Happy Herbal May Day/Beltane

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America

“Tra la, it’s May, it’s May, the lusty Month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray
Tra la, it’s here, it’s here, that shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.
Whence this fragrance wafting through the air?
What sweet feelings does its scent transmute?
Whence this perfume floating everywhere?
Don’t you know, it’s that dear forbidden fruit,


It’s May! It’s May!
The month of “yes you may,”
The time for ev’ry frivolous whim,
Proper or “im.”
It’s wild! It’s gay!
A blot in ev’ry way.
The birds and bees with all of their vast
Amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast,
The lusty month of May. “
From Camelot ~ Lerner & Loewe

Beltane or the festival that we know today as May Day, was originally the day of the Celtic year that celebrated love and fertility, passion and life, in all of its forms. Beltane or Beltaine as the Irish speak of it, is a lusty, fiery feast full of surprises. None of us can ever know what the muses have in store on May 1st, but I can promise you that if you are open to their magic you will enjoy every minute of it.

Untitled design (76)It’s impossible to ignore all the trees that are blooming, and the flowers and wild potherbs appearing all over the fields and forests as if by magic. The honeybees have reappeared and are busy making love to the fragrant blossoms and with luck we will find our trees filled with ripe fruits come fall. We till our gardens and plant the seed that we’ve saved from last year’s harvest and we take long walks outside, grateful that the sun has finally come again and brought with it a deep rich warmth.

You needn’t go too far into your imagination to see that centuries ago, these simple things would have seemed deeply magical. Nature has a magic all her own and for the ancients, Beltane was a reminder to stop and pay attention to those thundering rhythms and perhaps create a few of their own. After all when the winter has been so barren and cold, you could hardly blame any soul for wanting to frolic a bit!

Sometimes, I think that it would serve us well to embrace the same simple wonder our ancestors did, an excitement that comes from enjoying a life of following the seasons simply and passionately. For me, springtime is marked by so many things that I look forward to, knowing that they will not pass through my life until the wheel comes full circle again. The beautiful fragrant violets, the precious lilacs, and viburnums…wild ramps with their deep oniony flavor and fiddlehead ferns. Fresh pea tendrils, daffodils, and the very first dandelion greens that I love to harvest for salads.

In a class by itself comes the freshest spring asparagus. I love to eat it raw from the garden, but I can’t think of anything more wonderful than a meal of steamed asparagus and a silky tarragon-laced béarnaise sauce. Living as locally as possible and respecting the seasons and the gifts that each one brings is not only a healthy way to eat, but a sustainable way to live.

The first thing I did when we bought our home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was put in an asparagus bed. An asparagus bed is one of nature’s most useful clocks. When my first thick shoots of asparagus come up, I know that spring is truly here. Several years ago all of my asparagus came up in March and I knew that we were in for a very interesting year.

For me one of the greatest joys of the merry month of May was always the flowers that would bloom in my parents’ gardens. They grew many beautiful flowers but none were more precious to me than the beautiful patch of lilies of the valley that grew behind the terrace in a secret place that only a few knew about. I’d wait and wait and then every year on the 1st of May I would run into the back and there they would be, pure little bells of white with strong green leaves just begging me to bury my face into their flowers and inhale their sweet green scent. I’d pick bunches of them to put in little vases all around the house. Then I’d make little bouquets of lilies, bluebells, and lilacs for all my teachers.

Untitled design (78)All these beautiful greens and flowers come but once a year in a fashion that is fleeting and beautiful. I think that if I could have them all year round it would be a disappointment, because the yearning for them is every bit as delightful. Besides, every season has its pleasures and treasures.

Crabapple trees and their fragrant blooms can only come in May, but their fruits are late August’s treasures. The old-fashioned roses in my gardens that bloom so abundantly will produce generous rosehips for my tea in September. To everything there is a season, and to every time a purpose. The joy that May Day brings is the abundant renewal of life and passion.

Be love and give love generously on this day. Gifts of flowers and bright May Baskets  are traditional gifts of love that are perfect. Hang a May Day basket on your neighbor’s door! Weave a colorful May Pole with your children! If it’s a beautiful evening spread blankets outside, light lots of candles or a firepit, have a picnic, and dare to fall asleep under the stars! Grab your beloveds and dance the night away!

Beltane eve was the night that we traditionally lit ritual fires in the freshly plowed fields with the intent to create life, celebrate our passion, and ensure the fertile harvest not only of our fields, but of our souls. Tonight is the night to light those ancient fires once again by spending time with those you love, walk in the fields and forests, smell all of the beautiful flowers, and just listen to the spring time peepers for a little while. Enjoy the mystery and magic of simply being alive. Remember that it’s the very things that we don’t really know that can bring us the most joy and above all remember to be glad…very glad to be alive. Life is juicy, fragrant, and sometimes bittersweet.

Life is also all about diving headfirst into all your passions. Do be careful though…Passions run high on the first day of May. That’s my only warning, but you’d be wise to heed it, not that you’ll really be able to control the outcome. Lots of adorable babies and extraordinary ideas are conceived on May Day!

Just remember that the muses of May will always have their way…….