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  • Writer's pictureAmy

Building Relationships for Better Plant Medicine

I was building relationships with plants way before I knew anything about them- medicinally speaking. I go into more about that in a different post, so I’ll save you the long-winded story. But I sometimes find myself in an unbalanced state when working with plants, one which I need to correct from time to time. There’s working with plant medicine, and there’s working with plant medicine. 

I like to think that my education at the Maryland University of Integrative Health was a very balanced study in herbalism. We learned about the folk use and the science behind plant medicine; both I think are crucial to the understanding of herbalism. And while there have been times when I have found some people, experiences, or practices to be a little too  ‘woo woo’ for me, I have decided to lean into these a bit more this past year. The reason being, sometimes I feel too methodical with my practice. I slip easily into the cold, rigid, Enlightenment-esque role of a practitioner where I am so focused on the medical side of things that I lose sight of the mystery and beauty behind herbalism. I hate it. Then I start diving into the more esoteric aspects of herbalism to hopefully balance and ground my understanding. 

Allopathic practitioners probably don’t know what I mean, and I assume most people wouldn’t understand the significance of spiritualism and plants, let alone how it impacts my practice. 

The truth is, sometimes plants don’t work. 

There are a variety of reasons for this, but the one I have little to no control over is this:

You don’t know this plant. 

In my experience, there have been times when a certain herb should be working in the body a certain way. It’s not just my thoughts or feelings which dictate this- it’s science. Facts. Pathophysiology and all that. Dose. Administration. All that is spot on. And yet, sometimes it is not doing the thing it should. How is this possible? Well, sometimes the issue is not with the plant- it’s the person. 

This is hard to explain, and I am not very good at explaining these concepts. Other people are, thank goodness. But I’ll try my best at the rationale behind building relationships with plants. 

Straight up: if you get to know a plant on as many levels as possible, it will inevitably be more effective. 

What does this mean? 

It means seeing the plant outside of the chopped up herbs swimming in the cup, or the compacted powder in a capsule, or the dark juice of a tincture. Learning about how the plant looks in its natural state. Learning how it grows and the stories behind it. The way a plant grows can tell us a lot about the plant: whether it competes with other species, whether it grows in a symbiotic relationship with its environment, if it prefers wet or dry soil. Does it come back year after year? And how? Does it have a form of self preservation or is it yielding to whatever comes its way? Is it finicky or will it grow just about anywhere due to it's unwavering insistence that it thrive?

Observation is the key here. Observation in the Romanticism sense (there’s that English teacher again). Seeing a species in its natural environment is crucial to understanding it. Maybe you’re thinking, “OK but how does this benefit me?”

Once you spend time getting to know a plant in its natural space, you can start seeing that character develop. My favorite example of this is my personal favorite herb, Pulsatilla. She grows on the edges of cliffs, being beaten and battered by the wind. She looks very frail and soft and delicate with her soft downy coating and cupped purple flowers. Wispy pods on long stems that look like they shouldn’t last. But those roots dig down deep and hold on through the whipping winds; she holds on to those rocks in soil that shouldn’t be good enough, where she made a home and intends on staying no matter what. She looks delicate and breakable, but that chick is fierce. Now, I’ve never been a delicate flower of a girl, but there are so many times in my life where I can resonate with the life of Pulsatilla. And, it just so happened that this plant was a remedy given for hysteria back in the day. Those ‘feeble women’ who were so easily moved. The way Pulsatilla grows is a reminder that we are capable. That looks are deceiving. That we need firm foundations to help us remain resilient. 

This is how you learn from a plant. 

Other plants might have different stories to tell. My other favorite, Stinging Nettle, is SO annoying for me to work with and grow. Those stingers definitely bother me, even after 10 years of closely working with her. But she teaches me grace, and to be careful, and to be more mindful and deliberate with my words and actions. I can’t just up and get Nettle. I need to have a plan, or else I’m going to be pretty uncomfortable. I need gloves and a bag and to make sure my bare arms don’t brush up against her. 

And sometimes just sitting with the plant in stillness as it grows can be an extremely rewarding experience. You know how you subconsciously gravitate toward some people more than others? This can happen with plants, too. I just love trees. I hug trees. I talk to them. I feel happy around them. I don’t know why- I just do. I don’t get those warm fuzzies sitting by Mugwort or Tulsi, even though I love them, too. If you find yourself gravitating toward certain plants, spend some time with them. Notice what thoughts or feelings come up. Plant spirit is a real thing. 

Cultures all over the world have had a reverence for plants, which we now have lost. This is evidenced by our lack of care when cutting trees for construction, the trash along the sides of roads, and pollution in general. And yet there is more and more evidence through studies that plants have an innate intelligence. They are not what we had thought. Even talking to your plants will help them flourish- I didn’t make this up! We co-evolved with plants, and they actually need us, too. 

The difference is, we aren’t used to this concept of building a relationship with our healers. When you take a pill, very little thought is given to the pieces and parts of the process that brought that pill to your hand. There is a distance, and we don’t need that understanding to make it work. 

Healing with plants is more than this. It’s healing of the body, mind, and spirit, as all healing should be. We are asked to be responsible for our health when we embark on the path of herbalism. We should be giving thanks to the plants that heal us, especially as we are takers in this process. There is a mutual respect that needs to occur here- this also creates humility which much of humanity is lacking. 

So what do you do? Why am I putting this out here now?

Because as I type this it is almost Valentine's Day, and as with most Americanized holidays now, it has become centralized on consumerism and shallow values rather than love itself. As you reflect on your relationships with loved ones, consider encouraging a new relationship- with a particular plant. Maybe you just pick one you use regularly, or one you feel interested in for no other reason than it looks or sounds cool. Put into motion the acts of finding that plant in its living state. You can easily order them or get seeds to grow yourself. Honestly, seeing the whole process from seed to maturity is a powerful experience. Plus, it’s almost spring, so this is a great time to plan how you’re going to build that relationship with your plant(s) once the weather gets warmer. Sit with it. Observe. Notice every little detail. You can even write a story or a poem about what you’re experiencing. Touch it. Use all of your senses if possible. 

Some resources I have been using lately to rebuild my relationship with plants are books. I am currently reading Braiding Sweetgrass and

have just finished Plant Spirit Medicine by Eliot Cowan. Finding The Mother Tree is another favorite. There are many herbalists out there who are so great at explaining how and why to develop a relationship with plants. Sajah Popham is wonderful. So is Dina Falconi. There are quite a few others who speak on this more eloquently than I ever can. 

When we strive to build a relationship with plants, it forces us to get back in touch with ourselves. This is part of the healing process. We learn to slow down. Shut off. Tap in. Ground down. Feel alive. 

Let the plants teach you what we can’t learn in the pages of a book. 

buying plants with my daughter
buying plants!

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Feb 19
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You are right on about learning about, seeing and touching plants that have curative powers. Otherwise, they are just a bit of dried up weeds.

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