The Many Herbs of Beltaine

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Beltaine is the time of year when we celebrate the return of life to the Earth after Winter’s long sleep. The celebration can be seen everywhere. Animals and birds call for their mates and tend their nests. Eggs hatch, green shoots emerge, trees and flowers begin to bloom, and new generation rises from the joy of it all. Maypoles spring up across the land, symbolic of the creative energies now rampant in creation.

As a green Witch whose birthday is within a few days of this sabbat, Beltaine has always been my favorite time of year. I especially enjoy renewing my herb garden, brushing the blanket of leaves and dead stalks aside to see what survived and sowing seeds of the coming year’s delights.  Finding appropriately symbolic offerings and altar decorations is an annual quest for many celebrants.

And so Google is bombarded with search requests for “Beltaine herbs” and the like. Books on the subject may also be consulted. The results can be overwhelming, In a recent experimental online search, everything from All-heal to Zinnias came up.

What exactly are the herbs of Beltaine? The best advice is to look around you and find what is in bloom now, taking only small token sprigs and leaving the rest of the flowers to produce their seeds.

However, be very cautious and sure of what plants you are picking. Many years ago, when I was just an innocent Witchling wandering the fields in search of Beltaine flowers, I brought home bouquets of a lovely flower that I thought was white yarrow. Eventually I learned that this was actually garlic mustard, a nasty invasive plant that is taking over meadows, fields, woods, parks and even backyards, overgrowing the native plants upon which the residents of these places depend on for their natural habitat. Nowadays I still pick garlic mustard, but with the intention of destroying it.  And with every pluck, I laugh at myself for my foolishness and wonder if the Goddess was pleased with my accidentally dreadful offerings. (Yarrow on the left, Garlic Mustard on the right below)

Another example of a Beltaine herb-gathering run amok happened at a public gathering where women were making garlands to wear in the ritual. Merrily weaving greens and flowers from the surrounding fields, suddenly someone noticed that their friend was blissfully creating a wreath mainly composed of poison ivy! How embarrassing.

Back to the trusty Google search as a reference source – not so trusty when used to hunt for reliable information about the sabbats in general, let alone which/witch herbs are appropriate. A search launched just before the writing of this article brought up some puzzling results, including the culinary herbs of paprika, curry, and radish! What these have to do with Beltaine is perhaps a mystery into which I have yet to be initiated. Many of the plants on the lists have not yet risen from their wintry beds in my locale (Pittsburgh, PA, USA) , such as ferns, which are only now unfurling, and roses that normally bloom  here in June.

Again, it is wisest to use what is growing in your area, as long as you are absolutely certain it is safe and really does represent the intent and spirit of Beltaine.

Hawthorn is the best-known Beltaine significator. In fact one of its nicknames is “May”. The fragrant, lusty-scented flowers are a perfect emblem of the season. Many consider it bad luck, though, to bring them into the house because of the connection with faery.  This is one of the trinity of faery tree lore, the Oak and Ash and Thorn.

If you are fortunate enough to have a Hawthorn near you, you can do this simple but potent ritual on May Eve. Get a ribbon or strip of cloth in the color that matches your intentions. Generally red is for passion and energy, green for abundance or fertility, yellow for joy, purple for spiritual growth, and white for peace and purity. Or use whatever color means something to you. Meditate on your wish as you hold the ribbon, then ask the spirit of the Hawthorn to help make it come true. Remember, you must do your part in manifesting it as well. Then say your wish out loud and hook the ribbon onto one of the tree’s thorns. Be careful because Hawthorn can be wicked, although a small blood sacrifice may add to the magic! Don’t forget to leave a thank-you offering under the tree. Honey and milk, or crumbs from the sabbat cake and a splash of wine are always acceptable. (note: make sure your ribbons are biodegradable!)

May the greenery and flowers of Beltaine bring you blessings of the season!

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