There are many more benefits to foraging plants in the wild than just the medicine they bring to us.
Before we pick our first plant, we are brought into the exquisite beauty of nature. It’s the peace and quiet that first draws attention. The utter calm that is so different from the jarring electricity of the urban or suburban areas where many of us live. After appreciating the freedom from disturbance for a few moments, we begin to notice the sounds of the area: birds calling, insects buzzing, whispers of larger animals moving just out of sight, sounds of water from waves on the beach, creeks and waterfalls up in the mountains, wind rustling leaves and branches.
Lungs take in deep deep breaths of fresh clean air and our souls unfurl like new fern fronds emerging from the ground in the spring. Then the colors. Oh the colors! Greens of all hues, yellows, reds, pinks! Each month brings forth colors that reflect their seasonal personality.
As for myself, when I’m walking in the woods, I’m with friends. Leaves wave as I walk past. The plants are happy to see me, I can feel it. Insects buzz around my ears. I strain to listen, wishing I could slow down their language so I can understand them better. Still, I listen, hoping to pick up a word or two. Cool breezes dry the sweat on my skin. In nature, I don’t feel shoved to the side or looked upon as that “weird plant woman,” because of my keen sensitivity to plants, trees, and animals and their unique ways of communicating. In fact, I’m all the more welcomed for it! It’s beautifully transforming simply by being among the woods and everything in them. Whenever I respond to nature’s resounding lure, my soul is once again satiated with a sense of belonging.
Just recently, I hiked to a small waterfall with my husband. I had the profound realization while watching the water flow that there is no “he said, she said” in nature. No guilt or worry, no seeking of approval or doubts about self worth. Nothing and no one is regretting what happened before or wondering what is to come. It seems to me that, in nature, everything just “is.” We all have the supreme opportunity to exist in that fashion just as the rest of its inhabitants do, if we choose. And if only for a short time, it brings us back to who we really are. It’s not about taking pictures for social media. It’s about sitting by a favorite tree or rock; we can go in grieving and come out feeling the peace that surpasses all understanding. Unexplainable, miraculous peace.
Whether deep in the forest, on a beach or meadow, or tucked into a pocket of nature in the city, the natural world calls us to go deeper. To reach farther in. To become part of the community of flora and fauna. We were never meant to be separate. We are a part of a whole and we are welcome.
Lives Are Changed
I take students to the most profoundly beautiful places. Everywhere from deep in the woods, to the mountain tops and over the passes, in fields and urban settings, to the ocean and rivers….plants are there, vital and waiting to be introduced. They have so much to offer and are so willing to teach, heal, and nourish.
A common thread that is said by my students is that their lives are changed by their experiences in nature and the medicines within. Sometimes very surprising decisions are made, paths take turns, and new directions are found. To feel the inclusion of everything in the environment has brought both my students and myself to tears. It’s an utter relief to feel “part of” – just by being out in the wild, observing what is going on around us, getting to know the plants, touching them, smelling them, harvesting, and making remedies. That’s powerful medicine!
Foraging For Plant Medicine
Before my students have the opportunity to harvest, they first learn about the plants and their habitats. They learn that correct identification that is key to safely harvesting plants for medicine. They learn how to find plants legally on their own and come to understand how to protect plant stands so they can be sustainably harvested immediately and for generations to come. This includes not harvesting in my teaching areas, which plant parts are available as seasons change, the health of the stands and how much to harvest, and medicinal constituents that tell the students what type of menstrua will best extract and preserve that specific medicine. The students learn to observe who else uses the plants. Animals might depend on the plants for shelter and food. Companion plants may enhance the growth of other plants by sharing communication, medicine, and nutrition. Just as no one person is an island, no plant is an island in nature.
Despite the excitement of being out in the wild, there is no good sense in harvesting plants before learning about its needs, properties, constituents, uses and actions. That’s a detriment to the plants and the ecosystems they require for their growth and survival. It’s remembering where we are, our role within the web of the community, AND what we must do to preserve, rather than destroy, the tight knit collective that is so very imperative to the whole.
I’m always on the lookout for harvesting opportunities. One of my favorite plants to harvest are the leaf buds of the cottonwood tree.Thinking about what a leaf bud is and its role in making food and medicine for the plant during growing months, I don’t harvest leaf buds off the trees themselves, but pick the buds from branches that have fallen after a windy winter storm. This ensures that I am not harming the plant’s ability to make food for itself.
Cottonwood leaf buds contain tannins as well as anti-inflammatory and pain relieving salicylates. An oil or salve made from this resin can bring relief to pain caused by swelling, arthritis, strains, and general muscle pains. Notice that the tips of the branches look like gnarled witches fingers. Or my grandma’s crooked arthritic fingers. Or mine, as they are starting to look like Grandma’s. A bit of the old doctrine of signatures is happening there as plants sometimes resemble the part of the body they affect. A little cottonwood bud salve on poor gnarled fingers sure eases arthritis pain.
Cottonwood resin can also be applied directly from the bud onto a cold (herpes) sore. It doesn’t look pretty, and stings a little at first, but man, does it ever bring relief from the itch. It also does a great job with speedy healing of the lesions. If you are worried about people staring at the yellow glob on your face, you can use the medicinal oil extraction full strength. It works just as well (perhaps a bit more slowly), but with lesser visual impact.
Cottonwood resin is readily dissolved in a fixed oil such as extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil, or coconut oil, using the heat method. Let me just say that cottonwood in sesame oil is deee-vine! Simply place the cottonwood buds in a crock pot, add oil of choice to just cover the plant material, turn on low, and with the lid off, let the heat do its work for about five days. Strain and use as is or make into a salve. Many women find relief from menstrual cramps with a nice massaging of cottonwood oil on the belly and lower back.
My recipe for the cottonwood bud salve is included in my Botanical Skincare, Naturally! book that will come out later this year. Although the buds have already opened, we can still get them from downed branches that haven’t been sitting in water.
Cottonwood Healing Salve
8 ounces cottonwood medicinal oil – use extra virgin olive oil or sesame oil
1 ounce beeswax
Melt the beeswax, stir in the cottonwood medicinal oil, then pour into jars. So easy!!!
Alternatively, using the same method:
8 ounces cottonwood buds extracted in 2 parts coconut oil and 1 part sesame oil
3/4 ounce beeswax
Melt the beeswax, stir in the cottonwood oil, then pour into jars. Put the jars in the fridge to harden to a smooth texture. Ah-mazing!!!
I encourage us all to get out into nature as often as we can. We are always invited. We are always welcome. We are always included in the collective. And when we are part of the whole, so too are we healed.