February – Cypress

February (Mensis Februarius) is named for februum, which in Latin means “purify”. Februum is based on Februa, an ancient Roman purification ritual that honored the primordial Mother (Gaia, Isis, Hera, Rhea, Tera Mater, Cybele, Juno). Februa was originally held on the full moon before the new year, which began in the month of March. The months of January and February didn’t exist in the original ten-month lunar calendar of Rome, for they were seen as “dead” months within the agricultural year. In 713 BCE January and February were added to create a twelve-month lunar calendar. February became the last month of the lunar year. The festival of Februa became known as Februalia. This was a time of purification and atonement, along with offerings to the Gods of the underworld.

In the ancient world, fragrant boughs of cypress were dipped in water and used for cleansing and purification. Cypress was also burned as an incense to purify the air after cremating the dead and offering the ashes to the underworld. Cypress trees were planted near graves as protectors of the soul on its journey in the afterlife. Wreaths of cypress adorned statues of Hades and Pluto, the Greco-Roman gods of the underworld. The story of Persephone (Goddess of Spring and wife of Hades/Pluto) is an allegory for the changing of seasons. Persephone, daughter of Demeter – Goddess of Agriculture, had to cross over a mythical grove of cypress trees before emerging from the underworld in spring (birth) and returning in fall (death).

Mediterranean Cypress, Cupressus sempervirens in Tuscany, Italy

In Greco-Roman mythology, cypress is named for Cyparissus, an innocent young man who was loved by the gods. He pleaded with Apollo (God of Light) to allow him to mourn forever over the death of a beloved white stag. To honor his wish Apollo turned Cyparissus into a cypress tree, which was known as a tree of mourning. The white stag is symbolic of purity and the realm of spirit.

Painting of Cyparissus transforming into a cypress tree.
Attributed to Cacaliere d’Arpino – 17th century.

Cypress trees are members of the cypress family (Cupressaceae). Some of the tallest and biggest trees in the world belong to the cypress family, including coast redwoods Sequoia sempervirens and giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum. All cypress trees are easily distinguished by their flattened, scale-like leaves. Yet, many species within the cypress family are incorrectly identified as cedar, which actually belong to the pine family.

Flattened scale-like leaves of trees in the cypress family. (Thuja orientalis – Arborvitae)

Arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis, is a member of the cypress family, but it is often referred to as cedar, in North America.

In 1536 French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew fell ill with scurvy during an expedition in Canada. Members of an Iroquois tribe offered them tea made from the “Annedda” tree. When Cartier recovered, he brought seeds of this “miracle” tree to France, where it was planted in the Kings medicinal gardens. They named it “l’arbre de vie”, which in Latin means “tree of life.”  When the English began growing arborvitae, they called it “cedar” because its scent was similar to the cedar boxes made from the Cedars of Lebanon, Cedrus libani. Since the English had never seen a “true cedar” they misidentified the distinct flattened scale-like leaves of arborvitae as “cedar.” True cedars belong to the Pinaceae (Pine) family and have needle-like leaves.

Species within the cypress family that are commonly called “cedar”.

  • Eastern red cedar – Juniperus virginiana
  • Western or giant red cedar – Thuja plicata
  • Northern white cedar & Eastern white cedar – Thuja occidentalis
  • Incense cedar – Calocedrus decurrens
  • Port Orford cedar – Chamaecyparis lawsonia

There are only four species of “true cedar” in the world.

  • Cedars of Lebanon – Cedrus libani
  • Himalayan cedar – Cedrus deodara
  • Cyprus cedar – Cedrus brevifolia
  • Atlas cedar – Cedrus atlantica
All true cedars have needle-like pine leaves. (Cedrus libani – Cedars of Lebanon – in the pine family)

As native languages were lost, the indigenous names of these trees were given the English name “cedar”. Since these trees were honored as elders the name “cedar” became sacred as well.

Cathedral Grove, British Columbia. (Thuja plicata – Pacific red “cedar” – in the cypress family)

Many native tribes in North America now call Thuja “Grandmother Cedar”. She is honored as a sacred provider of wisdom and protection. She is associated with the North direction of the medicine wheel, the place of ancestors and spirit guides. Thuja plicata has been used to create totem poles dating back to 5000 BCE. The word totem means “kinship group” in Ojibwa. Some Pacific Northwest tribes even refer to themselves as “people of the red cedar”.

In reality, these “cedars” are actually members of the ancient cypress family that includes redwoods and sequoia to name a few.

February is the perfect month to reconnect with the lost stories within the cypress family and to clarify its impact on our collective soul.

February, a month when life begins to awaken within Mother Earth.

Celtic cultures celebrated the beginning of February with Imbolc, meaning “belly of the mother”. This is a time when the growing Sun warmed the ground and seeds began to stir. Imbolc is celebrated from sundown on February 1 to sundown on February 2, marking the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Imbolc is also called Brigid’s Day, in honor of the pre-Christian goddess Brigid, as “the one who brings back the Sun.”

February was also a time of preparing fields and pruning trees. The cleared limbs, plants and debris were used for bonfires. These cleansing fires also functioned as purification ceremonies, that honored the cycle of life and death on Earth. The ashes fed the underworld, while the spiritual essence of smoke went to the upper world.

Forest Bathing

Forest bathing is one of the most delightful ways to purify ourself and improve our mental, spiritual and physical health. In Japan Forest bathing is called shinrin-yoku.  Japanese cypress (Cryptomeria japonica) is the national tree of Japan. The cypress trees that were used to build the Ise Shrine, are called go-shin-boku, meaning “divine trees.”

By walking in an aromatic cypress or conifer forest you naturally inhale organic compounds known as terpenes. By breathing in the scent of an evergreen forest you receive the numerous health benefits of nature’s aerosols. Terpenes such as pinene, cedrene and limonene are useful in reducing inflammation, stress, cortisol and blood pressure, while improving our metabolism and circulation. This is especially effective for children with asthma and eczema.

Enjoying the benefits of Forest Bathing

Aromatherapy

You can easily bring the benefits of the forest into your home with essential oils, by making refreshing aerosol sprays or adding a few drops of your favorite scent to a bath or shower.

Create your own essential oil blends.

Room spray

What you need

  • 1 cup distilled water
  • 1 T organic witch hazel
  • 10-20 drops of essential oils like cypress & frankincense or cedar & rose.
  • 1 8-ounce or 2-4 ounce glass aerosol pump bottles
  • 1-3 small pebble or crystal chips

Instructions

  • Mix together and pour into bottle. Add small pebbles or crystals and attach pump cap securely.
  • Lightly shake bottle before each use to blend oil and water.
  • Spray when needed to freshen a space.
  • This can also be used as a personal body spray.

Clearing the Air

The burning of cypress/cedar as an incense, has been practiced for thousands of years. Smudging has functioned as an integral part of ceremonies for purifying the air and to open sacred space.

Smudging is an ancient method of purifying space with smoke

These stories remind us that trees are our faith keepers and their forests are our temples. The cypress family has very deep and sacred roots in multiple continents around the world. It’s time to reclaim these stories and clear the air as we create space for what is birthing within us.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

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