Foraging, Week 2: Foraging Issues

Foraging is hedged around with a thicket of issues: legal questions, ethical dilemmas and safety concerns. Let’s look at them one by one.

Ethics

The ethics of foraging are fuzzy. When I searched the Internet for information, I found a letter written by a woman in Los Angeles to an ethics columnist. She wanted to know if she could pluck lemons from a tree that was overhanging the sidewalk in her neighborhood. The response was stern. Only if she got permission from the homeowner.

This is the answer dictated by ethics. But the law is not so harsh. In California, any fruit which overhangs public property is public property.

In the United Kingdom the opposite is true. The owner of the fruit tree has the right to all of its fruits. If your apple tree overhangs my yard, I cannot pluck apples from the boughs or gather fallen apples from the ground. And you can come into my yard, any time you want, without asking my permission, to harvest your apples.

I was unable to find any comparable statute in Washington law. I assume that since a parkway (the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street) is a public space, anything growing there is public property. One of my neighbors has blue delphiniums, pink hollyhocks and golden dahlias blooming in his parkway. Yet it has never occurred to me to pick any of these flowers.

I rely on intuition to guide me. I leave the gladiola that is blooming in the crack of a nearby parking lot, even though it’s clearly a volunteer. But I pluck the honeysuckle blossoms that grow on a vine overhanging the sidewalk outside Pepe’s Garden (named after a neighborhood character. Pepe’s Garden is a hillside vacant lot that has been terraced and planted by the tenants of the nearby apartment buildings).

The distinction between public and private is personal. I tend a plot in a community garden, the Thomas Street p-patch on Capitol Hill. Community gardeners learn not to covet. Because the space is so park-like, with winding slate paths and wrought-iron benches, visitors view it as a public space. So although there’s a little sign posted at the gate, asking people to respect the garden, I’ve become used to having my plot raided.

Although I grow a few food crops, I prefer flowers. Tall blue bearded irises. Small purple violets. A flamboyant pink peony.  One year I planted several lily bulbs, but only one came up. I watched it grow, admiring the sturdy stalk pressing upwards, the swelling green bud at the top. Every day I went to the garden, eager to see it open. But one day, there was only a stalk. Someone had snapped off the flower.

For weeks I was angry every time I saw that truncated stem. Then one afternoon while I was working in the garden, a woman and two men who had been drinking on the back bench, strolled past me on their way out of the garden. The woman had the reddish, cracked skin of someone who lives on the streets. She was short with a broad face and long dark hair and she had tucked a spotted pink Stargazer lily behind her ear. At first I was irritated by the sight—that might have been my lily—but then I considered what this flower might mean to her. She got beauty and fragrance for free. I could afford to purchase both at the local grocery store.

There is one act of foraging that is I know is illegal in the State of Washington: removing any plant from a public park. When I learned about this law, I was dismayed. For years, I’ve gathered greens for my Advent wreath at Volunteer Park, a large and spacious public park a few blocks from my apartment.

I visit the same trees and plants year after year: here the doll’s eyes (also known as snowberries) growing in a frowsy clump by the path; there the cedar, with its fragrant spreading branches; farther down the path, the holly with its red berries.

Then in 1999, a wild windstorm (known hereabouts as the Election Day storm), eased my guilt by downing most of the branches I needed. That November, I collected my greens by picking them up off the ground. (I have convinced myself this act is not illegal. After all, I am saving the grounds maintenance crew from some work.) This has become my regular practice: to take only what is offered.

Safety

Foraging means gathering wild food. For those of us who grew up believing that food came from the grocery store, where it is neatly labeled, the act of yanking greens right out of the ground or plucking berries from a bush seem dangerous. What if they are poisonous?

Samuel Thayer has an interesting take on this in his book, Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants. He suggests only eating plants you can positively identify. He gives the following example. Suppose you are at the grocery store and the cashier rings up your bananas as grapes. You point out, “Those are bananas.” The clerk disagrees with you. He calls over the produce manager who says, “No, those are grapes.” You would insist they were bananas. Even if the manager pulled out a chart of photos and shows you grapes labeled as bananas, you would not back down. “I know bananas and these are bananas!”

He recommends a five point system that we’ll visit next week. The goal is the sort of contradictory confidence that would enable you to stand your ground with the produce manager.

But correct identification is not the only issue. Tama Matsuoka Wong in her book, Foraged Flavor, also goes through a thorough process when she finds a new plant.

Once she is satisfied that she has correctly identified the plant, she checks on its sustainability (we’ll get to that in a minute). Then she gets permission to harvest it from the landowner and checks to make sure it is distant from “chemical runoff, highway fumes, animal waste, and pesticides.” That’s likely since she lives on several acres in a rural part of New Jersey. For a city dweller, making this determination is a bit more difficult.

One day, I noted that the contorted branches of the juniper bushes outside the Safeway supermarket on the corner of 15th and John were covered with grey-green berries. I popped one into my mouth. It tasted sharp, bitter, peppery. I thought they would be great as a condiment, in a chutney, or in alcohol (juniper berries are one of the main flavoring ingredients in gin). But I didn’t know if they were safe to consume.

A quick survey of the Internet turned up an article by an urban forager who suggested looking at the trunks of the trees for evidence of spider webs. She believes that if the trees have been sprayed the trunks will be bare. The next morning I checked and found spider webs on the trunks of the junipers but this was not completely reassuring. After all, the webs could be old and abandoned. But I pass it along as a suggestion for other foragers.

One safety rule which is most often applied by foragers in the city has to do with height. Nothing below dog height is the rule for picking plants and flowers along urban sidewalks. In some parts of the city, the height recommendation might be raised to man height. I used to work at a literary arts center situated between a public park and a church that served free lunches on Tuesday. We often had homeless people sleeping on our porch and using our garden as a latrine.

Despite these restrictions, there were plenty of plants available for me to forage. The fennel growing out of the cracks in the parking lot towered over my head. When the seeds turned brown, I clipped off the umbels, plunked them inside a brown paper bag and shook them occasionally to release the seeds. The blackberries in the back of the parking lot also grew too high to be peed upon. Our building manager baked them into delicious scones and muffins for staff meetings.

Sustainability

One June evening, coming back from the library laden with books, I entered a cloud of honeyed sweetness. Looking around, I found the source of the aroma: the linden trees growing beside an old brick church were blooming. I dumped my library books out of their plastic bag and began filling it instead with the sticky white linden flowers. Two men walked by. They stopped a few feet away. “What is that?” one said to the other. They looked all around. Their puzzled expressions reminded me of my first encounter with linden.

I was working as an office manager for a dance school in Ballard. The street outside the office was lined with trees which dripped sap all over the windshields of the parked cars in the month of July. As I walked to work every day, I puzzled over the honeyed scent in the air, pausing to sniff every shrub, every flower. It took me a week before I looked up.

“It’s a linden tree,” I said, showing the passers by the blossoms I was gathering. The flowers are tiny and white and sticky with sap; they cling to the green husks of the seed pods. The two men expressed their amazement and went on. But I wondered, after they left, if I should have been so open about my discovery. Once I alert others to the existence of these plants, will they strip the stand?

So far this hasn’t happened, and, indeed, I am always finding new lindens. It’s almost always the fragrance that alerts me. A few years ago I went to an Obon festival in the International district with my niece and as we walked back to our car we passed under a row of sweet-smelling lindens, laden with flowers and dripping honeydew. So if my library tree is ever out of blossoms, I know where to find more.

How do you know which plants it’s OK to pick? Tama Matsuoka Wong divides the edible plants she knows into three categories: green (go!), yellow (go slow) and red (stop). Most of the plants in the Green category are naturalized and invasive plants, food plants that have escaped into the wild and invasive plants that people want to exterminate. In the Yellow category are native plants that have co-evolved with the local landscape, including other plants, animals, birds and insects. When foraging these plants, a good rule of thumb is to take only 20% of any stand. In the Red category, are specialized plants that need specific conditions to grow and might take years to return, or not at all, if they do at all, so she does not pick these.

Tama lists the following edible invasive plants that get the green light:

Aralia
Asian honeysuckle
Asiatic day flower
Dames rocket
Daylily
Field mustard
Galinsoga
Garlic mustard
Japanese barberry
Knotweed
Lesser celandine
Mile-a-minute
Mugwort (Artemisia)
Multiflora rose
Narrowleaf bittercress
Purple loosestrife
Shiso
Wisteria

As an example of plants in the Red category and should not be harvested, she lists the spring ephemerals, specialist wildflowers like trout lily, spring beauty, toothwort, mayapple, trillium, wild ginger, and solomon’s seal. She writes: “Many of these plants are declining in the wild and will not grow back if the soil around their roots is plowed or disturbed. Some are also slow growers; trilliums can take two years to germinate and seven to ten years to flower.”

Assignment for Week 2

Instead of sending you out to forage this week, I’d like you to come up with your own guidelines about foraging.

  • Where do you consider it ethical to gather plants that are not ones that you planted? What are the laws where you live that cover this?
  • What would it take for you to feel that a plant you foraged was safe to eat?
  • And finally, what plants are considered invasive or noxious weeds in your area? And what plants are rare or endangered?
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Foraging for Flowers: Week 1

  • I make some new friends and got some questioning looks while I was foraging for old blooming shrubs and certain kinds of flowers that I had seen here and there but didn’t grow myself.

    Lee Bailey, Lee Bailey’s Country Flowers

     

    It’s close to midnight on May Eve and my daughter, Shaw, and I are slipping through the alleys of Seattle, armed with clippers and black plastic trash bags. We dodge dogs, splash through puddles, dash between shadows. Security lights flicker on in our wake. We know our way through these back streets. We’ve been doing this for years. So far we have not been caught.

    We have come, as we do every year, to gather flowers for May baskets. Because we live in an apartment building and have no garden of our own, the flowers we collect are purloined. We clip purple blossoms from lilacs overhanging backyard fences, snip the snowball-shaped white flowers that grow on shrubs along the sidewalk, snap twigs studded with pink petals off trees in parkways. Until I began my year-long project of getting to know the plants in my neighborhood, the lilacs were the only flowers I could name. We knew the others by the common names we gave them: snowball flowers (viburnum) and bell-flowers (Pieris japonicus).

    At home, we spill our take onto newspapers spread on the floor. The air fills with the sweet scent of lilac, the musty aroma of hawthorn, the spicy odor of viburnums. Sometimes we arrange the flowers in cones, fashioned from colored paper twisted and stapled shut, with a ribbon for a handle. One year, inspired by Martha Stewart, Shaw arranged the flowers in tiny glass jars and twisted wires around the rims for handles.

    Late at night, we tiptoe through the halls of our apartment building, hanging a floral tribute on each glass doorknob. So far we have not been caught.

     

    Foraging. That’s what I call this activity of gathering plants I have not planted. A broad word for a broad activity. To forage is to wander, to raid, to rummage, to strip of food. In fact, the word food comes from the same root word as forage, a root that also gives us foray, fodder, foster, pasture, pastor, antipasto and repast.

    Animals forage for food. Bees for blossoms. Birds for berries. Wildlife biologists have theories abut how foraging happens, including the optimal diet model, patch selection theory and the marginal value theorem.

    Eric Charnov, the scientist who came up with the Marginal Value Theorem, explains it this way: If you are collecting apples in an orchard, you will pick the most easily accessible apples from the closest tree, before moving to another tree. It would be inefficient for you to strip all the apples from one tree or to flit between trees selecting just a few choice apples from each.

    I came to foraging by a meandering path. For over twenty years, I’ve been writing about holidays, a topic that has fascinated me since I was a lonely sophomore at Reed College, poring over dusty volumes of folklore in the Gothic gloom of the library.

    Because of the holidays, I fell in love with the seasons, and because of the seasons I fell in love with plants. Each plant flourishes at a particular moment in time and that moment is specific to a particular place on earth.

    In medieval England, young people roamed the woods on May Eve looking for flowering branches of the May tree so they could bring in the May. (Plus it was a great excuse to go frolic in the sweet-scented darkness of early summer.) Lilies-of-the-valley are the flowers of May Day in France, tucked into every buttonhole, while lilacs are associated with May Day in Ireland. And for every country, every province, every county, the flower that blooms on the first of May will be different.

    So I began looking for the plants associated with each season in my neighborhood. Though I have long harbored a romantic fantasy of buying land in the country and building my own cottage, I’ve chosen to live in Seattle, in an urban village (Capitol Hill) in the heart of this major metropolis. And so the plants I can gather at the start of spring, at the height of summer, in the waning days of the year, are plants that grow in the city.

    Fortunately I have an abundance of materials available to me. One May Day, we made baskets out of orange pill containers with ribbon handles stapled on and filled them with viburnum flowers, cherry blossoms, the lacy fronds of wormwood, the foliage of St. Patrick’s tongue, and some purple flowers that I have not yet been able to identify. One thing that was missing which we usually include was lilac: although it is blooming in our neighborhood, I couldn’t find any blossoms I could reach while prowling around in the dark with my plastic bag and clippers.

     Assignment for Week 1

    This week take a stroll around your neighborhood and create a bouquet of the flowers and foliage that you find. (You might have some ethical concerns about what you can and can’t collect. When in doubt, asking is always recommended. Although I figure that plants growing wild in alleys and vacant lots and freeway verges, are free for the taking.) Bring them into your house, use them to make a wreath or put them in a basket and leave them on a friend’s doorstep. The idea is to find out what is available right now, on this turning point in the year when we celebrate the flowers.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    All the photos are mine except for the lovely lily of the valley which was taken by Carmine Profant.

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Hawthorn: the Tree of May

Plant profile written by herbalist, Corinne Boyer of Opal’s Apothecary

In the autumn and wintertime, the hawthorn tree with her gnarled bark covered in grey green lichens and her gangly branches reminds me of an old woman. She is a small tree that can usually be found on older homesteads. But in the spring and early summertime she boasts vibrant green leaves that surround many small bouquets of white blooms, often tinged with pink. She becomes a queen! This tree is like the matriarch gatekeeper of the nature spirits in my mind. Many plants/trees seem to possess supernatural powers and hawthorn is one indeed. Here we will find a wealth of folklore and older uses that have been recorded throughout history.

There are around 200 known Cratagus species and they apparently cross easily. The Latin Cratagus comes from the Greek kratos meaning hardness, referring to the strength of the wood. The common European species is Cratagus monogyna and C. oxacantha. The Northwest has a native species, C.douglasii, known as black hawthorn. The genus is native to all temperate zones; Europe, North America and Asia.

Common names for hawthorn include May Flower, May Blossom, White Thorn, Thorn Apple, Hag Thorn, Ladies, Meat, Bread and Cheese Tree and Quick Thorn. The ship the Mayflower from England was named after Hawthorn. The word “haw” comes from the old word for hedge, for which this tree has been used extensively. The planting of hawthorn to provide fencing for pastures, or hedgerows, began in Roman times. Currently in North America, Hawthorn is planted for ornamental purposes and also as a tree that provides both food and shelter to birdlife.

The flowers are gorgeous but smell somewhat stinky and acrid. As the flowers are pollinated by flies and insects that are attracted to carrion, this smell has been compared to the smell of “carnal love” and of rotting flesh! The lime green leaves shine and have a shape that is unmistakable once learned. The autumn display shows off the haws, the fruits of the tree, in various shades of red, from bright to deep. In the winter time the wise tree stands naked, beautiful and her strong thorns can be found with ease.

In European folklore, this tree was considered sacred before the arrival of Christianity and afterwards. In particular, lone standing hawthorns or thorns, that is hawthorns that were not planted but occurred naturally, were known to be fairy trees. It was considered an act of vandalism to remove a bough, or take away fallen branches firewood. If one of these solitary thorns was removed, it could bring death to the family to the person who removed it. It was also believed that if the thorns were ploughed up, all fertility would leave the land.  It is amazing to think back to the times when the powers of nature spirits, not science, ruled the collective consciousness.

It was advised to never fall asleep under one, for fear of be taken over by the fairies that abound. An Irish belief is that hawthorn grows over graves or buried treasure. Hawthorns also mark wells. In early May, people tied rags and trinkets to the branches of a hawthorn companion to a holy well. In the Lake District, hawthorns were also associated with justice and older court systems, and were planted near important meeting places.

Hawthorn is strongly associated with May Day celebrations because it blooms around the first of May. Going “a maying” was a happy custom where people would gather the flowering boughs alongside music and horn blowing. At sunrise, the branches were hung over the doorways of homes, which was originally a protective act. Bathing in the dew from a hawthorn on May Day ensured a beautiful complexion. In some parts of England, one was doused with water if a hawthorn sprig was not pinned on during the May Day celebrations.

On May eve, hawthorn could be used in a love divination. A girl would hang a branch of it from her signpost. In the morning, her future husband would come from the direction which it was pointing. If it fell, it foretold no marriage. Hawthorn is associated with love, interesting because of its carnal smell. It is connected with marriage rites and it is often incorporated into a bridal garland or chaplet. It is symbolic of fertility, love, marriage, hope, fruitfulness and spring.

Hawthorn is also associated with witches. In the Channel Islands, they believe witches meet under the solitary hawthorns and that it is dangerous to sit under a thorn on May eve as the tree is likely to transform herself into a witch. Interestingly, this “witch” tree was also used for protection from witches, by way of hanging crosses made of its wood over the house door. Driving a small hawthorn peg into a grave site could prevent the spirit from coming back to haunt the living or from turning into a vampire.

Hawthorn was associated with the powers of protection from lightning, as it was said that the white thorn was never struck by lightning. In fact, it was thought that cutting down the tree itself would cause a thunder and lightning storm. Attaching a sprig to the cradle of a newborn protected the child. Mothers in Burgundy France took their sick children to a flowering hawthorn tree and prayed to the tree for their health. It was thought that carrying a dying person round an ancient thorn three times and bumping against it would help recover their health.

Despite this, it was considered unlucky to bring hawthorn inside and one should never pick the flowers before May eve. An old Cheshire saying goes “May in, Coffin out.” Another old saying goes “Hawthorn tree and Elder flowers, Fill the house with evil powers.” In Ireland the flowers were never supposed to enter the home before June, and by then they would be done, I imagine.  Apparently sleeping next to thorn flowering indoors in May would bring great misfortune.

Hawthorn has been used medicinally. The bark was used to soothe sore throats in Scotland, while an infusion of the flowers was good for anxiety and for stimulating the appetite. Also, this leaf infusion was used to ease childbirth pains in East Anglia. In Russia, hawthorn was used to treat conditions of the heart, much as it is used today, in particular for heart pain, angina. Traditional Scottish herbalists used hawthorn for balancing high blood pressure. The use of hawthorn as a heart tonic comes specifically from an Irish physician from the nineteenth century. An infusion of hawthorn leaves was used topically to draw out splinters and bring boils to a head.

The young buds of hawthorn were called ‘pepper and salt’ by country folk or ‘bread and cheese’. I have seen older salad recipes that include young hawthorn leaves in the long list of ingredients. Wine and mead can be made from both the flowers and berries. I like to make mead with the dried flowers–it is excellent! The berries can be infused in brandy or made into conserves along with other fruit, as they are mealy and dry but high in pectin. They are called “pixie pears” in some places. The berries were thought to be best after Halloween, when witches had flown over them.

I love hawthorn tea, made from the dried flowers and leaves of the tree. After drying, the stinky smell seems to lessen. It is a great tonic for circulatory and heart concerns, best used without any other medications and taken for 3-6 months to produce an effect. I make a decoction from the dried berries along with rosehips, hibiscus, cinnamon chips, allspice and a few cloves. This makes a beautiful “Red Velvet Chai” as I like to call it, delicious with a little milk and honey. I have a friend who likes to extract the berries in port wine. Here are some unique and interesting recipes to try.

Hawthorn Flower Syrup- from A Country Harvest- Pamela Michael

5 Cups hawthorn flowers
Extra sugar- see recipe
4 Cups sugar
5 Cups water
6-7 Tablespoons lemon juice
6-7 Tablespoons rosewater

Layer the flowers with sugar in a jar, until full. Heat the 4 cups sugar, water and strained lemon juice until sugar has dissolved, boil for 3 minutes. Set aside to cool, then add rosewater. Pour the cooled syrup into the jar of prepared flowers. Screw the lids on loose and place in a saucepan on sheets of folded newspaper, with the folded paper between jars to prevent them from touching. Fill pan with cold water and bring to boil then lower heat to barely simmering for one hour. Lift jars and tighten lids. When cold strain and pour syrup into bottles and cork. Store in refrigerator. Keeps for months.

 

Hawthorn Berry Jelly– From same source above

3 Pounds Haws, pick larger ones if possible
3 ¾ Cups of water
1 pound sugar
1 pint lemon juice, strained

Wash berries thoroughly, place in saucepan with water and bring to a boil, cover cook gently for one hour. Occasionally mash berries with wooden pestle. Drip through double thickness of muslin or a jelly bag overnight. Measure juice into a large saucepan, adding sugar and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring continuously until sugar has dissolved, then boil hard for rapidly for 10 minutes or until jelly sets and pour into jars to seal.

References:

Treasury of Tree Lore, Josephine Addison, Cherry Hillhouse, 1999
A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Roy Vickery, 1995  
Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition- The Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, Gabrielle Hatfield and David Allen, 2004
Hatfield’s Herbal, Gabrielle Hatfield,2009
Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine , Gabrielle Hatfield,2004
Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore , D.C. Watts, 2007  
A Modern Herbal Volumes 1 and 2, Maude Grieve, 1931
A Country Harvest, Pamela Michael, 1980
 

Close-up of white May flowers by Kami Jordan

All other photos taken by Waverly Fitzgerald

First published May 12, 2012

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May Pole

This postcard of a May Day scene comes from the web site created by Barbara Marlow Irwin An excerpt from my May Day holiday packet, available at the store.

Spicer in The Book of Festivals says that throughout Eastern Europe, young men go into the woods on May Eve to chop down young fir trees for their sweethearts. The tree is decorated with ribbon and colored eggshells and planted outside the bedroom window, before the gate or on the roof of the house of the beloved. Spicer says that the longer the tree, the longer her life, but I wonder, given the phallic connotations of the Maypole, if the length of the tree really represents something else.

In Scandinavia and Germany, May trees were important for both people and animals and were set up before doors, sometimes one for each animal in a stable. These countries, in which a pastoral lifestyle was an important part of the economy, preserved the sense that this was a time of the year when protection was necessary.

It’s my belief that as you go farther north, and the weather gets colder, seasonal customs further behind, so that the Maypole is more frequently found at Midummer in Scandinavian countries although it is still called the majstang or maypole.

In Italy, Maypoles are called alberi della cucagna (trees from the land of milk and honey). They are greased poles with prosciutto, mortadella cheeses and money dangling from the top. The men try to get these prizes by climbing the pole which is greased with lard. Eventually the grease wears off and someone gets the prize. (A similar custom is found in Wales.) According to Carol Field, Italians also decorate garlands with lemons and ribbons and bring male and female trees into the piazza to be married on May Day, both customs that seem to be part of the Maypole tradition.

In English villages, the Maypole is often decorated with a broom or bush and brought in from the woods with girls riding astride it. The Puritan Stubbes reports (with some disgust) in 1583 on the revelry which surrounds the Maypole:

They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nosegay of flowers tied on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and greens, bound round about with ribbons from top to bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colors, with two or three hundred men and women and children following it with great devotion. And this being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top, they strew flowers on the ground, bind green boughs about it, and set up summer halls, bowers and arbors, hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself.

The cavalier poet, Robert Herrick, reflects on the mating and fertility aspect of the Maypole, referring in this poem to the garlands his daughters made to be placed on the Maypole in hopes of catching rich husbands:

The May-pole is up,
Now give me the cup;
I’ll drink to the Garlands a-round it:
But first unto those
Whose hands did compose
The glory of flowers that crown’d it.
A health to my Girls,
Whose husbands may Earls
Or Lords be, (granting my wishes)
And when that ye wed
To the Bridal Bed,
Then multiply all, like to Fishes.

The Puritans so disapproved of the heathen implications and phallic connotations of the Maypole, that they outlawed them altogether on April 8, 1644 with these words:

And because the profanation of the Lord’s-day hath been heretofore greatly occasioned by Maypoles (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness), the Lords and Commons do further order and ordain That all and singular May-poles that are, or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed.

Yet, the custom was already passing away, as recorded by poet, William Fennor, in 1619:

Happy the age and harmless were the days
(For then true love and amity were found)
When every village did a Maypole raise,
And Witson-ales and May-games did abound…
Alas, poor May Poles; what should be the cause,
That you were almost banish’d from the earth?
Who never were rebellious to the laws;
Your greatest crime was harmless, honest mirth.

In a similar vein, one of the medieval Welsh poets, Griffith ab Adda, wrote a sad poem chastizing the May pole, which has given up its green grove to wither in the town. I hadn’t thought before about the pathos of the cut tree, like the sadness I feel when I see discarded Christmas trees stuffed into trash cans after Christmas.  Here are a few lines from the poem as translated by Joseph P Clancy:

Songs of all sorts, well-fashioned,
I heard in your green home;
Herbs of all kinds grew under
Your leaves amid hazel shoots,
When to a maiden’s pleasure
You dwelt last year in the grove.

Resources:

Clancy, Joseph P., Medieval Welsh Lyrics
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy
Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun
Spicer, Gladys, The Book of Festivals
First published April 19, 2011
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Bringing in the May

Excerpt from my May Day/Beltane holiday e-book:

Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Or flowers are placed in baskets and left on doorsteps for the recipients to find when they arise in the morning.

In Ireland, Beltane is the only safe day for wearing Irish lilacs (I’m not sure why). In France, the flower of May Day is the lily of the valley. Any wish made while wearing it comes true. The marsh-marigold or kingcup is called the herb of Beltane and is strewn against evil in the Isle of Man. Rosemary is another Beltane herb.

In England, there was a tradition of carrying about May garlands. At Horncastle in Lincolnshire, young boy carried May gads: peeled willow wands were wreathed with cowslips. In other parts of England, the garlands are small wooden crosses covered with flowers and greenery. But the hoop-garland is the most common: made from a framework of intersecting hoops so that the final effect is of a flower-covered globe. Sometimes a May Doll (sometimes said to represent Flora) is placed within or upon it. In Italy, the Bride of May carries the maggio, a green branch garlanded with ribbons, fresh fruits and lemons.

Sometimes flowers were given as messages: plum for the glum, elder for the surly, thorns for the prickly, and pear for the popular. In Lancashire, the flowers rhymed with their qualities. Any kind of thorn meant scorn (except for whitethorn or May), while holly was folly, briar for liars, rowan for affection and a plum in bloom rhymed with “married soon.” According to Porter, in Cambridgeshire, boys gave the popular girls sloe blossoms, while “the girl of loose manners had a blackthorn planted by hers’ the slattern had an elder tree planted by hers; and the scold had a bunch of nettles tied to the latch of her cottage door.” According to Hole, lime (which rhymes with prime) was a compliment and so was pear which rhymed with fair. The rowan (or quicken) since it rhymes with chicken was a sign of affection. But briar, holly and plum stood for liar, folly and glum while the alder (pronounced “owler” in some districts) rhymed with “scowler.” A nut-branch meant the woman was a slut, while a gorse in bloom implied her reputation was doubtful. Other plants you did not want to receive included nettles, thistles, sloes, crab-tree branches and elders. Obviously there are some contradictions in this list, and some unkindness as well.

I find it interesting that the three plants most often associated with May Day: Sweet Woodruff, Lily of the Valley and Hawthorn, all are connected in folklore with the heart. Summer is the time when Chinese medicine places the emphasis on strengthening the heart and the circulatory system. It also seems appropriate for the time of the year when we are focused on relationships and coupling.

For many more ideas on celebrating May Day and Beltane, see my May Day e-book.

References:

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow  1990

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Granada Publishing 1976

Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press 1997

Porter, Enid, Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore, 1969, quoted in Hutton

Image Credit: The hawthorn illustration is from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

First published by April 19, 2010

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Flower of May: Sweet Woodruff

Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book:

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is one of my favorite plants. It is a low-lying ground cover with narrow dark-green leaves that grow in whorls around a central stem. It blooms around the first of May: small white flowers with four petals. Woodruff grows best in shade; mine is happy in a part of my garden which is rather moist. In Germany, it is called Waldmeister (master of the forest).

Woodruff does not have a strong fragrance until picked. But once dried, it develops a wonderful sweet aroma, a mixture of hay and vanilla. The scent comes from coumarin, a fragrant chemical also found in melilot and tonka beans. Coumarin is also an anti-coagulant and is used in blood-thinning medication.

Because of the presence of coumarin, the FDA only permits the use of sweet woodruff in alcoholic beverages (does that make sense?). Apparently large quantities have been known to cause vomiting and dizziness. It is probably best not to consume woodruff if pregnant or taking anti-coagulants.

Folk remedies call for the application of woodruff to fresh wounds; Rose speculates this would have kept the blood from clotting and prevent infection. Sweet woodruff was also made into a medicinal tea which soothed the stomach. It was recommended for heart and liver problems. The dried herb is wonderful for scenting potpourris, can be stuffed into sachets and tucked between linens to scent them. It is used to flavor May wine but it also has a reputation for provoking lechery, which may be another reason for its association with May Day.

Woodruff can be grown easily from starts. Mine came from my mentor and friend Helen Farias. Just dig up a little clump, roots and all. Plant it where it will get shade and its roots will stay moist. The plant spreads rapidly but is not invasive.

During my experiments with capturing the scent of plants, I was most successful with sweet woodruff. I let it sit in jojoba oil for about a week and now the oil is delicately flavored with that dry hay/tobacco/vanilla scent that I associate with lying in the grass at midsummer.

Image Credits:

The illustration comes from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. The photo was released into the public domain by the photographer. I found it at Wikipedia.

First published April 19, 2010

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May Wine

Excerpt from the May Day holiday e-book

May Wine is served on May Day. In Germany, May Wine is the quintessential summer drink. It is usually flavored with Sweet Woodruff (Waldmeister or Maikraut), perhaps because it improves the taste of thin, new wine. May wine is also the name for any wine punch flavored with herbs, fruits, berries and occasionally flowers.

To make May wine, pick sweet woodruff that does not have open blossoms several days before you want to serve the wine. Tie the stems with cotton thread and hang until dry so the sweet vanilla scent of the herb emerges. Then immerse the dried herb in a bottle of wine, usually Rhine wine, although Adelma Grenier Simmons uses champagne or a mixture of half Rhine wine and half champagne.

Some recipes advise you to leave the woodruff in the wine for days, even weeks. Others suggest removing it after ten or fifteen minutes, probably because woodruff contains coumarin, an anticoagulant and may cause headaches. However, it is probably not dangerous, unless you are pregnant or taking anticoagulants.

Michael Moore, writing about Northwest medicinal plants, suggests using vanilla leaf, another herb containing coumarin, to create a substitute for Polish sweet vodka, by putting a handful of the dried leaves in a fifth of vodka and steeping it for at least a month. He says it gives a nice green tint to the vodka, as well as a sweet flavor. Anyone want to try this with woodruff?

And Adelma Grenier Simmons says that a German friend of hers steeps woodruff in brandy year round, then adds the flavored brandy to the May wine. I have to say a little bit of woodruff goes a long way, and I probably wouldn’t leave it steeping in the brandy for much more than a week. Woodruff can also be used in the same way to flavor milk or apple juice if you prefer a non-alcoholic May drink.

The traditional Mai Bowle also has strawberries in it. Simmons garnishes her May bowl with fresh woodruff, Johnny jump-ups and violets. In Germany, the Mai Bowle is served every day during the month of May.

You can find more May Day food ideas, including a special minestrone and frittata served for May Day in Italy and a yogurt dish served for Hidrellez (the Persian celebration of May 1) in my May Day e-book.

References:

Rose, Jeanne, Herbs & Things, Grosset & Dunlap 1972

Simmons, Adelma Grenier, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, Plume (Penguin) 1990

First published April 19, 2010

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Creating Your Own Maypole

Excerpt from my May Day e-book:

In Wales, the Maypole was usually a birch, cut down in the forest, carried into town and planted in a hole dug into the village green. Friends who’ve attended the May Day ceremony at the former Chinook Learning Center tell me that the men brought in the tree while the women prepared the hole in which it was planted, the two groups working together with bantering and joking about the sexual innuendos of their actions as the tree was erected and settled into the hole.

I’ve also attended the May Day celebrations of the Radical Faeries here in Seattle. Unfortunately the May Pole is already set up by the time we process through Ravenna Ravine, leaving offerings for various deities, so I don’t know how the pole is secured in the hole. It’s important to make sure the Maypole is stable, as dancing around it, pulling on the ribbons, can sway it.

The one year we did a Maypole dance in our backyard, we tried to use a stanchion from a tetherball game to hold the pole but it wasn’t stable enough and one of us had to kneel at the base of the Maypole, steadying it while the others danced around it.

My friend, Maevyn, came up with an artful way of using and re-using her Christmas tree which creates a small, indoor Maypole. She cuts all the branches off her tree after Yule (they would be great for mulch in the garden) but leaves the trunk in the Christmas tree holder. Then on May Day, she attaches ribbons to the top and voila! A miniature portable indoor Maypole!

On the web, I found a suggestion of using a cardboard tube from wrapping paper and inserting it into the umbrella hole of a picnic table. Mrs. Sharp suggests making a portable Maypole by purchasing a large wooden dowel (two to three inches in diameter and at least three feet long), stapling long ribbon streamers to the top and hiding the staples with glued on bows and silk flowers. One person stands holding this pole aloft, while the others dance around it.

The usual length of the ribbon is one-and-a-half times the length of the pole and you must have multiples of four (that is 8, 12, 16, 20, etc.) for the weaving effect to work.

One song that is often recommended for Maypole dancing is Country Gardens. Any sort of country/contra music piece, especially one that can be repeated until the dancing is done, will work. I also think the chant about “Go in and out the windows” would help dancers dancing a Grand Chain. You will find suggestions for patterns to dance and songs to sing in my May Day e-book

References:

Breatnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Scribner 2001

More Resources:

Check out the antique May Day postcards posted by Barbara Marlow Irwin at this web site.

Martha Stewart has a wonderful series of articles about May Day celebrations at her web site, including instructions on making a Maypole (far more sophisticated than those described above), making the cones in which to put the flowers you hang on doorknobs, and three different kinds of Maypole dances.

First published April 19, 2010

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Floralia Sparks May Day

Floradetail_WaterhouseThe Romans honored the Sabine goddess of blossoms and spring with six days of celebrations including games, pantomimes, plays and stripteases, which went on into the night illuminated by torchlight. Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose–they represented fertility and sexuality and Venus in her role as patroness of cultivated nature. Small vegetables (one imagines cucumbers and zucchinis) were distributed as fertility tokens. Flora represented the sexual aspect of plants, the attractiveness of the flowers, and was the matron of prostitutes.flora maria szobrok pinterest

In this Roman statue from Hadrian’s villa, she looks a little too prim and proper to preside over such frivolity. The painting of Flora and the Zephyr by Waterhouse captures Flora in a more wanton pose.

Floralia sets in motion all the delightful holidays associated with May Day. The English have a saying about children born between May 1 and May 8 (Between the Beltanes): they have “the skill of man and beast” and power over both.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, 1999
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994
Wikipedia has a well-documented article on the Floralia here.
This article was first published on April 28,2014
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Portraits of Plants, Lesson 3

For the first lesson in this sequence, go here.

I always draw from real plants—never photographs—because plants are three dimensional and were once alive… They are physically present, and can move, change, and challenge the person drawing them. Sarah Simblet, Botany for the Artist

Two summers ago I signed up for a class on botanical drawing taught by Claudia Fitch. Most of our classes met at the wonderful Victorian conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It was a difficult experience for me in many ways, plunging me back into the sense of inadequacy that I remembered from my high school art classes.

Claudia began with assignments to produce contour drawings like those I described in the first two lessons. Then she introduced us to the concept of drawing negative space. The illustration from the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, shows how if we try to draw what we see (as the artist did in the top picture) we will often produce an unsatisfying reproduction. If instead we try to focus on the negative spaces and the outlines, we can produce something that looks more like the object being drawn.

When drawing a plant, the easiest way to see the negative space is to use a frame to isolate the plant. We created viewfinders out of thin cardboard (they should be the same proportion as the page on which you are sketching).  (You can also take a photograph to frame a subject as well.) What you want to do is make sure the plant is not floating in white space in the middle of the page but that it extends to the edges, on at least three sides. Then you draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. The illustration on the left comes from Edwards.

Claudia also taught us to do ten or so quick sketches, trying to frame the subject in different ways, before deciding how we were going to draw. We could move our frames (cut out of stiff cardboard) to see what would make for the best composition as in the example below. As you can see I didn’t finish all of my sketches of the tree trunk I was studying.

When I did these assignments, I became totally absorbed in the task at hand, just focusing on my tools (usually a pen or pencil and a sheet of white paper). It was only when I stopped drawing and looked at my drawing critically that I got frustrated. My sketches bore little resemblance to the plant in front of me.

Yet now, when I am no longer confronted by the actual tree, I am quite happy with the result. This unfinished sketch, takes me back in memory to the actual tree, to the intimacy established as I traced each of its curves with my pencil and then the charcoal.

Once we had achieved some success at reproducing the shapes we actually saw in front of us, we began working with tones and shading. Claudia had us create five distinct tones, ranging from very light to very dark, as samples on the side of the page and then isolate those tones on the plant, almost like doing a paint by number painting. Though it sounds mechanical, this was another interesting exercise in seeing what was really there, rather than what I thought. Again, I didn’t like this sketch of a broccoli leaf at the time I did it, but I can see that by focusing only on tone, I was able to capture some details that I would have overlooked because they didn’t fit my belief about how a leaf looks.

Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook suggests another way to learn how values work: choose a color photo and make a black-and-white reproduction of it. She also suggests turning the photograph upside down as a way to dissociate from what you think you know about the item you are drawing and look instead merely at the shapes and colors.

Making an Impression

And yet, I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive. Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing

I have to admit I really struggled throughout the botanical drawing class. If, like me, you suffer from perceived artistic ineptitude, you might prefer some of these other ways of capturing the likeness of a plant.

Try painting making leaf impressions.  Claudia Nice in How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal describes her technique. She brushes leaves with a medium thick coat of water color, blots them with a paper towel and then presses them on the paper. Gaps in the print can be filled in afterwards with more of the water color paint. She mentions that fuzzy leaves like sage make nice prints. Siegel suggests experimenting with dry and damp paper. She places a piece of newsprint over the plant and smoothes it down with her fingers or an artist’s brayer, a little roller you can buy at art supply stores.

You can also do this in reverse. Put the leaf down on the page (it’s better if it’s something fairly flat and stiff), secure it to the paper with rubber cement or tiny bits of tape, then brush or sponge or spatter paint around it.

I own an extraordinary book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic & Medicine, which is composed of the most exquisite leaf prints created by Alice Thoms Vitale. She applied water-based printer’s ink to the surface of fresh leaves with a brayer. She then lowered the paper onto the leaf (rather than the other way around) and pressed carefully and selectively with her thumb. Then the paper was lifted off and allowed to dry. The delicacy of these images just has to be seen to be believed which is why I am reproducing the paper birch on this page to show you how Vitale elevates what seems like a child’s kindergarten project into an art form.

Another easy way to play around with the shapes of leaves is to do a shadow tracing. Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Then trace the outline. You can then color in the outline, if you like. I’ve done this with chalk on a sunny day with a tree shadow. It was a fun ephemeral art project.

Assignment for Week 3

If you aren’t totally terrified of an art assignment, then try any one of the sequence of steps I outlined above:

  • Choose a subject and draw it, focusing on the negative space.
  • Create a viewfinder; use it to make six or nine quick sketches framing your subject
  • Choose one view you like and spend time just filling in the negative space with color or charcoal
  • Choose a subject, create a tone palette and then color in your drawing

If you are terrified of art assignments, try one of the more playful approaches.

  • Paint a leaf or flower with water color paint and impress it on a wet or dry page
  • Outline a shadow of a leaf or flower
  • Create a stencil by placing a fern or other stiff plant on paper and painting around it
  • Draw around the shadow of a tree on the pavement with chalk

 

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