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How to choose a herbal ally and what to do with one once you have

The following are notes given to Springfield Sanctuary Apprentices by Sarah Head on how to choose a herbal ally and what to do once you have one.

What is a herbal ally?

The idea of a herbal ally comes from Gail Faith Edwards in her book, “Opening our wild
hearts to the healing herbs” She says

“Pick a new plant each year to focus on. Be sure to grow the plant, or meet
it in the wild, observe it, make different medicines and foods with it, use it in
many ways, consume it regularly, or use as applicable as often as possible,
and constantly observe. Noting all you observe. Keeping your own notes is
critically important. Learn to meditate with plants. Learn to take care of them,
learn to process and use them, one by one. Fall in love with each and every
plant you work with, one by one. Recognize the living being there, the spirit of
the plant. Respect its power. Open your wild heart to it.”

Susan Weed suggests

“Choose a plant that grows very near to you … no more than
a one-minute walk from your door. You don’t need to know the name of the plant, or
anything about it. You will be sitting with your plant every day, so, if possible, choose
one that grows in a quiet and lovely place … in a pot on your balcony is just fine … in
a park is great … so is an alley … or a backyard. “

Susun offers six different green ally exercises to get to know the ally more intimately.

  • Meditate/sit and breathe with your green ally for 3-10 minutes a day
  • Make a detailed drawing of the ally as accurate as possible. Next make
a soft, impressionistic drawing
  • Find out what parts of the ally are typically used. Find out if other parts
are useful. Make oils, tinctures and vinegars of all the useful plant parts
  • Observe the conditions the plant chooses to grow in
  • Write a story from the point of view of your green ally. (If you have
trouble getting started, write a warm up page praising your green ally and
telling him/her how much you like him/her and why
  • Introduce a friend to your green ally. Tell them all about your ally.

You may wish to include these other exercises

  • write a song about your green ally
  • write poems about your green ally
  • if edible, eat your green ally as often as possible
try your ally in tea form
  • start some seeds of your green ally so you can watch him grow from a
seedling into full life
  • harvest your ally at all stages of growth
  • sketch, draw, paint your ally at all stages of growth

What to do once you have found one: Seasonal tasks

January to March

  • Consider your ally in its dormant state. If you can see/visit it – sketch what you observe or take pictures. Does it need pruning/sheltering from possible frosts? Does it still have leaves or fruit attached? Are you going to grow it yourself? Where are you going to source it from?
  • Are you going to buy/beg plants/grow from seed?  Obtain some dried form of your ally and take yourself a tea once a day for one week and notice taste/flavour/effects on you.
  • What did ancient herbalists use your ally for? How did they prepare it? Check Culpepper, Galen, Avicenna, Hildegarde of Bingen, 16th, 17th, 18 and 19th century writers. (Hint: Maud Grieve and Matthew Wood give good summaries of older herbalists). Don’t forget Scudder Ellingwood and King on Henriette Kress’ and Paul Bergner’s websites.
  • If you are going to plant your ally, prepare the ground and decide on and plan your planting scheme and plant your seeds. Take careful note of how long seeds take to germinate in what growing conditions and how long they take to acquire two “real” leaves. Pot on.
  • Research modern/current usage of your ally. Check if there is any difference between UK/Us/European usage (or TCM/Ayuvedic/Western)
  • If your ally has bark, consider removing bark from prunings and either drying/tincturing, make tea or syrup or doubly infuse in oil. (Make sure the bark is suitable for internal ingestion first!).
  • Spend time with your ally during its dormant state – ask what it would like to teach you over the coming year.

 April to June

  • Review the tasks set for January – March.
  • Which have you completed and which are still outstanding?
  • Decide which unfinished tasks you are going to carry through and programme them into your schedule.
  • If you are still growing your ally from seeds, sow and take regular pictures and drawings of their growth. Note the colours of emerging leaves, stems and flowers. How do these colours change over time?
  • As soon as you have enough fresh material, make a vinegar, tincture, elixir, honey and double infused oil. If possible make separate preparations with leaf and flower to be able to contrast and compare
  • Once the flowers emerge, make a flower essence.
  • When is the best time to harvest your ally – before or after flowering? After the first frost? What is the part normally used and for what purpose? If only one part of the plant is normally used, experiment with other parts. Do different parts have different actions or work with different parts of the body?

July to September

  • Review the tasks set for April – June.
  • a. Which have you completed and which are still outstanding?
  • b. Decide which unfinished tasks you are going to carry through and programme them into your schedule.
  • Complete your herbal ally preparations – check you have dried an amount of your ally, pressed plant or parts of the plant and labelled it on a page to either mount or make into a herbarium, made a vinegar, tincture, double infused oil, tea, decoction, cold water maceration, overnight hot infusion and flower essence. What will you use your ally for? What have you used your ally for? What was the result? What is your favourite preparation? Is it appropriate to make a lotion or cream? Have you tried a spit poultice, fomentation or poultice?
  • Find a suitable piece of cotton e.g. an old sheet/pillow case and embroider a picture of your ally. (Inability to sew or embroider is no excuse; this is an opportunity to learn!)
  • Paint pictures of your ally in different stages of the growing cycle either from life or from photos using two contrasting mediums. (Just because you think you have no artistic ability does not exempt you from this task!)
  • Write a poem and/or song to/about your ally which could be used with children. (If you feel inspired, create a song aimed at adults including your ally. Take a look at the Mudcat folk song directory if you want to see something which includes particular herbs. Eg Thyme )
  • Identify the parts of your herbal ally study you will be bringing to the festival in September to display and talk about.

October to December

  • Review the tasks set for July-September
  • a. Which have you completed and which are still outstanding?
  • b. Decide which unfinished tasks you are going to carry through and programme them into your schedule.
  • Complete your herbal ally preparations – harvest and/or study the root structure of the plant. Gather seeds from seedpods or fruits and store for next year.
  • Share your ally in some form (tea, cordial, jelly etc) with others and talk to them about what you’ve been doing with the plant. Ask them for their reactions/memories/activities with this plant.
  • Record the autumn/winter phase of your plant through photographs or sketches.
  • Organise all your pictures/photographs of your ally so you have a coherent visual record and scan any drawings or embroidery you have made to add to the file or journal you are keeping.
  • Go through all your notes and write one or more article about your ally showing what you have learned throughout the year including all references (books, articles, blog posts, Facebook discussions, personal emails etc.)
  • Consider everything your ally has taught/shared with you this year and how these have helped you to grow.
  • Think about which herb you will be choosing as your ally next year.

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  1. Pingback: The Hudman Honey Farm

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