It’s amazing how different each late Winter transition is into Spring. I expect to see certain plants arriving and poking their little heads cautiously up from the cold Earth, but I am always amazed at who overwintered, or is venturing an early peek. We have patches of Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), throughout our property at the Hawk and Hawthorne, crimson from the cold freezes, but still fragrant and lovely.
The Kitchen herbs don’t often get the credit they deserve. They are for more than just soup! Thyme was been an important folk medicine and magic herb from Greece, Iran, North America and almost everywhere in between. Thyme was one of the first plants I used to heal myself of illness and I can’t sing it’s praises enough. So now, it’s Thyme.
Thyme is a mint family plant native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean but has spread throughout the world, becoming an important part of many nations folk medicine and folkloric plant practices. To the Greeks, Thyme was a symbol of courage, a belief which spread into the Middle Ages in other parts of Europe. Thyme is also a plant of the bees and it is customary to rub it on hives. In the Middle ages, even embroidering a bee and a bit of Thyme on a cloth was enough to confer courage to the knight it was gifted to.
Wild Thyme has been burned since antiquity in Greece, Mongolia and Siberia as an incense plant. Before Frankincense resin was used, Thyme was the most important incense plant in Greece. It was burned to fend off disease bringing demons, as well it should be, for it keeps away many evil and devlish things.
The sometimes reliable but never boring Madame Grieve writes,
'the name Thyme, in its Greek form, was first given to the plant as a derivative of a word which meant 'to fumigate,' either because they used it as incense, for its balsamic odour, or because it was taken as a type of all sweet-smelling herbs. Others derive the name from the Greek word thumus, signifying courage, the plant being held in ancient and mediaeval days to be a great source of invigoration, its cordial qualities inspiring courage'
It was included in the mix of special herbs strewn on the birthing bed in Germany alongside Common Bedstraw (Galium aparine). Not only was it a birth herb to be used in this manner, but it was also used as a tea to bring on the menses, the birth itself and later, pass the afterbirth. The Fae are said to love especially love Thyme, and despite its use in the birthing bed, it was, in some places, spoken of as an unlucky plant to bring indoors.
It’s use as a funerary herb may shed some light on this curious custom. The Order of the Oddfellows carried sprigs of Thyme at the funerals of their brothers, while in certain areas of England, it was customary to drop a sprig of Thyme onto the coffin before burial. It is interestingly also associated with murder, and the scent, perhaps due to its use at funerals, is said to be the scent of a murdered man’s ghost. This is curious also because that means that my chicken soup is not complete without essence of murder.
Pennsylvania Germans have a particular practice around the planting of Thyme and it is said it cannot grow and flourish if you do not sit on it after planting. If you’ve ever transplanted large carpets of Thyme, this is actually a very helpful practice, and also uniquely enjoyable.
In Scotland and England, there is a love divination that can be performed with Thyme on St. Agnes’ Night, January 20th. Take a sprig of Rosemary and one of Thyme and sprinkle them three times with water. Upon going to bed, put one in each shoe and place a shoe on each side of the bed. You must then invoke St. Agnes:
“St. Agnes that’s to lovers kind,
Come ease the troubles of my mind.”
And the future will be revealed in a dream once you drift to sleep, revealing the identity of your true love.
There are many variations of this spell and even a whole poem, by Keats, called “The Eve of St. Agnes”, which goes into fantastical detail as only Spenserian stanza can. In Spenser’s own “The Faerie Queen”, a 16th century English poem, boasting the title of near longest poem in the English language and the birthplace of the Spenserian stanza verse form, he mentions many uses of magical plants. Here he mentions the purification ritual all witches must undergo in Springtime by bathing in water infused with Oregano and Thyme,
" Till on a day (that day is every Prime,
When witches wont do penance for their crime)
I chaunst to fee her in her proper hew.
Bathing herself in Origane [Oregano] and Thyme."
Thyme is clearly magical, and this is just the tip of the Thyme-berg. Medicinally, Thyme is often overlooked I feel, due to its prowess as a culinary spice. Most spices, because of their strong aromas and flavors, hold immense medicinal power and have throughout history. Thyme is generally a go to for respiratory infections and coughs, though it has many, many other uses.
In the British Isle, it was used for coughs and respiratory ailments, and even for quite serious ones such as tuberculosis and whooping cough. Many would drink Thyme tea to calm the nerves in England, and today it is still used as a gentle nervine. It was drunk almost universally in remote parts of Scotland, and aside from being nervine, it was used to prevent bad dreams. In Suffolk, it was specific for headache. In Ireland, its use was less common but it still helped with respiratory trouble, and headache when smelled fresh, rather than drank as a tea. For Tuberculosis, an infusion was mixed with the antiviral Honeysuckle and Wild sage (1).
In America, in Southern Folk Medicine, Thyme was used to treat Typhoid with other diaphoretic plants like Sassafras root bark, pine needle, mustard seeds, boneset leaves and pennyroyal as an infusion. It was also used for promoting birth to “women in Travail”, and moving the after birth, as well as topically as a hot ointment for swellings and warts.(2) In African American folk healing Thyme was used for respiratory illnesses, as a gargle for sore throat and as a hot fresh leaf poultice for cuts, wounds and to prevent infection (3).
I like to use it for coughs and respiratory illness of all types. It has been indicated for both dry, raspy coughs and productive coughs depending on the herbal tradition, but I have personally benefited from Thyme in both cases. You can make a lovely, simple cough syrup from it by combining it with Horehound (Marrubium vulgare). I mix 2 parts Horehound dry leaf and 1 part Thyme dry leaf. Steep in freshly boiled water 15 minutes.
You can leave it longer to make a stronger infusion, but honestly it can get a bit bitter if that is off putting. If I end up with 2 cups of liquid after squeezing out the herbs, I add one cup of honey, so a 2:1 ratio of water to honey. I warm the tea in a pot gently to dissolve the honey and then pour into a very clean jar and label. This will keep in cold storage about 2 months. I take 1 tsp up to 4x a day for coughs.
I also just use the tea, simply infusing one teaspoon of dried Thyme leaf in about 1 cup of water and drinking that 3 times a day for digestive issues. For urinary tract issues like UTI, I like to combine it with Goldenrod, another favorite friend, as a tea. Thyme cleans the tubes! Whether the respiratory or the urinary tract!
Thyme is also a great ingredient in Fire Cider. You have have heard some folks have copyrighted the name of this general tonic. Check out more info here about that. Everyone can make this medicine and adding Thyme is a great way to add the respiratory and digestive powers to your immune boosting blend (4). Vinegar is a great tonic medicine and you can read more about my obsessions with all things vinegar in a post from last Spring. I love to make a just straight up Thyme infused vinegar or oxymel for medicine as well. It’s delicious, especially on mushrooms or chicken, or even as an oxymel spritzer with seltzer and ice.
You can also use Lemon Thyme in any of these recipes, many find it more palatable and it generally has similar medicinal actions due to both plant’s thymol content. Thymol is a monoterpenoid phenol that is very soluble in alcohol. It’s one of the magic chemicals in Thyme that give it it’s antibacterial and antifungal powers. This means you can make a mean (well actually very nice) tincture of Thyme as well for colic, respiratory illnesses, digestive upsets, UTI and more.
I do a fresh herb tincture the folk method, i.e. just pour brandy over fresh chopped Thyme and let it sit 4-6 weeks, shaking the jar occasionally. I take 20ish drops 2 to 3x a day for bronchitis, digestive issues with gas, and externally diluted as a wound cleanser. If you want to make a more exacting tincture try 1:5 ratio and 70% alcohol.
Thyme is divine. Whether to divine your true love with the aid of St. Agnes or to heal a gassy gut, Thyme has been medicine to many, and made our soups, stews, dressings and drink oh so warming and magical. Take heart these last few days of Winter and know that the warmth will return all too soon, and we will be wishing for the cool before we know it.
Speaking of which, Abby and I are hard at work getting ready for this year’s Sassafras School class! We’re so excited. We have a few more spaces left so don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. We also have our Bark Eater’s class coming up February 23rd! Any excuse to cover edible and medicinal trees is a good one. We had a blast in last year’s class.
Müller-Ebeling Claudia, et al. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants. Inner Traditions, 2003.
Pennacchio, Marcello, et al. Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke : Its Ethnobotany As Hallucinogen, Perfume, Incense, and Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic, 2007.
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) and Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)
Imbolc is just around the corner, and the season of skeletal sticks is upon us. There is little color lighting up our wild world here in Southern Appalachia. This is why the deep crimson splashes of Sumac I see along back roads bring a light to my mind, like dark red blood dotting the grey and golden roadways. If you’ve wondered what that beautiful plant was, as you whiz by it, let me introduce you.
Sumac is indigenous to North America and is a member of the Anacardiaceae, or Cashew family. There are about 35 species in the Rhus genus. And don’t worry, despite its name, Sumac is not easily confused for Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) which has whitish berries. Here in Western North Carolina, I have never encountered it. It is considered rarer than Poison Oak and Poison Ivy, however it’s still good to know how to clearly ID both plants.
The name typhina is explained in Linnaeus's and Ericus Torner's description of the plant with the phrase "Ramis hirtis uti typhi cervini" meaning "the branches are rough like antlers in velvet". If you run your fingers along the branches you’ll feel the soft velvet for sure. (1)
Sumac has a long history in Southern Appalachian folk medicine. Indigenous people all over North American used and still use the Sumac for its healing and edibile parts. The Smooth Sumac was used as an antiemetic, antidiarrheal, antihemorrhagic, blister treatment, cold remedy, emetic, mouthwash, asthma treatment, tuberculosis remedy, sore throat treatment, ear medicine, eye medicine, astringent, heart medicine, venereal aid, ulcer treatment, and to treat rashes. Staghorn Sumac parts were used in similar medicinal remedies. The Natchez used the Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) root to treat boils. The Ojibwa took a decoction of Fragrant Sumac root to stop diarrhea. The berries, roots, inner bark, and leaves of Smooth and Staghorn Sumac were used to make dyes of various colors. (2) The Cherokee historically used a decoction for blisters. They took a mixture of the barks of Rhus copallina Rhus typlrina and Rhus glabra, make a decoction and pour over the offending blisters. The root decoction was used by Creek peoples to treat dysentery internally as well due to it’s powerful astringency.
Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass used them as a cough remedy and also for kidney medicine. He used it specifically for Bright’s disease of the kidneys. He spoke of them as a good blood purifier, as well as a gargle for sore throat and mouth. It’s interesting to note the use of this medicine for both kidney’s and blood in Bright’s disease, as it is often associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. He suggested harvesting the berries before the first frost, which would kill the Vitamin C. This was also used as a remedy for scurvy, for as many foragers today can attest, the tart, lemonade like taste of the berries stands witness to their ascorbic acid content.
From Minnie Stamps Gosney of Raleigh, North Carolina in the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: Sarsaparilla roots, Red Sumac, and Bitter Root, and bark from Wild Cherry and Wild Poplar Roots should be cooked together; this brew is then mixed with hard cider and water, and taken three times daily, a half a cup at a time for jaundice. “Shoemake” or Sumac was also used for “skin poison”, or eruptions caused by ulcers, boils, Poison Ivy or other irritants in North Carolina’s folkloric past.
A lot of Sumac’s healing powers lie in its astringent properties and interestingly enough it has a special affinity throughout its history as a healer of issues specific to the mouth. Ulcers, sores, inflammation and infection of the mouth could be treated with Sumac inner and outer bark decoction or berry decoction. In modern studies, a tincture of Smooth Sumac’s berries showed efficacy against certain strains of bacteria, including Staph, E. Coli, Salmonella, and the much-feared yeast Candida. The Middle Eastern species of Sumac, Rhus coriara, was able to destroy Streptococcus bacteria, the cause for Strep Throat. Sumac is rich in Gallic acid, which is one of the ways it acts against bacteria, fungal infections and even certain viruses. (3)
It was also used historically to treat disease which caused discharge like leucorrhea and venereal disease like Gonorrhea. Madame Grieve describes its virtues in such conditions,
“The bark, in decoction or syrup, has been found useful in gonorrhoea, leucorrhoea, diarrhoea, dysentery, hectic fever, scrofula and profuse perspiration from debility. Combined with the barks of slippery elm and white pine and taken freely, the decoction is said to have been greatly beneficial in syphilis. As an injection for prolapsus uteri and ani, and for leucorrhoea, and as a wash in many skin complaints, the decoction is valuable. For scald-head it can be simmered in lard, or the powdered root-bark can be applied as a poultice to old ulcers, forming a good antiseptic.”
Sumac is not just a medicine but is also a prolific wild edible. The ripe, red berries of various species were are edible and tart. They can be eaten fresh or dried, but due to the large seed, my personal favorite way to ingest them in through making sumac “lemonade”. Soaking the berries in cold water infuses it with the tart taste of the vitamin C rich berries, and a little maple syrup or honey to taste makes a beverage very reminiscent of lemonade.
The young shoots of Smooth Sumac are also edible. They were also peeled and eaten historically by Apache people, especially relished by children. The shoots can be enjoyed by peeling away the green bark of the Smooth sumac and crunching away raw or cooked in Spring. Here is a good photo essay of just how to tell the Staghorn and Smooth Sumacs apart and how to enjoy the shoots. I look for the fresh shoots in Spring and make sure they crack off easily. Look for the ones with little to no white pithy core, for it doesn’t taste great but won’t hurt you. You can saute them, and season them with the berries!
There are Sumac species around the world used for food and medicine, and in some Middle Eastern and Northern and Eastern African countries the berries are used as a spice in a blend which is often known as za’tar. In Ethiopia, it’s often used to spice lamb. I use it to spice red meat, mushrooms and cooked greens dishes. Any time a zing of lemon would bring flavor to a dish, call on Sumac.
To use Sumac as a medicine today, the dosage is one cup of the infusion or 3-4 ml of either the 1:5 fresh fruit tincture, or 1:7 dried fruit tincture. These should be taken three times per day on an empty stomach, preferably 10-15 minutes before meals. To make the tea, add 2-3 teaspoons of the fresh or 1-2 teaspoons of the dried fruits to boiled water and allow it to steep for 15-20 minutes. It will taste much stronger than when it is prepared as a beverage. (4)
In folk medicine and herbal practice today, Sumac is considered refrigerant, meaning if you’re suffering from a fever it makes you feel cooler, astringent, diuretic, and antiseptic. The tincture and decoction of the bark and berries are both used for fever, diarrhea, sore mouth, painful urination and kidney stone. I gather the berries in a dry time when they first ripen red, and the bark in Spring when the sap is rising. The bark can then be tinctured or dried and used for decoction, while I dry berries for spice, make a vinegar, or tincture them fresh. Stephen Harrod Bruhner advises to tincture the root bark 1:5 in 50% alcohol, for a 20 to 40 drop dose up to 4x daily.
The leaves can be used as a poultice for skin eruptions, wounds and even rashes from Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac. The inner bark can be made into an antibiotic salve for wounds. It has also been incorporated in uterine medicine, specifically preventing uterine prolapse and stabilizing the blood which can help with menstrual cramping. (5)
The vinegar is my favorite thing to make with the berries. I use it culinarily, and mix with water and drink whenever I have a UTI or urinary complaint. I used to get chronic UTI’s when I was still drinking alcohol, and my kidneys still need extra support even two and a half years after getting sober. I add 2 tablespoons of sumac vinegar to a quart jar of water and sip it to keep my kidneys flowing as an occasional tonic. I just strip the berries off the branches into a clean mason jar, cover with raw apple cider vinegar and give a gentle shake occasionally. Don’t forget to put a piece of parchment paper between your lid and the jar to prevent the metal from rusting. How do you enjoy and celebrate Sumac?
Cautions: Sumac is in the same family as poison ivy, cashews and mangoes and should be avoided by people with severe allergies to any of those plants.
Wintery weather came rather suddenly to us here in the mountains this year. I was wearing flip flops not a month ago, and now I can barely type in my house it’s so chilly...Time to pull my extra box of sweaters out from the basement… I’ve always had a controversial stance with this time of year, and it’s that I love it. I love Christmas time. Solstice time. I love it. The magic feeling of Christmas was one of the first ways in which I was able to engage in magical actions in my family. It was basically a witches gateway drug for me. Christmas is so thoroughly pagan that it is not hard to see how it beguiled my wee mind.
As a child, my mother, who already thought I was pretty damn strange, told me she would catch me at night, just sitting in contemplation of the Christmas tree all lit up with lights and our family ornaments. I had a lot of big, magical feelings as a child, and few ways to express them. But sitting there, before this sight of lights, family history and colorful fancy, I found myself enthralled by the feeling of being enchanted. The feeling of “something more than”, and “wonder”. This was the feeling that I chased which led me to where I am today. So maybe I have Christmas to thank for leading me down the delightful shadowed trail I now follow.
One of the ways that we piece back together those pagan practices and beliefs which were suppressed in the Middle Ages by the Church, is through folk survivals in holiday celebrations, song and dance. This year, my best friend, Saro Lynch Thomason, revived our local group of Wassailers, and I have been delighted to be apart of it again. What is Wassail? And what is Wassailing?
Wassail refers to “good health” or drinking to someone’s good health. The act of going to Wassail someone or some tree, as well shall see, was a way to drink to their health to ensure their continued prosperity. And while there are many fine articles on Wassailing people, I want to focus on the practice of singing to Apple trees during this season. I’ve written a little of it before, and on the lore of Apple wood, but the practice of making offerings of cider, singing, dancing and even whipping trees to get them to bear great crops in the New Year is a fascinating practice that survives to this day.
The origin of the word Wassail is murky but here is one explanation from the stories of King Arthur:
“A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:
While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”
Wassailing has been done in different ways by different people throughout the Europe, each place having its own unique method and custom, but here are some commonalities of this mirthful celebration. Offerings of either toast or cake sopped in cider were hung in branched of the Apple trees in the orchard and cider poured onto the roots to encourage the tree to bear plentifully the following year. Much noise was made, perhaps to frighten away evil spirits which might harm the productivity of the tree through howling, yelling, firing guns and loud singing. The best producing tree in the orchard may also be similarly dressed in ribbons or decorated in someway to celebrate it’s bounty.
The noise of stamping feets and singing voices also served to wake up the sleeping winter trees. Bonfires and lanterns were lit to bring light into the dark, chilly orchards on these nights. And just when this practice was done varies widely from Christmas Eve, to Twelfth Night to Old Twelfth night. For our purposes, anytime between St. Stephen’s Day on the 26th of December the the 17th of January are fine times to Wassail in orchards.
Germans tied trees together declaring them married and encouraged them to be fruitful. They also hung apples along with other edible treats as ornaments. In Eastern Europe, a apple is cut cross-wise on Christmas Eve. If the core displays perfect stars, it foretells of fortune and good health for the upcoming year. In Normandy young apple trees were not harvested to leave the apples for the birds (or the Fae), which was called pixy-hoarding, cullpixying or griggling.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to sing or startle the Apple trees awake:
“Apple Tree Wassail” from the Watersons, who say that it is from the area of Devon and Somerset. This is the version my Wassailing group performs:
Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white pin,
Please to come down and let us come in.
Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white smock,
Please to come down and pull back the lock.
For it’s our wassail, jolly wassail,
Joy come to our jolly wassail.
How well they may bloom, how well they may bear,
That we may have apples and cider next year.
Master and mistress, oh, are you within?
Please to come down and let us come in.
Good health to your house, may your wishes come true
Now bring us some cider and we’ll bring down the moon.
There was an old farmer that had but one cow (start stamping!)
And how to milk her, he didn’t know how.
He put his old cow all in his old barn,
And a little more cider won’t do us no harm.
Harm, me boys, harm, Harm, me boys, harm,
A little more cider won’t do us no harm.
O the ringles and the jingles and the tenor of the song goes
Merrily merrily merrily
O the tenor of the song goes merrily.
Hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls,
Little heaps under the stairs!
Hip hip hooray!
A spoken rhyme from Roy Palmer in the Illustrated London News of January 11, 1851:
“Here's to thee/ Old apple tree!/ Whence thou mayst bud,/ And whence thou mayst blow,/ And whence thou mayst bear,/ Apples enow:/ Hats full,/ Caps full,/ Bushels,/ bushels, sacks full,/ And my pockets full, too!/ Huzza! huzza!”
from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
Version B. from the Shekerjian book which has music
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Well mayest thou bud,
And well mayest thou blow,
And well mayest thou bear
Of apples enow!
Hats full, caps full,
Good bushel sacks full,
My pockets too.
Give us a crop
Of good apples ripe,
Red and well-rounded
The good juicy type!
Here is our ale,
Now drink of it well,
And give us good apples
Of which we can tell.
The Apple Howling Chant from Sussex:
Stand fast root, bear well top.
Pray good God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big,
Every bough, apples enow.
(and then shout!)
Hats full, caps full
Five bushel sacks full
And a little heap under the stairs
Holla, boys, holla!
(and blow the horn!)
Folk-songs from Somerset, gathered and edited by Cecil Sharp, and published in 1904. The text is available on the net at Folk-songs from Somerset.
Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear.
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.
To blow well and to bear well
And so merry let us be;
Let every man drink up his cup
And health to the old apple tree.
Apples enow, hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls,
tallets ole fulls, barn’s floor fulls, little heap under the stairs.
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
(Shout, stamp and fire off guns).
Interestingly enough, Cecil also noted that people Wassailed their bees! There were known as “Bee Worsels”. I encourage wassailing most things. Many of these songs and their origins were gleaned from the excellent site: Proto-Indo-European Religions.
So however you choose to celebrate this time of year, and if you love apples, thing about reviving the old and lovely practice of Wassailing your orchards, or those that you frequent. Wassail!
Apple Wassails on Conrad Bladey’s website.
Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt, Chatto and Windus, London, 1903.
A Book of Christmas Carols edited by Haig and Regina Shekerjian, arranged by Robert de Cormier, Harper & Row Publ., New York, 1963.
Apple Tree Wassail lyrics as sung by the Watersons on the Mostly Norfolk page.
Folk Songs from Somerset by Cecil Sharp, Simkin & Co. Ltd, London, 1904; on the IMSLP site at Folk Songs from Somerset.
Palmer, K., and R. W. Patten. “Some Notes on Wassailing and Ashen Faggots in South and West Somerset.” Folklore, vol. 82, no. 4, 1971, pp. 281–291.
Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker
Apple Tree Wassail in his Everyman's Book of English Country Songs, and quotes the Illustrated London News of January 11, 1851
It finally feels like Fall here in the mountains, and today I've been able to wear long sleeves for the first time without having to change at noon into something cooler. I've been hard at work with Abby Artemisia putting together our new Folk School for next year, the Sassafras School of Appalachian Herbalism. Check it out!
Aside from all those projects I've been winding down to the last Hedgecraft class November 17th and already have an almost full waiting list for 2019's Hedgecraft! I am thrilled so many people are so interested in Cottage Craft and Old Ways. So housekeeping aside, I'd like to explore some of the lore of Plantain...
"Romeo and Juliet"(i. 2):--
"Benvolio. Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die.
Romeo. Your plantain leaf is excellent for that.
Benvolio. For what, I pray thee?
Romeo. For your broken skin."
The time of Shakespeare seems like a long time ago now, but plants in the Plantago genus have been used as medicine for a long, long time by people all over the world. The Plantago genus has 275 species worldwide, which as we’ll see, thank the gods, because it basically was used for everything. Though their uses are numerous, we’ll focus on Broadleaf plantain, Plantago major, and Narrow leaf or ribwort plantain, p.lanceolata, because those are our two most abundant here in the Mountains of WNC and are present everywhere in North America except the Arctic. I’ll refer to both throughout this post.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Plantain. It has so many uses, but one that most people know it for is its wound healing abilities. It’s been used around the world for wounds, burns, and ulcers to stop bleeding, absorb infection and generally treat the nasty sorts of things that can happen to a body. Norwegians and Swedes call this plant ‘groblad’, which can be translated as ‘healing leaves’. Crushed fresh leaves and juice applied directly to wounds is mentioned in the ethnobotany of many countries and cultures from Russia to India.
Through its long history of use worldwide as well as information gathered from the many studies done upon these plants, we know the crushed leaves have styptic, antioxidant, antimicrobial, antifungal, antibacterial , analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immunomodulation, just to name a few. We can see from the pollen record that Broadleaf plantain (P. major) entered the Nordic lands around 4000 years ago, and from Europe, spread almost worldwide.
It is one of the herbs mentioned in the Nine Herbs Charm, from the 10th century, was gathered from Anglo-Saxon England, and was used to treat infection and poisoning. Plantain was known as Weybroed or waybread. You can learn the charm yourself here: The Nine Herbs Charm. The other herbs referenced in this charm were: Mugwort, Chamomile, Nettle, Crabapple, Thyme, Betony, Lamb's Cress, and Fennel. Though there is debate here and there about a few of the plant’s identities.
This is one part magical recitation, one part effective, healing herbs. The poem is also amazing because it is one of two known references to Woden (or Odin) in Old English poetry, an old god of the Nordic peoples. It was used extensively for many purposes beyond wound healing throughout Europe and Asia, but once again, the places where plant histories overlap throughout different cultures always delights me.
Everywhere Europeans went, it followed. Sort of like a plant marker of European colonization. This is one of the reasons certain Indigenous peoples in North America came to call it, “White man’s footprint.” Sometimes I think of this fact when I look upon p.major, but I can’t blame this plant for the terrible things done by my ancestors. It more then makes up for this association with its ready availability, ease of harvest and amazing medicine and food. I want things to be right and wrong, good and evil. It’s simpler that way. But it is never that way. Never simple. Always nuanced. Always complex.
Mentioned throughout the world in medical writings from Greece to Medieval Islamic Spain, it was used as crushed whole leaves, or mixed with honey for wounds. It was believed it could heal any organ in the human body when boiled in butter and eaten. I cannot argue against adding butter to everything to make it better.
Culpepper said in his “Complete Herbal” (1649) P. major is under Venus:
‘It cures the head by its antipathy to Mars and the privities by its sympathy to Venus. There is not a martial disease that it does not cure’. About the medicinal effects he wrote: ‘It is good to stay spitting of blood and bleedings at the mouth, or the making of foul and bloody water, by reason of any ulcer in the reins or bladder’.
It was even believed that animals could use the plantain to heal themselves. Here's a story about the plantain from a the 1798 edition of The Farmer's Almanack:
“A toad was seen fighting with a spider in Rhode-Island; and when the former was bit, it hopped to a plantain leaf, bit off a piece, and then engaged with the spider again. After this had been repeated sundry times, a spectator pulled up the plantain, and put it out of the way. The toad, on being bit again, jumped to where the plantain had stood; and as it was not to be found, she hopped round several times, turned over on her back, swelled up, and died immediately. This is an evident demonstration that the juice of the plantain is an antidote against the bites of those venomous insects.”
In Southern Folk Medicine (1999) we get the following recipe for dysentery:
“For a Purging: First of all upon its first coming take a plenty of Chicken water. If it continues take a dose of Hippo if that don't stop it take a dose of Rhubarb and if it continues after that take the following decoction—Persimon roote, Yarrow, plantain, blackberry roots, Gumm leaves and a little red oak Bark boild one 3rd part away add a little brandy and sugar and drink it at discretion.”
The astringent Red Oak bark and Persimmon root bark, the uses of which were surely gleaned from the Cherokee and other indigenous folks in the region, were both used often for diarrhea in Appalachian and the broader Southern Folk Medicine Tradition. All the other drying and astringent plants, the blackberry, Gum and yarrow, could definitely use the soothing of the plantain to provide a powerful remedy for this at time ubiquitous problem, especially in Summer. This is one reason that in the South, the “summer complaint” has so many folk remedies. In Appalachian folk medicine in general, plantain was used to bring boils to head, applied to burns and wounds, fried in lard to make poultices, and to generally “draw out poison”.
More people in the herb world are finally having conversations today about the lack of visibility around the specific Indigenous medicines shared with colonists and especially the contributions of African and Caribbean people’s knowledge and plant uses to herbalism in general. In the South I see this is especially present. If people weren’t able to use their native plants, of which some they DID still have access too, they were still pioneering and adapting their own healing knowledge base and using what was around them. It is always important to note, that folk medicine is not a stuck or static practice, but it constantly evolving and changing. The story of Caesar’s cure for poison is a well documented example of how despite slavery, black folks were still pioneering and experimenting with plants, wherever they were.
Here are some people doing work around the contributions of POC in herbal healing: (Reminder, please don't ask POC herbalists to "prove" to you the contributions of African people to Appalachian or Southern Folk Medicine or Western Herbalism in general. Why would you ask that? Really, why? What is your goal here? If you have a question about specific academic sources etc., I have come across a lot in my research and I am happy to share them with you if you just have to have them. Just please don't bother POC herbalists about this.)
School of Liberation, Healing and Medicine
Sade Musa (who complied this list below)
Queering Herbalism's POC Healers List
Well of Indigenous Wisdom
Plantain is sometimes known as snakeroot or snakeweed and was used by Appalachians and people of the Deep South of all races for snake bite. And it was an African slave named Caesar who discovered this use and how to best fix it. It was so effective he was remarkably rewarded for his discovery and was set free by the South Carolina General Assembly in 1750 and allotted £100 per year for duration of his life. Something almost unheard of. And here is the healer Caesar’s Cure:
“Take the Roots of plantain and hoarhound fresh or dried 3 ounces boil them together in two quarts of water to one quart and strain it of this decoction let the patient take one third part three mornings fasting successively, from which if he finds any relief it must be continued till he is perfectly recovered; on the Contrary if he finds no Alteration after the first dose it is a sign that the patient has either not been poisoned at all, or that it is such a poison as Cesars antidotes will not Remedy (so may leave off the decoction).” (Southern Folk Medicine, p.12)
Plantain is clearly a medicine to celebrate. It’s also a food to celebrate! Rich in Vitamic C, K1 and carotenoids, this plant has edible leaves, seed stalks and seeds. It is also interesting to note that the leaves are low in oxalic acid, which can be irritating to some people with kidney stones or certain autoimmune conditions. In early Spring, add some fresh young leaves to salads or sautes and enjoy. My favorite thing to do with tougher older leaves is to do a quick fry in coconut oil or lard and make plantain chips. Like kale chips, but a slightly different texture. Crunchy and amazing. I just had some for breakfast with my roasted sweet taters and chicken, sauteed in a little water to soften them up, and finished in ghee from my loves at Goddess Ghee.
Magically, the seed stalks were used in love divinations. In people throughout Western Europe would strip the stalks of flowers and if the next day some still persisted, it meant the prospect of a marriage was good. Much like Mullein, the stalks were also bent or broken and it they grew back or upright it meant your true love returned your affections. When children in Cheshire England see the first Plantain stalk they say this rhyme for good luck, “Chimney sweeper all in black, go to the brooke and wash your back, wash it clean or wash it none, Chimney sweeper have you done?” (Dyer, 1889)
It is also interesting that Plantain also has a St John’s Eve association much like its sister herb Mugwort, and were both said in Europe that a rare ‘coal’ exists under the roots at noon or midnight on St. John’s eve and if one can find it and wear it, they shall be protected against plague and carbuncles, fever and ague. So plantain can heal your wounds and whisper the secrets of your true love’s heart? I’ll add some more to my quiche thanks.
I've been having fun making a concoction known as Succus: juicing plantain and then adding the same amount of honey. (Succus can also just be the plain juice). It's great by the teaspoon for coughs, dry respiratory conditions, and as a wound dressing. I store this nasty goodness in the fridge.
But it’s hard to resist our urge to categorize things as BAD or GOOD, HELPFUL or BANEFUL. It’s hard for us to just let things BE what they are right now. Plantain has invited me to be ok with where I am right now, complicated, painful stories, cruel acts, ancestral trauma, bright moments and joy, successes, all the things mixed together that have made me ME. Thank you Plantago.
Blair, K. (2014). The wild wisdom of weeds: 13 essential plants for human survival. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Dyer, T.S. Thistleton. The Folklore of Plants. 1889.
Jarić, Snežana, et al. “Traditional Wound-Healing Plants Used in the Balkan Region (Southeast Europe).” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 211, Jan. 2018, pp. 311–328.
Moss, Kay. Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820. University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Samuelsen, A. B. The traditional uses, chemical constituents and biological activities of Plantago major L. A review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 1 jan. 2000. v. 71, p. 1–21.
Sieling, Peter. “Chapter Five: Appalachian Folk Remedies.” Folk Medicine, Jan. 2003, p. 20.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary Of Plant Lore. Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2007. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).
The heat hasn’t left us yet in the mountains, but the nights are cooling and the days are growing shorter. No more 8 p.m. walks with our doggo... At any point this year, amongst herbalists and witchy types, I feel there was and is a constant conversation around what new star or planet or astro-thing is making us all sad or challenging us, but I am going to offer another view at this juncture. There are challenging retrogrades and eclipses, capitalism is the worst and makes many of our lives shitty and hard, but as a recovering alcoholic, I have to constantly ask myself, where is my role in how I feel? What am I doing, or more likely not doing, that is preventing me from feeling strong, comfortable, healthy or happy?
Because always, we are acted upon from all sides by forces wishing us harm from capitalism and the forces of oppression it supports. Yet, as a privileged white, able bodied, cis woman, I am also incredibly lucky and often (but not always) can choose where to feel victimized, attacked and, well, bad. I speak about this purely as my own experience and am not saying how anyone else, however similar to me and my situation, should feel or act or experience the world. I merely want to suggest, that in all things, looking at the ways in which we DO have power to shift or at least coast through can be immensely powerful and it’s ok to look at the ways in which we act and the patterns we have and want to change them and GROW. It’s ok to say I want to feel like a victim today but I WON’T. It’s ok to say I feel sensitive and bad today so I need space, but I won’t project it onto the ones I love. It’s ok to say sorry and mean it when we do anyways, despite our best efforts.
I yell about being an alcoholic in recovery all the time, and because I am a person that easily and readily will lie to myself to enable my addictions, I need to be bluntly honest with myself that sometimes, I am powerless over certain things. I am powerless over alcohol this is for sure, and what life throws my way to an extent, but I am powerful beyond measure in other areas of my life. How can I take responsibility for the ways I treat others, myself and my environment? THIS is what has been on my mind, despite the desire to blame and project onto the people and events transpiring around me. Where can I pick up the reins that I put down, and where can I say sorry where I need to and say HELL NO where I need to and say thank you where I need to. Awareness and compassion: these are cups I drink from in equal measure, though sometimes I spill down the front of my shirt.
All my soap boxing aside, I love you, and if you are having a hard time, that is real, and all of my waxing poetic about how you can change it may not be real for you, and guess what, that is also TOTALLY OK. You do you my darlin. With the Vernal Equinox approaching I feel the first stirrings in myself to draw more inwards. I know, me, the queen of extroverts, yet I am a crafter and the Fall and Winter are my times to MAKE. What shall I make this year? What are you excited to make?
Making more potions and elixirs and tea blends and vinegars has been on my list. Making more MEDICINE! When I think of the recipes and things that inspire me most, it is always the concoctions I read of in old books and hear about from my elders. The rabbit tobacco, the pokeweed, the sassafras. The Appalachian plants. And on that note, I want to talk about a favorite native plant of mine that is flowering right now. Joe Pye Weed. Who was Joe Pye? And why was this his weed?
Joe Pye weed, or Eutrochium spp. Is a member of the aster family native to the U.S. This plant is known by many names like Gravel root and ague root, but my favorite is Queen of the Meadow. When you see those tall, waving stalks topped with cotton candy pink fluffy flowers, it’s not difficult to see why this name is so appropriate. The name Joe Pye also has a curious history. There are sources claiming all over the web and in old literature that an indigenous man named Joe Pye used the root to heal typhus in New England. Yet, upon further inspection, it is also surmised that no such man existed and the word Joe Pye is an Anglicization of an indigenous word from an unknown location “jopi” used to describe this plant. Either way, the plant was used for typhus, and surely was taught to settlers by indigenous people. Our stories of plants and their names...
In Appalachia, this queen has historically been used as a kidney remedy. Hence the name, Gravel root. Kidney stone, cystitis, fever, typhus, all these ailments were plied with Joe Pye tea. The leaves, roots and flowers are important denizens in the native medicinal plant lexicon.
Patricia Kyritsi Howell describes the Queen of the Meadow as diuretic, anti-lithic, kidney tonic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, and anti-rheumatic. Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass used it for kidney stone, bladder disease, and even prostate issues.
Cherokee and Iroquois both used the plant as a kidney remedy and to combat fluid retention. The hollow stems were also used as a straw to suck water out of shallow streams by the Cherokee and used as a blowing device to deliver certain throat medicines and powders around a person’s body. Different tribes identified its metaphysical uses as a strengthening plant, as a love charm, and as a good luck talisman when carried on one’s body. The broad medicinal and magical uses of this native plant show that clearly it was highly regarded by all who came in contact with it.
In Hoodoo, the plant is seen as a bringer of good luck as well, especially for job searches and success magic. Before an interview, the tea is used in baths, as well as carrying the root in one’s pocket to get a raise or find a job. Some identify this plant with Saturn, due to the fact that it can grow in shade and it’s purple color. To check out more awesome info from a person way more qualified to speak on the subject of Hoodoo, check out a rad friend of mine, Demetrius LaCroix, at Botanica Macumba. He’ll be teaching some classes soon on the topic in the New Orleans area.
This plant is a beautiful pink babe and I love it. It’s not one I use a lot personally in medicine as I hate to dig up roots if I don’t have to. I often turn to goldenrod tops for a more abundant kidney tonic. Either way, meeting this plant and appreciating the ways in which it has been used for love, luck and pee pee health is all a great way to make your acquaintance. That all being said, as we near the Autumn equinox, the second harvest festival of the waning year, I hope you find more ways to hold gratitude, be gentle with yourself, and to GROW just like the brilliant colorful plants all around us.
" Some sorcerers do boast they have a rod,
Gathered with vows and sacrifice.
That, borne aloft, will strangely nod
To hidden treasure where it lies." — Shepherd (1600).
The whispering fingers of Autumn are tentatively feeling their way about us on the land. The first night I’ve used the big comforter came recently as I lay on the couch, reading Phyllis Light’s newish book, Southern Folk Medicine, which is fantastic by the way. I’ve been harvesting tomatoes everyday, green beans by the bucket fulls, blanching and blanching and blanching veggies for the freezer. Lamsquarter’s greens and tulsi are drying on the new herbrack I got as suggested by Laurie Quisenberry, my new friend from Wild Herb Weekend.
I had such a blast at this event. If you haven’t been and you like herbs and you live near or in NC, please come next year!! I taught classes on Appalachian Tonics, The Poison Path in Appalachia and did an Appalachian Ethnobotany plant walk focused on the magical uses of plants. It was super fun having a sleepover with my friend Byron Ballard and gossiping until late into the night, as well as doing some serious porch settin’ at the beautiful farm house we stayed in.
Aside from all that glory and magic, I do also want to take this opportunity to speak to issue brought up by recent news about Susan Weed. I am not an authority in the herbal world. I don’t see clients, and I’m more folklorist then herbalist, but despite all that and my young age, I do hold a position of power as a teacher and have apprentices myself. We as a group have talked a lot these past two weeks about the issues of “intense personalities” the cult of personality and teacher-power dynamics.
I feel that as a teacher, finding the ways to face my ego, my shadows, my victimization stories and the ways in which I act toxically in social situations is paramount to my work. I invite all of us who teach and hold that imbalance to let go of the celebrity-effect, and just freaking help each other see these types of abuse for what they are and support those who are affected by it. It’s so hard to know when someone is just has a “hard personality” or “is intense” or well, is really just plain abusive. If you have people describing you as that, maybe examine how and why you’re putting yourself out there in the world in those ways, and please, at the end of the day, don't be a jerk. For those who have been hurt or betrayed by this woman. I am sorry. You never deserved that, and I am here for you. Others have far more elegantly and less self-centeredly commented on this, but I stand with those harmed by this person and I hear you.
On a lighter note, in fact a light yellow notes, here to bring a golden smile to your face, today I want to share with you the magic of Goldenrod.
The first splashes of yellow are coming up here and there along the highways and round the edges of our pond at my home. Goldenrod is returning. Despite its ubiquitousness, I still find it to be one of the flowering plants I most anticipate. They say in Appalachia, that once you see the first blooms, it’s six more weeks to the first frost. Where we live, that’s not so, but elsewhere and higher up in WNC, it’s most accurate. This plant is, however, a sign of luck and wealth, though with some special caveats.
Goldenrod or Solidago spp. is a common Aster family plant native to North America and Mexico with between 100- 120 species, though they have been introduced in Europe and beyond. Goldenrod is edible, medicinal, and of course, magical. Despite its many uses, it has a bad rap as an allergen, when in fact, its friend the Ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) is the culprit. The pollen of goldenrod is too heavy and sticky to become airborne and effect us allergic humans, and it is this stickiness which causes insects to be the main purveyors of this weighty pollen. This does not mean no one is allergic to goldenrod, topically or internally, anything can cause a reaction, but the story that goldenrod is responsible for the streaming eyes and noses of people with Fall allergies, not so!
Ironically enough, the suspect is the cure! Tea from goldenrod leaves and flowers has been used for a wide variety of medicinal purposes by indigenous people around the Americas, with large emphasis on its uses as a kidney and bladder medicine. Matthew Wood calls it bitter, warming and pungent, ideal for old wounds, sores on the legs and scalp as well as good kidney medicine of course. The latin name “Solidago” means “whole”, which most likely refers to its healing properties. Others say it come from the phrase "in solidum ago vulnera," "I consolidate wounds."Another old name for it was “woundwort”. The galls that form from a grub living inside the stalks were also carried to prevent rheumatic pain. Known as "rheumaty-buds", these little galls were cruelly believed to only be effective as long as the little bug was still alive inside. Sheesh. Nice job 19th century people. Tough being a grub.
There are studies indicating it has even more uses medicinally, from lowering cholesterol to upper respiratory infections, colds and flu. Salves and oils were used traditionally as topicals for pain, and the fresh leaf made into a salve for old wounds by the Romany. In Scotland it was used especially for broken bones. It was commonly used in African American folk medicine for fever and chills as a tea.
Goldenrod with it’s brilliant hue and stately countenance can’t help but inspire magical ideas. It was believed that if it suddenly appeared growing outside your door it meant that good luck and prosperity were on their way. In the British Isle, Its long stems were believed to point to the locations of buried gold and silver. It even has a history as a sort of dowsing rod to help find secret underground springs and water sources. This plant is given the astrological association with Venus. Perhaps this explains why if you wear a piece of goldenrod, it will also ensure you see your lover tomorrow. I know what I’ll be pinning to my lapel post haste.
Dictionary of Plantlore. D.C. Watts. 2007.
The Mythical, Magical Folklore of Plants. D. Thiselton-Dyer.
The works of herbalist Matthew Wood
I talk a lot about the plants of Appalachia, but the other day my friend Augustus Rushing asked me about mandrake. My face lit up, and I excitedly barfed out all the things that get me stoked about this most storied of plants. For truly, there is not a plant more deeply entrenched in withlore than this one... Mandragora officinarum.
This root is so shrouded in mystery and folklore it may be considered the most infamous of the witch’s plants. Though not the most toxic of the solanaceae, it certainly could be said to have been regarded as one of the most powerful and frightening of them all. It hails from the Eastern Mediterranean. The Egyptians were familiar with the plant and used the roots and berries for various medicinal purposes, but namely as an aphrodisiac. Pieces of the roots were found in burial chambers and the plant is mentioned in the famous Ebers Papyrus from between 1700-1600 B.C. It is also mentioned in the Bible twice. Once when Rachel barters for them with Leah to become fertile, and again in reference to love-making between the young Shulammite and her beloved. Clearly, this root fascinated many, and it comes as no surprise that it should be so titillating and tempting when associated with all sorts of sordid and forbidden acts.
The oldest written mention of the mandrake occurs in the cuneiform tablets of the Assyrians and the Old Testament. It may have been referring to mandrake wine, which was often mentioned in later tablets. The Greek doctor Theophrastus discussed its uses as a soporific and aphrodisiac, but more interestingly, he described curious rituals that were performed before the harvest of the alluring root. It required three circles to be drawn with a knife in the earth around the plant, after which the top of the plant was cut off while facing west. Before the best of the root is dug and cut, one must dance about it while saying as much as one can about the mysteries of love. Essentially, repeating as many indecent things as possible. This refers to said that if one acts lewdly enough, it is possible to frighten demons away, freeing the root from interference with lingering spirits of malintent. It seems clear that Mandrake maintained a firm grip on the vivid images of love and lovemaking throughout history to different cultures.
This love association that enabled mandrake to become associated with salacious acts in the Middle Ages. To the ancient Greeks, Aphrodite was also known as Mandragoritis “she of the mandragora”. It was one of the plants sacred to her. It was also sacred to the infamous goddess of witches, Hecate. She was both the poison goddess, and the goddess of birth and aphrodisiacs. It was said of her garden as described by Orpheus that, “Many mandrakes grow within.”
Josephus Flavius ( 37 – c. 100), the Jewish historian, diplomat and general claimed this wonderful plant emitted a glowing red light at night, and that the shy plant would withdraw if it saw someone approaching. Others claimed this ghostly glow as well, and it was shortly after this time in antiquity we see the dog come into play in the story of the Mandrake. Aelian (c. 175 – c. 235 CE) instructed one to tie a starving dog to the plant and place some meat within smelling distance. The poor beast would pull the plant up, killing itself by hearing the mandrake’s ungoldy cry, and be buried afterwards in the plant’s place in a ceremony honoring the gift of life for it’s masters conquest.
The shape of the mandrake is likely one of its characteristics that made it most amenable to magic. It often resembles a human being, like that of another famous root, ginseng, which also came to be known as a panacea, or cure all, of the human body. It is hard to say where the mandrake went from useful and mysterious medicinal plant to sinister homunculus. Harold Hansen postulates that it may stem from the story of Jason’s ‘dragon men’, but it is most likely from early Christianity. It was said that the mandrake was a first draft of Man that God discarded after creating Adam from the red earth of Paradise. Hence it’s eerie human-like form.
The German name for mandrake is Alraune, which comes from Alrun, and may have meant, “he who knows the runes”. Germanic oracles, who were known far and wide in ancient times, would use the mandrake in concoctions to enter prophetic states. Though sadly, as Christianization overtook Europe, so too did the associations of mandrake go from seer’s plant to an almost demonic entity. It was in early Medieval Germany, new traditions and beliefs formed around the mysterious root, and perhaps brought about some of its most sinister associations.
It’s folk names now included gallow’s man and dragon doll, for it was said to only grow at the base of the gallows where, in the throes of death, a hanged man’s urine or semen stained the earth. Though, in Denmark, it could not just be any man, but a “pure youth” or “right lad”. Someone destined from birth, through bearing the misfortune of being born to a woman who stole while pregnant. It was believed that if a woman stole while pregnant her sons would be scoundrels and thieves and her daughters whores. Others took it to mean a man wrongly hanged and chaste. Either way, it was a rare and strange occurrence for a mandrake to be born.
Many would pay high prices for the mandrake, for it practically did it all. Luck in love, healed the diseases brought about it, brought in wealth and acted with a power no woman could resist. To convince the root to do these things for you, however, required careful action, for the Mandrake still bore hatred for mankind for being chucked aside as a prototype on God’s drafting desk. It must be bathed in wine, wrapped in red or white silk cloth as well as a little velvet cloak. It must also be fed.
What to feed it varied depending on who you asked. These roots continued to be known as “alruna” or “alraunes” in Germany and England. Communion wafers saved in the mouth from Church, spittle from a fasting person, or even earth from Paradise. Even with the best care, however, sometimes the Mandrake would tire of its owner and stop working. In these instances they had to be sold right away, unless they turn the tides and cause misfortune for their masters. Interestingly, it could only be sold for less than one had bought it for, and if the owner died, it must go to the grave with them and be prepared to be judged along side them at heaven’s gates.
These mysterious fetishes are simply roots from certain plants fashioned into the shape of a human to be used for magical purposes, but the often human-shaped mandrake is the inspiration for this strange and wonderful practice. In Medieval England, these charms were known as “alrunen”. In Germany during the same era, the “alruna” were so revered that they were dressed everyday lest they do their owners harm. They have lived on in German and English folklore where it was said that well-kept alraune were dressed in silk and velvet and ‘fed’ meals of milk and cookies. Dr. Faust himself was said to have an alraune. In 1888, it was said such ‘manikins” could be found among the Pennsylvania Dutch. In Renaissance era magic it was also, like henbane, used as a magical incense associated with the moon and placed under the pillow for prophetic dreams.
Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century herbalist, abbess and visionary mystic, was one of the first to record her criticisms of the mandrake:
“With this plant, however, also because of it’s similarity to a person, there is more diabolical whispering than with other plants and it lays snares for him. For this reason, a person is driven by his desires , whether they are good or bad, as he also once did with the idols...It is harmful through much that is corruptive of the magicians and phantoms, as many bad things were once caused by the idols.”
Yet she also prescribed its use, still paying homage to the powerful plant for depression of sorts that he should place a spring-washed mandrake root whole with him in his bed while he sleeps. There is even a little charm that accompanies it, though Hildegard would have never called it such, “God, who makes humans from the dirt of the earth without pain. Now I place this earth, which has never been stepped over, beside me, so that my earth with also feel that peace which you have created.” (Physica 1.56).
It contains the potent alkaloids scopalamine, hyoscyamine, atropine, apoatropine, and many more. The effects are little written about despite the popularity and notoriety of this root. It is poisonous but less so than our other solanaceae friends.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. The Philosophy of Natural Magic. L. W. de Laurence ed. 1913. Originally published in 1531-3, De occulta philosophia libri tres, (Three books of Occult Philosophy) proposed that magic existed, and it could be studied and used by devout Christians, as it was derived from God, not the Devil. Agrippa had a huge influence on Renaissance esoteric philosophers, particularly Giordano Bruno.
Bevan-Jones, Robert. Poisonous Plants : A Cultural And Social History. Oxford: Windgather Press, 2009.
Friend, Hilderic. Flower Lore. Rockport, MA: Para Research, 1981.
Hansen, Harold A. The Witch's Garden. York Beach: Samuel Weiser, 1983. Print.
Höfler, Max. "Volksmedizinische Botanik Der Germanen." 1908.
Hyslop, Jon, and Paul Ratcliffe. A Folk Herbal. Oxford: Radiation, 1989.
Jiménez-Mejías, M.E.; Montaño-Díaz, M.; López Pardo, F.; Campos Jiménez, E.; Martín Cordero, M.C.; Ayuso González, M.J. & González de la Puente, M.A. (1990-11-24). "Intoxicación atropínica por Mandragora autumnalis: descripción de quince casos [Atropine poisoning by Mandragora autumnalis: a report of 15 cases]". Medicina Clínica. 95 (18): 689–692.
Moldenke, Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke. Plants of the Bible. New York, NY: The Ronald Press Company, 1952.
Netter, M. W. "The "Mandrake" Medical Superstition." The Medical Standard. Vol. III. Chicago: G.P. Englehard, 1888. 173-75.
Perger, von K. Ritter. 1864. Deutsche Pflanzensagen. Stuttgart and Oehringen: Schaber.
Raedisch, Linda. Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2011.
Raitsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications. Rochester, VT: Park Street, 2005.
Seed of parsley, dill, and rue,
Of celandine and feverfew:
Take equal parts of all these worts
And you'll be ready for any sport.
-F. C. Brown, Durham.
As we near Midsummer I once again am reminded of the constant contrasts that sneak into the web and ebb of the wheel of the year. As we stand, poised across from the dark days of winter, here in this brilliant, oppressive heat, it’s hard to see how after the longest day of the year we will yield ourselves once more to the darkness. We will go into that good night, but perhaps not quietly. Now the radishes are raw-skin pink, the peas crystalline in their pods, and the first long, yellow squashes begin their almost oppressive harvest dance. The first Harvests of Lammas loom and the work we do now is largely about keeping the plants alive long enough to bear leaf, fruit, and seed. Midsummer approaches, as it is on June 21st this year. It was a time of celebration, divination and mystery among many of our ancestors. This zenith point reached by the sun on its journey is one of the reasons for the name Solstice or “sun stopping” in Latin for this special day. But we have plants to discuss...
Traditions vary widely in the Western Hemisphere where the equinoxes and solstices are more easily discernible, but as always the ways in which plants fit into the Midsummer celebrations interests me most. For more lovely Midsummerlore, from the Scottish perspective especially, see one of my favorite magical people’s posts at Cailleach’s Herbarium. There is so much herblore from Europe around Midsummer herbs like St.John’s wort and Yarrow, but what of the other herbs of Midsummer? I want to introduce you to the lesser-known Midsummer plant, Feverfew.
Feverfew, or Tanacetum parthenium, is a small-flowered, daisy-like plant in the aster family whose sunny, yellow center opens around Midsummer every year. This has earned it one of its many folk names, Midsummer daisy, due to its June blooming and, well, looking like a daisy. Other names it has earned historically are featherfoil, featherfowl, and parthenium. Avicenna, in his Canon of Medicine, one of the most influential medical books in history, assigns Feverfew to the natures of heating and drying. Which, is strange, given Feverfew’s name. I’ll give you one guess what folk uses it had. Fever breaking is one of them for sure, but honestly, feverfew lives on today as a notorious headache, specifically migraine, remedy. In England it had other names, for it was included in abortifacient recipes, giving it the less savory name of “kill-bastard” among some country people. It was also a part of the menstrual herb pantheon and called Maid’s weed by some as well due to these attributes.
In Anglo-Saxon folk magic, this plant was curative for a specific condition known as “elf shot”. In combination with red nettle and “waybread” or plantain, it was used to cure the sudden pains we call a stich in the side. This was believed to have been caused by elves firing invisible arrows at unsuspecting victims. In the Anglo Saxon 11th century book, Lacnunga or “Remedies”, these three plants are mixed in butter and applied to this mysterious affliction. This renders it a powerful protection herb from meddling Fae, especially on a night such as Midsummer's Eve. Feverfew continued to be used as a pain relieving herb as well in history through the Romany community and was also used in place of Chamomile, most likely due to their similar appearance. It was likewise used as a sedative tea, just as Chamomile is.
The plant was also used to magically soothe unruly horses by the renown horsemen of East Anglia in England who were known to have certain secrets in the world of horsemanship. According to 16th century herbalist and botanist John Gerard, the method of picking must be done just so to ensure the magic of the herb remains intact. It must be harvested with the left hand specifically, while also reciting aloud the name of the sufferer, and at no time looking behind oneself. This little flower was also thought to aid those suffering from melancholy when one can barely speak from sadness. It even was used to help counteract the effects of an overindulgence of opium (Duke JA. 1985. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.)
The latin name, Tanacetum, comes from the name Thanatos, the Greek god of Death. This also yielded this plant it's lesser known folk name, Devil's Daisy. This may be due to its strange odor, which I have found to be very polarizing. I enjoy the mugwort-like scent, but occasionally certain people smell it and abhor it strongly, comparing it to some bodily smell. Romans and Greek associated this plant with the underworld, relating the scent to corpses, for this fragrant plant, for better or worse, was used to mask the scent of the dead in funerary rites. So, as is often the case, this Summer flower stands as an emblem of the life giving Sun, and as an accompaniment to Death. This association has given Feverfew a powerful magical influence as a plant of protection, Midsummer power and finally, the liminal spaces between Life and Death. Ever reminding up that with all Light, comes Darkness.
In Appalachia, this little herb was used for its fever breaking power as a tea as well as a poultice to “fevered places” (Frank C. Brown N.C. Folklore Collection). It was also used in folk hematological conditions known as “thick blood” which could include a variety of unpleasant symptoms (Phyllis Light. Southern Folk Medicine. 123). The plant was brought to North America alongside many other cottage herbs meant to heal.
I’ve been gathering the fresh flower heads to dry for tea, just incase I fall victim to some marauding Fae on Midsummer’s Eve, or if I need to chill out and calm the fuck down. The later being as likely to happen as the former. Regardless of invisible arrow dangers, this cheerful Midsummer bloomer is an important member of the herbs of Midsummer. Make a garland, hang a bundle above the door to protect against the wandering Fae who roam about the lands with the Summer thunderstorms, and include it in your Midsummer balefire to honor the Sun at its zenith point. Revel in the flames of Summer yet turn your back not on the Shadows of the Dark year.
Dictionary of Plantlore. D.C. Watts. 2007.
Light, Phyllis. Southern Folk Medicine. 2018.
Frank C Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
Pareek, A., Suthar, M., Rathore, G. S., & Bansal, V. (2011). Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.): A systematic review. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 5(9), 103–110. http://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.79105
The strange, brilliant orange and green flowers of the Tulip Poplar tree are in full bloom now in the warmer parts of the mountains. Some have already descended onto the ground, waiting to be found by curious children and remarked upon, “What is this strange flower?”
Tulip poplar is one of our native trees, but due to its prevalence, it is sometimes unclear how amazing and unique this straight, graceful tree is. If you have never stripped the fresh bark off a newly cut tree and folded into a berry basket or twisted the retted, inner bark into a soft cordage, or lickd the fallen flowers for their sugary nectar, I encourage you to meet and hold this wonderful tree and all of its amazing parts in your own two hands.
This tree isn’t just a balm for the eyes with its lime-green leaves and gold irridencenes, it has a long history of use as a tonic and fever tree in the Southern Appalachians. Botanist Johann David Schoepff in 1787 remarked on the usefulness of the tulip poplar during his travels in North America. He declared the tincture of the bark and root useful as a febrifuge and rheumatic remedy; the seed as aperient; the fresh leaves to make an ointment for various inflammations and gangrene. He most likely learned these uses from the settlers and they from American Indians. (1)
Cherokee people used this tree for many purposes from canoe building, which led to one of its many names of canoe wood, bow drill fire, and cordage. Medicinally it was used for periodic fevers, diarrhea, pinworms, as a digestive aid, and for rheumatic pain. The decoction is used as a bath for fractures, sprains, and hemorrhoids. There is also an interesting bit of lore that comes from David Winston where in if a snake bite is received in a dream, the tulip poplar must be applied, for if the bite is left untreated, traumatic arthritis could develop in the area bitten. (3)
One of the most interesting questions I ask myself when studying Appalachian folk medicine and magic, is does the inherent nature of the landscape affect the ways in which these traditions are birthed? Does the damp heat of the summer in the Southern Appalachians give rise to the folk healing traditions of these mountains? The prevalence of fever remedies in the Appalachian medicinal herb lexicon makes me want to say yes. Today we don’t have to fight the miasmas of Summer any longer due to the widespread use of insecticides and large public pushes to reduce mosquito breeding grounds, but Summer was once a time of different dangers for people attempting to remain healthy thru exposure to malaria.
During the Revolutionary war, Governor Clayton stated that "during the late (Revolution) war Peruvian bark was very scarce and expensive, and as I was at that time engaged in considerable practice, I made a mixture of the barks of Liriodendron (tulip poplar), Cornus florida (dogwood) and Quercus alba (white oak) in nearly equal quantities.”(2) The Peruvian bark they are referring to is the infamous Quinine, which is native to South America. The stately tulip tree and its longtime companion the Dogwood (cornus spp.) were both often used in the teas, decoctions and tinctures meant to ease the raging fevers of Summer in the South.Tulip poplar inner bark and root bark came to feature prominently in fever formulas and bitter tonics for rheumatism and general inflammations.
Though this tree was written about here and there in reference to its benefits in the fights against fevers, it was mostly thought of as a country folks remedy. Maybe that is why I like it so much… It’s said tulip poplar root bark was mixed with dogwood bark in brandy for use in fevers when mixed with water. The Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States by William Barton published in 1825 listed many uses for this tree. The bark is considered stimulant, causing sweating, while being astringent and bitter. The root bark is considered tonic. He recommends mixing it with dogwood and winterberry for fever (they called them intermittents in old medical books due to the back and forth nature of malarial fevers), and black alder. The root powder was also used in late stage dysentery and gout.
A great cure for hysteria is also apparently laudanum and poplar bark, so much so that Barton says there is in fact no better remedy. He mentions it’s use as a vermifuge as well, which is how the Catawba people used this tree (4). It was used as a vermifuge in African folk medicine as well, but it was given as root decoction to horses for worms. He describes the older uses of the wood specifically as well. Tulip tree wood was used to make large mill wheels because it was said it could be tolerant of wet conditions. It was also used on the lathe often to make utensils. This easily carvable wood was used for butter stamps and canoes as well as aforementioned. A liquor was even made in Paris of the bark and roots with sugar. (5) I’m curious if anyone has ever tried this, and if not, perhaps we can make a syrup of it.
In Appalachian folk medicine tulip poplar bark was used largely for inflammation, rheumatism, and according to Alabama folk herbalist Tommie Bass, the root bark was a good tonic that would make you sweat and help stimulate appetite. I have seen the flower tincture used for the same purposes, namely arthritic pain. My sweet friend Abby Artemisia uses it for anxiety and insomnia as a tea or tincture of the twigs. I’ve tried a mild tea of the young twigs and have to say it has a lovely taste. Phyllis Light of Alabama also recommends it for circulation, varicose veins and heart issues.
When you get closer to tulip poplar and see its brilliant orange and green flowers and look at its new leaves, you’ll notice a golden sheen on the lime-green tender leaves. This energetic association with warming and diaphoretic action leads me to associate this tree with the Sun itself bearing such brilliant colors and almost spicy flavor. Conversely, the lunar influence over it is also evident.
One of the most amazing things about this tree is the way in which it’s bark can be used for shelters, lodges, shingles and baskets. It is said the full moon in June is the best time to slip the bark on this tree and I can’t say that it isn’t true. When peeling logs for a log cabin on Natalie Bogwalker’s land down the lane from me, we peeled pine and poplar on a few different lunar phases and noted, that indeed, the full moon in June seemed to be the best for us. Those lunar times where certain tasks are completed with ease always make me feel deeply connected to the planet that rules my Cancerian experience.
This indigenous basket making tradition was observed by settlers and adopted into the Appalachian folk lexicon of naturally made, useful items. I first saw a tulip poplar basket on the back of Doug Elliot, my friend and an amazing naturalist and story teller. He has a lot to say about tulip tree and its magic. These baskets are made by artisans all over Appalachia and other areas of American where the tulip poplar grows today.
There is so much more to be said about this amazingly native tree. What magic have you found in the center of a tulip poplar flower? In the feel of the wet bark popping off the tree on a full moon in June? The sharp taste of the new buds in Spring?
(1)Materia Medica Americana, David Johann Schoepf, Erlangae, 1787, p. 90.
(2) Drugs and Medicines of North America, 1884-1887, was written by John Uri Lloyd and Curtis G. Lloyd.
(3) Nvwoti; Cherokee Medicine and Ethnobotany by David Winston, A.H.G.
(4) Florida Ethnobotany. Daniel F. Austin.
(5) Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States; Or Medical Botany ..., Volume 1
By William Paul Crillon Barton (1825)
I am so excited about this new blog post from my best friend Saro Lynch Thomason. She called me into the Reece Museum in East Tennessee to ask me about the lore of blood stone. What a fantastically produced piece! Check out this piece, it's huge!
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