SENSATIONAL SAGE

Sage is a hardy, aromatic, evergreen shrub that grows to a height of 1-3 ft. The common sage is a native of the Mediterranean. It likes a position in full sun and light, well-drained soil. Plants should be cut back after flowering. For drying purposes the leaves should be harvested just before the plant flowers. They should be dried slowly to avoid mould forming and then crumbled and stored in an airtight container.

Cooks use the leaves and stems with meats, in stews and soups, with cheese, pasta, in herb butter and in stuffings.  Make a sage honey by infusing the leaves in gently warmed honey – this is good for coughs, and can be used to dress desserts. The plant also is brewed to make tea.  Sage leaves and flowers can be frozen in ice cubes and added to summer drinks.

Add the fresh leaves to the bath for an invigorating wash. It is a natural disinfectant and deodoriser. Used as a rinse, an infusion of sage leaves benefits the hair and darkens greying hair. Sage can be made into a cleansing lotion or used in an astringent facial steam it will tighten the pores.

Sage is used for coughs and colds, or use the infusion as a gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis, and as a mouthwash for inflamed gums and mouth ulcers. Sage tea helps menopausal women with hot flushes, night sweats and other menopausal symptoms – sip the tea during the day. An infusion of the leaves is useful for the treatment of diarrhoea, depression, rheumatism, anaemia, menstrual problems, and migraine, for lowering fevers, and indigestion.  It also helps improve the memory and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. Externally it can be used as a wash for acne, eczema, wounds, scabs, insect bites and stings. Sage is antiseptic. The fresh leaves can be rubbed on stings or bites.

Making Cold Infused Oils

Fats and oils extract the oily and resinous properties of a herb, and these are often the antibacterial, antifungal and wound-healing components we really want.

Choose your leaves or flowers. Don’t wash them before use – not only will this destroy some of their delicate oils, but as soon as you introduce water into the mixture, you are setting it up to develop mould. (One of my friends was complaining that his nettle oil had an unpleasant odour, which it really shouldn’t, nettle has a fresh, rather lovely scent as an oil. I discovered that he had been rinsing the herbs before packing them in the jar.) To avoid this, make sure you pick your herbs on a dry, sunny day, and pick them from an unpolluted location

To make your cold infused oil, take your fresh herbs, cut them up, pack them tightly into  a glass jar, and cover with vegetable oil (olive, sunflower etc.). Leave on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain into a clean, dry jar, label and keep in a cool, dark place for up to a year.

Infused herbal oils may be used as they are or thickened into salves with beeswax. Unlike essential oils, they do not need to be diluted for use.

Calendula Treats for Your Skin

Calendula has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. As lotion, cream or ointment it speeds up healing and counters infection in sunburn, minor burns, insect bites and stings, acne, cuts, abrasions, inflamed rashes, nappy rash, haemorrhoids and varicose veins. Make sure you correctly identify your plant as Calendula officinalis, the pot marigold.

Calendula Infusion

1 oz. dried herb or 2 oz. chopped fresh herb

1 pint boiling water

Put the herbs in ceramic heatproof pot and pour on the boiling water. Cover (or put the lid on the teapot) and infuse for 20 minutes, covered. Strain before use. Will keep about two days in the fridge. Calendula flower infusion, applied externally, is excellent for the treatment of burns, wounds, conjunctivitis, varicose veins, bed sores, ulcers, bruises, gum inflammations, corns, warts, eczema and skin rashes. Calendula has anti-fungal actions and can be used externally for athlete’s foot pour into a foot bath and soak for 15 minutes daily), ringworm and as a douche for vaginal thrush.

Calendula Infused Oil

Calendula is good for any skin type but especially dry, acne-prone or aging skin, soothing, cooling and plumping it up. To use it, you can make a calendula infused oil. Fats and oils extract the oily and resinous properties of an herb, and these are often the antibacterial, antifungal and wound-healing components. To make a cold infused oil cut up the herb and cover with vegetable oil (olive, sunflower etc.) in a glass bottle or jar, Leave on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain into a clean jar. Infused herbal oils may be used as they are, applied directly to the skin. Unlike essential oils, they do not need to be diluted for use.

Calendula Salve

You can also thicken your oil into a salve by warming it gently, and adding beeswax. When the beeswax has melted, remove from the heat and pour into clean glass jars.  The more wax you add, the harder the set. This will keep at least a year.

The Amazing Birch Tree

After the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded, birch was one of the first trees to re-colonise the land. Though it is a slender and graceful tree, it is amazingly resilient, and rarely has one species of tree been so important to so many different peoples. Our ancestors used it to make shelters, canoes and coracles, fibre, medicine, ‘paper’, magic and even brewed wine and beer from it.

As it is one of the first trees to come into leaf in the spring, it is associated with regeneration and new beginnings. In Scandinavia the appearance of leaves marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the farmers took it as a sign to sow their spring wheat. In the Northern tradition the birch (Beorc, Byarka, or Berkana) is a symbol of Mother Earth and represents the feminine powers of growth, healing and the natural world. May poles were made of birch, associating the birch with the May Day revels of sympathetic fertility magic.

The white bark of the birch also connects it with purification. The Anglo-Saxon name for the tree was beorc means ‘white’ or ‘shining’. Birch rods are used in country ritual for the driving out of the old year. Another possible derivation is the Latin ‘batuere‘ meaning ‘to strike’, referring to the birch rods use for flogging.

Birch is considered a protective tree, believed to guard those who carried a piece of it, and to keep livestock safe when attached to their barn or shelter. In some parts of England a birch was hung with red and white rags and leant against stable doors at Beltane (May Day) to prevent horses being ‘hag-ridden’, i.e. being taken out by spirits or witches and ridden.

The leaves, bark, twigs are all used medicinally.

Birch contains the natural pain reliever and anti-inflammatory salicylate, the same compound found in aspirin. This is especially useful for arthritic conditions and muscle pain. You can prepare a poultice of fresh bark and apply it directly (the inner bark against the skin) to the affected areas, or make macerated oils of the leaves or bark to apply externally. This will help to relieve both the pain and inflammation of arthritis. These same salycilates in the bark make an effective wart treatment.

As birch is a blood purifier, a decoction of the twigs or bark can be helpful when used as a wash for boils and sores. Make a tincture of birch buds for the treatment of small wounds and cuts. This has antibacterial, antiviral and cell regenerative qualities.  A decoction or macerated oil made from the bark or leaves is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory and useful for skin conditions such as eczema. Use as a skin wash or add to the bath.

Birch bark and leaves are diuretic, with the added benefit of being anti-bacterial. Taken as a decoction they help to eliminate excess fluid and toxins from the body which can help with arthritic conditions, urinary tract infections, cystitis and help to dissolve kidney stones.

The young shoots and leaves are used as a laxative, but the bark is useful in the treatment of diarrhoea.

The betulin compound found in birch bark is under investigation as a treatment for the herpes viruses, AIDS, and cancer.

An essential oil of birch bark is available. This pale yellow oil has a balsamic scent, and is extracted from the leaf-buds by steam distillation. Birch oil is good for dermatitis, dull skin, eczema and psoriasis, and also eases the pain of arthritis, rheumatism and sore muscles.  Birch oil blends well with benzoin, sandalwood and rosemary. However, it should be used with caution and highly diluted, and never when pregnant.

In magic birch is used for protection, purification, against negativity, love, new beginnings, changes, Ostara and Beltane.  It is associated with Aphrodite, Freya, Brigantia, Brighid, the Earth Mother, Thor, Frigga, Idunna, Nethus, Persephone, Sif and Venus.  It is ruled by the planet Venus, the element of water and the sign of Cancer.

Birch represents the power of cleansing and purification in preparation for the new beginnings. When the tree is opened to extract the sweet sap the essence of the tree is released to give its power to the waxing year and the strengthening sun at the vernal equinox, when the light begins to gain on the dark. This can form part of the ritual of Ostara. Honour the sun god with birch sap wine the following year.

Birch Sap Wine

8 pints birch sap (Betula spp.)

½ lb. raisins

2 lb. sugar

Juice of 3 lemons

Yeast

Boil the sap and add the sugar. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the liquid over the raisins and lemon juice. Cool the mixture to 20oC and add the started yeast. Ferment in a brewing bucket for 3 days, then strain into a demijohn and fit an airlock.

To obtain the sap, bore a small hole into the tree, just inside the bark, and insert a narrow tube, sloping downwards. Sap should start running from the tree (if it doesn’t, it is the wrong time of year). Put the free end of the tube into your container (eg a plastic soda bottle), which you can tie onto the tree.  Don’t take too much from one tree. When you have what you need, remove the tube, put a piece of cork into the borehole, and the birch tree will seal itself after a short while. In very early spring (late February or early March here in the UK, depending on the weather) you should be able to draw off enough sap for a gallon of wine in a day.

 I also came across this old English recipe for birch beer, though I haven’t tried it yet:

“To every Gallon of Birch-water put a quart of Honey, well stirr’d together; then boil it almost an hour with a few Cloves, and a little Limon-peel, keeping it well scumm’d. When it is sufficiently boil’d, and become cold, add to it three or four Spoonfuls of good Ale to make it work…and when the Test begins to settle, bottle it up . . . it is gentle, and very harmless in operation within the body, and exceedingly sharpens the Appetite, being drunk ante pastum.”

Almond

Almond trees are associated with spring, regeneration, divination and fertility. In the near east, the appearance of almond blossom is considered the herald of spring. The Anatolian vegetation god Attis, who was reborn each spring only to die and be mourned each winter, was conceived when his mother Nana placed a ripe almond in her bosom, according to some versions of the myth.

Almonds are a wonderful food, rich in fibre, plant sterols and polyunsaturated fatty acids. They help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. They are rich in Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and in magnesium, good for heart health. Sweet almonds pounded in water form ‘almond milk’ which can be used as a substitute for dairy products. The nuts can be eaten raw or roasted and marzipan is made from the ground nuts.

 Almond oil, the oil produced from almonds, can be used as a carrier for essential oils, or alone as a treatment for dry skin as it is a light oil, easily absorbed, emollient and nourishing.  Ground almonds mixed with honey make a great facial scrub.

 Almond oil is also often used as a base for magical oils, but should only be used for those connected with air, spring and its associated gods and goddesses. Almond oil can be used to anoint and consecrate the ritual sword. Almond wood may be used to make a wand of fertility and regeneration. The dried blossoms, wood and nuts may be added to incenses of the east, the element of air, the planet Mercury or the Sun, Ostara, divination rituals, the star sign of Gemini or to incenses of any of the almond’s associated deities. The blossoms may be used in chaplets and decorations at festivals to celebrate the spring.

ALOE VERA

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) is a fascinating plant. Although it resembles a cactus it is actually a member of the lily family, and is a stemless succulent plant growing up to 40 inches tall. The botanical name aloe derives from the Arabic alloeh meaning ‘bitter and shiny substance’ and vera from the Latin word for truth. Despite the nomenclature barbadensis (‘of Barbados’) it is native to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and thrives in warm, dry climates.  It contains nearly 100 active ingredients including sugars, enzymes, lignins, amino acids, anthraquinones (aloin, aloe-emodin), saponins, fatty acids, salicylic acid, resins, sterols, chromones, protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamins A, E and C, tannin and germanium.

I like to keep a plant in the kitchen, as it is a handy first aid remedy for fungal infections, ringworm, nappy rash, eczema, psoriasis, insect bites, minor burns, sunburn, cuts and skin abrasions – just take a fresh leaf and open it to extract the clear gel within and apply this directly to the affected area. It reduces pain, speeds healing and encourages cell repair, due in part to the presence of aloectin B which stimulates the immune system. Aloe is reputed to have potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects. It is useful for almost any skin condition that needs soothing. It is useful for cosmetic purposes too as it sooths and softens the skin, while its astringent properties help tighten it and minimise wrinkles. It helps heal acne and reduce scarring. However, while external use is generally considered safe some people are sensitive, and aloe juice should never be applied to deep cuts and wounds or severe burns.

More and more products are being created advocating the drinking of aloe juice, and this is a cause for concern. Though it does have a place in herbal medicine, aloe juice should not be taken internally as a matter of course or on a regular basis, and indeed, internal use is prohibited in some countries. If you have certain health conditions, it can be dangerous.

I’ve seen people blithely recommending it online for all kinds problems, and on Facebook, I’ve noticed that as soon as someone posts that they have a stomach complaint, there is an avalanche of people recommending aloe juice as a cure, and this really worries me. Aloe can actually cause abdominal cramping, constipation, dehydration, diarrhoea, electrolyte imbalance, excess bleeding, hepatitis, increased risk of colorectal cancer, increased risk of irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, liver toxicity, low potassium in the blood, muscle weakness, stomach discomfort, thyroid dysfunction, urinary stone, uterine contractions, and widespread inflammation of the skin (Source: Mayo Clinic).

The internal use of aloe should definitely be avoided by anyone who has heart disease, abdominal pain, appendicitis, intestinal problems, heart disease, haemorrhoids, kidney problems, diabetes, or electrolyte imbalances, or liver disease. It should be avoided before and after surgery (it increases the risk of bleeding) and during pregnancy or lactation. Aloe lowers blood sugar levels, and should not be taken by diabetics or hypoglycaemia. It certainly shouldn’t be taken if you are suffering from nausea and vomiting – vomiting causes an electrolyte imbalance, which will be compounded by taking aloe vera. It should not be used internally by anyone taking heart medications, steroids, blood thinning medication, thyroid medication, laxatives, liquorice root, or any medications for the stomach or intestines.

 

The Witch’s Kitchen

Food is one of the most basic necessities of life. Food is life, a gift of Mother Earth, and we acknowledge that gift only when we treat it with reverence. Preparing, cooking and serving food is a day-to-day ritual of hospitality, love and sharing, and expresses the cycle of the year when fresh, seasonal food is used.

Whether you are cooking for a sabbat or just for supper, treat it as a conscious act of magic and reflect that when you eat, you take in the life-energy of the food you are consuming, not just its nutrition. Each ingredient possesses its own virtues and energies, and you can utilise these gifts to create culinary magic. Do you want to add sage for wisdom, rosemary for remembrance, lemon balm for joy? You can cook up a love feast, a meal for peace and healing, or a dish of abundance. All nuts are associated with fertility, all grains with abundance, and most fruits with love. The kitchen is a magical workshop, the oven an alchemical tool that transmutes raw ingredients into sustenance for the body and spirit. Prepare your food with intent, stir your dishes sunwise to wind up the magic, eat consciously, and give thanks to Mother Earth for her gifts.