The Lesson

I recently received injuries to my right hand that caused damage to some of my nerves. During my recovery process, I experienced exquisitely painful sensitivity at the sites that were healing and forming scar tissue. Time and Mother Nature wait for no one however and the St. John’s wort blossoms emerged as my hand was healing. I either had to gather the flowers or go without their medicine until next year’s harvest.

When I am making St. John’s wort infused oil, I take my jars to the clearing and put the flowers into them as I pick. In this way, I know when I have the amount I need and can avoid over-harvesting. I find it useful to focus on the physical features of the plant I am working with, noting its state of health and overall vigor as well as the number of unopened buds I am leaving to spread seed for next year’s crop. Repeatedly thinking the words, ‘Please may I?’ keeps me mindful of the amount I am taking from the plant instead of the amount that I need.

Picking just the tiny blossoms in the hot June sun is a painstaking job requiring the use of my right index finger and thumb. It takes time to fill three jars and requires the serenity and patience of a quiet mind.

This year it was a painful process that I just wanted to hurry through. Sweating and irritated, I eventually managed to force myself to concentrate on my breathing and mentally review Abrah Arneson’s Loving Kindness meditation. Abrah is a practicing clinical herbalist in Alberta who is also a meditation leader, a former classmate of mine during our time at Dominion Herbal College and my dear friend. She works ‘magic’ with plants and ‘magic’ with her clients. I have always admiringly thought of her as  ‘Abrah-cadabra’.

As the afternoon wore on, I became aware that not only was I at peace but that my right hand was no longer hurting. I smiled in recognition of the effects of Abrah’s ‘magic’ and the ‘magic’ of St. John’s wort.

Evelyn Coggins picks St John's wort

When you pick its flowers, tiny glands on the petal edges release a phenolic constituent called hypericin that stains the fingers purplish red and is absorbed into the blood stream. Hypericin helps to relieve nerve pain, heal wounds and restore the health of nervous tissue. My fingers were purple, my mind quiet, my spirit at peace and my pain was gone.

No wonder herbalists of old were considered witches with their seemingly ‘magic’ plant cures. I think perhaps it may be more accurate to think of us now as ‘watchers and receivers’. Plants are always chemically communicating with each other and their environment. In order for human beings to receive the lessons of those who do not speak in words, we must relinquish our life-long training to think in words. We can all do this but not all of us will.

For example, this spring I conducted a herb walk for a group of my students and, as is my custom, I asked them to identify a common shrub we encountered. While they thought it looked familiar and they might actually know the name, they could not retrieve it from their memory banks. I filled my mind with the word ‘elderberry’ and waited. As always happens, one student suddenly said questioningly, ‘Elderberry?’ with a confused look on her face. ‘I had no idea I knew that,’ she confessed. ‘My mind was a blank.’

Maybe she had forgotten the name and eventually managed to retrieve it from her grey matter. Maybe it was ‘magic’ or maybe – just maybe – she listened with her spirit and opened her mind to the lesson.


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