An Herbalist’s Midsummer Ritual

Herbs and legends from wild nights and sun-drenched days

Our planet tilts its northern pole to the sun, and at the top of the world the days become endless, the sun never sleeps. But even at the temperate latitudes we see the shift, and watch not only the longer days but also the powerful impulse of growth and activity in the natural world—such a contrast to the darker days of winter. It is a time for joy: the heat of the sun, the warm nights, the fragrance in the forest and field (and along the city streets), the fresh food. Welcome to Midsummer, the longest day, the summer solstice.

Long ago (in the Celtic and European traditions), huge signal fires would blaze across the hilltops on Midsummer's eve, the shortest night. One by one they would go up, and revelers would emerge from the forest to dance around these fires. They say many of the hilltops were actually fairy mounds, and that deep inside them, in well-lit halls, the shining ones would be dancing, too. Later, inebriated and eager to try out their magic in the mortal realm, they would leave the hills and cross the land in long processions.  They are a joyful, but tricky sort: many have been led astray by following the spirits of Midsummer. 

Which leads me to one of the paradoxes of the summer solstice: yes, it is a time of joy, but it is also a time of mischief, and trickery, a time when things are not as they seem, and when misdirection—and wild, unbridled revelry—have always been encouraged. The biggest trick is the most obvious one: for though the sun seems so strong, with no limits to his power, this is the night when he is mortally wounded, his strength starts to fade, and the days start getting shorter and shorter. 

Summer Solstice Woods

An herb with a very sunny, warm disposition blooms around this time. Everything about it reminds us of the sun: its spicy flavor, the bright yellow flowers, the uplifting effects it gives to our spirits, even the small pinpricks in its leaves that let light through when held up to the sun. But St. Johnswort holds another, darker secret: it blooms around the summer solstice, with yellow buds and flowers, but if you take one and squeeze it, you will express a deep red-purple fluid. Herbalists have said this red fluid is the blood that flows from the sun's wound, and reminds us that the seasons of the year keep turning, and soon it will be cold. But we gladly collect this plant, grind it fresh, and steep it in spirits to make a blood-red extract which can bring all the power of midsummer back, during the colder months, when we need it most. You can steep it in oil, too: St. Johnswort makes a great rub for the hands and feet in the winter.

Discovering drops of the sun's blood in a field weed is surprising enough, but the solstice holds still more tricks: they say that the elder tree (home of Frau Holle, the elder mother) waits for humans who are walking around on Midsummer's eve, lures them under her branches, and opens their eyes to the fairy realm. This might seem desirable: sleep under an elder tree, and you will see the procession of the shining ones pass before you. But there are stories of those who, once enchanted by the fairy realm on midsummer's eve, never return to their homes. The scent of elderflower, sweet, with hints of citrus, almost narcotic, is all that's left behind when the sun rises.

So herbalists, keen on dancing until the sunrise but hoping also to return home, have identified plants that both encourage wild abandon and protect you from being taken off into unknown realms. For, you see, this is a time for long parties: we are already intoxicated by the long hours of sun and, once night comes, have a chance to do some of our own shape-shifting, wear costumes, meet in the forest, try on different roles. This is fun, of course, and (once in a while) may be healthy, too. For the midsummer parties, herbalists turned to a silver-leaved herb, Mugwortwhich is getting ready to flower this time of year and has abundant, bushy growth. Artemisia vulgaris is commonly known as mugwort, perhaps because it was added in large quantities to big batches of midsummer beer served up all night long in earthen mugs. Unlike hops, which tend to be gently calmative, mugwort is inspiring and heady, and still has just enough bitterness to make a tasty beer. Also, legends tell that, once you fall asleep, mugwort can reveal many things through the dreams it kindles. But more famously, mugwort is used to banish unwanted influences and treachery—and this, an echo of its bitterness, may be part of why herbalists make sure this plant is part of any midsummer event.

There is another herb used around this time that is said to protect and guide those who would venture into more shadowy realms to gain insight. After all, that is the point of all this midsummer revelry: find the knowledge for the growing season, learn what the harvest might hold, and how to prepare for when the days turn cold. Many herbalists turn to rue, Ruta graveolens, as an ally for this important task. It has a unique and powerful scent—like bergamot and mint, with hints of spice. Approach rue with caution: many are sensitive to its oils, reacting even to its touch, and even more so to drinking its tea. But if you trust the old stories, simply carrying a small bundle of this herb in your pocket is enough to confer grace and good fortune as you explore realms beyond the everyday. Rue will always help you find your way back, rich with stories and transformed by the experience. If you'd like to try the tea, get the advice of an herbalist who knows this plant well. 

After the all-night revelry, we are left to follow the threads of fragrance that course the land during this time of year. Walking out at dawn, we find the bright—but short-lived—smells of spring have been replaced with heavier, richer scents that move from enlivening to sweet, heavy and luxurious. The aromatics of midsummer are an important part of the herbalist's ritual: we gather these flowers to nurture the heart and uplift the spirit. They remind us that, despite all the mischief of the night before, midsummer's day is a time of joy. So the honey-sweet smell of linden, tangled in the trees and unwinding down the hillsides and through the city streets, fills and renews us: try it as a tea of the dried flowers, or make an aromatic linden bath using about 2 cups of flowers loosely tied into a Rosebushcloth bag. Roses, long the gift of love and keepers of summer's most amazing scents, bloom around this time and you can find big wild bushes on the valley floors, next to cool streams, ready to offer relief from the heat of the day. Harvest these to dry: you can steam-distill them, or any summer flower, to make a simple hydrosol; or steep the dried flowers and buds in spirits and honey for an aromatic extract to take by the drop. Finally, you will often find honeysuckle growing close to the wild roses, and its scent is unmistakable. Gather the freshly-opened flowers for drying, then use them to make a fragrant, soothing and cooling tea - just right for the summer months ahead.

This is the ritual of midsummer: a wild night, where we can escape the bounds of the everyday, shift into the unseen realms, and gain insight for the work ahead. A time of love, to renew deep connections and move from the quick infatuations of spring into the full and powerful joy of this time. And a time to walk across the land early, before the heat overtakes the day, and find the deep, cool valleys. Here, the threads of fragrance hang across the trees, tying knots of rose and honeysuckle bows, waiting for the herbalist to gather them in and bring them home.

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