It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Urban herbalist? But herbalists live out in the sticks, don’t they? They reside in rural areas, among meadows blossoming with vibrant wildflowers and on the edges of woods full of plants filling the lush forest floor.
Yes, they do …and they live in cities, too. I know many herbalists who can’t bear the energy of the city for more than a one-day visit. It all feels so unnatural to them, so disconnected, and so busy. Then there are those of us who enjoy the solace of a quiet locale, but are soon anxious to return to the buzz of the city, to smell the aroma of espresso wafting out of a little café, to hear the rattle of the subway beneath us or a fiddle reel spilling out of a bar, to see an independent film in an arthouse theatre.
True, walk down a city street and you’ll see the disconnected masses; their ears plugged with earbuds, their eyes cast down to the pavement. The herbalist’s eyes are often cast down, too. Who is that, peeking out of the crack in the sidewalk? A hardy little thing, aren’t you? City workers can pave, lay brick and stone, slather concrete down. But still they peek out, and those in tune with the plant world will remain plugged in to them. Who is that, up there? Hey- how exactly are you growing out of a brick wall? Urban herbalists know exactly what I’m talking about. You see the little plant growing all alone out of the mortar halfway up a 3-story stone wall, honor its determination, and consider the plant spirit medicine it offers.
Walking along the bike path here in Somerville, they grow tall and wide with wild abandon, reaching for the sun. Wild Carrot, Evening Primrose, Sheep Sorrel, Yarrow, Solomon’s Seal, Yellow Dock, Sweet Leaf, Red Clover, Poke, Purslane, Comfrey, Dandelion, Japanese Knotweed, little Pineapple Weed, and yes, even Ragweed. Alteratives, lymphatics, astringents, bitters, nutritives, stimulants. Walking through Davis Square, look at the trees lining the street and you see Ginkgo leaves doing their thing, clearing toxins from the air. Walking along the grid of city streets crisscrossing each other through residential neighborhoods and busy thoroughfares, you notice plants for the urinary system, the liver, spine, nerves, digestion. They clear heat, dispel wind, dry dampness, moisten dryness, open pores. We notice the sheer size of enormous Burdock leaves and know that it’s working hard at this polluted soil, trying its damnedest to undo an era of leaded gasoline, industrial manufacturing, and such.
No, we can’t harvest here in the city; can’t use any of the plants growing in the native soil. But we can go to the local garden center, buy some organic soil, and tend our own little seedlings in areas sheltered from toxic urban air. My local café receives an overabundance of milk crates. Line them with natural landscaping fabric and some organic soil, and they’re perfect for square foot gardening because each is exactly one square foot. Don’t have a little yard? One of the pleasures of city porches is container gardening. Some people get really creative with this, using things like wooden pallets and old shoeholders.
And yes, you country bumpkins, sometimes we come up and steal your wild plants! We know where they live, and we come for them. (It would be a shame to waste Mother Nature’s gifts.) We trek up, perhaps for hours, and harvest carefully, choosing remote areas, culling consciously, and filling our baskets. (We steal your bugs, too.)
And what powerful medicine the urban herbalist can make.