the memory of wholeness: chaga mushroom

chaga ancestral healing indigenous

In the western herbal world, there is a class of plants that we call adaptogens. Among anti-inflammatories, emmenagogues, nervines, and so on, this class is quite mysterious and defying to the typical reductionist approach to treating plants by their scientifically studied constituents or biochemicals. The very nature of these medicines lies in their ‘inexplicable’ ability to help us be whole and effectively functioning. Some explain this as “they help us adapt to stress,” and truly of course many of them are great immune support, nervous system tonics, and the like.

But what I love about these medicines is that they simply turn our (western) forgetful issue of mechanistic understanding–treating everyone and everything as though we are machines with programming bumping into one another–on its head. These plants seem to beautifully and in a complex manner support our vitality. Help us be who we are more cleanly. Help lower the constant drain on our deep essence that so many aspects of our lifestyle ask from us.

Chaga is one being that fits into this realm, who will fill that deepest well. I wanted to take a moment to speak to the spirit of this medicine today. The results may be called anti-cancer, might be called immunomodulating, any one of these. All of the medicinal mushrooms live and work in this beautiful way, but today I wanted to just focus a bit on chaga, since it is such a beloved and beautiful ally to my people and has been for a long time.

The chaga mushroom grows on the birch tree, and so it is said that when we receive the medicine of chaga, she is also bringing a gorgeously alchemized form of the birch’s medicine along with her own. What we use as medicine is where she is bursting, like a burning ember, from the side of the tree. We use the wood matter of the tree with the chaga living in it.

Chaga has many applications, and as one of these adaptogens she will likely see right where you are and meet you with what you need (so many plants do this, but the mushrooms do it in a particular way, so eloquently and with lasting force behind their support).

Mushrooms like chaga support our essence, that deepest well, in Chinese medicine our kidneys, blood, brain, nervous tissue, and bones, which are all of the same energetic frequency and which are the most important part of us to be resourced. This is our base energy, our basic vitality that allows us to be incarnated. Our basic inheritance from our ancestors.

Chaga comes to that well and in the steady way that a woody mushroom grows, she boosts from underneath, in a way that can’t be swept away by tides of change and life troubles.

Like all mushrooms, chaga is best decocted, or simmered for some time (at least an hour, if you are following old country standards), and it makes sense, since it takes so much energy to make this medicine, that we use every bit of it. I am one who will double decoct my chaga and get a second round out of it, as well.

A wonderful way to make winter decoctions is in the crock pot.

Chaga truly remembers our blueprint for wholness, and walks us slowly toward it. She is one of our ancient medicines, and one of the most revered.

If you welcome some of her medicine this season, pray to her with heartfelt thanks for what she carries through the many centuries, to this worried present, what she remembers for us.

decoctions in the slow cooker

herbal decoction crock pot reishi carol southworth

This time of year as the season is changing, many herbs that we want to use are roots and mushrooms that like a long decoction, or slow heat, in plentiful water in order for their medicine to be best received by us.

In our lives nowadays, however, there is sadly not a grandmother sitting in each of our homes keeping the fire and simmering medicine on it. And even if we are at home for a part of the day, having the stove on may not always be feasible.

But many of us have crock pots!

I’m thinking of seasonal favorites like astragalus root, mushrooms like maittake, chaga, or reishi, or more in-the-moment allies like echinacea root, who need hot water and a longer cook in order for their best bits to get to you. (The polysaccharides that have been pinpointed as the immune-boosting parts of these plants–though truly I also know it it is the spirit of the plants themselves that enlivens us–need to be extracted in hot water, not alcohol or another medium). These all do wonderfully in the crock pot.

We really don’t need to use tons of these medicines, especially as they are roots and mushrooms and take quite a special energy themselves to grow–we want to treat them as special resources. I believe that putting a couple slices of astragalus in a tea like this, or each time I make broth, throughout the season is more effective than taking tons of tincture of it, or taking a lot of it at once but inconsistently. It follows the slow building nature of these plant parts. Imagine the way a root grows–this is how you want to use the medicine.

Also some of these, like reishi for instance, are an acquired taste, so find out what a 20 minute steep is like before you cook it this way, and you really don’t need to add a lot, a slice or two among other flavors is palatable. (We made a sour beer with reishi once that we called “wet dog ale,” if that gives you a sense of how reishi tastes with a hour-long brew).

What I might do this time of year is make regular teas and broths in the crock pot, and put in whatever seems needed that week–including one of these deep builders mentioned above–and then add whatever else is needed by the family (chamomile, hawthorn, linden, always do well by us over here!) and just keep these jugs of tea in the fridge to be warmed a cup at a time, but they are there already decocted.

When I do this I’ll leave it on for at least four hours on low, then turn it off and let it cool until it’s safe to transfer it to the fridge, which is kind of like extra steeping time. It’s true that if I’m adding something lovely and delicate like rose petals, or something that may overwhelm like cinnamon, I will add this when I turn the crock pot off to let cool.

I find this a lovely way to make medicine and keep it handy, and I personally fit it into our bone broth rotation also–when the cooler weather comes I am pretty much always employing the crock pot for either bones or herbs.

For clarification or questions, feel welcome to reach out.

three protective plants

It is the time of year when nights are growing longer and we are coming up on the time when the veil between form and spirit gets muddier. It’s wonderful to feel protected and warm in your home and your space when these times come around.

Our peoples  have been using the plants forever, and they know just what we need to feel cozy and safe.

If you’re interested in honoring your ancestors this season with any kind of ceremonies or ritual activity, please do check out some guidelines for safety when engaging with ancestors that I’ve put together. It’s important to treat this stuff as for real, which it is.

All of our ancestors, no matter where we are from, have strong relationships with protective plants. For example, my husband’s people from the middle east may burn like incense bundles of dried hyssop, and steam miramiyeh sage over the fire in winter to keep the house safe and bright. What plants have your people used in this way?

I wanted to share a few plants from the European apothecary that my people have relied upon, they are blessed friends.

(As always, I invite you to pray with your medicine and ask humbly for these plant spirits to walk with you and live with you in a good way, in a good relationship.)

Goldenwort (Hypericum perforatum)

carol southworthThis is one of my favorites for so many gifts it brings us–but especially that gift of protection and light. Goldenwort (called by many St. John’s Wort) “lets the light in” both literally (taking internally can make you more easily sunburn) and energetically, in that she helps light move in the body and helps our energy bodies organize anew with plenty of light around wounds, traumas, and previous areas of stagnation. The traditional and favorite way of mine to have goldenwort around is to pick the flowering tops at midsummer and hang the drying bouquets in key points around the house. You might also take some tincture in low doses, especially if the darker months bring on depression for you, golden can keep the light flowing in and around you.

Rue (Ruta graveolens)

rue carol irene southworth ancestor healingShe is not called “herb-of-grace” for no reason. Fresh rue has a smell  that is sharp and cleansing, letting you know what she does. Rue has clear boundaries and can help us define the directions that we go and what shape our lives take. Her small yellow flowers make up crosses, or four directions, the ancient sign used by nearly all peoples. She brings that clarity and simplicity. This is not one that occurs to me to take internally very often, except for in specific conditions. But to smell her is medicine–especially if you happen to be pregnant and have morning sickness. Rue is a wonderful one to grow around the house, if that’s available to you. Also wonderful for adding some tea to a bath, along with salt, to help clarify what’s you and what’s other.

Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis)

ancestors rue carol southworthBetony used to be planted in the cemeteries and around the churches after Europe was Christianized. I think this is because our ghost problems were well underway at that point, our intact indigenous ways (which helped people die properly) already quite muddled. There was a village sense to keep the dead where they were in the grave, because they were not safe to be around anymore.

I thus think about wood betony for keeping spirit that is not well in its proper place, not mucking in living affairs, until it can be mended and brought to wellness again through ritual process. Since this is a time of year of spirit issues (just look at our collective images of what Hallow’s Eve is!), wood betony can be a beautiful ally to keep around to keep things out that are not well enough to come inside. I, as usual, prefer to plant this one around the house, she does well in pots.

If not, some wood betony tea or tincture-in-water used to clean doorways, windowsills, and other more open parts of the house (or body! think neck!) is always helpful.

I could probably make a list of my fifty favorite protective herbs, but these ones are truly some of the most lovely ones that I turn to. If you have room to grow plants, and there are nurseries near you that carry this sort of thing, then I strongly encourage you to try planting these! If you can but there are no nurseries, then try Tina at Crimson Sage Nursery, who mails beautiful plant starts.

Be blessed and have a safe autumn season.


ancestral healing connection samhain

I loved this recent episode of the Herbal Highway where Sarah Holmes speaks to some of the challenging parts of being in such a hurting world, and maintaining connection through that. This theme has been so much on my heart recently, and I found her words medicine.

“In these times of so much violence and grief one choice we can make is to seek connection. Join Sarah Holmes for a discussion of connection as a path to health, personally and globally.”

Listen to the episode here.


ritual safety for ancestor reverance

ancestor worship dia de muertos halloween day of the dead

This time of year, many spiritual traditions have a special place to honor the ancestors. These celebrations are beautiful, often intricate, involving time-involved food offerings, flowers, and the light of candles. Seeing images of them often sparks a longing in the hearts of all of us wishing we had a better connection and relationship with our own ancestors.

There is a practical piece to approaching ritual like this when our ancestors are possibly or certainly not well in spirit, or haven’t been ritually tended for some time (millenia, in some of our cases). What to do? We must begin somewhere with ritually engaging with our ancestors if we feel called to, and yet it is of the upmost importance that we engage safely and effectively so as to keep things going in a good direction.

A note: when speaking about unwell ancestors, I don’t mean that your/our ancestors are bad people, per se (although I know what it’s like, also, to feel that they are). What I mean is that many of our peoples carry the poisons of genocide, abuse, rape, invasion, slavery–you name it, really–no matter which side of those harms they were on. Those poisons have probably not been alchemized, and are probably sitting there in the family system in an undigested, unresolved state. It is those poisons that I am encouraging we be safe with, and protect ourselves from. If our people had lives touched by these processes, then they likely still are sitting in the unresolved toxin of it.

  1. The best thing to do to engage ritually with your ancestors is to go through the process of them getting well.

    This might seem obvious, but the best way to do ritual with your ancestors is to first and foremost engage in ritual that heals and brings home those souls who are not well or who are mired in aforementioned toxins. This can look different ways, but of course the way that I think is the most foolproof is the process of ancestral healing that I practice, as taught to me by Daniel Foor.

  2. The second best thing to do, if you don’t ritually get your ancestors well, is to be very clear about who you are making offerings to, if you do that sort of thing.

    This means that if you put out sweet bread, flowers, and water or rum as so many people do, then  you are super, super specific that these flowers and rum are for only people who you are related to in spirit who are in a state of well, bright, good, intactness. Unfortunately, if the toxins of our time have been in your family for awhile, this might not be your beloved grandpa (although we can have a more nuanced discussion there). The point is, don’t be feeding ghosts in your house who are not well. You should consider yourself awesome at boundaries if you try this course of action.

  3. If you are going to make offerings to those who are not currently well, then please do it outside on land that says “yes” to the proposal.

Instead of making ancestral offerings of food and incense and in your own home, if you are not sure about boundaries or not sure who is well, you can go outside somewhere to some land that is wild (ish) and with respect for the spirits of that land that are more powerful than your unwell ancestors (such as trees, streams, stones, and the like, who are gracefully holding their own amongst the human messes), ask if it might be alright to make an offering there for your people who are not well to get more well, through some food, raw meat, whatever. Please get a distinct “yes” from the land before continuing. If you are not sure about your yes, then good to begin back at suggestion one. If you do get a yes, then go ahead and return to that spot with whatever seems right to you, and pray out loud that this be used for the wellness of your ancestors. Obviously, don’t leave garbage or stuff that won’t decompose or be eaten by critters.

The hope is that you may be able to engage with your ancestors in some way this season that feels good, right, protected, and true for you, and that keeps things going toward a direction of health and wholeness. It is possible to do, but takes some care, some eyes-open reality, and some perseverance, for many of us.

Wishing that you and all your people be well, and that we may all feel the richness of standing at the family shrine, feeling the feeling that what came before us is supporting us in a good way.

ancestral healing in times of trouble

social justice ancestral healing

The times we find ourselves in, to put it mildly, are the craziest ever. And the many forms of rock-bottom, including violence, hatred, dispossession, and theft on large scales continue to shock many of us each day.

Why engage the ancestors? Aren’t there more pressing issues?

Well, yes–we need each and every one of us working hard and showing up in order to heal the gross imbalances in our world, and there are endless causes and projects to be in support of toward that end.

And, even as we show up for that, what are we arriving with? Until and unless we know our own ancestors and our inheritance from them in a conscious way, and until our people have actually become fully well and integrated, then we run the large risk (and common occurrence) of bringing their unresolved stuff with us to each project we embark upon, and it’s nearly guaranteed to get in the way of us showing up to be the powerful, compassionate people we need to be in order to make change happen.

I’ve been involved in activist and justice-working circles for many years, and it’s great, necessary stuff that needs our elbow-grease. But, in many of these spaces, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the tidal forces of inherited stuff that everyone comes with in a constructive way. If you have been part of any kind of committee or community group, you know what I mean.

It becomes necessary to clean out each of our ancestral houses, so that we can be well and good, focused about what we are doing here, and so that we are able to listen, to speak, and to feel clearly. We need to let the (sometimes thousands of) years of traumas that have been passed to us lay to rest.

For the healing of the earth, and honestly the continuance of humans as incarnated beings, it’s time to clean up and put our ancestral systems in order so that we can be the ones that we have been waiting for.

“You’re never alone, even during what you think are your weakest moments.You have thousands of years of powerful ANCESTORS within you, the blood of the divine Great Ones in you, supreme intellect and royalty in you. Infinite strength is always on tap for you. Know that!”


“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”

ancestral healing irene ammar carol southworth

For some of us, this truth from Thich Nhat Hanh can be difficult to bear, for we know the ones that we are continuing are not the wise and bright spirits that intact cultural traditions speak of when they say “Ancestors.”

The very good news about this truth is that it exists in present tense–those spirits behind you can change in state, because they exist right now, not fixed in the past–and with your life you can shape what is brought here in the name of your people, you can become a face of shining blessings. The palm of your hand can transmit the power and wellness of your people who lived and survived through everything the world has seen.

Because we are here, the whole web can be transformed. And when we look into the palm of our hand, we are able to love what we see.