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  • Writer's picturePhoebe Hildegard

Vegetal Intelligence Supersedes the Human

The Why and How of my Herbalism, or Vegetal Intelligence Supersedes the Human It's true that the right herbal preparations can heal many ills of the body and mind, strengthen the human being's natural defenses and render other more invasive or chemical treatments unnecessary. But there is so much more to the herbs than their simple mechanical actions on the body’s systems.

A bamboo mat covered with leaves, seed pods and large white flowers from the plant Datura inoxia
Wild harvested Datura inoxia leaf, flower, and seed pods

I have two herbal apprenticeships under my belt, as well as countless hours of passionate self-study, practice, medicine making, and growing. I have been growing herbs since I was a child, and while teenage me decided plants weren’t cool, I’m happy to say that as an adult I found my way back where I belong, with hands in the rich black earth and my nose in an endless stream of old herbals from every culture and time period I can find. I trained as an apprentice in a sleek clinical herbal apothecary in Philadelphia, and before that completed a separate herbal apprenticeship with a very politically motivated herbalist working within the queer countercultural world of the radical faeries.

Two worlds, one discipline, that of learning from and with the herbs, growing them from seed and making medicine from their very bodies.

Phoebe holds several large trumpet-shaped white blooms of Datura inoxia. The tips of the flowers bear wispy tendrils that seem somehow poetic.
A handful of divinely-scented (daimonically-scented?) Datura flowers. Gardening is rough on my manicures.

Many herbalists see themselves as providing "alternative medicine". They frame their work in much the same way that the bioindustrial medical machine does. This is fine, and herbs can effectively work in that manner. Indeed many of the medical industry's cures are derived from herbs. One can hold up chamomile flowers and say truthfully, "These are good for many stomach ailments. They reduce spasmodic action in the body and act as a gentle sedative."

It's vital for the herbalist to have this kind of knowledge. And yet, this framework falls so tragically short of beholding the plants in all of their power. Herbs can curse as well as they can cure. They can cool down, heat up the system, quicken or dull the senses, they can change the color of things, they have well attested planetary and stellar signatures. They don’t just remove disease, they can do all kinds of things, even change the body’s shape over time.

They often work not by “curing” the “illness” but by causing subtle changes to the person’s whole system that eventually render both the problem and the herbal preparation itself irrelevant. Unlike the vast majority of drugs, many herbs if used wisely will naturally train the body to cease needing to use them. To really work with the herbs requires changing the way we think. These are not the natural equivalent of pills and chemical extracts, they are so much more.

This is the perennial herb Lungwort. Variegated leaves frame thin columns of small and delicate blooms.
Lungwort is seldom used by today’s herbalists, but has a rich history of use for bronchial complaints.

Herbs act not only on the body, but on the mind. Not only on the material world, but also on the spiritual and energetic layers. When properly applied in skillful spellcraft, they can shift reality, affect magic, and open the channels of spiritual communication. Some bring wealth, some bring blight, some smell delectable, some stimulate sexual centers of the brain and body, others quite literally open the doors of perception (and not just the ones you think). There are herbs with signatures connected to Angels, Devils, Fairies, the Dead, several specific saints, more than a few ancient deities, plenty of culture heroes, even a dragon or two. Yarrow stops bleeding better than peroxide. It’s also a potent material for magical protection, protection while sleeping or during soul-flight.

Morning dew glistens on the round leaves of the bitter Rue plant.
Ruta graveolens, a famous bitter magical herb

Rue is a classic protection herb and, like many plants in this category, its power cuts both ways. It can cleanse what harms us. It can inflict a nasty hex too. The phrase “rue the day” comes from the once popular practice of cursing one’s enemy by throwing a bundle of rue at them. The herb is incredibly bitter and the juice can sting mucus membranes or open wounds. Known to medieval Christians as “herb of grace” it’s considered a strong and lucky plant for the one who masters its bitter fire. Botanicas often sell rue candles which are burned for potent luck magic.

One may work with herbs as teachers as much as medicines, as sentient beings and partners in the project of magic, conjuration, and the simple yet profound challenge of living in these strange bodies with some style and grace.

Herbs work best as holistic and preventative medicine. They demand our attention and often our patience to truly unfurl their secrets, though some preparations can work instantly.

I take a magpie's combinatory approach to herbalism. I take influence and inspiration from the 19th century American Eclectic Herbalists, from the materia medicas of ancient Greece, Taoist alchemists, Southern US Rootworkers and Conjure Doctors, from the sorcerous herblore of Brazilian macumba, to the medical holy work of the radical visionary nun Hildegard von Bingen in Rhineland Germany in the 11th century, and from the folk herbal and magical practices of the rest of my peoples' ancestral homelands in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Alps, the British Isles.

The more I practice and study (voraciously) the more clearly I see that the magic and the medicine were never meant to be separate. Indeed, in intact ancient systems they are still woven together. It’s only “western” herbalism that’s lost its way. Thank god for old books, for mediumship, for outright necromancy. I thank my human teachers as much as my guides in spirit. Let's revitalize, resurrect, re-haunt this practice.

Small flowers known as Anemone are clustered in a woodland glade. The flower heads nod forward on fuzzy stalks.
The Meadow Anemone looks as brittle and delicate as the panicked souls it soothes. But this "windflower" is surprisingly flexible, bobbing and weaving even in harsh gusts.

Anemone, or Pulsatilla, is a fantastic remedy for panic attacks and "post traumatic stress". In people who are compatible with this herb (not everyone gets along with every herb and that’s simply how it is), just 1-3 drops of a good strong Anemone tincture can stop a panic attack in literal seconds. It’s also known as “windflower” due to its tendency to bob and nob on its stems. It’s top-heavy, kind of like an overthinking, anxious person. Anemone provides stability to the brittle. There are many species distributed natively throughout the US. I will be studying and practicing herbal medicine and magic as long as I live. I invite you to join me.

In honor of the plants, have some herbal links for further verdant inspiration: -Here’s Michael Moore (no relation to the documentary filmmaker) on Pulsatilla -Herbalist Corrine Boyer speaking on “Plants of the Devil” (I love her book of the same name) -This is presented in a slightly sensationalized way, but this video of a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner preparing a poisonous healing plaster is actually beautiful.

© 2023 Phoebe Hildegard


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