Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Medicine At Your Feet - Hawaiian Healing Plants with David Bruce Leonard

David Bruce Leonard looking at an Emilia plant in the grass -
it has a reddish tufty flower.

Weeds have value. That’s one of the things David Bruce Leonard teaches.  What’s so interesting is some of the same medicinal weeds are prevalent all over the planet, close to areas of human habitation.  The same weed growing in my backyard is the same plant in India, thousands of miles away.

I first met David Leonard through classes he offered at Eve Hogan’s Sacred Garden of Maliko. The students consisted of Margo Gal, an ayurvedic therapist, Aubrey Bamdad whose Qori Inti company makes Amazonian herbal products, an herbal practitioner in Kula, and a staffer from the Dragon’s Den herb shop in Makawao, a couple of other herbal students, plus myself. Ayurveda is an ancient healing tradition that comes from India.

There was so much information in class that it was almost overwhelming – my chicken scratch notes contained Hawaiian plant names, Indian/Ayurvedic plant names, botanical descriptions, references to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Latin plant names, and properties of different plants, cultural uses from more than one culture, and many misspellings and question marks where I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with what David was saying.  After taking a couple more classes, luckily since David does repeat information, my notes slowly became more logical and readable. Some plants became almost familiar: Bidens or Spanish Needle, with both introduced and native species versions; Emilia, a wispy thistle like plant with a reddish or pinkish flower tuft; Soncchus which looks like a more slender version of dandelion. There are also some plant look alikes, so it's good to make sure you have really identified it.

Fuzzy picture of Emilia - with the reddish tuft on the left side, and Bidens, Spanish needle, with yellow flowers and pointy leaves on the right side.  This is not a good picture to use to identify these plants.

Crassocephalum looks similar to Emilia and may not be a helpful plant.

Having Aubrey and Margo in my class raised the bar. Aubrey had studied plants extensively and would ask specific, almost technical questions about plant properties. I felt like a beginning math student listening to a question about trigonometry.  Margo’s face would light up when she recognized a plant from her studies in India, and then she would share some ayurvedic uses as well.

Bumi amalaki - in the very center with rounded compound leaves
Margo Gal says she uses this plant to get energy moving, and it's good for kapha doshas (Body types with more earth energy). This picture is not clear enough to identify this plant.

Nothing in class prepared me for my first plant walk with David and Aubrey. It was just the three of us.  We met at the Haiku Cannery parking lot shortly after 11 am.  In David’s trunk was a large snorkeling bag stuffed with tabis, Japanese style reefwalking shoes.  David looked at my sneakers, shook his head, and instructed me to find a pair of tabis to fit my feet.  David prefers tabis which have special grippy felt bottoms that are better for going up and down dry and wet stream beds. Since most students don’t have tabis, David has amassed quite a collection of them, but encouraged us to get a pair at Longs Drug Store if we continue doing more herb walks.

Japanese Tabis (pronounced tah-bees), reefwalking shoes with a felt bottom. David recommends the felt sole not the other kind of sole. Make sure to check before buying.  Longs Drugs usually carries them. 

We climbed into Aubrey’s car.  Where are we going?  “Oh, somewhere towards Hana,” David says vaguely. Aubrey would drive and David would let her know when to stop. When will we get back? "Oh, probably around 1 pm or so…" None of us has to be back at any particular time, so we can take our time. Aubrey is now driving on Hana Highway from Haiku, discussing a particular treatment with David for one of Aubrey’s patients that involves maybe gathering mamaki leaves or making a tea with the fuzzy flower heads from sleeping grass… The conversation is becoming technical and going over my head. 

Aubrey continues to drive further and further.  We are definitely past Huelo now and stretching the edges of my comfort zone. I am being kidnapped by two mad herbalist shaman witch doctor healers and we may end up doing a vision quest journey for days!   My cell phone doesn’t get a signal this far out.  I am having a flashback from the book Mutant Message Down Under - the story of an American woman who ends up trekking across the Australian wilderness with aborigines who contrive to burn all her western clothing and personal items… (Yes, the library should carry this book).

Somewhere in the vicinity of 20 miles out from Haiku, or maybe further since I’m not keeping track of mile markers, David asks Aubrey to stop by a particular one-lane bridge. We have already passed a few one-lane bridges. I feel a tremendous sense of relief. I wasn’t prepared to go all the way to Hana, or even halfway.  I’m also too “chicken” (as we say in Hawaii) to say anything about it since we’ve already started. Aubrey parks the car and we clamber out. As we stretch our legs, David starts pointing out where the bamboo has crowded more into the valley, further than it did last time he was here. He starts pointing to some scraggly plants growing by the car, and I start scribbling notes and trying to get my camera out in time. Ah too late, we are climbing up a dirt trail from the roadside following along a stream bed.

David is listening intently and looking around.  At some point farther from the road, we stop and gather together as a circle of three, and he says a Hawaiian prayer out loud asking for permission to be there and to gather plants.

Several times we stop as David points out plants – maidenhair fern of the introduced variety based on the number of spots under the leaves, a species of ageratum, the young leaf buds of guava branches are useful in tea for is it diarrhea?, and more Latin names that I’m not keeping up with. At one point, David asks us all to stop and listen and watch. We stand looking around. He guides us to look at a leaf spinning in the wind. It is the only thing moving. We watch it in silence. David emphasizes the importance of observing during a plant walk, reminding us to watch the wind, the plants, the movements of things. This observation can keep plant gatherers safe.

We eventually work our way to the bottom of a waterfall, and David demonstrates a flowing qi gong movement with a long name that I also don’t remember. I think it has to do with moving the energy from the kidneys or the liver, so that it circulates and is not stagnant. David insists on jumping in the waterfall pool while Aubrey and I talk.

Aubrey by the waterfall - using my old camera,
so it's not the best picture of her.

We continue walking and looking at plants, and then at some point, David pauses and says the energy has shifted and it may be time for us to leave. It is an already overcast day, and it seems like the sky is even darker and cloudier.  So we gather in a circle again and David asks the spirits to guide us on our way out and keep us safe.  We make it back to the car without incident. Aubrey offers some seed snacks and I am munching on them furiously along with some dried fruit.

By the time we make it back to Haiku, it’s at least 3 pm. I am ravenous and eat my way through the kitchen, with a handful of unreadable notes and my head still spinning from the walk. It felt like I had crossed a couple of time zones, and passed a boundary from some mystery place back to civilization.  My sense of time felt all out of whack. But it was exhilarating to have been on the walk and to experience coming back from the walk.

I took a few more classes with David, attended another walk or two, and also arranged for a plant walk at the Hali'imaile Community Garden open to the public.  A few months ago I got in touch with David again and found out that he has moved to the Big Island. Then last week, Upcountry Sustainability announced that he is doing a talk and series of classes on Maui again.

The talk is going to be held at Hali'imaile Community Center, on Makomako St. in Hali`imaile (correction 10/20: it is "makai" or oceanside of Hali`imaile Rd even though the event page says it's mauka or mountainside - we just looked at google maps again), this Thursday 10/20/11 (tomorrow) from 7 pm to 8 pm (but it may run longer).  Melanie said there will also be signs - it's going to be in a green gymnasium. The upcoming class this weekend is a worthwhile opportunity to learn some plant lore and get to know the wild things in one’s backyard or the special uses of every day plants like ti leaf plants or bananas. There’s also a book that David wrote, volume I of Medicinal Plants of the Hawaiian Kingdom – I’ve looked at it a few times, but it has such a tremendous wealth of information that I wasn’t ready to partake of it fully.  It is a helpful guide for the plant walks and class.  I also highly recommend the plant walks, even though the initial experience can be a bit otherworldly.  Time definitely moves differently on a plant walk. If you need to be back by a certain time, make sure to let David know.

Last note: the pictures included are meant to supplement this post, but are not that great for identifying these plants. Please beware of identifying plants incorrectly. Some of them look alike, and not all of them are beneficial, or we may not know of their beneficial uses.


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