Category: herbalism blog

“I experience the recognition of an archetype in a signature or the true nature of a plant or creature as a beautiful experience, which harkens my spirit back to paradise before the fall, before the human archetype decided that he was a god.” –Matthew Wood

 

One of the most intriguing things about herbal healing is its ability to operate beyond the physical. Plants are great for healing the body, and that alone is a wonderful gift from nature. Yet despite what our reductionist science tells us, herbal healing goes much deeper than the actions of phytochemicals upon bodily systems.

 

There is an element of the unseen in herbal medicine. Call it what you will: plant spirit healing, plant spirit medicine, plant spirit shamanism. I like to call it plant spirit magic, because that’s how it feels to me. Connecting and communicating with plants is definitely healing, but working with plants has other benefits as well. They show up in strange synchronicities to teach lessons; they deliver messages; they offer guidance and perspective. Reading the signs of nature is not only healing–it’s fun. It imbues a sense of magic into my life; it makes me feel like the world is speaking to me, and the sheer act of learning its language is causing me to evolve.

 

Traditional cultures have long viewed plants as teachers and guides. Shamans and mystics use plants for gathering information. Plants are used in divination; some can induce prophetic dreams; others stimulate visions or help one traverse alternate realms. But learning how to read the signs of nature doesn’t have to be as wild as all of that. It can simply be a matter of learning the medicinal uses for a plant from the plant itself. Some shamans have mastered the art of plant communication and can simply connect with a plant and discover how to use it for medicine. But for those of us who are still working on mastering clear communication with the plant world, nature does provide clues.

 

Dandelion

The Doctrine of Signatures

 

These clues are embodied by the doctrine of signatures, the concept that a plant resembles the condition or part of the body that it can heal. For example, flowers from the herb Eyebright look strikingly like human eyes, and the plant is a remedy for eye ailments like conjunctivitis. Horsetail, as its name implies, has the appearance of a thick horse’s tail, and is used to strengthen the hair. Signatures are also found through touch, smell, taste, odor, and even sound.

 

In the words of Matthew Wood in his book Vitalism (p. 20), “The idea is that the shape, color, appearance, environmental niche, taste, smell, etc., of a plant or medicinal agent will display the tell-tale signs, marks, or configurations indicating how that agent may be used in medicine.”

 

The doctrine of signatures is said to originate from the Middle Ages, when it was used by folk herbalists and wise women. Yet, it seems that no one really knows precisely when or where this concept originated; it may be that the tradition is quite ancient, and the Middle Ages was simply the time frame when it was first recorded. For example, Swiss physician Paracelsus is sometimes credited with creation of signatures, or signatum. Certainly, he was a proponent of them, writing, “Nature marks each growth… according to its curative benefit” (Doctrine of Signatures, n.d.). Wood (Vitalism, p. 20) provides a quote from Hartman, who paraphrases the concept from Paracelsus:

 

“The soul does not perceive the external or internal physical construction of herbs and roots, but intuitively perceives their powers and virtues, and recognizes at once their signatum…This signatum is often expressed even in the exterior forms of things, and by observing the form we may learn something in regard to their interior qualities, even without using our interior sight.”

 

In 1621, German Christian mystic Jacob Boehme published The Signature of All Things, a text which identifies and discusses the law of signatures as a universal, magical law. In this fascinating tome, Boehme (Chapter IX) casts such pearls of wisdom as:

 

“The whole outward visible world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual world; whatever is internally, and however its operation is, so likewise it has its character externally; like as the spirit of each creature sets forth and manifests the internal form of its birth by its body, so does the Eternal Being also.”

 

Or, as the Hermetic texts put it, “As without, so within.”

 

Thus, the doctrine of signatures is an ancient concept with roots in folk herbalism, mysticism, hermeticism, and esoteric teachings on the healing arts. It’s a fascinating and rather mystical approach to plant medicine that stands in stark contrast to modern, conventional medicine. Rather than recognizing spirits, archetypes, or signatures within plants, science reduces them to their component parts based on a strictly materialistic view of reality.

 

Although modern medicine rejects the doctrine of signatures, scientific research tends to validate it unintentionally. Modern science picks apart herbs and classifies them down to each chemical component present in the plant. As it turns out, Horsetail contains large amounts of silica, which is beneficial to the hair, as well as the skin, nails, and bones. In other words, it does help you grow your hair long and strong, like a beautiful horse’s tail. While scientists may inadvertently come to some of the same conclusions about plant medicine as mystics and folk healers do, their way seems a lot less fun.

Meditation IntuitionThe Case for Intuition

“Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.”

-Shakti Gawain

 

Perhaps modern medicine’s dismissal of the doctrine of signatures stems from a larger societal trend that also discards intuition. Not only does modern, Western society undervalue the primal intuitive force within each of us; it out-and-out rejects all but a tiny sliver of the broad spectrum of spirituality–namely, that which falls under the precepts of organized religion. What’s more, these religions often place little value upon one’s personal experience of the divine. In fact, sometimes they actually prevent people from seeking the divine for themselves, mandating instead that the sacred is only to be reached through a human middle-man. Of course, this is not always the case, and some religious people are also very spiritual, possessing a great deal of devotion and faith. But the Western world itself is not run by devotion and faith, not by a long shot.

 

Modern, Western society is quite secular indeed, driven first and foremost by what we can perceive while operating within a hectic, chronically-stressed-out, coffee-fueled, goal-driven state that we have come to think of as normal. Instead of cultivating faith in the unseen, we have placed our faith in the bottom line: money. Instead of producing citizens trained to cultivate inner balance, kindness, and humility, we school people to be selfish, egotistical, and materialistic and call it “successful.”

 

According to the prevailing winds of our culture, the practice of going within is not hip– unless it’s enacted by a beautiful woman in trendy clothing and then posted on social media. Cultivating intuition is not practical, unless it helps you win the lottery. Psychic ability is not a reality, because if people were truly psychic, wouldn’t they have already won the lottery? Miracles, if they ever really happened at all, must have only transpired in some far-removed, mythological past to which nobody can return.

 

And yet, we live in a time when many are beginning to question the long, strong hold of patriarchy that has gripped our religious, political, financial, and social systems for so long. Several spiritual teachers have said that the Divine Feminine is on the rise, despite what we may read in the papers. I see this myself; I see people waking up, protecting Mother Earth with their lives, valuing the women in their lives, and valuing the Feminine within themselves, regardless of gender.

 

I have often wondered what it might look like for society to start valuing the Feminine as much as it values the Masculine. And I don’t mean simply valuing women, though that would be nice, too. I mean the feminine energy that exists in both men and women. The side that values internal processes, dreams, visions, and feelings; the side that listens to an inner guidance system; the side that is receptive to messages from the invisible world.

 

I picture people showing up to work in the morning and sharing the previous night’s dreams around the coffee maker. I picture doctors saying, “Let’s look at the astrological influences of the next few weeks before we schedule your surgery.” I picture business meetings that include Tarot spreads; I picture politicians asking for guidance in Ayahuasca ceremonies; I picture farmers consulting the phase of the moon before planting and giving gratitude to the Earth before harvesting.

 

I believe that cultivating intuition is a valuable practice that benefits society as a whole. By reconnecting with the still, small voice within, we become more aligned with our highest potential. In a world so desperately in need of healing, our highest potential is what we must develop to create a better reality for all.

 

Owl

Reading the Signs of Nature

“Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor.” -Terence McKenna

 

Of course, intuition can be cultivated in a number of ways. Learning to read the signs of nature is only one, but it’s a powerful practice. Perhaps you already do this in one form or another. Many people, for example, interpret animal sightings as portends. If a bobcat crosses our path, we look up its meaning in a book and try to determine what message it might hold for us. Because this is such a popular concept, an entire language of animal totems has been developed by key authors like Ted Andrews and Jamie Sams. We collectively understand Hawk as the messenger and Coyote as the trickster.

 

Plants can also be read as nature’s portends and message-bearers, although there isn’t as much literature out there regarding their meanings. This is part of why I wrote The Herbal Healing Deck–not as a definitive encyclopedia of plant meanings, but as a way of developing the conversation about plant totems. As with animal totems, plants can have different meanings for different people at different times. Thus, I don’t expect people to view my book as a static, authoritative reference; rather, my hope is that working with the deck helps people tune in with plant spirits and signatures in order to develop their own intuitive senses about plant archetypes.

 

The messages offered by herbs are plentiful and can be expressed and understood in a number of ways. I once got a clear message from Mint plants overtaking my garden: “Be careful of what you start, as each project can take on a life of its own.” Anyone who has dealt with the ceaseless underground runners of this plant knows what I mean. (You can read the full story on Mint Magic here.) What we will focus on below is a very specific brand of messages offered by our green allies: specifically, reading the signs of nature as expressed in medicinal plants to determine what those plants can be used for–also known as the doctrine of signatures.

 

To my mind, the doctrine of signature is like an intricate system of winks and nods from Mother Nature herself. (In fact, the word signature is a mix between the words “sign” and “nature.”)  Gaia knows exactly how immersed in 3-D reality we are most of the time. She understands that we might need an occasional nudge in the direction of our intuition. From the beginning, Nature has wanted us to understand how to use her abundant medicines to stay healthy and happy in a dynamic and shifting world. So, she has left a trail of breadcrumbs–a map, a blueprint, a signature within the physical form of each of her medicines to help us mere mortals along our rocky paths through life.

Magical Forest Path

Reading the Signatures

“If we struggle with the uncertainties of imagination and intuition, after some time we may begin to feel that there is indeed a hidden logic with Mother Nature. Images, similars, signs, correspondences, and coincidences infer a different way to look at the world; they give rise to a different kind of knowledge.” -Matthew Wood

 

Matthew Wood, an American herbalist, author, and teacher is known for his attention to the doctrine of signatures and the archetypes of plants. As he points out, the more specifically you can match the archetype of a healing plant to a patient’s condition, the deeper the healing can be. Wood tends to use much lower doses of herbal medicines than most practitioners. His books were among the first I read while beginning my herbalism journey a decade ago, and for a long while I believed that a few drops of tincture was considered a normal dose. This was before I understood the true genius of Wood’s system: the more precise the remedy, the deeper the healing, and the less physical plant matter you need.

 

This aligns with the concept in shamanic herbalism that you don’t necessarily need a plant’s physical presence to invoke its healing effects. In the words of seminal plant spirit medicine teacher and author Eliot Cowan:

“There is only one active ingredient in plant medicines–friendship.”

Using intuition as a guide for discovering herbal remedies allows the herbalist to sustain a sense of magic and mysticism in his or her practice. It is both exciting and deeply fulfilling to get to know herbal allies, and it is a blessing and an honor for those who practice this work. While intuition plays a leading role in discerning signatum, many signatures have already been discovered and tested. This gives us a wonderful starting point and a reference for learning about individual plants and their uses.

 

However, it is also helpful to study the methods of perceiving signatures, in order to develop a vocabulary for this intuitive sense and learn how to discover signatures for ourselves. In The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Wood outlines several types of signatures to look for in herbs:

 

One has to do with the environment or habitat in which the plant grows. For example, many kidney remedies grow in wet areas. Returning to the example of Horsetail, this plant grows along streams and creeks, and it is also very good for the urinary tract. It has been used to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections. Nettle is another plant that likes to grow in wet areas, and it has an affinity for the waterways of the body, such as the blood and urinary tract. Meanwhile, plants that thrive in full sunshine often possess sunny qualities. Think of such cheerful, warm remedies like St. John’s Wort, which can ease seasonal affective disorder or wintertime blues, or Calendula, which can soothe dry and irritated skin caused by winter weather.

 

Also notable is the color of a plant, as different colors of berries, leaves, roots, and flowers can point to their work on different bodily systems. Herbs with a dark red color, like Sumac berries and Beet root, are associated with building the blood. Plants with white flowers, such as Boneset and Comfrey, are associated with healing broken bones. The color of a decoction or tincture made from an herb can also be a signature. For example, the blood-red color of a St. John’s Wort extracts has lead some herbalists to consider it a protective herb for women during their moon cycles, which can otherwise be an emotionally vulnerable time. Colors can also correspond to the chakras; for example, goldenseal’s bright yellow root is a signature for its action on the solar plexus, including the digestive organs.

 

Wood points out that a plant’s shape or physical form was one of the first associations made in modern records of the doctrine of signatures. If a plant looked like a human organ, it was thought to act on that organ. Walnuts, which look strikingly like a human brain, are in fact very good for brain health. They are high in DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid which has been shown to improve cognitive function and prevent age-related cognitive decline. Wood writes about using Black Walnut for treating scalp conditions, showing another affinity that this plant has for the head. Boneset has leaves conjoined at the stem, so it looks like the stem pokes through the center of a single leaf. This appearance of fused leaves points to its use as a means of helping to heal broken bones. St. John’s Wort has tiny perforations on the surface of its leaves that glow with light when held up to the sunshine. Likewise, St. John’s Wort can let the light into one’s heart and mind during times of seasonal affective disorder or depression.

 

An herb’s texture is another signature. Furry plants are sometimes used for organs that are covered with hair-like cilia, such as the lungs and intestines. Mullein is a plant whose broad leaves are covered with soft fur, and indeed, Mullein is a used to heal the lungs. Comfrey leaves have cells that resemble a microscopic view of human skin, complete with hairs, and the plant is one of the best skin healers. Meanwhile, thorny plants are often used as pain relievers, “not by sedating it but by striking at the root cause of it,” according to Ellen Evert Hopman (2016, “Overall Shape and Formations” section, para. 6). For example, Wild Lettuce is a prickly plant that is used to treat physical pain. This can also extend beyond physical pain and into emotional pain. For example, Hawthorn is a thorn-bearing tree that can heal emotional pain of the heart.

 

Scent is another element to consider within the doctrine of signatures. Think, for instance, of the smell of Eucalyptus, and your nose will recall an intense opening experience. Highly aromatic herbs contain large amounts of essential oils, which exit the body via the breath, helping to open the lungs and nasal passages. Another example is the stimulating and cooling aroma of Peppermint, which exactly mirrors its cooling and stimulating actions on the body.

 

Even the sound that plants make can be a signature. Wood cites the rattling sound of Black Cohosh seedpods as a signature of the plant’s use among Native Americans for snakebites. Wood calls this a “spirit signature,” the Native American idea that if a plant calls to mind a certain animal, or if it attracts a certain animal, then the plant possesses the medicine of this animal.

 

Thus, we have come full circle back to animal totems, which really aren’t so different from plant spirit totems. To my mind, one of the biggest differences is that plant totems are more subtle–they don’t jump out in front of your car or scratch at your door. Thus, we must keep our eyes open to the quiet urgings and messages of the plants. Yet, plants can occasionally speak to us in more dramatic terms: a Pine tree falls across your driveway, Mint takes over your garden, or you get a Poison Ivy rash. These may not be signatures, but they can certainly clue you in that a plant is trying to tell you something!

Bird of Paradise

Enjoying the Journey

 

Using the doctrine of signatures is a way to deepen your practice of herbal medicine. But more than that, it’s a way of communing with nature. Observing a plant and attempting to discern its uses based on signatures a valuable thing to study, even if you never plan to start your own clinical herbalism practice. It’s a way to start reading the signs of nature and allowing your intuitive self to open up to the messages of plants. Plants have many messages for us, if we only pause to listen.

 

Signatures can go beyond physical uses for plant medicines and into the realm of energetic uses, messages, and lessons. One example I gave above was Hawthorn’s thorns being a signature for its ability to relieve emotional pain. Another example is the yellow color of Daffodil blooms, which can be made into a flower essence for boosting the solar plexus, the yellow chakra. Daffodil helps with solar-plexus-related issues such as self-worth, confidence, and the recognition of one’s gifts and talents.

 

Don’t be afraid to open your mind and use your imagination when looking for signatures. I encourage people to open up to nature with a sense of childlike wonder and awe. Children often talk to animals and plants before society programs them into believing that such things are silly. It’s time to take back our innocence and start talking with the plants again! Even Matthew Wood admits that some of the signatures he perceives can be silly or even cartoonish at times–but they still work. Imagination is just another level of intuition. So, the next time you’re playing in the garden or hiking through the woods and find yourself drawn to particular plant, ask yourself: What does this plant remind me of?

 

Of course, it takes patience to work with plants–their signs, signatures, and spirits. In the same way it takes several years for a single American Ginseng root to develop into a mature, medicine-ripe specimen, the plants often share their teachings bit by bit, over the course of months or even years. Synchronicities will often line up to confirm something I’ve learned by intuition, and sometimes this process happens in slow-motion. Just when I think I have understood a plant’s message, it evolves into something new as more information comes to light. It’s a process, a journey that is well worth the effort, even if it never leads to an exact destination. Working with plant signatures is much like a hike through the forest. It’s such an enjoyable experience of exercise and expansion unto itself; does it even matter where you end up?

 

References

Boehme, J. (1621). Signatura rerum or The signature of all things. Retrieved from http://sacred-texts.com/eso/sat/index.htm

 

Cowan, E. (1995). Plant spirit medicine. Columbus, NC: Swan, Raven & Company.

 

Doctrine of signatures. (n.d.) Science museum website. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/doctrine

 

Hopman, E.E. (2016). The signature of plants: Learning nature’s alphabet. Retrieved from http://realitysandwich.com/319608/the-signatures-of-plants-learning-natures-alphabet/

 

Wood, M. (1992). Vitalism: The history of herbalism, homeopathy, and flower essences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

 

Wood, M. (1997). The book of herbal wisdom: Using plants as medicines. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Secrets of The Herbal Healing Deck is a blog series in which we will share some of the best stories of the deck’s creation. These include magical and mysterious experiences, synchronicities, and revelations about the plants that transpired as we (myself–Sarah Baldwin–and Ashley Verkamp, the deck’s illustrator) collaborated on the deck. We will also divulge some of the reasons behind the specific symbols and images that Ashley has included in the card illustrations. Below is an account of some of our experiences with Wormwood, which in The Herbal Healing Deck signifies Mystery.

Years ago, when I was in Oregon completing an herbalism internship, I became fast friends with another intern, Kristyn. Sometimes, she and I would escape intern life to explore the surrounding area. Toward the end of the summer, a few weeks before our internship came to a close, we happened to meet a shamanic hermit who began teaching us some interesting things.

 

The story of how we met this man (we’ll call him Pedro) is recounted in some detail in The Herbal Healing Deck’s guidebook, so I won’t spend too much time on it here. Suffice it to say that he had knowledge and abilities of an unusual sort. He was quite psychic and had a way of speaking that was simply enthralling. He was eccentric and mysterious, and he didn’t always explain himself fully, but we came to admire and respect him. We traveled to his little hideaway several times to hear of his wild stories and hard-earned wisdom. Pedro was a wanderer, and part of me, though I had responsibilities waiting for me back at home, wanted to join him on his travels and see what kinds of strange and amazing things would happen in his presence.

 

I’ve never had a guru. Not really. My spiritual teachers seem to come and go like seasons, or more accurately, like storms. They sweep in without warning, shake things up, and are gone again before I can make sense of what has happened. Even as I’m grateful for the sweet rain they have brought, even as I see my garden growing more lushly, I miss them. Sometimes, years later, they might visit in my dreams to give a message or impart encouragement. But often, I never see them again.

 

Wormwood Teachings

 

During our visits with Pedro, he shared many pearls of wisdom. One of these was his emphasis on meditation. For example, he encouraged us to visualize the merkaba, an ancient symbol of sacred geometry. The merkaba consists of two intersecting pyramids, and one form of meditation involves visualizing these pyramids spinning in opposite directions. I have since learned that this technique is used to reach higher dimensions.

Merkaba

Kristyn and I also spoke with Pedro of our herbal studies; he had a particular affinity for Wormwood. He spoke of the plant as a means of inducing telepathy and synchronicity, explaining it as a kind of lubricant for spiritual forces. It makes everything flow more smoothly and magically. It makes you feel inspired to talk about the very thing your companion was just thinking about. Or, you might be in the middle of saying the words, “I wish we had a drum,” just as your friend pulls a drum from her bag. It lends an air of magic to the atmosphere. As I write in The Herbal Healing Deck guidebook, “[Wormwood] seems to lubricate the mind and circumstances to favor synchronicity. It energizes the mystery of life itself.”

 

At the time, home-brewed absinthe was enjoying a kind of renaissance, at least in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, one of the main ingredients in absinthe is Wormwood. Pedro performed a ceremony for us with absinthe, using it as a kind of clearing agent and spritzing it over us as a blessing. This was my first encounter with such a ritual; I’ve since seen other shamans work with alcohol or perfume in a similar way–to cleanse, to clear, to protect, to drive away darkness. It was a powerful clearing, though at the time, I was fairly insensible of the honor being done me.

 

That evening, Pedro was hesitant to let us leave. I recall a long, somewhat awkward pause during which he would not speak, but he also wanted us to remain. Kristyn and I were tired, and we planned to see him again within a few days, so we sped off soon enough.

 

The farm where we were worked happened to grow a large quantity of Wormwood. As we interns discovered, spending a long day baking in the sunshine amidst a field of any singular herb can be quite an experience. While you may not think of a particular plant as being mind-altering, at the end of an eight-hour shift of working with that plant you might begin to feel otherwise. We would often perceive the plants acting upon us in strange ways–the entire group would feel giddy, or dizzy, or tired. Working in a field of Wormwood, a plant which has been used to alter consciousness, was pretty intense. The scent irritated my throat and made me cough. Meanwhile, it felt as though a few of the threads binding together my normal, alert consciousness were loosening slightly.

 

Before we visited Pedro again, I went to the Wormwood fields to gather a bundle. I bound and dried a smudge stick, which I intended to give to Pedro as a gift. (Here I must say “do not try this at home,” for Wormwood has compounds which can be harmful when inhaled. If you do use Wormwood as a smudge, be sure to burn it outdoors and do not breathe it in. In fact, always take care when working with Wormwood. Some herbalists discourage internal use at all. That being said, Kristyn and I have both used Wormwood internally with no ill effects (well, besides the intensely bitter taste). She travels a lot and brings Wormwood along as an ally for treating traveler’s indigestion and nausea. Nevertheless, do your research before working with Wormwood and make informed choices.)

 

The Storm Passes

When Kristyn and I again pulled up to Pedro’s hermitage, there was a strange, empty feeling. His vehicle wasn’t there. Neither were his belongings. He was gone. In my youthful folly and denial, I voiced the opinion that surely he would be back soon. Kristyn knew better. When we recounted our last visit, we realized that he had been dropping hints that he was about the leave the area for good and that we might never see him again–even as we made plans to meet up. In this light, his strange hesitancy to let us leave the last time we’d seen him made more sense.

 

It was a bitter truth–just as Wormwood is a bitter medicine. I recall the two of us wandering around rural Oregon, unsure of what to do with ourselves. We ended up stopping at a cemetery to regroup. This grave scene now seems appropriate, for the grief I felt at suddenly losing this teacher still touches me to this day. We didn’t get any contact information; we didn’t know where he was headed. His teachings had taken us by storm, and the storm had passed.

 

After Pedro left, I spent some evenings in solitude at the Wormwood fields, watching the sun slide beneath the horizon and meditating on the mystery. The long rows of these tall plants, with their wispy, sweeping arms seemed to epitomize the mystery of life itself.

 

Kristyn and I finished out the summer in Oregon, which was a bittersweet experience. An intense longing for home–for the familiar, for the arms of my lover, for my parents, for my friends–was mingled with a deep longing to live this way forever–in the presence of plants and plant lovers, in a kind of magical Neverland where we would never have to grow up or face the rest of the world, but rather, would be able to wander in childlike wonder at the magic of life for eternity. On our last day, Kristyn and I sat in a hidden part of the farm and listened to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” as we wept for the beautiful summer that was coming to a close. I’m grateful to say that we are still close friends to this day.

 

A few years later, I ceremonially burned the Wormwood smudge that I had not been able to give to Pedro. From time to time, he wanders into my dreams to deliver a strange message or perform a mysterious act. I now see his brief cameo in my life as an initiation into the unknown. His teachings marked the beginning of many years of exploration in shamanism, plant spirits, meditation, and other spiritual practices. I feel blessed to have known him.

 

The Mystery Continues

 

While developing The Herbal Healing Deck, I would complete the written entry for each plant and give it to Ashley, along with some of the plant’s physical medicine for her to sample. Ashley would enter into a shamanic journey to visit each and every plant spirit and receive a vision which would form the basis of her illustration. She would complete this process and then send me her illustration, as well as a written journal entry of her journey experience.

 

When I first opened the Wormwood illustration, I nearly fell out of my chair. In the center of a very mystical and stately plant spirit, there was the merkaba. Unmistakable. I had not told Ashley about Pedro’s merkaba meditations, or even about his Wormwood teachings.

Fields of Wormwood

By this point in our collaboration, I was used to Ashley being able to pick up on various details of a plant spirit that I had never communicated to her. It was part of the magic of our creative process, which felt very guided from the beginning. Sometimes, she would be shown herbal information that I didn’t know myself. But these had typically been things that could be confirmed through research–in other words, they were associations with the plants that were more widely known. For example, in her Oak journey she picked up on the tree’s use in medicine wheel gardens, which neither of us knew about before her journey. Upon doing some research, we discovered that, sure enough, Oak is sometimes used in this way.

 

Never before had Ashley picked up on one of my personal associations with a plant spirit. How could she have known that the spiritual teacher who taught me about Wormwood was the same person who introduced me to the merkaba? She didn’t. I was left to stare off into space, slack-jawed, and wonder how this could possibly be. It was downright astonishing to have her pick up on a plant association that was personal to me, and that I had never shared with another person. In other words, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about Wormwood’s connection with the merkaba. I’m not even sure there is a tangible connection–except that there is now! Now, when people draw the Wormwood card, they will be greeted with a lovely, luminous merkaba. The plant and the symbol now live together, at least in the realms of The Herbal Healing Deck.

 

I am left to ponder the meaning of this strange synchronicity. I can accept that Ashley’s shamanic journeys were potent and authentic enough to allow her to tap into plant wisdom without ever opening a book. But what does it mean that the spirit of Wormwood showed her a merkaba symbol? Was it a message for me, specifically? Was it a message for the both of us? Is it a message for everyone who works with the deck?

 

Or, on another level–do we as humans have the power to not only pick up on, but also to create associations with the spirit world? Could Pedro, with all of his shamanic prowess, have had something to do with this? Or, does the association between Wormwood and the merkaba go deeper? Is this an ancient connection that I happened upon accidentally and mistook for my own association between the two?

 

As with any good mystery, I am left with more questions than answers. It seems only appropriate that this ineffable experience would happen with Wormwood, whose key word in the deck is Mystery.

 

What I do know is that when I draw Wormwood from The Herbal Healing Deck, some kind of magic is afoot in my life–whether I can see it or not. Sometimes, I think I know what it’s about–although, given the above story, can we ever really know the meaning of magic?

 

When you are lucky enough to draw the Wormwood card, my advice is to be as open as you can be to the strangeness of life. Trust in the unknown; embrace it like a friend. But don’t try to hold on too tightly, for magic cannot be bottled or captured. It can only be enjoyed and then released. All things must pass.

 

I will leave you with a photo of the very Wormwood field where I used to spend time during that fateful summer. The beautiful words come from the Wormwood plant spirit itself, as told to Ashley during her shamanic journey. Not only are they poetic, but they also encapsulate the ethereal, mysterious essence of Wormwood:

 

 

 

 

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Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”    -Rumi

Hawthorn is one of the 12 trees featured in The Herbal Healing Deck, and it’s a plant that holds special meaning for me. In fact, Hawthorn changed my life, opening my heart not only to deep healing within the context of relationships and community, but also to plant spirit healing. Here, I will introduce this wonderful plant’s medicine and share my personal story with Hawthorn.

 

The Physical Medicine

 

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a type of small tree or bush that produces red berries. These tasty and edible berries, along with the flowers and leaves of the tree, are a medicinal heart tonic. Hawthorn’s medicine is gentle, so the tea or tincture can be taken as a long-term heart and circulatory tonic. As a nutritive herb, it restores damaged tissue of the heart. Hawthorn also strengthens the heart beat and regulates blood pressure. Good for connective tissue, Hawthorn can be used as support for joints, veins, tendons, and ligaments. It also helps with circulation, improving blood flow to the extremities.

 

The Heart of the Matter

 

While this plant provides great benefit to the body, Hawthorn’s ties to the heart go far beyond the physical realm. The plant spirit of Hawthorn is one of the most beneficial for healing and opening the energetic heart. This is a very important medicine, as Western culture suffers greatly from physical heart disease and emotional heart blockage alike.

 

The heart chakra is the very center of our being, the middle ground between the earthly, lower chakras and the heavenly, upper chakras. The heart is what allows us to rise above mere survival, pleasure, and will-power and to feel true love for others and for life itself. Our hearts connect us to our families, partners, and friends, as well as to the world at large. The heart is now being recognized as a primary organ of perception, with an electromagnetic field many times larger than the brain’s. Our hearts process our emotions and allow us to feel the greatest feeling of all—love. Getting the heart pumping with feelings of gratitude and joy also boosts our ability to manifest our desires. Clearly, caring for our hearts, both physically and metaphysically, is of immeasurable value to our lives.

 

An Introduction to Plant Spirit Healing

 

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Sarah Tree-Hugging a Redwood

Hawthorn certainly holds a special place in my heart–this was the first plant spirit I consciously connected with. It was in the summer of 2010, during my internship with Herb Pharm, where I’d gone to learn the nuts and bolts of herbalism. I got a lot more than I bargained for when plant spirit healing was introduced in a weekend-long seminar. Up until that point, I had always felt that plants had a magic about them, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that they also possessed a spirit or consciousness. That weekend, everything changed.

 

I have to admit that Hawthorn reached out to me even before this experience. I’d been working as a buyer in a  health food store, and it was my job to order the bulk herbs. There were some old Hawthorn berries that nobody had touched for a long time. We discontinued the product, so I took the rest of them home. There they stayed in my cabinet, untouched for many months. I told myself, “I don’t have heart problems, so I don’t need this medicine. I just don’t have the time to mess with it right now.”

 

To introduce us to the Hawthorn spirit, our teacher had the class of about 15 people sit in a circle around a small Hawthorn tree. She explained that Hawthorn was a fairly accessible plant spirit, and I got the impression that she would be working her shamanic mojo to help open us to the experience. She passed around two bottles of tincture, which were used as a drop dose to connect with the energy of the plant.

 

This is great exercise, by the way–sit quietly in a relaxed state and place a single drop of tincture of any medicinal plant on your tongue. Get quiet to absorb the taste as well as any feelings or images that come to you. I’ve seen this done as a kind of blind test in many classes, and it’s amazing what people can tap into. Even those with zero experience in herbal medicine can often pick up on the essence and purpose of a plant without even knowing its name. I think it’s partly intuition, partly the plant spirit communicating with us, and partly the age-old DNA connection that humans have with medicinal plants which has aided our survival for millennia.

 

Back to our story–when I first tasted the tincture, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. The taste of the berries alone was reminiscent of cough medicine I’d had as a child–sweet and comforting. On another level, Hawthorn was a bittersweet medicine that made me feel my heart very deeply, including its wounds.

 

I began to spontaneously recall instances from my childhood that were painful in some way: the time my brother tricked me by saying we could play hide and seek, only to leave me hiding by myself outside for a long time while he went back inside; the times when I had nobody to play with at school recess and sat by myself on the jungle gym; the time I skinned my knee and cried in the bathroom until my brother came in to say, “Everyone knows you’re just doing this for attention.”

 

Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face. I felt embarrassed to be crying in front of my classmates, but the memories and associated feelings were so powerful that I simply had to surrender to them or get up and leave. Up until that point, I’d rarely (if ever) wept in front of a group. This too was a tendency held over from childhood–people in my family rarely express their feelings openly. Yet there I was, bawling like a child in front of everyone. I was uncomfortable and vulnerable, but determined not to miss out on the experience.

 

When the teacher ended our session, we all took turns sharing our experiences. I could hardly even speak. Afterwards, everyone went back inside to get ready for bed. I only went in for a moment to gather supplies before heading out to my tent for the night. I asked around to see what had happened to the Hawthorn tinctures, because I wanted another dose before bed. To my surprise, nobody knew where they had gone. When I returned to the Hawthorn tree, I discovered that both of the bottles had been left on the ground. And this wasn’t done by a single person, either, as they lay in different areas of the circle.

 

This seemed, to me, like a clear metaphor for how easy it is to forget about the heart. It was then that I recalled my own Hawthorn berries sitting in my cupboard, unused. Having just had a powerful experience with the plant, I now understood how much value I had completely overlooked. Those berries had been a gift from the Universe that I had ignored. Hawthorn wasn’t just about keeping the physical heart healthy. It wasn’t something that only people with heart disease needed–it was something that everyone needed.
Feeling rather humbled, I took a larger dose of the medicine and headed for my tent. As I lay in my sleeping bag, the memories continued. I relived more moments from my childhood, which eventually gave way to more recent painful memories of lost or broken relationships. It was a huge catharsis, like a tidal wave of pent-up emotion finally having an outlet for release.

 

More importantly, Hawthorn began to show me patterns. I could see how the times when I felt a lack of love as a child had translated into patterns of grasping and insecurity as an adult. Even more painful, I was shown how some of my actions–based on pain, fear, and lack–had in turn caused pain for others. It was a cycle in my life, repeating itself over and over again through my various relationships. I got very little sleep that night, but I received a teaching that would last for a lifetime.

 

Flowers and Thorns

 

This experience had lasting effects on my life. Within six months of returning home from the internship, I ended an unhealthy partnership. After gaining some distance from that situation, I was able to see how the four major romances of my life had all mirrored the dynamics of my relationships with the four people in my immediate family. It was kind of eerie, really, with patterns and similarities so striking that I couldn’t believe I had been blind to them all these years.

 

Plus, I am now more open about shedding tears in front of others, even in public, when something moves me. Though I still sometimes feel embarrassed depending on the circumstances, it’s become a lot easier for me to open up to people and groups in general. It’s as if all along, I’d unconsciously feared that having an open heart would make me weak. But on the contrary, it’s made me stronger.

 

The Hawthorn tree is a member of the Rose family, and both of these plants reflect the connection between joy and sorrow. Roses are a classic symbol of love and the ever-opening heart. And yet their stems contain wicked thorns, so that if you hold on too tightly to the experience of love, you will draw blood. Our earthly existence is temporary, and so we know that everyone and everything we love will eventually pass. Often, what we love most in life breaks our hearts the most as well.

 

Hawthorn also has thorns covering its trunk and branches. I see these thorns acting as acupuncture needles which, when stuck in the right places, can release long-held pain. Hawthorn finds your heart’s tender spots, even the places you’ve forgotten about. When she sticks her needles in, the pain intensifies. But when it’s over, you feel much lighter, healthier, and perhaps a bit wiser.

 

Grandmother Hawthorn

 

I see the spirit of Hawthorn as a grandmotherly figure who delivers just the right dose of medicine at the right time. Her lessons can be stern, but they are always fair, and she never gives you more than you handle. She won’t spoil you, but is able to show you the kind of tough love necessary for the healthy growth of strong children. Grandmother Hawthorn can open your eyes to issues you’ve been hiding from yourself, and unconscious patterns of action and reaction that wreak havoc on your relationships.

 

This is why I say that everyone needs this medicine. Even those like myself who were blessed with great parents and a healthy upbringing can still point to painful childhood memories. Nobody is perfect, and so nobody makes a perfect parent or sibling. And yet, injuries of a familial origin are often what linger within us into adulthood. As psychologists know, our primordial relationships with immediate family members form the basis of our tendencies as adults. With the lens of truth offered by Hawthorn, you are more able to protect yourself and your loved ones from unnecessary sorrow.

 

From the Heart

 

If we truly acted from our hearts, imagine how the world might be different. Would people still spray chemicals on their food, eat meat that came from suffering animals, dump trash into the ocean, or go to war?

 

And yet, it is very easy to forget all about the heart. In fact, I believe that our culture teaches us to shut down our heart centers. Rather than being taught to feel and process our emotions, we’re expected to hide and neglect them in order to succeed in our jobs and our lives. Even in the realm of romance, people tend to jump from one relationship to another without allowing themselves the time to grieve, much less change the pattern that manifested a non-functional relationship to begin with. I’ve done this myself, only to find that while I had changed the name and face of the person whom I was with, the patterns stayed much the same (and actually worsened).

 

Until we face our fear of vulnerability that comes along with opening our hearts, this won’t change–not on the personal level, and not on the global level. I know it’s scary, but I promise you that it will be okay. While I sat tearful under the Hawthorn tree, nobody laughed at me or shunned me. In fact, the more I open up, the more surprised I am at just how kind people can be.

 

Working with the Hawthorn spirit can dislodge emotional blockages in order for you to start pumping love more freely through your veins. Under her care, you are able to handle all of life’s bittersweet ebbs and flows, its joys and sorrows. If you open yourself to the wisdom of Grandmother Hawthorn, you will receive a mighty reward—nothing less than a greater depth of feeling and a higher capacity to love.

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People often ask how and why I chose to include certain plants in the deck, while leaving others out. Sometimes, folks even get upset that their favorite plant isn’t represented. “How could you not include Echinacea?” they ask, a twinge of outrage in their voice.

 

Here’s the thing: I didn’t chose the plants. Not really. They are the ones who chose to be included in the deck.

 

Believe me, there were times when I struggled because some of my own favorite plants were not forthcoming with messages to share. Certainly, I have a strong relationship with many of the plants represented in the cards, but some of them surprised me with their insistence to be included.

 

For me, maintaining authenticity and integrity was of the highest importance for this project. During its creation, I had a strong sense that I was merely a vehicle for the plants to have their voices heard on a broader scale. I had a deep knowing that if I tried to control or manipulate the process to better fit what my mind thought it should be, the creative spark would evaporate, and the plants would stop speaking to me altogether.

 

Plants are like people, in some ways. They have distinct personalities, and they don’t always get along with everyone. One person’s medicine can be another’s poison. I acknowledge that my own experience and background, as well as my physical location, influenced the creation of The Herbal Healing Deck. How could it be otherwise?

 

And yet, I maintain the view that for this particular deck, these are the plants who wanted to be included. These are the ones who spoke to me, who allowed me to get to know them. They weren’t always the most popular plants, or those most commonly used in medicine. While including popular plants like Echinacea and Lavender might have boosted sales of the deck, they did not, for whatever reason, seem to wish to be included at this time. While their choices baffled me at times, I felt the need to surrender to the process and listen to the messages I received. There was enough synchronicity surrounding the creation process that it felt guided to completion. In the end, I trust in what we have created.

 

Another question I’m sometimes asked is what the message of a plant not included in the deck might be. For example, “What would be the meaning of Feverfew?” Occasionally, I happen to have an intuitive hit on the plant in question. Other times, I have to admit that I don’t know the plant intimately enough to answer on the spot.

 

I don’t claim to know everything about herbalism. How could I? From the moment I began my herbal studies, one thing has struck me: it would take lifetimes to study every medicinal plant on the planet. Even to get to know the plants in one’s local habitat–their names, identification, growing habits, cultivation methods, and medicinal applications–could easily take a lifetime or two. It takes even more time to cultivate deeper relationships with the plants. I’ve found that I can meditate with the same plant spirit over and over, and each time the plant will reveal something different to me.

 

Over the years, I’ve had to ask myself a question. What is more important: getting to know a few plants like close friends, or collecting an encyclopedic bank of herbal knowledge? I think you can guess which path I’ve chosen. I’ve always been someone who values having a few close friendships over an army of acquaintances. The same has held true for my relationships with plants.

 

That being said, I’m always open to the possibility of connecting with other plants in the future. There may even be creative projects that feature some of the herbs not included in this deck. Which plants would you like to see represented?

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