Grief comes in waves. Our bodies are not resigned to be able to hold one feeling all the time, and they must come and go, regardless of how we feel about them. Sometimes with each new global catastrophe or ever far right reaching Supreme Court decision at home, our bodies are subject to the anxiety and depression that late stage capitalism brings. Humans have always faced trauma and challenge, and always sought ways to mitigate it with plants. There are many wonderful articles about right now about how we can support out systems in trying times, and I wanted to share how the people on this land did so too. Here are a few helpful things:
Janet Kent: Herbs for Grief
Ritual Botanicas Herbal blend for Grief
+Nervines in Appalachian Folk Medicine+
“I have that run down feeling”. “My spirits of low”. “I have trouble with the nerves”. All of these terms were used to describe mild depression or anxiety in Appalachia. Influential Edinburgh physician Willian Cullen, said that neuroses or nervous diseases as, “all those preternatural affections of sense and motion which are without pyrexia.” The disorders that fell under this heading were wide, many diseases were seen as under the dominion of nerves, such as apoplexy, paralysis, fainting, indigestion, epilepsy, hypochondriasis, vapors, low spirits, tetanus, palpitation of the heart, hysteria, mania, and melancholia.
Fundamentally, treating nerves in Appalachian folk medicine focused on tonics and strengthening the weak system. The Western European tradition of medicine provided the groundwork with which African and Indigenous medicine traditions would augment it in the mountains. Historically, treating nerves focused on other drugs carefully delivered to the specific constitution of the patient. Narcotics: opium, belladonna, hyoscyamine, nicotine, laurocerasus, and sweet almond. Sedatives were also incorporated with purging and blood letting, many of them had strong orders, such as asofeotida. Appalachian folk medicine was informed by popular medicine of the day in the 19th century, and the combination of tonics, blood purifier, exercise, specific herbal sedatives and nervines all tailored to the specific constitution of the patient.
Bitters were commonly thought to be a first step towards treating nerves as a whole system approach was utilized. Bitters like Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Gentian (Gentiana spp.), and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Tommie Bass used two ounces of the following: Angelico (Boarhog root) (Ligusticum canadense), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina), and yellow root. He combined these and boiled them in a gallon of water for one hour. He would then add one tablespoon of cayenne pepper, and on occasion Dandelion or Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) were added. He recommended one tablespoon three times a day.
Medicines like Catnip, Sage and Peppermint (Mentha spp.) were considered nervines due to 19th century ideas about the stomach connections with nerve disorders. Tommie Bass had a tonic to calm the nerves which contained Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Peppermint, Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.), and Peach leaves (Prunus persica). Many tonics involved water or vinegar as a menstruum, but whiskey was an oft used ingredient. Noted folklorist Doug Elliott writes that some mountaineers used alcohol tonics as a means of getting around temperance.
+Please consult an herbalist before taking any of these remedies. For historical research only+
Tommie Basses Nerve Tonic: 2 cups peach tree leaves, 2 cups passionflower, one cup bugleweed, a cup catnip, a cup mullein. Boil 20 min. 4 quarts of water. Take 2 tbsp 3-5 times a day Or as often as needed.
One of Tommie’s popular mixtures was catnip, maypop leaves, skullcap, sage and peach tree leaves and sometimes bay laurel leaves which he used specifically for nervous headaches, rattled nerves, and sleep potion for stubborn insomnia.
+Bay Laurel (Magnolia virginiana):
Magnolia used in southern herbalism as a tonic, digestive, bitter, anti-anxiety, for chest complaints. Tommie Bass used 3 dried leaves to 1 cup boiling water, steep 10 minutes and strain. Used for sleep time tea that is good for the nerves and stomach.
+Black cohosh (Cimifuga racemosa):
It was used to treat nerves, among many things, and taught to settlers by indigenous people. Also known as Black Snakeroot. Though best known as a women’s medicine historically, it was also used to help restless babies sleep. Use 20- 40 drops tincture (1:2 fresh, 1:5 dried root 60 % alcohol) three times a day for acute symptoms, three times daily for tonic. Avoid large doses as these can cause headaches and vomiting.
+Catnip (Nepeta cataria):
This classic remedy has calmed fussy babies for centuries. It is considered an old standby for anxious children. It helps the stomach aspects of anxiety. If one gets upset stomach from anxiety, Catnip is for you.
+Heal All (Prunella vulgaris):
Best combined with peach leaf, skull cap, bay laurel, for frazzled nerves, not as sedating as other mints. Cold its used for tonic and hot for nerves and diaphoretic. Avoid use in pregnancy and overly using it with children.
+Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata):
This Native plant was used by the Cherokee for a wide variety of ailments from crushed roots for boils to eating the cooked leaves and fruits with cornmeal. In modern herbal practice the leaf and flower are used as nervines for acute cases of anxiety. Passionflower helps with tension headaches and tight muscles caused by nervousness, as well as insomnia and restlessness. Tommie Bass used it for high blood pressure due to stress as well. When tension causes chest tightness, heart palpitations or vascular constrictions, it is also helpful. Small, frequent doses are best, 20-50 drops of tincture (1:2 fresh, 1:5 dried in 40% alcohol), or infusion 1 tsp dried or 2 tsp fresh flowers and leaves.
+Peach Leaf (Prunus persica):
Peach is a native of central Asia, but is widely cultivated in temperate climates throughout the world. It was used as an old European folk remedy, yet upon with the colonization of North America, it was eagerly adopted by the indigenous people as a food and medicine, and is still considered a part of traditional Cherokee medicine. Peach kernal, leaf, and twigs all contain acids and cyanogens which are considered constitutionally cooling. Combined peach leaf with red clover tops and passionflower it is a great sleepy time remedy. Avoid using the kernel and wilted leaves for cyanide levels are high and toxicity becomes a danger.
+Sage (Salvia officinalis):
Promotes sleep and rest as warm tea.
+Skull cap (Scutellaria lateriflora and other sp.):
Old nervine, not as strong as lobelia, but safer. Used in conjunction with passionflower, peach leaves, sage and bay leaves which all calm the nerves and aid one in falling asleep.
+Rabbit Tobacco (Gnaphalium obtusifolium):
Also known as life everlasting, smoked to relieve nervousness. Tommie Bass combined it for a quick acting nervine with mountain mint, sage, and peach leaves.
+Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua):
The bark tea was used to relieve anxiety.
Crellin, John K. Trying to Give Ease: Tommie Bass and the Story of Herbal Medicine. Duke University Press, 1997.
Howell, Patricia Kyritsi. Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians. Botanologos Books, 2006.
Patton, Darryl. Mountain Medicine: the Herbal Remedies of Tommie Bass. Natural Reader Press, 2004.
December 25th is known as Christmas day to Christians worldwide. Yet in the Appalachian mountains an older tradition persisted until very recently: the celebration of Old Christmas. The Julian Calendar is to blame, which was developed some 2,000 years ago. Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar to match the solar cycle more closely in 1582, and so the year went from 376 to 365 days. Thus the Gregorian calendar was born.
Such a large change took a long time to reach all areas of Europe, and longer still to be embraced. Even 200 years later as Scottish and English people migrated to the Americas, they brought with them those extra 11 days, and the old calendar. January 6th is still celebrated today in the Catholic church as Epiphany, or the day in which the wise men brought their sacred gifts to the baby Jesus, but in the Mountains it is known as Old Christmas.
There are many supernatural and magical beliefs that circulate on this holy night. One tradition holds that one ought to not lend anything out on that day, as the lender will never have it returned. This plays on many other Appalachian folk beliefs, especially about Witches and their penchant to borrow things from you in order to conjure you.
Many fired guns and lit firecrackers at midnight on Old Christmas Eve. A practice related to the longstanding mumming traditions of England and the masking and costumery of much of the rest of Old Europe survived in the mountains as families would dress up in costumes and drive away the spirits of the Winter by banging pots, noisemaking and shouting. Some believe this noisemarking to particularly come from French and Spanish influences, though we see noise processions throughout Europe in winter such as in the case of the Perchenlauf in Austria.
It was also said that animals would speak, kneel or lie down at Midnight on Old Christmas Eve and that fruit trees would bloom for a moment. But curse the man who hides in the barn and tries to listen in on the animal’s divinatory speech, for he may hear of his inevitable death which creeps around the cold corner of a Winter’s night. Elder bushes would also grow from frozen early! It was also believed that to have good luck you should not carry your ashes out of the house from New Christmas, December 25th to Old Christmas January 6th. Huge bonfires on hill tops and the merriment and noisemaking, alongside unnerving costumery and guising, or going from farm to farm dressed up, much like at All Hallows, gives Old Christmas a delightfully spooky countenance during this liminal time. See this piece I wrote a few year ago to see more about guising in Appalachia.
It was not until the 1930’s that Christmas trees were popular in the mountains, instead a stocking of treats or small sweets adorned the Christmas mantle. Dancing, music and feasting of course featured in the 12 days leading up to Old Christmas, while prayer and time with family and church were also prioritized. Interestingly, the South served to preserve some of the old Christmas lore of Europe due to the time of colonization. In Virginia, the old carols and songs the English Puritans tried to stamp out as heathen in 1652 lived on amongst the colonies. There are even records of a Maypole being set up in Jamestown (1).
Wassailing and wassail songs were noted by song collector Cecil Sharp that had jumped the pond from England, “Wassail, wassail all other the town...” These revealing songs had been sung in England since Anglo Saxon times and lived on in the green hills of Appalachia. The “Cherry Tree Carol” was also very popular in Appalachia and preserved a mystical aspect of the mythic accomplishments of the unborn Christ Child (2).
With all this talk of magical trees blooming on Old Christmas Eve, Old Christmas also had specific plants that were gathered on this day. As mentioned before, the Elderberry was one. Pokeweed, Hops and Cherry tree foliage were also gathered to decorate the home or display. Some believed the pokeweed and the hop would sprout on Old Christmas just to return beneath the soil the next day. This was further proof that this was indeed the true Christmas day and not the “man made” Christmas on the 25th amongst believers.
Weather predictions could also be made during the 12 days between New and Old Christmas. One day for each month. Thus the 25th would predict January weather, the 26th February and so on, or the predictions would begin on the 6th and continue until the 12th in the same way. This practice was recorded in the 16th century in Germany. More predictions could be made as well by smoke. If the smoke from the chimney blew northward it meant the fruit crops would be poor, if south then fruit would be abundant! Some
Blessed Solstice and may some Midwinter merriments find you however you mark this return of the Light.
(1). Troubetzkoy, Ulrich. “How Virginia Saved the Outlawed English Carols.” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, vol. 30, no. 3, Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, 1961, pp. 198–202, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42972930.
(2). Young, Chester Raymond, and Louie Brown. “The Observance of Old Christmas in Southern Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays Written in Honor of Cratis D. Williams, edited by J. W. Williamson, Appalachian State University, 1977, pp. 147–58
Rabbit Tobacco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium)
This beautiful native plant is popping up on roadsides and in grassy meadows all around where I live. I am not sure what it is about this plant, but it has always fascinated me. Perhaps it is the pearly white flower heads, the campfire, vanilla- like scent of the burned plant or its abundance this beautiful time of year, but it stands out every Fall. The Full moon in September for me is often the Rabbit Tobacco moon. Moonlight shining off their pearly flowers.
This aster family plant has many folk names. White balsam, sweet everlasting, life everlasting or pearly everlasting. This plant holds an important place in Indigenous and Black medicine traditions in the South, like in the practice of Hoodoo, among the Yuchi and Cherokee nations and in Appalachian folk magic. Though there are similar species in Europe, the use of this plant in America is grounded in First Nations traditions from so-called Canada to Florida, and is a pivotal plant in Southern Black Folk Medicine and Hoodoo.
This sweet biennial is analgesic, expectorant, antispasmodic and astringent. Some First Nations people practice medicine with this plant’s aerial parts for pain relief and as a muscle relaxant by applying the decocted tea and aerial parts externally. I think Rabbit Tobacco is best known for their affiliation with the lungs however. Coughs, sore throat and lung pain were all treated traditionally with the tea of this plant. In magical medicine, people bothered by ghosts were treated with the smoke of this plant among many nations but notably the Lumbee and the Yuchi(1).
Rabbit tobacco is used in Appalachian folk medicine cures for coughs when mixed with wild cherry bark, sweet gum resin, maidenhair fern and mullein. Alabama folk herbalist Tommie Bass used it as a vapor inhalation for coughs as well which reflects his learning from Black and Indigenous women. Pillows stuffed with Rabbit Tobacco are said to aid those who suffer from asthma attacks. This was even recommended for those with consumption or tuberculosis.(2) It was also used as a tea for whooping cough in children.
I’ve been told the medicine of Rabbit Tobacco works best when the leaves are brown and have been touched by the first frost. This practice was common amongst Lumbee people and eventually spread to many others living in the South. Cherokee folks combine this with Carolina vetch for rheumatism and muscle spasms and twitching.(3)
When you see the Rabbit Tobacco out this time of year around Western North Carolina, the dried brown leaves at the base of the stems are actually the preferred part for medicine. It is believed that the phytochemicals, such as terpenes, that make Rabbit Tobacco useful medicinally, don’t fully develop until this point. It is interesting to note that this plant is often touted as having “little use” medicinally in old books from white authors at the turn of the century. Curious to wonder where that originated as they are such a special and long loved plant. Phytochemical analysis reveals that they do indeed contain many powerful terpenes and triterpenes, which are the major constituents of the essential oils in plants. Terpenes carry out a wide variety of effects on the body and organic organisms but they can be anti-cancer, antispasmodic and anti-viral amongst many other functions.
In Ozark folk magic the sweet smoke of this beautiful plant is said to ease restless spirits and calm angry ghosts. Backwoods doctors would burn this herb and look for symbols in the smoke to lead them to a cure. Love divinations could also be done with this sweet plant by chewing some up and placing it under one’s pillow in order to dream of their true love (4).
In Hoodoo medicine one would smoke the dried leaves to relieve toothache. As the name implies, to live a long life and for a charm against illness, drink the tea. The tea was also commonly used for cramps and bringing on menstruation more easily amongst Afro- communities in the South(4).
I like to use Rabbit tobacco tea of the lower dried leaves as a warming remedy for flu-like symptoms and respiratory viruses. I haven’t used the tincture a lot personally, but many people do, except externally for poison ivy watered down as wash. I love this plant for it’s fumitory properties, as a locally abundant burning herb. The smell is so unique and beautiful. Pearly Everlasting is a beautiful and very special herb in our region to so many. I am adding it to my regional Samhain incense blend for burning on a coal to honor the restless spirits of this land I live on and provide some sweetness on their journey. Thank you Life Everlasting.
(1). Moerman, 250.
(2) Cavender, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. P. 93
(3). Boughman, Arvis Locklear, and Oxendine, Loretta O. Herbal remedies of the Lumbee Indians. United Kingdom, McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2004. P. 74
(4) Weston, Brandon. Ozark Folk Magic.
(5) Mitchell, Faith. Hoodoo medicine : Gullah herbal remedies. Colombia, Summerhouse Press, 1998. p. 70.
Spring is here. The Equinox has passed and we find ourselves back where it feels like we began in 2020. This last year has been an unprecedented challenge. It has also held beautiful joys and all the other complex stuff of life. Illness and disease have been on the forefront of everyone's (well almost everyone's) minds and now that we are standing here looking onwards to Beltane I stop an as myself, what else must be cleansed. I am not a fan of the idea that our bodies are dirty things that must be detoxed constantly and fad cleanses have never seemed safe or effective to me. But I do love choosing supportive, gentle care for my body systems that I can easily make myself. If you'd like to meet many of these plants in the wild, please join Corby and I for our 5 foraging classes this year!
My teachers have taught me that our body has many detoxifying processes, and gently supporting them is the best we can do to maintain balance. That doesn't mean though, that after a long Winter of feasting I am not ready to boost my digestion and give the old engine a tune up. That being said, people of the Appalachians have a long history of using tonics in Spring time to do just this. Taking a part of this Mountain tradition brings me bioregional joy! I'd love to tell you a bit about what tonics are and the history of their use in Appalachia after we figure out what the heck a tonic is.
*Take note: Some of the plants mentioned in this article are endangered or threatened and should not be harvested such as Ginseng, some are poisonous or have poisonous parts like Poke, and some plants and folk medicine methods are harmful and mentioned only as curiosities. Please practice mindfulness when exploring herbal medicine.
Historically, tonics were used to treat everything from digestive disorders to gout, sore eyes, skin problems, to liver ailments. A simple way to define “tonic” is a preventative medicinal substance taken to give a feeling of vigor or well-being. Most tonics were imbibed as beverages. They were usually made by making a strong tea or decoction (boiling the herbs, roots or barks rather than just steeping them) and sweetening to taste with sugar or honey. Spring greens could also have a tonic/purifying effect, such as Wild Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), Dandelions (Taraxacum officinalis), Dock (Rumex spp.), Poke (Phytolaca americana), Wild onion (Allium spp.), Ramps (Allium tricoccum), and Nettles (Urtica dioica). Even the juice of certain plants, like Cleavers (Gallium spp.), or Goosegrass as it is more commonly known in the South, was seen as a blood purifier. Water with slices of Burdock (Arctium lappa) root soaked in it was also used as a tonic.
Certain chemicals like turpentine and sulfur had many uses in Appalachian folk medicine, and were touted as fine tonics. Molasses and sulfur were arguably one of the most popular in the 18th century. Tonics were thought to move the slow Winter blood in Spring, and there were many traditional plant medicines taken and prepared, though in some cases might be used throughout the year. Spring was the most popular time to ingest and brew tonics, for in Appalachian folk medicine, it is believed the blood becomes thick and slow after a winter of salted and preserved foods. Aside from drinking brews, one could also eat their tonics.
There are a variety of Spring tonic food practices such as eating a mess of Poke, Branch lettuce (Saxifraga micranthidifolia) and Watercress (Nasturtium officinale). Eating nourishing meals of plentiful early Spring greens is a great way to engage with the practice of tonics today. Things like Chickweed (Stellaria media), Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), and Dandelion greens make wonderful bases to tonic meals, or when macerated in vinegar, tonic salad dressings. Drinking water in which iron nails had been soaked and simply cooking in cast iron were two more culinary tonics. While cooking in cast iron is a lovely thing to do today, I would suggest against drinking nail water as some practices are best left as curiosities.
Bitter herbs also make up of the other class of Spring tonics, for the very fact they were strongly flavored was seen as evidence of their power. An example of a tonic from Kentucky was from White Pine bark (Pinus strobus), Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus), Sasparilla, Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Mayapple root (Podophyllum peltatum), Apple bark (Malus spp.), Poplar bark (Liriodendron tulipifera), Bear paw root (Dryopteris filix-mas), Peppermint (Mentha × piperita), and Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). A true mix of native and introduced plants with many highly bitter ingredients. Plants didn’t have to just have a strong bitter flavor, for some of the tastiest tonics brewed as teas or decoctions were Sassafras (Sassafras albidium), Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Cherry bark (Prunus serotina), and Black or Sweet Birch (Betula lenta).
Tommie Bass, a legendary Alabama herbalist and salve maker, recommended Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) tea or White Clover (Trifolium repens) if you couldn’t find red as a tonic to build the blood. The most used tonic herbs he recommended were Yellow root (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), Dandelion, Gentian (Gentiana spp.), and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), all strong bitters. Tommie Bass’s tonic has Angelico or Boar Hog root (Linguisticum canadensis), Yellow root, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Wild Cherry bark, Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) and sometimes Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Dandelion.
Not all tonics were geared towards digestive health, however. Tommie Bass had a tonic to calm the nerves which contained Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Peppermint, Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.), and Peach leaves (Prunus persica). Many tonics involved water or vinegar as a menstruum, but whiskey was a oft used ingredient. Noted folklorist Doug Elliott writes that some mountaineers used alcohol tonics as a means of getting around temperance.
Like bitter roots, astringent barks were also commonly employed as tonics. Wild Cherry bark, Dogwood bark, and Sassafras roots were combined and boiled to be used to make a good tonic for the blood. Sassafras, long held to have a plethora of healing qualities from weight loss to syphilis, could also help better the flavor of a brew. Wild cherry was a highly esteemed tonic bark as a decoction or soaked in vinegar or whiskey. It was also mixed with the respectively astringent Oak (Quercus rubra), and Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) bark (or root bark) tea with enough whiskey in it to keep it from souring makes a good tonic. These varying mixtures of bitter, astringent and aromatic plant parts formed the backbone of the tonic tradition.
Homemade tonics were eventually displaced in most homes by commercial products like Scout's Indian Tonic, Hadacol, and Geritol, which some folk remember taking today. By the 1960’s-70’s however, the tradition of taking tonics seasonally had fallen out of general practice. Today, it seems an antiquarian fancy. However, there is still much value in tonics and the tradition of tonics have in our modern practice of folk medicine. Enjoying tonic Spring foods, or crafting herbal bitters for Winter meals are two lovely ways to experience this medicinal legacy for yourself through stimulating digestion. I use Wild Cherry bark bitters as an homage to the Cherry bark in whiskey tonic of history, and make Sassafras and Spicebush tea to 'build my blood' in Spring.
Many of the herbs mentioned here are good medicines and do their part in supporting overall well being through their actions as bitters, astringents, carminatives, digestives and more. The Appalachian tonic tradition is rooted in the complex history and unique ecology of this special place. With bitter or fragrant barks, leaves and roots in golden whiskey or tart vinegar, the diverse people of Appalachia took charge of their health and founds ways to bring themselves into balance. I invite you to step into the verdant Appalachian landscape and meet some of these abundant and healing plants of the tonic tradition.
Spicebush Tonic tea:
Take some trimmings of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) twigs. Boil 15 minutes on a low simmer. Add a splash of Organic Apple Cider Vinegar. Sip 1 to 3 cups throughout the day.
The Foxfire books series
Harry Middleton Hyatt
Frank C Brown North Carolina Folklore Collection
"Ozark Magic and Folklore." Vance Randolph.
Blessed Winter Solstice! It's that time of year again here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where in the warmth of the firelight we burn the fragrant resins of pine and fir, and simmer branches in a pot on the stovetop to fill the house with the clean scent and magic of evergreen. It's also the time of year where many are buying gifts, and in Pagan and New Age communities I see an upswing in talk about buying White Sage bundles and the defensive and difficult converstations coming up around how to talk to folks about this issue.
A few years ago I noticed a lack of readily available information on the cultural histories on different plants and woods used around the world for smoke medicine, cleansing and other sacred and healing purposes. The threatened status of White Sage (Salvia apiana) and the requests of Western indigenous peoples to stop using this plant in an inappropriate and culturally appropriative way has been loud and clear, yet for many reasons their asks and the nature of this plant's life go unheeded.
I like to believe it's because people don't know, yet I also see we need new ways to engage in these conversations when they come up to promote and inspire learning and healing. I wrote a booklet called "Sacred Smoke". It weirdly and sadly brought the most hate mail into my inbox, even more then I get when I post about hunting on instagram (including threats of violence against myself). All this, for suggesting kindly and without shaming that perhaps us white and non-indigenous folx could look into the hundreds of other, non-threatened, abundant and culturally appropriate plants and trees available for the practices of smoke cleansing and other incense adjacent practices. White people were outraged I tried to tell them what to do and also called me racist (against myself??) for talking about these things.
I am not taking this personally, I know that I experience a lot of shame and hard feelings when I am asked to examine a behavior I have or have had that causes harm. I am not asking for people to sink into shame, but to rise into knowing and growing. I am asking people to look at the reality of the situation. And that is painful.
Let us reclaim the knowledge erased from all of our minds as our ancestral folk ways were erased by the forces of Monotheistic religion, capitalism and industry. I want for us each to have access to the means to heal our ancestral trauma and that looks different for every person and every ancestry line and requires different tactics, sensitivities and time. Some of the following is an excerpt from my booklet and I encourage you to read with an open heart, knowing that I love you, and I want happiness, health and joy for you at the end of all this work.
All of us grew up in harmful, traumatic ways under the destructive culture of capitalism, patriarchy, oppressive Abrahamic religions, or other challenging and frightening forces. The desire to get far away from and embrace things that seem entirely different from those damaging entities can be the impetus to explore a new spiritual path or practice. This very real pain makes conversations about cultural appropriation in Paganism and New Age spiritual communities very hard, because it can be very triggering.
Everyone deserves a spiritual path that is nourishing and feels good. You can engage in a path of Witchcraft or Paganism without harmful appropriation and more intimately reconnect with your own ancestors and ancestral lifeways, which, if we all go far back enough, we all have a pagan past somewhere. If you are a European ancestored person in America, it can seem like you have no cultural legacy. You do, it was just as efficiently buried as many other cultures are currently being by the forces of imperialism, monotheistic religions and capitalism.
This does not mean that everyone must stick to only the practices of their direct ancestors. People who are adopted or do not know their family histories due to complex familial relationships must face this challenge especially. What I am asking is for you to look for the invitation and the manner necessary to practice what you want while understanding the context of the practice, the people it comes from and looking for ways you can support them today rather than consuming a spiritual practice like a one-size-fits all costume.
The appropriation of Native American practices in America is especially important to think about as a modern Pagan or Witch. Right now, the topic of smudging with White Sage is causing a hot debate about who can and cannot wild harvest it and use it for smudging, or cleansing a space spiritually as it has come to be very popular in New Age circles. This conversation causes such heightened feelings in white practitioners, it is troubling to say they least. No one wants to feel like they have made a mistake or hurt someone when they had no intention to, yet buying this plant from non-Natives and wild harvesting it irresponsibly are both harmful. We forget that it was illegal for indigenous people to practice their own religions and ways not that long ago by severe punishment:
“Rules for Indian Courts” in 1892:
“Any Indian who shall engage in the practices of so-called medicine men, or who shall resort to any artifice or device to keep the Indians of the reservation from adopting and following civilized habits and pursuits, or shall use any arts of conjurer to prevent Indians from abandoning their barbarous rites and customs, shall be deemed guilty of an offense, and upon conviction thereof, for the first offense shall be imprisoned for not less than ten days and not more than thirty days: Provided That, for subsequent conviction for such offense the maximum term or imprisonment shall not exceed six months.”- By the Commissioners of Indian Affairs
It is not wrong to want to use a plant for ceremony. It is not wrong to desire to break the chains of oppressive religion. But when we take spiritual practices out of context, especially the immensely violent and atrocious history of how indigenous people have been treated here, and world wide, by colonizing forces, we are causing harm and enacting dominator culture privilege. We are centering a conversation about oppression of a marginalized people on ourselves and our hurt feelings rather than listening and thinking about the complicated history of what has happened and how we got here to this moment.
I invite you to examine the ways in which you feel entitled to certain practices, ways and even people’s energy, instruction and forgiveness. I know I am always surprised when I identify an entitlement in myself and can feel a lot of shame around it. Rather than stewing in self pity, I try and trace the root of that feeling, allow myself forgiveness for making this mistake and find the way to move forward to a place of understanding that I am not entitled to anything in this life. But I am invited to share in some things with the myriad of other beings of this beautiful, complex world.
So what is Cultural Appropriation and where does it intersect with Cultural Appreciation or Exchange? Unfortunately there is almost never a definition of a term that will feel meaningful to all people, but let me endeavor to define these terms in the ways in which may be most helpful to understand and talk about this issue.
Cultural Appropriation: Oxford Dictionaries, which only put the phrase into its official lexicon last year, defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Oxford takes a gentler route in defining this complex term by saying that the members of a society that appropriate are “typically” from a dominant people or society. This is a key part of understanding and addressing cultural appropriation.
So often people, namely white people, become defensive and upset when issues of cultural appropriation are brought to their attention, for it can feel like a form of policing personal expression, and while their intentions may be good, the impact of appropriative actions plays into a long history of oppression and forced assimilation that Western white culture has imposed upon much of the rest of the world, all the while cherry picking those aspects of the different cultures they encounter to excoticize or use. This is why the argument, “well African American people appropriated my (some common aspect of American culture)!” Assimilation to blend in and be able to make a living vs. appropriating for one’s own pleasure are two very different things.
The imbalance of power in how the dominant culture uses the aspect of the marginalized culture is one of the core issues of this action. The marginalized culture expresses their discomfort or offense, and is not heeded by the society or people of privilege who can utilize that thing as a fashion statement, for fun, or for out-of-context spiritual practices. This imbalance of power and ignorance of the ways in which the desired cultural aspect functions within its culture of origin is what makes appropriation different from appreciation.
The ways in which food, music and fashion are consumed in the global marketplace seems to present different questions and challenges then the object of this zine: spiritual practices and uses of sacred plants. The ways in which a spiritual practice is made open, (available to all people), or closed, (available to certain initiated or lineaged people), by a culture is very important when asking oneself what the best way would be to express interest or engage in a certain practice. As far as plants go, is the plant abundant? Local to you? Threatened? Rare? Or on its way? As I said, these are complex issues and asking these questions is incredibly important when exploring whether a cultural practice is appropriate for you to engage in or not. Of course, the most important thing is this: what are the people who are from the culture itself saying? If they are asking for a spiritual practice or sacred plant to not be interacted with in a certain way. Listen. Please listen.
Cultural Appreciation or Exchange: We live in a globalized world, and I am not here to tell you not to eat Mexican food or love movies from Japan or learn to speak Arabic. These are all forms, though there are ways to go about each in respectful manners, of cultural exchange. Non-spiritual foodways, fashions, art forms, dance and music are often readily exchanged through interacting cultural groups (while the ways in which we have come to interact with each culture is also important to note in terms of dominant vs. marginalized cultures).
Sharing and exchange is good. It is a way to more fully understand others who are different from us and become loving, compassionate global citizens. However, much of what makes exchange different from appropriation is the invitation: A mutual exchange rather than a hierarchical assimilation and then appropriating desirable aspects without understanding.
This could look like being invited to wear a traditional garment at a wedding or celebration of a friend or relative of a different culture. This could look like being invited to Sundance by an indigenous person in your life. This could look like paying to learn a craft from a person of a culture you’re interested in. There are many ways to engage in cultural exchange without causing harm or oppression to others. But it takes asking questions and listening, making mistakes and learning. We can do better. I know I can.
People have burned plants for ritual purposes in every culture. Smoke is a unique conduit for spiritual and ritual purposes. It provides a multi-sensory experience of a plant in a way that uniquely ties it to the spirit world. For where does smoke go, but up to the unknowable heavens? Smoke carries with it tantalizing, acrid or surprising scents, and sometimes, smoke can even augment one’s perceptions. It is scent made visible. The power of a plant made tangible in a new way, inspired by fire. What better tool to send messages to the Otherworld than a substance lighter than air? One that appears and fades away, like a summoned spirit.
It is believed that incense use began approximately 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. By definition, an incense is any material that is burned or volatilized to emit fragrant fumes. Many ancient cultures, such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, Hebrews, Persians, and Parthians, used incense for various rituals and even as medicines. Globally, people have used and still do use many traditional plant smokes for spiritual and medical healing or actions.
Let's look at a few examples from my booklet about the plants, trees and shrubs also used as sacred smoke. Remember, this list is not a free for all. Each plant we use and harvest requires the same questions we ask about White Sage. Not only do we ask questions about its ecological sustainability, we also ask about how it effects the peoples its specific sacred use was born from. If you want to see them all, you can buy my booklet here. If you are a BIPOC person, just send me a message in the form at the bottom of the page and I will give you this for free.
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) Unspecified parts of this species were burned as incense in Iceland. The gum from the tree was used in churches in Paris as frankincense.
Juniper and Cedar (Juniperus spp.) On the Isle of Colonsay in north-western Scotland, Junipers were once burned to fumigate houses and stables to cleanse them of pests, diseases, and evil spirits. In Britain, from Devon to Colonsay, the Inner Hebrides burned green branches and berries to produce smoke that was used to purify and air-out sick rooms. In the Ubage Valley of France, the people inhaled the smoke of burning juniper berries to treat rheumatism and used the smoke produced by burning boughs as a disinfectant.
The smoke from burning branches, which were lit on Christmas Eve in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy, was used to ward off the evil eye. In Russia the practice of burning Juniper for health and spiritual purposes survived well into the 18th century. It must have been commonly thought that juniper should be burned to healthful effect, for even Peter I, during a period of plague in 1710, ordered his generals to obtain and burn as much juniper as possible against the spread of disease among the regiments. The smoke of the juniper was equally believed to be repellent to serpents.
In Tibet, they burn Juniper-wood as incense in a gigantic altar, with an aperture at the top, which is called Song-boom, and bears some resemblance to a limekiln. Many ancients held that the burning of Juniper-wood expelled evil spirits from houses.
Bishop Hall wrote:
“And with glasse stills, and sticks of Juniper, Raise the black spright that burns not with the fire.”
In Germany and Italy, the Juniper is the object of a superstitious reverence on account of its supposed property of dispersing evil spirits. According to Herr Weber, in some parts of Italy, holes or fissures in houses are brushed over with Juniper-boughs to prevent evil spirits introducing sickness; in other parts, boughs of Juniper are suspended before doorways.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.) Original text by Cecil Williamson of the Museum of Witchcraft in England describing a witch’s whisk, or a bundle of bound, dried, blackberry twigs used for ritual burning in English witchcraft:
'Witch's whisk made of dried out blackberry stems and with the end bound to form a handle. Here in the south west (of England) when a witch decides to make magic she first selects a spot or place where she will work, be the chosen place inside or out. The next thing to be done is that of cleansing the chosen spot of all evil forces. This is where the bundle of blackberry twigs comes in. She sets a light to the twigs and with them smouldering, burning and making smoke, she dances and weaves her way in and around and around over and over again. So this is one might call it: "a witch's devil scarer".'
Lemon scented thyme (Micromeria biflora) In Nepal, the whole plant was considered useful for burning as incense.
Peony (Paeonia officinalis) Issac, the second patriarch of the Jewish people has said the smoke of the seeds is good for people possessed by the devil, the ones who are called demonaci in Latin.
Rue (Ruta spp.) .In Morocco, rue was often mixed with unspecified incense materials or rosemary and was burned to produce smoke that countered the effects of the evil eye. It reportedly could also cure the bewitched.
Sweet flag (Acorus calamus) This sweet plant was considered sacred in many parts of India and the roots were burned.
I chose a small handful to demonstrate just some of the many magical and special plants and trees used for their smoke around the world. I hope this has helped provide further explanation and understanding around why we discuss this issue and has invited you to look into wide world of using plant smoke for medicine while supporting and listening to indigenous and all BIPOC voices surrounding the cultural use of plants and medicines. This booklet is also fully sourced so you can continue your own research! If you have edits, suggestions or questions please message me below at the very bottom of the page. I'd love to hear from you, as I am just a student in this learning.
Blesssed Winter Solstice.
We’ve passed Samhain on the Wheel, and I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition. It doesn’t take a lot for me to arrive at the topic, but as I forage and tincture, chop roots and dehydrate leaf, I always wonder, what did they do before? When respiratory infections ravaged the mountains, how did people cope? It’s interesting to see all the herbal information being shared right now about COVID. So many great herbalists are sharing important information that we’ve gleaned from similar infections, as so few of us have ever treated anything like this before. COVID is a complex and serious infection, I look to old books and history not to replace modern medical care, but to ask the questions of how? And what? Our ancestors survived, and didn’t survive, many serious diseases. So I’ve been researching and asking, how did Appalachians treat these plagues that rolled through the mountains? Is there wisdom to be gleaned there for us to use today? How has treating upper respiratory infections changed in our tradition?
Fevers in the Mountains:
Appalachian folk medicine is, very briefly, a mixture of predominantly Indigenous, European and African folk healing systems within the cauldron of the bioregion of Appalachia. Shaped by the land forms, the weather, the plants, the fauna and the humans of this space, it is a unique, location based medical, and dare I say magical, system wrought from all its bloody, complex, and sometimes beautiful history.
The unique climate and types of illnesses faced by Appalachians determined the ways that medicines were used, for those ailments most common could require the most diverse treatment options. Much wisdom rests in those old remedies, and while I write this as an exploration of a historical topic, I also wonder at how the remedies we are exploring today are not far off in some cases with the remedies of old.
Chills and Fever:
Many times, fevers and their associated chills would be caused by unknown or mysterious origins. This didn’t mean it didn’t need to be treated. Some herbs used are still touted as useful during fevers. Again I present this as a legacy of how peoples in this place have dealt with fever and this is not meant to take the place of medical care if one is experiencing serious respiratory symptoms or other medical issues. I think as herbalists, clinical or folk, it is good to know the legacies of medicine that has come before us to inspire, or mark the ways in which we have come to know what we do.
They come from many traditions. African, Indigenous and European, plants from around the world now in Appalachia.
+Boneset, which is sometimes called center weed in the Ozarks, was drunk as a tea for chills and fever.
+Black pepper in brandy was prescribed for fever and accompanying chills. The use of pepper in Appalachian folk medicine comes from African folk traditions.
+Ginger tea is good for fever.
+Smoking dried mullein leaves is recommended as a cure for catarrh. Today I wouldn’t recommend smoking anything if you have phlegm, but for a long time folx have used smoke to move phlegm.
+Sage tea is good for fevers. I use sage regularly for sore throat and general cold symptoms. Also as a steam.
+Specific Illnesses and their Treatments in Appalachian Folk Medicine+
The ”ague” was used to describe chills and malaria in old herbals and notes in the backs of family bibles. Dogwood bark tea and tincture were used instead of quinine (peruvuian cinchona bark). They also used blue gin, which contained quinine as well. One of the most popular tonics and medicines in the mountains, wild cherry bark tea, was prescribed anywhere coughing, mucus and respiratory illness was present. This use was gleaned from Indigenous peoples who long relied on the bark as a Spring tonic and general respiratory cure. Anti-inflammatory willow bark and lung soothing mullein leaves were brewed into strong teas to combat the fevers and phlegm. The food plant corn was and purging all also used, fires burned to clean air of putrid matter
For this devastating disease, asafetida bundles were worn around the neck to ward it off. Sulfur in great amounts was burned in the house and worn in the shoes as well. Infusions of brandy and saltpeter was also used. Holly leaves and berries (which are toxic) were used as a tea. Black snakeroot or Black Cohosh tea (Cimicifuga racemosa), hot and cold treatments in water, and bathing in buttermilk. People applied Goldenseal salves to pockmarks to prevent scarring and infection. The toxic foxglove mixed with sugar was also used apparently successfully in the mountains.
The main course was isolation and education. It took a while before people understood the ways in which to identify the disease as a unique condition and then note the way in which it spread. Sweating was encouraged with teas of solomon seal, fever weed, mullein, cow manure (yikes), along with a purging with jerusalem oak, wild cherry, sap of beech, hickory, sweet gum and or wild cherry. Anvil dust and molasses were also given. Rattlesnake meat was also used to combat the dread disease, as well as whiskey and salt. One would also sleep on a pillow of rabbit tobacco. The cherokee used skunk spray, ate skunk meat and used the scent pouch to ward away this illness.
Many people thought it was caused by poisonous vapors in the air (miasmic disease theory), and treated it with sweating, purging and puking. hot teas of ratsbane root (pipsissewa), pine needles, pennyroyal leaves, sassafras root bark, and lobelia. Ingesting a pill of pine resin the size of a bullet was also believed to combat thyphoid. Lime spread around the house, an almost magical barrier like cure. Pine knots were placed in drinking water, and onions hung on walls. Three messes of cooked Poke sallet eaten in spring was also taken to prevent it.
Magical Methods of Treating a Fever
"Climb a tree with your hands (do not use feet) and then jump off to leave your
fever in the tree". "To cure chills and fever, knot a string and tie it to a persimmon tree" (No. 1094). "If you feel a chill coming on, get a toad-frog, or have one got, put it in a paper
bag, and hold in your lap fifteen minutes. The chill will go into the frog. Then put him out on the ground, and he will shake him- self to death". (Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.)
For chills and fever, tie a piece of yarn taken from your stocking around a pine tree then walk around the tree three times a day for nine days
For chills and fever, after you have had three or four chills, tie as many knots in a cotton string as you have had chills; then go into the woods and tie the string to a persimmon tree, turn around and walk away without looking back) — Ozarks: Randolph, 134 (knotted string around a persimmon tree).
Drink a tea made of cherry tree bark for chills and fever.
Wear a string of buzzard feathers around the neck to keep off the fever.
Apple tree, dogwood tree, and cherry tree bark boiled into tea is good for fever.
Split onions hanging in the house will keep off fever.
To cure fever, drink boiled pine tree tops.
A patient should break a pine top with (theri) face turned toward the setting sun, and make a drink from the pine top).
Snakeskin bay and toad's eye in it are worn to ward off
Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
Thanks for exploring the wild world of Appalachian Folk Medicine with me. If you want to learn more about Appalachian folk medicine, magic, wild foods and plantcrafts, join Corby and I for next year's Hedgecraft program. Wishing you health and happiness in these trying times.
** A note to POC community. This post is aimed at providing resources for white herbalists and plant humans to do better. It may be exhausting to read. It also provides many links to POC herbalists, schools and teachers.**
The world is on fire. Plague has ravaged the land. We are well into the Dog Days of Summer. And wow, P.S. these fires have been burning for a LONG time. Many white people are waking up to the fact that, surprise, there is still racism, and yes, it is a real thing. Many are learning that to be silent is to be complacent in the harm perpetrated upon Black people. It’s left many wondering how to help? What to do? Good news is, you don’t have to figure it out by yourself! POC have long been doing that labor, and it’s time for us to pay up. They have been telling us what they need, what we need to do better and how we need to show up. How can I help? What can I do? Those are very good questions. I wrote this post in an effort to compile some of what we can do as plant people, herbalists and Witches .
Many people are saying, look to your strengths to find ways to help and to work within your sphere of influence to utilize your unique privileges to amplify Black voices, listen to asks around reparations and meet those asks, and do the necessary personal work to hopefully continue, or at the very least begin, the epic task of dismantling the racism that dwells within us. I’ve been asking myself as an Appalachian folk herbalist, forager and Traditional Witch, where is my energy needed here, where is it not, and what is being asked for that would be most helpful?
I’d like to share all the amazing resources that others have done around these things and what we can do as plant people to ensure we are not continuing the same, extractive, colonizer, capitalistic, racist practices and address the gatekeeping and privilege that bar many POC from interacting with the medicine that was stolen from them. I know what I know because of those who came before. I live on stolen land, built by stolen people.
First we must know our history. As herbalists we MUST know how we have access to the knowledge we do and WHY. It is hard and uncomfortable to delve into it, but that pain is little compared to the lived experience of the people whose stories we learn of. I believe it is our duty to understand and to really sink into that reality if we are to make medicine with plants on this land.
Medicine County Herbs has an article on the history of medicine in America, and it is a great place to start. **Trigger warning** This article discusses the violent and racist history of American Medical Practices. If we are bioregional plant people, it is also of the essence to understand the history of the unique space you occupy. Who lived here first? Where are they now? What access do they have to their ancestral lands?
I continue to be shocked by how many assumptions I make about all types of things. Myself, others, what they need or want. Often it’s not for me to wonder. I just need to listen. (If you’ve ever met me irl you know I am an ENFP and struggle sometimes to be a good listener). That doesn’t mean I get a free pass! It’s important to slow down, and start deeply listening. I ask myself, why does this particular point a person brings up challenge me so much? Why does a point NOT challenge me? By reading and listening about how colonialism and the mindset it has created treats POC herbalists and healers we can feel into those uncomfortable places and do the hard but necessary work to ensure we are not continuing to enact those practices. Also we can see that white people don’t have to set the table, we just need to frikkin let POC have their own and support them in doing that their own way.
Check out ways to heal your own ancestral wounds. In my work, I focus heavily on sharing folk magic and witchcraft traditions from Irish, German and English histories, because those are the three largest ancestral connections I have. Learning about the folk medical and magical practices of my own ancestors has helped me hold space for and resist culturally appropriating marginalized peoples medicine to fill a void I feel within myself. Via Hedera, one of my favorite fellow animist witches, makes a great point in her podcast interview on New World Witchery that honoring or mentioning the magic and medicine of others is not the same as claiming it and appropriating it.
This also means that when I teach about Appalachian Folk Medicine and Magic history, I do the research and put in the time to see whose medicine we are talking about. Cayenne peppers? From Africa. Using rice to keep away evil spirits? Folklore from enslaved black people. All the times I speak about native plants and how we use them, I try and find out which First Nations in our bioregion used/are using these plants and how we came to have them in the pharmacopoeia today. This is not the right way to do things. I don’t know what that is, and I want to try and find the ways to get closer to what that looks like. Say where things come from. It’s important to fight against the whitewashing of history. Support living people who are the ancestors of these traditions you benefit from.
This is a true joy! If we go way back, all our ancestors did cool stuff with plants at some point! Uplift other’s journeys to practicing and reclaiming their own ancestral traditions as an ally rooted in the arms of your own often diverse ancestors if you can and have access to that information. This work really helped me identify ways to further decolonize my own ways of thinking and even validating herbal information and research!
How can we Help?
Help by donating. This is, if you are able to financially, important and helpful, and honestly it’s really the least we can do. Here are some great places to place your dollars. Remember these are just a few of the many options, so also do you own research! Reparations is an important and vital part of striving for an equitable world. Read more about why this practice is vital here. There are ways already in place to begin this work, check out what Soul Fire Farm has set up. This is not charity, it is necessary.
This list is totally not complete, I’m happy to add any more resources or links if you feel like sending them to me!
Rootwork Herbals Provide $$ for POC to attend this beautiful POC run school in upstate NY.
The Charlotte Herbal Accessibility Project Provide support to get medicine to those who need it most in Charlotte NC run by a wonderful human named Brandon Ruiz.
Community Health Herbal Network “Community Health Herbal Network is a network of communities in the South that offer free herbal care, education, and wellness services that are geared towards the preservation and re-cultivation of the widespread and sustainable uses of herbs. Our resources are dedicated to our elders, our ancestors, our communities, and all those harmed by land and resource colonization, environmental racism, war, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, sexism, addiction, the prison industrial complex, and the medical industrial complex.”
Hawthorn Collective here in my own town, Asheville NC. Donate medicines or first aid supplies.
Reparations with La Yerba Mala
Herbs Schools Run by POC and POC Herbalists:
Rootwork Herbals, NY
*A great resource list: POC Herbalists to Support and Follow list from Queering Herbalism plus many more links to important Queer and Trans resources
Hood Herbalism, CA
Omaroti, Puerto Rico
Ancestral Apothecary, CA
Seed and Thistle Apothecary, You can support their BIPOC scholarship fund here
La Mala Yerba
NCB Schoolof Herbalism, GA
Herb Schools that offer POC Scholarships:
Old Ways Herbals ,VT
Common Wealth Herbs, MA
Wild Faith Herbal Wellness
Mutual Aid Herbalism
Anti-Oppressive Learning for us All
Herbalista’s Links List is Amazingly Helpful!
This is a lifetime of work. Please keep on keeping on. Care for yourself so we can care for each other. Everyone needs access to their medicine.
It’s Spring. The last few days have been a blur. Here at the Hawk where I live, we have been practicing social isolation for almost 3 weeks and now, we are staying home with the “stay at home stay safe” declaration…. with 13 people. I live in a community of 11, and two of our friends who live alone have joined our clan here on the 24 acres we dwell on. It’s wild. This time has brought to light all the holes. The holes of our preparedness, our supplies, our interpersonal relationships, and our skills.
People have been messaging me a lot about herbs, about wild foods, and even to delight in the strange posts I make each day of our lot’s throat singing fights and wrestling matches in our common kitchen. How to feed ourselves? Each other? Well I know we are far from being able to totally support ourselves nutritionally from wild foods alone without prior prep, but they can really help meet our nutrition and calories needs in lean times (and well, all the time). If you need any more convincing check out the sweetest people here at Gather Victoria and their case for wild foods.
In this time, when work is gone for many of us and money is a looming question, myself included, I am comforted by wild foods. Knowing that there are essential nutrients bursting from the ground right now in sudden and near chaotic abundance is deeply comforting. My partner and I have been putting up venison, bear, and nuts this last year, and so we have our fats and proteins down, but all the other calories, where could we find them right now? If the store was out of food? If we had no more cash? These are the questions we’ve been asking each other and so I want to give you the beginning of a foraging basket. Here are some easy to find, important wild foods out in abundance right now that can help ease the burden that are not just wild greens (but let’s be real a lot of them are).
Day lily: (Hemerocallis fulva) Native to Asia, this beautiful flowering lily has escaped cultivation and spread throughout the US. The flower buds are known as “golden needles” in China and are sold as ingredients for soup. I love these because they are abundant, and almost every part of the plant is edible. I also like to think about how foraged foods fit into my diet, and how one cannot live on greens alone.
The tubers of these lovelies provide a prolific, easy to harvest and even grow, wild carbohydrate and rich calorie source. The young shoots and leaves are edible raw or cooked until they begin to get fibrous as they grow taller. Beware, however, Iris (toxic to eat) can look a lot like daylily so always be VERY sure you know what you are harvesting. Also, like with all wild foods, some folks are allergic, so always try a small amount of a new food before going hog wild. Here more info also on the edibility questions of the 60,000 ish varieties that have been bred! I only eat the orange, naturalized species, Hemerocallis fulva. I’ve watched the same patches for many years and know which variety grows there. It’s just one more way to become more intimate with your bioregion.
I like to either boil and mash the tubers and then fry them into something like a latke, or saute well and season with the next plant on our list and butter.
Later in the year the leaves can be used to plait into useful things. They are a wonderous plant.
Onion Grass (Allium vineale):
Blend up this abundant wild grass with salt and dehydrate or dry and sprinkle like store bought dried onion on, well, everything! This common “weed” is the reason the yard smells like a restaurant every time the lawn is mowed in Spring and Fall. A lover of cool weather, I eat these until they fade away in the heat of Summer and again when they return in the cool of the Fall.
I really enjoy the bulbs if you dig down, they can sometimes be as big as a quarter. I’ve loved pickling, lacto-fermenting and drying these lovelies. I also just use them in almost every savory dish I prepare. I often notice them growing up over the grass, as they grow more quickly, and notice they have a tubular leaf, not a blade, accompanied by their strong onion smell. Ramps are a celebrated spring wild food, but so are the humble wild onions which are much easier to find and also not endangered.
Dave Meesters and Janet Kent at Terra Sylva have been providing information on herbal anti-viral protocols to the wider community and with that gave a great recipe for “Honion”, or onion syrup. I have made some wild onion syrup in the same spirit for breaking up stuck phlegm thanks to their inspiration. Chop the bulbs of the onions fine, place in a clean, dry jar. Cover with honey and infuse 3 - 5 days stirring with a clean spoon occasionally. Place in the refrigerator and it should keep 3 months. Take liberally as desired. Check out their work for more important information on a wide variety of herbal topics.
Chickweed: (Stellaria media)
This abundant nutritious food and medicine is going to flower right now and ending its growth season a bit early this year with this warm Spring. We gather big handfuls with scissors and blend it up in pestos and green dressings. We also just chop it fine and eat it by the forkful as a base for our wild salads. The mineral rich taste, the little white flowers, it is one of my favorites. Here’s a sweet video on how to ID it.
Nettles: (Urtica Dioica)
Nettles are just perfect to eat right now, and wow are they a vibrant shade of healthful, brilliant green. They are naturally high in silicon which is great for the hair and skin. They contain 6500 I.U.s of Vitamin A in a 100g serving! They are also surprisingly high in protein at 5.5 grams per 100 grams. They contain 33.8% crude protein, which is quite high for a plant source. It’s best to eat these, rather than make tea, to get everything you can from these powerhouses of nutrition. Steam them, stew them, or fry em up in butter. They also contain calcium, chromium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin A, B1, B2, B5, E, K1, choline, folic acid and zinc.
It also has extremely high protein content. Stinging nettles even has vitamin D, which is rare in a plant source. Vitamin D is found mostly in mushrooms, but from very few plants. Its’ high iron content is what makes nettle ideally suited for people with challenges to their immune system and low energy. Nettle is appropriate to use to prevent infection and recover from infection, but since bacteria needs iron to spread, it is best to stay away from iron rich food until the infection recedes.
It’s also a diuretic, making nettle is a helpful wild food for people who often struggle with urinary tract infections. It’s often combined with dandelion leaf or chickweed. Any herbal treatment of PMS or swollen ankles is greatly enhanced with a dose of nettle. Stinging nettle is also a blessing for any one who suffers from allergies. Its secret lies in the nutritional boost it gives the body as well as the anti-inflammatory action of its leaf. Nettle is usually thought of as relief for pollen allergies but recent studies have concluded patients with skin conditions such as eczema and hives benefit as well. Nettle root increases the production of T cells, which is vital to controlling allergic reactions as well, so the leaves are not the only useful part. A dose of nettle before meals can even help people with mild to moderate food allergies as well.
I love to saute the leaves and make quiche, frittata or just plop a fried egg on top of a mess of the cooked greens and call it breakfast. I also blend them into pestos and smoothies, just make sure you really blend them well to avoid a sting!
Dandelion: (Taraxacum officinalis)
This hated lawn invader should really be celebrated for its divine nutritional content. Lowly dandelion, we are not worthy. It is very high in dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Iron, Potassium and Manganese just to name a few. Easy to find and ubiquitous, the roots are also excellent as a liver support tea, and taste delicious toasted as a coffee-like beverage. The roots are also edible when young and can be diced and spiced in the stirfry pan. They are rich in inulin, a prebiotic which aids gut health. What’s not to love?
I like to harvest the blossoms, batter them in whatever flour you like and fry them up, dip in honey and call it a magical day. Dandelion blossom fritters. I use chestnut flour from last fall ground very fine and eggs from our chickens, it is divine. The greens are quite bitter but when mixed with the other greens mentioned here, they can add a complex flavor. I find adding a tasty vinegar helps to soften the bitter blow. I have also been making dandelion blossom wild soda by mixing dandelion flowers, honey and water to taste and letting it ferment in a clean jar in my kitchen. A joyous treat and basically like drinking the Sun.
Dead Nettle: (Lamium purpureum)
Dead nettle, red nettle or purple nettle has manninotriose, a storage carbohydrate that has prebiotic, antioxidant and immunostimulatory properties. Despite it’s bad-tasting reputation, when properly prepared, it can be a delicious addition to spring wild food dishes. Dead-nettle's reported to be highly nutritious, abundant in iron, vitamins, and fiber. The oil in the seeds is high in antioxidants. And the bruised leaves can be applied to external cuts and wounds to stop bleeding and aid in healing.
Dead nettle is a good source of flavonoids including a special one called quercetin. Purple Dead-nettle can improve immune system performance while reducing sensitivity to allergens and inhibiting inflammation. It’s also useful for anti-allergy applications due to the concentration of flavonoids. This is what helps their ability to reduce the release of histamine. You can make a tea from this tasty plant as well for allergies and histamine issued. Externally you can mash the leaves so they’re bruised, and apply them to minor skin abrasions and wounds.
I love these chopped very fine, mixed with egg and wild onion, and fried up as a little fritter. We call them Dead Nettle Eggy Fritters. They are divine.
Violet: (Viola spp.)
This beautiful common wild flower has edible leaves and flowers. With over 400 species, it’s great to know that they are all edible. Famous old school forager Euell Gibbons found per 100 grams fresh leaves contain 210 mg vit C (4.5 x oranges) and 8258 IU of provitamin A. More recent analysis shows that if collected in spring, this early research reported that violets contain twice as much vitamin C as the same weight of orange and more than twice the amount of vitamin A, gram for gram, when compared with spinach. One recent study concluded that an aqueous Viola extract (i.e. tincture) inhibited the proliferation of activated lymphocytes as well as negatively affecting other hyper-responsive immune functions. This indicates that violets may be useful in the therapy of disorders related to an overactive immune system. Violet leaves contain a good bit of mucilage, or soluble fiber, and thus are helpful in lowering cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber is also helpful in restoring healthy populations of intestinal flora, as beneficial bacteria feed off of this type of fiber.
The leaves are high in rutin, which is a glycoside of the flavonoid quercetin. Rutin has been shown in animal and in vitro studies to be anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and blood thinning. Many foods that are high in rutin, such as buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), are eaten traditionally as a remedy for hemorrhoids and varicose veins.
I chop the leaves fine and add them to salads (beware, too many violet leaves are an effective laxative). I LOVE the flowers. I make a syrup every year. Check out my older post on violet for more info on one of my favorite plants.
Fermented Wild Greens
I was told that you can’t make tasty wild greens, so of course I tried it myself. I say just grab whatever is around I use nettle, violet, chickweed, dead nettle, wild onion and toothwort leaves. Wash the plants, drain them, chop them fine, place in a big bowl. Then add salt (2% – 3% of weight of fresh plant), mash up well with hands, let stand 20 minutes to draw out the liquid. Pack in jars small jars, leave to ferment 1 week in a cool, well aerated place and enjoy. Make some today to enjoy at Ostara and mix a few tablespoons of this salty connection into a few cups of yogurt to make a local “tzatziki” sauce. For exact instructions see this fantastic article.
There are a LOT more foods out right now, but these are the ones we are eating the most of right now. Remember again to NEVER eat a plant without exact identification and always ASK if you are unsure!
So my friends, take heart in the wild world if you can and know that there is much around us. I hope you are finding nourishment in this uncertain time, which for many, is how it always has been. The old structures will have to crumble, they are built for destruction.
Adhikari, Bhaskar Mani, Alina Bajracharya, and Ashok K. Shrestha. “Comparison of Nutritional Properties of Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica) Flour with Wheat and Barley Flours.” Food Science & Nutrition 4.1 (2016): 119–124. PMC. Web. 20 Mar. 2018.
Dos Santos, Raquel et al. “Manninotriose Is a Major Carbohydrate in Red Deadnettle (Lamium Purpureum, Lamiaceae).” Annals of Botany 111.3 (2013): 385–393. PMC. Web. 21 Mar. 2018.
Rutto, Laban K., Yixiang Xu, Elizabeth Ramirez, and Michael Brandt, “Mineral Properties and Dietary Value of Raw and Processed Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica L.),” International Journal of Food Science, vol. 2013, Article ID 857120, 9 pages, 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/857120
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.
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