From midsummer to midwinter, many cultures and spiritual traditions celebrate and honor their ancestors. Some believe that the veil between the human world and the spirit world weakens as the darkness of winter descends. Plants and herbs are often used to increase the thinning of the veil, provide a connection to the spirit world, inspire visions and lucid dreaming. Many of these same plants provide resilience in the darkness, whether it’s the darkness of winter or the darkness of a vision.
I believe that the veil between realities can be transcended in order to connect deeper to the source of all spirit. Developing relationship with plants as teachers is part of my process, especially when I can’t visit forests, fields, or deserts. Letting my mind fill with the aromatics of a warm winter tea can take me back to the place where I gathered those herbs. Tasting the tincture of a plant that stimulates cerebral activity before bed helps me enter the dreamworld. And I’ve found that just remembering the taste of a plant is often enough to get my spirit-mind-body to trigger the herbal actions with the same effect.
Try this: Imagine that you’ve come to my house and I am making you tea. It’s a warming tea with a bit of honey. But it won’t be complete without the lemon. I take a lemon and slice it into wedges. I take a wedge and squeeze it over my cup. But to make my point, I hand you a wedge and ask you to put it in your mouth.
The memory of lemon alone may be puckering your tongue right now. Despite the absence of an actual lemon, your mouth has remembered and created the medicinal action of lemon.
This is what I mean by seeing a plant as a teacher. My spirit-mind-body “knows” the medicine of lemon without having to go out and get a lemon. Lemon medicine is about shedding things we don’t need. Imagine what the medicine of a shapeshifting, reality-transcending medicine can do, if the common lemon can accomplish this much.
Some of the plants that help me through winter are in the family Artemisia. They are named after Artemis, the goddess of the moon, the hunt, and chastity. She is twin to Apollo, god of the sun, agriculture, and poetry. Because many of the Artemisia plants are pale greenish-gray to blue, they are considered moon plants which are usually cooling and moistening.
However, in herbalism the Artemisias are used to stir up the fire of digestion and menstruation, their bitterness and warming aromatics creating a downward flow of energy in the body. It is this paradox that occurs again and again in the vision-inducing herbs: they are often nauseatingly bitter (cooling/descending) and potently aromatic (warming/ascending) at the same time. You might recognize these plants as sagebrush, mugwort, Louisiana sagewort, and others.
As an herbalist, I help people connect to plants as teachers, and guide them to hold the subtle infusions and aromatics of plants as medicine. It is powerful healing to let yourself stand on the edge of transcendence and transformation with sacred plants as guides. With plant medicine, we learn to look at the spaces in between: the forest edge, the ocean shore, the riverbed, the roadsides. These are the places where plants of all kinds slip between the edges of consensus reality to remind us of the magick which lies beneath.
What plants and herbs are supporting your journey this winter?
Leah Wolfe, MPH, is a full-time herbalist living on a farm in NE Ohio. She travels cross country to gather plants in many ecosystems, and teaches where ever there are people who want to learn more about plants and medicine. Her online class Herbs for the Thinning Veil, is open for registration now!