Please note: This article appeared first in my new column, “Roots, Shoots, and Spirits” in the Winter 2022 issue Plant Healer Quarterly, a magazine for empowered herbalists and culture shifters. Folks can buy a year subscription or sign up for one issue at a time by going to: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com.
As herbalists, everything we use comes from the living earth, from nature herself. And as a basic practice in herbalism, we need to practice gratitude and reverence for the plants that form the basis of our practice. Some herbalists have the luxury of being able to have large gardens full of herbs or wild areas where we can go and spend time with nature, harvesting plant and mushroom medicine in careful and grateful ways. But still more of us depend on others for growing, wildcrafting, and harvesting herbs. The distance between the plant and the use of the plant grows as we seek high-quality, organic ingredients that we cannot find ourselves. As soon as we put a consumer relationship into our herbal practice, this distance can create a sense of disconnection between the plant, the ecosystem where the plant grows, and the medicine we are making. And since we live in a culture full of destructive ideas about nature being at our disposal, humans being able to use nature indiscriminately in any ways we see fit. Growing up in cultures that destroy nature can have the impact of working on our subconscious in ways we don’t even understand.
One of the ways to counter this disconnection is to develop gratitude practices and practice reverence and respect for the living earth. Perhaps you are reading this, and you already have a set of these practices—wonderful! I hope this will give you some additional ideas. Or perhaps you are coming to these practices for the first time. Either way, in this article, we’ll explore the ideas of how we can build gratitude and reverence into herbalism.
Unpacking Gratitude and Reverence
Let’s start by examining some definitions: Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes gratitude as “the state of being grateful; thankfulness.” Gratitude is a positive emotion where we are thankful for what we have, the blessings that nature offers us, and recognize the gifts that nature provides. Gratitude is a powerful tool of connection—it allows us to say to another being—I value you, I respect you, and I am honored with the gifts you provide. Part of what gratitude does with the plant and mushroom kingdom is to provide a basic acknowledgment of their role in our healing, lives, and for many of us, our profession. Gratitude to the plants takes them from an object we harvest to a trusted ally, friend, and companion.
Reverence takes this a step further. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary describes reverence as”1) honor or respect felt or shown; deference; 2) a gesture of respect (such as a bow); 3) the state of being revered; 4) one held in reverence.” In this case, we can think about our plant teachers, those beings who have been with us for millennia, and say, yes, these beings can literally bring us back from the brink of death, can heal our sore and tired bodies, can keep us in good health, and can help us overcome illness—these beings are deserving of our reverence. They should be honored, respected, and acknowledged for the work that their bodies do and sacrifice on behalf of our bodies.
Building gratitude and reverence into your herbalism practice has substantial health and well-being benefits. For one, it allows you to slow down, it allows you to focus and attune to the work at hand. It helps you be in a more positive state of mind. Some of the latest scientific research shows that gratitude practices build connection to nature (Chen et. al, 2022) and that it has strong links to increasing our well-being (Emmons and Mishra, 2011), and encouraging us to be our best selves (Bono and Sender, 2018). \Thus, when we practice gratitude, not only are we expressing our thanks to the earth that supports our work, but we are also healing and balancing ourselves.
A final area that gratitude and reverence practices can help is by creating a more ethical orientation towards the use of plants. My own ethical system is rooted permaculture, a practice that I am trained in both as a practitioner and teacher. Permaculture is a system of design that uses nature as a guide and teacher; learning how to work with nature and use her principles to design anything from a garden to a whole community. Permaculture’s ethics include earth care—caring for the earth, from individual plants and insects up to the entire larger planet; people care—caring for people, including our friends, family, and community but also the broader peoples of the earth; and fair share—ensuring that we only take what we need. When we pause for a moment of gratitude, of reverence, and of respect, we are taking time to orient ourselves to these three dimensions: I am grateful to the earth for this specific plant harvest (earth care), I am grateful to what this medicine will provide to a person who needs it (people care), and I am only taking what I need (fair share). Thus, gratitude can help us foster more ethical interactions overall.
In my first column in Spring 2023, I shared an animist perspective—the belief that all things on earth, natural or human-made, living or object, have spirit and those spirits can be interacted with. If we take this assumption to be true (as it has been for the bulk of humanity prior to the present age and culture), then plants are not just a combination of chlorophyll, roots, stems, leaves, and branches—they also have a metaphysical self and that self is a teacher and a guide. And that metaphysical self also has an impact on the medicine they offer. So, we can learn with them by building relationships to access their deepest medicine and teachings. These principles are well discussed in indigenous communities, such as through the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) and are also broadly recognized in the present nature spirituality movements, accessible to all peoples.
Herbal Gratitude Practices
On the most basic level, offering gratitude can be quite simple. You can pause and take a moment to say, “thank you” to whatever plant or mushroom material you are working with. This small acknowledgment is an excellent first step towards a deeper, more integrated gratitude practice.
To take gratitude a step further, you can move to what I call “deep gratitude” This is when one takes small moments to acknowledge all the steps of what nature has provided and to be grateful for those gifts and practice gratitude in daily interactions. By steps, I mean the soil, the rain, the farmers or wild harvesters, the people who packed and sold it to you, the people who moved the plant from the farm to the shelf—all of these can be included in a larger web of gratitude. The practice itself is simple. If you are consuming anything, take a moment for gratitude for not only that thing but that web of interactions. If you eat something, have gratitude. If you purchase something, have gratitude. If you are making an herbal medicine, have gratitude. You want to honor the life or resources that was given (because something is almost always given when we consume). Take a moment to simply express your gratitude and thanks for what nature has provided you.
For example, let’s say you are working to make an elderberry elixir for the upcoming cold and flu season. You purchased organic elderberries at your local food co-op along with the other ingredients to make your elixir: ginger, cinnamon, clove, and honey. Rather than immediately jumping into making it when you get home, take a moment with each of the ingredients. Pause, place your hands over them, and say thanks. Pause also to thank those people who stocked the shelves, transported your ingredients, harvested, and grew your ingredients. Offer gratitude to the land that offered nourishment, water, sunlight, and wind. Take a moment to offer thanks to the cookware you will be using, and the bottles that will hold these things. Thank the water that will be present in the elixir. All of these things were derived from nature and offering your gratitude can be a way of giving back. I’m not saying you need to do this every single time but taking this moment of deep gratitude to acknowledge the interconnected web from which you received your ingredients allows you to have a deeper relationship with all of those and puts you in a better state of mind for creating your elderberry elixir.
I’ve been practicing this deep gratitude for some time now, and it has done a few things for me and my herbal practice. First, I have paid a lot more attention to the steps and ways in which things get to me. Second, this practice continues to affirm the need to source everything as locally as possible (which I already do) so that I can offer my gratitude directly. For example, when I buy honey, I buy it from a local beekeeper. I can take a moment to thank the beekeeper and when I visit to pick up the honey, thank the bees and the blooming flowers that sustain them. Another thing this practice does is offer a more ethical response and a reminder of the ethics I want to live by: I am being reminded of the permaculture triad of earth care, people care, and fair share as I go throughout my day. I’m thinking about these ethical dimensions and drawing attention to both the earth-based and human-based ways in which others have touched me, nourished me, and helped sustain me. I’m focusing on what provides for me: the living earth and those others who are directly involved rather than cultivating loyalty to oppressive systems.. Finally, this practice has created more joy in my life. Rather than rushing through a meal, I take the time to savor it, being grateful for a full belly and the beautiful asparagus from the garden.
Gratitude and Reverence in the Wild Harvest
Gratitude practices can be included in any wild harvesting that you do. Perhaps you have a wild elderberry patch that you go to each year to harvest flowers and berries. The deep gratitude practice could still look similar. Go to the plant and seek permission to harvest. Then, take a moment to thank not only the plant but the broader ecosystem that sustains the plant: the soil web of life, the water in the nearby stream, the air currents bringing carbon dioxide, the insect life that pollinates. Thank the Elderberry plant, the strong roots, the branches, the leaves, and of course, the plump berries. Envision holding the gratitude in your mind and then allowing it to flow from you. This practice takes only a moment or two, but can deepen your connection both to nature, to the plant, and to the specific medicine you are harvesting.
You can grow an herbal blend that you carry with you as part of an offering to wild spaces. For myself, each year I grow plants that are specifically used in my gratitude offering—Apothecary Rose (Rosa Gallica) and Sacred Tobacco (Nicotiana Rustica), seeds of which were gifted to me many years ago, and Staghorn Sumac (Rhus Typhina) harvested in the fall from my land (when they are brilliant red, giving color and life to the blend). This blend I carry in a pouch around my neck, and as I harvest, I first seek permission from the plant and then, either way, offer a pinch in thanks. Each year, I mix a new batch of my herbal offering blend, and I also share it with friends and other practitioners who may be interested in starting up a new gratitude practice.
Gratitude for a wild harvest does not have to be a gesture of thanks but can be something tangible and specific that benefits the plant or the ecosystem. For example, perhaps as part of your gratitude practice you donate money to support riparian zone habitats in your local community—where elderberry grows. Or you show up at a riparian zone planting to help put new trees in the soil and stabilize the riverbanks in your community, putting in the sweat equity to ensure the next generation of elderberry—while also protecting the watershed. Or, you go to your forest where you harvest and pick up trash that is there. Or, you work to teach people about elderberry’s benefits in your local community, so that others also understand what an amazing plant she is and why she should be planted, protected, and honored. Gratitude can be shown through our actions as well as our intent.
Gratitude and Reverence in the Herb Garden
Having an herb garden or having wild spaces that you tend regularly allows for yet another dimension of gratitude. Everything that I shared above can apply, but you can also take gratitude a few steps further in such a setting. This setting can be as large as a ½ acre herb garden or as small as a few pots on your patio. Specifically, having a home space allows you to create permanent spaces where you can offer ceremonies for the plants.
We have many examples of folk traditions where engaging in ceremony and offering were a regular part of daily life of peoples prior to our modern era. In Europe and later North America, for example, Wassailing traditions were common. Wassail, comes from the Anglo Saxon “waes-hael” meaning good health. People would go out to the orchard on the old 12th night (either January 6th or 17th, depending on how you calculate the date), make offerings to a central tree in the orchard, sing songs, and drink cider. Wassail was designed to bring the community together to trees from evil influence and ensure a good harvest. Apples were one of the most important staple crops for both Europe and early colonists in North America, so ceremonial intervention ensured success. Looking to the indigenous traditions of North America, the Mohawks and many other Eastern Indigenous tribes had maple syrup ceremonies to support the maples. Described by George-Kanentioo (2022), the Mohawk gather on the first of their new year, where they gather to offer gratitude to the maple tree and celebrate with dancing, songs, and rituals. These are only two examples of countless ceremonies by many peoples through history with the intent of offering gratitude and working to ensure a good harvest.
One is by developing specific gratitude and reverence ceremonies around planting, tending, and harvesting in the garden. These, again, can be anything that works for you, that flows from you, and that is heartfelt. In my own herb garden, I do a cycle of ceremonies that are designed to show my respect, gratitude and reverence for the plants. Developing ceremonies and cycles of ceremonies again connects us to our ancient human roots—as all of our ancestors, at some point in history, connected with nature in this way. For me specifically, I do a cycle of ceremonies in my perennial herb garden that are tied to the wheel of the year. At the Spring Equinox (March 21), I do a simple blessing ceremony, welcoming the plants back from their slumber and beginning to clear the dead plant matter from last season to welcome the garden back for the new year (a bit of spring cleaning). I chant to them at Beltane (May 1st) as they are emerging from their long slumber, dancing in the garden and showing my appreciation, adding, compost, liquid gold from my body (diluted urine), and a layer of mulch to help them grow strong. (I will note that your own urine is a good offering, being full of nitrogen. A 10% liquid gold + 90% water mix can be used on plants; if you are peeing directly you want to aim for the roots of trees, where it can sink into the soil). At the Summer Solstice (June 21) and Lughnassadh (August 1), I do much of my harvesting and herbal preparations for the year, engaging in gratitude and ceremonies on these days. Fall Equinox (September 21) is the final harvest and I offer songs and offerings of gratitude. By Samhain (October 31), we’ve had a first hard frost and much of the perennials have died back, so I once again offer gratitude and wish them a good rest. This simple wheel allows a regular interaction with the plants that offer sacred medicine, allowing me to be with them, in ceremony, throughout the cycle of the year.
As part of a larger cycle of gratitude, you may want to dedicate some space for offerings, a focal point for these practices in the garden. I have a simple flat stone that I found on our land, and I placed at the top of one of my perennial beds. I have a second stone, a long and thin standing stone, that is behind the altar. When I harvest from the garden, I can stop here and do a small ceremony for the garden, leaving an offering, pausing to say thanks, or offering a chant or song.
Developing Your Own Gratitude and Reverence Practices
Each of us can develop our own gratitude practices and methods. They don’t have to be elaborate or time-consuming. Think about how to build them into your life so they become a seamless part. I hope this article has generated some ideas for practices that you might start or deepen. If this is a new idea to you, you can start small and build from there. Simple gratitude practices can include some of what I shared above: a song, a chant, a thanks, or even an herbal offering blend. A harvest song of thanks, a few notes from a small flute or drum, or even a bit of a dance from the heart can all be welcome offerings. More elaborate practices may be developing a specific herbal blend with plant allies, developing a set of ceremonies of gratitude and blessing for your garden or broader landscape, or even building something like an herbal wassail into your work each year.
Practicing gratitude is a personally transformational practice. It encourages you to slow down, pause, and be grateful. Being grateful makes things more meaningful, richer, and more connected, which leads to a richer experience in the here and now. It helps ground you in the moment and helps re-aligns our minds and hearts with the living earth. But it also sets up a model of more earth-centered interactions that can be shared with herbal students, clients, and community members. It allows us to recognize the inherent sanctity and respect that is due to all life on this beautiful planet, a planet that offers us so much healing and life.
Bono, G., & Sender, J. T. (2018). How gratitude connects humans to the best in themselves and in others. Research in Human Development, 15(3-4), 224-237.
Chen, L., Liu, J., Fu, L., Guo, C., & Chen, Y. (2022). The Impact of Gratitude on Connection With Nature: The Mediating Role of Positive Emotions of Self-Transcendence. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 908138. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.908138
Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward, 248, 262.
Gratitude. 2022. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved Dec 14, 2022 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gratitude
Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed editions.
Reverence. 2022. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved Dec 14, 2022 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reverence
George-Kanentiio, D. (2022). How the Mohawks Invented Maple Syrup. Indianz.com. https://www.indianz.com/News/2022/03/17/doug-george-kanentiio-how-the-mohawks-invented-maple-syrup/