The hills spread out in all directions, undulating into mountains in the distance. It is dry and cold. The weeds crisped by overnight frosts. The breeze is chilly, but not as frigid as expected for late November. I’ve never been to this part of Idaho.
Two of us walk through the valley on a old dirt road. “Oh look!” Tracy says, pointing at a crispy weed the color of iron. I look. It’s a dead crispy weed, I think sarcastically. “Do you know what it is?” he says. I look at him to see if he’s serious. I can tell by the smirk on his face that he hopes I don’t know what it is. So I kneel down. Look closer. The red twiggy thing has little hairy pods shaped like tiny lemons at the top. The short stems alternate. The plant is about 2 feet tall. I have no idea. But I say, “St. John’s wort.” Guessing. His face falls. “Yeeesss,” he says drawing the word out with disappointment. I look at the plant again so I remember next time. I was lucky this time. (Or perhaps the plant helped me.)
He walks on. “You can’t gather it here,” he says. I think he means that I can’t gather here because this is the Nez Perce reservation where his sister lives. I expect him to remind me that we’d have to get permission from the nation, but no. He waves his hands in the air. “You can’t see over these hills, but they dust the crops here. It blows all over. Everything is contaminated.”
Tracy’s been teaching me what he knows about herbs. He doesn’t see himself as a teacher, and I’m not sure he ever called himself an herbalist, maybe he did. But I’m certain he would deny that he was a teacher. And certainly not my teacher. He was just a person who liked gathering herbs and making tinctures and salves. But in a few moments he taught me two important aspects of wild crafting medicinal plants. One, know the plant in all seasons. Two, know the wider environment.
We wander on. He says, “you know, St. Joan’s wort is a special plant.” I nod. “If it is used incorrectly it will cause the thing you are taking it for.”
I stop, “What do you mean?”
“Well, what do most people use it for?” He stops and turns back toward me, waiting.
“Depression,” I say.
“Yes, well, take it every day, it might work at first, but then the depression comes back, maybe worse. St. Joan’s wort doesn’t like being used that way.”
Another lesson. Each plant has its own personality. Its own way of moving through the body. Note that he calls it St. Joan’s wort, a name that doesn’t work for me. But the important thing here is that he’s reminding me that herbalism is about relationship, not rote memorization.
Now that I am facing the depths of winter, one year after his death, I find myself ready to pull out the St. John’s wort cordial I made at midsummer in anticipation of the dark days. Last year, I made a bottle of “Winter Sunshine,” with orange juice and St. John’s wort. This year I combined St. John’s wort tincture with cedar, lemon, and honey. A bright sip of sunshine. Something to remind me of my days with Tracy.
Happy travels, Tracy Maier. You are missed.
More stories about Tracy:
Off With Their Head: https://trilliumcenter.org/2018/05/18/off-with-their-heads/
Making Room for Grief: https://trilliumcenter.org/2018/07/05/making-room-for-grief/
Stories about Winter and/or St. John’s wort:
On Being Grateful: https://trilliumcenter.org/2017/01/08/on-being-grateful/
The Art of Making Tinctures: https://trilliumcenter.org/2013/02/21/the-art-of-making-tinctures/
Liquid Courage: http://trilliumcenter.org/2018/12/11/liquid-courage
*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.*
Don’t take St. John’s wort with any kind of medication. It has a direct interaction with some medications, especially those for anxiety and depression, and it will likely reduce the effectiveness of other medications. This happens because St. John’s wort clears out stagnation in the liver increasing the elimination of prescription drugs and other chemicals. It works best on depression associated with liver stagnation and use should be stopped when the stagnation has cleared. It is commonly used in salves and oils, and will be absorbed through the skin, so don’t cover your whole body or large parts of your body with it if you are concerned about interactions. It can also be used as a flower essence or as a homeopathic remedy without side effects. And remember that relationship is an important part of becoming a person who successfully works with wild plants.