Herbal

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

    • Herbal

  • 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.

    Notes from the Apothecary

    September, 2016

    Notes from the Apothecary: Maple

    Maple

     

    How beautiful the maple tree is. Also known as acers (from the Latin for sharp, due to the points on the leaves), maples range from small shrubs to 45-metre-high trees, are spread all over the world and although can be evergreen, are normally renowned for their spectacular colour show in the fall. The picture to the left is a collection of autumn leaves my boy and I collected a couple of years ago. As you can see, the maple leaves (from Norway maples) are very prominent in the display.

    Well known as the symbol of Canada, and also the state tree of Vermont and Wisconsin, the maple is surely familiar to all, if only for the archetypal ‘hand’ shape of the leaf.

    The Kitchen Garden

    In the restaurant of trees, maple is the dessert menu, for sure. The sap is used to make a wonderful, ridiculously sweet and tasty syrup, which graces pancakes the world over. It takes 40 litres of sap to make one litre of maple syrup! The syrup is also made into sugar and candy.

    Native Americans produces maple syrup and maple sugar well before Europeans arrived on the scene. The process was quite ritualised, with the first full moon of spring being named the Sugar Mon, and being a time for dancing and celebration.

    The Apothecary

    The Native Americans didn’t just use the maple for its sweet sap. They also used the bark to make a wash for sore eyes.

    The maple leaf is also said to have a sedative effect, and to make a useful tonic for anxiety or depression. It is also used for treating ailments of the liver and spleen. There is no scientific evidence to back this up, unfortunately.

    Other Uses

    The inner bark can be boiled to produce dyes. The red maple produces a purple colour, which with sulphates added can be made into black ink.

    The timber is widely used, but one of the most fascinating uses is for musical instrument. Maple is known as a tone wood, which means it carries soundwaves well; it has a useful harmonic resonance. Fender guitars have often been made with maple necks.

    The Witch’s Kitchen

    Maple syrup may be used as a substitute for honey in offerings and other magic.

    The maple leaf is often used as an emblem in military regalia, and the wood has historically been used for rifle stocks. This gives the tree a militant aspect, useful in magic where you have to resolve a conflict, or brace yourself for a confrontation. The maple represents strength, especially in the face of adversity.

    Think of the way the flowers and then the seeds get into everything! They represent tenacity and opportunity.

    The wood is strong and useful for wands and staffs.

    The leaves transform from verdant green to glowing gold and red throughout the year. They are perfectly symbolic of the wheel of the year and the transforming seasons, and make an awesome altar decoration.

    The maple tree is seen as feminine, and associated with the moon. Therefore, any moon magic may be enhanced with the use of maple leaves, seed or wood; even a piece of bark. Leave a maple wand in the light of the full moon to ‘charge’ it with lunar energy, in the same way you would a crystal.

    Home and Hearth

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    One of our favourite things to do is to make roses out of maple leaves. Find out how HERE.

    When picking maple leaves, the leaf should be attached to a stem which should easily come away from the main branch. These stems make it easy to string the leaves up to make a late summer or autumn garland, or even a crown or wreath.

    I Never Knew…

    The first literary mention of the maple is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, where it is written as ‘mapul’.

    Notes from the Apothecary

    April, 2016

    Notes from the Apothecary: Birch

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    Image: A silver birch from my own garden, hung with fat balls that feed birds and squirrels alike.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the birch the ‘Lady of the Woods’, and I am inclined to agree. I have always found this tree to have a very feminine presence. At a sacred wood that I visit from time to time, there is a crossroads of tracks and on one side there are great, old oaks, and on the other slender but gnarled, ancient birch trees. This place always feels like it is a meeting point for male and female energy. Not a point of balance exactly; more a point where diversity and differences are appreciated fully. The difference between light and dark; summer and winter; the roots deep in the ground and the topmost twigs touching the sky.

    When I recently moved house one of the selling points of this property was the lovely old birch pictured. You can’t tell from this image, but the tree is taller than the house and attracts squirrels and numerous birds. Magpies have been pulling the slenderest twigs off for nesting material, and the catkins have been disappearing too so I suppose these are food for someone! I can’t wait to see what the tree looks like fully clothed in green, as we move further into spring.

    The Kitchen Garden

    Of course not everyone has a birch tree growing in their back yard, but they are quite commonplace and easy enough to find. Birch isn’t a standard kitchen ingredient, however the sap of the tree does make a wonderful wine. The wine is classed as one of the most seasonal, because the period in which the sap can be tapped is approximately two weeks at the start of spring, one of the shortest foraging seasons around. The sap is boiled and mixed with sugar, then yeast is added as usual to start the fermentation.

    The Apothecary

    The chemical composition of birch sap makes it analgesic, anti-inflammatory and also a strong diuretic. In her Modern herbal, Mrs Grieves tells us that the young shoots and leaves are a good laxative. She also says an infusion of the leaves is useful for gout, rheumatism and dropsy (water retention). The oil of the bark, also known as birch tar, is a remedy for eczema. The inner bark is recommended for fever.

    Culpeper maintained the birch was a tree of Venus, reinforcing the femininity described above He recommended the sap for breaking up bladder and kidney stones, and also to soothe mouth ulcers.

    Other Uses

    Birch tar is used for waterproofing items, such as leather bottles and other containers. Birch wood is used for bobbins, staves, and a multitude of other items. The twigs are used for brooms and besoms, and even thatching.

    Birch wood is used to make some types of paper, and in India and Russia the bark was used as a medium for texts; some have been discovered intact, from as far back as the 13th century.

    The Witch’s Apothecary

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    Beith is the first letter in the Ogham alphabet, and means birch. The sign was used to warn Lugh of danger to his wife, and was also used to protect his wife. The source of this, Auraicept na n-Éces, also tells us that the first Ogham was cut into birch wood. Birch is therefore associated with knowledge, and the fixing of knowledge; the ability to pass words from one person to another- a very rare thing for Celtic peoples. From this tale we can also assume the powers of protection, prophecy and an association with family.

    If you are lucky enough to have a besom or broom made with birch twigs, sweeping the boundary of your property will ensure your space is protected and will brush away unwanted energies.

    The birch flowers before it grows leaves; dangling short, brown catkins which eventually carpet the ground beneath. This means it is one tree that seems alive in the very early spring, reinforcing the association it has garnered with new beginnings and renewal.

    Home and Hearth

    At this time of year, you may still be able to gather some birch catkins from the ground beneath a birch tree. They are about an inch long and brownish; nothing beautiful to look at! See if you can find a few, and use them at the east of your altar or sacred space. They represent the dawn of the new season, the return of the sun and your own new beginnings or a start of a new project.

    If you find a birch tree that already has some of the white, papery bark peeling off, finish the job and take home a little scroll of birch. Please, please don’t start peeling bark off trees unless it’s already practically hanging off. Trees need their bark and forcing the tree to part with the bark is disrespectful and damaging and will not help you in your magical endeavours.

    Use the papery scroll in your spell work. Write words of power, a name, a goal, an intent, or simply an emotion on the paper. Hold it in your hands or place it on your altar, either at north or east if evoking the power of the tree, or elsewhere if evoking other deities or spirits. Complete your spell by burying or burning the ‘scroll’, or keeping it in a pouch for a turn of the moon.

    I Never Knew…

    Apparently birch sap can also be used as a shampoo! Considering it contains quite a bit of sugar, that sounds like a sticky situation to me…

    Notes from the Apothecary

    March, 2016

    Notes from the Apothecary: Rowan

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    Image: ‘Flying’ Rowan at Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire, UK. Copyright Chris Gunns 2006 via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.

    As well as what we traditionally think of as herbs, every apothecary should be stocked with some other items. I’ve already spoken about bulbs such as garlic, and spices like cinnamon. Now I’d like to move on to the largest of our green cousins; the trees.

    I’ve chosen the Rowan, or mountain ash, as my first tree to explore as it is well known as a sacred and magical plant in many different cultures. I am most familiar with the Celtic tales of the Rowan tree, as it is a path of Celtic Witchcraft I follow. However, my favourite tale about the Rowan is actually from Greek mythology: that it grew from the blood of the eagle sent to retrieve the chalice of Hebe. This is why the leaves are the shape of feathers, and the berries (usually) blood red.

    The Kitchen Garden

    ‘But you can’t eat Rowan!’, I hear some of you cry. Well, OK, I don’t recommend it for the novice, but you can actually make a rather nice jelly out of the berries. You mustn’t eat the berries raw, and even when cooked it’s only the juice or the decoction of the fruit we want. Like rosehips, rowan berries have tiny fibres inside that are extremely irritant to our inner tubes, so they are not for chewing on!

    If you boil them up though, breaking them up slightly as they soften, then strain the liquid through muslin, the resulting ‘juice’ has a unique flavour that pairs very well with a pectin high fruit such as apples or pears.

    The Apothecary

    Our old friend Mrs Grieve tells us that both the bark and the berries have medicinal properties. She advises that a decoction of the bark may be given for diarrhoea and that it is also effective against vaginal infections. The ripe berries, she says, are useful for sore throats and inflamed tonsils. Again, I would warn against eating the berries due to the irritant nature of the seeds. I presume Mrs Grieve means for you to make an infusion of the berries, and strain it well.

    Rowan berries are also astringent which may make them useful against haemorrhoids.

    Rowan wood has been carried as a charm against rheumatism and the berries hung in a house to ward off flu. Although there’s no evidence to back up the medical claims here, the magical protectiveness of the tree is superb so perhaps this is where the healing comes from in these instances.

    Day to Day use

    Rowan wood is dense and tough and as such is used for staffs, staves and walking sticks. In Finland, it is used in farm tools and horse drawn sleds.

    The berries are also used in dyeing. The berries themselves contain the tannins which help the dye ‘set’, and when combined with the bark produce a dye which stains black. I can’t imagine any item of clothing more potent than a cloak or robe dyed black with rowan.

    The Witch’s Kitchen

    One of the plus points of Rowan is that any witch can use all parts of the tree; the leaves, the wood, the bark, the roots, the flowers and the berries.

    The wood makes an excellent wand, although of course don’t destroy any trees in order to find your perfect piece. Rowan trees are quite small generally and won’t be happy about having huge chunks torn off them. I tend to look for lucky windfalls after a gale. Rowan wood is an excellent protective wood, and wards off energies that seek to harm you. A rowan wand would make an excellent tool for cleansing and consecrating, especially a sacred space. The wood can also be carved, so you can personalise your creation without difficulty if you have the talent.

    The leaves have several uses. The type of leaf is ‘pinnate’, meaning ‘like a feather’. They remind us of the feathers of the eagle in Greek mythology, and so represent air and the realm of birds. They also symbolise courage, fighting for what is yours and retrieving lost items. They also symbolise earth (being part of a tree) and balance; just look at the symmetrical imagery in each leaf stem.

    The flowers also represent balance as they are hermaphroditic, meaning each flower is both male and female. It is self-contained and independent. The flowers are white, the colour of creatures beyond the veil, contrasting with the fruit which is generally bright red, the visceral colour of our flesh and blood existence.

    The bark is an ancient medicine and as such can symbolise knowledge, wisdom and healing. Grind it into an incense or place pieces on an altar to magnify the power of healing magic.

    The root is not widely used, but as a sacred tree that fell from the heavens to earth, the root symbolises the link between earth and sky, and we can go further and understand that as the root draws water from the earth into the tree, it is a link between earth, water and sky. It is reminiscent of the great world tree, Yggdrasil, in that it links all the realms, although Yggdrasil is a true ash, rather than a mountain ash.

    To complete the elemental quartet, the berries are our fire source. They are strongly associated with the sun, and so fire and the south. They remind us of passion, especially the passion to fight for what we believe in. They are attraction, desire, hunger and hunger fulfilled. They are the fruition of hopes and dreams. They are the driving force of ambition.

    Overall, all parts of the rowan tree will protect you and reflect negativity and unwanted magical advances.

    Throughout Celtic mythology the rowan tree is used again and again as a portent of magic or misdeed. The chariot of Mug Ruith, the blind druid of Munster, had axles made of rowan wood. Beguiling lips were described as ‘red as rowan berries’ in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. In The Siege of Knocklong, the druid Cith Rua tells Cormac a druidic fire must be made with rowan sticks. These are a tiny selection of the many references throughout what remains of the Celtic tales. If you need any convincing of the magic of the rowan tree, these stories are definitely the place to look.

    Home and Hearth

    rowan2

     

    Image: Rowanberries and leaves in Helsinki Finland. Copyright Jonik, 2004 via Wikimedia.

    At or around the autumn equinox, use a handful of rowan berries instead of a candle as your focus of meditation. If you pick them yourself, thank the tree and always leave a few berries for the birds to find. As well as feeding the birds, this helps spread the seeds so there will always be more Rowan trees.

    Relax, and breathe normally. Focus on the berries and let their image fill your mind. Other thoughts will come and go. This is normal, don’t try not to think other thoughts as this is counterproductive. Just let the thoughts slide through your mind and either dismiss them or agree to return to them later.

    If you find your eyes sliding shut, try visualise the berries in your mind. Remember their vivid colour, their perfect form and their smooth skin. Try to recall any flaws or pocks, and notice how this only makes them more gorgeous and vibrant.

    As you dwell on the image of the berries, you may find other images popping into your head. Follow these images wherever they may take you.

    When you leave the meditative state, breathe normally for a while, drink some water, and make a record of the images and thoughts that came to you. These will normally be of significance moving into the darker part of the year, and if you can’t interpret them right now, you will usually find clarity will come by Samhain. In times of stress, close your eyes and remember the perfect, round globes of the berries and how you felt when you were focused on them. Allow this peace and stillness to fill you, and push out the anxiety and worry.

    I Never Knew…

    Rowan berries apparently make an excellent wine! I look forward to testing this theory later in the year… Watch this space!

    Notes from the Apothecary

    February, 2016

    Notes from the Apothecary: Lovage

    It is an herb of the Sun, under the sign of Taurus. (Culpeper, 17th Century).

    lovage

     

    Lovage is a tall, beautiful, leafy herb in the same family as Angelica and carrots. Similar in aroma to celery, this herb is just as edible if not as popular in our modern kitchens. It is native to Europe and Asia, so may be harder to find in the Americas, however you can certainly buy seeds online to grow your own. The name may originally have been ‘love-ache’, which actually means ‘Love Parsley’, which is understandable as the leaves have a similar shape and smell to flat leafed parsley. The ‘love’ part is simply an Anglicisation of the original Latin name, Levisticum, which may be derived from ligusticum, which means ‘Of Liguria’, a place in the north of Italy where the herb was prolific.

    Lovage may have an emmenagogue effect (may encourage bleeding from the uterus) so please don’t use when pregnant or trying to conceive.

    The Kitchen Garden

    The first thing you have to think about when growing Lovage is ‘Do I have room for this?’ as the stuff gets massive! Growing up to 72 inches tall, it has a wide spread of up to 32 inches so needs a good bit of space. It also needs sandy or loamy soil, so might struggle in claggy, clay filled soils. It needs to be started indoors, and can be moved outdoors once there is no risk of frost. You could keep lovage as a ‘cut and come again’ plant on the window sill, but you’d miss the opportunity to harvest the thicker stems that can be used like celery, and even the roots can be used once the leaves have started to die back.

    Lovage leaves make an excellent, flavoursome addition to a salad, or as a stuffing for meat and poultry. Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall raves about the stuff, recommending it mixed with summer veg, scrambled eggs, new potatoes and all manner of soups.

    The seeds and roots have been used in the flavouring of candies and sweets.

    In Joanna Asala’a Celtic Folklore Cooking we learn that the roots and seeds of lovage were often used as a substitute for pepper, to add a piquancy to dishes.

    The roots can be cooked like potatoes, in stews or casseroles. This is truly a diverse culinary plant.

    The Apothecary

    Culpeper tells us lovage is the remedy for sore throats, poor digestion and ‘gripe’ (bad or trapped wind). He noted that it ‘mightily provokes women’s courses’ which rings true with the modern research that tells us lovage stimulates the uterus.

    Culpeper also noted that dropping a decoction of the herb into the eyes removed redness and dimness, however I wouldn’t recommend this without more modern advice!

    Mrs Grieve’s Modern

    • Herbal

  • tells us that the herb was widely used in the 14th century, predating Culpeper’s works. It seemed it was taken as a general ‘cure all’. She advised the herb has a carminative action, and especially useful in dealing with colic in children.

    The Lab

    Modern research backs up the use of lovage as a ‘GI’ drug (gastro-intestinal) as the herb gently encourages natural processes such as saliva production and gastric juice production, improving digestion.

    Lab tests also proved that lovage can dissolve phlegm in the respiratory tract. There are also reports of the plant having sedative and diuretic effects.

    The Witch’s Kitchen

    Any reputation lovage has as an aphrodisiac or love tonic is purely a case of mistaken identity. As mentioned previously, ‘Love Parsley’ actually meant ‘Parsley from Liguria’, and it was because the English mistakenly included the word ‘love’ that people assumed the herb would be useful for love potions. In other words, the name came before the use!

    Asala tells us that lovage was brought to Celtic lands by the Romans, and that travellers would place the leaves in their shoes to relieve fatigue.

    The stem is hollow and you could use this to represent a pipe or musical instrument on your altar.

    As an herb of the Sun, you could also use the leaves or flowers to represent the cardinal direction of south, or the element of fire.

    As expected with these correspondences, the herb is masculine so bear this in mind if using in incense or poppets. I always try and balance my concoctions, unless I am going for something that is particularly masculine or feminine.

    Home and Hearth

    To bring balance to a volatile situation:

    Pick fresh lovage leaves if possible. If not, use some dried seed. Tear the leaves or sprinkle the seed into a metal, pot or glass bowl. Add to the lovage about the same amount of jasmine, either fresh or dried. I like to use the dried flowers, which I order from my friendly online herbalist.

    Stir the mixture deosil (sunwise/clockwise) with your finger chanting

    Male and female

    Sun and moon

    Bring me peace

    And balance soon.

    Repeat this several times until the words and the aroma of the herbs fill your mind. As your mind begins to calm, visualise the outcome to the situation you want. Thank the herbs and any spirits or deities you may have involved.

    You can repeat this as often as you like until the herbs lose their potency. This is either when they lose their aroma, or when there has been a full cycle of the moon.

    I Never Knew…

    Lovage was eaten by the Scandinavian people most now refer to as Vikings, and is even thought to be a favourite herb of Lofn, handmaiden of Frigga.

    Notes from the Apothecary

    January, 2016

    Notes from the Apothecary: Chives

     

    Chive

     

    I love chives. They are so easy to grow in the kitchen garden, and the glorious purple globes are somehow magically supported by the slender, green stems that we love to eat. Chives grow all over North America, Europe, Asia and Australia and are easily cultivated. They are the only member of the onion family that spans the globe east to west. Like most flowers that have colours approaching the ultra-violet end of the light spectrum, they attract a huge array of butterflies. They also attract bees, so even if you never pick a single chive stem, you are helping the environment by growing chives.

    The Kitchen Garden

    Chives are immediately useful to any gardener as they repel certain annoying pests. Plant them around your carrots, as they are known to repel the dreaded carrot fly as well as damaging aphids.

    Chives are closely related to onions, and have a flavour that is similar yet understated; much more subtle. It is like an echo of a sweet onion, warm and gentle. They are wonderful simply torn and tossed into salads, or chopped finely and added to pasta, stir fries and even milder curries. I can often be found simply munching the things straight out of the garden. Seriously yummy.

    I found an amazing tip at This Website, which is to finely chop chives, put them in ice cube trays then top up with olive oil or melted butter. Once frozen, they will keep for ages, and can be popped straight into a warm pan to start of a pasta sauce or similar. Nice! Thanks to Mystical Magical Herbs for the tip.

    The Apothecary

    Chives are basically a milder form of garlic when it comes to medicinal usage. This makes them very useful when treating someone who has a sensitivity to the strong oils in garlic, or a mild allergy. I would always recommend seeking advice from a professional though if this is the reason you are making the substitution.

    Chives are very good for the circulation, and need only be consumed regularly in food to have a beneficial effect. They also have a mildly antiseptic quality, so potentially a chive tea would make a good mouthwash to help prevent the onset of a throat infection, for example. They have, in the past, been used to treat intestinal parasites, however this is not a proven remedy.

    The Lab

    Like many other herbs used as ‘alternative’ (I prefer the term complementary) medicine, chives have had numerous scientific studies done on them to see how effective they really are. Sadly, as far as I can see, all these studies have come back with the answer ‘further study required’; the phrase that tends to make funding go out of the window. However, there is preliminary evidence from China to suggest that chives and other aliums may be useful in the fight against prostate cancer.

    The Witch’s Kitchen

    Chives can be used as a substitute for onion in most circumstances. Let’s face it; sometimes chopping an onion for a spell is neither pleasant or practical. If you were to place a half onion in the corner of a room for spiritual cleansing, why not try a bunch of chives instead? With the right intent and follow up the green herb will be just as effective. Just remember to remove the stems when they are dry and withered, as they are of no use then.

    I have read in a few places that chives are good for weight loss. Um, I have no idea where this comes from, other than the fact that supplementing anything not herby and green in your diet, with something that is, is obviously going to have positive health benefits. Chowing down on chives will not make you into a supermodel, I’m afraid. Plus I really can’t recommend using magic for weight loss. If you need to lose weight for health reasons, discuss this with your doctor. If you feel like you need to lose weight for self-image reasons, then maybe you need to re-examine your relationship with yourself as a whole, and find a way to love yourself. In most cases, if you are unhappy with yourself, changing the way you look on the outside rarely helps. If you are healthy and happy, then weight is just a number.

    Chives, like their larger cousins, are also used for protection. A small bunch hung inside a door can prevent unwanted people or energy from passing your threshold.

    Chives also represent balance, achieving the difficult or seemingly impossible, connecting with nature, home and hearth and the fluidity of time, in particular the way the past affects the future. They can therefore be used to enhance divination or fortune telling magic.

    Home and Hearth

    If you have ritual work to do and want to keep a space just for yourself and your chose visitors, hang bunches of chives at each quarter corner of the room. This will ward off unwanted energies and allow the space to me more attune with your intentions.

    When creating a sacred space such as an altar for the first time, use 5 chive stems to make a pentagram in the centre of the space. Lay the chives slowly, thinking all the while of the protective nature of the plant, and the qualities of the point upwards pentagram; all the elements combined, with spirit in control. This is appropriate as this is your space, and you need to be the boss!

    I Never Knew…

    Chives made it into Roman poetry, with this little bit of wit from Marcus Valerius Martialis from around 100CE:

    He who bears chives on his breath

    Is safe from being kissed to death.

    Notes from the Apothecary

    December, 2015

    Notes from the Apothecary: Cloves

    As we move into the darkest part of the year I want to focus on a spice that brings joy and warmth into the home. Though they are just little brown spikes, the heady scent and flavour of cloves instantly conjures up images of winter festivity. Combine this with citrusy flavours like lemon and orange and you have a veritable indoor winter wonderland.

    Cloves are actually flower buds, and it seems fitting that they are often used in winter as the tree they spring from is evergreen.

    The Kitchen Garden

    Cloves are a vital component in many different cuisines. In the west, we tend to consign it to the bakery; cakes, breads and buns of all kinds use ‘mixed spice’ which normally contains a small amount of clove, along with nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander. Cloves are considered an additive to ‘sweet’ foods, and at this time of year that repertoire is extended to include orange pomanders, mulled wine and other treats.

    However, in eastern and African cookery, cloves aren’t just on the dessert menu. Cloves, along with cinnamon and other spices we may consider ‘sweet’, are used to flavour curries, tagines, savoury breads, stir fries and many other hearty and wholesome meals.

    Cloves are strong, containing large amounts of eugenol; the oil that makes them smell so amazing. Use sparingly in your cooking. Remember, you can always add more, but you can’t take it away once it’s in there!

    The Apothecary

    One of the most common uses for clove oil to this day is for toothache. Most chemists still sell clove oil, and the idea is to rub some on your gum to help ease the pain. This is a recognised remedy, as the active chemical, eugenol, is anti-inflammatory and antiseptic, making it ideal for use in the mouth. This use in the mouth apparently dates back to at least 226BC, when Chinese officials would chew cloves before appearing before the emperor, to mask their bad breath and avoid offending royalty.

     

    The Lab

    Science has taken the traditional use of clove oil for toothache, and enhanced it for even further applications in the field of dentistry. When eugenol is combined with zinc oxide, it becomes a material that is now used for root canal sealing.

    Eugenol has also been used to reduce harmful bacteria in food, and can even kill cancer cells in the colon.

    The same chemical, believe it or not, is also used to attract bees and beetles for study, particularly orchid bees, and is also used in some types of mouse trap. It can even be used as an anaesthetic for aquarium fish.

    Eugenol can be damaging to the liver in larger quantities. Allergic reactions are rare but you should always approach the use of any chemical with caution. Just because something is natural doesn’t always mean it is good! If you are going to use clove oil on yourself please test a tiny amount on a non-sensitive bit of skin, or simply consult a doctor first.

    The Witch’s Kitchen

    The aforementioned pomander was given in Victorian times as a gift that indicated affection, so it’s no surprise that cloves are actually considered an aphrodisiac. When tested on male rats, it was discovered that cloves could potentially reduce the ‘recovery time’ after intercourse. This doesn’t necessarily translate into human biology, but I’m sure there are those willing to experiment!

    Cloves are generally considered masculine, and do actually increase testosterone levels when eaten regularly. They are associated with fire, and the planet Jupiter, so you can work this into your spells and offerings as you see fit.

    Cloves are seen as protective. They have the double whammy of keeping you and what you love safe whilst keeping nasties away, and the crafty moment in the next section utilises those properties well.

    Home and Hearth

    I mentioned the orange pomander earlier. It really is a lovely thing to make; both practical and beautiful. You can keep it to scent your own house, or give it as a gift. If your winter tree is robust enough, it even makes a great decoration.

    Simply take a large orange, and push cloves into it in an appealing (no pun intended) pattern. You can then simply place the orange somewhere attractive, or use a ribbon to decorate it further and to allow it to be hung somewhere.

    Add a little magic to your pomander by imbuing each clove press with a good intention. Think of a goal you want to fulfil as the nights grow shorter, after the solstice. Focus on it as you feel the clove piercing the flesh of the juicy orange. Feel your desire flowing into the universe, just like the aromatic clove oil seeping into the fruity flesh.

     

    Or you could chant as you place the cloves:

    Tropical flower, hard as nails

    Come by air and come by sails

    Fill my house with joy and love

    As below, also above.

    This reinforces the protective and positive power of the cloves, while cementing your own intent and will.

    Image source: http://bit.ly/1Mw2lL8

    I Never Knew…

    In Indonesia, cloves are smoked in cigarettes called kretek. These have been smoked all across the globe but are now banned in the US. Although today kretek look just like any other cigarette, just a hundred years ago they were made of wrapped banana leaves and included nutmeg and cumin, as well as the ever present clove.

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