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Bioregional Herbalism

At home with the wild plants of the Gila.

By Kiva Rose


"Herbalism is based on relationship—relationship between plant and human, plant and planet, human and planet. Using herbs in the healing process means taking part in an ecological cycle. This offers us the opportunity consciously to be present in the living, vital world of which we are part; to invite wholeness and our world into our lives through awareness of the remedies being used."                    —Wendell Berry


Healing begins at home, growing from the same rich soil we spring from. The plant medicines' lives are intertwined with ours: blooming uninvited outside the front door, growing from the terra cotta pots on our kitchen windowsills and shooting up in well-tended community gardens. Traditional healers—curanderas and vegetalistas, Sami shamans and modern medicine women—have long understood that the medicine we need the most grows very near to us.

Central to finding the roots of healing is discovering where we are. Whether we know it or not, we are each members of unique ecosystems called "bioregions." Each is a specific life zone defined by its watershed and indicator species, and by their relationships to each other. A bioregion may be defined by its wildflowers and red earth, by the Ponderosa pines and prickly pears of the Gila, or by the mangroves and Cherokee roses of the Everglades. Bioregions are not subject to or confined by manmade boundaries like national borders, state or county lines or city limits. Instead, they flow along the lines of rivers and rainfall, migration routes and weather patterns.

On a practical level, to live bioregionally is to acknowledge and participate in the ecosystem we are a part of, rooted—in a very literal sense—in the land that we live on. It may mean eating local and wild foods, using materials that occur naturally near us, and participating in the ecosystem by caring for it. What this means for each one of us will vary according to the needs of the land, depending on whether restoration is the most beneficial course of action for that particular area, whether establishing trees or restoring the soil by replanting species like stinging nettle. Or it may mean simply helping maintain the diversity that already exists with careful harvesting practices and a prayerful attitude towards the spirit of the land.

Utilizing the plants where you are creates a very special bond. No matter how much you love the pricey but powerful ginseng from your favorite herb store, it can't compete with the hawthorn flowers or devil's club roots from your own backyard or whatever special spot you gather your herbs from. When we gather rose hips from the same five bushes at a certain spot down by the river every year, we learn what it's like to have an intimate relationship with the plants. We remember the ancient wisdom of our foremothers: of mano and metate, of root and water. We see the plant each year, noting how it's grown or suffered that year, tasting the differences in rainfall or frost in its berries, noticing the exact pattern of thorns and leaves on this one that makes it different from any other rose bramble.

This intimacy is the key to truly understanding the language of the green ones. There are trees here in my special canyon home I know so well that I could identify them in the dark with just my hands and nose, recognizing them as the individuals I have hugged and harvested from, that I have confided in and prayed my thanks to. I have memorized them as I have my own daughter's face: by heart.

Go ahead, touch and smell, taste and look closely, don't be afraid to really experience the dirt and the flowers, the cool flow of the river and midday heat of the Southwestern sun. Yes, get down flat on your belly, so as to better see the microcosmos, the whole worlds that exist inside that single sacred datura flower. Only through this sensory engagement can we really enter into the spirit of the earth and her plant children. When we're plugged into whatever bioregion we have our own roots in, we're better able to hear the subtle voices of the living green that surrounds us.


Modern Western herbalism seems to stress having a huge materia medica and a working knowledge of literally hundreds of plants. It's great to work with an abundance of herbs so that we can see the full spectrum of herbal medicine, but it's even more important to really know a few local herbs that you'll use over and over. Once you form an intimate alliance with a certain plant, you'll often be surprised by its range of uses and responsiveness to your healing needs. In some indigenous traditions, especially those of South America, a healer might spend her entire practice using only a single plant, dedicated to the thorough learning and partnering with that plant. In Western herbalism a particular herb is often pigeonholed as a simple anti-inflammatory or astringent, yet most have an extensive range of uses.

That beautiful goldenrod growing under the Ponderosa on the hillside there is a good example of a little-understood and underutilized plant. When most people use goldenrod medicinally they almost always immediately think of its astringent effect on the mucus membranes, since it is commonly used in sinus congestion and allergies. But did you know that goldenrod is also a first-rate wound and bruise herb, wonderful for menstrual cramps, cystitis and yeast infections as well as being one of the finest remedies for injured, sore or tight muscles? It's also purported by a few sensitive herbalists to be an effective anti-depressant, and it has even been used as a kidney yin tonic and digestive remedy.

Rather than looking at the lists of actions or constituents often available in herb books about a plant, it might be wiser to get a fuller sense of the herb's personality and energy. Goldenrod has a gentle, feminine spirit that is encouraging and cheerful. Most people find her slightly warming. Her healing powers are primarily aimed towards the mucus membranes, stomach, reproductive organs and especially the kidneys. She makes a wonderful ally for those who often feel a little sad, especially in the wintertime, who have little endurance and difficulty following through. Her sunny disposition can brighten spirits and restore lost energy and drive. Leaning in closer, smelling her exquisite honey scent, I can feel her magic working already.

Interacting with the same plants on a daily basis, we start to make connections and notice affinities with individual herbs. Though we may have a dozen plants for wounds in the front yard or apothecary, we will probably find that a particular one seems to work best for us personally. For some, it's comfrey, for another it's plantain. It all depends on what's available, our individual personality and what the plants have in mind for us personally. If we have young children, a very gentle and safe plant like plantain may work out especially well for us, easily recognizable and accessible to little ones with a scrape or bug bite. On the other hand, if we have specialized needs like psoriasis or arthritis, a more specific ally may call to us. Either way, the power of the healing lies in its personalization to us and its integration into our everyday life.


Get close to each plant as an individual. Start with a single ally and slowly expand to about 20 or 25 locally available species, ideally including several native wild species. If we know even six intimately we'll find that we need little else for personal and family use. Even, or perhaps especially, commonly maligned weeds such as dandelion, nettles and plantain can provide us with a wealth of food and medicine.

It's easy to pass off a common plant as just another parking-lot pest, but this is our short-sightedness and loss; looking into history we see that many of the currently blacklisted weeds like mallow and yellow dock have been revered as powerful medicines in the not-so-ancient past. And we can see for ourselves, if we look a little closer at the star-shaped blossoms of stellaria or the nourishing root of burdock, the powerful healing powers and amazing spiritual presence that these plants have.

A certain pink-flowered plant may call to you from a corner of the garden; a weedy little vervain or a prickly hawthorn tree keeps grabbing your attention as you try to weed the lilies or water the roses. Pay attention to these subtle messages, and you'll be rewarded with powerful medicine. Working with the plants is very much like a marriage, a reciprocal partnership that evolves and changes with time, each season leaving us more whole and fulfilled.

Dig deeply into the land, I suggest. Let your life become ever more interwoven with that of the plants, allowing yourself to grow from the healing roots of home.


Kiva Rose is an intuitive medicine woman, herbalist, poet and teacher of Animá. She helps tend a wild river canyon in the enchanted Southwest, offering correspondence courses, wilderness retreats, vision quests, apprenticeships and events like the fun and informative Medicine Woman's Wild Plant Workshop, May 24-28. Contact her at the Animá Learning Center & Women's Sanctuary, Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830, mail@animacenter.org. For more on herbs and traditional Southwestern remedies, check out medicinewomansroots.blogspot.com.




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