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Entering Into the Green World: Plant Awareness and Identification

For many people the identification of plants can seem overwhelming. No one wants to poison themselves and the mass of green stuff out there can make the task seem hopeless. Finding a plant and then trying to wade through a field guide can get aggravating.

Better to go to the plants themselves. Better to first go into the fields and woods and vacant lots with no plant names in mind and no pre-conceived notions. Find a few plants that draw your attention, that speak to you, and spend some time with them. I want to back up a little further yet and speak a little about the attitude we go out into nature with, for in the end it will vastly improve your awareness of plants and the information you can gain from them that can't be found in any book.

A Native American medicine man was asked by someone if they would impart some of his herbal knowledge to them. He refused to divulge anything at the time, saying First you have to learn how to walk on the Earth . If we approach seeking only to harvest and profit (even in knowledge), we may not learn much. If we come with humility the plants may even speak to us. The stories of indigenous peoples who live close to the Earth emphasize the fact that in the long ago plants and animals and people spoke freely to one another; and such a dialogue may still take place for those who open themselves to it.

What we are speaking of here is not a dialogue of words necessarily, but of awareness. We can learn many things from nature by shutting down our normal ways of looking at the world, with our minds ready to define and categorize everything. As an exercise, go to the woods or field or vacant lot and try to quiet the mind completely. Don't label: tree , leaf . Use the eyes, the nose, the ears, and the touch to perceive. This way and a true sense of humility will go far in learning how nature speaks. The plants will begin to speak in their impressions on our minds and senses. The beginnings of research into plant responses hint at just how sensitive plants are, so we also must not forget that as we are perceiving, we are also being perceived.

Once we learn to really slow down and perceive, the plants themselves will show you their unique forms and expressions. You will see the unique patterns of leaves, how the leaf joins the stem, its texture, its smell, the feel of the spot of land on which it grows. Pretty soon you'll notice these patterns everywhere. You will have a hard time walking or driving along without noticing the form and expression of plants that draw your attention.

European ancestors relied on the Doctrine of Signatures , the belief that the shape, color, environment of the herbs reveal something of their healing powers. Some flowers and particularly roots that are yellow were thought to be stimulating to the liver; the yellow related to the jaundice hue of the skin when the liver is congested. A very common herb like plantain was seen to grow where people traveled; the more it was trodden underfoot, the more likely it is to flourish. And so Plantain was thought to be both a protector and aid for the mishaps that travelers may encounter, and used for everything from insect bites to bleeding wounds.

The sinewy, tough veins of Plantain might suggest its use as a knit bone herb, for torn ligaments, sore tendons pulled muscles, bone breaks. I don't recall if the latter is recorded from herbal history, but so it speaks to me.

For the Native Americans, and many other indigenous peoples, the plants have the ability to not only perceive, as science has shown, but to speak to the medicine person in vision and dream. Each plant has its own spirit. This granting of the natural world the power to also perceive and speak and dream is why they were careful to walk with respect toward the Earth and its beings; that even all alone, where no one would know , we are being watched and heard.

At the point where we begin to truly perceive the plants, and what they speak , it can be helpful to obtain a basic botany book, or field guide that lays out some of the basic botany terms and models. Seeing leaf patterns, opposite alternate , pinnate , etc. will further enhance our awareness. The types of flowers, the characteristics of certain plant families; all will increase our knowledge of things we may not at first have seen.
When we have seen and recognized the many patterns of plant life around us, we will find a handful of herbs that we can identify with confidence, because they have shown themselves to us so completely. There is so much healing power in a handful of the common herbs that we may rest here, and learn all we can about them. Others will want to go on to at least be able to identify and have a feel for many of the herbs used for healing.

This is important to becoming an herbalist or user of herbs. Whatever form we ingest herbs in, it is good to know when one has a good herb on hand, for the potency of the herb has everything to do to how viable the herb is for healing. We should be familiar with its smell and taste and look when it is at its prime. The taste is a very important aspect of the energy of the herb, and we should be able to taste at least a little bit of the herb to be familiar with its energy. By experiencing the vast spectrum of tastes of herbs; especially for those of us whose tastes are limited to sweet and salty, we will be put in touch with different healing energies of the earth.

In this same vein, it is good to learn a few of the local edible plants and to add at least a little to our diet. Such things as Violet leaves, Chickweed, Lamb s Quarters. These aren't starvation foods; they are things our ancestors highly valued as nature s super-foods. We are also learning the many things like the flavanoids in flowers and leaves that are showing strong anti-oxidant and anti-cancer compounds. Research is pointing to the wonderful protective properties of things like Watercress and Blueberries. In this way we can't take advantage of many healthful compounds that science hasn't begun to suspect.

It is good early on to identify the handful of distinctly poisonous herbs and such things as poison ivy that may grow in our neighborhood. to aid our own confidence and safety in the use of herbs. There are generally only a few in any region. Then one can feel safe in nibbling here and there as we are out on our herb adventures, and develop our herbal taste buds.

Our herb excursions should extend through the seasons, so that we are familiar with at least a few plants from when they poke from the ground until they have seeded and/or died back. It will not only aid in our understanding of the plant; but if we are to do any gathering we need to know that roots are generally dug in the fall, when the vitality of the plant has gone back to Earth. We must then know how to find the plant when it is pretty well done for the season. By frequent observations of an herb for which the flowering tops are used, it will be seen that there is often a few day s window where the plant can be seen and felt to be full of vitality, at its peak of potency.

By being aware of the larger environment in which the plants grow, we will begin to get a feel for just how much any harvesting we may do might effect their survival. It actually takes some time to see the effects of our harvesting, and some time to learn how to consciously harvest. Never pick more than a third of a plant s leaves or flowers, and even less of the plants in an area if you are digging. Look for areas where the same plant may be more abundant.

Speak to your plants; the plants and the Earth can hear you. Leave an offering for them; they can feel your intentions. So it is that we can learn so much from the green world itself.

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