Herbalism & Medicine-Making: Session One

by Marina Vernovsky

Students form a friendly community while taking herbalism and medicine-making course. They gather in a comfortable space to learn plant medicine techniques and best practices.

Herbalism and Medicine Making, a six-weekend course offered by Santa Cruz Permaculture, brought together a group of eclectic individuals to set the tone for a new year through the exploration of plants from multitudinous perspectives including medicine-making, botany, horticulture, and examination of naturally occurring ecological relationships.

Individuals – some who had come from all over the world and happened to set up their lives in relatively close proximity – gathered on the first morning. Excitement and anticipation built as people were introduced, questions were formulated, motivations were shared, and Deva Waring, the instructor (read: herbalist, facilitator and purveyor of boundless experience!), opened up the six-weekend-long course: 

We exist in this animate world as additional players.

Sharing Perspectives

We began the class in a dialogue process known as The World Café. We sat in groups of four and discussed our relationship with plants thus far, and what inspired our participation in the course. Respect was called upon from us – as these supplemental elements in a world that exists with or without us – in cross-pollinating our unique perspectives and our ubiquitous environments. Specifically, it is easy to predict the ease with which herbs can be ravaged for the sake of creating medicine for both internal and external applications. There is novelty that exists in such a thing, especially for those with cursory exposure to herbal medicine, yet the mood created from the start within this cohort was one of utmost awe and humility. With exposure to more information, the group’s curiosity invariably grew; however, this curiosity was colored by a deep appreciation for the age, the wisdom, and the almost ineffable qualities of the components that interact in the process of making herbal medicine. 

An Herbal Forest Walk

Such an approach to the practices introduced in the course was reinforced by the occasional meditations in which we were encouraged to partake. The first weekend provided an opportunity for just this during a plant walk in a southern section of Henry Cowell State Park. There was a break, albeit brief, in the rain, so we piled into a handful of cars to make the short drive. Just over twenty of us traipsed along the path, single-file, discussing and musing and sharing little bits of our own experiences. The first chunk of the field trip was for the sake of plant identification, though every time we stopped to highlight an herb, weed, or tree, it was like watching a cartoon as our fearless teacher(s) paused, and then every other person stopped short, pulled out of a Redwood-induced daze – those that followed had to dig their heels in to avoid bumping into the people ahead. 

Ethnobotany is an important aspect of the herbalism course. Students learn to identify native medicinal plants while walking through the redwood forest.

Some naturally gazed upward as we walked, some downward, some far into the thickness of the forest; it was a wonderful experience to be called out of our tendencies in order to hone in on something very specific Deva and that day’s co-teacher wanted to point out. This walk was a prime example of the space that exists in plant medicine to adjust to changing circumstances. It seems almost a form of evolutionary competence: adjusting with change and resisting destruction from the same. At some point we discovered we had taken a branch of the forking path initially unintended, though as a result of this serendipity we met with Yerba Buena (Clinopodium douglasii), native California Bay (Umbellularia californica), and Hedge Nettle (Stachys bullata). Deva, with a culinary background, peppered in some ideas for preparing components of these plants at various seasonal stages for the sake of consumption. We then retraced our steps and headed down the other path to discover Horsetail (Equisetum spp); Red Root (Ceanothus americanus); Rooreh (Miner’s Lettuce, Indian Lettuce or Claytonia perfoliata); and a number of others, not least of which was the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), which may or may not be a nexus of magic. 

The desire for more was almost palpable (see above regarding the impact that the novelty and momentum of learning might have), more details about the botanical and medicinal aspects of everything we saw; more time in the forest; more questions and answers. To meet this hunger came a reminder of nature’s system of checking and balancing when the discussion turned to limits of harvesting. Such limits included harvesting next to a trail frequented by people and pets relatively close to a busy road as well as the ecological impact of overharvesting beyond the capacity for nature to heal from the resulting wounds, beyond capacity for us to make use of what we eagerly pluck.

During a forest and foraging walk in Henry Cowell Redwoods, herbalism course students admire huge and ancient redwoods while they connect with nature.

To finish the excursion, we were given ample time to meander and find a nook or cranny or otherwise obvious spot with which we felt a connection, and be still in order to experience that spot. The options for a place to meditate like this seemed infinite, surrounded by the Redwoods, Live Oaks, and other growth occupying levels of ecosystems beneath them. Some folks discovered spots teeming with ferns, large tree roots, blackberry brambles, poison oak; others sat at the base of a tree. We were encouraged to see, listen, smell, touch – with caution considering the abundance of poison oak – and even taste. It wasn’t uncommon for people to put things into their mouths instinctively; this was an herbal medicine course after all! The trick here was to remain relatively still, mitigating any potential for impact within the context of the spot each individual chose to visit. Ironically, this relative stillness for the sake of experience provided yet another chance to consider the world regardless of us and our experiences. The chattiest of the group remained quiet. The most mobile of the group remained motionless. And, when it was time to head back to the cars, people moved as if through a medium thicker than air. We had melded with that upon which we’d been meditating, and that, so willingly, so simply. The autonomy that many people learn is the proper way to go about their lives (especially as they mature into adulthood and purported societal productivity) was relinquished for the sake of this nebulus connection to that within which we actually exist. The moment was brief, yet apparently available and waiting for us to return to it.

An Herbal Garden Walk

Students explore herbs growing in a garden during the first weekend of their herbalism and medicine-making course in Santa Cruz, California.

Another portion of the first weekend involved a tour of the garden where class was held. As might be expected, people so heavily involved in regenerative agriculture would find a way to sustainably fit a lot into a little bit of space. We could have spent days examining every inch of this land, which, in fact, we would continue to do throughout the sessions. Foci included, but were not limited to: California Poppy, Mullein, Rose, Borage, Mallow, Elder, Passionflower, Olive, Thyme, Lemongrass, Lavender, Rosemary, Calendula, Hummingbird Sage. With each plant, which took us at most a couple feet in any direction away from the previous plant, we discussed topics such as herbal actions and sought-after constituents for medicinal use; general observable qualities; growing methods; harvesting and processing methods. Whenever relevant, there was connection made to a variety of traditional healing practices including Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and Homeopathy.

Creating Medicine

Herbalism course instructor shows students how to used dried medicinal herbs for wellness and health.

We spent time on water-based extractions, as a practical introduction into the process of herbal medicine making. That meant teas! Most people have at the very least had some experience with teas, be it in the form of infusions or decoctions. And now we were able to merge the practice of tea-drinking with a more calculated creation process. The science of herbals was slowly revealed as Deva began to discuss specific menstruum:herb ratios and procedures for preparation. There was time for the group to break off into smaller chunks and prepare teas for a desired herbal action, and we took full advantage of the new body of information we had been afforded in order to very seriously and sincerely consider the impact of each herb added to the tea mixture. Did we want to add Lemongrass for its antidepressant and nutritive qualities? Or, perhaps, Cardamom for its carminative and laxative effects, its interactions with the digestive system? Or even a nervine such as Red Clover, which brought with it anti-inflammatory impact? Definitely ginger, right? If for no other reason than to act as a synergist between the other ingredients.

Dried herbs ready for making herbal teas in the form of infusions and decoctions.

Everyone wanted everything, it seemed! To be lulled to sleep and to be uplifted and to have a well-greased gastrointestinal tract and also to be pumped full of minerals, all at once. This was exciting stuff. And we were all glad to be there learning all that there was – and is – yet to be discovered, understanding that the six weekends would at the very least provide us with a glimpse into what we might turn our attention to once released back into the wild.

Join us for our next Herbalism & Medicine-Making Course, beginning every April & October!

Join us October 7th on the farm for a celebratory fall harvest dinner and festival!

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