Herbs are a wonderful representation of life’s cycles. Dandelion, again, is a good example. When we watch the dandelion develop through the seasons, we see its vibrant green leaves emerge in early spring, followed by a bright yellow flower through the summer. The petals die back and the plant forms a most unusual seed head¡ªthe puffy globe-like form that kids of all ages can’t resist blowing on. As we or the wind blows on this seed head, the dandelion seeds are spread as far as the breeze will carry them, ensuring another fresh crop of dandelions the following spring. As the leaves die back in the fall, the energy is concentrated in the roots¡ªsilent, reserved in its expression, storing up energy for the next spring. In the spring, the plant again begins its expansion phase, the phase of self-expression in the cycle of seasons.
What does the cycle of the dandelion have to do with us? We also function in cycles. We are never static; we are constantly changing. Fluctuation is ever present. There are patterns in fluctuations that manifest as cycles. Cycles in nature are easy to see. There is a cycle that we call a day that we measure by Earth’s rotation around its axis or the alternation of light and dark. There is a cycle we call a month that we measure by the phases of the moon.
There is a cycle of a year that we can measure by Earth’s revolution around the sun or by the seasons: the expansive nature of spring, the expanded state of summer, the contracting state of fall, and the still, quiet state of winter. The seasons are expressed like any other pulsation in four phases: an expansive phase, an expanded phase, a contracting or recoiling phase, and a contracted phase. These resemble the phases of the breath: the inhale, the pause after the inhale, the exhale, and the stillness in the pause after the exhale. There is also the fluctuation of waves rushing onto the beach, reaching a still point as they turn around and gather momentum, followed by the movement back toward the ocean where they then expand and gather momentum before rushing back onto the beach again.
Why should we expect ourselves to always feel the same, for our energy levels to be constant, to do today what we did yesterday? Just like the environment around us, we have many cycles of different amplitudes going on all the time. We have diurnal variations, daily cycles in which we have energy when the sun is up and rest when it is dark. We have monthly cycles, which are clearly apparent in the female menstrual cycle. Doesn’t it make sense then that we would also change as the seasons change? In fact, we do, and yet somehow we expect ourselves to be able to work as long a day in January as we do in July. Scientific research related to yearly variations indicates that there are seasonal increases in blood levels of DHEA, an adrenal hormone, in the autumn and winter. The mechanism for this is not yet understood, but this finding most likely represents just the tip of the iceberg of the changes involved in this annual or seasonal cycle.
Primitive human beings were forced to live in accordance with nature’s cycles. Greens were eaten with the early spring growth, fruits in the summer, and berries in the fall. Fall was also a time for digging up roots and drying meats for the winter¡ªstoring fuel for a time when it was not naturally abundant or accessible. Hunting and gathering were done in the daylight and sleeping at night when it was dark. Because the days are longer in the summer, it was a productive time for all these activities, whereas the short days of winter provided less of an opportunity to work. Winter was a time of resting, storing up energy for the activities of the summer¡ªjust as plants do. The advent of fire and then electricity has enabled human beings to control our schedules. We can make light anytime we want, so in the winter the day does not have to end by 5 I’M, but can go on as late as we want. As a result, we have gravitated toward foods and other substances that stimulate our bodies to enable them to function without regard to natural rhythms. Because of the control we are able to enlist over our environment, we have over time lost touch with those natural cycles. We have artificially achieved a steady state. We can make ourselves stay awake at any hour, we can create light at any hour, and we can be energetic at any hour by taking stimulants. As we do this, we disregard the body’s natural rhythms. Because the body is so good at adapting, we seem to get away with it in the short term, and, as the long-term consequences of this disregard of the body’s natural cycles manifest themselves, we most often do not relate them to our choices.
Herbs are a way for us to begin to live in tune with these cycles again. By watching the herbs grow, we can learn about the phases of the cycles around us. By consuming herbs in season, we are taking part in the natural cycle of the seasons. By mimicking the life cycle of the plants, we begin to live in tune with nature’s rhythms. This allows the body to function as it was designed to and, as a consequence, with much greater efficiency and fullness. In fact, we could say that living in accordance with the seasons is the key to thriving as opposed to just existing.
There is an idea among herbalists that the plants that are indigenous to a particular region are the most therapeutic to the people of that region. This is partly because the fresher the plant is, the more potent it is, and if it is local then the time between harvest and ingestion is minimized. But the benefits of consuming indigenous plants may be due to more than just that. The local plants are growing and thriving in the same environment as the people. It is exposed to the same water, the same chemicals in the air, the same soil conditions, the same amount of sunlight and darkness, and the same cycles and rhythms. It is not much of a leap to expect that the plants that grow in response to a particular environment will have properties useful to people in that same environment. We might consider that the plants growing like weeds in our backyard would be perhaps the most therapeutic to us. Expanding on that, the next most therapeutic plants would be those herbs that we grow consciously in our gardens or porch or windowsill planter boxes. Remember that fresh plants are always the most potent. In an ideal world, we would always use what was available fresh at any given time, living in step with the seasons.
But sometimes the ideal is not possible. The best solution, in that case, is to use dried herbs. This enables us to keep herbs of all types on hand for use when the need arises. Certainly if you are ill, it is more convenient to make a cup of herbal tea from dried herbs from your cupboard than it is to go out and dig up a piece of Echinacea root.