As we continue to explore the concept of wildcrafting druidry and sacred action that is, developing a spiritual practice and daily life that is fully localized and aligned with nature right outside your door, it is a useful time to consider the role of herbalism and developing a local materia medica. In herbalism terms, a materia medica is a body of herbal and plant knowledge for the curing of diseases and the promotion of good health. For example, any book on herbalism that includes entries on herbs and their healing properties is a materia medica. By starting to develop a local materia medica for your area, you can learn more about the incredible healing properties of plants in your area and develop a sacred connection with them. You can start entering into a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship with the land and support your own health–this is because not only are plants able to treat illnesses, but they also support our long-term health! So let’s talk through the steps that you might do this:
Step 1: Identify your site and needs and spiral outward.
I think it’s helpful to consider what you might include in your materia medica. It should be locations that you have easy and regular access to and with the ability to do at least some harvesting. What I suggest you do is use a spiraling outward approach. Start with right where you live–e.g. the plants in the lawn right outside your door, the trees on your street, the plants in the park at the end of the block. Learn the plants that are closest to your home first. Then, as you grow your knowledge, start spiraling outward: the local state park, the homes of friends and neighbors, etc. You can do this work regardless of whether you live in the city, suburbs or country.
The other option for you to start is to consider finding or growing a local herbal equivalent of one or more medicines you currently take or needs you currently have. Perhaps you want a first aid salve–there’s a whole backyard of healing plants for that! Perhaps you want to increase your overall vitality and health–there’s a dandelion and burdock root for that! Perhaps you want to strengthen your heart–there’s a hawthorn tree for that! For my own path into herbalism, you can hear about my own journey in managing asthma with New England Aster! The point here is that you can identify some basic needs and then use that as a basis.
I actually prefer the first approach I’ve listed, as it puts you in touch with plants right outside your door. If you start working with these plants, you will find uses for them in your life!
Step 2: Build a Reciprocal Practice on this Landscape
Before you even begin to think about harvesting and using the plants where you are, you will want to think about how you can build a practice of reciprocation, honoring, and respect to the living earth. I recommend you think not only in terms of an offering for any individual plant that is harvested but also the larger landscape that you are working on. For individual plants, this might include things like:
- Asking permission to harvest
- Offering gratitude with an offering and saying thanks
- Working with the plant to help ensure its genetic legacy (saving and spreading seeds, translating roots and seedlings)
- Visiting the plant at other times, not only when you want something or want to harvest (e.g. showing friendship and respect)
- Building the cycles of the plant into your own seasonal celebrations
In terms of a larger reciprocation practice, it is useful to consider what the land there might need and how you can be in service to the land. This is often very different in different ecosystems, but might include any of the following:
- Metaphysical support through rituals and energy work
- Land healing practices, such as converting lawns to gardens, cleanups, replantings, and more
- Social action, community organizing, or political action to protect and preserve nature
- Other activities as is appropriate for the local ecosystem
The reason this step is so important is that for much of the Western world, longstanding colonialism has put many people in a mindset where nature is theirs to take from, to use, and to harvest at will. This exact mindset is one of the roots as to why we are facing a planetary crisis: because we must learn to balance what we take from nature from what we give and the reciprocation practices are key to that. I’ve been teaching wild food foraging for a long time, and there are extreme problems with the overharvest/take what I want mentality with many people in those communities. By building reciprocation first and foremost into your practice, you can sidestep these extremely problematic relationships with nature and build one on mutuality and respect.
Step 3: Observe, Interact and Identify Plants, Mushrooms, and Trees
Now that you have a sense of where to look, you will want to start identifying the plants, mushrooms, and trees that grow most immediately to you. It is extremely helpful if you can keep track of not only the common name (Pennsylvania Hawthorn) but also the Latin name (Crataegus tatnalliana / Crataegus pennsylvanica.) Many common or folk names may actually refer to multiple plants (Boneset is a good example here–in my region it refers to at least three different plants, two of which are medicinal and one of which is poisonous) so having the Latin name ensures that you have the right plant. Even if you can’t identify the specific species, work to at least identify the plant family as a start. I have found it helpful in my own work in this regard to create a digital file of plant names and features as a first step. Here’s one of my early files that I can share that I started creating when I first moved to this new land (I’ve since moved this into a more comprehensive digital file, but this is where I started).
Identification skill is excellent to learn. While there are apps and groups that can help you with plant identification, I also recommend that you check out Botany in a Day by Thomas Epel and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to start learning how to identify different parts of plants. If you build your knowledge using these books, eventually, you will be able to identify plants by plant family without looking them up.
One of the things that is really helpful to do during this stage is to pay attention to how abundant the various plants, trees, and mushrooms are. Pay attention to how much is growing and where it is growing. Just because something appears abundant doesn’t necessarily mean it wouldn’t be harmed from harvesting–the key is to cultivate a relationship on this land so that you can monitor not only the plants but also how much of everything there is. This will allow you to decide what you might use and in what ways!
Step 4: Build Your Materia Medica and Start Making Plant Medicine
Now you are finally there–the opportunity to build your own materia medica over time and learn how to make plant medicine. Herbalism can be a lifelong study, and one of the things I want to stress here is that doing this work takes a lot of time. I have found for my own learning that I like to learn a few plants at a time: how to make medicine from them, how to do different preparations, and then actually use those plants in my life. Even if you learn only a few plants across the course of a year, as you progress, soon you will know many plants. This is a better approach than harvesting a ton of stuff, preparing it, and then not using it. An intensive study of a few plants will lead to rich rewards! For example, right now I am learning the various uses of the Spruce tree–this includes various recipes for spruce tips, preparing and use of a spruce tip salve, working with the wood, and much more!
For medicine making, I would highly suggest Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook as he covers a ton of useful information on the different kinds of plant preparations (his herbal information is good also, but insufficient for many local plants). Richo Czech’s Making Plant Medicine offers key information on ratios for tinctures and other plants and is a very useful supplement to Green’s work (I use the two in conjunction and don’t need anything else!). These two books can help you know all of the basics for how to do different plant preparations. I also have some medicine-making posts you can check out: A Druid’s Guide to Preparing Plant Medicine; Flower essence preparation; and harvesting guidelines.
Part of the materia medica is taking notes–take notes on everything that you do (e.g. the salve recipe, when you harvest) and also test the effects of your herbal preparations on yourself–note how it feels, if it works for your purposes, and so on. You can certainly supplement your own knowledge with published research on herbs: for a comprehensive guide to many herbal plants in North America, you can see Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbal books. But remember–your own body and experiences should be very central to developing your materia medica.
Once you’ve had some success and good recipes, preserve them in some way that is appealing to you. This could be a handwritten journal, a digital file, or anything else. The important thing is that you create this knowledge for yourself and presented in a way that you will resonate with. My current materia medica sits in two places: I have a very extensive digital file that I update regularly. I also have a handwritten materia medica that explores more of the spiritual aspects of each of the plants I work with regularly.
Developing an herbalism practice–even with a few key plants in your ecosystem is an excellent way to build a core Ovate practice, learn how to live in a reciprocal relationship with nature, and align yourself with the living earth. This is a practice that centers nature in your life. It is completely different than going and buying some bulk herbs and mixing them up into medicine–while there is nothing wrong with doing this, it doesn’t really give you the deep spiritual practice that identifying plants, engaging in reciprocation, and turning them into medicine does.
Another thing you can do with this practice is to tie it to your yearly seasonal celebrations: for example, for me, Beltane, the Summer solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain are all medicine making holidays–meaning that in addition to my rituals, I also make certain medicines, spiritual tools like smoke clearing sticks, and align my work with the current harvest. This gives me a richness and layered approach to my spirituality and makes the medicines I make even more meaningful.
I hope that many of you will try this–if you haven’t already started or traveled some way on this path. I would love to hear your stories and experiences with local materia medicas and herbalism!