Ocymum basilium (basil)

Week 31 of the PBP.

Basil: the king’s herb. I believe this to be the tastiest weed on this good green earth. So many different flavors, so many colors, I could go on and on. With just a little pinch back at the beginning of the season, you’ll soon have a wealth of materials for pesto, thai cooking, even sorbet!

I associate basil with Earth and Jupiter, not least because it has the reputation of being quite handy in money spells. I also find it to be a mood brightener. It’s almost impossible to feel sorry for oneself when munching on a tomato salad garnished with basil greens.

Basil is everything that is good in life, summer’s bounty and the promise endless fragrant breezes ahead.

Lilac

Week 24 of PBP.

There is nothing like driving past a hedge of lilacs in bloom with the windows rolled down. It’s incomparable. The only thing more fun is standing amidst them in the rain, letting the water roll down over glossy leaves and splash on your face.

These are the flowers of my maternal line. My mother brought the white lilacs from her family home in Pennsylvania. It’s a stubborn plant, growing in a place that should be too shady, and blooming anyway. It’s always been smaller than its purple neighbors, but I’ve always been very fond of it because of its history.

Hemlock

First off, in case anyone here is reading from Europe, I’m not talking about the stuff Socrates used to end his days. Why the shared name? Supposedly, when the needles of Eastern/Canadian hemlock, or Tsuga canadensis,  are crushed, they produce a smell similar to that of poison hemlock. However, Eastern hemlock is a slow-growing, long-lived tree that, unlike many conifers, actually needs the shade of taller hardwood trees to grow well. It is very sensitive to sun, wind and moisture variation, all of which can cause die-back during the winter.

name? Supposedly, when the needles of Eastern/Canadian hemlock, or Tsuga canadensis,  are crushed, they produce a smell similar to that of poison hemlock. However, Eastern hemlock is a slow-growing, long-lived tree that, unlike many conifers, actually needs the shade of taller hardwood trees to grow well. It is very sensitive to sun, wind and moisture variation, all of which can cause die-back during the winter.

Sadly, Eastern hemlock faces a moderate level of threat from the wooly adelgid, which was introduced from East Asia (those Tsuga are resistant to it, happily). The major problem with the death of a single hemlock is its shallow and wide-spread root system: if a large tree falls, it is very likely to take many younger trees with it as well.

Because of its longevity and love of damp places, Hemlock is what I replace Yew with in my Northeast ogham set. Interestingly enough, none of the magical authors whose books I own address Tsuga, though plenty mention poison hemlock. Astrologically, because of its slow development, I associate it with Saturn, and with the element of Earth, though she embodies Spirit as well to my mind, particularly since male and female cones are formed on the same tree. I’ve always found Hemlock to be very open to humans, both curious and sassy. She’s a wonderful tree under which to meditate, and for those working the Ovate grade of OBOD,  she can be a wonderful candidate to watch over both the Rite of the Tree and the Rite of the Ancestors.

Englishman’s Foot (Plantain)

And, you, Waybread [Plantain], mother of herbs, open to the east, mighty within; carts rolled over you, women rode over you, over you brides cried out, bulls snorted over you. All you withstood then, and were crushed; so you withstand poison and contagion and the loathsome one who travels through the land. —Nine Herbs Charm (trans. Slade 2002)

This week’s Pagan Blog Project post was originally going to be about echinacea. I spent most of a week trying to figure out how to write about a plant that I actually don’t care for in the least, rooted in the fact that cone flowers were all the rage with perennial gardeners when I worked at the greenhouse, and I got sick of the damned things. I was grumbling about this to my husband, who gave his standard helpful advice of “why don’t you find something else to write about?”

So, having exhausted the scientific names that begin with “E,” I began browsing common names and found that plantain was sometimes called “Englishman’s Foot.” Bingo! This little guy is ubiquitous in the Northeast, often unfairly maligned as one of those pesky “broadleaf weeds.” In fact, “the ability of plantain to survive frequent trampling and colonize compacted soils makes it important for soil rehabilitation. Its roots break up hardpan surfaces, while simultaneously holding together the soil to prevent erosion” (Tilford & Gladstar 1998, 163). Like so many “common” plants, the role plantain plays in local ecology is often overlooked.

Plantago major

We always had an abundance of the stuff when I was growing up since my father, bless him, refused to use weed killer (of course this mean most of the summer he or I was in the gravel driveway pulling out weeds by hand). I would gather it up for my guinea pig, who couldn’t get enough of the stuff; eventually, we just put Mr. Pig out in the drive (under a laundry basket so he couldn’t escape) and let he eat his way through the vast quantities of plantain. I still put it in spring salads, before the leaves become too tough to be tasty.

I don’t remember when or where I first learned about Plantain’s medicinal properties,* but I remember crunching up the leaves as a kid and putting them on bug bites to help stop the itching. Beyerl cites broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) as a cooling herb, used to reduce fevers, treat burns, and sooth minor wounds and rashes (1984, 143). A weed walk guide told the story of how plantain came to be called Englishman’s or White Man’s Foot, how native peoples knew a European settlement was near by the presence of this plant. It’s interesting how an herb so important to the Anglo-Saxons became the identifier for their descendants as they colonized new lands.

Magically speaking, most of Plantain’s attributes correlate directly with its physical healing properties. Cunningham cites it as being feminine, belonging to Venus and the element of Earth (2003, 207); however, Hopman also associates Plantain with Saturn (133), an argument which I can see being made as it both cleanses and protects.  Both Cunningham (2003, 207) and Hopman (1995, 182) name it as an herb for protection, hung in the home or car to keep out evil spirits. When using plantain leaves in spells like these, I like to balance the feminine Venus qualities with red thread (for Mars and action), something Cunningham mentions in his cure for headaches (2003, 297).

In many ways, Plantain and its fellow weeds like Dandelion and Mugwort embody the purpose of the Pagan Blog Project for me: paying attention to the sacred that surrounds us. These aren’t the “big gods” of the plant world, the immortal Yew or mysterious Datura. These are the everyday beings who are so often overlooked in the search for the powerful and exotic. Plantain represents the daily work, the daily practice that lays the foundations for the more occasional peak experiences. These “weeds” are our altars and our discipline, cultivated over time—our daily prayers rather than high holy days. The lessons Plantain and its fellows provide are often times the most relevant to our continued spiritual progress. Weeds may be small, but their tenacity—a quality I wish to emulate in my own practice—is mighty.

*Usual disclaimer: don’t take medical advice from a druidry blog without checking with a professional first.

 

Artemesia vulgaris (Mugwort)


Remember, Mugwort, what you revealed,

what you established at the mighty proclamation
“Una” you are called, oldest of herbs.
you may avail against 3 and against 30,
you may avail against poison and against contagion,
you may avail against the loathsome one who travels through the land.
(Woden’s Nine Herbs Charm from Lacnunga LXXIX-LXXXII, trans. B. Slade 2002, ll. 1–6)

In the Middle Ages, the plant was known as Cingulum Sancti Johannis, it being believed that John the Baptist wore a girdle of it in the wilderness. There were many superstitions connected with it: it was believed to preserve the wayfarer from fatigue, sunstroke, wild beasts and evil spirits generally: a crown made from its sprays was worn on St. John’s Eve to gain security from evil possession, and in Holland and Germany one of its names is St. John’s Plant, because of the belief, that if gathered on St. John’s Eve it gave protection against diseases and misfortunes. (Grieve 1931)

I have a soft spot in my heart for mugwort. As a kid, a friend and I would gather armfuls of it by the roadside, in the shade of the hemlocks that loomed at the edge of her property. We’d strip the leaves off of the stalks that were almost as tall as we were, then crush them between rocks and cover them in water, leaving them in the sun to make “tea” or “stew” or a “potion.” We called that plant sagebrush, because well, it smelled a little like sage and grew in the brush. Oddly enough, we weren’t that far off.

So, the scent of mugwort has always brought my back to a happy childhood place. More recently, I’ve found it to be a good herb to aid in journeying—I’m some what sensitive to it, as just weeding the stuff from under my deck will put me into a light trance if I don’t have gloves. In my personal experience, Grandmother Mugwort is a little too random to be used alone for dream work, but produces very interesting results when combined with either agrimony or lavender. Though Cunningham associates her with Earth (2003, 178) she has always felt much more watery to me; additionally, he associates her with Venus, while I find her better matched with the Moon. Hopman agrees that the little Grandmother aids in visions and prophecy, adding that a wash of mugwort tea applied to crystal balls or mirrors aids their clarity (1995, 72). She will protect homes, friends, and possessions, and can consecrate and purify tools (Beyerl 1984, 135).

But lately I’ve found myself in a somewhat awkward situation with this tenacious little plant, as it’s become an invasive pest on our property. Many folks find her to be a noxious respiratory irritant (since she’s also related to ragweed), and one of my neighbors as been on a holy crusade to get her “under control.”

Good luck with that.

The more likely story is that we continue to give the little Grandmother the perfect growing conditions. The neighborhood here is quite new, the soil poor, and the fields broad and sunny. Moreover, we have conscientious folk who keep said fields nicely trimmed. My guess, and it’s only a guess mind you, is that mugwort is one of those pioneer plants, much like the birch, growing at the edge of things and making the way for others. So by cutting her down again and again, we are actually giving her exactly what she needs to thrive.

And more than a little part of me rejoices at seeing her thwart our attempts to control her wildness.