Herbal Rituals: Pine

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It is a new month and a new plant to explore in Judith Berger’s Herbal Rituals. The focus plant in December is pine, which is already quite prevalent in mundane celebration this month. I was thrilled to find some beautiful white pines in our local park, well away from the roadways, and private enough for me to gather some needles ethically without having to explain myself to passers-by.

December is the end of the Gregorian calendar and in a lot of traditions, the winter months were not considered actual months at all. They were somewhat of a time outside of time, when people would largely hunker down, eat food from their stocks from the harvests, and spend time in community. Particularly in northern latitudes, it would be a dark and cold time, and it could get dreary, I imagine.

Pine, in Berger’s book, is not only traditionally associated with December holidays, but also has uses in warming, nurturing, and grounding the body and spirit during this cold and dark time. But they are also associated with light and illumination. In Scottish tradition, “pine candles” or chunks of resin-rich pine fatwood are burned in their saining ceremony, particularly in rituals for newborn babies. So pine, as an excellent natural fire starter, can also represent the return of light, which begins at the end of December with the winter solstice.

Pine makes an excellent infusion or decoction, rich in nutrients that are particularly good against ailments common in winter. Or it can be infused into vinegar, honey, or both as a pungent tonic. Perhaps I will explore these other preparations after my next foraging trip, but for this batch, I went a different direction.

I decided to look at the warming and grounding properties of pine in my preparations this month. I used Berger’s infused oil recipe to create a pine-infused olive oil that I can use as a warming massage oil during the dark, cold months. The aroma will be soothing to my spirit while the oil itself will bring blood into the areas of my body that might grow stiff with cold and inactivity. I chose not to include the additional evergreens in her recipe, partly because I did not mange to forage all of them, but also because I found the scent of my pine needles just so intoxicating and wanted an oil of just that beauty.

I also decided to infuse some of my magnesium bath salts with pine needles by alternating layers of salts and cut-up needles in a jar and letting it sit for a few weeks. This will make a beautiful ritual bath for midwinter. Bathing is one of my favorite ways of grounding and releasing tension and negativity, and like many others, I find myself somewhat overwhelmed with the darkness of the time of year.

At the same time, the period between Samhain and midwinter are personally more difficult because it is a convergence of anniversaries of grief-filled events in my life, so I often find myself in need of a warm cocoon to which to retreat and replenish my energy. Perhaps I will find that peach in the boughs of my pine medicines.

The Colonizer Privilege of the White American Herbalist

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This is something that has been floating around in my head for a while, partially inspired by some of the videos that Regina at In Her It Blooms has posted, and in part from a class on pre-Colombian indigenous foodways in what is now Mexico. And it’s something that isn’t brought up a lot in the discussions of ancestral herbalism and appropriation, at least as far as I’ve heard. And that is the privilege afforded to American descendants of Europeans to practice their ancestral herbalism on soil that did not originally yield the plants native to Europe.

You see, when Europeans came to colonize these lands, they did not just colonize with people. They also brought animals and plants with them. Rather than just learn to adapt to the native flora and fauna of this land, they brought over the things that were familiar to them. It’s why we farm cattle and chicken and pigs instead of turkey and bison. And it’s why every lawn, at least in my area, is plagued with dandelions. Because many of the medicinal plants from Europe are invasive weeds in America.

It came up when I was chatting with the presenter who was teaching us about Aztec foodways, she mentioned something called garlic vine, which is apparently common in Latin cuisines, but difficult to find outside of Latin markets and I asked if it was similar to garlic mustard, a wild plant that I can find near me in the mid-Atlantic. She hadn’t heard of it, but another class participant pointed out that garlic mustard is not native to the Americas and is considered invasive.

And that reminded me of the lovely patch of mugwort that grows next to my house and yields so much plant matter that I’ve used for various botanical experiments. Well, mugwort is also considered invasive to the Americas. It was likely brought over by Europeans to populate their kitchen gardens and escaped, as many weedy herbs are wont to do (like the spearmint that does glorious battle with the mugwort). And looking at my yard, I can identify many of the plants there. And so many of them are native Eurasian plants that have been “naturalized” to the Americas. But that is just a nice-sounding word for brought over and took over, or colonized.

So, as a colonizer, I can now “wildcraft” plants that are found in my own ancestral traditions by walking out my front door, despite the fact that they’re not native to my home soil. And yet, these plants must be displacing something, which are the native plants of this place, just like colonizers displaced indigenous peoples.

We should also remember those of us on this soil who are not descended of colonizers, but are instead descended of those kidnapped and brought over by force. And while there are some plants that were brought over from other looted lands, they are not nearly as prevalent in the wild landscape of the US. So while I can walk out my door barefoot with a pair of scissors and gather half a dozen different European-tradition herbs that I didn’t even have to plant or tend myself, another American might be forced to find a source of the cultivated herb, paying money to reclaim their own heritage, which my ancestors brought over for me to have for free.

All of which is to say that, while I am thankful for my ancestral traditions, I always try to remember that it is easier for me to practice it than others, still rooted in the ways my ancestors stole this land that I now consider my home. So as I go through my own journey, I am careful to give credit to the traditions from which I learn, respect the traditions of others, and make sure to do all that I can to keep less-privileged traditions accessible to those whose ancestry they are.

Plants and Ancestors with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms

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I mentioned in passing that I had participated in a class called “Plants and Ancestors” with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms, but I felt compelled to write a post specifically discussing my experiences of the class and how it has deepened my practice over the last week or so. The class was in response to the many Instagram posts and Stories Regina shared over the last several months about cultural appropriation in the herbal community, a topic that interests me greatly, and about which I plan to write in more depth in the near future.

But the essence of this class was learning what ancestral herbalism is and how to connect with your own ancestry, regardless of your knowledge of your specific genealogy or biological heritage. Personally, I have both started working on a genealogy, given that I have the privilege of a white descendent of Europeans, and have had my biological heritage mapped by 23andme (although, I’m planning on testing with another company sometime to explore how the results compare). The results are not surprising. I am completely European, within the limits of accuracy of those tests. The largest percentage is of the British Isles, particularly greater London and some parts of Ireland. Matching up to my genealogy, my Gaelic ancestors likely emigrated from Ireland to Scotland in the Middle Ages, and then later to England, based on surnames.

And yet, even knowing this, Regina’s class was illuminating. It is one thing to know who your ancestors are on paper, but quite another to engage with them through an ancestor-veneration practice. In Celtic paganism and Druidry, ancestor veneration is an integral part of the practice, and one that had eluded me as someone with a complicated family dynamic. Of course, there are others with much less access to information about their heritage. So the class focused more on how to intuitively connect with one’s ancestors.

At the end of the discussion, Regina led us in a guided meditation to meet an ancestor who was particularly in need of attention. Interestingly enough, the ancestor who came to me in this vision was a relative of my only living grandparent, my first-generation American grandmother, born to Magyar immigrants who came from Hungary and Romania in the early 20th century. This also happens to be the side of my ancestry that I ever truly had experience with, as my grandmother tried to maintain this tie to her heritage, and I was the one who chose to learn at least some of it from her, mostly in the form of cooking.

And so, beyond considering how to add regular ancestor veneration to my practice, including blending my very disparate Germanic, Norman, Celtic, and Magyar heritages together, I have been reminded that ancestor veneration is about keeping tradition alive. Sometimes that means setting an altar, lighting a candle, and giving the offering (my grandfathers both love whiskey), and sometimes that means regarding the baking of many rolls of walnut beigli and enjoying it with some Romanian fruit tea as a form of veneration.

Beyond that, it has led me to even further investigate the herbal practices of my ancestors. I know my great-grandmother ran a homestead where they lived in Ohio, and that she came from a small, poor, rural village in Hungary, where it was likely in addition to making all of their food, she likely would have used herbal remedies on her family. My mother has some vague memories of home remedies. But now I can research and find things like nettle and elder on the Magyar side, and linden and blaeberry on the Celtic side.

And so I keep reminders of my particular ancestral heritage close to me. It has become less of an academic exercise, tracing the lines and links, and more personal.

Herbal Rituals: Mugwort

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Recently, I was introduced to Judith Berger’s beautiful book of herbal tradition, Herbal Rituals, in which she connects each month of the year to a plant or two. Her book starts in November, just after Samhain, at the pagan new year. And she starts with Mugwort.

One of the concepts of green witch herbalism that I adore is the idea of finding your “green ally.” This is a plant that isn’t necessarily the only remedy you might need, but is a specific plant that has been speaking to you. And the tenacious patch of mugwort outside my front door has called to me lately. She has survived many weedings (the perils of living in rented housing) and provided me with copious bundles of mugwort for a myriad of recipes and storage.

And then, while participating in Regina Prichett’s “Plants and Ancestors” class, I realized that something deeper was calling me to this patch of mugwort. After sharing this, she pointed out that mugwort in indigenous to most of Europe and the British Isles and any one of my pan-European ancestors (seriously, no one nation or area of Europe can claim a full half of my ancestry, apparently). So as whether I am connecting with my Scots-Irish ancestors or the Magyar, mugwort is an ally to my work.

The best thing I’ve found to do with her is to use the process I learned from Alexis Nicole on TikTok (and Instagram), which she got from Shell (@wild_food_around_the_world) to treat harvested mugwort leaves like green tea. The process of steaming, rolling, drying, and roasting yields an amazingly fragrant and smooth cup of mugwort tea, even though I harvested my leaves much later in the season that was ideal. And the tactile connection to the leaves brings so much experience to the process.

In her book, Berger talks about November as a time for rest, but also vision and memory. Samhain, the opening of both the pagan year and November as a month, is a time at which the veil between the world of the living and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, making it a time for ancestor connection and divination. The idea of the new year being a time to get in touch with your intuition and vision strikes me a gentler way to think about New Year’s resolutions. Rather than choosing to what box you want to conform, you consult your essence to see how you can better accommodate its expansiveness.

Mugwort as a remedy is associated with divination, trance, and dream work. Drinking it as a tea or working with it before going to sleep is supposed to induce vivid dreams. As someone who has recently found myself less able to fall asleep and sleep restfully, I chose to make a mugwort dream pillow from the book this year. I had a remnant of beautiful dusty lavender colored linen that a seamstress friend sent me when it was leftover after she made a dress I bought from her. It has been sitting in my fabric stash for over a year and this seemed the perfect way to honor it. I sewed it with intention and meditative calm, and then filled it with rice for weight, mugwort for vision and dreams, lavender and hops for relaxation, and a pinch of mint to enhance clarity. It’s a large pillow and covers about half my face, the weight of it making it a soothing way to release the tension in my face, and the scent lulling me into rest.

A cup of mugwort green tea and a lie-down with my dream pillow puts me into the perfect state to receive the rest and dreams that November will bring to me. I wish you a restful and meditative winter.