Seeking the Silvestre Romero in Spain

by Susan Leopold

I landed in Spain for the International Congress of Ethnobotany, and as serendipity would have it, the hotel I had booked was in a small square located in what was once the Jewish/Arabic part of Cordoba. Next to my hotel was the only remaining synagogue that was not destroyed when the Jews were forced to leave around 1200. This particular square was dedicated and named after Maimonides, a Sephardic Jewish philosopher, who was also a famous doctor and wrote several herbal treaties on Greek and Arabic medicine. He was also famous for his writings on the afterlife and resurrection.

In regards to my state of consciousness, I now felt connected to the ancient scholars of regional medicinal plant knowledge that were influenced by the convergence of many cultures—Roman, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian. Among the orange trees (Citrus spp.), geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), and aromatic plants Cordoba is a labyrinth of narrow streets that are reminders of over 2000 years of cultural history reflected in the architecture, art, and archeology. Maimonides had now become my spiritual guide through this maze from which to tap into the complexity of plant alchemy and philosophy. Being of Jewish heritage on my father’s side, I seemed drawn to the archeological remains of the synagogue as a moment in time when Cordoba was a thriving vortex of plant exchange, because even though it was under Muslim rule, it was at one time tolerant of minorities and therefore a very thriving free thinking society. Cordoba in the 10th century was the center of trade as the most populous city in the world, and famous for its libraries, botanical gardens, medical schools, and philosophers.

statueIn 1992 the first Ethnobotanical Congress was organized at the Cordoba Botanical Gardens, which also contains an impressive Ethnobotanical Museum, the School of Ethnobotany, a seed bank, a phenomenal Paleobotany Museum, and an overwhelming collection of living plants—all found in one inspiring location. Now the conference had returned here with topics such as biological and cultural diversity to face global change; traditional knowledge as world heritage or legacy; international framework of transfer of species and popular knowledge among cultures and continents; recovery of knowledge and plant germplasm through historical documents; role of neglected and underutilized crops; role of cultural landscapes and agroforestry systems in the conservation of the ethnobotanical heritage; and plants used as food and medicine. I enjoyed reuniting with the founders of the Institute for the Preservation of Traditional Medicine, meeting many Spanish ethnobotanists working hard to reverse loss of local ecological knowledge, and connecting with Jose Farjardo, the founder of the Rock Rose Ethnobotanical Tours and local expert on esparto. El esparto (Macrochloa tenacissima), is an endemic grass found in Southern Spain and Northern Africa that has a human history of 7,000 years of use. This unique grass has found its way into every aspect of human use, and in return it was consistently replanted, keeping the desert at bay and exemplifying human, plant, and ecological interactions. The Congress itself was stimulating in regards to important research being presented and further signifies the important role ethnobotany serves in addressing critical environmental challenges, such as the loss of local ecological knowledge.

wildrosemaryLeaving Cordoba was difficult, but I was on a mission headed north to meet Rosa Boyero, an herbalist that Rosemary Gladstar had recommended I visit. Natalia Fernandez had agreed to host me and introduce me to Rosa, so I took the train north to Girona. After listening to many talks at the Ethnobotanical Congress, I was anxious to meet a practicing herbalist, visit her botanical sanctuary, and to get a sense of the current state of herbalism in Spain.

We arrived at the 500-year-old stone farmhouse that had been inhabited by a known herbalista and that had then sat vacant for years before Rosa and her family began to re-inhabit the space. Breathing life back into the house is symbolic of the revival and interest in medicinal plants that is taking place in Spain. Rosa, a self-taught herbalist, talked about going to the local fairs and markets with her oils, creams, salves, and tinctures and sensing the people’s apprehension about her remedies. The once popular Boticas (herb shops) have the bones of the old apothecaries but are now filled with pharmaceuticals that have replaced the formerly common herbal remedies. Rosa, like many of us back in the States is a witness to and participant in the revival of local herbalism.

As I sat in Rosa’s herbal workshop, her love for the healing plants from the steep hillside behind her house was as intoxicating as the aromatic plants that hung from her ceiling. This forest was once an olive grove that has now reverted back to a diverse landscape. Wild rosemary (Ledum palustre) and thyme (Thymus serpyllum) were abundant underneath a canopy of very old olive (Olea europaea) trees and oaks (Quercus spp.), most notably the cork oak (Q. suber).

Personally there was a bit of disbelief in a forest thick with wild rosemary that she described. I had arrived at Rosa’s home as the sun was setting, so instead of wandering up into the mountains, we went to see her essential oil workshop. Rosa talked about the ideal time to harvest the rosemary for distillation, when the sun has drawn the oils to its peak. Spain is known for its concentration of aromatic medicinals, and this is why it has been a dream of mine to experience this aromatic landscape first hand. For an herbalist of this area the medicine is hidden in the oils extracted as hydrosols and essential oils to then make salves, sprays, or, in the case of the thymes the simplicity of tea or soup. The thyme soup is what saved the people after the Spanish civil war. Its simple ingredients fed many in time of great need. Water warmed with olive oil, and then combined with toasted old bread, thyme, and eggs made for a nourishing traditional food I was delighted to experience.

rosaLate into the evening after soup Rosa told me the history of the Trementinaires. These were the women who would collect pine resin and other medicinal plants of the forest in the winter. They would often leave their families behind taking with them a daughter to teach not only the collection but also the routes. After making various medicines from the collected resins, they would take long journeys to various regions, visiting towns and trading the resin-based medicines. These preparations would be used for inflammation, as expectorants for winter colds, and a cure-all for farm animals as well. Rosa talked about how she learned these stories from her grandmother, who told her how wintertime is when we will see the Trementinaires visit. This was a way for these women to make money in the winter to support their families and to trade for other important household needs. This history is rich in the herbal tradition of Northern Spain and speaks to the role of women in the traditional ecological knowledge of native plants.

boticaWomen who become immersed in the history of Spain cannot escape the time of the inquisition. It is a painful history, where the most horrific torture devices were designed specifically for women, especially those who practiced with rituals and had a deep relationship with nature. It is in many ways incomprehensible what this time period was like for those who had to live through it. Rosa told me that the iconic concept of the black pointed witch’s hat perhaps has its roots in the women who wore tall hats that depicted the mountain formations from which they came. Even today, despite this horrific history, there still survives the ancient celebration of the Day of San Juan, June 23rd, near the equinox. This is a day when people would burn the herbs that had not been used in the previous year. It is also a time when people go out into the countryside to engage in the collection of over 100 different herbs to make the traditional Catalonian Ratafia. This is an anise-based liqueur with many wild herbs to which a few green walnuts is added for color. This digestive aid and overall tonic is then consumed throughout the year. This practice also reminds me of the Dominican Republic’s Mama Juana, another famous regional herbal elixir made with rum, red wine, honey, and several medicinal tree bark and herbs.

Rosa, who is also a beekeeper allowed me to taste two unique honeys. The first was made of the green pine cone that had been sliced and soaked in honey for many months. This honey, used to treat coughs and colds had a unique citrus taste. The second honey was made with the “oreja de oso” (Ramonda myconi), a wild herb of the forest that is also used to treat coughs and colds.

The one plant that I work with intensively on my farm in Virginia that is also found in this area of northern Spain is elderberry. In Spain black elder (Sambucus niger) is the native species, and they use primarily the flowers to make various remedies and the bark for teas. Though I know the flowers are medicinal as well, I primarily use the berries to make syrup from American elder (S. canadensis). The berries of S. niger are only used to make jams and not perceived as medicinal. It is always fascinating to learn how similar species from various regions are perceived and to think about how European and American herbalism have cross-pollinated not only in the sense of which parts of the plant are used but also how they are used in various cultural contexts.

The next day we wandered up into the hills behind Rosa’s house, and it turned out to be true that a wild forest of rosemary did indeed exist. We foraged for wild chanterelles, found an old abandoned homestead with ripe pomegranates, and blissed out in the wild understory of rosemary that filled the landscape.

corkAs I listened, observed, tasted, and inhaled the aromas, it deepened my ecological understanding of medicinal plants from various regions. Though I grow rosemary, lavender, and other aromatics in my garden in the eastern temperate forest, they do not have the same vitality as those growing in the wild. There is a certain mystery and magic about the wild plants from each region. I am from the land of wild root medicine: blue and black cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides; Actaea racemosa), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), lady’s slipper (Cypripedium spp.), trillium (Trillium spp.), and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). In Spain it is the oils and resins, the land of the olive, pine sap (Pinus spp.), saffron (Crocus sativus) and the plants that cover the hillside and fill the air with an aroma that is intoxicating as well as deeply healing. In the tropics it is the high concentration of medicinal trees and vines.elder Traveling is a window into patterns of medicinal plant concentrations. Each bioregion seems to highlight how the bioactivity finds its way into the tree bark, roots, leaves, and oils depending on the environmental energies of geology, climate, altitude, and latitude. This concept finds overlap with the work of Leslie Holdridge, who in 1947 classified the systems of natural vegetation patterns, that are applicable to tropical, Mediterranean, and boreal zones. One can imagine how this concept expresses itself in the alkaloid magic of plant medicine, and further makes us appreciate the bioregions of herbalism and the diversity of medicinal species.