Can Plants Predict the Future?
When my herb teacher, a fourth or fifth generation herbalist, was still a young child in the foothills of the Alabama Appalachians, she learned to use plants to predict the patterns of human disease. As far back as she can remember, she’d always been taught that the particularly dominating plants of that growing season were there to treat the people that lived nearby. And when one plant dominated the landscape for a particular spring or summer, she knew what to expect that fall.
So she put her students to the test. “What have y’all been seeing really growing prolifically, really taking over this year?” she asked us, her second year class at the Appalachian Center for Natural Health, where we study traditional southern folk medicine. “Sumac,” says somebody, and, “Elderberry,” says another. One student pipes up, “I’ve never seen more St. John’s wort than I have this year. It’s everywhere,” and another butted in, “The Queen Anne’s lace is unbelievable right now…it’s always there, but this is different…"
“What do y’all think that means? The sumac, the elderberry, the St. John’s wort, the Queen Anne’s lace? Why are we seeing those more this year than in the past? Is there a reason?” We pondered, stumped. Surely it wouldn’t be because of a climate change or a farmer’s almanac type thing or a planetary alignment. We students were coming from all over the southeast and had seen these plants’ unprecedented takeover from several different states. I wondered if it was just a, “Well, just seems to be a darned good year for that yeller weed,” sort of farmer talk.
But our teacher cracked the subject open: “As far as I can see, it looks like we’re going to be seeing an awful lot of viruses and flus this year.” St. John’s wort, Queen Anne’s lace, and elderberry are of course well-known herbal cold, flu, and virus remedies. All three are excellent anti-virals and the elder combined with the Queen Anne’s lace is a powerful herbal flu and bug support. Sumac berries can also be used to support the body during a viral infection.
This prediction of the illnesses that we have to look forward to in the coming fall raised quite a conversation: do plants exist just to help humans? How do plants communicate with us? What kind of intelligence do plants have? Why do they want to help us? Can plants really predict what people and even ultra-intelligent computer programs cannot?
When our teacher was being trained in herbal medicine, her grandparents were practicing herbalists and would make house calls to their patients, rarely bringing much more with them than a couple of dried roots in their bags. They knew that at least during the growing season, most anything they might use to cure someone could be found in their backyard. So this way of predicting an epidemic based on the botanical life of the area is really rooted in necessity and habit – the herbalist used what they had, and they noticed if they had a lot of something and were using, say, elderberry, more than any other plant that season.
This belief imbues in plants a certain divine intelligence, very like the ‘minds’ or ‘spirits’ of plants that Stephen Harrod Buhner refers to in his books Plant Spirit Healing or The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature. The idea is connected to a very Native American view of all things belonging, everything in its place, every plant with its purpose. It connects us with the plant world in a way that is very real, a way in which we are interdependent on each other, a way in which we need plants for more than just their pretty perfumes and idyllic symbolism. We need them to get through the next season.
As I drive the goldenrod and ironweed sided hillsides of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I begin to wonder what this massive field of yellow and purple means. What’s its purpose, besides being a brilliantly stunning crockpot of wildflowers? I know that I’d rather look out and see a roadside lined with Joe Pye Weed than a roadside predicting epic numbers of kidney stone sufferers to come, but still, it is easy to believe in the language of the plants to guide us from disease into nourishment. What could be glowingly more obvious, and yet somehow more subtle to us humans, than the dandelions growing in every lawn in America that cry out to our livers, the vast majority of which could use at least a little love.
Keep your eyes on the plants this autumn. Do you see a correspondence between the proliferation of that patch of plantain and the number of bug bites your family gets? Do you notice a connection between the wild cherry trees and the coughs or sore throats that may pop up this winter?
Let us know! There are no wrong answers, and no nasty weeds.