An herbal example – chamomile

Today I’m teaching my intro to herbs class at the Magical Druid, but for those of you who can’t be there in person, I thought I would demonstrate one small aspect of what I’m teaching today. (By the way, I also offer this as a correspondence course, for which I’m currently developing more material; if you’re interested, email me at literatahurley@gmail.com.)

I encourage students to begin their journey into herbalism by creating their own notes on each herb they study; this journal becomes a place to organize research as well as one’s own thoughts and intuitions, and becomes the foundation for future work. I provide an example from my own notebook, which is very much a work in progress, and discuss why I have arranged the parts of each entry the way I have.

My entry on each herb is broken up into the following sections:

  • Names – here I describe any common names and also list the scientific name(s) for the species of plants they describe. Scientific names are an important way to be able to be sure you’re talking about the same plant, since common names are many and varied, and have changed over time and from region to region.
  • Warnings and contraindications – This is an absolute must. Potential allergies, pregnancy warnings, drug interactions, and more should all be noted here. Even things that are regularly used in food can have medically important interactions. Please note that none of my information is a substitute for consulting a trained medical professional!
  • Parts used – I find this a useful way to describe how different parts of the same plant are used in different contexts. This can actually help me come up with new ideas for magical workings by encouraging me to think more broadly about an herb I’m already familiar with.
  • Uses – Here I describe major purposes that the herb is used for, along with its important correspondences and any other magical information, such as what other materials it works well with. This is really the heart of the entry, so I go into more detail here, although I don’t usually include specific spells or recipes (as described below). I tend to note historical uses only when they influence how I tend to use the herb in a present context.

For example, my notes on chamomile read as follows:

Names:
Chamomile
name of multiple plants in the Asteraceae family

German chamomile – most common species used
(Matricaria recutita)

Roman chamomile, noble chamomile, English chamomile
(Chamaemelum nobile)

Warnings, contraindications:

Do not use Roman chamomile during pregnancy
People with ragweed allergy may be allergic to chamomile
May cause drowsiness

Parts used: flowers, dried and used in sachets, infusions

Uses:

Magically associated with the sun, can be used for prosperity.

Main use is for calming, relieving anxiety, and promoting healing. Can cause drowsiness and be used to induce sleep. Infusion is very good for this.

Try combining with peppermint (especially for digestive upset) or valerian for extra anxiety reduction.

Infusion can also be used topically on irritated skin, has mildly anti-inflammatory effects.

Personally, I organize these notes alphabetically by common name, and keep an index that helps me cross-reference plants that I might know by multiple common names.

In a separate space, I keep “recipe cards” for combinations of herbs, oils, incenses, or other nifty concoctions I’m working on or might want to try in the future.

Finally, in my working magical journal I record spells that I’ve actually performed, and reflect on the results of the spell. Then I will update my other two resources with notes if important.

I find it really helps to keep my notes separated this way so that I know where to find what I’m looking for – if it’s information about an herb, I go to my notebook; if it’s a particular recipe, I to go my recipe cards; and if it’s details of how I implemented a particular spell, I go to my magical journal. When I’m coming up with a new spell or recipe, I might use all three in combination, but usually I just need one of them.

What are your favorite resources for studying herbs? How do you organize your information about a broad topic like this? I’d love to know!

Calendula and chamomile

With all the stress lately, I’ve developed some irritated skin. Here are two pieces of kitchen witchery I’ve done in the last few days to take care of it.

Calendula and chamomile facial mask

I mixed 1 part calendula powder, 1 part chamomile powder, and 6 parts cosmetic clay. I added enough water to make a texture slightly thicker than yogurt and applied to clean skin fairly thickly. I didn’t let it dry all the way – the goal was to use the mask as a sort of poultice for irritated skin, and I didn’t want to undo the good of the herbs by dehydrating the skin afterwards.

This felt good on my skin; I dried gently and put on a light lotion, and the irritation was decreased.

Calendula and chamomile salve

In the top of a double boiler, I simmered 1 Tbsp each calendula and chamomile powders in 100 g light olive oil for about 20 minutes. Then I added 30 g beeswax and stirred until it was all melted. Poured out into a clean container and let cool with occasional additional stirring – if you don’t stir while cooling, it separates into layers – can anyone advise me about easier ways to prevent this?

This produced a nice consistency, firm enough that it doesn’t feel oily but still very spreadable. It’s grainy from the powders being left in; next time I’ll simmer the whole herb in a cloth bag so I can remove it. This does smell strongly of calendula and chamomile, though, and it has a potentially less than appealing brown color, but neither of those bother me.

Obviously, I’m just beginning to dip my toes into the wider expanses of herbalism and kitchen witchery. I’d be happy to hear advice or suggestions from my readers!

Updated: Sustainable Sandalwood

After further research, I’ve found two sources of sustainable sandalwood oil, but no incense.

Both Aura Cacia and Mountain Rose Herbs carry Australian sandalwood oil. Aura Cacia products are available at Whole Foods stores and other natural-products stores. For larger amounts, I’ve found Mountain Rose Herbs to be a good source of affordable, high-quality ingredients. (Please note that I’m not associated with either company.)

Santalum spicatum is a species in the same genus as “true” sandalwood (Santalum album), but it is native to Australia. The Australian government is working hard to manage harvesting and replant commercial sources of sandalwood while protecting wild populations.

This whole discovery has really opened my eyes to another aspect of my responsibilities as a consumer who also venerates the earth. I’ve been growing more conscious of the issues involved in my food supply, and am trying to make choices that are increasingly consistent with my values, but this is a whole different kettle of fish. Nothing I eat is in the process of being driven to extinction by human overuse. That makes it a relatively clear-cut choice not to perpetuate the problem by buying sandalwood. I can’t simply sit back and burn endangered wood while visualizing myself as a tree in order to ground and center in connection with nature. On the other hand, it’s also nice to find an alternative that allows for some substitution in my practices rather than radical elimination.

Like many other ecological and environmental concerns, this a difficult situation, where we must weigh multiple factors that are incredibly hard to compare. For me, putting my values into practice means navigating these kinds of situations as best I can, in an evolving fashion.

It’s easy to succumb to despair when trying to weigh incommensurate forms of good and harm in a world with so much environmental upheaval. One of the ways I resist despair is by coming together with others to face such questions, both by talking through the issues and supporting each other in our choices, and by sharing resources and assistance. Writing about this issue is not an attempt to scold or shame others; it’s an attempt to contribute to the ongoing conversation and community efforts to live more ethically. It’s not easy, but we can do better together.