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Awaken to Plants with Liz Neves

I am excited to have had the chance to chat with Liz Neves about plant medicine. Liz guided me to the Ashokan Center in 2020 when I was looking for places to connect with nature and the wild Hudson Valley.

Liz Neves is an herbalist, permaculturist, and energy healing practitioner living in Brooklyn, New York. Liz is the founder of Gathering Ground, a platform for herbal education, earth-based spirituality, and energy healing. She leads seasonal healing plant walks to introduce city-dwellers to the myriad of medicinal flora in the urban environment. Liz is the author of Northeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 111 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness (TimberPress). In 2008, Liz established Raganella Botanical Solutions, an all-natural, ethical body care company blending botanical and herbal remedies for health and wellness.

What would be a good introductory way to get my family intro herbs? Are herbs safe for children?
If you have a backyard, get outside and get curious. If there’s a local park you like to go to, do the same. Bring a field guide if it’s helpful. Find nature programs wherever you are and get out there. You can start small and simple and the kids will catch on very quickly. When I started Gathering Ground in 2013, the programs were geared toward families with young children. The kids who came to our programs still recall the plants we met and continue to have a connection with them. My own son, who’s now 11, loves to forage and collect Redbud flowers, Garlic Mustard, and Cleavers in the springtime. It really doesn’t take much to get young ones into plants, they seem naturally inclined to do so. Likely because they haven’t been conditioned out of their humanness yet!

There are many safe herbs for children. In the wild there’s Nettle, which we’ll mention in more detail below, Plantain (Plantago), Clover (Trifolium), Elder (Sambucus), just to name a few. On the flip side, it’s also really important to know plants that could be harmful, especially the poisonous plants of our region. Learn how to identify Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and other plants in the Apiaceae family (this group has some deadly and phototoxic ones that can be misidentified as edible/medicinal plants). Once you’ve ruled out those poisonous ones, wildcrafting is a very safe endeavor for the whole family.

What is wild-crafting?
Wildcrafting is foraging’s medicinal sibling. Essentially, wildcrafting is finding plants that grow of their own accord and harvesting them for healing purposes. There is a lot to consider when wildcrafting, and this all brings us into right relationship with the land and with life. For instance, it’s important to know which plants grow in abundance and which are considered at risk. You can check out the IUCN Redlist, USDA Plants Database, and United Plant Savers to learn more about that.

Some of the guidelines I follow for wildcrafting include knowing a plant really well before harvesting, and also knowing the land from where I’m harvesting. I take only what I need and share the surplus. And I always give back to the land with an offering, such as Tobacco, which is the traditional offering of the original people of this land, the Lenape.

Where can I go to learn more, or for resources about medicinal plants in our area?
There are many great herbal teachers in and around the Hudson Valley. Check out Justin Wexler (Wild Hudson Valley in Catskill), Alex Radoaca (Mindful Wilderness), and Zach Fisher (Vulpes Wild Arts).

Of course I’ll recommend my own book because it’s very relevant to your question! Northeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 111 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness (Timber Press) is one regional guide that helps you on your quest to find and work with medicinal plants in our region. You can also learn more about my offerings at gatheringground.nyc.

I’ve heard you say Nettle may be one of the best introductory plants for a budding herbalist to try. Could you explain why or a little of the nutritional benefits of Nettle?
Oh Nettle! Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a wonderful nourishing plant that is considered generally safe for most people to consume. Nettle crosses over into the food-as-medicine category. If there were a Stinging Nettle Venn diagram with medicine in one circle and food in the other, the two circles would pretty much entirely overlap. We can work with Nettle in many ways, but my favorites (in no particular order) are: as an herbal infusion (tea), an herbal vinegar, and as pesto. Nettle is mineral rich and contains a good amount of protein for a plant (when you eat it). It’s antihistaminic so it’s great to start drinking an infusion just before allergy season starts to shore up the body’s immune response to allergens. Spiritually, Nettle is strengthening to our constitution and helps us tune into our inner compass and find our true north. I’ve heard from other herbalists, “when in doubt, Nettle.” And I think there’s a lot to that statement. It’s a bit like a koan!

Why is it important that we connect with plants now more than ever?
I love this question because it has multiple answers that are interconnected. We’re at a critical point in the trajectory of life on Earth. We’re in the throes of so much change: A few of the colliding catastrophes we face are directly related to the plants, and many are not so obviously related, but are. Habitat loss, ecological degradation, mass extinction, climate chaos, social and environmental injustice, war – at the root of all this is relationship. Modern westernized culture has diverged from a path of connection and right relationship with our Mother. The plants clothe, house, feed, and heal us. They are essentially our parents. The commodification and manipulation of plants and the Earth on which they grow (as well as humans and all of life) has led us to this difficult impasse.

It’s our responsibility as humans to be aware of our connection and need for the Earth to be healthy. Not only on the physical level. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual health is dependent on the health of the Earth. It is our jobs as humans to take care. Feeding the Earth feeds us.

Another reason to turn to the plants at this time is to awaken to our senses and our ability to feel. Plants are great teachers for us in this way. I have long felt that apathy will be the death of us. Another job of ours to do at this time is to stop being afraid of feeling. There is so much pain and suffering, and it’s the default for us in these times to turn away from it. We numb out on media and consumerism, overwhelm our senses with synthetic fragrances, overindulge in things. Maybe sometimes it feels like too much to take responsibility and so we flood ourselves with other things. When I find myself heading in this direction — I know it’s time to either a) get creative and/or b) get outside and touch the Earth.

To be in full presence with the plants is to be in full awareness to our sensing – the five senses and beyond. We have so many ways of relating to and understanding the world around us that go beyond scent, eye-sight, etc. We remember this when we get out and connect with the plants. Then we start to remember many more things, like why we are here on Earth at this time.