Weeds can help us belong to a place

A version of this was published in the CSPA Quarterly, 2010:


It’s almost a compulsion I have to seek out identifiable plants that grow around me as I walk, whether it be in the woods or in thecity. In San Francsico, I’ve been roaming my neighborhood suprised to see a surplus of medicinal herbs growing between the cracks of the city. As an herbalist, I’ve long been inspired by what Paracelsus called the “Doctrine of Signatures,” that is, the principle that a plant’s behavior, appearance, and the conditions in which it grows will often indicate its medicinal properties and how it will operate on the human body. I keep wondering, as I encounter my neighborhood weeds, if these herbs would be particularly suited to the ailments my neighbors might have, particularly as they relate to the neighborhood, or city living.

I’ve taken to thickening my psychogeographic process. There are three ways in which I am thickening the relationship between neighborhood and weeds, to raise awareness and hopefully to extend the definition of neighborhood to include living things besides just humans… I am making handmade stencils to tag the medicinal plants I find growing. I take a photograph of a plant, trace the photograph and then cut it out making a tag that is then sprayed beside the plant I originally took a photograph of. I am also developing a digital map, marking where I find various plants, as well as some initial notes toward their growing conditions. Finally, since most of these herbs are growing in areas of significant foot traffic, dog activity, and potential drunken elimination practices, rather than collecting these particular herbs to make medicine with, I am collecting the seeds of these plants, with the idea that the plants grown from these seeds will hold the same genetic information and patterns about the location their parents grew in. I have it in mind to eventually return these plants near to their original parent plants and/ or to offer up the medicine in tea or tincture form to people who spend a lot of time in their close proximity.

This project is a practice of re-searching & detournement, and of information exchange on the plant, individual and community level. It is research in that I am re-searching the landscape; with a revived persepctive on what is underfoot, the unknown weed becomes a familiar ally. In this process there is a shift from notions of public and private space in this urban environment, to one of belonging and sustainability. As a beginning study of possible patterns of health and imbalance in the neighborhood, and the inherent links to the weeds in the neighborhood’s proximity, we become more imbricated in place.

Here are a couple of common herbs bursting the cement corset, where i’ve found then, and some of their medicinal properties.

stencilChickweed (Stellaria media): Susun Weed has an extensive section on chickweed in her Wise Woman Herbal; I work from this primarily in my summary here: Chickweed can be used both internally and externally for a range of complaints and conditions. It is exceptionally nourishing; it can be added to salads for a tasty boost in vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, chlorophyll, phosporous…. The list goes on. Internally as a tea or as a tincture (fresh tincture is best), chickweed can act as a cooling force, as a diuretic, and as a demulcent. As a cooling force, Chickweed helps with irritated bladders and infections, with fevers, inflammations throughout the body and can help to eliminate tumours and cysts. Chickweed is good for the liver and its circulation. It is good for weight loss, for water retention, constipation, ulcers, and cancer. Weed recommends it for those recovering from appendicitis and peritonisis and silimar conditions. Externally, Chickweed can be used as a poultice to remove infectious materials from wounds, to draw out foreign materials like venom, insect bites, rashes, sores…. again, the list goes on and on. You can bathe in chickweed too. Part of Chickweed’s success may come from its containing steroidal saponins, which increase the permeability of membranes. Susun Weed oberserves that by “creating permeability chickweed encourages the shifting boundaries at all levels, from cellular to cosmic.” No wonder during the cool months of the year in San Francisco it can bust on through the cement with ease, and no wonder I always seem to catch it working along the edge of a fence!

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris): Shepherd’s Purse is thought to be one of the most common herbs found on the planet. It has leaves that are frequently eaten when they first develop in early to mid – spring. Shepherd’s Purse is known for it’s astringency, acting especially well on the uterus. In this way, it is very good for chronic menorrhagia, for stopping chronic uterine bleeding, especially where the bleeding is colorless but frequent and long. Shepherd’s Purse is also known to be useful to stop other kinds of bleeding, both internal and external. Interestingly, I have read that this herb is good for simple amenorrhoeia, the opposite condition of menorrhargia, and can be used as a diuretic. Seems Shepherd’s Purse has the ability to stabilize flows, either by increasing them or ceasing them, depending on what the specific body requires. It is also good for diarrhea and dysentry.  Shepherd’s Purse grows in lots of sidewalk cracks, usually in clusters of more than one, frequently in a row. Right now it is going to seed everywhere. I’ve got to get outside and collect some!