Mugwort: Home Medicine Cycle

Plant identification can be tricky and it is the biggest safety concern for the herbalist. While it is possible to hurt yourself with too much of a known herb or by using an herb improperly, it is much more likely that harm from herbs will result from incorrect identification.

For me, there's the particular issue that I'm more than 90 percent blind. I've always had trouble gathering herbs in the wild because everything in a meadow just looks generic green unless I put a leaf up two inches from my eye.

That's why most of my work with herbs focuses on things I can grow. My herb gathering is a lot more efficient that way. And when I plant and nurture an herb through the seasons, I am sure what I'm getting and I learn it's smell, texture and taste long before I have to go off and identify it in the wild

 My mugwort plant top

My mugwort plant top

But even growing your own isn't always a sure thing. Some years ago, I planted what were supposed to be mugwort seeds and a plant sprouted. The leaves looked a bit thinner and wispier than the online photos of mugwort. The flowers were also greenish brown, rather than the dusky red shown in must mugwort pictures in books and online, so I asked some of the women from the local village who had a little knowledge of herbs. Two of them insisted that it wasn't mugwort but possibly something related.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is related to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but this didn't appear to be that either. I had read that mugwort is occasionally mistaken for poisonous hemlock, which can be deadly, so I was more than a little cautious. 

For several years, I let the plant live in the corner of my herb garden and each year it got bigger, beating out other hardy plants. Finally, I decided I had to fully research the identification for once and for all or get rid of the plant. The main markers for differentiating between mugwort and hemlock are the smell, the silvery sheen and small hairs on mugwort leaves, and later in the year, the flowers. 

Smell would someday be key for me but first I had to know the plant intimately to identify the smell. It was too early in the year for flowers (and mugwort is usually harvested before it blooms, so this is a common problem in mugwort identification) and relying solely on the hairs and a silver sheen of the leaves seems a bit shaky when your life is literally at stake. 

 My mugwort stem

My mugwort stem

First, I carefully picked each individual part of the plant--the leaves, buds and stems--photographed them and put them through a plant analysis program. That program quickly proclaimed it to be mugwort. But I wasn't convinced. There were still the village women, who weren't exactly experts but they were local people with some experience in the natural environment.. So, I sent my samples in to a plant identification group. Finally, I got back my answer. 

It is mugwort. Several members of the group explained more clearly the most crucial identifying characteristics. The stem of my plant is clearly ridged and purple all over. Hemlock has a stem that is barely ridged at all and only spattered with purple (like when someone does an ink spattering art project). The flowers are quite different and I could confirm from previous years that while my flowers are a bit pale, they do match some photos of mugwort and most certainly are not hemlock flowers. 

It was a relief to finally make the determination and not have to uproot my plant. But I don't regret any of the time and caution spent to confirm it. Even with a plant I grew myself, the risk of dealing with a poisonous plant is there and always worth considering.

 My mugwort buds

My mugwort buds

As soon as I was sure of it, I used some mugwort leaves to settle a sour stomach I had been struggling with for several days and made a bath of it for my kids who had bug bites all over their arms and legs from summer camp in the woods. My son also had a weird rash that might be bug bites, an allergic reaction of some kind or possibly skin parasites. Mugwort soothes bug bites and some other allergies but more importantly it is one of the best remedies for skin (and stomach) parasites.

I doubt the rash was parasites in this instance. But again, it's better to be safe than sorry. Now at least I have mugwort on my side for that.

Mugwort leaves and buds are used in teas, tinctures, washes and salves for a variety of discomforts and diseases, particularly stomach acidity, ulcers, constipation and intestinal parasites as well as skin infections. Mugwort is strongly antibiotic and anti-microbial. The tea has a calming effect on nerves and can help regulate abnormal hormone levels, which could be helpful for insomnia and obesity.

Women with light or sporadic periods can use mugwort to regulate menstrual flow and reduce the related pain of menstruation. Yarrow and/or red raspberry leaf may be better herbs for those with heavy menstruation, but mugwort has also been shown to bring relief during menopause. 

 My mugwort leaf

My mugwort leaf

Still, while mugwort isn't poisonous, it does have a low level of toxicity that could cause temporary sickness if more than three cups of the tea are taken per day for several days in a row. It is best used as a short-term treatment for digestive problems, even though thousands of people drank it daily during WWII when tea was difficult to obtain in Britain and people drank mugwort tea instead.

The most important warning on mugwort is that it has been used to bring about abortions and to stimulate the uterus while giving birth. Given that, it isn't at all appropriate for pregnant women, and due to the low level of toxicity, shouldn't be ingested by nursing mothers either.

A less worrying application of mugwort is for the skin. Just as it rids the body of intestinal parasites it can fight skin parasites that few modern medications are effective against. It also alleviates itching and reduces the inflammation of bug bites. It is a particularly effective bug repellent, so salves and oils infused with mugwort leaves or a few drops of mugwort essential oil can keep the bugs off of you in the first place. 

Compounds contained in mugwort have been found to combat cancer in a Chinese study and other studies point to possible uses for joint pain associated with arthritis. But these uses will require further research to be fully realized.

What is clearly scientifically demonstrated is the antibiotic and antimicrobial properties of mugwort. As well as preventing infections as a skin wash, the dried plant can be used as a smudge to kill airborne bacteria and prevent the spread of disease both at home and in places of business where incense is burned, such as massage parlors, where the pleasant smell of a mugwort smudge will blend right in.

Both mugwort tea and mugwort smoke have a history, dating back to Aztec religious ceremonies, of being used for lucid dreaming and astral travel. Compounds in mugwort are psychoactive but the effect is not one of dramatic hallucinations. There are many reports of predictive dreaming connected to mugwort and experiments with dreams might benefit from its use.

As with all posts on medicinal herbs, this is not intended as specific medical advice for any particular person. Allergies to mugwort do exist and those with serious symptoms of disease should seek medical attention.

Healing from soul exhaustion and emotional depletion

Greenery surrounds the house, climbing up the fences. To get in you walk up the driveway under a canopy of oak and plum branches. Flowers peek shyly from pots or the rock walls that hold up the terraces climbing our steep hill. There are greenhouses for the vegetables, a large, semi-wild herb garden and a cluster of quacking ducks wandering around.

I test out as an introvert on those personality questionnaires and this is the world I have made for myself. It took years to build and in the winter it can be pretty rugged. But in the summer there is a balance of solitude and connection. I have friends and connections all over the world. I spend much of the day conversing long distance amid both physical and intellectual work.

 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Sometimes the conversation is with a friend thousands of miles away, sometimes with a forum on a particular topic and sometimes it is a one-sided conversation in which I argue with authors I am listening to through an audio book while I weed the zucchini bed. 

And this past year there has been a troubling repetition in many of those conversations. Friends, family, acquaintances and even a lot of authors talk about a deep exhaustion weighing them down. Some call it depression or burnout and some have diagnoses, but others just feel utterly depleted. Not everyone thinks it's worse than before, and some of us only struggle with it some of the time, but the spread of this malaise is worrying. 

Has the purpose and passion gone out of your world? Do you struggle to get out of bed in the morning? Is your sleep troubled and full of stressful, anxious dreams? Do you find it easier to sleep in the day time and almost impossible to get through the day without a nap? Do you just feel half asleep, disconnected or out of sync most of the time? 

If so, you're not alone. I feel it too, sometimes for weeks at a stretch.

Sometimes these symptoms can herald clinical depression and if they interfere with your daily life, it is helpful to seek out the advice of medical professionals. But often these symptoms come from a kind of deep depletion or "soul exhaustion." This may or may not be accompanied by depression. It can occur following professional or emotional burnout, significant loss and grief, major life changes or periods of intense work and activity. 

Soul exhaustion is worrying even when only one person describes it. When it is spread through whole communities the need for a change is urgent.

 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Ignoring soul exhaustion can lead to severe medical complications, including depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety, cancer and a host of systemic disorders. Depletion must be treated as a real expression of need and because it is so widespread in my circle these days, I have decided to address it here.

Most of my home medicine writing is about herbs and there are some herbs that can help at specific points in dealing with soul exhaustion, but much of what we need when we are depleted doesn't come from either traditional or alternative medicine. It comes from changes in our environment and routine.

First, here are a list of symptoms. A severely depleted individual may experience:

  • A desire to sleep much longer than normal,
  • Disrupted, overly light and restless or leaden and motionless sleep at night,
  • Frequent need to sleep during the day,
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning or after daytime sleep,
  • Difficulty motivating one's self to carry out basic daily functions (getting up, daily routine, work, household),
  • A sensation of body heaviness,
  • Even small movements may feel like hard work,
  • Heightened sensitivity and anxiety, being on edge,
  • Great difficulty in dealing with even minor changes in daily routine or small crises,
  • A sensation of being out of step with time, a dreamlike sensation even when awake, a feeling that everything is in slow motion,
  • Strange physical symptoms without medical explanation, such as deep aching throughout the body, tension headaches, stomach troubles, dizziness and/or ringing ears,
  • Muscle weakness and great difficulty exercising,
  • Intensified emotions and strong changes in emotion, sudden tears upon hearing a story which may not seem at first glance to be particularly sad, unbearable anger and feelings of helplessness over injustices,
  • Feelings of deep loneliness, even when surrounded by people,
  • Loss of customary hopefulness and optimism, feeling jaded and hopeless about life or one's purpose,
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, causes or passionate work, or where interest may remain energy does not follow,
  • Chronic anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Individuals who are normally forgiving and warm can become bitter, angry or jealous and have difficulty explaining exactly why or the reasons are much bigger than any momentary disagreement.
 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

It will be different in different individuals but there is a pattern to these symptoms. And moreover, a person struggling with soul exhaustion will often know there is something wrong and those around them will know it, but when asked we cannot give clear or concise descriptions of our symptoms. Yet the sense of deep change and trouble remains. 

There are a number of possible underlying causes for soul exhaustion. However, not every person who experiences these types of events will be dangerously depleted. There many factors and depending on the severity of the causes and symptoms, medical help may be needed. 

Soul exhaustion may result from:

  • Family or other significant breakups,
  • The loss of someone close,
  • The loss of a home, job or business,
  • Illness or disability in the individual or family members,
  • Life changes that drastically disrupt daily routine and goals
  • Being trapped long-term in a toxic, abusive or ostracizing home, work or social environment,
  • Unresolved past trauma, either physical or emotional,
  • An inability to say no to the constant demands of others without regard to the individual's needs,
  • Pushing one's self too hard in work or in physically and emotionally demanding circumstances until the point of burnout or collapse,
  • An unhealthy diet, substance abuse and/or electronics or other addictions,
  • Exposure to toxic substances, heavy metals or environmentally polluted areas,
  • Overwhelming past regrets or events in the past that make it difficult to focus on the present,
  • Being unable to break free from repetitive, purposeless or draining work,
  • Experiences of discrimination, hate speech or attacks based on characteristics over which the individual has no control (often but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, economic or social class),
  • Physical, economic, geographical and social barriers to fulfilling one's potential and achieving meaningful self expression,
  • Worries and anxieties about future security, the safety of loved ones, debts or other looming problems,
  • And pressures from social injustices, extreme econimic inequality and ecological devastation.

It is unlikely that one of these causes alone will result in an individual becoming deeply exhausted and depleted, unless that one factor is extreme. However, a combination of these factors can be devastating.

This is particularly significant because many medical lists often leave off the broader social and environmental contributors. I placed them in the latter part of the list, not because they are less important but because they are more complex. In any event, this isn't a list for someone else to use, so much as it is for individuals to look at their own factors.

One theory about the increase in deep exhaustion holds that it is a biological response to our bodies' ability to sense ecological danger. Particularly with the rapidly increasing effects of climate change and extreme whether that have caused economic disruption and large human migrations in some areas of the world, our bodies are reacting to our sense of biological interconnection, which is sounding alarms that cause anxiety and--after lengthy periods in which we can't escape or make a meaningful impact to solve the crisis--soul exhaustion.

That leaves me with the crucial and urgent question of what an individual can do about this deep depletion, given the often on-going underling causes. 

Here are some things that can alleviate the exhaustion and give the individual a chance to rectify at least some of the underlying causes.

Garden gate path sunshine trees lush green - my pic.jpg
  • Prioritize time for restful and replenishing activities (sometimes called "self care"). We can not take care of those who depend on us, if we are too depleted ourselves. Replenishment isn't selfish or idle. Quite the opposite. Expecting others to pay attention to what we need, figure it out and make sure we get the needed replenishment is far more self-absorbed than taking the time to do it ourselves. Often replenishment comes from adequate sleep, reading or time spent in nature, but it can also come from engaging in one's personal interests without pressure or pursuing spiritual studies.
  • Rest as much as necessary. Sometimes--especially when rest has been neglected--this means a great deal of sleep and rest. Illness, disability, extreme types of work, previous trauma and other factors may make greater than average rest necessary over the long-term. This is not a shameful circumstance but rather a fact that cannot be denied without unacceptable costs.
  • Turn off technology and spend time doing fulfilling things that use other senses and body movements, such as reading or absorbing stories in other ways, baking, crafting, creating art, listening to music, experiencing nature, singing or playing music, exercising, immersing ourselves in water and being around people who sooth us and bring out our laughter; 
  • Take time for spiritual practices and growth. This can mean participating in a specific tradition, doing yoga or other movement-based spiritual practices, lighting candles and creating an uplifting atmosphere, meditation, drumming or chanting, going into nature for extended periods, observing the sun, moon and stars or learning about specific things like the healing uses of stones or scents and reading systems such as the Tarot or i-Ching for inner understanding.
  • Consume fresh fruits and vegetables which have not been chemically treated. We must adapt our diets to include as much unprocessed or lightly processed foods and as much locally produced fresh foods as possible. Pay particular attention to avoiding highly processed foods that don't contain a lot of nutrients, even though they may be widely regarded as "healthy" such as packaged bread or white rice. It is important to include some foods that simply bring a moment of satisfaction and joy to the individual. Eating healthy should not mean boring food. Find favorite healthy foods and pick a few favorite not-so-healthy foods as well.
  • Drink teas made with detoxifying herbs; Because people who experience deep exhaustion have often been exposed to toxic chemicals or heavy metals and because anxiety and other emotional distress actually produces toxins in the body, it is important to consider detox. Dandelion root, nettle, red clover and burdock teas are helpful and should be drunk daily for two to three weeks and then stopped for several weeks. If you have a tendency toward anemia, a blood test for anemia may be in order. In this case, caution is also advised with nettle tea, which can flush iron from the blood as it cleans other, harmful heavy metals out of the body. 
  • Take herbal teas, tinctures and extracts of herbs for energy and mood regulation. If you feel a slump of low energy in the morning or the middle of the afternoon and have a tendency to go for coffee or cola in order to power on through the work, try to schedule rest, while drinking green tea and eating lightly sweetened chocolate instead. These also contain stimulants and taste delicious but they act in a more sustainable way in the body. Rhodiola supplements can also help to stimulate the brain once a lot of rest has been had.
  • If negative thinking accompanies a lot of the low energy and keeps rest from being fully absorbed, some anti-depressant herbs such as lavender, lemon balm and St. John's Wart can be helpful. For these purposes I often use tincture because it is best to take them for several days (up to two weeks) in a row but tea will also work nicely if you can make sure you will be able to take it every day. Observe carefully because moods are a matter of delicate body chemistry. Not everyone will find the same herbs useful. St. John's Wart relieves depression for me, but a friend of mine experiences insomnia instead. Be aware of any allergies you may have, take notes on what you are trying, pay attention to any adverse reactions and consult with medical professionals.
  • When negative thoughts and critical "self-talk" intrude, we shouldn't either deepen it or push it away automatically. Feel the emotions associated with this self criticism and any assumptions of the judgments of others. Acknowledge those feelings and hold the part of yourself that is criticized gently. Spend the time necessary to understand the negative thoughts without falling into them.
  • Consider negative words you say about yourself, such as "I'm so fat!" or "What an idiot!" Even if you mean them ironically or as a kind of joke among friends, consider changes to the words that will help to relieve negativity. "That's my attempt at prepper storage" can replace "fat" comments. Or "obviously I have too much on my mind" can replace recriminations over forgotten items or errands. Those are just examples which don't deny reality or outlaw humor, but they are less blaming and judgmental. 
  • Set aside a few moments, perhaps as part of spiritual practice or at some other time when the daily routine is not too hectic, to focus on breathing exercises, smile-muscle exercises and/or meditation on loving yourself and absorbing the love around you. This may also be a time for a practice of gratitude. One year I listed at least one truly good thing that happened during the week at the end of every week in my calendar. Then I read them at the end of the year. It seemed like a bit of a hockey exercise but it turned out to be really astonishing. I know good things happen, of course, along with the hard stuff, but reading it all together was more of an experience than you might think.
  • Read jokes, tell jokes and find ways to increase laughter. Laughing really matters and in times of hardship and strife, it may be at a deficit. You may have to actually seek out jokes and plan silly things in the beginning, if you have been really depleted by difficult circumstances, but bringing back laughter is as important as anything else on this list. 
  • Practice grounding and balancing our energy. Many of the people who are so depleted today are depleted precisely because we are high-energy, active and passionate people. This energy is a great gift, but it can also come with its own challenges. Whether you currently have abundant energy or feel depleted, exhaustion can be helped and prevented by grounding. Grounding can be as simple as spending time in nature. Gardening and other sustenance-producing activities that get your hands into the earth are particularly helpful. But it can also be done even when nature is temporarily unavailable. You can stand or sit during your daily quiet time or spiritual practice, take a few deep breaths and visualize tree roots going down from your feet and/or tailbone into the earth. It may mean visualizing the tree roots twining down through a few floors of a building, through some foundations and concrete, but get them there in visualization. Continue a few more deep breaths and focus on absorbing the steady, sustainable energy of the earth.
  • Find useful things to do to improve the environment and community around ourselves, when energy permits. This last is crucial and yet it can't be done very effectively at the deepest points of exhaustion. Research and specify things you personally can do to improve the ecological and social environments. These may be very small things or large things. Use your particular abilities, talents and blessings. If you have money, that may help a great deal. If you don't, there are other ways. While you may have physical difficulties, many people who are doing the work of environmental and social justice need help with non-physical tasks. The opposite is also true. You may not know precisely what to do, but many organizations can use a pair of strong and quick hands. Doing this kind of work, either as part of your "real job" or during your off hours not only helps to elevate the conditions that exhaust you, it also plays a vital role in preventing exhaustion and rebuilding strength after you have rested. 

It is important to remember through all this that the time it takes to recover from soul exhaustion varies widely and depends on the same factors that cause depletion in the first place. Every person's circumstances are different and healing doesn't always abide by human schedules. Judging ourselves or others for a slow recovery will only slow that recovery further because such judgments contribute to depletion. In the end, resilience is fostered most by a combination of solidarity and intuition.

Be well and nurture joy. I welcome your comments and especially any typos found in my blogs. this week I am particularly exhausted as well, so you may just find some. 

Easy vegetarian, herby campfire roasting - Fire Snakes

The summer camping season is officially open in most of the northern hemisphere. Sleeping, cooking, eating and playing outdoors and close to nature is a good way to ground your body and soul, build self-sufficiency skills and relieve the stresses of the daily grind.

But being crammed into a crowded campground full of fumes and junk food may not qualify as either healthy or stress free. The negative aspects of camping can be mitigated by seeking out places that are not overburdened with visitors or even just sleeping and eating outdoors in your own backyard. 

 Illustration by Julie Freel from the book   Shanna and the Goddess

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book Shanna and the Goddess

The act of sitting around an small fire and preparing food is extremely powerful, and that probably has something to do with our genetic memories of thousands of years of doing just that with our families and clans. Cooking outdoors over a fire connects you to ancestors, regardless of what corner of the earth your people come from. Beyond just the closesness with nature, that connection can be healing. 

But most of us are overwhelmed enough by simple camping and cooking a real meal over a fire can be daunting. The easiest thing to prepare over a fire is something you can put on a stick and roast. Most of us roasted hot dogs and marshmallows as kids. But those may not be endlessly appealing today.

Whether you're vegetarian, vegan or just tired of the choice between ultra-unhealthy sausages and ultra-sugary marshmallows as campfire roasting treats, I have an easy and delicious option for you. Much tastier than just roasting a piece of bread over the fire, you can fire-bake your own bread in a few minutes, and it will have all the flavor of fresh bread along with the tang of the campfire. It's simply delicious. 

This recipe is a free excerpt from the children's and family Summer Solstice story Shanna and the Goddess

Fire Snakes

Fire snakes are bread dough formed into long snakes, twisted around a stick and baked over an open fire (or in the oven, in a pinch). 

They are very simple to make and can be dipped in everything from peanut butter and honey to cinnamon and sugar or ketchup, herbs, cheese sauce and bacon bits. Toppings are unlimited.

You can use any yeast or sourdough bread recipe that is not too sweet (sugar will tend to burn, so add it after cooking). Here is a basic recipe:

  • 1 1/2 cup warm water
  • 3 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 4 cups (or more) all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • A handful of dried or fresh, savory herbs, such as basil, thyme or rosemary (optional)

Mix the water, sugar and yeast in a bowl and let it sit for ten minutes.

Then stir the flour and salt in a large bowl.

Add the yeast mixture and the olive oil. 

Mix well and add extra flour as needed until it forms a heavy dough that can be molded. 

Let it rise for an hour. 

Cut off pieces about the size of a golf ball. 

Sprinkle flour on a clean surface and on your hands and roll out the balls to form snakes. (With large hands you can do this without a rolling surface in camping conditions but it can be tricky for kids). 

Then poke a marshmallow roasting stick through the end of a snake and wind the rest of the snake around the stick in a corkscrew pattern. Pinch the end together around the stick firmly. 
Roast over the fire and dip it in toppings as you eat.

Five ways stay ahead of the viruses, when someone in the house has a cold or the flu

Household contagion prevention in flu season

This is winding up to be a particularly bad flu season. This year's influenza strain is especially virulent and the symptoms are intense. To make matters worse, the flu shot wasn't well matched this time around. The net result is record levels of contagion. 

While perusing the news, I noticed a prominent article with tips on how to protect yourself and your family in flu season. Always interested in home medicine, I clicked it open. But the primary advice was "get the flu shot in October," which is useless advice at the end of January and not particularly helpful in any season this year. The secondary advice was to teach your children good "cough etiquette" in order to protect other people's children. 

 Creative Commons image by Tony Alter

Creative Commons image by Tony Alter

Face palm.

This calls for a public service announcement. There are ways to protect yourself and your family from the flu which don't require time travel. 

Whether you're talking about real influenza or a flu-like virus, we all know--to our sorrow--that the best cure is rest, time and a little TLC, hopefully involving copious amounts of tea, hankies and soup brought by someone who isn't sick. Only the most severe cases require medical intervention.

Still the flu rampaging through an entire household--sometimes all at once--can take a nasty toll on jobs, education and family peace. When the flu comes near or even inside your home, it is worth taking precautions to keep as many people from getting sick as possible. 

Here are a list--from the simplest and most essential to the more specific--of the real things you can do.

1. Wash hands incessantly

This is where the people with hand-washing compulsions are simply correct. The single most important thing you can do to prevent catching the flu or a flu-like virus and/or spreading them once you have them is washing your hands at every turn. You've probably seen the on-line videos about germ-mimicking gel, but those pale in comparison to seeing it in practice. It works, and even mild soap helps.

Teach kids to wash their hands before eating ANYTHING. Wash before you even touch food, after touching food, when you come in, before you go out and randomly whenever you notice having touched a door handle.

Invest in some soothing hand cream to take any irritation away. Gentle soap is better than no soap (which may be the result if you go overboard with disinfectant soap). If the sick person is not you, encourage them to wash their hands and get them a box of wet, disinfectant wipes next to their bed. Washing your hands is harder when your exhausted and can barely get to the bathroom at all. 

2, Smudge

I mean it. I'd put this first since it is so much less well known, but hand washing is just too important to slowing contagion. Burning dried sage of any variety really does kill airborne germs.

A new study this year shows that you really can get influenza just by breathing near a sick person, so even perfect hand washing won't save you, especially once the contagion gets inside your household. And multiple medical studies have shown that sage smoke does reduce both the bacteria and virus counts in the air. 

First, bundle up anyone sick in the household and open windows to air out your rooms as much as possible. Then close the windows and light a candle. Hold a bundle of sage in the flame for thirty seconds or so, until the end is smoking vigorously. Walk carefully around the room waving the smoke into every corner. Move systematically (some people prefer to go counterclockwise to reduce anything, such as germs) to get to every part of each room in use. Pay special attention to sickrooms, common areas and bathrooms.

Be careful not to run the smudge bundle into flammable drapes, clothing or objects. It's often hotter than it looks. Periodically hold the smudge bundle in the candle flame again to keep it producing a nice plume of visible smoke. Don't touch the end of it until long after it has stopped smoking. Be especially careful of hot bits of sage falling into bedding or on flammable carpets. Stay over hard floors whenever possible. A bit of smoking sage will not burn a wooden floor but may burn a synthetic carpet or blanket. 

3. Disinfect doorknobs, remotes and sickroom surfaces

Get another box of wet disinfectant wipes for yourself and wipe doorknobs, remote controllers, the bathroom faucet handle nearest the sickroom, as well as other surfaces you think the sick person or persons might touch. It does matter and it is nearly impossible for them to keep their hands clean enough, even if they're an adult. 

If you're vehemently against all non-organic disinfectants, white vinegar on a rag (changed often for a fresh rag) is better than nothing. Add tea tree, oregano, sage and.or lavender essential oil (20 drops per quarter cup of solution) for extra disinfectant power. And even better than that is tincture with St. John's Wart, yarrow, lavender or other disinfectant herbs. See here for a tincture recipe if you didn't make it last summer. Strong alcohol on a rag also helps in a pinch. 

4. Wash dishes in very hot water and disinfectant

This is where a dishwasher with a high temperature setting is handy. But if you don't use those devices of modern excess, extra hot dish water with plenty of soap and either a touch of grapefruit seed extract or generous amounts of tea tree, oregano, sage and/or lavender essential oil in the dishwater works.

You can also wash the sick person's dishes separately and keep them separate. Designate an odd, distinctive sickie mug particularly. If all else fails, get a few paper cups for the sick person and resolve to make up for the waste elsewhere by keeping at least some family members well. 

5. Aromatherapy combined with a non-electronic humidifier

Just as burning sage kills bacteria and viruses, sage essential oil in steam can do the same thing. I put this further down on the list because it is a bit more labor-intensive and people often confuse it with those plug-in humidifiers, which are often more trouble than they're worth in flu season, because if you don't clean them constantly, they end up aiding the spread of viruses.

Humidity is a good thing for both preventing and fighting flu and flu-like viral infections. They spread better in the dry, stuffy heat of closed-in winter habitations. That's another reason why it is good to open windows often, even when it's cold. But that can't really be done enough to keep the air a bit damp. The best thing for that is a pot of water on the back of a wood-stove, making soup or ready for the next cup of tea. But many people don't have stoves going all day, so our air gets drier and drier indoors. 

You can solve this problem by either keeping water on low on a burner or using one of those candle humidifiers where you place a candle below a small bowl with water. Either way, it is helpful to forgo the soup and tea this once and add essential oils instead. Tea tree and oregano may be too intense for this. Sage and lavender are both good for disinfecting a room and are quite pleasant. Any sick people will be grateful for the addition of eucalyptus and thyme oil. Thyme is also a helpful disinfectant. 

Comfort on a winter evening: Homemade herbal candles

Around the 1st or 2nd of February, many northern cultures have a celebration focused on candles. For Catholics, it is Candlemas in which the year's supply of candles used to be brought to the church to be blessed. For modern Neopagans, it is Imbolc, the festival of the Irish fire and hearth goddess Brigid, which derives from her ancient feast day at this time. In Eastern Europe, it is the Thundering, when protections against lightening and fire are renewed also with many candles. The Chinese New Year also takes place around this period with a show of lanterns and candles.  

Imbolc candle.jpg

There is undoubtedly something evocative in the coldest blast of the winter that makes lighting small warm candles immensely comforting. It is also the time when pre-industrial people commonly made their household candles. Candlemaking is warm work and in the summer it can be downright unpleasant, but at this time of year it is both more pleasant and often quicker.

Candlemaking in January in the run up to Imbolc has become a winter tradition at my house and I most especially like to make candles that smell and look beautiful. I have spent several years perfecting this craft and I would like to offer my conclusions here, so that you can avoid some of my more foolish mistakes the easy way.

Here is a quick and easy guide to winter candlemaking using herbs, essential oils and molds. 

You will need: 

  • Wax:  Bees wax is good and will primarily make the traditional yellowish candles. It may come in large rough chunks or in sheets of pre-melted wax. Paraffin candle base is also good. It is usual sold as white granules and can be more easily dyed.
  • Wicks:  You can buy wick from craft stores. Short wicks with tiny metallic discs attached at one end make it easier to hold the wick in place, but you can also cut lengths of wick from a longer string. You can even make your own wick by dipping cotton string in melted wax.
  • Molds: You can technically make candles without a mold by dipping the wick repeatedly in a large vat of hot wax. However, this is tricky and requires a lot of time and arm strength unless you have a lot of specialized equipment. It is a lot easier to use molds and these can also give your candles a desired shape. You can buy candle molds from craft stores, of course. You can also use small boxes lined with wax paper. I have found that cookie cutters smeared with a little cooking oil and placed on wax paper work nicely to make different shapes of candles but they will leak a bit so this method requires patience. The best household candle molds of all are silicon muffin tins. These are completely heat resistant and will not stick to the wax at all. Glass and metal baking ware will often stick and you may be frustrated trying to get your candles out of the mold. Prep them with some grease to aid in that process. 
  • Essential oils: Essential oil is optional and people who are sensitive to aromas should be cautious with their use, but I love to add essential oils to my candles. Pine, rosemary, lavender, rose, nutmeg and mint all make good candle fragrances that can be used for special occasions throughout the year.
  • Dried herbs: You can also add dried herbs to your candles, which can provide a natural scent when the wax around the herbs is heated. They also create beautiful patterns in the sides of the candles. However, it is preferable to keep the herbs on the outer edge of the candles, away from direct contact with the wick, because the herbs can burn unpredictably and present a danger of fire and hot wax spills. 
  • Wax colors: Coloring is optional but can be very fun. I have tried a great many options for coloring candles using homemade supplies, including food coloring, berry juice and spices--all to no avail. I am back to buying wax dyes from craft stores. These work wonderfully but are not entirely necessary to make beautiful candles.
  • A metal pot, preferably one dedicated to candle, soap and salve making. Some of us like to call this our "cauldron," even though that is usually just a glorified name for an older and less-favored household pot.
  • A metal dipper
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How to make the candles:

  1. Heat the wax. Use a low heat and allow the wax to melt over about 20 or 30 minutes. If the heat is low it will not burn, catch fire or spatter and you can prepare your other materials while you wait.
  2. Prepare your molds. If you're using glass or metal molds smear them with cooking oil to make it easier to get the candle out of the mold. Only use glass if you are using glass molds specifically designed for candles as normal glass will shatter when it comes in contact with the hot wax. Also do not use plastic, except silicon used for baking in ovens. Many plastics, including my plastic measuring cups which stand up to regular cooking temperatures melt at the higher temperatures wax may reach. 
  3. If you're using cookie cutters, place wax paper on your work surface and position the cookie cutters so that you can hold down several of them at one time. 
  4. Insert wicks into the center of the molds. Don't worry if you wicks initially lean over. You will be able to correct this later.
  5. Once your wax is hot, add essential oils and colors to it. Add just a little color at first and then add more as you go. A little goes a long way. Estimate about 20 drops of essential oil in about a cup (220 ml) of hot wax. This doesn't have to be exact and over time you will discover if you prefer more or less than that, but this is a conservative start.
  6. Use a metal dipper (how did you think I know about the melting temperature of plastic measuring cups?) to pour a quarter inch (half a centimeter) of hot wax into each of your molds. If you're using cookie cutters or other molds which are not attached to the bottom part of the mold, hold them down firmly for a minute and blow around the edges. (It helps if you work in a somewhat cold room.)
  7. Then adjust your wicks to stand upright. (No, creative wick angles don't work very well when the candle is actually lit. They burn best straight up and down.)
  8. You may add dried herbs around the edges of your candle at this point for deeply embedded herbs. 
  9. Continue pouring in a little more wax. Press down on cookie-cutter molds and readjust wicks as needed.
  10. Be patient and exercise great caution when pouring the hot wax. Wax can cause severe burns and unlike water the burning liquid will not run right off of your skin and will be hard to remove immediately. The best first aid for burns is always immediate immersion in very cold water. This is essential. Do not be swayed by other claims of home remedies in the first 30 minutes after a burn occurs. Cold water, period, and seek professional medical attention if the burn is significant. 
  11. An advanced technique is to create multi-colored candles by pouring first a layer of one color and then after it cools, adding a layer of another color. This can be done with multiple colors and the only limit is your imagination and patience. The effect is quite beautiful as the candle burns down through multiple colored layers.
  12. Once you have filled your candle molds, hopefully without having to use the cold-water first aid for burns, you give the wicks a final adjustment, prop them in place if necessary and wait until the candles cool, at least several hours.
  13. Remove the candles from the molds and trim the wicks. 
  14. If you wish, you can heat the candles slightly in an electric or wood-heated oven (not a microwave or gas oven) and stick dried herbs to the outside of the candles when they become sticky. Then allow them to cool again. 

A little book for the day of candlelight

If you would like to learn about the old Irish fire festival of Imbolc and its candlelight traditions in the form of a modern story, I have a book for you. Shanna and the Raven is a story for families and children to share an adventure of learning to trust intuition amid the candles of an Imbolc celebration. It is a suspenseful story that will grip children seven and up as well as adults. 

This little book also includes a recipe for strawberry dumplings, a traditional seasonal dish from Bohemian grandmothers, and a tutorial for making a doll figure of the Irish goddess Brigid. The book is illustrated with kid-friendly pastel paintings by Julie Freel. While this is mostly a modern adventure story, it also has much to teach both about the holiday and connecting to intuition.

Another potent symbol of the intuition, inspiration and prophecy of the season is the crow or raven, which is featured Shanna and the Raven. You can read last week's post on the history and mystery of crows and ravens here