Winter Wellness: Healing Herbs for the Dark of the Year
I really do love the dark of the year. Perhaps it is the winter fog rolling in from the shoreline. Or the quiet that snowfall can bring. Maybe it is because this is the time of year where getting introspective can feel so right. A time when lighting candles and pouring tea takes on a special glimmer.
And sometimes winter is hard. It is cold and dark and your car has become frozen in a block of ice. There are familial obligations that can be awkward at best and sometimes treacherous. We can get caught up in the flurry of doing as the seasons transition. For me, this winter holds a certain bittersweet sadness. I lost my beloved Grandpa earlier this year and not only will we be marking the first birthday of his without him, but all of our winter holiday-making will be somehow less bright. Which is ok. We have periods of sorrow in our lives which need as much space and care as those moments of profound joy. I have written about herbs for grief, heartache, and tragedyand these are herbs that remain close allies to me and my loved ones in this time of figuring out what we do with the spaces left behind by those who have been there for so very long.
Still, though, I really do love winter and the herbs I turn to again and again during the dark year. I have written about herbs for the Winter Solstice as well as recipes but I wanted to add to my list of winter-time herbs since there are so many excellent ones to choose from. Because that's what we fill those spaces with and those long winter nights - the love of steadfast companions, the joy of our wellness, and the curiosity of creatures wanting to learn more about our extraordinary planet we call home. Because my Grandpa, a Marine who wore holiday teddy-bear sweaters with puffy paint, who was gruff and grumpy, who could read your story in a handshake, and who loved wolves (the animal), jaguars (the car), and Star Trek (the best), would be asking for his "herbal drops" whether or not I was feeling winter joys or winter blues. Thanks, Grandpa, for keeping it all in big, wild, heart-centered perspective.
The following are some of my favorite herbs for the winter. If you're looking for further astroherbology or medical astrology perspectives on herbs for the winter and the Winter Solstice, check out The Longest Night: Herbs for the Winter Solstice Season. I've also posted some recipes for winter at Winter Solstice: Recipes for Mirth + Brightness. And if you're still thinking, heck I would love even more inspiration and recipes for the Winter Solstice, especially if it involves recipes inspired by Krampus and blends of great merriment, then check out The Winter Apothecary: Joyful Recipes for the Dark of the Year.
Elder (Sambucus nigra) ♀♇
Folk names include: Tree of Medicine, Danewort, Fever tree, Hyldemoer
Uses: The list is long but includes alterative, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, digestive, expectorant, rejuvenative, vulnerary.
Contraindications: Excess fresh berries can have a laxative effect. While Sambucus nigra is generally safe, other varieties of Sambucus are poisonous, so properly identify before using.
Elder is a delicious winter remedy. I use the berries and flowers in my Cauldron Polish Cold Care Elixir and the flowers make an incredibly delicious glycerite. The herb has a big reputation as an amazing healer and the Elder Mother lives up to her reputation. Elder is effective in bringing relief when winter colds and the 'flu has come to visit, as the plant is powerfully antiviral. The berries and flowers are diaphoretic and diuretic which means they help us to release toxins and as an alterative they assist the body in returning to homeostasis. Elder is drying, too, without being too warming. The flowers, taken internally as an alcohol extract or glycerite, are especially useful in cases of ear infection. British herbalist, Andrew Chevallier, recommends Elder flower combined with Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis) for headaches that come about because of the cold or a chill.
If you are brave (or foolish) enough to sit under an Elder Tree on an important night of the year (namely, Midsummer and Samhain), you just might see the Good Folk march by in all of their finery. The spirit of the Elder is a gatekeeper between the realms of life and death - she is fiercely protective and very no-nonsense. Burning Elder wood is considered very unlucky but it can be worn as an amulet for protection (especially against lightening which apparently was something to be really worried about back in the days when these charms were being written down in old grimoires and herbals). The herb planted in front of the home or used in charms keeps away harmful and unkind spirits.
I think Elder is really useful as a preventative tonic - it is such an appealing flavor that it can be added to teas, made into syrups and electuaries, and made into a simple jam. I don't think I've ever used Elder as an alcohol extract because it is such a pleasure to use otherwise, but if you do prefer alcohol extracts, standard dosages apply. Remember, a dose of Elder a day keeps disgruntled yetis away.
Peppermint (Mentha spp.) ☿ ☽
Fok names include: Lammint and Brandy Mint.
Uses: Analgesic, analstetic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, emmenagogue, expectorant, vasodilator.
Contraindications: Avoid during acute gallstone attack.
Soothing but enlivening, I really enjoy a good cup of mint tea any time of the day. The scent, taste, and healing qualities clears the head, clearing the cobwebs from the corners of our minds. I use peppermint most often in digestive blends when the stomach is cramping (combine with Fennel (Foeniculum officinale) for a simple and sweet tasting digestive tea). Peppermint is also useful in cases of nausea, gas, and general indigestion. Additionally, I use it quite often in cold and 'flu blends for its antiviral, clearing, and calming qualities. Combine with Elecampane to assist in clearing up unproductive and phlegm-y coughs. Deb Soule recommends preparing a hot tea of Peppermint combined with Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Elder Flowers, and Catnip as an old-time and effective remedy for bringing down fever.
Topically, Peppermint is soothing to sore muscles as a compress and can also be used in steams to clear sinuses, ease asthma, and to ground a shocked system. It makes a great addition to all natural and mouth washing blends as well as in toothpaste powder blends. Use a cool compress for rashes and hives, to bring relief to the feverish, and to smell really nice.
Peppermint is used in all sorts of ways in magickal work from blends to induce visions to love spells and healing charms. I like Peppermint in money and abundance charms - the herb grows abundant and once it takes root it is there for good - definitely a good quality when it comes to prosperity! The plant is guarded by Mercury which makes sense given its use for both enlivening and soothing the senses as well as clearing stagnation. I also place Peppermint under the guardianship of Moon not just because of its digestive-emotive qualities, but it's cool, fresh taste is silvery and quick.
I think tea is the most pleasant way to enjoy Peppermint. Fresh mint and honey makes a delicious syrup, so you should probably do that, too. Alcohol extracts are standard dosage if you prefer such a route.
Elecampane Root (Inula helenium) ☉☿ ♅
Folk names include: Elfwort, Horse Heal, Wild Sunflower, Scabwort, Velvet Dock.
Uses: Expectorant, digestive, diaphoretic, carminative, mood enhancer.
Contraindications: Do not take if pregnant or breastfeeding. Do not use externally if there is history of allergic contact dermatitis.
The yellow flowered Elfwort is primarily used as a warming lung tonic and it is an excellent winter ally when bronchial complaints of the damp variety are around. I'll admit that I was first attracted to learning more about Elecampane because it had a common name of Elfwort and an association with Witches. It has since become a consistent ally in my Apothecary. You'll notice that the Latin binomial includes helenium which has been said to be linked to Helen of Troy, the yellow flowers supposedly represent her tears. So, we have a plant that is a lung tonic and possesses a story of tears. It is good to know then, that the lungs are energetically the seat of sorrow and grief. Sometimes, when sorrow or grief is unexpressed it can transform into weakness or health imbalances in the lungs. Elecampane's myth tells us then about it's energetic and medicinal signature - it is a plant fit for damp lung complaints, but especially where sorrow and grief is present. Breathlessness, wheezing, asthma and migraines brought on by the cold, and a wet cough are all signs that Elecampane may be useful. The herb loosens phlegm and soothes irritated respiratory passages. The herb can be used both for acute complaints and as a preventative tonic.
Traditionally, herbalists like Hildegard von Bingen have recommended Elecampane be prepared as a wine extract and, in general the plant is well prepared as a sweet cordial or digestive blend for before and after meals. As a digestive herb, Elecampane is useful in cases of sluggish, cold, and weak digestion, relieving gas and gently stimulating digestion. Additionally, Elecampane brightens the mood, especially of those who are given to a nervous disposition. The herb has historically been used topically for skin complaints such as acne as well as hip pain, including sciatica, and the bites of insects and snakes.
Magickally, the herb is used in protection sachet against harmful energy - especially ill energy brought in by cold winds. As a wort of Elves, it protects against the more mischievous energy of our Hidden Kin, creating a shield against elf-shots and similar unpleasantries. You can also use the herb to enhance your psychic visions and to bring true love your way. Elecampane is said to be guarded by the Sun, Mercury, and/or Uranus depending, and each makes sense. The Sun not only because of Elecampane's yellow and bright flowers, but because it is warming and assists with overall heat and vitality in the body. Elecampane's Mercurial energy appears in it's drying abilities and usefulness for those who tend towards nervousness and are poorly affected by the cold, while Uranus speaks to Elecampane's ability to balance conditions of digestion, circulation, and the erratic nature of elf-shots.
The root can be used in a decoction and sweetened with honey. More commonly, the alcohol extract is used (1:2 fresh or 1:6 dried) and dosage ranges. If you are using Elecampane as a tonic and preventative, I would recommend lower doses of 1 - 10 drops daily, while with chronic complaints the dosage can be increased to up to 30 - 40 drops up to 4 times daily. Personally, I recommend low drop dosages, but follow your training and body's needs.