Posts tagged folk herbalism
GMC Classes: Magic, Ritual, & Story in Herbalism

Herbalism can be so much more than plant chemistry applied to our chemistry (although, that is certainly its own form of magic), and throughout the ages, plants have been deeply interwoven into human lives in the form of magic, ritual, and story. Over the years of hosting the Good Medicine Confluence, Wolf and I have witnessed how powerful these topics can be for our HerbFolk community and we make concerted effort to bring together a diverse array of perspectives and voices to teach about the plants in a magic and story infused way. What I love how our teachers work to make these topics infinitely applicable to the daily life of an herbalist, whether celebrating the seasons of life, healing through story,  or grieving the death of loved ones.

While many more of our classes could actually be placed under this category, here’s a sampling of those that most directly relate to the topics at hand. I hope you’ll enjoy this look at peek at the upcoming Good Medicine Confluence, and I can’t wait to see many of you there!

Head over to the Good Medicine Confluence page to see a full list of the classes, a look at our amazing teachers, a tentative schedule, purchase tickets, and more!


The Herblore of Midsummer: 

Plant Magic of the Summer Solstice 

Rebecca Beyer

(1.5 hrs)

The Solstice approaches! The culinary, folkloric, and medicinal uses of the sacred herbs of the Summer solstice will be examined through the lens of Western European plantlore. This class aims, through the deeper knowing of key plant species and their rich stories, to create space for understanding the ways in which European-ancestored people or those interested in European plant lore, can tap into the lore of their own lineages to more deeply connect to their ancestral lines all the while helping to combat the rise of cultural appropriation in these challenging times.

Sunday Intensive: 

Narrative Herbal Medicine: 

Weaving Words & Healing Herbs

Heather Wood Buzzard

(2.5 hrs.)

So many of us have turned to herbs. So many are now turning to words. Narrative medicine and herbal medicine, distinctly, are the two oldest forms of healing. In the times when these were the two primary forms of care, chronic disease was less rampant, infectious disease was a number one killer, and both narrative medicine and herbal medicine were called upon daily to save lives and move mountains. Today, both narrative medicine and herbal medicine have been thrown by the wayside in favor of high-tech, clinical, and sterile modern medicine, which can save lives but can also kill and comes with marked side effects, something narrative medicine does not come with and herbal medicine comes with very rarely.

A primary tool of the narrative herbal medicine practitioner is close listening to the client, a muscle which can be an exercised and strengthened through close reading and reflective writing. Close reading builds the skill of deeply listening without adding or subtracting from the story or attempting to place it within society. The skilled witness must interpret within the story which areas are sacred, which profane, which aspects are vital to the teller and which are footnotes, what shocks and revelations they have dealt with, and what they have done and what has been done to them to bring them to their present condition.

The story of a client is unexplored territory which the process of close reading gives us the tools to map. When we as practitioners try to locate ourselves within our client’s story intentionally, we may find it unfamiliar. The principal of minimal departure tells us that we expect to hear or witness something that doesn’t vary too greatly from what we already know. This is good and to be expected. But the patient wants to be seen and found, whether or not their narrative fits within the circumference of our comfort zone. Care givers may assume that a client is speaking from a baseline of reality somewhat close to their own truth, but this is not necessarily the case. 

In this exploratory class, we will navigate our way through mapping the space where herbs and words coincide. We will cover topics including, but not limited to, narrative humility, the doctrine of signatures, poetic medicine, tools for narrative knowledge, the language of the body, the language of the plants, and constitutional medicine.

Death & Dying Part I: 

Preparation, Acceptance, & Herbs For Grieving

(1.5 hrs.)

Julie James

“A culture that does not know how to die, will live in fear of the unknown.”

The dominant culture in America has become wholly and unhealthily removed from the process of death and dying. We tend to see any open discussion of death as ghoulish, we deny death and at the same time have a bizarre obsession with images of violent death, horror, and ideas of what comes afterward. We have come to this state in a relatively short period of time– as recently as our grandparents’ time, families still honored their beloved dead at home, tended lovingly and mindfully for their bodies, and during the process of dying, stayed with their loved ones, caring for them and surrounding them with community, family, and children. Now, too often the process of dying is relegated to sterile hospitals, with the dying isolated from their community, accompanied often by only their doctors and nurses. And when the body finally dies, it is whisked off to a mortuary, unseen and untouched and unloved until it is finally presented in a sterile, artificially preserved and painted manner. Families who seek to care for their dying at home are seen as oddities, and if they then choose to care for the body of their beloved dead themselves, atrocities.  And yet the right to care for our dying and our dead is so very human, and is a deeply healing way to come to terms with death. We are able to more closely work through our grief and loss when we are not disenfranchised from it, when we can openly and publicly mourn, when we can properly honor the relationship that we had and the transition of that relationship. And with that more profound understanding of the process of death and dying, we receive the unmatched gift of emotional and psychological acceptance and closure that can support us in the process of grieving. 

In this class, we will look at historical death traditions in American culture and how and why that changed so much, as well as the many cultures that still honor the process of death. We will discuss how herbal allies can help us to be present and supported in the process of dying, how we can ease the passing over that threshold by our beloved, and how we can work through the grief and loss after death.

Death & Dying Part II: 

Home Funeral Practices, Legality, History, & Rituals

(1.5 hrs.)

Julie James

In Part 2, we will examine how to be with death in a more personal, direct manner, and examine how herbalists can work in and with hospice, death doula, and home funeral organizations, how we can offer pre-death care to the dying and to the community, and how we can help clients regain their incontrovertible right to home death, and become, if they choose, an active participant in the transition as well as the honoring of the body after death. 

We will look at the physical process following death, how to care for the body, and the legal issues surrounding this process. Regulations are already in place that protect our right to home funerals, and disposition of the body, including alternatives to embalming.

By speaking clearly and plainly about death, we hope to start a larger discussion that will continue in our communities and beyond. It is long past time that we take back this extraordinary final journey, making it our own and embracing a deeper understanding and acceptance of our own death in the process.

Old World Meets New World: 

Wax Pouring, Bone setting, & Folk Herbalism/Folk Healing Practices 

in The Ukrainian Settlements of Western Canada

(1.5 hrs)

Dionne Jennings

Moonshine, Goose fat, axle grease, beeswax and holy water—what does this have to do with herbal medicine? Join Community Herbalist Dionne Jennings and explore the folk healing and herbal practices of Ukrainian immigrants & descendants in the Ukrainian settlements in Western Canada. 

Herbal medicine is of course, the medicine of the people. Let’s learn more about how our Ukrainian ancestors practiced it, and honor the hard work, hardships & resourcefulness that contributed to our body of herbal knowledge & these largely forgotten traditions.

Newcomers to Canada from Ukraine came in hopes of acquiring land and a better life for themselves & their children. On long, sea-sick ridden voyages across the ocean, they brought with them grains, seeds, herbs, plant cuttings, tools, as well as many healing practices which were very much needed while surviving their first long & harsh Canadian winters. Access to doctors & hospitals in the settlements was extremely limited. Hardship & poverty were daily obstacles to endure & overcome & the people had to be resilient & self-sufficient out of necessity, as well a reliant on their closest neighbors & community members. We will explore support for healing the physical body as practiced by Plant Doctors & the Bone-Setters, as well as the practices of sweating, steaming, cupping & leeches. We will also explore where the physical & spiritual intersect, examining the idea that sickness was a result of imbalances, evil spirits, or spiritual crisis. Spiritual Healers, sometimes also known as wise women or “witches” practiced “Wax Pouring” a divination ritual to cure “Fear Sickness” or the Evil Eye that had been cast on them. 

Part of folk medicine practice at the time was augmenting herbal treatment with influences of the spiritual/supernatural. This would include many familiar herbal practices such as making infusions, poultices, & salves with blessed plants and herbs, but also using other ritual objects as instruments of healing such as knives, holy water, candle wax & ribbons from church. First Nations medicine and intersection with spiritual practices certainly also influenced the folk medicine as it was practiced and developed at the time. Plant medicine-our original system of medicine-was practiced by all of our ancestors, as was medicine & ritual for the spirit. Come hear some stories of mine!

Babas & Botany: Flora, Fauna & Cosmology 

in Ukrainian Healing, Ritual & Folk Art 

(1.5 hrs)

Dionne Jennings

Like all world cultures, the Slavs had a deep connection to the plants and to the land. Spirituality, ritual, and religions that came after all have strong connections to the natural world. Let’s explore the influence of & connection to the natural world as part of Ukrainian folk tradition-from the gathering, use & blessing of aromatic plants and herbs, as well as the symbology and influence of plants and flowers in various facets of Ukrainian folk art. We will discuss some herbs that we are familiar with the the Western materia medica and some rituals around harvesting them on the Summer Solstice for best healing & charms, along with: 

•Pysanky: Pysanky are Ukrainian easter eggs made by a resist technique with dyes from local plants and beeswax. They are pre-christian & have many associations & with fertility rituals, symbology to sun gods, the tree of life, the great goddess, and there are many plant, animal & celestial symbols that are used to adorn them. 

•The ritual & symbolism of Motanka dolls. Motanka are dolls of protection, or ritual charms, made by hand using plant material, bits of fabric scraps & rags. Intention, wishes & prayers go into making the dolls for health, fertility, & protection. Motanky have connections to the goddess Rozhanytsa which can be traced back to ancient Slavic & Trypillyan culture 

•The symbology of the Tree of Life & it’s connection to Great Goddess in handcrafts such as embroidery, also known as “vyshyvky” for clothing & protective “rushnyky” used in ceremony and for the home. 

•We will also explore Flora & Fauna in traditional Ukrainian Folk Tales including mythical tales of blooming ferns, magical trees, & the ideas of certain trees being favored by the gods. Let’s share some traditional tales and explore their symbolism & mythology together as a group. 

Ancestral Women Healers: 

Ukrainian Folk Herbal Practices

(1.5 hrs)

Dionne Jennings

Seers, Solstice, Seneca Root & Survival: this class is dedicated to the strength of the Ukrainian women in our ancestral lineage. Herbalism and healing as we know it today looked a little differently as practiced in the “Old Country”. Let’s explore the role of woman as healer in Slavic culture. This class will be 2 parts: an exploration of herbal and folk medicine practices by and for women in the Old Country, and a dedication to the resilience & strength of those women & those practices that were brought with them to Turtle Island.

Herbs & plant medicine were known & called upon for thing like day-to day healing of the household to ritual practices that were in the realm of the psycho- spiritual healers, often known as witches, involving incantation, divination & prayer. Harvesting herbs on certain ritual days & incorporating them into charms, spells, ritual and divination were common place in Ukraine several generations back, & some of those rituals are still practiced today. Using herbs to maintain health & treat sickness & illness, as well as visits to the local healer for things outside the realm of the physical (the evil eye, possession) were common place only a generation or two ago in what is now also known as North America, and yet much of those practices have slowly been lost and faded from our cultural consciousness. Doctors were sparse in the Ukrainian settlements & reliance on ones own knowledge of healing practices, local & cultivated plants for tending the sick & injured was a necessity. Reliance on strength & fortitude were necessary to survive the first harsh prairie winters and much of that fell on the shoulders of women.

There is a rich and ancient thread connecting current cultural & christian practices that stretches back millennia to pre-christian practices with origins in the pagan & shamanic. There is a rich connection to plant medicine that’s been all but severed from the women who came before us. Let’s explore what we know, what’s been left behind, and how we might continue to incorporate it today. Come share in some stories dedicated to those times relating the fortitude of the feminine and their connection to the land. 

Grieving Our World With Plants

(2 hrs)

Jasmine Kocie

There is a collective grief that lies under so much of the pain, anger and projections we see in the outer world. Influenced by the state of outer reality, social and cultural breakdowns and breakthroughs, the poignant words of nayyirah waheed, and the teachings of plants, Jasmine brings this class forth to explore the act of grieving with plant allies that support this much needed process in these times. We'll be introduced to a variety of herbs and their energetics, discussing how we can work with them for personal and collective grieving. We'll discuss the power of witnessing grief and spend the end of our time here going inward for an inventory of what we are grieving. 

Medieval Remedies: 

A European History of Nine Sacred Herbs

(2 hrs)

Dani Otteson

The history of Western herbalism is long and winding, with many fascinating periods of development. The medieval period saw blending and transition in culture and belief, which stretched into all aspects of life. Several medieval medical texts featuring the use of herbs, chants, and rituals survive today. What’s more, preparations from said texts have recently been proven in a University setting to be extremely effective against virulent pathogens. 

This offering will explore plant medicine and magic as they came to be in medieval Europe. Class will include an analysis of the Anglo-Saxon nine herbs charm from the Lacnunga, discussion on the medicines of the plants featured, and how these herbs fit in to modern ritual and herbal practice. We will make medicine bags based on these writings, and come away with a deeper understanding of some familiar (and maybe not so familiar) medicinal plants, as well as a feeling of connection to this element of history. History of medicine is a deeply intriguing study, as it introduces us to our earth-based medicines as ancient, ancestral, and also deeply effective in the modern world.

Poetry as Medicine: 

Building an Apothecary of Encouragement 

(1.5 hrs)

Jennie Isbell Shinn

Herbalists and teachers of herbalism often tout the holistic nature of the herbal medicine. This workshop is about building an apothecary of encouraging words— poetry and other metaphoric prose — to use when an intake process or an unfolding case study indicate that a common theme of the human experience is active. From isolation to inspiration, mystical encounter to mundane recollection, poetry and metaphor touch us in the deeps of emotion, intuition and our collective unconscious. As herbalists we address nourishment, lifestyle, presenting symptoms and general vitality; we can also develop assessment skills and a file of poetry as medicine for soul health. In l.this workshop, we’ll consider common emotional states that go with physical conditions and life stages, touch briefly on the risks of transference and projection, start building a poetic apothecary, and imagine what prescribing inspiration might look like. 

Plants as Allies: 

A Journey Into Plant Spirit Medicine

(2 hrs)

Megan Waddy

This workshop will focus on deepening your relationship with plants, nature and community through the use of heart-centered perception. Participants will be guided through a meditation practice and be offered small doses of plant medicines in order to experience a deep sense of embodied presence and connection with the unique energy of each plant. Exercises to cleanse and protect your energetic body, open and deepen your innate intuitive gifts, and use intuition based diagnosis in a clinical setting will be explored. 

Wychwood: The Earthen Healing of the Elm

Originally published in Plant Healer Quarterly

Spreads in the midst her boughs and agéd arms

an elm, huge, shadowy, where vain dreams, 'tis said,

are wont to roost them, under every leaf close-clinging.

  –Virgil, The Aeneid

Choose willow of the burn, choose hazel of the rock, choose alder of the bog, choose birch of the waterfall, choose ash of the shade, choose yew of the resilience, chose elm of the braes, choose oak of the sun. 

Carmina Gadelica


Common Name: Elm, Slippery Elm, Wych Elm, Scots Elm, Skogsalm, Siberian Elm, Leven, Elven, Leamhán, Slóibhe, Phoenix Tree

Botanical Name: Ulmus rubra, Ulumus fulva, Ulmus pumila, Ulmus glabra, and allied mucilaginous species.

Energetics: Neutral, moist

Taste: Bland, sweet, earthen (as per Matthew Wood),

Impression: Mucilaginous, slightly astringent 

Actions: Demulcent, sl. astringent, expectorant, drawing agent, nutritive, relaxant nervine. 

Tissue States: Atrophy, Excitation

Resilient, rot resistant, and strong, the Elm has played an important part in the lives of people in both Europe and North America, from the making of Welsh bows to shipbuilding materials to being hollowed out for water pipes in early plumbing to the Dancing Elms of Devon that were used during May Day dances. 

One species native to the British Isles is called, Ulmus glabra, is common known as the Wych Elm, and the term Wych comes from the Old English wice, meaning pliant, refers to the tree material’s “bendability” and suppleness, which is part of why it was considered so ideal as a material for bows in Wales. The tree has sometimes been associated with melancholy, grieving, and death in the British Isles and in Greece, and has a history of being used to build coffins from. 

Elm has also played an important part in medicine in Western culture. While many of us in the United States think only of Slippery Elm, Ulmus rubra, as an herb, many species in Europe and beyond are traditional parts of the pharmacopeia. In Traditional Chinese Medicine alone,  at least four different species are used as medicine, including Lang Yu Pi, Ulmus parviflora, and Yu Shu, Ulmus pumila. The latter being a very common introduced tree in much of the western United States. 

Trees of the Underworld: 

Dutch Elm Disease

One of the greatest tragedies to befall the plant world has been the enormous loss of life due to Dutch Elm disease. Millions upon millions of Elms have sickened and died in the last century, and even now the disease continues to spread across Europe, North America, New Zealand, and beyond. 

Dutch Elm Disease is a vascular wilt disease, most commonly caused by the fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi in the North America and Western Europe at this point in time, and spread by the elm bark beetle. The first signs of infection generally include yellowing and wilting of leaves on individual branches. Initially, they may impact only one part of the tree’s crown, but eventually, whether months or years, the tree will die. The pathogen acts by preventing fluids and nutrients from reaching the extremities of the tree, causing death by starvation to the elm by blocking sap transmission.  

The fungi overwinters in the bark and outer wood of infected and recently killed trees, and even in elm logs. The European elm beetle and the American elm beetle both nest in dead or dying elm wood, and hatch their larvae there. Once the larvae have matured, they then feed on the wood, and consequently distribute to the Dutch Elm Disease spores to other trees, and spread the disease. These spore-contaminated beetles seem to be the most common way the disease is spread, but root grafting between individual trees is another method of transmitting the pathology. 

Dutch Elm Disease is believed to have originated in the Himalayas, and spread to Europe by way of the Dutch East Indies in the late 1800‘s. The first species of Dutch Elm Disease, Ophiostoma ulmi to impact Europe and North America, was originally found in northwest Europe around 1910 and spread to Britain by the 20‘s. It was far less virulent than the current species but did cause fatalities of 10-40% of the Elms in the European countries it was found in. By the 1940’s, the worst of the epidemic had passed, and many were optimistic that the elms would then be able to recover and re-proliferate. 

However, in 1968, elm logs infected with the new strain of the disease, O. nova-ulmi, were transported from Canada to England and consequently rapidly infected the native elms there. In 1976, it finally found its way to Scotland, and in the 1980’s it moved into the highlands and it continues to spread northwards across the country. 

In Britain alone, more than 25 million elms have been lost since the 70’s, and in Edinburgh,30,000 out of the original 35,000 Wych Elms have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease after nearly 9,000 years of thriving in Scotland. In the United States, we have lost 70% of all our mature elms since the 1930’s. The last few years have seen severe outbreaks in locations as far flung as New Zealand, which suffered an epidemic of the disease just this year in 2013.

A very small proportion of trees appear to demonstrate some immunity to the disease. Additionally, some East Asian species, such as Ulmus pumila, seem naturally resistant to the disease. American and European organizations have been working for decades on creating resistant cultivars, in addition to using insecticides and other chemicals to attempt to suppress the disease. Sanitary pruning and destroying of infected trees is also in use in affected areas, but all of these approaches have thus far not stopped to the spread of Dutch Elm Disease. Unfortunately, some of the chemicals used in the war against Dutch Elm Disease have even resulted in numerous species of birds being harmed and killed by the very substances meant to save the trees.  Scientists in British universities have also been experimenting with genetic modification to try to create trees entirely immune to the disease, but as with all GM projects, there’s simply no telling what the results will be in the long term. 

Please exercise both caution and compassion when harvesting and working with Elm trees medicinally. Be aware that Ulmus rubra has been the victim of both overharvesting and of Dutch Elm Disease, while it seems to be somewhat more resistant to the fungus than other native American elms, it’s still frequently sickened and killed by it, and is also especially vulnerable to predation by the elm leaf beetle. 

If you buy Elm bark, please be sure to buy it from a source that specifies that it has been cultivated, not wildcrafted, so as not to further existing sustainability issues.

A Spectrum of Elms: Species, Energetics,  & Ecology

Nearly everything written about the medicinal properties of  Elm in the United States refers specifically to Slippery Elm. However, this is not the only medicinal species in the world, or even in this country. I’ve had a few people in classes express total disbelief that any other species could be even remotely analogous to the revered Slippery Elm, but as per my usual, I explicitly encourage everyone to try it for themselves instead of taking my word for it. Not all Ulmus species will fit the bill, but the test is a fairly simple one. If you slice a bit of bark off a branch or twig, and then apply a bit of water to it and it creates long strings of slippery mucilage, that’s one clue. The next is if you taste the bark and it’s bland, a bit sweet, and slightly astringent. If all of these things are true, you can move on to trying that species in place of Slippery Elm, and you’re likely to have very good results. I think it’s especially important to find a variety of species within the genus that can work effectively for medicine given the prevalence of Dutch Elm Disease. Not all species are hit equally hard by the disease, and the ones struggling to survive are likely best left to try to heal and survive, rather than being harvested from, especially those in the wild.

The Elm I use most often is referred to as Siberian Elm, or Ulmus pumila, a native of eastern Asia that has gone rather invasive in the US. It's considered one of the quickest growing hedge plants available, and it certainly can shoot up out of nowhere even in the semi-arid lands of the SW mountains. Incredibly drought resistant, it can out compete most native plants for water and ground space, and quickly colonizes roadsides, disturbed areas and yards. According to my research, it grows from Utah to Kansas, and north to Ontario, giving it a large range in the Southwest, Midwest and Great Plains. And the USDA map says it grows in nearly every state in the US, with only two or three exceptions, as well as through much of Canada. Because of these conflicting sources, I'm not actually clear on where exactly its range extends to, but I do know that it is common throughout the mountainous SW and Rocky Mountains. It can grow from 50-70 feet, which is funny since pumila seems to mean dwarf.

While I don't recommend cultivating this Elm where it could become invasive and detrimental to local ecology, I do think that it would a wonderful plant for nearly everyone to regularly use. U. pumila generally possesses all the wonderful qualities ascribed to Slippery Elm, being incredibly mucilaginous, soothing, healing and preservative in nature. I use it in the same sorts of preparations Slippery Elm is known for, including salves, infusions, lozenges, food (as a thickener and general nutritive agent) and as a poultice.

Slippery Medicine: An Overview

Much of Elm’s healing properties have to do with the copious amounts of mucilage it contains, making it very suitable in the treatment of any affliction characterized by inflammation and dryness. This can include bronchitis, ulcers, all manner of hot-natured belly problems, sore throat, UTIs (urinary tract infections), and constitutional dryness resulting in systemic inflammation. The gruel made with powdered bark is very nutritious and ideal for a weakened digestive system. Topically, the powdered bark of an infusion made with the bark is soothing, very healing and helps to draw boils and splinters out. The infused oil helps to preserve other oils and makes a great salve for irritated, abraded skin conditions.

It’s exceptionally useful as a demulcent partly because of its neutral temperature which won’t aggravate a cold constitution. There are a whole lot of people out there with cold, dry constitutions that need a big dose of a demulcent herb but can’t use Mallow because of how cooling it is. Elm powder can be added to oatmeal or something similar and eaten straight or it can be added to your daily nourishing infusion and sipped slowly through the day.

Patterns of Healing

Elm is appropriate for both chronic and acute conditions, with two symptom patterns standing out as most indicative.

  1. Soothing 

Elm specifically excels at lessening inflammation and excitation of the tissues. We often think of soothing herbs as those that are so mild as to verge on useless for any serious condition, and Elm is an excellent plant for correcting that flawed mindset. Elm is gentle enough for internal use by weakened infants or elders, but a powerful enough healer that it is often invaluable in acute injuries and severe chronic conditions where inflammation and heat from overexcitement of the tissue is a significant factor.

While not commonly thought of as a nervine, Elm’s relaxing and moistening qualities can indeed calm a manic, agitated state in those who have symptoms of dryness, malnourishment, and heat. It’s important to remember that the nervous system can be impacted through any other system in the body, and certainly by the overall tissue state. In folks who are perpetually dried out and have signs of inflammation, agitation can stem directly from constitutional dryness, especially in the mucosa. Addressing that dryness can result in a marked improvement, sometimes almost immediately. 

Wherever the mucosa is hot, sensitive and painful, Elm can most likely be of use. I’ve frequently used it in formulas for gastric ulcers and other irritated gut conditions, such as healing after removing a food intolerance. The mild astringency Elm tends to demonstrate is of great value here as well, tightening the tissues, reducing inflammation, helping to prevent infection, while soothing and nourishing. This is true both topically and systemically. 

Elm bark, along with Mallow root, powder frequently makes up most of the base of the pastilles I make for sore throats. It also makes a soothing mouthwash for mouth ulcers, burns, and hot, irritated conditions of the mouth and throat mucosa. Like Mallow, Elm seems to have a systemic reflex action upon the body’s mucosa, meaning that when taken internally it cause a system wide moistening effect even though it’s not actually touching the tissues topically. This is excellent, since huffing or snorting Elm bark powder to soothe hot, dry lung or sinus mucosa would likely be both unpleasant and harmful. Because of this reflex action, a gruel or infusion of Elm bark will moisten the mucosa throughout the body, including the urinary tract and respiratory system, allowing the herb to have a soothing effect on inflamed, painful tissue. 

Urinary tract infections accompanied by sensations of burning and scanty urination can be soothed by an infusion of Elm bark, and can help provide immediate relief while anti-microbial herbs work on addressing the actual infection. Similarly, Elm can be very useful for hot, dry bronchitis, sinus infections, smoke inhalation, and even some cases of pneumonia.

2. A Nutritive Tonic

The other pattern and tissue state that elm is specifically appropriate for is tissue atrophy, particularly when recovering from a weakening illness, an ongoing severe illness such as cancer, or chronic malnutrition. This is especially true where the illness is related to digestive issues that have reduced absorption of nutrients. I have seen terminally ill cancer patients in the last stages who otherwise cannot seem to digest anything given them, be able to eat and absorb elm bark powder gruel with relative ease. I consider it a very important herb, along with Marshmallow root, in the treatment of those dealing with radiation and chemotherapy and the accompanying nausea, digestive upset, overall dried out tissues, and nervous exhaustion. 

I also find it very useful for folks dealing with inflammatory bowel disease, recovering from food intolerance related irritable bowel syndrome, or simply dealing with a lingering case of the stomach flu. If oats are well tolerated, it often works to stir either a bit (start with 1-3 teaspoons) of the bark powder or to add a bit of concentrated elm bark infusion to the oatmeal before consuming.  Not only does it provide nutrition, but it also lessens inflammation and pain in the gut, often within about an hour, sometimes more quickly, depending on where in the gut the inflammation is most concentrated. 

Topical Applications

While many folks don’t necessarily think of Elm as an external medicine right off, it certainly is useful that way. Historically, it has been well known for its use in healing wounds and injuries, but now seems to have fallen out of favor for this use in North American herbalism. For example, the bark has traditionally used in the north of Ireland as a salve and throughout rural countryside of that country as a topical medicine for many sort of inflammations and swellings.

Elm is an excellent topical medicine for almost any injury accompanied by swelling, inflammation, and damaged tissues. I frequently combine elm with Solomon’s Seal root, Comfrey leaf or root, Mullein root, Goldenrod flowers, and resinous Cottonwood buds for a general joint liniment. This is extremely helpful in reducing pain and trauma and speeding healing to all sorts of joint injuries, including recovering from ACL surgery or in conjunction with physical therapy for other join injuries such as rotator cuff strain. I have even used it in formulae for slow healing fractures with good results, especially when combined with something warming and stimulating to local blood flow, such as Cottonwood buds. 

Preparations

Elm bark doesn’t tincture too well with all the mucilage, as you can imagine, it wants to precipitate right out. Infuses very well into oil though. Mostly, I use the dried bark in either powder form or chunks of bark or bits of twigs for internal use. It’s very stable and lasts at least several years. It can be made into cold or hot infusions (both nice and slimy) or the powder can be added to food or taken straight with a bit of water or milk. The powder also makes great, slippery honey pastilles for sore throats and other mouth/throat inflammations. 

Externally, it works well infused into oil for salves, as a cold water foment, or as a simple poultice.

Cautions & Contradictions

Not necessarily for frequent internal use by those who already suffer from excess moisture, as per thick, copious white mucus and chronic congestion, among other kapha like symptoms.

Resources & References

Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland by David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield

Irish Trees: Myths, Legends, and Folklore by Niall Mac Coitir

The Scot’s Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland by Tess Darwin

King’s American Dispensatory by John King and Harvey Wickes Felter

The Earthwise Herbal, New World by Matthew Wood

The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood

The Wych Elm Project http://www.wychelmproject.org.uk

GM Trees fight Dutch Elm Disease http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/1512210.stm

The Highland Council/Comhairle na Gáidhealtachd: Dutch Elm in the Highlands http://www.highland.gov.uk/yourenvironment/agriculturefisheriesandforestry/treesandforestry/dutchelmdisease.htm

The Decline of the English Elm Tree http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/8912727.stm

The Healing Roots of Home: Welcome To The Wildling

As some of you know, my Kiva’s Enchantments blog was recently hacked, and partially destroyed. After attempting to restore it, I realized that it would take longer to scavenge the myriad pieces then it would to build something new. And so I set out to create something more true to my current self and practice/perception of plant healing and herbal knowledge. In addition to restarting a blog, I’ve also archived many of my old blog’s posts here as articles, and also added some brand new content and updated information.

Despite all the chaos and work the hacking incident created for me, I’m actually please about it, because it’s resulted in something much more organized, lovely to look at it, and hopefully more usable for my readers!

So here’s my first Wildling blogpost, on a topic near and dear to my weedy little heart. Bioregional herbalism, and the whole premise of healing coming from home, from the soil that surrounds, and the land we live with is what I’ve built my entire herbal practice, and my life, around…. in other words, dirt magic! This piece is an excerpt from the recently released The Practice of Herbalism, from Plant Healer Press. It includes several pieces by me, as well as from folks like Val Camacho (aka Maleza Furiosa), Phyllis Light, Guido Masé, Jim McDonald, Laura Quesinberry, Dave Meesters, and many more!

The Healing Roots of Home:

A Journey Into Bioregional Herbalism

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.   -Christopher Hedley

Come walk with me along the floral ridges of Durango or the wild mountain woodlands of my home. 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 the bean feasa and the wortcunner, the babka and the modern wise woman. 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…

-Wendell Berry

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 man-made 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 y 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.

-Michael Moore

Modern Western Medical Herbalism promotes having a huge materia medica and a working understanding of literally hundreds of plants, but while it’s great to work with an abundance of herbs so that we can see the full spectrum of herbal medicine, 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 traditions, a healer might spend her entire practice using only a single plant, dedicated to the thorough learning and partnering with that plant. In Western Medical 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…

-Rosemary Gladstar

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.