Humans and plants have evolved together. This is demonstrated by the interaction of plant compounds with receptors in the human body, compounds that can be almost identical to hormones or neurotransmitters. We are in essence made of the same stuff.
Plants and people have lived together side by side from the very beginning. We share a rich, colourful history. We are intertwined.
There are around 300,000 plant species on our planet. They are the only life forms that can produce their own energy source from sunlight. Through photosynthesis and transpiration, they create an environment suitable for us and other animals to live in, regulating our planet’s water and air supply.
Herbal medicine is an art and, in more modern times, a science. Plant healing has ensured our survival, allowing us to cure ourselves and thrive as a species. Every community has utilized its native plants for medicine. According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of people in Africa still rely on traditional herbal medicines as their main healthcare, often conducted with a sacred connection to the plants.
How did our ancestors discover the medicinal potential of plants? We can only speculate. Most likely they observed the plant and animal kingdoms and used their instinct to discover the wonderful healing qualities of plants, knowledge that was then passed down through the generations. It’s fascinating to observe this inherent knowledge in animals. Horses will self-medicate when they’re sick, naturally foraging for nettles if given access to them. These nettles can provide a horse with essential minerals, can help reduce the inflammation of laminitis, treat kidney complaints, help with allergies and support lactation issues, among other ailments.
Similarly, a horse will naturally avoid ragwort if there are plenty of other food sources (a yellow-flowering plant in the daisy family, ragwort commonly grows in fields but is toxic to horses).
Almost everything that we ingest comes directly or indirectly from plants. Throughout human history approximately 7,000 different plant species have been used as food. Wheat is thought to have been the first plant cultivated, in the Middle East c. 8000 bce.
Cotton, flax, hemp, nettle and bamboo are among the plants generously giving us their harvest to make fabrics. The use of plastics in fabrics is contributing to our current environmental crisis; when washed, these fabrics shed plastic microfibres into the water system. We need ecologically friendly fabrics – the awesomely strong fibre of stinging nettles is an excellent choice. Nettles have hollow fibres that are filled with air, creating natural insulation. In fact the use of nettles in clothing dates back some two millennia; it was only with the arrival of cotton in the 16th century that this useful plant fell from favour. In World War I, when cotton ran short in Germany, nettles were used to make army uniforms.
Medicine and Ritual
Plants have long been used for medicinal purposes. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3000 bce. In cultures where practices have remained relatively unchanged for millennia, herbs are still used in healing rituals. Traditional medical systems that involve prolific use of herbs, such as Ayurveda in India and Traditional Chinese Medicine, are so embedded in the culture of their country that they are still part of more mainstream medicine today, with herbs administered within hospital systems.
In many places across the globe, there is fantastic diversity in native and naturalized plants and a rich ancestral history of plant medicine that is still being uncovered. Herbal medicine has evolved over time with cross- pollination between many cultures. Scientific models are now being applied to some of the oldest texts available. For example, research has been carried out on the recipes and herbal actions in the Leech Book of Bald, written in Saxon times. Science is confirming the wisdom that has been known for centuries.
Animism – the belief that there is God or spirit in all things – can be found in many ancient Earth-based wisdom traditions. Each plant has its own sacred spirit, which makes it more than just its physical substance. This is synergy, meaning the combined effect of the parts is greater than the sum of the separate parts. It indicates that when compounds work together their effects are enhanced. This sacred or ethereal aspect has been utilized in rituals for purification, consecration, protection and community cohesion.
When altering consciousness for religious ceremonies, art and personal exploration, humans have used psychotropic plants and fungi to celebrate and connect with spirit for millennia. There are theories that the religious experience was initiated in humans originally through mushroom intoxication. Could it even be that psychedelic experiences played a part in the evolution of the human brain?
From the Bible to Harry Potter, literature is filled with references to our plant allies. The very paper on which books are printed comes from the plants, too. The word “paper” derives from the Latin papyrus, which is the name for a plant once abundant in Egypt and used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to produce a thick sheet-like material for writing and painting.
A multitude of stories have been told about the folklore of plants, their characters and spirits. Several botanical names of plants derive from Greek and Roman myths. For example, the Roman goddess Diana was the huntress. In Greek, her name is Artemis, the moon goddess, and many species of plants with her namesake, Artemisia, cast a silvery moon-glow from their leaves. The protector of small children, she helped her mother to birth her twin brother Apollo immediately after she had been born. Artemisia species such as mugwort are used in labor to help bring down the baby. There is a long tradition in Chinese medicine of using Moxa sticks, which contain charcoal and mugwort, during and just before the birth process. Mugwort stimulates oxytocin, the hormone that is released during birth (and also in orgasm).
Yarrow, or Achillea millefolium, is named after Achilles the warrior. It is said that Achilles used the plant to staunch the wounds of his fellow soldiers, and indeed it is known as a styptic, staunching the flow of blood.
We are still hugely dependent on plants, but we no longer recognize this. Now the corporations are chemical producers and we are the lab rats. As herbalists, we see untold damage to many people by prescription medications. Drugs have side effects. What’s the solution? Take another pill. This reliance on pharmaceutical drugs plays a big part in the ill-health of our planet and our physical, emotional and spiritual disconnection from the plant world around us.
This article is an excerpt from The Sensory Herbal Handbook: Connect with the Medicinal Power of Your Local Plants by The Seed Sistas.
About the authors:
The Seed Sistas are Karen Lawton, Fiona Heckels and Belle Benfield, three herbalists with a mission to connect people with their local plants. Karen and Fiona are medically trained herbalists who combine their clinical experience with ritual, art and creativity to teach herbal medicine in a uniquely inspiring and accessible style. Belle is the visual artist of the team, her art practice inspired by her deep knowledge.