Women and Plant Medicine: A Natural "Herstory"

A historical perspective on the role of women as healers
By Ellen Kamhi PHD, RN, AHN-BC

Women use herbs as they progress through cycles of life in every corner of the globe. Plants nourish, heal, protect, lift spirits, give solace, strengthen, provide joy, offer hope, and provide every conceivable system of support to both the “selves” and “cells” of women everywhere.

Energy healing, the interlacing of the human psyche, nature, and the subtle eminence that permeates all matter, has been used to balance and support healing since the dawn of history. Plants have traditionally been used both as medicine and good-luck amulets. For example, ancient warriors in both China and North America wore ginseng root around their necks for power and protection. Flower essence remedies, such as the Bach Remedies, effectively bring balance to human emotions and come from the essence of various plants.

No historian really knows the exact time when our ancestors first used herbs to heal themselves from sickness or injury. Archaeologists exploring a Neanderthal's gravesite in Iraq (formally known as Mesopotamia) discovered pollen from eight species of plants, which turned out to be more than 80,000 years old. Hemp seeds were also found at an ancient birth site from more than 10,000 years ago. Hemp (Cannabis sativa) was used for pain and relaxation from ancient times until it was outlawed in the US in the 1930s. Herbal medicine is as old as humanity itself. But how did all of the herbal knowledge co-evolve with humanity? How did people know which herbs to take and which ones were toxic?

The ancient people used many techniques to ascertain and develop their repertoire of medicinal plants. Presumably, trial and error played a major role in discovering medicines. This information was recorded and remembered, usually by the oldest and most experienced community members—a task often relegated to women.

It is well established that many species of animals are instinctively drawn to graze upon a particular plant to soothe their ills. Many of us have personally observed our cats and dogs, when feeling “under the weather,” eating grass to induce vomiting. Chimpanzees are known to eat certain species of plants only when they are ill with a particular malady. This information is taught to others and handed down through generations until a huge body of information is amassed on healing. Perhaps our primordial ancestors observed this in other animals and emulated this practice, known as “instinctual dowsing.”

Many shamans and healers with knowledge of the ancient ways report that the information was originally obtained through communication with the Divine, in a dream state, a vision, or during the shaman's communion with the spirit world. Others report that the creator left clues, hints, or a “holy signature” on the plant creations, a type of instruction manual indicating the plants’ medicinal value for humanity. Today, herbalists refer to this concept as the Doctrine of Signatures. Gingko biloba is a good example of a signature; both its leaves and a cross section of the fruit resemble a human brain. Scientific research has proven that gingko can help brain function.

History notes that women were the “guardians” of herbal knowledge, which at times caused them a great deal of duress. During the Middle Ages, it was the wise weed women and midwives who kept herbal traditions intact, passing them from generation to generation. Actually, one of the most famous woman healers of this era was granted sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a gifted herbalist who authored a treatise on healing entitled Liber Simplicis Medicine, where she discussed hundreds of botanical medicaments. Unfortunately, she, as well as millions of other women, was persecuted for this and actually burned alive at the stake as a “witch!”

The wise women’s knowledge of herbal remedies was often the only resource for poor people to get any kind of health care. However, these herbal healers’ practice was viewed as devil worship and political subversion, and they were accused of using supernatural powers. Despite the “witch hunts” of both medieval times and today, wise women traditions survive, and modern women everywhere can learn to incorporate the power of natural healing into their daily lives.