At Samhain, the Goddess retreats into the deep vault of the earth to join her dark lover in the Underworld. Life withdraws, and the landscape turns bleak, cold, and grey. There are no more fruit or flowers, and the birds have left on their journey to the south. We mark this time of death and decay by remembering and honouring those who have gone before us. Death is but a stage of the wheel of life. Far below the surface, the Goddess sheds her old cloak and falls into a deep meditation that regenerates her vital life-giving energies.
We face the darkness of the cold season, as the Sun grows weaker and has little power left to warm us.
At this time, remember that life and death are aspects of the same eternal cycle. One cannot exist without the other. There is no light without darkness. This is a time for reflection and reminiscence, and for gathering our inner strength in contemplation – for soon, the wheel of the year will turn again, and the Sun will be reborn once more.
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Yew – Taxus baccata
Few western European trees are as enigmatic as the Yew. Dark, brooding and sometimes eery, each Yew tree very much has its own personality.
The Yew (Taxus baccata) is an evergreen, needle bearing conifer- but a strange one. Instead of wooden cones, it shelters its seed in a bright red, soft and slimy fruit cortex that takes the shape of a cup (Baccata = cup). The seeds, hidden within the ‘cup, along with all other parts of the tree except for the arils, are highly poisonous.
Yews are dioecious; female and male flowers appear on different trees, but only the female flower-bearing tree produces the fruits. They reach sexual maturity between 15-30 years of age, pretty young, considering their potential lifespan! It is difficult to measure the exact age of a Yew tree because most of them become hollow as they age, which means we can’t count tree rings. But in Britain and Europe, there are several, estimated to be between 2000 and 4000 years old!
As trees go, their height is not that impressive. Yews only grow to about 10-20 m tall, but they can develop an admirable circumference of more than 6 m. Unlike most conifers, they do not produce any resin.
Yews have a dark appearance, and they love shady spots. But they tolerate the sun if they were exposed to it from the start.
As an evergreen with a seemingly infinite lifespan and a somewhat dark, mysterious Gestalt, it is not surprising that Yews have been linked to the realm of the Dead. In Britain, the oldest Yews are found in cemeteries, often in association with a sacred spring. Britain’s oldest one is the Yew of Fortingall, in Perth, Scotland, believed to be some 3000 years old. However, its age is difficult to verify since it is hollow, and young shoots that grow from the centre, fuse with older ones, thus constantly rejuvenating itself.
In the runic alphabet, the Yew is associated with Eiwhaz Rune, which signifies the shortest day of the year, the eve of the winter solstice. It symbolizes the dying Sun but also its rebirth, since Yews possess this magic power of rejuvenation. Yews cast the dark, silent cape of eternity over the departed and take care of their souls in the afterworld until the time of their rebirth has come.
Thus, Yews are symbolic of life and death, seen as complementary forces rather than polar opposites, and joined at the threshold at the beginning and the end of our lives.
Folklore: Sleeping under a Yew tree was thought to induce prophetic dreams and offer a glimpse beyond the veil.
Properties and uses
A couple of thousand years ago, Yews were common throughout Europe and Britain. But they are slow-growing trees that were decimated for the sake of war. Yews were the primary source-wood for longbows – which, before the invention of gunpowder, were the most common weapon of war. Even today, Yew bows are used for making longbows for archery. In medieval times, Yews were planted in and around castle grounds to ensure a steady supply.
The wood, which is both strong and elastic, is superbly suited for this purpose. Archaeological evidence has shown that it has been used to make weapons since prehistoric times. Palaeolithic spears and arrowheads made of Yew have been found in a marl pit in southern England. The arrowheads had been dipped in an arrow poison made of Yew, Hellebore and Hemlock to make them extra lethal. Yews alkaloids first stimulate, then slow the heart rate, causing the victim to fall into a coma and die within an hour and a half. The oldest such spear, some 150 000 years old, was still stuck between the ribs of a mammoth carcass.
By the 16th century, Yews were almost extinct. But, they were saved by the invention of gunpowder which was invented right around that time, allowing Yew populations to recover.
In recent times, Yews were in the news for saving lives. A compound found in the Pacific Yew, Taxus brevifolia, was discovered to have cytostatic properties, capable of inhibiting cancerous growth. But both, the Pacific Yew and its habitat are threatened. A single tree only yields 3 kg of bark, containing only 1g of Taxol, the sought-after active compound. Taxol proved highly effective in chemotherapy for treating breast- and ovarian cancer, and thus was in high demand. Given the slow growth and endangered status of the trees, the situation was precarious. Scientists were struggling to find a way to synthesize Taxol from other sources. But eventually, the breakthrough came in the 1990s. Scientists had managed to create Taxol molecules from Taxus baccata, the European Yew, which is a far more common species.
Thus, the Yew has held true to its ancient promise as a harbinger of both death and life.
Foraging Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Autumn is my favourite foraging time. The seeds are ripening, the nuts are swelling, and mushrooms are making their elusive appearances. Even when things have seemingly died off, one can dig for roots and rhizomes below ground.
Evening Primrose is a great autumn crop for foragers. The tall, lanky stalk with the large, somewhat ghostly, pale yellow flowers is a familiar sight. Yet its true beauty is revealed at night when the flowers open fully and their subtle scent perfumes the air.
Evening Primroses are not particularly fussy. They are happy with poor, sandy soil as long as it gets enough sun. Waste grounds, railway track embankments, neglected corners of the yard all provide a happy habitat for them.
All parts of the Evening Primrose are edible.
Evening primrose is biennial, forming a rosette in the first year and the stalk and flowers in the second year. The leaves of both the first and the second year’s growth can be cooked or used fresh – but they are a bit hairy, and may not be to everyone’s liking. Try a small amount first to see if you like the flavour, or mix them with other herbs.
Evening Primrose has a long flowering season, from June to September. The early flowers only open in the evenings, exuding a beautiful, sweet scent. Later, they open during the day as well. The flowers are mildly sweet-tasting and can be used to decorate salads. Or try the buds before they open in stir-fries and such.
The seed pods ripen in the autumn. The elongated capsules contain quite a lot of tiny seeds. But if you think you might be able to press your own Evening Primrose Oil, I’ll have to disappoint you. The seeds are minuscule. It would require a ton of them to make the endeavour worthwhile. And, what’s more, the pressure needed to press the seeds is so great that it would produce a lot of heat, which would destroy the beneficial properties of the oil. Try using them like poppy seeds instead. But don’t expect to get a lot of nutritional value from them. The amounts typically used in cooking and baking are too small for that. Grind the seeds before adding them to your recipes to release the oil. Left whole, they would simply pass straight through the digestive system without leaving a trace of their nutritional benefits.
Read more about the medicinal properties of Evening Primrose Oil
The roots are perhaps most interesting for the forager. But remember that only the first years’ root is used, which is easily identifiable by its distinctive rosette of leaves. The flowering shoot does not form until the spring of the second year. By this time, it would be too late to dig for the root. But, look around the ground near a stand of second-year plants, and you will soon spot some yearlings. It can be hard work to dig up the long reddish taproot unless the soil is very light. But they make an unusual root vegetable for bakes and stews with a slightly peppery taste, reminiscent of black salsify.
Roasted Winter Vegetables
- Evening Primrose Roots
- Large onion
Clean and peel/scrub vegetables well. Cut into 2″ chunks. Coat with olive oil and salt. Keep them separate and sprinkle with spices (e.g. sprinkle the parsnips with curry, the carrots with coriander seed powder and the potatoes and evening primrose roots with Chinese 5 spice mix).
Quarter the onion. Separate the garlic into cloves, no need to peel. Preheat the oven to about 425 °F
Place all ingredients on a baking tray and bake for about 30 – 50 minutes on a high shelf. (cooking time depends on the size of the vegetable chunks – check regularly)
You can add a few sprigs of fresh sage and rosemary towards the end for additional flavour. (Putting them in at the beginning would burn them)
Evening Primrose Fritters
Not suitable for ‘fat-free’ fans, but delicious nonetheless.
Prepare a standard batter:
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup milk
- 1 cup flour
- 1 TSP baking powder
- 1 TSP salt
- 1 TSP oil
Cut the Evening Primrose root into long pieces, not too thick, and dip each piece into the batter.
Fry in very hot oil until golden brown.
A deep-fryer works best, but if you don’t have one, pan-frying will do.
Evening Primrose Patties
Cook the Evening Primrose roots until tender (you might want to blend with other root vegetables).
Mash with butter, stir in one egg and a little flour and/or oats to make a sticky dough.
Season to taste. Form little patties and pan-fry on each side until golden brown.
A short introduction to how to make natural homemade cosmetics. Find out how easy it is to make body butters and bath salts at home.
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The story of opium poppy in all its different facets, the prehistoric and historical record, its mythology, and use in folk magic and medicine to its modern use.
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