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Cultivating Resilience as a Physical and Spiritual Practice

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

Staghorn Sumac: A tree that teaches us about resilience

Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems are those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure. In other words, a resilient ecosystem can withstand drought, flooding, or other difficulties by being adaptable, flexible, and having redundancies. Which of course, is so critical in today’s ever-changing world fraught with climate change and instability.  Resilient plants are the often-maligned weeds: those weeds who take every opportunity to grow: who find a crack in the sidewalk and take root, who immediately start to grow after disruption, or who outcompete less resilient plants. They are able to be like weeds or opportunistic species, taking advantage of new opportunities, finding niches, and gracefully adapting to change. Think of the dandelion here, growing up through cracks in the sidewalk.  This same concept, I believe, will grow to be more and more central to both getting through the present and the future and central to the spiritual work we do. As humans, we can learn a lot about the concept of resilience from nature, and adapt it in our own lives.

And truthfully, in the wake of the present challenges and an uncertain future, it seems like a most excellent time to start cultivating resilience. When we grow comfortable in life we have worked hard to create, we are resistant to change and often hold on bitterly even after it’s obvious that change is needed. This is part of why we are still seeing so much inaction to climate change–as a species, we need to cultivate resilience, ingenuity, and creativity to step up to the challenges we face.  Unfortunately, the data seems to suggest that on a large scale, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. While I certainly advocate doing everything we can to cultivate hope and positive change in the world, there’s a lot that is outside of our control.  Given the age we live in, I’d argue that resilience is one of the most important 21st-century skills we can have and something that we can cultivate within and without.

Features of Resilience Learning from Resilience in Nature

We can begin by looking to nature for guidance about how to become resilient in an age of deep conflict and change.  By observing nature, we can learn some of the qualities that we can then apply in our own lives.  Here are some that I’ve understood through my observation and interaction with nature:

Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback or challenge.  We see evidence of the recovery of nature everywhere–how quickly the opportunistic species grow after an area is cleared by humans for new construction; how quickly a forest that is burned immediately starts to regrow; the ability of the tree to keep on growing even if it was knocked down. Nature is literally full of examples of an innate ability to recover and move forward with explosive growth.  Here on our homestead, three acres were logged before we bought the property–and we’ve really enjoyed seeing how quickly nature can grow back and be bountiful once again. The ability of nature to heal is one of nature’s lessons that I always return to and that I am always in awe of–nature is the master of resiliency, and we can learn so much through observing her at work.

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Adaptability. Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. I look to the raccoons here, who are truly one of the most flexible, adaptable, and resilient of persons living in my own ecosystem. This past summer, the coons and I had an ongoing battle with the chicken coop feed storage in the shed. The regular feed bags I used to keep there were quickly raided. So I bought metal garbage cans for storing the feed. The coons figured how to get them open in one evening. So I bungee corded them together and that seemed to prevent them from getting in most of the time. But, we compromised by leaving them bowls of cat food and hot dogs on the back porch and now they leave the chicken feed alone and actually defend our land against other predators–and everyone wins.  This is a great example of the idea of both adaptation and pivoting–when confronted with one obstacle, they simply changed direction. 

Accepting Change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans.  In nature, changes happen all the time. Forest fires, floods, a tree crashing down during a storm, and so on. Rather than dwelling on what is lost, nature immediately springs to action and moves forward. When the tree drops, nature pivots and immediately fills in that space with new trees growing up to fill the canopy. The mushrooms come in, colonizing and breaking down the tree. 

Opportunistic. A few months ago I shared the magic of the understory, and how certain understory trees (Witch Hazel, Mountain Laurel, Spicebush, Rhododendron) and plants (Mosses, Lichens, wintergreen, partridgeberry) take advantage of the dark and cold months in order to make the most of the winter sunlight.  We can also look to the many opportunistic plants, like dandelion or burdock, who are able to easily take root even in the most adverse conditions. The quality these plants have is that they are opportunistic–they see a change and immediately pivot.  Or, they wait until the right time and then use the current conditions to the present situation. 

The above qualities are present in all of nature–all we have to do is walk outside our door, spend some time in nature, and see how resilient nature can be.  So, to take this a step further, how can we apply these qualities to our own lives?

Physical Resilience

Resilience is something we can work to cultivate and resilience requires both inner and outer work. Resilence in our lives means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented, which is now the norm rather than the exception. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the systems upon which we build our lives are not going to continue to be stable, and it’s up to us to build skillsets that allow us to provide some of our own needs. When we think about our needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start.  We all need food, clothing, clean water, shelter, and in colder climates, heat.  At present, most humans have long depended on others (corporations, larger consumer systems, etc) to provide those basic needs.  Part of cultivating physical resilience is thinking about how to transition at least some of those needs to a community and individual level.

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Humans have always been tribal and social, as many of our animal kin.  Thus, rather than thinking about resilience as an individual problem, you might think about it as a community or group effort.  What can you do now to support a more resilient community?  Supporting a local food system and farmer’s market is a very clear choice–even if you aren’t able to grow your own food, network, and provide resources to those that are; the more strong a local and regional food system is, the more resilient your community is.  This is also where other community groups like permaculture meetups (that share tools, resources, and knowledge), reskilling communities (who work to build traditional skills among members), and earth skills gatherings can come in.  The point here is that you can cultivate a lot of resilience in your life by joining with others.

I do think its a good idea to cultivate some individual resiliency or family-level resiliency so that you can be prepared in the event of an emergency.  Thus, it might be a particularly good time to start growing some of your own food (Indoor or out), looking into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and making sure that you have several weeks, at minimum, of food stores to meet your needs.  Consider how different kinds of disruptions may occur, and do your best to do some minimal planning for them as you are able.  Even a little bit of planning can go a long way in an emergency. My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices offers many more suggestions for resilient living both at a community and individual level!

I also think it’s a good idea to learn a bit about how nature can provide for you directly–what can you ethically forage, harvest, or grow in terms of food, medicine, and your other basic needs? Take up an ethical foraging / wildtending practice, where you are gathering food from the local environment and also giving back. Learn about some abundant local herbs and how you can use them for medicine. Learn what you can eat in your yard or local park. Not only do these kinds of practices cultivate resiliency, but they also allow you to grow closer to the living earth.

Mental and Spiritual Resilience

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

I’m using “cultivation” of resilience in a very deliberate sense. Resilience is a lot like growing a garden. The garden isn’t going to grow without you putting in the time and effort (planting seeds, preparing beds, etc).  Resilience isn’t like an on/off switch, where you are either resilient or not. Resilience is a skill that you cultivate and a mindset that you create, and we can all be on the path to resilience.

When you study any kind of wilderness survival, one of the most important things you learn is to keep a positive mental attitude towards a difficult situation. That is, half the battle is staying positive, flexible, and having a good mindset along with the many skills above: adaptability, recovery, accepting change and being opportunistic.  This is not a skill set that many people are brought up to have. In Western consumer culture, we are purposefully taught to be passive recipients of culture, to buy our way out of problems, to allow others to take care of our needs, and not cultivate creativity in our lives.  In other words, if you live in any western culture, particularly here in the United States, you have been socialized into a set of behaviors that are actually taking you in the opposite direction of resilience.  Thus, it is worth some time to work to cultivate a new set of skills that can help you move in the right direction.

So how might we do this?  Here are three practices that I’ve used to cultivate resilience in my own life:

Meditation and Connection with Resilient Plants and Animals

We have a whole host of plants and animals in the ecosystem around us who are masters of resilience–I mentioned a few located here in Western Pennsylvania: the raccoon, the dandelion, the burdock.  In cities, this might be the pigeon, who has adapted incredibly to urban environments. Every ecosystem has these plants and animals: those cunning animals and resilient plants who are able to grow and thrive even in difficult circumstances.

Choose a plant, tree, or animal that speaks to you and who has some of the qualities of resilience you would like to cultivate and work with that plant or animal however you see fit. If at all possible, spend time with that plant or animal; observe and see how they respond to adverse conditions.  Work to bring that energy into your own life through reflection, energy exchange (if permitted with the plant/animal) and by working to cultivate these same qualities in your life.  If the plant offers, carry a piece with you.

One of the resilient plants that I often look to for guidance is the Staghorn Sumac tree.  Staghorn Sumac is extremely resilient, often able to grow in places that have been disrupted.  We often see him here growing along the highways and persisting even after spraying and heavy chemical use.  I had a wonderful mature patch on the edge of my property and my neighbor cut the patch down, literally bulldozing it with a tractor two years ago.  I mourned this patch and harvested some of the wood to honor and work with as an artist…and then it started to regrow.  Two years later, what had been a mature stand of Staghorn Sumac is now a thicket of 6′ tall new sumac–all that the disruption did was make the patch grow back with more strength and power.  When I am feeling like I need the qualities of resilience, I sit with this patch, who has so strongly rebounded after such a major disruption, and draw upon those energies.  I leave an offering for the gifts and lessons that Staghorn Sumac teaches.  Since staghorn sumac is edible, I often will harvest the flower buds for a sumac aid drink as a magical aid in cultivating resilience (recipe in the link above) and also carry a piece of the wood with me.

Shadow Work and Meditation

It’s very helpful to take an inventory of what resilient skills you already have and which you might want to cultivate.  Knowing yourself and having a metacognitive sense of who you are (e.g. knowing your strengths, why you respond in certain ways, etc) can help you cultivate resilience. You can use a permaculture technique called a personal niche analysis to do some of this basic work or simply spend time meditating on your strengths and areas of struggle as a person. Another meditation that can be useful is to look back at times when you were faced with adversity–how did you handle it? What personal qualities did you bring? What could you have done differently the next time? 

For example, one important skill for resilience is how you handle difficulty or failure. Do you give up? Shut down? Berate yourself? Or do you rise to the occasion, trying something new and taking the difficulty as an opportunity to learn and try again?  Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Culturally, in the United States, the education and workplace systems often cultivate fixed mindsets, creating people who have a great deal of difficulty with failure and struggle, and who believe that any struggle or failure on their part is a reflection of their incapacity as a person.  Conversely, people with a growth mindset see struggle or failure as an opportunity to grow, creating a resiliency that is a powerful force in their lives. (I’ll also note that in my professional life, I am a learning researcher and social scientist who studies this stuff, and it is incredible to see the long-term outcomes of these two mindsets and other core personality traits on people’s development!)

Seeking Opportunity to Practice and Reflect

Once you have a sense of your strengths and areas you want to improve, pick one or two features of resiliency that you want to bring into your life.  Find small ways of practicing these: at work, at home, at school, wherever you are.  Reflect, consider how you responded, and keep moving forward.  Over time, you can cultivate these qualities in your own life by putting effort in that direction.  Every new situation is a situation for you to cultivate the skills to be more resilient and become the person you want to be!

Taking up a Bardic Practice

Another great way of cultivating inner resilience is taking up a bardic practice or some practice that requires you to be creative on a regular basis. When we start learning the bardic arts, and as we engage in more challenging work as a bard, we are regularly confronted with difficult situations where we can cultivate resilience: creativity, adaptability, and take new opportunities. These practices require us to confront our own fears, our own struggles, and occasionally, deal with failures. If we can take what we’ve learned from these practices and connect them to other aspects of our lives, it will cultivate a general resilience that can be helpful. I’ve written a series about taking up the path of the bard, and I’ll refer you there for more details: part I, part II, and part III

Concluding Thoughts

Resilience is one of the most important skills that I think we can cultivate as people in the 21ts century.  It allows us to reconnect with our ancient ancestors, who clearly had enough resilience to survive and thrive in a changing world (particularly before the Holocene, where the climate was not stable) and allows us to become better people living in a challenging world. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave.  Practicing resilience asks us to deeply understand our own fears and shadow selves and to cultivate skills that will help us bring forth a brighter tomorrow.  On the physical side, practicing resilience helps us directly prepare for adversity and abrupt change–and allows us to build a useful skillset that can enhance our lives and our nature-based spiritual practices. 

I would love to hear more about how you are cultivating resilience in your life in the comments!

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.

Home-Grown and Wildcrafted Smudge Sticks: Plant List and Recipes

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Creating homemade smudge sticks with local ingredients is a wonderful activity to do this time of year.  As the plants die back, you can harvest whatever you aren’t using for other purposes and create a number of beautiful smudges that can be used for many different purposes: clearing, honoring spirits, protection, setting intentions, letting go, bringing in, preparing for ritual or mediation, and much more.

 

A few years ago, I wrote an initial post on homemade smudge sticks using local ingredients–this has become my most popular post on my blog.  Given that, I wanted to offer a follow-up post with some additional information and share a few smudge stick recipes for specific purposes. For initial instructions on how to make your sticks, please see my first post.  This post expands the plant list that you can use to make smudges and also offers smudge stick recipes for various purposes.

 

Expanded Ingredient List for Smudge Stick Making

The following is a much expanded ingredient list from my first post–it not only talks about different plants you can explore in smudge stick making, but offers their latin names and also if they can be wildharvested or need to be garden grown.

 

Aromatic Cultivated and Wildharvested Herbs. This list represents plants that you can easily find in the wild and/or grow in a garden.  The information I’m providing is based on the US East coast/Upper Midwest, so you will need to adapt accordingly.  (C) refers to the need to cultivate this herb in most places in the US Upper East Coast or Midwest, while (W) indicates you might be able to find it in the wild.

  • Bay leaf (C)(Laurus nobilis):  Bay has a wide range of magical uses: to banish or expel, to protect, to support, to prepare folks for deeper magical work. If you aren’t sure what to use as smudge, bay is a great choice due to its flexibility! You can cultivate bay plants; alternatively, pick up some bay leaves in the spice section of the grocery store .
  • Coltsfoot (C)(Tussilago farfara): Coltsfoot is used primarily for divination, and due to its very early bloom time in the spring and beautiful yellow flower, it is also associated with sun work and the coming of spring. Leaves can be harvested in the spring or fall, you can find it along roadways in full sun or part shade areas. The leaf is large and can be used as a wrap for other smudge ingredients. The flower, looking similar to a dandelion but smaller, and blooming in early spring, can also be used in smudges.
  • Eucalyptus (C) (Eucalyptus spp.)– Another herb for clearing work; its smolders nicely and produces a powerful scent.  It combines beautifully with sage and lavender.  You have to plant this in my region–it doesn’t grow wild, but will grow to a nice size over the summer and you can use it.  You can also get whole leaf in some places if it isn’t local. While you can find it in craft stores in the US, I don’t know what they treat it with–I’d use it from an herbal supplier first.
  • Hyssop (C) (Hyssopus officinalis) – An herb with ancient connections to purification work; you can also use this to keep away negativity that is thrown in your direction.  Hyssop smells wonderful when burned.  I’ve also used Anise hyssop in a similar way; the two do burn differently (anise hyssop is more aromatic and smells and burns like black licorice).
  • Lavender (C) (Lavandula spp.) – Lavender helps with clear thinking, relaxation, and focus.  You can use both leaf stalks and flower heads in smudges–lavender flowers give smudges beautiful colors and appeal.  Lavender combines beautifully with sage or sweetgrass.
  • Lemongrass (C) (Cymbopogon): Cleansing, removing obstacles, purification.  You can grow this or even pick up stalks in the local grocery store.  Burns with a lemony scent and produces good smoke.
  • Mugwort (W, C) (Artemisia vulgaris) – Mugwort has a nice smell when burned (and its also used in a lot of herbal smoking blends).  Mugwort is specifically tied to dreams and can produce very vivid dreaming.  It is also wonderful for any other kind of trance or journeying work. While this is a powerful dreaming is a good thing in the short term, do keep in mind that vivid dreams over a long period of time can exhaust you–so use mugwort with care and not daily, but definitely use it!  Mugwort also grows beautifully straight and tall, and really does do well in smudges.  A lot of people cultivate mugwort, but I find it wild growing everywhere around where I live.  I really love this plant for both tea (harvested young) and smudges

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges--tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges–tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

  • Mullein (W) (Verbascum thapsus) – Soft, fuzzy mullein leaves have a nice “smoldering” quality–they smolder in the same way that sage smolders.  They don’t smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for “clearing” out the lungs of toxins.  In Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief.  I think, for a personal smudge stick where I was working to clear out some deep emotions and emotional recovery, I would most definitely put mullein in becuase of that clearing/grief/lung connection.
  • Rosemary (C) (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Rosemary is another clearing and protective herb.  It is also another staple for smudges.  Interestingly enough, you can use both the root and the plant of rosemary–and they have different qualities.  The rosemary stalks burn wonderfully in a smudge.  Don’t let them get too dried out or the needles fall off easily and you will have a hard time wrapping them and keeping them intact.  You might look at the different varieties of rosemary–not only do they smell slightly different, but they burn slightly different as well.
  • Sage (C) (Salvia spp.) – Sage is a clearing herb that helps purify and cleanse spaces of negative energy.  All sages energtically work similarly, but do have some fairly unique smells.  Here are some different sage options:
    • White Sage can be grown in gardens and has a potent, distinctive smell.  The seeds are rather hard to start (only about a 20% germination rate) and it doesn’t like it too wet–it likes it hot. I usually plant this in my greenhouse as it is hotter and drier than the rest of my yard for the summer months.  You can use white sage stalks and leaves in your smudge sticks.  If you can’t grow it, you often can also find sage bundles in metaphysical shops (and you can take the bundles apart and mix them with other plants).
    • Desert Sage also has a lighter, sweeter smell than white sage.  I haven’t grown this myself, but have gotten some from friends who were out west. It also is relatively easy to find in the shops.
    • Garden Sage is a wonderful choice for multiple purposes–culinary arts as well as smudge sticks.  I harvest back the garden sage plants in the fall for use in smudges and for cooking!  It has a deeper sage smell than the other two.
    • Clary Sage has larger leaves and a more musky smell.  Works great for smudges!
  • Scented Geranium (C) (Pelargonium Spp.): Geranium is associated with prosperity, happiness, and love. The leaves and stalks of scented geraniums make wonderful smudge stick ingredients.  They burn similar to the smell that the geranium has.  i have had the most experience with my lemon scented geranium for smudges, but there are many options here.  Pick one up and it will grow in a pot all summer for you.
  • Sweet Clover (W) (Melilotus officinalis) – A great locally available plant that smells fairly similar to sweet grass (and attracts spirits and honors them, like sweet grass) is sweet clover.  Sweet clover is dotted over roadsides and fields around midsummer. It does not burn quite as sweetly as sweetgrass, it has similar qualities and a similar smell.
  • Sweet Grass (C) (Hierochloe odorata) – Sweet grass gets spirits’ attention and can be used any any visionary or honoring work. I cultivate a patch of sweetgrass (moved with me several times and originally given as a gift) and it works great for smudges.  Sometimes, I will put a full section of a sweetgrass braid in a smudge (see my photos).  That really gets some attention and looks amazing.
  • Thyme (C) (Thymus vulgaris): This gentle garden and culinary herb is an incredibly powerful magical plant.  Thyme helps with the removal of negative emotions, healing, and emotional healing. It looks so pretty in a smudge bundle too, especially the lemon thyme varieties.
  • Tobacco (C) (Nicotinana Rustica): Home grown tobacco is my go-to offertory plant, making offerings in particular to the spirits of the land, particularly of the plant kingdom.  Tobacco also helps other plants do their work better (it amplifies their power and connects you deeply with their energies).  I grow my own tobacco, and I use the leaves for offerings and use the stalks in smudge sticks.
  • Valerian (C) (Valeriana officinalis) – Valerian is one of the most powerful and potent cleansing and clearing herbs. A little valerian goes a long way.  The fresh flowers smell sweet, but as they dry, they take on a potent wet-dog style aroma. The dried flower stalks work great in smudges. You can also use the roots, but the roots smell even more like a wet dog–and your smudge will smell similarly when burned.  And  your house will smell just with the roots sitting out in a smudge stick.  That physical potency lends itself well to the spirit plant, for I have found nothing better to clear out a space.  Burn with the windows open!
  • Wormwood (C, W) (Artemisia absinthium): Another super protective and clearing herb is Artemesia Absinthium (Common Wormwood).  It has a pleasant smell when it burns, and is clearing, but in a more gentle way than valerian.
  • Yarrow (C, W) (Achillea Millefolium): Yarrow is another herb I like to use a lot in my smudges for its energetic qualities; it smells a lot like itself when it burns due to the high volatile oil content.  Yarrow is used for workings where you don’t want to be seen or you need to hide or conceal something.  It is also useful for strength and divination.

Trees and Shrubs.  Traditionally, cedars (like incense cedar or red cedar) were used for smudges out in the western part of the US.  In my bioregion, conifers mostly produce the best smudges, although some a few other options exist.

  • Eastern Red Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): Junpier is a strongly protective herb and useful for male strength and for banishing. This is a wonderfully aromatic plant with berries that also are used medicinally.  I love using juniper in my smudges–but it has little prickly bits, so use it carefully so that you don’t get stabbed.
  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidantalis):  Eastern white cedar is a great smudge to help cleanse and open up a sacred space.  It also helps with cleansing negative emotions, grief, or other pain.  It is also tied to longevity and illumination. Eastern White Cedar crackles and pops when it is freshly dry due to its high amount of volatile oils.  If you use the cedar branches when they are first dried, they smell wonderful but literally crackle and pop when you burn them due to all of the volatile oils—which is a bit of a fire hazard, but also can kind of be fun. However, if you hang the cedar in your house for a few months and let it dry out, the oils slowly dry out of the cedar and then you can make your smudge sticks. The sticks at this point will smoke beautifully.
  • White Pine (Pinus Strobus): White pine is associated with peace (both outer and inner), drawing things out (including pain), cleansing and purification, and wayfinding. White pine needles burn beautifully and smell a bit like a pine-vanilla when they burn.  Wonderful in any smudge stick!
  • Blue Spruce (Picea pungens, Picea glauca): Spruce offers healing, resilience, strength, getting past the darkness. The latin name says a lot about the scent of the spruce tree: pungens – it is pungent!  The blue spruce has a very musky smell which goes well for working with animal magic and other nature-focused approaches.  The white spruce is less musky and very strengthening and potent.  Beware–most spruce needles are sharp and may need to be handled carefully when harvesting and making smudges.
  • Staghorn sumac(Rhus Typhina): Staghorn sumac is a wonderful addition to any smudge stick.  While you can use the leaves or fuzzy berry clusters, I much prefer the berry clusters.  If you are using the leaves, you need to get them into the center of the smudge stick or they crumble as they dry. You can make smudges with small clusters of berries and or collect and use the leaves after they have gone red in the fall for the best smoke.  Staghorn sumac has a very calming effect (I use it as an herbal smoke for my bees) and smolders nicely–plus, it is a beautiful red color that provides visual beauty in your smudge.  It has a fairly pleasant smoke (not very aromatic, but copious).  Staghorn sumac is a plant that offers creative approaches to thinking and cunning, which can certainly be of use.

Smudge sticks with various components--center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Smudge sticks with various components–center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Visual Components.  There is also a visual component to making a nice smudge stick, and I think this is where various wild flowers can lend a hand. Most of the flowers don’t have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of purple or yellow or white in your smudge can look absolutely beautiful (and add energetically to your smudge). A visit to any flower field in the height of the summer will certainly give you much to work with–I love adding black eyed susans, sprigs of blue queen sage, or yellow ox-eye daies to smudges.  You can also cultivate flowers like statice or baby’s breath which hold their beautify for long periods of time for your smudges (I would not buy these commercially as they are almost always sprayed with something you don’t want to make airborne). There are SO many options to experiment with!

 

 Recipes for Smudge Sticks

Now that we have so many wonderful ingredients to choose from for home-grown smudges, what kinds of combinations smell nice and work well?  The following are some combinations I have used for various purposes.  You may not have all of the ingredients on these lists–you can eliminate ingredients you don’t have and mix and match.  In the end, your intuition should be the best gauge for what plants to put together for what purposes.  Here are some of my personal favorites:

Recipes for the Wheel of the Year

  • Winter Solstice Smudge: For bringing the light back into the world. Cedar, Juniper, and White Pine.
  • Imbolc Smudge: For Purification and Renewal: Hyssop, Rosemary, Cedar, and Sage
  • Spring Equinox Smudge: Letting the Awen Flow: Lavender, Sage, and Cedar
  • Beltane Smudge Smudge: Fertility: Wormwood, Motherwort, Lavender
  • Summer Solstice Smudge: Drawing Strength and Power:  Scented geranium, wormwood, juniper
  • Lughnassadh Smudge: Land blessing/Offering: Tobacco and White Pine
  • Fall Equinox Smudge: Seeking Balance: Bay, Rosemary, Mullein, Thyme, and White Pine
  • Samhain Smudge: Honoring the Ancestors – Bay, Sweet Grass or Sweet Clover (or both), Cedar

 Recipes for Other Purposes

  • Visioning and Journeying Smudge:  Any of the following, individually or in combination: Mugwort, Bay, Lavender, Sweet Grass, Sweet Clover, Yarrow, White Pine, Staghorn Sumac
  • Letting Go of Grief/Pain: Mullein, Juniper, Thyme, White Pine
  • Really Super Cleansing: Valerian, Rosemary, Wormwood
  • Divination: Coltsfoot, mugwort, White Pine
  • Establishing Sacred/Ritual Space: Bay, Yarrow, Sage, Cedar, Staghorn Sumac

 

Medicine Making and Sacred Herbalism at Lughnassadh

I love celebrating the druid wheel of the year.  Its just an amazing experience to dedicate eight days to magic, ritual, being outdoors, studying, reading, meditation, gardening, and other sacred activity. I had the most wonderful day today making so many medicines from fresh ingredients. Just like at the summer solstice, Lughnassadh is a fantastic time for gathering bright, beautiful herbs, so today I spent most of the day gathering and preparing plants for medicinal use. I thought I’d share so that you have a sense of what herbs are in season right now and what they can be used for.  Since I’m trying to replace any over-the-counter medicine with locally gathered or my own home grown herbs, I’m trying to lay in a really good stock of herbs before winter (then I can continue to make things in the wintertime).  Once I have a better sense of all of the herbs I want to have for common ailments, I’ll post a list here–but for now, this post serves as a sneak peek to my “family herbal medicine chest.”

 

In the morning, the skies were clear and blue, the weather warm, and the sun shining.  There was very little wind, which allowed the monarchs (who have finally made their way to Michigan) come out and enjoy the milkweed blooms.  I went out to my favorite secret harvest spot (an 80 acre parcel of land about a mile away) to see what was ready.  The land isn’t far from my home, so I’m pretty sure I also spotted some of my (or other local) honeybees on the spotted knapweed. I was so excited to see that the goldenrod had just came into flower and tons of mullein stalks jutting up around the goldenrod as far as I could see.  I gathered up goldenrod, beautiful and bold, for a tincture.  I’ve been eagerly awaiting the blooming of the goldenrod all summer, and I’m so glad to finally be able to make this tincture!

Goldenrod!

Goldenrod!

I also carefully went around each of the mullein stalks, gathered a few leaves, and spent a good hour gathering up a bunch of mullein flower for an ear oil.  I visited at least 30 plants to gather up enough of their delicate flowers. If you look around the plant, in its leaves, etc, and you can find flowers that have already dropped but are still moist.

Mullein Flower Stalk

Mullein Flower Stalk

In addition, I gathered some branches from a fallen oak tree (for an oak bark tincture), bright red clusters of staghorn sumac berry and stinging nettle, all for tinctures. I brought my panflute with me, and in exchange for the harvest, played music for the land for a time, and just sat and enjoyed being out in the fields and among the pines.

 

Around lunch, I arrived home, ate some yummy food from the garden (it is the first harvest, after all) and setup my medicine-making supplies out on my back porch where I could keep an eye on my free ranging chickens.  From nearby herb beds, I gathered colts foot, lady’s mantle, and chamomile.  I also gathered up valerian flower for a tincture (I am hoping the flower will be more mild than valerian root, the root I will harvest later in the year).

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

The tincture making process is a lot of fun.  Inspect your herbs to make sure you only have the right ones, check for bugs, and so on.  Then, chop up fresh herbs, add alcohol (in a 1:2 ratio for fresh, so 1 part herbs (weight) to two parts alcohol (volume)), and seal in a mason jar.  I learned in my herb class that if you are using the standard fresh herb ratio, and the herb is really bulky (like mullein leaf), you can get the herbs below the level of the alcohol by weighing down your herbs with clean stones. That way they don’t turn a funky color and the alcohol can properly extract all of the plant material.

 

Staghorn sumac, above, is a fantastic (and quite potent) astringent.  Its good for leaky, puffy, or lax tissues.  There are other astringents less potent than this (like strawberry leaf), but this was one on my “must make” list this year.  My hands were still a bit cut up from replacing my chicken coop last weekend (chicken wire hurts!) and so the sumac was quite stinging on the hands as I was carefully pulling off the berries.

Goldenrod Tincture

Goldenrod Tincture

Goldenrod (especially when combined with ragweed leaf and stem–NOT ragweed pollen/flower) is great for those snotty, leaky, allergies.  Its kinda funny that ragweed leaf and stem can help cure ragweed’s pollen allergies that many people get.  As far as I know, nobody is allergic to goldenrod, it gets a bad rap because other allergen producing plants, like ragweed, happen to bloom at the same time and in the same location.  I wanted to have a good tincture of goldenrod so that when I encounter people’s pesky dogs that jump up on me, I have something to counter the allergic reaction.

 

Another tincture I made today was oak bark.  Its really good for gums, especially gums that bleed a lot after flossing or brushing teeth or gums that are receding or otherwise lax–its another astringent, so it will help tighten up the tissue.

Oak Bark Tincture

Oak Bark Tincture

I had made a St. Johns Wort oil a few weeks ago (the St. Johns wort flowers are about done for the year, but two weeks ago they were in the height of their blossom). I spent today letting it drip off, to get off all the plant matter (if plant matter remains in an infused oil, it will go rancid).  This oil is fantastic for any kind of wound (external use). I will probably make a new healing salve blend with some of this along with plantain oil, maybe calendula or a few other things.

St. Johns Wort

St. Johns Wort

Fresh garlic from the garden and the painstakingly gathered mullein flowers went into my awesome enamel and copper double boiler (yard sale find, $15).  This oil, which I will infuse over the next three days, is used for ear infections, which I get pretty often in the winter.

Garlic and Mullein Flower

Garlic and Mullein Flower

Double Boiler with Ear Oil

Double Boiler with Ear Oil

I also added some herbs to the dehydrator–its been going straight for weeks now, it seems! I have found such a quality difference between what I can buy vs. what I grow and harvest myself, plus, there are many herbs that one can’t buy easily or cheaply.  But these herbs are free and abundant on the land if one grows them or knows where to look.

Dehydrator filled up

Dehydrator filled up with herbs – Lady’s Mantle, Colt’s Foot, and Calendula

Here is a photograph of all the herbs I prepared or jarred up today–nine tinctures in all plus four jars of dried herbs from the dehydrator. The tinctures are now macerating and many of the herbs I wanted to preserve have been crossed off my list.

Good Medicine!

Good Medicine!

After all that work, I went down to the stone circle for some ritual and meditation, and saw the butterfly of transformation!

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

To finish out the day, I had a wonderful feast from the garden and the land – wild chicken of the woods mushrooms, green beans, zuchinni, and kale. I hope that everyone has a blessed Lughnassadh!