What’s growing in your garden?

by Jade Shutes

By garden, I mean anything from the actual garden that you planted on your land to the plants growing up through the cracks in the city (e.g., St. John’s Wort in the sidewalks of Seattle). Your garden includes the natural landscape which you can drive to, walk to, or happen to be in. This spring and summer, I am encouraging you to spend time exploring all that is growing ‘right under your nose.’

Several years ago, I had the great honor of studying with Erin Groh, NW herbalist extraordinaire. Throughout the herbal training program, I learned about and came into contact with over 50 species that grew right outside my door and on the land around me. Plants I once admired but did not know became alive and in communication with me. I began seeing, smelling, tasting and touching each plant, getting to know it (and me, more deeply). Learning when to harvest it, how to make medicine from it, and most of all, how to respect the natural habitat it grew in by ensuring I honored ethical wildcrafting.

Learning herbal medicine along with aromatic medicine offers us an amazing journey and a great way to feel more empowered over our bodies and our medicine. Most of all, I realized the value of learning about the plants that grow right in your backyard, so to speak.

For me, aromatherapy has always been intricately connected to my relationship with plants. I am quite fond of sharing my experience of living in Boston, MA, in an old brick apartment building. I had a fire escape outside my front windows, and it was there that I grew as many medicinal and aromatic plants as would fit. And I always loved looking up as I walked home to see those incredible plants blooming. You can grow plants anywhere! For those who believe they have a ‘black thumb,’ try Calendula; it grows no matter what 🙂

Through our relationship with plants, we deepen and enhance our connection with their aromatic extractions, known as essential oils.

When we moved to North Carolina, I purchased the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs and began building my own medicinal gardens. For those of you in other areas, there are many Field Guides for all regions of this country. I would highly recommend Michael Moore’s book “Medicinal Plants of the Pacific Northwest” for those in the Pacific Northwest.

Since we arrived in North Carolina in early January, I was able to begin observing what plants grew here as soon as spring began. Some of the plants I found on our land include cleavers (YEAH), chickweed, lots and lots of chickweed, plantain (both narrow leaf and common), and of course, dandelion. We also had long-leaf pine, honeysuckle, sweet gum, jewelweed, golden rod, and a few others.

St. John’s and nettles were the plants I missed most from WA state. Two years after being here, I finally got around to buying some seeds and threw them out in different areas on our property. The following spring: no St. John’s Wort. But alas, NETTLES!!!!! Yes, stinging nettles. My favorite! I have already had one great harvest, and they are dried and ready for tea.

In my medicinal gardens, which are made up of several different beds, I planted: German chamomile, Lavender, Clary sage, Basil (both common and Thai), Melissa, Thyme, Yarrow, Oregano, Marjoram, Borage, Rosemary, Feverfew, Rose, Lemon verbena, Scented geranium, Echinacea ang., and Stevia. I don’t always harvest these plants for medicine, but instead take time to observe how they grow, smell, and taste and share them with my son, Soren. I love being able to walk out into the garden, pick a lavender leaf or flower, smell it, taste it, or simply admire its beauty and simplicity. To stand there for a few moments, really ‘listening’ to its aroma. Truly inspiring!

Stephen Harrod Buhner believes “that the loss of connection to plants, to the land, to Earth, leaves the holes with which we are naturally born unfilled. No matter how much Ritalin or Prozac is poured into those holes, synthetic pharmaceuticals can never fill them; merely human approaches can never heal them. Pathologies come from the empty holes that are unfilled from lack of contact and communication with the wild. The holes within us possess particular shapes – that of stone or tree or bear. It is not only plants that are our teachers and healers, not only plants that are among our community of life, not only plants that have a language we have long known.

Without a deep connection to the land, our healers remain anthropocentric – human-centered – in their approaches, their theories of human health generated in isolation from the environment with which we evolved. They contain the same category of error that all reductionistic sciences contain. The solution is a reconnection to the natural world and the living intelligence of the land”. (The Lost Language of Plants, p.231)

I often ponder the impact of all the technology in our life: Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, email, internet, all things outside of ourselves, things we believe connect us to others and yet somehow not as connecting as we perhaps believe or need. Does technology contribute to our desire to reconnect with the natural world, or does it further separate us from it?

I want to encourage each of you to get out and visit with the medicinal herbal and aromatic plants in your area by visiting gardens or natural environments or even planting some in your own backyard or ‘fire escape.’ Take time to listen, learn, deepen your relationship with the natural world of plants, and most of all, smell, taste, touch, and see their beauty.