Fern is the common name for any spore-producing plant of the phylum Polypodiophyta.  It is associated with sun gods and goddesses, and gods and goddesses of the dawn, such as Daphne. It is also sacred to the Great Goddess and the sky gods of thunder, lightning and Midsummer. At the turning of Midsummer and Midwinter it is reputed to allow access into the Otherworld and contact with its inhabitants, the Sidhe. It was sacred to the Baltic sun goddess Saule who appeared on the horizon at Midsummer, wreathed in apple blossom and red fern blossom [i.e. red clouds].

Use fern in incenses at Midsummer to protect the household and for divination purposes.

At Midsummer the magical fernseed is collected. At midnight it is said to glimmer with a magic light. The plant must not be touched directly but bent with a forked hazel stick over a pewter plate. The seed is so tiny that it is almost invisible, and therefore was thought to convey invisibility to its possessor. In Lancashire [northern England] it was held that fernseed collected on the family Bible conveyed invisibility.


Lucky ‘hands’ made of the rootstock of the male fern trimmed to a likeness of thumbs and fingers were smoked in the Midsummer fires and hung up for protection in houses and farms. Such hands are said to reveal hidden treasure buried within the earth, glowing with a blue flame.


Looks like a bumper crop of clary sage this year…

My clary sage is growing like crazy.

You can use it like ordinary sage in cooking, though it is stronger, so use less.  You can also eat the flowers. It is traditionally used for women’s problems, particularly the menopause and its hot flushes. Take as a tea. The astringent tea can also be gargled for sore throats or poured over small wounds. The tea is also good for digestive complaints such as gas and bloating. Also use the tea as an eyewash.

You can make a wine from it, which is said to be slightly narcotic. People also used to consider it to be an aphrodisiac.


Black Pepper Tea

250 ml (1 cup) water

½ tsp freshly milled black pepper.

Put the water and pepper in a ban and bring to the boil. Simmer for 4-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave for 10 minutes. Drink as required with a little honey, if liked.


Traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine use tiny amounts of black pepper to make the other herbs in the formula more available to the body. We now know that one of the most important benefits of black pepper is that enhances the bioavailability of phytochemicals from other spices and herbs, such as turmeric, as well as vitamins and minerals.

In Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper is believed to kindle agni, the digestive fire and, like many aromatic kitchen herbs, black pepper is considered a carminative in Western herbalism, in other words, it stimulates digestion and intestinal motility to ease gas and bloating.  The taste of black pepper on the tongue triggers the stomach to release hydrochloric acid, needed for the digestive process. If the body fails to produce enough, an inefficient digestive process may lead to heartburn or indigestion, so adding a little black pepper to food may help alleviate these problems.

Black pepper is a warming spice, its pungency due to one of its compounds, piperine, which increases the production of heat of the body. Black pepper boosts the metabolism, and a little black pepper can help in the fight against obesity.

Black pepper is a decongestant, useful in the treatment colds, coughs and flu, as well as being an expectorant, which means it helps break up congestion in the chest and sinuses. Fight off the seasonal misery with Black Pepper Tea.

NB: Black pepper is considered to be safe for most people, and since it is used medicinally in very small amounts, this is also considered safe for most people. However, to be on the safe side, avoid larger amounts if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, taking lithium, or medicines changed by the liver (talk to your healthcare professional). Consumption of excessive amounts of black pepper can cause gastrointestinal irritation. Avoid if you have acid-peptic disease, stomach ulcers, ulcerative colitis or diverticulitis.


© Anna Franklin

The Mystery of the Mistletoe

In Pagan times, the mistletoe was considered a potent magical plant because it did not grow on the earth, but on the branches of a tree in a ‘place between places’. It grows into a ball, imitating the sun, and the leaves are fresh and green all year long, making it a plant of immortality and life surviving in the dead time. The berries ripen in December as though it is not affected by the seasons and the winter cold.

Mistletoe is an evergreen, woody parasite growing on the branches of trees, mainly apple and pear, but occasionally on ash, hawthorn and oak trees. It is native to Europe, North Africa and central and western Asia. It may form a bush of up to 5 ft.

In Cornish, its name is ughelvarr; in Breton uhelvarr; in Welsh, uchelwydd, all meaning ‘high branch’ signifying its growing habit or perhaps even its high status. In Irish, it is uil-ioc, meaning ‘all heal’. In Anglo-Saxon it was mistiltan, from tan meaning ‘twig’ and mistl meaning ‘different’ from its habit of growing on other trees. The missel thrush is said to be so called from feeding on its berries.

Pliny said that the mistletoe was one of the most important magical plants of the Celts and served as a symbol for the winter solstice. He recorded that the druids called mistletoe by a name which meant ‘all healing’. They made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees and brought forth two white bulls whose horns were bound for the first time. Robed in white the druid ascended the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle (probably gilded bronze in actuality) and it was caught by others in a white cloak. The bulls were then killed, accompanied with prayers.

In Germanic myth, the mistletoe was sacred to Donar, the thunder and lightning god. In German, the plant was called Donnerbesen or ‘thunder broom’. The Christians demonised it as a plant of the witches, calling it hexennest (‘witch nest’) or teufelbesen (‘devil’s broom’).

In Norse mythology the mistletoe was used to slay the sun god Balder. One day, Odin discovered Hel was preparing for Balder’s arrival in the Underworld and the Vala prophesied that he would have a child with Rinda the earth goddess who would be called Vali and would avenge Balder’s death. The gods persuaded everything on earth to swear not to harm Balder, except the mistletoe growing on the oak at the gate of Valhalla as it was thought that such a puny plant could not harm him. The gods amused themselves by casting harmless darts at Balder. Loki, god of fire, was jealous of Balder and made a shaft from the mistletoe and tricked Hodur, the blind and dark brother of Balder, into throwing it and killing him. Odin sent Hermod to ask Hel for Balder’s return and she agreed, on condition that all things should weep. All did, except Thok, a giantess, who may have been Loki in disguise, so Balder had to stay in the Underworld. In due course, Vali was born and on the same day, slew Hodur.

This is obviously a seasonal myth relating to the winter solstice. The sun (Balder) is killed by the darkness (Hodur). Vali’s revenge is the breaking forth of new life after the winter darkness. The tears symbolise the spring thaw, when everything drips with moisture. Thok (‘Coal’) alone refuses to weep as she is buried deep in the earth and does not need the light of the sun. After Balder had been resurrected, owing to the pleadings of the other gods and goddesses, the mistletoe was given into the keeping of Frigga, the goddess of love, and it was ordained that anyone who passed beneath the mistletoe should receive a kiss to show that it had become a symbol of peace and love.

Though other evergreens were included in the decorations of churches, mistletoe was the one omission, being considered a Pagan plant. The exception was at York, where on the eve of Christmas-day mistletoe was carried to the high altar of the cathedral and a general pardon and season of peace was proclaimed.

Because the evergreen mistletoe bears its fruit in winter, it is an emblem of fertility. In Swabia, people bound mistletoe to fruit trees during winter in the hope that it would ensure a good fruit harvest. In Austria people put mistletoe in the bedroom to ensure the conception of a child. In Switzerland, it was included in the bridal bouquets to ensure a good marriage.

The mistletoe formed the ‘kissing bough’ and often still does. There was a tradition that the maid who was not kissed under it, at Christmas, would not be married in that coming year. With each kiss, a berry had to be plucked off with each kiss for luck. This seems to have been a purely English custom, though in Lower Austria a pine wreath was hung from the ceiling, while a masked figure hid in a dark corner. Known as ‘Sylvester’, he had a flaxen beard and a wreath of mistletoe. If a youth or maiden happened to pass under the pine wreath, Sylvester sprang out and imprinted a rough kiss. When midnight came he was driven out as the representative of the old year.

Many traditions associate the mistletoe with the New Year, rather than Christmas. In West Shropshire tradition, the bough was not to be put up until New Year’s Eve. Worcestershire farmers gave their Christmas mistletoe to the first cow to calve in the new year to bring luck to the dairy. At New Year, the first person to enter a house should carry a sprig of mistletoe in one hand and a sprig of evergreen in the other. Until quite recently in some rural areas farmers would burn a globe made of mistletoe and hawthorn or blackthorn in the New Year. The ashes would then be thrown onto the field that was to be ploughed first.

At midwinter the berries are ripe and should be cut. Mistletoe berries are used at the midwinter solstice in rituals to give strength to the weakened sun. Mistletoe is seen as a herb of fertility, and a symbol of rebirth. Hang over the doorway at Yule, tied with red ribbon for harmony and to represent a welcome to all who visit, all year round. Replace at the next Yule, throwing the old piece in the Yule fire to burn away the old and welcome the new.

Though the berries of the mistletoe are toxic, the leaves and stems of the mistletoe have been used in herbal medicine. European mistletoe contains eleven proteins and substances called lectins which are currently being investigated for anti-cancer effects.

Adapted from Yule, History, Lore and Celebration by Anna Franklin, Lear Books, 2010

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.


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


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.


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.


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.