Learn by Teaching

Learn by Teaching

Herbalism is a subject so vast; I know I will spend my entire life learning and still only understand very little. While I find this idea incredible and exciting, it can be very overwhelming for a person who is just starting on their herbal journey. Where do you begin?

One of the best ways to learn is by teaching. Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out:

Go to your local library and borrow plant identification guides specific to the area in which you live. The herb and flower guides are easiest for beginners to use if they contain photographs instead of illustrations. Grab a basket or tote bag, pair of scissors, twine, camera, notebook and a packed snack...then grab your kids or grandchildren and go outside for an adventure! What is more exciting than a scavenger hunt? Start in your own yard or neighborhood, or spend a morning visiting your local park, hiking trails, or botanical garden. Keep your field guide in hand and have the children run about and choose a plant. Together, flip through the guide and find the plant's name. Repeat the name several times, write it down in your notebook, take a photo, clip a piece to press and dry at home. Once you know the name, check your herbal and discover its magic. Is it tasty as a salad green? Gather some in your basket for dinner tonight. Will it help belly aches, bee stings, or tooth pain? Write it down and remember. Really take your time with each plant discovered and get to know them as an individual.

My mama did this with me when I was small, and I have taken many of the children in my life on this adventure. I am always shocked by how much the kids remember each time we have an herb walk together. It gives kids your full attention, which they crave and need, and gives them a solid foundation to build upon later in life when learning about the green path. At the same time, it gives you the perfect starting point to begin your own herbal journey. The best herbs are not the exotic, expensive, or wildly popular plants from across the seas. The best herbs are the plants growing fresh and wild in your own backyard! Enjoy a day of touching, smelling, tasting, laughing and learning together.

When I am with my grandson, Rowan, I try to point out at least one plant when we go outside together. I repeat the plant name several times, get close, pick a leaf and rub it between my fingers for him to smell. I've been repeating this exercise since he began to totter around the yard, knowing it is important to make him feel comfortable in the natural world, even if he wasn't old enough to absorb the information. I was rewarded for my efforts this week when he and I took a turn around the property with a basket. His 4-year-old self marched to a clump of bright green grass and ripped it from the soft ground. He announced, "mommy is out of onions and these can go in my scrambled eggs." I chuckled and felt so proud as he stuffed the spring onion greens (wild garlic) in our basket, roots and all!

I know these lessons and experiences stay with children, because they stuck with me. I remember pausing in our horses' field so mama could show me a purple clover blossom, and the secret sweetness hidden in the base of each petal. I remember my own Mamaw handing me wood sorrel leaves and giggling with her because it tasted like dill pickles. Because the adults in my life took the time to teach me, I knew what poison ivy looked like and stayed clear of it. These small lessons gave me information to draw upon as an adult, but I don't believe the plant identification was the most important aspect of their teachings. They redirected my attention outdoors and to the world around me. I paid attention to the plants, trees, stones, animals, and insects. I was indirectly taught that the natural world isn't something other, something scary, something unknown. It was a place in which I belong and I am part of it. I'm sure there were moments my parents regretted these lessons when they looked out the window to see me trying to pet a skunk or dragging bouquets of burdock and thistle in their house, but they have served me very well in life. I am not frightened of the unknown forest, streams and fields, because I know them. It is a beautiful gift to give your children.

Once you have enjoyed a few plant adventures together, a new game is possible. A game my family plays together all the time. If we are together outside, you are bound to hear someone shout, "name that plant!" One of us typically knows the answer and the ones who don't learn something new. If none of us know, the family becomes like a terrier with a bone. We snap photos, pinch off a leaf and tuck it in our pocket, and rush home to our books. We call and text each other with our findings and discuss how it grows and how it can be used in food or medicine.

Yes, I can hear you all asking, "why not just Google it?" My mama was the first in our family to discover a plant identification app for her phone. With much excitement we walked around her farm and pointed the camera at wild lettuce. With in seconds the phone announced, wild lettuce! Cool! We checked several plants and trees and the app named them for us. What a great tool! I downloaded the plant identification app on my drive home, and promptly started skipping around pointing my phone at my plant friends in my own yard. I took a photo of my comfrey and the phone named comfrey. Neat! I took a photo of hawthorn, rosemary, calendula and the phone named hawthorn, rosemary and calendula! Super excited I took a photo of baby nightshade plant and the phone said, plantain. Whoa! That is a dangerous oops! If you are only using the app to identify a plant to study further, it can be a good tool to help lead you to the correct book. To rely solely on an app or google to harvest new to you plants to eat or use medicinally is too risky in my opinion.  The technology works by scanning images to find similar photos on the internet to find the closest match. 4 out of 5 times it is correct...but if the 5th time is wrong you could end up tossing poison nightshade leaves in your salad for lunch. I encourage everyone to err on the side of caution when learning.

A day spent learning plant names can be a wonderful opportunity to share other pearls of wisdom with young ones. Teaching a child to only take what they need to study or use instead of harvesting an entire patch teaches mindfulness and conservation. Showing a child the importance of asking permission and giving thanks to the plant for the gift of its life makes them see nature as a living thing that deserves respect and gratitude. My son once said of me, "she can make anything sound exciting just by shouting it with enthusiasm." The kids will watch you and mirror your actions, so be excited, happy, and grateful. Show them nature isn't something foreign, but something they belong to. Throw your head back with joy as you taste the nectar in a honeysuckle blossom as if it is the rarest of treasures...because it is. Come home covered in dirt with glowing skin and grass stains and a new appreciation of your own plant friends. For all of you looking to make a start learning herbalism, why not start today? Please share about your experiences in the comment section so we might learn and enjoy together! Bonus points for adorable kid photos!

Jennifer Parsons

Jennifer Parsons

Jenni is a life long herbalist who is a book obsessed, nature lover, who follows the old ways, and who lives and loves by wit, wisdom, and community.

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