"When I am quiet enough I forget that I ever imagined myself separate from this world of color and magic. I forget I am anything but wind and dirt, dappled light and wings caught by sky. In this intimacy, this primal magic of becoming small I find my own pulse and rhythm. The thrum and dance of the blue dragonfly on the river’s skin teaches me my song, and the clouds moving overhead mirror my own seasons shifting from lost little girl to medicine woman.
In the dirt and rain, we find ourselves. Over and over again, spiraling always deeper."
Kiva Rose inspires me. Her passion, fascination and perpetual curiosity of plants, people, nature, and the relationship that binds them in wholeness stirs those touched by it; encourages our own listening, our own insights and musings. Making it all better, she writes beautifully. Her ability to capture and convey the spirit of the plants she writes about and the essence of the ideas that guide their use is a gift shared with both humility and mettle. Kiva, in a word, rocks.
I know very few herbalists who can write about plants the way you do, it is a special gift... excellent work! I look forward to reading more.
Kiva has the best medicine woman blog hands down. Her writing is brilliant. She is a true wise woman, inspiring, empowering, knowledgeable, and her plant descriptions and pictures are superb. She add a personal touch to her posts that make the reading and learning easy, fun, and thought provoking.
I totally adore you! I LOVE how you teach -really speaks to me heart & intuition as well as my inspiration… Having this connection has already REALLY helped me - THANK YOU.... I hold you close as I know we are sisters on the path & I feel very fortunate to have you as a teacher/mentor...all is unfolding beautifully!!!
All the props in the world to Susun Weed, Rosemary Gladstar, Michael Moore, etc. for laying the foundation [of modern herbalism], now I can’t wait to see what the younger folk bring to it. And Kiva, you are the leading voice of this generation.
THANK YOU very much for your consultation and all the kind words! I’m really impressed with the report and I must say I feel very privileged to work with someone who is so deeply connected to the healing art as you are.
There came a point, or points in their lives when they increasingly recognized something unexpressed inside their selves, a certain power they couldn’t explain to parents afraid of wilderness and scornful of miracles and faeries, an urge to escape the mundane or the expected, a sense of mystery, an inexorable draw towards something as yet unseen, a compulsion to do something special or heroic. Whether clothed in urban fashions or tribal dress, each Medicine Woman to-be saw in the faces of the crowd that they were not the same, were subject to visions of healing or helping the lost and hurting, or dreamed of their hands grinding up communicative herbs in with a hand-carved mortar and pestle. Like a seed, this thing inside them grew with their every watering, a wild gift of foliage too long confined, and not to be denied.
“Clothe yourself in your authority. You speak not only as yourself or for yourself. You will speak and act with the courage and endurance that has been yours through the long, beautiful aeons of your life story...”
In our cozy cabin kitchen, my partner Loba opens the ornate oven door of our antique wood stove, checking the progress of four golden loaves of homemade acorn bread while singing a sweet old tune. Nearby, our apprentice Ivy rubs the injured shoulder of fellow student Cara with practiced hands, as our little Rhiannon happily shells the acorns that she gathered. I sit close to the heat-giving stove, stirring crushed elderberries and finely chopped ginger into a bowl of warmed honey and fine brandy, concocting my cold season remedy. Each of us is an evolving Medicine Woman, discovering and refining our skills and talents through practice and improvisation. Through the magic of healing plants and scrumptious foods, touch and sensation, sweet scents and grateful songs, focused intention and artful follow-through, we share our personal medicine with the world... giving to ourselves in the most nourishing and empowering ways, and making heartful contributions to the greater whole. Outside, a great wind howls through the canyon, heralding the onset of late Autumn storms, and bearing yet another wave of migratory birds scouting our warmer environs for the ideal nesting spots. Like them, we are clearly called... simultaneously responding to the pull of home and purpose, and heeding the urge to fly.
I, too, followed instinct or destiny home, to an ancient ceremonial site deep in the Saliz mountains, in the sparsely populated southwest corner of enchanted New Mexico. Home to the insights that Mother Nature and this enchanted canyon in particular afford. Home to my authentic self and real gifts, and to what we call “one’s personal, most meaningful purpose.” And in my case, home to the Medicine Woman Tradition, a nature-based healing and empowerment practice founded and developed by myself and my partner Jesse Wolf Hardin to meet a real need.
Most of us are of mixed lineage, and all of us have to deal with the disempowerment, destruction and distractions of the present times... as well as with the resulting displacement, illness, self-doubt, and self-worth issues. We all suffer to one degree or another from a dangerous “disconnect” from both the natural world and our own natural selves... and from our childhood hopes and dreams. The practice of Anima answers the need for a system of intense reconnection, personal empowerment and action. Anima itself means “breath,” and is essentially the animating essence of all life. Whether we think of it in spiritual, or strictly secular or scientific terms, it is the vital energy that both enlivens and heals the human body. Through the ever adapting dance of the Anima within our bodies, we grow and learn, rest and repair, thrive and eventually die, our bodies returning to and transformed by the earth it was born from. It is this underlying and interconnective source that the Medicine Woman draws from, understanding the earth as a living composite and inspirited organism that we are each an integral part of.
The Anima Medicine Woman Tradition of herbalism is a manifestation of this way of perceiving and acting, specifically designed for those seeking the perceptual and practical skills and tools necessary for global as well as personal and interpersonal healing, and grounded in common sense principles and skills rather than complicated or artificial structures. Healing is hands on and experiential, and medicines are often best made in the kitchen with fresh, vital ingredients by loving hands. The Medicine Woman understands that the most powerful remedies are those that are most personal, defined by her relationship to both the plants and the people she cares for. She also knows that healing comes through both nourishment and challenge, darkness and light, comfort and dis-ease, not as a dichotomy or polarization but as a careful balance of many elements and ingredients. Problems and illnesses are not seen as enemies to be destroyed or battles to be waged but rather as sometimes necessary lessons and helpers on the journey to wholeness.
Though the Tradition draws from ancestral stores of tribal wisdom and ancient ways, it operates outside any particular cultural or ethnic bias or constraint. We each gather knowledge and skills from whatever resources available to us, yet remain rooted in direct experience and place based knowledge. This frees us from holding to historic techniques or philosophies that no longer serve us or the current times, and allows us to grow with continuing experience and fresh understandings. The Medicine Woman Tradition speaks the language of the hills, of old wives and wise women. As ancient as the sea, as familiar as a mother’s hand upon our forehead and as true today as it was 500 years or even millennia ago. The most fundamental healing techniques are both timeless and tirelessly adaptive. For every generation they bloom with new insights and yet remain essentially applicable to current context and need.
Aware and nurturing men are encouraged to study and utilize these tools, but the Tradition is also pleased to be a place where women in particular can be empowered and equipped, within a supportive community of like-hearted sisters. Beginning with the earliest human cultures, and lasting right up to the seemingly secretive Ozark “herbwyfes” and hill-hid New Mexican “curanderas” of today, it has often been a specially called cadre of women who act as repositories for the knowledge of healing plants and the ways of nature, protecting and nurturing the earth, providing counsel and emotional support to clan and community, encouraging challenge and growth, and finally passing down their wisdom through equally-called students and apprentices.
As much as anything, the Medicine Woman Tradition is an art form. As such, each individual will demonstrate different degrees of potential in different areas. And in every instance, as we say, the lesson is to be our best, whole and wholly given, and in that way exceptional. The Medicine Woman asks what can be learned or gained from each experience, illness or pain, rather than railing against the unfairness or misfortune of the situation. One of her greatest healing tools is teaching those she cares for to ask this same question, and to assist them with the integration of newly attained knowledge in their day to day lives.
A companion course and volume, the Medicine Woman Core Path expands on the Tradition as it relates to the broader topics of identity and body issues, vision quests and rites of passage, self love and service, rage and grief, bliss and play, creativity and story, ritual and celebration. This Medicine Woman Herbal book and course, on the other hand, is focused more on defining healing as wholeness, utilizing the Medicine Wheel, connecting to and “communicating” with plants, learning the properties and uses of specific herbs, understanding physical constitutions, curative foods and the specifics of medicine making. In both cases, what distinguishes this tradition from others is its emphasis on treating our whole beings rather than separate symptoms or conditions, and on our responsibility to help heal and better the larger human and other-than-human community of which we are a part.
“The neophyte turns... either voluntarily, ritually, or spontaneously through sickness... towards the mysterium. This change of direction can be accomplished only through ‘an obedience to awareness’.”
“...she does not only provide medicine, she strives to be medicine.”
In earliest human memory, a “Granny-Woman” walks the woodlands, carrying home a basket of roots or a bundle of bark and moss. In a riverside village nearly two hundred years ago, the “herbwyfe” tended her hearth, stirring a sweet smelling brew with a lovingly carved cottonwood spoon. Somewhere high in the Carolina hills just yesterday, an herbalist brought a thick, powerful medicine to a child suffering from an antibiotic resistant lung infection. And yet, the Medicine Woman is not just a gentle soul who dispenses cures and comfort, but a powerful woman who pro-actively contributes to the well being of the whole, and commits herself to both an essential personal code of honor, and the foundational principles of the Medicine Woman Tradition. Even now, the spirit and ways of the Medicine Woman live on through the instinct, intuition, insight and insistence of special women who care enough to dig deep into the soil of memory, story and the ever present now. In every culture and time of our species, some among us have been called as healers, as the hands that comfort, clarify, soothe and reveal, and as the representatives of the medicine that springs from woodland and mountain, desert and seaside. To protect and nourish both human and habitat, serving as much needed mediators between two worlds that have sadly grown apart through the ages, and to provide ourselves as living links for conscious re-integration.
While the the term Medicine Woman is in some ways generic, as with “Medicine Man,” it’s really not the Medicine Woman Tradition unless its principles and tools are applied and employed. Practical and hands on, the Medicine Woman manifests her healing and service in tangible ways. This result is personal responsibility that avoids victimhood, and that embraces a perspective that sees every moment as decisive, every choice as conscious, and every commitment significant. She takes on the responsibility for her part in the co-creation of her reality, the world around her, and even the future course of events.
The Medicine Woman understands that her relationship is not just with humans but with the whole earth, and that the plants and animals around her are a part of large, complex organism just as she is. As such, she is careful to only take as much of any plant as she needs and that the plant population can easily withstand. She sees the inherent value of each living being, and respects the plants’ intense desire to live and thrive. The Medicine Woman remembers the preciousness of life at all times, and especially when she takes life through harvesting, hunting or other ways. She gratefully gives back to the earth, through generous plant propagation, practiced awareness of her impact and a lifetime guardianship of the land she lives on and gathers from. She primarily uses local, common plants and products in her medicine, rather than exotic or rare goods. She makes a practice of working with what is nearby, and understands that local foods and medicines that grow from the same ground she does, are often more healing and powerful than those from distant lands.
Like the land that she gathers herbs from, the Medicine Woman knows that the human body is also a complex ecology that thrives upon diversity. She strives to support that complexity and diversity through her choices in food, through the use of herbs and other healing techniques, and by not just wiping out the natural microbial communities we are host to. She recognizes that there is more than one valid way of healing, and understand that at times even antibiotics can provide a path to wholeness if they are utilized as one step within a larger approach to nurture the whole person during acute illness. But rather than using antibacterial herbs or drugs on a chronic infection, she may first seek to rebalance bacterial life through fermented foods or herbs like Burdock that feed internal flora. In this way, the Medicine Woman is often able to heal through a process of nourishment rather than confrontation or destruction.
Often immersed in a culture of quick fixes and fast food, the Medicine Woman knows that true healing is not based in suppressing symptoms or relieving discomfort, but in the restoration of wholeness. In every case, the Medicine Woman seeks to restore the integrity of the whole, using whole plants rather than isolated constituents, addressing the whole body and working with the whole person through food, lifestyle, self-love, herbs and other forms of “Whole-istic” involvement.
“Finding a space to belong in, an actual place that I could touch and feel and bring myself to, really made me a person, an entity. It gave me an identity. My surroundings became the path and the path became me.”
It was as a child that the plants first called to me, crawling through the grasses, stopping to sniff the smallest flowers, then sitting back on my heels in awe at the fragrant, white blossoms of the yarrow growing wild at the edges of our yard. Running through the woods, I learned how to weave through the weeds so as to avoid the sharp sting of the prolific nettles. I gathered wild mulberries from up the hill with my mother, delighting in the sweet burst of juice eaten from purple stained fingers. Even then, I knew that the plants’ language of both sweetness and sting was significant and important, telling of some secret healing power or painful call to pay attention. And though the grownups continually cautioned me to not put plants in my mouth for fear I’d poison myself, I couldn’t help but take a taste of the bitter leaves of the dandelion or the nectar rich sage blossoms. I plucked shepherd’s purse seeds, intrigued by their peculiar shape and peered at them from every angle, carefully breaking them apart and then tasting their peppery goodness, proclaiming them to be wild pepper hearts, and adding another defamed weed to my list of favorite wild nibbles.
I knew I was hooked on herbs, the day an old Mexican woman down the road taught me how to use those pepper hearts and yarrow to stop my knees from bleeding, following a particularly bad bike wreck. I’d already searched out and marked any reference to medicinal plants in my favorite fairy tales and stories, but now I poured through field guides and herbal encyclopedias from the local library, looking for familiar plants and their uses. In my small bedroom, I created strange elixirs with vinegar, kitchen spices and garden weeds, delighting just to open the bottles and smell the mysterious scents within. I drank peppermint tea with a new fascination, turning inwards to observe any noticeable effects upon my body. Pulled by the ancient memories of meaning and need the plants stirred in me, I couldn’t have known the profound part they would play in my life’s calling and work. Through my teen years on the streets and my subsequent journey into the wilderness, the plants remained my closest companions, providing nutriment for my spirit and body when nourishment of any kind was hard to come by, and companionship when I had no where else to go for understanding.
Though initially my focus was trained primarily on the plants, Wolf taught me that medicine is any article or agent that contributes to the greater whole. Medicine can the pungent, peppery roots of Osha, or it can be a caring hand on our shoulder, it can be the car wreck that wakes us up to the beauty and importance of life, or it can be the much needed rest that gives us back our energy and vibrance. I recognized medicine in the loneliness during the time I’d spent on the streets, and how it taught me to choose my friends carefully and to value my solitude, found deep healing in my early struggle to free myself of my family’s destructive cycles, and a cure for nearly every sadness in the embrace of our rushing river. Medicine will be different for each person, and will change for each of us in time. The fast-paced lifestyle that invigorates one person may not serve the slower, more deliberate nature of another. The Medicine Woman Tradition teaches that there is no set dogma, no single way of being... only the bedrock of the earth’s underlying principles, the twisting, flowing current of our deepest needs and the clarion call of our most meaningful purpose, all urging us deeper, further and fuller into our selves, and ever further along the winding path we walk.
As that wonder-filled little girl, I was afraid that the role of healer had been relegated by modern dictates to apply only to medical school graduates. It was with great excitement that I learned of contemporary practicing herbalists and healers, yet I knew even then that I would never be happy just dispensing medicines, knew that working from the illusion of separative body, spirit and mind would be less than satisfying. Back then, I imagined myself the fairy-tale witch at the edge of the woods, with a bubbling soup pot and a pantry filled with the scent of dried, twisty roots and green, fragrant leaves. In my mind, I would treat neighbor children from my woodland cottage and deliver medicinal brews and wise words to the townspeople. The Medicine Woman of my youthful daydreams was, as I sensed on some instinctual level, a vital archetype and role model for our species, providing insight, counsel, and both magical and common sense healing to those she cares for and her surrounding tribe. While she may sometimes seem lost or invisible in our culture’s adoration of ephemeral beauty and tragic tales, she is still very present in our stories and thoughts, helping us re-create our lives.
Leading my students into the wild forests of my southwestern homeland, I find myself still glowing with the sense of enchantment and mystery that the plants first spoke of so many years ago. In my teaching and writing, I strive to pass on my continual wonder and love of the green world and its healing power. When I work with local village people, I remember my healing roots and the wise ways of my ancestral mothers, and at the same time I am excited at the potential for new discoveries and understandings. Practicing my art as teacher, wife, mother, herbalist and writer – as Medicine Woman – my childhood dreams are superimposed over my day to day life, seamless as skin, and more fulfilled with each passing moment.
And now it is time to turn from this solar powered laptop, and to the gorgeous sun as it slips over the red and violet cliffs. As I close, Loba is lighting the oil lamp and candles while Rhiannon sets the table for a dinner of wild meat and greens, glowing acorn bread and mulled cider. A simple prayer speaks our gratitude for the medicine of our abundance and the hands that fashioned it. In the growing dark, we take in the profound healing of stillness and nourishment, of love and fulfillment... and the unique, powerful journey we are each called to as Medicine Women. We applaud your responding to your calling, welcome your embrace of the Tradition, and will do all we can to assist your unique individual expression of the purposeful Medicine Woman Herbal path.
Walking home through the cool air and dry grass yesterday, I noticed that the spiny brown seed pods of the wild licorice had fallen and the leaves were beginning to wither and crisp, as it drew its energy from its extremities and down into their long, coiling roots as the Fall cold sets in. I knelt down by them and touched their speckled stalks, allowing myself to become more aware of the shortening days and the wonder of life still growing vital and vigorous beneath the insulating ground. I dug my fingers into the sand until I exposed the soft brown maze of its roots, carefully harvesting half a dozen foot length sections before covering them again with their earthen blanket and continuing home.
For me, the first root harvest each year physically signifies the shift into the cooler, darker time of the year. While the seasons used to slip past me almost before I could notice, now our wild foods and local medicines inform me in the most tangible ways of each precious transition. The slow turn of the seasonal wheel teaches first and foremost awareness — of the natural world, of relationships and our own bodily cycles.
Much of this awareness has to do with the food we consume, the clothes we wear, the medicines we use and the activities we engage in. These concrete, almost mundane elements are the stuff of life: the tart red raspberries of Summer, the soft wool wraps of Winter, the spicy root brews of Autumn and the enlivened dance of Spring. It is in these simple acts and objects we find connection and meaning. The ritual of gathering the first bitter greens of the growing season and of plucking the last flowers of the warm time, has brought me into an ever more intimate relationship with the land I live on. I know, almost to the week, when certain flowers or particulars trees will be ready to harvest. Even without a calendar, my partner Loba and I can tell by the slant of sun and the chill in the air just when we it’s time to travel up to the mountains for the blackberries and yarrow. As the first one of us here at Animá Center to come home to the Canyon, Wolf remembers each season of every year of the last 30 here in this one place. He can tell us of the progression of floods, of the changing landscape, of the newly arrived birds and flowers and the many different paths the river has taken through all the rainy seasons.
Although our daughter Rhiannon is only eight, she too understands her life by the natural progression of the year. She grins gleefully when the acorns begin to fatten in August, and twirls in delight at the first snow. Likewise, she associates these changes with certain foods, clothes, medicines and ways of moving through the landscape. When I returned yesterday with a bag full of fresh elderberries, she paused and mused. “Medicine for Winter,” she said, watching me with excitement this morning when I drenched the purple berries with honey and brandy, then putting them into the pantry in preparation for the annual onslaught of colds, flu and other immune system challenges. There’s a certain special beauty to this experience of the earth as a dynamic, living organism, and of ourselves as integral pieces of that animate whole. When we take the time to actively participate and immerse ourselves in the movement and rhythm of the world, we notice more and more the intertwined nature of everything and how we fit into that greater whole. In the spirals within spirals of time and its turning, we grow wilder and ever closer to home.
Here in the mountains of the Southwest, the commonly accepted seasons are different than they are in, say, northern New England. Our Spring comes early – in mid-March – and is followed by a long summer which is divided up into the very dry fire season and the hopefully very wet monsoon season, then comes harvest season, the cold season’s rains and finally the bone chill of deep Winter. Depending on the decade, these categories can shift and blur. In our wild canyon home we have even more micro seasons, formed around special yearly events like the Spring return of the phoebes and blooming of soft white Yucca flowers..
I mark the return of spring by the first flowering candytuft and by the way the light shifts when the sun rises over the canyon wall, and the arrival of fire season by the explosion of beebalm flowers opening in every canyon nook and cranny. Midsummer is heralded by the blooming of the first wild roses and elder flowers, and the monsoons move in just as the saskatoons are ripening. Harvest season begins with the gooseberries turning black-purple and juicy and later on the aromatic little native herbs affectionately called “sunset plants” turn every shade of pink, purple and green. The last golden leaf to fall from the giant arms of the Cottonwoods marks the onset of winter and the time to turn inwards, to sort the harvest and to settle in front of the fire for the long evenings of the cold season.
Instead of being subject to the guidelines of “normal” seasons, we can each take note of the weather and happenings in our unique bioregion. We can pay special attention to the moment of transition between seasons and the shifts in weather, flora and fauna throughout the year. We may mark our calendar when we notice the first Spring flower, the arrival of migrating butterflies or the first snow.
These experiences are deeply personal and encourage – even require – us to become increasingly more intimate with our surroundings and selves. Only through repeated observation and experience can we anticipate what that first flower will most likely appear one year to the next, or recognize the change in the wind that signals the beginning of a seasonal refiguring. Just as we may know our true love or heart’s home at first glance, it is only through years of aware walking, working and living together that we get to know every wrinkle and scar, and each variation on a smile.
While most people celebrate Spring as designated by the equinox, I have a habit of basing our festivities around locally occurring events. For the last few years, we have celebrated the return of the growing season when the yuccas bloom. They are by no means the first flower to open in the Spring, but they are an accurate marker of the full greening of the canyon. They’re also tasty and a prime source of food and medicine, making them an important plant to honor.
We gather baskets and bowls full of its flowers and bring them back to the cabin. Some are immediately transformed into an integral part of the special feast and others are strung on a cotton thread, to be hung for decoration and drying from the rafters. Next, we prepare a sumptuous and colorful meal, full of the vitality and growth of Spring. Our festival is simple, made up mostly of feasting and a little dancing, along with ample time to observe and appreciate the beautiful green emerging from every crevice and cranny. We toast the animals, the plants and the canyon with raised glasses, then settle in to watch the sun turn golden and purple as it slips over the canyon wall.
Yearly holidays and community festivals are also best when planned around a local seasonal event such as morel season, apple harvest or corn planting. For those of us not living in a wild or rural area, we can still take notice of the street-side cherry blossoms and readiness of ripe community garden tomatoes, and even celebrate with our neighbors and family with special meals and gathering parties.
When we gather many of our foods from the wild, from our garden or even the local farmer’s market, we generally become better attuned to the land we live on, and it informs our bodies of seasonal changes. Instead of using cooling tropical fruits to prepare November breakfasts, our bodies and spirits might benefit more from a steaming bowl of oats with chunks of locally grown dried apples with a dollop of raw wildflower honey. Even changes as simple as drinking a lemon balm tea fresh from the garden in the warm months rather than green tea or coffee, can significantly reconnect us to the dynamic dance of life and land. These simple acts can serve as celebrations in and of themselves, providing us with daily rituals to honor the local green beings, our own health and the connections between all things. All acts of participation can be conscious and joyful, and a daily means for more deeply engaging.
There are certain blessings and challenges that come with every part of the wheel, affecting our food, the clothes we wear, how we travel, our emotions and our overall health. When we attune ourselves to notice and adapt accordingly, the journey through the spiral of the year can be made even more joyful, meaningful and productive. Our ancestors spent a great deal of time preparing for each coming season, whether weaving sandals and sorting seeds in late Winter for the coming Spring or harvesting and preparing remedies in Autumn for the coming Winter months.
Likewise, we can choose to mindfully take into account each coming shift in weather and energy. Every evening Loba and I stand in the kitchen gazing up at the shelves of shiny glass jars filled with colorful and vibrant flowers, leaves and roots. We each pick an individual blend of herbs to place in our quart mason jars for the next day’s nourishing infusion. It would be more convenient to make a blend and use the same mixture every night, but we find that we prefer the freedom to choose each healing element on a daily basis. One busy week I might add more wild Chamomile and oatstraw for stress support, and the next Loba will toss a few pinches of desert tea in with her more standard nettles and red clover to help prepare for the onset of seasonal allergies. In this way we assist our bodies in adapting to the coming changes as well as adjusting mentally and emotionally as we act out of our connection.
Each season we not only partake in the current bounty but also prepare for the next. Gathering and drying bitter root medicines, brewing sweet wines made of spring flowers or simmering rich berry and bark syrups to be stored in thick glass on a cool pantry shelf, awaiting need or
As I let my fingers sift through a jar of last summer’s fragrant rose petals I feel myself connected to the mothers of generations past... to the women who, thousands of years ago, gathered and prepared these same medicines in this very place! Making remedies for child and village, infusing the richness of each precious moment into food, medicine and activity, bringing us full circle to the eternal now.
It’s no coincidence that the fresh promise of May is the most popular month for weddings, or that the sunless days of winter often bring up reasons for depression or sadness in many. The moon spins from dark to light, as our own bodies surge with ovulation and then flow with the bleeding time. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are connected at the very roots to the land and seasons, to cycles and shifts of the planet we live on. The more we can take notice of and foster this connection, the more helpful and beautiful the process can be. Likewise, the more we can pay attention to the cycles of our bodies, the more we will learn and enjoy. Rather than view menopause as some kind of personal hell brought on by “estrogen failure” we can find the liberation and power of coming into our croning years. And instead of experiencing each menstrual period as a curse, we can let ourselves feel the ancient rhythm of body and moon, blood and water as emotions, as body and tides flowing of and through us.
Such rites of passage are not just spiritual or metaphorical, they are rooted in the very physical reality of seed and leaf, fruit and flower. Our bodies are miraculous microcosms that reflect the entirety of the evolutionary and creative process of life. Throughout history, tribal women have understood and celebrated the specialness of the female cycle, and it is only in recent history that we have forgotten the wonders of womanhood and come to hate our bodies. Honoring these rites of passage and transformation are more than just noting the changes and cycles, it is a way of both remembering our primal connections to the land and learning to love ourselves again. How we choose to do this is highly individual, and while one woman may find companionship in sharing this with a group of women, another may find it so personal and intimate that she prefers to be only with her self or a few chosen loved ones.
Moving through the wheel of the year, we circle and dance back to ourselves, allowing every moon, season and event to be something both amazingly special and ultimately familiar. These small celebrations and annual observances are in fact incredibly vital to our ecstatic experience as fulfilled women. They provide us both with a sense of cyclical continuity and reinforce the importance of experiencing the intense present moment. They give us roots and context, a place to grow from, reasons to act, and memories to treasure. The world seen through local seasons – through the always turning wheel – is one of ongoing delights of our ever deepening intimacy with the earth, each other and ourselves.
In the driest whitest stretch of pain’s infinite desert, I lost my sanity and found this rose. — Rumi
Growing up, I scorned garden Roses for weedier, wild plants. Though I loved all things green, I had a hard time understanding the common emphasis on the dandified and often weak hybrid flowers that populated gardens, lawns and windowsills. Never having been pampered myself, I didn’t have any use for domesticated and over-fertilized prima donnas. Instead, I fancied berry brambles and Nettles — rampant and untameable children that overtook gardens and yards, climbing fences and walls as they spread through waste areas and forgotten lots. As I erupted into adolescence as an angry runaway from an abusive home, I could identify with their tenacity and fierce will to not just survive but thrive in even the poorest soil.
I was surprised then, by the wildness and ferocity of the first Wild Roses I met along the bank of a now forgotten river. The thorns snagged the hem of my long frayed skirt and held tight. I turned to untangle myself from them and found myself faced with obscenely pink petals unfurling in the morning sun, and the alluring scent of something both earthy and etheric, surely a creature apart from the nearly scentless and carefully made up faces of the tea roses my mother grew. As I struggled to unwrap my skirt from the thousands of spines, I was repeatedly poked and cut by the needle fine thorns that guarded the sweet smelling flowers, until my own blood streaked across the flowers. The intensity and insistence of the plant amazed me, though I still held onto a deep resistance against America’s symbol of love, femininity and romance.
The moment I arrived in New Mexico, with its red volcanic rock faces and lush green river banks, I knew I was home. Here in the Gila, Wild Roses grow in thick protective hedges along the river… immediately, I loved their needle sharp thorns combined with the delicate vulnerability. As an exotic dancer from the streets turned canyon wild child, I could relate, though I didn’t feel nearly as vulnerable as the slowly unfolding flowers looked. Their long red canes shimmer come springtime, and they are one of the first woody plants to leaf out, providing a welcome splash of vibrant green.
There are as many varieties of Rose as there are shades of green, and every kind holds some profound therapeutic value. My favorite variety is the New Mexico Wild Rose (R. neomexicana), the very same beauty that graces the river banks and cliff bottoms of this wild canyon sanctuary deep in the heart of the Gila. Though her scent is subtler than some of her middle eastern sisters, I find her medicinal values to be myriad and powerful. In general, any strongly scented, old-fashioned or wild Rose can be used medicinally, and the rest are still strong medicine through their gentle presence and lovely appearance. I prefer my Roses complete with thorns, and avoid modern hybrids with little or no thorns, feeling that this takes away from the special balance of fierceness and vulnerability the Rose embodies.
The Wild Rose is my most important plant ally, and one that I am continually amazed by. If there is a single plant who has provided me with the most healing, it is this one. My relationship with this thorny beauty deepens each year, and every season the briar teaches me more about boundaries, vulnerability and self-expression. This plant teaches raw, wide open love complete with scars, thorns and an abiding sense of self-knowledge. She teaches that beauty is a bone deep quality, one that we hold in every cell regardless of the pain we’ve lived through or the battles we’ve weathered. In hard years, her petals unfurl skewed and wrinkled but his doesn’t mar her attractiveness. Rather, they add to an already complex character and give her more of the strongly scented medicine she’s known for.
Tough, resilient and wild hearted, she springs back even after being beaten down by rocks, floods, droughts and deep cold. She is adaptable and stubborn, brazen and sensual. The Wild Rose is not a shy plant, she’ll grab you by your skirt with curved thorns and seduce you with her sweet, earthy scent. She asks us to pay attention, to feel deeply and to both wear our heart on our sleeves and to defend our most vulnerable selves with our life. Full of nourishment, this mother has teeth to protect herself with. Focus and respect are required of those who come to partake in her healing.
In the Southwest, Roses are close companions of rivers. They ramble and spread across damp grassy banks in the dappled shadow of the Alders. My memories of every May harvesting the sweet petals of the Wild Rose are entwined with the sensations of standing calf deep in mossy pools and scrambling up the cool cliff wall to reach an almost out of reach blossom. In the background of every photograph of the Rose is the flowing thread of the Sweet Medicine River. When I dream of their flowers, I hear the current singing somewhere nearby.
Unlike any domestic Rose I’ve ever met, the canyon’s Wild Roses have incredibly aromatic foliage as well as flowers. Musky and sweet, they smell like what all those overpriced synthetic department store perfumes want to smell like, but can’t quite achieve. The foliage also is rather intensely nervine, and the tincture is so lovely that I’ve started tincturing and oiling the flowers and leaves together for added power and flavor.
Fat black bumblebees love the delicate pink blossoms, and hover above the hedges, waiting for the perfect opportunity to rush in grab the tender gold centers of each Rose in a very interesting display. Today, one of the bees mistook my pink blouse for a flower and latched on to my shoulder, we had an interesting moment of me peering down at the impassioned bee with some alarm mingled with curiosity while he tried to find the non-existent gold center. He soon realized his mistake and headed off for the next real Rose.
The rose was not searching for darkness or science:
Rose hips are best known for their Vitamin C content, and are indeed a widely available and abundant source of this necessary substance. Rose hips are also rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, Niacin, Bioflavanoids, K, and E as well as polyphenols and heart healthy pectin. And even the Rose petals are rich in polyphenols, B vitamins and bioflavanoids. The whole plant, including foliage and flowers, is jam-packed with anti-oxidants. If you currently drink a foreign tea like Green tea or Honeybush or Roobois for the anti-oxidants, well Rose pretty much meets or beats them in that department. Plus, they’re a local, sustainable source for most people in the US that can usually be gathered and processed absolutely free. Some people find the taste of Rose petals too perfume like, but I have found that it depends largely on the species used. My favorite Rose of commerce to use for tea is, hands down, R. centifolia, it’s lovely, spirited and sweet without the strong aftertaste of some other species such as R. gallica.
Its rich nutrition makes the Rose, and especially the hip, a fine blood tonic for those experiencing fatigue, anxiety, vertigo, pallor, dry skin and hair and other signs of blood deficiency. If the individual is also experiencing feelings of coldness, I recommend adding warming blood tonics such as blackstrap molasses or Dang Gui.
The entire plant is incredibly anti-inflammatory, Scandinavian studies show that Rose hips and seeds significantly reduced the need for painkillers in individuals suffering from osteoarthritis. I have found all parts of the rose to be strongly anti-inflammatory, and have used a liniment of rose petals for traumatic injuries, sore muscles and chronic muscoskeletal pain in individuals that fit the Pitta type profile Rose is most useful for. I’ve had remarkable success treating dislocated discs with accompanying swelling, stiffness and pain with topical applications of Rose petal liniment and infusion. Just this liniment, with no other treatment, recently resolved a dislocated disc with severe pain, swelling, tension and loss of movement. It’s also been effective in less serious cases typified by inflammation and pain. The flower has also been long recognized as a primary medicine in Ayurveda and Unani Tibb, and has been found to significantly contribute the “good” bacteria in our bellies.
A wonderful relaxant to the liver, Rose excels at moving stuck energy and relieving tension in the liver/gallbladder area. I use it frequently when treating cases of acute hepatitis or chronic/viral hepatitis where there’s signs of inflammation. And of course, it makes a wonderful heart-settling nervine suitable for nearly anyone, and gentle enough for a baby. In fact, the smell of Roses significantly decreases overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system while also reducing adrenalin output in the body. Likewise, several different major systems of traditional medicine also consider the hips and flowers both a tonic for weak kidneys and adrenals. I frequently include some part of the plant in formulas for clients with adrenal fatigue with symptoms of heat, nervous exhaustion and internal dryness.
Rose can effectively balance hyperimmune disorders where the body overreacts to every perceived threat. It also generally enhances immune function through its cooling, cleansing effect. I use Rose as a standard remedy for any cold or flu type illness, the hip is traditional for this but I often use both hip and petal in my preparations. Many Native tribes were known to use the root or bark in the treatment of cold and flu, and while I haven’t yet tried this, I imagine it will be at least as effective as the petal or hip. I make Rose petal pastilles with honey for sore or inflamed throats. Rose infused honey can be used as a syrup for the same symptoms. And an infusion of petal and leaf will also help symptomatically with sinus congestion, runny nose or damp heat in the lungs.
The underlying property of Rose is one of fluids/energy/blood movement and regulation, which explains many of seemingly disparate effects on the different organs and tissues of the body. It has an innate intelligence that gives it the ability to adjust the flow of the body’s varying energies and substances. It can calm heart palpitations, eliminate liver pains, reduce nervous tension or lessen menstrual cramps all depending on what the body needs. Traditional Western Herbalism and Ayurveda generally see the Rose as cooling while TCM usually describes it as warming, and I think this has much to do with what properties the varying traditions ascribe to hot or cold. The reduction in inflammation is certainly part of the reason is is thought of as cooling, and the moving properties have to do with the warming aspect.
I’ve found it to be very useful in treating general pelvic congestion resulting in scanty menses, cramps, water retention, cysts and mood swings. Rich in the building blocks of hormones, Rose helps nourish the endocrine system through its provision of these basic hormonal elements. An age old aphrodisiac, stirring up both blood and libido as well as opening up the heart, it has a history of treating sexual dysfunction such as impotence and frigidity.
Partially due to these same blood moving decongestant properties, Rose is also strengthening and healing to the heart and circulatory system. It is especially indicated in high blood pressure and/or poor circulation in individuals with Pitta symptoms such as inflammation, constipation, headaches, feverishness, red face, heart palpitations and hot flashes. Note that several of these symptoms can also be caused by a congested or inflamed liver, which Rose also serves to relax and cool.
That same uptight, overworked and congested liver can also cause any number of digestive symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gastric inflammation, IBS, hyperacidity and conversely, food fermenting in the stomach from sluggish digestion (usually rooted in stagnant liver Qi). Rose can help these symptoms through addressing the liver problem at the root, as well as cooling, healing and protecting the gut lining, assisting the digestive process to help things move a bit better and by generally nourishing the mucosa as well as the intestinal bacteria. I have personally found Rose petal infusions to be a very effective long term treatment for IBS with signs of internal heat and inflammation (diarrhea, food allergies, nausea, burning/churning stomach, red, cracked tongue with anxiety and restlessness).
Traditionally considered one of the finest wound medicines in North America, Rose is no longer a common remedy for wounds and injuries. In modern use, it often seems to be relegated to the ranks of simple astringents. It certainly does make a fine smelling astringent, but has a plethora of other properties adding to its wonderful wound healing abilities. The whole plant, but especially the root, has pain relieving properties when used externally, and is also a very good antibacterial agent for treating nearly any kind of infection, inside or out, including UTIs, yeast and vaginal infections. Indigenous peoples use the hips for severe infections externally, making a mash of the hips and using as a poultice. An acquaintance from Alaska recently told me a story of her mother using rose hips alone to successfully treat a severe wound on a dog. I’ve since used rose hip poultices on several infected wounds with great results.
Rose oil can be used externally for menstrual cramps and Canadian herbalist Terry Willard recommends Rose petal infused wine for uterine cramps and labor pains. I find that Rose works best internally for cramps when both hip and petal are used and are appropriately combined other herbs such as Mugwort or Peony root.
Diluted Rose petal vinegar is amazing for sunburns, clearing the heat from the skin and relieving a great percentag of the pain. A universal remedy for sore, inflamed eyes and even cataracts. Petals are most often used, but many indigenous tribes used the roots. Rose leaf spit poultices are great for bug bites and cuts and scratches, Rose petals will work too, but it’s usually easier to get a leaf most times of the year. Gentle enough for babies, many cultures have used Rose petal infusion for teething, fussiness and diarrhea in infants. I frequently give our daughter, Rhiannon, Rose glycerite when she gets into a overheated, hyperactive and irritable state that often results in a nervous stomach and diarrhea. I find that it helps to cool and calm her, and also helps settle her belly.
Also appropriate for delicate areas other herbs might irritate, finely ground petals or leaves can be used as a powder for rashes, itchy or inflamed areas and wounds anywhere on the body. A traditional recipe of the Mesquakies involves boiling down Rosehips to make a paste to be used for itching anywhere on the body, including hemorrhoids. All parts of the plant will help the itching and pain of red, inflamed eczema, contact dermatitis, hives, poison ivy etc., a diluted vinegar of Rose petals and Mugwort is my potion of choice for such cases.
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
Rose flowers (any aromatic Rose) were, and are still, much used for the emotional aspects of heart, they are particularly good for people who feel unloved or who have been abused. Regular use of rose tincture alters the whole feeling of the body.
While the healing power of the Rose is pervasive in how it touches nearly every part of a person, perhaps the most remarkable aspects of this flower are found in its ability to affect the heart and spirit. Long praised for its anti-depressant qualities and ability to open the heart, it has been used across the world to raise the spirits and heal broken hearts. An amazingly uplifting herb, I often use it as an antidepressant/antianxiety agent, especially for those who have been the victim of violence, sexual abuse or betrayal as well as anyone who can use more self-love. It has a profound opening effect on the heart and on sexuality, and is a deeply nourishing tonic for the nerves.
A very gentle (except for the thorns) plant, Wild Rose can be used by just about everyone though some traditional peoples warn against use in pregnancy due to the blood moving effects. I have not yet seen any constitutional aggravation from the temperature or humidity of this herb. In fact, I use the tincture much like Rescue Remedy for trauma, stress etc. And personally, I have found it to be more effective than Rescue Remedy for most things. For the ultimate herbal Rescue Remedy formula I do one part Wild Rose, one part Monkeyflower (Mimulus) and 1 part Milky Oats or Blisswort (Scutellaria), that’s some good stuff there! As a side note, some people find Wild Rose tincture fairly mind altering (generally in a very nice way) while others can’t feel the nervine effects when they first start working with it. I have seen some cases of people being shocked at how much it affected their thought process and emotional state.
In my own time spent with this plant, taking in both her body as well as spending time with her spirit, I have found a great healing. She has the remarkable ability to allow vulnerability while reinforcing personal empowerment and freedom. This plant teaches a deep self love and knowledge that results in nourishment and wholeness. While the term rose colored glasses often applies to seeing the world in an unrealistically positive light, what Rose really gives us is the ability to see the earth and ourselves in all of its true and inherent beauty.
My good friend and talented herbalist Ananda Wilson says she finds Rose to help “when I get neurotic about things, or mysteriously desperate feeling”. I agree with her findings, and have used it for very similar indications, especially when those neurotic feelings are hormonal or heart centered. Minnesota herbalist Matt Wood believes that it turns down excitement in the limbic centers which control both heat and passion. I consider it to be an emotional modulator, balancing out both intense feelings and intense apathy, and provides a solid foundation from which to sense and connect to the world we are a part of.
Rose is very calming and balancing, assisting us in finding a ground level state from which we can access our real emotions rather than just react. In this way it can help those suffering from anxiety, anger, insecurity, grief and depression. It can be used as a baseline in any nerve strengthening, emotionally balancing formula including more specific herbs for the exact person and situation.
Throughout my experiences in the wilderness while rediscovering my own lost little girl, the Rose has played an important role in revealing my true self. She’s comforted me in my tears, cheered my sad moments and instructed me in being fiercely free while remaining deeply vulnerable and open to love and beauty. When overwhelmed by grief or stress, I anoint myself with Rose oil or cream, and drink an elixir of Rose petal, hip and leaf. Just these two small acts help me reconnect to my spirit and reaffirm my commitment to self nourishment. This is an important way for me to maintain personal balance after years of self imposed denigration and abuse. In the Rose, I have found my own nature and I have learned to deeply love her.
As Spring emerges here in the Sweet Medicine Canyon, the Roses start to swell with promising buds, and in a month, new pink blossoms will begin to open. Their petals will unfold, slowly and deliberately, in the warm May sun, stretching past barriers and known limitations to soar skyward. As I carefully gather petals and leaves from their graceful forms, I will feel my own heart continue to open, slowly and deliberately, stretching towards the warmth and great love of this beautiful life.
Whenever I meet a flower for the first time, I let the world around me disappear, let my vision and experience narrow to just this one incredible expression of life I’m confronted by. My focus tightens to the texture and temperature of leaf, the smell and color of the flower, the sound of the wind singing through it, and the feeling of just being near the plant. Next, I’ll re-broaden my sight so that I can also experience the context of the plant and get to know through its habitat and relationship to other plants and animals. Later will I page through my books or google its name on the internet. The information I learn through research are incredibly valuable but still secondary to my personal relationship to the plant. Aquainting myself with the plants in this manner allows me experience and understand the plant on many levels, from impression to intuition to bodily experience to the head knowledge of facts and figures.
Many of us have been taught herbalism (and just about everything else) through rote memorization, through long lists of diseases, body parts, plant names and constituents. The unfortunate result of this kind of learning is that it tends to stunt our capacity to truly listen, experience and adapt. Just as we cannot expect to play beautiful music simply because we have learned to read music or memorized the progression of notes that makes up a tune, neither should we expect to understand an herb just because we know their botanical name and “active ingredients”. Yes, knowing what plant family an herb belongs to is very useful, just as knowing what key a song is being played in, but it’s just one tool in the bigger picture of cultivating a relationship with a living plant or playing a personal expression of the song.
I’ve lost track of how often I’m asked how I manage to memorize all the herbs and problems, and how they match up, as if the secret to being an effective herbalist lies in having a computer-like brain. Truth is, beyond those pesky (but very useful) botanical plant names there’s very little I purposely memorize. Over time I have certainly committed certain things to mind through practice and hard learned experience, like not to put oil or salve on burns or to not sedate pain until I know what the pain is trying to communicate.
When it gets right down to it, everything in the healing process is about relationships - to the plants, the land, our food, our bodies and every other integral part of the living whole. Nothing is separate, and everything impacts everything else, just as every musical note exists in relationship with the other notes. It’s the contrast, harmony and resonance that makes it all work, that transforms abstract concepts into a complex and interdependant organism made up of each of us humans, as well as all the critters, bacteria, mushrooms, flowers and other living beings in the world.
For me, the work of getting intimate with the plants, of getting to know each one I work with as a unique expression of medicine, vitality and wholeness has been and continues to be the work of a lifetime. One reason why I choose to primarily work with local herbs, is because it seems difficult to me to really fall in love with one without knowing it as a living being in the context of the larger plant community and the dirt and water it grows from. I also find that experiencing a plant in its habitat teaches me more about its medicine, and often reveals subtleties I might have otherwise missed. I love the simple sweetness of incorporating an herbal ally into my life on every level: from greeting them by the river each day, to reveling in their taste as a food or tea to being amazed by the power of their healing effects. I’ve written extensively on this very subject in my Talking With Plants series over on the Medicine Woman’s Roots blog, with a special emphasis on recognizing the unique, non-human nature of the plant world.
This same principle applies to our relationship with our bodies, and to the bacteria, viruses and other creatures that live with and in us. The more we can understand and get to know the individual nature of each being and how it connects to the rest of life - the more whole, and therefore, the more healthy we will be. Animá and the Medicine Woman Tradition teaches all of life as an unending progression of concentric rings, linked into an eternal spiral that show us how our individual selves connect to each other and the whole planet that is our larger self. Our attempt to sterilize our environment by wiping out microorganisms with anti-bacterial soaps and more and more powerful antibiotics and the impact it has had on our health is a vivid illustration of the incredibly deep relationship that exists between us and even the minute members of the family of life.
In a culture of deconstruction and fragmentation, it can be hard to re-vision the world through eyes that are able to see the essential wholeness of life and the dance that each participant contributes to that whole. It can be difficult indeed to see what connects us in addition to what separates us. And yet, it is the infinitely satisfying purpose of each of one of us to recognize our innate kinship to our larger self and to nourish it, one intimate relationship at a time. The better we know the food we eat, the trees we rest beneath, the birds that sing to us and the land that sustains us the better we will know ourselves. Likewise, the more attention and nourishment we give our bodies and our whole, authentic selves, the deeper we will be able to know the world around us. The impact ripples in every direction, showing us how very important every decision and action really is, how every note and every pause between notes changes and fills the song. Proving once again, how we really do have the power to effect and change, to heal the whole wide world through every flower we fall in love with and each conscious step we take.
standing at the center of this circle
with my gathering basket and medicine bag
so many years worth of wildflowers
gone to dust, carried out on wind
that moves around my ankles
like a small animal, wailing
with the fever that keeps
me restless and watching,
still calling for the rebirth
that’s always rising
one wave following the next
the tides of our healing
receding and then reviving
when I shake my head
to clear it of your cries
leaves and roots come
flying from my hair in a flurry
of dirt and foliage and the scent
of the earth rising in a storm
heavy with rain, rampant with thunder
wild with the dance that drives
me from day to day
my arms full of herbs
and the hurt that haunts
my people, the wounds
that refuse to heal
until I dress them in bark
and resin and the breath
of my fervent prayer
I weave green lichen
and spiderwebs into
cloth, dress your wounds
with my tears, give myself
to the rhythm of this work
the pull and ache of
what I am called to do
the mantle of elder leaves
falling across my shoulders
before gathering on the ground
shaking and shimmering
before fading back to leaf mould
the skin growing back
the edges knitting until
you can’t even remember
the scar until I trace it
with my fingers from memory
the knowledge of how you hurt
and how you heal
a history that my body
cannot help but hold
goldpoppies and meadowrue
red hyssop and the motion
of my hands as I bathe you
in the fragrance of the forest
the magic of the land seeping
into you and bringing you back
pink as new flesh and breathless
from the dreaming you traveled on
to be reborn into this place between
worlds and words where the flowers
wear faces and teach us always again
how to be human and whole