Plants are always trying to get our attention. Walk into the forest near my house and your senses will be inundated with the aroma of tall firs and cedars and the pleasing shades of earthy green. In the summer you may stop to eat a few huckleberries and taste the tantalizing sweet and sour flavors. You may gently move your hands through maidenhair fern or press your hand up against a tall maple. And if you are far enough away from the din of traffic, you may hear something deeper, a beautiful silence that pervades the wood.
When I think of herbalism, I rarely just think of taking an herb into my mouth to change my mood. I think in terms of tantalizing all the senses and that means connecting to all plants- through sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing- to uplift and delight, to bring greater depth and presence. This is what I call five senses herbalism and is at the cornerstone of how I practice mental health herbalism.
Each sense can act as portal to shifting how we think and perceive, subtly affecting our emotional state in ways that can become powerful and trasnsformative. Think of walking outside and running your hands through some flowering lavender and then bringing that scent to your nose. Or consider tasting a tea lovingly made with chamomile and honey. Though the volatile oils and constituents in those herbs may have a direct chemical effect on your body, the process is equally as important.
The more we engage our senses in the practice of herbalism and connect to plants as directly as possible, the more we build a relationship with plants and create the space for metamorphosis. Think of the difference between going to the corner store to buy some capsules of St. John’s Wort, and going out into the field and gathering St. John’s Wort fresh, infusing it in alcohol until it turns a beautiful blood red, and then taking medicine you have made at home. Perhaps the constituents are the same, but something much deeper is going on here. That engagement and that relationship with the plant, getting your hands dirty and meeting an herbal ally in the meadow is far richer and more potent a medicine than the sum of the chemical constituents alone.
When it comes to mental health, five senses herbalism is the practice of looking to plants as potential friends that can reach us through smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight. Take a look through this section to explore each one of these senses more deeply and how to make herbal preparations associated with each of these senses. Enjoy!