Reviewing: The Art & Practice of Spiritual Herbalism by Karen M. Rose
Wow, this is a fantastic book! I’m very much a beginner when it comes to herbalism, and honestly it often feels too overwhelming to start. Karen M. Rose’s genius is in how she’s created an accessible volume on herbalism that seamlessly weaves physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual healing in the specific context of Black women and queer folks but also with a direct relevance rippling out to other folks of color as well as those marginalized in other ways (and even, I think, a general audience).
Rose is based in New York, but the plants she features includes quite a few found in most parts of the world, so this volume will be applicable wherever you live. Even if you don’t ultimately end up working with plants as medicine, you’re going to learn a lot about the human body and how it connects to the spirit, to nature, and to the harms of modern experience. It’s a great blend of practical reference and healing wisdom.
The material is organized by systems of the body, and before getting into the specific plants in each chapter Rose covers some of the key topics that relate to the body system in question, clearly demonstrating how physical functions relate to our experiences, whether literally or by association. For example in the section on the liver we learn about all sorts of detoxing and processing, as well as ways to relate to emotions of fear and anger. Rose has a real knack for natural metaphor, and she presents elemental, planetary, and orisha correspondences (as well as occasional examples from other pantheons) to really help the reader understand the energies involved. I found it much easier to connect with and remember the plants and their qualities with this approach. Rose also uses the Doctrine of Signatures to show how plants’ appearances mimic their uses, and includes color sketches of each key plant.
Systemic oppression, Black women and femmes’ experiences, and the costs of ecological deprivation and colonialism are emphasized throughout the book, as well as the general burdens of a capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist culture disconnected from the land. Women of the Black diaspora are Rose’s primary audience, and one of the ways she centers Blackness is in weaving tales of the orishas throughout the book, with an artistic representation of each. In discussing different body systems and the plants she uses to work with them Rose also gets into specifics around the complexities of working with the land when your enslaved ancestors were forced to develop it, the weight of Mammy and Jezebel stereotypes for Black women, the legacy of medical experimentation, and more.
Other readers of color will appreciate in their own contexts the specificity of remedies addressing migration and displacement, spiritual theft, social justice burnout, and emotional labor. I think this would be an excellent book to pair with ancestral healing work, or with further reading on healing from intergenerational trauma (e.g. Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands.) And it’s not entirely about the burdens and challenges—Rose also emphasizes the power of inherited spiritual technologies, community, and cultural foods.
Each chapter features a few key plants for the featured body system with detailed information including the plant’s appearance, origin, uses, risks, how to respectfully and sustainable acquire the plant and what parts of it to use, the planetary and energetic qualities, biological composition, notes on historical and mythical uses, the kinds of physical actions it promotes in the body, and a few specific ways to use the plant with recommended doses. The kinds of problems addressed are much more specific than I expected—rather than “here are fifty things you might take for a cold,” you’ll get something more like “use this for the kind of lingering cold that ends up in your chest” or “here’s a plant to help you heal your relationship with difficult ancestors.” As a beginner, I’m more tempted by these very tailored ideas than I have been by larger reference volumes. Along with the featured plants, a handful of additional options are covered more briefly to round things out. Reading this book feels a little like chatting with a super knowledgeable auntie—solid information, but also curated to what’s essential and relevant.
You’re going to find a wide variety of preparations featured in Rose’s remedies, which I found informative even just reading to learn about how plants can be used in different ways, such as for steams or herbal smoking blends. It’s also nice to just trust that an herbalism book is going to support you in working ethically with plants, avoiding overharvesting or other harmful practices. And Rose’s practices as a spiritual herbalist go beyond plant preparations alone. For example, one of my favorite practices she shares is the plant walk, with guidance on how to enter into reciprocal relationship with a plant and learn from it experientially.
This is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone who wants to explore the richness of life on this planet and their relationship to plants, but also their relationship to healing. It offers powerful remedies to heal from and resist capitalism, racism, and colonialism and teaches herbalism in an accessible way that will resonate with many readers. I highly recommend it!
ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases through the above button support me as well as local independent bookstores!