soft needles that are very bendy.  It makes nice basket decorations and also nice wreaths (like white spruce).  My family used these as holiday trees for many years because we had planted them, and as kids, we always played games to see who could manage to hang the ornament on the tree on the first try (as the White Pines don’t hold ornaments well).
  • Red Pine/Jack Pine: Red pine and Jack pine are both more firm with smaller, more prickly needles.  They work great for swags, baskets, or a “constructed tree”.
  • Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock is very abundant where I live but makes extremely poor holiday decorations because the needles will drop within 2-3 days of the branches being cut. As much as I love the hemlock tree, this is one to keep outside. 

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my "tree"

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my “tree”

Evergreen Materials and Berries

Evergreen materials that are non-conifer in nature are also amazing to work with for holiday decorations.  Many of these are often planted or foragable in the wild.

  • Bittersweet vine: Bittersweet is considered an “invasive” vine in many parts of the US, and this time of year, it still holds onto its lovely red berries.  You can weave these into wreaths, mantle pieces, and more.  I had a lot of this when I lived in Michigan and I would make lovely wreaths and such each year with it.
  • Holly: Holly shrubs also produce holly berries, which gives us two of the most common colors for the holiday season.  They are evergreen and hold their shape and berries long after they dry out, making them useful for all sorts of decorations. Even when fully dry, it keeps its shape and color quite nicely (although once in a while the berries will pop off).
  • Ivy: I love working with Ivy as a holiday decoration.  I usually use it to wrap around other wreaths or as a mantle decoration.  Even when fully dry, it keeps a nice dark green color for several months.
  • Periwinkle: Periwinkle is a low, evergreen, ground cover that often moves into forests in a mat and prevents other plants from growing–so take as much as you want.  Its hard to pull out, but you can cut it close to the ground and make wreaths, etc.
  • Wintergreen: I like to use small amounts of wintergreen plants for small decorations.  They are small and low growing, but are evergreen and smell wonderful. Use only if abundant.
  • Partridge Berry: Like wintergreen, this is a small low-growing evergreen that often has red berries. Given its symbolism, I like to use this (or wintergreen, above) in the place of mistletoe, which does not grow around here.

 

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

Other Materials

You can look for what is around you for materials to finish out your holiday decorations:

  • Lichens: Certain parts of the country (north and south of me) are in areas that produce usnea and other lichens that have a silvery appearance; these are nice to weave into decorations (and use medicinally!)
  • Dried Grasses and Plants: I love using dried grasses and plants. Sometimes, I will brush some gold acrylic paint onto these to really make them pop.  My favorites include milkweed pods, dried goldenrod, dried lobelia, and more.  Take a walk in any field and you will find tons of nice things you can add.
  • Pine Cones: Can be added to many holiday decorations and, again, brushed with gold or silver for extra effect.
  • Popcorn: Stringing popcorn is a fun activity to do with friends and family and really compliments other natural decorations.

 

Additional Supplies

In addition to your foragable materials, the following supplies will help you make some great decorations:

  • Various pruning shears (small and large)
  • Green wire (for flowers)
  • Wire cutters and pliers
  • Thicker wire if you are going to be doing heavier pieces (like big wreaths, swags, or a tree “hack”)
  • Red and Gold ribbon (red, gold), preferably wired. This ribbon can be used and reused again and again.
  • Gold paint you can spray or brush on
  • Hot glue for certain projects
Some supplies

Some supplies

Bringing in the Spirit

I think part of the magic of finding your own materials is bringing in that energy and honoring the plants that you are gathering.  When I gather, I like to ask permission and honor any tree or plant that I take from.  I explain to the spirits of the plant and the land what I would like to do, and invite them into my home as I harvest the decorations and craft them.  This adds an additional magic-filled element to the preparation of these decorations.

 

I also think that crafting decorations for the Winter Solstice a few days before the solstice can help you get into the “spirit” of the season, bringing you in alignment with the everlasting qualities of the dark conifers–they stay green, and they give us the promise of spring.  Handling them, smelling them, infusing our homes and hearths with them, helps us accept the darkness and work to move beyond our own darkness.

Making Simple Decorations

Now that you’ve done your foraging and have a pile of potential decorations around you, you can start crafting it into various kinds of decorations.   These aren’t hard to make and with a bit of effort and perseverance, you can have some great decorations. Here are some options:

 

Baskets, Planters, and Vases

Baskets and vases full of greenery are about the easiest things to make and will certainly give you some easy success. Stuff some greenery in a vase, maybe add some dried grasses and berries, and then, add a bow. This year, I used old planters (that still were half full of dirt) and easily made a few baskets in under a half hour.  You can do the same with smaller vases, mason jars, and so on; really anything that has some weight to it that will hold greenery.

A simple outdoor basket -- greenery and a bow

A simple outdoor basket — greenery, dead grasses and goldenrod, and a bow

Wreaths and Swags

Wreaths are simply a circle with a hollow in the middle, and can be easily made by finding pliable conifers and wiring them together (fir, white spruce, and white pine make particularly good wreaths).  Simply place them in a circle, get green wire, and wire every four to six inches.  Then, you can wrap it with ribbon and do any final trimming necessary. Then find a nice place to hang it!

 

Swags are simply an easier kind of greenery wall display than a wreath.  You wire some branches together, add some berries and a bow, and add a hanging hook. These can replace pictures or even be added above a door, on a table, etc.

Preparing to wire the wreath

Preparing to wire the wreath

 

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce - beautiful!

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce – beautiful!

 

Mantles and Windowsills

A really easy way to use the greenery, berries, and grasses is for decorated windowsills and mantles. These allow you to have some festive cheer without necessarily having to “construct” anything. To do this, simply lay greenery in a pleasing way along your windowsills, add some ribbon or a bow, or candles. Even a few ornaments look nice in these displays.  For mine, I primarily used holly and ivy, as I had a lot of that material and it lays well.

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

The Home Constructed Tree

As I mentioned above, I made my own yule tree this year.  I had a number of branches to cut down to make more light in my winter garden (photos above), and I was determined to do something nice with them beyond simply compost them. And so, after about a half hour to an hour of wiring and pruning, I managed to get the three large branches wired together and in the house. I used strong steel wire and plyers.  Then, I carried it indoors and set it up in a tree stand. It actually worked, and from nearly every angle, looks like a weepy yet wonderful tree!

My "constructed" tree

My “constructed” tree

 

Conclusion

Once the holiday season is concluded (for me, I usually leave decorations up through the dark month of January and take them down just before Imbolc), I will gather these materials back up, save the bows for next season, and add everything to my compost bed.  Everything from these will be returned to the land to participate in the cycle of life. I hope that everyone has a blessed and wonderful winter solstice! I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging until after the New Year. Blessings of the holiday season and the darkest time of year.

 

Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth January 15, 2017

During a recent big snowstorm, I took an amazing ritual walk through the town where I live.  We were getting our first substantial snow of the year, and it was a full moon to boot.  And so, I spent a lot of time during that walk observing the trees-the snow was coming down so quietly and still–the tree branches were all accentuated by the gentle snow.  The conifers sheltered the ground below and kept the snow high on their branches. The deciduous trees, bare for the winter months, let the snow fall right through them.  This reminded me of the slowing down of the world, the quietude that comes in the depths of winter, and the changing nature of the work one can do with the natural world and trees during this time.

 

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Given this, I thought it would be useful to offer another post in my my Druid Tree Workings series. For those of you new to the blog or to this series, I am writing a series of extended posts on how to do deep work with trees. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass and winter tree blessings. A lot of druids and earth-centered people want to do deep work with trees but there aren’t good guidelines out there for how to do such work. So part of what I’m doing is sharing some of my own understandings of working with trees on multiple levels.

 

Today, I’m going to discuss the importance of understanding how spiritual work with trees is seasonally determined and how understanding the nature of the seasons and their effects on trees can help you work more closely with them.

 

The Breath of the Earth and the Yearly Tree Cycle

In studying the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle on the planet (and mapping it out month by month), a natural pattern occurs. Atmospheric CO2 is at its height somewhere near the Beltaine and at its lowest point somewhere near the Fall equinox. This is, literally, the inbreath and outbreath of the earth.  As the trees bud out and plants bloom, photosynthesis begins and they consume CO2 as part of their growth and reproduction cycles. As the trees lose their leaves and the plants die back for the winter, photosynthesis ceases, and atmospheric carbon increases.  Below is a chart from Scripps Institute of Oceanography that shows this curve quite effectively (this is called the Keeling Curve, named after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who was in charge of the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii starting in 1956).

Keeling Curve (last two years)

Keeling Curve (last two years)

What we can see from this chart is, among other things, the breath of the earth. Just as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, the trees breathe the opposite, breathing with us, in unison throughout the warm season, and yet opposite to us. This natural breath is no different than our own natural breath–it just moves at the pace of the trees.  That is, like trees, it moves on a yearly cycle (and no, I’m not going to comment on atmospheric carbon levels at the moment–there is enough commentary out there about that).

 

I believe that this natural breath is part of why humans connect so deeply with trees and plants–they offer us balance, physically, in the form of life-sustaining oxygen.  And we offer them, physically, life-sustaining carbon as well as nitrogen in the form of our urine. Understanding this cycle on a seasonal basis, this breath of the world, also can help us do deep spiritual work with the trees and plants and understand the role of the seasons.  It is to this that we now turn.

 

Working with Trees through the Seasons: Deciduous Trees and their General Patterns

Several kinds of plants exist in most areas: annual, biennial, and perennial. Annual plants (like many in your vegetable gardens) drop their seeds in a single cycle and then die back, roots and all, at the end of the season with the coming of winter.  Biennial plants (like mullein or burdock) have a two-year cycle, often producing a basal rosette in the first year, and then sending up some kind of flower/seed/reproductive spike in the second year.  At the end of the plant’s life cycle, the seeds are scattered, the roots die back (as all the energy has gone into the seeds) and the new seeds sprout the following spring. Perennials live season by season; most perennials go into dormancy during the winter months, storing up energy and nutrients in their roots during the summer and fall.  Then they re-emerge from dormancy in the spring. Trees, obviously, are perennials, living through many yearly cycles.  Understanding the trees’ yearly cycle helps us understand when we might connect deeply with them spiritually.

 

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

I have found that all trees slow down in the winter months, although the nature of the work you can do with them differs. Deciduous trees are especially quiet for the first few months of winter, after their leaves drop (in other words, the period between Samhain and Imbolc or even the Spring Equinox, depending on the season and your location). They are, essentially, at rest for this part of the year; this dormancy seems to extend into the spiritual realm in many (but not all) cases. Just like a sleeping friend, trying to talk with them or work with them spiritually is not the best idea, with some exceptions.  For one, they are hard to reach and very slow, and for two, I kind of think its not very nice to wake up a sleeping friend. A lot of deep tree magic doesn’t work well during this time, with the exception of blessings before the season when the sap begins to run.

 

Deciduous trees remain dormant until their sap starts running (for my bioregion, this is typically, Mid February to early March, when daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing). This is when the deciduous trees become very active, somewhere between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox. Of course, unless you are tapping maple, birch, or walnut trees, you might not realize their sap is running–but even energetically, you can often sense a definite shift in the tree’s energy during this time. Maple sap runs earlier than birch or walnut sap, typically.

 

Exceptions to the Deciduous Tree Pattern: Witch Hazel, Oak, and Beech

 

I will now note a few exceptions to this general deciduous pattern above: witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are particularly active in the late fall and early winter due to their blooming during that time. They have a nickname here in the US as “winterbloom” attesting to the fact that they bloom right as nearly every other tree and plant in the forest thinks its a good idea to quiet down for the coming winter. Hamamelis virginiana, which is the species that I am most familiar with, blooms before and through Samhain and may persist in blooming past a number of frosts and cold spells.  Now these blooms aren’t exactly the flashy blooms of the apple or black locust, but they are fitting for the cold season. Other species of Hamamelis bloom in January, in the depths of the winter (I have yet to see these)! With these small trees, the very best time to work with them seems to be when they are budding in the late fall or early winter months.

 

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

As one Senaca legend suggests, Oak (Quercus spp.) seems to be another exception to this general pattern of trees going physically and spiritually dormant in the winter months. Oak, because he holds many of his leaves throughout the winter months, is more “awake” and available to commune with than many of his deciduous brethren. Oak seems to use brute force to keep the leaves through the winter months and loses the leaves just as the oak buds began to swell. The oak, literally, would not let go of his leaves even when they grew very worn and torn, which if you look at an oak in the springtime, this certainly is the case. In my bioregion, the oaks are the last to turn their beautiful shades of purple, orange, and gold–they are the final fall foliage, long after the birches, maples, hornbeams, cherries, and so on have already dropped their leaves.  This also demonstrates their lasting awareness through the winter months.

 

The final tree in my bioregion that I have discovered also has more active quality in the winter is the beech (Fagus Grandiflora)–who also holds her leaves until the spring. Like Oak, beech leaves change colors–usually to a rich brown–with the oaks at the end of the fall season.  Like oak, the beech holds onto her leaves throughout the winter (all beaches do this, while only some, usually young, oaks hold their leaves). The beech leaves grow very papery thin and crinkly as the winter progresses, but do not drop till after the tree is ready to bud for the spring. I think that the paper-like quality of the beech is important to note here–as I wrote about earlier on this blog, beech is a tree of knowledge and is synonymous with learning. It is, perhaps, fitting that most of the “book learning” which which beech is associated so strongly takes place in the winter months, when the crops have all been brought in and the snows fall.

Conifers and Yearly Cycles

Most conifers (pines, spruces, hemlocks, cedars, etc) and other evergreens (like wintergreen or partridge berry) have a very different pattern. They certainly do “slow down” for the winter months, but spiritually speaking, I have found that the are still quite accessible during the year. For example, I take multiple trips a year to see the Old Growth Hemlock Grove at Laurel Hill State Park (near Somerset, PA in South Western PA) and regardless of the time of the year, the hemlocks there are happy to greet me and work with me all through the winter months. I have now made it a point to visit that grove at least twice a year: during the warm winter months near the summer solstice and during the cold winter months at the winter solstice.  While winter and summer certainly offer different energy, the activity in that grove remains much the same. In other places along the landscape, much younger conifers, too, seem active and engaged in the winter months.

 

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

I don’t necessarily think the kinds of spiritual work you can do with conifer trees in the winter is the same as the summer, however.  I find a lot of this work as healing and inner work, like the trees working with me on myself and cultivating relationships with me, rather than “outer” work like a lot of the land healing I described in earlier posts last year. And different trees–by species and individually–offer different gifts, which is something else to keep in mind.

 

I say “most” conifers in my opening paragraph to this section because the Tamarack or Larch tree (larix laricina) does not pattern on that of other conifers, but rather, patterns after deciduous trees.  In the fall, it loses all of its needles and buds and regrows them in the spring, just like maple or apple.  The Seneca legend I listed above offers a good explanation for this, that Tamarack grew weak and wasn’t able to hold his needles to the spring and succumbed to winter’s fury (but Oak, who he taunts, can in fact hold them).  Whatever the reason, Tamarack is not a very accessible tree in the winter months.

 

Some Other Exceptions

I know this post is about trees, but I want to speak for a minute about the mosses and mushrooms in terms of winter energy.  Moss grows surprisingly well at the tail end of the fall and beginning of the spring season, and throughout most warm winter days. A trip to any winter wonderland is sure to have you in awe of the electric green moss, who is finally getting a lot of light for growth!  The mushrooms, too, can grow during the winter days. There is a layer of air not nearly as cold closest to the ground–and these small ones thrive in that environment–and the moss and mushrooms take every opportunity to thrive with the large ones dormant.

 

Moss at the winter solstice!

Moss at the winter solstice!

Conclusion

The winter is a good time to study up on your trees, to learn about them intellectually (drawing upon that energy of the beech tree!), and offer blessings of abundance.  Just last night, I was reading one of my favorite books that teaches me much about trees in my biogreion, Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman (he has three books in this series, all worth reading).

 

Reading about trees from an ecological perspective, understanding what their seasonal patterns are and the species that are connected with them can help you have a deeper spiritual relationship with the trees.  It is in the synthesis of knowledge and experience that we can grow our relationship with the land in deep and powerful ways.

 

I want to close by saying that what I’ve written above about sacred work with trees through the seasons are simply my own observations and experiences. With the exception of the Seneca legend, which helped me put a few pieces together I had already sensed, I haven’t read this in a book anywhere or had someone tell me: these are just my observations, over a period of years, working closely in this ecosystem.  I think that anyone who has an interest, given time and keen observation skills through the seasons, as well as developing inner senses, may gain a similar understanding of the seasonal changes and energetic changes in trees and plants in their own bioregion.  I hope that others in the comments will share their own observations and help grow this general knowledge.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis) – Magic, Mythology, and Qualities January 2, 2014

            This is the second in my series of posts about magical trees native to the Americas.  In this series of posts, I explore the lore of sacred trees, describe their magical and mundane uses, edible qualities, medicinal qualities. Other posts in this series include Walnut, American Beech, Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar, Hawthorn, and Hickory.  This post focuses on the mighty Eastern hemlock tree. The term “hemlock” refers to both a tree (tsuga) with edible and medicinal qualities as well as an extremely poisonous plant (poison hemlock, conium maculatum found in watery areas)–so please don’t get them confused! I’ll be focusing on one type of hemlock tree today, the Eastern Hemlock (tsuga canadensis, also known as the Canada Hemlock or Hemlock Spruce), of which I have much deep experience.

 

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

I’ve always been close to the hemlock tree—in the heat of the summer, I find shade beneath her soft branches.  In the cold of the winter, she offers spaces where the snow isn’t deep, dry places to sit, and a warm trunk to lean against.  She towers over all the other trees in the forest, showing me a way forward and helping me get my bearings when I am lost.  When I attended the OBOD East Coast Gathering for the first time four years ago, there she was, greeting me as I entered the forest, as she greets me as I enter nearly every forest of my homeland of western PA. Even when I enter meditations, the hemlock is there to greet me in my inner grove. I even discovered her in Michigan lately, in state lands along the edge of Lake Huron–which was a treat and honor.

 

Hemlock is a tree who, due to her longevity,  holds our histories and stories–as the author of The Hemlock Tree, and Its Legends from 1959 suggests in this segment of poem:

“A monument of bygone days,
I’ve kept the place where now I grow;
And, over all my head did raise
Above a thousand years ago

“What mighty changes in that space!
What revolutions on the earth!
What strange events have taken place!
What wonders! Since I date my birth!

“Of these I have laid up a store,
And at your service they shall be;
When you would think on days of yore
Come sit beneath the Hemlock tree.

“In every branch I have a tongue,
I have a voice in every breeze;
And when I speak to old or young;
My aim is to instruct and please.”  (pp. 16-17)

Standing stone with hemlocks across the creek

Standing stone with hemlocks across the creek

            

About the Hemlock: Hemlock trees are majestic, long-lived conifer trees. They are found in cool, wet, and dark forests throughout lower Canada, parts of the Midwest, and throughout the East Coast. They are often found near bodies of water, for they like it cool and damp. Hemlocks will always be found in a cooler microclimate—this is how you can tell cool vs. hot areas of a forest (which can be useful for say, mushroom foraging). They are very shade tolerant and like humidity, but do not do well where it is dry or hot. Hemlocks can also handle snow and ice much better than other kinds of conifers—their flexible branches and feathery needles allow snow to sit, their branches to bend and bow, but not break. This creates shelter below.

 

Eastern Hemlock trees are the largest native evergreen conifer in the Eastern USA. The Eastern Native Tree Society has measured hemlocks over 170 feet tall with trunks up to 5 feet across.  These sacred trees often live to 400-500 years (assuming they aren’t logged, which unfortunately happens frequently in their growth range), with the oldest ones living up to 1000 years. While they start off as understory trees (trees that live in the shady understory of a forest) they eventually become the tallest tree in the forest, pushing out from the shady understory and dominating the landscape. On the mountain where my parents live in South-Western PA, you can literally look at the hemlock grove situated at the bottom of the mountain, and the hemlocks are nearly eye level with you while the other species of trees (birch, maple, beech, hickory, and cherry) grow far below.

 

Hemlock trees form an important part of the web of life, by providing forage and shelter for deer and other wildlife and oil-rich seeds (found in their cones) for birds. The tree produces male and female cones on the same branch. The hemlock tree, with its unity of the masculine and feminine on its branches, teaches us an important lesson of balance. Its needles further emphasize the druidic principle of three—the needles spend three years on the tree before dropping to the forest floor and adding to the rich hummus there.

Hemlock grove

Hemlock grove

 

If you have ever entered a grove of hemlocks, you will find this to be the darkest, shadiest part of the forest. But it has a different quality to it, a deeper quality. This is because hemlocks cast very dense shade; their canopies filter out different kinds of light, creating a “blue shade” (different from a “green shade” created by deciduous trees).  Mosquitoes do seem drawn to this kind of shade though, especially in the hot summer months!

 

Risks and Challenges: Hemlocks are currently under significant threat from Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an aphid-like sap sucking insect that has decimated hemlock populations in the Appalachian/East Coast region of the USA. Wooly Adelgid was brought through careless actions from Asia; where it does no serious damage to Hemlocks there. Here, however, our hemlocks are not adapted to resisting this insect. The hemlock is an important reminder of the delicate balance of our ecosystems, and our need to preserve and protect our native lands.

 

Despite their longevity, hemlocks have low tolerance for pollution, roadside salt application, root system disruption, or wind exposure. Another lesson the hemlock teaches us is that the right conditions must be present for long, healthy lives, and exposure to things that are supporting us, rather than harming us or disturbing our tender roots.

           

Hemlock branch with snow

Hemlock branch with snow

Native American Lore: I have studied  Native American lore for understanding the Hemlock tree mainly because the western herbal and esoteric traditions don’t speak of the trees I am studying. In fact, I couldn’t find any mention of hemlock in any of traditional magical herbal books that I own–yet we know this tree has lore and traditions very much important to understanding the tree’s sacred qualities.

 

The Hemlock tree features prominently in Native American legends, particularly those of the Seneca and Micmac peoples. In examining the native tales, several themes emerge with regards to hemlock trees. These themes can teach us about the sacred relationship that humans have had with the hemlock tree in the past, and what magical qualities this tree embodies:

  • Hemlocks as a means of warmth and heat: In the Seneca story “Okteondo and his Uncle” and “Hótho,” the hemlock is featured as a means of warmth. In “Okteondo and his Uncle” hemlock boughs are used in the story to keep warm at night—both for shelter and for sleeping upon. In “Hótho,” the cold (Hótho) attempts to conquer a man who is out hunting. The man builds a fire and makes a huge kettle of hemlock tea—while the cold pressed in around him all night, the fire and the tea kept him warm and allowed him to overcome the cold. In the Micmac story “The Adventures of the Great Hero Puloweach, or the Partridge” Pulowech encounters two evil magicians who attempt to roast him to death in a cavern.  Their fires are fed with hemlock bark. Puloweach ends up roasting them with his own blazing hemlock bark fire.
  • Hemlock as an aid to magical transformation: A Haida legend, “How Raven Brought Light to the World,” raven transforms himself into a single hemlock needle, which is drank by a young woman who then grows pregnant with Raven. Raven transforms himself into a tiny human infant, and is born into the world. An Aleut legend, “Princess Raven” likewise, has raven transforming himself into a hemlock needle, which is willingly swallowed by a princess and the princess grows the wings of a raven and the two become one. In the Seneca legend, “A Little Boy and his Dog, Beautiful Ears” a house is built of hemlock boughs. The mother who lives in the house seems to go crazy and burns her house down, but then uses the ash of the hemlock and throws it into the air to summon a snowstorm to cover her children and keep them warm.
  • Hemlock magically growing from a needle and offering aid: In the Micmac story “Of the Surprising and Singular Adventures of two Water Fairies who were also Weasels and how they each became a Bride of a Star” two sisters are taken away to the land of the stars and given husbands. They wish to return to the earth, and they are told to lay still and sleep. When they awaken, they are back on earth, at the top of a majestic hemlock tree. In several Seneca myths (including “A Raccoon Story,” “Mink and his Uncle,” and “Uncle and Nephew,” characters in the story use hemlock trees grown through magical means as an escape route. In “A Raccoon Story,” a young man is caught on a cliff and has no way down—he pulls a hemlock needle from his pocket and sings to the needle and a mighty hemlock grows to save him. In the other two tales, stranded individuals (another one on a cliff and one in a deep ravine) vomit, find a hemlock needle in the vomit, and sing the tree into existence to save them. (I’m not sure what the significance of the vomit is in these tales…any ideas?).
  • Hemlock as Holding the Winter at Bay: In “How Conifers Show the Promise of Spring”  the White Pine, who the Seneca and other tribes view as the chief of trees and first trees, calls his tribe to stand with him when winter comes. Hemlock (as well as red pine, cedar, cypress, juniper, spruce, balsam, and even the oak) all answer his call and overcome the difficult winter months. (BTW, this is one of my favorite Native American myths featuring trees, and well worth reading–especially if you are a conifer or oak tree fan!)

 

 

Hemlock in the forest with other trees

Hemlock in the forest with other trees

In addition to the mythology, Hemlock branches were used for ceremonial purposes, including ceremonial clothing and in the construction of sweat lodges (according to the Makah legend)

 

 

Wood Uses: Hemlock wood, which is soft and light colored, is often used for building crates, used for wood pulp, and as railroad ties. It was important in the settling of Pennsylvania, where it was used for building log cabins and for roofing and framing.

 

Arts and Crafts: The bark of the Eastern Hemlock has been used in leather tanning due to its high tannin content. Hemlock cones, small and plentiful, can also be used for natural arts and crafts. It produces a soft wood good for wand making—you can find many wands, ready to use, on the lower branches (the wood goes a grayish white and becomes very smooth on the tree). The inner bark of a Hemlock, when boiled, can produce a pink dye.

 

Hemlocks, like other conifers, produce sap (resin), which can be burnt by itself as a delightful incense or mixed into other blends. In my experience, hemlock resin is a bit harder to find–it is not as plentiful as some other conifer trees (say, like white pine who oozes from every crook and crannie). If you find a wounded hemlock, specifically wounded on the trunk, this is usually where the resin will be found. The resin is very light smelling when burnt—it has a clear piney-smell with lemony undertones, very refreshing.

 

Herbal / Medicinal Qualities. Matthew Wood covers Hemlock in his Earthwise Herbal: New World Plants book. He describes hemlock has warming and astringent qualities, and comparing this to native American lore, we can see that this is an incredibly warming tree (with much association with fire). In the 19th century, Wood describes how, it was also known to treat the kidneys, lower back, tendons, and ligaments.

The other important medicinal aspect of hemlock is that its dead wood is a host to reishi mushrooms (which I blogged about earlier this year). Reishi is one of the most important medicinal mushrooms we can find in these regions. Even in its death, the hemlock continues to produce its healing.

 

Hemlock reflected in the sacred pool

Hemlock reflected in the sacred pool

Food and Forage: Hemlock needles, especially young needles, make a fabulous tea. The inner bark can also be dried and ground up for a thickening agent or flour. The hemlock bark, when rubbed on the body, can help hunters mask their scent when hunting. Here are a few recopies that I’ve used and enjoyed:

 

  • Hemlock Needle Tea:  Hemlock needle tea can be brewed any time of the year, although the green needles appearing in springtime make the best tea. This tea, like all conifer teas, is  rich in Vitamin C. To make the tea, take 7 small branches of hemlock. Crush them up a bit with your hands or use a mortar and pestle. Steep the needles in 1 cup boiling water and wait 15 – 20 minutes. Enjoy hot or over ice. Sweeten the tea to taste with sugar. You can also combine it with other tree teas: white pine, black birch, or maple sap water (maple water and hemlock branches were used by the Iroquois as a beverage). The tea will not be dark—it will stay like a ghostly tea drink—but it is flavorful and warming. (You can also use hemlock in my sacred tree brew as a substitute for white pine).
  • Hemlock Tips: In the springtime, hemlock trees will produce light green tips (like most other conifers). You can nibble on these tips as a trailside snack (they have a slight pine/lemony flavor).  I have read that you can also use them to add interest and flavor in an beer brew, using the same kind of recipe one would use for spruce tip beer (I haven’t personally tried this since I don’t really drink, but its good to know!)

 

Closing thoughts about hemlock:  Hemlock continues to be a tree that amazes me—each time I am in the presence of the Hemlock, I am transformed, warmed, and aided.  Seek these trees out, and see what other lessons they can teach.  Find them in the summer or the winter–they will always be ready to speak their tales.

 

References: 

  • Trees of Michigan, Linda Kershaw, 2006, Lone Pine Publishing, Auburn WA.
  • Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants, Matthew Wood, 2009. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.
  • Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Daniel E. Moerman.  Timber Press, Portand, OR, 2010.
  • The Hemlock Tree and its Legends.  Robert Bradbury.  Philadelphia, PA: Black Horse Alley, 1959.
  • The Book of Forest and Thicket: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America, John Eastman. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole books.
  • First People – The Legends. http://www.firstpeople.us/  (individual legends linked above).

 

*Special thanks to my mother, Bonnie, for taking these fabulous photos of hemlocks for me!

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