Friday, September 26, 2008

Solution and Separation

October 4, 2008
Say good bye to Corpus Mortuum - the dead remnants that get thrown away.

Calcination left me with black cinders that I ground into powder and burnt further until one would think that there was nothing left to burn. Alchemists see differently. In ashes lies the body of the plant (which alchemists refer to as salt).
To "separate the Earth from Fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with great ingenuity," as the writing from the emerald tablet advises I pour 300ml of distilled water over the cool ashes and place it over the fire. Soon the mixture of ashes and water starts to boil. I am working outside again although there are no fumes and it would probably be safe to work inside as well. After 20 minutes I take the pot from the fire and let it cool. Once cold, I filter the mixture into a glass jar. What's left are the solution of salts desolved in the water and the insoluble ashes aka corpus mortuum which gets discarded into my compost pile.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


"To release the remedy from the dross is the task of Vulcan [fire]"
As soon as the rest of the tincture trickles through the filter into the jar I dump the remaining plant residue and the stems that weren't pulverized into the pot and light up the stove fire in our kitchen. (Don't make the same mistake as I have made and calcinate your plant residue outside over an open fire.) Soon our kitchen is swimming in a heavy smoke and I decide to hell with the neighbors and take my work outside. Building fire and making sure that it continues to burn is very engaging. I am using oak branches that have been falling on our yard and soon I have a good fire burning. The smoke continues to spew from the pot and dissipates in the air.

In about an hour, the plant residue burns to black cinders and the smoke subsides. This I transfer into a mortar and grind into a fine black powder. My mortar is rather small and I will need to acquire a larger mortar if I am to work with greater quantities in the future. Once again I return the powdered cinder back into the pot and continue burning until the black ash turns gray white. It's dark outside by then and time to silence vulcan.


Sunday, September 21, 2008
It should be Saturday but at this point it doesn't matter. I am in good spirits and ready to filter the macerated horsetail. My flasks are too small so instead I grab a 26oz clean glass jar from pasta sauce place a steal funnel (glass funnel is preferable) on the top, a paper filter in the funnel and slowly bit by bit start pouring the macerated horsetail. When the tincture drips into the jar and the filter gets filled with the solid horsetail remains I drop them in the pot, take another filter and continue filtering until the solid and liquid parts are separated. I have drawn measurements on the jar. When all liquid is filtered, I end up with 330ml of filtered horsetail tincture.
This I immediately wrap in the black towel and store in the cool dark place (in our attic). (I haven't seen brown glass jars but they do sell beverages in brown glass bottles which would be a more desirable vessel for storing tincture).

A glimpse at Maceration and Circulation

While the spirit and soul of my tincture awakens in the dark corner, I resume my search for heat resistant ceramic pot. A friend of mine tells me to check Sur la Table store and lo 2 days later I am soaking the ceramic pot in the water to ready it for the fiery encounter. I like this pot and since so much in my experiment went askew I am hesitant about using it now and opt for an old metal pot. This way the ceramic pot will get a chance to harden more through regular cooking use.

The second Saturday of the Waxing Moon

September 9, 2008 5.30 a.m., the first Saturday of Waxing Moon. I am quite awake waiting for the sunrise, to begin maceration. (I missed the first Saturday of Waxing moon that glided over August 2nd, hence "the second" in the title; I felt unprepared and tired and decided to wait for another Saturday). Now I feel awake though slightly anxious as I rest my eyes on the soft contours of pulverized horsetail one more time. Once the top of my jar is removed my senses are immersed in the green landscape of smells. I inhale with gratitude for the last time before drowning the gentle valleys and hills in about 400 ml of brandy. (A lot more than was needed because I didn't pause often enough to allow the powder to absorb the alcohol. Naturally it was a little hard to tell when the brandy covered all powder by about 6mm (1/4 inch) - 70ml would be probably sufficient for my 61g of powdered horsetail. I make yet another mental note to myself: Don't be hasty)
I seal the jar again, making it air tight and let it macerate for 2 weeks wrapped in the black towel, hidden from the eyes of the sun in the warm corner of the dark closet. Alchemically, the spirit of wine (brandy) will separate the sulfur (soul) and mercury (spirit) of horsetail from it's body (salt).

From spindly to powdery and most beautiful green

Saturday, July 19th, 2008. It is almost 7:00pm when I bring outside a large glass jar (about 5" wide and 12" tall) and a stone mortar to pulverize the desiccated horsetail. At this stage, the body of the plant is completely free of water, brittle to the touch yet more potent and I can smell the aroma of its exposed persona. Gently and deliberately the pestle moves under my grip transforming the stringy leaves into soft powder of the most beautiful green. Each time when even the small debris of the ground horsetail are powdered under the pestle, I transfer the content into the glass jar. Minutes turn into hours, and sky into deep sea blue yet somehow this seemingly monotonous work doesn't become boring; instead the powdered substance that grows under my pestle holds me in a pleasant trance. At last when I can no longer see, I move my work inside and continue grinding, finishing nearly at midnight.

It took about 4 hours to transform the harvested and dessicated horsetail into 61g of soft green powder. The recipe requires 250g (8oz) of the ground herb. Since this is my first experience with spagyrics I decide to continue and make a mental note that in the future I need to fill up at least 4 large paper bags and start pulverizing in the morning as producing the required amount of powdered horsetail is going to take about 16 hours. Others may opt for electric grinder to safe time...however I feel that this interferes the connection between you and the plant.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

While the horsetail desiccates, I acquire brandy, glass jars, scale, filters, funnel and…

With my heart racing I begin to clear the harvested horsetail off all the poor little dead spiders and Daddy Longlegs. Only one survives the transport and I watch him scurry off into the grass.

Somehow when the spiders are gone, the spindly leaves of the horsetail resemble insect legs more than anything. Only after I tie the stems into bundles, the plant becomes its monikers: the horsetail and the witch’s broom. I hang the bundles in the attic (an ideal place to dry herbs) and let the darkness, and circulation of warm dry air to do the work. It takes several days for the plant to dry. (I left my harvest in the attic for 12 days or 2 weeks if you harvest your horsetail on Saturday).

There were still few supplies I needed to acquire. I had a good stone mortar, a large glass jar, and a smaller vial of dark glass (brown glass is ideal) that the recipe called for but I was still missing scales, brandy, funnels, unbleached filters, and heat-resistant ceramic pot (needed for calcinations). The last item turned up to be impossible to find. I am told that the ceramic pot will crack if used over opened fire without water.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Quest for Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

From what I understand, field horsetail is common and once established it is hard to eradicate. This genus of ferns "remembers" Carboniferous period. Rich in silicon, potassium and calcium it is a treasure reservoir for those with join aches or damaged hair. To my surprise it took me a while to find this hardy plant. I kept my eyes opened and at last, on Monday July 7th, 2008 I found the coveted ferns growing by a road in Keene Valley, a small mountain town in Adirondack .

Unfortunately, the conditions for harvest weren't ideal. It wasn't Saturn's day and the Moon wasn't full. Timing, among other factors, is essential. I am not aware of any scientific data that would support this statement. I simply follow the instructions when they feel right to me. I believe that everything is interconnected. Therefore it is essential to feel respect, love and appreciation toward the plant that is intended for medicinal, culinary, meditative or aesthetic experience. The relationship should be reciprocal. Just because the plant doesn't make any sounds or gestures towards me, it doesn't mean that it isn't experiencing my presence. Knowing that this was my last chance to personally harvest horsetail and avoid getting it commercially I grasped this opportunity nevertheless and hastily filled one paperbag with horsetail. Rushing the harvest was like asking some one for a favor without saying "please." Passing cars didn't help either and I only managed to fill up one bag with horsetail which felt far too light to be 2kg (4lb) that I needed.

Poking among the spindly arms of horsetail were white flowered heads of yarrow I picked few of those as well and transplanted them in my own garden. They adjusted well. Even few of the horsetail stalks that I placed in a pot sprouted new shoots within a week.

The Elixir of Saturn

Since Saturn guards the threshold between the material and spiritual planes, it was only fitting to begin with a herb that falls under this sphere. Saturn is the weaver of time. We can see the working of its web in our aging bodies specifically the bone structure, joins, teeth, the spine and blood circulation in tissues. Moreover Saturn is the cardinal sign of Capricorn (my birth sign) and as I am prone to join ache I am anxious to embrace the power of saturnian herbs. I will list few of these herbs here:
  • aloe (Aloe)
  • hemp (Cannabis sative)
  • shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa pastoris)
  • hemlock (Conium maculatum)
  • hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha)
  • horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
  • beach tree (Fagus silvatica)
  • male fern (Aspidium filix mas)
  • ivy (Hedera helix)
  • hellebore (Helleborus niger)
  • barley (Hordeum)
  • henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)
  • holly (Ilex aquifolium)
  • flax (Linum usitatissimum)
  • mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)
  • opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
  • plantain (Plantago coronopus)
  • poplars (Popolus)
  • black elder (Sumbucus nigra)
  • rye (Secale cereale)
  • comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
  • yew (Taxus baccata)
  • elm (Ulmus campestris)
  • mullein (Verbascum phlomoides)
  • pansy (Viola tricolor)
  • and some plants of the nightshade family which I may discuss more later
The recipe suggests to use horsetail and thus my quest for horsetail begins.