Ways of Working with Plants




“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”


You may have noticed that I say “working with plants” rather than “use plants.” That is because it is my belief and experience that living things were not put there for our benefit or annoyance. They have their own being and lives. Even if we don’t understand their experience, it is no reason to treat them as less than worthy of our respect. In many traditional cultures around the world there is an ancient and ongoing relationship between humans and all living beings, including the most humble of plants, the ones we call weeds. We can work with them and they with us to our mutual benefit. Good relationships, not fences, makes good neighbors, and strong allies.

And just what or who might these powerful “weeds” be that can help a person or animal walk the path to wellness? Simple things like the dandelion or plantain growing in our lawn; the burdock and mullein that find the hard-packed soil on the edge of the driveway to be a good home; the tender violets that come up each spring, nodding their blue heads in springtime greetings. And then there is comfrey, chickweed, yellow dock, and nettle, just to name a few more of the common plants that live among us.

Mullein: Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

And lest we forget, not so long ago plants we commonly use for cooking grew wild and were used for medicine long before they became kitchen staples. Thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, garlic, lemon, ginger, mustard, and many other common kitchen spices have medicinal properties.

All of these wonderful plants can be of benefit in our quest for health and vitality. When and how we work with them varies depending on what we are trying to accomplish. These methods are neither complicated or time consuming. More often than not, the plants need to sit in liquid, hot or cold, for their properties can be extracted. Part of their hidden wisdom is that they can teach us patience by calling upon us to slow down, sit still, rest. I believe that these days most human ills come from doing too much and not resting enough. We need sleep, time of not doing, space for our beleaguered minds to rest at ease. So the plants steep in water or oil for minutes, days, or even weeks at time, while we watch and wait for their gifts to be ready for us to receive.

That being said, let’s move on to exploring different ways of working with herbs.

Herbal preparation comes in two basic forms, liquid and solid. Liquid forms include teas, tinctures, honeys, syrups, vinegars, and oils. Solid forms are salves or ointments, and suppositories.

Herbs can also be encapsulated or made into pill or lozenges. Those processes can be more complex, and require more time and expense. More often than not, liquid preparation will give you the results you’re seeking without the added labor or expense.

Liquid Preparations

Teas can be separated into two categories:

  • Infusions, where the herbs are steeped for 15 to 30 minutes and are primarily composed of the softer parts of the plants such as flowers, leaves, and tender shoots. The herbs can be fresh or dried, though more often than not the herbs are dried.
  • Decoctions are a “cooked” tea, where the plants’ parts, roots, dried berries, woodier stems, or seeds are simmered at very low heat for 15 to 30 minutes in order for the constituents, those active compounds, to fully release.

Teas and decoctions can be used in many ways, depending on the herbs and what you’re trying to accomplish. They can be drunk, used as a steam inhalation, as a wash for skin conditions or wounds, as a gargle, as a soak, or in compresses or fomentations. They can also be used as the base for herbal cough syrup.

In the next post we’ll look at tinctures, vinegars, oils, and herbal honeys.

Michele Larocque has worked with plants and studied herbal medicine for some 30 years. She studied with Rosemary Gladstar of Sage Mountain Herbal Center, continues to read voraciously on the subject, and has acquired a great deal of hands-on living experience in the form of self-care and counseling.

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