Friday, December 31, 2010

Touching the Heart of the World Online Intensive


An Online Intensive with Sean Donahue

January 18 - February 22


Stephen Harrod Buhner writes that "Members of most ancient and indigenous cultures make an interesting assertion; when asked where in their body they live, they gesture to the region of the chest. Members of our culture, on the other hand, point to the head, generally an inch above the eyes and about two inches into the skull."

What does it mean to live from the heart?

In this six week intensive we will draw on the insights of biology, magic, herbalism, cultural history, and poetry to answer this question. And we will journey inside ourselves to explore new ways of listening to the world around us.

We will explore:

* The role the heart plays in how we experience emotion, respond to stress, and gather information from the world around us.

* How the place where we live in our bodies effects our experience of the world and shapes our culture.

* Techniques for listening to and working to heal wounded parts of ourselves.

* Learning to work with the heart as an organ of perception.

* The connections between personal, cultural, and planetary healing.

This promises to be a powerfully transformational, and at times emotionally intense journey. My goal as a teacher is to provide a safe and supportive space for that work. But I am not in a position to serve as therapist or counselor for students. Please bear this in mind as you consider undertaking this work.

Payment for this class is on a sliding scale from $100-200 The price reflects the work that I put into preparing and teaching this course. The higher end of the sliding scale is intended for people who can regularly afford things like eating out, going to concerts, and attending workshops and retreats. For those who are deeply committed to this work but are not able to afford even the low end of the sliding scale I am willing to discuss payment plans and partial or full barter arrangements. If enough people pay at the higher end of the sliding scale, I may be able to offer a few partial scholarships to students who would not otherwise be able to take this course.

If you are interested in enrolling, please e-mail me at

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Myth of the Herbal Detox

Its the most common question herbalists get, especially in the days between Christmas and New Year's: "What herbs will help my body detox?"

And my answer is always the same:

Drink water. Eat good, healthy, local, food -- organic or wild if possible, mainly meat, fish, and vegetables. Move in ways that feel good to your body. And most of the time your body will take care of itself -- we are designed to clean out whatever doesn't belong inside us and a little holiday indulgence doesn't make you "toxic."

But, you might ask, what's the harm in giving your body a push? Well it turns out you can do a lot of damage.

Forcing your colon to clear itself with stimulating laxatives -- be they herbal or pharmaceutical -- in the best of circumstances will put a lot of stress on your gut lining, and in many cases can create a dangerous dependency. When laxatives are used regularly, the body's ability to set into motion its own process of elimination atrophies, and a person can begin to need higher and higher doses of laxatives to make any bowel movement at all.

Taking in a lot of fiber in a short period of time can damage the lining of the gut. Oh and those "herbal cleanses" that tell you they are clearing out "mucoid plaque"? They are made of Psyllium husks and clay. The strange substance they cause you to excrete is the combination of the two.

If your digestion is a bit sluggish (marked by slow transit time for food, a thick white coating down the middle of the tongue, bloating and constipation) warming herbs like Ginger, Cinnamon, Black Pepper, Fennel and Cardamom can help give it a gentle nudge. Best before meals. Add more bitter foods to your diet as well, and consider taking some old fashioned digestive bitters before you eat.

If you are experiencing abdominal bloating, there is a significant chance that the problem is in the lymph that surrounds the gut. Much of the lymph in your body exists there. When the gut lining becomes damaged by inflammation from food allergens, stress, repeated antibiotic use, laxatives, and so on, it can become permeable and food particles can leak from the gut into the lymph. This triggers an immune response. And in many cases this can lead to autoimmune disorders when your body develops a heightened immune response to proteins that resemble those of our own tissues -- ie. Gluten which is structured like our connective tissues and Soy which is structured like our thyroid tissues.

This kind of condition usually requires the help of an herbalist. A combination of demulcent herbs like Marshmallow and Slippery Elm with wound healing herbs like Calendula and Plantain can help heal the gut lining. Gentle lymphatics like Cleavers and Red Clover can get the lymph moving again. Immune modulating mushrooms and herbs can bring the immune system back into balance. Probiotics can restore the gut flora. And dietary and lifestyle changes are necessary to prevent future damage.

If you are experiencing chronic constipation, the problem may be with your liver failing to produce enough bile to stimulate digestion.

The answer here is to support the liver, and possibly gently stimulate it, not to do a "liver flush."

The popular liver and gallbladder flushes involving Lemon juice and Olive oil that cause people to excrete round green objects they think are gallstones are actually just creating balls of soap made in the intestine from the oil and juice with bile. They are causing more stress to the system.

Milk Thistle seeds help to protect and support the liver. They don't in and of themselves "cleanse" the liver but they can increase liver clearance of toxins by improving liver function.

Bitter herbs like Dandelion root, Burdock,, and Oregon Grape Root do increase liver clearance by stimulating bile production.

Some herbs like St. John's Wort directly increase the liver's clearance of toxins. But its important to understand what you are trying to eliminate and make sure it has a clear channel to leave your body. And its also important to pay attention to interactions with pharmaceuticals -- the body treats synthetic chemicals as toxins, and if you are dependent on a particular synthetic compound to maintain your health, increasing your liver's clearance of it can do serious harm.

And its important always to look at what is stressing your liver -- food allergens, excess alcohol, excess fructose, environmental toxins, and viral infection are all possibilities, and any of these need to be addressed thoroughly and carefully.

So my answer in the end is be good to your body. Nourish it and exercise it well. If that's not sufficient, investigate the specific problem. There is no one size fits all "herbal detox." Any product or protocol that makes such a claim is likely to do more harm than good.

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.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Green Man's Guide To the Flu: Part 2 -- Dealing with the Flu

So, despite all your best efforts, you get the flu. What should you do?

First and foremost: go to bed. And do not get up for a week. You will feel better on the third day and be tempted to go back to work. Don't. People who don't get enough rest when they have the flu are more prone to secondary respiratory infections that can turn into pneumonia.

Secondly, reach for Elderberries. In most any form -- tincture, elixir, syrup. Tea would be fine but you'll likely have a hard time getting enough of it into your system to have the desired effect if you are feeling nauseated. Take it every hour that you are awake -- at least a teaspoon of syrup or a dropper of tincture or elixir. Elderberries stop viral replication and also modulate your immune response, limiting the inflammatory cytokines that flood your system a few days into an influenza infection. Respiratory inflammation is the second leading cause of death or serious illness associated with flu, after secondary infection. Excessive exertion is usually a contributing factor here.

Keep taking your Vitamin D3. It will modulate the immune response in your respiratory tract as well.

You can address respiratory inflammation directly with cooling herbs that have an affinity for the respiratory system: Elder flower works wonders here. Peach leaf is cooling to the lungs and also calming to the digestive system. Pleurisy Root brings down inflammation in the lungs while also helping to regulate fluid levels. Wild Cherry bark or leaf are ideal for calming racking coughs, cooling inflammation, and helping you get to sleep -- indicated when the cheeks turn cherry red. Marsh Mallow, Slippery Elm, and Siberian Elm will help to moisten the mucus membranes, making coughs more productive.

If you are feeling nauseated, take small sips of Ginger tea. You just need a little bit of Ginger to calm your stomach.

At the outset you will likely feel cold. Wrap yourself in blankets. Take warm baths. Put some Thyme in an old sock and throw it in your bath. Drink Ginger tea.

After a while, your temperature will begin to rise and you will develop a fever. Fever is your friend -- it helps to kill off influenza viruses and any opportunistic pathogens that may follow in their wake. Fevers that develop in response to infection will not rise to dangerous levels. The only reason to treat a fever is to make yourself more comfortable.

Stay hydrated, stay in bed, and do not eat until the fever breaks.

Avoid acetaminophen and NSAID's (ibuprofen, aspirin, etc.) at all costs. They suppress fevers and also suppress immune responses in the respiratory tract. They also damage your gut.

If your fever becomes uncomfortable, use diaphoretic herbs -- herbs that work with your body's natural fever response rather than suppressing it.

Stimulating diaphoretics like Ginger, Osha, Cayenne, and Thyme help the body move heat from the core out to the periphery. They are ideal when you are feeling weak and miserable.

Relaxing diaphoretics like Elder flower, Vervain, and Pleurisy Root help to relax tension at the surface to allow heat to escape. They are ideal when you are feeling tense, especially if you are hot but unable to sweat.

Some plants like Catnip, Yarrow, and Lemonbalm combine these actions.

Boneset is ideal for alternating fever and chills or for a fever accompanied by pain that feels like it goes down to the bone -- it also helps with the general body aches that come with the flu.

Teas are ideal here since they keep the body hydrated, but tinctures will do in a pinch or if nausea makes teas difficult.

Once the fever goes below 99 degrees begin slowly reintroducing food, starting with something easily digested and deeply nourishing like bone broth. Avoid chills. And keep taking it easy.

Trust your body, and give it the time it needs to heal. It may be hard to give yourself a week of rest -- but remember you may be saving yourself a month or more of dealing with bronchitis or pneumonia.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Green Man's Guide to Flu Season -- Part 1: Prevention

Driving around town today, I saw signs everywhere for flu shots -- at the supermarket, at the pharmacy, even at the newspaper.

The effectiveness of influenza vaccinations is questionable at best. Paul Bergner writes that among healthy adults, the percentage of individuals in a vaccinated population who develop severe disease, miss days at work, or require hospitalization is the same as in an unvaccinated population” A 2008 study in The Lancet found that flu vaccinations did not reduce the incidence of influenza-related pneumonia among the elderly. (Pneumonia resulting from secondary infections in a respiratory tract compromised by the flu is the most common cause of flu-related deaths.)

The effectiveness of the vaccine also depends on the virus relatively unchanged throughout the flu season – a highly unlikely prospect.

And influenza vaccines have been implicated in rare but very serious neurological damage.

If vaccination were the only way to prevent the spread of the flu and were demonstrated to be effective, I might be inclined to consider it a worthwhile risk.

But there are other, better ways to prevent infection. (And if you do choose to vaccinate, they are fully compatible.)


The best way to prevent the flu is to support the immune system.

That begins with nourishing the body.

One of the great paradoxes of our time is that while we as a nation are struggling with obesity, we are also struggling with malnutrition. Often the two go hand in hand. Our agriculture policies have made calorie rich, nutrient poor foods cheap and plentiful. The diets of most Americans – and especially of poor people who don't have the option of buying more expensive foods – are dangerously deficient in several nutrients essential to immune function.

And because our soil has been so severely depleted of minerals, even someone eating a well balanced diet of whole, organic foods can have serious nutritional deficiencies.

Food is the best way to get most nutrients, but supplementation can play an important role in giving the body the nourishment it needs for proper immune function.

Vitamin D is a steroid hormone essential to healthy immune function in the respiratory system. The body naturally produces some of its own Vitamin D through sun exposure each day. each day is sufficient to provide the Vitamin D we need. But anywhere north of Atlanta, GA its nearly impossible to get enough sun exposure to produce the Vitamin D we need after October or so. Its no coincidence that colds and flus are more common in the fall and winter when its hard to get extended full body sun exposure at northern latitudes like ours.

For optimum health, an adult needs 10,000 IU of Vitamin D a day – the equivalent of the amount the body would produce through extended full body exposure to mid-day sun. Few foods have Vitamin D in usable forms – egg yolks and cod liver oil do, but its hard to consume either of them in sufficiently high levels. Leading Vitamin D researcher Dr. John Jacob Cantrell recommends daily doses of 1,000 IU of Vitamin D3 for children under the age of 2, 2,000 IU of Vitamin D3 for older children, and 5,000 IU of Vitamin D3 a day for adolescents and adults. I personally take 5,000 – 10,000 IU of Vitamin D3 a day from the Fall Equinox to the Spring Equinox with the amount depending on the amount of sun exposure I get each day. (Note that Vitamin D2 cannot be used by the body in the same way as D3.)

Speaking of cod liver oil, a number of studies have shown that daily doses of cod liver oil reduce the incidence of respiratory infections. Besides being high in Vitamin D, cod liver oil has high levels of Vitamin A and essential fatty acids which are deficient in the American diet and essential to immune function. Bergner suggests a tablespoon a day. Make sure you buy from a company that tests for heavy metals! Canned cod livers are equally beneficial.

Zinc and Selenium are also important for the immune system, and deficient in most people's diets. Vegetarians have an especially hard time getting enough Zinc because chemicals in grains and legumes (especially unfermented soy) block Zinc absorption. Bergner suggests that adults take 40 mg of Zinc and 200 mcg of Selenium daily. 4 Brazil Nuts a day can give you the Selenium you need. A can of Oysters will give you enough Zinc for a week.

Herbs can provide support to the immune system as well.

Echinacea is certainly the most well known herb for boosting immunity, but it is not appropriate for all people or all situations. Echinacea is an immune stimulant, kicking the immune system into action. This can be dangerous for people with auto-immune conditions like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. I find Echinacea most effective when used in high, frequent doses at the onset of an infection. I shy away from its use as a daily tonic.

Echinacea is for sprints,. Flu season is a marathon.

There are a number of herbs that support the immune system without overtly stimulating it. Medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, Shitake, Maitake, and Chaga provide deep nourishment to the immune system and are appropriate for daily use.

Astragalus is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to strengthen the body's defenses against respiratory infections. Astragalus is available as a tincture or a tea but is also sold as a vegetable in some places and makes a wonderful addition to winter soups. Discontinue use if an acute infection sets in.

Schizandra, Holy Basil, and Ashwagandha are also great herbs for supporting and modulating the immune system and most people respond well to them. I personally like to use Eleuthero for immune modulation in the fall and winter for the extra kick it gives me during the season when my metabolism begins to slow down, but people who run hot constitutionally tend to find it too stimulating for daily use. American Ginseng is great for immune support in elders and others who are somewhat depleted. Chinese and Koren Ginsengs tend to be too stimulating for all but the very frail.

Elderberry is a great immune modulator too. Its well known for its use in acute viral infections, but can be used to prevent infection as well -- 30 drops of tincture or a teaspoon of syrup 3-4 times a day. (The syrup is great in seltzer water!)

The very best way to support healthy immune function is to make sure you get enough sleep. 8 hours is the minimum amount of sleep an adult should get each night. Those who are in sleep debt (most of the adult population) really need 9 or 10 hours of sleep for their bodies to function well.

If you suspect you've been exposed to a flu virus, there are further steps you can take. Burning aromatic herbs like Sage (either Salvia or Artemesia spp.) or Juniper or using essential oils of Frankincense and Myrrh in a diffuser is a great way to kill airborne pathogens in your home. And daily saunas will help to kill any pathogens that are beginning to make their home in your respiratory tract before they actually make you sick.

If you begin to feel that first tickle in the back of your throat that lets you know an infection is setting in, begin taking large (60-90 drop) doses of Echinacea tincture hourly, and hourly doses of Elderberry tincture or syrup as well -- and go straight to bed! Using Echinacea to fight off recurrent infections without allowing the body to rest and recover can cause MUCH bigger problems down the road.

What do you do if all of this fails and you find yourself dealing with a full blown case of the flu? I'll deal with that in my next post .

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Swamp Lotus: Skunk Cabbage and the Underworld Journey

NOTE: This is a work in progress. I plan to report more fully later this fall when I've had a chance to explore the entheogenic aspects of Skunk Cabbage medicine more fully.

Also please note that fresh roots, flowers, and leaves of Eastern Skunk Cabbage should never be consumed as they contain oxalate crystals. Drying, heating, or tincturing is necessary to render the medicine safe.

A purple flower blossoms in the still-frozen swamps of New England in March.

Beneath the surface, tentacle-like roots draw down energy from the spathe at the flower’s center, melting the earth around them.If the water dries up, the roots will slowly expand and contract, moving the plant to a new location. Through this mechanism, some Eastern Skunk Cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are able to survive to be 1,000 years old though swamps expand and recede around them.

Since I began working with Skunk Cabbage, I’ve understood the plant as a gatekeeper between worlds -- earth and water, above and below, conscious and unconscious, waking and dreaming.

Herbal traditions of many cultures teach that a purple flower is one sign of a plant that will shift consciousness. And the shape of the flower of the Eastern Skunk Cabbage is uncannily similar to the shape of the pineal gland, which produces the Melatonin that helps to regulate or cycles of sleep and dreaming and possibly the DMT that is implicated in the ecstatic experiences connected with childbirth, orgasm, and death.

Skunk Cabbage is also the first food eaten by black bears when they emerge from “hibernation.” Across many cultures, bears are associated with medicinal knowledge, and especially the knowledge of roots, in part because people in many places learned about root medicines by watching which plants the bears would dig. The bears’ descent underground in winter also connects them with dreams and the watery darkness of the underworld and the womb where all things sleep awaiting their birth.

Chemically, Eastern Skunk Cabbage contains 5-hydroxy-tryptamine, an analogue to one of our own neurotransmitters (Serotonin.)

At low doses, the tincture of the root induces a deep sense of stillness and calm, like the waters of a vernal pool. William Cook described it as a simple and reliable nervine, of the most innocent and effective soothing character."

At higher doses, the tincture begins to have an entheogenic effect. The world becomes more fluid. Distinctions between thought and emotion dissolve.

Tryptamines work to reorder the ways in which we process the information we get from the world. As entheogens, both Eastern Skunk Cabbage and Western Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) seem to work with the integration of the rational consciousness of the brain and the emotional and transpersonal consciousness of the heart. (Its not clear whether L. americanus contains tryptamines. But Stephen Harrod Buhner first observed this phenomenon with a snuff made from L. americanus roots, and I’ve observed similar effects with the tincture.)

Eastern Skunk Cabbage has a strong affinity with the lungs (contemporary and traditional use as a stimulating expectorant), the heart (traditional Menominee use for “weak heart”), and the waters that flow through our bodies (affinity for the kidneys and uterus.)

Thus, at commonly used medicinal doses, Eastern Skunk Cabbage will help to clear the physical manifestations of grief that gets buried in the lungs.

At entheogenic doses, it begins to address such grief at a soul level through reconnection to the dreaming mind of the Earth.

In both cases, the healing work is not to be undertaken lightly -- the pain released needs a container, and the journey back to the self is a journey through a world fraught with its own perils and challenges. Ecstatic methods require focus to avoid becoming purely chaotic and unleashing unintended consequences.

The journey begins with confronting our fear of seeing ourselves in the mirrors of the dark waters of the world from which the Skunk Cabbage emerges.There is a mythic resonance here with the story of the Fisher King. The Fisher King sits on a throne by the water's edge, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his thigh. And because the king is wounded the land has become barren. The wound never heals because everyone is afraid to ask the one question that would stop the bleeding and restore the king and the land to health -- “What is the source of the wound?” The answer to the question lies beneath the waters the king is afraid to dive into.

Skunk Cabbage can be a vehicle for traveling beneath the surface of the waters of consciousness, to encounter the source of the wound, and move through it and past it, undoing its power to shape consciousness and define identity. The perils lie in the potential to become so immersed in the pain and grief that the journey is never completed. But when the journey is completed, the wound is transformed from a source of pain to an opening between worlds that initiates the traveler into the compassion that comes from understanding grief and into the wellspring of healing that lies beneath the surface and comes from the heart of the universe and rises from the center of our heart from whence it flows outward, blessing and transforming all worlds.

The Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson writes that “fisher king wound is the preparation for consciousness (our modern word for shaman power) and the suffering is the training for the future healer or genius."

The mirror image of the Fisher King is the tarot’s King of Cups who has dived into the waters of the unconscious, come to terms with the darkness, and emerged transformed -- he sits on his throne holding a cup that overflows with healing water. As the bearer of the chalice he is a servant of the Great Goddess, the cup a symbol of her womb and the sacred blood of its mysteriesHaving healed his own wounds, the King of Cups has access to the power to bring the world around him back to life.For the heart that is prepared.

Skunk Cabbage can offer an opening to the realms where such transformation is possible.

(Photo by Darcey Blue)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Crab-Apple Magic

‎"Our wild apple is wild only like myself, perchance, who belong not to the aboriginal race here, but have strayed into the woods from cultivated stock." -- Henry David Thoreau

My people aren't from here.

But my bones are.

My biological ancestors come from places where the invaders began clearing the forests and outlawing traditional religions 500 years before that same genocide reached the shores of this continent.

My great-grandfather came from "beyond the Pale" -- the line that separated the "civilized" English speaking parts of Ireland from the "wild" Gaeltacht. He was a Captain in the IRA who left at the age of 21 with a price on his head. The last person in my line to be born in his ancestral homeland.

So when I invoke the magic of my blood ancestors, I am invoking the magic of places I have never known.

But I have lived all my life in New England. The water I drink, the air I breathe, the food I eat are of this place -- every cell of my body comes from this land.

I've known these forests and fields and swamps and this seashore since I was born. The bullfrogs and spring peepers sang me to sleep throughout my childhood.

It was in the forests of Maine that my adult self first realized that the trees and lichens were speaking to me. And it was in the swamp behind my parents' house in North Andover, MA that I realized Skunk Cabbage had been singing to me in my dreams since before I could speak.

So as a pagan who believes that the world is alive where do I look for the ceremonies and rituals and magic that shape my practice? And as an herbalist what traditions do I look to guide me in connecting with the wild medicines around me?

The gods of my ancestors come when I call them, they recognize something in my blood. But their traditional rituals are connected with the stones and water and forests of another time and place -- forests that were burned or cut over a thousand years ago.

Their healing traditions teach ways of approaching and understanding plants, but the plants that I find when I am out wildcrafting are a hodge-podge of European and North American species.

The traditions that do come from this place belong to people who have survived genocide and are living under occupation (much as my great-grandfather did) and understandably don't want descendants of Europeans appropriating and claiming their medicine and ceremony as their own.

And yet, as someone who has devoted my life to serving the wild and feral plants that are themselves ancestors of mine from a time before humans knew such divisions, it behooves me to pay attention to the healing and ritual technologies of the people who have lived on this land the longest.

Its a fine line to walk -- honoring the traditions of my blood ancestors while understanding that to be true to their spirit I need to find new forms that fit this time and place. Looking to the knowledge of those who best understand the physical and spiritual geology and ecology of the place where I live without claiming their traditions as my own.

Like my great-grandfather's people, I've put myself beyond the Pale, outside the wall that defines the border of the civilization that dominates the world around me. But unlike them I am an interloper on this land.

My body, and my spiritual, magical, and herbal practices are very much like a Crab-Apple tree -- ancestral seeds from Europe planted in North America, their DNA changed by the place where they take root.

I trust the wind and water and soil to guide me in that process of becoming something new.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Stuck in the mud with snow on the ground : Digging Skunk Cabbage roots

This post is part of the "Adventures in Herbalism" Blog Party hosted by Darcey Blue French at

Sometimes the things that make a plant so amazing also make it extremely hard to gather.

So it is with Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Autumn would theoretically be the best time to harvest roots in a swamp in New England. The trouble is that by that time, the leaves of the Skunk Cabbage have died back. So why not just mark the location of the plant earlier in the season and then come back to it?

Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots -- and those roots allow the plants to move slowly across the swamp.

So if you want to dig the roots at the point when the plant's energy is concentrated underground, you have to do it in spring.

The trouble is that what a Skunk Cabbage calls spring in New England is quite different from what we call spring.

You see, Skunk Cabbage in a thermogenic plant. It generates heat to melt the ground around it.

So the flower of the Skunk Cabbage begins to appear when the ground is still frozen and there is often still snow on the ground.

And the time to harvest the roots is when the bud of the flower is still green -- before it opens and turns purple.

So that means slogging out over thin ice into a still frozen swamp.

When you find a bud peaking up through the frozen muck, its time to begin digging it up.

As you dig, the chilly water the plant melted begins to flood the hole and try to suck the plant back down.

And with a shovel its hard to really find how far the root goes down.

So once you have broken the ground, you really need to reach down and start digging with your hands, grasping the plant at its base with one hand, and beginning to extract the long tendrils from the mud.

Some of the plants can be hundreds of years old. And even a fifty year old plant has pretty big roots. And on the surface the one year old plant and the 300 year old plant look just the same. The only way to choose which one to harvest is to ask the plants. And sometimes its the old Grandfathers that will most want to provide their medicine.

So you soon find yourself stooped over in the swamp, almost elbow deep in the muck.

In order to be able to feel the roots you don't want anything thicker than a pair of rubber kitchen gloves. And they don't offer much insulation. And they only reach to your wrists. So you get cold fast. And after a while the tannins in the swamp mud begin working on your skin too -- along with the oxalate crystals of the Skunk Cabbage itself.

And when you are done digging that one plant and are ready to get up and move on to the next, the swamp sucks at your feet. Last March I lost the sole of one of my shoes after digging the roots of one Grandfather and finished the day's harvest with my foot wrapped in a garbage bag.

So I guess it says something about the kind of herbalist that I am that I look forward to the Skunk Cabbage harvest all year long.

Because part of the medicine comes in the harvest.

Harvesting any root is an act of connecting with the Underworld.

Harvesting Skunk Cabbage is almost an Underworld initiation in its own right.

It forces you outside your comfort zone, bringing you bodily into the world beneath the surface of the swamp that you would normally never see.

And you come back with a medicine that helps to dredge up the things that keep you from being fully present in this world -- be it phlegm deep in the lungs, deep depression, or fluid built up anywhere in the body where it doesn't belong. And it calms the tremors and convulsions of that birth -- be it coughing, epilepsy, or uterine spasms.

You can't be born again without going through a dark, wet tunnel.

Harvesting Skunk Cabbage can bring you to the entrance of one passage that will carry you through.

NOTE: Since writing this, I've heard from an herbalist whose family has been harvesting Eastern Skunk Cabbage roots in summer for several generations. Apparently drying the roots in an oven will eliminate enough Calcium Oxalate crystals to make the roots safe to use in a decoction.

Never the less, I do still think early Spring is the best time to harvest the roots -- the plant's energy remains concentrated in the roots at that early point before flowering.

Wendy Snow Fogg tells me that William LeSassier taught his students to harvest the roots in early spring by putting a knife into the center of the spathe.

Friday, July 2, 2010

This Root Doctor does not intend to diagnose or treat medical conditions . . .

When I first began practicing as an herbalist, I resented the standard disclaimer we are all taught to put on our intake forms and our websites -- "These products and services are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical condition."

I felt like these words diminished the importance and power of the work I was doing. And it seemed somehow dishonest given that many of my first clients were people who were eschewing the medical system altogether, people for whom I was the primary health care practitioner.

But the deeper I have gone into this work, the more I have realized that my work has nothing to do with diagnosing or treating medical conditions -- though occasionally the protocols I've recommended have probably helped to cure them.

You see, contemporary medical science and practice for the most part, views the human body as a collection of parts. Diseases and injuries are identified by their symptoms and surgical and pharmaceutical strategies are developed to correct these particular symptoms by manipulating particular chemical and mechanical functions in particular organs and systems.

This approach works remarkably well to reverse symptoms in acute situations -- resuscitating someone who has had a heart attack or stopping an aggressive blood infection. We can do these things with herbs too, but medical procedures have a higher success rate here.

But the longer a condition persists and the longer a treatment is continued, the less predictable the outcome will be, and the more unintended consequences begin to develop. Steroid inhalers do a great job of opening the airways of an asthmatic in the short term, but over time lead to problems with the adrenals that contribute to the underlying autoimmune condition.

Some herbalists would suggest that the problem is that pharmaceutical drugs are too biochemically crude and that herbs can work better for chronic conditions because the plants that pharmaceutical drugs are derived from often contain chemicals that counteract side effects of the isolated compounds used in those drugs. And this is certainly true to a point. Many then take the next step and say that herbs can be used to replace pharmaceuticals in the treatment of chronic medical conditions and that we need to identify which herbs can most reliable be used to treat which diseases using which chemical pathways. And then find ways to standardize their cultivation, processing, and use.

This is where I take a sharp turn in another direction.

Because to me medical conditions are nothing but taxonomic descriptions of particular states of particular organs or systems in particular moments.

And they are meaningful only when the primary focus is on addressing the immediate symptoms.

But just as the laws of physics change when operating on different scales of space and time, so too medicine's description of the workings of the body and the actions of certain medicines in the body tends to break down when you change the frame of reference.

The body turns out to be more than the sum of its parts -- it is a living, self-organizing system. And changing a particular aspect of the operation of that system can have a host of seemingly unpredictable consequences to those who apply strictly mechanical and biochemical models to a dynamic system with a complex logic of its own.

I align myself most strongly with the rural New England Root Doctors of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who, working with insights gleaned from European folk medicine and what knowledge they could gather of Indigenous traditions, worked to treat the person, not the disease, attempting to understand and work with what the body was trying to do to heal itself and bring itself back into balance.

Their philosophy was best articulated by some of the heirs of their tradition, the great Physiomedicalist physicians of the middle and later nineteenth century. Dr. William Cook wrote in 1869 that ""The living body is held in life and action by a living force" and healing is best promoted by supporting the actions of that force. His contemporary, Dr. T.J. Lyle said that "in the art of curing disease we can but influence to contract and relax with varied degrees of rapidity and energy in imitation of nature's way of using these structures in health."

In doing so, its necessary to find the imbalance -- the obstacle to cure -- that is preventing the body from healing itself, and remove it through an equal and opposite corrective action. Lyle wrote:

"In the work of restoration the attempt must be to restore to some extent the opposite condition of that abnormally existing. If the parts are congested apply heat and relieve the circulation. If the body is emaciated give proper food and sustain digestion. If there be too much relaxation, stimulate to the relief of such abnormal relaxation. If there be too much rigidity, relax to the relief of that rigidity."

The simplest ways to do this involve meeting the body's unmet needs for sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition.

But sometimes its necessary to bring in outside agents to effect change by warming or cooling, moistening or drying, stimulating or relaxing, in accordance with what the body itself is trying to do. This is at the core of my work.

Because plants have bodies remarkably similar to ours, they are constantly developing strategies for dealing with stresses remarkably similar to those experienced by our bodies. Like our bodies, theirs are trying to obtain or maintain balance. So plants that live in wet areas develop strategies for dealing with excess moisture. Plants that live in hot, dry conditions develop strategies for cooling and moistening their tissues.

And like us plants are more than the sum of their parts. In the laboratory it may be possible to identify particular compounds that produce particular results in particular conditions, but these are not the whole of the plants' medicine.

Plants operate as deep teachers to our bodies, helping us learn new strategies for correcting imbalances.

My work as an herbalist is the work of connecting people with plants that can help them find physical, emotional, and spiritual balance.

Any resemblance to work intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions is purely incidental.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Green Man Rising Intensive Begins June 21

GREEN MAN RISING: Recovering the Wild Masculine
An Online Intensive with Sean Donahue
June 21 - August 1
Sliding Scale $150 - 200

The face of the Green Man, leaf-bearded god of regeneration, appeared etched in stone churches throughout Europe well into the early modern period. The stories surrounding him have largely vanished, but he is widely understood to represent the irrepressible virility of the wild -- its rebirth in spring from the seeds that fall from dying plants in the fall, and its survival in the face of attempts to contain it and push it back. And he represents the vital force of the wild masculine -- before patriarchy bound ideas of masculinity to ideas of violence and domination.

Any attempt to transform our culture has to take into account the need to redefine and reshape masculinity, to provide channels for masculine energy to flow that meet and match and dance with the incredible strength of the feminine rather than seeing to subjugate it.

In this intensive, we will work with myth, magic, poetry, and direct experience of the living world to re-imagine masculinity and reclaim our own relationship to the wild masculine within us and within the people around us.

This class is open to people of all genders, sexes, sexualities, gender identities, and gender expressions. We will strive to create an environment of respect and openness where it is safe to take risks and to try on new ideas and identities.

To apply e-mail by June 15.

A note on payment:

This class is offered on a sliding scale. The higher end of the sliding scale is intended for those who are regularly able to afford "extras" like restaurant meals, concert tickets, and yoga retreats. If enough people are able to pay at the higher end, I will be able to afford to offer partial scholarships to passionate students who cannot afford even the lower end of the sliding scale.

If you are interested in this course and cannot afford even the lower end of the sliding scale, please contact me and we will endeavor to make an arrangement that is fair to all involved.


Sean Donahue is an herbalist, poet, activist, and witch committed to healing and transformation through connection with the living Earth.

As an herbalist, Sean works primarily with the wild plants of the forests and fields of New England. He views the plants as teachers, helping the body, mind, and spirit learn to correct imbalances that stand in the way of health. As a teacher, poet, and ritualist, Sean works to connect people with their own wild nature and with the life of the world around them. As an activist and journalist he has documented the human and environmental impacts of U.S. policies in Latin America, organized against nuclear power and nuclear weapons, trained hundreds of activists in techniques of nonviolent resistance, helped military families tell the stories of how the war in Iraq impacted their lives, and advocated for the rights of medical marijuana patients.

He believes that personal, community, and cultural healing are all deeply intertwined with the healing of our planet.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

May Blog Party: Herbs For Sexual Health and Vitality

How do you promote healthy, vital, joyful sexuality?

Its May, and with the sap risen and the world coming into blossom, this month's Blog Party focuses on herbs (and complementary strategies) for sexual health and vitality -- from aphrodisiacs to contraceptives to herbs for the reproductive system to herbs that help to heal our emotional and spiritual relationships to our bodies and our sexuality.

Karen Vaughan writes about a holistic response to sexual dysfunction --

Cory Trusty writes about a use for "Horny Goat Weed" that's quite different from what you might expect --

Yael Grauer writes about self-care in the aftermath of sexual assualt --

Rachel Fee-Prince writes about motherhood and sex --

Lisl Meredith Huebner writes about the use of Queen Anne's Lace seeds as a contraceptive --

Henriette Kress writes about "sexy herbs" -- and the fundamentals of good health for a healthy libido --

The Sensory Herbcraft blog features a post on the flowers of Beltane --

Kristine Brown writes about using some familiar herbs to support sexual vitality --

Cynthia Froelich writes about the magic and medicne of Pink Lady's Slipper --

And I do too --

And Lisa Allen writes about a comprehensive holistic approach to birth control --

The Erotic Flowering of Wild Innocence

Sometimes the medicine of a plant is delivered by its mere presence:

Coming across a Pink Lady's Slipper in the forest there is a sharp, involuntary intake of breath and a sudden warmth that begins in the chest and spreads out throughout the body.

There is the awe of the presence of the sacred -- but something else as well:

an ecstasy tinged with astonishment felt not just by the spirit but by the body too.

At once. One and the same. A bliss of the embodied spirit taking pure delight in the sensual pleasure of the gorgeousness of the flower.

The experience is erotic in the truest, purest sense of the word. Terry Tempest Williams writes:

"Erotic means 'in relation.' Erotic is what those deep relations are and can be that engage the whole body - our heart, our mind, our spirit, our flesh. It is that moment of being exquisitely present."

Precisely the kind of engagement and presence we are jolted into by the haunting beauty of this delicate orchid blossoming in the New England forest in May.

And this is the response which the flower evolved to elicit.

The beauty of the flower exists for the purpose of seduction -- drawing in bees whose wings and bodies are dusted with the pollen of another Lady's Slipper, that will fertilize the ovum that will become the seed in autumn.

Our biology is not that different from that of the bees. We too are seduced by pink blossoms in the forest, and are ravenous in the presence of beauty -- held back from consuming it only by our reverence and awe.

Kate Gilday writes that Pink Lady's Slipper flower essence aids us in "Releasing shame" and finding "delight in our sexuality, opening one to a deeper level of intimacy."

I believe that it accomplishes this by bringing us in direct contact with our sexuality in a way that is unmediated by the language and stories of our culture. Aspects of our sexuality that predate the evolution of mammals.

The human female reproductive system is a variation on a flower. Vaginal fluids are a kind of nectar, that keeps the petals moist and draws in the tongue of the lover with its scent and taste.

The human male reproductive system is a further variation on the same theme -- and our misnamed "semen" is akin to pollen. Stephen Harrod Buhner writes:

"Semen is Latin
for a dormant, fertilized
plant ovum --
a seed.
Men's ejaculate
is chemically more akin
to pollen.
it is really
more accurate
to call it
mammal pollen.

"To call it semen
is to thrust
an insanity
deep inside our culture:
that men plow women
and plant their seed
when in fact
what they are doing
is pollinating

Present to beauty we can't contain in words, we move outside the lies contained in our language, beyond metaphor and back into visceral memory.

To the place where our erotic desire is as innocent as the desire of the bee for the Lady's Slipper.

Knowing that truth doesn't undo the lifetimes of trauma endured in a society where sex has become a weapon. And it doesn't in an instant erase all the lies we have believed about our own sexuality.

But it points us in the direction of possibility, allowing the healing to begin.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sweet Birch: The Green Man in Spring

Birch is the youthful Green Man in spring, sweet sap rising fervently.

Birch is Beith, the first letter of the Celtic Ogham alphabet, marking renwal and beginnings. In the medieval Irish Word Ogham of CĂș Chulainn , Beith is associated with the phrase "Maise malach" -- "Beauty of the eyebrow." In facial diagnosis, thick eyebrows indicate vitality and fertility.

There is a lusty fertility to young birches -- one of the first trees to come back after a fire or a clearcut, shortly after the Quaking Aspen. But their virility is not strictly heterosexual -- in far northern climes birches reproduce without pollination.

Birch saplings's bodies are marked by the lithe, supple, androgynous strength and grace of adolescence.

But to me there is also an urgency to the energy of young birches that reminds me of boys at the edge of manhood and men just past boyhood.

So its fitting that Darcey and I should venture out on Easter Sunday, the first warm Sunday in spring, to gather Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) twigs and buds in Robin Hood Park.

The sun was shining brightly, and the trees along the path were mirrored in the still waters of vernal pools where frogs and salamanders bred.

At the top of a hill ringed by White Pine, Sweet Birch saplings sprouted up between ancient glacial erratics.

The new growth on the saplings was red -- hinting at the way the tree's medicine stirs and cleans the blood in springtime.

The buds have a marked stimulant action and are somewhat warming -- after eating several I felt alert, energized, and slightly aroused, in part I think because of the medicine's tendency to move blood to the periphery..

The instant welling up of copious clear, thin, sweet sap wherever we cut off a twig suggested the way in which the tree's medicine moves fluids up and out -- both as a blood mover and as a diuretic.

This tendency may also explain the marked expectorant action I felt a few minutes after first tasting the buds -- something not accounted for in any of the sources I've read. The expectoration was surprisingly gentle for such a stimulating medicine -- just a single gentle cough that cleared my bronchi and throat.

The sweetness of the Birch masks its astringency -- delayed but pronounced.

There is a seeming paradox in the fact that this stimulating medicine is also a potent analgesic -- birches have abundant methyl salicylate. Doubly paradoxical because while the overall medicine of the tree is warming, methyl salicylate is cooling. Herein lies the tree's poison as well. Think of the adolescent romanticization of death as a warm sleep without pain.

In its own death, like the mythic Summer King, the Sweet Birch gives life. As Birches near the end of their life cycle, they become host to Chaga, a fungus with powerful immune modulating and adaptogenic qualities that may help the body fight some cancers, particularly those associated with radiation. (Chaga is abundant near Chernobyl.) And when they finally die and lay down their bodies, Birches enrich and sweeten the soil so that it will nourish the Maples and Oaks and Hemlocks that have sprouted in the shade of the Birch grove.

As much a sign of renewal in its dying as its birth, Sweet Birch connects us to the wild fecundity of the forest, the ecstatic desire of life to burst forth wherever a new opening is made.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Skunk Cabbage: New England Bear Medicine

This post is part of the March Blog party hosted by Karen Vaughan at

Thanks to Shannon Donahue of the Great Bear Foundation and to Georgia Stillwell for information used in this post.


Black bears dream all winter, listening to the songs the plants sing underground while waiting to emerge back into the world.

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus/Dracontium foetidus) is the first of plant to poke its head through the ground in the swamps of New England, budding just before the first bears come out of their dens. It melts the ice and snow around it by generating heat through a chemical process remarkably similar to that used by hibernating animals to raise their temperature as they rouse from sleep.

Depending on how many acorns are left on the ground, Skunk Cabbage will make up from 50% - over 99% of a black bear's diet in this part of the world.

To the extent that Skunk Cabbage is known today as a medicinal plant, it is known for the effectiveness of the tincture or decoction in treating respiratory conditions including asthma, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. But the plant's association with bears provides a useful framework for rediscovering other aspects of its medicine.

The Micmac use of a decoction of the root to treat diabetes (sometimes in combination with Lady's Slipper) suggesting that the plant may have some impact on regulating blood sugar or general metabolism. The Haudenosaunee ("Iroquois") peoples used the plant to rid children of parasitic worms. And Skunk Cabbage is somewhat diuretic. These actions may suggest some of the roles Skunk Cabbage plays in the bears' spring diet

In more southern climes, black bears eat a lot of Willow catkins. Like Willow, Skunk Cabbage contains high levels of salicylates, which partially account for its analgesic (pain relieving) and diaphoretic (reducing fever by dissipating body heat) qualities. According to Daniel Moreman, many peoples use a poultice of crushed Skunk Cabbage leaves topically to treat pain -- a use I dreamed about long before I read this. The fact that Skunk Cabbage is also powerfully anti-spasmodic may make it a superior topical remedy to other salicylate bearing plants for throbbing muscle pain -- I've used the root tincture internally for this indication, but massaging the tincture directly into the affected area may be effective as well . Some women report excellent relief from menstrual cramps from taking 5-10 drops of the tincture at 15 minute intervals.

(A note of caution before we proceed -- Skunk Cabbage contains high levels of calcium oxalate crystals throughout the plant, making the raw plant potentially deadly in high enough doses. Heat and drying will break them down. NEVER use Skunk Cabbage roots that have not been dried. After drying, tincturing will slow the deterioriation of the relevant medicinal compounds. Untinctured dry Skunk Cabbage root is only good for about a year.)

Like many root medicines associated with bears (Angelica, Osha, Spikenard, etc.), Skunk Cabbage promotes a dropping down into the openness and receptivity that mark the parasympathetic nervous state. Our cultural conditioning makes us think of the parasympathetic state as lethargic and the sympathetic state as alert. But in reality the sympathetic state is marked by a narrowly focused awareness best suited to evading a single immediate physical threat, while the parasympathetic state is associated with broader sensory awareness to everything in one's surroundings.

Many Native peoples in Eastern North America use Skunk Cabbage as a medicine for "calming the nerves." William Cook wrote in 1869 that the plant had a reputation as a narcotic, but that he viewed it more as a nervine "of the most innocent and effective soothing character" --a description that very much matches my own experience. Its combined nervine and anti-spasmodic qualities likely account for its historic use in the treatment of epilepsy (first by the Haudenosaunee and later by the Eclectics.)

Stephen Buhner reports that the powdered root of the plant's western cousin, Lysichiton americanus, also known as Skunk Cabbage, taken as a snuff, immediately initiates the user into the warm and deeply open state that he associates with the centering of consciousness in the heart. Interestingly, our eastern Skunk Cabbage is used by the Menominee to treat "weak heart" and by the Passamaquoddy to treat various heart conditions. I plan an experiment this spring to see if our Skunk Cabbage has the same quality Buhner has discovered in the western species.

Another quality that Skunk Cabbage shares with other bear medicines like Osha and Angelica is an affinity for the female reproductive system. The flower is shaped like the uterus. Mooreman reports that the
Haudenosaunee use "a compound decoction of upper parts and seeds for 'falling of the womb'" (uterine prolapse?) and a decoction of the stalks as a douche for "displacement of the womb." He also makes the mysterious and intriguing note that the Haudenosaunee "pass [the] seed over the genitals to bring about childbirth." This is an uncanny confirmation of information I've received directly from the plant about uses in inducing both abortion and childbirth that it is not ready to reveal in greater detail until I have worked with Skunk Cabbage for many years.

Skunk Cabbage seems to want to re-emerge as a medicine for our culture and our times much like a bear emerging from its den in spring. Tomorrow I go to dig the first Skunk Cabbage roots of the year. We'll see what lessons this season's harvest brings.

NOTE: Since writing this, I've heard from an herbalist whose family has been harvesting Eastern Skunk Cabbage roots in summer for several generations. Apparently drying the roots in an oven will eliminate enough Calcium Oxalate crystals to make the roots safe to use in a decoction.

Never the less, I do still think early Spring is the best time to harvest the roots -- the plant's energy remains concentrated in the roots at that early point before flowering.

Wendy Snow Fogg tells me that William LeSassier taught his students to harvest the roots in early spring by putting a knife into the center of the spathe.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Stirring the sluggish body and spirit

This post is part of the January Blog Party: Warming Herbs hosted by Yael Grauer at

I love the beauty of New England winters, and the rich dreamtime the darkness brings, so I have always been reluctant to think of myself as suffering from seasonal depression.

But the reality is that cold, damp weather tends to slow the body down -- and for us kapha types that can mean both physical and emotional stagnation that very easily lead to depression.

In recent years I've found that several gentle warming herbs have helped me tremendously during the winter months:

Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) -- Warm and aromatic. David Winston suggests Holy Basil for the treatment of "Stagnant Depression." I find that Holy Basil can prevent stagnant depression as well -- for me it quite quickly dispells mental and emotional fogs before they can set in too deeply. It is also a great upper respiratory decongestant which is important to me because I tend to store emotion in my lungs, and dispelling mucous and maintaining clear airways helps to prevent that. Holy Basil honey is particularly nice on a cold day.

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) -- St. John's Wort's usefulness for relieving seasonal depression is well known, but tends to be attributed to the fact that the plant is such a wonderful nervous system tonic. Supporting healthy brain function is certainly one way St. John's Wort helps. But to me it is not the most important.

Kaphic seasonal depression often has a strong hepatic component -- exacerbated by the tendency to eat so many sweet, heavy foods in the winter, especially around the holidays. St. John's Wort is wonderful for gently stimulating bile production in the liver.

Two cautions here: First, if you are taking a prescription medicine that is metabolized by the liver, St. John's Wort may dramatically alter the level of the medicine in your bloodstream.

Secondly, when doing anything that might speed up the body's natural detoxification process it is very important to make sure you have clear channels of elimination to allow freed toxins to exit the body efficiently -- otherwise they can build up in the bloodstream. Constipation and slow bowel transit times can be significant issues for people with a kapha imbalance. I usually take Triphala and/or Chaga when I am taking St. John's Wort to keep things moving in my lower digestive tract.

Elecampane (Inula hellenium) -- Because I tend to hold emotion in my lungs, this warm, stimulating expectorant has helped me tremendously when deep depression and deep lung infections have hit me in winter. In Chinese medicine, the flowers are used for liver stagnation, and I find that the root has some benefit in this manner as well. Next year I hope to experiment with a whole plant tincture.

Eleuthero (
Eleutherococcus senticosus) -- Eleuthero gives me the boost in energy and stamina that I need to get and keep my body moving in winter. "True" (Panax) Ginsengs tend to be too hot and too stimulating, and can be jarring to my system and make my heart race -- but Eleuthero gives my body just the nudge it needs to exercise when the cold and dark make me think I want to stay still.