Yerba Esoterica: Herbs for the Dreamtime

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*Note: the intention of this article is not to promote the use of any herbs in this matter, but to be purely educational.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) was the European counterpart to Estafiate (Artemisia ludoviciana), both said to aid in dreaming ~ Photo taken by Adrian White
Sage (Salvia officinalis) was the European counterpart to Estafiate (Artemisia ludoviciana), both said to aid in dreaming ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

“Dreams are the answers to questions we haven’t yet learned how to ask.”  -Dana Scully

“Dreamers, Huila said, held great knowledge, and much medicine was worked in the dream time.”  -The Hummingbird’s Daughter

“Dreams are revelation, the substrate of consciousness.”  -Dale Pendell, Pharmakodynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions and Herbcraft

For all you herbalists out there who love a little dose of the “plant magick” and herbal dream-time, well here’s the article for you.

Herbalism commonly deals with medicine of the physical realm, but in more ancient times, its uses both physical and spiritual once reached an inseparable blend.  Nowadays, herbalism has an overall physical focus.  But let’s not forget the less tangible effects of some of our favorite herbs and how they can expound upon our health in ways that, while being unconventional, were once considered integral and important to well-being.

One of these ways was through the Dreamtime.  Besides these just being herbs that directly stimulate the mind and help us remember and enliven our dreams, they are much more subtle than all that.  Some of them just help us get back in touch with the imagination, our impressions, our intuition and our subconscious.  Some of them ease doubt, depression, sadness, restlessness, anxiety and dysphoria, and help us center ourselves and attune to our most powerful inner voice, while silencing others.  Some, also, are believed to be spiritually purifying, cleansing, detoxifying, purgative.

But to put it more simply: they help us get back in touch with how we really feel at the bottom of all the daily events we experience.  Being able to remember a dream and take apart its meaning can be of a great help or insight into our lives.  Getting in touch with our most subconscious, deepest instincts on things can help us cut through all the excess nonsense we have to put up with in our lives– stress, drama, and the list goes on.

At that, these herbs were not just reserved for those needing to be healed.  Herbalists and healers in ancient times used herbs not only to enact as plant medicine on others, but would form relationships with certain plants and use them for themselves; for aid in knowing more about a client, knowing more about a plant, or to find the ideal remedy or help for the person concerned.  These plants throughout history in many cultures perhaps best served to bring one to a mind state where healing advice, ideas, and intuitions came to the healer the easiest.  A lot of the following plants could be called “Dream Herbs.”

If you have more interest in dreams and dreaming, please visit my other page, “Dreamwork,”  which goes deeper into a whole other level of the Dreamtime– Dream Interpretation.  I provide services involving dreams and dream interpretation, and you are more than welcome to explore.

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Photo taken by Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist

ANGELICA (Angelica archangelica)

Angelica is a traditional Eurasian shaman’s herb.  In my mind, the image of Angelica is  right there along with Fly Agaric as it was favored by more northern-dwelling peoples.  The Celts, Sami and doubtless other Northern folk considered it a favorite.

Besides being the original material to craft the classical “magic wand,” Angelica’s internal effects are subtle and mind-changing.  Herbalist Matthew Wood says of it that it “opens the sphincter of the mind,” helping us become more open and in tune to our imaginations.  Its stalks are hollow, like a long tube, which evoke the thought of “journeying to the other side,” a state that shamans sought to achieve.  Many shamans report that travel into the spirit world is like journeying through a long, dark tunnel, or tube.

Taking the plant could give that little “push” your dream-life needs.  It also helps with issues that involve emptiness and feeling hollow, which often bring us to a dreamless, uninspired life.  Iowa City herbalist Stephany Hoffelt says that the Celts used Angelica as an old remedy for grief.  The seeds, roots, and sometimes stalks are the best for use.  If you are into such things, the root smells wonderful burnt as an incense, and its subtlety can be felt that way as well.

Angelica should be avoided if you are pregnant or  nursing, as it has been known to cause uterine contractions, but that is only if you are using it daily in high amounts.

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Cut, dried, and sifted Boldus leaves, purchased from Panaderia/Tienda in West Liberty, IA ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

BOLDO (Peumus boldus)

Boldo is a popular culinary spice in Hispanic cooking, used in place of Bay leaves.  It has also been an upheld Native-Hispanic folk medicine herb, especially in South America– but if you wander into some little tiendas in the United States you will more than likely find it.

The Mapuche Indians of Chile were known to burn the leaves of this plant as an incense, in order to aid them in reaching a trance state.  The powerful female shamans, called machi, were masters of its use.  Some shamans took heavy internal doses in order to induce visions and a strong trance state– but seeing as Boldo contains boldine, a potentially dangerous alkaloid, this is absolutely not recommended.

Boldo is also a popular admixture to some Hispanic teas, especially Mate.  In small amounts, sporadically, it is perfectly safe and has been used internally in small culinary amounts for centuries, if not millenia.  One uses it that way, or in small amounts in your home as an incense or in a dream-incense blend.  Boldo is very sedative, has been used as a painkiller and anesthetic for surgery, as well as for epilepsy, so you can gather that this plant has a considerable effect on the nervous system and the mind.

If you have liver or gallbladder disease of any sort, you should avoid Boldo altogether.  Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take it or inhale it.  Boldo is known to interact with certain medications.  If you are taking any medications make sure to consult with a professional healthcare provider before using.

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Potted marshy Calamus plant, kept damp at all times ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

CALAMUS (SWEET FLAG) (Acorus calamus)

Calamus’ use for these such purposes has its roots adrift in many cultures.  In Iowa and the Midwest, though, it is obviously owed to Native Americans, and in my opinion their mastery of it was the best and most interesting.  In fact, both Native histories and ethnobotanists maintain that the presence of Calamus in vast, odd patches in the Midwest is owed to care, cultivation, and transplanting by Medicine People of the distant past.  This attests to how important this plant medicine was considered in North American folklore.

Calamus root may be eaten, chewed, smoked or burnt as incense, or added to various preparations.  Its flavor is unique and pleasant– sharp, sweet and clarifying.  Various Plains Indian people would use the root for ceremonies.  The Teton Dakotas put the root poultice on their faces to help them overcome fear when entering battle.   It was also a favorite for singers during pow-wow performances requiring vocalizations for hours on end– the root helps numb tired vocal chords, as well as place the singer in the right mind state for spiritual song.

Overall, the effects of Calamus are attributed with calming you, but not in a sleepy way.  It makes you more alert, centered, and even stimulated; in fact, the effects of Calamus have been compared to that of the traditional Coca leaf.  It calms by increasing a sense of well-being.  This is perfect for tapping into the subconscious and Dreamtime.  It helps you slow down enough to be open to insights and remember your dreams, as well as stimulating them and lending more lucidity to those who seek it.

FDA regulates on internal use of Calamus.  To be safe, its use as an incense or in an incense blend is preferable– doses of the plant, if overdone, have been known to cause undesirable effects.  If you do choose to take it internally, make sure you are following dosage recommendations, not pregnant, breastfeeding, taking heavily sedative drugs and other herbs or using Calamus in considerable amounts on a daily basis.  

Calea Zacatechichi in the Deer Nation apothecary ~ Photo by Adrian White
Calea Zacatechichi in the Deer Nation apothecary ~ Photo by Adrian White

CALEA ZACATECHICHI (BITTERGRASS) (Calea ternifolia)

This herb has many pseudonyms: Dog Grass, Leaf of God, Thle-pelakano.  Zacatechichi is a more commonly used title, which is a Nahuatl word meaning Bitter Grass.  Calea refers to its genus, of which most of the species are not even mind-altering in the least.  Thus the most common name: Calea Zacatechichi.  For me, the mere thought or sight of this plant’s name evokes imagery of Toltec gods, jungle shamans and copal incense.

Zacatechichi was used for divinatory and healing purposes, and still is today, in many parts of Mexico and Central America.  Oaxacan villages used it for physical ails, but the shamans there would take it to answer elusive questions pertaining to health, or to find lost objects.  It was both smoked and infused as a tea.  Its taste is incredibly bitter, very comparable to Wormwood (Artemisia absinthiuum), but its cerebral effects are notably different.  I very much love the tea, but some may consider it unpalatable– adding a tad bit of honey can fix that.

For some, a cup of Zacatechichi tea creates a sense of calm and well being, which can last for several days.  For others, it is similar, but upon going to bed and waking up, the most meaningful and realistic dreams are recalled.  If I were to point to any single herb with the most efficacy at generating dreams that actually convey strong messages, this one would be it.  It also stimulates a great deal of lucidity for the average dreaming newcomer.  If you have a great need to get in touch with yourself, then get to know Calea.

None known contraindications; however, the higher the dose, the more “hallucinogenic” this plant becomes, which is generally unpleasant for most people.

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Gifted Estafiate bundle from South Dakota ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

ESTAFIATE (WESTERN MUGWORT/WHITE SAGE) (Artemisia ludoviciana)

This is the classic White Sage of the Great Plains First Nation people, constantly adopted and co-opted for use as smudge for clearing negativity and depression.   Because the plant looked and smelled somewhat similar to the Salvia sage of Europe, which was also used for purification, white culture picked up on this use too.  Since it also aids with dreaming and is related to Mugwort, Western Mugwort became one sobriquet.  Estafiate is the Spanish title, plucked from the Southwestern natives and integrated into Native-hispanic medicine as a key-player, honored for the same uses.  In Iowa, this plant is actually not that uncommon.  I see its silvery leaves quite often along roadsides and ditches, especially in late summer.

Estafiate is actually not a sage at all, it is an Artemisia, more closely related to Dandelion and Lettuce than any mint or sage.  To hail respectfully to its native use, many tribes of the West used the plant to purify and cleanse things of negativity and bad influences.  Leaves were lain on the soil around dwellings that needed protection; the burnt plant as an incense smudged the air within.  It was also used in sweat ceremonies, not only for spiritual purification and renewal, but also because the plant’s oils in a steam were incredibly moving for the lungs.  Estafiate cleared the mind and soul, but also the body, through the pores and lungs.  No doubt this observation of physical, purgative effects led to a similar belief for the spiritual.

Smudge or smoke of this plant clears the air of “bad vibes,”  “woo,” evil spirits, bad influences, witchcraft, sorcery, or negative thought forms.  It also stimulates inspiration and the Dreamtime.  Over any smoke or smudge, I prefer to make and drink a strong Estafiate infusion.  A tea of it is alkaloidal-bitter, just like Zacatechichi, Wormwood or Mugwort, but still effective.  If anything, this plant may increase the faculties of imagination, but more so, it may keep out most of the negative ones.  if you specifically want to comb through the nightmares and get to something more pleasant, this would be your herb.

Large doses of Estafiate are known to be toxic.  At one time or another, FDA classified all Artemisia species as an unsafe herb containing a “volatile oil, which is an active, narcotic poision.”  I’m not certain if this is still in effect, but take care if using this herb, and make sure to avoid its use of you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

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Wild Harebells: a glimpse of the little sprite in the Driftless of Iowa ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

HAREBELLS (Campanula rotundifolia)

This is the “cliff spirit” plant of Iowa, the Kachina of the Midwest, the mischievous dweller of rocky slopes in isolated wildernesses.  Harebells is an alpine plant found in every continent within Northern latitudes, wherever there is high elevation, craggy slopes, and open fields.   In Iowa, that would be the magical Algific Talus Slopes in the Driftless Region, little pockets of faerie-world where the air and vegetation matches that of the Great Northern Woods.  Odd plants that are usually native to the far north can live and grow there.  When you tread into these spaces, you feel like you enter a different world.

Which is quite pertinent a place for a Harebells to grow, since this little bluebell-esque flower is shrouded with faerie lore from the British Isles and trickster tales from Native America.  The herb was ascribed the ability to let mortals glimpse or cross into the faerie or spirit world, but to also risk being ensnared by traps and malevolent influences from the other side.  Seeing its presence usually meant that you were entering territory where the boundaries to the spirit world were rubbed thin– you could get lost in the woods, the faeries could trap you, or worse.  Scottish tales warn against pulling up the plant without fearing bad energy to follow you– likewise, in Native lore of the Haida Indians, pulling up Harebells was said to bring storms and make it rain.  It’s interesting that beliefs across continents were similar.

The use of Harebells as a dream herb, unfortunately, can only be speculative today.  This plant is not regarded or upheld in any modern herbalist practice, and its effects have not been clinically explored either.  But ancient, traditional and empirical lore has plenty to suggest it was a dreaming ally of sorts, though its use has been lost.  The name of the plant itself, “Harebells,” came from European witches who used the root for shape-shifting medicine: the juice of it allowed them to turn into hares, in order to go about some of their more “rabbit-oriented” tasks, I suppose.  Harebells was also a purported ingredient for “Flying Ointment,” a witch’s brew for Dreamtime adventures, astral travel.   Haida Indians used it as a purifying smudge for various ills.  Navajo rubbed poultice of the root for protection from sorcery or enemies.   The root was also purportedly sedative, being chewed for depression.  So, obviously, our various ancestors were aware of its ability to help us reach a more intuitive state, or to attune with the beyond.

Harebell root and leaf are known to be edible.  Its use in medicinal amounts and daily, long-term use are very much unexplored, so to avoid “malevolent interference by faeries” (so to speak), exercise great caution with its use.

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Wormwood, a relative that is similar looking and similar in use to Mugwort. The leaves of Mugwort are notably more pointed ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

MUGWORT (Artemisia vulgaris)

No article on classic Dreamtime herbs can go long without including the notorious Mugwort.  In fact, the herb itself is synonymous with dreaming– back in the dark ages, its name was associated with witches and sorcery.  “Witch’s Herb” was a telling nickname.  This was another one of the favorite additions to “Flying Ointments,” the mysterious salve used for Dreamtime work and other esoteric pursuits.  Today, Mugwort has many other reputed uses, but dreaming is definitely its trademark.

Mugwort is quite closely related to Wormwood, the famous admixture to Absinthe.  They look rather similar, too, and both were more than likely used for trance states and journeying– however, Wormwood is arguably way more overbearing than Mugwort, even toxic if used too much or too often.  For lighter, more casual use, I would very much recommend Mugwort.  In those who struggle with dreams and remembering them, Mugwort reportedly helps.  For some who already dream, they say it helps give them lucidity.  However, some practitioners say that for those not usually accustomed to dreaming, Mugwort can create wild, uncontrollable, and very occasionally unpleasant dreams.  One user of the plant I know said that you actually might need to practice with Mugwort to get to a lucid state.  Thus, I would dub Mugwort the perfect “dream-teacher.”

Drinking a tea of it once in a while won’t hurt you, if you want your dream-life pushed a little.  Mugwort as a salve or topical oil option is incredibly effective, too– I have made Mugwort salves of my own, rubbing a bit of it on my temples or major pressure points of my body before going to bed.  It certainly does something.  If it’s up your alley, Mugwort can be smoked as well.  I like to throw it in with my smoking mixtures, typically made up of Mullein, Sumac leaf, Willow bark.  There is strong traditional use of Mugwort in sachets or pillows too.  The dried leaf is simply sewn up in a piece of cloth, and placed under your larger pillow in sleep.

Mugwort should not be taken or used if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, as Mugwort is known to have a powerful effect on the uterus and menstruation.  The plant can cause abortions, miscarriage, or premature labor.  For some, Mugwort can cause allergic reactions.  Be cautious with its use.

Sweet Gale (Myrica gale)  ~ Photo credit KG Nature Photography
Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) ~ Photo credit KG Nature Photography

SWEET GALE (Myrica gale)

This is a wild plant from the Northern Great Lakes region, with relations to Myrtle, Allspice, Cloves and Eucalyptus.  It grows and was used in Europe, likewise.  Also called “Bog Myrtle,” the herb grows commonly by bodies of water, especially running water– typically, harvesting the plant requires one to access it by boat, most often a canoe or other small vessel.  In Belgium and surrounding countries the plant was used to flavor beers, before the advent of Hops, as the plant is incredibly bitter.  On the other hand, in America, various Native peoples found both medicinal and practical use for it.  Lousiana Creole folk-medicine doctors had a place for it themselves, quite fitting for Sweet Gale’s “bayou” habitat.

In some lore maintained up until today, Sweet Gale was considered very useful for helping stimulate your dream life, or to obtain lucid dreaming.  It is quite uncertain which cultures or traditions first used it in this way.  But a tea or infusion, for some, has been known to do something to that extent.  In comparison to other dream herbs, its effects are not as famous and, empirically, much less potent.  For some, it could certainly be worth a try.  Others have been known to smoke it if you happen to be the smoking type.

This herb should not be taken internally while pregnant or breastfeeding- may cause miscarriage.

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Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

YARROW (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow is, perhaps, the most secret and overlooked of all dream herbs.  That is because, in and of itself, it is sort of a secret.  You won’t find much lore on it being a dream plant, except by word-of-mouth from some herb folks.  The only official record of practiced, tried-and-true use, is in Traditional Hispanic Herbal medicine— but even then, the preparation of the plant is very much kept close, only passed down from practitioner to practitioner.

Yarrow has a strong tie to the I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes, which can make one wonder.  Traditionally, yarrow stalks were used to cast the hexagrams through which the oracle gave a reading.  Perhaps the herb was taken by the one giving the reading, in order to reach the correct mind state where one could receive impressions and intuitive advice more easily.  This is only speculation, on my part.  Yarrow contains thujone, a constituent found in Artemisias too– Mugwort, Wormwood, and Estafiate.  It is also found in the common garden Sage, Salvia officinalis, as well as various Cedars and Junipers.  The effects of thujone are said to calm, sedate, slow the heartbeat and alter the mind, if only barely– just enough to hear the voices of your subconscious, among others.

From empirical experience, those who have dreamed with Yarrow talk about some interesting brush-ins with lucidity.  In fact, a sensation of feeling like you are “underwater” or “swimming” is reported among many.  Above all else though, you are more aware of what is happening around you in the dream, and you take part of it more readily.  Messages and clarity find their ways to you all the easier, and many have startling significance.

References

Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter.  Dale Pendell, Pharmakopeoia: Power Plants, Poisons and Herbcraft; Pharmakodynamis: Stimulating Plants, Poisons and Herbcraft; Pharmakognosis: Plant Teachers and the Poison Path.  Kelly Kindscher, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: an Ethnobotanical Guide.  Matthew Wood, Herbalist.  Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa City Herbalist.  Charlies Garcia/California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism.  WebMD.  Personal Experience/Observation.

Adrian White is a health, food, herbalism, agriculture, and sustainability freelance writer. She regularly contributes to Rodale’s Organic Life and Healthline, with bylines in The Guardian and Civil Eats. She is owner of Deer Nation Herbs and Jupiter Ridge organic farm. Hire her as a freelance writer for your projects, or even book an herbal educational health consultation with her if desired.

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