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Bigleaf Maple Syrup Tapping

John Muir traveled through the Salish Sea region in 1888 and described ‘magnificent groves’ of maples, ‘attaining heights of seventy-five to a hundred feet and a diameter of four to eight feet…. Laden with long drooping mosses beneath and rows of ferns on their upper surfaces, thus making a grand series of richly ornamented, interlacing arches…. The largest of these maple groves that I have yet found is on the right bank of the Snoqualmie River…. Never have I seen a finer forest ceiling, nor a more picturesque one.’ ‘Not even in the great maple woods of Canada have I seen trees either as large or with so much striking, picturesque character.’ (excerpted from Steep Trails, published posthumously in 1918)

He was speaking of our beautiful Bigleaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum, one of our native hardwoods. The leaves can be enormous, a foot across, described by its common and scientific name, turning a brilliant gold in fall. In spring ki is adorned with drooping cream-colored flower drupes, which soon transform into clusters of v-shaped winged seeds, samaras, which whirl erratically to the ground in the Autumn gusts. The nectar from this flower provides an early spring food for our bees, and which makes a delicious, prized honey. In late winter, the seeds sprout in the forest floor, some years by the thousands and are delicious and ornamental in early spring salads.

Many years ago, I heard that one could tap Bigleaf Maple for syrup, though much lower in sugar and not as tasty as the syrup from the Sugar Maple of the Northeast forests. Nonetheless, I decided to make my own taps, called spiles, carved from wood, and following advice for tapping sugar maple, I set my taps on some nearby trees- sun-facing, mid-size trees, during days of freezing nights and warm days. I got nothing, not even a drop.

More recently, I was re-inspired by a group on Vancouver Island who tap these maples for syrup, and they have been doing so successfully! Some even commercially. In fact they have a Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival each year in Duncan, BC. This motivated me to try my hand at it once again. This time I bought metal spiles from Lehman’s, to eliminate that variable, got some food grade tubing and rounded up some jugs. I got permission from a biodynamic farmer friend to use his uphill forest to try to tap some trees. With some experimentation, I ended up with more sap than I knew what to do with, I was hauling in five gallon jugs twice a day, and rigged a cooking down system that I could manage. I soon ended up with several quarts of the most amazingly delicious syrup, and a few batches of candy when I overcooked it! I’ve been doing it every year since, keeping it to a much more manageable scale, and relish the two or three quarts of golden syrup I end up with as special treat throughout the year.

When a tap is successful the sap drips in a rhythm which reminds me of a heartbeat. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, has written a beautiful essay, titled Maple Sugar Moon, which describes her learning experience making syrup, and her epiphany as her young “girls, stretch out their tongues and slurp, with a look of bliss” and she is moved to tears. “…they are nursed by a maple, as close as they could come to being suckled by Mother Earth.” In my classes I always encourage that moment. Here is a video of one of my taps dripping away happily.     


The sap is mildly sweet, high in antioxidants and minerals and can be used as is in beverages, soup and baking. It comes from starch in the roots stored there from the last season, which, through enzymatic action is converted to sugar, and osmotic action, caused by cold nights and warm days, pumps this sugar enriched water up through the xylem layer, the rare time of year this takes place, to reach the leaf and flower buds which, once the days lengthen to spring, will burst into growth. Our spiles, only a few per tree, and only every few years on each tree, intercepts this flow, diverting it to our use. I am reminded of the Sapsucker and Woodpeckers which accompany me while I gather my sap, and I feel that connection. There is scant record of tribes of this region using this sap, but for the tribes of the great hardwood forests of the Northeast it is a core cultural component. It was primarily processed it into sugar, made through evaporation, as soft cakes, candy and granulated sugar. Recently a friend who spends time at the syrup camps in Minnesota, gifted me with a jar of this sugar, which I consider a treasure, and look forward to sharing with others in the coming year of teaching.

Check my Upcoming Classes for workshops on this, usually in January and February.

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Bog Cranberry


As holiday meals are upon us, native traditional foods become central to our menus. One of the plants which take center stage is our is our native cranberry Vaccinium oxycoccus, which once grew abundantly throughout our region. The Pacific Northwest was formerly dotted with hundreds of known and named bogs, home to very important native plants including our bog cranberry, named ƛ̓x̌ulčac in the Lushootseed language.

In the Blueberry Family, it is closely related to blueberry and huckleberry but in miniature form, though ki’s berries grow just as large. These bogs were filled with cranberries which could be harvested in large quantities. One well-known bog was located just south of Duvall in the Snoqualmie Valley. It was so large that it is said that people travelled there and camped for weeks harvesting these berries to store for winter and as a trade item. They were harvested while green before the fall rains, and packed in moss where they slowly ripened to be eaten fresh, or mashed and mixed with other berries used in sauces, puddings or soups.

The first European settlers who encountered this plant named it crane-berry for shape of its dainty drooping pink flower, which is a delight to discover in early summer. This name might also be linked to the sandhill cranes who favor these berries and the bogs they grow in. I find it remarkable to compare the size of the plant itself to the enormous berry these tiny plants produce- to compare with an apple tree the fruit would be the size of a basketball!

Kings Lake Bog.jpg

Sadly most of our bogs/fens have disappeared- filled or drained for agriculture and development and those few remaining altered by changing hydrology which shifts the plant community from bog to emergent wetland. But I do know of many little tucked away places, now protected and cared for as rare habitat, often for the threatened animal and plant species associated with these complex ecosystems. Interesting associated plants include our insect-eating Greater Sundew and Butterwort and other important plants such Gentian and Labrador tea. Commercial bogs in Grays Harbor area are successfully growing another species of native cranberry from the Northeast (V. macrocarpon) and these can be seasonally ‘foraged’ at our local farmers markets and local foods stores.

Cranberries were a valued food for the Salish people, being very high in Vitamin C and anti-oxidant, and though very tart were eaten fresh, or mixed with other sweeter berries. The berries were also medicinal, used to treat wounds and internal infections. Early European explorers quickly realized their value in protecting against scurvy packing them in barrels of water during their voyages. We can add them to our traditional foods meals by making traditional sauces for meat and fish, using them in desserts such as one of my seasonal favorites ‘Walnut and Cranberry Tart, and as beverages. We have been experimenting with them in our Foraged Cocktails programs, such as this sparkling holiday drink.

Cranberry fields Grays harbor area cropped

Cranberry farm near Long Beach in full flower

As yet, I’ve never found a patch of wild cranberry that I’d feel ethical harvesting from. Cranberries are sometimes available for purchase as plants, and not to be mistaken for ‘highbush cranberry’ an entirely different plant. I see that Raintree Nursery carries a variety that might be interesting to grow, but I think instead I will support the organic cranberry farmers in our state as they learn how to successfully farm this amazing plant.

I hope you enjoy this holiday season and all the beautiful bounty of our lands.

Cattail Mats

As pictures are worth a thousand words I will start with images- ones which inspired my research into this unique element of Pacific Northwest ethnobotany. As you see, mats are present throughout these images, yet, at the time I was beginning my research into the cultural history here in the mid 90’s, there was very little mention of them, perhaps a caption might mention mats, perhaps even ‘cattail mats’. And yet, they showed up everywhere in the historic record- as seating, flooring, mattresses, insulation, storage, insulation on plankhouse walls, and as sheathing for the summer houses. (left; Photo by Edward Curtis; right: Painting by Paul Kane, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey are made from the cattail plant Typha latifolia, also called ‘ulal’ by the coast Salish, common in our wetlands, and called bulrush in other parts of the world. In my Scottish/Irish ancestry we also used them to make mats, thickly braided and sewn, as well as for baskets, as they were also used here. It’s an important plant for many things including wildlife habitat, yet shunned in most wetland restoration projects as ‘invasive’ to my chagrin (don’t get me started!).

Cattail and me harvestI found cattail mats in the museums, and then began researching the tools used for making them- the long wooden cattail mat needles, the highly carved cattail mat creasers. This was the mid-90’s, did we even have google then? If so I wasn’t using it yet, and I’m not sure what I would have found, this information is so obscure and even now, incorrect. Instead I went to the books and museums, and eventually to the people who are still making them.

It was a three year process to make my first mat, figuring out how and when to harvest the cattail leaves (‘after everyone else is done using them’), how to dry them and store them to avoid mold, deciding what to make my first fiber cordage from, how to make a wooden mat needle, and which is the best wood, how to use a creaser, how to sew it without tearing the leaves, how to properly bind them, and eventually how to use them. I was gifted with knowledge from ancestors in photos, and finally the edge-binding techniques directly from Fran James (Lummi) who, along with her son Bill James, made cattail mats for the Burke Museum, which were also teachers for me.

cattail mats women sewingtiny

These are primarily sewn mats, not twined or plaited. This is a technique unique to Cascadia region (although I believe some of the Great Lakes tribes may have also sewn cattail mats, I have not studied that yet). The photo on the left is of a Stillaguamish woman on Camano Island sewing a cattail mat with her long wooden mat needle, creaser nearby, with cattail leaves drying in the sun (Harlan Smith, 1900). I call her one of my teachers. On that note, I never refer to myself as self-taught, as I am humbled by the knowledge that has been gifted to me by people who have gone before but left their traces, and those who continue to share through writing, stories and personal connections.

I learned that tule (too- lee) mats made from hardstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus acutus) of the Plateau region are also sewn, in much the same manner. I wondered at the reason for sewing, rather than twining,  and only recently learned while working with the Klamath Tribe who used three types of rush mats for their housing- sewn, twined, and bundled- that a primary reason for using sewn mats on the exterior of a house, rather than twined or plaited, is that it sheds rain easily. Further I’ve been told that the tule mats swelled with water, as well, to further seal out the rain. The historic photo on the left shows tule mat-houses along the Columbia River, in winter a cold and windy place, and still in use after the introduction of wood stoves and cars evident in the photo, testament to how effective these mats are. The ones used for seating and mattresses were often doubled-walled for added thickness. I’ve seen some fine examples of these, most recently at Karshner Museum in Puyallup, where I consulted on designing an in-depth program for school classes which includes each student making cattail mats, using cattail leaves I supply each year as part of this program.

Cattails MatmakingtinyI have been able to share my experiences and this knowledge back into tribal communities for many years now, where it belongs. The photo, left, is of a workshop on cattails at Northwest Indian College- Traditional Plants Program, making small mats. Years after one of these workshops a Snoqualmie tribal elder shared with me that this experience brought back memories of her grandmother, who lived Foss Waterway plank wall cattail mat model webin a tiny house along the shores of Lake Samammish, with her walls still insulated by cattail mats. I have learned that these hands-on experiences often trigger memory, and certainly embeds it. Cattail and tule mats continue to be used in some tribal communities, primarily for ceremonial uses.

I also offer cattail mat kits to schools, museums and educators, which I developed after many years of going into the schools to teach it myself. I’ve even made a few models for education kits used in parks and museums over the years, in particular in conjunction with a model of a Salish plank wall, like this one at the Foss Waterway Museum in Tacoma which shows the profile of Salish plank wall, insulated with a cattail mat, an ingenious and effective indigenous construction technique.

cattail mat Bastyr project

This photo shows a student at Bastyr University on her finished cattail mat as part of her research project for our ‘Ethnobotany’ and ‘Northwest Herbs’ class, which she plans to use for her morning stretches.

In the past few years I’ve expanded my work with cattails to include making and teaching about twined and plaited baskets, rush hats, and bags, in the tradition of my Irish/Scottish ancestors. It is an amazing, renewable material, and I hope I cross paths with you one day to share knowledge and experience.


HB-headshot_03-squareHeidi Bohan


The Berry Moons

The months of summer are the Berry Moons in the Pacific Northwest. The first summer moon of the Salish Seas is named after the Salmonberry, sung to gold-and-ruby-ripe by Swainson’s thrush as noted in local legends. This is followed by sweet black Dewberry which hugs the ground with its lime-green stems in the moon cycle of July. At the peak of summer it is the moon of the deep-purple Salal berry, abundant in the forest, filled with tiny, protein rich seed and rich with anti-oxidants. In the past it was perhaps the most important berry harvested in quantities in the lowlands. Mixed with other berries it is mashed into a paste and dried in the sun over a smoky fire then stored, to be brought out in the winter moons to be added to soups and stews, made into a sauce served over fish, mixed with dried salmon meal cooked into a pudding, or simply eaten like fruit leather, dipped in fish oils, for a nutritious snack.


There are over 50 edible berries here in the Northwest. Berries were one of the three most important food groups of the people of Cascadia along with Meat & Seafood, and Roots & Bulbs. Berries provide key vitamins and minerals and were the sweet food. Their ability to be dried and stored for winter, preserving their nutritional value throughout the year, made them essential in the food menu. Today traditional longhouses of tribes throughout the Northwest honor the return of the berries each year with a feast. This is a core cultural event where the cultural knowledge and skills are passed on to each generation through learning the harvesting traditions, basketry, tools, songs, proper behavior and the way in which the foods are prepared and served.

Yakama tribe huckleberry harvests in traditional baskets, handpicked by dozens of families over several days of camping. 

Yakama Huckleberry baskets

My friend Eleanor (left, standing), also called Aunt Sissy, is a longhouse leader, and calls the timing for the harvests throughout the seasons. Her sister Marlene is sitting next to her. Here she is teaching and asking that the people “Try to remember!”. 

Yakama huck Eleanor Marlene group web.jpg

I’ve learned that berry fields were managed by fire in the same manner and for the same reason as the camas prairies. One first person account by an early settler in Fall City, along the Snoqualmie River, noted that after the meadows along the river had been burned the dewberries will have a bumper crop in three years. Another account, written in September by an explorer seeking mining opportunities, spoke of the ‘Sallal Prairie’ near North Bend above Snoqualmie Falls, describing the low-growing salal plant as brown with a ‘verdant green’ understory of fine grasses. I interpret this to mean that, a few weeks before, the prairie had been set to fire, as salal, Gaultheria shallon, does not turn brown normally, and the presence of lush new grass is one of the intended results of prairie fires, drawing in elk and deer for easy harvest. I have visited research sites on the Olympic Peninsula which have shown that occasional burning of Salal increases new growth and, theoretically, berry abundance.

Berries are abundant here in the Pacific Northwest, ideally adapted to a forest ecosystem, feeding animals of all kinds. Perhaps the most revered by all the tribes is the mountain huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceum, much different than the lowland red huckleberry, V. parviflorum, evergreen huckleberry, V. ovatum, or oval-leafed huckleberry V. ovalifolium, each delicious in their own right, but not as easily or abundantly harvested.

Huckleberry Marlene 4Marlene, Aunt Sissy’s sister, harvesting huckleberries by hand, and with love. Eleanor and Marlene remember spending most of the year from May through October under the sky, following the seasonal rounds of harvesting. 

Mountain huckleberry is only attainable by those willing to travel up into the high mountain passes where it grows in thickets which cover the open slopes, thriving with disturbance of fire and logging. It is now threatened by climate change which has altered the snow cover which provides insulation during the most frigid months, and pollination of its flowers in the usual timing. The leaders of the traditional longhouses who forecast the time to harvest huckleberries are troubled by the early ripening, historically in August, now called out for harvest in July, in one recent year as early as late June.


Serviceberry is most abundant east of the Cascades where there were many different varieties known and named, presumably based on their flavor and growth habit. On the Westside, I find mature serviceberry stands associated with camas and Garry oak at all the historically managed prairie sites, one of the many abundant foods in these amazing plant communities.  I’ve recently discovered that Serviceberry, when dried like raisins, adds a delicious lemony twang to elk stew and salmon soup, possibly due to its high sugar content which may cause a slight ferment as it is dried.

Today, loss of habitat has meant that many of the berries have nearly disappeared from their usual harvesting grounds. Gooseberry Point in Lummi Nation only recently had gooseberry return as part of restoration efforts after elders lamented their loss. Coastal Black Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum) is considered one of the best of the many gooseberries and currants of the Ribes genus which grow in our region. Others include Golden currant, R. aureum, Swamp currant, R. lacustre, Stink currant, R. bracteosum, and others which made up part of the berry harvests each year.


Another important berry impacted by loss of habitat is the bog cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccum, historically found growing in hundreds of known and named bogs throughout the region. One very large bog was located just south of Duvall in the Snoqualmie Valley and it is said that tribes came to harvest there for weeks in late summer, storing the green berries in moss until they ripened during the fall and winter. Snoqualmie elders lamented the loss when it was drained for farmland in the 50’s. Once common, most of us have never seen our native cranberry, and if so, they are best left to keep the species alive and feed the wildlife who depend on them.

Berries V. edule

Highbush cranberry, not a cranberry at all, Viburnum edule, is also recorded as part of the local berry harvests, now nearly absent in our region. I have only just recently found a patch of V. edule in the foothills of the Cascades in the Snoqualmie watershed and am excited that we may be able to propagate and restore this plant to its original habitat. Unfortunately many of the V. edule (‘edule’ is Latin for edible) plants sold in nurseries are mislabeled, actually are a V. opulus speces, not really palatable and perhaps toxic in larger quantities.

Soapberry, Shepherdia canadensis, is an unusual berry high in saponins which can be mixed with water and sweet berries, then whipped into a foam, and is called Indian Ice Cream at the gatherings. Its saponin content made it hard to swallow for me, but my Haida husband, ate all that I couldn’t.

There are some berries which are toxic if eaten raw, but when properly prepared are an important part of the traditional food system. Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana, is sour, and its seeds, leaf and stems are high in cyanide compounds, so today it is cooked into a jelly; and historically pounded with its seeds into a paste dried with meats and fish. Heat and exposure to air releases the toxic compounds. Red elderberry is also toxic eaten fresh, but was similarly treated, and found in the archeological sites and noted in the ethnobotanical record. I’ve heard of elders eagerly anticipating the return of red elderberry, though my and others limited experience have so far yielded poor results.

Berries Pac crabapple

There was one native pome fruit used in abundance, the Pacific Crabapple, Malus fusca, and it was coveted, harvested while still green and stored in boxes filled with water or oil until ripe in winter. I’ve tried this in small scale and it works, they ripen to a sweet tasty fruit, it is one of my first native harvests requested by my Haida father-in-law, Kwan Kilt Kwan. There were crabapple orchards located near many villages, one of the many instances of tended wild harvests, and I still find ancient groves near many of the old village sites.

Berries continue to be an important cultural element in traditional foods meals. At the many Haida gatherings I attended with family, berries were always part of the meal, usually cultivated strawberries, blackberries and raspberries frozen in their own juices, and often served with oolichan oil (a fermented fish oil, made from a species of smelt). Jams and jellies are gifts shared between families and as giveaway items at potlatch events and my in-laws appreciated the low-sugar ones I made for them.

I have had the privilege to attend numerous First Foods celebrations at longhouses in Warm Springs and Nisqually, and to participate in harvesting with a Yakama longhouse community. Berries are an important food at these feasts, served in sequence with other foods according to their harvest timeline, which is called the ‘line-up’.  Mountain Huckleberry is held in such high regard that one of the First Food feasts is dedicated entirely to this berries return. Tribes east and west of the Cascades make their annual gathering trips to traditional berry patches each year and do not eat them until the feast is held, where they are served fresh, and then canned for later feasts.

Competition and questionable harvesting practices by commercial pickers is a serious threat to these traditional harvests. The forestry is beginning to respond by requiring permits, and limiting access to campgrounds to non-commercial pickers and tribes are protecting their treaty rights to lands and harvesting sites. Perhaps more threatening is the loss of habitat due to logging practices, restrictions on traditional management by fire, and worst yet, climate change. I personally avoid purchasing huckleberries at stores or markets, and return to my own patch each year to harvest the few I use for personal use, and to sometimes share with my classes. Huckleberry picking is part of my daughter Dea’s childhood in Montana (see her blog on her experiences) so we make it a family tradition to return to ‘our patch’ each year, although we’ve seen this site decline due to lack of traditional land management.



Traditional foods programs are thriving in native communities as part of preventative health programs for food related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, which are taking a heavy toll. Berries are being restored in habitat restorations to provide harvesting opportunities, and recipes for using them in ‘cakes’ (thick dried patties), soups or puddings, or simply fresh are being shared. Berries are generally higher in nutrition than the super-sized fruits we now get in the store which are bred for size and sugar content. Berries have seeds and concentrated flavors and are important sources of Vitamin C and trace nutrient such as Vitamin K, manganese, folate and copper. They are super high in anti-oxidants and studies show that berries may improve blood sugar and insulin responses, and they are also high in fiber.


I’ve discovered syrups as a contemporary, yet traditional, way to use berries of all kinds, fresh and dried, even mixed together, whether on pancakes, in muffins, or on meats, using honey or sugar if needed, I simply cook, strain leaving lots of pulp, add sweetener to taste and store in the fridge or freeze. The photo below was actually taken in the mountains of Spain where I found Oregon grape planted as a landscape plant, and an abundance of black elder.

Berry syrup ogrape black elder.jpg

Syrup made from Blue elder, Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea, is an amazing anti-viral, and delicious too, used to prevent colds and flu. Berry sorbets using huckleberry, blackberry and thimbleberry (among others!) are crowd pleasers, and can also be made using low sugar. Berry shrubs are easy to make using vinegars of all kinds and have been a favorite ingredient in our Foraged Cocktail classes, in fact ideal for a non-alcoholic drink. We are experimenting with Oregon grape juice as a lemon substitute in our cocktails, it certainly makes a nice lemonade substitute.

Seward Martin i oregon grape.jpg
Purple Martin-I designed for our ‘Foraged Cocktail’ classes at Seward Park Audubon Society, using Oregon grape  juice as the sour. 

We have a few toxic berries- baneberry, Actea rubra; snowberry Symphoricarpus alba; twinberry, Lonicera involucrate; and yew, Taxus brevifolia (actually a cone) come to mind, so make sure to know your plant ID before harvesting. We have many introduced plants as well which produce berries, so one should never use taste or use a ‘rule of thumb’ to determine if a berry is edible. Instead take the time to learn how to properly identify our many wonderful berries.

Berries are an important part of our past, present and future here in Cascadia and well worth taking the time to know, protect, restore and preserve.

Huckleberry 1.jpeg

Heidi harvesting huckleberries…. 



Gifts of the Oakwood

New years day oak harvests3

The New Year is upon us, and I am hearing many people glad to be through the challenges of 2018, looking forward to the coming year of 2019, I among them!  On this first day of the year I took a walk to a nearby knoll covered with a stand of oak trees and enjoyed the low winter sun, sitting on a lichen covered rock, the hawks and vultures soaring below and above.

new years day oak grove

I wandered through the grove and found the most amazing lichen, which I’ve now learned is called Lace Lichen, several oak galls for dye, some fresh acorns, and gathered some more mistletoe to preserve for possible medicine.

I marveled at the hundreds of acorns the industrious woodpeckers have stashed away on the dead branches of an oak, a full circle. I wondered if they ever sprout in the spring using the old wood as a nurse log.

I came upon the last remaining segment of an old barbwire fence stretched between two oaks, with the wire coming from the center of their trunks, likely nailed to the oaks so long ago the wire has slowly folded into the layers of  corky bark during each year of growth.  Somehow this was not sad, but strong and beautiful, a gentle acceptance.

I think of all the oaks I have sought and visited, in every place I’ve been, most recently on my ancestral Cameron lands in Scotland, the oak leaf the symbol of our clan. I think of our own native Garry oak in the Pacific Northwest, in Puget Sound only remnant stands now remain, and those I visit like friends when I can.  I notice all the ways in which oaks sustain life, sometimes to their own death, so much abundance. I gathered old branches covered with lichen, and am now identifying them, recognizing several as dye lichen, which I’ll separate and begin the alchemy of transforming them into color for our natural dyes projects in the coming year.

Mistletoe moon walk oak and mistletoe

There is something about these oaks who persevere, adapting, accepting, sharing themselves. I think I will name this the Year of the Oak for me, and let them be my teacher…

All the best for you in the coming year, and I hope we cross paths soon.

Oiche Shamna- Halloween in Ireland

Halloween= Hallow E’en= Hallowed Evening= Holy Evening= Holy Saints Eve= All Saints Day= Samhain

Folk museu Halloween labelsmallHalloween has its origins in Ireland, where it is still practiced today in ways which date back to pre-Christian times. The day of Halloween is called Oiche Shamna in Ireland now- Night of the Spirits, but was formerly the feast day to celebrate Samhain; most commonly pronounced sow (as in cow) hin. It signifies the last day of the harvests, the first day of Winter and the beginning of the Celtic Year. In the lunar calendar, which predates our Roman inspired solar calendar, Samhain is celebrated on the eve after sunset, the beginning of a new day in the Celtic world view, of the full moon of this season. The only Western Christian holiday still set by the lunar calendar is Easter explaining its varied dates, therefore Halloween has been given a specific date of October 31. Following the Lunar Calender for 2017, Halloween and most certainly Samhain would have occurred this year on the eve of November 4th, meaning November 3rd after sunset.


3 folk museum harvest weaving detail

Harvest weaving, sometimes called ‘corn dolly’,  holding the spirit of the harvest for the coming year.

To conceptualize that this is the beginning of the new year requires a shift in perspective, which I internalized by ceremonially casting seed at this time, imagining these seeds landing in their place, being covered by the falling leaves, swelling with the rains, breaking dormancy with the colds of winter, and sprouting at just the right time when the soil warmed. This resulted in a successful crop of parsnips under an apple tree, which has continued to this day. As I cast the seed I consciously thought of this time as the beginning of the new year, and throughout the winter months thought often of those seeds as they lay there sheltered, and likened them to my own sense of dormancy and coming growth at this time of year. Like a seed, I contain all of what has occurred in the last year, encapsulated, ready to bring forward in the coming one. This is a time of remembering, reflecting and processing as we ready ourselves for the coming year. It is a time of myth, song, ceremony and honoring.


“Well, we had all the grains in, all the potatoes, we used to houk (harvest) the potatoes all day and were finished by Halloween. There’s sort of a custom that everything was finished up out in the fields. All was supposed to be in before Halloween.”1  In Ireland the last of the potatoes and grains are harvested right up until this day, the fruits and nuts have ripened and are stored. The livestock have been brought in from the pastures and are provided with shelter for the winter, a large store of hay and grain set aside for their feed. It is now a time of rest and “man rests secured that sufficient food for both man and beast is vouchsafed for another winter.”1

This is November Eve and the Feast of Autumn, and celebrated with a bonfire a tradition which continues today in parts of Ireland. The last stand of ‘corn’ (wheat, barley or oat) was left unharvested to be made into a weaving which contains the spirit of the ‘corn’ and brought into the house for the winter, then returned to the field, plowed in with the first plantings. The technique used to make these ‘corn dollie’s (dolly possibly from ‘idol’ or the greek word for spirit, ‘eidolon’) is similar to those used to make willow baby rattles, as we learned from basket weaver, Joe Hogan during our recent visit in Ireland.

Halloween is sometimes referred to as Irish Christmas, celebrated with equal vigor, the foods being the same as those at Christmas. In the recent past it was one of only four feasts of the year that ‘butcher’s meat’ might be served.  There are many games played which involve fruit and nuts, sweet cakes and puddings, and the children sometimes refer to this day as Snap Apple Night, Ducking Night, Nut Crack Night. It was also sometimes referred to as Bonfire night for the ones set on this eve, usually made three or four feet high from cuttings from the garden, orchard and hedge, serving practical as well as spiritual purposes. The word bonfire may derive from bone-fire when the bones from ritual slaughter were placed on these fires. Bonfires were lit in each village, and all other fires extinguished, when at dawn each hearth was solemnly relit with the coals from the community bonfire creating a common bond.

Halloween is a weeklong celebration, even today, in Northern Ireland, particularly in Derry; a time when political differences are set aside. “A day of family reunions, meals, and fun, Halloween brings people of all ages together with rhyming, storytelling, family fireworks, and community bonfires. Perhaps most important, it has become a day that transcends the social conflict found in this often-troubled nation.”2

In virtually all world cultures it is recognized that this is the time when the spirit world is the closest to ours, and the door is open between the two worlds, as the night begins its reign. Many of the acts around Halloween today reflect this awareness, in particular the use of Jack O’ Lanterns, costumes, and pranks. In the Christian era, Halloween, or more so Samhain, was usurped as the day to honor all Saints whether canonized or not, hence All Saints Day was born. All Souls Day, also known as Day of the Dead was later set to immediately follow All Saints Day.3 This mixing of traditions, now celebrated in one form or the other virtually worldwide, has now made the images of ghosts, death, and sorcery (representing anti-Christian evil) the dominant theme of Halloween, overshadowing the other, equally important, elements of harvest feasts, the new year, and a time of rest.

Folk museum turnip for halloweenThe first Halloween lanterns were carved from turnips or rutabagas, a tiny candle placed inside, and were either placed on fences or in windows, or carried with a string handle, to scare off evil spirits, and ‘sufficient to scare the wits out of people’.4 Crosses might be placed over the door, and gifts of food were left out on the table on Halloween to feed the ancestors who might come visiting. People avoided traveling alone on this night and, even when in groups, only with the protection of their jack o’ lantern.

Folk museum signage hollow turnipsChildren in Ireland visited neighboring houses in the weeks leading up to Halloween, following the Equinox, wearing black sacks or white sheets, faces painted black and white, perhaps with a conical straw hat, offering rhymes in exchange for coins. This is called Rhyming, still practiced today. The better Rhymers create their own, though there were some often-used rhymes as well. The more creative the rhyme, the more coins, and perhaps none at all for those who didn’t create their own. It was acceptable to decline Rhymers after receiving too many in one night, or if considered too old. Handing out gifts of candy, fruit or nuts was rare, and considered poorly.

Pranks were especially conducted on Halloween eve. Pranks were often linked to the fear that the spirits were moving about. One, often recounted, involved tying a black thread to the door knocker, and from a far distance raising the knocker and, when the person opened the door and found no one in sight, it was feared that a spirit, or Death, had come knocking. Another involved covering the chimney with a wet sack, or even to toss a cabbage down it, filling the house with smoke. Clothing left on the clothesline might be removed and replaced with cabbage leaves. Mud thrown on windows, and other similar, and familiar, mean acts were also common. To be threatened or even chased down the streets, sometimes for a length of time, was a favorable outcome of pranks.

Apple seller IrelandThe feasts of Halloween emphasized the harvests and the foods served were associated with the supernatural aspects of the season. The turnip meat scooped out from making the lanterns, customarily by fathers and sons, was mashed and served. Dishes made from potatoes, such as colcannon, champ or boxty are common, and rings, thimbles and other symbolic items hidden within, which when found portended your future, especially related to marriage. Oat cakes were eaten and dreamed on. Apple, fruit and nut dishes were abundant. Apple pudding made with potatoes, flour and some sugar is a traditional dish, and might also include symbolic objects to cast the future. A goose might serve as the main course, and roast meat was traditional, however small. Cabbage and kale are served with lots of butter and mustards. Afternoon tea is better than usual, with a bit of currant loaf or pie. Fruits were made into pies, tarts, dumplings and puddings.

Folk museum Halloween necklaces etcApples were strung from the ceiling or placed in tubs of water in games we recognize today. Children made necklaces of rose hips, and hawthorn fruits, or from horse chestnuts. The dark brown nut of the horse chestnuts, also called conks, were tied to a long string, and children played a game called ‘Conkers’ where they took turns swinging theirs against their opponents, the losers those who’s cracked first. Fireworks are now part of Halloween celebrations, perhaps a modern take on the bonfire. It is a time of storytelling, song and rhyme.

Traditions we can carry into our Samhain and Halloween traditions include the feast foods, especially colcannon, cabbage dishes, apple and nut desserts of all kinds, and a roast of pork, lamb or beef. Strings of rose hips and hawthorn berries can be used as necklaces or garlands in our seasonal decorations. A weaving of stalks from the garden or field made into a ‘corn dolly’ can help preserve the spirit of the harvest for the coming year. Perhaps a rhyme can be offered when trick or treating. Make a bonfire from cuttings from the garden and orchard, and use the coals to start a first fire of the new year.

And, perhaps, cast seeds…

Sources and more info:

1) Journal notes of Edward McBride, County Monaghan, in 1933
2) ‘The Hallowed Eve’ Jack Santino, 2009
3) From signage at the National Museum of Ireland, Country Life- Turlough, County Mayo, Ireland
Note: Much of the information and most of the photos in this article were derived from my 2015 and 2017 visits to the Country Life Museum in Turlough (above). Various other sources including ‘The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween’ by Jean Markale, 2001, and ‘The Hallowed .  


Aahh… Irelaund

See more photos go to my ‘Ireland Ethnobotany Exploration’ photo album

I’m home now a bit over a week, still dreaming and waking with Ireland on my mind, a place that, though I’ve touched it, breathed it, tasted it, still feels like a mythical place in my mind. Each time I return I feel I go deeper and deeper into place and time. I returned for this journey with students on an expedition I titled ‘Ireland Ethnobotany Exploration’ to revisit and share each of the places I researched and visited last time- the oldwoods, the bogs, the glens; the megalithic places from beyond human memory; and the traditional knowledge keepers, the masters. Places less frequented and people little known by most tourists. I added in a few extra places, and then extended my stay solo to be in the sacred River Boyne Valley, to also revisit places I’ve been but to experience again with my greater wisdom.  

It was the Oldwoods that called to me, the remnant stands of the once vast oak forests which covered Ireland, slowly cleared for agriculture, but completely devastated during the 1600’s, as of much of the world, for the production of charcoal to fuel the iron-smelting furnaces. I’ve seen poems lamenting the last tree cut in a forest, wondering how people were to survive now, records of when the forest was no longer. So I sought out the last remnants, and found some of the very few on my last visit. And they touched me to my core, filled me with knowing. It takes an effort to get to them, this time I hired local guides to lead us by foot and by boat to get to them, up and down barely worn paths.

A tiny, handwritten note found in my files from my first trip in 2001, led me to the most revered living basket-maker in Ireland, with whom I spent a precious week two years ago, and arranged to come back with a small group for our own private class, staying in stone cottages along the incredibly scenic Lough Nafooey in Connemara. We were so honored. And in the indigenous way, he opened the door for me, which I seemed unable to open on my own, to be with another magical person, one of the few remaining weavers of the Crios bands, whom we visited by way of a storm-tossed ferry trip to the Innisheer Islands, where we wove wool into sashes next to an open peat fire, cooking bread in a pot, and served tea in bright-colored china. I am bonded with love to these people now.

At every turn we encountered the deep history of this land, and incredible majesty of it, megalithic stone circles, cairns, dolmans, oghams, crosses, holy wells, forts and castles. The photos are magnificent and yet cannot come close to revealing the experience of it, the exhilaration, the grief and longing, the sounds of sheep and bird calls, seagulls and ocean waves, scents of the forest moss and berries ripening, the tastes of the land. We stayed in cottages and cooked our own foods following traditional recipes, using foods from the land of Ireland, a great pride for them. We made Criobs, potato baskets used for cooking, and drained our potatoes in them, reveling in that tiny connection to the past. We harvested hedgerow fruits, sloes, hawthorn, crabapple and rosehips and made hedgerow jelly to bring home to savor and remember for the coming year. We visited the local pubs and sang and played music with them, friends now in another land, and an inspiration for me take up my fiddle again to play that sweet music.

The River Boyne runs through the ancient lands of the kings and queens of Irelands myth, passing the Hill of Tara, Hill of Slane, the Bru’ na Boinne where Newgrange and Knowth reside. I stayed on after we all parted ways, in a sweet manor house in the ancient village of Trim, my room overlooking the river with views of ruins. I walked along this river, savoring my last days, climbed again to the Hills of Tara and Slane, and paid my respect to the mounds of Newgrange and Knowth. I left to fly home from this place and did not want to leave.

For most of us this is an ancestral return. There are no words which can describe what that means. I am still dreaming and waking with what that is for me, Irelaund runs as a discourse through my every action. Two days after arriving home I found myself on another ferry, this time with my car full of herbs to share at a tribal elder’s retreat, where I received from an elder and friend an amazing gift of my ‘sacred crane woman’ name beaded into a medallion, with a heron and a cattail, iconic of both of my homelands. And felt unbelievably grateful to be on the path that I am on, guided by the plants and animals and ancestors of these places. Thank you all who come to share that path with me in a good way.

Crane woman medallion

To see more photos of the Ireland Ethnobotany Exploration

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