Samhain

Samhain

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. The last fruits, nuts and berries still hang in the bushes, but most are gone. Few flowers withstand the season’s call until the frost kills them off. The birds have left on their journey to the south.
It is a melancholy time, but also a time to turn inward.

We mark this season by remembering those who have gone before us. Death is but a stage of the wheel of life. Far below the surface, the Goddess sheds her worn-out gown and falls into deep meditation while regenerating her vital life-giving energies.

We face the cold and darkness as the Sun’s power wanes. Few of its rays can still warm us and the days grow shorter.

Life and death are aspects of the same eternal cycle. There is no light without darkness, no life without death. Use this time to reflect and remember, to cherish the good and to let go of all that is worn and wears you down. Concentrate your inner strength in contemplation – for soon, the wheel of the year will turn, and the Sun will be reborn.

Lughnasad – Harvest Time

Lughnasad – Harvest Time

The time of the grain harvest

Lughnasad marks the beginning of the harvest season. The fruit and vegetables are ripening, and the grain has turned golden. It is usually an intensely busy and happy time, especially for gardeners. The efforts of the early part of the year are paying off. But not this year.

The growing period from spring to harvest is fraught with danger: Late frosts can kill sensitive starters, and summer storms can ruin the crop in just a few minutes. The harvest is by no means guaranteed. This year, Lugh has been fierce. The summer heat is so intense that it is causing terrible damage, scorched landscapes and draughts. We need the Sun’s warmth and light, without water, there is no life.

Lughnasad is called Lammas in the Christian tradition, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaf-mas’, meaning ‘loaf mass’. Bread and wine are the traditional sacraments of the Eucharist.

But harvesting the seed is only one of the stages of the perpetual cycle of life. Ideally, what we harvest at this time of the year should sustain us beyond our current needs and nourish us in the winter, when the Earth is barren and still. It must provide us with the seed necessary to start the cycle gain next year. We reap as we sow, but we also sow what we have reaped.

In the face of the unfolding climate catastrophe, we are grateful for what we can harvest today. But if we want to secure future harvests, we must change our practices.

We can no longer afford to ignore the changes that are taking place. We are facing an existential threat – unless we act now. The future potential for our species and life as we know it, lies in our hands.

The future starts now.

Yarrow – Achillea millefolium

Yarrow – Achillea millefolium

Yarrow is one of those herbs that everybody knows, but few know much ABOUT. A potent healing agent, this humble herb has a colourful history.

 

Description:

You might have noticed the Yarrow’s feathery, fern-like leaves that appear in early spring. They stay snug and low to the ground on verges, meadows, pastures and waste places. Almost anywhere, really. Later, in the early summer, their stalks rise, and the soft leaves become tougher, almost prickly, even. In June, the first umbel-like flowering tops, a spread of tiny white, greyish or pink flowers suggesting a relationship with the carrot family. But they are faking it. Yarrow belongs to the daisy family, but you would never guess. You will have to take a close look to see why.
What appears to be individual, white-petalled flowers turn out to be composite flowers, like those of daisy or dandelion.

Yarrow - Achillea millefolium

History and Mythology

Etymology – what’s in a name

Yarrow’s Scientific name is Achillea millefolium for the Greek hero Achilles, son of Peleus and the Sea-Nymph Thetis.
Knowing that Achilles was bound to become a warrior, Thetis wished to protect him by making him invincible by dipping the infant into the River Styx. But because she was afraid to completely let go of the child, the spot where she held him, his ankle, remained vulnerable. We all seem to have inherited this vulnerability, since we all have an Achilles tendon that is extra vulnerable to strain. Thetis also tried to make the child immortal, but Peleus walked in while she performed the fire ritual and ‘saved’ the child. But Thetis, fearing his vengeance, fled back to her father, leaving Achilles in Peleus’ hands. But Peleus was not the kind of man who could raise a child alone. Thus, he sent him off to the famous centaur Chiron, who taught young boys the art of archery and healing.
Under his tutelage, Achilles became one of the greatest, *almost* invincible warriors who played a pivotal role in the war of Troy. But in the end, an arrow pierced his vulnerable heel, and Achilles succumbed to the wound.

History remembers Achilles as a gifted warrior and student of the healing arts, with Yarrow as his special ally. On the battlefield, he used Yarrow to save the lives of countless fellow warriors, for which Yarrow earned its other name, ‘Militaris’.

Chiron teaching Achilles the art of archery

Herb Lore

Yarrow may look plain and ordinary, but it commands love and respect. Historically, potent herbs invariably played a prominent role in folk magic and medicine.
During the Middle Ages, when Christianity was steeped in superstition, Yarrow was used in exorcism rites to drive out evil spirits or even the devil.

In France, Yarrow is known as ‘Herbe de St. Joseph’. According to the legend, the infant Jesus saved Joseph’s life by bringing him Yarrow after Joseph had accidentally cut himself while doing his carpentry.

But in Britain, Yarrow was said to cause a nose bleed, as Mrs Grieves recalls. She tells of a bizarre divination ritual practised in eastern parts of the country. According to her tale, girls would stuff Yarrow leaves up their noses to determine whether ‘their loves be true’ while reciting the following verse:

“Yarroway, Yarroway bear a white blow
If my love, love me
my nose will bleed now…”

Yarrow was also called ‘Venus Eyebrow’ because its feathery leaves were thought to resemble them. No wonder the herb was used to divine matters of the heart.

Stuffed into a pouch and placed underneath the pillow, it was supposed to induce dreams of one’s future husband after reciting the following charm before dozing off:

“Thou pretty herb of Venus tree
Thy true name be Yarrow
Now who my bosom friend must be
Pray, tell thou me tomorrow.”

 

In China, Yarrow is also used for divination. But here, the practice is of quite a different order. Yarrow sticks are traditionally used to cast the I Ching. Yarrow is used because it is said to represent a perfect balance of the Yin and Yang forces of the Universe.

On the continent, Yarrow is added to the traditional ‘9-herb soup’, served on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter. It is meant to purify the spirit, vitalize the body, and ward off all disease and evil influences for the rest of the year.

Later in the year, Yarrow plays a quintessential role in the celebrations of Maria Ascension Day as part of the ‘herbal bundles’, that are blessed on that day. The tradition predates Christianity, but the Church sanctioned it after it failed to suppress the practice, and in rural areas, it is still very much alive.

Yarrow leaves in spring

Food Uses

In spring, the fresh, soft, young Yarrow leaves impart a lovely, aromatic flavour to soups and salads.
Later it becomes more bitter, which makes it suitable as a brewer’s herb. Although in Germany, beer brewing was regulated in 1516, and only hops were allowed as a flavouring agent, the laws were more permissive in Britain, Various bitter aromatics were used to create different flavours and effects. Yarrow was an ingredient of ‘Gruit beer’, a strong herbal ale popular at the time and more potent than regular beer.

 

Essential oil

Distilling Yarrow yields a vividly blue essential oil, as the process converts pro-azulene into Chamazulene. The same compound is also responsible for the blue colour of German Chamomile Essential Oil. Of these, Yarrow yields more of this powerfully anti-inflammatory compound. It is used to treat irregular and painful menses and to reduce excessive menstrual bleeding. Its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties make Yarrow essential oil a potent ingredient for lotions and crèmes to soothe skin rashes, sores, and inflammatory acne.

Energetically, Yarrow is a balancing herb. It can help to alleviate hormone-induced emotional disquiet related to PMT or menopausal turmoil. It is suitable for chakra balancing, as its sensory vibration supports the organism’s need to re-establish equilibrium and overcome conflicting emotions.

 

 

Medicinal Uses:

As a herbal ally and remedy, Yarrow is as popular as ever.

Parts used: Aerial parts, young leaves, and flowers.
Harvest the young leaves in early spring, when they are still soft little fronds, if you want to use them fresh in soups and salads. Later in the season, collect the aerial parts, leaves and flowers and dry them for later use. Leaves and flowers can be harvested until July/August, Yarrow’s peak flowering season.

Constituents:

Flavonoids, volatile oils, tannins, a bitter glycoalkaloid,

Applications

Yarrow’s anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and astringent properties make it a formidable wound herb. The fresh juice or dried powder can be applied directly to staunch a bleeding or seeping wound. Made into a strong infusion, it can reduce internal bleeding and promote healing of inner wounds, e.g. after surgery. As a wash, it calms swollen tissue and heals inflammatory skin, cuts, and open wounds.
As a tea, Yarrow also acts as a soothing relaxant on the voluntary nervous system. It calms cramps and spasms of the stomach, abdomen and womb. Its bitter principles support the digestive system by stimulating the gallbladder and liver. Yarrow also supports the urinary system. It is an effective anti-inflammatory and diuretic, which can soothe urinary infections such as cystitis.

Yarrow is an excellent women’s herb that can bring on delayed menstruation, soothe painful periods and menstrual cramps, and reduce excessive bleeding.

The fresh juice makes a potent tonic. Yarrow dilates the blood vessels and improves peripheral circulation. It can be used to address high blood pressure issues and angina pectoris.

Yarrow is also an effective febrifuge that opens the pores and promotes sweating. Taken before entering a sauna or sweat lodge, it promotes inner cleansing.

Yarrow’s cleansing and toning properties, combined with its anti-inflammatory powers, explain why it can be so helpful for treating rheumatism. Yarrow can be understood as a tonic and alterative that improves the overall function of the whole organism. Combined with other specifics, it can also be used to treat acute inflammatory conditions.

Caution:

Some people are allergic to plants belonging to the daisy family. If you are one of them, please test for sensitivity to Yarrow before using it as a wild food ingredient or herbal remedy.

What is Foraging?

What is Foraging?

Foraging – connecting with nature through the senses

 

I became a forager at the age of 5, and I suspect many of you did, too. My early childhood memories are filled with berries of all kinds: wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and above all, blueberries. They covered the forest floor so densely that it was difficult to set down your foot without squashing them. 

The summer holidays were pure berry bliss as I munched my way through the landscape like an insatiable caterpillar.

These early sensuous experiences sowed the seeds from which, in time, my passion for nature sprouted. 

Nothing can forge a deeper connection to nature and the land than such total immersion – learning by smelling, tasting, eating, feeling and playing with what nature provides in abundance. We learn by doing, observing and asking questions about what we can directly experience. These sensory impressions form the foundations of our understanding of the world. 

 

 We learn to understand processes, to see patterns from which we deduce meaning. Such intense observation creates a deep relationship with the observed. We are no longer separated, but deeply and empathically involved. A sense of familiarity and caring develops and gradually grows. A great way to stimulate this learning process is to become a forager.

 

What is foraging?

The term ‘foraging’ is often associated with animals roaming around looking for food. Different animals forage for different kinds of food. A hedgehog looks for beetles, snails and fallen fruit, while gorillas sustain themselves only on leaves. 

 

As ‘civilized’ human beings, we mostly forage at the supermarket. Everything is always available, and most of us have lost any sense of connection to the cycle of the seasons and the different foods they produce – unless they are gardeners, of course. But before we began domesticating wild species of plants and animals, we incorporated a wide variety of wild species into our diets. 

 

Picking berries or hunting for mushrooms is still hugely popular, especially in times of economic hardship. Some of us continue to forage for part of our diets – not just to save money on the grocery bill, but simply because we love it. We love the connection with the land and the variety of foods and flavours each season provides. Besides, wild foods tend to have a vastly superior nutritional profile compared to industrially farmed produce.

 

What are wild (plant) foods?

Wild food plants are simply edible plants that are not under cultivation. But the dividing line between wild and cultivated foods can be very vague. Many wild edibles are the undomesticated ancestors of the plants we find at the grocery. Some wild species used to be cultivated and sold on the market but are no longer grown today. Gardeners even curse them as weeds. 

 

Some fruits and nuts are cultivated and found in the wild. The cultivated varieties are bred for specific traits and qualities, such as shelf-life. Their wild cousins tend to be smaller but are often more flavourful.

 

Whether we can digest any given wild plant is determined by our physiology. Certain plants that would kill us are perfectly edible for other animals. 

 

How to become a forager?

 

Foraging is a skill that must be learnt like any other. 

The best method to learn is to find a knowledgeable mentor or join foraging walks and classes in your neighbourhood.

But there is also much you can learn on your own. 

 

Essential foraging skills:

Learn all you can about your environment

Observe closely, and ask questions: 
What kinds of trees, bushes and wildflowers grow here?
Which animals feed on them? 
Do certain plants always grow together? 
What is the soil like, chalky or loamy, wet or dry? 
Do you know what the farmer sprays on his nearby field? 

Learn plant identification skills

Foragers must learn basic botany and become familiar with the transformative processes of plants. Learn to recognize them at different stages of their growth cycle. Some species are edible at one stage, but toxic at another. 

Learn the seasons

Each season brings forth its special treats, but seasons are not fixed by a calendar. If you know how to read the signs of nature, you will recognize when the time to harvest a specific herb or fruit has come.

Learn how to care for your environment

As foragers, we are stewards of the land, not pillagers. We must not only take but also give back to nature. Remember that you are not the only hungry one out there. Others (human or animal) also depend on the gifts of nature.

Cautions:

 

Never ever rely on your intuition alone! Even deadly plants and fungi may look, smell or taste deceptively appealing!

 

Learning everything you can about your environment is the most essential skill a forager must develop.

 

Also, it is always recommended to test for allergies before tucking into a foraged feast. The body can be finicky when it comes to accepting foods it has never previously encountered.

 

And finally – knowing your land also means learning about other dangers that may lurk in the undergrowth: from snakes to insects (ticks!), to wild boars, or even bears, depending on where you live.

 

Resources:

 

There are many very knowledgeable people out there that teach foraging as a craft – too many to name them all here. 

But here are a few books that I think are particularly useful.

Please be aware, that each bioregion is different, with different microclimates and seasons and that there are major differences between the hemispheres and continents. Obviously, I can’t cover them all here. I focus on my own bioregion, which is Europe, and which overlaps to some degree with parts of North America.

Slugs

Slugs

Slugs – the one animal everybody loves to hate. Especially gardeners. These mobile eating machines can really do some damage to our carefully groomed plants. Most gardeners are waging perpetual war against them. But are slugs really as bad as they are made out to be?

Being a gardener myself, I have my share of sluggy-slimy woes. Every evening, at dusk, I go out and search my garden. Torch in one hand and a glass jar in the other, I hunt down those ravenous gastropods before they decimate my beloved seedlings. I scour not my young starts, but the grass as well, to catch the slugs waiting there in ambush. The following day, I release them about a kilometre from my house.

I can’t really tell whether the strategy is working. Every evening I collect roughly the same amount of slugs again. Where the heck do they come from? Nature’s slug supply seems inexhaustible – as if on tap.

But the other day, while on my daily slug patrol, it occurred to me that I actually know very little about these creatures. Quite shocking, considering that I have hand-picked about a million of them over the years.

‘Okay’, you might think, ‘what’s the big deal? What is there worth knowing about slugs, except how to get rid of them?’

Good question, and I had always thought along similar lines. But, as with everything in life, things become interesting the minute you invest interest in them. Before I knew it, I was going down a research slug-hole, discovering weird and wonderful facts about these strange creatures.
I watched way too many slug videos on YouTube and scoured the internet for gastropod-related papers and posts. To my growing amazement, slugs turned out to be far more interesting than I had ever imagined.

People, who study slugs, seem to be a special kind of nerdy and have a sense of humour, too. Just consider the term ‘gastropods’, the scientific term for all slugs and snails. There couldn’t be a better name for them. ‘Gastro’ means ‘stomach’, and ‘pod’ means foot. I can’t think of a more perfect way, to sum up what slugs and snails are all about.

The English word ‘slug’ is similarly general. There are gazillion species of slugs and snails. Currently, an estimated 65,000 to 80,000 different species exist, and they have managed to adapt to all kinds of habitats – even the desert!
In terms of evolutionary success stories, slugs are champions. Their family tree dates back to 495 million years ago, the late Cambrian period, when more complex life forms first evolved.  There are 721 known families of gastropods, of which only 245 have gone extinct. The others are still with us today – a remarkable feat in evolutionary terms. To put that into perspective, the class of primates, to which we belong, only emerged about 74 million years ago. (Homo sapiens has only been around for 300,000 odd years)

The very earliest slugs evolved in the ocean – like all life at that time. Sea slugs are truly stunning. If you have never seen them, do go ahead and check them out. They are out of this world! My current favourite is this cutie:

 

 

The sea-sheep dons a coat of leaf-like structures with which it can perform photosynthesis! But it did not learn the trick itself. Like corals, it acquired the ability by eating algae, which it integrates into its own body. Other species of sea slugs obtain toxins in the same way, which gives them a means of protection.

Our garden varieties of land slugs are neither as colourful nor as cute. But even so, they are much more interesting than we give them credit for.

Interestingly, the thousands of species of terrestrial slugs are not all closely related. It seems that slugs originally did have shells, but later lost them. Now all that remains is a vestigial ‘shield’, a kind of plate on their backs that they retreat into when they sense danger.

These squishy, slimy, globs of goo are incredibly vulnerable, yet that does not impede their survival. Their defence system is their slime.

Slugs produce two distinct types of slime. A thin one that oozes from the centre of their foot helps them glide and marks their trails. It guides them back home to their holes and also signals their presence to other slugs – which comes in handy when trying to attract a mate.

The other type of slime is produced from glands at the rear and front of their bodies. It is extremely thick and sticky, which makes it more difficult for predators to just pick them up. The slug simply glues itself to the spot. The slime is also distasteful to potential predators, such as badgers, thrushes and hedgehogs.

 

The slime plays a prominent role during mating, which for slugs is a very oozy affair. The interesting-looking keel-back slugs spin a slime thread from which both slugs suspend themselves during the act. Slugs are hermaphroditic, and thus have both male and female sexual organs. Both will give and receive sperm, potentially doubling the number of offspring.

You can watch their weird and wonderful love ritual here, courtesy of the incomparable Sir David Attenborough and the BBC. Thank you, Sir, you made my day!

 

Slug slime has also recently caught the attention of scientists, who have taken an interest in its properties. Slug slime is highly adhesive yet elastic and does not become brittle. It is also non-toxic, consisting of mucous and serotonin. The unique property of maintaining its adhesive powers, even on wet surfaces, makes it a promising candidate for a new type of non-toxic surgical glue.

In Britain, there are 40 species of slugs, but only about 8 of them do all the damage in the veggie patch. These little ‘mobile stomachs’ have a ravenous appetite, yet their evolutionary role is not specifically to destroy our gardens. We simply make it easy for them to access the juiciest, tenderest, and tastiest young plants. From a slug’s point of view, our gardens are a kind of Shangri-la.

Ecologically, slugs are important composters that help break down organic debris, and themselves morsels in the food chain, even if not very tasty ones.

Snails even form part of the human diet. I used to love them as a kid, until one day I got really, really sick on them. Slugs, however, only enter the human food chain accidentally by hiding in the lettuce and avoiding being washed off – due to their sticky slime. Slugs carry parasites, so the principle of ‘if you can’t beat it, eat it’, is not recommended, in this case.

But you are probably still asking yourself the one question we all want to know the answer to – how do you get rid of slugs?

To tell you the truth, I haven’t found the magic secret, but there are some methods that are somewhat successful.

Copper tape
Garden shops sell copper tape that supposedly deters slugs. Apparently, the slime reacts with the copper, giving them a little electric shock. I haven’t tried this method, so I can’t comment on it.

I have tried coffee grinds, eggshells, and dry grass cuttings as mulch.

A determined slug will not be put off by any of these, but is likely to look for a more readily available meal. I often leave bits of decaying plant matter lying around when I pluck weeds from my veggie beds, and I have watched slugs devour these. But, like beer traps, it might attract more slugs to the garden. Other gardeners insist that keeping a garden tidy is the way to get rid of slugs.

I have also noticed that slugs can smell a wilting plant, which they go for preferentially.

Sometimes, I leave things like chenopodium standing between my tomatoes. Slugs prefer this tender weed to the tomato plants, especially once the tomatoes are strong enough to create their own defence.

Eggshells, walnut shells, pine needles, and other prickly stuff deter them, to some degree.

Slugs shelter in dark, moist places, under bricks, tarps, and buckets or under planks that some gardeners put down as walkways between their rows of veggies. If you check these places before the slugs go for their forage, you can find a whole clutch of them without much effort.

Whatever you do, please don’t use toxic chemicals. They do kill the slugs, but also the birds and hedgehogs that either eat the slug or the pellets.

Even though we may not like slugs much, they do have a place in the ecosystem. Eliminating them would probably cause more harm than good. But only a few species are truly destructive. Most simply go about their business, or even feed on other slugs and their eggs. Slugs can’t help being born as slugs, any more than we can help be humans. We each have our niche but share an inherent right to exist on our amazing planet, which provides for both, humans and slugs. Slugs have been here a lot longer than we have, and managed to survive without totally decimating their ecosystem, despite their ferocious appetites. Judging by how our own insatiable appetite decimates nature, slugs will probably outlast us.

 

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