Forming Intimate Relationships with Plants: Demystified
Updated: Jun 12, 2019
The world of herbal medicine, "alternative" healing, wellness, and magic is bigger than ever. The social media accounts of varying types of witches are garnering thousands of followers, and we see folks genuinely interested in weaving plants and herbs back into, both, their blood streams and consciousnesses. We are simultaneously living at the height of the technological age, where moments in time are glamorously and strategically captured on camera, to create romantic, enticing posts. Everyone's longing to quiet down and return to nature, while also making sure to capture it on their iphone and share it with the world.
These magical instagram accounts can be informative, inspiring, and genuine. They might also give novice and experienced herbalists, alike, a jolt to go see what's growing in the backyard. We may even find ourselves inspired to hop into the kitchen and throw some medicinal herbs and flowers into honey or vinegar to make medicine. The posts can also, however, be intimidating and separating, leaving people longing and envious, wondering how everyday people can create this kind of magic in between kid pick-ups, undesired jobs, house cleaning, and the unending list of adult to-dos. It's an odd juxtaposition. There becomes this idea, that working with plants, making magic, and tending a garden isn't possible without the perfect setting and time frame, and forming relationships with plant friends isn't accessible without an epic, enchanting garden (folks who grew up in the 90s, think The Secret Garden) I've digressed a bit, but I'm here to share a little bit about how to cultivate relationships with plants. It doesn't require anything but an open mind and heart. Whether you're living in a concrete city or the old growth redwood forest, there exist many opportunities to connect with plants. I'll also share a few unglamorous photos that illustrate how this is possible, even if your thumb is a bit brown and you live in an apartment with nothing more than a sunny kitchen window.
Allow me to get a little serious for just a minute. Forming relationships with plants is a life changing practice, that can bring ritual, more meaning, and deep earth connection to your life. Just as we connect deeply to our dogs, cats, and friends, plants are sentient* beings, that we have the capability to commune with, in a way that overcomes barriers of language, time, space, and beyond. While I dream all day about having an epic permaculture garden, where I can barely see through giant nasturtium bushes and am intoxicated by the smell of elderflower blossoms, for now, I make do with my sweet and humble space, where most of my plants live in the black, plastic gallon containers they came in. Waiting to form relationships with plants until you have the garden of your dreams, is kind of like waiting to meditate until your house is spotless and you have one hour of undivided time. For most of us, it's not going to happen for a long while, and we are wasting sweet time, and sweet life to be frank, that could be being spent bringing deep medicine into our lives. (Note: if you are excited about forming plant relationships and you already have a legit garden, kudos!)
My approach as a folk herbalist, is to start simple. Simple is so incredibly powerful. I truly believe this practice of simplicity can be applied to all aspects of our lives, and helps plug us deeply into the present. Our intuition sharpens, our senses heighten, our nervous system goes into chill mode, and we become attuned to all the magic around us. So, if you are new to this idea of plant relationship, start simple. Choose one plant friend. There are many ways to decide what plant you will choose. You can choose an herb you love to use in the kitchen, or an herb used in your traditional, ethnic, ancestral cuisine. You might decide you'll buy one of these herbs to keep in a pot in your kitchen window or in your yard. There is so much to be unveiled, when we take a plant we have enjoyed for culinary use and go further to discovering the lore of the plant, it's growth patterns, it's seasonal change, flowering times, and more. Another approach in choosing a plant, is to go to your local nursery and just see what plant calls out to you. If you love the way a plant looks or smells, there is something to that. There is deep medicine in looking at something you find beautiful, and allowing its beauty to permeate your being. Likewise, if you are drawn to a particular plant, there's a good chance it's calling out to you and begging you to start a conversation. Let me make clear, that when we talk about connecting with plant friends, we are NOT simply talking about edibility and what we stand to gain from the plant. Plant relationship is about reciprocity and there is so much medicine to be learned from plants, beyond ingestion. Further, we can also get to know a plant or tree that's on our daily walk or at our local park. It doesn't have to be something on your property. You still with me?
So, you have your plant, but how do you actually start to form a relationship with it? The answer is almost too simple. It's all about deep deep listening. The plant isn't actually making noises (or is it?) but it's all about you slowing down to earth pace and going into the garden (or kitchen or park) with a shifted gaze. If you are new to this, you might try taking a few deep breaths and becoming aware of the birdsong or sounds of passing cars. Notice the rustling of leaves or the buzzing of flies. Become aware of the different colors present on the plant, the way the leaves grow, and which way it is reaching for sun or starlight. You might get down low to the plant to see how it looks from a bugs eye view, or run your fingers gently over it's bark, leaves, or stems. If you are absolutely sure your plant is edible and un-sprayed, you might take a little nibble and notice the taste sensation of the plant.
I like to visit my plants in the yard at least once a day. I observe how the leaves are looking and which plants look thirsty. I offer them my gaze, breath, water, and often move them around if they look like they want more or less sun. I gently pick off dead leaves or abandoned spider webs. And if you've gotten this far in this lengthy post, I'm just going to come out and say, TALK to your plants. It might feel weird at first. But, just as many of us enjoy talking to our animal friends and telling them how wonderful they are, even if they don't talk back, plants also hear and feel us. Many folks also talk to loved ones passed or pray prayers to deities/God/Goddess/universe, what have you, even if these entities do not talk back in our common language.
One plant I decided to go into deep relationship with last year, was Salvia apiana, also known as white sage. It is a plant that is native to my birthplace of California, and as an over-harvested, overused, overindulged trendy plant (a whole other conversation for a whole other article,) I wanted to bring this plant spirit into my life and simply tend it, with the goal of taking nothing from it, besides anything it wanted to teach me. Over the past 8 months, I've moved this plant in and out of sun, given it water, tended it's leaves, and picked off spider mites. And to just put it all out there, I pulled up a chair next to my sage plant the other day, put on Sticky Fingers, and quite literally had a beer with my sage plant. It was great. We're friends! Plant nerds will know the irony of listening to an album entitled Sticky Fingers, while hanging with Salvia apiana. A few months ago, there was a moment when I approached this particular white sage plant, asked (in my head) if it would be ok to cut a sprig of this plant to bring into my home. With deep breath and listening, I got a clear "no." The message from the plant was to leave it alone, to let it grow and thrive some more, and simply let it be. So, I continued to love up this plant over the months, and a few days ago, the sage looked as if not harvesting it was actually making it less healthy. It was ready to lose some leaves, to invite regeneration, and allow sunlight to make it's way to the overshadowed parts. I asked again today if it was ok to harvest some limbs, and I got a clear "Yes!" So, that's what inspired me to write this post. I'm sitting with my Salvia plant as I write this, and it looks so much happier with it's shorter limbs and full bunches of leaves. It's taken months of spending 1 on 1 time with Salvia apiana, to tune into it's language and longings. Forming a relationship with this plant spirit has given me the beautiful, humbling feeling, that I truly know nothing of plant life and have a lifetime to open, listen, and learn.
If you don't have the space, time, or money in this moment to buy a new plant, that's ok! It's our birthright beyond the constructs of class and capitalism, to commune with plants. The time is NOW, to start hanging out with the plants if they are calling. Go outside and find a tree that entices you. Notice it's bark, what critters take shelter in the tree, how the roots grow beneath your feet, the veins in the leaves, and whether or not the tree is reproducing or flowering. As you visit this tree daily or monthly, you'll become more and more sensitive to it's nuances, and you'll notice how it grows, moves, and evolves through the seasons. Watching plant life shift with the seasons, plugs us into the earth's cycles. When you see trees and plants shedding leaves and moving into the darkness of winter, you'll be reminded to rest, pause on producing "fruit," and see what the quiet and darkness has to offer. Likewise, when you see a tree's limbs reaching for the cosmos and notice her blooms exquisitely scenting the air and unabashedly stopping folks in their tracks, you might be reminded that it's a good time of year to bloom and share your gifts.
As promised, below I will offer some very unglamorous shots of plants I have come into intimate relationship with lately. This is not to discount the beautiful pictures people post, that inspire us with beauty, magic, and the poetry of life, but just to remind us of the accessibility of plant relationship and medicine. It's available to all of us. It doesn't have to look a certain way. All you need is to deepen your breath, shift your gaze, and enter the in-between world of the plants.