There was a place where Blue Vervain grew, not far from the water and near its friends Goldenrod and Joe Pye weed. I harvested some there, taking only a bit to make remedies for myself and to share with others. I gathered some leaves and the top part of the flowers, leaving a lot of flowers further down on the plant for the pollinators to feed from and so that the plant would go to seed for future generations. Maybe others did the same, gathered just a bit. Maybe they harvested the whole flowering tops so that there were none left for the insects and birds. In the years since, as I’ve visited that place I look for those plants, the deep purple-blue flowers growing up tall stalks – not to harvest, just to see them. But I stopped seeing them. They seemed to be gone. So I started planting the seeds that a friend had gathered. I cold stratified them – pressing the seeds into tiny pots of soil that I misted with water and then covered with plastic and stored in the fridge, simulating winter. Some seeds I planted only need a couple weeks in the fridge, others require 90 days. The Blue Vervain popped up soon after I removed the little pots from the fridge and there were so many that I could share them with friends as well. They didn’t grow a lot last season, but in the autumn my friend and I tucked the seedlings in the ground all over the garden - at the far ends of many beds to grow near the Goldenrod and Elder and other plants growing on-the-edge.
In the spring I looked for them and didn’t see any Blue Vervain emerging. Maybe they were too small still when we planted them? Maybe they’d needed some protection in the winter that I hadn’t provided? So I cold stratified more seeds for this season. As I waited for the seeds in the fridge, I saw some popping back up in the garden, and then my friend saw some more and then each time I’d go to the garden I would see more and more until I’m pretty sure every single one we’d planted had returned! The garden was rich in Blue Vervain! Beautiful and full of medicine, I harvested some on Lughnasadh and also the following full moon to tincture fresh to ease tension held in the muscles and mind and leading up to menstruation and also some to dry for the altar and to burn. Once again this next year the seeds I’d stratified popped up and since there was already an abundance of Blue Vervain in the garden now, the seedlings could ALL be shared with more friends to plant in more gardens! And now many friends have this gorgeous plant growing in the garden - to harvest for medicine and for the pollinators and to replenish what had been taken. And I brought a plant back to that place where I had one harvested, once taken, and perhaps had contributed to its disappearance. I brought the plant back to that place, walked around til I found the spot that it seemed to want to be, planted it and gave it water. I returned to that spot recently and despite the dry season and being a bit chomped up by wee bugs, the plants was vibrant and full of life.
One of the problem with wildcrafting, with harvesting herbs that we do not tend, is that it is easy to *not* see the impact of our actions. We can treat the land like an equation – oh, I only take 10%, a quarter, a half….pretending like we are exceptional, harvesting the “right” way, taking the “right” amount, and that we are the only humans that might visit that place to harvest and that only humans need those plants, rely on those plants, have relationship with that plant.
Especially if you are traveling or staying in an area for only a few year cycles or less, you may not realize that a plant is beginning to disappear from a place it once grew. Perhaps it is a slow-growing at-risk woodland plant, or maybe a more common plant that wasn’t able to go to seed because people gathered the flowering tops. If we aren’t even aware of the harm we cause, how can we change our patterns? If we are raised in a white supremacist capitalist culture of taketaketake, seeing the land and plants as objects that belong to us for us to do as we wish, this fundamentally shapes our relationship to the land, the plants, and the remedies we make. When this kind of domination that seeps into all areas of our lives is not questioned, it comes thru how we speak about plants in our posts, articles, books, and classrooms. It’s particularly concerning that herbalists teach wildcrafting to students, sometimes traveling quite far together to go collect plants instead of cultivating herbs together and getting to truly know the plants and their cycles. Also those students then tell others and on and on until there are herbalists and friends-of-herbalists and friends-of-someone-who-took-a-class-with-that-herbalist swooping into areas and depleting herbs from the woods and fields.
I have been in such programs and I wish I had spoken up more at the time about how awful it felt to harvest plants I didn’t know from a place that I didn’t know (for an herbalist I was studying with to then sell to someone who claimed to sell ‘ethically wildcrafted’ herbs). It felt awful and no we weren’t clear-cutting, we weren’t taking every plant, but it still felt like too much. I first started learning about herbs in the garden with friends and family as a teen. The garden and plants and people in my life were my teachers. Yes, I was coming at it with a settler mindset because that is how I was raised, and also I listened to the plants. It was when I starting taking more classes and reading more herb books that this frantic energy entered – feeling like I was cramming for a test, learning about plants more like specimens and chemical constituents than their own autonomous beings. Even when I learned about them as magical beings, they were presented as *my* magical beings to harvest and do what I want with and profit from. When we don’t understand and dismantle the white supremacist capitalist colonial mentality we are steeped in growing up, our actions that we may think are rooted in connection and integrity are not. They may be a softer, greener version of those oppressive systems, but they are still very much those oppressive systems.
I am so thankfull to the plants for teaching me so much all the time about relationship, growth, tending, consent, and myself. I am also so thankfull for the decentralized crew of herbalists all over the world who are deeply committed to transformation, unlearning, dismantling oppressive systems, having hard conversations, providing plant remedies to the community thru mutual aid and long-term projects, speaking up even and especially when the message is not appreciated, willing to have our worlds turned upside down to remember/re-envision a world of relationship, reciprocity, where we all have our needs met, where we repair the impacts of trauma on ourselves and our communities, where we can be present enough to understand the impact of our words and actions on the beings around us and strive to be in relationship in a good way.
Image description: photo 1 – Blue vervain that’s been growing all season in a pot, sitting on the pebbled shore beside a body of water. The blue vervain leaves are bright green and yellow-green, with a purple-red stem. Photo 2 – Close up of the blue vervain once it’s been planted in its new home.
image description: the purple-blue flowers of blue vervain and its deep green leaves, harvested from plants started from seed and tended in the garden, floating in brandy in a clear wide-mouth ball jar on a wooden patio.