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Welcome to Herbology 301

My name is Matthew Aspen, or Professor Aspen for short, and I am glad to give you all a very warm welcome to this course. My PAs and myself expect great things from you, so we are eager to see you all "grow" in the greenhouses. However, we would like you to read the following information about the course before enrolling in it:

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Lesson 5) American Antidotes

Year Three, Lesson Five 
A Helping Herb

 

Introduction
Hello everyone, welcome back for another week of Herbology class! We are continuing our trip through time and across the world, this week focusing on the expanse of North America. We will then take a peek at the particulars and growing specifications of a few plants native to that area that have been, and still are, commonly used.

The Great White North, the Land of the Free, and the Navel of the Moon
The North American continent is actually made up of twenty three countries, not just Canada, the United States, and Mexico, as technically the geographical area termed “Central America” is included in North America. However, because of the shared history and culture of Central America with many South American countries, much of what we cover today will apply to those nations less than our talk next week. For the entire continent, however, the beginnings of herbalism were much the same: native populations used plants in their own local area to heal problems that they encountered in their day-to-day lives. These plants differed equally as much as the various traditions and cultural beliefs of each tribe and area, but there were certain similarities. For a time, this worked quite well, until the introduction of colonists (which occurred at different times over a period of a few hundred years) shook things up.

Native Land
Up until the exploration of the Vikings in 1000 C.E., North America was happily inhabited by a vast array of native people. More, because colonization did not occur for hundreds of years later, many areas continued completely undisturbed after initial “discoveries” of the continent. This means that by the time colonists arrived on the scene, the native traditions, civilizations, and cultures were very well established and had been developed for thousands of years. Their magical practitioners often led their respective tribe as chief, or served as what we would call “medicine men,” though there were as many names for them as there were different languages spoken. The Inuits called their healers “angakok,” while the Navajo called theirs “hatalii.” Meanwhile, shamanic healers and spiritual leaders of the Blackfoot were titled “maskihkîwiyiniwiw.” 

These healers did more than work with plants, too. They were among the tribes’ revered and respected spiritual leaders. These medicine men appreciated and admired nature and worked with it in order to fashion excellent remedies: some of them purely herbal, but others herbological treatments that we know as potions. They were very in tune with nature, and not only had great knowledge of which plants were good for which ailments -- due to many centuries of collective knowledge and oral tradition -- but also of when to harvest, as well as an uncanny sense of how to keep the ecosystem in balance. While the names by which these medicine men (and women) knew their plants were very different from what we call them now, modern North American herbal knowledge is due in a very large part to the efforts of native people.

Medicine Wheel
What you can see up on the board in front of you is not just a simple circle, but in fact one of the most important medicinal and herbal practices that was shared between various Native American tribes. As you can see, this circle, called the medicine wheel, consists of four quadrants that each have their own plant, color, area of health, season, and more associated. Just exactly what was represented by each quadrant of the medicine wheel varied, as some tribes focused more on the elements or planets, while others left those associations out. Still, the medicine wheel has some more or less generalizable parts. 

Again, while all tribes have varying practices, and it is not possible to completely generalize, especially with the concept of the medicine wheel, many medicine men and other prominent witches and wizards in the tribes used these four quadrants to guide all health-centered treatment. It is similar to the concept of the four humors, which I understand you have covered in Potions this year. Essentially, if one were having a health issue that was deemed a spiritual problem, things associated with the northern part of the quadrant would be utilized, meaning sage or perhaps the element of air. Of course, Native American medicine is much more complicated than this -- and was a great help to the colonists who arrived in the New World -- but this information still makes for an important foundation.

North
The northern quadrant of the medicine wheel is associated with winter and the color white, understandably. Each quadrant is associated with one of four “sacred medicines” or associated herbs, the first of which is sage. This quadrant is also associated with spiritual health. These associations were not just irrationally assigned and then forgotten; they guided many herbological (and herbal) practices. For example, sage was and is used in the treatment of illnesses perceived to be spiritual. 

South
Sweetgrass is the herb that belongs to this portion of the medicine wheel. It is further associated with the summertime, and the color red, which seems to us to fit together nicely, as all of these different aspects put one in mind of warmth. Additionally, the area of a person’s health that is correlated with these properties is said to be one’s mental health.

East
The easterly section of the medicine wheel is the dominion of springtime. Mankind’s physical health is the realm of wellness associated with the east and spring, which is further related to the color yellow. Interestingly, the plant aligned with all of these is none other than tobacco. Of course, this will surprise many of you, as tobacco is herba non grata (the unwelcome herb) these days. Still, despite its addictive use in Muggle cigar sticks, it does have some healing properties in small, regulated doses. 

West
Finally, the western quadrant of the medicine wheel is the area associated with autumn. The plant that aligns with the area is cedar, which enjoys some use as a healing herb, particularly with respiratory issues. To round out the rest of the categories, this quadrant is also associated with black and emotional health.

Colonial Cultivation
Colonial knowledge of plants and their properties was complicated, at best. European witches and wizards from all different areas were suddenly presented with foreign and unknown plants. Communication with the magical practitioners among the native populations was difficult to do without arousing suspicion, and many natives were understandably mistrustful of meeting with colonists to talk, due to the violence that waged between their people. Because of this, magical colonists were left with only their best guesses and the influence of Muggles to guide them in understanding these new plants’ properties. While, normally, Muggles are not significantly worse at discovering herbs’ uses (indeed, they are just as capable as we are, though they do not have the ability to create potions and therefore miss some uses), these colonists were just as disadvantaged as their magical brethren. These plants were unfamiliar to them, and as a result, they relied on guesswork, superstition, and associations to assign uses to plants. These were often quite far off the mark and differed greatly depending on the country of origin of the colonist, but the accuracy naturally improved with time. 

I won’t give you the details of the formation of the various ministries in North America (as that’s something for History of Magic in later years), but upon the formation of those ministries, North America finally organized. Once witches and wizards were able to coordinate and meet together, rather than live in fear of contacting each other, the sharing of information happened naturally. Each shared their understanding and improved upon their practices because of it, and magical practices common in Ireland were put alongside (and combined with) those from Italy, or Germany, and elsewhere. 

Additionally, the inclusion of Native Americans in the founding of Ilvermorny played a huge role in improving magical knowledge (not only of plants, but creatures and other topics as well), since knowledge of pre-colonial magical history and herbology was widely unknown. Unfortunately, the witch trials and the reign of the Scourers (if this is not a term you are familiar with, Headmistress Oshiro will illuminate you later on in Year Six) did take a momentary toll on free-flowing communication and increased caution, resulting in less collaboration and experimentation. But fortunately, today, many old traditions have managed to be preserved and have slowly mixed in with new approaches from all over the world.

Healing Herbs 
With that brief look at the historical background of herbology and healing in North America, we now have the context to look at some of the more prevalent healing herbs used in this area. Our plants of choice today are angelica, mesquite, rat root, and sage which cover a spread of some of the countries and traditions on this continent. 

Angelica
Truthfully, angelica is not a singular plant, but a group of similar plants, many of which also grow in North America. While these other variants are equally deserving of attention, for the sake of simplicity, today we will only be focusing on Angelica atropurpurea, also known as great angelica or American angelica. This perennial herb is native to the more northerly parts of North America, particularly eastern Canada and the northern states of the US. Further, it thrives in extremely partial to swampy, marshy ground, and is an emergent water plant (as we discussed in Lesson Seven of last year). Great angelica also requires at least partial sun, though full sun is preferable. Its pH needs are rather loose, on the other hand. The purple-stemmed plant can tolerate anything between 6.5 and 8.0 and there is little need to worry about overwatering it, as it can thrive in even standing water. In the summertime, its stems (which reach anywhere between three and eight feet) are topped with white, yellow, or greenish flowers. 

This plant was widely used in medicinal practices, particularly the roots, as a treatment for chest pain and pneumonia. Its roots are also widely used for purification, whether ritual or medicinal. Juice from the leaves, on the other hand, can be extracted to fight off colds. In more modern times, the juice is an active ingredient in Sobriety Solutions.

Mesquite
Next, it is time to venture to the opposite side of the continent. Prosopis glandulosa, otherwise known as honey mesquite, is a plant native to Mexico and the southeastern parts of the United States, though it has spread much farther than that in the continent and beyond (as it is one of the most invasive plants in the world when grown in its non-native area). Therefore, as you might be able to guess, the tree is not very picky. Its pH is anywhere between 6.0 and 8.2, and it needs hardly any water. It does grow best in full sun, but will tolerate anything short of full shade. It most frequently grows between 20 and 30 feet, though the tallest recorded specimens have reached up to 50.

The plant flowers in the spring and summertime, producing furry, cattail-like flowers. The flowers themselves have no documented use, but the seed pods that give way to the flowers can be harvested before blooming and eaten. Gum from the trees is scraped away, purified, and applied to irritated eyes to heal them. The leaves also have their fair share of properties, medicinal and otherwise. They are used in Dulling Prevention Draughts used on many a fine blade and liquid can be extracted from them to create an antiseptic. Just be sure to avoid the plant’s thorns when harvesting!

Rat Root
As with many plants, there are quite a few herbal species that can fall under this common name. For the purposes of this lesson, we will be focusing on the species known as Acorus americanus, not to be confused with its close relative Acorus calamus. The chief difference between these two is that the former is native to the continent, whereas the latter was introduced from Asia. Rat root is the Canadian Cree name for this plant, though it goes by many other names, including flagroot, myrtle grass, sweet myrtle, and beewort, to name a few. This herb is an emergent water plant, and thus grows best in marshes or by the edges of rivers and ponds. Full sun is a must for this plant as well. Its pH needs are a little lower than the other two we have covered as well, tending more towards the acidic side in comparison (around 6.5 to 7.4). As you can see, this herb is a little fussier than the others from today. In ideal conditions, it will grow to roughly one to three feet and will flower in the early summer months.

The uses of rat root vary widely and depend on the part of the plant in use. Preparations of liquids from the leaves or flowers are used in all sorts of digestive potions both in the past and presently. The roots, on the other hand, are commonly dried and ground into a powder to be used in foreign counterparts to our version of the Wit-Sharpening Potion (though these potions were made well before ours and developed on their own). This herb is also used to help people recover after having a stroke. Lastly, due to the sweet smell of the herb, rat root is also commonly used to cover the stench of foul-smelling dirt floors or to change the scent of potions to something more palatable. However, beware. Rat root is an abortifacient, which means it can cause a miscarriage; therefore pregnant women may not be treated with it. 

Sage
Also called garden sage or common sage, we mentioned that this plant is considered the most potent of the four herbs from the native herbal tradition of the medicine wheel. To grow this plant, the pH level of the soil should be between 5.5 and 8.5, though it is fairly adaptable. It should be grown in full sunlight and be watered infrequently (when soil is dry) but deeply. Its flowers can be between blue and purple and appear in late spring, accompanied by green to grey leaves. When all is said and done, this perennial will grow to reach 12 to 30 inches in height. 

Before looking at the list of ways Salvia officinalis is commonly used in healing, I would like to go over a few warnings. When taken over a lengthy period of time, sage can induce vomiting, restlessness, tremors, vertigo, and possibly seizures. If you have a predisposition to seizures or suspect you may be pregnant, do not take this. With this noted, preparations of the leaves, stems, and flowers are used in the modern Sore Throat Soother and have been historically (and still) used in draughts against depression, liver disease, and fevers. Less impressively, its roots are used in Dandruff Draught and are occasionally used to treat various skin infections. Additionally, many natives of North America utilize this herb in their ceremonies, owing to its believed effectiveness in purification, similar to mesquite. 

Closing
I hope you have enjoyed this trip across the world to an area with not only diverse people, but diverse plants as well! The history of magical practices in North America is quite an interesting topic, as it is rather different from ours, despite much of our shared background. For now, though, we have your midterm and a homework assignment to complete. I will see you next week for our exploration of healing a little closer to home!

Original lesson written by Professor Lily Tudor
Additional portions by Professor Venita Wessex
Image credits here, here, here, here, here, here, and here

Additional photos on Facebook here

 

Have you ever thought about becoming a healer? In the Third Year of Herbology, you will learn about healing herbs, their properties, and how to plant and care for them. You will also learn about Herbology from a more historical perspective, touring around the world while we discover the most interesting plants. Join me in this marvellous trip!
Course Prerequisites:
  • HERB-201

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