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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Plants and their wisdom

Sea Kale emerging

Sea Kale emerging in my garden, April 3rd.

This morning, I have been reading Farming While Black, by Leah Penniman. It is a marvelous book on so many levels–history lesson, gardening guide, liberation manual–and it feels a privilege to learn so much from a work that is actually focused toward Black farmers and gardeners. I knew so little about the skills of enslaved Africans who brought with them to these lands African plants and knowledge of growing them.  I knew so little about the work of George Washington Carver who was one of the first to study and promote regenerative land practices.  I know so little about multiple plants and their habits and their gifts for us.  Get this book!  

But then, after reveling in reading all morning, I find myself opening to multiple layers of deep grief underneath the joy of reading the book.  Grief for the African peoples who were stolen from their land and enslaved.  Grief for these Turtle Island lands, whose balanced ecosystems and soils were so depleted by the cutting of forests, and the plowing under of the soil, as well as by the war waged on their people.  And grief for myself and my communities–that we have lost our connection to the ecosystems, we have lost our connection to the wisdoms, we have lost our connection to the plants.

I get overwhelmed with the abundant knowledge in the book, and I remember this feeling in other wonderful books I have read, the feeling that I have no hope of learning everything I need to learn, in the limited years left to me on this planet.  I get the feeling that I have no hope of regaining access to the collective wisdom that has been cut off in so many ways.  And I realize that this too is part of colonization.

My East Frisian ancestors were some of those who plowed over the fertile prairies back in the 19th century.  Grief.  But at least they knew how to grow their own food, and provide for their families from their land.  I read online recently that in the last two generations, most Americans have lost the capacity to do that.  More grief.  I don’t know how to do that.  And I can’t envision getting to that ability before I die.  Plus, it is not really something we can learn from books.

In Farming While Black, I was reading about herbs and their healing properties, and there were too many to take in–even though it was a limited list of the herbs they grow and find to use in their community.  I feel lucky if I can learn about two or three herbs in a season.  All of us should have been learning the herbs since the early days of childhood wandering in the woods.  The plants are our elders, our guides, the wise beings who know how to feed us and heal us and care for us.  This separation from the plants is also a part of colonization.

One answer to my dilemma is about community.  No one is meant to have all the knowledge on their own.  It is okay that I can’t learn it all on my own.  But I feel grief too for the fragmentation of communities that has kept us from sharing this learning and wisdom with each other.  And I feel grateful for each person who has shared their knowledge of plants with me.  I feel grateful for organizations like the Resilience Hub, who bring people together to share so much wisdom of soil and plants and ecosystems.

But for this moment, I want to honor the pain of colonization, honor the pain of what has been lost, honor the pain of so many threads of connection that were torn apart and destroyed, never to be rewoven.  It is a long journey to healing.

Medicine from the Yard

Dandelion Leaves

[Dandelion leaves]

Today and the past two days, I’ve been eating these lovely gifts from our yard–dandelion leaves.  They are best to eat before the bright yellow flowers appear, so you have to search for them by their pointy leaves arranged in a starburst pattern.  I asked the plant for permission to pick them, so that they might become a good medicine for me, and then picked some of the leaves from several plants.

Dandelion leaves are a blood purifier, great spring detoxing for the liver, have a lot of vitamins and minerals, and are full of anti-oxidants. (But be sure you pick them from a place with no chemicals or road run-off.)  I am just beginning to try eating them, so I rinsed them off and chopped them up, and mixed them into some kale I was stir-frying for breakfast, after the kale was already pretty much cooked.  They have a really mild flavor, and I enjoyed them.  You can also eat them raw or in salads.

So often, we just ignore the so-called “weeds” in our yard, or worse yet, try to eradicate them.  What if we saw them as gifts sent to us from the earth, to help our bodies with what they need?  This is what I learned from herbalists–the plants appear when we need them.  So, to ignore them or not use them would be rude, wouldn’t it?

I first began to understand this when the St. John’s Wort started appearing in our yard last summer. St. John’s Wort has traditionally been understood as useful for depression and wound healing. Last summer, at the Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island ceremonies, the spiritual wound that revealed itself to me was the Great Forgetting:  first there was a great disconnection of my ancestors from their relationship with all of creation, and then there was a great forgetting so that the people would be unaware that they were wounded and disconnected, and thus never even seek to understand that they had once been connected. I heard in my mind, “St. John’s Wort can help when you remember the wound of disconnection from the earth, and when you open to the pain underneath the great forgetting.”

And the St. John’s Wort is returning to the yard this spring as well.  The flowers are best picked just after the Summer Solstice (feast of St. John the Baptist, which is where they got that name), but now the plants are starting to put forth new stems and leaves around the old stalks we picked the tops of last year.  I think picking them has helped them to grow and expand.

I like learning about the plants in this way, one by one, as they make themselves known to me here in this land I call home.

St. John's Wort

[St. John’s Wort]

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.