A few months ago, in spring, we delved into medicine-making as part of our Herbal Production and Processing class: a day spent pulsing dried herbs in the coffee grinder, taking tinctures on the tongue, and thinking about plants as medicine. Now on the cusp of midsummer, the class reconvened for three days at Ravenhill Herb Farm with the grander aims of the season in mind, surrounded this time by a tumbling pastiche of blooms that spilled down the pathways and stood thick in the garden beds. We were here to harvest.
Herbal medicine traditions reflect the distinct cultures and geographies of their places of origin around the world. Ayurveda, “the knowledge of life”, is the traditional medicine system of the Indian subcontinent. Thought to have been passed down at first by auditory tradition, Ayurveda was refined during the Vedic age, and it is believed that hallucinogenic experience inspired important parts of this later development. Commonly, three energies (called doṣhas) are believed to circulate in the body and to govern human health; Ayurvedic treatment seeks to balance these energies, sometimes in part by way of amphoteric herbs like ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), taken together with a “delivery agent”.
In Europe, the dominant historical theory of herbal medicine has been humoralism. Centered on four bodily fluids, the ‘humours’ – blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm – humoralism linked each to a temperament (sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic), and posited that ill health arises when the four are imbalanced. Treatment aimed to restore balance, and to nourish a person’s vital force. Greek thinkers Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen are credited with developing and advancing important parts of this medicine system, yielding a regionally-specific perspective with close links to the Greek seasons.
Elsewhere, Celtic and Druid spiritualities and systems of medicine have traditionally included animism, and in particular a reverence for parts of the natural world such as the land, sea, and sky. The European witch hunts, which rippled across the continent in waves and peaked in 16th and 17th century Germany, often targeted female practitioners of herbalism and midwifery; the show trials and killings that resulted in part the product of an attempt to centralize power within the academic, political, religious, and medical establishments of the day (a history which was examined in more detail by herbalist Sean Donahue a few weeks ago).
A common theme across these and other indigenous systems of medicine is often the general notion that a weakened spirit or identity can bring contact with unfriendly forces – and that plants can play a crucial role in restoring balance and immunity. Lindsay, our instructor, talked about the idea of “diasporic animism” – that we should be conscious of the regional specificities of the systems and adjust our energetic approach depending on our location and context.
But exoticness can be alluring: with a burgeoning sea trade in 17th century England, wealthy city-dwellers increasingly bought foreign herbs while the rural peasant class carried on with traditional native species. More recently, reliance on traditional knowledge has waned with the rise of scientific rationalism and Western instrumental thought as the basis of modern medical approaches.
We wind our way along a path at the farm, hemmed in on the high side by a rock wall swelling with blossoms and trailing herbs, some with tendrils grasping at the air like the top of a sloshing bucket. In a few strides we’ve passed sage (Salvia officinalis, used to strengthen the nervous system and for treatment of rheumatism and kidney problems), thyme (Thymus vulgaris, an expectorant and gastrointestinal carminative that also has antimicrobial properties), chamomile (Chamomilla recutita, an anti-inflammatory and sleep aid that has long been used in the treatment of fevers, colds, and stomach ailments), oregano (Origanum vulgare, an immunity booster that can be used topically to treat parasitic and fungal infections), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, used to alleviate muscle pain and improve memory), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory with gentle sedative properties, often used to help with anxiety, stress, and insomnia).
In round planters that line the other side of the path are a range of mints – lemon (Monarda citriodora), apple (Mentha suaveolens), chocolate (Mentha × piperita ‘Chocolate Mint’), and grapefruit (Mentha x piperita ‘Grapefruit’), medicinally interchangeable but with their own personalities, some all elbows and jutting leaves; others softer, with downy foliage and stout stems.
Arriving at the garden, we come to a patch of cleavers (Galium aparine), an excellent nervine tonic with sticky, grasping stalks. Herbalist Matthew Wood points out that these long, slender stems with Velcro-like seed heads on the end look a lot like the nervous system with its terminal bulbs – an example of the Doctrine of Signatures that we talked about in our Wild Harvesting class earlier in the year.
Another candidate for the Doctrine of Signatures analysis sits solemn and squat in the garden’s periphery. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), with its distinctively variegated leaves – light on one side, strikingly darker on the other – is considered a “middle domain” herb, used to bring about balance in mental and emotional energy, both for those who are flitting and airy, overwrought, and for those who are excessively grounded and in need of a creative spark.
Long spikes of bright, elegantly drooping flowers vie for attention nearby: foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), a plant traditionally used in the folk treatment of heart arrhythmia, but now illegal for herbalists to prescribe because of the dangers of those same toxic compounds (called cardiac glycosides). Further down the garden bed, Lindsay points out marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), an exceptionally demulcent herb that is moistening, soothing, and anti-inflammatory.
Nearby is valerian (Valeriana officinalis), which boasts a medicinally popular root that is best fork-harvested. But we won’t be harvesting it today, as it’s the wrong season: Lindsay reminds us that the appropriate time to harvest is when the plant’s vitality is centered in the part desired. The majority of wildcrafted species at risk in the world today are plants that are harvested for their roots (recall the echinacea craze during the “herbal renaissance” of the mid-‘90s, when the prairie perennial – finicky and hard to germinate in controlled cultivation – topped the best-selling list and was badly overharvested), and so it’s important to be conscious of ethical harvesting considerations and grow at home where one can.
I harvest some flowers from the borage plant (Borago officinalis), and deposit them near other baskets now brimming with summer colours. Once we’re finished harvesting, we’ll take the plants inside, setting some on drying racks and tincturing others fresh. It feels a bit funny, having talked as a class earlier about the traditional cultural and class dimensions of relying on either native plants or exotics as herbal medicine, that we’re now sitting among baskets with a hodgepodge of both.
Lindsay marvels at the fact that these plants contain things that our brains have specific receptors for – some experts believe that humans and plants have coevolved such that while plants evolved to mimic human neurotransmitters, humans simultaneously evolved to use plant chemicals. In the traditional medicine systems we talked about to start the day, these links were clearly also culturally embedded, and substantial. These days, with knowledge and practice more fragmented, this communing between humans and plants takes on a different character – diasporic animism, scattered and energetic, a coevolution happening on the margins and with a winding path ahead.
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.