medicine notes: vitality

Honeysuckle by Moonlight

the essential vitality of fresh plants


Last night I found myself wandering in the moonlight,

perched barefoot on the edge of an ancient pithouse where the most vibrant of the Wild Honeysuckle grow. I chose each bud, blossom and leaf carefully, grateful for the magic and medicine of these twining, woody creatures. When I brought my apron-full of flowers back to the cabin, I gently crushed them in my fingers before depositing them into a blue kettle of cool rainwater. On the old woodstove, I heated them slowly. The water came to a slow simmer before I removed the kettle from the heat and left it to steep while I planned the next day’s meals and prepared tea of Wild Mint and Roses.

One of the great blessings of the growing season is the ability to use herbs fresh for medicine and food. While all of us naturally want to eat the freshest food possible, too many of us forget how useful and effective medicine fresh from the plant can be. Many people are familiar with fresh poultices and focused on fresh plant preparations like tinctures and oil, most don’t think to use herbs fresh for tea, infusion, compresses and the other myriad ways medicine can be prepared. But what bliss to gather fragrant and colorful herbs straight from the plant for healing!

In the healing traditions in which I was trained, fresh plants for medicine are considered immeasurably superior to dried in almost all cases. Teas and washes made from fresh Basil, Rue or Chamomile are revered and many try to keep the plants going year round in a sunny window just to have the vitality and power of the still living remedy. I have had a few old granny healers even tell me that dried herbs are next to useless compared to the fresh preparations, although I noticed they still kept small packets of carefully dried Manzanilla on hand, despite their disdain. Certainly the vital spirit of the plant is more completely intact in the fresh herb, and seems to act more directly on the energetic level when worked with in this way.

Lately I’ve been completely enamored of compresses and soaks made from flowering Wild Honeysuckle, Mugwort and the tender pink new leaves of the shrub Live Oaks. The smell is delightful and the therapeutic value huge. When I use fresh plants for most medicines, I use about three to five times as much (by weight) as I would the dried. I don’t use a scale though I just go by feel and sight and have learned to adjust for each plant, depending on how water-dense the fresh plant is.

I also find that the simple act of harvesting, preparing and using all in one fluid progression of movements helps intensify our personal relationship to both the herbs and the healing process. The sensual engagement of scent, touch and taste is so completely integrated into the remedy and I find that clients and students feel more in sync with the experience when they participate in the full cycle, and are also more likely to fall madly in love with the herb this way. Herbalism is often the art of facilitating relationships between plant and person, and the closer the remedy is to its original state, the simpler our work in most cases.

And besides, what herbalist doesn’t relish a good reason to spend more time playing among the plants, listening to their sweet song in Spring’s  cool mornings and sunny afternoons?