Plants are our medicine, our teachers, our friends, and help us connect deeply to spirit in a wide variety of ways including through spiritual work. Long before recorded history, our ancient ancestors used plants of all kinds. Ötzi, the ancient ancestor who was preserved in ice and who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE, was found with multiple kinds of plants and mushrooms, including birch polypore (a medicinal mushroom) and the tinder fungus, a mushroom often used for transporting coals starting fires. I love plants, and I love the ancestral connections and assistance that they can provide. In more recent history, we can look to a variety of cultures that use plants in ways that help alter or expand consciousness.
What better time to do some deep visionary work than at the winter solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness? It is in these dark times that we can look deeply within, work with the spirits that guide us, and have insights that help us more deeply understand the world and our place in it. It is in this darkness that we can go for visionary walks (including in the long and dark nights), do spirit journeying, and engage in other forms of divination or communion with the living earth.
What are visionary herbs?
Visionary herbs are those that can help us with deep spirit journeying, deep meditations, and the kinds of self-expression that lead to deeper awareness. There are at least two categories of visionary herbs. One category is what are traditionally called the teacher plants, the ones that cause radical shifts in consciousness and awareness. These are the plants with the strongest effects and include a variety of psychedelic substances including strong herbs and mushrooms. While these plants were once quite illegal (at least here in the states), laws in the last few years have really become laxer and allowed these plants to be more accessible. I’m not writing about this group of plants today, but there are certainly books and resources out there about them if you want to learn more.
The visionary herbs I’m talking about today are milder, legal herbs that can help us shift our consciousness and vision, but that are less potent. To me, the difference between the two is that the teacher plants will take you on a journey whether or not you want it and requires pretty much nothing on your part–once you take teacher plants, you are on the journey of whatever kind it is for the duration. The visionary herbs I’m discussing today are milder and are more like aids or companions. Many of these visionary herbs have spiritual and mental effects that may make you more open, aware, or attuned at the moment, and are tied to helping bring the subconscious and intuitive sides forward.
The herbs I will share about today come from both teachings given to me as well as from my own experiences and connections with nature. Some of these herbs require you to build a relationship with them, while others will simply open the doors for you regardless of how long you have been acquainted. All herbs for any spiritual purpose work better when you have a relationship with that herb. Think about it like this–you meet someone, and you have a great conversation over a cup of tea. You think to yourself, wow, this person could be a great friend to me! That initial experience is wonderful. Ten years later, you are sitting with your long-term friend and have that same cup of tea. The nuance and interaction is much richer–you can give each other just a look, or say a single word, and there is much more meaning. You’ve created a shared history together, and that history connects you on a much deeper level. This is why we build relationships with these visionary plants over time–the longer you have a relationship with a plant species (or even more ideally, the same lineage of plant or same plant), the depth of what you can do together grows. When I say the same lineage of plant, what I mean by that is either the same plant from season to season (perennial plants) or the daughter and grandaughter plants born from the seed of your first plant. These don’t have to just be plants you grow, but can be plants that you visit regularly. Building plant relationships takes time, but it is time well spent.
Visionary Herbs for Awareness, True Sight, Memory, and Relaxation
So many different plants can go on this list, but for our purposes today, I’m going to share two plants from four different categories that I find are useful for visionary work. You can agree or disagree, and in the comments, I’d love to hear your suggestions for plants that you have used. I will also say that there are a lot of plants that *could* go on this list, but I’m only offering those that I have direct experience with over a period of years.
Herbs that Open up Awareness: Mugwort and Ghost Pipe
Our first set of herbs are those that open up our awareness and give us new perspectives and vision. Perhaps we need to see things from a new angle, rethink patterns of behavior and belief that have caused us difficulty, or do shadow work within ourselves. My favorite two herbs in this category are mugwort and Indian ghost pipe.
Mugwort: Artemesia vulgaris
Long used as a dreaming herb and smoke cleansing herb, mugwort helps with any kind of meditative or subconscious work. Within both psychology and the occult traditions, there is an acknowledgment of the multiple selves within us. One interpretation is that we have a rational self, that self that is “in our heads” and that typically we are projecting when we are out and about in the world. This is the thinker, the doubter, the one that can hold a career or do math. The second self we have is our intuitive self, the self beneath the layers of rationality (and there are many of those layers), perhaps the one that comes out during meditation, spiritual work, and other deep practices. This is the self that is where our intuition resides and is a bridge to the many subconscious and unconscious realms within us. The third self is the spirit self, the piece of us that transcends death and that reincarnates, the self that is connected to everything else. Connecting with this self and other spiritual powers is one of the goals of most spiritual traditions and practices. I believe that channeling the awen through bardic arts or doing journey work are ways to help the intuitive self bridge to the spirit. This long explanation is to say that mugwort is very, very good at helping us with this kind of work. Mugwort not only helps us have more vivid, intense, and lucid dreaming but also connects with those deeper selves, which leads to a more fruitful understanding of ourselves, our world, and our connections to all living things.
Indian Ghost Pipe: Monotropa uniflora
While mugwort helps bridge to the deeper selves, Ghost Pipe is particularly good for working with the rational self. The rational self is the product of a lot of outside influences: people’s external pressures about how we should behave, what we should do, what we should say, etc. Sometimes, we end up living to the expectations of others rather than following our true path. Ghost pipe is very good at helping us slog through those layers and get to the heart of the issues at hand. Thus, ghost pipe offers us distance, perspective, and new understandings. The best way I can describe this is with a metaphor of the forest and the trees. We live our lives on the ground, in the middle of the forest. Some of us might be walking a clear path in that forest, and others might be wandering (by choice or not). Ghost pipe helps temporarily lift us out of the forest and let’s us see the broader picture–it helps us expand our perspective. I will note that due to overharvesting, Indian Ghost Pipe should be used *ONLY* as a floral essence.
Herbs that Aid with Seeing Clearly: Eyebright and Blue Vervain
Another thing that we need to do is see clearly. Perhaps our own past experiences cloud our judgment. Perhaps our past traumas and experiences prevent us from being able to clearly see what is before us. Perhaps ongoing things in the world have put us in an emotional place and we need to break free.
Eyebright. Euphraise Officinale, Euphrasia spp.
Sometimes, the magic is in the name of the plant itself, and that is certainly the case with Eyebright. On the physical level, eyebright helps strengthen the sight and the eyes, and many people take it as a healing herb for this reason. But this same medicinal action happens on the level of our spirit, where work with eyebright helps us to see true. We can see to the heart of things, to the heart of issues, and that true sight offers us new ways of being, healing, and inhabiting the world.
Blue Vervain. Verbena Hastada
Blue vervain is a visionary herb that does essentially two things. The first thing it does is allow us to let go of those things we cling to too tightly (e.g. things have to be a certain way, maybe a bit of OCD we are harboring) and instead, it allows us to go with the flow. It thus connects us with that deeper, intuitive self by giving the rational self a bit of ease and relaxation. Blue vervain works over time, so it’s particularly good to start taking it in some form and keep taking it for a while to get it to work for you in this way. Once we are able to let go of the things we cling to, we are offered new visions and ways forward. The second way Blue Vervain works is by putting us more in touch with our emotional side. Blue vervain always lives by water–it understands how to help us navigate our difficult emotions and offers vision beyond them.
Herbs that Sharpen the Mind and bring Focus: Lavender and Rosemary
Sharpening our mind and our focus is something that we can all benefit from. These herbs seem even more critical after nearly a year of long-term trauma from the global pandemic when many are now suffering the effects of overload, burnout, and more.
Lavender. Lavendula Spp.
Lavender is a herb that helps bring focus and clarity. It has a very gentle action that promotes the body to relax while the mind focuses. This is an excellent combination for meditation and spirit journeying–bringing the mind into a place where it’s not going to wander while you are attempting your visioning work, while also bringing the body into a place of calm and tranquility. Other herbs do this well too (Lemon balm is another solid choice), but I think lavender is particularly good at bridging that mind-body connection that is necessary for powerful spirit work to take place.
Rosemary. Rosmarinus Officinalis.
Rosemary has long been associated with memory and remembrance. If you are doing memory work of any kind, Rosemary is an excellent ally (including ancestor work, as linked above). Rosemary strengthens our memory and encourages us to use our memories in new ways, shaping them, and storing them. Rosemary is particularly good for memory mansion work, using method of loci techniques that have been handed down by masters from the ages. If there is a memory you want strongly to retain or a memory you want to bring back, rosemary is your guide.
Herbs that relax the Body and Release Tension: Kava Kava and Passionflower
Kava Kava: Piper methysticum.
Kava Kava is the only herb on my list that doesn’t grow in the US East coast, but I wanted to include it because there is nothing else like it–and because you can ethically source it from small farms effectively in Hawaii, thus supporting sustainable farming practices. Kava Kava is a deeply relaxing herb, working on both the mind and the body. When you take kava in either tincture or tea form, it somewhat numbs the lips briefly. That same effect is later passed onto the body–not so much numbing, but taking away pains, deeply relaxing the muscles, and putting you into a relaxed state. I like to use Kava Kava as part of my spiritual practice when I’ve had a long day and that day has really gotten into my body–I am carrying the worries of my day or my life in my physical body. This means that I get literal aches and heaviness, and that makes it difficult to do spiritual work. Kava helps me relax into myself and allows the spiritual work to flow. (If you take a lot of kava, you will be impaired at driving, so please keep this in mind).
Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata
Passionflower is an outstanding nervine plant that helps our nervous system relax and thus, our bodies relax. Passionflower is one of many nervines, but I find it particularly good for relaxation when the goal is spiritual work. Part of it, perhaps, is that it is such an otherwordly flower–looking like the full moon on an enchanted evening. But also, each different nervine has their own unique qualities–and passionflower helps one get into that place of calm so that the world of spirit can flow. In a temperate climate, you can grow it yourself by keeping it as a vine in your home during the winter and then letting it grow wildly during the summer, offering it trellising. Cut it back when the frost comes and bring it in for the winter months. After a few years, your vine will produce many flowers and later fruits each year–which are an absolute delight!
Obtaining visionary herbs
Obviously, if you are going to use any of these herbs, you have to figure out the best way to obtain them. If you can grow them or harvest them yourself, this is probably the best thing you can do because it helps establish a deep relationship. I would pick one or two herbs that you really want to work with and cultivate them–even a pot on a windowsill can produce a beautiful rosemary or lavender plant! The alternative is to try to get them from an ethical, organic grower. You don’t want conventional (read – chemically sprayed) herbs for any of your visionary work. The chemicals themselves can harm the spirit of the plant. These plants are used to working with humans as friends and guides, and the spraying of poison on them really damages that relationship. So please, please be careful about ethical sourcing and chemical-free plants when you are sourcing herbs. I would also be very careful of the “wild harvest” label, particularly for at-risk plants like kava or ghost pipe. Wildharvested is often not sustainably harvested, so you want to be careful. Places that are good for sourcing herbs are small farms like Black Locust Gardens or larger, ethical companies like Mountain Rose Herbs.
Taking visionary Herbs
You have a number of options for working with and taking visionary herbs. I’ll list the options, and which herbs might be best for each option. All of the herbs I’ve listed are safe and non-toxic, so you can do a lot with them.
Smudges and smoking blends: Mugwort is commonly used in smoking blends and smoke clearing sticks (smudge sticks). Lavender and rosemary also work great in smudge sticks or incense blends. Here, the idea is that you burn the plants and inhale the smoke–either in the air around you (with incense/smudges) or by smoking it in a sacred way. For smoking, a little bit goes a long way!
Teas. Many of the plants on this list make excellent teas: mugwort (brewed briefly, too long and it gets bitter), rosemary, lavender, kava kava, and passionflower are all good choices. Blue vervain is a very bitter herb, so I suggest using it as a tincture instead.
Infused oils. Any of these herbs are great as an infused oil, which you can then rub on your body or temples for spiritual work. See my instructions for how to create an infused oil here.
Tinctures. Any of the herbs can be made into a tincture with a long shelf life. Alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine make good menstrua for making a spiritual tincture. Alcohol and vinegar have an indefinite shelf life while glycerin lasts about a year. The tincture is easy to make and I have instructions here.
Flower Essence. This is the only way I recommend using Indian Ghost pipe because of serious challenges with overharvesting this plant in recent years. To make a flower essence, you’ll have to seek out the plant when it is in bloom (in my region, that’s usually late June to late August) and do a simple flower essence. Here are instructions.
I hope this post has offered you some new tools for working–and embracing–the darkness during the period of weeks before and after the Winter Solstice. There is something extremely magical about this time that allows us to dig in deeply with ourselves and do important work. Blessings of the Winter Solstice!