The Medicine Wheel of Plant Uses
(Part One of Five)
There is so much to learn about herbs and healing. How can we assure ourselves of our own competence? How can we feel safe in our recommendations? How can we know which herb is best to use for a particular person? Do we need a system of diagnosis interlocked with categories of herbs? (For instance, the four-humor theory that categorizes illnesses and herbs according to the humors, or the Ayurvedic system that divides people into three types and selects herbs accordingly.) These are questions that have concerned healers for thousands of years and still concern us today.
I do not think the answer lies in a license. I don’t think the answer is to study more, read more books or go to school, if what happens is that one picks up a dogma, and sticks to that. Neither license nor dogma guarantee that what we tell others to do for the sake of health will be safe or effective.
The answer lies in our commitment to ourselves as whole human beings and our commitment to ease the suffering of others, in truth and beauty, in change, in compassion. When we commit to the wholeness in ourselves, we become open to the wholeness of all life, especially the wholeness of the green nations. Science divides things into parts so we can comprehend them. Art and nature teach us wholeness.
Yes, the final say on how to use them is the plants themselves. The ultimate authority in herbal medicine is not a teacher, nor a book. The information you can trust is “from the horse’s mouth”, in this case, the plant’s mouth.
Learning to understand the language of the plants (some say the songs of the plants) is a long study, and it is not as easy to teach as scientific facts. Paradoxically, the rudiments of this language are easily learned and rapidly applied. Hearing the language of the plants requires hearing with the inner ears, looking with the inner eyes, and using the senses of taste and smell and touch.
The Medicine Wheel of Plant Uses is a teaching tool I created to help us understand the language of the plants. It gives us a system by which to understand the different properties of plants. It provides us with confidence that we are hearing them correctly. Like all medicine wheels, it is a multi-purpose tool, and there are many lessons to be learned from it, but let us start with the title.
First: I must admit to overstatement. This wheel does not include all possible uses for plants. Furthermore, it narrowly focuses on flowering plants, excluding mosses, ferns, mushrooms, yeasts, and other primitive plants. Dye plants, commercially useful plants, lumber plants, basketry plants – in fact any plants not consumed by humans – are not included. I might, more truthfully, have entitled it the “Medicine Wheel of Uses for Flowering Plants You Can Put in Your Mouth.”
Second: What is a medicine wheel? It is not a round drugstore or a wagon full of medicine. It is a sacred pattern, a kind of mandala. My native American teachers use medicine wheels to help students remember the lessons. When they say “medicine,” they mean power or energy, not a drug or a strong plant (unless they are discussing peyote, a very strong plant, which is not referred to by name, but as “medicine”).
Third: And a wheel? Well, a wheel is a circle in motion. Although this medicine wheel is a circle on a piece of paper, we must remember that it moves. Or, more precisely, the plants move around the medicine wheel. What makes them move? The four moving questions:
1. What part of the plant is meant?
2. When is that part harvested?
3. How is that part prepared?
4. How much is consumed?
So I could have, less poetically, called my teaching tool “A Diagram of the Moving Power of Flowering Plants You Can Put in Your Mouth.”
When we look at any medicine wheel, we notice that it is divided into the four directions: East at the right, South at the bottom, West at the left, and North at the top. Each direction is associated with many symbols, and those symbols change according to the culture and homeland of the teacher and student. In this particular medicine wheel, the directions are associated with tastes and with symbols that work for me. If they are different from the associations that you normally use, I hope you will be willing to work with my choices, as changing them would change the integrity of the wheel as a teaching tool.
Taste is one of the oldest senses. It is strongly linked with smell. In terms of recognizing plants, taste is one of the most dependable clues. The shape of a plant may change throughout its growing season, or life. But the taste (and the smell) remains remarkably consistent and clear.
Though we can distinguish thousands of tastes (and smells), there are not a lot of words for tastes in English. The tongue is said to be able to distinguish sweet, sour, salty and bitter. To these we could add tastes that are also sensations, such as hot, sour, astringent, burning and sticky. And tastes that are colors such as green. Japanese includes two interesting taste words: shibui, the taste of nut skins or an unripe persimmon, and egui, the taste of raw asparagus, amaranth, and Jerusalem artichoke. And then there are spicy tastes and pungent tastes and resinous tastes and aromatic tastes and terrible tastes (fetid, rank, rancid, rotten, mouldy, burnt). Important: Tastes and smells which are disgusting or strange are a potent indication that the plant is not good to put into your mouth. So don’t. And if you already have, spit it out. Immediately. Thanks.
In this medicine wheel, we will work with four primary tastes (blandly sweet, salty, horribly bitter, and aromatic) and four secondary tastes (fruity, green, edibly bitter, and spicy).
The taste of the East, place of newness, is sweet and bland. Mother’s milk is sweet and bland. The cereal crops (wheat, rice, corn) are sweet and bland. The East is Food, and it connects to the realm of the herbivores. The plants of the East give us NOURISHMENT.
Salty is the taste of the South, place of sweat and blood. Seaweed and miso are salty, just as amniotic fluid is salty. The South is Tonics, and it connects to the realm of the ocean. The plants of the South are a TURN ON.
In the West, place of death and the ancestors, the taste is intensely bitter, horribly bitter, inedibly bitter – a bitter that increases even after you spit it out. Bitter as gall. Medicinal drugs are bitter. Poisons are bitter. The West connects to the realm of the mushrooms, those non-flowering plants that live on dead and decaying matter. The plants of the West can CHANGE YOUR MIND.
And in the North, place of deepness and clarity, the taste is aromatic. Here are the herbs you buy at the grocery store; most of them are in the mint family. These are the herbs your mother uses, the seasoning herbs, the ones loaded with aromatic oils. The realm of the oils connects to the North. And the plants of the North give us WISDOM.
In the following four articles, we will look deeply at each of the directions, its taste, the Goddesses who guard it, the realms it opens, and the lessons each has to teach us.
The Four Moving Questions:
The answers to these questions will change where a plant appears on the medicine wheel.
1. What part?
The leaves and berries of Phytolacca americana (poke) can be eaten, the roots and seeds are used cautiously as medicines but are considered poisonous. The petioles of rhubarb are eaten, but the leaves and roots are not. Burdock root is sweet, the leaves are incredibly bitter. One of my pet peeves: herbals that tell me to use a particular plant but give no clue as to the part of the plant I should use.
2. When harvested?
The amount and type of constituents in a plant differs at different times of the year. Perennial roots store winter food in the form of carbohydrates. Dig poke roots in the fall after the first frosts (cold weather concentrates the carbohydrates into the roots) and tincture it immediately in 100 proof vodka, and the alkaloids will be buffered by the sugars and starches (which precipitate out and must be shaken from the bottom up into the liquid before use). Roots dug in the spring will have a higher percentage of alkaloid, and may be more poisonous or more medicinal, depending on the plant. Even rhubarb changes as it grows (oxalates concentrate in it throughout the growing season), so it usually harvested only in the late spring, early summer.
3. How prepared?
If you harvest the right part of the rhubarb in the right season, but serve it raw instead of cooked, it would be unpalatable. If you harvest poke leaves at the right time (early spring), you could still poison yourself, unless you cook them in three changes of water.
Different methods of preparation draw out different constituents from plants and move their position on the medicine wheel. If sugar cane is prepared by refining all the minerals out of it, it moves from the east to the west; it no longer nutritive, but now poisonous.
Water is the universal solvent, so many herbs are dried and used as teas or infusions. Minerals, vitamins, sugars, starches, hormones, tannins, volatile oils, and some alkaloids (caffeine, for instance) dissolve well in water, given sufficient time or high enough heat. Fresh herbs are the best sources of volatile oils and are best made into teas. Dried herbs are better sources of nutrients and medicinal properties and are best made into infusions.
Alcohol will dissolve and extract resins, oils, and alkaloids. It does not extract nutrients such as vitamins or minerals, but it does extract sugars, starches, and hormones.
Vinegar is the best menstruum for dissolving minerals out of plants. Apple cider vinegar – pasteurized, please – is my favorite choice.
Fats and oils extract the oily and resinous properties of an herb, many of which are strongly antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, and wound-healing.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has many methods of preparation, and even the manner in which the herb is cut for drying is considered critical to the medicine. In addition to the commonly available forms of herbs (teas, tinctures, ointments, capsules), they also roast herbs, smoke herbs, fry herbs, and cook them with honey.
4. How much to take?
At last, a wonderful rhubarb pie! But better not eat more than one piece, or you’ll be on the toilet all night.
* Plants of the East can generally be eaten in any quantity, even daily if necessary.
* Plants of the West need to be used in tiny amounts and rarely.
* Those from the South and North are used moderately, to correct and enliven the diet.
The closer to the west the plant lies, the more critical the question of dose becomes. The difference between one cup of coffee and two is not so great, but the difference between one cup of digitalis and two is. The difference between 10 and 20 drops of most herbal tinctures is inconsequential, but the difference between 10 and 20 milligrams of a drug may be the difference between life and death. The question of dose is one that is hotly contested among herbalists, and, of course, the answers to the first three questions change the potency of the preparation and thus the answer to the fourth question.
The difference between an herbal tea and an herbal infusion, or “standard brew” as Juliette de Bairacli Levy styles it, was for me, the difference between dabbling in herbs and using them effectively. So please pay attention here. This is important.
To make an infusion:
* Place one ounce dried herb in a quart jar and fill it to the top with boiling water.
* Screw a tight lid onto it and allow it to sit, just like that, for at least 4 hours. (Can you hear the minerals dissolving, ever so slowly?)
* When your infusion is done, strain the plant material out, returning it to the earth, and drink the liquid, hot or cold or at room temperature.
* What you don’t consume after straining is best kept in the refrigerator. Drink it within 48 hours.