The Healing Roots of Home: A Journey into Bioregional Herbalism
She grew not on the land so much as out of it, like cottonwoods and bear grass. Each Fall a part of her collapsed and withered alongside the wildflowers and grape vines she loved and used for healing. Each Spring some new part of her erupted just as the mallow and poppies did, spreading her toes like roots in the truth and sustenance of ground, while branching out to the rest of the living world, and stretching upwards towards the light.
-Jesse Wolf Hardin
There is NO substitute for watching, handling and talking to the plants in person. THEY are our teachers. They are our support and our strength.
Come walk with me, into the deserts and wild mountain woodlands of the Mogollon. Each one of you come from an individual place, some of you are from just around the bend in Silver City, the southern extension of the Gila bioregion, and some of you are from as far as Minnesota and New Jersey. You’ve gathered here with me to learn to speak to the sprouting, reaching, seeding green ones, to enter into the deep relationship that can exist between woman and plant. You’ve journeyed here to find your roots of healing, so that when you return back to your own land you’ll find yourself better equipped to nourish and be nourished by the Green World.
Healing begins at home, growing from the same rich soil we spring from. The plant medicines’ lives are intertwined with ours: blooming uninvited outside the front door, growing from the terra cotta pots on our kitchen windowsills and shooting up in well-tended community gardens. Using herbs from close to home is a tradition honored by curanderas and vegetalistas, Sami shamans and modern medicine women. Traditional healers have long known that the medicine we need the most, grows very near to us.
Do you see this little pink flowered plant trailing along the ground right here? Yes, it’s hard to see among the Mugwort and Dock, but this humble little plant, Malva neglecta they call her, is an amazing tonic used across world to nourish the vital fluids of the body and to cool heat from inflammation and infection, it can also gently support your immune system, building your resistance to stress and infectious disease. It is among the best and most widely used medicines in the world, and there’s a very good chance it grows in your back yard or a nearby park. So remember to look around, sometimes the healing you’re searching for is growing right under your foot!
Come closer, all of you. Put your faces against this ancient Ponderosa Pine, breathe in her amazing vanilla fragrance, feel the puzzle piece texture of her bark and notice the deep green of her needles. Now look around at the smaller plants growing in her shade, at the Oregon Grape Root trailing down the hillside beneath her and the mushrooms crowded around her base. See these beautiful little lavender flowers? They grow only where the Ponderosas grow and nowhere else. Oh, do you hear that chattering? That’s a tassel eared squirrel, it’s dependent on the Ponderosas as well, harvesting pine nuts and the underground truffles that grow among the tree’s roots. And in turn, the Ponderosa needs the squirrel, as it helps to propagate the trees, spreading their seeds through the forest. The Ponderosa forest is a small ecosystem within the larger ecosystem of the Gila, within the Intermountain Southwest within the American West. One inside the other, like concentric rings, with some species completely endemic to just the Ponderosa Forest, like the tassel eared squirrel, and some expanding out to the whole American West, such as the Western Mugwort.
This reciprocal need and provision creates a beautiful and interlocked family of beings. And when we humans stay in one place long enough to see more than one season, when we take part by planting and harvesting, or by just noticing and appreciating, then we too are a part of that network. Through this integral participation we are connecting back to our own source on a very deep level. We are not just making medicine for physical ailments, we are healing the wound of our spirits caused by the illusion of our separation from all beings, from the spirit that connects all life.
Follow me deeper into the forest, let me tell you the stories of this place, let me show you what it means to connect to your roots.
Herbalism is based on relationship — relationship between plant and human, plant and planet, human and planet. Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in an ecological cycle. This offers us the opportunity consciously to be present in the living, vital world of which we are part; to invite wholeness and our world into our lives through awareness of the remedies being used…
Central to finding the roots of healing is discovering where we are. Whether we know it or not, we are each members of unique ecosystems called bioregions. Each is a specific life region defined by its watershed and indicator species, and by their relationships to each other. By its wildflowers and red earth, by Ponderosa Pines and Prickly Pears of the Gila, or by the Mangroves and Cherokee Roses of the Everglades. Bioregions are not subject to or confined by manmade boundaries like national borders, state or county lines or city limits. Instead, they flow along the lines of weather patterns and rainfall, migration routes and watersheds.
Everywhere we are, we exist within a bioregion. We don’t have to live in a virgin wilderness or lush forest to connect to place, the plants of our regions pop up in ghettos and suburbs, in barrios and busy downtown districts. And cities have their own internal ecosystems of street tough weeds and wildflowers. I’ve collected delicious wild greens from inner city parks and baskets of wild mulberries from a rundown alleyway, the plants are all around us, waiting for us to notice and hear their unique message of healing, wholeness… and belonging.
The first step, after all, is simply to notice the place where you are, finding the relationships between species and places. Next time you see your favorite wildflower, note whether it’s growing in sun or shade, is the soil sandy or it it hard clay, and what’s growing near it. Then when you see the same species elsewhere, ask similar questions until you observe a pattern. Within the pattern is the beginning of understanding the relationship between plant and plant, soil and plant, human impact and plant. It’s amazing how much you can learn about flora and our shared home through observation. We form a closer connection to the plants we work with, and a better understanding of their spirit, and more able to notice the enormous beauty we’re both surrounded by and a part of. Each flower becomes an expression of our own joy, each plant a child for us to tend and love as well as a wizened teacher to learn from.
On a practical level, to live bioregionally is to acknowledge and participate in the ecosystem we are a part of, rooted – in a very literal sense – in the land that we live on. It may mean eating local and wild foods, using materials that occur naturally near us, and participating in the ecosystem by caring for it. What this means for each one of us will vary according to the needs of the land, depending on whether restoration is the most beneficial course of action for that particular area, whether establishing trees or restoring the soil by replanting species like Stinging Nettle. Or simply helping maintain the diversity that already exists with careful harvesting practices and a prayerful attitude towards the spirit of the land.
Humans living in a place or ecosystem for many generations are intimately healed in unseen ways by multigenerational contact with the local herbal communities just by living with them… After gardening in the same place for 30 years I feel that the soil and plants and I are the same extended organism. Food from other gardens does not seem quite right no matter how flavorful or lush. It is strange, it is other.
- Ryan Drum
Using the plants where you are creates a very special bond, no matter how much you love the pricey but powerful Ginseng from your favorite herb store, it can’t compete with the Hawthorn flowers or Devil’s Club roots from your own back yard or whatever special spot you gather your herbs from. As useful as herbal books and teachers can be, there’s simply no replacement for a personal relationship with the plants that grow from the same soil we do. Charts of actions and energetics may give us a head start on what kind of situation to try out a certain plant, but a single experience will often tell us much more than any book, and years of devoted attendance to the spirit and inner workings of each living being will teach us more than even the best teacher can.
When we gather Rose hips from the same five bushes at a certain spot down by the river every year, we learn what it’s like to have an intimate relationship with the plants, we remember the ancient wisdom of our foremothers: of mano and metate, of root and water. We see the plant each year, noting how it’s grown or suffered that year, tasting the differences in rainfall or frost in its berries, noticing the exact pattern of thorns and leaves on this one that makes it different from any other Rose bramble. This intimacy is the key to truly understanding the language of the green ones. There are trees here in my special canyon home I know so well that I could identify them in the dark with just my hands and nose, I would recognize them as the individuals I have hugged and harvested from, that I have confided in and prayed my thanks to. I have memorized them as I have my own daughter’s face: by heart.
We cultivate intimacy by working with the plants. Once there, we revel in the tactile sensuality and messiness of gathering, propagating and preparing the herbs. The dirt, the unique smell of the plant as it is cut or unearthed, the textures of bark and petal, the memory of you here, doing a task that people have done for as long as we have walked upright, and longer. The connection to ancestor and archetype, the medicine woman, the midwife and the warrior, gathering herbs for childbirth, for wounds, and even for the dead. And at the core of the experience is the power and awe of connecting to something larger than yourself, and the joy of being a part of that something, realizing we are cells in an intricate and enormous body.
Go ahead, touch and smell, taste and look closely, don’t be afraid to really experience the dirt and the flowers, the cool flow of the river and midday heat of the Southwestern sun. Yes, get down flat on your bellies, so as to better see the microcosmos, the whole worlds that exist inside that single Sacred Datura flower. Only through this sensory engagement can we really enter into the spirit of the earth and her plant children. When we’re plugged into whatever bioregion we have our own roots in, we’re better able to hear the subtle voices of the living green that surrounds us.
If you only end up with ten or fifteen plants that you know well and trust, then you are indeed blessed. That is all a curandera uses most of the time, that is most of what a good Chinese herbalist needs… and that is the number of plants I imagine traditional healers have mostly relied on for fifty thousand years… You don’t need a whole bunch of different plant medicines… You just need to know the ones you gather, and know them intimately.
When we first begin to learn about the herbs, we seem to fall in love with every flower and leaf, wanting to know every thing about every plant, from our own bright faced Dandelions to the exotic spices of India and South America. Yet after these initial infatuations, we mature into working relationships with specific plants, and we begin to treasure the intimacy that comes with experience. We become partners with the plants in healing, and from this partnership grows a a deep and lasting love.
Modern Western herbalism seems to stress having a huge materia medica and a working knowledge of literally hundreds of plants. It’s great to work with an abundance of herbs so that we can see the full spectrum of herbal medicine, but it’s even more important to really know a few local herbs that you’ll use over and over. Once you form an intimate alliance with a certain plant, you’ll often be surprised by its range of uses and responsiveness to your healing needs. In some indigenous traditions, especially those of South America, a healer might spend her entire practice using only a single plant, dedicated to the thorough learning and partnering with that plant. In Western herbalism a particular herb is often pigeonholed as a simple anti-inflammatory or astringent, yet most have an extensive range of uses.
That beautiful Goldenrod growing under the Ponderosa on the hillside there is a good example of a little understood and underutilized plant. When most people use Goldenrod medicinally they almost always immediately think of its astringent effect on the mucus membranes, since it is commonly used in sinus congestion and allergies. But did you know that Goldenrod is also a first rate wound and bruise herb, wonderful for menstrual cramps, cystitis and yeast infections as well as being one of the finest remedies for injured, sore or tight muscles? It’s also purported by a few sensitive herbalists to be an effective anti-depressant, and it has even been used as a kidney yin tonic and digestive remedy. Rather than looking at the lists of actions or constituents often available in herb books about a plant, it might be wiser to get a fuller sense of the herb’s personality and energy. Goldenrod has a gentle, feminine spirit that is encouraging and cheerful. Most people find her slightly warming and her healing powers are primarily aimed towards the mucus membranes, stomach (and extension of the mucus membranes), reproductive organs and especially the kidneys. She makes a wonderful ally for those who often feel a little sad, especially in the wintertime, have little endurance and difficulty following through. Her sunny disposition can brighten spirits and restore lost energy and drive. And lean in closer, smell her exquisite honey scent, I can feel her magic working already.
Interacting with the same plants on a daily basis, we start to make connections and notice affinities with individual herbs. Though we may have a dozen plants for wounds in your front yard or apothecary, we will probably find that a particular one seems to work best for us personally. For some, it’s Comfrey, for another it’s Plantain. It all depends on what’s available, our individual personality and what the plants have in mind for us personally. If we have young children, a very gentle and safe plant like Plantain may work out especially well for us, easily recognizable and accessible to little ones with a scrape or bug bite. On the other hand, if we have specialized needs like psoriasis or arthritis a more specific ally may call to us. Either way, the power of the healing lies in its personalization to us and its integration into our everyday life.
Get close to each plant as an individual, start with a single ally and slowly expand to about twenty or twenty-five locally available species, ideally including several native wild species. If we know even six intimately we’ll find that we need little else for personal and family use. Even, or perhaps especially, commonly maligned weeds such as Dandelion, Nettles and Plantain can provide us with a wealth of food and medicine.
It’s easy to pass off a common plant as just another parking lot pest but this is our short-sightedness and loss; looking into history we see that many of the currently blacklisted weeds like Mallow and Yellow Dock have been revered as powerful medicines in the not so ancient past. And we can see for ourselves, if we look a little closer at the star shaped blossoms of Stellaria or the nourishing root of Burdock, the powerful healing powers and amazing spiritual presence that these plants have.
Beginning with a single plant gives us the luxury of a in-depth courtship, with no distractions or complications caused by attempting to focus on too many friends at once. That small blue flowered herb over there was my first medicine ally, a native Gila Skullcap, she taught me to relax, chill out and dream a little. Spending time in her calming embrace gave me the ability to slow down long enough to get to know the other plants as well.
We might think we know exactly what we need from a plant partner, but we’d be foolish to imagine that we are solely responsible for choosing the herbs we use, as they often as not choose us. It’s fair to say that the plants often see us better than we see ourselves, through the all encompassing eyes of Gaia and her endless expressions. Skullcap came to me right when I needed her, without any active looking or desire on my part. Had I researched all the herbs living nearby in a comprehensive book, I might have chosen a different ally, say Prickly Poppy, I would have missed out on the unique gifts that Skullcap was ready to provide.
A certain pink flowered plant may call to you from a corner of the garden, a weedy little Vervain or a prickly Hawthorn tree keeps grabbing your attention as you try to weed the Lilies or water the Roses. Pay attention to these subtle messages, and you’ll be rewarded with powerful medicine. Working with the plants is very much like a marriage, a reciprocal partnership that evolves and changes with time, each season leaving us more whole and fulfilled.
As we rediscover our relationship with plants –and what more intimate pathway than through the gateway of healing– it ignites a love, a passion for the green nations, and enables us to become caretakers of that which we love most…
Just as the plants heal us, they depend on us to care for them and the land they grow from. The more intimate you become with your allies the more natural it will be to treat them as an extension of your family, or even your own body. It will be second nature to protect them from outside forces such as development or pollution. You’ll also be more sensitive to your own harvesting habits and be more likely to prayerfully harvest and propagate. As each season passes, we’re able to see the effects or our actions, when we’ve taken too much and the plant shrinks back or when harvest gently and propagate wisely so that the population flourishes and grows. Yet when we buy our herbs in sterile, sealed foil bags from foreign countries harvested by underpaid workers it’s impossible to predict or know how the herb was treated or processed, and even more difficult to know if the population is being damaged or even slowly exterminated by careless harvesting techniques. When we learn that everything we need is right here, it seems less important to import herbs from China or the Amazon. Instead, we step outside and look around, listening for the familiar song of the plants of our home.
While it’s tempting to create a lovely garden for your favorite plants and fence the rest out, it’s important not to let ourselves imagine that we can separate the herbs from their wild source, isolating them into a pampered herbal Eden. Wild plants are just that: wild, willed and full of the irrepressible energy of an ever evolving planet and bioregion. It’s also useful to know that they often – through the stresses and trials of their tougher, more demanding habitat – have stronger medicinal effects.
Other guidelines for protecting and caring for bioregional herbs include noticing if your ally is rare or at the edge of its natural range in your ecosystem. If so, try growing it in your garden rather than depleting already small populations. When you harvest wild plants, take only a fraction of existing healthy plants so they can easily recover. When you harvest the roots of plants, be sure to propagate by root division or by planting seeds, in fact, unless a plant is invasive it’s almost always a good idea to encourage it’s growth through replanting and other methods. Also, try to immediately to take care of the herbs you’ve harvested, spreading them out to dry in a cool, dry area or otherwise processing the fresh plant so that the spirit of the plant is respected and nothing goes to waste.
So let’s gather the last of this season’s Goldenrod blooms, take them gently and with prayer. Cut them quickly and lay them in the woven basket with reverence. After we carry them back to the cabins, we’ll place them in raw honey and a fine brandy, creating a golden elixir to warm us when the Winter storms arrive. And we’ll hang a few bunches from the rafters, to make a fragrant tea for cool mornings come Autumn. This is truly the medicine we most need, engaging in the ancient traditions of healer and plant, the medicine woman and her sacred roots.
Go now, and take these stories back with you to your bioregion. Dig deeply into the land and let yourself be interwoven with the plants, allow yourself to grow from the healing roots of home.