The Life of Plants
An Introduction to Ayurvedic Herbology
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay
Have you ever walked in the woods of spring and marveled at the beautiful herbs and wildflowers? Have you ever sat quietly in a garden and contemplated the life of the plants? Have you ever harvested an herb or prepared your own medicine? Have you ever been healed by an herbal remedy?
If you have, you know that each plant has it’s own unique qualities, growing and thriving in it’s own time and in it’s own way. Each plant is like a person, with personality traits, alive and conscious. And just like a person, plants thrive in an environment that suits those unique qualities and traits.
Is there any point in asking why a rose thrives in the sun? Or why another prefers the shade? Why some plants grow in the desert and some near the sea? It is what is natural for that plant. And just like humans, place them in an unnatural environment and they will suffer.
Of course, we can learn to classify plants according to family, genus, species and variety. Or we can analyze the chemical constituents and compounds within the plants and isolate the medicinal components. Or we can learn which plants thrive in the sun or the shade and how much water and the type of soil and fertilizers they need.
All of these studies are practical and helpful, but they do not replace knowledge of the plants as a living whole. One of the ways to practice ayurveda is to spend time in nature, in this case, observing plants and getting to know them.
Ayurveda is a science of qualities, so we can observe the qualities that distinguish each plant. We first notice that each plant is alive. Healthy looking plants have more prana or life-force than sickly plants. Freshly picked herbs have more potency and flavor than dried herbs. When dried herbs lose all their smell and taste, they are inert.
The formal name for the observation and categorization of plants and potential medicines in Ayurveda is dravya guna shastra which means the science of substances and their qualities. Their are seven categories called:
1) Dravya (substance)
2) Guna (attribute)
3) Rasa (taste)
4) Virya (energy or potency)
5) Vipaka (post-digestive effect)
6) Prabhava (special effect)
7) Karma (pharmacological action)
1) Dravya: Substances are said to be composed of and are described in terms of the five elements. For example, in plants roots are related to earth, stems, branches and sap are water, flowers are fire, leaves are air, fruit is ether, and seeds contain all five elements.
Plant substances are also categorized according to the three doshas. Kapha (water in earth) plants exhibit lush growth and are moist, heavy, dense and succulent. Pitta (fire in water) plants exhibit moderate growth and are brightly colored. They can be poisonous. Vata (air in ether) plants exhibit sparse growth and can be dry, rough, crooked, or irregular in shape.
There are two types of substances, organic (from plants and animals), and inorganic. Organic substances can act directly on living tissues, our physiology, senses, emotions and even our thoughts when ingested, while inorganic substances act only on physical structures of the body.
2) Guna: The attributes are ten pairs of opposites: hot-cold, dry-wet, light-heavy, fast-slow, rough-smooth, sharp-dull, hard-soft, subtle-gross, clear-cloudy, contracted-expanded. Each plant is defined and distinguished by it’s attributes. And each attribute will tend to have a like action or effect when ingested. A heavy plant will tend to cause heaviness.
3) Rasa: The heart of the system is rasa or taste. What could be more natural when observing a plant than to taste it? The tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent and give important clues as to the potential karma or action of the plant. It is felt in the mouth and the stomach and is associated with kapha and anabolism. Rasa also means sap, flavor, juice, emotion. For example, a sweet tasting plant is likely nourishing and moistening when eaten, will satisfy the stomach and increase kapha and pleasure.
4) Virya: The virya is the basic energy or heating/cooling potential of the plant. It is one of the most important attributes to consider therapeutically and is felt in the small intestine. It is related to pitta and metabolism. The virya is often measured on a scale from very hot, hot, warm, neutral, to cool, cold, very cold. For example, chile peppers, the fruit and seed of the pepper plant are extremely hot and have a very strong heating effect. The quality implies the effect and the effect implies the quality.
5) Vipaka: Vipak is the post-digestive or long term effect. The possibilities are sweet (moistening), pungent (drying), or occasionally sour (acid-forming). This effect is felt in the large intestine and the three waste products (urine, feces, and sweat). It is related to vata and catabolism.
6) Prabhava: Prabhava is any special or unique, sometimes unexplainable living action-the exception to the rule.
7) Karma: The karmas are the general actions or results of the plant on our tissues, organs, systems, doshas, emotions, energy and consciousness. For example, a svedena (diaphoretic) herb causes sweating. You can see that ayurveda is a comprehensive and holistic system.
To summarize thus far, we can learn about the plant world from careful and repeated observation over time, from experimentation and from linking the qualities to the effects and the effects to the qualities. Then we can make inferences or educated guesses based on our experiential observation over time. Or we can rely on the testimony of others, from authoritative compendiums, and time-tested traditional knowledge. Here we are lucky. There are many excellent herbal guides available that use the ayurvedic classification system. This method is often referred to as the “energetic” approach to herbology.
There is another approach to learn about plants, their qualities and their actions. In vedic philosophy it is called upamana, which means by comparison or resemblance. In the west, it is commonly referred to as the doctrine of signatures. The idea is that we can learn about a new plant by comparing it to other plants or parts of the body. For example, a fruit which is heart-shaped may be good for the heart. Hawthorn berries and apples are good for heart health. A leaf which is shaped like a brain may be good for the brain, like gingko leaves. A leaf which is shaped like a lung may be good for the lungs, like mullein. Or, slightly differently, the bark of a tree may be good for the skin. It is fun and educational to look for the signatures of plants. But all comparisons need to be tested and checked.
There is also a spiritual component in the ayurvedic approach to herbs and plants. Each living plant has a measure of consciousness and the ability to effect our consciousness. The effects can be either sattvic (harmonizing/clarifying), rajasic (agitating/activating), or tamasic (dulling/darkening). This categorization is especially important for those on a spiritual path as herbs can either support or detract from one’s inner work.
And since each plant has a measure of consciousness, we can talk or sing to them and they will talk back. For example, plants have come to me in dreams. It is startling to have a vivid dream of a plant talking to you. The first time this happened I was cautious and asked around if I should take the plant as medicine. It turned out that the plant was poisonous but symbolically represented strength in herb lore. I ended up taking a homeopathically prepared dose of the plant, but I feel now that the real message was that I was eating too much denatured food at the time and that I needed more fresh foods and herbs to stay strong and healthy. It was a warning.
My wife and I have also had plants come to us in nature. Gardeners know that every year some plants will ‘volunteer’ to grow in the garden. They never grew there before and they weren’t planted. Perhaps a seed gets dropped by a bird or a squirrel. Time and again, the plants that volunteer have been the plants needed for medicine that year.
You can even look around your neighborhood. The plants that people need are often growing in out of the way places or near wasteland. For example, dandelion is ubiquitous in the spring and is an excellent detoxifier for people who have been eating too rich of a diet. Burdock is another common weed that people could benefit from if they only listened to nature. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered!”
There is one more story I would like to share with you. I first heard it while studying ayurveda with the Himalayan Institute. The discussion was about a famous rejuvenative herb called ashwagandha. When it came to the prabhava, or special action of the herb, it was stated that the herb confers strength because ‘he’ was strong. The herb had been blessed by a sage who was known for his strength!
As we study and practice we find that certain foods and herbs are our friends, our companions, our helpers. This is based on the premise that all life is inter-related. That which we need is all around us. We only need to recognize what is natural and harmonious for ourselves as unique beings. To go against nature is unwise.
So where do we begin? How do we discover those foods, herbs and medicines that are our friends? For that matter how do we discover our own true nature? And how do we find that special place in the sun where we can thrive?
Ayurveda teaches that we can quiet the mind and meditate to discover our true nature. We can regulate the breath and harmonize body with mind to discover our special place in the sun. Or we can spend time in nature and make friends with the sky, the trees, the plants and the flowers to discover our friendship with nature. Or as said by Swami Sivananda:
“Smile with the flower and the green grass.
Play with the butterflies, birds, and deer.
Shake hands with the shrubs, ferns, and twigs of trees.
Talk to the rainbow, wind, stars, and the sun.
Converse with the running brooks and the waves of the sea.
Speak with the walking-stick.
Develop friendship with all your neighbors, dogs, cats, cows, human beings, trees, flowers, etc.
Then you will have a wide, perfect, rich, full life.
You will realize oneness or unity of life.
This can be hardly described in words.
You will have to feel this yourself.”
References for further study: “The Yoga of Herbs” by D. Frawley & V. Lad, “Planetary Herbology” by M. Tierra, and “The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs” by K.P. Singh Khalsa & M. Tierra.