Humulus lupulus; Cannabaceae
Yesterday and today I am working with the viney, dangling hops plant. It’s a perfect plant to work with on an autumn day—warm and lazy and quiet. Ever since I opened up the bag of hops yesterday I’ve been seized with the desire for a long nap.
There are so many plants that work on the nervous system, and they all do it in their own specific way. Pedicularis, for example, I call “The Unwinder”—it feels like it is unwinding my spinal cord, releasing muscles and nerves as it works its way down. Lemon balm calms me by lightening my spirits, giving me a little lift which releases tension (and gloom). But hops is the kind of relaxing that you feel when you lie in the sun in a field on a mild summer day. It’s the relaxing heat of the sun, the pleasant feeling of abundance, like the harvest is in and there is no need to rush. And maybe it’s time for a beer.
One thing I love about working with plants are the stories. The stories that people tell about herbs are so much more interesting than latin names and chemical compounds! I find stories in historical accounts about the plants, I hear stories from herbalists and people who use plant medicines, and I hear stories when I sit with the plants, themselves.
The thing about stories is that they almost always carry truth—at least the stories that persist and survive memory loss, time, and modern laboratory tests. The thing that is powerful and alive in the story is the same thing that is powerful and alive in the plant.
Here’s a story: long-ago women first put hops in beer because it calmed the men down and helped them relax and sleep well. Another: hops’ sedative qualities were noted early on by people who said that pickers tired quickly and couldn’t go on. Older women picking and working with the hops plants in the fields noticed the return of their menstrual cycles—pointing out hops’ high level of plant hormones similar to estrogens. And another: hops has a reputation for having a “melancholy” personality, and it has not been recommended for those with “depressive” tendencies.
Working with hops, I realize its facility to calm and release anger, supporting our relaxation and allowing us to re-enter our bodies and hearts—and to be in touch with the grief that is frequently beneath anger.