Food Medicine, Health

Her History on Herbs and Plants

Her History on Herbs and Plants

I have studied herbs since 2006….. That is not true. I have studied herbs since I was a little girl.  From the time I can remember, I walked over the open plains identifying plants with my mom, looking at ancient shells from oceans past. (Most of them were likely fresh water clams from just decades ago – but let’s not tell.) I rode horses and studied sunshine. We picked pokeweed and Grandma cooked it up with onion and a fried egg.  We collected mulberries, blackberries, tried dandelion greens (yuck!), and wild onions.  Wild garlic and red clover where collected, while the bees made dark brown sorghum honey.  Horseradish grinding was done outside, by adults only, but we picked and chewed what we could stand.

At nine, we lived in the southeastern appalachian forest for a couple years. I learned to run, and went all over the mountaintop.  I spent a lot of time pretended to be more native American than I am.  I read books on herbal lore of the pioneers, and indians.  I remember leaping through the forest, pleased when some adults identified me as a wild deer, from my snorting and leaping. Yep – that was me.

I was also out there identifying plants and learning their ‘magic powers,’ as well as retaining some information on their edible and medicinal uses. Dog Wood, Jack in the Pulpit, Trillium – all these were my fairy herbs.  I wrapped small elder sticks with Dogwood blossoms, wrapped with gold thread and stuffed into small bottles – for the fairies.  I lay for hours in the jonquils and daffodils that crowded the wide forest path. Okay, much of the herbal medicine part passed over my head, but I did learn quite a lot in the forests of Tennessee mountains

At 13, my mother took me on an well-fated Wild Edible Food Weekend, in the cold fall of Kansas. I didn’t want to go! It was boring (scary), there were only adults (embarrassing), I wasn’t interested (I was)….it would be cold.

It was cold, but I ended up not noticing. The weekend forever changed me.  I was stuck with a lifelong fondness for eating wild things, and for learning about plants. But only the ‘useful plants’ (that is a later story).  I remember making sumac aid. That is really the only food I remember. But when I grew older, these types of events drew me.

As a middle schooler and young adult, I studied tracking, read all the My Side of the Mountain Books, then the Hatchet books, then Tom Brown’s books.  I worked on the Red Wolf Project in North Carolina, where those tracking skills were used, at least a little.  I learned about the delicacy of cat briar shoots, collected mormon tea, and ate clams straight out of the sound.

After grad school I pent 6 weeks on a mountain, with a stranger releasing baby falcons. We had a lot of free time and a lot of walking. He identified flowering plants. I learned them ‘if they were useful;’ edible, medicinal, or poisonous were my qualifiers. When I was older still, in a rip in my life between grad school and walking away from a very expensive northern veterinary college program, I went to the coast to heal. I signed up for the first herbal food course in decades and made friends for life with two beach guys, just down for the food and nowhere to stay. They’d gone to my grad school – funny how life works that way.

I moved and grew. I learned to cook better each year, though I am by no means a great or inspired chef. Nor even a great cook. I was best at pies. I love pies.   After settling down, and having a baby, I joined a fateful herb walk, again, changing my life. I and 3 other women from the walk joined together and had an herb study group every 2 weeks. I already knew a lot, as did each of us, but we shared our knowledge. We poured through books and courses by Susan Weed, and Rosemary Gladstar. We ate chickweed, and dug burdock, though not very successfully I admits. My favorite herb experience was drinking cleaver and pineapple smoothies, then feeling like I had clean with bright light radiating out of my body.   My favorite pictures are the photo we took eating herb salad in a big bowl with our small daughters, and a pencil drawing of the 4 of us around a big wooden table.

We talked about ‘hearing herbs talk to you’. I admit, I thought that was a little flaky at first. Then one winter full of colds Mullen kept showing up in my pathway, making its way into my pocket, and then kitchen. Finally I made a tea of it. I have to admit, I was rather scared to drink it. The hot brown liquid called me and I risked a sip. It tasted – like vanilla and maple. Okay – so it had been calling me. It helped me with my winter respiratory blues. Why is it harder, scary even, to do things when you are alone? That is the only explanations I have for my hesitation and fear.

I’ve kept herbs and used them personally since then. However, I have never gotten really serious. Yes, I might have had my yard decorated in comfrey, lemon balm, three kinds of mint, oregano, rose, lobelia, motherwort, chamomile, feverfew, tea chrysanthemum, lavender, sage, and a bay tree, but everyone has that, right. Oh sure, my ex called me, and I brought our baby daughter a poultice of herbs after she stuck…well…anyway, kids do silly things, don’t they. Let’s move on!

Once I consulted a friend landscaper/master gardener on my yard.  I realized her ideas of useful plants and mine were drastically different. The mulberry was not a trash tree! (As my Grandpa would call it.)  It provided abundances of berries and jam (Jam! Umm! Much like pie!). The pine had wonderful sap, and fresh needle tee. The stinging nettle wasn’t a noxious weed, it just needed respect and it’s own place. What good was a commercial shrub? Would it provide berries or useful roots or flowers!?  No, we aren’t taking out the scrawny elderberries bush, I just planted it last year, after barely saving it from the plow at the edge of a farmer’s field! I just wanted a few more. Where could I get pawpaw trees?

I have to admit I was a little offended when the plumber suggested I pull up my poison hemlock! Couldn’t he see – it was clearly a Queen Anne’s Lace! (I was growing it to identify the differences between the two, and I had no Hemlock on my property.) Yes, I like the oxalis, and yes the chickweed. I am a little unsure on the pretty purple iris, however. It’s poisonous and it really doesn’t do anything useful. But the Day lilies! Ah – a whole meal’s worth of pretty, right there! The Poke weed can stay, along with the wild grape. We made wreaths out of that. But man – that redbud tree doesn’t seem helpful, nor the trumpet vine.

My herb group friends made closer friends out of herbs, than I.   I was always the one in the group that wouldn’t eat anything if it didn’t taste good. To be honest, I hated licorice root!  Well, we all have to get start on our journeys at our own time. I think this is actually of value, though. If I wouldn’t eat it, how could I expect my child to eat it, much less a partner, or a friend. Remember – I liked pies! And lotion. I loved making lotion. Deodorant. Homemade soap. Homemade Lara Bars, Homemade granola, Chai tea, real miso soup, baked tomato chips and crunchy kale leaves….. Very pragmatic.

My daughter grew up identifying plants, eating oxalis, chickweed, mustard, sumac, wild berries, and mulberries. I can’t tell you how many times she has been chided for eating wild edibles, and worse – sharing her knowledge with her peers. Poor thing. She is so happy to own these pieces of knowledge.

When we are out hiking along the Appalachian Trail, yes, we made tea: how can you help it with the wild bergamot, the happy red clover and some stinging nettle? Oh here’s some jewel weed or plantain.  When poked by a deep thorn while running deep in the woods, where no plantain grows, I made politics of other useful herbs, stopping the pain and bleeding immediately.

My idea of what tastes good has grown. I even like licorice root. You might not like all the things that I do. That’s okay. It’s my blog. I am just happy you are here!

by Tama Cathers, DVM, MS, BA Biology and Sociology, 2nd Degree in ToShinDo, Elemental Self Defense Instructor, Meditation Instructor, Threshold Choir Director, TriYoga Teacher Training Student, Sex Coach Trainee, Mixed Media Artist – Ceramics, Fused Glass, & Wire Wrapping, 2000 miler Appalachian Trail hiker, Gardener, and Herbalist.


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