Spring Detox

Spring Detox

A Spring Detox resets body, mind, and spirit. Get out into nature, do some foraging, and enjoy the benefits of your pickings.

When the first rays of bright warm sunshine are trying to penetrate the layer of dust that has accumulated on the window panes through the winter, it always hits me: It’s time to get out that cleaning stuff, air out the house and wash the window to let the sunshine in. And honestly,  it feels so good to get everything ready and prepared for a fresh start!

In the olden days, this idea was not only applied to the house, but also to the body. During the winter many of us are confined to a fairly sedentary lifestyle, which is bad enough. But what makes it worse is that rich and heavy diet we tend to adopt at that time. Maybe we intended to give up chocolate after Christmas, but there was so much left that we just kept eating it. And once after January 1st has passed, it seems like one has missed the boat for good intentions. But in fact, that is what Lent is for. It’s the perfect time to tune into nature’s cycle and apply the theme of cleansing and renewal to the body.

Depending on your growing zone, you might have noticed that the monochrome colours are changing and fresh green begins to sprout beneath the old leaves. Nature offers a whole host of delicious and healthful herbs that are just perfect for the job of inner cleaning.  No need to buy dried herbs! Most of what is needed will probably grow right in your backyard, or in a nearby meadow.

What does a body cleansing diet actually do?

The idea of a body cleanse is to support the body’s eliminative functions in order to help it in the process of getting rid of accumulated metabolic waste products, which often linger on in a sluggish system. This is done by taking herbs that stimulate the liver and gallbladder and thereby also increase the metabolic rate. Some might act as diuretics and can assist the body in flushing out uric acid crystals, while others improve the function of the respiratory system. These herbs act as tonics, rather than remedies and improve overall function, not heal specific conditions. To a large part, the job of cleansing the body is the work of the kidneys and the liver. Apart from the herbs, certain foods, such as apples, celery, endive, horseradish, and sauerkraut are very useful here. How about trying them in a salad? Perhaps, with raw onions and garlic, even. Keep the marinade simple: olive oil and lemon juice are perfect. As for drinks, cutting out alcohol, coffee, tea, and sugary drinks is key. Fresh apple juice is very wholesome, or, if you can stomach it, a little apple cider vinegar diluted with water and sweetened with honey is a great cleansing and energy-boosting drink.

If you want to try some of the fresh green that is currently sprouting on your doorstep, you could lookout for the following herbs:

Nettles (Urtica dioica):

Most people seem to fear nettles because of their sting. And, perhaps that is just as well, for if they knew how wholesome and healthy nettles truly are, they would probably be an endangered species. Nettles offer a whole powerhouse of nutrients such as vitamins A, C, and iron. Their action is diuretic and they support the body’s elimination via the kidneys. They are particularly useful for clearing out metabolic waste products such as uric acid deposits, form little crystals that can cause a lot of pain in the joints. The most potent way to benefit from them is to take the freshly expressed juice. Juicing them is not so easy, though. If you don’t want to buy it ready bottled, preparing a tea made from the leaves is a good alternative. Nettle extract lowers the blood sugar level and can thus be very useful for diabetics.

As a wild vegetable, Nettles can be prepared like spinach, although it is best to mix the leaves with some other green, as its action on the eliminative systems can be quite strong when eaten in quantity. Adding the leaves to a warming soup is also a good idea.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale):

Dandelion is one of the most beneficial spring herbs available to us. It bears a double blessing: the leaves are especially good for the urinary system. Their powerful diuretic action helps to flush out the kidneys, but unlike other diuretics, it is also rich in potassium, which means it will not deplete the body of this important mineral. Dandelion leaves can be enjoyed as a tea or used as a pot-herb, added to soups and salads. The roots, on the other hand, are quite bitter and have a beneficial effect on the liver Their chemical composition varies depending on the seasons. In spring they are rich in certain proteins and mineral salts, while in autumn they are rich in inulin (up to 40%), which is very helpful for diabetics.

Daisies (Bellis perennis):

The dainty daisy doesn’t look like much, other than a pretty flower that children like to play with. But the leaves and flowers have long been used in spring-cleansing diets. The juice pressed from the aerial parts is a most potent elixir, but must be freshly prepared each day. One tablespoon per day, diluted with the same amount of water, is the recommended dose.

Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria):

Gardeners curse this little herb, which often pops up uninvited and grows profusely in damp, shady places of the garden. The young shoots and leaves have a powerful cleansing effect on the stomach and intestines. They are also strongly diuretic and very effective in flushing out uric acid crystals and other metabolic waste products. They can be added to soups or salads and make a very potent addition to a spring cleansing diet.

As the name suggests, goutweed is specifically known as a remedy for treating rheumatism and gout – a painful condition affecting the feet (The origin of its Latin name, podagra – ‘gout of the feet’ alludes to this use). However, for this purpose, a strong decoction made from the roots is used as a foot-bath.

Burdock Root (Arctium lappa):

An amazingly resilient herb, Burdock can be found almost anywhere. But it is not always easily spotted. It is a biennial plant, meaning, its cycle takes two years to complete. The root of the second year plants is the most powerful. Burdock is known as a powerful liver tonic, helping it to eliminate toxins from the body. Burdock Root is also very beneficial for diabetics, as it can help to regulate gallbladder secretions. It is also rich in Inulin, a soluble dietary fibre that has several important health benefits. Inulin consists of a type of fructose that cannot be broken down and digested in the small intestines. Instead, it moves on to the lower gut where it acts as a pre-biotic and nourishes the beneficial gut bacteria that inhabit that part of the digestive system.

No-one encourages Burdock to take its place in the garden, as its elephant ear-like leaves are too big and rough, and it does not produce particularly pretty flowers either. Butterflies love them, though. And Burdock is in fact extremely valuable, especially for those who suffer from chronic health problems that call for blood cleansing: arthritis, rheumatism, gout, or skin problems such as psoriasis. Growing it in the garden has the advantage that one can prepare a bed for them with plenty of loose soil and straw, which makes harvesting the roots SO MUCH easier! Trying to pull them up from the compacted ground is, well, let’s just say, a lot of sweat!

Burdock root can be taken as a tea (20g to 1/2 litre of water) or, used as a ‘health food’ it can be added to soups or stir-fries. In the old days, Burdock and Dandelion roots were also often used for brewing a rustic country beer or cordial.

Plant profile: Turmeric – Curcuma longa

Plant profile: Turmeric – Curcuma longa

Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.)

Synonyms:

Curcuma (Sp. It. Fr.), acafrao da India (port.), geelwortel (Dutch), kurkum Arab. Manjano (East Africa (KiSwahili), haldi (Hindi) manjal (Tamil), kunyit (Indonesia) temu kunyit (Malaysian), iyu-chin (Chin.)

Description:

Turmeric belongs to the family of Zingiberaceae, the ginger family. Anybody familiar with this family of plants will readily recognise this kinship even upon superficial examination. Turmeric is an upright, relatively short and stout plant that rarely reaches more than about 1 meter in height. Its leaves are elongated, dark green and pointed, often curling slightly along the margins. Each individual leaf rises directly from the fleshy rhizome at the base. The rhizome appears scaly, due to the remaining rings of previous leaves. Its outer skin is brownish, but its flesh is deep orange-yellow inside. Rhizomes grow to about 5-8 cm x 1.5 – 2.5 cm. When bruised they omit a spicy scent. The flower stalk will appear among the leaves, also emerging directly from the rootstock. The cylindrical spike, which may be partially protected by a leaf sheath, bears the whitish-pink flowers, which spiral around the spike. Each flower is protected by a little ‘pocket’ called bracteoles. Turmeric mostly propagates vegetatively via its rhizome segments.

Habitat:

Turmeric probably originated in India and is thought to have derived from the wild species C. aromatica. The greatest variety of species is found in India, Sri Lanka, and the Eastern Himalayas. It is now common throughout Southeast Asia, China, and southern Australia and it is widely cultivated throughout the wet tropics, where it has naturalised. The lion share of all the Turmeric that is produced worldwide is grown and consumed domestically in India.

Etymology:

The name of the genus, ‘curcuma’ is derived from the Arab word ‘kurkum’. Most likely it found its way to the Occident with the caravans of Arab traders. Its Sanskrit name is ‘haridra’, which means ‘yellow wood’.

raw turmeric rhizomes

History and Uses:

Turmeric has a long history of use, not just as a spice, but also as a healing agent and a magical herb. As a spice, it is best known as one of the principal components of curry powder, to which it dons the characteristic yellow colour. Curry powder is often mistakenly believed to refer to a specific spice blend or to be derived from a single plant. Nothing could be further from the truth! There are dozens of curry blends that all vary in their composition. The best are those that are prepared from scratch for each individual dish. These spice blends are indeed a far cry from the generic mixtures found on supermarket shelves.

Here is one of many possible Curry powder blends:

  • 3oz turmeric
  • 4oz coriander (seed)
  • 1 oz black pepper
  • 1 oz ginger
  • ¼ oz cayenne pepper
  • ¼ oz cinnamon

This basic mix is often varied with cloves, cumin or cardamom. In India, fish is sometimes wrapped and cooked in fresh turmeric leaves to impart the characteristic flavour. As a spice, turmeric adds a warm, aromatic, slightly astringent note.

It is a carminative and stomachic that stimulates the digestive processes, soothing indigestion and reducing flatulence.

When Europeans first encountered turmeric they often falsely identified it as saffron. Although it makes a perfect food dye, its properties and flavour do not compare to those of saffron. In India turmeric is indeed widely used as a dye, especially for ritual foods that are offered to the Gods at the temples and as a textile dye (Buddhist robes are traditionally dyed with turmeric). Carbonate of soda helps to fix the dye, although it is not very permanent. Sometimes Turmeric is used as a cosmetic agent, and as make-up for weddings and other festive occasions. The food industry employs it as a colorant for cheese, sausage, and confectionery.

In folk-magic, Turmeric is linked to fertility. There may be a biochemical basis for this association, as medicinally it is used to regulate menstruation and to reduce menstrual cramps. It is also thought to have protective powers and is sometimes worn as a magical charm.

After harvesting, the root is cured for long-term storage. This will prevent them from sprouting new leaves. The traditional method of curing is to boil or steam the fresh rhizome in lime or sodium carbonated water. This cleans the root, stops all germination, gelatinises the starch and removes the earthy scent. After boiling, the rhizomes are dried in the sun and ground into powder. Modern preparation techniques use 20 g sodium bisulfite and 20 g hydrochloric acid per 45 kg of rhizomes, which are boiled in a kind of steam boiler. The result is a cleaner, yellow-tinted rhizome that is deemed ‘more attractive’ in commerce. The roots are then artificially dried, rather than sun-dried, which improves their quality and reduces the risk of fungal growth or other contaminants.

Medicinal uses

Parts Used: Rhizome

Harvesting Time: 7 – 9 months after planting (when the lower leaves turn yellow)

Active constituents: Volatile oils, terpene, curcumen, starch, albumen, curcumin (colorant) potassium, vitamin C

The essential oil of turmeric and the colour component are very light-sensitive and deteriorate quickly when exposed to light. Thus, it is essential to store the powder in a dark jar. A pale colour indicates that the active constituents have lost their potency. When purchasing turmeric pay attention to the packaging date as it rarely lasts for more than 3 months. Turmeric is insoluble in water, but soluble in alcohol. Preparing a tincture is, therefore, a good way to preserve the healing properties. When used in cooking, stir the powder into the hot oil before adding the other ingredients. This will transfer the flavours and benefits to the oil, which will then coat the other ingredients as they are added to the pan.

As its signature indicates, Turmeric is an excellent herb for the liver: It is used for treating jaundice and to stimulate the gallbladder. It is a great digestive aid and helps the body to break down and digest fatty foods. Clinical trials show that it reduces cholesterol levels. Turmeric also has germicidal properties. Its traditional indication for gastric ulcers may be due to its effectiveness in fighting the H. pylori bacteria, which has been identified as the major cause of gastric ulcers. (Munzenmaier 1997 )

In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is considered a ‘pitta’ substance due to its action on the digestive system, aiding the metabolic process and the absorption of nutrients. It is said to ‘stimulate the digestive fire’.

Some traditional healers use it as a remedy for treating cough or cook it with milk and other spices to ward off a cold.

Applied externally, in combination with Neem leaves, it said to be effective for treating ringworm and scabies. Traditionally it has also been employed in the treatment of eczema, leprosy and purulent inflammation of the eyes.

In Chinese medicine, it is indicated for shoulder pain, menstrual cramping, colic, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Recent studies have also found turmeric to be an effective agent to inhibit certain types of cancers. It has been administered both internally and externally to aid the healing of cancer lesions and scars. It is also used for reducing the odour of cancer.

Ayurveda

Ayurveda

Ayurveda – the science of life

There are many healing traditions in India but without a doubt, Ayurveda is one of the oldest, spanning about 5000 years of unbroken practice. In recent times it has even spread into the West.

Often described as a philosophy of life rather than just a system of medicine, the name actually translates as ‘science of life’. But in this case, ‘science’ has a different meaning than we are used to. It is understood as a divinely revealed philosophy that was conceived in a state of meditation.

According to legend, once upon a time, the wisest Brahmans came together to meditate on the subject of health. It was then that Ayurveda was revealed to them in its entirety. It is both, a philosophy and a ‘science’. Its basic premise is that body, mind and spirit form an inseparable entity, which in turn is connected to everything else in the universe.

Well-being is understood as a state of equilibrium, a perfect balance of inner and outer forces, which can be achieved by means of a balanced lifestyle. Its central teaching is ‘moderation in all things, whether physical, mental or spiritual. Imbalance in any sphere of life will eventually impact all aspects of a person’s ‘body-mind’. Thus, a balanced diet is just as important as are happy thoughts and emotions, or a fulfilled love life.

The Elements

But what does ‘balanced’ mean, exactly? Indeed, a term like that can mean completely different things to different people, depending on their temperament.

Like Chinese medicine, Ayurveda also refers to the elements and regards the manifest world as a dynamic interplay of such elemental forces (fire, air, earth, water, and ether) that shape all aspects of the manifest universe.

The elements have little to do with their physical representations, rather it is the essence of fire, water, air, earth and ether that are implied. It is impossible to grasp these concepts scientifically, they must be intuited within their own system of reference and dense network of correspondences.

Every single person is seen as a part of this vibrant and dynamic web of energies. Likewise, all other natural things (including the healing substances that are used to balance an individual’s ‘vibration rate’). In humans, these elemental forces are thought to combine into three basic constitutional types (temperaments), which are referred to as the three ‘doshas’. All doshas are present in all individuals, but one usually dominates. Occasionally, people can have ‘dual-doshic’ constitutions and display characteristics of two doshas in more or less equal parts.

The three doshas are known as Vata, Pitta, and Kapha:

The three Doshas

Vata

Vata is associated with the elements of air and ether. It represents movement and changeability. Vata energy is cold and dry. An individual with an excess of Vata energy may have a tendency towards nervousness and anxiety. They find it hard to sit still and are always on the move. Their minds are quick and active, but the information is also quickly forgotten. Their skin or hair may be dry and brittle and they may suffer from cold hands and feet. Their body frame tends to be light and skinny.

Pitta

Pitta is associated with the elements of fire and water. It represents heat and assimilation and is associated with the metabolic processes. Its hot nature requires plenty of food to fuel metabolism. Because of this inner fire, they often turn grey or lose their hair early. Pitta is also said to be oily, which may present as greasy hair and oily skin. They often have strong body odors. Their memory and thinking processes tend to be sharp. They tend towards perfectionism and often criticize others, or even themselves. They can be dominating and controlling.

Kapha

Kapha is associated with the elements of water and earth. It represents structure and substance. Kapha is associated with the bones and connective tissues. Its quality is heavy and cool. Thus, Kapha types have a heavy body frame and a tendency towards putting on weight. They move and think slowly and can be lethargic. Their skin may feel cool and clammy. They frequently have a sweet tooth. They may be kind and compassionate, but they may also be overly attached and become jealous.

Everybody is constantly subjected to outside influences that may alter their inherent doshic quality so that its expression turns negative. To maintain a state of well-being the doshas need to be balanced with the aid of herbs, nutrition and appropriate mental or physical exercises (e.g. meditation, yoga).

Nutritional Healing

Much of the teachings of Ayurveda is concerned with nutritional healing. Foods are categorized into three basic types:

  • Sattva – milk and plant products, mild flavors
  • Raja – hot and spicy food, meat
  • Tamas – denatured foods, canned food, fast food, alcohol

Which foods an individual should include in their diet is determined by assessing their doshic constitution. An excess of Vata energy is balanced by including foods that are cooked, oily, heavy and warm, and taste sweet, sour, or salty. Refined sugars and yeast should be avoided. Vegetables of the cabbage and potato family are also not recommended. Raw vegetables are ok, but should be marinated, or served with salad dressing. Making proper time for meals (rather than quickly grabbing something on the go) and keeping to regular meal times is also beneficial.

An excess of Pitta energy is balanced by adhering to a predominantly vegetarian diet consisting of plenty of fruits, veggies, and grains. Overly spicy, or acidic foods should be avoided, as should excessive amounts of salt, oil or alcohol.

An excess of Kapha energy can be balanced by a diet consisting of plenty of light, fresh, raw vegetables and fruit. Sweets, creamy foods, nuts, and heavy, starchy foods should be avoided. Spicy foods are beneficial, as they stimulate the metabolism, but sweet, sour and salty foods should be avoided, as should meat, dairy products, and citrus fruits.

Obviously these are only the most rudimentary guidelines. Anybody, who wants to try an Ayurvedic dietary regime, should consult an Ayurvedic practitioner to get recommendations that are tailor-made for them.

The 5 causes of disease

Ayurveda is much more than nutritional healing. It recognizes that different causes of disease call for different sorts of treatment.

Five causes of ill-health are recognized and treated correspondingly:

Accidents:

External injuries, mechanical injuries that call for surgery (broken bones, etc.)

Inflammation

Infections and internal diseases are mostly treated with herbs and other healing substances.

Afflictions of the soul:

Fear, hatred, indolence, jealousy, etc. are treated therapeutically with music, scent (aromatherapy), color therapy, charms, dance, etc.

Natural causes of suffering:

Old age, hunger, etc. are treated with spiritual measures such as meditation, prayer and spiritual practices with the aim of achieving higher levels of consciousness.

Western medicine struggles to come to grips with the often confusing tangle of correspondences and thus, dismisses it as mumbo jumbo, simply because it does not fit neatly into a western scientific model. Some modern Ayurvedic doctors have even tried to translate their system of reference into Western concepts in order to gain more acceptance or to make it easier for western medicine to understand. But Ayurveda continues to evade scientific investigation by the microscopic method, though evidently, it has successfully been used for thousands of years.

Ever since a wave of fascination with Eastern religions swept across Western subcultures, Ayurveda has gained popularity in the West. Ayurvedic nutritionists, health spas, and massage services can now be found in San Francisco, London, or Paris – one no longer has to travel halfway across the world to benefit from these ancient therapies.

However, the question has been raised as to whether a ‘culturally alien’ medical philosophy can be effective, regardless of where and who it is applied to. This argument is certainly one that warrants a pause for consideration.

In some backwaters of India, for example, hygiene is not always adequate. Yet, the administration of injections and Western-style pills may be regarded with such magical awe that they are prescribed excessively and inappropriately, thus producing detrimental and sometimes dangerous results.

Western medicine, although it claims universal superiority over indigenous healing systems, can easily fail in inadequate conditions. Likewise, Ayurvedic medicine in the hands of insufficiently trained practitioners, is also a concern. Access to all the healing substances used in India, may also be difficult. Lifestyle, living conditions and spiritual outlook are completely different in these two different cultures and trying to transpose one onto another is not necessarily practical, even if it is in vogue. However, one should not assume that it would never work.

In India, Ayurveda has been successfully practiced for thousands of years, and evidently, with very good results. But if we want to really understand it deeply we must study its philosophy within its native cultural, philosophical and religious context. To apply only the physical measures is to miss half of its wisdom.

Birch (Betula sp.)

Birch (Betula sp.)

Description:

The graceful birch tree has always held a special place in our hearts and minds. Traditionally she was perceived as a youthful Goddess of love and light. Yet, her soft feminine and almost fragile appearance belie her hardy nature. Birch is a tree of northern latitudes and unforgiving climates – common from Siberia to Scandinavia, Scotland, and England as well as North America, the Himalayas, China, Japan, and North Korea. Some species have traveled south, to the more temperate regions of the Mediterranean and beyond – almost all the way to the equator. But in the southernmost regions of her range, she prefers mountainous terrain. Humble and undemanding in her soil requirements, she will even make herself at home in sandy or stony ground. Yet, her special affinity lies with water and her preferred habitat is boggy terrain. Birch is a pioneer tree, who happily settles where other trees fear to set root. Over time she ‘cultivates’ such terrain, making it more arable and preparing it for other species to follow in her steps.

Her silver-white bark gives her a striking appearance. In youth, the papery bark peels off easily. It is thin, yet tough, and in the past, has in fact served as paper. As the tree matures the bark begins to form a layer of cork that provides excellent insulation and protects her against the cold. The young twigs and branches are reddish brown and very elastic. Early in the year, she is one of the first trees to put on her spring-gown of luminous and delicate lime-green leaves, triangular or heart-shaped in appearance and conspicuously serrated margins. Early in the spring, when the leaves first unfold, they feel sticky and are covered by a resinous aromatic substance with a balsamic scent.

Birch catkinsThe flowers are known as catkins. Both male and female flowers are present on the same tree, though they develop separately. The male flowers begin to develop in the summer, endure the winter and wait until the female flowers appear in spring. They court the wind as pollinator and distributor of their tiny winged seeds, which are so light that they may be carried for several hundred miles.

Birch trees can reach a height of up to 30m. They reach maturity after about 50 years but can live to about one hundred years.

HISTORY, LORE AND MAGICAL USES

The people of northern Europe have long been very fond of this beautiful, slender tree with its white, shining stem and graciously flowing branches. To them, it evoked the image of a beautiful young woman, which they identified with Freya or Frigga, their Goddess of love and fertility. The Celts, who were equally fond of Birches, identified her with the virgin Goddess Bridha or Brigid. Etymologically the name, ‘Birch’, derives from the Sanskrit ‘bhura’, meaning ‘shining tree’ – no doubt an allusion to the striking white bark and bright, golden autumn cloak.

In Siberia, Birch was regarded as the sacred world-tree and presented a bridge between this world and the realm of spirits and Gods. At first this may seem an odd choice, given the modest statue and strength of an average Birch tree. But it may be at least partly explained by the fact that in those remote regions Birch frequently was the commonest, if not the only tree around. Another reason may have been its universal usefulness: Birch provides medicine and nourishment and its bark and wood can be fashioned into a large number of utensils, from birch bark containers to coverings for lodges and even garments and shoes.

 

The sap is rich in nutrients and the inner bark can be ground into a flour to make ‘cakes’. This is considered famine food, the last resort when nothing else is available. But deer, and most importantly, reindeer relish this inner bark, which is their life-saving winter forage. In turn, the nomads depend on the reindeer, the sacred center of their world which provided them with almost all the essential gifts that made life possible in these inhospitable regions. The reindeer was a spirit guide and totem animal – and it also showed the people where to find their most important sacrament, the Fly Agaric. This conspicuous toadstool with its bright red cap and white dots atop forms a symbiotic relationship with Birch and are often found growing near them. Reindeer love this toadstool as much as the Siberian shamans do, who consider them as a sacred food of the Gods. They partook of it on special occasions, while honoring the Gods in ecstatic celebrations, or prior to going on a spiritual journey to ask for help and advice from the Gods. Thus, the Fly Agaric and the Birch tree have become closely associated and both are shrouded in mystery.

Some legends portrait Birch as a manifestation of the Goddess, who offers her milk to the shaman as an elixir of life, and some scholars regard the sacred mushroom as the breast of the Goddess from whence her milk flowed – and perhaps even the source of the fabled Soma, the sacred elixir of life and nectar of the Gods.

Fly Agaric

As one of the first trees to put on her spring-dress it is only natural that the Birch has always been associated with the life-giving power and has featured prominently in fertility rites and magic. Birch signals the arrival of spring and traditionally farmers observed her progress to determine when to sow their wheat.

In pre-Christian times, Birch played an important role in Beltain celebrations, which are traditionally held on the eve of May 1st. Throughout Europe, faint echoes of this pagan festival have survived to this day as rural May-Day festivals and pageantries. May-Day is the celebration of spring, of love, life, and fertility. On this day, the whole community, or sometimes just the young lads and lasses, go out into the woods to fetch the ‘May-tree’, which more often than not, is a Birch sapling. Much fanfare accompanies the procession upon their return to the village. The tree is decorated with colorful ribbons, shortbreads, and other goodies and is fixed to the top of a pole which is erected on the village square. In the old days, the raucous feast went on all day and often through the night, with much eating, drinking, singing, dancing and general merrymaking – much to the dismay of the church authorities. They tried hard to suppress these quaint old pagan celebrations but in vain. The dance around the Maypole is still popular in many rural areas, though modern celebrations are tame compared to those of the past and nowadays have been sanctioned by the church.

The fertility and life-giving powers of the May-tree Birch served as a ‘village charm’. A procession of singing and dancing folks carried it from house to house to bestow blessings and protection to all the village folk, their and their animals. Later, the custom evolved into a form of flogging, often referred to as ‘quickening’, which was based on the belief that the mere touch of the Birch twigs would bestow luck and fertility to those who came in contact with them. Thus the men of the village would take it upon themselves to ‘bless’ the women with these fertilizing powers by hitting them with birch twigs. All female inhabitants, women, girls, cattle and farm animals, all received the same treatment. Eventually, though, the custom changed and only children, mentally retarded people, and delinquents were given the Birch twig treatment, which was supposed to drive out the ‘evil spirits’ that evidently possessed them. Of these, the practice of chastising children possessed with the ‘demons of disobedience’ with Birch switches, has persisted the longest.

Birch regarded as a protective tree, able to ward off all kinds of daemons and witches. In a milder form of exorcism than that described above, Birch twigs were often pinned above entrances in house and barn to protect against and avert the evil-doings of witches and demons and to undo their spells and curses – especially those that caused impotence or made the flow of milk dry up.

In magical folk medicine, Birch was associated with ‘transfer magic’, and used to alleviate the pain of rheumatism. Three days before the new moon the sufferer had to go and plead with the Birch tree to relieve him from his pains. Certain prayers were solemnly recited and a wreath was wound by tying knots into the bendy birch twigs. It was believed that in this manner the painful knots of arthritis and rheumatism were transferred to the Birch tree, while the patient would find his limbs nimble and bendy, like Birch twigs.

GENERAL USES

Birchwood is light and rots easily, which makes it rather useless for construction work. However, the bark is extremely water resistant, a quality, which Native Americans have long put to use for waterproofing the roofs of their huts. They also fashioned special lightweight canoes as well as various domestic items, such as pots for collecting sap, or cribs to carry babies, shoes, lampshades and even toys from this versatile bark. In Europe, the twigs have mainly been used for thatching and wattle work or for making brooms. The brush ends of brooms, including those of witches’ brooms, were also partly made with Birch twigs.

In early spring the sugary sap rises in the stem. To tap it much the same technique is used as for tapping Maple syrup: a hole is drilled into the stem (1/2 cm wide and 3 cm deep), and a glass tube is inserted. One should not take more than 2-3 liters at a time and only ‘milk’ the tree once every two years. The hole must be sealed with special tree wax to protect it from bleeding to death. Ordinary candle wax is not sufficient, as it will just get pushed out again. This is best left to an experienced person as otherwise, the tree may suffer great damage or it may even kill it.

Birch trees also yield a resinous substance called ‘Birch tar’, which can be extracted from the bark. It is very rich in tannins and is used for curing leather. It makes an effective (and smelly) insect repellent and can also be used as a balsamic healing agent for all manner of skin sores including insect bites.

The inner bark is rich in sugars, oil and even contains Vitamin C. It provides welcome winter forage for deer and other rodents when everything else is covered under a blanket of snow. Native Americans used to prepare a type of flour from the inner bark, which could be used for baking. Birch is not often utilized as firewood, as it burns too quickly, but the bark makes excellent kindling and will even burn when wet. The smoke is a powerful disinfectant and when burnt as incense it ‘smoke off’ infectious micro-organisms. Native Americans often burnt thin pieces of birch bark in their ‘medicine tepees’, where the sick were isolated, in order to purify the air and kill off germs.

MEDICINAL USES

PARTS USED: Leaves, inner bark, sap

HARVEST TIMES: Spring

CONSTITUENTS:

Leaves: flavonoids, saponins, volatile oil, tannin, resin

Bark: betulin (birch camphor), glycoside, volatile oil, tannin, bitter substances, resin

Sap: Sugar, organic acids, amino acids

ACTIONS: diuretic, bitter, slightly astringent

Birch leaves are very useful for their diuretic properties and can be used to help in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and gouty conditions. They also have a reputation for dissolving stones. In Russia, an old folk remedy for rheumatism was to completely cover the patient with Birch leaves, which resulted in a cleansing sweat and subsequent relief. The diuretic action also helps to relieve oedematous conditions and urine retention.

CULPEPER SAYS…

‘It is a tree of Venus. The juice of the leaves, while they are young, or the distilled water of them, or the water that comes from the tree being bored with an auger, and distilled afterward; any of these being drunk for some days together is available to the stone in the kidneys and bladder and is good also to wash sore mouths.’

A decoction of the bark can be used as a wash for impurities of the skin. Birch tar is often used as an ingredient of ointments for psoriasis and eczema.

The sap is a wholesome elixir that can be taken as a spring tonic. However, it has a tendency to ferment easily and is thus not suitable for long-term storage. It should be kept in a dark bottle and stored in the fridge. Adding some Cloves and a piece of Cinnamon also helps to prevent fermentation.

A compound tincture of Birch leaves can be used as a tonic hair rinse to promote healthy growth of hair.

  • 2 handfuls of Birch leaves
  • 1 spoonful of Arnica flowers
  • 1 spoonful of Nettle roots
  • 2 spoonfuls of Nettle leaves
  • 4 Cloves

Cover with 70% alcohol, steep for 3 weeks, strain and bottle. Massage into the scalp and hair as a conditioner.

Or, make a strong infusion with the leaves and add 1 part apple cider vinegar.

Native Americans prepared a mushy paste by boiling and pounding the bark so it could be spread on inflammatory skin conditions, ulcers cuts and wounds. This reduces swellings and prevents infection. They also extracted oil by boiling the wood and bark. It is very effective in fighting fungal and parasitic skin conditions.

The North American species are different from the European White Birch. Their bark tends to be darker and has a distinct wintergreen flavor. In spring,

New Englanders enjoy a type of ‘root beer’ made from the twigs and sap, which apparently is very powerful. Euell Gibbons gives the following instructions:

“Measure 4 quarts of finely cut twigs of sweet birch into a bottom of a 5-gallon crock. In a large kettle, stir 1 gallon of honey into 4 gallons of birch sap and boil this mixture for 10 minutes, then pour over the chopped twigs. When cool, strain to remove the now expended twigs and return the liquid to the crock. Spread 1 cake of soft yeast on a slice of toasted rye bread and float this on top of the beer. Cover with a cloth and let it ferment until the cloudiness just starts to settle. This will usually take about a week, but it depends somewhat on the temperature. Bottle the beer and cap tightly. Store in a dark place, and serve it ice cold before meals after the weather gets hot.” He also says, “Don’t’ have more than a couple of glasses of this beer as it has a ‘kick like a mule'”.

 

 

Imbolc Awakenings

Imbolc Awakenings

Imbolc is the time of the light maiden Brighid, a virginal Goddess that appears as the returning light. Quite noticeably the days are getting longer, by a few minutes each day. It is still the midst of winter and yet, if you look carefully, the buds are swelling. Some precocious winter flowering plants defy the odds. Here and there some particularly perky wildflowers are peeking through the snow or old leaf litter:  snow drops, winter aconite or dwarf crested irises, perhaps. Deep within the Earth, the life-force is stirring, the seeds are soaking up the waters of the thawing snow and begin to germinate. The wheel of the year is turning. Slowly the sap begins to rise once more.

Imbolc, or Candlemass in Christian terminology, is the festival of growing light, of cleansing and  purification. It augurs the time of Lent, traditionally a time of abstinence and fasting to purify body and soul.

In the olden days, people would fast or restrict their diets in order to cleanse the body of all the residues of heavy winter foods. To practice a little self-care in this way is to prepare body and mind for the new season.

It is a also a time for scrying and divination, for visualising in your minds eye the possibilities that lay ahead. Take a little time out to prepare yourself for the challenges and opportunities yet to unfold. Reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, on good and bad habits, and on making a commitment to your soul journey. What kind of nourishment do you need to feel fulfilled? What kind of meaning are you giving your life (or want to give your life)? Are you walking your talk?

Imbolc is a good time to charge the seeds that you want to flourish with intention and to foster your inner flame. Take care of that light through the dark of the night. Soon the sun will soon rise again.