Plants are amazing

Comfrey

Comfrey Plant in our Orchard

Last night, I watched (again) the documentary, What Plants Talk About. Did you know that plants change their chemistry based on the environmental stressors they experience? So, for example, if a certain caterpillar is munching on their leaves, they can release chemicals into the air, scents, that attract the insect predator of that caterpillar.  Or they might offer nectars that shift the scent of the bug itself, and that scent attracts predators. They also share nutrients with their child plants and other tree species in a forest.

This got me thinking about our human use of plants for healing. We benefit from their chemical wizardry and can use their medicines for our own challenges. Over thousands of years of human “prehistory” and “history,” we learned the benefits of so many various plants in our environment. A body of knowledge has accumulated for the medicinal use of herbs.

Plant medicines can also be used to help other plants. Michael Phillips, in the book Holistic Orchard, recommends making fermented teas of comfrey, horsetail, stinging nettles, and/or garlic scapes to use as a foliar spray to help orchard trees during the summer.  Comfrey provides large amounts of calcium. Horsetail has natural silica which helps the plant cuticle defense against certain summer fungi.  Nettles are a tonic of overall nutrition with trace minerals, vitamins, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium. They also have silica, with levels skyrocketing when seeds formation is just beginning, so that is a great time to use it. Garlic helps to carry other nutrients.

It just so happens that I was in the orchard last week, thinking I needed to trim back the comfrey because it was getting too big.  Then I noticed that the nettles in Sylvia’s herb garden were flowering, maybe starting to form seeds. (We’d rather that they didn’t spread nettles everywhere.) And lo and behold, the garlic plants had formed scapes. So maybe it was time to make some herbal tea. (We don’t have any horsetail, sadly.)

Comfrey Nettles Garlic brewTo make the fermented tea, you use a five-gallon bucket.  Cut plant leaves into the bucket and loosely pack them in.  Then, pour a kettle of boiling water over the leaves to get things started, and add unchlorinated water to fill it to the top. I used water from our rain barrels. Then “let sit for seven to ten days somewhere outside, loosely covered to prevent significant evaporation. This fermentation period makes the constituents that much more bioavailable for foliar absorption.” It gets pretty smelly with sulfur compounds–that’s how it is supposed to smell. You strain it when you use it. Once brewed, you dilute it, using about a cup of the tea per gallon of spray.

So I made the tea on July 6. It is likely ready to use about now, though I went ahead and added two cups to the spray formula I did on July 9th.  Having such a small orchard, I might not be able to use all of the tea in a timely way, so I figured that partially brewed tea would add something beneficial in any case. I will add whatever I don’t use to the compost pile.

A few other thoughts were brewing in my mind after watching What Plants Talk About. If you think about how plants change their chemicals to fit their environmental stressors, you have to conclude that the medicines in the plants might be changing day by day, hour by hour. So when you harvest that plant, and in what condition you harvest it, might make all the difference in the world about whether that plant has the medicine you need. And perhaps that is the source of the “old wives’ tales” about when and how to pick various medicinal herbs. When the moon is full, or first thing in the morning? (By the way, I think that old wives’ tales are often the source of much hidden wisdom.)

If I were a young person just starting out as a scientist herbalist, I would want to ponder how we might experiment and cooperate with plants to create particular medicines that we need. We’d have to start by understanding and measuring the differences in their chemical composition under various conditions. Try to better understand why the old herbalists knew the best times for picking. That might take a while. But then, once we better understood these marvelous beings, maybe we could learn to communicate back and forth with them, and then, perhaps we could invite them to create new medicines for the diseases we face in these times. What a line of research that would be!

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles 

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Decolonization Lessons from Plants

Bittersweet around a tree trunk

 Bittersweet vining around a tree trunk.

After spending a week going through soil to remove bittersweet roots, I have been thinking about invasive bittersweet as a visceral metaphor for colonization. Bittersweet comes into an area by seeds or roots, and then reaches for the sky. It vines around any support, living or dead, to keep climbing higher and higher. When its vines first wrap around a tree trunk, like in this photo, it may look green and healthy and beautiful. It may even seem to appreciate the tree on which is grows. But eventually, it can kill the tree, either by suffocating its trunk, or by the sheer weight of its leaves and branches.

Below is a photo, taken by my partner Margy Dowzer, of a huge bittersweet vine, 4-5 inches in diameter, tightly wrapped around the trunk of this tree.  It has been cut near the bottom, which is the way to stop it growing. But you can see how it has warped the trunk and become embedded in its flesh. A huge maple tree next door came crashing down after it was covered in bittersweet vines and flowers. Bittersweet will spread to a whole area, and kill other plants that are trying to grow. Bittersweet embedded in tree trunk

And this is like colonization. When Europeans first came to this land, they planted themselves in several locations and tried to grow as much as possible. They wiped out many Indigenous communities through disease and warfare. They used the lands cleared in this way to grow crops and build towns. They kept spreading out across the whole continent, bringing destruction to Native peoples and ecosystems as they took over. They imagined that their own growth and reaching for the sun was the only thing necessary and valuable, and took no notice of the harm they were causing.  And of course, it isn’t just past history, it keeps happening today. Our whole economic system is based on continual growth. “More and more and more!” might be the mantra of the colonizers and the bittersweet.

Might there be another option? There is a different sort of plant that was brought to this continent by colonizers. In fact, it was called “English-man’s foot” or “white-man’s footprint” by Indigenous peoples because it appeared wherever the settlers showed up. Its familiar name is broadleaf plantain (plantago major). It too spreads all over, and especially in disturbed soils. However, it is a humble plant, and a useful medicinal herb. Indigenous peoples soon discovered its healing properties and added it to their herbal pharmacies.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I had a bite from a black fly appear on my hand, itching like crazy. My friend Sylvia (who is an herbalist) suggested plantain. I made a poultice by chewing up some leaves and then putting that mash on the bite, letting it remain until it dried. It helped to ease the itching right away. Plantain is also good for all sorts of wound healing, stomach troubles, fevers, and is anti-inflammatory. You can eat young leaves in salads, and cook older leaves in stews. It is also useful for breaking up compacted soil, and combatting erosion.

So perhaps we who are not Indigenous to this land might learn from the plantain a new model of how to be here, in this place we now find ourselves. Perhaps we too might become humble and useful, growing only close to the ground, paying attention to healing and the easing of pain.

Plantain

Plantain

Disappearing Moon

Lunar Eclipse half way – Version 2After a stormy snow all day long, the sky cleared long enough for me to watch the beauty and mystery of the lunar eclipse, in the crisp cold wind blowing through our back yard. I am not usually awake this late, but something called me out when I saw the sky had cleared.  I kept warm by shoveling the walkway, and I prayed for our troubled world. Actually, it felt like the moon itself warmed my body and soul.

What does eclipse mean?  It spoke to me of disappearing, the power of the hidden, the gift of letting go of any need to shine.  It spoke to me of the beauty of what is hidden.  As the moon became fully eclipsed, the foggy clouds also drifted in, and it was gone from sight. Hidden being, bless our aching world, heal our wounded hearts.Lunar Eclipse almost full – Version 2

Herbal Gifts

St. John's Wort DriedToday I finished the harvest of St. John’s Wort–all from plants that grew up wild in our yard, or down the street from our home.  I had cut the flowers with a little bit of plant attached, back when they were in full bloom, in early July.  I dried some of it in tied bunches hanging in the garage, and some of it in loose bunches on an extra window screen laid flat in the basement. (Take note: I definitely preferred the screen method for later processing ease.)

So today, I spread out some paper on the kitchen table, and put all the bunches onto it.  Then I sat and rubbed the leaves & flowers off the stems, stem by stem.  I was listening to podcasts about healing and self-care, which somehow seemed appropriate to the task.  Two hours later, I was still at it, and then I listened to a few short podcasts from an old friend, Lee Ann Hopkins, with whom I recently reconnected on Facebook.  I am not much of a podcast listener, (I usually like to read instead) but working with my hands in these herbs while listening to uplifting messages seemed just right.  The purpose of Lee Ann’s website, Hooray Weeklyis “to encourage and lift up individuals and communities in this time of resistance and change, both collectively and personally.”  She is a kindred spirit still.

It seems particularly apt since St. John’s Wort is an herbal remedy for depression and other mood difficulties, along with several other uses.  According to WebMD,

St. John’s wort is most commonly used for “the blues” or depression and symptoms that sometimes go along with mood such as nervousness, tiredness, poor appetite, and trouble sleeping. There is some strong scientific evidence that it is effective for mild to moderate depression. St. John’s wort is also used for symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and mood changes.

If you are interested, there is a lot more information on that website.

With the cruelty and destruction we observe every day in the wider world around us, those of us who are sensitive to it can find ourselves very weary and down-hearted, heavy burdened by it all.  Isn’t it amazing that nature offers these bright yellow flowers in the midst of high summer, to bring with us into the long dark of winter?

St. John's Wort drying

St. John’s Wort plant freshly cut, hung to dry.

Curanderismo

Open My Eyes left

[Open My Eyes by Catalina Salinas]

If there is a thread running through these days in New Mexico, perhaps it would be the book, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.  My friend Virginia Marie had told me before my trip about an event we could attend related to the book, so I got a digital copy and read it on the plane on my way here.  It is about a young boy growing up in rural new Mexico around the time of World War Two, and his relationship with the curandera Ultima who came to live with his family when he was seven.  A curandera is a traditional healer in the Mexican (and New Mexican) tradition.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center, has a special exhibit on visual interpretations of the book.  The event we attended included a talk by Toñita Gonzales, curandera and educator, and Dr. Eliseo Torres, author and scholar of Curanderismo at the University of New Mexico.  Virginia Marie is herself a curandera, as well as an Episcopal priest.  The talk began with a ritual to honor the four directions and the Creator and the Mother Earth.

Curanderismo includes the use of herbs for healing, and many other modalities.  It works in conjunction with western medicine, though for many years was viewed with suspicion, as most traditional healing methods have been viewed. It includes making a relationship with plants, treating them with honor and respect for their power to heal us. Ultima would always say a prayer to the plants before she dug them up for use in healing.  I think about the plants I have been getting to know back in Maine.

Back at Virginia Marie’s home, we also watched the movie that was made from the book.  Today, she will do a healing session with me, though in reality, this whole time has been a healing ceremony.

Open My Eyes right

[Open My Eyes by Catalina Salinas]

Healing Waters

Healing Mineral Waters Jemez Hot Spring

I am on retreat with my friend in Albuquerque, and we started off by visiting the Jemez Hot Springs, and soaked for an hour in their healing mineral waters.  All of our tensions floated away, and our bodies and souls felt renewed and relaxed. I loved that we were under the watchful arms of an ancient Egyptian river Goddess.

My intention for this time of retreat is to re-emerge myself in Spirit after a long hard winter, to prepare myself for the transition ahead as I retire this summer from my work as a parish minister, and venture into the next phase of my journey.

Times of big changes are liminal times, sacred times, but perhaps also times of anxiety and danger.  I want to stay true to the leadings of my body and spirit that have brought me to this crossroads.  One of those leadings came from the weariness of my body, its chronic illness and auto-immune flare-ups that left me bedraggled and exhausted. I know it is time to stop pushing it so hard.  How fitting for my first day here to bring my body to these healing springs.

I am also already absorbing so much nurture from deep conversations with a sister in spirit who understands the call of ministry and justice, and who understands the lessons of the body, the lessons we learn from limitation and illness.  I am nurtured by this sister traveler into the country of elderhood.  River Goddess

 

Cedar

cedar leavesI seem to have unleashed a thirst for learning the names of all the trees who live with us on this land to which Margy and I belong. Today, I am exploring the cedar tree in our southeastern boundary area. I had always wondered about the difference between cedars and arborvitaes, and now I know that they are the same, really, here where we live.  There are a lot of names for this species which is native to southeastern Canada and northeastern United States–Eastern White Cedar, Northern White Cedar, White Cedar, False Cedar (because it is not related to European cedars).  Its Latin name is Thuja occidentalis.  

Cedar trunkIt was first called Arborvitae by French explorers when Indigenous people gave them tea  made of its leaves as a treatment for scurvy.  Arborvitae means “tree of life.”  Now, arborvitae is the name used by horticulturists, and there are many cultivars of the tree that are sold for landscaping.  The Anishinaabe people called the tree Nookomis Giizhik or Grandmother Cedar, because of its importance as a sacred and medicinal tree, associated with one of the four directions.

This has been a special tree to me personally in most of the places I have lived–Michigan, Chicago, northern New York state, Massachusetts, and Maine, and I appreciate that my matrilineal ancestors also knew this tree in Quebec/Nitassinan.  The Innu word for this tree is Massishk.  The tea from its leaves contains an abundance of Vitamin C, and can be used as a medicine.  (Note–being cautious, it is recommended that pregnant women should not use cedar tea because the compound thujone within it.)

From Sean Sherman (The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen):

The tea of simmered branches is used to treat fevers and rheumatic complaints, chest colds, and flu. This brew is delicious warm or cold and is simple to make. Just simmer 2 cups of fresh cedar in 4 cups of boiling water for about 10 minutes until the water becomes a golden color. Strain off the cedar and sweeten with maple syrup, to taste.