Plant Whispering – A Very Old, New Knowing   3 comments

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!” ~Henry David Thoreau (1)


            Before the Common Era, for the most part, we hunted, gathered and lived off the land.  Certainly there was agricultural development as well as “city/state” societies.  However, most “commoners” made due with what was at hand.  Knowledge of what was good, what wasn’t, what worked and what didn’t, was shared; face to face and hand to hand.  Survival in the moment and the hope of a future depended on group reliance.  Therefore, truth was not only necessary, it was revered.  A single lie was capable of wiping out entire nations.  Slowly, through the quest for progress, a better way and the supposed good of all, much of this knowledge has been lost or purposely destroyed.  Some “original knowledge” was translated, bastardized and hopelessly muddied.  Thankfully there are, still, tiny, remote pockets of innocent, original genius.  In the last 200 years or so there has been a conscious movement backward; toward the truth; likely a reaction to the sonic blast of the industrial revolution.  Folks like John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Marcel Proust, Euell Gibbons and Woody Guthrie (just to name a few; as the list is lengthy) stood against the “norm” and reminded us that “This Land Was Made For You And Me.”  (2)  They left us with wild places, literature, full of wild notions, about those places and wild songs to sing while we are there!  They took personal responsibility for what they knew to be right and good in the world.  All made considerable sacrifices to come to know, stand for and preserve what they instinctively felt, in Nature.  As a modern forager I, also, feel and carry that responsibility.  The nagging question is: with all the conflicting information, available, how do I know what is good, what is not, what works and what doesn’t?  For me, deep knowing is an eventual process; where the answers begin outside.

            Finding unfamiliar plants is a frequent and most welcome occurrence.  Often, something at the edge of my periphery will stand out and catch my eye.  In my heart I believe they call to me.  No, I don’t hear little voices coming from plants.  However, there does seem to be an attraction dynamic happening.  Then, out comes my camera and notebook.  As I approach, notes are recorded and photos snapped about the time, date, weather, location, neighboring vegetation and landscape.  Whenever possible I sit beside my new friend, watch, listen and get personal; WITHOUT TOUCHING.  Size, shape, branch, stem, leaf, bud, flower, seed, color and fragrance (again, without touching) characteristics are all noted and photographed; as well as signs of animal or insect invaders and plant diseases.  Every detail, essential to the whole, gives clues to the story of the plant.  This is where plant whispering begins.  After some time (often hours) and an area trash sweep,  I thank my new friend for the company and head home to hit the books; which is where it can get tricky!  Whatever I will come to learn; I’ve already done myself a world of good.  In addition to sunshine, fresh air, and a walk, I took time out to study, observe, meditate and reflect, in a natural setting; which for me, is always healing, leaving me feeling better, more confident and well connected to both Mother Earth and Father Sky.

            Up front, I should confess to being highly suspicious of “scientific research”.  Certainly we all know the scientific community isn’t always telling the truth.  A great deal of “research” has been paid for and directed toward corporate dividends; disguised in “greater good” propaganda; and, some of this “research” isn’t even good science.  For instance, any study based on the consequences of “lab rats” is absurd.  I’m not a lab rat!  Domesticated rats have a short life expectancy of about 2 years and they tend to develop tumors and die from the results.  When used experimentally, they are fed high doses of whatever substance, over long periods of time; a practice, which, in and of itself, is lethal.  Therefore, I do not understand how such foolery is relevant.  On the other hand, botanical information is a must.

            Having a basic understanding of plant chemistry is invaluable and ultimately satisfying.  Plants contain a plethora of chemicals; including, plant acids, alcohols, alkaloids, anthraquinones, bitter principles, carbohydrates, cardiac glycosides, coumarins, flavones, flavonoid glycosides, phenolic compounds, salts, saponins, sugars, tannins and volatile oils.  Understanding the function of these chemicals, and their actions on the body, brings a whole new reverence to plants and food; all food.  Knowing which chemicals pose risks and how to deal with and eliminate or avoid those risks is quintessential.  Also, the supermarket will, necessarily, become a new frontier!  And, chemistry is fun!  Honest!  I’m so very grateful to learn each handy tidbit; such as, the chemical components of Hawthorn berries, Crataegus leavigata, act to normalize the heart, by either stimulating or depressing heart activity, depending on which action is appropriate! (3)  Imagine that, Hawthorn berries “read” your body and then do what your body needs.  Smart berries!  There is an abundance of smart food outside; patiently wait for us to become smart enough to remember how to eat it; again.

            Leafing through several field guides and cross referencing plant characteristics, quickly narrows the search, usually giving me (at least) the first half of the plant’s Latin or scientific name; which tells me what plant family (genus) it belongs to.  Not all guides contain all members of every genus; most don’t.  Going, point for point, without exception, or substitution, through my list of characteristics leads me to the second part of the Latin name, its specific name (species).  I like using the Latin names for several reasons.  Most importantly, any given plant may have several, to dozens, of common names, yet that plant holds only one Latin name; ending much confusion.  Latin names are old and romantic; albeit a little intimidating, at first.  Honestly, at my age, I’m surprised how easily and quickly these names stick with me.  Learning a new language is fun!

            Once I know the Latin name, a world of information unfolds between my fingers.  Now other, more specific guides come out, depending on which direction the Latin name leads me.  And, of course, it’s internet surfing time!  I read most of what I come across, including contradictory “facts” and study every picture I come upon; often to the point of complete distraction!  The librarians in my town are great; and are usually up for any plant discussion and/or investigation.  Another viewpoint is always a must; many viewpoints is best.  Eventually, hungry and/or tired sets in, and I come up for air; with a head-full of plantery.  Having gathered imperative specifics; such as, edibility, toxicity, and possible look-alikes, along with gathering and preparatory issues and culinary and medicinal usages, I like to mull it around and discuss it, all, with someone knowledgeable (not always easy to find!).  

            Then I go back to the original plant and make certain I didn’t overlook anything.  Taking a 15 minute walk, in every direction possible, out from that original plant, will usually yield a good number of relatives, for comparison; if not, I keep looking.  I like to see, study and photograph hundreds of my new friend, in every season, BEFORE I decide if I will use it, or not.  If there is only one plant, I won’t touch it, ever.  90% certainty can be deadly.  I never bet on identification; nothing short of 100% positive identification is acceptable.  With all the tools available and attention to detail, plant identification isn’t difficult.  Only after positive identification and careful study, can an educated decision whether to use the plant or not, be made.  Whatever the decision, my brain gets a good workout!  It is often a year, or more, after my first meeting with a plant, before I even touch it.  One exception I’ve made, to this way, is Autumn-Olive, Elaeagnus umbellate.  I felt 100% positive identification had been achieved, in a week, as, along with an avalanche of print and photos I was very fortunate to stumble upon 3 local, longtime Autumnberry fanatics; and there are hundreds of Autumn-Olive shrubs right in my neighborhood.

           Because I’ve experienced eating a poisonous plant, food poisoning (not the same thing) and plant allergies, I tend to err on the side of caution.  Any plant containing alkaloids, saponins or tannins gets a long, hard look, great care and deep reverence.

            As a child, my nature was annoyingly curious; at least to my Mother.  I would often sit for hours in her garden and dissect plant parts.  I was particularly attracted to American Yew berries, Taxus canadensis; which are know to be poisonous.  For reasons I can’t explain, I would eat the flesh of the berries, after I squished out the seeds. (Do NOT try this at home).  American Yew seeds and foliage are toxic, and contain taxine, a heart depressing alkaloid; however the pulp (and ONLY the pulp) is actually edible. (4)  My mother would find the seeds and ask, “Who’s been picking at my garden?”, usually followed by, “Linda, you better not be messing around in my plants”.  One day (when I was 5 or 6) she snuck up, from behind and caught me; berry handed.  To hide the evidence I quickly popped the Yew berry, into my mouth; bit down and gulped in fear.  The sudden blast of unexpected, acrid bitterness caused me to shudder, gag and forcefully vomit.  Other then that, and spending the rest of the day in my room, I suffered no ill effects.  To this day I’ve not touched another Yew berry.  Its funny, how after half a century that moment is so crystallized in my being.  Just the mention, or sight, of an American Yew, even writing this, causes me to cringe and I can still almost taste it!  Funny, too, American Yew was the first plant to be posted on my Poisonous Plants page (up top).  Wow, I just discovered a psychic scar!  I can’t help but wonder if that scar wasn’t an intended blessing; encouraging caution in this once and future forager!?!?!?!?

            Food poisoning was very different.  In my early twenties I had an affair with Chinese food; which included a favorite restaurant.  I ate there once a week, for several years; usually ordering the same thing.  One day I felt adventurous and ordered sweet and sour chicken. The first bite tasted wrong; so wrong I spit it into my napkin.  Wondering if that’s what sweet and sour chicken really tastes like, I decided it wasn’t for me; and faked a toothache to politely get out of eating it.  Thank goodness I did.  Within a few hours I felt very tired and a bit feverish; and went to bed early.  For three days I remained in bed (except for bathroom sprints), running a 104 fever, shaking and sweating with intense muscle cramps and diarrhea.  Over the next two weeks I sipped tea, ginger ale and broth; but wasn’t able to look at solid food.  It took the better part of a month before I felt like myself; albeit 20 pounds lighter. 

            Both experiences taught me that if something doesn’t taste right, spit it out!  Then rinse out your mouth.  In retrospect, I wonder, had I vomited, after the sweet and sour chicken or rinsed my mouth, if I would have had a better time of it.

            And, then, there is the issue of possible plant/food allergies.  Any food, at any time, can cause an allergic reaction, in anyone.  It is important to go slow with any new food, wherever it comes from.  A mild allergic reaction is much easier to contend with than anaphylactic shock.  Recently, I’ve come to understand that I’m allergic to wheat.  Having been a bread freak my entire life, this is a big disappointment.  However, sacrificing wheat for a happy tummy is well worth it!  As the saying goes, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”  

Poison Ivy, Rhus radicans, Poison Oak, Rhus diversiloba, and Poison Sumac, Rhus vernix, are important to become aquainted withUrushiol, an alkaloid, in the plants, is an allergen; which, in sensitive individuals can cause allergic dermatitis. (5) Poison Ivy and Poison Sumac abound in this area.  It’s important to know what grows in your area and be able to recognize it at a distance.

            Knowing what is good, what is not, what works and what doesn’t, takes time, patience, dedication and experience.  Yet, even after decades of experience, food poisoning and allergic reactions are always a possibility.  However, with care and experience, the incidence of ingesting a poisonous plant decreases.  Therefore, I intend to go slowly, quietly, knowledgably and confidentially in the direction of my dreams; which is to know, every plant I come across; what’s good, what’s not, what works and what doesn’t!

The real voyage

of discovery

consists not in

seeking new lands

but in seeing

with new eyes.

~Marcel Proust (6)

             If you ever suspect you’ve eaten a poisonous plant, or that you may have food poisoning, or that you are having an allergic reaction, to anything, please, immediately seek medical attention.

 Just click on any photo to enlarge for greater detail.

Thanx for stopping by.  See you next time.



(1) Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): A Guide to Resources on Henry

Henry David Thoreau links: a concise, simple directory to resources on Henry David Thoreau, American author, poet and philosopher. More links to Thoreau’s

(2)  Welcome to the Official Woody Guthrie Website  Official Woody Guthrie web site with biography, lyrics, artwork, the Woody Guthrie Foundation, the Woody Guthrie Archives, news and events, and educational programs.


      Element Books.  1996

(4) PETERSON FIELD GUIDES, Edible Wild Plants, Lee Allen Peterson.

     Houghton Mifflin. 1977

(5) The POISON IVY, OAK & SUMAC BOOK, Thomas E. Anderson

     Acton Circle, 1995

(6)  Marcel-Valentin-Louis-Eugène-Georges Proust (July 10, 1871 – November 18, 1922) was a French intellectual, novelist, essayist and critic, best known as the author of In …​Marcel_Proust

3 responses to “Plant Whispering – A Very Old, New Knowing

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  1. Awesome website you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics
    discussed in this article? I’d really love to be a part of online community where I can get responses from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Bless you!

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