Deborah J. "DJ" Martin

A Witch and a Bitch with an Herbal Itch - and an overactive imagination

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Month: April 2010


Tomorrow, apart from being the anniversary of my dad’s birthday, is Beltane and/or Walpurgisnacht.  “Wait”, you say. “Isn’t that May first?”  Well, yes, except that you have to remember that the ancients started their day at sundown. So sundown on April 30th (by our calendar) starts the first day of May.

Both Beltane and Walpurgisnacht have their roots in antiquity, celebrating the arrival of Spring weather-wise.  To the Celts, Beltane was the beginning of the pastoral season when livestock were herded to their summer pastures.  It is a fire festival, and bonfires were/are used in purification rites.  It’s a time when the veil between the worlds is thin (being opposite Samhain) and bonfires were also thought to keep the Otherworld at bay.

Walpurgisnacht has similar roots in the Germanic areas of Europe, although it is named after Saint Walpurga, whose holy day coincided with the Vikings’ spring festival.  (Christians of old had a tendency to combine their holidays with the existing pagan ones.  This is no exception.) They, too, built bonfires to keep the Otherworldly spirits away (or on a more practical note, to keep predators from livestock).

It’s interesting (at least to me) that this celebration seems to have more in common with Bacchanalia than a solemn ritual. In many areas of Europe it was a day for fertility rites – c’mon, think about the significance of the “May Pole” ;)! Nowadays it’s an excuse for a huge party.  As a matter of fact, in Estonia, May 1st is known as “Hangover Day”.  I’ve read historical books whose accounts state that after dipping into the proverbial keg one too many times, the party turned into an orgy and a lot of babies were born right around Imbolc!

If you choose to do a ritual acknowledging this night, be sure to incorporate herbs associated with the fire element. Some of the more readily-available are: Onion, Garlic, Cashew, Pineapple, Angelica, Wormwood, Frankincense, Copal, Calendula, Cinnamon, Dragon’s Blood, Asafoetida, Witch Hazel, St. John’s Wort, Mandrake, Peppermint, Olive, Rosemary, Rue, Ginger … the list goes on (2 pages in my notebook – contact me if you need a more complete listing).  You can burn them as incense, passing both yourself and ritual items through the smoke as purification, make a “tea” and use it as a wash for the same purpose, or drink your “tea” for internal purification.

If you really want to celebrate, drink gin, which is made from Juniper berries.  Juniper is also a Fire herb! (Since I don’t live in Estonia meaning I’ll have to work on Friday, I think I’ll pass.)

On another note, I now have a Facebook Page. Become a Fan!

Celebrating A Birthday (of sorts)

I’m celebrating …

Last Saturday I went into the garden to do a little work (until I realized that what I was doing was aggravating my spasming trapezius muscle, that is). As always, I checked to see what was coming up and lo and behold, three Mandrakes have popped a couple of leaves above ground! I looked again last night and yet another is rearing a couple of leaves.

You may not know that Mandrake Mandragora officinarum is a very difficult plant to start from seed (at least for me and many of my friends). You’re supposed to put them in water in the refrigerator for about a week, changing the water each day, then start them as you would any other seed.  This I did to 12 seeds over a year ago.  I did everything I’d read I should but they didn’t seem to want to come up in the starter pots.  So, I just put them in a bed in the garden, hoping for the best. Nothing happened at all last year but this year, voila! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that at least two more finish germinating.

Why am I growing Mandrake? Well, a couple of years ago, I started looking at what herbs I wanted versus what was readily available through my store’s normal supply channels.  That prompted me to change some of my garden beds over to a few more exotics. I don’t plan on using Mandrake internally as it has a low therapeutic margin but I might try the recommended poultice of mashed root for arthritis pain. No, what I wanted it for was the fact that a single mandrake root, placed on the mantel or somewhere close to the center of the house, will give protection and prosperity.

It’s said that a Mandrake root has a human appearance. People even differentiate between “male” and “female” roots. I’ve seen photos of fully-grown roots (2 years old or more) and truthfully, can’t see the resemblance.  I agree with Mrs. M. Grieve that they look more like turnips. I’ll be curious to see what mine look like in 2 years when I harvest them.

I don’t think I’ll be following the old way of harvesting Mandrake. From The Old English Herbarium Manuscript (Latin translation available in Europe ca. 900 CE):

“This plant which one calls ‘mandragora’ is large and splendid in appearance and it is effective … you must dig around it so that you do not touch with with the iron but you must vigorously dig up the earth with an ivory wand, and when you see its hands and feet, bind them, then take the other end and tie it to a dog’s neck – let the dog be hungry, then throw meat in front of him so that he may not reach it unless he should pull up the plant; concerning this plant it is said that it has such great might that whatever thing pulls it up, it will shortly be betrayed in the same way …”

I wouldn’t do that to a dog.

Nor do I think I’ll wear ear muffs as in Harry Potter. No, I’ll harvest it with the same care I give to the rest of my plants, leaving a couple of pieces of root yet in the ground to grow again. Then I’ll pick my favorite one and put in on our fireplace mantel. Even the Old English Herbarium says, “If any should see an oppressive evil in his house, let him take this plant ‘mandragoram’ to the middle of the house, it forces out all evil”.

In the meantime, I’m gonna baby those four plants!

Weekend Warrioring

Ah, Spring. Busting my rear end to clean up from winter’s mess and sitting back to admire my handiwork – OUCH.  It’s really pretty, now – OOOH.

Although I warm up before doing any heavy work outside, I’ll admit that I’m a desk jockey most of the time and end up with sore muscles, bruises, cuts, scrapes, (you name it) when gardening. Hauling large bags of soil and mulch isn’t something I regularly do and I usually pay the price.

When we built the house, we installed a whirlpool bathtub knowing that as we aged, it would come in handy. At least that’s what I thought.  It’s large enough that my 6’4″ husband can stretch out his legs but I have a problem – it’s so large I float! This sort of negates me being able to take advantage of the water massage.  So, when I come in from outdoors, I take a hot shower with a massaging showerhead and then after toweling off, liberally rub in my favorite sore muscle cream. It has peppermint and rosemary in it and while it’s relaxing my muscles, smells heavenly. Many people find capsaicin cream (made with cayenne peppers) helpful as well. Other herbs that are good for muscle strains are cinnamon, pine, white willow and comfrey.

If I’ve got bruises, arnica cream does the trick there, as long as there aren’t any scrapes or cuts in the immediate area (don’t use arnica on broken skin). I have friends who swear that if you put arnica cream on immediately upon bumping yourself that a bruise won’t even form. Unfortunately for me, I usually don’t realize I’ve got a bruise until I look down & see one. But the arnica helps the bruise heal faster and is also good for strained muscles.  (I just like the smell of peppermint & rosemary better!)

Gardening is also hard on my hands. I wear gloves when doing the heavy work like hauling soil or mulch, or running the tiller but when I’m actually playing in the dirt, there’s nothing like the feel of the seed or plant between my fingers.  The good ‘ol Georgia red clay is very drying, not to mention all the scrapes I get from brambles, rose thorns, etc.

One of my instructors swore by calendula ointment on his hands after gardening. It made sense – calendula heals wounds rapidly. I just don’t like the somewhat greasy feel of ointment so I make a calendula cream, using chamomile hydrosol. Chamomile is soothing to dry & chapped skin.  Rose hydrosol is good for the same thing.

To make your own cream, pick which herb(s) you want to use and steep 4/5 ounce (by weight) of dried herb in 8 fluid ounces of your chosen oil for 10 days, shaking it at least once a day. (I use olive oil because it has skin-soothing properties, too.) Be sure to “crunch” your herbs a bit to open their pores and make it easy for the oil to extract the good stuff. Strain well and pour into a non-aluminum pan. Heat over low heat and melt 1/2 ounce beeswax into your oil – you’ll find the beeswax melts faster if you grate it, first.

Once the beeswax is fully melted, remove your pan from the heat and allow to start cooling.  When you see a line of wax starting to form around the rim, pour your oil/wax mixture into a blender. (Be sure to put the blender top on!) Set your blender on high and slowly add one cup of hydrosol or water. You’ll have to stop the blender and scrape often. It’s messy.

Water and oil don’t like to mix so it will take some serious blending. After about 10 minutes, you should have a thick cream. To make a lotion, add in more hydrosol or water until it’s to the desired consistency.

This recipe has no preservatives in it so if you’re not going to use it all up within a couple of weeks, store in the refrigerator. You may see the water & oil separating a bit as there is no emulsifier in the recipe, either. Just shake or stir it well before use.

Completely off topic: April 11-17 is National Library Week.  I’m a bookworm and book collector and love libraries. Both my daughter and son-in-law are librarians so I’d like to give them a huge virtual hug!

Fully armed with various healing creams, I’m off to the garden again!


When I moved from Minneapolis to Atlanta, my allergist told me I was going from the frying pan into the fire.  Atlanta lies at the very bottom of the Appalachians and all the pollen from the mountains blows down and just sits over the city as if in a bowl. I had never even heard of  “pollen counts” until moving but when I was living in the city, did I pay attention!  The “pollen count” measures the number of pollen particles per cubic foot of air, most of which are invisible to the naked eye (and it’s the ones you can’t see that get you). A count of 120 is considered extremely high for people with allergies.  Yesterday’s count in Atlanta was 5,733.  One of the local television stations caught it on camera.  While this may look like clouds or air pollution, it’s actually pollen.

Thankfully, my allergies are mild compared to many of my friends’. I get some itchy eyes and go through a few more tissues than normal but it’s not bad. Since moving out of the city, they’ve become even less of a nuisance because I’m not contending with pollution in addition to pollen each day. But here in the mountains, our seasons are about two weeks behind Atlanta and because I make a weekly trip into the city, my exposure is a bit prolonged.

There are some things I do to keep myself as comfortable as possible for about six weeks until the trees and grasses are done with their annual contribution to their procreation both in Atlanta and up here. First, I double my Garlic intake starting about the first of March to boost my immune system.  I continue this until the middle of May when I’m positive the local allergy season has come to an end. I know several people that go on a regime of Echinacea during the same period for the same reason. (Echinacea should never be taken for long periods of time. The longer you take it, the more it actually decreases in effectiveness.)

As soon as it gets nice outside, I refuse to stay indoors more than I have to. During the height of pollen season, I take a shower as soon as I come in from outdoors – this includes washing my hair.  Getting all the pollen off lessens the period of direct exposure.  Washing hands frequently and avoiding touching the nose & eye area also helps a great deal. To treat my symptoms, I wash my eyes several times a day with sterile saline solution (the same stuff contact lens wearers use).  Rarely does my nose get so stuffed I want an antihistamine but when it does, I add more fresh horseradish or ginger to my diet.  Both do a good job of clearing out mucous in a hurry. Dr. James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy, recommends nettle Urtica dioica as well.

As I said, my symptoms are mild compared to many allergy sufferers. If you’ve got bad allergies, stay indoors as much as possible with the house shut up until allergy season has passed. If you must go outside, do it in the very early hours before the sun encourages the release of pollen.  Try a cup of nettle tea three times a day, and increase your intake of garlic, onions and Vitamin C. There are times, though, that herbs just won’t do the trick for someone.  In this case, a synthetic antihistamine is probably your best bet.

As I write, it’s raining, washing much of the pollen out of the air. I’ll get probably one day of respite tomorrow and then the pollen counts will rise dramatically again.  Achoo!  Sniff.

Herbs & Kids

This past weekend Pete and I finally had a chance to meet my twin grandsons!  They’re already three months old but travelling 1100 miles isn’t the easiest thing to do these days. Needless to say, the visit was entirely too short.

When I found out they were expecting twin boys, I knew immediately what I wanted to make for them: teddy bears that were alike yet not, just like most twins. As a witchy herbalist, I naturally wanted to stuff them full of protective & healthy herbs but I stopped myself. First, I know how boys are. Toys get filthy and herbs aren’t exactly washable. More importantly, I didn’t want to stuff them with something they might be allergic to. Allergies and asthma among children are on the rise and I certainly didn’t want to contribute to a potential problem!

I am always cautioning mothers about introducing herbs to children. While most are safe for youngsters, some are not. Breast-feeding mothers also need to be careful about what they take as any herb will make its way from the mother’s body to the child’s through the milk. (My mantra: research, research, research!)

There are some herbal things that, assuming the child has no serious medical problems, can be done. From one of my textbooks:

Colic can be helped by teas of catnip, chamomile, cloves, dill, fennel, ginger, peppermint or spearmint.

Cradle Cap: rub in wheatgerm oil, jojoba oil, apricot kernel oil, castor oil, or thuja ointment.

Diaper Rash: apply aloe vera gel, calendula ointment (my favorite) or apricot kernel oil. Some of the best advice: sit out in the sunshine and take the diaper off for a bit. Be sure to use sunscreen on both baby & Mom!

Sleeplessnesss or Restlessness: Use teas of catnip, chamomile, hops or passionflower.

Teething: Use teas of catnip or chamomile to calm the fussiness and rub chamomile or clove oil (diluted 2-3 drops in 1 teaspoon sweet almond oil) on the gums. Clove oil may be a bit strong tasting so I usually recommend the chamomile. Dip a cotton swab or cotton ball in the mixed oil for application.

To use teas, especially where infants are concerned, if mother is breast-feeding, she should drink the tea and pass the benefits of the herb on through her milk. Or, make a mild infusion (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried herb to 1 cup just-boiled water); strain, cool and feed through a bottle or sippy cup. If herbs are bitter, you can sweeten the tea with honey but don’t use honey with children under 12 months of age. (There can be botulism spores in raw honey and children are more susceptible to infection than adults.) Here, stevia can help. Just a pinch of stevia will sweeten as well as a full teaspoon of honey.

So, what did I do about the teddy bears? They are made with 100% washable fabric & stuffing to solve the dirt problem. Tucked inside each tummy is a charged sardonyx – a very good protective stone which just happens to be one of my birthstones. As with anything most grandmothers make, they are made with all the love and protection I could infuse into them.