Life’s rich path recently took me from rural France to New Mexico in one fell swoop. After acclimatizing for a while, I began to get excited about a new challenge…learning the herbs from this unique part of the globe. I arrived in autumn and so roots were in season and as I love root medicine, I was exited to meet the natives. The first to make itself known, thanks to my guide Florian was osha but that is another story, today I want to talk about the second root that an herbalist friend, Christine Herbert told me about when she heard I was settling in New Mexico, I asked Florian about it and he guided me straight towards Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica).
Off we went one late afternoon with a bag and trowel to what is known as the bosque, which refers to a gallery forest made up principally of cotton wood (Populus deltoides) and what’s known as coyote willow (Salix exigua) that follow the Rio Grande as it winds its way through New Mexico. There, not far from the river’s edge grows a ground cover whose aroma subtly scents the whole bosque with its aromatic notes interwoven with earthiness. As it was late winter, all that remained of its beautiful, very individual looking white flowers were some wilted dried carcasses…although their aroma lived on even in their dried, brown state.
It felt so good to get my hands back in touch with the earth and this time a new corner of it, what an honour to be initiated in this lifetime to a whole new medicinal flora, habitat and history.
I started to dig into the slightly moist, deep riverside earth and soon realised that Yerba mansa is made up of a whole network of rhizomes all joined together, somewhere there was a mother plant but like nettle (Urtica dioica) everyone seemed joined, this was an organism, a living network not just a plant. It felt so satisfying getting down low onto the woodland floor and feeling the damp roots with my hands, gently digging around them until finally I could free one and put it triumphantly into the bag. As I was doing this I felt the presence of an old woman, I thought of the history of the plant and the people that had harvested it for generations as part of their yearly rituals, I felt the old female healers who had always quietly gone down to the bosque and done exactly what I was doing, somehow I was receiving an initiation into this medicine of New Mexico, I wasn’t alone and I felt honoured to meet such a beautiful and powerful plant being. We silently, reverently filled the bag, the dark heavy, soil-clad black roots showed the first signs of life with tiny pink tipped shoots accompanying them. This seemed to echo the fact that today was Imbolc, the ancient Celtic festival that celebrates the return of the sun after winter and the beginning of the agricultural year. Imbolc comes from the Gaelic word, ‘oimelic’ meaning ewe’s milk and symbolised the milk of life flowing again. The seeds are just starting to sprout and the shoots to push, the darkness is still here but the first signs of life are manifesting. This was evident in the roots and it seemed just the right moment to harvest them, as if they were waking up after winter but the plant’s vital energy was still deeply imbedded in them as the new growth was embryonic and hadn’t left the warmth and comfort of the nourishing rhizomes yet. Imbolc’s message was also noticeable inside myself as I too felt the tiny thrusts of new birth and yet the shadowy, silent passage of winter still had a grip.
As we were preparing to leave the site, we paid attention to filling in any holes we had left from the extraction of the roots always remembering to leave things as they were, showing no signs of our presence except maybe the slightly more intense now familiar odour wafting through the trees. Florian had prepared a special offering to thank the plant for letting us take some of it, we gave the offering and as we turned to leave, our dog was uncharacteristically but vehemently barking at a tree, I looked hard to see if there was an animal, squirrel maybe up there but nothing, a totally bare, winter-naked tree. We called him but he persisted, making us look again, trying to understand but nothing was visible. We pulled him away and I thought to myself, ‘that was the spirit of the woman linked to the Yerba mansa, she had been looking down at us from the tree…dogs have such strong instincts for that type of thing’ I didn’t say anything to the others at this point, it was just one of those fleeting personal thoughts.
Back at home the real work began, preparing the roots so they could be made into medicine. I never like scrubbing the roots too hard as like root vegetables, I think at least some of the ‘goodness’ is just under the first dermal layer. I rinse them and work at getting the soil off with my hands. This is a long process and takes several passages in order to get them to an acceptable state. Although it is time-consuming it is an important part of the process, as we touch and caress the newly excavated roots we begin to develop our relationship with them, through their texture and form their message and resonance mingles with our own. After washing the roots, I then cut them up into small slices, I always do this before letting them dry as most roots become extremely hard and difficult to cut when dry. These particular ones revealed a reddish-pink colour inside.
As this was a completely new herb to me that night I began to look at some information online about its virtues. I began by searching the meaning of its name, that somehow to me sounded like an old, rural, female title rather than a plant name. Yerba means herb and ‘mansa’ means meek, tame or gentle in Spanish. This left me slightly stumped as this plant and its spirit definitely didn’t feel meek or tame…gentle, yes there was a gentleness or softness somewhere there but that was just a thread in what revealed itself to be an extremely powerful plant. I looked further for more translations of the word ‘mansa’ and found, ‘harmless’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘quiet’…I am always intrigued by how plants got their names, especially their common, local names as these often reflect how people in the past related to and thought of the plant. Yerba mansa has apparently been used for centuries in the South west of the United States and is also referred to as; apache beads, lizard tail and swamp root.
When I started reading about the plant’s properties, I began to realise that it had many and that they went right across the field ranging from anti-viral, mucolytic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, stomachic to showing potential for healing cervical and uterine cancers and much more…wow, this really is a major medicinal, I felt great gratitude to Christine who had pointed out that I was living close by. As I am only just building relationship with Yerba Mansa and have no experience of using it in practice myself, it would be pretentious to try and talk about its uses, there are many colleagues out there who have plenty to say on the subject based on years of experience, I suggest for this you refer to Sam Coffman or others. However, my story does not stop here, Yerba Mansa and I continued our journey of getting to know each other; reading that this plant could be helpful for cervical and uterine cancers made me prick up my ears as I myself am on a healing journey through cervical cancer. Together with Florian we came across a study called; ‘Chemotypic Variation of Essential Oils in the Medicinal Plant, Anemopsis californica’ (1) This was right up our street as both of us have keen interest in aromatic medicine, we looked at the typical, aromatic constituents identified in Yerba Mansa and these included monocyclic constituents such as; cymene, limonene, piperitone and thymol, bicyclic constituents such as a-pinene, 1.8 cineol and myrtenol and monoterpenoid and phenylpropanoid constituents; methyleugenol, isoeugenol and elemicin. Three distinct chemotypes were detected depending on where the plant was harvested, one was characterized by high elemicin concentrations, a second by high methyleugenol concentrations and the third by high piperitone and thymol concentrations. We were intrigued to find out more about elemicin, which was found in high quantities, in some cases more than 50% especially in Northern New Mexico, were we ourselves had harvested the Yerba Mansa. Elemicin is an allylbenzene essential oil found in large quantities in Zingiber niveum and an elemicin chemotype of Cinnamon myrtle essential oil, and also found in the essential oils of nutmeg, ginger grass, elemi and many other plants. It’s believed to be partially responsible for the hallucinogenic effects of nutmeg (2). When we looked at the structure, we noticed that it looked very similar to safrol.
So, it was beginning to look like some of Yerba Mansa’s most interesting information maybe being held in its aromatic, volatile elements…which would also make sense in the way its odour gently infuses and penetrates the whole bosque.
We decided to distill a large proportion of the plant material we had harvested and that was now drying.
Using our 35 litre copper still, we left the dried Yerba Mansa root to macerate overnight in the filtered rain water we were using to distill, this way the roots would rehydrate and the water soluble constituents would slowly start to leave the root and infuse into the water.
The following day, we added more water as the roots had drunk a large proportion of the volume we had left them to macerate in and we began a slow but sure distillation. Gradually the whole earth-ship began to fill with that now familiar aromatic earthiness that was Yerba Mansa’s signature.
When distilling, I am always careful to pay attention to the atmosphere in the room at the time of the distillation, the aromatic molecules are diffusing in tiny particles throughout and imparting valuable information about the plant and its message. In this case I began by sinking into old ways of being, old insecurities and fears…like the roots I was underground in the darkness. As the distillation continued and got underway, I began to slowly feel better in myself, more confident, centred, I could feel the old feelings of unworthiness like peripheral tears being pushed away by this new strength coming from my centre. I thought about the alchemical processes we had put the plant through to do this distillation; coagulatio or earthiness represented by the dried plant material followed by solutio/solution during the maceration in water and then sublimatio represented by the purification and rising of the volatile aspect of the plant during the actual distillation. This was being echoed in myself as I went from the dark, earthy, shadow form through to feeling purified, releasing the old form in order to be lighter. The process was for both myself and the plant slightly violent, intense in parts but I had confidence in Yerba Mansa, the spirit of the old lady was back.
We were not aware that we were letting ourselves into a more or less sleepless and very intense night. The earth-ship was saturated in Yerba Mansa’s aromatic body, its spiritual body…these aromatic constituents are sometimes referred to as, ‘molecules of communication and communicating they certainly were.
As the rest of the house was sleeping, I felt compelled to write, the effects of the plant were sending me into a deep, healing process. Here it is;
“I believe I am nothing, an illusion of a person, empty and worthless….
Cancer has come to gnaw away the flesh of the no-one that I am
Easy way out, let me die and then I can truly attain that nothingness I feel inside
But why the fear? If nothingness is everything then feelings have no sense and yet……
And yet I am scared to turn away and let myself die, to never see the red hot sunset again, the hollowness inside is moved by the richness of this world, the indescribable wild beauty of its colours, the voluptuous scents of its trees and plants, the profound look of unconditional love our dog gives me, the trust I have found with another human being and the warmth of finally being understood, my children’s smiles, the silent snow falling on the mountain, the universal love in a strangers eyes as they meet yours for that one never to be repeated second, those unplanned moments of joy, laughter that bubble up like underwater hot springs….all these things and more fill me up and then I am no longer empty but abounding with the world and the beings that I love….. So if I love, I am not barren, nor empty or hollow. I love and to love I have learnt to love myself, my vacant self? Yes, my whole self, those desolate days, those sad moments, the yo-yoing backwards and forwards between expansion and connectedness to the self-hating, self-sabotaging voices of the past, I love all of me, she says surprisingly…even in the middle of this fractious night, I love all of me. The house is silent, alone among those I hold most dear but only I can calm myself as they dream their dreams, to dream mine I must love myself through the awakened nightmares, feeling the ache, the tears welling, the bareness and the worthlessness…feel love, embrace the darkness outside and within for whilst caressing the obscurity, enveloping the sombre parts as they are dying…a small inner hearth is burning, its light unhurriedly waxing, moon-like it prepares behind the shadowiness of my fears to burn brighter.
For this is the turning point, cancer is merely a signpost at the crossroads of my life. The path I take is up to me, I have already blazed the route. Deep inside I know that the tumours, unworthiness, self hatred, my inner critic, lack of self respect, self sabotage, auto destructiveness and all the other nuances of grey that skulk in the shady parts of my mind are now powerless. I love them as they pop up to remind me of how intimately we were once entwined. I look away and deep inside I feel the warm hearth smouldering, I feed, stoke and attend to the fire, within…Self love and warmth fill up the emptiness, the flames grow and I am alive once more.”
Looking back at this, I felt that on an emotional level, the Yerba Mansa was helping me work on some of the issues and feelings of unworthiness that could be at the root of my having cervical cancer. I would certainly try it as a douche and internally in tincture form but I am so happy that its activity on the emotions was being revealed to me.
Florian was also being affected by this wise native being and woke from a very intense, psychedelic dream at about the same time as I finished writing. We lay looking at the stars for most of the rest of the night, feeling very much awake and definitely in a non-habitual state. Like the night sky and the planets, everything felt more alive and interconnected. The gentle, all pervading old lady that seemed to accompany or encompass the spirit of this plant was definitely initiating us. Florian told me the story of La Llorona, the weeping woman, who drowned her children in the Rio Grande, because they were the product and she was a victim of colonialist rape, a New Mexican ‘Beloved’, the protagonist of the novel of the same name by Toni Morrison. An indigenous woman, who was in deep communion with the land and the plants that her ancestors had grown up around for generations and whose ancestors truly lived in the river and the plants and animals, she was vilified by the colonial invaders. Just as their one God attacked and tried to eliminate the nature spirits that surrounded and suffused the indigenous peoples. Women that were in deep communion with nature spirits were a threat to the church. Meanwhile, in Tibetan Buddhism and related traditions, each being has both a benevolent and a wrathful manifestation. For example, Majushri is the ‘Buddha of Wisdom’ and Yamantanka, the ‘Vanquisher of Death’, is his wrathful manifestation. So in Florian’s opinion, La Llorona is, on an archetypal level, the wrathful manifestation of a feminine nature spirit, who also has a benevolent manifestation. As La Llorona she drowned her children, but as the benevolent manifestation, her children were in the water, in the swampy soil. The gatherings of yerba mansa are her children, thriving under her benevolent presence in the bosque, the riparian flood plain forest along the Rio Grande. He says “Maybe she told me her name, but of course you understand that I can’t tell you.’
The following day after these intense, out-of-the-normal experiences, we decided to look more deeply into what constituents make up this incredible teacher plant. What we found was that the major constituent elemicin is an aromatic from the phenylpropanoid subgroup composed of a benzene or aromatic ring with three methoxy groups attached. Elemicin is naturally present in elemi essential oil and is also one of the constituents of nutmeg essential oil and is partially responsible for its psychotropic activity. Its exact metabolism is not clear although it is thought to metabolise in 3,4,5 trimethoxyamphetamine (4), which is a structure very close to mescaline. (3) We also found information about elemicin on sites devoted to psychedelics, one forum stated under a conversation entitled elemi- ‘a virtually unknown psychedelic’ the following; I have made comparisons between myristicin and MDMA and between safrole and MDA. And here there is a similar parallel between elemicin and TMA. What are these relationships between the essential oils and the amphetamines? In a word, there are some ten essential oils that have a three carbon chain, and each lacks only a molecule of ammonia to become an amphetamine. So, maybe these essential oils, or “almost” amphetamines, can serve as an index for the corresponding real amphetamine counterparts. I had originally called this family the “natural” amphetamines, but my son suggested calling them the “essential” amphetamines, and I like that. At the time that I had synthesized TMA, back there in the ’50s, I had the impulse to explore this body of Essential Amphetamines. As the old folk-wisdom says: “Nature is trying to tell us something.”
Looking again further into TMA’s or trimethoxyamphetamines, we saw that this family of isomeric, psychedelic hallucinogenic drugs are analogs of the phenethylamine cactus alkaloid mescaline (5).
So things were beginning to make some sense, this plant used in the South-west of America for ever by the native people and according to Michael Moore also used in standard practice medicine with some frequency up until the 1920’s especially among the Eclectic and homeopathic physicians seemed to be not only a powerful allay for physical but also emotional dis-ease.
It has also shown me the importance of looking at all aspects of a plant’s make-up, if I had just tinctured it or made it into decoctions, I would never have encountered its soul-fullness or enabled it to reveal its aromatic qualities. I am so grateful to be able to distill, to liberate and purify the volatility of the plant so it can communicate its message and this message is in my opinion as important an aspect of the plant as its heavier, denser qualities. I have noticed that since this experience, Yerba mansa has come to me in my thoughts on several occasions, reminding me to love myself, to embrace the darkness as much as the light and this message will definitely be part of the information or signature of the plant that I use when deciding if it suits a certain person and situation or not. I am using the tincture and the hydrosol for myself and I feel that it may be helpful on a physical level for the cervical cancer that I am healing, time will tell and it has already helped me shift some of the deep, underlying emotional issues I am carrying.
My French teacher, who taught me plant communication used to say, you need to journey nine times with a plant to really know it, the journey has begun…thank-you Yerba Mansa for becoming part of me.
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