Poison Oak: Medicine For the Land

The first plant I ever learned to definitively identify was poison oak. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, going to science camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, that was the one plant hazard to watch out for. Consequently, it was one of the first we were taught to identify. Later on, when I became an outdoor ed instructor, I always made sure my students knew it if we were in a poison oak zone.


Poison oak is the west coast’s version of poison ivy. It has the same rash-causing oil, urushiol, and the same basic characteristics (“leaves of three, leave it be”), only unlike poison ivy, its leaves are not ivy-shaped. It grows from sea level up to elevations of about 2,500 feet, but no higher. It grows west of the line drawn north to south by the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, and the Mojave desert, but not east of it. 

Poison oak is a uniquely American plant. While it also grows in a small patch of Mexico (only in northernmost Baja California) and, much more rarely, in Canada (only on the eastern side of Vancouver Island, from what I’ve read), the borders of its range adhere fairly closely to the U.S. states of California, Oregon, and Washington. And it is unique to these states. The rest of the country may have poison ivy and/or poison sumac, but they do not have poison oak. California and the Pacific Northwest states (excluding Alaska, which is too far north) have poison oak, but no poison ivy (and no poison oak either above 2,500 feet). Fun fact: Nevada is the only state in the lower 48 where none of those plants grow at all.

Its three key characteristics are etched in my memory from repeat recitations: smooth stem. Shiny leaves. Leaves in groups of three. But poison oak gets tricky: in the wintertime, from about mid November to mid March, it loses its leaves and becomes just a mass of twigs, unrecognizable if you were counting on its leaves to ID it, but still poisonous. (South of about Santa Barbara, poison oak does not lose its leaves, and its leafless season may have different dates much north of the Bay Area.)

Poison oak is not human medicine. In herbalism school, we learned not to gather medicinal plants that grow near poison oak, because they might be tainted with urushiol. However, it is medicine for the land.

Poison oak, and its fraternal twin wild blackberry (looks like poison oak except that its stem is thorny and its leaves not so shiny, and they often grow together), are what ecologists call primary successors. They like disturbed areas and are among the first to grow where plants have been removed by fire, trampling, or deliberate acts of humans. Poison oak in particular discourages human incursion on land that is healing from disturbance. It is nature’s keep out sign.

If the land is allowed to recover, other plants will move in--secondary succession--and poison oak will start to fade away. With complete recovery of the land, it will eventually disappear completely. 

I have heard of, though never seen, poison oak flower essence (and applaud the brave soul who would make it!). Like other toxic plants, poison oak can safely be used as a flower essence, because flower essences do not contain any of the physical plant. The danger would be in making the essence, which is virtually impossible to do without touching any of the plant. From what I have heard, poison oak flower essence is an especially strong boundary protector. Whereas yarrow, the gentler boundary protector, provides boundaries with an eye to maintaining relationships with others, poison oak screams, “Keep away from me!” It would be used by someone who has such extreme difficulty with setting boundaries that they cannot even begin to imagine boundaries. Perhaps by a survivor of extreme trauma.

This matches poison oak’s role in nature as the keep out sign. If the land has been traumatized, poison oak provides it with space to heal. 

Physical contact with poison oak, however, is not advised. It’s an allergen that everyone is allergic to. While some lucky individuals only react mildly, with just a small rash no more bothersome than a few mosquito bites, others suffer through prolonged severe rashes. In extreme cases, repeated exposure to poison oak could cause anaphylactic shock, the same kind of fatal reaction that kills people who react severely to peanuts or bee stings.

Medicine of plants is not always medicine for us. First and foremost, it must support the land.

A Plant At a Time: Yarrow

Once upon a time, in a land called Greece, a sea nymph named Thetis married a mortal king named Peleus. In some versions of the story, that she was not a mortal woman was a deeply kept secret. In others, it was widely known.


Secret or not, Thetis wished to confer immortality on her newborn son, who, being half mortal, did not inherit his mother’s guaranteed immortality. She made a brew to make him invulnerable, and, holding the baby by one heel, dipped him in the brew.

Where his skin touched the brew, no spear or arrow could pierce it. But because Thetis had covered one of his heels with her hand, that heel remained penetrable. The boy, Achilles, grew up to be a great warrior and hero of the Trojan war. His skin served as natural armor. Only when he caught an arrow in his still vulnerable heel, was he killed.

The brew was made of yarrow. Achillea millefolium.

We are not immortal sea nymphs, and not even a bath of yarrow could make us as invulnerable as Achilles. But the story does tell us what yarrow’s medicinal property is. Physically and spiritually, yarrow is boundary medicine. 

If you see yarrow growing wild or in a garden, observe how it spreads itself everywhere, among all the other plants, but it does not invade. It leaves other plants enough room to exist. Yarrow is close friends with other plants, but its motto is, “However close we are, I’m still me and you’re still you.”

In spirit dose or flower essence, yarrow is good medicine for people who need to hold boundaries in relationships to others, while still keeping an open heart to the other person(s). In short, everyone. It is especially important, though, when holding boundaries is challenged, or when differentiating between yourself and the other person is a necessary but difficult task. For parents struggling to let their adolescent children go (and the adolescent children, too), for practitioners, who always need to maintain good boundaries with their clients, for couples, to remind them to keep their individuality within the relationship, for people dealing with codependency, for people who have difficulty saying no in general, for people who tend to regard others as more powerful than themselves, yarrow is good medicine.

Yarrow is one of the flowers traditionally used in wedding bouquets. Its medicine of being together but still individual reflects the ideal of marriage, as expressed by Khalil Gibran: “But let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of heaven dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

Yarrow is also good when boundaries are needed within yourself. For people recovering from addiction, yarrow’s spirit medicine can help provide boundaries against returning to the addictive patterns. For those who easily take on psychic energies, or who are doing spirit world work, yarrow also helps keep you present in yourself and not get overwhelmed.

As physical medicine, yarrow’s property also includes boundary protection. It is antiseptic and stops bleeding. As quick first aid for a cut, yarrow leaves can be chewed to a poultice and placed on the wound. It also has a long history of being used in midwifery to ease abnormally heavy menstrual or postpartum bleeding, and PMS. An old saying goes, “Yarrow grows where blood has been shed.”

Yarrow is also an aid to the liver, as are all bitter herbs, which in turn helps relieve many skin problems and digestive problems (frequently, skin or digestive problems are related to stagnation in the liver). Externally, as a salve, either on its own or combined with chamomile and/or calendula, it treats rashes, bacterial skin infections, and fungal infections. Having an affinity for the bladder and urinary tract, it is one of the herbs to use for infections there.

While yarrow comes in several different colors, white yarrow is the best to use for physical medicine. Other colors are not as strong in medicinal properties. They may be used as flower essences, although they may have slightly different effects from white yarrow. If you have access to essences from multiple colors of yarrow, try them and see what, if any, differences you notice.

No, Herbal Medicine Is Not All About Marijuana

When I was first attending herbalism school, a common response I would get, if I told people I was studying herbalism, was, “Oh, as in weed?” (I live in California, which was a medical marijuana state by that time and has since legalized it for recreational use as well. Even before legalization, “herbal medicine” was one euphemism for it.)

No, not as in weed. At least, not that weed.

The push to legalize marijuana has brought awareness of one particular herb’s medicinal uses into public consciousness. For some people, it’s the only herbal medicine they’re aware of. But no, marijuana is not what herbal medicine is. Herbal medicine encompasses all medicinal plants. Marijuana is just one of many, and usually not the one to use, even where it is legal and available.

Most medicinal herbs do not get anyone high (although meditating with them, as described in the previous post, can be an otherworldly, and some would say trippy, experience). Neither is there any significant controversy around them. No laws have ever been passed against growing, buying, or selling chamomile, tulsi, nettles, yarrow, or mints. They do not have any potential for addiction.

Herbal healing almost always requires gentle tools. Most medicinal herbs work subtly, gradually shifting physical or emotional illness into a healthier state. It may take longer to treat something with herbs than it would with pharmaceuticals, but the herbs do a more thorough job in the end, with much less in the way of side effects, usually no negative side effects at all. (I should add here that technically, herbalists are not qualified to treat disease, except in places like the U.K. where they are licensed, and that there are some conditions we do not have a reliable herbal treatment for. Cancer, for example, can have its treatment supported with herbs, but none are known to reliably cure it.) Pharmaceuticals, in contrast, work more like a sledgehammer to the system.

Marijuana is a sledgehammer herb. It is not subtle at all. It does have side effects. It can also get people addicted to it. How addictive it really is, is a matter of debate, but marijuana addiction undeniably exists. While proponents of marijuana legalization have pointed out, correctly, that its side effects and addictiveness are no greater than that of certain prescription drugs, and sometimes less, the fact remains that it is not the herb to use if you need a lighter tool than a sledgehammer. The vast majority of the time, we need a much lighter tool.

On a spirit level, marijuana is also an exceptionally powerful herb. To inhale or ingest it is to take in its spirit effects. While all plants’ spirit medicines are affected, in part, by the energies around them as they were grown and harvested and made into their consumable form, marijuana is a super absorber of energetics. It takes on and amplifies the emotions of everyone involved in its production, even if their involvement is limited to just being present. Since it has been illegal for most of recent history, and still is illegal in much of the world, those emotions often include fear. Hence the not uncommon experience of paranoia during a bad high.

Even if it’s legally produced, marijuana still is an extra powerful absorber and distributor of energies. If it is not grown, harvested, processed, and consumed with the utmost respect and care--and typically, the utmost respect and care are missing during one or more of those steps--it has absorbed energies that are not helpful, to say the least. This is what marijuana users are accustomed to taking in. Even if you have a pleasant experience with marijuana use, and even if you find it helpful, the other, likely undesirable, energies are there, too. It is a double edged sword.

To be fair, similar issues with energetics can also occur in mass produced herbal products made of non-psychoactive plants. They are just intensified greatly in marijuana. As an herbalist, it’s easier to control the source for most other herbs: you can grow them and prepare them yourself with no risk of legal issues, or obtain them from people who you know to be paying attention to the energetic side of herbal medicine. 

Personally, I do not work with marijuana, for those reasons. Plus, although I live in a state where it’s legal, an herbalist’s apothecary is not a marijuana dispensary and not licensed as such. However, I probably would not work with marijuana, as an herbalist, even if it had no special licensing requirements. I feel it is too strong a medicine, most of the time, for what it’s being used for. The frequent mishandling and misuse of it exacerbates the problem.

That is not to say I don’t believe in medicinal marijuana at all. There are cases that genuinely do call for it. Chronic pain sufferers may find topical cannabis oil the most, or only, effective relief. For people undergoing chemotherapy, sometimes marijuana is all that allows them to keep food down. I am not opposed to recreational marijuana, either--if you enjoy it, it’s your body, your choice--but my personal experiences with it have mostly been unpleasant, so I choose to abstain.

But marijuana is emphatically not the sum total of herbal medicine. That some people perceive it to be reflects the lack of attention, culturally, to the subtle, gentle, non-flashy herbs. People are aware of what’s controversial, and of what’s popular but illegal or semi-legal. People are aware of the sledgehammers.

Herbal medicine is not a sledgehammer. It’s the whole toolbox. The sledgehammer is the outlier.

Sitting With Plants

The very first official herbalism lesson I had was sitting with plants. Plant meditation, they called it.

We went into the garden. We each found a plant that called to us. We sat there for a few minutes, until the teacher called us back to the group.

When we regrouped, we shared what we had experienced. Some had received verbal messages from the plants they sat with. Some had simply received impressions. Some had observed how the plant easily bent or didn’t bend with the wind, the color, the interaction between plant and visiting bee.

We also did plant meditation with spirit dose. Each person received a single drop of a tinctured herb. We took it. We closed our eyes and sat still, feeling the energy of the plant.

Afterward, we shared. Some saw bright light. Some felt energy rising, or falling. Some felt lightheartedness, or sadness.

This is feeling a plant’s energy. Every plant has its own. Every plant presents its energy to you in the way that you can most easily receive it.

Try it. Find a plant to sit with. If you live in the country, or you have a big garden, there are many plants to choose from. If you live in the city, with no garden, try this in a park, or with a potted plant. Find a space where there are no distractions for a while.

Observe what the plant looks like, its color, its shape. Observe how it responds to wind. If it’s visited by insects, observe the interaction. Do you get a sense of what its energy is like--maybe soft, maybe flexible, maybe firm and direct?

Also try this: make some tea out of a dried plant. It could be something you buy at the grocery store--maybe mint or chamomile. If you have access to bulk herbs, try something more obscure. Rose petals. Lavender. Lemon balm. Tulsi. Sage. Scullcap. Mullein.

Observe how it tastes. Observe how it smells. Try steeping it for five minutes. Observe. Steep for 10 more minutes and observe again.

Observe how you feel when you are near it. Is it calming? Uplifting? Does it bring you joy? Does it bring you down into the depths of your being to heal whatever is there that needs healing?

To get the full medicinal quality of a plant, you would have to infuse it (herbalist speak for steep it) for 4 - 8 hours, or overnight. But even a five minute tea brings some of its energy to you.

Medicine of Plants

In the Beginning

In the beginning, all medicine was plant medicine.

The word drug is derived from a word for dried plant matter. Before industrialization and the rise of lab-created chemical drugs, all of the drugs people took were plants. Plants were brewed into tea, made into salves and ointments, or  soaked in alcohol to create an extract. Beer was invented originally as a means of preserving medicinal plants, and was once made with a much wider range of plants than the modern grains and hops. The original versions of soda pop--ginger ale, root beer, sarsaparilla--were fermented medicinal herbs. Most cooking herbs also work as medicinal herbs, and using them in food is one way to get some of their medicine.

Even without being used as drugs, plants are medicine on a deeper level. Their very being brings life and health to the planet, and to all animal species.

All animals (humans included) eat plants, or eat animals that eat plants, or both. Plants are the base material of the food web, linked by sun and bacteria. Without them, all sentient beings would starve. Not only that, plants are the other half of our collective respiratory system. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to breathe.

We breathe out carbon dioxide. The plants breathe it in and convert it to oxygen. They exhale oxygen. We inhale oxygen. We exhale the carbon dioxide that the plants need.

With no plants, human life could not last longer than a collective breath.

It would be no exaggeration to say that we need plants around us to be able to breathe.

What Is Plant Medicine?

Every plant is made up of multiple chemicals. The effects a plant’s chemistry has on our bodies can stimulate healing for certain conditions. Some plants are strongly antimicrobial--that is, they kill harmful viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Most antimicrobial plants target only certain microbes, harmful ones, leaving the beneficial ones intact. Unlike pharmaceutical antibiotics, which wipe out all bacteria they come into contact with, good and bad alike, antimicrobial herbs do little or no harm to the natural balance of microbes that we need to live. Antibiotics clear cut the forest. Antimicrobial herbs just prune the tree.

Other healing herbs do their work mainly by strengthening the body’s natural defenses, which allows them to bring the whole system back into balance.

Yet plant medicine transcends chemistry. Attempts to isolate the active chemicals in medicinal herbs either result in a drug with a narrower range of uses and greater propensity for side effects than the plant it was isolated from (aspirin and digitalis are examples of this), or do not create anything of medicinal value at all. To get the full medicinal effect of a plant, we need the original plant.

Physical and Spiritual

Every medicinal herb has its physical effects and its spirit effects. In the herbalism I was taught, all medicinal herbs can be used both ways. Spirit dose is a very small dose: one to two drops of tincture, or up to a quarter cup of tea. If a plant’s spirit effects are desired, but its physical effects not needed, that’s what to use. If the physical effects of the herb are desired, a higher dose is used.

Spirit dosing is typically safe even if there are contraindications for the herb at physical dose. Some herbs too toxic for physical dosing (bleeding heart is one) can be safely taken at spirit dose. Flower essences also have spirit effects, and can also be made from plants that are not necessarily safe to use as physical medicine.

Typically, there’s some resonance between a plant’s spirit medicine and its physical medicine. Yarrow, for example, is good medicine for the skin on the physical level, and helps maintain interpersonal boundaries on the spirit level. This property is reflected in how yarrow itself grows: while it readily spreads itself among other plants, and widely, it is not at all invasive. Yarrow lets other plants have enough space to be themselves, even while it grows close to them.

Plant Medicine in the Modern World

Today, the norm is to use laboratory-made drugs to treat ailments. However, turning to plants for medicine is becoming more popular. The time-honored methods of creating plant medicine, salves, tinctures, and teas, are practiced by herbalists and can be done at home by the layperson fairly easily.

Many people are aware of at least a few herbs for medicine: ginger to treat nausea, garlic to treat fungal infections, echinacea to mitigate colds, St. John’s wort’s antidepressant properties. Health food stores and even mainstream drugstores sell these and others as herbal supplements. Professional herbalists, though not licensed by the state in the U.S. (they are in the UK), can create even more complex and in-depth herbal formulas for both physical and emotional/spiritual ailments.

Yet the meaning of plant medicine moves even beyond treating ailments. Simply relating to plants is medicine in itself.

Growing plants, being around them, having them in your home, drinking herbal tea just to enjoy it, and taking herbal baths are all forms of herbal medicine. You do not have to be ailing to benefit from the medicine of plants.