Homemade Firelighters

Winter is coming… With the weather getting colder, thoughts turn to blazing fires in the hearth. Did you know that pine cones make great firelighters, especially if you dip them in wax? I picked these up on the walk home the other day, melted an old candle stub in a double boiler and using tongs, dipped the cones in the wax, then left them to set.

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CIDER VINEGAR

Raw cider vinegar is full of enzymes, vitamins, probiotics and minerals that pasteurised cider vinegars do not have, as they are destroyed by the heating process. All the healing benefits you have read about with cider vinegar are absent from processed products. If you have ever tried to buy it you will know that it is expensive compared to the heavily processed kind you get in the supermarket. Luckily, it is really easy to make!

 

  1. Take a large, wide necked jar. Sterilise it.
  2. Wash and chop your apples including the cores and peel (you can make this recipe just using the cores and peel after making an apple pie!), but remove the stalks. A mixture of different varieties makes a better tasting cider vinegar, but don’t worry if you can’t manage this.
  3. Put them in the jar, making sure it is half to three quarters filled.
  4. Cover them with water that has been boiled and cooled to lukewarm.
  5. Stir in a little sugar or honey to help the fermentation process.
  1. Cover the jar. When making wine, we use an airlock to keep out the bacteria that will cause it to turn to vinegar, but when making vinegar we actually want to encourage them, so instead the jar is just covered with cheesecloth secured with an elastic band.
  2. Stir daily for a week. It will begin to bubble and ferment from the natural yeasts in the apples, and you will be able to smell this happening.
  3. Strain out the apple pulp
  4. Return the liquid to the jar and cover again with cheesecloth. Leave in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, stirring occasionally. The alcohol will transform into acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount of sediment will fall to the bottom, and what is called a ‘mother culture’ of dark foam will form on top – don’t worry about this, it is normal.
  5. Taste it to determine if it is ready starting after 4 weeks as it will get stronger the longer you leave it, and you can choose how you like it.
  6. Strain once more in clean glass jars or bottles. Store out of direct sunlight. Don’t worry if another mother culture forms on top, it isn’t going bad. Just strain again.

© Anna Franklin, from The Hearth Witch’s Compendium published by Llewellyn, 2017

Aconite

With the turning of the year, thoughts turn to darker things…

Aconite [Aconite sp.] belongs to the family Ranunculaceae and should not be confused with winter aconite Eranthis hiemalis, which is not a true aconite. It was originally native to Europe, Asia and North America, thriving in windy mountainous regions and moist pastures. Aconite can be found growing wild in damp or shady places such as alder groves, and along stream courses, ditches or in highland meadows. Aconites need a fertile moist soil, preferably in sun or partial shade.  They may be propagated by division, but it is worth remembering that they do not like to be moved once established and seeds should be sown in spring where the plant is to grow.

There are more than 100 species, varying in height from 2-6 feet [60-1000 cm], all having dark green leaves which are glossy above, whitish green beneath and usually lobed.  The flowers, borne in loose erect clusters in shades of blue, purple, yellow or white in high summer, are designed specifically to attract bees, especially bumble bees.  The sepals, one of which is in the shape of a hood are purple, a colour bees particularly love.  The petals consist of two hammer shaped nectaries within the hood. The erect stem is covered with soft down and the fleshy taproot puts out new daughter roots annually. Regardless of species, all parts contain the toxic alkaloid, aconitine in varying amounts, mainly concentrated in the tuberous roots, which are pale coloured when young, developing a dark or sometimes black skin as the root matures. Some popular species are:

A. charmichaelii. Grows to 3 feet [ 1m] and has dark green deeply divided leaves. The blue-purple flowers come out in summer.

A. lycocctonum grows to a height of 4-5 ft [1.2-1.5m] with broadly lobed leaves and fibrous roots. The white to yellow flowers appear in summer. It is called wolfsbane.

A. napellus. contains the best alkaloids. This is a well known garden species which flowers a little later. The leaves are finely cut and divided and the blue, purple, pink or white flowers have well-developed hoods and appear in summer. It is called monkshood.

A. anglicum is the wild variety, flowering in early summer.

A. wilsonii. Is a tall variety, growing to a height of 6 feet [1.8 m].  It has deeply cut leaves and blue flowers which  appear during  late summer/early autumn.

A. paniculatum, A. Japonicum, A. autumnale, A. variegatum, A. pyrenaicum are also cultivated.

CAUTION: The deadly poison aconitine is present in all parts of the plant.  Care should be taken when handling aconites; wear gloves or wash your hands afterwards. It is not advisable to plant aconites in gardens where children and pets may come into contact with them. The poison at first stimulates, causes a burning sensation on the tongue, vomiting, stomach pains and diarrhoea then paralyses the central and peripheral nervous system and finally death.

 LORE:

Aconite is a fatal poison, often causing death within a few minutes, and so the plant’s reputation is a dark one, associated with death, black magic and the underworld. In Anglo-Saxon it was called thung, which simply means a poisonous plant.

Throughout history aconite has been used as a method of murder. In Greek legend when the hero and Minotaur slayer Theseus returned to Athens, he found that the sorceress Medea had become his stepmother. Though his father, King Aegeus, did not recognise him she did, and knew he was the rightful heir to the throne. She grew jealous on behalf of her son Medus, and persuaded Aegeus that Theseus was an assassin. They cunningly invited him to a feast at the newly completed temple of Apollo the Dolphin and Medea prepared a cup containing aconite. As he stepped forward to take the cup, his father knew him by the sword, which hung at his belt, and the assassination was prevented.

It is said that Aristotle once foiled a plot to kill Alexander the Great by means of a woman who had saturated her lips with a lethal dose of aconite. When men became old and useless on the island of Chios they were given aconite to help them on their way. The Emperor Claudius and his son were murdered with aconite, as was Pope Adrian VI. It seems to have been a popular device for removing obstacles in the Middle Ages, when career advancement in the clergy often relied on the death of a superior.

The plant is also called ‘wolfsbane’ as it is said to have been used to poison spears and arrows employed for killing wolves. A further association with wolves comes from the fact that the Scandinavians called it ‘Tyr’s Helm’ [the small flowers look like helmets]. Fenris was the wolf-son of the trickster god Loki. The ferocious and monstrous creature grew apace until the gods were afraid he would over run the world. They decided that he must be bound, but no chain would hold him. Eventually they consulted the dwarfs who fashioned a slender thread, made with the footfall of a cat, the beards of women, the breath of fish and other such impossible and rare ingredients. The gods coaxed Fenris to try the strength of the rope, saying that since he had broken all the other ropes and chains it could not possibly hold him. However, he suspected the trick and said that he would only do so if Tyr, the god of war, put his hand in his mouth while he did so. The brave Tyr agreed and the wolf was bound, but Tyr lost his hand.

Aconite is associated with the underworld for the obvious reason that it causes death. Hecate, the Greek witch goddess, is said to have created aconite from the deadly spittle scattered by Cerberus, the three headed dog who was the guardian of the underworld, when Herakles dragged him out of Tartarus [the underworld] and fought with him on the hill Aconitus in Pontica. Aconite was said to grow at Heracli in Anatolia, which was one of the gateways to the underworld. Aconite was poured as a libation to the ghosts of the men who were sacrificed when the foundations of buildings were laid. It was used in funeral incenses, planted on graves and used for both suicide and euthanasia.

Aconite was known as a witches’ plant and it was believed that it was used to poison the tips of elf bolts, the darts that witches and fairies threw at their victims. In ancient times the Thessalian witches used it in the manufacture of a flying ointment; used to anoint the skin it would cause hallucinations, visions and the sensation of flying. It appears as an ingredient in mediaeval flying ointment recipes. However, the dose of aconite needed to achieve hallucinations falls within the lethal range, and unless the practitioner was very skilled death would probably be the result, and the trip one to the underworld.

It is not known when aconite was introduced into Britain, but it appears in many early herbals. It was grown in monastery gardens and used in the infirmaries as an external oil rub for rheumatism.

The herbalist Gerard described it as venomous and deadly, though he thought it was an antidote against other poisons:

‘…so forcible that the herb only thrown before the scorpion or any other venomous beast, causes them to be without force or strength to hurt, insomuch that they cannot move or stir until the herb be taken away’.

 Ben Jonson in his tragedy Sejanus said:

‘I have heard that aconite

Being timely taken hath a healing might

Against the scorpion’s stroke.’

Christian lore associated aconite with St. Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury born in Glastonbury in 924 AD. He had a dream of the Britain of the future, converted to Christianity, symbolised by a huge tree whose branches were covered with monk’s cowls and which stretched all over Britain. Aconite is sometimes called ‘monkshood’ as the flowers may be seen to resemble monk’s cowls.

MEDICINAL:

Aconite is no longer used in herbal medicine, but is commercially collected for the recovery of aconitine, which is used in pharmaceutical remedies for neuralgia and rheumatism and is still a much valued as a homeopathic remedy. In former times an ointment of aconite was applied externally for rheumatism. Aconitine, is odourless but has a pungent taste and should be stored in a dry place as the highly toxic alkaloids it contains are unstable and change on contact with water.

Parts used: the root

Constituents: alkaloids aconitine, benzaconine, aconine, the alkaloids aconitine, benzaconinine and aconine; starch

 Actions: anodyne, diuretic, diaphoretic, diuretic, diaphoretic,

In 1805, Samuel Hahnemann published a paper on the proving of aconite which became one of the founding drugs of homeopathy. A homeopathic preparation of aconite is used for is used for patients with extreme anxiety, apprehension, with a vivid imagination and many fears, angina, palpitations, rheumatism, shock, tension, facial neuralgia, headaches, piles, and spasmodic croup.

 

Cider Vinegar

Raw cider vinegar is full of enzymes, vitamins, probiotics and minerals that pasteurised cider vinegars do not have, as they are destroyed by the heating process. All the healing benefits you have read about with cider vinegar are absent from processed products. If you have ever tried to buy it you will know that it is expensive compared to the heavily processed kind you get in the supermarket. Luckily, it is really easy to make!

  1. Take a large, wide necked jar. Sterilise it.
  2. Wash and chop your apples including the cores and peel (you can make this recipe just using the cores and peel after making an apple pie!), but remove the stalks. A mixture of different varieties makes a better tasting cider vinegar, but don’t worry if you can’t manage this.
  3. Put them in the jar, making sure it is half to three quarters filled.
  4. Cover them with water that has been boiled and cooled to lukewarm.
  5. Stir in a little sugar or honey to help the fermentation process.
  6. Cover the jar. When making wine, we use an airlock to keep out the bacteria that will cause it to turn to vinegar, but when making vinegar we actually want to encourage them, so instead the jar is just covered with cheesecloth secured with an elastic band.
  7. Stir daily for a week. It will begin to bubble and ferment from the natural yeasts in the apples, and you will be able to smell this happening.
  8. Strain out the apple pulp
  9. Return the liquid to the jar and cover again with cheesecloth. Leave in a warm, dark place for 4-6 weeks, stirring occasionally. The alcohol will transform into acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount of sediment will fall to the bottom, and what is called a ‘mother culture’ of foam will form on top – don’t worry about this, it is normal.
  10. Taste it to determine if it is ready starting after 4 weeks as it will get stronger the longer you leave it, and you can choose how you like it.
  11. Strain once more in clean glass jars or bottles. Store out of direct sunlight. Don’t worry if another mother culture forms on top or a white jelly-like scoby, it isn’t going bad.

© Anna Franklin, from The Hearth Witch’s Compendium published by Llewellyn, 2017

Natural Skin Care Workshop Fun

I love running workshops and showing people how they can use herbs not only for healing, but also in their daily lives for beauty products, personal care and around the house in various ways. Most participants are amazed at how cheap and easy it is to make their own products

We had a brilliant time at my Herbs for Personal Care and Beauty Day Workshop on Saturday, got the giggles trying face masks, whipped up batches of products, and everyone went away with a box full of goodies they had made including shampoos, hair rinses, bath bags, toothpaste, tooth powders, deodorant powders, skin toners and two types of face creams. All natural and chemical free, all organic, all vegan and made for pennies.

Rose Petal, Frankincense & Myrrh Night Cream

I love making creams. There is a kind of alchemy to it, when the oil and water emulsify and change into a creamy texture. The basic method is to prepare the oil part and the liquid part separately, before bringing them together. Most creams use a combination of pouring oils, such as grapeseed or almond, and more solid oils, such as coconut or shea butter. This is warmed separately to the ‘water’ part, which is warmed in a separate pan.  The water part is then dripped into the oil part very slowly, whisking constantly with an electric whisk until they are fully combined and emulsified. It is tricky, and the secret is to make sure that your oil mix and your water mix are the same temperature.

 10g beeswax

12 g cocoa butter or shea butter

50 ml rose petal infused oil [1]

15 ml benzoin tincture

30 ml rose petal infusion [2]

5 g emulsifying wax

10 drops frankincense essential oil

10 drops myrrh essential oil

Heat the beeswax, cocoa butter, emulsifying wax and rose infused oil together in a bain marie.(A bain marie is a double boiler. You can alternatively use a heat proof bowl over a pan of water.)

In a separate bain marie gently heat the rose infusion with the tincture but do not allow to boil.

Check both mixtures are the same temperature. Gradually and very slowly, pour the infusion/tincture mix into the oil bowl, whisking quickly with an electric whisk until thoroughly combined. This will create a creamy consistency. (If you have ever made mayonnaise it is a similar process.)

When the cream has cooled, you can whisk in the essential oil.

Spoon into sterilised jars, label and date. Will keep up to four months in the fridge.

[1] Pack fresh rose petals into a clear glass jar, cover with vegetable oil and leave on a sunny windowsill for two weeks. Strain the rose oil into a clean jar.

[2] Pour a cup of boiling water over fresh rose petals, leave to infuse for 15 minutes and strain off the liquid – this is your rose petal infusion.

Summer Roses

The garden is full of roses this week. They flop over the fences and scramble up the trellis, their soft, sensual blooms filling the air with a voluptuous perfume. It is easy to understand why they are sacred to so many gods and goddesses of love – Isis, Aphrodite, Venus, Eros, Cupid, Inanna and Ishtar to name just a few. I bless the plants and gather armfuls of flowers.

I take them into the house and lay them on the kitchen table and begin to separate the red flowers from the white. I’m reminded that in one Greek tale, when the goddess Aphrodite first arose from the ocean and stepped onto the shore, the sparkling sea foam fell from her body in the form of pale white roses and took root, but later, as she pursued the beautiful youth Adonis, she caught herself on a thorn and her blood dyed the roses crimson red, symbolising innocence turned to desire and maidenhood turned to womanhood. [1] For magical purposes, while my white roses stand for purity, perfection, innocence, virginity and the moon, the red roses represents earthly passion and fertility. Wound together, they signify the union of opposites, symbolism we use at Beltane to celebrate the sacred marriage of the God and Goddess, an act which reconciles male and female, summer and winter, life and death, flesh and spirit, and brings about all creation, driven by the most fundamental and powerful force in the universe – love.

It was Midsummer a short while ago, and roses often play a part in our solstice ritual since, like other flowers with rayed petals, they are an emblem of the sun. Like the sun, which dies each night and is reborn each day at sunrise, the rose is an emblem of renewal, resurrection and eternal life, which is why the Celts, Egyptians and Romans used them as funeral offerings. [2] [3] [4]

I’m still left with an abundance of blossoms. I take down two clean glass jars from my cupboard and pack both of them with the scented petals I carefully pull from the stems. One jar I top up with white vinegar and set it on the sunny kitchen windowsill. I will leave it there for two weeks before straining the liquid into a clean jar. My resulting rose vinegar can be used as a delicate salad dressing, as an antiseptic wash for wiping down my kitchen surfaces, or dabbed onto my forehead to relieve headaches.  The second jar of rose petals I fill up with one part distilled water to three parts vodka.  I label it and put it in a cool, dark place in my pantry where it will stay for three weeks. When it is ready, I will strain the liquid into a clean jar, and lo and behold, I have made my own rose hydrosol.  I use it just as it is as a skin toner, but I could chill it to make a compress for puffy eyes, or use it as a final conditioning rinse for my hair. Next month I will incorporate some into skin lotions and creams.

The gorgeous fresh petals I have left could be baked into cakes and cookies, made into a delicate jam or a wine for next year’s Midsummer solstice, or crystallised for cake decorations.  Tonight I will drop some petals into my bath to make a relaxing soak after a hard day in the garden, and before I go to bed I will put a handful into the teapot and infuse them in boiling water to make a subtle, fragrant tea, which is mildly sedative and good for tension headaches.

I spread out more petals on a tray and put them to dry in the airing cupboard. These dried petals are not only good for rose tea later in the year and the usual potpourri, but can be employed in magical talismans, charm bags and incense –  red for love, yellow for Midsummer, renewal and the sun, and white for moon rituals. So many virtues in just one plant, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what the rose has to offer. Each day, Mother Nature has a different gift for me.

[1] Jennifer Peace Rhind, Fragrance & Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche, Singing Dragon, London, 2013
[2] Miranda Green, Gods of the Celts, Sutton Publishing Ltd, Stroud, 1986
[3] Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix, The Ultimate Guide to Roses, Macmillan, London, 2004
[4] Laurie Brink and Deborah Green, Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context. Studies of Roman, Jewish and Christian Burials, de Gruyter, Berlin, 2008