The Druid's Garden

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

Tree Alchemy: Hydrosols and Essential Oils from Sacred Trees May 20, 2018

Nature can provide tremendous wisdom and healing, especially when we work with our local ecosystems and ecologies. One of the most powerful ways of working healing with nature, I believe, is to combine the innate healing properties of plants with your own various kinds of medicinal preparations. The plants and trees offer the raw material and your hands and tools shape that material into something that heals the body, mind, and/or spirit. Working to transform tree and plant matter through alchemical processes into medicine–and then taking that medicine–can be an incredibly powerful way of establishing deep relationships not only with the living earth but with the trees themselves. Today, I want to talk about a particular kind of medicine known as a “hydrosol” and talk about how you might make your own with plant and tree material.  This is especially beneficial for today as many of us are thinking about planning our year, what we will be planting and growing in containers and in gardens, and so forth.

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

Alchemy is the ancient art of matter transformation. Alchemists worked to turn base metals into gold, to render the philosopher’s stone for that purpose. Alchemists also worked with plants through spagyrics, the practice of plant alchemy. It was believed by the alchemists that the process of alchemy, as the material moved through the black, red, and white phases, didn’t just happen on the physical plane, but rather facilitated transformations of mind, body, and soul.  I, like most folks of this time period, have never done anything with metal alchemical work (it is highly toxic).  But for many years, I’ve been fascinated by spagyrics, and have made a number of preparations using those techniques.  (For good reading on the subject, I suggest Mark Stavish’s Path of Alchemy as an introduction).  Because Alchemy is an inner and outer process, there is a whole movement of “inner alchemy” or “spiritual alchemy” work, work that can be can be used for inner transformations. The thing about any alchemical process is this: matter has to be broken down with fire and heat in order to be reformed in a more pure manner.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the work we might do with trees and alchemy and have been experimenting in various ways in that direction. Basic spagryic preparations (which are detailed in Mark Stavish’s excellent work) combine macerating plant matter in high-proof alcohol (that is, soaking it for a period of time) and going through a process of refinement where the material that was macerated is burned and the ash is further refined. Eventually, the refined materials are combined for a highly potent medicine.

 

I think there are other kinds of work you can do with plants and tree matter that are a little less direct. On the most passive side that requires little tools, preparation, or time, a simple flower essence (where a bowl of spring water is held up to a leaf or flower of the plant, imbuing that plant energetically) is a good first step. Somewhere in the middle, requiring some preparation, tools, and time, we have the hydrosol and the creation of an essential oil. On the far side, requiring much preparation and time, we have the full spagyric plant preparation.

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

Hydrosols are also known as “floral waters” although they can be made of much more than just flowers.  They are produced by a simple distillation process. You can purchase fancy equipment (often known as an Alembic or Still) to do this or you can do it with stuff you likely have already in your kitchen (I am going to offer information on both approaches.)  I used the simple stovetop approach with kitchen materials for many years before, using about $10 worth of materials from the thrift store for very small batches.  Then, last year, I finally invested in a medium-sized copper alembic to do more advanced preparations.

 

The process of making a hydrosol, which I’ll detail with photographs below, involves gathering fresh plant material that is aromatic in nature.  You will need a lot of plant matter – usually several pounds.  It involves heating the material up to create steam, cooling that steam and condensing it back into a liquid form that is medicinal and relatively shelf stable).

 

Hydrosols are sacred medicine in their own right, although they are often seen as “by products” of the essential oil distillation process.  When you heat up plant matter that has high amounts of volatile oils, those oils also come out through the distillation process and sit on the top of the hydrosol.  Most people working on this process at home, particularly with sacred trees, may not produce enough oil to make it worth their while, although some plants, like lavender or goldenrod, certainly can do so, especially if you do several batches of distillation.

Choosing Your Material

Harvest your plant material with reverence and respect. Hydrosols and distillation take a good deal plant material (particularly if you are using an Alembic and doing a higher amount of distillation). Keep this in mind as you are planning for the garden this year! Plant material should be safe to consume or at least put on the body. Despite my positive relationship with Poison Ivy, I would not, under any circumstances do a steam distillation of it!

 

Any plant or tree that is typically used in herbal practice and that has a scent would be a good choice. Common kitchen herbs are often used such as:

  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Rose(petals)
  • Mints
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Monarda/bee balm
  • Scented geranium

In terms of trees, the leaves or needles would work.  Ones I’ve experimented with include:

  • Blue Spruce (needles)
  • White Pine (needles)
  • Eastern Hemlock (needles)
  • Black Birch (budding branches)
  • Sassafras (root)

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

Harvest your material on a sunny day when it is not raining. The rain, particularly for flowers or aromatic leaves, can dilute the plant oils and overall result.  Harvest the plant matter in abundant areas or grow it yourself to ensure that you are not taking too much from the plant matter. Generally speaking, if the plant is rare, doing a tincture is probably the best way to use that plant’s energy because it is the most efficient.  If the plant is very abundant, a steam distillation would be a good choice.

 

The timing also matters–plants have different levels of aromatic oils at different times of year. If I was doing a black birch preparation, I would do this in the early spring due to the amount of sweet oil in the birch branches that time (due to the flowing of sap). Other plants, like the conifers, don’t matter as much. Flowers and herbs should be harvested at their peak–so when lavender is in flower, for example, but before it goes to seed.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A friend and I went out and harvested a number of plants to fire up the copper alembic. We did four distillations, two of herbs (goldenrod and sweet clover) and two of trees (eastern hemlock and blue spruce). We experimented with different kinds of approaches to the distillation.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

 

Distillation Process

Now I am going to walk step by step through the distillation process.

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

Once we were home, we removed large stem material and did our best to crush up the hemlock needles. We had not done this with the blue spruce (instead, placing whole small branches in the alembic) and that proved to give us very little essential oil, but certainly, a nice hydrosol. Breaking up the hemlock material took more work, but we believe, it was worth it as we had a better preparation.

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

After we soaked the needles, we added fresh spring water (harvested at my local sacred spring, Heffley Spring) for the distillation. If you can’t get access to fresh water, I would consider using distilled water. The point is this: the process is very potent, and I certainly wouldn’t want any human-added chemicals, like chlorine, in my distillation.

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

My alembic also has an addition column where you can cram more plant matter in and the top that also takes plant matter. So I did this–so both the base and column are filled with plant matter (this photo shows Goldenrod), and the base is also filled with water. That gives you a lot of plant matter at once to steam distill–probably 10x what I used with my other method.

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

In the traditional method, Rye flour is used to seal up the alembic prior to steaming it. If you have severe allergies to gluten, I would suggest a sticky rice flour or tapioca flour in the place of rye.  I haven’t tried this, but I think it would work. First you mix a big batch of the Rye flour up.  It looks a lot like a sticky bread dough.  I didn’t measure, just added enough water till I got a nice paste.

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Then you basically smear it into the cracks and crevices of the entire alembic to hold it together. The idea is to seal it up so that as it starts to steam, it doesn’t leak steam anywhere.

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

Distillation works with the heating up of the plant matter and water to create steam then cooling it down quickly for condensation. That’s the entire process.  So you will need something to heat it up (I used a small outdoor burner) and you will need something to cool it down (I used lines with a small submersible fish tank pump and ice cold water).

The full system

The full system

I forgot to take a photo of the pump part of the system. The condenser unit has two cooper pipes sticking out of it–the top one flows water in and the bottom one pulls water out. You can keep the system cold if you flow cold water into it. Online, some people just use this from their tap, if they have a spring or well, the water is cold enough if you keep flowing it through. I didn’t have this, so instead, I used several bags of ice and a cooler. I placed the submersible pump at the bottom of the cooler and then ran the tubing through it and into the condenser. I used a little clamp to regulate the pressure of the water (so it would stay level, which required some work).

 

I found that the unit took about 30 minutes to heat up and about 45 minutes to actually start condensing the steam.  I let it run two or so hours, until the water no longer looked cloudy when it was coming out of the condenser unit.

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

This final water has both your essential oil and the distillation in it.  You can purchase a fancy oil separator (which I didn’t have when I did this) but I used a different method.  In my case, the only plant that produced enough essential oil to really take off the top was goldenrod.  To do this, I simply poured it all into a mason jar and then froze the whole thing.  The hydrosol freezes but the oil does not. I then pulled it out of the freezer and used a pipette to pull the oil off the top of the jar, then unfroze the hydrosol and put it in neat little spritzer bottles.

 

Conclusion

Since doing this last fall, I have shared these hydrosols with many friends in the druid community. They remark on their potency–the spruce gives an incredible lift me up, the white pine brings peace, and the hemlock brings stability and space (mental space/clarity, is the way one person described it). In truth, the goldenrod got a little skunky/funky, but did produce  a nice oil, so I’m not sure I’ll do that one again (and I didn’t give that one away!).

 

Creating tree hydrosols and essential oils represents a unique and beautiful way to connect with the potent medicine of the trees and work with them for healing and transformation. What seems like an intimidating process is actually a very simple one: refining potent medicine through the application of fire, water, and ice.  The practice of alchemy, of course, isn’t just about producing a physical medicine–but rather, the refinement and work on the level of the soul. Alchemical preparations not only as medicine for the body, but medicine for the soul.

PS: After this post, I will be taking several weeks off of regular posting on this blog to do some travel.  I look forward to returning later in June to my regular posting.  Blessings!

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

A great place for finding some good weeds!

A great place for finding some good weeds!

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

 

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

 

Unpacking our understanding and relationship to weeds

 

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

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Embracing the Weeds

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

 

Weedhealing

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

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

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

 

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

 

Weedwalking and Weedtalking

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

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

Just let it grow!

Just let it grow!

Weedtending

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

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

 

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

 

Medicine Making and Sacred Herbalism at Lughnassadh August 1, 2014

I love celebrating the druid wheel of the year.  Its just an amazing experience to dedicate eight days to magic, ritual, being outdoors, studying, reading, meditation, gardening, and other sacred activity. I had the most wonderful day today making so many medicines from fresh ingredients. Just like at the summer solstice, Lughnassadh is a fantastic time for gathering bright, beautiful herbs, so today I spent most of the day gathering and preparing plants for medicinal use. I thought I’d share so that you have a sense of what herbs are in season right now and what they can be used for.  Since I’m trying to replace any over-the-counter medicine with locally gathered or my own home grown herbs, I’m trying to lay in a really good stock of herbs before winter (then I can continue to make things in the wintertime).  Once I have a better sense of all of the herbs I want to have for common ailments, I’ll post a list here–but for now, this post serves as a sneak peek to my “family herbal medicine chest.”

 

In the morning, the skies were clear and blue, the weather warm, and the sun shining.  There was very little wind, which allowed the monarchs (who have finally made their way to Michigan) come out and enjoy the milkweed blooms.  I went out to my favorite secret harvest spot (an 80 acre parcel of land about a mile away) to see what was ready.  The land isn’t far from my home, so I’m pretty sure I also spotted some of my (or other local) honeybees on the spotted knapweed. I was so excited to see that the goldenrod had just came into flower and tons of mullein stalks jutting up around the goldenrod as far as I could see.  I gathered up goldenrod, beautiful and bold, for a tincture.  I’ve been eagerly awaiting the blooming of the goldenrod all summer, and I’m so glad to finally be able to make this tincture!

Goldenrod!

Goldenrod!

I also carefully went around each of the mullein stalks, gathered a few leaves, and spent a good hour gathering up a bunch of mullein flower for an ear oil.  I visited at least 30 plants to gather up enough of their delicate flowers. If you look around the plant, in its leaves, etc, and you can find flowers that have already dropped but are still moist.

Mullein Flower Stalk

Mullein Flower Stalk

In addition, I gathered some branches from a fallen oak tree (for an oak bark tincture), bright red clusters of staghorn sumac berry and stinging nettle, all for tinctures. I brought my panflute with me, and in exchange for the harvest, played music for the land for a time, and just sat and enjoyed being out in the fields and among the pines.

 

Around lunch, I arrived home, ate some yummy food from the garden (it is the first harvest, after all) and setup my medicine-making supplies out on my back porch where I could keep an eye on my free ranging chickens.  From nearby herb beds, I gathered colts foot, lady’s mantle, and chamomile.  I also gathered up valerian flower for a tincture (I am hoping the flower will be more mild than valerian root, the root I will harvest later in the year).

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

The tincture making process is a lot of fun.  Inspect your herbs to make sure you only have the right ones, check for bugs, and so on.  Then, chop up fresh herbs, add alcohol (in a 1:2 ratio for fresh, so 1 part herbs (weight) to two parts alcohol (volume)), and seal in a mason jar.  I learned in my herb class that if you are using the standard fresh herb ratio, and the herb is really bulky (like mullein leaf), you can get the herbs below the level of the alcohol by weighing down your herbs with clean stones. That way they don’t turn a funky color and the alcohol can properly extract all of the plant material.

 

Staghorn sumac, above, is a fantastic (and quite potent) astringent.  Its good for leaky, puffy, or lax tissues.  There are other astringents less potent than this (like strawberry leaf), but this was one on my “must make” list this year.  My hands were still a bit cut up from replacing my chicken coop last weekend (chicken wire hurts!) and so the sumac was quite stinging on the hands as I was carefully pulling off the berries.

Goldenrod Tincture

Goldenrod Tincture

Goldenrod (especially when combined with ragweed leaf and stem–NOT ragweed pollen/flower) is great for those snotty, leaky, allergies.  Its kinda funny that ragweed leaf and stem can help cure ragweed’s pollen allergies that many people get.  As far as I know, nobody is allergic to goldenrod, it gets a bad rap because other allergen producing plants, like ragweed, happen to bloom at the same time and in the same location.  I wanted to have a good tincture of goldenrod so that when I encounter people’s pesky dogs that jump up on me, I have something to counter the allergic reaction.

 

Another tincture I made today was oak bark.  Its really good for gums, especially gums that bleed a lot after flossing or brushing teeth or gums that are receding or otherwise lax–its another astringent, so it will help tighten up the tissue.

Oak Bark Tincture

Oak Bark Tincture

I had made a St. Johns Wort oil a few weeks ago (the St. Johns wort flowers are about done for the year, but two weeks ago they were in the height of their blossom). I spent today letting it drip off, to get off all the plant matter (if plant matter remains in an infused oil, it will go rancid).  This oil is fantastic for any kind of wound (external use). I will probably make a new healing salve blend with some of this along with plantain oil, maybe calendula or a few other things.

St. Johns Wort

St. Johns Wort

Fresh garlic from the garden and the painstakingly gathered mullein flowers went into my awesome enamel and copper double boiler (yard sale find, $15).  This oil, which I will infuse over the next three days, is used for ear infections, which I get pretty often in the winter.

Garlic and Mullein Flower

Garlic and Mullein Flower

Double Boiler with Ear Oil

Double Boiler with Ear Oil

I also added some herbs to the dehydrator–its been going straight for weeks now, it seems! I have found such a quality difference between what I can buy vs. what I grow and harvest myself, plus, there are many herbs that one can’t buy easily or cheaply.  But these herbs are free and abundant on the land if one grows them or knows where to look.

Dehydrator filled up

Dehydrator filled up with herbs – Lady’s Mantle, Colt’s Foot, and Calendula

Here is a photograph of all the herbs I prepared or jarred up today–nine tinctures in all plus four jars of dried herbs from the dehydrator. The tinctures are now macerating and many of the herbs I wanted to preserve have been crossed off my list.

Good Medicine!

Good Medicine!

After all that work, I went down to the stone circle for some ritual and meditation, and saw the butterfly of transformation!

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

To finish out the day, I had a wonderful feast from the garden and the land – wild chicken of the woods mushrooms, green beans, zuchinni, and kale. I hope that everyone has a blessed Lughnassadh!