Tag Archives: wildharvest

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

Druidry for the 21st Century: Plant-Based Spiritual Supplies and Global Demand

Can you even imagine druidry without plants or trees?  Plants and trees are some of our strongest allies for the work that we do, and are often connected to almost everything that we do spiritually. Plant spirits are teachers, guides, and allies.  From before we had recorded history in any culture, the plant spirits were there, growing with us, guiding us, healing us, and supporting us on our journey. Today’s modern druid practice continues that tradition: we burn plants for smoke cleansing, clearing, and helping to energize spaces. We use trees as part of divination and sacred rites. We use plants as healers, for magical healing and physical healing, and to connect with on deep levels.  Plants have long been friends of humans–and have long walked beside us, hand in hand, as we do our sacred work.  And today, we’ll explore ways we can offer that same kind of honor, respect, and nurturing in return–on both a local and global scale, given that we are in the age of the Anthropocene.  For other posts in this series, please see Druidry for the 21st Century, Druidry in the Anthropocene, and Psychopoming the Anthropocene.

 

In the age of the Anthropocene, given the strain on many ecosystems and species, it is necessary to be an “ethical” consumer–both reducing overall consumption, and when it is necessary to buy, knowing where our goods come from, who makes them and in what conditions, and what we are really supporting. This behavior, in turn, helps certain ethical products and companies succeed and creates less demand for unethical and damaging products. In the progressive circles, the idea of “voting with your dollars” comes to mind.  We see this movement in food (local eating), clothing, electronics, and many more kinds of goods. There are good, bad, and ugly choices out there, and making ethical choices helps promote better livelihoods and protects ecosystems.

 

Ginseng my family grew

Ginseng my family grew

With over half of the world’s species in serious decline, threatened, or endangered, I don’t think we can simply enjoy using whatever we find in the local pagan shop (even if we want to support that shop!). When you walk into one of these shops, or start browsing online, you can find literally thousands of places that are selling palo santo, white sage, sandalwood, and many other critically endangered plants.  These plants are critically endangered because of their overuse, particularly by people who are far disconnected from their growth, harvest, and ecosystems. I’d like to suggest that we take the wisdom of the “ethical consumer” movement and apply it to the purchasing spiritual materials.  This is particularly important for druidry and neopaganism, where it isn’t just about the physical, but also, the spirit. Ethical plant use, where we know where the plant comes from, how much of it remains, and how our own choice of using this plant is a necessary part. While I’m focusing on plants today, I want to add that this really applies to any goods we may use as part of our spiritual practice from two angles: the physical and spirit.

 

The Physical: Land, livelihood, Indigenous Practice, and Ecosystems

I already grow and use a lot of my own herbs for spiritual and medicinal purposes, but occasionally, still enjoy the choice rare ingredient that I purchase or that is given to me as a gift. For example, the other night, I was burning a piece of Palo Santo that a friend had given me as a birthday gift and got the distinct question, “do you even know me?”  The answer was, shamefully, no, I did not.  So I started to research it, I found a host of material that suggests that the ethics of Palo Santo are all about the sourcing:  it can be harvested ethically and be used to support native peoples and ecosystems, or it can be stripped bare.  In holding my own piece of Palo Santo wood, I realized I couldn’t answer the important questions: where did this come from? How was it harvested? Who harvested it?  Who profited from it? A few days later, after doing some research, I saw a post shared by a friend on social media.  This post came from a woman native to Colombia who said that Palo Santo was being stripped from her forests, and begging people to stop using it.

 

Palo Santo is hardly unique in this respect–there are so many plants that are now in global demand due to their uses for medicine or spiritual purposes. The work of Kelly Ablard is useful here.  Her website details information on essential oil plants and their conservation status. As she describes, as global demand for certain plants rise, the plants become so lucrative that are over-harvested and can be poached, reducing biodiversity and threatening local people’s traditions and livelihoods.  As the link I shared in the last paragraph about Palo Santo harvesting suggests, in purchasing plants for spiritual supplies, you can make choices that encourage biodiversity, enhance people’s livelihoods, and support life.  Or you can make unknown choices, which are almost *always* the bad ones.  Knowledge of sourcing is critically important.

 

I have witnessed the vicious cycle of over harvesting driven by global demand firsthand here in the Appalachians, such as the case of wild ginseng. When I was a child, my grandfather used to come back with beautiful wild ginseng roots, and we would brew up ginseng tea and enjoy it as a special treat.  I remember those roots–the look of them, the feel of them, the energy of them.  He would only every bring back a small amount, as he was tending his wild patch long-term so that, as he told me once, “my grandkids will be able to harvest this as I did.”  However, the patch was stripped bare by ginseng wildharvesters (I call them poachers) ages ago–every last root was taken.  A good quality dried American Ginseng root, wildharvested, currently goes for between $500-$800 a dried pound, and there are many ginseng dealers that will pay top dollar for anyone who can deliver.  They don’t care where it comes from, only what they can make from it (and the demand for ginseng is growing). So what happens is that people–usually poor people, out of work due to our poor economy–literally scour our mountains for Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Reishi, and other in-demand medicinal plants–and when they find them, they harvest all they can. Over the years, I have covered thousands of miles of forests, nearly all of them here in the Appalachians.  And I’ve never seen a single wild ginseng plant.   The demand for ginseng is primarily from China–a far off place wanting to pay top dollar for high quality ginseng.  Chinese people buying American ginseng have no idea what it is doing to the  wild ginseng populations here.  And so locals here don’t even get to see the plant, much less, build a relationship with it–it is no longer part of our forest ecology. That same story can be told about many, many of these in demand sacred plants–and I think its useful to see that this overharvest problem can happen anywhere, even in “developed” nations like the US. (In the case of ginseng, I will also note that a new forest-grown initiative is helping change the way ginseng is harvested, which is great–but not enough to restore wild populations).

 

Sacred cedar

Sacred cedar

The “Wildharvest” label is fraught with problems. I have spoken to a lot of people in teaching herbalism classes who think it’s better if its wildharvested. I say, “better for who?”  Certainly not better for the plant population!  Wild harvesters who are harvesting for profit have a wide range of practices and ethics. You have no idea what the total population of the plant is, you have no idea how many different wildharvesters came through an area, or how many they take.  A farm, on the other hand, is growing and harvesting there for the long-term, harvesting each year and conserving populations.  Here, most of our wild harvesters looking for ginseng are folks that are out of work and pretty desperate for cash, particularly because of the long decline of the rust belt economy.

 

Knowing which plants are of particularly concern and how they are harvested is also an important part of this process. One good source of information on some plants in North America is the United Plant Savers; just this year, White Sage was added to their list due to wildharvesting and overharvesting.  Ablard’s notes critically endangered plants by region. These include Palo Santo (Peru), Juniper Berry (from Morocco), Sandalwood (Timor Leste), Spikenard, and Agarwood. Her lists also include sweet almond, olive, cedar, elm, and sassafras (in certain locations), and Eastern Hemlock here in the USA.  A lot of plants that are endangered are “whole plant” harvests; ginseng being a good example–if harvesting wood or roots, or all of the aerial parts of a plant, what is left of that plant afterwards?

 

The other piece of this is cultural appropriation. While smoke cleansing (what are commonly called smudging or smudging ceremonies) of all kind are used widely in global traditions (such as this delightful German practice that Christian Brunner describes on his blog) the use of particular plants for smoke cleansing is tied to certain indigenous practices.  White sage has been in the spotlight recently as one such plant. Increased demand for white sage use are driving up the prices of white sage, and reducing native access to wild white sage (due to commercial wildharvesting), and putting white sage plants themselves at risk. Even the term “smudging” is coming under question as a term that appropriates a native practice; see this perspective shared here. I think the key takeaway here is that some of these plants are tied to indigenous traditions, and should be respected as such, particularly when it comes to specific ceremonies and/or wild populations under use by indigenous peoples.

 

In the end, the questions I keep coming back to are: Is it right or ethical that we use these plants to the point of their extinction? Is it right to create such demand for plants that native peoples who depend on them for spiritual practices and cannot find them to use?  Can we find a better way?  These are important questions, but just as important are the spiritual implication of sourcing of plant material.

 

Spiritual: Energy, Honoring, and Connections

Even if we put every physical consideration aside, there is still the matter of spirit–honoring the spirit of the plant, working with the spirit of the plant, and connecting to the spirit of the plant.  Attending to our connection and relationship with the spirit of a specific plant we are using spiritually matters if we want our spiritual practices to have effect.  Sure, I could wave some rosemary and sage around to “clear” my room before doing a ritual, but if my relationship with sage is one rooted in blind consumption, and not connection, is that sage really going to want to support my efforts? What energy tied to the plant’s harvest and sale, is being brought in at the same time?  The way in which the plant was obtained has a direct relationship with the connection–and depth of connection–I am able to have with the plant.  If I purchase a plant from an unknown source, I am bringing all of the energy of that source into my spiritual practice.  Who harvested it, how it was harvested, how it was handled, how it was sold, how it was transported–and in the case of poaching and overharvesting, that may be energy I very much do not want to have in my life.  What was that plant’s life–and harvest–like?  Was it done respectfully? Was it done in a sacred manner?  If not, do I even have any hope of connecting with it spiritually? These questions are critical in developing spiritual practices surrounding plant use.

 

Anytime we use a plant as part of our sacred practices, we are building relationships with that plant.  Plants work physically and spiritually, but for many of the deeper spiritual uses, they really do require a deep connection.  For example, many herbalists, understand and quietly share about entheogenic properties of Calamus (Sweet flag). You can’t get there with a single huge dose of Calamus. You have to connect with the spirit of the Calamus, build a relationship with it over a long period of time.  As part of this, you have to work with the plant, tend it, plant it, spend time with it, meditate with it, and ethically and respectfully harvest it. At some point, sometimes years or decades later, Calamus open you up for visions and experiences. This isn’t something you can buy or purchase or force to happen–it is something you cultivate over time.  Calamus offers you a process of initiation–and it must be done with the utmost respect and patience.

 

The need to cultivate deep relationships to really “know” a plant and use it for good spiritual effect is necessary for  every plant we might work with spiritually.  Each plant offers us an initiation into its own mysteries, teachings, and magic; and having those initiations will allow you to use the plant to its full magical or spiritual effect.  However, we have to build that relationship.  It’s hard to build a relationship with a plant that has had suffering, death, and pain as part of its sourcing. In the case of some plants, sure, you can use them spiritually, but you aren’t ever going to breach that barrier into deeper work if these other concerns are present.  I can burn my piece of Palo Santo, and it smells nice and produces a calming energy.  But that experience is very surface.  But under no circumstances, could I ever build a deep relationship with that particular wood, given the conditions under which it was harvested and the energy that it now carries with it.

 

Ethical Plant Use in the Anthropocene: Purchasing, Growing,  and Wildharvesting

 

Given the above, I’d like to advocate for the key practice of ethical plant use in druidry and other neo-pagan paths.  By the term “ethics,” I draw upon permaculture‘s three ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share.  People Care encourages us to think about the sourcing of the plant (if you are not growing it yourself) and how the harvest of this plant is tied to local communities and local labor.  Earth Care asks us to consider how the harvest of this plant may have affected the plant and plant species itself as well as the broader ecosystem where the plant grows. Fair Share  asks us to take only what we need of the plant, and certainly, to make sure this plant is available to indigenous peoples who might depend upon it–fair share can take place both on and individual level or a cultural level. Now let’s consider a range of alternative practices to simply “consuming” plants.

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

 

Substitutions: Yes, palo santo, frankincense, sandalwood, and so on smell amazing–but do I really  need these specific plants? Can I instead use local plants that are growing in your own ecosystem, or even backyard? For example, I brought back a small amount of Frankincense when I visited Oman a few years ago and have been slowly using it, but learning what I have about Frankincense and the disappearing frankincense trees, I will not purchase any more.  Frankincense cannot be cultivated commercially, and overharvesing is killing trees–and will severely impact cultures that depend on it as part of their cultural and religious traditions.  I have already replaced Frankincense  with locally harvested white pine resin, which has a similar smell and similar energetic qualities–and which I can harvest myself, thus, cultivating a deeper relationship with white pine and my local bioregion.

 

Ethical Purchasing: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Purchasing is still on the table, but it should be done with ethics in mind.  Some purchases are very good, and can support initiatives that help honor the plant and build livelihoods and ecosystems for local peoples. If you are buying locally or online, before you buy, ask some good questions to ensure an ethical and sustainable harvest.

The questions I like to ask before purchasing are:

  • Where does this plant come from?  (Look for places engaged in sustainable harvesting, like this example from Fair Trade Frankincense)
  • How is this plant harvested? (Learn about your plant. Root or wood harvests are most damaging, and can often kill the plant, but other harvests, like leaf or resin, may also be extremely damaging, particularly if they harm the plant or prevent it from going to seed.)
  • Who harvested this plant? Under what conditions? (How are individuals, cultures, and communities impacted by this harvest?  Be skeptical of a “wildharvest” label, recognizing the lack of oversight for many wildharvesting operations.)
  • Who is profiting from this plant?

If purchasing locally, if the shop owner can’t tell you the answers (especially to the first three questions below), perhaps encourage that person to consider a different source.  If buying online, you can ask the same information if it is not available.  For Palo Santo, for example, Mountain Rose Herbs describes exactly where they get their Palo Santo and their conservation efforts. If I wanted more Palo Santo and it was very important to my practice, I’d want to get it from this kind of source–where I am not only supporting a local farm in Equador, but also supporting the replanting of Palo Santo trees.  To me, this is critical–a good purchase can do a lot of good and support people care, earth care, and fair share.

 

Ethical Growing: The easiest way to manage a population and cultivate deep relationships is to grow it yourself, if you can. For example, I never buy white sage, but I love the smell and I do like to use it as part of certain incense blends that I make and use regularly.  Thus, I grow it myself, and try to let some of my plants to go seed so that I can sustainably grow it in the future.  Even if you don’t have land to grow large amounts of plants on, you can still grow a number of your own magical herbs.  In fact, many garden herbs are potentate magical allies and readily available for purchase in the spring.  A pot of rosemary, sage, white sage, bay laurel, thyme, or lavender would all be a very useful culinary, magical, and medicinal ally–and you build your relationship considerably with each time you tend the plant.  You can also grow many things outdoors, if you have the space.

 

Ethical Wildharvesting: Some plants, and trees, are harder to grow in pots in your windowsill or garden but certainly can be wildharvested ethically, taking only what you need, helping populations grow by spreading seeds, and tending the land that supports the plants.  I like to wildharvest plants on private lands (asking landowners, developing relationships with them) so that I know exactly how many people are harvesting there and how much is being taken.  Harvesting on public lands presents a much larger problem because even if you take only a little, you are never sure how much is being taken by others (hence, my ginseng example above).  For more on tree incenses and resins you can harvest from North America based on my own research, see this post.  For more on how to create wildharveted and home-grown smudge sticks for smoke cleansing, see here and here.  For more on how to learn foraging and wildharvesting, see my series here and here.

 

I hope this has been a helpful way of thinking about how to respond to the Anthropocene–it might seem like a small piece of the larger puzzle, but it is a piece we have a lot of direct control over. For these populations of plants, communities, and ecosystems, making ethical choices, reducing our demand, and practicing people care, earth care, and fair share may make all the difference.