Confessions of an Herbalist
We were on a contemplative walk on the grounds of the Kenbrook retreat center where we met every month for two years, practicing the art of Spiritual Direction. She leaned down and picked a leaf from the ground, holding it up for the group to see. "You see the jagged edges of the leaf. Don't they look like lion's teeth? Dente di leone. Teeth of the lion. That is how dandelion got its name."
I was mystified. Starstruck. Enchanted.
She told us stories about redbuds being called the Tears of Judas because he wept blood after he betrayed Jesus. And the dogwood flowers being in the shape of a cross, their petals dipped in the blood, and blooming always near Easter.
I loved the folklore, the mythology, and the connection between the plants and the sacred. Something stirred deeply within me. I would have followed this woman anywhere to hear more stories about the plants.
I had plant friends, plants that had stood by me when the world fell out beneath my feet. The yucca plants growing like twins in the middle of our backyard in my childhood home. The rose of sharons that my grandmother loved so dearly. The snowball bush that I would bury my face in and get drunk on tne musky fragrance. The maple whose leaves reflected the golden light of sunset that whispered of my true home.
My sister remembers strange details about our childhood. People's names. Events. Gifts we received. I don't have those kinds of memories. I remember what the tufts of the mimosa blooms looked like as I climbed the long and sagging branch to get near them. I remember the cauldron turned upside down at the base of the spruce so that we could reach the first low branch to climb up high enough to look into our upstairs neighbor's kitchen window. I remember the little white clover flowers and how almost all of them would be suckling a hungry honey bee. I remember how the cedar near the swamp was dead on one side from a lightning strike.
I don't remember people. I remember plants. I don't remember events of the human world very well, but I remember animals, birds, groundhogs. I lived in a different world, and I still do.
After the enchantment of the plant walk, I decided to commit myself to learning more about the plants around me. Except for a few plant friends and the vegetables in my garden, I looked out at the "green wall" as my teacher Calyx calls it. Indistinguishable green leaves everywhere. Slowly, over the past eleven years since that first plant walk, I have begun to know more of the plants around me. But to be very honest, I still don't know many plants at all.
There are so very many varieties of plants in our bioregion. There are roughly 18,000 plant species that are native to North America, with an additional 30,000 or so species that have been introduced to this continent in the past 500 years. There are approximately 3,000 plant species in Pennsylvania, native and non-native. That is a lot of plants to know.
Humans historically have used a lot of their brain's grey matter to catalog thousands of plant species as food, textiles, medicine, building materials, etc. We have used that same grey matter to memorize brand logos, album titles, movie directors, and other things that we, as modern humans, have decided are important for our survival and happiness.
I know many plants generally, like mints. I can see a mint shape and know that it is in the mint family. I cannot easily tell you the difference between peppermint, spearmint, catnip, or lemon balm without crushing a leaf and smelling it. Blackberry and raspberry are difficult for me to tell apart before they are in fruit. Multiflora rose and dog rose, forget it. I can't tell you until they are blooming.
Even though I have been studying plants for eleven years, and the past five years in a very focused way, I still have only scratched the surface. If you are like me, enchanted by plants but still seeing mostly the green wall, I highly recommend spending some time with experienced foragers on plant walks. We are so lucky to have some highly skilled forager/botanists in our region.
Jon Darby of Riverbend foraging has several plant walks coming up this summer. He will also be co-leading an immersive experience with the plants this fall with our teacher Calyx from Northern Appalachia School of Vitalist Herbalism & Ecology. They will teach you the tips for identifying plants with confidence using resources like keying & field guides, plant dissection, organoleptic identification, and more.
I also highly recommend Sue Woerthwein at Heartwood Nurseries in Southern York County. Sue has such a deep knowledge of native plants, and the selection of plants at her nursery are always so healthy and hearty. Most of the native plants that we have brought to the Grove are from Heartwood.
When we are crafting plant medicines for ourselves or others, making food from plants, making mint tea, or any other ways of engaging with the plants as food and medicine, a 100% positive identification is so important. Having a tried and true method of plant identification that works for you is a great way to increase your knowledge of plants, and your confidence in foraging and wildcrafting.
If I can give you a piece of unsolicited advice, don't let your lack of knowledge or experience keep you from seeking it out! Many people are afraid of engaging with materials that they aren't already familiar with. We don't like being beginners. We are conditioned to know things, be an expert, have it all together. Giving ourselves permission to seek the knowledge of others and to ask questions and not need to have the answers is one of the most freeing experiences. Even the most advanced foragers are always still learning. I often see herbalists that I consider expert posting in groups and on forums to get help with plant identification for a plant that they don't know. They seek the wisom of the community, one of our greatest resources.