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Creating Allies in the Plants: Foundational Learning for Herbalists

As much as I don’t love the heat (us Pitta personalities do better in the cold) I do love Summer. Everything around us is overflowing with life, and it reminds me that my place in the world is actually quite small. Since we live in the woods, this effect is magnified by the massive maples, birches and pines that surround our home and bring us closer to the divine.

Plants are good like that. They affect us. They make us feel things, think things, experience earth and sometimes the sacred. More than that, they are there for us. They know when they are needed – it is not uncommon to hear someone say “this year I just seem to be surrounded by (enter plant name here) and I didn’t realize how much I needed it until now”. I’ve had such an experience with Mugwort this season - it has been part of my materia medica for years but I rarely used it and never really found myself around it. As I watch it pop up all over my garden, all over the yards of my friends and family and all over every waste area I walk through, it was time to start listening to what it was trying to tell me.

As I started doing that a few months ago, started making Mugwort medicines (some formulations for the first time) and started researching it more in depth, I also started reflecting on the way we as humans “learn” the plants. I know I’m not supposed to say this, but there’s a good way and a bad way to go about it, especially when a person is just starting to build their knowledge. So today, I want to explore the method I was taught and am now teaching my own students about how we, as humble humans, connect with herbs. I think the experience of building true and deep connection is necessary for anyone who wants to gain more than just a surface understanding of the ways in which herbs heal. Herbalism is about so much more than looking up a plant in a book or going to a class – if we are to create true ally-ship with the plants we must learn to offer ourselves up to their world, not just pull them into ours. To do this takes humility, love, openheartedness and surrender.

Imagine this scenario: you are walking along the hedges and a plant you know and have maybe worked with presents itself to you. You notice it, it notices you. Maybe you stop, maybe you keep walking. But it sticks with you – and the next time you walk by it somewhere else you notice it faster. You get curious. You look the plant up on google, and then in one of your books. Next time you feel the plant calling you. Maybe this time you sit with it a while. You start gathering it or planting it, make medicine with it and sharing it with others. You start using it for everything, because everything seems to fit with it. You get a sense of joy and comfort every time you see it, as if it’s become part of you. You have created a bond that goes beyond how the plant can serve you and into the realm of soul connection. You have made an ally.

Not every interaction and relationship with every plant is like this. But especially for folks who are just starting out, folks who are trying to figure out what this herbalism thing is all about, and for folks who have just never done it before, learning to create that special bond with one plant is a necessary foundational step. It’s also, I would argue, one of the things that separates an “ok” herbalist from a great one. A plant ally is a friend for life. I have three – Calendula, Wild Ginger and Blue Vervain.

So how do we get there? Let’s break it down. You guys know how much I love organizing things into steps and categories…

Make a Plant Friend, Step I:

Make the decision, shut up and listen. Most of the time, a plant chooses you, not the other way around. So make the decision that you want to hear the call, and then keep your senses, heart and mind open to the possibility of it happening. And it will. You’ll walk past that patch of plants and say – “Oh. Hi Mullein! You seem to be popping up everywhere these days!” or you’ll realize that every single Facebook post you’ve seen in the last month has been about Elder, or maybe you keep being gifted body care products with Dandelion blossom in them. Maybe you’ve been sick or hurting and Echinacea has come to your aid each time. Just keep yourself open.

Make a Plant Friend, Step II:

When a plant does reach out to you, sit yourself down. Bring a book. Say a prayer. Sing a song. Just be silent. Meditate. Laugh. Take a nap. Just spend time. And if you live in the city, or it’s the middle of winter in Upstate NY, or you connected with this plant through ways other than meeting it up close, that’s ok. You are not excluded from this experience because of that. If you can’t sit with the plant in person (or maybe “in plant” is more fitting), start by spending time with it in other ways. I would make it a point, however, to meet it at some point along your journey.

Make a Plant Friend, Step III:

Plants change you – they get under your skin and stay there. Allow a plant to change you. You’ll find yourself using it for almost everything, and telling people that Chamomile is the cure for every malady from asthma to burns to cancer. Pretty soon your Facebook profile photo is just a big Chamomile flower. Just go with it. Make medicine with it, gather it, share it, research it, write about it. Listen to Chamomile podcasts. Teach about it if you are feeling brave. Let it share space in your life.

And yeah, part of this is knowing the Latin name, knowing the botany and putting together a profile of medicinal uses. But that’s only a piece of the picture. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, and even if you don’t have any, herbal medicine is inherently magical in nature. Plants don’t work the same way as pills do, and because of that, our relationships with them cannot be based merely on a “hard science” framework. Plant medicine, when it’s done correctly, is energy work – the combination of the plant’s energy, your energy and the energy of the person taking the medicine, that’s why it’s called “energetics”. Eventually, if you know the plant well, you will hear someone’s story and it will whisper to you, “use me, it’s the right time”. And creating allies is the first step of tapping into that intuitive knowledge.

Going through relationships with plants one at a time serves another purpose as well – it forces us to slow down. It forces us to pay attention to details, to take in knowledge from a large number of sources and to experiment with real-life applications of the plants as we learn them. It forces us to get out hands dirty, create muscle memory and physical, mental and emotional connections. That is slow work, but it’s always better than checking a plant of your list after reading a few articles and then moving on to the next one. I’ll just say it one more time – you can “read up” on ACE Inhibitors and be fairly confident you know how to use them when you’re done. You can’t do the same with Sumac, who’s properties can have similar effects on the kidneys and blood pressure regulation as ACE Inhibitors. The plants are too dynamic, too personal and require too intimate a connection for that sort of surface learning to be considered “expertise”.

Here’s another reason to take the time: an herbal education is a tricky thing these days. Yes, there are herb schools and online programs, there are workshops and study groups, and there are a still a handful of apprenticeship and mentorship opportunities. But so much of this is dependent on what’s available in a given area and what people are able to afford and fit into their schedules. I’m not saying these learning opportunities aren’t great ones: they just aren’t accessible to everyone. The plants are there for you, and they are the best teachers. All the knowledge we have came from the kind of work I’m asking you to consider trying – sitting with the plants, discussing them with other folks, experimenting with them, and sharing that connection. For those out there trying to figure out how they are going to learn to be herbalists: sit with the plants. I’m not saying it has to end there. But it’s a hell of a good place to start.

I would love to hear stories from readers about your plant allies, how you formed your special bond and what you learned along the way! Leave a comment and tell us about what lead you to a certain herb. If you are noticing a pull towards a certain plant but don’t know where to start, leave a message about that too! We are always here to help.

Thanks for stopping by everyone! Go out, enjoy the Summer and stay open to the magic of the plants :)

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