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!
Despite the snow, the wild greens of Spring are starting to return. The Hawk and Hawthorne’s nettle patch has already provided a few good meals. The tiny white stars of chickweed’s flowers are dotting the ground beside the compost pile, and the purple violets are already coloring the grass between our garden beds. I feel that eating wild foods gives us the unique gift of being totally re-enchanted with our landscape each Spring.
Even though I have seen violet flowers every Spring for 10 years (before that I didn’t know what violets were or that I should care about them), I welcome them as much as they welcome me home to this bioregion each year. I relish the first mess of nettles creamed with local yoghurt and garlic, I celebrate the first dead nettle eggie fritter, (this year lovingly crafted with our own chicken’s eggs). The first wild foods of Spring in Appalachia will dress my Ostara table and each mouthful reminds me of the ones who came before, frying poke in bacon fat, cooking down creasys and adorning their Easter lamb with the new mint eagerly bursting forth from the bare garden beds.
Here’s what we’re doing with the wild plants that grace our doorstep and the fieldsides as we continue to rise to the occasion of the Spring Equinox.
March is upon us! Rabbit Rabbit! The Spring Equinox lies ahead and I’m beginning my preparations now for what will surely be a blustery or balmy evening, in equal measure. There are hundreds of Springtime practices from around the world, many of which have made their way into modern pagan practice. I’d love to tell you about a few that we do. Also, let’s talk about Ostara and where that comes from.
Many call the Spring Equinox Ostara in modern pagan practice, and while all expressions of spirituality are valid when done with care and intention, there is little historical information supporting the stories of Oestre, the Germanic goddess for whom it is claimed Easter is named for. Please see, “A Brief History of Ostara”, by D.C. Mcbride for a well reasoned account of the historical accuracy of this name.
“Perhaps the most misunderstood holiday of the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year is Ostara. Many Pagans would be surprised to learn that the popular notions of its history and imagery are based upon Nineteenth century conjecture and the scantest of historical evidence. This shouldn’t matter in terms of actual spiritual practice; just because something isn’t historical doesn’t preclude it from being the basis for meaningful spirituality. But understanding the development of the holiday should matter, if only to dispel commonly-held misconceptions about its’ history.” – D.C. McBride, “A Brief History of Ostara”
But really, check it out, it’s an awesome piece, and overall very respectfully written. I think it is always important as witches to remember that history is important, it gives us context and can imbue practices with meaning, but it is not necessary or even possible for all of our practices to stem directly in a line unbroken from the mysterious and glorified past.
Another name common amongst Traditional Witches for this days is Lady Day, which is the quarter day falling between Candlemas and Mayday. In Rome, the Spring equinox marked the beginning of the New Year and agricultural cycle. This month is sacred to Mars, as we can see in the name, who was an agricultural guardian before he came into his later associations with warfare. It is also the sign of Aries. Mars was invoked in Spring to guard crops, animals and farmers, as well as to increase the general fertility of all. This was also the day historically when tenant farmers would sign their new leases. Many practices are associated with the Feast of the Annunciation in Christianity, perhaps illuminating that this event, which the Bible gives no date for, was chosen as a way to further christianize the equinox rites.
This day has come to be associated with hares in Europe, or in our case rabbits, through the popular medieval pastime of coursing or hunting hares on Good Friday or Easter Monday. Though conversely, many rural folks were hesitant to kill one as it was seen as bad luck to those practicing the old ways. They believed it brought misfortune. This fear may be connected with the belief that witches often sent their spirits out as hares or had hares as familiars.
The Easter bunny we know today may have come from German immigrants to America, who called this magic, egg-laying hare, the Osterhase or Easter Hare. The custom was first recorded in the 17th century in Germany. This is also the time that people engaged in ‘spring cleaning’ of not only their home, farms and barns, but of unwanted or outmoded attitudes or mindsets. Out with the old, in the with the new.
There are certain foods associated with this day as well, such as ham, which may harken back to the eating of wild boar, and hot cross buns of the Celts who revered the boar. This practice carried over into the Middle Ages and spiced buns with currants and raisins bearing an equal armed cross were enjoyed around Easter. This symbol is also known as the solar cross, and may reference the Sun’s return as the year returns to warm and light once more. Un-eaten hot cross buns were even seen as magical objects and were saved and reported to cure many diseases in the Middle Ages. All in all, this was a time of year to celebrate the final holds of the forces of darkness and the beginning of the new, growing light half of the year as it sprung forth green from the earth all around humankind.
Planting in the Waxing Year
Some in East Anglia would see if the time was right for planting by removing their trousers and sitting upon the land to feel its warmth. As the sun warms the soil, if possible, get your skin in contact with the soil. Why wouldn’t you want to take off your pants outside!? It sounds like a great time to me.
Still others would walk their land and ‘feel it in their bones’ as to whether or not it was the right time to plant. The lighting of bonfires in or adjacent to planting places with much singing and leaping dances would show the crops to grow tall and strong while the roaring fire would entice the sun to lend its life giving flames. The old beliefs about planting with the waxing moon and weeding with the waning further enliven the process of seed sowing with magic as the moon’s growth stimulates that of the seeds. “As above, so below.” The practice of planting by that signs carried over strongly with German immigrants to the Appalachians, where it mixed with First Nation and African beliefs, to become the complex and rich story of living by the signs we have in the mountains today.
Planting By the Moon and Signs
Planting by the signs is an ancient practice going back thousands of years. This form of agricultural astrology is used in biodynamic and old forms of Appalachian farming techniques. The gravitational pull off the moon and planets is said to influence groundwater and its movement through plant bodies. Sometimes the lines between science and magic are blurred.
Plant root crops and transplant on a fertile sign, when the moon is waning.
Plant above ground crops on a fertile sign, when the moon is waxing.
When planting during the different phases of the moon, always plant on days in the sign of Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces, Taurus, Libra, or Capricorn. It is advised not plant in Aries, Sagittarius, Aquarius, Leo, Gemini or Virgo.
Planting: (Signs in order of effectiveness).
Cancer: A fruitful, Water sign. Seeds germinate quickly. It is favorable to growth and insures an abundant yield. Most fruitful sign.
Scorpio: A fruitful , Water sign. Ranks next to cancer in fruitfulness.
Pisces: A fruitful, water sign. Produces excellent results for fruits and bulbs. Short growth, good roots.
Taurus: A fixed, Earth sign. Productive sign, especially for root crops.
Libra: A strong Movable sign. Produces vigorous pulp growth and roots with a reasonable amount of grain. Produces many flowers (for beauty and fragrance especially), small leaves, few seeds.
Capricorn: A Moist, Movable sign. Somewhat productive favoring root crops.
Barren Signs: Leo, Virgo, Gemini and Aquarius are the most barren signs but great for weeding and cultivating. Aries and Sagittarius are movable Fire signs, governed by the Sun and are best for cultivating but can be used for planting alliums.
Leo: A barren, Fire sign. Is favorable only for the destruction of noxious growth. DO not trim trees or vines when the moon is in Leo, for they will surely die.
Gemini: A barren sign. A good time to stir the soil and subdue all weeds. Cut lawn to slow its growth, pinch buds to stop unwanted growth.
Virgo: A barren sign, cut weeds.
Harvesting: The best time for harvesting is the dark of the moon (last quarter new moon). The best signs to use are Sagittarius, Aquarius, or Aries. Never gather fruit, grain or vegetables in the water signs or the new moon, as they will decay or sprout.
Fertilizing: Use fruitful signs like Cancer, Scorpio or Pisces. Organic fertilizers applied during the decreasing moon between full and new.
Pruning: To discourage growth, prune in the signs of Aries and Sagittarius during the increase of the moon between new and full. To encourage growth use signs Cancer or Scorpio during the decreasing moon.
Weaning: Wean animals in the signs of Pisces, Capricorn, Aquarius or Sagittarius.
Sources: Farmer’s Almanac Gardening Guide
Eggs are used in many traditions for charming, hexing and curing. The Anglo- Saxons and Egyptians both placed eggs in their grave goods as well as on physical grave sites. There is no other symbol of new life so universal and apparent as the egg. Lying in wait to birth whatever being, or magical intention they hold. The tradition of egg dyeing that is quite popular in Easter customs today, most likely comes from Eastern Europe where the arts of Pysanky and Krashanka (two forms of decorated eggs) were born.
A red- dyed Krashanka bound with wheat and hung in a new house soothed disturbed spirits and invited spirit protection.
The shells are dyed many colors to correspond to their uses. Red dyed eggs were thrown into rivers to alert those in the Otherworlds that Spring had come and the Season of the Sun had returned. These were also placed on the graves of loved ones and check the following day for any disturbance. If any was detected, it was made known that their restless spirit was in need of a prayer, offerings or other releasing rituals.
Eggs were also placed under beehives to keep bees from leaving and to ensure good honey crops. When rolled in green oats, the dyed eggs acted as fertility charms when buried in fields as well. You can also write upon an egg any spell or wish you have an bury it in some secret place. As it decays, so does your wish disseminate into the ether. However you incorporate eggs into your Rites of Spring, I like to eat a few just to celebrate the fecundity all around me.
D.C. McBride, “A Brief History of Ostara” .
George Ewart Evans. “The Pattern Under the Plough”.
Gemma Gary. “Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways”.
Michael Howard. “The Traditional Witch’s Gramarye”.
Pauline Campanelli. “Ancient Ways”.
The Foxfire Books.
+Black Henbane (Hyoscyamus nigra)+
Ethnobotanist Wolf-Dieter Storl has conjectured that henbane has been in use for ritual and shamanic purposes in Eurasia since Paleolithic times. Black Henbane is the most widely distributed species of all. It grows from Europe to Asia, from the Iberian Peninsula to Scandinavia. It has now become naturalized in North America and Australia.
It was used as a ritual plant by the pre-Indo-European people of central Europe. An urn of henbane seeds along with bones and snail shells was unearthed in Austria from the Early Bronze Age. It was believed, according to Carl Ruck, that henbane, known as hyoskyamos, was sacred to Deo-Demeter-Persephone due to her sacred animal being the sow, for one translation of henbane’s name was derived from the term “pig bean”.
It was used elsewhere in Europe as well. In Celtic regions, the plant was belinuntia “the plant of the sun god Bel”. The Gauls poisoned their javelins with a decoction of henbane, while the Medieval Anglo-Saxon herbals mentioned its medicinal uses. Albertus Magnus, in his De Vegetabilibus (ca. 1250) stated that necromancers used the smoke to invoked the souls of the dead, as well as demons. Henbane takes a more erotic turn in the Medieval bathhouses of the Late Middle Ages, where the seeds were strewn over hot coals to incite, how do we say, titillating feelings.
The associations between henbane and witchcraft as we know them today began in the Middle Ages,
“The witches drank the decoction of henbane and had those dreams for which they were tortured and executed. It was used for witches ointments and was used for making weather and conjuring spirits. If there was a great drought, then a stalk of henbane would be dipped into a spring and the sun baked sand would be sprinkled with this” (Perger 1864, 181).
It was especially associated with divination and love magic. After monkshood, it was also a favorite of poisoners. It was also believed that carrying the root on one’s person would render them invulnerable to the witchcraft of others. Fight poison with poison perhaps? The smoke of the leaves was used to make one invisible, and it was smoked in a pipe to achieve this purpose. Oleum hyoscyamin infusum (henbane oil), was made by infusing the leaves on gentle heat in oil. This made for a fine erotic massage oil or therapeutic treatment for soreness. As we shall see, if any plants were truly used in witches ointments, it would most likely be henbane.
Henbane was also used as an ingredient in psychoactive beer, which ended with the Bavarian Purity Laws in 1516. Even though its use in ritual was namely as an incense (seeds), the Germans loved their henbane beers so, they planted gardens of henbane just for this purpose which were under the protection of Woden/Odin, father of Donar. These henbane gardens have left their mark on Germany’s history with place names like Bilsensee (Henbane Lake) and Billendorf (Henbane village).
The seeds were used by the Assyrians as well, combined with sulfur to protect against magic. Persian visionaries also undertook astral journeys under the influence of henbane wines and concoctions. The Celts knew black henbane as beleno and burnt it as an offering to Belenus, the god of oracles and the sun. Druids and bards also inhaled the smoke to travel to the realms of the Fae and Otherworldly beings.
The Vikings placed considerable importance on henbane, which we know due to hundreds of seeds found in graves. A woman known as the Fyrkat woman was unearthed in Denmark wearing a pouch of henbane seeds. The earliest known record that mentions Germanic uses of the plant come from the time of Bishop Burchard von Worms who passed in 1025. It describes a confessional in great detail that illustrates a rain ritual,
“...they gather several girls and select from these a small maiden as a kind of leader. They disrobe her and take her out of the settlement to a place where they can find hyoscyamus, which is known as bilse in German. They have her pull this out with the little finger of the right hand and tie the uprooted plant to the small toe of the right foot with any kind of string. Then the girls, each of whom is holding a rod in her hands, lead the aforementioned maiden to the next river, pulling the plant behind her. The girls then use the rods to sprinkle the young maiden with river water, and in this way they hope to cause rain through their magic. They they take the young maiden, as naked as she is, who puts down her feet and moves herself in the manner of a crab, by the hands and lead her from the river back to the settlement.”
The seeds served as fumigants for necromantic arts, and to conjure the dead for Renaissance magical practitioners, as it does today. Foundational occultist Agrippa writes in 1531,
“So, they say, that if of coriander, smallage, henbane, and hemlock, be made a fume, that spirits will presently come together; hence they are called spirit's herbs. Also, it is said, that fume made of the root of the reedy herb sagapen, with the juice of hemlock and henbane, and the herb tapsus barbatus, red sanders, and black poppy, makes spirits and strange shapes appear; and if smallage be added to them, the fume chaseth away spirits from any place and destroys their visions.”
-Henry Cornelious Agrippa p.137
The root was also used as an amulet. Alexander of Tralles (CE 550) frequently prescribed a mixture of an amulet and wise words designed to create magical protection. He was a follower of Gnosticism, a complex religious movement which flourished in the pre- and early Christian era. One of his prescribed amulets was henbane root hung about the neck of a patient for magical pain relief. Then again for gout, some henbane, when the moon is in Aquarius or Pisces, before sunset, must be dug up with the thumb and third finger of the left hand, and it must be said,
“I declare, I declare holy wort, to thee; I invite thee tomorrow to the house of Fileas, to stop the rheum of the feet of M. or N. and say, I invoke thee, the great name, Jehovah, Sabaoth, the God who steadied the earth and stayed the sea, the filler of flowing rivers, who dried up Lot’s wife, and made her a pillar of salt, take the breath of thy mother earth and her power, and dry the rheum of the feet or hands of N. or M. The next day, before sunrise, take a bone of some dead animal, and dig the root up with this bone, and say, I invoke thee by the holy name Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Eloi, and put on the root one handful of salt, saying, ‘As this salt will not increase, so may not the disorder of N. or M.’ And hang the end of this root [henbane] periapt on the sufferer."
So intimately tied was this plant with thoughts of witchery, that possession of it was enough to convict one of witchcraft. There are many mentions of it in 16th 17th and century witch trials as proof of malevolent intent. With the advent of the Bavarian beer purity laws, henbane fell from popular usage to await rediscovery by those hungry for magic centuries later.
*Overdose of henbane can lead to dryness of mouth, locomotor disturbances, farsightedness, coma, respiratory paralysis and death. The lethal dose is not known*
The entire plants contains tropane alkoloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine, aposcopolamine, norscopolamine, littorine, tropine, cuscohygrine, tigloidine, and tigloyloxytropane.
Few people today know as much as Cody Dickerson about henbane today, and last year at Viridis Genii Symposium I had the pleasure of listening to his lecture about this mysterious and lovely plant. I can't wait for my 3rd trip to the West to see my colleagues and beloved friends at this amazing conference on all things folk magical botanical.
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.
RaÌtsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications. Rochester, VT: Park Street, 2005.
Oak trees may be one of the most iconic old fellows of the forest. The acorn and the oak are rich with symbolism and magic much used and appreciated by many, many cultures worldwide. Acorns feed us in the fall, and there is also much to be said about the incredible edibility of these abundance sources of food in our temperate forests. Check out my friends Amber and Osker over at Glorious Forest for information about how to eat and enjoy acorns. Osker has taught me so much about the mighty oak. As the deep chill of winter has settled like a silver mantle over our shoulders, I think about what I can forage and nourish myself with.
Right now I dine on bittercress, wild onions, and bark. Yes! Bark. I am a bark eater, and perhaps you are too? Abby Artemesia and I are teaching a class on Edible and Medicinal trees at the end of the month, and it got me thinking. Learning how to harvest barks without harming the tree is very important, as well as processing methods and more. I am also curious as always, as to where the magic of these beings enters into the foodways? I want to talk about oak and how it is used in Appalachian folk medicine and magic extensively, as well as a surprising use in food in times past.
Quickly, let’s meet oak:
“An oak is a tree or shrub in the genus Quercus of the beech family, Fagaceae. There are approximately 600 extant species of oaks. The common name "oak" also appears in the names of species in related genera, notably Lithocarpus (stone oaks), as well as in those of unrelated species such as Grevillea robusta (silky oaks) and the Casuarinaceae (she-oaks). The genus Quercus is native to the Northern Hemisphere, and includes deciduous and evergreen species extending from cool temperate to tropical latitudes in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and North Africa. North America contains the largest number of oak species, with approximately 90 occurring in the United States, while Mexico has 160 species of which 109 are endemic. The second greatest center of oak diversity is China, which contains approximately 100 species.”
Here in Appalachia we have quite a few species. White oak, Northern and Southern Red Oak, Black oak, Swamp oak, Chestnut oak...the lists goes on depending in what specific climate you dwell in here. While oaks are best known among foragers for their robust harvests of nuts, the bark also has a fantastical history of use in medicine and magic. As we often see, there is a thin line between the two.
Medicinally in the mountains white oak bark tea was used by Pennsylvania Germans as a Spring and Fall tonic for children. The direction from which the bark is harvested also depends upon the season: The bark is taken off the north side of the trees in the spring and off the south side in the fall. I often, when possible, like to involved directional magics in harvesting to bring in the fire of the south or the cooling earth of the north, this can energetically and magically enhance a recipe.
It was also used in charms for toothache. In Alabama is was said to cure a toothache you should go into a lonely part of the woods with someone of the opposite sex, who should carry an ax. The bearer of the ax chops around the roots of a white oak, cuts off, with a large jack knife, nine splinters from roots of the tree, then cuts around the roots of the aching tooth with the knife, dips each of the splinters in the blood that flows from these cuts, and finally buries the splinters at the foot of the tree from which they came. While doing this a secret charm was spoken. The water from a white oak stump was also used to wash away warts, so long as you aren’t seen by anyone while doing it. This same water was also said to remove freckles.
Red oak bark was more often used in Southern Folk medicine. Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass suggested boiled Red oak bark to soak the feet in it to remove hard calluses. He also suggested 2-3 cups of red oak bark tea a day for cirrhosis of the liver, often in combination with wild cherry bark. All oaks contain differing amounts of tannins, sometimes enough to tan leather. These were useful medicinally for a variety of ailments and sometimes as tonics. It was used as a tea to both bathe in and drink for rheumatism. It was also used as a tonic to keep the blood cool in the spring, and fevers down, specifically by using the bark peeled from the north side of a red oak tree. The same keeps the fires going in winter. The rise and fall of the blood is a foundational modality in Southern Folk medicine and its best to think of blood in a person like the sap of a tree.
Further medicinal uses in folk medicine aided by red oak’s astringency are for boils, make a poultice of fresh red oak bark between the outer rind and the tree, boil, and mix with corn meal. A poultice recipe from North Carolina called for red oak bark and sage made into a tea, mixed with borax, sulphur, and honey for boils. For diphtheria, take red oak bark and boil it to make a tea and rinse out the throat. (In diphtheria a terrible whitish coating comes over the throat). Red oak bark tea is was also a cure for dysentery, which perhaps speaks to it’s astringent powers best. Sometimes just chewing red or live oak bark or buds was enough. The tea mixed with honey was also used for sore throats to tighten the inflamed tissue as well as in a muslin bag boiled hot for a bleeding tooth socket after an extraction.
Red oak bark as also included in remedies for malaria with the fevers and chills that accompanied this dreaded disease, especially by black medical practitioners in the more coastal southern regions. They would sometimes mix other herbs in live privet roots and Jerusalem oak. In slave communities the red oak bark was also used generally for fevers and chills, sometimes mixing it with horehound and black snakeroot in whiskey.
Magically, the rich history of wart whispering and charming is often reliant upon the oak. It is said to cure a wart, prick it, and wipe the drop of blood off with a rag; then bore a hole in a white oak tree, and put a peg in to hold the rag in place. Then whisper to the wart every night for nine nights, 'Be gone,' and it will disappear. This transference magic is seen with different tree species, but very often, the lone, shading oak which stood beside a farmhouse was pocked with marks from holes bored to secret away various bits of folk cure paraphernalia. This same measuring and plugging technique was used for diseases like asthma and other childhood conditions by plugging a lock of an affected child’s hair into a hole bored on the tree marking their height. When they outgrew the hole, they would outgrow the disease.
Madame Grieve speaks to it’s other ethnobotanical uses,
“The bark is universally used to tan leather, and for this purpose strips easily in April and May. An infusion of it, with a small quantity of copperas, yields a dye which was formerly used in the country to dye woollen of a purplish colour, which, though not very bright, was said to be durable. The Scotch Highlanders used it to dye their yarn.”
Harvesting bark is an important skill when making herbal medicine. It is, however, one of the harvesting techniques in which the most care is needed. You can easily damage or even kill a tree with improper harvesting. Here's a look at harvesting bark in general.
Picking a Tree or Shrub: Often, the best time to harvest barks is in fall. As the tree or shrub draws its chemicals and other compounds into its roots, they will be more readily available in the bark. It can be a lot of work, so make sure if you’re going to the effort to harvest bark, that you have enough time and energy to see it to completion. Also, pick a tree or shrub that is small so you can reach it easily and so you don’t have to cut the whole thing down to get a branch.
Medicinal Trees and Woody Shrubs: Some include willow, cherry, witch hazel, sassafras, birch, , spicebush, black haw, alder, hawthorn, pines, bayberry root bark (use like goldenseal), blackberry root bark, prickly ash, slippery elm, cramp bark, cottonwood and many others.
The Harvest: Choose a small branch no larger than your arm. Locate the collar, or the fattest part of the branch, at a point where the branch branches or against the trunk as shown in this image. Use a saw to cleanly cut the branch beyond the collar, NOT INTO IT pparallel with the collar. This can damage the tree and cause rot. You can cut bottom (cut 1) up first if the branch is large, then down (cut 2) as in the picture above to ensure water won’t pool in your cut and cause rot either.
Processing the Bark: This is best done on sunny, dry days to ensure your bark doesn’t get wet on a tarp or cloth so you can catch all your bark pieces. Start out by removing any small twigs not worth shaving the bark off of, as you can save those for medicine whole, with your pruners or knife. Next, saw your branch into manageable pieces, not
too small so you can hold them easily, and not so big they are unwieldy. Brace them on the cloth or tarp in front of you and, using your sharp knife, slice away from you in slow, even cuts to take off strips of bark as well as the cambium which is the moist inner bark. Make sure not to cut too deep and take off lots of wood with your strips.
Using Bark for Medicine: You can dry bark and store it for later in airtight jars, or you can tincture it dry or fresh. Dry it on sheets or screens out of direct sunlight in a place with good ventilation, making sure to stir it up every day/ couple of days to ensure it dries evenly and doesn’t mold. Barks are denser than other plant materials so tincture the bark at 1:3 or 1:4 for a fresh tincture or 1:4 or 1:5 for a dried tincture. Most barks do best with a lower alcohol content: 50% 60% alcohol for a fresh tincture or 40% 50% for a dried tincture. Dried bark is useful for tea, poultices, baths, salves, or to save for making syrups or tinctures when needed.
Oak bark apparently was sometimes eaten as well. Check out this Rice Porridge recipe from Tudor England.
To make fine Ri(c)e Porredge.
Take halfe a pound of Iordyn (Jordan) Almon(d)s, and halfe a. li. of Ryce (Rice) and a gallon of running water, & a handful of Oke (Oak) barke, and let the bark be boyled in the running water, & the Almons beten with the hulles and all on, & so strayned to make the Rice Porrege withal.
-The treasurie of hidden secrets, by John Partridge, published in 1573.
Cavender, Anthony. "Folk Hematology in the Appalachian South." Journal of Folklore Research, 1992. 23.
Cavender, Anthony P. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Cavender, A. "Folk medical uses of plant foods in southern Appalachia, United States." Journal of Ethnopharmacology 108, (January 1, 2006): 74-84.
Covey, Herbert C. African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and non-Herbal Treatments. Lexington Books, 2008.
Davis, Donald E. Southern United States: an Environmental History. ABC-CLIO, 2006.
Light, Phyllis D. "A History of Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine." Journal of the American Herbalists Guild, vol. 8, no. 2, Mar. 2008, all pages.
Moss, Kay. Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820. University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
More Web Resources on Barks!
https://oldwaysherbal.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/barkharvestethicalwildcrafting/ http://www.skillsforwildlives.com/2010/06/responsiblyharvestingwoodcraftmaterials/ http://joybileefarm.com/willowbarkforherbalremedies/ http://www.saforestrymag.co.za/articles/detail/sustainble_management_of_bark_harvesting_for_tra ditional_medicine
http://www.blueridgeschool.org/blog/2015/05/01/timeforbarkharvest http://www.motherearthnews.com/naturalhealth/blackberrymedicinaluseszmaz92aszshe.aspx https://theherbarium.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/harvestingmakingspecifictinctures2/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY6jJt4_teU making cherry bark medicine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I89v8FwHIdM edible and medicinal trees
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.
I love books. There. I said it. I really do. I read a lot, but still not as much as I'd wish. I grabbed my old list and I'd like to improve upon it. Here is my most current reading list and resource list. It's getting cold, and there is nothing like good book, a warm drink and a hot fire.
The Foundational Texts:
Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches of Italy - Charles G. Leland
The Secret Commonwealth: An Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterranean (and for the Most Part) Invisible People, Heretofore Going Under the Name of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies - Robert Kirk
The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries - W.Y. Evans-Wentz
The Golden Bough - James George Frazer
The Greater Key of Solomon - Samuel L. Macgregor Mathers
The Complete Art of Witchcraft: Penetrating the Secrets of White Magic - Sybil Leek
Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition- Cora Anderson
High Magic’s Aid - Gerald Gardner
Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks & Covens - Paul Huson
Natural Magic - Doreen Valiente
Rebirth of Witchcraft - Doreen Valiente
Witchcraft for Tomorrow - Doreen Valiente
Witchcraft: a Tradition Renewed - Doreen Valiente and Evan John Jones
The Writings of Roy Bowers - (Robert Cochrane)
Apocalyptic Witchcraft - Peter Grey
The Roebuck in the Thicket - Evan John Jones & Robert Cochrane, editor Mike Howard
The Robert Cochrane Letters: An Insight into Modern Traditional Witchcraft - Robert Cochrane and Evan John Jones
The Forge of Tubal Cain - Ann Finnin
The Pillars of Tubal Cain - Nigel Aldcroft Jackson & Michael HowardLiber Nox: A Traditional Witch's Gramarye - Michael Howard
Call of the Horned Piper - Nigel Aldcroft Jackson
Masks of Misrule - Nigel Jackson
Grimore for Modern Cunning Folk - Peter Paddon
Letters from the Devil's Forest - Robin Artisson
The Witching Way of Hollow Hill - Robin Artisson
The Horn of Evenwood - Robin Artisson
Azoetia: Grimoire of the Sabbatic Craft - Andrew D. Chumbley
Opuscula Magica. Volume I: Essays on Witchcraft and the Sabbatic Tradition - Andrew D. Chumbley and Daniel A. Schulke
The Devil's Dozen-Thirteen Craft Rites of The Old One - Gemma Gary
Cecil Williamson's Book of Witchcraft-A Grimoire of the Museum of Witchcraft - Steve Patterson
Serpent Songs - Editor: Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold
Specific Cultural Traditions:
Balkan Traditional Witchcraft - Radomir Ristic
Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition - Nigel Pennick
Irish Witchcraft and Demonology - St. John D. Seymour
The Devil's Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft & Folk-Magic- Nigel Pearson
Traditional Witchcraft a Cornish Book of Ways - Gemma Gary
The Black Toad - Gemma Gary
Wheel of the Year - Pauline Campanelli
Witches All - Elizabeth Pepper
Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch - Lora O'Brien
Magical Ritual Methods - William G. Gray
Seasonal Occult Rituals - William G. Gray
Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath - Carlo Ginzburg and Raymond Rosenthal
The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth - Robert Graves
The History of the Devil: The Horned God of the West - R. Lowe Thompson
Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750 - Marion Gibson
Cunning-Folk & Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic - Emma Wilby
Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England - Alan MacFarlane
Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk -Traditions by Stuart A. Harris Logan
The Pattern Under the Plough - George Ewart Evans. Faber and Faber.
The Secret Teachings of All Ages - Manly P. Hall.
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy - Mircea Eliade
Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History - Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters
Shamans Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion - Brian Hayden
Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe - H.R. Ellis Davidson
The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy - Ronald Hutton
Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History - Owen Davies
The Know How:
Complete Book of Incense, Oils & Brews - Scott Cunningham
Hoodoo, Herb and Root Magic - cat yronwode
Practical Candleburning Rituals: Spells and Rituals for Every Purpose - Raymond Buckland
Magic and Husbandry- The Folk-Lore Of Agriculture; Rites, Ceremonies, Customs, And Beliefs Connected With Pastoral Life And The Cultivation Of The Soil; With Breeding And The Care Of Cattle; With Fruit-Growing, Bees, And Fowls – Lewis Dayton Burdick
Wortcunning: For Info on plants see my other site, it's literally a giant bibliography.
Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants - Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch, and Wolf-Dieter Storl
Pharmako Trilogy - Dale Pendell
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs by Scott Cunningham
Herbal Rituals. Judith Berger
The Herb Book by John Lust
Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green
Magical and Ritual Use of Herbs - Richard Alan Miller
Blackberry Cove Herbal: Healing With Common Herbs in the Appalachian Wise-Woman Tradition -Linda Ours Rago
Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant-lore and Healing - Stephen Pollington
Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers - Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
Viridarium Umbris: The Pleasure Garden of Shadows, by Daniel Alvin Schulke. Xoanon Publishing.
Thirteen Occult Pathways to Herbalism, Daniel Alvin Schulke
American Household Botany. 1600-1900. Judith Sumner.
A Dictionary of English Folklore - Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud
Make Merry In Step and Song: A Seasonal Treasury of Music, Mummer's Plays & Celebrations in the English Folk Tradition - Bronwen Forbes
The Folklore of Plants T.S. Thistleton Dyer
Appalachian Folk Magic:
Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. Cavender, Anthony P.
This List from Backwaters Witch
Long Lost Friend — John George Hoffman
Frank C. Brown North Carolina Folklore collection, especially book 7
Signs, Cures and Witchery, Gerald Milnes
The Silver Bullet and other American Witch Stories, Hubert J. Davis
American Witch Stories, Hubert J. Davis
Green Hills of Magic: West Virginia Folk Tales from Europe, Ruth Anne Musick
Staubs and Ditchwater: a Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks' Hoodoo, Byron Ballard
Asfidity and Mad-Stones: A Further Ramble Through Hillfolks' Hoodoo, Byron Ballard
Other Witch's Reading Lists:
Archaic Honey's Resource List
The Witches Resistance Action List
Poison Path Resource Guide
It’s finally cold here, and I can almost taste the Winter Solstice tickling the back of my nostrils. I love seasonal flavors, chaga tea with my spicebush honey and cream, cornbreads crispy with lard on the bottom, roasted bear shoulder studded with butter and garlic, and sour kraut bubbling with life. These are some flavors you can find in the place I call home. Chestnuts roasted to caramel sweetness. Collard greens still crisp and brilliant despite the frosts steamed in apple cider vinegar with sumac spice. Local chicken roasted with cranberries from higher elevations and trifolate orange marmalade. Pear sauce from our mother pear tree poured over oat cakes with fresh whipped cream. Now I’m hungry. Are you?
The French coined the term terroir when they discussed the unique “character” ascribed to the tastes and magic of foods from specific biogeographical places. It could be the unique combination of that locality's air, water, and soil. Something undefinable that makes it special. Here in Appalachia, we have many edible plant species, wild game, and foragable mushrooms. We are blessed with abundance in this way. A unique temperate rain forest-like precipitation combined with the moderate growing season makes it possible to grow many fruits, nuts and vegetables that if were we farther north or south, would be quite difficult.
As a professional forager I do believe heartily in the nuances of the terroir of a place, the unique flavors and nutrients of the wild and cultivated foods we foster in these mountains, or wherever you call home. The wonder of foraging is that we can all be foodies. We can skip the farmer’s market, keep our hard earned dollars in our pockets and graze on the abundance of food from our yards to the deep woods. The most challenging thing is finding ways to remember that lost knowledge.
I was not raised a witch, a farmer, or a forager. I learned it all in my young adulthood by doing an apprenticeship with Natalie Bogwalker at Wild Abundance, and from many, many others. I learned from books. I learned from Youtube videos and I learned from friends. I was privileged to stumble upon the community I have in Western North Carolina, and I have to say, I finally found my home.
I was eating some kraut my friends and I made today, and I was thinking about the strange and unique flavors. If there is a terroir of food and plants and animals, I imagine there is too of magic. I want to advocate for a terroir of folk magic. A magic of place. A unique and special magic that only flows through the French Broad River and the and the Pisgah national forest. A Western Carolinian Appalachian magic terroir.
I think bioregional animism and witchcraft, or the magic of a specific place, really comes to life for me when I am foraging. I see the unique array of plants, fungi and animals that these mountains have fostered and marvel at the ancient rivers and springs that feed these dark and secret hollers. I love that my body is built from the unique soil I walk upon and the water I drink and swim in. I love that there is nowhere else on Earth quite like this.
Rediscovering local flavors is definitely still a hot topic as restaurants and groceries showcase locally grown and now even foraged fare. Rewilders and muggles alike can get behind eating from our bioregion since it just makes sense, and someday, it may be the only thing on the menu. Just as much as I want to support people in growing, foraging and sharing foodways together, I want to support and defend bioregional magical practices. In defense of folk magic, I say there is no better way to honor the places that we live, and the beings that dwell in there, then to remember and discover the ways that went before. Not just the baskets that were woven or the way that songs were sung, but the way the spirits want to be seen, the way to implore the yarrow to heal our wounds, the way to leave offerings that will please our genius loci.
I love that term. The spirit of place. It is the terroir of the spirit world. I learned it from Marcus McCoy about 8 years ago, before we ever knew each other from an article he wrote. And I see the term more and more since he popularized it, which warms my bioregional heart. The unique flavor of beings and creatures that crawl and fly and swim in our home places. No matter where we live we can directly interact with these beings.
It is also important for many of us to remember, as we seek to form relationship with the land, that we are living on stolen land, and to become entrenched in the ways of the land is not an invitation to appropriate cultural or religious practices of the indigenous peoples who came before us, and who still dwell with us. This call is an invitation to seek out and meet the spirits, not claim them or command them. It is an invitation to listen and look. To hear and to smell. To taste the land. To feed it. Bioregional witchcraft to me, means living a practice that is informed by the beings you live amongst, both human and non. It is a practice that lives and grows.
I tell my students whether we are studying Medieval herbalism or Appalachian folk charms against ghosts, that some things are not meant for us. I was born in Appalachia, but raised all over this country, and that means that those things to which I am privy are different than those things that are privy to someone who was born and raised here in these mountains that I call home. I do not mourn that, for what good would that do me. It is a reality to live in the sometimes-discomfort of realizing we all have access to different things and have different work to do. Living in shame or envy is not the answer. Just as we face the privileges afforded to us by our whiteness, class and/or ability, we must closely and lovingly examine the traditions we engage in for spiritual gain as well.
We all have a pagan past, it’s actually amazing. I see a tendency, within myself included, to idealize Old things and shun creating New things in our witchcraft practices, when in fact what we are practicing is the piecing together of broken ancient ways. We can create, reimagine and rebirth vibrant bioregional witchcraft practices from the broken pieces that the Others tried to stamp out. We can do this by forming relationships with the land around us, and by weaving it together with the practices our ancestors left us. We can live something ancient by making it new and vital.
We do not have to have perfect unbroken witch-lineages, we do not have to speak spells that were written in the year 100 A.D. We can find a new way for many of us who do have have access to unbroken traditions to live on this land and observe the seasonal changes in ways that feel authentic. We can do it without spiritual picking-and-choosing in appropriative ways that cause harm to indigenous folks and POC. We can find a new way to forage, to farm and to listen. It is both Old and New. And this, I think, is a fine thing.
The Bone Mother is touching the leaves of the trees and watching them drop brown, red, gold, and dead. The beautiful process of Autumn is begun in the mountains, though it's been hotter than Hades these last few days. Our Harvest Home celebration has come and gone, the autumnal equinox tucked into the skirt-folds of the Old Year. We're spending our days here at the Hawk picking tomatoes and peppers, drying nettles, tulsi basil and calendula, and beginning the acorn season. Though abundance surrounds us, the scent of woodsmoke is on the evening wind and we've made our first fire in the fireplace tonight.
I'm brimming with Spring like excitement over my Fall Classes. I am especially excited about my Witchlore class and my Poison Path: Poison Plants of Appalachia class. In preparation, I wanted to talk about one of my favorite friends in my witch's garden. Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Though we don't often think of this plant as part of the poison pantheon, I'll tell you, it is.
Mullein is not native to Appalachia. It was brought here from Europe and Asia where it originated. Some say it traveled with the Puritans for use in the Physic gardens of the New World. This garden escapee quickly naturalized throughout North America and entered the folk medicine and magical systems of peoples across this land. It was Mullein's usefulness in medicine that made it so popular, as well as its usefulness against evil as we shall see.
This plant was used to treat many things, but overwhelmingly it was used to treat respiratory illnesses and colds. The leaves were smoked or made into a tea, often sweetened with honey. This practice can be seen in many places worldwide and in America from the Ozarks to Appalachia and even all the way to Canada. Though often considered a gentle medicine, it used in more serious respiratory conditions like Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was called due to the way it consumed you.
In Appalachia it was one of the most popular plants used in herbal medicine (Cavendar). It was chewed, smoked and made into tea for all manners of lung ailments including TB. It was eventually incorporated into the medical practices of Native peoples in the area as well as the African American folk medicine lexicon. Sometimes it was mixed with brown sugar and wild cherry bark, or rabbit tobacco and horehound with coughs. Salt and mullein tea was used to bathe swollen body parts and the leaves themselves bound around limbs to reduce swelling in injuries. Whooping cough and malaria also called for the mullein. It doesn't seem like there was much Mullein couldn't soothe.
I recently used the roots of Mullein for a stubborn bladder infection with much success. The root decoction was used in Appalachia for this purpose, and I had never heard of this use. After doing some research, I tried it on myself and I was pleased with it all around I chopped a 1/4 cup of root, steeped 15 minutes in a mason jar and drank the tea throughout the day. By the following morning my urgency to urinate, pain and "awareness" of the discomfort I had been feeling had passed. I did it for one more day after to ensure it was really passed. This is one of the reasons I love folk medicine, for this week I also lost my health insurance, and I was able to provide for myself by looking to the wisdom of the people who lived here before. I harvested this mullein from my land and made it fresh. Bless this land. Bless these herbs.
There is a surprising amount of research done on this plant that verifies its ancient uses. In a study by Turker and Camper, aqueous Mullein leaf extracts were shown to be effective against gram positive and gram negative microorganisms, with the activity against Klebsiella pneumoniae rivaling that of the Erythromycin control (1). The use for external inflammation has also been discovered to be an action of the constituent verbascoside which is found in this powerful plant. In one study,
"K. pneumoniae and S. aureus showed sensitivity to the Mullein samples tested, which may explain why Mullein is used in folk medicine to treat respiratory disorders (caused by K. pneumoniae and S. aureus) and urinary tract infections (caused by K. pneumoniae). Our results confirm that the most effective preparation is an infusion (steeping in hot water) or decoction (boiling in hot water). According to McCutcheon et al. (1992), methanol extracts showed antibacterial activity against E. coli, Mycobacter phlei and S. aureus." (2)
I do so love when science, history, magic and medicine meet.
Mullein was a key ingredient in folk magic as well in Appalachia, just as it was in the Old World. If you bent a stick of mullein towards the house of the one you fancied, you could tell if they felt the same way about you by checking in a few days to see if it has grown up straight again. If it was standing tall again, your true-love loved you back, if it was dead, well, you get the picture. In the Ozarks it goes a little different. If the mullein bends towards a person's house, the one who tends the mullein loves them.
Mullein has many folk names, Aaron’s Rod, Blanket leaf, Candle wick, Torches, Quaker’s rouge, and Hedge or Hag Taper. Some say the folk name "Hag Taper" comes from its use by witches as candles for their rites, but this is a more modern practice as there is more evidence that the name may have come from the word "Hedge" rather than association with much witchery in the past. This plant often grew in hedgerows, or borders of wild plants between pastures in the British Isles.
The dried stalks dipped in tallow were used historically as torches for funerals in Roman times, so it does have links to death and the Otherworld. It has also been used to drive away evil in both Europe and Asia, it actually protects against magic as we can see in the tale of how Ulysses used mullein to protect himself against the wiles of Circe. You can also in the Anglo- Saxon version of Apuleius, translated by Cockayne,
“If one beareth with him one twig of this wort, he will not be terrified with any awe, nor will a wild beast hurt him, or any evil coming near.”
In Germany the Himmelbrand (heavenly fire), or Konigskerze (king’s candle) was used during the Rites of harvest times. In the Middle Ages it was said that Mary herlsef traveled through the land this time of year blessing all the mullein. This is where another name for it comes from, "Our Lady's Candle". A saying arose from this as well, “Our beloved Lady goes through the land, she carries mullein in her hand!” It was even said sometimes she touched the sick with the wand of mullein and healed them. From the excellent book Witchcraft Medicine we get the ritual involved in picking the Mullein and other herbs for use in the Rites of this time of the year:
The herbs for the August festival (Lammas) must be picked before sun rise by women barefoot, speaking the charms, silently and naked, without being seen and without thinking any thought. Never cut with an iron knife or dig with an iron spade, for it would take away the herb's power.
According to Frazer in The Golden Bough, it was passed through the Midsummer fire to make a charm to protect the cattle herd. It was also placed in butter churns in Ireland if the butter would not come. Mullein is so useful it has gained a host of astrological associations. Culpepper gave it Saturn, Agrippa Mercury, Junius gave it Jupiter and many today the Sun for it’s merry yellow flowers.
Mullein of course has many other useful purposes. It was used to dye ladies hair yellow in ancient Rome. It was also used as a fish poison in Germany and Britain for many centuries, a practice which followed settlers to Appalachia. There is scientific evidence that the seeds are narcotic to an extent and would cause breathing issues for fish, allowing fisherman and women to gather many at once. This practice was frowned upon by gentry and royalty as unsportman-like in Europe and a practice of common folk, but when putting dinner on the table is a life or death matter, than one does what one must. One old North Carolina resident said of his German forefathers, who immigrated in the 1720s:
"They'd heard 'bout the new land 'cross the waters 'n decided to bring thangs that'd help 'em git a start. Stinging fish was one easy way of gittin' food at first, so feltwort seeds were brung 'long".
Pennsylvania Germans used it to keep lice out of the pig stye as well. Not only did it keep away evil, it kept away pests. Aside from dipping the great stalks in tallow and make large, outdoor torches, the fluff was also used to twist into candle wicks. Hence another name for this lovely plant, Candlewick.
To Make a Mullein Leaf Candle for Necromantic Works:
Take a single Mullein leaf and when it is dry but not terribly crispy, roll it gently into a long tube. Dip this into beeswax or tallow and light. I stand them in sand in a fireproof bowl, like my cast iron cauldron. They are smoky, but the light and flame are lovely. Use these in Rites of the Dark year, or for spirit work.
To Make a Hag Taper:
Gather entire dried stalks and dip or brush with tallow or wax. Stand these in the same manner as mentioned above, in sand or drive into the ground away from flammables and watch carefully. As All Hallows approaches, imagine your Harvest rites lit by grand torches. It has quite an effect I think.
Kentucky Cold Remedy from Frank C. Brown:
Stew mullein roots, brown sugar or honey and wild cherry bark together for a half hour for coughs, add a bit of apple cider vinegar. Take 1 tablespoon no more than 3 times a day.
There is so much more to this plant. Poison seeds, healing leaves, flower and roots, a plant used to cure and kill, well fish at least. If this tickles your fancy come join us for the Poison Plants in Appalachia class October 18th here at the Hawk and Hawthorne. Bless the Harvest, Bless this Land. Stay well loves and keep the Old Ways.
Cavender, Anthony P. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2003.
Cockayne, Thomas. translation of Herbarium Apuleii Platonici is online in Google Books Look for: Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Preface. Herbarium ...By Thomas Oswald Cockayne, Sextus Placitus (Papyriensis.), Dioscorides Pedanius (of Anazarbos.) books.google.com search for felt wort. p. 177.
Foxfire Fund, Inc. Mountain Folk Remedies : The Foxfire Americana Library (9). Anchor, 2011.
Hopman Ellen, Evert. Secret Medicines from Your Garden Plants for Healing Spirituality and Magic. Rochester, 2016.
Larry W. Mitich. “Common Mullein: The Roadside Torch Parade.” Weed Technology, vol. 3, no. 4, 1989, pp. 704–705.
Lehner, Ernst, and Johanna Lehner. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. Literary Tudor Publishing, 2011.
(1) McCarthy, Eibhlín, and Jim M. O’Mahony. “What’s in a Name? Can Mullein Weed Beat TB Where Modern Drugs Are Failing?” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2011 (2011): 239237. PMC.
Moss, Kay. Southern Folk Medicine, 1750-1820. University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Riaz, Muhammad, et al. "Common Mullein, Pharmacological and Chemical Aspects." Revista Brasileira De Farmacognosia, vol. 23, 01 Nov. 2013, pp. 948-959.
(2) Turker, Arzu Ucar and N.D Camper. "Biological Activity of Common Mullein, a Medicinal Plant." Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 82, 01 Jan. 2002, pp. 117-125.
Watts, Donald. Dictionary of Plant Lore. Academic Press, 2007.
White, Newman Ivey and Frank Clyde Brown. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the Folklore of North Carolina. Durham, N.C., Duke University Press [1952-64], 1952.
Wilhelm, Gene. “The Mullein: Plant Piscicide of the Mountain Folk Culture.” Geographical Review, vol. 64, no. 2, 1974, pp. 235–252.
To support me in my research and work, please consider donating. Every dollar helps!