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Sacred Trees in the Americas: Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

As I continue to explore some of the most important understory trees in the US East Coast and Midwest region, we turn our attention today to the amazing Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin).  Historically, Spicebush was an incredibly important plant, medicine, and spice both to Native Americans and early white settlers in the US and yet today has largely been forgotten in history. Spicebush is a native understory tree with a large range in North America, spanning from Maine to Florida and all the way across the south and Midwest to Texas and up to Ontario. While I’ve taught this plant routinely on my plant walks, and what amazes me is that nobody can even identify it, much less recognize how it might be used. Spicebush has an incredible flavor, medicinal value, and offers much in the way of magic and mystery. It certainly deserves a place in our consciousness and in our traditions.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. 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). For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include 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, 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

Widely distributed across North America, Spicebush is an understory tree that prefers damp soil and can grow in full shade, part shade, or full sun. Spicebush can grow up to 6-12 feet tall.  Spicebush reproduces by colonizing, thus, when you find it, it often grows in large patches in the forest understory. Here in the Appalachian mountains, you will find it growing in deciduous forests on damp hillsides, in wet areas where there are ephemeral springs, or along river bottoms.  When you see spicebush, it is often indicative of rich and fertile soil; it also prefers to grow in areas rich in limestone. Here on the Druid’s Garden Homestead land, we have it throughout our property as an understory tree with Oak-Hickory-Sugar Maple-Black cherry overstory.

Spicebush tree with berries

One of the key features of Spicebush is that it has an extremely early bloom time with fragrant flowers reminiscent of lemon. The clustered bright yellow blooms appear earlier than almost any other tree in our ecosystem. In Western Pennsylvania, it is typically blooming in early March, which is about the same time you start to see the Skunk Cabbage and Crocuses pop up and usually when the maple sap is running! You can often see this blooming sometimes while the snow is still on the ground (making it a very interesting counterpart to Witch Hazel who blooms in very late fall, from a bloom perspective). In the case of Spicebush, it blooms early so it can set its fruit early, well before the overstory trees bloom out and shade out the Spicebush. This is so characteristic of many of the other understory trees and bushes–all of them adapt themselves to be at peak in colder or darker times when light reaches the forest floor.

Spicebush is an important food source for wildlife. Larger mammals like whitetail deer, opossum, and eastern cottontail rabbit feed on the leaves, twigs, and berries. Many species of birds, both game birds, and songbirds, also feed on the berries, particularly in the winter months.  Spicebush is host to two butterflies–the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio Troilus) and the Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia Promethea).  The spicebush swallowtail lays eggs on Spicebush and then the larvae curls up the leaves to create a cocoon.

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

Spicebush is also known as Wild Allspice, Appalacian Allspice, Spicewood, Feverbush, Snap-bush, Snapwood, and Benjamin-Bush.  Many of these names are tied to the fragrant and amazing spice this bush produces for culinary arts. In fact, Spicebush has been seeing something of a renaissance within the foraging community in the last decade or so.  Even so, its more widespread use as a spice and food has not so far seemed to permeate beyond wild food foraging at present and into regional cuisine, which is honestly a shame.  In fact, Marie Viljoen who wrote the 2018 book Forage, Harvest, Feast makes the bold statement that if Spicebush were better known, it could form a cornerstone of regional Appalachian cuisine, demonstrating the power of this plant for cooking and culinary use.

Spicebush twigs and leaves can be made into a fragrant, slightly spicy tea that is reminiscent of a chai.  The tea is slightly spicy, slightly sweet, and quite pleasant to drink.  This is actually one of my favorite wild teas when I’m camping or foraging–just pick a few leaves and brew them up.  There are places I camp every year that are rich in spicebush and I always look forward to this warming tea on a gentle summer night.

The second way you can make tea when there are not leaves is by harvesting fresh twigs. To make a tea from the twigs, just brew them up with a lid on for 20-30 min (using low heat or even a crockpot to preserve the flavor).  The tea is similar to leaf tea: spicy, warming, and slightly sweet.

The real magic of the Spicebush from a culinary and wild food perspective is in the spicebush berry.  The green berry (unripe) and red berry (ripe) offer two different culinary experiences. The green berries are very sharp, lemony, and peppery and can be harvested anytime before they go red. The green berries are most intense when they are smaller and less plump. They can be used as a pepper substitute due to their very strong taste.

The berries go red in the early fall (you can see this from my images; the leaves start to yellow just as the berries go red). As they go red, you can begin to harvest them.  They will actually stay on the bush for 2 months or more, so you have a very long window for harvest. A good spicebush harvest can offer you several years of spice, which is pretty incredible.

I have found that the easiest way to preserve either red or green berries is to dehydrate them and then place them in the freezer. This prolongs their shelf life and intensifies the flavor. It is important to note that fresh spicebush berries can have a very numbing sensation on the tongue. By drying the berries, all the good spice is left with none of the numbing presents in the fresh berries. Once dry, you will taste that wonderful spice, very much its own flavor but with hints of allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, grains of paradise, citrus, and pepper, but you will also have your tongue go numb.  You can also use them fresh in curries and the like; cooking also can remove the numbness.

Marie Viljoen offers over 50 recipes in her Forage, Harvest, Feast that uses spicebush including combining it with citrus for refreshing drinks, using it as a seasoning in many diverse dishes, and using it as a dry rub on meats.  Here are a few recipes online to get you started:  foraged spicebush macaroons, acorn baklava with spicebush berry, a foraged dry rub (I’ve made a version of this and it is divine), a wild curry mix, and making a spicebush ice cream!

Traditionally, as Danie Moerman describes in Native American Food Plants, Native American uses of Spicebush were similar to what I have described above: spicebush was used by the Cherokee and Chippewa to make a beverage, including the stems to make tea.  The spice berries themselves were used to flavor opossum or groundhog. The Chippewa specifically used the berries to help mask or change meats with a strong or gamey flavor (p. 141).

Spicebush in Herbalism

Spicebush is infrequently Traditional Western Herbalism today, but historically, it was frequently used to treat a range of conditions. One of its names, fever bush, offers key insight into the nature of this plant.  King’s American Dispensatory and Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensary describes Spicebush bark and berries being used for medicine here in the Americas.  Spicebush is an aromatic herb being used primarily to treat fever (hence its name fever bush). A decoction (strong tea) was one of the treatments used as a diaphoretic (to support a healthy fever response and regulate body temperature).  It was used to treat all fevers including auge, typhoid, and rheumatic fevers. The berries were used primarily as a stimulant being used for a range of applications including supporting a healthy digestive system (carminative) particularly for alleviating excess gas. The berries can be distilled to create an essential oil of spicebush that is particularly useful for topical applications like bruises and rheumatism.

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

Spicebush in the Magical and Occult Traditions. Like many of my other understory plants, powerful yet unnoticed and unremarked upon, Spicebush has no mention that I can find in this lore.  This includes within the Hoodoo tradition and within the broader Western Occult traditions. However, the Latin name offers us some insight. The reason that the Latin name of Spicebush is Lindera Benzoin is that the oil found in all parts of the plant (part of what makes it tasty, see below) contain benzoic acid, which is the same chemical compound as Styrax Benzoin (for anyone who has used Benzoin incense). Burning the leaves, stems, or berries can give you a benzoin-like aroma, making it a great local incense source (for more on creating incenses generally, see this post on the general practice and this one on local tree incenses). I believe this plant has the potential for a local replacement for anyone who is using Benzoin or other incenses.

Spicebush berries in hand

Native American Traditions. Beyond food uses, I was unable to find anything about mythology, herbal, or other uses by Native Americans for spicebush.  While Native Americans also used this plant for medicine and food, (see the Ethnobotany of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) the specific uses are not specified.  One note in this entry is that Spicebush growing is a sign of a healthy and rich forest.

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

Based on all of my research as well as my own experiences, I want to share three possible divination and magical uses for spicebush.

Masking or illusion. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality has been used in culinary traditions for a variety of enhancements, alterations, and masking of strong flavors.  As suggested by the doctrine of signatures, this kind of quality can not only apply to the use of this tree as a culinary herb but also, as a magical one.

Enhancement. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality also lends itself well to any workings where something needs to be elevated or enhanced in some way.  The spice of the berries literally take ordinary foods and turn them into something unique and extraordinary–and the same can be said of other ways in which you might bring this unique and wonderful tree into your life.

Acting Swiftly and being Early.  Another meaning of the Spicebush is the power in doing things early, swiftly, and ahead of time.  The Spicebush takes advantage of the late winter sun when the overstory is still bare to set fruit and prepare for the season.  Thus, she offers us a powerful lesson with regards to action and focusing on being prepared in advance.

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Rhododendron (Rhododenron maximum)

A Rhododendron overlooking a foot path at Laurel Hill State Park

I remember the first time I saw the largest Rhododendron Maximum tree. I had recently moved back to Pennsylvania, and I was driving on 422 towards my parents’ house when I looked to the left and did a double-take!  An enormous Rhododendron, in bloom, at least 40 feet across and 20 feet high was in full bloom.  And, it was dwarfing the house it was growing next to.  After doing a little local research, I learned about how famous this rhododendron has been in our region. Ever since then, each time I pass, the Rhododendron and I exchange a little greeting.

As someone who lives in the Allegheny Mountains, Rhododendron has a special place in my heart.  It is one of the dominant understory trees (and yes, it often is the size of trees here!), growing both in deciduous and conifer (Hemlock) forests, encrusting rivers, and streams, and adding so much beauty to our land. Often confused with Mountain Laurel (see this PDF for some differences), Rhododendron is part of the Laurel-Azalea-Rhododendron group of plants in the Heather family (Ericaceae).  Rhododendrons can be found throughout the world and have some key distinguishing features.  I’m focusing my attention today on the  Rhododendron Maximum species, which is also known as Great Laurel, Great Rhododendron, Rosebay Rhododendron, American Rhododendron, Bayis, Late Rhododendron, or Big Rhododendron. If you don’t have Rhododendron Maximum, you can substitute any number of other Ericaceae species such as Mountain Laurel, another Rhododendron variety (including ornamental), or Azaela. Many people have these shrubs growing already as ornamentals in their yards or local towns if they don’t have them in the wild, making this a good plant to work with not only for those in the Appalachian mountains but those in suburban and urban areas.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  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. Other trees in this series include 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, 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 and Growth

The Great Rhododendron grows within most of the Appalachian Mountains, although the dominance and size can vary greatly.  It spans from eastern Georgia to Nova Scotia, and I will say, it is particularly dominant and amazing here in the Allegheny mounts of Western Pennsylvania. Here, you can see it as a small shrub, 8-10 feet high, and up to enormous sizes.  Rhododendrons can grow to 25 or 30 feet tall, twisting, beautiful, and magical. Their waxy simple leaves are evergreen, offering color and vibrancy year-round.  In June, they bloom with beautiful pink clusters of trumpet-like flowers that provide a fantastic nectar source for bees, moths, wasps, and hummingbirds.  This is why they are planted so widely as an ornamental–because they are truly stunning.

Rhododendron in bloom!

The leaves on the Rhododendron appear almost tropical. They vary from 3″ to over 8″ in length on older branches.  They grow in a spiral pattern starting at the top of the branch and spiral down the branch, demonstrating the sacred geometry present in this lovely tree.  Like other conifers, Rhododendron will drop and regrow a small number of leaves each year but stay green year-round.

In the wintertime, when the temperatures drop well below freezing, the rhododendron drops its leaves straight down and curls them up so that they look like long tubes.  This prevents the leaves from suffering cold damage.  As soon as the temperatures warm up, the rhododendron unfolds its leaves and spreads them to the winter sun. This shows incredible resilience and adaptability.   One of the ways the hillbillies here in Western PA know it is “damn cold out” is by looking at the Rhododendron leaves!

Rhododendrons particularly like to grow along the edges of streams and are found in both deciduous oak-hickory overstory forests and also in Hemlock/white pine forests.  It particularly enjoys wet areas, so you can often find it along riparian zones (particularly on the edges of smaller and medium-sized streams) and also in places where we have rocky outcrops, ravines, and hidden springs.  Rhododendrons are usually kept in check by a thick overstory.  There are cases where logging or other disruption of the overstory will allow the rhododendrons to spread for acres and acres–I once hiked through a few miles of one such situation in New England and it was quite an experience.

Woodburning Rhododendron

Rhododendrons to provide two important ecological functions: because of where they grow, their deep roots perform excellent soil and erosion control.  Because they have large leaves that are evergreen, they also provide excellent shelter–particularly winter shelter–to a host of birds and small mammals.

The rhododendrons also grow in a very whimsical way–they grow twisted, branches coming out at odd angles, and sometimes growing down and back up again.  I have long been a whimsical nature artist, and their whimsical, twisted, spiraling branches and trunks have always been an inspiration for me for my own work.

Uses

The Rhododendron, as an understory species, does not grow particularly large and thus, has limited use as a wood product. In fact, none of the books and resources that I currently use to research this series, none covered Rhododendron.

Beautiful Rhododendron Bloom

And yet, as someone who has worked with this wood, both to carve and burn, I am delighted to say that it is a wonderful wood.  I seek it out for my artwork because it is just perfect–not as hard to work as oak or hickory, it has a softness similar to maple or tulip poplar. It has a rosy, soft texture, which is excellent for doing precise woodburning and carving.  It has a very consistent light rose color from the thin bark to the core.  I like to turn it into wands, staves, and most especially, create necklaces from slices.  When I am kayaking out here on local streams and lakes, I look for recently dead rhododendron pieces for this work.

In the woodworking community, you’ll find other people posting about their experience in using it for wood carving, woodturning, and other fine wood products. One of the features of this wood that is often lauded is that it rarely cracks as it dries. The bushcraft community also uses this to make very fine charcoals for a variety of purposes.  One of my future plans is to make charcoal and see how it works for art–my choice has been grapevine or willow for a number of years, but I suspect this may also work great.

A Rhododendron in deep winter (outside temperature: 12 degrees F)

One of the big debates about using Rhododendron is that the leaves and flowers contain grayanotoxin, which can be fatal if ingested.   All evidence suggests that while the greenwood is toxic, the dried wood is fine to burn and to use (here is one such analysis).  If you are going to do woodburnings or anything else, because of the plant’s toxicity, I do suggest that you invest in a soldering smoke absorber–these are very inexpensive and can filter out any smoke you may have concerns about.

Beyond the wood, I am unaware of any other uses.  This is in part because Rhododendron (along with Azelela and Mountain Laurel) is poisonous, and thus, they do not have any herbal uses.  When a plant does not have herbal uses, I have found it also often does not have magical ones, at least recorded ones.  I have not found any lore or stories associated with this species, despite its critical importance and dominance in the ecosystem.

Divination and Meanings

Like some of my other overlooked understory plants, there isn’t a lot to go on without any magical or folklore traditions surrounding Rhododendron.  Despite this, the ecological aspects themselves offer us some key insights.  In particular, I think Rhododendron teaches us lessons about how to thrive in adversity and how to make the most of more difficult situations.  While these are lessons that are always appropriate, they are particularly useful now.

Adaptability and Opportunity.  As I recently wrote, there is a wide range of plants that thrive in the understory and that thrive in the cold and dark months when the overstory is bare.  Rhododendron is one of these plants, demonstrating adaptability, resilience, and opportunity.  Rhododendron offers a clear message: in times of dark and cold, find a way to grow, to thrive, and to make lemonade from lemons!

Extreme sheltering!

Sheltering in the extremes. The winter leaf foliage of Rhododendron takes the opportunity to spread wide when the warmer winter temperatures are present.  However, when the temperatures go freezing, Rhododendron drops her leaves and curls the leaves up tightly to prevent frost damage.  This adaptability, combined with shelter, is a powerful healing message.  There are times we need to shelter, but we should only do so when the conditions warrant it.  After a blast of sub-arctic cold and wind, it is ok to curl up tightly.  The key is to remember to uncurl when the situation changes.

Growing your own way.  Rhododendron is unlike anything else in the ecosystem here in Pennsylvania. It teaches us the power of individuality and growing in whatever whimsical and beautiful way you want. Rhododendron reminds us to be whoever we want to be.  And we can do that regardless of the circumstances that are affecting the outside world.  What a powerful and potent lesson for 2020 and beyond!

Dear readers, do you have experiences with rhododendron?  If so, are you willing to share?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  Blessings!

Sacred Tree Profile: Wild Grape (Vitis Labrusca) Mythology, Medicine, and Meanings

Wild Grapes

Wild Grapes

I remember when I first spotted to Wild Grape patch from the dirt road. “Is that all wild grape?” I said to my friend in an excited voice. We pulled the car over, and sure enough, there were thousands of grape bunches on a patch of vines that stretched hundreds of feet, almost ripe. A week later, we came back to the spot with a larger group of friends–there were more than enough wild grapes to go around.  After giving thanks for the abundance and promising to return to the spot for some wassailing in the winter, I harvested almost 5 gallons of wild grape that day. We worked to press all of the wild grapes with a friend’s with a small fruit press, and converting those grapes into the most amazing jelly you ever tasted!

Wild Grapevines, most commonly on the US East Coast the Fox Grape (Vitis Labrusca) variety, are truly a wonderful vine to get to know. They offer a variety of wonderful fruits with medicinal and culinary uses, a whimsical and sacred presence in our forests, and important spiritual lessons to learn. Like apples, pears, and other stonefruits, humans have an extremely longstanding and healthy relationship with grapes.  This is, in no small part, the role of wine and other fermented beverages in human history.  Before we had modern medicine, the wine was not considered simply an alcoholic beverage but also an important medicine. Grapes, their fruit and leaves, are also an important food source.In today’s post, we will explore the incredible grapevine!  While I’m focusing my comments on the most common grapevine along the US east coast, Vitis Labrusca, the fox grape, or wild grape, you can apply the content of this post to all grapevines.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. 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. Other trees in this series include Devils Walking Stick, 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, 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.

Grapevine Ecology and Growth Habits

Ecoprint of the Wild Grape Leaf

Fox Grape is widespread along the US Eastern seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Georgia, and its range stretches through most of the eastern half of North America to the Mississippi.  Because of this, it is quite easy to find Fox Grape in foraging adventures, and when found, it is often abundant (although not always easy to reach if it is growing high up in the trees).  Fox grape, like other grapevines, is not a freestanding tree. Rather, it depends upon the support of other trees, most often in a symbiotic relationship, where the grapevines are growing with other living trees.  However, over time, the vines can strangle the trees, eventually pulling them down. You might see places like this in the forest–it often appears as a U-shaped bowl where thousands of grapevines are growing up the trees–and the center is a mass of grapevines that have pulled down smaller trees and continue growing outward.  Several other growth habits I’ve witnessed include wild grape taking over an abandoned pile of wood (imagine a very large brush pile covered in wild grape) or a huge amount of wild grape on the edge of a field/forest, taking up much of the edge space. Most commonly though, you will find a grapevine here or there, often climbing up into the host trees.

The woody vine of the wild grape is usually 10-40′ long with a base of several inches and up to 12″ in diameter for the oldest vines.  It uses forked tendrils (also edible) to slowly climb up adjacent trees where it uses its tendrils to anchor itself to branches and continue its ascent.  The bark is medium brown and usually appears shredded, with some of it flaking off over time as the vine grows in girth.  At regular intervals, the vine will have nodes where stems come out to produce leaves. The leaves are alternate and heart shape with three palmate lobes.  In the late spring or early summer, the wild grape will produce greenish-yellow bunches of flowers–they aren’t very showy, and it Is usually easy to miss them. The flowers slowly develop into green grape clusters and then, in the late summer or fall, the 1/2″ – 3/4″ grapes ripen to dark purple or bluish-black. Of course, this is the time to go foraging for wild grapes!

Wild grapes grow in a variety of soils and tolerate a range of conditions, but they prefer wetter conditions and have some flood tolerance.  They usually thrive in part sun conditions, and as they climb, they bring themselves into more sunlight, sometimes blocking out the light of their host tree.

Wild Grape History

An abundant harvest of wild grape!

The Fox grape has an interesting history. It is likely that in the 11th century when Leif Erikson and the Vikings were exploring coastal North America, they named the land they saw as “Vineland” because of the numbers of grapevines present.  Fox grapevines along with other Vitis species were later exported to Europe during the 19th century.  However, all North American grapevines carry the phylloxera louse that devastated many of the Vitis vinifera  (European) varieties of grapes but that the American varieties are immune to.  Europeans eventually overcame the phylloxera by interbreeding Fox grape with native European grapes to build resistance.  Thus, most of the grapevines in the world have a bit of Fox Grape in them.   The Concord grape was also bred from the Fox Grape in the 19th century in Concord, MA and after that other varieties such as the Niagara and Deleware were developed.

Wild Grape as Food

The Fox Grape is a very potent red grape variety, which has a skin that can be easily slipped off, offering easy access to the grape flesh and 4-5 small seeds in the center. According to Winker, Cook, Kliere, and Lider from General Viticulture (1974), the fox grape is known as “fox” because it has a strong, musky aroma that is earthy, sweet, and quite unique. These features make it highly sought out as a wild food.

In Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, Daniel Moerman describes the widespread uses of wild grapes by a variety of Native American tribes for food.  This included eating the fruit raw, using the fruit to make juice and dumplings, drying the fruit into raisins, and more.

Pressing wild grapes using a small fruit press

Today, as traditionally, wild grapes are used as a food source in a number of ways.  First, the small forked tendrils coming out of the vines are good for a trailside nibble–they are tart and fresh tasting (you could never gather many of these without harming the vine, so enjoy a few as you hike but don’t consider this a major food source!)

The leaves are a culinary delight: they can be steamed or marinated in oil and then used to make dolmas, casseroles, or other dishes calling for grape leaves.  You can preserve them in oil or even parboil and freeze them if you want a ready supply of grape leaves into the winter months.

Of course, the prime food source from the grape is the fruit itself.  In the late summer or early fall, keep an eye out for wild grapes that are ripe. Confirm that they are wild grapes (both poison ivy and Virginia creeper can produce a look-alike, identify the difference between the leaves and the size of the fruit). Usually, wild grapes stay on the vine a number of weeks if the wildlife doesn’t get to them first, giving you a long harvest window. As Sam Thayer in the Foragers Harvest notes–and this is important–when you are harvesting, you either need to process your grapes right away or ensure that you do not crush them. The grapes will immediately begin to ferment if crushed (as grapes do!). When you crush them, crush them gently because the seeds can be bitter and that bitterness can be transferred into the grape juice if the seeds are crushed.  Thayer notes that a small fruit press or jelly bag is good for this work–I’ve also found you can step on them in a clean bucket with clean feet!  Return any seeds or unwanted materials to the living earth.

One of the most important things to know about harvesting wild grapes, at least the Fox Grape variety, is that they contain a compound known as tartrate (a salt/esterate of tartaric acid, found in all grapes but high in wild grape). Different vines have it in larger or smaller amounts, in my experience.  After crushing, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly or the Tartrate can start to make your hands burn after about 45 min to 60 min.  After you have your juice, put it in the fridge or a cool porch for 24 hours in a large jar.  You will see a gray-brown sludge form at the bottom (usually about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total volume).. Pour off everything that isn’t the sludge and discard the sludge in your compost or outside (it is important to return any “waste” to nature.  If you don’t pour off the Tartrate, it will provide an “off” taste to your finished juice (or any fermented products you make with it).

Some wild grape juice needing to rest–more to process as you can see!

What is left is an amazing, very potent, and delicious grape juice.  You can mix it with other juices (it goes well with apple or pear), ferment it, make a jelly, drink it fresh, or anything else. At this point, you can use any recipes you want for those calling for Concord or Niagra grapes.  My favorite thing to do with it, since I don’t drink alcohol at all, is to turn it into the most incredible jelly you will ever taste!  A fruit leather (fruit roll-up) is another excellent use, especially when combined with another fruit like ripe pureed apple.

Wild Grape as Medicine

It’s important to remember that before modern medicine, wine (particularly red wine) was considered as much a medicinal substance as it was a culinary one. Due to the reservitol, which supports healthy heart function, wine has long been used as a medicinal drink and health tonic in many cultures.  As Matthew Wood describes in his Earthwise Herbal: Old World Herbs, herbs were often macerated (soaked) in wine, and then it was diluted with honey and water for medicinal use.  As Wood notes, in the late Middle Ages, distillation techniques invented which allowed wine to be turned into spirits, creating an even more potent medium for tincturing herbs. Wood notes several other historical uses of grapes including liquid drops from living grapevines being used on the eyes to help heal eye issues and the grape leaves (which are astringent) were used to address a variety of wet or damp stomach conditions.

Wild Grape in the Western Magical Tradition: Europe and the Americas

Vine or Muin is associated most commonly with grapevine, although grapevines are not native to Ireland, where the ogham associated.  Still, many contemporary uses of Muin tie it to the wild grapevine (I use it in the Allegheny Mountain Ogham as well). In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the word Muin is tied to the “highest beauty and strongest effort” in the ancient texts, suggesting that vine grows from tree to tree, connecting the forest, which offers one key interpretation of vine through the ogham (p. 147).

In the American Hoodoo tradition as described by Cat Yronwoode in Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, the grape is used for revealing adultery revealing spells and also for a very specific kind of curse lifting. If a man has difficulty urinating due to a curse, a rootworker cuts a grapevine to the height of his crotch and then bends it in a glass jar and lets it sit overnight. This will produce a liquid.  He should wash his privates with this liquid, which will cure him of the curse.

In The Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that grapes have been considered magical substances by humans since before we had recorded history.  The ancient Greeks called the grapevine the “blood of the earth” representing their critical importance.  JMG notes that grapes are tied to the Sun in Pisces and are airy and warm in the 1st degree, moist in the 2nd degree. While grapes were used traditionally in love magic of all kinds, JMG notes that grapes are excellent at carrying the energies of other herbs or substances, which is part of why wine can be the base for many potions, baths, and washes (p. 115).

 Wild Grape in Native American Mythology

The Chickasaw Legend describes the Raccoon Clan, a clan of bright and well-adapted people, hanging large bunches of wild grapes up to dry for the winter months. In the History and Traditional Lands of the Huron-Iroquois Nations, the tale describes a large bridge constructed by the Iroquois over the Ohio river which broke after several explorers attempted to cross it. In a similar Senaca legend, the Lazy Man makes a grapevine swing and hangs out in his swing all day rather than doing anything productive like hunting. In The Origin of the Iroquois Nation, the spirits of the sky came down and gave each of the five Iroquois nations a gift. To the Onondaga were given grapes, squashes, and tobacco.  In a final Senaca legend, the Adventures of Yellowbird, at one point Yellowbird, who is a shapeshifter, is summoned by a neighboring chief.  In animal form, he runs to meet her but is stopped repeatedly by an invisible tangle of grapevines.  He knows these vines were put in his way by the chief.

The Magical and Divination Meanings of Wild Grape

Beautiful grapes!

Binding and Holding Fast. The first meaning of the wild grape is due to the very nature of grapevine–as vines grow, they grow around other trees and plants, in some cases, strangling them and pulling them down over time.  even the small tendrils can cause great difficulty to living plants.  This meaning is clear, both in the ecology of the plant as well as in some of the legends surrounding the plant.

Transmission of energy. Just as the grapevines connect multiple trees and the wine can be used to transmit the qualities of herbs, the grapevine as a whole offers a transmission of energy and is a worthy vessel for any sacred sacrament – herbs, magic, and more.  Wine is a carrier, it can help carry sacred energies of ritual and more.  You might consider how vine can be used as such a transmission source in your own practice–through the wood, through the leaves, or through food and drink that you create.

Dear readers, what are some of your experiences with the wild grape? I would love to hear your insights and thoughts!

Sacred Tree Profile: Devils Walking Stick (Aralia Spinosa)

The mighty Devil’s walking stick in early spring–look at those spikes!

The Druid’s Garden Homestead is located on a 5-acre parcel of land in Western Pennsylvania that is currently regenerating from intense logging. Three years ago, just before we bought the property, the family who owned it logged about three of the five wooded acres.  This has led to a host of possibilities where we can work on forest regeneration, observing the changes in this damaged place as it regrows, and certainly, opportunities for wildtending and creating food forests. As you walk through this regenerating landscape, one of the most striking understory trees is the Devil’s Walking Stick, Aralia spinosa. Looking like a very spiky and menacing walking stick (it has a name fitting of its visage), this tree is also known as Prickly Elder, Prickly Ash, Shotbush, Pigeon Tree, Angelica Tree, or Hercules club. These varied names really speak to the grotesque and yet wonderful nature of this plant and, I believe, give us some sense of its deeper meaning and uses.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  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. Other trees in this series include 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, 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.

This entry is going to differ somewhat from my previous entries in this series for a simple reason: there is almost no mythology, herbal, or magical knowledge about this tree. The giant stack of books and online databases of mythology that I regularly consult when developing this series have come up empty on this tree. Thus, I am going to rely much more on ecological knowledge, historical uses, and personal observations.  Regardless of its lack of use traditionally, I think this tree is worthy of our attention and fills an important niche in the ecosystem of the US East Coast as a dominant pioneering tree with powerful energy.

Ecology

Aralia Spinosa, or the Devil’s Walking Stick, is in the ginseng family.  It prefers part shade, moist soils, and can tolerate a range of soil conditions (fertile to poor, a wide range of PHs, and a wide range of soil types).  As an aggressive pioneering species, it comes in after disruption in forest and field conditions, where it colonizes predominantly through rhizomes and sending out roots in different directions.   The range of the Devil’s Walking Stick is quite widespread–it is native from Maine to Texas and grows up and down the entire eastern seaboard the whole way to Florida.

Devils walking sticks in early winter (mature)

As the USDA Plant Database suggests, the Devil’s Walking Stick grows to a height of 35 feet, although as it is colonizing new areas, you can often find much smaller specimens. The leaves are compound and opposite, and every stalk literally is covered in spikes, even below the leaves and onto the leaf stems. The entire tree is covered in spikes, which do thin out as it gets larger. Some sources report that this tree can cause contact dermatitis if the roots or stalks are handled, but I have not found this to be the case (and in fact, have worked with the wood of it without any trouble!).

We actually have some very mature Devils Walking Sticks behind our garden, which are about 30-40 feet tall, and when they are in bloom in August, you can see thousands of butterfly moths, bees, and other insects all over the blooms. Their blooms look a lot like angelica with large umbles of small white flowers–the umbles can reach 12-24″ across and are massive on older trees. After the flowers go to seed, you can often see small birds feasting on the seeds along with deer and other wildlife. In the fall, the foliage turns dark yellow or purple and then pretty quickly drops from the leaves.  The berry clusters remain a little longer and are early winter forage for birds.

One of my favorite quotes about this tree comes from the University of Florida State Extension office, “Devil’s walking stick…literally thrives on neglect.”  It is also listed as “too aggressive for gardens”.  Thus, if you want to plant it, the best thing to do is plant it and then leave it alone (and understand that planting one will lead to many as they colonize by roots and suckers!

Plants for the Future suggest that this tree may be very ancient and that the spines covering the stem and leaves are an earlier evolutionary development to dissuade larger herbivores (read dinosaurs, mammoths, etc) who might seek to eat it. Deer and elk do not browse on it.  Given its very defensive and menacing appearance, that makes sense.

History of Human Use

Devils Club in late Winter getting ready to sprout

One of the few recorded uses of Devil’s Walking Stick is that it was grown in gardens in the Victorian era as a “grotesque ornamental.” The  Victorians were notorious for their love of the grotesque–those are things that are strange, hideous, or unpleasant while also being somehow mysterious, fantastical, or magnificent.  In some ways, it was the juxtaposition of something that was fantastical aong with being unpleasant or strange that lead to the idea of grotesque. I actually think that this “grotesque” concept is an excellent fit for Devil’s Walking Stick, which is certainly a slightly weird, wonderful, and yet disturbing tree to come across!

Another recorded use of the Devil’s Walking Stick was with the Cherokees, as described by Hannah Dinkins in Plants of the Cherokees and their Uses.  They were reported to harvest and roast the older roots and use them as an emetic (emetics are herbs that induce vomiting) or into a salve for healing old sores. Only the older roots were used this way, however, the young and green roots were considered poisonous.  The other use is, which is clearly a more energetic healing approach, is to burn the wood, and then as the wood burned, the smoke was blown on a person who had paralysis to treat the paralysis.

In the New Garden Encyclopedia by L. D. Seymour, Seymor notes that herbalists have used the root of devil’s walking stick, which they dry and grind into powder, for treatment of rheumatism, asthma, and coughs. In all of my years of studying herbalism, I have not come across any teachings of this plant that were not in obscure references and there are very few listings (none in places like Wood’s Earthwise Herbal).

Plants for the Future notes that eating large amounts of the berries are poisonous. They suggest that the young leaves (with their slender spikes) must be gathered before the prickles harden and then can be finely chopped and used as a potherb). While this might be the case, even the young plants are pretty vicious and I’m not sure this plant has any desire to be eaten!

Really not something you want to grab hold of!

The wood itself that comes from the trees is extremely light, soft, and brittle.  It has a lot of larger air holes, making it akin to something like young elder or staghorn sumac, but not as firm. Because of the nature of the wood, it does not have many human uses (although it will certainly start a decent campfire).  I’ve worked with it a bit and have found that you can certainly make small things from it like wands, a walking stick, or staves, but I’m not sure you’d want it for any tough job (like a handle).

The Magic and Meanings of the Devil’s Walking Stick

I was unable to find any specific mythology or magic surrounding the Devil’s Walking Stick tree, despite its widespread growth here in the US.  Based on the above information, we might consider at least three possible meanings for this tree:

Opportunistic and cunning. The Devils Walking Stick offers very opportunistic and cunning energy.  It grows in areas that have been disrupted (like our logged forests) where it quickly colonizes and spreads, growing quickly and taking the opportunity provided.

Over-the-top Defenses. The Devil’s Walking Stick is one of the most defended trees here on the US East Coast.  While its toxicity and thousands of thorns, nothing is going to get through to eat this tree.  I think this tree obviously signals that defenses are needed, perhaps more than are necessary.  I could see this tree being of use if you were feeling like you were being attacked or under duress.

Overcoming Adversity and Exorcism.  The energy of this tree would be good for helping you overcome any kind of adversity that you face and exorcise unwanted things from your life (physical or metaphysical).  This tree pulls no punches and stands in its power–and it will help you to do the same.

Don’t mess with me! Devil’s Walking Stick

I will also note that if you are developing a local ogham, Devils Walking Sick could be a potentially very good replacement for the Ogham Straif (Blackthorn).  Like Blackthorn, Devil’s Walking Stick is a pioneering species with a host of defenses and, frankly, the right kind of energy

I think that because this tree does not have a rich mythology or magical tradition, there’s a lot of opportunities to work with it, to experiment, and to see what comes.  I would love to hear from you, my readers, about any insights, stories, or experiences you may have with the powerful Devil’s Walking Stick!

 

Additional Sources:

https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=arsp2

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=arsp2

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c294

https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1764

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st080

Creating Individual or Small Group Rituals: A Step by Step Guide

Rituals are not just an important part not just of druidry or of nature-based spirituality, but of human life in general.  According to leading scholar Catherine Bell in her book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, human beings have been involved in rituals for as long as we have recorded history—and likely well before. Rituals use meaningful symbols, movement, actions, repeated forms and staging to help us step out of our normal time with conscious and sacred intention. While many rituals may have spiritual or religious significance, rituals can also be cultural (graduation ceremonies) or personal.

Sacred Mandala as part of our MAGUS 2018 Ritual

Sacred Mandala as part of our MAGUS 2018 Ritual

A few weeks ago, I hosted a ritual creation workshop as part of AODA’s online workshop series as a lot of people want to start to create their own rituals.  In this post, I’m going to offer the framework I shared at the workshop to help you think through how to create rituals, the considerations for creating rituals, and so on.  In this post, I’m drawing upon the work of Catherine Bell and John Michael Greer as well as my own experiences in writing many, many rituals over the years: personal rituals, rituals for two different druid groves, and rituals for multiple large gatherings (here are a few examples: Hemlock Galdr, Ley Line Ritual, Water Healing Ritual, and a Grief Ritual.  I’m mostly sticking to personal and small group rituals in today’s discussion and assuming you want to plan in advance, for my take collaborative ritual creation without scripts, you can see this post.

Rituals can help us connect with ourselves, connect with the living earth, raise and direct energy, celebrate or mark an event, and much more. All human cultures have some forms of ritual, although what that looks like and how it manifests varies quite widely (for a fascinating look into ritual, I suggest Catherine Bell’s Ritual book, which offers an anthropological introduction to rituals in human cultures).  In the druid tradition, particularly revival Druidry, we often do rituals for a wide variety of purposes. These may include any of the following (and I’m sure there are some categories I am missing):

  • Celebrating and marking the seasonal holidays (solstices, equinoxes, cross-quarter days, new moons, full moons, etc)
  • Raising energy for land healing, blessing, and honoring the land
  • Raising energy for personal work
  • Opening up sacred space for meditation, bardic creation, or sacred communion with the land
  • Seeking assistance or guidance
  • Lowering energy for a variety of reasons (removal of sickness, shadow work, land healing/palliative care work)
  • Gratitude practices, which are so important I put them in their own category

A Ritual Creation Framework

In what follows, I’ll walk you through step by step how you can go about creating rituals for yourself or for others.

Step 1: Intention

What is it that you want to accomplish? What is your intention for the work? Start by answering these questions, as your goal or purpose for the ritual will determine to a large extent what you do and how you do it.  There are many goals when you seek to create a ritual and you may have more than one in mind for the ritual you will create.  For example, you might want to do a blessing for a local park or celebrate a seasonal holiday in a way that is local and resonant with you.

Step 2: Framework

All traditions have some framework or structure in which their tradition understands sources of power as well as helps categorize or interpret the world. Frameworks are often very closely aligned or the same as sources of energy (see step 4). Recognize that if you are using existing sacred space/grove/circle opening and closing rituals as part of the work you want to do, you already are given a framework from those opening and closing rituals, and you can skip this step.  For example, AODA’s opening and closing rituals, you will already have a source of energy and framework: AODA’s seven-element framework, which will manifest for you in a specific way that you choose to call each.   Not all rituals will need to use full opening and closing rituals but if you plan on using them, keep this in mind.  It’s important to know if you want to use an existing grove opening/closing (and considerations there are discussed in Step 3).

A ritual altar at the fall equinox

Broader Druid frameworks:

  • Four elements: earth, air, fire, water (or 5, if you also want to use spirit); these elements have been with Western traditions for at least 2500 years, but likely much much longer
  • Earth / Sea / Sky framework from the Celtic tradition
  • Gwyar / Calas / Nyfre framework from the Druid revival
  • Four druid animals tied to the directions: Great bear (north), Hawk (east), Stag (south), Salmon (west)

AODA-specific frameworks:

  • AODA’s primary framework is the seven-element framework which includes Air, Fire, Water, Earth (classic elements) and Spirit Above/Spirit within/Spirit Below (three aspects of spirit)
  • An alternative way we think about the three aspects of spirit are three currents: Solar, Telluric, and Lunar

Something tied to your tradition: Many people meld more than one tradition into their spiritual path.  If this applies to you, you can draw upon any of the frameworks of your other tradition(s) to work.  This might include a deity, etc.

Something local or unique to you: Over time, you might develop your own framework. frameworks you develop or those that resonate with you and your practice.  For example, you might use a framework of four sacred mountains, sacred trees, animals, etc.

Step 3: Consideration of Marking/Opening/Closing sacred space and Formal/Informal Ritual

One consideration you will need to make is whether or not you want to do a formal grove opening and closing as part of your ritual.  When would you use a formal sacred space opening vs. not?

The first thing to understand is why we might use grove openings or closings at all: and there are at least three reasons. The first is psychological: we need to have some way of helping us mark the difference between sacred time/spiritual time and everyday life.  For people in the more dominant world religions, they often accomplish this by going to a physically separate location, wearing special clothing, and in many Christian traditions, opening up with song or prayer for example.  For people in the druid and neopagan traditions, we have very few buildings or anything else, and so doing a grove opening or circle opening is a way of helping us designate sacred time and space from mundane time and space. The second reason has to do with your own relationship and connection to the world of spirit and the tradition you are working in.  As Catherine Bell’s definition of ritual above suggests, it is the repetition of certain traditions that turn them into rituals embedded with deep meaning.  After years of doing the same grove opening and closing, it takes on symbolic and emotional meaning.  The more that you engage with these same ritual forms, the more effective they will have on you over time.  You build meaning as you engage with them and the imagery and energy will become part of you.  The third reason ties to the occult roots of many of these traditions.  We create sacred space, particularly if doing energetic or magical work because we need to protect that work from outside influences.  The world of spirit is not all light and love; there are many things out there that would grow attracted to the raising and directing of energy and come to meddle.  By setting a boundary between you and the world, you are better able to protect yourself from any undue external influence.  This is particularly important when you are raising and directing energy.

So with these reasons aside, the question becomes: when do you actually use a formal grove opening and closing?  The first is your intention and the work you set out to do.  I think a lot of this can be summarized in the difference between doing a formal ritual (which would include a sacred grove opening/closing) vs. an informal ritual, which would be shorter and likely more simple.  Formal rituals are reserved for celebrating the major holidays and also other “major” work you want to do where you are going to raise and direct energy, work magic, do major blessings, or do deep work on the self.  By contracts, informal rituals are more like your everyday practices or small things you do if you feel the need, often spontaneously. Short, everyday rituals that serve to celebrate, mark, offer gratitude, or honor rarely need a formal ritual.  For example, if you want to create a small ritual to open up your meals, you do not need to do a full grove ritual for that (otherwise, meals would get quite long).  But if you wanted to do a blessing for the whole growing season for your garden, a formal ritual would make more sense.

Context is a major factor here.  If you want to do any ritual work where you are going to be out in public or with others who do not follow your path, the opening of a formal sacred space may not be feasible. For example, if I wanted to do a quiet tree blessing in a park where there are other people, I would certainly not go through opening up a sacred space. But if I was going to do that same blessing in my private backyard, I likely would use the full grove opening because it would offer a bit extra power and help me get into the right frame of mind. What I might do, in the case of the tree blessing in a park is to do a blessing ritual in advance, where I would open a sacred space, and then embed that blessing into a stone.  I can then go to the park, leave the stone with the blessing, and say a few words or play some music.  The point is depending on where you are, the formal ritual may not make sense.

A final consideration here on levels of formality has to do with tools and ritual clothing: when do you use them and when do you not?  For more formal rituals, it is likely that you will also want to dress the part in ritual gear, use a full altar setup, and really get into the part.  For informal rituals, it’s likely you’ll use fewer (or no) tools and certainly won’t be dressing the part.  If you are going somewhere where the ritual is likely, you can always create a crane bag to take with you.  I have a lot of information on crane bags here or here.  Another option for travel is to create some kind of Altoid tin mini set or even grove stones that you can take with you (grove stones are described in the Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer).

Step 4: Sources of Energy, Assistance, or Guidance

What often makes a ritual effective is to have a source of energy, assistance, or guidance that is outside of you that you can call upon as part of that work. This can be directly tied to your framework (Step 2) or can be separate from your framework.

Sources of energy

Not all rituals require sources of energy, assistance, or guidance, but anywhere you are trying to have an effect upon the world (e.g. blessing, healing) would require it.  For example, a simple honoring of the sun ceremony where a druid would go out and greet the sun each morning would not require a source of energy–other than the sun itself!  But, if you wanted to offer a blessing upon a journey, you’d want to send some energy that was not yours as part of that ceremony.

Why does this matter? We all have energy within us that we can call upon.  But we have only so much, and the more we pull from ourselves, the more we can deplete ourselves over time. Rituals are more impactful and meaningful if you draw upon sources of energy from outside of yourself that can lend strength, power, and additional layers of energy to your working.

Here are some common sources of energy you might draw upon:

  • From within you or the movement/music/activity, you generate
  • From your framework (3 druid elements, 4 elements, 7 elements, ogham trees, etc)
  • From sacred timing (solstices, equinoxes, full moon, new moon, etc)
  • From the natural world: rivers, mountains, plants, herbs, stones, trees
  • From connection to spirits or deity
  • From existing sacred spaces that you build and cultivate that hold energy over time

Sources of assistance or guidance

Some rituals seek assistance or guidance from outside sources.  This might be because you want to ask for advice about a new direction to take or ask for guidance for a particular challenge in your life.  Or you’d just like to request that spirit or deity have your back for the work you are doing.  Sources of guidance or assistance can often come in a few forms:

  •         Divination systems (Tarot, Runes, Ogham, Pendulum)
  •         Deity, Spirits, Guides
  •         Nature (specific nature or nature broadly)
  •         Subconscious or higher self

Obviously, if you are going to use any of these in a ritual, you’d want to think about how you will call in and honor this source of guidance or assistance.  For nature/diety/guides, I would certainly do this in a respectful way with gratitude and offerings. Even for your divination system, I think it’s a good idea not to just use the tool, but to really honor it.

Step 5: Methods You Can Use

Now we get to the many possible methods you can use to achieve your goals or intentions.    I’m going to list a lot of them here (this list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start) so you can have a variety of methods to work with.

Goose ritual helpers!

Setting up the ritual space. The ritual space that you choose to create is an important part of helping you prepare for the ritual.  Here are some considerations:

  • Is your ritual going to be outdoors or indoors?
  • Is your ritual going to take place in an established sacred space (the one you use often for rituals) or in a new setting?
  • What might help you set the stage for your ritual? Consider how you will decorate, use materials from the season, light candles and incense, set up an altar, and more.
  • Are you going to dress for the part?
  • Are you going to have a feast and/or offerings as part of your ritual? If so, what might that include?  (See Gratitude practices, below).
  • If you are including others, make sure you design a way for everyone to share or add to the space.  For example, last year, our grove did a great Samhain weekend and one of the things we did was built an ancestor altar on Friday evening.  We each brought one or more ancestral objects or photos and took time sharing.  That altar stayed with us all weekend.

I always take the time to set up the space for any formal rituals that I do.  To me, space is a very important part of the overall equation in developing a ritual that is impactful or meaningful.  It’s kind of like hosting a dinner party–you want the space to be just right, flowers on the table, and the house clean.  Hosting the same party with a dirty and messy house just doesn’t cut it.

Raising Energy Methods: Energy raising methods are used for healing, blessing, empowering, bardic arts creation, new journeys, and so much more.  Here are some methods to raise energy:

  •  Chanting (changing ogham words or Awen is a good choice).  Chanting magic is powerful and can be an excellent way to accomplish a number of goals and rituals.  I use ogham chanting regularly for a variety of purposes in my own practice.
  •  Dance and body movement.  Often, you see this method employed with more ecstatic rituals where people are encouraged to dance, drum, and move to raise energy for a specific purpose.  But there’s no reason you can’t do this on your own as well.
  •  Drumming / clapping / Noise.  Nothing like raising energy through some good noise making.  Drumming, clapping, hooting, and hollering all fall into this category.
  •  Visualization.  Visualization is a technique we use often in AODA, where you use your inner eyes to envision something–light radiating out into the world, rains falling, land healed and clean, etc.  Visualization is a very powerful way to employ the imagination for the work you are to do.
  •  Auditory/calling forth/Inviting in.  Words have power.  Stating your intentions and speaking of the work you are to do can certainly be effective.
  •  Use of herbs, plants, oils.  Drawing upon the inherent power and relationship you have with herbs, oils, or plants can be a very useful energy raising method.  I have found that the deeper your own relationship or connection is with the plant or herb, the more effective this practice is.

Lowering Energy / Removal Methods: Just as there is specific work to raise energy, there may also be times where you want to lower the energy or remove energy.  I use this technique fairly often in my land healing work dealing with palliative care, where very damaged lands that are suffering need rest and quietude.  Removal work is also common when you are doing self-development work and trying to let go of bad habits or things that harm you.

  •  Drumming down (starting fast and slowing the beat till it stops)
  •  Ritual burning (words, papers, herbs)
  •  Taking an object that is imbued with power and casting it off (such as into a body of water) or burying it
  •  Use of clearing or cleansing herbs, salts, or vinegar.  You can use fumitory herbs (e.g. smoke cleansing) or water cleansing with salt/vinegar to assist with this.

Gratitude Practices:  Another big part of the work of rituals is honoring and showing gratitude.  Traditionally, an offering was something that actually cost the person something: the fruits of your labor, the fruits of the first harvest, a portion of the food for the winter, etc.  I like to think about offerings in that way–they aren’t just symbolic but should somehow be meaningful and useful.  Here are a few methods you can consider for this work.

  •  Physical offerings (cakes, wine, herbal blend, incense).  While these might be considered an easy “go-to”, I really push back against offerings that are part of the capitalist system that is destroying the planet.  If you are going to offer physical offerings, they should be md
  •  Service offerings (cleaning up trash, planting trees, lifestyle changes).  In the 21st century given all of our challenges, I actually think these offerings are some of the best we can do.  If you are doing this in a ritual setting, what you might do is state the offering you have recently made or plan on making (e.g. I will be attending a tree planting in the park next week as part of my offering to the land for assistance in this ritual).
  • Bardic offerings (music, dance, chanting).  Bardic offerings are always welcome, particularly because they do not consume physical resources and can be made with sacred intent.
  • Bodily offerings (hair, liquid gold).  Sometimes you are out and doing spontaneous ritual and you don’t have anything to offer but what you have with you.  Hair is a traditional offering (particularly if you are ritually harvesting plants and wanting to give back).  I’ll also put in a plug for liquid gold (urine) which can be given at the base of trees (not directly on the plants) or roots.  That’s pure nitrogen.  Even your own carbon-rich breath can be offered.

Step 6: Solitary or Group

Before we get into putting the ritual together, you will obviously want to account for the participants in your ritual.  If it’s just you, move onto step 7.  If you will include others, I’ll briefly share some thoughts (writing good group ritual is an art in and of itself, and this post will be way too long if I included all the info on that, so I’ll cover it in the future at some point).  In the meantime, here are a few considerations for you:

Ritual smoke through the trees

  • If you are working with known others (say, part of a small grove), work with others to design the ritual so that they are invested if at all possible (even if it’s just to bring something to the ritual, like water from a local source).
  • Make everyone comfortable- some people like to participate and some people prefer to have an observer role; work to make sure everyone can fill a role they’d like to fill.  Even if people don’t have a formal part, invite them to engage in parts of the ritual like visualizing, interacting, etc.
  • Make it interactive – have everyone in the group doing something as part of the ritual.  It can be small, but meaningful.  The boring rituals are ones where you have to stand in a circle and listen to people talk and watch people move around for 30 min–create something that engages people in some way.
  • Give a memento – group rituals are more powerful when people have something to take away that is tied to the ritual in some way: a bit of sacred water, seeds, ribbons, you get the idea.  Takeaways build connections.
  • Make it meaningful – good ritual work should be meaningful and impactful, not empty.  Think about how you can make the moment meaningful for people who are participating.
  • Make sure people know what is going on.  If it makes sense, talk through the ritual in advance so everyone has a good idea of what will be happening during the ritual, the goals for the ritual, and not be lost.  When running Crescent Birch Grove in Michigan, we always made sure to have at least 30 min set aside before we started a grove ritual to talk through what we were doing and the work at hand, let people read over parts, and so forth

Step 7: Structure

Alright! It is now time to put your ritual together.  I’m going to share a few different possible structures that can help you.

Formal structures. Most formal rituals have a variation on a similar structure, which is as follows:

  • Opening the space:  After you set up your space prepare yourself, you can open up your sacred space/sacred grove.
  • Declaring intentions for the ceremony: Language that expresses what the ceremony is about and what you hope to do; this sets your intentions not only for you and any other participants but also for spirit/deity/powers of nature.
  • Engaging in the core ritual work: This varies widely and I’ll offer some options below
  • Closing the space in some way. Close out your sacred space/grove. Closing a grove helps you to transition back to everyday life (ritual can be unbalancing if you do not transition carefully).  Closings often return unused energy to the land and offer thanks.

The core ritual work obviously depends on your intention, but much of it follows a formula something like this:

  • Prayers, gratitude, or words about the intention of the ceremony
  • Raising energy
  • Directing energy
  • Giving thanks

There are a lot of variations on that theme, but a good 80% of the rituals that I’ve attended or written have some structure similar to the above.

Informal structures. Informal ritual structures dispense with anything on the formal opening and closing elements and just focus on the core work at hand.  They may include a simple prayer, meditation, breathwork, offering, and more.  They may still have small pieces to give you a moment to transition (such as the three deep breaths offered in the ogham wisdom chant).

Ogham Wisdom Chant.  This is a simple ritual that you can use immediately when you need it, even in the middle of your workday or daily life.

Intention: To offer wisdom, strength, and discernment in everyday life, available at a moment’s notice. Framework and Source of Energy: Ogham (Oak few, Duir, pronounced “Doo-er”)  Work: Raising energy for wisdom, strength, and discernment through chanting

The ritual:

Take three deep breaths.
Place hands across chest
Chant Oak Ogham Three Times: Duir, Duir, Duir
Take three deep breaths

Closing

While what I’ve offered above looks like a lot, after you have some practice writing rituals, it’s

likely you can dispense with the formal steps entirely and just do things intuitively.  But having steps like these can really help people as they are learning to write rituals know what to think about and how to think about it.  I’d love feedback on this framework: for those of you who are new, does this help you?  Please share what you end up creating!   For those of you who are experienced ritual writers, am I missing anything or is there anything you’d suggest differently?

Sacred Tree Profile: The Medicine, Magic, and Uses of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus Typhina)

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

As we begin the march from summer into fall, the Staghorn Sumac are now in bloom.  With their flaming flower heads reaching into the sky, the Staghorn sumac are striking upon our landscape.  As fall comes, the Staghorn Sumac leaves turn fiery red before dropping and leaving their beautiful, antler-like, and hairy stems behind.  All through the winter months, the Staghorn Sumac stems stand like antlers reaching into the heavens, until they bud and spring returns again.  This post explores the medicine, magic, ecology, herbalism, craft, and bushcraft uses, and lore surrounding these amazing trees.

This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern USA and Midwest USA, centering on Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: 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, 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

Staghorn Sumac is a large shrub or small tree in the cashew family that typically grow 8-20 feet high, but can sometimes reach as far as 35 feet tall.  New growth on the trees will be covered with a velvet-like hair, very similar to new stag horns that are also covered in velvet, hence the name).  The leaves are opposite and compound, looking similar to black walnut, with almost a tropical look. Staghorn Sumac is probably best recognized in the late summer to early fall when a large, red, fuzzy berry cluster rises from the tips of the trees.

Staghorn sumac is known in some parts of the US as “velvet tree” or “vinegar tree.”  Velvet refers to the velvety texture of the fuzz on the outer branches that are first year (which is also where we get “stag horn” which refers to the stag’s velvet horns when they are first grown out).  I suspect that vinegar refers to its tart taste (I can’t find any references to people actually brewing vinegar from staghorn sumac, but maybe they did!)

Staghorn Sumac prefers full sun locations and disturbed soil, which is part of why they are so ubiquitous along highways and roads.  Here in Western PA, you can’t drive even a few miles without seeing many clusters of Staghorn Sumac.

The Staghorn Sumac is a delightful tree that sometimes often gets a bad rap because people think its Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).  While the two do have similar looking leaves, the open cluster of white berries on the poison sumac is a way to tell the two apart.  Poison sumac also prefers to grow in wet clay-type soils, so you are most likely to find it in a swamp, bog, or another very wet area, where Staghorn Sumac grows in a much wider range of growing conditions.

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

According to John Eastman’s Book of Forest and Thicket, you can count the age of the stem by counting the number of branching angles from the top of the branch to the bottom of the crown – each new branching angle is another year of growth. Early in the season, the flower clusters are greenish-yellow and pollinated by insects, but later in the year, these flower clusters grow the bright fuzzy berry clusters, often looking like a flame.  You can often see these berry clusters persist well into the winter and early spring.  Eastman notes that nearly a hundred different bird species eat the berries including pheasant, grouse, turkey, crow, thrush, bluebird, catbird, cardinals, and robins.  The stalks can also be home to wasp species

Craft and Bushcraft Uses

Because Staghorn Sumac has a hollow stem on young plants and young shoots (similar to black elder) you can use it for any number of things.  Once the soft pith is removed (using a thin stick or thin dowel rod), you can use a longer hollewed stick as a blower to stoke the fires.  You can cut them shorter and use them as taps for maple trees (as Native Americans did, along with Elder), or sliced in small segments, as beads or decorations.  I haven’t yet played around with staghorn sumac as a possible flute, but I wonder about that as well!

The wood itself, when 2″ or more across, is stunningly beautiful.  This spring, my neighbor went to war with the Staghorn sumac grove on the border of our properties.  While I was absolutely devastated by his cutting of this beautiful grove of staghorn, he allowed me to harvest a lot of the wood.  Since then, I have been working deeply with this amazing wood and have been learning just how wonderful it is to work with.  Slices of the branches, trunks, and roots reveal brilliantly colored wood with green bands when fresh, eventually fading to darker olive and brown.  The wood has a fairly loose grain, so can be difficult to sand, but woodburns beautifully and is really unqiue and beautiful to behold.  Some of the slices that I sliced (using my miter saw) of both the trunks and roots are outstanding art in and of themselves.

Although I do not have personal experience with this yet, John Eastman reports that due to their high tannin content in the bark, leaves, and berries, Staghorn Sumac can be used for leather tanning (similar to oak, which would be a veg tan).

Edible and Herbal Qualities

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine and food

Staghorn Sumac is an absolute blessing to humanity and all life and has a wide range of uses from craft to beekeeping, from herbal to edible. The berries are high in Vitamin C and have incredible amounts of antioxidants, making them a wonderful healthful food. Here are just some of the uses that I have direct experience with.

Jim McDonald taught me much about Staghorn Sumac and its uses as an herbal medicine.  Staghorn Sumac is a fantastic astringent, and can be used in any cases where astringency is needed: when tissues are soft and lack structure or when moist/damp conditions are present.  Thus, Staghorn is great as a wash for acne or a mouth rinse for soft and bleeding gums.  It can be used to tone or tighten skin, for reduce inflammation, and remove oil from the skin. It can also be safely used internally.

If you are interested in making your own herbal smoking blends, Staghorn Sumac leaves, harvested when bright red in the fall, is a fantastic addition.  They will not only add color, but will produce a smooth smoke, especially due to their high astringency.  I often will make “beat the nicotine” blends for people and Staghorn is one of my main ingredients (along with lobelia, damiana, and mullen).

Staghorn Sumac also makes a great spice.  If you look into any middle eastern recipes, sumac berries are used to spice up hummus, chicken, and many other dishes.  Why buy sumac berries when you can forage them yourself!

My favorite way to prepare Staghorn Sumac is sumac-aid or Sumac ‘lemonade.  Starting in late July and into August, keep an eye on the Staghorn sumac berries-. As the berries go to a deep red (and ideally, before a big rain as the rain can wash away some of the tartness) gather up your staghorn sumac berry heads.  As you gather them, make sure to knock off any bugs living in them (I like to bang them on the side of my bucket to invite crawly ones to exit!) .  You can make some fresh and dry the rest. I like to dry out the berries (using a simple air dehydrator) and store in a jar till I’m ready to enjoy.  Crush up 6-8 heads and pour cold water over them.  Let them sit about an hour, then strain with a cheesecloth and add honey, maple syrup, or sugar.  You will have a delicious and extremely nutritious drink.  This is also a very cooling drink and is thus wonderful for those very hot and humid summer days.

I have not personally done it, but I know that some people also use Staghorn Sumac as a start to brewing a wine.  If you boil the berries, you lose a lot of the flavor, so you start with a cold brew and pitch yeast into it.  Here’s one such recipe.

Finally, because of the astringency present, the berry heads are my absolute favorite thing to use in my smoker for beekeeping.  If you dry out Staghorn Sumac heads, you can keep them for several years and when you are ready to open your hive, use them in your smoker.  They will smolder nicely and produce a very calming smoke (even better, add some dried chamomile).  My bees were always much calmer with this rather than the commercial crap they try to sell you to put in your smoker!

As a final caveat, Staghorn sumac is in the cashew family, and so anyone who has an allergy in that family (e.g. allergic to cashews or mangoes) should not consume any Staghorn Sumac.  I have also known folks with severe allergies who can break out if they handle or touch the leaves or berries, but this is pretty rare!

Magical Lore in the Western Traditions

Staghorn Sumac from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Sumac as a species more generally is used in the Hoodoo traditions, more generally for addressing difficulty and bringing harmony among people. According to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, you can make a homemade triple strength peace water by using sumac leaves and berries in a bottle of existing peace water and adding some of your personal fluids. Shake that bottle up and then use it in the house as a floor wash or spritz (any way you’d use regular peace water) (p. 194). Sumac can also be used in court cases–if you have already been found guilty, gather up nine sumac berries and put them in your pocket when you got to get your sentence. Your sentence will be lighter with the berries supporting you.

Beyond uses in Hoodoo, I wasn’t able to find any other mentions of Staghorn Sumac in the Western Magical traditions (which honestly, surprises me just a bit because the tree is such a beautiful and powerful one).

Using the doctrine of signatures and basic elemental theory, I can draw some of my own conclusions surrounding the symbolism of this tree. The bright red “flame” of berries, the firey bright leaves, the powerful astringency, and the connection to the stag are all indications of the connection to this tree to the element of fire, to the quickness of the stag, and to the sacred fires and smoke that this tree can produce.  Let’s now turn to the Native American lore to see what else might be indicated.

Lore in the Native American Traditions

Staghorn SumacWild eneergy.

Sumac was certainly used by Native American peoples for a host of sacred purposes.  For example, in “Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona” by Erna Fergusson (1931), the nahikàï is a wand used as part of a Navajo shamanistic healing ceremony.  It is sumac, made about 3 feet long and about ½” thick.  Eagle down is attached to the end of the wand, and it is burned off as part of the ceremony.  In the Hopi “Legend of Palotquopi” a young boy, Kochoilaftiyo, asks his grandmother what to do about a ghost that is coming to the village.  Young men in the village have been attempting to catch the ghost to no avail.  Grandmother has him go get a sumac branch, and with this branch and prayer plumes made of cotton and feathers, she creates a pipe and smokes a prayer over him that he might prevail. In The Religion of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California, by Constance Goddard DuBois, (1908), describes an initiation ceremony where young girls are initiated as women into the tribe.  As part of this ceremony, a young girl is placed in a sumac and sedge-lined hole, where she says for three days, while members of her tribe dance and sing night and day around the hole.  This practice is part of a larger ceremony of womanhood.

There are also a few stories of bear. In the Musqauake legend, “Chasing the Bear” a group fo hunters are trailing a bear.  Eventually, they catch him and slaughter him on a pile of maple, and sumac ledge Bear is slaughtered on pile of maple and sumac branches.  According to this legend, this is why their leaves now turn “blood red” in the fall.  In a second bear legend, this from the Apache, called “Turkey makes the corn and Coyote plants it” a brother and a sister are hungry.  Turkey overhears this and shakes his feathers and fruits and food come out.  Bear comes and brings juniper nuts, various kinds of nuts, and sumac.

Magic and Meanings of the Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac presents a compelling tree to work with in a variety of ways: magically, herbally, through craft and bushcraft uses, and just as a great tree to spend time with.  Given everything above, here are some of the magical uses and meanings you might consider for Staghorn Sumac:

Energy of the wild.  Because of the strong connections to the stag, the staghorn sumac offers energy of the hunt, the wilds, and the energy of nature in its more wild form.  Staghorn sumac is a tree that expresses the wild energy of nature in all its forms.

Energy of Fire. Staghorn Sumac, perhaps more than any deciduous tree located in the Eastern US, has a  strong connection to fire.  The asringent properties of staghorn, its striking berries and blood-red leaves in the fall, and its bushcraft uses all speak to the strong power of fire that this tree holds.

Vitaility. A final conneciton, again tying to its ecological function as well as herbal and medicinal uses, is one of vitality.  This is a tree of life, of energy, of movement.  This tree colonizes damaged areas and brings life back into disurpted spaces.  If you are looking for a tree ally to vitalize you, consider working with Staghorn Sumac!

Dear readers, do you have experience with this tree? If so, please share–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Bardic Sigil Technique

Sigil creation in progress!

I open up a sacred grove with intention.  After opening the grove, I sit for a few moments, breathing deeply and centering myself.  When ready, I pick up the chalk pastel and I allow the chalk pastel to move across the page, closing my eyes at points, emphasizing lines at points, and letting me be in the flow of the moment.  I keep refining the design, moving pieces of it to new areas of the paper.  I don’t focus too much, paying attention instead to my overall intention: a specific land healing sigil, a sigil that will link different sacred sites I’m working on and work with ley line energy on the landscape. After a number of versions, the sigil seems complete, and I work to transfer it to a wooden round–the process of transfer allowing it to undergo yet another, final, revision.  In today’s post, I’ll share this technique I’ve developed and will discuss how you might use these kinds of sigils for a range of purposes, particularly for gratitude practices and land healing.

 

What is a sigil?

The concept of a sigil, a magical symbol imbued with intention, has been a longstanding part of many esoteric traditions. All through the history of hermetic magic and western occultism, sigils have been used for a variety of purposes (such at those found in the Three Books of Solomon, including the most famous Lesser Key of Solomon).  The term “sigil” derives from Latin, meaning a “sign, mark, or seal”.  It comes from the earlier terms sigillum and sigilla (statuettes, little images, seal).  What was a seal, after all, but a sign of power and authority? Sigils have a wide range of uses within various magical traditions and there are lots of possibilities for creating them, empowering them, and employing them.

 

Part of our ground sigil at MAGUS 2018

Druids don’t seem to use sigils much as part of our tradition, but occasionally they surface. For example, one of the big rituals we put together for MAGUS 2018, a land healing ley line ritual, used a giant sigil on the earth to help focus our intentions and movement. I have been incorporating sigils for a long time in my own spiritual practices, especially for land healing work and gratitude practices on the land.

 

One of the ways I like to think about sigils within the framework of Druidry is that they are a synthesis of all three of the druidic expressions: we use the bardic arts to bring them to life, but use druid and ovate wisdom in order to help create the spaces and intentions for their work. It is through this synthesis that the sigil itself can emerge–born of our bodies, minds, and spirits. I think there is a lot of potential for sigil work, both within the bardic arts (integrating specific sigils into your visual arts) and also as part of a larger nature spiritual practice.

 

In the rest of this post, I’ll share one sigil making technique, adapted and expanded from Jan Fries’ Visual Magic.  Early in his book, Fries describes part of this process–what I’ve done is add my own take to it, expend it, and make it fit within a more druid framework.

 

Preliminaries

My chalk pastels (garage sale find!)

Supplies. In order to make sigils, you don’t need much. You need something to draw with and you need some paper.  I prefer to do sigil making on large paper rolls of recycled paper (you can get brown recycled paper rolls easily).  The larger roll allows for more free expression while the sigil is being created. The second thing you will need is some kind of media for drawing: I am using chalk pastels (which show up beautifully on the dark background).  You could use a box of crayons (which would work great on white paper), colored pencils, oil pastels, etc.  I think you would get a different effect if you used wet media vs. dry (the dry media allow you to pay less attention to the needs of the media, like mixing paint colors or using water).  But by all means, experiment!

 

After I complete the sigil on paper, I like to make it more permanent in some way (particularly for the kinds of uses that my land healing sigils are for). For this, you might create a sigil in clay, in wood, or painted on a stone.  In my example above, I am using round wood slices with a wood burner.

 

Setting intention. The other thing you will need is an intention. Setting your intention in advance is a useful practice and can be done through a simple meditation technique.  I used discursive meditation (described in the link the last sentence) to help me set my intentions for my sigil work.  I think its important to spend some time with your intentions (the whole idea of being careful what you wish for!) I think it’s useful to consider carefully what intentions you might want to put into a sigil and out in the world: that your intentions are good and with sacred intent.

 

For today’s walkthrough, I am working on a series of land healing sigils.  I used to carry around just one sigil that I’d leave everywhere; like a general blessing sigil.  I crafted it many years ago and have been painting it with walnut ink on stones and on the insides of hickory shells and acorn caps.  I would take these in a little bag with me wherever I would go.  But recently, when I was at a site where they were doing mountaintop removal, I didn’t want to leave one.  The general “blessing” energy wasn’t right for that site–it needed a “sleep” and “soothing” kind of energy, and my sigil energy wasn’t working for that purpose.  So I decided to create a whole set of new land healing sigils (which I will share in an upcoming post so others can use them too).  My intention for the sigil in today’s post is a “linking” sigil for land healing work.  I have meditated on this concept and have been working with it for many years and felt it was the right time to put this intention into a visual form.

 

Sigil Making Walkthrough

Start by opening up a sacred grove or sacred space as your own tradition may offer. If you don’t have a sacred grove/space opening, something simple like calling in the four quarters, purifying the space with the elements, and offering a prayer or two (like the druid’s peace prayer) can work. You can then imagine a grove of trees around you, protecting the space and giving you the sacred time in which to work.

 

Once your space is set, return to your intention (or spend some time in meditation).  Feel through and think through your intention before starting the sigil and make sure it is aligned with your overall journey and goals.  Take all the time you need to do this work.

 

Now, take out your supplies and give yourself a lot of paper to work on.  Keep your intention in your mind, and start moving the pastel across the page.  Don’t worry about what it looks like or where you are going.  Just keep drawing.  As you draw, you might switch colors when one particular part of the drawing catches your eye.  I do this several times, working my way through my own intentions and allowing the drawing to unfold with different colors.   As I work, the sigil itself takes shape (if you see my first photo in this post, that’s after doing a single sigil for quite a while!)

Starting the ley sigil

Continuing to work on the ley sigil

First drawing is done

At some point, you may feel the first drawing is done, but the sigil isn’t complete.  Take a piece of that drawing, whatever piece speaks to you, and re-create it next to the first drawing on your paper.  Now keep going with the same technique as before.  Here, we can see part of that first drawing coming into the second one.

Second drawing underway

I did this a third time and worked with the final sigil a bit more.

Third drawing begins

Final sigil drawing on paper

Now, consider making it more permanent by transferring it to a more permanent media like wood, stone, thicker board, or ceramic.  I want to transfer my paper based sigil to some other surface, something that will actually seal the intention and magic into the sigil.  To do this, after meditating on the final sigil on paper, I switch it to a more permanent media (painted stone, woodburning, etc).  So for this, I took a cedar wood round and then allowed the wood to work with the sigil, which changed it a bit more.  Again, I don’t try to exactly replicate the paper sigil, but allow the wood to speak to the sigil and the final sigil to emerge.  Usually, the sigil may be further simplified during this final process.

The final sigil in wood

 

TAfter making your sigil, you will want to do additional ritual to empower it.  I prefer a “raising energy” approach, particularly as you used a more contemplative and inner approach to set your intention.  So, in a sacred space, drum around your sigil, raise your voice in song, dance, bring the power of the elements and the powers of nature and spirit that you work with, and ask them for aid in empowering this sigil.  There is no right or wrong way; feel your way into this work and do what feels right.

 

After that, you set it to work helping you with whatever intention that might be.  For this specific sigil above, I will create these and put them in a pouch that I carry with me, being one building block of my larger land healing and blessing work. That’s how these particular sigils are best put to use.  But other sigils may be put to use in other ways, depending on your intention.  If you are seeking a peaceful home, you might create a piece of art with that sigil and hang it on the wall in your house.  If you were working on a sigil for healing for a sick friend, you might create it (with their permission of course) and then give it to them to put by their bedside.  While there is no wrong way to use a sigil–the energy of it does need to get out into the world in some specific way.

 

Variants

Here are two variants you can try.  A more traditional sigil making technique starts not with random drawings, but with quickly written letters from the intention one on top of each other.  You write the letters quickly and stylistically, not even caring if they are legible.  Then you work with the layer of letters, in the same way I did above. If you are a very word-based person, you might appreciate this way to start your work.

A second variant is an ovate variant where you work with nature to create a sigil for a natural purpose.  Take portable media and materials out to a place that you want to work with.  Do everything as above, but rather than YOU setting the intention, put it out to nature to set the intention.  You are simply, then, the instrument that creates the sigil.  This technique is also very powerful for land healing, and I’ll also write about it in more detail in an upcoming post.  You can do this with snow sigils among other things!

 

I hope you find this technique useful and helpful!  I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you create sigils, how you use them, and how they might work within nature-spirituality based practices.

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

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

Sacred Tree Profile: Birch’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meaning

When I was growing up in the Allegheny mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings.  A good sapling was tall and lithe, but bent easily.  Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride.  A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall.  It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!

 

When I was 14, the a forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged.  For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone.  And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings.  They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around.  For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine.  Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest.  The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years.  Birches are the true forest healers.

 

These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination.  This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely.  In the Alleghney mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.

 

Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire.  Because  of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares.  All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers.  Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.

 

Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years).  Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees.  Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel.  Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.

 

Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees.  Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, chaga mushrooms are as well.  They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees.  Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark.  This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides.  In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe.  They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.

 

All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities.  You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees.  Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a camp fire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.

 

The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes.  Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on.  If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.

 

Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.

 

Recipes and Treats

In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).

 

Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring.  And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out.  LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio).   Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!

 

Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea.  The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on.  Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like.  It is a delicious wintergreen treat!

 

Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not.  The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup.  In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water.  Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min.  Cool, and strain.  Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.”  Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise.  You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented).  Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions.  I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch.  I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience.  This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus.   Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom.  Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes.  Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it.  Let cool for 6-8 hours.  When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top.  (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked).  Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover).  The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle.  Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

 

White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources).  however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).

 

Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic.  For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair.  Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse.  I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.

 

Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically.  The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diahrehea or other gastrointestinal issues.  I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet.  It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent.  In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.

 

According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties.  Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius.  Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck.  Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense.   However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania.  Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.

 

Birch in World Mythology

The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition that involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter sunday).  Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons.  They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest.  The villagers visit the tree for two more days.  On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.

In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia,  birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power.  They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting.  When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta.  Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch.  The prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for. The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people.  How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.  This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.

In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west.  He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit.  When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry.  Thunderbird agrees.  When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back.  Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts.  A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.

In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away.  Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees.  Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind.  In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.

In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest.  He also has beautiful white feathers.  A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Wood worm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is.  He sets it on fire.  The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:

 

Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places.  That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthens this connection.

 

Renewal & Purification.  Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense.  Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.

 

Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.

 

New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.

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

“Nothing gives more yet asks for less in return, than a tree: particularly, the apple” –Johnny Appleseed

“As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my loved one among the sons. I took my rest under his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” – The Song of Solomon

 

Spirit of the Apple - from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Spirit of the Apple – from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

All summer long, we have had so much rain and thunderstorms.  Penn Run, a small creek behind my home, once again overflowed, raising several feet for a time.  When the waters had subsided, I was delighted to find delicious wild apples lining the banks–the river had carried them to me as a blessing for this wonderful Fall Equinox!  It reminded me that I have been wanting to write of the apple–of her magic, of her folklore, and of her abundance=. And so today’s post explores the delicious, nutritious, and extremely magical apple tree (pyrus malus, malus spp.) and the blessings that she offers. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Sassafras, Beech, Ash, and White Pine.

 

About the Apple

Nearly everyone knows about apples, but often, the common experiences with apples are what people see in the grocery store–a select number of perfectly waxed and shiny varities–golden delicious, gala, or granny smith. These commercialized varities are only a tiny piece of the incredible apples that you can find in the wild.  Another thing that I’ve heard regularly is that people believe that crab apples (and wild apples in general) are poisonous and cannot be eaten.  There is nothing further from the truth–wild apples are wonderful, rich, sometimes tart, sometimes mealy, but often a surprise and delight to those who seek them out.  Apples of all kinds are easy to find, abundant, and–this time of year–completely free!

 

Apples will typically bear every two years (biennially) while other apples are bred to offer fruit every year. In the spring, apple blossoms fill the air–each mature apple can produce anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 blooms, which can be smelled up to 1/3 a mile away.  These blooms offer a critical early nectar source for bees and other insect life.  Less than 5% of those blooms will ever set fruit; some are unpollenated and others don’t form properly.  Sometime in June, the “june drop” occurs where the tree drops any fruit that isn’t setting properly.  By late August or early September, the tree fruits and the fruits grow ripe and sweet.

 

Of Apples and Ancestors

John Eastman, in Field and Forest, has much to share about the apple tree.  he notes, as any wild food forager will attest, that commercially grown apples are grafted and carefully managed, those growing in the wilds offer much wider varitey.  He notes that orchards allowed to go wild or otherwise abandoned will, over time, change their apple composition and may end up “reverting to more ancestral types of fruit.”  I love this idea and vision–and certainly, a stroll through the country to find wild apples this time of year connects us back to the ancestral, magical traditions surrounding so many aspects of the apple tree.  Apples offer us much in terms of ancestral traditions.

 

One ancestral tradition closely tied to the apple here in the US was Johnny Appleseed, a historical and legendary figure who spread apples all over the US.  Eastman notes that some crab apples do appear native to the US, but nearly all of the apples we have were spread by Appleseed and others looking to make “cider” (and by that, I mean hard cider!)

 

In Eric Sloane’s A Reverence for Wood, Sloane writes about the important place of apples in Colonial America.  Because the early colonists were told not to drink any of the water, they depended on drinking cider (the alcohol of which would be safe).  Even small children were raised drinking apple cider as their primary beverage. Even late into the winter, apples from root cellars were brought out and made into many things–this made the apple one of the primary foods and drinks.  Unlike today’s limited varities, Sloane notes that in the 1700’s, there were close to 2000 known varities of apples.  Most orchards were planted with many varities to ensure an extended harvest, and different kinds of apples had different purposes (cider apples, storage apples, fresh eating apples).  Special care was taken both in the harvesting and preserving of apples; Sloane notes that special apples were often hung carefully by their stems in the house or packed away in straw for the winter months.

 

And of course, one of the longstanding ancestral traditions is the wassail. I’ve written fairly extensively about the “wassail” traditions surrounding apple.  Because of the importance of the apple as a staple food and drink crop, people would go out to the trees in January 6th or 17th (old 12th night, depending on how you calculate it) to bless the trees, make offerings to the trees, and drive evil spirits away from the trees in order to ensure an abundant harvest for the coming season.  Make no mistake–these wassail traditions were magical traditions focused on bringing good health, fertility, and abundance to the land–and they are very old ancestral magic that has begun making its way back into our modern era.  Here is another classical interpretation on the wassail.

 

Wild Apple Foraging

Sometimes, you can still come across these old and abandoned apple orachards and have a very good time as a wild food forager, harvesting hundreds of pounds of apples of all shapes, colors, and varities.  But for me, foraging for apples begins not in the fall at the time of harvest, but in the spring. Apples are easiest to spot when they are in bloom in their swath of pink, red, or white blossoms.  I note where these apples are and then, later starting in late August or early Stepember, I return to these trees for a potential harvest.  Harvesting apples is simple–as soon as the tree is ready to give you its fruit (as in, the fruit is easy to pull from the tree and ready to drop) the apple is ready to eat.  Try many apples in the wild–you will find some incredible varities and tastes!  Some of the wild apples can certainly be tart, however, in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” Euell Gibbons offers a suggestion of waiting till frost sets in for some wild apple varities, as the frost will sweeten their otherwise tart taste. Good, tart crab apples will sweeten when cooked (and make some of the more delicious apple pies or sauces that you will ever eat!)

 

Crab apples - these are tart and sweet!

Crab apples – these are tart and sweet!

 

Gibbons suggests the following recipe for wild apple jelly.  He suggests gathering up wild apples and quartering them, removing any insect damage, worms, etc.  Put these apples in a pot and cover with water, simmering for 20 min with the lid on.  Let this cool and strain the juice.  (I will add that if you have a small fruit press, you can even press these apples–after cooking they will be easy and you will get more flavor).  This juice can be used to make a jelly.  I like to use Pomona’s pectin (a low-sugar pectin) to help this set and add 1/2 cup honey to 4 cups juice for a delightful wild apple jelly.  I’ve also shared a few previous posts on making delicious things with apples, such as applesauce and pressing apples into cider. 

 

If you do come across an old apple tree or old orchard in the US on the East Coast, look around nearby.  You will almost always find an old foundation from the people who likely planted that apple tree.

 

Apples and  Modern Folklore and Herbalism

Apple in Modern Folklore

Unlike many of the previous trees covered in this series, which are largely unknown to the average person, the apple has a special place even in present day culture. We have many references to the apple in present society–people are either good apples or bad apple. One bad apple will spoil the bunch. Newton was apparently hit on the head with an apple and that led to his insight on the theory of gravity. The Buddah gained enlightenment under an apple tree–as did the Merlin in some Arthurian folklore.  Snow white was, of course, seduced with a poison apple. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  In this folklore, good apples are tied to insight, fertility, and health, while bad apples will lead to ruin and poor health.

 

Apples and Healing

“An Apple a Day keeps the doctor away” is a common saying–but this saying has quite a bit of truth. As far back as Culpepper, we have records of apples being used for a variety of healing uses. Culpepper offers a range of uses, from using them to soothe “hot and bilious stomachs”, to roasting them and adding frankincense to a poultice to address pain in the abdomen or side.  He notes their generally cooling quality. He also notes that an apple syrup will surely assist with “faintings, palpitations, and melaoncholy.” It seems there is very little that those in the western world in the middle ages and Reniassance.

 

Today, likewise, herbalists recognize the importance of apples to health.  Matthew Wood, in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) notes that apples are a “true folk medicine” in that accounts of what apples can do in terms of health vary widely.  Each herbalist, therefore, had his or her own personal experience with how to use the apple.  However, Wood notes some consitenencies–apples are cooling and moistening (reflected in what I just wrote above about Culpepper), apples before they are ripe have an astringent quality (making your mouth pucker).  Therefore, herbalists today use apple for a variety of “hot” conditions such as burns, fever, headaches, and kidney strain/pain.

 

Apple in the Western Esoteric Traditions

The Apple has a privledge place in the Western Esoteric Traditions and has a wide and varied interpretation of its magical powers and uses.  Here are some highlights:

 

Love magic:  In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that apples are in the sign of Venus (in Libra) and that they were most typically used in love magic (love drawing). This association goes back to at least Roman times, according to this source, where figs (known as “love apples”) eventually had their meanings transferred to apples on trees. This is also consisten from the American Hoodoo tradition, where Cat Yronwode says that apple is used as a “sweetener” to atract someone to love, but also for sweetening up customers or bringing in business.

 

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor's house

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor’s house

Expelling evil.  In “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland” from 1887, a spell about apples and elder is written, “IT is said by time wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

 

Apple as a Magical Key or Gateway. In “The Glass Mountain” from The Yellow Fairy Book, a book of celtic fairy tales, there is a golden apple tree that sits on top of a glass mountain. This apple grants people entrance into a splendid castle with stores of food, riches, and a princess waiting to be rescued by a valliant knight.  The apple tree’s apples are gaurded by an eagle. A young man makes it up to the apple tree and battles the eagle; he wins but sustains a wound.  He places the peel of one of the golden apples on his wound, and then goes to the castle to claim his bride.  This is but one of many Celtic tales that demonstrate apple as a gateway; the very famous Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries also describes apple branches as gateways to the otherworld.

 

Eternal Youth and Eternal Life. In the Norse tradition, there is an apple tree in Asgard that offers eternal youth to any who eat of its fruit. Iduna, a Goddess, tends the tree–and only with her tending do the apples grow.

 

Apple and Healing  Long Lost Friend (an American Grimorie of PA Dutch Folk Magic) suggests that the roots of an apple tree are good for curing a toothache, by way of using a needle, blood, and some tranfserence magic. This is but one of many ways which apple is seen as a healing tool for both mundane and magical reasons.

 

Apple’s Protective Nature.  As nearly every pagan can attest, cutting the apple in half horizontally reveals a pentacle.  Apple carries so much magic within her that it is literally reflected both in her fruit and in the blossoms–which form five petals.

 

Apple in Native American Traditions

A lot of Native American lore involves apple trees, but not necessarily magical qualities of them. I think that this was partially because apple was brought to the New World long after many of the mythologies were established. There are a few things present, however:

 

Apples as a fragrant blessing. One legend, from an unknown tribe, surrounds the fragrance of apple blossoms and flowers. In this story, a baby is carried by a panther under blooming apple trees, a baby who turns into a woman that “falls from heaven.” The villagers take her in, and she loves the flowers and blooms more than anything.  She dies and plans on moving onto the little people, but decides to first bless her village that gave her so much–so she makes the blooms, including the apple blooms, more fragrant.

 

Apple as a Gateway to the World.  In another legend from the Huron tribe, the world is divided into two parts. One part is the “sky world” where the people lived, and the second world is the lower world, which was all water, where the animals lived. A girl who lived in the sky world was tired and went to take a nap underneath an apple tree.  A hole appeared under the tree and she fell through along with the apple tree to the lower world below. She is caught by two swans, and then big turtle brings all of the animals together. They decide to bring the soil up from the depths of the water to create an island for her to live on. This doesn’t work well, but eventually, the animals spread seeds and dirt onto big turtles back, and the girl lives there. Now, the whole world rests on big turtle’s back, which is why this land is called “turtle island.”

 

A magical apple pie!

A magical apple pie!

Apple’s Magic and Meanings

Apple’s Blessings.  Apple offers blessings, abundance, fertility, and magic in nearly every story she shows up in.  Apple’s blessings are apparent from her giving nature–apples can sustain people through difficult winters, they can be baked, fermented, dried, and made into wonderful and delicious foods that nurture and heal as much as they sustain.  Apple offers us connection to our ancestors and our future through her nurturing spirit, blessings, and wisdom.

 

Apple as Healing and Life-Giving.   The “Golden Apples” present in so much of the magical lore demonstrate the life-sustaining and longevity properties of apples.  Magical golden apples offer keys to eternal youth, eternal life, and healing.

 

Apple as a Gateway.  Like her sister the hawthorn (although to a lesser extent), apple trees can be gateways to other realms and experiences–the holes that open in the ground, the apple as a key to the castle, the sleeping person under the apple that is transported to a new place.  Apple offers us these journeys and experiences–in a much more gentle way than Hawthorn.

 

Whew! After all of that research and fun, I think I’m off to make use of these “flood apples” and bake myself a nice apple pie with these beautiful “flood” apples.  And to you, dear readers, I wish you an abundant harvest at this beautiful fall equinox.