The May long weekend is my favourite for exploring the forest, with the almost overnight explosion of vast green hues and brightly coloured flowers… every year I am in awe of it, the sudden unfurling of nature again and the unmistakable happiness it brings. It reminds me of a passage in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Ophelia gathers various flowers to express her feelings:
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there are pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays. Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died, they say he made a good end”.
We live in a diverse world, lush with endless plant life, so it’s no surprise that plants have found their way inherently into all areas of human culture.
My work as an herbalist means I spend a good amount of time thinking about how we interact with plants. Particularly now in Spring, it always brings me back to our growth. And as I wander through the trails looking at the forest floor come alive, I think about how certain plants seem to work on growing our minds, not simply by their active elements but by the way they appeal to our imaginations and emotions.
Plants have meaning and hold a significance that is both fitting of and beyond their physical attributes. When you look at the Victorian era when the language of flowers evolved they were described according to human qualities. It makes sense that Shakespeare’s audiences would relate to Ophelia’s picking and gifting of flowers. Herbal medicine is related in that it also pays close attention to what plants do, to both their habitats and habits, their actions in the body, what they look and smell like and how that can affect an individual.
I use Ophelia’s flowers regularly. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) as a stimulant, with its fragrant needle-like leaves, able to sharpen the mind and improve concentration. Beautiful Pansies (Viola tricolor) with their anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties that are soothing to childhood eczema. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), a sweet, perfumy, liquorice tasting aromatic and carminative to aid digestion, gentle enough to be taken by a child, and is also good for promoting milk flow in nursing mothers. I studied Rue (Ruta graveolens), with its long history in both medicine and magic as a protective herb, while also learning about its volatile oils that can cause the skin to itch and burn, and other historical uses where it was linked with regret, especially in women.
Herbal medicine is by nature complex. Each plant has a broad number of active components that act in concert, both protecting and supporting one another. Your body works as the plants do - in a sophisticated concert - and so I find myself reaching for a meaningful connection to explore the history and magic in herbs and the deeper healing they carry out.
In all my years of studying (that I imagine will never end), no matter what significance has been designated to them, plants still maintain their mystery. I have gradually realized that my interest in them is not about trying to affect their change but to observe and learn from them the changes they can bring about in different ways with each individual who uses them.
Plants offer the promise of enhanced vitality, a connection established by association, and an enchantment only visible to those who take the time to be still and experience it. The forests and fields of the world where the rue, violets, and daisies grow year after year still hold a magic we may never completely understand.
(c) Carlisle Integrative Wellness 2019