Tag Archives: herbs

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

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

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

 

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

 

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

 

Understanding the Elements as a System of Representation and as Symbols

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Four Elements

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

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

 

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

The Three Aspects of Spirit and the Three Currents

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

 

Spirit Above: The Solar Current

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

 

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

 

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

 

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing stone – bringing the solar into the telluric

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

 

Spirit Below: The Telluric Current

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Spirit Within: Awakening the Lunar Current

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

 

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

 

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

 

Adapting the Seven Element Framework to Your Practice

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

 

Seven Element Framework Graphical Representation

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part II: Preserving and Preparing Sacred Plant Medicine

The moonlight shines through the window in my kitchen as I carefully use a mortar and pestle to grind dried herbs for making tea.  Candlelight softly illuminates the space, and I have my recipe book with me, ensuring that I record everything that I’m doing for future use. Magic is in the air; working in a sacred space at a sacred time on the Fall Equinox ensures that these medicines will be potent, effective, and magical. On the counter, I’ve already finished my fresh New England Aster flower tincture; this keeps my lungs in good health and helps me manage my chronic asthma without pharmaceuticals. A pot of olive oil is infusing with herbs is on the stove; I am getting ready to add beeswax and pour it off into small jars.  This healing salve will be for friends and family as Yule gifts.  The kitchen is bursting with good things and healing energy.

 

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

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

In last week’s post, we explored some different ways to interact with and harvest plants: an animistic worldview that recognizes and honors plant spirits, planting and harvesting by the signs, and preparing for harvest through offerings.  In this week’s post, we’ll talk through different ways to preserve and prepare sacred plant medicine– so let’s get started!

 

An Herbal Sacred Grove

Before beginning your plant preparations, I would suggest setting up a sacred space (what we druids call a Sacred Grove). You can create a sacred space in which to prepare your sacred plant medicine. I offered details for one way of doing this in my earlier post on Hawthorn tincture creating.  You could also do so using an existing grove ritual (from OBOD, AODA, etc) or by creating your own.  I love to do this and I have found that it really adds to the magic and power of my plant preparations. For sacred plant crafting, I typically use a modified version of AODA’s solitary grove opening, including the Sphere of Protection.  The Sphere of Protection is highly adaptable, drawing upon the four elements and the solar, telluric, and lunar currents (three realms of spirit).  For plant medicine, I will use something like this (depending on the plants I’m working with at that time):

  • East/Air – New England Aster
  • South/Fire- Sassafras
  • West/Water – Hawthorn
  • North/Earth – Reishi Mushroom
  • Spirit Below/Telluric Current – Comfrey
  • Spirit Above/Solar Current – Goldenrod
  • Spirit Within/Lunar Current – Reishi

So my opening might look something like this:

  • Declare the intent of the ceremony
  • Declare peace in the quarters (part of the druid tradition)
  • Druid’s prayer / Druid’s prayer for peace (part of the druid tradition)
  • Sphere of protection; sealing the space
  • Offering to the spirits of the plants

Once the grove is open, I can begin my plant preparations, recognizing the sacredness and magic in this work.

If you plan on continuing to do sacred herbalism, I would suggest developing your own version of your sacred grove opening.  It can be dedicated to certain plants or activities, be done in a special room at a special time, etc.  The important thing is to make it matter for you!

 

Garbling

Once you have harvested a plant, you should engage in what is known as “garbling.” Garbling has both mundane and magical qualities.  On the mundane level, this basically means going though the plant material, cleaning it, removing bugs or soiled parts, and making sure you don’t have parts of other plants (like blades of grass) in there. As part of the garbling process, if you are drying your plants, you will want to remove any thick stems–this can prevent plants from drying thoroughly.  On the magical level, this process lends your energy to the plants you’ve harvested.  Feel their energy, attune with them, and do a bit of energy exchange with the plants you harvested.

 

Drying Plants

Plants need to be very dry if they are to stay fresh and preserved over a period of time or if you are going to use them in an herbal preparation. One of my favorite tools is a portable herb air drying rack. Its a mesh column with tiers where you can lay many fresh herbs.  If you hang this up in your house or porch, your herbs can be dried in a matter of days and not use any fossil fuels.  Other options include an electric dehydrator (sometimes necessary in places or times of high humidity).  If using a dehydrator, make sure you keep it on the lowest (herb) setting. Solar dehydrators (such as this design here) are another good option.  The oven is not a good option for most plants for drying, particularly leaf and flower parts; the oven starts out about 100 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than you want for your plants and you will likely burn them. You can use the oven to “finish off” already mostly dry material, however.

 

If you feel your plants and they still feel soft or cool, they are likely not yet dried enough for proper storage.  This is particularly a problem in high humidity areas. You might finish them off for 10 min in the oven at the lowest setting to make sure they are super dry.  Then place them in a mason jar (which has an excellent lid that won’t allow any bugs, dust, etc, inside and place them in a cool, dark place.

 

Typically, drying directly in the sun is not a good idea.  The sun destroys many of the volatile oils, which is where a lot of medicinal content is held in the plants.  So air dry them, but never in direct sunlight. (This is also why you store plants in a cool, dark space–because sunlight is damaging to the longevity and potency of dried herbs and tinctures). You can use the sun’s energy for other kinds of preparations, however!

 

Specific Plant Preparations: Teas, Tinctures, Oils, and Salves

 

Healing Plant Tea (Infusion or Decoction)

If you are drying plants and storing them, you are already ready to make tea. Tea is best used for working on the internal systems of the body; the gut and GI system can hugely benefit from healing teas.  For teas, I usually grind up my plant matter a bit further (in a mortar and pestle, or cut them up further with herb scissors).  This is done so that the water has more spaces and opportunities to extract the plant matter. There are two kinds of herbal teas that you can make: infusions or decotions; the kind you make depends on the plant matter you are working with.

 

Infusions are created when boiling water is poured over plant matter and allowed to sit for 5-20 or so minutes (what we typically know as ‘tea’ using a tea bag).  This method is best for leafy plant matter and flowers.  When you make an infusion, make sure to cover the tea so that you are not losing the volatile essential oils through the steam (that’s often where the most concentrated medicine is).  The longer you let the tea sit, the stronger it will be, and for medicinal teas, 10-15 minutes is a good amount of time.  You can use tea strainers or purchase single use tea bags that can be sealed or tied.  I prefer the metal tea strainers as I make a lot of tea and don’t want the tea bag paper to go to waste.  Good plants for infusion teas include: mints, rosemary, lavender, monarda, lemon balm, chamomile, catnip, nettle, and more.

 

Decoctions are created when you boil your plant matter, with a lid, in the water, again for 10-20 minutes.  These are best for roots, barks, nuts, and other tough woody plant matter as it takes more time to extract the medicine from roots and woody material.  A hard boil of a plant would destroy leafy bits and flowers, so if you are combining woody bits or roots with flowers, add your flowers after you are done boiling and allow them to sit (again with the lid on) for 10 or so minutes before drinking your tea.  Plants for decoction: sassafras root, wild cherry bark, echinacea root, yellow dock root, etc.

 

You can also add the energy of the sun and/or the moon to your tea:

Sunlight and solar tea!

Sunlight and solar tea!

Lunar tea: A great way to bring the energy of the moon.  For infusions, pour boiling water over your plant material and allow it to sit in a jar with a lid in the moonlight.  For decoctions, boil your plant matter and add to a mason jar with a lid.  Let it sit overnight in the moonlight. Drink the next day and enjoy the energy of the moon.

 

Solar tea:  Some days, the sun is hot enough to do its own infusion of leafy or flower plant material.  Place your material in a large mason jar (I like to use the half-gallon mason jars) and sit it in the sun.  If you want to make your tea stronger, consider putting your jar on a reflective surface (like in a big stainless steel bowl) to increase the heat.  For decoctions, I like to soak my plant matter in advance in the sun (in a pot or jar) and then do the final boil.

 

Finally, you can make a ritual out of drinking your tea: perhaps it’s what you drink each morning when you rise, or each evening as you are getting ready for meditation.  I like to make my tea and then walk out on our land here, communing with the plants both within the tea and without!

 

Healing Plant Tincture (Alcohol, Vinegar, and Glycerine)

Tinctures are potent extracts that turn the plant medicine into a more easily accessible form by the body, and are used for an extremely wide range of uses (daily strengthening, cleansing, supporting a healthy fever, gut issues, etc). Tincturing can be a fairly complex and involved process if you want it to be (I wrote about it in much greater depth on my herbalism blog), but we are going to use a simple folk method here.  A tincture suspends healing plant matter in a menstra (in our case, alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine) which makes the medicinal properties more readily available and also preserves them for a period of time (for vinegar and glycerine, about a year; for high proof alcohol, indefinitely).

 

Alcohol tinctures. Your goal for most plant matter is to have at least 25% alcohol for preservation purposes. Start by chopping your fresh or dried plant matter finely.  If you are using fresh plant matter, you will want to start with a higher proof alcohol (as the plants add some additional water). You can use a “neutral” spirit; vodka is a typical choice for most herbalists.  An 80 proof vodka is 40% alcohol, so even if your plant material has a bit of water in it, you should still be above 25% alcohol when you are finished. Place your chopped plant matter into a jar, and weigh it down with a smooth, clean stone that you have scrubbed well in advance.  You can do this without the stone, but the stone really helps keep all of the plant matter submerged, which prevents mold and other issues.  Pour your alcohol over it and store in a cool, dark place for one moon cycle.  Strain your material, and enjoy!  Tinctures can be sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make them taste a bit better (or just take them in a glass of water).

 

Glycerine tinctures (glycerites). Glycerites have a shelf life about a year, and often taste a lot better than alcoholic preparations.  They are also very good for children or people who cannot have alcohol (such as those in recovery). Purchase some vegetable glycerine (in the USA, if you find “USP Glycyerine” the USP stands for the United States Pharmacopeia, which means it is a pure and standard formula). Water the glycerine down by 50% and add your plant matter, usually dried (or water it down less if you are using fresh).  Give it all a good shake and let it sit for one moon cycle (but not more), shaking it at least once a day.  Strain and enjoy.

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Vinegar tinctures. Vinegars are best for food-based material that you want to build into your cooking and consumption regularly and can be a great addition to an herbal medicine cabinet. For example, my father needed to have regular hawthorn in his diet and he enjoyed eating vinegar and oil on his salad, so I prepared him a hawthorn-infused apple cider vinegar that he could use each day with his meal.  Vinegar tinctures are made similar to the others–start with a high quality vinegar, preferably organic.  Chop up your plant matter finely and add it to your jar.  Let the plants infuse in the jar for one moon cycle, strain, and enjoy.  One more common vingear based preparation you may have heard of is “Fire Cider“; it is a vinegar-based tincture of ginger, onions, garlic, horseradish, and herbs that is used for healing purposes.

 

Some Plants for tincturing: Monarda (bee balm, antimicrobial), Nettle (anti-histamine, adrenal support), Goldenrod (anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory), Culinary Herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano – good for the vinegar infusion), Chickweed, Wild Yam.

 

Healing Plant Infused Oil

Infused oils are topically used primarily for wounds/stings/bug bites, for joint/muscle issues, or for varicose veins and other skin issues. Herbalists have a multitude of ways to make an infused plant oil, and I will share two of the most simple ways. Start by thoroughly drying your plant matter (see instructions above) and chopping it finely; if you are in a hurry, at least “wilt” your plant material for 12 or so hours by letting it sit on the counter before using it. Choose a good quality oil, I most often use organic olive oil as it is readily available.  Coconut oil is another good choice, but only if you will be keeping it in a temperature controlled environment due to its low melt point.  Otherwise, at some point, your infused oil may be solid or liquid (and this is even more important if you plan on making it into salve).

 

Pour the oil over the plant matter, making sure the plant matter is thoroughly saturated.  Leave in a sunny window or on the porch on warm days for one week, then drain and store in a cool, dark place for use.

 

Alternatively, you can use a double boiler on a low setting and infuse the oil for 12-24 hours.  Ensure the oil doesn’t get too hot–if your plant leaves turn brown and crispy, you likely made it too warm and boiled away the medicine. Thoroughly strain your oil with a small strainer or cheesecloth, and store in a cool, dark place for further use.

Infusing plants

Infusing plants

Make sure your oil is completely strained; small bits of plant matter can make it spoil much faster.  Also make sure there are no water bubbles in it; they will appear on the bottom and look like little clear or brownish bubbles. These will also make the infused oil spoil much, much faster.

 

Healing Salve

To make a salve from infused oil, begin by placing your strained oil into a double boiler and heating it up.  Add approximately 3 tbsp of beeswax (shaved or grated finely) per cup of infused oil.  As the oil heats up, the beeswax will melt. You can add less beeswax for a more liquid salve or more beeswax for a harder salve.

 

To test the consistency of your salve, place a spoon in the freezer and then pull it out and put a few drops of your salve on the spoon to see its consistency.  When you are happy with the consistency, you can add any additional essential oils (in small quantities; I like to add sweet orange or rosemary oil to make it smell nice).  Pour your salves into small jars or tins. Let them cool and then label appropriately.

 

Plants that work well for salve (in any combination): Plantain (skin healing, drawing), Calendula (skin healing), Comfrey (wound closing), St. John’s Wort (inflammation), Ground Ivy (skin healing, drawing), Chickweed (skin healing), Goldenrod (inflammation).

 

Conclusion

The world of plant medicine and herbalism represents a lifetime of study–but the best way to learn is to start doing it!  Next week, in our final post in this series, we talk about making herbal flower/leaf essences and working deeply with the spirit of plants. Blessings!

A Beltane Blessing: Recipe for Sacred Herbal Offering Blend

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Offerings to the land, spirits, and/or diety are a common stable in many traditions, druidry being no exception. Many opportunities present themselves and having something you carry with you can be built into your regular druid practice (and kept within, say, a crane bag).  Some years ago, I wrote about sustainable offerings and the kinds of offerings you can leave as part of a regular spiritual practice. These offerings might be home-grown herbs (as in the case of today’s post), home-brewed alcohol, small blessed stones, home baked bread or cakes, small shells, even your own nitrogen-rich urine.  I think the important thing with any offering is that it truly puts no strain on the ecosystem–but rather, is a true blessing.

 

In the spirit of this idea of sustainable and sacred offerings, in today’s post, I’ll share the recipe for one of my own sacred herbal blends that I often carry with me and use for leaving small offerings—in nooks of trees, on stones, in an offering bowl, as an offering as part of ritual, and so on. This kind of offering blend is a perfect thing to make at Beltane, as the energy of Beltane is full of vitality and life, of healing and blessing. Using the energy of Beltane to mix and bless these herbs brings that energy to the land and spirits throughout the year.

 

Sustainability and Suitability of Offerings

The key to leaving any offering is that it won’t damage the ecosystem or cause it harm–either in the leaving of said offering or in its creation. This means you have to take some serious care and consideration to develop an offering blend that gives back rather than takes. In the case of the herbal offerings I’m talking about today, it is critical that you leave only materials that will naturally break down and that will not spread any seeds that do not belong in the ecosystem.

 

Towards that end, I take two precautions with the herbal blend presented here. First, I use only leaf matter and flower matter (harvested long before the formation of seeds). Second, I bake the plant matter at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, killing off anything that might be present in the plant matter so that it is harmless and safe to leave (and bonus: it makes the house smell great!)

 

An alternative, another kind of herbal offering entirely, which I’ve talked about in some of my wildtending posts, is to intentionally leave seeds that are rare and in need of replanting–but that’s a different kind of thing–you can read more about that in this post. That is certainly another kind of herbal offering that you can leave.

 

An Introduction to the Herbs

A blend of herbs....

A blend of herbs….

For my blend, I wanted to use a combination of tobacco leaves and flowers (home grown), lavender flowers, rose petals, and  .  You can use any number of herbs you can grow yourself or buy organically: I like flowers a lot, as well as aromatic herbs for a nice smell (mints, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sages, etc).  Here are the herbs from this specific blend:

 

Nicotiana Rustica, or Wild Tobacco. Each year, I grow Nicotiana Rustica, which is an old form of tobacco known as “Aztec Tobacco” or “Wild Tobacco.”  I’ve grown it successfully in a garden as well as in smaller pots in a windowsill. It is super easy to grow and grows prolifically.  It will self seed if you allow it to.  Wild Tobacco is not a kind of tobacco used for smoking as it has up to nine times the concentration of nicotine compared to a traditional tobacco grown for smoking (although in some parts of South America, Shamans use it as part of entheogenic mixtures). I have found that this particular strain of tobacco is well received by the spirits of the land and they are joyful in receiving it. This variety is native to North America, but is usually not cultivated because it is too potent for the common misuses of tobacco today. By growing this plant myself, and, by being a non-smoker, I am cultivating a sacred relationship with a plant that has long been used as an offering here on the land in North America–and a plant that is often well received when given in reverence and respect to the spirits and the land. I feel, in some way, that I am reclaiming a relationship with this tobacco plant, returning it to its sacred, rather than its mundane and abused, purpose. It is still early in the year, and you can readily get seeds for this variety–so consider cultivating some!

 

I like to gather the flowers as they bud–each little stalk will produce a new flower and drop it regularly, much like common mullein. I will typically gather up most of the flowers and later, seed pods (to share the seeds).  And I will cut the stalks and allow the leaves to naturally dry (they slowly turn brown). I save the stalks for use in smudge sticks that are specifically created as “offering” and “blessing” sticks.  Both the dried leaves and stalks smoulder nicely.

 

In this blend, the wild tobacco represents an offering to the land that is sincere and represents a desire for continuing a sacred relationship with the land.

 

Nicotiana Rustica

Nicotiana Rustica

Rose / Rosa spp (flowers/petals): My second ingredient in this blend is rose petals–they produce a beautiful smell and color, and make the blend really delightful. However, they have a more important purpose, and that purpose is protective and healing in nature. Rose, medicinally speaking, helps heal the heart and also has thorns which offer protection. I gather rose petals around Lughnassadh each year (or earlier, depending on the specific species).  Rose is under the dominion of Venus.

 

Lavender (Lavandula spp) Lavender flowers are a third ingredient that comes in my sacred offering blend (and occasionally, lavender stalks and leaves, although I usually save these for smudge stick making as well).  Lavender, which is a Mercury herb, has been used for millenia for purification and warding purposes–and that’s exactly what it is used for in this blend.

 

Elder (flower, Sambuccus Canadensis; Sambuccus Spp.). I have written pretty extensively about elder in an earlier post, so you can find complete information on Elder in that post.  In this blend, I gather Elderflower (right around or on the Summer Solstice).  I turn much of this elder into Elderflower cordial and tea but save some of it for my sacred offering blend. Elder offers a connection to the realm of spirit and for bringing good energy into the land through the connection with the summer solstice and solar current.

 

These are the four plants I commonly use in my blend, but as I said above, you can use any plant that speaks to you and that you’ve developed a relationship with. Here are some ideas:

 

  • Conifers: Eastern White Cedar, White Pine, Eastern Hemlock (needles), Spruces, etc. Other tree leaves would also be fine!
  • Herbs (leaf, flower, stem): Mints, Lemon Balm, Oregano, Marjoram, Basil, Thyme (if you are unable to grow them, you can buy organic blends at the grocery store or fresh at a farmer’s market, and dry them and blend them)
  • Flowers: Any flower petal that you can dry (avoiding any seeds)

 

The key to any blend is that you think about the magical purpose and energy behind each herb/plant/tree as well as your own relationship with it. This is a great way to begin to cultivate relationships with certain plants for certain purposes as well. If you “grow your offerings” this season, by the end of the year when you are ready to make such a blend, you’ll have spent a full season with that plant. If the plant is a perennial or you save some of the seeds, then your relationship with that plant deepens over the years. For example, I’ve been growing Nicotiana Rustica for about 8 years now, and each year, as I save the seeds and replant them, and share them with friends, my relationship with this plant deepens–and the power of the offering I give also deepens.

 

To me, every part of the cultivating and harvesting of this sacred blend is, in fact, part of the sacred relationship I am cultivating with nature. By tending the plants, or finding them carefully in the wilds, I can continue to build a specific blend that honors the land our deepens our relationship.

 

Magical Crafting and Making the Blend

The good news about a sacred offering blend is there is no right or wrong way to blend it. I would suggest, in fact, that your intuition (rather than measuring select ingredients) goes further than a specific recipe. However, I do have some suggestions to follow:

 

Select a sacred time. In my case, I decided to make this blend on the full moon closest to Beltane. This draws both on the power of the moon and the energy of the sun.

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Open a sacred grove. In the druid revival tradition, this would include calling in the sacred animals, calling in the elements, blessing/purifying with the elements, saying the druid’s prayer, establishing a protective sphere or circle.

 

Cut your Herbs (if necessary). Many home grown herbs are not in very small pieces, so I find it is useful to cut them. I do this with a pair of scissors.

Cutting tobacco leaf

Cutting tobacco leaf

Blend Your Herbs. Gather your herbs together and blend them. I find that using a clockwise motion while I chant or sing helps bless them and brings some of my own energy into the mixture.

Blending the herbs

Blending the herbs

Bless Your Herbs. You might use a simple blessing to empower the herbs further with sacred intent. I used an elemental blessing, drawing upon the energies already called and simply moving each elemental bowl clockwise above the herbal blend.

 

Store Your Blend. Depending on what you are going to do next, you might put your herbal blend in a mason jar to keep it airtight. The last batch I blended was primarily for gifts, so I instead put them in little bags with labels and also filled up my own offering bag again.

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Close Your Sacred Space. Close your sacred space once your magical crafting is complete!

 

How to Use Herbal Offerings

There’s not really a wrong way to use an herbal offering, but I can give you some ideas of how I’ve used these.

 

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Land Healing Purposes. When I see land in need of healing–an abandoned lot, a tree that has been cut down, a recently poisoned lawn, I will leave a pinch of the offering. This is just to let the land know that I am here, I honor it, and I am present. I have left these pinches near cut Christmas trees during the  holiday season–again, as a space holding gesture.

 

Land Blessing Purposes. When I’m interacting with the land, I will leave a pinch. For example, if I’m camping out somewhere, when I first arrive and again when I leave, I will leave a pinch of the offering. If I’m hiking, I will leave some as a I walk at a few points.

 

Ritual Offering Purposes. Because I always honor the land and the spirits of the land as a primary part of my own ritual work, I use this blend as an offering to the land.

 

You can do a lot of things with this sacred blend–or another like it! I wish you a blessed Beltane–and happy magical crafting!

Making Seed Balls and Scattering Seeds for Wildtending

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

This is the last post (for a while) in my series on wildtending. In the last month, we’ve explored the philosophy of wildtending as a sacred action, explored the refugia garden principle, I shared my own refugia garden preparation and design, and finally, we are ready to start scattering the seeds!  Perhaps these seeds were gathered from the wilds, given as a gift from a friend, or perhaps, they were gathered from a refugia garden.  Wherever you get them, now is the time to begin to scatter these amazing little balls packed with life, love, and magic.

 

Seed balls were invented by Fukuokoa and described in the permaculture classic, One Straw Revolution.  They have a number of benefits over other methods for scattering seeds.  First, and foremost, they are easy to throw and toss into spaces you can’t reach.  A lot guerilla gardeners  use them in urban spaces as part of rewilding activities.  Similarly, I have found it so much easier to have a bag of seed balls with me and begin tossing them, seeing where they land and if they can grow.  I also like them because you can imbue them with some magic (even using some of the earlier energy methods I described with minor modification). They also give the seeds a bit of nutrition to help grow, and the ball itself creates a little platform for growth of the seed as the clay and compost spreads out and as the ball breaks down. There are two downsides–first, roots and larger nuts need separate treatment (obviously; I usually plant these directly by hand), and second, the seed balls can be a bit heavier than tiny bags of just seeds. But I have found them to be extremely useful to have in my foraging bag or crane bag when I’m out and about in the world!  So here we go–Let’s roll up our sleeves, find a few friends, and make some seed balls!

 

Designing Seed Balls

There are three pieces to seed balls: seeds, clay, and compost as well as some simple tools to work with.  We’ll talk about each of these in turn.  A bit part of making seed balls is ethical sourcing–if done right, you shouldn’t have to buy anything (or much of anything).

 

Get Some Seeds

The first step is to get some seeds. Deciding what to put into a seed ball depends on what you have access to (like in my case, see below) but also what you want to spread–see my first post in this series for suggestions of endangered and at-risk medicinal plants, for starters. You can spread whatever seeds your ecosystem needs–I’m focusing my energies right now on medicinal plants and tree seeds. You can gather these in the wild when they are in abundance or you can start growing the key plants in a “refugia garden” as I described in a recent post. Or you can find them in…other ways. Since my garden is still in process, I was in the search for seeds this summer. In my last post, I gave some lists of potential plants for different ecosystems–check out this list for more ideas about seeds to spread, but I would strongly suggest studying up on your ecosystem and thinking about where you might share these balls.  Searching out seeds is a longer-term process, something to keep in your mind for the upcoming season!

 

Aster seeds drying!

Aster seeds drying!

Despite the fact that I didn’t find hardly any New England Aster or a few other key plants, like Blue Vervain and Echinacea upon my return to the northern Appalachians, I stumbled across a native plant garden at a local park. And, even more delightfully, they had just trimmed the garden back for the fall, and there was a pile of plants there just going to seed in a pile waiting to be carted off…and so…well, I helped myself. This gave me a wonderful set of seeds–here are a bunch of the aster seeds drying. I also found an abundance of milkweed, boneset, and swamp milkweed to round out my stash.  Perfect!

 

I decided, given my delightful treasure trove of full-sun seeds, to make a set of seedballs geared toward medicinal, hard to find perennial plants that grow in full sun.

 

Finding Your Clay

Now in his book, Fukuokoa used a local clay, “red clay” and there’s been some discussion in various permie forums on whether or not “red clay” is necessary.  No, it is not–any LOCAL clay will do. Please, please, please don’t go buy clay unless you have none in your local ecosystem (and chances are, you do). In most places on the planet, clay will be part of your natural subsoil and its just a matter of finding some.  Look when people are digging holes into the subsoil, look at eroding banks of rivers after flooding, look at new construction–you will see it.  Its heavy, retains water, and is sticky. The reason I say don’t buy any clay is because its very fossil fuel intensive to ship due to its weight. In PA and in Michigan, when you dig down, you can easily find clay. I prefer to dig mine out of banks by streams or the side of the road. I knew of a wonderful bank by a forest stream, so I went on a hike to get some.

Clay bank in stream

Clay bank in stream

I used my hori hori to dig my clay; the hori hori is a Japanese garden tool and is my favorite foraging tool. To dig your clay, literally any little trowel or shovel will do. Since I’m digging it from a soft bank, I primarily took clay  from the bottom of the bank where it already had spilled over to prevent further erosion. I used a doubled plastic shopping bag to put the clay in. After digging, I put it in my bag and lugged it 1/2 mile back up the mountain :).  Of course, not a week later, I saw a bunch of clay deposits on the side of a back country road, having been dug up from last year’s plowing.  Ah well!

Digging the clay

Digging the clay

I pretty much got as much clay as I could carry up the mountain all that way, or about 25 lbs. The recipe I’m going to give you is based on simle ratios, so however much you get is fine.

 

Other Supplies You’ll Need

Before you set about making your seed balls, you will need some other supplies.  I should also mention that seed ball making is VERY MESSY and should, at all possible, be done outside or in like a dusty garage or something.

Compost: In addition to clay and seeds, you’ll need some sifted and finished compost or top soil (something seed free). Chicken-created compost, as is any home compost or worm castings. Any rich soil will do. If you think you have unwanted seeds in the soil that you don’t want to spread, you can bake the compost at 350 degrees for 10 minutes (but this may kill off other microbial life, so be warned).

A large plastic bucket is necessary for mixing. A 5 gallon bucket works well.

A bucket of water for cleaning your hands and adding water to the mix. If its cold outside, make it warm water!

An old towel is also a good idea for cleaning your hands.

A small tarp or large garbage bag.  This will be for sorting out your clay, adding your seeds, and so on.

A few friends. Good friends make seed ball making fun!

 

The Process

The process is simple enough, and I took photographs of each step to help you along. The first thing you want to do is to make sure your compost and your clay is free of debris, woody material, leaves, or stones. Since my clay was wild clay, we had some sorting to do. It was a little wet, but that was fine. It could have been a little dry as well. If your clay is super wet, you might want to lay it out for a few days to dry out a bit before starting. The key is finding that “just right” texture that is more on the dry side than the soupy side.  Most clay you dig right out of the earth will be the perfect consistency.

Sorting the clay

Sorting the clay

We took out the big lumps, sticks, and rocks.

 

Next, you’ll want to measure your clay. You want to use a ratio of about 2 parts clay to 1 part compost–enough to form nice balls. Part of this will depend on the kind of clay you have (and if it is pure or has anything else in it, like a little bit of sand). We used a flowerpot to measure out or clay (2 parts clay).

Measuring clay

Measuring clay into the bucket

We added our finished compost (1 part) and mixed the clay carefully.

Mixing the clay and compost

Mixing the clay and compost – good to get your hands in the soil!

After mixing, we tested the seed balls to see if they stuck together.  Sometimes, you might need to add a bit of water, depending on how moist the clay was. We added about 1 cup of water to our bucket and then checked to see if it formed a ball. If it forms a nice ball, its ready to go.

Testing the seed ball

Testing the seed ball

 

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

At this point, we found that its helpful to spread the material out on the tarp/plastic bag so that you can get an even amount of seeds in each ball.  After spreading out our mixture,  we have begun to add aster seeds.  You pretty much add as much seed as you like–the balls that we’ve made this time and in the past generally had a lot of seeds!

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

We added a lot of seeds–in this batch, it was what I could find: blue vervain, pleurisy root/swamp milkweed, blue vervain, milkweed, and some stinging nettle.

Our lovely seeds spread out!

Our lovely seeds spread out! The milkweed puffs don’t seem to matter (and in fact, seem to give the balls strength).  Neither do bits of dried plant matter, etc.

Once the seeds were spread out, we mixed everything together and began forming our seed balls.

 

There are a few strategies to make the balls–one that Paul showed us was to roll out a long “worm” (ok, it totally looks like a turd) and then break off smaller bits, forming them into balls.

Forming balls

Forming balls

We made a good number of balls–probably 120+ with the mixture we had made.

Making seed balls together!

Making seed balls together!

Drying your balls

Since its winter here and the weather is generally quite chilly in January, I ended up laying my balls on my seed starting rack that I just put up. It is near a heat register, which allowed them to dry quite quickly. I put them down on some paper bags I had cut up.

Seed balls drying out!

Seed balls drying out!

Blessing your seed balls

Of course, no magic seed ball would be complete without a blessing.  So many things you can do for this, and I think any blessing you give will help set your intentions for the seeds to grow. A few ideas:

  1. A nice blessing oil that you can use to touch each seed ball saying a small prayer
  2. An elemental blessing (four elements) or three druid elements blessing
  3. Put them in the center of your circle during a druid holiday.  I’ll be blessing my most recent batch at Imbolc in a week or so.
  4. You can make these on a full moon, on a holiday (Samhuinn or Yule being a good example) for added effect.

 

Scattering Your Seeds

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Scattering the seeds is a huge part of the fun.  I like to make extra and give them as gifts to those who would appreciate them–then the seeds can go even further.

 

The easiest way of scattering them is just tossing them wherever you want them to grow.  Remember that some seeds need a cold period (cold stratification) so tossing them even in the wintertime isn’t a bad idea!

 

The sky is the limit in terms of these seeds. Make yourself a little bag, take it with you where you go, and have fun!  With each toss, you regenerate the land, bless the land, and scatter abundance.

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map

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!

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

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!

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible)

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part I: Equipment, Resources, What to Learn, and Timing

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about various wild foods and other kinds of wildcrafting and foraging on this blog, and I wanted to talk today about the principles of wildcrafting and ethical foraging more broadly. This post is the first in a series of two that focuses on introducing the reader to how to effectively wildcraft/forage, and is built upon my extensive experiences foraging and wildcrafting, which I have been doing in some form since childhood, but which I took up quite seriously about 7 years ago. This post offers definitions, supply lists, resources, what and how to learn, and information on timing. My second post in this series will discuss locations, avoiding environmental pollutants, and ethics.

 

Deep in the blueberry bog--an abundant harvest!

Deep in the blueberry bog–an abundant harvest!

Defining Wildcrafting and Foraging

Defining Wildcrafting: Wildcrafting is a modern term for an ancient practice. For as long as humanity has existed, we have gathered from the natural world for our food, shelter, medicine, clothing, ritual items, arts, and much more. Wildcrafting today refers to gathering materials from the land that you will use for various purposes, most frequently food or medicine, crafts, household items, natural building, carpentry, ritual items, clothing, and more. I often see the term associated with medicinal herbs, but there are many other possibilities for the wildcrafter. Non-food uses of wildcrafted items that I’ve covered in this blog include wildcrafted medicines such as jewelweed salve or various medicinal tinctures, smudge sticks, inks, baskets, and incense.

 

Defining Foraging: Foraging is a type of wildcrafting that is specific to finding food: wild food foragers hunt for food throughout the year (and I’ve covered many of my favorite foods one can forage for: burdock, black raspberries, violets, rampschicken of the woods mushrooms, and autumn olives, to name a few).

 

Other associated terms you might hear are bushcraft (a term for a variety of wilderness skills, such as shelter building, trapping, or fire making) and woodcraft (another term for skills associated with the woods).

 

Why Wildcrafting/Foraging?

Abundant harvest of black raspberry--one of my very favorites!

Abundant harvest of black raspberry–one of my very favorites!

This is a good question, and one that I get asked more often than one might expect.  For me, wildcrafting and foraging have numerous benefits, many of which are not material. First, as a druid, I enjoy spending time in nature, in stillness, in focus, and simply enjoying the natural world around me.  Wildcrafting gives me a good reason to get myself into the forest and the fields as often as I can. Second, I’ve been talking a lot on this blog lately about reskilling; developing the skills necessary to transition to a sustainable and earth-centered future. Learning once again to live off of the land, to live in harmony with the land, and to take only what is necessary is an important part of that path. This is what our ancestors did–and this is what we will again do–if we can learn to do it correctly and in balance. Third, I really enjoy the tangible benefits–the medicine, the food, the various craft items. I have tasted more new things and have been able to heal myself right from the land around me–these are empowering things.

 

Knowledge is critical to this path.  Not only knowledge of what you can take and use, but also knowledge of how that taking impacts the ecocystem.  And ethical forager is a knowledgeable one, connected to the land, and knowing their impacts.  So throughout these two posts, I’m really going to stress that you need knowledge to do this effectively.

 

Wildcrafting Supplies

Compiling some basic supplies will allow you to make numerous successful excursions.  Over the years, I’ve compiled the following supplies, which are useful and necessary:

 

Foraging Bookbag. When I got out foraging, I have a special “foraging” bookbag that I take with me with some basic supplies that are useful for finding food, medicine, and other kinds of things. The bag was one I purchased at a yardsale for 50 cents; it needed some minor repairs but works great.

Various storage - canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

Various storage – canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

  • Essentials that are always in the bag include sunscreen, an essential-oil based bug spray, fire starting equipment, an energy bar, a can of pepper spray, a hat that easily folds up, a compass, fire-starting equipment, and basic first-aid supplies. I also bring water; usually I don’t bring much in the way of snacks because I can always find a few trailside nibbles (that is, unless I will be out for some time and then I will bring some other stuff).
  • Tools: The Hori Hori.  If you are only going to have one foraging tool-this should be it.  Its a Japanese gardening tool that has a serrated edge, a sharp edge, and can dig and cut.  I won’t leave the house without it! I purchased mine for $30 and its one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
  • Other Tools in the bag include a small hand saw that folds up to about 7″ in length; my hori hori of course, a pair of scissors, a smaller knife, and a pair of gloves. These are all fairly light. If I’m going out for roots or tubers (like cattail, ground nut, or burdock), I might take a long a little fold-up shovel or even a garden fork if I’m not going far, but those are quite heavy, and I add these only when I need them. The knives are for cutting various plant matter or mushrooms; the hori hori can be used for cutting and also be used for digging roots or limited sawing. The hand saw is for getting branches or barks (useful to cut up roots from a fallen sassafras tree, for example). The scissors are good for harvesting smaller plants or greens, such as yarrow or nettle. I usually use the gloves for harvesting stinging nettles, which I take every opportunity to get when I go out in the summer.
  • Storage. The foraging bag also holds many different kinds of smaller bags for bringing things home–a few larger canvas bags for nuts or mushrooms, a few mesh orange/lemon bags (particularly good for mushrooms because it allows them to breathe), plastic bags of various sizes that I re-use, and paper bags of various sizes. I keep all of these materials in the bag and then when I want to go out (usually at least twice a week in the summer).
  • Blickeys. If I’m going berry picking specifically, I may also bring a blickey or two (see photo), which can be created from a gallon plastic jug. You just cut part of the top off of the jug, so you can easy place things in.  You leave the handle intact, which can go around your belt.  They are super lightweight and free to make.  If you don’t drink anything that would have them, a quick trip down your road on recycling day is sure to procure an abundant supply.  Because I have a friend with a severe dairy allergy that I often share wild-harvested treats with, I only use ones that had water or apple cider (like the one pictured), not milk. So keep that in mind when making your blickey.

    The blickey--fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

    The blickey–fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

Clothing for Foraging. I also always make sure I am wearing long pants and a belt; sometimes I will also include a hat for the sun and my muck boots if I am going into swampy areas.  Long pants are a great idea year round–in the summer they can protect you from poison ivy (even the most experienced wildcrafter sometimes wanders into a patch unawares–like the time I was enthusiastically harvesting St. johns wort and realized that underneath the top layer of plants, there was a lower layer of poison ivy–thank goodness for the jeans and muck boots!)  For shoes I will wear hiking boots or the muck boots (the muck boots are really hot in the summer).  The belt can hold a blickey or my hori hori or both.

 

Company for Foraging. I have found that foraging is much more fun with a friend than by one’s self. If I mention to some people that I’m heading out for a few hours, I almost always can find someone who wants to come with me and see what’s out there.

 

Other Resources. I usually take one or two field guides with me (see the next section for ideas), depending on what I’m going for. Since I’m still learning mushrooms, in the last two years, I was usually carrying a compact mushroom guide and one or two other books, depending on the time of year and what I’m looking for. I often bring more books and leave them in the car, such as Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals.  Field guides are particularly useful for plant ID.  What’s Doing the Blooming has traveled with me far and wide.

 

Resources/Books for Wildcrafting

These are resources specific to the Midwest and Northeast Regions–if you are in another region, I’m sure there are other good guides for you to find (and a local forager friend could be of help here!)

 

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Understanding Ecology. John Eastman has written a really good series of books on the place of many plants and trees in the ecosystem; and I highly recommend these works to anyone who wants to learn how to forage ethically and responsibly.  Why? Because if we are going to take, we need to understand what we are taking and how what we take fits into the ecological system–what insects or animals depend on the plant, what other plants are typically found in the area, and so on.  This is knowledge that our human ancestors intimately knew, and if we are going to engage in these kinds of activities, we too must understand it, first and foremost. The three books I’ve read from cover to cover that provide this information are: The Book of Forest and Thicket, The Book of Swamp and Bog, and the Book of Field and Stream (they are the three tan/white books in the front of the photo). Honestly, this is a good place to start even before you begin gathering anything.

 

Wild Foods. If you are going to be looking for wild foods, I recommend Sam Thayer’s books: The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. They are both available from his website (he self-published them, and they are the best foraging books I’ve ever read). I often have them with me out in the field and I study them when I’m not out and about.

 

General Plant ID. For flowers, there is a great and compact book called What’s Doing the Blooming? and its super useful for all manner of blooming plants (good for wild food, medicine, and even dye plants). Blooming plants are often fruiting plants later in the year, so you can identify them early in the season using this. Otherwise, any field guide with photos should be sufficient–there are some produced by the Arbor Day foundation on trees that are also useful.

 

Medicinal Plants. I took a four-season herbal intensive with Jim McDonald and that’s how I learned to ID many plants. I combined this with Matthew Wood’s two volumes, The Earthwise Herbal (vol 1 and 2). Usually if I need to find a specific plant, I’ll study it before I leave the house, locate it in one of my field guides, and then try to find it when I’m out.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root - an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations.  Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root – an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations. Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

 

Dyes. There are numerous dye books and mushroom dye books that are also useful if you are going that route. Some that I like are: Dean and Cassleman’s Wild Color and Bessette and Bessette’s A Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyer’s Field Guide.

 

Native American food/medicine/craft books. Some native American books that cover medicinal or edibles are really useful in terms of recipes and information. I have a few out of print ones on my shelves, and they have taught me much about traditional uses (such as hemlock-hickory tea and how to make pemmican!)

 

Other crafts: What you are looking for is very dependent on the craft. Books on basketweaving and natural weaving will describe what to get for those crafts; pine-needle basketry will obviously be about pines, and so on.  Natural papermaking books will obviously teach you about what to gather for that (I have a few posts on natural papermaking as well). I haven’t found good books on foraging for incense supplies, but I do have some information on my blog here, here, here, and here about it. My post on smudge sticks perhaps is the most comprehensive in terms of wild plants you can burn that smell good (never fear! I am working on a much longer post on that subject in this upcoming year–still testing plants at this point!)

 

Foraging friend and example of gear

Foraging friend and example of gear

How to Build Knowledge

Only some of my knowledge on this subject came out of books. A lot of it came from learning from others–I walked at my grandfather’s side and later, my uncle’s side and they taught me much about plants as a child. Much later, I attended a full year of my friend Mark’s Eat Here Now” classes where he did a monthly plant walk at various locations. I attended several mushroom hunting workshops to learn the mushrooms (and would like to attend more). And of course, I attended my four-season herbal intensive (which included one day per month of plant walks out in the field).  I also went out with others who knew different kinds of things and we learned from each other. I talk to people about plants often–and am always ready to learn something new or teach someone else.

 

 I have found that focusing your energies on one area can lead you to success and allow you to, over time, build a very diverse set of knowledge about things you can wildcraft. Now, when I got into the woods, I am ready for anything–crafting supplies, dye plants, medicine, wild snacks, and treats, wood to carve, and much more. I focused my energies each year on learning a different set of things and adding to my repertoire–the first year, it was mainly art supplies and incense making–I gathered resins and found every berry I could and tested its dye and ink capacity. The second and third years, I focused on learning all of the wild foods I could and kept looking for dye plants and such. The fourth year, I focused on wild mushrooms and brewing, in addition to food and craft/dyes. Finally, this year, I added medicinal herbs (and will probably continue to focus on them for some time). I made it a point to go out into the field at least six times a month looking for what I was looking for and also paid attention to what was already growing at my homestead.

 

Its also a good idea to learn characteristics of plant families — the book called Botany For Gardeners, recommended to me by Karen (one of the frequent readers and commenters on this blog–thanks Karen!) can really be of assistance.  This way, you can begin to identify plant famillies and even if you find a plant you don’t know, its features will give you some clue as to other related plants.

 

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

A final point about building knowledge–one of the first things you should learn is what can cause you harm. I think first-time foragers should all learn to identify poison hemlock in ALL of its stages before anything else. Poison ivy gets a lot of notoriety, and frankly, can give you a bad rash and a few unpleasant weeks.  But Poison Hemlock WILL KILL YOU if ingested–and it has many look alikes in the Apiaceae family (such as Queen Anne’s lace/Wild carrot).  Even just touching or smelling Poison Hemlock can cause nausea, dizziness, and disorientation.  Recently, I was officiating at a friend’s wedding.  The bridal party were getting ready to pose for photos along a bridge on a trail.  I saw a huge patch of it right where people were standing and watched someone reaching down to touch it (it was pretty, in full bloom). I quickly pointed it out and had everyone move to give it the respect it was due.  Interestingly enough, a few months later, one of the people in the bridal party reached out to me to learn more about this plant and many others. Other plants I would learn quickly include the death angel/avenging angel mushroom, poison sumac, and poison oak. When you start looking for particular plants, also be aware of what plants may look similar to the plant you want ( a good foraging book, like Sam Thayer’s books, will teach you this).

 

What You can Wildcraft and Setting intentions

Truthfully, the better question is–what can’t you wildcraft? I’ve taken particular joy in learning as much as I can about as many plants as possible and their uses. For example, see my extended post on the dandelion. One of the things you want to ask yourself is–why are you wildcrafting? For medicine? For Food? For crafting?  This will determine, to a large extent, what you are looking for and what resources you will need.  You also want to consider the abundance of the plant and who else may be depending on the plant as a food source (more on this in Part II of this series).

 

Setting your intent: Wandering vs. Targeted Harvesting. Sometimes I go out wandering to see what I can find, while other times, I have a very specific harvest in mind. Determining this will indicate where I should go (e.g. a few days after a “weather event” to look for mushrooms; to the outskirts of a housing development to pick serviceberries, and so on). If I don’t have anything in mind, I will go to one of several wild areas and make it a point to return to the same area multiple points in the season to gauge how the crops are progressing.

 

When you are first learning, the other thing is that you might not know where to get certain things. These “wanderings” then, while time consuming, are wonderful times of discovery. They help you establish your “spots” for future harvests–look for abandoned apple orchards, berry patches, abundant fields, and so much more.

Nature's bounty - the crab apple!

Nature’s bounty – the crab apple!

 

Keeping records. I keep fairly detailed records of harvests and locations.  I know others who draw extensive maps so that they can find their mushrooms again the following year.  All of this is useful as you are learning–looking at your records from one year can help you figure out the locations and timing of where you want to go.

 

Wildcrafting Timing

Timing is a tricky thing in wildcrafting. Generally, the more often you go out, and the more time you devote, the more impressive harvests you will find. Each year can be its own wonky thing, and you can never be sure that the wild blueberries will be blooming at the same time (they, like everything else, can often vary by several weeks depending on the weather)  I find its better to visit early in the season and stop back often for things you really like than to miss the harvest entirely. For example, as I mentioned in my dandelion post, each year there is about 7-10 days of “peak dandelions” where they are blooming and abundant–and this is really the only time to make wine because its the only time they will be in the volume you need. If you miss the harvest–you’ll have to wait till the following season.

 

The other important thing about timing is that not everything is abundant each year. This is why we must take advantage of harvests when we find them and understand how to stretch those harvests out in times of scarcity. I remember, for example, the great apple harvest of 2013; the great st. john’s wort harvest of 2014, and the great berry harvest of 2011 and 2013 (and the lack of any berries to speak of in 2012 and 2014!)  Canning, drying, freezing, and other forms of preservation can allow us to enjoy the bounty even in years of famine.  A lot of people, as i mentioned in my earlier post, don’t really understand this. The supermarket is always abundant, and if you are going to share wild foods with them, I would suggest making them come with you on a trip or two so that they understand the work of it–and also the joy.

 

Stay tuned for my second post next week, where we’ll delve into understanding the ethics of foraging, discussing where to harvest safely, and more!

Making Smudge Sticks from Homegrown Plants and Wildharvested Materials: Step by Step Instructions with Cedar, Rosemary, Sage, Mugwort, and More!

 

 

I recently posted about my research on Eastern White Cedar, and I wanted to follow-up that post with information on making smudge sticks, inspired by Eastern White Cedar. Smudge sticks are bundles of herbs that are dried and burned for purification and ceremonial uses. They come out of Native American traditions, but today they are broadly used by many for their purification purposes.  I use them as a druid in my ceremonies, to bless and cleanse my house, to cleanse outdoor spaces that are in some kind of energetic funk.  But I also use them practically–as a blessing for my garden at the start of the growing season, as a way to remove hostile energies from my chickens who aren’t getting along, or to pass among friends before sharing a meal.  They are a great way to bring a bit of ceremony and the sacred into the everyday.

Freshly Wrapped Smudges

Freshly Wrapped Smudges

 

Why make your own smudges? Sustainability, Plant Ally Relationship Building, Intentions

Like many ritual objects,  smudges are often created, shipped, and encased in plastic without a clear sense of their origins or whether or not the plants were harvested in a sustainable way. This means, at minimum, that fossil fuels are expended to get them into your hands and waste is created in the packaging and processing.  As I’ve discussed on this blog before, with ritual objects and food and everything else, the objects we choose to use reflect the energies of their creation.  This means that if the sage was grown and harvested conventionally using chemicals that polluted the land, the sage carries those energies.  Do you want to use that for a sacred ceremony honoring the land? I really don’t think this point can be understated, even though its often overlooked.

 

There’s also the matter of developing close relationships with plants that grow in your bioregion and working with their energies. I have found that if I’m burning traditional smudge plants such as desert sage and incense cedar (plants don’t grow near me in Michigan), I think another kind of disconnection occurs–a disconnection with the local plants that might be grown or used for this purpose.  Anyone anywhere can burn desert sage that they purchased at a store–but what makes my region unique is that I can burn mullein or sweet clover in my smudges along with a more traditional sage. I want to honor the plants that grow here; I want to grow plants ceremonially for this purpose, and be involved in every aspect of the creation of an object used for sacred activity.  So given the reasons above, I’ve taken to making my own smudge sticks!

 

If you are crafting your own smudge sticks, you can develop them for specific purposes.  A mullein-sage-rosemary smudge for personal clearing would be different than a sage-sweetclover-cedar smudge for typical house cleansing or a juniper-lavender-mugwort smudge for good dreaming.  You can craft smudges that can be used for different purposes and craft them with intent.

 

Determining Energetic Qualities of Plants

Kittens are seriously into making smudges and lend a joyful energy to the process!

Kittens are seriously into making smudges and lend a joyful–if challenging–energy to the process!

I use a combination of readings on magical herbalism from the western tradition, traditional western herbalism, the doctrine of signatures, my own understandings/intuition, and my work with plant allies to decide what plants should go in what smudges.  Sometimes I craft smudges by intuition alone, and then have them ready to give a friend or use when I feel led.  Other times, I research the plants or put plants together that I know serve a specific purpose (like mugwort for travels or dreams).  The process here should be of your own design, and for that reason, I’m not giving you general “use this plant for this” because A) there’s a lot of that out there already; B) the plants don’t like to be put into such boxes; and C) many plants have multiple, varied uses.  Sage works for so much more than just purification, for example, but if you look it up, you’ll find it listed time and time again for purification and cleansing.  Yes, sage is great at that, but sage has other uses!  And furthermore, if you are using wildcrafted and local ingredients, there might *not* be a magical tradition surrounding that plant–but you still may feel led to use it.  That’s perfectly fine–you can let the plant spirit and your intuition guide your path.

 

Finding Local Plants for Your Smudges

In the next section, I’ll be talking about some of the plants that I use to make smudges.  These plants are local to my bioregion (zone 6A, South-eastern Michigan) so you may have to adapt this list.  If you aren’t sure if the plant in your bioregion would make a nice smudge, simply dry some out and burn it; with one caveat–I never burn noxious or poisonous plants, but plants I know are used for herbalism or food (e.g. do NOT EVER burn poison ivy or poison hemlock).  Use some common sense.  But if the plant already has uses as a medicinal herb, edible herb, or smoking herb, then its perfectly fine to see if you can use it for a smudge.  See how it smells, see how energetically it makes you feel. See if it smolders (smoldering plants, like mullein or sage, are particularly useful for smudges).  Pay attention to the conifer trees that grow nearby–chances are many of them burn nicely and smell good.

 

 

Plants that Can Go Into Smudges

Plants dried in the fall or fresh harvested in early December for Smudges

Plants dried in the fall or fresh harvested in early December for Smudges: yarrow, mugwort, sage, thyme, lavender, rosemary, white pine, juniper, eastern white cedar

 

1) Aromatic Cultivated herbs.  Aromatic herbs are one of my biggest categories of plants for crafting smudges–aromatic herbs are herbs that smell strongly when you rub them.  Many aromatic herbs make great additions to smudge sticks because they smell great and have good energetic qualities of clearing.  Be careful, however–not all aromatic herbs burn the way they smell–make sure you burn a bit before adding them into your smudges or you may be in for a surprise.  Mint and lemon balm are a good example of this–mint and lemon balm smell and taste amazing, unfortunately, neither burn with a pleasant smell.  Other aromatic herbs, like valerian, are extremely potent when burned (and are extremely potent in general) so you’ll want to use caution.  These are the aromatic herbs that I’ve found through incense making and trial and error work well:

 

  • Sage – White sage has the most distinct smell, but many sages smell wonderful.  Even garden sage burns with a pleasant aroma, pleasant but different than white sage.  I grow many different kinds of sages for my smudges.
  • Rosemary – Rosemary is another staple for smudges.  Interestingly enough, you can use both the root and the plant of rosemary–and they have different qualities.  The rosemary stalks burn wonderfully in a smudge.
  • Lavender – I like to include a quite bit of lavender in my smudges for both the pleasant aroma and the energetic qualities–it smells just wonderful when burned and is a powerful plant ally.
  • Sweet Grass – This does not grow around me, and thus far, my attempts to get any started from seed have been thwarted.  However, if you can grow or obtain some ethically, it is a wonderful addition for a lot of reasons (good smelling, honors the spirits).
  • Hyssop – An herb with ancient connections to purification work.  Hyssop smells wonderful.
  • Eucalyptus – Another herb for clearing work; its smolders nicely.  You have to plant this in my region–it doesn’t grow wild, but will grow to a nice size over the summer.
  • Valerian – I have used dried valerian flower stalks in my smudges primarily, although I suppose the roots would work as well (the roots would be even more potent).  Valerian is extremely potent as both a cleansing herb but also in smell–I would only use a little in a smudge, and that smudge would be typically reserved for clearing really nasty energies or hostile energies out (and I’d burn it with the windows open).
  • Bay leaf: I have also had luck with bay leaf as a smouldering herb.
Basket of freshly made smudges!

Basket of freshly made smudges (with small paper labels so I know what went into it)!

 

2) Wildharvested Aromatic and Medicinal Herbs:  In addition to those you can grow in your garden, I have found that a number of wildharvested herbs are wonderful for smudges.  I got most of the ideas for these when I was taking my four season herbalism course and we were talking about smoking blends.  If they work in a smoking blend and are safe for that, they can work great in a smudge as well!

  • Mugwort – Mugwort has a nice smell when burned (and its used in a lot of herbal smoking blends).  Mugwort is specifically tied to dreams and can produce very vivid dreaming.  While this is a good thing short term, do keep in mind that vivid dreams over a long period of time can exhaust you–so use mugwort with care, but definitely use it!  Mugwort also grows beautifully straight and tall, and really does do well in smudges.  A lot of people cultivate mugwort, but I find it wild growing everywhere around here.  I really love this plant.
  • Sweet Clover – This is my solution to the lack of sweet grass–sweet clover does not burn as sweetly, but energetically, it has similar qualities and a similar smell.  And it grows wild around here (and my bees adore it).
  • Mullein – Mullein leaves have a nice “smoldering” quality–they smolder in the same way that sage smolders.  They don’t smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for “clearing” out the lungs of toxins.  Follow me here–in Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief.  I think, for a personal smudge stick where I was working to clear out some deep emotions and emotional recovery, I would most definitely put mullein in it
  • Yarrow: Yarrow is another herb I like to use a lot in my smudges for its energetic qualities; it smells a lot like itself when it burns due to the high volatile oil content.

 

2) Trees.  Traditionally, cedars (like incense cedar or red cedar) were used for smudges out west.  In my bioregion, I look primarily to the conifer for smudging possibilities (you can cut these and use them fresh):

  • Eastern Red Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): This is a wonderfully aromatic plant with berries that also are used medicinally.  I love using juniper in my smudges–but it has little prickly bits, so use it carefully so that you don’t get stabbed.
  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidantalis):  Eastern White Cedar crackles and pops when it is freshly dry due to its high amount of volatile oils.  If you use the cedar branches when they are first dried, they smell wonderful but literally crackle and pop when you burn them due to all of the volatile oils—which is a bit of a fire hazard, but also can kind of be fun. However, if you hang the cedar in your house for a few months and let it dry out, the oils slowly dry out of the cedar and then you can make your smudge sticks. The sticks at this point will smoke beautifully.
  • White Pine (Pinus Strobus): I’m still experimenting with this as a smudge tree, but so far, I’m happy with the results and it burns with an almost vanilla-like smell.  Wonderful!
  • Staghorn sumac: You can make smudges with small clusters of berries and or collect and use the leaves after they have gone red in the fall.  Staghorn sumac has a very calming effect (I use it as an herbal smoke for my bees) and smolders nicely–plus, it is a beautiful red color that provides visual beauty in your smudge.  It has a fairly pleasant smoke (not very aromatic).

 

3) Flowers.  There is also a visual component to making a nice smudge stick, and I think this is where various wild flowers can lend a hand.  Most of the flowers don’t have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of purple or yellow or white in your smudge can look absolutely beautiful (and add energetically to your smudge).  A visit to any flower field in the height of the summer will certainly give you much to work with.  You can also cultivate flowers like statice or baby’s breath which hold their beautify for long periods of time for your smudges (I would not buy these commercially as they are almost always sprayed with something you don’t want to make airborne).  I like using goldenrod, yarrow, and lavender in the later part of the season for this.

 

Step-by-Step Instructions for Making your Smudge

Now that we have some sense of what ingredients can be used in a smudge, the next step is gathering them and actually making the smudge!

 

Step 1: Gather Materials.  Go out and gather your materials–bring in your fresh conifer branches, your dried yarrow stalks, etc.  I have found that plants can be gathered and used fresh or dried, but the fresh ones take longer to dry out (and you want to make sure its not humid so that the inner ones don’t mold).  I typically make smudges in late fall after the frost has wilted the plants a bit and semi-dried them out (its a way to use up the last herbs of the season).

In addition to the herbs/plants, you’ll also need some cotton string (don’t use anything synthetic since you will be burning it) and some scissors.  If there is a kitten in the home you might want to keep her out of the room, as otherwise she will attack the herbs and strings as you try to make your smudges :).

 

Step 2: Set intentions. I like to create a sacred space for magical crafting prior to starting any such endeavor.  Different traditions would do this in different ways, of course, and you might just do something simple to setup your space. For my tradition, I open up a grove and then work in that grove.

 

Step 3: Start with some conifers.  I like to wrap conifers around the outside of the smudge (this is personal preference) and so I’ll lay out a bed of conifers first.  In the photo below, I’ve started this smudge with juniper (freshly cut that morning) and lavender (also cut that morning from outside in early December).

Lay out ingredients

Lay out ingredients

 

Step 4: Add additional ingredients, layering them.  To this smudge I’ve added some semi-dried out thyme from outside and some semi-dried out garden sage.

More ingredients!

More ingredients!

 

Step 5: Gather your ingredients up in one hand and loosely bunch them.  Cut a long piece of the string and begin wrapping your ingredients.

Gather and begin to wrap ingredients

Gather and begin to wrap ingredients

 

Step 6: Continue to wrap the ingredients.  If you wrap them too tight, the smudge may not burn (depending on what’s in it) so experiment with your herbs/plants and tightness.  I like to take my cotton string up and down the smudge twice, which helps hold it together a bit better than only one trip up and down. The photos below show different parts of the wrapping process.

Wrapping the smudge

Wrapping the smudge

Keep wrapping

Keep wrapping till you get to the top

 

Step 7: Tie your smudge off so that its secure.

Tie off

Tie off

 

Step 8: Once you’ve wrapped your smudge, you can trim it up a bit.  I trim both the ends and the little bits that stick out (they will have trouble burning).

Trimming smudge

Trimming smudge

My completed smudge!

My completed smudge!

 

Step 9: Allow your smudge to dry out 4-8 weeks (depending on what’s inside and how wet it was when you put it in there).  I like to use a wooden drying rack (I use this for a lot of of my herb drying); the rack was $3 at a yard sale!

Drying smudges on the top of my rack

Drying smudges on the top of my rack

 

I hope that you found the above information useful–if there are other plants I should add to my lists above, or plants that work well in your bioregion, please leave a comment!  Thank you, as always, for reading!

My Path Into Lifelong Study of Herbalism: Healing my Chronic Asthma with Diet and Herbs

In my post last week on herbalism, I discussed intersections of herbalism to druidic spiritual practice and sustainable thinking. In this week’s post, I’ll share my own story about my path into herbalism.  This series of posts on herbalism will continue in the upcoming weeks with resources on how to begin to study herbalism and mindsets/ways of seeing the world from an herbalist’s perspective.  But for now…my story on why I am now a lifelong student of herbalism!

 

I was a chronic asthmatic for nearly my entire life, since my original diagnosis at the age of six or seven. I struggled with it throughout my childhood and adolescence; it was always the thing that kept me from doing so much and limited me in many ways. I took four different asthma medications, including two kinds of inhalers, a nebulizer, and then various long-term daily medications….for 25 years. They cost me about $75 a month with decent insurance when I had it, and the insurance company was shelling out about $500/month for them above what I paid (and while I was in college, at points with no insurance, I couldn’t afford all of the medications and then had very bad attacks). When I took the medications each day, they made me ill–first my body sped up and my heart would race and I would get terrible shakes and jitters. These shakes were visible to others, the shakes in the hands and so forth. I was asked at various times if I was “on drugs” because people my age aren’t supposed to shake like that (and I was, prescription drugs). Then an hour or so later the jitters would die down, and I would crash and be exhausted; of course, I still had to work and function in my life after all this. I couldn’t paint for several hours after the medications kicked in; even typing was hard the first hour after taking them. We tried different kinds of medication but all ended up with the same bad side effects. And what was worse was that I still had asthma attacks, fairly bad ones at least once a week.  I was, what my doctors called me, a lifelong chronic patient, because I had been hospitalized multiple times for it, been taken in an ambulance, lost consciousness, and almost died during one of the attacks.  I was super sensitive toward everything–cigarette smoke, chemicals, air fresheners, high humidity, chlorine pools, etc.  All, especially combined with exercise, would set me off for an attack.

 

New England Aster

New England Aster

Then, I saw an herbalist and a nutritionist a year and a half ago.  This visit was not about asthma, but about serious gastrointestinal issues, another area that my doctor did her best to prescribe away, never speaking to me once about food. Between the herbalist and the nutritionist’s suggestions, I changed my diet to address the gastrointestinal issues and ending up eliminating gluten.  In addition to my already healthy localvore diet, I started taking probiotics, magnesium, d3, and bitters; this combination made me feel awesome. Turns out that eliminating gluten had an added benefit that both the herbalist and nutritionist pointed out might happen: the gluten was giving me allergic reactions all along my bronchial passageway.  Eliminating gluten substantially lessened all of my asthmatic problems. To help strengthen my lungs, my herbalist suggested that I regularly take New England Aster (a native wildflower growing in the Great Lakes Region and Northeast) in tincture form to support my lung health.  This worked beautifully, and my lungs are stronger and healthier than they have been for most of my life. (See Jim’s awesome write up on New England Aster on his website).

 

In a period of only a few months, I found myself eliminating the asthma medications one by one and testing how I felt…I breathed much better, and, perhaps the most shocking, I stopped having asthma attacks almost entirely. Now I get only a few attacks a year, usually because of chemical exposure, and I haven’t even needed the fast-acting inhaler. It was so empowering last fall to go to the field behind my house, find the beautiful purple New England Aster plants, and gather up and tincture enough of them for a full year of medicine.  I felt liberated, both from the symptoms of my asthma, and from the detrimental effects of all of those awful medications that made my life more difficult to live.  Last winter, I spoke to my doctor during my yearly checkup, and I asked her about the gluten/asthma connection, and she said that the research did exist but it was “inconclusive.” She didn’t really want to hear what I had to say and instead insisted I keep taking the asthma medications.  Of course, I feel better and have less problems, so I gently declined her suggestion.  She responded that not doing so was seriously endangering my health.  I told her I was taking New England Aster, and she asked “Is that in pill form?” I responded, “No, its in gathered in my backyard form.” I’m sad to say that she refused to listen to me….and rewrote the prescriptions (although I did not fill them).  Its now been almost a year and a half and my lungs are healthier than ever–I can do physical activity without problem and that is a very exciting thing!

 

All of this transpired because of two things: 1) a wise nutritionist and herbalist who saw the body as a whole system and sought underlying causes rather than treating surface symptoms and 2) the incredible healing power of foods and herbs. This experience prompted me to begin to study the herbs in a very serious way, because I realized how critically important it was for me to know more, to take care of myself, and to learn more about the plant allies that have been with humanity such a very long time.   Thank you to Debbie and Jim for their wisdom and knowledge of the body as a system, of foods, and plants :). 

 

One more thing I’ll mention–since I started sharing this story, I’ve heard of so many other stories that are similar to mine. Stories of how herbs cured long-term illnesses, herbs have empowered people, how they have helped people gain more quality of life, and brought them back to the land.  Here’s one my friend Sarah posted on her blog last week.  Herbs have their magic and their lessons to teach, all we need to do is listen.