In a time where we’re looking to soothe ourselves with no strings attached, plants have our back. That’s why we’ve put together Plants as Medicine: a series of expert-vetted advice to help you embrace your inner herbalist spirit and explore how to boost your physical and mental health through the natural healing legacy of plants.
To begin, we asked Sade Musa — folk herbalist — to share a little about the history of remedies and ancestral practices.
This is by no means a comprehensive history. It’s just a humble seed we’re planting to remind ourselves of the traditions that have come before us, and to respect all the remedies that live around us.
Most of our ancestors came from animistic cultures, which believed that all things — including plants — hold a spirit.
And this is also true today: Indigenous people worldwide still revere much of the natural world as sacred, and safeguard the plant spirits within — as is still done today in the sacred groves of Africa.
For much of humankind, possessing plant knowledge, or having access to a person who did, made the difference between life and death. In fact, the majority of the world still relies on traditional medicine, and even in industrialized countries, folk remedies are still used to treat illness every day.
Only recently have we lost this primal connection to the natural world.
Is it a surprise then, in these modern times with the growing options of medical technology, that there’s a rising movement to restore ancient plant-based healing practices?
We know, access to healthcare is not easy: Medical costs are skyrocketing, leaving many to grapple with high prices. Others also face difficulties accessing quality care due to their race or gender and are eager for options outside of the mainstream medical system.
While they do require responsible use to avoid interactions with other treatments prescribed by your doctor, herbal medicine might be a more accessible solution for managing some chronic conditions.
Exploring Plants as Medicine:
- The Short History of Plants as Medicine
- A Love Letter to Lavender
- 9 of Nature’s Most Powerful Plants
- The Ultimate Guide to Bitters
- 3 DIY Bath Soaks for Pain and Inflammation Relief
- A Beginner’s Guide to Making Herbal Salves and Lotions
- My Favorite Healing Plant for Health and Wellness
- How to Grow, Harvest, and Dry Your Own Fresh Herbal Teas
- How Gardening Helps My Anxiety and 4 Steps to Get Started
The art of herbal medicine isn’t completely lost
Our ancestors went to great lengths to retain their knowledge of medicinal and edible plants so that we may continue to use them.
Enslaved Africans risked their very safety to smuggle plants of cultural, spiritual, and medical importance during the Middle Passage.
The Irish labored to protect their own ancient herbal legacies against the destruction of repeated invasions.
It’s a testament to the resilience of people that they preserved their healing traditions, despite being faced with incredible hardship such as forced migration from their motherlands.
For some, their histories go farther back than any textbook cares to mention, and their herbal knowledge has been passed down through oral tradition.
So why does it seem like these practices have disappeared?
Due to Western science relying too heavily on written documentation, many of these traditions — particularly ones passed orally — were ignored.
On top of that, colonialism built a medical industrial complex through often violent means of cultural suppression, erasure, and exploitation. The rise of the patriarchy also authorized only white male physicians to practice and define medicine for the world.
This came at the cost of folk healing practices by women and racialized peoples. (As the primary practitioners and healers, — hence the initiation of witch hunts in Europe that lasted several hundred years and largely targeted women folk healers.)
Many cultures found themselves driven underground, their historical contributions denied, and their cultural context erased and commercialized.
In the United States, where the renowned herbal traditions of enslaved Africans made them the preferred doctors, slave codes restricted Black healing ways even as they became absorbed into a wider medical practice — such as when it was discovered that cotton root bark was being used by enslaved women on plantations for reproductive control.
We can also trace how the history of herbal medicine is erased by looking at how schools teach medicinal history.
Despite claims that philosophers’ thoughts materialized in a vacuum, European medical knowledge systems owe a great deal of their existence to interactions with other civilizations.
For example, many of the modern medical accomplishments of Ancient Greeks and other European men happened by “discovering” the knowledge of others.
Hippocrates, who’s still quoted as the Father of Medicine, likely studied the writings of the Egyptian physician Imhotep, who academics now consider the true father of medicine. Other Greek scholars studied in Egypt or copied from works such as the Ebers Papyrus.
The Renaissance was sparked by Arabs bringing African and Eastern knowledge into Arab-ruled Spain, from where it diffused into the rest of Europe.
Not crediting those who play a role can have a detrimental effect, especially on non-Europeans. It also sets the stage for hundreds of years of capitalistic exploitation, which comes full circle today.
In advertisement after advertisement, we see modern wellness brands responding to the revival of natural medicine by creating a multibillion dollar industry.
They have turned plants like turmeric, hoodia, moringa, and ayahuasca — foods and medicines first used by people in Asia, Africa, and the Americas — into superfoods and miracle cures.
Recently, news outlets highlighted how white sage (salvia apiana), an ancestral plant of indigenous peoples of Mexico/Southwest US, was being commercially exploited at the expense of the people from its native lands.
Following plants trends and rituals that don’t come from your personal lineage can harm those who rely on such plants, especially colonized people, and the plants themselves (by overharvesting). Moreover, this routine does a disservice to your health.
There’s no reason to chase plant wisdom outside your lineage for meaning. There are many other species of sage which grow throughout the world, that might have been held dear by your ancestors. And we miss out on a chance for a more genuine connection with plants already deeply rooted in our family histories by following plant trends that fall outside our lineage.
So as you start your own plant journey:
Honor your ancestors’ legacy, journeys, and sacrifices, by reconnecting to the traditions they fought dearly to keep.
Don’t wait for the validation of others to rekindle a closeness with nature, or before reclaiming the plants and medicine from your ancestral lands.
Begin today a journey of uncovering the true plant stories of your ancestors, ones not biased by modern trends, and you just may learn more about yourself than you had ever hoped for.
Sade Musa is a folk herbalist, wellness educator, and activist. She founded Roots of Resistance, a project aiming to reconnect people with their ancestral healing practices, and address health injustices impacting marginalized communities. You can learn more about her work by following her on Facebook or Instagram.