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.