The Druid's Garden

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

The AODA’s Seven Element System: Above, Below, Within, Earth, Air, Fire, Water March 1, 2020

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree demonstrating the seven-element framework

 

Perhaps the first thing to think about in any system of spiritual or magical practice is the way in which a practice offers a framework to understand reality. These frameworks vary widely based on the spiritual tradition: some use a complex system of deities to map concepts to reality.  Deities often have domains and represent certain aspects of reality (e.g the Horned God Cernunnos of Celtic Mythology can represent fertility, abundance, the land itself, and so forth). Other systems may have songs, stories, and dances to help explain the world.  Other systems may recognize different kinds of energies and map them (such as the Jewish Kabbalah or Yggdrasil, the world tree, in Norse tradition, In AODA, our primary framework is a seven-element framework. The seven-element system is a highly adaptable and non-dogmatic framework that you can use for a variety of purposes, whether or not you belong to AODA. As an elemental framework, it works with a classification of energies present on the land to provide a framework for raising and drawing energy in particular ways, for rituals and more. Once you have an understanding of a system of representation like the seven elements, you can work with it in any myriad of ways to develop your own unique practices, adapt it to your local ecosystem, and so forth.

 

The seven elements include three aspects of spirit: spirit above, spirit below, and spirit within, as well as earth, air, fire, and water. Thus, in this post, I’ll explain the historical roots of this framework and some of its features. This post is really the precursor to next week’s post when I show how this kind of framework can be used to create any number of rituals and practices, including land healing and blessing.  (As a reminder, since I became Grand Archdruid of AODA, I’m dedicating one post a month to AODA-specific practices!)

 

Understanding the Elements as a System of Representation and as Symbols

The first part of the seven-element framework is the four classical elements. The classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water or some similar equivalent were part of many ancient cultures including those of Ancient Greece, Persia, Babylonia, Tibet, and China. In ancient Persia around 600 BCE, the ancient philosopher Zarathustra (Zoroaster) seems to have originated–or at least, first written down–the four-element theory and described the four elements as “sacred” and “essential for the survival of all living beings and therefore should be venerated and kept free from any contamination.”[3] The failure to keep these elements pure could anger the gods. If only the modern world had such wisdom!

 

As in the classic period, today, the elements can be seen both as physical things (e.g. the soil as earth, the fire as fire, water in a stream) as well as metaphysical. Thus, we can see the four elements represented in nature and in revival druid symbolism, but also emotionally and physically in the human body. For example, earth in the druid tradition is tied to the energy of the bear, trees, and stones on the physical landscape. We can see representations of the earth everywhere we look–in the mountains, the stones, the caves. Its also tied to the personality qualities of determination and perseverance, the physical bodily qualities of being strong or having a high constitution, and the metaphysical qualities of grounding and rootedness. If we were to trace the element of earth back to through traditional western herbalism, we’d also see earth connected to the melancholic temperament, which indicates a deeply reflective, introspective, and quiet individual. Thus, the element of earth as a concept gives us a system to help classify and categorize the worlds within and without. This kind of thing is quite useful when you want to call upon all of the above with a single word or symbol, as we do in the Sphere of Protection ritual and other such rituals in AODA.  What I mean here is this: if I want to bring these qualities into my life, a simple thing I could do is trace the symbol of earth in the air each day (in AODA, it is a circle with a line pointing to the earth), carry a stone in my pocket, or lay down upon the earth.

 

What any elemental (or other) framework does, including AODA’s 7 element system, the Hebrew Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Chinese 5 element system, and so on, is offer a way to represent the world.  It offers a way to take the complexity of matter and spirit and put it into an accessible framework that can be worked, adapted, and understood. Elemental frameworks, such as the classic four elements work to create a more simple system to represent the complexities of reality. The elements are symbols. Symbols are simplified things (e.g. a word, an image) that stand-in for something else or represents it, usually a set of much more nuanced and complex concepts. Symbols help us interpret and understand the world, and offer us frameworks not only for meditation and ritual but also for daily life.

 

The reasons you might to want to master such a system are numerous. For me, it helps me design effective and on-the-spot rituals and practices, design effective meditations, understand the ways my life may be in balance or out of it, and allows me to have a system of understanding in which to work as a druid.

 

 

The Four Elements

And so we begin with the four elements in AODA’s system, drawn from the broader druid revival and western antiquity.  These are some of the classic meanings for each, but in AODA practice, we encourage individuals to adapt these meanings as they see fit.

 

Earth is the element tied to the north, to the dark moon, to the energy of winter and midnight.  We find the earth physically in mountains, stones, trees, all of what classical writers would call “the firmament.”  The energy of earth, manifesting metaphysically, offers grounding, stability, strength, and perseverance. Earth encourages us to be grounded and stable in our work.  In the druid revival tradition, earth is often associated with the great bear, both manifested in the heavens as Ursa Major, but also on earth as a physical bear, who represents many of earth’s qualities.

 

Air is the element tied to the east, to the waxing moon, to the energy of spring and dawn.  We find the air physically in the wind, the sky, the clouds, the rustle of the leaves as they blow in the breeze.  The energy of air, manifesting metaphysically, offers us clarity, knowledge, wisdom, focus, and objectivity. Air encourages us to temper our emotions with reason, evidence, and clear thinking.  In the druid revival tradition, air is associated with the hawk soaring in the air at dawn.

 

Fire is the element tied to the south, to the full moon, to the energy of summer and noon.  We find the fire physically as a fire itself (such as that at a campsite or in your fireplace) but also in the combustion materials to create heat and energy (in the modern world, oil or electricity). The energy of fire, manifesting metaphysically, has to do with our inspiration, transformation, creativity, passions, and will—how we direct our lives and what we want to bring into manifestation. In the classical texts, fire is often closest to the divine as it is a transformative agent. In the druid revival tradition, fire is associated with the stag, often depicted in a summer forest.

 

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Water is the element tied to the west, to the waning moon, the energy of fall and the dusk.  We find the water physically in rivers, lakes, oceans, springs, streams, storms, and even in our own bodies. The energy of water, manifesting metaphysically, offers us intuition, emotion, healing, wisdom, connection, particularly connection with nature and spirit, and flow. In the druid revival tradition, water is associated with the salmon of wisdom, originally coming from the Fenian cycle[4] of Irish mythology, where the salmon who lived in the well of wisdom ate nine hazelnuts and was later caught by Finn, who cooked the salmon and had the wisdom transferred to him.  We might then see the water as helping us have wisdom, which is the integration of the head/heart and subconscious/conscious mind.

 

What I’ve just shared are the meanings that are most common. But in AODA practice, we encourage druids to develop “wildcrafted” and ecoregional druidries. So a druid living in California might have a different interpretation of what these elements are on their landscape than one living in Pennsylvania.  In fact, my own elemental animal interpretations are different based on the dominant animals in my landscape and I tie each of my elements to sacred trees. Each druid can thus adapt these basic meanings and directions as they see fit for their own wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry.

The Three Aspects of Spirit and the Three Currents

Drawing upon the earlier writings of the Greek writer Empedocles who introduced the four elements to the Ancient Greek World, Aristotle added a 5th element, Aether (spirit) to the four classical elements. The original four elements were considered four states of matter with the fifth being a connection to the metaphysical (that which is beyond the physical).  In AODA, we recognize three aspects of spirit–above, below, and within.  This distinction is certainly present in the druid revival (for example, see Trilithon, volume 1 for a druid revival text on the telluric current).

 

Spirit Above: The Solar Current

The Solar current is the energy—physical and metaphysical—that comes from the sun, our ultimate source of life. The solar current is magically associated with things in the sky: the heavens and birds: hawks, eagles, and roosters. Additionally, I have found that certain plants also can draw and radiate solar energy quote effectively—Dandelion (dominant in the spring); St. John’s Wort (dominant in at midsummer), and goldenrod (dominant in the fall) are three such plants. For Land healing or other earth-based work, we can use these specific solar plants when we need to light up dark places (energetically) and focus the solar current’s healing light.

 

Solar energy, being directly tied to the sun, changes based on the position of the sun in the sky on a daily basis.  That is, solar energy is different at noon than it is at dusk, dawn, or midnight. It also changes based on where the sun is in the wheel of the year; the energy of the sun is different on June 21st, the summer solstice than it is on the Winter Solstice on Dec 21st.)

 

Connected to the sun are the other solar bodies in our solar system and more broadly in the celestial heavens. In the Druid Magic Handbook, John Michael Greer notes that other planets in the solar system directly reflect the energy of the sun, so astrological influences can help us understand the current manifestation of the solar current at various present moments.  This is all to say that solar energy is ever powerful, and ever-changing, in our lives.

 

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing stone – bringing the solar into the telluric

We can see the solar current manifested differently in the world’s religions—Christianity, for example, is a very solar focused tradition.  When you look at pictures of saints or Jesus, they are often accompanied by rays of light from heaven, god’s light shining down, even the halo of light around the head of a saint or Jesus. Buddhism, likewise, focuses on achieving “higher levels” of consciousness and being—these are all solar in nature. Any time that you hear things about ascension, the light of the sun, and so on, that’s the solar energy being connected to and being drawn upon. Part of the allure of these traditions, in some cases, is the idea of escapism—since the material earth is problematic and imperfect, we can ascend and go to more perfect realms. The problem with some of this thinking is that it separates the living earth from all things sacred or holy—I firmly believe that part of the reason that such pillaging of the planet is happening is because of the emphasis in dominant world religions on solar aspects as divine and earthy aspects as not.  The earth, then, is seen only as a resource worth taking from.

 

Spirit Below: The Telluric Current

While the light of the sun comes down to earth, the Telluric current rises from the heat and energy of the earth itself. Ecologically, we have the molten core of the earth which drives the earth’s tectonic plates and thus, shapes the landmass on the surface. Tectonic plates and landmasses, along with the energy of the sun and the composition of the atmosphere, determine our climate[1]. The great soil web of life, which contains millions of organisms in a single teaspoon of rich soil[2], also supports all life. Thus, we can see the importance of the biological aspects of the earth in the larger patterns of life on this planet.

 

The telluric current’s name comes from “Tellus,” a name for the ancient Roman goddess of the earth. She was also known as “terra mater” or Mother earth; later, this was a word in Latin “telluric” meaning “land, territory or earth.” These ancient connections, then, are present in the name itself, where the earth and her energy were often personified and worshipped as divine.

 

This telluric energy starts at the center of the earth and rises up, through the layers of the stone and molten flows, through the groundwater and underwater aquifers, through the minerals and layers of fossils, and into the crust of the earth. It takes its shape from what is on the surface: plants, trees, roads, rivers, valleys, rivers, and so on. As Greer notes in the Druid Magic Handbook, it is powerfully affected by underground sources of water (aquifers); springs and wells that come up from the land have very strong concentrations of telluric energy. This helps explain both why sacred wells, throughout the ages, have been such an important part of spiritual traditions in many parts of the world–and why we can use spring water for healing and energizing purposes. This also explains why fracking, which taints the underground waters themselves, is so horrifically bad.

 

As RJ Stewart notes in Earthlight, it is from the currents of the earth that the nutrients flow from the living earth into our bodies, regenerating them. It is from the telluric that you can find the light of transformation and regeneration. The telluric represents the dark places in the world, the energy found in caves and deep in the depths of our souls. The telluric energy sometimes is about confronting the shadows within ourselves and realizing that those are part of us too. It is about lived experience—the act of being—rather than rationalizing and talking about. In Lines Upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux sum this up nicely when they write, “For us, the sense of traveling through a dark and elemental landscape, pregnant with magical and spiritual forces, is no longer experienced. We have separated ourselves from the land and live within our own abstractions” (246). Take a minute to think about the word “dark” – in modern Western culture, it is immediately associated with evil (showing our strong solar bias).  But darkness can be a place of rest, of quietude, of inner learning and knowing.

 

There are fewer traditions that work primarily with the telluric currents—the Underworld tradition (see R. J. Stewart’s line of books as an example) is one such tradition. Many forms of shamanism, where the practitioner is going down into the depths of the earth or their own consciousness to seek allies and assistance is also telluric in nature. These traditions are frequently concerned with transforming the here and now, and seeing the earth as sacred, understanding the sacred soil upon which life depends.  It’s also unfortunate because, throughout history, many telluric-based religions that were indigenous and earth-based were essentially wiped out by solar ones.

Elemental Wheel - Animals in the Druid Tradition (Artwork by yours truly, Dana O'Driscoll)

Elemental Wheel – Traditional Elemental Animals in the Druid Tradition (Artwork by yours truly, Dana O’Driscoll)

Spirit Within: Awakening the Lunar Current

A third current—the lunar current–can be created by consciously bringing the solar current and the telluric current together in union. As Greer writes in the Druid Magic Handbook “When the lunar current awakens in an individual, it awakens the inner sense and unfolds into enlightenment. When it awakens in the land, it brings healing, fertility, and plenty” (p. 30).

 

We can see ancient humans’ deep knowledge of the three currents and their interaction reflected in the ancient ley lines upon the landscape—for example in Cuzco, Peru, which means “navel of the earth” had at its center, the Inca Temple of the Sun. It was here in the Inca temple that the Coricancha (the emperor) sat at the heart of the temple; radiating the light of the sun outward from this temple like a sunburst was a large web of straight lines reaching into the countryside (Lines upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux, 251). On the other side of the world, we see the same principles at play in China, where the Chinese emperor sat on his throne in the center of the Imperial Palace (the “Purple Forbidden City”), centered on the imperial road and with gates leading outward to the four directions (Pennick and Devereux, 251). In these, and in other ancient civilizations, the rulers, associated with the sun or considering themselves as “sun gods” or “sons of heaven” radiated via these “transmission lines” to bring the solar energy down and radiate it outward to bless the manifestation of the telluric. In both cases, the ruler was the personal awakening that third current and sending it out for the bounty and health of the land.

 

The lunar current also helps us resolve the binary created by the telluric and solar currents—it shows us that unification is possible and art of awakening the lunar current can be part of our healing arts in magical practice. To return to our opening discussion of “energy”; the Nwyfre flows from the awakening of this third current, through the alchemical synthesis and transformation of the other two into the third.  We can see this unification present also in the works of Jung–the unconscious (represented by the telluric) and the conscious (represented by the solar) come into unison to create a more complete and whole person when unified (a process Jung calls individuation).

 

Adapting the Seven Element Framework to Your Practice

If you are drawn to this framework or are a member of AODA, you might find it helpful to start mapping out your own understanding of these elements in your life and in your local landscape and building a seven-element mandala of ideas, experiences, and themes.  You can do this in many ways and, over time, you can layer many different meanings and understandings into your elemental mandalas.  This practice can take time to understand and requires some interaction and observation with the earth around you.  You can use the attached graphic to the left (click on the graphic for a full-size version) to help you map out the different relationships if you’d like.

 

Seven Element Framework Graphical Representation

Here are some of the many ways you can think about building your own:

  • What local animals to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • What local herbs to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • What local trees to you represent each of the seven elements?
  • See if you can identify local features that mark the elements and directions where you live: a mountain to the north, a river to the west, and so on (this practice may also have you switching directions–e.g. if you live on the east coast, the largest body of water is to the east, not
  • the west!)
  • What emotions tie to each of these elements?
  • Can you develop a movement for each of these elements?
  • If you practice bardic arts, you might consider developing a poem, painting, carving, photograph, or any other practice
  • Can you make a physical representation of this framework on an altar or in your landscape?

 

As an example of how this might work, in the photos earlier in this article, I shared one such bardic/artistic representation of my own. Earlier this year, I was asked to create a set of large elemental banners for the upcoming MAGUS 2020 gathering, which is primarily an OBOD gathering, so they were looking for elemental four-quarter banners.  I was asked to do them with an herbal/plant theme. Thus, I spent some time sketching and meditating on what local herbs would be appropriate (and put them into the seven elemental framework, even though I was only painting the first four for the gathering!)  I came up with the following list of herbs based on my own understanding, observation, and attunement with the local region and made several shifts and revisions during the development process.  Here’s my list:

  • Air/East/Spring Equinox: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).  Dandelion is excellent for east because she grows in the spring, she has a yellow flower, she is a dominant plant upon the landscape offering food and medicine, and when she goes into seed, she “takes to the air”.
  • Fire/South/Summer Solstice: Monarda / Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) Monarda here in this region blooms a firey red, bright pink, or light purple in the heat of the summer, usually throughout July.  This medicinal herb is also a very spicy plant–if you eat a leaf, you will have a spicy sensation.  It also helps fight illness and is a native plant here.  I could think of no better plant for fire/south because of both when monarda blooms and monarda’s firey physical nature.
  • Water/West/Fall Equinox: Cattail (Typha latifolia).  Cattail is another native plant here in our bioregion, and a very important one from an ecological perspective, as it helps cleanse and keep our waterways clear.  Like the other plants here, Cattail is a perennial plant, but it is most dominant in the fall as it grows its seed head (which is where it gets the name “cattail”.  Cattail is a water cleansing and water-loving plant often found on the edges of lakes and swamps.  It was perfect for the west!
  • Earth/North/Winter Solstice: Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).  Wintergreen is another native perennial plant here, and while it has its green, waxy, and minty-tasting leaves year-round, by the winter solstice it is producing bright red berries that are flavorful and delicious.  Wintergreen stays green through the winter months.
  • Spirit Above:  Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  Milkweed offers such abundance, including four separate harvests for food, during the year, that I think it’s an excellent plant for spirit above.  Part of this is that it has a “spirit” quality as it slowly opens its pods as the season progresses and releases the delightful seed fluffs to the wind.  On a beautiful fall day here, you will see thousands of them in the air, offering a very ethereal quality. It has an enduring nature–there is some form of milkweed always on our landscape, whether it be the beautiful golden pods in the deep winter months to the shoots in the spring.
  • Spirit Below. Ghost pipe (monotropa uniflora).  Another plant imbued with spirit, ghost pipe is a parasitic plant that feeds on dead plant matter (and thus, does not have chlorophyll, giving it a “ghostly” appearance).  Part of why I selected this plant for spirit below is that has tremendous medicinal virtues associated with grounding–this plant is often used for people who need to come back from a bad experience (mental, alcohol/drug-induced or otherwise) and it helps them bring their way back to a place of stability–in a way that no other plant does.  It also has an enduring nature; even through all seasons
  • Spirit within. Sage (Salvia officinalis).  The uses of sage for spiritual purposes can be found in many cultures worldwide (it truly may be a “global” herb as far as spiritual practices are concerned).  Sages are found throughout the world, and certainly, here in my own ecosystem, where they are perennial, easy to grow, and abundant.  Sage has a long history of spiritual use in the druid tradition, and certainly, it burns beautifully, connecting matter with spirit, and serving as a connecting herb.  It has the quality of bringing mind, body, and spirit into the same place.

This is only one set of interpretations of the seven-element system, but I hope this example shows you how you might adapt this system to your own local ecosystem and understanding.  Next week, we’ll continue with the adaptations and work with the seven-element system, as I’ll further illustrate these concepts and how they can work together for land blessing and other kinds of rituals!

 

[1] Ruddiman, William F., ed. Tectonic uplift and climate change. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

[2] ch, Jeff, and Wayne Lewis. Teaming with microbes. Workman Publishing Company, 2010.

[3] Habashi, Fathi. “Zoroaster and the theory of four elements.” Bulletin for the History of Chemistry 25, no. 2 (2000): 109-115.

[4] Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Fenian Cycle.” The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain (2017): 1-5.

 

Embracing “First Aid Responder” Plants July 17, 2016

As I grow ever more in tune and aware of nature’s gifts, I keep coming back to one of the tragedies of our age–our incredible misunderstanding of the natural world, the sacred living earth from which all things flow. One of the things I’ve been working hard to do in this blog, and in my own community here in PA, is to restore and reconnect humans and nature. My particular way of doing it has lately been through the teaching of healing plant medicine, edible wild foods, and the like.  This means breaking down some assumptions, but really, building new knowledge and empowerment for many people in the community.  Since moving to my small town I’ve been really busy as an ambassador offering presentations on permaculture and vermicomposting, summer plant walks (wild food/medicine), herbalism classes, and most recently I am teaching children at the local UU church how to make medicine from plantain! I am finding that here, there is a great need for this kind of plant education in the community, certainly, and great interest.

 

What I am learning is that people have very limited vocabularies, frameworks, and understandings when it comes to plants. One of the things that often comes up from people, and that they latch onto, is the idea of the “invasive” vs. “native” plant. When I share a plant, they want to know if its invasive or native, and I rarely want to use those terms. As I mentioned in my last post on this subject (which was rather controversial), the concept of invasiveness is, in itself, a real problem. And I think, more than anything, it is because all invasive plants are put into a little box. If these plants were human, attaching such a label would be considered racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, etc.  But apparently, we can do it as much as we like to plants–and when we pigeonhole plants into an “invasive” or “native” category, we make assumptions about them without knowing their true nature, understanding their spirits, or their medicine and magic.

 

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

I think this is a problem for a number of reasons.  For one, the term is derogatory, and makes a set of assumptions that simply don’t fit for all plants with the “invasive” category.  Second, a lot of plants don’t fit in the whole binary very well. Poison ivy, which is one of my very favorite plants (I will have to write on it one of these days) is a native plant, yet, it doesn’t get privileged status because humans don’t like what happens when they rub up against it. Water hemlock is another native plant which which you do not want to tango. Nearly all lawn grass isn’t native, but humans like it because it mows well and mats well and creates lawn. We have all kinds of stuff we’ve planted (hello wheat, oats, barley, lettuce, onion, radish, leek….the list goes on and on).  How do any of these fit within the categories?  They really don’t.

 

So if the categories don’t fit, why do we still use them?  Probably because they are simple, and they allow people to know something (e.g. plant = good or plant = bad) about the plants.  Part of what I believe we need to do, in order to build more fruitful relationships with nature, is to rethink these terms.  So today, I’d like to present one new category that we can consider as a thinking, teaching, and relationship-building tool: the first aid responder plant.

 

Introducing: The First Aid Responder Plants

Imagine that a person who is in a really bad accident, that the person was unable to move, damaged and broken.  Who would that person want to come to their aid?  A first responder, that’s who! An ambulance and medic, someone who could help stabilize the person, get them to the hospital, and set them on the path for long-term healing and recovery.

 

If we use this same analogy with plants, we can see that this is what happens to our lands every day. I wrote about different kinds of damage extensively in my recent land healing series. Our lands are harmed with our various activities: oil extraction, logging, new construction, conventional agriculture, and so on. These activities really harm certain kinds of plant species that are slow to propagate and slow to take hold. But other plant species, those that have evolved to adapt to these kinds of conditions, can take hold and help regenerate the land. They are plants that are adapted to particular circumstances: disturbance, and the nature of that disturbance is almost always human caused, directly or indirectly. And these are our first responder plants.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of our first aid responders end up on noxious weed lists for a simple reason–they are abundant, as disturbance is abundant. This has people assume immediately that these plants are somehow “out of control” but, given the nature of where these plants grow, they are only responding to human-caused disturbance. As I’ll show here, the situation is far less clear.  For one, people only pay attention to what is happening at this moment, not what has happened or what will happen in the future.  This short-term view means that we cannot account for most of the variables in why the responder plants are here–and that’s a problem for a few reasons.

 

Ox-Eye daisy is a very good example of a first-aid responder plant (and delicous edible and medicinal plant). This plant often shows up in disturbed soil: over-grazed pastures, old potato fields, edges of parking lots, and so on. People see these dense patches of daisy and think, “oh noes! There’s the invader!” without paying attention to why it is growing there or the history of the land.  I observed a very interesting pattern with regards to daisies in my own acre-sized field on my homestead: the first year, the field was all daisy, as the previous owners mowed the field all the time.  I chose not to mow the field but instead only mow walking paths; the second year, the daisy only grew on the paths where I had mowed.  By the fourth year, there were very few ox-eye daisies other than growing out of the paths–the rest of the field had gone to milkweed, st. john’s wort, wild strawberry, and other such plants.  The truth is, you aren’t going to get rid of Ox-Eye daisy in a field–but you don’t need to if you let it do its sacred work of healing.

Ox-eye daisy my first year - this field has practically nothing after six years!

Ox-eye daisy my first year – this field has practically nothing after six years!

 

Sweet clover is another one where I’ve seen a similar pattern–areas of disturbance, especially areas that have been recently dug and mowed. I noticed this a lot in parks–fields of plants with sweet clover only on the disturbed edges.  If there is no longer disruption, it disappears after about five years (fitting my first responder category). Bees make incredible honey from sweet clover, and it is also a fantastic medicinal plant, particularly indicated for nerve damage.

 

Dandelion is yet a third fantastic first responder plant; and I’ve written on the dandelion’s magic and purpose extensively a few years ago on this blog (along with wine recipes, lol). Dandelion breaks up compacted soil and brings nutrients from deep.  It is particularly effective in regenerating lawns.  Dandelions won’t grow once ecological succession happens and the lawn is no longer a lawn–again, they are a first responder plant. And, of course, dandelion is medicinal and edible.

 

Spotted Knapweed is yet another first responder, and one my herbal mentor Jim McDonald taught me extensively about.  Jim showed us his field that used to be full of it.  The more he pulled, the more it came (of course it did, it thrives in disturbance).  He gave up pulling it out and over time, it did its work and now there isn’t hardly any of it left after about 10 years! And, if you are noticing the pattern here, spotted knapweed is also medicinal.

 

Curly Dock/Yellow Dock and Burdock, which are both fantastic medicinal and edible plants, also work with compacted soil well, and will grow to heal disturbance and break up compacted soil if given a chance to do so. Once ecological succession takes place, curly dock and burdock are nowhere to be found.

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

What you have hopefully noticed form this list is not only is this plant a first aid responder for the land, these plants are also healing and medicinal for humans!  We should be thanking them for the services we provide for our lands: healing the soil quickly and effectively, breaking up compacted soil, reducing erosion, offering us medicine and food so freely.  These plants deserve our respect and to be honored. Where would the land be without these first aid responders?  Where would we be without them?

 

I hope this framework is helpful to you as a way to expand beyond the invasive/native binary.  Now, I am full to admit that this is one taxonomy of plants, and there is another group (kudzu, buckthorn) that may rightfully deserve some of the ire that people throw at them (as these vines literally tear down forests; the long-term ecological impacts still yet to be known). I cut buckthorn down by hand when I see it, for sure.  But I don’t think by any means that the first responder plants deserve to be in the same category, not from all of my observations and research. And maybe, next time you see one, thank a first responder plant for the good work that plant is doing on behalf of all.

PS: This link tells you a bit more about how some first responder plants indicate certain soil conditions.

 

Embracing the Weeds: Weedwalking, Weedtending, Weedcrafting November 29, 2015

A great place for finding some good weeds!

A great place for finding some good weeds!

Weeds. The term conjures up images of plants that are unwanted and unloved, the bane of township “noxious weed ordinances” and suburbanites, and the quiet recipient of so many unfounded assumptions. Yet these are the plants that are the best medicine, that give us regeneration and life in our soils. These are the plants that can grow in harsh conditions (dry conditions, drought, sidewalk cracks, even handle some chemical sprays) when so many others fail. These weeds are the plants that tend our wounds, that detoxify our bodies, that provide valuable forage for pollinators, that break up compacted soil, that heal our lands. Weeds also occupy a really important niche in our ecosystem–these are often nature’s healing plants, those who come in to begin the process of ecological succession so that nature can heal. We do everything to “avoid weeds” and yet, they are there with arms open, waiting for us to sit and learn their quiet teachings.  This post provides some information on the benefits of common weeds: their medicinal, edible, and land regenerating virtues and unpacks our understanding of the weed.

 

A house near my parents’ house has been vacant for some time and was recently on the market for sale.  The bank kept the front of the house somewhat mowed, but the backyard and side yards (about an acre and a half or so) were unmowed most of last year and this year. It was absolutely incredible to see what grew up out of that lawn in a year and a half–so much sacred plant medicine. The magic of ecological succession, rising up there out of the grass, to form a more complete ecosystem. My mom and I spent inordinate amounts of time in that beautiful, wild jungle gathering herbs for medicine: it had abundant chickweed, yellow dock, burdock, queen anne’s lace, hawkweed, ox-eye daisy, wild strawberry, red clover, goldenrod, and much more. A good 1/4 of the medicine I wildcrafted this year alone came from that yard! About a month and a half ago, the house was sold. Before the new neighbors moved in in, we looked at the mowed areas–it was almost all lifeless, the dead plants yellowing, the bare soil exposed. It was awful. Just around the time the new neighbors moved in, someone hit the edges of the property with Round Up. The beautiful goldenrod, still in bloom in the late season, browned quickly to a crisp, dead and done. I came to visit a few days after the spraying, and I sat on the edge of the property and cried for those lovely plants that had so quickly met their fate at the hands of the sprayer and the mower. I thought about the wild beehive living in a beech tree less than 1/4 mile away that had been coming here for food and forage (and bees are much on my mind these days, given my own hive loss). I thought about all the plant medicine now lost, mainly out of ignorance for the land, the adherence to the need for “lawn” without mindfulness for other possibilities. And I was determined to write something beautiful and moving about these “weeds.” So join me on this journey of healing medicine and land healing through the weeds.

 

Unpacking our understanding and relationship to weeds

 

The English Language is just full of problematic terms that drive our understanding of the world–the term “weed” is no exception.  The thing about words is that a single word can have layers of unconsidered assumptions and meanings within it–by labeling a plant a “weed”, we relegate it immediately to something unwanted, unloved, useless, problematic, and noxious. Calling  a plant a weed removes other possibilities–of its healing, of its benefit to the ecosystem and to other life– from our minds. To see the extent of this problematic relationship, let’s look at the OED’s entry for weed: “A herbaceous plant not valued for use or beauty, growing wild and rank, and regarded as cumbering the ground or hindering the growth of superior vegetation… Applied to a shrub or tree, especially to a large tree, on account of its abundance… An unprofitable, troublesome, or noxious growth.” Yowzas. That’s a pretty condescending description of weeds; no wonder the people who bought the house mowed them down and sprayed the edges! I’ll also note, for those who are regular readers of this blog, how quickly we see the language of exploitation working its way into this definition: note the word “profitable” and also “superior vegetation.” I’d like to meet the person who wrote that entry and take him or her on a weed walk!

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Embracing the Weeds

So the question is, what can we do about it? The good news is that there is a lot we can do and it takes a number of forms: weedhealing, weedwalking/talking, and weedtending. Embrace those weeds!  Learn their medicine and magic!  See them for the incredible plant healers that they are!

 

Weedhealing

Let’s start with weedhealing, or learning about healing our bodies and lands with the weeds. Following Kiva Rose’s lead, I have attempted to create a basic list of those weeds that are frequently found in the Midwest/Northeast bioregion and that are particularly helpful to humans and the ecosystem. This is just a short list–the plants are much more numerous and abundant than this! One other point–nearly all of these “weeds” are those that thrive on disturbed ground and heal that ground–disturbance can mean mowing, scraping off the topsoil, logging, and more. So let’s take a look at a few of these common “weeds” and the benefits they provide to all:

 

Asters (New England, Other Aromatics, symphyotrichum novae-angliae): Asters, belonging to the asteraceae (dasiy) family have a number of benefits to ourselves and the ecosystem.

  • Ecosystem: As late blooming nectary plants, they offer bees and wild pollinators some of the last food of the season.  And have I mentioned that asters make fantastic honey?
  • Medicine:  New England Aster is one of my key plant allies for managing my chronic asthma–it functions as a lung relaxant and lung tonic, opening up bronchial passageways and rebuilding the strength of the lungs.  Here’s another write up on New England Aster’s medicinal potential from Jim McDonald, the person who first taught me about this plant.

 

Burdock (Articum Lappa, Articum Minus): Burdock is an incredible wild food and medicine.

  • Ecosystem: In the ecosystem, Burdock accumulates nutrients from its deep tap root, offers long-term forage for pollinators, and working to prevent erosion.  Burdock, along with dandelion, is often the first to pop up and cover bare soils, beginning to address compaction and break up hard soils.
  • Medicine: This delightful plant has so many medicinal uses (too many for this short list), but in a nutshell, burdock is an alternative tonic, that is, it reliably helps the body detoxify by supporting liver function and supports the liver over time in a nutritive and regenerative way. It has a tonic action also on the metabolism, supports and nourishes the body, and has a substance known as inulin, a prebiotic that aids digestive processes. The theme here is that burdock supports a healthy digestive system in a variety of ways. Burdock is also really useful for skin conditions like eczema.  More on medicinal qualities of burdock from Jim McDonald can be found here.
  • Food: The Japanese treat Burdock root (which they call “gobo”) as a vegetable–take a look for it at Asian markets. Have I mentioned that its tasty and delicious? I treat it pretty much identical to a carrot or parsnip in dishes.  Young burdock shoots (before they get hard and flower) are also quite delicious–you cut them, peel off the outer bark, and eat fresh or sauteed in butter. Note that the root taste is determined, to some extent, in the soil they are growing in.

 

Chickweed (stella media): This gentle, creeping herb that is abundant in the fall and spring is one of my personal favorites.

  • Ecosystem: Chickweed blooms for a very long time in the spring and fall, providing nectar and forage for insects; seed-feeding birds eat chickweed seeds.
  • Medicine: Chickweed is one of my primary ingredients in my healing salve (along with couple of other plants on this list), which demonstrates its ability to help heal cuts, scrapes, bug bites, and other wounds.  Another way that Chickweed is used is that it is an alterative, metabolic tonic (it is thought to work on underactive thyroids, drying and causing the release of fluids).  I’ve used it in this way quite successfully!
  • Food: Like Burdock, Chickweed can be eaten as a food and you can gain medicinal effect. My favorite way to eat chickweed (leaves and stems) is just as a fresh salad green although you can also lightly boil it and serve similar to spinach.  Chickweed is high in vitamin C, iron, and phosophorous.

 

More than enough dandelion here for wine, jelly, dye, food, and the insects!

More than enough dandelion here for wine, jelly, dye, food, and the insects!

Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale): Oh dear dandelion, you are so maligned but so amazing for us and the land.

  • Ecosystem: Similar to Burdock, Dandelion’s long taproot (up to a foot or longer in younger plants) help break up compacted soil and bring up nutrients.  Dandelions are some of the first spring pollen for wild pollinators (this is a protein source used to reproduce; without dandelion pollen in spring, pollinators might be forced to sacrifice protein from their own bodies for their young).  Over 100 pollinating insects frequent dandelion flower heads along with deer, rabbits, pheasants, and grouse.  Seed heads are favored by many birds, including goldfinches, sparrows, and indigo buntings.  All this from the lowly dandelion, and I haven’t even gotten to medicine yet!
  • Medicine: Dandelion is one of the premier “spring tonic” plants, working specifically on the kidneys and bladder (diuretic action) and the liver.  It also offers a delightful bitter taste, which is extremely important for healthy and functioning digestion.
  • Food and Drink: Dandelion flowers make a great wine, the roasted roots can be used for a coffee substitute and to stimulate the digestive system; the fresh greens can be sauteed, used as a salad, or added to various dishes.  Dandelions, like chickweed, are dominant in the spring and sometimes have a second growth spurt in the fall.

 

Goldenrod (Solidago Spp): Goldenrods are native perennial flowers of the late summer and early fall.  They are abundant and native to North America.  Here in PA, they are the dominant fall flower

  • Ecosystem: Goldenrod is host to a very wide variety of insect life–Eastman suggests that few other plants host so many different insects in North America (one study suggested over 240 insects).  These range from katydids,parasitic wasps, honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, wasps, and a wide range of butterflies: giant swallowtails, monarchs, common sulfurs and the goldenrod stowaway moth.  This variety of insect life, of course, attracts birds and mammals higher up the food chain.
  • Medicine:  Many people believe that they are allergic to goldenrod, when another less showy plant is to blame–ragweed. In fact, Goldenrod is a wonderful antidote to the ragweed; in tincture form, it functions beautifully as an anti-histamine.  An infused oil of goldenrod will help with sore muscles, arthritis, and the like; tincture can also be used internally for this purpose.  I use goldenrod for muscle soreness and spasm–my infused oil of goldenrod applied frequently really helps soothe muscles.
  • Food and Drink: Dark, rich, goldenrod honey is one of my favorite of the season–due to Goldenrod’s abundance, the honey is also abundant.  I’ll also make mention here that goldenrod is a fantastic dye plant!

 

Plantain (Plantago Major; Plantago Lanceolata):  I like to call plantain my “gateway herb” because it is such an easy plant to identify and build a positive relationship with.

  • Ecosystem: Like the other plants on this list, Plantain hosts a variety of insects, butterflies, and moths.  Animals also forage on plantain including white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, and ruffed grouse.  Northern cardinals and grasshopper sparrows feed on plantain seeds.
  • Medicine:  Plantain is a premiere mucus membrane plant; it is very mild yet effective as a mild demulcent (it wets tissues) and mild astringent (it also helps tone tissues). It functions as a drawing agent for (splinters, drawing out infections, drawing out debris from a dirty wound, puncture wounds). For these uses, fresh plantain poultice is the best. Plantain (poultice, fresh) works very well on poisonous snake bits and spider bites. Plantain can be safely used with animals (so for cuts and scrapes from a cat fight). A plantain infusion can be used as an eye wash (conjunctivitis) if you add a little salt to it (1 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup plantain tea). Plantain is very effective for inflamed tonsils, bleeding gums (just keep it in the mouth and chew it).
  • Food: If you’ve ever done any gluten free cooking, you might be familiar with “psylium husk” — this is the seed pod husks from an Asian species of plantain. 

 

Yellow Dock (Rumex Crispus): Another fantastic medicinal plant and land regenerator.

  • Ecosystem: Eastman suggests that Yellow Dock is one of the top 5 widely distributed plants in the world, thriving on disturbed ground.  Many insect foragers are present on this plant including several species of butterfly and bumblebee. The seeds are a favorite of birds and ring-necked pheasants.
  • Medicinal: Yellow dock leaves are a great antidote to the sting of nettles or other bug bites or insect stings.  The root is a fantastic alterative working on the liver (specifically, it stimulates bile production); this is how I primarily use.  Yellow dock root decoction (strong tea) or poultice has also been used to treat various skin sores and ringworm (due to its astringent action).
  • Food: Young yellow dock leaves are only slightly bitter and lemony; you can eat them in salads.  They are full of protein, zinc, and vitamin A.

 

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus Carota).  This is a more tricky one than most, because the carrot family also includes poison hemlock and water hemlock, two extremely deadly plants.  But once you get to know and correctly identify queen anne’s lace, she’s a fine plant ally!

  • Ecosystem: This plant is a favorite of the black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar.  200-300 separate insects pollenate Queen Anne’s lace including beetles, bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, and flies.  Bumblebees also collect their pollen. Humans, too, are attracted to the delicate and heavenly scent of the Queen Anne lace flower.
  • Medicine:  Queen Anne’s Lace is used for a variety of ailments–it is an antiseptic, diuretic, and verimcide.  Its primary used for urinary issues (as a tea); it can help address urinary tract infections, kidney stones (with goldenrod), and issues of hypothyroid. Some debate in the herbal community exists about its role as a potential birth control method; a tincture of the seeds is said to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb, but I’ve read conflicting reports of this. 
  • Food: Queen Anne’s Lace and the domesticated garden carrot are actually the same species; one is just much more human selected and bred than the other.  Only the 1st year roots of Queen Anne’s lace can be used for food–and they, like carrots, are high in Vitamin A.  I’ve personally also used Queen Anne’s lace seeds as a very interesting spice–I grind it up in my mortar and pestle and sprinkle it over salads or meat dishes.

 

Other Plants: This post is getting fairly long, but plants that could easily be added to this list include sweet clover, milkweed, chicory, ox-eye daisy, evening primrose, common fleabane, spotted knapweed, dead nettle, heal all/self heal, lamb’s quarters, garlic mustard, common mullein, purslane, multiflora rose, speedwell, wild strawberry, canada thistle, and common wormwood.  I highly suggest John Eastman’s Book of Field and Roadside to learn more about ecological benefits of these plants; Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals Volume I and II will provide a great wealth of medicinal knowledge.  Sam Thayer’s two foraging books can fill in the gaps and provide information on wild edibles!

 

Weedwalking and Weedtalking

A recent visit to a new friend’s house reveals much about this notion of “weeds” and how some oak knowledge can help shift mindsets.  As we stand in her driveway on a sunny fall day, she notices me eyeing some greenery on the edges of the driveway and says, “Oh, Dana, those are just some weeds I need to cut back.” “Weeds, you say?” I respond, drawing closer to the lovely patch, many of whom I already recognize.  I quickly take note of my plant allies growing there: yellow dock, common fleabane, goldenrod and some plantain, along with a few others I don’t yet recognize.  I smile and say, “Come, let’s meet your weeds.”  She grins and comes over, and I point at each one, describing the plant and its health and ecological benefits.  She says to me, “Do you want to see the backyard?” and I say, “Sure” and we take a delightful weed walk in her tiny 1/8 acre plot and get to meet sweet violet, dandelion, periwinkle, more plantain, red clover, ground ivy, chickweed, black raspberry, eastern hemlock–her land is just bursting with delightful medicinal plants!

This story illustrates, I think, a fundamental principle: if we walk with the weeds, and teach others about their medicine, they go from being unloved and unwanted plants to important allies. In fact, my friend was particularly excited to hear about goldenrod, as she had been suffering seasonal allergies for a number of years–and there’s some assistance, right there on the edge of the driveway.  That one conversation changed her relationship to a number of different plants in her yard; a few weeks after it, she asked me for more information and has taken an interest in learning more. I’m always excited by this–a little bit of plant knowledge goes a long way to empowerment and shifting our relationship with nature.

Just let it grow!

Just let it grow!

Weedtending

I’m not really going to talk much about “invasives” here (another loaded term) except to say that I know a lot of the weeds above fall into that category.  And I simply don’t see plants that way; in balanced ecosystems that aren’t continually under duress, most “invasives” become well behaved members of the plant community.  And all of my dear wise weeds above are opportunistic plants who can handle and thrive in the human-created and driven conditions that are currently present. They wouldn’t be “invasive” without our direct impact on the landscape (you can see my thoughts on this here). This, to me, makes the matter of which plants are invasive a moot point–its human damage that creates opportunities for certain plant species over others, and until we stop doing such damage, trying to blame the plants is just silly.

Now, with that aside, let’s talk about weed tending! I believe that we can create spaces for these “weeds” for them to thrive–much like the abandoned lawn in the home near my parents’ house. These are spaces for these plants to grow unhindered, for harvesting and for the benefit of all life. Let’s work on making space for the weeds, for the benefit of all.  The nice thing about these kinds of plant allies is that they are very good at thriving in places that others neglect. All that we need to do is to set aside places just for them to grow and simply let them grow. Nature will do the rest.

 

Acknowledgement: I have been greatly influenced by Jim McDonald‘s teachings on weeds and conversations with Sara Greer about her delightful backyard plant allies. Thank you both for your incredible insights!

 

Dandelion Wine Part III: New Recipes and Insights May 18, 2015

I’ve posted on Dandelion wine before on this blog, and I wanted to follow up on my previous posts on dandelion wine – making the wine and racking/bottling. I’ve also written more generally about the dandelion as a beneficial plant–so why not 4th post on the glorious dandelion!

In this post, I wanted to spend some time talking about dandelion, review the last two years of dandelion winemaking adventures, share two new recipes, and talk about some flavor tests. For basics in how to make dandelion wine, please refer to my first two posts on the subject (linked above).

Bottled Dandelion Wine!

Bottled Dandelion Wine!

Some Thoughts on Dandelions

I want to speak briefly about the spiritual side to brewing dandelion wine. First of all, dandelion is a plant that so many hate and eradicate. Many poison the land to get rid of it–instead of learning about why its growing, what it does for our landscape, and how it may benefit us and wildlife (see photo below). By reclaiming this plant in various ways, we help heal the abused relationship that humanity has with dandelion and deepen our connection to the land. Its also fitting that dandelion is a very medicinal plant–healing the digestion and clearing the liver, primarily. And digestive  issues are plaguing so many, especially because of industrialized food. I also think that from a sustainable perspective, we take something that is unwanted and turn it into something that is very wanted–alcohol. What a way to reach out to people–through wine!  I am convinced that if I share enough bottles of the stuff, I can convince people to treat their lawns and dandelions just a little bit differently–and so I keep brewing the wine.  For these reasons, I love dandelion in all her forms, and I love the wine, food, and medicine that she creates.

Wild Turkey Feasting on Dandelion

Wild Turkey Feasting on Dandelion – Wildlife need the dandelions too!

Two Dandelion Wine Recipes

In 2013, we brewed our first batch of dandelion wine–a whopping 5 gallon batch of  using the #1 recipe listed from Jack Keller’s Winemaking site. It turned out beautifully–sweet, strong, reminding us of the sunrise. Very smooth. In 2014, we decided to try two new recipes of our own creation, based on Jack Keller’s.  Both turned out amazing–so here they are 🙂

 

D&P’s Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine Wine

This recipe makes a 5 gallon batch, which is well worth making. You can reduce this to 1 gallon if you want by dividing everything by 5. A 5 gallon batch gives you approximately 24 bottles of wine, enough to drink and share!

 

  • 15 quarts dandelion flowers (no stalks, just heads)
  • 5 lb sultanas (golden raisins)
  • 5 gallons water
  • 15 lbs sugar
  • 10 lemons
  • 5 oranges
  • 2.5 cups chopped fresh ginger
  • yeast (1 package, wine yeast)
  • yeast nutrient

 

Pick the flowers on a sunny day when they are open and full–you usually have about a week window of time to pick before they go to seed (in my part of the country, Zone 6b, this is usually early in May). Do not pick the stalks, but a bit of greenery around the head is fine. Using a VERY large vessel or several smaller ones (I use my pressure canner and huge stockpot, you could also use a brewing bucket), boil 4.5 gallons of water and pour the boiling water over the dandelion flowers. Cover with a towel and tie the towel to the pot using string or yarn (see my earlier post for photos). Let it sit for two days, stirring three times a day. You’ll see it start to ferment and start to smell like wine after a day.

 

After the two days, bring flowers and water to a low boil (you will likely need to split the batch into two pots to do this). Thinly peel or grate oranges and lemons (avoiding any white pith), and cut up the ginger into small chunks, and add to the mixture. Also add the sugar at this time. Boil for an hour, then let cool to lukewarm (70-75 degrees Fahrenheit) and pour back into your brewing bucket, cover, and let sit in a warm place for three days.

Getting ready to bottle!

Getting ready to bottle!

 

Then, strain your dandelion mixture and put into a secondary fermentation vessel, like a 5 gallon glass carboy.  Add all of the raisins (I do this with a funnel–and its tedious), top off the carboy with water till its 3″ from the top, then fit with the fermentation trap. You’ll see the yeast going crazy over the sultanas–it’s really fun to watch. After a month or so, the wine will clear (that is, everything, including the sultanas and yeast, drops to the bottom and the wine gets much less cloudy). Strain and rack, again topping up with any additional water to get 3″ from the fermentation vessel. Wait another month or two till fermentation ceases completely, then rack again, again topping up with water. Wait another two months or longer, then bottle. At this point, you are about six months in–bottle it and wait another six months before tasting. If you wait even longer, it will just continue to get better and smoother with age. Sometimes, we forget to bottle it and even if you leave it racked, it ages and tastes really good by the time we bottle it :P.

 

The addition of the ginger in this wine is awesome–its smooth, complex, sweet, and quite alcoholic!  Its seriously some of the best wine we’ve ever had!

 

Dandelion Bitters Wine

 

This wine has less of a complex flavor than the Dandelion-Ginger above, and it has just a tiny hint of bitterness from the dandelion–which is a fantastic thing for after dinner to get the gastric juices flowing (bitter flavors stimulate digestion). So we see this as a really medicinal and fantastic wine–herbalist approved :). Its doesn’t get as clear as the Dandelion-Ginger wine, but its still sweet, strong, and wonderful.

 

  • 15 quarts dandelion flowers (no stalks, just heads. No need to pick out flower petals)
  • 15 lbs sugar
  • yeast (1 package, wine yeast)
  • yeast nutrient

 

Follow all directions above, omitting the ginger, oranges, lemons, and sultanas. Ferment and enjoy!

Dandelion Bitters Wine ready to bottle!

Dandelion Bitters Wine ready to bottle!

Taste Tests

All three wines (including the original dandelion wine recipe we tried two years ago from Jack Keller’s site) taste great. We like the Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine wine the best because the ginger gives it a really nice flavor, not too strong, but just adding that little amazing extra zing to make it an A+. But any of the three are great–and the longer they sit in the bottle, the better they get. I still have about 8 bottles left from 2013, and they are seriously so amazing (and a very hot commodity when people find out you have it).

 

Here’s a photo of the difference in the color and clarity between Dandelion Bitters (left) and Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine (right). The Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine wine really clears nicely.

Taste tests - the clearer one on the right is Dandelion-Ginger Sunshine

Taste tests with Paul

As my bottles safely age in my pantry, I am once again reminded about the lessons that time and patience bring. I hope that more people take up brewing with dandelions (or cooking with them, or anything else)–its a great alternative to mowing them or spraying them with chemicals. If we can get enough people to do this, dandelions will be cultivated once again in our fields and lawns, rather than hated. And then their sunny, golden heads can serenade the spring!

 

The Wheel of the Year and Sustainable Action: The Spring Equinox March 19, 2015

I began this series of posts with examining sustainable actions for the winter solstice. Today’s post celebrates the current holiday–the spring equinox–and suggests activities for sustainable and spiritual actions that are appropriate for this delightful season. (I will note that these activities are appropriate for readers who reside in the Northern Hemisphere who are coming into the springtime–for those in the Southern Hemisphere, look forward to my Fall Equinox post later in the year!)

 

A few words about the spring equinox–the spring equinox is a time of balance, when day and night come in equal parts. The spring equinox is a great time to clear away the old habits and clutter that no longer serve us and that pull us back into unsustainable patterns and behaviors. The spring equinox is also a great time to start new activities, hobbies, actions, or even reorient our way of seeing. Given the energies of the Spring Equinox, I’ve compiled a list of things that you can do to help engage in more sustainable and earth-centered practices during this most sacred time!

 

On Personal Rituals

I like celebrating the eight-fold wheel of the year because it brings a sense of ritual and consistency into my life. I have crafted a series of “personal rituals” for each of these sacred days (like the inner spring cleansing, the first item below), and doing these with regularity each year gives me some balance and focus.  So you might also think about how your own personal ritual and spiritual work fits with the season at hand.

 

Beautiful spring violets!

Beautiful spring violets!

Spring Cleansing/Balancing (Inner). The spring equinox is a time when the darkness and light are in equal balance. And truly, this is a time of balance, a time of introspection when we can understand how to achieve inner balance in our lives. I think this is important because so many of us don’t take the time to do such balancing and cleansing work in this busy world, and an inner imbalance can lead us towards all sorts of outer imbalances and cause chaos and pain for us. How does one seek inner balance?

 

One suggestion is a practice I started few years ago on the spring solstice: I started with a list of all of the things that make me happy: writing, painting, being outside, being with family and friends, growing things, spiritual practices, sitting by the fire, spending time in the woods, teaching, mentoring my students, etc. And then I kept track of how much time I spend on everything for one week–its like a time diary. I kept track of it as precisely as I could (if anything took more than 5 minutes, I wrote it down). After one week, I evaluated how I did and how many minutes, of my 24 hours in each day, I spent doing things I really loved. I also meditated on the list, trying to work through my week, and worked to eliminate anything that wasn’t helping me. The following week, I tried to increase the time I spent on my favorite things by 5%; then I again evaluated my successes. Slowly, over time, I was able to clear extraneous things and time sinks (like Facebook!) and focus really on what made me happy. This led to inner balance and, honestly, a new way of seeing and living. To keep myself on the right track, I do this activity each year for at least a week as part of my spring equinox celebrations–to reinforce my goals and spiritual path.

 

Spring Cleaning (Outer Living Spaces). Now is also a great time for outer work–work that can help you live simply and more meaningfully. Part of the reason we have “spring cleanings” is that spring is really a great time for all kinds of cleansing work. The accumulation of excess stuff that we don’t need can energetically hold us back and keep us from moving forward. For example, I had a friend who had a serious accumulation of things–a lot of it was junk, but it had piled up in his living space to the point where he couldn’t walk or really do anything. He would spend many countless hours and days organizing his things, but the stuff always seemed to get the best of him because while he shuffled it around, he never actually got rid of anything, so the clutter and energy remained. Eventually, he was forced through external circumstances to do some serious spring cleaning–and energetically, his creativity started to flow again.I found this to be true with myself as well–after some life changes, I ended up unloading about 40% of my stuff–with each bag or box I donated, I felt lighter and happier. I’m in the process of unloading even more stuff to prepare for some more big life changes this summer. The more I donated and rehomed, the easier it was to let go of more. The clutter really does stagnate us energetically and harms our living spaces and inner work. Once we’ve done such an external spring cleansing, we can evaluate what is really needed for a happy and fulfilling life and only bring those things in that fulfill us, not bog us down.

 

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Foraging for Spring Greens. Depending on where you live and the temperatures in the year, in the next few weeks, you can likely begin foraging for the first spring greens. In my neck of the woods, these are cattail shoots and poke shoots (both to eat like bamboo shoots), dandelion greens, nettles, burdock root, and a bit later in the season, ramps. For the poke, you can have them as long as there is no pink or red coming up the stalks.

 

Spring Tonic Greens and Tonic Teas. Unsurprisingly, once you are able to find those spring greens, they make a great spring tonic blend. The idea behind a tonic tea is that the winter would leave one rather malnourished–so the early spring greens and roots often helped to nourish and revitalize the body. This is not a “cleanse” in the popular sense of the word but more of a revitalization for long health. There are lots of ways to make a tonic blend using the early spring greens–you can make up a spring greens stir fry (with dandelion greens, nettle, and burdock root) or you can just make yourself up a dandelion root-nettle tea. Regardless, the early spring greens can be consumed early and often and will leave you feeling revitalized for the coming months!

 

Evaluating Spending and Reducing Excess. Part of the challenge for those of us living in western industrial civilization is that everything encourages us to spend, buy, and consume, very often when we don’t need it.  think there is often confusion over what is a need and what is simply a strong want. This is a good time to year to analyze spending habits and work to reduce excess (a great book for this is called Your Money or Your Life and it will help you break down your necessities and what you really need–a fascinating and highly recommended read).  Evaluating spending and reducing excess in our lives is well-suited to be combined with any external or internal spring cleaning we are ready to enact.

 

Sacred space

Sacred space

Planning a sacred space. Early spring is still a great time for thinking about creating outdoor spaces–either on your own land or in out of the way nooks and crannies in public lands. I have found that the longer I hold an intention of creating such spaces in my mind, the better such spaces become when I enact them in the world.  Meditation and visualization to plan the right kind of sacred space is useful as well. I have several posts on sacred spaces: developing sacred spaces, stacking stones, bee and butterfly gardens, stone circles and spirals, shrines and more.

 

Reskilling. While any time of year is a good time to reskill, the spring is fantastic because it is a time of new beginnings, a very good time to clear away the old and bring in the new. Reskiling, or the practice of learning skills that allow for more sustainable skills, can help us begin to make the transition to lower-fossil fuel and lower-impact living. I have a post on reskilling where I cover the basics of this practice.

 

Seed starting. At this point in the spring, if you haven’t already started your seeds or are considering a veggie garden, this is a great time to start those seeds!  A lot of farmers and gardeners in my zone (Zone 6) plant their gardens on the 31st of May, so this is the time to start the plants that have an eight-week indoor growing time–and that includes most of the nightshades, such as the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Some info on seeds and seed starting is found here and here!

 

Learning Homebrewing. There are a fantastic array of spring beverages that one can craft–elderflower wine, spruce tip ale,  ground ivy gruit, and my favorite, dandelion wine. If you want to learn about some of these unique brews, you can check out Stephen Harold Buhner’s book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Ancient Art of Fermentation. You won’t be disappointed!  There are also many recipes to be found freely online, such as at the winemaking site.

 

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Early Spring Observations. I recommend that you take every opportunity to be outside, to live and breathe the spring air, to watch the ice melt, and generally experience the seasons.  The melting ice, the rise of the crocuses, the running of the sap, the unfurling of the leaves–there is just so much magic in the land this special time of year! Spending time walking outdoors, being still, and focusing your awareness on the landscape and the tiny details can reveal profound insights and draw you closer to the land. I think one of my very favorite moments of the year is when we have the big melt, and being outside as much as possible during those amazing days!

 

Reading and Study.  Like the Winter Solstice, for many of us, the spring equinox still has much snow on the ground and its an excellent time to read a few good books. I have a list of books recommended for homesteading here, and I also have listed some books for sustainability and druidry here.

 

May the blessings of this Alban Elier be upon you! /|\

 

Invasive Plants and Invasion Biology as Destructive Concepts: A Druid’s Perspective October 9, 2014

When people talk about plants, one of the common conversations that comes up is whether the plant is native or invasive. Invasive plants have taken on monstrous qualities of epic proportions, and people in organized groups nationwide argue for the eradication of invasive plants using harmful, chemically-based methods. The native plant community, whose conferences are sponsored by Bayer Chemical and Monsanto, advocate the use of noxious chemicals to deal with problem plants. I’d like to spend some time today discussing the “invasive plant” movement from a druidic perspective, where this movement came from, and provide an alternative perspective.  I’ll also note that while I think the term “invasive” is a problem, I haven’t yet come up with a better term, so I’ll use it in this blog entry.  I don’t think its a good term, however, and it creates more problems than it solves.

 

Invasives as a Cultural Construction: The Case of Autumn Olive

Let’s start with an example to see how these “invasive plants” are framed. When I was researching my recent post on Autumn Olive, I came across this video produced by the University of Maryland discussing the evils of Autumn Olive.  The piece opens with a pathos (emotion) driven argument that these “invaders” are scary, are “the nightmare that threatens your garden” and that one must be vigilant and protect one’s home and garden from such invasion.  This immediately puts humanity in an adversarial relationship with the said plant invader and encourages us to get angry and upset over the incursion of these plants upon the landscape.  When we move into the video itself, the narrator, who has a bunch of fancy titles, suggests that the autumn olives were “another good idea gone bad” and how they were once “promoted heavily” by state governments and the like, but now are “invaders.” So here, we have the obvious fact that we A) messed up the ecosystem to the point where we needed plants to help and B) brought these plants in willfully and systematically into the environment and C) didn’t consider the long-term impact of said plants before introduction.

 

Autumn Olive Berries

Autumn Olive Berries

The narrator continues by suggesting many things that, frankly, are not founded in reality. First, she argues that in every case Autumn Olives crowd out all native plants (an overgeneralization fallacy; tell that to the Boneset and New England Aster happily growing next to the Autumn Olive in my back yard). Perhaps the most ludicrous part is when she argues that Autumn Olive’s nitrogen fixing qualities are a terrible thing. As one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers in many ecosystems where it grows, Autumn Olive helps regenerate soils, particularly in wasteland areas where the soils have been degraded by intensive farming by adding nitrogen to the soil and allowing the soil to become more fertile for other kinds of plants.  In his book Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, David Theodoropoulos he demonstrates many cases of this nature: that if a native plant fixes nitrogen or creates compost matter its considered good, but when an invasive does the same thing, it is considered bad. The video narrator concludes by suggesting that the “easiest thing to do” to get rid of autumn olive is to cut it down and “treat the stump with a systemic herbicide.” Yes, that’s exactly what we should do to the poor plant we put here who is regenerating the ecosystem and providing us and wildlife with tasty free berries (note my sarcasm).

 

Autumn olive presents an excellent poster child for the invasive plants debate because it highlights many of the problems that an “invasion biology” mindset has concerning plants. Specifically, it illustrates the contradiction that is so inherent in nearly all invasive plant species: we brought it here, we introduced it, and we damaged the landscape so that it has a niche in which to grow. And then we become unhappy when it does grow and works to regenerate the problems we caused, so we treat it with chemicals that further damage the landscape, creating an even greater niche for the plant to grow.

 

The Origins of Invasion Biology

One of the striking things about the invasion biology movement is its connection with the Nazi’s xenophobic and genocidal thinking, as detailed by David Theodoropoulos in his book (and also discussed to a more limited extent on his website). The Nazis had a very similar “native plant” movement in Germany where they worked to eradicate the landscape of non-native plants; this, of course, parallels the atrocities committed in their attempt to eradicate humans from the landscape who didn’t fit their idolized image. Theodoropoulous argues that invasion biology is connected to the same kinds of destructive thinking prevalent in Naziism, that is, an easily identified enemy that one seeks to exterminate, an emphasis on genetic purity, the goal of preserving one’s lands, and a root cause of dissatisfaction with where things are currently.  I’d add to his arguments that it becomes easy to construct an enemy, get people angry with the enemy, and then work hard to eradicate it, all the while stripping them of the facilities for rational thought through fearmongering and intense emotional reactions.  From a rhetorical perspective, when we begin setting up multiple logical fallacies in order to generate hatred of plants (straw man arguments, post-hoc fallacies, either-or fallacies, overgeneralization fallacies) we get into a mode that allows us to react emotionally rather than reason logically about our interaction with our landscape.

 

Another problem with the invasives debate is that only certain kinds of plants or insects are targeted.  The European honeybee is an invasive species under many definitions–it outcompetes native pollinators such as the bumble bee. Despite clear scientific evidence for its invasive quality, we keep honeybees and they produce honey and pollinate crops.  And you never hear any invasive species people complaining about Apis Melifera. In the same way, I’ve seen Poison Ivy routinely listed on “invasive species” lists, despite the fact that poison ivy is a native plant filling and important role in the ecosystem.  Wolves suffer a similar fate–wolves are native, but we’ve done our best to eradicate them in the ecosystem because they prey upon farmer’s herds. What counts as an invasive, then, depends on whether it aligns with economic interests and how convenient or inconvenient it is for humanity.

 

The terminology problem continues within the scientific literature within the invasive plant community: practitioners cannot agree upon terminology or  what features actually constitute an invasive plant or animal. So not only do we have a straw man argument (a constructed enemy), we also have no clear definition of what we actually are rallying against, but by golly, we will rally against it.  The problem with fuzzy definitions is that they, like emotions, are easily manipulated to get one to behave in a certain manner–and as I’ll demonstrate in the next section, like everything else in our culture, this ultimately comes back to consumption.

 

Gotta love the dandelion!

Gotta love the dandelion!

Problems with Invasion Biology

All of the above things speak to the destructive origins of the invasive plants thinking, and this thinking leads to a series of problems.

 

Invasion biology as a profit scheme.  First and foremost, its important to understand that the invasive plant industry (and yes, it is an industry) is quite lucrative from the perspective of the chemical companies. Dow’s site, for example, promotes the use of chemical treatments of invasives in order to sell their products. Given their nature, invasive plants are nearly impossible to eradicate and continually and easily spread by human disturbance, the chemical industry has a cash cow of epic proportions–each year, one needs to buy and apply more chemicals to deal with one’s invasives in one’s yard. The more one distrubs the soil, the more readily the invasives will come–and so the cycle continues. The chemical companies have everything to gain by maintaining an adversarial relationship with the plants.  David Theodoropoulos provides evidence in his book that links executives from the chemical industry to the founders of the native plants movement (such as the Monsanto executive and creator of Roundup being a founding member of the California Exotic Pest Plant Council).  Profits are driving this movement, make no mistake about that.

 

Chemical controls are worse than the plants themselves.  What is worse? The damage that Autumn Olive or Phragmites cause or the chemicals and methods we use to eradicate them?  If I had a chance to let species grow or use horrible poisons to eradicate them, I will let them grow and find ways of co-habitating with those species. We do more harm than good in working to eradicate these invasives with chemicals.  We cannot poison the landscape in order to protect it.

 

Human interference and destruction of the land is the root cause.  The ironic thing about the invasive plant movement is that humanity is much more destructive on the ecosystem than any single invasive plant, or any group of invasive plants or other species combined. A few of these destructive tendencies are: the insistence in maintaining a perfect lawn with petrochemicals, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, the use of poisons that shatter the ecological balance of our waterways and reduce diversity, the injecting of hundereds of millions of tons of poisons into our watershed through fracking, the use of clear cutting, the prevalence of oil spills (and so on, and so on). Humans have much to atone for with regards to our relationship with nature. Human interference, to me, the root cause of the whole issue and is the bigger issue we should consider addressing.

 

Promotion of an adversarial relationship with nature.  I’ve written about this fairly extensively on this blog; the promotion an adversarial relationship with nature is going to continue to lead to our treating it harmfully, dumping chemicals on it, and generally not engaging in any kind of partnership with the land.  As long as we see nature as the enemy, we are, like the Nazis, willing to do anything in order to achieve our goals.  And that is an incredibly scary thing indeed.

 

Alternative Perspectives to Invasion Biology

Now that I’ve outlined some of the history and issues with the invasive plant movement, I’d like to offer some alternative perspectives, rooted in my own druidic perspective that “nature is good” and help to demonstrate my shift to more sustainable ways of thinking.

 

Nature is not a static thing to memorialized but rather dynamic and ever-changing. Wendell Berry argues in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture that sometime in the 20th century, our relationship with the natural world shifted from that of collaborators to that of museum preserverationists. At all costs, the US National Parks Service set about preserving nature exactly as it was at that moment, memorialized across time.  Or, if a habitat was deemed too full of invasives, habitats were “restored” through the mass dumping of chemicals and destruction of what was growing there.  And to this day, these practices still take place—the plants that are growing are removed, burned, chemically treated, and new plants are planted, those that are “supposed to be there.”

 

The problem with is that it is a completely unrealistic view of how nature actually works. Evolution is about adaptation and change; our fossil records show that throughout the many millennia of earth’s existence, the only one constant is change and the ability to adapt. Species that adapted to their changing surroundings survived, those who did not failed to survive. This is a natural process and one that has driven all life.  We are already seeing the effects of climate change with the migration of species to areas that are now warming (I think about the redbud tree that is now showing up here in Michigan).  Nature will adapt and evolve, its just what she does.

 

The invasive plant movement assumes that nature is, was, and always will be the same.  But even as far back as Charles Darwin, we see evidence of plant and animal matter being moved all over the globe by natural processes–bugs and animals and microbes riding on a log to a new island, birds carrying seeds 1000’s of miles in their beaks, and so on.  The difference is that humans have perpetuated the movement of species into new areas at a much faster pace and we have done this while systematically destroying ecosystems and wild areas.  Of course we are going to see cracks in the system–but, if we give her space and time, nature will adapt.

 

Adaptation

Adaptation

Nature is not something to be at a distance, rather, something we can interact with. The “nature as a static thing” view puts nature at a distance, rather than something that one interacts with. There is a local county park where I like to go, that has some amazing plants like diamond puffball mushrooms, spicebush, and a small patch of beech-oak old growth forest. There are 6’ wide paved pathways with another 4’ of mowed clearance on each side of the path. People run there, bring their dogs. But what I never see them doing is interacting—getting up close to look at a bug, or sit on an old stump. They stay neatly and perfectly on the path and even while they are in the middle of a forest, keep that forest at a distance. This distance leads us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and certainly allows us to have less empathy about decisions to slash and burn pieces of it that aren’t to our liking, or dump poisons all over it in the drive for trying to put things back the way they were before we messed with it.

 

Finally, this view eradicates any idea of nature as a “commons” that benefits all, where the careful management of natural resources is something that is the responsibility of all. The commons view, used extensively in feudal England, suggested that many of common lands were available for general use (foraging, harvesting trees using coppicing as a method, putting flocks to pasture), as long as that use was kindly and in balance.

 

With the rise of the “nature as a monument” movement, we’ve forgotten how to be in partnership with each other and with the land to promote long-term balance and harmony; this is perhaps no more evident than in the invasive species movement.

 

Most “invasives” are slowly regenerating our landscapes from damage that WE have inflicted. Invasives often work to regenerate damaged soils [see my dandelion post] and do so quickly and effectively. They do often outcompete other native plants that have been previously growing there (and in many cases, were recently removed due to human activity).  They often have benefit to us and to the ecosystem (see Timothy Lee Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine for a fascinating discussion). The idea that we can somehow preserve the landscape as it once was is, frankly, in my opinion short sighted and pointless.  The landscape changes, and it changes far more often due to human activities – humans can wipe out a forest far more effectively and quickly than buckthorn can.  Most of the role of the invasives are to regenerate the damage that we have continually inflicted.

One one of my recent herb walks was in this area with acres and acres of native plants that had be re-introduced by a local state park service (I don’t want to know what they did to eradicate whatever was growing there before).  As we walked up this hill, my herb instructor pointed out something quite interesting–the only place the “invasives” where showing up in the landscapes was where humans were causing disturbances.  In other words, sweet clover (which bees love) and star thistle (Spotted Knapweed) were showing up only on the edges of the paths where they were being mowed (these are the best plants from which bees make honey, for the record).  There were literally no plants of an “invasive” nature anywhere further inside where the soil wasn’t disturbed.  And this is true of many invasives, like dandelion.  They are regenerating the most difficult spaces, those that have no soil fertility, that have compacted soil.  They are paving the way for others to come.

 

Long-term Orientation.  As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the concept of long-term orientation also comes into play here. Because a great deal of the “invasives” grow in conditions where the soil is disturbed, if those conditions were to be removed, the invasives wouldn’t continue to grow.  I discussed the succession of dandelion in my earlier post, and the same is true of many of the invasives that people get uptight about: spotted knapweed, honeysuckle, autumn olive, and purple loosestrife.

Even for those invasives that are displacing native plants in the ecosystem–consider this.  Our planet is in a constant state of change and flux.  Species rise, species fall, and evolution is a constant driving force.  If we stop looking just at today and tomorrow and instead think about 100 or 1000 years from now, I think we can say that yes, the introduction of plants has changed, but nature will also find a way to balance the scales (provided that there are enough natural and wild areas where such evolution can take place).  The much greater threat to our long-term survival as a species and as a world is from human-led destruction, not from plants being introduced.

 

Nature is good.

          One of the common sayings within the druid tradition is that “nature is good.” Notice that its not “only nature that was here before we got here is good” or “some nature is good” or “native plants that are in nature are good.”  No, the saying is simply, “Nature is good.” This is the approach that I take. Whether or not we like it, decisions by humans and actions by humans have irrevocably altered our landscapes, not only from the introduction of non-native plant species but in the wholesale destruction and desecration of the land through the use of chemical means. The idea that we want to “manage” natural evolutionary and ecological processes is just another manifestation of the hubris that we are somehow above nature, and that nature can’t manage itself. If we buy this argument, then I think the best that any of us can do is to truly step back from the immediacy of the “native plant problem” and fight against the wholesale exploitation and nature, both in our immediate lives but also in our communities and countries.

 

The last point I’ll make is this: we have limited energy and time, and how we choose to spend that time can make considerable positive change in the world.  If I choose to focus my energy on eradicating invasive species in my yard and helping others do the same, I’m choosing not to focus my energy on something else that could have a more benefical impact. If we look at the magnitude of the destruction we are facing, it is not from invasive species in our landscape but from humanity’s relentless pursuit of consumer goods and greed.  If what I’ve written here makes any sense at all, I would like to suggest the following: focus on educating others, preventing destruction to begin with, and to working with the plants to regenerate and restore our landscapes.  Focus on educating ourselves and others about how ecosystems work and how we can better live in harmony in sustainable ways.  To me, this seems like a much more productive use of one’s time, and has a possibility for much greater good.  We can cultivate a positive relationship with nature.

 

Ode to the Dandelion May 26, 2014

I remember a sunny day not too long ago in early May when I was visiting my parents in western Pennsylvania. Everywhere we drove, dandelions were growing, their beautiful, bright yellow heads serenading the sun. After one of the coldest winters in modern history, seeing fields and lawns full of dandelions reflecting back the light of the sun was a blissful experience. “Here we are!” the dandelions cried out. “We are bringing sunlight and spring back into the world! Hear our song!” And I could tell they were doing just that, their sunburst flower heads reflecting the warmth and heat, welcoming spring to the lands once again. As we were driving, I remarked to my parents how nice it was that people were letting them grow instead of mowing them or putting chemicals on them. The photograph is below–this was one of the fields that I saw.  However, I had spoken too soon–not a day later, fields and lawns I had photographed full of dandelions were mowed, one after another.  It seemed that everyone took that day to mow down their dandelions, spray them, and then the fields left their magical dandelion state and went back to mundane green.

Fields of Dandelions...mowed hours later!

Fields of Dandelions…mowed hours later!

The dandelion, perhaps more than any other plant, instills hatred and virility across the US landscape. The dandelion seems to be enemy #1: Americans and other industrialized nations spend millions of dollars and dump millions of petrochemical weed killers on getting rid of dandelions.  In my few short days visiting my parents, I witnessed people digging them out, mowing them down, spraying them, and expressing frustration and anger at the sight of them. In some townships and developments, they are banned from the landscape. A friend tells me how her subdivision has banned the dandelion and anyone who has them growing in their yard can be fined up to $100 a week. The irony of all of this, of course, is that the reason this plant is in the US at all is because our ancestors brought it here due to its highly beneficial nature.

 

Why is there such hatred for the dandelion today, when in previous generations, it was a revered plant? I think there are a number of underlying factors.  First, the perfect (tame) green lawn is an incredibly powerful myth that people hold onto, something they strive to have, for reasons largely lost on me. The dandelion challenges that myth and requires work to remove; it challenges the idea that we can tame nature.  Second, we have a profound lack of knowledge about about the role of the dandelion and how beneficial it can be to the land, the insects, and ourselves.  Third, the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” masks its beneficial nature–weeds are pests, unwanted plants that plague humanity….if only they realized that settlers brought the dandelions here in the first place due to their beneficial nature!

 

In this post, I’m going to present an alternative view to the dandelion, and discuss its important role in our ecosystem and in our own lives.  If we want to shift to more sustainable practices and a more spiritual way of interacting with the land, we need to start seeing dandelions as allies, not enemies.  And allies they are, providing us with land healing, nutrition, medicine, beauty, whimsy, and even wine!

 

What is a Dandelion?

A dandelion (taraxacum officinale) is a hardy perennial wildflower that grows across temperate regions in the Americas, Asia and Europe.  It often appears as one of the first flowers in spring, although can be found blooming throughout the summer months.  The dandelion is naturalized to the North American region, being brought here by European settlers, who found dandelions to be so useful that they  planted dandelions wherever they went.

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

 

Why does the Dandelion grow in your lawn?  What is it doing there? Why is it important?

Before I get into the specific benefits of the dandelion, the issue of the lawn must first be addressed. The lawn itself is an attempt to put nature in an unnatural state that requires fossil fuels and many human hours of labor to maintain.  The lawn is the largest “crop” in cultivation in the USA, yet it produces no food. The dandelion’s role in the ecosystem is a restorative plant: it comes in and attempts to restore the lawn to a more natural state, to heal the damage that has been done.  It does this in at least three ways: through rejuvenating the nutrients in the soil, through reducing soil compaction, and through preventing soil erosion.

 

Dandelions, according to Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture, are helpful plants that rejuvenate damaged and compacted soil.  When we strip the soil bare (say, at a construction site or in a new subdivision where the current practice is to remove all topsoil and sell it), dandelions and other rejuvenating plants (burdock, yellow dock, yarrow, clover lamb’s quarters, ground ivy, etc.) start growing to begin to regenerate the soil. These plants are the first of many that will eventually grow, but these plants job is to bring nutrients from deep below the soil, to pull in nutrients from the air into the soil, and generally build soil health.  If this bare soil was left on its own, eventually dandelions would give way to larger shrubs and bushes, eventually trees and forest would move in (and dandelion would be long gone).

 

In addition to regenerating the land in terms of nutrients, one of the things that dandelion is particularly good for is breaking up compacted soil.  Most of the “lawn” spaces are repeatedly driven over with heavy machinery, causing substantial soil compaction. To see how compacted your soil is, go and try to stick your fingers down in your soil.  If they don’t slide in easily, the soil is likely compacted (compare this to a freshly turned garden soil).  Because of soil compaction, its very hard for many plants to establish root systems. Therefore, one of the most important roles dandelion plays in our ecosystem is to break up compacted soil with its deep taproot.

 

That same deep taproot and carpet of dandelions can help quickly prevent soil erosion and the loss of nutrients from the soil.  Soil erosion is a serious issue–in our nation’s history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was largely caused by poor soil erosion control (wind erosion).  This led to substantial crop and farm failure and contributed to the worsening of the Great Depression.

 

Understanding a bit about the soil quality, soil compaction, and soil erosion, we can now understand why dandelions show up in so many lawns!  They are attempting to heal the soil so that other plants can grow.

Other Benefits of Dandelions for the Land

In addition to building healthy soil, the dandelion has numerous benefits for other creatures in the landscape.  Bees and insects of all kinds depend on it for survival, as do various other animals.

As a beekeeper, I welcome the dandelions at the start of spring.  After a long, cold winter, all of the bees are hungry; dandelion provides them with the earliest source of nectar and pollen. Pollen is a critical part of the bees’ diet; pollen provides protein that the bees use as a food source and to raise their own young.  Without the pollen in the early spring from dandelions and other flowers, bees might sacrifice protein in their own bodies to raise their young.  Considering the plight of the bees, especially the honeybee, anything we can do to aid in their survival (such as letting dandelions grow) is critical.

Furthermore, if one mows a field of dandelions in full bloom, one risks killing thousands and thousands of bees–domesticated honeybees as well as wild pollinators like bumble bees or mason bees.  We need those same bees to come along and pollinate our tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and many other plants later in the season, and they form a vital part of our ecosystem!  For the sake of the bees, don’t mow down that field or lawn of dandelions!

 

Harvesting Dandelion

In the sections that follow, I’ll describe some recopies using the different parts of the dandelion plant–this info on harvesting will help you understand how to ethically and safely harvest. When harvesting any wild food/medicine, you want to be very careful about where you harvest.  Harvesting from your neighbor’s lawn, when your neighbor sprays every few weeks, is a very bad idea.  Likewise, harvesting too close to an old house (that may have had lead paint) or by the roadside (that once had cars with leaded gasoline) is likewise not a good idea.  I usually harvest my dandelions from inside my organic garden–encourage their growth on the edge of my garden to attract pollinators, and when the stray ones grow up in my beds, I pull them out.

 

If you are going for the root, you’ll obviously be harvesting the whole plant.  I suggest harvesting roots early in the spring or late in the fall if you can do so–the energy of the plant is in the root during these times.  Once the root sends up its greenery, you lose some of the energy of the plant into the greenery and seed production.  With that said though, roots can be harvested all through the spring, summer, and fall.  To clean the roots, you can wash them easily with a big bucket and a hose outside–rinse them off till the dirt is gone.  I usually go through several changes of water and use a scrub brush and they are clean.  What you do with the roots at that point is up to you (see “Dandelion as Medicine” and “Dandelion as Food” below).

 

The greens are best harvested in the spring, as the plants are shooting up their new growth.  If you are harvesting greens, the rule of thumb is that the younger the greens, the less bitter they are.  The energy of the plant is in the greens at that time. You want some of the bitter nature of the plant (more on that below) but too much bitter may not be so palatable!  Again, you can harvest from any safe place and then wash them lightly.

 

I don’t really think in most places you can overharvest dandelion to the point of threatening the plant.  Do be aware, however, of how many dandelions are in the immediate area (especially if you are digging roots) and harvest only as many as you need.  Do also be aware that bees and other insects need them as a food source, so harvest with that in mind.  I have an abundance of dandelion in my yard, so I harvest as much as I’d like, knowing there will always be more!

 

Fields of dandelion

Fields of dandelion

Dandelion as Medicine

The way that I use dandelion most often is as a medicine.  Dandelion’s entire plant has medicinal qualities.

Bitters. One of the primary medicinal qualities of a dandelion is that it is a bitter. Bitters are found quite a bit in the wild, and as humans evolved, we most certainly ate a lot of bitter foods (just go sample any number of wild greens and you’ll get exactly what I mean).  But when we cut bitters out of our diet, our digestion began to suffer.  My herb teacher, Jim Mcdonald, describes bitters as stimulating all digestive functions, including the stomach acids, saliva, stomach enzymes, hormones produced in the stomach, bile, and so on. Each of these, in turn, help break down food and add to digestion and overall gastrointestinal well being.

Bitters should be seen as a tonic, that is, they are something we don’t take only when we are sick, but rather something we take every day to help keep us in optimal health.  I take my dandelion bitters before each meal–in order for the bitters to be effective, you have to taste them.  A few drops of my dandelion root tincture on my tongue (see recipe) will help my digestion each day!

Beyond the immediate physical benefits, I there is also a spiritual side to the bitters.  You are taking and extracting the essence of a plant, preserving it in alcohol, and then taking that plant as medicine.  This puts you in communion of the plant (even more so if you harvest/grow the plant itself).  This has powerful spiritual implications for those who choose to seek them.

 

Dandelion Root Tea

Another way to take your daily dose of dandelion is through tea.  Here are two kinds of recipes:

Fresh tea: The fresh tea is simple to make–dig up a number of roots (which shouldn’t be too difficult). Wash your roots, chop them up, and bring them to boil with several cups water (think about 1/2 tablespoon root per 1 cup water). Boil for 40 minutes and then enjoy.

Dried Tea: The dried tea can be enjoyed the same way as fresh.  After harvesting, you can chop and dry out the dandelion root.  I usually just let it air dry, but you can also use a dehydrator.  The dried root tea can be prepared like the fresh tea.  Also consider adding other medicinal herbs to your blend!

 

 

Dandelion as Food

Dandelion can be ingested in many ways, the health benefits of which I discussed under “dandelion as medicine.”  The nutritional value of dandelion plants are also quite high–they are high in vitamins A, B, C and D, and contain potassium, zinc, and iron.  This makes them an all-around great food and drink.  Again, remember that dandelion is a tonic plant, which means we want to be taking it often!

Roasted Root Coffee: The dried and roasted roots also make a great tea (although its a little more like a coffee, and some people drink it as a coffee substitute–coffee, like dandelion, is also a bitter that “moves” you!)  Again you’ll want to dig up as many roots as you’d like.  Now you’ll want to chop them.  To chop them quickly, you can use a food processor.  Set your oven to 250 degrees, and lay your roots out on a baking sheet (or several).  Over the next two hours, check on them fairly often, stirring them to ensure an even roast.  When you have them to the desired darkness, you can pull them out of the oven.  Before serving, I usually grind them up further in a coffee grinder so that I get a nice ground.  You want to store the grounds  in an airtight container (like a mason jar).  You can use 1 tablespoon (level) for 1 cup of coffee. You’ll want to boil it for 10-15 min (not just brew like regular coffee).  Add cream and honey!  Delicious!

Dandelion Wine:  I have also had the joy of making dandelion wine, detailed in two posts here and here.

 

Dandelion wine fermenting....

Dandelion wine fermenting….

There are many other ways to enjoy dandelion in the spring, especially the leaves, which can be used in salads, stir fried, sauteed, made into fritters, etc.  An online search will reveal many more recipes!

 

Shifting Consciousness: Dandelions, Whimsy, and Magic

I remember as a child how I would go out into a field of dandelions, pick one seed head after another, and blow them all away.  Dandelions have a very whimsical quality to them.  As they take flight, they appear like little fairies.

Dandelions are truly a plant of the sun–their flowers open when the sun is out, and close at night or in overcast or rainy weather. The seed heads, however, have a lunar quality–they appear like a full moon, and stay that way regardless of the weather or light or darkness, until the wind (or some child) comes and blows them away.  At this point, the seeds take flight; a delicate umbrella carries off the tiny dandelion seed to new ground.

What I’ve been attempting to convey in this book is the importance of shifting our own consciousness, of understanding dandelions as more than just a “pesky weed” but an incredibly important plant ally that gives so much to the land and to us if we only allow it.  I encourage you to spend some time and sit with the dandelion plant.  Watch her softly move in the breeze.  Watch her seeds take flight.  Dig one up and examine her deep taproot, turn it into medicine, and see the dandelion as a magical, incredible plant that she is.