When I first started my academic training in herbal medicine, I was working in palliative care and it was the first time I cared for a woman dying of breast cancer. My heart continually ached. The physical pain of the woman, the emotional pain of her family and friends, the cancer’s hunger that devoured her breasts, spine and brain, made me feel hopeless, vulnerable and scared. During this time, I was writing 250 plant monographs. A monograph describes the hows, whys and what’s of a plant’s medicinal uses.
It was a spring morning, when I wrote Viola odorata’s monograph, noting that a tea of the flowers, as well as a poultice, was a traditional remedy for breast cancer. The image of the flowers overlaying the ulcers on the woman’s breasts appealed to me. While at the same time, the idea violets to ease this cancer seemed quaint and irrational.
That afternoon, my lab, Gracie, dragged me from my studies and took me out to the field that grew wild. The spring sun was warm on my skin. Last years tall brown grasses were still standing, the green of this year’s plants were poking up through the matte that covered the earth. Where shadows
lingered all day, the ground was still cold and moist. My mind, as it often did in quiet moments, turned to the woman who I cared for. Her pain was visceral. I sat on the cool earth. It was then that the violets showed themselves, reaching for the for the warmth of sun through last year’s matted dead undergrowth. Wild violets unabashedly celebrated spring. They were the harmony of strength and fragility, boldness and vulnerability, sweetness and determination. The violets offered up a gentle scent. Their presence opened the door to the ache I guarded in my heart. Joy leapt in. It was then that I realized plant medicine was more than chemicals, more than teas and tinctures, formulas, and traditions. Plant medicine is about the rich relationship between humans and plants. It’s about a relationship as old as humanity. Plant medicine is about life. The next day, I took her African violets. She loved them. The violets certainly did not cure the cancer. They did however, for a moment, make her life bearable.