Jun 082010

Grassroots Herbalism: The Weeds & Wildlings of Folk Medicine

by Kiva Rose

Mexican Poppy (Eschscholzia californica var. mexicana)

Any of ya’ll who’ve been reading The Medicine Woman’s Roots for very long are likely familiar with my penchant for all things weedy and wild. Garden flowers are pretty enough, but I prefer the bad attitude of rebellious weeds and fierce insistence of wild plants growing out of sharp-edged rock crevices and boggy swamp bottoms. Rare, esteemed herbs from the other side of the globe can be useful enough medicines, but my heart (and the heart of my practice as an herbalist) definitely lies with the common, abundant plants that grow just outside my door and down by the river.

Even in my small, feral garden, I don’t baby anyone. If they can’t hold their own with the Lamb’s Quarters and Wild Mustard, that’s just tough. I’m a great fan of such qualities of tenacity, fierceness, badassness (yes, that IS a quality, if not a word) and even a bit of outright mule-headedness can serve very well. And really, this is where my roots grow deepest – among strong, willful plants, land, culture and people. Yep, I like weedy and wild people too. Stubborn, skeptical and child-like in the way that rural and earthy (even while still urban) folks can be. Whether in Appalachia or the Mountain Southwest, I am inevitably drawn to those who not only survive adversity, but thrive despite the difficulties.

Kiva Rose by the Gila River with a skirt full of Galium aparine and Corydalis aurea

I see grassroots herbalism as having direct connections with local plants, with the land both we and the herbs grow from and with the people we work with. All this directness leads to a certain kind of messiness. Sometimes picking your own medicine means there’s strange little bugs in your most recent harvest and sometimes talking to folks about their problems on their back porch leads to a much more complicated conversation than if you’d kept it in your air-conditioned office. Working this way, you get to know the plants in the context of their environment, of their relationship with other plants, with the dirt, with humans. Likewise, we also learn to understand people in the context of their human community and the connections they have to place and more-than-human people (you know, critters of various sorts).

I approach healing as a means of facilitating wholeness in whatever form that takes for each individual. Context is essential to any sort of wholeness. I don’t want to isolate bits of synthesized plant parts for my remedies, and I find my best success therapeutically has always come from working with whole plants. And I don’t desire to remove the people I help from their circumstances and ways of being. I work best when I get to know folks, hear about their life and what they love and what gets under their skin. I can’t really imagine any old-time root doctor or indigenous medicine person working any other way, and it seems the only approach I know how to practice anyhow.

Homemade Herbal Medicine

If you want to make lots of money with herbs, this sure as hell isn’t the way to do it. Often enough, I don’t make any money at all for the work I do or the herbs I hand out. Sometimes I get live chickens or whiskey (for tinctures, folks, for tinctures) or fresh plants or even slabs of fresh killed Elk for my work. I, like just about anyone else, do need money to feed my family, tend the land where I live, and even just to pay for all that alcohol for tinctures. But I enjoy working by donation whenever I can, and being able to give regardless of a person’s financial status.

The work I do (and love) is folk medicine, it’s accessible and subversive and messy and is all about the magic of the everyday. It revolves around good food and weeds and  conversation and a return to the heart of what healing is all about: wholeness embodied in the individual, the community and the land.


In case you’ve missed it up ‘til now (or have waffled a bit about actually getting signed up), I and John Gallagher of LearningHerbs.com are doing a free teleseminar (this means you call in on a telephone and get to listen to us ramble on about our favorite subjects) on Wednesday evening (that would be June 9th) called the The Wild Remedy: Grassroots Herbalism from Your Backyard and Beyond. This includes a whole bunch of giveaways including a year subscription to HerbMentor.com and even a free ticket to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference in September. Space is limited but there’s still room as of now so head over to http://WildRemedy.com to learn more and to sign up.

Note: I’m rather behind on my emails (as per usual). I get a crazy volume of correspondence in, and I can’t always write everyone back even though I’d love to. And if you’ve written about studying or consulting with me and its been more than two weeks and you haven’t heard back, feel free to write again. I can’t promise an immediate response, but you can figure I’m working on it.

Rhiannon helping to process plants for medicine.


All Photos ©2010 Kiva Rose

  3 Responses to “Weeds and Wildlings”

  1. This was a great read, and it came at a really great time. The part about the “badassness” of the plants was an especially important reminder for me right now, as I’ve been subject to some potentially devastating financial upsets over the past couple weeks. But, I’ve come to pride myself on my own personal “badassness” ;), or ability to grow and thrive in the face of a good amount of adversity. And, even though this wasn’t always the case in my past, when I often spent a lot of time wallowing in “poor-me-ness”, which didn’t get me anywhere, in the past 4 or 5 years, this has really started to change, and I’ve made many great strides in the face of extreme poverty, raising a child completely on my own, all while healing from a child-hood of abuse and neglect, and issues of substance abuse. When these things creep up and threaten to destroy me, I may temporarily wallow, but I always eventually get pumped and motivated to figure out a solution, like trading my skills for a running vehicle, or trading other things I own for things I need. More than half of everything I own was free, traded or bartered for. The urge for survival is strong and powerful motivation! 😉 Thanks for the reminder, Kiva!

  2. So it’s posts like this that drew me to you in the first place! I’ll talk to anyone and everyone. I love my flowers and my garden, and spend time chatting with them, and that weed that I don’t know growing out of the sidewalk that always seem to yell up at me, “Yo, how you doing?” What else can I do but stop and chat. I love them all! When I found shepherd’s purse here for the first time I was thrilled! Plantain and of course dandelion are such good friends. And then every once in a while, I find some tiny little wild flower growing out of God knows what, and I stop mesmerized. Really. I stop and look and empathize. I wonder sometimes what I grow out of. But grow I do. Am I like that weed? You bet. Do I get trampled. Uh huh, but up I pop again. No choice, it’s my nature. Don’t get me wrong. It hurts like hell and right now, I feel pretty darn wilted. But what can I do? I suppose it is why no matter how much I try to be a pretty flower in the garden, I can’t do it. Can’t seem to be fenced in. I am who I am. Love me or leave me or try to get rid of me…but I will be there, just like those pesky weeds offering medicine and love and just being me.

  3. Lovely post, Kiva. I was thinking only this weekend how different I feel going barefoot and how much it’s a case of “if I don’t grow it, I don’t use it” with my herbal output. I love your mexican poppies- the colour is so vibrant. I’ve probably missed our wild red ones and I’ve not tried using the yellow icelandic poppies which self seed in my garden.Elderflowers and dog roses are blooming here at the moment – except of course it has started continually raining after a very dry three months. I’m just hoping I get to harvest this year!

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