When I first began to study the healing plants, I wanted to meet them all. I was so excited to learn another name I had never heard before, to identify a new friend, to make medicine with a plant for the first time. Soon I realized that there are indeed a heck of a lot of medicinal plants out there. Many tens of thousands in fact. No one can possibly learn them all. One can easily become overwhelmed by this. Fortunately, we don't need to study thousands of plants to be effective herbalists for ourselves, our families, or even our communities.
I was fortunate to hear very early on in my journey, from some very wonderful teachers, that knowing a great many plants is not nearly as important as knowing a smaller number of plants very intimately. This is so important, and one of the greatest lessons a student new to herbalism can learn. I explain it to my students like this... Imagine you are attending a big party. There are hundreds of guests in attendance. Do you go around introducing yourself to each and every person and try to memorize everyone's name and face before the end of the party? Or do you try to hang out with a few people during the evening, getting into some really good conversations, and maybe making some true connections that may lead to enduring friendships? I don't know about you, but I would rather get to know a couple people more deeply than make surface level connections with everyone.
The plants are very much the same. They are complicated, multi-faceted, many-layered beings with so much to teach and share with us. If we are used to learning about medicinal herbs through 10 minute you tube videos, or cursory blog posts (A'hem), we may mistake ourselves into thinking we know them... (Oh yes, lavender is the calming herb, and peppermint is for headaches...), but this doesn't come close to the depth of intimacy that unfolds slowly over the course of years working with a plant, growing it, meeting it in the wild, harvesting, preserving, making medicine, formulating, even communicating with the plant (they often say very surprising things).
This shouldn't surprise us. After all, people are the same way. If you only know someone because you exchange a few words with them once a week, of course you will never experience that person intimately enough to know their joys and sorrows, their history and their ambitions, or even what true gifts they have to offer the world.
Relationship building takes time. And this is equally true with the plants.
After years of working with lavender, I finally understood the subtler meaning of her medicine. She is not just "a calming herb that helps us relax". Her medicine is better defined as Joy. More specifically, she invites a child-like joy. Yes, she can help someone relax. But relax in what way exactly? I've had people come to me and say, I tried to use lavender to settle down the kids at night and it seems to have the opposite effect. I smile, and think... yep, she would do that. Young children are often light and carefree, unburdened by the cares of the world and the stress of daily responsibility. Lavender would only enhance that energy, making it appear like she doesn't actually relax at all.
However, if someone has lost touch with their inner child, if they have come to take themselves too seriously and become too self-absorbed, then lavender can have an amazing effect, which if often interpreted as relaxing. Think about it. If you are overly serious and never able to lighten up and loosen up, you are usually holding tension in your body somewhere, often all over. If you are like this all the time, relaxing can be very hard indeed. Lavender's medicine is to first connect you back to your child-like nature, that part of you that held less worries and knew how to take delight in the moment. When this happens, we naturally relax.
Knowing this more intimate and deeper level of lavender's medicine helps us to more effectively make us of it. We may not reach for the lavender for the energetic child at bedtime, but possibly for the friend going through a tough time, who hasn't been able to ease up and just enjoy herself lately.
Getting to these deeper understandings with the plants takes time. And we don't stand a chance of having this type of intimate relationship with hundreds of plants. But we can absolutely get to know a few dozen plants on this level. And that can make all the difference. The plants we choose to cultivate a deep relationship with are called our materia medica, they are the ones we draw from in our practice. And every time we connect with them, we deepen our relationship.
I tell my students that their materia medica should not look like my materia medica, or anyone else's. The plants we choose to connect with may be those growing around us, or they may be the ones that grab our attention for some reason. They may be the ones that helped us in the past, and so we have a soft spot in our hearts for them. Or they may be plants that others have brought to our attention. There are many ways in which the plants come into our lives. We can move deeper into relationship from this first meeting. They can become good friends and trusted allies.
We meet the plants one at a time, but we really get to know them over time spent with each one.
This post was first published on my previous blog in 2019.
April Coburn, herbalist and founder of Nettlejuice.
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