Introduce yourself to a plant this spring.

If you hang out with an herbalist for long enough, you’ll likely be exhorted to “get to know” a plant.

Some people might find that phrase a bit funny. “I can get to know about a plant,” they might say, “but to get to know a plant directly — what could that mean?”

Well, most herbalists I know mean just what they say: go sit down with a plant, introduce yourself, and get to know it.

Plants are lovely people to know.

And spring is a great time to get to know them.

Here’s how to introduce yourself:

1. Find a plant.

2. Sit down with it.

3. Pay attention.

Use all your senses.

First, notice where it’s growing. (Sun or shade? Wet or dry? Hard soil or soft?)

Then notice who it’s growing with. (Which plants are next to it? Above it? Below it? How does it relate to these plants?)

Now notice the plant itself.

How is it growing? (Is it tall or short? Stiff or flexible? Does it climb or creep? Reach for the sun or hide in the shade?)

Look at the plant. Does it grab your attention or blend in? What color is it? (Is that color pale or intense? If it has more than one color, which parts of the plant have which colors?)

Touch the plant. Is it warm or cool? Smooth or rough? Tough or delicate? Are the tissues thick or thin? Moist or dry?

Smell the plant. What does it smell like? Is the smell sweet or spicy or sharp or bitter or sour or rotten or minty or refreshing or something else?

If you’ve identified the plant, and you know it’s not toxic, taste the plant. What does it taste like? Close your eyes and hold it in your mouth. What does it remind you of?

Now listen to the plant. No, I haven’t lost my mind. Let all that information sink in and listen carefully. What kind of person is this plant?

People around the world have always understood plants as personalities. Think of the Elder Mother, for instance. (If you want a really wild example of working with plants as personalities, check out Susun Weed’s herbal Healing Wise.)

If you know a plant intimately, you understand it as a whole, with all its quirks, and you know how to work with it. An herb’s attributes can’t be reduced to a list of qualities and categories. (Those categories are just silly shorthand anyway — who can say that cleavers and redroot work the same way, though they both fall in the “lymphatic” category?)

The bottom line: What’s in books — even good books — is just hearsay.

Go know a plant!

(This was supposed to be my entry for the April Blog Party, but as you can see, I got to it rather late. Sigh. My life should be less busy in the coming weeks and months, so have no fear, I shall again blog properly!)

8 Comments »

  1. sue bette said,

    April 10, 2008 @ 10:15 am

    Great post! I have to admit that I was once a bit of a skeptic and would think an exercise like this was a bit of hooey (there is a lot of modern scientific conditioning going on there) – but after spending more and more time working and building relationships with herbs I have learned that an exercise like this is an important part of my growth. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Taylor said,

    April 10, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    This is wonderful and something I don’t seem to do as often as I used to – I guess I have gotten to know a lot of the folks in my yard! Thanks for the reminder. I’m going to link to this from my blog.

    Peace,
    Taylor

  3. Finspot said,

    April 11, 2008 @ 12:55 am

    This post reminds me of meeting the mother of my first friend in college. She told me how she had once assumed the consciousness of a plant, and being eighteen and stupid, I thought that was pretty funny. Many years later I finally understood what she meant—and I’m still best friends with her son.

    Really enjoying yr blog!

  4. crabappleherbs said,

    April 11, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    Sue Bette — Thanks! Here’s what you can tell your “modern scientific conditioning:” this method is in essence very scientific. You are using all your senses to learn empirically. You don’t have to believe in “plant spirits” or any such thing to get to know a plant.

    Taylor — Thanks! You might take a look around your yard and see if anyone new has moved in. You never know!

    Finspot — Thanks! Vocabulary is everything, it seems. I try not to use words like “consciousness” or “spirit” because people can get stuck on them. The point is that you can get to know plants regardless of your metaphysical inclinations.

  5. hedgewitch said,

    April 12, 2008 @ 3:08 am

    So glad I found your wonderful blog.. what a great post!

    I have always felt like I ‘get to know’ my herbs by growing them .. they all have distinct personalities and by growing them myself I get familiar with them at all the stages of their life .. their smell, texture, taste, colour, tendencies, everything.

    I like reading about herbs and finding out their histories, but I generally only use herbs I have ‘got to know’ personally!

    Each year I get 1 or 2 new ones to learn which is exciting .. then I try to collect seed and grow them myself the next year. As it happens, I picked up a new plant yesterday .. I am trying Southernwood this year.

  6. Jan S. said,

    April 13, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    I think this is a particularly wonderful post becuase it shows how good you are at getting past that false science/spirit dichotomy. I like the Elder Mother story too.

    I can’t help recalling an experience I had about a year ago when I was in a group that was asked to go outside and have a conversation with a tree. My conversation was with an ancient maple. The tree caught my attention because of the way the trunk leaned. I remember first thinking of that “lean” as a flaw, an imperfection. As I spent time with the tree and listened/paid attention, it suddenly struck me of how wrong my perception was – how the the angle at which the trunk was growing was part of it’s perfection – not a flaw at all and how that angle was part of phototropism at work- the tree moving toward the light of a long vanished clearing. That angle was the result of the tree working at getting its needs met, which allowed it to thrive to such a venerable age. The “conversation” went on like that for quite a while like that- me seeing things differently as a result of giving the tree my quiet attention. By the end of the time, I started to see many of what I had considered my own “flaws” as merely me being who I was at that time- no less perfect than that tree. My struggles to get my own needs met, as awkward and clumsy as they seem at times are just me trying to “grow toward the light”. The Universe is not finished with either of us yet, so we are both perfect as we are right now. We just have to keep paying attention and growing.

    So, I agree. Plants, from weeds to Elder Mothers (and perhaps Maple mothers) have a lot to teach. As soon as this snow receeds a little further and exposes some new plants, I plant to spend some quality time with one.

    Sorry for the long post.

    Jan

  7. Katrina said,

    April 16, 2008 @ 12:18 am

    I worked with flowers for a lot of years and getting to know them was exactly what you outlined. And it took some time. I could teach and pass on facts but the knowing was another thing all together. Great post. Thank you.

  8. pelin said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    I used to teach Creative Writing and this is exactly the kind of exercise I’d use if I were to teach it again! wonderful way to experience the world– I will try it out soon. thank you!

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