I have a secret.
I used to be ashamed of my secret, so I kept it hidden.
Especially from other herbalists.
If they discovered the source of my shame, I feared rejection, loss of respect and failure.
Now I know there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
So, I’m ready to declare the one thing I’m most afraid to admit.
I DON’T TALK TO PLANTS.
I always imagine a collective gasp among my colleagues when this kind of thing gets out there.
What kind of Herbalist doesn’t hear the plants talk?
Isn’t that how herbal healers acquire their knowledge?
Isn’t a deep, spiritual connection to plants a pre-requisite for this profession?
Hearing plants speak is probably a handy thing, but it’s not part of my toolkit.
When I was in herb school, our yearly gatherings in the redwoods of California were one big circle of plant people. People who cultivate herbs, people who wild craft and harvest them for medicine, and the ‘my grandmother was a wise woman who taught me how to heal with plants’ kind of people.
My path was a little different.
I grew up in a suburb of Omaha. We were one city block from a cornfield and a 10-minute skip to the nearest creek. There’s a Nebraska sensibility in my soul. I’m as common and native as a sunflower after 47 years on the Great Plains. Even with my prairie state roots, the healing power of prairie plants was lost on me until recently.
My first teachers, Mom and Dad, never knew there was a field bursting with medicine surrounding our growing subdivision. Their generation was lured by a siren song that promised wonder drugs from the corner pharmacy.
Nature’s own medicine chest faded from their minds like two-party phone lines and black and white TV.
The past decade of studying herbs helped me recognize a few of nature’s most common weedy healers like plantain, ground ivy, nettle leaf, motherwort, and dandelion – in the yard, the neighborhood park, practically every open space in our river city.
Until recently, I didn’t recognize native herbs that grow in carefully restored prairies a few miles from my urban home.
I’m still at a loss to identify lots of common, local plants and weeds that herbalists like me use in clinical practice every day.
So this Summer, I’m working my way backward. I’m getting out of the clinic and into the field, where the plants have a chance to tell me their story.
I’m wearing out my Android battery taking photos everywhere I go. These amateur pics tell a story of medicinal herbs pointed out to me or discovered on prairie walks from rural Kansas to just outside city limits.
Pleurisy root (butterfly milkweed) – What a show-off. In botanical medicine, orange signifies anti-oxidant properties, especially for the eyes (think carrots). Maybe it does strengthen the eyes, but in my practice I use it when someone with a history of respiratory problems points to a rib and says “it hurts right here when I breathe”. Native Americans, including the Omaha tribe, were known to prize the root for ceremonial use, for bronchitis and lung disorders, and swift healing of wounds and sores. Can you picture a swollen snakebite covered with a mash-up of plant roots? It sounds so intriguing! 
Prairie phlox – (pronounced flox) I once planted ornamental phlox in the cracks of a retaining wall, and watched it grow year-after-year until it cascaded over the rocks like a bright purple veil for just 2 weeks every summer. I can’t say for sure which phlox relative this is, but Native Americans treasured phlox as a tea for pregnant mothers to insure the birth of a female baby, as a ceremonial Love Medicine, and even as a “wash to make children grow and fatten”. 
Echinacea – it’s a popular Top Ten remedy for cold and flu, and here’s a little-known-fact: Native Americans called it snakebite medicine. Eclectic physicians used the root topically to cleanse and remove the putrid smell of festering boils. Nice. 
Lead plant – seeing this plant up close taught me why it’s called bird’s wood. It’s one of the tallest and sturdiest plants on the prairie, a nice perch for wayward birds. My favorite common name is buffalo plant – smearing a plaster of the roots over the skin was said to attract buffalo and ensure for the hunter a good kill. I haven’t used it as medicine yet, but the leaf is said to close wounds and cure eczema topically, and kill parasites and worms when taken as a tea internally. 
Wild Indigo – Warning: you might want to put your lunch down before you read this. Wild indigo roots and leaves are used for conditions that have lots of ‘putrid heat’ – translation: pus-filled, decaying, infected and inflamed tissue. Gross. It must’ve been an essential herb for seriously infected wounds with the threat of gangrene. 
Wild violet – My Native American herb book says wild violet varieties were used for respiratory problems like cough, mucus and even asthma in children, plus hundreds of other uses. It’s in my own daily tincture because I know it keeps the lymph system functioning well, especially in the breast area or Liver meridian. Last week, a patient of mine applied a poultice of crushed violet leaves to a large, nasty-looking cyst and wouldn’t you know, it broke right open and started draining. Powerful medicine for such a delicate plant. 
Rattlesnake master –don’t walk too close to this one, with its sword-like leaves edged with spikes. It’s not hard to spot. It looks out of place on a prairie. The common name reflects its use as a rattlesnake bite remedy, but a curious practice by 19th century medical students and doctors points to it as an emetic (induces vomiting) to purify themselves after a patient death. I wonder if today’s physicians have anything like a purification practice, other than a good hand-wash or anti-bacterial foam. 
I’ve got two good Summer months of prairie walks ahead of me. Check back every now and then for more pictures – and stories – of native herbs I’ve discovered.
Have you had a healing experience with plants that you’d like to share? Can you teach me more about native prairie plants? Do plants speak to you? Share your plant experiences and pay it forward. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Native American Medicinal Plants, Daniel E. Moerman, Timber Press, 2009.
2. Eclectic Materia Medica, Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., 1922.
Enjoy reading this popular recent blog post: