One of the first books I read on herbalism and health was Elson Haas’ Staying Healthy with the Seasons. There were many interesting little bits of knowledge and graphics in that book, including one relating parts of herbs to actions in the body systems. Here is how I remember it:
Plant parts along a surface-deep continuum from a Western view.
A week ago, I checked out a neat book to help me learn more about Chinese herbal formulations. Traditional Chinese Medicine Formula Study Guide by Qiao Yi walks the reader through all angles of formulating and a bit about pathology. The more I read about Chinese herbalism, the more I see similarities with what I’ve learned studying Western herbalism. Take this categorization about plant parts and actions from the study guide:
Plant part actions, Chinese medicine view.
I have looked in a few other sources in attempt to find more information about plant part and action/direction for both Western and Chinese herbalism, to no avail. (If you know of a resource, let me know!) One aspect in particular I’d like to get more information about is the Chinese medicine view about seeds, nuts and fruits. Why were they not mentioned along with flowers, roots and the rest? Are they included in flowers (which is where they originate)? There are a plethora of fruits and seeds in the pharmacopoeia, which is why I am confused.
Speaking of seeds…
Over the years there have been times when I relied on aromatic herbs and seeds/fruits. Kitchen spices like coriander, fennel, anise, dill, cardamom were my go-to’s for abdominal distention, gas and lack of appetite, ect. It seems to me that many seeds are very centering and assist the digestive process. The aromatic qualities of many seeds seem to be earthy, grounding, spicy, musty, as opposed to pungent roots like ginger, floral high notes like lavender, or bitter, stinging goldenseal. Of course not all seeds are aromatic, and not all aromatics are seeds, but perhaps there happens to be a digestive quality to them. Hmmm… Milk thistle seeds support the liver and detoxification (important for digestion) and even hawthorn berries are used to help ease the effects of over-eating or eating too much fatty food. Seeds, nuts and beans are a good source of fiber, too. Yet another good reason to eat your herbs!
When I first saw Haas’ continuum of cleansing herb part-deeper acting one, I felt there were important exceptions. I have to remember that models are just that, models, not rules. That’s one thing I like about herbalism – the lack of rules!
Seedlings on Parade - May Day Parade 2009
I hope you are all enjoying the increasing daylight and the mild weather! This time of the year my mailbox overflows with gardening catalogs and I start to dream about all the plants I want to add to my garden. Late winter is the perfect time to plan a new plot, window box, landscaping or accents.
While you’re at it, why not make some of those new additions medicinal plants? Here are some places I like to get medicinal herbs:
- Horizon Herbs – a huge variety of medicinal, organic, at-risk seeds, root stock and plants. horizonherbs.com
- Jung Seed co. – a Wisconsin seed and plant company with a large variety of annuals, including at-risk woodland plants like black cohosh, wild ginger and bloodroot. jungseed.com
- United Plant Savers – check out this fabulous organization dedicated to preserving at-risk plants. Members receive bi-yearly deals on live rootstock or plants that are endangered, like American gingseng, lady slipper, blue cohosh, butterfly weed and more. United Plant Savers’ mission is to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come. unitedplantsavers.org
There are many greenhouses that carry medicinal herbs (not labeled as such!), ones to look for are Lady’s mantle, monarda or bee balm, mallow, echinacea, solomon seal, wormwood, violet, black cohosh, ballon flower, lung wort and of course the culinary herbs. Creeping thyme, catnip and lemon balm are my favorites for the garden.
Rich Soil is Out Real Wealth - May Day Parade 2009
All this talk about gardening makes me consider how gardening is important to herbalists and herbalism as a discipline. Many herbalists are gardeners or wildcrafters, who deeply understand the ways of wild and/or cultivated plants. Since herbalists cover a vast scope of practice, from Chinese medicine, naturopathy, folk herbalism, plant researchers, midwives, bioregionalists, permaculturists and so on, it is natural that herbalists engage with gardening and plants in different ways.
Some of the early Western religious figures, physicians, philosophers were quite often botanists and herbalists (as were multitudes of lay men and women). Often their connection to the earth and plants flavored their lives work. Hildegard von Bingen, the multidisciplinary German nun of the 1100’s, was an herbalist and healer who added a bit of ‘greenness’ to her spiritual, musical, and scholarly work. Wikipedia say of this; ”…‘greenness’ is an earthly expression of the heavenly in an integrity that overcomes dualisms. This ‘greenness’ or power of life appears frequently in Hildegard’s works.” Goethe called the upright gesture of plants the “spiritual staff”, which “might be seen as a vessel for holding and organizing cosmic energy and transmuting it into more earthy energy” (Jill Stansbury).
As modern herbalists, we can make our own individual connection to plants as simply as observing the wildlife in our yard, enjoying a bouquet of flowers, or as complexly as spending years cultivating expansive garden beds or studying botany. Many insight can be had from observing plants as they grow, and a bit of appreciation can go a long way.