Snow is falling steadily outside my office window as I type this. The landscape is a palette of grays, dull browns and whites, with the occasional dark black-green of a towering spruce.
Winter has settled into the hillsides, ice lining the banks of the little streams that flow down the mountains with silver-white. It's difficult to imagine spring coming when the temperatures outside struggle to rise above freezing.
At this time in the year, things can begin to feel stagnant. Another snowfall, another early sunset and long night to follow it.
But there are subtle changes happening beneath the frost. The sun feels a little warmer on your face. Deep under layers of loam and last year's leaves, seeds are beginning to wake up. The trees have noticed the lengthening days and begin to send sap up to nourish the buds of next summer's leaves. Soon little green shoots will emerge, and snowdrops and crocuses will appear, rising above the snow in dots of vivid purple and white.
We are at the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the crossquarter feast of Imbolc, also known as Oilmealg. Typically celebrated on February 1st or 2nd, Imbolc comes from the Gaelic meaning "in the belly" or "spring in the belly." Oilmealg translates to "ewe's milk," as this is the time when they first lambs are born.
Ibmolc is when we begin, slowly, to shake off the winter and turn our thoughts to the coming spring, to preparing the land and planting the first seeds.
The patron of this holiday is Brigid, a goddess of the hearth and fire, all creative arts, and healing. On the eve of Imbolc, she walks across the land, her cloak flowing behind her and leaving, herbs, flowers and new green growth in its wake as it trails across the ground.
In ancient Ireland, and even today by those who follow the old ways, Brigid's crosses and corn dollies are made to honor her, and a traditional meal of rich cream, milk and cheese, bread, and grains is left out by the hearth in offering.
Altars are decorated with garnets and bright yellow and white flowers, all anointed with fragrant oils of rosemary, myrrh, and cinnamon. Candles are lit in every window at dusk, and a new hearth fire is kindled to celebrate the coming days of light and warmth.
One of my favorite traditions is to choose a shawl or scarf and leave it outside overnight, in the moonlight if you're lucky, in the hope that Brigid will pass by it with her cloak and imbue it with some of her healing magic. The cloak is then used throughout the year, wrapped around anyone in need of a little extra healing.
As an herbalist, I like to celebrate this day by working with the plants traditionally associated with Imbolc. I don't think it's coincidence that most of these are used to address respiratory ills and colds - incredibly apt for this snowy, icy time of the year.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a wonderful, cheerful plant filled with delicious aromatic oils. Aside from being a wonderful ingredient to add to pestos, pastas and pizzas, it's excellent when taken as an infusion, and is traditionally used to relive stomach aches. It also has a calming, mood lifting effect, and is mildly diaphoretic - a good thing to sip on when laid low by a cold or flu.
Blackberry (Rubus spp.) is most famous for the sweet, jewel-like berries it produces in summer, but it has other uses as well. The roots of this plant are strongly astringent, making it a good remedy to reach for when you're struck down by a stomach ailment like diarrhea. The cooling leaves make a delicious infusion are used for sore throats, fevers, and coughs.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica), with it's gorgeous umbels of cream-white flowers and blood-red stems, is a lovely, warming herb used most often to stoke and aid the digestion. An expectorant and diaphoretic, it is used to help clear up coughs and break fevers.
Bay (Laurus nobilis), a beautiful tree with tough silvery leaves, is most commonly used as a flavoring in soups and broths - it's a little too potent a plant to use in great quantity, which is why most recipes only call for one or two leaves. This fragrant plant calms indigestion and eases stomach ache. A poultice of the leaves applied to the chest acts as a gentle expectorant to soothe bronchitis and painful coughing, while bay leaf-infused oil is a warming remedy for cold rheumatic pain.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), is one of the first plants to show itself in the spring. The bright yellow flowers resemble dandelions, their sunny blooms reaching up out of the bracken of winter. The leaf and dried flowers of this plant is a classic and reliable lung herb, being both a gentle expectorant and an antispasmodic - it's a perfect ally for this time of year, when many people are suffering from coughs and bronchitis. It helps the lungs to expel mucus while easing chest tension and calming unproductive, spasmodic coughing.
Due to the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can be toxic to the liver in great quantities, the use of coltsfoot for treating coughs has diminished, and it should, in my opinion, be taking only in small doses and for a short period of time.
Celandine (Chelidonium majus), a cooling, bitter plant with shiny green leaves and bright yellow flowers, is traditionally used to cleanse the liver and "purify" the blood. It may also be useful in soothing bronchitis and severe coughs, as it is antispasmodic and fights against mucus buildup in the airways. It has also been used topically to soothe irritated skin conditions such as eczema, and to help clear up cataracts.
Violet (Viola odorata), is a soothing demulcent plant with a mild expectorant effect - excellent for soothing dry coughs and sore throats. Both the leaves and flowers are edible, filled with vitamins, and make an excellent addition to spring salads.
Incorporating these herbs into your life by making a tea, burning them as incense, or even something as simple as making a delicious basil pesto or blackberry crumble is a lovely way to honor the feast of Imbolc and the plants that keep us well in the winter.
Whether or not you choose to celebrate Imbolc, I hope you find time to stop and notice the changing light, the slow turning of the seasons, and the gradual return of the sun and warmer days ahead.
The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra
A Druid's Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year by Ellen Evert Hopman
All information here is strictly for educational purposes and has not been verified by the FDA. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Always do your own research before consuming a herb or wild plants, especially if it is new to you.