Perhaps my favorite underrated medicinal herb is our native Stoneroot, also known among herbalists by its scientific name, Collinsonia, as in Collinsonia canadensis.
Collisonia is in the mint family (Lamiaceae), found in rich woods, not-so-rich woods, edges of fields, it is tolerant to damp or dry and ranges from eastern to central North America and from Canada to northern Florida.
It was esteemed by eclectic physicians and homeopaths in the 1800s, but seems to have lost some of its popularity along the way. I learned early on of its more renowned medicinal uses; it is regarded as one of the best herbs for addressing hemorrhoids, loss of voice and tone in the throat, and mitral valve prolapse.
I would have left it at that had I not wanted to collect collinsonia for my apothecary needs. This was in the mid 90’s. I was familiar with populations growing in NJ and was intrigued by its form and behavior. Relatively at ease with many woodland and edge environments, often found in small patches, sometimes large, but rarely alone. It doesn’t dominate like many mints, either in its aggressiveness, showiness, or aroma. It’s subtle.
On one of my gathering expeditions, I came across a large collinsonia patch in Tennessee and decided to sit quietly with the plant, what we call plant attunement at our Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine. I observed the plant’s form very closely, smelled its faint citronella aroma and tasted a leaf, knowing that its medicine courses though its entirety, from delicate flower to large graceful leaves to sturdy, erect, not-so-square stem to a root so hard it gives the plant its common name. I then proceeded to experience the most direct, clear message I had ever received from a plant up to that time. It told me that its powers were deeper and more diverse than what I knew and that I should touch its stem for the answer. Upon doing so I was immersed in a stream of thoughts and images that on some gut level I knew was true. The stem, rising from an incredibly dense root mass, is strong and straight, yet slender and graceful. The seemingly round stem by sight and even a superficial touch – an exception to the rule among square-stemmed mints – reveals the subtlety that is collinsonia’s medicine. Beneath the round circumference of the stem one can detect the four corners of a square, invisibly shoring up and sturdying the circular stem.
Thoughts flooded in, seemingly not mine because I couldn’t remember ever having entertained them. It said its effect is deeper and more pervasive, strengthening and toning not only all smooth muscle tissue, but also the source from which that tone came. It occurred to me that if I extrapolated that stem to be part of human anatomy, and knowing all the places collinsonia helps, that I would find the common denominator. Then it became clear. Being a teacher of anatomy and physiology, I knew that that central channel, anterior connection was the vagus nerve, and that collinsonia was “telling” me that it was tonifying and strengthening (conferring ability to both astringe and relax) on a subsurface level to the nerve itself.
From that time on, collinsonia became a very popular herb in my formulas, and not only for people who had lost their voice or who suffered from hemorrhoids. I started using it for any condition where smooth muscle tissue seemed to have lost this sub-tone. I now use collinsonia in cardiovascular integrity formulas, helping to strengthen veins and other vessels, not just a weakened mitral valve. I also started seeing an important need for using collinsonia as a central hub herb to address the debilitation that comes from enduring constant stress, fatigue, or pain. I started using collinsonia in formulas to address PTSD related disorders, in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome regimens, or anytime it seemed like the weight of the world and life was causing people to collapse in the infrastructure of their bodies, especially if also exhibiting nervous system weariness. And so it went, using collinsonia without ever really knowing if it was doing what I was hoping it was doing.
Years later, when researching collinsonia more deeply for a materia medica class I was teaching, I came across Henriette’s Herbal, an incredibly valuable internet resource for medicinal information about hundreds of herbs, whereby she has exhaustively compiled the research and reflections of all the giants of the era of the eclectic physicians, gleaned from the pages of the voluminous U.S. Dispensatory, all the way back to the early 1800s. There I found confirmation. More than one researcher (Ellingwood, Scudder, Felter) described collinsonia’s virtue as having a strengthening and relaxing influence on the pneumogastric plexus. Pneumogastric plexus is an older term for what we now call the vagus, or polyvagal, nerve. Which means collinsonia has tonifying influence over the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, making it a medicine of profound importance in my book. It was confirmation that also deeply strengthened my faith in the process and experience of sitting with plants, taking the time to listen and observe, to receive the direct communication that plants and all aspects of the natural world are conveying to us, ceaselessly, if we take the time to slow down, come into the present moment and listen.
I could go on about the virtues of collinsonia, but I will leave the medicinal part there, encouraging people to do as I did, and investigate what former experts have to say about our native Stoneroot. And if you are lucky to have collinsonia growing near to where you live, then I encourage you to visit with the plant as I did.
There is one more very important thing to mention, which involves collinsonia and other plants. In this day of world-wide, virtually instantaneous communication, it is easy for information to go viral. This can spell disaster for medicinal plants, especially those that are not cultivated but rather wildcrafted (gathered from the wild). Many native medicinal woodland plants are now threatened or endangered because of over-gathering with no underlying sustainability practice to ensure the species’ protection. Nationwide there are a growing number of farms and nurseries that sustainably cultivate more famous, “celebrity” plants, like ginseng and goldenseal. As a final plea, I am reaching out to like-minded growers (gardeners, farmers, nursery-people, woodland permaculturists, rehabilitators) to add Collinsonia canadensis to the growing list of medicinal herbs that need special attention, to ensure its protection. With more and more people turning to herbs for their health concerns, it is imperative that we do so.