A Midwinter Herbaria
The snow has fallen in record inches here in Barnardsville North Carolina and taken with it the last leaves of Fall. Our pond has a thin sheet of ice and the chickens huddle and cluck, annoyed as they gaze out of their coop at the snow covered ground. It is starting to feel a lot like Solstice. I love this season, especially now that I live somewhere with a real fireplace to cuddle near and drink hot teas by. I’ve spent many winters without heat for various reasons, and I have to say, I do not relish being chilled. The warmth of a fire, and the companionship of loved ones is a special treat I cannot go without in Winter.
I love to cook. I do it nearly daily. I make myself breakfast, or dinner for my partner and I or for our big chosen family. This season I will slow cook pork with our homegrown frozen collard greens, golden onions and pale garlic cloves, snip the cold hardy dead nettles from the greenhouse and fry them into eggie fritters. I’ll dish up big bowls of breakfast oatmeal with black walnuts and dried apples on top, all melting with butter of course, and dollop my raw milk yoghurt with peach jam made by a friend and relish the sunshine she captured in this glass jar. All the while teas of black birch, virginia pine, spicebush twig and hemlock needles steam on the stovetop, filling our kitchen with a heavenly scent of winter. I love eating this season. I love drinking this season.
To help ease you into the mood of Winter Solstice, Yuletide, I bring you a small selection of the Herbaria of the Winter Solstice as we prepare for the Solace of Winter this Saturday.
Pine: (Pinus spp.)
Pine trees have books worth of lore and ethnobotanical uses. We’ll just skim the surface to find that which we can cozy into for winter. This season we know the pine family as the emblematic Christmas tree, or to some, the solstice tree. It is difficult to tell from exactly where this practice comes from, but it is a guess that it could be a melding of pagan and christian beliefs: the old Roman custom of decorating houses with laurels and green trees at the Kalends of January, and the Christian belief that on every Christmas Eve apple and other trees blossomed and bore fruit. This christian beleif stems from the legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea. When the saint settled at Glastonbury in England he planted his staff in the earth and it put forth leaves and it blossomed every Christmas Eve.
We know from Libanius, Tertullian, and Chrysostom that Romans decorated with ever greenery. Tertullian lets us know of his distaste for this pagan practice when he says;
“Let them,” he says of the heathen, “kindle lamps, they who have no light; let them fix on the doorposts laurels which shall afterwards be burnt, they for whom fire is close at hand; meet for them are testimonies of darkness and auguries of punishment. But thou,” he says to the Christian, “art a light of the world and a tree that is ever green; if thou hast renounced temples, make not a temple of thy own house-door.”
-Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, 
It was also said the Druids decorated their huts with evergreens during winter as a winter home for the sylvan spirits. It was Germany, however who is often credited for popularizing the practice of keeping a Christmas tree as we know today. The Lutherans specifically are credited with decorating them and keeping one as we know it was already popular by the 18th century. They were also taken to North America by German settlers as early as the 17th century, Christmas trees were the height of fashion by the 19th century. They were also popular in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands.
In Appalachia, it is said that the Pine trees minister to a diseased mind. This spirit lifting accompanied by pine is further reason to bring some greenery inside. Mrs. Maude Minish Sutton, Lenoir, Caldwell county. "You can take the achinest heart on earth into a big pine woods and let hit jist drink in the smell and singin' of the trees and crunch the needles underfoot, and you'll come out feeling better. I believe God likes the pine trees best of all his trees."
Further magic has been attributed to it, for in Bohemia it was thought that eating pine nuts could make one shot proof. In Germany, the Pine bears children, for from every hole a wood spirit may escape into the outer world, and sometimes, she may even become something like human woman. In Christian mythology, Mary rested beneath a pine in her flight and took refuge in its sweet balsam fragrance.
Almost all the Pine species are useful for medicine or food. Some of the species we have here in Appalachia that work very well for medicine are the following: White Pine (Pinus strobus), Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana), Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Pitch pine (Pinus rigida), Juniper (Juniperus Communis), Red Spruce (Picea rubens), and Frasier Fir (Abies fraseri).
All of these trees can be used to make tea, but some are more tasty than others. I focus on White Pine, as it is abundant, easily identified and delicious. Pine can be used as a medicine for a variety of ailments, but it is best known for its vitamin C content. First Nations people of many tribes harvested pine nuts, used needles of pine, fir and spruce for teas, chewed their resin and sap, and scraped off the inner bark for dried cakes with berries. Colonists also used their wisdom to avoid scurvy (a deadly condition from lack of vitamin C). Many conifers also contain vitamins B, A, iron and a slew of minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular protecting, and triglyceride reducing properties as well. Conifer needles are a great source of polyphenols which stimulate the immune system and have anti-stress, adaptogenic, and antiviral properties, making them great for colds and flu. Pine is the perfect Winter Solstice mascot, for its folklore, fragrance and its medicine.
Aside from tea, you can make infused vinegars, salts, salves, syrups, sugars and liquors from Pine. To make White Pine needle tea, all you need is some White Pine needles! See what other magical makers are making:
Conifer Recipes from Gather Victoria
Rosemary: (Rosmarinus officinalis)
“The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio.
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino. ”
The Romans say as an evergreen and that it’s odor helped to preserve the dead. This most likely aided its use as an emblem of eternity. It was also known to mean remembrance and was included in bouquets and wreaths for friendship, fidelity, bridal wreaths, and funerals. Though it is debates, rosemary may have been one of the plants that opened to hide Mary from Herrod’s soldiers. It’s periwinkle flowers have taken on the color of her mantle in the memory of Rosemary’s service to the Holy Mother. Of course it has more sinister associations in Sicily and Portugal, where it was considered a heathen plant that fairies nestle beneath disguised as snakes. This makes sense as it was once burned as an incense to the Olympian gods. Despite this it was also worn as an amulet to the evil eye.
Like other evergreens, the boughs of rosemary where also brought indoors to scent and brighten the dark halls of roman and medieval halls. It decked Christmas feasting halls and the wassail bowl. We can see it here in the “Boar’s Head Carol”, for the roasted head is a lovely Christmas dish of old. During the Middle Ages rosemary was spread on the floor at midnight on Christmas Eve so as people walked on it the fragrance would fill the air; this in the belief that those who smelled rosemary on Christmas Eve would have a year of health and happiness. Thus, started the long tradition of rosemary in Christmas wreaths and other holiday decorations.
'Down with the rosemary and so,
Down with the baies and mistletoe,
Down with the holly, ivie all
Wherewith ye deck the Christmas Hall.'
Madame Grieve has to say of the Rosemary:
“The Ancients were well acquainted with the shrub, which had a reputation for strengthening the memory. On this account it became the emblem of fidelity for lovers. It holds a special position among herbs from the symbolism attached to it. Not only was it used at weddings, but also at funerals, for decking churches and banqueting halls at festivals, as incense in religious ceremonies, and in magical spells. At weddings, it was entwined in the wreath worn by the bride, being first dipped into scented water. Anne of Cleves, we are told, wore such a wreath at her wedding. A Rosemary branch, richly gilded and tied with silken ribands of all colours, was also presented to wedding guests, as a symbol of love and loyalty. Together with an orange stuck with cloves it was given as a New Year's gift - allusions to this custom are to be found in Ben Jonson's plays.”
Rosemary makes a lovely addition to Solstice roasts, root vegetables drizzled in cider and cookies. Not only is herb a culinary powerhouse, but it is also a potent medicinal. Rosmarinic acid which occurs in the plant is a powerful antibiotic and antioxidant. The oil is used externally for skin issues, wound healing and even dandruff. It has been studied to inhibit food-borne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes, B. cereus, and S. aureus, so why not go ahead and throw it in as many dishes as possible. It has been found to aid in circulation as well. One study in humans found that long-term daily intake of rosemary prevents thrombosis. This lovely garden herb not only smells fantastic, but is a veritable medicine chest.
This recipe for Rosemary Shortbread is one of my favorites for Solstice with or without the dandelion.
The Oak (Quercus spp.) and the Holly (Ilex spp.):
The Lord is Holly, and is Oak
Two sides of one, so say our folk.
The Oak lord goes, the Holly stays,
To help us through the winter days. -Paddy Slade
The battle of the Oak King and the Holly king is often spoken of at the Solstices in modern neopagan practice. The Oak king ruling from Winter Solstice until Summer, or the waxing half of the year, and the Holly King ruling the Waning. This “legend” was born from the writings of Robert Graves in “The White Goddess” (1948). Graves proposes this oppositional pairing and gives other examples to support this theory: Graves identified a number of paired hero-figures which he believes are variants of this myth, including Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebr, Gwyn and Gwythr, Lugh and Balor, Balan and Balin, Gawain and the Green Knight, the robin and the wren, and even Jesus and John the Baptist.
He built upon the Divine King spoken of in Frazer’s work, “The Golden Bough”, however the Divine King of Frazer was split into the kings of winter and summer in Graves' work. While the myth of the Holly king and the Oak king as it is spoken of today is remarkably modern, it plays upon older themes of the dualities of life which have won the imaginations of so many cultures for centuries.
"But the hue of his every feature
Stunned them: as could be seen,
Not only was this creature
Colossal, he was bright green
No spear to thrust, no shield against the shock of battle,
But in one hand a solitary branch of holly
That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless;"
from 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' ca 1370 - 1390, author unknown
In pre-Victorian times, is was often the Holly and not the Pine, Fir or Spruce that was bestowed the name of “Christmas tree”. The Holly was a sacred tree to the pre-Christian peoples of the British Isles. The Druids were said to believe the "leaves of holly offered protection against evil spirits" and thus "wore holly in their hair"(1). It’s uses in magic and divination survive even into the mountains of Appalachia today. In Appalachian folk magic, you can count the stickers of a holly leaf alphabetically, and it will help you to find out your future husband's initial. This tidbit comes from the European practice in Northumberland wherein it is used for divination as well. Nine leaves are taken and tied with nine knots into a handkerchief, and put under the pillow by a person who desires prophetic dreams.
Holly was also hung about to protect from witches, who were assumed to hate it. The lore surrounding Hawthorn, Blackthorn and other thorn bearing plants often paints them as protective and detering to witches. Pliny also tells us that when Holly is planted near a house or farm, it will repel poison, and defend it from lightning and witchcraft. He also says that the flowers cause water to freeze, and that the wood, if thrown at any animal, even without touching it, had the property of compelling the animal to return and lie down by it.
This further made Holly a perfect Christmas decoration. This may have also been due to the association of the blood-red berries and thorny leaves with the Passion. We see evidence of this in the Danish name for Holly, Kristdorn (Christ’s Thorn).
Proper handling of these plants in decorating the house was also very important. They required great care when disposing of them and removing them from the walls. In Shropshire, England, old-fashioned people never threw them away, for this would surely bring misfortune. They had to either burn them or give them to the cows. It was very unlucky to let a piece fall to the ground. The Shropshire custom was to leave the holly and ivy up until Candlemas or Imbolc, while the mistletoe-bough was carefully preserved until the time came for a new one next year.
Hawthorne (Crataegus spp.):
As I mentioned before, the thorn-ed plants often find their ways into protective displays and decorative charms. England has many sacred thorn trees, but the most famous hawthorn is the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury.
“Legend tells of how Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary, arrived at a hill overlooking Glastonbury Tor with a few disciples and two sacred vessels containing the blood and sweat of Jesus. Where he thrust his staff into the ground it sprouted and grew into a thorn tree. Though the original is obviously not there any more, one of its supposed descendants does still stand on the hill, and other offspring grown from cuttings and perpetuated over the centuries can be found around Glastonbury and indeed further afield in England. This particular hawthorn blooms twice a year, once in May and again around Christmas. A sprig of one of these Glastonbury thorns from outside St Johns Church is traditionally sent to the Queen, who is said to decorate her breakfast table with it on Christmas morning.” -Paul Kendall
Hawthorn has much lore surrounding it. It was used to hang above doorways to keep away witchcraft and ill will. In the sharp thorns of these species, the evil would become entangled, unable to affect the dwellers within. The fae were strongly associated with this tree and its fruits and blossoms required careful handling for these reasons. For instance, bringing in the blossoming branches was seen as a sure way to bring about bad luck. The branches, however, were used on New Years Day and hung in the house to prevent fire. There is also the ritual of “burning the bush,” which still survives in Herefordshire,
“The “bush,” a globe made of hawthorn, hangs throughout the year in the farmhouse kitchen, with the mistletoe. Early on New Year's Day it “is carried to the earliest sown wheat field, where a large fire is lighted, of straw and bushes, in which it is burnt. While it is burning, a new one is made; in making it, the ends of the branches are scorched in the fire.” Burning straw is carried over twelve ridges of the field, and then follow cider-drinking and cheering.” -Miles
This tree does not just protect against evil, it is also a valuable and lovely medicine and food for midwinter. English herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy said that the leaf buds are called “pepper and salt” and are traditionally eaten in salads. The berries have a sweet taste but they have a very large seed. It is high in the trace minerals selenium, which is important for the immune system, and chromium, which enhances the function of insulin. It is best known for its heart medicine. Hawthorn increases the contraction of heart muscle while it relaxes blood vessels. The effect is that the heart pumps more effectively and has less resistance to pump against. This is why it can help normalize blood pressure. Hawthorn relaxes smooth muscles of the coronary artery walls and allows more blood to flow into the cells of the heart.
Elixirs for the long days of winter can be crafted from hawthorn berries, dried flowers and leaves. I love this tonic syrup from Gather Victoria. A simple hawthorn vinegar, tincture, and oxymel can be crafted in the following manner. I personally like to string and dry the berries and hang them about like the similar rose family Rowan or Mountain Ash berries, long used as protective garlands. They can then be used as you like in heart nourishing tea and other concoctions after they have decked your halls.
However you like to bring the cheer of the chill into your home, know that there is a long legacy of bringing in the evergreens and red berries of winter plants for medicine and magic.
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