In the distant past, humans and our ancestors were more tied to Nature, and that meant being closer to animals, both physically and in our understanding of them. The discovery stories of many of our most useful healing herbs list animals as the teachers of their uses, and even today, many herbs have an animal in their name.
There are a few examples of herbs that were originally tried as food or medicine because someone observed an animal eating or using them for healing. It’s impossible to know who, exactly, made these observations and decided to try the plants for themselves, but the legends live on and teach us something about each plant.
Goats are responsible for a few discoveries, which is not surprising considering their adventurous eating habits!
Legend has it that about 1000 years ago in Ethiopia, a goatherd named Kaldi was closely observing their grazing when he noticed that they became especially lively after eating certain berries. Kaldi tried the berries himself and was invigorated and refreshed, and told a local monk about them. The monk tried the berries and discovered they kept him awake for prayers- and the world’s first coffee habit was born.
Some people see coffee as a harmless indulgence, others as a drug to be avoided, but not much thought is given to it medicinally. Used wisely, as with any herb, it is a great digestive bitter and metabolic tonic, and its green, unroasted beans have been studied as a balancer for high blood sugar, as with diabetes. Our Green Coffee Bean Spiritualized Essence is a nice, clarifying pick-me-up with an almost Ginseng-like taste from its tonic polyphenols.
Our eroSoma Horny Goat Weed Nectar always brings a chuckle to customers who ask about it, and as I explain it, “it says what it does and does what it says!”. Another gift of an observant goatherd, this time from the China of 2000 years ago, this herb was seen to make goats frisky and amorous after they ate it.
Its Chinese name, Yin Yang Huo, was the name of a Pan-like goat creature that had sex hundreds of times a day, and although that may be an unrealistic goal, this herb does support sexual health and function in a stimulating and tonic way.
On the more wild side, bears are known by many peoples to be wise herbalists, and are themselves symbols of healing energy and medicine. One plant important to our ursine friends is known in English as Bearberry, and in botanical nomenclature as Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, which means “Bear Grape (Greek) grape-of-bears (Latin)”. The fruits are beloved by bears, especially as a winter food and just before and after hibernation. The leaves are the main part used by humans for medicine, and our Uva Ursi Essence is a classic urinary and kidney tonic, used for infections and to tone and heal the system.
While some herbs like Uva-Ursi and Coffee were discovered through humans’ observations of natural animal behaviour, other herbs were said to be given more directly, with animals deliberately sharing and teaching about the plants. This is especially true with Shamanic, initiatic, and spiritually balancing herbs.
One of our favourite plants, indeed my oldest plant ally, is Calamus, which grows in different varieties all over the world. Wherever humans know it, it is revered as a clearing, bracing tonic which moves energy, dispels stagnation, and protects from evil.
The Penobscot of the northeast US called Calamus “muskrat root”, as they were suffering from a plague during which a man dreamed of a muskrat who told him the root would heal his people. Calamus is a favourite food of muskrats, who dig up its roots and store them, resulting in the plant spreading.
In Ayurveda, Calamus is used in Pacha Karma cleansing therapy, and it is called Vacha, which means Truth. It is a tonic to the mind, speech, and clarity of communication, and many of our customers have relied on our Calamus Initiatic for singing, lecturing, and other sound performances. Our Calamus Magistery brings that communication inward, and helps with mindfulness meditation as it seems to shine a bright, clear light on the truth of whatever the attention is turned to.
Many large herbivores are associated with the teaching and giving of sacred medicines, perhaps because as plant- and fungus-eaters, they are understood to have wide experience with the effects of herbs.
In northern Asia, the reindeer is known to be an enthusiastic consumer of Amanita mushrooms, also used by the people of the area as a Shamanic sacrament, and in the north American deserts, Peyote was created by the footsteps of the deer god as he walked the earth.
In Taoist healing alchemy, the most supreme tonic herb is Reishi Mushroom, called the “herb of longevity”, and it is pictured in countless portraits of long-lived and wise people. It is often seen held in the mouth of a deer, especially the sacred deer belonging to the Gods of Immortality. Deer are said to be the only beings who can find the most sacred Antler-shaped Reishi, and so they are the messengers of the immortal Gods, bringing us healing and higher wisdom.
Our Antler Reishi Spiritualized Essence was an adventure to locate, but we’re so glad we pursued it, since it is an excellent tonic to vitality, mental and emotional equilibrium, and deep states of wisdom and contemplation.
In South Africa, the Eland Antelope is revered as a guide into and through trance states, and this large animal is called “kanna” by the San people, which is also their name for the entheogenic herb Sceletium tortuosum.
This succulent plant is gathered and fermented in a specific way to break down toxic oxalic acid and increase the plant’s psychoactive properties. It is then used ceremonially for trance dancing, divination, and rainmaking; it is also used to heal the psychological traumas of war and help warriors re-integrate into society.
Our Kanna Initiatic is a wonderful balancing mood tonic, both uplifting and calming, and is helpful for all kinds of “letting go”- whether from severe trauma such as violence, or just of patterns and experiences that no longer serve your purpose.
Our final plant today is another herb for healing a warrior past, but in a way that is transformative and quite beautiful, according to legend.
Bottlebrush is a very descriptive name for the Calliandra plant, whose flowers look like sparkling red brushes. Also called Hummingbird Plant, it is beloved by the little winged jewels, and strongly associated with them in Aztec myth. In one story, a warrior helped defend the land and his people, and when he was killed, a green hummingbird flew up from where he fell.
That hero, known as Huitzilopochtli, “Hummingbird from the Spirit World”, became the guide for all souls killed in battle. He led them to the House of the Sun in Heaven, where they feasted on Calliandra flowers until they were transformed into hummingbirds, and their battling natures into iridescent sparks of light and life.
Our Calliandra Initiatic is interesting to work with, not overtly calming or anti-trauma like the Kanna, but carrying lessons about the right use of power and force, and the balance between courage and gentleness.