Herbal Adventures with Susun S Weed
Susun Weed in Provence part 3
© 2002 Susun S. Weed
read part 1, part 2
as seen printed in www.sagewoman.com
My capable mountain pony and I are following a barely discernible trail -- thank goodness for the lead horse's clearly visible tail -- through the wild mountain passes and lavender fields of Provence, in the south of France. Since morning we have been slowly wending our way up out of the valley and into the high mountain passes, through thickets of oak and pine which grow right to the edge of the trail.
It is difficult to convince her to turn aside -- and I am loathe to force the issue given the narrowness and the steepness of the trail -- so I just lean forward and plaster myself to my steed's neck as she makes her way under the low-hanging branches. Warmed by the bright sun, the pine needles exude a deep, resinous scent. It seems to fill my skull, leaving no room for the (literally) breath-taking views as we climb up along the mountain spine.
After hours of switch-backs -- and an ever-increasing intimacy with my horse's neck and the hazards of low branches -- we emerge into a natural clearing. With a rush of joy, and no trees to impede her, my mount flings herself into a gallop. We streak across a meadow densely tufted with low, purple-flowered thyme, and embroidered with stitches of rosemary and clover. On my left, in the far distance, snow-covered peaks rise (the Alps). On my right, far, far below, sequins of sunlight twinkle on an azure backdrop (the Mediterranean).
When our gallop is over, we stop. I close my eyes and inhale. I smell the actual scents of this mountain peak -- pine and thyme, stone and oak -- and I also smell, in memory, the scents of the flowering plants I have been riding through. Bowers of fragrant roses have scattered their petals across my shoulders (and scratched my arms). Honey-bee-buzzing linden trees heavy with honeyed flowers have brushed my face and left little remembrances in my hair as we clip-clopped across the village cobbles. Huge bushes of foamy-white, deliciously-perfumed elder blossoms have held out their witching arms and enticed me to pick them. The past, the future, and the present combine in one marvelous moment and I am filled with joy. Ah -- to be alive! How perfect! How glorious!
But what goes up usually comes down, and that is when the fun really begins. As my mountaineering friend Dolores La Chapelle used to remind me: "You can get up almost any mountain; it's getting down that's the problem." The path seems to fling itself off the edge of the world, and my horse follows. There's nothing but sky in front of me and the ground is terribly far below. (And though I am fairly certain that my mountain pony is in touch with the ground, I surely am not.) When I finally stop holding my breath, I realize the air is scented with some fragrance whose name I do not know. What is releasing such an alluring scent? Could it be this shrub with the arching masses of amazing yellow flowers? The mountainside is covered with it. It looks like scotch broom. "No," my guide informs me, "That is genet."
We are both right, of course. Genet is a kind of scotch broom (Cytisus). As such, it is a member of the bean family: A powerful earth-healing tribe of plants with the amazing ability to fix nitrogen, thus enriching the earth. The bean family (formerly known as the Leguminosa, but now called Fabaceae) includes healing plants such as red clover (Trifolium pratense) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) -- both known as immune system builders and anti-cancer helpers -- and harmful plants such as loco weed and scotch broom, both of which are considered poisonous.
There is a lot to not like about scotch broom. Animals rarely eat it, and with good reason. It causes violent vomiting (emetic), copious urination (diuretic), and purging diarrhea (cathartic). As an herbal medicine it can be more troublesome than helpful. A few adventurous souls who have smoked the flowers confirm the hallucinatory properties of the plant. (And no gut-wrenching side effects; although it may increase the heart beat, sometimes alarmingly). Midwives have a special use for it, too. But most of us wisely leave this plant alone.
And that is her intention. I understand (and appreciate) scotch broom as an earth-healing plant. When trees are stripped from hillsides, whether by natural disaster or human need, the earth attempts to heal herself by growing special plants which have special healing abilities -- for Her, not us. In fact, one of the main ways these plants heal is by expelling, or, if possible, removing all animals (including humans) from the place that needs healing. Earth-healing plants are good for the earth but are often dangerous to us (even when possessing edible or medicinal parts). Some of the nicer ones include stinging nettle and brambles (including blackberry, raspberry, greenbriar, and wild rose). Some of the nastier ones include poison ivy/poison oak and rhododendrons (even the honey made from rhododendron flowers is poisonous).
Although native to Europe, Cytisus has made itself at home in the western United States, especially in clear-cut areas. It is generally considered invasive and obnoxious. The French version grows in the same situations (as we crossed the ridge and began our descent, we entered managed forests which are clear cut in rotation), but its fragrance sets it apart.
The odor of genet is spicy, sweet, and intoxicating. Its bright yellow pea-blossom-like flowers exude an aroma that can only be called "strong" -- not in a cloying sense, but in a penetrating way. The scent seems to permeate all my senses, inviting, no, urging me to enjoy life to the fullest.
As I rode, the smell of genet turned into a song. As my sure-footed pony walked, trotted, and cantered down the mountain a song burst out of my heart. I didn't feel like I was making it up; I felt like I was receiving it into my body. The words, the melody, the rhythm -- all partook of and gave out the sweetness and beauty of the plants, the mountains, the Earth. Verse after verse took shape and sounded its notes. Yet when I sat down that evening to commit it to paper, most of the verses were gone. I know where they went: the sun ate a bunch of them, and wind took some home to play with, and I left a few as a "thank you" gift to the mountains as well. Since I can't put a "scratch and sniff" in this magazine (and how I would love for you to be able to smell genet), here is my song. Enjoy!
Chorus: Genet, genet, you smell so sweet;
Genet you make my senses reel;
Genet, genet, you have
The sweetest smell.
The lavender that grows in rows,
It scents our clothes and things;
Has a smell gets up your nose,
But it's of genet I sing.
The roses bloom in white and pink,
And every rose has thorns;
They have a smell that's not a stink,
But of genet I'll blow my horn.
The irises they sure are fine
Their colors can't be beat
And they smell good all of the time
But let me now repeat.
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