Never a spring came that we didn’t have our wild greens, they were part of our regular diet. Our medicines before we learned how to make so many artificial products came from plants largely. 

George Washington Carver, 1940

Where do you get your vitamin C? I usually reach into my cabinet for a plastic bottle, pour a glass of orange juice or slice some lemons. One February morning, recalling a walk I took with Lucretia Van Dyke, an herbal practitioner working, I went outside to gather a sprig of pine needles from beneath a giant tree in my backyard. I placed the green needles in one of my nana’s old stainless steel cooking pots and then doused them in boiling water. I breathed in the steamy smell of warm winter memories and memories from before I can remember.

Van Dyke is among a small but growing community of people teaching us to learn and grow more comfortable practicing these old ways, to know that healing is within reach. Pine is a good place to start, especially for folks living in the southeastern U.S. surrounded by an easy abundance of pine. “So many people burn sage, but cedar and pine are our medicine.” Van Dyke says. Pine needle tea is high in Vitamin C and beta carotene. The sap contains natural antibiotics and can be made into topical salves. The rising popularity in herbalism has led people to white sage, which is now becoming threatened by overharvesting. Van Dyke is hoping more people will realize the abundant diversity of healing plants in our own backyards. 

A modern medicine woman

We met for a winter walk in an Atlanta suburb nibbling on fragrant leaves as we went. Where most people see weeds, twigs, and stubble, Van Dyke sees old friends. She knows the dry brown stalks and crackling seed heads and greets them by name. “She’s already gone to seed,” VanDyke tells me as she rubs the fuzzy goldenrod between her fingers. “She kind of gets a bad rap sometimes,”she said. Many people blame their sneezes on goldenrod flowers, but the blossoms are actually good for allergies, she explains, and can be steeped into a lovely tea with nettles or added to herbal cough syrups. “In August, she gets beautiful.” 

Although winter isn’t the best time for harvesting leaves and blossoms, it is good for gathering barks like pine and walnut, roots like dandelion and burdock, and even some berries like bright purple beautyberries. The gray stillness teaches us about the times when we don’t see a lot of outside growth. “We don’t realize that medicine is still happening,” Van Dyke observes about dormant seasons in our lives, “magic is still happening.”

Drawing on wisdom from her rural North Carolina childhood, world travels and instruction from past and present healers and herbal practitioners, VanDyke has carved out a career as a modern medicine woman. VanDyke spent time immersed in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean learning herbal medicine and healing foods. But when she came back home, the plants she had learned about weren’t readily available. She had a spiritual calling to come closer to the land that formed her and learn the plants of her own southeastern U.S. landscape. “I had to be surrounded by the plants to write about the plants.”  

As a woman who “loves to geek out on plants,” VanDyke is channeling this knowledge into her forthcoming book “African American Herbalism: A Practical Guide to Healing Plants and Folk Traditions” (May 2022 Ulysses Press). Although books, workshops and guides to herbalism abound, there are still too few that center the stories, wisdom and experiences of people of the African diaspora. She is excited to teach about past and present midwives, root doctors and medicine women for the healing and liberation of individuals and communities. 

Spiritual healing

“Okra is such a deeply spiritual plant,” VanDyke explains. She began using okra in spiritual baths when Luisah Teish,Yoruba priestess and author of “Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals,” asked her how she learned the spiritual value of okra.  Teish uses the term “she who whispers” to define that internal knowledge that comes from our ancestors and that is how VanDyke explained how she knew of okra’s deep value. Usually enjoyed fried or in gumbo, a simple okra water can be made from boiling the pods, (our grandmothers knew the value of pot liquor). The musculogenic nature of okra, Van Dyke says, is good for coating the insides and good for gastrointestinal issues. It’s also good, she points out, for women as we age and everything starts to get dry. 

VanDyke leans over to point out two varieties of plantain, broadleaf and narrowleaf.  Not to be mistaken for banana-like plantain, this low-growing plant has multiple uses. The leaves can be chewed and applied directly to soothe insect bites and stings. Ground plantain seeds are a natural laxative and a common source of  psyllium, the main ingredient in Metamucil.

Mimosa, the fast-growing tree with feathery pink blossoms, is good for grief. In parts of Asia, they call it the tree of happiness. “Mimosa helps pull up that deep seated grief that’s in the body, and gives it a place to kind of move. It doesn’t take it away, of course, but I use it a lot in grief medicine. Shave the bark down with a potato peeler and tincture that.” She finishes off the grief elixir with a few blossoms. “Flower essences,” she explains, “heal the energetic body, and plants help heal the physical body.” 

When they are in full bloom, mimosa trees are easy to spot among the pines. They stand out, all flashy and pink. “Mimosa is good for people who have a problem standing in their greatness,” Vandyke said. And she likes that about them.

As she spoke about the plants in a way that sounds like family, it was clear that this work also connects her to the spirit world and a vibrant community of people. She met Sobonfu Somé, a spiritual teacher from Burkina Faso who became an ancestor in 2017. “She taught me a lot about love and embracing your gifts,” Van Dyke says even now, in her dreams she is still learning from Somé who especially influenced her work in community healing and grief rituals. 

The poison and the antidote

In a season of life that has been marked with enormous individual and collective grief, VanDyke is happy to share the healing power of plants. I sipped my pine needle tea and gave her a call to follow up with a few questions. She was busily preparing and mailing out ingredients for spiritual baths for a community grief circle and packing up for an extended time in Haiti. 

On our walk she mentioned a useful secret: the antidote often grows within 6 feet of the poison. My mother taught me that jewelweed grows alongside poison ivy and a few rubs of crushed jewel weed can help prevent a rash. In a world full of dangers and toxins, it’s good to know we can find some remedies. As with most of the things we talked about, this wisdom and practice is about more than just plants.

If you are just getting started, an easy place to begin is the garden or the grocery store. Holy basil, rosemary, roses, lemon balm, okra and mint all have healing properties. If you are foraging, be sure to gather in places that are not sprayed with insecticides or herbicides and work on building a community where you can learn from other foragers, and honor the plants and the place.  Avoid gathering plants along the side of the road as oils and toxic runoff can accumulate on roadside plants. National and state parks have strict laws against gathering even a stone. “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land” by Leah Penniman has a useful chapter on plant medicine including an incomplete list of Black and Indigenous herbalists. You can follow VanDyke and the teachers and healers in black mystery school to find out about classes and workshops. 

This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult your healthcare provider before using particular herbs, especially if you are taking prescription medications, pregnant or nursing.