Tags: plants

The Folklore of My Yard: Lilac

I saw "I AM," the new documentary yesterday, and found it a delightful and inspiring break from the gloom currently shadowing my life and our nation. While walking home down the alley, I saw foxglove was greening up, and I nibbled on a violet, which was sweet, like a grape or berry. Every place is indeed magical in some way. Folklore helps us access this magic. While people often want to visit faraway sacred or mysterious sites, one's own home is also mysterious and magical, if one really looks deeply. I decided to look at the place where I currently live and see what folklore can reveal about it.

The budburst of lilacs is beginning now here in town. The national Phenological Network records the cycle of natural events across the nation: When the first robins are seen, when the lilacs bloom, when the geese fly south for the winter. It was about a month ago when I heard my first robin and meadowlark singing in the valley. This recording of phenology, natural events and their cycles, has a special connection to the global climate change as well. Montana lilacs were the first real focus of these efforts, which began almost fifty years ago:

"The first extensive USA phenological observation networks began in the late 1950s with a series of (U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA) regional agricultural experiment station projects, designed to employ phenology to characterize seasonal weather patterns and improve predictions of crop yield.... J. M. Caprio at Montana State University began the first of these projects in 1956, and it eventually included around 2500 volunteer observers distributed throughout 12 Western states.... Common purple lilac plants (Syringa vulgaris) were observed initially..." (usanpn.org).

Lilac bushes are everywhere in Helena's historic south central district. They were introduced here by the pioneers in the late 1800s from the Midwest and East. You can often see lilac bushes growing out in the middle of nowhere, and they invariably mark the location of a previous homestead, long since vanished. Lilac was one of the first yard plants I learned about as a child. We used to pick them and put them in jars in the kitchen for their beauty and perfume. Their sweet scent is the mark of late May-early June here. There are many in the yard, both white and purple types, ancient and gnarled. Now some miscellany about the lilac-


Because many immigrants came not only from the East but Europe as well, they brought tales of lilac folklore that increased its appeal. Lilacs are often associated with luck, and anyone who finds a white lilac blossom with five petals was considered to be especially lucky. Some expand that to any color of lilac. On the other hand-

"In some parts of England, it is considered unlucky to bring lilac, especially white lilac, into the house. The purple and red varieties are usually less feared, but even they are sometimes excluded from house-decorations as bringers of misfortune. A few months before these words were written (1960), an Oxford florist strongly advised a customer not to buy white lilac for a friend in hospital, on the grounds that many people thought it foretold death if brought indoors. He did not know why this should be so, only that it was quite commonly believed. In fact it is almost certainly due to the widespread association of death and misfortune with 'drowsy-scented' flowers, and also with those which are white. An interesting detail about the lilac tradition is that, unlike that connected with white may and meadowsweet which is very general, it is found only in some English districts, especially in the midland counties, and is quite unknown elsewhere. It is lucky to find a five-petalled lilac blossom of any colour." (The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, by Edwin Radford).



"The genus name Syringa is derived from Greek syrinx meaning a hollow tube or pipe, from French lilac "shrub of genus Syringa with mauve flowers," from Spanish lilac, from Arabic lilak, from Persian lilak, variant of nilak "bluish," from nil "indigo", and refers to the broad pith in the shoots in some species, easily hollowed out to make reed pipes and flutes in early history. ...A pale purple colour is generally known as lilac after the flower." ("Syringa," wikipedia.org)

"The genus name Syringa is after Syrinx, an Arcadian virgin nymph of Artemis who looked like Artemis in appearance & manner. Originally Syrinx was not the genius of the lilac bush that today bares her name, but of hollow reeds that grow in marshes & along riverbanks. Just such hollow reeds were bound together to make the original panpipes, which were called syrinx. In time the nymph Syrinx became identified as the genius of any plant the stems of which could be used to make tubes. Thus the German engraving from the early 1600s, as shown on this page, depicts Pan clinging not to reeds, but to the stump of a tree. Although lilac twigs are not hollow, they have a soft inner pulp that was easily drilled out, so that lilac limbs were traditionally hollowed out to make flutes or pipestems.... In the Dionysiaca, grief-stricken Pan's first song of grief upon the syrinx was to the goddess Cythereia, i.e., Aphrodite." (paghat.com, "lilac")

"The wood of lilac is close-grained, diffuse-porous, extremely hard and one of the densest in Europe. The sapwood is typically cream-coloured and the heartwood has various shades of brown and purple. Lilac wood has traditionally been used for engraving, musical instruments, knife handles etc. When drying, the wood has a tendency to be encurved as a twisted material, and to split into narrow sticks. The wood of Common Lilac is even harder than for example that of Syringa josikaea." (wikipedia.org, "Syringa")



"In later folk belief, the lilac was associated with love. To test whether the object of one's affection returned such feelings, five lilac petals were to be eaten in succession; if it could be done without a petal getting stuck in the throat, then one's lover was true. Or a well-budded cutting of a lilac limb should be brought into the house late in autumn; if it can be induced to bloom by Christmas day, then one's intended marriage was vouchsafed a good match." (paghat.co, "lilac")

In the Victorian Era's "Language of Flowers," lilacs symbolize love. Purple lilacs represent the first emotion of love, and white lilacs represent youthful innocence and memories." (wikipedia.org, "Language of flowers")



"At the same time, lilacs became associated with death, & is one of the most common trees encountered in old cemeteries. The association may have come about because sweetly-scented flowers were used to surround the dead while they lay in state, to mask the odor of decaying flesh. Also, pale purple was once considered the color of mourning garments, the same as wearing black." (paghat.com, "lilac")

"The lilac bush was also believed to grow in Hades, & had associations of the night. The common name Lilac is from the Persian Lila, a common girls' name meaning "Evening," apropos of dark purple lilacs being the color of night. It is also more or less the same meaning as Lilith, "Night," & lilac extract is an old ingredient in spell-casting among voudon practitioners, so that lilac's associations with the Night -- from the wedding bed to cemeteries -- are numerous." (paghat.com, "lilac")

"Along the Welsh Border, lilac trees are said to mourn if any of their kind are cut down, and to be flowerless in the following year." (The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, by Edwin Radford).



"In addition to being a widely used garden plant, a tea can be made from the leaves, flowers and thinner branches of Syringa vulgaris (common lilac), and common white lilac, which has a floral flavor. Some claim that this tea has shown some signs that it may produce a light euphoria higher amounts (3+ cups of strongly brewed tea), but claims of this are relatively unverified and there is no scientific backing to report such claims. Also some find the white varieties of common lilac to have a sweeter and more pleasurable flavor, and both varieties (white and purple) seem to produce more palatable tea with more flowers and little leaves." (wikipedia.org, "Syringa")

"Ethnobotanical uses for the plant have been fever reducer, malaria treatment, perfume, tonic, and homeopathy." (neoninc.org, "budburst" Species 70)

"Lilacs steeped in warm spring water for 30 minutes, strained, bottled and refrigerated) is used on the face as a tonic and healing spritz for some facial afflictions. ...The leaves and the fruit is used and the properties are as an anti-periodic, febrifuge and tonic. Hilda Leyel in Compassionate Herbs says . . . “The Lilac tree appears in an inventory made by Cromwell at Norwich and was probably introduced in Henry VIII's reign. It has been grown as a flowering shrub for many centuries. In medicine it has been used successfully in the treatment of malaria and in American is given as a vermifuge.” (jeannerose.net, "lilac")

"Lilacs are used by herbalists as a treatment for parasitic intestinal worms in humans. The lilac may cause the worms to die and be expelled from the body. The scent and potency of lilac doesn't fade in hot water, so lilac tea was traditionally used as a tonic. Lilac tonic is used to reduce fever as well as to prevent recurring attacks of disease. Specifically, the lilac is used to treat kidney disease and malaria." (ehow.com, "lilac aromatherapy")

"An infusion of 1 teaspoon of lilac leaves in one cup of boiling water taken two or three times daily was a very ancient alternative to quinine in the cure of malarial, fever. Quinine was the old – fashioned standby for fever and is still used to prevent and remedy malaria, but before it was discovered the most commonly used country remedies included birch, ash bark, herb bennet, olive leaves, tincture of box and sorrel or purslane juice (the cooling green leaves of purslane were also laid upon the brow). These brews were taken at the first sign of those fevers which a patient might suffer from intermittently such as malaria and the following delicious infusion, which was frequently used in an effort to reduce the racking ague of malaria, can still be used today to ease the discomfort of a raging temperature. One of the effective home remedies for fever." (herbal-supplements-for-you.co, "home remedies- fever")

"Lilacs are used in aromatherapy for emotional and spiritual benefit. Purple lilacs are used to create a better emotional state by soothing and calming your nerves. Unlike the traditional purple lilac, white lilacs are used in aromatherapy to create a higher sense of sensuality. White lilacs also have the same spiritual and emotional aromatherapy benefits as purple lilacs." (ehow.com, "lilac aromatherapy")

"Lilac drives away evil where it is planted or strewn. It was originally planted in New England to keep evil from the property. The fresh flowers can be placed in a haunted house to clear it. Peace; Clairvoyance; Divination; Creativity; Happiness; Harmony; Exorcism; Protection: Psychic Awareness; Reincarnation." (joellessacredgrove.com, "L herbs")



The Ainu of Japan used Lilac wood for the stem of the chief inao because lilac is a hard wood which does not rot easily. "Upon questioning an Ainu on this subject, he said: 'It is not wise to use any wood other than the lilac for making the stem of this kind of fetich, for in ancient times a certain man made one of cercidiphyllum [Katsura], the end of which rotted after a short time, so that it fell over. Not many months elapsed before the owner himself became weak and died. This was owing to the influence of the fetich being withdrawn. For this reason it is now known that the stem should be made of lilac only, that being the most durable wood of all. However, should he happen to be in a place where he cannot obtain lilac, he may use either willow or cercidiphyllum; but these must not be kept long, for fear they should rot away. When they become a little old, they should either be cast right away in the forest or reverently burnt upon the hearth, before they have a chance of rotting. Others should then be made in their place.' " (pp. 93-94, Early European Writings on Ainu Culture: Religion and Folklore, Vol. 1, by Kristen Refsing.)

Inao are whittled wands set up at the eastern side of Ainu lodges, holding the skulls of various animals. They were made mostly in winter to be set up in early spring, but also on other occasions. "This large cluster contains many kinds of these wands, some long and others short; some shaved upwards towards the top, others downwards towards the base, while some again are not shaved at all. When taken singly, each is called by the name inao, and when grouped together, as now mentioned, and as is shown in the accompanying illustration, they are collectively called nusa...a collection of inao or wooden wands used for religious and ceremonial purposes." (ibid.: 89-90) The shavings are the bark, shaved in part, and left attached at their ends (ibid.: 91).

Inao are set up as nusa (shrines) when erecting a new hut/lodge, when death is present, when there is a bear feast "or any other great function or solemn rite or ceremony is in progress." Nusa were placed not only near the homes but also "upon the seashore where the fishermen push off their boats when they go fishing. These are set up for the gods of the sea, and are called kema-ush inao, i.e. 'the fetish with legs.' They are so called because they are tied to stakes in the ground, which go by the name of kema, 'legs.'" (ibid: 91)

Some inao were only considered to be offerings to the deities, or charms, but others have a different 'life' to them, and are considered to be as living messengers to the gods so honored. "...Though if the truth be told, the essence of life will be found to be latent in all...These religious symbols and instruments of worship are regarded in different lights and treated in various ways by the people on varying occasions; for that they are so treated and regarded by the inhabitants of separated districts and at varying times and under certain circumstances cannot be questioned" (ibid: 92)

"Ainu fetichism may be said to consist in a belief that the possession of a thing can procure the services of a spirit which is either supposed to actually reside in it, or to be in some other mysterious way very closely connected with and allied to it. Fetiches [inao], so long as they are kept in good condition and are duly respected, are, we find, generally looked upon as continual guardians against harm from Nature, disease and evil spirits; but it is a doctrine which must never be forgotten by those who possess them, that when they decay their influence ceases. Nay, more, the life of the possessor is also supposed, in some cases, to pass away as the fetich decays." (ibid: 93)


So this first foray into the folklore of my yard has revealed many potentials for exploration of the lilacs that grow here:

1. LUCK: Five-petalled lilac flowers as good luck charms. Avoidance of bringing white lilacs into the house.

2: MUSIC/TOOLS: Hollowing out the stems/branches to then fashion into pan-pipes or flutes, or as handles or parts for other musical instruments, engraved instruments, tool handles.

3: DIVINATION: Test of a lover's worth and of a marriage's future. Sending a message to a loved one as part of the language of flowers.

4: DEATH: Planting in a cemetery and masking the odor of death. Mourning garments colored lilac. Alliance with Night and Darkness.

5. MEDICINE: Tea/medicinal use of flowers and leaves for fevers (including malaria), getting rid of parasitic worms, treating kidney ailments/disease, facial/internal tonic, anti-periodic. Aromatherapy: calming, soothing, sensuality.

6. MAGIC: Living plant keeps evil away from where it is planted. Flowers can be useful in calming/clearing haunted houses. Reported use of extract in voudoun. Used by the Ainu in making their traditional spirit shrines due to its resistance to decay.

What Native Americans Smoked in their Sacred Pipes

Traditional Indian tobacco was not marijuana. American Indians didn't smoke pot in their pipes. Another pop culture idea that is a lie. I was taught smoking pot in an Indian pipe "kills the pipe" as only tobacco with its traditional mixtures was to be used in the Sacred Pipe.

Real oldtime Indian tobacco was powerful medicine, spiritually and chemically. The traditional oldtime tobacco was/is an entheogen= "An entheogen ("God inside us," en εν- "in, within," theo θεος- "god, divine," -gen γενος "creates, generates"), in the strict sense, is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, psychotherapeutic, shamanic, or spiritual context." (Wikipedia: Entheogen).

The oldtime real Indian tobacco is different from the commercial kind, a different species. Nicotiana tabacum is the commercial kind in cigarettes, the domesticated kind you buy over the counter for smoking or chewing.

Nicotiana quadrivalvis and Nicotiana rustica are the two kinds grown traditionally by tribes in the midwest and plains, like my tribe the Ioway, and the Crow who had their traditional Tobacco Society. But there are other species used by tribes throughout the Americas too. Look online for Nicotiana seeds. You can get them and grow them if you have the right kind of soil and climate.

Traditionally the oldtime sacred Indian tobacco was mixed and finely chopped with either red willow bark Salix spp. and/or red-osier dogwood bark Cornus stolonifera. This helped it burn better and added more flavor and made it more mellow.


I remember a decade or two ago when I first saw henbane. I was living at my parents' while doing archaeology for the forest service. I looked out the kitchen window, and there were a half-dozen odd looking plants that had sprung up overnight. I am not exaggerating. Over one night, and they were in full bloom. I knew they were some kind of medicine plants. They reminded me of Lily Munster from "The Munsters"..the shape of their leaves, the color of pale yellow and purple flowers. I did not know what this plant was, or how it could grow 3 feet in one night. (I went in the back yard every day, so I know it was overnight). I didn't know what to do with them. I didn't know what they were. I looked them up in the museum library and learned they were henbane, and that during WWII, the government actually paid people to gather them here for medicine used in the war. I went away for over ten years. When I returned a couple of years ago, I saw two more had grown in the backyard. Right next to them was woody nightshade. Talk about a Message in a Bottle.

August 31: Berries around the Neighborhood

Aug. 31: Some of the berries and other plants around the neighborhood.

Some of my identification skills are still developing, so let me know if you think it's a different plant. I have also found some of the uses of these plants; I think it is very important we try to learn all we can about the plants and their uses in our local areas.


I think this is a Barberry (Berberis spp.). It's already turning color! It has been very cool the last few days. The berry wasn't very tasty at all, dry and grainy, although Wikipedia says: "The berries are edible, and rich in vitamin C, though with a very sharp flavor" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berberis). Not a berry I'd prefer to eat, but the plant has other medicinal uses as well: "Medicinal Action and Uses---Tonic, purgative, antiseptic. It is used in the form of a liquid extract, given as decoction, infusion or tincture, but generally a salt of the alkaloid Berberine is preferred. ...As a bitter stomachic tonic, it proves an excellent remedy for dyspepsia and functional derangement of the liver, regulating the digestive powers, and if given in larger doses, acting as a mild purgative and removing constipation. It is used in all cases of jaundice, general debility and biliousness, and for diarrhoea" (http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/barcom12.html).


This might be an Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). In some states this is considered a terribly invasive species; here in Helena it was planted around many of the old houses up here on the South side. The first taste was very sweet, but it had a nasty, bitter aftertaste, even a little nauseating. Good thing I only had the one: "The red berries are mildly poisonous to humans and should not be eaten" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lonicera_maackii). Since it is sweet yet mildly poisonous, it makes me think there are medicinal uses for this plant, if not known here, then in its native areas in Asia (Amur region).


Not a berry of course, but a Burdock (Arctium spp.). Though scorned as a "weed," Burdock is very useful both as a food and a medicine:

The taproot of young burdock plants can be harvested and eaten as a root vegetable. While generally out of favour in modern European cuisine, it remains popular in Asia. In Japan A. lappa (Greater burdock) is called gobō (牛蒡 or ごぼう); in Korea burdock root is called "u-eong" (우엉) and sold as "tong u-eong" (통우엉), or "whole burdock". Plants are cultivated for their slender roots, which can grow about 1 metre long and 2 cm across. Burdock root is very crisp and has a sweet, mild, and pungent flavour with a little muddy harshness that can be reduced by soaking julienned or shredded roots in water for five to ten minutes. Immature flower stalks may also be harvested in late spring, before flowers appear; their taste resembling that of artichoke, to which the burdock is related. Leaves are also eaten in springs in Japan when a plant is young and leaves are soft. Some A. lappa cultivars are specialized in this purpose. A popular Japanese dish is kinpira gobō (金平牛蒡), julienned or shredded burdock root and carrot, braised with soy sauce, sugar, mirin and/or sake, and sesame oil; another is burdock makizushi (sushi filled with pickled burdock root; the burdock root is often artificially coloured orange to resemble a carrot). In the second half of the 20th century, burdock achieved international recognition for its culinary use due to the increasing popularity of the macrobiotic diet, which advocates its consumption. It also contains a fair amount of gobō dietary fiber (GDF, 6g per 100g), calcium, potassium, amino acids,[4] and is low in calories. It also contains polyphenols, which cause its darkened surface and muddy harshness by forming tannin-iron complexes. Burdock root's harshness harmonizes well with pork in miso soup (tonjiru) and with Japanese-style pilaf (takikomi gohan).

Dandelion and burdock is today a soft drink that has long been popular in the United Kingdom, which has its origins in hedgerow mead commonly drunk in the medieval period.[citation needed] Burdock is believed to be a galactagogue, a substance that increases lactation, but it is sometimes recommended to be avoided during pregnancy based on animal studies that show components of burdock to cause uterus stimulation. Cardoon is not the same as burdock.

However, in parts of the US (notably Western New York), burdock stalks are eaten as a substitute for cardoon. The stalks are peeled, scrubbed, boiled in salt water, and fried in an egg and breadcrumb batter.

Traditional medicine
Folk herbalists consider dried burdock to be a diuretic, diaphoretic, and a blood purifying agent. The seeds of A. lappa are used in traditional Chinese medicine, under the name niupangzi (Chinese: 牛蒡子; pinyin: niúpángzi; Some dictionaries list the Chinese as just 牛蒡 niúbàng.)

Burdock is a traditional medicinal herb that is used for many ailments. Burdock root oil extract, also called Bur oil, is popular in Europe as a scalp treatment applied to improve hair strength, shine and body, help reverse scalp conditions such as dandruff, and combat hair loss. Modern studies[citation needed] indicate that burdock root oil extract is rich in phytosterols and essential fatty acids (including rare long-chain EFAs), the nutrients required to maintain a healthy scalp and promote natural hair growth. It combines an immediate relieving effect with nutritional support of normal functions of sebaceous glands and hair follicles According to some European herbalists, combining burdock root oil with a nettle root oil and massaging these two oils into the scalp every day has a greater effect than Bur oil alone.

Burdock has been used for centuries as a blood purifier clearing the bloodstream of some toxins, and as a diuretic (helping rid the body of excess water by increasing urine output), and as a topical remedy for skin problems such as acne, eczema, rosacea and psoriasis.

Burdock leaves are used by some burn care workers for pain management and to speed healing time in natural burn treatment. Burn care workers hold that it eases dressing changes and appears to impede bacterial growth on the wound site and that it also provides a great moisture barrier.

Burdock is also used in hoodoo (where it is known as batweed) as a purifying scrub (brew with certain other herbs into a tea added to scrub water to purify your house), protective (carry its root in a mojo with certain other herbs to protect against jinxes), and as an uncrossing element to help men recover their potency if they have been jinxed (catherine yronwode, Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic).


Flowering crabapple (Malus spp.), a popular introduced species. Although the tiny apples are not as good as full size apples or even regular crabapples, they still have their uses, and were important to the Vikings:

Medicinal Uses: Cleansing for the system, especially in the morning. Diuretic for urinary tract problems. Antiseptic and a tonic. A rich source of various vitamins, trace elements, amino acids and flavonoids. Malic acid is the principal acid of the fruit, hence its Latin name. It is useful in the management of immunomediated diseases, and contains an antifungal constituent. It reduces skin inflammation and helps in removing dead skin fragments.

Household Uses: Used for its pectin, to set jams and jellies. Used to flavor mead, and make melomel.

Traditional Magical Uses: Used for anything an apple can be used for, which is tons of things.

Shamanic Magical Use: This is the plant associated with Vanaheim, the land of the Vanir. It can be used for any fertility charm, whether for people, animals, or the fields, as it carries all the fertility of Vanaheim behind it. It is also a powerful healer, and rubbing crabapple slices on an afflicted body and then burying them in the Earth is a useful healing technique, as the clean, sharp energy of the crabapple absorbs disease energy. It can also be charged with healing energy and eaten. Its wholesomeness makes it an inappropriate carrier for seek-and-destroy spells; use Crabapple as a follow-up after using other plants in this way, in order to strengthen the body's defenses. (http://www.northernshamanism.org/herbal/nineherbs.html)


Golden currant (Ribes aureum) an important native plant in Montana. I ate a handful of these delicious sweet and slightly tart berries! Easily the best tasting berries of the day.
Not only edible but medicinal: "The dried and pulverized inner bark has been sprinkled on sores. A decoction of the inner bark has been used in the treatment of leg swellings" (http://www.naturalmedicinalherbs.net/herbs/r/ribes-aureum=golden-currant.php).


Mountain Ash (Sorbus spp.), a close relative of the sacred Rowan of Europe. Montana has two species, Greene's and Sitka, and I am not sure which of the two this one is. I didn't taste these berries.

...Most of the time we will have to process them in order to make them palatable. The berries generally taste better after the first frost has bitten them. Just boiling does not really diminish the bitterness, but soaking them in vinegar over night and washing them the next day can make some difference. The fruits are very rich in vitamin C - providing more of that vitamin than lemons. In the days before such exotic fruit were commonly available in every season and at every supermarket Rowan berries were used as an anti-scorbutic remedy.

Some people simply press the fresh juice, but I would not really recommend it. ...The berries are best enjoyed in the form of jam, preferably mixed with other fruit, such as quince, apple or blackberry (or all of them together). A rather tart jelly can be made from the clarified juice. This goes well with strong flavoured meats. In some rural regions of Europe the berries enjoyed the greatest popularity when made into a flavoured Schnapps, liqueur or even brewed into an herbal beer. Some people prefer drying the berries to make a thirst quenching tea or to add them to muesli...

However - a little known secret it the fact that the berries are an excellent tonic for the vocal chords...Gargling with the juice can keep the chords smooth and supple, counteracting dryness and irritation. ...Other than that it is rarely used for medicinal purposes. The fresh berries are slightly laxative, while the dried berries work to the opposite effect, but other, better tasting remedies are usually preferred.

There is [also much] lore and mythology as a magical tree of life, protector against evil influences and conductor of spiritual energies... (http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/foraging/rowan.php)


A Russian Olive (Eleagnus angustifolia) draped over a Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). Both are very popular here in Montana landscapes, but neither are native plants. I have eaten the "olives" of Russian olive and they were better than barberry, even a little sweet, but not something you'd usually choose to eat either because of the texture: "The fruit is edible and sweet, though with a dryish mealy texture. ...The dried powder of the fruits are used mixed with milk in Iran for rheumatoid arthritis and join pains" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeagnus_angustifolia). You can take the paler tips of spruce and make a nice hot tea with lots of Vitamin C in it.

April 23- Weather, Phenology, Master Gardener, Insects

Yesterday evening we had a series of rainshowers, accompanied by lightning and thunder. In our Ioway tribe, the first time we hear Thunder, it is the New Year. The New Year is when the green plants are growing and flowering. Now it is time to stop telling the sacred stories for the snakes are coming out of their winter dens. The snakes protect the sacred places and the sacred stories, and they bite the transgressor.

The lilac bushes are going through bud burst, when the leaves spread out from the buds. Lilac leaves are used as tea when you have a fever. The dandelion leaves are tasty, pretty large and not too bitter (but isn't medicine always a little bitter?). I try and eat a handful every day. They are good for blood pressure, joints, and losing weight. A spring tonic for the ailments of getting old. I have violets around the house and nibble on those too. The box elder flowers are also out.

Last night I continued with the fifth week of the Master Gardener program (Level I). I posted the first class about a month ago, but the material is so dense and abundant, it got to be too much to post in detail every week. Through last night, we have covered:

Soils, Nutrients and Fertilizers (Parts 1-2)
Plant Growth and Development (Parts 1-2)
Herbaceous Annuals
Herbaceous Perennials
Growing Vegetables (Parts 1-2)
Integrated Pest Management (weeds, diseases, insects)

Last night's guest speaker was the state agricultural Entomologist (bug guy). This year is going to be bonkers for grasshoppers. If you are living in former range country, like out in the Helena Valley, you had better try any grasshopper controls before too long. As in, before the lilacs' flowering stops (it hasn't yet started).

Learned some other interesting bits about insects I didn't know, like the fact that pine beetles emerge and fly off to new trees in about the second week of August.

I chatted with the entomologist a little before class and looked at his collection of insects. (PS. Not all insects are bugs; bugs are only one class of insects). I mentioned that in 10th grade Biology we had to make a mounted insect collection in the fall (no I don't still have it). I got most of mine (about 50 different kinds) from the backyard above-ground pool we had back then.

The entomologist said they don't make collections anymore, not schools for the most part, and definitely not college level classes. In fact, they don't have an entomology department here in Montana anymore. They closed it down. Seems the old natural history type paradigm is out of favor, and all the "bug guys" are either shuttled into commercial agriculture or into genetics.

Apparently, the new entomologists can tell you the enzymes, pathogens and genetic codes in the gut of a beetle....but there aren't that many "biologists" who can actually identify living insects in the field anymore.

About Trees

Some species are generally friendly and some not. Traditions talk about this: oaks, ash, elm, rowan, etc.
Oaks are often friendly to humans but you can have hostile oaks too
Elms are often unfriendly, but you can have ones that like a particular person. Like a mean breed of dog that likes its own master (of course no human is an elm's "master"-- it's just a weak example)
These also relate to the folklore of tree species and their uses in medicine or symbolism

Some individual trees are friendly, some standoffish or sleepy, and some even hostile, to some extent based on its own history and treatment by people and other events (like lightning strikes)

On top of the tree's own personality, they also act as homes to seen and unseen, some of which are friendly, or wait-and-see, or inimical (ex: elf-shot). Some have served as "traps" "cages" or "refuges" for humans or nonhumans
I know of a tree in a state park in Iowa shaped like a pregnant woman because it enveloped the woman in her flight from pursuers

Some trees also have character based not on the tree, its species, or its inhabitant, but a character based on location (such as an archaeological site, a grave, a battlefield, an underground stream, a churchyard, etc.) or serving as a location guardian, or as a gate or door (singles, in pairs, or other conformations) or axis mundi

So you can have a tree with multiple levels- its own personality/history on one level, its species traditions and folklore on another, its location, etc.

Daniel Vitalis: Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner

Stephen Harrod Buhner is the author of The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature, The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines for Life on Earth, and Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation, and other books on the world of plants.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Helena's Native Nations, A Blackfeet Ethnobotanist, and Thoughts on Plant Identification

The Helena Valley was the place where the territories of four native nations overlapped, ebbed, and flowed. This was the place Lewis and Clark called the Prickly Pear valley because of the abundance of that cactus. At the time of Lewis and Clark, this valley was under the control of the mighty Blackfeet nation, but the history of the valley is long and complex.

From the east came the Siouan-speaking Crow by the 1500s. From the south came the Numic-speaking Shoshoni-Bannock in the 1600s. From the west came the Salishan-speaking Flathead from time immemorial, certainly by AD 1000 or so. From the north, came the Algonquian-speaking Blackfeet (Piegan) in the 1700s. All four Peoples have a part of this valley's precontact history. And in the late 1800s, the Chippewa-Cree came to find work on area ranches, and they had connections with the Red River Metis of Canada's Riel Rebellion.

And there were other peoples who passed this way hundreds of years ago, that we know less about, the Kiowa-Tanoan-speaking Kiowa from the Bozeman area mountains in the 1500s, traveling southeast on their Way to Rainy Mountain. Athapaskan-speakers from the Canadian north traveling south along the Rockies in the 1200s, south and further south, to the southwest where their descendants would differentiate into Apache and Navajo by the 1500s. The Sahaptin-speaking Nez Perce from Idaho and Washington, joining up with their Flathead allies to travel through Blackfeet territory to reach the richest buffalo-hunting lands on the plains beyond the Belt Mountains in the 1700s.

Even these are only the most recent, those tribes we know from oral history and the history of white exploration, and teased-out ethnohistory compared against linguistics and the archaeological record of the last thousand or so years.

But there were American Indian people here TEN thousand years ago and more. These native people we do not know the names of or how they called themselves, anymore than we know what the peoples of Britain or Iraq called themselves ten thousand years ago.

After all, the "English" only came to exist after the Anglo-Saxon invasion from Germania, AFTER the Romans retreated from England by AD 450 and the Saxons conquered and merged with the Celtic Britons. By this measure, the Flathead are a much older people in Montana than the English are in England.

Even the Celtic Britons, Scots, and Irish only entered the British Isles two-thousand or so years ago, defeating whatever indigenous peoples occupied Britain and Ireland before them, and remembering those pre-Celts as the Tuatha de Danaan and other Good Folks (aka the Fairy Faith).

Helena has many ancient archaeological sites, from remnant stone rings that anchored tipi covers when Lewis and Clark came through in 1804, to the MacHaffie site at Montana City nearby from the Folsom culture of 10,000 years ago. There are likely even older sites from the Clovis period, as this valley was part of the travel corridor for the peopling of North and South America some 15,000 or more years ago.

We cannot know all that those ancients knew, but archaeology and history can tell us more than we might suspect. We can learn much about the various plants and knowledge of the Land and its People, seen and unseen, from archaeology and in the recorded traditions of the tribes.

Learning about the plants and their personalities, history and uses is a ncessary part of being a bioregional animist. There is no better teacher than the indigenous peoples of your own bioregion. Even though I will be 50 this year, I am still only yet a beginning student in such things. That is why I post all of this. Not to pretend to know things as some sort of expert, but because I am still a student, and this blog is my online notebook to help me learn and remember these things.

In this quest for knowledge, I came across this excellent article about a Blackfeet ethnobotanist written by her granddaughter.

Blackfeet Botanist: Annie Mad Plume Wall, by By Rosalyn LaPier

Ethnohistorian Walter McClintock chronicled the lives of the Blackfeet in the early 20th century in his book “The Old North Trail.” In his study he described how all the Blackfeet women he met were expert “botanists” who were taught “the knowledge of herbs and wild vegetables” from early childhood. McClintock became fascinated by the knowledge these
women held and set out to document what they knew. In 1909 he published “Materia Medica of the Blackfeet” with the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and History. It was the first comprehensive study of Blackfeet women’s plant knowledge.

“The Old North Trail” also began to document the transition of the Blackfeet away from the buffalo days into the 20th century. My grandmother was raised during this time and the stories told by McClintock reflect the world in which she grew up. The women who raised my grandmother were born and lived during the last of the buffalo days on the northern Great Plains. Their knowledge of the world testified to the intimate relationship they had with their landscape.

The Blackfeet historically made use of more than 200 different plants for food, medicine and as material for creating useful objects. My grandmother and her family gathered a wide variety of food plants, including Pisatsiinikimm (Allium ssp.), Ka’kitsímo (Mentha spp.) and Niistskápa’s (Perideridia gairdneri) to use in their cooking. They would also harvest large quantities of berries, such as Okonok (Amelanchier alnifolia), Pákkii’p (Prunus virginiana) and Mi’ksiníttsiim (Shepherdia argentea) to use fresh or to dry for winter use. After the Blackfeet settled and began to grow small home gardens of introduced root vegetables people came to rely less and less on native plant foods, but many still continued to use plants for medicinal purposes.

My grandmother learned how to use many of these medicinal plants and she continues to gather them today. The Blackfeet use different parts of plants – roots, leaves and fruit – for different purposes. The gathering and processing of plants was generally the responsibility of women. My grandmother learned which plants to pick and in what seasons by going into the hills with her grandmothers. She also learned how to process and preserve these plants for future use. My grandmother has handed down these same skills to subsequent generations.

We now go out during specific times of the year to collect the roots, leaves, flower buds or the fruit of a plant. Some plants are picked in spring before they flower, others are picked in summer when they are in full bloom, others are picked in late fall just before they become dormant. My grandmother taught us how to identify and use plants based on sight, smell, texture and, of course, long years of experience.

My family now helps our grandmother gather the many different edible and medicinal plants that we continue to use. One medicinal plant we gather is Otahkoyitsi (Comandra umbellata). We use the clean, dried roots in a poultice to relieve inflammation. Sometimes we burn dried Ootsiisiimats (Letharia vulpina) like incense and inhale the smoke to relieve headaches. Siiksinoko (Juniperus horizontalis) berries are used in a tea to treat kidney problems. We also collect Aapaawapsspi (Vaccinium membranaceum) leaves for use in a daily tonic, and my grandmother thinks the berries should strictly be used for therapeutic purposes. I once told her that my husband was making huckleberry milkshakes and she gasped disapprovingly, “They’re medicine!”

McClintock’s observations and documentation of Blackfeet women’s botanical knowledge almost 100 years ago provides a valuable resource for Blackfeet today and for anyone interested in learning about ethnobotany. But there are still a few elder Blackfeet women who retain this knowledge as well. My grandmother continues to use what she learned from her grandmothers on a daily basis. She also has taught her own family how to collect and use native plants. She continues today, at age 91, to gather numerous roots, berries, tea leaves and other plants during the summer and fall, and to share with those who seek her knowledge of native plants.

This article first appeared in Montana Naturalist (Fall, 2005). Rosalyn LaPier lives in Missoula with her husband David Beck and their daughters, Abaki and Ikotsi. She works for the Piegan Institute in Browning and gives public presentations on Blackfeet ethnobotany while working toward her Ph.D. in history at the University of Montana. She says that Annie Mad Plume Wall now is 95 years old and still makes medicine for folks, although illness has caused her to rely on her family to collect enough plant material to use throughout the year.(CREDIT TO ORIGINAL POSTER at http://www.mtnativeplants.org/filelib/165.pdf)

These are images of the plants mentioned in LaPier's article, from various sources on the Internet:

Pisatsiinikimm (Allium ssp.) (Photo: Allium columbianum - Columbia onion)

Also see three other Montana Allium species: http://montana.plant-life.org/families/Liliaceae.htm - Caution! There are also poisonous species in the Lily family that could be confused with the edible Allium!

Ka’kitsímo (Mentha spp.)(Photo: Mentha arvensis - wild mint)

Also see: http://montana.plant-life.org/species/mentha_arven.htm

Niistskápa’s (Perideridia gairdneri) (Photo: Gairdner's Yampah or "Indian carrot")

Also see: http://montana.plant-life.org/species/perider_gaird.htm

Okonok (Amelanchier alnifolia) (Photo: Saskatoon Serviceberry)

Also see: http://montana.plant-life.org/species/amelan_alni.htm

Pákkii’p (Prunus virginiana) (Photo: Chokecherry)

Also see: http://montana.plant-life.org/species/prunus_virg.htm

Mi’ksiníttsiim (Shepherdia argentea) (Photo: Silver Buffaloberry)

Also see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shepherdia_argentea

Otahkoyitsi (Comandra umbellata) (Bastard Toadflax aka Pale Comandra)

Also see: http://montana.plant-life.org/species/coman_umbe.htm

Ootsiisiimats (Letharia vulpina) (Photo: Wolf Lichen)

Caution! Wolf Lichen is also poisonous, so also see: http://montucky.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/more-on-lichens-a-word-of-caution/
and http://www.zetatalk.com/food/tfood17h.htm

Siiksinoko (Juniperus horizontalis) (Photo: Creeping Juniper)

Also see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juniperus_horizontalis

Aapaawapsspi (Vaccinium membranaceum)(called Huckleberry in Montana, and Bilberry in other places)

Also see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilberry and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huckleberry

(All photo credits to original posters of course!)

One of the important points I am reminded about from her article, a very important point that I need to always remember, is that plants were not only identified by sight, but also by smell, texture, and experience. So often I try to identify a plant through a field guide, but I am stymied by my imperfect botanical knowledge, or funky photography in the fieldguides, or just the fact that fieldguides usually photograph plants while they are in full flower and at the height of their growth.

Unfortunately, plants are only at the height of their growth for a few short weeks, or even a few days, and unless you are a pro or very experienced, it is tough to compare a glorious full color of a flower against a sprout or shoot in the spring, or the fading remnants after the flower and fruit have passed.

So one thing while learning a plant we have to remind ourselves is not only to look at a plant, but FEEL it: the smoothness or hairiness of the leaves (watch out for nettles of course!), the roundness or squareness of the stem, the texture of it. And SMELL the plant: smell it before you pick it, smell it afterwards, the place where the stem broke, or the leaves or flower crushed between your fingers.

When you feel a square stem and you smell the unmistakeable aroma of mint, you know what you have-- a plant from the mint family. Now every mint smells different from each other too. You know how spearmint and peppermint smell different from each other. Well so do the rest of the mints, yet there is an aromatic similarity in their "mintness" that is unmistakably refreshing and sweet.

Of course there are irritating and poisonous plants you should learn to identify early on by sight, before doing such feel-smell tests-- do NOT do this kind of test on what may be poisonous or irritating plants of course!

A Larch's Tale

A great story for the bioregional animist, a tale from a larch, one of the big trees of western Montana...

"Before Columbus," by Dennis Nicholls (http://www.mtnativeplants.org/filelib/166.pdf)

Ten years. It can seem like a long time. But anymore, a decade flies by like a month of Sundays. Those first ten years, however—the years of discovery, the years of youth—can seem like a lifetime. And if a decade is a lifetime, then I have lived fifty lifetimes since those first ten years.

You see, ten years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, if the nursery rhyme
about 1492 is correct, a seed germinated on a ridge above Sparrow Gulch, and I was
born. The first thing I remember hearing was the song of the river a quarter mile away.
The canyon narrows precipitously just below here, and the Vermillion tumbles through
a gorge in a series of spectacular cascades, falls and rapids. The melody was a soothing
lullaby day after day in the early years, like the voice of the land singing and laughing. It
has since become a thread woven into the very fabric of my existence.

I am a Larch, or a Tamarack, some will call me. And this year, 1997, I turned 515
years old. I never knew Christopher Columbus, but I can tell you I was a strapping young
sapling the day he “discovered” the New World.

1482 was a good seed year for larch. Following some long forgotten fire, my
ancestors cast a bumper crop of cones upon the land, and a bunch of us seedlings
sprouted. We grew to be a forest in the isolated heart of the Vermillion River canyon,
with our cousins the Douglas fir and pines, the cedar and cottonwoods along the river,
the spruce and subalpine fir on the mountaintops above.

They’re all gone now, those pines and fir and spruce, and most of the larch from
those days. But there are four of us left. I can see the other three from where I stand,
though they likely cannot see me. Nearly a century ago I lost my top. My memory fails
me, but I guess some big wind swept upriver from the big valley and snapped it like a
toothpick. I’m barely a hundred feet tall now.

The big fellow down below also had his top snap off years ago, but he was so huge
that I can still see his limbs raking the sky. In the more fertile soil of the creek bottom, he
reached six feet in diameter and twice the height I am now.

Further up the slope, one of the other two is having quite the struggle, and I fear we’ll lose him some year soon. Perhaps he is already dead. From my vantage point, I can’t tell. All I see are skeletal gray branches stark against the azure summer sky.

My nearest companion appears to be in the best shape of any of us, though that doesn’t really say much. He’s got a full green crown, but every limb looks to be infected with mistletoe. Though he’s near the ridgeline, like I am, he’s managed to keep his top all this time, and, by God, he is still putting on some growth.

By the time I was 115 years old, I was boasting a diameter of over 17 inches. Not bad for having to tough it out in the shallow, rocky soil of this mountainside. However, it has taken 400 years to add another 17 inches to my waistline. It now takes ten years to add a simple one tenth of an inch to my diameter. Talk about a decade seeming like a

It’s okay, though, I reckon me and my friends ought to count ourselves lucky to still be here. A lot of younger trees have fallen to the saw and been cut into lumber. Maybe that’s my fate, too. Just a week ago, a man wrapped his measuring tape around my belly and sunk a steel bore into my wood to see how big and old I am.

The forest has come and gone a dozen times. Flames have scorched my bark and singed my branches. Ice has coated my trunk and snow has piled up on my head. The wind has rushed through my foliage like waters over the falls in the gorge below. But don’t think I’ve grown numb after all these years, these decades, these five centuries-plus. I am still alive.

The world is a fascinating place, even from the single isolated ridge from which I have surveyed it through time. I don’t expect I’ll be here another 500 years, but where else could I have grown up and grown old that is more beautiful, more enchanting than right here in the Cabinet Mountains?

I still hear the melody of the river. It never stops. I never cease listening. I can’t. It feeds me, nourishes me. We are bound by the land that cradles us like a mother protectively embracing her young. And today she hums a lullaby, the same soft music that welcomed me into this world before Columbus came to these shores.

In that, I have found contentment for 500 years. I will leave this world when my time comes, but the music will continue unabated.

The author, Dennis Nicholls, wrote: “I was the man who measured and bored that ancient larch in the summer of 1997. And standing quietly in its presence, at the base of its massive trunk, I, too, heard the music.” Dennis Nicholls, who was born in 1956, died last summer, May 2009, of valley fever, a respiratory fungal disease.

Photo of larch, credit: http://montucky.wordpress.com/category/trees/

"4. How long is the growing season? "

I don't garden currently because I don't have a yard. The photo here is of me in my tiny little patch in my folks' backyard in 2007. I didn't grow a garden in 2008. I'm still learning.

This was just a little first-year patch on hard clay soil. I dug in some lawn clippings, as the only soil amendments. All the crops were of heritage varieties; the corn, beans and squash were varieties grown by my Indian ancestors. The native varieties of corn were bushier and shorter than the more familiar types. Someday it would be nice have my own yard, so be able to grow food, medicines, and have some chickens. Economics and lack of fulltime employment makes that unlikely for now. But you do what you can with what you have.

According to the 2001 Weather Almanac, Helena's growing season runs from April through September. (http://www.weatherexplained.com/Vol-4/2001-Helena-Montana-HLN.html)
The Montana Garden Guide (http://gardenguide.montana.edu/pdf/Montana_Climate_Summary.pdf) says:

May 2 through Oct 2: 153 days
Precipitation: 12.54 inches

East Helena
May 14 through Sept 22: 131 days
Precipitation: 9.39 inches

These are approximations, with actual growing seasons varying from year to year by 2 week or so. And of course it also varies by site microclimate. The variations in the Garden Guide are also interesting, since East Helena and Helena are only 5 miles apart! It must have a lot to do with the actual site selection of the stations. Of course these are all figures for sites within the valley itself; the mountains' growing season will be much, much briefer!

Helena is in Zone 4 according to the USDA's Hardiness Zones system; the Sunset magazine system lists it in Zone 2. Yes, the systems are quite different; the Sunset system is more detailed and is considered more authoritative for gardening.

Comparison of USDA and Sunset: http://www.backyardgardener.com/zone/index.html
The Sunset system: http://www.sunset.com/garden/climate-zones/sunset-climate-zones-northern-rockies-00400000036338/