Of all the times of the year we celebrate plants, no other day is quite as magical as the summer solstice. Typically occurring between June 20th and June 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere each year, the solstice marks the longest day and the shortest night of the year. With warm weather, singing birds, and plants in full bloom, this time of year can’t help but instill us with optimism. If the winter solstice coaxes us to go quietly within, the summer solstice teaches us to find joy in nature’s bounty. Many ancient cultures have traditionally harvested herbs on this day, believing them to be at their greatest medicinal value. It’s no coincidence, then, that herbs have played such a strong role in summer solstice festivities.
The summer solstice occurs when the sun is at its peak in the noontime sky and when it sets at the northernmost point on the horizon. Taking its name from the Latin solsitium, meaning “sun stands still,” the solstice marks the first official day of summer. Positioned at this angle, the sun’s rays hit the planet more directly than any other time of year, kicking off a three-month period with enough heat and light to fuel the earth for the growing season. This light creates a more efficient system of photosynthesis in plants, and the full days also allow animals and humans to eat uninhibited, fattening their bodies to prepare for the colder seasons. The Native American Lakota people referred to the summer solstice as “the moon of making fat” for this very reason.
Plants have always played a role in celebrating the change of seasons, but herbs have traditionally taken center stage in summer solstice events. In ancient European pagan cultures, priests and healers believed herbs attained the peak of their medicinal value on this day and would harvest them to dry and have available for the rest of the year. Classic summer plants like St. John’s Wort (named for Saint John’s solstice feast day), chamomile, calendula, lavender, fennel, hemp, mugwort, rosemary, thyme, meadowsweet, verbena, sage, mint, elder and roses all are linked to this time of year, often used by Druids in their ceremonial Midsummer bonfires. In particular, medicine people took advantage of this day to capture the maximum potential of lavender and vervain for banishing worries and St. John’s Wort for bringing sunshine to sorrow.
Energetically, the summer solstice is about more than celebrating joy and abundance. It’s also traditionally a time to—quite literally—make hay while the sun is shining. There’s no better fable of that to reinforce the importance of the growing season than Aesop’s famous fable, “The Ants & The Grasshopper,” which teaches the importance of gathering food while there’s food to be found. Seizing the day by preparing our bodies and cupboards for the colder months can be as seasonally celebratory as it is wise. Our herbalists use this time to harvest herbs for oils, tinctures and teas, using the “above ground” parts of the plants that capture the sunshine at its peak. The type of plant and medicine they create depends on what time of the solstice day they harvest.
In nearly every culture, the summer solstice was a time when people sought protection, purified spaces, and connected with spirits. While ancient traditions may have changed, contemporary summer solstice events like New York City’s day-long yoga Solstice in Times Square and the Solstice Fires in the Austrian Alps attest that the return of the light is as relevant a time as ever to celebrate joy, abundance, and the spiritual fire within.
Do you have a special way of celebrating the solstice? If so, please share your summer solstice celebrations with us on Traditional Medicinals’ Instagram page.