by Christopher Penczak
(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)
Healers are from the world of plants. In the primitive societies ministered by the shaman and wise one, early humans learned to cure by using plants. Even today, the basis of our pharmaceuticals comes from the plant kingdom. Modern science synthesizes the most active compounds of plants, and things like aspirin become distilled from our knowledge of willow bark. What’s lacking in our modern world is a living relationship with the green world, which, over the long term, is just as vital to the healing process as any active ingredient.
In those simpler worlds and times, the universe was not divided and subdivided into minute categories until all spiritual connection was lost. There was an intuitive understanding that all things are part of the whole, and to affect one is to affect all. This holistic view is again becoming a part of popular healing in the realm of alternative care therapies. Herbalism, flower essences, and natural cures are not in opposition to traditional medicine, but quite complementary, and each has its place in a holistic worldview. Modern medicine is great on many levels, particularly for major traumas and fast, invasive illness. If I were in need of surgery, I would be very thankful for the miracles of modern medicine. At the same time, it is only starting to acknowledge the role of the mind, emotions, and soul in the healing process. Older forms of healing, from Western herbalism to traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, know these are vital components to health and well-being.
Our modern scientific view proposes that the early healers evolved the rich lore of herbal medicine by trial and error, but the healing really occurred through a harmonious relationship with nature. I think few people would go to the “wise” one who poisoned as many people as she cured. Perhaps there was some experimentation, as modern herbalists continue to experiment, and there was some observation. By watching animals, humans could benefit from their natural wisdom. Sick animals know exactly which plants will help bring healing and balance, and often such plants took on animal names and symbolism, to pass this teaching and knowledge onto others. The plants too, became teachers, not only through their relationship with animals, but through their shape, form, color, and habitat. To the medieval alchemist this was classified as the Doctrine of Signatures, the way in which the plant realm communicates with the human realm. If a leaf is shaped like a lung, as in the case of lungwort, then perhaps its herbal action relates to the respiratory system. Native herbalists know this same doctrine, but without the fancy name. The plants speak to all who listen.
Since understanding the power of plant medicine came through interactions with the plants themselves, knowledge of the plants was not solely in the hands of a few esoteric experts. True, the old world wise ones and herbalists made it their business to be experts, but in any society with a close connection to nature—direct agrarian societies or hunter/gather societies—everyone in the community will know a bit about certain plants. They will have a relationship with the plants physically, and for some, spiritually. In fact, as many believe they have a totem or spirit animal, some believe we each have a “totem” plant, and most herbal healers will say the plants “speak” to us in a variety of ways to share their blessings.
Old folk cures consisted not only of herbal remedies, often administered through food, but through simple rituals and charms. These simpler societies were more in touch with the source of their food. Hippocrates said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” The holistic view desires to maintain health over the long term through healthy living, rather than simply fixing problems as they arise. Consciously preparing your food, and thinking about the properties of the herbs you add to it, makes every meal a healing experience, feeding body and soul.
Synthetics don’t quite carry the same holistic spiritual properties as natural herbs. When we distill the herb to its seemingly only active components, we lose a lot of compounds that science classifies as inactive, though we don’t really know. Pharmaceuticals seem to be more potent and concentrated on one hand, but have more potential side effects. Herbalists would contend that these “inactive” components that have been discarded are the factors that actually balance the more recognizable compounds. The truly amazing thing about herbal medicine is that all the medicinal compounds in so many powerful plants don’t seem to have a physiological benefit to the plant itself. They seem to be willing partners, waiting to be used by the human and animal worlds.
Though you should never forget herbal medicine is medicine, and should be treated with respect, caution, and knowledge, there are a lot of things you can do to empower yourself and build a direct relationship with the green world. Some portray herbal medicine as wild and dangerous, but it has been used safely for thousands of years.
A great introduction to herbal medicine and philosophies can be found in Healing Herbs & Healthy Foods of the Zodiac by Ada Muir. Written in an easy style, yet eventually delving into complex topics, Muir shares many easy-to-use tips for those interested in integrating herbal healing into daily life, including an overview of basic herbs and their actions, harvesting, and drying. The book has a great focus on astrology, categorizing the herbs by the zodiacal sign that resonates or rules them. A special section links cell salts with the various signs and the appropriate herbal source for them. One of my favorite tips she shares with the reader follows:
Native Americans used the pine tree as a source of vitamin C. Tea was made from the pine needles. Because the pine has evergreen needles, we need not store a dried source. We can just pick the fresh needles as we need them. (p 9)
That was one of the first lessons my herbal teacher taught me, and I used it to help myself get over a bad cold the following winter.
For something to benefit both beginning and experienced herbalists, I like Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies by Jude C. Williams, M.H. It’s an excellent overview of herbs and herbal actions, and I particularly like how the book is organized. After the general principles, the following chapters are based on the body system and potential complaints—from beauty and skin care to headaches, digestion, colds, and blood disorders. The end of the book is household and family tips, focusing on harvesting and preparing your own home medicine chest.
One of the easiest and safest ways to work with plants is through flower essences. If you are afraid of making teas, tinctures, and ointments, then flower essences, also known as flower remedies, are the way to go. The most popular line of essences are known as Bach Flower Remedies, and are available in most health food stores. Essences are dilute solutions of flowers working under similar properties to homeopathic remedies. Rather than having a high chemical content that works primarily on the physical body, flower essences tend to work on the mental-emotional-spiritual levels. If the spiritual root is balanced, the physical body will realign to health. Bach Flower Remedies for Beginners by David F. Vennells details the history of essences from the modern founder, Dr. Edward Bach, to how these remedies work. Through this guide we learn how to prepare, prescribe, and take flower remedies, including case studies and tips for working with children and animals. Details on the thirty-eight traditional essences of Dr. Bach and how to use them are given. A favorite of many is the combination essence Rescue Remedy used in cases of physical and emotional trauma. I never leave home without some.
And any information on Llewellyn herbal books would be remiss without mentioning my favorite herbal writer, the late Scott Cunningham. His Magical Herbalism, Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, and The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews are all classics. The aim of these writings is not medicinal herbalism, but the magical herbalism preserved in folklore, myth, and tradition. Magical herbalism is an excellent and fun way to get in touch with the spiritual properties of the herbs. Making things like aromatic oils and incense are definitely medicinal for the soul, and many would argue that they hold potential medical benefits as well.
Looking at herbal healing as building a relationship, step by step, with nature, you can maintain and enhance your overall health in the physical and spiritual realms. Building a relationship with nature isn’t just what you take into your body; it’s a part of your worldview. Make time to connect with the green world. Take a walk in the woods, fields, or your local park. Take time to feel the sun on your skin. Breathe the fresh air. Reach down and touch the Earth, the grass, plants, and trees. Then you will be well on your way to walking the path of green healing.
Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2004. All rights reserved.