Posts in Folk Herbalism
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.