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Book Excerpt – The Sacred Herbs of Spring Magical, Healing, and Edible Plants to Celebrate Beltaine by Ellen Evert Hopman



The month of May is a time of great spiritual power for those who are attuned to natural cycles. In the northern hemisphere the sap is rising in the trees and medicinally beneficial new leaves and flowers are reappearing.

For Druids, Witches, and other followers of the Nature Religions, May is the time to celebrate love, fertility and the new growth of summer, and most of this book is dedicated to these magical aspects of the May Day festival.

The May Pole

The May Pole is a well-known British tradition associated with May Day. The pole was covered all over with flowers and greens, then bound with ribbons from top to bottom. Hundreds of people would banquet, feast, and dance around the pole.

In Wales a living tree, often a Birch, was danced around. In Eastern Europe it was a Fir tree that marked the observance. Young men chopped one down, decorated it with ribbons and colored egg shells, and planted it outside the bedroom of their lover. In Italy, poles greased with lard were set up with prosciutto, cheeses, and even money at the top. Men would try to climb the pole to win the prizes. Lemons and ribbons were affixed to flowering branches, love songs were sung, and male and female trees were brought into the piazza to be ritually “married”.

Herbs of Protection

Elder (Sambucus spp.)

Wherever possible, every home should have an Elder tree nearby to repel sorcery, and planted near a grave it will guard the body. Elder has a female Spirit known as the Elder Mother who is very protective of children, but it is bad luck to make a cradle of Elder wood (a cradle made of Ash wood will help protect a child from being stolen by the Faeries), probably because to make the cradle you would need to chop down an Elder tree. Cutting one down or burning it can mean a death in the family! I suspect that this prohibition has to do with the fact that every part of the tree is so valuable–the flowers, berries, leaves, inner bark, and roots are all medicinal and in ancient times a house with an Elder nearby would be healthy and blessed.

An old Scottish tradition says that Elder will only grow on land where no blood has been shed.

Elder gathered on May Eve is especially powerful for snake bites, dog bites, toothaches, and depression. Whipping fruit trees with Elder branches is said to protect them against blight. This makes sense because the mature leaves of Elder are actually a natural pesticide.

The pith is easily removed with a wire, making Elder a favorite tree for crafting Pan Pipes.

Cut a piece of Elder wood and soak it in oil. When lit and floated on a bowl of water it will point to any Witch present in the room.

If you must cut an Elder for any reason, recite this traditional English verse of reconciliation with the Tree Spirit:

Owd Girl, give me thy wood,
An’ I will give thee some of mine,
When I grow into a tree.

Hang Elder boughs on the door or from gate posts, or place it along the windowsills to repel psychic attack. Meditate in an Elder grove to commune with woodland Spirits. Float Elder flowers in the ritual bath and use Elder flower water for baby blessings.

Make an equal armed, solar Elder cross with Elder twigs and red thread to protect the house and barn from chaotic wandering Spirits. Stand or sleep under a blooming Elder on May Eve to see the Faeries trooping by. Wear a sprig of Elder as protection from magical harm and keep a crooked piece of Elder wood in your pocket to ward off rheumatic pains.

Hawthorn, May Tree, Whitethorn (Crataegus spp.)

Hawthorn is the classic Beltaine tree and a plethora of lore is associated with it. Every person who seeks to live a magical life should have one of these trees in their yard as a kind of nature calendar. It isn’t truly Beltaine until the local Hawthorn blooms!

According to ancient lore, a solitary Hawthorn standing on a hill, especially if it has a water source nearby, is likely an entrance to the Land of Faery.

Sitting under a Hawthorn in the month of May could attract Faeries that will seek to control you. If sprays of Hawthorn are placed in the rafters on Palm Sunday by someone who is not a member of the family, it can protect the house from sorcery, evil spirits and storms.

Hang Hawthorn outside the byre on May Day to guard the milk from sorcery. The Green Man (also called “Jack in the Green or the “May King”) wears a Hawthorn crown in old illustrations. “Bawning (anointing) the Thorn” is an old ritual where a Hawthorn is decorated with red and white ribbons and children dance around the tree.

Marsh-Marigold, King’s Cup (Caltha palustris L.)

By tradition this plant should not be brought into the home until May 1. On that day the house is decorated with a bunch of Marsh Marigolds, hung stalk upwards. The flowers are also strewn before the door and wound into wreaths, and hung on the May Bush. Their yellow color welcomes and honors the sun.

Marsh Marigolds are said to magically protect the home from lightning strikes during the month of May.

Cautions: When Marsh Marigold comes in contact with the skin, it might cause blisters and burns. Wear gloves when picking it.