The History of Burdock

This article was originally published in Natural Herbal Living Magazine.  If you haven’t taken the time to check out that publication, you should.  Each issue is dedicated to the study of one plant and written by practicing herbal clinicians.  It is a great resource.  

History of Burdock

The first recorded name of Arctium lappa is thought to be Arcion, as used by the Greeks, which Dioscorides proposed was called personacea or lappa by the Romans. In the past some questioned whether Dioscorides was referring to greater burdock in this entry, but historians have come to believe that the other entry Arction is that of lesser burdock or A. minus.

Burdock’s alternate name shows up frequently enough as some sort of variation of personacea, that it is convincing evidence. For example, in the 1st century C.E., the Roman physician Celsus called the herb Personina planta and recommended that the root of the plant be smashed and taken in wine and applied to venomous bites. Another clue to the puzzle was that 17th century apothecarist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper writes of greater burdock and shares a similar recommendation saying, “A dram of the Roots taken with Pine Kernels, helpeth them that spit foul, •••tery, and bloudy Flegm.”[1]

Clate was the name that historians believe Anglo Saxons used specifically refer to A. lappa. (Again they used A. minus as well, possibly referring to that as clive, or clife, although those names have also been associated with Galium aparine.)

There were many Gaelic names for the plant. Leadan liosda meaning, “a head of stiff hair,” being perhaps the most “official.” Carmichael mentions meac-an-dogh and searcan. “Mar cheosan air sgiathan fior-eun,” is an old Irish adage by Ossian meaning, “Like bur clinging to the eagle’s wing.”[2]

John Uri Lloyd cites examples of many early US publications which mention the herb by its Spanish name of bardana.[3] Some older herbals refer to the herb as Bardana major.[4] Scudder refers  to burdock as Lappa officinalis.

Burdock in Legend and Lore

Burdock being a somewhat ungainly plant with little to speak of in the department of blooms and fragrance, hasn’t gained a lot of fame in lore or folk traditions. It is mentioned in an ancient land-remedy ritual said to improve the crops from the field and remove any sorcery cast upon the land.

“At night, before daybreak, take four sods from four sides of the land, and note how they previously stood. Then take oil and honey and barm, and milk of all cattle on the land, and part of every kind of tree growing on the land, except hard trees, and part of every known herb except burdock alone; and put holy water thereon, and then sprinkle [holy water] thrice on the bottom of the sods, and then say these words: ‘Crescite, et multiplicamini, et replete terram.’” (Grow, and multiply, and replenish, the earth.)[5]

Anglo Saxon historians believe that perhaps that burdock had an association with evil spirits and was consequently excluded from the ritual.[6]

The only other traditional use that has been shared seems to be that during a harvest festival in eastern Berwickshire: Young people would pelt everyone with bundles of burrs until they were covered in “sediments of white hairs, which gave the appearance of having been wrapt in a woolen blanket.”[7]

Burdock for Fevers

The 12th Century medical compendium, The Trotula, mentions burdock root as an ingredient in a preparation called populeon, an unguent useful “against the heat of an acute fever,” and for provoking sweating.[8]  Gabrielle Hatfield also mentions the herb as being a diaphoretic used by Scottish women in the eighteenth century.[9]

This is a story I found when studying the popular use of healing herbs in the Mormon culture that is probably the most detailed description I have ever found of this particular historical use of burdock:

When she would have a fever, my mother used to take burdock leaves and put them around her feet to reduce the fever. She would peel back the outer layer over some of the veins. Every here and there, there would be a hard vein, something like the stem of the leaf. Mother was gentle. She didn’t want the leaves to hurt my sister. But she would take the green leaves, and after peeling them back, would wrap them around her feet, and tie them with a string, up toward the ankle, like a little moccasin.[10]

While this is not necessarily in keeping with the traditional western application of the herb, these uses are very much in keeping with the TCM uses in formulas meant to expel the poisons of flus and colds.

 Unique Uses of the Root

The historical use of burdock root is quite different from how we think of it today. For example, 1st century Greek physician Dioscorides recommended it for consumption and coughs, saying:

The root is large, white within, but black on the outside. One teaspoon of a decoction (taken as a drink with pine kernels) helps spitters of blood and corrupt matter.[11]

As mentioned above, this recommendation was repeated by Culpeper centuries later; consequently, it has shown up frequently in British folk remedies for colds. In the US, in the 19th century, Dr. John Milton Scudder agreed, saying “it is also a remedy of corrective power in bronchial irritation, and in coughs it exerts a checking influence.” Reference?

 The Anglo Saxons included clate as one of the many ingredients in “the green salve” of the Lacnunga, known for its healing properties. It was also said that clate was useful “against a sudden sickness,” boiled in ale with wenwort, bishopwort, fennel, and radish.

Culpeper also wrote that “the Root beaten with a little Salt and laid on the place, suddenly easeth the pain thereof, and helpeth those that are bit with a mad-Dog.” K’Eogh repeated this advice in the early Irish herbal Botanologia Universalis,[12] which was said to be his account of the herbs he encountered being used in Ireland at the time the book was written.

What is intriguing about this statement that herbs that were said to address rabies often did so because of their anti-spasmodic properties. Skullcap being the classic example. So, I went digging for other indications that the herb had some sort of action in the nervous system. British ethnobotanist Gabrielle Hatfield shares that the root was used in the Isle of Man for “allaying nervousness.”[13]

The Anglo Saxons were quite specific about how it was to be harvested and prepared, as is illustrated by their cure for hemorrhoids:

If the fig [hemorrhoids] become established on a man’s backside, then take the roots of Clate…three or four and smoke them in hot embers and then pull one out from the hearth and pound it and make a sort of little cake and lay on the backside as hot as it can be borne; when the cake cools then make more and lay on and let him be quiet for a day or two. When you do this (it is an approved remedy) let no one dig up the roots with iron, and do not wash with water, but wipe them clean with a cloth, and put a very thin cloth between the backside and the cake’… Lacnunga 44[14]

There is also an Anglo Saxon remedy against “a pock of the eye” (assumed to be a sty) which recommends boiling the root with ale and drinking this decoction.

By the early 19th century, British medical botanists, Barton and Castle, wrote that use of A. lappa had gone out of style in that country, but offered a very thorough history of its use, including an interesting story of how King Henry III of France was cured of lues venerea (syphilis) by root decoctions given to him by a healer named Petrus Pena.[15]

It is unclear if burdock’s use was actually in decline amongst the common folk. In the 1923 translation of Rosa Anglica, the introduction states that a decoction of burdock root and bogbean was still used in common use as a blood purifier.[16] It has also been reported that drinking the root decoction was effective against baldness.

At some point, physicians started interchanging the part of the plant they recommended or using both the seeds and the root in a preparation. In 1833, Wooster Beach recommended the root or seed of the herb made into a decoction for “ulcers, rheumatism and in all disease of the skin.” He also used the roots in a “medical beer” beverage aimed at purifying the blood, which is a use that held on for a long time in Southern folk medicine.[17] Homeopathic physician Edwin Hale suggested that the official preparation was a tincture of the root and seeds.[18]

 The Neglected Uses of Burdock Leaves

The leaves are one part of the plant that herbal practitioners really have all but forgotten about, which is odd, given their long history of use. Dioscorides only mentioned that the leaves of the plant could be applied to old ulcers to heal them, which is the use repeated most frequently in later literature.[19] But, Culpeper wrote of that and many other uses.The following use as a poultice for burns still turns up in modern folk medicine.:

The Leavs bruised with the White of an Egg and applied to any place burnt with Fire, taketh out the Fire, gives sudden ease, and heals it up afterwards.[20]

Culpeper also recommended the leaves as a diuretic, which isn’t really in keeping with the modern thought that inulin from the roots is responsible for that action.

The Juyce of the Leavs taken with Honey provoketh Urin, and remedieth the pain of the Bladder.[21]

At some point around the beginning of the 19th century, the use of the leaves seemed to be phased out in “professional” practice, but it continued in the common folks’ self-care practices.

 In Maine, at the turn of the 20th century, the leaves were used for relieving fevers and headache.[22] The Mormons also used poultices made of burdock leaves for rheumatism and arthritis for generations after settling in Utah.[23]

An interesting folk use of the herb in Ireland and Britain was to make a poultice of the bruised leaves and apply them to the soles of the feet to treat hysteria, convulsions, and epileptic seizures.[24]

 Burdock Seed Posset

The idea that decoctions of the seeds are useful for removing stones goes back a long way, also Hildegard wrote of making a wine decoction of burdock root to “wear down stones”. [25] This use has been recommended by many practitioners over the years.

My favorite recommendation comes from an Irish herbal: “The seed is celebrated for breaking the stone in a Poſſet drink.”[26]  This intrigued me, but unfortunately there are no directions for preparing a posset in the herbal as they were so common in the day.

The name posset is now incorrectly assigned to a pudding that resembles what was once called syllabub. In the past, though, it was actually a fairly potent alcoholic drink. Making a posset involved pouring a mixture of curdled cream over a sweetened mixture of sack (sherry) and ale:

Put a pint of good [by “good,” they likely mean milk that has already thickened a bit after sitting out as whole non-homogenized milk does] Milk to boil; as soon as it doth so, take it from the fire, to let the great heat of it cool a little; for doing so, the curd will be the tenderer, and the whole of a more uniform consistence. When it is prettily cooled, pour it into your pot, wherein is about two spoonfuls of Sack, and about four of Ale, with sufficient Sugar dissolved in them. So let it stand a while near the fire, till you eat it.[27]

Image of an English posset cup  from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

Fancy posset cups had a spout for drinking the alcohol from the bottom. Given that older recipes recommend wine decoctions of the seed, it seems likely that the sherry in a recipe like the one above may have been a decoction. But as more complex posset recipes recommended adding spices to the milk, it is possible the seeds were simply ground finely and added to the drink.

[1] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[2] Cameron, John. Gaelic Names of Plants, Scottish, Irish and Manx. New Revised. Glasgow, Scotland: John Mackay “Celtic Monthly” Office, 1900.

[3] Lloyd, John Uri. Origin and History of All the Pharmacopeial Vegetable Drugs, Chemicals and Preparations with Bibliography. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, OH: Caxton Press, 1921.

[4] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum. Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell, 1726.

[5] Grendon, Felix. “The Anglo-Saxon Charms.” The Journal of American Folklore 22, no. 84 (1909): 105–237.

[6] Cameron, M. L. “Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic.” Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1988): 191–215.

[7] Johnston, George. The Natural History of the Eastern Borders. Vol. I  The Botany. Vol. 1. London, England: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1853.

[8] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

[9] Hatfield, Gabrielle. “Domestic Medicine in Eighteenth Century Scotland.” Ph.D., University of Edinburgh, 1980.

[10] Noall, Claire. “Superstitions, Customs, and Prescriptions of Mormon Midwives.” California Folklore Quarterly 3, no. 2 (April 1944): 102-114.

[11] Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. - Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation. Translated by Osbaldeston, T. Johannesburg: IBIDIS Press, 60AD.

[12] K’Eogh, John. Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica: Cork, Ireland: George Harrison, 1735. pp. 20.

[13] Hatfield, Gabrielle. Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

[14] Storm, Gerhard. Anglo-Saxon Magic. Gravenhage, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1948. pp. 77.

[15] Barton, Benjamin, and Castle, Thomas. The British Flora Medica, Or, a History of the Medicinal Plants of Great Britain: Illustrated by a Coloured Figure of Each Plant. Vol. 1. London, England: E. Cox, 1837.

[16] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[17] Wooster. The American Practice of Medicine. Vol. III. 3 vols. New York, NY: Reformed Medical School Society, 1833.

[18] Hale, Edwin Moses, and Whitman, F.S. The Characteristics of the New Remedies. 3rd ed. Detroit, Michigan: Lodges Homeopathic Pharmacy, 1874.

[19] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Morrell, Jennie MH. “Some Maine Plants and Their Uses ‘Wise and Otherwise.’” Rhodora 3, no. 29 (1901): 129–132.

[23] Fife, Austin E. “Pioneer Mormon Remedies.” Western Folklore 16, no. 3 (July 1957): 153-162.

[24] Allen, David Elliston, and Gabrielle Hatfield. Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain & Ireland. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004.

[25] Bingen, Hildegard Von. Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica. Translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

[26] Threlkeld, Caleb, and Thomas Molyneux. 1726.

[27] Digby, Kenelm. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Edited by Anne Macdonell. London: H. Brome, 1669.

How I Make Tinctures

I suppose I should start this out by saying that I am not mad about fluid extracts or tinctures. The term “folk tincture” bugs me because it implies that at some point “the folk” used tinctures when they are in fact, a standardized, industrial product of pharmacy.  In all the folk knowledge I inherited from my family and my first teacher, not once was the word tincture mentioned.

I much prefer getting herbs into my clients using methods that the folk used such as a hot diaphoretic infusion or a cold mucilaginous Irish moss lemonade.  I recommend broths, hydromels (syrups, cordials), oxymels (shrubs), or even just a good old-fashioned infused wine or a hot toddy.

Steams, chest rubs and poultices are the kind of medicine my people used. External preparations (especially those made with saturated fats) work better to bring relief to avascular parts of the body.

There are times though, especially in today’s, “take this pill and get back to work” society when these preparations are useful, especially for a clientele who are conditioned to TID type prescriptions and are unlikely to go to the extra work to make the medicines I have listed above.

Although even when I make a formula, my base is likely to be some sort of homemade syrup.  I am kind of known for my tart cherry cordial base. I make it with cherries I grow myself and its pretty damn good.

I mentioned my spreadsheet in a group the other day and then got kind of self-conscious about sharing it, because my tinctures are quite a bit different than a lot I see for sale at conferences these days.

This is partly to do with my early training away from the “herbal community” that I am a part of today and the fact that some of my teachers at school were trained in the UK.    So I thought I would just offer some background about my methods.

I am not at all invested in people agreeing with my approach, nor are people likely to change my mind about it.  It’s been working for me for a very long time.

Here in America herbal extract making is often approached with a “go big or go home” attitude which has been very much influenced by pharmacologists in the profession, such as the Eclectic physicians.

The goal of today’s apothecary is often to extract large amounts of the most biologically active constituent in a plant, but how can we be sure that in this process we aren’t missing out on the synergistic effects of a preparation that might capture a more complete chemical profile of the plant?

British tinctures aren’t quite as bracing. Take a barberry tincture made by Baldwins in England which starts with 45% alcohol and a 1:3 plant ratio.   A lot of Americans will tell you that a preparation of barberry (or goldenseal) made this weak is inferior, because it fails to extract as much pure berberine and of course pharmacists have isolated that constituent as being the one we “want” from the plant.

Most Brits seem to think their weaker preparations work just fine.  I should point out that they though they do use larger doses, which is more affordable when you use less booze.

I know its not as pretty, but the only way you will be able to get to my ratios is to grind your plant material as finely as you can.

Fluid Extracts

A fluid extract is a hydroethanolic extract made at a 1:1 ratio.  1 ml of a fluid extract  = 1 gm of the dried herb. Fluid extracts are useful because they are somewhat standardized and help to deliver large daily doses of plant constituents in a concentrated form.   You use equal amounts of dried plant material and strong ethanol.

Originally these were produced by cold percolation, although there is a cheater’s method I will mention below.  I sometimes dread making percolations because I think there is a lot of waste involved. I usually make fluid extracts with my percolation cone, and then press the marc out in my press when I am done.

My British physick garden curator friend who gets me all the fun seeds, says that hardly anyone in the UK makes percolations, probably because the process entails using stronger booze than they can easily get their hands on.   This is a cheat he taught me that I use sometimes, because I might harvest small amounts of a plant several times over the course of the summer.

 Cheaters Fluid Extract

Macerate 125 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol. If you grind your herbs well and have a good press you won’t lose much. It is usually just short of 500 ml of 1:4 tincture. You can top it off if you would like. Use this tincture to macerate a further 125g of herb and you are at 1:2. Do this until at the end, you have macerated 500 g of dried herb in 500 ml of alcohol.

Why Tinctures?

So, if we have fluid extracts which deliver a uniform amount of concentrated plant constituents every time, what is the purpose, or usefulness of making tinctures?   I was taught that tinctures are useful in sampling a more complete profile of a plant. Making a tincture is a process that recognizes that we can’t catch all the useful constituents of a plant, with high-potency alcohol nor is it necessarily desirable.

Also, when I am making tinctures, there are a couple of tricks I use to save money on alcohol, while at the same time making more potent preparations.

Recycling Tinctures

You can use the previous year’s tincture as a menstruum for this year’s batch of tincture.  (You can do this with a percolation, for that matter.) This does not produce a uniform preparation from year-to-year. If the first year you have a 1:4 ratio, the second year you will have a 1:2 ratio.

So, you must keep good records to adjust your dosing strategies.  Most people don’t want to bother with this, but it can save money for people on a budget due to running a free clinic, or working on sliding fee scales.

Secondary Extracts

You can also use a spent marc to make a secondary extract that will be used as the menstruum for next year’s primary extract or for a percolation of the dry plant material if you run out during the winter.

If you are going to do this, I recommend getting a proofing hydrometer so you can test the potency of your preparation and bump it up if necessary, before using it.   Proofing hydrometers take so much math out of medicine making.  Another thing to keep in mind is that canning jars are not air tight, so if you are using them to store tinctures, your alcohol is evaporating away.

Proofing last year’s calendula tincture. It’s probably too far down to be bumped up again, but at least I know its still good!

I guess I take a kind of middle of the road approach based on what I learned in phytochemistry and years of fiddling around.  I work mostly with fresh herbs I’ve grown myself. Often, I fresh wilt my herbs for 24 hours because I can’t buy 95% alcohol in Iowa.

If you don’t see something on here it is likely because I only make it as a fluid extract OR I don’t make an alcohol preparation with certain plants such as marshmallow, astragalus, Irish moss, raspberry leaf and so on.

There are also some plants on there that you might be surprised to see.  I work with historical herbs,  I don’t advise that people without advanced training make these tinctures,  or use them.

That was a whole lot of talking to say here is a link to an Excel spreadsheet that you can download and take a look at.  Feel free to change it up and use it yourself.  It’s the one I give my students in my year-long program, so they have a little more background as to why I do some of the things I do, but it’s kind of self-explanatory.

I print this off as my Master Formula File list to keep in my lab log book.  For people who don’t have Excel you can look at that.



More Thoughts on Lá Bealtaine

We know very little about Lá Bealtaine of antiquity. A lot of conjecture is thrown about about the meaning of the name which I am not going to get into other than to share this entry from Cormac’s Glossary written in the 10th century.

Now granted at the time he wrote about it, he was still speaking of practices from centuries before him, but this is the oldest written documentation we have of what went on at Lá Bealtaine. Some 925 years later, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháun wrote of watching this same event minus the Druids in Callan, Co. Kilkenny.

It is believed that the largest of these gatherings was held at Uisneach where there is a carved rock flat called Ail na Mireann or the Catstone which is the burial place of Ireland’s namesake Ériu according to ancient mythology. It is the very center of Ireland. From myths, we gather that people from the provinces of Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Mide (Meath) and Ulster gathered here and lit the Beltaine bonfire. The word bonfire literally means bone fire and has always held the implication of human or animal sacrifice.

We do know that because of its ancient origins as a fire festival, keeping the fire in your hearth going throughout the night later became an important aspect of the pisreóga surrounding the day.

Some rituals like the one above were passed down from the ancients, while others developed as the society evolved. For example, the custom of putting the livestock out to the summer pastures was undoubtedly an older tradition started by pastoral communities which persisted for quite some time in Gaelic areas.

Later, agricultural practices became integrated into the celebration. May Day became the day when rents were due to landlords and people were hired to work the fields for the season- gatherings became part festival and part employment fair which speaks to May Day’s modern association with the working class. Traditional fare started to include food made from grains such as making bannocks and rolling them down the hill to see if they broke or eating a stirabout made of corn meal and milk.

Of course, there was also divination about weather and plants. Rain on May day meant good crops for the year. A síol cuaiché was a seed that was not in the ground on May Day and not likely to mature.[1]

We can surmise that some of the pisreóga are remaining fragments of indigenous belief in nature spirits I collectively call the Fae. Whether they were “evil” or not was a matter of perspective. The English did their best to demonize the ancestral spirits and indigenous spirits of the land. I refuse to participate in perpetuating that.

Even the kindest of the wee folk could be unseelie  tricksters especially if people did not flatter and appease them, so sometimes you had to ward them off to keep them from doing things like stealing milk or poisoning the well. But those sorts of things were done every day—many women put embers under the churn and ashes on the eggs and crosses on their cows and hung plants in the byres, all of the time.

So, clearly there was more to the celebration. Some of it seems to hinge on the idea that on the at the quarters you were more likely to have otherworldly visitors. I don’t think that was  unique to Samhain, and I do wonder if people just gave up on being able to keep them away these nights?

It was considered bad form to lock your door on that evening, and sometimes people would leave out food and jugs of milk for the wandering spirits of the dead because “on May Day long ago the Dead would come back and visit their friends.”[2] Why would you leave food out for someone and the door unlocked if you didn’t want them to come in?

There are many stories of wandering fairies in the Schools’ Collection, also. This is one of my favorites:

There are many old sayings about May day. In olden times the people used to have the house very neat and tidy because on that night the fairies used to go from house to house dancing and playing music. It was not right to milk cows on that day.

There was once an old woman and she milked all her neighbour’s cows on May day and when her neighbours went to milk their cows they could not get any milk. They used to put a coal under the churn on May Day to have plenty of butter. The first to skim the well on May morning would have the most butter. It was not to put out ashes on May day or to clean out cabins on May day. The old people used to have everything done the evening before.

One May night as the fairies were going about they went in to John Machen’s house. They put down a fine fire and they began dancing and playing music and shouting. At last they went up stairs and they began shouting and they wakened John Machen. When John got up in the morning he saw the fire down and said that the fairies must play wondours…[3]

So,  again why would you clean your house for company you had effective warded off?  Why leave your cows unmilked for the little kindred, unless by doing so you were assuring they would be guid neighbors and let your cows be the rest of the year?   And since when are the Fae afraid of flowers, especially cowslips?

The Cowslip Fairy in a particularly Seelie state.


It makes far more sense that these things were offerings of reciprocity,  rather than wards.

People would gather the yellow flowers and decorate their homes, byres, and animals. They would spill milk across their doorways to please the Fae so they didn’t make too much mischief in their homes that night. For example they would rub the nectar from crushed cowslips was smeared all over the cow’s udders to distract the Fae from the milk.

In later years, some more pious folks said the flowers were picked in honor of our Lady or of the Saints and they would decorate a little alter with the flowers and crosses. (Danaher, 1988, 89) They certainly weren’t trying to ward her off.

Other customs have to do with the water and wells as undoubtedly by this time they had all thawed and began to run. It was good luck to be the first to draw water from the well. You could also do mischief yourself if you were so inclined. If you threw the water in the direction of a certain neighbor’s house, it would bring the family bad luck.[4]  If you went out early in the morning and washed your face with the dew should be healthy the whole year long.[5]

Then we come to the custom of the May-bushes and May-poles.

The first clootie hung at Faoi.

The modern streamlined version of the story is that Irish people cut hawthorn branches and place them outside their home to be decorated with bits of bright ribbon called clooties to scare away evil spirits, which is a fairly horrifying and problematic conclusion.

1. E.E.Evans wrote in Irish Folkways that this was only a practice in areas with strong English influence and that the Irish never fully adopted it, preferring instead to pour a bit of milk at the root of the fairy thorn where it stood. It’s possible that the May-bush custom is better more documented, but that’s because people with English backgrounds were probably more educated.  Evans quotes an newspaper article from the Leinster Journal written in 1768 which laments that “the hedges and fences, in the outlets of our city are stripped of full-grown hawthorns, whose late blooming pride and fragrancy is now miserably dying away on dunghills before cabin doors, by way of May-bushes.”

2. Even in areas where the practice was common, people from other communities would sometimes sneak into town and steal the May Bushes to steal the town’s luck which makes no sense if they were used to “ward off” things that go bump in the night.

Secondly, customs were never, ever uniformly “Irish.” The provinces had, and still have, unique cultural practices. Depending on what province a person lived in, they might  cut branches from holly, hazel, elder, rowan or white ash. In Co. Mayo, the tradition went that if you put a rowan branch up the chimney nothing can bring the butter out of the house.

Like Evans, I would wager that if they did cut a hawthorn they were of English ancestry. It was usually considered a fair bit of bad luck in most Irish communities to harm  the fairythorn such as — huath (whitethorn, hawthorn) or blackthorn.

In some  communities they  would plant hawthorn near their wells and people would hang clooties on this tree, although based on some records I’ve seen I’d say in Ireland, this was an adopted practice.

There are still some places in Ireland, Scotland, and Cornwall where these community hawthorns can be found and people still decorate them with clooties to ask blessings from their saints, gods or the Fae depending on their beliefs.

(Honestly, its kind of like giving Dobby a sock, so he has your back later.  Given the amount of random clothing found on Clootie trees in the UK, I wonder if Rowling had that in mind when she wrote that part?)

This is just something I threw together quickly from some notes. Someday,  I promise that this discussion  will take up a whole chapter in a nice long book that at least two of you will want to read.

I want to end by responding to something that made me crabby, today. In some places, you may read of May Day gatherings held at crossroads near a town and see it given some vague esoteric meaning. These types of crossroads gatherings were a result of political persecution.

During the Cromwell years, when that butcher popularized the phrase “To Hell or to Connacht” as he pushed the Gaels into the bogs, Catholic churches were burned; parish records destroyed, local gatherings were outlawed, and the Gaelic culture was in hiding for centuries. The painting below by Martin Driscoll illustrates crossroad dancing, one of the practices that developed in defiance of this oppression and which continued in some places into the early twentieth century.

One account of such events held in Co. Longford tells that:

“At a lonesome spot on the road there would be at least 300. Ally Dunne, and old woman, would be going around selling whiskey at 2d a naggin. There would be men as pickets on the road looking out for the R.I.C. so that Ally wouldn’t be caught selling the whiskey. If the R.I.C. came, the dance would be scattered.”[6]

You might wonder why I think this is important? It is just one small example of the way atrocities of the colonizers were swept under the rug by historians writing things like “Look at the silly peasants with their superstitions gathering in the crossroads” rather than acknowledging the horrors of colonization that drove away from their homes and sacred places.

I think that is important to understand about on May Day of all days.

[1] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0108, Page 169
[2] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0096, Page 645
[3] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0096, Page 677
[4] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0300, Page 211
[5] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0152, Page 412
[6] Eileen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance. (Landham:  Roberts Rineheart Publishers.1999), 118.

Desperately Seeking Work Trade Apprentice

Part of growing wiser is knowing when you are in over your head, right?

I have too much going on because I am trying to do all. the. things.  I have the clients, and the writing, and the teaching, and the garden.

Oh my gourd,  the garden.

As you can see, things are kind of out-of-control.

I have have been trying to get caught up around here, but I can’t quite manage.  I’ve tried to make some connections with local growers about growing more medicinal herbs, but its just not happening. So, instead of being able to cut back, I am going to have to move more in that direction myself and be my own supplier.

So  I need help in the form of a work-trade apprentice.  This would be a perfect for someone who wants to learn about herbs, but can’t afford classes.  This will be a hands on learning situation. We will be working with the plants daily and probably getting dirty and full of burrs.  You will learn identification, gardening, ethical harvesting, permaculture techniques, making preparations for clients and all the paperwork that requires. Yes, paperwork.

I also would like to find  an office assistant who is willing to barter some work on my book project and social media,  but that will  until fall.

I am not sure that you have to be local, we can probably figure something out for the right person who wants to trade more time for room-and-board.  You don’t have to know how to do any gardening, but it would be cool if you were handy with power tools and you have to be physically able.


Besides the free educational experience, you ill have access to many medicinal herbs I have growing and be able to harvest some for your own use. I will probably have some garden produce for you, too.

You will have access to my still room and equipment.

On occasion I travel for work and I can offer you  free tickets to some of the conferences I teach at in exchange for traveling with me and helping out with driving.

If everything works out over the summer, we can continue in the fall and I will enroll you in my practitioner’s intensive for work-trade.

If you have time to commit to the pursuit, let me know.