I didn’t think much when I posted a picture of a cool rock. (It was columnar basalt, which always reminds me of some surreal, alien landscape out of Kenshi.)
“Hey,” a friend replied in not-those-exact words, “There’s a neat example of that not too far from us.”
“Oh sweet,” I approximately replied, “Where?”
And so that was how my partner and I ended up loaded with snacks and music, navigating our way down a gorgeous scenic drive through Shenandoah National Park. When I say scenic, I’m not messing around, either — it was gorgeous, the kind of beauty that pictures can’t really do justice.
You know how when the landscape is uninterrupted for far enough, you can see the way the hills fade to blue in the distance, and the shadows of the clouds moving over them? I live for that.
We even stopped for a bit of a hike at Compton Gap, where the columnar basalt was. The entrance to the trail showed a picture of it, but we weren’t able to find the specimen itself — the trail branched, and I think we ended up taking the wrong fork. Not that I minded at all. The air was fresh and sweet, the trail was quiet save for the song of birds and bugs, and everything was a fresh, deep green so intense, it almost didn’t seem real.
There was a small mushroom friend (a Russula, I think), bright orange trumpet creeper, and some very busy insect buddies — including a spicebush swallowtail and an American bumble bee!
The drive was long enough that we were in the midst of golden hour on our way back. The sun painted the clouds shades of pink and lavender, and the light took on that warm, comforting, well… golden tone. We paused at all of the overlooks to soak it up, relishing the warmth radiating from the granite rocks, and the cool, fresh breezes all around.
We’re planning on going back in the autumn, when the leaves start to change. It should be amazing!
As much as I love cypress trees literally any time of year, November to early December is my favorite time for them.
Because they make everything smell fantastic.
Bald cypress trees turn orange and shed their needles in autumn to early winter — as I write this, most of the ones here are, indeed, impressively bald. The result is a carpet of needles mingled with sticky, resinous cones.
The cones are particularly interesting to me. They start out as small, hard green buds. Sometimes you can find them on the ground as early as October, but they don’t really ripen for another month after that. Then, they expand and become almost crumbly, their scaly surfaces separating and falling apart to reveal the fragrant seeds inside. That’s when it’s really nice to find a stand of them and pick up a few from the ground. I live for the smell of the rich, autumn soil, the earthy-spicy-sweet smell of decaying leaves, and the fresh, piney, almost citrusy scent of cypress resin. If I can meet some mushrooms or a neat patch of lichen on the same trip, I’mecstatic.
(I’m a pretty easy organism to please, all told. I’m pretty much a beetle with different ideas.)
After that, we took a trip to the arboretum. Naturally, there’s not much to see this time of year — the flowering dogwoods are not, the lilac is long since asleep, and the oaks and maples are skeletal — but there’s a kind of architectural beauty to a lot of the bare trees. Now is when they get to show off colors and patterns in their bark, the strange, Escher-like twists of their branches, and all of the other things leaves hide in spring and summer.
Most of the conifers, of course, are still going strong. I met a Norway spruce that I found especially pretty — I hadn’t realized that their immature buds look like flowers before, their papery brown petals unfolding like tiny roses.
It wasn’t late when we arrived, but this time of year, the early sunset and angle of the planet slants the sunlight in a way that makes everything look almost surreal. It’s a cold beauty, but I love it.
One of the really hecking sweet parts of having more physical endurance now is that places I already loved to go have opened up a lot more to me. Take Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, for one.
It’s a very quietly beautiful place most of the year, other than summer when the lotuses bloom in a sea of brilliant pink. It’s never very crowded, there are always plenty of places to sit, and you rarely hear people over the orchestra of insect calls and birdsong. Even the city traffic dulls to a low, forgettable roar in the background.
Even though the gardens are arguably at their best in summer, I like them the most in autumn. My favorite part of them isn’t the lotuses, really (though I have a certain appreciation for their alien-looking pods), it’s the bald cypress trees.
I love bald cypress trees. They’re my favorite tree. I love their scent (I once knelt down to take a picture of one, and ended up ruining a good pair of jeans by permanently staining the knees green. I felt embarrassed afterward, like a child ruining a set of school clothes on the playground, but sweet, fresh smell of crushed cypress needles was almost worth it). I love the way their needles turn brilliant orange in autumn. I love that they’re one of the few weirdo conifers that actually loses their needles in winter. I love the way they grow, in the liminal space between land and water. I love their alien-looking knees — mistaken for people, animals, and even monsters once they get large enough.
Anyway, before I launch into another paean to bald cypress trees, all of this is to say that we took a long walk in the park and it was pretty nice. The boardwalk is especially pretty this time of year, with the leaves falling on it like confetti in shades of burgundy, vermillion, violet, and saffron.
There weren’t as many flowers, of course. I found some kind of yellow asteraceae, and these very pretty silver cock’s combs, but that was about it. I did also spot some aggressively purple berries on (what I think is) a viburnum, though. Judging by the number of bare twigs, the birds have been hitting them up for snacks pretty hardcore. I know cardinals will happily eat them — I used to have a bright red buddy who hung out outside of the window of my old apartment.
My partner and I sat on a bench for a bit, enjoying the sound of the insects chirping, birds warbling, and wind soughing through the trees.
“What… What are you doing?” He asked.
“Taking off my shoes,” I replied.
I shrugged. “Something about ions. Mostly because it feels good. Dirt. Moss. You know.”
(He eventually followed suit and realized I was right — the cool ground felt wonderful, and the moss was very soft.)
As I write this, it’s Saturday night, I’m snuggled up and waiting to watch a livestream by Gareth Reynolds. I’ve got my partner, my cats, and a fantastic slice of pie. All told, not a bad end to the day!
Let me preface this by saying that I love my cats. I do. But one of them has an odd obsession with getting into any plant that’s within reach (and several that aren’t), and the other will hurl things and scream if one of us fails to sit on the kitchen floor with him in the morning. I don’t know why this is, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Anyway, as you can probably tell, this makes setting up and maintaining a home altar somewhat… challenging, shall we say. Not only do I not want my altar disturbed, I also don’t want to have to worry about someone eating something they shouldn’t. So, here’s how I keep everyone (and everything) safe:
Train Your Cats to- hahahahahaha
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Couldn’t finish that thought with a straight face, either.
Choose Portable Altar Decor (But a Permanent Space)
In my opinion, part of an altar’s power is in its presence even when it isn’t being used. Some of that is lost when you have to set up and take down your altar every time you need it, but that doesn’t make a portable altar any less beautiful or meaningful.
If you do have to go the portable route, however, I’d recommend keeping a dedicated altar space. Even if you can’t have food offerings out without your dog getting into them, or your cat tries to knock over all of your statuary, you can still have a specific space that’s only used for your temporary altar. Get a nice accent table and cover it with a cloth. Set it with a good-sized crystal or a vase of flowers (if your animal companions will allow for it). Save the other altar tools and decorations for when you’re actually performing a working, but keep that space as a designated altar even when it isn’t in use.
Use a Drawer
One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid my felines’ penchant for destruction is to choose a table with a nice, deep drawer, and set up an altar in that. You can still have a permanent space, and all you have to do is pull the drawer open to get to work.
Remember to close it gently, though — you’ll keep your altar tools and decorations from rattling and knocking around that way.
Use the Floor
If having things knocked over is your primary concern, why not just put them on the floor to begin with? The fact is, having chairs and tables so far from the floor isn’t a universal thing — plenty of cultures around the world use low tables, floor cushions, or nothing at all.
Designate a space for a floor altar. Set it with a small accent rug and your altar supplies. Place a comfy floor pillow in front of it, and you’re golden.
Use the Outdoors
If your interior space is too thoroughly dominated by your four-legged roommates, consider working outside. It’s a bit less convenient if the weather’s bad, but outdoor altars are beautiful, functional, and, if you work closely with your local nature spirits, immensely powerful.
The only tip I’d offer here is to choose altar decorations that are resistant to walking away. Expensive statues might disappear on you, and shiny crystals may prove irresistible to the local bird population. Materials that aren’t durable enough might end up a bit worse for wear after a few rainstorms and a couple of rounds of sun bleaching, too. Largish stones, garden statuary, candles, and — of course — plants are inconspicuous, not likely to disappear, and can handle being outside.
Watch the Center of Gravity
Few things are as nerve-wracking as a tall, lit candle. This is especially true when that candle is in the same room as a cat. If candles are part of your practice, make sure to invest in some good, heavy candle holders. If you can make sure your candles are sufficiently bottom-heavy, they’ll be less likely to tip over easily. For this reason, I also recommend tealights and jar candles over, say, long, fancy tapers.
The same is true of any statuary or other decorations. Avoid choosing items that have a high center of gravity, because they’re much more likely to tip over if, for example, a very zealous boxer puppy wags his tail too close to your altar.
Invest in Some Museum Wax
Museum wax is what helps keep museum displays in place. It comes in several types, from an opaque, gummy material to one more like clear dental wax, and can help things stay stationary if they get bumped. The only caveat here is that it doesn’t work on an altar cloth — museum wax provides a tacky surface between two smooth finishes, so it won’t really help to keep your statues in place on top of fabric.
Know Your Poisons (They May Not Be What You Think)
I remember watching a video by a crystal worker a few years ago. In it, they mentioned being guided by their intuition to charge a piece of cinnabar(!) using fire(!!). The reason I mention this is that, sometimes, the list of things we know we should keep away from our pets isn’t as long as it ought to be.
For example, cinnabar is an ore of mercury. Some specimens even have droplets of mercury on or in them. Metallic mercury is, itself, not that toxic — organic mercury compounds are far more dangerous — but inhaling heated mercury vapor is a super bad idea. Honestly, you shouldn’t even really handle cinnabar or wear it next to your skin. If you want to work with it, use gloves, keep it in a glass container, and definitely don’t let your pets touch, lick, or play with it. Definitely definitely don’t heat it up.
Some other gemstones contain toxic materials, like lead, arsenic, or antimony.
Plants and mineral specimens aren’t the only sources of a potential poisoning, either. Some pottery — particularly very old or inexpensive stuff — may not be food safe. This means that its paint or glaze can contain toxic minerals that might leach out if you use it to cook with or eat from. While this isn’t usually a super serious concern for altar tools, it can be if you have a pet who tries to sneak a drink out of your altar’s water vessel or steal your food offerings!
The bottom line is, it’s important to know what goes on your altar. If you have pets, it’s equally important to assume that everything is going to end up on the floor or in someone’s mouth eventually.
I mean, some parts of everywhere are weird, don’t get me wrong. Where I grew up, our favorite activity was spelunking in the sewers (I found a stray femur and was almost eaten by geese). When I lived in Delaware, it took me a bit to get used to the way the landscape was broken up — apartment complex, forest, strip mall, pasture, wetlands, wetlands, wetlands, city. In California, the neighborhood was a very tiny island in the middle of fields and pastures. Sometimes, you’d wake up and see all of the puddles shimmering strangely with whatever the crop dusters were spraying the day before. At night, even without seeing any cows for miles, you’d hear their eldritch moos as if they were right in the yard. The songs of coyotes carried for untold distances. Uncanny-valley strangers would come and knock on your door, ask to borrow things, and disappear. It had a very Southern Gothic atmosphere, especially for a place that was emphatically neither.
DC is weird in its own way. I love it here, and there are some extremely cool places and people. The architecture is gorgeous, and you can find some very lovely Victorian-style houses and unexpected details. Still, there are plenty of other areas here that I try to avoid if there’s any way to help it.
This was one of those.
My partner and I were picking up food at this place we found at the beginning of COVID — a little pricey, but they’ve got the best damned catfish po’boy and blackberry shortcake I’ve ever had. (I’d drop the name, but the location is called four different things depending on whether you go there on foot, find it via Google Maps, read their bags, or try to order through a delivery app. Like I said, weird.)
It’s situated in an area that, not unlike the rest of the city, combines historical architecture with modern touches. The thing is, where other areas of DC seem to give the impression that this is done out of necessity, or to fulfill actual human needs, this seems almost malicious. Concrete angel faces stare mutely out over doorways to imposing office and municipal buildings, expressions framed in equally-stony olive branches. At street level, there are stores — jewelers, Nordstrom Rack, a seemingly impossible number of Starbucks cafés — with large, thoroughly modern plate glass windows with the dead, flat gleam of sharks’ eyes.
There’s something about it that strikes me as very calculated. There’s a cultivated air of diversity here, but the kind of diversity that wouldn’t welcome anything that wasn’t a high-end department store, a Starbucks, or an eatery capable of suiting a very narrowly defined sensibility. Some of it is very pretty, but stifling, almost.
On the sidewalks, people sit too close together at outdoor tables. A maskless couple walk by, pushing a leather-clad baby carriage that mommyblogs say could pay a month of my neighbors’ rent.
People live here, too, but everything feels aggressively tailored to those who work here instead. I don’t think they’re the same population. Thinking about it too much makes my teeth itch.
“I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whisper-hiss to my partner, “Because I’ve got maybe ten minutes before this place turns me into an anprim.”
I wonder if this is how fireflies feel when you put them in a mason jar with a stick and a leaf.
Fortunately, getting elsewhere only takes about ten minutes. It might be a strange byproduct of this one self-hypnosis program I sort-of-kind-of-maybe did wrong a few years ago, but the sight of the color green makes my nerves finally start to unknot themselves.
We park and walk a ways. I know my food’s getting cold, but I don’t really care. I take big breaths — there’s smoke coming from somewhere, and it tinges the smell of soil, gently decaying leaves, and damp wood with an earthy sweetness.
We find a picnic table. I always eat fast, but today I manage to finish before my partner’s done unpacking.
“Okay! Gonna go climb on that tree and look for friends!”
He’s grown used to this. I think you kind of have to, after awhile — it’s something that seems pretty firmly baked-in to me. I’m told that when I was very little, maybe four, we had some kind of family function at a beach. My dad says he heard me walking around making tiny proclamations: “Anyone who wants to go find bentures, follow me!” (Then I disappeared into some trees for awhile and he had to peel me off of a sheer clay cliff face, but that’s another story.)
When I was dating one ex-partner, it was a near-constant bone of contention that he never wanted to go exploring with me. I ended up having a lot of adventures with my dog, including finding a broken wooden footbridge that led to nowhere, covered in graffiti that dated back to the ’40s. (I’m almost positive it was Extremely Haunted.)
After that, another ex-partner used to give me survival equipment for every holiday. They figured the odds were pretty good that I’d end up disappearing into the woods some day, and they wanted to hedge their bets on me coming back alive eventually.
In short, I think most of my loved ones throughout history have adapted to the idea of probably seeing me show up on the internet after being mistaken for some kind of pygmy sasquatch.
There’s so much moss. Damp and feathery, sporophytes reaching up on stalks like delicate red threads. I could probably photograph it all day, to be honest — the structures are so beautifully complex when you get close enough.
My partner comes to join me, so we can look for mushy boys.
Some type of Mycena builds a tiny cathedral in a fallen tree. I find another type growing from a separate tree, its cap an almost ghostly translucent white. It’s the only one there, and I don’t have the heart to touch it, see what color it bruises, or try to take a specimen for a spore print.
“Oh, hey,” my partner points to a dead stump. I make a kind of excited pterodactyl noise and get on my stomach for pictures. I haven’t seen jack-o-lantern mushrooms before, but their intense “fuck off” orange and fine, deeply-ridged gills are weirdly, poisonously beautiful.
I can see why they’re often mistaken for chanterelles, though it makes me wonder what came first. Did the chanterelle grow to resemble the false chanterelle and jack-o-lantern mushrooms because it kept it from being eaten, or was it a case of convergent evolution?
It strikes me with some irony that I feel better about poisonous mushrooms than I do about the “Welcome” sign in a shop. Warning orange is easier to look at than shark-eyed windows, I guess.
We went to one of my favorite places in the whole city: Ginkgo Gardens. (It is not, however, my wallet’s favorite place. I never manage to leave there without at least a hundo in plant friends, pots, or sculpture. Whoops!)
Even though my window plant shelf is pretty full, my Calathea is doing so well that I wanted to find it a few buddies to fill out some empty spaces on the etagere next to my desk. Right now, it’s mostly occupied by picture frames and whatever oils I’ve set to infuse at the moment — it could definitely benefit from the acquisition of some new plants.
And oh boy, acquire I did!
It was rainy, but that’s okay. Rain always gives me a headache and makes it a bit tougher to get around, but I ain’t made of sugar. A little misting won’t keep me home!
I could probably spend all day walking around their outdoor area. It’s not large, but it’s packed with the most beautiful stuff. (Also, I thought the masks on the statues near the entrance was a tiny bit of brilliance.)
In the end, we came home with several treasures: a Pilea, a Calathea, a Maranta, an Asplenium (you know how much I love ferns), and a Tillandsia. I also found a lovely little brass pot tucked away on a shelf…
And this guy.
When my partner and I saw it, we both went, “Oh, whoa.”
“A Friend,” I declared.
He agreed, and we immediately set about figuring out which plant made for the superior hairstyle.
After calling it a Friend, I couldn’t really think of a suitable name. (I’m terrible at naming things, so this didn’t exactly come as a surprise.) I figured Public Universal Friend was as good a name as any!
Here’s hoping the weather is treating you well, and there are many small, green buddies in your future.
Ah, goldenrod. To some, it’s an essential part of their herbal medicine cabinet. To others, it’s a source of misery. I love seeing the bright yellow flowers on their drooping, swaying stems, but I’m also not one of the people suffering from goldenrod allergies. (Allergies to plenty of other pollens, yes. Goldenrod specifically, no.)
Interestingly, though many people blame goldenrod for late summer and autumn allergies, that blame may be displaced. Without an allergy test, there’s really no way to tell — ragweed blooms at the same time, and it’s a very common allergen. Most pollen allergies are triggered by wind-pollinated plants, but goldenrod is pollinated by insects. Ragweed, however, is not.
(This is also why raw honey and bee pollen aren’t actually great ways to desensitize yourself to pollen. The pollen that makes it into the hive isn’t likely to be the same kind that’s making you sneeze.)
Goldenrod is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t a single plant, it comprises 120 different members of the aster family. It’s scientific name is Solidago, via the Medieval Latin “soldago,” via a somewhat circuitous rout from the Latin “solidus.” It’s a name that references strength and solidity, the ability to make something (or someone) whole again. With goldenrod’s traditional medical and magical properties, it’s a very apt name.
Goldenrod Magical Uses and Folklore
Various legends tie goldenrod to the presence of wealth. One source said that, wherever goldenrod grows, gold is buried. (But, were that the case, I can guarantee that DC wouldn’t be nearly as economically stratified as it is. Just saying.) Another says that to find goldenrod growing near your home portends a spell of good luck.
Goldenrod is also tied to water. Folklore holds that, wherever it grows, a spring must be nearby. The plants were also used as effective, if temperamental, divining rods — they were said to only work in the hands of the right person.
One legend tells the story of how goldenrod received its bright yellow flowers. An old woman, traveling through the forest, was growing weary. She asked all of the trees around her for a walking stick, but they refused. She found a small stick on the ground, and asked it for help instead. The stick agreed, and she used it as a walking stick until she was out of the woods. As soon as she stepped beyond the tree line, she shed her disguise — revealing herself as a powerful fairy. In return for the stick’s help, she sprinkled it with gold.
Another story speaks of two little girls who went to an old witch for help. One girl, tall and blonde haired, asked the witch to grant her wish. She wanted to be admired by everyone. Her friend, short and blue-eyed, wished that she and the blonde girl would never have to grow apart. The girls were never seen again after that day, but it’s said that, wherever they walked, there sprung up the yellow goldenrod and the blue aster.
This isn’t folklore so much, but the tires on the Model T Ford that Henry Ford gave Thomas Edison were made of goldenrod. The plant naturally contains a decent amount of rubber — through experimentation, Thomas Edison managed to produce a taller goldenrod that was up to 12% rubber. He partnered with Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, and Henry Firestone to put these tires into mass production, but synthetic rubber arrived on the scene before goldenrod tires ever made it out of the experimental stage.
Goldenrod is one of those plants that seems to be an herbal pharmacy in itself. In America, indigenous people used the leaves externally for skin conditions, and internally for ulcers and lung or kidney problems. After colonists dumped tea into the Boston Harbor in protest, they used goldenrod as a tea substitute. One of Solidago virgaurea’s names is “woundwort,” and it was used in Europe to stop bleeding from wounds. Studies in Germany have found that it’s an effective treatment for kidney stones. It contains compounds that encourage urination, reduce inflammation, soothe pain, and kill pathogens, and the whole plant is edible (though easily confused with toxic Haplopappus heterophyllus, so be careful).
Of course, don’t take my word for this — if you have a medical condition, seek treatment from an expert..
Keep your eyes peeled, since the appearance of goldenrod near your house means good luck is on the way. Of course, if you want to influence fate a little bit, you can plant goldenrod or keep a vase full of it in your home. If you practice feng shui, put it in the money areas of your home. If you don’t, put it near your front door to draw wealth in.
If money’s not your thing, you can also use it to bring in love. Wear or carry it, and you’ll soon cross paths with your true love. Add the dried leaves and flowers to sachets, herbal mixes, incense, or potions for love-drawing.
To dowse with goldenrod, hold a stem in your hand, and watch the flowers. They will nod in the direction of what you seek.
You can turn goldenrod into a useful yellow dye, paint, or magical ink:
Collect the young flowers when they’re about to open, and their concentration of pigment is at its highest.
Let the flowers dry completely.
Simmer in a cup of hot water with a teaspoon of alum for twenty minutes. (Alternatively, grind the flowers fine with a mortar and pestle, add just enough boiling water and alum to cover, and sit in a sunny spot for a full day.)
Filter out the flowers, and add about a half teaspoon of gum arabic if you’d like a thicker consistency. This part is mostly helpful for ink, since it makes it flow and adhere to the paper more nicely.
If you don’t anticipate using all of your dye/ink/paint right away, add two or three drops of essential oil to inhibit mold. Thyme or oregano work well for this.
Bottle, label, and store in a cool, dark place.
Goldenrod is a beautiful, magical plant with a bad rap. It’s showier than ragweed, so its bright yellow flowers are often erroneously blamed for symptoms actually caused by wind-pollinated plants. It’s abundant this time of year, so, if you find yourself in need of a little love or money magic, consider making an offering to the goldenrod plant and harvesting no more than 25% of its leaves and blooms. Even better, sow a local variety in your garden so you can enjoy its presence and provide a valuable food source to butterflies, moths, bees, and other pollinators at the same time!
October marks the best timing for one of my favorite hobbies: mushroom spotting.
(Not the fun ones. The regular ones.)
I usually have far more luck finding them in autumn than I do in spring or summer, so I was pretty excited when my partner and I drove out to Jug Bay to hike the trails around the wetlands. AND RIGHTLY SO.
Last time we went, I couldn’t walk as far as I’d’ve liked. This time, I was able to go a full 2.25 miles from the visitor’s center to… well, the visitor’s center, but the long way. (I’m also starting to get actual triceps, so all the recreational sledgehammer-swinging is paying off!)
The weather was absolutely perfect — sunny, breezy, and cool, with nary a cloud in the sky. We rarely saw another soul on the trails, but we had our masks so we could pull them on by the ear loopies any time we passed near anyone. Most of the trees were still green, though there were a few splashes of scarlet, saffron, and gold. Winterberries were abundant, lining the boardwalk beside the marsh with bright yellow-green leaves and shining red fruit. Asters, their white faces like miniature daisies, looked up from the side of the trail. Long, hanging stalks of goldenrod, bent under the weight of their blooms, and tall sunchokes seemed to catch and hold the light in their yellow flowers.
As we were walking along the trail, a butterfly fluttered up to say hello, made a loop around my legs, and passed back into the trees. It moved too fast to get a good look or a photo — judging by the color, I think it was either a red-spotted purple or a type of swallowtail. (And a late one, in either case!) I also spotted the most perfect spiderweb, threads intact and shimmering iridescently in the sunlight.
(Two crows hopped up on a parking sign in front of the car earlier that day, too, so this afternoon was just full of good omens!)
Turtles sunned themselves on logs, sleek heads occasionally poking up like curious periscopes. All around, you could hear the chorus of insects in the trees.
It was idyllic as fuck.
It wasn’t until we were close to the visitor’s center again that we spotted some mushy boys. Forest cryptid that I am, I got down on my knees and elbows on the trail, in the leaf litter, said a silent prayer to whatever deity’s in charge of urushiol, and crept as close as I could to get a few pictures. Identifying mushrooms is always dicey if you can’t check them for bruising, spore prints, and other signs that require more than a cursory examination, but they’re beautiful nonetheless!
(I believe the first is a kind of brittlegill, and the one at the top right is some type of gilled polypore. I’m not sure about the other two, but I really love the cream-and-brown one’s mossy home.)
I saw one mushroom that had been snapped off where it grew, so you could see its round butt and the little divot where it once sat nestled in the ground. Inside, the soil was lined with a silvery, cottony web of mycelium — the stuff that actually makes up the bulk of the fungus. I didn’t get a picture of it, but it was fascinating to see past the eye-catching fruiting bodies and into the “heart” of the mushroom.
We rounded the day off with crêpes from Coffy Café (I went with the Bootsy instead of my usual Mr. Steed — I think I might have a new favorite!), and a long, hot bath.
I love ferns. If you want to feel like you live in some kind of magical woodland glade, get some ferns, a pack of Triloka Enchanted Forest, and cue up a couple tracks from The Moon and the Nightspirit. For real.
Ferns have a reputation for being fussy, and it’s not entirely undeserved. They’re not like most plants — their reproduction is weird, their lighting and humidity needs are weird, and some of them will die if you ever have the audacity to subject them to tap water, dirt, or a sidelong glance.
One of my favorites is a little $4.99 “assorted fern” that makes frequent appearances on my Instagram. I put it the window, watered it often, and, to my surprise, it turned out to be a very robust staghorn fern. This was doubly astonishing to me, because a) I originally thought it was some kind of bird’s nest fern, and b) I once bought a staghorn on purpose, followed all of the care instructions to the letter, and it died within two weeks.
Ferns are weird. They’re also very magical plants that occupy a significant role in the folklore and esoteric practices of cultures everywhere they grow.
Fern Magical Uses and Folklore
In Slavic folklore, ferns produce a magic blossom once a year, on the eve of the Summer Solstice. Whoever is lucky enough to find a fern flower will receive good luck, prosperity, and the ability to understand the speech of animals. Baltic, Swedish, and Estonian culture has a similar tradition — in every case, the flower is believed to be protected by evil spirits. In some folklore, the Devil was said to appear and snatch the flowers for himself.
Unfortunately for the possessors of a fern flower, the story goes that any wealth granted to them would vanish if they ever shared it. To keep the riches of the fern flower, they would have to become cold-hearted, stingy, and isolated. In one tale, a boy who obtains the magical flower ends up losing all of his friends and loved ones because of it — eventually wishing for death to release him.
Ferns don’t actually flower, though. They have no need to. They are indescribably ancient plants, old enough to predate seeds. They do produce “fertile fronds,” which can appear as vaguely flowerlike clusters. These stories may refer to fertile fronds, a different flowering species that resembles a true fern, or the difficulty of attaining wealth and fortune.
Fern seeds were believed to be invisible, and only able to be found on Midsummer Eve. Possessing these seeds could make one invisible, help them understand birdsong, tell them where to find buried treasure, or grant them the strength of forty men.
In one Russian folktale, a farmer who lost his cattle was instantly granted knowledge of their whereabouts when a fern seed fell in his shoe.
In England, it was believed that you could catch the elusive fern seed by placing a stack of twelve pewter plates in a field of ferns. When the seeds appeared, they would fall through the first eleven plates and come to rest on the last.
Nicolas Culpepper claimed that, if a horse were to step on moonwort, it would cause them to throw a shoe. This could be because of its purported effect on iron — stuffing it into a lock was said to cause it to open.
In Hawai’ian folklore, the deity Kamapuaʻa occasionally took the form of a fern. The earth goddess Haumea also had a species of tree fern as a kino lau (body form).
Ferns are tied to weather magic. Burning them was said to cause a storm, as could pulling one up by the roots. On the Devonshire Moors, it’s still customary to burn growing bracken to bring rain.
Tying fern fronds to the ears of horses was said to protect them from the Devil.
In modern magic, ferns are used for rain-making, money spells, and protection. Adding the fronds to spells or arrangements of fresh flowers helps boost the magical properties of whatever they are placed with.
There are so many species of fern with so many different medical uses, I can’t possibly cover them all here. While not all ferns (or all life stages of fern) are medicinal or edible, different fern species have been used for everything from stomach aches to snakebite. From what I have read and observed, they are most often used for skin afflictions — spores are said to reduce pain from stinging nettle, and ointments or pastes made of various fern species are used to tread cuts, bruises, and skin ulcers. In Scottish lore, ferns were mixed with egg and used as an ointment to restore sight or reduce redness in bloodshot eyes! (Please don’t do this just because you read it here, though. I don’t want anybody getting some kind of raw egg eye infection.)
For protection, plant or place potted ferns near windows and doors. (Just make sure they have the right levels of sunlight and humidity!) Llewellyn has a spell using ferns to banish evil, which may piggyback on its use for rain-bringing. Rain is cleansing, ferns are protective, so these two properties could drive evil out of a place.
If you’re lucky enough to come across fern spores (those black dots along the backs of fronds), carry them when you want to go unnoticed.
In hoodoo, ferns seem to be largely for protective magic. Among other uses, sprinkling crushed fern leaves along windowsills is said to keep intruders away, and adding it to a floor wash with black snake root clears away jinxes.
That said, some spells may refer to specific ferns using secret names. Maiden’s hair is the maidenhair fern, for example, while horse’s tongue is the hart’s tongue.
Magically, your best bet is one of two things: purchasing fern fronds, or growing some of the easier-care varieties in pots. While older sources cited specific plants in their folklore, the modern herbals I consulted for this post didn’t — they just said “ferns.” In my opinion, I don’t think it matters much what type of fern you choose to work with. When it comes to spending my time tending a growing plant versus tracking down the exact species used in a spell, I’ve found I’m pretty much always better off using a plant I’ve developed a relationship with (or, at the very least, one that’s abundant where I live). They have an affinity for water, which explains their use in rain magic. They all have spores, not seeds, which explains their use in invisibility (and, to a lesser extent, protection) spells. Find a fern that will grow happily for you, and see what magical secrets it holds.
I wasn’t aware of it until recently, but one of the side effects of sertraline is bruising. This was never really a major issue, but, with the recent increase in leg days, I’ve been noticing that my lower extremities look like hobbits have been beating me with cricket bats in my sleep. This probably isn’t helped by the fact that I’ve had knee surgery, and any amount of physical activity makes my legs look like I fell down the stairs even under the best of circumstances. I’m planning to talk to my doctor about this, but I’m not in a bunch of pain, and my medication is working out well enough that I don’t want to change it if I don’t absolutely, positively need to. C’est la guerre.
For now, it’s lots of iron- and vitamin K-rich vegetables, and arnica. At the moment, I’m pretty much only using arnica to help my shins look less corpse-y, but that’s not all it can do.
It could also keep corn demons away from my knees.
Arnica Magical Uses and Folklore
Arnica is one of the best-known and most-used herbal remedies in much of Europe. The American variety was no slouch, either — both indigenous people and pioneers used it in abundance. (I don’t really want to go into all of its historical medical uses here, because there are a ton of them and not all of them were great ideas. It’s the kind of plant where it could either lower your fever, or make you bleed internally a bunch.)
The word “arnica” is derived from the Greek “arni,” meaning “lamb.” This could be in reference to any number of the plant’s parts — it’s got fuzzy sepals, leaves, and looks almost dandelion-like when it goes to seed.
Two of its common names are “wolf’s-” and “leopard’s bane.” I haven’t been able to find any reason for this — these are also names for aconite, which is far, far more baneful than arnica. I mean, the two don’t even look alike.
In Norway, arnica was strewn in fields during Midsummer. This was to protect crops from a creature called Bilwis. In Germanic areas, Bilwis is identified as a kind of Feldgeister (field spirit) or Korndämonen (corn demon). In the Prose Edda, this creature was half of a brother-sister pair — Hjúki and Bil — that followed the Moon across the sky. There isn’t much written about Hjúki and Bil outside of the Prose Edda, but they are theorized to represent the craters visible from Earth, which are said to resemble a pair of children carrying a bucket on a pole. Over time, Bil’s image was distorted from a minor Norse deity to a malevolent spirit that cuts down corn. Bilwis has no set form, and its appearance varies across all of the folklore in which it appears.
Sprinkling arnica around your property is said to protect your home and bring fertility to your garden. This probably stems from its use to thwart corn demons, as, over time, its folk use expanded from keeping your crops from being cut down by spirits, to general protection and plant fertility.
Planting arnica around an area is said to keep a spirit penned there. This only works as long as the arnica lives, however — once it dies back, the magical boundary dies with it.
As a bright yellow Midsummer plant, it’s associated with the Sun and the element of Fire.
Some sources claim that arnica was burned as an incense, particularly in weather magic. This seems largely used to drive away violent storms, and may also be tied to its general “protective” aspect.
Not gonna lie, I’ve gotten pretty fond of dabbing it on myself. But I digress.
Arnica contains a sesquiterpene lactone called Helenalin, which is said to help reduce inflammation and thereby soothe away bruising when it’s applied soon after an injury. Though it’s very healing when used topically, it is toxic when used internally and can cause sensitization over time. If you’re using arnica medically, it’s best to use it topically, over unbroken skin, for short periods of time.
That said, some people do use it internally. It’s even been used as a flavoring in foods and beverages. (I wouldn’t recommend doing so unless you’re under the guidance of an herbalist, though.) If you’re pregnant or on blood thinners, avoid it — it can stimulate contractions and interfere with blood clotting.
Harvest and the flowers when they’re at their best, around Midsummer. Scatter fresh flowers around an area you wish to protect, or brew dried ones into a tea and sprinkle the liquid. You could theoretically include dried flowers in protective sachets, jars, or other container magic, but the herb’s primary historical uses seem to largely depend on strewing, scattering, or planting arnica to create a boundary.
To turn back storms, burn arnica and say, “Arnica bright, arnica alight. Thunderstorm, turn and take flight.”
Arnica has been treated as a one-herb first aid kit, credited with any number of medical marvels. While it’s certainly good at what it does, the herb does have a tendency to cause problems if it’s used in high doses and for long periods of time. If you’ve got corn demons to thwart, thunderstorms to get rid of, or spirits you need to babysit, arnica can’t be beat.