Worts and All with Airmid

Worts and All with Airmid is written by Gillian Green. The portrait of Airmid is by Morgaine du Mer.  

Merry meet friends! My name is Airmid--a great great great great great great granddaughter of the Tuatha de Danaan--the children of the Goddess Danu. My family were legendary healers and herbalists, and I'm here to pass along some of our plant-lore and wisdom. This is called Wortcunning--a funny name! In the old days, healing plants were called "worts." You may have heard of Mugwort, Lungwort and St John's Wort. Wort is an old word for "root" and it became a part of the names of many helpful plants.

Brigid's Healing Herbs
Imbolc is a very special occasion for we wort-cunning folks because this is Brigid's time of the year. She is the patron of healers as well as smiths, poets and brewers! She is also the goddess of hearth and home. If you don't know Brigid, let me tell you a few things about her. 

Some of her nicknames are Keeper of the Flame, Spark of Wisdom and Bright Arrow. From this you can see that Fire is her element. This goes with the fires of Imbolc, when we start to see the first signs that warmth is returning to the land--the days are getting longer, and if you look closely you may see catkins starting to bud on the branches of the willows and other trees. 

One of Brigid's plants is the crocus. Why? Because this is one of the first flowers to pop up around Imbolc time. Sometimes on Imbolc, the crocuses in my garden have even poked their heads up through the snow, along with hellebore flowers and snowdrops. They have an important message to deliver--Spring is coming! Another one of Brigid's plants is coltsfoot which is also among the first plants to bloom in the Spring. You may have noticed coltsfoot flowering on wooded hillsides or beside the road. Sometimes their yellow heads are mistaken for dandelions but it's much too early for dandelions yet.

Rowan and oak are two trees that belong to Brighid. Oak is hers because there is a sacred site in Ireland at Kildare where Brigid was supposed to have lived. Kildare in Irish is "Cill Dara" which means "church of the oak." Brigid's fiery arrows are said to be made of rowan wood, and in some legends she carries a rowan wand. In the Celtic lands, mothers hang a cross of rowan over their babies' cradle and recite a prayer to Brighid for protection of the children. The red berries of rowan are called Caora Teine (fire sparkle) in Irish. Last but not least, the blackberry is another one of Brigid's plants. I'm not sure why this is, except to guess that maybe since she is the patron of blacksmiths, she might have been the first one to use blackberry leaves as the cure for burns.

Just imagine Brigid the healer dipping nine blackberry leaves in water from her sacred well and then putting them gently on a smithy's burnt hand, while saying to each leaf three times (27 times altogether): Three ladies came from the east, One with fire and two with frost. Out with fire, in with frost!

On Imbolc, I honored Brigid by decorating my altar with crocuses and snowdrops. I offer acorns too because they are the seeds of the oak, and Imbolc is seed time. The new moon of February is the best time to plant seeds. This year February has no new moon--the next new moon (and closest to this month) is on March 1.

If it's still too cold to sow your seeds straight out into your garden, you can still start some indoors on the new moon. The easiest herbs to start from seed indoors are basil, catnip, sage, thyme or any mint. Fill some recycled containers--empty yogurt cups, plastic containers from the grocery produce department, egg cartons, or whatever else you can think of--with potting soil. Follow the directions on the back of the seed packet for planting. Keep the soil moist by misting lightly, but don't let it stay soaking wet. And don't forget, when you plant your seeds think of your wishes for Spring and Summer and plant them too, so that they will sprout and grow with your herbs.

Another way to celebrate Imbolc, Brigid and Seed Time is to make a seed cake to enjoy at the sabbat feast or to share with friends. Here's one of my favorite recipes.

4 Cups flour
2 Cups sugar
2 Tablespoons caraway seeds
2 Cups butter, beat until creamy
8 Eggs
1 Grated nutmeg

Separate the egg yolks from the whites. In a large bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add sugar and mix well. Beat the egg whites and add them, then beat the yolks and mix in. In another bowl, mix together the flour, nutmeg and seeds, then beat into the wet mixture. Pour this into a greased cake pan to bake at 425 for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. And as with any kitchen activity--this must be done with an adult!

May the Bright Arrow light your path with love and warm the seeds of your dreams. 

Spring Tonics
Greetings, Broomstix readers! It's your wortcunning friend Airmid back with you again on this happy, happy day. Why so happy? Because the green is finally returning to the meadows and woods, fields and hills, and even to your own backyard. Spring is here!

Imbolc was a time for cleansing and cleaning. Some of you may have burned the last of your Yuletide greens as a trusting affirmation that more green is on the way. In my coven, one tradition we always follow on Spring Equinox is to go looking for Lady Spring. It's like a game of hide and seek. The youngest girl, dressed all in green, goes off to find a good hiding place. Then the rest of us must find her. We sing to her and call to her as we search, and when we find her, we know Spring is officially here and the celebration begins.

You can go looking for Lady Spring too. She can be found in anything that's new and green. And She gives us gifts when we find Her. If you know how to recognize these green gifts, you can use them for Spring tonic potions.

What is a Spring tonic? It is a plant remedy that helps your body get rid of some of the heavy stuff that built up while you were spending the Winter indoors, in front of your television, or sitting at the computer. You'll need a lot of energy to enjoy the good-weather activities coming up, and spring tonics will help you to bounce back from the Winter blahs.

If you go out looking for Lady Spring's good green gifts, one of the first ones you may find is chickweed. This helpful little plant pops up on the first warm days. It grows very low to the ground, often so thick that it forms a kind of mat. The leaves are small and shaped like diamonds, and you'll know the flowers because they look like tiny white stars. Chickweed is loaded with nutrients, the perfect Spring tonic ingredient. Pick some and make a juicy, crisp salad. It tastes like mild, sweet lettuce. Enjoy it now, because chickweed grows best in Springtime and Autumn. It doesn't like very hot or very cold weather.

Chickweed. Photo by NatureServe via Flickr Creative Commons
Another early green you may find on your hunt for Lady Spring's gifts is nettle. This plant likes to live in rich, moist soil. It looks like an overgrown mint, but if you look closely you'll see small prickly hairs on the stems and leaves. And if you find one nettle, you're in luck because there will probably be a whole patch of them growing. Nettles love company, so its rare to find just one plant. Wear gloves or wrap something around your hand when you pick these, and take only the tender new leaves from the top of the stalk. Don't worry about having to eat the pricklies. They soften when Nettle is cooked. Nettle builds healthy bones, teeth, hair and skin, and will increase and balance energy levels.

Nettle. Photo by benketaro via Flickr Creative Commons
The third gift of Lady Spring is--of course--the sunny dandelion! Dandelions may be hard to recognize before the familiar yellow flowers appear, but if you look for them hard enough, you'll recognize the spear-shaped jagged leaves. Look for the toothy leaves that are hairless. Pick the leaves while they are still young and tender and use them as salad greens, cook them like spinach or make a tea. Dandelion is very high in Vitamins A and C, potassium and calcium, which energizes you and gives your liver and digestive system a good tune-up.

Dandelion and friend ♥ photo by steve p2008 via Flickr Creative Commons
For thousands of years, wise people all over the world have been looking for Lady Spring's green gifts and using them as Spring tonics. When you find some, please don't forget to thank Her!

Till next time, bright blessings and good health to you, worts and all--from Airmid.

Magical Marigolds
Merry Meet, Broomstix friends! Airmid the Fey here again with another useful plant for you. This time it's marigolds for Midsummer, so sit back and let's find out why this is the perfect flower for this time of the year. First of all, when I talk about marigolds I mean the ones that grow nicely in pots as well as in the garden, also known as English marigolds or common marigold. Their botanical or scientific name is calendula officinalis. These are not to be confused with the wild marigold, Tagetes, which was sacred to the Aztecs and whose petals are strewn on the graves of loved ones during the Mexican Day of the Dead.

My marigolds are the true pot-marigolds, the ones Shakespeare called "flowers of Middle Summer" because they are at the peak of their blooming right about now. These plants first grew in the Mediterranean area ages ago, and now they brighten up the Summer in all parts of the world. The name "marigold" probably came from the old Saxon word 'Ymbglidegold' (try saying that ten times fast!) which means "it turns with the sun."

They are one of the easiest flowers to grow because they like any kind of soil and will flourish in sunshine or shade. If you have Calendula growing in your garden now, be sure to keep picking off the flower heads as soon as they get seedy if you want them to keep blooming. Marigolds are good self-seeders but there's always a chance they may just die off when they go to seed. If you've missed the Spring planting, you'll have another chance to sow Calendula in late August or early September for fall flowering. If you don't have a garden, you can plant the seeds in pots.

Marigold Photos by Jim the Photographer via Flickr Creative Commons

There are a lot of old stories about marigolds. In Brittany, there's a folk belief that if a maiden touches a marigold with her bare foot, she'll understand the language of birds. The flower is thought by many to be the herb of love and clairvoyance. In Welsh folklore, if the Calendula flower did not open before seven, it was an omen that there would be thunder that day. In Devon and Wiltshire, they believed that if you picked marigolds, thunder would soon follow. In astrology, this cheery golden flower is a Sun-blessed plant and goes with the sign of Leo. It was thought in the olden times that simply looking at a marigold would banish anyone's sadness.

But let's get back down to earth and see why Calendula is really so useful to us, especially in Summertime. For at least seven centuries, people have been using it for troubles like bug bites, sunburn, chapped lips, or just dry itchy skin. You can get ready-made Calendula salve, gel or cream in pharmacies or health food stores. Or you can easily make your own.

The flowers should be gathered early in the day, when in full bloom, after the dew is dried but before the sun soaks up all the essential oils. The petals are what to use for making the salve. They can be dried whole, but dry faster if the petals are pulled off, separated and spread out to air-dry. Mix in a new handful of petals every few days until you have enough. The dried petals can be saved in a dark-colored glass jar and stored in a cool, dark place to use whenever you want.

To make Sun-Soaked Midsummer Marigold Salve, you'll need these ingredients:

1/4 cup dried Calendula flowers
1/2 cup exta virgin olive oil
1/8 cup grated beeswax
40 drops lavender essential oil (Remember to use essential oil with caution!)

Put the dried flowers into a pint sized canning jar. Add oil and stir well. Cover with tight lid and set on sunny windowsill. When the oil turns a deep golden color, usually in about 2 weeks, strain the oil through several layers of cheesecloth or fine linen. Then, combine the oil with grated beeswax in a small, heavy saucepan. Heat gently to melt the wax, then add the lavender oil. Carefully pour mixture in widemouth glass jars, let cool, then cover tightly with a lid. Store in a cool dark place and it will be good for a year.

Marigold Photos by Jim the Photographer via Flickr Creative Commons

Marigold petals can also be eaten (they're rich in Vitamin C and phosphorus). They add a pretty dash of color to salads. KIDS--before you eat ANYTHING, always check with an adult first! And a special CAUTION: Since Marigolds are in the same family as daisies, chrysanthemums and ragweed, DO NOT use them if you have allergies to these other plants or ANYTHING in the Aster family.

The Three Sisters
Greetings, Broomstix readers! I'd like to introduce you to some very good friends of mine. They are Native American sisters who are down to earth yet magical too. They have been honored at harvest time for thousands of years and are still alive today. Let me tell you their story.

A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. Each one was different in size and liked to dress a different way. The littlest one could only crawl on the ground and she wore all green. The next sister had a bright yellow dress and whenever there was a lot of sunshine and gentle breezes in summer, she would run off by herself. The third sister, the oldest one, always stood tall over the other two to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl and had shiny, silky golden hair. These three sisters were also alike because all three of them loved each other and always stayed together. That's what made them all so strong.

One day a child came to the field. This child liked to talk to the animals and birds. He noticed the three sisters and they noticed him. Towards the end of the summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. It made her other sisters sad. Around harvest time, the child came back again. He looked at the two sisters that were left and they looked at him. That night, the second sister, the one in the yellow dress, was gone. The oldest one was sad over this but kept standing tall in the field.

When the child came back again, he saw how much the tall one missed her sisters. And so the next day he brought them back. When they were all together again, they were even stronger than before. The three sisters and the child became good friends and lived happily together ever after.

Corn Husk Dolls by Amber deGrace via Flickr Creative Commons

Long before Europeans came to the Americas, the native people knew the magic of what is called companion planting. There are certain plants that help each other to grow when they are planted together as companions. The Three Sisters are one of the oldest examples of this. Planted close together, they all benefit each other, like good sisters do. The corn grows tall and makes a natural pole for the beans to climb. As the beans grow, they enrich the soil to feed the other plants. And the squash grows close to the ground to block out weeds, keep the soil moist, and discourage insect pests with its hairy vines.

But that's not the only amazing thing about the Three Sisters. Besides helping each other to grow, they help us too. Fresh corn is one of the most nutritious foods of the harvest. The few elements that it lacks in nourishment are filled in by the good things in the beans and the squash. Together the Three Sisters give us almost everything we need for health, strength and growth.

Making Corn Husk Dolls by Dedra Wolff via Flickr Creative Commons

You can honor the oldest of the Three Sisters at harvest time by making a corn husk doll (CLICK HERE for step by step instructions!). All you need is dry husks, a bowl of warm water, string or twine and scissors. Make it as simple or fancy as you like. Dress it up like the Corn Sister, or try to make it look like yourself, a friend, or a member of your family. Use corn silk, yarn or twine for hair. Wrap more corn husks around it for clothing, or try scraps of felt, doll clothes, bits of leather, beads, buttons, glitter - whatever you have handy. A traditional Native American corn husk doll would be decorated with clothing and hair but would have no face. Keep it on your altar or in a place of honor in your home to remind you of all the magic of the Three Sisters.

Worts and Warnings: Herbs That Can Harm
It's Samhaintide when the days are short and the nights are long. I've just finished bringing in the last of the goodies from my garden because the pooka will spit on them if they are left out on Samhain night! As we move into the darker time of the year, we remember and honor our dead loved ones and perhaps think more about the spooky, shadowy sides of our lives. So this is a good time to talk with you about some spooky, shadowy wort-stuff, namely poison plants.

Some are not entirely evil because they are still useful to us in some ways, but these plants will make you sick or could even poison you if you eat them. Some of them can hurt you even if you just touch their leaves, like poison ivy or poison oak--so leave them be!

Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) has a long history of deathly deeds. They say that the Greek gods first got monkshood from the spit of a mad dog, then started trying to kill each other with the juice. It has been used to poison the tips of arrows. Like many poison plants, it doesn't look dangerous. It is in the same family as the cute little buttercup. Be warned by the flowers that look like fairy-sized purple hoods or helmets. Monkshood likes to grow in the darkest, dampest part of the garden. Birds love the ripe seeds and can survive eating them but this plant is poison for humans and other animals. Beware! Another poison plant is Belladonna (Atropa belladonna) also known as Deadly Nightshade, which should tell you enough just by the name. Believe it or not, it is in the same family as the tomato and huckleberry. It grows anywhere and everywhere.

Hands off belladonna and its berries! Just touching the leaves can make you sick, especially if your touch your eyes, nose or mouth afterwards. The berries look good enough to eat but are toxic to humans and animals. Small rodents especially like the berries so if you see a lot of dead mice or moles somewhere, it's probably near nightshade. Keep away! Fairies love foxglove, but we should be wary--hands off! Foxglove (Digitalis) can be planted by your door to invite the fairies in. But never, NEVER eat any parts of this plant. It is toxic to all animals, including humans. 

One of my favorite plants is a poison plant--the moonflower (Datura innoxia), also called devil's or angel's trumpet, thornapple, or jimson weed. I have several in my garden because I love the big, beautiful white flowers and the interesting prickly fruits that come after--but I would NEVER ever think of eating one! Hands off Moonflowers--they're for looking, not touching! This plant, especially the seeds, contains highly toxic alkaloids. It's so bad that even most animals will avoid it, so there's little danger they'll be poisoned. Humans should be as wise, and simply enjoy the beauty of moonflowers. 

Henbane (hyosyamus niger) is an outcast from ancient herb gardens. It is rarely found in anyone's garden anymore and grows as a weed, even if it is in the same family as tobacco, potato and tomato. As if to ward us off, it is a very ugly plant covered with prickly hairs. It stinks. And it thrives in places like ruins, graveyards and garbage dumps. In mythology, the dead in Hades were crowned with henbane as they roamed along the River Styx. Not all animals die if they eat henbane. It certainly provides a nice feast for cabbage moths. But it is toxic and can be fatal to most animals in small doses, as well as humans.

Last in our lineup of poison plants is the Hemlock (Conium maculatum) also known as devil's porridge or poison parsley. All parts are poisonous, root, stem and flower. Hemlock is harmful--hands off! It was used in ancient Greece for poisoning prisoners, the most famous of whom was Socrates. Only six leaves, or smaller amounts of seed or root, can kill an adult. This plant is good for the garden because its umbrella of flowers attracts a good kind of wasp who will hunts down nearby insect pests.

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