Herbalism & Medicine-Making: Session Three

by Marina Vernovsky

This article is part three of a six-part blog series about Marina Vernovsky’s experience in the Santa Cruz Permaculture Herbalism & Medicine-Making Course, a 6-weekend course beginning every April & October. Read part one here and part two here.

Herbalism & Medicine-Making students learn about herbal oils and salves with lots of hands-on practical opportunities to learn.

Integumentary and Nervous Systems

Herbalism and Medicine Making met for its third session during the first weekend of February. The focus now moved toward more specific anatomical/physiological/histological systems of the body, along with corresponding production of plant medicine and deliciously oily and moisturizing additions to anyone’s apothecary. This weekend was parceled neatly into Saturday’s integumentary system and Sunday’s nervous system. 

Each meeting of this course very clearly brought with it more detailed, intensive discussion of herbal medicine, allowing each participant to slowly – and thus, more thoroughly – develop a relationship with the components therein. Similarly, interpersonal relationships were apparently becoming stronger, more in-depth, as everyone settled further into the course’s rhythm with each session. An additional cause for elation and gratitude was the increasing extravagance of our Saturday potlucks. People swarmed – respectfully and mindfully – the large kitchen table that was covered with soups galore, both hearty and light; home-made membrillo (THANK YOU, CHRISTINE!); lemon bars with lemons plucked from a neighbor; salads; charcuterie. 

Onto a rough framework of herbalism and an equally rough framework of familiarity amongst the participants, we were ready to start building with the tools that were slowly shared with us: intricacies of plants, humans, stories, research, practice.

Rendering (Metaphors)

There really seems to be no end to the plethora of metaphors available for use in this context, to which whoever has read these blog posts thus far can attest. As fun as it is to mess around with plant-related puns, idioms about building or painting, or whatever else exists in the bottomless material and imaginary worlds, there truly is some sort of solid substance to these comparisons. There are actual, palpable reflections of one type of existence in others: humans mimic plants and vice versa, as one example. People’s physical structures reflect their perspectives. People’s perspectives reflect their past and their memories. A tree’s foliage reflects its environment in terms of climate, soil quality, etc. A bird’s call reflects that of a human child’s. Certain mycological growth and communication reflects that of the human nervous system. Plant communities reflect the patterns of individual humans in a human population. Large, visible patterns of organization are reflected in microscopic patterns of organization. Recall the Doctrine of Signatures, and how a plant’s herbal actions may be reflected in one or multiple of its visible aspects. One of the course’s participants pointed out that Lavender, with its characteristic purple flowers growing straight up from the top of the stem, resembled hair on a head – and upward movement in general – representing the anxiolytic, headache-reducing qualities with which it’s associated. 

These associations are indicative, perhaps not always literally, of the learning that results from mimicry, as well as the mimicry that results from learning. We learn by observing, associating, patterning, as does the rest of the world. And, as we continue learning, we are able to more readily see connections that exist beyond just metaphors; sometimes realizations of these connections come as epiphanies. 
Sunday morning, we began as we always did with a deep breath from Deva and a set of questions for each participant to answer in turn. We always – always – start by saying our names. Six sessions in, and some are almost able to name everyone as well as they can identify herbs during our plant walks. This morning, we were prompted to share our thoughts when considering the nervous system. Immediately, I remembered something Gil Hedley, founder of the Institute for Anatomical Research, uses as an analogy for the human body. As he dissects a cadaver, layer by layer, he describes the entire structure as an onion overlaid with a tree. The tree resembles the vasculature and general structure; the onion represents the layers of tissue around and among the weaving vessels of the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, and the lymphatic system, as well as the structures of the skeletal system. It really is an astounding thing to consider these analogies, and how effective they are as a glimpse into our worlds.

Chickweed, Stellaria media, is prolific and abundant, and an excellent herbal medicine.

Covered by Integument

Rewind to Saturday, when we experimented with topical medicine in the form of lotions and salves. While internal remedies for ailments of the skin are certainly produced and used – including tinctures, capsules, teas, body oils, lotions, salves, poultices, herbal baths, and compresses – topical formulations tend to be less habit-forming. Believe it or not: herbs are potent, and their medicinal formulations can be even more so, especially considering the extraction and concentration of herbal constituents in the process of creating medicine. 

Everyone was already buzzing with excitement about the hands-on activities, but the preceding lecture was just as critical in this introduction to the herbal treatments of the skin. So, before describing the fun stuff, following is an equally fun summary of the lecture …
The skin is composed of three layers, from superficial to deep: epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. It houses sweat glands, sebaceous glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, nerves, etc. Depending on the specific area of skin, there can be anywhere from 30-100 sweat glands per square inch! It is the largest organ of the body, an eliminatory organ, and is even known as the “third lung” in Chinese medicine. The skin provides protection, as a barrier, and secretes oil (like the sebum that is pushed out through the hair follicles) to further protect its contents by creating a waterproof layer. It is constantly regenerating and eliminating toxins, and simultaneously functions as a sensory organ. The skin, as a whole, is composed of a variety of tissues, the proportions of which change, again, depending on the specific area of the body, and depending on the person. It is partially composed of – though not exclusively – dead keratin and immune cells (epidermis); sebaceous glands, sweat glands, hair follicles, collagen, elastin (dermis); connective tissue, adipose lobules, blood vessels, sensory neurons (hypodermis). It can be thick or rough or soft, tight or loose. Check out your palm, and then flip your hand over to look at the back of it. Do you notice the differences in texture? In color? In opacity? What might be the reason for these differences? Touch your palms to each other. Can you feel your left palm with your right palm? How about your right with your left? It’s magic, no? How everything works so wonderfully, so harmoniously, even if not exactly the way you wish it would all the time.

Students in the herbalism course apply salves and lotions to their skin as they learn about carrier oils and herbal constituents.

Lather, Lather, Repeat

Herbally, given everyone’s unique constitution and the vast microbiome that exists on the skin, what may be effective as treatment for one person may not be effective for the next person. That said, there are certain practices that may be employed ubiquitously to create a solid foundation of integumentary health: not over-cleansing, thereby destroying the microbiome of the skin and causing overproduction of sebum; eating healthy (seriously look into what this means, and what it means for YOU); promoting sweat; moving! In Ayurveda, there is even a practice of cleansing with oil, for the face skin, the body skin, even for the teeth and gums. 

Among herbs used for skin medicine are Chickweed (Stellaria media), something that we realized quickly is prolific and abundant, especially once our ability to identify it was unlocked. Plantain, another weed, is an incredibly effective first aid herb for the skin, especially as a poultice, or extracted in oil. An interesting implication of this weed is echoed by its Latin name, Plantago major, with “Plantago” referring to the sole of the foot. This herb is called “white man’s footstep” by indigenous people, as it grew along the paths taken by white settlers. 

We discussed various carrier oils and their specific compositions and benefits or drawbacks, and then, at long last, turned to formulating herbal oils, from which are made lotions and salves. 

The larger group sectioned off, and we commenced measuring, dividing, pouring, boiling, simmering, blending, dividing into jars, and then moisturizing ourselves with the leftovers. And then moisturizing again. And again. As I ran out of surface area onto which I could apply the concoctions, I swear my skin had never been softer. 

And on and on and on,

The learning continues. Descriptions and analyses of these days during which the Herbalism and Medicine Making course took place could continue ad infinitum. These posts are meant to serve as a very, truly, brief sharing of events from my invariably limited perspective. Take advantage of this opportunity to look into this specific experience. Beyond that, however, don’t hesitate to peruse through the width and breadth of existing and constantly fluctuating literature, research, and any and all materials that abound regarding anything that piques your interest. Experience everything you can. Indulge your inherently and wonderfully rampant curiosity.

“[You] … will find no end to the journey once begun. It is as deep as the universe is wide, and no less profound.” ~Gil Hedley, 2009

Calendula flowers from our permaculture farm on the coast of California are used by herbalism students.

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