Power of Plants: Staying Well During COVID-19

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Spending time with plants, avoiding sugar, eating fermented foods, applying pressure points—these are all tried and true tactics for promoting good health. In this moment of pandemic, we wondered how herbalists and healers were faring and what they had to teach us. BorderLore editor Kimi Eisele spoke to four practitioners of herbal medicine and foods in Phoenix, Marana, Tucson, and Bisbee. Here are their tips.

Hang Out with Plants & Apply Pressure Points
Amanda Brown: Owner, Tucson Herb Store
Tucson, AZ

We’re selling out of everything. People are stockpiling. We hardly have what we need. It’s a tough place to be in. We are definitely putting pressure on people to not have more than 2 ounces of anything. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I think a lot about when I opened, on a little side street, and people were like, What the hell is this? It felt like a joke. I’ve trudged through many years of being there, now seeing that people understand this medicine can help you. It’s become more commonplace. But I wonder about the sustainability of suddenly having large numbers of people turn to plants and herbs to boost their immunity. I just want to remind people that there are other more sustainable ways to keep our immune systems strong and healthy.

Amanda Brown of Tucson Herb Store, a person with medium light skin, a white shirt, jean shorts, a large straw hat, and sunglasses is holding a bundle of red herbs.
Amanda Brown of Tucson Herb Store

I definitely take herbs, but my medicine these days is simply being with the plants. Going on a hike, noticing the plants, identifying them, sitting with the plants you love. There are so many ways to connect beyond just taking herbal medicine. I’m an artist, first and foremost. I offer a watercolor class, where people just pick a local plant, sit and paint it. I talk about medicinal values of that plant and people share experiences about healing. It’s a sweet way to be with the plant. To keep our nervous system calm, inducing that parasympathetic rest and digest, walks and hikes are key. Any way you can spend time with plants will put you in parasympathetic space. The more you read news, the more cortisol you’ll create, the more stress.

One of the most important things is not eating sugar. I love my once a day one-quarter of a chocolate bar, but if we’re thinking of things that cause inflammation tie up our immune system, if our body is trying to reduce inflammation and detox, not eating sugar is going to be even more powerful than taking an herb. Why add to the body when you can take away? It’s hard to stress that enough.

A shot inside the Tucson Herb Store
Tucson Herb Store

I’m trained in Chinese medicine and the idea of moving your chi is also really helpful. Chi gets stuck when we’re sitting and ruminating. That’s terrible for the immune system. So you can use pressure points to move energy in the body. They are free and it’s a form of self-care. Between your thumb and pointer finger is Large Intestine #4. You can rub or massage there. On your wrist and inner arm is Pericardium #6. Energetically and emotionally, we probably have a lot of accumulated undigested experience. Massaging or pressing this point will help us digest food, move energy. It’s the inner gate of the heart. Stomach #36 is on the side of your leg, on the right under your knee. This is the best point for everything on the body. It helps us to build blood and chi to keep strong, so our immune systems and defensive chi are strong. When I travel, I’ll get a little bead or bean and put it on with a band-aid, like a pressure point stimulator.

There are a few abundant herbs you can use. One of my employees, Ash Ritter of Black Sage Botanicals, who is a perfect blend of science and heart, recommends keeping a pot of herbs on the stove. Rosemary is so abundant here, so you can snip some and pot it in a pot of water and slow cook it to release the volatile oils, which are great for the lungs. Rosemary is antibacterial, and I know this is a virus, but it helps to keep air purified. You can also drink a cup of rosemary tea, in moderation, which is good for lungs.

Walk in the Desert & Avoid White Flour
Felipe Molina: Yaqui/Yoeme oral historian & educator
Marana, AZ

I’m telling people not to eat white flour, which is according to our elders who ate more corn for tortillas. My neighbor, we call him Uncle, says white flour isn’t good because it produces a lot of mucus, which affects your chest and gives you hard time breathing. When I was a teenager he told me that. I was very sick. From that point on I stopped eating white flour. Because eating it tore me apart, it would weaken me. That was one thing I learned from my elders because they grew up on corn, which is much better than white flour. I’ve been telling all my family to do that.

Felipe Molina
Felipe Molina. Photo by Steven Meckler

We’re so used to donuts, bagels, tortillas.

When you google “coronavirus diet,” they will probably say not to eat too much white flour or sugar. They both cause a lot of inflammation.

Our elders lived into their 100s. My great aunt lived to be 108. My neighbor across the street lived to 114. She had a cane, but she could walk to my house and talk to me. They ate a lot of mesquite pods, mesquite meal. She was too old to grind it into flour. She outlived most of her grandchildren. She was like a traditional healer.

Our elders this time of year would have greens from the desert after the winter rains. After summer rains, the amaranth comes. Lambs’ quarters used to grow a lot in Marana, but places where it once grew are no longer there because of development. You can also buy greens at the store. Another food we eat a lot of are beans, tepary and pinto beans. If I want to eat something from the desert, I’ll go look for hackberries. Those are delicious. I take my students to try those foods, along with barrel cactus fruits.

What’s also good is garlic. I’ve eaten garlic every morning since I was young. I used to eat it at dinner time. My grandmother would use it with onions every day.

I walk sometimes in the desert in the evening when it’s not too hot. It’s good to walk around in the open air and sunlight, to get your vitamin D.

Nourish the Gut with Fermented Foods
Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz: Owner, Kitchen Curandera
Phoenix, AZ

My focus is on food as medicine. In the past, I’ve focused on helping people decolonize their diet, bringing in ancestral foods. Many of us Mexican Americans, we didn’t even really know what our food was. We just thought it was flour tortilla burritos or rice. But it’s not about going back to 1491. It’s important to acknowledge that we have all these foods around us that our ancestors used.

Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, a person with light medium skin tone, salt and pepper hair in two braids, wears all white and holds a plate of nopal pads.
Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz; photo by Nicky Hedayatzadeh

But I’ve also studied Ayurvedic medicine and cooking in Italy and Spain. A lot of the Mediterranean diet is similar to an ancestral Mexican diet. Eating natural foods, whole foods, foods from garden. I don’t want people to think you only have to eat deer meat. It’s wonderful if you can do that, but I know that’s not realistic.

A lot of people see eating healthy as being a white person thing or a rich person thing. In my workshops sometimes we’d go on a field trip to the grocery store. One thing I noticed is that people would buy Russet potatoes, bananas, a lot of non-colorful foods, a lot of high carb foods. People were intimidated by other foods. They’d say, “I don’t know how to make spaghetti squash.” These were low-income communities who didn’t have computers or access to internet, so they couldn’t just google how to bake a spaghetti squash. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to learn, but they didn’t have the resources, or they felt embarrassed. I’d say, “Hey, squash is our food too! So is pumpkin. And, you can cook it in other ways besides with sugar inside a sweet empanada.” It’s about removing the barriers. Everything from a belief system, to lack of resources, to what’s available in a food desert, to stubbornness.

Foods like white flour and cheese, we think of as traditional foods now because they’re woven into our Southwest history, especially in Southern Arizona. We hear about all of these food-related illnesses. People will say: My dad has diabetes, my mom has high blood pressure, and on and on. We’re always hearing that it runs in our family. I ask, “When did this start running in our families? When did white flour and cheese become our traditional food?”

Right now, so many people are eating all of these shelf-stable foods. Potatoes, pasta, rice, more pasta—because they’re inexpensive and not going to spoil. But people are just going to be loaded up on flour and carbs. Many of us aren’t going to the gym or walking. So, it’s going to take a toll on your gut. It’s well researched that our gut is our second brain. I actually think the gut is our first brain, and our real brain is second.

One of the best things to eat right now are vegetables, fresh herbs, and fermented foods to help with digestion and help keep the gut biome healthy. That’s where your immune system begins. People will say, “I don’t want to go back to the store. I don’t have fresh herbs.” I say, go find a fresh rosemary shrub outside. Chop it up put it on whatever you’re making. Parsley, oregano, fresh ginger. Eat the zest of a good unsprayed organic lemon.

Sauerkraut is one thing you can make at home. It’s easy and super cheap. Just salt, water, and cabbage. There’s a recipe on my website for Salvadorean Curtido, a fermented condiment. We should all be eating fermented foods. Mexican and Indigenous people of this region all ate fermented foods. Fermented cactus fruit or tepache, which is a fermented pineapple. We knew and we still know that it’s good for our gut, but we tend to forget during these times.

However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle isn’t about restricting yourself from things that bring you happiness. It’s also important to nourish our emotional side, so our stress level doesn’t go higher. I like making banana bread, with butter and eggs and sugar. It’s warming and comforting.

Create a Relationship with Flowers
Mimi Kamp: Essence of the Desert
Bisbee, AZ

We need to remember fully who we are, feel our bodies inside, sense the force of life pulsing in our cells, that warmth and movement—and to call in our allies, those other parts of us, our sometimes invisible habitat and community, the plants, the animals, the storms, and the mountains that have over and over stirred our passions.  Call them in to feel again and remember the power and willingness that they lend to us.  Trust their brilliant survival wisdom, allow their capacity to see beyond how we see our personal limitations. With plant essences we can, even in confinement, experience the healing in nature.  No matter where we are we can have it in our pocket, to touch and remember.

Mimi Kamp, an elder with grayed hair, blue eyes, smiles looking away from the camera.
Mimi Kamp

I can’t just give a person a little bottle of essence and say, “Oh this will help you.” I want them to make the experience theirs, to sit and meditate a bit with it and get the felt sense of shifting into a slightly different consciousness.  Once you can begin to feel that plant as a friend or a teacher, or however you might sense it, you start to have more trust—in yourself and in the mysterious energy in the bottle.  You’re not just taking medicine in an abstract way and powerlessly waiting for results, you are renewing your relationship with yourself, and creating one with a being that works in the realm of balance. Not condemning your discomforts but teaching you how to find an internal balance between your justified fears and the power of your love and bliss. Plants teach us how to hold and manage both.  They can allow us to unblock life-affirming parts of ourselves that have been lost in the hectic pace, or suppressed by old traumas or coping habits. 

Brittlebush, small yellow flowers.
Brittlebush; photo by Kimi Eisele

What is a flower essence?  It’s the vibrational energy of a plant carried in water. There is a tendency for flower essence companies to see the plant as an entity separate from its habitat, but it never is. Many landforms and winds and other plants in the botanical community are in that bowl of water, sometimes insects, sometimes animals drink from it.

An important part of the process is in asking the plant, or the flower, which is often the most communicative part of the plant, to come with you, asking if it will participate in this co-creation of magical medicine or whatever you want to call it, asking it to come into the water so that you may bring its healing to a friend or a client, or feel it again when you are far away. This asking is an acknowledgment that the plant is the master, and you merely the seeker.

Modern essence traditions have involved picking and floating flowers on the surface of the water.  The Apache grandmother of a friend of mine was a ‘flower woman’ who steeped flowers in water for people with emotional disturbances. When I started working with cacti, I felt that picking was a terrible butchery. I thought “That’s not right,” so began to not pick the flowers at all, but set the bowl near the plant.  Since I really love the physical as well as the ethereal, I will often lift the bowl up and touch a flower or flowers to the water, then set it down near the base of the plant. If the plant has an arm bending down to the ground with blossoms on it, I can allow those living flowers to be touching the water for the moments or hours of the imprinting process.

We have to open to our allies right now. Saguaro spoke to me over 40 years ago about the Endtimes.  The day the pandemic news came out fully, I thought, “I need to give everyone an essence of Saguaro,” an essence of fortitude and deep heart.

Yerba Mansa is also coming in strongly.  With Mansa I feel very grounded, whole and protected.  It’s a big healing medicine—healing in the energetic realms as well as in the mucous membranes of the body.  There’s a lot of darkness right now and Yerba Mansa knows something about dispelling the darkness.  Sitting with it, I had the felt sense of my body and being in touch with the physicality of all my cells, which is so helpful when truly healing versus being in the mind.

Yerba Mansa grows in swampy areas, often on the edges of rivers.  In Spanish, mansa means tame or quiet.  The river is running with a current, and there are spots where the water goes off to the side, it’s slower and stagnant there.  That’s the mansa of the river.  As a medicine it’s about cleaning the polluted water.  Folks plant it in gray water. It does the same thing in the body, it clears the congestion or stagnation or toxicity that hangs out around the cells.  Another aspect of Yerba Mansa—I’m thinking of the essences or sitting in a colony of Mansa—is that it allows us to activate or mobilize our own energetic capacity to heal our emotional as well as physical pains, our souls—which has a lot to do with love—and to extend that healing care to others.  I have given it to practitioners for use between clients to help clear lingering darkness.

A magenta cactus bloom.
Photo courtesy of Mimi Kamp

Just pay attention.  Plants and people evolved together.  There is a constant exchange going on.  Did you ever get really hurt by someone and go stomping out into the hills and finally sit under a tree or by a bush?  You get up and go home and you’re better.  Which tree you sat under was probably not random.  We have this heritage of innate connection.  What you get drawn to in nature is not an accident, it has a vibration that matches what is going on inside you.  It’s medicine for you.  You sit beside someone you want to get to know.  Mostly it’s listening.

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