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Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Holly (Ilex Opaca) – Magic, Meanings, Ecology, and Divination

American Holly is one of the most wonderful trees for getting us through dark times.  And as the season of darkness is upon us once more, it is a good time to consider the magic, meanings, and mystery of this incredible holly tree!

American Holly has many names including white holly, prickly holly, Christmas Holly, Yule Holly and Evergreen Holly.  It is quite similar to European Holly (Illex Aquifolium) with similar leaves, berries, and an overall growth habit. The American Holly has larger, brighter leaves and berries, but the trees are otherwise quite similar. While I often argue against importing meanings and uses of European trees into American contexts (with Ash being a great case in point), in this case, I think that the myths and old-world understandings of Holly apply!

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

Ecology

Beautiful holly berries in late fall

The native range for American Holly spans from Rhode Island and New England coastal regions down into Florida and across the midwest to Louisana and Texas.  It can be found throughout the south-eastern and Eastern United States, and beyond its native range, is widely planted as an ornamental, thus, is frequently found in urban and suburban areas. Almost anywhere I’ve traveled in a city or new area is a chance to connect with American Holly in some form: tree, shrub, or small bush!  In fact, it is so popular as an ornamental that you can find up to 1000 different cultivars. It is shaped into shrubs, trees, and even holly hedges.

In the wild, American Holly is primary an understory tree, thriving in shaded woods, along streams and creeks, and can handle both dry and wet conditions, but not flooding or wetland conditions.  It does prefer slightly acidic soil and sandy soil and will grow in full sun to full shade. If the soil is too alkali where it grows, the leaves will turn a brownish-yellow.

The American Holly is an evergreen tree that can grow to 40-60 feet tall.  It has evergreen leaves that grow in an alternate pattern with a leathery feel.  The holly leaves are fairly unmistakable and easy to spot because of their depiction in modern culture: they are 1-3″ long with spiny tooths coming out of them in a regular fashion.

It provides food for birds (cedar waxwings, songbirds, cardinals, goldfinches, bobwhites) and small mammals (turkey, quail, white-tailed deer, squirrels). It is a nursery plant for Henry’s Elfin butterfly. It also provides excellent cover and shelter for birds–we have an American Holly growing next to our house and every year, the cardinals make a nest within the densely packed branches.

The holly tree blooms with white (sometimes greenish-white) flowers in April-June that have four petals and a balanced fourfold shape.  You can tell the male from the female flowers because the female flowers appear in clusters of 1-3 while the males appear in clusters of 3-12.  Male and female flowers often occur on separate trees. These make way for green berries, who finally turn to the classic bright red as we move into the late fall (Samhain) and winter months (Winter Solstice). Only the female tree produces holly berries.

Human Uses

The Holly wood is a beautiful, strong, fine-grained white wood that can be sanded, stained, and worked.  It is often used for furniture, woodwork, carving, engraving, cabinetry, and other fine woodworking.  It is not in high commercial demand because hollies never get that large, but among folk artisans and woodcarvers, it is often sought out and used.

Holly (both European and American) is tied to the winter months, the dark half of the year, and the Yule season.  These traditions of “decking the halls with boughs of holly” were imported from the old world and then applied to the American Holly.  I’ve used Holly extensively as a natural decoration for Yule and it is just lovely on the mantle–it stays green and the berries stay red long after the plants dry out.  We usually have to trim our Holly to keep it away from the sidewalk–and these trimmings are all we need to provide delightful Yule decorations for our home.  With this said, the demand for holly decorations has caused a decline in wild-growing holly in some parts of the US; given this, it is wise to cultivate a holly or two in your yard if you want to have these decorations or source them sustainably.  As with anything else, commercial demand causes a decline of the species, and we very much want to attend to this issue when buying any plant matter at the store.

Edible and Herbal Uses

All of the Ilex species (which includes all Hollies) are somewhat toxic if ingested.  The berries of the holly are poisonous and will cause diarrhea, sweating, vomiting, and dehydration–so while you can use them on your mantle, you don’t want them in your stomach!  However, if you wanted to induce vomiting (emetic action) these berries are one thing you could use to do so as they are a traditional medicine in this regard.

The roasted leaves of the American Holly can be made into a caffeine-free herbal tea. This tea has a rich history, including drinking as a tea substitute extensively during the American Civil War when resources were scarce. The tea has some medicinal properties and was used to treat colds, although I couldn’t find too much more information on the specific medicinal uses, as it is not listed in any herbal that I own.  In fact, many holly species also have leaves that can be made into tea, but you want to make sure you identify the species properly. A good guide for this is Eat the Weeds, which offers a thorough discussion of how to make tea (with caffeine) with some holly species. They discuss how some communities have made a tea of the young leaves of the Gallberry holly (Ilex glabra) which can be a good source of vitamins and minerals.  Make sure you have the identification right on this holly though, because others (like the Yaupon Holly, lex vomitoria ) have leaves that make you vomit.

Western Occult and American Folk Magic Uses

Holly is, as mentioned above, inseparable the Winter Soltsice/ Yule and it has been tied for milleniua with bringing brightness into the dark half of the year. Holly was, of course, one of the seven chieftain trees of the ancient druids, and thus, a very magical tree throughout the world.

In the American Hoodoo tradition, as described by Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic,  Holly leaves are burned with other blessing herbs to protect the home and bring good luck into the home.  Placing holly above the door to the home also protects the home and draws helpful spirits.

In Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore, and Healing Power of Trees by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, she describes some of the mythology surrounding holly, including its connection to immortality.  In the old world, people were encouraged to bring the holly into their homes to ward against elves, fairies, and other spirits that could otherwise cause harm.  Holly’s bright berries and leaves also helped people with winter depression and help us get through the darkest time of the year. The holly was always required to be removed from the house by Imbolc eve or it could bring misfortune. In Ancient Rome, the Romans gave gifts of Holly during the five-day festival of Saturnalia, which took place at the winter solstice. These eventually gave way to the Christian imagery, which still uses Holly, in December. Even though Christianity has shifted many of the ancient pagan beliefs, the remnants of these can still be found even in modern-day celebrations here in the US.

The Holly King and Oak King legends are also powerful and enduring; both evolved from earlier indigenous and pagan depictions of the green man or the spirit of the forest/plants as well as the virility that is necessary for life to continue.  Paterson notes that the oldest depictions of the Holly King were of a wildman holly god, and Christian suppression later turned him into more of a “king” like figure without sexual virility.  Regardless of the shift of this imagery over time, the Holly and Oak kings rule over the year and are two sides of the god of nature and his cycles.  The Oak King comes into power at Midwinter (when we move from the lowest point to the highest), while the Holly King comes into power at Midsummer (the waning part of the year).  The Holly, therefore, represents the growth, light, and harvests of the rest of the season to come.  Many rituals in the modern druid tradition acknowledge the power of the ancient Oak and Holly kings as part of our ceremony.

Holly is one of the sacred trees in the Ogham, the Celtic Tree Alphabet. The Holly, Tinne, is tied to the letter T and the Ogham letter that has three upright lines.  According to Steve Blamires in Celtic Tree Mysteries, the evergreen nature of the Holly tree can be tied to a “link” as in a link in a chain, which is one name for Tinne.  This shows Holly’s link not only with the oak (from the ancient lore) but also between our world and the otherworld.

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes holly as being firey and warm in the second degree.  Astrologically, it represents Saturn in Leo.  It is a very protective tree and is thought to ward against lightning and also against hostile magic and hostile spirits and otherworldly beings.

Divination and Magical Uses

Based on the ecology, folk uses, and history of holly, the following are three divination and magical uses for this incredible tree:

Darkness. Holly has long been associated with the winter solstice in the darkest time of the year, and seeing Holly come up in a divination reading may signal that a time of darkness is upon you.

Light in the Darkness.  Tied to Holly’s theme of darkness, however, Holly reminds us that there is always hope.  The triumph of the Holly king over the Oak king in the ancient myths ensure us that even when the light is all but extinguished from the world, the evergreen leaves and bright red berries will be a sign of coming out of this dark time and hope in the future.  Stay strong, for spring will return.

Protection in Dark Times. We are continuing to live in darker and more uncertain times, with more and more of us losing basic faith in our institutions, culture, and civilization.  It is certain that human civilization is on a dark path.  Thankfully, trees like holly can offer us basic protection from the hostile energies of this age.  And that’s exactly what she does!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the incredible Holly tree.  If you have additional information to add or stories about the holly, I would very much love to hear them!  Blessings to you, my dear readers!

Sacred Tree Profile: Juniper’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings

Here on the East Coast of the USA, we are still in deep winter. Soon, the maples will be flowing.  Soon, the winter snows will melt.  Soon, spring will return.  But until that time, the conifers, particularly offer strength and wisdom.  One of my favorite conifers is Juniper, also known as Eastern Red Cedar.  It is delightful to come across a wild juniper in the winter months, with her sweet and pine-scented berries and her delightful sprigs that offer friendship and hope through the darkest times.  So come with me today as we explore the sacred Juniper tree.

Juniper here on the land

Juniper here on the land

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

Description

In Eastern North America, our dominant Juniper variety is Juniperus virginiana, also known as Eastern Red Cedar. Other names for Juniper include red juniper, baton rouge, pencil cedar, savin, or just cedar. Despite being called a Cedar, Juniper is actually in the cypress family, offering different kinds of needles (which are technically leaves)-very sharp, pointed, and prickly when they are young, and flattened, scale like, and overlapping as they age. These older needles are reminiscent of Eastern White Cedar, perhaps this is why the two are sometimes both called cedar.

According to John Eastman, Juniper is a long and slow growing tree.  It can live 200-300 years, and prefers open fields and other sunny locations. Junipers can produce cones starting between age 10 and age 25; some trees bear female cones and other trees bear male cones and the cones are wind pollinated. The tree is not very shade tolerant, so needs the sun in order to thrive. According to Grimm, Junipers can grow up to 30-40 feet high with a trunk diameter of 1-2 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Juniper that large here in PA, as it is often instead found on dry or rocky soils, on limestone outcroppings or soils, and in abandoned fields. Unlike many conifers, Juniper cannot handle fire and can’t rehabilitate or re-establish after fire-burned sites.  However, Juniper is great at helping repopulate what are often called “wastelands” – overfarmed and abandoned fields, old gravel pits, and the like. At a distance, the Juniper tree looks like a flame, blazing up on the landscape–they are easy to spot and since they are conifers, they stay green year-round.

In the summer, you might come across a Juniper that looks more like an alien, with strange orange tentacles coming out of it everywhere! I remember the first time I saw this and I had no idea what i was seeing! Turns out it is the Cedar apple fungi (G. Juniperi-virginianae), which is largely harmless to the Juniper but which infect apple and hawthorn trees with a gymnosporagium rust. The rust is very detrimental to harvests of both apple and hawthorn, meaning that many who have orchards prefer to cut Junipers down rather than let them grow and possibly carry the rust.  You can tell whether or not a Juniper is infected with the rust–it will have large brown galls on it on the outer branches that have small holes within them, almost looking like potholes all over the gall. The orange alien-like tentacles come out of the nodules to spread the rust once a year–quite a sight to behold!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Juniper produces leaf litter that is high in calcium, creating slightly alkali soil (as compared to most conifers, whose leaf litter produces a more acidic soil).  Because of the increase in calcium, it is also an excellent place to find earthworms if, say, you wanted to go fishing.  Here in Western PA, we have particularly acidic soil, almost too acidic, so juniper leaf litter is very useful for helping bring the acidity back into balance.

Further, almost 90 different birds feed on the fruit of Juniper, Birds help disperse the seeds, which require cold stratification to sprout.  Others who eat the delicious fruit include chipmunks, mice, and opossums, voles, coyotes, red squirrels, and foxes. In the late winter, you will often see multiple species feeding on a juniper tree when there is little else to be found!

Regenerating Damaged Landscapes

Juniper is quite good at growing in thin or depleted soils, or soils that are polluted.  This makes it a critical tree for replanting and regeneration of the land, particularly in the rust belt region of the USA.  In the Rust Belt, three centuries of heavy mining activity has left a lot of boney dumps and other kinds of wastelands–places where there is only shale, no soil, and it gets hot and its hard for any plants or trees to take root. Thus, we often see this tree planted as part of replanting efforts after mining efforts; the tree’s roots help hold back erosion and over time, build soil, and slowly regenerate the land.  I’ve been to areas where there are hundreds of acres of juniper and scrub pine (pinus virginiana) and little else. Eventually, these two trees will help replant the entire landscape, but for now, I’m glad there is *something* that can grow there and begin nature’s healing process.

Juniper Berries and Wood Uses

The heartwood of Juniper is a beautiful red, with the outer wood going to cream or white, making it a highly sought after wood for a variety of woodworking endeavors.  This includes making “cedar” chests and other furniture as well as using it for decorative wood paneling. A lot of pencils are made from the Juniper wood; you might remember those nice smelling #2 pencils from your childhood! “Oil of Cedar” which is frequently used in polishes, medicines, and perfumes is distilled from the leaves and the wood of the Juniper tree.  The inner bark has also been used to make a reddish dye–it is a very beautiful dark red and just delightful.

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Probably the most famous use of Juniper berries is for flavoring Gin. Juniper berries are used for flavoring in many contexts. Juniper oils in the foliage are toxic in higher doses, so the berries are used almost exclusively for this purpose

Juniper berries are ripe when they are a dark purple/black, often with a white residue on the surface.  You can eat them throughout the late summer and into the late winter, and on an abundant and mature juniper, the tree can produce hundreds.  They do contain a center seed, which you want to remove, so you are essentially nibbling on the fruit on the outside of the seed (which is like a thin skin).

You can do a variety of wonderful things with the juniper berry, and wild foraged ones are oh-so-good!  One of my favorite things to do is to make an infused vodka by taking a nice high-quality vodka and putting in a good handful of berries.  Let macerate for a month, and you have this delightful beverage to share with friends.  Another favorite of mine is including them in a tea, particularly with nettle leaf, mint, and oatstraw.

Tarot of Trees Incense with Juniper Berry

I developed this incense recipe as the perfect complement for the Tarot of Trees. This incense blend is a non-combustible powdered incense blend that you will need to burn on a charcoal block. Charcoal blocks can be purchased at most metaphysical stores and also online. You will need a mortar and pestle to grind your ingredients and tin or jar to keep the incense dry and fresh. The recipe is as follows:

  • 2 parts frankincense
  • 2 parts sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon (powdered)
  • 1⁄4 part sweet orange Essential Oil
  • 1 part juniper berries (dried or fresh, see below)
  • 1⁄2 part lemongrass (dried)
  • 1⁄2 part yarrow (dried)

In a mortar and pestle, powder your frankincense as finely as possible. Combine the frankincense with the sandalwood and cinnamon until blended. Set aside. In the mortar and pestle, crush the juniper berries. They will be fairly easy to crush if they are dried. If they are fresh, freeze them for 30 min or more and then crush them–they will crush much easier. Crush your lemongrass and yarrow separately. Combine all ingredients, including sweet orange essential oil, in the mortar and pestle and blend thoroughly. Enjoy!

Herbalism and Juniper

Juniper has been used in multiple traditions (western, TCM, Ayurveda) as a blood tonic and blood purifier.  In folk herbalism, it was considered a “fall tonic” plant, to compliment Dandelion and other spring tonics, and would be used to help support the kidneys and “clear” or “thicken” the blood.  What this essentially means is that in both spring and fall, our bodies need to prepare for the extremes: the heat of the summer sun and the work of planting and harvest, and the cold of the winter with less food and activity. Juniper, as a fall tonic plant (along with Sassafras and Sarsaparilla) helps prepare us for the cold of the winter.  Most of the fall tonics are warming and are said to “thicken” the blood (in folk herbal terms) so that you will stay warm and healthy during the winter.

Translating that folk wisdom into modern herbal practice, we know that Juniper has a diuretic action on the kidneys, meaning it helps flush the kidneys through urine production.  Stagnation is one of the worst things you can have in terms of the body, and keeping the kidneys moving and healthy is key to a healthy elimination system.  Juniper is a wonderful complement to that system, along with a number of other herbs such as dandelion leaf and nettle.

Juniper also has strong anti-inflammatory action, with at least three specific chemical constituents that help reduce inflammation in the body, and it is often taken for this purpose as well.

Magic of the Juniper in the European and Western Traditions

In the Western Esoteric traditions, Juniper has a long history of use, particularly tied to the work of fire, as a purification herb, and as something used to drive away disease. Its interesting always to see how the herbal wisdom ties to the magical uses and practices surrounding plants–and we can certainly see that at play with Juniper. We’ll now consider some of these uses:

John Michael Greer in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic suggests that Juniper is tied to the element of fire, with its astrological aspects being Mars in Aries (can’t get much more fiery than that!) Juniper was traditionally used in spells to get back property that was stolen and as a deterrent to theft. It was also used in purification rites, as it both helps purify and drive away lingering spirits. We can see this from its use in the Key of Solomon (which lists Juniper as a herb tied to invocations of Saturn). The purification uses of Juniper go back to the Greeks, who burned it and to the Egyptians, who used it both medicinally and to embalm their dead.

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree; it is often used as a bonsai

Culpepper suggests that the Juniper is a “solar shrub” and the berries are hot in the 3rd degree and dry in the first degree.  He notes that they were used as a counter poison, against venom and other kinds of poison.  He also notes that they are “as great a resister of the pestilence, as any growing.”

Juniper seems to have a connection to animal purification as well. In Scotland, a tradition developed of fumigating animals, barns, and homes to prevent disease.  In “A Journey in Southern Siberia” Jeremiah Curtin (1909) describes how the Siberian Shamans used the smoke of juniper to purify animals prior to their sacrifice.

 

A book specializing in lore from Italy, “Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition” (1892) from Charles Godfrey Leland describes a charm.  In the book, a woman has a beautiful baby and it is attacked by a cat; she believes this attack was caused by witches.  She creates a charm to protect her child, and that charm includes the protection of the juniper berry, along with the cat’s hair, frankincense, cumin, salt, bread crumbs, iron filings, and much more.

Magic of the Juniper in North American Contexts

In an North American context, Juniper has uses in folk magic, hoodoo, and Braucherei, particularly surrounding getting back stolen property. Juniper is used in Hoodoo, and is interchangeable with any other Cedar.  It is used, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, when a “benevolent power” is needed for various activities: to rent one’s home, to get someone to move away (like a neighbor), or to get your love to move with you.  This same kind use of Juniper can be seen in Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic, or Braucherei, as described in Long Lost Friend by John George Hopman.  In one particular charm, a juniper tree is used to help get the Thief to return stolen goods.  In this case, the tree is bent towards the rising sun with the left hand in a kind of sympathetic magic (which is a lot of what Braucherei is). As the Braucher bends down the tree and ties it fast as part of the magic, the magic will bend will of the thief to return the stolen goods. Finally, Juniper berries in Hoodoo are also used for romance and sexuality-oriented workings.

In some Native American legends, juniper berries are featured prominently as nutritious food important to the people.  This is the case of the the Hopi Legend Balolookongwuu and the Coyote, as well as the Apache legend, Turkey makes the Corn and Coyote Plants it.  Another Hopi Legend notes that Juniper is one of the chiefs of the world.  In one Navajo legend, Juniper helps two monster slayers overcome noxious vapors from a monster that they killed. They chew on the juniper and it offers them recovery. In a Blackfoot Legend, Sacred Otter, it describes an altar to the sun, with juniper laid upon it. In one of my favorite Seneca legends, one I’ve written about on the blog before, the Junipers are one of the many conifers who stand against old man winter and bring the return of spring.

Juniper’s Magic and Meanings

To summarize, Juniper, particularly through her wood and berries, is an absolutely wonderful tree with a wide range of uses.  In terms of overall meanings in a North American context, we might summarize with the following:

Juniper here on the land ...

Juniper here on the land …

Juniper is about warmth and fire. Juniper helps warm people up and is a strong fire-dominant tree, suggesting many associations with fire: passion, energy, warmth, and the sun.

Juniper offers hope in dark times.  Juniper’s berries have long been a staple through the darkest of winters, and I see this both physically and metaphorically.  Culturally, we are in a period of darkness, and trees like Juniper can help see us through.

Juniper offers regeneration and bringing things back. Juniper’s ability to grow in places few other trees can demonstrate that this tree is a true land healer, offering us hope in these dark times and sharing the critical message of the healing power of nature. I also think this is tied to its sympathetic magic uses in the American magical traditions–Juniper helps bring things back.

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the juniper tree!  I would love to hear any stories or additional insights about the Juniper tree that you are willing to share. Blessings of the Juniper!