Of Vulgar Plants, Feral Hearts, & Rogue Healers
by Kiva Rose Hardin
Anyone who meets me quickly becomes familiar with my penchant for all things weedy and wild. Garden flowers can be pretty, but I prefer the bad attitude of rebellious weeds and fierce insistence of wild plants growing out of sharp-edged rock crevices and boggy swamp bottoms. Rare, esteemed herbs from the other side of the globe can be useful enough medicines, but my heart (and the heart of my practice as an herbalist) definitely lies with the common, abundant plants that grow just outside my cabin door and down by the river.
Even in my small, feral garden otherwise known as The Weed Patch, I don’t baby anyone. If they can’t hold their own with the Lamb’s Quarters and Wild Mustard, that’s just tough. I’m a great fan of such qualities of tenacity, fierceness and badassness... and even a bit of outright mule-headedness can serve very well. And really, this is where my roots grow deepest – among strong, willful plants, land, culture, and people. Yep, I like weedy and wild people too. Stubborn, skeptical, and child-like in the way that rural and earthy (even while still urban) folks can be. Whether in Appalachia or the Mountain Southwest, I am inevitably drawn to those who not only survive adversity, but thrive despite the difficulties.
Unruly and feral, weeds annoy us with their promiscuous strut and blatant disregard for convention and known boundaries. Many of them are immigrants and nomads, with a reputation for sneaking into happy domestic scenes with troubling ease and for taking over the garden party with a sensual but insistent tangle of tendrils and roots. Some, like Sacred Datura, Stinging Nettles, or Poison Ivy, burn or hurt the human hand who attempts to pull or hack them from their desired home. Others, such as the Siberian Elm so common to the Southwest, suck much needed groundwater into themselves and away from the parched surroundings or, like Salt Cedar, create an environment inhospitable to all other plant. Then there’s Horehound, creating a veritable monocultures as it rapidly overcomes the native ecology. And a few, like Dandelion, seem almost benevolent with their cheery smiles and myriad medicinal uses.
Most all of them have little use for human coddling or outside permission for their movement and growth. They will cheerfully crowd out delicate garden specimens, spreading out their roots and settling in comfortably between the petunias and tea roses and sometimes strangling the life right out of weaker, less well adapted (to a particular environs) plants. What they all have in common, is attitude.
Weeds serve as an icon to outcasts and misfits, representing the outlaw nature of all things strong, wild and hellbent on not only surviving, but proliferating. If we cannot find it in our hearts to love them we can at least step back and respect their tenacity and intelligence as inspiration in our own species’ quest to adapt and thrive. Many of our most common weeds seem to love the company of humans and follow us wherever we go, serving as food, medicine, plague, decoration, pest and sometimes all of the above.
I have long considered myself a weedwife, meaning woman of the weeds, although I don’t much mind the common connotation of being in a committed relationship with my beloved green rebels either. Whatever the term used, this is the path of the rogue healer.
All The Folk: Medicine of the People
One of the primary indications that a plant will be called a weed is that it is common and thus giving the implication of being vulgar. And in fact, the word vulgar has its roots in the Latin vulgus, which appropriately enough means “folk” or “common people” but has the common definition of something (or someone) that is unrefined, ordinary, coarse… and even indecorous (lord protect us from indecorous plants) to the point of being obnoxious. Low class in other words, usually relegated to that status primarily by their commonness, their ability to thrive. This is not a matter of competition between plants within a particular habitat but rather a troubling projection of human origin. Wherever we are, modern humans have a tendency to most highly value what is hard to come by, that which is rare, exotic and comes at a great price.
It seems to me that if we’re going to place value judgments on plants as medicine and food, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to greatly value (getting past ingrained ideas about economics) what we have access to, what is sustainable and what we are able to cultivate intimacy with. The herbal community often excels at this, and I am eternally heartened by the excitement that a patch of Chickweed or stand of Wild Roses can evoke in any number of plant people. The exuberant pointing, shrieking and jumping up and down of otherwise dignified adults at the sight of Stinging Nettles on a riverbank is certainly one of the reasons I adore what I do.
What we call weeds tend to grow in disturbed ground where human impact is obvious, whether in vacant lots, tilled farmland or roadsides. These plants are looking a new frontier to colonize, but they’re also often active healers of hurt land. Many weeds restore much needed nutrients to ground often stripped of its topsoil or severely burned. It’s also important to remember that “invasive aliens” act not from a place of malicious intent (a trait primarily limited to humans, I’m afraid), but are more reacting to their relatively sudden loss of context and ecology they have evolved to. In many cases of invasive species taking over, there is some initial degradation to the original environment that allows for new and different plants to move in and become dominant species. So sorry, folks, that patch of dirt you dug up and call a garden? That’s the disturbed ground that a weed calls “easy pickins.’”
It would be foolhardy to attempt to place a value judgment upon these wild creatures, especially the categorical labels of the typical human who sees whatever benefits us as good and whatever hurts or detracts from our goals as bad. In the end, weeds, like everything (and everyone) else, want to live. It’s that simple. They, like us, are designed and adapted to survive, thrive and spread. Whether we or they are beneficial to the larger picture, is a whole different matter.
Truth is, all plants have been around far longer than we, and even the most maddening Bindweed or voracious Japanese Honeysuckle tribes are our elders and teachers. This doesn’t mean that it’s not sometimes appropriate to relocate or pull a plant, but it’s a fine balance between the human arrogance that allows us to believe we are and should be in control and the reality that we are only one tiny piece of the living being we call planet Earth.
The Why of Weeds: Outlaw Medicines
Personally, as much as I love and work to preserve rare or endangered plants, it is the common weeds that I am most likely to get excited about as an herbalist. Why? Because there’s plenty of them and lots of potential for working with them and helping people without endangering the species. Think about it, a tiny stand of delicate and slow growing plants may have good medicine but the capacity for real life use is small. On the other hand, a yard full of Dandelions, Chickweed, and Mallow that just seems to multiply like rodents in Spring no matter how much you pick, pull, chop, and run over them has huge capacity for treating and feeding people in a way that doesn’t harm the plant community. This seems especially important if we recognize that plants have intrinsic value in and of themselves outside of human use and deserve to thrive and live their own lives regardless of their value to us.
I also appreciate the feral nature of plants that survive where and when they can, digging in with roots and tendrils and running wild across the face of buildings, fences, lawns and whatever else will sit still long enough for them grow in, over or through. For me, the plants serve as role models and teachers, friends and confidantes. I’ve always found this especially true of unruly wildflowers and rebellious weeds that give the finger to herbicides and lawn regulations, busily growing and blooming from every crevice and empty patch of dirt.
Especially during dry times like these, I’m incredibly grateful for the soothing mucilage of Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) and Mallow (Malva spp.) that somehow still manage to leaf out and spread along sidewalks and doorsteps. Last week, I was struck by the sight of a young Elm tree sawed down about four feet from the ground and all its branches stripped off with its remaining trunk a strange black color. It was positioned in the middle of a gravel pile at the center of the village in a place where everything near it was dead from lack of water and soil. And yet, the Elm tree had dozens new leaves emerging from its ragged stump. Not just growing back from the roots, but shooting out from where it was broken. I keep its image in my mind as an emblem of hope right now as the leaves on the Oaks hang shriveled and black and the absence of the Canyon Wrens’ song renders the mesa scarily silent.
Life is insistent, it will find a way.
Tending The Feral Gardens
What qualifies as weeds surely differs from place to place. Herbs like Plantain often known as weeds in moister climes are actually fairly difficult to track down here in southwestern New Mexico. And this year, with scarcity and fragility of many otherwise moderately common plants has me carefully considering what’s really ethical and sustainable to harvest and use as medicine. My goal is to adapt my current practice to what the land can easily bear and what the people need. I aim to be flexible enough to provide effective treatment while not presenting a burden to already stressed land. Some elements in this approach include:
•Only harvesting from plants and plant communities that appear to be healthy and able to reproduce. This means staying away from plants that have only partially leafed out, are dropping leaves, have brown or black leaves or are unable to flower. Another reason for this, besides consideration for the plant, is that stressed plants can have somewhat different balances constituents than what we’re accustomed to and the medicine may not behave as we expected.
•Going out of my way even more than normal to help plants reproduce by dividing roots and replanting rather than taking the whole root system when harvesting, waiting until a plant is in seed before harvesting roots and being sure to spread the seeds, making cuttings of plants easily spread that way as with Salix species and even being extra careful where I walk on wild land. This may seem somewhat ridiculous in lush habitats, but here in the dry SW, compressing the soil and squashing barely surviving plants can have a notably detrimental effect.
•Sorting through my existing stock of herbal preparations and preserved foraged foods and being sure to carefully note what I have and what I really need more of. Then making a point of using what I have abundant stores of rather than impulsively going after whatever new creature catches my fancy. It’s likely that even the weeds are under stress this season and I prefer not to add to that if possible. I’ll also go out of my way not to recommend larger doses than necessary and more likely to admonish people not to lose, ruin (kindly don’t leave your tincture bottles and tea mixes on the dash of your sealed car in an Albuquerque parking lot, people), or otherwise waste existing medicines.
•And for my own sake, I’ll spend a great deal of time with both the thriving and hurting plants, noticing how they respond to the current conditions and appreciating even the ones I know are dying, thanking them for their beauty even as they lose their life to this painfully dry season.
I love and identify with the common and vulgar, the feral and fierce. I’m as likely to call myself a weedwife and plant lover as clinical herbalist, although I would consider all of these terms to be true to my work. I value the common, the ordinary even, for its vitality and profusion. For its resilience and flexibility in the face of droughts and floods, habitat change and ever shifting interactions with the humans they share land with.
This applies to herbalists as well. There’s no shortage of us at the level of herbwife, kitchen herbalist, practitioner, and village herbalist. There are no rock star requirements for what we do and in fact, such a status can keep us from being maximally approachable and accessible to others. There’s an ancient lineage for our work, for mothers and wildcrafters and weedwives, of the common people working together with common plants to bring a bit more healing and beauty to the world with our work. Our resilience and adaptability is part of why we survive and revive time after time, despite periodic suppression and stifling regulation.
Governments can pass laws, traditions may wane, and elitist pharmaceutical companies will likely continue to monopolize mainstream medicine... but as for the weedwives and their weeds, we’ll keep cracking concrete and spreading across disturbed land.