Welcome to the Order of the Sacred Star! This Pagan/Wiccan group, based in Winnipeg, Canada, is committed to teaching the Craft to all those who wish to learn. Our goal is to provide a complete and fulfulling learning experience. Our public classes are offered through the Winnipeg Pagan Teaching Circle.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Herbology: The Benefits of Growing Your Own Herbs

Growing your own herbs is a fun and worthwhile exercise. A large full-service herb garden is the dream of many, but you can grow herbs anywhere. Even the smallest apartment usually has a little window where you can grow a few essentials. Planters can fit nicely onto balconies and there are some really cute items these days designed for growing plants on your table or even on a shelf. Work with your space to find a solution and you can have fresh herbs all year round.

Many people argue that they simply don't have time to grow their own herbs. These same people state that the dried herbs you buy at the grocery store are just as good as anything you can grow at home. This is actually an easy debate to settle. Let's start by addressing time. There's hardly any time commitment at all if you're only growing a few choice herbs in your window. You plant, water, occasionally add plant food, and harvest when you have a need. You don't do any actual work. The plant is the one that has to do all the growing. If you have a sunny window and a ready source of water, you can grow herbs.

The second part of the debate requires you to do a little sampling. Pick a fresh sprig of basil. If you don't have any growing at home (if you do, better yet) head to the nearest supermarket that stocks organic produce. Most of these stores will have a small selection of fresh herbs to choose from. Basil is usually among them. Place the fresh basil in your mouth and chew, savoring the taste. Rinse your mouth with water and chew on a few bits of dried basil. Notice the difference?

Fresh, healthy basil always tastes better than dried. Always. There is no exception to that. If you're going to use dried herbs, try and dry them yourself. At least then you'll know how old they are. With the packaged herbs, you really don't know when they were dried. Taste dwindles with age, so it makes sense that other properties might as well. It's entirely possible (and likely, giving the anecdotal evidence) that older herbs are less effective when it comes to healing. Fresh is better. Always.

Using fresh herbs will make a difference. If you're still not convinced, try a fresh apple from the tree. Or a tomato from your garden. Or just about anything you grow instead of buy at your supermarket. It will all taste better than anything packaged. If you really can't grow a certain herb yourself, check your local farmer's market. They have a lot of herbs that you probably won't.

Besides having a fresher product that will be more effective, growing some of your own herbs is relaxing and satisfying. You can also see exactly what you have left by glancing at the window. And if you've never had the scent of fresh basil, oregano, or thyme (my favorite is lemon thyme) wafting through your kitchen, you don't know what you're missing.

In the end, the greatest benefit of growing your own herbs might be that you have total control over the final product. You get to decide what soil you want, what plant food to use, whether or not to use pesticides (hint: don't use them), how to harvest, and how to dry or otherwise store the herbs you've gown. You get exactly what you put in, and that is a comforting thought.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Herbology: Aquiring Herbs and Oils

Once upon a time, long ago, back in the early 1990s, you couldn't just order exotic herbs over the Internet. Herbs had to be grown at home, or purchase from someone who did grow them at home, and oil had to be expressed or distilled if you couldn't find a local retailer. Today, however, you can order dried herbs, live herbs, or even their essential oils from a variety of reputable sources. This means today's practitioners have many more options. You can grow everything, purchase everything, or purchase only some things. It's really up to you.

Growing or Purchasing Herbs

Some people will tell you that you must grow and harvest your own herbs, but let's be realistic. I use over a hundred different herbs in my practice, and I live in an area where many of them simply will not grow. Yes, I can grow common ones such as basil, oregano, sage, rosemary, and thyme. I also grow lavender and lilac, and elm, pine, cedar, and willow are common in my area of the world. But some herbs just don't grow well here, or don't grow well for me. I've never had any luck with eyebright, for example, and cohosh of any variety just doesn't like me. Growing them all myself is just not practical.

So what are we to do? Well, growing your own is ideal, and herbs you grew and harvested are three times more effective than those you bought off a shelf (or from an Internet provider), but buying herbs is a fact of life for most of us. So choose no more than five or six plants to grow yourself. Pick easier ones such as basil or thyme. Lavender also grows well and has a variety of uses. I would also suggest sage and oregano, as all these herbs can also be used fresh in cooking. They also can all be grown in a window sill.

If you're lucky enough to live near a greenhouse that allows you to harvest your own herbs, check and see what they offer. You might be able to harvest rosemary, cohost, fennel, eyebright, and many others. You'll have to pay a fee, of course, but herbs you've harvested yourself (but that someone else has grown) are twice as effective as those you've purchased. It's also possible to collect herbs that grow natural, such as dandelion or willow, but collect only from pesticide-free areas. And make sure you know what you're collecting.

Finally, there will be herbs you need to purchase. I always purchase my belladonna and my eucalyptus, for example. Just make sure you're dealing with a reputable source, especially when ordering from the Internet. Looks for stores that have been in business for a decade (or close to it) and who have good reviews. Talk to people about where they get their herbs; you'll find the best sources that way. And remember that not all Internet shops can ship to your location. Herbs are often checked or even confiscated when crossing international borders, so go local (or at least within your own country) if at all possible.

Don't forget to check your local grocery store, especially in the organic area. You'd be surprised what the supermarket carries.

Acquiring Essential Oils

Finding quality oils can be tricky. Real essential oils are distilled or expressed from the most fragrant part of the plant. You can also find absolutes, which are similar to essential oils except they've been created with the assistance of a solvent. Some oils are labeled as 'essential oil' when they're really no more than a fragrant oil, and fragrant oils only smell like the real thing. They are not all that useful in herbology.

For the most part, real essential oils will come from India, Egypt, or one of the countries in that area. It is here where essential oils have been produced for thousands of years, and they've really go it down to a science. True, a local shop could produce their own oils, but it is so expensive to do so that most (if not all) can simply not afford it. Instead of going broke trying to produce their own oils, most shops will simply offer their own blends (or someone else's) at decent prices. The problem with this is that you don't really know what is actually in the oil. Most 'magickal oils' are nothing more than fragrant oils blended to smell nice. These are not essential oils.

Some oils will have the word 'essence' on the label, but will not actually say 'essential oil'. Beware of these. 'Essence' means scent, and usually they don't even smell all that great. Even if they do, they probably don't smell like the actual plant. Avoid these at all cost.

So where are you going to get essential oils? The truth is most Pagan or metaphysical shops don't stock them. It's not because they don't want to, but more because clients aren't buying. If a customer sees 5ml of rose oil for $15 at one shop, but can find 5ml for $3 down the street...you can guess where they go. Most don't know, or don't care, that the $15 oil is the useful stuff. Even metaphysical shops have to cater to their clientele, so unless you live in an area where there the customers actually want essential oils, your shop won't have them.

The good news is that they can absolutely be ordered from a variety of shops on the Internet. Check the reputations of the shops you find, make sure they ship to your country, and make absolutely sure the oils say 'essential oil'. Anything less is not worth your time.

One more word of warning: some plants don't have an essential oil, or even a fragrant oil. This is because some scents are entirely water-based, and as such don't have an oil form. This is especially true of strawberry, watermelon, and that newly mown grass smell people are so fond of. These oils are almost certainly synthetic. There's nothing wrong with using these oils for aromatherapy (and I do), but they are not appropriate when practicing herbology.

When growing or acquiring your herbs and oils, take the greatest care. Your plants should be of the upmost quality. If you can't grow a good plant, buy it, but make sure your source is giving you only the best.