“Make sure and add some basilico!” Was a common phrase in the kitchen on Sunday at my grandparent’s house when I was growing up. Basilico is the Italian word for Basil. Whenever someone came to visit in the summer they would ask, “How’s your garden this year?” This meant, “Give me a garden tour so I can make sure you’ve planted your tomatoes and to see if they look as good as mine.”
After a thorough tomato inspection the next question was, “Where is your basilico?!” My Italian family members always wanted to see the garden, and the elders, specifically my grandfather and great-uncles, were always adamant about seeing the garden and inspecting the contents. Everyone grew some traditional Italian food even if it was just a couple of tomato plants growing in pots on the front porch. Even when my grandparents moved to the Adirondack Mountains, where the soil is sand and rock, they turned and toiled the land next to their little cabin enriching the soil and installing deer fences so they could plant basil and tomatoes.
Growing tomatoes, basil, and parsley was part of honoring and respecting my family and our Italian heritage.
The character, actions, and qualities of plants are not merely causal but are also relational. and learning about a plant with only the intention of knowing what it’s “used for” or what it’s clinical applications are allows us just to know one or two sides or angles of it’s full spectrum of being.
Plants, like people and other sentient life forms, embody qualities that are reflexive and variable depending on both internal and external inter- and intra- actions. Reductionist science, patriarchy, and hyper-darwinianism have conditioned us to focus on “cause and effect” or “when this happens this is the result” instead of the relational effect. The relational effect occurs when two or more actions, qualities or events happen together.
This often creates synergy which occurs within the plant and between its individual characteristics as well as between the plant and the person that is engaging it and the external environmental conditions that it inhabits.
Harvesting wild plants, otherwise known as wildcrafting, is one of my greatest passions and a primary aspect of my herbal practice. My relationship and instinctual exchange with plants is continuously informed and attuned by my seasonal seek and search for thriving, healthy, wild plant communities to gather from. One thing that I discovered right away about wildcrafting, is that wild plants are truly just that, wild. They grow where they will and are self-possessed so aren’t particularly concerned with what herbal preparations I might be in need of making at the moment.
Once upon a time these awakenings were well marked by magic and ritual as our clans and communities knew that if place and time were to be an instrument for conscious creation, it must be held by the storied, dreaming, dance and play of those that waited and watched as new life teemed upon the surface.
At our most recent Utica Herbal Study Group we discussed the ways in which herbal medicine can be low-cost and accessible. One of the primary offerings of plant-based remedies is that they provide supreme healing to common folks regardless of socio-economic status. Plants grow wild everywhere, even in cities, and many herbs are also considered foods and can be bought right in the grocery store. Many grocery store herbs are inexpensive and can even be purchased with food stamps.
Another, often overlooked, source of herbal medicine happens right in most of our spice cupboards. Cooking herbs and spices can usually be found bottle up and forgotten in our corner shelves and wall racks. There is hardly a household or, at very least, a neighbor or family members household where one can't find a few basic herbal jars of magic already waiting for us in the kitchen. Cooking with herbs is one of humanities oldest traditional methods of supporting health and immunity. These remedies can be added to soups and stews or simply made into teas, compresses, rinses.
his is a recent post made by my student and friend Lydia. She attended a "root birthing" with me this autumn and received an experience that I could never have found the words to teach to her. In all of the great wisdom I've gained from my human teachers and all that I've attempted to share, there is never any more adequate way to transmit the essence that occurs between human, plant, and the act of gathering. It must be felt to be learned and really it's what we're doing it for. Sure, the medicinal properties of Burdock Root are important and the "how-to" of digging and preparing and admistering it are much needed information, but, from my view, that is the lure.
There are two times of year that are considered optimal for digging medicine roots, Spring and Autumn. The reason for this is both because it is a folk way that was practiced as an aspect of seasonal living by Earth-based cultures and as part of our understanding of plant phsyiology. Biennial and perennial plants use their roots to store nutrients throughout the Winter. In the Spring the roots retain these rich, essentials until the plant is signaled by the sun and temperature shift that it's time to send it's vital energy upward toward the emergence of sprouts and buds. After the plant has flowered and produced seeds, the lowering of the sun and the first frosts signal it to send it's life force back into the roots. If the plant is biennial (has a two year life-cycle) we can gather the root any time during the Spring or Fall of the first year and the Spring of the second year. For perennials roots are gathered during the Spring or Fall, and, with perennial roots, many plants have certain years that are considered optimal for root harvesting. Such, as with Echinacea, it is generally considered best to harvest it after it's at least 3 years old and after about 7 years old, I have found, the roots become more fiberous and woody so are not optimal.
Fall is truly upon us now and this is one of the times of the year that ticks seem to be most prevalent in the Northeast/Adirondack foothills. Spring is the other season when they're highly active. During the summer when we may popularly think of ticks being about, they are less of a problem because they don't thrive in hot or dry conditions. Ticks thrive in cold, damp conditions and although they can be present during both winter and summer, they are far more active at spring and fall.
For me this means that I become more vigilant and discerning when I’m out walking, hiking, or wildcrafting. Ticks are found most abundantly in tall grass, brush-like areas such as where you would find goldenrod growing, and in leaf litter on the forest floor. Any place where you may be standing or walking where the vegetation is high enough that it touches your ankles or legs and part of your clothing or person, including hair, is a place where there could potentially be ticks. I know, it’s crazy!
Working with plants, their healing potential, and their influence on human health has opened me to a relationship with nature, place, and herbs that goes far beyond the simple and effective uses of plants as medicines. Plant medicine and herbalism as a tradition belongs to more than just our contemporary impulse to identify, name, label, and cure with “this herb for that”, although this is often the initial spell that so cleverly draws us into the long, lost woods where our ancestors once foraged for talking roots carrying handwoven baskets into places with mythic names and hollow trees that open to the Underworld.
The plants dazzle and enchant us
Even with hardened, colonial hearts we are inspelled.
This all started for me that day when I was four years old and hiking in the Adirondack mountains with my grandfather. He took me along on his daily rounds up the mountain trails above his the cabin where he and my grandma lived, and where he was always tracking the daily activities of the white-tailed deer and collecting his favorite edible mushrooms. We were walking along as usual and I looked off the trail to the slanted rock faces, the smoothed over glacial crevices, the carved ancient grade with brief landings where trees gripped the edges and lifted their branches upwards toward the next turn of rock face toward the zenith.