The world opens up to us, or our minds open up to the world when we begin to learn about the plants around us.
I grew up in a small town and played outside a lot in that way that unsupervised, free kind of way that seems so out of reach for today’s children, against the standards of “good” parenting today. My dad’s idea of a dream vacation, indeed, the only vacations we ever took, were “up north.” Up North was in north central Wisconsin, on a lake near the Flambeau River. Like most Americans, in our disconnected society, nobody really taught me many plants. I knew the names of Dandelion and the volunteer Violas that grew in the lawn and the nearly feral Lily of the Valley. In town, I nibbled on the sour little clover-like leaves of Wood Sorrel. I had no name for Wood Sorrel and nobody ever told me it was ok to eat them. I’ve spoken to many people who had that same experience as children, eating Wood Sorrel, or Sourgrass, or Sour Clover, or whatever it’s called where you live, without ever having been told it was ok. I pulled off the individual blossom from lilacs, put it to my lips, sucked and enjoyed that little whiff of sweet nectar. We found swaths of Scouring Rush on the sandy banks of the lake in my hometown and pulled them apart at the joints and put them back together, and again, this plant was nameless to me. Up North we foraged for raspberries and blackberries and I knew the names of a few of the flowers and the seasons they heralded, large-flowered Trillium carpeting the forest floor in the spring and Goldenrod, announcing the beginning of the end of the short northern summer. I remember a compact patch of Bunchberry, anonymous to me at the time, in the moist soil beneath the pine trees right by the boathouse, with it’s glossy leaves and white flowers and later red berries. I remember Self-Heal too, growing in the wet shady lawn, it’s little head with throat-like flowers growing among the grass . . .nameless.
I vividly remember the first plant walk I took. I was late. I had just had a baby not so long ago and I had my baby with me in a sling. Lise was the instructor and there was so much information, so many plants, so much detail about how to identify plants by their different parts and characteristics! We talked about Burdock. I’d never heard of Burdock before. I had probably walked past it 10,00 times without ever noticing it or wondering about it. My plant-ignorant mind was swimming in all this knowledge, bobbing around, sinking under, floating up to the surface. It was like going from wading in the kiddie pool to being dumped in the Mississippi.
Before you know plants the landscape is a sea of green. You know Dandelions, of course. You could pick out a Daisy in bloom, or recognize a Red Raspberry as safe to eat. Sometimes there’s a plant in bloom that is so lovely it may stop you in your tracks, but mostly it’s a jungle of indistinguishable green. When you learn plants your view of the land you live on alters and it alters quickly. Your mind cracks open wide, really wide. I have my own memory of this as a student, and as a teacher I watch many students go through this experience. The moment is right. You are ready and you learn one or two or three of the common weeds, the ones you walk by that grow in the unkept lots, or along the fence, or at the edge of the woods at the park, that spot where the lawnmower stops. These plants are edible, they are medicinal, they are sacred, they have names reaching back centuries. You learn that handful of plants and then you realize something that seems simultaneously self-evident and profound: there are plants everywhere! Everywhere! They pop out at you. They leap from the sea of green into your awareness announcing their presence, their plant-ness their being-ness. They all have a rich history of interaction with the human, plant and animal community that you never even knew existed and it is all there for you to discover and dive into deeply. They all have names. Two names or more, in fact. There are common names passed down from person to person that may indicate what people used them for (Pleurisy Root, Self-Heal), or they might be a religious name (Lady’s Bedstraw), or a funny whimsical name or a gross, raunchy name (um…Horny Goatweed). They also have a two part scientific name that is often beautiful, derived from Latin or Greek and can be used to talk about the plant to any person in the world, regardless of where they live and what regional names they may use. You learn the lineage and history of these plants. Some have been here a long time, since the time before Europeans walked this land (like Boneset or Wild Ginger). Many are more recent arrivals (Plantain, Celandine). They may complete their entire life cycles in just one year (Lamb’s Quarters, Jewelweed)or two years(Mullein, Burdock), or many, many years (Trillium, Solomon’s Seal). Some thrive in almost any conditions. Others like their faces turned to the sun, or their feet wet. Some find a spot where they will always be tramped upon (Pineapple Weed), and set up a community thriving in the least pristine of environments, while other seem to resent human intrusion into the dark, forested sanctuary. We start to know this. And eventually, we recognize these plants in a way is that is so complete it is like we know the sky is blue. Some plants make excellent food for people and animals, some may make you a little sick or even be poisonous and many, many plants offer a gift of healing. The plants can teach our bodies what to do and remind us how to be. And that’s what healing is, it is the restoration of, or the learning of a new pattern of being that works better for us.
When I first got started with plant identification I wanted to learn how to identify plants so that I could make medicine out of them. Want, want, want… I wanted to be an herbalist. I had a big list of plants I wanted to acquire. I wanted a big kit of herbal medicine. I wanted all the plants I read about. Many of my students start in this same place that I did. My desire to acquire has largely subsided and my relationships to the plants around me as become a more mellow and richer thing. Over time, I came to understand, that this is a life long study and it never ends. It is not a set of information or a set of remedies to be acquired and checked off a a list. I still have a big list, but I feel more relaxed about my list. Some of these plants I having been harvesting year after year; they are my invaluable allies in my healing work. Others I only gather every few years and some I know by reputation only and still wish to meet and incorporate into my work. I am much more patient than I used to be about the meeting new ones and making medicine from them. I go slowly when I meet new plants. There is never a year where I harvest all of the plants on my list and I am ok with that.
There is always, always, always more to learn. Learning plants offers you a doorway into a deep connection to the place where you live. There are other doorways as well. Walking through the field or forest on your own two feet, in silence and without a vehicle, and your eyes trained upon the ground, offers unexpected, delightful and soul satisfying intimacy with your place. I belong here. YOU belong here. You are not just passing through. You belong here just as the trees belong here and the flowering plants and all the creatures of the earth. And your use of the plants actually increases this belonging and connection. Nature is not something we look at, or read about, or care about in some abstract way. You are not just passing through. You are tied to this place because you eat these plants and harvest these plants and make medicine from these plants and share these plants. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t know that this is where my study of plant identification would take me, into an abiding love affair with my physical place. Our love for the plants for their own sake is braided together with our use of them as medicine.
My advice to you who are new and filled with the excitement and a desire to acquire plant remedies: slow down a bit. You do not need to acquire all the remedies you ever wanted this year. There is always next year and then the year after that and the the year after that. What good does it do you to acquire a remedy that you don’t really know that well? Will you be able to find it again if you need it? Do you know where it likes to live? Do you know the conditions it likes? Who does it grow by? Do you know when it arrives in the spring, when it blooms, when it is past? Does it stand about for awhile or does it die back completely leaving no trace of it’s presence? When you are meeting new plants on your own and away from your teacher, take your time. Enjoy your time with these plants. You have your whole life to make medicine. Grow your own confidence by watching a plant or a plant community through the seasons. I like to watch a new plant or plant community for a year. Some plants I have watched for many years without harvesting, knowing that someday maybe I will harvest this plant and bring it into my herbal work. Look at it in several different books, not just one. Take photos of it. Compare it to it’s neighbors. Note what it looks like in the spring, early summer, late summer and fall. Get to know it really, really well. This is a wonderful feeling. It is an anxiety producing feeling to harvest something you are not 100% sure of. I think any honest herbalist will admit they’ve done it before. I have. And I have been been with students out in the field, who sheepishly admit they have harvested a plant thinking it was one species, only to be told (sometimes by me!) that it was, in fact, something else. Identifying some plants are easy, but with some it takes a good deal of time to learn the subtle difference between species. It is a practice of discernment with an increasing and sophisticated attention to details. It feels much, much better to know plants intimately, to know it, as I said, like you know the sky is blue, than to harvest in a hurry, with a desire to acquire in a spirit of optimistic uncertainty.
This desire for connection is a large part of why I choose to work almost exclusively with plants that grow wild in the upper midwest. How much richer and fuller and more wonderful it feels to give my clients plants that come from our community! My remedy kit may not include hundreds and hundreds of herbs. It may not include the latest fad herb of commerce that comes from the rainforest or India or China. It doesn’t include the latest herb that is the focus of scientific studies, but it does include herbs that I know like dear old friends. I know exactly where to find these herbs. I picked them with my own two hands. I picked them only from healthy, thriving plant communities, generally on the most beautiful of days. I picked them slowly and peacefully while I was filled with pleasure at being out in the place that I live. I did not over-harvest. I harvested them with an eye to the health of the land. I like to think that wild, local, rooted energy is communicated in the remedy. It all fits. It’s all connected. We come from the same place, the plant, the herbalist and the person in search of healing.
The more you learn, the deeper it gets. How many things in life are like that? It just keeps getting better. Your love of plants may lead you to more botany, more ecology, more about pollinators and insects, more about soil, more about the natural history of your area. You may be led to learn more about plant chemistry and plant families. You may be called learn more about edibility and learn more ways to add wild foods to your diet, this might lead you to also to learn about mushrooms or even hunting or other primitive or survival skills. You can learn more about medicinal uses did people in China or Europe use a plant from the same genus as our local species. How is it similar or different? You may learn to make flower essences and learn more about energy healing of all sorts, you may pray with or meditate with the plants, you may be led down a path of the spirit with these plants and this land. The possibilities offered to us through this connection are vast.
Have a delightful summer with the plants and your plant books and your gathering baskets and your medicine jars. Join me if you can this August in Saint Paul for two workshops to learn our local medicinal plants and trees.