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Following your bliss while collecting St.John's wort and wild lavender

There’s a prominently stationed billboard at the entrance to the provincial town of Vouzela, which is about 7 kms from our house, that I drive past all the time. It’s an advertisement for the “Professional School of Vouzela”, which I guess is the equivalent of a technical school where high school graduates can learn some kind of useful trade. The billboard image shows five beaming youths, each representing one of the five possible trades available to them when they complete the course. What strikes me about this, each time I pass by, is that these five trades seem to be the set limits to these kids’ ambitions.

There is a young female graduate in a white smock. In her breast pocket we see a beautician’s eye brush and stencil. Next to her there’s a smiling young man, arms confidently crossed in front of him, in a mechanic’s overalls. Front and center we see another guy with a chef’s hat holding an inviting plate of something in his outstretched hands. He is also ecstatic. Next to him stands someone holding a wrench, presumably for his plumbing future. The last kid in this winning lineup is a young woman in restaurant garb holding up a martini glass filled with a viscous blue liquid.

Now I’ve got nothing against learning a trade – they are part of the useful services humans require to get along in life. But damn, is that all there is, to quote Peggy Lee? “(If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze and have a ball”, as the song goes). Damn and double damn. You graduate from high school in Vouzela and you see that billboard looming over the road that leads in and out of town and you say to yourself, “Welp, that’s it then. I’m either going to be a mechanic or a plumber. Or maybe a server in a restaurant – the sky’s the limit!”.

Seriously, I see this billboard and my heart breaks for these kids. Talk about limited expectations- the horizon is squeezed into a viscous blue liquid swirling around a martini glass. The image of these five kids, toothy grins and all, is sending a clear message not to dream, not to shoot for something bigger, but to settle on one of five spectacular futures the Professional School of Vouzela promises can be theirs.

Joseph Campbell’s famous exhortation to “Follow your bliss” seems now to be a relic of a distant past where people could still entertain and act on a dream.

I could be completely off here in assuming that bliss doesn’t come when you’ve finished your professional course and can now go off and serve blue drinks for the rest of your days. But what do I know, a spoiled boomer child born in the USA?

I have no idea how this lead-in has anything to do with the rest of this post. Maybe it has to do with opening up new possibilities, or thinking beyond the boxes we are all urged to fit into. Maybe the plant world contains a bliss I can follow. Or possibly it’s about looking more closely at what we take for granted and learning to expand our horizons.

About a week ago, on a beautiful late spring day I headed out with Mario to higher altitudes where we would be collecting two plants: St. John’s Wort and wild lavender. Mario’s the one who has become passionate about plants, all the varieties that grow freely out in nature and all of the many properties they contain for our wellbeing. I know next to nothing about plant life, its medicinal properties or edible potentials. So this journey was the start of my education, a humble beginning but one where a vast horizon lies in front of me.

We set out in the northeast corner of Portugal in the province of Tras-os-Montes, near the Spanish border east of the town of Bragança. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the mountainous area around the Montesinho Nature Reserve where Mario said we would find St John’s wort growing wild.

Named after St. John the Baptist because it blooms at the time of his birthday, this plant (“wort” is the Old English term for plant) is one of the big stars in the herbal healing world. It has been studied for its various healing properties, most notably as an anti-depressant as well as for its antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness. When compressed into oil form, it can treat all kinds of skin issues, such as burns and scarring. Mario noted that we had a window of opportunity to collect the plant now as this is the season to find St. John’s wort in abundance.

Tras-os-Montes highlighted in red

We drove around the area until we found the plant growing in bunches beside a wheat field. The bright yellow flowers illuminated the field around us and we set out to fill our baskets with the magic plant. Mario showed me how to pluck the flowers with part of the stem intact which would allow the plant to continue flowering.

With this first batch, Mario wants to make oils for healing skin issues and for muscle soreness. I can’t wait to try the results out.

Mario in St. John's wort bliss

After collecting enough for our purposes, we drove off in search of wild lavender. We found several open fields absolutely full of lavender plants so there was no shortage of collectables. Mario's idea is to use the wonderfully scented flowers for eye masks he's making.

One thing that Mario insists on when taking the plants: silently asking the plant for permission to take it (there is a holy, ritualistic aspect to collecting plants) and thanking it as you do. Also, he showed me that, since each plant species is different, we need to know exactly how to take them. For example, with the lavender, we just pinched the flower off at the base where it meets the stem. With St. John’s wort, we broke off the stem just below the flowers.

Wild lavender flowers

So this was a day for broadening horizons, learning about these plants, and hopefully doing some apothecary magic that will bring out their healing properties. This then was my first day of “Professional School” in the plant world, following my bliss.

Me trying to converse with the lavender plants

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