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Notes from the Apothecary

January 1st, 2018

Notes from the Apothecary: artichoke

 

 

January is an odd sort of month, past the solstice but not yet at Imbolc; deep in the heart of winter where the promise of the sun’s return sounds like a distant whisper. In keeping with the oddness of the month, I thought it would be appropriate to look at a plant which is extremely odd indeed: the artichoke. The name artichoke is used for two distinctively different types of plant. One is the Jerusalem artichoke; a sort of knobbly, potato like root which is very tasty and nutritious. However, for this month’s notes, I will be examining the globe artichoke, as far from a root as it is possible to be, as it is the flower of the plant.

The Kitchen Garden

One of my favourite things about visiting our allotment is getting to see what other folk are growing. The first summer when I saw one of our neighbour’s artichokes in full bloom, it took my breath away. Having seen artichokes only in a can or in the grocery store, I was not prepared for the sheer beauty of these extraordinary flowers.

The artichoke is actually a type of thistle, but the artichoke blooms are to the thistle flowers what a lobster is to the tiniest shrimp; huge, extravagant and an entirely different beast altogether.

The seventeenth century almanac by Markham suggests artichokes should be sowed in March, just after the full moon, when the moon is on the wane.

The Apothecary

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the artichoke was, during the 16th century in Italy, reserved for men as it enhanced sexual prowess. Across Europe, the vegetable was renowned for its aphrodisiac qualities, even by royalty; Henry the Eighth supposedly consumed vast quantities of artichokes.

In Turkey, it is believed that a decoction of artichoke will cleanse the blood and the liver, thus improving the skin. It’s possible that the effect on the liver may be backed up by science, as artichokes contain silymarin, a phytochemical which can be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of liver disease.

Other uses include as a diuretic, as a digestion aid and as an antioxidant.

Folklore

A legend of the Sioux people tells of an artichoke and a muskrat. Both are proud, and try and outdo each other with tales of how yearned for they are by humans. The artichoke appears to win the contest by boasting how people will eat his flowers without even cleaning the dirt off first! The tale’s purpose seems to be to teach the qualities of both the animal and the plant, and their usefulness to mankind, or perhaps more keenly, why mankind should admire them.

The Witch’s Kitchen

 

 

Some sources suggest the artichoke is a plant of Venus, perhaps due to it’s aphrodisiacal qualities. It is also associated with fertility, unsurprisingly! An alternative view is quite the opposite, stating that the artichoke is a vegetable ruled by Mars, due to its thorny nature. The plant itself is actually a hermaphrodite, so I guess go with whatever feels comfortable for you.

The artichoke is also associated with protection, so can be used in warding and exorcisms, and laid at the boundaries of your home. The artichoke is particularly useful at driving out demons, and even banishing bad moods.

The plant also represents courage in the face of adversity; facing your fears and standing up for what you believe in.

The plant can also be a symbol of things not being what they seem, or a sign that you should look at something again. Artichokes change the flavour of the next thing you eat by chemically altering your taste buds temporarily; also, they look like spiky, armoured beasts, then produce the most delicate and flamboyant of flowers. They are transformative and deceptive, and remind us that we are all multi-faceted beings, with many skills and many aspects to our character.

In sympathetic magic, peeling away the layers of an artichoke represents working your way to the heart of a problem. You can do this either physically or in a visualisation or meditation.

Seeing an artichoke in a dream can mean you are stifling your own creativity somehow, and that you need to release your own potential. They can also represent wealth and luxury.

Home and Hearth

For the courage to speak out: take a globe artichoke, a whole raw one either from a grocery store or one you have grown yourself. Find a comfortable place to sit and think of the problem at hand. Imagine what you would say if you had the courage. Start to say each of these sentences out loud, and each time you do, tear or cut a leaf from the artichoke. A sharp pair of kitchen scissors is best as they can be tough; take care not to cut yourself! If they are too tough to cut, then mark them with a pen or pencil, or a piece of charcoal. Imagine yourself as tough skinned as the artichoke; whatever is thrown at you, you can handle, and you will still eventually bloom as beautifully as the artichoke.

Keep repeating the sentences you wish you could say, and keep cutting or marking the artichoke. Once the artichoke is completely defaced, gather the parts together or simply hold the plant and thank it for its strength and courage. Bury the dismembered or disfigured plant or compost it if possible, that way it is giving its nutrients back to the soil. Pour a little water on the ground with the wish that the earth may never hunger or thirst.

I Never Knew…

A close cousin of the artichoke is the cardoon, another thistle, but instead of the flowers being eaten, the stems are blanched and used like celery.

Image credits: An Artichoke in bloom, copyright Little Mountain 5 2009, via Wikimedia Commons; Artichoke in bloom, copyright Unukorno 2015, via Wikimedia Commons.

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About the Author:

 

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.

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

For Amazon information, click images below.

 

Follow Mabh on TwitterFacebook and her blog.

 

Notes from the Apothecary: Pumpkin

 

 

It’s that magical time of year again, where anything that can be fragranced or flavoured seems to take on the aroma of a combination of vanilla and pumpkin, with the emphasis on the sweetness of this gorgeous gourd. But why do we revere the pumpkin at this time of year? The answer comes from Irish Celtic history, and the seasonal nature of the fruit (yes, it’s a fruit!) itself.

 

The Kitchen Garden

Although the pumpkin, like other squashes, originated in North America, it can now be found all over the world. It’s classed as a ‘winter squash’ due to the fruits ripening around autumn and winter time. This is one of the main reasons it is so widely in use throughout Samhain and into the Thanksgiving and Christmas/Yule periods.

 

The fabulous thing about pumpkins is that so much of the plant is edible. You have probably eaten the flesh at some point, either in pies, soup or puddings. You may even have eaten pumpkin seeds, which are tasty roasted and salted or used in baked goods such as bread. But did you know you can even eat the flowers of pumpkins? The only downside to this is, if you eat a pumpkin flower, it cannot then be pollinated and grow into a pumpkin!

 

In Korea and some parts of Africa, even the leaves are eaten. In Zambia, they are boiled and mixed with groundnut paste.

 

Pumpkin is great in sweet or savoury food, and can be combined with other squashes easily. A touch of chilli adds a fiery zing, and other warming spices such as cinnamon transform a very earthy plant into a symbol of fire.

 

Growing pumpkins requires a good bit of space, and although you can start them off indoors, they really need moving outside onto a large pile of compost where they can spread out. We only grow our squashes on the allotment, as there simply isn’t room in the garden; not if we want to have space for anything else!

 

The Apothecary

Because the pumpkin was only discovered upon the exploration of North America, some of the older herbals don’t cover it in great depth. In Mrs Grieves’ Modern Herbal, she lumps the pumpkin in with watermelon, although she does clearly state that it is a very different plant. She says the pumpkin is sometimes known as the melon pumpkin, or ‘millions’; a term which has certainly gone out of fashion today.

 

She states that in combination with other seeds such as melon, cucumber and gourd (Grieves cites this as cucurbita maxima, a south American squash), an emulsion can be formed which is effective for catarrh, bowel problems and fever. She also tells us that melon and pumpkin seeds are good worm remedies, even for tapeworm.

 

For our furry friends, high-fibre pumpkin can be added to the diet of cats or dogs to aid digestion. It is also sometimes fed to poultry to keep up egg production during the colder months. Always speak to your vet before changing your pet’s or livestock’s diet.

 

The Witch’s Kitchen

 

 

Pumpkins appear throughout folklore and fairy tales, often in themes of transformation. Think of Cinderella, whisked off to her ball in a coach which only a few minutes before was a giant pumpkin. The pumpkin is a symbol of our hearts’ desires, travelling towards our goals and the transformation of dreams into reality.

 

We mustn’t forget that the coach turned back into the pumpkin at midnight! This reminds us to enjoy what we have while we have it, to grasp the opportunities in front of us as we never know when they might disappear.

 

A piece of pumpkin or pumpkin seeds on your altar represents autumn moving into winter, the final harvest and goals of self-sufficiency; whether literally through living off the land and growing your own food, or through honing your passion into a craft that can support you.

 

I will have pumpkin seeds at north in my sacred space, to remind me of all the ‘seeds’ I have planted this year which I hope will grow into greater things even through the cold months; ideas for songs and poems, research into my ‘magical birds’ book, and plans to save money in preparation for our new baby. These are my seeds, and I need to nurture them. Just like the pumpkin, they need care, attention and feeding! Pumpkins need compost, sunshine and water, whereas my ideas need hard work, time and commitment.

 

Home and Hearth

The archetypal ‘Jack O’ Lantern’ most likely comes from the Irish and Scottish Celts, who would have carved a face into a turnip or swede, placed a light within and used this as an amulet to ward off evil spirits, or possibly as a guiding light for ancestral or guardian spirits. When colonists came to America carrying these traditions with them, they found the larger and softer pumpkin; a much better vehicle for the carved totems! And so the pumpkin became the new guiding light of Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve and eventually, Hallowe’en.

 

It’s only the seeds that you need to remove from a pumpkin in order to leave a space for the light inside, and you can keep a few of these seeds to try and cultivate your own plants next year. If you are able to do this (and I appreciate not everyone has the space to grow a pumpkin plant- they are quite large!) this will create a cyclical connection between this year’s and next year’s magic, cementing continuity and your own connection to the turning season.

 

If this simply isn’t practical, keep a few of the seeds on your altar or in a sacred space, as a reminder of the different stages of life reflected in the changing seasons.

 

If you scrape some of the flesh out as well as the seeds, keep this and cook with it at Samhain. You are making the most of your pumpkin, using as much of it as you can to avoid waste, and you are connecting your magical lantern to your Samhain feasting.

 

The lantern can be placed in a window, or on a doorstep if it is safe to do so. If you use a naked flame such as a candle or tealight, please be aware of animals and children, especially during trick-or-treating! The last thing you want is some small child setting themselves on fire or spilling hot wax on themselves. A great alternative is one of those LED candles which you can now pick up very cheaply.

 

 

 

 

The lantern guards your space, keeping away unwanted visitors, and guiding your ancestral spirits to where they need to be, including back beyond the veil once the period of Samhain has passed.

 

I Never Knew…

The word ‘pumpkin’ originates from the Greek word pepon, which means ‘large melon’, which may explain how it sometimes ends up under the melon section in older herbals!

 

Image credits: Pumpkins Hancock Shaker Village, public domain; Photograph of a homegrown pumpkin species, “Atlantic Giant”, (cucurbita maxima), copyright Ude 2009 via Wikimedia; Nathan looking at Jack O’ Lantern display in Benalmadena, copyright 2016 Mabh Savage.

 

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About the Author:

 

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet 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 TwitterFacebook and her blog.

 


 

Notes from the Apothecary: Hawthorn

apothercary1

What would May be without May Blossom? The sweet yet pungent, delicate creamy petals that appear as if from nowhere; a pale messenger of summer’s imminent return. Since I was a little girl we have brought hawthorn flowers, or May Blossom, into the house at or around Beltane, of course always asking the trees permission, and thanking it for its gift. The smell would hover around our hearth for days, and the resulting bare branches once the blossom had died would be burnt on the next bonfire.

Hawthorn has more folklore surrounding it that any tree I know, and is particularly mentioned in Celtic and Faerie mythology. The Eildon tree; by which Thomas the Rhymer met the Queen of Elfland and thus vanished into the hollow hills, is supposed to have been a hawthorn, and indeed hawthorn trees are often found at the boundaries of things. They mark the edges of fields, the end of one person’s land and the beginning of the next, and they mark the edges of the world, where the veil is thin and we can step through and see beyond the mundane.

The Kitchen Garden

Hawthorn is readily available in most temperate climates, and need not be cultivated in a garden unless required as a hedgerow, which is its primary agricultural use. Cunningham tells us that once upon a time witches would have had hawthorn hedgerows. I find this a touch fanciful, but agree that a hawthorn hedge for a witch’s garden would be absolutely perfect.

The main part of the plant that is used for culinary purposes is the berry, or the haw. Don’t eat the haws whole and raw, as there are tiny fibres that can upset the digestive tract, and there is very high concentration of tannin which can also cause problems.

The berries can be cooked and used in a variety of ways though, including jelly, jam (in the UK jam and jelly are not the same thing!) and ketchup.

My friend makes an amazing apple, chilli and hawthorn jelly which is just delicious. The benefit of using the haws is they are packed with nutrients. For more ideas have a quick google, but I found plenty to be going on with here.

Apparently hawthorn wine is a thing, and will be investigated later in the year…

If you have any sort of heart condition, you must speak to your doctor before consuming hawthorn because…

The Apothecary

…hawthorn literally increases the amount of blood pumped out of the heart, widens blood vessels and increases nerve transmission. It can also lower blood pressure which, while usually a good thing, may be problematic for some.

Further research has indicated hawthorn may have positive impact on cholesterol, lowering the LDL which is commonly known as ‘bad cholesterol’.

Going back in time to 1931, Mrs Grieve wrote that ‘Both flowers and berries are astringent and useful in decoction to cure sore throats.’ She also concurred that the plant was a great ‘cardiac tonic’.

Hawthorn berries have also been used as a remedy for indigestion, diarrhoea, stomach cramps and even anxiety, although I imagine the anxiety relief may be a symptomatic relief i.e. if suffering palpitations or similar, the hawthorn would help regulate these.

Once more, please do not take without consulting a doctor.

The Lab

The sweet smell of may blossom is so sweet and sickly at times, it reminds you of rotting flesh. This is because the chemical trimethylamine is present in the petals, and this is one of the first chemicals found in decaying animal tissue. So if you feel that the hawthorn has associations with death and the underworld, there is an actual, scientific reason for this!

Hawthorn wood is extremely hard, and has many uses, including making parts for boats. In this way, it transcends earth, sea and sky.

Because of the dense nature of the wood, it burns at very high temperatures so is good for campfires on a cold night!

The Witch’s Kitchen

For me, hawthorn is the ultimate liminal plant. It is all about boundaries, edges, the moment before transformation, anticipation, pause, balance and reflection.

I love that hawthorn blossoms at Beltane, because for me, Beltane is the Celtic fire festival of the start of summer; the light part of the year. It is half a turn away from Samhain, and as such, just like at Samhain, the veil is thin and we walk side by side with our ancestors. The hawthorn tree reminds us of the liminal nature of Beltane; that we have one foot in winter and one in summer; one in this world and one in the next.

Hawthorn is useful when doing any work that demands a cross over into other realms. Dream work, work with the ancestors, divine meditation and path-working will all benefit from the boundary guarding attributes of this sacred tree. Any activity where your body needs to stay grounded whilst your mind, spirit or energy wanders; these are the activities where a hawthorn wand, hawthorn blossom or even the berries can be beneficial.

Hawthorn is associated with the roman goddess Cardea, who is the goddess of the hinge, literally that by which doors open. Cardea has two compatriot deities; Forculus, the deity of doors and Limentinus, the guardian of thresholds, whose name shares the same roots as the term ‘liminal’. These deities, and the tree itself, remind us that many actions may be required for one thing to happen. The door is nothing without the hinge, and cannot exist without the threshold. These gods were particularly involved in the marking out of boundaries and sacred spaces, so a hawthorn wand or staff is absolutely ideal for these purposes.

Hawthorn lives at the hub of all the elements. Like most trees, it is born of earth, watered, lit by sun and reaches for the sky. But because hawthorn is a boundary guardian, it has great power in all the elements. If I had to choose one element I would associate it most strongly with, it would be fire, due to the time of its blossoming. However, I would also suggest that different parts of the tree can be used for different elements: The red berries for fire, the white flowers for air, the leaves for water and the branches for earth. This is my own personal interpretation, and I encourage you to find how the tree works for you best, perhaps by spending time in the woods or by holding part of the tree while meditating.

The Celts used Hawthorn to determine whether a File (a bard or satirist) had spoken ill of a king or leader. The File would face the kingdom with a hawthorn tree at their back. They would hold a piece of the tree in one hand, and a stone in the other, and speak words from their poem or satire aloud. They would then place the wood and stone beneath the tree, and if their words were false, the ground would swallow the offerings.

As such, hawthorn is associated with the power of words, justice, clear judgement, honesty and natural magic of all kinds.

Home and Hearth

apothercary2

If you celebrate Beltane, why not crown a May Queen with a wreath of the blossom? Use wire or similar to make a rough circle the right size, then weave blossoms into the frame, using thread or string if necessary to keep them in place. The crown won’t last long, but neither do the blossoms on the trees, and neither does summer. It reminds us that the world and the seasons are ever changing, and to grab opportunities when they arise, and not let them pass by.

In late summer, gather some of the berries and use them to represent south or fire on your altar or in your sacred space. Always leave plenty of berries on the tree though, as they are a vital food for birds, particularly song birds, including the pictured robin, and the blackbird, lon dubh, who is also a guardian at the gates to the Otherworld.

I Never Knew…

‘Thorn’ in a place name (e.g. Thornhill) refers to the hawthorn tree. As such, there are more English place names with this tree in than any other, and the hawthorn is the most frequently mentioned tree in Anglo-Saxon boundary charters.

Image credits: Top, CRATAEGUS MONOGYNA – AGUDA by Isidre Blanc via Wikimedia Commons. Bottom, Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Daventry Country Park by David Merrett via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes from the Apothecary: Snowdrop

 

snowdrop

 

 

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!

 

 

snowdrop2

 

 

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.

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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: 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: Mistletoe

A poisonous parasite by nature, yet revered throughout history as sacred and mystical, mistletoe (viscum) is a strange plant that exists only via the bodies of other plants, mainly trees. Viscum album is the most widely recognised form of mistletoe, and often appears latched on to the oak tree, making a pairing that is very significant within the Druidic path.

Several 18th century paintings depict druids cutting or having cut mistletoe, which refers to the account by Pliny the Elder of the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe which involved Gaulish druids climbing an oak on the sixth day after a new moon, and cutting the mistletoe away with a golden sickle. The image Pliny created of white robed magicians preparing a ritual sacrifice in honour of their sacred plants has become an intrinsic facet of how, in the modern age, we presume druids were in Celtic times. Mistletoe is still highly revered by modern druids, as are the many trees it grasps on to in order to survive.

The Kitchen Garden

This is normally one of my favourite sections of Notes from the Apothecary, where I get to explore all the yummy opportunities the plant brings, however mistletoe is not a kitchen herb by any stretch of the imagination. The plant is highly poisonous, and should always be handled with care. Please wash your hands after touching the plant.

For those who wish to cultivate their own mistletoe, there’s a lot of great advice here. This site also helps dispel a few myths about growing mistletoe, including the common belief that berries (which are the fruit and hold the seeds of the plant) will only germinate if they have been digested by a bird… Not only is this slightly gross, it’s also completely untrue, although bird droppings do absolutely help the plant spread itself far and wide. The seeds sort of stick themselves to the bark of the ‘host’, and take a few months to germinate. They might not start to look like ‘proper’ mistletoe plants until they are as much as four years old, and even then, will still be very small. Remember, the plant is parasitic; well, hemiparasitic, which means that although it does do some of its own photosynthesis, it relies on the host tree for most of its nutrition. This means the growth of your host tree will be affected somewhat, although in some cases this may barely be noticeable. Fruit trees (mistletoe loves apple trees) will often suffer a reduced fruit yield when ‘infected’ with mistletoe.

Mistletoe does make a beautiful decoration, particularly during the winter months as it is evergreen, so brings a dash of greenery to the home when all is cold and bleak outside. It has long been used as a festive decoration around Christmas, Yule and the Winter Solstice. The 18th and 19th century tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe still exists today, although is much less prevalent. Consider that in Victorian England, if a woman was ‘caught’ beneath the mistletoe and refused to kiss the fellow concerned, bad luck indeed would befall her. Hmm, that’s not OK is it really… this is a tradition that I think has had its time. Fully consensual kissing only under our mistletoe please!

The Witch’s Kitchen

As mentioned earlier, mistletoe has a high place indeed in the pantheon of druidic herbs and plants. The British Druidic Order states that the combination of the white fruits (white indicating purity according to the BDO, but also indicates a connection to the fairy world in Celtic folklore), its parasitic and poisonous nature, plus the fact that it was very visible during winter may have led to it being so highly prized by druids. The druids of Pliny’s world sacrificed bulls to honour the cutting of the sacred plant, whereas today it is the lives of the animals that druids hold sacred, rather than their spilt blood. This can be seen as an evolution of the rituals of Celtic times; while we honour our ancestors, we are not them, and we can live in a very different way with very different morals and ethics without losing the magic and the mystery of the druidic path.

Susa Morgan Black tells us that mistletoe was mentioned in various historical sources as one of three ‘most holy’ plants (Drualus, via Druidry.org), possibly alongside vervain and a third which could be foxglove, wormwood, or one of many others; some toxic, some not. She also touches on the liminal nature of the plant:

In truth, [it] falls between the cracks of definition – a plant, a tree, a parasite, touching neither earth nor sky, which adds to its mysterious and otherworldly ambience. (Susa Morgan Black)

When something is neither in one plane or the other, or not quite one state but not completely something else either, we refer to it as being liminal. Liminal times of day are dawn and dusk, where the world is neither completely light or dark. Liminal times of year are the equinoxes and the solstices; points of pause and transition.

Moving away from a solely Celtic overview, mistletoe would make an appropriate offering to Hekate, or a suitable decoration for her altar. Hekate is a truly liminal goddess, with dominion over land, sea and sky. Like the mistletoe, she exists in multiple planes. Also, she is strongly associated with poisonous plants, and although mistletoe is not specifically named as one of ‘Her’ plants in the same way as aconite is, the Orphic Songs of the Argonauts tells us that in Hekate’s garden ‘many more poisonous rose up from the ground.’

One of the most famous tales involving mistletoe is the Norse legend of the death of Baldr, which ultimately leads to Ragnarök. All things pledge not to harm the son of Odin, after he and his mother share a prophetic dream of his death. However, the mistletoe never makes the oath, and Loki fashions a weapon from the plant. The gods are hurling all sorts of objects at Baldr, enjoying the sport as nothing can harm the young god. Loki gives the hand-made weapon to Baldr’s brother Höðr, who is blind. Höðr throws the dart (sometimes an arrow or a spear) and Baldr dies, starting a chain of events which will lead to the destruction of the gods as they are now.

If you honour Frigg, or Baldr, it’s probably advisable to avoid mistletoe in your festive decorations, as it is a reminder of the awful events of Baldr’s demise. However, mistletoe could be used to summon Loki, as in the legend he searches far and wide for the mistletoe, so in a way the plant is calling to him. However, call upon Loki at your own risk; he’s not called the god of mischief for nothing, and when Loki gets mischievous, as we have learned, people die.

I Never Knew…

Although toxic to us, the berries are food for many birds, including the mistle thrush, which may have earned its name from the sticky, white berries it loves so much. During the winter months, mistle thrushes will actively defend both holly bushes and mistletoe clumps, as both are such an important food source. It’s no wonder the mistle thrush is, in itself, a symbol of hope in the bleak midwinter.

Image credits: Viscum Album, copyright H. Zell 2009, via Wikimedia; Viscum album subsp. abietis, Schwäbisch-Fränkische Waldberge, copyright BerndH 2012, via Wikimedia; Mistle Thrush 3, copyright Tony Hisgett 2009, via Wikimedia.

 

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About the Author:

Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.

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

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