This blog post is part of the UK Herbarium June Blog Party hosted by Ali English on Eldrum Musings. You can find a list of other party entries on her blog. The theme is personal herbalism – what makes your herbalism personal to you and what is it that you do that makes your herbalism uniquely yours?
As with life itself, everyone’s herbal journey and identity is unique. We all start from a different place, learn similar things in a different way or learn different things in a similar way. It is a continuing journey which does not end. What we do affects others and this influence and legacy provides a never ending and evolving story.
What you read below is part of my personal journey.
When I first wondered about herbs back in 1995, it was purely from a research perspective. The character I was writing about would only have herbs to heal her wounded warriors. I needed to know what she would have found and grown around her.
I joined the Herb Society as the organisation’s title seemed to imply I would find what I was looking for. It didn’t. Maybe I wasn’t asking the right questions, but no-one else seemed interested in the medicinal uses. Such knowledge was for qualified herbalists who went to university or undertook distance learning. They talked to each other using Latin names and terms I only half understood. I can nod and smile with the best of them, but I felt a fraud. It reminded me of my day job where I translated between doctors and patients when things went wrong.
I started reading books and growing herbs at home. I understood a little more, but it was still very much looking at one herb for a particular condition. I read about making oils and tinctures and vinegars, but felt this wasn’t something I could do at home. I mean, you don’t make medicines in your kitchen, do you? It has to be clean and sterile and titrated down to the nearest drop.
It was Judith Bergner in her book, Herbal Rituals (a Christmas present from my co-writer in Oregon) who gave me the confidence to make tinctures and vinegars. I had a jam jar with a screw top lid and a chopstick in my kitchen drawer but, more importantly, I understood her instructions and when I carried them out, it worked. I knew what they looked like, smelled like and had an inkling of the taste.
I did try making herbal oils following David Hoffman’s pictures. I bought a double saucepan specially. Oils were fun. They were mostly green, but sometimes their colours and frangrances amazed me. Calendula gave me an essence of sunshine, friends who offered massage raved about angelica’s aroma and subtle healing skills and St John’s wort took my breath away. How could a yellow flower deliver a stunning crimson oil from immersion in sunflower oil on my kitchen windowsill?
My confidence was cemented by escaping to the Chelsea Physic Garden one Saturday on the train. Travelling to an unfamiliar part of London, I sat for three hours listening spellbound to the stories of Christopher Hedley as he made double infused rosemary oil as he talked about his past, his patients and his healing.
By this time I had more land on which to grow herbs thanks to my father. I spent long hours going through Poyntzfield Herb Nursery’s catalogue deciding what to buy and how much I could spend. This was only a hobby and Chris was constantly telling me we didn’t have much spare cash. With three children and school fees to pay, there wasn’t much left over to fritter away.
I’d joined Henriette Kress’ email discussion list and was soon able to discern who knew what they were talking about and who knew less than I did. After several years of watching plant life cycles I knew what they looked like, where they liked to grow, which parts I needed and how long I had to wait until I could harvest.
Life sent me lessons; simple ones to begin with. Slowly I began to build up herbal stories of my own rather than relying on the stories others told. The most difficult lesson I learned was that everyone has their own journey. Even when I believed herbs could help and support them through difficult times, it was their decision whether or not to use them. It was not up to me.
I took the decision very early on not to train as a medical herbalist. It was too expensive both in time and money and I could not afford either. After much thought I realised I did not want to be totally responsible for a stranger’s care; friends and family yes, but others no. There was too much hassle involved with exams, insurance, setting up a practice and trying to make a living in a hostile world.
What I did want to do was share my passion for herbs. I wanted people to recognise the hedgerow and field plants growing all around them; to know what they could help with and how to prepare them safely. I wanted to encourage them to make their own remedies, to experiment and enjoy what they were playing with.
I came across other herbalists in distant countries who shared their knowledge freely and inspired me. Their passion re-ignited my own.
It was the plants themselves who shared the most complex knowledge. They taught me to be still, watch, smell and listen. They helped me to interpret concepts explained by others so in turn I could share this information with those around me. I learned to stop trying and to relax.
I began to have faith in the parcel of land gifted me by my parents. I called it Springfield Sanctuary after the three springs which flow there. The initial workshops I offered were prepared and structured around a single topic, but I was less successful in keeping to the subject at hand when it came to the actual day.
It was pointed out to me by a friend that rigid structures were unnecessary. Visitors had their own agendas. If we could communicate and meet individual needs, this would constitute success. I learned to believe not in numbers attending, but that the people who needed to be there would arrive.
We always walk around the herb beds identifying a proportion of the herbs. I try not to do too many because there is only so long anyone can stand and listen, especially if there is a cold wind blowing. We always make something depending on what herb is available in suitable quantities in the correct season. I encourage people to do it themselves. Newcomers collect easily identifiable herbs and make a tea, others might be sent to harvest blossom, while someone with limited mobility or energy might be invited to sieve nettle seed or transfer dried herbs into suitable containers.
What I have noticed is how people change during their herbal day with me. They may arrive bowed down with cares and worries but within a short time I watch them chat and smile and hug. They may ask questions for themselves, family members or friends and together we think about which plants might offer suitable support for different situations.
It is relatively easy to think of plantain if you have a splinter, but more challenging when a complex emotional situation has arisen. The energetic side of herbs was something which terrified me when I first started my journey. It seemed so complex and ethereal and I had no wish to complicate my studies when there was so much else to consider and absorb.
Several years later, thanks to Non Shaw’s lovely book on Flower Remedies and my spiritual development as an energy healer, it seemed simple both to make my own and to sit with a plant and see what it might tell me. Recognising my initial reluctance helps me to understand when others find it difficult to walk along this path. Everyone sees things differently and has different skills and strengths which make them unique.
If I look back over the past seventeen years, I can see how herbs have become an integral part of my life. I think about them, touch them or use them every single day and I cannot imagine being without them. I know I share this passion with many people across the globe but I also realise others in my community and country have no interest or knowledge. They do not believe they have any part to play in their own health, nor any inkling of how much they could do to help themselves using the plants around them.
I want to offer them the opportunity to change.
You could say I am a herbal evangelist and I have been guilty of evangelising in my early years. I have been known to lecture complete strangers on the benefits of nettles without their consent but I hope I am learning a different way to pass on such knowledge. I aim to be a herbal facilitator, to ease the relationship between humans and plants so individuals can take back the knowledge which was so familiar to our ancestors and grow in confidence of their own herbal skills.
When I was very young I wanted to be a doctor, specifically to take away the dreadful pain my parents suffered from various conditions. That was not to be but I’ve been shown there are other ways to relieve pain. I am a healer and my relationship with herbs as a kitchen herbwife is what makes my herbalism unique.