Healing through plants and herbs

Following the latest trilogy of aromatically witchy themed articles, and with the advent of the Mexican Day of the Dead almost upon us, I thought that it would be interesting to take a quick look at some of the traditional plants and herbs used by the Native American people.

Various plants and herbs are used for spiritual rituals including sage (Salvia spp., Artemisia spp.), bear berry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata) and tobacco (Nicotiania spp.). Other sacred plant mixtures used are cornmeal and pollen, and a Kinnikinnick.

The Use of a Kinnikinnick in American Indian Ceremonies

The ancient Algonquian Indian word of Kinnikinnick means a ceremonial or ritual botanical mix of various herbs and plants; the bear berry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) plant, in particular, may be used individually in this ceremonial offering or in a mix of other plants and herbs, sometimes a mix of as many as thirty different plant species. Each plant or herb used in the botanical mix is prepared and dried separately, before being blended together and placed in a leather pouch.

A Kinnikinnick is used in a number of different ways:

  • it is used for smudging (the sacred practice of burning herbs)

  • it is worn to keep substances away which may be harmful

  • it is carried as an offering

  • it is packed in bags and baskets with items used in ceremonies in order to keep them healthy.

Plants and Herbs Used in a Kinnikinnick

The following plants and herbs are an example of those used to make a Kinnikinnick:

  • Bergamot* (Monarda spp.) – all plant parts may be used

  • Angelica* (Angelica atropurpurea) – use of the leaves

  • Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) – use of the needles

  • Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)– use of the leaves and blossoms

  • Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) – use of the leaves

  • Sage* (Artemisia spp., Salvia spp.) – use of the leaves and bark

  • Sunflower* (Helianthus annuus) – use of the leaves

  • Tansy* (Tanacetum vulgare, Tanacetum huronese) – use of all plant parts

  • Willow (Salix spp.) – use of bark and leaves

  • Yarrow* (Achillea spp.) – use of all plant parts

  • Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) – use of all plant parts

  • Juniper* (Juniperus spp.) – use of leaves, bark and berries.

*plants used as essential oils in aromatherapy practice.

The Native American Practice of Smudging

Smudging is a sacred American Indian practice which involves the burning of herbs for both purification and prayer; this is a practice which is carried out by most American Indians. The burning of the herbs releases many fragrant aromas from the oils released by the plants which enhances the experience.

Prayers are then offered within the smoke of the herbs. Smudging is a time of spiritual healing and may involve a gathering of people for the passing of the burning herbs from one to another in collective prayer to the Creator. Two common plants used in smudging are sweet grass and sage. Other herbs used for smudging, either individually or in blends, include bergamot (Monarda spp.), yarrow (Achillea spp.), mesquite (Prosopis spp.), bear berry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and tobacco (Nicotiania spp.). In spiritual rituals, the smoke from the burning of sage and sweet grass is said to take prayers and sadness up towards the spirits.

As an alternative to smudging with burning herbs, particularly in a restricted area and you want to “clear a space” as oppose to smudging for a spiritual purpose, I recommend using hydrosols as discussed in this article.

The Study of Plants in Aromatherapy

It is interesting to examine how different people use plants and herbs and compare the practices to how we use plants in our own practice, as either in use with the herb itself, or as an oil in aromatherapy practice. We can also value the use of that plant in our own aromatic gardens. Plants truly are versatile and healing in many ways, when we examine the number of ways in which they are used. To learn more about how plants are used in aromatherapy practice, consider the Sedona Aromatherapie Linguistics of AromaticsTM program!

About the Author of This Article:

  • The author of this article has a 20 year history in the health care and aromatherapy industry. She is UK-certified aromatherapist and a NAHA Certified Professional Aromatherapist (R). She is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy, a consultant, custom blend formulator and herbal studies student. She is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy and the current chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal. She has taken the online Master Gardener short course series with the University of Oregon. Sharon works from her garden studio in Sedona, Arizona, where she is in the process of creating her own aromatic stillroom on her one acre homestead and aromatic gardens.

For further reading:

  • Kavasch, E. Barrie, Baar, Karen 1999 American Indian Healing Arts USA: Bantam

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