This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend a Plant Medicine Workshop taught by Cowichan Elder Della Rice Sylvester. It was held in the Skutz Falls area near Cowichan Lake and hosted and organized by Rebecca Christofferson. Auntie Della (as I have been taught to refer to female elders) describes herself as a cultural keeper and healer.
The weather began to turn as the weekend approached, with a snowstorm expecting to arrive on Saturday. Because of this, out of the eighteen people registered, only five of us attended. Most dropped out in the days before the weekend. Auntie Della told Rebecca she didn’t want to cancel the class because things would unfold the way they were meant to. I felt privileged to be part of the small-sized group.
Following an opening ceremony which included eating a few seeds each of guchmein (Indian Celery), we walked along the river and looked for particular plants to harvest. Auntie Della, in her own words, told us to tune into the plants. She talked about bringing down their defenses if they were growing near a road, and that plants will give themselves up like deer do for hunters. The white berries in the photograph above are snowberries. These are used for nerve damage medicinally and ceremonially following a death. We also gathered rose hips like the one pictured here. These are used for curing fungus such as athlete’s foot.
This is licorice root, which is used as an astringent amongst other things. When it grows on the ground like this, it is relatively tasteless. When it grows on a maple tree it becomes sweet and licorice flavoured. We found some of the sweet root to harvest.
We also took a large fir branch that had fallen to the ground in the storm. We would be taking the seeds off the branch, which are high in vitamin C. Fir, especially the pitch, is used to treat cancer tumors.
Following a lunch break, we processed the plants we had harvested. In the bag is blackberry and Oregan grape leaves, the snowberries are behind the licorice root, the fir seeds are in the red bowl, and the rose hips are separated into two bowls. The hips with the seeds removed can be eaten.
We broke for the day. Auntie Della and three of the students left. One of the other students and myself had each rented a room in the cabin. Rebecca made us dinner and invited us to visit until her daughter went to bed. She was working on a fan, so she gifted each of us with an owl feather.
The next morning, I woke to find out that it had snowed quite a bit more. My Kia (background) was covered in snow. This is pretty unusual for early November. The sky was clear though, so it was a beautiful day. After breakfast, we went out to find Devil’s Club with the other students once they had come back.
Like Cedar, Devil’s Club is considered one of the “big medicines” on Vancouver Island. It is traditionally harvested in winter. The plant can be hard to find, as it is a protector of the forest. Improper harvesting can kill it so care should be taken before taking any of the plant. One of the medicines Auntie Della prepares takes her eighteen hours to make. As soon as she sees “a milky swirl” in the water “three or four times” she stops. Devil’s Club reboots the immune system, is good for diabetes, “all the ‘isms” and fertility. It is not a plant to be trifled with, and reason enough to take the workshop if learning about it is of any interest.
From Rebecca’s yard, we also harvested burdock (pictured), yellow dock, and valerian roots. Burdock can be found wild, while the valerian root and yellow dock looked cultivated. At one point, Auntie Della spoke about praying to find burdock the night before a person was to go out and look for it. This advice felt like it was being offered in regards to searching for all plants.
This is me preparing to wash the burdock root and valerian root in the workshop kitchen.
We began to process everything in the kitchen. The large jar in the background is sword fern that Rebecca had infused with olive oil. On the cutting board is yellow dock, and chopped licorice root is in the small bowl.
The grey/green leaf closest to the candle is mullein, the red powder is cayenne that Auntie Della had brought with her, and the roots on the top of the pile are valerian. That’s the rest of the licorice fern in the back, and the thick grasslike plant is kelp seaweed. Kelp is easy to find, harvest, and dry, but these portions had been prepared previously. I’m not sure if this was done by Auntie Della or Rebecca.
Most of these herbs were heated on the stove in the sword fern infused oil. We strained this later and put the herb mixture into tied bundles. These bundles are to be used while bathing, which when done ceremoniously is considered a sacred practice amongst Vancouver Island First Nations people. Auntie Della simultaneously prepared some of the Devil’s Club and a concoction for joint pain.
The non-bathing medicine was put into containers and divided up amongst us. I’m not sure if it was because of the small group size, but I was impressed by how much medicine we each got. A tin and an oil bottle of the devil’s claw ointment and the same with the joint pain remedy (the tin portions had been mixed with bee’s wax so was a salve). We also received several bath satchels and a ziplock with fir seeds in it.
The weekend ended with a closing ceremony in the yurt, which included everyone sharing their thoughts before heading their separate ways.
I was really impressed with what I learned over the short period of time. I’ve been fortunate enough to have received elder teachings in the past, predominantly through Vancouver Island University’s “Land as Life” course. Usually, we are told not to take notes, that what we remember is what we are meant to remember, as the teachings are traditionally passed down orally. I appreciated that Auntie Della allowed us to take notes and photographs. I thanked her for making her teachings available to outsiders, which is often not the case on Vancouver Island either. Her energy was very positive and she was a real pleasure to be around.
Rebecca is also very knowledgable and answered many questions, as she has facilitated a number of these workshops in the past and is a healer herself. Her partner Trevor was involved in the opening ceremony and harvesting the Devil’s Club. Together, they’ve created an amazing space where other traditional teachings are also offered. Nutritious meals were provided over the weekend, as well as the option to camp (less attractive in the winter obviously) or the option to stay in the yurt at no charge. Renting a room in the cabin cost me an extra $40 for the night, which is really reasonable. The workshop was $250. Considering this included the teachings, the take-home medicine, and two meals each day, the course is very fairly priced. If you’re interested enough in traditional Vancouver Island plant medicine that you’ve read this whole post, I strongly recommend you take it to learn how the plants are prepared and used. More information can be found here.