(Originally published 17 February 2015 here )
There's an awful lot about plant medicines that can't be understood by scientific study under a microscope, yet has been understood and exploited by humans until quite recently in our history. But now that we know about chemicals & such, we're obsessed with them, and can't see past them.
Explaining this to the average Westerner is really difficult. The terms I want to use - spirit, for instance - are so co-opted that what I say won't necessarily be what is heard. So bear in mind that as I write I can only indicate what I mean approximately, and that it can only be fully understood by experience with the plants themselves.
I'm all about sharing the experiences I have with the plants, in spite of how tricky it is to find the right words. I know how much more there is to their medicine and how badly we need precisely those qualities the Western mindset ignores.
I absolutely began my journey as most do, store bought teas in bags first, then a brief flirtation with capsules, which I knew almost immediately were "wrong" somehow. I read and I read, too, it was long before the interwebz and so I scoured used book stores and bought, literally, everything herbal I could lay my hands on.
I learned the most from the older texts. I began to notice a disturbing trend, too, in the newer ones; in the descriptions of the various uses for the plants I recognized verbatim quotes from the old texts - without acknowledgement. Red flag there, yes? I see the same on far too many websites now, they all parrot each other. It became clear then that the only writers I could trust were those that wrote from experience, "I have used x and the result was y.", and who used their own home grown or wild foraged plants.
Growing medicine plants or foraging for them in the wild, harvesting and preparing them with one's own hands offers additional understanding about the actions of the plants. Healers who prepare their medicines for their clients are holistic in a way that goes far beyond what we normally mean by it. A good healer can only treat the whole person by spending time with them, getting to know their strengths, weaknesses and quirks. If that healer also knows the strengths, weaknesses and quirks of the plant medicines, they can make a far better match between the two.
Plant medicine is matchmaking. It is not this plant for that symptom, it's more contextual than that. The healer needs to understand where the say, sinus symptoms are coming from in their client. Is it allergies, really? Or is there an undercurrent of frustration and anger in this person that may be exacerbating the physical problem? Is this wound not healing because of an infection, is there an underlying nutritional deficiency, is this person also lonely? A good healer looks deep through the layers of the human being in front of them.
A sensitive plant healer will know which plant(s) are a good match to help this person. Not only by knowing the usual habits of the plant, but taking into account what weather and soil conditions it grew under, even the amount of sun it took in, which will enable the healer to know the strength and therefore the dosages to begin with. The healer who knows all these things also has a sense of the spiritual qualities of each of the plants they can choose from.
Each plant species has a spiritual aspect. In the old herbals, this was explained in astrological terms. Reading Culpeper (please do!), you'll find each plant is ruled by, or under the dominion of, certain planets. There are Solar plants, Lunar, Saturnian, and plants of Jupiter, Venus or Mars. This is a different sort of astrology than we understand now, but if you know that Venus is said to be watery and mild, you can see quite easily that the mallows, which are moist and slippery, would be under Venus. Yet just as not all people born under the sign of Taurus (also ruled by Venus) will behave exactly the same, not all mallows will, either.
Each plant, within each species, has its own personality. The mallows on one side of my garden differ from those on the other side in ways that can't be explained away by soil, light or moisture, it is a subtlety that I can only name as spirit.
I gather plants from the wild quite a bit. I've learned that it is best to gather from land that I know - and that knows me. I get to know each nettle patch or grove of mullein. I touch them over the course of the growing season, sing to them, sometimes nibble. These plants make superior medicine. Again, this isn't something that can be explained in sciencey terms, but it's equally important to realize this is not some quasi-Disneyesque "shamanic" woo, either.
The skilled plant healer brings this to bear when working with a client. This knowing of the plants as creatures who have their own kind of awareness (which I choose to call spirit) is the intuitive understanding that medicine people the world over knew for millenia. It's the kind of healing we long for when we turn to herbs.
But for most people, what is offered up for their use bears no resemblance to what they crave. This terrible knowledge that we all live in a polluted world and that our drug medicines are doing us harm drives us into the arms of something just as bad, the world of "Naturopaths", of Big Herb, with its capsules and powdered formulas of dead things, the chemical remains of the plant creatures. Those "plant-based" medicines and "botanicals" that are commercially grown and factory prepared lack 90% of their power to heal by the time they reach the "consumer". No wonder such high dosages seem to be required for them to have an affect, and why, like drugs, people seem to need take them continuously to control symptoms.
In fact, plant medicines are health enhancers. Yes, we take them when we are ill, but more often we use them as part of our diets and so we remain less likely to become ill. Plant medicines, for the most part, (when used correctly) nourish our bodies into wholeness. Plants (and fungi and lichen medicines) offer the building blocks our bodies need to take care of themselves even as their spirits reach in, wake us up and heal our spirits. It's a beautiful thing.
Of course, plants heal whether we are aware of the spiritual aspect or not, but the more the plant material is broken down and processed, the more it becomes like the drugs we are trying to replace. Every time we strip a plant down to its "active ingredients" we're making a judgement call that I don't think we're qualified to make. We do not know what all the chemical constituents of what makes up, say St John'swort, do, so we've come up with hypericum standardized extract. These hypericum supplements carry a warning: "may cause photosensitivity". Yet St John'swort in its whole form is protective against sunburn and a remedy for it after the fact. For more on St John'swort see my post here (it's long!). The point is, laboratory science has so little understanding of plants as medicines that it really ought not to be entirely trusted to do the right thing.
The person best qualified to understand how plants can help you is you. The best place to look for the right plants for your needs is literally right outside your door. The nature of Nature is that the most useful of the healing and nourishing plants are also the most widely available. They are the weeds, they survive under almost any conditions. They don't require pristine wilderness, and cities are habitat for some of the most very useful of these, like dandelions, plantain, mullein .. I could go on and on.
If you are really drawn to use plants instead of drugs, learn the names and uses of everything in your yard, the parks and even in the alleyways and empty lots. You'll find these lowly plants are every bit as useful as the most exotic and expensive preparations from the Andes. They are safe, effective, and will reward you with a journey toward health and a sense of wholeness that the drug-like powders can't even approach.