On Heartbreak, Making Tea, and the Power of Plants
The natural world contains many remedies, if you know where (and how) to look
A few years back, I went through a heartbreak so brutal it hurled me into temporary insanity, a kind of madness that brought every other loss I’d ever experienced screaming to the surface. The pain had me doing and believing things I normally wouldn’t. Like booking long-distance reiki sessions with an energy healer from Australia and tarot card readings with a medium in Florida. I bought blocks of rose quartz to place all over my apartment, read books about attachment theory, and did “cord cutting” rituals nightly. I sat with a psychological astrologer from LA on Zoom who acknowledged, as I wept, that even the stars charted my misery. “For you,” she explained, “love has never been easy.” I’d hoped she could tell me something I didn’t already know.
I spoke to a famous Mexican curandera in Santa Fe. A shaman and medicine woman, she promised to purify my aura with smoke if I could get to New Mexico at some point. In the meantime, she prescribed placing stones and crystals with essential oils on my chakras. “I will send you a mantra by email,” she instructed, “chant it 21 times per day.” Astrology and divination were one thing, but this was another: decidedly not my style.
“And nettles,” she continued, “you need nettles every day.”
I was to combine them with a handful each of rose petals and oat straw in boiling water, let the mixture steep overnight, then drink it throughout each day for three months. “It will heal your heart and bring you clarity,” she assured me. “Oat straw will strengthen your nervous system. Rose will help you release feelings of guilt and restore your faith in yourself.”
There was some science and reason in this. I knew that nettle, a wild-growing herbaceous plant, had been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments. Its seeds, leaves, stems, and roots are anti-inflammatory and analgesic; rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants too. If drinking them meant there was any chance of getting on with my life, I would make infusions. I started to blend my own antidote every night. It was some form of consistency in the throes of grief, even if I didn’t feel better in the interim.
Not long after, a sequence of additional losses left me completely uprooted. The only thing that made sense to me at all was the wild idea of disappearing so far into nature I’d forget everything. I bought a one-way ticket to rural Ireland, and I ran—from New York City to a mountain in a 600-acre forest in County Kerry. There, in the solitude of tiny, rustic quarters, I was more alone than I’d ever been. With intermittent phone service and pretty horrible WiFi, the only thing I could do was cry. Or go outside.
During that time, I became fully immersed in the landscape around me. When savage insomnia made me claustrophobic indoors, I slept outside on heather-strewn hills, and woke to sunrise over the valley. When my heartache was at its worst, I swam in cold streams to shock myself into the present or climbed surrounding mountains to remember my strength. I wandered ancient forests and moon bathed under stars, letting nature de-armor my senses after so many years of city life.
A lot of the plants that grew in the region were new to me. Drawn to them, I studied their attributes—learning their names, how to identify them, and their significance in the indigenous medicine traditions of the land’s ancestors, the Celts. Niall Mac Coitir’s book Ireland’s Wild Plants describes how they’ve been an inextricable part of the country’s culture and folklore from the earliest times, appearing in the ancient Brehon Laws and the early nature poetry the nation is known for. Many were edible or medicinal in addition to being used to ward off evil or inspire good fortune. “People’s lives were influenced and dependent on the wild plants around them, in a way that we can barely imagine today,” Coitir explains.
An animist culture, the ancient Celts believed that plants—and all natural things—had distinct spirits or souls. Unlike other cultures, where plants might merely symbolize some virtue or attribute, to the Celts the plants actually contained those qualities. A rose, for instance, wasn’t just a symbol of love, it held love and all its characteristics within. Touching a plant was enough to absorb its essence through the skin.
Druids—the highly respected wisdom keepers and healers of Celtic society—used herbs, flowers, shrubs, and trees with this belief in mind. One practice in their early form of herbalism was to gather dew from various plants in the early morning hours to extract their healing properties. And, they made tea: either as an infusion (pouring boiling water over plants to steep) or a decoction (boiling plant material in water while covered). The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh describes Celtic medical treatments involving tea made from wild garlic for bladder stones; tansy for stomach complaints; or common speedwell for anything from respiratory disease to arthritis and more. Water alone, especially from certain rivers or wells, was highly regarded for its medicinal qualities. When imbued with a plant’s essence, it became an even more potent cure. My nightly ritual of making the curandera’s tonic took on new meaning with this knowledge.
I was increasingly connecting with the natural world around me. Just outside my door, chamomile daisies grew everywhere on hillsides. Verdant wood sage dotted the edges of the forest. Pink-blooming vervain thrived in nearby meadows and on riverbanks. I started bringing handfuls home. If—as the lore would have me believe—they really did contain gentleness, wisdom, and healing, I might as well see what happened. I collected spruce tips and wild mint too, bramble leaves and birch twigs, red clover, dandelion, and yarrow to steep in spring water from the mountains. Somewhere, I started to feel connected to that place and the traditions of its people, while unwittingly planting the seeds of a new life.