January 17th has come and gone, and to some is known as Old Twelfth Night. In 1752 the calendar was changed, and Twelfth Night is now January 6th, also known as the Feast of Epiphany, but to those who follow the old calendar, it would be this eve that Wassailing orchards and other festivities would be observed. We’ve talked about the magic of wassailing here, but tonight I want to pay homage to a strange and special plant that never touches the Earth. Though Christmas has passed us, Mistletoe, Viscum album, has long been a powerful magical plant of the Yuletide season and the Winter months.
It’s name comes from the Old English misteltãn. This parasitic plant that grows on various trees, particularly the apple tree, it is held in great veneration when found on Oak trees, which is often rare. Perhaps it is the rarity of it that has caused it to be held in such high regard by so many cultures. As a parasite that growths in neither sky nor earth, it has long held a reputation as a magical plant.
A powerfully protective plant, both heralded as a protection against and of witches and magical practitioners, I find it to be indispensable from the Magical Herbaria of Winter. Since we’ve passed Twelfth night or January 5th- 6th, now it is time to deal with the remnants of the Winter Solstice celebrations and decor. In some traditions, it was on this night that the mistletoe would be burned, in others it was wrapped and secreted away to come out again for the following year. The most notorious folklore I’m sure almost everyone has heard, is that it’s best to kiss beneath the mistletoe.
Peter Haining in his book 'Superstitions',
"The mistletoe, was revered by the ancient Greeks as sacred, yet superstition has it that the reason why it is so lucky to be kissed under it is that the plant once offended the old Gods, who thereafter condemned it to have to look on while pretty girls were being kissed!"
The origins of the associations with kissing and mistletoe are murky, though the role mistletoe played in the story of Baldur from norse legends may have something to do with it. It is said he was beloved above all other gods, and his mother Frigga, loved him best of all. Fitting, for she is the goddess of love and beauty amongst other things. She feared for the harm that life could bring Baldur, so she went about the land securing promises from all beings that they would not harm her son. But of course, there was one that was forgotten, mistletoe.
Loki, the ever wicked trickster and ne’re do well of the ancients, made an arrow of the wood of the plant and convinced a blind god, Holder, brother of Baldur, to shoot it at him. Loki directed the arrow at Baldur’s heart and it struck him and killed him. There are multiple endings to the story and the strange translucent, white berries of the mistletoe can be seen as Frigga’s tears. If the story ends happy, Baldur is restored back to life and the love Frigga has long been associated with meant all who stood beneath this powerful plants would be bestowed with a kiss.
In Holstein Germany, the branch is called “the branch of spectres” and is thought to cure fresh wounds and give luck in hunting. It also keeps away both thieves and werewolves. If not mistletoe could be found on oaks in the old days it was an ill omen. To see if the one you love will marry you, there is a charm you can do with the leaf of the Mistletoe. Take one leaf of mistletoe and name it for yourself and one for your sweetheart, draw a circle before the fire and place yours in it, and if he is to marry you, the leaf named after him, which you place outside the fire, will jump into the circle.
In the Ozarks, it was believed to keep witches off the meat in the smokehouses, while in Normandy it would de-flea featherbeds and protect young children from being whisked away by fairies. In Staffordshire, a sprig of last years mistletoe burned under this years pudding would carry Christmas luck forward. In Italian folk magic, women would carry a sprig of mistletoe to ensure conception. It seems that mistletoe is usually up to the task.
In Wales it was believed that a sprig of mistletoe gathered on St. John’s Evening would induce dreams of omen both good and bad. In Sweden, a ring of mistletoe will ward off sickness. It is also used as a protective talisman against fire and lightning when hung in a barn or house. It is also said to open all locks. It remained sacred to the Druids from many accounts and this regard was so high, that mistletoe was excluded from church decorations, perhaps due to its lavacious folklore, or it’s strong pagan veneration, and in some places still is today. It is a good one to wrap up in red thread to protect the home from evil spirits.
This use seemed readily adaptable to the Christian folklore as well.There are many traditions, but there are some beliefs that when you bring in the mistletoe on Christmas, you must keep it in for a full 12 months before removing it to keep away evil. The old mistletoe will then we burned when the new is brought in! Thus preventing evil spirits from entering for another year.
There are many species of mistletoe, but for clarity’s sake, here we are speaking of the European variety. Many of the American species are more toxic, yet the European one, despite containing some toxic elements, has a long history in European folk medicine. It was even used as a Winter fodder crop for livestock. Dried mistletoe is widely available as an herbal tea in Europe, where the Phoradendron species so common in North America is absent. Pliny the Elder noted the Druid’s use of this plant harvested from their sacred Oaks for use in ritual and medicine. As I said before, Oak is not the most common tree this plant parasitizes, so finding it on those old giants would have been of special significance.
The most common use of mistletoe as a tea is to address circulatory and blood pressure issues. The ever enigmatic founder of Biodynamic farming, amongst other things, Rudoloph Steiner, advocated mistletoe tea for cancer, and today there are many mistletoe based formula and clinics for treating cancer in Germany and Switzerland.
I rarely use mistletoe internally since we don't have the appropriate species here in the U.S., but I do love to use pieces I find from windfall as talismans and protective amulets. I use it for luck in hunting and protection, especially from the unseen. Have a fine finish to your January and blessed Imbolc my darlins.
Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough. Wordsworth Editions. 1993.
Longmans Dictionary of the English Language, Penguin Book Ltd. 1991.
Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. Helicon Publishing Ltd. 1995.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. Faber and Faber. 1997.
Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World. United States, University Press of the Pacific, 2003.
Mac Coitir, Niall. Ireland's Wild Plants – Myths, Legends & Folklore. Ireland, Collins Press, 2010.
Mushrooms have long been lauded as powerhouses of mystical healing properties. Today with writers and researchers like Paul Stametes and William Padilla-Brown and many more looking into the constituents and seemingly endless healing properties of fungi and lichens. Far from a new concept, the uses of mushrooms and lichens as medicines goes back to some of the earliest medicinal practices.
Recently I met a mushrooms called Tinder Fungus, or Fomes fomentarius, and I am basically in love with it now. When I found this hard, shiny strange gray stripped polypore fungus on a hike near our home recently with my partner, I did not know the ID right away, but something in me said, grab one of these to ID, this is important. Upon our return home it took no time at all to learn its name. As we researched more about it, I was so excited to discover that it was one the fungi found on the ice mummy researchers have named Otzi the iceman. This gave the Tinder fungus its other common name, Ice Man fungus. It is also called hoof fungus and tinder conk for reasons we’ll see why.
It is found in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America, this is a long lived mushroom. The fruit bodies are perennial, surviving for up to thirty years! The strongest growth period is between early summer and autumn. If you look at the mushroom sliced sideways, you can see how it grows in layers each year. It was used by our ancient ancestors to carry fire, giving it the name tinder fungus, and also to make a substance known as Amadou. The young fruit bodies are soaked in water before being cut into strips, and are then beaten and stretched which separates the fibers. The resulting material is referred to as "red amadou”, and I believe Paul Stametes wears a hat made of it! It was used in early medicine and dentistry due to its absorbent nature.
Historically the tea of this mushroom was also a powerful medicine, which may explain why Otzi had it on him. He was found in the ice in the mountains between Austria and Italy, and lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. I felt a strange feeling as I handled the fungus after that. Recently, my brother did an ancestry test and sent me the results, and interestingly enough, we were part of Otzi’s haplogroup. While that doesn’t mean we are direct ancestors of this famous mummy, it made me feel strangely connected, sitting there holding this fungus we found on a Beech tree here in North Carolina, knowing it was a tool, both for fire making and medicine, my Copper age ancestors may have cherished. He had it laced through a piece of leather, like a mushroom necklace or charm, which I love the idea of. It was most likely to ensure it was easier to carry, but it is beautiful.
Tinder Fungus has been used as a tea for centuries in a wide variety of cultures. Though recorded as Agaricum in 200 AD, the fungus that was used to combat deadly diseases such as Tuberculosis in the Middle Ages is thought to be Fomes fomentarius or another close species, Fomitopsis Officina. Hippocrates in the fifth century BC described Fomes fomentarius as a ‘cauterization substance for wounds’. It would go on to be used in this way as amadou for centuries. This may be what gave rise to it’s other name: ‘surgeon’s agaric’.
In European folk medicine, Fomes fomentarius was used to cure haemorrhoids, bladder disorders, and dysmenorrhea. I sliced the fresh fungus with a very sharp knife (it is hard to cut) and decocted (boiled it gently) for 30 minutes. It made a reddish, almost birch-beer like tea that I am now obsessed with. I drank a lot of it. I love it.
The International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms has a lot of good things to say about the medicinal powers of the fomes. In their report "Anti-Infective Properties of the Melanin-Glucan Complex Obtained from Medicinal Tinder B. Mushroom, Fomes fomentarius (Aphyllophoromycetideae)", they say that Fomes fomentarius raises the immunity of the body, enhancing blood circulation, regulating blood sugar and lowering blood pressure. It also has shown its ability to fight the herpes virus, influenza and much more. From Trad Cotter: "These mushrooms are wonderfully rich in compounds similar to those of turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), including polysaccharide-K, a protein-bound polysaccharide commonly used in Chinese medicine for treating cancer patients during chemotherapy." I've added it to my turkey tail and reishi extractions for extra oomph.
Fomes fomentarius is incorporated in the ancient Indian medicine as a diuretic. It is also used as a laxative to stimulate bowel movement. The fungus is also a remedy that steadies nerves. The Chinese used Fomes fomentarius in the treatment of cancer of the throat, the stomach and the uterus. The Okanagan-Colville peoples used the fungus to make antimicrobial teas and poultices to treat infections and arthritis. It was used to cauterize wounds by Laplanders and the Cree to treat frostbite. Excitingly, the mushrooms are also not just medicinal to humans, Paul Stametes found extract of the mushroom are great for bees, namely in reducing the number of deformed wing virus and Lake Sinai virus.
Magically, it was used in smoking rituals in western Sibera and in Hokkaido it was believed burning the fruiting bodies overnight would banish evil spirits. The Khanty people, an indigenous population in what is known now as Russia, also used it ritual in a similar fashion but specifically was a funerary fungus. The smoke was produced through burning the fungus when a person died and it was continued until the deceased person had been taken out of the house. The people coming from the funeral also had to pass through smoke. The aim of the procedure was not to let the dead have any influence on the living. I do so love it when a plant or mushroom is good for immunity or disease and it also has a corresponding metaphysical purpose as a clearer of evil or spirits. As above. So below.
As in all things, over-harvest can be a problem. These are long lived, slow growing mushrooms. Please NEVER harvest lots of or make medicine with a mushroom you are unsure of ID for. Taking just a few and making a double extraction of the medicine is a much better way to make use of rarer fungi, as using the tea or powders only, despite being traditional, does use more matter. This great blog post goes into some detail and lists further resources on growing these amazing beings.
Wait, wait. What is a double extraction? All this great info about mushrooms made me realize, I’d like to give you the quick and dirty on making medicinal mushroom double extractions. You can do it with your new friend the tinder fungus, or turkey tails, reishi, chaga, shitake, lion’s mane, Usnea lichen and so many more. Obviously there are 100 ways to do things in herbalism and medicine making, so I will give the very basic outline and theory behind it, and tell you what I do. There are many much more knowledgeable medicine makers older and wise then I.
+Making a Mushroom Double Extraction+
Mushrooms contain a lot of different types of constituents. Some are easily water-soluble (polysaccharides) and some are less soluble (terpenoids and phenolics). By doing the double-extraction process, it allows you to utilize the full spectrum of constituents in one medicine.
The simple steps are:
If you want to forgo measuring and make a folk tincture (i.e. one that is eye-balled and not necessarily exact but still kickass), just make sure to tincture the mushrooms or lichen in 80 proof or higher alcohol and ad one part water extract to one part tincture. That should leave you at roughly 25-35% alcohol and be shelf stable.
Pro tip: If tincturing feels confusing, (I’m terrible at math and it made me feel mad at first), check out 7song’s very helpful PDF on tincturing to make it clearer.
Now go be free, drink mushrooms, feel like a Copper Age human and wear Tinder fungus as jewelry! Well, you don’t have to do any of that, but I hope this toe into the world of mushroom medicine has at least tickled your fancy. If you want to get wild and actually DO this with me and Abby Artemisia, check out our Folk Herbalism and Wild Food Foraging school, The Sassafras School of Appalachian Plantcraft. We have two more days to get the Early bird discount! Blessings in the New Year (even though the seasons are a wheel and have no beginning or end)!
Buhner, S.H. (2012). Herbal Antibiotics. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Rogers, R. 2011. Fungal Pharmacy. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
Saar, Maret. “Fungi in Khanty Folk Medicine.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 31, no. 2, 1991, pp. 175–179., doi:10.1016/0378-8741(91)90003-v.
Stamets, P. 2002. MycoMedicinals An informal treatise on mushrooms. Hong Kong: Colorcraft Ltd.
There are many names for the transition between October and November. The Celts called it Samhain, which means ‘Summer’s End’ and it is the last of the three harvests that began at Lammastide. It was now that animals were killed and meats preserved for winter use to ensure the clan's survival. It was, and is, the festival of the Dead. Dumb Suppers were silently eaten with the beloved departed, while divination was fruitful on this spirit night when the veil between the Dead and Living thinned. The Wild Hunt rides in chaos over the land and the dead roam freely, can't you hear them today on the wind?
We light bonfires to drive away darkness and prayers said for the dead. The Hidden Company draws near and some cast two circles, one for the living and one for the dead during their rites. Halloween, with May Eve and Midsummer's Eve, is one of the three 'spirit nights' of the year when the veil between the worlds is thin, allowing for this unearthly conference. The Dark of the year that we sit in now is a time for planning, rest and contemplation. It ends at the Yuletide when the Old Woman and the Horned One begin the year anew. Look into the shadows now, without fear and learn from the Dark Ones. Do not fear the Dark.
In Wales it was called calan gaef or the 'first day of winter', while Halloween was nos calan gaef or 'winter's night'. Despite the Wiccan persistence in treating Samhain as the Celtic New Year, there is little evidence to support this idea. In fact this idea is more likely to have developed in the romanticization of the Celts that happened in the late 19th century.
To the Anglo-Saxons, early November was the time when surplus cattle, sheep, and pigs were slaughtered and the meat salted to see the tribe through the winter months. Writing in the 8th century the Venerable Bede said that the pagan Saxons called November Blodmonath or blood month. In a religious sense, it was when the blot was performed, the pre-winter sacrifice of animals to the Gods in the hope that the weather would not be bad and not too many of the clans group would die before Spring of Winter illnesses.
To our Celtic, Saxon and Norse ancestors Samhain was a festival for the dead. It was a special time when summer gave way to winter and supernatural forces were believed to be on the loose. The early Christian Church decided to move the Festival of All Saints from May 13 to November 1 in 835 CE. A century later, November 2 was declared All Souls Day when it was the Christian custom to pray for the souls of the dead in Limbo. These Church festivals may have influenced the folk customs of All Saint's Eve or Halloween, however, it is more probable that much of the older pagan customs were remembered in these folk customs. Sometimes the Church preserved the very things that it attempted to stamp out.
The apple was considered a symbol of immortality. Interestingly, it's also seen as a food for the dead, which is why Samhain is sometimes referred to as the Feast of Apples. In Celtic myth, an apple branch bearing grown fruit, flowers, and unopened buds was a magical key to the land of the Underworld. Allantide apples. Peel the apple, keeping the peel in one long piece. When the peel comes off, drop it on the floor. The letter it forms is the first initial of your true love's name. Wait until midnight and cut an apple into nine pieces. Take the pieces into a dark room with a mirror (either hanging on the wall or a hand-held one will do). At midnight, begin eating the pieces of apple while looking into the mirror. When you get to the ninth piece, throw it over your shoulder. The face of your lover should appear in the mirror.
The completion of the fall harvest was considered to be the start of the winter season by many early cultures, even though they were well aware of the motions of the sun, including the winter solstice, by which we in modern times mark the beginning of winter. In the Celtic dialect spoken in Cornwall, this annual autumn celebration was known as Kalan Gwav, which translates as first day of winter. At some point after Christianity came to Britain, Kalan Gwav melded with the All Hallows’ observances. But as the use of the Cornish language diminished, this celebration came to be associated with an obscure Cornish saint, St. Allan, and was known in English as Allantide, "tide" being an arcane suffix meaning a season or a period of time.
Since apples were strongly associated with love and marriage, it was believed they had the power to reveal their prospective spouse to those who had not yet married. Young Cornish men and women approaching marriageable age would often sleep with the "Allan" apple they had been given under their pillow, or under their bed, on the night of the day they received their apple. They did so in the hope of dreaming of their future wife or husband. In some districts, it was believed that this dream of future love would only come true if the dreamer ate their apple on the following day.
The other divination game which involved suspended apples had become popular in the area of Penzance around the turn of the nineteenth century. It was still played there during the Regency at Allantide. Two strips of wood, each between eighteen to twenty inches long and about an inch to an inch and a half wide, were nailed together to form a simple cross. Four candles were placed on the top of each arm of the cross. This candle-laden wooden cross was suspended from the ceiling, usually in the kitchen of the home.
Then, an Allan apple was hung by a short string from each arm of the cross. In many households, as with bobbing apples, marriageable maidens would have placed their mark on one of the apples before it was suspended from the cross. When it came time to play the game, the candles were lit and the boys gathered beneath this Allantide "chandelier." Each boy took turns jumping up to try to catch an apple in his mouth. Boys who were too slow or missed the apple and hit one of the arms of the cross were likely to get a blob of hot wax in the face for their efforts.
+The Last Sheaf of Grain+
The last sheaf of rye is left to the Roggenwulf, or Rye wolf, during the winter’s cold. In Germany when wind blows the tall gass or corn the “Grass wolf” or “Corn wolf” is among the blades. Many final harvest ceremonies involved the final harvest of grain:
“Crying the Neck” in England and Wales:
"In those days the whole of the reaping had to be done either with the hook or scythe. The harvest, in consequence, often lasted for many weeks. When the time came to cut the last handful of standing corn, one of the reapers would lift up the bunch high above his head and call out in a loud voice.....,
"I 'ave 'un! I 'ave 'un! I 'ave 'un!"
The rest would then shout,
"What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee?"
and the reply would be:
"A neck! A neck! A neck!"
Everyone then joined in shouting:
"Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr. So-and-So”
(calling the farmer by name.)"
+Hazelnuts and Chestnuts+
This is an old Scots and Northern English name for Halloween, the night of 31 October, otherwise called The Oracle of the Nuts. As the chill of autumn pervaded their homes, people would sit around their fires, eating newly harvested hazelnuts or chestnuts. Several fortune-telling customs grew up that involved throwing nuts into the fire, hence these names for the night.
A young man might give each nut the name of a possible sweetheart and watch to see which burned the brightest in the flames. This is evoked in John Gay’s poem, The Spell:
Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name:
This with the loudest bounce me sore amazed,
That in a flame of brightest colour blazed;
As blazed the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ’twas thy nut that did so brightly glow!
Robert Burns recorded several related customs about this day, one of which was a fortune-telling game for a young couple in which two nuts were put in the fire. Their future was predicted depending on whether the nuts burned quietly together or jumped apart. An elaborated description appeared in an American publication of 1912, Games for Hallow-e’en, by Mary E. Blain: “A maid and youth each places a chestnut to roast on the fire, side by side. If one hisses and steams, it indicates a fretful temper in the owner of the chestnut; if both chestnuts equally misbehave it augurs strife. If one or both pop away, it means separation; but if both burn to ashes tranquilly side by side, a long life of undisturbed happiness will be their lot.”
Filberts are the European variety of hazelnuts, and in some parts of England, they were used for divination purposes around Samhain night. In fact, for a while the practice was so popular that Halloween was sometimes referred to as Nut Crack Night. Filberts were placed in a pan over a fire and roasted. As they heated up, they would pop open. Young women watched the filberts carefully, because it was believed that if they popped enough to jump out of the pan, romantic success was guaranteed.
In some areas of Europe, the nuts were not roasted, but instead were ground into flour, which was then baked into special cakes and dessert breads. These were eaten before bed, and were said to give the sleeper some very prophetic dreams. In a few regions, the flour was blended with butter and sugar to create Soul Cakes for All Soul's Night. If a young lady peels an apple without breaking the peel; then throws it over her back; it will land in the shape of the initial of the person she will marry? This old wives tale originated in the British Isles-where it was supposed to be performed on Halloween. The traditions of trick or treating and dressing up in costumes also came from the British Isles.
However you celebrate Samhain, remember that the land you live on is alive with Spirits all the time, not just tonight. Ask them what they want, just as we ask each other what we need to feel fulfilled in relationship, and feed the Hungry Ghosts.
Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween : From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Midsummer has passed, the Full moon in July is complete, and Lammas is here. The first Harvest is upon us. I always feel that time is either going too fast or too slow, very infrequently does it seem to be just right. But maybe it is just right, and I just need to learn to slow down.
The once tame garden is now wild with flowers and squash and kale and peppers and so so many wild greens. Every day we make meals of Leatherback mushrooms fresh foraged from the dark woods with tender yellow squash and pungent, freshly harvested garlic. Grass fed beef from the farm behind ours and sheep’s milk yoghurt from another neighbor. Curly and bitter dock seeds are harvested to grind for flat bread, and the ubiquitous violets, magenta lambsquarters, ox eye daisies and nettles fill our bowls. It’s hot, we sweat, we swim, we struggle, and we laugh.
We’re almost through the Dog Days of Summer. That special time when Sirius, the Dog Star, is overhead and in Appalachian folklore, dogs and snakes are more likely to bite, tempers flare and wounds are slow to heal between July 3rd and August 11th. This term stems all the way from ancient Romans, who believed the bright light of the Dog Star actually added warmth of its own to the sweltering Summer heat. In fact it doesn’t, but the term has traveled through the ages and settled into the languaging of here, the place where I dwell.
So many plants are blooming or getting ready to, and I’m excited to spot some small yellow flowers soon. The flowering tops of one of the most humble members of the Rosacaea family: Agrimony.
The name alone reminds me of my childish fascination (and let’s be real it obviously never ended) with all things witch-related. It just sounds spooky perhaps, or like the word itself is a spell, a word of power. The word Agrimony comes from the Greek agremon which was believed to refer to cataracts in the eyes. There is some confusion about the origin of the word, however, for it may have been referring to a type of Poppy. However its name came about, I love this plant which I rarely see mentioned.
There are many species of agrimonia, 15 in fact, but only about four boast a reputation as healers. Agrimonia eupatoria, which is native to Europe, North Africa, Southwest Asia, and Macaronesia, is an introduced species in North America. Agrimonia pilosa is native to Asia and Eastern Europe and Agrimonia gryposepala and parviflora are native to North America.
Like many other Rosaceae family members, the tannins in this plant are one of the sources of its powers. Tannins are are a class of astringent, polyphenolic biomolecules, (I know it’s a mouthful), that bind to and precipitate proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids. This is why, it makes your mouth pucker and feel dry when you drink tannic tea; it binds to the proteins present on the mucus membranes of the mouth. This tightening of the flesh is what causes tannin rich plants to be so useful medicinally as wound washes, for inflammation and bleeding.
Historically, starting in ancient Greece, Dioscorides mentions the seeds and herb infused in wine being useful for dysentary, and the leaf for hard to heal ulcers, speaking to its tannic nature. It was also indicated as a liver herb, or for “faults of the liver”. The Anglo Saxons called it “garclive”, and used it for snake bites according to Madame Grieve, who woefully often does not cite her sources. She does give this charm though,
“If it be leyd under mann’s heed,
He shal sleepyn as he were deed;
He shal never drede ne wakyn
Till fro under his heed it be takyn’ (Grieve, 1931, p. 13)”.
Other Medieval herbalists used it similarly, and this line, between waking and sleeping, awareness and lack thereof, seems to be the domain of this humble plant.
From Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica:
“Let a person who has lost understanding and knowledge have the hair cut from his or her head since the hair creates a horrible and shaking tremor. Then cook agrimony in water and wash the person’s head with this warm water. Also, the herb should be tied warm over the heart when the person first senses mindlessness. Then place it warm over the forehead and temples. The person’s understanding and knowledge will be purified, and the mindlessness will leave.”
She also recommends it for,
“bile and mucus from intestines (wine infusion), saliva, excretions, and runny nose (in complex formula, pill form), leprous skin condition due to incontinence or lust (complex formula, bath), and cloudy eyes (pounded agrimony placed around the eyes at night with a cloth, not entering the eyes).”
Its vulnerary uses persisted in Europe, and mixed with vinegar and Mugwort, it was applied to a variety of wounds. Its powers to stop bleeding were apparently made more powerful by the recommendation of adding pounded frogs and human blood to treat internal hemorrhaging. In England in the 18th century, the juice and crushed leaves were still being used commonly for injuries and wounds by common people. In Ireland, this plant was sometimes known as Marbhdhraighean in Gaelic. It was also sometimes known as “tea-plant”, which as you can guess, was due to its use as a substitute for tea during lean times. There, it was used for colds, liver issues and as well as old ulcers.
The species of the Americas, a. gryposepala or parviflora, were used by native peoples and here where I live, in Cherokee it is called a la s ga lo gi. They use it as a tonic and blood purifier. The Cherokee also used infusions for similar issues of bleeding, urinary issues and more—often of the root, which was not commonly used in Europe. They were used for skin issues and pox, as a gynecological aid, for fevers, and many other ailments. Today, Agrimony is used for urinary issues, gastro issues, respiratory problems where breath is limited and wounds. Things haven’t changed too much, but we just won’t add frogs to our mix.
Of course it also has other uses. Agrimony is also a lovely dye plant and yields a yellow dye, much likes its small joyous flowers. When braided together with Rue, Maidenhair Fern, Broom, Ground Ivy, it was believed in Tyrol to reveal the presence of witches, and held them fast on the threshold. We see many stories of the power that different plants have to reveal witches beneath thresholds. How one enters or exits a place does indeed say a lot about them doesn’t it? According to Culpeper, Agrimony is attributed to Jupiter and Air. In Hoodoo, Agrimony has the unique ability to turn back jinxes that have already been made. This is interesting because most herbs are focused on preventing a working. It is also said to represent gratitude. What a good reminder at any time of year.
One of its old names, Church Steeples, is evident this time of year as the tall flower spikes of yellow flowers stand upright, waving in the hot, late Summer breezes. The association of the holy place, a church, with this plant further exemplifies its uses against evil and as a jinx breaker. While you walk the cool forest trails as Summer’s end comes into sight, please give a nod to this sweet little plant and feel its soft fuzz between your fingers. Hail Summer’s End, and the beckoning Dark times ahead.
Allen, D., Hatfield, G. Medicinal plants in folk tradition. An ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland/Cambridge: Timber Press. 2004.
Culpeper, N. Culpeper’s complete herbal. London: W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd. 1880.
Garrett, J.T. The Cherokee herbal. Native plant medicine from the four directions. Rochester, VT: Bear & Co. 2003.
von Bingen, H. Hildegard’s healing plants. From her medieval classic physica. Trans. Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press. 2001.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic, 2007.
Wood, M. The earthwise herbal. A complete guide to old world medicinal plants. Vol. 1. Berkeley: North Atlantic Herbs. 2008.
It is almost Midsummer. We face opposite the depths of Winter, at the highest point of the Sun’s journey. Sometime between June 20th and the 23rd, Midsummer’s Eve, the Wild Hunt, spectral hunting party of the Horned God/dess of Many Names rides out.They gather the lost souls of the dead who wander the Earth, to return them to their rightful realm. Summer thunderstorms brew in the distance and the air feels electric. This, Samhain and May Eve are the three ‘spirit nights’, when the veil is the thinnest.
This is one of the liminal times. It was believed that contact could be made with the Good Folk at the 'tween times of dusk on Midsummer's Eve and dawn on Midsummer's Day. Liminal spaces ‘twixt the boundaries of here and there are all historical places to meet the Fae. Beneath certain trees, springs, special earthen mounds, places that are between states. These places are also the meeting houses of Witches, as is expected. Midsummer’s Eve is especially fine for divination, and there is a long and rich history of divining for one’s true love this night. This is a ghostly time, though the Sun is warm and the days are long, every day now until Winter Solstice, becomes shorter and shorter, asking us to face our own mortality and that of the good Earthly beings around us. The shadow of the Reaper’s scythe is cast over the verdant fields.
Many herbs have long standing traditions of use as charms and medicines around this time of year, plants like Mugwort, St. Johnswort, and many more. One of my favorite plants of this season is Yarrow, Achillea millefolium. The white clusters of Yarrow are blooming around the mountains now, preparing us for the upcoming eve of June 20th, and the dawn of Midsummer’s Day, June 21st. I gather the blooms and leaves on Midsummer’s Day when the Sun is at its zenith point, drawing upon that peaked energy for empowerment of charms, talismans and medicines.
Yarrow has a long history of use from ancient Greece and Rome, where it earned its latin name, Achillea from the legends of Achilles. In Greek mythology, Thetis bathed Achilles in Yarrow, which gave the hero, Achilles, its protective powers to make him invincible wherever the liquid had touched his skin, save for his heel, which was never submerged. Achilles also healed his wounded soldiers with Yarrow, a great styptic herb, the warrior’s herb.
Scotland has a large repository of lore surrounding Yarrow as well. An interesting Gaelic woman's incantation from the Carmina Gadelica that is spoken when picking Yarrow goes: "I will pick the smooth Yarrow that my figure may be sweeter, that my lips may be warmer, that my voice may be gladder. May my voice be like a sunbeam; may my lips be like the juice of the strawberry. May I be an island in the sea; may I be a star in the dark time, may I be a staff to the weak one. I shall wound every man, and no man shall hurt me."
It is disputed as to whether this plant repels or draws faeries, and I implore you to see what you think. Yarrow is associated with the element of Air, as it is aromatic. It is also useful in divination, combine it with Mugwort and Chamomile as a tea and dream of things to come. Historically, it was used for divining one's future lover or determining whether one is truly loved. In Appalachia it was stuffed up the nose to divine if one’s true love reciprocated the sentiment: “ Green yarrow, green yarrow, you bears white blow, If my love loves me my nose will bleed now.”
It was also used in love sachets, because it is believed to be capable of keeping a couple together for 7 years. It was also used protectively, much like mugwort. It was strewn across the threshold to keep out evil and worn in charms to protect against hexes. It was also tied to child’s cradle to protect it from those who might try to steal its soul. The Saxons wore amulets made of this plant to protect against blindness, robbers, and dogs. For a love charm: “Yarrow, sweet Yarrow, the first I have found. In the name of the Lord, I pluck thee from the ground. As the Lord loves the Lady, so warm and dear, So in my dream may my lover appear.”
However you use Yarrow in your rites, remember that for good or for ill, Yarrow is of the deep, red blood of the heart. The Warrior's herb, the Lover's herb, the Healer.
The Carmina Gadelica
The Celtic Magazine, Volume 9, p.431. Edited by Alexander Mackenzie, Alexander Macgregor, Alexander Macbain.
Walpurgisnacht approaches April 30th. Celebrating the holidays of my ancestors has provided a lot of healing for me. Sinking into a space, though not entirely perfect, authentic or completely unbroken in its lineage, of ancestral lifeway is one of the many tactics I see for helping to heal the emptiness that can inhabit whiteness. Where a cultural void lives, things will come to fill it, and we can become much more apt to cause harm to minority and oppressed cultures as we seek to fill that painful void. As you may know from my other work, I am passionate about facing cultural appropriation, and while things are complex, nuanced and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for any problem, nor do I hold any real “truth” or “authority”, this is how I am choosing to deal with the ways in which oppression has erased my own access to a cultural legacy… I am looking into the pre-Christian past of my ancestors, and allowing the Old Ways to meld back into my current Lifeway. One of those Ways, is observing the Old Holy Days.
The lesser celebrated holidays are often the most special to me, perhaps because they have retained more of their original meat. I’ve enjoyed celebrating this special night and watching the strange parallels during this markedly un-spooky time as we stand across from Samhain, All Hallows… The ways in which the eve of April 30th and October 31- Nov 2nd are rife with omens, the frightening of spirits and divinations is uncanny, and delightful I must say. I hope this brief foray into the lore of this special night will tantalize you...
This forgotten Germanic holiday is defined by Sturm and Drang or “Storm and stress”. They say March is, “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” and this is reflected in the energetic flavor of this season. Both Celts and Germans valued what we know now as Beltane, their cultures often overlapped in sacred observances. They both observed this night before May Day with bonfires in which they burned Fennel, Rue, Chevril, Thyme, Chamomile, Pennyroyal, and Geranium for Celts, and Rosemary, Juniper, Rue, Hemlock, Blackthorn, and Wild Caper for Germans. Goethe used the wild night as a backdrop for Faust, revealing this obscure night to a much broader audience, thus reigniting an interest in this wicked holiday.
This night, as often is the case, is named after the St. Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess of Francia, and is celebrated on the night of 30 April and the day of 1 May. This night celebrated the canonization of Saint Walpurga and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt, both of which was said to have occurred on 1 May 870. Saint Walpurga was hailed by the Christians of Germany for battling "pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft." In Germanic folklore, Hexennacht, literally "Witches' Night", was believed to be the night of a witches' meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of woodland in central Germany. As is often the story, this saints day superseded the festivities of May Day and supplanted the Old Pagan celebrations. However, call it what you may, they cannot erase the Old Ways entirely, no matter how hard they try.
In eastern Europe, pitchforks of burning hay were waved about this eve to impart the power if the sun to the fields in an act of imitative magic. As in many Scandinavian traditions, people made noise with loud gun firing and noisemaking to drive out evil. In medieval Europe, the night of April 30th represented Queen May’s 11th hour bid to take back forest and field from king winter before he was driven off, one can see a reflection of this more modern pagan mythology in the Pagan stories of the Oak and Holly king.
At this time, protection bundles of Elder leaves hungover animals stalls and wild roses in Bohemia and in North Europe crosses of Hawthorne, Rowan, Birch crosses were nailed to lintels of house and barns. Essentially, this Germanic Walpurgisnacht celebration resembles Celtic Beltane. In other European countries, sprigs of Ash, Hawthorn, Juniper, and Elder, once sacred to the Old gods, are now used as a protection against them. Horseshoes are nailed prongs up on the threshold or over the door. Holy bells are hung on the cows to scare away the witches, and they are guided to pasture by a goad which has been blessed. Shots are fired over the cornfields to frighten away ill spirits. If one wishes, they can hide in the corn and hear what will happen for a year. It is also a night to look for signs and omens, for on Walpurgis Night, they have more weight that at other times of the year save for on St. John's Day, or Midsummer.
There are many lovers omens on this eve, just like in Scotland on All Hallows. They say if you sleep with one stocking on, you will find on May morning in the toe a hair the color of your sweetheart's. Girls try to find out the temperament of their husbands-to-be by keeping a linen thread for three days near an image of the Madonna, and at midnight on May Eve pulling it apart, saying:
"Thread, I pull thee;
Walpurga, I pray thee,
That thou show to me
What my husband's like to be."
They judge of his disposition by the thread's being strong or easily broken, soft or tightly woven.
Dew on the morning of May first makes girls who wash in it beautiful.
"The fair maid who on the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be."
A heavy dew on this morning presages a good "butter-year." You will find fateful initials printed in dew on a handkerchief that has been left out all the night of April 30th.
On May Day girls invoke the cuckoo:
"Cuckoo! cuckoo! on the bough,
Tell me truly, tell me how
Many years there will be
Till a husband comes to me."
Then they count the calls of the cuckoo until he pauses again.
If a person wears clothes made of yarn spun on Walpurgis Night to the May-shooting, they will always hit the bull's-eye, for the Devil gives away to those he favors, "freikugeln," bullets which always hit the mark.
On Walpurgis Night it is a spooky time, similar to the flavor of Halloweentide. From the Book of Hallowe'en:
Zschokke tells a story of a Walpurgis Night dream that is more a vision than a dream. Led to be unfaithful to his wife, a man murders the husband of a former sweetheart; to escape capture he fires a haystack, from which a whole village is kindled. In his flight he enters an empty carriage, and drives away madly, crushing the owner under the wheels. He finds that the dead man is his own brother. Faced by the person whom he believes to be the Devil, responsible for his misfortunes, the wretched man is ready to worship him if he will protect him. He finds that the seeming Devil is in reality his guardian-angel who sent him this dream that he might learn the depths of wickedness lying unfathomed in his heart, waiting an opportunity to burst out.
Both May Eve and St. John's Eve are times of freedom and unrestraint. People are filled with a sort of madness which makes them unaccountable for their deeds.
"For you see, pastor, within every one of us a spark of paganism is glowing. It has out-lasted the thousand years since the old Teutonic times. Once a year is flames up high, and we call it St. John's Fire. Once a year comes Free-night. Yes, truly, Free-night. Then the witches, laughing scornfully, ride to Blocksberg, upon the mountain-top, on their broomsticks, the same broomsticks with which at other times their witchcraft is whipped out of them,--then the whole wild company skims along the forest way,--and then the wild desires awaken in our hearts which life has not fulfilled."
--SUDERMANN: St. John's Fire.
Stay tuned for an Herblore of Walpurgisnacht e-book in the works... and have a wonderous and windy Walpurgisnacht...
The Book of Hallowe'en By Ruth Edna Kelley
Night of the Witches by Linda Raedisch. 2017.
The Equniox is right around the corner and I've got eggs on my mind. Two week ago, my hens started laying again, perfect brown eggs. They fill me with such delight. We have them in a chicken tractor and they run about, lie on their sides in the sun like little pancakes and chase each other and unseen bugs and things all day. The nourishment they are able to create our of the bugs and grass, plus compost treats and grain we give them, is astounding. They are truly alchemists. It's almost time to celebrate the burgeoning growing year and bid hello to the wild flowers of Appalachian Spring time. I figured it as good a time as any to talk about Egg magic.
Eggs are used in many traditions for charming, hexing and curing. The Anglo- Saxons and Egyptians both placed eggs in their grave goods as well as on physical grave sites. There is no other symbol of new life so universal and apparent as the egg. Lying in wait to birth whatever being, or magical intention they hold. The tradition of egg dyeing that is quite popular in Easter customs today, most likely comes from Eastern Europe where the arts of Pysanky and Krashanka (two forms of decorated eggs) were born.
A red- dyed Krashanka bound with wheat and hung in a new house soothed disturbed spirits and invited spirit protection.
The shells are dyed many colors to correspond to their uses. Red dyed eggs were thrown into rivers to alert those in the Otherworlds that Spring had come and the Season of the Sun had returned. These were also placed on the graves of loved ones and check the following day for any disturbance. If any was detected, it was made known that their restless spirit was in need of a prayer, offerings or other releasing rituals.
Eggs were also placed under beehives to keep bees from leaving and to ensure good honey crops. When rolled in green oats, the dyed eggs acted as fertility charms when buried in fields as well. You can also write upon an egg any spell or wish you have an bury it in some secret place. As it decays, so does your wish disseminate into the ether.
I'm preparing for Spring by starting seeds and looking to the signs. Some in East Anglia would see if the time was right for planting by removing their trousers and sitting upon the land to feel its warmth. I have laid my own bare bottom on the Earth many times, but never with such a practical purpose! As the sun warms the soil, if possible, get your skin in contact with the soil. Why wouldn’t you want to take off your pants outside!? It sounds like a great time to me.
Still others would walk their land and ‘feel it in their bones’ as to whether or not it was the right time to plant. The lighting of bonfires in or adjacent to planting places with much singing and leaping dances would show the crops to grow tall and strong while the roaring fire would entice the sun to lend its life giving flames. The old beliefs about planting with the waxing moon and weeding with the waning further enliven the process of seed sowing with magic as the moon’s growth stimulates that of the seeds. “As above, so below.” The practice of planting by that signs carried over strongly with German immigrants to the Appalachians, where it surely mixed with First Nations and African beliefs from enslaved peoples, it has become the complex and rich story of living by the signs we have in the mountains today.
Planting By the Moon and Signs
Planting by the signs is an ancient practice going back thousands of years. This form of agricultural astrology is used in biodynamic and old forms of Appalachian farming techniques. The gravitational pull off the moon and planets is said to influence groundwater and its movement through plant bodies. Sometimes the lines between science and magic are blurred. If you'd like to join me in a journey to learn the ins and outs of planting by the signs, I'll be holding a class on it in Barnardsville, NC April 20th. Check it out and may your Rites of Spring bring you joy and may your seeds sown bear fruit.
Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life by Dan Campanelli and Pauline Campanelli
The Pattern Under the Plough by George Ewart Evans
It’s amazing how different each late Winter transition is into Spring. I expect to see certain plants arriving and poking their little heads cautiously up from the cold Earth, but I am always amazed at who overwintered, or is venturing an early peek. We have patches of Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), throughout our property at the Hawk and Hawthorne, crimson from the cold freezes, but still fragrant and lovely.
The Kitchen herbs don’t often get the credit they deserve. They are for more than just soup! Thyme was been an important folk medicine and magic herb from Greece, Iran, North America and almost everywhere in between. Thyme was one of the first plants I used to heal myself of illness and I can’t sing it’s praises enough. So now, it’s Thyme.
Thyme is a mint family plant native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean but has spread throughout the world, becoming an important part of many nations folk medicine and folkloric plant practices. To the Greeks, Thyme was a symbol of courage, a belief which spread into the Middle Ages in other parts of Europe. Thyme is also a plant of the bees and it is customary to rub it on hives. In the Middle ages, even embroidering a bee and a bit of Thyme on a cloth was enough to confer courage to the knight it was gifted to.
Wild Thyme has been burned since antiquity in Greece, Mongolia and Siberia as an incense plant. Before Frankincense resin was used, Thyme was the most important incense plant in Greece. It was burned to fend off disease bringing demons, as well it should be, for it keeps away many evil and devlish things.
The sometimes reliable but never boring Madame Grieve writes,
'the name Thyme, in its Greek form, was first given to the plant as a derivative of a word which meant 'to fumigate,' either because they used it as incense, for its balsamic odour, or because it was taken as a type of all sweet-smelling herbs. Others derive the name from the Greek word thumus, signifying courage, the plant being held in ancient and mediaeval days to be a great source of invigoration, its cordial qualities inspiring courage'
It was included in the mix of special herbs strewn on the birthing bed in Germany alongside Common Bedstraw (Galium aparine). Not only was it a birth herb to be used in this manner, but it was also used as a tea to bring on the menses, the birth itself and later, pass the afterbirth. The Fae are said to love especially love Thyme, and despite its use in the birthing bed, it was, in some places, spoken of as an unlucky plant to bring indoors.
It’s use as a funerary herb may shed some light on this curious custom. The Order of the Oddfellows carried sprigs of Thyme at the funerals of their brothers, while in certain areas of England, it was customary to drop a sprig of Thyme onto the coffin before burial. It is interestingly also associated with murder, and the scent, perhaps due to its use at funerals, is said to be the scent of a murdered man’s ghost. This is curious also because that means that my chicken soup is not complete without essence of murder.
Pennsylvania Germans have a particular practice around the planting of Thyme and it is said it cannot grow and flourish if you do not sit on it after planting. If you’ve ever transplanted large carpets of Thyme, this is actually a very helpful practice, and also uniquely enjoyable.
In Scotland and England, there is a love divination that can be performed with Thyme on St. Agnes’ Night, January 20th. Take a sprig of Rosemary and one of Thyme and sprinkle them three times with water. Upon going to bed, put one in each shoe and place a shoe on each side of the bed. You must then invoke St. Agnes:
“St. Agnes that’s to lovers kind,
Come ease the troubles of my mind.”
And the future will be revealed in a dream once you drift to sleep, revealing the identity of your true love.
There are many variations of this spell and even a whole poem, by Keats, called “The Eve of St. Agnes”, which goes into fantastical detail as only Spenserian stanza can. In Spenser’s own “The Faerie Queen”, a 16th century English poem, boasting the title of near longest poem in the English language and the birthplace of the Spenserian stanza verse form, he mentions many uses of magical plants. Here he mentions the purification ritual all witches must undergo in Springtime by bathing in water infused with Oregano and Thyme,
" Till on a day (that day is every Prime,
When witches wont do penance for their crime)
I chaunst to fee her in her proper hew.
Bathing herself in Origane [Oregano] and Thyme."
Thyme is clearly magical, and this is just the tip of the Thyme-berg. Medicinally, Thyme is often overlooked I feel, due to its prowess as a culinary spice. Most spices, because of their strong aromas and flavors, hold immense medicinal power and have throughout history. Thyme is generally a go to for respiratory infections and coughs, though it has many, many other uses.
In the British Isle, it was used for coughs and respiratory ailments, and even for quite serious ones such as tuberculosis and whooping cough. Many would drink Thyme tea to calm the nerves in England, and today it is still used as a gentle nervine. It was drunk almost universally in remote parts of Scotland, and aside from being nervine, it was used to prevent bad dreams. In Suffolk, it was specific for headache. In Ireland, its use was less common but it still helped with respiratory trouble, and headache when smelled fresh, rather than drank as a tea. For Tuberculosis, an infusion was mixed with the antiviral Honeysuckle and Wild sage (1).
In America, in Southern Folk Medicine, Thyme was used to treat Typhoid with other diaphoretic plants like Sassafras root bark, pine needle, mustard seeds, boneset leaves and pennyroyal as an infusion. It was also used for promoting birth to “women in Travail”, and moving the after birth, as well as topically as a hot ointment for swellings and warts.(2) In African American folk healing Thyme was used for respiratory illnesses, as a gargle for sore throat and as a hot fresh leaf poultice for cuts, wounds and to prevent infection (3).
I like to use it for coughs and respiratory illness of all types. It has been indicated for both dry, raspy coughs and productive coughs depending on the herbal tradition, but I have personally benefited from Thyme in both cases. You can make a lovely, simple cough syrup from it by combining it with Horehound (Marrubium vulgare). I mix 2 parts Horehound dry leaf and 1 part Thyme dry leaf. Steep in freshly boiled water 15 minutes.
You can leave it longer to make a stronger infusion, but honestly it can get a bit bitter if that is off putting. If I end up with 2 cups of liquid after squeezing out the herbs, I add one cup of honey, so a 2:1 ratio of water to honey. I warm the tea in a pot gently to dissolve the honey and then pour into a very clean jar and label. This will keep in cold storage about 2 months. I take 1 tsp up to 4x a day for coughs.
I also just use the tea, simply infusing one teaspoon of dried Thyme leaf in about 1 cup of water and drinking that 3 times a day for digestive issues. For urinary tract issues like UTI, I like to combine it with Goldenrod, another favorite friend, as a tea. Thyme cleans the tubes! Whether the respiratory or the urinary tract!
Thyme is also a great ingredient in Fire Cider. You have have heard some folks have copyrighted the name of this general tonic. Check out more info here about that. Everyone can make this medicine and adding Thyme is a great way to add the respiratory and digestive powers to your immune boosting blend (4). Vinegar is a great tonic medicine and you can read more about my obsessions with all things vinegar in a post from last Spring. I love to make a just straight up Thyme infused vinegar or oxymel for medicine as well. It’s delicious, especially on mushrooms or chicken, or even as an oxymel spritzer with seltzer and ice.
You can also use Lemon Thyme in any of these recipes, many find it more palatable and it generally has similar medicinal actions due to both plant’s thymol content. Thymol is a monoterpenoid phenol that is very soluble in alcohol. It’s one of the magic chemicals in Thyme that give it it’s antibacterial and antifungal powers. This means you can make a mean (well actually very nice) tincture of Thyme as well for colic, respiratory illnesses, digestive upsets, UTI and more.
I do a fresh herb tincture the folk method, i.e. just pour brandy over fresh chopped Thyme and let it sit 4-6 weeks, shaking the jar occasionally. I take 20ish drops 2 to 3x a day for bronchitis, digestive issues with gas, and externally diluted as a wound cleanser. If you want to make a more exacting tincture try 1:5 ratio and 70% alcohol.
Thyme is divine. Whether to divine your true love with the aid of St. Agnes or to heal a gassy gut, Thyme has been medicine to many, and made our soups, stews, dressings and drink oh so warming and magical. Take heart these last few days of Winter and know that the warmth will return all too soon, and we will be wishing for the cool before we know it.
Speaking of which, Abby and I are hard at work getting ready for this year’s Sassafras School class! We’re so excited. We have a few more spaces left so don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. We also have our Bark Eater’s class coming up February 23rd! Any excuse to cover edible and medicinal trees is a good one. We had a blast in last year’s class.
Müller-Ebeling Claudia, et al. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants. Inner Traditions, 2003.
Pennacchio, Marcello, et al. Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke : Its Ethnobotany As Hallucinogen, Perfume, Incense, and Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic, 2007.
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) and Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)
Imbolc is just around the corner, and the season of skeletal sticks is upon us. There is little color lighting up our wild world here in Southern Appalachia. This is why the deep crimson splashes of Sumac I see along back roads bring a light to my mind, like dark red blood dotting the grey and golden roadways. If you’ve wondered what that beautiful plant was, as you whiz by it, let me introduce you.
Sumac is indigenous to North America and is a member of the Anacardiaceae, or Cashew family. There are about 35 species in the Rhus genus. And don’t worry, despite its name, Sumac is not easily confused for Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) which has whitish berries. Here in Western North Carolina, I have never encountered it. It is considered rarer than Poison Oak and Poison Ivy, however it’s still good to know how to clearly ID both plants.
The name typhina is explained in Linnaeus's and Ericus Torner's description of the plant with the phrase "Ramis hirtis uti typhi cervini" meaning "the branches are rough like antlers in velvet". If you run your fingers along the branches you’ll feel the soft velvet for sure. (1)
Sumac has a long history in Southern Appalachian folk medicine. Indigenous people all over North American used and still use the Sumac for its healing and edibile parts. The Smooth Sumac was used as an antiemetic, antidiarrheal, antihemorrhagic, blister treatment, cold remedy, emetic, mouthwash, asthma treatment, tuberculosis remedy, sore throat treatment, ear medicine, eye medicine, astringent, heart medicine, venereal aid, ulcer treatment, and to treat rashes. Staghorn Sumac parts were used in similar medicinal remedies. The Natchez used the Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) root to treat boils. The Ojibwa took a decoction of Fragrant Sumac root to stop diarrhea. The berries, roots, inner bark, and leaves of Smooth and Staghorn Sumac were used to make dyes of various colors. (2) The Cherokee historically used a decoction for blisters. They took a mixture of the barks of Rhus copallina Rhus typlrina and Rhus glabra, make a decoction and pour over the offending blisters. The root decoction was used by Creek peoples to treat dysentery internally as well due to it’s powerful astringency.
Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass used them as a cough remedy and also for kidney medicine. He used it specifically for Bright’s disease of the kidneys. He spoke of them as a good blood purifier, as well as a gargle for sore throat and mouth. It’s interesting to note the use of this medicine for both kidney’s and blood in Bright’s disease, as it is often associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. He suggested harvesting the berries before the first frost, which would kill the Vitamin C. This was also used as a remedy for scurvy, for as many foragers today can attest, the tart, lemonade like taste of the berries stands witness to their ascorbic acid content.
From Minnie Stamps Gosney of Raleigh, North Carolina in the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: Sarsaparilla roots, Red Sumac, and Bitter Root, and bark from Wild Cherry and Wild Poplar Roots should be cooked together; this brew is then mixed with hard cider and water, and taken three times daily, a half a cup at a time for jaundice. “Shoemake” or Sumac was also used for “skin poison”, or eruptions caused by ulcers, boils, Poison Ivy or other irritants in North Carolina’s folkloric past.
A lot of Sumac’s healing powers lie in its astringent properties and interestingly enough it has a special affinity throughout its history as a healer of issues specific to the mouth. Ulcers, sores, inflammation and infection of the mouth could be treated with Sumac inner and outer bark decoction or berry decoction. In modern studies, a tincture of Smooth Sumac’s berries showed efficacy against certain strains of bacteria, including Staph, E. Coli, Salmonella, and the much-feared yeast Candida. The Middle Eastern species of Sumac, Rhus coriara, was able to destroy Streptococcus bacteria, the cause for Strep Throat. Sumac is rich in Gallic acid, which is one of the ways it acts against bacteria, fungal infections and even certain viruses. (3)
It was also used historically to treat disease which caused discharge like leucorrhea and venereal disease like Gonorrhea. Madame Grieve describes its virtues in such conditions,
“The bark, in decoction or syrup, has been found useful in gonorrhoea, leucorrhoea, diarrhoea, dysentery, hectic fever, scrofula and profuse perspiration from debility. Combined with the barks of slippery elm and white pine and taken freely, the decoction is said to have been greatly beneficial in syphilis. As an injection for prolapsus uteri and ani, and for leucorrhoea, and as a wash in many skin complaints, the decoction is valuable. For scald-head it can be simmered in lard, or the powdered root-bark can be applied as a poultice to old ulcers, forming a good antiseptic.”
Sumac is not just a medicine but is also a prolific wild edible. The ripe, red berries of various species were are edible and tart. They can be eaten fresh or dried, but due to the large seed, my personal favorite way to ingest them in through making sumac “lemonade”. Soaking the berries in cold water infuses it with the tart taste of the vitamin C rich berries, and a little maple syrup or honey to taste makes a beverage very reminiscent of lemonade.
The young shoots of Smooth Sumac are also edible. They were also peeled and eaten historically by Apache people, especially relished by children. The shoots can be enjoyed by peeling away the green bark of the Smooth sumac and crunching away raw or cooked in Spring. Here is a good photo essay of just how to tell the Staghorn and Smooth Sumacs apart and how to enjoy the shoots. I look for the fresh shoots in Spring and make sure they crack off easily. Look for the ones with little to no white pithy core, for it doesn’t taste great but won’t hurt you. You can saute them, and season them with the berries!
There are Sumac species around the world used for food and medicine, and in some Middle Eastern and Northern and Eastern African countries the berries are used as a spice in a blend which is often known as za’tar. In Ethiopia, it’s often used to spice lamb. I use it to spice red meat, mushrooms and cooked greens dishes. Any time a zing of lemon would bring flavor to a dish, call on Sumac.
To use Sumac as a medicine today, the dosage is one cup of the infusion or 3-4 ml of either the 1:5 fresh fruit tincture, or 1:7 dried fruit tincture. These should be taken three times per day on an empty stomach, preferably 10-15 minutes before meals. To make the tea, add 2-3 teaspoons of the fresh or 1-2 teaspoons of the dried fruits to boiled water and allow it to steep for 15-20 minutes. It will taste much stronger than when it is prepared as a beverage. (4)
In folk medicine and herbal practice today, Sumac is considered refrigerant, meaning if you’re suffering from a fever it makes you feel cooler, astringent, diuretic, and antiseptic. The tincture and decoction of the bark and berries are both used for fever, diarrhea, sore mouth, painful urination and kidney stone. I gather the berries in a dry time when they first ripen red, and the bark in Spring when the sap is rising. The bark can then be tinctured or dried and used for decoction, while I dry berries for spice, make a vinegar, or tincture them fresh. Stephen Harrod Bruhner advises to tincture the root bark 1:5 in 50% alcohol, for a 20 to 40 drop dose up to 4x daily.
The leaves can be used as a poultice for skin eruptions, wounds and even rashes from Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac. The inner bark can be made into an antibiotic salve for wounds. It has also been incorporated in uterine medicine, specifically preventing uterine prolapse and stabilizing the blood which can help with menstrual cramping. (5)
The vinegar is my favorite thing to make with the berries. I use it culinarily, and mix with water and drink whenever I have a UTI or urinary complaint. I used to get chronic UTI’s when I was still drinking alcohol, and my kidneys still need extra support even two and a half years after getting sober. I add 2 tablespoons of sumac vinegar to a quart jar of water and sip it to keep my kidneys flowing as an occasional tonic. I just strip the berries off the branches into a clean mason jar, cover with raw apple cider vinegar and give a gentle shake occasionally. Don’t forget to put a piece of parchment paper between your lid and the jar to prevent the metal from rusting. How do you enjoy and celebrate Sumac?
Cautions: Sumac is in the same family as poison ivy, cashews and mangoes and should be avoided by people with severe allergies to any of those plants.
Wintery weather came rather suddenly to us here in the mountains this year. I was wearing flip flops not a month ago, and now I can barely type in my house it’s so chilly...Time to pull my extra box of sweaters out from the basement… I’ve always had a controversial stance with this time of year, and it’s that I love it. I love Christmas time. Solstice time. I love it. The magic feeling of Christmas was one of the first ways in which I was able to engage in magical actions in my family. It was basically a witches gateway drug for me. Christmas is so thoroughly pagan that it is not hard to see how it beguiled my wee mind.
As a child, my mother, who already thought I was pretty damn strange, told me she would catch me at night, just sitting in contemplation of the Christmas tree all lit up with lights and our family ornaments. I had a lot of big, magical feelings as a child, and few ways to express them. But sitting there, before this sight of lights, family history and colorful fancy, I found myself enthralled by the feeling of being enchanted. The feeling of “something more than”, and “wonder”. This was the feeling that I chased which led me to where I am today. So maybe I have Christmas to thank for leading me down the delightful shadowed trail I now follow.
One of the ways that we piece back together those pagan practices and beliefs which were suppressed in the Middle Ages by the Church, is through folk survivals in holiday celebrations, song and dance. This year, my best friend, Saro Lynch Thomason, revived our local group of Wassailers, and I have been delighted to be apart of it again. What is Wassail? And what is Wassailing?
Wassail refers to “good health” or drinking to someone’s good health. The act of going to Wassail someone or some tree, as well shall see, was a way to drink to their health to ensure their continued prosperity. And while there are many fine articles on Wassailing people, I want to focus on the practice of singing to Apple trees during this season. I’ve written a little of it before, and on the lore of Apple wood, but the practice of making offerings of cider, singing, dancing and even whipping trees to get them to bear great crops in the New Year is a fascinating practice that survives to this day.
The origin of the word Wassail is murky but here is one explanation from the stories of King Arthur:
“A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:
While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”
Wassailing has been done in different ways by different people throughout the Europe, each place having its own unique method and custom, but here are some commonalities of this mirthful celebration. Offerings of either toast or cake sopped in cider were hung in branched of the Apple trees in the orchard and cider poured onto the roots to encourage the tree to bear plentifully the following year. Much noise was made, perhaps to frighten away evil spirits which might harm the productivity of the tree through howling, yelling, firing guns and loud singing. The best producing tree in the orchard may also be similarly dressed in ribbons or decorated in someway to celebrate it’s bounty.
The noise of stamping feets and singing voices also served to wake up the sleeping winter trees. Bonfires and lanterns were lit to bring light into the dark, chilly orchards on these nights. And just when this practice was done varies widely from Christmas Eve, to Twelfth Night to Old Twelfth night. For our purposes, anytime between St. Stephen’s Day on the 26th of December the the 17th of January are fine times to Wassail in orchards.
Germans tied trees together declaring them married and encouraged them to be fruitful. They also hung apples along with other edible treats as ornaments. In Eastern Europe, a apple is cut cross-wise on Christmas Eve. If the core displays perfect stars, it foretells of fortune and good health for the upcoming year. In Normandy young apple trees were not harvested to leave the apples for the birds (or the Fae), which was called pixy-hoarding, cullpixying or griggling.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to sing or startle the Apple trees awake:
“Apple Tree Wassail” from the Watersons, who say that it is from the area of Devon and Somerset. This is the version my Wassailing group performs:
Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white pin,
Please to come down and let us come in.
Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white smock,
Please to come down and pull back the lock.
For it’s our wassail, jolly wassail,
Joy come to our jolly wassail.
How well they may bloom, how well they may bear,
That we may have apples and cider next year.
Master and mistress, oh, are you within?
Please to come down and let us come in.
Good health to your house, may your wishes come true
Now bring us some cider and we’ll bring down the moon.
There was an old farmer that had but one cow (start stamping!)
And how to milk her, he didn’t know how.
He put his old cow all in his old barn,
And a little more cider won’t do us no harm.
Harm, me boys, harm, Harm, me boys, harm,
A little more cider won’t do us no harm.
O the ringles and the jingles and the tenor of the song goes
Merrily merrily merrily
O the tenor of the song goes merrily.
Hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls,
Little heaps under the stairs!
Hip hip hooray!
A spoken rhyme from Roy Palmer in the Illustrated London News of January 11, 1851:
“Here's to thee/ Old apple tree!/ Whence thou mayst bud,/ And whence thou mayst blow,/ And whence thou mayst bear,/ Apples enow:/ Hats full,/ Caps full,/ Bushels,/ bushels, sacks full,/ And my pockets full, too!/ Huzza! huzza!”
from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
Version B. from the Shekerjian book which has music
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Well mayest thou bud,
And well mayest thou blow,
And well mayest thou bear
Of apples enow!
Hats full, caps full,
Good bushel sacks full,
My pockets too.
Give us a crop
Of good apples ripe,
Red and well-rounded
The good juicy type!
Here is our ale,
Now drink of it well,
And give us good apples
Of which we can tell.
The Apple Howling Chant from Sussex:
Stand fast root, bear well top.
Pray good God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big,
Every bough, apples enow.
(and then shout!)
Hats full, caps full
Five bushel sacks full
And a little heap under the stairs
Holla, boys, holla!
(and blow the horn!)
Folk-songs from Somerset, gathered and edited by Cecil Sharp, and published in 1904. The text is available on the net at Folk-songs from Somerset.
Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear.
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.
To blow well and to bear well
And so merry let us be;
Let every man drink up his cup
And health to the old apple tree.
Apples enow, hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls,
tallets ole fulls, barn’s floor fulls, little heap under the stairs.
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
(Shout, stamp and fire off guns).
Interestingly enough, Cecil also noted that people Wassailed their bees! There were known as “Bee Worsels”. I encourage wassailing most things. Many of these songs and their origins were gleaned from the excellent site: Proto-Indo-European Religions.
So however you choose to celebrate this time of year, and if you love apples, thing about reviving the old and lovely practice of Wassailing your orchards, or those that you frequent. Wassail!
Apple Wassails on Conrad Bladey’s website.
Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt, Chatto and Windus, London, 1903.
A Book of Christmas Carols edited by Haig and Regina Shekerjian, arranged by Robert de Cormier, Harper & Row Publ., New York, 1963.
Apple Tree Wassail lyrics as sung by the Watersons on the Mostly Norfolk page.
Folk Songs from Somerset by Cecil Sharp, Simkin & Co. Ltd, London, 1904; on the IMSLP site at Folk Songs from Somerset.
Palmer, K., and R. W. Patten. “Some Notes on Wassailing and Ashen Faggots in South and West Somerset.” Folklore, vol. 82, no. 4, 1971, pp. 281–291.
Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker
Apple Tree Wassail in his Everyman's Book of English Country Songs, and quotes the Illustrated London News of January 11, 1851
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