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Sacred Trees in the Americas: Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) Medicine, Myths, and Meaning

PawPaw leaf - as big as your hand!

PawPaw leaf – as big as your hand!

The PawPaw is a tree that is so wild and unique and wonderful, and yet, is often quite unknown–it is the only native citrus tree we have in the upper east East Coast and midwest areas. Like some of the other trees I have recently shared in this series, Paw Paw is an underappreciated and under-recognized tree. Within the bushcraft and permaculture circles, it is quite well known as an amazing tree to find, plant, and tend. One of the reasons that PawPaw is probably not more well known has, unsurprisingly, everything to do with the commercial viability of the fruits. PawPaw fruit is absolutely delicious but it only stays good for a few days after picking–so it would never survive the rigors of modern industrial agriculture.  You can occasionally find it at a good farmer’s market, and it is well worth seeking out! You can also seek it out in the wilds. And yet, PawPaw is the only citrus tree that grows in a north-eastern climate.  Read that sentence twice–yes, we have a native citrus tree that grows utterly delicious fruits that taste like a cross between guava, strawberry, and a banana.

This leads to the names for the PawPaw, which includes everything from Appalacian banana, Michigan Banana, Ozark Banana, Kentucky Banana, West Virginia Banana, to American custard apple, Quaker delight, hillbilly mango, and poor man’s banana. As you can see from some of these names, a bit of a stigma was once attached to PawPaw, which may be another reason it is not as sought out or well known.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a lack of discussion of PawPaw in the magical community–so, like so many of the underlooked understory trees (of which PawPaw is one), we will build a magical understanding of this tree by exploring its uses, edible qualities, medicine, natural history and doctrine of signatures (for my full methods, see this post).

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 (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Eastern Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, Tamarak, 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 of the PawPaw

The slender stem of a five year old pawpaw

PawPaw has a native range that spans from the edges of Texas and Oklahoma all across the southeastern US into Georgia and Alabama and upward into Maryland and Pennsylvania.  As a USDA Zone 5-9 fruiting tree, people have planted it as far as New England and the upper Midwest. Pawpaw is one of the few fruit trees that can handle full shade, and when I’ve found it in the wild, that’s typically where you find it: along quiet stream beds and river valleys, in damp and fertile flood plains, and deep in the shade of the overstory. PawPaw often spread by roots to form a dense clonal colony–thus, when you find mature trees, you will often find a large patch of them growing closer together.

PawPaw is an understory tree, typically growing between 25-35 feet in height with trunks somewhere between 8-12″ in diameter at full growth. The leaves typically grow only hear the ends of the branches so PawPaw may look a bit sparse compared to other trees.

PawPaw flowers have three sepals (petal-like leaves) that surround six maroon flowers. PawPaws are predominately fly pollinated, which means that you do not want to sniff the flowers, as they often smell like rotting meat (I learned this the hard way, haha!).  Don’t stick your nose in that maroon flower! The PawPaw flower would be classified as a “carrion” flower due to this unique odor–it creates a stinking, fetid odor to attract flies and beetles that would pollinate it.

The flowers appear at the same time that the new leaves are coming forth in early spring. I will also note that the leaves and branches also may have a slightly fetid smell, so do keep this in mind as you work with this tree.  It is kind of amazing that this stinky flower and tree can produce such delicious fruit!

After spring pollination, the green fruits grow to the size of your hand or more, eventually dipping down the tender branches and dropping from the tree in September or October. Here in Western PA, it is often late September that the fruit is ready to drop from the tree, just around the Fall Equinox. The fruits typically will fall from the tree while still green and ripen on the ground.  This is when you can find them–pick them up on the ground green and then sit them on a counter or in a dark paper bag until ripe.  Keep a good eye on them, as they will ripen quickly.  Once they ripen, eat them fresh or process them into fruit leather, jam, pies, etc as they only stay ripe a few days before spoiling.

PawPaw as Anachronistic Fruit and Tree of the Ancestors

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

This PDF titled “Anachronistic Fruits and the Ghosts Who Haunt Them”  by Connie Barlow of the Harvard Arboretum gives a really interesting natural history of the PawPaw as an anachronistic fruit.  While pawpaw and other fruits (including Osage orange, Persimmon, Honey Locust, and Kentucky Coffee Tree) were originally eaten and spread by the “megafauna” at the end of the Pleistocene, these animals went extinct at about 12,700 BC, likely due to overhunting by humans. These megafauna animals included mastodons, giant sloths, giant beavers, and spread PawPaw fruits by ingesting and then pooping out the seeds.

Barlow notes that PawPaw and other anachronistic fruits developed clonal spreading techniques when there was an absence of large megafauna seed spreaders. She notes that at the Arnold Arboretum after an old PawPaw died, the underground root network had hundreds of baby pawpaw spring up almost immediately.  When humans came into North America at the end of the last Ice Age, they would have taken up the work of the Megafauna and spread the seeds of these useful and edible trees. Thus, if you find a large PawPaw tree cluster in the wild, perhaps it was deposited there by ancient human ancestors of the land.  And, anytime you are planting a new pawpaw tree by root cutting or seed, you are connecting with that ancient legacy.  So this is an ancestral tree with ancestral connections.

Human uses: Food and Wood

Obviously, the PawPaw is a great wild or cultivated food. As permaculture, restoration agriculture, and food forestry take off, PawPaw has become a shining superstar for developing native perennial-based food systems here in North America.  PawPaw are particularly good for areas where you have rich soil with shade and water. In fact, one of the first things I did when arriving on this land was to plant 30 PawPaws in the understory, much of which had been logged, as part of my forest regeneration efforts. They haven’t borne fruit yet, but I know they will in the next few years, and I’m quite excited!

As I mentioned above, the fruits typically fall from the trees in the fall.  PawPaw fruits are usually higher than you can reach in mature stands, so you have to wait for them to fall onto the ground to collect. The fruits fall green and will naturally ripen on your counter in a few days.  You can also pick them from the tree, but only if the tree is ready to give of its fruit–in other words, if the fruit is easy to pick from the tree, it is ready (just like harvesting a wild apple). If the fruit does not want to come off the tree, come back in a few days and try again–it is not ready.

The fruits are delicious when eaten raw. They have large seeds (which you can plant, but you need to keep them moist or else they lose viability–so plant just after eating!)  You can also create custards, pies, jams, and jellies from your pawpaws. There are two real keys to pawpaw.  The first is that you have to process it fast: it’s really only good for a few days on the counter (or maybe up to a week in the fridge) before it goes rotten, so you’ve got to use it while it lasts!  This post offers some great tips for where to buy PawPaw products like beer, popsicles, and more.  The second key is that it is best used fresh, dried, or baked–so with the exception of my goose egg custard, I don’t typically cook it much, as you do lose some of the flavors of the fruit. Canning a jam can work, but it’s not going to be nearly as good as a fresh or frozen puree.

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

The fruit itself really tastes like a custard already, but I’ve found it particularly good when a bit is added to a duck or goose egg custard (I use the linked recipe and replace 50% of the maple syrup with the pawpaw for either duck or goose eggs). I’ve also made a nice fruit leather using a similar technique to what I posted for Autumn olives in the above-linked post.

Beyond its delicious fruit, PawPaw has a number of other bushcraft uses. PawPaw wood is very soft and fibrous, making it excellent for use in a bow drill set, both spindle and motherboard as well as for a hand drill (needs to be quite dry to use as a hand drill).  In fact, my first bow drill set (which I made at the North American Bushcraft School’s MountainCraft Gathering in 2019, taught to me by Jeff Gotieb ) used a PawPaw spindle.  PawPaw is one of the softer woods, considered good for a beginner who is new to ancestral fire-making.

As with any uses of any tree, I always suggest you practice reciprocation: make offerings, ask permission, and do something nice for the tree in return (such as planting its seeds or offspring).  If you are going to enjoy the tree’s fruits, make sure you give something in return.

Historical and Present Uses in Medicine and Magic

In truth, there is almost nothing that I can find on the magical or mundane uses of PawPaw in any of my usual herbal books or references in the different western magical traditions (western occultism, hoodoo, herbalism, etc). Thus, it does not appear that PawPaw has traditionally been used for magical practices or herbalism. This is pretty typical of the other understory trees that I’ve studied, but I think that they are really worth getting to know!

However, what search does yield fruit is looking at some of the publications coming out of the scientific community.  Even if PawPaw wasn’t used traditionally, scientists are now discovering some of the amazing properties of this plant. For example, Nam et. al (2018) found that PawPaw fruit contained at least some anti-cancer components and may be a useful anti-cancer treatment with future study.  In another study by Nam et. al. (2019), they found that alcohol extraction of unripe fruits contained considerable anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties, suggesting possibilities for anti-aging and anti-microbial applications.  PawPaw is also being explored as a possible food additive for domestic fowl production.

PawPaw’s Magic and Divination

Given all of the above, PawPaw is a really interesting tree to think about from a divinatory and magical perspective.

Death and Underworld. Certainly, PawPaw has connections to the world of the dead and the underworld for several reasons.  The most important being that it has a carrion-smelling flower, that literally smells like fetid flesh, and that attracts flies and beetles as pollinators.  The second way that it connects is also through the doctrine of signatures–the tree itself has very sparse leaves and a very open frame, showing the skeleton of the tree (the branches and trunk) rather than being covered by leaves.  This connection might allow you to use the flowers to connect with the dead, to speak with them, or to help them on their journey.

Strong Need to Move On from a Toxic Situation.  Tied to the carrion flower that is transformed into an extremely delicious–but short-lived fruit, this tree may also signal that something that has been going on for a long time needs to end.  Sometimes we end up in situations where we should have ended a situation (a bad job, a bad relationship, a bad living situation) a long time ago, and for some reasons (fear, stress, exhaustion) we continue to persevere long past our breaking point.  PawPaw can signal the need to move on–and the healing and rewards (fruit) that come when we let go of the toxic situation.

Transience.  Because PawPaw’s fruit is so short-lived and transient, it reminds us of the transience or ephemeral nature of things.  We can never get too comfortable or used to anything in life–the only certainty is the passage of time.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look into the wonderful and delicious PawPaw tree–and may you find many on your travels!  I would love to hear of your experiences with this incredible tree!

Druid Tree Workings: Cutivating Recpiprocity

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

Norway spruce resin, harvested  with honor and reciprocity from the land

When I was still quite young, my grandfather used to take me and my cousins into the deep forest behind our house and teach us many things about nature.  One of the fun things he taught us, for example, was that you could use spruce gum or white pine resin not only as a chewing gum (something that gave us endless enjoyment) but also to cover over a cut to help heal it or draw out a splinter or stinger. I remember once day we were walking in the woods and I fell on the ground and scraped my knee quite badly on a rock.  He went to a nearby spruce tree and got some of the sticky resin, then carefully spread it on my knee and covered it with a tulip poplar leaf.  The resin stuck the leaf right to my skin, and we began the long ascent back up the mountain to the house.  Ever since that moment, the memory always stuck with me–how spruce offered me something that aided me greatly in a time of need, and how my grandfather had that key knowledge, a knowledge of herbalism and wild foraging, that helped me build the connection.

What had happened is that the spruce and I had made a deep and personal connection.  The spruce had saved me and soothed my wounds. This experience made that spruce tree a cherished friend–each time I would enter the woods, including long after grandpa’s death, I would stop by that spruce tree and say hello. As I was recently reading many stories about Spruce as I was researching my recent post on Spruce, I was struck by the resonance of my own experience.  Historical references point to the pervasive belief, by both many Native American peoples and early North American colonists, in the cure-all properties of the spruce.  As I read source after source learning more about the herbal uses of spruce, my mind returned to my grandfather’s simple actions.  Since he has long passed on, I can’t ask him who he learned this from, but it remains cherished knowledge to me.

If you read the lore and myths of any traditional peoples, peoples who did not have industrialization and lived close to the land, what you discover is that most of the magical qualities of trees, plants, or other natural features are usually directly tied to the useful qualities of these plants. I’ve discovered this pattern time and time again in exploring the magic and mythology of the trees of my own ecosystem. What you start to see is that the human uses of the tree have a very direct connection to the magical qualities of that tree. What this suggests to me, in a very clear way, is that most indigenous nature magic is based, in a large part, on reciprocity. In other words, if you want to work deep magic with trees, it is important to find ways to reciprocate and work with the trees not just spiritually, but physically.  It is this physical connection that leads us to a magical connection (as within, so without!)

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connections among beings are built on trust and reciprocity.  Human culture today is a good example–I would argue that part of why we have such a terrible breakdown in civility and trust in our culture is because nobody actually needs anyone else.  You don’t have to make peace with your neighbors if you can pay a specialist to come out and take care of whatever you need, rather than supporting your neighbor when they need a hand or vice versa.  You don’t need a neighbor to raise a barn, help bring in the harvest, or survive a long winter.  This creates an environment where we depend on money and other people’s goods and services rather than our friends, neighbors, and ourselves.  I learned this firsthand in the natural building community–if you want to put up a roof without heavy equipment and a construction crew, you better have many hands to help.  If there is no reciprocity, there is no actual reason for people to stay civil with each other.

The same is true of nature.  If we never learn how to use nature–ethically, thoughtfully, and with gratitude–we are never going to develop deep and abiding connections with her.  The reason that spruce was so revered pre-industrialization was that she provided incredible medicine, food, shelter, boat building materials, and more.  She was revered because she was useful, an incredible grandmother with incredible gifts. The same is true of all aspects of nature. We can no more expect to value nature highly if we do not understand or seek its uses. There is a magic that comes with an experience like my spruce tree experience–it creates an inherent value based on need that cannot otherwise be replicated.

I’ve long argued for the respectful use of plants, trees, and other parts of nature.  But moving into this use requires us to strip some of the problematic western cultural mindsets that are often subconscious and invisible.  I think that at the very base level is that what we want to avoid is treating nature like your local Walmart or Supermarket–as humans we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that food and supplies come from shelves and stores, not nature. Supermarkets and big-box stores literally strip away the human connection with our broader ecosystem. One of the ways to think about industrialization and mass consumerism is that it signals that humans no longer have to directly depend on nature. Large-scale systems of extraction, harvest, and distribution mask the reality that has never changed: literally, everything we have comes from the living earth.  But because we are socialized into this industrialized/consumer-based thinking, we have to intentionally create different ways of directly interacting with nature. In the many years, I’ve taught wild food foraging, I often often see people more than excited to strip the earth bare of resources rather than reciprocate. Reciprocation is something that has to be taught and carefully learned–and it takes intentional actions.

Tied directly to the problematic mindsets associated with mass consumption is the issue of living on colonized soil and being part of a legacy of colonization.  This, too, is subconsciously woven into the fabric of our interaction with the landscape and her peoples. Colonization has left a horrific legacy that many of us who are living on colonized soil have to continually work to address.  We have a lot of work ahead of us in rebuilding sacred connections with the land outside of our door and honoring indigenous wisdom. Reciprocity helps shift us from these mindsets into ones that build connections.

Reciprocation and Tree Workings

As I’ve outlined above, one of the ways of connecting with nature and her spirits on a more deep level is creating reciprocal relationships: that is, where you offer something to nature and nature offers something to you.  This moves us away from mindsets that harm the land to those that reconnect us and heal.   For the rest of the post, I’ll share a bit about how to do this, using a few examples.

Trees

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Find a tree you’d like to build a connection with and get to know that tree.  Learn what you might be able to make from that tree, and learn what that tree might need or want for you in return.  If at all possible, connect these uses to your basic human needs: shelter, food, drink, medicine, etc.  Try to find a tree that is close enough to where you live that you can visit often–reciprocal relationships happen more easily if you can maintain them.   Here are a few possibilities to get your own ideas flowing:

Oak.  Oak trees are good choices because they produce flavorful and nutritious acorns, which with a good amount of sweat equity can be turned into acorn flour or acorn grits–and make delicious breads and cakes for rituals and more.  Acorns also happen to make outstanding inks, again for a variety of uses.  Oak wood is tough and strong and is great for natural building and carving.  Oak offers a range of benefits to humans and is an excellent tree to start this reciprocal relationship with.

Hickory. Hickory trees are another great tree to start these practices with: hickory nuts are amazing and can be made into nut milk or eaten straight from the tree. Hickory bark can be infused into an excellent hickory syrup, and of course, the branches and wood are fantastic for both indoor hearth cooking and outdoor fire-based cooking.

Spruce. Spruce is another excellent choice here.  Homebrewers would seek spruce for the delicious tips, while herbalists would use those same tips in teas and salves.  Spruce gum is a source of fantastic medicine for a range of issues.

Reciprocation: What would reciprocation look like for what you can offer your tree friend?  Part of it is physical and part of it is metaphysical.  On the physical side–before you do anything, always ask permission and gain it.  Make offerings and offer gratitude with each interaction in your tree.  Gather up the acorns, hickory nuts, or spruce cones and spread these seeds far and wide.  Help your tree friend extend their genetic legacy beyond what they normally would.  Start small seedlings and give these to friends or replant them.  Make offerings of your body (liquid gold) to gift your nitrogen to the tree.  Recognize that the tree has agency, has spirit, and is a being worthy of respect.

Rivers, Lakes, and other Bodies of Water

Perhaps you want to befriend a river and learn how to offer a reciprocal connection to this amazing body of water. Again, find a body of water that you’d like to build a connection with and take time to know this body of water: what commonly lives there? What is a “normal” and “healthy” functioning for this water?

Activities: Be present in the body of water, seeing what this body of water may offer you.  On the physical realm, this could include swimming and cooling off, kayaking, tubing, paddle boarding, ice skating, and more.  Find this body of water as a place of tranquility or rest for you. Learn about what you might harvest from the body of water: smooth stones, river sticks, fish, aquatic edible or medicinal plants (like cattails, arrowroot, etc).  Learn how this body of water might provide for some of your basic needs–a meal for your family, a place to rest and recuperate, a place to cool off.  Always make sure you are only taking a very small part of anything the water has to offer.

Reciprocation:  Remember that the river/lake/stream, like every other aspect of nature, is a being of agency, deserving of respect.  Ask before you do everything, and in everything you do, offer gratitude. Rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water are usually littered with garbage–pick it up and make sure that the area stays clean.  Many larger bodies of water have organizations that support ongoing clean-up, recreation, and more–see if you can join and financially or physically contribute to that work.  Find ways of doing other things for the body of water—water testing, learning about issues of runoff, and other such activity.

I hope these two examples have given you a nice idea of the ways in which we can build more reciprocal relationships in our daily lives.  It certainly works worth doing!

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a general health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 British pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on the quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  It’s unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+-year-old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longevity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

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

Hawthorn branches and leaves

Hawthorn branches and leaves

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Hawthorn tree in early summer

Hawthorn tree in early summer

 

About Hawthorn (Physical)

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

 

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

 

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

 

Example of hawthorn rust

Example of hawthorn rust

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

 

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

 

Harvesting Hawthorn

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Hawthorn in Herbalism

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

 

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

 

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn – here’s my masher!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Hawthorn in Legend and Lore

Native American Lore

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

 

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

 

Hawthorn in Celtic Lore

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

 

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Hawthorns form a gateway

Hawthorns form a gateway

Revival Druidry & Magical Alphabets: Coelbren and Ogham

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

 

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

 

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

 

Numerology

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

 

Abundance

Abundance

My Experiences: In Search of the Hawthorn

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

 

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

 

My Interpretations

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

 

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

 

 

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