Learning the Plants, Part 2

blackberry in flower1 6-1-2016

Flowering blackberry vines at the beginning of June.

Now that I am familiar with the plants around me, as I wrote about in my last post, I want to get to know them in more depth.

This is like meeting someone you like and find interesting and want to get to know better. It takes spending time with them and getting to know who they are below the surface, what makes them tick, their good and bad points, what particularly makes the two of you click. All of this leads to friendship, connection, and bonding.

So it is with plants, or to begin with, one plant that you want to get to know better. You want to know its name (common name, botanical name), where it came from (native or introduced, in what part of the world it originated), what it does for a living and for fun (growth habit; annual, biennial, or perennial; actions and properties), where it lives (what kind of soil, light, water requirements), how it spends its days and develops itself (watching it over the course of a year). In this way to start to develop an intimacy with the plant that goes beyond mere acquaintanceship and deepens into true knowledge and friendship.

Many herbalists and plant people suggest choosing one plant and focusing on it for a year, deepening your knowledge and connection with it. This is a wonderful idea, but I have always had too many plants that I wanted to get to know at one time and a somewhat scattered attention span, so I have never done the in-depth thing, instead greeting and observing various plants around me. Over the course of several years I will then have gotten to know a number of plants, both wild and cultivated, through all the seasons of the year. I know them from tiny sprouts in the spring to mature summer plants, to winding down in the fall, to winter silhouettes.

Get Up Close and Personal

New growth at tips of hemlock tree branches. June 2016

New growth at tips of hemlock tree branches. June 2016

One of the best ways to get to know plant friends is to spend a bit of time with them, even just a few minutes. Many times when I am working in the garden, or taking a walk, or even rushing to the train, a plant will catch my eye and I will have to spend some time looking at it, closely examining it, maybe the one part that caught my eye—the new growth at the tip of the branch, the flower, how the leaves are formed and attach to the stem. Maybe just how the whole plant looks and grows.

Growing plants gives such excellent opportunities to observe them up close and see them at different stages. If growing from seed then I get to see what the seed leaves look like, the first true leaves, how the plant develops into its mature form.

If I am getting a plant that’s already growing I can see how it settles in and how it goes through the different seasons.

Weeding is a particularly fine way to get to know weeds, or simply the extra plants that are more than I have room for in my garden. Pulling plants out by the roots gives you a very fine view of the whole plant, and a better than usual understanding of the roots.

When I am picking or harvesting plants, in the garden or in the wild, I also get to closely observe them. It’s important to know what parts I am harvesting, and if it is a plant that will continue to be there, how to do so without harming it. Just the fact that I am that close to the plant means I can’t help but notice its form and growth habits.

Communicate/Meditate with Your Plant Friends

Spending time connecting with the energy of plants is hugely important for knowing them.

Doing guided meditations or shamanic journeys to connect with the spirit of the plants, to ask questions and receive answers, or just to foster a deeper connection, changes your relationship with them.

Paying attention to what you perceive about a plant, to any whispers you may hear when you are with a plant helps you know the plant better. You can check what you learn/hear/perceive with books and other herbalists, but also listen to your intuition. A plant may work differently with you than with anyone else, and have gifts for you to use and share that it doesn’t share with other people. Many people find that they have one or a few plants that are their “go-to” plants, that have an efficacy that seems to go beyond the usual.

Live with Them

Sometimes getting to know a plant is as simple as living with it in your environment, whether in your living room or greenhouse, your garden, the local park, or the fields where you walk.

Having a plant, or plants, in your living space really helps you to get to know it better. Paying attention to it, caring for it, gives you a more intimate connection. And if it’s in your garden and you are really caring for it, that’s living with it too, and gives you the same benefit of getting closer to it.

I have found that also having the plant around in its dried form, ready for tea, or the dried stems or even whole plant, allows me to get a sense of it over time. Just having it in my living space for months, sometimes years, before I even do much of anything with it. Just feeling my way into familiarity with it.

Use Them!

dandylion flowers in a jar

Dandylion flowers in a jar

Of course, living with them leads naturally to using them in the different ways that make sense to you: Teas, infusions, plant medicines of all kinds, salves and lotions and scrubs, wreaths, dream pillows, dyeing your handspun yarn or silk scarves or fabric you love, energy work or magic, eating it.

If you have come to a plant in a time of desperation because of sickness then of course you will be using it right away as medicine. But there may be other uses for the plant, or other ways to know it. When you are no longer in crisis, you can explore those avenues. Maybe it is also edible. Maybe it dries nicely for a wreath or arrangement. Maybe its energy is used for Magic or energy work. Or it is dye plant. Even just getting to know its medicine better will get you more connected.

Every use you make of a plant teaches you more about it, deepens your connection with it.

Here is an article that addresses some aspects of getting to know the plants by Steph Zabel of Flowerfolk Herbal Apothecary: “Thoughts on Knowing Plants (meeting them with your heart)”.

What have you experienced with a plant you especially like? Share in the comments section below.