“We must take our children into the wild, introduce them to the plants, and teach them of their connection to the earth. In instilling in our children a respect for plant medicine, we not only care for their tender bodies but help pass along the seeds of a tradition that is as old as human life itself.”
– Rosemary Gladstar
Kids are the Future, Teach Them Well
Children are one third of our population and all of our future.
-Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981
Children are the best students when it comes to plants. They have no prejudice against any of them (except for what we teach them), no preconceived notions of how a plant should work or how its medicine should heal. Just as we can accept an orange has lots of vitamin C, a banana is high in potassium and beans contain protein, they can accept that peppermint is soothing to the stomach and comfrey can heal wounds and scars. And why not? They are all plants after all. Certainly if garden ‘vegetables’ can be nutritious and keep us healthy, so can herbs, weeds and other plants. As adults we tend to be narrow minded when it comes to our food sources but if we allow ourselves to open up, we can realize that this wonderful world we live on has given us an abundance of nutrition and healing through the plants and didn’t just reserve it for a select few. All plants have importance and value. We herbalists, scientists and the like just have yet to discover them all.
Nurture this attribute in children and reserve your opinions. Encourage them to keep an open mind as they grow to all the possibilities plants offer us. Let them learn for themselves. Teach them to trust their instincts. This doesn’t mean to let them eat anything, especially when it comes to fungi, however, when teaching them the difference between poke and elderberry, or hemlock and queen anne’s lace, teach them respect of the plant and reverence for the medicine each plant offers whether it is mild (chickweed, lemon balm, plantain) or overly strong (foxglove, hemlock, etc.). Time will teach the appropriate use and application of each variance.
Giving a good herbal foundation will stay with children for their lifetime. Knowledge is power and empowering. Even though the majority will not choose this calling as their lifework, they will have a solid foundation of herbal knowledge which will stay with them for their life and they will one day be able to pass the information along to their friends, family, community and children of their own. They will have the ability to take control of their own health and teach others to do the same. There is nothing more empowering than knowing you have the ability to take charge of your own healthcare.
Follow the Golden Rules of Wild Crafting
“Long before people bought medicine or food at a store, they learned to use the wild plants growing all around them. They watched animals to see which plants were good to eat and which plants were poisonous. They experimented and learned which plants could heal people when they were hurt or sick. People passed their knowledge on to their children and grandchildren for generations.”
-Ellen Evert Hopman, Walking the World of Wonder
Whenever you are outdoors, teach your child(ren) good wild crafting habits. Go over the Golden Rules of Wild Crafting until they not only can recite them back to you but really understand what each rule means:
Be a good land steward. Always pick up any debris you find on hiking trails, in the woods, etc. Teach them respect and awe for the beauty of nature and set a goal to always return a setting to its pristine state. When harvesting, don’t leave a mess of plants behind. Be discreet.
Make a positive ID every time. Always double check your plants to make sure you are 100% sure of what you are harvesting. If unsure, leave it! Don’t start tasting plants and berries if you don’t know what they are.
Leave more than you take. When harvesting plants from the wild, only take what you need or a quarter of the stand, less if it is struggling or an endangered plant. Before harvesting, make sure there are other stands of the plant in the area. Never harvest from a weak looking stand.
Do not harvest endangered species. Learn to cultivate these plants in your local wild areas to help bring them back. Grow a patch in your own yard if possible for harvesting purposes. United Plant Savers offers a list of endangered species on their website.
Harvest at the right time. Don’t harvest plants out of season. Dig roots in spring or fall, harvest leaves before the flowers bloom, harvest flowers as they open, etc. Teach your child(ren) the correct harvest times for each plant you are harvesting to avoid unnecessary waste. Plants harvested out of their peak harvest time will be less effective and possibly unusable depending on the plant.
Get permission. When harvesting on property that is not yours, make sure you have permission to harvest. Double check with state laws regarding wild crafting on public lands as well. Some conservation areas allow harvesting, others do not. Each area often has its own rules about harvesting as well.
Avoid roadside harvesting. Plants growing near roadways are often contaminated with pollution from vehicles. Make sure you’re off the beaten path for healthier harvesting.
Avoid treated lawns. Teach your child(ren) the importance of avoiding yards that are sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and other chemical sprays. Also have them be on the look out for run off from such lawns that go into wild areas. Some subdivisions have retainment ponds where the run off drains to after a rain. These areas are often teaming with lots of wild plants that are prime choices for harvesting. If they are in the path of the run off, do not harvest them.
Teaching in a Home Setting
Teaching at home offers an informal setting. As a parent, you have more freedom to share as much knowledge as your kids desire without fear of legal repercussions. If homeschooling, kids have the opportunity to learn along side of you during your daily routines. Kids are great for learning by doing and being immersed. Remember, actions speak louder than words! Don’t tell them how to do it, show them and have them work along side of you, regardless of age. In part II I will discuss ideas for the classroom setting and they can be incorporated in the home as well. Some of these ideas can also be tweaked to use in a classroom setting depending on the type of school you teach at.
These ideas can be incorporated into your daily routines. Instead of making herbalism a subject or something that stands alone, it is best to have it be a part of your daily life. This comes naturally with the process of being a herbalist. I remember when I started learning about herbs, I kept them separate from my life, something to turn to when we were ill. As I deepened my knowledge in the plants, it became more a way of life. Herbs are part of my life like washing dishes or cooking dinner. Now they are fully intertwined and there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t work with the herbs in some form or manner.
–Start a notebook of the plants in your yard. Head outside with a notebook and make a list of each plant you have, starting with the common name and adding the latin name if you know it or later when you can look it up. Have your child(ren) look around and tell you what they see first. Don’t forget the trees! Even if you don’t think a plant has medicinal uses, write it down anyway. You’ll be surprised at the number of plants that are ‘just weeds’ really are medicinal. Remember, all plants have value, some are just yet undiscovered.
Leave a few pages blank at the front and create a master list on those pages. Eventually your child(ren) might want to alphabetize them to make them easier to find. Number all the pages in the notebook and follow up the master list with a page for each herb along with a pressing of that herb. Write the corresponding page number next to its name on the master list page.
Make it a habit to go out once a week to look for new plants. If you and your child(ren) take daily walks, take your notebook with you in case you find something new. Work on id-ing any unknown plants. This herbarium will become a much treasured item and a wealth of information throughout the years.
–Assemble a home herbal medicine kit. Begin by making a list of all the over the counter medications you currently use. Then study your list of plants growing in your back yard and cross reference…ask your child(ren): which medications can be substituted with herbs? As they learn about the herbs that are growing in your yard, they can begin making medicines to replace them with.
You might start with a few simple items such as making a salve to replace the Neosporin and perhaps a tincture of Meadowsweet or Willow Bark to replace the aspirin. As your child(ren)’s knowledge grows, they may wish to make a salve for general wounds, a salve for skin afflictions, a drawing salve and a muscle salve. Likewise, they may add tinctures for various types of headaches: skullcap, wood betony, dandelion, feverfew and so on. The key is to start simply and have them build on that knowledge.
–Start a herb garden in your back yard or in containers. Begin with a few simple herbs such as chamomile, mint, basil, rosemary, lemon balm. Let your child decide on 10 or so herbs that they would like to become familiar with. Have them help create the garden, pot the plants, weed the garden and water regularly. Encourage them to work with the plants and observe them as they grow. Make sure they taste each plant regularly and record how the flavors change as the plant grows. Mint becomes extremely strong when he flowers; Dandelion leaves become bitter as they mature. Be sure to have them record all this information (see journalling below).
Giving your children a part of the garden to grow their own plants is very empowering and also teaches them responsibility. They will take pride in growing their own medicine and when it comes time to use it, they will be more receptive to using it as it is something they themselves planted, grew, harvested and created medicine from.
–Explore the herbs. As you work with the herbs, talk with them about the latin names and the family they come from. Discuss characteristics of each family and similarities between plants. Have your child(ren) sample the herbs and state how that taste makes them feel (puckered, dry mouth, thirsty, etc) and what they think the plant may be useful for. Have them write down these ideas and put their theory to work the next time they have need to. If they are having trouble getting started, try offering them mint and say something like ‘this is good for upset stomaches. When you eat it, what else do you think it would be helpful for?’ (freshen breath, pick me up, etc.).
Encourage them to discover medicinal uses through their own intuition. Never discourage them. If they say lemon balm would be good to stop bleeding on a cut, let them try the theory out the next time they get cut. If it doesn’t work out, offer some suggestions of plants that may be more suited (something more astringent such as yarrow or plantain) or ask what they think might be more suitable. Teach them the basics of the tastes and energetics of herbs and have them work it out.
–Keep a journal of experiences. Have your child(ren) regularly sketch drawings of the plants progression over the course of the growing season, keep notes on the changes such as when they bloom, when they go to seed, etc. They can write down harvest information and any remedies you and they make with the herbs.
You and your child(ren) may keep separate journals or find it easier to share one depending on their age. I find most kids like to keep their own though and younger kids generally will have a great time drawing pictures in theirs with perhaps a few brief notations on your part. Ideally, this will become a reference guide for them (and you) to look back upon over the years and to add to as the knowledge base grows.
This journal is separate from the herbarium or notebook discussed above. The herbarium is a reference guide of all the available plants in your area along with a sample to remind everyone what they look like while the journal is a personal tome of experiences each child directly has with the plants.
–Have a herbal ally. Once your kids get more familiar with herbs, encourage them to pick one herb to learn about for 3 – 6 months to a year depending on their age. Have them focus on one herb and use it as much as possible, making as many remedies as possible from it and really getting to know it. Encourage them to be immersed in the plant, writing songs, stories and poems about their ally. They should also be making as many medicines as possible with their herbal ally: salves, tinctures, vinegars, elixirs, oils, poultices, compresses and so on. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense doing this with a plant, have them try it anyway, even if it’s just a few ounces.
They should also try it with all plant parts even if those plant parts aren’t usually used. Echinacea is a great example of this, everyone always talks about using the roots only but historically leaves, flowers and seed heads have been used and research is showing lots of promise medicinally with them as well. Various parts of the plant can be tried out and compared. For instance, pretend the ally they choose is Goldenrod. Have your child(ren) make an oil from Goldenrod’s aerial parts another from the leaves only and third from the roots. After a long day’s work when someone’s muscles are aching, rub each oil on different parts of the body and note which was used where. Then sit back and see how their body reacts to the different plant parts. Perhaps one part is more effective than the other or they all work equally or one doesn’t work at all. Have them repeat the experiment with other people as well and note their experiences. This can be done with any herb, not just their ally.
-Use the herbs in every way possible. This seems like a given but a lot of people overlook this. Incorporate herbs with your everyday living. Experiment with dyeing clothing with plants. Use them in floral arrangements, crafts, nature tables and other seasonal decorations. Eat them. Make them be an integral part of your life.
In our house, we never grow tired of discovering the fascinating range of colors walnut gives us from golds to browns to greens. We find cotton clothing at thrift stores and bring it home. Colored cottons get a soak in a sink of bleach water. When the color is leached out, the fabric may be cream or paler than original but still colored. After rinsing well, they get added to a dye bath, sometimes being bound in rubber bands first or scrunched up to create patterns.
“Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”
This is such a great way to approach herbs. A lot of them are edible and quite tasty too! My kids delight in picking dandelion blossoms in the spring for making fritters, syrup and jelly as well as adding them to our salads. Violets get thrown into salads and made into jelly and syrup too. We harvest nettles for infusions, soups, casseroles and even meat loaf. There are some really great books to help with this: Backyard Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal, Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest, The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide by Linda Runyon, The Wild, Wild Cookbook by Jean Craighead George and “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants are all great books to start out with. Look through the plants and recipes and use it as a starting point to create your own recipes for wild foods. Eating herbs as a daily practice will help keep the family healthy and the need for medicine of any kind will decrease. Juliette of the Herbs is a great DVD to watch about the Grandmother of Herbal Medicine, Juliette de Bairacli Levy. She incorporated her herbs into her daily living and is a great inspiration for any aspiring herbalist.
Remember, No Matter What, They Are Always Learning
Above all, be open to experiences and allow your child(ren) to participate in all your herbal endeavors. Weave a tapestry of herbal love and knowledge into your child(ren)’s lives by letting them observe and help. Even the smallest child can add the oil to the double boiler to make an oil or help strip herbs from stems. And when they grow tired of the task, let them move on to another while you finish up what you are working on. In time, they will naturally start helping longer and eventually take over some of the tasks of medicine making in the home, creating their own recipes as their knowledge grows. Always gently nurture this and remind them to keep records of their experiences.
“Can we teach children to look at a flower and see all the things it represents: beauty, the health of an ecosystem, and the potential for healing?”
-Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
To be continued. In the next issue, I will discuss ways to incorporate herbal learning in the classroom setting.
This article was originally printed in the Winter 2011 Plant Healer Magazine based on my class notes on the same subject.