We have nearly arrived at the summer solstice, the time in the wheel of the year when the sun shines the strongest, riding through the center of the sky. The hours of light are longest now, with darkness finally falling just past nine o'clock where I live. After this day the light will recede as the days grow shorter, the rich darkness of winter and dream-time creeping slowly back in.
This time of the year has many names; Litha, Midsummer, Summer Solstice, St. John's Day...and more. I find myself most often referring to it as Litha because that feels right to me. In the druid tradition I follow, it's called Alban Hefin, the Light of the Shore. Much of druidry focuses on touching the liminal spaces, the in between. The shore of the sea, where sky, earth, and water meet, is one of these spaces, a place where worlds begin to merge and the edges are blurred. On the longest day of the year this space is filled with the light of the sun.
There are many ways to celebrate this day, and many many traditions; nearly every culture marks the solstice in some way. Many of us today are disconnected from these seasonal celebrations, the ways of our ancestors blurred by time and lost in translation and migration. It's certainly worth researching what traditions your forebears may have had, but it can be hard to find your way back to what is true.
My own understanding of and observance of Litha has changed over the years as I tried my best to gather up fragments of the rituals my people may have enacted. As a result the way I celebrate has changed too, shifting, changing and developing naturally; as with so many aspects of ritual, I think the most important thing is that we feel what we are doing to be right and true in our bones. For example, we may feel moved to light a candle, or watch the sunset, or cook a feast, or sit under a tree, or bake a cake with fresh mulberries. This may look different from how our ancestors celebrated, but what truly matters is the energy with which you do the thing. That is how magic works. The small rituals and traditions you craft can be just as potent and meaningful as those carried out hundreds of years ago in a stone circle.
As someone who works with the plants and looks to them as teachers, I take my cues from them when it comes to understanding the cycles of the year and how to live with the seasons. At Litha the plants are fully grown. Their flowers are open, catching the energy of the sun and storing it deep in their roots for the winter to come. They have done their work of unfurling and growing, and now they bask in the glow, fully formed.
This cycle of ebb and flow, sowing and reaping is the same for us; we dream our dreams, plant the seeds of our plans, expend energy putting them into action, and should pause to enjoy the days when things are good.
Even the sun appears to be resting now: the word solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, which means sun stands still. What better time for us to take a break, too? Even if all we've done is survive the cold of winter and the storms of spring, we deserve to soak up the peace and abundance of summer, to quite literally enjoy the sunlight and warmth before we begin the slow slide into winter.
The Wild Herbs of Litha
This is a wonderful time to harness the energy and healing magic of the plants and incorporate them into your rituals (or, dry them and save them to have throughout the year). Here I'll share a few of my favorite wild plants to gather at Litha. You may have different plants coming into the height of their power where you live - these will be just as potent as the plants I'll mention here, because the point is to work with the magic and medicine of what is growing from the earth around you.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
In the first week of June the red clover blooms, dotting the meadows at the foot of the mountains with deep pink flowers. If you look closely, you'll see that these flowers are actually many flowers, tiny ones, all gathered together into one beautiful little sphere. The leaves are dark green, oval, come in groups of three, and bear a white chevron when they reach a certain size. The blossoms are edible and have a very subtle vanilla taste; they're easy to pop off and snack on, if eating flowers is your thing.
Medicine: Lymphatic, digestive aid, hormone balancer, reproductive tonic, soothing to dry coughs, rich in vitamins and minerals
Magic: carry some in your pocket as a protective charm, or sprinkle some of the infusion or tincture on your threshold.
Harvesting: catch the flower heads between your fingers to pop them off. Or, use a clean pair of herb snippers. A few leaves getting in is fine! Tip: make sure the blossoms are dry when harvesting, as a white mold can form on the damp flowers.
Working with: nourishing infusion or tea; tincture; infused vinegar; infused oil (external)
Elder (Sambucus spp.)
Big umbels of Elderflowers appearing on the edges of woodlands and along roadsides is a sure indication that Litha has arrived. The flowers have many wonderful uses and are often brewed into a fizzy "champagne" or made into a sweet, medicinal cordial. Be sure not to harvest too many from any one plant, though, as these flowers will turn into beautiful dark elderberries in late summer!
Medicine: cooling/dispersive (helps to manage fever), supportive to the immune and respiratory systems, wonderful for the skin
Magic: Keeps the gateway between this world and the Otherworld - witches often craft their tools from her branches. Protective, especially of children.
Harvesting: Snip off the umbels and then carefully separate the tiny white flowers from the stems (the stems and leaves of Elder are slightly toxic and should only be used by very experienced herbalists). Lay them on a flat surface or screen to dry.
Working with: tea, fresh or dried; tincture; glycerite, infused oil (external), skin wash
St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
As I mentioned above, another name for Litha is St. Johns Day - and this is the day that the namesake flowers open. The gorgeous yellow blooms feel like the embodiment of the sun, the petals splayed out like rays of light. Indeed, some herbalists swear by St. Johns wort as a remedy for driving away the winter blues.
Medicine: uplifting, restorative/tonic to the nerves, antiviral
Magic: symbolizes the balance between light and dark, fire and water. Keeps evil forces at bay when dried over the Litha fire.
Harvesting: carefully snip off the unopened buds with a clean, sharp pair of herb shears. When you roll the buds between your fingers they'll stain your skin purple; this is how you know the medicine is good. The buds can be dried - if tincturing or making an infused oil they should be fresh.
Working with: tea of the dried herb; tincture; infused oil (external)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is one of our greatest healing herbs, named after Achilles, who is said to have used this herb on the battlefield. Yarrow is wonderful at stopping bleeding, both external and internal, and is considered a tonic for strengthening the veins. I often carry a tincture of yarrow with me in my backpack on hikes, as it has strong antiseptic properties and can staunch blood flow.
If you spend enough time with this plant, you'll begin to sense her warrior spirit; her message to me has always been to stand up for yourself, to be fierce when needed, and to remember your own strength.
Medicine: styptic (stops bleeding), vein tonic, diaphoretic ( helps with fever), supports immune system (especially during cold and flu), antiseptic, wound healing
Magic: lends strength and self love, helps to balance creative flow
Harvesting: snip off the just-opened flower heads.
Working with: tea, tincture; wound wash/poultice, infused oil (external), dried and powdered (styptic powder)
Linden (Tilia spp.)
This tree is beloved by herbalists, foragers...and especially bees! The young tender leaves are tasty in salads, but I love linden most for the yellow-white, honey-scented flowers that burst open in late June. These flowers are cooling and relaxing to the heart, helping it to beat more easily. On sunny mornings you'll find these trees buzzing with beautiful, happy pollinators - watch out for them as you snip the flowers!
Medicine: cooling, relaxing to the cardiovascular and nervous system, uplifting
Magic: used in spells for love and peace. Has a comforting and protective energy and can help when processing grief.
Harvesting: snip off the flowers and attached leaf bracts
Working with: tea, tincture
Mulberry (Morus spp.)
One of my Litha traditions is harvesting mulberries and baking them into big, fluffy scones. The dark juicy berries typically reach peak-ripeness in late June where I am, and visiting the mulberry trees is such a peaceful, happy way to spend a sunny afternoon.
Medicine: the berries are nourishing and full of antioxidants
Magic: symbolizes courage, willpower, and protection
Harvesting: pick the berries right off the branches. You can also lay a blanket down and gently shake the branches - the ripest berries will fall right off!
Working with: eat fresh and enjoy!
As always, the information I share here is strictly education and is not intended as medical advice. Consult a physician and do your own research before harvesting a wild plant or trying a new herb!