The Way of Herbs revisited…
Dr. Michael Tierra L.AC., O.M.D.
Herbal medicine is a humble art. I like to think that herbs are in our path as a symbol of the abiding love of the Great Spirit for all creatures. All the long hours and years we study enable us as priest or priestess of nature to administer these sacraments of loving compassion to others. Most of us who feel the attraction to the green have developed a profound appreciation for the wondrous essence of creative diversity of the plant kingdom and nowhere is this more evident than in the diversity of flowers which surround and grace our lives. Everyone gives or receives a bouquet in a spirit of joyous devotion, thanksgiving, forgiveness all of is healing of the spirit. For most, the presence of flowers such as roses, peonies, chrysanthemums, lilies, irises and calendulas for instance represents an aesthetic uplifting of spirit. Just as a casual walk along a wayside path to one who has no knowledge of the healing properties of weeds means nothing in terms of the recognition of their healing virtues to either the ground upon which they spring nor for any ill that may befall the traveler, so also a bouquet of flowers may simply remain as an object of pure aesthetic delight to the beholder.
Imagine instead of simply placing such a bouquet in a vase of water until its treasure wilts a dies, we envision another purpose such as using organic red rose petals as a tea with honey for someone experiencing sadness or depression, violet flower and honey tea for one who feels tense and irritated or has a cough or sore throat, calendula flower tea for a woman experiencing premenstrual discomfort or a tea of fresh or dried marigold flowers to treat symptoms of a colds, coughs or diarrhea, branches of flower decked honeysuckle vines taken as a tea for influenza, arthritis or rheumatic complaints. Could this be yet another of the profound gifts to ease our sometimes troubled path from the Great Spirit’s natural bounty? Throughout Central and South America native people have an ancient healing custom that imparts a whole new dimension to the meaning of a bouquet of flowers. Imagine, if you will, picking or even purchasing a special bouquet of flowers whose assortment represents not only aesthetic beauty but a variety of physical healing benefits as well. Instead of presenting these to your loved one merely to be exhibited in a vase of water, offer them as a personally administered flower bath given with special words of praise, blessing and prayers.
Because our skin is not simply a boundary, but acts truly as a filter of outside influences both physical and subtle, the healing properties of plants are selectively absorbed through the skin membrane to impart their magic to our very core. Some of my most successful treatments have been in the form of herbal foot, hand or whole body baths for such conditions ranging from colds, flus, fevers, skin diseases, inflammations, arthritic complaints, traumas, cramps and spasms to emotional and neurological imbalances such as depression and insomnia. There is no question, therefore, of the healing potential of such a Flower Bath especially when personally administered with affirmative devotion and love.
I experienced my first Flower Bath given by a local medicine woman in a the depths of Peruvian Amazon jungle, bordering one of the thousands of tributaries of the Amazon river. The experience was nothing short of sublime. Clothed in nothing more than my bathing trunks, I was seated on a stool in a natural enclosure in the jungle. A three or four gallon container filled with diverse Amazonian healing flowers had been set out to infuse with pure water to commingle and absorb the essence of flowers and healing moonlight rays of the previous night. The blessed infusion was administered before noon, the woman gently pouring the flower bath in cupfuls, complete with all its petals, over the top of my head accompanied with soft prayers and blessings. The entire ritual took approximately 15 minutes. I then stepped out into the embracing warmth of the beautiful jungle habitat and allowing only the gentle warmth and surrounding air to evaporate the fluid on my body. Throughout the day, I would find small petals falling off my hair or some other bodily part in sweet remembrance of my morning flower bath.
How did it feel? Gently empowering, uplifting, soothing, nurturing to body and spirit are some of the words and phrases that come to mind. I wondered about the tons of flowers, hybridized, hothouse and force-grown with sprays and inorganic nutrients in the west, flowers whose outer beauty of form nevertheless lacked inner substance, betrayed by a lack of characteristic scented essence. No these would not do for a proper flower bath. For this special occasion, more must be asked of the giver, that the flowers be organically grown, free of pesticides and artificial nutrients, that this would necessitate a special relationship with the earth and environment — yes, this is what gives them the degree of positivity necessary for a flower bath! That they might be specially selected and picked, even with intention and purpose, perhaps with a special prayer of thanksgiving that would further ennoble the picker and giver. Far from quickly and conveniently placing an order by telephone or computer for flowers to be delivered with a short message ‘“ usually at a high price, no, this would have to be personally given as a flower bath blessing as a token giving of oneself.
In order to prepare our flower bath, lets backtrack for a moment to the moments when our ancestors and we personally became aware of the healing power of herbs. To do this, we need to consider deeply the profound and humble meaning of the simple wayside plants and herbs that surround us and how their very existence is bound up in providing the basis of food for all creatures as well as in their ability to assuage the many diseases and injuries that may befall us on our path. How forgiving they seem, despite the ignorant rudeness many of us display in our efforts to exterminate some of them as weeds, they persist beyond all our tilling and poisonous sprays, the dandelions for our angry livers, the plantains for our injuries, the malvas and mulleins for our sore throat and respiratory complaints and so on and so forth down through the ages the weeds keep coming to remind us of their mission of healing not only for our physical body but to bring up deep nutrients and minerals from the subsoil and to provide precious composted organic material to enrich the earth.
Not all medicinal plants have their origin as a weed however. I can imagine that a long time ago, when our ancestors began to till the soil to selectively cultivate certain plants for food, some of those that might otherwise be deemed as useless weeds, attracted the special attention of certain household members who would transplant them aside for either medicinal or purely ornamental purposes. Today, as I can hear the ringing of the angry chain saws outside my back door, cutting down a beautiful stand of virgin redwoods being harvested for temporary profit by a neighbor, destroying centuries of growth in a forest that is already barely existent, I can imagine running out to transplant precious forest plants, the wild gingers, the ferns, petasites, horsetails and the noble aralias that are an extended and valuable part of the whole forest ecology, perhaps along the way to pick up a nest of birdlings to raise in hopes of their survival from the devastation and blight that is being wreaked upon their surroundings ‘“ upon all of our surroundings.
As a result, certain plants, otherwise deemed useless were taken away from the jaws of the plow to be selectively cultivated and passed down through generations until today we have a whole group of these, many with powerful healing virtues, under the guise of ornamentals. Following is a partial list of ornamental flowers that are used as medicinal herbs:
A little deeper, and we may perceive another level as we become aware of the actual psycho-physical healing properties of even our most common garden flowers.
|Calendula (C. officinalis)||—- can be taken internally to promote blood circulation, treat surface diseases such as colds and fevers as well as relieve menstrual cramps. Externally it can be made into an oil or salve for burns and injuries.|
|Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)||—- The berries are poisonous, however, the blossoms have antiviral and antibiotic properties, effective for all inflammatory conditions, sore throat, arthritis, for which the stems and leaves are also used. Dose is 15 to 30 grams daily.|
|Peony (Paeonia lactiflora)||— the root is a antispasmodic, blood tonic and circulatory stimulant, treats gynecological diseases.|
|Gardenia fruits (Gardenia jasminoides)||— in certain climates the flowers will evolve to a fruiting stage and are used to promote blood circulation, open the liver and detoxify the blood.|
|Rose (Rosa species)||— the petals are cooling, blood circulating and anti-depressive.|
|St Johnswort (Hypericum perfoliatum)||— is used to treat depression and nerve pains.|
|Morning Glory (Ipomea jalapa)||— the root is a powerful cathartic.|
|Yellow Jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens)||— Also known as gelsemium, the aerial portion must be prescribed in regulated dosage to quiet and calm the nerves.|
|Passion Flower (Passiflora incarnata)||— induces sleep, calms the nerves.|
|Carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus)||— used as a diuretic for urinary tract infections|
|Snapdragon (Antirrhinum linaria)||— nervine|
|Violet (Viola odorata)||— cooling, fevers, demulcent, anticancer, made into an expectorant syrup for lung and bronchial irritation.|
|Blue flag (Iris versicolor)||— cholagogue, cathartic, emetic, alterative, diuretic.|
|Primrose (Primula vulgaris)||— Evening primrose oil is used as an anti-inflammatory.|
|Rosy Periwinkle (Vinca rosea)||— used as a treat for cancer, especially leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease, the flowers are calming nervine.|
|Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)||— the stems are brewed into a tea and taken for the treatment arthritic and rheumatic complaints.|
|Aster (Aster tartaricus)||— Warming expectorant, relieves cough, expels phlegm.|
|Tiger lily (Lilium tigrinum)||— the bulbs are demulcent, used to calm the mind and treat insomnia.|
|Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)||— used like carnation.|
|Pansy (Viola tricolor)||— Pectoral, mucilage, antitumor, aperient, nervine.|
|Larkspur (Delphinium species)||— internally it is poisonous, externally it is used as an oil for parasites such as lice.|
|Bellis perennis||— A type of low growing daisy that is commonly in lawns and pastures. The flower heads are rich in saponins. It is an expectorant and detoxifying remedy for all liver complaints. It is also useful for boils.|
|Begonia (B. fimbristipulata)||— The aerial portions are used as an alterative, to clear heat, eliminate toxins, promote blood circulation, treat coughing of blood, and externally applied for trauma, burns, pain and toxic sores.|
|Scabiosa (Knautia arvensis)||— It is rich in tannins and it contains a bitter compound. It has been used for centuries for dermatitis.|
|Viburnum (V. Opulus)||— The berries are poisonous. The bark is used as a uterine sedative for painful menstruation and to prevent miscarriage.|
|Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)||— Used as a bitter tonic, diaphoretic, carminative and antispasmodic. It can be used for a wide range of conditions including externally for hemorrhage, menstrual cramps, colds, fevers and for anorexia and dyspepsia.|
|Nigella (N. sativa)||— contains a saponoside, melanthine, a bitter compound, nigelline; an essential oil from which nigellone is extracted and tannin. The seeds have been used as a spice since early times and possess carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue and antihelminthic (kills worms) properties. The seeds can be used as a pepper substitute.|
|Hibiscus (H. sabdariffa)||— A sour tonic, widely used throughout the Middle East and warm climates as a treatment for inflammatory diseases and fevers.|
|Chrysanthemum morifolium||— It think of this as Chinese chamomile. It one of the best beverages to drink in hot summer weather. It has all the headache relieving virtues of feverfew without the more pronounced bitterness. It is used for fevers, headaches, eye inflammations, and hypertension.|
|Fritillary (F. Cirrhosa)||— Clears heat and transforms phlegm. It is used bronchial and lung inflammation accompanied by coughs.|
|Foxglove (Digitalis species)||— The leaves contain several glycosides including digitalin, digitoxine and gitoxine. Even though an extract from the plant, digitalis, is used for heart disease, depending on the climate, soil conditions, time of harvest and method of drying and preparing it where the concentration of the toxic principle is so varied. It is no longer used in herbal medicine but is a magnificent garden flower.|
|Impatiens noli-tengere||— Internally it is emetic and diuretic. Externally it is useful for skin funguses, relief of itch, dermatitis and eczema.|
|Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa also R. Elata)||— Used as a blood nourishing tonic and kidney-adrenal tonic. The roots are specially prepared by mashing them together and soaking them in rice wine several times (9) to release their potency.|
How to be an herbalist? Surround yourself with a community of family and friends and become the good friend, the healer, the bestower of compassion and grace of the Great Spirit and nature. Give them herbs and the knowledge of healing, as much as they have time to receive. Share with them knowledge of massage, acupuncture, moxabustion, simple spinal adjustments. These all once came from the people and so therefore belong to all of us as our inherited birthright. It is always a danger to over-invest our care and healing in a hierarchy whether it be sacred (such as shamans), or profane (the professional medical practitioner). Share with others the high arts of music, literature, painting, sculpture and handmade crafts, lest these be forgotten and lost in an age dispassionate technology. These are the healing of the spirit.
Today my gardener came to me early in the morning. I was still in my pajamas. He was sick, fever, sore throat, swollen glands, could not sleep all night and was worried that he would not be able to attend to his jobs of yard maintenance for a local church and a part time gardener for me.
He felt he needed me, and suddenly I was infused with a reason for being alive that morning. It was an honor to invite him in, lay him down on a blanket in front of my meditation altar and place some simply acupuncture needles in points, I knew would be effective for such a condition, and then walk out into my garden, in the crisp early morning, to pick handfuls of lemon balm, honeysuckle blossoms, echinacea leaves, Chinese Bo He mint, mullein and coltsfoot. Previously I was playing a beautiful prelude in C sharp minor op. 45 by Chopin, a piece that is the quintessence of healing compassion, so my heart was full and my spirit was ready to heal.
As I walked outside to pick herbs for Abel, I remembered that this was what did when I first began my work as an herbalist so many years ago (it seems like only a blink of an eye) and here is where I am again today. How much I enjoy this healing and being with herbs, people and nature and what an honor it is to be an herbalist.
I thought to myself, what is different between my walk this morning and any number of similar walks I used to take in search of special healing plants over 25 plus years ago for members of the community I lived with then? First, I noticed how much more confident I was in the result. Yes, I knew more and felt a 100% more confident and this in turn allowed me to project with greater reliability a favorable outcome for my friend from my efforts this morning — and how important that is for healing. Secondly, I had exhaustively studied many traditional systems of medicine, especially traditional Chinese herbal medicine. Besides picking the more familiar lemon balm, coltsfoot and mullein, I found myself picking honeysuckle flowers for their antibacterial and antiviral properties. These happened to be abundantly growing off the deck adjoining my bedroom. Aha! I said as I considered whether his condition was excess, deficient, internal, external, cold or hot —- so this is the meaning of Planetary Herbalism. I had more plants available to me that I may not have considered or known before. I also had more ways to understand their properties and the individual needs of Abel. I took the herbs into the kitchen where I had 3/4’s of a quart of water boiling on the stove. Without even so much as rinsing them off (they still had the morning dew on them), I placed them in pan of rolling boiling water. Of course, I did not have to measure them out, like my Native American teachers, I literally stuffed the pan full to extract the liquid green healing goodness of the herbs. Again, my Planetary Herbalism kicked in as I reached into a drawer to find some dried licorice root that I felt would add more body and substance (nourishing tonic) to the brew.
I poured Abel a cup of tea and had him sit and drink it and then gave him the remainders in a jar to take home for later. Before he left, I then took him outside and showed him the herbs that I picked and told him that he was welcome to help himself to any, as he or his family has need.
Do not feel guilty if because of over long hours of serious study, or personal troubles and concerns, you are unable to maintain the outer appearance of love and compassion. Only ourselves and the Great Spirit know what is in our hearts and how beautiful it truly is. Many who have an outer appearance of love are insincere while those who seem grumpy and curt are the true lovers. It is not the form but the deeds and accomplishments that stand as a testimony of love.