Primrose Primula vulgaris Cowslip Primula verris Oxslip P.elatoir False oxslip P x polythana Bird’s-eye primsose P. farinosa Scots Primrose P.scotica
The banks and hedgerows brightened by cowslips and primroses is surely one of the most uplifting signs of spring arriving. The word ‘Primula’ means ‘first rose’ which is an adapt name for this delicate-looking yet hardy plant.
Primrose represents a delicate love and is said to have been used for love potions. Shakespeare wrote ‘ pale primroses that die unmarried’. As is typical with much folklore this quote is rooted in the practical fact that primroses bloom early in the year when few insects are about and therefore some of the flowers are not pollinated.
Primrose has many uses as a healing herb from gout and rheumatism to nervous headaches. It can be combined with bramble tops to help treat spots and sores on your face and as a relaxant can help ease toothache by rubbing the leaves directly on the tooth.
As a snuff it can be used to ease migraine and as an ointment to treat cuts, bruises, chapped hands and chilblains.
Take an infusion of flowers to help sleep.
Cowslip can also be used similarly for as an ointment for wounds and also is an ideal to help with burns. Its flowers, like primrose can also be good for insomnia and a decoction of its roots can be used as an expectorant to help treat bronchitis and whopping cough. A syrup can be made of the roots, flowers and leaves to use as drops for the nose and ears to apparently help with deafness. Cowslip depending on distribution tends to be the second choice after primrose for much of the above remedies.
Cowslips also continue the theme of spring and love with their delicately perfumed blooms attracting insects seeking nectar. It is the insects with long tongues such as bees and moths that are able to feed from cowslip.
In Somerset it is known as ‘bunch of keys’ as it resembles a medieval set of keys. The story goes that St Peter dropped the keys to Heaven from which cowslips sprung. Maybe cowslip therefore can unlock the mysteries of the heart especially as it is said to strengthen the senses.
Other Primula species include more specialist species such as oxslip a rare ancient woodland indicator that replaces primrose in dampish woods of clay soil especially in Eastern England. In the North of England mainly on limestone soils is a pink flowering Primula called the bird’s-eye primrose. The Scots primrose is a specialist of the highlands on short coastal turf resembling the bird’s-eye primrose but with deeper purple flowers.
Species also hybridise to create the false oxslip (polyanthus), a cross species of primrose and cowslip which has bunches of flowers borne on a singular stalk like cowslip but the umbels are on both sides of the stalk.
A rarer hybrid occurs in oxslip territory between oxslip and both primrose and cowslip.
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Soul-making part 1: Meditation
This is the first article for our course on 'Soul- Making' which will be exploring the spiritual practices of the West through nature enabling the reader to explore the nature of the soul and connect with their indigenous roots here in Britain. Please feel free to leave your comments and thoughts.
Meditation is a dynamic active pursuit of the soul, allowing us to connect with our natural state. The mind when shown a place of rest is serene and at peace with itself allowing us to tap into our true nature.
This state in the modern western world is often only harnessed when we find ourselves in extreme circumstances such as dangerous pursuits or accidents. The mind in these circumstances is in a flow, all of life slows down allowing us to stretch out every second, giving us time to react to the given situation.
We experience a state of timelessness which William Blake may be alluding to when he says ‘to hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour’.
Imagine being in that state constantly being able to react to any given situation with the perfect response, this is the state meditation masters have achieved and all of us can experience. Given time and practice this state can become more and more our own natural state.
Meditation is often associated with the East and often the western culture is more familiar with the Buddhist concepts of mindfulness or the Hindu system of Yoga.
However the Celtic tradition is alive with instruction on the nature of the soul brought to light through the stories, poems and Bardic knowledge especially preserved in Ireland.
Although the traditions have suffered great oppression from political and religious elites and finally a modern disconnection from spirituality, the knowledge is still there waiting for us to delve into.
Set aside an area in your living space you can use just for meditating and ritual. In the same way we recognise a place of power in nature such as Stone Henge or Avebury, this is our own place of power where many memories will be created.
Use the same seat/cushion each day and have a set of clothes to wear for this process to instantly put you in a certain mind-set conducive for meditation, in much the same way you wear different clothes for work or for sport for instance.
Light a candle, go within, draw your senses inside. Once that spark is ignited within you, you can experience it in all the elements and you can take your senses out to the world filling it with joy.
A suggestion is to meditate by visualising the Birch grove which signals the start of your Otherworld (Inner realms) journey. Visualise the light airy birch grove teeming with melodious birds, a myriad of fungi and the sounds of wild animals stalking prey or making shelter. Make it as real as possible, try to touch the barks, smell the scents and hear the sounds. Go deep into the feeling of being immersed in nature, remembering it is the feeling rather than the visions that is most important. Be still and at peace for as long as you have time for; bringing love, gratitude and acceptance into your day or evening.
Meditation is more effective practiced regularly every day as you would with any discipline, in the same way an athlete or musician practices every day to reach their goals.
To make time, allowing say twenty minutes each morning and evening to cleanse the mind by using ritual or meditation is no different from having a wash morning and evening. A constant practice will enable you to imbibe these qualities throughout your day and life and you may find prolonged practices of meditation naturally follow on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Bathing in water enables your physical body to be clean but true cleanliness comes from within.
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Blackthorn - Straif (Ogham) Prunus spinosa ( Latin)
Hedge of a stream is Blackthorn
Careful effort, strongest of red, Sloe which gives strong red dye on metal.
An arrows mist, smoking drifting from the fire.
Increasing of secrets.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Blackthorn is represented by two letters in the Celtic Tree Ogham. The first letter is S which represents willow and the second is D or T which are interchangeable as oak or holly.
Blackthorn in the legends therefore is used to represent the warriors death ( meaning of W for willow) in service to others. Ultimately this sacrifice is for the King or Queen of the land ( meaning of D or T for oak or holly). The warrior welcomed death seeing it as a transition to another world rather than as an ending. However to truly conquer the fear of death one has to prepare spiritually and emotionally by forgiving both themselves and others.
Blackthorn invites us to contemplate our death and what it means to explore and understand the mysteries. Warriors were said to have trained with thorns and the hedge of blackthorn ( mentioned above in the kennings) represents the barrier of raised spears in the shield war. However it was not just the men who fought in that shield war but the women too and often the warrior’s training was conducted by famous women warriors such as Scathach, Aillill and Bodhnall.
The mysteries were thought to be guarded by powerful women such as the baleful Cailleach or death crone who is a hag with only one arm, one leg and an upper tooth long enough to use as a crutch. She is the keeper of the cauldron of rebirth and re-members the corpse to bring it back to life in the bright Other-world. The power of the mysteries is also reflected in the Wyrd Sisters of Anglo Saxon lore who spin the fate of us all.
Blackthorn is known therefore as the ‘increaser and keeper of dark secrets’ and due to misunderstanding can be given a sinister reputation connected to witches. Witches are said to use the Blackthorn to create malevolent wands and carved sticks called ‘black rods’ which were said to induce miscarriages and harm others. Further associations include blackthorn wood for burning witches, its thorns for discovering the devil’s mark on witches and its use as a crown of thorns on Jesus’s head.
Thorn trees take centre stage in stories such as sleeping beauty and in a Scottish tale a thicket is created to protect King Eirinn’s daughter from her father when eloping with her lover. The thicket therefore is a form of protection and in other stories an escape from giants!
This role as a dense thicket and its connection to giants gives Blackthorn a deep connection with the guardians of nature. It is the thicket that is the nesting place for birds, a home for the insects and a valuable habitat for the essential building blocks of nature. For in nature its the bottom of the food chain, the dark places, the insects and reptiles which are of paramount importance and are too readily overlooked in modern times. Blackthorn invites us into the mysteries and to explore the dark areas of our psyche without judgement. One of its main lessons is to accept fate just as it is and not to fight against the inevitable.
Hawthorn and Blackthorn are seen as sisters often called May and Black having similar roles with their thorns and delicate blossom. In late March to early April when blackthorn blossoms it is often known as the blackthorn hatch, a mild period before the onset of colder and wetter weather. Blackthorn has also been known as the mother of the woods representing fertility and therefore used as part of wassailing celebrations for apple trees.
In the New Year it has been burnt as a fire charm as its ash is believed to create a fertile field.
Medicinally Blackthorn berries have been used for ‘fluxes in the belly’ as they are a strong purgative and therefore should be used with extreme caution. The berries can be safely used for the making of sloe gin and added to drinks and jam as ‘bitters’. The juice of the berry can also be used as a marking ink.
Blackthorn wood is dark and hard and can be used for the teeth of rakes, fighting and walking sticks (Merlin’s staff is said to have been blackthorn) and clubs, cudgels or the Shillelagh the name the Irish give to the traditional cudgel wielded by giants.
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Herb Robert ( Geranium robertianum)
Little herb Robert, bright and small, peeps from the bank or the old stone wall.
Little herb Robert, his leaf turns red, his wild geranium, so it is said.
A plant with bright red stems especially when mature, which Wordsworth has commented on in his works. However these stems were noted long before Wordsworth in the phenomenon known as the doctrine of signatures.
This term is used to describe the concept that a plant resembles that which it can cure and is said to be employed by tribal doctors across the world. It is said Herb Robert is one of the best plants for blood disorders and to staunch wounds brought to the attention of early herbalists by its red stems.
The fresh leaves can be used as a compress for wounds and as a sedative and astringent, as well as gargle for sore throats and mouth. A lotion can be made from it for irritated eyes.
The plant can be dried and used internally to lower blood sugar for diabetics, help diarrhea, peptic ulcers and treat an internal haemorrhage.
The name Robert may simply mean red (ruber) for its stems or a reference to Robert the Duke of Normandy whom wrote a medieval medical treatise on the plant. Its foliage has a pungent smell given rise to the local name of ‘stinking bob’.
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Holly Fact File.
Holegn ( Anglo-saxon). Holin (middle English to become Holm/Hulver) Hussetum (medieval Latin)
A third of a wheel is holly for it is one of three timbers of the chariot wheel.
Third of a wheel.
A third of weapons, an iron bar.
Fires of coal.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Holly is a widespread tree but is less common in Eastern England and East Scotland. Holly is considered bad luck to cut, the result of which has possibly made it the commonest hedgerow tree in East Anglia. Holly wood can be sanded to a beautiful white finish and is hard, strong and durable making it ideal for cogs used in machinery. The close grained wood makes it ideal for carving and turnery. Holly foliage has been used for fodder for both sheep and deer.
Its wood also makes good charcoal. Spears and chariot shafts were also made from Holly.
Holly is an important tree, a specialty of the British Isles, an example of a evergreen broad-leaved tree rare outside of Britain, just like the Strawberry tree is in South-West Ireland. This inevitably means ancient Holly sites must be protected. Holly woods include sites in Epping, the New Forest, Sherrard’s Park Wood and the grandest stand is in Staverton Park.
Holly thrives in the west usually on acid soils, although as with many native species there are exceptions. Holly will both cast and tolerate shade. It is one of the few species which has actually profited from woodcutting rights that were terminated in 1878 due to its shade tolerance. Holly regeneration is increasing as grazing declines. Holly has a poor flora but can be rich in bryophytes. It also provides shelter and food for mammals and birds as well as providing nectar for insects.
Holly’s strongest traditions are around the time of the winter solstice as the Holly is the King of the waning year and at this time he reaches his zenith. At the winter solstice the Holly King duels with the Oak King and symbolically dies allowing the Oak, the King of the waxing year to court the Goddess.
This dual repeats itself in the summer solstice when the Holly King wins and precedes again over the waning year. The oak and the holly representing the play of light and dark at the time of the longest and shortest day.
Holly speaks of tenacity, a refusal to give up and its evergreen leaves lift one’s spirits and shelter the fairies and elves. It is said it is safe to bring Holly foliage into the house at the time of the Winter Solstice (21st/22nd December) as the nature spirits are not going to harm you provided they are removed by Imbolc
In some parts of Europe Holly is known as ‘Christ’s thorn’ as the thorny leaves and red berries represent the suffering of Christ and the passion of his message.
The Green Knight from the Arthurian tales has a Holly club and perhaps represents the challenging Holly giant. Nadcranntail, a famous warrior of Irish stories carried nine holly spears charred and sharpened as did Mannanan Mac lir the Irish Sea God.
The weaving sisters who reside at the base of the Tree of Life are said use holly spindles to weave the threads of life that govern our destiny.
The twelfth night known as holy night may have originally been known as Holly night and the strongman of the village carried a heavy holly branch through the streets as part of a procession on this night. Holly is considered to be a guardian against evil spirits, poisons, short-tempered angry elementals, thunder and lightning.
The Ogham name Tinne means a link as in a chain or a bridge but to where? Maybe the Other-world, as the kennings for this tree point to the otherworldly character of the Holly Ogham and it is regarded as a pivotal point for the other letters and an in-between state of life and death.
Medicinally holly leaves can be used to induce a sweat and therefore rid the body of poisons and fevers. The berries are a purgative and if dried and powdered can help relieve diarrhea and heavy menstrual flow.
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Archangels (Lamiums) Red archangel (Lamium purpurea) White archangel ( L.album)
Henbit archangel ( L.amplexicaule) Yellow archangel ( Lamiastrum galeobdolon)
Through sun and rain, the country lane,
The field, the road, are my abode.
Though leaf and bud be splashed with mud,
Who cares? Not I!—I see the sky,
The kindly sun, the wayside fun
Of tramping folk who smoke and joke,
The bairns who heed my dusty weed
(No sting have I to make them cry),
And truth to tell, they love me well.
My brothers, White, and Yellow bright,
Are finer chaps than I, perhaps;
Who cares? Not I! So now good-bye.
Cicely Mary Barker
A delightful selection of plants often known as dead nettles as their leaves resemble the nettle but have no sting. I prefer the name archangel which seems more deserving and refers to the fact they are still in flower on Archangel Michael’s Day ( 29th September)- Michaelmas.
Archangels grow on cultivated and waste land. The yellow species ( considered less herbal although can be used) tends to grow on heavy spoils of wood and hedgerow and differs from the others with its more robust aerial shoots. The white species is not seen in more natural habitats and seems to crop up around areas which were early Norman settlements so may well have been introduced as food. The red and white can both be added to salads or cooked as a vegetable, they were both once eaten by humans and prepared as pig food.
As a tea the plant is uplifting and as a healer can aid green wounds, ulcers, bruises, burns and ‘draweth’ splinters. It has also been said it can be used magically to protect cattle and as a guardian against black magic and evil spirits.
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Apple tree Malus sylvestris (Latin) Quert ( Ogham)
Shelter of a wild hind is an apple.
Shelter of a hind, lunatic, death sense, a time when a lunatic’s senses come back to him.
Excellent emblem, protection.
Force of a man.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Like the Hazel tree( see the previous blog), apple is a tree of knowledge and a provider of nutritious food.
The apple tree is known in many cultures and traditions including Greek mythology and Christian lore.
In Britain there are many tales and indeed warnings of the eating of apples. The general agreement amongst these traditions is that the Apple is connected to the Other-world and can confer divine knowledge and inspiration but at a price for once that knowledge is known there is no going back.
Stories speak of Isles of paradise with sacred apple trees. Glastonbury is said to be a physical manifestation of Avalon from the Gaelic Evain avaloch meaning holy hill of apples. Thomas of Ercledoune was given the gift of prophecy by the Queen of the fairies and warned he may never return from the Other-lands.
The Apple is a symbol of office for those great souls such as Sweeny Geilt, Taliesin and Merlin who dared to risk their lives and especially the sanity of their minds to travel to the Other-lands.
Shamanic traditions across the globe speak of the healers or wise ones who risk their lives for the knowledge to help their tribe or community. The ogham letters for apple is QU or CU a synonym for a warrior in Celtic lore, in this case a spiritual warrior unafraid to face death or travel to the Other-lands.
Orchards come into their own at Samhain ( the time when the Other-lands are most accessible). Apples are piled high and eaten in abundance. Apples are wassailed (celebrated) with song, ritual and toasts. Often libations of cider are poured on the apple tree’s roots.
In ancient times Pliny recognised 22 varieties of apple but since then over 2000 varieties have made their way across Europe especially from France into Britain. Apples contain much goodness as they are full of sugars, amino acids, vitamins, pectin, mineral salts, malic and tartaric acids.
They are good for infections of the intestine, constipation, fatigue, hypertension, rheumatism, bronchial diseases, coughs and cholesterol etc etc…..
Our native Crab Apple is easily overlooked in woodlands as it is often grows as a single tree. The true native has long pointed thorns and a rather shrubby untidy appearance which is why it bears the name crab from the Norse word skrab meaning ‘scrubby’.
However its presence is announced in the autumn when you will often notice copious amounts of small bitter apples upon the tree and ground. The crab apple however is not to be dismissed by the seeker of better tastes as we must remember this tree is the ancestor of all our cultivated apples and is still the rootstock to which the grafts of cultivated apples are made. Crab apples also make a wonderful jelly when mixed with rowan berries.
In the spring it is also more easily noticed with its wonderful display of pink blossom which exudes a perfume at night to attract insects, not unlike honeysuckle.
The apple tree tells us it is a time of fruition, a time to gather our resources and feel abundant. It also protects us from the more negative states of the mind.
Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus)
My hundred thousand bells of blue, the splendour of the spring, they carpet all the woods anew with royalty of sapphire hue; the primrose is the queen, 'tis true but surely I am King!
Ah yes, the peerless woodland king.
Cicely Mary Barker 1925
Bluebells are often thought of as a symbol of the beginning of summer in England, forming dense carpets of azure blue. A blue haze can be seen throughout the woods, a breathtaking sight revealing the glory of our woods at this time. People flock from other parts of the world to witness this majestic display. The individual flowers hang from the stem as bell-shaped flowers with creamy anthers.
A typical sight in Hampshire and West Sussex is a hazel coppice filled with bluebells. Hazel has strong associations with the animal worlds and greater knowledge. The bluebell appearing at a key Celtic festival invites us into a land of exuberance, the Bright realms. Fox wanders through the woods as an animal that journeys between the realms and if the fox needs help she can ring the bluebell for assistance.
A plant that is in such abundance you would have expected it to have been used. There are very few references to bluebell in the medicinal world; though it has been noted the roots were chopped, fried and applied as a plaster in Inverness.
The bulb is poisonous but can be made into starch and glue.
With extreme caution it can be used as a diuretic and styptic. Even in small doses it may not be safe to use.
Please do not use the bluebell yourself, this information is for your interest only!
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Hazel Fact File
Corylus avellana (Latin) Coll ( Ogham)
Hazel is a tree as well-used and known as the oak; it has played a huge part in the history of Woodsmanship in Britain. It spread effectively throughout Britain after the last ice age and probably helped form a staple food for early humankind. Known as the Celtic Tree of Knowledge it is not hard to see why the nuts (representing illumination) were so revered in a time when much of our native foods must have been bland in comparison. Hazel is connected to the life of the salmon which also represents illumination and must have also been a staple food fit for the gods! Hazelnuts are rich in mineral salts and can be ground to a powder to make flour. The hazelnut can also be used to soothe sore throats and relieve symptoms of a head cold. It is also thought hazelnuts bestow the gift of eloquence.
Not only did hazel provide a rich source of food, its wood was ideal for many crafts due to it being strong, flexible and easy to split and coppice. The wood can be used to make hurdles for fencing, walls for housing, springels to hold thatch in place, stakes and supports to grow plants, fishing rods, baskets, coracles etc...
No wonder it became so venerated and the traditional stories started to explore a deep spiritual aspect to its multi-faceted usage. The most famous story connected to hazel is of Finn McCuill (son of hazel) from the Fenian cycle who becomes enlightened merely from sucking the juice of the salmon of Fec which was caught in a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees, the nuts of which the salmon fed upon.
Hazel catkins mark the time of Imbolc or Oimelc (which means butter bag) as they resemble lamb’s tails and this season is traditionally the time when lambs are born and sheep begin to lactate. It is also the festival of Brighid who amongst other things is the muse of poets through the hazel tree.
The hazel is connected to the elements and has lightness about it. However there is also the story of the dripping hazel tree poisoned by the head of the giant Balor ( leader of the Fomhoire). This may well be a threshold tree acting as a guardian to the Other-worlds. To confront this tree is to experience your darker nature. Satire and keening can be associated with this tree in Celtic lore.
Hazel generally prefers a more acid soil and supports a rich flora; it will co-exist happily with honey fungus provided there is not too much shade and trees aren’t planted!
Commercial forestry does not employ hazel so extensively as it would have at one time partly due to a decline in the faggot trade although hazel is still in demand for wattle hurdles often now used for motorway fencing and in gardens.
Hampshire and Sussex are strongholds for hazel but on a national scale hazel is declining and is threatened due to its lack of regeneration. Neglected coppice means the tree will not flower and therefore fruit. When hazel does fruit the wood pigeons and squirrels will devour the nuts, often when they are still unripe meaning dropped seed will not grow.
The hazel tree as with so many of our trees needs our attention and protection as its habitat becomes neglected, this is a perfect example of how keeping our traditional crafts alive and using rather than neglecting the tree will help preserve it for future generations.
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Ribwort plantain Greater Plantain hoary plantain
Plantain (Plantago) Greater Plantain ( P. Major )
Ribwort Plantain (P. lanceolata) Hoary Plantain ( P.media).
Hullo, Snailey-O ! How’s the world with you?Put your little horns out;
Tell me how you do? There’s rain, and dust, and sunshine, Where carts go creaking by;
You like it wet, Snailey; I like it dry!
Hey ho, Snailey-O, I’ll whistle you a tune! I’m merry in September, As e’er I am in June.
By any stony roadside Wherever you may roam, All the summer through, Snailey, Plantain’s at home!
Cicely Mary Barker 1925
The four common species of Plantain are listed above. The greater has the broadest leaves followed by the hoary plantain which leaves are nearly as broad but are hairy where the greater is not. Ribwort Plantain has longer narrow leaves which are often downy. There are also two seaside species called buckshorn plantain (P.coronopus) and sea plantain ( P.maritima).
Plantain species treat piles and diarrhoea whilst the ribwort species is especially recommended to treat asthma and bronchitis. The leaves can be dried and taken as a tea for the above treatments. Fresh leaves are ideal to check bleeding of wounds and soothe burns and sores as well as insect bites. The leaves can also be dried to make an ointment which is also effective for wounds, burns and insect bites.
The greater plantain has the largest and most abundant flower spike of the plantain species. One may use the seed to make bannock and add to soups as an alternative to linseeds with mucilaginous and laxative properties. Birds also enjoy the seed given rise to local names such as bird’s meat and canary flower.
Five thousand years ago evidence suggests that early farmers cleared a lot of land for farming practice. One such evidence is the increase in plants such as the plantain which will grow in cleared compact ground and withstand heavy grazing. This is possibly why the plant is called Plantago from the root word Planta meaning sole of foot. A further reference is made to this theory by the Native Americans calling this plant white man’s footprint.
Hoary plantain is the only species which is insect pollinated using its delicate scent to attract bees.
This plant I have associated with the oak which also has benefited from human interference and has similar herbal properties.
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Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.