I’m standing in a circle right inside Prospect Park with six other women, my eyes are closed, and I’m feeling my electromagnetic connection to the nature around me. It’s a Friday and this is not how I usually start my day. This morning I’m on a “Healing Plant Walk” through the park with Liz Neves, herbalist and founder of Gathering Ground.
While pulling plants from city parks is technically illegal (most likely because the city doesn’t want to be responsible for its plants inadvertently poisoning someone), the NYC foraging community believes in learning about and protecting plants, rather than destroying them.
“Just take what you need—which is not that much,” says Neves, as she runs her hands across the dry sticks of elder. In fact, on this walk, we don’t take anything except a nibble of garlic mustard.
First, we meet two trees: one a wise, stoic oak tree and the other a playful, welcoming linden tree. We are given time to hug and touch the tree to find out what their personalities were like before we learn their medicinal uses. (Yes, really.) Next, we wander with Neves a bit deeper into the park, following the autumnal blooms.
“Have you met our friend over here?” she asked as she pointed out the poison ivy, which looks very different in the fall than in the heydey of summer. The three-leaves-on-a-stem rule may allow us to tell the plant apart, but where it grows also helps demarcate boundaries and protect the wild things beyond it.
Where I might see shrubbery, Neves finds spicebush, pokeweed and black raspberry. Each plant has a medicinal property and a good forager knows them intimately. Linden is used to sooth; allspice is warming for the flu and colds, goldenrod can help reduce allergic symptoms, while mugwort brings flow to every part of the body. I had never noticed that some leaves have a lighter underside, which according to Neves signals their connection to the moon and are therefore connected medicinally to dreams and flow. We learn that “bear medicine”—often derived from roots that are brown and wooly in appearance, like burdock and licorice—is deeply nourishing and will change you slowly over time. We stop and pet the fuzzy insides of a young mullein plant which feels like the soft spot on a baby’s head and compare it to the long dry stalks it will one day grow into.
The walk is sprinkled with herbal remedy recipes and interesting details, like the fact that that Abe Lincoln’s mother died from milk sickness, after cows ate the poisonous white snakeroot which contaminated their milk. Or that burdock root burrs were the inspiration for velcro. Many of the women were taking detailed notes for their own herbal research while others were enjoying the time in nature, crunching leaves, on a gorgeous autumnal day.
Each walk is different, depending on what is in season and how the plants have changed, but they all end with a meditation and a thermos of tea on a Pendleton picnic blanket. On ours, we drank elderflower to help ward off seasonal colds. The sun was smiling and the friendly trees waved goodbye as we left the park, back towards our office buildings, apartments and computers.
Given how much time we spend online and indoors, time spent in nature is now considered a luxury, instead of a necessity. The trees of our city are filtering our air, and the plants growing in the cracks of the sidewalks can heal us, if only we could slow down to learn about them. Today’s urban foragers are leading the way like modern medicine women, forcing us to swallow a dose of nature for our own good.
Healing Plant Walk meets every other Friday from 10 am-12 pm at MINKA, rain or shine. The last walk of this year is October 25th, 2019. $20-$40 sliding scale. Sign up here and follow Gathering Ground for future walks.
If you are interested in diving deeper into herbal medicine, Liz Neves also teaches an 8-month hands-on training for crafting your own apothecary. She is also the author of the upcoming book, Northeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Gather, and Use 111 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness, due out by Timber Press in May 2020.