Remembering Who We Are: Chinese Botanical Guides
Bekah gets to know the plants of her grandmother’s village in Guangdong, China.
As part of our studies in the Cecemmana program, we as students are encouraged to study our ancestral medicines. We are encouraged to ask questions like: who were the healers in our families? What plant medicine did they use? What healing foods did they eat? What healing songs did they sing? In the first two years of Cecemmana, we as students researched the answers to these and other questions and then presented our findings. In my first year of Cecemmana, I looked forward to learning more about the herbal medicine practices of my Chinese heritage.
I found that before I could get to know the plants, though, I had to better understand my family. Growing up in a mixed race household in a predominantly white community, my sister and I grew up feeling disconnected from our Chinese heritage. Because of the ancestral medicine project, I started to ask my mom more questions about her life growing up in Hong Kong and our family’s roots in China. She had reached a point where some of these answers were less painful to give and my mom started telling me stories and family history I had never heard before. When it was my turn to present my medicine project to my peers, I barely spoke of plants. Instead, I told them the stories my mom had told me, the old family history I learned for the first time. I cried as I shared the struggles and triumphs of what my family had gone through so I can stand where I am today.
My ancestral medicine project with Cecemmana inspired me to say yes to another opportunity not long after. I learned about the Him Mark Lai: Family History Project based in the San Francisco Bay Area that connects Chinese Americans with their ancestral roots in Guangdong province in China. I applied to the program and was accepted to join their 2017 group. Traveling as a cohort, eleven of us visited the villages our grandparents, great grandparents, and parents had come from, as well as other culturally important sites.
The Roots cohort gathers together in Bekah’s grandmother’s village.
In my second year of Cecemmana, I shed tears again while presenting my ancestral medicine project to my cohort, this time with gratitude at the incredible journey I had been privileged to take to one of my homelands. I shared about meeting my grandmother’s cousin in her village and going on a walking tour of all the wells, including the well she drank from regularly, where I got to pray for the water there. I shared about the beauty of my grandfather’s village, where I found out that people in my extended family had been running the village’s herbal apothecary, located right next to our family’s ancestral hall, for generations.
While my ancestral medicine project didn’t start with the plants, they were incredible allies in helping me connect and stay open to learning about my family’s history. Below are a few of the trees and plants that guided and supported me, and continue to do so.
Bekah in front of the village apothecary in her grandfather’s village. This apothecary has been owned by members of her extended family for generations.
Ling Zhi, Ganoderma Lucidum, Reishi
Before I journeyed to China or asked my mom to share stories, I was taken with the story of Ling Zhi, Ganoderma Lucidum (often called Reishi, it’s name in Japanese). The mushroom is so powerful that in ancient times it was reserved only for the use of emperors. Ling Zhi helps build deep immunity, acts as a bitter, calms your nervous system, can decrease tumor size, and can help ease side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
The first time I meditated with Ling Zhi, I took a few drops of a tincture and sat in silence to listen to its messages for me. In my meditation I found myself flying with the stars. I experienced great joy and awe in this beautiful experience of connecting with the cosmos. In addition to all the ways Ling Zhi can support our physical bodies, the mushroom taught me about the beauty, power, and mystery available to me through Chinese medicine and the botanical world.
Mimosa Flower & Bark, Albizia Julibrissin, He Huan Hua
In my herbal apprenticeship group with Atava, I was introduced to a beautiful blossom I had never seen before. As we touched the flowers and prepared them to be made into a tincture, I had a sudden jolt of recognition. Even though I didn’t know the name of the blossom or the tree, I somehow knew that these flowers had been used by my Chinese ancestors. Atava confirmed that the mimosa tree is native to China and has long been used in Chinese medicine, particularly to help lift depression. Other uses can include helping with sleep, sore throats, and skin infections, among others.
Recognizing Mimosa taught me to trust my intuition and to know that my body and heart remember Chinese medicine even when I think I don’t know it or that I am disconnected from my cultural practices. Mimosa reminds me to listen to my inner wisdom and that of my ancestors as it flows through me.
Bekah at the foot of the five hundred year old Banyan tree in her grandfather’s village.
Banyan Tree, Ficus benghalensis
The first time I met a Banyan tree, I was studying and living in Havana, Cuba. I was instinctively drawn to the tree, fascinated by the long spindly aerial roots and twisting and twining trunks. I later learned that my Chinese ancestors from Southeastern China, a similar climate to that of Cuba, have long coexisted with these trees. I think a part of me remembered the Banyan trees like I remembered the Mimosa.
In my grandfather’s village in China, I was able to pay my respect to the tree elder, a banyan tree over five hundred years old that had been there since before the founding of the village. I was able to lay my hands on the tree, thanking it for cleaning the air, providing love and shade, and for holding memories of the village. I am grateful to have met this elder, and carry it with me in my heart even though I live far from Banyans.
While in China, I visited the tea market in Guangzhou and bought dried chrysanthemum flowers to take home with me. Traditionally, chrysanthemum flowers are often used as offerings on altars, symbols of powerful yang energy, and to attract good luck in the home. Medicinally, they are used for conditions that range from lowering blood sugar levels, to treating eye strain, to treating colds and fevers.
At home, I have tinctured the chrysanthemum flowers and added them to a spray I made for grounding and clearing. The spray includes some traditional ingredients of an agua florida including cinnamon, clove, rosemary, and orange peel, the chrysanthemum flowers, and a few drops of water I collected from my grandparents villages. I am thankful to be able to include water and flowers to remind me of the land and water I come from.
My work of uncovering my ancestral medicine in its many forms continues to unfold. I’m grateful to these plants and trees and other botanical guides who have helped open my heart and deepen my experiences of what it means to be Chinese and walk with integrity and love for myself, for the land, and for all people. I feel my ancestors behind me and am grateful they called me back even when I grew up feeling far away from them and our cultural practices. I have faith now that I can continue growing my roots in the fertile soil that is our medicine and culture.
Do you have plant guides who have helped connect you to family medicine and stories? I would love to hear your stories as well.
Rebekah Sze-Tung Olstad is passionate about building relationships and connections with nature in all its forms. She studies plant and herbal medicine at Ancestral Apothecary in Oakland, CA where she is in the third year of the Cecemmana program and is preparing to be a community herbalist. When not working in San Francisco advocating for nationwide environmental protections, you can find her in the East Bay hills or making forays to the coast, to the redwoods, and to the beautiful Sierras.