The Medicine Jar

Gathering tronadora on the flower path

'Sometimes, you thought you were in a place for one reason, but you realise when you look back, you were there for something else.' For our second post in this Plant Practice series, Charlotte Du Cann follows a medicine path of flowers set in Arizona in the fierce heat of summer, and meets a trumpet flower that heralds a very different relationship with the land.
is a writer, editor and co-director of The Dark Mountain Project. Her most recent book, After Ithaca is about recovering our core relationships with the mythos and sentient Earth, revolving around the Underworld tasks of Psyche. She teaches ensemble creative practice and lives on the wild salty edge of East Anglia.

During 2000 and 2001 Mark (Watson) and I lived just outside Bisbee in the borderlands of Mexico and Arizona and worked with a visionary herbalist called Mimi Kamp. Together we would climb into the fierce rocky terrain of on the trail of medicine plants and collect their roots and flowers to be stored in a stack of jars she dispensed from her kitchen apothecary. One of the plants we loved was this member of the bignonia family, Tronadora (Tecoma stans), a group of plants in the Americas that include the sweet-smelling jacaranda and the medicine tea pau d’arco. Today in late June, as the cacti in the high desert are putting on a vibrant show of colours and the desert willow blooms, we publish a chapter from the book about the plant practice, 52 Flowers That Shook My World. CDC

 

 

Tronadora

Bisbee, Arizona 

In the end you want a physical relationship. There is nothing that can replace that relationship. Whatever the modern world promises, all its technological allures and opiates, its shiny pictures, machines, its hypnotic music, its clever words, it cannot love like physical presence, the presence of people and places. It is that you miss in the end: how you feel when someone enters the room, how you feel when you are in that land. It’s the last thing you think about, the least considered, the least important, something you take for granted while it is happening, but when it’s gone, you realise that this presence is what you want more than anything. Just to be in that place, by that tree, among those flowers, in that spring light, by that winter fire, sitting beside you, to know you are there, to feel you close by.

When you know the value of presence, you treasure it more than anything else. Sometimes you don’t know you are storing up this treasure. Sometimes, though you thought you were in a place for one reason, you realise when you look back, you were there for something else.

 

At the beginning of June, just as the jacaranda trees were coming into bloom, we came back to California. I had been fired up by all my spring time meetings and the project that had emerged from them called the Earth Dreaming Bank.

‘We’re going!’ I had announced gaily when I returned. Mark was not enthusiastic. Nevertheless, we packed up our Oxford house and set out three months later. I had written a proposal for the initial work of the Bank, outlining how we might go about gathering material, collecting dreams, holding dialogues and seminars, and had sent it ahead to everyone concerned. However, things in Santa Barbara were not going to plan. Ideas on paper, in meetings, are not the same as physical reality, as people turning up in a place. We were swimming down in Summerland, among the dolphins, we were walking through the sidewalks of towering scented fennel. We were eating Mexican breakfasts, surrounded by morning glories. We were hanging out in paradise, in our blue motel room, reading books and waiting for the phone to ring. Waiting for the door to open.

One midsummer morning, we got up early to see the sun rise from a pass in the mountains known as the Sky Path. A deep fog had rolled in from the ocean and we lost our way along the back roads. As we wound about the misty hills Mark became furious, I became silent. After what seemed like hours, way beyond sunrise, we found ourselves back where we had started under the eucalyptus trees. ‘We’re not going anywhere,’ I said. And we both began to laugh.

We decided to go back to Arizona.

 

Today we are walking up a stony hill on a hot afternoon after the rains, in search of an elusive bush called tronadora. We are following Mimi, walking Indian file on this red earth path, wending our way through the prickly domes of rainbow cactus with sacks on our back, helping her collect herbs for an apothecary in New Mexico. It has been raining for some months now and the parched desert lands have burst into green. The craggy arms of the ocotillos have filled out and become vibrant green limbs, the spikes of the agaves have burst into honey-scented bloom. At our feet small flowers tumble around every rock, the shocking magenta petals of ratany, the dainty fairy dusters. The air is scented with white-flowered dogbane and kidneywood, and the bouvadia flames in all the crevices. We find the tronadora by the gorge, after walking about an hour.

It is a handsome bush with bright pinnate green leaves (sometimes called yellow elder). Its trumpet-shaped flowers are a deep and vibrant yellow. The feeling of the plant is very joyous. And we are excited to find it still in bloom and set about collecting some of its flowers and leaves and stems. Collecting herbs requires a certain attention. You do not just grab everything you see; you tune in, speak to the plants, ask their permission, listen to what they say, yes or no. If you are like me, reluctant to pick anything, this sometimes takes time. But at some point, your mind and your eyes let go and your heart chooses instead, and you find your hands just whizzing about taking what is needed. Tronadora was a generous plant but there was a rigour too in our collection. Some bushes we left completely alone. Afterwards we filed back to Mimi’s house with full sacks on our backs and had a dialogue about our day, about the plant that we were sorting out on the kitchen table.

 

Tronadora is a traditional folk medicine for adult-onset diabetes. It is particularly valued because, unlike many chemical remedies, it has no toxic side-effects. Diabetes is a sugar imbalance and famous in the Americas for affecting the lives of indigenous people. Many tribes suffer from its debilitating effects. It is blamed on their poor diet, on their poverty. But really, like all diseases, diabetes is a result of an out-of-kilter relationship with the earth. It is a malfunction of the pancreas which, with the spleen, is the seat of the earth in the Chinese five-element system. The season of earth comes at harvest time, at Indian summer, when the summer’s heat and rain swells the pumpkins and the beans and corn and makes them a sweet and nourishing store for the winter months.

Diabetes is a white man’s disease, where there is too much white sugar, too much white bread, too much white refinement and artifice. It comes from a consciousness that does not know the sweetness of the earthly life, that lives out of season and goes way too fast for its own good. When the native people of America were forcibly removed from their homelands by the white invaders, something was taken away from them inside, a sweetness that once came from having a slow rhythmic relationship with the earth. Tronadora reminds the body of the presence of earth, of the sweetness of life, and helps sort the storage of sugars in the liver. It’s a folk remedy that helps many people, and not just because it contains the right substances. We don’t live in a time where anyone looks at these things carefully, to ask why these disorders happen. But maybe we should. We should look at that whiteness, what it really does. What it does to all of us.

Tronadora belongs to the bignonia family, a botanical group of plants that does not exist in Europe. It is a flower that flourishes in the full summer heat and monsoon rains of the Americas. Its most well known member is the jacaranda tree, which is grown by the thousand in this continent’s gardens and cities and is universally beloved for its purple, sweet-scented blossom. The bignonias of the desert are the graceful and fragrant desert willow trees and the startling orange trumpet vine that clambers over the fences of the town. All are powerful anti-viral medicines. Their most famous qualities lie in their ability to tackle the yeast fungus known as Candida albicans, which can proliferate all over the body when it is under too much stress and impair the immune system. The bignonias rigorously put these ‘whites’ in their place.

That first summer in Arizona we started working with the bushes that flowered after the monsoon rains. We followed Mimi up and down many red paths, collecting, visiting, ‘hanging out’ with medicine plants and holding dialogues in her kitchen on our return. Bisbee is a town full of herbalists and plant lovers. I talk to everyone I meet about plants, about the dreaming of plants, about the Bank. Everyone has a use for the spiky wild inhabitants of the arroyos and canyons, the feral fleabane and fennel that shoot up in the sidewalks. The co-op store stocks large jars of wild leaves and roots, small home-made salves of grindelia (for poison ivy), tinctures of bearberry, dried bunches of echinacea from local gardens. 

Outside the town there is a school of south-western plant medicine run by the herbalist and writer, Michael Moore. Greta is one of his students. Sometimes I swing by Peter’s studio and find her set about her tasks, chopping up ocotillo stems, peeling prickly pears, and we debate the noble qualities of the lowly brickellia, the indigenous use of tree tobacco, the bitterness of silk tassel, the sweetness of the saguaro fruit. One day, hiking up to the waterfall, she surprised me: Do you know water hemlock? she asked. It’s even more poisonous than European hemlock! I stopped in my tracks and laughed. I had never met anyone who loved hemlock before.

Greta has written a paper about indigenous herbs and has designed a medicine garden for a Native American trading post out in the Dragoon Hills. Next spring we will go with Peter and look around the land where Greta’s garden will be. Apache Ray, brought up in a Mexican neighbourhood in Los Angeles, has returned to his homeland and has opened up the store as a communications centre.‘ We didn’t make a good job of things before,’ laughs Apache Ray. ‘We’re going to leave it to the women this time.’

We didn’t make a good job of things before,’ laughs Apache Ray. ‘We’re going to leave it to the women this time.’

On the hot spring day, in the shade of the ramada, Ray’s brother will play a flute, Mark will chant. We will sit in silence together on the porch, the Dragoons rising behind us, a flowering tamarisk shifting in front of us in a small breeze. About us in all directions the gold California poppies will ribbon the highway, the blue lupines shine on the hillside; the evening primroses will cover the red earth. Like white handkerchiefs, waving.

 

In the town the dawn-tinted flowers of the desert willow throw their intoxicating perfume into the air. In the baking afternoons I go down to the small park and sit in their peaceful shade. Giant wasps crawl in and out of the flowers, greedily sucking their nectar. You cannot believe how such an elegant tree with its delicate flowers and fine willow leaves flourishes in such a rough place. But that is something I am learning, about medicine, about the flowers that cure all humans who have gone too far away from their roots. 

‘There were not many flowers; did we collect them too late?’ I asked Mimi, as she cut up the tough stems and leaves of the tronadora. ‘Everything is medicine,’ she snapped fiercely, shaking her knife in the air, ‘even these old sticks have medicine.’

In Arizona, I will learn everything about earth medicine, in among the red rocks, in this fierce outpost town fringed by desert willow. I will learn the difference between male and female ephedra bushes, how the best red roots grow in the toughest places, how sagebrush and juniper leaves will clear bad vibes, how ocotillo bark clears meridians. But most of all I will learn about flowers. The shocking beauty that comes out of the toughest places, the harmony that comes out of conflict. How they will bring you back together, remember you, no matter how far you have gone away.

I will discover how the flowers of the yerba de alonso garcia make the best drink at the end of the day – not because they ‘do’ anything, but just because they are who they are. Just because if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in the desert of south-east Arizona, and find these small sweet-smelling pea flowers, coloured cream and purple with a touch of red, infuse them in hot water for five minutes and drink the tea slowly. Then you will know what I mean. Some things you can’t describe. The heavenly taste of flowers at the end of a long hard road.

Some things you can’t describe. The heavenly taste of flowers at the end of a long hard road.

At the end of the Indian summer we go down to Mimi’s round house in the desert and help restore the garden, clearing paths when they have become choked with amaranth and pepperweed, watering the herbs that grow under the Mexican elder in the cool of the evening: hummingbird sage, catnip, Tarahumara chia, mugwort, indigo, epazote. The coyote melons lie everywhere on the ground. I am sitting by a piano, my bare feet on the bare earth floor. The piano is out of tune and I can’t remember all the chords of a piece by Mozart I used to play. The medicine jars sit on the rough shelves in the dark cool adobe room: with their treasures of roots, bark, leaves, flowers, labelled with names that I now can recognise. My eyes scan them, and then look outside and scan the sky. The rain clouds have disappeared from the peaks. I go out and walk towards the study.

Here I sit at the writing desk in the straw bale house, with a cat sitting beside me and the desert unfolding before me. What can I tell you about my medicine time? What I held in my writing hands at the end of the day? I want to tell you about something extraordinary I found, something about sweetness: that when you start to walk that hard red road, something happens inside, in a place you did not even know existed, and it’s to do with the flowers, to do with the place the flowers have taken you.

Because all the time when you are there with the plants in your hands, winnowing tiny black amaranth seeds in the warm south wind, or sitting patiently sifting the pale-husked seeds of Syrian rue, while you slowly pour the Mexican sugar cane alcohol over the bright blue skullcap flowers as you make a tincture, steep lemonade berries from the sumach bush as you make a cool drink, as you bundle up the sharp-scented sticks of desert rue and burn the sweet mastic of the elephant tree, a great treasure is being stored up.

While you take your breakfast sitting by the creek, by the waterfall, under false indigo, by the passion flowers, under the coolness of the cottonwood tree, something happens within you you cannot name. You start to belong. And I can’t tell you what that feels like, because sometimes you have to experience it. You have to put your white feet on the red earth and start to walk, and when you walk, you realise you are going to a place where your heart has always wanted to go.

You are walking home.

 

52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth by Charlotte Du Cann follows ten years of a plant practice on a journey that ranges from the Botanical Gardens of Oxford to the streets of Mexico City. It charts an inquiry into the language of plants, and a reconnection with the living world in a time of ecological and social crisis It can be bought as a PDF here. 

Further pieces on holding a earth-based practice can be found at Charlotte’s Substack column, The Red Tent.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

Read more
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *