Talking to plants

No, not in that way. Too often, learning about herbs involves looking things up in books, comparing one with another to make sure you’ve got it right, and finally – triumphantly – naming it. ‘I know that one,’ people will say. ‘That’s dandelion, or goosegrass, or nettle.’
The name will sometimes give you a clue about the plant’s properties, as in fleabane or woundwort or healall, but it won’t tell you what the plant is actually like; what its ‘character’ is. To find that out, you need to keep company with it for a while. Last week I took out a group of people, some of whom know a great deal about botany, to ‘meet’ some common herbs. Each of us chose one herb, and the first step is to put aside what you think you know. Instead, we focussed on the structure of the plant, its texture, its colour and smell. What kind of home had it chosen for itself, and what were its near neighbours? What kind of creatures might feed on it, or use it in other ways, and what ‘pests’ and diseases might it have? And finally, what does it taste like, and how does that taste make you feel?
Taste is a major clue to the activity of a plant. Sweetness will usually indicate some food value. Tannins, which dry your mouth like over-strong tea, will protect your stomach lining and help heal inflammation. Bitterness ‘wakes up’ your digestive system and gets all the juices flowing, and especially stimulates liver function. Aromatics will ‘move’ upwards and outwards, stimulating peripheral circulation. And there are further refinements; but that’s usually much more than people have ever tried before. One of the group said at the end, ‘I’ll never look at clover in quite the same way again!’, and that’s exactly what the exercise is all about. Try it, and you won’t just ‘know’ the plant in your head, you’ll be physically intimate with it as well.