Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Celebrating the winter solstice- the next Gruit project

Bog Myrtle. Sort of like hops' crazy great-uncle, who misses the good old days.

Happy Winter Solstice! Also called Yule, Yuletide, Jul, Midvinterblot, and other names increasingly difficult to pronounce (or type), the winter solstice is celebrated the world over as a reminder of the importance of community, merriness and hope as we pass through the longest night of the year. In European history, especially, it's time to break out some drinks, too. What better to celebrate the long history of this special day than to consider gruit ale?

You can read my post here from November of last year about making gruit ale, the pre-hops libation of Northern Europe consumed since antiquity (although more or less falling off the map from the 1400's to the present, new interest in old brews is reviving Gruit once more). To celebrate the Winter Solstice (which is also the time when the Sun enters Capricorn), I brewed this particular gruit with wintergreen, an herb associated with Saturn, and most of the traditional gruit herbs. It was wonderfully interesting, but it's time now for a new celebration of the Sun entering Capricorn- winter sowing of gruit herb seeds!

The herbs that make up the basis of gruit flavoring are Wild Rosemary (couldn't find much about the astrology of this herb), Bog Myrtle (associated with the planet Venus), Yarrow (Venus), and often Mugwort (Venus and the Moon). These perennial little shrubs grow naturally in the highly acidic, peaty, often boggy soils of Northern Europe's traditional landscape. Because of the long, sometimes harsh winters there, these plants have developed protective mechanisms. In the case of Bog Myrtle, Wild Rosemary and Mugwort, new seeds require a period of cold stratification to germinate. This simply means that snow and ice fall on the seeds, pressing them into the ground, then slowly melt, then more snow, which then melts, etc. This process slowly breaks down a protective layer on the seeds, allowing them to germinate in springtime.

This is a wonderful website offering seeds and planting information for a variety of herbs with a history of traditional use in medicine and ritual. There's a bit on the page about wintering seeds that mentions how sowing seeds in the middle of winter dates back at least to Roman times. Sowing seeds in the middle of winter provides the period of cold stratification necessary for germination. Sowing on the Winter Solstice, in particular, ensures that the days will be increasingly longer as the seeds undergo their transformation, oriented them towards the upcoming growth of spring. Plus, what better way to celebrate the Sun in Capricorn, the sign of discipline, practicality and patient ambition? Capricorn urges us to have the responsibility to plant the seeds of the future wisely. Then, hopefully, around the time the Sun bursts into Aries... some gruit herbs should be on the way!

Unfortunately, its difficult to get Wild Rosemary seeds even in their native Europe, and all but impossible here in the U.S. Luckily, there's a New World cousin called Marsh Rosemary or Bog Labrador (aka Labrador tea), with the same climatic requirements, and I found some of those seeds online. And I had planned on sowing Mugwort seeds, until I found this little dude growing in the alley behind my work:

Unlike the other herbs, Mugwort is relatively common, though generally goes unnoticed. It grows in urban and rural areas alike, often along roadsides facing the south. Sure enough, I found this little dude by the alley, on the southern side of a fence. I gently dug him up, put him in a cup and carried him home on my scooter. He's doing well, which means we're 1/4th of the way there already! Yarrow is going to be planted in spring.

As for the Bog Myrtle and Marsh Rosemary, here's the process...

I have a plastic pot with holes drilled in the bottom, a bale of peat
(acidic dead plant material, just like the seeds' boggy native soil),
a bag of humus (richer, denser for nutrients and stability), a bunch of
pine needles I found while jogging (provides further acidity and a
protective top layer)

I mixed peat with warm water and humus, then added a big scoop of dirt from the garden patch to help balance the potting mixture and add more nutrients.
Here's the completed potting mixture with the seeds sprinkled on top. The Marsh Rosemary seeds were like dust, they were so small...

Here's the pot in position behind the north side of the house, out of direct sun but exposed to the necessary snow and ice winter will provide. The acid-enriching and protective layer of pine needles is spread over the top, with seed packets for identification.

A little candle to celebrate this year's Winter Solstice Sowing. I walked away for 5 minutes, then realized I'd left a lit candle in a giant pile of bone-dry pine needles. After a brief reassessment, I placed the candle in the window for the night.

Now it's time to tap into Capricorn's patience and wait. No maintenance required, just hopeful thoughts that in 3 or 4 months these little guys pop up. Then it's just a matter of ensuring that plants from Northern Europe survive a St. Louis summer...

How about you, readers? What "seeds" are you sowing for the year ahead? 2012 is bound to be an intense one! (plenty of posts to follow about that...) Leave a comment!

1 comment:

nikiastro said...

Beau, your story is a magical intertwining of earth connection, new beginnings, inspiration, and oh so subtle astrological advice. You are amazing!