Thursday, August 8, 2013

Plant Spirit Lessons with Pokeweed

This giant pokeweed appeared on the back north-facing side of my house last summer.
Over the winter there was a leak in the water main coming into the house that was flooding the basement. The backyard had to be dug up to get to the leak. As of now, one summer later, not much has grown back except for the pokweed, bigger and bolder than ever!

An herbalist friend of mine told me once that whenever a plant shows up in the vicinity of your dwelling place it is most likely there because you need it, so when the pokeweed showed up last year I took note. I did know that pokeweed shoots and leaves are edible in spring, although like milkweed they need to be boiled at least twice. Not being a fan of boiled, mushed greens, I've never tried pokeweed. I did eat some berries once, thinking they were sumac. They were horrendous and I spat most of them out which is a good thing since apparently they can cause severe digestive upset. 

This year when the plant reappeared after the backhoe did its best to eradicate it, I resolved to do some research about the medicinal qualities of pokeweed on both physical and spiritual levels. My intuition, combined with my brief taste of the berries told me this was a powerful, intense medicine. Pokeweed has magenta stalks and when the berries are ripe they are also magenta. The color is fierce and startling. To be honest, I was a little afraid when I saw this plant last year in my yard, and even more unsettled when it came back this year after the job the backhoe did on the rest of the vegetation. A friend told me he has rubbed pokeweed on skin cancers on his face to burn them away. (and that it worked.) In other words, this is no soft, velvety mullein good for soothing sore throats. Pokeweed is serious business.

This morning I finally got the courage to look into pokeweed's uses. According to the plant is not only used for healing cancer, but for inflammation as well. Since I've been on a healing journey with ulcerative colitis for the past 5 years its presence in my backyard made sense, although the specter of cancer scared me since the incidence of colon cancer in people with UC is high.

 I have been hospitalized with UC four times. Two times the reason I've gone into the hospital was because I was in such denial that I could not cure myself that I refused to acknowledge that I needed western medication. I had trained myself to always look for the spiritual and emotional source of any illness and believe that imbalances in these areas cause disease to manifest physically. To me, western medication, which focuses purely on the physical components of disease, was simply applying a band-aid. If I could go directly to the source of the spiritual imbalance through doing the required emotional work, then I believed the physical disease, which every doctor assured me was chronic and would be with me for the rest of my life, would resolve itself.

My belief was arrogant and it is not a surprise to me that I ended up in the hospital a 4th time last year. It was never going to be "I" who healed myself like some kind of new age superhero. I've written a long essay which I am currently revising about my journey with ulcerative colitis, but one of the insights that I will share here that came from my last hospitalization, was that being so sick was an opportunity for me to surrender, to be completely vulnerable, something by constitution and life experience that I have learned to avoid. I realized that I had been in protection mode (often called hyper-vigilance) for years. I also realized that the greatest surrender for me would not be to go back into the Hawaiian jungle and tough it out through fasting and herbs, but to hook myself up to the scary infusion machine that pumped toxic drugs into my system that suppressed my immune system so that my body would stop attacking itself.

The two weeks I lay in bed in Hilo Hospital, tended by kind Hawaiian nurses and aides, was one of the deepest spiritual journeys of my life. Because of the drugs, I barely slept so the border between me and God was thin. I had no control over my body in a lot of situations that, in the past, I would have found humiliating. To my surprise I found that by losing control, by having to rely literally on the kindness of strangers--I had no family anywhere even close, no medical insurance, and no money, I was able to shed many layers of self-protection that kept me from accepting the simple truth that I was human and deserving of love for this reason only. I didn't need to do anything to earn it. Instead of being ashamed that I was broke and sick, I was grateful for all the help I received from everyone in the hospital and from the community in Puna where I had been living as a volunteer. There were even moments of bliss. As I detail in the coming essay, I've been on medication since, although fortunately not the chemo because it was making my hair fall out. Most of it has grown back and I am continuing, now that my body has been stable for a year, to look into the deeper levels of my disease.

So.......last week I actually started watering the pokeweed when I water the grass seed I planted that is not exactly flourishing. Fortunately the owners of my house are not exactly plant savvy and think it is a shrub. Maybe a butterfly bush which it slightly resembles. I don't think, if they ask me, that I should cut it down. I might even have to refuse if they ask. A scary prospect, since my housing depends of pleasing them. Today I observed that it is on the north side of my house. As a student of the Medicine Wheel I know that the north has to do with ancestors and wisdom. Sometimes I've felt that getting ulcerative colitis was not only a way for me to clear personal karma and stored emotions, but to clear it for my family as well. Not just the relatives I know or have been told about,  but my whole genetic line going back to the beginning of, well, humanity, or at least civilized humanity which currently is in a state of healing crisis itself. I have done some of this work through ceremony, but apparently one of my life lessons is to figure out how to actually live in a body. I have been so good at checking out of my body, that I had to get sick to actually accept that I had one! My intuition was right on here, I think, since one of the other things I learned from witchipedia was that pokeweed, in addition to being used to treat inflammation (ulcerative colitis is inflammation that occurs in the lower digestive tract due to an auto-immune response, which means the body is as at war with itself) has traditionally been used to break hexes and protect areas from harmful or negative influences! As an HSP (highly sensitive person) I am aware that I absorb energy and emotions like a sponge, so the fact that pokeweed has come to assist me is pretty exciting. I also feel that I am committed, in a calm way, to my journey with ulcerative colitis. I'm not trying to get rid of it anymore. I no longer resent the 4 pills I take every morning or that I can't eat a normal diet. UC has given me boundaries, which I was in severe need of. Pokeweed is here to take me to the next level. I am ready to dive deeper into my genetic memory, to ask my ancestors what they need in order to free them, possibly from a hex that has been passed down through our genetic memory into my body. I am really feeling honored that pokeweed has chosen me. I plan to keep watering. And even if I am still a little afraid of it, I look forward to when the berries, which have appeared in the past week become so flushed with desire for life that they turn an intoxicating purple. This time I will not eat them, although I am hoping the birds in the thicket over the stone wall enjoy the feast!


  1. Wow, Jen ... what a beautiful story! This looks very much like a plant we have here that is called "Beauty Berries". And do you know the song Poke Salad Annie? Just curious. Janice Applegate

  2. I don't know that song, Janice. I hear that poke green salad has long been a springtime delicacy in the south. I also read that the Declaration of Independence was signed in ink made from pokeberries. Also, that spells are often written in this same ink.

  3. Wonderful writing Jen! Yes what a journey!thanks for sharing even these difficult insights and the way you embrace these lessons! It is work we can all do and to learn from. The plant as metaohysical messenger is so good!!! My yard has filled itself with volunteer plants I will now see about looking up their message!!!