Lughnasadh or Lammas?

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The first of August, or the full moon closest to that date, is when Lughnasadh or Lammas is celebrated. Many consider these to be the same festival, the names interchangeable. If you dig a little deeper into the origins of both, you’ll discover that this is not necessarily true.

Lughnasadh or Lunasa is a Celtic festival mentioned in one of the oldest Irish chronicles, Lebor Gabal Erenn (Book of Invasions). These writings date back to the tenth or eleventh centuries but were no doubt the recordings of more ancient oral traditions.  Lughnasadh is the funeral feast and games proclaimed by Lugh in honor of his beloved foster mother who, according to legend, died of exhaustion after clearing the fields. She is widely considered to originally have been an Earth Goddess.  The celebration, typical of the Celts, included games similar to the Olympics, as well as trading, contests of craftsfolk and artisans, horse races, matchmaking, and of course plenty of music, singing and dancing. A strict truce was in effect for the duration of the festival, which could go on for days. It is still celebrated in the Celtic lands today with many of the same traditions in the form of country fairs, visits to holy wells, and climbing hills to gather berries. The famous Puck Fair is probably a remnant of Lughnasadh, and if you look around you in early August you’ll find plenty of late summer community fairs happening, half-forgotten echoes of Tailtiu’s funeral games. With the early harvest of vegetables and fruit, it’s the perfect time to eat, drink and be merry.

Lammas comes down through the centuries as a similar celebration of early August harvest, but this name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Hlafmaesse” which  means “loaf-mass.” It was originally a church festival where loaves made of the first wheat were brought for a blessing, with all due revelry.  Perhaps it has older pagan origins, although the name connects it mainly with Medieval times.

Over the years and especially in the last several decades with the rise of Wicca and neoPaganism, the distinctions between these two feasts have blurred so that Lugh is now connected with Lammas as much as he is with Lughnasadh – and, remember, Lughnasadh was intended to honor his foster mother and not Lugh himself! It is also doubtful that he is a “Sun God” but rather, with his Spear still a prominent part of his lingering lore, more likely associated with lightning. That is material for another blog entry, though.

Whether you celebrate it as Lughnasadh or Lammas, I wish you all the bounties and blessings of this first harvest!

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Local Twist on Bilberry Sunday

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In Ireland, the last Sunday in August is Bilberry Sunday or Fraochán Sunday, when everybody heads to the hills to pick bilberries. It’s a festive occasion for all, the youngest and the oldest and all in between. Bilberries are the Irish version of blueberries. The annual event is connected with Lughnasadh, the first harvest, the foreshadowing of summer’s end.

We don’t have bilberries where I live, but the Elderberries are in full fruiting so I’ve made my own tradition of Fraochán Sunday by harvesting them for elderberry elixir. The huge tree that I respectfully address as “Mother Elder” is about ten feet tall and perhaps equally as wide. She is absolutely loaded with berries this year, much to the delight of the birds and me. I’ve been watching robins, cardinals, mockingbirds, grackles, sparrows, even the occasional bluejay, merrily feasting. Sometimes its comical to see the larger birds try to maintain balance on the fragile branches while gobbling away. Over the weekend I harvested two bountiful batches which still left plenty for my feathered friends. I can only reach about halfway up Mother Elder’s majestic height and the birds prefer to pick from the top anyway.

Often when I harvest from my garden, a chant comes into my head. As I gathered berries, this little rhyme came to me:

O Mother Elder, thank you for your berries,

O Mother Elder, blessed be your Faeries!

Precious gems so dark and rich,  gathered by your grateful Witch –

O Mother Elder, thank you for your berries!

The recipe for the elixir I make is as simple as that rhyme. I remove the leaves and stems and wash the berries, then fill a mason jar about up to its shoulder. Mash the berries. Then cover them with ginger brandy. I like ginger brandy for this but any brandy will work just as well. Lid securely on, the jars get stored away in a dark, cool spot for about a moonth or six weeks. Then the mixture gets put through a fine strainer and back into the jar (with a generous dollop of honey) for keeping. Small doses of the elixir are powerful enough to stave off a cough, cold, or what-ails-you over the winter. For adults, two or three tablespoons as needed is good. It’s also safe for children, the dosage reduced to teaspoons according to their age.

O Mother Elder, thank you for your berries!

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Fleabane, the Early Old Man

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Now is the time when Fleabane is in bloom all across North America. Its familiar, cheery daisy-face with the sunny yellow center is a familiar sight in roadsides, meadows, lawns and gardens. The color of its petals ranges from bright pink to white. Many consider it a weed and a “bane” to their carefully sterile lawns, but I’m happy to see it gaining popularity as a welcome addition to gardens, and even being commercially cultivated.

Does Fleabane repel fleas, as its name suggests? This misnomer came from the old practice of strewing dried flowers on the floors of rooms where fleas thrived, which was generally everywhere. Fleabane really has no effect at all. The scientific name describes this plant more accurately as Erigeron annuus.  Annuus is for its annual appearance and Erigeron comes from the Greek words for “early” and “old man”, since it flowers earlier than most wildflowers, in early spring, and forms fuzzy white heads when it goes to seed while still producing new blooms. It is in the Aster family, perhaps surprisingly, since most Asters flower in Autumn.

If Fleabane doesn’t repel fleas, what good is it anyway? All parts of it can be used as medicine. The leaves and flowers can be collected, dried, and stored in a tightly sealed jar to be used for tea which can treat a sore mouth or urinary tract problems. A tincture of alcohol and water made with Fleabane leaves and flowers is an even better way to extract its benefits.

Root extract can work as an anti-inflammatory as well as treatment for coughs, colds, menstrual problems or miscarriage healing. Essential oil of Fleabane works well against fungus and eases itchy skin irritations.

DO NOT USE IF PREGNANT OR ALLERGIC TO RAGWEED, DAISIES, CHAMOMILE OR SIMILAR PLANTS. ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FOR GUIDANCE IN USE OF ANY HERBS, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE ON OTHER MEDICATIONS.

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Aside from its herbal uses, Fleabane is a good pollinator plant, providing nectar early in the season. Crab spiders often prowl Fleabane, hunting for prey. It also serves as host to the lynx flower moth. Goldfinches, ground finches and sparrows love the seeds.

Even if Fleabane doesn’t actually live up to the name it was given, it is still a useful plant, worthy of our respect and admiration.

Daisy Fleabane

 

A Witches’ Prayer for the Dead

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In these disturbing times of pandemic, separation, and mass graves, this prayer may be said for the departed and departing. It comes from Byron Ballard and can be found in her book “Earth Works”. She has just now suggested speaking the prayer each night at sundown, especially for those buried or cremated alone and without comfort. Please join us if you will.

 

You have come to the end of this pathway
In a journey to which we bear witness.
You have come to the end of a pathway
That is barred with a gate and a door.
May this door open swiftly and silently.
May this gate give you a moment’s grace
In which to rest your spirit before you venture through.
We stand here with you, as your companions,
As your family, for you are beloved.
But, for now, we must remain here.
We can not go with you to this old land.
Not yet.
For you will see the Ancestors.
You will see the Beloved Dead.
You will walk among the Divine Beings
That guide and nurture us all.
You go to dwell in the lands
Of summer and of apples
where we dance
forever youthful, forever free.
We can hear the music in the mist
The drums that echo our sad hearts.
We can see your bright eyes and your smile.
And so we open the gate.
We push back the door.
We hold the gate open.
We glance through the doorway,
And with love and grief and wonder
We watch you walk through.
Hail the Traveler!
All those remembered in love, in honor,
Live on.
Farewell, o best loved,
O fairest,
Farewell.

The Annual Springtime Question

Every year, popping up as reliably as April showers and robins’ return, the question arises without fail: How to tell the difference between henbit and deadnettle, and does it really matter? The ubiquitous little purple flowered plants that emerge each Springtime in gardens, edges of lawns, and wherever else the soil has been disturbed are widely considered “weeds” and eliminated on the spot. For those of us who cultivate pollinator plants, however, we welcome both of these as early heralds of Spring.

Both henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) belong to the mint family, although neither tastes like mint.  They taste more like kale or spinach. Both appear in early Spring. They are in the category of winter annuals, which means that in the Fall they grow as a tiny rosette of leaves, overwinter, then form their flowers in Spring. After their seeds set, in late Spring to early Summer, they die away again for another year. The flowers of both henbit and deadnettle are double-lipped and tubular, on the characteristically square stems of their mint family.

How to tell the difference?

Henbit’s flowers are pink to purple with darker purple spots compared to deadnettle. The flowers are longer and more slender. Henbit’s leaves are round, crinkly, and scalloped with no stems.

Deadnettle’s leaves are purple at the top of the short stems, heart or triangle shaped with rounded teeth on their edges. The purple fades to green as they grow.

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Both plants are important early Spring food for pollinators, especially honey bees and bumblebees, giving them a jump-start in March and April, before the bigger nectar and pollen sources appear.

Henbit and deadnettle are useful to humans as well. Both provide Iron, Vitamins A, C, and K, and fiber. Be careful to wait until you can readily identify deadnettle by its flowers before picking it because it can be mistaken for other plants that have similar leaves, some of them poisonous.

Henbit can be eaten raw, cooked, or brewed as tea. It is a digestive aid, especially helpful for easing bloat, also reduces fever.

Deadnettle tea is also a digestive aid, especially as a laxative. It can also provide relief for menstrual cramps and heavy flow. DO NOT USE IF PREGNANT!

Now that you know the difference between these two early Spring “weeds”, pass it on!

 

(photos of henbit and deadnettle from http://foragedfoodie.blogspot.com)

 

 

 

 

 

The Wolf Tree

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The stories this old tree could tell, I thought as I admired the twisted branches and massive trunk of the huge oak. It stands at the edge of the park, just out of reach of the lawn mowers and leaf blowers. The bark bears scars, large and small. Ragged arms reach out, broken at the ends by storms or simply the wear and tear of so many seasons. Just how old are you anyway? I ask aloud, making my own path through the underbrush to get closer to the ancient ancestor that has survived here for ages. A woodpecker, annoyed by the intrusion, scolds me from where it fled onto a neighboring oak, another old but smaller tree, obviously planted when the park was born out of a cow pasture almost a hundred years ago. I compare the two oaks, the lone elder giant and the newcomer who is part of an orderly row of kindred oaks that line the asphalt lane through the park. Again, I wonder what stories the old one could tell.

Empty shells of acorns litter the ground. It was a good harvest for the squirrels this year. The shells crunch underfoot as I get as close as I can to the tree. I notice a fresh wound where the rough bark has been stripped away.  Something catches my eye and I stoop to pick up an antler recently shed. It resembles a forked branch. Gently I touch it to the tree’s gnarled trunk and ask who else has been here. I close my eyes and let the stories come through me.

Caught up in the swirling spiral of tree-memories, I am taken back to the sapling’s early days. The silent tread of moccasins, the whisper of bow and arrow, and a hunter kneels beside the stag who is breathing his last breath. A song rises into the air, grateful and humble, before the knife makes quick work of the forest’s gift. The sapling bends in the autumn wind and another night falls. Under the full moon, a pack of wolves passes by, marking their territory.

The sapling grows taller and stronger as seasons pass.  Men with axes clear away many of the other trees, piling the wood up to make shelters for themselves and their animals. The animals also clear the land. The oak is now tall enough to provide enjoyable shade for these people as they work and play nearby, so they let it live. Passenger pigeons darken the sky in huge flocks. Gunshots echo over the hills, bringing them down.

At night, a hungry wildcat stalks through what’s left of the forest, drawn by the noise and scent of the animals penned in wooden stockades. Again, the gunshots roar and the wildcat screams one last time. The wolves huddle together as if they could protect each other from the blasts. An elk peers out from the shelter of the woods, then turns back to find refuge deeper within the darkness.

The people move westward, abandoning the pasture they cleared. The oak remains, roots and branches thriving, scattering acorns that are carried off and buried or sometimes sprout where they fall. Now the tree, an elder among the rest,  overlooks the beginnings of a more open woodland. Wolves still prowl but the elk and the wildcat become scarce and eventually disappear. The oak survives in a matrix of younger trees that are barely a hundred years old.

Again, the land becomes a pasture. Cows graze and laze in the oak’s abundant shade on summer days. Boys steal into the pasture from the little town that is growing around the bottom of the hill, playing hooky from school, looking for mischief, and always wary of the bull that may be lurking behind the knoll. They climb into the oak and dare each other to swing from the strong armed branches.

By now the wolves are all gone. But a man comes one day and remarks to his companion, “This ugly wolf tree…”  The tree waits patiently. It has no choice. The man continues, “…is a valuable wildlife unit in the vast stretch of North American woodland…” His companion shakes his head. “Worthless!” he replies, tapping the trunk. “Hollow, no good for lumber, should be cleared away. It’s preventing the growth of anything around it!”

But a number of wolf trees survive to this day, elders of the eastern forest, their value finally appreciated. The term “wolf tree” was first used in 1928. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “a very large forest tree that has a wide spreading crown and inhibits growth of smaller trees around it.”  Today the remaining wolf trees may be as old as 300. In a reversal of roles, the trees growing around them have now grown large enough to encroach, shade and kill off the wolf trees. These ancient elders deserve our respect and preservation, as they continue to offer refuge and resources to the wild residents with whom they share the passing seasons, spreading seeds for future generations.

Look for wolf trees near old stone walls or at the edge of what were once pasturelands. They’re usually standing tall and twisted among a group of smaller trees, their trunks thick and their crowns spreading wide. They will seem to be out of place. If you are lucky enough to find one, stand close and listen well. Perhaps it has some stories to tell.

 

References:

Public Land Journal website – http://www.publiclandjournal.com

American Forests magazing, Fall 2014

 

 

 

Season of the Wolf

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Starting with the Wolf Moon in January and running through February into March is truly the Season of the Wolf.  This period is marked by holidays around the world that are centered on wolves. One may wonder why this time of year is wolf-time.

The main reason is because wolves are more vocal now, entering their mating season. It may come as a surprise that they do not actually howl at the moon as they are often depicted. In reality, they lift their heads skyward when calling because the sound carries farther that way. Wolves are also likely to be more visible during this time of the year, since food may be relatively scarce at Winter’s end and they are driven to hunt beyond their usual territories. With their presence increasingly noticeable from sight and sound, naturally wolves are on peoples’ minds.

They are both feared and honored, hated and loved.

Many superstitions surround the wolf. During the wolf festival in Bulgaria at the beginning of February, it is forbidden to spin, weave, sew or open scissors and no clothing can be made or mended because supposedly that draws wolves to the home. Who knows what’s behind that strange belief?

Another ancient wolf festival is Lupercania in mid-February, a Roman celebration deeply rooted in pagan lore. According to legend, a wolf nursed and raised the infants, Romulus and Remus, when they were abandoned and left to die. Lupercania’s root word comes from Latin “lupus” or wolf, although it was probably originally a pre-Roman fertility festival.

There are many stories of wolves taking in lost children as their own. In parts of Ireland, the wolf was seen as a guardian, especially to youngsters. The hag-goddess of Winter, the Cailleach, is sometimes pictured as riding a wolf, as she is the protector of all wild things. Unfortunately, there are no more wolves in Ireland today.

Fear, hatred, and greed have endangered this species, especially in North America. Wolves are shot on sight and hunted down because they will kill farm animals. Rarely do they attack humans. And the myth of the werewolf has been reduced to a Hollywood caricature, although rumors still persist in some parts of the world.

It is important to restore the wolf population to what was once their natural habitat because it’s been proven that wolves are actually good caretakers of other wildlife. As an apex predator, they prey on sick or injured animals, leaving only the strongest to survive. The wolf deserves our respect and support. Please consider making a donation to Defenders of Wildlife or another reputable group that works to protect these creatures whose strength, cunning and beauty we celebrate, as of old, at this time of the year!

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(Wolf Moon at the top of the page by Jerry LoFaro)

 

 

 

 

Imbolc: Initiation and Rebirth

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In my tradition, Imbolc is a time of initiation and rebirth. It marks the end of the Dwelling-Within Time and we are encouraged to share what dreams and transformations have occurred over the Winter. We acknowledge that we are different people than we were when we celebrated Lughnasadh, which is opposite Imbolc on the Wheel of the Year. We may or may not look the same but our lives are different now. Mundane events such as a career move, a birth, a death, or a change of residence could have happened. On another level, the Winter could have brought a new vision, a new totem, or even a new name. Imbolc marks the first thaws, the first signs of Spring, and we move in harmony with the season.

Whether or not there are new Witches being initiated and brought into the Circle, on Imbolc everyone is challenged before being allowed to enter, as if they are joining us for the very first time. This opens the way for us to express who we are now, emerging from the dreaming and the darkness. Both Lughnasadh and Imbolc are times for dedication or re-dedication. Lughnasadh is more of an outer dedication, a renewal of vows to the land and the Craft itself, while Imbolc is for making more personal commitments, to one’s hearth, home, and inner life.

This brings us to one of the main figures associated with Imbolc, namely Brighid. She has many facets, as do we all. Among her many roles are Healer, Smith, Brewer, Protector and Warrior. She is the Keeper of the Fire. A flame burns constantly at Her altars and shrines, tended with great care, as symbolic of Brighid’s ever-living presence.

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As we celebrate Imbolc, time of rebirth in Nature and renewal within ourselves, we say aloud our names, our Winter’s dreams, our intentions, and bring to light whatever seeds have been sleeping in our darkness. We are challenged at the edge of the Circle to proclaim ourselves anew. We call on Brighid’s fire to illuminate our hopes and inspire us as we waken, with all of Nature, into Spring. May the blessings of Imbolc be yours!

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(above image created by Helen Mask, previous Brighid art by Laura Cameron.

And the 2020 Herb of the Year is…

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Well, its complicated! For some unknown reason, the International Herb Association made a very peculiar choice for this year. The 2020 Herb of the Year is…Rubus spp. Instead of one herb, Rubus spp. is a gigantic and widely diverse group of plants in the Rosaceae (Rose) family, mostly berry-bearing with woody, thorny stems. The best-known of these include blackberries, raspberries, and dewberries but if you Google “rubus spp” you will see for yourself just how many different plants fall into this category.

So I’m following the lead of the Herb Society of America, who has named Raspberry (or Brambles) as their choice for Herb of the Year. Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is familiar to everyone and offers the most interest to herbalists.

Raspberries originated in Asia and were brought to North America thousands of years ago. Archaeologists have found evidence that the earliest humans ate these. Native Americans, in particular the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mohawk Nations were using the  been found in Roman forts. Palladius recorded the domestication of raspberries as early as the 5th century. They are easily grown and thrive in any temperate climate.

Over the decades, raspberries increased in worldwide popularity. In medieval times, the juice was used for everything from providing the red in illuminated manuscripts to treatment for wounds. Mention of raspberry leaf first appeared in print in the 1597 edition of John Norton’s “The Herbal”.

Late Summer is the best time to harvest the berries if you dare to brave the thorns. They are delicious eaten fresh or preserved by drying. The sprouts of the canes (branches) are also edible when peeled. Young leaves and sometimes root bark can be brewed as tea. The roots of some species can be used to treat stomach upsets, diarrhea, sore eyes, and female ailments

The berries are a summertime treat everywhere and the leaves are equally tasty when brewed as a tea. If you’ve never tasted red raspberry leaf tea, you’ve missed a delicious experience. Most people cringe when herbal tea is mentioned but raspberry leaves have none of the grassy, bitter or otherwise dreaded taste often associated with medicinal tea. Surprisingly, it tastes nothing like raspberries, rather something like a mild black tea and contains no caffeine. Try it sometime!

Raspberry, especially the leaf, is known as a “women’s herb” because of its use as a tonic for general female functions, particularly good for pregnancy. It strengthens the womb, aids fertility and childbirth, and helps with breastfeeding. The reasons behind this are because raspberry leaf is rich in vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, Vitamins B, A, C and E. B-vitamins help settle nausea, soothe leg cramps and improve sleep. Vitamin C is an overall immune booster.

Here’s a recipe for a blend of herbs featuring raspberry leaf:

1/2 cup raspberry leaf, 1/4 cup alfalfa leaf, 1/2 cup dried nettle leaf, 1/4 fenugreek seeds, 1/4 cup fennel seeds, 1/4 cup dried chamomile flowers, 1/4 cup dandelion leaf.

This makes enough for 36 cups of tasty and beneficial tea! Mix the herbs and store in glass jar. Add 1 Tablespoon of the herbs to 2 cups boiling water and simmer 10-15 minutes, depending on the desired strength. Strain and serve. (or if you don’t have access to these herbs, teabags with similar ingredients can be purchased from Traditional Medicinals Company under the name “Mother’s Milk Organic Tea”.

Given its gentle healing nature, it should come as no surprise that raspberry is a feminine, Moon/Venus-ruled herb. In addition to its association with women, the sweet berries are often considered a symbol of love, often an ingredient in love potions. In olden times, the brambles were hung above windows and doors for protection as well as placed there when there was a death in the house, to keep the spirit of the deceased from returning once it has departed.

There are other healing applications for this herb.  Tannin in the leaves works as an astringent, soothing sunburn, eczema, rashes and other skin irritations when used externally. A mouthwash of the leaf-tea is good for the gums. It’s a good idea to keep some raspberry leaf tincture on hand for any of these situations.

How to Make the Tincture

You’ll need: 1/2 cup – 1 cup raspberry leaf; 1 1/2 – 2 cups boiling water; 1 1/2 cup – 2 cups vodka or rum; a clean, glass quart jar with air tight lid.

Put fresh or dried leaves in the jar and pour boiling water over, just enough to cover the leaves, stirring if needed. Fill the rest of the jar with the vodka or rum and cover tightly. Keep in cool, dark place , shaking daily, for six weeks then strain through cheesecloth. Store in a jar or in tincture vials.

IMPORTANT NOTE: ALWAYS TALK WITH YOUR DOCTOR BEFORE USING ANY HERBAL REMEDIES. Raspberry leaf may elevate blood sugar in diabetics. It may also increase estrogen levels. Do not use if bleeding or spotting during pregnancy.

Cultivating raspberries is easy. The plant is not fussy about soil, although it will be more productive in slightly acid to neutral soil. It doesn’t need much space to fruit out plenty of berries, which can be harvested for years to come. Raspberry is self-fertilizing, that is, you only need one plant since it is pollinated by bees. Expect to see fruit a year after the first planting. Pruning should be done each year for best growth because the fruit-bearing canes only live for 2 years and dead canes need cut back so new ones can grow. If you want to grow raspberries, wait till after the last frost date then prepare a sunny spot, sheltered from wind and not too wet, by digging a hole big enough for roots to spread. Mix in some compost. For best results, get a year-old cane from a good nursery and soak the roots for an hour or two before planting. Set it in so that the crown is an inch or so above ground level. It’s not a good idea to plant it near any wild berries or there may be unwanted disease. Before fruiting, raspberries bloom with lovely white flowers. They are hardy with from zones 2 – 8. Not only will they provide you with years of enjoyment and health but they will also attract birds and butterflies.

I hope this article has inspired you to seek out the many joys and benefits of Rubus idaeus, the 2020 Herb of the Year!