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Sacred Trees in the Americas – Eastern Sycamore (Plantaus Occidentalis) – Magic, Medicine, Ecology and Uses

The glorious sycamore tree!

The glorious sycamore tree!

Here in Western Pennsylvania, we have a wonderful set of scenic rivers that lend themselves to kayaking, whitewater rafting, and overnight kayak camping trips. This is one of my favorite pastimes, especially as climate change has had the tick population skyrocket in the last 10 or so years and pushed us into more heatwaves. One of the quintessential features of our waterways here are the Sycamore trees. Sycamores are easy to spot even at a distance: the mottled bark, dark on the bottom and giving way in patches to light white tips; the craggy and interesting growth formation, making the trees appear whimsical and distinct. As you kayak through many parts of Western PA on our larger rivers, you will encounter these little islands that are held there by many old, weathered and small sycamores.  As you drive through the countryside, you will find many river valleys just full of sycamores of various sizes and heights. Sycamores are synonymous with moving water here, and they are truly a delight to experience.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the North American East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Sycamore is often called buttonwood, buttonball, American sycamore, American Planetree, western Plane, Occidental Plane, or water beech, has a native range stretching from Vermont to the bottom of Georgia and across the midwest into Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa.  Thus, it spans most of the eastern seaboard and midwest and is quite common throughout its range.  It has also adapted to life outside of its range and thus can be found in other parts of the US, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina.

Sycamore Leaves

Sycamore Leaves

The Sycamore tree is the largest deciduous tree located in Eastern North America -they can typically grow up to 130 or more feet high and get to more than 6 feet in diameter. The “Buttonball Tree” is the largest Sycamore in the world at present. Buttonball tree is located in Sunderland, Massacutsess, and is 174 feet high and 4 feet in diameter.  Pennsylvania’s largest sycamore is 148 feet tall and is actually located in one of my favorite kayaking spots–a wilderness Island on the Allegheny River in North-western Pennsylvania.  The Allegheny Sycamore along with her millions of siblings line the Allegheny river and help control erosion.

The Eastern Sycamore is a beautiful tree that is very easy to identify because of its distinctive bark pattern–the darker bark flakes off in puzzle piece shapes to reveal lighter bark underneath, giving the tree a look almost like a jersey cow!  I love the way the sycamores grow–at odd angles, with strange knobs on the branches and exposed roots.  They really have a quite magical and whimsical appearance.  Sycamore often grows with divided trunks or secondary trunks as they age, and has a very open spread of limbs branching out.

In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman notes that the sycamore can grow up to 70 feet in only 17 years, making it both very fast-growing and yet long-lived. It is shade intolerant, which is part of why it grows so well on our sunny waterways. He also notes that it is common for mature trees to develop hollow portions within their trunks where the inner wood decays.  This creates a great home for opossum, raccoon, wood duck, owls, birds, bats, and more. Sycamore is often found with other lowland species, including Willow, Eastern Cottonwood, Silver Maple, American Elm, Ironwood, and Elder.

Sycamore on the edge of the river holding back erosion!

The sycamore has small flowers in round (globose) heads that bloom April – June depending on the region, and the flowers give way to a hanging seed pod that is a tight round ball that dangles from the tree.  The seed ball persists throughout fall and winter and is about 1″ or so across.  In the winter, you can see the sycamores with thousands of seed balls dangling, looking mightily festive!  The leaves resemble maple leaves but with less pronounced lobes; the leaves are usually 5-10″ long with 3-5 lobed areas.

One of the threats to Sycamore is the anthracnose canker, which was introduced by importing Plantaus Orientalis (the Oriental Plane).  Plantaus Orientalis is very resistant to anthracnose, but American Sycamore is not.  While the canker will not kill the tree outright, it will often defoliate the tree in spring.  If you see a “witches broom” on a sycamore (a huge mass of tangled branches) this is one sign that the tree is battling the anthracnose canker.

One of the major functions of the Sycamore ecologically is to control erosion–the extensive root structures, even among small patches of tiny sycamore, will hold hillsides, banks, and islands in place from the fiercest floods.  The small seedlings will grow all over small islands in rivers and all along banks, and can handle being completely submerged during seasonal flooding and will bounce right back once the floods are over.  This is a tree that understands how to endure the rise and fall of the rivers and is evolved to do so.  While we do have willows in the region, they are more found along with areas of standing water like lakes or marshes and are not as dominant in this function as the mighty Sycamore.

The American sycamore once had a much wider range–it once grew abundantly in the forests of Greenland and the Arctic in the Cretaceous (145-66 million years ago) and Phanerozoic eras (66 million to 2.6 million).

Human Uses

American Sycamore was once extensively planted as a shade tree in cities and can handle a city environment.  However, due to the effects of the anthracnose canker and the defoliation that the canker causes, London Plane (resistant) is often planted instead.

The wood of the sycamore is heavy and quite hard, but also difficult to work.  It is coarse-grained and twisted, but brittle. Traditionally, this is the wood used for butcher blocks as well as barrels, boxes, crates, drums, pails, and various kinds of storage devices.  Occasionally, it is also used to make furniture, siding, and musical instruments.  I couldn’t find this in any of my sources, but it strikes me that people also made buttons from this tree, hence the buttonwood name. Sometimes these folk names are a really good indication of what the tree was once used for.

According to Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood, the Sycamore was used extensively by eastern indigenous peoples to create huge dugout canoes that could hold 10-30 or more people.  They used massive sycamore trunks for this task and would chip and burn away the wood.

Sycamore by a gentle stream

Sycamore by a gentle stream

Another human use of the Sycamore is also tied to water–the Sycamore is one tree that can be tapped in the spring as an emergency clean water source and also for boiling down the sap.  While I have not boiled the sap, Euell Gibbons has.  According to stalking the wild asparagus, Gibbons collected copious amounts of sap from the tree and boiled it down, getting a scant amount of sap that tasted like bad molasses. So after his report, I’m not too keen to try!

Beyond these uses, the American Sycamore does not appear in the magical sources I frequently consult, including those in the western occult tradition, herbal material medicas, American hoodoo, PA dutch traditions, and more.  There are historical references to other Plantaus species that are common to Europe or to the Biblical Sycamore (which is a fig tree), but there does not appear to be any magical tradition based in North America for the sycamore.  I don’t want to present this information on other sycamores as it does not apply to American Sycamore, so I will instead base the rest of this based on the ecological and traditional folk functions of the tree.

The Magic and Divination Of the Sycamore Tree

Because of the lack of a magical or even herbal tradition of this tree, I am going to draw upon this tree’s ecological function to consider how we might use it for magic and divination practices.

Helping us navigate “watery” issues. In druidry, the realm of water (tied to the west) is tied to our emotions and mental selves.  Sycamore, being traditionally both located on the waterways and also used for large boats and navigation, is a perfect tree to help us work with our emotions productively, understand our emotions, and navigate emotional issues with others.

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

Dealing with trauma and intense emotions. A second feature of the sycamore ecologically is its ability to control for erosion and handle major floods.  We can translate that into a magical ability to help us in really difficult emotional situations: in a situation where there’s an emotional flood (a breakdown, a trauma, an explosive event, etc), Sycamore is a tree that can be used to hold fast to, to hold onto something beyond the flood.  And once the emotional flood recedes, Sycamore is a first-rate healing tree to help you recover.

Shadow work. The peeling and intricate bark of the sycamore, the fact that sycamore often goes hollow in older age, and the fact that it has been used to create numerous water-faring and water-holding vessels also speak to this tree’s ability to help us work with our deeper emotions and shadow selves.

Now that I’ve written so much about sycamore, I’m itching to get out on my kayak so I can admire the sycamores that line all of our waterways and spend time with them!  I would love to hear your own stories and information on the American Sycamore tree! 🙂

PS: I will be taking some time off of blogging for the next 4 weeks while I finish writing TreeLore Oracle / North American Sacred Trees book project as well as working on AODA’s Apprentice Guide and New Candidate Guides in preparation for releasing our curriculum update.  I look forward to returning in mid-August!  Have a great Lughnasadh!

The Problem is the Solution: Honoring the Journey of the New Year

Sunrise through the mist…the way may be uncertain but the sun will rise again

In Permaculture Design, one of the most challenging principles to enact is “The problem is the solution.” It seems simple on paper: you have a serious problem before you, perhaps seemingly insurmountable or overwhelming.  Instead of reacting negatively to the problem, you look for how the problem presents unique opportunities.  You resee your practices, hone them, make changes, and adapt to the problem so that that adaptation becomes a strength. In other words, you make lemonade from lemons–but more than that, you may actually improve your approach by having to consider new options to overcome obstacles.  A simple example: I have a wet, muddy spot in my yard due to the downspout on my house.  Rather than see this as a problem, I turn it into a lush rain garden, which is not only beautiful but also supports wildlife and pollinators.  The problem becomes an amazing solution.  I think that this principle may offer a great opportunity for us with the passing of 2020, and I wanted to reflect on that and share some thoughts today.

While the end of each year offers opportunities for change and growth, 2020 has been a year unlike any other for most of us. Regardless of where you are in the world, 2020 has created numerous challenges and problems. It has disrupted the normal patterns of life. Being an essential worker, losing your job or having job insecurity, fighting racism and oppression, feeling that your rights are being threatened by the government, being isolated from family and friends, having to deal with new family arrangements, losing loved ones, getting sick, being afraid of getting sick, political unrest–2020 has been incredibly difficult.  While all of us continue to experience different challenges and aspects, as 2021 comes, it is an opportunity for deep changes in our lives.

Here’s the important takeaway: because life has been so incredibly disrupted this is the perfect time to make radical changes in your life. Coming out of this, every one of us has a clean slate, a ticket to change. For perhaps the first time in any of our lives, you can be anything you want to be, make whatever changes you want to make, and emerge from this a new person. Why not take the opportunity for growth?

Planting the seeds of the future

Planting the seeds of the future

For me, 2020 has been utterly brutal, particularly in what was once one of the most stable aspects of my life: my work life. I feel like I’ve been in the muddy, dark, and cold trenches all year when it comes to employment or lack thereof. But those trenches certainly have given me a good opportunity to reflect, to grow, and to change.  This brutal situation has allowed me to look deeply into myself, to see what I value, who I am, and how I respond to the world.  It has allowed me also to question some things that I don’t have a resolution on yet, and perhaps, it’s ok to be in a place of “I don’t really know.” There’s power in that.  And it has allowed me to do some things for myself that I haven’t had a chance to do before.

My suggestion is to spend some time in meditation at the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021.  Make some lists, and reflect on your journey.  Here are some questions that might be useful to you–they were certainly useful to me:

  • Think about what you miss from your life before 2020.
  • Think about the things you are grateful not to have to deal with in 2020.
  • Reflect on your own personal response to the many situations in 2020: How did you feel?  How did that challenge or deepen what you believe?  What do you most value, perhaps unexpectedly, through all of this? What are you unsure of?
  • What “shadow” aspects of yourself did you have to confront or what aspects gave you trouble?
  • What shadow aspects did you see in others, and how did you respond?
  • Who do you want to be? Envision your best life and your best self coming out of this.

Sunrise and hope!

Take the opportunity presented by the challenge of 2020 to rewrite your own story for 2021 and beyond.  Perhaps set some clear principles for yourself for the coming year, things you want to focus on, maintain or achieve.  Put these principles somewhere you can easily see them and be reminded of what you have accomplished through this experience.

I see this kind of spiritual work as the antithesis to the typical New Year’s Resolution.  Here in the US, the New Year’s Resolution is this cliche thing where everyone makes the resolution but nobody actually keeps them.  Within a week or two of the New Year, most resolutions fade away and life as usual continues.  The end of 2020 is not a time for empty resolutions but deep and lasting change.  We’ve all had some serious disruption.  Let’s make lemons from lemonade.

So who are you going to be, moving forward?  What spiritual work might you need to do in order to get there?  I’d love to hear you share.

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?