Yule Quilt

Yule Quilt

This is now the fifth quilt I have made in the series of 8 for each sabbat display, and the first where the colours had a small amount of planning in their arrangement – rather than just the total random, ‘scrappy quilt’ look. I did not have many suitable fabrics for Yule, 3 golds, 3 greens, and 4 reds although one was in very short supply. Had I started with this quilt, I would have probably made it far more definite in its design by using some colours for the stars and different colours for the borders, yet this interests me precisely because it wasn’t done that way. It draws me in more.

The stars made me think of spiky holly with its bright berries, as well as poinsettia plants sold everywhere but needing more warmth than our house generally offers on a winter’s night. There is also the coming of the light, directly from the sun as we celebrate its return – and for two months of the year I have an unobstructed view of the sunrise through trees from my bedroom window. Most years (but no longer guaranteed) there is also light reflected by snow, bringing a wonderfully uplifting feel at what is generally a dark time.

Making a series of quilts that are supposed to be an exact size has also been a learning experience. My sewing accuracy wasn’t bad before, but sew each 1/4inch seam just 1/2mm out, and over 25 seams you have gained or lost a whole inch, 25mm. That is assuming my cutting was accurate to within the same tolerances! So it took me to quilt 4 to get almost the right finished size, and this one is just slightly long. Given they are all made slightly wide, long looks good. The other good thing I have finally learned is how to work methodically when picking up each pair of pieces to sew, in order to keep them in the same position and rotation. It has taken me a long time to master this basic skill!

Normally I change the display about a week before a sabbat, but it felt appropriate to get this out last weekend. Not because lights and decorations are up everywhere else and M enjoys them being up in our house as well, but because winter arrived with the last leaves falling off the trees, two dustings of snow and ice on the pond. Autumn has passed, it is dark outside, and I feel ready to close the curtains and be looking within. Enjoying candlelight, being cosy in the long dark evenings, and preparing for what is to come. In my case, a completely crazy, exciting, holiday season with so much packed into about 3 weeks that I have had to write down what I need to do when.

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Holly Flowers

In a satisfying fusion of two apparently unrelated events, to me anyway, the timing was perfect this week to combine a new interest in whittling with the planned removal of a holly tree.

Whittling came about because I realised it would be a way of making fun, quick things in wood that would require less setting up and clearing away time than actual carving. I love carving when I have had an opportunity to do some, but setting up an old workmate table which isn’t too secure and can only hold small items, and which needs folding up and sweeping at the end of each short session – does not make for an easy time given all the other things I want to do and also don’t have much time for. And trying to use a mallet would be too noisy when M is supposed to be asleep! So being inspired by the fact that the mushrooms I carved last autumn were originally whittler’s projects, I thought I would look into it.

Serendipitously I already had a knife – a small Swiss Army one I was given over thirty years ago. Not possibly the ideal gift for a child, but it has traveled far and wide with me thanks to the usefulness of the scissors (with replaced spring), tweezers, and miniature screwdriver I added inside the corkscrew when I replaced the scissor spring – which is the perfect size for glasses screws that haven’t been glued in place. I never did find much use for the knife blade so I was really pleased to realise with a bit of reshaping and sharpening it could be capable of something interesting, meaning I now had a use for half of the eight functions on the knife. (Corkscrew, bottle opener and large screwdriver should be useful… just not my first choice! But plastic toothpick? How is this an essential tool?)

The holly tree is one I have always been a bit sad about. It was here when we moved in – a perfect conical shape growing up against the boundary wall, but with its top damaged in a fire for getting rid of the hawthorn clippings when the then overgrown hedge was rather brutally chopped in order to put the house up for sale. The holly sprouted twin leaders, so never had a chance of regaining its former shape. In recent years it has grown fairly huge, blended into the hedge on one side, and then layered itself on the other to produce a whole thicket of holly on a mission to takeover the corner of the garden – including attacking my small Rowan tree and a Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ both of which I am rather fond of. I have other hollies in the hedge, so I thought it would be better to remove this one before it knocked the end wall down or grew into the electric wires, and then plant something else that was less prickly. As I pruned and shredded, I realised some branches as well as the trunk, now four inches or so in diameter, would be suitable for carving. Only at the last moment did I realise the smaller branches could also be useful for whittling.

Holly flowers in a vase.

Holly flowers in a vase.

The five flowers were all whittled from one branch, around quarter inch across. I left the bark in place to form ‘sepals’ around the ‘petals’, and was intrigued by the way it curled inwards while the ‘petals’ curled outwards. I could have left the stems green, but they felt rather fat and also the bark started going wrinkly before I had finished the last one, so I thinned them to a size that would fit in the vase. Not perfect, too many bits broke off when my cutting was too deep or too shallow, and my knife could do with more sharpening, but they were great fun to do. And I’m sure I will have some more bits to practice on before too long! Bedsides a store of larger timber now seasoning to carve at some future point.

Hedgecutting

I am trying an experiment this year – to cut our mixed hawthorn hedge twice, instead of once. This weekend we have managed to complete the first cut, having started it two weeks ago. I’m glad to say that this year the birds finished nesting by then; some years we would not have been able to start in June! (Garden warblers usually seem to be the latest here, but I haven’t been hearing them this year.)

It has been interesting to see the different behaviours of the plants by changing the timing. While starting only about six weeks earlier than normal (yes it often takes us two weekends to do the whole thing, since we have to cut both our side and the ‘track’ side where the footpath runs) it was noticeable how much softer the hawthorn was and therefore how much easier it was to shred. However, the holly was so soft though that it kept clogging up, and the hazel, separated out to be composted, was definitely easier when woodier. But the first cut with most of the hazel has virtually made compost already, in just two weeks.

There is another aspect however which makes me glad to change our practice. I have been gradually trying to grow the hedge out wider on the track side, in order to protect the bank against inappropriate use of strimmers and weedkillers applied by other track user(s). By keeping the edge neat and cutting a little off more frequently, the hedge is starting to thicken up on that side. It was really encouraging to see the return of cow parsley this year for the first time in about a decade. There are also a few other wildflowers, besides the predictable nettles, brambles and stickyweed trying to keep humans at bay, and a large quantity of ivy helping to stabilise the soil. I am hoping these will all flourish in a more protected space.

Merry Yule!

Lino print Holly Man

Lino print Holly Man

Greetings to all my readers. May this holly man bring you good cheer in these dark winter days, as we greet the return of the sun!

Some consider the Holly King to be the ruler of winter, while the Oak King rules the summer – although the exact date when each is supposed to be killed and give way to the other seems to vary through almost every season of the year depending on the source used.

In Roman times holly was used to honour Saturn, the God of Agriculture, celebrated at Saturnalia on 25th December. This has led to suggestions that the name Holly is related to Holy, and has a connection with the crown of thorns used at Easter in the Christian calendar. Since the holly man is often depicted in red with white beard an hair, and a sprig of holly tucked away somewhere, it has been suggested that he is a model for Santa Claus, via a connection with Odin.

To me Holly is a plant of winter, the shiny leaves reflecting light, while red berries are the colour of a low sun in the sky. Both the leaves and the berries are eaten by animals and birds in winter, but not summer when other food sources are more plentiful.

This is of course a lino print – it is my first use of colour, and I have a bit of learning still to do! The green was done in one piece, then the red berries were done as a trio mounted on a short dowel and treated as a stamp. Next year I must start earlier to allow for drying time…

Tree Stories 6 – Holly

Holly is now published on its own page – please follow the links above.

Prickly even as dried leaves, holly was a tree that took me a while to get close to and really appreciate. However, it grows so easily underneath deciduous trees and is so unlike other British natives that I have come to really enjoy its glossy leaves that reflect light on the dullest of days. I have several holly plants in my garden – a small tree in the corner which has been here longer than we have and now forms part of the hedge, a few more we planted in gaps in the hedge, and an abundance of seedlings that spring up all over the garden. I think it’s trying to tell me something!

It is traditionally effective against evil spirits, and will apparently give protection to elves and fairies. I’m not sure how this works personally, but many animals may take refuge within its evergreen branches, and besides ponies and cattle, deer, sheep and rabbits make a good meal from the leaves and the bark. Birds also enjoy the berries, which are borne on female plants. They are poisonous to humans, however the Holly leaves are said to make a good infusion for easing catarrh, pleurisy, coughs, colds and flu.

The wood was prized for its ability to take colour stains, and was used extensively in marquetry. It was also used for spear shafts, chariot wheels, walking sticks, and for hedging as it forms an impenetrable barrier.

Ivy

Ivy flowers and berries

Ivy flowers and berries

I have been thinking a lot about ivy recently, for two reasons: first because of its Winter character, being evergreen and flowering when all else has finished, and second because as the trees loose their leaves I have been particularly aware this year of how the ivy has spread up their trunks and is surrounding them.

To look at the second point first, the RHS advice on ivy is that it will not harm a healthy hedge or tree. Their website states “where it grows into the crown this is usually only because the trees are already in decline or are diseased and slowly dying.” This does not bode well for some of the trees around me! I have pulled it from our hawthorn hedge a few times over the years, where it tries to swamp some of the older trees, or invade the flower areas, because left unchecked, the balance seems to be entirely in favour of the ivy. If ivy gets into stone walls, they generally need rebuilding. However for all the problems it causes, I have to admire its spirit.

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy is unusual in flowering in late autumn, making it ecologically important. There is an ivy bee which lives just for these flowers, basing its entire life cycle around the ivy, although sadly not this far north. Hoverflies also feed off their nectar. Then the berries last through the winter, feeding many birds when other fruits have gone. The leaves are evergreen so provide shelter for many insects, and also temperature regulation and protection for us humans when grown on buildings. Ivy is like the holly in having two leaf forms – a pointed, palmate leaf, and a smooth edged, simpler leaf on flowering shoots. However while the holly grows its points for protection against the low shoots being eaten with smooth leaves higher up, the ivy does it to increase its surface area where light levels are low.

Ivy leaves are good for removing pollution from the air, and also toxins from our bodies. They are mildly anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Their best use is in lung conditions, easing the ability to breathe by helping to relax muscle spasms as well as loosening mucus. It combines well with Thyme for this purpose. Unfortunately ivy is also poisonous, generally causing stomach upsets, so any recommendations for home preparations are limited to external uses such as skin complaints or insect stings, for which it is apparently effective. Luckily I haven’t had a reason to try this out!

Traditionally ivy is seen as female, possibly due to its spiral growth connecting it to the Goddess. It is included in bridal bouquets – and it is supposed to bring luck, fidelity and fertility. The holly is seen as its male counterpart in winter, hence there are many references to the two together, often in conflict for superiority with each other but sometimes in partnership.

Personally I have trouble with ascribing genders to trees or other plants, so to use gender as a starting point for understanding a plant or for its use is therefore problematic. (Individual tree spirits or faeries are a different matter!) So what does the character of ivy offer? I see it as tenacious, can grow anywhere from the darkest shade to bright sunshine, and will use whatever it finds to climb up and over any obstacles. It is highly adaptable and not fussy. It can wander freely, and can be binding yet is not bound itself. It can offer protection, nourishment, but also death to the unwary. Know yourself, know what you seek before asking ivy to help, but then trust in its ability to network and scramble to reach the light where it will flower regardless of the weather – even on a dull late November day as shown here!

Ivy 'hedge' in flower

Ivy ‘hedge’ in flower

Flowers and Weeds – Part 2

Whilst writing last week’s post I had great difficulty in directing my thoughts, because weeds kept wanting to encroach and change the focus of the post. So I decided to split it into two parts; here is the second, dedicated to the type of plants some call ‘weeds’ but which flower alongside ‘flowers’ in my garden.

The most common definition of a weed I found online is:

A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.

In my early days of gardening, I used to try to impose my control over what grew, removing the wild plants and replacing them with favoured flowers and shrubs grown from seed or bought in. Over time most of the non-native ones either died off, or were removed as looking out of place. I now have a rather more fluid definition of a weed in my garden, which can vary depending on what the plant is, where it is growing, and how much of it there is:

A weed is a plant that doesn’t bring joy into your heart.

Our lawn area contains many plants which do not come under any definition of grass. We have in the past sprinkled feed and weed around it and put much effort in to restrict the plants to grasses. However after I started to feel energies with my hands, I realised I much preferred a mixture of grass and clover and daisies and dandelions and self heal and mosses and whatever else wanted to grow there to just plain grass. So it was much easier just to mow it and enjoy it as it was. My aim today is not to eradicate anything, but just keep some kind of balance between all the different plants that grow. The only real weed in our lawn at present is a thistle rosette that I don’t particularly want to sit on! Conversely, grass or other lawn plants become weeds when they get into the flower or fruit areas.

In the vegetable beds most of the weeds are plants that I enjoy elsewhere in the garden, but don’t want competing for nutrients with crops I want to eat. Valeriana officinalis, or Yarrow or violets are the most common invaders; interestingly all three are useful plants medicinally, and that to me says something else about weeds. Just like an illness comes because we need it for some reason, so do the plants we need to heal ourselves come and surround us. I am going to suggest that:

Weeds are the plants most suited to the growing conditions, and to what you need personally.

I have been wondering if there is a general dislike of weeds because they are trying to tell us something we don’t want to know…

First, weeds being suited to the growing conditions. This may seem fairly obvious, because that is why they are successful. However, you can use the weeds as markers to tell you what kind of conditions you are providing. I have had an explosion of creeping buttercup in one area of my garden – the soil has become acid and compacted there. Nettles grow along the hedge – fertility is good there and the acidity in balance. Violets spreading across the front garden – there are several ants nests.

Second, weeds being what we need personally. Spiritually, I believe very strongly that all is connected, and we have everything we need even if that is not necessarily what we want. I don’t know what draws the weeds we need to us, but either like attracts like; they are successful under the same conditions in which we are trying to live; or because they are our spiritual allies. Whichever, we have the choice over whether or not to take notice of them.

So this week I have taken this a step further, listed all the plants which are currently doing incredibly well by themselves, needing constant keeping within bounds (whether or not I planted them originally), and then investigated what they offer medicinally. This was my list, minus buttercup (ranunculus) and columbine (aquilegia) for which I couldn’t find any medicinal value, both being toxic to humans when eaten fresh.

  • Betony (Stachys) – coughs and lungs, also a relaxant for de-stressing and related complaints.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum) – said to contain the spirit of fairies; digestion, infections, cleansing, also nutritious. They are so common that it may be we as British people have great need for dandelion at this time.
  • Yarrow (Achillea) – said to improve alertness and psychic ability; healing wounds, PMS or other blood-related complaints, immune stimulant for colds and flu.
  • Stickyweed (Galium) – cleansing lymph system; see earlier post, Joys of Spring – Stickyweed.
  • Valeriana – relaxant, for muscles or stress; probably not me who needs this one!
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria) – wonderful tonic for women. (Fruits contain iron, folic acid, vitamin C)
  • Avens (Geum) – catarrh, or as clove substitute; chew the root for teeth troubles. Not me, again…
  • Holly (Ilex) – said to protect against evil spirits; catarrh, pleurisy, coughs, colds, flu.
  • Mallow (Malva) – expectorant, all sorts of lung conditions.

Hmm, you’d never guess I suffer from lung troubles looking at this list! And I can see the problems of the rest of my family reflected as well. While there are many herbs I do use that are not included here (because they do not spread by themselves) some of the above list were unfamiliar to me before writing this post. I intend to get to know them better over the coming months, and will let you know how I get on.