The first time I met Elephant Head Betony (Pedicularis groenlandica) was in 1992, when I moved to Durango from Honolulu. My college roommates were great hosts and took me to some amazing places in the Four Corners area. The first place they took me to was Lewis Basin just outside of Mancos, CO. The goal for this outing was to climb to the peak from the basin and traverse the ridge, but I was really more interested in exploring the alpine meadows full of flowers that I had never met before. I would come back the next weekend by myself to poke around, dip my feet in the stream, and meet everyone.
That was when I met Elephant Head. It blew my mind. The whole meadow basin blew my mind andmy heart wide open, but this plant enveloped my attention. We sat nose to nose that afternoon. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t know who this plant was at the time and was not at all surprised when I learn the common name – Elephant Head. Duh.
I attended a wonderful lecture presented by Dara Saville recently. Her visceral reaction to this plant, as she describes below in an excerpt from the essay on her class, is the desire to fling herself into the flower patch wholeheartedly for a deeper connection – a very reasonable impulse to such a heart-melting interlude. Mine, however, was quite opposite. I was in such awe of this plant that the idea of disturbing a single bloom was just absurd. It was best admired it’s natural home and I would do my best to photograph it to preserve the moment and “capture” its unique personality and expression.
After attending Dara’s class and learning about the energetic qualities of the two species that are abundant in my region, P. groenlandica and P. racemosa – beyond its traditional use as a muscle relaxant – I knew that when the opportunity presented itself to wildharvest either one of these plants, I would harvest if they gave me permission. I had never asked before, but next time, I would. I wanted to feel these energetics for myself. I felt called to undergo the shifts in energy and spirit these plants had to offer. I felt these plants could help me take things to the next level in my life. I wanted to feel unstuck and reconnect with the lost parts of myself.
Experts from Dana Savile’s Lecture Essay on Pedicularis spp.
P. groenlandicahas fern-like leaves and magnificent flowering racemes with elephant-shaped flowers, giving it the common name of “Elephant Head Betony”. To discover an alpine meadow blanketed by P. groenlandica is like falling in love. As my eyes met this magenta mountain meadow, my first reaction was to dive in head-first, to literally fling myself into it whole-heartedly. I felt a compelling attraction profoundly pulling me into the landscape, like two souls split part and now reunited. Knowing that this plant favors boggy places, I thought better of it and instead gazed drop-jawed at the majestic beauty, walked carefully amongst the little plants, and found a place to sit and soak it all in. I knew that later I would be making deep body healing salve born directly from the landscape, but for now P. groenlandica was nourishing me in the most intangible ways. I will never forget the happiness I felt from head to toe as I laid eyes on this striking scene. Simply knowing that such places exist in the world is comforting medicine for me. P. groenlandica’s mesmerizing inflorescence heals both directly as absorbed by the body and also indirectly as absorbed by the heart. Thriving in open wetter places with a tendency towards stagnancy, think of this species when the release of muscular tension is needed to promote more movement in the musculature, heart, and mind. This plant will help us to let go and move on from problems that may be holding us back.
Also known as 'Parrot Beak', P. racemosa flowers have a unique formation resembling a white bird's beak along with serrated lanceolate leaves, thereby differentiating it from other members of the genus described here. This plant inhabits the forest edges acting as liaison between worlds, an intermediary between light and dark. Approaching this plant, I feel it beckoning me to come deeper into the forest in search of fulfillment that only the wilderness beyond can provide. Just as its parasitic roots spread underground subtly shifting the energy of the forest ecosystem, it infiltrates the heart and implants trust and faith where fear, distrust, or other difficult emotions may reside. Working with it as plant medicine provides more than relief from musculo-skeletal aggravations; it also helps us to bridge the disparities in our own lives by connecting us with lost parts of ourselves. It summons from our own depths, the aspects of our being that we have ignored and helps us to be more complete individuals and more holistic practitioners. P. racemosa ultimately invites us to discover the unexplored magic within ourselves."
That day came about a week ago on one of my favorite hikes in the mountains near my home. I have been on this hike many times and have come to know the trail quite well – looking forward to seeing what’s new, seeing old plant friends, and being open to what the plants, trees, river, and weather may have to offer me in exchange for my deep gratitude and respect for their generosity.
Sometimes it’s a drizzly day and I could hike forever in the crisp, clean coolness. Sometimes there are so many plant portraits my eye sees that I inch along the trail at a staggeringly slow pace taking photographs. On these days it’s best if I hike alone and not get on a friend’s nerves for dallying along. Sometimes I show up in my “hikey shoes” and mini skirt – the best way to hike, btw – on a warm sunny day in late June, and as I climb higher and higher, the trail turns from dry to moist, to mucky, to steady stream, to tiny raging brook, to snow bridges with rushing water underneath, to The Impassable Snowbound Trail for the gal in “hikey shoes” and a mini skirt. All great days on the mountain, for sure.
And sometimes, when all the stars have aligned, there are plants that are abundant and in their peak bloom and calling out to those that can hear, “If you ask nicely, I will let you harvest me and give you good medicine”. And on this day, Pedicularis was calling my name. There was Parrot Beak in bloom everywhere on the trail’s edge, snugging up to pine and spruce trees, and pulling my eyes into the shaded untrampled recesses of the forest. This trail has a lot of water and marshy areas at several elevations along the hike, so chances of seeing a hardy patch of Elephant's Head at certain locations along the way are good. And indeed, there where two of these patches in full bloom.
My usual routine on any hike is to observe and photograph my surroundings on the hike in. If harvesting opportunities present themselves, I will make a mental note of the location, let the plants know that I am considering harvesting on my way back down the mountain, and hold this intention as I hike to my destination while noticing what comes up in my feelings and thoughts. So I made some mental notes and asked for permission to harvest as I sat on the edge of the high alpine lake, with the wind carrying my request downhill, feet dangling in the cold water.
I came home with just enough to put up less than a pint of each plant in alcohol. I had enough to fully cover the P. racemosa, but not the P. groenlandica. The Elephant’s Head was soaked in alcohol, but not fully covered. Since it was a Sunday evening, there was not much I could do about it. I would have to go to the liquor store after work the next day and top off the maceration. That night, this plant called out to me in my sleep over and over again, “PREDICULARIS GROENLANDICA!” It was as if it was fervently trying to remind me that my job of turning it into medicine wasn’t done. I woke up in the morning, picked up the jar off the counter, held it up to my face and said, “I know, I know... I am going to buy alcohol after work and fill your jar. I won’t forget. I promise.”
After a few days of soaking, I impatiently decided to do a proving of each plant. These tinctures will be used like flower essences – drop doses for energetic shifts rather than dropper-fulls for physiological effects. I tried the Parrot Beak first and felt subtle sensations of the dry forest floor, warm shade and a sense of invitation to look beyond the edges of the path. With the Elephant’s Head – those first few drops sent me straight back to the dappled sunlight and the deep fertile smell of the marshy aspen grove where it called home. I could feel the warm squishy marsh between my toes again. I felt the warmth of an ultra-green heartfelt embrace and its damp, verdant breath on my neck.
It’s still too soon to know where these plants will take me, but I look forward to the journey. I know it will require effort and risk on my part – it always does. Thank you, my plant allies, for helping me remain up for the task.
“Now we turn to all of the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning, they were instructed to take away sickness. They were always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines. Now our minds are one.” Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) Thanksgiving Address
Malia Thompson lives just East of Boulder, Colorado with a spectacular view of the Front Range.