The *Core Nature of Plants
by Kiva Rose
Our relationship to the plants is an ancient one, and we humans are well designed to engage the magic and medicine of the living earth we are a part of. All we need is right here – the vast and verdant world of the plants that speak to us, the extraordinary capacities of our senses with which we listen and the complex cognitive processes that let us learn on a whole body level.
As herbalists, a good portion of our work is in becoming intimate with the living plants that are the vital medicine of our craft. Rather than seeing a plant’s properties as disparate lists of constituent-based properties, we’re usually best off looking for the essential, core nature of each plant. This is not ever only one thing, and just as we cannot accurately define another human being by a single characteristic, it is equally fruitless to attempt to peg a plant as an “anti-inflammatory” or even an “immune stimulant”. No plant is only either of those things, despite how they are marketed on glossy pages and Walmart shelves. When we choose to ignore the other aspects of a plant, we fail to recognize the herb for what it is and thus severely limit ourselves as practitioners and the plant as a potential medicine.
I have yet to work with any plant that has only one use or one defining characteristic. Some plants, especially that are strong with a nearly drug-like action, such as the overt anti-cholinergic effects of some members of the Nightshade family, can easily seem so at first glance. However, upon closer examination and direct experience with the herb we will notice how far-reaching and complex these actions can be in the human body.
Every herb is a living, intelligent, ever-adapting tapestry of response, behavior patterns, unique abilities, and individual quirks that result in a specific personality. This is why a Verbena acts very differently (in our bodies an in the plant community) than say, an Artemisia. Make no mistake, each plant is an individual, even within the larger headings of their botanical families and medicinal properties. Learning to see an herb’s individual nature can help us to understand how it may act as a medicine in any given circumstance and how it may be most applicable without necessarily knowing its exact properties or actions. This is the single best way to learn, on an organoleptic level, the properties and actions of an herb.
Let me be clear that although the core nature I am referring to is reflected in most (if not all) other aspects of the plant, I am specifically referring to it here in relation to the herb as a medicine for humans. Just as when we are speaking of a plant being warming in herbal energetics, we are not saying the plant itself is warm (careful, don’t touch that plant, it’s hot!), we are saying that it has a warming effect on our bodies. Thus, we must constantly keep in mind that we are dealing with a terminology of relationship, and a perspective born of connection rather than isolation or categorization.
The core nature of an herb is made up of its botanical family, habitat, place in an ecology, growth habit, taste (as in acrid and spicy) and other sensory impact (scent, appearance, etc.), energetic tendencies (as in hot, dry and diffusive), vitalist actions (as in circulatory stimulant and diaphoretic), as well as its expression of the uniting anima (or vital force) that animates and enlivens the herb.
Interpretive elements, such as the doctrine of signatures and intuitive impressions are also of use here, especially when they are taken within the context of the whole rather than isolated as the single defining characteristic. Like mainstream medicine, we could attempt to break the nature of the plant down into biochemical components, but the end result would come up just as lacking as if we had tried to understand the whole plant based only on the doctrine of signatures or a homeopathic proving. This is not to belittle the relevance of understanding constituents since they can, especially when keeping the context of the entire plant in mind, provide us with unique insights into the behavior and makeup of herbs. My point is only that, as practicing herbalists, it is in our own (and our clients’) best interest to retain a view of the bigger picture, of the whole of the plant.
Equally important is the realization that plants are not humans, and that it is both unwise and unhelpful for us to pretend that they act, speak and feel as we do. However, plants are complex, sentient, responsive organisms that deserve our respect and attention as we ally with them in the healing process. When I speak of a plant’s nature, I am not referring to some etheric, intangible spirit. The core nature of the plant can be (and is) experienced by the senses and cognitive processes of our body. What we often imagine to be some sort of extra-sensory perception is usually a type of cognition or sensory input that we are unfamiliar with or unpracticed in its use. The capacity and sensitivity of our senses is far more acute and far-ranging that most of us either expect or experience. This is in part because of how underused they are now that many of us live without the pressing need for tracking, hunting, food gathering, hiding/running from predators and other awareness enhancing and once common activities. Additionally, for those of us in urban areas (or who spend much time in front of the television), the massive overstimulation we receive can cause us to shut down a significant percentage of our sensory capabilities in order to cope.
The physiology of perception and sensation does vary from person to person, but any healthy child can learn to recognize the basic properties of most medicinal plants through careful observation, organoleptic experience and practiced awareness. And anyone at all can practice and grow their existing sensory abilities, leading to a greater level of acuity and understanding.
The distinction between sensory perception and so called extra-sensory perception is important, because when we realize that energetics (and thus, the very language of plants) is transferred through our senses, we are then able to fine tune and deepen our physical awareness. This allows us to become ever closer and more aware of what the plants, and the natural world as a whole, is imparting to us in every moment.
Six Simple Steps: How to Immerse Yourself in an Herb
There is no one set way for all people to understand the all plants, but there are certainly some common and accessible avenues that frequently work for most people and most plants. I have arranged my suggestions in the order in which they seem to naturally occur for the majority of people. Don’t get stuck in any one place in the process, keep moving as feels appropriate and realize that you may have to repeat all the steps several times over before you have a feel for the plant or the process. Also realize, that in this miraculously dynamic and complex world that we are a part of, that we all have different strengths and predilections. Rather than remaining solely dependent on these, work to develop all parts of your perceptual abilities.
It can be useful to initially go through these steps with the herb as a living plant still growing in its environs and then go back, repeating the process with a (or several) form(s) of the medicinal plant preparation. This can be especially important if the plant is very new to you.
A few tips:
- Attempt to leg go of your expectations and assumptions while remaining grounded in reality.
- Forget what you think (or imagine) you know but do utilize available tools and skills.
- Approach the plants with wonder. And common sense.
- Above all, pay attention. Then pay attention some more.
Principle: To intently pay attention to and gather information on the many different factors and characteristics that make up a plant, both in its living state and as a prepared medicine or food.
Try to do this without making assumptions or judgements about why or how at this point. Gather information, especially the botanical name of the plant, what plant family it belongs to, what the plant looks like, feels like, smells like, and (if non-toxic) what it tastes like. Examine its growth habit, what flora and fauna it tends to grow in community with and preferred habitat. Spend enough time with the plant that you can observe how it acts under stress, in ideal conditions, how it interacts with its surroundings and how it changes through the seasons. Observe other plants in the same botanical family if available. Much understanding can be gained about the personality and traits of most herbs by getting to know their close relatives.
Have I mentioned how important it is to pay attention? It is!
Pitfall: Don’t limit your ways of gathering information. You will find your learning curve significantly less steep if you take the time to learn at least the basics of botany. Seeing the patterns that exist in plants and noticing the similarities within plant families can be extraordinarily helpful to your practice as an herbalist. It will also save you a whole lot of time when trying to identify new allies. If you rebel at the very thought of learning a seemingly scientific approach, keep in mind that nearly all traditional peoples had/have their own systems of plant identification, classification and terminology. And thus, botany, which is not book smarts but rather an intimate, detailed knowledge based on the observation of the natural world. It’s certainly not the only way of understanding plants, but it’s an incredibly valuable one for any herbalist who wishes to have a personal relationship with the herbs. Likewise, a basic grasp of the anatomy and physiology of the human body will tell you much about how plants work and about our relationship with them. I do not limit my definition of this to the Western biomedical model of physiology, but also include Traditional Chinese Medicine’s organ systems and other similar well-developed models. What is most important here is the exploration, observation and study of life (and here, specifically of the plants and of our bodies) that increases our knowledge of the work we do and the lives we live.
Get closer than just observation, immerse yourself in the plant.
Work with all applicable senses (which means if it’s poisonous, don’t eat it, but find other ways of working with it on a sensory level), to whatever extent is appropriate. For any relatively non-toxic medicinal plant, this will mean tasting, smelling, touching and seeing it over and over again. This is a sensory immersion, so even if the plant doesn’t taste (or smell) pleasant to you, part of the process is becoming intimately familiar with every nuance of sensory input the plant can provide. It is for this very reason that I recently ate several whole Elecampane roots over the period of a couple days. I certainly didn’t find it to be a very enjoyable experience, but it taught me an enormous amount about how the plant works and thoroughly familiarized me with the exact texture, taste, scent and sight of it. This isn’t practical with every plant, but an attempt for some approximation should be made.
As with people, we get a much better sense for the overall personality of the plant by investing ourselves in both quality and quantity of time. Herbal one night stands can be productive in that they may result in the desired end (healing of whatever discomfort), but they rarely reveal the plant’s deeper nature.
Pitfall: Avoid depending completely, or even primarily, on one sense to inform your experience. Most people have a dominant sense for experiencing the world and a dominant cognitive process for understanding the world. Don’t let your natural proclivities (and strengths) become a weakness, seek out depth through diversity.
Principle: Notice and engage your emotional feelings and reactions to the plant.
This can be as simple as recognizing the fact that you have strong feelings of like or dislike for the plant in question, and both ends of the spectrum are worth exploring, both for what they teach us about the plant as well as about ourselves. Emotional and nervous system response to ingesting a medicinal herb are important to note, especially I the experience is repeated.
Emotional response is valuable for the very reason that scientific inquiry often discounts it, because it is essentially unquantifiable, uncontrollable and to a large degree, even unnameable. It is wild by its very nature. In this way, our emotions allow us to access unique information and experiences not otherwise available to us. Permitting ourselves to feel deeply in relation to the plants (and people) we work with can teach us about ourselves and the herbs at a depth only achievable through emotion and attachment.
Pitfall: Keep in mind that in order for emotional response to result in knowledge and wisdom rather than simplistic reaction or self indulgence it is best balanced by a developed sense of self and finely honed discernment.
Secondly, refrain from assuming that because you have a negative emotional response to (or negative experience with) a plant that it is somehow evil, malign, has ill intent or is otherwise “bad”. Such value judgements rarely have any basis in reality when applied to anything besides humans. As mentioned before, projecting human emotions on non-hominids is just that, a projection, and will severely limit your ability to get to know any member of the more than human world.
Principle: Engage you observations, sensations, thoughts and emotional responses to the plant on a whole body level, allowing the cognitive process to aid in your overall understanding of the herb and its effects.
Cognition is gathering, processing and incorporating information through experience, the senses, emotions, thought and other perceptual avenues. It includes within it all the steps previously spoken of but is a more complex phenomenon in that it is not simply taking in sensation (or feeling emotion) but is also its synthesis, deconstruction and transformation into a useful and usable knowledge.
There are many different levels and types of cognition, all of them holding some value and applicability. They range from careful analysis of collected data to dream-initiated understandings to combining information in new ways to reveal previously obscured patterns. Intuition and other preconscious processes are also included under this heading and can provide invaluable insights into plants (and people) when taken in context with other understandings.
I have chosen not to isolate conscious thought from cognition as a whole because of our culture’s already overriding tendency to do just that. When working with the plants (as well as other people and the natural world as a whole) it is often most effective to incorporate thought as an integrated aspect of cognition rather than that voice in our heads that never shut up. It is possible and usually preferable to understand with our whole bodies rather than our isolated parts, as useful and informative (if overused) an exercise as dissection is. I have thus placed my emphasis on the aspects of perception most neglected by Western culture and most in need of reincorporation. Cognition allows us to see and feel in new ways, to explore and learn and perhaps best of all, to understand and act upon our experiences and feelings.
Pitfall: All perceptual organs (from skin to brain to heart) are best understood within the context of the whole body/whole person rather than isolated or given a hierarchal (and artificial) designation. Thoughts can provide profound understanding of a plant, as can intuition, sensation, dreams and emotions. All are necessary for a maximally balanced and accurate relationship. All are gifts and all meant to work together as a united organism in connection with the greater whole of the natural world.
Principle: Purposefully putting together the previous steps until a pattern or picture begins to emerge.
This may happen all at once, or more likely, occur over a period of time. Sometimes it will be a profound ah-hah type of moment, but more often it will be a slow process of realization and comprehension. The more diverse your means of inquiry and the more depth to your experiences with the plant, the better chance of really understanding the plant you have. It’s really not so different from getting to know people, although our means of communication with other humans is more standardized, while many of us are just beginning to (re)learn to speak with the more than human world.
For many people, the best way to integrate information and understandings is by expressing them in some way, either through talking aloud about the plant to someone else, by writing about it or whatever other way the individual might find helpful. Generally, this helps tie up cognitive loose ends and begin the process of integration. Ingesting or otherwise using the herb is also an essential part of this process, since only by doing and experimenting do we truly experience and not just think/feel about the plant. When you learn something in your body, organoleptically, it makes everything you know about the plant much less likely to be forgotten because it’s been absorbed and integrated on a broader level.
Pitfall: Don’t obsess. The process of integration may not happen immediately, or even after years, depending on your and the plant. You may go through these same basic steps over and over with the same plant for a decade before you feel like you have any true grasp of the personality/nature of the herb. With some herbs you may never get anything beyond a rudimentary look at certain herbs. And that’s ok, because we’re not here to become intimate with every single person or plant on the planet, or even our own backyard. Be persistent and discerning in your quest to connect to the plants, and you’ll likely find the ones best suited to you and your practice over time.
Principle: Apply your understanding to your work/relationship with the plant.
In truth, we’ve been applying our knowledge and understandings all along, but this is the part where the focus really shifts to consciously incorporating what we’ve learned in a significant way to our everyday lives. Application, or consistent utilization/work with the plant helps us to gain confidence in the relationship and cements the other steps as we confirm, adjust, reconfirm and readjust our understandings and knowledge. I strongly suggest working with the plant primarily on its own for a long period before adding it to formulations. Experiencing and working with the herb on its own in other people will give you much needed information that might otherwise be lost in the mix.
Pitfalls: This is what many of us want to do first, to jump in with both feet at our initial impression or first intriguing bit of information, and very often end up frustrated that the process of understanding every intimate detail of the plant isn’t automatic and effortless. Have patience and take the time to move through the process, just as you would with any meaningful friendship or other relationship.
On the other hand, some people get stuck right here, too nervous or insecure about their knowledge or abilities to go the final step and really work with the plant on a regular basis. Just remember that we’re all practicing, and nobody has it all figured it out. So listen carefully, learn well and proceed with common sense and you’ll likely be fine.
*I believe I owe the term “core nature” to jim mcdonald, from a conversation several years ago having to do with the patterns and personalities of individual herbs.