I love and teach botany, but it hasn’t always been this way. Before attending Lyon’s herbal school as a pupil, I had never dreamt of studying botany, even though I had always loved plants, herbalism, gardening, and nature. It seemed to me a bit like “train spotting” – groups of people wearing anoraks huddled around a plant and using an old fashioned language to name it… no thank-you, not for me.
So when I found myself with a magnifying glass in one hand, plant key in the other, and wearing an anorak, I didn’t think this would be my favourite class. How wrong I was! Without trying, without even realizing it, I was a natural. I didn’t notice the fact that I was going much faster than the rest of the group until my botany teacher and mentor Rita mentioned it. What I’m trying to convey is that sometimes we have a natural affinity for something that we had never even thought of before. So due to Rita’s feedback and a sense of satisfaction in correctly keying in different plants, I quickly became a botany fanatic. Its okay, I am healed now and a certain equilibrium is in place, but at the beginning I breathed botany, ate botany, slept botany… you get the idea.
I am naturally someone who sees things globally and goes for a sensitive, energetic approach to a subject before anything else, and oddly enough botany is the opposite. Botany is the study of plants, and the botany that I am referring to in this article is the identification and classification of plants through the use of a specific key relative to the region being studied. It demands a very close and precise study of the sexual organs of the plants (the flower) with a magnifying glass, and also the leaves, stems, habitat, etc. A botanical language must be acquired in order to observe and then key in the correct information, but above all a certain stubbornness and sense of not wanting to be beaten is vital as there are often moments when, without this, you will be tempted to give up and go home.
At the beginning of my botanical path, the thrill and pleasure I felt at being able to name any plant through correct keying was enough to push me forward. This autonomy was fantastic; it meant that wherever I went in the world, I could correctly identify the plants arounds me without any help, provided I used the correct field guide… wow what freedom!!!
A certain number of years have passed, and I now regularly teach field botany to my students, and have time to reflect on the place and importance of botany within the field of herbalism. I personally believe that wherever we may be, town or countryside, it is important that as herbalists, we maintain an intimate relationship with nature and plants. In my opinion, we have a responsibility to know all the plants around us, not just the medicinal ones. Just as I take the time and effort to know my neighbours and integrate into the local community, so I should also take the time and effort to know the plants that live in the same environment as I do. Knowing a plant is a huge subject in itself, and covers a range of spectrums. Being able to name a plant and its botanical family is just a tiny element of this, but all the same an important one.
Simply naming a plant isn’t enough to truly know it, but does help when communicating with others, especially when using their Latin names. I am English and live in France, which means that I talk about plants with both English and French speakers. Using Latin names makes this possible because the names are the same for everyone; Latin plant names enable us to cross language barriers and still know which plant we are talking about. In France there are several plants with the same name depending on the region. For example ‘L’herbe de Saint Jean can refer to St-John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Yarrow (Achilleae Millefolium), Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) and probably others as well. Using the Latin names allows us to be precise and clear about the plant we are referring to.
France has a rich and varied flora. The herbal school where I teach stresses the importance of botanical identification for herbalists by making botany one of its major classes. One of the main reasons for this is to ensure safe plant identification. Students are taught the importance of correctly identifying a plant before harvesting and using it, which is highly important because using plants that were identified incorrectly can have severe consequences. There are many plants that can easily be confused with one another. For example Ransoms (Allium ursinum) and Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) both grow in woodland areas, and an inexperienced harvester could easily mistake one for the other, or if not careful, harvest the poisonous arum alongside the ransoms. Fools cicely or Poison parsley (Aethusa cynapium) is well named as this highly toxic plant can be found growing in gardens or vegetable patches, and can be mistaken for parsley to an undiscerning harvester. Such mistakes don’t happen when botany plays an important role in an herbalist’s practice because he or she will have a keen eye that is trained to look closely at plants and their features, and any unknown plant in his or her environment will already have been under the botanists scalpel, and identified with a magnifying glass and field guide.
Botany also helps us to see links and patterns between plants of the same botanical family. By learning to recognize each family’s specific criteria, we can quickly narrow down our keying. And knowing the main botanical families in one’s region will help us recognize certain characteristics of a plant at first glance. For example, many Apiaceae family plants contain furocoumarines that can be phototoxic and cause skin burns when harvesting on a sunny day; plants from this family also tend to have an action on the digestive system. And as mentioned above, beware with Aethusa cynapium as this family is home to several extremely toxic plants. So just recognizing a plant’s family can give you interesting and important information before going further and identifying the exact plant.
However, for me botany goes beyond all these practical points. As I mentioned, my nature is to approach things on an emotional or sensitive level, so a lot of my plant information is gleaned through feeling and intuition. Botany grounds me. By intimately knowing all the different parts of each flower, the colour of the stamens, the shape and position of the ovary, the number of styles, whether or not the calyx is hairy, and if the hairs have glands or are in a star shape, deepens and grounds my relationship with the plants around me and those I use. This information becomes part of my stored data about each plant; it is visual and related to the physical incarnation of the plant. What a delight when as an herb student, I discovered the little spots of colour going from yellow, to orange, to red on the petals of Saxifraga rotundifolia. These spots of colour are only visible with the aid of a magnifying glass, and I have since witnessed tears in the eyes of my students as they discover the hidden beauty of this plant. A beauty that is visible only when we look beyond the parts of the flower that we usually see.
I am not saying that herbalists should also be top-notch botanists as this is a huge field in itself. But herbalists should have a notion of botany, and at the least be able to use a key to identify the plants around them and know their Latin names. My eldest son is a botanist. He spends his time searching the countryside for rare ferns or other taxon’s, relays his findings to France’s botanical research centers, and uses a microscope to be sure of the sub-species. His next idea is to write a key for a certain groups of plants. This specification of botany is beyond me. I am happy to follow the classification that botanists propose in the field guides I use for identifying. I actually enjoy getting to know a field guide, and the way the author thinks for each approach has something of the author in it. However, making my brain work in such an organized fashion as to create my own key is another thing altogether, and absolutely not necessary for herbalists who, after being grounded by botany, can then go beyond the purely physical attributes of a plant and meet it on another level.
I must admit that my botanical grounding also serves me in other ways. When I describing the energetics of a plant, and working with students on a more subtle level, I may occasionally feel that I have gone too far, too quickly for some. At this point I come back down to pure, botanical, down to earth knowledge, and they are reassured that I am not mad. And gradually, slowly, we can start moving away from physical limitations once again.
Cathy has been working and living in rural France for the last 20 years. She obtained the herbalist diploma from Lyons school of Medicinal Plants where she now teaches botany field study, healing with plants and herbal gardening. Cathy is one of the founding members and coordinators of the new multi-language herbal network Herbalistes sans Frontières.