Are you feeling a bit uncertain how to celebrate Thanksgiving this year? Like many Americans, I have some native blood as a fraction of my heritage, and my connection with that culture also feels like a small fraction but one that I’ve been increasingly curious about. Finding my indigenous roots and connecting with them can be an intimidating, humbling and an endless journey. For me, exploring native edible plants feels like the most respectful way to connect with the people who first learned how to survive on this land.
I recently attended a conference that brought much more depth to the stories around wild plants and our ancestors’ relationship with them. At the Southeast Wise Women’s Herbal Conference in North Carolina, I listened to elder Native Americans share their tribe’s knowledge. Learning from tribal medicine women is a rare and special honor, and yet Cherokee healer Dr. Jody Noé described the wisdom she shared as common knowledge for every household—or at least it used to be.
I also participated in a Native American herb walk with Cindi Quay, of the Menominee Nation. Her perspective was simple and relevant in the midst of a busy conference full of information and experts. It provided an opportunity to become grounded in my relationship with healing herbs by focusing on just a few readily accessible plants in the vicinity.
Quay’s most important piece of advice for anyone wanting to study herbal medicine is to become friends with one wild plant and spend an entire year (or more) really getting to know that one plant. It could be a flower that you have always loved the smell of; or a weed that keeps popping up in your yard no matter how hard you try to get rid of it; or a shrub that you never really noticed before but one day, on a quiet walk through the woods, it somehow grabs your attention. No matter how you find each other, your plant ally will be your teacher if you allow it to be. Learn your plant’s characteristics in every season and how it goes through the transitions. Learn about all its parts—the roots, stem, leaves, flower, fruit and seed—and different ways of preparing or preserving each part. As you learn about each aspect, consider how it can help you or someone else.
On the walk with Quay, she introduced us to a few plants that she had made friends with. I was surprised that some were invasive species, such as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). A little nectar from a honeysuckle flower can mean quick rehydration on a hot, dry day. This brought back a fond memory from my childhood: A massive honeysuckle vine grew outside our kitchen window on a trellis, providing shade from the southern sun throughout the hot, dry Texas summers. I would pick the little flowers, suck out the nectar and feed the blossoms to my dog. It turns out that parts of honeysuckle hold potent antibiotic and anti-inflammatory qualities. Soothing, indeed.
Quay reminded us that these exotic and opportunistic plants were originally introduced because of their healing and nutritional properties. Despite the fact that they indicate and exacerbate ecological imbalance, we could accept what they have to offer and benefit from their abundance. Dr. Noé’s Cherokee elders taught her that herb harvesters follow the rule of four: They may harvest only after passing a particular type of plant four times. The fifth time they see this plant, they make an offering and ask the plant for permission to take some of it. This way, only one-fifth or less is taken from a local population. At least with invasive species, we know there is plenty to harvest—no problem following the rule of four.
Back at Dr. Noé’s tent, the special plant ally she shared with all who attended was spicebush (Lindera sp.). A tea made from spicebush leaves and twigs is said to make friends out of enemies. She told us that it indicates that fresh water is somewhere nearby, a precious resource for all people. If you make spicebush tea for yourself, someone you don’t really like or for someone you love, Noé says, “it opens your mind, and it opens your sinuses.”
Dr. Noé and Quay helped me open up to the idea that regardless of my heritage, plants themselves are my teachers. Watching animals interact with them, listening to the subtle nuances that draw me closer, observing more deeply, sensing what it is I might be needing or seeking when a certain plant catches my attention—these intuitive cues helped me meet my plant ally for the coming year.
“All of you are indigenous to someone, somewhere,” Dr. Noé said to the packed conference tent. In reality, your “tribe” is who you feel most connected with and influenced by. This time of year brings harvests, celebrations of the bounty, and surplus to share by serving loved ones and strangers alike. Embracing this season of transition, I will brew some spicebush tea, take a deep breath and drink to your health.