Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I find some plants cooler than others.
Take the Artemisias for instance: mugwort and wormwood. They’ve got that Harry Potter vibe on one hand and a sort of romantic artist association on the other. (Absinthe is made from wormwood; it also gives vermouth its name.)
The Artemisias have the allure of interesting contradictions. They have an aura of mystery and magic around them and yet they are common plants, growing freely around human habitation (mugwort, in my observation, has a particular predilection for railway tracks).
Burdock (Arctium lappa) for me is a similarly punk-rock kind of plant. Its flowers bloom spiky and get even spikier when they dry out. Its leaves are big and leathery and age in interesting ways. (Photojournalist Janet Malcolm devoted an entire book to the leaves of burdock.)
When I started learning about plant allies in my herbalism course, I thought plants like this would be my herbal familiars. I was drawn to them. Their medicine offered things I needed. (Both Arctium and the Artemisias are bitters, moving stagnation and supporting the liver.) It was a natural fit.
So I thought, maybe I understand how this whole plant ally thing works. It’s the plants you feel an affinity for and that have an affinity for you. Maybe we could just call them plant friends?
But then lavender came into my life, and made me wonder whether there might be more to it… could it be that your allies aren’t always the cool kids you want to hang out with, but can also be the wise elders who have something to teach you?
The lavender backstory
To the extent that I ever thought about lavender before herbalism school, it would have been in the context of something like “soap” or “those little pillows you’re supposed to put in drawers”. I thought lavender was nice (the Brits might say mumsy) but not particularly interesting.
Then I started learning about all the things lavender can do. Among other things, it is antimicrobial, antispasmodic, antidepressive and sedative. But in my mind, that only moved it into categories like “aromatherapy” or “massage-slash-yoga practitioners”.
Fast forward to my time in Prague, when I moved into a new flat during that little window of temporary-normal in the summer of 2020 after the first lockdown. It was a 20 km2 flat with a 30 km2 terrace. The terrace had a mature garden. And guess what that garden was full of?
That’s right: Lavandula angustifolia.
The garden was three parts lavender and one part “Communist trees”, a kind of dwarf evergreen that was apparently the de facto planting outside of government buildings in the Czech Republic prior to 1989, at least according to the son-in-law of my landlord. He told me all of this on the day I moved in, demonstratively kicking one of the trees between puffs on his cigarette.
Although the lavender in my garden had no political affiliations, it did have an agenda—at least where my education was concerned. It showed me that lavender was a plant to be respected. Far from being nice and boring, it turned out to be a kind of plant power broker, opening up a whole new world of experience for me.
Learning from lavender, part 1
I moved into the flat in Prague in mid-June, when the lavender was just starting to bloom. This meant bees. Every day, more and more bees. They came before dawn and lingered past dusk, so absorbed in their rounds of pole vaulting from stalk to stalk that they were utterly indifferent to my presence. I started pulling up a chair just to sit and watch them. I was able to get so close that I could make out the differences in their markings. I almost felt like I could reach out and stroke their furry little bodies. What amazing creatures! How could such tubby teddy bears get aloft on those tiny glass wings? And fly real distances? The more I watched, the more I marvelled. There was something happening between the bees and the lavender that went beyond the word “pollinating”. To me it seemed like a conversation in a foreign language. I couldn’t quite make out the words, but they were definitely talking about something.
Learning from lavender, part 2
Herbalists often say, “The plants are our teachers.” My experience of that has been that certain plants provide pretty specific things in the way of knowledge, and they also offer a kind of support to help us learn. Lavender, for example, has been very patient with me.
Let’s recap the journey so far. First I find the studio in Prague which was basically like a sofa bed in a field of lavender. And I’m like, “Ok, this is not a bad way to spend a pandemic”, I hang out with the bees and dry a few lavender bundles, but after a year I move to Berlin. Now we come to the current part of the story.
In Berlin, after searching for a flat for the better part of six months, I finally find a furnished long-term sublet. And what I discover this time on the day that I move in is that the bathroom is painted purple, and has big pictures of lavender fields hanging on the walls.
I noticed this, of course, but I didn’t make the real a-ha connection until later.
It was only after I started my new job, a stressful corporate gig, and began getting headaches every day (and not being able to sleep at night) that I turned to her for help. And she has really come through. Rubbing lavender essential oil on the soles of my feet is now the best way for me to turn off my overthinking mind before bed. Also, I started taking a lavender-vitamin B12 supplement called “Stomach-Head-Relax” in German that seems to be the only thing that wards off my tension headaches from work.
Lavender's life lessons
When summer arrived, I bought a lavender plant for my balcony. One evening, I found myself singing songs from my childhood as I let her fuzzy stalks tickle my face. And that’s when all of lavender’s lessons came together into one big epiphany for yours truly.
It’s not just that she smells fresh and clean: she has the spaciousness and cool of a fresh breeze. She clears out mental messiness and emotional heaviness as well as dirt and germs. Most of all, she reminds me to lighten up and keep things simple.
Lavender says: Be present for your life - live through the body not the mind. Find joy in little moments. Remember we are all connected.