life, Plants and Herbs

Strawbin’.

Okay! Hear me out.

We… went strawberry picking.

If you’ve been following this blog, I know what you’re probably going to say.

“J. You already accidentally bought 47 strawberry starts. You were concerned about what you’d do with up to 140 pounds of basically-almost-free strawberries. Why did you go pay to pick strawberries somewhere else?”

You’re right. This was part of a meetup with one of my Druidry groups, and, to be honest, I wanted to go hang out. Besides, my own strawberry plants aren’t pumping fruit out just yet, so I figure this’d give me some tasty fruits for the meanwhile.

We went to Larriland Farm about an hour after the fields opened. You pay for your container in the beginning, take it to a designated area in the field, and fill it up as much as you can. Since you’re not paying by weight, the more you can fit, the better. My partner was initially going to get us two of those little blue molded fiber baskets, but we soon decided a larger flat box was a better idea.

J. crouched in a strawberry field, filling a flat cardboard tray with fruit.
To think, I thought the box was getting full here.
J.'s partner standing in a strawberry field, holding a flat box filled with berries.
To his credit, he did.

A little less than an hour later, we had pounds upon pounds upon pounds of juicy, very ripe berries. I kept warning him that the box was full, but he was determined to heap them as high as possible. “Nah,” he said, “I can totally Tetris more in.”

All of us paused for meditation (and to eat a few berries) before leaving. Then, after tucking the box of strawberries in the back seat like it was a newborn baby, we carefully trucked them home.

At home, I pureed a bunch of the fruit with spinach, then poured it into an ice cube tray to freeze. Once frozen, it’ll be an easy, space-saving way to keep smoothie ingredients. Some of the fruit will be for salads, frozen for later use, used to flavor water kefir, or macerated in sugar for waffles and shortcake. I sliced a whole bunch, layered it with caramel and pastry, and made a tarte Tatin. Even with all of that in mind, there are still so many strawberries.

A very gooey strawberry tart, with vanilla ice cream.
I hadn’t counted on how juicy the berries would be, so I ended up with a bit too much liquid. Neither of us complained, though!

It’s kind of funny. The blue paper pulp boxes wouldn’t’ve been nearly enough. The next size up, I feel like I’m drowning in berries. It is a problem I enjoy.

I also discovered that it’s possible to break out in a rash from touching strawberry plants, even if you’re not at all allergic to the fruit. Strawberry leaves have trichomes, which are possibly best known as the little hairs on cannabis plants. Strawberry trichomes come in two types: glandular and non-glandular. The non-glandular ones are just little poky hairs that are kind of physically irritating, and help keep bugs at bay. The glandular ones, on the other hand, are attached to glands. These trichomes can inject tiny amounts of defensive compounds.

Imagine if, to protect yourself from bears and muggers, you never left the house without putting on a special anti-bear-and-bandit coat covered in hypodermic needles filled with acid.

The end result was one mother of a rash from the back of my hands to my elbows. This probably isn’t a true allergy, and more a product of spending like an hour accidentally injecting myself with tiny amounts of liquid “fuck off” in strawberry language. I even tested this idea by taking a fresh berry, eating a tiny bit, and rubbing the bitten portion on the inside of my elbow. Aside from a red stain, there was no rash, no itching, no welts, nada. So I’m pretty much free to gorge myself on as many strawberries as I desire.

Here until the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry,
j.

Plants and Herbs

Grass Folklore and Magical Uses

I admit, I’m staunchly anti-lawn. Only 50% of this mindset comes from the fact that I’m very allergic to grass. The other 50% comes from the fact that lawns consume more than their share of water, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers; take up space that could be better used by useful plants; and seem to be a weird kind of status symbol. Also, I hate homeowners’ associations with a passion, and they seem to be really anal about grass.

(I used to try to deliberately sabotage a particularly douchey HOA president by discreetly hucking cannabis seeds into his lawn at every opportunity, and I apologize to no man.)

A tree in the middle of a grassy field, under a cloudy sky.

Since it’s getting into late spring soon, my feelings about grass are at a particularly high peak. It had me wondering — short of raising very small quantities of grazing livestock, is grass actually good for anything?

I also read an old recipe for a hand of glory that involved smoking the severed hand of a hanged man with a mixture of hay and other herbs, and hay is basically large grass, so I thought there might be something there. Could lawns be hiding a treasure trove of magic?

Grass Magical Properties and Folklore

First, it should be noted that “grass” on its own isn’t terribly descriptive. There are a ton of grasses that are known for their magical and medicinal properties, like vetiver and lemongrass. Others, like sweetgrass, have religious or ceremonial significance. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to confine the idea of grass to species like timothy hay and Kentucky bluegrass — the kind of grasses that you’re likely to see appear in paddocks or lawns, either intentionally or as weeds.

A spotted butterfly on a blade of grass.

Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) is said to be particularly aggressive when it comes to triggering hay fever. Interestingly, preparing a tincture of the fresh grass, splashing some into one’s hands, and inhaling the fumes is said to help halt an allergy attack.

Hay, in general, is associated with pregnancy and fertility. Some sources treat it as a healing herb.

Couch grass (Elymus repens) is used for happiness, love, lust, hex-breaking, and exorcisms. It appears to be a general “get rid of bad stuff, bring in the good” herb, particularly when it comes to getting rid of malevolent-but-not-terribly-powerful spirits.

Goosegrass is name applied to several species, some of which appear as common weeds in lawns. Cleavers (Galium aparine), which doesn’t really resemble grass, is sometimes called goosegrass. It’s often used for spells to bind two things together. Indian goosegrass (Eleusine indica) is a species that is considered a nuisance plant in lawns and golf greens. Goosegrass is generally associated with dreams, wisdom, and luck.

Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), a common lawn grass in the U.S., is an important Ayurvedic herb. Some research has shown that it may be helpful for controlling blood sugar. It’s also said to regulate bowel movements, ease digestion, heal mouth ulcers and skin problems, and help stop bleeding from hemorrhoids. It has some antimicrobial properties, which can make it useful for healing minor infections.

“Hungry Grass”

In Irish folklore, there’s a phenomenon called fΓ©ar gorta — famine grass, or hungry grass. This was a patch of grass, completely indistinguishable from any other, that would cause intense hunger pangs in anyone who stood upon it. Some unlucky steppers might even become suddenly exhausted, or even pass away where they stood.

In some tellings, this is because the grass is growing over the grave of a victim of the Great Famine. In others, hungry grass is attributed to malicious faeries.

Delicious Crabgrass

Crabgrass seems to be the bane of many a stereotypical suburban dad. Far from merely being an unsightly interloper into a perfect putting-green lawn, this grass is useful as animal fodder, producing fiber for paper, and even produces edible seeds. Hairy crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis) is sometimes cultivated in Europe, and the seeds are known as “Polish millet.” When ground, these seeds produce a useful white flour for baking.

Hairy crabgrass is also medicinally useful. In a decoction, it was used as a treatment for gonorrhea. It was also sometimes used as an emetic, or for general debility — though I’m not sure how throwing up a whole bunch would really help there.

The Hand of Glory

As I mentioned above, hay is (sometimes) instrumental in making a Hand of Glory. This was a kind of grisly candleholder intended to help thieves go about their business. When set with a candle (in some tellings, one made with the semen of the hand’s former owner), it would cause all of the occupants of a house to fall into a deep sleep, as well as unlocking any pesky doors that might stand in between you and the house’s valuables.

All recipes for this grisly curio involve cutting the left hand off of a man freshly hanged on the gallows. If he was a murderer, it should be the hand that did the deed.

According to one recipe, the hand then needed to have as much blood removed as possible. In one recipe, it must then be picked in the urine of a man, woman, stallion, mare, and dog for a month. Then, it should be smoked with hay and other herbs, then hung from a church door overnight. At that point, it’ll be ready to use.

In another, the hand must be packed in a jar with salt, pepper, and saltpeter, and left for two weeks. After that, it should be baked in an oven heated with vervain and ferns for one hour.

Recipes for the candle are pretty specific, too. Some require it to be made of the dead man’s fat and semen, with a wick made of his hair. (Unfortunately, getting hair to light isn’t exactly easy — unlike cotton, it doesn’t really burn. Animal fibers tend to just smolder.) Other instructions say it was best to just dip the whole dingdang hand in wax, then light the fingers directly. This seems a bit wasteful to me, though. After a month of pickling with horse pee and smoking with herbs, I’d like my dead guy’s hand to be more than a one-use item!

Using Grass

First, you want to make sure that you’ve removed all of the stems and see-

Wait. Hang on.

Using grass magically or medicinally is fairly simple; the only really tricky part is figuring out what you’ve got. There are reasons why all those short green lawn plants are just called “grass,” and, if you’re not an expert, it’s probably pretty tricky to tell the difference between Bermuda grass, Kentucky bluegrass, or fine fescue.

Once you’ve figured out what you’re dealing with, the next step is pretty much up to you. It’s worth acknowledging that a lot of the grass species used for lawns aren’t from Europe, so there isn’t going to be a lot of Witchcraft or Druidic lore behind them.

A kitten about to go primal on some flowers in a grassy field.

In general, grasses seem to be treated as positive omens that bring luck. This isn’t too surprising — grass is fodder for grazing animals, and its appearance in spring meant that they could graze, and not rely on stored hay. Hungry animals meant hungry people, and grass made all of the difference. Fresh grass chased away the evil spirit of starvation.

Assuming you aren’t allergic, you can place dried grass in a sachet or charm bag for luck, fertility, and protection from evil. You could also steep dried blades in hot water, and add the liquid to a floor wash for the same purposes. Sufficiently long grass blades could be dried and bound together in an herb bundle to fumigate an area, as well.

I can’t vouch for using grass medicinally, particularly given the difficulty with distinguishing one species from another. If you want to use it that way, you may be better off buying dried or tinctured grasses, versus trying to harvest and prepare your own. (Grasses are also generally doused in pesticides, fertilizers, and other things you probably don’t want in your medicine.)

Until lawns fall out of fashion, at least we can use grass for something positive.
Well, you can. I’ll be over here with the antihistamines.

life, Plants and Herbs

Pennyroyal Folklore and Magical Properties

There’s been a lot of buzz about pennyroyal on the interbutts. Even if you don’t fall in the demographic of people likely to ever have to worry about pregnancy, you might know what large doses of pennyroyal can do just through cultural osmosis.

Photo from Gardenology.com.

Unfortunately, this lovely herb’s use is controversial for good reason.

Pennyroyal Magical Uses and Folklore

Pennyroyal is either feminine and ruled by the planet Venus, or else it’s masculine and ruled by Mars. While this is confusing, I feel like it illustrates the dualistic nature of this herb very well — it’s an objectively beautiful plant, with its lush, creeping growth and clusters of purple flowers invariably covered in bees and butterflies, but it’s also a deadly poison.

As an herb for travelers, a few leaves placed in each shoe was believed to offer protection and guard against tired feet.

Because of the herb’s use as an emmenagogue, it’s sometimes used as an ingredient in sachets and jars for blood magic and protection (especially for sex workers).

Interestingly, this herb is also used for peace. When carried or hung in a space, it helps keep tempers from flaring. (Be very cautious to avoid hanging it where pets or children might ingest it!) This might be an extension of its use as protection against the evil eye. If you think about it, it makes sense — it’s a soft, fuzzy, flowery herb with an unassuming appearance, but it hides a potent poison. Pennyroyal is pretty much the embodiment of an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Pennyroyal is also used to break hexes and curses.

The botanical name, Mentha pulegium, stems from its ability to repel fleas. This might also be the source of its protective powers — it chases fleas and negative or malevolent energies away.

Image by Alex Lockton, used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In ancient Greece and Rome, wearing a crown of pennyroyal was believed to relieve headaches. The herb was also used to flavor savory foods.

Pennyroyal is still used in North African cuisine to this day. The US Food and Drug administration allows naturally-derived pulegone, a compound found in pennyroyal, as a flavoring agent.

Pennyroyal as Medicine

Pennyroyal is a mint. Members of the mint family contain a naturally-occurring compound called pulegone, which appears to be the primary source of this herb’s toxicity. Even when it isn’t acutely toxic, pulegone has been found to cause pre-cancerous changes in the organs of rodents. The thing is, while herbs like catnip and peppermint have much less pulegone, pennyroyal has a lot.

With that in mind, let’s talk about something called the “therapeutic window.” Put briefly, this is the range where you get the benefits of a medicine, without significant adverse effects. Some medications have a pretty broad therapeutic window. Some do not. Some therapeutic windows are so narrow, they’re not worth considering as treatment.

Pennyroyal falls squarely into that last category.

The thing is, pennyroyal does have some medicinal benefits. Traditionally, it was used as an ingredient in teas. It’s said to be good for flatulence and stomach cramps, like many other members of the mint family.

This is all in very low doses, however, and the beneficial effects of pennyroyal can be found in other, much safer herbs. Flatulence? Try a carminative like caraway seed. Indigestion? Regular peppermint will probably do you just fine.

Pennyroyal also has a reputation as an abortifacient and emmenagogue, meaning that it can trigger an abortion or bring on a period that’s been delayed. The dosage required to do this is pretty much at the far end of the therapeutic window, and the variability in strength of herbal medicine makes it impossible to figure out the difference between “safe and effective” and “deadly.”

Think of it this way — plants aren’t inert. They respond to their environment. If there’s heat stress and a lot of pests, they produce more of the volatile compounds that help them survive. If they’re in a relatively low-stress area, or pampered in a greenhouse, they’ll likely be less intense. This means that, if you’re trying to figure out your own dosage of pennyroyal, you’re pretty much flying blind. You have no way of knowing how much pulegone a given dosage of pennyroyal might contain.

That means that not only might you not actually trigger an abortion, you could end up destroying your liver, kidneys, and lungs instead. Worst case scenario, you will die and it will hurt the entire time. Just like everything else, there are much safer herbs that can help bring about a late period.

I have only one piece of advice when it comes to using pennyroyal medicinally: Don’t, unless you’re doing so under the guidance of a doctor. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have an antidote for pennyroyal poisoning.

Using Pennyroyal

While it’s still used in dishes like batata bel fliou, if you don’t have experience cooking with pennyroyal, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid putting it in brews, potions, or foods.

Oil of pennyroyal is the most toxic form of the plant, so you may wish to find an oil with comparable magical uses instead — especially for anointing.

Other than that, pennyroyal is fine to use in jars, sachets, and spells that don’t involve taking the herb internally. Since it’s been shown that it can cause pre-cancerous changes in the lung cells of rats, I’d probably avoid putting it in incense. (Members of the mint family tend to smell awful when burned, anyhow.)

If you’re a sex worker (or just someone who enjoys sex and wants to protect themselves), you might want to include it in a jar for attraction and sensuality as a sex-specific protection herb. Combine it with ingredients like rose petals, jasmine, and sugar, seal with the wax of a red candle, and keep it under your bed.

For protection, fill a jar with pennyroyal, cactus spines, garlic, and hawthorn. Keep it under your porch, or bury it near/under your front steps.

For peace, mix pennyroyal with lavender and thyme and put it in a jar. Seal it with the wax of a white candle, and keep it in a safe place near the heart of your home.

Pennyroyal isn’t immediately and intensely poisonous like some herbs can be, but the people most likely to look for it for medicinal purposes are at the most risk. If you’re experiencing menstrual irregularities or a late period, there are other treatments out there that are much safer for you.

Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

Fennel Folklore and Magical Properties

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a Mediterranean herb related to carrots. The type you see in supermarkets is bred for its large bulb, which is eaten as a vegetable. You can also find the dried leaves in teas and herb blends. It has a flavor very reminiscent of anise or licorice that becomes mild and sweet during cooking. It’s also related to silphium, a plant that was both considered a delicacy and included in formulas to cause miscarriage.

Flowering fennel tops.

One of the most interesting things about fennel is its action on the endocrine and reproductive systems. While it isn’t true that the ancient Romans harvested a relative of fennel to extinction for to use for herbal abortions, alcohol extracts of a relative of giant fennel (the source of the spice asafoetida) have been found to prevent egg fertilization and induce miscarriages in rats.

Fennel Magical Uses and Folklore

While fennel isn’t exactly the same plant as asafoetida, fennel seeds do act as a uterine stimulant. Part of this is due to an estrogenic effect, possibly courtesy of the compounds anethole, dianethole and photoanethole. Fennel also contains an enzyme that effects the body’s ability to process certain drugs. In the 3rd century, a doctor named Metrodora included a species of fennel in a compound of herbs to cause miscarriage.

Fennel is one of the plants in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm. To wit:

[C]hervil and fennel

very mighty these two plants created the wise leader holy in heaven

when he hung set and sent into the 7 worlds

for wretched and rich all to remedy

stands she against pain

stands she against poison.

Who is mighty against 3 and against 30

against fiends hand

against spells

against enchantment by wicked wights.

An excerpt from the Nine Herbs Charm, from the Lacnunga

Interestingly, Pliny the Elder claimed that silphium (the much-desired fennel of ancient Greece and Rome) had a powerful purgative effect when initially consumed. It was said that the plant purged the body of undesirable “humors,” effectively causing a kind of physical purification. However, Pliny also thought that snakes ate fennel to improve their eyesight, so maybe don’t take everything he says at face value.

A trio of fennel bulbs.

When planted around the home, fennel acts as a magical ward. This may be based in part on its use as an insect repellant — the idea being that it repels evil just as well as it does bugs. As an extension of this idea, medieval households would hang fennel above the door and fill their locks with fennel seeds to keep wandering, unsettled ghosts away.

Fennel seeds are burned to purify spaces. You can also dress a candle with fennel seeds to break streaks of bad luck and crossed conditions in your life.

Fennel’s estrogenic effects were sometimes relied on to improve libido. By extension, the flowers and seeds are often used in sachets and charms to enhance one’s love life.

Planting fennel and dill together can result in hybrid plants that look like a cross between the two and taste like neither.

Followers of Dionysus carried wands made of fennel stalks.

Fennel is used for courage. Chew the seeds or drink fennel tea before you have to do something scary or difficult.

Using Fennel

Consume the seeds or drink the tea to help trigger a late menstrual period. The maximum dosage of fennel seeds for an adult human is about 6 grams. More than that may cause unwanted effects.

You can use pretty much any part of the fennel plant — chew the seeds, put them in tea, eat the bulb and stalk as a vegetable, you name it. This means that you’re pretty much free to choose whichever part of the plant resonates best with you, and use it however it suits your purposes. If you plan to consume it, be sure to do your research to make sure it won’t interact with any other herbs or medications you’re currently using. It’s generally safe in food amounts, but the risk of adverse side effects increases with the dose.

Fennel seeds are great additions to sachets, powders, and potions.

Growing fennel is fairly easy. It can grow in zones 5-10, and is a perennial in zones 6 and up. Nonetheless, it’s usually treated as an annual — it self-sows prolifically, and you’re likely to harvest and use the whole plant once its mature anyhow.

Sow fennel in early spring, about 16-18″ apart in an area that receives full sun and has enough headroom for the plant to reach its full 5′ adult height. (It’s best to direct sow, because fennel isn’t very receptive to transplanting.) Avoid planting it near other plants, since it secretes a compound that prevents competition. Coupled with its sun-blocking height, and you may find that its neighbors really struggle. Fennel also hybridizes readily with some other plants, so you may find that the seeds you get from it aren’t true to the parent plant at all.

A swallowtail caterpillar crawling on a fennel flower.

Water fennel regularly until its well established. The plant generally doesn’t experience many problems, though you might find swallowtail butterfly caterpillars chewing on the leaves!

Harvest fennel after about two months, once its mature. Cut off the flowers as they appear, unless you want to gather the seeds (or would like the plant to self-sow).

Burn the seeds or stalks for purification or protection. Blend with rose petals, cinnamon, and other love and lust herbs for use in aphrodisiac formulas.

Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

Strawberry Folklore and Magical Properties

Ever since my strawberry buying and planting misadventure, I figured it’d be worthwhile to write a bit about the historical and potential magical uses for them. (Especially since, having done the math, I may need to find uses for up to 140 pounds of ’em.)

Strawberries come from various species of the genus Fragaria. Like so many other popular fruiting plants, they’re actually related to roses. The typical strawberries that you grow in the garden or buy in the store are varieties of a hybrid cultivar called Fragaria Γ— ananassa, but there are over 20 species that appear all over the world. Another popular species is Fragaria vesca, the Alpine strawberry. These plants produce small fruits with a flavor reminiscent of pineapple.

A cream-filled strawberry cake roll, decorated with fresh berries.

I remember playing in a patch of wild strawberries when I was very small. We had a ton of volunteer Fragaria virginiana in our back yard, which returned every year with pretty much no effort on anyone’s part. The birds usually got to the fruits long before we could, so finding the tiny, jewel-like berries hidden under the leaves was like finding treasure.

Strawberry Magical Uses and Folklore

The term “strawberry” comes from the Old EnglishΒ streawberige. This may refer to the tiny seeds on the outside of strawberries (the actual fruits — what we generally think of as the “berry” part, isn’t!) which resemble wheat chaff. A cognate name was eorΓ°berge, for “earth-berry.” This can still be seen in the modern German word for the fruit, Erdbeere. Β 

The deep red color and heart shape of strawberries makes them sacred to Venus and Aphrodite. One may extend this to other goddesses of love and beauty, as well.

This connection to love goddesses may be the source of one legend about the berries. It’s said that double strawberries are potent love charms. If you find one, break it in half and give one half to your intended partner. If you both eat the halves of the double strawberry, you’ll fall in love with each other.

In some parts of Bavaria, strawberries are used to ensure healthy cattle and abundant milk. Farmers hang small baskets of wild strawberries on the horns of their cows, as an offering to local faeries. These faeries are said to love strawberries, and will protect the cattle in return.

A small wild strawberry.

Strawberry plants are potent emblems of fertility. They reproduce via seed, largely by attracting birds to their bright red fruit. The birds eat the flesh, and the seeds (actually achenes, or ovaries containing a single seed) pass through their digestive systems. Strawberry seeds only require light and moisture to germinate, so they grow easily pretty much wherever they’re dropped. The plants also reproduce via runners, or specialized shoots that grow out from the mother plant and produce full plants of their own. In other words, it’s almost harder not to grow strawberries!

Using Strawberries

I mean… You can just eat them. Strawberries are kind of neat that way. Convenient. This advice is probably not what you’re here for, however.

It should be noted that, while it’s highly likely you have wild strawberries in your area, you may also stumble across the mock strawberry. This is Potentilla indica, and not a variety of true strawberries (though, like true strawberries, they’re also a member of the Rosaceae family). They very closely resemble wild strawberries, but have yellow flowers and less flavor. Fortunately, they aren’t toxic.

Medicinally, the leaves and roots can be brewed into a tea. This tea is believed to help get rid of “toxins,” which means that it acts as a diuretic. That helps flush compounds like uric acid, so strawberry may be prescribed as a treatment for gout. The astringent properties of this tea is also said to help with gastritis, intestinal bleeding, heartburn, and other digestive complaints.

When used topically, an infusion of the leaves and roots may help clear up acne by acting as an astringent. The fruits, too, are also rumored to be beneficial here — eat a strawberry, then rub the leftover bit of flesh at the top on your face. The natural acids present in the fruit can help with cell turnover and unclog pores.

Magically, you can offer strawberry fruit and flowers to deities of love and beauty. You may also want to use the fruit in kitchen witchery for beauty or attraction spells. If love spells are your bag, you may even wish to include these fruits in brews or desserts to share with your desired partner.

A brew of mint and lime, with fresh strawberries.

Strawberries are a beautiful part of the transition into spring. Their medicinal properties are helpful for shaking off the effects of winter, and their vibrant taste and color are a treat after months of gray weather.

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Foraging for Flowers and Ramps

The more I think about it, the less sure I am that alien invaders would be able to set up shop here for an appreciable amount of time. They’d probably get eaten. (Even the really weird-looking ones. Especially the weird-looking ones. Maybe in an etouffee, like crawfish.)

A garlic mustard plant.

I like to consider myself an invasivore. If it’s here, causing harm, and tasty, I will find a way to eat it. This is why I was very happy to learn how to identify garlic mustard on a recent foraging walk with some friends. (A lot of invasives are valuable as medicine or food — they wouldn’t’ve been brought here if someone didn’t think they were useful for something.)

Of course, not all tasty things are invasive, which is why it’s important to be conscientious. In general, it’s best to take as little of a plant as you can, and avoid taking the roots unless absolutely necessary. One of the nice things about eating invasive plants is that you don’t need to be particularly careful about damaging their population, but this isn’t true for native species. Like ramps, for example.

A cluster of wild leeks at the base of a tree.

Ramps are wild leeks, and sadly trendy in the culinary world. In some areas, they’re delicacies that have been harvested to endangerment. They’re a spring vegetable very similar to a leek you’d get from the grocery store, which means they’ve got an onion-like bulb topped by flat leaves. The whole plant is edible, but it’s not uncommon for a nice patch of ramps (which can take years just for the seeds to germinate, then another seven years for the plants to mature) to get harvested to oblivion for the bulbs.

Fortunately, since the leaves are also delicious, this isn’t necessary. You can enjoy ramps and still leave the live plants behind. All it takes is harvesting one leaf and moving on, rather than digging up the entire plant. (I’m planning to chiffonade the leaves for potato soup. I’ve got some new potatoes from the farmers’ market, creamline milk, and a whole bunch of home made vegetable broth!)

A cone-shaped inflorescence of bear corn.

One of the neatest things I saw recently wasn’t something I was looking for — in fact, I’d never encountered it in my life, and had no idea it existed. Conopholis americana, also called cancer root, bear corn, or bumeh, is a profoundly odd-looking parasitic plant that lives near oak and beech trees. At first resembling an upright corn cob or the cap of a fungus, closer inspection revealed cream-colored flowers.

Despite the name cancer root, it doesn’t appear to actually fight cancer. However, it does have some pretty powerful astringents that help with wound clotting. This plant was also used to help induce and progress labor (which gave rise to another, more offensive name that has largely fallen into disuse). It’s also a diuretic and laxative, which is what gave it the name “bear corn.” After months of hibernation, bears need to “unplug,” as it were. They’re attracted to the springtime blooms of bear corn, and eating it seems to help get things moving.
This idea is plausible enough, though I have chosen not to test it myself.

We also spotted a black squirrel, though nearly missed it. He skittered quickly along a fallen tree, and was far out of sight by the time I managed to try to get a picture. Still, even without photo evidence, it was pretty neat to spot two very rare things. (Melanistic squirrels only occur in about 1 out of every 10,000 eastern gray squirrels!)

Here ’til the day breaks and night falls,
J.

Blog, life, Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

Back into the woods.

it’s a rly good deal tho, I texted.

My phone buzzed a second later.
I’m literally about to get on a plane right now, he’d sent back.

This back and forth happened a few more times, before he finally agreed that a couple hundred dollars off a four-day vacation was, in fact, a very good deal.

This all started when my partner realized how much vacation time he had left over at the end of last year. It doesn’t roll over and he can’t cash it in, so it was pretty much just kind of wasted. Ever the supportive devil on his shoulder, I urged him to make sure he takes all of the paid time off he could this year, especially if it was just going to evaporate if he didn’t.

“Your job’s able to offer you this because of the value created by your labor. It’s not a free perk or a fun bonus, it’s literally something you’ve earned. If you can’t get the equivalent value in your paycheck, you should take whatever you’re offered. You’re basically giving up part of your salary otherwise.”

(I also have the same attitude toward expensed meals, fitness equipment, and other benefits. Just because it isn’t money doesn’t mean it isn’t compensation, friends!)

And this is how, on a shuttle immediately before boarding a plane, my partner prayed that his phone’s battery and internet would hold out long enough for him to book a four day stay in a Getaway cabin. It was a scramble to schedule everything before the sale ended or his phone gave out, and he succeeded with almost no time to spare.

A sign on a cabin that says "Getaway Shirley."

We’ve stayed in a Getaway tiny cabin before, so I knew this’d be a good deal for us. Last time was during winter, so I was pretty excited to experience the area when it was a bit warmer and greener. That part of Virginia isn’t exactly in full bloom just yet, but was still beautiful — especially if you’re a weirdo like me who experiences aesthetic arrest from the sight of, like, an extremely good mossy log.

Interior of an apothecary shop, with shelves full of incense, candles, herbs, and remedies.
Image from Visit Waynesboro.

When we weren’t walking in the woods, taking pictures, trying to identify plants, or “catch and release” mushroom hunting, we were reading or writing. One day was a bit too chilly and rainy to do much outside, so we went for a drive down Skyline to Waynesboro, VA. There’s a fantastic apothecary there called PYRAMID, with some really wonderful locally made candles, incense, artwork, jewelry, herbs, teas, remedies, and curios.

A close-up of violet flowers.

The environment of the cabin was just as relaxing as last time. There was a very beautiful patch of violets right near our fire pit (I picked a few for pressing), and we were tucked far enough away in the trees to have privacy but just close enough to other cabins to not feel completely isolated. Along the stream in the woods, Christmas ferns were sending up tons of spiraling fiddleheads. The moss was verdant and bright green, and the lack of leaves on the trees was more than made up for by the abundance of lichen and mushrooms on the ground. The weather was cool, alternating between sun and a light, silky drizzle that made everything seem fresher and brighter. Though the trail we took was relatively short, it took us a while as we kept stopping to get down, snap pictures, sketch, or identify something.

We packed well this time around, though we brought way too much food for the two of us. Pasta, salmon, shrimp, steak, cinnamon rolls, ingredients for s’mores… He cooked the meat and fish over the fire, and made some of the most amazing, crispy salmon I’d ever had. It was simple — just fish cooked in the cabin-provided olive oil, salt, and pepper — but the texture and subtly smoky flavor were perfect. We had it with lentil pasta all’arrabiata, and I’ve been craving campfire cooked salmon and pasta ever since.

A close-up view of the inside of a violet flower.

(We did run out of salad greens at one point, which got me wondering how I’d scrape together some from the surrounding landscape if I had to — there were violets, dandelion greens, and the pink flowers of redbud trees… Christmas ferns can be eaten the same as ostrich ferns, so fiddleheads too. Fortunately, I did not become responsible for foraging for our vegetables, because I did not want to play “Fuck Around and Find Out: Salad Edition.”)

Coming back took a bit, mostly because we’d scheduled things so we still had a day or so between going home and going back to work. It meant that we were able to visit all of the pottery shops, antique stores, and farm stands that we passed along the way. We ended up coming home with coffee beans, copper sculptures, and a cypress knee(!!!) that we hadn’t originally intended to, so I’d say our sidequesting was a success.

Here ’til the crow flies and the flies crow,

J.

Blog, life, Plants and Herbs

Come. Let us frolic among the violets and- *upset bird noises*

I struggle with setting up and changing routines. I thrive with structure, though it’s very difficult for me to adhere to, and I don’t like having to move things around. This isn’t to say I don’t like spontaneity — but I need to schedule opportunities for spontaneity around the stuff I gotta do. Maybe it’s my Virgoan tendencies, maybe it’s the unmedicated ADHD and the fact that I have the executive function of a brine shrimp. Who knows!

A vase of flowers and jar of chalk next to an open day planner.
You want spontaneity? I can be spontaneous for four hours next Thursday.

Anyhow, all of this is a roundabout way of explaining how my partner and I went to frolic with the polycorns and run amongst the brain trees. See, we try to hit up farmers’ markets whenever feasible. This is partially out of a desire to shop local, our duty to support our community, the need to make sure the market keeps happening in our city, and also because the food is way better (and generally cheaper) than our other options here.

A head of lettuce growing from the ground.
A fresh lettuce with the roots still on absolutely beats the metaphorical balls off of an anemic head of iceberg, and I do not apologize to anyone.

There’s only one problem — the market we usually visit is open on Sunday, and we had a Thing scheduled for that day. So, we roused ourselves on Saturday to go track down another farmers’ market, which meant that the morning I usually spend sleeping in (and being slept on, in turn, by a small orange cat), I instead spent buying produce, cheese, a batch of really kickass empanadas, et al.

This meant that both partner and I were bright eyed and bushy tailed, with a whole afternoon ahead of us and nothing to do with it. I suggested a walk, so we went to find an entrance to this pretty little local trail.

As it turns out? It was a really good idea.

We didn’t walk very far, but there wasn’t a need to. The area we found was carpeted with violets, and a little flowering dogwood had burst into a riot of bright pink blooms. There was even what may have been an apple tree nearby — it’s hard to tell, because a lot of that branch of Rosaceae look similar when they flower — perfuming the air with a bright, sweet scent. Some deer had evidently paused there, leaving tracks in the soft, damp sand.

The trail was full of dogs, too, from an adorable miniature schnauzer, to a huge, sleek, jet-black pit bull. (His ears were cropped, and he crossed the little footbridge before his owners did. When I first saw him, a tiny caveman part of my mind warned that I might somehow be looking at a panther. I’d say this is silly and ridiculous, but this is also a world where the Tiger King exists and zebras just kind of wandered around the DC area for a while.)

My partner and I looked for four-leaf clovers between the sweet purple and white violets, poked around the shore of the nearby creek, and picked up litter along the trail.

A faded, wet, beaten-up sign saying "Love thy neighbor, no exceptions. Black lives matter. God is love. LGBTQ+ people are of sacred worth."
Even the litter here is extremely wholesome.

Then, in the midst of this sweet, flowery idyll, I heard what could only be described as the sound of someone trying to feed an uncooperative bagpipe into a garbage disposal. There was a crashing noise, the crunch and rustle of leaves, and a pair of shapes darting through the trees.

Well, one was darting. One was kind of… scramble-flailing? Whatever it was, it wasn’t flying and it wasn’t falling, but it looked extremely uncomfortable.

A large crow had chased a falcon to the end of his family’s territory, and was in the process of escorting the interloper out (with violence). I’d read about crows doing this, had even seen videos of it, but nothing compared to the sight of that massive, almost eerily silent corvid turning an entire-ass raptor into a crying mess.

Now, I had a front row seat. I was fortunate enough to be standing right where there was a break in the trees, which gave me a really good view of the whole situation. It happened too fast for me to record any of it, though it had the same kind of weird time-dilation you experience watching a car crash. It was an amazing experience, though, and I felt honored to have been privy to it.
It was also the most absolutely metal thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

(The falcon and crow were fine in the end, from what I could see. The falcon beat a very embarrassed retreat, and the crow went back to survey his spot.)

Even in a flowery park, nature is hardcore.

Now I’m gonna go have empanadas. (They are spinach and cheese.)
Have a good day!

A photo of my partner and me, framed by some dogwood flowers.
life, Plants and Herbs

Quantity: 15 (or, I will be eating strawberries until I die. Possibly of strawberries.)

We’re officially past our last expected frost date here, so I’ve been having Notions about making the balcony all fancy.

I started with two railing planters od garden sage, calendula, basil, and dill. While our spot doesn’t exactly get full sun, it gets several hours of direct sunlight in the afternoon, so these seemed like a suitable experiment. After all, I figured, if they don’t thrive out on the balcony, I can move them to my south-facing windows.

I also moved my hanging plant stand out there, and festooned it with mosquito plants, snapdragons, and pansies. We even got a small cherry tomato planter, some lettuce, and a raspberry bush.

Oh. And strawberries.

I had an idea that I thought would be neat — I could use a terracotta strawberry pot, plant it all around with strawberry starts, and put a vining plant at the top. I could train it to grow using the balcony as support, and it’ll look neat. I wasn’t really able to find a suitable plant with a vining habit, so I went with some crookneck squash in the end. I was able to find some strawberry starts, so I picked three different varieties and trucked them home, excited and ready to get my hands in some dirt.

The thing is, there are a couple of different ways that plant starts are sold. When we went to Home Depot, they had tons of individual Burpee starts in little dark green pots. When we went to the independent garden store, they had starts in white square packages. They were about the same circumference as the Burpee pots, so I figured the only difference was branding.

I’m going to pause for a moment to mention that I was also wearing a brand-new pair of glasses, which I feel may not be quite the correct prescription.

Anyhow, this is how I ended up with 47 strawberry plants.
I did not need or want 47 strawberry plants.
I have no idea what I’m going to do with 47 plants’ worth of strawberries.

Once I got the starts home and got a better look at the packaging, my stomach dropped into my knees. I pressed every spare container I could into service — old planter liners, spaghetti sauce jars, cartons, some terracotta pots I’d been planning to use for another project, you name it.

A windowsill filled with terracotta pots of tiny strawberry plants.
This is my bedroom windowsill, and also every other horizontal surface that gets basically any sunlight.

My balcony is covered in strawberries. My windows are covered in strawberries. I have strawberries growing in the fancy-pants greenhouse cabinet in my partner’s office. I wake up to strawberry plants. I trip over strawberry plants. I have yet to find anyone who wants spare strawberry plants.

A gif from Forrest Gump. "There's pineapple shrimp and lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp..."

They are the first things I see in the morning, and the last I see at night. I’ve been looking up recipes for pies, jams, sauces, salads, and brews. I’ve been hunting for reusable multi-gallon freezer bags. I’ve been researching deities who enjoy strawberries as offerings, in the hopes that I might be able to unload some of them like an overly friendly neighbor with too much zucchini.

It’s been about a week, and they’re flowering and thriving. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t have the heart to just toss them, and, like I said, I don’t know anyone who wants them. I wouldn’t know how to ship them even if I did.

An image entirely filled with strawberries. Nothing else is visible.
An artist’s rendition of my life for the foreseeable future.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m going to get very tired of strawberries in the near future.

life, Plants and Herbs

Reskilling: Learning to Brew (and how it almost shot my partner)

Hello!

I haven’t updated in a while — it hasn’t been for lack of material, either. As we move into spring, I’ve been working on planting my balcony, developing new skills, and seeking out more connections. It’s the time of year for planting seeds in the anticipation for growth, and I feel it.

Anyway. You’re probably wondering about the title, so here goes: I’ve been making tibicos, also known as water kefir. This is a kind of probiotic beverage that’s made from granules that naturally develop on Opuntia cacti. These are essentially a SCOBY, kind of like kombucha, in a sort of gummy polysaccharide matrix. The balance of bacteria and yeast is quite a bit different, however, yielding an end product with a very different taste and bouquet of probiotics. Also, unlike kombucha, water kefir grains form little clear to beige squishy lumps instead of a mushroomlike “pancake.”

So, the process of making water kefir goes like this:

  1. Boil some filtered water.
  2. Add sugar. I usually use a half cup or so for a half gallon jar.
  3. Make sure the sugar’s dissolved.
  4. Let it cool.
  5. Add the kefir grains.
  6. Cover the jar with a piece of cloth or loose-fitting lid.
  7. Wait 36-48 hours.
  8. Strain the liquid into a bottle (save the strained-out kefir grains).
  9. Add juice, crushed fruit, spices, or whatever you want the final flavor to be.
  10. Cover the bottle with a cap, or one of those fancy swing-top corky deals.
  11. Let it sit on the counter for another 24 hours. Burp it occasionally.
  12. Put it in the fridge.
  13. Enjoy.

Note the part that says “burp it occasionally” in bold letters. This is extremely important.

I’ve been working with a flavor blend that my partner and I really like. It’s about a half-cup to a cup of tart cherry juice and a cinnamon stick, in a 32-ounce swing-top fermentation bottle. There’s only one problem: It’s been very warm here, and cherry juice has a lot of sugar.

Even if you’re watching your sugar intake, the sugar content of water kefir is kind of the opposite of a problem. The fermentation agents in the grains break almost all of it down and produce CO2, a bit of alcohol, and more of themselves. In the end, you get something that’s fizzy, very slightly alcoholic, and flavorful, without being too sweet. The warmer the environment, the faster the bacteria work.

That is, if you get the ratio of juice to water kefir right for that second fermentation. And if, as I said, you burp the bottles regularly. Otherwise, you’ll get something that’s fizzy, alcoholic enough to peel paint, flavorful, not too sweet, and capable of detonating your entire kitchen and giving anyone in the room with you a traumatic brain injury.

I know this all sounds like hyperbole. I cannot emphasize enough to you how much it is not.

I popped that swing top off, and the force of the gas (from a bottle that I’d already burped a few hours ago) was enough to blow the wired-on top completely off, ricochet it off of the cabinet and into another room, and soak the ceiling in a geyser of cherry and cinnamon water kefir. I stood there in shock, holding the now half-empty bottle, while a sticky red rain fell around me. My partner, who very narrowly avoided having a wire and rubber bottle top embedded in his left temple, was in a similar state. It took a minute for the adrenaline rush to calm down, and I hope the probiotic benefits are enough to make up for the eight years the experience shaved off of our lives.

As it turns out, uncorking things can be way more dangerous than you’d think.

Anyhow, we poured out two glasses of what was left, and it was delicious. I think the fact that it was just this side of moonshine also helped calm us down a bit, which was a plus.

(Fortunately, I’ve gotten my better-ratio-of-juice-and-burping-the-bottles-often together since then, and no longer produce things that could conceivably be used to rob a bank.)

I’ve also made another version, where the water kefir grains feed on brown sugar for their first ferment. I add some lemon juice, ginger, and cinnamon for the second, and the end result is a very tasty ginger ale with just a tiny bit of sweetness. Since I have my process more or less nailed down at this point, I’m also working on adding herbs and fruits for various intentions to make drinkable potions.

Though I’m limited by space, I have a long list of skills I’d like to rediscover and build upon. Hopefully none of the others produce ersatz explosive devices.