Where the Wild Thyme Blows


June 21, 2018 at 3:07 am PDT / 10:07 am UT

The Sun reaches 0° Cancer


Solstice Sunrise, Mendocino County, California

We are fast approaching summer solstice, for those of us who live topside Mother Earth. Marked by the Sun's entry into the cardinal, water sign of Cancer, we've reached the culmination point of Sol's yearly journey north. At this Northern Hemisphere peak of life-giving solar power, the masculine Sun glides into the arms of the feminine Moon, entering Cancer, the sign she rules — a blending of our male-female luminaries, adding to the potent love magic at this almost too heady time of year.

For the Celts, summer solstice did not mark the first day of summer, as we now observe, but Midsummer, the heart of the season, which stretched from early May through early August, from Beltane (May Day) to Lughnassadh, the beginning of the harvest season. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still), and explains quite clearly what a solstice is: the Sun appears to come to a halt and for three days rises in the same spot on the eastern horizon. There are two solstices each year and they mark the two "Sun extremes" — the Sun has reached its furthest point north at the Cancer or June solstice, and furthest south at the Capricorn or December solstice.

Magic crowns this time of year for Midsummer has long been considered a night when the veil between the worlds is thin, when the green spirits of the dark hollows and lonely woods venture out. The fairy host once again roams Middle Earth to wreak havoc and remind all that the forces of nature are powerful, unpredictable, and not to be trifled with. Much of the associated Midsummer lore, because of this, has to do with protection. Yet of equal importance is love: for fiery passion and benevolent magic also abounds at this invigorating time of the year. The Druids refer to the summer solstice as Alban Heruin, which translates, "The Light of the Shore" and also consider it one of the few times each year when the bond between Heaven and Earth is at its strongest.

In Ireland and other parts of Europe, bonfires were lit for fertility and good luck. Farmers drove their cattle through the flames, sprinted around animal pens and fields with smoking embers to ensure health and fertility. Lovers held hands and leaped the flames in tandem, while those without partners performed all sorts of love divination. Young women placed little bouquets under their pillows on Midsummer Eve for dreams of love, as it was thought certain flowers and herbs, like St. John's wort and mugwort, would induce a special vision of one's future mate. Divining rods, healing herbs and flowers harvested on Midsummer Eve were said to be much more potent and powerful, and all dreams, whether about love or not, more likely to come true. Dew gathered on the Eve was supposed to restore sight and perhaps one's lost youth as well.

Midsummer's "Flowering" Ferns

royal-fernIn Eastern Europe lore, the woodland ferns were said to bloom for a very short time on midsummer eve, and would bring good fortune and the ability to understand animal speech to the lucky individual who could find them. While ferns are not true flowering plants, the flowering fern myth makes sense. Prior to our modern taxonomic system, the grouping of plants was not so precise and numerous flowering plants with fern-like foliage were considered true ferns. And too, some true ferns, like the very old and unique European native Osmunda regalis, Royal Fern, have sporangia — "fertile fronds" — tight, showy clusters that resemble flowers. Most ferns by contrast have small, flattened spores hidden on the undersides of their fronds. The genus name Osmunda, according to landscape designer Barry Collins, is derived from the Anglo Saxon god of thunder Osmunder, and the species name regalis means something magnificent, king-like, regal.

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The place where the Sun rises at summer solstice, and other critical stages in the solar year, have been marked since neolithic times. From openings in earth mounds that receive that first ray of solstice sunrise, to massive stone monuments, like Stonehenge, they exist the world over. Years ago when we moved to our current home, we discovered we had our own "Stonehenge" via a gap in the woods that surround our house. A view to the northeast, it precisely frames the point where the Sun rises each year around Midsummer.


The Sun Rising over Stonehenge on the Morning of Summer Solstice.

So at solstice, we celebrate the LIGHT of the SUN — and its glorious effects: the ripening and greening of Mother Earth. The return of light, so welcome at this time of year, is bittersweet, tempered as it is with the knowledge of the perpetual turning of the wheel. For after summer solstice, little by little, our days become shorter and shorter until the dark of the year, the winter solstice, arrives.

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I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;

— A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 2, Scene 1

If the mood strikes, rise before the dawn one of the mornings this week and see if you can glimpse the sunrise from some lovely spot in your neck of the woods, photoand take note of what's growing and blooming where you live. These are your own sacred spaces and magical Midsummer flowers.

Roses bloom in many places this time of year — a flower associated with Midsummer and ruled by Venus, the Goddess of Love. Wild, species roses, like the one pictured here, sport five petals, a number sacred to Venus and also reflected in the pentacle, that age old symbol of feminine wisdom and power, that Venus actually inscribes in the sky in her orbital patterns. If you harvest rose petals from bushes that have not been sprayed, you can add them to tea, jellies, honey and sugar, scenting each and also adding a little love magic. You can scatter them in your bath water or dry them to use in love charms. You can drop rose petals to steep slowly in culinary oil to increase the love you deliver with each meal. You can also make your own rose water, which you can add to your bath or use in cooking. I've included a recipe at the end of this article.

The Herb of Midsummer: Hypericum or St. John's Wort

photoWith a name that connects it to both Christianity and its shadow, witchcraft, for centuries it was thought that burning St. John's Wort, named after John the Baptist, would provide protection from evil spirits. Its genus name Hypericum is from the Greek meaning "above an ikon," a symbolic reference to the transcendant realm, beyond all form and matter, and a mundane reference to the literal practice of placing sprigs above statues and religious icons to help drive off malevolent spirits. In Wales, the plant was used as a kind of herbal divination for one's health. Sprigs were cut for each family member and hung from a rafter overnight on Midsummer Eve or St. John's Day, June 24th. The less shriveled your sprig in the morning, the better your health over the coming year.

Another Flower of Midsummer is Lavender

Where I live lavender blooms on or just before summer solstice and one of the ways I celebrate midsummer is to harvest this aromatic flower on the day of solstice, when the Sun is waxing towards its zenith in late morning. I save the longest, most perfect stems to make a few lavender wands, and dry the rest in bundles, hanging them in the shade under the eaves of the house where they cast their fragrant spell as they dry. lavender wandsI use the dried flowers later in the kitchen (for flavoring homemade ice cream and custards), and for sachets, dream pillows and scented oils. I save enough dried flowers for winter solstice dream pillows, which make great holiday gifts. Dried lavender flowers are also a main ingredient in our "happy hen" nestbox herbal blend: a soothing, stress-reducing mixture of dried lavender, catnip, chamomile, eucalyptus and rosemary to mix with the nest box wood shavings.

Lavender wands are pretty easy to make, if you are NOT a perfectionist. I like to use 26 stems (13 pairs), weaving a magic Venus and Blue Moon number into the wand. But any even number that divides into two odd numbers will work, such as 18 (9+9), 22 (11+11) and so forth. The larger the number the more weaving you'll have to do, so starting out you might want to begin with a smaller, 18-stem wand. You'll also need a 3-foot long piece of quarter-inch satin ribbon for each wand.

It is best to use one of the long-stemmed varieties with stems not too thick and inflexible. Wands should be made right after you harvest the flowers before they start drying. The best lavenders to use in making wands are: the tall Provence variety (Lavandula intermedia var. 'Provence') with pale lavender-grey flowers; and Hidcote Lavender (L. angustifolia 'Hidcote'), a super fragrant variety with sturdy but flexible stems. The Provence lavender has longer, thicker stems that can break more easily than Hidcote but the larger flower clusters on longer stem makes larger, longer wands.

Even though the wands are a bit of work and take some practice to do well, when finished they will last for years and make wonderful, stress-reducing gifts from your garden. Here's a well done "how-to" site with easy to follow steps for making your own.

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Homemade Rose Water

This is a great way to capture the potent love magic at this time of year. Be sure to use only petals from roses that have not been sprayed, and it is ideal to harvest them early in the day as soon as the dew has dried. Pinch off the white section at the base of each petal as it can be bitter.

Then mix:

Cover and store in a sunny spot (such as on a window sill) so that the mixture can steep for several weeks. Strain and return the liquid to the jar, adding 2 more cups of fresh petals.

Repeat the steeping process. After several weeks strain again and discard the petals and store the liquid in small tightly covered little bottles in a cool dark spot.

Rosewater makes a lovely fragrance and you can add a tablespoon to simple desserts like rice or other kinds of pudding, sugar cookies, or homemade vanilla ice cream for a unique and subtle flavoring.

Solstice Sun Tea and Tisanes

sun tisane photoA enjoyable way to literally drink in the energy of the Sun at this special time of year is to make sun tea or tisane (herbal infusion) on the day of solstice. You can use dried black, green or herbal tea bags, loose dried leaves, or best of all, fresh herbs from your own garden. At sunrise on the morning of solstice, when the dew is still on the bloom, I like to collect fresh sprigs from my mint, catnip, chamomile, and lemon balm plants, adding edible flowers as well: violets, lavender, pansies, calendula, borage, and rose petals. You can also add various roots, peels, barks and seeds as well: cinnamon, citrus peel, ginger, fennel, cardamon, and chicory. There are many choices, too many to list, just be sure they really are edible before experimenting, as some plants are toxic.

Arrange your fresh herbs and flowers in a large glass jar so the light can stream through, add fresh water, lay a small cloth across the top or put a lid on to keep insects out, and place in direct sunlight for about 3-4 hours. You can also add crystals to vibrationally charge the water even further. If you are using fresh herbs a ratio of about 1:3 herbs-to-water works well; if you are using bags, one per every 1.5 cups of water is sufficient. After steeping, remove the herbs or tea, sweeten to taste, add ice, and serve right away. Sun teas and tisanes have a more mellow flavor, and the slow steeping at a lower temperature seems to bring out interesting and unique flavors. What you don't drink right away, though refrigerate. Sun tea lasts only a day or two at room temp, compared to teas made with boiling water.

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Drink in the abundant beauty of our little planet at this inspiring time of year. If you light a bonfire, campfire, hearth fire, or even a simple candle, in honor of this turning of the wheel of the solar year, you are reviving a practice that stretches back through millennia. Observing and honoring these ancient, natural holy days helps heal a split that has gone on way too long between Mother Earth and her human children. May this solstice bring peace and happiness to you and your loved ones, and to Mother Earth herself.



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The information about Eastern European folk traditions regarding the flowering fern was gathered from a Wikipedia article.

The sunrise at Stonehenge photo is shown here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The photo of the sunrise I took on solstice in 2011, the sun tea and wild rose shots are also mine. The photo of St. John's Wort (Hypericum) was taken by my daughter last year.

The photo of the lavender and lavender wands is from Happy Valley Lavender and Herb Farm.

Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, can be read at MIT's online Shakespeare archives.

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