Thorns & Prickles

I've been feeling quite prickly lately. Odd. Conflicted. Hard to fit. Even ugly, sometimes.

I've been spending as much time as I can in my grove (which isn't much time, at all, but some is better than none), and I noticed that the place where I sit is surrounded with prickly plants: Oregon grape, thistles, mullein, and some very thorny weeds.

They are all beautiful in their own way. I've always loved mullein and thistle and am developing a deep fondness for Oregon grape.

I touched the plants and even the prick didn't hurt that much. I thought, Maybe it's not so bad to be prickly. Maybe I can still be beautiful, and maybe my spikes and thorns can help me stay strong and protected.

  Copyright Yancy Lael, 2017

Copyright Yancy Lael, 2017

There is a legend in Scotland, one of my ancestral lands, that the Norse invaders tried to surprise the Scots in battle during the night - when one of them stepped on a thistle and screamed in pain, alerting the Scotsman to the attackers' presence. So there's some value to being prickly, hmmm?

And beauty, as well. I think thistles are stunning. And Oregon grape is so smooth and shiny and boldly green.

But then there are all the ways that we see our prickly bits as more severe than they really are. We see them as shutting us away from others. We LET them shut us away from others. We judge ourselves based on thorns that aren't really quite so sharp as we fear.

My favorite fairy tale heroine, Briar Rose, has this prickliness to her. She pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and falls into a magical sleep, protected in her castle by a wall of thorny brambles. Though there are dozens of symbolic interpretations of this story, I have often thought that her encounter with the spinning wheel represented her first true encounter with herself - and her inability to face her prickly side at such a formative age. At first, those thorny brambles protect her as her soul matures in a sacred sleep, as she begins to process the prickles. But eventually, they come to shut out the light of day. They come to shut out the love (not necessarily romantic) that is awaiting her. She has to learn to love her own thorns.

Like all things in life, there is no one way to look at our prickliness. It's good. It's bad. It protects us. It harms us.

A divine paradox, just like the rose. So beautiful, and just a little dangerous. Just a little painful.

Weed Walk Wednesday: Mullein

Folk names: Candlewick Plant, Feltwort, Flannel Plant, Hag’s Tapers, Hedge Taper, Jupiter’s Staff, Lady’s Foxglove, Shepherd’s Herb, Torches, Velvetback

I'm interrupting the usual Wednesday publication of The Real Green because I couldn’t pass up the alliterative deliciousness of Weed Walk Wednesday!

No, weed walking isn’t about getting stoned while taking walks now that marijuana is legal here in Oregon. It’s about the plants that grow everywhere – plants most people consider weeds – that are actually incredible healing agents. Look in the cracks of the sidewalk outside your house, or your lawn or the abandoned construction site downtown. You will see them everywhere.

That’s what weed walks are about here – noticing the “weeds” that are your neighbors and recognizing them for being more than just weeds.

I've been talking about mullein a lot on my Facebook page. It just happens to be a plant very dear to my heart. This was the very first weed to “speak” to me. A couple years ago, after having studied herbalism for a long time from books and dried herbs, I recognized the deep desire to get to know these plants in their living form, in real life. To actually interact with them and to be able to recognize them.

 This little beauty was growing in a neighbor's garden. A few days after I took this picture, the neighbor weeded and pulled this baby right out. RIP Mullein!

This little beauty was growing in a neighbor's garden. A few days after I took this picture, the neighbor weeded and pulled this baby right out. RIP Mullein!

One day, while out walking, I looked across a housing development that had been abandoned when the economy tumbled into ruin and I saw a beautiful, fuzzy, sage-green plant that looked a little like a lotus blossom. I had actually seen these plants everywhere for many years, but had been so conditioned to think of them as weeds that that’s all I saw – a nameless, faceless weed. Suddenly, I knew it was mullein. I felt it reaching out to me, saying, “Know me for who I really am.”

I ran home and googled mullein – I knew what it looked like dried, but wasn’t entirely sure what it looked like when it was alive. But sure enough. There was the “weed” I had seen. Mullein. I felt like it was saying, “I’ve been growing here under your nose for years now and you haven’t noticed me because you didn’t think I had any value. Open your eyes. There are more like me out there.”

She was right – over the years, I began to discover SO many other herbs in their living forms, which has been such an incredible experience. But more than that, I began getting to know them, not just medicinally, but energetically.

I sat in meditation with a handful of mullein last year, and after a while, my hands began burning so much, I had to put the mullein down. I figured the “fuzz” on this plant contained irritants which might explain the topical burning I was experiencing (and sure enough, that’s the case), but my intuition told me to dig deeper than the obvious. I had visions of mullein as a great protector, healing and it told me it could burn the past away, leaving on the good (something I’ve been in great need of this past year). It had an intensely protective, loving, nurturing energy about it that drew me right in.

As I would discover later, it is a plant that is ruled by the element of fire (no surprise there – try holding dried mullein leaves in your hands for 10 minutes and see what happens!) and is associated with courage, protection and love.

My favorite information came to me from herbalist Kiva Rose, who said,

Mullein makes a very appropriate first herbal ally for many children or beginners in herbcraft. Its safe, wise and grounding presence helps take us deeper into not just this its own medicine, but into all herbal medicines. This plant provides itself as a guiding light and guardian for all healers who live within its range. Simultaneously a towering torch herb and fluffy comforter once called Our Lady’s Flannel, it has a long history as a benevolent and nurturing sentinel to healers, children and all those who ask for its assistance. 

After reading that, it made perfect sense to me that mullein would be the first plant to communicate with me in that manner. That’s just how she works.

 This is the clump of mullein my friend and I found near a felled tree.

This is the clump of mullein my friend and I found near a felled tree.

A few months after that, while hiking with an herbalist friend, we found a tree that had fallen over, its roots reaching out to the sky. Its root base, now exposed, had become home to a clump of mullein. My friend said she often found mullein growing in places like this – places that had experienced trauma (like a felled tree) and were in need of healing. I thought it was such a beautiful sentiment and only made me love mullein all the more.

Recently, as spring has blossomed, I’ve been noticing new mullein plants coming up alongside sidewalks and in people’s front yards. Again, most people assume this plant is just an annoying weed. But it’s not! (In fact, I am working part-time for an organization in partnership with the US Forest Service – and every summer, our employees go out into the woods and pick mullein because it is considered a noxious weed in this area. If only they’d let all the herbal healers of the area take part in this, take the mullein home and use it for teas and tinctures!)

Mullein is famous for its ability to heal respiratory issues. It is a great expectorant for dry coughs. Many herbalists refer to mullein as “lungs of the earth,” because of its usefulness in healing respiratory issues, but also because many believe the leaves have the general shape of a lung. Some know of mullein because of its association with ear infections – infused into a carrier oil, it is a great way to treat ear infections. And though it has many, many other uses, I primarily use it as a way to keep my lymphatic fluids moving. I use mullein in a tea blend – if you do this, just be sure to strain it with cheesecloth to catch those little “fuzzies” from getting into your tea! They will go straight through a traditional tea strainer.  

I highly encourage you to go for a weed walk and look for this plant friend. She will make herself known to you, if you have a genuine desire to communicate with her. Most of the pictures here in this post were taken when I went on a walk in my suburban neighborhood in early April. I have noticed that my neighbors have removed most of these plants from their lawns, I’m sad to say. Others have been mowed over and will rise again and again. I also went to area that I know is safe from herbicides and harvested a few leaves for my teas.

Go and look. There are plants all around us, longing to be noticed, longing to communicate with us. Even if you don’t intend to use them, just take a look and thank them for the support they give us just by persistently growing wherever they can find a pocket of soil, ready and waiting for our need. The plant world loves us so much – it’s overwhelming and humbling to realize that.

Please remember: Do not harvest and use any plants unless you know what you’re harvesting, how to use it, whether or not it’s safe for you and whether or not it’s been treated with herbicides or pesticides!

I want to try natural products but I don't "do" patchouli

So many women want to improve the state of their skin so badly and they know what they have to do. They’ve had a staring contest with their beauty products for months. Maybe years. You know the drill: You open the medicine cabinet. Your mind races with possibility. Then overwhelm. Then you close the cabinet and walk away. Another day.

You know a lot of those products aren’t good for you. You know some are too harsh, some are causing your skin to feel irritated, some contain chemicals that you don’t want to use anymore. Yet what’s the alternative? Buy all natural, organic products? Make your own products?

For god’s sake! You’re not a hippie!

Over time, our skincare products become an extension of ourselves. We are happy enough with the results, we don’t want to rock the boat, and we certainly don’t want to have to overhaul the entire system. Believe me, I know what it’s like.

But this is your skin. It deserves your best effort. It deserves your heart and soul. It deserves everything you’ve got to give it. This is, after all, what you present to the world. {Tweet it!}

The reality is, we live in a world that is swimming in products. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Yes, it is overwhelming for the consumer, but it’s also empowering. It means you have access to whatever you need and want in whatever form you need and want it in.

Hallelujah! This means you’re not stuck with the patchouli-scented products available at your local health food store (which, just for the record, I love...minus the patchouli). This means you don’t have to learn how to make your own products (although making your own products can be very rewarding and creatively satisfying). You have options. A lot.

So what can you do?

1. Take stock of your skin and your situation. What’s going on with your skin? What’s going on with your products? What do you want? What are your skincare goals and needs? You’ve got to know exactly where you are in order to move forward.

2. Get educated. Yeah, not everyone likes this step, but it’s necessary. Read books, blogs, articles. Find out everything you can about skincare methods and products. Be sure to get “second opinions” on anything you read that comes from a company selling a skincare line. Have fun with this step. Make yourself a Pinterest board and start collecting your data in a visually fun way.

3. Get out of your comfort zone and be willing to take risks. We get stuck in our ways with our skincare products and routines. We may not even be 100% with the results we get, but we stick with it because it’s better than things getting worse. But aren’t you interested to find out whether or not your skin can reach the next level? Don’t you want to see what it’s capable of? If so, you’re going to have to take some risks and try some products you never thought you’d try before.

4. Reassess as you go. Remember, complacency is not where you want to be. If you find something is not working after a month or two, tweak your routine. If it’s still not working after another month or two, it’s time for something different!

Have you found products and methods that work for you? How did you do it? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

(This post is part of the Truth & Troubleshooting series.)

The corporatization of folk medicine

Do you believe that people have the right to any type of healing that calls to them? Do you believe that traditional, folk medicine should be accessible to all people? Do you believe that herbal remedies should be free of corporatization?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you need to know about the fire cider controversy. Fire cider is a traditional herbal remedy that’s been used for decades (probably longer) to treat cold and flu symptoms as well as other issues. As with any folk remedies, there is no set recipe – ingredients change according to availability and the personal preferences of the maker.

The name fire cider was, it is claimed, coined by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. If you have read any of her books (and I highly recommend them), you will see that she used this term in her copyrighted material over 20 years ago.

About a year ago, a company called Shire City Herbals* made a bold move – they trademarked the term fire cider. Not Shire City Fire Cider, but Fire Cider. And then, a few months ago, they sent a cease and desist letter to several online marketplaces, including Etsy, which resulted in the removal of any listings of fire ciders sold by competitors.

Herbalists around the country have responded with shock, outrage and disappointment. A petition was started. Letters were exchanged (some not so nice^). Meetings were held.

Why the controversy? The term fire cider belongs to no one. As the petition reads, this trademark could be compared with someone trademarking the word “pizza.” Or how about “cordial” (as in the liqueur) or “macaroni and cheese.” These three terms refer to generalized recipes that people and businesses individualize. Imagine being a business and receiving a cease and desist letter from someone who had trademarked the term pizza. Now you’re Papa Murphy’s Cheesy Rounds or Italian Circle Hut.

One of the first arguments made by Shire City was that no one knows what fire cider is and that after three years of hard work and money spent on marketing, they wanted to protect their investment. Whether or not people know what a particular generic term means seems irrelevant to me (“generic” simply means “not specific” and is not synonymous with “popular,” “well-known” or “recognizable”). The fact remains that this term has been in use since long before Shire City came along – they did not create the name or the remedy. Further, putting time and money into a marketing campaign should not give them or any other business the right to trademark a generic term, especially one that has been used by other herbalists and herbal businesses long before Shire City came along.

Not long ago, it seemed as though there might be a happy conclusion to this issue. But sadly, Shire City has recently posted their intention to retain their trademark and continue to prevent other herbal healers and businesses from selling their own versions of fire cider on commercial platforms like Etsy (unless they refrain from using the term "fire cider" to describe their product, which is like asking bath and body sellers to stop using the term "balm" in their moisturizer product names). This is what they have to say about it:

Our trademark restricts the commercial use of ‘Fire Cider’ to the product our customers now enjoy. It protects both the integrity of our brand name, and the investment of time, money and energy spent building that brand… Commercial means selling wholesale or selling on a national or international platform or website, for example: Amazon.com, Ebay.com, Etsy.com, etc.   

I found this comment to really say it all:

firecider123.jpg

The bottom line is that people have been making and using fire cider long before Shire City ever came along. So for them, or anyone else to claim any right over this generic term is, I believe, a troubling and dangerous trend.

I understand their desire to protect their product and investments in their business. I’ve been in the herbal business and I know how hard it is to survive, to increase visibility in a saturated market and to protect one’s unique formulas. However, I don’t see why personalizing the trademark (i.e. Shire City Fire Cider) wouldn’t achieve these same results.

The question is, do we want to see traditional herbal remedies become the intellectual property of businesses? Do we want to allow people or businesses to block competitors from selling traditional herbal remedies that were in use long before anyone involved (the trademark holders or competitors) started selling them? What’s next? “Black Walnut Salve?” “Dry shampoo?” “Vinegar rinse?” “Chest rub?”

The beauty of herbal/folk medicine is that it is for the people. It’s accessible to all. It’s what we share amongst one another, from generation to generation – tried and true remedies, recipes and formulas. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with people building ethical businesses in this field, I believe the emergence of corporate practices within the herbal community spells its doom: limitation, restriction, censorship, regulation, and privatization. Everything that folk medicine isn’t.

If you are as deeply concerned with this issue as I am, please sign this petition to revoke the Fire Cider trademark. Follow this Facebook page to keep up to date with this issue.

Thank you for protecting the spirit and preservation of folk medicine!

*To be clear, Shire City Herbals is not a corporation. Indeed, it is run by only three people who believe in sharing this herbal remedy with the world. I appreciate their passion for fire cider (and here I use the generic term) and am always glad to see herbal companies grow and enjoy success. However, I don’t believe that anyone should be able to claim a trademark over a term they did not create, especially a generic term that’s been used for decades within the herbal community.  

^If you choose to join the fight to protect the generic use of the term fire cider, please do so with the greatest respect. Shire City has already received a lot of hate mail, and there’s no excuse for that. Whether you are an herbalist or simply someone who wants to protect folk medicine, we must conduct ourselves in a manner that is beyond reproach. If we are fighting for the people’s medicine, we must respect all the people, even those with whom we don’t agree.