by Cathy Skipper
One of the first questions that I asked myself was when I was studying herbal medicine at the Ecole Lyonnaise de Plantes Médicinales in Lyon, France was, “What is it to really ‘know’ a plant?” and it is a question that has stuck with me.
I didn’t feel it was enough to see the plant uniquely as a combination of chemical compounds, although off course I see the importance of this as part of understanding a plant’s action and possible toxicity. I enjoy learning about plant constituents and the activity of alkaloids, tannins, flavonoids, mucilage and the like, as well as the wonderful array of aromatic constituents that helps us understand an essential oil’s activity: terpenes, alcohols, esters, ketones and aldehydes etc.
But I felt there must be more, as I couldn’t just see humans as flesh and bones, nor could I see plants as just cellulose, sap and metabolites so to speak.
And so the adventure began, reading, exploring, asking questions and above all spending time with the plants themselves in order to feel them, enter into relationship with them, know them.
At first I had very little to base my search on. I was learning about the biochemistry and the plant’s actions at the herbal school, energetics were touched on lightly, but all this was coming from others…I needed to take the leap and start to get some first-hand experience of my own and the only way was by trial and error. I began to taste the plants in the aromatic garden I was growing at the time. I remember munching on a calendula flower to begin with and sensing the aromatic bitters in its fleshy receptacle contrasted with the more floral mucilaginous ligulates. Thyme flowers heating intensely the inside of my mouth, making a soapy water out of soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), flowers, roots and all to wash my woolens with, enjoying the intense bitterness of gentian roots (Gentiana lutea), the sweetness of Solomon’s seal roots (Polygonatum biflorum), the grainy powder that I could feel between my fingers when rubbing a leaf of Good-king-henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), the beautiful subtle floral odor of the fragile wild Saxifraga granulata, and the list goes on. I learned to use a loupe and key out plants. This was how I discovered the hidden, visual beauty of plant glands, hairs, veins, textures and forms. Yes, through my senses I was adding to my relationship and knowledge of plants, perceiving more of the depth and variety of the plant world but still I was not satisfied…I knew there must be more.
I began to read books about plant spirit wisdom, shamanism and the like, wondering if one day I would be able to feel a plant in the way described, and more than that, in the way that somehow my body reminded me of. As a child I was always in nature, happy and contented and never feeling lonely – I hadn’t yet lost the connection I was so desperately searching for now.
To cut a long story short and get onto the essential oil part of this article, through intense desire and a stubborn character, I persisted, listened to myself, listened to the plants and above all spent a part of every day, no matter the time of year, outside with the plants, and gradually something magical began to happen.
I began to undo one inner voice and develop an ear for another. The voice that told me that everything that wasn’t proven scientifically or taught about in school wasn’t of value began to quiet and the voice that said believe in your feelings, follow the emotions that flow through your body, believe in your own unique connection with the living world and its importance to you in plant healing, began to be heard.
As I am a weaver and I look for connections in order to understand things, I began to build bridges between my experiences and my conventional learning. I was beginning slowly to construct my own colorful tapestry from many plant threads. I felt that the idea of holistic healing should not refer uniquely to the way in which we view the ‘patient’ in all their aspects (mind, body and spirit) but also the way in which we view the plants we are using as medicine (chemistry, energetics and spirit for example).
Whilst reading a reference book written in the 70’s about clinical aromatherapy by Pierre Franchomme and Dr Penoel, I stumbled across what was referred to as ‘The Ternary Concept’. I was delighted to find in a very scientifically based book a reference connecting different ways of approaching plant or in this case essential oil knowledge. Amusingly enough this approach had been triggered among other things by what they referred to as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ approach to essential oils, which was the impulse for what they called the ‘informational aspect’ (they were already building bridges between the different approaches, bearing in mind this dates back to the 70’s and has to date never been translated).
So their proposition, the ternary approach, is a way of learning about the actions of essential oils by looking at them in three ways: 1. chemistry and how structure relates to activity, 2. the electrical charge of aromatic molecules, which tells us if their action may be stimulating, relaxing, toning, antispasmodic, warming, cooling etc… and 3. their subtle energetic action that can have a powerful effect by just one sniff of an essential oil.
I have used this ternary concept as a way of understanding oils and above all making links between molecules, their electrical charge and how they make us feel. I find it helps to be able to navigate between different aspects or perspectives of an essential oil. As my work develops, I am gradually adding a fourth factor, the one, which is probably the most important at the end of the day, and that is the individual relationship the therapist builds with the plant itself. I feel it is an often-neglected facet in the world of aromatherapy, we have a responsibility to remember that an essential oil is a plant extract and that however powerful that aromatic fraction maybe, what comes before it and what produced those precious essences is a plant or tree. By bringing the plant back into its rightful place, learning to enter into relationship with it, feel it… I can add this to the other aspects of my knowledge and choice of essential oils and honor the beings that made them possible.
Cathy Skipper has recently moved to New Mexico after living in rural France for 25 years. She trained and then taught at The Ecole Lyonnaise de Plantes Medicinales in France as well as growing medicinal plants on the family farm. She now teaches and writes about plant medicine both in the States and Europe. She specializes in aromatic medicine, healing the healer and botany.
This article has been re-posted from Cathy’s blog with her permission.
If you enjoyed what you read, come meet Cathy in person! She will be in NYC for a very special and rare visit to teach a class at ArborVitae on Tuesday, May 3 on Aromatic Medicine: Molecules of Communication.