Notes from Diane's Garden

Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster

September 1987: Seeds

Dear friends, I hope your day of Harmonic Convergence was as fruitful as mine. A fire and earth ritual was performed on Twin Peaks, starting at 5:30 am and lasting until about 7:30 am. We found a flat area, off the north parking lot that was facing East. I placed tall votive candles at the four directions; yellow-east, orange-south, blue-west, green-north.

Since this was a sacred day for Meso-American Indian cultures, I felt it was appropriate to draw the circle with cornmeal in the shape of a New Mexico sun sign. Four of us became "keepers of the flame" when it soon became apparent that the wind (which was really rather gentle) had its own ideas about candles staying lit. Miles then began the drumming and we all joined in at intervals with an assortment of musical instruments.

A short time later, Don and Yoshiko, led to us by the sound of the drum, joined in and began a beat of their own. (Yoshiko had made a paper drum for the occasion.)The music rose and fell in a most heartfelt way and I found myself with tears in my eyes.

All this time people kept gathering behind us and friends who knew us joined in the circle. One woman (who I didn't know) danced around us with a pair of birds wings then lay them down in the center of the circle. Then at sunrise, Miles greeted Quetzalcoatl's retum with a call from a Pre-Colombian whistle.

We continued the music for a while and then when the time felt right, I walked the circle, putting out the candles. From out of the crowd appeared a man carrying a wonderful magic umbrella decorated with ribbons, crystals, bluebirds and fairies. As I put out the North candle, everyone rose and joined in behind me for a sunwise dance around the circle. My friend Elizabeth, remembering the shadow, walked a Widdershins circle in counterpoint. We all met at the center of the circle with many a hug and a good moming. Then we adjoumed to Herb's Fine Food on 24th Street for a breakfast feast.

Continuing to think along the lines of last month's topic, the harvest, I thought that this month I would write a brief article about seeds.

Seeds are both a beginning and an end. A new life grows from a seed and that new life's energy is devoted to producing more seeds. The worm Ourobouros with it's tail in its mouth, the World Egg, the Wheel of the Year, all these images symbolizing life and death in a continuous circular process. The participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries, after a long night in the Underworld, were shown a stalk of wheat to symbolize the greatest Mystery, the seed that gives up its life in the Autumn is reborn again in the Spring.

In biological terms, the seed is the carrier of the next generation's DNA. Nature has gone to ingenious lengths to insure the DNA's protection while in the seed and also to give the seed the ability to find a hospitable environment when it's time to grow. Think of the dandelion seed. How often have you picked up a ripe one and blown all the seeds away while making a wish? You've watched them float on the wind to faraway places, and in doing this you've been an unwitting participant in Nature's grand design, to ensure the survival of this species by distributing its seeds as far apart as possible so the plants don't overcrowd. There is a legend from Irish folklore that says that when fairies dance in the meadows on a moonlit night, they choose a "Little Green Man" to blow the down of the dandelion away at frequent intervals. This is to tell them how many hours are left until the dawn.

Califomia poppies also have a wonderful method for distribution. When the seed case is ripe, the slightest touch will cause it to explode, propelling the seeds to quite a distance. The common ticks and burrs have another method of distribution, their hooks and claws that enable them to cling to the fur of passing animals.

Mistletoe relies upon the birds to help scatter its seeds, which must germinate high up on the barks of trees, not on the ground. The berries, which are ripe in winter when much other food is scarce, are very viscous, so when a bird eats it the seeds often cling to its beak. In the bird's subsequent attempt to clean itself, the seeds are dislodged, often on another tree. This pulp also acts as a glue, holding the seeds in place, and when it hardens, waterproofing them against rain and snow until the Spring thaw.

In the fall, tumbleweeds break away from their roots, curl their stalks into a ball and are rolled about by the wind. This occurs only when the seeds are ripe and ready for scattering.

The coconut is a noted traveler, riding on the crests of waves to foreign shores. It is now widespread throughout all tropical countries. The nut has a thick fibrous outer husk which makes it light and buoyant in the water. The inner rind is leathery and no seawater can penetrate. Monsoons sweep the shells onto the coasts of India and many legends grew up. One was that the shells were spewed forth by a giant dragon. The monster slept at the bottom of the Indian Ocean but once a year, during the monsoons, the dragon awoke. The dragon's thrashings caused the giant waves, and the froth that flew from his mouth hardened into the coconut shells.

Countless numbers of seeds have been recommended by herbalists throughout the centuries as cures for "all that ails ye." Fifteen peony seeds taken in wine or mead is a special remedy for those troubled by nightmares or melancholy dreams. Hollyhock seeds boiled in milk or wine removes a hot cough, heals blistered lungs and aids in the treatment of consumption. An old herbal says that "the seed of the Snapdragon is good for nothing in the use of Physicke," but some of the seeds "worne in a linnen cloath hanged about one preserveth a man from being bewitched."

Lettuce seeds bruised and mixed with the white of an egg applied in plaster form to the temples or forehead at bedtime will aid in falling asleep. Actually, lettuce does have narcotic properties but only in minute amounts. Rocket is a common European pot-herb whose young and tender leaves are eaten in salad. But it was the seeds that were of interest to mischievous children. It was said that whoever ate the seeds of the rocket before being whipped would be so hardened as to not feel the pain. But if this didn't work, the child had the recourse of eating a meal of beans and honey or using the oil obtained from laurel berries, both of which was said to take away black and blue marks.

It was a common custom among the tribes of the Americas to place a bowl of edible seeds at the gravesites as offerings for the dead so they would have food for their journey to the hereafter. On All Saints Day, Guatemalan Indians place gourd bowls of roasted calabash seeds and black beans, roasted fowl and cornhusk cigarettes. Anything remaining the following day was burnt and the ashes stirred into the ground so that it would seep down to the dead. A northern California Indian tribe (not stated which one in my sourcebook) put tobacco seeds in the hands of the dead before burial. It was thought that these seeds would then be buried in the next world and would provide a continuous supply.

The Zapotec Indians of southern Mexico bury their dead in caves (thought to be the entrance to the next world). Along with weapons for fighting the beasts encountered during the passage between the worlds and food to give strength, there was also placed a basket of seeds of fragrant wildflowers to be planted upon arrival so one would not be without that earthly pleasure. Cherokee Indians burn cottonseeds to ward off thunder and lightening.

The seeds of a large number of plants are poisonous. This actually is intended to protect the seeds from grazing animals. It's interesting to note however, that even though some of the seed poisons are fatal to humans and most animals, birds and goats can safely eat them. Creech, an early English writer says,
"...Thus hemlock juice prevails
And kills a man, but fattens goats and quails."

Mistletoe and holly berries are poisonous to humans but not to birds. Hemlock is a common roadside plant in California. It grows in the garden atMount Bubba. Care must be taken with it however because all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous. Water-hemlock is another poisonous plant. The Klamath Indians crushed water-hemlock seeds and mixed them with the decomposed liver of a deer which had been buried for a few days. The mixture was used to poison the tips of their war arrows. Pokeweed is a common eastem plant of the woods. Children use the dark purple berries to make a crimson ink. But the seeds of this plant are poisonous. The Algonquin Indians extracted a !asting dye from plant and used a dried root powder for swellings and aches and for painting themselves and their garments.

I'll end with a charming tale from the time when Christian and Pagan beliefs were considerably intermingled. Peasants throughout Europe would gather holly branches on Christmas Eve and place them in their houses to entice the wood spirits to enter. They believed the sylvan spirits were homeless at this time of the year because the power of Christian prayer had driven the spirits from their woodland home during Yuletide (Christmas Eve to Candlemas). At Candlemas, the holly was placed outdoors and if hungry birds quickly ate the berries, the peasants knew the wood spirits could retum to their homes.


The Prime Mover of the Universe