Good Medicine

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A unique tale of herbal healing

I was a month out of hospital, but still far from well.

The doctors had fixed my faulty heart, but fluid still leaked from my swollen legs through tiny breaks in my skin. Slowly and heavily, I moved around our apartment – a shopping buggy that my husband had reinforced with heavy wire was my personal walker.

Still, we were managing.

The Korean couple who owned the nearby convenience store brought us groceries, going out of their way to pick up items they didn’t normally stock. We ate “one-pot meals” off disposable plates with crackers and fruit for dessert. And my husband, despite being confined to a wheelchair, gave me whatever help and encouragement he could.

Medically, progress was being made, though not quickly enough as far as I was concerned. My swollen ankles were beginning to take shape, and I was able to trundle to the trash chute and to our downstairs mailbox. Occasionally, I even took a short trip to the newspaper box around the corner. But I was starting to wonder if I’d ever feel like my old self again.

The community nurses who came daily to change the dressings on my legs were both a blessing and a bit of an annoyance with their aggressive cheerfulness and insistence that I keep my legs elevated and “get out more.”

“At the same time?” I felt like asking. But I held my tongue. After all, they meant well…

Summer was officially three days away when I looked out onto our tiny balcony and noticed the large terra cotta pot still full of soil from an abortive attempt to grow tomatoes a few seasons before. That needs a fine plant in it, said a Voice that seemed to come from inside my head. Yes it does, I thought. But from where? All the garden centres and greenhouses were over five kilometres from my home. Besides, I had no idea what sort of botanical specimen to look for.

You will find something, said the Voice, and fell silent.

goodmedicinepicThe next morning, having decided to buy a newspaper, I took the elevator downstairs and made my halting way to the box just around the corner. As I was putting my money in the coin slot, I glanced down the side street and noticed that every one of a half-dozen newly planted trees had a tiny companion – a bundle of  bright green leaves resembling those of a geranium about 10 to 15 centimetres tall.

The very randomness of the plantings seemed to imply they were not part of any “beautification project,” but I took no chances. Late that night, with the full moon to guide me, I made my way down the side street armed with plastic bags, a large bottle of water, and an old metal spatula that had somehow avoided the recycle bin. I selected two different plants, splashed them with water and, using the spatula as a trowel, worked them free. During this whole time only one car went down the street, without stopping, and there were no passersby to ask what an old woman was doing out with her shopping buggy at that hour, digging around the city’s new trees.

Back in our apartment I paused only to refill my water bottle and have a short rest. Then, with the bags containing my bottle and my two trophies looped over my wrist, I opened the sliding living room windows and clambered over the sill.

I hauled myself along to the terra cotta pot and hunkered next to it, clearing the dead leaves and debris from the soil surface, then stirring up the packed soil itself with both hands. I scooped two deep holes and carefully lowered my plants into them, working the displaced soil back around them and thoroughly watering each. Then I pulled myself up, gathered my “trash” and crept back inside, a little out of breath but pleased with what I had accomplished.

The next morning, when I went out to check on my foundlings, I was crushed. They looked as limp as steamed spinach. Was the soil too dead?

I watered the plants anyway. On the following morning, along with a little more water, I fed each of them one of my mineral capsules.

One week later – a miracle.

Unbeknownst to me, the little plants had been ignoring top growth in order to establish fresh roots. Now they were in full repair mode, and leaves that had appeared at first to be dying revealed themselves as new, their wrinkled tips smoothing themselves into delicate scallops.

All that remained was to find out exactly what my plants were.

I spent a full night looking them up on the Internet, using leaf shape and placement, stem characteristics and anything else I could think of.

At last I found them. It seemed they were quite ordinary broad-leafed weeds – short-term perennials abhorred by gardeners for their “invasive” properties.

I was disappointed, but reading on I learned that Native Americans, instead of despising these weeds, valued them highly. They used various parts to make preparations that acted as anti-inflammatories, soothed children’s stomachs and helped clear congested lungs.

Weeds or not, my plants were beginning to thrive. Every morning I made my way to the terra cotta pot with my bottle of water, a wooden chopstick for aerating the soil and a bag for sun-damaged leaves and whatever weeds may have sprouted up during the night. The plants responded by rapidly invading the entire surface of the pot.

Eventually one of the nurses noticed. “What a pretty plant! Where did you get it?”

“It was a gift,” I replied, reluctant to admit it was something I had simply dug up one warm spring night.

“What’s it called?”

Malva neglecta. It’s a kind of medicinal herb.”

As the summer nudged itself onward, my plants grew lush and healthy. And when tiny, star-like flowers appeared at the ends of the upturned stems, I was thrilled: maybe my thumbs weren’t so brown after all.

With the coming of autumn, my condition had dramatically improved.

My legs were normal-sized again, and the nurses no longer came. I made short shopping trips on my own with the help of low-floor buses and taxicabs. My energy level was increasing, and our meals became more intricate, eaten off china instead of paper plates.

My plants, however, were beginning to droop and fade, readying themselves for their winter sleep. The flowers were gone, but I had a pill-bottle full of Malva “nutlets” to plant in spring should that sleep turn out to be permanent.

I am not a botanist, a herbalist or a gardener. But that summer, I came to understand what the Indigenous people of our plains and forests had known all along: Malva neglecta – the Common Mallow – was good medicine indeed.

Saskatchewan-born Anna McDougald has lived in Winnipeg since 1980. She enjoys making origami butterflies, playing with cats and studying cowboy poetry.


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