Discover rituals and reflections that unlock the mystical properties of four plants, for soul-soothing medicine and a smooth transition into a cooler, darker, quieter season.

In her introduction to The Illustrated Herbiary, herbalist and author Maia Toll writes, “When someone asks, ‘Do you think this herb will work for me?’ two different songs play through my mind. The first is the song of the chemicals, the notes science can see which clearly say this plant goes with that disease. The other song is more subtle; it’s the song of synchronicity and alignment, the deep sense of harmony and dialogue that happens when a person finds the right Medicine (capital M!) for them in that moment — something mystical, an elixir not only for the body for the soul as well.”

As we move into this transition season, a time when the veil between the spirit and corporeal worlds is thinner, we track the cooler days, the diminishing light, and a turning inward — both for ourselves and for the trees and plants that are preparing to drop their leaves and send their energies into their earth-bound roots.

What forces might we find in the world of botanical Medicine that can ease our arrival into autumn? Here are four plants whose mystical powers embody this time of change, that are potent guides in the process of quieting, comforting, and nourishing us through the darker months, of reconnecting with what grounds us. Try one of these meditations or a rituals as you settle into fall.

Hawthorn: Heart’s Home

drawing of hawthorn bush surrounded by mountains, plains, water, and sun

Illustration © Kate O’Hara, excerpted from The Illustrated Herbiary

Hawthorn remembers a time when local gods watched over knolls and wells, frolicking and making mischief in her branches. She remembers her limbs hung with strands of beads glittering in the sun and scraps of fabric fluttering in the wind like prayer flags: offerings to the land itself and to the gods who kept alive the vital conduit between spirit and matter. Those days are mostly past, but Hawthorn holds the portals open, knowing these inner connections provide true nourishment to keep the heart whole. If Hawthorn appears for you, strengthen your heart and guard it from homesickness by tending the connections between the spirit realms and material world.

A Ritual for Hawthorn: Anchoring the Land

Many landscapes around the globe lost their genus loci — spirit of place — when natural landmarks were removed to make way for roads, buildings, and other human endeavors. You can reanimate the genus loci in the landscapes you call home with a simple visualization; do it as often as you feel called.

Begin by either walking or imagining the boundaries of your space, whether you define it as your land, your neighborhood, your house, or the contours of your fifth-floor apartment. When you have a clear idea of the breadth of space you’re anchoring, identify the umbilicus — the physical and energetic center — of that space. From this spot, imagine a golden cord dropping into the earth, sinking until it roots itself in the molten core at the earth’s center. Feel the vibrancy, the “aliveness,” of this connection.

Next, send a silver cord from the same central point up to the heavens, allowing the energies of moonlight and starshine to infuse your space with light and peace.

Your space is now anchored to earth and sky, a part of the larger whole.

Elderberry: Cyclicality

drawing of elderberry branches through the seasons with flowers berries and icicles

Illustration © Kate O’Hara, excerpted from The Illustrated Herbiary

Elderberry traditionally lives at the center of the garden, telling stories of winters past and springs yet to come. Though often scraggly and a questionable centerpiece, her three faces embody the Goddess: Maiden in the spring, abundant with white petals; Mother in the summer, when wine-red berries adorn her branches; and Crone in autumn, when her leaves are falling away (she looks quite dead in winter — all bare branches and hollow bones). Elderberry’s yearly evolution teaches you to dance with the closely twined cycles of life, death, and rebirth Wherever you are in your life, she reminds you that acceptance of life’s cyclicality is the key to earning your spot at the garden’s center.

A Reflection for Elderberry: The Upward-Climbing Spiral

Our evolution is an upward-climbing spiral: we repeat lessons, gaining wisdom as we go. But if hop from thing to thing, never repeating, declaring things done after one go-round, we deny ourselves this growth, this ability to evolve into the goddess at the center of the garden.

Do you take the time to dive deep, allowing cycles of repetition to enhance your understanding?

Do you allow new knowledge to take root in your hands and your heart through practice, or do you hold knowledge only in your head (denying yourself true learning and wisdom)?

Marshmallow: A Spoonful of Sugar

drawing of a cake with marshmallow flowers as decoration

illustration © Kate O’Hara, excerpted from The Illustrated Herbiary

There’s nothing Marshmallow would love more than to spend time in your kitchen. She’ll lean over your shoulder offering suggestions for adorning your salads and thickening your soups. There’s no reason for foul-tasting anything, including Medicine! declares the Grande Dame of dessert. She should know, having been at it since around 2000 B.C.E. (Egypt, dear, she’ll tell you, a lovely place. I fed pharaohs and gods.) Marshmallow’s not one to dwell in the past; she takes too much joy in bringing ease to the present. And there’s much work to do: Digestion these days! she tsks as she sets about creating her latest confection. Call on Marshmallow when you need to soften and rediscover sweetness.

A Ritual for Marshmallow: Conscious Cookery

Any act can be ritual if done with intention. Marshmallow remembers the days when baking and medicine making weren’t far removed from each other. In honor of her long history in the kitchen, create a dish that’s deliciously nourishing. As you chop and blend, focus on how this food will nurture those who eat it. Allow yourself to picture the vibrancy that will come with each delectable bite.

St. John’s Wort: Light in the Darkness

drawing of sun in a cage with st. john's wort plant growing behind it and snowflakes in corners

Illustration © Kate O’Hara, excerpted from The Illustrated Herbiary

Truth? St. John’s Wort is scraggly and scrappy, completely lacking the charisma one would expect from an herb reputed to tame depression in a single bound. But that’s her beauty — she’s a magician and a thief, not the belle of the ball. She knows how to steal the heat from summer’s solstice sun, hold it in her flowers, and make it last all winter long. This is her greatest trick: bringing light and warmth to your darkness by helping to re-create the electric leap of synapses firing and energy moving along. Call on St. John’s Wort when you need a sip of sunshine so you can find your light in the darkness.

A Reflection for St. John’s Wort: Winter Medicine

Modern culture demands we be our same selves day in and out, summer and winter. But our bodies know otherwise. Our bodies remember a time when winter was for staying close to the hearth fires. St. John’s Wort is a solstice plant, blooming near the summer solstice and perfect Medicine for the winter.

What Medicine do you need in the winter months?

How do you keep the sun in your spirit when the nights are long?

Plant text excerpted from The Illustrated Herbiary © 2018 by Maia Toll. Illustrations © Kate O’Hara. All rights reserved.

Maia Toll

Maia Toll is the author of The Wild Wisdom series, including The Illustrated Herbiary, and The Night School. After pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan… See Bio

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The Illustrated Herbiary

by Maia Toll and Kate O'Hara

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