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Leonurus cardiaca, known as motherwort, is an herbaceous perennial plant in the mint family, Lamiaceae. Other common names include throw-wort, lion's ear, and lion's tail. (Submitted photo)

The Briar Patch | Mothering motherwort

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This bitter earth
Well, what a fruit it bears
What good is love
Mm, mm, that no one shares?

And if my life is like the dust
Ooh, that hides the glow of a rose
What good am I?
Heaven only knows

Lord, this bitter earth
Yes, can be so cold
Today, you’re young
Too soon, you’re old

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But while a voice within me cries
I’m sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Ooh, may not, oh, be so bitter after all     
—Dinah Washington, blues singer

One of the beautiful aspects of growing medicinal herbs is the honor of communal engagement with plant energy with potent healing properties. Through the herb garden I steward, I am grateful to deepen my experience with these powerful plants on a regular basis, at all stages of their growth cycle. Some of us are usually more aware of plants during the portion of their life when they are at their most pristine, at their most insistent to be seen. I also find myself wanting the plants to stay suspended in time, when they are at their most beautiful.

But lately, I’ve been pondering the life cycle of plants, and the symbolic lessons they impart to me, a menopausal woman with no children, at times feeling less than physically pristine, and entering into the realm of birth work. I feel a calling to assist doulas as a licensed massage therapist doing prenatal massage with their clients. I am an African American woman all too familiar with the abysmal and preventable rates of Black infant and maternal mortality in this country that occur regardless of economic status or education. These deaths, occurring  on average at three and four times the rate for white women, often happen in the same hospital rooms that white women give birth in.

I too, experienced first-hand, near death at the hands of a medical system dismissive of my medical crisis, of a double pulmonary embolism in my early 30s, my pain and inability to take a breath disregarded by my doctor until I found myself in the ER with Intermittent Pneumatic Compression, or IPC, sleeves wrapped around my extremities at the start of a 10-day hospital stay on oxygen and heavy pain killers, followed by a month off work and a 10-month adventure avoiding green vegetables and getting weekly blood draws to measure my INR — blood thinner — levels to make sure my blood wasn’t  too thin or too thick. Too thin means excessive internal bleeding. Too thick means potential clotting.

The culprit was on the preventative side of reproduction — birth control via the NuvaRing. To this day, I believe the risks about hormonal birth control are grossly understated.

Years later, my body still feels the injury, especially when the air quality isn’t great, like today, when smoke resulting from drought-stricken lands, hundreds of miles north in Canada, resulted in wildfires that are producing a massive amount of smoke drifting southward to Ohio. My lungs carry the trauma — maybe it’s the residual phantom pain, but on days like today, I still remember what it feels like to grab every breath out of desperation, all while feeling like I was being stabbed in the rib cage with every razor-sharp, pleuritic-lining-crackling-like-potato-chips intake of breath.

Today, I even wonder if I am hearing the outcry of the distressed trees all the way in Canada. “I can’t breathe” takes on many forms of oppression, I guess. I’m particularly sensitive to the destruction of precious plants and trees.

Working in partnership with plants has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.  One of the things I’ve come to understand over time is that sometimes our spirit understands what we need before it hits our consciousness. This year, I planted Leonurus cardiaca, or motherwort, for the first time. Motherwort is a bitter tasting herb in the mint family, but it truly lives up to her name — protector of the female reproductive system at all stages, including menopause, and soothing to a body enduring large amounts of stress, despite its bitter taste. Motherwort’s botanical name, Leonurus cardiaca is equally compelling with its lionhearted courage strengthening and fortifying the heart, including those enduring heart-breaking life events.

This spring, the inspiration to grow motherwort came through a dear herbalist friend — at a time in which I am cajoling myself through a life phase that feels far less pristine than anticipated. You see, I feel sucker punched by menopause. Why is there so little conversation about it among women? Where did this extra belly fat come from? Why are my joints hurting? Sleep? Where did it go?

My friend pointed to the motherwort growing in her garden. “Feel the leaves,” she said.

You see, motherwort is most powerful towards the end of its growing cycle, but is a plant that starts out with leaves so soft you can rub them on your skin. You can even ingest them — just remember they do remain bitter. But its medicine is most powerful toward the end of its growing cycle when it produces beautiful pinkish purple flowers along its stem that are protected by prickly leaves once baby soft, now hardened. It is a plant that is both tough and gorgeous when it matures. It both nurtures and protects.

As a Gen- Xer closer to the crone energy phase of my life, I take this lesson to heart.

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One Response to “The Briar Patch | Mothering motherwort”

  1. BabaYaga says:

    Thank you for this beautiful writing and sharing some of your story. You are fortunate to have found a passion to pursue as a herbalist. It is a gift to have a passion. The motherwort sounds a little like the catnip that comes up on its own in our abandoned greenhouse. As far as the medical system, well, probably many can identify with trauma encountered on that front. (I know I sure as F* can.) Anyway, “Thank you!” Cheryl Durgans. You are an insightful, brave, knowledgeable woman with much to share. If that is what it means to be a “Crone” where is the line to sign up?

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