Tag Archives: understory

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Juneberry Tree (Amelanchier spp., Serviceberry, Shadbush, Sasakatoon) Medicine, Magic, and Divination

Juneberry Tree in Abundance

We are now at the time when it is at peak throughout the Eastern US and thus,it is a great time to learn about this wonderful tree. Juneberry, also known as Amelanchier, Serviceberry, Saskatoon, or Shadbush is a grouping of 20 deciduous small trees or large shrubs. Juneberry is a delightful understory tree or shrub that is widely loved and sought out among the Appalacian peoples here in Western PA and across the midwest and the southeastern United States.  I remember a warm summer day a few years ago when the Juneberry pickings were quite good–I and two friends made our way to a local park, where we gorged ourselves in delicious berries and picked over four gallons–with so many berries still left on the tree.  The next few days we enjoyed the berries fresh, canned them into jam, baked them into pies, and just were in awe of the abundance of these delightful trees.  Today, I would love to share this abundance with you and explore the ecology, lore, magic, and mystery of the delightful Juneberry tree!

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

Ecology

Going harvesting with friends at the park!

Juneberry is often found as a large shrub or small tree, appearing anywhere from about 6 feet tall to up to 25-40 feet in height with a trunk no larger than 6-12″ in diameter. According to Linda Kershaw in Trees of Michigan, while it is easy to identify the Juneberry species, identifying the specific subspecies can prove very difficult or impossible due to hybridization (I’ve found this to be the case as well!). In fact, some scientists aren’t clear if Juneberry is one species or 20! Because of this, I am going to discuss the Juneberry/serviceberry species as a whole, with special attention to those that are common in the US Midwest and East coasts. Most of my experience comes from Smooth Serviceberry (Amelanchier Laevis) and Appalachian Serviceberry (Amelanchier Canadensis) which appears as a small understory tree throughout the Alleghenies as well as various ornamental cultivars that appear more like shrubs in urban and suburban settings.  And these are the two places you will find Juneberry–taller understory trees in forests throughout its range as well as urban cultivars in housing developments, on campuses and in parks.

The Juneberry has distinctive bark that is smooth, gray, with thick and darker vertical lines.  Once you learn to ID it, it is very distinctive from other trees you might encounter, making it fairly easy to identify even in the winter months.  They are slow-growing and relatively long-lived trees. The serviceberry can grow in a number of different conditions, with the exception of very wet areas or wetlands. It prefers drier soil, and so you are more likely to find it higher ground/uplands, etc. For example, in my region, the area that I know that has lots of Juneberry is our Gallitzin State Forest–this is literally the highest point in the county, on top of the Babcock ridge in the Allegheny Mountains at 2600 or so feet.  The Juneberry trees grow up and down the mountainside; you won’t find it in the damp valleys with the Eastern Hemlock or Witch hazel, only on the sides and peak of the mountain.

Unripe Juneberry (late may, a few weeks before ripening)

Unripe Juneberry (late may, a few weeks before ripening)

Juneberry tree produces 5-petaled flowers that are really beautiful in very early spring.  The flowers here often come out before leaves are on any of the trees (another characteristic of the understory trees–they take advantage before the overstory covers everything up).  If you are seeking out serviceberry for the first time, this is probably the best time to find as it is really easy to spot the flowers when the rest of the trees are still pretty bare.  Look for little clusters of white flowers. Once the flowers are gone, you can look for the fruits which go from green to red to deep purple that droop in nice fat clusters, or to the alternately-placed leaves with a tiny tooth edge ridge that is oblong and the smooth bark.

John Eastman notes in The Book of Forest and Thicket that Juneberry is particularly susceptible to gypsy moth damage as well as the destructive gymnosporanguim rust. This rust is hosted by Juniper / Red Cedar (Juniperus Virginia) and when it travels to a Juneberry or apple tree, it creates swollen fruits and distorted twigs that have powdery fungus. It’s a real disappointment to see your favorite serviceberry tree covered in this stuff!

A variety of wildlife enjoys the fruits including, according to Eastman, 22 different bird species – Cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, hermit thrushes, and northern orioles, to name a few. Beavers, foxes, red squirrels, bears, and white-tailed deer also enjoy the berries, fruits, bark, and foliage.

Young Juneberry Trunk

Young Juneberry Trunk

Elder Juneberry Trunks (notice the lines)

Elder Juneberry Trunks (notice the lines)

Food and Edible uses

The most important thing to understand about the Juneberry is that while the berry tastes kind of like a watery blueberry when fresh, cooking transforms its flavor into an incredibly delicious, rich, cherry-almond flavor that is hard to describe. Juneberry jam is one of my favorite jams because it is so delicious and unique!

In my experience, the challenge with finding these trees in the forest is that there is no way of reasonably picking the berries.  You can gather from what drops to the ground, but often that amounts only to a few handfuls.  I have had much better luck foraging these delicious berries in suburban and urban environments. My favorite harvest spot at present is at a local park where they have dozens of bushes planted as an ornamental!  Of course, with any foraging, please make sure you practice reciprocation–do something in return for nature, ask permission, and make offerings before you harvest from the tree.

A haul of Juneberry–so amazing and abundant.

In Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, Rollins notes that Juneberry was well esteemed by both early European explorers and Native American tribes. Native Americans would gather the berries, beat them into a paste, and dry them into cakes. The dried berries were then mixed with cornmeal and used in old-style puddings. Further, John Eastman notes that the berries were one of the primary fruits included in traditional pemmican–a mixture of dried meat (often venison or bear), fat, and berries that offer high calories and fat. In Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown, a range of indigenous uses of the berries are described, including how the Iroquois would ferment dried Juneberry, sugar, and water to make a refreshing drink (noted in 1916). The Chippewa found them so refreshing that the term “Take some Juneberries with you” was a common expression to be told to relax.  Many tribes dried the Juneberry for eating in the winter months and used it for various winter food applications.

Other Human Uses

The wood of the Juneberry is very heavy, hard, strong, and close-grained.  It has a dark red-brown appearance with lighter colored sapwood.  Today, it is a favorite wood of spoon carvers and, in larger pieces, it is good for wood turning. Erichsen-Brown notes that the wood was used to make arrow shafts and pipe stems by indigenous peoples, particularly because it was so hard.

Eastman notes that the Juneberry has traditionally been used as a seasonal clock widely in North America, and he indicates that no other tree has quite this feature. In Colonial times, the blooming of the Juneberry was used by fishers to know when the spawning of shad fish happened (hence the common name “shadbush” given to the tree).  The term “serviceberry” also was noted to mark the time for burial services for people who had died over the harsh winter (from cold, starvation,etc). Today, we can also see the timing of the gypsy moths from this tree.

Juneberry in Western Occultism and Herbalism

Like my other understory trees, the Juneberry does not get much notice or love from traditional western herbalism or occult communities.  All of my usual sources I consult do not have entries for the serviceberry, which is unsurprising.  I also cannot find references to this tree in any modern herbals (and I own many!)

Serviceberry on your morning cereal! Delicious!

Most of what I have found about herbal uses comes from the work of Erichsen-Brown.  She notes that the roots and bark were traditionally used by some tribes as medicinal tonics. Medicinally, Erichsen-brown notes a number of uses being tied to women’s health, particularly surrounding pregnancy. The Chippewa combined the bark of Juneberry was combined with that of pin cherry, chokecherry, and wild cherry decocted and drank for feminine issues (p.167). She notes that the Ojibwe used the bark also for an expecting mother, while the Iroquois used the fruit to treat post-childbirth pain and hemorrhage.  I haven’t been able to find much in discussion of Juneberry in modern herbals, but it is clear from Erichsen-Brown’s work that this tree is traditionally connected with women’s health.  Plants for a Future lists a few additional uses, including being used in the treatment of snow blindness, use for a spring tonic, and astringent qualities.  Since Juneberry is in the rose family, these last two certainly fit!

The Magic and Divination of Juneberry

Time and keeping natural time.  The folk and traditional uses of serviceberry as a “natural” clock as well as its slow-growing and long-lived nature obviously lend this tree well to being tied to any issue dealing with time, particularly when things need to happen or should happen at a certain point.

Cycles. Tied to time as well as to the herbal uses of serviceberry, we have the idea of cycles, including cycles of the moon, the sun, our own human cycles, and the seasons.  Serviceberry reminds us that everything moves in a giant circle around the sun and the cycles of the seasons continue to spiral ever-forward.

Juneberry in the woods

Juneberry in the woods

The magic of naming.  This is a tree that carries a number of different names, and I think the names are important.  I originally called this berry by its most common name, “Serviceberry” thinking that the berry and tree were always “in service” to others. But in doing deeper research on this berry, and finding that the service referred to a funeral service, the name lost its magic.  So I shifted to calling it by the other name I had heard as a child–Juneberry.  You have a choice with names–and this berry reminds us that we can be named by what we are associated with or surrounded with.  It reminds us of the power in a name–what it can teach us about the world.

I am so glad to share the amazing Juneberry with you.  I would love to hear from you–have you met this tree? Do you have one? have you tried the berries?

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida) Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

With the advent of Beltane, it is an excellent time to share about the magic and sacredness of the dogwood tree–a tree that is in bloom across the landscape this time of year. I feel like dogwood is one of those trees that everyone knows, but nobody takes the time to know well.  In all of my time in the druid community, when people talk about their favorite trees, I don’t think I’ve ever heard dogwood mentioned.  She’s a quiet and unassuming understory tree, and after her spring show of white or pink bracts and yellowish tiny flowers, she fades into the rest of the forest.  And yet, in studying her medicine and ecology, we can gain so much from this wonderful tree.

Dogwood is a popular tree here in North America, both as a native tree found in the understories and edges of Oak-Hickory forests throughout its wide range (from Ontario to Florida, and across to Kansas and Oklahoma and down to Texas). It is also a common ornamental tree, and thus, an excellent one for both those who are urban or suburban druids and rural druids to know.  Let’s take a journey today into the magic, mythology, medicine, and human uses of the dogwood tree! North America has many, many varieties of dogwood. Today I’ll focus most of my comments on the common “Flowering Dogwood” (Cornus Florida, pictured in my photos) but recognize that many dogwoods are similar enough energetically to have similar features.

Dogwood in bloom!

Dogwood in bloom!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include 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

Dogwood in early spring

Dogwoods are abundant in North America, with seventeen species in the United States alone, including four tree species and thirteen species of shrub; the flowering dogwood is one of the four tree species. Flowering dogwood is an understory tree characterized by beautiful showy white bracts (that appear to be white petals) with an inner cluster of yellow flowers that bloom in spring.  If you look closely at a dogwood, you can see the difference!  Where I live in Western Pennsylvania, Flowering Dogwood is typically blooming from Mid-April to Mid-May, depending on how quickly things warm.  The dogwood, like other understory plants, blooms early, before leaves are on the tree, and takes advantage of the light before the overstory cover grows.  Pale yellow flowers eventually give way to showy red berries that grow in small clusters (just like the flowers) in the fall (October), to complement the beautiful red-purple fall leaves.

One of the characteristics of flowering dogwood is the growth habit of the tree which you can see from the photos in this post–branches often grow mostly horizontal and then, at the very ends, turn to the sky and are tipped with beautiful white or pink bracts and yellow flowers.  Some may grow more spindly or more full, depending on the location, environmental features, or cultivar. The leaves are opposite on the trunk, but the entire tree has a very “open” quality to its growth habit appearing, at times, almost bonsai-like.  The dogwood is a fairly short-lived tree, living about 80 years and prefers slightly acidic soil.

As an understory tree, you can often find flowering dogwood on well-drained and fertile soil in dappled sunlight.  It is larger than a shrub or bush (so higher than spicebush) and is a small understory tree.  Flowering dogwood is commonly found in the understory of oak-hickory forests as along fertile edges (you can often see them along a fence row or between fields).  When they are in the forest, they are often 10-20 feet high and have a 4-6″ trunk, but when they are out in the open, they can grow up to 40 feet high with a thicker trunk, particularly in the southernmost areas of its range.  Of course, a range of ornamentals with varying heights and flower colors are present and can be purchased at nurseries.

While some dogwoods produce very delicious edible fruit (such as the Kousa Dogwood), the Flowering dogwood’s fruits are small, bitter, and not very palatable, although the bitter quality of the fruit can be used to make digestive bitters (see below).  The Flowering Dogwood fruit is an excellent food source for birds (who help distribute the seeds).  Dogwood also is a larval host for a number of moths, including the Dogwood Thyratid Moth, the Stinging Rose moth, and the Grand Arches Moth.

If you are interested in finding some dogwood–the time is now.  Here in Western PA, the leaves are just starting to come back onto the trees and the white-pink dogwood bracts are in bloom, so you can go through any forest and very easily pick out the dogwoods (and apples, hawthorns) due to their blooming.  In a few more weeks, they will fade into the rest of the understory!

Human Uses

Close up of dogwood bark with a bit of English Ivy

Despite its small size, dogwood has a very valuable wood that is hard and tough, close-grained, and quite heavy.  traditionally, according to Grimm, it is used for shuttles for weaving due to its toughness.  It has also been traditionally used for turning (tool handles, mallet heads, golf club heads, engraver’s blocks).  According to Sargent, Dogwood was also used for bearings of machinery or even the hubs of small wheels due to its strength.

It was also used for making inks and dyes.  Emerson notes that a blank ink can be made from the bark of the branches and trunk (especially if mixed with gum arabic and iron sulfate – see here for how to make a rust garden for harvesting iron sulfate), while a scarlet dye was made from the roots (I have yet to test either of these, but they sound wonderful!).

Emerson notes that the Micmac Indians dried the bark and smoked it, combining it with tobacco. Emerson also notes that when the flowers appeared on the dogwood, many Native tribes in the Eastern US used this as a sign to plant their corn.

In the bushcraft communities, Dogwood is known as a hard but useful spindle for making friction fires (either bow drill or hand drill technique), especially when combined with American Sycamore, Red Elm, or Red Cedar (Juniper).  The harder the spindle, the more difficult it is to make a fire, and hence, it is considered a wood appropriate for more advanced friction fire makers.  Due to its hardness, Dogwood also produces very nice cooking coal and also can be used to produce charcoal.

A fungus called anthracnose fungus has been attacking dogwoods of all kinds, leading to a widespread decline in this tree and making it critically endangered in several states in the US, including New York and Vermont.

Medicine

Dogwood in a forest setting in late spring

Dogwood was historically very important for the treatment of malaria, typhoid, and influenza, but, according to Matthew Wood in the Earthwise Herbal: New World Plants,  it has gone out of favor in more recent times, primarily because Malaria is on the decline.  The most important traditional treatment of Malaria was Quinine, which was made from the Cinchona tree that grows in Central and South America. According to Rafinesque in 1828 (as cited in Emerson), it is the best North American substitute for Quinine, although it contains differing amounts of the same chemicals present in Quinine.  Both Quinine and Dogwood are potent medicines that do produce side effects: Dogwood raises one’s pulse and may also produce abdominal cramping, but will strongly support a body’s fever response and destroy the malaria infection.

The traditional use is peeling the bark, drying the bark for some months,  and then making a strong tea (decoction).  Some early doctors noted that they preferred to use the bark of the root as opposed to the bark of the tree for this purpose (Emerson). All traditional sources indicate that the bark should be dried for a period of months (up to a year) which will reduce stomach cramping and produce more effective medicine.

In colonial times, the twigs of the dogwood were used as tooth sticks to help keep the teeth clean and the gums in good health. “Yellow Water”, which was a decoction of the bark, was used to cure distemper in horses. When combined with Sassafras, it was used to help clean ulcers and treat cancer.

A tincture of the berries was also used for digestive bitters–both sources I have (Emerson and “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests”) both suggest they were used by poor people or country people for this purpose.  I’m getting the sense from the wording of these that these dogwood berry bitters may have been considered a “poor person’s” medicine or folk medicine.

During the civil war, the inner bark of Flowering Dogwood was used both to treat malaria (as described above) and as an astringent to stop wounds from bleeding out.  This, in particular, saved many soldiers in the Confederacy (who published a book called, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural.”

Matthew Wood notes that dogwood is intensely bitter, so much so that the bitter literally “shakes the frame, specific for intermittent chill and fever attacking the system” (127).  He also notes that it was considered to be one of the “elk medicines” by the indigenous Americans, specifically used to treat kidneys and sexual function.  It is used for constriction/tension as well as stagnant states.   It has a very specific use for influenza or chronic malaria where the body has intermittent fever and chills along with digestive atonicity (from repeated chills) including indigestion acidity, acid reflux, diarrhea, and/or nausea combined with great exhaustion.  Wood recommends a fluid extract OR tincture (5-10 drops) as larger doses upset the stomach.  Decoction of small branches and twigs may be less upsetting to the stomach.  It is a bitter/acrid plant with astringent and slightly aromatic bark.

Western Magical Traditions

The beautiful dogwood behind our shed on the homestead!

Like many other quiet understory trees, the dogwood does not have a place at the table in terms of magical uses.  This doesn’t mean the tree doesn’t have its own amazing magic–it simply hasn’t been acknowledged (as far as my research has indicated) in the literature, either of American Hoodoo, Traditional Western Magical Practices, or Folk magical traditions.

Culpepper notes that the dogwood is under the power of Jupiter, which Culpepper notes governs luck, increase, nourishment, and the “spirit of life”.  I think this is an important quality to note, and one that will come into play in my own magical and divination uses of this sacred tree.

The one traditional Appalacian folk tale about dogwood that is prevalent comes from the Christian tradition, where Jesus was said to be nailed to a cross of dogwood, and dogwood decided to never again grow tall enough to be made into a cross again.  This tale is actually quite dominant in the Southern and Northern Appalachians (I heard it here as a child), and actually is quite in line with the other meanings I believe dogwood to have, based on its medicinal features.

Naming and Etymology

John Eastman offers a theory of his own for the name dogwood–he says that the fresh-cut wood has a “fetid smell” that resembles the smell of dog feces (p. 72).  I will note that this does not appear to be the case with Flowering Dogwood in my experience, but some of the shrub-style dogwoods certainly have that odor!  I can’ find no other reasons listed in my sources for why “Dogwood” is called “Dogwood!”  I will also note that dogwood has a number of names including corner, bunchberry, box-wood, arrow-wood, or white cornel.   Some of these can speak to the historical uses of the tree.

Magic and Divination Uses of Dogwood

The Dogwood tree, while small and unassuming, has powerful lessons to teach.  In the absence of mythology

Bitter Medicine. Dogwood’s most distinct feature is its use to treat severe flu-like illnesses including malaria, typhoid fever, and various “auges.” And while Dogwood is as effective as quinine for this treatment, she also comes at a cost–both physically being very bitter medicine and offering the recipient stomach cramping and an increased heart rate.  While the medicine can be tempered through time, the bitterness and acrid quality of dogwood’s root and bark is ever-present.  Thus, Dogwood teaches us the value of bitter medicine and bitter lessons–those we need to have but don’t necessarily want.  Communing with dogwood during such lessons may offer us deeper insights into ourselves and the nature of our own necessary experience in the world.

Short-term Pain for Long Term Gain. A second theme that we can learn from the dogwood is the importance of the phrase “no pain, no gain.” Dogwood teaches us that life is often full of pain that can be short-term, but in the long run, open us up for rich opportunities–if we are in the right mindset. Learning from our struggles and pain and transforming them into good is a core part of what it means to be human, and Dogwood is our companion on this path in this regard.

Confidence and Grit. The Dogwood is one tough little tree, growing in the understory, blooming early, and offering extremely dense wood and powerful medicine. She encourages us to develop the “grit” (determination, endurance, resiliency, and adaptability) to survive the coming onslaught of so much.  Even though she doesn’t have much stature, she is sure of herself and her skills and is able to face the world with confidence.

For all three of these meanings, one of the things I want to stress is that the Dogwood, while offering its bitter medicine, is under the dominion of Jupiter, the planet of luck and good fortune. This powerful combination allows us to know that despite any challenges or pain we face–we can survive!

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.

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Ironwood or Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana, Carpinus caroliniana)

Ironwood tree ecoprint from my upcoming Tree Alchemy Oracle!

There are actually two tree species that are known as both “hornbeam” and “Ironwood” along the US East Coast and into the midwest: The American Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and the American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).  After doing a lot of research and interaction with both of these trees, I see them as interchangeable.  First, they are both in the Beech family (Order: Fagales, Family: Betulaceae). They actually have a very similar growth habit and look to their bark (like muscles), their wood is quite similar, and the hop-looking fruits are similar on both trees.  Thus, if you can find either of these trees, you can apply the information I’m sharing.  I have primarily focused on Ostrya Virginiana (Ironwood/Hop Hornbeam) in my comments here as it is the more dominant tree in my specific ecosystem.

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.

The Ironwood (Ostrya Virginia) has many names in the US, including leverwood, ironwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  These names can teach us quite a bit about the uses of this tree.

Ecology

Ironwood is a small, native tree to the Eastern and Midwest in the United States.  It is an understory tree, and thus, even the largest specimens are typically under 40 feet tall (I have yet to see one even that tall).  These trees are widely dispersed in the US, spanning from Minnesota and down to parts of Louisana and the whole way up the eastern seaboard to Maine–and everywhere in between.

The most distinct feature of this tree is the muscle-like quality of the wood–the wood is a smooth gray and as it grows, it twists and turns, looking almost like biceps or muscles–this tree has clearly been working out!  The tree has leaves like beech and can be mistaken for the American beech upon first glance.  The trees often lean and grow crooked; the largest specimen here on our property is growing in a haphazard way over the stream and into the bank!  The crown is often flat-topped and open, partially because it is a fully shade/understory tree.

I have always seen Ironwoods in forests or along streams, although their growth habit may be different outside of the Allegheny Mountains in Western PA.  I typically see these trees 15-20 feet tall, often thriving in deciduous forests in large thickets.  Most often, you can find them in deciduous forests growing alongside sugar maple, beech, oak, hickory, and birch. They are typically found in shady forests, on damp hillsides, and especially along the edges of streams, where they can handle occasional seasonal flooding and prevent erosion.

John Eastman writes about this tree in his Book of Forest and Thicket.  He notes that the tree is important to wildlife.  Birds, including pheasant, ruffed grouse, and northern bobwhites eat the catkins.  In the winter months, warblers, foxes, the game birds above, and squirrels eat the nutlets.  Beavers also use them in their building and white-tailed deer can eat the foliage, particularly in the winter.

Historical and Herbal Uses

The strength of these trees is incredible–the wood is very tight-grained, white, and quite dense.  I cut some rounds a while ago for woodburning and had to significantly turn up the heat on my burner to make any mark (usually the highest is reserved for ash, hickory, or oak, but it had to go higher than those three!)  Historically, it was used for handles and fence posts for this reason and while it has a small circumference, it is a mighty tree. As I described above, there is some historical record of this tree being used for handles and smaller wooden objects.  However, primarily due to its size, it is not a tree that is part of the lumber industry.  John Eastman notes that if you attempt to chop down this tree, the axe will literally bounce back at you–hence the well-earned name of “Ironwood.”  Finally, Eastman notes that because of its density, its charcoal was once used in making gunpowder.

Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants describes a range of uses that Ironwood had in historical times in North America.  Of the physical uses, the heartwood of the trees (the strongest part) were used for things requiring strength such as ox goads, cogwheels, handles, sleigh runners, and finishing poles.  Erichsen-Brown notes that the Chippewa used the wood for the frames of their dwellings and as poles in wigwams.

Erichsen-Brown also notes some of the traditional Native American uses of the tree as medicine.  The strong decoction of the heartwood of branches was used for a general tonic, having actions on the liver, kidneys, and muscles.  A strong heartwood decoction was used for “auge” (general sickness), particularly with intermittent fever.  It was considered an alterative, supportive of the liver function and for dyspepsia.  The Chippewa specifically used the heart of the Ironwood along with the inner bark of chokecherry and roots of the hazel and white oak to address lung hemorrhages and other lung conditions.  Again, the heartwood was used as a strong tea to support kidney function and those dealing with stiff joints or rheumatism.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used it as one of several “cramp barks” and to treat the flux.

Despite these sources being detailed in Erichsen-Brown, a thorough read of my herbal books comes up empty–suggesting that this tree is not well used, if at all, in the herbal community here in the US or beyond.

Magical Uses

Despite a range of uses physically and herbally, I was unable to find any reference to this tree in any magical sources, including in the American Hoodoo tradition, within traditional Western occultism, or in folk practices.  This isn’t surprising to me–many of the trees that are dominant in North America and that do not grow in the old world do not get any treatment in typical magical texts.

Divination Meanings

Since there is not a magical or mythological tradition associated with this tree, I’d like to propose three things that are tied to the ecology, history, and herbal uses of this tree.

Strength. The first and obvious choice for a  tree called “Ironwood” is unyielding strength.  The wood is beyond strong, toughest in the face of floods, axes, and anything else.  Thus, we can gain tremendous strength from this tree.  I also think that we can tie this to traditional Native American herbal uses of this tree–the heartwood of this tree, the very core of the tree, offers relief from a variety of ailments.  I plan on making a decoction of Ironwood heartwood and using it to strengthen and endure.

Endurance and Stamina. The second obvious choice for Ironwood is stamina and endurance.  I learned this by observing the Ironwoods that grow along the creek behind my house.  We had several 100-year floods in 2019.  These are floods that are supposed to happen once in a hundred years, but with the extreme weather events that are too common in the 21st century, we had three of them in a month.  The mighty Ironwoods by the stream were 3 feet under the flood waters…when the waters receded, the ironwoods were still there–leaves and all!  These trees endured countless floods that year–and held the riverbank firm.

Small but Mighty. The final meaning that we can derive from the Ironwood is that one can be small, even underwhelming, but still mighty.  The ironwood is one of the smaller, less noticeable, and less known trees of the Eastern US–and yet, it is one of the most mighty.  Stronger even than oak, hickory, or ash, the Ironwood teaches us that you don’t have to be flashy or large to carr ya quiet strength.  As someone who is routinely underestimated because of how I look, I really appreciate this energy present in Ironwood.

Well, dear readers, those are my thoughts, experience, and research on the amazing Ironwood tree.  I would love to hear from you–do you have stories or experiences to share that can help us develop sacred uses and divination meanings for this tree?  Blessings!