Honoring our Elders

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Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) in flower
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) in flower

Sambucus nigra, the Elder tree, is often planted in the center of the herb garden and is said to be the guardian of the garden, the keeper of the green. The other plants in the garden look to it for protection, wisdom and strength.

So it is with the elders of our herbal community.

Elders are still considered wisdom keepers, and their knowledge of the plants and teachings are sought after. At conferences and events they are often guests of honor, and other herbalists travel great distances to meet and study with them. Why is this?

Aside from the fact that these individuals are often great characters, wonderfully entertaining and full of stories, they have lived rich and meaningful lives, and their experiences reach in and touch us, giving our own lives meaning. 

It is the elders who have kept the teachings of herbalism alive through generations of time, the wise ones who taught the children how to find the plants, how to speak with them, and how to make medicine from them. This lineage, though weakened, still lives on, and our hearts hunger for this connection to our traditions.

Often, we find in our herbal elders a passion for and a commitment to their vision and life that is extraordinary. They light the way for us. Though many of the elders have passed on, their teachings live on in those whose lives they’ve touched. And, likewise, the teachings of the green will live on through us.1Excerpted from Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health © 2008 by Rosemary Gladstar, published by Storey Publications. All rights reserved.

Voices of the Herbal Elders

Several years ago, I began working on a book that I was intending to call Voices of the Herbal Elders. I had a long list of elders lined up to interview, all herbalists I knew closely, and some of whom I had the good fortune to work with for many years. These were my friends and teachers, people I traveled far and wide to study with, to work for and be with. Many were getting older, and I was afraid that their stories and teachings would be lost. I wanted to capture some of their stories for future generations of plant lovers. I actually started the interviews way back in 1996, and still have a few of the original recordings. Then I got busy with life, projects, gardens, family, other books, and Voices of the Herbal Elders got put on the back burner…where it’s been slowly simmering, nearly forgotten, for the last two decades.

As happens, that amazing generation of elders began to pass over. First, Dr. Christopher. Then Norma Meyers. Adele Dawson. Tasha Tudor. Miss Hortense, Miss Beatrice Wright, Don Jose Matsua, Sunbear, Rolling Thunder, Bear Heart, Dr. Jim Duke, Russ and Mary Jorgenson, Juliette de Baïracli Levy, my beloved Grandmother Mary Abelian Egitkhanoff and so very many others.

Some of Rosemary Gladstar's Elders
From top left to bottom: Tasha Tudor and Juliette de Baïracli Levy, Miss Beatrice and Miss Hortense, Mary and Russ Jorgenson, Mary Egitkhanoff, James Duke, Norma Meyers

These elders carried on the teachings of the plants when herbalism wasn’t popular and it was almost impossible to even earn a livelihood as an herbalist. Yet these wise elders generously shared their healing skills, wisdom and knowledge with anyone willing to listen with an open heart.

While that book kept slowly simmering on the back burner, nearly but not quite forgotten, time was sneaking by.

Soon my friends, who were those young herbalists studying at the feet of our elders, were gray-haired grandparents, shepherding the next generation of herbalists. And as happens in the normal course of time, the way the river flows, many of these elders, my dearest friends, co-visionaries and dreamers of the green, began their journeys to the Spirit Worlds, the land of stars, rainbows and quiet mystery.

Michael Moore. William LeSassier, Steven Foster. Gabriel Howearth. Jessie Longacre. Gail Ulrich. Cascade Anderson Geller. Stephen Buhner. Michael Phillips. And so many other bright souls. The list is long, and grows longer with each passing year.

Rosemary's Peers
From left: Gail Ulrich, Stephen Foster, Cascade Anderson Geller, and Michael Phillips

I felt that old dream awaking and knew it was way past time to move that pot from the back burner up to the front, time to turn up the heat, and begin earnestly, merrily stirring.

While I have many stories I could share about each of these wise herbal elders, what I love best, and think others do as well, is listening to herbalists telling their own stories in their own plant-rich voices.

And so the stories begin…what I like to call ‘inner views,’ as we glimpse into the lives of these current herbal elders and listen to them tell of their journeys into the lush world of plants. While it’s an entirely new set of elders than I had originally intended to interview when I started this project back in the 1990s, I am so deeply inspired with each ‘inner view’ and am having so much fun with this project.

And, more than anything, I’m delighted to be able to share these stories with you.

The first episode of Voices of our Herbal Elders will be available Friday, September 1!

Voices of our Herbal Elders

Join me on your favorite podcast platform or watch the Inner-View videos on YouTube. I hope they bring you inspiration, joy, and hope.

We would love for you to share stories of your own herbal elders in the comments below!

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Iris Budulycz
15 days ago

As a child, I would watch my grandmother use herbs to make teas and oils to help neighbors and family. This instilled my love of herbalism! I read many books over the years and a few years ago completed my herbalism classes. Thank you for sharing these beautiful stories of such gifted souls.

Helen Ward
15 days ago
Reply to  Iris Budulycz

Thank you, Iris, for sharing about your grandmother. My grandmother also gifted me with my love of nature. Sending many blessings to you and yours. Helen

20 days ago

It was a very special treat to hear stories from the Mother of Herbology and the Father of Adaptogens in this first video. I took so many notes! That grief relief formula sounds amazing. Rose is also one of my favorite herbs, as are most of the “weedy herbs” that were discussed! I must try to grow some of the “exotic herbs”!

David Winston’s dream of a network of knowledgeable housewives/ community herbalists for sustainable health support sounds like such a desirable idea.

For me, this series is history in the making! A Big Thank You to you Rosemary, and to all who made this series possible.

Helen Ward
20 days ago
Reply to  Charmaine

Dearest Charmaine, Thank you for your sweet words. They will be honey to our entire team’s hearts. We are just over the moon to be launching this dream project of Rosemary’s. We are delighted you loved it so much! With green blessings, Helen

Louise Harmon
20 days ago

When I was a teenager, I discovered a small herbal book, written in French in 1920 titled, “Les Plantes Bienfaisantes”, in a bookcase at home. Inside, written on a small slip of paper in the section on garlic (Ail) was the word, ‘asma’. My mother explained that my French grandmother (whom I never met-she died before I was born), treated my grandfather’s asthma with garlic. She allowed me to carefully read through it (the pages are quite brittle), and before she died, gifted me this precious book. This little book launched me on a lifetime of learning and healing with plant medicine. Several years ago, I had it lovingly conserved and rebound, to pass on to the next generation of family herbalists.

Helen Ward
20 days ago
Reply to  Louise Harmon

What a beautiful story, Louise. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Linda Hanley
Linda Hanley
20 days ago

My paternal grandmother was my herbal elder. She would always give health advice based on her life’s experiences growing up on a farm that would eventually become part ok NY JFK airport. She was born in 1901 and passed in 2001. She raised 7 children alone as my grandfather passed when my dad was only 18 months old. Her advice ranged from how to care for childhood ear infections with garlic oil to the power of Kale as a food. She said Kale should be treated as too powerful sometimes dye to its effect on the thyroid. She thought homemade vinegar was medicine and drank her salad dressing after eating her salads. Being German she ate a lot of cabbages from traditional green to Bok Choy which she grew on her farm. I only wish I had had more time to spend with her discussing healing.

Helen Ward
20 days ago
Reply to  Linda Hanley

Another incredible story, Linda. Thank you for sharing about your paternal grandmother. She sounds like a knowledgeable woman and wow, to raise all 7 children alone. With you in herbal ways, Helen

Annette Mcateer
21 days ago

I am so blessed to have been placed on this path and to have found you Rosemary. I actually dont have an “elder” story to tell. I became intersted in plants for medicine during my career as a nurse, wanting to find ways of healing the body naturally for myself and my family. I had been dreaming about plants since i can remember and have always felt drawn to them.

Annette Mcateer
20 days ago

I am greatful for you, and this journey. Blessings and health to you Rosemary

Warm Herbal Greetings!

I’m Rosemary Gladstar. All my life I’ve had a deep love and fascination with plants. I have been learning, teaching and writing about herbs for over 50 years. It is my honor and joy to share what I have learned with you, and to introduce you to my fellow herbalists and plant lovers!

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