It was Sally’s idea, really. After taking my brief but animated garden tour with me (“and here’s the comfrey that’s good for healing, and the goosefoot that has ten times the nutritional value of spinach, and there is the basil patch that I use for pesto and healing oil, and these are the plantains and purslane that everyone calls weeds but we eat them every day, and here’s my nettle plant—hopefully she’ll spread some by next year, because we drink nettle tea every day…”), Sally laughed and said, “Maybe your next book needs to be called Vegetables as Teachers and Healers!”

I don’t think I’ll be writing that book (many, many women more gifted than me have written that book or versions of it over many centuries), but I hail the sentiment. Until Sally put that idea in my head, I don’t think I’d quite gotten just how far my thinking in those terms had evolved. Plants and vegetables as teachers and healers? Yes.

A few meandering paths converged in the past few years to put me onto the “plants-as-relatives” road in a much deeper way than I’ve ever traveled it before.  One little narrow trail was a draw I’ve always had to the idea of alternative medicines and herbal therapy. Melatonin capsules? Echinacea for colds? Essential oils and aromatherapy? Ginkgo for brain power? Hell, yes, bring it on!

And bring it on I did for years with dismal results. I finally came to the conclusion that herbs and capsules and potions worked great on everyone but me. I still loved the idea of herbal remedies. I just had no success with their application, and committed my bottles of unhelpful potions to the compost pile.

Another winding and related  trail through my life was a menopause book written years ago by a women named Susun Weed, an herbalist and “green witch.” I bought and read the book when I was going through menopause, then promptly forgot it, but never forgot the name Susun Weed. I mean, how cool a name was that?

When we came to Bloomington, I began puttering in the old abandoned veggie garden by the garage. I’ve grown a few potatoes and green beans in my time—ambivalently, I might add—but for some reason, this little plot of forlorn dirt grabbed my by the neck and said, “Come here!” So I attended some workshops in permaculture gardening, organic gardening, and perennial vegetable gardening so that I could more confidently answer the call of my little but insistent garden. When my workshop teachers began praising the nutritional of certain garden weeds as being a kind of forgotten superfood, I remembered the name Susun Weed, and googled her. Sheesh! Had she been a busy girl!

Susun wrote about using herbs and weeds as nutrition and nourishment over the long term for deep, restorative healing. She stressed the importance of coming into relationship with plants, and to respect their profound and complex deep nourishing properties. Forget the pills, the capsules, the extracted constituents of plants, and use them as they were given to us—whole and holy.

Susan is really big on drinking herbal infusions—essentially strong teas steeped for hours rather than minutes—for nourishing and balancing the body from the bottom up, from the inside out. Different herbs and weeds have different qualities and gifts. She assures you that with some conscious intention and a commitment to listening to your body, you can essentially hear the calling of the herbs and weeds most beneficial to your health.

All of this sounded really sensible to me. I was drawn to the idea of this kind of loving and whole support of my body through deep nutrition and nurturing. However, the downside of this kind of approach is that it takes time. She recommends you stick to a particular infusion for six months to a year at a time. Patience is not my strong suit.

Still, I took a deep, sighing breath, and ordered up ten pounds of dried comfrey leaves, and plantain leaves from Mountain Rose Herbs, and committed myself to drinking this “tonic” every day. I convinced Carter to drink it, too. What the hey? In our physical condition, which was poor to wretched, we certainly had nothing to lose!

Meanwhile, I became ever more excited about my little garden, which was offering up all sorts of green superfoods that I didn’t even need to plant. The stuff just showed up! Dandelions, plantain, comfrey, violets, mint, goldenrod, chickweed, purslane, and goosefoot: These were the first ambassadors from the long-forgotten country of Super Nutrition to arrive at our doorstep. Carter and I ate these greens in salads, tossed them into stir-fries, boiled them up in soup stocks, made vinegar out of them. We nibbled the flowers and felt very exotic about it all.

After a year of comfrey and plantain “tonics,” I switched us over to stinging nettles, because they “spoke” to me. We drink them every day. My garden is full of stuff that just shows up each year now—perennials or self-seeding annuals. This past year, I gratefully tended volunteer tomatoes, fennel, chives, bush cherries, Malabar spinach, three kinds of mint, plantain and comfrey beds, self-seeding onions, and too much other good stuff to list.

No matter how pedestrian our meals, they are always garnished or studded or crammed with green stuff. My bowels are working without the need of Metamucil for the first time in years. Whenever I find some new plant suddenly appearing in the garden, my first thought is, “Can I eat you?”

Many years ago, I heard medical intuitive Carolyn Myss say that in order to be able to receive healing, you have to have crafted some sort of entry place for it in your body, or no matter how much healing energy was being sent your way, you would not be able to absorb any of it. I give credit to the comfrey and the plantain and the nettles for opening such a space in my body-soul. With their help, and the help of all the other precious and noble weeds of my enchanted forest garden, I believe I have done much to bring my sorry system into greater strength and wholeness

I’m off the antidepressants for now, and the sleeping pills, and the vitamin pills and the calcium pills and the fish oil pills and the asthma inhalers.

Yesterday, I got stung on the palm by a yellow jacket. I grabbed up some comfrey and plantain leaves and chewed them quickly into a wet glob, pressing the slimy green goo onto my palm, then covering it with a glove. I’ve read before that if you do this quickly enough, the pain and ache will go away quickly. I never really believed it. That is, I never really believed it would work for me.

The pain of the bite wound had begun to travel up my wrist and into my fingers as I was masticating the glob of leaves in my mouth. Mere minutes after I’d spit the wad into my palm, the intense stinging began melting away like warm butter. It was a revelation to me. Somehow, here in the Enchanted Forest, I have begun to open my body and heart to the healing glory of the plant world. The many tiny paths have come to convergence here on this new emerald green road. Vegetables as Teachers and Healers. Such a blessing!

What healing roads are you traveling these days?

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  1. Shona Hilton says:

    Hi Susan,
    I love this post, everything you say in it is so true, and we so often spend time working to cultivate a garden when really the earth has already provided us with food and medicine in plants we often discard as weeds. I recently read Why Buffalo Dance and it has become one of the important books on my bookshelves. I particularly liked the chapter The Strange Comfort of Remains and, of course, the boogying bison. You asked your readers what healing roads you are travelling and I would like to share my first blog post with you as it was the death of my oldest, most precious dog last week that crystallised some ideas in my head and helped me figure out what I have to do to get where I ought to be.
    Best wishes, Shona Hilton

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Sorry for your loss, Shona. Old dogs carry so MANY of our memories. I’ll plant a hearty and nourishing weed in your friend’s honor.

  2. Carter says:

    I was first introduced to the Idea of reverence to the living things (and for that matter the inorganic matter) in a book called Journey to Ixtlan, by Carlos Castineda. I liked the idea of it muck more that the crime and punishment inherent in my Catholic upbringing. It seemed to me that expressing your thanks to the living things, whether animal or vegetable, as a way of revering the sacred was a much better way of living than all that sin and hell stuff. That was the beginning of my road to a spiritual life.

    Unfortunately that journey went on a 25 year hiatus while I was working, raising my kids, and coaching youth soccer. It seemed that my life was overloaded with the physical and spirituality didn’t fit in. I had heard all those suggestions about taking time for yourself, I always thought all well and good but I just don’t have time. Well, John, you just have to make time. How in the world do I do that. I realize now that “in the world” is the very reason that “the me time” doesn’t fit.

    In the last few years with Susan and for about 5 years before that I had found again my desire for spiritual truth. I find that a quiet walk in the forest with Susan, watching my dog play, eating good for you food to be much more healing than anything all of the doctors I had had had done (yer yes it is torturing grammar). In the past all of the things I had been involved with were so “Important” that I had made myself physically ill.

    Every day I thank Mystery for bringing me to Susan and for showing us a better way to live. I am finally seeing the awakening of vigor that, long had been dormant.

  3. kathey says:

    Oh Susan, you are becoming an herbalist! The plants always know what is best for us, i truly believe. And they have so much teaching to give to us, if only we sit quietly with them and acknowledge their presence. And honor their appearances in our garden and eat them! Right now as these precious greenies are starting to disappear from the landscape we all know that they will return next year….guaranteed. Count on it!

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