Cecemmana Student Post Series: Recognizing Plants
This year, as spring comes, I am recognizing plant friends everywhere. Small chickweed flowers surround a sidewalk tree on my street. The feathery leaves of California golden poppy, not yet in bloom, catch my eye by the side of a road. In a park, I spot the leaves of yarrow, also feathery, but in a different way from California poppy. Walking an urban park trail, I see what I think is cleavers, and touch it just to be sure. Another plant, woodruff, looks enough like cleavers to be mistaken for it by even an experienced herbalist (I’ve seen it happen!) but doesn’t have the stickiness of cleavers.
Two years ago, when I started in the Cecemmana program, I would not have immediately recognized any of these plants. (I would’ve known California golden poppy by its flowers, but not been so sure of its leaves when it wasn’t blooming. Yarrow, I often confused with other plants, although on further acquaintance, its appearance is quite distinct.) On our first herb walk of the first year, I felt overwhelmed: how could I ever learn to recognize so many plants?
There are still some local medicinal plants that I can’t instantly name when I see them. But, through repeatedly meeting them and repeatedly hearing their names, each plant has become either a well-recognized friend or an acquaintance whose name barely escapes me. When I meet a medicinal plant in its habitat, my reaction is either instant recognition or, “I know I know you, but I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name?”
I opted from the beginning not to take photos or write down names of plants as I met them, fearing that doing so would get in the way of getting to know them directly. Just as I don’t take a photo of each new person I meet and write down their name, I don’t do that with plants, either. Getting to know a person takes seeing them repeatedly, talking to them, and learning to recognize them over time. It is the same with plants.
In fact, had I thought about it at the beginning of Cecemmana, I would’ve remembered that I already knew many plants the same way. As a child, I went on many an outdoor field trip in which we learned plant identification. I was in an after school program at a local rec center called Nature Club, in which we went on walks, learned to identify the local plants–especially the edible ones, like wild radish, and the dangerous one, like poison oak. We also engaged in other activities like netting bugs out of a creek to study under a microscope. As an adult, I spent several seasons as an outdoor education instructor, teaching some of those same skills. When I became an herbalism student, learning to recognize plants came along with learning to recognize their medicine.
A plant’s appearance, where it grows, and how it grows reflects its medicinal qualities. Yarrow in the wild intersperses itself with other types of plants, but retains its characteristic yarrow-ness. Energetically, its medicine helps people maintain boundaries with others while still being in relationship to them. Physically, it reinforces boundaries of skin and immune system: drives out infectious agents, stops bleeding, and helps torn skin reknit. Moisture-loving chickweed and cleavers, abundant in damp, muddy earth in the early spring after winter rains, move fluids in the body, serving as a diuretic and lymphatic (moving the lymph). California poppy’s feathery leaf networks evoke nerve networks, reflecting its affinity for the nervous system on both energetic and physical levels.
All of this is easy to absorb as information, but until you meet the plant, you do not truly know it. Meeting a plant again and again, until it becomes a familiar face, is the first step to working with herbal medicine.
Author: Megan Stoddard, third year Cecemmana student.