Perhaps it is my deep desire for autumn and falling temperatures that leads me to review this harvesting CD in today’s near 100 degree humid weather. “Harvest” reminds me of falling temperatures, wind scented with the cool, and sitting outside on the porch, even at noon. In the dog days of August, I long for fall.
In this class, held at the Green Nation’s Gathering in autumn 2008, Susun Weed discusses the subject of the second of the four questions that distinguish herbal medicine from folklore: “When has that part been harvested?” She explores the question of when a particular herb should be harvested and what part should be harvested by looking at plants in their familiar organization of annuals, biennials and perennials.
Susun teaches us to ask ourselves “What do I want from this plant?” Once that question is answered, the herbalist can continue to determine when it would be most advantageous to harvest the part that you want—leaves, flower, seed, stalk, root. We learn that while the leaves of most annuals can be harvested throughout the year, the roots of biennials are often at their most medicinal when harvested after frost, or at the beginning and the end of the winter (dormancy) of the plant. And the leaves of some perennials should never be harvested because the plants need all of their very few leaves to work at photosynthesis.
Referencing the 1973 classic The Secret Life of Plants (which discusses the ways in which plants are sentient) by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, Susun explains how to approach a plant one wishes to harvest. While I think of harvesting plants as much easier and somehow “lighter” than harvesting animals, Susun points out how it weighs more heavily on her to cut down an oak, whose growth she had nothing to do with, for firewood, than it does to kill the baby buck she had raised on purpose to be her dinner.
I cringed when she talked about seeing people pick plants to use, put them aside, and then forget about them. (Guilty as charged.) “Would you do that with a rabbit?” she asked. “Take it out of its cage, cut its throat, and then not use it?” Of course we would not. We honor animals more than plants.
She shows us how to bring that humble honoring back to our relationship with plants. Harvesting should be done seriously, she teaches. We have no gift that we can offer a plant for its life that is “good enough.” We cannot pay for it. What we can do is humbly accept the gift of its body to make our medicine. This attitude takes us down the more difficult but more heart-felt path and puts us in service of the plant.
She discusses the often difficult term of “wildcrafting.” For her, she explains, it means being indebted to the plant. To take care of what is there and expand it, as she expanded her wild ramp patch by pulling ramps and spreading them out, giving the patch more room to grow. Wildcrafters would never waste what is not immediately needed. She teaches us to take only one-third of a group of annuals, one-half of a group of biennials.
The class contains wonderful basic information on annual, biennial and perennial plants, including a journey through their life cycles with emphasis on how they differ. I think I might even be able to tell one from another just by looking at the plants now, at least sometimes. Her common sense explanations are easy to listen to and remember, even though we lose the sight of the drawings she makes.
You can learn how to sexually frustrate your basil and calendula flowers (all in the name of making good medicine, of course), how to make a jewelweed broth to counter poison ivy, and a simple way to harvest mullein. The antics of some of Susun’s apprentices (“Bless their hearts.”) enliven the telling.
Jan Calloway Baxter
Elements of Herbalism: Harvesting (Green Nations '08) Ethical wildcrafting and harvesting instructions for all plant parts, including leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, and bark of all annuals, biennials, and perennials. 2 CD set (CD1/54 min & CD2/65 min) $22.50 plus shipping