Tag Archives: foraging

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Cultivating Receptivity at the Fall Equinox

Nature Mandala

The Fall Equinox is traditionally about harvest, harvesting the fruits of your labor and the fruits of the land in preparation for the coming of winter. This model of the wheel of the year focuses on earned outcomes: you’ve planted your crops, you’ve tended them all season, you’ve invested the time, and now, you are able to receive the rewards of your efforts. And a lot of our own understanding of the celebration of these seasons works on that narrative: planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and the cycle of the seasons. This same cycle is expected, perhaps, anticipated, in our everyday lives. For example, if you put the effort into getting degrees and starting a career, or if you put in a ton of hard effort at your workplace, you will eventually be rewarded with a harvest, a payoff, and a sense of stability. There’s this large sense that if you put your time in, then your harvest and rewards will come.

For weeks now, I tried to write a different post, a one celebrating the harvest and using the traditional themes of the Fall Equinox in the druid tradition. Yet, it turned out to be very difficult to write. There’s been so much change and challenge in the last two years.  While our garden is certainly bountiful and we are bringing in the harvest on our homestead, I found these narratives of “putting in your work and getting a harvest” really problematic to dwell on because for myself and so many others, that whole idea has crumbled in workplaces and cultures. In talking with friends in a variety of fields and contexts, I think that’s perhaps the thing that’s been most difficult for everyone during the last year and a half–the loss of that narrative, of that stability, of that dependable way forward. A lot of those expected cycles and seasons were disrupted, and it appears that most of us are never going back to “before.”  This led to my own thinking and meditations about the new skills that getting such a harvest in today’s age requires–resilience, like I shared a few weeks ago, but also other themes I’ve touched on, such as flow. In other words, just like our traditional wheel, this new set of skills and themes may help us find balance, grounding, and stability in an increasingly unstable world.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the traditional wheel or the themes of harvest or balance at the Fall Equinox, because these themes are still very much present on our landscape and in many aspects of our lives. But, I do think we need to build into our traditional wheel and celebrations a broader set of thinking, visioning, and ideas that might help us live, adapt to, and thrive in this new and less predictable age. In other words, if the stability of the Holocene allowed agrarian societies to develop elaborate spiritual traditions surrounding planting and harvest, what does the instability of the Anthropocene require of our spiritual traditions? What themes or concepts can those practicing nature-based spirituality embrace now so that we can offer a better vision for the future?  It is this question that I will consider today for the Fall Equinox, and I will return to this question for the next seven holidays as we move froward through the next eight seasonal holidays–creating an wheel of the year that offers us tools for visioning and resiliency.

So with all of that written as a way of introduction to why I’m deviating from the traditional theme for the Fall Equinox (and subsequent holidays for the wheel of the year in the coming seasons), I’m going to present some themes that I think are powerful lessons for us to incorporate into spiritual practices and seasonal celebrations.  So let’s turn to one of these themes: receptivity!

Receptivity as a theme for the Fall Equinox

Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss

Receptivity has a lot of dimensions and definitions. In its most simple form, it is about openness: openness to new ideas, to change, and new experiences or patterns of life.  Its about accepting what comes rather than trying to force things in a specific direction. Receptivity is about us simply allowing things to flow in, rather than trying to force things in a specific way. When you dig into it, receptivity is a very good theme for the “harvest” narrative, because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way.

One of the reasons that Receptivity is such a good theme is that it is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level: it belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. It also belongs to the 20th century, when stable careers were common and people would retire from blue collar jobs with pensions. But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally, we’ve moved onto the Anthropocene (or, as Stephen Pyne recently called it, the Pyrocene, the age of fires). The Anthropocene is characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives. These changes are increasing in intensity and will continue throughout the course of our lives and into the lives of our descendants. Many now point to 1950 as the time when the Anthropocene officially began, with humanity’s “great acceleration” of consumption and capitalism. But like any age, it takes time to ramp up, and it is now in the 21st century, seventy years later, we are really starting to see the accelerating effects of the Anthropocene.  In thinking about these changes, both culturally in the last 18 months with the pandemic, and in the wake of the UN’s release of the IPPC 2021 climate change report, we need some new themes.

While we have traditionally based the wheel of the year on more recent agrarian human ancestors as part of the Holocene,  we no longer live in that age. Agrarian societies depend on very limited numbers crops for sustenance and survival. For a culture that depends on a small number of crops, getting a harvest from those crops becomes absolutely critical for life, and it makes sense that a huge amount of their spiritual tradition was focused on the harvest. If you think about many of the harvest traditions–they was (and still were) focused on staple crops like apples, wheat, and barley without which our agrarian ancestors would not have survived.  This is also of why situations like the failure of one crop were so devastating; for example, the Irish Potato Famine in the 1850’s killed over 1,000,000 Irish and sent many of them (including my own ancestors) in search of new places to put down roots.

However, if we go back further to the time of our more distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, we know that they lived and thrived through multiple destabilized climates and planetary ages.  If we examine their experiences with obtaining a harvest–the picture emerges quite differently. Most hunter-gatherer societies still had a few foods that were central to their diets (like acorn eating cultures, specific animals that were hunted and revered, etc) but most lived off of an incredible variety of different foods, in some cases 1000 or more (as you can learn from ethnobotanical guides like M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wilds or Charlotte Ericssen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants).  These foods vary considerably from season to season–hardwood nut crops, for example, have a “mast year” every 3-5 years.  That is, while there was always food to harvest, the kinds of food, amounts of food, and timing of it was pretty variable and required us to simply accept what was, capitalize on what was, and move forward.  (As an aside, hunter-gatherer societies did also not suffer from what some scientists would call “diseases of civilization” like heart disease or diabetes; see more about this at this article).

So let’s focus for on gathering and how it is tied to receptivity. I do a lot of wild food foraging and wild food education in addition to tending a 5-acre homestead and growing a lot of food.  The mindsets for gathering vs. farming are really different. Both are based on innate wisdom and knowledge of the land, but there are expectations in homesteading/gardening that are simply not present in wild food foraging. With foraging, you never really know what you might encounter or how abundant things might be. You can only use your knowledge to go to places where you’ve found food before and use your knowledge of the timing of the season to help you see what is out there. One year, the wild berry crop is massive while the next there’s practically no berries to speak of because of a late frost.  One year you could harvest hundreds of pounds of chestnuts and in the next, they are full of worms but there are incredible amounts of lamb’s quarters to make flour.  That’s how it is when you are foraging for wild foods–you just put yourself out there to look and see what you can find.  Hence, receptivity and gratitude for the harvest.

Receptivity: Bardic, Ovate, and Druid Practices

A ritual altar at the fall equinox

Receptivity is a pretty challenging concept for many of us who grew up in Western cultures, and I think its grown a lot more difficult in recent years.  Here in the US, for example, an extremely polarized cultural and political climate encourages us to shut down, to not even be willing to hear voices that are different than our own, and to spend time only with people who think and act like we do.  US culture also maintains the effort-reward faulty narrative that suggests that if you simply work hard you will be successful.  Obviously, that’s a lot different from cultivating receptivity.  Thus, I think it is useful to work to cultivate spiritual practices that cultivate receptivity.  And yes–I keep using the term “cultivate” very specifically–this is something we can bring into our lives, like a new skill we are learning. Here are a few methods to practice receptivity through the lens of bardic, ovate, and druid practice.

Receptivity and Wild Foods: An Ovate Practice

One way of cultivating receptivity and honor the harvest is to take up a wild food foraging practice and take a day to go out and seek out wild foods.  Wild foods can be found in all settings, from urban to wilderness, and its just a matter of time and building your knowledge.   See if you can find enough for to create at least part of a meal.  This time of year in Eastern North America, they are particularly abundant–you can find wild apples, hardwood nuts (hickories, chestnuts, butternut, walnuts, hazelnuts, acorns);fall greens (usually there is a second harvest of greens like dandelion); grain harvests (wild amaranth, lambs quarters, or yellow dock); and fall mushrooms (Hen of the Woods, late Chicken of the Woods, Honey Mushrooms, etc).  Building an ethical foraging practice and bringing some of this into your regular practice allows for not only a deep knowledge and reverence of nature, but also a way to align with ancient human ancestors and cultivate receptivity.

With any wild food foraging practice, I want to stress the importance of ethical harvest.  Offer gratitude and respect to what you are harvesting, seek permission, and monitor wild food populations. For an introduction to ethical foraging, please see this post.  I also have two general posts that can get you started on wild foraging with resource and book suggestions: here and here.

So as a fall equinox celebration, you might gather some wild foods leading up to the Fall Equinox and then prepare a celebratory meal in gratitude and reverence for what the land has provided.  Supplement this with food from your own garden or farmer’s market and enjoy the feast!

Receptivity: A Fall Equinox Journey of Spirit

On the druid side, we might think about how to create receptivity through spiritual connection and ritual.  Druid practices are about ritual, meditation, and celebration.  For this practice, rather than planning a formal Fall Equinox ceremony, you will simply allow yourself to experience the magic and enchantment of the living earth, be guided by spirit, and create an ongoing ceremonial experience for yourself.

To do this, plan on spending some deep time in nature, at least an hour or more. Ideally this will be a place with some wildness to it. You might take a few tools with you–an offering blend, a harvest knife, your crane bag, a spiritual journal. But don’t plan too much–the idea is to allow the ceremony to unfold on your journey.

When you get where you are going, start by opening up yourself to a ceremonial experience. Keep your mind and intentions open but do any protective work you see as necessary (e.g. I would do AODA’s Sphere of Protection ceremony to begin).  After that, begin to walk and explore, seeing what you are drawn to.  Leave offerings, talk with trees, and spend time simply communing with the living earth.  Look for messages in the forms of animals, clouds, wind, trees.  See what calls to you and the work you can do to celebrate this year.  This might be a tree meditation, a grounding ceremony in the woods, forest bathing, taking a nap, making offerings, building a nature mandala, etc.  The point here is that rather than prepare a pre-concieved plan for your Fall Equinox, you simply allow spirit to guide you.

As you are exiting the forest, give yourself some time to return.  Breathe deeply, “close” the ceremonial experience in whatever way you see fit, and take time to return to the mundane world.  Carry what you’ve learned about yourself and nature with you into the coming season.

Receptivity: Cultivating in Community

Bardic practices involve both creative expression as well as community, and in this case, this practice focuses more on cultivating open relationships with others.  The practice is simple:

Talk to someone who believes very differently than you do in a non-judgemental, open way*.  One activity to help you cultivate receptivity is to find someone who has very different life experience, different political or social views, and/or a different way of seeing the world from you. Spend time asking that person questions to understand what they believe and why they believe it.  As you are listening, work to withhold your own judgment (note your emotional reactions) and also work hard not to respond to them in a way that would put your own beliefs at the center of the discussion. Ask questions, listen, and absorb what they are saying. After you’ve done this, express gratitude to the person for sharing their time and thoughts. (And yes, I realize how incredibly hard this might be to do, at least for those in the US right now.  Try it anyways.  Strip aside the common political stigmas and simply listen to a person as a human being).

After you’ve done this, meditate on the experience. What did you gain from this experience? Did it reaffirm your beliefs or did it allow you to really experience a new perspective? Do you have more empathy and understanding for those who may believe differently than you?

(*I am grateful to  Dr. Abby Michelini for this practice.  Abby recently completed a dissertation and I was honored to be a dissertation reader on her project. Her project was to create poetic narratives from people on radically different sides of the spectrum and use those as a way of cultivating deep listening to bridge political and cultural divides. And you know what? It worked. After seeing her study, this practice gave me a lot of hope.  I started trying this practice in my own life and I was really grateful for this as a new tool to cultivate openness and receptivity towards others! So I’m sharing it here!)

Closing

Learning how to cultivate receptivity in such challenging times offers us a powerful tool.  It allows us to be more flexible and adaptable to things that we can’t change and encourages us to find delight in the unexpected.  May your feet tread ever lightly upon the soil and your lungs fill with clean air at this blessed Fall Equinox!

Also, If you are interested more in this topic, cultivating your intuition, connecting with our primal ancestral roots, and in connecting deeply with nature, I wanted to draw your attention to a fabulous 8 week online course by Jon Young, Nate Summers, and Sarah Fontaine starting soon! Here’s a link to the Intuitive Tracking course https://www.primalnate.com/intuitivetracking   I’ll be taking this course, and I hope you consider it as well!

Wild Food Profile: Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) Seed Flour & Yellow Dock Pancake Recipe

Harvested dock seed with a ready-to-harvest yellow dock plant

This past month, I had a chance to visit Silver Acres, my friend’s 5 acre farm in the thumb of Michigan, where she is practicing rewilding, restoration agriculture, and permaculture.  We were walking through her field and found a good deal of yellow dock that was in seed form–which for the Midwest US, usually happens around Lughnasadh (August 1st) and continues to the Fall Equinox.  While I’ve eaten the young leaves and used the roots as medicine, I haven’t had a chance to try making any seed flour yet–so we set about our task joyfully.  I’m quite impressed by how easy this flour is to make (compared to say, acorn flour) and it cuts nicely with other flours.

Foraging for wild foods is not only a fantastic way to connect deeply with the land but also allow us to reconnect with our ancient ancestral lifeways.  It allows us to connect deeply with the land and bring some of that energy int our own lives.

Yellow Dock Ecology and Foraging

Yellow dock leaf with goose blessing.

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) is in the buckwheat family, which is part of why she makes a nice flour!   Yellow dock is also known as Curly Dock or Narrowleaf Dock. Yellow Dock is a first-aid responder plant, an opportunistic plant that can quickly spread to new areas after disruption. Thus, you will often find her growing in areas that have poor soil, have recently been disrupted (such as construction sites), or other places where the land was recently disturbed.  As part of her ecological function, she begins to break up compacted soil with her deep tap root. One of the reasons its good to learn how to eat and make medicine of yellow dock in all of her forms is that she is considered an “invasive” weed in the USA, and thus, ethically-based foraging is a wonderful way to keep this plant in check.

Yellow Docks are perennial plants that can, when mature, produce up to 40,000 seeds per year.  The seeds can stay in the ground for up to 50 years, and when the opportunitiy arises, the yellow dock will arise from the soil!  This is how they are able to so quickly colonize disturbed areas.

Once you find a patch of yellow dock, you can return to it over and over again for food and medicine.  The seeds persist on the plants into the winter, and slowly drop as winter turns to spring. The easiest time to spot them is after the seeds have turned to a beautiful rust brown and dried (usually by mid August here in Pennsylvania). Thus, you have a fairly long harvest window with regards to the seeds. Each year, Yellow Dock also produces curled leaves (see photos) which are fairly palatable when young (cook in several changes of water).

Seed head closeup – this is perfect for harvesting

The very good news in terms of foraging ethics is that because Yellow Dock is considered invasive and can be found in abundance almost everywhere, you can harvest as much yellow dock seeds as you want for flour.  A few hours of harvesting and processing can yield considerable amounts of very easy-to-process flour!  I still recommend that you seek permission from the plants and offer gratitude if you have permission to harvest.  I have found it is easiest to harvest these with a basket or paper back.  Just snap off or cut the mature seed stalk and place them into a bag.

Harvest the seed heads when they are dry for the best flour. If you have to harvest them wet, let them sit out in the sun until fully dry.  Its hard to strip them from the stalks when they are wet.

Preparing Yellow Dock Flour

Grinding in a small grinder

Yellow Dock flour has three major steps for preparation: remove seed heads from stalk; toast seed heads on the stove or in the oven; and then grind them in a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or magic bullet.  I’ll walk you through each step.

I will note here that some foraging books say Yellow Dock Seed is not worth harvesting because its impossible to separate the seeds from the chaff (the seed casing).  But in the case of Yellow Dock, you simply grind everything up together.

Remove seed heads from stalk. Once you have harvested, find a nice place outside to sit and strip the seed heads by hand into a large bowl or other vessel. Return the stalks to the land (somewhere where you want yellow dock to come up, as there are likely seeds remaining!).  I suggest doing this outside because it is a messy job!

Toast the seeds.  The next step is to toast the seeds.  You can do this on the stovetop in an iron skillet- just add a few handfuls of seeds, stir them till you hear popping, and then remove from heat and do the next batch. Alternatively, you can roast them in the oven for 5 minutes at 350.  You’ll see a difference in both the color and smell of the seeds. This step is really worth it as it produces a much better tasting flour!

Beautiful ready-to-enjoy Yellow Dock Flour

Grind the seeds. Using a Vitamix, magic bullet, coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, grind the seeds in small batches.  You will want to work to get as fine of a grind as possible on your flour.  You’ll end up with something looking like the photo on the right!

Storage: Like other wild flours, this has about a six month shelf life. You can extend the shelf life by freezing it (where it will stay good up to two years.

Recipes

There are few things to know about Yellow Dock flour. First, Yellow Dock flour does not contain any gluten, so it will produce a much “flatter” bread than wheat flours, which you should keep in mind when using it.  When it is cooked on its own, it has a bitterness that can be a bit unpalatable (e.g. straight yellow dock flour) so I recommend using it in combination with another flour (use 25% or 50% yellow dock).  The bitterness is considerably lessened into something quite delicious when you add some sweetness.  I don’t find that it has a particularly strong taste but rather will take on the taste of the other ingredients (like acorn flour).

Yellow Dock Pancakes

I adapted my acorn pancake recipe for use with Yellow Dock, and it works great!

  • 1 cup yellow dock flour
  • 1 cup other flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (duck eggs if you can get them!)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Cooking up beautiful pancakes!

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till well mixed. Dock seeds can tend to absorb moisture, so check to see if its too thick– if so, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up. Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Here are some other inspirational recipes for your yellow dock flour!

Double Chocolate Dockseed Cake

Curly Dock Bread

Dock Seed Brownies

Dock and Lambsquarter Flour Crackers

Dock Sponge Bread

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, and wild medicines is something that is growing as a pastime for many people. The joy of foraging from the land connects us to our ancient and primal roots and allows us a chance to build a more direct connection with nature. But with any practice rooted in nature comes the need for balance and responsibility. Thus, the following principles can help wild food foragers and wild food instructors harvest ethically, sustainably, and in a way that builds wild food populations rather than reduces them.  I share both the principles in text below as well as graphics.  The graphics are (full size and web-sharable versions, see links) and they are licensed under a Creative Commons license.  Anyone who teaches plant walks or wants to use them in foraging, wild foods, and herbalism practice is free to download them, print them, and share them! The two graphics are of the same content, rendered differently. For full size printable versions click the following links: The Foraging Flower (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG); Foraging Ethics Tree (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG)

Harvest Mindfully: Mindfully and ethically harvesting from the land to ensure sustainable harvesting, ensuring the long-term survival of wild food and medicines for the benefit of all life and future generations.

  • Take only what you need. Harvest only what you need and resist the urge to harvest everything. Find ways of preserving foods and wild medicine so that nothing goes to waste.
  • Harvest in a way that sustains long-term populations. Be careful about how much you harvest, where you harvest, and when you harvest to ensure that you are not damaging plant populations or harming individual plants. If you need to take a root harvest, it should only be done sustainably and when plants are in abundance. If you are taking a mushroom harvest, remember that mushrooms are the reproductive system; if you harvest them all, the mushroom can’t reproduce. At the same time, recognize that some plants should be harvested as much as possible–those who are spreading and harming native plant populations.
  • Harvest with gratitude and respect. recognize the gift that nature is offering you, and harvest respectfully and with gratitude. Be thankful for the plant and the opportunity to harvest.

Tend the Wilds: Our ancient human ancestors understood that creating a reciprocal relationship with nature were the only way to ensure a more bountiful harvest and sustain our lands so that they could sustain us in return. Thus, building in wildtending practices and tending the wilds should be a counter-practice to foraging.

  • Cultivate and spread wild plants. Learn how to cultivate and tend the native and naturalized plants you commonly harvest.  Work to establish new wild patches of these plants by gathering and scattering seeds, dividing and planting roots, and transplanting. Cultivate new patches which you can later harvest from.
  • Target your efforts towards at-risk plants. Look for plant populations that are in danger of disappearing (from overharvesting, loss of habitat, etc) and target your efforts to help cultivate them. This may mean that there are certain plant populations that you do not harvest until a more stable population is established.
  • Create a balance between foraging and wild-tending: Strive to balance your practices between foraging and wild tending, both in terms of working to cultivate more specific plant populations and also in terms of broader conservation and ecological work, such as protecting wildlands, replanting lands, engaging in political activism, or working with conservation groups.

Build your Knowledge: Understand the plants that you are harvesting–how they grow, how they function ecologically, and the populations of plants in your area.

  • Build your knowledge of ecology and plants. Recognize that there is a lot to know about plants and that this is a lifetime of study. The more you know, the more you are able to apply to your foraging and wildtending practice. Read books, attend workshops, and learn about how your plants function in the ecosystem: where do they grow? how do they grow? What insects/animals depend on them?  Which plants can you harvest as much as you want? Start by learning about a few plants and build from there.
  • Observe and interact.  Don’t depend on the wisdom only in books but get out into your local landscape, observe, and interact.  Recognize that the populations in your local area of plants and mushrooms may be radically different than what you read about.  Understand what is happening in the areas that you spend time in specifically so you can be more mindful of your interaction.
  • Connect, learn, and share with community.  We can do more as a community than as individuals, so find ways to connect with like-minded others, building and sharing knowledge.  The more we spread these principles and ethical foraging approaches, the more good we can do in the world.

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

I started teaching wild food foraging almost a decade ago after a lifetime of cultivating an ethical practice of foraging and working to regenerate damaged landscapes.  I began teaching foraging with the naive and simple premise that if people understood that nature had value for nature, they would honor and respect it, work to protect it, and cultivate a relationship with it. However, this is not the case. But with increasing frequency, as new people get into wild food foraging, I’m seeing something very different emerging: communities of people who see wild food foraging as a treasure hunt, going into areas without any knowledge of the plant populations or sustainable harvesting techniques, and pillaging the ecosystem.  And in these same communities, there is strong resistance to any discussion of limits, ethics of foraging, or cultivating reciprocation with the land.  But, this situation offers us a chance to grow and to learn how to be better stewards of the land.  With that said: what an opportunity for change. We are always learning and expanding our understanding, foraging is an opportunity for this. Be open to changing your perspective and be forgiving and understanding of yourself and others on this foraging path.

Unfortunately, in the wild food community, we see the same colonizing and capitalist attitudes that pervade other aspects of Western society. Here in North America, one of the underlying issues is that nature is treated by most people in the 21st century no different than it was treated in the 16th-19th centuries: as a resource that you can take as much as you want from. The history of colonization here in North America turned carefully cultivated food forests into deserts and destroyed the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples who lived in harmony with nature. The current practices of land ownership and individualism stress this further–the assumption is that if it’s your land, you can do what you want with it regardless of how it impacts other life living there. Many people born into Western culture are enculturated into this colonizing mindset and may not even be conscious of how much it impacts our assumptions and relationship with nature. This mindset drives a set of behaviors that are literally putting our planet–and all life–at risk. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear to me that at least some behavior surrounding wild food foraging is a new take on the very old problem of colonialism.

I’ll give three examples to illustrate the impetus for the principles I offer. When I was a child in the Allegheny Mountains, Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was easy to find. My grandfather used to harvest it in small quantities and brew it up for us as a special treat. In the years since, with the increasing demand from China and the rising prices for American Ginseng, in all my time spent in the forests here, I have never found a single wild ginseng plant growing.  This means that the medicine of American Ginseng is completely closed to the people of the Appalachians, and it should not be. I have only had the opportunity to interact with wild ginseng that someone (myself or others) has planted. And in cultivating it, I’ve realized how incredibly hard it is to establish and grow. Most people cultivating it have less than a 20% success rate with either seeds or roots. In a second example, when a friend and I were co-teaching a wild food class, we came across a patch of woodland nettles. Some of the students in the class immediately went into the patch of nettles like vultures, taking every last nettle. Not 15 minutes before, we had had a discussion of wild food ethics and sustainable harvesting, but this was quickly forgotten with the excitement of the harvest.  That nettle patch has since regrown with some careful tending, thankfully, but it took about four years to get as large and beautiful as it was. In a final example, one wild food foraging online group in my region, a person posted a picture of six 5-gallon buckets full of ramps, including the bulbs. This represented an extremely unsustainable harvest for several reasons, not the least of which being that ramps take 1-2 years to germinate from seed and up to 7 years to mature. When I kindly shared information about how to harvest ramps more sustainably (very limited or no bulb harvests depending on the population, being mindful of the amount being taken, scattering seeds to propagate ramps), I was banned from the group for “pick shaming.”  Most online groups have very strong and immediate reactions to anyone discussing ethics, sustainability, or limited harvests, which prevent any conversations from taking place.

These three examples illustrate the challenges present with overharvesting and were part of the impetus for the above principles. I will also note that all of these examples come from the United States; I don’t know if the issues I’ve witnessed apply to other contexts or cultures.

I’ve never met a wild food instructor, teacher of herbalism, or earth skills instructor who didn’t do their best to teach at least some of the principles I’ve outlined above.  But it seems that we need to do more, particularly as large numbers of new people are picking up wild food foraging and that many online spaces are opposed to discussions of the ethics of practice. These principles can be a critical part of every class we teach, every social media post, every Youtube video we create, and every publication we author. By adhering to a set of ethical standards that put wild food foraging in the broader context of building a reciprocal relationship with nature, I believe we can create a more balanced and ethical practice for all.

Examples of the Ethics in Action: Working with Milkweed, Garic Mustard, and Oak

Here are three specific examples how this might be done, both from a teaching standpoint and from a practitioner standpoint:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of my favorite wild edible plants, with four different harvests throughout the season. A wild food foraging practice that includes common milkweed has a chance for causing harm. Overharvesting shoots can prevent the plants from growing at all; overharvesting flower buds, immature seedpods, or silks can prevent the milkweed from going to seed and spreading.  In most areas in the US, common milkweed is in decline due to new farming techniques, spraying, mowing, and land-use changes. Thus, our land needs a lot more common milkweed, which is a critical food source for declining insect populations, including the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly.

When I teach common milkweed, I start by passing out small packets of common milkweed seeds that I have grown in my garden from local seed stock.  I tell people about what a wonderful wild food that common milkweed is, how good it tastes, and how to prepare it.  And, I ask that people work to cultivate their own patch (in their garden, yard, or in a wild area) so that they can eventually start harvesting it themselves.  I explain that I do not, ever, harvest this in the wild but rather, I cultivate new patches and eventually return to them to harvest. In this example, I teach Common Milkweed in context: not only what it is but how to harvest, but the challenges surrounding it.  And, I put the direct tools for change–seeds–in their hands, so that they can spread them and begin their relationship with milkweed from a place of reciprocation and stewardship.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is another plant I commonly use and teach.  The lesson of this Garlic Mustard is a very different one: Garlic mustard is an opportunistic plant (I avoid the term “invasive”, also for ethical reasons) and by harvesting, we can control the populations of this plant.  Because it is always abundant and opportunistic, not only do I teach this plant, I encourage those on my plant walks to harvest as much of it as they can while we are on the plant walk.  I will sometimes bring a garlic mustard pesto or another dish that they can taste to see how delicious it is.  On social media, I will share recipes and information on how to find it and cook it, so that others can also start harvesting this plant abundantly.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Oak (Quercus Rubra, Quercus Spp.) is another one of my favorite trees from a foraging perspective. When I teach oak in the fall, I usually bring a sample of acorn bread or cake so people can get a sense of how delicious the oak is.  This helps people recognize and honor the oak tree as such an abundant resource. We discuss the principle of the “mast year” and how you can harvest acorns. We discuss how to identify good acorns to harvest based on examining their caps and shells.  We do talk about how much one can reasonably harvest and process–and how to leave acorns for wildlife.  I also teach wildtending practices with Oak in two ways: first, I encourage them to be like a squirrel, not only harvesting acorns but, after harvesting, taking a stick and popping some of them back into the ground to propagate the oak.  I also encourage people to return to their favorite oak in the spring and dig up some of the small oak seedlings to spread elsewhere, ensuring the genetics of the tree survive.  This creates a balanced relationship with the oak, and helps repopulate a keystone species in our bioregion.

In all three examples, I’ve developed both a teaching and foraging practice based on examining the specific context in which a plant or tree grows, its abundance, and the ecological needs it has.  In the case of Milkweed, declining amounts of milkweed (including in my immediate ecosystem) have led me to cultivate it in a number of places, spreading those seeds outward, and considerably limiting how much milkweed I enjoy eating.  The case with Garlic Mustard is the opposite–I harvest and eat as much of it as I can as a way of limiting the spread.  One of the practices of the oak is to participate in acorn planting and spreading oak trees.  Each of these wildtending practices allows me not only to ethically balance a foraging practice but to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living earth.

I would love to hear thoughts on these principles and other ideas for how we can cultivate ethics of reciprocation within wild food foraging!

Wildcrafting Your Druidry: A Local Materia Medica and Herbalism Practice

As we continue to explore the concept of wildcrafting druidry and sacred action that is, developing a spiritual practice and daily life that is fully localized and aligned with nature right outside your door, it is a useful time to consider the role of herbalism and developing a local materia medica.  In herbalism terms, a materia medica is a body of herbal and plant knowledge for the curing of diseases and the promotion of good health.  For example, any book on herbalism that includes entries on herbs and their healing properties is a materia medica.  By starting to develop a local materia medica for your area, you can learn more about the incredible healing properties of plants in your area and develop a sacred connection with them.  You can start entering into a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship with the land and support your own health–this is because not only are plants able to treat illnesses, but they also support our long-term health!  So let’s talk through the steps that you might do this:

Step 1: Identify your site and needs and spiral outward.

Grandpa's field

Learning about the medicines outside your door!

I think it’s helpful to consider what you might include in your materia medica. It should be locations that you have easy and regular access to and with the ability to do at least some harvesting.  What I suggest you do is use a spiraling outward approach.  Start with right where you live–e.g. the plants in the lawn right outside your door, the trees on your street, the plants in the park at the end of the block.  Learn the plants that are closest to your home first.  Then, as you grow your knowledge, start spiraling outward: the local state park, the homes of friends and neighbors, etc.  You can do this work regardless of whether you live in the city, suburbs or country.

The other option for you to start is to consider finding or growing a local herbal equivalent of one or more medicines you currently take or needs you currently have.  Perhaps you want a first aid salve–there’s a whole backyard of healing plants for that! Perhaps you want to increase your overall vitality and health–there’s a dandelion and burdock root for that!  Perhaps you want to strengthen your heart–there’s a hawthorn tree for that! For my own path into herbalism, you can hear about my own journey in managing asthma with New England Aster!  The point here is that you can identify some basic needs and then use that as a basis.

I actually prefer the first approach I’ve listed, as it puts you in touch with plants right outside your door.  If you start working with these plants, you will find uses for them in your life!

Step 2: Build a Reciprocal Practice on this Landscape

Before you even begin to think about harvesting and using the plants where you are, you will want to think about how you can build a practice of reciprocation, honoring, and respect to the living earth.  I recommend you think not only in terms of an offering for any individual plant that is harvested but also the larger landscape that you are working on.  For individual plants, this might include things like:

  • Asking permission to harvest
  • Offering gratitude with an offering and saying thanks
  • Working with the plant to help ensure its genetic legacy (saving and spreading seeds, translating roots and seedlings)
  • Visiting the plant at other times, not only when you want something or want to harvest (e.g. showing friendship and respect)
  • Building the cycles of the plant into your own seasonal celebrations
Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

In terms of a larger reciprocation practice, it is useful to consider what the land there might need and how you can be in service to the land.  This is often very different in different ecosystems, but might include any of the following:

  • Metaphysical support through rituals and energy work
  • Land healing practices, such as converting lawns to gardens, cleanups, replantings, and more
  • Social action, community organizing, or political action to protect and preserve nature
  • Other activities as is appropriate for the local ecosystem

The reason this step is so important is that for much of the Western world, longstanding colonialism has put many people in a mindset where nature is theirs to take from, to use, and to harvest at will.  This exact mindset is one of the roots as to why we are facing a planetary crisis: because we must learn to balance what we take from nature from what we give and the reciprocation practices are key to that.  I’ve been teaching wild food foraging for a long time, and there are extreme problems with the overharvest/take what I want mentality with many people in those communities.  By building reciprocation first and foremost into your practice, you can sidestep these extremely problematic relationships with nature and build one on mutuality and respect.

Step 3: Observe, Interact and Identify Plants, Mushrooms, and Trees

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn at Samhain!

Now that you have a sense of where to look, you will want to start identifying the plants, mushrooms, and trees that grow most immediately to you.  It is extremely helpful if you can keep track of not only the common name (Pennsylvania Hawthorn) but also the Latin name (Crataegus tatnalliana / Crataegus pennsylvanica.)   Many common or folk names may actually refer to multiple plants (Boneset is a good example here–in my region it refers to at least three different plants, two of which are medicinal and one of which is poisonous) so having the Latin name ensures that you have the right plant.  Even if you can’t identify the specific species, work to at least identify the plant family as a start. I have found it helpful in my own work in this regard to create a digital file of plant names and features as a first step.  Here’s one of my early files that I can share that I started creating when I first moved to this new land (I’ve since moved this into a more comprehensive digital file, but this is where I started).

Identification skill is excellent to learn.  While there are apps and groups that can help you with plant identification, I also recommend that you check out Botany in a Day by Thomas Epel and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to start learning how to identify different parts of plants.  If you build your knowledge using these books, eventually, you will be able to identify plants by plant family without looking them up.

One of the things that is really helpful to do during this stage is to pay attention to how abundant the various plants, trees, and mushrooms are.  Pay attention to how much is growing and where it is growing.  Just because something appears abundant doesn’t necessarily mean it wouldn’t be harmed from harvesting–the key is to cultivate a relationship on this land so that you can monitor not only the plants but also how much of everything there is.  This will allow you to decide what you might use and in what ways!

Step 4: Build Your Materia Medica and Start Making Plant Medicine

Flower essence

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Now you are finally there–the opportunity to build your own materia medica over time and learn how to make plant medicine. Herbalism can be a lifelong study, and one of the things I want to stress here is that doing this work takes a lot of time.  I have found for my own learning that I like to learn a few plants at a time: how to make medicine from them, how to do different preparations, and then actually use those plants in my life.  Even if you learn only a few plants across the course of a year, as you progress, soon you will know many plants.  This is a better approach than harvesting a ton of stuff, preparing it, and then not using it.  An intensive study of a few plants will lead to rich rewards!   For example, right now I am learning the various uses of the Spruce tree–this includes various recipes for spruce tips, preparing and use of a spruce tip salve, working with the wood, and much more!

For medicine making, I would highly suggest Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook as he covers a ton of useful information on the different kinds of plant preparations (his herbal information is good also, but insufficient for many local plants).  Richo Czech’s Making Plant Medicine offers key information on ratios for tinctures and other plants and is a very useful supplement to Green’s work (I use the two in conjunction and don’t need anything else!). These two books can help you know all of the basics for how to do different plant preparations. I also have some medicine-making posts you can check out: A Druid’s Guide to Preparing Plant Medicine; Flower essence preparation;  and harvesting guidelines.

Part of the materia medica is taking notes–take notes on everything that you do (e.g. the salve recipe, when you harvest) and also test the effects of your herbal preparations on yourself–note how it feels, if it works for your purposes, and so on.  You can certainly supplement your own knowledge with published research on herbs: for a comprehensive guide to many herbal plants in North America, you can see Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbal books.  But remember–your own body and experiences should be very central to developing your materia medica.

Once you’ve had some success and good recipes, preserve them in some way that is appealing to you.  This could be a handwritten journal, a digital file, or anything else.  The important thing is that you create this knowledge for yourself and presented in a way that you will resonate with.   My current materia medica sits in two places: I have a very extensive digital file that I update regularly.  I also have a handwritten materia medica that explores more of the spiritual aspects of each of the plants I work with regularly.

Conclusion

Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

Developing an herbalism practice–even with a few key plants in your ecosystem is an excellent way to build a core Ovate practice, learn how to live in a reciprocal relationship with nature, and align yourself with the living earth.  This is a practice that centers nature in your life.  It is completely different than going and buying some bulk herbs and mixing them up into medicine–while there is nothing wrong with doing this, it doesn’t really give you the deep spiritual practice that identifying plants, engaging in reciprocation, and turning them into medicine does.

Another thing you can do with this practice is to tie it to your yearly seasonal celebrations: for example, for me, Beltane, the Summer solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain are all medicine making holidays–meaning that in addition to my rituals, I also make certain medicines, spiritual tools like smoke clearing sticks, and align my work with the current harvest.  This gives me a richness and layered approach to my spirituality and makes the medicines I make even more meaningful.

I hope that many of you will try this–if you haven’t already started or traveled some way on this path.  I would love to hear your stories and experiences with local materia medicas and herbalism!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Juneberry Tree (Amelanchier spp., Serviceberry, Shadbush, Sasakatoon) Medicine, Magic, and Divination

Juneberry Tree in Abundance

We are now at the time when it is at peak throughout the Eastern US and thus,it is a great time to learn about this wonderful tree. Juneberry, also known as Amelanchier, Serviceberry, Saskatoon, or Shadbush is a grouping of 20 deciduous small trees or large shrubs. Juneberry is a delightful understory tree or shrub that is widely loved and sought out among the Appalacian peoples here in Western PA and across the midwest and the southeastern United States.  I remember a warm summer day a few years ago when the Juneberry pickings were quite good–I and two friends made our way to a local park, where we gorged ourselves in delicious berries and picked over four gallons–with so many berries still left on the tree.  The next few days we enjoyed the berries fresh, canned them into jam, baked them into pies, and just were in awe of the abundance of these delightful trees.  Today, I would love to share this abundance with you and explore the ecology, lore, magic, and mystery of the delightful Juneberry tree!

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

Ecology

Going harvesting with friends at the park!

Juneberry is often found as a large shrub or small tree, appearing anywhere from about 6 feet tall to up to 25-40 feet in height with a trunk no larger than 6-12″ in diameter. According to Linda Kershaw in Trees of Michigan, while it is easy to identify the Juneberry species, identifying the specific subspecies can prove very difficult or impossible due to hybridization (I’ve found this to be the case as well!). In fact, some scientists aren’t clear if Juneberry is one species or 20! Because of this, I am going to discuss the Juneberry/serviceberry species as a whole, with special attention to those that are common in the US Midwest and East coasts. Most of my experience comes from Smooth Serviceberry (Amelanchier Laevis) and Appalachian Serviceberry (Amelanchier Canadensis) which appears as a small understory tree throughout the Alleghenies as well as various ornamental cultivars that appear more like shrubs in urban and suburban settings.  And these are the two places you will find Juneberry–taller understory trees in forests throughout its range as well as urban cultivars in housing developments, on campuses and in parks.

The Juneberry has distinctive bark that is smooth, gray, with thick and darker vertical lines.  Once you learn to ID it, it is very distinctive from other trees you might encounter, making it fairly easy to identify even in the winter months.  They are slow-growing and relatively long-lived trees. The serviceberry can grow in a number of different conditions, with the exception of very wet areas or wetlands. It prefers drier soil, and so you are more likely to find it higher ground/uplands, etc. For example, in my region, the area that I know that has lots of Juneberry is our Gallitzin State Forest–this is literally the highest point in the county, on top of the Babcock ridge in the Allegheny Mountains at 2600 or so feet.  The Juneberry trees grow up and down the mountainside; you won’t find it in the damp valleys with the Eastern Hemlock or Witch hazel, only on the sides and peak of the mountain.

Unripe Juneberry (late may, a few weeks before ripening)

Unripe Juneberry (late may, a few weeks before ripening)

Juneberry tree produces 5-petaled flowers that are really beautiful in very early spring.  The flowers here often come out before leaves are on any of the trees (another characteristic of the understory trees–they take advantage before the overstory covers everything up).  If you are seeking out serviceberry for the first time, this is probably the best time to find as it is really easy to spot the flowers when the rest of the trees are still pretty bare.  Look for little clusters of white flowers. Once the flowers are gone, you can look for the fruits which go from green to red to deep purple that droop in nice fat clusters, or to the alternately-placed leaves with a tiny tooth edge ridge that is oblong and the smooth bark.

John Eastman notes in The Book of Forest and Thicket that Juneberry is particularly susceptible to gypsy moth damage as well as the destructive gymnosporanguim rust. This rust is hosted by Juniper / Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginia) and when it travels to a Juneberry or apple tree, it creates swollen fruits and distorted twigs that have powdery fungus. It’s a real disappointment to see your favorite serviceberry tree covered in this stuff!

A variety of wildlife enjoys the fruits including, according to Eastman, 22 different bird species – Cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, hermit thrushes, and northern orioles, to name a few. Beavers, foxes, red squirrels, bears, and white-tailed deer also enjoy the berries, fruits, bark, and foliage.

Young Juneberry Trunk

Young Juneberry Trunk

Elder Juneberry Trunks (notice the lines)

Elder Juneberry Trunks (notice the lines)

Food and Edible uses

The most important thing to understand about the Juneberry is that while the berry tastes kind of like a watery blueberry when fresh, cooking transforms its flavor into an incredibly delicious, rich, cherry-almond flavor that is hard to describe. Juneberry jam is one of my favorite jams because it is so delicious and unique!

In my experience, the challenge with finding these trees in the forest is that there is no way of reasonably picking the berries.  You can gather from what drops to the ground, but often that amounts only to a few handfuls.  I have had much better luck foraging these delicious berries in suburban and urban environments. My favorite harvest spot at present is at a local park where they have dozens of bushes planted as an ornamental!  Of course, with any foraging, please make sure you practice reciprocation–do something in return for nature, ask permission, and make offerings before you harvest from the tree.

A haul of Juneberry–so amazing and abundant.

In Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, Rollins notes that Juneberry was well esteemed by both early European explorers and Native American tribes. Native Americans would gather the berries, beat them into a paste, and dry them into cakes. The dried berries were then mixed with cornmeal and used in old-style puddings. Further, John Eastman notes that the berries were one of the primary fruits included in traditional pemmican–a mixture of dried meat (often venison or bear), fat, and berries that offer high calories and fat. In Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown, a range of indigenous uses of the berries are described, including how the Iroquois would ferment dried Juneberry, sugar, and water to make a refreshing drink (noted in 1916). The Chippewa found them so refreshing that the term “Take some Juneberries with you” was a common expression to be told to relax.  Many tribes dried the Juneberry for eating in the winter months and used it for various winter food applications.

Other Human Uses

The wood of the Juneberry is very heavy, hard, strong, and close-grained.  It has a dark red-brown appearance with lighter colored sapwood.  Today, it is a favorite wood of spoon carvers and, in larger pieces, it is good for wood turning. Erichsen-Brown notes that the wood was used to make arrow shafts and pipe stems by indigenous peoples, particularly because it was so hard.

Eastman notes that the Juneberry has traditionally been used as a seasonal clock widely in North America, and he indicates that no other tree has quite this feature. In Colonial times, the blooming of the Juneberry was used by fishers to know when the spawning of shad fish happened (hence the common name “shadbush” given to the tree).  The term “serviceberry” also was noted to mark the time for burial services for people who had died over the harsh winter (from cold, starvation,etc). Today, we can also see the timing of the gypsy moths from this tree.

Juneberry in Western Occultism and Herbalism

Like my other understory trees, the Juneberry does not get much notice or love from traditional western herbalism or occult communities.  All of my usual sources I consult do not have entries for the serviceberry, which is unsurprising.  I also cannot find references to this tree in any modern herbals (and I own many!)

Serviceberry on your morning cereal! Delicious!

Most of what I have found about herbal uses comes from the work of Erichsen-Brown.  She notes that the roots and bark were traditionally used by some tribes as medicinal tonics. Medicinally, Erichsen-brown notes a number of uses being tied to women’s health, particularly surrounding pregnancy. The Chippewa combined the bark of Juneberry was combined with that of pin cherry, chokecherry, and wild cherry decocted and drank for feminine issues (p.167). She notes that the Ojibwe used the bark also for an expecting mother, while the Iroquois used the fruit to treat post-childbirth pain and hemorrhage.  I haven’t been able to find much in discussion of Juneberry in modern herbals, but it is clear from Erichsen-Brown’s work that this tree is traditionally connected with women’s health.  Plants for a Future lists a few additional uses, including being used in the treatment of snow blindness, use for a spring tonic, and astringent qualities.  Since Juneberry is in the rose family, these last two certainly fit!

The Magic and Divination of Juneberry

Time and keeping natural time.  The folk and traditional uses of serviceberry as a “natural” clock as well as its slow-growing and long-lived nature obviously lend this tree well to being tied to any issue dealing with time, particularly when things need to happen or should happen at a certain point.

Cycles. Tied to time as well as to the herbal uses of serviceberry, we have the idea of cycles, including cycles of the moon, the sun, our own human cycles, and the seasons.  Serviceberry reminds us that everything moves in a giant circle around the sun and the cycles of the seasons continue to spiral ever-forward.

Juneberry in the woods

Juneberry in the woods

The magic of naming.  This is a tree that carries a number of different names, and I think the names are important.  I originally called this berry by its most common name, “Serviceberry” thinking that the berry and tree were always “in service” to others. But in doing deeper research on this berry, and finding that the service referred to a funeral service, the name lost its magic.  So I shifted to calling it by the other name I had heard as a child–Juneberry.  You have a choice with names–and this berry reminds us that we can be named by what we are associated with or surrounded with.  It reminds us of the power in a name–what it can teach us about the world.

I am so glad to share the amazing Juneberry with you.  I would love to hear from you–have you met this tree? Do you have one? have you tried the berries?

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

As I continue to explore some of the most important understory trees in the US East Coast and Midwest region, we turn our attention today to the amazing Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin).  Historically, Spicebush was an incredibly important plant, medicine, and spice both to Native Americans and early white settlers in the US and yet today has largely been forgotten in history. Spicebush is a native understory tree with a large range in North America, spanning from Maine to Florida and all the way across the south and Midwest to Texas and up to Ontario. While I’ve taught this plant routinely on my plant walks, and what amazes me is that nobody can even identify it, much less recognize how it might be used. Spicebush has an incredible flavor, medicinal value, and offers much in the way of magic and mystery. It certainly deserves a place in our consciousness and in our traditions.

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

Ecology

Widely distributed across North America, Spicebush is an understory tree that prefers damp soil and can grow in full shade, part shade, or full sun. Spicebush can grow up to 6-12 feet tall.  Spicebush reproduces by colonizing, thus, when you find it, it often grows in large patches in the forest understory. Here in the Appalachian mountains, you will find it growing in deciduous forests on damp hillsides, in wet areas where there are ephemeral springs, or along river bottoms.  When you see spicebush, it is often indicative of rich and fertile soil; it also prefers to grow in areas rich in limestone. Here on the Druid’s Garden Homestead land, we have it throughout our property as an understory tree with Oak-Hickory-Sugar Maple-Black cherry overstory.

Spicebush tree with berries

One of the key features of Spicebush is that it has an extremely early bloom time with fragrant flowers reminiscent of lemon. The clustered bright yellow blooms appear earlier than almost any other tree in our ecosystem. In Western Pennsylvania, it is typically blooming in early March, which is about the same time you start to see the Skunk Cabbage and Crocuses pop up and usually when the maple sap is running! You can often see this blooming sometimes while the snow is still on the ground (making it a very interesting counterpart to Witch Hazel who blooms in very late fall, from a bloom perspective). In the case of Spicebush, it blooms early so it can set its fruit early, well before the overstory trees bloom out and shade out the Spicebush. This is so characteristic of many of the other understory trees and bushes–all of them adapt themselves to be at peak in colder or darker times when light reaches the forest floor.

Spicebush is an important food source for wildlife. Larger mammals like whitetail deer, opossum, and eastern cottontail rabbit feed on the leaves, twigs, and berries. Many species of birds, both game birds, and songbirds, also feed on the berries, particularly in the winter months.  Spicebush is host to two butterflies–the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio Troilus) and the Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia Promethea).  The spicebush swallowtail lays eggs on Spicebush and then the larvae curls up the leaves to create a cocoon.

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

Spicebush is also known as Wild Allspice, Appalacian Allspice, Spicewood, Feverbush, Snap-bush, Snapwood, and Benjamin-Bush.  Many of these names are tied to the fragrant and amazing spice this bush produces for culinary arts. In fact, Spicebush has been seeing something of a renaissance within the foraging community in the last decade or so.  Even so, its more widespread use as a spice and food has not so far seemed to permeate beyond wild food foraging at present and into regional cuisine, which is honestly a shame.  In fact, Marie Viljoen who wrote the 2018 book Forage, Harvest, Feast makes the bold statement that if Spicebush were better known, it could form a cornerstone of regional Appalachian cuisine, demonstrating the power of this plant for cooking and culinary use.

Spicebush twigs and leaves can be made into a fragrant, slightly spicy tea that is reminiscent of a chai.  The tea is slightly spicy, slightly sweet, and quite pleasant to drink.  This is actually one of my favorite wild teas when I’m camping or foraging–just pick a few leaves and brew them up.  There are places I camp every year that are rich in spicebush and I always look forward to this warming tea on a gentle summer night.

The second way you can make tea when there are not leaves is by harvesting fresh twigs. To make a tea from the twigs, just brew them up with a lid on for 20-30 min (using low heat or even a crockpot to preserve the flavor).  The tea is similar to leaf tea: spicy, warming, and slightly sweet.

The real magic of the Spicebush from a culinary and wild food perspective is in the spicebush berry.  The green berry (unripe) and red berry (ripe) offer two different culinary experiences. The green berries are very sharp, lemony, and peppery and can be harvested anytime before they go red. The green berries are most intense when they are smaller and less plump. They can be used as a pepper substitute due to their very strong taste.

The berries go red in the early fall (you can see this from my images; the leaves start to yellow just as the berries go red). As they go red, you can begin to harvest them.  They will actually stay on the bush for 2 months or more, so you have a very long window for harvest. A good spicebush harvest can offer you several years of spice, which is pretty incredible.

I have found that the easiest way to preserve either red or green berries is to dehydrate them and then place them in the freezer. This prolongs their shelf life and intensifies the flavor. It is important to note that fresh spicebush berries can have a very numbing sensation on the tongue. By drying the berries, all the good spice is left with none of the numbing presents in the fresh berries. Once dry, you will taste that wonderful spice, very much its own flavor but with hints of allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, grains of paradise, citrus, and pepper, but you will also have your tongue go numb.  You can also use them fresh in curries and the like; cooking also can remove the numbness.

Marie Viljoen offers over 50 recipes in her Forage, Harvest, Feast that uses spicebush including combining it with citrus for refreshing drinks, using it as a seasoning in many diverse dishes, and using it as a dry rub on meats.  Here are a few recipes online to get you started:  foraged spicebush macaroons, acorn baklava with spicebush berry, a foraged dry rub (I’ve made a version of this and it is divine), a wild curry mix, and making a spicebush ice cream!

Traditionally, as Danie Moerman describes in Native American Food Plants, Native American uses of Spicebush were similar to what I have described above: spicebush was used by the Cherokee and Chippewa to make a beverage, including the stems to make tea.  The spice berries themselves were used to flavor opossum or groundhog. The Chippewa specifically used the berries to help mask or change meats with a strong or gamey flavor (p. 141).

Spicebush in Herbalism

Spicebush is infrequently Traditional Western Herbalism today, but historically, it was frequently used to treat a range of conditions. One of its names, fever bush, offers key insight into the nature of this plant.  King’s American Dispensatory and Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensary describes Spicebush bark and berries being used for medicine here in the Americas.  Spicebush is an aromatic herb being used primarily to treat fever (hence its name fever bush). A decoction (strong tea) was one of the treatments used as a diaphoretic (to support a healthy fever response and regulate body temperature).  It was used to treat all fevers including auge, typhoid, and rheumatic fevers. The berries were used primarily as a stimulant being used for a range of applications including supporting a healthy digestive system (carminative) particularly for alleviating excess gas. The berries can be distilled to create an essential oil of spicebush that is particularly useful for topical applications like bruises and rheumatism.

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

Spicebush in the Magical and Occult Traditions. Like many of my other understory plants, powerful yet unnoticed and unremarked upon, Spicebush has no mention that I can find in this lore.  This includes within the Hoodoo tradition and within the broader Western Occult traditions. However, the Latin name offers us some insight. The reason that the Latin name of Spicebush is Lindera Benzoin is that the oil found in all parts of the plant (part of what makes it tasty, see below) contain benzoic acid, which is the same chemical compound as Styrax Benzoin (for anyone who has used Benzoin incense). Burning the leaves, stems, or berries can give you a benzoin-like aroma, making it a great local incense source (for more on creating incenses generally, see this post on the general practice and this one on local tree incenses). I believe this plant has the potential for a local replacement for anyone who is using Benzoin or other incenses.

Spicebush berries in hand

Native American Traditions. Beyond food uses, I was unable to find anything about mythology, herbal, or other uses by Native Americans for spicebush.  While Native Americans also used this plant for medicine and food, (see the Ethnobotany of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) the specific uses are not specified.  One note in this entry is that Spicebush growing is a sign of a healthy and rich forest.

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

Based on all of my research as well as my own experiences, I want to share three possible divination and magical uses for spicebush.

Masking or illusion. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality has been used in culinary traditions for a variety of enhancements, alterations, and masking of strong flavors.  As suggested by the doctrine of signatures, this kind of quality can not only apply to the use of this tree as a culinary herb but also, as a magical one.

Enhancement. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality also lends itself well to any workings where something needs to be elevated or enhanced in some way.  The spice of the berries literally take ordinary foods and turn them into something unique and extraordinary–and the same can be said of other ways in which you might bring this unique and wonderful tree into your life.

Acting Swiftly and being Early.  Another meaning of the Spicebush is the power in doing things early, swiftly, and ahead of time.  The Spicebush takes advantage of the late winter sun when the overstory is still bare to set fruit and prepare for the season.  Thus, she offers us a powerful lesson with regards to action and focusing on being prepared in advance.

Sacred Tree Profile: Wild Grape (Vitis Labrusca) Mythology, Medicine, and Meanings

Wild Grapes

Wild Grapes

I remember when I first spotted to Wild Grape patch from the dirt road. “Is that all wild grape?” I said to my friend in an excited voice. We pulled the car over, and sure enough, there were thousands of grape bunches on a patch of vines that stretched hundreds of feet, almost ripe. A week later, we came back to the spot with a larger group of friends–there were more than enough wild grapes to go around.  After giving thanks for the abundance and promising to return to the spot for some wassailing in the winter, I harvested almost 5 gallons of wild grape that day. We worked to press all of the wild grapes with a friend’s with a small fruit press, and converting those grapes into the most amazing jelly you ever tasted!

Wild Grapevines, most commonly on the US East Coast the Fox Grape (Vitis Labrusca) variety, are truly a wonderful vine to get to know. They offer a variety of wonderful fruits with medicinal and culinary uses, a whimsical and sacred presence in our forests, and important spiritual lessons to learn. Like apples, pears, and other stonefruits, humans have an extremely longstanding and healthy relationship with grapes.  This is, in no small part, the role of wine and other fermented beverages in human history.  Before we had modern medicine, the wine was not considered simply an alcoholic beverage but also an important medicine. Grapes, their fruit and leaves, are also an important food source.In today’s post, we will explore the incredible grapevine!  While I’m focusing my comments on the most common grapevine along the US east coast, Vitis Labrusca, the fox grape, or wild grape, you can apply the content of this post to all grapevines.

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

Grapevine Ecology and Growth Habits

Ecoprint of the Wild Grape Leaf

Fox Grape is widespread along the US Eastern seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Georgia, and its range stretches through most of the eastern half of North America to the Mississippi.  Because of this, it is quite easy to find Fox Grape in foraging adventures, and when found, it is often abundant (although not always easy to reach if it is growing high up in the trees).  Fox grape, like other grapevines, is not a freestanding tree. Rather, it depends upon the support of other trees, most often in a symbiotic relationship, where the grapevines are growing with other living trees.  However, over time, the vines can strangle the trees, eventually pulling them down. You might see places like this in the forest–it often appears as a U-shaped bowl where thousands of grapevines are growing up the trees–and the center is a mass of grapevines that have pulled down smaller trees and continue growing outward.  Several other growth habits I’ve witnessed include wild grape taking over an abandoned pile of wood (imagine a very large brush pile covered in wild grape) or a huge amount of wild grape on the edge of a field/forest, taking up much of the edge space. Most commonly though, you will find a grapevine here or there, often climbing up into the host trees.

The woody vine of the wild grape is usually 10-40′ long with a base of several inches and up to 12″ in diameter for the oldest vines.  It uses forked tendrils (also edible) to slowly climb up adjacent trees where it uses its tendrils to anchor itself to branches and continue its ascent.  The bark is medium brown and usually appears shredded, with some of it flaking off over time as the vine grows in girth.  At regular intervals, the vine will have nodes where stems come out to produce leaves. The leaves are alternate and heart shape with three palmate lobes.  In the late spring or early summer, the wild grape will produce greenish-yellow bunches of flowers–they aren’t very showy, and it Is usually easy to miss them. The flowers slowly develop into green grape clusters and then, in the late summer or fall, the 1/2″ – 3/4″ grapes ripen to dark purple or bluish-black. Of course, this is the time to go foraging for wild grapes!

Wild grapes grow in a variety of soils and tolerate a range of conditions, but they prefer wetter conditions and have some flood tolerance.  They usually thrive in part sun conditions, and as they climb, they bring themselves into more sunlight, sometimes blocking out the light of their host tree.

Wild Grape History

An abundant harvest of wild grape!

The Fox grape has an interesting history. It is likely that in the 11th century when Leif Erikson and the Vikings were exploring coastal North America, they named the land they saw as “Vineland” because of the numbers of grapevines present.  Fox grapevines along with other Vitis species were later exported to Europe during the 19th century.  However, all North American grapevines carry the phylloxera louse that devastated many of the Vitis vinifera  (European) varieties of grapes but that the American varieties are immune to.  Europeans eventually overcame the phylloxera by interbreeding Fox grape with native European grapes to build resistance.  Thus, most of the grapevines in the world have a bit of Fox Grape in them.   The Concord grape was also bred from the Fox Grape in the 19th century in Concord, MA and after that other varieties such as the Niagara and Deleware were developed.

Wild Grape as Food

The Fox Grape is a very potent red grape variety, which has a skin that can be easily slipped off, offering easy access to the grape flesh and 4-5 small seeds in the center. According to Winker, Cook, Kliere, and Lider from General Viticulture (1974), the fox grape is known as “fox” because it has a strong, musky aroma that is earthy, sweet, and quite unique. These features make it highly sought out as a wild food.

In Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, Daniel Moerman describes the widespread uses of wild grapes by a variety of Native American tribes for food.  This included eating the fruit raw, using the fruit to make juice and dumplings, drying the fruit into raisins, and more.

Pressing wild grapes using a small fruit press

Today, as traditionally, wild grapes are used as a food source in a number of ways.  First, the small forked tendrils coming out of the vines are good for a trailside nibble–they are tart and fresh tasting (you could never gather many of these without harming the vine, so enjoy a few as you hike but don’t consider this a major food source!)

The leaves are a culinary delight: they can be steamed or marinated in oil and then used to make dolmas, casseroles, or other dishes calling for grape leaves.  You can preserve them in oil or even parboil and freeze them if you want a ready supply of grape leaves into the winter months.

Of course, the prime food source from the grape is the fruit itself.  In the late summer or early fall, keep an eye out for wild grapes that are ripe. Confirm that they are wild grapes (both poison ivy and Virginia creeper can produce a look-alike, identify the difference between the leaves and the size of the fruit). Usually, wild grapes stay on the vine a number of weeks if the wildlife doesn’t get to them first, giving you a long harvest window. As Sam Thayer in the Foragers Harvest notes–and this is important–when you are harvesting, you either need to process your grapes right away or ensure that you do not crush them. The grapes will immediately begin to ferment if crushed (as grapes do!). When you crush them, crush them gently because the seeds can be bitter and that bitterness can be transferred into the grape juice if the seeds are crushed.  Thayer notes that a small fruit press or jelly bag is good for this work–I’ve also found you can step on them in a clean bucket with clean feet!  Return any seeds or unwanted materials to the living earth.

One of the most important things to know about harvesting wild grapes, at least the Fox Grape variety, is that they contain a compound known as tartrate (a salt/esterate of tartaric acid, found in all grapes but high in wild grape). Different vines have it in larger or smaller amounts, in my experience.  After crushing, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly or the Tartrate can start to make your hands burn after about 45 min to 60 min.  After you have your juice, put it in the fridge or a cool porch for 24 hours in a large jar.  You will see a gray-brown sludge form at the bottom (usually about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total volume).. Pour off everything that isn’t the sludge and discard the sludge in your compost or outside (it is important to return any “waste” to nature.  If you don’t pour off the Tartrate, it will provide an “off” taste to your finished juice (or any fermented products you make with it).

Some wild grape juice needing to rest–more to process as you can see!

What is left is an amazing, very potent, and delicious grape juice.  You can mix it with other juices (it goes well with apple or pear), ferment it, make a jelly, drink it fresh, or anything else. At this point, you can use any recipes you want for those calling for Concord or Niagra grapes.  My favorite thing to do with it, since I don’t drink alcohol at all, is to turn it into the most incredible jelly you will ever taste!  A fruit leather (fruit roll-up) is another excellent use, especially when combined with another fruit like ripe pureed apple.

Wild Grape as Medicine

It’s important to remember that before modern medicine, wine (particularly red wine) was considered as much a medicinal substance as it was a culinary one. Due to the reservitol, which supports healthy heart function, wine has long been used as a medicinal drink and health tonic in many cultures.  As Matthew Wood describes in his Earthwise Herbal: Old World Herbs, herbs were often macerated (soaked) in wine, and then it was diluted with honey and water for medicinal use.  As Wood notes, in the late Middle Ages, distillation techniques invented which allowed wine to be turned into spirits, creating an even more potent medium for tincturing herbs. Wood notes several other historical uses of grapes including liquid drops from living grapevines being used on the eyes to help heal eye issues and the grape leaves (which are astringent) were used to address a variety of wet or damp stomach conditions.

Wild Grape in the Western Magical Tradition: Europe and the Americas

Vine or Muin is associated most commonly with grapevine, although grapevines are not native to Ireland, where the ogham associated.  Still, many contemporary uses of Muin tie it to the wild grapevine (I use it in the Allegheny Mountain Ogham as well). In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the word Muin is tied to the “highest beauty and strongest effort” in the ancient texts, suggesting that vine grows from tree to tree, connecting the forest, which offers one key interpretation of vine through the ogham (p. 147).

In the American Hoodoo tradition as described by Cat Yronwoode in Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, the grape is used for revealing adultery revealing spells and also for a very specific kind of curse lifting. If a man has difficulty urinating due to a curse, a rootworker cuts a grapevine to the height of his crotch and then bends it in a glass jar and lets it sit overnight. This will produce a liquid.  He should wash his privates with this liquid, which will cure him of the curse.

In The Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that grapes have been considered magical substances by humans since before we had recorded history.  The ancient Greeks called the grapevine the “blood of the earth” representing their critical importance.  JMG notes that grapes are tied to the Sun in Pisces and are airy and warm in the 1st degree, moist in the 2nd degree. While grapes were used traditionally in love magic of all kinds, JMG notes that grapes are excellent at carrying the energies of other herbs or substances, which is part of why wine can be the base for many potions, baths, and washes (p. 115).

 Wild Grape in Native American Mythology

The Chickasaw Legend describes the Raccoon Clan, a clan of bright and well-adapted people, hanging large bunches of wild grapes up to dry for the winter months. In the History and Traditional Lands of the Huron-Iroquois Nations, the tale describes a large bridge constructed by the Iroquois over the Ohio river which broke after several explorers attempted to cross it. In a similar Senaca legend, the Lazy Man makes a grapevine swing and hangs out in his swing all day rather than doing anything productive like hunting. In The Origin of the Iroquois Nation, the spirits of the sky came down and gave each of the five Iroquois nations a gift. To the Onondaga were given grapes, squashes, and tobacco.  In a final Senaca legend, the Adventures of Yellowbird, at one point Yellowbird, who is a shapeshifter, is summoned by a neighboring chief.  In animal form, he runs to meet her but is stopped repeatedly by an invisible tangle of grapevines.  He knows these vines were put in his way by the chief.

The Magical and Divination Meanings of Wild Grape

Beautiful grapes!

Binding and Holding Fast. The first meaning of the wild grape is due to the very nature of grapevine–as vines grow, they grow around other trees and plants, in some cases, strangling them and pulling them down over time.  even the small tendrils can cause great difficulty to living plants.  This meaning is clear, both in the ecology of the plant as well as in some of the legends surrounding the plant.

Transmission of energy. Just as the grapevines connect multiple trees and the wine can be used to transmit the qualities of herbs, the grapevine as a whole offers a transmission of energy and is a worthy vessel for any sacred sacrament – herbs, magic, and more.  Wine is a carrier, it can help carry sacred energies of ritual and more.  You might consider how vine can be used as such a transmission source in your own practice–through the wood, through the leaves, or through food and drink that you create.

Dear readers, what are some of your experiences with the wild grape? I would love to hear your insights and thoughts!

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

Wild Food Profile – Eastern Hemlock Buds: Fresh Eating, Tea, and Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing

Eastern Hemlock is one of my very favorite trees.  The tall, regal personal, the needles and branches that offer a bluish light beneath them as the sun shines, the cathedral-like quality of the ancient ones. This time of year, you can see the bright green buds on the Eastern Hemlock that represent the growth of the tree for this season.  As the buds grow older, they darken to the beautiful viridian green that is characteristic of the Eastern Hemlock tree. But, for the short window of time when the trees are budding–right now–Eastern Hemlock buds are a delicious treat.

Harvesting Eastern Hemlock buds

We happen to have many of these trees on our property, and some of the branches are starting to grow into our paths and have to be trimmed back. There are thousands of beautiful tiny green buds on each of the branches to be trimmed, which offered a good opportunity to create some new delicacies and experiment with a larger-than-usual volume of Eastern Hemlock buds.  In this post, I’ll share three ways to enjoy the buds as well as some harvest instructions.  If you want to learn more about the Eastern Hemlock’s magical and medicinal qualities, you can check out my earlier post.

Harvest

If you are going to eat these delicious treats, you need to first know how to harvest buds.  You will want to get the buds as they are emerging–you have usually a 1-2 week window each year, and the exact timing will depend on the warmth or coolness of your spring (for us here in USDA Zone 6 in Western PA, that’s usually sometime in May).

The buds will first emerge in little casings; wait until they have fully emerged, like in my photo below. I recommend the buds when they are fully spread out but still bright green.  They are prime when they have emerged and spread out a bit but haven’t gotten to the darker green color yet or too large.

Buds at perfect harvest time

You will want to be very careful about how much you harvest, as each bud is potential new growth for the tree.  If you are trimming a tree branch I am, then obviously you would harvest all of the buds on the branch that will be cut.  But if you are harvesting from a tree without any trimming, you want to make sure you aren’t compromising the growth of that tree.  I would suggest never harvesting the buds on the ends of the branch (this will prohibit future growth) but rather, harvest a bud or two per branch from further down the branch.  I would also recommend harvesting from mature trees, not small trees (who need all of their growth). Finally, please be aware that the hemlocks are under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, which may or may not be present in your area (do not harvest from any tree that is fighting this terrible pestilence–these hemlocks need all the help they can get! Instead, how about some ritual for them? )

Of course, like any other harvest from the land, harvest with gratitude.  Offer something in return.

Flavor

Buds ready for eating!

In my opinion, the Eastern Hemlock has the best tasting “tips” in my bioregion. The tips have a strong lemony taste with a hint of pine and a slightly bitter aftertaste.  They are really delicious for fresh eating or in recipes.

They can delicious and quite strongly flavored in bulk, so they are really useful as a marinade or dressing, where the flavor can really have an impact.

Eastern Hemlock buds, like most other conifers, are high in Vitamin C.

Recipe 1: Fresh Eats, Salad, and Garnish

The first recipe is not really a recipe at all–you can simply nibble on the hemlock buds as a trailside treat.  You can add them to fresh salads or as a garnish. They are amazing when sprinkled on top of meats or roasted veggies.  Harvest them fresh and add whole buds to the salad.  Harvest them fresh and chop them up as a spice. I really like them as a garnish for a baked or pan-fried fish!

Recipe 2:  Tea (Hot or Cold)

Hemlock buds make an amazing, light, and refreshing tea.  You can dry them or use them fresh (you can also use the mature needles, which have a stronger flavor that is also amazingly delicious).  Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 TBSP fresh buds or 1/2 TBSP dried buds/needles.  Cover and let seep for 5 minutes.  Add fresh honey to taste and enjoy!

Recipe 3: Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing / Spread / Marinade

This is a recipe that my sister and I created this season and experimented with to find just the right combination.

The base is:

  • 1/2 cup of Eastern Hemlock buds
  • 1/2 cup of good quality olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fire cider vinegar (or regular apple cider vinegar)

I would strongly suggest adding:

  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 3 TBSP maple syrup or honey (to taste)

Start by adding your olive oil and Eastern hemlock buds to a food processor (if you don’t have a food processor, you can chop finely and stir everything by hand).  Process them until they are fairly chopped up.  Add your apple cider vinegar and maple syrup and pulse a few times. If you are going with the base dressing, then you are done and it is delicious!

After some processing, this is your base dressing

If you want to make a spread or thicker dressing, add your tahini. If you pulse this a lot, you will end up with a thick spread, almost the consistency of mayo (good for spreading on a sandwich). If you stir it by hand or pulse it only a little, you will end up with a lovely dressing for salads, marinades, and more.

If you process it for a minute or more with tahini, you get this great spread

We had a nice salad and then a lunch of sauteed veggies (asparagus, celery, summer squash, broccoli, and kale) with the delicious dressing as a marinade and drizzle over some rice. I hope you enjoy this delightful wild-foraged treat and spend time communing with the beautiful and majestic Eastern Hemlock, my favorite of the trees.

Delicious as a marinade and sauce for veggies

Have it on a fresh salad!

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

Butterfly on choke cherry

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

 

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

 

Black Cherry Growth and Ecology

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

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

Younger and older black cherry trees

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

 

Wood and Other Uses

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

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

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

Cherry Leaves and Cyanide

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

Foraging for Cherries

Thick bark of an older black cherry tree

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

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

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

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

Cherry as Medicine

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

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

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

 

Magic of the Cherry Tree in Global Traditions

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

Leaves of cherry tree

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

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

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

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

Meanings and Magic for North America

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

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

A small grove of cherries on the edge of the homestead

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

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