The plants wanted me to write this book. It is becoming recognised that plants are so much more than green living structures that provide oxygen, food and chemicals for future medicines. They are beings of power with a history of their own, with folklore and stories to tell. They communicate with one another and with us, if we can hear them, and they have friends that they like to live close to.
I have often noticed that plants that work together, live together. Within my herb garden, I note with amusement that, under the cloak of winter darkness, it seems that some plants uproot themselves and sneak across the garden to nestle in with their friends! Evening primrose has rooted in with Black Cohosh and they both help to rebalance female hormones. Valerian and St John’s wort have moved in together too, entwining their roots like a lovers’ knot, and they help to soothe our nervous system.
I can only conclude that plant medicine is a precious gift to the creatures of this Earth. For what other purpose has a plant with antispasmodic constituents in its bark, or nerve-restoring properties in its flowers, or hormonal balancing biochemicals in its roots?
The Spirit of the Hedgerow is a journey through the countryside and the wheel of the year, where different plants appear on the hedgerow stage for a few weeks, showing off their flowers, fruits and leaves at exactly the time of year that we need them, and then exit the stage as another character enters.
It is profoundly wondrous for me as a medical herbalist, when I collect these leaves, flowers and berries, turn them into a medicine, use them to heal my patients, and then return the spent plant matter back to the earth. In this brief tiny flash of light that is my life, and to my small consciousness, this is a very magical cycle.
Through my fascination with the hedgerows, an ancient calling drifted into my awareness, at first so very faint that I could barely recognise it. Then over the years it crystalised into a feeling of the ancient druids calling to me down the hedgerows of time – that is how I saw it. Eventually I joined the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, studied Celtic mythology and, in particular, the Celtic wheel of the year and the Ogham tree calendar.
I was born to be a herbalist. Even as a child, growing up in the suburbs of Cape Town, I longed to be a herbalist even though, in those days, there was no such thing in our society. It was a mediaeval concept and, even if I had known about it, the idea of studying for four years in England was a pinnacle that I could never aspire to. I became a horticulturist instead with the thought that, if I couldn’t heal with herbs, I could at least grow them; what I might be growing them for was an undeveloped idea.
My life journey actually did take me to England where I was a head gardener for a grand estate. To my great good fortune, the owner of the estate and his landscape architect sent me on a tour of all the great gardens of the country so that I could absorb ideas. One day I was driving through London when I came across the Chelsea Flower Show. A parking place was available right outside the gate so I flung my car into the space. And as I walked towards the gate someone asked if I wanted their ticket. Inside, to my left, my eye was instantly drawn to the stand of The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, and my fate was sealed. I don’t remember anything of the beautiful gardens on display that day!
I see nature as an expression of the numinous. It is innocent, amoral, unashamedly wild and free, and despite everything that we have inflicted upon our beautiful Earth it is still profoundly generous and compassionate to us. If you open your heart and really look, it is impossible to tread this planet without humble reverence. Thus, to be able to use her plants as a way of making my living and to change the lives of those that I help, is an honour beyond words. I have no words for that, and can only try to offer back to her.
A long time ago, as a twenty year-old, I was looking for the elusive elephants in the last vestiges of the primeval Knysna forest. Of course, I didn’t find them but, as I sat down on a fallen tree, the trees overhead groaned and I heard them say to me, “Help ussss.” I was distraught because I felt small and powerless to change acid rain and the non-stop encroachment of human development. The Spirit of the Hedgerow is my gift to the plants. They asked me to tell their stories, to help humans fall in love with them again. I wanted to show the reader that they are so much more than useful green things, important for holding back climate change.
The book celebrates the plants of the countryside in their various cloaks of seasonality. As the wheel of the year turns, so too do the pages of the book, filled with folklore, Celtic festivals, medicinal uses of the plants and home herbal remedies. It forges an intimacy with the grand circular dance of plant seasons and in doing so hopes to deepen the reader’s experience of the natural world and our place in it as friends of nature.
Plants want to help us. Every day in my apothecary, they urgently tell me which among them really needs to be in a certain prescription. I always listen and my clients get well. Plants are beings of intelligence, power and compassion.
Jo Dunbar’s bestselling book The Spirit of the Hedgerow is published by Local Legend and available worldwide.