Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Notes on Solomon's Plume

(Photo by Darcey Blue)

I first met Solomon's Plume (Smilacina racemosa) when I found her growing in abundance outside the van where I was living for a summer on a friend's land in central Maine.

That should have been a clue that this would be a powerful medicine for me.

But the first name I knew the plant by was "False Solomon's Seal," and I hadn't yet heard of people working with her medicine, so I dismissed her as "Not Solomon's Seal", not the medicine that had helped my knee to recover from a nasty fall the winter before.

So it caught me by surprise, when at a workshop in Vermont with Stephen Harrod Buhner, Solomon's Plume grabbed my attention and my imagination.

I saw in her form a graceful arc and then a sudden leap, bridging between worlds. I felt my chest relax and open, a cool influx of breath.

When I described what the plant showed me, Buhner told me that he found the medicine of the plant's root to be extremely useful for relaxing the connective tissues around the lungs.

Months later, when I had a chance to dig some of the roots (cutting the root several inches away from the plant to allow it to keep enough to continue growing and thriving) and tincture them, I found that my own experience matched Buhner's. I find this medicine combines particularly nicely with New England Aster (Aster Nova-angliae), a medicine which relaxes the musculature associated with the respiratory tract. The combination is great for asthmatics who are able to recognize the tightening in their chest that precedes an acute attack. (Thanks to Jim McDonald for the New England Aster part of this formula.) Its also great, in combination with breathing exercises and lung and kidney building herbs, for helping people who have developed patterns of shallow breathing from chronic respiratory disease to begin allowing themselves to breathe deeper.

The root is also profoundly cooling and demulcent -- and maintains its demulcent quality in tincture form for reasons that defy my phytochemical understanding -- and so is an excellent medicine for respiratory inflammation.

It makes a decent substitute for Solomon's Seal (Pologonatum spp.) for moistening and restoring pliability to dried out connective tissues throughout the body, particularly where there is also inflammation -- I used it with great success for a minor weight lifting injury in my right shoulder last winter.

Solomon's Plume has a strong affinity for the liver.

Matthew Wood writes that "It is restorative to the [liver's] cells or tissues and functions." And also reports that "William LeSassier said that constipation will always be present in a case requiring False Solomon's Seal. This may indicate that Smilacina improves bile secretion, hence lubrication of the stool." This may also explain its use by the Delaware and the Navajo as an emetic.

Michael Moore notes that "the root tea is also useful in frontal headaches caused by or accompanied by indigestion" -- which suggests to me that it cools liver heat.

I've had great personal success using the root tincture for constipation, indigestion, and headache associated with heat and congestion in the liver following exposure to gluten or casein.

As a liver cooling herb, Solomon's Plume also helps to cool the temper. The root smudge, which smells faintly of burnt gingerbread, was traditionally burned to soothe anger and irritability associated with PMS.

There is also a strong association of the plant with invisibility -- Solomon's Plume tends to make herself known when she wants to be seen but otherwise is often surprisingly inconspicuous for such a distinctively beautiful plant. Legend has it that Geronimo carried the root of Solomon's Plume as an invisibility charm and that it aided him in evading capture.

My own magical experience of the plant suggests an even stranger reality: The deep, cool peace of Solomon's Plume feels like it aids in slipping briefly outside ordinary space and time. Journeying with the plant, I felt myself in the center of a well-shaft that opened to distant stars, apart from a chaotic reality unfolding outside around me. I saw the face of Obatala, the Orisha associated with calm judgment who "cools the head." Perhaps Geronimo never actually became invisible, but slipped into this place instead.

This is a plant of cool, deep waters, that keeps revealing more dimensions of its medicine over time.

Why I eat meat

I was a vegetarian for seventeen years. And in the end, it was reflecting on the same questions that led me to stop eating meat that made me start eating it again.

Throughout my years as a vegetarian, I subscribed to the idea that a plant-based diet required less use of water, fossil fuels, and other "resources" than a diet that included meat.

But that's not necessarily true.

Here in New England, the soils are rocky and the growing season is short. A vegetable-based diet requires the importation of protein and fat from distant places, using tremendous amounts of fossil fuels. But the land here is great for grazing sheep and cattle. Eating the flesh of a grass-fed steer who lived out its life on a farm a few miles down the road costs the life of one animal, eating soy trucked across a continent costs the lives of many.

In many parts of the world, agriculture is a large scale operation that destroys habitat. Here in rural New England, small scale animal-based agriculture is an essential part of preserving land that would otherwise be more intensively developed.

The answers to questions about the most sustainable diet is vary widely from place to place depending on soils, climate, population density, and the history of land use.

Some may argue that its not sustainable or realistic for everyone everywhere to eat a diet that relies on sustainably and humanely raised or hunted meat. But I am not necessarily making the argument that it is. Sustainability is not a simple equation. There is not one diet that is appropriate for everyone everywhere. (Though from a health standpoint there are some pretty good indicators of what our bodies did and didn't evolve to eat -- see

Every food choice we make has its costs in plant and animal lives.

For a long time only the animal lives matter to me -- for the same reason that for many people only human lives matter, and for others only the lives of humans of the same ethnic background matter -- because we most easily see ourselves mirrored in the lives of beings who closely resemble us and whose sentience is expressed in ways similar to our own.

But when I came to know plants more intimately I came to realize that they too are sentient beings with a desire to live.

Many vegetarian have misinterpreted this as a mockery of their beliefs. (Which oddly echoes the arguments I heard in my years of advocating for animal rights that talking about animal suffering somehow made a mockery of human suffering.) But the emerging field of plant neurobiology is demonstrating that plants have complex neural networks and recognize the difference between self and other. And as an herbalist when I write about talking about the plants, I am not speaking metaphorically --- I have conversations and relationships with Skunk Cabbage and Ghost Pipe as deep and meaningful as my human and animal relationships.

There is no choice of not killing. Our lives depend on the deaths of others. Just as the lives of cattle and bison and salmon and turnips and kale and redwoods do. To truly follow the philosophy of deep ecology and view ourselves as "plain members of the biological community" we need to recognize that we are as much a part of that web of life and death, eating and being eaten as any other species.

There is a sacredness in that. For me I have found that as an omnivore I am more conscious of the ethical and ecological choices I make about food than I was as a vegetarian. When I look back at myself as a vegetarian I see someone who was concerned primarily about what kind of organisms were represented directly on my plate. (And I know this is not true of all vegetarians.) As an omnivore, I am concerned about the web of relationships represented by the food on my plate, and the questions I ask about my impact on that web don't have simple answers.

Eating for me is a sacred act. And I give thanks for all who died to give me life, and honor them as best I can by living a life of working for love, justice, healing, and holy pleasure.