Weeds at Our Feet: What Do They Mean?
Living in the Wise Woman Way

In my heart, the practice of the Wise Woman Tradition is an ancestral medicine way that passes down from generation to generation even in our subconscious. We may step away from these hands-on skills for multiple generations, but they never really leave us. Harvesting juicy violet leaves, nibbling on early-spring chickweed, pawing through dense clay for potassium-rich dandelion roots - these rituals are built into our cellular memory. They are our birthright and biological imperative.

Our ancestors used what they could reach or what grew right outside their back door. So do/did the granny and grandpa healers who are still alive today. Who had time, resources, or the ability to buy from afar or transport goods along great distances? Exotic Amazonian (as in the jungle, not the retail mogul) antioxidant-rich superfoods were accessible only to those who lived in the Amazon. The name of the game out of necessity was “hyperlocal", and not because it was a buzzword, but because it was life. 

Violet Flowers in a Hand

The substances we use as medicine shift from region to region and may even change among microclimates within one community. A homestead up in a shady holler might use broad-leaf plantain to pack a wound, while those near the sunny meadow down the way might use the lance-leaved variety of the same plant. There is a magic simplicity in knowing the weeds or wild plants which grow closest to your home and touch your bare feet. Gathering abundant medicinal species and making them into tinctures, oils, dried herbs, vinegars, and salves for your own personal apothecary or herbal first aid kit can be done even with scarce monetary resources, as long as the intention, solid identification skills, and willing desire is present. 

Medicine Making in the Wise Woman Tradition

Most important for the home medicine maker is some familiarity with botany, a good field guide, and pure keen observation of when to harvest herbs and how to handle them quickly once harvested so that their peak medicinal potency is preserved. Key rhythmic elements of wise woman medicine making include harvesting leaves and flowers in the spring, collecting seeds in the late summer, and digging roots in the late fall or winter.

Straining nourishing herbal infusion

Harvesting according to the lunar cycle and clipping the aerial parts of plants during the full moon while saving underground roots for the dark of the moon/the new moon is another ritual practice that dates back many centuries. Both our ancestors and modern herbalists understand that they must get to know a plant intimately in order to come into relationship with it and to properly harvest plants at different seasons, therefore gleaning varying nutrients that manifest differently from seed to root and summer to winter.  The cycles of the plant-body, human-body, and earth-body align and the synergy of this collision makes for the best medicine. 

How Medicine Plants Find You

One impactful experience that I’ve had is the sudden and abundant appearance of a plant that is very needed in my life, or the life of a dear friend or family member. This shared story is quite common in the herbal community and often goes something like this: someone is having acute digestive issues and general tummy troubles - cue the dandelions suddenly surrounding the back patio of their home or favorite walking trail. Or a woman who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer encounters a large field of feisty pokeweed near their office or a popup circle of violets in a woodland glade they frequent.

This trend has been observed in the appearance of spiky teasel root in areas where lyme disease-carrying ticks are prevalent. Fascinatingly, teasel is a treasured anti-spirochete, a powerful antidote against the spirochete bacteria that propel lyme. For more on this phenomenon, see this article, "Can Plants Predict the Future?".

Mom and baby wildcrafting medicinal plants
 
Pokeroot and Yarrow
 
One specific plant that pops up all over North America, including the Carolina Piedmont where I grew up, and was used in Appalachian folk medicine is pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). The long-standing tradition of eating poke salat is a rich one. Even if you didn't grow up eating poke greens in spring like I did, you surely heeded the warnings of how poisonous this plant could be and were under strict orders not to the eat berries. But come springtime, carefully selecting the young light green leaves and boiling them in a full three changes of cooking water resulted in a dish which offered the whole family a good "cleaning out" after a long winter. Pokeweed is so powerful a medicine that the extract of its roots is administered in a drop dose, one to three drops at a time.

Poke root (phytolacca americana)

Another traditional southern folk medicine way to ingest poke is to swallow the ripe berries, which stain magenta in the wildest way and are often used as a natural dye. There is an immunity-optimizing spring cleanse protocol which involves swallowing one whole (fresh or frozen) poke berry on day one, two on day two, and so on, up until the tipping point where someone experiences symptoms associated with a strong cathartic dose of the herb (dizziness, nausea), and then stopping.
 
If I had to pick only two herbs to have in my herbal first aid kit and home apothecary, powerful poke would be my first choice. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) - for its styptic (blood-stopping) and anti-infective properties - is a close second. But faced with the impossible task of only choosing one, I'd have to regretfully say goodbye to yarrow and stick with poke; that’s how versatile a lymph and immune system-amplifying first aid plant it is, both internally in low doses and topically in an oil or salve. You can learn to make your own pokeweed salve or oil here.

Making herbal salves
 
Weeds as Medicine
 
We have begun to see dandelion greens for sale on the shelves of natural food stores, elderberry has become a mainstream staple for surviving seasonal immune threats, and medicinal mushrooms like reishi are taking their rightful place as adjunct therapy in complementary and "alternative" health clinics. I take heart in believing that the popularity of the medicine of the common, abundant, and hyperlocal plant will one day allow some of the more at-risk plants (see United Plant Savers, an incredibly big-hearted organization we choose to support and partner with, for a full updated list) to have a chance for survival, as people turn back to their indigenous roots and ‘eat the weeds’ again. May these plants that volunteer in your garden, city sidewalks, or patio pots find a special place in your heart and in your medicine cabinet.
 
For plants and people, 
 
Jeannie and Heather

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