Witches, Plants, Healers: A Halloween Ode

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I’m currently enrolled in a herbalist apprenticeship program, so we spend a lot time talking about witches and how the iconic Halloween brewing cauldron tells of centuries of “wise women” who practiced the art of healing through plant potions and decoctions. I’m not going to go on about how generations of these women were persecuted and finally stamped out by male-dominated modern medicine. We all know about that. No I want to write about how rediscovering the “kitchen witch” in ourselves can heal our fractured relationship to nature and nourish us body and soul.

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As an apprenticing herbalist it’s hard not to notice how badly disconnected we are from Mother Nature. We fail to notice for example, how many of the plants containing the very nutrients and medicines our industrially fed bodies are hungering for, offer themselves to us everywhere, on every patch of earth that can host a seed, from roadsides and parking lots, back alleys to backyards.

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But do we receive their revivifying and healing gifts? Nope. They’re usually eradicated as weeds, targeted for elimination with poisons that enter the biosphere not to mention our bloodstream. Isn’t it kind of crazy? We pay dearly for the vitamins, minerals, bioflavonoids, and Omega 3 supplements in such short supply in our modern diet – meanwhile we trample and exterminate the plants that offer these nutrients in abundance, for free, under our feet. Why? What’s gone wrong? Have we become as domesticated as cows on a trough, feeding on supermarket slop?

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I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial, but who benefits when the populace thinks food and medicine is only bought at the store? This year we’re predicted to see a 38% rise in fresh produce prices. Ouch.

So I say, be smart, be thrifty, venture into your backyard. Fire up your cauldron and be a kitchen witch – you’ll be much healthier and save money to boot. But more importantly I hope you’ll start to have a deeper relationship to the natural world. You might begin to discover the truth in the old herbalist axiom “the plants speak to us”.

On a wild food walk this summer, Cowichan Medicine Woman and ethnobotanist Della Rice Sylvester, told us – watch for the plant that you need, you will notice it – it may even “move without wind” to get your attention.

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And as witchy and woo-woo as that might sound, consider that last year was a terrible year for allergies and hay fever. So is it any coincidence -as my herbalism teacher (the marvelous font of knowledge that is Betty Norton) asked us in class – that the nettle grew that spring in thick, green abundance everywhere? Brimming with the biologically active compounds that reduce inflammation, Nettle been used for centuries to treat allergy symptoms, particularly hay fever.

Makes you think doesn’t it? There is a balance in nature – and we are part of it.

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This spring and summer one particular plant kept catching my eye, a tall, spindly plant with dandelion like jagged leaves that unfurled upwards from its long stem. In summer, small constellations of tiny yellow blooms began to appear, oval sprays of dandelion flowers in miniature. After scouring many wild food guides I finally identified the plant as “Wild Lettuce”.

Then something amazing (well at least to me) occurred. Not only was I assigned wild lettuce as my contribution to our class Materia Medica- it turned out to be used as a sleep aid, the very healing remedy my poor hubby (suffering a nasty bout of insomnia) was seeking.

And it was long used by witches! It’s narcotic and opium like qualities are said to make it a “powerful witching plant” used to help “calm and center the mind and to assist the practitioner on astral journeys and pathworkings.” Now I haven’t followed up on this yet – but I’m thinking about it.

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But maybe instead this Halloween, I’ll celebrate my witchy fore-mothers in this way. Maybe I’ll grab a cauldron and go outside for more than candy. Maybe I’ll harvest some Rowan or Hawthorn berries, throw in a leaf of Plantain or root of Dandelion. Maybe I’ll look around and see what else asks to be invited into my pot. But I will – for sure – make up a helluva brew. A delicious, healing, herbal elixir in tribute to Mother Nature. I will offer up my glass to say thank-you for nourishing and healing us, thank you for bringing beauty to our days, thank-you for giving us life. Bottoms up!

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