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.
Spicebush, or Lindera benzoin, is my favorite plant. I literally have no idea why. It's not especially beautiful, or magically potent in medicine, but its unique, delicious fragrance, flavor and brilliant, abundant berries makes it my favorite none the less. You can see my post from last year to learn more about the specifics and history of this lovely native plant, but quickly I'll highlight its magic.
Spicebush is in the laurel family, alongside another amazing native plant rich with lore and medicine, sassafras. Spicebush is dioecious, meaning it has male and female flowers on separate plants. It's unique, papery thin leaves ensure this understory plant can maximize its sunlight absorption.
Two nights ago, I learned that a person who was special in my life some years ago has left this Earth. It was a strange and hollow feeling. We had lost touch for a variety of reasons, and details aside, I was feeling very dark and introspective yesterday. As I've mentioned in the past, foraging and woods wandering is always my go-to when I feel darkness surround me. I used to share sweetness and foraging with this person. So when I saw the Spicebush berries hanging in huge abundance from the bushes in the forest near my home, I immediately knew what to do. This person and I used to live together, you see, at my old property, which we had all named Lindera after the robust spicebush population on our land.
I make Spicebush honey for many reasons, one being its great medicine for colds and flu, and heck, it tastes awesome. Somewhat spicy, orangey almost. You can use this honey to add to other medicinal teas, drizzle on hot cornbread, or just straight up eat by the spoonful when your feeling the need for a bit of warming fire.
First off. Place spicebush berries in a clean, dry jar. I add enough good vodka to the berries to lightly coat them when swirling the jar around before I add the honey. See above.
I like to rough the berries up a bit with a spoon. I smoosh 'em around to let that alcohol and honey soak on into the fragrant fruits.
Then I just plop that honey right on top. I use a local Haw Creek Honey because our bees need all they have to make it through the winter.
I stir it up to mix the alcohol and honey. I like to add a bit of alcohol when I use fresh herbs in honey, as there is always a risk of things going off if they have water content. I'll let this sit for about 3-5 days and then gently heat the jar in a water bath and strain out the berries. I like to use the left over, honey-covered berries in a short decoction to make spicebush chai tea. Recipe coming. Soon.
When I enjoy this honey in a few weeks. I will do so while thinking of my lost friend. I make this in honor of them. And I hope that they are in a place of peace and comfort after a long struggle. My struggle here is short and fleeting in comparison to what they went through, but these small comforts help warm my heart until it feels strong again. Hold your loved ones close, and let the plants and their magic hold you as well.
Take heart my loves. With the recent fascist attacks in Charlottesville we must hold our loved ones close and take care of each other, and our selves. This is an overwhelming time emotionally, and as a person with an anxiety disorder (which is what I choose to call my experience of extreme anxiety), I know right now taking care of my inner landscape and that of my loved ones is paramount.
As I see the boldness that racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, etc. cowards are acting with against our comrades I can choose two options in my reactions: I can feel hopeless, defeated and let the reality of how little we have progressed as white people in the last 100 years stifle me, or I can ask myself, what can I do? Well, I'm a Witch. I am a forager. I am a medicine maker. There are some things I can do. Even little old me. I hope sharing this information freely helps you feel a little more able to care for and feed you and yours, and to soothe your aching heart. Also, don't forget to hex fascists if you feel up for it.
In wild crafting and foraging, the rare mushrooms and fantastical, fleeting fruits get all the love. But what about those humble standbys? Who will always be there to feed us? To soothe us? I want to give love to the violet, the humbler heart of the Earth, who feeds me April thru November, who I make into salads, tea, cooked dishes, decorate cakes and cookies with and drink sparking refreshers purpled with its syrups.
Violet is one of 525 to 600 species in the Violaceae family. All of whom are edible. Most occur in the temperate Northern Hemisphere, but a few have wandered elsewhere. Where I live in Western North Carolina, I commonly see a few different species, but on the land I live, the common blue violet (Viola soraria) is queen. Native to the eastern United States, this plant has an interesting history. Strangely enough, the happy purple, yellow and white flowers are often associated with death in old plant lore, as well as constancy and innocence, which seem much more appropriate for a little purple flower which is entirely edible and nourishing.
Few plants represent both hope and death in folklore and mythology. The Romans heaped violets on the graves of young children as a symbol of both mourning and hope. Hamlet displays this play between hope and loss when Ophelia tells Laertes that the violets themselves have died of grief:
"I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father
They are also linked to images of death and rebirth, as in the story of Persephone and her dual residencies in both the Underworld and in our world, where the violets bloom to herald her return each Spring. Aside from nourishing our bodies. The violet reminds us that even in death there is a promise of birth, even in destruction there is a promise of growth.
Despite violets association with mourning, to dream of them is thought in many countries to be a herald of good luck. When I see them in large clumps, as they tend to grow, I feel the robust abundance of their medicine, food and magic, as if unseen eyes are watching me from some dark place and whispering, "we have all you need, take care, o take care."
From our sweet friend Madame Grieve we know violets were even mentioned by Homer and Virgil. They were used by the Athenians 'to moderate anger,' to procure sleep and 'to comfort and strengthen the heart.' Interestingly enough in Macer's Herbal (tenth century) the Violet is among the many herbs which were considered powerful against 'wykked sperytis.' (Wicked spirits for those of us unfamiliar with 10th century creative spelling.)
Use the powdered leaf of violet in your charm bags against evil, from both the dead and the living. The root is strongly purgative and laxative due to its alkaloid content so do not ingest it as most species case nausea and vomiting. However, the somewhat robust roots can be used for alraune magic or fetishes for love work. I also use the roots to purge or drive away a person or more often a spirit that I'd prefer move elsewhere. The violet's association with death, especially of the young, and hope make it a fine root to work with in necromantic or ghostly endeavors when dealing with the spirits of departed children.
In rural Germany, they decked the bridal bed and cradles of girl children with violets--this was done by Kelts and Greeks as well. Purple is a color for all humans, but magically, if one needs to call upon the feminine aspects of the universe, violet may be your ally.
Violets are nutritious and useful medicinally in a huge way, and my friend and mentor Juliet espouses on this greatly in her awesome post about violet. I eat them cooked like spinach, dried for winter tea, soups and stews, and even fried crisp in coconut oil or butter. They are lovely with mushrooms as well.
In the Middle Ages we can see the great association of violet with the heart through its folk name "Heartease". It's perfect little heart shaped leaves could be seen through the Doctrine of Signatures to bring joy and settle an unquiet heart. It was not just used to gladden though, this gentle plant also has been used externally for serious ailments of the skin. Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century abbess, visionary mystic and herbalist used violets to treat skin cancers externally:
"Take violets, press out their juice, and strain it through a cloth. Add olive oil one-third weight of the juice and take just as much billy goat fat as violet juice. Boil everything in a pot and prepare a salve."
Leaf palasters were also used on nasty wounds and boils historically, this cooling, moistening plant is perfect for such applications. Associated according to Culpepper with Venus, this plant can also be employed in all magical workings of love and the heart, especially where the passions have cooled a long, lasting love is growing.
Daniels, Cora Linn, and C. M. Stevens. Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World. a Comprehensive Library of Human Belief and Practice in the Mysteries of Life through More than Six Thousand Years of Experience and Progress ... University Press of the Pacific, 2003.
Madame Grieve's Violet Article
Juliet Blankenspoor's excellent article on Violet
Susan Wittig Albert's works on Violet
The early Spring of the year is past and early Summer it seems, has taken hold. This brings up thoughts of Spring tonics and other Spring practices. Cleaning, fixing, and starting anew. Though I want to focus on the uses of the wood of this lovely native, shrubby tree, I also want to wade through it's amazing uses in all the other realms it occupies. So let's meet Sassafras albidum, Sassafras, Winauk, cinnamon wood, ague tree, sassafrax, or saloop.
This native tree is rife with folklore, medicinal and culinary uses. I love it, and I have to say, though some accuse me of saying this of every plant I meet, it is truly one of my most favorites. Sassafras is a native memeber of the Lauraceae family, and is one of three extant species. Early European colonists in America noted that the plant was called winauk by Native Americans in Delaware and Virginia and pauane by the Timucua. Native Americans distinguished between white sassafras and red sassafras, which to be clear refers to the same plant but to different parts with distinct colors and uses(1). Sassafras albidum is a fairly common "weed tree" which ranges from southern Maine and southern Ontario west to Iowa, and south to central Florida and eastern Texas, in North America. It is also a key ingredient in Appalachian Spring tonics.
In Appalachian folk medicine, you can think of blood like the sap of a person. It rises in Spring and falls in Winter. It can be augmented and moved by taking certain herbs and tonics. A tonic being an herbal preparation that is used for the maintenance of health rather than the acute treatment of symptoms of a disease. That's how I think of it.
To move the slow blood of Winter in Spring, there were many traditional plant medicines taken and prepared in the mountains. Some of the tastiest are sassafras, spicebush, cherry bark, and black or sweet birch. Bitter herbs also make up the other class of Spring tonics. Dandelion, burdock, dock, poke, wild onion, ramp, strong tea of red clover blossoms, yellow root, and nettles all share mineral rich or liver support properties. Or, well, they are at least very pungent.
Sassafras is often easily identified by its unique leaf shapes, for it has what is botanically known as heterophylly, or multiple leaf shapes on one plant. It has the single lobe, the two lobbed “mitten”, and the three lobbed “dinosaur” foot as I likes to call it. I have even recently found a 5 lobed sassafras on Mill Ridge in WNC.
It was used by First Nations folks in our bioregion and eventually passed into settler use as well. It was touted as a blood cleanser and included in recipes for the Spring tonics with plants like spicebush (Lindera benzoin), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and other fragrant or bitter herbs.
The modern herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner (Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Brewers Publications, 1998) says:
"Sassafras was the original herb used in all “root” beers. They were all originally alcoholic, and along with a few other medicinal beers — primarily spruce beers — were considered “diet” drinks, that is, beers with medicinal actions intended for digestion, blood tonic action and antiscorbutic properties. The original “root” beers contained sassafras, wintergreen flavorings (usually from birch sap), and cloves or oil of cloves. Though Rafinesque notes [in 1829] the use of leaves and buds, the root bark is usually used, both traditionally and in contemporary herbal practice."
In Appalachia, its uses were first shared with Spanish and Europeans settlers. It had a myriad of uses to the Cherokee as a tea. The Cherokee even used it for weight reduction, which passed into use by European settlers and is still present today in the folk lexicon. Sassafras was one of the first plants exported to Europe from the New World in bulk, for it came to be thought of as a panacea and was also enjoyed as a social beverage with milk and sugar in European coffee houses. Indeed it was even thought to cure syphilis, and was second only to mercury in its application until it was decided that it did little to stop the ‘social disease’. If only Tom Doula had known...
As an amulet, wearing pieces of the sliced root around the neck was said to aid in the pain of teething, while wearing a bag of the same was a charm to prevent general illness. In North Carolina, carrying some root pieces in one’s pocket would produce the same effect. In some African American conjure traditions, it is associated with financial affairs. Placing a piece of the root in a purse or wallet is said to prevent one’s money from running out.
Interestingly enough, there are also taboo’s surrounding not just the root but the wood. To burn sassafras was deemed unlucky, and in Kentucky, it was believed that burning the wood or even leaves of the sassafras would surely cause the transgressor's mules or horses to die. It is difficult to discover where this belief originates, for it was noted among Native and settlers alike. The wood had further uses as a stirring stick for making soap in the dark of the moon and to build beds that would protect the sleeper from disturbances from witches and other evil spirits. Ships built with sassafras hulls were deemed safe from shipwreck, while chicken coops built with sassafras roosting poles were reputedly free of lice. Sassafras' fresh, fragrant leaves were also used to pack away winter clothing to keep away moths.
Certain medicine men among the Cherokee also used the root magically. They would chew it and rub it upon their faces and hands after being exposed to a sick person, whether biologically or spiritually, to safeguard their own magical abilities. It functions as a cleanser of "bad" or "sick" energy. Sassafras was also an ingredient in treating the wounds caused by magical projectiles known as ga:dhidv, which are the supernatural missiles of conjurers. It is interesting to draw parallels between the medicinal uses of sassafras root as a cleanser of blood and its Cherokee uses as a cleanser of energy or spiritual contamination. Sassafras has many more ethnobotanical uses, and it is interesting to modern folk magic practitioners to note the correlations between its ability to ward off illness and pestilence as well as attract prosperity both in its medical and magical uses.
The issues of safrole, the possibly carcinogenic chemical which lurks within the roots of the Sassafras is a tricky question. Undoubtedly it exists, but whether it is harmful when used as an occasional, traditionally prepared tea is the question. Check out my friend Kate's thesis on safrole if you want to get really nerdy with it, but as with most things, do your own research and see what you think. I drink it. I'm not worried.
If you'd like to get the whole story folk magical story on Sassafras and other important native Appalachian roots, check out my piece, as well as the other fabulous works in the Third Volume of Verdant Gnosis.
What can I make with it?
Tea, syrup and confections! Boil those roots to get a deep red, lovely tea. You can also use the leaves dried and powdered like file gumbo powder to thicken soups and stews. I like to boil the roots, combine with honey and add bubbly water for a "root beer".
Wood: furniture, interior and exterior joinery, windows, doors and door frames , kitchen cabinets and paneling, boat building, canoe paddles, gates, barn doors, wagon beds and fence posts. Sassafras is very resistant to heartwood decay, but in exposed damp conditions the sapwood is vulnerable to powder post beetle. Oh, and probably a fine spoon.
Use the chips of root bark for protective magics or craft a bed, gate, or object to be free from the influence of malevolent spirits. Burn the wood chips as a bioregional incense to rid a place of negative influence, spirits/ persons.
I like to make a "blasting rod" type wand from this wood to free places, people and objects from the sway of these spirits as well. It's twisty nature really lends it to this purpose.
(1) Austin, Daniel F., and P. Narodny. Honychurch. Florida Ethnobotany: Fairchild Tropical Garden, Coral Gables, Florida Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona: With More than 500 Species Illustrated by Penelope N. Honychurch. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2004.
Kilpatrick, Alan. The Night Has a Naked Soul. Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee. (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997).
Rupp, Rebecca. Red Oaks & Black Birches: The Science and Lore of Trees. Pownal, VT: Storey Communications, 1990.
Tantaquidgeon, Gladys. "Mohegan Medical Practices, Weather-lore and Superstitions." Smithsonian Institution- Bureau of Ethnology Annual Report 44 (1928): 264-70.
Thomas, Daniel Lindsey, and Lucy Blayney Thomas. Kentucky Superstitions. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1920. #2993.
UCLA Folklore Archives 1_6728.
White and Brown. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the Folklore of North Carolina, Collected by Dr. Frank C. Brown during the Years 1912 to 1943, in Collaboration with the North Carolina Folklore Society.
White, Newman Ivey, and Frank Clyde Brown. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the Folklore of North Carolina. Durham: Duke University Press [1952-64], 1952.
Willard, Fred L., Victor G. Aeby, and Tracy Carpenter-Aeby. "Sassafras in the New World and the Syphilis Exchange." Journal Of Instructional Psychology 41, no. 1-4 (March 2014): 3-9.
Vance, Randolph. Ozark Magic and Folklore. (New York, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 1964, c1947).
Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: A Materia Magica of African-American Conjure. Lucky Mojo Curio Company: Root Doctor, 2002.
Oh my gosh. I got interviewed on Rune Soup. Fan girl moment!
Check it out!
“A witch is, actually, a successful (in the sense of surviving) deviant. You have a cultural, ideological, social, what-not pattern which is, for that society in question, normal (and, importantly, this is understood as a synonym for natural). Most people survive because they conform to these patterns, because they behave normally. […] But then suddenly you get a deviant which survives, and since it does not draw its support from the normal pattern, […] that deviant is understood as drawing its support from “unknown”, “supernatural” sources. […] If we cannot survive without our order, how can she [the witch] survive in solitude? Hers must be indeed a very powerful order to exist so independently, without all the inter cooperation and individual compromise which we have to go through to survive. And if it is so powerful, then it could destroy us. We must try to destroy it first.”
Maya Deren, “From the Notebook of Maya Deren”, 1947, October, vol. 14 (Autumn 1980): 21–45.
The first time I head the term The Poisoner, was while listening to modern horror fiction in 2010. It was a story by Holly Day, on the podcast, Pseudopod, one of my favorites to listen to while I carve or paint. I was struck by this story. A tale of a woman who knows which plants kill and which plants can cure, but she has a mad lust for the killing variety, and for witnessing death. She is the witch in the wood, the senseless murderer, the ungodly follower of evil for the sake of evil. She is a deviant. She is the Poisoner.
Recently, as is no news to anyone, there has been an intense amount of challenge and struggle. There is a deep fear building up, like the poison from the narcissus bulbs thrown in the well by the Poisoner. Fear, both real and imagined, permeates our social media, or newspapers and our daily conversations. It is horrifying, exhausting and stressful. It means life or death to some, and brings on mental health struggles in others. It has shown us where deep rifts were covered by thin carpet, barely allowing us to cross, and where in each of us there lies poisoned wells.
Many have written pieces on self care during these times, and these come deeply appreciated. People write of bane work, hexing and cursing with new fervor, further causing rifts and divides as some camp on the side of "do no harm! You go too far!" And some holler back from the other side, "we're fighting for our lives! You cannot understand, you cannot see us."
I'm not saying anything new here, anything original, I'm just so impressed. Impressed at how many powerful, wonderous people there are in our communities locally and at large. And I want to make an offering. I want to give you the power of the Poisoner. The reason she exists is because of the fear. The fear of the "other". She exists because what is medicine is also poison in large doses. They say that hexing is the tool of the oppressed. So then let's hex, let's introduce ourselves to the poison plants, and understand them. Like knowing the darkest parts of ourselves, let us know all the uses and magic of the plants, including the dark ones. Knowledge is a type of power after all.
It does not mean that we are violent when we learn self defense. It doesn't mean we are sluts when we learn which herbs bring on the blood. It doesn't mean we are Poisoners when we learn the poison plants. It means we know. It means we're not defenseless. It means that we are empowered. It means that there are great threats that exist. To our health, happiness, and to some, our very lives. We are becoming wiser. This is my offering.
I'll be teaching "The Poison Plants" at Raven and Crone this Sunday. If you're local to the Asheville area, I hope I see you there. If you can't I'll make the PDF of the booklet I wrote available for donation in my store.
Many have made lists and posts of things we can do to care for ourselves and others, radical acts of self care and community support, personal work and rising to try and be real, grounded, humble allies to our friends who are queer, POC, differently abled and/or in danger under this new administration. The ones of us who have been studying plants and ALL of their uses are needed now. We've always been needed, but now there is a pressing feeling that we have work to do. Those of us who can do it. Now is the time.
<<some important things (but obvi not all)>>
Herbs for Resistance by Janet Kent
Self Care: Wort Cunning
This great piece by the amazing Rae about Relentless Self Love
Sarah Anne Lawless's, "Awakening from the Dream to the Nightmare of Reality."
Self Care under Capitalism
This excellent list: The Witches Resistance Action List
Poison Path Resource Guide
Very good piece about the ethics of hexing <<TW for almost everything>>
The Curse Collection of Sarah Anne Lawless <<TW for sexual violence>>
Why Walk the Poison Path
Getting our Shit Together so we can actually try and be good allies
White Awake: resources for white folks to face and combat white supremacy
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit an old friend of mine, and a great mentor, Jeff Gottlieb. He has been working on his amazing tiny homestead for the past 5 years, and I, being a terrible friend, haven't visited yet. We got to check out all the amazing things he's been working on, nerd out about net making and spoon carving, and oh so many other things.
Jeff has been an educator for along time. He's an accomplished naturalist, a wigwam builder, a spoon carver, and a historic artifact reproduction extraordinaire. We met through the Earth skills Rendezvous about 7 years ago. Since then, his contagious smile, matter-of-fact teaching style and silly pun-filled sense of humor have made him indispensable.
Jeff has been working on many things, but his Kudzy Kabin is perhaps his claim to fame. This adorable little house is not make of strawbale, its Kudzu bale. Imagine a home made from a plant so detested and deemed useless, invasive and otherwise hated. He has made the second one known in the US, though let me know if you've made one and I'm not aware.
Still under construction, but it is so cute! The miraculous thing is, some of this clay was made with elephant dung. Can you spot the elephant head on the right side wall?
Here, take a closer look. You can see the lovely red, Carolina clay and tulip poplar bark siding about the soon to be door.
The inside is even sweeter.
He told me about the stained glass window he and his mother made and we laughed about the problems of carving spoons inside. We are both guilty of making wood chips where ever we go.
His lovely greenhouse he shares with a neighbor.
Comfrey and day lillies.
Wild food grows everywhere.
He has the sweetest mini-orchard full of plums, cherries, asian pears and much more.
Tool Envy is a thing. And I have it.
Making dogbane cordage for net making. Jeff has woven huge dogbane nets as replicas for museums. Making replicas of historical, and pre-historical in some cases, objects is a source of fun and livelihood for him. I also teach net making now and I learned 7 years ago how to make cordage from Jeff. The passing and dissemination of these skills among and beyond our community is part of the reason I love it so much.
The dogbane plant was a major source of fiber for First Nations people in our bioregion. It is my favorite of the fiber plants here in Appalachia. Notice all the little fibers waiting to be stripped out.
Knapped blue glass arrow heads.
We finished our visit by digging ground nuts (Apios americana). This is a delicious tuber of substantial caloric content: a rarity among our non-nut wild foods. Cook and eat like potatoes! We dug up lots of them with ease in the moist soil along the edge of Jeff's garden. "Apios!" He cried as he pulled them from the Earth. We laughed and he filled a black plastic planting pot with them for me and I headed on home. A lovely day with a dear multitalented friend. I love when wild foods, primitive skills, friends and magical homesteads all blend into a super sweet day.
We only have only been in the New Year, according to the Gregorians, for a little while. Now we can bid farewell to 2016. And what a year it has been. I have heard on almost every front, that this year has been the hardest, most difficult year most can remember. It has been for me as well. Though I have not suffered nearly the pain of those in Gatlinburg, Standing Rock, Syria, and the list goes on and on. There is much suffering in the world right now. And I open my arms to you.
I will not be silenced by pain. I will not stop foraging, doing magic and listening. And so, we go on. I'd like to forge ahead and wrap up our Folkloric Uses of Wood series, for we've only two more to go, and much more to explore and gather. Our next magical tree will be Basswood.
To support me in my research and work, please consider donating. Every dollar helps!