The Druid's Garden

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

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!

 

Traditional Western Herbalism as a Sustainable Druidic Practice July 24, 2014

Because of my ongoing study of Traditional Western Herbalism as a student of the amazingly awesome Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald.    I wanted to take some time today to discuss the potential of herbalism as an essential quality of druid practice.  I hope this post encourages others to also consider learning herbalism for their spiritual work, sustainable work, or both.  It is highly rewarding, with direct, tangible benefits.

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Druidry, Sustainability, and Herbalism: A Natural Relationship

I’ve been exploring the relationship of my druidic path to that of my herbal studies, and I’ve come up with a number of ways that they are highly compatible:

 

1. Speaking with the plants, seeking connection with the natural world on the physical and metaphysical levels. Since druidry is a deep path of nature spirituality, following the cycles of the seasons, listening the voices of the spirits of the land, it only makes sense that one kind of oak knowledge we would seek would be that of the plant kingdom.  Herbalists speak in terms druids can understand and that aligns intimately with our tradition; when I open up herbals and I read about how we must listen to our “plant allies” and also work on an intuitive scale with the plants, I know that I’m reading something that can substantially deepen my practice and also improve my health.

 

2.  One branch of druidry, that of Ovate studies, directly connects with plant knowledge, divination, and the healing arts. The realm of the Ovate within the druid tradition is often associated with plants, the natural sciences and healing with said plants (also, often, divination). I see all of these intersecting with the work of an herbalist–an herbalist must know the plants very well, must understand their lessons and their medicine.  This means studying botany and ecology, being able to rightly identify herbs.  But this also has an intuitive side to discern signs and accurately assess someone’s condition in order to select the correct herbs and doses to use. These kinds of intuitive practices can be enhanced by druidic practice, such as discursive meditation, observation of the natural world, and naturalistic studies in the bio-region where the druid resides. Likewise, the practice of herbalism directly enhances a druid’s understanding of the world…when I go out in a field or forest, I know the qualities of the herbs that can help heal. That’s a powerful tool, and one that the ancient druids certainly held.  I honor my spiritual ancestors, and that ancient tradition, by learning the healing teachings of the plants as “oak knowledge” and “ovate knowledge.”

 

3.  The roots of druidry and herbalism are quite similar and work from similar frameworks.  Herbalism is a folk tradition, passed on, adapted and fluid.  Herbalists’ making of knowledge involves a combination of research from aging tomes, material directly passed down through teachers (orally, in the case of my own course), engagement in the natural world.  Each herbalist has her or his own unique approach, and yet herbalism is a framework in which all herbalists interact.  As #2 describes, herbalists also rely heavily on intuition and inner teachers and plant allies.  I find the epistemology of herbalism (that is, their ways of making knowledge and of knowing) extremely compatible with my druid path, where knowledge is constructed and practices are based in similar epistemologies.  That is, as a druid I read old texts and learn about the ancient druids and the revival druids, enjoy the myths and writings of those who came before.  I adapt these teachings and the basic frameworks to my own practice.  I learn from others, from correspondence courses and direct teachers, inner and outer.  I learn as much from nature as I do from anywhere else…..sound similar?  I think so!

 

Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

4. There is magic in plants, and herbalists and druids both know it.  Herbalists have developed ways of reaching the magic of plants, ways that benefit druids to learn.  Tincture practices, practices of drying, dosing plants, and the like, can lead not only to greater health benefit for the druid and his/her family, friends, and community, but it can also lead to deeper magical practice.  I think studying the herbal healing arts gives us new and powerful ways of interacting with the plants, ways that maybe aren’t as accessible within the druidic traditions and training.  Likewise, practices rooted in druidic work (such as Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system) use spagyrics (or plant alchemy) to create extremely potent medicinal/magical tinctures.  Combining these two systems gives one a huge advantage in understanding the magic of plants on many levels.  I have found that the more one knows the plants….the better for so many reasons.

 

5. Knowing about the plants and their benefit to humanity can help save our lands.  This is perhaps the most pragmatic of the reasons, but in my mind, a critical one.  Druids value the land and seek to protect it, to preserve it, to revere it–especially our wild and unsettled spaces.  We can do that SO much more effectively if we can show others the value and benefit of plants within that landscape.  There’s a huge difference to the argument “don’t cut those tall weeds down, they deserve to live” (which they do, of course) to something like this “Those tall ‘weeds’ you are thinking of cutting down are St. John’s Wort plants. They have substantial medicinal value to you, including as a topical antiseptic and wound healing herb, a mood uplifter, a gentle astringent good for the urinary system, not to mention a great herb for native pollinators. Those other ‘weeds’ over there you are thinking of pulling are milkweed. In addition to being critical for the endangered monarch butterfly, you can eat them at most of their growing stages–shoot, bud, and pod, and they are absolutely delicious.” You get the idea.  The more you know, the more you can teach others, and the more they can then value the landscape around them. You’ve been seeing me use this approach with my blog–my post on dandelion, for example, encourages people to resee this plant as an incredibly useful herb, hopefully encouraging them not to dump weed killer on them or mow them all down before the bees have a chance to gather up pollen.  And honestly, I have found this approach to be invaluable. On a recent research trip with some colleagues, I pointed out numerous useful plants, helped one person with itchy bug bites and encouraged some aromatic relaxants for an upset stomach….all from the surrounding landscape.  Ideally, we want to shift to the point where life is valued for the sake of life, but arguments about nature’s benefits to humans is a good way to begin to cultivate such understandings.

 

6. Herbalism, especially locally-based herbalism, makes you pay attention to the seasons and observe/interact with the wild spaces in new and exciting ways. Since I’m determined to gather, dry, tincture, and make into oils and salves as many herbs as I will need to handle my own minor medicinal needs (outside of catastrophic illness/injury and regular check ups), I’ve been out each week, sometimes multiple times, gathering herbs.  This makes me pay such close attention not only to the passing of the seasons but also where I gather. For example, I’ve been eagerly awaiting goldenrod blooms all summer because I really need their medicine.  But I have to be careful where I gather, because I want my herbs to be clean, energetically excellent, free of chemicals or toxins, etc.  I have found myself, since becoming an herbalist, seeing the landscape in ways I never did before.

 

Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

7. Herbalism can be an earth-centered and sustainable practice.  The more I learn about the modern pharmaceutical industry, the more convinced I am that many modern pharmaceuticals are not only unnecessary and overprescribed, but also unsustainable to our lands, with destructive outcomes for our waterways and the health of all beings on this planet. The environmental impact is staggering–a quick google search will reveal studies on the ecological effects of antibiotic overuse, the detection of pharmaceuticals in the soil, the amount of drugs going into the waterways, the list goes on.  The more that we can take care of our own needs, become resilient within our local communities and our own lives, the less strain we put on the planet as a whole and the less “consumer demand” we generate for destructive manufacturing practices and unnecessary products.  And the less funds go to companies who might do various kinds of evil with those funds.  If I have a bad cold and choose to stay home and treat that cold with herbs that I’ve gathered and grown throughout the year, that’s a heck of a lot more sustainable than driving out to the store and buying plastic bottles full of manufactured medicine that likely come with side effects.  This is especially true if the herbs are safer and better for me.  Using herbs in the place of over-the-counter drugs, like most sustainable practice, requires more work and knowledge, but I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.

 

8.  Herbalism as an empowering practice. When I began practicing druidry eight years ago, I found the practices and study courses to be incredibly empowering.  I had taken my spiritual practice into my own hands, it required my own interpretation and a dedication of my time in ways that spiritual practices of earlier times in my life had not.  I had to seek it out for myself, empower myself to learn and grow, and dedicate myself to the practice of it daily.  Herbalism is much the same thing.  It is an extremely empowering practice, and one that has positively altered my life much in the same vein that druidry did eight years ago. Going out and gathering my herbs, knowing how to treat myself when I get a minor illness, and being able to do it all with what is growing around me–that’s amazingly empowering!

 

Studying herbs and Druid Orders: I also want to mention that while some druid orders include healing material as an integral part of their training programs (usually as part of ovate studies) others cannot due to laws on discussing and teaching any kind of healing material in the US.  This means that taking up herbalism as a personal healing practice may or may not be part of the work you can do in an official capacity in an order’s study program, but that isn’t to say that you can’t learn this and integrate it into your druidic path on your own.

 

In my next post, I’m going to describe ways to begin to be an herbalist, so stay tuned!