Crafting a Materia Medica: Creating Space

The green has really been popping these days, and its making me antsy! I’ve been waiting and waiting to get my hands in the earth and to see the fruits of my labors in the form of strong, flowering plants. I’m ecstatic knowing that time has finally come. Gardening surely has a way of teaching patience, for which I am grateful—no matter how dreary those dormant months can make me feel. Nevertheless, after having my nose in an herb book all winter, I’m ready to start applying that book knowledge out in the field.

That being said, it seems counter-intuitive to share about my latest endeavors. I’m putting together a binder full of herb and medicinal plant details for my own self-study. This practice is known as creating a materia medica. I first read about materia medicas on the Herbal Academy’s blog. Unfortunately, I was a month too late to sign up for their free course in how to put one together. But that shouldn’t deter anyone. I’m starting one for myself now-in the midst of planting season. Oh, what I would do with just one more hour each day!

A materia medica is not specific to herbalism, yet for my use of the term it simply means “healing materials.”(1) Many herb books from the past use this term in their titles. Plant after plant, it details as much information as the author can learn and collect. They often go over the history of the plant, the many names gifted to that plant over the years, its chemical constituents, how to identify it, and so on. It is a very in-depth and organized work.

Someone (like me) that has a natural curiosity about the wonders of the plants around them and around the world, might be interested in putting one of these materia medicas together for their own personal use. Taking the time to create such a collection requires true dedication to growing one’s plant knowledge. To become a member of the American Herbalists Guild (an organization with mission supporting clinical herbalism as a profession) one must have a working knowledge of 150 various plants. Creating your own materia medica would be a great way to begin down that road.

You can easily find all the information you need to complete the materia medica online or in books. Those places are great areas to start searching for more information. Yet, what they lack is the plant themselves. Spending time among the plants you are studying is the only way to forge a relationship with them. And that relationship is the base for any healing work.

So, to begin my studies I am collecting supplies and creating space. I need those herb books and online references. I need assistance in determining how to setup my organized studies. I need a field guide. I don’t want to get two or three herbs in and realize I missed something big. A little beforehand research will put me on the right track. But what I also need (more than any other component mentioned) is to set aside time to be with the plants.

I am a do-er. I like to be actively seeing my product evolve. And I can certainly have many tasks on my herbal studies checklist that requires me to be actively doing something. Yet, this sitting and being with the plants, studying their characteristics, and enjoying their presence is vital. It is the basis for all that stems from my desire to know more and more. To be able to share more and more. I must create a space that allows me to cultivate this relationship. I must take that time.

Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon I have a date with the plants. It’s a date that can’t be broken. I set aside this time to visit with what is available to me. Right now that is violets, the dandelions, and the plantain. And quite honestly those three alone should give me more than enough to contemplate this growing season. Those that know herbs well suggest even choosing just one herb to study in a years’ time. This is a process that shouldn’t be rushed. I want to know the plant inside and out. And I want this to be a lifelong work of art. I want to understand the root of each plant, not just the surface level. I want a true friend rather than a nice acquaintance.

Despite all the work that springtime brings, there really isn’t a better time to get started building my own materia medica than right now. As I fall into this thinking that there is so much to do, it is soothing to know the plants will be there calling me to sit a spell. To enjoy this space we share together. Like a child eagerly heading outside to play with friends, I take my notebook and pencils and settle in for bit. I’ll be able to learn directly from the plants as they pop up and offer what they have for us once again. And the best herbalists know that a more perfect teacher does not exist.

  1. This reference is taken directly from the Herbal Academy article titled What is a Materia Medica