The moon was nearly swelled to her fullest, illumed and gauzy behind the clouded veil of the night sky, and I was having trouble sleeping. I tossed and turned and flitted from one dream beginning, to another, unable to go deep into any. This seemed to go on and on, the moon glow toying with and teasing me, until, at last, sleep came, and with it a dream. It was a powerful night vision of burning red Dogwood.
I saw myself walking through what remained of the snow stretching across a great prairie. Dry, golden grasses that once had stood tall and proud against the expansive horizon, now bowed, embodying the dying light of winter, as though searching the thawing ground for the new shoots that would rise in their place, that would succeed them in their summer reign. I walked through them, hands outstretched to communicate with them by the whisper of touch as I went. I made my way toward a snaking stand of thin trees and the tightly knit, bare branches, of wild bush and shrub. They concealed a twisting dry stream bed, stone strewn and with scattered layers of pocked ice remnants. I searched for the easiest way to climb down the steep bank, and made my way. The thorns of raspberry canes grabbed at my coat and threatened to trip me, while loose rocks and mud slipped beneath my boots. At last I was standing where the water would normally be rushing, quick and frothy, and wended my way down the dry bed to where I knew it would eventually meet the river bottoms below.
I was scrambling, the going was rough. I saw myself intently searching for a way through the myriad stones beneath my feet, to keep from twisting an ankle, and narrowly avoiding the branches that poked at my eyes, and caught on my hair. Occasionally I would come upon a shelf of ice, and I would have to carefully step on it, one foot at a time, to break through it's thin layer and through the half foot of air underneath, before my boot would find footing on the rocks below. Tricky. I squeezed around massive boulders that left little room between them and the high, steep banks; climbed over deadfall that littered the floor of the bed, trying to trap my legs; and ducked under branches that appeared out of nowhere. But I went on, feeling out of breath and exhilarated. Moving with a purpose that was unknown to me.
After rounding a bend, a cardinal, perched on an exposed root halfway up the bank, caught my eye. Its bold color stood in high contrast to the muted tones of the February landscape. As I got closer it lifted in flight, flew a short distance, and alighted on another root, a little farther down. This happened several times until at last it flew around a turn. When I, too, made the corner, I saw a man standing on a low part of the embankment. He was surrounded by a thicket of bright red dogwood - red osier dogwood - that seemed to leap up around him like flames. In his hands he held a bundle of their branches, cut into lengths and tied with twine, which he held out to me. I had to look down as the stones, uneven and loose where I scrambled, shifted, and when I looked back up, the man was gone. The flames of dogwood remained, and so did the bundle, lying on the creek bed before me.
When I awoke from this dream, I knew what I was to do. Shortly after, I was walking across a prairie I hadn't been to since the summer before, dog racing to and fro around me, en route to a creek I remembered. And, it was dry. I climbed down and began retracing my dream steps. This time, I knew my purpose. My task was to harvest the bright, flaming wands of dogwood.
Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea, synonymous with C. stolonifera ) also goes by the names Red Willow, Redstem Dogwood, Redtwig Dogwood, Red-Rood, American Dogwood, Creek Dogwood, and Western Dogwood. It is a medium sized deciduous shrub that, in the wild, often forms dense thickets in wooded or open areas of damp soil, favoring creek-sides, river banks, and lake shores. The summer leaves are dark green, transitioning to shades of bright red and purple, when Autumn comes to call. Lovely, small white flowers bloom all summer, and it produces pretty white berries, that while edible, are sour and bitter and nearly unpalatable to most humans. However, they are remarkable for their wildlife value, eaten by cardinals, bluebirds, bobwhites, grouse, crows, woodpeckers, and bears. Deer, elk, moose, cottontails and snowshoe hares all eat the twigs. Inside those twigs is where the real magic of this Plant Being lies. In, and beneath, its stunning crimson bark.
The medicines of this ally seem boundless, and were used by Native American tribes to treat eye, lung, pregnancy related ailments, and pain. The Cree used the fruit to treat snow-blindness and the pith to heal cataracts. The Iroquois used the inner bark for hemorrhages, pain, headaches, chest congestion, sore throats, coughs and fevers. When smoked with tobacco it was used to treat lung sickness, and cleansed the blood and improved circulation when mixed with Chokecherry or Alder bark. Red Osier was used to prevent frequent pregnancies, by the Okanagan-Colville tribe, and an inner-bark poultice, when applied to a woman’s back and belly, was used to help “heal a woman’s insides”, after childbirth. When mixed with ash it was a reliable painkiller; and a decoction of the inner bark treated rashes, sores, diarrhea and poison ivy. However, its greatest renown is as a ceremonial smoke. Red Willow is known as an important, and perhaps principal, ingredient of "kinnikinnick", a smoking blend made from wild plants, and often mixed with tobacco.
But, the folklore! Believed to be efficacious in several forms and states, red osier dogwood was considered as "Magic Material", by Native American tribes. The Iroquois, in particular, have numerous magical beliefs about red willow. They employed it in their oral narratives to achieve any act that needed to be done immediately, or to change any condition that needed instant alteration. A red osier switch was a magic wand that could enlarge a table and make food appear, or transform a dog into a monster bear. In the hands of a hero, a red willow branch could change logs into giant men, lengthen one's legs in a fight, and animate a manikin helper. Scrapings of the red bark thrown into a pond would command the giant bloodsucker living there to rise to the surface. And, throughout Iroquois folklore, an arrow that never missed its mark was always made of red willow. In fact, the most frequent use of red willow was as weapons against supernatural enemies. Red osier dogwood was also burned and consumed for magical purposes. The smoke conferred great power. It made wizards fly, and was used to rise into the air in pursuit of witches trying to make a getaway. Consumed as a liquid was not only healing, but could also be used as an antidote to witchcraft.
In my own practice, I tie lengths of red willow branches into bundles, with knots for protection, and hang them around my home and property. I cut pieces, roughly 1-2in. long, that I save in a spell drawer. These I add to pouches, or burn in spell work. I use the thinner, more flexible branches to create dream catchers. And I have one perfectly powerful red osier branch that I use as a wand.
The day after I harvested this red willow the world woke up so beautifully, that I decided to go back to the prairie to take pictures. Less than 24 hours from when I had been scrambling deep in the earthen gouge of a dry bed, and now the stream was wildly flowing, foaming and feral, and filled nearly to the top of what had been a tall, steep bank. I laughed at the circumstances, and at my own mistake in forgetting my camera the day before. But, the dogwood had been calling too loudly for me to think of anything else. The dream had come to me in time, and I was thankful I had listened to its message. There is magic in that, too.
** I referred to a most wonderful reference for the superstition and folklore of Red Osier Dogwood in this writing, entitled, "The Eldest Medicine: Red Osier Dogwood in Iroquois Folklore and Mythology", by Anthony Wonderley, found at: