Hunkering Down for Winter

Winter decided to come early for us in upstate NY this year–probably in a lot of other places too. Part of me is still not ready to accept it. I haven’t even turned on the furnace yet, just been using space heaters. But today I will finally fire up on the old gas monster; there’s just no way around it anymore.

henbane flower 113014 smallEvery year, I actually look forward to winter. I like snow; it changes the way we see our surroundings and it usually makes things quieter. I like winter activities–no, not skiing or sledding, but reading and watching old movies and my favorite, planning out the garden for the following season. People have told me they don’t like winter because things are dead, but most things aren’t dead–they’re just waiting: seeds deeply asleep in the soil, roots of perennials resting from the work of storing food all summer, little critters hibernating in their burrows, all waiting for the return of the Sun. When I look out at a “dead” landscape, this is what I see: life abiding. It makes me feel hopeful.

This winter I’ve got a bunch of mandrakes growing under lights in the basement. I’ve done this a few times in the past but never have had this many. I like going down there every morning wth my cat Blackie. I check on the plants, clean and groom their leaves, water, fertilize, adjust the lights. There’s a silence around them while Blackie does his own work, checking his perimeter to ensure that no other cats have managed to slither through the tiny hole in the door, sniffing around for field mice invading from the yard, and then rolling in the dust on the concrete floor for the sheer pleasure of it. I’ve got three large plants that I hope will flower in spring if they do well over the winter. For the past several years, I’ve focused on harvesting the roots of these plants instead of encouraging them to flower and perhaps produce fruit. Now I want to do both.

henbane Moon this one smallMeanwhile, I’ve already purchased all the seeds I will need for next season’s garden. One of the most pleasant things for me in the winter is plotting out the garden. I use GIMP, an open-source image manipulation program (free but hard to learn, IMO), to make a grid of my yard and have labeled squares for all the different sized plants. I like doing this at the end of December best, when there is a kind of lull after Yule and you can almost feel the Earth tipping towards the Sun again. I’ve been having such success growing plants in large pots in my yard that I will greatly expand this way of growing next year. I love my yard full of trees and shade, but the soil here, already problematic because it is so full of rocks it does not even qualify as topsoil according to the Cooperative Extension, is absolutely full of tree roots. Even my belladonnas were losing the battle with them, especially compared to the belladonnas I grew in pots. This year I dug them up and will grow belladonna in pots from now on.

As my own personal winter approaches (or I guess I have already entered it at 61), I prepare for a different way of working, one that will allow a lot more leeway for creaky joints and the health issues of getting old. I’m going to be focusing more on providing baneful herbs, especially to shops. This is a good niche for me, I think. I love growing belladonna, henbane, and mandrake anyhow, and growing them to harvest and dry for sale should allow me a small income to supplement Social Security down the line. It also encourages me to get off my butt and get outside in the garden. I’m not going to be closing Alchemy Works any time soon, so don’t be concerned about that. I’ll keep it open for at least several more years. I hope I will be writing a bit more, stuff that is less challenging than the herb book I am trying to finish now–books composed of the recipes I have developed over the years for oils, incense, and other witchy stuff. But I would like a bit more focus on things I grow myself instead of items I must purchase from far away, for one, and for another, these plants give me strength. They build in me the sense of wonder and amazement at the natural world. I think we all need those senses to have a good and happy life.

And the other thing that gives me strength? My art. I haven’t been blogging, but I have been painting, as you can see. These are for the book–henbane flower and henbane pods in moonlight.

Wild Lettuce Binding

I had a dream this week about wild lettuce. I do not normally dream about plants. In fact, I rarely do. Even when I have had visions about plant spirits (as opposed to the individual plants themselves), it has been when I napped, a time that I am apparently especially open to spirit contact, and the plant spirit is not identical to the plant form. This was just plain sleeping, and I saw the rosette of wild lettuce repeatedly, as if I were in my own garden looking at the material plant.

But there were other aspects of this dream that were unusual. For one, it was a series of dreams. I’d dream about wild lettuce, I’d wake up, and then I would fall back to sleep to have another dream about wild lettuce. This happened about five times, so I knew it must be important. All the dreams had the same message–that wild lettuce in the rosette stage was stupefying. All I can say is I’m glad I’m a witch, because otherwise, I might be deemed nutz. :)

wild lettuce stampede 2013Wild lettuce is a biennial (takes two years to come to fruition–to produce seeds). In the first year of its growth, it forms a rosette, as it is called. This means that the leaves grow out from a central crown and do not form a stalk or flowers (see photo of wild lettuce rosettes in my garden a couple years ago). Other plants form rosettes too. Some people, like the anthroposophists, have said that the rosette form of plants has a Sun aspect to it on account of the shape. Makes sense to me. I think of the rosette as a period in which the plant forms a sort of solar collector that will funnel energy down into the roots so that the plant has enough oomph to make it through the winter.

Some plant information on medicinal herbs is refined enough to note the differences in the power of alkaloids between first-year and second-year growth, like with belladonna. But not so with this plant.

In the past, wild lettuce was in the British Formulary and was a part of American botanical medicine before the domination of chemical medicine in the 1930s. In the old days, the stems of wild lettuce plants that were in the flowering stage (second-year plants) were slit and the milky juice, bitter with alkaloids, was gathered and turned into lactucarium, a sort of poor-man’s opium. The highest alkaloids were gathered right as the plant was first blooming in the second year. The alkaloid in question is hyoscyamine, which linguistically inclined folk might recognize as being an alkaloid present in henbane (Hyoscyamus species). Kind of interesting connections between wild lettuce and henbane, the quintessential witching plant (IMO).

But there is no mention of gathering the sap in the previous, first year of growth. However, from what I know about plants’ use of alkaloids, they specifically concentrate alkaloids in parts of the plant that are most precious to the plant’s survival at any point in time. So for instance in the fall, there will be a high concentration of alkaloids in roots in order that the plant be protected from predation (because bitter = yucky to most animals, including most bugs) just prior to it falling under the spell of winter. Likewise, in the spring, when the plant is putting on new growth, the highest alkaloids will be found in the new leaves, and in the seed-forming stage, in the unripe seeds. So the rosette stage of wild lettuce should not have especially large amounts of alkaloids in it, certainly not enough to stupefy anyone. For that matter, we can hardly use “stupefaction” and “wild lettuce” in the same sentence. This is a mildly sedating herb, even when gathered at the most appropriate time (of highest alkaloid content). In fact, some sources question whether there is any¬†alkaloid in the dried sap harvested from flowering stalks. This might be evidence of simply adulterated product, however.

I think these dreams are in fact a message from the spirit of the plant of wild lettuce, a plant that I have grown in the past in order to gather seeds, as they are quite expensive in commerce and because the plant produces jillions of seeds. They are a PIA to gether on account of the sticky sap, but their numbers and expense makes it wortwhile. In fact, I still have wild lettuce “volunteers,” as they are called, appearing in my garden from plants I grew a couple years ago. The seeds have parachutes and so go everywhere; once you grow this plant from seed, you will never have to plant it again. Right now I have several rosettes of wild lettuce in its first year in my garden, and this is after I religiously weeded them out in spring in order to prepare the ground for planting foxglove, clary sage, wild daisy, and hollyhock.

As I got this message–repeatedly–about wild lettuce being useful for stupefaction, I also got the image of a Haitian sort of zombification: that is, not the perhaps entertaining movie-type zombie that is the result of some creepy virus and that is actually dead, but the Haitian Ton Ton Macoute¬†version of the individual drugged and made into a spiritless slave who will do the bidding of its master. Talk about a metaphor for a subdued populace, eh? So wild lettuce is calling out to be used to shut people up, to make them pliable, malleable. But only in its rosette stage. It was very specific about that. You can bet that I am going to be harvesting some–about half–of the leaves of the wild lettuce plants in my garden this fall. Because you never know when you might need to stupefy someone. :)

However, I also saw an image together with this information from the dream. It showed people walking along a midnight dirt road outside a town. The head of each individual–and they had lost much of their distinction as individuals–was swaddled in bandages represnting the stupefaction of wild lettuce in the rosette stage. They were zombies of the old school–biddable slaves, stupid and not on the level of “dumb” animals.

Anyway, a word to the wise. If you have need of such a powerful type of binding, grow some wild lettuce and harvest the leaves in the first year. Dry them carefully and save them for the day when they are needed.

Because of this dream, I’ve decided to swap out wild tobacco for wild lettuce in my book, which I hope and pray will be done by the end of October, with the help of the gods.

I forgot to say–wild lettuce is a Saturnian herb, and if Saturnian herbs are not good for binding, I do not know what is.