Monday, December 8, 2014

Feeling Your Oats: A Guide to the Medicinal Uses of Avena sativa

We all know of oats as a tasty food, but did you know that the Oats plant (Avena sativa) is also a medicine? Herbalists often call it by different names--Milky Oats, Oat Seed, Oatstraw, or Avena--but in fact, it’s the same plant that graces your breakfast table as a bowl of oatmeal. Here, we’re going to focus on getting to know our friend Avena as a medicinal plant that treats nervous exhaustion and depression, enhances the libido, nourishes the body, and much more. Get ready to feel your Oats!

A Restorative Tonic

Avena is often used as a restorative tonic for anyone who feels chronically tired, stressed, depressed, frazzled, overworked, or exhausted. It nourishes and soothes the nervous system, helping to overcome anxiety, grief, and nervous breakdown. In Ayurveda, Oatstraw is known as one of the Rasayana herbs, which “rebuild the body-mind, prevent decay, and post-pone aging,” according to Vasant Lad and David Frawley in their book The Yoga of Herbs. 

By keeping blood fat levels down, Avena also supports heart health. As a nutritive herb, Oats and Oatstraw are high in phosphorus, calcium, iron, zinc, and manganese. Avena also contains abundant B vitamins, which the body rapidly loses during times of stress--another reason why this plant makes such a nice nerve tonic.  Plus, Oats contain the mineral silica, which supports the growth of healthy skin, hair, and nails. 

Unlike many herbal medicines, Avena is gentle enough to use every day to restore and revitalize the system. Susun Weed recommends eating Oats and/or taking Oatstraw consistently to improve coordination, bone density, attention span, balance, and memory--qualities that aging folks try hard to hold onto.

An Herb for Recovery

Avena’s nourishing qualities, along with its calming and uplifting effects, make it a nice remedy for people recovering from anorexia. It's also useful for recovering alcoholics and those withdrawing from tobacco, caffeine, or other drugs, as it can ease delirium tremens and irritability. In fact, this plant is good for anyone recovering from illness, as well as the elderly and convalescent. 

It's good to remember that Oats can help us recover from emotional distress as well, be it the loss of a loved one or even the so-called "positive stress" of a job interview or first date. Personally, I find that oatmeal is edible even at times when I don't feel much like eating. So, if your stomach is tied in knots (see also: Mint Magic), your hands are shaking, or if you find yourself in the proverbial Pit of Despair, fix yourself a bowl of oatmeal. Seriously.

Skin Care

By Bibikoff via Wikimedia Commons
Our discussion of Avena’s healing properties wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its benefits for the skin. Many lotions and body care products contain Oats in some form, and this is for good reason. This plant is excellent for treating all kinds of skin inflammation and dermatitis, including chicken pox, eczema, psoriasis, frostbite, chilblains, and rashes. Its cooling effects soothe the skin and also relieve itching and flaking.

Sense & Sensitivity

Stallion Munches on Oats
By Bonnie Gruenberg via Wikimedia Commons
With all of these qualities suggesting nourishment and ease, it may surprise you a bit to learn that Avena enhances the libido. Indeed, there is good cause for the phrase “sowing your wild oats,” as this plant functions as a gentle aphrodisiac. This is especially true in cases where someone works hard during the day and, come evening time, feels too exhausted to even think about sex. By restoring the entire system to a relaxed and sturdy state, Avena also restores the sex drive. Plus, Susun Weed explains that Avena enhances “sensitivity to pleasant stimuli,” making it an important sexual tonic, especially for women who have difficulty feeling pleasure. 

Speaking of sensitivity, it’s important to note that Avena heightens all of our senses, not just the physical ones. We mentioned that Oats are high in silica, which is needed by the brain and body for many functions, including intuition and connection to our Higher Self. The silica content, along with Avena’s rejuvenative effect on the nerves, makes it a great plant to use when undergoing any kind of spiritual work. A strong and vibrant nervous system is the backbone of psychic abilities, so it’s a good idea to keep your nerves nourished with Avena. Oatstraw supports meditation and creative dreaming as well as shamanic work of all kinds. Whatever spiritual adventures you find yourself on, Avena will help you stay grounded and clear-headed throughout the process. 

By Sigurdas via Wikimedia Commons

So you see--whether you are an impassioned maiden, a busy mother, or a cosmic crone; whether you are a strapping stallion or a worldly wizard; or even if you're just hungry--Avena is a great plant ally for anyone to befriend.

How to Use Avena


Now that we know why to use our lovely friend Avena, let’s look at how you can start using this amazing plant:

-It’s worth mentioning that eating oatmeal is a great way to “let food be thy medicine,” as Hippocrates would say. This is an easy and tasty way to enjoy the benefits of Avena.

-Milky Oats or Oat Seed extract is produced by harvesting the unripe seeds before they are mature enough to become grain. When squeezed, they exude a sweet, milky substance that makes a wonderful tincture. This makes getting in your Oats a bit more convenient when you’re in a hurry or on the road.

-Oatstraw is the green, grass-like portion of the Oats plant, which makes a mild tea that is quite palatable as well as nourishing.

-Oatstraw is also famous for its use in the bath, especially when treating skin conditions. Just steep a pot of tea, strain the liquid into a hot bath, and enjoy. Or, you can put some regular rolled Oats into a cotton, drawstring bag and keep it in the tub with you. (See also: Bath Tea.) Once wet, the bag will exude a gel-like substance that softens the skin. You can even use it to shave your legs! 

-If you’re a gardener, you can easily grow your own Oats. It works well as a tall ground cover and is harvested during the summer for extracting at the “milky” stage. Then you can cut and dry the remaining grass—Oatstraw—for tea. (Tip for home herbalists: Along with the usual blend of alcohol and water, add about 10% apple cider vinegar to your tincture in order to extract more of the valuable minerals this plant has to offer.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Poultice Power: How to Treat Poison Ivy (and Other Itchy Situations) with Jewelweed

While stuck indoors during a cold winter, I often fantasize about summer--swimming, gardening, sunbathing...ahh. I imagine myself with the healthy glow that can only come from sweat and sunshine. But what I tend to forget is how my skin actually gets in the summer time--full of itchy, red bug bites! Muggy Indiana is host to many biting and stinging things, and this year I’m not sure I’ve escaped a single one of them.

This month, I've also had occasion to remember what Poison Ivy is like. Having not had it in years, I wasn’t even sure if I was sensitive to it anymore. But a couple weeks ago, I brazenly walked through the woods barefooted. (The part of me that thinks I’m a fairy thought this was a great idea.) I was rewarded for my earthy ways with a rash on my foot, and for two nights in a row I kept waking up in the middle of the night scratching. I'm sure many of you know the drill.

Jewelweed Flower


For years, I’ve heard about using Jewelweed to treat Poison Ivy. These two plants often grow side by side in the wild, which helps out in a couple of ways. For one thing, the presence of Jewelweed can warn you to be on the lookout for Poison Ivy, which is far less conspicuous. One the other hand, if you’ve already succumbed to Poison Ivy rash, you can sometimes return to the scene of the crime and find your antidote. Thank you, Mother Nature! Even the fool-hardy fairies among us can still find salvation.

The Jewelweed in my area is usually of the spotted, orange variety (Impatiens capensis), though occasionally I’ll find Pale Jewelweed, which instead has yellow flowers. The plants reach heights of 3-5 feet tall and tend to grow in shady spots. According to Bradford Angier in the Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants, “all five of our native species grow in similarly moist habitats and can be used interchangeably regardless of flower color.” That makes it easy. And the pendant-like flowers are very unique, so you probably won't mistake this plant.

Touch Me Not?

Jewelweed also goes by the name Touch Me Not, because the seed pods explode when touched. In my opinion, however, this line of thinking is all wrong. First of all, what plant doesn’t want to spread its seeds? By creating this ingenious seed pod design, nature has endowed Jewelweed with the ability to pop its seeds up to three feet away any time an animal brushes up against it. Pod-popping is also a favorite past time for children (and adults who haven’t lost their sense of wonder for nature). It’s downright joyful.

Jewelweed Pods
Rather than a grumpy curmudgeon who doesn’t like to be touched, I like to think of Jewelweed as more of a people person. You can almost hear the soft, tinkling bell of a laugh when you pop a seed pod open.  Or perhaps it’s a sigh of pleasure, or even relief. In any case, it is my assertion that Jewelweed likes to be touched--otherwise, why would it make the prospect so tempting? I hereby declare that we henceforth deem the alternate name of Jewelweed to be Touch Me Now.

After all, this name would also fit with the service it does for humankind--by taking away the itch, Jewelweed helps us return to place of comfort in our bodies so that we can again enjoy being touched.

How it Works

Jewelweed is a plant with antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, and steroidal compounds. This explains its healing power not only for Poison Ivy rash, but for all kinds of itchy skin scenarios: Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, Stinging Nettle rash, eczema, even insect bites and stings. If I’d only known the extended list of treatable ailments at the beginning of the summer!

It's best to treat any plant-induced rash right away. This helps prevent it from getting worse and spreading as you scratch. Plus, who wouldn’t want to treat something that uncomfortable right away? It just makes sense.

Jewelweed Leaves
Because the fresh juice of the plant is the most potent part, and because it was quick and easy, I opted to use a Jewelweed poultice on my Poison Ivy rash. And let me tell you--it worked wonders! After a few minutes, the itching started to subside. After a few hours, the symptoms stopped completely and never came back. I will give instructions on making a poultice next, but first I wanted to mention a couple of other ways to use this plant:

-Drinking the tea as a preventive measure. I’ve not tried it myself, but it might be worth it if you’re someone who gets rashes every summer. Plus, if I had a bad case of Poison Ivy, I'd be drinking the tea and treating it externally at the same time.

-Freezing the tea into ice cubes to hold on the rash. I imagine this would feel glorious!

-Juicing the plant. It occurs to me that, like summer, Jewelweed doesn’t stick around all year. Yet it is possible to get Poison Ivy by touching a leafless vine in the winter. For those who are very sensitive, it would be a good idea to preserve this plant to use year-round. Because the medicine is concentrated in the juice, I thought it would be a good idea to stick this plant in the juicer (or put it in the blender and squeeze out the juice through cheesecloth). Then you could preserve it by adding about 20% alcohol, and keep it in the fridge as an added measure. Or, you could freeze the juice into ice cubes and bag them up in the freezer.

Making a Jewelweed Poultice

The texts say that the steams and leaves hold the medicine of this plant. Personally, I cut about 3-4 inches from the flowering tops. This did stain my skin orange (and it's still orange, days later), but I didn’t care--Calamine lotion would have had a similar effect. But if you’re concerned, you can always just use the green parts of the plant.

Now, add a little water and mash up the plant material with a mortar and pestle or in a blender. Place it on your skin and bind it there with a bandage. (Or, if you're dealing with a small bite or sting, you can always just pluck a single leaf from the plant, chew it up, and slap it on.) Because poultices work best when kept wet, I recently discovered (okay, it was my dad’s idea) that you can wrap it first with plastic cling wrap and then bind it with a bandage or cloth. That keeps the juice in better and helps prevent staining your clothes, sheets, etc. 

I kept the first poultice on for 2-3 hours, and then took it off to shower. Afterwards, I made a new poultice and kept it on for another few hours. I took it off before bed, and it was like a miracle. I slept through the night peacefully, and it hasn’t bothered me since. It’s been less than a week, and now there is only one little area of redness. But there has been no itching--repeat, NO itching--since my encounter with this precious plant, Jewelweed. What a jewel, indeed!
Jewelweed Double Flower

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Mint Magic: From the Mundane to the Mystical

By Mikereichold via Wikimedia Commons
Many people connect with the spirit of Mint on a daily basis, perhaps without realizing it. The popularity of Mint (Mentha spp.) is huge: it's in our mouthwash and toothpaste, in soaps and bath salts, in sprays and vapor rubs, in candies and flavorings, even in menthol cigarettes. One thing is for sure--Mint knows how to get around!

To be clear, this post will treat Mint as a singular plant spirit, even though there are many species. Although most of my experience has been with Peppermint and Spearmint, all varieties of Mint have similar medicinal properties. It's generally accepted that Peppermint is one of the most potent varieties, while Spearmint has a gentler effect. So, in talking about medicinal uses, I usually refer to Peppermint. But because these plants cross-pollinate so easily, I suspect that they have either a single plant spirit or a set of very similar personalities. Regardless, I felt the need to clarify.

In fact, clarity is a major key word for Mint. After many years of wondering what this plant was about on the archetypal or spiritual level, it's now begun to teach me a few of its lessons. As a result, I've come up with a list of words that help to sum up this plant's powers:

Mint's Magic Words:
 Clarity, Inner Truth, Boundaries, Focus,
Personal Path, Individuality, Discernment

 A Solar Plexus Remedy

Peppermint is a superb remedy for nausea, hiccups, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, indigestion, and cramps in the gastrointestinal tract. But these are only the physical uses of Mint. The digestive system is linked with the solar plexus, the third chakra that sits a few inches above the belly button. This energy center is the seat of our personal power and self esteem, as well as a potent area of intuition. The solar plexus is like our personal sun--it provides the energy needed to fuel our actions, helping us manifest our hopes and dreams into reality. It also governs confidence, a necessary foundation to pursuing what we love.

Physically, the solar plexus holds a bundle of nerves connected to the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. These nerves form an intricate system that help us with intuition and discernment. Ever had a "gut feeling" before? That's your solar plexus doing its job. It can tell you when something isn't right, when someone is deceiving you--or when you're on the right track. Mint boosts the power of the solar plexus, helping us tune in to our inner truth.

I find that Peppermint is especially good for the kind of nausea that comes from "worrying yourself
sick." This makes Mint a wonderful remedy for Cancers or people with a strong Cancer influence in their astrological chart. Cancer, the archetypal mother, is well-known for its tendency to worry, especially about family matters. Peppermint is also a good choice for worrying moms (or nurturing dads) of any sign of the zodiac. It can help you release worry and nervousness, making it easier to discern the fine line between fear and intuition.

Chew on This

According to the Flower Essence Repertory, the essence of Peppermint is used to aid decision making, intuition, and thinking capacities of all kinds. Interestingly, they also emphasize the connection between food and the mind. The Flower Essence Society specifically recommends Peppermint for those struggling with eating disorders, or people who feel mentally sluggish after a meal:

"Those who need this remedy have a struggle between the lower and upper parts of their being, especially between the metabolic/digestive forces and the thinking/creative forces."

There's another connection to the solar plexus--the notion that food and digestion are closely linked with our ability to perceive and understand the world around us. Indeed, the solar plexus is often referred to as our "second brain." Louise Hay sees the digestive system as a physical manifestation of our ability to digest ideas and experiences. Her affirmation to heal indigestion is, "I digest and assimilate all new experiences peacefully and joyfully."

If this is you after a meal, try some Peppermint!
This explains why a plant that acts upon the digestive system can also help the mind function clearly. Think of how our language reflects this deeper truth: To "ruminate" means to literally chew something, like a cow chews its cud, but the word also means to ponder or think about an idea. Another example is when we find something "hard to swallow." The term "chew on this" is also a good example--and oddly enough, this phrase was a slogan for Trident gum back in the '90s. I can't help but love how pervasive the Mint plant spirit is--it even infiltrated our mundane television commercials in the hopes of getting us to connect with our solar plexus!

Mental Clarity

In aromatherapy, Peppermint essential oil is often used to foster wakefulness and mental clarity. If you have a long road trip coming up, I recommend bringing along a bottle and having a whiff any time you feel fatigued. It's ability to treat nausea also makes it a nice companion on the road. Plus, Mint is good for treating headaches--just rub the essential oil into the temples and forehead for migraines or headaches caused by nervousness, illness, or information overload.

As an aside, I once toured a major bulk herbs farm that happened to be processing Peppermint at the time. The scene took place in a warehouse surrounded by all of these crazy machines (see below). It was like Willy Wonka's Herbal Factory.

The green stuff in the basin is Peppermint.

The scent of Peppermint was so intense that it made my eyes water. Talk about clarity--I was wide awake after that!

Gardening Woes: Reaping What You Sow

Not only does Mint get around the world in the form of candy and cigarettes, but it also gets around in the garden. This is where the strength of Mint's will power really shows--it absolutely takes over! It spreads aggressively via underground runners, and once it's there, it's nearly impossible to eradicate. Almost nothing will kill this plant!

I made the mistake of planting Spearmint in my garden with the rest of my herbs a few years ago. The first year, it seemed like a normal, healthy plant. By year two, it began taking over. Its runners had spread underneath the roots of other plants, so I couldn't really get the Mint out without hurting my St. John's Wort and other herbs. I started pulling it out like crazy. But, I knew I couldn't just throw it in the compost pile, as it would take root there as well. I don't use chemical weed killers, so I tried dumping it in various pots and five-gallon buckets to dry it out. It didn't work--apparently Mint can also live without water for long periods of time. Instead, what I got were tons of starts for new Mint plants (oh, joy). I felt like the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia--if you don't know what I'm talking about, watch this clip:


Thus, it's really best to grow Mint in pots, or else in a very secluded area. To keep the runners from spreading, you'll have to make a barrier by burying something--like a sheet of metal or a wooden board--several inches into the soil all around your Mint plot.

Of course, anything unpleasant is usually ripe with lessons. As I plotted to kill my own beloved garden plants, I started thinking about how the aggressive nature of the Mint plant reflects the importance of boundaries. It was a reminder that sometimes when you have a strong path to follow, it's best to grow alone. Just because you can plant yourself into various and sundry situations doesn't mean that you should. Mint brings us the clarity to know when to act upon opportunities that present themselves, and when not to. Sometimes, strong boundaries and solitude are exactly what we need to thrive. Mint helps us hone in on what will actually nourish us in the long run.

Plants teach us lessons in various ways, but for me it often takes the form of synchronicity. When a particular plant keeps coming up, I look to the rest of my life to see if what is going on might reflect an aspect of the plant spirit. With Mint, I began to detect a pattern--the plant was teaching me ways that my own life needs focus.

My Story

I live in a small community of people who, over the years, have seen me follow various dreams: singing/songwriting, theatrical performance, and making herbal products as a cottage business. Even though I have put each of these projects on hold to focus on writing, people still ask (and sometimes
badger) me to provide herbal products or perform.

As much as I find it heart-warming that people appreciated my former ventures, and as much as I enjoyed them myself, the Universe was simply not backing them. I derived no nourishment from these endeavors; not only was I not making money, but my energy had become scattered. It became clear that the Universe was backing my writing projects, so I had to surrender and go with the flow.

The fact that the community still knows me for my former projects serves as a kind of ongoing test of my inner truth. Because I enjoyed playing music, for example, each time someone suggests a collaboration I am tempted to go for it. And yet, each time I take even one step in that direction, the obstacles return. Just because I can doesn't mean that I should. I have to honor the truth of where I am being guided right now--where my true nourishment lies--even if it means disappointing others.

As I dealt with my Mint meltdown in the garden, I began to realize just how much the situation resembled my life. I was having to weed out something I once cultivated. The lesson? Mint teaches us to be careful of what we start. Some things, once begun, persist long after we'd like them to. 

Peppermint Flowers by Dinnye via Wikimedia Commons

Inner Truth

Another curious quality of the Mint plant is its easy cross-pollination with other mints growing nearby. This means that if you grow more than one kind of Mint, you can't count on using its seeds to grow new plants, because you won't know what you're getting. I once tried to grow Peppermint from seed, and it came up as a rather tasteless variety. In order to get a good, strong Peppermint flavor, it's best to seek out a cutting from someone who grows it. Believe me--they probably won't mind!
Like my lesson in boundaries, this fun fact reflects a deeper truth about the Mint plant spirit. This time, it's a lesson in discernment. It's also about valuing individuality, rather than losing oneself in the crowd of others' thoughts, beliefs, patterns, and behaviors.

Mint recently came up for me in a situation that illustrates this lesson. Someone had sprigs of fresh Peppermint to share with the group. As the Mint was passed around, I overheard another person talking about me. The whispered message implied that I wasn't nearly as wise as the person doing the talking. And my supposed lack of wisdom was about one of the very things I am most passionate for--herbal medicine.

By VaughnSaball via Wikimedia Commons
To top it off, it was already a vulnerable moment for me, as I was worried about a family member. (Sound familiar? I'm a Cancer rising, after all.) I just-so-happened to have given her a mislabeled remedy a couple hours before--a total disaster when you're a recovering perfectionist. So, I briefly succumbed to believing what was being said about me. I went into a downward spiral as feelings of unworthiness crept in. I felt sick. I wasn't a good herbalist--not to be trusted, not good enough.(Remember the connection between the solar plexus and self esteem?)

Then, with the taste of Peppermint on my tongue, I experienced a moment of clarity. I realized that I need not believe these stories, that I had plenty of wisdom--it was simply of a different kind than most people's. I ran the doubter's words through my solar plexus, and they did not ring true--instead, I decided to value my individuality. I realized that I was being underestimated, but that it was perfectly okay. I trusted that I need not get my ego involved by jumping and shouting about my gifts--they will find the right people at the right time. In that moment, the truth set me free.

Manipura Mandala by Morgan Phoenix via Wikimedia Commons

Practical Uses of Mint's Magic

One of my all-time favorite things is uncovering the mystical hidden within the mundane. Mint certainly possesses qualities of both. It pervades everything from chewing gum commercials to ash trays, and yet it brings along deep lessons if we learn how to see them. To honor this omnipresent plant spirit, here are some tips for bringing Mint magic into your life:

  • If you have a major decision to make, enjoy a cup of Mint tea while you're ruminating.   
  • Try Peppermint flower essence for balancing digestion and mental clarity. Here is a link to directions on how make your own flower essences.
  •  Before beginning a new project, take a drop of Peppermint tincture onto your tongue and meditate on whether or not it is really meant for you.
  • If you need to work on making stronger boundaries with people, combine Mint with Yarrow in the form of a tea, tincture, or flower essence.
  • If healing from destructive family patterns (or even if you're just worried about disappointing your parents), combine Peppermint with Black Walnut.
  • Combine Peppermint with Spilanthes when trying to find an area of focus for your life.
  • Honor Mint's presence in your toothpaste and gum by appreciating the healing effects on your digestion and state of mind.
  • Remember that Mint comes in many forms, so it can be used many ways. Keep a sprig of the fresh herb in your water bottle. Rub the essential oil on your temples for headaches or on your belly for stomachaches. Drink a cup of Mint tea, or create a tincture for a fast, potent remedy.
  • And, most of all, call upon the spirit of Mint any time you need help accessing one of Mint's Magic Words: Clarity, Inner Truth, Boundaries, Focus, Personal Path, Individuality, and Discernment.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Spirit of Hawthorn: Healing the Heart

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Rumi

Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) is a type of small tree or bush that produces red berries. These tasty and edible berries, along with the flowers and leaves of the tree, are a medicinal heart tonic. Hawthorn’s medicine is gentle, so the tea or tincture can be taken as a long-term heart and circulatory tonic. As a nutritive herb, it restores damaged tissue of the heart. Hawthorn also strengthens the heart beat and regulates blood pressure. Good for connective tissue, Hawthorn can be used as support for joints, veins, tendons, and ligaments. It also helps with circulation, improving blood flow to the extremities.

The Heart of the Matter

By Morgan Phoenix via Wikimedia Commons
While this plant provides great benefit to the body, Hawthorn’s ties to the heart go far beyond the physical realm. The plant spirit of Hawthorn is one of the most beneficial for healing and opening the energetic heart. This is a very important medicine, as Western culture suffers greatly from physical heart disease and emotional heart blockage alike.

The heart chakra is the very center of our being, the middle ground between the earthly, lower chakras and the heavenly, upper chakras. The heart is what allows us to rise above mere survival,
pleasure, and will-power and to feel true love for others and for life itself. Our hearts connect us to our families, partners, and friends, as well as to the world at large. The heart is now being recognized as a primary organ of perception, with an electromagnetic field many times larger than the brain's. Our hearts process our emotions and allow us to feel the greatest feeling of all—love. Getting the heart pumping with feelings of gratitude and joy also boosts our ability to manifest our desires. Clearly, caring for our hearts, both physically and metaphysically, is of immeasurable value to our lives.

An Introduction to Plant Spirit Healing

By Nyps151 via Wikimedia Commons
Hawthorn certainly holds a special place in my heart--this was the first plant spirit I consciously connected with. It was during my internship with Herb Pharm, where I’d gone to learn the nuts and bolts of herbalism. I got a lot more than I bargained for when plant spirit healing was introduced in a weekend-long seminar. Up until that point, I had always felt that plants had a magic about them, but had no clue that they also possessed a spirit or consciousness. But that weekend, everything changed.

I have to admit that Hawthorn reached out to me even before this experience. I’d been working as a buyer in a health food store, and it was my job to order the bulk herbs. There were some old Hawthorn berries that nobody had touched for a long time. We discontinued the product, so I took the rest of them home. There they stayed in my cabinet, untouched for many months. I told myself, “I don’t have heart problems, so I don’t need this medicine. I just don’t have the time to mess with it right now.”

To introduce us to the Hawthorn spirit, our teacher had the class of about 15 people sit in a circle around a small Hawthorn tree. She explained that Hawthorn was a fairly accessible plant spirit, and I got the impression that she would be working her shamanic mojo to help open us to the experience. She passed around two bottles of tincture, which were used as a drop dose to connect with the energy of the plant.

Hawthorn Blossoms
This is great exercise, by the way--sit quietly in a relaxed state and place a single drop of tincture of any medicinal plant on your tongue. Get quiet to absorb the taste as well as any feelings or images that come to you. I’ve seen this done as a kind of blind test in many classes, and it’s amazing what people can tap into. Even those with zero experience in herbal medicine can often pick up on the essence and purpose of a plant without even knowing its name. I think it’s partly intuition, partly the plant spirit communicating with us, and partly the age-old DNA connection that humans have with medicinal plants which has aided our survival for millennia.

Back to our story--when I first tasted the tincture, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. The taste of the berries alone was reminiscent of cough medicine I’d had as a child--sweet and comforting. On another level, Hawthorn was a bittersweet medicine that made me feel my heart very deeply, including its wounds.

I began to spontaneously recall instances from my childhood that were painful in some way: the time my brother tricked me by saying we could play hide and seek, only to leave me hiding by myself outside for a long time while he went back inside; the times when I had nobody to play with at school recess and sat by myself on the jungle gym; the time I skinned my knee and cried in the bathroom until my brother came in to say, “Everyone knows you’re just doing this for attention.”

By Zsoldos Márton via Wikimedia Commons
Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face. I felt embarrassed to be crying in front of my classmates, but the visions and associated feelings were so powerful that I simply had to surrender to them or get up and leave. Up until that point, I’d rarely (if ever) wept in front of a group. This too was a tendency held over from childhood--nobody in my family expressed their feelings openly. Yet there I was, bawling like a child in front of everyone. I was uncomfortably vulnerable, but determined not to miss out on the experience.

When the teacher ended our session, we all took turns sharing our experiences. I could hardly even speak. Afterwards, everyone went back inside to get ready for bed. I only went in for a moment to gather supplies before heading out to my tent for the night. I asked around to see what had happened to the Hawthorn tinctures, because I wanted another dose before bed. To my surprise, nobody knew where they had gone. When I returned to the Hawthorn tree, I discovered that both of the bottles had been left on the ground. And this wasn’t done by a single person, either, as they lay in different areas of the circle.

This seemed, to me, like a clear metaphor for how easy it is to forget about the heart. It was then that I recalled my own Hawthorn berries sitting in my cupboard, unused. Having just had a powerful experience with the plant, I now understood how much value I had completely overlooked. Those berries had been a gift from the Universe that I had ignored. Hawthorn wasn’t just about keeping the physical heart healthy. It wasn’t something that only people with heart disease needed--it was something that everyone needed.

By Lauren raine via Wikimedia Commons
Feeling rather humbled, I took a larger dose of the medicine and headed for my tent. As I lay in my sleeping bag, the memories continued. I relived more moments from my childhood, which eventually gave way to more recent painful memories of lost or broken relationships. It was a huge catharsis, like a tidal wave of pent-up emotion finally having an outlet for release.

More importantly, Hawthorn began to show me patterns. I could see how the times when I felt a lack of love as a child had translated into patterns of grasping and insecurity as an adult. Even more painful, I was shown how some of my actions--based on pain, fear, and lack--had in turn caused pain for others. It was a cycle in my life, repeating itself over and over again through my various relationships. I got very little sleep that night, but I received a teaching that would last for a lifetime.

By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA via Wikimedia Commons

Flowers and Thorns

This experience had lasting effects on my life. Within six months of returning home from the internship, I ended an unhealthy partnership. After gaining some distance from that situation, I was able to see how the four major romances of my life had all mirrored the dynamics of my relationships with the four people in my immediate family. It was kind of eerie, really, with patterns and similarities so striking that I couldn’t believe I had been blind to them all these years.

Plus, I am now more open about shedding tears in front of others, even in public, when something moves me. Though I still sometimes feel embarrassed depending on the circumstances, it’s become a lot easier for me to open up to people and groups in general. It’s as if all along, I’d unconsciously feared that having an open heart would make me weak. But on the contrary, it’s made me stronger.

By Reinhardhauke via Wikimedia Commons
The Hawthorn tree is a member of the Rose family, and both of these plants reflect the connection between joy and sorrow. Roses are a classic symbol of love and the ever-opening heart. And yet their stems contain wicked thorns, so that if you hold on too tightly to the experience of love, you will draw blood. Our earthly existence is temporary, and so we know that everyone and everything we love will eventually pass. Often, what we love most in life breaks our hearts the most as well.

Hawthorn also has thorns covering its trunk and branches. I see these thorns acting as acupuncture needles which, when stuck in the right places, can release long-held pain. Hawthorn finds your heart’s tender spots, even the places you’ve forgotten about. When she sticks her needles in, the pain intensifies. But when it’s over, you feel much lighter, healthier, and perhaps a bit wiser. 

Grandmother Hawthorn

I see the spirit of Hawthorn as a grandmotherly figure who delivers just the right dose of medicine at the right time. Her lessons can be stern, but they are always fair, and she never gives you more than you handle. She won’t spoil you, but is able to show you the kind of tough love necessary for the healthy growth of strong children. Grandmother Hawthorn can open your eyes to issues you’ve been hiding from yourself, and unconscious patterns of action and reaction that wreak havoc on your relationships.

By Intel Free Press via Wikimedia Commons
This is why I say that everyone needs this medicine. Even those like myself who were blessed with great parents and a healthy upbringing can still point to painful childhood memories. Nobody is perfect, and so nobody makes a perfect parent or sibling. And yet, injuries of a familial origin are often what linger within us into adulthood. As psychologists know, our primordial relationships with immediate family members form the basis of our tendencies as adults. With the lens of truth offered by Hawthorn, you are more able to protect yourself and your loved ones from unnecessary sorrow.

From the Heart

If we truly acted from our hearts, imagine how the world might be different. Would people still spray chemicals on their food, eat meat that came from suffering animals, dump trash into the ocean, or go to war?

Saint Augustin by Philippe de Champaigne
And yet, it is very easy to forget all about the heart. In fact, I believe that our culture teaches us to shut down our heart centers. Rather than being taught to feel and process our emotions, we’re expected to hide and neglect them in order to succeed in our jobs and our lives. Even in the realm of romance, people tend to jump from one relationship to another without allowing themselves the time to grieve, much less change the pattern that manifested a non-functional relationship to begin with. I’ve done this myself, only to find that while I had changed the name and face of the person whom I was with, the patterns stayed much the same (and actually worsened).

Until we face our fear of vulnerability that comes along with opening our hearts, this won’t change--not on the personal level, and not on the global level. I know it’s scary, but I promise you that it will be okay. While I sat tearful under the Hawthorn tree, nobody laughed at me or shunned me. In fact, the more I open up, the more surprised I am at just how kind people can be.

Working with the Hawthorn spirit can dislodge emotional blockages in order for you to start pumping love more freely through your veins. Under her care, you are able to handle all of life’s bittersweet ebbs and flows, its joys and sorrows. If you open yourself to the wisdom of Grandmother Hawthorn, you will receive a mighty reward—nothing less than a greater depth of feeling and a higher capacity to love.

By Eneas De Troya from Mexico City via Wikimedia Commons