As we try to understand that which is difficult to understand, to predict that which is difficult to predict, and to navigate uncertainties that threaten our familiar reality, it is a great gift to tend a garden. From building the soil in preparation for seedlings to clearing away old, spiny bramble, tending a garden pulls us into presence. In tending, we are tended.
In these early days of the pandemic, there is a dawning realization that we are transitioning into a new reality. Questions about food security, whether and how we might take a vacation, and which satisfying activities we can still engage in are all up in the air. Gardening allows us agency around some of these uncertainties; growing one’s own food is a radical act that supports individual and collective resilience. Creating a garden in which you can settle into mutually nourishing exchanges with astonishingly talented plant beings is restorative. Witnessing the rebirth mystery of spring, watching new growth unfurl, and collaborating in the beauty of it all evokes a deeply satisfying, earthy equanimity.
This spring, I am seeing the miraculous abundance of the natural world through a whole new lens. Simultaneously to diving into the fascinating and frightening ways the coronavirus affects the human body, I’ve been learning about our local flora’s capacity to support health and human wellness. Living in a garden that is being tended in a way that potentiates the medicine here gives this inquiry much resonance. And the more I learn about our wild plant neighbors, the clearer it is to me that all of us in West Marin live in a medicine garden.
As the shelter-in-place order went into effect in mid-March, our local dappled glades, seasonal creek banks and oak understories were becoming lush with bright-green spring greens like miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and delicate chickweed. These greens are rich in vitamin C. A cup of miner’s lettuce leaves contains more than a third of one’s daily value of vitamin C and 20 percent of the daily value of vitamin A, both key to healthy immune function. Hiking to nearby patches just outside of the garden gate and checking in on the young vibrant plants, giving them space from weedy thistles when needed, enjoying their tender flavor and succulent texture, I receive the medicine that comes from reciprocity and tending another. Another boost to the immune system.
While following science’s inquiry into the behavior of the SARS-CoV2 virus, I became increasingly curious about how the virus binds to the ACE2 receptors on our human cells, and what plant phytochemicals might block this reception. Beautiful baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), for example, is able to block the virus from binding to those receptors; last week I gave this being a place of honor near the entrance to our garden, after picking it up from the wonderful Mother Garden at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. Part of the joy of planting medicinal plants is in the rich exchanges one gets to have with other plant people; at OAEC last Sunday, I made meaningful connections regarding growing herbal medicine in this planetary moment. This, too, is part of our healing; reclaiming wisdom and skills passed down from our forebears, set aside in the wake of widely available pharmaceuticals and commodities, and rediscovered now as vulnerabilities are exposed.
We can also be resilient by knowing how to honorably harvest that which nature freely offers. This spring, like so many others, a riotous abundance of wild onions (or, more accurately, three-cornered leek, Allium triquetrum) is shooting up out of moist soil all over Northern California. Wild onions, like their cultivated allicin family members onions and garlic, are chock-full of the plant chemical quercetin. This “flavonol” supports the immune system and dampens inflammation; it also binds to the ACE2 receptor and has decreased viral binding in experiments. We are fortunate to have several patches of onions in the Commonweal Garden this spring; as this plant tends to spread vigorously, we can feel good knowing our harvesting is helping to control what can become an invasive presence. Harvesting with the long-term health of each patch in mind ensures this medicine will be available next spring, and the next. Harvesting no more than 20 percent of a given patch, and making sure any little “bulbettes,” or tiny side bulbs, stay in the ground helps ensure this. Given the benefits of eating wild onions and the long pandemic ahead of us, consider harvesting and pickling some for the future.
We live in a place where the wild and the cultivated entwine in a rich, fertile way. Of all of the types of garden tending I’ve had the joyous privilege of doing—from patches of wild plants to medicinal veggies to herbal medicines—it is the creation of meditative “sit spots” that most lights up my soul. As we take a break from hosting people here in the Commonweal Garden, we are leaning into creating these sit spots, so that when people come back together here, they can find restorative refuge in taking a seat on the earth. There, surrounded by the beauty of berry-laden branches and fern-enveloped nooks, under the gracious spread of a redwood skirt or plum-adorned verdant canopy, we humans can take in our medicine, slowly and deeply, in communion with the natural world.
Anna O’Malley, M.D., is an integrative family and community medicine physician with Coastal Health Alliance, and directs Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden. She is enthralled with the elegant wisdom of nature and seeks to guide people back into practical, healing relationships therewith. She is holding Zoom calls every other Wednesday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. to share up-to-date information and answer questions, from a public health and integrative primary care perspective. RSVP to [email protected] for the call information.