Spring is a busy time for the hearth witch. It is time to prepare the ground, plant seeds, and gather the early flowers and greenery of the year for food, remedies, and magical use. As I look around, the woodland and hedgerow trees are hazed with green as the leaves begin to unfurl. The fields are scattered with a blaze of yellow flowers at this time of year—dandelions, celandines, primroses, daffodils, and coltsfoot, Mother Earth reflecting the sun. The physical world is a mirror of the spiritual energies that surround us, and when we work in concert with the earth that sustains us and the observable ebb and flow of the seasons, Nature is our guide to deeper levels of meaning.
In my new book The Hearth Witch's Compendium, I share with you my experiences of working as a hearth witch for many years, using the old ways of women's magic and a deep connection with the land to forge a spiritual path and a way of bringing the sacred into everyday life, along with many recipes for food and preserves, country wines, ales and mead, herbal remedies, and magic.
Today, to show you how I work, I want to take you with me as I go on a day's foraging in the English countryside in early spring. Let's pick up our collecting baskets and head out.
The air is sharp and clear, the fields a fresh green expanse flecked with early meadow flowers. In the field margins, the stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are growing away strongly now, the newest leaves paler than the rest. Most people hate nettles, fearing the sting, but they are one of the most useful plants I know. We should put on our gloves to pick them. The leaves are very nutritious with high levels of vitamins and minerals. When we get them home, they can be made into soups, or the young shoots cooked like spinach. Though only foragers and witches use them now, nettles were once popular in the kitchen. In seventeenth century England nettle pottage was a favourite dish, while nettle pudding was common in Scotland. In the countryside nettle beer was consumed as a remedy for gout and rheumatism (there are recipes in The Hearth Witch's Compendium). In fact, the leaves contain natural anti-inflammatories and compounds that are thought to reduce the feeling of pain. Back in the kitchen, I will steep them in boiling water for my neighbour who has arthritis. Once strained, the liquid can be drunk as a tea to reduce the pain and or I can use the infusion dipped in a clean cotton pad and apply it as a hot compress to her joints to relieve aching. I also use the infusion as a hair rinse to treat dandruff and oily hair; it promotes growth as well as adding shine. I might add some to my bath, as nettles are a cleansing agent that also improves circulation. I could use the leaves in a facial steam; they are particularly good for oily skin.
Nettle is a "venomous" plant with a fierce sting and may not be easily plucked. Though it appears antagonistic, once assimilated it is totally beneficial, and this gives us the clue to its magic. It teaches the lesson of transmutation. Those spiritual and life experiences that are the most difficult and testing are those that make us grow most. Magically, nettle is an herb of protection and may be used in rituals, talismans and charm bags to ward off negative energies.
As we cross the field, it is starred with the dandelions, another much-maligned weed that is actually a little miracle plant. Each flower is a miniature rayed sun, and the herb is very much associated with solar energies. The golden colour and nourishing vitamin and mineral content make it a plant of bright energy and vitality. Every part of the dandelion has a use. The French are fond of eating the leaves fresh in a salad and the root can be roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee. However, the dandelion really comes into its own as a medicinal herb and all-round health tonic. The root is a powerful detoxifying herb, working on the liver and gall bladder to remove waste products, while the leaf is a powerful diuretic that can be used without the consequent loss of potassium of orthodox drugs. For rheumatism and arthritis an infusion of the leaves can help the joints and eventually remove acid deposits. Later we can make a soothing oil of the flowers by packing them in a glass jar, covering them with vegetable oil, popping on the lid and leaving it on a sunny windowsill for two weeks, shaking daily. The oil can then be strained off and used for age spots, sunburn and chapped skin.
We'll be drying some of the petals to add to sun incenses to increase their power, but I'll definitely be using some to make dandelion wine, one of the best country wines there is (the recipe is in Hearth Witch's Compendium).
As we approach the woods, the white trunks of the birch (Betula alba) shine brightly in the dappled sunlight. Magically, the birch is closely associated with the sun and fire, probably because the wood is readily flammable and good for starting fires. The birch embodies the power of new beginnings, of leaving behind the winter and negativity, cleansing and purification in preparation for the summer, and new creative opportunities. I collect some flakes of birch bark to add to incenses used for clearing and purification. Another day I might collect enough twigs to make a besom to sweep my home or ritual circle clear of any negative energies.
The birch is also a tree of protection, and protective amulets can be made for the house and temple by making a four-armed cross of birch twigs (representing the four solar festivals, the four directions, and the four elements), bound with red thread. We should take some back to make one and hang it at the highest point of the house.
Some years I will tap the tree to extract the sweet sap, releasing its magical essence to make into a wine used at the spring equinox to honour the young Sun God and give power to the waxing year (there is a recipe for this in The Hearth Witch's Compendium). Some of the sap I'll save to use, diluted, to wash my skin to remove blemishes and blotches, tone it and improve elasticity, as well as in hair treatments to strengthen my hair.
As we enter the woods is one of my favourite sights of spring. Under the trees, clusters of butter-yellow primroses (Primula vulgaris) and purple violets (Viola odorata) are strewn on the woodland floor.
Let's pick some primroses first. The flowers and leaves can be used in all rituals of spring goddesses, as a tea, wine, or dried and added to the incense. The flowers are used in spells, talismans, and charm bags to attract love. For protection, add the flowers to protection charms. I use a macerated primrose oil (instructions in the book) for sealing doors and windows against negative influences. We don't want to strip all the flowers but we can take a few, and I have more in the garden.
The young leaves and flowers are edible and may be added to salads, but I like to crystallise the flowers for cake decorations. The flowers also make a wonderful wine, but unless you grow great swathes of them, it is difficult to find enough. (You should avoid internal use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, sensitive to aspirin, or taking anti-coagulant drugs.) I will certainly use some of the flowers to make an infusion that can be utilised as a lotion for acne, spots, wrinkles, and other skin complaints.
I really love the violets. Gathering the first violet you see in spring is said to ensure that your greatest wish will be granted.
Our great, great grandmothers used the flowers steeped in milk or yoghurt as a gentle, nourishing cleanser; heat them gently in milk (do not boil) for five minutes, strain, and refrigerate when cool. For skin care, violet flowers are good for aging skin, acne, and large pores. We could add the flowers or leaves to our baths for a soothing and refreshing soak after we have finished our work today. When we get back we'll put some flowers into a jam jar to macerate in vegetable oil on a sunny windowsill for two weeks. After that, the oil can be strained off and thickened with beeswax to make a salve (instructions in the book). This makes a good cleaner and moisturiser if you have very dry or irritated skin.
You can even make a DIY soil tester from them—an infusion of violets will turn red if something acidic is added to it (such as a few grains of acidic soil), and green if something alkaline is added.
In magic, violets are sacred to the goddess of love. The Greeks and Romans saw the violet as being a symbol of fertility, sacred to Aphrodite/Venus and frequently added it to love potions. Aphrodite is attended by the Three Graces, who weave her robes and plait her crown of violets. Where she steps, violet flowers spring up beneath her feet. When we get back to the kitchen, we should put aside some violet leaves and flowers to dry so they can be used in incenses, as well as love spells, rituals, charms, and amulets.
I hope you've enjoyed your morning walk with me, and learned something you can use along the way. It's nearly lunchtime, so we'd better be getting back to the kitchen and start to process our haul of herbs. By the way, violet flowers and leaves are both edible. We could put some of the young leaves in our lunchtime salad, or use the flowers fresh as an edible garnish for soups and salads. We could even use them to decorate our cocktails…is it too early?