The Medicines

(Onkwawen Tkaienthohseron “Our Garden” The Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres)

There are four main medicines we refer to which can be grown in a garden. The four kinds are: Tobacco, Sage, Cedar, and Sweetgrass.

If your garden group plans on growing the 4 medicines it’s important to grow them in a good way. You can plant the medicines in the ground or in a container; however, you should always use organic growing methods to help to keep them pure and to preserve their healing qualities. If you decide to grow them in the ground, be sure to plant them in an area of the garden that does not see heavy walking traffic. They should also be planted away from any streets where they may be exposed to any car exhaust or other sources of contamination.

Each of the four sacred medicines was given to the First Nations people as a means of communicating with the Creator. Tobacco was the first plant to be received, and is therefore considered to be the most powerful of all medicines. Tobacco is followed by sage, cedar, and sweetgrass. It is sometimes thought that tobacco sits in the eastern door, sweetgrass in the southern door, sage in the west and cedar in the north; however, these assigned directions differ from First Nation to First Nation. Together, this quartet works to establish a potent connection to the Creator and the Spirit World. Various nations have different teachings regarding these medicines.

The following section provides general information regarding the Four Sacred Medicines, and may differ from certain teachings. For a more in-depth exploration of the Four Medicines, consult with a local Elder, Healer or Medicine Person.

medicine plants

Tobacco

As aboriginal people, we use Traditional Tobacco to represent the honesty that we carry in our hearts when words are to be spoken between two people or to the spirit world. When a request is made, a teaching is shared, a question is asked, or a prayer is offered, the Sacred Tobacco travels ahead of the words so that honesty will be received in a kind and respectful way.

Tobacco is seen as a gift given to us by the Creator. To offer tobacco is to pay an ultimate respect to that which you are asking. When explorers reached the New World, Aboriginal people had been growing and using tobacco for centuries.

Tobacco Wise Aboriginal Communities

There is a major difference between Traditional Tobacco and commercial tobacco. Originally, our ancestors grew Nicotiana Rustica, however, there are more than ten plants related to Sacred Tobacco that are used in the same way and are referred to as Sacred or Traditional. Commercial tobacco which is sold in retail stores and found in commercial cigarettes is not made from Traditional Tobacco but instead is mass produced and has had a number of toxic chemicals added to it. The commercial tobacco that is sold in convenience stores and cigarette outlets has been chemically altered and is sold for profit, taking away the meaning of Tobacco’s original purpose.

It is beneficial to seed tobacco plants in a greenhouse due to the extremely small seeds. This also cuts down on the germination time. One method of greenhouse growth is called the float management system. Seeds are planted in segmented trays floating on a pool of water. Each plant has its own section. Plant seeds early in the year by scattering them onto the surface of the soil as germination is activated by light. Seeds should be mixed with sand and spread evenly over the soil. Mulch can be useful in the germination of the seeds. If using plastic, replace it with canvas after the plants begin to sprout. Proper maintenance i.e. clipping, watering and fertilizing, is crucial to the plants’ development.

Tobacco grows with more success when it is planted in an area of soil that has previously been used to grow tobacco. The longer the soil has been producing tobacco, the better. Tobacco benefits from compost made from its own stocks, although not the leaves.

 

Sage

Sage is an important medicine to many First Nations cultures. It is generally employed as a means of releasing troubles from the mind and removing negative energies. Sage is used most commonly for smudging. It is believed to be a potent cleanser for homes and sacred items.

In addition to its ceremonial use, Sage has many medicinal properties. Sage tea promotes moon times (menses), as it is a uterus stimulant. As such, pregnant women should not consume sage. Women who are breastfeeding should also be warned, as sage will stop the flow of milk. Similarly, it will also reduce salivation, yet increase the flow of bile. Sage leaves also contain tannin and thujone, causing it to be an effective astringent. It is also an antiseptic, useful for healing wounds.

Sage has also been known to benefit the stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, spleen and reproductive organs. It is generally a medicine to cure all ills. In addition, Sage contains high amounts of calcium, potassium, vitamin B1 and Zinc. Moderate amounts of magnesium, iron, vitamin A and B complete, niacin and sodium can also be found in sage. Small amounts of phosphorus, manganese, silicon, sulphur, sodium and vitamin C are also present in sage, as well as trace amounts of selenium. As you can see, sage is full of vitamins and minerals, and is quite healthful.

As with anything, sage should be used in moderation. Due to the high amounts of nutrients, sage should be ingested with discretion. The sage plant itself is exceptionally hardy, and can survive periods of intense heat and drought, but can also withstand low temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Moist and wet soils will likely cause sage to develop root rot. To avoid this problem, make sure the soil is well drained. High humidity can also be problematic, as it may cause a decline in foliage.

Sage can be grown in all temperature zones; however, it requires full sun. It is an upright perennial sub-shrub, up to 1.2 m/4 ft tall with a 60 cm/2ft spread. Sage needs little water and well drained soil. It does well in poor to average soil. There are two common methods for growing sage, though cuttings or seeds.

Propagation by seed

Germination rate is only about 15%.

  • Sow seeds in the spring, when the soil has warmed to at least 7 degrees Celsius/45 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a very sandy soil.
  • Prepare the seedbed by digging over the soil to one spade depth, then rake the soil and firm it down.
  • There are two techniques for sowing seeds, by broadcast and in drills:
    • Sowing by Broadcast: Sprinkle seeds thinly and evenly on the seedbed and lightly rake them into the soil. Make sure to water the seeds well in this beginning stage.
    • Sowing in Drills: Using either a trowel tip or the corner of a how, dig shallow drill holes 8-15 cm (3”-6”) apart. Place seeds in the holes then firmly cover with soil.
  • Water seedlings regularly until roots have developed. Germination is, on average, 14 days.

Cedar

Like many traditional medicines, Cedar is used to purify the home. Cedar branches are used in many ceremonies as a form of protection. In sweat lodges, cedar branches cover the floor. The branches also circle a faster’s lodge to keep him or her sage. Another way in which cedar is used is in the bath. Cedar baths are very healing.

Cedar trees support over 40 wildlife species, so growing these trees will be beneficial to the ecosystem. It also provides shelter to many animals during the cold winter months, as it is one of the few trees to remain leafy during this season. While often used to purify the home, cedar also has many valuable medicinal properties. Cedar baths are used widely for healing and cleansing purposes. When cedar is put in the fire with tobacco, it crackles. It is said that this cracking is the sound of cedar calling the attention of the spirits to the offering that is being made.

A tree’s root system can also cause considerable damage to underground features. Therefore, cedar trees should not be planted over septic drain fields (roots may cause clogging), buried pipes or cables. Areas subject to flooding for more than two continuous weeks per year should not be used to grow cedars as flooding may be harmful to the trees.

Grasses, ferns and weeds can not only rob your seedling of valuable moisture, nutrients and sunlight, but also harbour insects and diseases that will have an effect on survival. It will be necessary to remove this vegetation from around the young seedling occasionally. Pull it out by hand without disturbing the root system of the young cedar seedling. Do not use herbicides.

Plant Cedar trees at least 92 cms/3ft away from water’s edge, further if possible. Use common sense when you are planting, plant cedar where you would want them to grow into large trees. Cedars require sunlight, but will still grow in the shade, albeit, somewhat slower.

Use care with the roots. Do not let them dry out or disturb them any more than you have to. Keep the roots completely submerged in a bucket of water while you are planting. Do not keep a bundle of seedlings in your hand while looking for the next spot to plant a tree.

Cedar can withstand many types of soil, including alkaline, acid, moist and dry. Simply make sure to use well-drained soil. Plant seeds or seedlings in 15-20 cm/6-8 inch diameter holes. Spacing should be at least 1.5 m/5 ft apart. If you are transplanting seedlings, carefully place the roots pointing downward in to the hole and fill it with soil. Compact the soil tightly around the roots.

Sweetgrass

Sweetgrass is generally seen as the sacred hair of Mother Earth. Its sweet aroma reminds people of the gentle love she has for them. When used in a healing circle, sweetgrass has a calming effect. It is also used for smudging and often represents the teaching of kindness.

The following are several clues in helping you decipher sweetgrass from other grasses:

  • The base of the leaves, just below soil surface, is broad, purple and white and is hairless.
  • The top sides of leaves are very shiny and hairless.
  • The undersides of the leaves are matte and flat, never v-shaped.
  • The leaves curl quickly when dried in the sun within a few hours. Most other weed-grass leaves remain flat when dried.

Sweetgrass is “rhizomatous”, meaning is spreads by sending out horizontal, root-like stems called rhizomes. Rhizomes are basically underground shoots; they grow horizontally through the soil a short distance from the parent plant before sprouting up to the soil surface to begin growing as another plant. In fact, a single sweetgrass plug (a stem or two with a few inches of frizzy rhizome) can spread to cover a square foot of ground in a single year. Since most sweetgrass seed is infertile it should be planted from root plugs. Plugs grow best when they are started in wide, shallow plastic pots and covered in potting soil. Keep the pots in a shaded area for a few weeks until new roots have developed. Once the plants have filled out the pots, they should be transplanted into the garden with about 30 cm (1 ft.) of space between each plant. Plant sweetgrass in rich, moist, slightly sandy soil, with full exposure to the sun.

Braid the sweetgrass as soon after harvesting as possible. Each plant will most likely include three to four blades of grass. Split the plants into individual blades. Clean all the blades by removing any roots that may have been pulled out. Again, save these roots and replant them as soon as possible.

Next, line up all the blades so that all the ends are reasonably well-aligned. Grab a bunch of grass in your hand and secure using a strip of red cloth, or any other means that you desire. If you have waited a day or even a few hours, the grass may have slightly dried out, leaving it stiff and hard to braid. In this case, dip the tied bunches of sweetgrass into a bucket of warm water for a few minutes to soften the grass blades. This will allow the grass to be more malleable and easier to work with.

To braid the sweetgrass, you may wish to work with a partner. One person should hold the tied end of the sweetgrass bunch while the other person braids.

Once you have finished making braids from all of your sweetgrass, it is necessary to let them dry. You may place them outside in the sun on a dry surface. If this is not possible, you may tie all braids onto a long piece of string, with about 30 cm/1 ft space between each braid. Tie the string along the ceiling and leave it there until it is dry.