The Druid's Garden

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

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

 

Wildtending: Refugia and the Seed Arc Garden January 8, 2016

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been discussing in various ways philosophies and insights about helping to directly and physically heal our lands as a spiritual practice, weaving in principles of druidry, permaculture, organic farming, herbalism, and more. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we can have direct, meaningful, and impact benefit on our lands and through the work of our “healing hands” we can help heal the extensive damage caused by humanity. The reason is simple: we have lost so much biodiversity in so much of our landscapes; even our forests are in many cases, pale representations of what they once were in terms of biological diversity. This is true of tree species, plant species, animal species, insect life, soil biology, mycology, water-based life and so on.  While nature has the ability to heal herself, with the help of humans, she can do it much more effectively–and that’s where we come in.

 

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In my last post, I discussed the importance of physically healing the land and building biodiversity through scattering roots, nuts, and seeds–this gives nature the building blocks she needs to do some of her healing. I also discussed balancing wildtending with wildcrafting and seeing both as a spiritual practice. In this post, we are going to explore another angle, take this stream of thought it a bit further, and explore the concept of refugia.

 

Refugia

Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America among other places. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader happenings on the earth that destroyed a lot of other places.  In terms of Pielou’s work, refugia were small pockets of life that were for various reasons from the worst of the effects of the last ice age when the rest of the lands were barren and covered in ice. These isolated pockets survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so on. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America covered by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions.

 

In the Anthropocene, that is, the time of human-dominated ecological change we are currently all experiencing, things are a bit different than in glacial North America.  But things are not as different as you might think. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can pretty much sum up the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation (in the US alone), the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland (in the US), and the amount of concrete and houses taking up land (statistics for which I cannot find). We also have wild areas that, as I’ve described in my last post, have been subject to pillaging and resource mining–these areas are a lot less diverse than they once were. The spaces that aren’t being actively pillaged likely are recovering from pillaging (at least where I live out here) or are subject to their own duress–and the few spaces that are supposedly “safe” and “protected” are constantly under threat from new bills or legislation, logging, mining, etc.. And so, we have a situation where a biological life, generally, has a lot less space to grow and thrive unhindered.  As my post described earlier, we have evidence of the loss of biodiversity in a wide range of ways.

 

Given this, I believe that the concept of refugia is a useful one to consider–and even enact–given the circumstances that we have going on here now. A lot of  us don’t have control over what is happening in the land around us, but we can work to help cultivate small spaces of intense biodiversity, spaces that preserve important plant species, then we can put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands.

 

A rare woodland lady's slipper--the only one I've ever seen in PA

A rare woodland lady’s slipper–the only one I’ve ever seen in PA

Creating Refugia: Goals

We can cultivate refugia in cultivated/human dominated spaces (like lawns, etc), or we can create them in wild spaces (forests, wild fields) that we know will be safe for some time. Today I’ll mainly be talking about cultivating refugia on a small piece of property, and at a later point, will return to cultivating refugia in wild spaces.

 

In the permaculture and organic gardening communities, people have been long creating spaces that are intensely planted, that may be perennial or annual in nature, but they might be doing them with different goals. Most often in permaculture practice, the goals are intensely focused on the site–the goal of bringing a degraded piece of land back into healthy production, with a range of yields, some of which are beneficial to humans, and some of which are beneficial to other life. In other words, permaculture designers often use a kind of sanctuary model. For organic farmers, they may have many of the same goals, but different (more annual) means; both may be interested in some economic benefits as well.

 

Working to actively create refugia can add and compliment these existing goals in the sense that we are creating a protected place (physically and magically) that is richly biodiverse with the idea that this biodiversity can spread if given opportunity (or if we spread it ourselves–you might be able to see where I’m going with this!).

 

I would like to suggest that each of us, as we are able, create biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “whether the storm” and a place which we can grow seeds, nuts, and roots to scatter far and wide. Or if we are already cultivating biologically diverse gardens, homesteads, sacred gardens, and the like, we add the goal of becoming refugia to our plans–and plant accordingly.  I would like to suggest that we can see this not only as a physical act, but as a sacred and spiritual practice.

 

I’ve been working through this idea quite a bit since I moved back to my home state over the summer. In the process of developing my own refugia site using permaculture principles and sacred gardening practices, I have started with a number of goals. Your goals might be different depending on your situation, but I thought I’d share mine as a good place to start.

 

The refugia garden will contain plants that:

  1. Native or naturalized to this region.
  2. Currently rare or non-existent in the surrounding ecosystem.
  3. Slow growing or hard to establish.
  4. Offer some key benefit to the ecosystem (nectary, nitrogen fixer, dynamic accumulator, wildlife food, etc)
  5. Offer some key benefit to humans (medicine, dye, fiber, food, beauty, spiritual significance).
  6. Are able to grow without human influence or cultivation long-term (perennial focus or self seeding annuals).
  7. Can be spread by nut, root, rhizome, or seed (to think about how to repopulate these species outward).
  8. Are well positioned in terms of how my climate will be changing in the upcoming century.

The refugia will be:

  1. A teaching and demonstration site for others
  2. A site of peace and beauty
  3. A sacred place  for humans to commune, reconnect, and grow
  4. A site of ecological diversity and healing for all life

 

Refugia: Functions and Outcomes

The Refugia garden is, of course sacred garden, a magical place where we can spend time and simply enjoy getting to know these plants, many of which are hard to find or impossible to find in our surrounding landscape.

The other way we might think about these refugia gardens is that they are seed arks, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again.  I’ve been taking to calling the garden I’m designing the “seed ark” for that reason!  We can use this site to grow and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots far and wide. As an herbalist and wild food forager, this is nothing new–taking seeds from wild plants this year and spreading them just a bit further or into new areas.  Ramp seeds, for example, can be gathered the fall and spread easily enough in wet woodland areas, hickory nuts can be planted, and so on.  The refugia garden makes it easier to do that–you will have an abundance of seeds, nuts, roots, and so on in a few short years or less that can be scattered to bring biodiversity back.  Otherwise, you are buying seeds or maybe finding them in the wild when possible (but where I’m at, a lot of what I’m hoping to spread and add to this garden simply doesn’t exist in the wild any longer).

 

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Third, the space itself will be biodiverse and welcoming. Its amazing what a tended space with perennial plants can become in a few short years! Make it a place where people want to go–and add some signage talking about what you are doing!

 

Fourth, when I lived on my homestead in Michigan, one of my favorite things to do was to give away plants–plants are abundant and multiply, and you can easily split most perennials after only a few years.  There are more than enough to go around.  This means that others, too, can be blessed with these rare plants–the more sites like these, the better.

 

Fifth, and most importantly, is the idea of making a difference.  You have no idea what the long-term implications will be of introducing these plants back into the landscape–but the important thing is doing something, we put one’s feet on the path, and seeing where the journey takes us.

 

Refugia Garden Plants

You will want to think carefully about what kind of ecosystem you are designing your refugia garden for–is it full sun? dry? part shade? moist? A woodland?  The good news is that many different needs exist, so you can design a garden for almost any condition.

 

Since we are thinking long term with this principle, I think its a a wise idea to look 10, 20, 50, 100 or more years down the road in terms of climate change.  How will your immediate climate change in the upcoming century?  Will it get hotter, wetter, drier?  Are there species that are rare/at risk, but well adapted to these changing circumstances? A few good resources exist for this online, including NASA’s predictions and information from the US EPA.  I was able to find a specific guide for Pennsylvania (in PDF), which provided exactly the information I wanted to know (about temperature, weather, snow cover and more–as well as about different emissions scenarios)–you should be able to find something similar!

 

Here are some design lists to get you started for at temperate climate (nearly all of these come from the United Plant Savers At risk and To Watch Lists):

  1. Perennials and self-seeding annuals in full sun: Swamp Milkweed, Milkweed, Echinacea, gentian (wet), blue vervain, New England aster
  2. Edge Plants: Part shade, on the edges of forests (bloodroot, black cohosh (damp, part shade), Spikenard (some moisture), Lobelia Inflata
  3. Swampy Plants with Light: Calamus, Horsetail, Cattails (growing rare in some areas, like in MI, due to phragmites)
  4. Swampy Plants in Forests: Ramps, Woodland Nettle, Skullcap, Stoneroot
  5. Dark forest plants: Wild Yam, Goldenseal, Blue Cohosh, Ginseng, Partridge Berry, Mayapple, Lady Slipper Orchid, Trilium
  6. Trees: Slippery Elm, Chestnuts, Butternuts, Paw Paw, Hazels, others unique to your bioregion.  For this, I like to think about the species that are slow to return or that need a leg up!

Of course, you’ll also want to think about sacred gardening techniques as part of your refugia garden–as above, so below, as within, so without.  I have a few good articles on these topics to help you along. We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s post, when we look at the beginnings of the refugia garden I’ve been working on for the last six months :).

 

Embracing the Darkness at the Winter Solstice December 19, 2015

The period of time around the winter solstice, when the light of the sun is weak and our days are so short, is a period of difficulty for many. Darkness is something that we fear in industrialized cultures; it is something that we work to drive away through our own inventions and ingenuity. We instinctively feel the need to light up our lives every waking moment–our houses at night become as bright as the sun, the various screens projecting intense light, keeping us up and wired late into the night. If a room’s lights aren’t bright enough, we call them “dim” and see this as a deficiency, working to make them brighter. Even as I’m walking down the streets of my town at night, motion sensor lights blind me as I walk past people’s houses on the sidewalk. Consciously, automatically, and unconsciously we are continually working to drive away the dark–and in the process, fighting the natural cycle of the seasons.

 

For a moment, in the span of time reading this blog post, let’s consider an opposite approach–that is embracing the darkness this time of year. Before we continue, I’d like to suggest setting the right mood.  Start perhaps turning your screen down to a lower brightness setting, turning the lights off, and if its getting dark or is already dark, perhaps lighting a candle to get in the mood. Ok, that’s better!

 

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Our Problem with the Darkness

Our problem with darkness likely stems from a lot of different sources–major religions being one of them. Many of the major world religions have spent literally millennia emphasizing driving away the darkness with holy light, in ascending beyond this world, and in associating the “light” with the good.  These same religions have taught us that anything associated with the earth, the dark, or the depths of the earth are somehow corrupt and not good–and that is now woven so deeply into our cultural consciousness and our culture’s mythologies.  Think about how many stories you know where something dark and evil comes from below! I think it is this reason that we are driven to turn on the lights at the first sign of darkness, to quest to drive it away.  This “obsession” over the light, however, blinds us–by denying the darkness we deny part of our own souls.

 

Another reason that we fear darkness, I think, is the secret fear fear of losing the ability to see. Works like Blindness Jose Saramogo, epitomize this fear–that of not being able to physically see or going unexpectedly blind.  I have watched a good friend of mine go blind due to medical complications over this last year, and its been tremendously difficult to watch her struggle with it–the darkness in her eyes has literally turned her whole family’s world upside down.  Seeing such a good friend struggle with blindness, I think, is a lesson to me as to why we work so hard to drive away the dark.  The hidden fear of losing our sight–either temporarily or permanently–is one that perhaps resides in each of us.

 

Modern technology also hasn’t helped our relationship with darkness–new CFL bulbs, computer monitors, phones, ipads, and so on all function on a blue wavelength–the same wavelength of the morning sun. This tricks our bodies into thinking its early morning even when its late evening, reducing the production of melatonin which allows for restful sleep (its so bad that we can now buy meltaonin in pill form to force it into our bodies–but our bodies should be producing it).  Physically, we need darkness to stay in good health.  Darkness helps cue sleep and a host of other beneficial hormones that help us regulate our sleep patterns–and sleep is one of the keys to a long life.  The lack of darkness is attributed by a number of researchers to be at least one cause of the rise in depression and obesity in many industrialized nations.

 

Finally, the holiday season and the associated frenzy that goes along with it also doesn’t help our relationship with the darkness at this sacred time of the year. In ages past, people slept more and rested during the dark months.  In temperate parts of the world, when the darkness came was after the last of the long harvest season was finished. They would fatten up on the last of their fresh stores this time of the year, and enjoy each others’ company, burn yule logs, and take this as a time of rest. But we are now in the throes of a massive holiday rush–running, buying, doing, parties, activities, the frenzy of the holiday season each year growing in intensity.  I’m weary just thinking about it, even as I have worked to distance myself from it.

 

Embracing the Darkness

Living by the seasons and with the seasons means shifting our mindsets and practices to align more closely with nature’s rhythms–and darkness is part of that cycle. The darkness in this season functions much like the “hanged man” in the Tarot–we draw the hanged man when we are in need of a new perspective. Darkness, even darkness in familiar spaces and ways, gives us that perspective fully and powerfully.

 

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

Jessica Prentice has done some of the best research and writing I’ve seen on the importance  darkness–her writings have certainly inspired this post. Her book, Full Moon Feast, describes humanity’s relationship to the dark and cold months of the year beautifully and compellingly. She notes at least one African tribe that sleeps for 14 hours in the darkness, and who uses that extra time for visionary and spirit work. Without this darkness, she says, our souls are robbed of this opportunity to engage in a deep level with our souls.

 

I think maybe that’s part of the challenge we face–the frenzied culture works hard to keep us always going, going, going, doing, doing, doing, and time for deep introspection and reflection is generally not encouraged. The darkness asks us, individually, to be with only ourselves and our own thoughts. It is this darkness where we can commune with spirit, in waking dreams or in sleep, in meditation, and in visionary work. Part of this is because darkness is that it functions through visual sensory deprivation–but when our external visuals shut down (as in meditation, dreaming, journeying), our inner visuals have the ability to be developed and honed.  It allows us time to sort through things, it gives us space and distance from everything that surrounds us, and allows us rest and quietude.

 

And darkness serves us as a negative space to compliment the other spaces in our lives–the middle points as well as that of the light. We appreciate the light all the better if we are not always in it.  It gives us balance and perspective. Darkness, furthermore, allows us to have some sacred distance between ourselves and the many inventions that our lives are full of–distance from electronic devices, from artificial blinding lighting, from television, and so on.

 

As the darkness came across the land, starting at Samhuinn, I have worked to embrace the darkness and live more fully present in it during this time. Some of these were full immersion, while others were just steps to reduce artificial lighting–but all were meaningful and helped me get into better tune with the season’s time of low light and darkness.  This has led to a number of activities and insights that I’d like to share today that can help you do the same.

 

Candlelight Evenings

One of the most simple, and yet profound, shift you can make is to shift from electric lighting to candlelight evenings.  These are evenings where you light your living space using oil lamps or simple candles (instructions for candles are here, and I’m working on a post forthcoming about easy olive oil lamp designs using recycled/rancid olive oil).  Besides being an earth-friendly practice, its not that hard to do at all, and you’ll find that you quickly adapt to this lifestyle.  Your eyes adjust, your rhythms change, and the world seems to slow down.  Peace and tranquility are present in these candlelit evenings.  Sleep comes much easier, and stays much longer. Its almost hard almost to put into words how profound of an effect this can have on your living this time of year–or any time of the year.

 

After switching to candlelight evenings earlier this year (and doing occasional ones in years past),  I along with friends and family who were visiting and who took part, noticed a substantial increase in our sleep and restfulness as well as our general well being. I would say to give one evening a week a try for a while and see how you like it–I first started doing the candlelit evenings occasionally, and now I do them nearly as they have really improved our quality of life. I have even done some painting and artwork in candlelight, and that has given it a really different kind of quality than artwork done in full daylight or electronic light.

 

A few tips for candlelight evenings are as follows:

  • If you have animals or children, observe them carefully around open flames. My two cats took some adjustment, but both now know they cannot go near the flames.  I’m assuming children could be likewise taught to respect fire.
  • A good stock of candles is a necessity and it pays to source them carefully.  I wouldn’t go buy new candles because the cost can quickly add up and we don’t want to create additional consumer demand for “stuff”. Thrift stores always carry them cheaply, as do yard sales and auctions.  I recently got a HUGE box of candles of all sorts at an auction and this box will probably last me for at least several years. If there is a local beekeeper, they will likely offer beeswax (in candle form or just in block form that you can turn into your own candles). Beeswax is extremely efficient and burns beautifully when compared to paraffin or even to soy.  It also smells amazing.
  • Be aware, however, that some really old candles have leaded wicks–we recently discovered one such candle in our stockpile and quickly put it out after it started dripping little molten silver balls into the wax.
  • To maximize candlelight for reading or delicate work (like painting), I would suggest an alternative to the “lots of candles” technique.  And this is to use an old-style candle lantern that directs the light all in one direction (here’s a photo of one from Wikipedia–I’m traveling and forgot to take a photo of mine!)  I bought an old metal scoop at a yard sale that has a flat base and works for this purpose–and even a tin can cut in half would do just fine for shorter votive candles.  The point here is that you can carefully direct candlelight to be more efficient for your needs.
  • Likewise, good candle holders are a must–but make sure they are not made of wood, as forgetting about one can lead to a fire hazard (I speak from near-experience)!  A good candle holder has a handle so you can take it with you and a dish for catching wax.  The little ones that are meant for dining tables are much less useful when you are walking around your house.
  • Old oil lamps are not hard to find, they are really efficient, and worth having around.  I got to know these well with the amazing amount of power outages I experienced while living on my homestead in the Detroit metro area!  The issue that I have had with these practical lamps is that they burn kerosene or lamp oil, and both of these are derived from fossil fuels.  They are also really stinky when they burn–kerosene is insufferable, but even the more “refined” oils are kinda smelly.  And other oils for these are not easy to use–they won’t typically burn olive oil or other vegetable oils that are more sustainable due to the fact that vegetable oils aren’t as flammable and don’t draw well through the wick. However, there are alternatives to this for oil burning–you can purchase little vegetable oil burners, or you can make your own. I’ve been experimenting with using rancid olive oil (leftover from herbal oil infusions that sat on my shelf for too long) and various olive oil lamp designs–I’ll be posting on this in an upcoming blog after some more testing and development!.

 

Night walks and Night Rituals

A second way of embracing the darkness is to do simple night walking and dark night rituals. Taking a walk in the dark–on any piece of land, without a flashlight–can teach you a great deal.  Full moonlight on a clear evening provides not only ample light, but so much light that you can see a moonshadow (and don’t you know, the sun shows the shadow of your body, the moon, of your soul!). Even waxing or waning moonlight, however, can be sufficient for walking without lights (note that the brightness of the moon varies based on where you are living–its much brighter in the tropics than it is in the northern-most and southern-most parts of the earth). Try it–its amazing. When I had my homestead, each night near the full moon, I would take night walks–walking around the pathways of my property. Even though I  knew the paths so well in the daylight, in the night, they surprised me, opening up mystery and wonder. Now, I walk the streets of my town at night, without light (its a very safe town) and really enjoy the experience (although its hard to get your eyes adjusted because of all of the lights from the cars).

 

A step up from this is to do darkness rituals, such as the one I’ll describe below.  The idea here is that you create a ceremony that honors and embraces the darkness in some way–there are lots of ways to do this.  This past week, a friend and I did both did a night ritual and night walk as an early Winter Solstice celebration. Above my town is a mountain that has a park–the park includes an overlook, the highest point in this area.  Its a bit of a steep climb, but well worth it.  We bundled up (it was cold that night), took skins to sit on, took two flashlights as backup, and set out about an hour or so before sunset to climb the mountain. We got to the top just as the sun went over the horizon. We then opened a sacred space, and sat, watching the town lights come on all around us and watching darkness fall. Several deer came to greet us, and we simply sat in the darkness, taking it all in, doing personal visionary work and meditation as we each felt led.  The moon came out (she was only in her first quarter, but our eyes were adjusted and she shed plenty of light) and as our eyes adjusted, we gained deep awareness and insight.

 

A part of me, inside, was afraid of making our way back down the mountain because parts of it were very rocky and steep–but we did, easily, using nothing but moonlight to guide us the entire 30 minute walk home.  There was no need for our backup flashlights!  I think this was me battling my secret fears–the fears we all have–of trying to move about in the dark.  But you really do get your “night eyes” and the world is very bright, even in the darkness! When we came out of the park, we were blinded by the headlights of the cars–it was really intense. But regardless,  my fear was laid to rest, and I learned a valuable lesson about the darkness.  It took care  to make it down the mountain to avoid roots and rocks on our path, but it was a delightful experience, and we experienced that path so much differently than in the day.

 

I did something similar, but in the opposite direction, on the Summer Solstice–in that ritual, my mother and I drove out to a secluded overlook in the hour well before dawn to see the rising of the sun upon the landscape.  It had a very different energy, one appropriate for the Summer Solstice!

 

Darkness Vigil

Going along with my night walks and night ritual above, you do a simple darkness vigil. And by this, I mean sit in the darkness for a period of time, longer than you are comfortable with, preferably for at least an hour or more and definitely outside if you can manage it.  I really like doing this at dawn or dusk because if you are outside, this is when the animals are on the move–if you are sitting still somewhere, they will walk right by you oftentimes. I would suggest that prior to your vigil, you open a sacred protective space using whatever methods or traditions that you typically use (I use either the AODA’s Solitary Grove Ritual without any tools or just the Sphere of Protection for this purpose).

 

The idea here is to do this without fire or light–sit in the darkness itself. The light, even candlelight, creates a different relationship with the darkness on the land–and you want to bring it in fully.

 

Its cold this time of year for many of us, of course, and to address that, I use the “hot rock” method that I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. The method is simple: you you heat up something that has good thermal mass (a rock, brick, or fire iron).  You can heat it by placing it close to an actual fire (I would place mine on top of my woodburning stove); alternatively, if you don’t have an actual fire, you can place it in an oven. Then you wrap it in an old towel, and take it with you.  It holds the heat well for quite some time–usually a good hour or more.  I usually stick this in my lap if I’m doing a winter vigil, keeping my hands on it and pressing it against my belly. This, warm layers of clothing, and something to keep the cold off of your butt (like a skin or yoga mat) will really help keep you warm.  You could, of course, also use hand warmers, but they have a lot of chemicals and plastic–the hot rock method is heavier, but no less effective.

 

Of course, the question you might be asking is – what do you actually “do” at one of these vigils?  There are lots of things you can do.  Start with your feelings–explore what you are feeling and work through it.  Pay attention to the land, especially the movements of animals, wind, trees, sounds, and the like.  Ask questions, aloud, and see what animal or plant messengers answer.  Take in the darkness, and use it to work on a soul level with your own darkness, hidden spaces, fears, dreams, the things that are unspeakable in the bright light of the sun.  Open yourself up to it and see what comes.

 

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

Lunar Tea infusions


This is an idea I learned from Rosemary Gladstar–the lunar herbal infusion. An infusion is a tea, specifically of delicate plant material like leaf or flower, where the hot water is poured over the tea, covered, and allowed to seep for as long as you’d like (sometimes overnight for the strongest medicinal extraction).  You can do this and then allow your infusion to sit in the moonlight or in the darkness overnight.

 

I have made a few teas by boiling water, pouring them over herbs in a mason jar, sealing it up, and then sitting it in the moonlight for the evening.  I have been using this method using plants that gain deeper awareness and insight: Indian ghost pipe, lemon balm, and hawthorn being one such recent combination that had meaningful effect on helping me shift my senses and embrace this dark time. Another good combination is bay, lemongrass, and peppermint.  (You can also use cinnamon here as well, and its a very powerful visionary herb, however, it is a demulcent herb, so it will thicken up your brew–excellent for a sore throat, but a little weird if you haven’t drank it cold before). You can use these infusions as part of your night walking, night rituals, or any other spiritual practice. Think of it like drinking the moonlight!

 

Electronic Light Mitigation

If you are going to use screens (TV, computer, phone, etc) at night or use light bulbs, there are better ways of using them that pay homage to the darkness. Various dimmer programs exist for computers–my favorite program is a free program called F.lux. It automatically adjusts your color and brightness as the evening progresses, so even if you are on your computer later at night, its not blazing blue light at you. It makes a world of difference–I’m writing this now mostly by “computer candlelight” thanks to f.lux.

 

Its worth paying attention also to the kind of lightbulbs that you use: the older ones often are more yellowish or cast a yellowish hue  is better on the eyes.  Lower wattage and lampshades also help. I also have an old-school lava lamp that creates really diffused light–I often use this for providing some low light to my main living area, and supplement it with candles or oil lamps for moving about the house.   Its not much different than a good oil lamp!

 

Activities in the Dark

Another thing I like to do is to do various activities in the dark that are traditionally done in the light–exercise or yoga, for example, is delightful in candlelight or no light.  I also enjoy playing my panflute in the dark–no need to see, and the darkness makes the music more beautiful. Even eating a meal in candlelight or near darkness can be a special treat–the shutting down of the visual senses allows for the other senses (including inner senses) to be emphasized.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that you find these suggestions enlightening (or perhaps, dimming?) as we quickly approach the Winter Solstice.  I think that a lot of us see the wheel of the year as a string of rituals and celebrations–and it certainly can be that–but it can also be more.  Really to embrace and live in that energy of the season can make a world of difference–we go from fighting against it, and wanting it to be over, to really living in the present moment with it.  I’d love to hear of your own suggestions for embracing the dark season this year.

PS: I’ll also direct your attention to my posts on the Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice, for those of you in the southern half of the planet) and sustainable activities surrounding those days–I’ve finished that series of posts, but they are still some of my favorites :).

 

Backyard Healing Salve Recipe with Plantain, Chickweed, and Ground Ivy November 20, 2015

One of the great things about fall is that so many of our spring ephemeral plants, those who dominate the springtime, come back to us again before the snows set in. This is the case this year with chickweed, one of my favorite plants for making a healing salve.  I have been seeking her out for medicine making and most of the summer she was a bit elusive. Finally, she is abundant again! So its time to make some green healing salve for gifts for Yule for friends and loved ones–I thought I’d bring you along for the journey.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

This post will provide the recipe for my healing salve as well as insight into three plants used in the healing salve, all of which can be found abundant in most lawns and mowed areas (see these two posts for information about ethical harvesting, avoiding toxins, etc). For quite a while, I sold these salves at a farmer’s market booth. The salves were a big hit–people reported back that they used them for all kinds of ailments: bee stings, bug bites, small burns, scratches, scraps, rug burns, sore and inflamed skin of all kinds, and so on–everyone who bought one loved them very much! Even after I moved to PA and obviously wasn’t selling the salves any longer, I had people contacting me wanting more salve. The plants in this salve can be 100% locally sourced and you can locally source the beeswax.

 

Salves can be made from any herbal ingredient that can be used topically.  Because salves are oil-based, they are particularly good for cuts, minor burns, bug bites, skin irritations, dry and chapped skin, scrapes, bee stings, brush burns, and so on.  Salves typically should not be used for puncture wounds (they can lock in contaminants), on anything that is wet or pussy (for the same reason, a fresh poultice or honey preparation would work better), nor should any oil-based salve be used for poison ivy (it is an oil-based issue, so an oil-based salve can spread poison ivy, use lineaments or fresh poultice). You can use this same recipe for other kinds of infused oils and salves, like goldenrod, St. Johns Wort, black birch, and so on.

 

The Healing Salve as Plant Ambassador

My choice of using three plants–chickweed, plaintain, and ground ivy–commonly found in the lawn is a careful one.  For one, they make a fantastic healing salve.  But for two, their work as healing agents can help begin to shift people’s minds and practices towards the lawn. If you had a splinter or cuts that could be easily–and more effectively–healed by plants in the lawn, the plant gives you relief and that healing changes your relationship to the plants and to the lawn. If people know that there are healing plants they might gather from the lawn, its easier for them to stop spraying it. Its for this reason that I believe these little salves like these are wonderful ways of being a plant ambassador and doing the work of building awareness about nature’s great gifts. And without further delay, let’s meet the three plant allies that go into this delightful salve!

 

The Plant Allies for Healing Salve

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Plantain (Plantago Regalia, Plantago Major)

Plantain is the gateway herb!  Its an easy herb to identify and find and can be used for a VERY wide variety of issues and conditions. If you only made this salve with one ingredient, make it with plantain.

            Identification: Two kinds of plantain typically can be found in a lawn: broad leaf (see picture, left) and narrow leaf plantain. They are used interchangeably.  See the botanical illustration for a detailed look at plantain.

Actions: Demulcent, Astringent

            Medicinal Uses:  Plantain has a host of uses, both internally and externally.  The best way to think about plantain is that it works on the mucus membranes. Plantain is very mild yet effective as a mild demulcent (it wets tissues) and mild astringent (it also helps tone tissues). It functions as a fantastic drawing agent, where it works to draw things out (like splinters, drawing out infections, drawing out debris from a dirty wound, puncture wounds). For these uses, fresh plantain poultice is the best, but the healing salve is a close second! 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 for goopy eyes (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).  We are using plantain in this salve for for its drawing action, astringent action, and demulcent action.

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea; tinctured; fresh poultice or chew.


Chickweed (Stellaria Media, spp.)

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Identification: Chickweed is a small, succulent plant that has a smooth stem with a line of hair running along it like a horse’s mane. It has a tiny white flower with 10 petals (in five directions). It is a spring ephemeral plant; it can be harvested in abundance in the spring and again in the fall. You could also make this salve just with chickweed.

Actions:  Demulcent, Tonic

Features:  Chickweed is used in several ways, and in all, it is a very mild yet effective plant. Chickweed is particularly good for any dry and inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or the may minor bites, cuts, scrapes, brush burns, bee stings and so on.  It should not be used for pussy/mucus laden/wet/damp skin conditions. A fresh poultice of chickweed is good for poison ivy (use similar to Jewelweed).  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). Chickweed can be eaten as a nutritive, healing food.  It is very rich in nutrients and nourishing.

Preparation:  Fresh plant in food, poultice, healing salve, tincture, dried for tea.

 

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy (Glechoma Hederacea)

Identification: This plant will uptake any heavy metals in the soil—so make sure you are harvesting it from a safe area.

Actions:  Aromatic, Astringent

            Medicinal uses:  Ground ivy is an aromatic herb in the mint family with a very wide range of uses—it is generally a very safe plant to use for many different issues.  It has an astringent property, specifically for the kidneys and urethra (can be made as a tea for urinary tract infections).  It can be used for a sore throat, especially if the inflammation is making its way up your throat and into your ears or if you have a dry, scratchy throat. Its good for ear issues in general, like fluid congestion or vertigo or ear pressure from a head cold. Its also used for digestive issues where there is laxity or mucus in the stool and gassiness (again, it is used as a tea in this fashion). One of the traditional uses of this plant is to treat lead poisoning – a ground ivy tea increase the removal of lead from the body (and some herbalists are currently experimenting with its ability to remove other toxins from the body).  The whole plant (above ground) can be used.  Finally, ground ivy can be used as a drawing agent and used to help treat, according to Culpepper, “old green wounds.”

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea (note-it loses its aromatic quality fairly quickly); tinctured.  Please note that ground ivy does not have a long shelf life–I’d say 4-5 months at most.

Healing Salve Ingredient List

  • Good quality olive oil (2-3 cups, depending on the amount of salve you want to make)
  • Good quality beeswax (get it from a local beekeeper if possible); it should smell amazing if its a high quality wax
  • Good amounts of your three plant allies (I like to use 40% plantain; 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy); you can use 100% plantain or 100% chickweed; or you can use 50/50 plantain and chickweed.
  • Skin-safe essential oils of your choice (optional, consider: lavender, tea tree, sweet orange, and lemongrass)
  • Jars or tins
  • Labels for your salves

You’ll also need some equipment: a double-boiler; a grater for the wax; a spoon or ladle for pouring salve into tin and mixing salve; and wax paper for protecting work surface.

Making the Healing Salve: Part 1 – Infused Oil

The first thing to do to make a healing salve is to make an infused oil, that is, an oil infused with plant matter.

Pouring salve on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

Pouring olive oil on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

I typically use olive oil for this recipe because it is both very shelf stable and readily available in organic oil. You can also use other oils (like coconut oil) but most herbalists use olive oil.  Coconut oil has a very low melt temperature, which can be a problem with a healing salve meant to travel with you (say, in your pocket, or in your car on a hot day, etc).

 

Wilt Your Herbs (if using fresh): All herbs, but chickweed in particular, should be wilted 1-2 days prior because of their high water content. Wilting just means to pick the plant matter and let them sit out somewhere for a few days while they slowly dry out. You can also use dried ingredients. Failure to account for the water content means that the oil you infuse may have a bit of water on the bottom–you need to avoid this or you’ll end up with a salve that goes rancid quickly.  But you can just pour off your salve and leave the water in the bottom (see photo below).

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Use Heat or Time to Infuse: You can infuse oil in a lot of different ways, but the way I like to infuse oils is by using a double boiler over low heat for 12 hours (don’t boil the herbs), and then letting the herbs sit in the oil with the heat off for another 12 hours.  After this time, the herbs can be strained and the oil ready to use.  If you are using fresh plants, beware of any water content in the oil—it will be sitting on the bottom of your pot and look like little dark bubbles.  You do not want ANY water in your oil or it will spoil quickly.  You can store your infused oil in a cool, dark place for 1-2 years.

 

Herbs just starting to infuse

Herbs just starting to infuse

The Healing Salve, Part II: Making the Salve

My Backyard Green Healing Salve Recipe:

My favorite backyard healing salve is made with 40% plantain, 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy; handfuls of each infused in olive oil (enough olive oil to cover the herbs).  Another plant that can be used in this salve is Jewelweed (but it is a wet forest plant, not a yard plant!) or comfrey (a cultivated plant in most areas).

 

1. Once your oil is done infusing, strain it. I prefer to strain it through a cheesecloth or fine strainer overnight. The gravity will do nearly all of the work for you if you wait.  Also, if you try squeezing the plant material and you are using fresh plants, you could end up with more water in the bottom.  Again, an overnight straining prevents the need to squeeze.

 

2. Put your oil back in your (clean) double boiler. To make the salve, start with your filtered infused oil and return it tot your double boiler.  Make sure the oil is 100% free of plant mater or water (which will look like little bubbles on the bottom) – either of these will make it go rancid.  See photo below for example of water at the bottom:

Example of water at bottom to avoid

Example of water at bottom to avoid

3. Heat your infused oil up till its hot enough to melt beeswax (but no hotter).

 

4. Add shaved or chunked beeswax (about 2 tbsp per cup of oil) stir it to melt the beeswax fully. Your oil needs to be thickened into a salve that will hold its shape and have some body–and for that, we add beeswax. After adding your beeswax and melting it in, test the consistency by dropping a tiny bit of oil onto an ice cube and see how hard it gets. If its too hard, add a bit more oil. If its too soft, add a bit more beeswax.  You can get it as hard as you’d like, but I recommend keeping this salve fairly soft since it will need to be spread upon a lot of sore, tender spots.

5. Remove the oil from the heat.

 

6. Add any essential oils you like to the salve for smell.  The salve has a pretty “green” smell without the oils; its not unpleasant but isn’t really pleasant either, so I like to add the oils. My favorites for this blend are a few drops of tea tree oil, lemongrass oil, lavender oil, or orange oil.  (Lavender-lemongrass is a great combination, as is tea-tree orange).  For 1 cup of salve, I add 20 drops of essential oil.

 

7. Prepare your workspace for pouring the salves. At this point, I will set wax paper down and set out my tins or jars.  The wax paper prevents salve from getting all over my counter when I’m pouring.

 

8. Pour off your salve into the small jars or tins and let cool. You can use mason jars, little Altoids tins, whatever you have around that will hold a solid salve.  I also like to make a harder version of this salve (with a higher beeswax content) and then fill lip balm containers with it for hiking, backpacking, etc! Make sure you fill them slightly fuller than you want them to be, as the salve sinks and contracts a bit as it cools.

Filling jars and tins with salve

Filling jars and tins with salve

 

8.  Label your salves with a fun label!  Here’s an example of my salves at the farmer’s market with their cute labels (I was nearly sold out that day!)

Healing Salve at Farmer's market booth

Healing Salve at Farmer’s market booth

I hope you enjoy this wonderful backyard healing salve!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Hawthorn (Lore, medicine, magic, and mystery) October 30, 2015

Hawthorn branches and leaves

Hawthorn branches and leaves

In honor of Samhuinn, a festival of beginnings and endings, today we’ll explore the most sacred of trees–the hawthorn. This is the 6th post in my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series where I examine abundant trees in the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the USA, exploring their many qualities: physical, magical, herbal, mythological, and so on.  Previous posts have include Eastern Hemlock, American Beech, Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar, and Hickory.  Each of these posts takes 20-30 hours to research and write, not to mention the countless hours I spend with the trees to understand them and share their stories as best I can.  And now friends, let’s enter the forest and visit the hawthorn.

 

There are few trees quite so enigmatic in either western herbalism practice or contemporary druidry as the sacred hawthorn—and this is the first of the sacred trees of the Americas series that is included in the traditional Ogham, although I want to add to our knowledge of this tree.  With its small, tart berries, its lovely white or pink flowers, and its thorny, protective trunk, this is a tree that has woven its way into the hearts and tales in many parts of the world.  And certainly, its  a tree that has much power during this sacred time.

 

I remember when I was a child, running through the hawthorn grove behind my house. Hawthorns here in Pennsylvania, as in many forests, function as under-story trees, so they would grow in the second layer of the forest—and the forest in parts was thick with them. We would gather apples from the crab-apple on the hill, and place them in the thorns of the hawthorns as “offerings” to the trees so that they could let us pass into the forest, which we believe was another realm. We would gather the thorns and stick them into the mud or in the sand in our sandbox to create mini groves of thorny trees, a wonderland of its own. It’s amazing to me now, in studying the ancient lore of the hawthorn tree, how our instincts and intuition as children are often right.

 

As an adult, I would be thrilled to come across a hawthorn in full fruit, ready and waiting for a harvest.  Just as I was a child, I would first leave an offering in that tree’s thorns (an apple, a piece of bread, a song on my flute) and then pick the haws (fruit) from the tree or the ground—they are ready when they give freely, and they drop when you pick them. Many trees, when you work with them, bestow some of their gifts just from being near them, from harvesting from them, from breathing them in or sitting next to them. Hawthorn has always had this effect on me—when I was heartbroken, harvesting flowers and then preparing them simply soothed my aching heart. Come with me now, into the grove of the Hawthorn tree!

Hawthorn tree in early summer

Hawthorn tree in early summer

 

About Hawthorn (Physical)

Hawthorns (Crataegus spp) have many folk names including thorn, thornapple, may-tree, whitethorn, quickthorn, mayblossom, hagthorn, hedgethorn, quickset, hawberry, halve, bread and cheese tree, Huath, lady’s meat, may bush, tree of chastity.  According to Grieve’s herbal, “quick” terms come from its ability to quickly grow; the “hedgethorn” name comes from its ability to produce effective hedges (more below), and whitethorn from its light coloring. The Latin word for the tree, crataegus, comes from the Greek kratos hardness (of the wood) and akis sharp, suggesting these trees have sharp, strong thorns. Hawthorn trees are a whole range of sub-species that usually have slightly different bloom and berry ripening times; nearly all are used interchangeably in herbalism and magical practice.  Its range spans most of North America and is likewise found in Asia and throughout Europe.  Not all varieties are trees—some are rather large shrubs—the ones that make good hedges.  All of the, however, have their enigmatic thorns—the secret to both the medicine and magic of the hawthorn tree.

 

Hawthorn trees are an important part of the ecosystem, being a nectary for insects in the spring and providing food and shelter for many birds and mammals.  Because the haws are a very late-dropping fruit and some may remain on the trees even into the winter, thrushes and cedar waxwings will eat them and spread the berries through their droppings.  Certain moths and butterflies feed exclusively on the nectar and leaves of the hawthorn tree.

 

Hawthorn has long been a hedge plant; the German word for Hawthorn is Hagedorn; haw is also an older word for hedge. Hawthorn, especially in the UK, was planted heavily in hedges for boundaries to fields; while it was used throughout the ages for this purpose, in the 18th and 19th century with new fencing laws, the hedges grew even more prominent. It was from these hedges, full of medicinal and magical plants, that the “hedge witch” term derives. In terms of human uses of hawthorn, it has a very hard and rot resistant wood, and so in the US, it was used frequently for fence posts and handles, even in some cases for wood engravings and carvings.  M. Grieve reports that hawthorn root wood also has a fine grain and finishes well—so the root wood is used for decorative boxes and combs. Charcoal of hawthorn is so fine that it was apparently used in pig iron furnaces for the creation of “coke” for making steel—although given the strong prohibitions against cutting or burning it, I’m surprised that anyone would use it for charcoal!

 

Example of hawthorn rust

Example of hawthorn rust

One of the physical problems that hawthorns have in the USA (especially those where I lived in Michigan) had was Rust (cedar/apple rust blight).  This rust was carried by Eastern Red Cedar (juniper) trees and was transmitted to any apples or hawthorns in the area, sometimes being fatal.  I haven’t seen rust impacting the hawthorns here, but I noticed many of them dying off in the immediate area—older hawthorns of a dwarf variety all dead in one season—so I’m not sure what is going on.  It is worrisome.

 

A final use of a hawthorn tree is that of a rootstock or graft for other related cultivars—primarily for quince, pear, or medlar. From a permaculture design standpoint, this is wonderful to know, because you could end up with a hawthorn tree that also has pear, medlar, and quice grafts—what an abundant opportunity!

 

Harvesting Hawthorn

For medicine making, the flowers and leaves can harvested, along with the berries.  Of course, if you harvest the flowers, there won’t be berries, so there is always a choice to make! You can use a pair of scissors or just your hands to harvest leaves and flowers. Do realize that many hawthorns, especially in their flower stage, are home to a variety of insect life.  Shake the branches and check the flowers and leaves carefully before drying them, tincturing them, etc.  Let the life that lives on the flowers stay outside to gain the hawthorn’s blessing!

 

Later in the season, the hawthorn berries  ripen—depending on the cutivar, either rin September or October (if there are many hawthorn trees around, you’ll be able to harvest for 1-2 months straight from different trees!) Hawthorns, like apples, give of their haws (fruit) when they are ready—when you lightly tug on the haw and it is ripe, it will come easily from the tree, and likely others with it. If you tug on the haw and you get resistance, come back later, and the fruit will be ready. Or it may be all on the ground, which is a fine place also to gather it up. When they are perfectly ripe, they start dropping to the ground in quantity. When harvesting haws, there are all shapes and sizes – larger ones almost crab apple sized and tiny ones no bigger than the tip of your pinky finger.  Hawthorns can come in red (most common),  yellow and black (least common) varieties.

 

A hawthorn loaded for harvesting! (This one was very friendly!)

A hawthorn loaded for harvesting! (This one was very friendly!)

In terms of harvesting, some hawthorn trees are more “friendly” than others, meaning they have less thorns on the branches.  I’ve met trees who simply aren’t interested in being harvested by humans—they have lots of thorns on the branches and stick you with them when you reach in.  Better to find a nicer hawthorn tree—many are quite personable if you give them an apple or something as an offering!

 

After harvesting, check your hawthorn berries for worms. Hawthorn berries often have small worms in them (again depends on the tree), so I find its easiest to use a masher (like a sauerkraut masher, a solid wooden one) on a wooden cutting board.  I smash open the berry with a gentle tap, see if there are worms inside, remove the seeds ,and then dry it or tincture it or whatever.  If there are wormy bits, I simply remove them and use the rest of the seed.  You do want to remove the seed of the berry for sure—the seeds, like the seeds of apples and cherries, contain cyanide.

 

Grieve reports that the fruits have names other than “haws” – she lists “pixie pears,” “cuckoo’s beads,” and “chucky cheeses” (who would have known that the pizza joint was named after the hawthorn tree? The things you learn studying herbalism and magical plants!)

 

Hawthorn in Herbalism

Culpepper notes that hawthorn is a tree of Mars. He also suggests that a distilled water of the flowers “stays the lax” (translation = keeps leprosy away) and will draw out thorns or splinters.   If the seeds are bruised and boiled in wine, its good for “inward pains” (pretty self-explanatory).  Gotta love Culpepper!

 

Physcial heart healing: More modern knowledge of western herbalism recognizes that Hawthorn is one of the greatest herbs anywhere on the planet for use in healing the heart—both physically and emotionally. Hawthorn functions as a troporestorative, that is, it has long-term restorative benefits to the heart and circulatory system when taken over time—it heals the heart and helps it function better.  Unlike many traditional remedies, hawthorn has a wide variety of study from aleopathic (modern) medicine, so the uses are backed up by scientific study. It is used for high blood pressure, where it relaxes tension and helps dilate the blood vessels to allow blood to flow more freely.  It strengthens the heartbeat and aids in smoothing out the rhythm of the heart. The berries are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant.

 

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn – here’s my masher!

Sore Throats and inflammation: Flowers and berries are astringent, according to M. Grieve, and therefor useful in a decoction for sore throats (especially the wet, goopy, inflamed ones, given hawthorn’s anti-inflammatory powers).

 

Soothing Hot Excesses: Hawthorn has a potent nervine effect of calming the heart and soothing hot excesses. Herbalist David Winston uses hawthorn for ADHD clients to help calm down a bit as he illustrates that hawthorn calms the spirit. Herbalist Sean Donohue uses it for stress induced asthma.  In each of these cases, we see hawthorn having a calming effect on the nerves and the heart.  Overall, Hawthorn is a mood brightener and mood lifter.  In his Cherokee Herbal, Garret reports that the Cherokee likewise used hawthorn as a relaxant.

 

Emotional heart healing: On the emotional and spiritual side, hawthorn is a great herb for heart healing. Herbalist Jim McDonald also uses it to help people establish their own emotional space. As Jim McDonald has discussed, about anytime that you’ve had heartbreak—you can literally feel your heart hurt, and wounded, and as part of this to prevent further hurt, you close up/constrict yourself and are unwilling to open yourself again. Hawthorn helps us heal from this kind of emotional damage—we can see this in the tree itself, who offers its medicine freely but also creates a protective space with its thorns.  Hawthorn, therefore, provides an energetic/etheric protection to the heart and helps us establish our own space.

 

Hawthorn is a wonderful tree to help with heart guarding or heart healing.  You can use this energetically or physically. According to Jim McDonald, it can be as simple as carrying a bag of haws with you or rubbing tincture on your heart.  It can be a daily ritual or affirmation and can help you connect with your intentions.  You can use it for emotional issues, emotional body army, emotional overprotection. David Winston says that Hawthorn calms the heart and spirit, especially calming the spirit when the spirit is easily affected by what is around a person (because of this, he uses it to treat ADHD/ADD).

 

In terms of making medicine from hawthorn, the most complete medicine is a combination of flowers, leaves, and berries in a tincture; you can also make decoctions of berries; tea with leaves; tincture; herbal vinegar; glycerate; elixir; hydrosol (flowers); syrup; and food (conserves, jellies, jams).

 

  • Teas: To create teas (infusions and decoctions) from the hawthorn, use the leaves and flowers or de-seeded berries.  For a strong medicine, pour boiling water over the leaves and flowers, seep for 10-20 min, and drink (with honey, if you’d like!).  For the berries, bring water to a boil, add berries, and boil covered for at least 20 min (depending on if they are whole or smashed prior to drying).
  • Syrups: Chop of hawthorn and cover with 1 quart of water. Boil this for an hour or so, then strain the berries.  Boil it down to 1 cup, then add your choice of sweetener (honey, maple syrup).
  • Elixirs: Tincture in brandy with honey or maple syrup; Elixirs as concentrated as a typical tincture
  • Paste: Hawthorn berry powder can be made into paste or pastilles with a bit of honey.  Spread it, ball it up and eat it, however you’d like!
  • Hawthorn Schnapps: Tincture of fresh berries in lower-proof vodka (80proof) for an enjoyable beverage!
  • A pregnancy infusion for preeclampsia: hawthorn, nettle, raspberry leaf, and oat straw: this functions as a troporestorative for the liver and can be used as early as the 1st trimester.

 

Hawthorn and New England Aster and Cauliflower Mushroom all harvested on the same day

Hawthorn and New England Aster and Cauliflower Mushroom all harvested on the same day

Hawthorn in Legend and Lore

Native American Lore

In this series, one of my main goals was to examine how trees, like hawthorn, work in the North American context.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be found in the Native American literature on the hawthorn (which is surprising, given how prominent this plant is in most other parts of the world where it grows.)  One of the few stories I could find was a Chippewa legend, “Why Porcupine has Quills” where porcupine is being hunted by bear, and he needs some defenses. He takes hawthorn branches and places them on his back, and when Bear came to eat him, Bear was pricked by the thorns and went along his way. Nanabozho, a trickster god, witnessed what happened and was impressed with Porcupine’s tricking of Bear. He took hawthorn branches and thorns and peeled them so they were white, then put some clay on Porcupine’s back and added the thorns. Ever after, Porcupine was protected from those that would eat him, like Wolf or Bear. In another tale, a Senaca legend, a bird (personified as a woman) is in search of her mate. She sings to men along a riverbank, and eventually settles on seeds to eat. In this story, Hawthorn is what is eaten by the bear, her second suitor.

 

The only theme I gather from these stories is the “protective” role that hawthorn plays, which we certainly see physically as well as medicinally in the plant. When we examine the lore in other parts of the world, particularly the British Isles, a more elaborate picture emerges.

 

Hawthorn in Celtic Lore

Hawthorn as a Gateway to the OtherworldIn the lore of many tales specific to the Celtic Isles, hawthorn is a gateway tree; that which holds a doorway between our realm and the fairy realm. This is clearly discussed throughout the lore and literature. One such example (of many) comes from Sir Samuel Ferguson’s “The Fairy Tree,” where a group of maidens sneak out to dance on a hill with the hawthorn (the fairy tree), ashes, and rowans. They slow down and quickly fall asleep and are enchanted, “For, from the air above, the grassy ground beneath, and from the mountain-ashes and the old Whitehorn between, a Power of faint enchantment doth through their beings breathe, and they sink down together on the green.” The fairies come to visit them (and I’m not talking about Walt Disney fairies here), and one of their number, Anna Grace, is taken away and never seen again.

 

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

The Magic of Sleep: As the above story describes, Hawthorn has the power to put people to sleep.  This is explicated in another story, The King of Ireland’s Son by Padric Colum from 1916.  In this story, the King of Ireland’s son is in love with a woman, Fedelma.  At one point in the story after her love, the King of Ireland’s son falls asleep and will not awaken, she asks the King of the Land of Mist to pluck a hawthorn branch and put her to sleep as well—she does this, and for part of the story, she stays asleep as long as the hawthorn branch is with her.

 

The Gateways of the Seasons: Hawthorn, along with another very sacred tree, Rowan or Mountain Ash, flowers traditionally somewhere around May 1st (or a bit later, for those that live in colder climates) and its berries ripen and fall sometime in mid to late October.   This puts the power of the hawthorn tree near two critical Celtic festivals: Beltane, the festival of fertility in the Spring and Samhuinn, the festival of the final harvest, the new year, when its berries fall.   Normal Lockyer (1909) makes note of the connection of these trees to Beltane and Samhuinn in Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered. In the story of Thomas the Rhymer (as told by Donald Alexander Mackenzie in 1917 in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend), the Fairy Queen comes when the “milk white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour.”

 

A Fairy Tree and the Cutting of the Thorn.  As the stories above suggest, the Hawthorn is strongly associated with the fairy, and is said to be their tree.  Plucking one, or cutting one, is very liable to garner their wrath—not a good idea in the slightest. In the story  In the poem “The Fairy Well of Laganay” bu Samuel Ferguson, the speaker is in deep mourning and says, “I’ll go awawy to Sleamish hill, I’ll pluck the fairy hawthorn-tree, and let the spirits work their will, so they but lay the memory, which all my heart is haunting still!”

 

In a connected tale, in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde (1887) Wilde tells a tale called “The Fairies’ Revenge” where a wealthy farmer buys some land and builds his house on a fairy hill; he cuts the hawthorn tree on that hill and incurs the fairies wrath.  The fairies begin to harass their only son, and eventually, he dies and the farmer is ruined.  The house slowly returns to the land, and the fairies dance there once more.  In a second story, Lady Fancesca discusses the hawthorn again, “Their favorite camp and resting-place is under a hawthorn tree, and a peasant would die sooner than cut down one of the ancient hawthorns sacred to the fairies, and which generally stands at the center of a fairy ring.”

 

A Tree of The Heart: Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde also  describes a traditional Irish Wedding.  In that Wedding, the bride and groom meet with guests in a field under a large hawthorn tree covered in colored fabric and with rush candles in the branches.  This heart connection can be seen woven all through the medicine and magic of the hawthorn tree.

Hawthorns form a gateway

Hawthorns form a gateway

Revival Druidry & Magical Alphabets: Coelbren and Ogham

I would be remiss if I didn’t look to the Hawthorn Tree in the druid tradition. In Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas (1862), Iolo presents a magical alphabet called the Coelbren of the Bards, derived from Welsh and a wooden frame called a pillwydd which the letters can be carved into.  One of the trees Iolo suggests is Hawthorn.  (For more information on the Coelbren of the Bards, see John Michael Greer’s article in Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Volume II).

 

Hawthorn, or Huath, represents the letter H in the traditional Celtic Ogham.  Numberous interpretations of the hawthorn exist—let’s take a look at two of them.  In the Druidry Handbook, John Michael Greer describes the hawthorn.  His upright meaning for it includes, “Patience, reserve, retreat.  A time of waiting and planning rather than action.  Obstacles that can be overcome.  Success after a delay. Temporary obstacles.”  Reversed, it’s the opposite, “Inappropriate action, rushing ahead when patience and planning are called for.  A risk of failure.  You need to stop and reconsider” (p. 82).  In both of these cases, we see hawthorn being connection to either the right timing, overcoming obstacles, or taking the action at the wrong time.  The Greek concept of “kairos” which is summed up “right time, right place” comes to mind here.  Hawthorn gives us messages of the heart, and if we can listen to our hearts, we know when the right (or wrong) time to act is.

 

In a second book, Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires also describes the hawthorn in detail.  His discussion of the ancient lore on the Ogham from the Book of Ballymore links the hawthorn (whitethorn) to a pack of “meet of hounds” that is “formidable owing to its thorns” (44).  Blamires also notes that the letter H in Galeic grammar is neither consonant or vowel, but functions to strengthen other letters. Cuchulain, the great hero of the Ulester Cycle, provides his own list, indicating that hawthorn is “difficult night” (47) and a whitening of the face.  Blamires, in his own interpretation, suggests that Hawthorn not be invoked during magical work, but rather that it be used as a “warning to the magician to prepare for something about to happen” which might be backlash for some kind of action(111). His interpretations stem from the idea that the thorns of the hawthorn, along with the old terminology, suggest that the hawthorn is hostile but can also be defensive in its thorns.  He concludes be suggesting that hawthorn may bring about disruption, but this disruption is temporary and can be put to positive use (113).

 

Numerology

The hawthorn, with its protective thorns, has flowers with five petals (in which a shape of a pentagram can be drawn); the leaves are typically divided into either three or five segments.

 

Abundance

Abundance

My Experiences: In Search of the Hawthorn

My own experiences with hawthorn are a bit…whimsical.  I have found that hawthorn trees generally like to be seen when they are ready.  Northeast of the sacred circle on my former homestead in Michigan is a line of trees; within that line, a hawthorn. I had lived there and worked to establish and maintain the circle for years….only three years after I moved in did I see the hawthorn tree.  Once I saw her, she beams at me radiantly.  I found another hawthorn just across the property line in my neighbor’s yard; it had also been there for some time, but I was only ready to see her when I was ready.

 

For several years, every hawthorn I had visited in my immediate area in Michigan was not blooming and was not bearing fruit due to a rust that was harming the trees.  I had hoped to gather flowers in May to make a tincture and glycerite, but never managed it.  Then, just when I needed it, the hawthorn was there. I remember a fine spring day, not very long ago, when I was making the transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania. Less than 12 hours before I was to leave Michigan, I had received some news that really broke my heart, and I cried on my drive most of the way home (I was visiting my parents before moving into my new home). The morning when I awoke in the home of my childhood, I walked down into the woods, and saw that the hawthorns were in full bloom–huge hawthorns, bigger than any I had ever seen, all covered in their beautiful white flowers. I had been so sad since I had arrived home because of the news. I gathered the flowers later in the day, and that evening, I simply sat with the fresh flowers, picking out the little green bugs and inch worms that had made them their home.  As I sat, I could feel the energy of the hawthorn flowing over me, calming me, and soothing my heart.  It was a transformation–even in the process of making the tinctures, I was amazed in the healing power of those flowers.  Needless to say, I partook of the hawthorn each day after that–it is truly a plant connected to the healing of the heart and also the mystery and magic of the land.

 

My Interpretations

My entry on this tree is longer than some of my others, because it seems that we have two, potentially contradictory aspects of hawthorn showing up in the literature. My experience with individual hawthorn trees is that each unique hawthorn tree has a range of mannerisms—from those that freely give of their haws when you come near to those who stick you repeatedly just from walking by.  The trees with opposite mannerisms might be growing next to each other—I find that when I am out looking for flowers or haws for medicine, the individual temperaments of the trees vary widely.

 

On one side, we have this super-protective, heart healing plant, that is some of the best medicine that we know of for the heart and a plant that, in the Native American lore, also demonstrates protection. On the other hand, we see that it bodes of warnings and things not to be trifled with—the “whitening of the face” and “pack of hounds.” I think both of these are equally true of the hawthorn, and perhaps, represent light and dark sides of this tree, like two sides to a coin.  Hawthorn responds differently depending on how you approach it.  If you ram yourself into a hawthorn, its going to hurt and you aren’t going to get anywhere—and you may wish you never came upon it.  But, if you are mindful, you can can carefully work with it and reap rewards.  If you are true of heart and kind go the land, the hawthorn is likely to be your ally. It’s a tree of mystery and magic, as much as it is a tree that opens the heart. Its defensiveness can be aggressive when warranted, but nurturing when it wants to be.

 

 

Special Thanks:  I want to specifically thank Jim McDonald for sharing his knowledge of this amazing tree.

 

The Wisdom of the Elder: Recipes for Infused Elderflower Honey, Elderflower Cordial, and Elder-Lemon Tea June 24, 2015

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers!

Elderflowers (flowers from the Sambucus nigra plant) are in bloom right around the Summer Solstice (at least where I live), and this is a perfect time to create delightful healing recipes. One of these recipes uses raw honey (from my hives, of course) to gain the added benefits!  If you are looking for recipes for elderberry available later in the season, I posted a delicious recipe for elderberry elixir last year!

 

Medicinal Benefits of Elderflower

Elder – both the berry and the flower– is a first-rate medicinal plant that is unmatched in its ability to bolster the immune system and fight off illness.  I really enjoy having elderflower around in the winter months, especially when flu season comes around.  The flowers of elder come into bloom anywhere from late May till early June depending on the season and where you live–but for me, usually they are a premiere summer solstice plant.  Traditionally, elder has a very wide range of herbal uses–Grieve’s herbal details some of them. In more modern herbal practices, the flowers, specifically, are taken internally as an anti-inflammatory herb, especially for conditions in the respiratory system (like the flu, bronchitis, pleurisy and so on). It has a diaphoretic action that can be help to manage fevers–and this is how I use it, most often. If you get the flu, you want elderflower nearby! Baths of the elder flower (you can make them from dried or fresh flowers) for itchy skin also work well.

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Harvesting and Preparing Elderflowers

Elder are super-easy to spot when they are in bloom–look for low to medium-sized shrubs with bunches of beautiful white flowers. They usually are margin plants, meaning they like to grow on the edges and the margins–like on the edge of a forest. You may also find them out in the middle of a field or in part shade.  I’ve never found any deep in the forest. Remember that, as tempting as it may be, don’t pick elder by the side of busy roadsides as these plants are likely contaminated with exhaust (see my general suggestions for wildcrafting and foraging and avoiding toxins here.)

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

Once you find your elderflower, I suggest harvesting them with scissors or a knife. You can harvest them without either of these, but it does make it easier. A basket with a tight weave, a bucket, or even a cloth bag works very well to place your harvested flowers inside. I suggest giving the flowers a very good shake before placing them in–the elder are home to a number of small bugs, bees, and other creatures that you don’t want to take home with you.  You want to harvest the flowers that are near full bloom or in full bloom.  You also want to pay attention to the smell–different elders have different smells, and you want one that smells nice and aromatic (some of them can get a little stinky).

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Elder harvesting basket with very tight weave

Once you have your elderflower safely at home, you can keep them in the fridge up to 24 hours without them going too limp, and since it does take time to harvest and process, I sometimes will harvest on one day and then process the following day.

 

When you are ready to process them, I suggest taking your elder outside, because the hardest part of processing elderflower is making sure none of the little bugs are still in the flowers!  What I like to do (for either of these recipes) is to cut the stems off the flowers (only the flowers and berries are edible).  I do this while I inspect the flowers for bugs, worms, or other critters, and gently shake or knock them off.  You’ll be surprised how many there are in your flowers.

 

Pay attention for elders that have a really big bud–there is likely some little bug living in there (so I cut those out and leave them in a shady spot).  Make sure you remove most, if not all, of the stem.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

See those two big buds? Critters live inside.

You’ll be left with a pile of lovely elder flowers ready to make delicious and medicinal concoctions!

Ready to take inside!

Ready to take inside!

 

Elderflower Infused Honey

One of the easiest ways of preserving fresh elderflowers is in raw, local honey. You get both the benefit of the honey as well as the elder flower–making this an AMAZING remedy.  Infusing elderflower into honey couldn’t be easier.

Freshly harvseted honey for infusing!

Freshly harvested honey for infusing!

Loosely pack fresh elderflowers into a mason jar and pour your honey over the flowers.  Fresh honey works best for this–if your honey doesn’t pour well, you can stick it in the sun for 30 min and that will warm it up (or stick it in a bowl of hot water).  If your honey is crystallized, you can stick it in a double boiler for a time and it will liquify (but don’t get it too hot or you will kill the good enzymes present in raw honey).

Pouring honey

Pouring honey

Once you’ve poured in the honey, take a knife or chopstick and gently stir the honey and elderflower together.

Stirring and pouring

Stirring and pouring

Let it sit in a warm place for 1 week, then strain the elderflower out of the honey and enjoy.  Keep an eye on the honey–honey keeps because it has a low water content.  The elder shouldn’t bring it above that level, but if it does, you’ll want to keep it in the fridge to prevent spoiling.  I’ve never had a problem with any of my infused honeys, however, especially from herbs, but there is always that possibility.

Elder infusing next to some hawthorn flowers

Elder infusing next to a hawthorn flower glycerate

Now you can eat this honey just like any other honey–but it has the added benefit–and flavor–of elderflower!

 

Elderflower Cordial

Another amazing thing to do with elderflower is to make a cordial–this recipe is for a syrup that you can add to any fizzy thing, like soda water, seltzer water, or even champagne or vodka.  You can drizzle it over ice cream or enjoy it on pancakes.  It also goes nicely in a tea. And the best part is that every time you take it, you are boosting the immune system!

The cordial recipe depends on if you want it to keep for a long period of time or if you are going to drink it right away.  If you want to drink it quickly or freeze it, you can omit the citric acid and lemons in the recipe below.  If you are going to can it (like I do) or just bottle it up and keep it in the fridge make sure you include the citric acid. If you bottle it in sterilized bottles or jars, it will keep for several months in there.

 

Here’s my recipe (makes about 8 cups):

2 quarts of water (8 cups)
2 quarts sugar (3 lbs sugar; I use raw sugar for this–you could also use honey or maple syrup)
8 heaping cups elder flowers, stems removed (about 30-40 heads, depending on the size of the head)
2 tsp citric acid (necessary if you are canning, otherwise, you can omit)
3 lemons, sliced and zested, pith removed (lemons are also necessary if you are canning to increase acid content, but gives it a really nice flavor)

 

Start by preparing your elderflowers as above. You might even dip them in water to make sure all the critters are gone, but I prefer more humane methods.

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Flowers ready to go into cordial!

Put your sugar and water in a large stockpot and heat it up till the sugar is dissolved.  While this is heating, prepare your lemons by zesting them and then cutting off the pith, and slicing the insides in small slices.  Many recipes don’t remove the pith, but I know from winemaking that the pith can cause wine to go bitter, so I also remove them for this recipe.

Sugar dissolved into water (I'm using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Sugar dissolved into water (I’m using raw cane organic sugar, so its a darker color)

Once the sugar water has cooled down so that you can stick your finger in it, stir in the elder flower, lemon zest, and lemon slices.

Added lemons and zest

Added lemons and zest

Mixed in elderflower!

Mixed in elderflower!

Put a lid on it and wait 24 hours.

Infusing elderflower....

Infusing elderflower….

Put a clean teatowel or fine cheesecloth in a strainer and strain the mixture.  The mixture is now complete and can be enjoyed.  You can pour it into sterile jars and it will keep in the fridge for 1-3 months (you’ll know when it goes bad–it usually will grow mold on it!)

Straining Elder Cordial

Straining Elder Cordial

At this stage, I will reheat the mixture to a slow boil, then ladle it into canning jars, and process it in a hot water bath for 10 minutes (for half-pint jars, 20 min for pints) to ensure that it will keep for several years.  Not every year is a good year for elderflower, and so I will make extra in good years. I like to make this on the summer solstice and open it up at Samhuinn and the Winter Solstice to begin enjoying (and to begin bolstering my immune system for the upcoming flu season!)

 

Honeyed Elderflower and Lemon Tea

You didn’t think I’d let all those infused flowers go to waste after straining the honey or the cordial did you? Heck no! “Produce no waste” is a permaculture design principle that I abide by. From the honey infusion, when I strain it, I will keep the strained flowers with their bits of honey in the fridge and use them for tea within a week or two (since Grieve talks about elder being a good blood purifier and tonic, I think its great to take this tea semi-regularly anyways). Or, I will freeze it into an ice cube tray to use later.

 

The flowers and lemon from the cordial can likewise be dried for a tea (I do this in my dehydrator on the “herb” setting at 95 degrees, cause elderflowers are very delicate and can turn brown quickly). When its dry, I put it in a mason jar, which is good for the next year or so. Either tea will have its own sweetness already present and is delicious on its own, or mixed with other herbs.  So save your flowers, brew them up, and enjoy!