Monday 11 December 2017

The Ancient Herbalists Assigned Herbs to Planetary Rulers

Why the Ancient Herbalists Assigned Herbs to Astrological Rulers

Nicholas Culpeper (Photo: Public Domain)

As far as we know, there are no more planets in this Solar System that have plants growing on them, though some people have suggested there may be vegetation of some sort on Mars. Ancient herbalists, however, had a system of assigning herbs to planetary rulers; in other words, they claimed that deities linked with the heavenly bodies held dominion over herbs that grow on Earth. Let us take a look at a selection of herbs that were placed under the astrological ruling of other planets, and see why it might have been that herbalists, like Culpeper, decided to assign them to specific heavenly rulers.

Herbs of Mars

Dragon Tree (Photo: Public Domain)

Nicholas Culpeper was one of the most famous herbalists who believed that medicinal and culinary plants could be grouped in this way, according to their various characteristics that were linked to those of a specific god or goddess. For example, because Mars was regarded as the god of war, herbs that had something aggressive about their physical appearance or something that resembled blood, were candidates for being ruled by this planet. The strange Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) is a perfect example of a herb ruled by Mars because it has sword-shaped leaves, reddish-coloured berries and it bleeds a resinous sap that goes a dark red when dry and is known as dragon’s blood. The Dragon Tree comes from the Canary Islands, and a specimen in the town of Icod de los Vinos is thought to be 1,000-years-old or more. It is known as the "Drago Milenario," has its own park, and is a tourist attraction nowadays.

Steve Andrews explains why the Dragon Tree is a herb of Mars

Mistletoe (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of the Sun

Herbs of the Sun include the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and the Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis). These two plants have petals that radiate out from a central disk like the rays of the Sun, and the Sunflower is, of course, a bright yellow, which is a colour linked with the central star of our Solar System. The St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is another herb in this group. It has yellow star-shaped flowers and is harvested in midsummer when the Sun is at its strongest and the days are at their longest. St John’s Wort has become well-known as a herbal antidepressant, and one of its alternative names is Sunshine Herb. Mistletoe (Viscum album) is an herb of the Sun because it was traditionally harvested by Druids at the time of the Winter Solstice. It was cut down from an oak tree using a golden sickle.

White Water Lily (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of the Moon

Herbs ruled by the Moon were often ones that are associated with water, because the Moon is linked with the oceans because it causes the tides. White flowers or a silvery colour on the foliage are other characteristics linked with the Moon, and plants that have something to do with the night might also be thought of as herbs of the Moon. The White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba) is a herb ruled by the Moon. This is because of its white flowers, rounded leaves, like full Moons, and because it grows in lakes and ponds. The Jasmine (Jasminum officinale) has white blooms and its perfume is strongest at night. The White Willow (Salix alba) is another herb under the dominion of the Moon. Willows, of course, like to grow by water. The Lettuce species (Lactuca spp.) are ruled by the Moon too. This is because they have a white milky sap if cut. This sap is known as "Lettuce opium" and has similar sedative effects.

Fennel (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Mercury

Mercury was thought of as the messenger of the gods, so herbs ruled by this planet have to really communicate to us in some way. Strongly aromatic herbs were often chosen as herbs of Mercury. The Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a great example of a herb in this group. It communicates to our senses with the visual appeal of its tall graceful stems and ferny foliage, to our tastes with its sweet and spicy flavour like aniseed, and with its scent like anise when crushed. It is used both as a culinary herb and in herbal medicine.

Periwinkle (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Venus

Herbs ruled by Venus, not surprisingly include the Rose, which is a symbol of love and passion, and, of course, Venus is the Goddess of Love. The pretty blue-flowered Periwinkle (Vinca spp.) is another herb in this group, and this is because it has been used in love potions and spells. It was thought that merely sprinkling this herb under the bed of a couple of lovers would increase their passion. In fact, the Periwinkle is a poisonous plant but that never stopped it being linked with love.

Lime Tree (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Jupiter

Jupiter is a giant planet and expansion is one of the characteristics associated with it as a planetary ruler. Various trees come under its dominion because of their spreading branches. One of them is the Lime Tree (Tilia spp.), a tree which gives us lime flower tea, which is known to help relaxation and is very popular in many parts of Europe. It was once thought that anyone suffering from epilepsy would be healed by merely sitting under a Lime's branches. The Oak (Quercus) is a very important and sacred tree for Druids, and it too comes under the rulership of Jupiter.

Deadly Nightshade (Photo: Public Domain)

Herbs of Saturn

Saturn is another gigantic planet and famous for its rings. To the Ancient Herbalists it was associated with the passing of time and with old age and death. It symbolises the “Grim Reaper.” Many poisonous herbs come under its dominion. The Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), the Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) are all very dangerous herbs that were once used by witches as ingredients for their “flying ointments.” The Morning Glory (Ipomoea violacea) is another herb under the dominion of Saturn. Its flower has a circular mouth to a funnel-shape and could remind us of the Rings of Saturn. Its seeds, especially in varieties like "Heavenly Blue," contain lysergic acid amide, which as hallucinogenic effects and has often been used by hippies and shamans because of this. This flower looks so beautiful it could be from another world, and its psychoactive effects could make you feel like you were on one.

Morning Glory (Photo: Steve Andrews)

In Conclusion

Thinking about how the herbalists assigned various herbs to the rulership of planetary deities, according to their characteristics, certainly makes for a fascinating study and something for us to think about. My new book Herbs of the Sun, Moon and Planets (Moon Books) explores this subject in greater detail.

Herbs of the Sun, Moon and Planets explained by author Steve Andrews

Friday 1 December 2017

A day out in London exploring nature

A day out in London exploring nature
Magpie in tree in Regent's Park  (Photo: Ashley Coates)

London is a massive and bustling city in the UK, but surprisingly, despite all its shops and streets, and traffic and buildings, it is a good place for exploring nature if you know where to go. As a matter of fact, as much as 47% of London is actually green space, though this may not be evident if you are just looking at all its building developments, housing and roads.
If you are a naturalist with a special interest in a particular area of study, you can come to London and spend an interesting time there seeing what you can find. For example, a botanist can see how many wildflowers they can find growing in the urban environment, and see what trees they can discover in the city’s streets, parks and gardens. If you are a bird-spotter, you can be on the lookout for different species, and it is possible to get some surprises.

The very rare bittern is a species that has been seen in wetlands just a few km from the city centre. The American robin made national news and excited twitchers when it was seen in London in the Peckham Rye station area back in 2006.

American Robin (Photo: Tim Sackton)

Regent’s Park
It is the parks that are the obvious place to look for nature and the city of London has a wonderful selection of parklands, which are home to all sorts of incredible wildlife. Regent’s Park not only supports an interesting flora and fauna in the wild, including frogs, toads, common newts, herons, cormorants, bats, hedgehogs, foxes, and as many as 21 species of British butterfly, but is also home to London Zoo, which is worth a visit to see many exotic species.

Urban fox (Photo: brett jordan)

Where to stay on a Day Trip to London
Perhaps you have already heard about what a great place the big city can be for connecting with nature, and have decided to make a day trip to London? Perhaps you are planning to take a look at some of its parks but fancy somewhere to be able to rest between morning and afternoon explorations. There are plenty of hotels by the hour on DayBreakHotels site, where you can book a room for your use just for the day. Having such a hotel room can be convenient as a place to leave any baggage you brought with you and also for any shopping you may have done while in London. Even though your day trip is to discover nature and urban wildlife you may well be tempted by the incredible range of shops on offer in London. Convenience is important for you to get the most out of your day in the big city and Hyde Park is in convenient distance to Regent's Park.

Hyde Park
Heron and spring flowers in Hyde Park (Photo: Sarah Castillo)

Hyde Park is a popular park in the heart of London that is a great place for spotting wildlife, and on a day trip to the city perhaps you could visit this park in the second half of your day.  Hyde Park has plenty of wildflowers in its meadow and the these plants attract lots of butterflies and pollinators in summer. The Serpentine Lake attracts many waterbirds including great crested grebes. The park has a great variety of birds, including long-tailed tits, dunnocks and robins, and buzzards have been sighted here too.

Go Wild In the City
There are also organisations in London that provide services that help introduce residents and visitors. Wildinthecity is one such non-profit organisation that provides guided walks in the green spaces and natural areas of the London area, and includes foraging, bushcraft and camping in the wild as skills you can learn. Wildinthecity shows people how to connect with nature and teaches about the pleasures to be gained outdoors, as well as how to identify edible fruits and plants, for example.

Foraging for berries (Photo: Simon James)

London may be a busy metropolis but is still a wonderful place for discovering the natural world.