Saturday, March 29, 2008

Back to Basics: Botany for herbalists

My passion for nature began as an outdoor explorer: a child adoring the wonders of nature that tickled all my senses and my fertile imagination. I was not, however, very interested in organizing or categorizing anything. My adolescence gave way to spending much less time outside, creating a gap between my childhood romps by the lake and cornfields, and the later discovery of curative brews. When my Mom started studying herbs more seriously, she began bringing lots of new and interesting bags home, filled with quirky looking and wild smelling stuff. We delighted in combining them and simmering them up in a pot - often times her since, well, I was a teenager. But I loved coming into the kitchen to discover the witchy brews that promised a myriad of powers. But all these interesting herbs were dried, and packed in bags. I had no idea where they grew, how they liked their soil and sun, or what they looked like. While I remember picking garden veggies at an early age, and have many random fond memories of healing herbs and fragrances in my home, it wasn't until my Mom started growing basil, that I made the real connection between human and plant.

Jumping ahead to the now .... Walking in a beautiful sanctuary, next to peers. These peers are actually here to learn from me - but of course I am acutely aware of the mutuality of the situation. As we walk, so early in the spring here, there are few greens about. But enough to cause me worry, since it looks like there are about ten that I know, and 50 that I don't. Some I may know, but because they are so tiny, I struggle to find the matching adult plant in my mind.
If my botany were sharper, I think my guessed could have been a lot more accurate.

There seems to be a great gap between some herbalists and their botany. Some have been blessed with a solid background, but many start herbalism from an inspiration having nothing to do with flower classification. Sometimes it starts with Grandma's tea, or a honey face mask, or a friends amazing cure (a squirty bottle that got rid of your flu) - and the seed is planted. So then we go and buy great herb books about how to make teas and what the properties of spices are. The books don't tell you how to grow the plant, where it comes from, what part to harvest or when, and often do not even include pictures. This isn't effective for creating relationship with plants.

Nor does it make for a good herbal teacher.

Some basic botanical know how is indispensable in the field. It helps you recognize a bigger picture and come to wonderful conclusions that could mean big differences: life or death in it's extreme case, or more simply, whether you can eat it or not, or a medicinal plant without knowing the specific variety in case you have a run in with stingers or thorns.

As with anything in the plant world: start small. Pick one category to focus on: Flower types, leaf types, or patterns of plant families. Make a little book of each if you like. Take your time on the details.

Here are a couple nice references online for leaf classifications:

Any good field guide should have the leaf and flower anatomy and classifications illustrated on their inner covers. Aside from field guides, four of my favorite books for this purpose are:

Botany in a Day
Shanleya's Quest
Botany Illustrated
Botany Coloring Book

By the way, the photo is of my little Motherwort babies, peeking out of the garden. What do you think? Maple shaped? Sharply toothed?

1 comment:

Jacquelyn McCammon-Junor said...

I too was drawn to herbs by my grandmother's brews. She grew them in her back yard and had an herb for every kind of ailment.

I believe in herbs and have experienced their cures before,but I use them in conjunction with Traditional medicine.

Nice pictures and interesting article.