Herbal

Notes from the Apothecary

July, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Yarrow

 

 

 

One of my favourite wild plants, yarrow is found right across North America, Europe and even as far east as China. The feathery leaves give way to clusters of beautiful, tiny flowers that are loved by bees and other pollinators. Most commonly they are cream or white, but there are many coloured varieties too, including some incredible bright red species that are currently adorning my local park.

The plant’s formal name is achillea millefolium. The first part refers to the association with Achilles, who was taught by the centaur Chiron to use the herb to staunch the bleeding of his soldiers. The second part refers to the thousands of tiny leaves which make up each soft, green arm of the plant.

The Kitchen Garden

Eat The Weeds tells us that the leaves can be enjoyed in salads, cooked as a vegetable and added to soups and stews. A tea made from leaves or flowers of yarrow is refreshing and has a unique, pleasant fragrance, as well as having some medicinal benefits which we will look at later. Apparently, the plant can also be used in beer brewing, which is something I would love to experiment with! Here is a recipe for a beer which includes yarrow, however be cautious with any recipes you find online. For example, with this particular one, I would leave out the wormwood, as wormwood can cause convulsions and kidney failure. Be cautious with the ground ivy mentioned too, as it contains an oil which is an abortifacient. It’s important to know about your herbs (and who you might be giving them to!) before you start cooking and brewing with them.

The Apothecary

The first century botanist, Pedanius Dioscorides, described yarrow in his Materia Medica as being “excellent for an excessive discharge of blood, old and new ulcers, and for fistulas [ulcers].” This connection with staunching blood is repeated in many tomes, and throughout mythology and folklore. Culpeper concurs that it is ‘an healing herb for wounds’ but also states it can cause a nosebleed if taken like snuff… as most things can!

 

 

There is much more detailed information in the reliable Mrs Grieve’s Modern herbal, which tells us first and foremost some of the astonishing common names for achillea: Old Man’s Pepper, Nose Bleed, Bad Man’s Plaything, Sanguinary and Devil’s Nettle, to name but a few. Mrs Grieve tells us that the whole plant may be used, but other sources say only the parts above ground.

Grieve covers other attributes including the herb being a diaphoretic, astringent, tonic, stimulant and mild aromatic. She notes that the tea of the plant is good for colds and fevers, and a decoction of the whole plant may be helpful with bleeding piles. The plant is even indicated for reducing baldness!

The plant is also widely used in Native American medicine. The Zuni chew the flowers and roots, and apply the juice prior to fire-walking, presumably to reduce or prevent burns. The Navajo people use yarrow for toothache and earache, while the Cherokee use it to aid sleep.

The Lab

A 2014 study indicated that achillea may be effective at delaying the onset and severity of auto-immune diseases. However, this was only indicated in mice, and no human testing has been completed as far as I am aware.

The Witch’s Kitchen

 

 

The Chinese form of divination, I Ching, is often thought of as a toss of three coins, but traditionally the hexagrams were (and still are) formed by tossing yarrow stalks. The practitioner would ideally pick their own yarrow, close to their home or a place special to them, as this makes the ch’i of the plant more in tune with the practitioner. Even if you don’t feel that Eastern philosophies particularly align with your path, it’s useful to note the association with divination and prophecy.

The association with divination is noted in older herbals, such as the aforementioned Mrs Grieve’s, and she also notes an association with ‘The Devil’ which, with more enlightened minds, we can translate as an association with the supernatural and the magical.

These two spells appear in her herbal:

“…there is a curious mode of divination with its serrated leaf, with which the inside of the nose is tickled while the following lines are spoken. If the operation causes the nose to bleed, it is a certain omen of success:

‘Yarroway, Yarroway, bear a white blow,

If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.’

An ounce of Yarrow sewed up in flannel and placed under the pillow before going to bed, having repeated the following words, brought a vision of the future husband or wife:

‘Thou pretty herb of Venus’ tree,

Thy true name it is Yarrow;

Now who my bosom friend must be,

Pray tell thou me to-morrow.’

—(Halliwell’s Popular Rhymes)”

A piece of Scottish folklore holds that pressing the leaves to your eyes would give you second sight, yet another indication of the plant’s prophetic powers.

In some parts of Ireland, yarrow is thought to be protective against the fair folk, however in other parts the plant is said to be loved by them. I guess it’s worth remembering that all the fae are different with their own likes and dislikes! I always loved Terry Pratchett’s image of the elves riding yarrow stalks like broomsticks. Like the elf, the plant is delicate looking and beautiful, yet actually very strong and full of mysterious power.

Home and Hearth

Strew yarrow stalks or flowers around the threshold of your home or sacred place for protection. Sweep the surfaces of your altar with yarrow leaves to ritually cleanse and imbue your space with magic. Place yarrow at the eastern corner of your altar or sacred space to represent the element of air, through its aroma and pale colour. Fragrant plants such as yarrow can even replace incense if you like.

Place a sprig of yarrow blossom under your pillow before sleep, and write down any dreams you have. You may be surprised how many of them are related to events which occur over the coming days!

I Never Knew…

The Anglo-Saxons made amulets out of yarrow to protect against, amongst other things, robbers and dogs.

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

 

Notes from the Apothecary

June, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Apple
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The apple is a fruit that is either revered or maligned, depending on which tradition or religion you look at. For Christians, it is the forbidden fruit, the ultimate temptation in the Garden of Eden. Strangely, the bible itself never names the type of fruit as an apple, and some studies suggest it may actually have been a fig, a pomegranate or even a grape. Despite this, the image of the apple as a fruit of seduction and forbidden knowledge has persisted into the modern age. For the Celts, however, there was nothing sinful about the apple at all. The fruit was associated with the afterlife, yet also with immortality and health. It was also closely associated with the faerie realm, and those who ate an apple whilst in the world of the good neighbours, would never again be able to return.

The Kitchen Garden

There is so much you can do with apples one hardly knows where to begin. For me, it’s my ‘go to’ fruit for jams and jellies. As well as making a fantastic preserve all by itself, it can be added to other fruits low in pectin (the setting agent for jelly and jam) to ease the preserving process. I’ve mixed apple with blackberry, blackcurrants, rowanberries, elderberries and even citrus fruit, all with good results.

As well as preserves, apples make fantastic crumbles, pies and cakes. One of my favourite apple cake recipes can be found here, and is an absolute doddle to make. I use eating apples rather than cooking apples, but experiment and find out what works for you.

 

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One of my favourite uses of apples is something I’ve not yet experimented with, and that’s the craft of making cider, or cyder. There is a difference, other than archaic spelling! Cyder is traditionally made from apples that have only been pressed once, rather in the same way that extra virgin olive oil is produced. Cider is made from a repressing of the same apple pulp, mixing it with water. This makes a longer and lighter drink. I’ve always fancied making my own apple press, although I have a friend who uses a hand blender on chopped apples, with some fantastic results! There’s a guide to making your own cider press here at Mother Earth News. If anyone does this or has done this please let me know how it turns out!

The Apothecary

Surely everyone has heard the aphorism, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ The original saying stems from 1866 and was originally, ‘Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.’ Pithy though these little rhymes are, the apple certainly has many qualities that recommend it as a health food, if not actually a cure-all.

The pectin mentioned previously is a type of soluble fibre, and we need fibre for a healthy diet. There is some evidence that pectin can also lower blood pressure and glucose levels. Apples also contain nutrients that promote healthy bones and brain, and they also contain vitamin C which boosts the immune system and keeps cells healthy.

So while apples won’t necessarily keep all ills at bay, they will certainly contribute to good all round health.

The Witch’s Kitchen

The apple appears throughout various myths from many different backgrounds. We briefly mentioned the Celtic links between apples and immortality. In Norse legend, the apple was given to the gods to provide them with eternal youth. Apples also appear associated with fertility, including the gift of an apple being given to one praying for a child. Apples are also associated with the goddess Hel, and possibly her realm of the same name, the ninth of the nine worlds on the world tree, Yggdrasil. Hel is a realm of the dead, so here we have apples associated with fertility and birth, long life, and death and the afterlife. They are a fruit of cycles, circles and representative of all aspects of being. They are of this world and of magical realms, and represent the link between this world and others.

The apple is also a symbol of poetic inspiration. A branch of apple can symbolise a Bardic or Ovate path. If seeking inspiration yourself, a leaf or small twig from an apple tree in your sacred place may help, or place an apple leaf under your pillow and see what dreams may come.

There is an old superstition that if you can peel an apple in one go, without removing the knife until the peel has come off all in one piece, then toss it over your shoulder whilst looking in a mirror, it will fall in the shape of the initial of your loved one to be. The root of this is most likely an older association with prophecy and fortune telling.

 

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Apples are strongly associated with magic of all kinds, in fact they are a kind of catalyst. Any spell can be ‘offered’ to an apple tree. Charge items with intent, and hang them from the tree, trusting that the intrinsic magic of the tree will aid your spell. Water the tree, and if your spell is successful, plant an apple pip at some point in the future as thanks.

The apple is a wonderful offering to many gods and goddesses (always research first though!), and also to the good neighbours (fairies), along with butter and milk.

Home and Hearth

Towards the end of summer, or start of winter, make a Wassail Bowl. There is a druidic celebration known as ‘Day of the Apple’ after Samhain, and a Wassail Bowl is one interpretation of the brew that was made at this time to ensure a good apple harvest the following season. You don’t have to wait until Samhain though. As soon as you have good apples, you can roast them, and mix them with ale, cider, honey or sugar (honey is nicer) and spices such as cinnamon or ginger, to make a warming, hearty drink to share with family and friends.

Pass your brew around while you brag and boast; not merely an excuse for showing off, but a serious exercise in sharing your ambitions and achievements with your loved ones and your gods. Any commitments made at this time must be seen through, or a forfeit paid.

I Never Knew…

In Greek mythology, Atalanta, the virgin huntress, was tricked into losing a race by Hippomenes rolling three irresistible golden apples in front of her. She had to marry him, which just shows, keep your mind on the job and your head in the game!

 

(Image credits: Top: Red Delicious, copyright Bangin via Wikimedia; Next, De Klok jam apple and roses, copyright Queeste via Wikimedia; Final, Malus Sylvestris, copyright Per Arvid Åsen via Wikimedia.)

 

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Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

Giant Hogwort – Big Teacher

June, 2017

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My dream for summer 2016 was talking to wild plants and learning their names and magical/medicinal properties. The dream came true: I spent the summer in remote rural Sweden where an abundance of flowers awaited me.

People in-the-know say that the plant you most need unfailingly grows near you. If this is so, perhaps I only need to step outside (wherever I am) for a unique perspective on my health, my future or my marriage?!

I developed the habit of walking around with a magnifying glass in my hand and field guide in my pocket. I was soon moving in a fog of linguistic confusion. I grew up in The Netherlands. One of my earliest memories is of lying on my back in the grass and hearing plants singing all around me. In my early twenties I moved to Sweden and then on to the UK. Today the Dutch names of plants are like faint echoes carried on the wind: fluitekruid, pastinaak, bijvoet…. And my Swedish mother-in-law insisted that I learn the names of wild plants in Swedish: gråbo, vitsippor, blå eld….

My father did a course in horticulture when I was a teenager. He had to commit the Latin names of hundreds of plants to memory. Latin was one of my subjects in school and I would often look at those reams of names. It almost seemed like a different kind of Latin because surnames from other languages are ‘Latinized’ so botanical Latin looks very odd if you actually understand Latin!!

One thing my own parents taught me was to keep a respectful distance from certain plants. Giant Hogwort most of all. It is called Bereklauw (Bear’s Claw) in Dutch. They taught me that some plants have ‘lethal lookalikes’, mysterious ‘doppelgangers’ or doubles that are poisonous. Just as we human beings have a shadow, a side to us we try not to show, plants too have a secret life and sometimes they have poison twins.

As my maiden name is Berendsen (son or child of a bear) the ‘Bereklauw’ exterted a peculiar fascination. I am tall but this plant can grow twice as tall as me! Those white parasols of flowers were always swaying everywhere in the winds that scour my native Low Lands (literal translation of The Netherlands)

On my walks here in Sweden I suddenly thought: I do not actually know the name of Bear’s Claw in English. I have no difficulties recognising the plant but I can’t name it in English, Swedish or indeed Latin. I looked it up:

Giant Hogwood (Heracleum Mantegazzatium)

It is also called Giant Hogweed. I am not sure if that might be difference between British and American English, or if it is a more modern version of the same name. Use the link below to see pictures and read an official warning:

http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/39809.html

When I tried googling the English name I found an article written by a Dutch mother. Her two sons had played in the vicinity of Giant Hogwort and their skin had erupted in great blisters. Once those blisters pop, they leave open sores that need dressing and cleaning. She gave a vivid description of the horrors of tending to her boys daily. My mother’s heart did ache for this family. She then proceeded to say that these ‘nasty monsters’ grow even in the very heart of Amsterdam, in Het Vondelpark (Amsterdam’s equivalent of Hyde Park in London or Central Park in NYC). She discovered that you can contact the local council who are then obliged to remove the plants. And why were they growing there in the first place, she asked, in a prime location for children and dogs to run and play outdoors?

GiantHogwart2

At that point my mother’s heart did a backflip and I thought: hang on…. We live in world where children aren’t taught the names of plants any more. I was told recently that cowslip has been removed from the dictionary to make space for cyber age words like broadband and wifi.

Could it be argued that one of our duties as parents and teachers is to teach children the names and properties of plants? That plants are not just decorative greenery on the fringes of our lives but powerful beings with magical properties. Beings we’d do well to cultivate a relationship with?

When my own three children were young (they are teenagers now) the shops were full of protective devices: electric socket covers, foamy u-shaped doughnuts that kept doors from slamming shut, padded corners to click on coffee tables etc.

And yes, toddlers need to be kept away from open fires and electric sockets! Children and pets definitely DO need safe spaces to run and play. But older children also need to learn about plants, their toxic doubles and their own shadow sooner rather than later!

The world has never been a safe place. We keep young people safe by teaching them how to recognise danger (in any form), not by removing all dangers.

And perhaps this is (or was) the teaching of the Giant Hogwort in Het Vondelpark?

Giant Hogwort – Big Teacher…

(Started at Kärrshagen, Sweden, Summer 2016 and finished in London, May 2017)

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Imelda Almqvist

Imelda Almqvist teaches shamanism, sacred art and internationally. 

Her book “Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit For Life”, Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages was published by Moon in August 2016. 

http://www.shaman-healer-painter.co.uk/

https://imeldaalmqvist.wordpress.com/

Imelda is a presenter on Year of Ceremony with Sounds True

http://affiliate.soundstrue.com/aff_c?offer_id=124&aff_id=2260&url_id=86

Notes from the Apothecary

May, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Plantain

 

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No, not the banana type fruit; I’m talking about the weed that we all walk past every day, that has a surprising wealth of health benefits. My friend calls it a ‘Magic Bandage’, and indeed, a cut or a graze can be safely wrapped in a clean, bruised leaf which soothes and heals at no expense. There are several types of plantain, and for the most part I’m referring to the broadleaf plantain, but I will also mention the ribwort, which has long, slender leaves. There are other variants too, so do look up which are native to your own area.

The Kitchen Garden

There’s generally no need to try to cultivate this amazing plant. It grows prolifically in environments ranging from your own garden to utter wasteland. The plant can survive in almost arid conditions, yet copes well with very moist conditions too. In lawns, it can be a bit of a pest, if you’re bothered about your lawn being immaculately groomed. I quite like the odd bit of clover and plantain in my back lawn; it’s a nice bit of variety!

The young leaves can be eaten as a ‘green’ in salads, in much the same way young dandelion leaves can. As the leaves age, they become tougher, and stringy, yet if stewed, can still be enjoyed as a healthy addition to casseroles or similar. The leaves are high in vitamin A and calcium, so make a healthy addition to your diet.

The seeds are also edible, and a good source of fibre, but some have a husk which is indigestible. The seeds are very tedious to gather as they are tiny!

The Apothecary

 

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Culpeper recommended grass and ribwort plantain ‘against spitting of the blood, immoderate flow of the menses’ and piles’, which he attributed to the plant’s astringent properties. He also recommended the juice of the ribwort for lessening agues (fever and shivering).

Mrs Grieves had plenty to say about the broadleaf plantain, including an interesting note that it was one of the nine sacred herbs mentioned in the Lacnunga, a collection of Anglo-Saxon texts and prayers. She also refers to William Salmon’s herbal, the 1710 text which tells us the plantain is good for the lungs, against epilepsy, dropsy, jaundice, and even helps restore lost hearing.

James A. Duke’s book The Green Pharmacy tells us that the plant is good for treating burns, dandruff, haemorrhoids (which backs up Culpeper’s much earlier assertion); also insect bites, stings, laryngitis, sore throats and sun burn. He even mentions it as a potential weight loss aid.

In 2007 in fact, a study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine reported that the broadleaf plantain had the capacity to inhibit tumour growth, when tested on rats. Other scientific studies give evidence that the plant is genuinely effective at wound healing, and has an anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and even a very weak anti-biotic effect.

Other Uses

Plantains, like comfrey, contain a substance called allantoin, which has moisturising properties and promotes cell growth, and is one of the key components in the plant’s ability to help heal wounds and soothe burns. This makes the plant useful in some cosmetic applications, such as hair rinses, and skin tonics.

Apparently, the tough fibres in the older leaves can be used to craft fishing line, cords, and even sutures.

The Witch’s Kitchen

Culpeper stated that the broad leaf plantain was governed by Venus, and as such some of its healing power came through its ‘antipathy to Mars’. Cunningham concurs the connection to Venus, which as always, we can link to either the planet, or the goddess, and the usual associations implied. So love, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and triumph. If you plan your spells astrologically, plantain could be used when under the influence of the planet Venus. You could use the leaves, flowers or seeds on your altar or in your sacred space, or in a spell pouch with other items, to accentuate the influence of the planet, which often represents harmony, happiness and the arts.

Plantain is also used for a very specific protection: against snakebites. Cunningham tells us is it the root of the plant which provides this protection. Judika Illes doesn’t specify which part of the plant to use, but she does say to ‘Charge plantain with its mission of protection. Carry it in your pocket to guard against snakebite.’ The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells.

The immense healing power of the plant means it can be seen as a kind of cure-all, and you can implement the plants naute into your magical workings. Something which heals physically, can also heal mentally or metaphysically, and you could use the plant to help heal rifts, ease anxiety, and even alleviate insomnia.

Home and Hearth

I was taught to make a salve of plantain by using a good amount of the leaves, finely chopped, steeped in petroleum jelly and strained whilst the solution is still warm. When it sets, you have a thick, plantain salve which is good for burns, stings, cuts, grazes; any minor wound or inflammation of the skin really. Petroleum jelly is not ideal for everyone’s skin however, and two different friends recently recommended either using almond oil, or coconut oil as a base.

I think I am going to try coconut oil next, as this will also set which makes it a little easier to travel with. Also, I personally know I don’t react to negatively to coconut oil, and neither does my little boy, in fact his eczema prone skin practically sucks the stuff up. I’ll let you know how it goes. Before trying any oils or salves on wounds, it’s a great idea to ‘patch test’ with the base first. Rub a bit into the inside of your elbow or on your wrist, and see how your skin reacts. If your skin becomes irritated or inflamed, you know you need a different base.

A small pot of the salve travels with us whenever we are out and about. The great thing about plantain is that it is available so readily, if a small cut or graze occurs, we can nearly always find a leaf, bruise it, and apply it directly.

I Never Knew…

Plantago Major, the broadleaf plantain, was called ‘White Man’s Footprint’ or ‘White Man’s Foot’ by Native Americans, as the plant had a tendency to spring up where ever the European settlers had been.

Many thanks to fellow magical person Fee Edden for her help with the research for this article.

Picture credits: Wikipedia.

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. She is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

Notes from the Apothecary

April, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Crocus

 

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As we move further into spring in the Northern Hemisphere, a wealth of flowers is bursting from the warming soil. Some of this treasure appears in royal gold and imperial purple, and occasionally even snow white, like a throwback to winter. These are the crocuses, a tiny, beautiful flower named for the Sanskrit word for saffron, the expensive spice made from its stigmas and styles.

The first crocuses of the year always fill me with excitement. They show that winter is truly ending, and that the wheel is turning towards warmer days, woodland walks and those magic mornings of wind and sunshine. Crocuses aren’t as early as snowdrops, which can burst right through the frost, and they aren’t as widespread as daffodils, cultivated as a kind of badge of spring. They come before tulips, and are the first splash of really rich colour; the first hint of the promise of far-off summer.

The Kitchen Garden

The main reason humans cultivate crocuses is for saffron, which is a reddish-orange looking spice that appears to be made of tiny threads. These threads are, of course, the stigmas of the crocus flower, usually a sexual organ used for reproduction, however the saffron crocus is unable to reproduce in this way and must rely on its corms, or bulbs (the tuberous part underground) splitting and multiplying in order to make more of itself. As only this tiny, thread like part of the plant is used in saffron production, it takes up to 75000 individual flowers to produce 1lb of the spice. So, if you are thinking that you could cultivate your own saffron, it’s only worth a go if you have a few acres of land to spare!

The spice is used in a variety of cuisines, including Indian, Arab and Turkish food to name but a few. Saffron is used for its unusual, slightly sweet flavour, and its strong colour which is reminiscent of turmeric yellow. Spanish paella often incorporates saffron, and this can be what gives the rice its glorious golden colour.

The Apothecary

A 2014 study showed that saffron improved symptoms in patients who suffered from major depressive disorders, and could be seen as a useful supplement for those suffering with mild to moderate depression.

This harks back to the Persians who believed that saffron could cure bouts of melancholy. I always find it fascinating when science catches up with magic!

Saffron has been used throughout the ages as a cure for gastrointestinal problems. An ancient Egyptian recipe actually called for crocus seeds, rather than the stigmas, to be mixed with beef fat and other spices as a cure for stomach pain.

Mrs Grieve’s Modern herbal is a fascinating resource for anecdotal accounts of the use of traditional medicine. She notes that in 1921, a medical witness gave evidence of saffron being used in a tea made with brandy to cure measles. She also notes that the spice is useful in the relief of flatulence, to induce sweating, and to stimulate menstrual flow.

In 1347, the Black Death, an horrific plague which swept across Europe, caused a sudden and incredibly high demand for saffron. It was believed that it held medicinal properties key in combatting the plague, yet many of the farmers had succumbed to the ravages of the disease, so supply was not meeting demand. This led to theft and piracy, including a fourteen-week ‘Saffron War’ over a stolen load of 800lb of the spice.

Other Uses

 

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Some Therav?da Buddhist monks wear robes dyed with vegetables and spices, including saffron, which gives the cloth an orange-yellow tone. The robes were originally made from ‘pure’ cloth; fabric that was unwanted or had been discarded. The rags were boiled, dyed and stitched together into a suitable robe for the holy person.

Saffron has also been found in paints and pigments dating back thousands of years. Medieval manuscripts were often illuminated using the pigment provided by saffron, to give tones of yellow and orange.

The Witch’s Kitchen

The use of saffron by humans can be traced back 50000 years, although the mass cultivation of the crocus is much more recent. Saffron was used as a magical spice by the Sumerians, the ancient Egyptians, Indians, Romans and many more.

One of the primary uses of saffron is as an aphrodisiac. In India, a potion of milk and saffron is brought to the bedchamber of newlyweds on their wedding night. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra is said to have dropped saffron into her baths prior to making love, to heighten the pleasure. Greek courtesans known as hetaerae used the spice as a perfume.

For those following a Minoan path of spirituality, it is interesting to note that the first image depicting saffron was found in a Minoan fresco. Although it is not clear what the Minoans used the plant for, it is clear it had some special significance for them.

The ancient Greeks have two legends about Crocus, a young man. In one, he is accidentally fatally injured by the god Mercury, during a game of discus. As he dies, three drops of his blood fall into a flower, thus creating the red stigma of the crocus. The alternative and more commonly accepted legend is that Crocus is chasing the nymph, Smilax. She grows tired of his advances and when he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, turns him into a flower. Take note: No means No!

From these legends, we can make some assumptions about the associations of the plant itself, including the links to the God Mercury and therefore money, luck, communication and because of the nature of the legend, friendship, regret and transformation. We can also see the crocus flower as a symbol to not cross boundaries that are made by others without permissions; to be courteous and listen to others. If someone is not listening to you, or is harassing you, the crocus could be your point of focus in a spell to get them to back off.

Cunningham tells us that the plant is associated with Venus and water, and has a feminine aspect. This is interesting, as biologically the male part of the plant is sterile, so in reproductive terms the plant truly is feminine.

Home and Hearth

Plant crocuses in borders or pots in your garden to delineate the boundaries of your home. If you don’t have an outdoor space, a potted crocus on a windowsill is just as good.

Don’t pick wild crocuses; always grow your own, as there is a European superstition that picking the plant will sap your strength. Anyway, it’s simple courtesy to leave beautiful flowers where everyone can enjoy them!

I Never Knew…

If you have been robbed, burning a little bit of crocus or saffron may allow you to have a vision of the thief.

Image credits: Crocus autranii by rainbirder via Wikimedia; Iran saffron from Khorasan by Alphaomega1010 via Wikimedia.

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. See is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

Notes from the Apothecary

March, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Narcissi

 

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Most of us will be familiar with narcissi in the form of the daffodil; spring’s signpost. Those yellow heads, nodding towards the returning sun, have provided seasonal inspiration for centuries. Wordsworth, in 1802, was moved to write:

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Which perfectly describes (as does the rest of the poem) the way in which daffodils are able to blanket an otherwise green or brown area, almost as if they are colouring in the season.

Narcissi is the plural of narcissus, the Latin name for these golden trumpets. The name may come from a Greek term for being intoxicated (hence the term narcotic) or may be linked to the Greek hunter of the same name, who fell in love with his own reflection and gave us the term narcissism. Pliny the Elder believed it was the former, and it is possible the Narcissus of Greek legend was named for the flower, and not the other way around.

The Kitchen Garden

One of the problems with bulbs is that they all tend to look pretty similar, and it’s not unheard of for people to go out looking for wild garlic, and come back with some bulbs that may look similar, but which could be narcissi, bluebells or snowdrops. The danger here, as you will learn below, is that most bulbs are quite nasty to the mammalian system, and can even cause death, so please, please don’t eat them unless you are 100% sure, and definitely don’t ever eat daffodils.

In the kitchen, a bunch of daffodils on the counter or kitchen table will brighten up the room, and bring a sense of welcome and peace to the area. As they age, their odour becomes stronger, and speaks of warm, spring days and the promise of summer to come.

Yellow represents happiness, a carefree aspect and vitality, so golden daffodils will bring those feelings into your home. White or orange daffodils will bring peace and kindness, respectively.

The Apothecary

It’s pretty key to understand that narcissi and many other spring bulbs are actually quite poisonous. Having said that, it’s very interesting to note that this aspect was actually used as a medicinal property in times gone by, and they were classed as a ‘purgative’; a chemical which makes one empty the bowels rapidly. Basically, by giving someone a very, very upset stomach, you were hoping that they would pass whatever else it was that ailed them at the same time.

Culpeper also noted that they could cause vomiting, and that this could be effective in soothing ‘tertian ague’; a kind of malaria which he advised occurred more in springtime, coinciding with the arrival of the helpful flowers.

The Witch’s Kitchen

Cunningham, in his popular Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs (Llewellyn, 1985), tells us that the daffodil is a feminine plant, associated with the planet Venus and the element of water. Using this information, you could place the flowers or bulbs at the western point of your altar or sacred space, or you could incorporate them into astrological workings where Venus was prominent.

If one transmutes the planet Venus into the Goddess Venus, then we have a flower that is connected to love and fertility, which are both facets of this plant, again, according to Cunningham. One can expand further upon this and see an implied association with Aphrodite, which allows the encompassing of the Greek pantheon as well as the Roman. Daffodils could be used as altar decorations when worshipping either of these goddesses, or honouring their feast days. Venus was particularly honoured during April, and there should still be plenty of daffodils available during this time.

Adonia is a festival that celebrates Aphrodite and Adonis, and is celebrated on the first full moon after the Spring (Vernal) Equinox. In 2017 this will be April the 11th (in the Northern Hemisphere) as the Vernal Equinox falls around the 20th March, depending exactly where in the world you are. Daffodils would be ideal to add to the flowers for these festivals, although roses should also be present where possible.

Culpeper disagrees with Cunningham, and finds that yellow daffodils are ruled by Mars. This puts them firmly in the hot, fiery camp, and makes them useful for sanctifying the quarter of south, and honouring the sun. This makes sense, when you think of how firmly these flowers are part of our springtime; nodding the sun gently back into place after the cold, dark winter.

Personally, I like to place my daffodils at east on my altar, and in a central point in my kitchen. They speak to me of Brigid, in the same way that snowdrops do; new beginnings, hard work and courage. They speak of the rising sun, and the pale to golden yellow of spring mornings.

Home and Hearth

 

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As we move more firmly into spring, check out your local supermarket/grocery store for offers on bunches of daffodils. I don’t condone picking them from wild spaces, but they are widely cultivated and these flowers are ideal to take home to bring a bit of spring colour into your life.

If you grow them yourself, of course you can pick as many as you like, but I would recommend leaving some to flower and die in the spot they were planted, as they will please your local spirits and also the bees and other insects that are starting to return.

Have a look and see if you can find any of the more unusual plants. You can find two headed daffodils, white ones, orange ones, white petals with a golden trumpet and vice versa. If you are a practitioner of colour magic, you can utilise these different kinds of narcissi in many different ways due to the sheer diversity in shade.

I Never Knew…

Socrates called narcissi The Chaplet of the Infernal Gods due to the level of toxicity the plant produces.

Image credits: Narcissus calcicola, Olaf Leillinger, 2006, via Wikimedia and Narcissus tazetta var. chinensis, KENPEI, 2007, via Wikimedia.

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. See is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

Notes from the Apothecary

February, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Snowdrop

 

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Imbolc is upon us, and I am now seeking snowdrops with every step. Snowdrops symbolise the first stirrings of spring very strongly to me, ever since I placed a closed flower on my altar and within minutes of my ritual it had fully opened; a tiny, star like wonder. Although they grow all over Britain and the US now, they weren’t classed as a ‘wild’ plant until the 18th century, as they were only introduced from Southern Europe in the 16th century. They have some delightful alternative names: February fair maids, Eve’s star, white bells, dew drops and even death’s flower, presumably a reference to the fact that snowdrops are poisonous. As well as causing physical harm when eaten, there are some superstitions that snowdrops are very unlucky, particularly if taken inside the house. There are some English anecdotes of people dying suddenly after someone brought snowdrops in to decorate the home, however I have never suffered any ill effects from using them on my Imbolc altar.

The Kitchen Garden

Snow drops are not edible at all, but they are extremely beautiful. If you decide to grow snowdrops, you can usually get the bulbs via mail order, or your local plant nursery. Please don’t dig up bulbs from the woods or from grass verges. The Latin name is galanthus, which you may need if ordering online. One fantastic thing about snowdrops is that they are perfectly happy in shade, so they can be used to fill a space in your garden where other plants would miss the sun. Plant your bulbs in the early fall, in loose soil and a bit of compost. Don’t leave your bulbs too long before planting or they can dry out. Mark the space where you plant them, as when the flowers die down, the ground may look bare again and you may accidentally dig them up!

 

 

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The Apothecary

A fifteenth century glossary classes the snowdrop as an emmenagogue, something which promotes menstruation. There are also hints that it may have been used as a digestive aid, however the effects of the toxin in the plant are actually harmful to the digestive tract.

John Gerard, the 16th and 17th century botanist, claimed that the snowdrop had no medicinal value, but Mrs Grieves disagreed, citing the above information which pre-dates Gerard’s findings.

Currently, there is some research being undertaken into the properties of galantamine and how it can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and galantamine is found in snowdrops as well as some other spring bulbs.

The Witch’s Kitchen

The snowdrop is a clear indicator that spring is on the way, and as such, carries all the symbolism that this implies. You can use snowdrops to symbolise east, the sunrise, new beginnings, air, winters end, and as an offering to Brigid or Persephone. If using on altars, please keep out of the reach of children and animals as they are toxic.

As well as the physical associations with winter’s end, you can take a more metaphysical approach and use the snowdrop as a symbol of something coming to an end that you have been struggling with. Seeing snowdrops in a visualisation or meditation may mean that something in your life is about to change, or that a goal you thought was out of reach may be coming close; look out for opportunities and grasp them when they occur.

Snowdrops represent hope, light and determination. They are so small and delicate, yet they are the first living things to break through the hard, frozen ground. They are the epitome of hidden strength.

Home and Hearth

If you are troubled by the superstition that bringing snowdrops into the house is bad luck, try drawing or painting some to go in your sacred space instead. You don’t need to be Monet; a streak of green with pendulous white dripping from the tip will do. Experiment and find something that says ‘snowdrop’ to you, and makes you think of the little spears of hope reaching for the sun.

Use your image as a focus for meditation, visualise yourself walking among snowdrops, or finding a sudden patch of them whilst on a woodland ramble. Record how you feel, what else is around you; and sounds or smells that may pop up. Is there a familiar presence? Something you have felt when honouring a particular deity, or perhaps a sense of nostalgia that triggers a childhood memory?

Write down your findings, see how they fit in with your current life situation, and use this time to record your hopes for the coming year.

I Never Knew…

In Essex, as recently as the 1950s, snowdrops were known as Candlemas bells, further cementing the association with the start of February, and therefore with Imbolc.

***

Mabh Savage is the author of Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. She is also a freelance journalist, musician, poet and mother of one small boy and two small cats. Find out more at https://soundsoftime.wordpress.com

Notes from the Apothecary

January, 2017

Notes from the Apothecary: Holly

 

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(Image credit: Pere López via Wikimedia)

 

The holly, dark green,

Made a resolute stand,

He is armed with many spear points

Wounding the hand. (Cad Goddeu, The Book of Taliesin, 14th Century.)

Holly immediately conjures up images of snowy woods and midwinter frosts, and it has been a staple of solstice celebrations since at least Roman times. The festival of Saturnalia ran for a week or so around the shortest day, and holly was included in wreaths and garlands, it’s evergreen leaves and red berries a promise of the spring that was to come. Also, as a sacred plant of Saturn, holly was seen as an offering to the patron god of these festivities, and this is how it became tied to the solstice, and much later on, to Christmas.

The Kitchen Garden

Don’t eat holly! Though the jewel-like red berries may look appealing, they are for the birds and not for you! Don’t leave them within reach of children or pets; they are poisonous and can cause severe vomiting and diarrhoea. Also, it’s worth remembering that as the beautiful boughs dry out, the berries can fall to the floor where they may be picked up, so keep an eye on your holly, and if in doubt, remove the berries and place them out of sight of small hands or paws.

The Witch’s Kitchen

 

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If invoking or evoking Saturn, Holly leaves or berries are an ideal offering. Saturn is linked to agriculture, harvests and time itself, so may be called upon to aid in seasonal spell-craft, particularly around the winter months. His sickle represents the end of the final harvest, but also the creation of things, as he used it to castrate hi father which separated Earth from Heaven, and created creatures such as the furies and the giants. The crescent shape of the sickle represents the cyclical nature of our world, and Holly, Saturn’s sacred plant, is a reminder that all things return in time.

As with all evergreens, holly is a symbol of summer within winter. For Wiccans and similar paths, it is a reminder that although the Holly King vanquished the Oak King at the summer Solstice, the Oak King merely rests, waiting to rise again, his blood the resting sap in the trees. After the Winter solstice, or Yule or Saturnalia, a sprig of holly reminds us that although the Oak King is now the powerful spirit waiting to rise up once the earth warms again, the Holly King is still alive, in the evergreen leaves and blood red berries that remind us of fire, passion, and the life that will surge back in spring and summer.

Holly is traditionally a protective tree, and the wood has been used to ward off witchcraft and evil magic for centuries. At one point in Britain, some builders crafted the doorsteps of houses out of holly wood, so that witches could not enter the building. Drinking from a cup made of holly wood helped purge the sickness faster.

Holly has also been used for divination, particularly to learn the identity of a future spouse. The leaves are supposed to be able to bring prophetic dreams.

Effigies built of holly represent the masculine, and their counterparts were often made of ivy, which is seen as the feminine evergreen. The effigies would be burnt as part of midwinter festivities, to hurry along the warmth of spring.

A sprig of holly was given as a token of good luck in Roman times, so always accept a gift of holly gratefully.

Home and Hearth

 

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Soak holly leaves in water or oil to make a protective liquid. Pick the leaves at a full moon if you can, place them in a jar with clean tap water, or rain or spring water, or an oil of your choice. Shake daily, and imbue with your intent as often as you can. The liquid will reach potency at the next new moon. Sprinkle some in your sacred place as thanks for the magic. Dab on wrists or at the neck. If irritation occurs, immediately discontinue use! However, this should be physically mild, whilst metaphysically powerful, protecting you from ill will and negativity.

If you are pricked by the holly leaves, it may sting, but as long as you clean the wound, it is seen as very good luck, particularly between winter solstice and Imbolc.

At Imbolc, burn a piece of holly (safely, preferably outdoors) to symbolise the end of winter. The Cailleach, the Irish or Scottish hag-like spirit of winter, threw down her wintery rod beneath the holly tree, admitting defeat in the face of spring.

I Never Knew…

According to Scott Cunningham in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, throwing holly at a wild animal will cause it to lie down and not molest you. I don’t recommend this in the case of bear attacks!

Notes from the Apothecary

December, 2016

Notes from the Apothecary: The Dragon Tree

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I recently returned from an eye-opening trip to Tenerife, where I saw a multitude of flora and fauna the like of which I had no idea even existed. Lizards scooting in and out of cracks in walls, some as tiny as your pinkie and some as long as your arm. Hawks hovering overhead, trying to catch the unwary ones. Smaller birds hopping from prickly pears to aloes, to plants I don’t even know the name for yet.
The crown jewel in this cornucopia is the famous dragon tree at Icod de los Vinos: El Drago Milenario. Although the age of the tree is widely disputed (claims put it at anywhere between 800 and 2000 years old) there is no disputing the majesty and power of this giant dracaena. The trunk is so old it looks almost fossilised, and even with a panoramic shot, I couldn’t get the whole thing on one picture without moving a long way off.

The tree is highly protected, and you can’t go right up to it although you can get pretty close, close enough to stand in its shade and see how green and lush it still is, after all these hundreds of years. Birds flit in and out of the leaves, and smaller trees and fragrant herbs surround it, almost in worship of their great mother tree. I wax lyrical, but it truly was an awesome sight, and I was glad to bring back a bit of info about this amazing plant to share with you.
The Kitchen Garden
There are many different species of dragon tree. The species on Tenerife are dracaena draco, however you may have a spidery looking house plant called dracaena marginata, or a flatter leaved tree with golden spots called dracaena surculosa.
These plants are all amazing additions to the household, and bring with them a lovely energy and of course, help clean the air and keep it oxygen rich.
There are many edible products that can be made with the sap of dragon trees, including soft drinks, liqueurs, and sweets, however for the plants you have in your home, none would be big enough to support their sap being taken, so please just enjoy their company and beauty.
The Apothecary
During the 1600s it was discovered that tribes in Peru and Equador used the resin of dragon trees to stop bleeding, heal wounds and cure intestinal issues.
More recently science has found a component in the resin, taspine, which is documented to have anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties, so clearly these older tribes were onto something.
Dragon’s blood is also indicated for Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Other Uses
Because of the brilliant red colour of the sap of the tree, it can be used as a dye, and has historically also been used as lipstick!
The Witch’s Kitchen

One of the most incredible ingredients I have ever come across for incense making is Dragon’s Blood. Dragon’s Blood can be the resin of this amazing tree picture above, although it can also be obtained from other similar plants. The resin of dracaena cinnabari, a close relative of the Canary Islands dragon tree I so love, first entered written record over 2000 years ago. This indicates the sap was probably in use well before this.

One of the main things I use this gorgeous, red jewel for is to enhance other magic. I love making incense, and often use a sprinkle of dragon’s blood to give a boost to other effects, or to bind together several ingredients that may not naturally fall well together. For example, when I make seasonal incense, I use contradictory male and female herbs to represent the balance and diversity in the season. I find that dragon’s blood helps meld the scent and the magic, whilst enhancing the individual qualities.
Dragon’s blood is red so can represent fire, and of course the beast it is named for, the mighty dragon! The dragon may be a mythical beast, an elemental, or a representation of our emotions, but there is no denying the emotive response we all have to the word which instantly conjures images of power and mystery.
Home and Hearth

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You can occasionally purchase dragon’s blood resin from magical or herbal practitioners. I would exercise caution and only purchase small amounts. Not only is it potent, but the sap itself can sometimes be in such high demand that supply runs low, and trees are at risk. Remember that these trees are sacred and ancient, so treasure a small amount.
Make an incense of colophony (pine resin) and dragon’s blood to cleanse and purify your house. If you have a censer, this is ideal. If not, just burn the incense on some charcoal in a fire proof pot, and carry it round in gloved hands. Please be careful! Go through each room and call your personal spirits and banish anything you need to. The pine will cleanse while the dragon’s blood enhances the magic of your incense and promotes your own sense of self; your blood, your passion; your energy.
I Never Knew…
Never ingest dragon’s blood if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, as it is an abortifacient and can cause a miscarriage.

Notes from the Apothecary

November, 2016

Notes from the Apothecary: Horse Chestnut

Conkers! That was always the main appeal for me. This grand, stately tree with its leaves like great hands, giving shade from the summer heat, and shelter on a rainy day, and all we wanted to do was wait until the conkers were falling. We would string them up and smash them together, revelling in this annual autumn battle.

I still collect conkers, but they don’t get strung up any more. Rather, they sit on altars, usually at north, as a reminder of the changing season and that great things start small. I have one in my pocket right now, and feeling its smooth, solid roundness between my fingers is very reassuring.

There is, as implied, so much more to this tree than its iconic seed, as you will find out below.

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Image credit: Ninjatacoshell via Wikimedia.org

The Kitchen Garden

Herein lies the only problem with horse chestnuts: the fruit is not edible. Unlike sweet chestnuts, widely available during the upcoming holiday season, the horse chestnut is poisonous. The picture here shows three sweet chestnuts on the left, and two horse chestnuts on the right. Do note the difference, as horse chestnuts are poisonous. Even most wild animals won’t eat them. If in doubt, just don’t eat it. Please!

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Image credit: Michigan State University msu.edu

The Apothecary

Currently, research is being done into using extracts of conkers to help sufferers of chronic venous insufficiency, which is where the veins cannot pump enough blood back to the heart. The same extract is also known for its anti-inflammatory properties and a few other health benefits. It’s important to remember that it is only a particular extract that is noted to have these benefits, and that eating the whole chestnut will make you very poorly indeed!

Bach sells a white chestnut remedy, made with the flowers of the tree. It is used for repressing or getting rid of unwanted thoughts, particularly those thoughts that go around and around in your head. The remedy is supposed to help you think straight, and set your thoughts in order.

There is also a remedy made from the young leaf buds, which is to help those that do not learn from their mistakes. The remedy is supposed to help you pause and learn from your experiences, and not move on to the next experience too quickly.

Other Uses

Horse chestnut wood is not considered a strong timber, but it is pale with a very fine texture, which means wonderful carvings can be made from it. It may be ideal to make a wand from, but perhaps not strong enough for a staff or stave. You could also make runes from slices of a horse chestnut branch, as the symbols would be easy to carve into the wood, and if you were burning the symbols into the runes, the burnt marks would stand out really well against the pale wood.

The Witch’s Kitchen

I remember reading a lovely children’s tale when I was little, where the protagonist makes a wish whilst holding a small branch of horse chestnut, and places it in a drawer for a month. When she comes back to the drawer, the branch has moved by itself, which means her wish is going to come true.

The ‘horsiness’ of the horse chestnut refers to the scar left when a leaf breaks away or falls from the branch, which looks like a tiny horseshoe. One can use this association with horses to link the tree to Epona, the great mare, a goddess widely associated with equine beasts.

Still presuming this association with horses, we could also say this tree represents Macha, who is also connected with horses, particularly grey horses. It is worth noting that Macha is a very complex goddess and figure in Celtic mythology, and not all her iterations are connected to horses, so use this connection wisely and only as needed.

In hoodoo, conkers or ‘buckeye nuts’ are carried in a man’s pants pockets to increase his sexual prowess, or luck with sexual encounters. They are also used in mojo bags to help with or ward off arthritis, rheumatism and migraines, which may be ties back to the anti-inflammatory properties we discussed before.

In other folklore snippets, the conker is used as part of a good luck charm, to stave off chills, and even to ward against hemorrhoids!

For me, the conker will always be a symbol of the fall; the ultimate note that although summer has left us, here are these beautiful, glossy gifts that will one day become leafy, graceful trees.

Home and Hearth

Chestnuts take many years to mature, and are a great symbol of patience and ‘all good things come to those who wait’.

If you are struggling with things not moving on as fast as you would like, and have no way to change this, you can instead try and change your mindset.

Find two horse chestnut seeds, as big and glossy as you can. Try not to pick seeds that have been partially eaten or are rotten. They should be left to return to the ground and become part of the earth again.

Find a safe space, where you won’t be disturbed. Light a candle if possible, and focus on the flame while you relax your breathing. Once you are relaxed, hold one of your conkers in each hand. Focus on the smooth, wooden texture. Focus on how solid and unchanging they seem. Realise how small they are, that each one can fit neatly in your palm.

Now picture a horse chestnut tree in your mind (here is an image to help you). Think about how big this tree is. How majestic. How powerful, bending in strong winds but never breaking, always growing.

Realise that this enormous tree came from something identical to one of the little conkers you hold in your hand. Meditate on how everything happens in its own time, and that the horse chestnut is proof that, with persistence, goals will be achieved.

After your meditation, relax, drink some water and eat some food to ground out.

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Image credit: Sannse via Wikimedia.org

I Never Knew…

In some countries, horse chestnuts are actually used as food for horses!

Mabh Savage is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.

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