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Infused herbal oils are lovely. Often you get subtle but distinct scents to them, and they can be used for medicine and/or cosmetics.

Here’s how I made arnica oil yesterday.

Prepare your jar first. You want it clean and very dry. I wash a bunch of jars and then put them in the oven on a low temp for half an hour to get all moisture out of them. Moisture and oil and plant material usually equates to mould. Let the jar cool before making oil as hot glass and plant material also equals moisture which equals mould.

Pick the herb. Pick on a dry day where there has been no rain at all for at least 24 hours. Pick later in the day if there has been dew. Plants have some moisture in them, but moisture on the outside invariably leads to mould in the oil.

Chop the herb. Not entirely essential, depending on the herb, but I like to because it opens the plant to the oil, and because you get more plant into the jar therefore the oil is a bit stronger. I usually chop roughly, occasionally I chop finely or use a blender.

Fill the jar twice. Once with the herb, and then again with oil. I use olive oil because it is very stable and it’s good for the skin. Once the oil is in, use a chop stick or something to poke the plant to get as much air out as possible.

Cap and label. Put a lid on to keep out bugs. And label jar with date, plant and plant part, place of harvest, and type of oil.

Check the next day. Open it up to have a look, add more oil (usually the level has dropped because air has surfaced). The plant material must be cover in oil (or it will go mouldy).

Infuse 6 weeks. In a cool place out of direct sun (heat equals mould). That’s the length of time I was taught and I like it. The long time allows the plant to be extracted into the oil. Keep an eye on it, wiping any moisture from inside the lid and topping up oil as necessary.

Decant. I strain through a sieve, and then squeeze out in a cloth to get as much oil out of the plant as possible. You can let the decanted oil sit in a jar for a few days to see if any water settles on the bottom and then pour the oil off into a clean, dry bottle. Dark glass will keep the oil longer. Store in a cool, dark place.

Use and enjoy!

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The arnica in the garden is in full flower:

This plant was put in from a $5 nursery pot in January. That’s last January. So it flowered in the summer and had all these babies and now it’s flowering again. I’m super impressed because I thought it might be a few years before there were enough flowers to harvest.

Arnica seems to like the dry, very well drained soil, and the warm climate. I’ve tried growing it on the east coast, where it was ok but not prolific. You can sometimes pick up arnica in nurseries, and the seeds and plants are sometimes available on trademe.

I made an infused oil yesterday. I took most of the flowers that were in good condition. I’m hoping that arnica is like calendula in that the more you pick the flowers the more flowers grow.

It’s been a long time since I’ve used arnica oil (it’s hard to find commerically as an oil on its own). Arnica is a classic remedy for strains and bruises. I’ve used homeopathic arnica for this, but would like to try the oil too. Arnica is often avoided for internal use as it is toxic in higher doses, but some herbalists use it in small doses. Here’s US Great Lakes herbalist Jim Macdonald’s view on arnica:

Arnica is among the premier herbs for treating injury.  Applied topically, it summons the blood and Vital Force of the body to the injury and will help ease swelling, inflammation, pain, and bruising.  Taken internally it helps repair and ease the pain resulting from torn muscles and connective tissues, either from a sprain or from overzealous exercise (think about the achy feeling after a workout, or the first day of heavy duty yardwork in the spring); I’ve taken 5 drops before bed after a hard days labor to ease that sore, achy, “I did too much” feeling that often comes the next morning.  Remember, in its herbal form Arnica should be used in small doses of 5-10 drops.  Also, because of its action of summoning blood to the site it is applied topically to, it should not be used on broken skin.  In such cases, think Yarrow.

Having been given an eel and cleaned and gutted it, here’s how I cooked and ate it.

I was a bit worried because I’d heard varying reports on eating eel – from it being bland and rubbery to it being so strong you needed to cook it in certain ways to tone it down. I’m pleased to find it is both easy to cook and delicious!

One of the ethics for me in eating meat is a commitment to use as much as possible of the animal that has died to feed me. This is about valuing that animal’s life (and death) but it’s also about sustainable practice. If I can get three times more nutrients from this eel by eating all of it rather than just the ‘meat’, then I can take only one eel instead of three. Traditional cultures have always used the whole animal in some way, and many of the parts we throw out now are in fact the most nutritious.

I’d read and heard various techniques for skinning eels and the necessity of removing the slime from the outside of the skin. A couple of friends said they eat the skin, and one said she doesn’t deslime at all because she feels it’s part of the nutrition, so that’s what I went with. Fish skin is always so tasty, and it seemed like there was a good amount of oil in and just under the eel skin that I didn’t want to lose. I found the eel a bit slimey when handling it – don’t bother trying to wash your hands in water while cutting it up, use a towel to wipe your hands instead – but it wasn’t obvious in the cooking. I don’t know why people try and remove it, but then one of the attractions of eel for me is the large amount of fish oil – maybe some people don’t want that.

Cutting up the eel was a bit tricky – the skin still being tough, and the spine too. I’m sure technique is alot to do with it. I ended up cutting most of it into ‘steaks’ i.e. cutting across the body in cross section. I hadn’t bled the eel so there was a good chunk of blood along the spine still which I left in to cook:

I’d looked up some recipes for jellied eel and thought I’d try that because it seemed a good way of accessing the best nutrients in the eel. The long slow cooking in water would make it very digestible and ‘hold’ in all the goodies. First I melted some butter in the bottom of a casserole dish. Then I put in the steaks and sprinkled them with salt and a large handful of chopped fennel leaf. I just covered all this with water and added 3 tablespoons of chickweed vinegar (any good quality vinegar will do).

The oven was preheated to 170C. With the lid on I let it cook for about an hour.

The long slow cooking and the vinegar extract all the ‘jelly’ from the eel and once cooled it’s meant to be very jelly like. Mine wasn’t but I think it was because I used so much water. However it was very yummy, both the meat and the broth. The skin did indeed taste great, possibly an acquired texture for some but very edible. The meat was a bit chewy (cooking temperature could be a bit lower) although not rubbery, and the flesh fell apart easily making it very soupy. The spine as easy to pull out but there were some random wee bones which made for careful eating. I found it hard to see what was happening with the bones when cutting it up before cooking, so I need to learn how to fillet eel. It reheated well and I’ve frozen some to see how that goes.

I also froze some steaks raw, and all of the fat (need to figure out what to do with that and if it needs rendering). The liver I sautéed with onion. It was incredibly tender and very mild tasting – much easier to eat than the liver from land animals.

I’m also having a go at drying some strips of eel, but it’s an experiment as I’ve never dried meat before. I’d tried taking out the bones, not very well I’m afraid. But the spine and head and gill section of the body all went into a big pot to make stock. I added a large roughly chopped onion (skin on) and a couple of chopped carrots, covered it well with water and set it on a slow element for a couple of hours. It simmered, didn’t reduce down much but produced a tasty broth that I’ve been eating with grains and beans for the last few days. I also used some to cook rice. The rest of the broth has gone into the freezer in ice cube trays for later use.

It was such a large fish and I had more than enough to go on with so I gave the bottom third of the eel to a friend. The left overs from the cooking (the cooked spine bits, gills and head) went into a hole in the ground next to a recently planted fruit tree. The only bit of the eel that got ‘thrown out’ was the intestine and stomach which I had thrown in the lake because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing to do or not. I know trout feed at that spot, probably eels too…

I got given an eel the other day. Here’s another post on what I did with it.

This is a bit of a geeky post. I love anatomy. I didn’t eat meat for a long time, and now when I do each death and meal becomes a biology lesson. Dissecting the eel teaches me about its life and things like what it’s been feeding on. I thought I would find gutting an eel interesting but I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. Not for the first time, but I majorly wished I had a decent camera when I did this.

One of the things that’s become obvious while learning about eel is the importance of the right tools. A well sharpened knife would have made this alot easier (I used a curved butcher’s knife which seemed a good shape). Eel skin is quite tough (apparently it can cured to make pouches and handbags).

I had left the eel in a bucket overnight. The next morning I set to gutting and cleaning it. I decided to take it to the lake to do this, and I’m really glad I did. It was so much easier than if I had been at home. I actually did the gutting and cleaning in a small creek a few metres up from the lake, partly because I spent some time last night on the Fish n Hunt forum reading stories about how monster eels rear up out of ponds and rivers when they smell food and snatch catch from people’s hands.

Using the creek meant that the clean up afterwards was pretty straightforward too, down to the nice silty sand for cleaning the buckets. All I had was a bucket, knife, towel and phonecamera.

Firstly I laid the eel on its back in the creek and washed off any grit and sand. I tried cutting the skin directly, unsuccessfully, so I then used the knife to cut up from the vent. This was easiest with the point in the vent, the blade facing forward and upward. I kept my hands behind in case the knife slipped, and once the cut was started it was relatively easy to keep cutting in this way (essentially from underneath the skin):

As I went I peeled back the skin to exposed the innards, taking care to not cut or nick the intestines. This wasn’t hard to do either as there was quite a lot of room inside. Here’s the lower intestine (the pinky, windy tube). The creamy coloured bit between my thumb and the intestine is fat:

Near the top end of the fish is the liver (the large red bit). It was larger than I expected. The intestines were covered in a beautiful layer of blood vessels. The bluey coloured bit just under the left of the liver is the bladder. If you enlarge this photo you can see better how the intestine is on the left (it coils a bit as it nears the vent), and on the right, underneath that other set of blood vessels is the stomach:

Right near the top is what I think is the heart. It was really small. You can see the bladder better too (just under my thumb):

Here’s a better shot of the fat. At this stage I thought it was going to be hard to remove (especially without cutting into organs), but later it was actually easy to cut away with some scissors:

With the whole cavity exposed I was able to get under the organs and cut them out without doing too much overall damage. Here’s the liver…

and the tiny heart, with lots of fat around it…

Now that I’d taken the top organs out, I was able to remove the intestines. I’m not sure but I think the dark red bit is the pancreas:

I managed to nick the bladder, which was blue but leaked out this intensely yellow urine. See the shiny rounded bit in the middle at the bottom? That’s an air bladder. It’s big and very central within the eel. I popped that too:

Somewhere in all that I must have cut into the esophagous, because here is a couple of little fishes, partially digested that popped back out from the stomach. All through this the stomach has been tucked away underneath everything else (or above everything else if the eel was up the right way):

Here’s the same end, where I’m sticking my finger into the top of the stomach tube. All the insides of the eel were really smooth:

And finally it’s all out. This is the first decent look at the stomach. I’ve lost track a bit, I think the stomach is on the left in my hand. It doesn’t look like it’s separate from the rest of the intestine:

Here’s the last photo. This is looking down the throat of the eel.  See where my thumb is, in the middle of that depression that looks like stripes is the esophagus. Directly under the thumbs and on the four ‘corners’ of the depression are darker pink pads that are very coarse and grabby. I’m guessing these help the eel hold onto it’s food that is still alive while it swallows it:

By beginner’s guide I don’t mean only for beginners I mean by a beginner. Seriously. These posts are about how to do something when you don’t know what you are doing. But I’m a great believer in us being able to relearn the old ways, and even if we don’t have someone to teach us directly there is alot we can figure out ourselves by paying attention, talking to people, and giving it a go. So here goes…

I’m going to be talking about killing an eel, and then I’ll do a post on gutting and stuff (with photos). Just letting you know in case that’s too much for some.

I remember catching eels once as a kid but I’m fairly certain that we didn’t eat them and I have no idea how we killed them. I’ve tickled a big old eel that was under a log in the river once, and I’ve seen them when I’ve been swimming or walking in rivers and lakes. An old friend, who’s a rascal, has told me what I hope are apocryphal stories about people getting bitten by eels while swimming, and how the eel latches on and you have to kill it to get it to let go (he tells me these stories because he knows I go swimming in eely places and because he’s an old bastard). Consequently, I’ve been wanting to learn how to kill an eel for some time. To be fair to the eels though, they’ve always been more than generous sharing their territory with me. I’ve had a few people tell me about being bitten by eels (not latched on) and it seems that it’s a defensive action (you step on them under a bank, that kind of thing).

I’ve also been wanting to learn to eat eel because it makes more sense to me to eat oily fish from my neighbourhood rather than take fish oil supplements from Scandinavia or wherever and because eels strike me as being very nutritious. For the past few years I have been picking people’s brains about eels. The biggest obstacle for me is that so many people say eels are really hard to kill. And then I get variations on what you are supposed to do: cut their tails off, hit them on the head, cut the head off etc. Some people also are a bit scathing about eel, like it’s not a nice or worthy food. Similar to how rabbit is seen I guess. But the more I learn about eels the more I understand how awesome they are and I’m all for taking some of that awesomeness into me.

A friend and I were at the beach last night, having a cup of tea and a conversation when some campers walked past. These are people that come here every year, and when I asked them what they were doing they said they were going to catch an eel. One guy said did I want it? He was joking, but of course I said yes!! So they put out a line, which was just a line and a large hook with a bit of trout on it. We stood around and talked for 10 minutes, and then there was an eel on the line. They pulled it in, and it was a reasonably big one – I later measured it at 1180mm. A friend told me today that an eel grows 1 foot every 10 years. That makes this eel nearly 40 years old. Just a few years younger than me, which is giving me some things to think about.

It didn’t struggle very much, which surprised me, just wriggled a bit and lay there and watched. I suspect they’re not always like that. I’m not very good about killing things, it’s too easy for me to imagine the experience of the animal (or what I think the experience is). I seem to be able to see my own death in the death of animals and that’s not always easy.

So I asked them if they would kill it straight away (we were standing round talking about how big it was). I had a tomahawk in the back of the car, so the man hit the eel on the head (just behind the eyes) three times with the back of the axe. The eel was obviously very stunned. The man said they take a long time to die, but he thought that hitting it more wouldn’t make any difference. I’ve heard this before, something to do with the way the eel’s nervous system works. He though the eel was now dead, even though it still moved a bit. He was very cool about it, asking me if I was ok with this. Essentially I had to put the still moving a bit eel in my car and take it home like that. I asked him to cut the head off for me, which he did. It was really dead then. I think it’s easier to process eels if the head is on, but I still have things to learn about their deaths and what to do afterwards, so I figure this first time having it really dead was best all round.

All this seemed manageable to me, and I think I could do this myself now. I gave my silent thanks to Eel, and the lake, and my out loud thanks to the man who was willing to kill something for me. This is a very cool and relatively untraumatic way to get my first eel and I am grateful to the eel for giving up its life so graciously. I’m also grateful for the generosity of strangers and that I live in a place where it’s normal to give an eel to someone you just met. Then we put the eel in the back of the car and drove home.

I’ll write about the gutting, cleaning, cooking and eating in some other posts.

This is a short fin eel (Anguillis australis). You can’t see this in the photo but you can tell because the fin doesn’t go all the way to the head. Long fin eels the fin goes up to the head (I had been thinking the short and long where how far the fin went out from the body). Long fin eels (Anguillis dieffenbachii) are endemic (they don’t live anywhere else in the world) and endangered in NZ. People say you should put them back. I’m not sure how you get a big long hook out of a live eel’s throat, but I agree it’s a good idea if you can release it. I’m relieved we didn’t get one last night.

Longfins have been swimming up NZ rivers for 65 million years. They go upstream as young fish, and then several decades later they swim 5,000 km out into the Pacific to breed, and then they die. Females only breed once and lay millions of eggs. The eggs become larvae then drift back to NZ on ocean currents where they turn into baby eels and swim up the rivers to live. Eels seem to do alot of things in a grand way. They exude strength and in my opinion demand respect.

Short fin eels seem to have a similar life. Te Papa has a page on them.

From what I’ve read, really big eels are most likely females that haven’t bred yet. Some people say not to take the big ones, but I don’t really understand this (maybe the big ones have better survival genes?) unless people mean that smaller ones are more likely to be male (which is a better take from an ecology and sustainability perspective).

I think alot of what I’ve read about eels is about up North, because in the big rivers in the South the eels can’t do what they’ve been doing for 65 million years. Some eels are locked in (including the one I’m about to eat) by the big dams on the Clutha, Waitaki and Waiau rivers. That’s a huge catchment. I don’t know yet what how those eels breed, or what happens to the ones that try and swim up those rivers to the lakes. I find it incredibly sad that so many eels are now locked in and can’t fulfil their ancient genetic drives. Some dams apparently have special channels for the eels to run through. I’ll have to find out what happens with the big dams.

I also need to find out how to tell the sex of an eel before and after you kill it. It’s possible the big dam-locked eels are also males as they can’t go out to sea to breed either and so just keep growing.

The general Maori word for eel is tuna (in my limited understanding that’s pronounced too-nah, not tune-ah like the sea fish). Southern Maori have many names for different kinds of eels (Herries Beattie lists over 20). Kai tahu tradition suggests the eel harvest starts once the popohue starts to flower. That’s the native clematis and it’s usually flowering here in October. I don’t know why that’s the eel harvest time – maybe because the eels breed in autumn? There is alot for me to learn here – I’m thinking already about how healthy the dam-locked populations are, and what are good eeling practices to ensure eels get to survive and live well.

References:

Department of Conservation page on eels

Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori by Herries Beattie

He Kete Taoka – Southern Cultural Materials Resource Kit collated by Rua Mccallum

More of my eeling adventure:

Eel anatomy

Eating eel

As the spring wildcrafting season hots up, or warms up depending on where you are ;-) I’m going to do more posts on what’s out there know. Not having time to write about the medicinal aspect, I’ll also do some posts with good resources on using these spring herbs for health and healing.

The elderflower is just coming out, so expect a few posts on that. Also Dec/Jan is St John’s wort harvest time but I thought I’d do an ID post before then so people can start looking now and watch it grow. Wild thyme is flowering, so I’m hoping to get some treats from that (wild thyme liqueur!). We seem to be having another big burst of growth in the past week, so I might go out and scout for new things flowering.

cheers,
lusach.

I’ve been enjoying myherbcorner. From what I can tell Brigitte is German Austrian, living in NZ. It’s lovely seeing the European tradition of herbalism being talked about (as it’s different than the NZ, UK, and US herbalism which is where most of our NZ knowledge of non-native medicines comes from). She has a wiki too, worth checking out.

Not herbal as such, but a Te Wai Pounamu/Mainland blog! (that’s the South Island for international readers). Letter from Wetville is Sandra’s writing on life on the West Coast. Gardening, daily life and political commentary on related topics, she’s also been doing some thoughtful posts lately on NZ women’s history.

It’s still a good time to be harvesting mullein, so here’s a post on IDing this plant.

Mullein is a darling of the dry lands. It grows in dry, stony, well draining, usually disturbed soils, and self seeds readily making it abundant once established. It’s a biennial, growing for two years before it dies. It flowers in the second year in the summer, each plant sending up a tall spike that eventually turns into a seed stalk. I’ve seen a mullein flower stalk grow above the height of roof guttering, but mostly they’re up to shoulder height.

If you’re not sure where to look for them, try a river bed that is stony or dry. Farm paddocks often have mullein in them in drier climates too. Mullein grows all through Central, along the east coast at least as far south as Dunedin, and I’d guess it’s in the upper parts of the Southland rivers. It’s also in Fiordland though not so abundantly. I can’t imagine it doesn’t grow in Nelson and North Canty. Don’t know about the West Coast and up North but it’s such a common plant that it’d be worth looking around.

There are two main mulleins in NZ: Wooly mullein (Verbascum thapsus), and Moth Mullein (V virgatum). Both are medicinal. I’ve not used moth mullein, but its flowers are commonly used to make an infused oil to heal ear ache. Wooly mullein is a superb lung healing herb.

Wooly mullein has grey green leaves that are wooly. It has a distinctive rib on the back of the leaf, and they grow in rosettes, initially at ground level and then rising up when the plant sends up its flower stalk in the second year. Plants can range in size from small (hand sized) to massive (leaves reaching up to half a metre long). Smaller plants are found in drier spots, and the massive ones in places with good amounts of water.

A typical wooly mullein plant, early second year:

typical mullein

Old seed stalks from last year. Note the seed capsules (which contained many small seeds) are crowded on the stalks (see the top third of the stalk on the right), and the new plants in the foreground:

thapsus stalks

Moth mullein has much greener leaves. They’re not wooly but are textured with wavy margins. They also grow in rosettes, but don’t get very big – in a wet spring like this one you might find bigger plants, but mostly they are up to a handspan wide.

moth mullein

This plant looks a bit like foxglove (poisonous) and some other low growing weeds, so please use a good identification guide if you are harvesting it for medicine.

Moth mullein seed stalks showing the seed capsules more sparse than wooly mullein:

old moth stalks

A friend and I have had several conversations recently about hawthorn. One of the things we had both been thinking about was the scent of hawthorn blossom. To some people it smells lovely, to others it smells rotten. Apparently there are two things going on there. Amygdalin is responsible for the attractive smell (the marzipan one, smells like almonds) and attracts bees. The other smell is apparently like decomposing flesh, and attracts insects who like that sort of thing, who also help pollinate (presumably flies). I don’t really smell the rotten scent, it’s there as an undertone sometimes but mostly I find the smell divine. But my friend’s partner can’t stand the smell. She wondered if it’s a male/female thing. I wondered if it’s to do with who needs what medicine (and smell receptors in the nose and brain). Probably where the tree is growing, and what the climate is like will have an influence as well. British sources speculate that different species of hawthorn have more of one smell than the other, but as far as I know the local species are all Crataegus monogyna.

Smell is a very useful tool in learning about medicine and which ones to take. The smell of a plant will signal to the body certain things about what the plant contains. If the plant is taken over time the body gets to know it, and then the smell can signal at other times that it’s right to be taking that medicine. Possibly my friend and I would do well with hawthorn blossom as medicine, but not her mate.

Although I’ve used the berries in tinctures and vinegars I’m new to hawthorn flowers and leaves as medicine. My initial ways of getting to know the plant include tasting, making infusions and tea, reading other people’s experiences, talking to my friend and visiting the plant often to see what is going on.

I started by tasting the flowers and was a bit surprised at an obvious bitter taste. It wasn’t overpowering, and it lessened with older flowers, but I had read about making such delights as hawthorn flower syrup and wine cup where you would expect a strong pleasant taste. The bitterness wasn’t offputting though and bitter is a very good flavour for human health, one that is missing from most modern diets, so a little bitter in my hawthorn is a good thing.

However once the flowers are steeped in hot water, the tea brings out the true hawthorn flavour. The bitterness is there in the background, but also a distinct pungent almost sweet flavour. Not sweet like sugar, but the subtle nectar of a small flower*. There’s also a greeness, as expected from the leaves. I made some blossom and leaf tea, about a cup of fresh flowers to 3 cups water, and drank some after 10 minutes, 30 minutes, and an hour.

hawthorn brew

I found the brew almost immediately relaxing. It made me a bit sleepy, not a sedative but it definitely mellowed me out after a tense afternoon. The later stronger brew was even more so. I also found it relaxing to my digestive tract. After 10 minutes the tea had a green subtle taste. 30 mins and it was sweeter, still a bit green. In an hour a subtle bitter taste came through, might be from the bottom of the pot or the longer brewing.

Since then I’ve been making infusions and enjoying a couple of cups a day when I need to unwind. I’ve found hawthorn berry tincture has a similar kind of relaxant effect.

Hawthorn is well known as a heart tonic. In the US the focus seems to be on the berries, but I’ve been interested to see British and European sources talk about the leaves and flowers as the best medicine. Hawthorn’s ability to nourish the heart and assist in recovery from heart problems is well documented in traditional herbalism, contemporary herbalism and supported by science.

In the past week I’ve been harvesting the leaf and bloom clusters to dry for tea later once the spring is past. When you harvest make sure that you get flowers that aren’t too old. Give the branch a gentle shake and if some of the petals fall off it means the flowers are nearly done. They’re probably less potent and they’re likely to fall apart when you harvest and not dry so well.

hawthorn flowers drying

The flowers and leaves seem to dry easily. I’ve got them spread out on a cane tray and give them a shuffle every now and again. It’s a good idea to keep each cluster as separate as possible, they dry better that way. When they’re crisply dry I’ll store them in dark glass or paper bags.

*I did watch the bees on the flowers one day, and they were definitely feeding on something I had trouble finding. Hawthorn flowers have a single central pistil (that’s the monogyna bit in the Latin name)…

hawthorn pistil

photo by Ben Grader

The pistil is the yellow tipped bit in the middle. At the bottom of that where it meets the petals was were the bees were feeding from. I couldn’t see anything that looked like nectar, but taking the flower apart and eating that middle bit yielded the sweetness.

Btw, that photo is from flickr (not a chance on my cellphone camera), and someone has left a comment there about how the pollen on the stamens looks like tiny red hearts! Brilliant. The pinkness doesn’t last though, and on most of the flowers I harvested the stamen end was black.

Further reading:

Brigitte of myherbcorner has a recent post on hawthorn.

Susun Weed’s article on hawthorn as a heart medicine.

For a long time I’ve been wanting to learn/observe enough about the world I live in to be able to name the full moon each month according to what happens in nature at that time every year. This is a traditional practice in land based cultures – we know it in popular culture from Native American tribes. It’s a practical way of focussing on important natural events as well as keeping track of time (especially important in oral cultures). It also seems to be linked deeply to celebration.

Full moon naming is always going to be regional. This full moon (exact in two days) seems so obviously about the hawthorn blossoming, but maybe that isn’t true where you live. Perhaps hawthorns aren’t prolific where you live, or there is something else going on that is more pertinent. I’m also considering calling this moon Rabbit Moon because in the last few weeks the rabbits have all come out. However that seems like it could be something that varies much more according to how the season is going – the rabbits might peak much earlier or later depending on the weather, food sources etc. Hawthorn seems much more likely to be always (or mostly) blooming at this time. I could of course be wrong about that, I’ll have to wait for next year and the year after and the year after, and so on, to find out.

In the UK, the Hawthorn is called the May tree, because it flowers in time for the first of May (which is roughly the seasonal equivalent of the first of November). A traditional name so closely tied to a specific time suggests some reliability to hawthorn flowering.

Full moon naming should ideally be cultural too i.e. it should arise naturally from human observation and interaction with nature over a very long period of time. Because this is not currently important in NZ I have no idea what to call each moon, and it will be years before I can know if I am right about the names I choose, and even then the naming will have happened in isolation rather than arising out of our collective practice. But we have to start somewhere. It strikes me as one practical way of reconnecting ourselves with the land and re-establishing right relationship with where we live. One of the curses of the modern age is our lack of long time frames to understand the consequences of our actions. Learning how to name the moon again will help us hold a longer view in our hearts and minds. It grounds us not just in where we are today (or this year) but also in where we have come from and where we are heading.

What happens in nature to coincide with full moons is also dependent on the sun. The moon influences tides and hormones and all that watery stuff. The sun changes the world through light and heat. Both have an effect as they move closer and futher away. The sun over the year, the moon varying hugely from month to month. This month, the full moon is very close to the earth (perigee is on the 8th), which will bring big high and low tides.

This full moon is also closely linked to the cross quarter date of 31st October. It’s the point between the spring equinox (September 23, when the sun is half way between summer and winter) and the summer solstice (December 23, when the sun is at its height). But the moon dates move in relationship to the sun, so sometimes the full moon will be closer or further away from the solar marker dates. I have read somewhere that European pagan societies marked the year by the nearest full moon (or dark moon) to a certain solar time. So rather than the spring solstice exact, the celebration was at the nearest full moon to the spring solstice. We do this still with Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere (our autumn). Maori do this also with Matariki (the Maori/Polynesian new year), which for some iwi is the first new moon following the rise of Matariki/Plieades in June (a stellar marker rather than a solar one).

Back to hawthorn. In the UK it seems to have a long tradition as a magic or spiritually potent plant. This makes so much sense to me – hawthorn in bloom seems the epitome of how the Brits have envisioned the fairy realms:

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